Kathayr finished watering the last row of vegetables in the small garden and wiped the back of her dirty hand over her sweaty brow. She caught a glimpse of the mark on her left palm. A seven leaf clover surrounded with intricate scrollwork of knots that circled it. The sight often caused her stomach to turn with memories of the past she’d fled. Memories of a hateful husband, Nicholai, who used her ability to conceive in order to seize the throne of Fayodale.
Over two hundred years ago Soma suffered a terrible war and the women of Fayodale were left barren. Solais, a secret society founded by Nicholai, learned that the ancients created a pool, Laeos, and used it to steal children. From where or when no one knew for sure. They covered the treacherous deeds under the guise of a false goddess named Minato. Claimed the children were gifts in return for tribute of gold given to the chapel and to this day most citizens still believed in the lie.
Kathayr differed from the rest in the fact that when Solais brought her through the portal of Laeos she was a full-grown young woman. Unsure of her exact age, they guessed her to be around eighteen at the time. Nicholai allowed her a year of training in the local theater, gave her a false history and family; and then purchased her in a connubial auction for marriage. At the time he was a duke, within a year her pregnancy pushed the rebellion of the citizens into action and he claimed the throne.
Not only had Nicholai been ambitious, he’d abused Kathayr in every way possible. In a moment of weakness she’d tried to flee the turbulent marriage and ended up in his best friend, Asher’s, bed. Asher was everything Nicholai wasn’t; rugged, patient, and compassionate. He held no title. A simple hunter and member of Solais, working undercover as a priest of Minato. He also fathered her son, Driscol. Conceived during their one night of passion.
She’d tried to protect Asher when she came to her senses the next day and returned to her husband. But the next few years proved torturous without him. Once Nicholai revealed his knowledge that Driscol wasn’t his, she knew it was time to leave. To save their sons life, Asher and Kathayr took left Fayodale. Thanos, her and Driscol’s teacher, accompanied them with hopes of continuing their training in the ways of the ancient’s magic.
“You could use a bath.” Asher called out, breaking her out of memories best left in the past. He stood on the opposite side of a small fence erected around the garden plot. Meant to keep small creatures out, it stood low enough to step over with ease, and she lifted her tired feet over it to stand before him.
She glared at her handsome husband, for although they never performed the ceremony, he’d always be her husband in her heart. “Very funny, Ash. You know how much I miss being able to bathe in a proper fashion, in a tub.” Washing up with a basin or the creek on warm days, worked well enough, but sinking into a hot, sudsy tub was a luxury she often missed.
His lips twitched at the corners as he took the watering bucket from her hands and led her toward the horse stalls. “I have a surprise for you.”
“Will this take long? I have to prepare dinner.” She trudged along beside him, worn out from another day of chores. Six years had passed since they’d fled Fayodale and began a new life on the slopes of the Meridonial Mountains. While the years in Fayodale had been terrifying, she’d led a pampered life as duchess and then queen. The manual labor involved in taking care of the family’s daily needs still left her weary. She performed the duties a housewife needed to as best she could, but cooking didn’t come as a natural talent. Thanos often joked that the fire magic in her veins caused her to char every meal she prepared, but the truth of the matter was, she hadn’t been meant for this role.
“As much as I look forward to your delicious cooking, I’ll take over the chore for tonight.” Asher gave a sarcastic smirk she found both endearing and irritating. “Driscol and I finished our project in the new outbuilding today.”
“So what is this super secret project? A storage shed?” She hoped so. The extra space to store winter provisions would be a welcome addition to the homestead. The one bedroom cabin was cozy, but left nothing for storing extra supplies. At least, the ceiling vaulted high enough for Asher to build a loft for them. Thanos and Driscol shared a room just large enough to contain their bunks and a small closet for clothes. They’d been creative in using every inch of space available but it ran out on as they grew more settled.
Asher chuckled, “The whole point of keeping a secret is to be able to surprise you with it later. If I just told you, that wouldn’t be any fun.” He paused outside the door to the small, new building. She guessed it to be perhaps, fifty square feet in size at most. Perfect for extra firewood at the least.
“What do you think you’re doing with that?” She backed up a step as he pulled out an old handkerchief and moved toward her.
“Come on, play along this once. It’s a surprise right?” He held the makeshift blindfold up and shook it side to side while grinning with an expression of anticipation.
“Fine,” she sighed. Asher was the single man in the world she trusted enough to blindfold her and he seemed too eager to play this surprise out to the end. He deftly tied the fabric over her eyes, checked to make sure she couldn’t see, and then held her arm as he led her into the building.
The first thing she noticed was how warm the room felt. “Is there a fireplace in here?” But that didn’t seem right either. The heat felt moist, steamy. Condensation dotted up on her skin. “It’s damp in here, Ash. The firewood won’t burn if it’s wet.”
“So presumptuous! You’re so sure I built a storage shed.” He walked her a few more steps inside, shut the door, and pulled off the blindfold. “Surprise!”
On the far side of the room stood what appeared to be a bathtub, carved out of a tree trunk. A spigot jutted through a miniscule hole in the wall behind it and underneath a fire raged, heating the water within the tub. The wall to the right had built in shelves. The best of their meager towels were folded in a neat pile on top and a jar of soapberry juice for washing sat next to them.
“Is this for real?” She rushed over and dipped a hand in the warm water with a sigh. “How did you do this?” Asher’s mechanical skills often amazed her, but this went far beyond anything he’d ever done in the past.
He joined her next to the tub, perched on the edge, and pulled her between his knees before he began to peel her clothes off. “With my building skills and our son’s talent for magic, nothing is impossible.” He kissed her bare shoulder as the shirt dropped to the wood floor, then unbuttoned her breeches and let them slide down her legs to pool at her feet.
Once she stood naked before him, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her body against his. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she murmured between kisses.
He groaned against her mouth and unwrapped himself from her embrace. “As much as I’d love to accept your gratitude right now…” he trailed off and let his eyes roam over her body. “I’ll take your thanks tonight. For now, I want you to enjoy this gift.”
She climbed into the tub, moaned as she sank into the hot water, then dunked her head underwater and re-emerged with a giggle. “Oh, Ash you’ve got to try this. It feels amazing.”
She noted the heat in his eyes and thought he’d cave, but with a shake of his head he leaned over and kissed her before pulling back. “I will later, love. Trust me. But I want you to savor the moment. Stay in until you’re relaxed and your skin shrivels. This is our gift to you.” He took her hand in his and forced her to sit up enough to bring her fingers to a pipe by her feet at the bottom of the tub. “Feel that smooth piece of wood in the pipe?”
“Now find the rope tied to the side of it.”
Her fingers trailed from right to left until she found the thin rope. “Got it.”
“Good. When you’re through, pull the rope and the water will drain out. I placed a trough on the other side of the building to catch the water. I figured we could use it for laundry afterwards.”
“You are and amazing man, Asher Corneyls.” No matter how difficult life proved to be in the wild lands, she never once regretted leaving with him. No status, even queen, was worth giving up freedom or love.
He smiled and pointed to the spigot positioned above the rim of the tub. “This pumps in water from the well and is how we fill the tub. Driscol enchanted the wood of the tub and bathhouse to withstand the flames in the dugout below, so the water can heat without burning down the building.”
“He did that alone? Without Thanos?” She sat back and sank in to her chin once again. “He’s growing up so fast and has long surpassed my level.”
She sighed and Asher read her mind. “Hey, none of that now.” He tilted her head so he could look in her eyes. “It’s enough to have Driscol.”
“I know. I just wish... We were so close last time.” She dropped her chin, remembering the tiny flutters of the last baby her womb held. She’d lost several pregnancies early on in the first few years of their time in the mountains. Then didn’t conceive for so long she thought she’d become as barren as the rest of the women of Fayodale. Her last pregnancy took them by surprise and lasted well past any of the others. The babe should have survived to the end, but then arrived stillborn. The infant she’d prepared to care for, allowed herself to believe she’d cradle and would once again experience the thrill of nursing and nurturing a brand new, tiny life. All those dreams, snatched away in one horrible day of pain and suffering, left her hollow inside and her breast’s full of milk for a child buried at the edge of their cleared out plot of land. Hot tears stung her eyes and Asher kissed them away while she allowed a few moments of weeping.
After a short time and several deep breaths, she composed herself, then gave her husband a small grateful smile. “I’m sorry. I’m ruining the moment.”
“I’m happy with our family.” He handed her the jar of soapberry juice. “You’re not allowed to think sad thoughts while in this bathhouse. That’s the one rule I have if you’re to use it.”
She took another deep breath and her forced smile grew into a real one. “What’s this? A hunter making a demand of a queen?”
“Oh, we’re going to play that game are we?” He teased in return.
“Very well,” she continued. “I’ll grant your request. Now leave me be to enjoy my new chambers.” She giggled as he rolled his eyes and turned to leave. She couldn’t resist one last parting shot. “However, I expect you to join me next time.”
Driscol watched as his father left the new bathhouse and walked in the direction of the tree in which he perched. He’d long ago gave up hiding from the man. His father had a special talent for finding him no matter where he went. He claimed it was his hunter ability that helped him. To Driscol, it was just plain annoying and ruined his fun. Hide and search was his favorite game, but he liked to win and couldn’t with his father.
“What are you doing up there, son?” Asher stood at the base of the tree and stared up at him.
“Did mom like her present?” Driscol climbed to a higher branch. In recent days, this had become his favorite tree and he decided to make a room inside so he wouldn’t have to share with teacher Thanos anymore. He liked teacher, but he could be cranky when Driscol wasn’t ready to sleep and wanted to play.
“Yes, she did. Did you finish splitting firewood?” The adults liked to give him more chores lately. They said the physical labor rounded out his character or something to that effect. But whenever they weren’t looking he used magic to complete the tasks faster so he could go play once more. Today he used his talent with wood to split the logs in half the time it should’ve taken.
“Yes, Dad. Was she happy? So happy she smiled?” He didn’t remember much from his time in Fayodale, but he had the vague impression she’d often been sad. The thought always hurt him and she’d cried so much after losing the baby, he wanted to find a way to make her smile return. So when his father had the idea for a bathhouse Driscol thrilled at the chance to help.
“So happy she smiled.” His father agreed with a grin. “We did a good thing together and I’m proud of you.”
“Can I play up here for a while?” Satisfied with his mother’s happiness he wanted to move on to a new task.
“Just until dinner is ready. I think your mother will want you to try out the new bath tonight before bed. You’re certainly filthy enough.”
Driscol glanced at his dirty arms, brushed at his shirt, and sniffed himself. “Awe, I’m not that dirty.”
His father laughed, “That’s not what your mother will say. Have fun up there. I’ll be back to get you in a little while.” Asher turned and went into the cabin, leaving Driscol to start his project.
Driscol ran a hand over the bulbous trunk at the juncture of two branches that were thick enough to create a natural platform for him to perch. He’d had an eye on this tree for a few weeks, flashes of ideas flitted through his mind before he settled on a final idea.
As he continued to caress an extra thick, rounded portion of the trunk, the idea began to take shape. He focused on the wood beneath his fingers, sensing the life flowing through the many layers of the tree. He’d have to be careful, splitting firewood was easy enough, but the tree was still alive, he wanted to reshape not kill it. He raised the other hand and rested it next to the first. With a slight inward push, the bark warped. He slid his fingers sideways into a knot and the wood began to creak and moan in protest. Then, at last, it relaxed into his will and moved in a fluid motion, allowing him to manipulate the shape. He pulled the now elastic fibers in opposite directions and smoothed the edges when he placed them in the desired positions. A knot in the bark that started the size of his thumb now spanned the width of his two hands placed side by side.
He continued to work in quiet patience, breaking from the trance of his creative state just once when he thought he heard someone walk near the base of the tree line. After a quick scan of the area from his vantage point, he decided it must have been an animal. By the time his father retrieved him for dinner, he’d formed a doorway large enough for two Driscol’s to fit through. Both he and the tree needed a rest.
Laz cursed under his breath as the female shriek tore through the thin gap of the tent flap. He didn’t mind the idea of one of the girl’s giving birth. In fact, whether the child turned out to be male or female mattered little. A female would grow to take her place as one of his strumpets and a male, if not turned out as he matured, served to protect the women. The few males kept around performed menial chores Laz couldn’t be bothered with. Once in a while they made themselves available to a client if their tastes went that way.
He ran a hand over the stubble, the last remnants of hair, on his head in frustration. The problem he had rested in the location of which the stupid woman decided to allow her body to labor. He’d hoped to reach their destination before her time came, not find themselves stuck in the wilderness of the Meridonial Mountains while she birthed the child.
The Argentumite took a big chance when he brought his brothel on the road and out of Argentum territory. The plan to head east to Aurum, the wealthiest of territories, promised to make Laz a rich man. He had the finest Argentum women to offer the rich, lusty men of Aurum.
He’d spent the last few decades breeding his stock to over twenty beauties and near as many lads worked for him. A business, but with a strange sense of family. A family for which he felt a crushing responsibility.
Another shriek blasted through the morning air, frightening away a flock of birds, then the squall of an infant followed in the aftermath. Iola tossed the tent flap aside and stepped outside, wiping bloodied hands on her soiled apron. The matronly woman stayed with the group for several reasons, two of which were her midwife and herbalist skills. All others got turned out with a bag of gold, as a settlement for a quiet life, once they reached their fifth decade.
Iola moved with slow, careful steps across the rocky ground toward him and dropped a curtsy as she gave a report. “We ‘ave another girl to add to our numbers, Master Laz.”
“Very good. Clean up the mess and give Rika your strongest healing tinctures. I plan to move toward civilization as soon as possible.”
“Yes, sir.” With a weary gait, she returned to her duties within the tent.
“Civilization.” Benjanen sighed from behind him. Laz turned to see the young man reclined against a large rock near a camp fire. “I’ve forgotten what that is.”
Laz joined him by the fire, hunkered on his haunches and winced when his knees popped. A couple of lingering birds in the tree boughs above shrieked at the sound and took flight. Benjanen was the other reason Iola stayed with the group. Back in the days of her youth she and Laz had a short fling, the result, Benjanen.
The circumstance wasn’t too uncommon. Laz prided himself of the cleanliness of his girl’s. The insistence that the client’s sheathed themselves when lying with one of them contributed to his success in the matter. Yet, sometimes one of the girls decided she wished to have a baby and she’d choose a man to father the child. Iola chose Laz and the blonde haired boy grew to be a man a father couldn’t be more proud of, an heir to a business Laz spent a lifetime building.
“A little girl.” Benjanen continued, pulling Laz out of memories of a younger Iola and into the present. “I believe I’ve won the wager.”
“Aye, boy, that you ‘ave.” Laz pulled a gold coin from a pocket and tossed it across the smoldering embers of the fire. “I think I’m getting to old for this.”
“Old?” Benjanen snorted as he caught the coin with deft fingers and made it disappeared into an inner pocket of his jacket. “You’re not much older than Iola. You’ve just reached your middle years.”
“Easy enough for a man of twenty-five to say.” Laz stood again and stretched his tired legs as his stomach rumbled. “These wretched women, someone gives birth and they treat it like a ‘oliday. No one’s prepared a single meal today. Benjanen, hunt down Willa and set ‘er to making dinner.”
He’d just finished uttering the order when a twig snapped and a cacophony of noises erupted in the trees to the left. Benjanen jumped to his feet and his hand flew to the grip of his weapon. An antiquated, but still deadly, gun he’d picked up before they left the borders of Argentum. Laz preferred the modern version he now held in his own grip.
“Stay your ‘and, boy.” Laz motioned for him to relax and put his own weapon away, as three boys stepped through the tree line. A group of scouts he’d sent ahead a few days prior, when Rika showed signs of an imminent labor. “What’ve you found?”
“Master Laz,” the oldest boy of the group, sixteen at the most, addressed him. “We spotted a cabin near the pass and counted two men. We also saw a boy, no more than eight or nine.”
“Did they ‘ave any women?” Benjanen chimed in before Laz could form the question himself. He felt a mixture of irritation and pride. No one wanted to be deemed replaceable, including Laz, but he felt peace of mind knowing his son understood the fundamentals of keeping this business prosperous. Right now, they needed lonely men who would pay for a little of one of Laz’s girls’ time and affection.
The boy glanced at Benjanen with an incredulous expression and darted his eyes back to the boss as if unsure if he should answer the question asked out of turn. Laz nodded and circled his hand in the air to gesture for the boy to continue. “We didn’t see anyone else, if they ‘ave others then they must sleep on top of each other. The cabin size is little more than that of a shack.”
“Not promising, but it could bring a business opportunity. We’ll give Rika a day or two to recover before we move. Our travels bring us to the pass, so we’ll make a quick stop maybe we’ll drum up interest. We need to earn extra coin, to restock supplies in the next town we find.” His stomach rumbled even louder. “Go get a little rest boys, good job. Benjanen, find that blasted girl and have her fetch some food.”