The Core: Book Five of The Demon Cycle
The cramping startled Leesha awake.
Ten days on the road with an escort of five thousand Cutters had gotten her used to discomfort. She could only sleep on her side now, something the carriage bench was not designed for. She had taken to curling on the floor like Amanvah and Sikvah in their carriage full of pillows.
Waves of pain washed over her as uterine muscles tightened and contracted, readying themselves for the task to come. Leesha wasn’t due for another thirteen weeks, but it was common for women to experience this.
And every one of them panics the first time, Bruna used to say, thinking they’ll birth early. Even me, though I’d smacked dozens of squalling babes into the world before I grunted out one of my own.
Leesha began breathing in a quick steady rhythm to calm herself and help endure the pain. Pain was nothing new these days. The skin of her stomach was blackened and bruised from powerful fetal blows.
Several times during her pregnancy, Leesha had been forced to channel powerful ward magic. Each time, the baby reacted violently. Feedback from magic could grant inhuman strength and stamina. It made the old young again, and brought the young to primacy before their time. It heightened emotions and lessened control. Folk in the throes of magic could be violent. Dangerous.
What might such power do to a child not fully formed? Not even at seven months, Leesha looked and felt full term. She anticipated an early delivery, even welcomed it, lest the child grow too large for natural birth.
Or punch through my womb and crawl out on its own. Leesha breathed and breathed, but she did not calm, nor did the pain subside.
All sorts of things can bring a set of contractions, Bruna taught. Like the brat kicking a full bladder.
Leesha found the chamber pot, but relieving herself did little to ease the spasming. She glanced at the porcelain. Her water was clouded and bloody.
She froze, mind racing as she stared at the pot. But then the baby kicked hard. She cried out in pain, and she knew.
It was coming.
Leesha was propped on the bench by the time Wonda came to report. It was nearly dawn.
Wonda handed off her reins, rolling off her horse nimbly as a cat. She landed on the lip of the moving carriage and opened the door, effortlessly swinging onto the bench across from Leesha.
“Almost home, mistress, if ya wanna warsh a bit,” Wonda said. “Gar rode on ahead while ya slept. Just got word back.”
“How bad is it?” Leesha asked.
“Bad,” Wonda said. “Whole staff’s turned out. Gar tried to stop it like ya asked. Said it was like trying to pull up a stump bare-handed.”
“Angierians and their ripping ceremony.” Leesha grimaced. She was beginning to understand how Duchess Araine could walk past a cloud of bowing and curtsying servants while pretending not to see them at all. Sometimes it was the only way to get where you meant to go.
“Ent just maids and guards,” Wonda said. “Half the town council’s turned up.”
“Night.” Leesha put her face in her hands.
“Give the word and I can have a wall of Cutters shuttle you right inside,” Wonda said. “Tell everyone yu’ll see them when yu’ve had yur rest.”
Leesha shook her head. “This is my homecoming as countess. I won’t begin it by shunning everyone.”
“Ay, mistress,” Wonda said.
“I need to tell you something, Wonda,” Leesha said. “But you must remain calm when I do.”
Wonda gave a confused look, then her eyes widened. She began to rise.
“Wonda Cutter, you keep your bottom on that bench.” Leesha swung her finger like a lash, and the girl fell back.
“The contractions are sixteen minutes apart,” Leesha continued. “It may be hours before the baby comes. I’m going to be quite dependent on you today, dear, so I need you to listen carefully and stay focused.”
Wonda swallowed heavily, but she nodded. “Ay, mistress. Tell me what ya want and I’ll make it happen.”
“I will exit the carriage at a stately pace and head for the door,” Leesha said. “I will speak to one person at a time as I walk. At no time do we stop or slow.”
“Ay, mistress,” Wonda said.
“I will openly appoint you head of my household guard,” Leesha said. “If everyone’s mustered in the yard as you say, that should be enough for you to take command and send Cutter women to secure the royal manse. Once they have the royal chambers secure, no one gets in save you, me, and Darsy.”
“Vika?” Wonda asked.
Leesha shook her head. “Vika will be seeing her husband for the first time in months. I won’t take that from them. There’s nothing she can do that Darsy can’t.”
“Ay, mistress,” Wonda said.
“You’re not to tell anyone what is happening,” Leesha said. “Not the guards, not Gared, not anyone.”
“But mistress . . .” Wonda began.
“No one.” Her words came out in a growl as Leesha grit her teeth through another contraction. It was like a serpent wrapped around her belly, squeezing. “I won’t have loose talk turning this into a Jongleur’s show. I’m giving birth to Ahmann Jardir’s baby. Not everyone will wish it well, and after the birth we’ll both be . . . vulnerable.”
Wonda’s eyes hardened. “Not while I’m around, mistress. Swear it by the sun.”
Wonda gave no sign anything was amiss when she exited the carriage, stepping easily into the stirrup of her moving horse.
The wardlight inside the carriage dimmed in the early-morning light, but it brightened as the door clicked shut. With it, the wards of silence reactivated, and Leesha let out a groan of pain.
She put one hand on the small of her back and the other under her heavy belly as she heaved herself upright. Heat wards had the kettle hot in seconds. Leesha poured steaming water on a cloth and pressed it to her face.
The reflection in the mirror was pale and hollow, dark circles beneath her eyes. Leesha longed to reach into her hora pouch, Drawing a bit of magic to give her strength through the ordeal to come, but it was too dangerous. Magic was known to send the child into wild fits. It was the last thing she wanted now.
She glanced at the powder kit, but she’d never had the skill painting her face that she had painting wards. That was her mother’s talent. She made do as best she could, brushing her hair and straightening her dress.
The roads of Cutter’s Hollow’s outer boroughs twisted and turned, following the curving shape of the greatwards she and Arlen Bales designed. The Hollow had over a dozen boroughs now, an ever-expanding net of interconnected greatwards that pushed the demons back farther every night. Leesha knew the shape as intimately as a lover, not needing to glance out the window to know they were passing through Newhaven.
Soon they would enter Cutter’s Hollow, the capital of Hollow County and the center of the greatwards. Just two years ago, the Hollow had been a town of less than three hundred souls—barely large enough for a dot on the map. Now it was equal to any of the Free Cities.
Another contraction took her. They were getting closer—just six minutes apart now. She was dilating and could feel the child sitting lower. She breathed. There were herbs that could ease her pain, but she dare not take them until she was safely ensconced in her chambers.
Leesha peeked from the curtain, immediately regretting it as a cheer went up in response. She’d hoped to keep her homecoming quiet by arriving before dawn, but there was no quieting an escort of such size. Even at the early hour, folk crowded the streets and watched from windows as the procession wound its way home.
It was strange, thinking of Thamos’ keep as home, but it belonged to her now as Countess of Hollow County. In her absence, Darsy had turned Leesha’s cottage in the Gatherers’ Wood into the headquarters for Gatherers’ Academy, hopefully the first of many establishments of learning in the Hollow. Leesha would rather be there training apprentices, but there was far more she could accomplish if she took up residence in the keep.
She wrinkled her nose as the fortress came into view. It was a blocky, walled structure, built more for defense than aesthetics—at least on the outside. The inside was worse in some ways, lavish as a palace in a land struggling to rebuild. Both problems would have to be addressed now that the place was hers.
The great gates of the keep were open, the road lined on either side by the remains of the Wooden Lancers, Thamos’ cavalry. There were barely fifty of them now, the others lost with the count himself in the Battle of Docktown. They were resplendent on their great Angierian mustangs, man and horse equally stone-faced at attention. All were armed and armored, as if expecting Leesha to command them into battle at any moment.