Sunday, July 29, 2012
The Warlord's Daughter - Chapter 10
I'd actually written this right after I posted Chapter 9, but I wanted to hold off on posting it in case I thought of something to add. I wanted to come up with a least a little bit - perhaps another chapter - but nothing came to mind, so now that I've reread the entire story and find that I truly have nothing to add, I decided to post this after all. Please enjoy :-) Oh! And please comment to tell me who you were rooting for and when you first figured out who she might eventually get with, lol!
Adira tugged on her horse's reigns, prompting him to stop. She was literally two steps away from Jomin's property, and she smiled as she thought of her family.
“I can't wait to see them all again!” She informed her horse. No one accompanied her, and her sister promised that no one would come looking for her unless there was a dire emergency.
Taryn had just given birth to a daughter days before Adira left, and Adira rested a hand on the small bulge in her stomach a moment before prompting her horse to start trotting again. Seeing her niece had changed her feelings over this child from tolerance to hesitant excitement.
Kicking her horse into a trot, she practically held her breath as she waited for the small house to come into view.
“It's late afternoon,” she told her horse. “Dael will probably be checking on the animals. Marek will likely be working on something tasty for dinner. Jomin might be out herding the sheep. Hemi will almost certainly be in his workshop!” She paused to chuckle, and then sighed.
“Natan might be out hunting to vent the anger and frustration I'm sure he still carries since I sent him home, and Amin... Amin will probably be sulking... Which leaves Tobin. I bet he's trying to cheer everyone up.”
Her horse snorted as if to say that he didn't particularly care what they were doing so long as someone pampered him. He was a tall and powerfully built warhorse trained by the man who always trained her father's horses. He'd been given as a gift to Adira in honor of her new position as the Warlord.
Despite his excellent training, he was spirited, and wanted to run. Adira held a firm grip on his reins, telling him in no uncertain terms to behave; they were in between the small house and the barn now. He whinnied loudly in protest, but then sighed as if in defeat as he obeyed her.
Dael popped his head out of the barn curiously, wondering who was visiting them. “Adira!”
He ran to her just in time to catch her as she launched herself into his arms. He spun her in a circle as she hugged him tight.
“Dael! It's so good to see you again!”
“Did you just shout Adira's name?” Hemi asked as he emerged from his workshop. A frown knitted his brow as he focused on a gadget in his hands. He looked up in time to see Dael set Adira on her feet, and then be pushed to the ground by her horse.
“Lucifer!” Adira chided her horse. “He's a friend!”
He snorted disapprovingly.
Dael stared at him in awe, slowly getting to his feet and holding his hands out in order to befriend the gorgeous animal.
Meanwhile, Hemi had dropped his gadget, shouted her name, and ran to her. He remembered that she was a girl and a princess two steps in front of her and stopped short. A blush turning his face completely red. She laughed and pulled him into a hug.
“I missed you so much!”
By this time, the noise had attracted everyone else, and they all raced to her to claim a hug. She was blessed to find that everyone was home; even Jomin.
Amin and Natan stood back, still hurt and angry that she'd sent them away.
“What brings the Warlord to our little farm?” Amin asked petulantly.
“Shouldn't you be at the Queen's side?” Natan added.
Adira shook her head. “No. Everything is peaceful, and Taryn had her baby; a little Princess named Minuette.” She paused and chuckled nervously. “Taryn got thoroughly exasperated with me pacing the palace corridors and kicked me out.”
She grinned. “We're at peace now! I'm allowed to do whatever I want, and all I want is to herd sheep and be part of this family.”
Jomin laughed. “Come with me, I want to show you something.” He led her into the house, and pointed at the wall. On display was the plaque she'd made them that asked what made a family.
Adira pressed a hand to her heart and felt tears water her eyes. Someone had added her name to the list of family members, and she was so touched that she felt like bawling!
“Adira!” Dael called out in mild panic. “How do you get this horse to let go?!”
Adira ran back out to him to find that Lucifer was gently biting Dael's sleeve and refused to let go. Adira laughed.
“Call him a good boy and lightly scratch his neck!” She called out, grinning as he complied. Her horse started swishing his tail happily, and rubbed his head against Dael's chest. “Aww! I think he likes you!”
“If he didn't, he'd be the first animal to dislike Dael,” Marek remarked.
Hemi reached out to take Adira's Halberd, father's sword, and saddlebags so that he could carry them into the house for her, but Lucifer snorted at him angrily, stamping one foot to warn him to stay back.
Adira rushed to get between them. “Lucifer no!” She commanded, and then apologized to Hemi. “Thank you for trying to help, but a warhorse is trained to never let anyone touch his master's belongings.”
She unfastened her Halberd first, handing it to Hemi to hold as she removed her sword and saddlebags. Hemi staggered under the weight of the weapon, and Marek hastily took it from him before he could accidentally impale himself.
“Merciful Lady! This weapon must weigh as much as you do!” Marek exclaimed, referring to Adira. She laughed, handing the much lighter sword to Hemi, and then trading her saddlebags for her beloved Halberd.
Twirling it carefully to assess it's weight, she made a thinking noise and then shook her head. “Nah, I'm much heavier than this! Especially now! I swear I feel like a cow and I'm only about halfway there! This baby is going to turn me in to a whale before it's born!”
“I can make a tea to help prevent that,” Amin muttered.
Adira mentally sighed in relief. “I'd like that.
Natan took her halberd from her, informing her gruffly that, “Pregnant women shouldn't carry such heavy things.”
Normally, Adira would protest, but she was much too happy to care right now. She smiled until Marek swept her off her feet.
“In fact, pregnant women shouldn't even walk!” He stated playfully, carrying her into the house no matter how much she protested.
During the longest night of winter, Adira gave birth to her baby. At first, they thought she was having a nightmare. With the heater that Hemi had made for her, she managed to stay almost toasty warm on her side of the loft, and even though it was separated from the rest of them by a curtain, they could easily hear her when she had nightmares.
They were rare now, but she still had them from time to time. So, when she started crying, they didn't think anything of it. Amin sat up so that he could wake her if she started screaming, but she gasped.
“Amin!” She called out urgently. “I think it's time!”
At this point, only Amin was fully awake. The rest at least half asleep. Natan heard her, sat up, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and shook Dael.
Dael groaned. “Was yer problem?”
Adira was in her own world at this point, and she started cursing. “Amin, it's definitely time!”
“Oh!” Dael exclaimed, fully awake now. He felt like it was spring and he was on lamb duty or calf duty. He and Natan were only a few steps behind Amin.
Amin placed a hand on Adira's stomach as she resumed her cursing. “It's definitely time,” he agreed.
Natan helped Adira sit up, and then sat behind her to support her during her labor. Adira has previously asked them to help her when they time came, and it was agreed that Dael would catch since he was used to doing so for the animals; Natan would support her and help her however she needed, and Amin would get the hot water, make her some pain relieving tea, and be on hand to care for the baby once it was born.
An hour later, Adira was on her hands and knees screaming as the contractions hit, but also panting and crying. The contractions felt like they were right on top of each other now, and she wished they would just stop! Amin helped her drink some more pain relieving tea.
“Ah...” Adira exhaled a sigh. He had made the tea strong enough to take the edge away, and she was utterly grateful.
For at least a minute. Then, another contraction hit, and she gripped Natan by the front of his shirt. “I would far rather you just beat me to death! At least that was over pretty quickly!”
Dael chuckled nervously. “You're almost done now. I can see the head coming.
Suddenly there was nothing more important to Adira than squatting. She used Natan to steady herself as she got into position. Dael rearranged them so that Amin and Natan were both supporting her from the sides, and he was holding out his hands between her legs. Slowly, the baby lowered into Dael's hands, and he gently tugged on it as needed to help guide it out.
The moment the baby was out, Adira started crying in relief. The pain was much less, but she still had to pass the afterbirth. Dael handed the baby to Amin, who promptly wrapped it in a blanket made by Tobin, and held it to his chest close to the heater.
A few minutes later, the afterbirth was out, and Natan cradled an exhausted Adira while Dael held the blood-filled sack in the air and watched it drain into the baby.
“Do I have a boy or a girl?” Adira wondered.
Amin hadn't actually looked yet, so he pulled the blanket open to inspect the crying infant. “A boy.”
Now that most of the blood had drained into its rightful owner, Amin placed two wooden clothespins on the umbilical cord to clamp it, and then used a sharp knife to cut the cord between the pins. Dael set the afterbirth into a bucket Amin had brought up to the loft just for this purpose.
“Here,” Amin murmured, carefully placing the baby in his mother's arms.
Adira stared at him, taking note of his ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes. He was at least two feet long, had a mop of red hair, and the same blue eyes all infants had. Tears started streaming from her eyes, and she buried her face in Natan's chest.
“What's the matter?” Natan asked in concern.
“It looks just like him!” Adira wailed, holding him out for Amin to take. The moment the baby was back in Amin's hands, she completely turned her back on him in order to clutch Natan's shirt and sob on his shoulder.
“Why does it have to look like that man?!” She asked no one in particular.
“Hey...” Amin murmured soothingly. He shifted the baby to one arm so that he could stroke her hair with his free hand. “It's not his fault. He didn't ask to have that man as a father.”
Dael agreed. “He's just an innocent baby. He hasn't done anything wrong.”
“Look,” Amin added, holding the baby out to her. “He's sleeping peacefully now. Doesn't he make you want to cuddle him close and keep him warm?”
Adira scrambled to get behind Natan. “Keep it away from me!” She spat insistently.
“Adira...” Natan murmured softly in astonishment bordering on disapproval.
Dael placed a hand on one of Natan's shoulders, and his other on Amin's shoulder. “It think it's best if we just let her get some rest. Things will be better in the morning.”
No one slept very well until Adira stopped crying and fell asleep. After that, it was no surprise to any of them that she stayed asleep long after they all got up.
Everyone was so tired that they all volunteered to help Dael with the animals as a way to wake up while Marek made breakfast. Except for Amin, who volunteered to care for the newborn.
Marek had breakfast ready for them as they returned from tending to the animals, and they took turns holding the baby as they ate. As time passed, the baby began to fuss more and more. Amin took to walking with him back and forth, instinctively bouncing him.
“I think he's hungry,” Jomin opined as he emerged from his bedroom. He scratched his belly, yawning. “I heard most of his birth; how's Adira doing?”
“She's still asleep,” Tobin replied unable to resist yawning too.
“Bring the babe to her,” Jomin stated as if solving a problem.
Amin looked to Natan uncertainly. Natan cleared his throat.
“Adira doesn't want him anywhere near her,” Natan informed their father.
Jomin frowned, peering at the baby in Amin's arms. “She doesn't? Why not?”
“Because he looks like his father,” Dael answered.
“What should we call him until Adira decides to name him?” Hemi wondered, holding out his hands so that he could take a turn holding the baby. The baby's cries got louder when he realized that he still wasn't going to get anything to fill his stomach.
“Demon spawn!” Adira spat out the answer to Hemi's question. She glared at the bundled up infant and skirted the room so that she was as far away from him as possible at all times.
Marek handed her a plate of food even though it felt like he was rewarding her bad behavior. She sat down to eat, ignoring the baby for a few moments.
Everyone was silent as they watched her. Except for the baby, who only got louder and louder as he demanded food.
Suddenly, Adira slammed her fist on the table. “Someone shut it up! Set it outside, it'll stop screaming soon enough!”
Jomin snatched the baby from Hemi and held it to his chest protectively as everyone else gaped at her. “We will do no such thing!”
“Then shove a rag in it's mouth or something,” Adira suggested darkly. “Because if it doesn't stop crying soon, I'm going to go sharpen my dagger and put an end to its screeching!”
Dael forced himself to be kind to her. He placed a hand on her arm, and looked at her with sympathy. He knew he would never understand how it felt to give birth to the child of a rapist.
“All he wants is something to eat. He'll stop crying the moment you hold him to your breast,” he told her softly so that she wouldn't turn her anger on him. She did anyway.
“You want him to live, you feed him!” Adira growled and then retreated to the loft again. She huddled up in her bedding, and tried to be quiet as she cried some more.
No one knew what to do, so Jomin did the only thing he could, he rocked and bounced the baby until he fell back to sleep. In the relative peace, the men looked at each other for answers.
“How does she expect us to feed the baby?” Dael wondered. “All of the cows are dry until they start calving.”
“We might be able to keep him alive on honey water for a couple of days, but...” Jomin shook his head helplessly.
“I can try to make an extra nourishing broth,” Marek suggested. No one had ever heard of a baby surviving on broth, but it was worth a try.
Amin stared at the infant in Jomin's arms, and felt a rage come over him. We're all orphans! There was once a time when all of us would have given anything to have a mother again, and yet she rejects her child like he's garbage! Amin started seething, and both Hemi and Tobin stared at him in wide-eyed shock. No one had ever seen Amin mad before!
Amin marched to the ladder, climbed up to the loft, then flung the curtain aside. “How dare you!”
Adira look up at him in surprise. For a moment, she half expected the Giant to come torment her some more, but seeing Amin like this jolted her back to reality.
He knelt next to her, glared at her, and then slapped her as hard as he could. She held a hand to her cheek and gaped at him in astonishment.
“I offered to help you get rid of that baby more than once back when it was still just a tiny ball inside you, and you told me no!” He shouted. “You told me that since your sister had to bear the burden of her child it was only fair you did too. You chose to keep him! You absolutely cannot abandon him now!”
Adira closed her eyes so that she could think without his eyes drilling holes into her. Down in the main room, everyone held their breath lest they miss her answer. The baby started fussing again.
“You're right...” Adira finally murmured. “I have a duty to make sure he lives until I can find him a wet nurse. He can grow up in the palace nursery after that. He'll be happy... far happier than he deserves...”
Amin wanted to shake her, but it was a start. Natan carried the baby up the ladder, then held him out to her. She shuddered, but one glance at Amin reminded her that she had a responsibility to him.
She held out her hands. “Come here my little Demon Spawn,” she murmured as she adjusted her blankets, his blanket, and then her nightgown so that he could feed.
He rooted around for a moment, and then latched on. She gasped at the unexpected sensation of fluid being sucked out of her. “Ah! Just like a leech!”
It was Natan's turn to frown at her. “You could be a little nicer to him.”
She harrumphed, but didn't say anything.
Just a few days after the snow cleared, Adira sat nursing her son in a warm patch of sunlight streaming through the loft window. Tobin had made her a sling so that she didn't have to hold him as he fed, which suited her just fine. She let him nurse, but other than that refused to even look at him if she didn't have to.
So long as she didn't threaten to harm him, they all just let her be. They assumed that eventually she would grow attached to the boy after all. In the meantime, they took turns caring for him.
As time passed, she grew more and more at peace with life in general. She did her share of the chores. Helped care for the animals, and was sincerely looking forward to the day when she would take the sheep out to pasture.
Amin silently climbed the ladder to check on them and was shocked to find Adira actually smiling at her son!
“The cows will start calving any time now,” Adira purred happily, stroking her baby's cheek with a finger. “And then there will be plenty of milk to feed you until I can find a wet nurse. Then I can send you to the palace and you won't be my problem any more. What do you think of that, huh, my little demon spawn?”
He stopped nursing to smile at her.
“Oh don't think you can win me over by being cute! I know who you're going to be when you grow up,” Adira informed him, still nearly purring. It was the way the rest of them talked to the baby, and it seemed to keep him calm, so she imitated them when she had to.
“He doesn't have to grow up the way you think he will,” Amin stated, coming to sit next to her. “If you raise him with plenty of love, then he will grow up to be a loving and kind man.”
“You think so?” Adira asked, not daring to hope that he might be right.
“I know so!” Amin insisted. “Just look at us. When Jomin took us in, we all hurt. Almost without exception, we all wanted to take up arms and kill everyone in our path until we felt we'd gotten revenge on those who had killed our parents, but... Then he healed us. He loved us... He made us better people...”
Adira sighed in dejection. “I want to believe that it's possible, but there's just one problem...”
“What?” Amin wondered.
“I can't make myself love him!” Adira cried out. Tears threatened to spill but didn't.
Amin nodded sadly in understanding, and held out his arms to take the baby. “Here; give Aidan to me.”
Adira growled softly at the name, but complied. “I hate when you call him that!”
“Then give him a name you like,” Amin suggested with a cheeky grin. They had named the baby after his mother the best they could.
“I did!” Adira replied cheerfully.
“Demon Spawn is not a name!” Amin reminded her enthusiastically.
She shrugged. “Meh.”
A couple of days later, Adira helped Dael welcome a new heifer to the herd of cows in the morning, and then – later in the afternoon – a bull destined to fill their larder. Each calf got to suck on their mamas' udders until her colostrum started turning to milk. At that point, Dael had Adira help him milk the cows, and they split the remaining colostrum up equally so that everyone got some with the next morning's breakfast.
Adira started insisting that they transition the baby to a bottle over the next couple of days so that he would stop needing her. She no longer glared at or avoided her baby, so everyone was more or less happy.
A week later, a group of riders arrived on the farm. Jomin was just getting ready to take the sheep to pasture since they'd all lambed, and saw them coming. He frowned as he waited to see what they wanted. Seven men eventually came to a halt before him.
“We have an urgent message for Princess Adira,” their leader announced.
Natan wiped his hands clean from the mud that he was digging around in as he walked to stand next to his father. “Major,” he greeted warily.
Adira's aide nodded a greeting at him in return. “Where is the Princess?”
Natan looked around and spotted Amin tending to his herb garden, Aidan tied to his back. He shouted, “Hey Amin! Is Adira with you?”
Amin looked up and saw their visitors. “Nope!”
Marek came out of the house with a basket full of seeds to plant. “She's not in the house either!”
Tobin poked his head out of a window in the loft. “I think she's in the shed with Hemi!”
“Nope!” Hemi called out, emerging from his shed. “She was, but then she went to the barn to help Dael. There's another calf about to drop.”
Just then, Adira decided to investigate the cause of the prickling along her spine. She was practically covered in guck from the cow and newborn calf, but didn't bother to wash up.
“What's everyone shouting for?” She yelled before she even stepped foot out of the barn.
“You've got visitors!” Jomin announced.
Adira walked to them silently, her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Major?” She inquired and then realized that he was here with her shadow warriors.
They had all taken a moment to dismount while she was walking towards them, and now dropped to one knee before her.
“Sorry to disturb you, my Princess, but Queen Taryn is having some trouble. Now that you are rumored to be in hiding, various factions from around the Kingdom are gathering. They plan to dethrone our Queen! We need our Warlord to lead us to victory.”
“I see,” Adira stated emotionlessly, and then turned to Natan. “Natan, will you retrieve my Halberd and sword?”
He looked like he wanted to refuse, but – after a half hidden sigh – nodded and walked toward the house. Adira accepted a towel from Tobin, and used it to clean up. By this time, everyone had gathered around and heard the news. No one was happy, but no one could protest.
“You're leaving!” Hemi exclaimed unhappily. Adira pulled him into a tight hug.
“I'm sorry, but I must,” she told him.
“I'm going to miss you so much!” Tobin caught her attention next. He took the towel back from her and wiped away some slime she had missed. Then he hugged her.
“I'm going to miss you all like crazy!” Adira tried to console him.
“All of us?” Amin asked, shifting the baby off his back so that he could hold him out to his mother.
Adira took a good look at her son, and then wiggled one finger until he caught it in his tiny fist. In a tone of voice completely appropriate for talking to a baby, she spoke to him with a smile. “I might even miss you too, my little Demon Spawn.”
Amin rolled his eyes and sighed, shifting the baby to one hip.
“Will you take care of him for me, or should I send him to the palace nursery?” Adira asked.
Amin shook his head. “I told you that he needs to be raised with love, didn't I? He's far better off here.” Adira felt like a huge weight was lifted from her shoulders, and she hugged him in thanks.
“Don't you worry none about the babe,” Jomin added gruffly. “We'll take good care of him.”
“I know you will,” Adira replied confidently, and then stepped into his bear hug and kissed him on the cheek.
Marek didn't have anything new to say, so he simply lifted her off her feet and tried to squeeze all the air out of her. He thought of something. “You will come back, right?”
“Someday, when I'm no longer needed,” Adira answered.
“What's going on?” Dael asked, finally able to leave the barn. He actually had taken a moment to clean up, and now wiped his hands dry. “Why is everyone hugging Adira?”
Adira chuckled, and then gave him a hug. “I have to leave. My Queen needs me.”
Dael pouted. “You can't leave now! We have at least a handful of cows ready to drop still!”
“I'm sorry, but I can't help,” Adira said.
Natan finally returned with Adira's Halberd, sword, and saddlebags. He handed the sword and saddlebags to the major, but kept a hold of her Halberd.
“I've been practicing with this heavy weapon you love so much. I think I could be an asset to you if you need me.”
Adira tilted her head to the side with a watery expression. She was touched by his offer, but didn't want to put his life in the slightest danger. She took her Halberd from him, and stared at him in indecision. A moment later, she smiled.
“I know you would, but I'd far prefer you stay here. From the sound of it, our own citizens are rising up. Who would protect everyone on the farm if you left?” Adira asked.
Marek snorted. “Hemi! He could blow people up from a mile away!”
Hemi blushed at the unexpected praise.
“Marek's not too bad with a staff,” Dael pointed out.
Natan laughed. “I see what you mean,” he replied to Adira.
“Hey! What's that supposed to mean?!” Marek protested.
Adira laughed, and then hugged Natan. “Just promise me that you'll keep them all safe!”
“Of course!” Natan scoffed, reminding her that she never needed to ask. He set her on her feet, and then watched her squint her eyes and turn three quarters of a circle. She pointed her finger at a meadow in affirmation, and then inserted a finger and thumb in her mouth to let loose an ear-splitting whistle.
For a moment, nothing happened, but then Lucifer came galloping at her. Dael had anticipated this, and now stood ready with his saddle to saddle him up for her. Adira gave everyone another round of hugs, ending with Dael just as he finished, and then set her Halberd in it's carrier. She checked to make sure her sword and saddlebags were secure, then mounted her huge horse with no help whatsoever.
She reached out and took hold of Amin's hand. “If you ever need anything, for the child or for yourselves, just go ask my sister for it. I know she'll give you whatever you want.”
“We won't need anything,” he assured her. “Except Aidan here. He'll want his mother to come home as soon as she can.”
Adira let go of Amin's hand, sat up stiffly, and glared at him.
“When will you just admit that he is not Demon Spawn?!” Amin demanded.
“I don't know! Maybe never... Or maybe when you prove me wrong,” Adira growled.
“Will you please just call him by his name once before you go?” Amin begged.
Adira inhaled, and then sighed in defeat. “Fine... Goodbye Aidan. May you grow up to be a kind and caring man.”
He smiled at her, babbling on happily in his incomprehensible baby language. She smiled at him, and then shook her head. “I keep telling you, you're not going to win me over by being cute!”
She turned to her Aide. “I'm ready now.”
The Major and the shadow warriors had been busy trying not to gape at her in astonishment. First at her easy affection for everyone, and then for the way she treated her son. Now, they nodded at her solemnly.
“Yes Princess,” her Aide stated, leading her away from the place she clearly considered home.
During her father's life, he had conquered several Kingdoms in his brother's name. Now that both her father and his brother were dead, those conquered Kingdoms – who had all been enjoying the peace and prosperity of being part of this Kingdom – decided that they should try to regain their freedom.
This meant that Adira – at Taryn's insistence – had to go around quelling their rebellions. It seemed like she would travel around the entire Kingdom, be victorious, return to the Palace to report on her her progress, and then the Kingdoms would start rebelling all over again. Over the years, the factions got more support, and eventually banded together to fight the Warlord.
This plunged their entire Kingdom into civil war because at least half the men from the conquered Kingdoms felt that it was better to be peaceful citizens than drag out losing an expensive war forever. It took Adira almost 10 years to find and execute the handful of power hungry men behind all the rebellions, but then – finally – the civil war was over.
She returned to the Palace to report her victory once and for all. Taryn decided that Adira would escort her and Princess Minuette on a grand tour of the entire Kingdom. This was to remind everyone that she was a strong-willed Queen with a formidable Warlord at her side. It was also a plot to make sure that her nobles all spent so much money entertaining her that they didn't have any left to spend on future rebellions.
A month after they all eventually returned to the Palace, Adira was granted permission to take an extended vacation. She rode to Jomin's farm in both fear and excitement. What if they've forgotten me?
It was an irrational fear, but it had been more than 11 years since she last saw them. She hadn't even had time to stop in and say hi when Taryn was staying with the local lord for a couple of days during her grand tour.
She was barely on Jomin's property when she overheard talking.
“I'm telling you Nat, Father said he knows the Queen and her Warlord!”
“I heard you Sheila, but I just don't believe it! Why would Father know them?”
A third voice sent a small shiver up her spine. “I don't know, but Amin says the same thing. Amin even hinted that we might get to meet them someday.”
“Amin's full of it!” The boy named Nat exclaimed. “Our entire family was in the crowd as the Queen and her Warlord rode through town, and neither one even looked in our direction. I think they're both lying!”
A little girl protested. “Grandpa says the same thing! Why would they all lie to us?!”
“Yeah!” The girl named Sheila agreed. “Why would they lie to us Nat?”
“I don't know!” Nat roared in self defense. “Maybe for the same reason that they won't just admit that Aidan's mother died and is never coming back!”
“You take that back!” Aidan cried out angrily. “Grandpa said that she's alive; she's just too busy to come see us!”
Lucifer grew impatient with Adira. She'd pulled him to a stop, and he wanted to get going already. He whinnied as loudly as he could as his way of berating her for her idleness.
“What was that?” Sheila gasped. “None of our horses should be on this part of the property!”
A moment later, a baker's dozen of children rushed onto the track that led all the way up to the house.
“Who are you?” They all demanded to know.
Ironically, the boy named Nat was the one to gasp in recognition. “It's the Warlord!”
The children all screamed. No one had ever heard of the Warlord paying anyone a visit unless they were convicted of treason and about to be executed. As one, they turned and fled towards their house, screaming the entire way.
Adira followed them, pacing her horse so that he stayed well behind them.
“What's all this noise?!” Natan roared from the barn.
“Father!” Both Sheila and Nat yelled. “We're all going to die!”
Adira looked around in amazement. The barn and the sheds were still the same, but there were now a couple more houses circling a main common yard. Five to be exact.
The screaming attracted women and more kids – babes in arms – from the houses, plus Jomin and all of his sons except for Amin.
Natan was the first to spot her.
“Adira!” He shouted in a combination of shock and happiness. He ran to her, catching her as she leapt from her horse.
“Adira!” The rest of her brothers cried out, rushing to sandwich her in a group hug.
“I've missed you all!” Adira managed to say despite being squeezed so tightly that she could barely breath.
“About time you returned!” Jomin stated gruffly.
Adira placed a kiss on his cheek, and then giggled as he hugged her right off her feet.
“Where's Amin?” Adira asked curiously.
“Herding sheep,” Dael answered. A tiny girl had hidden herself behind him, and peeked at Adira for one second before hiding again.
“I see our family has exploded!” Adira laughed.
“We all got married and had children,” Natan explained unnecessarily. His two – Nat and Sheila she discovered – were standing just slightly behind him staring at her in shock.
“Our aunt Adira is the Warlord?!” They sputtered incredulously.
Aiden looked ready to faint. “Why didn't anyone ever tell me?”
The men all glanced at Adira, and then down at the ground. Jomin placed a hand on Aidan's shoulder. “We decided that it would be for the best if you didn't know.”
“Why?” Aidan demanded.
Adira squared her shoulders and stood before him. Already, he was just a bit taller than her. “I assume that it's because they didn't want you to worry. I could have been killed at any time, and what child needs to know that?”
She did her best to hide the grimace she felt as she looked at him. Even more than when he was a baby, he looked like the spitting image of his father. The intensity of her anger had faded with time, but she still didn't want to look at him. She had come to accept that it wasn't his fault though, and kept her feelings in check.
“What's going on?” Amin asked, coming up behind the crowd. He'd just finished putting the sheep in a paddock, and couldn't see Adira because she was so much shorter than everyone else.
“Amin!” She cried out happily. The crowd parted as they all turned to look at him.
“Adira?!” He exclaimed in disbelief. She ran into his arms and hugged him tight. A long moment passed before she pulled free from his embrace.
“So... which wife and children are yours?” She asked, a hint of disappointment coloring her voice.
“None,” he replied with a chuckle. “I never married... I was too busy raising your son.”
“Oh Amin...” Adira murmured sadly. “You didn't have to give up your life to do that.”
It was well known among all the children that they weren't really related. It was a often repeated bedtime story that Jomin had adopted his sons one by one. Even the story of how they had saved Adira was told over and over. Never once had any of them questioned why Adira had left her son to them, nor had they wondered why Amin was the one that mostly raised him. It's just the way it had always been.
Amin stroked Adira's cheek softly. “I didn't give up my life. I was waiting for you...”
Adira felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She exhaled and couldn't keep the tears from falling. In the 11 years that she'd been gone, she'd often dwelled on Amin. Time had cleared her thoughts until she knew for certain that she never wanted anyone but him. She'd never dared hope that he'd felt the same!
Burying her face in his chest to hide her tears, she gripped his shirt in her hands. When she could finally speak, she mumbled. “I never married either... I kept hoping that we could be together one day.”
She looked up at him, praying that he didn't care that tears marred her battle hardened face.
“Me too,” he stated, and then kissed her.
“About time!” Marek remarked. Jomin and the rest of his sons all nodded in agreement. The wives all whispered excitedly, planning out their weeding.
When their kiss stretched out too long, Natan roughly clamped a hand onto each of their shoulders. “There'll be plenty of time for that later. Right now, it's time to introduce everyone!”
Adira pulled free with a chuckle and a smile. “I'd like that.”