Pax Hadrian woke up naked, tied to a post in a courtyard and covered in some sort of off-green foam. It was twilight and Hadrian really wished he could remember what had happened to him. His head hurt and he had a sneaking suspicion that Absinth was the culprit.
A crunch, just behind him. Footsteps on snow. He tried to turn but whoever had tied the knots was good and they held well.
"Who's there?" he asked, trying not to betray his fear. It was rather difficult to do when naked.
"Don't worry," said a soft female voice, "I won't hurt you. Let me untie those ropes."
There was the touch of soft, nimble fingers on his wrists and within a moment his bonds fell away. Pax did not go to cover himself though. His first thought was to look at his rescuer long and hard. His gaze was met by a young girl; mousy brown hair, weak blue eyes and a compassionate nose (if there is such a thing).
"Who are you?"
"Hazel Crookes. And I really think it should be me asking the questions. What happened to you?"
"I really don't know but it could have gone a lot more in my favour."
"Who are you?"
"Where are your clothes?"
Now Pax covered himself, "Look, Hazel, I need to find a woman – goes by the name of Marlo Akkendri-"
"Oh yes, everyone knows about Marlo."
"Yes! The Prime Minister chose her out of hundreds to return the Tributes to the tribes. Sir Vikellan is so kind, don't you think, Pax, to make such a gesture?"
"Too kind, if you ask me. Tell me, Hazel, is Marlo's sister with her?"
"Marlo has a sister?"
"Yes, a scrawny looking red head called Marion. Going to marry the Prime Minister's brother."
"I didn't know Lady Marion and Marlo are related!"
"Lady Marion!? Next thing you know Donryc'll be as big as bloody Robin Hood! Sorry, I digress – d'you know where I can find some clothes?"
Caroline went into labour that day and it seemed to Marek as if the world stopped. The small group of Vikellan family members drifted aimlessly around her bedroom door as Sarli offered sedate instructions to servants. Anya and Donryc sat still, side by side and hand in hand. Even Marion attended, curled into a ball on the far corner of a table. The only two people missing were Marlo and Atoshi and it was generally assumed by the assembled group that they were drinking.
The atmosphere was claustrophobic and oppressive and more than once Marek found himself tempted to storm out for some fresh air but he could tell that Anya needed him and he would not desert her, would not desert Marion to the stale feeling of joyless anticipation which choked the room.
The birth was a quiet one and when Sarli announced that there had been no complications there was only a brief nod in acknowledgement of her statement, no celebration. Tamerai, Jacque and Don entered the room to see the child first, followed closely by a pale Anya. Marek and Marion waited silently in the corridor, borrowing strength from one another through furtive glances.
After a few moments Anya stepped from the room and looked to Marek, there were words she wanted to say and she opened her mouth to do so but no sound came out. Marion clambered from the table and made to enter Caroline's bedchamber but Anya shook her head, her expression of horror and shock enough to halt Marion in her tracks. The tribal girl sat down again and Marek steered Anya from the deathly still corridor into the fresh air outside.
Marion was left alone.
"What did it look like?" Marlo asked her sister when they were together again.
"I don't know. They wouldn't let me go in. Atoshi's in there now, having a look to see what can be done."
Marlo feigned supreme indifference to Atoshi and drew the sword that Pax had given her. It was beautiful and she admired it for a very long time, taking in its balance and the perfect line of its edge. Her plans for such a beautiful piece of metal sickened her but she knew what had to be done, just in case Pax had placed some curse on the weapon. Sighing, Marlo placed it on the side and drew her old, crude blade, smiling at its simplicity and familiarity. If she was to face her end, she would be proud to do it with such a sabre in her hand.
"Do you think we'll die?" She asked, eventually.
"You'll be gone."
"No I won't."
The significance of this decision was not lost on Marion and she wondered just how the mage had managed to change her sister's mind. She was glad that he had, but at the same time she worried.
"Let's go to the room, see the child. It's still a baby, we can stab it when they're not looking," Marlo hissed.
"I think that defeats the object of the amulet. Where did you hide it, Bunny?"
"Last place they'd think to look…"
"Up Pax's arse?"
Marlo was silent, then, "Come on, you never know who's around."
"It's becoming," Atoshi said, bleakly.
"It's becoming what?" Jacque.
"I don't think it knows… it hasn't had flesh for a long time."
And flesh is what it had. There was no baby, no infant, simply a mass of warm, pulsing flesh. The thing was around the size of an adult head and was pink and all too human. There was a presence of life to the abomination and it seemed to grow more powerful from it. All eyes in the room were trained on it, the only sound was that of Caroline crying to see her child, leaking through the walls.
"No more of the women should see this…" Tamerai breathed and there was a nod of ascent from the others.
"What should we do? Can we kill it?" Donryc asked, trying his best not to look at the throbbing mound of man-skin.
"Somewhere amongst that is your baby," Atoshi said to Jacque.
"One wonders if it might be better to release it from its misery." Tamerai.
"Let me try first," Atoshi said, pleading. He walked over to the bundle of soft tissue and blankets and touched it, much to the disgust of the others. Marek, who had been silent until now, spoke.
"I'll get the amulet from Marlo. Atoshi, prepare yourself for what you have to do. Tamerai, do your best to distract Anya and Marion. Sarli should remain busy with Caroline for some time which leaves Donryc to guard the…" Even Marek's eloquence failed him which the small crowd was thankful for.
As the others left the room Marek hung back for a moment and ignoring Donryc's presence said to his brother,
"Be brave now and protect her."
"Don't talk to me about her."
With that, Marek left the room, Atoshi following far enough behind so as not to have to walk with his brother. This left Don with the abomination of a child. He stalked towards it, looking at it for as long as he could and then stepping back, the taste of bile filling his mouth and nose. The thing repulsed him, made his stomach churn and ache. He knew that he could not remain for much longer in a room with it before he vomited. To preserve his dignity, he made his way into the corridor.
The room that the flesh-thing inhabited was an antechamber to Caroline's room and he paused by her door to listen to her crying, because as much as his feelings sickened him, her tears were a comfort. They were real and human.
Exhausted, Don sank down to the floor, his back against the wall. He lay his head in his hands and closed his eyes. After a while, even the sound of Caroline's sobs became distorted to him, sounding as though he was hearing them from the bottom of a well. Even if the mage succeeded, even if everyone survived it did not matter to Don now because he was dead inside. He stood, his expression blank, and walked easily into the little antechamber.