Chapter Eight - Pandemonium

For a moment it seemed that one or both men might wilt – one, sickened by the memory of his own actions, the other completely shocked by what he had just heard. Joe felt a wave of pain that had nothing to do with physical injury wash over him and his head swam, comprehending but not wanting to comprehend what he had just heard, not wanting to believe that the man he had called friend could have been capable of such an act.

"What," he growled, his voice like acid, "did you just say to me?"

"He found out I was working with the rebel resistance," Mike said, his body shaking as much as his voice as he tried to explain, "he had Maya … well, I thought he had Maya … he said if I didn't do as he said, he would..."

"SO YOU MURDERD A CHILD?" Joe roared, feeling something inside him snap. Almost subconsciously he drew his sword and bolted forward, seizing Mike by the neck and forcing him against a pillar. Mike gasped, craning his head back away from the blade Joe now held at the base of his throat, but made no other attempt to resist or free himself.

"My daughter!" Joe yelled, heedless of the pandemonium his actions had sparked amongst the remaining servants. He heard a guard yell, but no one attempted to interfere; no one could, for Joe had cast a pulsing barrier of light around himself and the man he so desperately wanted to throttle. "My three-year-old daughter!"

For a moment his hand twitched and a runnel of crimson issued beneath the tip of his blade, mingling with the tears that still coursed down Mike's face and splashed on his chest – but then, unexpectedly, he twitched his hand away and doubled up, overcome by a sudden burst of hysterical laughter –

What good were death-threats against a man who couldn't die!

Behind him, Mike found his feet and reached out a hand, perhaps to offer comfort...

"Joe..."

Tension clenched at Joe's shoulders and jaw and he spun around, ploughing his fist into Mike's face before the other man had a chance to react.

"DON'T TOUCH ME!" Joe roared, advancing on the figure sprawled on the cracked tiles, "DON'T YOU EVEN TALK TO ME!"

"What in Isis's name is going on here!" Pharaoh Den strode towards them as Joe's barrier, weakened by his fatigued state, dissolved in a shimmer of light. Appraising the scene, Pharaoh flicked his hand towards a guard, signalling him to step forward and seize Joe, restraining him before he could cause any further injury to a none-resistant Mike. Pharaoh himself gripped Mike's hand, hauling him to his feet as the Mentonian ruler wiped a dribble of blood from his rapidly swelling lip.

"Five minutes ago you were doing everything in your power to save this man, and now you're beating the -" Joe didn't recognise the next word, but got the gist of what it meant, "-out of him, what, in the name of all gods, possessed you?"

Joe offered no response, except to clench his jaw and turn his back on the scene. There was uproar – scandalised guards took his unannounced departure as an insult and attempted to stop him – only to be repelled by a fresh barrier, this one so potent that it knocked several of them off their feet. One by one they fell back, bewildered, until the only soul that still kept pace with the angry young man belonged to a unicorn who trotted alongside him, snorting sorrow, right out of the palace gates and into the street beyond.

Here, at last, Joe stopped and turned his face skywards, breathing heavily in an attempt to calm the turmoil in his own mind. The magical barrier flickered and dissipated, weakened by its caster's fatigue and Joe dropped to his knees, exhausted, sobbing out his anguish as Limbius nuzzled his shoulder in an attempt to offer comfort.

"She lives!" the unicorn reminded him, "She is not held by that evil anymore!"

"By a miracle she lives, but by his hand she died!" Joe felt his eyes misting over, "you don't understand, Limbius – you don't know what it's like to lose a child. You don't know what it's like to hear her, in the night, when some half-memory infects her dreams and she wakes up, screaming, not knowing why she's so afraid!" he was sobbing in earnest now, and Limbius laid his head on his shoulder in the closest gesture a unicorn could offer to a hug. "What do I tell her? How do I explain that to her? How do I explain that I wasn't there to protect her because I was here," he gestured at the land around them, "fighting in some half-baked war!"

Joe, along with Jason, had been conscripted in the early days of that war; the latest in a long list of attempts, on the part of the false King Bolin, to force Tara's father to give up his lands. Jim Carpenter's farm stood upon a position where, if a fort was built, would give excellent vantage points of not just the river, but of Lutra village (a place known for housing rebels against the crown) and, possibly, of the Pine Forest Temple, which Bolin believed was inciting its followers to rebel against him.

Joe, as a gypsy, was not technically a resident of Bolindia, but Bolin had used his marriage to Tara to declare him a Bolindian citizen and Tara's father was given a choice; give up his lands, or his son and son-in-law would be sent into the heart of the fighting … Joe could have told them that there was little love lost between himself and Jim Carpenter. Even so, he and Jason had both volunteered to take up arms and, just hours later, they were aboard a ship heading for Canthonia.

"I did not know you were a veteran of that war, my friend." Pharaoh had arrived, unnoticed, and was sitting on a nearby wall that lined the way to a colossal building that could only, in this land of many gods, have been a temple. "I fought there, too. My first experience of war. Never a good experience, I'm afraid." he eyed Joe, as if assessing if the other man's mood had calmed.

Joe looked away, sinking to a sitting position on the sun-baked stones that paved the temple path and gazed out over the city and at the glittering river beyond.

"It looks a lot more beautiful now than it did when I first came here." Joe seized at the change in subject, suddenly unwilling to dwell on what he had just learned, though the memory of the war was little better. The smell of battle clung to one's nostrils, years later, just as the sights adhered to one's memories – and both left a more lasting impression than physical scars. "All that got me through those days was the thought of going home again – to Tara, Lauren and the new baby..." he paused, then gave a bitter laugh, "...not much has changed, even in three years!"

"It has been that long?" Pharaoh, too, paused for thought. "I was young then, barely fifteen … old enough, by my father's standards, to be bloodied in battle. There seems a sad precedent between our two countries, my friend. That was not the first war fought between us. I pray it will be the last!"

Joe pondered on that and thought he remembered Tara telling him, after one of her voyages into the depths of the library, about on of her mother's diaries regarding a battle fought between Bolindia and the then Pharaoh who must have been Den's father. Jack, he remembered suddenly, had refused, outright, to talk about that battle, though he could not have been much more than a teenager at the time.

"...old enough to be bloodied in battle." Pharaoh's words came back to him and he began to wonder … but there was no sense thinking about Jack's past misadventures, not now when he was supposed to be concerning himself with Jason's welfare.
"Anything to take my mind from Mike's treachery!" he told himself.

"How far is it to the tombs?" he asked aloud.

"About a day away if we go on the river, which will give you sufficient time to recover your strength and, I think, collect your thoughts." Pharaoh regarded him pensively, as if weighing up his next words, "and king Mentos...?"

"King Mentos could, if he were capable, rot for all I care!" Joe growled, his face like thunder, "if I see him again, curse or not, I will find a way to kill him!"

"As you will," Pharaoh sighed, "I do not dare presume what goes on in the mind of a father – I am sufficiently repulsed by his actions as it is!" he beckoned to a guard who had been waiting out of sight and who approached somewhat cautiously – Joe noted, guiltily, that the man had bruises down his side where he had been thrown by his barrier.

Pharaoh whispered something to him and the guard bowed and withdrew.

"I have instructed that king Mentos be advised to return to his own land. It is a shame, our alliance was so young! Still, some crimes take time to be forgiven..."

"And some are unforgivable!" Joe's voice was low and even, but there was something in its tone that suggested that the subject should be quickly dropped. "You spoke of travelling on the river – I presume, then, that you have a boat?"

Pharaoh smiled, "'boat', I suppose, is what she is, but that seems a rather inglorious word for her, my friend! Come, I will show her to you before exhaustion claims you, then you can rest until we reach the resting places of my ancestors … if only they would rest!" that last was said in embittered tones and to no one in particular – thankfully, it was muttered lowly enough that Joe was able to pretend he had not heard. Instead he allowed the foreign ruler to help him to his feet and let himself be led away, wondering what further terrible secrets awaited him in this land of sun and sand and trying, desperately, not to dwell on the events of three years ago that had twisted everyone's lives into such a helpless tangle that there was no hope of ever escaping – or even forgetting – that terrible mess.

There were, after all, things that scarred both body and mind much worse than the horrors of war.

*

"Oh my gods, Tara!" Maya raced over to the bed, where Tara had been placed by the guards who had found her; the whole castle had been roused by Lauren's screams and both children were now being wrestled, sobbing, from the room by a marginally less frantic Lucy. Julian's wails echoed all along the hallway as Maya turned, shaking, back to the frighteningly pale form on the bed.

Tara's skin was as white as marble and just as cold to the touch, though the shudders that ran through her body attested to the fact that she had not – yet – passed into the next world. Maya pressed her hand to the other woman's bulging belly and felt another shudder, this one harder and more insistent than the other, ripple under her fingers.

"The baby may be coming!" she turned to the guards who were hovering, white-faced, by the door, "Joe's mother – the Lady Cassandra – Tara needs her!"

Cass was in the castle somewhere – though where she could be that she had not heard her grandchildren scream Maya couldn't fathom a guess. The guards, on the other hand, seemed better informed for they dashed off with purpose, adding the clatter of their boots to the wails still echoing from beyond the chamber door.

Tara pitched and groaned, hearing her children even through the depths of her torment, and cried out just as the door opened once more and a figure practically tumbled into the room. Maya looked up hopefully, expecting to see the face of Cass, calm and blessedly in control – but it was Jack who stood there, his expression ashen, as he looked down at the writing form of his sister with fear in his eyes.

"What happened?" he demanded.

"I'd say she fainted, but I have learned that where Tara is concerned things are never that simple," Maya responded, though it was resignation, rather than acid, that coloured her tone. "I think she may be having contractions..."

Jack hobbled over to the bed, knelt beside Maya and placed his hand on Tara's stomach.

"She is, in theory, at the right time to give birth, but I would have said that she had a few days waiting left yet," he said, "the contractions are weak; they may stop on their own. Pray they do, she looks weak … if I didn't know better, I'd say she'd been over-using the Sight! Forced scrying can drain the body..." his eyes flicked from Tara to the bowl of water that still stood on the table, then back again. "What could have compelled so desperately that she would risk herself and the child?"

Maya's stomach churned – but she dared not let her mind drift away with unfounded fears, not when she might be of some use here, even if she did not know what use that might be.

"Is there something I can do?" she asked desperately.

Jack shook his head. "I am no healer. It is well you sent for Cass, she'll know better than anyone what is to be done."

The door opened then, and this time it was Cass who entered, hastily pulling her loose hair into a knot at the back of her head – the unbound hair, usually restrained by a braid, coupled with a neat dress that did not, as Maya's undoubtedly did, look like it had been thrown on in a hurry suggested that Joe's mother had been praying in the Castle's Temple, which would explain why she hadn't been roused with the rest of the Castle. The Temple was housed in it's own building, nestled in the quiet of the gardens.

"What have you been getting yourself into!" Cass clucked, taking Tara's hand into her own with considerable tenderness, considering that Cass had been one of the ones who protested loudest when Tara and Joe announced that they meant to get married. "Next time, you come to me instead of indulging in this dangerous nonsense! Now let's see what's going on with this child of yours!"

She laid her hands on Tara's stomach with considerably more skill than Jack and Maya and paused for a moment, timing the gap between contractions.

"They are weakening," she said at length, "you've a few days yet, my dear – I suggest you spend them regaining your strength!" She pulled the covers up over Tara and laid a hand, briefly, on her brow before turning to Jack and Maya.

"She is to rest. She is not to leave this bed for anything except use of the chamber-pot, am I understood?"

Maya and Jack, unable to escape her aura of authority, nodded.

"And you are not to tell Joe or Mike about this! No sense endangering them with the burden of worry until we know there's something to worry about!"

Again, they nodded.

"Someone should take the children from that snivelling kitchen maid before she riles them to further hysterics!"

Here Maya recoiled, feeling an old pain grip at her heart; for all her desire to help, she did not think she could bear to be around children, especially not now when...

Jack came to her rescue.

"I shall take them for a while, it will stop me brooding over that map!" he got to his feet, then bent to kiss Tara's brow with a murmured good wish before picking up his stick and hobbling from the room. Maya heard the chatter of the children meet him in the hallway – apparently they had given Lucy the slip and headed straight back to their mother's room – then their voices and the sound of Jack's stick faded away as all three headed in the direction of the library.

Cass, meanwhile, was gazing at Maya with an expression that made the latter feel that the former was prying into her soul. Maya looked away, willing the manacle around her heart to ease for she could barely breathe under the weight of that pain.

"There are some troubles that a woman cannot talk about in the presence of a man," Cass said softly, "now that Jack has left and there is only the three of us in the room, perhaps there are some burdens Tara and I can help to lift?"

Maya cast an incredulous look at Tara – but the pregnant woman was awake now, and, though still weak and pale, she gave Maya an encouraging smile.

Trapped! For a moment Maya despaired; she hadn't wanted to share that secret with anyone! But Cass was right – it was eating away at her, and here were two sets of ears willing to listen, two people she could trust.

"I..." she faltered, swallowed, and her hand strayed to her stomach, betraying her secret before her next words could leave her mouth, "I am with child!"

Tara beamed. "But that is great news! Have you told...." she trailed off, for Cass had raised a warning hand.

"It does not seem to be such good news for you," the older woman said gently, "why does it frighten you so?"

Maya's eyes brightened with tears, even as her heart froze with shame. How could she tell this stern matriarch and the young queen who had suffered so much to bring her children into the world that the thought of the baby that grew within her filled her with sadness and fear?

"If you are not too far gone, there are herbs...." Cass began.

"It is too late!" Maya sobbed, "I did not realise until it was too late and now I am this terrible mother who does not want her own child, and Mike hates me because I would have cast out his only heir!" she broke down into bitter tears and hardly noticed when the older woman took her into her arms, imparting the kind of motherly comfort that transcends a bond of blood.

"I was afraid, at first, when I learned I was pregnant with Lauren," Tara rasped, then she smiled, "it was worth it when I held her for the first time!"

"You don't understand!" Maya sobbed, "this is not my first baby!"

The room fell silent.

"You have children?" Tara asked, stunned. Maya shook her head.

"Not any more. They are all gone, my babies. Gone where I can't follow!"

Tara's eyes misted with tears and Maya realised that the young queen, at least, knew what it was to loose a child. The difference being that Tara, displaying feats of heroism Maya could never aspire to, had managed to snatch her child back from the jaws of death, where Maya's children had, irrevocably, gone forever.

"And you are afraid of miscarrying again?" Cass said, so much sympathy colouring her voice that Maya wondered if the older woman had known the sorrow of losing a child in that way. But she shook her head – if only it had been that simple! To lose a child before it's appointed time of birth was terrible – to lose it later, when you had come to know and love it, was much, much worse!

"I did not miscarry. They … died. They always die, just like their fathers..."

She was hysterical, and she had confused them – she could see it on their faces. Not that she could blame them. She supposed that now that the secret was out she may as well spin the whole tale, strange and unbelievable as it might be … so she took a deep breath, stilling the sorrow that threatened to pour forth until it drowned them all in grief, and began to speak....