The slave Riyana bears twins to her master with no idea she is now fulfilling a prophecy.
|The birthing pains were coming faster and sharper now. The slave Riyana whimpered and panted as she tried to will the pain away.
“Not much longer, little one,” the midwife Sylvia said in a soothing voice as she once again wiped the tears and sweat from Riyana’s olive skin that had paled with the pain.
As the newest one finally faded away, Riyana recalled how that morning had started off like any other. She had awakened before sunrise as always, her routine changing from field worker and messenger to house slave as the master’s offspring had grown larger inside her with each passing moon. But that morning, she had just barely started fixing her meal when the first pain lanced through her, bringing a scream. She had dropped and broken the corn canister, doubling over. The sounds had brought two of the house slaves to the kitchen where they had quickly helped her back to her room and sent for one of the midwives. The gods had blessed her and sent Sylvia to her aid. The woman had hardly left her side throughout the day, talking to her and singing to the infants in Riyana’s womb, believing that the songs would help mother and babies through the birth.
“It’s been all day,” Riyana said wearily.
“First births always take the longest,” Sylvia explained. “And while it is getting late, that’s a storm you see building.”
The panic clenched around Riyana’s heart tighter than the iron ankle bracelet that symbolized her slavery. “No! It can’t come now! Babies born in a storm are destined for bad luck!”
“Nonsense,” the midwife corrected. “You were born in a storm, child, and look at you – chosen as the birth mother for Master Kaeleb’s offspring. You’ve been treated with far greater kindness than any other slave, even Lady Margareta’s personal slaves. You are a lucky young woman, Riyana.”
“I’m a half-breed,” Riyana said bitterly.
“They knew that,” Sylvia replied as she began to mix ingredients. “I’ve heard rumors that you were chosen because you’re half elf.”
Riyana’s face scrunched in confusion. “Impossible.”
“Master Kaeleb did, at least,” she continued. “It’s well-known that elves have magic and unlimited battle prowess. I heard Master Kaeleb convinced Lady Margareta to let you carry the children so that, when old enough, the Everett family could once again give a mighty soldier into the Imperial Army.”
Master Kaeleb’s younger brother Porter had been a very powerful soldier, but somehow had been killed in a slave uprising eight years ago.
“And my elf blood really helps?” It couldn’t be true. She had been told all her life that half-breeds were even lower than slaves.
“Don’t you remember the tales?” Sylvia asked.
“They’re forbidden for slaves to know,” Riyana said quickly.
Sylvia only smiled. She’d answered too quickly, then. She’d only heard the stories once, but they had been so captivating that it was impossible to forget them. “Drink this, dear,” she said, extending a stone cup half-full of a dark liquid.
The drink smelled bitterly herbal. Thunder growled as Riyana raised the cup to her lips. When the warm liquid touched her tongue, she nearly spit it back out in surprise. “Blackthorn tea!”
Sylvia nodded. “The elf that first let you taste it when you’d left childhood taught me how to make it. Good for the nerves, he said. Even Lady Margareta loves it.”
She remembered that elf. Such a mysterious creature, even for his own kind, her mother had said. And Sylvia was right. Riyana could feel a pressure building at her lower back, yet she could feel everything else drain away with every sip of the tea. She’d nearly finished when the strongest pain of all came on, the pressure – the children? – shifting lower. Her scream came from deep in her belly.
Sylvia took the cup away before it could fall, and then leaned over to help Riyana into position.
The firstborn was a son, a large boy with a cry as powerful as the storm. In the Everett tradition, the boy took on his father’s name: Kaeleb Ryker Everett. His sister was only a few ounces and an inch smaller, but if anything, her cry was stronger. Because she was second, Lady Margareta had given instruction that she be named after the first thing Riyana saw or heard after her birth, after Pryor family tradition. So the little girl would carry the name Stormy.
Margareta Rosalie Pryor Everett clenched her pale hand around her teacup and stared wide-eyed across the table at her friend Thalia Greenwood. They’d been enjoying an exotic meal on the balcony overlooking her husband’s hundred-acre land when Thalia had dropped this surprise on her.
“You’re certain?” she pressed. “We’re all familiar with the prophecy, Thalia. So many – “
“I know,” Thalia replied, her dark eyes appearing black in earnestness. “And if it hadn’t been for Cassia’s vision, I would have just come to congratulate you and Kaeleb on finally having heirs. Cassia really Saw it happen.”
“Two sets of twins,” Margareta said, repeating her friend’s words.
“From that slave girl,” Thalia confirmed. “Just like the ancient texts prophesy.”
She fought it. “He wouldn’t dare do that to me. Just because I haven’t been able to give him children… He wouldn’t dare. Cassia’s vision has to be wrong.”
“Her visions are never wrong. Not unless they’re deliberately changed. Reta,” Thalia leaned her voluptuous form toward her friend, “you can’t keep that slave once the twins are weaned. She has to disappear. Permanently. Or else it will mean the end of the empire and bring those wretched elves back into power.”
When the twins were old enough to drink from bottles, Master Kaeleb summoned Riyana to his private study. He had been traveling frequently in the few months since the birth, and explained that it was for both business and personal reasons. He was due in Silver Tree for a business venture in one week, but he wasn’t going to make it on time.
“I need to you take this message to Hayden Black in Silver Tree as soon as possible,” he directed, handing over a thick brown envelope. “And tell him that I will be there as soon as I possibly can.”
“You have my word, Master Kaeleb.”
“I know,” he replied with a warm smile. “Best hurry. And take Wind Racer; he’ll get you there the fastest.”
Riyana had just reached the front door when another slave came with a message from Lady Margareta to a friend of hers that also lived in Silver Tree. She reached the livery and saddled Wind Racer as instructed. The great roan eyed her suspiciously, but let her climb up.
Riyana reached the big town of Silver Tree in three days. She had seen many cities like this during her messenger duties, and despite the year she had been out of service, the instinct was still in her to always be on her guard, ready to reach for her long knife in defense. Asking around, she received directions for her two destinations and learned that Lady Margareta’s friend was actually Silver Tree’s constable and could be found just three blocks away in the local tavern. Master Black was the same distance away in the opposite direction, so since Master Kaeleb had given his message first, Riyana stabled Wind Racer and went to his home first.
It was one of the wealthier homes of Silver Tree, three floors and made of stone that was rumored to be imported all the way from the West Shore. As she waited in the foyer for Master Black to arrive, she caught sight of a crystal mirror beside the coat rack. As a slave, she was forbidden such to own a thing and marveled at its beauty. Then she caught sight of her own reflection and frowned. She had gained weight during her pregnancy and hadn’t lost much weight in the few months since. Her face was still a little round and her dark blue messenger clothes were tighter than she found comfortable, but they’d been all she had. It was time for a haircut too. Her auburn hair nearly reached her waist now, making it manageable only if she wore it in a braid all the time. She’d see if Tori could trim it when she returned.
“So you’re the slave I’ve heard so much about.”
She spun around at the rich tenor voice. The man that walked toward her had hair the color of fire and was smaller than Master Kaeleb by nearly half a foot, making Riyana nearly eye level with his large nose, but of similar muscular build. He was smiling at her, and it was a smile that a slave hardly saw from a freeman.
Riyana frowned in confusion. “You know who I am?”
“I do. Kaeleb told me that you’re the one that let him and Margareta finally have children.”
“That’s not all he told me, of course. You have a message from him?”
She nodded and withdrew the envelope from her bag. Master Black weighed the envelope in his hands and made a thoughtful sound. “He’d told me to expect this. Looks like he’s ready.”
Then she remembered. “Master Kaeleb said that he’d be here as soon as he could.”
He nodded. “I expect he will. Have you eaten yet? I was just about to take my lunch.”
“I haven’t,” she admitted, “but I still have one more message to deliver. To Constable Marcos.”
Master Black’s eyebrows rose. “Oh? Then you’d best hurry and deliver it so you can return.” He held up the envelope. “If this is what I think, even you will need to know its contents.”
His cryptic words followed Riyana all the way to The Rusty Blade, the tavern that had been described as less-than-reputable. She nearly froze when she saw so many of the patrons - mostly human, with some elves and other dark-skinned creatures she might have taken for demons if she hadn’t known they weren’t real - look greedily up at her. But she took a deep breath and forced herself to move over to the bar and ask the proprietor where to find Constable Marcos. The man pointed to the farthest corner of the tavern. The constable was in the middle of a gambling game with several other humans, but had paused when Riyana had entered. She swallowed, thanked the man, and headed across the room.
When Constable Marcos saw Lady Margareta’s message, Riyana saw the emotion leave his face. His green eyes looked up at her and back at the paper in his hands. Finally he said, “Tell Lady Everett that I’ll take care of this as soon as possible.”
“You have my word, sir,” she promised.
One of the patrons reached out and tried to grab her as she left, but Riyana shoved him off and hurried from the tavern. She didn’t slow once she hit the cobblestone street, keeping up the pace until she was out of sight of the tavern. Only then did she slow and take another deep breath, letting it out slowly. What kind of lawman spends his time in such a place? It wasn’t her place to question the actions of a freeman, so Riyana just headed back to Master Black’s home.
When she sat down with him to the lunch he’d kept warm for her, he shared news that took food from her thoughts.
“I’m… I’m what?” she asked breathlessly. It couldn’t possibly be true.
Master Black chuckled. “It’s true, Riyana. Completely legal. He wanted me to make certain of it. I’m a lawyer, you see.”
Her breath left her. For three days, she’d been carrying her own emancipation papers. Master Kaeleb had wanted Hayden Black to make certain the papers were legal and witnessed by the required two witnesses.
She was free. Why had he done it? Was it gratitude for the twins? Lady Margareta certainly wouldn’t approve of that.
“Now,” Master Black said, “all that’s left is to remove that iron around your ankle and get you started on a new life.”
She swallowed. “I… I don’t know how easy that’s going to be.”
An eyebrow rose. “Oh?”
Riyana hesitated, and then met his gaze. “I’m a half-breed, sir. Half-elf. My type isn’t looked on very kindly.”
He nodded after a moment. “Kaeleb said as much in his message. But I will help you.”
Her eyes widened in shock.
“And when Kaeleb gets here,” he continued, “so will he. But first things first.”
When the iron band clattered to the floor, Riyana finally believed. Her slavery was at an end.
Two evenings after Hayden – for so he insisted she call him – had taken her to the small house Master Kaeleb had chosen for her, she was attacked. She’d been returning from delivering a message – her first paying job – when she was seized in a strong grip. A hand covered her mouth before she could scream. She was dragged down a side street, struggling the whole way. When they finally stopped, her assailant threw her to the ground. Riyana tried to get up, but the man – for so she could see from the strong build, though he wore a mask – was on her at once with a blade at her throat.
“I hope you’ve enjoyed your time in Silver Tree, half-breed,” the man said darkly. “Because you won’t see it again. Lady Everett will not let the prophecy come true.”
“She won’t see her husband bear more children with a slave. No elf will rule us. Our empire will stand forever!”
A harsh voice called down the street. “Let her go!”
The attacker looked over his shoulder, the pressure of the blade leaving. Riyana tried to see her rescuer, but he approached in shadow.
“This doesn’t concern you, stranger. This slave needs to be put down.”
“It concerns me very much,” the stranger said. “She is no slave.”
Riyana gasped. She knew that voice. And finally he came into view.
“Well, well,” amusement filled her attacker’s voice as he released Riyana and stood, “Lord Everett. Lady Everett will be very interested to know of your plan to betray her.”
“She won’t hear it from you.”
The attacker lunged. In a move almost too fast to follow, Master Kaeleb drew his own weapon and drove it straight into the assailant. A choked cry escaped from behind the mask. He dropped, lifeless.
Riyana sat up carefully, trembling. Master Kaeleb cleaned his sword, and knelt beside her. “Are you hurt?”
She shook her head.
"Good." He helped her up. “Since I was young, I knew only of a prophecy of powerful children, two sets of twins, from slave and master. And I’ve had a burning desire ever since to be that master. You’re free now, but will you help me fulfill that prophecy?”
She swallowed. “Master Kaeleb, you should know… I already am.”
He stared at her. "You're not making that up?"
She shook her head. "I've known for over a month now."
Kaeleb smiled, held her close and kissed her.
Twin brothers Rowan and Tristan were born a month early in Silver Tree, protected by elfish magic and the deepest secrecy.