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Alaine, Princess of Baden Wood, newly Princess of Vale-of-the-Wood, and soon to become Queen of all Elfdom, lay back in the bath, arched her hips upward, and contemplated the slight roundness of her stomach where it protruded above the soap bubbles. She poked at its gleaming white expanse experimentally a couple of times, then cupped her hands and lifted the warm scented water in a childlike gesture to let it run over her breasts, and ripple down over that interesting bulge. She was pretty sure she was pregnant. She pressed her breasts. She was sure they were firmer, and there could be no doubting the tenderness that had been growing over the last few days, and she suspected the areolas were darkening. It was time to consult with her old nurse.
She sighed, and slid further down in the bath. She was reluctant to face the flurry of fussing that would surely occur as soon as her condition became known. She felt she had just recovered from that which had preceded her wedding, even though three full months had passed since then.
She smiled happily as her mind wandered back over that momentous event. After the terrible experience of her capture by the Nasdarks, and her miraculous rescue by Fairien and his strange companions, her fiance had been very reluctant to let her out of his sight. Even though he was not fully recovered from the terrible wounds he had received in the rescue attempt, and the long suffering of their subsequent flight from the Nasdarks, he had insisted that the wedding be brought forward to the earliest possible date. There were those who claimed that he was not yet strong enough to step into his father's shoes.Her smile widened into a mischievous grin, as she realised how the news of her pregnancy so soon after the wedding would confound those carpers.
Her joy faded, however, as a picture of Dana came into her mind. She remembered, with horror, the agony of watching the Nasdarks make a theatrical display of Dana's rape--slowly stripping the clothes from her body, throwing the pieces into the shrieking crowd where they were fought over as trophies, parading Dana's nakedness, then tying her to the terrible wooden platform, where she struggled as she was mercilessly raped, time after time, while the crowd roared out the count of each ravager's successful violation until he could hold an erection no longer, and staggered away to make place for the next.
That Dana had recovered from that ordeal was almost as miraculous as Alaine's own rescue from a similar fate. How incredibly lucky she had been to be able to lovingly surrender her virginity in the adoring arms of her husband on her wedding night. Poor Dana, loved beyond belief by the strange Giant though she must be, could never experience that.
Alaine fell to wondering where Dana was. She had heard countless stories of the battle before the walls of Mandanna, and of the now legendary King's Hundred, and their exploits under the leadership of the Giant. Her friends in the Sisterhood spoke in awe of the healing powers that Dana could achieve when she coupled in some way with the mind of the Giant, but no words could convey that bathing in love that had occurred sometime in the healing process at Mandanna. Many had tried to tell her of it, but none had found words to describe it. She had often secretly mourned her lack of mind ability even though it would have precluded her from her station as Princess, and certainly as Queen. Now she knew that she had missed something wonderful, and could not help feeling twinges of jealousy as even lowly kitchen maids went into raptures bordering on hysteria at the slightest mention of it.
She had worked hard to get permission to invite Dana to bring her companions, and to return to live with the Elves, and had succeeded, only to find the three disappeared. Only the King at Mandanna, and a few of his most trusted advisers knew where they had gone, and no word was forthcoming even to Fairein. It seemed that the Giant's quest was not yet complete, and he, and Dana, and the strange Drark creature, were still following it. For a few moments, Alaine contemplated the life of high adventure, of seeing strange places and peoples, of danger and battle, that she felt sure Dana must be experiencing, and felt another momentary pang of envy.
It soon passed, however. Safety, and luxury, and a doting husband were definitely preferable, she told herself.
She was just settling back into the warm embrace of the water when a sudden squalling from the neighbouring bathroom shattered her peace. She sat upright with an exasperated sigh. It was that wild child again.
For a few minutes, she tried to ignore the noise and scuffling, made more noticeable by the obvious attempts, by at least one side of the fracas, to minimise it. At last she could stand it no longer. She hit the hand bell that brought her maids running with towels and robe, and, with their help, climbed precipitously out of the water. Hardly waiting to be dried, she shrugged into a robe, and stormed, unannounced, into the offending room. A picture of chaos met her eyes. Three maids and two serving girls struggled to contain the wild creature in the large tub. Amid stifled curses, wildly threshing arms and legs, and cascades of water, they tried to hold and scrub.
At the barked command the combatants fell apart. The five stood back ringing the tub, trying to show proper respect for their princess, while keeping a wary eye on the one in the tub, who had sprung to her feet immediately she was released, and seemed about to spring from the water, if not from the room itself no matter that she was all wet, soapy, and unclothed. Alaine stood staring at her, a deep frown of annoyance, and puzzlement, marring the beauty of her features. What she saw was a girl, or young woman, of indefinite age. She was elfin in appearance and in the tall, slimness of her figure, but somehow not elfin also. Her face became beautiful as it relaxed from the savage snarl it had been wearing, into an expression of welcome and relief. This expression only added to Alaine's puzzlement. Why did the child-girl-woman submit so readily to control by her, and her husband, and, seemingly, by no one else? Surely, it could not be that she recognised royalty or regal bearing, as her flattering advisers claimed, and yet, from the first day the soldiers had brought her, bound and struggling, into the palace, she had quieted immediately she, or Fairein, had gone near her. With a tiny shake of her head, she thrust the puzzle aside, and turned her attention back to the girl. That, too, represented a puzzle. Her hair was blond bordering on ginger, and now that it had been cut and combed, could be the hair of about ten percent of Elf women. Her face was oval, and rather long, but finely featured, with beautiful even teeth, and lips fuller than most Elfin. Her neck was long, and slender, which was very elfin, and her young breasts were small, and pointed, as were most Elf girls'. Her waist was thin, and her hips swelled in lovely curves above long, slim legs that would be the envy of many an elfin maid. The legs, in themselves, were no minor part of the puzzle. The skin on them was almost unblemished and silky, now that the dirt had been removed, and yet they were supposed to be those of a person who was found running wild in the grasslands of the south, living with wolves, and hunting like one. It just didn't make sense. It was something Alaine would have to go further into when there was time. At the moment it sufficed for her to go forward, take the child's hand, and calm her. She could not but recognise the simple trust that shone in those beautiful blue eyes, as she coaxed the child to sit in the water, and submit to the administrations of the relieved maids.
In a short time they had her washed, dried, combed, and clothed, and, while Alaine held her hand and talked to her, she made no protest, and even seemed to enjoy the attention. It took the combined efforts of the three maids and a burly guard to take her away, however.
Alaine walked slowly back to her rooms still puzzling over the strange girl. She had questioned the soldiers long and exhaustively, but they could give her very little information. Fairein's own horse herders had reported sightings of the girl some time previously, but the reports had gone mostly ignored while the nation's attention had been centred on the wedding of Fairein and Alaine. Then someone had sent soldiers to investigate, and the girl could not be found. Eventually another sighting had led to an expedition that had located her, seemingly living with a pack of wolves, which had apparently fought savagely against mounted soldiers to protect her. She had been captured, dirty, naked, unable to speak except for growls, and snarls, and other wolf sounds, and been bound and brought to the palace. Since then she had caused havoc, except when she was with either Fairein or Alaine. Then she was quiet and amenable, even anxious to please, if one could attribute such a quality, to what was, to all extents and purposes, a wild beast.
Fairein had been, at first, ill-at-ease in her company, but her child-like trust in him, and willingness to do anything he asked, once he managed to convey his wishes to her, soon won him over. She followed him about in an unobtrusive manner, much like a well-trained dog, whenever she was allowed, and, while he was with her, she even made an obvious effort to learn. He jokingly claimed that she recognised him as leader of the wolf pack, and it was his duty to teach her.
Alaine had not been so successful in teaching her anything, but, at times, she had sat holding her hand, while her tutors had tried, and they declared that just keeping her still, and attentive, was a marvellous aid. More than that, there was little information to work on. Fairein had instructed his herders to find out all they could, and apart from that, they could only hope that the child was intelligent enough to be taught to speak, and so tell her own story. At night she was locked in her room, not only to keep her from escaping and rejoining the wolves, but to protect her from many of the servants who regarded her with something close to dread, believing she was the child of a witch, or even a witch in child guise, with intent to bring harm to the palace.
Alaine was about to retire to her rooms when the clip, clip of hurrying footsteps caught her attention. It was a sound not common in that place, and at that time. It caused her to pause and wait. "Someone's coming," she said in answer to her maids' looks of enquiry. "Wait a moment."
They stood in a little knot outside the door of the bathroom. They did not have long to wait. Olvar, Fairein's personal guard commander, strode into view trailing an ineffectually protesting retinue of Alaine's servants. They all came to an abrupt halt as the commander caught sight of his princess, somewhat inadequately clothed in a damp bathrobe. He reddened and bowed deeply.
"Please accept my apologies for disturbing you in this manner, Princess, but my errand is urgent. I come from Fairein."
Alaine showed her surprise. "And what errand is so important that my husband cannot deliver it himself, and must send you on a servant's task to my private rooms, my Lord Olvar?" She was both puzzled and annoyed.
Olvar glanced briefly at the bevy of servants then bowed again. "Fairein begs you to accompany me to the council rooms, My Lady," he said. "Something strange has occurred which requires your attention."
"At this time? Cannot it wait until tomorrow?"
"My Lord thinks not, My Lady."
"Why has he sent you? Are we in danger?"
"We do not know, My Lady. Fairein is taking no chances."
"Very well. Allow me time to dress, and I will come."
Olvar turned a bright red, and bowed again. "I'm very sorry, My Lady, but Fairein asked that you come at once, and that you do not move from my sight. I have men waiting to conduct you." He gestured, and Alaine became aware of a squad of heavily armed soldiers waiting at the end of the hall.
"My God! Have we been invaded by Nasdarks?"
"That is what we are guarding against, My Lady."
"You are serious? How can this be?" She took a thicker robe from one of the maids, and shrugged into it while Olvar averted his eyes. "I will come of course, but I cannot believe that we are in danger."
"I share your view, My Lady, but Fairein would rather be certain where Nasdarks are concerned, especially with your safety, My Lady." They had entered the hall, and the guard fell in about them with weapons at the ready.
"Why did Fairein not come himself? Is he hurt?"
"No, not at all, My Lady. He is afraid the prisoner might come to harm if he leaves him."
"You have a Nasdark prisoner?"
"Yes, My Lady."
"By the Firetime! This gets stranger by the moment. Where was he captured?"
"He wasn't, My Lady. He gave himself up. Came right to the palace gates, and knocked like an honest man, and asked for you."
"Asked--" Alaine stopped abruptly, causing the marching guard to stumble about in an unsoldier-like manner. "A Nasdark came, and asked to see me?"
"Yes, My Lady. How he got past the border guards and the city guards, I cannot say. Fairein fears it is part of some attack, but cannot see how such an action would help them. But that is why he wants you immediately. The Nasdark will speak to no one else. Not even the threat of death will turn him."
"Why is he afraid someone will harm the prisoner if he left only for a few minutes? Surely he is more confident in the discipline of his own guard."
"Of course, My Lady. It is the identity of the prisoner that has him worried. You see, it is believed he is the leader of the band that captured you, and if someone tells My Lord's father, he'll surely order him executed on the spot."
For the first time, a tiny thrill of fear coursed through Alaine's body. Her step hesitated. "The guard is alert?"
Olvar barked a brief laugh. "You may be sure to that, My Lady. Not even a mouse could get through now, and they couldn't have got an army in without our knowing."
"Of course. Let us hurry. I am anxious to hear what this murdering rapist has to say before he dies."
Olvar's brows shot up, but he said nothing, only gestured the guard on. In a few minutes they entered the great council chamber. Alaine stopped abruptly as her gaze met that of the prisoner. He stood tall and straight amidst his captors, and met her eyes unflinchingly. As all Nasdark's, his eyes were black, but, unlike any other she had seen, his showed neither hostility nor fear. For a man who must know he was about to die, he seemed remarkably calm. He even bowed slightly.
"Good evening, Princess," he said.
Alaine could not reciprocate. She did not trust her voice, and had difficulty ensuring that she walked steadily to her chair beside Fairein, who greeted her without taking his gaze from the captive. When Alaine was seated, Fairein spoke. "The Lady Alaine is here. Now, why have you come?"
The Nasdark shrugged. "I see the Princess recognises me. I am Lord Kantin. She will know that I have considerable standing with my people, and am not some outcast whose word is to be mistrusted." He paused.
Fairein turned to Alaine, an enquiry in his eyes. She nodded. "This is the leader of the band that captured me," she managed, though her voice jumped.
The Nasdark bowed as though she had paid him some complement. "I have come to bring you warning," he said. He paused as a ripple of derisive laughter ran through the room.
Fairein frowned deeply. "Warning of what?"
"Your women are in grave danger, Prince."
"Yes. The Red Queen wants them all dead, and she is to be feared, believe me."
"Who is the Red Queen? Why does she seek to harm us? And why do you, of all people, come to us? Surely you must know that you will not leave here alive?"
"Of the first, I cannot tell you. I do not know who the Red Queen is. But you know of the Red Queen Demons of the battle of Mandanna, and how that battle would have been lost, and the King slain in the first ten minutes, if it had not been for the Giant and Drark. They were off their horses, and helpless on the ground ready to be killed, then they were up again, and fighting. The Giant, Drark, and your Lady Companion, Princess, had something to do with that. I do not know how, but the Red Queen was defeated, and she apparently blames Elf Women for it. She fears the mind power of Elfkind, and is plotting to have all destroyed."
"How know you of this?" Fairein broke in.
"As I said, I am, or was, a Captain of a strike force. I gained promotion to War Lord by capturing you, and your ladies, Princess. When I returned from Mandanna, I was in disgrace as one who returns from a lost battle, but I had wounds severe enough to save me from being branded coward. I have been admitted to the Council of War Lords. We have been ordered to rebuild the strength of our forces to strike into your lands, Prince, and our aim is to kill all female Elves of any age." He paused and waited quietly as the cries of outrage circled the hall, and swords were drawn and brandished. Only Fairein's stern command stopped him from being slain on the spot.
"Why do you come to us?"
"I fought in the battle of Mandanna. I was wounded. Wounded so badly that I was dying. I have no doubt about that. Then the Lady, I do not know her name--"
"Dana." Alaine said curtly.
"And then the Lady Dana saved my life."
"You do this in return for the saving of your life?"
"No. My life is of little importance. No. I do this because she saved my life, knowing that I captured her, raped her, caused her great suffering. But there is something else I cannot explain. While she was healing me, I felt such an outpouring of love--not directed at me of course--but I became part of it." He stopped and shrugged. "It affected me greatly."
There was silence. Alaine felt she could hear the breathing of those around her. Fairein stared at the Nasdark, who stood quietly. The guard fingered their weapons. At last, Fairein stirred.
"When will you attack?"
"We do not know. We are to await the Red Queen's command. I'm afraid you will have many more enemies than Nasdarks when the time comes."
"All the Red Queen commands. That is all the Black Nations and others south of you. We have been led to believe that there will be no chance of failure. We have been promised your lands as reward, and your men as slaves, but no women are to be allowed to live."
"How are these commands brought to you?" It was Alaine who asked.
The Nasdark turned to her. He looked genuinely puzzled. "I do not know, Princess. I have often wondered. The King appears to know what the Red Queen wishes, but very few seem to know how. There must be a very good spy system organised, as the King seemed to know all about Donwin's troop movements, and numbers, though we saw no messages coming or going. The only thing he didn't know about was the Giant and his party. I would not like to be any of them should the Red Queen find them."
There was a general murmur of agreement. Alaine spoke, her voice now composed. "I still do not understand why you have come to warn us. That you were affected by Dana's action in the circumstances, I can understand, but this seems to me to go beyond gratitude--beyond love even. You have turned traitor against your King and people. Surely your family will suffer horribly. Even if we do not behead you, you will never be able to return to your home, to your friends, family."
The Nasdark smiled grimly up at her. "I have no family to mourn me, or to bear the blame for my actions, Princess. As far as my friends go, they believe me attempting to find another unguarded pass into your lands, and will honour me as killed in the attempt. As for being a traitor to my King, I do not believe I am. I believe the King is not merely allied to the Red Queen. I believe she controls him. I believe she rules the Nasdarks, and I have sworn no allegiance to her, whoever she may be."
"How can that be so? How could the Red Queen get access to your King? And what about the Warlords? We have always believed that the Warlords were almost as powerful as your king."
"That is true, Princess, but some time back the King took a new concubine. She is a white woman. Where she came from no one seems to know. At one time I thought she was the Red Queen. Now I think she is an agent of the Red Queen. I think she has brought our King under her control. Likewise, the very greatest of our Warlords seem also to be controlled. When the King ordered us to muster against Donwin, there were many lesser Warlords such as myself, who held that we should stay with our traditions, and not become involved in the affairs of others. We held that we should maintain our strength to guard against your revenge, Prince. There were two very powerful lords, whom we expected to support us, as that had always been their position. They surprised us. They supported the King without the slightest objection. They, too, seemed to know more about Donwin than we could understand. They did not know enough, however. Now we have weakened our nation, and gained a terrible foe on our Northern borders. No, Princess, I may be mistaken. I hope very much that I am mistaken, but I fear that Nasdarks do not rule themselves. They have become servants of a stranger."
Fairein stirred. "It grows late," he said. "You will be held until we decide what to do with you." He nodded to the guard who closed about their prisoner.
"No! Hold!" Alaine cried starting to her feet. "My Lord, I would speak on this."
Fairein looked surprised, but gestured hold. "It is late, Princess, cannot this wait the night?"
"No, I think not. Do you believe what he has told you?"
Fairein frowned. "I think so. It has the sound of truth, and naught else makes sense."
"In that case, this man has done us a very great service, My Lord. It is true he has also done us very great wrong, but the one to whom he has done most wrong is Dana, and she has obviously forgiven him. I fear if his case is put to council, he will be condemned without proper consideration." She turned to the Nasdark. "If we set you free, what will you do? You cannot return home."
The captive smiled at her. "I have not made plans, Princess, for fairly obvious reasons. It is true I cannot return home. I am outcast, and will be condemned by my people once they know I still live. If I were to live, I think I would seek this Queen who has subverted my King, and, if possible, destroy her."
Alaine turned back to Fairein. "I ask that this Nasdark be allowed to live, and to be escorted from our lands. I believe what he said is true, that, if we survive this threat, we will owe that survival to him in great measure. For that service, I ask that he be pardoned his previous harm, especially in light of Dana's actions."
Fairein looked round his councillors. He saw indecision in most eyes. Alaine saw indecision in his. She leaned closer. "For Dana," she whispered.
Fairein straightened. "Women sometimes see things more clearly than we, especially where compassion is concerned." He bowed to her. "It shall be as you ask." He turned back to the Nasdark. "You have been saved a second time by an Elf Lady, Nasdark. It must mean something. Go you in peace. My Strike Commander will see that you have escort to any of our borders you choose. You will be given horse and rations, and your weapons will be returned to you at the border. I wish you well should you find this Red Queen."
The Nasdark bowed. He looked once more at Alaine and bowed his thanks, and then turned with his guard, and they marched out. Olvar followed. Fairein glanced at Alaine. "I hope no one runs with this story to my father. I doubt he'll see the justice in allowing a Nasdark, such as he, to go free."
She smiled. "I think I may have news that will turn his anger and his attention. That Nasdark is a cruel beast, but he is brave and resourceful. He may yet serve us very well indeed by destroying this accursed Red Queen. He is an enemy she does not know, and one she will not expect. He may succeed where Dana and the Giant fail, for she will surely be on her guard against them."
Fairein yawned, and nodded. "As always, my darling, you are, no doubt, right. But at the moment I am too tired to worry about that over much. I fear we have a very difficult and dangerous time ahead. Let us sleep so we'll have clear heads to start the morrow. I wish my father wasn't so ill. His council would be beyond value. What is the news you think he'll welcome so greatly?"
She grinned impishly. "I think I can promise him a grandchild before the year is out."
Fairein stopped abruptly, and swung to face her, his face lighting up with delight. "You mean that? You're pregnant? Are you sure?"
"Reasonably," she managed as he swung her into his arms. "But if you squeeze me too hard I might cease to be," she gasped.
Fairein was instantly remorseful, and carefully set her on her feet. "Are you all right?"
"Of course, Silly. It takes more than that to hurt a new Prince of the Realm."
"Prince of the Realm." Fairein echoed. "God! If only we didn't have this new peril hanging over our heads. How happy I would be."
Alaine kissed him tenderly. "Be happy, my darling. We have faced perils before. At least, we are warned. It could have been much worse."
"Yes. I must call a meet tomorrow. Let us forget the world tonight, and make love before the women claim you from me."