Herm had come back quickly and often as he scouted the caverns, but this time had gone back in longer than usual. Potho felt more fearful by the minute. Lys became berserk. Elpis was ready to give birth.
Lys shifted Elpis’s legs and held them apart by her ankles. “When I tell you, you’re going to take deep breaths and push.” Lys had never held such a sharp tone with Elpis like that.
“Yes. Yes. Ye—” Elpis beat her fists upon Potho above her and held her breath until her face turned beat red.
“Calm yourself,” Lys snapped. Potho eyed him. “Push!”
Elpis did so, but only for a moment. “No! No!”
“You need to push, dammit! Push!”
Hornets were buzzing between his ears, spiders crawling over his skin; his hatred was seething under the surface. He’d become his drunkard father, blind with inconsolable and inexplicable rage. He could see what he was doing as he grabbed and squeezed Elpis’s face, but he couldn’t tell himself to stop. “You don’t know pain, you stupid little cunt. Push.”
Potho shoved him back and leaned over Elpis protectively. “Keep your wits about you.”
Whoever Lys was before had been swallowed whole by this place. His face had clouded over with fury and violence. “My wits, eh?” he barked. “I’ve served the family of King Cobin for ten years. I’m a damned doctor. And what are you? A foot soldier. A woman-lover. A pathetic dimwit.” He crawled in close, hovering over Elpis’s lower half to go nose-to-nose with Potho. “I’m the doctor, here. You will do as I say.”
Normally Potho bickered to no end with Lys, but she had seen the time for bickering pass by long ago. She searched desperately for reason, something to bring him back to them. “Can you hear me, Lys?” she said as soothingly as her voice would allow. “Elpis needs your help. Your care. You’re fond of this girl. Remember your gentle side.”
He bared his teeth, but retreated, some sanity returning to his eyes. He then knelt between Elpis’s legs and held them apart again. “Push,” he growled.
Elpis bawled as she did so. The singing got louder. Potho wanted so bad to look over her shoulder. Herm should have returned by now.
“Stupid whore, push!”
“Lys!” Potho shouted. “Enough!”
He let go of Elpis’s legs once more and began snarling as he paced around the room, throwing himself this way and that. It was like watching a mad dog succumb to disease. Potho leaned over Elpis a bit more as she slowly reached for the dagger at her belt. Lys’s wild grunts became more vicious, his punches and swipes more savage. Once the dagger was drawn from its scabbard, he whirled on her.
“All of you! Years and years, all of you talking! Talking behind my back! I won’t have it. The pity, the disdain. Every one of you. I can see it. Think I’m putrid. Useless. I’ve saved lives! I know more than you’ll ever know, that your children will know. You think I wanted to kill my father? Damn you all! I’ve done so much. And nothing! Nothing!”
“We need you here, Lys,” Potho said softly. “Come back down.”
“I’ve done things.” He launched at Potho threateningly; she stood and presented the knife. He barely acknowledged it. “I’m to be respected. Respect. Respect. Respect!”
He launched at her. Her strike was meant to be quick and clean, but he had meant it when he said he’d ‘done things.’
They were tumbling down the rocky slope towards the lake. The water was almost warm to the touch, utterly inviting, and as they fought and tangled, the water drank them up eagerly. Something screamed at Potho to get away from the lake—or was that only Elpis? Lys was surprisingly strong for his slender build, and for a moment the ranger believed this was the battle that would end her story. All of her knowledge was useless against his litheness, his force.
Somehow he tripped her. She went under the surface, and he held her there. She couldn’t get up. When had the dagger fell from her hand?
With all of the things she had faced in her life, she hardly believed drowning would be the fate she would meet. At least she had time to think about her life. She dug it up, one last time.
Antero. Was this what it was like?
A rock slipped under Lys’s foot, and suddenly he was under the water with her. Potho shot up and put her entire body on him, pushing with all her will and might on his chest. When she thought he was going to overpower her, she would punch and kick, do everything possible to hurt him, keep him down, outdo him, drown him, kill him, kill him, kill him.
It took a long time, but he never came back up again. He clawed her arm one last time before he was too weak to fight her further. Blood blossomed in the stilling waters from the scratches on her arms, shrouding over Lys’s horribly contorted face. Long after he was dead, she didn’t let go. Minutes crawled by. When she did try to stand, she found it difficult to command her body to move. Her joints were locked, her whole body aching.
The singing had stopped.
Out of the lake out of the lake out of the lake—
Potho scrambled up the rocky slide back to the upper cavern. Elpis had grown quiet. Fearing the worst, Potho dived for her. The girl’s eyes were still open, but she seemed far-off. The ranger looked between Elpis’s legs. Blood. So much blood.
“It still hurts a lot,” Elpis informed Potho calmly, “I’m just too tired to scream anymore.”
“Herm!” Potho called. Her voice echoed across the cavern, mocking her.
Elpis ran her hands over her chest, her protruding belly, her legs. “I’m not going to stand again.”
“Elpis, hush, please—”
“Potho, promise—ah!—that you’ll save him. I don’t care about the kingdom or the line of succession. I want him to live a good life, like we did. Wherever you go, make sure he’s looked after. Please.”
She wanted to tell Elpis not to worry about such things, that she could raise her son on her own and see him grow well. But she was not one for lies. She cupped the young girl’s face, so small and breakable, and nodded. “Be strong.”
Elpis’s face twisted. “I think it’s close.”
It struck the ranger then that she had killed Lys. The doctor who had spent months by Elpis’s side, making sure she would have a safe, smooth birth. The ranger had murdered Lys. In turn, she had murdered Elpis’s chances of survival. With a grim heart, Potho knelt between Elpis’s legs and held them apart. The child’s crown was peeking out.
“He’ll be here soon,” Potho said. “Take a deep breath. Deeper. Now push.”
Elpis gave a shattered sigh as she did so, her son slipping a little further out. Potho reached out and grabbed him gently. Their blood was on her hands. “Push.”
Again. And again. The further the child was pushed, the quieter his mother became. One more push, and Potho would be able to pull the babe out completely. “He’ll be here soon, Elpis. Push.”
She did. A little girl fell into Potho’s hands. Limp.
She lifted the child to her chest and patted the newborn on the back. Nothing. She cradled the baby, panic setting in. She did not know what to do.
“Stick a finger in his mouth,” Elpis instructed arduously.
Potho did so. The little girl gagged on the finger and began to wail. Potho breathed for the first time since the birth. “Your daughter,” she said. “She’s so small.”
“Can I see her?”
Potho brought the baby close. Though nothing more than a feather between her hands, she moved as if she carried a heavy burden. The child’s wails grew louder with each passing second, the raucous noise ricocheting throughout the cavern; with each loud shriek, Elpis’s smile grew brighter. The babe was laid on her breast before her head was propped up to see. Blood was smeared everywhere. “Cobin,” she said, over and over, as if to summon him there. Tears washed over her wide smile.
Elpis slowly brought her arms up to cradle her daughter. Potho laid her back down in order to remove her leather jerkin and wrap the baby in it. After that, there wasn’t anything she could do. She sat back on her haunches, teetering onto her backside; the full tragedy of it all hit hard.
“Elpis, I need to leave you. Just for a little while. I need to find Herm and a way out of this place.”
It was as if Elpis didn’t hear her. The new mother looked up dazedly at Potho. “Where is Lys? He must come see Cobin.”
“Cobin. I don’t care that it’s a man’s name. Where is Lys?”
Potho was paralysed. Finally she said, “I’ll be back soon. Don’t fret.”
The baby shrieked even louder.
Retrieving her bow and quiver, Potho approached the darkness and stalled. If it had claimed Bial and Herm (and without a doubt Lys), how would she fight it? What lay in the shadows for her?
Elpis and Cobin depended on her return. That would keep her from falling.