“Push it, Arianthe! He’s almost out now!” The aged midwife shouted as she prepared more towels.
Zannos crouched right beside his mother. He grabbed Arianthe’s right hand and gently held it in both hands.
The pain surge was over, and Arianthe looked her son in the eye. Zannos let an awkward smile appear on his face, although he knew it wasn’t too reassuring. He was worried. The childbirth has been going on for hours and now he feared complications might arise.
A nervous glance at the sheets covering Arianthe’s waist and legs made him slightly less anxious as there wasn’t much blood stained on their fabric. He turned back to his mother but she was lying on her back with closed eyes, breathing deeply and preparing for the final push. Her long hair was unkempt and matted, dark rings of exhaustion gloomed around her eyes, but she still seemed to be as strong as she was at the beginning of the childbirth.
Arianthe now slowly raised her head from the pillow, effort twisting her face. At the same time, Zannos felt a sharp pain in the fingers of his right hand. Looking down he saw his mother was squeezing them hard enough to hurt.
A moment later, the sounds of gnashing of teeth and heavy breathing were joined by a new voice: the loud cries of a newborn.
Everybody was relieved in the tent. The concerned expressions were replaced by smiles of joy and faint laughter.
The midwife was twiddling with some blankets at Arianthe’s feet, and soon she stood up, holding the swaddled baby in her arms.
“He’s perfectly healthy.” She said.
Arianthe forced herself up to a leaning position with some difficulties while Zannos put some more pillows to her back. When he was finished he straightened up to meet his little brother at last.
The midwife put him into Zannos’ arms. The small, pink creature was still crying, more out of frustration than need or fear. After all, he was just nefariously robbed of the warm comfort of his mother’s womb.
“He inherited father’s fiery temperament and your stubbornness, I’m sure.” Zannos laughed, slowly lowering himself back to his mother’s side. He will feel better with his mother,
he thought and handed the baby over to Arianthe. She softly began rocking him in her arms, and the outraged cries faltered in less than a minute. Mother and son watched the newborn as he fell asleep, slightly flailing with his small limbs from time to time.
Meanwhile the women participating in the childbirth packed up and were ready to leave.
“Thank you… to all of you.” Arianthe said as she looked upon each of them.
“It was our honor, Arianthe.” The old midwife bowed her head and the other helpers did the same. They left the tent while chatting light-heartedly.
The small family was alone in the tent now. Zannos and Arianthe stayed silent, listening to the occasional giggling of the baby. Zannos closely observed his little brother: the thin, few hairbreadths he had were dark, and when he opened his eyes it was a pair of brown irises that curiously scanned the surroundings. Zannos couldn’t help but think of how different he was from the rest of his family.
“He’s also got your and dad’s eyes and hair. Seems like I will feel more out of place than ever.” Zannos’ mouth curved into a sad smirk.
Arianthe pulled up her knees and carefully placed the baby in her lap.
“Zannos, we’ve talked about this before. You couldn’t be more like us than you are. Your father’s bold courage and my determination. His honesty and my compassion.” She reached out and touched her son’s cheek. “Does it really matter that you have blond hair and green eyes? Those traits are surely a heritage of our ancestors, and me and Kanaxai somehow managed to have them resurface in you.” Arianthe smiled when she saw Zannos’ reddening a bit. She caressed his chin then let him go. “You are unique, Zannos, and I know you are destined to accomplish great things… but go now. You must be tired.” Arianthe laid her head down and seemingly was asleep already.
“Good night, mother. Good night brother.” Zannos whispered as he stood up and walked to the entrance. There he snuffed out the last two burning candles and left.
The cool, nighttime breeze felt refreshing after the hot, used air of the tent. He decided to take a walk in order to clear his head before sleep.
He stared at the full moon for a few seconds and felt an irresistible urge to watch it from the harbor instead.
It was worth it. The sight of the bright, beautiful moon above the dark sea was truly what he needed after this day. Inhaling the fresh, salty air hushed away all his concerns and doubts.
But a tingling feeling at the back of his skull did not allow him to relax, and with each passing moment it grew stronger. He heard noises – brushes and branches swept aside – coming from somewhere in the woods to his right. Then Zannos saw her again.
The very girl who had enthralled him with her beauty during the Convocation appeared on the walls of the cove above. She was running from something, her panicked panting echoing through the bay. When she desperately looked back, however, her right feet touched ground too close to the edge and a few rocks gave in: she fell, screaming, about fifteen feet before her slender form thumped into the sand.
Zannos was already rushing to her aid when he heard a thrilling growl coming from the cliffs. Snapping his head at the source, his pulse reached an unpleasant level.
The pursuer was a huge tiger; claws gleaming in the moonlight and eyes focused on the fragile, unconscious being at the base of the wall. With a graceful, perfect leap the feline landed like a feather beside its prey.
Zannos’ hands were on their way to the hilt of his swords but they only grasped at thin air. He looked down at his belt and his face sunk from the shocking realization. Idiot! How could I have left them at home? I’ll have to improvise… again.
He glanced at the giant cat who was still circling around the unmoving girl, its sharp, white teeth visible in the half-open maw.
A small rock lay just in front of Zannos. Picking it up instantly, he jogged straight at the tiger, only stopping when he considered the momentum enough for a good throw. The pebble hit the animal’s head between the ears.
The tiger meowed before it locked its fearsome gaze on the meddlesome creature. It didn’t take long to deem him a threat to be dealt with ease: its four mighty paws thudded in the sand as it approached Zannos with alarming speed. He could barely jump out of the way, but the tiger was already changing direction, using a long tail to quickly steer itself.
Zannos sprang up and began running as fast as he could in the hope of luring the beast away from the girl. His plan was ruined the moment he stumbled in a larger rock that was half-buried in the sand.
Falling prone with soaring toes, he rolled to his back, only to see the tiger’s claws descending towards his belly. He was quick enough to roll further away until something poked him in the side. Standing up awkwardly he saw that it was the small branch of a long, sturdy-looking stick. Grabbing it, he swung back immediately at where he expected the tiger to be. The end of the stick struck at the animal’s paw, but not before it managed to plow Zannos’ side vertically with the tip of two claws, tearing a larger patch of clothing out as well.
Zannos hissed, the tiger meowed in pain but it lunged itself at the irritating foe an instant later. Zannos, using the stick to balance himself, graciously cartwheeled to the left and brought the club down upon the tiger’s rump the moment he felt firm ground beneath his feet.
The tiger was clearly shocked at how such a small creature could injure it, but now it was having second thoughts about risking more. Bending its limbs and casting its ears back, it growled at Zannos, but the boy fearlessly snarled back and threateningly moved closer with the stick raised up high. The tiger knew better and decided that such thin meals were not worth the pain and damage it might have had to endure. It slowly backed away, towards the woods, roaring a few times before turning its back on Zannos and disappearing among the trees.
As he lowered his weapon he felt pain surging into his side. He touched the long claw-tracks and winced, but the amount of blood that stuck to his hand didn’t imply heavy bleeding. But it still hurt like hell.
From the corner of his eye he could see slight movement at the base of the cliffs. Oh gods, she must be taken to the healers.
Zannos thought and crossed the distance surprisingly fast. Dropping down the branch, he crouched down to check on her. However, a couple of seconds later he had to shake his head as he realized he was admiring her beauty and the voluptuous curves of her body instead of searching for injuries.
Her breathing was perfectly normal and her arms and legs weren’t broken – at least on superficial look. Her only wound was a small, purpling bump on the right side of her forehead, just below the hair. Zannos combed her dark hair from her face, and while he was marveling at her perfection, she slowly opened her eyes.
“It’s okay, you are safe now.” Zannos said, carefully moving further a little so as not to startle her. “Let me help you up.” He offered his hand while standing up himself. The girl, still breathing rapidly, accepted and was on her feet in a moment, stumbling forward a little and having to catch herself in Zannos’ shoulders. Their eyes met again and Zannos noticed they were about the same height; she was merely an inch shorter than him.
“Thank you… When I fell down I thought I was surely done for.” Her voice reverberated in his head. It was young, but not girlish at all. Arousing was the best word Zannos could use to describe it.
“Phoebe… My name is Phoebe, and I know you well, Zannos, Champion of the Kraken.”
“It’s good to finally meet you, Phoebe…” Zannos’ mouth felt incredibly dry and he didn’t quite know what to say. “I… I wanted to thank you for helping me win the Convocation. I couldn’t have continued if you hadn’t been there.”
“I’m glad I could help, but I think I owe you more now that you saved my life.” She flashed a sweet smile at him then turned her head around, muscles straining on her gracious neck. “What happened to the tiger?”
“I chased it away after a bit of a scuffle.”
“I see.” Phoebe pryingly eyed up Zannos’ shoulders then let her stare continue down to his arms. “Although I’m not surprised you are beating tigers so casually.”
“Heh… well… are you alright?” He combed into her hair and observed the small bump again. “Maybe we should go back to camp where you can lie down.”
“I can lie down here just as well.” She laughed softly. Her gaze went further down on his body then suddenly she gasped. “By Dwayna, you’re bleeding!”
“It’s… it’s nothing really. Just a tiny bit deeper scratch that will heal slower.” Zannos smirked in his nervousness, but he couldn’t change Phoebe’s mind.
“Take off your shirt, I will patch you up.”
His heart was racing faster than during the fight with the tiger, but he complied without a word.
Standing there half-naked now, his eyes went wider than he thought they could: Phoebe bent down and tore off a wide streak of her skirt that only went down to below the knee on her right leg and covered only a small portion of her left leg. But now, with such a large piece missing, either side was even. What caught Zannos’ eye – beside Phoebe’s perfect, long legs – was the tattoo of a stylized serpent coiling around her right thigh, its head disappearing somewhere below the torn skirt. Just like the ones on Therios. Which means…
“You are from the Serpent Clan, Phoebe?”
“Indeed I am.” She glanced up, smiling radiantly, as she was making a bandage out of the cloth.
“Then why did you cheer for me instead of Therios?”
“Because I liked you more… I saw something in you that drew me to you.” They were getting very close now that she was winding the makeshift bandage around and up to cover the whole of the long wounds. “Besides, I was just born as Serpent. These days I’m a wandering priestess of Melandru, free of all affiliations.”
“But you are so young… they let you become a priestess so soon?”
“And did they let you become a Champion so soon?” She chuckled. “No, because we both did what we wanted… alone. I was gifted by Melandru at a young age, and so I knew what to do.”
As she finished, and was making a knot at the end of the cut, her head was just below Zannos’ nose. The enchanting fragrance flowing from her hair was intoxicating. It made him feel dizzy and bold, and all of a sudden he reached for the back of her thigh.
Phoebe gasped in her surprise but her naughty smile revealed she was awaiting such move for a time. Zannos put his other hand on her back and gently laid her down on the sand while she was clinging onto his shoulder, pulling him down as well. They stared down each other, lust glinting in their eyes.
“Well… you were right. We can lie down here just as well – if not better.” Zannos growled and Phoebe laughed. Her hands were on his cheeks now, pulling him closer and closer until he felt her soft, mellow lips rubbing against his with growing intensity…
The hot rays of the morning sun and the waving of the sea slowly woke Zannos. Still half-asleep, he turned to his right and put his left arm over Phoebe’s waist. She was lying on her shoulder, showing her back to him and using her bent arm as a pillow. Her clothes were still a tad wrinkled after last night.
Phoebe was stirring, too, cuddling up to him in the process, which resulted in a pleasant hardness in his crotch.
“Hmm… I missed sunrise.” She said ponderously. “I always get up in time to see it, but I was so delightfully tired…” Zannos felt her slightly quaking; she was clearly chuckling.
“Are you sure it wasn’t due to the injury or the stress?” Zannos asked, not making an attempt to conceal the sarcasm in his voice. He moved his head closer and started kissing the bumps of her spine, slowly heading down. Phoebe lightly trembled, but she turned around instead of letting him continue. She looked careworn and was seemingly hesitant to say what was on her mind.
“Zannos… I have to ask something.”
“Ask away, but I can’t really imagine saying no to you.”
“Will you join me on my wandering?” The question burst out of Phoebe, almost as if she wanted to have it off her chest as soon as possible. “You could see the world, its majestic sights and wonders, and… and we could be together.”
Zannos quickly sat up. He already regretted saying what he’d had, as he was about to break his word. And when he looked back at Phoebe and saw her begging gaze, it became a nigh impossible task to refuse.
“Phoebe… no matter how much I want that, I can’t. Not yet. The Captain, my father, is away on a dangerous hunt and my mother has just given birth to my brother. I cannot leave her until…”
“And what if he doesn’t? Will you remain by your mother’s side and become the next Captain? Would you throw away adventure and accept such fate?” Still lounging, she reached out with one arm and began to caress Zannos’ back. “I know you, Zannos, and I know you wouldn’t be happy with that life.”
Suddenly, Zannos pulled himself away and stood up, trying to walk casually towards the sea as if he was merely conflicted; however, in fact he was fighting to hold his tears back. It was not what Phoebe had said or the way she had told him – she was right, after all – but the probability that his father might perish on his mission. He thought he had gotten past his worries about Kanaxai dying, but now they were back, gnawing at him stronger than ever. He had to clench his fists and strain every muscle to fight his tears, not wanting to cry in front of Phoebe.
But Phoebe stepped behind him and hugged him from the back, her arms crossed over his chest and her head rested on his shoulders. Feeling her warmth and scent calmed him down quite a bit.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” She murmured in his ear.
“No… no, it’s not that at all. You are right. I want to leave with you at this very moment, but I still need some more time.” Zannos gingerly grabbed her left hand and turned to face her, still holding it with both of his own. “You could stay with me in the camp until things have settled down. Even a wandering priestess can remain in one place for a longer time, can’t she?”
Phoebe bit her lips as she was pondering on his offer. In the end, however, her carefree smile returned.
“Well, I guess why not?”
Hand in hand, they began the trek back to the Kraken campsite. None of them wanted to talk during those long minutes of the journey, as both of them were lost in thoughts and concerns. Zannos was greatly embarrassed by their silence, but he couldn’t help it at that moment.
When they were in sight of the camp, Zannos slowed down. Something didn’t seem right with how its silhouette looked.
“What’s wrong?” Phoebe asked.
He frowned as he spied the view ahead.
“I’m not entirely sure… maybe it’s just me, but I see too many banners above the tents. Would you mind if we hurried a little from here?”
Phoebe let out a heartily laughter again, the sound of which always eased Zannos’ heart.
“Why would I, silly? Come, I’m sure I’ll get there sooner!” She stuck out her tongue at him and was already running ahead. Zannos, wildly grinning, was after her in an instant.
He was concentrating on Phoebe, who was just several feet away now, so strongly that he almost ran into her when she suddenly stopped. He still had to catch himself in her shoulders, but at least they didn’t fall over. Panting from the exercise they stared at the unusual sight at the center.
The extra banners belonged to large battalions of Imperial soldiers. Like grim statues they stood there in tight lines and columns, each clad in armor or leather vest the color of brown, gold and red.
“I guess you weren’t expecting the Empire to show up today.” Phoebe said silently, not taking her gaze off of the soldiers.
Zannos spotted a familiar figure holding something wrapped in blankets while talking to an officer of some sorts – based on the markings on her uniform. He was on his way to the pair when Phoebe quickly caught his hand.
“I hope this doesn’t change your mind about our plans.”
“I don’t know, Phoebe. But we will figure something out, I promise. Wait here, I’ll be back soon.”
Hesitantly, she let him go. Zannos began jogging until the two women turned to greet him.
“Zannos!” Arianthe snapped furiously. “Where have you been? You don’t know how worried I was.”
“I spent the night on the shore with… uhm.” He nervously looked behind at Phoebe who was idly watching the camp and the people. “It’s a long story… what’s happening here?”
Arianthe’s expression was still angry, but she decided not to speak more of it – at least for now.
“Allow me to introduce Commander Matsui of the Seventh Legion.” Matsui bowed her head at Arianthe’s words. She was in her early forties, but the responsibilities of command already cast some wrinkles on her face. “She and her soldiers have come to defend us while the Captain is out hunting the Corruptor.”
“It’s good to finally meet the Champion of the Kraken Clan. We’ve heard stories of your duel… to win the Convocation so young is quite the remarkable feat.” The Commander shook hands with Zannos. “And indeed. When the Ambassador’s letter reached the Emperor and General Seritena, they immediately acted to defend all of you. We are here in case the Corruptor or its minions attack.”
“Well, Commander…” Arianthe spoke again, but she didn’t seem relieved at all. “I believe everything is settled then. My people will lead you to a place where you can set up your camp.”
“Thank you.” Commander Matsui bowed. “And congratulations again on the childbirth.” As she left she waved a hand at her soldiers who in turn started streaming out of the camp through the entrance where they had come through.
“So, who is this illustrious, beautiful young lady, again?” Arianthe asked in a voice that demanded a straight answer immediately now that she was fully focused on her son.
“Her name is Phoebe. A priestess of Melandru I saved from a tiger last night. We…”
“I see.” Arianthe glared at Phoebe from afar. “People don’t become priests at such a young age.”
“She was blessed by the goddess.”
“I-“ But she was interrupted by the small whimpers of her baby, which got louder with each passing moment. “I must tend to him, but don’t think we’re done here, young man.” With that she hurried into the Captain’s tent, the curtains wildly brushed aside in her furious passing.
“Why do I get the feeling your mother doesn’t like me?”
Zannos didn’t notice Phoebe approaching. Damn! I hope she hasn’t heard much.
“Don’t worry.” Stepping closer he hugged Phoebe around her waist. “Once you get to know each other she will be much kinder. Mother’s just a little overprotective, that’s all.”
“Hmph.” Phoebe worked her mouth in anxiety.
Seeing the tension build up in her, he kissed her; passionately and impatiently. A couple of seconds later he already felt her body become more relaxed.
“Just a few days… a week at best. We can at least tell her about us leaving.”
“And what if she won’t let her son go?”
“I was just born as Kraken. Nowadays, I’m an adventurer wanting to explore the world with his love.”
The gorgeous smile Phoebe flashed at him was enough to make him feel elevated.
“I think I’m going to lay down a bit… my head hurts a little.”
“Then we should have it checked.”
“No need for that, thank you. I know some healing techniques but I’d need to meditate.”
“Of course… my tent is over there, next to the Captain’s. I’m going to check on you in a couple of hours.
“I can barely wait, my tiger.” She mischievously winked and wound through the working Luxons towards Zannos’ tent. Zannos longingly sighed and went the other direction.