The first major blizzard struck in mid-December, two days before Mastin and the men returned from Wallis. The whole compound came to a screeching stop for one full day and night, until most of the twenty inches of snow could be dug out. Around the outside of Alta Novis, every man pitched in to clear the white powder at least ten feet away from the walls. Otherwise any enemy approaching could easily climb over the walls by building up the drifts.
During that time, when the world settled in for a few days to let Mother Nature blow unrelentingly over them, Yulen and Atty spend an exorbitant amount of time upstairs in bed. Atty now was in her second trimester, and not only had her hormones gone totally off the scale, so had her sex drive. And somehow, for some inexplicable reason, her need and desire had transferred over to Yulen. As a result, for the two days of the snowstorm, they never got out of bed except to eat whatever Berta brought upstairs and left by their bedroom door. Even being apart from each other didn’t seem to diminish their heat. All Yulen had to do was get close enough to her to smell her scent, or feel the brush of her quivering skin against his, and he was instantly in lust, with a depth of passion that surprised them both.
One afternoon, Yulen had sought out MaGrath to ask him about the effect of their lovemaking on the baby, but the physician had laughed off the Battle Lord’s concern. "When Atty starts to feel uncomfortable, that’ll be your cue to back off," the older man informed him. "Until then, you’re not going to hurt her or the boy."
Apparently Atty’s determination to call the child a boy had rubbed off. Even the soldiers were heard referring to the unborn babe as the Battle Prince.
Once the snow was cleared, life resumed somewhat on a normal level. On the morning of the fourth straight sunshiny day, Yulen did a final inspection of the new lodge before pronouncing it ready to move in. And while Atty was taking her customary afternoon nap, he had the new furniture and last of their belongings settled into it. When she woke up, he would take her over and show her their new home, and then they would christen the lodge properly in their new bed upstairs.
Yulen glanced up from the paperwork he was signing to see one of the sentries approaching him. Reading the man’s face and not seeing any sort of emergency, the Battle Lord let his emotions take a step down. "Dillion?"
"It’s Mastin, Sir, and the men returning. They’ve been sighted at the top of the hill."
Smiling, Yulen shoved the paperwork back into the carpenter’s hands and followed the sentry back to the main gate where he climbed the ladder to the catwalk to watch the battalion’s return. A quick glance reassured him their numbers had not decreased by any significant numbers, which told him the regiment either hadn’t encountered any Bloods, or if they had, their casualties had been negligible.
A second later he caught sight of a wagon in their midst, and he frowned. The three wagons he’d sent to Wallis were supposed to remain at the compound, not to be brought back. Well, there had to be a good reason why Mastin would bring the one wagon back. Determined to question his Second, Yulen descended the ladder as the main gates slowly opened to allow the returning soldiers entrance.
Smiling broadly, Mastin led in the troops, who were happily greeted by their comrades and family members. Sliding off his horse, he strode over to his Battle Lord, and they exchanged warm handshakes.
"I’m wanting a full report," Yulen ordered, smiling in spite of his curiosity.
"You’ll get it," Mastin promised, "and then some!" He glanced back over his shoulder just as two more people approached them. "Yulen, I hope there’s room for two more this winter," the Second commented.
Yulen turned in time to see two familiar figures stop just beyond where the other soldiers were dismounting. Eyes wide, a slow smile spread over his face. "Fortune? Tory? What in the world . . . !"
Tory Kalich crossed the narrow strip of dead grass to greet the man, only to find herself encased in a sincere hug. Fortune was offered a hearty handshake. "What brings you to Alta Novis?" Yulen asked.
"We heard the news that Atty is pregnant," Tory said, her nose red from the cold as she huddled inside her thin coat. "Blame me. I told Fortune she needed me to be with her. How is she, Yulen? Is she still with child? Has she had any complications?"
"Atty’s doing excellently," Yulen smiled. "She’ll be overjoyed to have you. Fordyce! Take whatever our guests have brought with them and put them in the new lodge. Welcome to Alta Novis, Tory, and welcome back, Fortune. We have much to talk about, but before then, I need to get with my men. In the meantime, Fortune, take Tory over to the main lodge and tell Berta I ordered warm drinks for everyone. Have you had anything to eat? Tell her to warm up some stew." Yulen excused himself again and left them to handle his duties.
Taking his wife’s arm, Fortune proudly started to lead her toward the main lodge. He was well aware of the awe-struck look on her face as she took in everything going on around her, clearly remembering the first time he had beheld the immense compound.
"Oh, my heavens, Fortune! Would you look at this place!"
Nodding, the Mutah hunter told her, "And it’s gotten bigger since I was here last. I’ll bet you could fit all of Wallis in just the courtyard."
They continued their almost leisurely stroll toward the main lodge. Twice Fortune caught his wife’s hesitation, and once she flinched when one of the soldiers burdened down with an armload of lances almost mowed them down in his hurry to finish his work. "It’s okay, Tory," he patted her arm. "We’re safe here. Safer than we would be in Wallis." He gave her a sincere smile. "Come on. There’s more I want to show you."
By the time they entered the lodge, a large majority of soldiers who had been with them were already seated and being served. A young woman wearing an apron and a hair cap motioned them over to an empty table. They took their seats, and presently another young man in an apron brought them each a steaming bowl of stew and two mugs of cold cider. As they ate, Tory kept sweeping the huge room and large fireplace with misting eyes.
"Our Atty is queen here, isn’t she?"
Fortune nodded. "Yep. They call her the Battle Lady, and rightly so. See all those weapons on the walls? Yulen told me once she’s been keeping herself trained in using them all." He almost snickered. "See that staircase at the other end of the room?"
"See the door at the top of the stairs?"
"That’s the Battle Lord’s suite of rooms. It’s Yulen and Atty’s bedroom."
Tory turned back to her husband. "All of that upstairs?" At his nod, she shook her head. "Oh, my."
They continued to eat as several servants from the kitchen checked to see if everyone needed anything else. Besides the stew, large loaves of freshly baked bread were brought out, along with new butter. Tory could warm her hands over the wrapped loaf in its shallow trough. She started to inquire about where they were going to be staying the night when a shout went up in the room, followed by several more hearty hails. Tory and Fortune glanced up to see a figure draped in a loose velvet gown the color of dark cherries slowly coming down the stairs. The indigo hair told them what they needed to know.
Tory got to her feet and began to walk toward the young woman, her eyes raking over the beloved figure and taking in every aspect of Atty’s condition. The Battle Lady was welcoming back several of the men from their campaign, when she glanced up to see the woman standing a few feet beyond the circle. Her eyes literally grew as wide as saucers.
Both women collapsed into each others’ arms, both hugging as tightly as possible, but with care for the baby. Finally, Tory pulled back, still holding onto Atty’s arms. Tears were freely flowing down each woman’s face.
"You look . . . oh, my sweet heavens, Atty, you’re positively radiant!"
Giving her another warm smile, Atty hugged her again. "Did you come with the battalion? Of course you did! Listen to me. I’ve gone senile. Where’s Fortune?"
Fortune took that as his cue to step forward, and was greeted with an equally welcoming hug and a kiss to the cheek. He stared at Atty in disbelief and pride. "How are you feeling, Atty? Any problems?"
"No. None!" Atty shook her mane of abundant, dark hair. It was evident the baby had brought about many positive changes, especially to her body. Tory clucked her tongue, smiling to herself. Atty had the scent she knew too well, and it was strong. Powerful. It made the Mutah woman wonder how Yulen was handling it. Apparently she and Fortune had come at the right time.
"Have you eaten yet?" Atty asked, breaking Tory from her reverie.
"Yes. We’ve just finished."
"Does Yulen know you’re here?"
"He sent us over," Fortune told her.
"Well, I just got up from my nap, and I’m famished. Let’s go over to my table, and you can tell me everything that’s been happening in Wallis since we left. Oh, Carlyse! Can I have a bowl of that stew, too, please? And bring a jar of the blueberry jelly when you bring out the bread," Atty ordered one of the passing help. That done, she linked an arm through Tory’s and led them to the table nearest the fireplace.
As they took their seats, Atty continued their conversation. "How long are you staying? Please tell me you’re not going back tomorrow!"
Laughing, Tory took her hand and patted it. "We’re here for as long as you need us, Atty," she told the young woman.
Atty blinked. "Really? But what about Memnon?"
"He’s a big boy," Fortune answered. "He can take care of himself until we get back."
"You just don’t know," Tory smiled, shaking her head. "We were stunned when Mastin arrived with the extra wagons of supplies. But then, when he just casually mentioned that you were expecting a baby, well! Talk about knocking the lot of us over with a feather!" She laughed, remembering how the entire compound had gone totally silent for nearly a minute as the news sunk in. Their Atty, the tomboyish girl hunter who’d once vowed never to physically know a man. It had been a severe shock when they’d learned she’d taken a Normal—and a Battle Lord, no less—to husband. Now, the additional news of her expecting a child had become the talk of the compound. "I told Fortune that night that you needed us. You needed another person you trusted to be with you at this time, in case . . ." Tory stopped and chewed her lower lip. Atty immediately knew what she’d meant to say, and finished the sentence for her.
"In case I lost the baby?"
"I’m sorry," Tory hastily whispered, squeezing the woman’s hand. "Forgive us, Atty, but there’s always the chance-"
"Tory, have you spoken with Gilter since Mastin arrived?" Atty interrupted.
The Mutah woman shook her head. "No. Why?" To her surprise, Atty laughed.
"Ohhhh, boy, do we have a lot to talk about!" Turning to Fortune, she grinned. "So, how hard did she have to twist your arm before you agreed to come here?"
The food arrived just then, and Tory and Fortune began to fill her in with the latest news as Atty dove into the stew. At one point, she apologized for her appetite. "I can’t seem to get enough to eat. I know I’ll be as big as a horse by the time this baby’s ready." She paused slightly, then told them, "It’s going to be a boy."
Tory squealed with glee and wrapped her arms about the woman. At the other tables, the soldiers saw the commotion but ignored it. They were used to Atty’s mood swings. And apparently, they surmised, such erratic behavior was common among other Mutah women.
It wasn’t much later when the buzzing in the room shifted noticeably, and the entire focus turned to the man walking purposefully down the aisle toward the head table. The three people sitting near the fireplace looked up to see the Battle Lord coming their way. By this time Atty had finished eating, and they had been conversing over steaming mugs of hot cider. Tory’s experienced eyes noticed how the Battle Lord stopped a few feet away from his wife, and a small smile creased her face. Somehow she needed to get the man aside and have a talk with him. The sooner, the better.
"I’ve had Tory and Fortune’s things moved to the new lodge. I hope you don’t mind," he told her softly.
As he knew she would, Atty screwed up her forehead in confusion. "To the new lodge? Is it ready?"
"It’s more than ready, my love." Looking to the couple, he grinned. "If you don’t mind my absconding with her for a few minutes. This surprise has been on hold for many months. It’s now time for me to show my wife our new home. You’re welcome to come view it as well, if you want, since you’ll be staying below."
He took Atty’s hand and began to walk her toward the side entrance. Tory continued to watch them. It was immediately evident to her Atty’s second trimester was more than potent. It was overwhelming.
"Coming?" Fortune placed a hand to her back. Tory gave him a smile.
"Do me a favor?"
"I’m going to need to talk to Yulen as soon as I can."
"Oh?" Fortune raised both eyebrows at her. "That bad, huh?"
She laughed softly. "I don’t think either of them have any idea what’s hit them."
"Tory, I don’t think either of them are complaining."
"No, but it’s only right they both find out what they’re facing," she giggled.
"All right. I’ll keep Atty occupied while you speak with him," Fortune promised, and they followed the couple out of the lodge.
At first it appeared that the new lodge was as immense as the main lodge, until they walked through the front door. Then they could see that, although it was as long as the old building, it was actually much shorter in depth. The downstairs living area, once dust-strewn and empty the last time Atty saw it, now had new hand-loomed rugs on the floor and two stuffed chairs near the crackling fireplace.
Yulen pointed to the doors on either side of the curving stairwell. "Those go to the back bedrooms. That’s where you’ll be staying as long as you’re here," he told the couple. Giving his wife’s hand a squeeze, he urged her to proceed upstairs, missing Tory and Fortune’s glance at each other.
Atty gave her husband a questioning look, then started up the steps. Yulen followed closely behind. As she reached the top landing, she stopped, a hand over her mouth as she gasped in surprise. "Yul! Oh, my goodness!"
None of the furniture from their old bedroom had been moved to the new one. Instead, Yulen had ordered all new furniture made. "The old furniture was my father and mother’s, and my grandparents’. I wanted something just for us. Something that reflected us. What do you think, Atrilan?"
Atty continued to stare at the large bed with the elaborately carved headboard. The massive oak trunk that was at the head of the bed bore two intricate designs. On the left, on the side where Yulen slept, a sword had been cut into the wood at a right diagonal. On the right side, on Atty’s side of the bed, a longbow was facing the opposite way at a left diagonal. In the center of the bed, the very tip of the sword pierced the end of the bow right where the string was tied to the shaft. The cuttings were life-size. Atty shook her head in disbelief.
"It’s . . . Yul, it’s beautiful!"
She quickly looked around the rest of the room. The bureau was no longer a tall, five-drawer structure. It was now a lower standing, squatter chest containing four drawers on both sides. One side boasted the sword on each drawer panel, the other side, the bow. There was another padded chair sitting near the huge window, although it was not as thick or as large as the chairs downstairs. And the braided rug beneath her feet was in intricate designs of blues and silvers. Like the living room’s, the fireplace upstairs was cheerfully warming up the upper area.
She glanced at him. "Did you make a lot of changes to the bathroom? Or dare I ask?"
"It’s pretty much the same as when you first saw it," he admitted.
"How about the baby’s room?"
When she saw his silent grin, Atty strode over to the far door and flung it open. Slowly, she walked into the room as her eyes drank in the changes. She gazed in astonishment at the huge, carved crib with its detailed sides. Throughout the room were varying shades of blue, from the quilted comforter in the cradle to the painted walls and the scatter of rugs on the floor. She was vaguely aware of her husband coming up behind her until he drew his arms around her swollen middle and pulled her against him.
His touch sent bolts of lightning through her, making her quiver as he spread his fingers and cupped her breasts. Bending over, Yulen buried his nose into her hair and inhaled deeply. "You told me we were having a son, so I ordered the room done in blues. You’d better not disappoint me," he teased, half-serious.
Atty turned around and lifted her face as she lifted her arms. It had only been a few hours since they’d held each other, but it felt like years had passed since then. His mouth was hot upon hers, hot and intrusive and begging to take the rest of her skin between his lips. She whimpered as his hands slid down the side of her hips, down her thighs, and stopped to clutch her buttocks. He devoured her, tasted and probed and demanded more.
A gentle clearing of a throat from behind them brought them suddenly into the present. Regretfully they both remembered they’d left company downstairs. Instead of drawing apart, however, they each turned their heads to see both Fortune and Tory standing in the doorway of the nursery.
"This whole place is incredible," Fortune whispered in awe. "Did you design this all yourself?" he asked the Battle Lord.
"I had two of my main contractors here in the compound help me with the logistics," Yulen responded. He detested the thought of having to release Atty from his embrace. And for a brief second a thread of irritability raced through him at the thought of the Mutah couple interrupting something that would have eventually led to him and Atty christening their new bed.
He could feel his wife pressing closer to him, laying her cheek to his chest. Looking down, she appeared content and patient. It was a deceptive calm. He knew that a small fire remained banked beneath her embers. It wouldn’t take but the right kiss, the right touch of his hand, and it would burst into flame.
Then, to his amazement, Tory crooked a finger in his direction. "Yulen, would you be so kind as to show me something downstairs? Please? It’ll only take a minute."
Reluctantly, he let go of his wife and followed the woman out the door as Fortune began to tell Atty some nonsensical story about a person they both knew in Wallis. Following Tory quickly downstairs, he went through the doorway and down the hallway to the bedroom at the farthest end. So far it was the only one furnished with a bed, in case of unexpected company. Yulen was glad to be have had the foresight.
When they reached the room, Tory sat on the edge of the bed and patted the quilted cover with her hand, inviting him to sit down beside her. Yulen opted to stand a few feet away, one hand unconsciously resting on the pommel of his sword, the other hand on his hip.
Taking a deep breath, Tory looked up at the clearly impatient man. "Yulen, there were many reasons why I asked Fortune for us to come here. But, in the end, Atty is the main one. You already knew that, didn’t you?"
"Of course. To be honest, I’m glad you’re here. There aren’t many people Atty trusts, or who I trust to be with her. Your presence is unexpected but very welcome."
"And, you know you can speak bluntly with me, right?"
Yulen tilted his head at her. His expression was unreadable. "I’m listening."
"What I mean is . . ." She tried to find the right words, but gave up. This man valued honesty above all else. Well, then, he would get blunt honesty. "Yulen, there’s something about a Mutah woman’s pregnancy you don’t know. At least, I’m pretty positive you’re not aware of it."
A flash of fear appeared in his eyes. She quickly tried to quell it. "No, no. It’s nothing dangerous. It’s something that happens during our second trimester. In Wallis, it’s an expected thing. Something we know about and anticipate. But with you being a Normal . . . ."
"Go on," he urged, curious and cautious.
"Yulen . . . in the past couple of weeks, have you and Atty found yourselves overly preoccupied with sex?"
She loved the way this giant of a man not only started, but had the decency to blush at her question. Smiling, she made every effort not to giggle. "It’s okay, Yulen. It’s Atty’s pheromones. She’s producing an extraordinary amount, and we know what they do to the husband." She gave him a soft smile. "Mutah men look forward to their wives coming into heat at that time. It’s a natural thing, Yulen. It’s a beautiful time, especially with the changes coming over her body. It’s also an exciting time. Kind of like the feast before the famine."
Yulen’s expression remained blank, although she could tell a hundred thoughts were going through his head. "Feast before famine?" he reiterated in a deeper voice than usual.
"You know. Near the end of the pregnancy, when you can no longer make love. And then the few weeks afterwards, after the baby comes, when she has to heal enough before you can resume." Tory took a deep breath, suddenly glad to have gotten that part out in the open.
"Does it affect other men?" Yulen asked her.
"Actually, no, because we don’t tend to exude them until our husbands are around. And even then the husband is the only person affected. They’re kind of selective." Her eyes glanced toward the bedroom door. "I noticed that back at the big lodge you seemed to keep your distance from Atty. Is it because you can’t keep your hands off of her when you’re together?"
He finally seemed to let go of a bit of his stiffness. Slowly shaking his head, a small grin came over his face. "You have no idea how many times I’ve wished I could come right out and ask you what in the hell you told Atty back in Wallis."
The remark was so off the wall, Tory burst out in laughter. "Surprised you, did she?"
Tory tried to swallow her joy. "I didn’t do anything more than any mother would have done for her daughter. Atty never got the proper . . . let’s call it ‘explanation’. She never got the proper explanation about making love. Eenoi gave her the rudimentary discussion about babies and sex and contraception, but that was all. But there’s a huge difference between procreation and recreation. You know that. Or, at least, I’m assuming that you’ve had the experience to know the difference. After talking for hours with Atty, and being very open with each other, I realized two things about you. I found out you were very, very patient with her. I also found out you were not the kind of man who took sex as simply another basic drive, like eating or sleeping. You love the exploration and discovery as much as a gourmet chef discovering a new dish. So I just gave Atty some suggestions. That’s all. She took it from there. You know Atty."
Yulen crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. Tory felt herself melting under his gaze. No wonder Atty had fallen so hard for this incredibly handsome and strong man, especially if he was as passionate as she said he was in bed. Even the glaring scar down the side of his face emphasized his masculinity.
"She also told me about how she lost her virginity," Tory confessed. Her nose tickled, letting her know she was on the verge of tearing up. "As a mother, as her pseudo-mother, and as someone who cares for her as deeply as any mother could, I want to thank you for loving her that much. For all you’ve done for her. I’ll never forget it."
He bowed his head to her without a word.
Getting to her feet, she swiped at the tears in her eyes and sniffed loudly. "Oh, gosh, look at me, getting all maudlin. We’d better be getting back before Fortune comes looking for us. Heaven knows he’s probably having a hard time trying to keep Atty occupied."
She paused to look up at him.
"Does Atty know about this thing about her second trimester?"
Shrugging, Tory said, "I don’t believe so. It wasn’t something we discussed, or discussed with Teal."
"The woman with the baby, back in Wallis."
Yulen’s smile grew wider. "That was deliberate, wasn’t it?" he accused her.
"Oh, yeah," Tory nodded.
"You’re welcome. So . . . do you still want us to stay here with you?"
"What do you mean?"
Tory pointed a finger upward. "You know. New bed. I’m assuming you’ve yet to spend your first night in it."
This time Yulen chuckled. "Don’t worry, Tory. The walls are well insulated. I made sure of it."
"We’ll see about that," she challenged him, adding a wink.
Laughing out loud, Yulen grabbed her hand and led her back into the living room where Atty and Fortune were waiting for them beside the fireplace.
Seeing her husband and Tory emerge from the back in such good spirits, she asked them what they’d talked about. For some reason, her inquiry only made Yulen laugh harder. She didn’t mind, though, when he picked her up and whirled her about, and promised to tell her later. They were finally in their new home, away from the kitchen, away from the curious eyes watching their every move when they went in and out of their bedroom.
And soon, they would find out how comfortable their new bed was.