The inside of the cave was black, and the air was humid. Asthmoth heard the shouts from the humans who surrounded the entrance of the cave. Their voices drifted inside and echoed within.
"Come out here and face us, you fowl Beasts of Satan! We aren't afraid of you. Come out and fight us!"
Asthmoth tensed to give them the fight they demanded. Then he felt his wife's hands wrap around his waist. "Please don't go, please," Lilah begged her husband.
Asthmoth scoffed her worry away. "These humans are no match for my dragon. They have called me out, and I will answer with fire, tooth, and claw."
"Ah!" Aliah's shrill pierced the depths of the cave and bounced around them. Her pain was intense. Asthmoth turned to face his disgraced daughter, who lay writhing squirming on the cave floor, her stomach large with child. It would have been a joyous occasion, if not for the putrid human at her side. He couldn't stand it.
"Mother, I can't hold her, she comes," his daughter screams and his wife unravels her arms from his waist and ran to her daughter's side.
Asthmoth looked down at his daughter. Even within the darkness of the cave, his dragon sight gave him the ability to penetrate the darkness that surrounded them. He could see the blood that pooled the unforgiving stone beneath his daughter.
Alarmed at the sight of so much blood, Asthmoth asked his wife, "Is it normal for her to bleed this much?"
His wife clutched their daughter's hand. Her grip on their daughter's hand was tight enough to turn his wife's knuckles white. It was as though his wife thought by holding their daughter's hand; she could tether their daughter to this world.
His wife shook her head. "I don't know what I should expect with a birth such as this. I," she stuttered. "Have never heard of something like this. If we had more time, then I could have asked the older dragons, if there was anything..."
He saw his wife's eyes widened, and her mouth closed. Then he looked down at his daughter. Her teeth clenched, and a horrid grunt of pain squeezed past his daughter's best defenses.
Asthmoth turned his glare to Duncan; the human, his daughter, chose as her mate. The one who's seed was killing his daughter. "This is your fault. You should have never let this happen. Never. Look at her!" the Asthmoth yelled, "She is dying."
"Father," his daughter called to him. Her voice nearly inaudible even to his heightened hearing.
"Don't blame him. It's not his fault. I love him and my daughter, even if having her costs me my life. I have no regrets."
His daughter's eyes brimmed with unshed tears, and he nearly relented his anger, but he held fast. How could he not blame the human? Asthmoth frowned down at his daughter. How could she be so stupid to fall for a human? How could she introduce such filth into his bloodline? His pure bloodline.
"I raised you better. I though-."
Duncan interrupted him. "I am sick and tired of having the same argument with you. What's done is done, now, given what is in front of us." He pointed to the entrance where he could still hear the human's rants demanding they come out and face them. Asthmoth scoffed. He'd kill them all with his dragon breath. Duncan continued, "Should we not at least try to bury the hatred between us?"
"How dare you speak to me in this manner, Human?" Asthmoth spat the word human, to ensure Duncan understood what he thought of his kind.
Duncan lifted his chin in defiance. "I dare as Aliah's husband and the father of our child that is coming into this world of discord and prejudice. Now isn't the time to fight each other. We need to think of a plan, so we can all live on."
Asthmoth crossed his muscular arms over his chest and lifted his brow. "And am I to assume you have a plan?"
Duncan's arms gesticulated as he yelled, "Asthmoth, don't turn your condescension on me. At least I'm thinking! Which is more than what you are doing and more than I should do, considering my wife is likely dying in front of me!"
As if speaking about Aliah pulled Duncan to her, he turned away from Asthmoth and sat next to Aliah. Asthmoth watched his daughter clench the human's hand and gave him a subtle shake of her head. Even the slight shake of her head seemed to exhaust her.
For the first time, Asthmoth worried. He worried that his daughter would leave him behind. He hoped after she gave birth to the babe, he could have convinced her to leave the child with the man and marry King Thomas' son as she was supposed to, so they could preserve the ever-dwindling dragon line. He thought he had time to talk her into it. He couldn't believe she could love a half-breed child once she saw it, but now, he may never get the chance to reconcile with her, and as King, he couldn't bring himself to gravel for her forgiveness in front of her human mate.
Asthmoth ran a hand down his face in frustration.
Another muffled scream came from his daughter, and he turned around so he wouldn't face her. He couldn't stand to watch any further. He would let the women tend to each other and determine the best way to get them out of this situation unscathed. Within a few marks, he felt a presence next to him. He knew without looking it was Duncan. His human stench traveled to his nostrils before the man appeared.
He heard the human breath deeply and knew he would disrupt the silence Asthmoth desperately needed.
"Most people don't know that dragons can shapeshift."
"Why would we ever share our secrets with such an inferior species?"
"Right, why would you? Nevermind, you won't drag me into an argument, but I think dragon arrogance might work in our favor."
"Our?" Asthmoth asked.
"Yes, our, because my wife and child have a stake in this, which means I do too, and I will fight to the death to protect Aliah and our daughter whether or not you like it, King."
Smoke wafted from Asthmoth's nostrils. He shook himself to calm his ire. He would not allow a human to upset him, but Duncan was right. Now was not the time for killing, especially not in front of Aliah, but later, when she wasn't looking, he would breathe fire on him.
Behind him, Asthmoth heard another muffled wail of pain. His body tensed. He stood silent, his back stiff and arms crossed over his chest. Unapproachable and unmovable the existence of a dragon. His mind wandered to his knowledge about birthing babes until a shadow covered his mind, gnawing the edges of his fragile hope that his daughter would survive. How long had she been in labor? Five turns or three days, he couldn't say.
Asthmoth sighed. He couldn't figure out a solution aside from fighting their way out, which would only hurt his daughter more. Aliah needed a healer. He had to figure out how to get her to one. The shadow in his mind whispered to him she wouldn't make it, she'd be dead long before they left the cave.
Once again, Duncan breached his space and interrupted his thoughts.
"Asthmoth, I know you hate humans, and I know it pains you that your daughter chose me to be her mate. I know all of this, but I wonder if you could try to understand what your daughter and I accomplished with our union. If we had succeeded in our quest to show the world our love, we would have shown everyone that we could all live in harmony. We wanted the fighting and killing to stop. Dragons are nearly all but wiped out. We were trying to be the example."
Asthmoth snorted. "And look how that turned out for you."
"No, we didn't think the end would come so soon, but I don't regret being with Aliah. She is the love of my life, and she carries the manifestation of our love. How can I be sad about our daughter's birth? I can't, but here we are, surrounded by enemies and facing death if we don't find a solution. My wife or mate, in the language of your people, wants us to choose life. She wants us to leave here and live on. We hoped for the best with Aliah's pregnancy, but we planned for the worst. She made me promise if she didn't survive to-to burn her body in the way of your people."
"No Human can begin the Great Death ritual of dragons. She was foolish to ask you."
"I know that, and so does she, but she didn't think you would be there when she gave birth. Aliah wanted a proud end. She wanted to be one with her people."
Asthmoth shook his head. Both of them are foolish, Asthmoth thought to himself.
Asthmoth glanced over toward Duncan. He'd never seen him so deflated. He hunched his broad shoulders that were once the King's blade, and his movements were sluggish, "I have a plan," he said.
"Let's hear it, Human."
"Why are the villagers upset? What do they want?"
Asthmoth shrugged. How was he to know what humans thought? Their thoughts were of no concern to him.
Duncan waited for a mark before he continued. "King Becklar and his dragons caused chaos to erupt in the skies. They killed many people and destroyed families. The dragons that were once revered became our enemies. The villagers are full of grief, which has mutated into hatred. Now, they seek vengeance from the ones who have hurt them. Vengeance from the ones who they believe are trapped inside this cave."
Annoyed, Asthmoth growled. "Yes, your point, Human."
"What if we gave them the dragon they want? Cooled their bloodlust."
Asthmoth whirled to confront Duncan, snarling and baring his teeth. "What do you mean? Do you wish to kill me here? You can try you pathetic human."
Duncan straightened to his full height. Unwavering and unafraid of Asthmoth's anger. "I'm not speaking of you. I am thinking of my wife." Duncan dropped his gaze, but only for a second before he lifted his chin. "The villagers outside are expecting dragons to fly out scales and fire, but what if three humans and a baby run for safety after slaying the enemy dragon?"
Asthmoth shook his head. He wouldn't give up on his daughter so easily. "Aliah will live. She is a dragon, and we do not die easily. Your plan will not work."
"I will not repeat these words, Asthmoth. I can't. The plan is sound, and we both know Aliah will not make it through childbirth. She's lost too much blood. You are a dragon king who has seen many battles. You know better than I what death looks like when it stands in your presence. Do not let my wife's death be for nothing, because if those villagers come in here, my daughter and your daughter will lie among the dead."
Duncan turned and walked back toward Aliah, leaving Asthmoth with his thoughts. How could he sacrifice his daughter to the humans?
Duncan watched as his wife lay dying in front of him. A strange mix of grief, pride, and misery overcame him. He bent down and kissed his wife's damp forehead. "My love, I have done as you wished. I have spoken with your father, but it pains me to think of a life without you in it. You must live. Then we will build a home deep in the forest and live there with our daughter and the freedom of the wild. If you fight. If you keep holding on, we can still have this life together."
Duncan looked deep within his wife's unique hazel eyes. He wanted to turn away from her, but he couldn't be a coward in what may be their last marks together. He held his wife's stare, grateful that by being her mate, she'd made him a little less human. Duncan could see in the dark as well as he could see during the day. He was grateful that he could see the laugh lines around her mouth and her straight, regal nose one last time. He was glad he could look into her hazel eyes and see the love and hope for her people mixed with regret, but not for herself; he knew her better than that; she regretted the pain her passing would cause him.
How could his seed be what took away his wife, who was a beautiful light in a colorless world? He hated himself for agreeing to have a child knowing the risks. He thought, after all the good Aliah had done in the world, the gods owed her a debt. They owed her, and he thought they would pay with a healthy birth, but he was wrong. The gods took more than they gave. Much more.
"Duncan, my love, this is not your fault. I have lived an endless life, and I don't begrudge or fear death. I fear not being here for you and our daughter, but I know you will give her a wonderful life. I'm not a coward, Duncan, you are well aware of that. If I have to die, what better reason would there be than saving my people and my daughter? I couldn't ask for a more honorable death. My love, I will gladly run into death's icy embrace if this means the fighting and killing will stop." Softly she said, "we knew this was a possibility. We aren't wrong. You, my love, are not wrong or at fault, please, do not despair."
Duncan sobbed openly. "How can you ask that of me, Aliah? You are my heart. How can you ask me not to despair? My life will not know happiness again. My soul will be forever tormented from the absence of its better half; this is the reality of my life without you. Do not ask me to do the impossible. Do not ask me not to grieve."
Aliah's lips turned into a smile that briefly lit her eyes with the vibrancy of life before the pain and shadows of death haunted their depths again. "I love you too, Duncan. I will watch over you both. Promise me to love our daughter enough for us both. Teach her my ways and yours. Make sure she is strong and brave like her father," she paused, and he nodded. He couldn't speak, his misery was lodged in his throat, choking him. "Now, I must finish this before I lose all of my strength. Turn away, my love."
"Never, I will stay here until the end, but I beg you to keep fighting, please."
Duncan watched helplessly. He couldn't hold on to the person who breathed life into his lungs. His personal goddess he worshiped and clung to. Aliah pulled her hand away from his, and he knew, never again would he feel the warmth of her hand in his.
"Mother, please help me bring my daughter into this world and guide her to understand our ways."
"I will. I will, I love you, daughter."
"Then help me," Aliah begged. Duncan heard the plea laced in between her words. She wasn't just pleading for her mother to help bring their daughter into the world. She was begging her to help make it a better world for their daughter.
Aliah bent her knees and pushed. Her mother scrambled and moved between Aliah's legs to catch the baby. More blood rushed to the floor, painting the cave's stony ground red. Aliah kept pushing, but the baby wouldn't come.
Lilah encouraged her daughter to keep pushing, and that she was almost done, and to push just a little more.
Aliah pushed. Her eyes squeezed shut and clenched her jaw in pain from her efforts.
"I see her head! Sweetheart, push a little more," Lilah yelled excitedly at her daughter.
Aliah nodded, but her body was giving up. Duncan could tell by the way she let her head fall to the ground as if her head weighed too much. Her arms fell next, limp by her sides. Duncan wanted to shout for her to keep pushing, but he didn't know if that meant she would be in more pain. Frustrated with his situation, he bent over and wiped the wisps of hair that stuck to her damp forehead.
"Come on, a little more, Aliah," he said and kissed her chilled lips.
Duncan watched as she pulled the last of her energy together for a final push. Then he heard it. He heard his daughter's cry and looked up to face Lilah. She stood unsteadily and walked toward them. Pride filled Lilah's eyes as she looked down at the bloodied bundle in her arms. She sat their baby on Aliah's chest. Aliah lifted her body and gave their daughter her first kiss. Tears ran down Aliah's face and dropped onto their daughter's face. The warm glow of new life settled on Lilah and Aliah's face. Love flowed from them to the newborn and wrapped her in a blanket of protection until Asthmoth arrived and broke the enchantment.
His eyes narrowed in distrust, and his clenched jawline showed evidence of his teeth grinding. His lips thinned in a tight line of anger, and he struggled to find words. "Look at... it. This is no dragon. Dragons are born as a dragon, not human. Look!"
Duncan looked down at Aliah, hoping she hadn't heard her father's hateful words, but Aliah's body was too far gone. She was focusing her entire being on holding their daughter as life quickly drained from her. Duncan picked up their daughter so she could relax. Once Duncan held their daughter, Aliah's arms fell like heavyweights against the stone.
"Aquilla. Her name is Aquilla," she said.
Duncan nodded and rocked the wailing baby girl. He stayed as close as he could to his wife as he held Aquilla.
"Aquilla," he promised.
"Yes, Aliah," he responded immediately. "Have you come to your senses? This child is an abomination. Look, she was born human."
Duncan braced himself to defend his family, but Queen Lilah beat him to it. She slapped the King's face.
"Now, is not the time for your ignorance and purist beliefs. Our daughter lays dying on the ground, and all you can think to do in her last marks is to say, 'I told you so?' No, you will not do this in front of me. You will listen to her and do whatever she asks of you. Then you will tell her you love her. You two will not part in hate. I won't allow it."
The King looked at his wife for a long mark before he nodded and kneeled near Aliah's head.
Duncan kept rocking Aquilla, who continued wailing in his arms. Lilah came to take her, and he reluctantly let her go. Her grandmother cooed and rocked her while Duncan looked between his daughter and wife, lost in grief. But he would not leave Aliah alone with Asthmoth.
"Father, please do as Duncan suggested. I knew my death was a possibility, but I wanted this baby. I wanted a child with my mate, and I regret nothing. Now, it is time for you to put aside your notions of human versus dragon and try to unite both races so we can all survive the troublesome times to come. I know you love me, but I will not ask you to love my child. You can decide the relationship you will have with your granddaughter. Goodbye for now father, I will be with the Great Dragons now. My dying wish is for you to help my mate and all of you live on. Please help my mate, father."
Duncan watched as Aliah's eyes closed, and her body shimmered, changing for the last time to her dragon. Her dragon roared. Her roar was deafening to his ears and echoed throughout the cave. The villagers outside heard. They were quiet, but now, they were yelling and threatening his wife. Duncan placed a hand on her golden scales. He sobbed into her body. The rough texture of her scales prickled his face. He cried until he felt her body shiver and then, nothing. She had no more breaths to give. She was gone. Lilah kissed her daughter's long nose, tears pouring from her eyes.
It wasn't until then he realized he wasn't the only one who lost today.
Asthmoth voice boomed. "We must act now. Duncan, take your daughter. Lilah stay next to me. We are leaving now! Aliah sacrificed herself for our lives. We will live on."
Asthmoth looked around. Grief clouded his eyes. He lifted his chin and yelled his battle cry, for himself, for his daughter, for their future, "For valor, we lift our fire with courage!"
They ran out of the cave and into the waiting mob.
Asthmoth yelled to the mob, "We killed it. We killed the dragon and got away!"
The mob crowded them, cheering their victory and herded them to safety. Duncan held on to Aquilla, only letting her go to feed. There was a new mother in the mob who said she had milk to give. Duncan watched her feed Aquilla. They were sitting around the fire, discussing packing up and moving to the next place they heard dragons were sleeping.
After a while, Asthmoth sat next to him. Asthmoth followed Duncan's gaze.
"What will you and Lilah do next?"
"Lead these people away from mine."
Duncan nodded. "That's smart."
"Every land needs a leader; this one and humans are no different. I will teach you, humans, civility."
Duncan didn't know how he would manage it, but Asthmoth was a powerful force in his own right. He was someone you either fought or him. Duncan figured one reason they didn't get along was that Duncan didn't fit into either of those scenarios.
"My opinion of you and that monstrosity has not changed. My daughter asked me to save you and the baby, and so I did, but I want you and that thing to stay far away from my family and me. If I catch either of you near my wife or me, I will kill you and that child. She is only another human to me."
Duncan nodded. He wanted nothing to do with dragons ever again. Asthmoth took one last look at his daughter. "For valor, we lift our fire with courage. I will never forget your sacrifice, never, daughter."
"If that is your choice, I will not fight you on it, and I will obey your wishes."
He and Asthmoth dropped into a charged silence. The fire crackled in front of them. The woman who fed Aquilla was pushing her breasts back into her tunic and stood. She walked Aquilla to him and handed her to him. He took his daughter into his arms, and his world righted itself.
Asthmoth stood and looked down on them. "Remember my words," he said before striding away, and he never looked back.
“Father, tell me the story again.”
“The story about Damascus and Priscilla?”
“Yes, that one.”
Duncan reached down and mussed his daughter’s thick brown hair. “No, it’s bedtime, and all good little girls are already sleeping.”
Aquilla pouted. “I’m a good girl,” she said, then mumbled, “but I’m not sleeping.”
“Then, you aren’t a good girl, are you?”
“I am,” she said incredulously.
“Aquilla, I will tell you the story tomorrow night. We have a lot to do tomorrow, and if you plan on being my helper, then you will need lots and lots of rest.”
“I will be your helper. You promised I could.”
Duncan smiled. “And I meant it, but if you don’t sleep, then, I don’t know if you can be my helper tomorrow.”
Aquilla tucked her head beneath her heavy covers. He heard her muffled voice through the heavy covers say, “I’m already sleeping.” She began snoring loudly from under her covers. Duncan laughed before he pulled her covers down to her chest.
“Lift your arms.”
She did then dropped them over the covers. “Good, you are all tucked in now. All you have to do is close your eyes. It’s time to dream about princesses and princes, like all the other little girls.”
“I won’t dream about princesses. I want to dream about the finest sword ever made and the best battle ever fought!”
“Okay, but you can’t fight in the battle, and you can’t touch the sword, not even in your dreams.”
“But I’m a big girl in my dreams.”
“Okay, my little Lily, as long as you are a very, very big girl, and you’ve learned how to use a sword.”
Duncan scratched his chin and wondered how did tucking his daughter into bed turn into discussing battles and swords?
“Close your eyes, Aquilla.”
She did. Duncan waited for a few marks before he left Aquilla’s room. He walked into the living area of their small cabin and sat on his rocking chair. Duncan ran his hands over the smooth wood made from one of the smaller trees that surrounded their cabin this deep in the forest. He made this rocking chair when Aquilla was a tiny babe. Back then, she wouldn’t fall asleep unless she were in his arms, Duncan hadn’t minded at all. He loved holding her close to him. Sometimes he felt if he didn’t, she’d leave him like her mother. Grief pricked his heart anew at the thought of his wife.
Aliah would have loved it here, he thought.
Just like Aquilla loved it here, not that she’d known any place other than here, and Duncan had no desire to introduce his sweet daughter to the evils of the world. He wanted her to live a carefree life. The sound of a light knock disrupted his thoughts. Duncan straightened and reached for his blade. He stood with his sword firmly in hand and walked to the door.
Duncan lifted the door up and to the right because, during this time of the sun cycle, the door swelled from the heat. When the door opened wide, he bowed and moved aside to let the queen into his home.
“Is she asleep?” Queen Lilah asked.
“Yes, she fell asleep around a half a turn ago.”
“Good, I brought her more clothes. They are sensible clothes this time, oh, and some shoes, so her little feet don’t get a scar. Humans can scar, even from a simple cut. You must be careful,” she said in a way that made Duncan believe she studied humans and determined they were fragile, and this recent revelation regarding her granddaughter’s fragility frightened her.
Duncan nodded. “Thank you.”
Lilah pushed past Duncan and walked straight to Aquilla’s room. She stood over Aquilla’s bed and watched her sleep. “I don’t have long,” she whispered hurriedly over her shoulder as Duncan entered Aquilla’s room behind Lilah.
Duncan knew that Lilah could yell at the top of her lungs, and Aquilla wouldn’t wake. She was a deep sleeper, sometimes she slept so deep Duncan worried for her. He’d mentioned it to Lilah during one of her visits. Lilah only grinned at him and said, “It’s a dragon thing.” Her words did nothing to soothe his mind, but as time passed, Aquilla’s deep sleeping went into his mind’s bucket of unique things about Aquilla.
Lilah bent down and ran her hand through Aquilla’s hair. She frowned when her fingers tangled in Aquilla’s hair. Duncan grimaced, she would yell at him again.
Carefully, Lilah untangled her fingers from Aquilla’s hair. “I told you, you must brush her hair before she goes to sleep and when she wakes up. Otherwise, she will have knots, and her appearance will be more akin to a banshee than the granddaughter of a queen. This will not do, Duncan, and I’ve told you this before.”
In Duncan’s defense, Lilah had never tried to hold Aquilla down to brush her hair. Aquilla was as slippery as a snake and strong as an ox, which went into his mind’s bucket of things that are uniquely Aquilla, but Duncan wanted to defend himself.
“Lilah, I try, but she fights me like a madwoman. She’s small, but she’s stronger than she looks.”
Lilah smothered a smile. “She is so like her mother. She also hated when I brushed her hair, but as she was a child and I was an adult, I won those fights.” Lilah gave him a pointed look before moving past her reprimand.
“Is she learning her letters?”
“Yes, she hates that as much as she hates for me to brush her hair.”
“Well, if she will ever get one of those handsome well off human boys to notice her, she will learn her letters and brush her hair.”
Duncan grimaced. “Boys? Over my dead body.”
“Trust me. If Aquilla is like her mother, she will step over your dead body to go out with the boy of her choice.”
The light atmosphere changed and Lilah sighed. “In my granddaughter’s five short sun cycles, I have never seen her eyes, and those eyes have never seen mine. I hate coming in the middle of the night and leaving without her ever knowing I was here or knowing that I exist. She is my daughter’s legacy and being separated from her breaks my heart. She is so precious to me. One day she will know me.”
Duncan remained silent. Speaking would only add to her pain. He knew her night visits directly defied her husband’s commands. Every time he thought of what she risked to secretly see the granddaughter, King Asthmoth called a monstrosity, and blight to his lineage humbled him. She valued Aquilla more than the fallout that would happen if Asthmoth ever found out she was stealing moments with Aquilla. Duncan glanced at Lilah and saw the sheen of unshed tears as she stared down at Aquilla.
Quickly, Lilah stood and turned her back away from him. She wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. She ran her slightly shaking hands down her long purple silk dress, pressing out any wrinkles before turning to face him. By the time she faced him, her tears were dry, and her expression composed.
“My husband and King Athel of the Eastlands are fighting over where his border begins and where King Athel’s end, again. My husband insists this time, if King Athel doesn’t agree with him, there will be war, so if he goes to war, maybe I can have time during the day with Aquilla.”
Duncan nodded. “Perhaps, but for your husband’s sake, I hope there isn’t a war, and for your sake, I hope there is.”
“That is a strange contradiction, Duncan.”
Duncan shrugged. He didn’t want to crush her hopes by saying what was on the tip of his tongue. He wouldn’t remind her of all the times war was on the horizon but never reached the gate.
Lilah turned back toward Aquilla and lightly brushed the back of her hand against her cheek. “I must go. Keep my granddaughter safe.”
“With my life,” Duncan said.
Lilah nodded. With one last look at Aquilla, she turned and left Aquilla’s room. Lilah didn’t stop until she reached the door.
“Until next time, Duncan, be well.”
“You too, my queen.”
Lilah walked out of the door and stepped into the warm and humid night. Suddenly, she stopped. “Duncan, you have no queen, there’s no need to make a fool of us both.”
Duncan didn’t deny it. He held no allegiance to anyone’s Kingdom. If he had to fight, he would only fight to keep his daughter safe. Lilah disappeared into the forest. Duncan turned his head toward the skies, and within a mark, he saw a large silhouette of a dragon streak through the sky. There wasn’t a human alive who could see a dragon at night if the dragon didn’t want to be seen, but Duncan, the mate of a dragon, was a little less human and a bit more dragon.
The next morning, Duncan heard Aquilla’s voice before he saw her turn the corner. Every morning she said the same six words, and every morning, his pride swelled, grateful to the gods, they blessed him to be her father.
“Father, Father! Your daughter is awake.”
Aquilla turned the corner and grinned before she jumped up with the full expectation he would catch her. He did, and he wrapped her within his arms and kissed the top of her head before he sat her down at the table.
Duncan turned to the makeshift counter and grabbed the bowl of porridge that he cooled for Aquilla. He sat Aquilla’s bowl in front of her, and she grabbed the wooden spoon and shoveled the porridge into her mouth.
“How is my favorite daughter this morning?”
Aquilla turned her nose up, her cute face marred with anger. “You have another daughter?”
Duncan tried but failed to hide his grin. “No, it was a joke.”
“It wasn’t funny,” she said, pouting before she went back to giving her porridge her full attention.
Duncan shook his head. His shaggy brown hair tangled within hers when he bent down and kissed her cheek.
“I thought it was funny.”
Aquilla spoke around a mouth full of porridge. “You always think your jokes are funny even when I don’t.”
Duncan took a seat across from her and looked at his daughter. She was beautiful. She had so much of her mother’s beauty. Then he looked at her hair and grimaced. It was apparent she hadn’t bothered to brush it before she dressed. “Did you brush your hair today?”
She ignored him. It was something she’d begun doing lately when she didn’t want to lie to him.
“Aquilla, did you brush your hair?”
She stopped eating and stared at him. Her golden eyes bore into his soul. Sometimes Duncan thought he saw someone ancient staring back at him when he looked into the depths of his daughter’s hazel eyes. Those were her mother’s eyes, just like she had her mother’s narrow nose and full lips. The only feature she’d had of his was her unruly hair.
“No, and I don’t plan on it. My hair is fine.”
Her hair was not fine. It was sticking up in the back and tangled on the sides. Her hair was anything but fine.
“Aquilla, after you finish eating, you will go back to your room and brush your hair.”
“I hate brushing my hair, father,” she whined. “Please, don’t make me do it.”
Duncan held his hand up. His palm faced Aquilla.“You are a young lady, and you must take care of your appearance.”
Aquilla shook her head, vehemently disagreeing with him. “I’m a warrior. We aren’t boy or girl, just brave.”
Duncan ran a hand down his face. Not for the first time, he wondered if he should have tried to teach her more womanly traits. Duncan hadn’t thought about it before. He said what he thought would work to get her to listen, which to his dismay, was the same thing he would say to a solider. Duncan winced. She wasn’t a soldier; she was his daughter.
“Well, warriors still brush their hair and polish their armor and weapons. Warriors take pride in their appearance.”
“They do? Really?”
“Look at me. My hair is brushed, and I polish my sword every night.”
Aquilla looked at him for a long time. He could read her thoughts from her expressions. She was deciding if she wanted to believe him. Her features relaxed, and he knew she’d decided. Aquilla smiled brightly and nodded once.
“I will brush my hair. I want to be a polished warrior too.”
“Or a pretty girl.” Duncan quipped, and Aquilla frowned.
Duncan washed the dishes in a bucket of icy water he brought from the nearby stream. Aquilla was inside, brushing her hair. He could hear her screams of pain from where he stood outside.
“This is your own creation, Aquilla,” Duncan said to himself as he tried to convince himself that he shouldn’t run into the cabin and break the dreaded brush in half.
Duncan went back to scrubbing the dishes using a bushel of pine. He heard another scream of pain from Aquilla. The branch to the bushel of pine broke in his clenched fist. Duncan sighed, luckily he finished the dishes before he rendered the bushel useless. He placed the bowls aside to dry before taking them into the cabin.
Duncan rubbed his wet hands down his tunic and sat on the stump he used to chop wood. His thoughts drifted to his daughter. He thought of a future where his daughter was a woman grown, talks of being a warrior were dust in the wind, a phase she grew out of. He already mourned her innocence as she learned more about life, about people, and the gods help him, about boys. Perhaps, in a few years, she would tell him she wanted to sew or began taking over the cooking while he skinned the meat. Yes, Duncan thought, she would become interested in these things because these are things all women are born to do, they want to do them as much as they want to marry and have children.
No matter that Aquilla didn’t have a mother, somehow her body would show her how to be a proper woman. He was sure of it. Eventually, she would become a woman on her own. For now, if she wanted to be a warrior, she could, and then, when she changed her mind, he would encourage her.
Duncan felt better. There wasn’t any harm in her playing as a child before she became a woman. He smiled at the thought of his wayward warrior following him around the forest and kicking her small legs up. Duncan stood, he had a little warrior to retrieve. It was time for their day to begin.
It hadn’t taken Aquilla long to finish brushing her hair after she got started. Then he gathered their things, and they left to hike the forest. As they walked, Aquilla couldn’t stop talking. She asked him every question she could think of as soon as they came to her.
“Father, why must we walk so far into the forest to find good wood? There’s wood right outside our house, why can’t we use that?”
Duncan looked down at his little follower. Her face was turned up, looking at him, waiting for him to answer her. Aquilla’s five-year-old face was flush from their exertions, but she was doing great. Duncan smiled proudly. By the gods, he loved his child.
“If we use all the wood around our house, then how will we hide from our enemies? We need the trees to keep us covered, plus, hiking every day, makes us strong.”
“I want to be the strongest!” Aquilla yelled.
Duncan winced. He didn’t think being strong was something women should want.
Duncan sat their pack down. He shivered from the feel of the crisp breeze on his back, which was wet with sweat. Duncan sucked fresh air into his lungs.
He opened his arms, soaking in everything the forest had to give. Aquilla rested nearby against a tree. Her feet were perched atop of their pack.
Aquilla looked up at him. “Do we start now?”
Duncan walked over to her. He shook his head and sat next to her. Duncan pushed Aquilla’s feet off the pack.
“No, now we rest from the long hike to get here. Aren’t you exhausted?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m not tired. I can keep going.”
“I can’t. I need to rest, and then we can begin. How about a snack while we catch our breath?”
“I want a snack,” Aquilla said excitedly.
She sat up, and Duncan untied the bag and reached inside. He pulled out some dried deer meat and an apple then handed it to her.
She took the dried meat and began gnawing at the edges, completely discarding the apple. Duncan picked up the apple and put it back into the pack for later. She would eat it once she ran out of meat.
Duncan sat back against the tree with Aquilla and ate his meat. Looking out, Duncan watched the clouds as they moved away from him. It was as if he was in a painting, standing still while the skies moved around him. This far up in the mountain, it seemed like he could reach up and touch the clouds. The vibrancy of life surrounded them. He closed his eyes and listened to the many different sounds of birds talking high in trees, the rustle of small animals in nearby bushes, and the low and distant growls of predators stalking prey.
Duncan loved it all. Out here in the forest, he and Aquilla were far away from the palace and the intrigue. Far away from the horse carriages that filled the narrow walkways, the scandalous garments and heavily perfumed women of wealth. Most important, they were far away from the king. Duncan didn’t miss any of it. He didn’t miss the desperate yells of the merchants out to sell wares to keep food on the table or the day drunkards who harassed men and women who had the misfortune of crossing their paths. No, the silence and the sounds, the look, and the feel of wild, untamed nature was far better.
When Duncan looked down, thinking to try giving Aquilla her apple, she wasn’t there. Quickly, He stood and looked around the tree where they rested. His heart slowed down at the sight of her behind the tree. Someone else would have marveled at Aquilla’s ability to be as silent as a fox, but not him. This was another unique thing of Aquilla’s.
Duncan watched her closely. She was stalking something in a bush. Aquilla tilted her head to the left then to the right. She haunched her back and braced herself on the balls of her feet. Then she leaped into the bush, fearless of the unknown. Duncan tensed, ready to protect her if she’d somehow stumbled upon something dangerous.
Relief flooded him when Aquilla’s fox jumped out with Aquilla fast on the fox’s heels. Usually, he would consider a fox near dangerous, just not this fox. Aquilla and the fox in question had been inseparable from the time Duncan and Aquilla stumbled upon him abandoned by his mother soon after birth. Duncan could only think that after his mother birthed him, a bigger predator came, and she ran, leaving her baby behind. When Aquilla saw the abandoned fox, she demanded they help it. She stood by the fox’s side every day until he was nursed back to health, and every day since then, the fox found his way to their doorstep.
“Father, Fox is here! We will hunt rabbits for dinner.”
Duncan shook his head. “No, we have food enough. We should only hunt when we need food and respect the lives of all the creatures in the world by only taking what we need and giving back when and what we can.”
“Like when we planted the seeds for the new tree?” she asked.
“Yes, exactly like that. We have taken many trees. We should try to grow what we can when we can.”
“Okay,” she said and rubbed her fox’s belly. It was an odd sight. He’d never known a fox to want its belly rubbed.
“Are you ready to help me spar?”
Aquilla jumped up, then sank into a fighting stance, her tiny fists balled and eyes focused. Duncan took that as a yes.