I hope you enjoy this beginning to Serenya's Song, Book Two in my stand-alone fantasy romance series. And here's the song that inspired it, if you'd like to play it while you read...
Sheffield, northeastern corner of Leogardian province, 1 Ganviel, LV324 (the 324th year of King Leopold Vaeloria’s reign)
Douglas Barnaby kicked open the swinging door to the clinic, afraid Alina was already dead in his arms. “Help! Somebody, help her please!”
Rain poured off his hat brim, streaming onto his young wood-elf wife. He glanced down at her ashen face. She was still alive, but her once-sparkling blue eyes, now dull and weak, pleaded with him to save her. Rain soaked through her bloody cotton gown. The fabric clung to her pregnant belly. Red water dripped on the polished oak floor.
Lightning flashed behind him, blanking out the faces of the clinic’s workers. He finally recognized Valene, matron of the clinic, as she ran toward them. Three assistants hovered nearby.
Her trained eyes quickly scanned Alina’s body. “Take her over there—to that gurney.”
She gestured toward one of the wheeled contraptions that lined the circular main room. In two quick strides, he reached it and gently laid Alina upon it. “Hold on, sweetheart, please hold on.”
“How long has she been in labor?”
“I don’t know exactly. She woke up screaming this morning. She wouldn’t let me bring her. She tried…” He paused to catch his breath and choked on the words. “She tried to push, and the blood started. Can you help her?”
Valene instructed the others, pointing to each one in turn. “Nivell, Bonette, wheel her to room one. Willa, prepare the birthing kit. We have to get the baby out, or they’ll both die.”
Alina, his treasure, his love, turned her pallid face his way as they sped her down the hall and disappeared through the first door on the left. He followed, but Valene stopped him before he stepped through the threshold.
“Not yet,” she said. “You’ll have to wait out here.”
Valene shut the door and pressed her back to it, scowling at Douglas as one might look upon a suspected criminal. Through the room’s windows, all he could make out was a blur of movement. Helplessness wobbled his knees. He fell limply against the wood-paneled wall, thankful it kept him from hitting the floor.
“Help her please.” He twisted his wet hat in his hands and wept.
Valene placed a firm hand on his arm. “We will do all we can. It looks as though she’s already lost a lot of blood.”
Her accusing eyes melted the last of his resolve, and he slid down the wall to the floor. For the first time, he felt like an outsider among this community of wood-elves.
“The baby’s not mine,” he choked out. “Just save Alina. Save my wife. Please.”
Guilt washed over him. Over the last six months, he’d looked forward to being a dad. He knew he’d love Alina’s baby like his own, because it would be a part of her. But now, if he lost her, he’d have to raise the child alone. How would he feed it, clothe it, raise it up to be a decent wood-elf? He was a mere human. The child would outlive him by centuries.
Valene knelt beside him. “Stay here, Douglas. I will call you in when we get them stable.” She motioned for one of the two security guards who stood watch by the entrance. “Stay with him.”
She slipped into the room as the wood-elf guard took her place. The guard’s fingers tapped an unsteady rhythm on the hilt of his sword. Though small in stature, he squared his shoulders and fixed Douglas with a stern gaze. Douglas glanced up and offered a weak smile. The guard did not return it.
Alina’s scream sent Douglas scrambling back to his feet. The shrill, desperate cry reminded him of a trapped animal fighting for its life. The guard’s hands held him fast. Douglas tried to pull away. He caught flashes of Alina’s limbs through the delivery room window. She was kicking like crazy.
He peered over the guard. “What are they doing to her?”
Valene, Nivell, and one of the others knelt in front of Alina’s bent legs, trying to stanch the bleeding and remove the baby. Light flashed off metal instruments. Blood-soaked rags piled on the floor.
“Alina!” Douglas broke away from the guard, but the other sentry intervened. They both restrained him. All he could do was to plead with them and hope to invoke their mercy. “Please let me go. That’s my wife in there!”
An ear-piercing scream exploded from Alina, so shrill it blurred Douglas’s vision for a moment. Her heel slammed into Valene’s nose. Blood dripped from the woman’s nostril, mixing with the blood already soaking through the mattress on the pine gurney.
Valene made eye contact as Douglas strained against the guards. Hand over her nose, blood seeped between her fingers as she hurried to the window. She yanked the curtain shut.
A second later, she ran from the room, a clean rag pressed to her injury. Her voice was muffled. “If we move too fast, she and the baby will die. Stop screaming and try to stay calm. She’s hysterical.”
She returned to the room. The thick, metallic smell of blood wafted through the door. The guards backed Douglas against the wall and held him there. Their expressions softened, but it didn’t change the fact that his wife and child might be dying and he couldn’t even be there to comfort her.
He finally relaxed under the guards’ hold. Their hands gradually relented, but they stood ready at his sides, watching him warily.
Alina gave one final, piercing scream. Then silence.
He could stand it no longer and couldn’t swallow back his tears. “Please, just let me be with my wife.”
If Alina or the baby or both of them were dying, he had to say goodbye. The guards glanced at one another and nodded. Douglas burst inside, with the guards right behind him. Everyone stared at the bundle in Valene’s arms.
Valene rubbed the baby vigorously, trying to stimulate the child to breathe. The matron looked desperate. A bloody, limp arm dangled from the fabric.
Douglas stared at the baby’s hand, unsure if the sight before him was some optical illusion. Sharp points a half-inch long tipped each finger. Claws? Was that common for a wood-elf baby? Was it dead?
The baby finally cried. Valene examined the child. Her face contorted in horror when she inspected the baby’s hands. Douglas’s heart sank. No, claws couldn’t be normal. Something was wrong, horribly wrong. Quickly, she swaddled the child, covering her initial reaction with a shaky smile. He went to Alina’s side. She smiled and reached out her arms. Valene handed the baby to her, only its head visible in the blood-stained blanket.
Valene’s voice wavered. “Y-you have a baby girl, Alina. What do you wish to name her?”
Alina’s arms were too weak to hold the baby. Douglas steadied them, and helped her cradle his stepdaughter to her chest.
“Serenya,” she whispered. “You are loved, sweet one, never forget it.”
Serenya’s little cheek nestled against Alina’s collarbone and brushed against the charm on her necklace. From somewhere outside, a roar like a raging fire startled everyone, followed by bright yellow light that flooded in through the lobby and into the hall. The guards brandished their swords and raced toward the sound.
Alina looked up at Douglas, her chin trembling as she struggled to speak. “Don’t let them take her. Get her away from here, far away. They are coming.”
“Who, Alina? Just tell me who it is! I’m your husband, damn it.”
Six months they’d been married, and he’d lived with her paranoia of someone finding them. Her distrust pinched his heart, made him hate his anger as he faced the burden of losing the only woman he would ever love.
Alina kissed the baby as tears rolled from her eyes. “Forgive me, my child.” She looked at Douglas. “I love you. Run.”
Her eyelids fluttered.
“No!” he ordered, hoping to force her survival with the intensity of his voice. “Alina? Alina!”
With one last breath, Alina closed her eyes. Her arms fell away from the baby. Douglas picked the child up in his arms, tears wetting his cheeks. He allowed himself one look at Alina’s daughter. A cherub’s face looked back at him. Swirls of black hair adorned her head. Blue eyes, pale as draeberry wine and just like her mother’s, blinked and squinted into the clinic’s lamplight.
Valene checked Alina’s pulse. “She’s gone,” she whispered. “I’m sorry Douglas.”
He swallowed his sorrow and steeled himself for what must be done. “Do you have a back door?”
“Yes, but, where are you going?”
“We have to get out of here. But first…” He leaned over Alina and kissed her pale forehead. He was glad he could leave while she was still warm. She’d always been warm—warm of body, warm of heart, warm of soul. He couldn’t imagine her lying cold, alone in a grave. With one arm clutching the baby to his chest, he reached out his other hand, grasped the chain on Alina’s necklace, and yanked it off her neck. “Serenya needs something to remember her mother.”
He stumbled along behind Valene, on her heels as she led him down the hall. He looked over his shoulder toward the lobby, where the guards had pulled the heavy barrier doors closed and barred them. Blazing light poured through the lobby windows. Dark silhouettes zipped past the panes. Douglas squinted. Webbed wings? Drakes perhaps, miniature cousins to extinct dragons, setting fire to the village. The rangers usually dispatched them before they did much damage.
Someone screamed. Glass shattered. A severed head rolled across the floor.
Drakes didn’t decapitate people.
“Gods save us.” Douglas flew past Valene and out the back door.
She called out from the threshold, “Douglas, wait! Where are you going? What’s happening?”
But he ignored her and ran. Maybe Alina had been right. He had to protect their baby, even though he didn’t know what he was running from. Through the darkness, past the towering ebonwoods of the northern Wildewoode, he ran with Serenya.
What am I doing? We might have been safer inside. Too late now.
His foot hit a patch of mud, and down they went over an embankment, slipping out of control. He did his best to keep the baby on top of him, straining every muscle to stay on his back. They kept sliding, ferns whipping his cheeks, rocks and fallen branches cutting through his pants. He ignored the pain, focused his eyes ahead, and tried to plant his feet on something—anything stationary that could stop their descent.
They slid off the embankment and into the river. The week’s heavy rain had filled the waterways. Water rushed around them, over them. He lifted the baby over his shoulder like he might carry a sack of grain, hoping she would inhale more air than water. Desperate to find footing, he prodded downward with his feet, but they failed to meet anything solid. The river swept them along, only Omri knew where. Muddy water choked him, filled his ears, and burned his lungs.
His body cycloned in the water until all sense of direction was lost. The only thing he could do was try to keep breathing, try to stay afloat. Serenya’s tiny body was warm against his chest, but he had to grab hold of something before she drowned or died of hypothermia.
Jagged lightning streaked across the sky, showing glimpses of his surroundings. They were no longer spinning; the river swept them toward a bridge. Douglas kicked his legs behind him, paddled with one hand. He had to reach the nearest pier before they were swept beyond it.
With a loud cry, he propelled himself at a pier, his fingers catching hold as the river did its best to pry him from his stone savior. He gripped and pulled, until he and Serenya were sheltered by the structure, where it broke the torrential flow of the river.
Douglas caught his breath. He lowered her from his shoulder and eased his cloak and her blanket away. The lightning granted him a peek. She moved. Still alive, thank Omri. He exhaled with relief. Legs numb, and arms aching, he took several breaths and pushed off the pier. He swam to the shore and crawled up the rocky beach. They would find somewhere to settle, a small town where no one knew them and no one could find Serenya. Somehow, they would survive.
Douglas huddled beside the bridge where it met the road. A roadside torch burned in spite of the rain. He stared at Serenya’s tiny, peaceful face and realized he was missing something vital.
The necklace. I’ve lost it!
He had it in his fist when they first ran, but now it was gone. It could have been anywhere between here and the embankment, or in the river itself, lost forever. Serenya was all he had left. He bit back the sob welling up in his throat. There was no time for grief. When he saw a passenger coach speeding across the bridge, he jumped in front of it.
“Whoa!” the driver bellowed as he pulled the four-horse team to a halt. “What the hell are you doing?”
“My daughter and I, we have to get out of the rain. Please!”
“It’s two gold a mile.”
“Sir, I have nothing. I ask for your mercy. Just take us to the next town, and we’ll find our way from there.”
The driver hesitated, but his expression softened when Douglas pulled back his cloak, revealing the blanketed bundle.
He scrambled down from the driver’s seat. “She’s soaking wet. She’ll freeze to death if we don’t get her dry. Wait here.”
The man ran to the rear of the coach and opened a trunk. He pulled out a few blankets and scarves, then hurried back to Douglas and opened the nearest door to the passenger compartment.
He motioned to a velvety-cushioned surface. “Here—lay her on the seat.”
Douglas obeyed, but held his breath as the man quickly stripped the wet blanket off Serenya. He dried her with another, and swaddled her in two scarves. If he’d noticed the baby’s hands, he hadn’t shown it. He swaddled her again with another blanket and handed yet another one to Douglas. It was surprisingly warm in his hands.
The driver stood back. “I keep hot coals under the trunk to get ‘em toasty. I don’t have any passengers now, but you have to get out at the next stop.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you.”
Douglas climbed inside with Serenya. She whimpered, so he rocked her and sang the only lullaby he knew as the coach began to move.
“Babarune, Babarune, he sang to the moon...”
The coach took them away from Sheffield, away from Douglas’s hopes and dreams. They rode through the forest, into the inky blackness of night, destination unknown. He never looked back.
To be continued...