Despite Keelor’s protests, Atty took the baby from her and settled the infant into her carrier.
“Atty, you’re going to get yourself killed! And the baby, too!”
Atty halted to face her sister. “I don’t expect you to understand, Kee. Yulen is my life. He is my reason for living.”
“But why take Mistelle with you? She’ll only weigh you down!” Keelor wrung her hands in frustration and looked to Paxton to help back her. “This is crazy talk! Warren, tell her she’s going to get of them both killed!”
Something in Keelor’s voice made Atty pause. Turning, she glanced at her sister, then at her second to find them exchanging glances. An undercurrent of emotion flowed between them, and when realization hit her, it struck like a club to the side of her head. But instead of saying anything about it, she went back to making sure her saddle was cinched up tightly on the mare.
“I may question Atty’s actions at times, but I’ve never doubted her motives,” Paxton informed the young woman. “If she says Yulen’s in trouble and called to her for help, I believe her one hundred percent. And I’ll be right beside her to go after him.”
“But, to take Mistelle? Why would you deliberately endanger your child?”
Atty abruptly turned to confront her sibling once more, making sure Keelor saw and understood her determination. “How do we know for certain that Bloods won’t infiltrate or overtake this compound while I’m away? I have a connection with my children almost the same way I can feel my husband. I cannot be miles away fighting for him and with him, and be struck with the knowledge that my baby has been killed. Don’t think I made this decision lightly, but I trust my instincts and my abilities to protect this babe far better than if I left her here. Plus, she still needs my milk.” Atty tapped her chest for emphasis. “Not long after Mattox was born, our compound was overtaken by Yulen’s half-brother. I sent our son away, thinking it would save him, but we both suffered. I can’t begin to explain to you how much we both suffered. I will never make that mistake again.”
A shout drew Atty’s attention to the Mutah warrior running up to her. “Word is you’re leaving Wallis to go after the Battle Lord.”
“That’s right, Serphus. Did you get your orders saying we’re leaving you in charge of the troops here?”
The man bobbed his head. “Yes, but I’d rather be going with you.”
Smiling, Atty grabbed the man’s arm and gave it a squeeze. “I would be honored to have you with us, but I need someone I trust to handle the reinforcements here. If Balinkar feels you are best qualified to lead our hunters and warriors in his absence, so do I. Can I count on you?”
The man gave another nod. “I’ll not let you down. Safe passage, Atty. To you and the Battle Lord.”
She thanked him as Paxton motioned behind her. “We’ll be at the east gate when you’re ready.”
“I won’t be long,” she promised and turned back to Keelor as the second hurried away.
The two sisters stared at each other for several seconds, until Keelor held out a small package. The young woman was trying not to break down, but her trembling lower lip betrayed her feelings.
“Here’s extra nappies and another outfit. Trusha made it, and I think it’ll be too big on Mistelle, but at least you have another clean outfit for her.” Before Atty could put the items into her saddlebag, Keelor wrapped her arms around her sister and held her tightly. Her whole body shook as she fought the tears. “I can’t lose you just when I found you.”
Hugging her with one arm, Atty placed a kiss on the woman’s cheek. “You aren’t losing me.”
“You don’t know that. You can’t promise me that.” Keelor reared back to stare at her accusingly. Her eyes were red with unshed tears. “You’re all the family I have left.”
Atty tried to give her a comforting smile and tucked a strand of hair behind one fairy-winged ear. “Kee, whatever fate holds for us, we must face it with dignity and bravery. But beyond that, we must fight for those we hold most dear. For those we love beyond measure. Yulen is my heart and my very existence. He is my deepest and only love. You, Mattox, and Mistelle are a part of me, and I will give my life to protect you. But you must understand that I cannot sit idly by when my husband calls to me, no more than I could ignore the cries of my children when they are hungry, or hurt, or need my attention. You will stay here until it is safe for you to come to Alta Novis. I don’t know how long that will be, but when it is, I will send someone to fetch you and bring you there.” Giving her sister a kiss on the forehead, she disengaged herself from the woman’s embrace, wrapped the reins around her hand, and led the mare to the east gate where Paxton and the others were waiting.
“Which direction?” her second inquired. “Are we heading for a specific compound? Or going straight to Alta Novis?”
She glanced over to where a guard stood beside the side doorway which opened out into the wide expanse of cleared ground surrounding the outer walls. “I’m sensing in the direction toward Alta Novis, but I’m not so sure—”
Pain sliced through her with burning agony. Atty cried out, unable to keep herself from falling as she fought to remain conscious. Darkness fogged her vision as her knees gave way. There was a hard jerk on her arm when the reins she still clutched stopped her descent to the ground, but her mind was not aware of her physical reaction.
More pain, sharp, knifing, went through her. She moan as she waited for more to come. She didn’t have to wait long. When it struck her again across her back and bare buttocks, she threw back her head and screamed.
Arms wrapped around her. Voices filled with concern spoke to her, yelled at her. Hands shook her. It wasn’t until Mistelle’s wails filtered through the layers of anguish that she managed to reemerge into the present. Someone held her up as the reins were unwrapped from around her wrist, then she was gently sat onto the ground.
She wrapped her arms around her daughter and buried her face in Mistelle’s sweet warmth. In her baby scent. In the total innocence squirming in her embrace.
“Atty!” Paxton tried to shake her shoulder. “Atty, speak to me!”
Shakily, she finally managed to hold up a hand, signaling for a moment or two to steady herself.
She wiped her face and eyes on the baby’s blanket, but her emotions remained attuned to wherever her husband was. To the torture he was enduring. It had felt so real, she wouldn’t be surprised if she bore superficial marks on her body.
Clutching Mistelle closer to her, she opened herself again and tried to send Yulen whatever comfort she could, however small. I’m here, my beloved. I’m here, but not for long. I’m coming for you. Just hold on. Keep fighting. Stay alive, Yulen! Stay alive!