Heavy grey clouds hung from the sky, taunting, but still refusing to release their water. The land had been dry for years. The drought was hard on everybody, but especially on Ayam's people, whose meager produce was heavily taxed by the Goran king, leaving almost nothing for themselves.
Amyra watched the sky warily from her position seated on a wooden cart laden with blankets and jars, pulled by her husband. She rested her hands on her heavily swollen belly, wincing a bit when the cart bounced over a rock in the road. The wood groaned alarmingly, but she knew her husband's craftmanship would never break so easily.
Fasoj looked over his shoulder to check on his lovely wife. "Sorry," he apologized, referring to the bump. Although they had been travelling for three days, he still pulled the cart as if it weighed nothing at all. Amyra, though, looked strained. Her hair hung in limp blond strands over her face, and there were faint lines under her eyes. Still her smile was as beautiful as ever, and it enchanted him as it had the first time he had seen it.
"We will reach Avdi tonight," he promised. "Then you can have a real rest."
Amyra knew this, but hearing the words gave her comfort.
The traffic on the main road was thick with travellers. Donkeys, horses, carts, and people on foot flooded the path. The Goran king had decided to uproot Ayam's people again, forcing them all to move to the towns of their ancestors so they could be properly counted and taxed. Fasoj's family came from the small town of Avdi, a day's walk from the capital, Zechar, and four days' travel from Amyra's home.
Amyra was excited and terrified - she had never been so far from home. She missed her father terribly, even if he was sometimes overprotective. At first her father had insisted that Amyra stay home to have the baby, and let Fasoj go to Avdi alone, but they didn't know how long he would be gone, and Amyra felt Ayam wanted her to go with her husband. She knew she would have to leave her home sometime, and a spirit of adventure tugged at her heart.
The grey daylight began to fade, and many travellers lit torches. They would all have to spend the night in the nearest village, and rooms would be scarce.
Suddenly Amyra voiced a cry of pain, clutching her stomach. Her face twisted and she gasped. Fasoj gently dropped the arms of the cart and rushed to her side. "What is it? The baby?"
Amyra gasped again, but put her hand on his shoulder. "Keep going," she whispered, "we're nearly there."
Fasoj's expression was worried, but he picked up the cart again and began to walk faster, eyeing the fading sky nervously. Amyra breathed heavily, but still managed to create a strong white light in her palm to light the way.
Finally they approached the gates of Avdi, illuminated by two blazing fires on either side of the road. When they saw Amyra, the guards let the couple pass straight away.
Amyra moaned quietly, and Fasoj raced to the nearest inn, fear providing renewed strength. When they reached it, though, the owner apologized, eyeing the moaning woman pitifully, but assured them that every room was full. He gave Fasoj directions to another inn, warning them that it was probably full too.
It was, and Amyra was starting to scream in pain. Fasoj smoothed her hair away from her face with a shaking hand. "It's going to be okay. Ayam is with us."
"Come with me," a voice said from the shadows.
Fasoj looked up to see a woman with dark, greying hair and warm brown eyes, which sparkled in Amyra's magic light.
The woman acknowledged Fasoj's surprised expression with a grin. "No, I am not a fair-haired follower of Ayam, but I have a place where you can stay."
Fasoj did not ask any questions, but followed her a little ways to a large building at the center of the city.
"My name is Brea," the woman chatted as they walked. "I occupy the building that used to be the old school until they recently built a new, larger facility. The rooms here are filled with families, but I cannot turn away a woman in childbirth. There is still room where I sleep, in the shed where the animals and supplies are housed.
Between grunts of pain, Amyra managed to whisper, "Thank you."
Brea showed them to the shed and promptly left. They could hear the woman barking orders at her servants.
Inside, the shed was filled with sacks of flour, stacks of parchment, barrels of water, piles of hay, and at the far end were some tired-looking donkeys that probably belonged to some of the travellers, tied next to an old milking cow. Beside them was a lumpy mattress and thin blanket, which clearly served as Brea's bed. Fasoj prepared a pile of straw, lining it with a blanket, and carefully helped his wife out of the cart.
She continued to gasp for breath, but tried to smile at him, gratefully. Her face and hair were soaked with perspiration. Her dress was stained with sweat and fluids. Fasoj found another blanket and rolled it up to make a pillow, placing it behind her head.
Brea bustled in, armed with blankets and a steaming bucket of water. Another servant trailed behind her. She took one look at Fasoj's pale face, and knowlingly advised him to go fetch some tea for his wife. He sent one last worried glance to Amyra, then fled the room.
Brea kneeled next to the labouring girl and pressed a wet cloth to her forehead. "I know you're tired, but now you must push, child."