Cain stared at the shadowed ceiling above their bed. It was almost time to start the day that he didn't want to face. It wasn't the near mutiny of yesterday that triggered this sense of dread. Like an annual before, when everything conspired to have DG confront the witch inside her sister, now everything conspired to have DG face the Nome King. His common sense screamed at him to get her away. She'd get hurt and their baby would never be. You didn't send the helpless into danger. He-of all people-knew she wasn't as helpless as she looked, but that didn't make him feel any better.
DG turned, as if his thoughts had disturbed her sleep. She looked down at him in the dimmed lantern light. "Is it time to get up?"
"You got a few minutes more."
She hummed and traced a pattern on his bare chest. "What's wrong?"
"Doesn't look like you're enjoying it much." She smirked, returning his taunt from what seemed like ages ago. "Do we have time for me to take your mind off of it?"
He cocked his scarred eyebrow at her. "I think we've got time for you to try."
She slid her bare body over his and moved up to capture his lips. Even that simplest of intimate touches made him groan into her mouth. She giggled as she propped up. "How did we survive this long without this?"
"Because it was just surviving, not living." His hands stroked up her thighs to cup her backside. "I prefer the living." Her lips fell to his neck and chest as he squeezed and caressed her body. "Especially with you."
DG threw her head back with a gasp when he rubbed the small of her back. Cain slid his hands over her ribs to capture her breasts. Her brilliant blue eyes blazed. "They are not separating us, Wyatt. I don't care if it starts another civil war, I will not lose you."
"It shouldn't come to that, sweetheart." He ran his thumbs over her tightening nipples.
She moaned and her stubborn expression eased. "Things go better when I'm decisive, so I'm being decisive." She rocked her hips against him, and made him harden more for her. She shimmied away from his hands and down his body, trailing kisses along the line of hair down his abdomen.
"I love you being decisive." He groaned as his muscles spasmed. Her fingers curled around his erection. "Darlin' girl, I want to be in you."
"I don't want to deny you anything." She crawled over his legs and sank onto him. He panted, luxuriating in her slick heat. She arched her back and ran her hands over her breast and stomach. Her hands dipped down on her body and he caught them against her hips, holding her in place. "You don't like the show?" she asked.
"I always enjoy your show." He caressed her hands but didn't let them go. "I love you."
DG bit her bottom lip. "Is that what you were worried about?"
"No, sweetheart. I want to hear you say it."
Her cheeks flamed. "I love you," she whispered.
Cain let go and stroked her clit as she rose and fell. Her breathing hitched into gasps as the flush spread over her body. "I know you love me, DG." His strokes made her moan. "But I want you comfortable saying it too." Her head fell back as she cried out with her orgasm. He shook, holding back while DG recovered.
She draped herself over his chest. "I'm trying, Wyatt."
He pulled her face up for a kiss and rolled them over while their lips were locked. He stared into her deep blue eyes. "I'm here 'til the end of the road, my Princess." He thrust into her.
She moaned but looked conflicted. "Please, don't call--"
Cain interrupted her with another thrust. "My wife." DG moaned again and wrapped her legs around his hips. He marveled at how she accepted that title and nibbled her neck and shoulder. Her hands clawed his shoulders and his thrusts sped up. She fell apart a second time when he bit her shoulder with his own climax. He remembered to soothe it with a lick and kiss before rolling to his back and pulling DG closer to his side.
He opened his eyes when her fingers stroked the stubble along his jaw. "What's bothering you? Me being so messed up?"
She focused on the headboard wall. "Normal people say how they feel. You have to force it out of me because I'm terrified it'll disappear if I say it."
He kissed the palm of her hand. "Normal people never went through what you have, sweetheart. But what I was worried about was letting you walk straight into danger again."
Her startled eyes flew back to his. "Oh. I meant it when I said I'm sticking to you like glue."
"And I believe you. I worry, even when I know there's no point to it."
"It's healthy to acknowledge your flaws." She kissed him. "We better get up before they come looking for us."
The rest of the morning went according to routine. DG helped Betsy adjust the course, and then helped him with breakfast. Supper was started and he was using the remains of the sandwich ingredients for lunch, when Spencer jumped down the forestairs. Sprite must have gotten a hold of him, because his facial bruises were gone. "Come up and see!"
Cain let DG climb up first and Spencer pointed ahead once they reached the foredeck. An island with a mountain summit loomed out of the water. Greenery covered the lower rocks, but soon the jagged peaks surrounding the main broke free of that covering. "My gods," Cain said, "it's huge."
Spencer nodded as he leaned against the railing. "Rock Fort in all its glory."
DG shivered and hugged herself.
"Are you cold?" Cain wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
"I shouldn't be." She pressed against Cain's side still shivering. "Something about that place…." Her voice trailed off as she stared at the island ahead.
Spencer frowned. "Is your magic sensing something?"
"I don't know." Her gaze didn't leave the island. "It's not just cold. I don't know what it is."
Cain rubbed her arm under his hand. He wanted to help her identify it, but without magic himself, he didn't know how. "Does it feel like anything you've felt before?" He clenched his jaw. Now she'd think about the cave.
"Not the witch or the cave." She looked up thoughtfully, not fearfully, and he relaxed. "It doesn't feel evil. Magic still weirds me out and that place is flooded with it." She nodded at Rock Fort.
"Let's get your jacket." He steered her down to their room. DG went straight to their chest and dug through the other clothes for her worn jacket from the O.Z.
Dani peered up at them from her nest. "What's going on?"
"We've almost reached Rock Fort," Cain answered, "and DG got cold."
Dani clucked to herself, but loud enough for them to hear. "Only got up to six. I hope that's enough. Billina only had two, but that's just a legend."
"Enough for what?" DG shrugged on her jacket.
The chicken ignored the question as she took flight and landed on Cain's shoulder. He ducked in surprise, but her talons dug in. He pursed his lips and stared at Dani best he could. "What are you doing?"
"Going with you. I want to see it." She smoothed her feathers back into place.
"And you don't ask before taking a ride?"
Dani's orange eye peered into Cain's blue one. "Do you?" She tucked her head back when he didn't answer.
DG's eyes danced, but she managed not to laugh. She held the door open. "Shall we go back up?"
Cain didn't reply to either of them as they returned to the deck. Spencer did a silent double take seeing the chicken on his shoulder. Rock Fort loomed closer. "By Billina's moltings," Dani muttered, "I see why they named it Rock Fort."
Spencer jumped. "The chicken?"
"Talks," DG finished. "Dani, this is Spencer. Spencer, Dani."
"How do you do?"
Spencer muttered something that sounded like a hello. Cain thought it best to put the dark-skinned boy's mind on something else. "How long before we reach it?"
"Within the hour. We'll probably circle the isle first, looking for a dock or a settlement."
Spencer proved right. They circled the island, but the land never met the water in a beach nor was there a welcoming boardwalk. The only entrance into the isle was a gaping maw into the side of one of the cliffs. Water flowed into the cave that was large enough for the tall ship to sail into.
DG furrowed her brow. "I don't think they want visitors."
"Really? I got that from the whole tearing apart the mainland story myself," Dani said.
Betsy heaved the wheel and the You and What Navy? went inside. Cain held his breath, but sunlight filtered into the cave through skylights cut through the stone high above the main mast. Whatever paned them caught the light and broke it into tiny rainbows.
DG gasped as she craned back her head. "I think they used diamonds for their windows."
"It could be quartz," Dani suggested.
"Maybe. It's sure not glass."
Spencer pointed ahead as he shouted to the crew. "A dock on the starboard!" The wall smoothed into a long wharf above the water, complete with cleats to tie the ship to. It ended in a tunnel stretching further into the mountain. You couldn't see into it past the shadowed opening thanks to the skylights' arrangement. The crew scurried to bring the ship alongside the wharf, but without the singing like they had enjoyed at Kingsport.
Dani's beak grazed Cain's ear. "We're going to need my eggs."
"You keep saying that. We might be inclined to believe you with a reason."
Dani clucked, but Betsy called out before the chicken answered. "Mr. Cain, can you see to overnight provisions for six to seven, at least?"
He nodded before turning to DG. "Stay with Spencer." She nodded with a serious expression.
The chicken let him find a canvas pack among the cooking supplies and load it with essentials before beginning again. "Leave room for the eggs."
"Alright." He seized Dani with both hands. Her talons let go of his shoulder as she squawked. He set her on the table and fixed her with his best glare. "What the hell did this Billina do with two damn eggs that you're hoping to recreate?"
She blinked her orange eyes. "Billina saved the entire O.Z. envoy in their second encounter with the Nome King."
"Good for her. How?"
Dani flapped her wings, but Cain didn't budge. She tilted her head. "You humans have a tendency not to save the last resort for last and start with it instead. I'm afraid I don't know if any of you will behave any differently."
Cain tucked his thumbs into the belt. "Fair enough. But when it comes to DG's safety, I don't like leaving things to chance."
She scratched at the table with her talons. "How do you feel about a margin of error? The damn story might not even be true and then where will we be?" Cain frowned and shook his head. Dani clucked again. "I want you to survive this too."
He picked her up and set her back on his shoulder. "Fine, I'll pack your eggs."
"Thank you. I know that wasn't easy for you to decide." She sounded sincere, so he only grunted as he went down to their room. The eggs fit in the small cooking pan, cushioned with one of his new shirts. Dani kept her beak shut.
They found Spencer and DG had moved with the rest of the crew closer to the main mast where Betsy and Jenkins handed out weapons. "This is not a raiding party, men." Her brown eyes fixed the crew with a death glare. Her hat was already set on her head. "Save the bullets and steel for self-defense. Nobody has dealt with gnomes in ages, but they're called living rock. Bullets and steel might not hurt them."
Laffite crossed his arms above the butt of the gun stuck in his belt. "What about grenadoes?"
"The grenadoes are coming with me." Betsy lifted a smaller wooden box out of the weapons trunk. "Morgan, Drake, Spencer, I'd have you with me but it's your choice."
Spencer's jaw dropped and the older men looked slightly less stunned. Spencer shook his pulled-back mass of black hair. "I'm not passing this up!"
Drake and Morgan both grinned and agreed. Betsy opened the wooden box, and passed out the belts with fist-sized globes attached to the leather. She glanced at Cain, and passed one of the belts to him, keeping one. "Are you sure bringing the chicken is a good idea?"
"She insisted," Cain said.
"It's a volunteer mission and I'm volunteering." Dani leaped from Cain's shoulder to DG's, and stayed latched on despite DG's surprised jump and shake to dislodge her. "But I need a disguise."
"And I look like I have a chicken costume shop in my pocket?" DG pulled her hair away from the feathers. "I wasn't taught to conjure items."
"Glamour me. But no turning invisible. I want you to see me when I'm talking to you."
"I wasn't taught how to do that either!"
Dani shook her head. "You are stuck in a need for schooling. Luckily, I learned a few tricks in the Shaman's chicken coop. Step away from the others." DG did, but not too far from Cain's reach.
Betsy ignored the Chicken's antics and turned to Jenkins. "Give us two nights. If you haven't heard any different, sail out of here."
Jenkins wiped his moustache. "I shouldn't have to tell you I don't like this part of the plan."
"Someone has to make sure a new hole isn't blown in one of the walls. Too bad it falls on you." A smile broke across her face. "We'll be back tomorrow. But just in case…."
"Don't say that," he interrupted, "you'll put a jinx on the whole damn thing."
Cain swore he saw tears in Betsy's eyes. "It's been an honor to sail with you, you curmudgeonly bastard."
His blue eyes blinked rapidly. "The honor's been all mine, you ill-tempered bitch. Take what you can."
"Give nothing back." The pair tapped fists together and Betsy saw DG and a skinny bird with a huge curved beak sitting on her shoulder. Bright red feathers covered the head and breast, running down to midway on the back where a line of yellow feathers separated it from the bright blue feathers that ended the wings and started the base of the red tail feathers that almost reached past DG's backside. Betsy giggled and pointed at the strange bird. "Ready the sails is code for yes!" She laughed harder at the dumbfounded expressions on everyone before heading to the gangplank.
"What the hell was that about?" The strange bird demanded in Dani's voice. "What did you make me look like?"
"A scarlet macaw," DG answered with her puzzled eyes focused on Betsy's back. Dani poked her neck with a toe. "Ow! It's a parrot, a very pirate bird, okay?"
Sprite carried two bulky portable lamps and joined the group at the gangplank. She gave one to Spencer and one to DG before falling in. Concern replaced Betsy's mirth. "I'd rather you stay on board with Jenkins."
The Viewer girl shook her head. "Not leaving Captain." Her white shirt bunched up under her crossed arms. "Can't make me stay."
"You know the drill." Betsy ruffled the shaggy golden hair and Sprite beamed. She looked at the rest of the group. "Let's go explore."
The stone the wharf was carved from was rough under foot but smoothed heading into the tunnel. The tunnel extended into the heart of the island and was lit with long cylinders of the clear gemstone. The smooth, light-tan rock walls reflected enough light so they didn't need to turn on the portable lamps.
Cain found himself in the center of the group. Drake and Morgan brought up the rear, his usual guard position. Betsy led with Spencer on her point. DG moved to Cain's side. "They don't seem to have much fortification," she said in a low voice so to not echo.
His lips twitched. "How much is needed when the island moves every night?"
"Well, true." DG looked flummoxed. "I guess I expected someone called the Nome King to have a more castle-like residence." The tunnel made a right turn ahead.
"That's assigning him human decorating tastes," Dani said.
"Also true," DG conceded.
The group rounded the corner. Thirty four-foot-high humanoids stood in formation blocking the path. Glittering steel armor inlaid with jewels covered their squat bodies. Instead of helmets or hats, they wore bands holding small portable lamps centered on their foreheads, thankfully all turned off. Each of them had a sword strapped around their waist and carried a spear or a battle axe. The leftmost gnome raised his arm, and the troop leveled their spears at the humans.