This is ridiculous, Asher thought as Gredir returned to their table. The Ranger had a triumphant smile on his face as he approached. He slid into the seat in front of Asher and said, “I convinced the innkeeper to give us the best room available for a low price. We’ll rest for the night, and then head out in the morning.”
Asher nodded, keeping his gaze on the warped tabletop. He shifted in his seat, bringing his cloak tighter around his shoulders. He shivered, his body cold even though the room had to be eighty degrees. It was evening in the middle of summer, and the farmers of Berafell had come in for a drink before heading home. The room was dark and loud, filled with the booming laughter of workers.
It had been nearly a month since Miren Diréthe fell, and two weeks since Asher and Gredir left the capital. He had been asleep for a fortnight, unable to awaken. His magic kept him under, struggling to keep him alive. When he had finally awoken, it was to a great shock. Marjhen had slipped away, and Shey had disappeared.
He grit his teeth, his brows furrowing in frustration. He had been terrified when he learned Shey had likely been kidnapped by a Yiddan slaver. When he volunteered to find her and bring her home, Gredir, Faerdan, and Quinn had all disagreed. They told him he had to travel east, to Terathen. Asher and the Rangers had argued for hours, until Asher became too exhausted to fight anymore.
Finally, Faerdan looked the prince in the eye and said, “If you don’t go, you will die. And then you won’t be able to do anything to save Shey, and the next time she sees you, if at all, you will be a ghost. Is that what you want?”
It wasn’t. So, Asher grudgingly agreed to leave Miren Diréthe, to go to Terathen to learn how to tap into his magic. Gredir offered to go with him, and Asher had no choice but to accept.
Unfortunately, as he traveled, he became ill. His veins ached as the magic struggled to break free, and he couldn’t keep any food or drink down. It was all he or Gredir could do to wake him in the mornings. They both feared that Asher wouldn’t awaken one of these days before they reached Terathen.
Gredir sighed, running a tired hand down his face. “Asher, you need to eat something,” he said, staring pointedly at Asher’s untouched bowl of stew.
Asher groaned and shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut. “I can’t,” he said. “I’ll just be sick.”
The Ranger sighed again. “Fine,” he said. “At least drink something then? Water? Tea? Hells, even coffee would be better than nothing.”
Asher shook his head again, slowly. “Can’t,” he murmured.
Gredir nodded, though there was a frantic look of desperation on his face now. “Very well,” he said. “Let’s get up to the room, then.”
Asher nodded. He struggled to command his limbs to move, and when they did, he felt as if he were walking through a puddle of mud. He moved slowly, gingerly. Gredir watched, a pained expression on his face, as Asher made his way to the stairs. Gredir stood and joined him, hovering at his back should Asher need any help.
By the time they reached the top of the stairs, Asher was gasping for breath. He leaned heavily against the wall, his legs shaking. This is absolutely ridiculous! He thought furiously to himself as Gredir moved past him, leading the way to their room. Not too long ago, he had been a strong, fierce warrior. Now, he was nothing more than a helpless babe.
Asher staggered down the hall. When he reached their room, Gredir helped him to the closest bed. Asher sunk down heavily onto the semi-comfortable mattress, staring into the mirror that hung on the wall before him.
I look like death, he thought as he stared at his reflection. He was skinnier than before, his dark blonde hair grown long and limp, the sweat-soaked strands sticking to his face. His face was sallow, the cheekbones sticking out prominently against his ashen skin. His clothes, which once fit him like a glove, now hung off his limbs in heavy folds.
He turned his gaze away, shutting his eyes against the image. He lowered himself onto the bed, shivering violently. He wrapped his cloak tightly around his shoulders, and after a moment, he felt Gredir lay a blanket across his body. He shuddered and pulled the edges closer, drifting off into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, Asher felt well enough to eat a few small bites of the inn’s porridge. It wasn’t much, but Gredir was thrilled. Asher grinned at his glee. If he could just survive until they reached Terathen, until they made it to the Katona Tribe, he may just make it.
While Asher picked at his food and Gredir nursed a mug of coffee, a group of traveling merchants entered the tavern. They sat at a nearby table, and after they gave their orders to a young servant girl, they turned to each other and began conversing in low tones. Asher ignored most of the conversation, until a comment caught his attention.
“I’m tellin’ ya,” a burly man with black hair and a thick beard grumbled. “I know what I saw, and what I saw was a dragon!”
Asher and Gredir shared a sharp look. They both tilted their heads in the direction of the merchants, listening to their conversation more intently.
“You’re lyin’,” a weasely, greasy-haired man snapped. “Ain’t no dragons in the Land anymore. The Dark King saw to that.”
The burly man shook his head. “I’m tellin’ ya,” he repeated, much more intently. “It was a dragon! I saw him, flying this way from the Dúndan Mountains. Dragons have returned!”
“Really, Jon?” a third man said. His hair and beard were brown, and he was in desperate need of a bath. “If you did see a dragon, then what color was he?”
“Red,” Jon replied instantly. “He was as red as a ruby, and he’s coming this way!”
The other two men grumbled, shooting down Jon and his exclamations that he did, in fact, see a real, live dragon. Asher and Gredir shared another look, and this time Asher felt a blossom of hope in his chest. A red dragon? There was only one red dragon he ever knew existed, and he belonged to his bastard half-brother, Kieran.
Kieran’s come home, Asher thought giddily. Then he frowned in thought. If Kieran had returned, then why was he flying east? Why wasn’t he returning to Miren Diréthe? He had to have heard by now that Marjhen had disappeared, and the capital was controlled by the Rangers and Asher’s rebels. He was free to return home.
The merchants had long since slipped into a different conversation, but Asher’s mind still reeled. He glanced around the room, noticing a lone figure sitting in a corner booth. The man was dressed in brown, black, and green, his brown cloak wrapped around his shoulders and his hood shrouding his face in shadow. He smoked on a pipe, the tendrils of smoke curling around his head. To anyone else, he would have seemed calm and relaxed. However, Asher could see that the lines of the man’s body was taut, ready to spring into action at a second’s notice.
“It’s time we’re on our way,” Gredir said as he set him empty mug down on the table. He glanced at Asher’s bowl of porridge and grunted, though a smile crept onto his face. “You ate more than yesterday,” he said. “That’s good.”
Asher nodded. “I suppose so,” he said. He pushed himself to his feet, pleased that he hardly swayed. He followed Gredir to the door of the tavern, glancing over his shoulder just before they left. The man had disappeared, and if it weren’t for the smoke that still hung in the air, Asher would have thought the man had never been there at all.