I stumbled onto the shore and nearly fell into one of the spikes laid out to prevent the creatures of the mudwaters from traveling far. Arion caught me by the back of my cloak with a glare.
I sighed but said nothing. It’s amazing how much bad luck you could have while sitting on a raft and doing nothing at all. Just as I’d suspected: quite a lot. I had dropped my bladder into the water, almost fell off thrice, found a leech the length of my middle finger attached to my arm, ate the only piece of meat that had started to rot on the inside which had me ill for three days, and I had even fallen through the perfectly sturdy raft at one point on my one dare to try and stand to stretch my legs.
Luckily, my bad luck did not extend to the others, so during our three weeks of travel, we did not run into any other deadly creatures. Except a hydra, but it was so young it was more intent on playing with us than eating us, its necks tangling together in excitement upon seeing our raft.
First, I wondered how everyone could not possibly be aware that I was under the curse of a bad luck spell. How could we have come from a witches’ home and then I suddenly have the most clumsy, uncoordinated body, yet they not know or at least suspect something?
But over time, I realized they thought I was simply needing a fix. They blamed my clumsiness on distraction and shakiness. Everything else they blamed on my lack of attentiveness. Therefore, they said nothing of my odd behavior and simply stopped me from rolling off the raft in my sleep and watched warily as I drank their water for fear I lose their bladders as well.
It was beginning to wear off now, I was sure, but seeing as I’d nearly impaled myself, it was apparently still gripping onto my ankles, lingering as long as it could. I was glad only a drop or two had gotten into my mouth; this had been a powerful spell for it to be lingering for as long as it was. If I had gotten more into my mouth, no doubt it would have killed me.
I eyed the spikes and gripped Arion’s arm a bit tighter, just in case it still could. Arion’s mind seemed to be of similar thought because before I could make the move to pass them, he simply lifted me up then carried me around the spikes, setting me down on the other side with an irritated huff.
With our bags on our shoulders and our weapons on our hips, we trudged on.
This wood we walked through was a rare one in the North, it was quiet and simple and genuinely normal. There were wolves and bears amidst the trees, but those creatures were nothing in comparison to what we could have come across in the past, so it was peaceful.
I walked warily however, dodging the occasional root and stumbling over my own feet.
We walked in this gentle wood for three days. Each day, I felt my stomach tightening in knots of excitement.
We were almost there.
The more excited I became, the grimmer the others seemed to get, as if I were sucking the good mood out of them.
Right when I was beginning to strain my eyes ahead for the sight of the base of the mountain, we abruptly stopped.
I tripped and slammed into Rian’s back. “Why have we stopped?” I asked as Rian turned to steady me reflexively. “It’s barely past noon, we can reach the mountain before nightfall.”
“You’re not going near that mountain in your state.” Arion told me as he began setting up camp by way of making a fire. Jazera was already heading off into the trees with her bow to catch up.
I let out an exasperated sound. “Look, I’m fine!”
Arion raised an eyebrow, but instead of arguing, he bent and picked up a pebble, tossing it to me. I went to catch it and it somehow slipped through my fingers, hitting me square on the nose. I rubbed it, grimacing. Maybe he had a point.
There was a small stream nearby which I went to bathe at. I stripped myself of my clothes while I still wore my cloak, keeping it to cover me. I washed myself as best I could, then began to scrub my filthy clothing. Washing weeks-worth of filth from the worn cotton and leather both with a vengeance.
I gasped and jumped at the voice – Shadows were quiet, no matter how much time I spent around them. I made sure my marks were covered before I turned to see Arion holding a sopping wet shirt out to me. My shirt. I sighed – it must have floated off somehow.
“Thanks.” I pulled my hood up a bit more before reaching out to take it. “Too bad I lost my extra set of clothing in the mudwaters.” I grumbled, mostly to myself.
“The sun should dry it out before night falls. It’s warm enough.”
By warm, he meant not quite cold enough to freeze the stream, but I nodded with agreement. “Spring is almost here.” I said in reply.
He nodded as well but was otherwise silent. I sensed something in that silence, however, and braced myself before asking, “What is it?”
He pursed his lips a moment, but then sighed and spoke his mind. “I had been wondering before on how you would pass the hidden gates in the Black Mountains without magic of your own, but I suppose with you having witchblood–”
“It doesn’t work like that.” I cut him off. “Those gates are sealed with elven magic, so only powerful elven magic could break it, unless you know the codes, however.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And you know the codes?”
“I know how they work.” I clarified. “The codes change with each movement of the sun, so it needs to be entered at the time of passing, but I know how to do it, yes.”
He did not look pleased by this information. Did he really have so little faith in me that he believed I would mess up something so little as a gate code? I felt my anger rise without my intentions and I decided to ask him, snapping out the words and throwing out my hands for emphasis. “Do you really think so little of me that you – ow!” When I had thrown my arms out in frustration, my hand knocked a low-hanging branch hard enough to make my fingers grow numb.
Arion raised an eyebrow as if I’d proven a point again.
I gave up, shooting a glare at him before I grabbed my soaked clothing and headed back to camp.
Later on, with fresh deer meat drying in the sun or cooking over the fire, we all sat around comfortably for the first time in our weeks of travel. It was the first time that there was no serious danger, and we were all trying to distract ourselves on the deadly dangers that would come in the next few days. We had gone through Eastwood and the mudwaters, yes, but we had gone through during the safest seasons possible.
There was no such thing as a safe season in the Black Mountains. There was no safe anything in the Black Mountains.
I almost felt guilty for the dangers I would put them through, but I pushed my guilt aside; my kingdom was at stake, and I would not waver from my path, no matter the cost.
I wouldn’t think on it. Instead, I observed how odd it was to see the Shadows acting so… normal.
Aitch decided after some time that the night was too quiet and began humming a tune. Rian grinned and went to his pack, pulling out a small reed flute which I hadn’t even known he carried. He immediately picked up the song, much to Aitch’s enjoyment. Jazera laughed, grabbing Arion’s arm and yanking him up to dance. Aitch looked to me with a mischievous grin, but I shook my head immediately – no way was I risking dancing around a fire with this curse running through me.
But Aitch didn’t listen and grabbed my hand, yanking me to my feet with a rumble of a laugh. He was so large that our size difference was comical, but that didn’t stop him from spinning me around to the sharp, quick, melody of the flute under Rian’s talented fingers.
I had never danced before.
Oh, Jovian had taught me how to dance proper dances of course, and made me practice between training, as I would need to know how to dance when I was the crowned queen. But he had never taught me this. Never this hectic, care-free dance of random turns and silly footwork that had no steps nor count and very little grace.
I soon found myself grinning. Even when my hood fell back from my face and my curls went free, I didn’t stop to fix it. Not this time. My marks were covered and these people around me had already seen my face – I would take these few moments that I was gifted and enjoy it while I could.
When I tripped and I fell directly toward the fire so quickly that only Arion’s quick reflexes saved me from serious injury, I was still grinning. So high was my enjoyment that when Arion glared down at me with impatience, I could do nothing but laugh at the familiar sight. It was a sound that came out with simple joy and amusement, with none of the stressed or mocking undertone that my laughter usually held.
I had never laughed like that before.
“Good reflexes.” I managed to stumble out through giggles.
As he set me on my feet, his face changed from irritation and impatience to confusion and... something else. Something I hadn’t seen on his face before. Something that made me blush and step away from him to cover my head with my hood again. Though I wasn’t quite sure why.
I sat next to Rian, avoiding Arion’s gaze, while Aitch hummed to the tune again, his deep humming going well with the wafting treble of the flute.
Later, the music stopped, and Jazera finally allowed Arion to sit down. When he did, his eyes met mine again, that same show of confusion on his face and so I looked away quickly, embarrassed at being caught watching him.
But fear flitted through my senses. Why the confusion? Had he seen my marks? Had they not been covered up completely and he recognized my face? Somehow, I knew this was not the case though, but I couldn’t quite understand any other reason. Why had looking at me as I laughed caused such a reaction?
Rian and I had a conversation through our sloppy-yet-evolving way of communicating, but my mind was mostly on Arion. And when night fell and we lay down to sleep on the cold, hard ground with Rian on one side of me and Arion on the other as per usual, I felt a tension running between us that hadn’t been there before.
When I woke the next morn, I felt different. Lighter somehow, and I knew the curse had finally lifted. It was confirmed when I went to the stream, dressed fully, applied the ointment, gathered water, and not once did I nearly get killed in some freak, outrageous accident.
“I’m ready to go.” I stated proudly upon my return.
Arion barely glanced up from when he was checking the dried deer meat, and only briefly. “No.” His tone matter of fact.
I glared down at him, whatever odd behavior that had sprung up between us the night before disappearing in a flash of irritation. “I’m fine today. I’m completely back to normal. I won’t get myself killed.”
He mumbled something about doubting me and I stamped my foot to get his attention. “I’m fine.” I insisted again. “We can go to the mountains.”
He didn’t even bother to look at me, but I could hear his glare. “It’s going to be hard enough to keep myself alive in there, never mind a junky witch in need of a fix.”
I finally snapped.
I yanked my sword out. He heard the sound, recognized it instantly, and reflexively went for his own as he leaped back, on his feet in an instant. But I was already bringing the blade down and so he was forced to block with no time to dodge or even fully steady himself.
Still, in a great show of talent, he managed to push upward, trying to throw me off balance. I twisted into the movement just as Jovian taught me and used it to put my force into a strike on his side, which he dodged now that he was up on his feet.
I gave him no time to counteract.
Feigning left, I lunged right, slicing at his side again and this time cutting through his shirt and cloak but not the skin on purpose. Then, I twisted beneath his own strike which I predicted by the movement of his shoulder and left foot, then cut his shirt across his chest, once again avoiding the skin. As he leaped back once more, I lunged forward, going for his neck.
He blocked it an inch from his skin. His eyes were wide, not in fear, but in shock.
I held it there a moment before I spoke.
“I. Am. Fine.” I insisted with a hard tone. Remaining still for another moment to emphasize my point, I stepped back and put the sword away with a clean and practiced movement. ”Stop underestimating me.”
His eyes were still wide. Shock evident. He had not expected me to be as good as I was. And though Jovian had told me a thousand times to never bare my sword unless I was prepared to kill the one I bared it to... I found myself wishing that it had done this long ago.
Jaz and Aitch were just as shocked, but Rian whistled and grinned at me when I turned to him. He did not seem nearly as shocked as the others. Was this friendship, I wondered? Was it expecting the best from each other?
Or was Rian simply more intelligent than the others?
I would think on it later.
“Pack your things.” I told them firmly. “We head out within the hour. The entrance to the mountain is difficult to find in the dark, so I wish to be there before night falls.” I looked to Arion. “You have guided us thus far, but I am the one with the map and codes in my head. It is my turn to guide you. All I need is for you to keep me alive so that I’d can do so.”
I was almost relieved when his face turned back to that familiar glare, but Aitch spoke before he had the chance to yell at me. “She’s right. We have no idea what we’re doing, and clearly the little one is fine. May as well pack up.”
After the small wood, there was a short marsh filled with the deadliest of creatures that had leaked out of the caves over the years, but we passed through it quietly without any problems.
After that, as the sun was lowering in the sky, we climbed the mountain. It was a high cliff but with easy handholds and secure places to rest, giving the illusion that we were going to a safe place.
Then, finally, we stood before a mouth of pale stone.
The Black Mountains were not named for its colour, but for what resided within it. That pale grey with smooth edges around the mouth instead of jagged, and that calm orange light of sunset reflecting prettily into the cave made it seem peaceful. Beautiful even.
None of us were fooled.
“Are we really going to do this?” Jaz wondered in a whisper, fear clear in her tone for the first time since I had met her.
In reply, I stepped forward into the dark, entering whether they followed me or not.
Arion cursed and started after me. The others, too. And after a few paces, the peaceful beauty disappeared, and we were surrounded by blackness that gave off the eerie feeling of dread and no escape.
The darkness swallowed us.