I dragged myself onto the muddy shore, coughing and gagging out the murky water, checking my pockets to be sure I still had all the items I’d taken, especially the light-crystal which I’d set on a hunt for in the treasury for specifically. When I realized that, minus a few handfuls of gold I was forced to throw out beneath the water so that I wasn’t so weighted down, all the important things were all still there, I relaxed and let out a slow breath.
But Arion yanked me to my feet by the back of my cloak. “This was your fault!”
I opened my mouth to reply but he would not let me speak.
“Rian is dead because of you! You had what you wanted, but you just had to have more! Didn’t you?”
I felt my throat tighten in guilt... but I was angry, too. “If you had let me go to him, I could have saved him with the gem!”
“You would have been killed if you tried!”
“Right, and you couldn’t risk losing out on all those dragon crystals, right?” I snapped, my voice a sneer I had yet to hear come from my mouth. “You risked his life for riches, at least I did it for something useful.”
His face went red, in anger or embarrassment, I couldn’t tell. “It wasn’t because of the dragon crystal you—”
Aitch, suddenly standing at his side as if he’d been there the entire time, clapped Arion on the shoulder hard and shook his head, then motioned pointedly with his chin. “Now is not the time.”
We all looked and saw a man about a mark down the shore, standing by a cart of snakeskin, positively gaping at the four of us. No doubt but he was a hunter, judging by his cart, but I doubt he has ever seen anyone leap from the mountain.
I only saw this man with great relief – he had horses.
I started across the field, going around the large pond – no longer a lake but luckily still deep enough so it hadn't killed us all on our leap. It looked even worse now that I was out of it; I grimaced at the thought of what I could have been swimming with as I tugged the hood tightly over my soaking hair and pulled the leather glove out of my pocket, slipping it on with a yet another grimace; I’d nearly forgotten about my marks during the shouting match with Arion. Judging by the look of my hand, the ointment never came off completely, but there was no way of knowing for sure. Besides, I’d rather keep it covered up.
Though admittedly, the weather wasn’t as terrible as I would have suspected, even dripping wet. We’d been in the mountain for less than a week, but it felt like it had been for months as the air was warm with spring already and no snow was to be seen.
The man was definitely a hunter – one who hunted the more dangerous creatures for their skins or poison to sell. He was still gaping as we approached. “You... you came from the Black Mountain!” He exclaimed in shock, then he frowned and went for his bow as I began unhooking his cart, “What you doing, girlie?”
I paused long enough to toss him a purse before I went back to what I was doing, “For your troubles.” I told him. “We have urgent need of your horses.”
Perhaps he would have argued under other circumstances, except the poor man was left to more gaping, revealing several holes between yellowing teeth. “These are all dragon crystals!”
I ignored him as I mounted the horse, the Shadows did the same to the others silently, leaving the hunter with none. Then we took off across the field, leaving the hunter to pick up his jaw behind us.
The ride was a quiet one.
The Shadows seemed solemn, and though I knew most of the reason was because they lost Rian, I suspected a good lot of it was because they’d lost most of their gold in the jump, having been forced to part with much just as I had because it was too heavy to swim with. They still had more than a lot in their pockets of course, but not as much as they had to start and not nearly as much as they thought they’d come out with.
We were the first to have entered the Black Mountains and survive, but it didn’t feel like a victory.
It felt like a job had been completed but at a very high price – the price of a friend.
But not to me.
My heart ached for my friend, yes, but the White Stone was wrapped tightly in leather and hanging from around my neck now. It was lighter than a rock should be, even compared to the locket hanging next to it holding my fathers’ final note, but that slight weight felt wonderful.
I wished that Rian were alive. I knew I would miss him and mourn him for a long time. But this was my kingdom I had just received. Or rather, a large piece of what would be needed to take it back. Not only the Ruberous Faun which would keep me healed from any injuries Marqis dealt me in the fight, but more importantly, I finally, finally had the White Stone.
No one knew what the White Stone did, of course, but everyone knew that it was the Grey Stone’s equal. It had the same amount of power stored inside it, but it was a lighter magic. Light as opposed to dark, not as opposed to heavy.
I also knew it bonded with a bloodline, just as the Grey Stone, and though I wanted that power now, it would only awaken my own powers and that would be extremely dangerous for me to do because any magic which I produced would be immediately sensed by the Grey Stone and, therefore, Marqis. So, for now it would remain covered and hidden... but like a sword sheathed, it was there for when I needed it.
But even with this great power, I feared I was still not powerful enough. Jovian had feared it as well, which was why I needed to part with the Shadows.
Not that they knew that yet.
First, we would reach the road so that I knew where it was that I was going. Like the mountains, I had a map in my mind, but it would only do me any good if I could reach the starting point.
When we stopped for the night, this was the time when I felt Rian’s presence absent the most. It was during our stops that we would be closest; when we would talk in our always-evolving way and share amused smiles at Jazera’s snarky antics or Aitch’s tales of previous accomplishments as a Shadow; and later, when he would lay near me and protect me, though he never had to. Unlike Arion whom was obligated if he wanted to be paid, Rian had felt the need to protect me because he cared about me. Because I was his friend.
Now he was gone. I did not need the protection. But I felt suddenly that I needed his hand to hold just the same.
No. Not needed. Wanted.
I needed nothing but the crown from Marqis’ dead fingers.
He had died not knowing the real reason of why. Had he thought I was greedy for power? For riches? Of course he had, for what reason other than mine would there be to enter the Black Mountain in the first place? And he couldn’t have possibly guessed that my reason was to take the crown from Marqis, as he’d had no idea that I was the rightful heir to throne.
When I washed by myself, alone at the stream, I allowed myself to cry for him. To cry for my only friend that was gone. I let myself tear up and let silent sobs escape as I washed myself and covered my marks with the ointment. My tears dripped into the water and twice it ran down my neck so that I was forced to reapply the ointment over the marks there again.
But when I wiped my face and ended those tears, I knew I would cry no more. I had a mission. An important one. When I had the crown on my head, I would allow myself to cry for him again. To mourn him properly. To say goodbye to him on the wind in the night as was custom to Shadows.
But no more. Not now. I had things to do.
When I went back to the silent camp, I curled up near the fire, ignoring the hard looks from the others, and there, I fell asleep.
I finally recognized the grey field that sprouted pale peach that was food. Food not for us, but food for the kumi lizards that hunted in the tall grasses. Every now and again, we could see the grass moving and rustling as these creatures maneuvered through it. They were only violent if their food was threatened, and they served as a barrier between the road and Northern Eastwood, which lay out straight ahead of us, the trees tall and dark and opposing in the bright sunlight.
On the road, instead of turning south toward the mudwaters, I stopped and dismounted.
“What are you doing?” Arion demanded. It was the first time he’d spoken to me since taking the horses.
“I cannot take so much with me in Eastwood and will have no need of the horse in the North Mountains. I plan to let her run free once I cross the kumi fields.”
It seemed to take them all a moment to understand what I was saying. Aitch was the first to speak, “We can’t go to the North Mountains! Shenz, Eastwood is so dangerous this far north that you’d never make it there, and if you did, you’d never make it out.”
Jaz said, “It’s even more dangerous than the Black Mountains, they say, because of the dragons who guard it.”
I removed the saddle, dropping it onto the ground, but left the rein and bit in her mouth. “I’m aware. I know what I’m doing.”
Arion dropped to the ground himself and grabbed my arm to stop me from doing anything else, or perhaps just to catch my attention. “My job was to get you to the Black Mountain and return you to your Uncle Jovi, no one said anything about the North Mountains.”
Despite how angry he was, I smiled at him and gently removed my arm from his grip so that I could reach into the inside of my cloak to the pin left there. “It was never my intention to return with you.” I pressed the pin into his hand. “Bring this to Jovi and he will give you your payment that was promised you—”
“My orders were–”
“Open the pin, Arion, there is a note inside for this very purpose.”
He frowned at me but pulled the top of the pin the reveal a very tiny scroll inside. He pulled it out, and the letters were small enough that even with his Shadow vision, he had to squint to read it. I could not see it from where I stood, but I knew what it said because Jovi had told me when he handed it to me.
My niece speaks the truth. Return with only the box and the stone she places inside it. —J
He gripped it tightly. “How do I know this is his writing?”
I shook my head at him. “You felt the seal break on the pin when you opened it. That was mage magic and I could not tamper with it.” I handed him the box, inside it was the blue gem to be given to the elven king. It would save their waters, in case I did not make it back to Jovi alive.
Arion took it from me and pocketed it but looked frustrated.
“You’ll get yourself killed.”
“You are always underestimating me, Arion. Besides, this is no longer your concern. Return to my uncle.” Then I hesitated and, knowing this wasn’t the time to push his buttons, reached out to squeeze his fingers. “Thank you for all the times you saved my life.” I told him with sincerity, then looked to Aitch and Jaz. “All of you. If there is ever anything you need from me in the future, come to me and I will gift you whatever it is you ask of me. Be it aide or riches, I vow it to be yours.”
Aitch nodded happily, but Jaz threw up her arms with exasperation. “Are you that hungry for power?”
I shook my head. “One day you will understand. All of you will. But I am not a power-hungry girl risking her life for something I may not receive.” I looked to Arion. “I know what I’m doing.”
“You’re stupid, girl.” Was his irritated reply.
I chuckled. ”Always underestimating me.”
I turned but he grabbed my arm again. “If this note is truth, then why did he insist you bring you back?”
“Because he hoped that over the time it would take us to reach the Black Mountains, and after all that we would endure, we would bond enough so that you would feel obligated to follow me.” I chuckled. “If only he knew how much we would come to argue during that time.” I grinned at him but then pulled from his grip once more. “Thank you for what you have done. My uncle has more crystals for you if you tell him where I am going. When he asks where I am, tell him simply ‘to see the dragons’ and he will reward you greatly. It is my message to him that you saved my life, that you were genuinely useful.” I paused, then added. “Surprisingly.”
He glared again and I grinned once more, then turned and leaped up, mounting the bare horse easily.
“Good luck!” I called then them then bent over. “Come on girl, let’s fly.” I told the horse.
“You can’t cross here!” Jazera exclaimed with mild alarm. “The kumi will tear you to shreds.”
I rolled my eyes. “Always, always, always underestimating me.” I said and kicked the horse into a hard run, straight across the field toward Eastwood.
I was almost as practiced riding bare backed as I was with a saddle. Jovi, in fact, used to make me travel long distances without a saddle, learning how to adjust myself upon the horse and keep in place even under the oddest of circumstances. He told me it was for in situations where we needed to run and didn’t have time to saddle a horse, but I had come to understand that it could be used under many circumstances.
Most would have fallen off the horse at the first jolt, and those who didn’t would have been clutching the reins for dear life, expecting the horse to buck him off, but I leaned over the horse to get her to go faster, even as one hand went to the sword at my side and pulled it from the sheathe, my eyes on the grass surrounding me.
Then the first of them attacked.
The colour of grey and thin as whips, the kumi lizards blended into the high grass despite their length so well that it was almost impossible to spot them unless they moved. With powerful hind legs, they were capable of leaping even to my height upon the horse, and many tried.
But my sword whipped out, striking down the ones I couldn’t duck under, while also snapping down near each side of the horse to prevent them from hitting the mare with their tiny but deadly, venomous teeth. To prepare me for this very moment where I would break off on my own, Jovian had stood by while I’d done this over and over again overseas where the kumi were larger and faster and far deadlier. He would come running over to me when I got bitten, removing the venom from my body with his mage skills, before sitting me atop another horse and telling me, simply, “Again.”
And that had been at the end of summer when the kumi were most defensive of their food.
This? I almost laughed aloud. This was easy.
When I reached the edge of the field in that narrow strip of ground before the roots of Eastwood rose up, I pulled the exhausted horse to a stop. Here, I looked behind me, almost expecting Arion to be there, just coming out of the field, glaring about my idiocy of going so quickly over uneven ground.
But of course he wasn’t, he was back at the road with the others. They were on their horses now, watching me. And as I stared at them, Arion turned his horse away without a backwards glance. After a moment, Jazera and Aitch followed, only Aitch tossing a hand in the air in a brief goodbye.
I was oddly sad to see them go, for I hadn’t realized how close I felt to them even after we’d been through so much together, but this would not be a goodbye – once I had my kingdom returned to me, I would see them again. I could almost hear Aitch snort a laugh at my crown. And could hear Arion saying, ′I knew I should have asked for a raise, perhaps a lordship and a castle.′
No, it wasn’t goodbye. When I needed a Shadow later in the future as well, I would contact them. So no, it was far from goodbye.
I would see them again.
With this comforting me, I dismounted the horse and slapped her rear, sending her running down the slim dirt between the two dangerous lands.
Then, all alone and fully ready, I entered the deadliest section of Eastwood in the entire kingdom.