“You are the Lost Princess.”
I lunged forward with my sword, panic creeping in. Don’t say it! Don’t think it!
I got him in the side with the blade and he hissed, seeming to come out of his awed state to suddenly realize that I was actually attacking him. “What are you—”
“I have to kill you!” I cried. “Let me kill you!” Foolish, I know, but panic had made my mind a blur. There was only one way out of here, and by the time we reached the tunnel exit, they could be there waiting for me.
I was trapped. I was cornered. My only hope was to kill him before Marqis could zero in on our location.
I didn’t want to kill him.
“Mir... Meira, you don’t understand—”
"Don’t say my name!" I lunged forward, striking him in the shoulder. He cursed but deflected my next strike easily and twisted, grabbing my wrist and spinning me so that I slammed against the stone wall. A feat he would not have been able to do so easily if it weren't for the tears welling in my eyes and blurring my vision.
“Bloody shenz, Meira, listen to me!”
I continued to struggle, but it was weakly. I was fully crying now, tears running down my face as I shook; it was too late now. He knew. Marqis knew. It was the end. I searched my mind for another way out, a way back up the chute even, but there was no way, there was only one way out of here. Perhaps if I ran fast enough, I could reach the exit before the Dragon Knights reached the—
“Meira! Listen to me, will you? The Stone can’t hear me!”
I stilled. I blinked the tears from my eyes. I looked at him.
“What?” I croaked.
He relaxed now that he could see he caught my attention. “Your blood,” he said, “the Greyov blood, it can’t be heard by the Grey Stone.”
I blinked further. “You’re a Greyov?”
He snorted. “No, Meira, you’re a Greyov. For so long as I’m near you, the Stone won’t look in this direction. Not just you, Mir, everyone around you or your blood.”
“It’s how the Stone works. You’re a blind spot. The Grey Stone cannot sense itself and as the Greyov blood is bonded to the Stone, Greyov blood is a piece of it.
“But…” Jovian never told me this. Surely if that were true, he would have told me.
Arion shook me slightly as if that would help me think. Oddly, the familiar feeling of him shaking me in frustration seemed to do just that. The fuzzy haze of fear seemed to lessen as I paid attention. The tears began to dry on my cheeks.
“Your blood. The Grey Stone. You’ve bonded to the Stone through your bloodline.”
I knew this – it was the reason the Stone couldn’t reach my thoughts. “But... you’re not family.” I hoped not at least, or I had been having some really inappropriate thoughts lately.
“We’re not family, but I have your blood.” He pulled out a vial from around his neck. I had seen the leather cord around his neck occasionally but never thought anything of it as the cord was nothing special at all. However, this was the first time I saw what hung from it.
It was a simple, stained-glass jar about the size of my thumbnail, cross-wrapped in wire to keep it protected. Though I couldn’t see inside the glass as it was too thick with multiple dark colours, I could still see the few drops of liquid clinging to the inside of the glass. “What is it?” I whispered, though I was beginning to suspect.
“Your mothers’ blood mixed with dust of the Grey Stone.”
Just like Jovi had hanging around his neck only in a jar of pure silver.
I spoke numbly. “But... but that’s rare, and... and it’s illegal.”
He snorted with amusement at my words. “You being alive is illegal,” he reminded me. “And yes, it’s rare, my father was a lead Shadow Knight. He gave it to me before he went out to help stop the attack on the castle.” He tucked the vial back into his shirt and stepped back, fully letting me go. “Now, are you done trying to kill me?” he asked simply.
I wasn’t sure. I was still processing.
There was a splash as Jazera fell down the fall into the underground lake and our conversation was done. After a moment, I put my blade away, only then realizing that I had a weapon when I didn’t have one before. I’d dropped it in the pool with the kraken. How did I get it back?
No. This was a different blade, I saw. One made of...
I nearly dropped the thing.
It was made of dragon glass.
Dragon glass was not nearly as expensive as dragon crystals and was often crushed and mixed with sand to make regular glass for jars and such. If I had found my pockets filled with dragon glass, I’d have grimaced and tossed them out of my pocket to get rid of the extra weight.
But with the heat of the black dragons and the skill of their Keepers, dragon glass could be compressed and shaped to create weapons. With enough pressure and heat – the kind only the black dragons could have – it made blades and arrowheads dozens of times stronger than the average iron or steel blades. Much sharper, too. There were a few blades circling through Nahdiera, but I had never had the honor of carrying one myself.
Yet another gift from the dragon king. I would have to remember to thank him profusely when I had my crown.
When Arion lifted Jaz out of the pool, shivering and shaking as she was from the chill, Aitch came down whooping in excitement. When he swam up, it seemed he didn’t even notice that his lips were blue as he grinned. “We should do that again!” He shouted, his voice echoing in the cavern with his excitement.
Normally, his grin was contagious, but I was still reeling over the fact that Arion had said my name and that I hadn’t killed him for it. Even the thoughts of the sword at my side was being pushed to the back of my mind with the insistence of my disbelief.
Jaz rolled her eyes at him. “Come on, Aitch, let’s get out of here before we lose more than we bargained for.”
That reminded Aitch of his loss of gold as, dripping wet, we started walking through the only tunnel leading out of the mountain. “Are you planning on paying us back for all that gold we were forced to give up?”
His stern eyes lifted quickly when I took my purse from my belt and opened it, pulling out a single dragon crystal to pay my own way when I needed it. I tossed the last of it to him. It was the last of my riches, but I didn’t need it anymore; soon enough, I’d have the kingdoms treasury at my fingertips. “Split that purse between the three of you.”
Aitch kissed the heavy purse with a loud smack of the lips, knowing by feel that there were a few dozen in there at least. I was liked by him once again... or at least not entirely hated; it was hard to tell exactly how Aitch felt about me as he seemed cheerful about everything so long as he wasn’t losing coin and so long as there were no snakes involved.
The walk was a long one, a full three arms of walking in an underground tunnel that slowly spread upwards. We were watchful and wary, but with the light of the Shadow’s fire, we could see nothing that brought us reason for our nerves. Only memories of our past haunting us and making us wary of the darkness.
I wondered what the Keeper had meant about Eastwood, and I thought over the map in my mind so that I would not forget it, but these things could only distract my mind for so long.
Arion walked constantly just ahead of me, one hand up holding fire in his palm, the other resting on the hilt of his sword. I could barely believe that he now knew who I was. He acted no different toward me – spared me no more looks than usual – but he knew and surely it was not far from him mind.
How many pieces was he putting together? I wondered. Would he figure out why the dragon king had spared me? Why I had been determined to go into the Black Mountains? Why I was so insistent? Was he wondering about what happened after I lied about being a witch? Did he understand it all? Did he know what I searched for in the Kings Maze?
Did he know I wore the White Stone around my neck?
Though I thought these things and had not once wondered if he had spoken the truth or not about the blood in the vial, when we saw the dim light of stars and smelled the fresh air, I tightened my grip on the hilt of my sword and hesitated, afraid that the white dragons would be circling the sky and the Dragon Knights would be hiding just out of sight.
“Mir?” It was Jazera, looking confused. “What’s wrong?”
I looked past her to Arion who stood at the entrance with a raised eyebrow, saying nothing. It was almost a dare to trust him.
I had no choice. I stepped forward, my heart beginning to pound as I walked the last few twigs toward what may or may not be the end of me.
The sky was clear, revealing thousands of stars and a crescent moon, the area around us was a field of spring grasses leading from the road to the edge of Eastwood to our right. There was not a knight or dragon in sight.
I let out a slow breath and looked at Arion to apologize for doubting his word when he had given me no reason not to, but he was already turning away. “We’ll set up camp here and leave off in the morning.” He stated.
“Where are we going exactly?” Jaz wondered. “I know Ms. Power Hungry here is heading west, but are we heading south to Qa’elah, or to—”
“To the Kings Maze.” He said. “Mir knows of something deep within.”
Jaz pursed her lips. “That’s suicide.”
“Seems to be becoming a rhythm,” Aitch said with amusement, but then he frowned. “But we’re heading south, not west. Right?”
Arion was quiet a minute as he lit a fire with his hand directly onto the stone.
"Right?" Jazera insisted, wary at his lack of communication.
“West.” He finally said. “We’re going west.”
Jazera spluttered a moment before she managed to snap out. “You can’t be serious! Do you feel like dying with her? Because that’s where this is going to end for—”
“We’re going west. All of us.” He said more firmly, his eyes coming up and looking firm and determined. Then they flicked to me, firm still but also with a touch of respect I’d never seen directed at me before. “We are all going west.” He said again, this time it sounded like a vow.
I felt something flicker inside me. Perhaps it was joy or pride or excitement or something else, I didn’t know, but it made my chin raise higher and a smile to come across face. Then I nodded to him once.
His lips curved into a smirk and he nodded back in acknowledgement, then he turns back to the fire, coaxing it to height, completely ignoring Jazera as she stalked off as well as Aitch’s questioning looks between us both.
It looked to me like I found my first loyal Shadow Knight... as irritating as he may be.
While the North Mountains were the furthest north you could go in Nahdiera, the maze occupied a good six arms of the west side, far south-west of where we were. Though we were still in the north, this side of Eastwood was so docile compared to where we had just come from that even when we came across a vicious pack of starving wolves, not a single one of us had a flare of worry. We’d barely even bothered to stand from out positions at the fire, and Aitch had actually held a piece of jerky in his left hand while he swung his sword with his left, chewing as he casually killed a half dozen or so creatures that most would have screamed at in fear.
It was odd, being so... not safe, but not in such danger. The several dozen arms of grasslands that spread out over a third of the kingdom on this side of the Eastwood were ever changing with small boggy areas or dry, sandy ones, and each area held different dangers, but I didn’t have a fear in the world.
I felt... powerful.
We walked for three weeks before we reached a town to stay in, and in those three weeks, I could feel the dragons of white and where they were. I learned, as I sat quietly – being ignored by a protective Jaz whom believed I was leading Arion and herself and Aitch to their deaths, and an impatient Aitch who only wanted to get to Jovi to collect his dragon crystals which Arion had promised him – I concentrated on the white dragons. They could not sense me, but I could sense them.
I learned how to tell when they were hunting or when they were simply flying. I learned to tell how far away they were, and I began to understand the connection they had with the king. It was a deep and complicated mental connection brought on by some power I couldn’t understand, but it was one that I was sure could be broken with time.
I could not control the dragons as I had hoped that I would – at least not yet – but I had direct access to their minds even from here all the way to Qa’elah. I could sense them at every border, in every town, in every area of flight. I even felt them leave Nahdiera and head outside of it to where the elves resided and knew they were spreading yet another gallon of poison into their water supply under Marqis’ orders.
I also found that my own magic was beginning to break through without my intention. I was able to hear the Shadows sometimes. Not always, of course, but I was actually able to hear them walking behind me. In Eastwood, before I had attempted to walk across that stone path where the kraken had lived, I’d heard them coming toward me, I just hadn’t known it was them at the time.
And more, I found I was able to bring myself into that state of joining my three minds at will sometimes. It was slowly becoming easier to do, and I practiced as much as I could while I watched the flames dance in their slow salute. I could only keep it up for a few seconds of real time, but I was learning. Jovian would be proud when I saw him again.
With all of this as well as the White Stone hanging from my neck, oh yes, I felt powerful.
The longer we walked, the warmer it became, and I knew that soon, summers’ heat would hit, and the humidity would smother me inside my cloak. I did not wish to try and find more excuses of why I would not remove it, but I seemed unable to hurry the group up and it irritated me.
“We’re making excellent time, Mir.” Arion reminded me. “When we reach Parion Village, we’ll get some horses and make even better time than we are now.”
“You don’t understand.” I told him when we were alone, sitting by the fire while the others were at the stream catching fish to eat that night. “I can sense the dragons, and they are being sent out more and more each day. Something is happening, Arion, and they are killing people all over. Every day it’s getting harder for my people to stay alive.” I whispered to him as low as I could. “I don’t know if he is still searching for me, or if it is something else entirely, but either way, my people are suffering while I walk along the grasses instead of run them.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, you need to have energy when you reach the maze, or you may never be able to help them.” He gave me a look. ”Patience, Mir.”
And he sounded so much like Jovian in that moment that I actually listened to him and gave myself my mantra to calm down.
But it didn’t last long.
Every day, I felt like it was taking longer and longer to reach where we needed to go. Every hour felt like days, and every minute felt like hours.
When Parion Village came into view, it was the first time I felt relief at seeing a town. Normally, towns and villages were places I wished to always avoid simply because I had to take so much care to hide my face. But here, there were horses, and from here, we could move faster.
It almost killed me when the Shadows decided to stay the night. Were they trying to anger me?
There was a knock on the door shortly after we settled into an inn. “Are you coming down?”
“No.” I said simply, pausing in my pacing to do so.
Arion gave a sigh then closed the door, but he was inside the room, not outside, so I stopped to face him, waiting.
“Mir, it would be a good time to relax for once. Tomorrow, we’ll get some horses and supplies then leave quickly. But for now, we’re staying.” When I didn’t say anything, he shook his head with irritation and left me alone.
To be honest, I debated then if I should go it alone. I would make better time without them seeing as they liked stopping when they could to rest. But not only had they come along when they didn’t have to, but, in all honesty, I really didn’t want to be alone.
I spent my whole life wanting friends! Well, Jazera was definitely not my friend, and I don’t think Aitch was either, not even Arion was actually a friend... but they were as close to friends as I had ever known except for Rian, and I didn’t want to lose them just for being impatient.
So, I lay down on the bed, and then, still too restless to relax, I sent for a bath.
I cleaned myself thoroughly, scrubbing myself down as best I could with a scrub brush and soap weed. It wasn’t a very good scrub brush, but there was a good hair brush on the night stand and so I spent some time brushing my hair as well.
This took a long time, seeing as I never brought a hairbrush with me and even if I had, it would have been lost by then anyway. My curly hair was not something that liked being brushed and was instead a mind of its own which apparently enjoyed being tangled into knots. I’m quite sure I ripped out half my hair trying to brush it, but finally, I managed, and I felt better for it, especially once I was dressed again with the ointment over my neck.
Looking into the mirror though, I realized that the mark on my neck had grown as well. No longer was it just a few swirls and red lines but a full dragon going partially down the back of my neck and over my shoulder. I grimaced at how much of my ointment I would need to use to keep it entirely covered all the time, then went to bed with my hair still wet.
But by this time, I had calmed myself and I realized how unfair I had been. The Shadows were used to traveling long distance, and I knew they did not need to rest but instead chose to because it was the smartest course of action. It was good to be able to rest every so often so that we had energy when we were at the end of the journey, and I had been quite sharp with the lot of them lately. They didn’t deserve that. If Rian had been here, he would have given me a disappointed look several times over by this point.
So, with a sigh, I decided to go downstairs. It was always a risk being in a public place, but I knew how to keep hidden and the Shadows would protect me. And with Arion knowing who I was, if there was a reason that I needed to run, he would be able to help cover me.
I donned my cloak and went downstairs to find the Shadows.
I had almost forgotten how much Shadows were revered and respected amongst the common people. Shadows were genuinely better at everything natural, such as sight, hearing, touch, scent, even things like memory and endurance. They were faster and stronger, some more than others.
They also had other perks of Shadow magic, which allowed them small things such as their flame for instance, and their ability to be completely silent in their movement. Others had different talents as well, depending on how powerful they were.
Because of this, Shadows usually became mercenaries, spies, or hunters. All three occupations were revered, and all three were feared.
Walking into the main room of the inn, it was easy to find where the Shadows were because of how people were not looking in their direction in an obvious way. It was best for them to not see the Shadows, in case they were there for business they did not wish to be a part of. At first, no doubt, they had given sly glances at these Shadows, but they had been down here for some time now and the Shadows were beginning to be... not forgotten, but less of a spectacle.
Though Aitch was making that difficult. They all were for that matter.
They sat in the corner table, partially in shadows themselves, but Aitch was laughing loudly and holding up a jug of what I assumed was ale from Jaz who looked like she wasn’t sure if she should attack him or fall to the floor in a laughing fit. Arion finally tugged at her hair and offered his own cup to share, leaving Aitch to drink her drink in peace.
A barmaid rushed past me and went to their table before I could reach it, dropping drinks in front of them. Jazera glared at her and said something about poor service. Arion nudged her and shook his head, then turned to the barmaid and asked if there was somewhere they could go to...
He spotted me.
He looked surprised but motioned me over, though I was already heading their way.
“Wow.” Said Jaz when I sat down next to Aitch. “You’ve actually come to socialize? Or are you here to tell us to hurry up and sleep so we can wake up faster.”
I grimaced. “I want to apologize actually. I’ve been...”
“Yes. You have.” Said Jaz simply, not bothering to let me find a word. “But luckily, you can make up for it by letting us win, because this barmaid here is going to make up for her terrible service by allowing us access to the back room for a private game, aren’t you?”
The young barmaid flushed and spluttered under Jazera’s intimidating gaze. “I c-can ask the owner. I’m only here some nights and–”
“Just hurry up and figure it out, would you?” Jaz waved her away and I had the urge to scold her for being so rude but bit my tongue.
“Here,” Arion said, passing over his drink. “Have some of mine if you like.”
I shook my head. “I don’t usually drink except to keep me warm or to dull pain.”
He raised an eyebrow but shrugged and drank himself. Then a silence descended on the group, one I’d brought.
“Sorry.” I said, feeling my cheeks flushing. “I shouldn’t have come down—”
“Stay,” Arion said. “We’ll be going in for a game of sticks soon.”
I frowned. “I don’t know how to play.”
Jaz gaped as if I’d grown a third head right before her eyes, but Aitch grinned over at me. “Good.” He said. “You’re staying.”
Another silence descended. I really shouldn’t have come down.
“Well,” Arion broke the silence, “the game of sticks is easy. It used to be played in a yard, but now it’s all been sized down on a board with squares. You’ll get it.” He said.
There was another silence, but it was broken by the barmaid coming up this time. “The owner said you could use the storage room, so long as you don’t mind someone popping back there when we need to get a barrel—”
“We got it.” Jaz said and stood, stepping over Arion and leaping to the floor.
Arion sighed while Aitch chuckled. “She’s in a nasty mood.” Said Aitch. “Maybe we should let her win the first game.” He went on carrying a box under his arm I hadn’t noticed before, following the skittish barmaid and Jaz behind the counter. I lingered, hoping Arion would forget about me, but he took my arm and forced me to go with him.
Aitch had apparently gone to the bank in town and exchanged the crystals for gold because he had that box filled with it. How the box hadn’t collapsed under such weight, I had no idea. He took my single crystal from me and gave me fifty coins of gold instead as Jaz set up the board, which was really just a roll of parchment with squares drawn on, twenty by twenty.
“One gold to start,” Arion said, sitting to my left. “Five chips to start. You can’t have more than ten sticks on the board, that’s including your doubles.” He put five gold coins on the first row of his side, each one he put a carved wooden piece dyed with red. I had several bleached white in front of me and put five on the board randomly, having no idea what I was doing.
When everyone was set up, Aitch flipped to see who started then took out a piece of wood with four sides, each side a triangle painted with number one through four. He rolled a three and moved one of his pieces one, another he moved two. Then Jaz went, then Arion, then it was my turn, all moving toward the center of the bored.
Alright, this wasn’t so bad. I could do this.
Then quickly became more complicated, as the pieces moved more to the center, it started to get harder to keep your pieces there and everyone began losing and gaining coin so quickly it was confusing.
That was when they started adding doubles, calling out ‘sticked’ and the bets started rising. Each time someone made it to the other side of the board, everyone else’s pieces cost more to put on and within an hour, each piece was getting really expensive, making you think much more before you placed your piece at the start.
It was complicated and confusing, but I quickly learned it was only another type of strategy. I had spent my life learning strategies and though I’d never learned it with this game, I quickly got better and better until I was beating all but Arion who always seemed to predict my moves before I had a chance to play him.
“Two, two, two.” I told the block in my hands. “Give me two!” I threw it. One. “No!”
Arion laughed and took the block. He’d only needed one to reach the end and so he didn’t really need to roll but he did anyway. I moved my one and he then rolled, got a two and moved his piece. This made my already expensive pieces up to the price of a crystal. I cursed at him almost as loudly as Aitch was but was laughing too.
I was having... fun.
“I’m out.” I said. “I’m taking my riches while I’m still ahead.”
“Me too.” Aitch said, pulling his winnings back and shoving them in his pocket.
Arion, face flushed with drink, grinned at Jaz. “Just you and me, Sis.”
She gave him a narrowed eyed look and stuck out her tongue, but I was spluttering, nearly dropping my coins. “Did you just call her sis?” I asked him, then to Jaz. “You’re his sister?” I looked between the two, Arion with his strong features and dark curly hair, Jaz with hair as blond as white, straight, and the opposite of dangerous looking except when she glared or held her bow. Even their skin tones were different. There was no possible way they were related.
Arion shrugged in answer. “Basically.”
Jaz explained better, pulling back her coins; apparently, she was out too, leaving Arion the winner of this game. “My parents both died in the war when I was little and not many wanted to take in a Shadow child except Arion’s mom, whom believed that Arion needed someone to look after before he got himself killed.” She grinned at him teasingly, “He was an angry little boy.”
Arion glared at her, but his smile showed it was in play, unlike the way he looked at me. “I was only an angry child because I had a little girl following me around asking me to teach her how to be quiet like Shadows were supposed to be. My only reply was to tell her to put her hands over her mouth and close her eyes and think really hard while staying still, then it would work.”
I chuckled while Jazera rolled her eyes. “You were so mean.”
He shrugged, “It worked, though. I got three days of freedom from that fib until my mum found out what I’d done and made me take over your letter lessons.” Now it was his turn to frown while Jazera grinned.
I couldn’t believe it! It was no wonder why they were so causal with each other, they had literally grown up together. I felt... an odd sense of relief at that, though I didn’t understand why. Some part of me wondered if I had been jealous of their relationship more so then I first thought, but I refused to think too hard on that.
We played two more games. I won one, Arion the second with Aitch in a close third. I had a ridiculous amount of fun and though it was so late it was almost morning and I knew our departure would be delayed because of it, I couldn’t find it in me to be frustrated. It was a wonderful night. It was a piece of normality that I had never truly experienced before in my life.
For the first time, I had actually felt somewhat welcome in their group and though I knew I would be back to being impatient and irritated the next morning, I decided to simply enjoy the rest of the night and perhaps – just perhaps – I would even sleep without nightmares.
But then, on the way up to the room side-by-side with Arion and trailing after Aitch and Jazera, I bumped into an old man on the stairs and my hood fell back.
“Watch where you’re going” Arion said – his irritation directed at someone other than me for once. Jaz glanced back to be sure we didn’t need help, but then continued on when Arion waved his hand and her and the two of them went out of sight, Aitch laughing loudly at something he said and Jazera shooting him a glare.
“Sorry missus.” The man said to me, his voice slurring at me as he caught himself with his cane. Then his eyes widened. “Kiera? Is that you?” Then he blinked and frowned in confusion as I stood frozen with great and sudden fear. “No, Kiera’s dead, you must be...”
Then his eyes widened further, and he dropped his cane to throw his hands over his eyes. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Your Majesty! I’m sorry! I thought your name! I thought your name! Run, misses! Take my horse and run!”