I turned to run as the man said but Arion grabbed onto my arm swiftly.
“Your blood,” he reminded me firmly. “Stay near the man.”
Right. As long as I was near him, his thoughts wouldn’t be heard by the Grey Stone - according to Arion at least. But a part of my mind still couldn’t help but think that if this were true, then surely Jovian would have told me...
No, Jovian must not have known. I would trust Arion. Clearly the small amount of blood around his neck had actually worked, so this would as well.
Of course it would.
But... what were we supposed to do? Keep the old man with us? Tie him to my hip indefinitely?
“Trust me,” Arion said in answer to the panic in my eyes.
I looked into those grey eyes that were so familiar to me now, and knew that I would do this.
I nodded once. He nodded back and rushed up the stairs towards our rooms, leaving me to face the man who still had his hands over his eyes as if that would save me. “Where’s your room, sir?”
“Oh, oh you must run. They’ll come for—”
“Shh,” I hushed quickly, knowing anyone could hear us. “Let me show you to your room. So long as I am near you, the Grey Stone cannot hear you. We are safe. So please, come.”
He moved his hands away from his eyes and I saw with surprise that they were filled with tears, but he trusted my word and took my arm, leading me. He shuffled a bit due to what I assumed was pain in his hip, but he no longer looked drunk nor sounded it; no doubt the shock of running into me sobered him up quickly.
Inside his room – which looked identical to my own, I noticed absently – I sat with him on the bed and he gripped my arm with surprising strength. “Oh, Your Majesty,” he whispered, “I’ve heard the rumors, I have, but not once did I think them true.” He bowed his head deeply, “forgive me, Your Grace, I should not have looked upon your face.”
“It is not the first time I have had to run from the Dragon Knights, sir, and you can look me in the face all you like. I am not Marqis, nor will I ever be.” I squeezed his fingers, trying to calm him, fearing his heart at such an ancient age he was. I changed the subject somewhat. “You knew my mother?”
He smiled fondly at this. “Never knew her, of course, but I was a Hunter, back when my age didn’t cripple me, and once had the honor of hunting a dozen or so serphent nests that were growing in the castle pool. I got bit by one and Queen Keira... oh, she was sweet. She wrapped the arm herself, she did, not making any deal of it. She barely even looked at me just continued ordering about the staff at cleaning the pool of blood, as if wrappin’ up an old Hunters’ arm was just another thing she did on a daily basis, and no one batted an eyelash,” he snorted a laugh. “Meanwhile, I sat there staring at her face and hands and trying to figure out of it would be polite to deny her aide, or polite to accept it.” He patted my arm, “never forgot her face after that. I can’t remember the kings' face much well, but Keira’s... I could draw it if I were any good.”
I smiled at that, a piece of my heart soaking up every bit of this memory of the mother I never knew. Then his eyes turned away from the fondness of memory and returned to their sorrowful, regretful state. “What’ll you have me do, misses? If you needs to take my life, I understands it, and I’m old enough with nothing but being a drunk to be remembered by, and no wee ones to miss me, so if it needs to be done—”
“No!” I gasped, alarmed and touched at the same time. “No,” I said more gently. “You will not be killed, sir.” If Arion tried, I’d strangle him for it.
As if thinking his name brought about his presence, Arion came through the door then. How he knew where it was that we were confused me for a moment, until I remembered that he was a Shadow and had more than likely heard us through the door. He had a bag over his shoulder and his cloak hanging over his arm.
Both myself and the old man stood at his arrival, a little slower than I would normally stand so that I could support him.
“We’ll knock him out to get a head start,” Arion said, answering the question of killing the man.
The old man nodded in acceptance, but I felt his frail state and worried he would not survive such a blow to the head. “But—”
“It’s alright, Your Majesty,” he patted my arm with his free hand while squeezing it with the other. “You best run. Take my horse. 'Tis the third stall from the left in the stables. She’s a good horse and well rested.” He hesitated, “but, may I ask... can I see your mark, My Queen? It’s been so long, I’d forgotten what the mark of one that is good looks like.”
It was the least I could do. The mark on my neck was covered by the ointment, but the ones on my hands were still free and so I risked letting go of him to pull the fine leather of my glove off and held it out to him.
He gripped my hand with one, his dry callous fingers scraping across my smooth skin. In the flesh of my thumb there was a single swirl that looked like grey flames, but that was all that was seen from the back.
He turned my hand over himself and traced the line that lead to and through the red and grey of blades that looked like fire and the black that was a vague outline of a dragons’ mouth, which swirled and faded into grey and silver as if the dragon were a ghost which hid upon my wrist, breathing onto my palm. There was a faint pink on my middle finger, I now noticed, and I knew in time that would be the next addition of my mark. How my magic continued to grow and strengthen when I did not use it, I had no idea.
He finally turned my hand over again and kissed the knuckle where my ring should be – a ring Jovian kept hidden until it was time for me to wear it.
“'Tis an honor to have met you, Your Majesty,” he said with great sincerity, a tear welling up in his eye. Then he turned to Arion. “Have at it, young man. Be sure you knocks me a good one; I got a hard head I do.”
I felt worry again. “Arion, maybe you shouldn’t—”
“We need a head start,” Arion interrupted, coming forward. “If we can reach Eastwood before the dragons, Marqis won’t be able to reach us inside it.” Then he raised his fist and hit the old man hard. He helped me catch him and lay him on the bed. I checked his pulse and was glad it was still strong.
“Eastwood?” I questioned in confusion. “But that’s opposite of where—”
“I only said it for when Marqis questioned him. It might take him off our trail for a while.”
“I don’t think the man will say anything—”
“Marqis will have him tortured, Mir. He will say it whether he wants to or not,” he took my arm. “Quickly. We haven’t much time.”
“The others?” I looked back at the old man, wondering if it would not have been better to have simply killed him. I realized then that I hadn’t even asked him for his name.
“I told them you and I are gone ahead to Riqerson Valley to fetch a stone of some sort that may help give our horses we ride better endurance.”
I grimaced, “meaning I’m back to being impatient again?” as if I needed that. I’d thought I’d made some steps toward friendship with the two tonight, but now, that seemed to out the window once more.
Arion squeezed my fingers as if hearing my thoughts and I only then remembered that I had yet to put my glove back on. For just a moment though, I didn’t let go, enjoying the feeling of skin on skin contact I so rarely felt - the body heat, the roughness, the strength of the embrace - but then I did let go and quickly donned my glove before we reached the main floor.
“They just don’t understand, that’s all," he told me, moving me past company in the near-empty bar. “If they knew, they would follow you in an instant. It’s why I insist they come. That, and I doubt I could get rid of Jazera if I tried.”
In the stables, Arion knocked out the stable boy without mercy before he could call for alarm and together, we took two horses – one being the old mans’, the other a heathy looking stallion of unknown ownership. With quick adjustments to the saddles, we were off.
First, we went east to keep up appearances of going toward Eastwood if the king demanded answers of sighting us, then circled around the town and went west, pushing hard through the grasslands in a way that was dangerous for us as well as the horses we rode. By some miracle – or perhaps a wave of unexpected luck – neither of our horses collapsed by the time we reached the road a full two arms west of where we started, nor had we been attacked by anything in the grasslands.
We switched horses in a town that was so small it had no name, knocking out another stable boy in the process. Then once again we were off into the night, racing down the road, the cool night freezing sweat to my face. When light came up from the east, peeking over the mountains with a red and angry glory, we slowed the horses and pulled off to find water. It was not safe for us yet, not by far, but the horses were soaked in sweat and were threatening to collapse.
We found a small brook in the scarce trees we came across, hinting that we were finally nearing the edge of the grasslands.
“We’ll rest a couple hours,” Arion said. “We’ll eat and wash, then walk across the grasslands to the valley.”
“There’s nowhere to hide the horses in the valley, and I’d rather if it looked abandoned. The horses will be fine here.”
So we ate, and once I was finished, I went to the stream where the horses were dozing on three legs and washed my face of the sweat I had acquired on the race here.
My senses were sharpened somehow, enough so that I heard Arion step behind me before he knelt down next to me. I used the sleeve of my cloak to dry my face and neck, then turned to him curiously.
He was watching me, an unreadable expression on his face. One that made my heart speed up though I didn’t completely understand the reason.
“How do you keep them covered?” He asked quietly. His hand reached out and brushed the hood back from my head, then brushed away my hair, slowly moving it from my neck and revealing the marks I hid so often.
His fingers traced the lines there, and though the old man had done so on my hand so recently, Arion’s touch made goose flesh rise and my breathing sounded loud in the silence between us.
His eyes met mine and my heart, already beating fast, began to race as his fingers went up my throat to my jaw then my lower lip, following the movements the knife had made while lying in the bed in the North Mountain weeks ago. His eyes flicked to my lips, and I finally realized with shock that Arion, the man who seemed to be irritated with me more often than not, actually wanted to kiss me.
I had no experience with anything such as this, but I was sure of it just the same, and my heart rate – already speeding dangerously – seemed to double as I waited, not knowing what to do, yet knowing what I wanted, no matter how surprising it may be.
Then I felt a tingle in the back of my mind and I frowned, which caused Arion to quickly drop his hand and stand up. I stood up, too.
“I apologize.” He said, suddenly formal, “I should not have assumed–”
“No, no it’s not that.” I said waving his words away as I focused on that tingling that was my connection to the dragons. Through them, I could feel dozens... no, at least two hundred, perhaps even more, lifting off into the sky from Qa’elah and heading this way.
“The dragons,” I whispered. “They’re coming. The man must have woken.”
His eyes widened, and he gripped my arm. Together we started running across the field toward the valley that hovered like a closer horizon in the distance.
We could not run the entire way, but we could run quite a distance just the same. Still, the hours it took to reach the valley felt like the longest hours of my life. I could feel the dragons coming nearer with each passing moment, and I could feel the anger and excitement both of the king through them.
We didn’t go down into the valley but instead went around it, climbing the small mountains on the other side that seemed almost like boulders compared to the mountains we had been to in the past few months. We were only a few twigs up when it started to rain. It was a light rain and still shined in the sun, but the higher we got, the darker the sky became making it harder to see.
We climbed high, but luckily it wasn’t that difficult. Our only danger was of the cats that roamed these mountains and even they did not dare attack when they could sense the dragons coming nearer.
Then, just as I was sure we would be caught out in the open, Arion hauled me up onto a narrow ledge and pulled me into an even narrower crack in the stone wall. It was barely anything – no room to lay down, or even curl up – but we pushed out way into the shadows until we were face to face in the narrow space. His right hand, his sword hand, toward the head of the cave while mine was jammed between our stomachs and gripping his cloak. I was hot from climbing and running, but the air was chilled in the shadows and the cloaks, wet as they were, did little to keep us warm.
But we didn’t move, our eyes watching the east through the crack that seemed too wide even as cramped as we were.
“The dragons,” Arion whispered. “Can they sense you as you can sense them?”
“No,” I said, then relaxed slightly, my heart slowing at my own words. “They can’t see me at all,” I remembered, “but the knights can.”
It was his turn to relax. “The knights cannot see us here. Even in sunlight, and the rain will hinder their vision.”
“Even the Shadow Knights?”
"Especially them.” He looked down at me. “Rain is our weakness. Too many sounds of splashing rain, it is hard to focus on anything else unless very close. This close,” he said, “I can hear even your heartbeat.”
My heartbeat sped up at the thought. “I hadn’t known it was so strong in Shadows.”
“It’s not usually. My strength is sound, just as Jaz has strength in sight, Aitch in physical strength, Rian was strength of scent. It’s why we often worked together, as between us all, none could best us.”
My heart clenched at Rian’s name. “I’m sorry about Rian,” I whispered, only then realizing it was the first time I’d done so. The first time I honestly admitted that it was my fault, instead of hiding behind excuses. My excuses were the truth and if I were to turn back, I would have done the same thing. However, I was honestly sorry that it had to be that way.
He nodded tightly but his gaze was softer than normal, obviously hearing the honesty in my voice. “He did not need to know who he was dying for, you know. And he would have understood why you lied to him, just as I do.”
I started. “How did you know I wondered these things?”
“It isn’t hard to guess.” His fingers brushed my chin, wiping water that dripped there. “You’re not as heartless as you seem. Knowing you’re not a half-mad, magic-craving, power-hungry witch helps your case as well.”
I grimaced. “Thanks.”
He chuckled and pinched my chin almost playfully before wrapping his arm over my shoulder, pulling his cloak around mine as he did to keep as much heat in as possible. “How close are they?”
“They’re in the village.” I leaned into his warmth, my eyes on the sheet of rain falling like a waterfall over the entrance now, blinding us to the outside. “They’re searching.” I concentrated. “They found the man, but they’re still searching the village as only one of them brings the old man back to Qa’elah.”
Arion tightened his grip further around me as we watched the water fall from above, shivering quietly as we waited for the danger to pass.