“What took you so long?”
Jaz grumbled at Arion’s question. “Another raid of Dragon Knights. They wouldn’t let us leave for three bloody days.” She looked at me. “I assume by the fact that you’re still here, you found that stone of endurance you were searching for?”
I shook my head, “I couldn’t find it but that’s alright, we’ll make better time now with horses anyway.” Jazera looked surprised but before she could comment Arion asked why the knights had raided such a small village.
She shrugged. “Apparently they’re still deeming the Greyov Princess still lives.”
Aitch snorted. “If she still lived, she’d be long gone running from here. Nahdiera is gone to pieces. Won’t be long before the king kills the lot of us.”
Jaz nodded agreement as she spoke, “You should have seen the market. Before the knights came, we were gathering some things that we’d need before heading out again but there was almost nothing to choose from. Crops are failing all over the land, and even the early spring isn’t bringing much hope to the people.”
“Not anything we can do on it now, so let’s head out,” Arion said simply and mounted his horse which had, by some miracle, remained in the trees for the three days we’d needed to hide in the mountain valley. Mine had run off, but we’d spent a day searching and actually found it - another miracle.
We headed off once again, strolling down the road.
It was a mistake we should not have made.
I knew the dragons were still flying around, I knew they were still searching villages, and I knew they would not stop searching until I was found. So then why did I risk the road? Because of Aitch and Jazera? Because it was shorter? I didn’t know, but whatever my reason was, it had been a stupid one.
I sensed the dragon flying overhead, but I sensed many that day and the days before flying over villages and such so didn’t think much of it except to acknowledge that it was there. However, when this one flew, I knew it was coming down and my eye went to Arion in a panic. I don’t know why I bothered, for what could he have done about it? It was far too late to run.
“Arion!” I hissed as I yanked my horse to a stop.
He turned his head around. “What—”
The dragon landed on the road in front of him, startling his horse. It was a small dragon, young but powerful. Its height was level with the horse, the rider level with us. I heard Jazera curse at the inconvenience, but I was frozen solid; it was only one dragon, but what could we do about it?
“Shadows,” the knight greeted, looking mostly at Arion.
“Sir Jahmus,” Arion leaped down from the horse, seeming casual. “I’m on a job, but if the king has need of me, I can leave for Qa’elah in a few days’ time.”
The knight – Sir Jahmus, apparently – was fairly young, perhaps only a year or two older than Arion. He had a face with delicate features, almost womanly despite his muscle. If he hadn’t spent his entire life training hard to become a Dragon Knight, I would have no doubt thought him a woman, perhaps even a girl. His eyes were the brightest of blues, like the sky on a hot summer day, and he had a genuine look about him that made me think he was the kind of man who stopped to play with children and who rescued young squirrels from his dragons’ hunger.
But he was a Dragon Knight, and I of all people, knew that looks could be deceiving.
He dismounted his dragon. “Not here on that business, I’m afraid,” he said to Arion. “We’re supposed to stop all we see on the road and have a look at your women.”
As he came forward, I went over my options. I could kill him easily, I was sure, but that would leave Jaz and Aitch wondering on why, and whatever reason I gave them, I was sure that they were both bright enough to figure out that I was hiding from the Dragon Knights. With that understanding, they could figure out – or at least wonder – who I was. This would not be good.
The dragon was a beautiful beast even as ferocious as it looked. It looked nothing like the black dragons in the North Mountains. Not only were the white dragons a different colour, but also an entirely different species.
This dragon was made to land and fight over their food, while the white were made quick flight and sudden dives down to quickly snatch up its prey and eat in the air; the black dragons bulge with muscle, leaving them mostly as ground creatures who could fly powerfully for only short lengths of time, lifting over three times their own weight (which, as you can imagine, was a lot).
The white dragons were shorter, thinner, and with hollow bones, making them more delicate but much lighter so that they could fly for long periods of time – days at a time if necessary, even carrying their rider. White dragons had no heat, as their black counterpart, and were far more reptilian, with teeth made for ripping and tearing meat apart, longer arms to hold their prey, and sleek, narrow head made for flight.
This dragons’ eyes moved over Arion, then skimmed with a predatory, hungry gaze across Aitch’s muscle and Jaz’s thin frame easy to pluck from the saddle. He looked at each of them like he would look at a meal, seeing their meat, their ease of lifting, their dangerous scent which allowed him to know if any of these Shadows would fight back.
Those eyes did not glance my way. It did not even see the horse I sat upon. It did not smell my fear, nor did it feel my gaze.
It did not, because I willed it so.
This was my key. I could use the dragon, I was sure, but how could I use it to keep Sir Jahmus from looking at my face?
“The women?” Arion sounded genuinely confused, then snorted. “Do not tell me the king actually believes the lost princess had been roaming Nahdiera all these years.”
Jahmus chuckled and said, “apparently an old man back in Parion saw her. Though we’ve been searching for the one with the mark for some time now.”
“So, it’s true then? The lost princess has actually returned?”
“Seems so. Marqis is having a fit trying to find her at least. His fear seems genuine, and you know Marqis...”
“He never shows fear.” Arion whistled low. “By-the-kraken, that’s some turn of events. I’ll keep an eye out. We all will. What does she look like?”
The dragon was hungry. It hadn’t eaten in a week. It was due to return to Qa’elah soon and feed, but it was very hungry, and the Shadows, as well as their horses, we’re looking quite tasty. There was nothing in the creatures’ mind that made me think it would ever eat without being told, as it was very obedient, but it wanted to. Very much. Oh yes it did.
“Much like her actually.”
I immediately focused my attention to the knight, to see him looking at my hooded figure with suddenly suspicious eyes.
Jazera snorted. “Who, Mir? Yeah, she’s not exactly princess material.”
Aitch chuckled in agreement and their reactions made me bristle even as I was relieved by them.
I pulled back my hood. “I have no mark,” I said, pushing a bit of mudwater accent out in the emphasis of the a’s. I pulled my hair back from my face and cursed at it loudly (one of royal blood should never curse) as it tangled in my glove. I moved it away from my neck, part of my mind praying the ointment hadn’t been rubbed off anywhere, and the other part trying to control the dragon with my new-found and unpracticed ability.
The dragon grumbled but it didn’t move.
Jahmus came closer and motioned me down. I obliged, sliding off my horse.
Shenz dragon, move!
“We’ve all seen her skin,” said Arion. “We had to go to a witch for healing and her back was bared. She’s a witch herself.”
Jahmus grimaced slightly as he studied my neck, no doubt feeling disgust at having to touch a witch when his hand reached out to wipe at my neck with a finger, checking for makeup. Lucky for me, the ointment Jovian had made was something that had only been created by him and him alone, so none would look for such a magical component, but clay could be mixed and expertly applied to hide marks and so he needed to check.
He seemed satisfied as he rubbed his fingers together and visibly relaxed. He stopped being suspicious and turned into a man simply doing his job to get it over with. “Hands and back, too,” he told me and gave me an apologetic smile now. “Sorry, miss, I have my orders.”
I smiled back. “I understand,” I said but my heart was pounding. Those marks were not covered, only my neck. I had far too little ointment left to waste it on things that would be hidden by my gloves and cloak.
Arion came up and clapped Jahmus on the shoulder as I went slowly for my glove. “Mir is one hell of a sticks player. You have time for a game before you take off?”
The knight chuckled and turned to Arion for a moment. “You know how it is with us knights, I can’t very well just pause in my work to win all your money again.”
Arion laughed loudly, casually. He was an incredible liar. “Big talk for a man who should know better than to challenge a Shadow!”
I focused on that tingling as the two kept talking. Jahmus was distracted, but I had no doubt that he would not simply forget to look at my hands. I needed that damn, stubbornly-obedient dragon to obey me.
Mm, tasty horse flesh right there, all for the taking. I thought hard at the beast, feeling absolutely ridiculous. Yum yum, tastes soooo good. All them big, tasty muscles just waiting to be ripped apart by your teeth...
Alright, I was beginning to disturb myself.
I groaned inwardly when I realized the dragon was still not moving. I could feel its hunger escalating at each word, but it did not budge, nor did it plan to.
I felt my anger rise. I had gone through a lot to get that carving covered in my blood. It better come into use for something! At the end of my ropes, I squinted at it with force and shouted in my mind, Kill the horse now dammit! Now!
It moved forward so quickly that I let out an embarrassing scream and stumbled back. I’d been so focused on the thing that it’s quick movement would have startled me anyway, but it had not gone for Arion’s horse as I had been trying to direct it but for mine and so its ragged teeth snapped over the horses’ neck less than an inch from my face.
I believe a scream was warranted.
“Hai!” Sir Jahmus shouted at the beast as Arion yanked me behind him, pulling out his sword. “Hai! Enough!” He bravely went to his dragon who dropped back from the horse and lowered its head to the ground. I could feel that it was confused on its actions and almost embarrassed by them, or as close to embarrassment as a white dragon could feel. “Get back! Back, I say!”
As the dragon complied, nose to the ground like a scolded puppy, the knight turned to Arion, his eyes wide. ”Kraken, Arion, I don’t know what happened! She’s due for a feeding but—”
Arion pulled me into his side, wrapping an arm around me protectively. The action confused me – usually he just roughly yanked me around to keep me out of danger – but then I realized that his protective and also comforting gesture was for show. “Just get it out of here, Jahmus,” his voice was sharp now, pulling me closer and rubbing my back as if I were terrified.
I did my part and looked terrified, tucking my head into Arion’s neck as I clutched onto his cloak. Oh, poor terrified me.
“She’s obedient,” he tried to defend his dragon. “I don’t understand... let me pay you for the horse at least.”
“I don’t need the bloody coin, just get that thing out of here. I’m paid to keep this girl safe and I’ll be hexed if she’s killed by something that’s supposed to bloody protect her. What if she’d been on that horse, Jahmus! You'd have me cursed and out of a job along with it!”
I could sense through the dragon that Jahmus was climbing the creature as he spoke. “I’ll be sure the king hears about her disobedience. It won’t happen again, my friend.”
Arion said nothing in reply, but I could imagine that he was glaring – his usual look. Then the dragon (who was a he, not a she, I knew, even if the knight did not) was off, obediently obeying every movement the knight made to get it back to the castle in a hurry.
I pulled my head from Arion’s neck with relief. That had been close. Note to self: get angry and order dragons around and they will listen very, very quickly.
Then I remembered Jazera and Aitch and looked over at them so see they were staring at Arion and I with absolute shock. For a second, I felt nervous; had they figured out that I did that to the dragon?
But then I felt Arion tense and step back from me, his arm leaving my shoulder and I realized that our embrace had looked like a lovers’ embrace and one completely out of character for us. In our acting for the knight, we had forgotten about what it would look to the other Shadows.
“What did we miss while you were in the valley?” Aitch finally asked, a bit of a grin forming on his face.
I felt my face heating.
“Nothing,” said Arion shortly and walked past me to go fetch his horse, who had run off at the shocking movement of the dragon and the scent of blood from the slaughtered horse which now lay in the center of the road.
I felt eyes on me as I went to the dead horse but studiously ignored them while I took my bow off the side, only to find that it had been cracked under the powerful jaws. I dropped it, not feeling too terrible about the loss seeing as I had yet to use it anyway, besides, I’d been out of arrows since Eastwood and never felt the need to replace them.
The two said nothing to me either, though I could almost feel Jazera’s rage – clearly, she wanted better for her big brother. Better than a power-hungry, foolish, young witch that only brought them trouble and dragged them off to dangerous places.
I couldn’t really blame her for her anger.
But still, when Arion returned with his horse and lifted me up in front of him, holding the reins loosely on either side of my waist, I couldn’t help but lean into him comfortably. He let me lean, occasionally resting his chin on my shoulder, and nothing at all was said.
I had been to the west only once as a child. The further from Eastwood you were, the safer you were, and therefore the richer folk tended to reside in Western Nahdiera. Because of this, Jovian kept me away from this side as it was a higher chance of me being recognized by old officials or councilmen or traders.
But once, we had traveled this way so that we could reach the West Gate. He had showed me the land as best he could while we traveled, but I was so young that I had forgotten most of it over the years.
There was one place though, that stayed in my memory and even occasional came to life in the rare, beautiful dreams I had in place of the usual nightmares. This place was called Glory Fields, and it was beautiful.
I remember, very clearly, passing through it. Filled with wild vegetables and fruit trees that were, by law, only allowed to be picked for personal use and not to be sold. No one knew how there had come to be so many different kinds of foods in one place, but it had been there since the beginning of time it seemed. Even during the wars, it had gone blessedly untouched and remained the colourful array of leafy trees filled with fruit, bushes of berries, and stems of what grew from the ground in a multitude of foods that should not be wildly grown.
As Jovian and I had passed through, we’d seen a deer grazing in the carrots, and several rabbits chasing each other through the cabbage, squirrels leaping from apple trees, and butterflies landing briefly on the leaves amidst the blossoms of the cherry trees. Birds sang and chirped and flew overhead, making Glory Field a musical oasis amongst the dry roads of Western Nahdiera.
Now... I didn’t recognize it. Not until we passed the trees and the three Shadows stopped and stared at the rotting fields before them, did I even realize that we had made it to the fields.
They were no longer glorious.
What was not muggy waters, were dead trees hanging bare and blackened with rot. On the dry lands were tangled masses of weeds which had choked the life out of what had once lived there. The sky was a beautiful blue with fluffy clouds hanging like feathered pillows above, but the field was darkened, making the sky look out of place above such rot.
What had happened here?
The kingdom was suffering under a king who did and took whatever he liked, dragging everyone down into poverty while he swam in riches. He killed anyone who even thought about beginning a rebellion, and he allowed no one to enter or leave. All around Nahdiera, people were starving in their homes and dying of chills that should have passed them easily. The once beautiful kingdom had become a prison. A curse.
But this was impossible to be blamed on the horrid king, and it was too far west to blame Eastwood.
“What... happened?” Jaz whispered. Her tone of voice was absolutely heartbroken, it was the voice of someone who had just been told her lover had died moments after learning the war had been won. The kind of heartbreak that could only come after the loss of great expectation.
“A sickness,” Arion stated grimly. While at the same time, Aitch whispered eerily, “This be a place where them plagues begin.”
“Should we go around?” I whispered quietly - something about the place had me whispering. We had seen several passing us on the road, but none had warned us of this horror that waited before us. How long had it been here? How long had it been like this?
“It would take weeks to go around,” Arion said and dismounted, lifting me down as well. His eyes were wary. “Stay close to me.”
I nodded without hesitation; I did not like this place at all.
We walked the horses through, as the road dropped down into marshes where our feet sank into rot and mud, sucking at our feet as if trying to hold us in place and trap us for some deadly predator. It would only take a few hours to walk through, so long as nothing stood before us as an obstacle, but it felt like days had passed by the time we were half the way across.
There was something about the place that reminded me very much of Eastwood, as if there were some magical element causing the sickness of the roots. We were arms away from Eastwood and it was impossible to have spread to here, but though the sky above was bright, the sun could not seem to penetrate what we walked through, as if we were walking through shadow.
There were no insects that buzzed, though with so much rot there should at least be flies; and no creatures stalked us, though in such a place there should have been at least something nipping at our toes or scraping at our ankles in the mud, but not even a rotsnake slithered by. Wind seemed absent as well, and I could not feel the heat of sun on my face, nor could I feel any chill except the chill that made the hairs on the back of my neck rise in warning, telling me something was not right here.
But I could feel no eyes on us, nor any sense of anything living among the rot.
Then, abruptly, Arion gripped my arm. “Stop,” he said.
“You hear something?” I questioned.
“No,” He answered, his tone wary. “I hear absolutely nothing.”
Which, I realized, must be very strange for a Shadow that could hear even my heartbeat.
We all stood still a moment as we looked around, quietly waiting for something to happen, for something to move or jump out and attack or splash or fall or scream.
And that was when the mist came.