Over the next several weeks, travel was blissfully boring, but there was one thing that happened of note, which I will tell you.
It was when we traveled through Havricton when I first noticed it. Or rather, Arion did. We had gone through to pick up some supplies and the others, of course, wanted to stay the night in an inn there. It made me nervous after what had happened last time, but the Shadows knew this place well and the owner of the establishment treated us to their office in the back to play sticks so once more we had a lovely night.
Aitch had grown up not far from there, so he was especially boastful, even for him, and not wanting to ruin it, I had let him win a game as I suspected Arion had as well, though I was sure Aitch didn’t notice. Jazera was in a fabulous mood (at least in comparison to her usual one) and Arion's eyes were crinkled in the corners from his smirks of amusement which graced his face all evening. It was the first time since Rian's death where the group seemed to be at ease with me as a whole, I realized while I lay in bed during the early hours of the morning.
But on our return through the inn toward the staircase, late in the night and on our way to our rooms, Arion had slowed me down behind the others with a silent touch of my arm and leaned in close. “Can you hear those men in the corner?”
I looked to the corner his eyes had flicked to where three men sat huddled closely, speaking quietly, and shook my head, so he moved us so that we sat in the booth against theirs and I listened carefully and curiously.
“...gone bloody mad, you have…”
“I’m telling you, Jorshi, she’s alive and she’s coming back.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe, mind, it’s the fact that you’re stupid enough to wear that band on your arm, or even think it. The knights'll be here any minute.”
“They’re not coming. You’re not the first I’ve spoken to. Besides, it’s a risk worth taking. If the Lost Princess is coming back to ascend to the throne, she may need help.”
Here, I looked to Arion in surprise. He motioned me to keep listening, a small hint of a smile in his eyes.
“Which we can’t give her because of the Grey Stone.”
“She’s remained hidden for over nineteen summers, friend, there very well may be a way to think her name after all, seeing as she’s lasted this long.” There was a pause and some ruffling. “Take the cloth and wear it, friend. Wear it for the Greyov Princess.”
There was a long pause, then a deep sigh. “You know I want Marqis off the throne, as does everyone, but anyone wearing one of these cloths are a target for the Dragon Knights.”
“It is true, but there’s a nice score of people already wearing them. The more who wear them, the less likely it is the king will come for us. He can’t kill us all. Besides, if you’re willing to fight for her if she needs it, then you’re willing to risk the band.” There was a patting sound. “Just think about it.”
He left then, and I caught a look at that blue piece of fabric tied to his upper arm over his clothing. I had seen at least two people wearing this in town alone and vaguely remember someone on the road, but had thought nothing of it at the time.
Now, I knew that they were the ones who believed. The ones eager to help. The ones who were brave enough to risk their lives on the off chance that I may one day need to go to one of them for help. It warmed my heart greatly...
It also frightened me, because I finally understood what all the movement had been about with the dragons. They’d went east with the army of course, looking for me, but there has been movement all over the kingdom and I now feared greatly that it was because of these people wearing blue. If this man had not been taken already, that meant that there must be many of them indeed, but like going through a list, the king was doing his best to smother each and every one of them, even if that meant he killed them all.
Other than this new understanding, the journey was nearly dull. We passed through the valleys with no problems and crossed the Wicked River without being attacked by the trolls that tended to roam there near the bridges. The wetlands were laborious to walk through, but other than a few swarms of irritating bugs and a near strike of a rotsnake, it was uneventful.
Arion became quieter as we travelled, but also... not kinder, simply different. Though he had been protecting me since the beginning, I began to feel like I was less of a burden on him and more of a responsibility he took with honor.
He had never been a Shadow Knight of course, but his father was, and as if occupations could be passed down through blood, he began to go over a change that made him less of a mercenary and more of a knight. It was easy to tell the difference, too, no matter how gradual the change was, because Jazera and Aitch also noticed it, though there had been little he needed to protect me from.
Jazera then quickly became more hostile toward me. Not verbally, but with looks. However, by the time we had crossed the bridge, she had stopped as if it was simply taking too much effort to hate me and became indifferent instead. I didn’t take it personally because I knew she was only worried for Arion, but sometimes it hurt my self-esteem a little, though I dared not show it.
Aitch seemed his normal, cheerful self except when coin was mentioned, at first at least, but he seemed even unable to hold a grudge about even that and eventually warmed up to me, treating me in many ways like a little sister, similar to how he treated Jaz – much to her disappointment. He’d tease me occasionally and would be the first to guard me if Arion was off fetching water or hunting for meat.
It became warmer very quickly, and it was often commented that I kept my cloak on. The heat wasn’t brutal or sticky with the humidity of summer yet, but under my cloak, I was near constantly soaked in sweat and drank more water than the others because of it, making it impossible to lie and say I didn’t notice. So, I told them the excuse that my skin reacted terribly to the sun – not hard to believe as I was so pale from years of hiding under my hood. So that subject was eventually dropped.
However, I was so low on the ointment that I only put it on while nearing towns or when I laid down to sleep, which made me tense almost constantly since one blow of the wind in the wrong direction at the wrong time could mean my death.
But the wind never blew my hood back at the wrong time and my mark was not seen. As I said, everything was quite boring indeed.
Then, we climbed the low hill that ended the borders of the wetlands, and there, the great walls of the labyrinth known as the Kings’ Maze stood off in the distance, not a days’ ride away and we knew it would be boring no longer.
“You know, Mir, if you feel like bailing last minute, not one of us are going to hold it against you,” Jazera said from where she sat across the fire, scraping the edge of one of her many newly-made arrows to make it sharper.
“Relax, Jazera,” Aitch said, sprawled on the ground flipping his ax into the air above his head and catching it, over and over again. “It’s not that bad. The maze isn’t half so bad as the Black Mountains, or even Northern Eastwood, or the North Mountains. People still go in there all the time to search for things even though it was all cleared out years ago.”
“Yes, but we are the idiots,” she looked hard at me, making sure I knew that I was the we in that sentence, “who are going all the way to the center. I saw that map,” she reminded in reply to the look of surprise on my face. “People skirt the edges so they can get out quick if need be. But all the way to the center is just stupid.”
“The map shows us where to go, yes, so we won’t get lost, but it will still take days. That thing is arms long.”
“What Mir was trying to say,” Arion said, “was that the map shows her hidden passages, places unreachable except by knowing where to look. It will cut the trip down to about a day.”
“So? We still have to spend the night inside the labyrinth.”
“Inside a hidden area,” I emphasized, then: “I know it will still be dangerous, and I’m not trying to make it sound safe. - chances are one of us is going to be limping out of there by the end of it - but I wouldn’t take us in unless I thought we could do it. Just like the North Mountains.”
“And the Black Mountains?” She gave a sarcastic smile. “Because if I remember correctly, and I’m quite sure I do, but your greed for some jewel had Rian killed.”
I felt my throat constrict at the mention of his name.
“Enough, Jazera,” demanded Arion quietly as he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezing gently. I touched his hand and gave him a grateful smile as he continued. “We all know it’s dangerous and we all know there’s a possibility of death. I swore to follow her in there and to protect her, but neither of you did, so once again I tell you if you don’t want to risk it, then wait for us here and we’ll be back in a few days.”
Jazera gave an irritated huff. “You’d never make it without my arrows, and you know it, Arion. I’m going. We both are.”
Aitch nodded. “We are.”
And that was that.
Nothing was said that night, nor the next morning when we gathered our things, nor even down the long road that curved right along the edge of the round maze that was a labyrinth. It wasn’t until we reached the northern entrance – the beginning of those lines on the map I had memorized – that anyone spoke, and that was only when we saw the corpse of a hunter in the entrance.
He was face down upon the ground with no less than nine arrows in his back. The body was old enough to stink and bloat, but not old enough to visibly rot. His face was frozen in an open mouth shout of silent terror.
“Not the best omen, is it?” said Aitch grimly.
We all agreed with nods and entered the Kings Maze.
The Kings Maze, which had long ago been taken over by legions of goblins.