No one said run, we simply moved so quickly up the side that I felt like I was flying. When I was set on my feet, Arion was already grabbing my arm and yanking me down the narrow passage which we had to crouch in to fit. Already Jazera was shooting arrows and I heard Aitch’s ax hitting something solid.
We raced. It was a race against hundreds. The tunnel was less than fifty twigs long, but it felt so much longer; it was nearly dream-like.
Then there was the climb down.
Arion went down first, which surprised me but gave me the chance to turn and see a sight that would haunt me for a very long time.
Jazera was right next to me, shooting her bow in quick succession, sometimes two or three at a time without a pause in between. Her face was fierce and determine even as it was also filled with pain from the arrow sticking out of her arm, quivering in the air each time she pulled the string.
Ahead of her stood Aitch. His massive bulk crowded the tunnel and yet he swung two axes with ease, cutting off a head, a leg, an arm, and blocking enemy arrows with it like a shield at the same time. He did this even as Jazera shot those arrows over his shoulder, under his arm, between his side and the wall, under his ear.
It was an incredible sight.
But next were the goblins.
They crowded each space. Even as one fell in death another was there to plug up the hole, surging forward as one like a grey, wriggling wall. Some of their tiny arrows shot from this wall, but mostly they only surged forward as they crawled on all sides of the passage. Some crawled on the ceiling above the mess on the ground and knocking heads with the ones on the sides, more seemed to crawl or cling to those so that they were using each other to move forward. Even as they did this - even as they went over their own bodies - they screamed and snarled masses of sounds that were of triumph.
Min! they shouted most with glee. Min! Min! Dah min!
It was close enough to elven that I was able to translate it but wished that I could not.
Meat! They called. Meat! Meat! Meat to eat!
Then I was starting down the ladder and blocking my sight, yet still it left me almost listless and shaken.
I understood shortly after this why Arion had gone first, despite his protective instincts usually keeping himself between me and danger. It was because when Jazera and Aitch leaped onto the ladder above me it left no defense to the goblins so the creatures spread out of the tunnel onto the walls like a swarm, shooting as they went. One struck me in the arm and the shock of the pain on the crumbled, awkward, stone ladder had my fingers slipping and I was falling back.
Arion caught me quickly and with a grunt, obviously expecting my fall, then set me on my feet.
And we were running again, but this time I could see where to go, and we were so very, very close.
The center ring had been used as a place for balls and dancing. Unlike the rest of the maze, this area had been filled with beautiful marble flooring instead of grasses so that no dance would be hindered.
Now it was cracked and scattered with a thousand bones. This was where they brought their dead. This is where they brought their food. This was the center of their territory and from this, there was no escape...
Except for one place.
In the exact center stood what was once a beautiful and elegant statue of Queen Belera, whom was the first in the royal line that had been marked by the Grey Stone. It had been she that had found it, and she was the oldest ancestor I knew of. In the statue, Belera Greyov was holding her skirts in one hand which twirled out, lifelike around her, and had one arm raised as if being spun in a dance by an invisible companion. I knew this because I had seen drawings of this statue.
I would never guess it, looking at her now.
Pieces had been broken off of her face, while feces - as well as the clothing of the dead - hung from her as if these creatures had defiled her on purpose. No longer did she look like she was dancing but as if she were running away from something terrible, her hand raised as if to reach for help, her mouth open in horror instead of laughter.
And as we ran toward this massive statue, other goblins ran from the other side as well and I realized that we were completely surrounded.
There had to be thousands. It was impossible to tell because they moved so quickly and were in so many places, but there had to be thousands for sure. They came forward in a wave from the walls of which they climbed over, from the passages, from the crack in the wall on the west side, from holes broken in the siding. A wave of thousands upon thousands, circling widely as they surged around us with cackling laughter as if for a final, hysterical taunt of death.
And though our escape was right there in view, I had no time to get us out.
An arrow struck my shoulder, then my lower back, and then my leg in quick succession: thunk-thunk-thunk.
I fell, rolling from the momentum of my run and the Ruberous Faun skittered from my hand across the cracked marble. One arrow struck me directly in the chest as I rolled and I thought with horror, Oh no, I’m dead.
But I did not die immediately. Instead, I felt more than heard a ragged sound in my chest on my inhale and knew the arrow had pierced my lungs but not my heart. Another struck me in the leg, then another in my side, once again piercing something vital but it did not matter as I would not survive the pain anyway.
Arion fell on top of me, ripping out the arrows in my body even as he covered me with his own, his arm curling around my head to protect it, his other arm reached around himself to pull an arrow from his own shoulder.
“The gem!” He shouted at me, then he coughed, splattering my neck with blood that came from his mouth. “Where’s the... ruby thing?”
I could do nothing but look toward it and he followed my gaze, then cursed under his breath and lowered his head to my shoulder. I was then able to see that Jazera was still standing, literally standing over us with one foot wedged between both of ours and the other outside of it, shooting constantly at a speed that was terrifying even for one that was not an enemy. Aitch was doing his best to block her from the arrows that went to her with is axes or even his own body, but he was getting so many himself that it would not be long before he fell.
Arion's head lifted, he opened his mouth to speak, but then he jerked and grunted as another arrow hit him somewhere. His forehead went down on mine weakly.
Was this it then? Had I truly gone so far only to die now? Here before the statue that would save us?
I put my hand up to Arion’s face. I wanted to tell him I was sorry. I wanted to tell him I tried. I wanted to explain my reasons. I wanted to say so, so much more. I wanted, I realized, to kiss him goodbye.
But when I opened my mouth, blood dribbled out, choking from my lungs with a liquid rattle. I did not dare try and speak but he seemed to know what I wished to say. Then another arrow struck him, and he grunted once more.
Still, he managed to move his hand to mimic me, his fingers brushing my cheek, then my jaw in a way far too gentle with the horror around us. “It’s okay,” he said raggedly, blood from his lips dripping onto my own lips and chin, mixing with my lifeblood until I wasn’t sure whose I was tasting. His forehead was still on mine. “It’s alright.”
Jazera was down now, I noticed. She was lying next to us but still shooting somehow. Aitch was on his knees, trying to cover her without being in the way of her shots. They would die fighting, I knew. An honorable death. I only wished to have the strength to do the same.
I felt the weakness now, even over the excruciating pain. My head fell to the side, Arion’s face sliding into my neck, my eyes trying to close but I would not let them.
I would not die sleeping, I would fight to stay alive to the last moment, it was all I could do for the people I failed. For Arion, Jazera, Aitch, even Rian. For my people who wore the blue. For Jovian.
For my father, who I failed the most.
I wanted to clutch at the pennant around my neck which held the note from my father, and thoughts of the White Stone came to me, but Arion was nearly dead weight on me now so could not reach either even if I tried. I knew he wasn’t dead yet though as his hand still stroked my hair, his breath hot on my neck, but he would be soon.
I forced my eyes open, realizing I’d closed them without noticing. I could barely breathe. I was drowning. Not in water this time but in my own blood, I was drowning. Drowning while the goblins cried out in victory, cackling as they moved in closer. Ever closer.
Closer to rip us to pieces and feast on our poisoned flesh.
I wondered if I would drown first or if one of my other wounds would kill me. Or blood loss, or the pain, or the goblins themselves. It was another kind of race now which my body was doing - racing to see which killed me first, as all were fatal.
But... who was that?
Two people in shades of faded blues and blacks were fighting off goblins as well. One with arrows, the other with a sword, both of them moving as if in an incredibly practiced and perfected dance. Another was with them, carrying something that looked like sandglass, or perhaps crystal. It was large and awkward looking, but it too moved.
Shield, I realized. An oddly shaped, translucent shield.
Why were they here? Where did they come from? I... I didn’t understand.
One knelt next to me, the face blurry, forming one figure, then two, then one again. A hand reached out and moved the hair from my neck. It didn’t matter now if they saw the marks, yet I still flinched away, as if I had a chance at life. My movement made Arion aware and his forehead lifted from my shoulder. Shockingly, his hand went for his sword as if he had a chance of fighting anything off.
“She’s alive! It’s her!” the blurry figure shouted, the voice unfamiliar. Then a curse. “Get me another!” Then the face lowered, coming from two blurry figures to a single clear one, revealing blue eyes set into an aged face, then going blurry again. “Just hang in there, Your Majesty, we’ll get you out of here.”
It took me several moments to hear those words and understand them enough to get a reaction, but eventually I got one.
But then the confusion faded and hope sprung up; I had no idea who these people were or why they were here, but they were here, and they were a chance at life.
Strength built up in me. Not enough to move but enough to speak a word.
He knelt closer and I saw another shield of glass behind him. “What’s that, Your Majesty?”
“Gem.” I could say no more but Arion could.
Like me, he did not know who these people were, but also like me, he did not want to die. “Get the gem. It will heal her,” he motioned weakly but could do not much more than that.
Still, this figure understood and shouted orders. I’m not sure if I fell unconscious for a moment, or if I had died briefly, but the next thing I knew I felt the Ruberous Faun healing me as it pressed against my face.
I began coughing violently as the blood in my lungs forced its way up and out. I rolled onto my side, out from under Arion and the moment I realized I was capable of doing so, I pressed the stone to Arion’s face and held it there as I looked around.
I was still weak, I needed blood, I was in severe pain, and I could still die, but in comparison to my feelings only moments ago, I felt as energetic as a child gifted a new toy and my eyes seemed to take in a thousand things at once.
They took in the men shooting arrows in a single row, the line from myself to the base of the statue; I saw one of those fighting men on the ground, dead or wounded I could not tell from my angle; I saw the blue-eyed man looking at me worriedly, not even glancing about himself as he trusted his companions to guard his back completely.
But mostly, they took in how close the goblins were. They were much closer then they had been last I looked, but judging by how fast they moved, less than half a minute must have passed since I'd fallen. It had felt like several minutes, but there was no way it had been that long because we would be dead in several minutes. In less than that.
The statue - a hundred twigs high at least - was moved to the side and four men fought around it, the hidden passage beneath it was opened. One man lay dead at their feet, arm twisted awkwardly under him, the other holding an empty bow. The rest were going strong. Four others were making a passage from me to the entrance, plus the one kneeling at my side holding two shields up over my head.
Jaz and Aitch were laying down. Aitch covering Jazera in much the same way as Arion had covered me, but Jaz was still shooting awkwardly around his massive body, though slowly and was on her last quiver.
I wondered briefly if she would still shoot her arrows even as she lay dead, as if by magic.
Aitch was full on gaping at me, finding it in himself to be shocked at a time like this. My hair was pulled back still, I realized. Even if he hadn’t heard the man call me majesty, he now knew who I was.
I didn’t matter. I would worry on it later. One problem at a time.
“We must move, Your Majesty, we cannot hold them off much longer,” called the blue-eyed man.
“I will not leave without these people at my side,” I told him. My voice was raw, my sentence interrupted by a cough, I was listing to the side and blinking to keep my vision clear... but it was still an order, and an obvious one.
They wasted no time.
Jazera was now standing again so Arion must have given her the Ruberous. She shrugged off a man that was trying to help her and kept on shooting instead as Aitch was helped to his feet. I was pulled up but stumbled and fell. The man with the blue eyes caught me, but when he went to pick me up, Arion did so instead, shouting at the blue-eyes man to lead the way before calling out to Jaz to stop shooting and run, run, run.
Then, after Arion ran for a few steps and I was so crowded in by people – and dizzy besides – that I couldn’t even see the goblins anymore, the statue was directly above us and then we were going down a ladder into a narrow, dim space. Shouting. Shouting all around us. So confusing. Then we were falling.
I was very nearly crushed as Arion slipped off the ladder in his weak state, but he broke my fall instead and rolled atop me, protecting me from the rain of arrows and stone that were thrown after us.
I gripped him, shaking my head violently though I wasn’t sure why I was doing so. I heard a lever click and there was a deep rumble as the stone above shifted and began to close.
Another man jumped down, landing next to us, then Jazera was literally dropped through the narrowing hole followed by Aitch, who crawled down the ladder then stumbled just as Arion had, falling next to us with a pained groan. Two more men came through of which I did not know.
And then goblins began coming through, six, seven, ten... the twelfth screamed as it was cut in half by the stone closing up and blood sprayed down like a sickly rain, splashing the back of Arion’s head and my face both.
Jazera shot two, then reached for another arrow only to find she had no more. She’d finally run out. A goblin leaped onto the neck of a man who struck it with a sword but not before his throat was ripped out.
That was all I saw before Arion was covering me again, his arm tucking my head in under his chin and curling around me best he could. For once, I could hear his breathing in my ear because each breath was directly against it, hard and labored but steady and alive.
Then quite abruptly, there was a moment of complete silence.
Then a strangers voice. “That’s all of them, Ridiq.”
Jazera: “Aitch, where’s that healing stone?” and then her voice again saying, “here, heal him or he’ll be dead in seconds.”
Another voice. “What is—”
“Just do it, you idiot. Arion, are you alright?”
“Yes,” he said against my ear, and after a breath he pulled back to look at my face. It was dim lighting in here, but I could see enough to see the worry etching the corners of his eyes. “Are you alright?” he asked me quietly.
I nodded, still breathing heavily.
Someone knelt next to me. “She’s still bleeding," that someone said and I looked to see the same blue-eyed man. “You need a healers touch, Your Majesty. I need to get you to the main hall. Orro will bring you aide. Are you able to stand?”
Arion shifted off me. “I’ll carry her.”
“What are you people calling her majesty for?” Jazera asked, crinkling her nose at me as I stood. Then her eyes widened, her face agape in a way that was almost comical. Her eyes on my neck where my hair was still pulled back from the fall. “How the... how...”
I couldn’t help but smile - I'd secretly been waiting for this moment. “I told you I wasn’t the kind of person you thought I was.”
“But... but you...”
I would have loved to have said more, perhaps another I-told-you-so, or explain something. However, when Arion lifted me up into his arms, it seemed my body had finally had enough of being conscious and I passed out against his shoulder.
That was quite enough of being awake for one day.