Once we ate (early, spring vegetables from Orro mostly, and jerky from our own packs) we all sat around together. Except for Arion who stayed standing behind my chair as if still protecting me, and Jazera was laying on the ground tossing arrows in the air like a juggler. I had my cloak around me again and fought the urge to lift my hood over my head.
Orro began without prompting.
“I was one who worked with the scrolls for your parents,” he explained. “I researched legends and the Old Kings, trying to find ancient artifacts and such. Eastwood had grown enough to hit the edges of another town and so your mother feared for the future and wished to find a way to stop the spread. That was my original purpose anyway, but I also found contacts in the North with my son, which is what I was doing when the Beoworth’s attacked the castle.”
He was quiet a moment, mind drifting back, then continued. “There were many guards with us in town, and the knights came for them with the dragons. It was then that I knew the Beoworth’s had finally succeeded and knew I must flee. Those with me who had your mothers’ blood around our neck did just that.
“For a few months, we traveled along, looking for others, but after there were a few close calls, we thought we’d leave Nahdiera and go to some other land, one far from here and never return. Oh, what a forlorn group of men we were right then.” He shook his head and he and Ridiq shared a sad smile of remembrance. “But then luck seemed to come.
“See,” he leaned forward. “A young scullery maid had taken it upon herself to serve this new king, because she thought there was something a little... off about him. Something about the way he seemed afraid of every shadow made her b’lieve that someone just may have survived of Greyov blood.
“She had been just a scullery maid, yes, but she had had the smarts to hide away some of Kir’s blood during the battle in case the battle turned sour, and so she couldn’t be heard by the Grey Stone at all.”
Kir? I was confused a moment, then realized he’d meant my mother, Keira.
A small smile formed when I realized that Jovian had nicknamed me Mir instead of Mei or Meir because of my mothers’ nickname.
“Good that,” Orro continued, shaking a finger. “Because she found out the someone had smuggled the princess out during the battle. Carigus Beoworth didn’t know who or how, and so he was nervous of every shadow, thinking it must be a Greyov or someone close to the king. He had a good number of knights loyal to him for sure looking for you, girl, but he just couldn’t find you.
“The maid – Latra was her name – found our group just outside of Eastwood.” He smiled at me then. “Well, at once, we had a new purpose. Even knowing you were still alive we knew it would be some time before you could come back, wherever you’d gone. That gave us much time to find out where you’d go when you needed the strength. I’d been doing research, as I said, and so I knew what the king and his closest knew because I was the one that told them, and I suspected that eventually, you’d need at least one of three things. Two of them were in places we could never get to, but here?” he motioned to the room we were in. “Well, we could get here just fine, so long as we could find the way.”
“Took us a few days,” said Ridiq, then, a sad look on his face. “And we lost a lot of men. There were about thirty of us to start, twelve of us made it through and that was with the help of your uncle who we’d found along the way.”
“My uncle?” I straightened. Who was my uncle? I had more family?
“Dead now,” Ridiq told me apologetically. “His link to the Grey Stone lead the Dragon Knights to us and when a terrible plague started out, they dropped the dead on us. Suddenly we found half of us dying.”
I remembered that. The plague. All the bodies being carried to the Kings’ Maze. To kill off the goblins, they’d said. Now I knew that wasn’t true.
Orro’s nodded in memory. “Only four of us survived that plague. Ridiq, his son, and my granddaughter. Myself, too, of course.”
I looked around at the others in confusion. “Then how...”
“These tunnels, we’ve found, were not only storage as we’d first thought but were used as an emergency escape for the royals and lords. No one knew, I suspected, because it had never needed to be used but these tunnels lead out to the twenty-third circle. Still a bit of a run to get out, but much easier than it’d be from here.
“Ridiq went out a few years ago, finding those who still wore the blood around their neck and bringing them here. Varci,” he motioned, “was a lord still loyal to your line but pretended otherwise for Carigus. Croe here was a Shadow Knight,” – I knew it! – “but changed into a mercenary after the attack. It was luck he was found – or fate, if you please. Toil was a knight as well, serving under Lord Oborious, whom I’m sad to say, died last night bringing you in.”
I thought if the blurry memory of a man lying on the ground, bow still in hand, and my heart clenched. “I’m sorry, I wish I-”
“No apologies, Your Majesty, please.” Said Toil. “Obi, just like the rest of us, have waited for ten or more years for the day we would be needed. If it took every one of our lives, it would have been worth such sacrifice.” Toil bowed his handsome head in my direction while the others nodded.
Sacrifice. It seemed everything always needed a sacrifice.
Still, I felt my heart clenching. I knew I would have to get used to this if I were to be queen, but it was not easy having people treat me with so much respect after I’ve spent my life hiding who I was.
As if sensing my discomfort, Aitch chuckled and grinned at me, making me feel a little more at ease though the laugh had been done at an inappropriate time.
“So, you’ve been here for ten years?” I asked. “Underground like this?”
Orro nodded, a greasy wisp of white hair flopping over his bald crown. “We have a few gardens up on the walls or through patches in the labyrinth we get to occasionally, but mostly we’ve stayed here, waiting for you.”
“It’s been difficult the last two years,” said Cronin, Ridiq’s son whom had to be a year or two younger than I was. His face was sheepish, his speech a little muffled like his tongue was too thick to speak around. “We thought you were dead. Or was trying to think we were wrong about you bein’ dead but that you was dead.”
I blinked. I was confused.
Ridiq seemed uncomfortable. “My son... he is a good fighter and a loyal lad but surviving the plague... took something from his mind. His words often become backwards and he’s not good at explaining things.” He swallowed deeply, a nervous tic. “But he’s loyal, Your Majesty, I vows you that, and a better fighter then even I, he won’t cause any problems—”
I laughed at Ridiq’s reddening face as he tried to explain his son while also defending him. “You have no need to defend him, Ridiq, please. And call me Mir, or Meira if you prefer as I’m unused to such propriety.” I smiled at Cronin then. “You said you thought I was dead?” At least, I thought that was what he was trying to say. “Why is that?”
But Cronin wouldn’t speak again, his face flushed in embarrassment before he put his chin down to hide it.
Orro answered for them. “You come into full power at about sixteen summers. Once you reach that age, it’s extremely difficult to suppress your magic. In times of anger especially, the magic bursts out of one who suppress it, leaving an... an imprint on the Stone for which King Carigus could follow easily. We were beginning to believe – as it passed your sixteenth summer and then your seventeenth and eighteenth – that you had perished. Tell me, how did you suppress it so well?”
“I didn’t even know about that. But Jovi has always had me learn to keep calm when angry so that I didn’t lose control and act irrationally. By the time I reached sixteen summers, it became habit.”
He frowned. “Jovi?”
“Jovian Pova, he was—”
“Ah, Jovian. It was he who hid you? Somehow, I am not surprised. A good man he is.” He chuckled, his eyes turning back to the past again. I suspected he did that a lot.
Then he shook himself, as if trying to wake up. “Forgive me for interrupting, Meira, it’s just that Jovian was another I had mourned and now am glad to find he still lives... he does still live?”
Shenz, I hope so. I have been so overcome with worrying about myself that I’d somehow forgotten to worry for Jovi. He had always been a strong person to me, someone so tall and unbreakable, so the thought of him dying while I was not there wasn’t something that had crossed my mind.
But I had thought Rian so strong, and Arion, Jazera, Aitch, and I very nearly died up there. Would have if it weren't for these strangers. If there is one thing this mission has taught me, it’s that no one, no matter how strong, is invincible.
“Meira?” Orro prompted, worried at my pause.
I shook myself, as Orro had. “Yes. He was unable to travel with me, so he hired Arion.”
His raised his hand out to me. “Begin at the beginning. Please. How is it you were smuggled from the castle keep?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve never asked,” I admitted. My hand went up to my pendant, then after a moment’s hesitation, I opened it. “He wrote this – my father, I mean – and it’s been around my neck since that day.” I handed it to Orro whom moved it around comically in order to read the lettering with his failing eyes.
When he was finally done, he pressed it to his chest a moment, reminding me of all the time I’d done the same to feel closer to him, then handed it back to me. “And have you done as he asked? The Black Mountains? The dragons in the North?” Before I could answer, he shook his head. “No, tell me from the beginning as I said. Don’t mind my questions or we’ll never stop.”
And so, I sat, and I told them my story.
I told them of how we had first moved around Nahdiera until the borders were less guarded, then how we had been smuggled across the seas where I was raised in an old hunters village, then how we had gone to the elven king, filthy and exhausted and disguised as traders until we were alone with him and for the first time, I was introduced by my real name.
I told them of going back to Nahdiera and living in the mudwaters. Of fighting and training masked and caged to disguise who I was. I told them of my years of loneliness, and my years of impatience. Of hunting beasts and of dodging Dragon Knights.
I told them of finally being sure I was ready to begin my quest, only to have Jovian bring me across some of the darkest parts of Nahdiera on our way to Qa’elah to prove it to him. Then I told them of hunting down Arion, to which Jovian was adamant of (here, I wondered if Jovian had known that Arion had been the son of a Shadow Knight, but didn’t voice my thoughts, though I would be sure to ask Jovian when I saw him again).
Then, Arion and I took turns explaining what happened during our time together. We told the tales of joining with Jazera, Aitch and Rian, then of Eastwood. Finally, I told my side of the story in Luqas, where the Dragon Knights had come, and I had hidden in a barrel.
Then it was of the mudwaters. Of telling them what had actually happened with the witch.
“Really?” Jazera said here with a raised brow. “A bad luck curse? That’s why you were so...”
I nodded, answering her unfinished question. “I am no witch.”
“Clearly, Little One” Aitch said with a smirk.
Speaking of the Black Mountains was done in hushed tones and silent whispers. I was the one who explained my choice of going to find the Ruberous. Going there had not been a mistake, as the Ruberous had saved our lives so many times it could not be argued, but I still felt guilt at Rian’s death. When Orro tried to assure me that I had done the right thing, my eyes flashed. “I should have handled it different. I should have explained what I wished to get. Being in the center of the Black Mountains and wanting a gem that could heal was an easy enough reason to have given them, but I chose to hide it instead and lie. It was a foolish mistake.”
“Yes. It was,” Jazera agreed simply, earning a glare from nearly everyone in the room except myself, Ritch, and Arion who simply sighed at her bluntness.
Then I told them of parting with the remaining Shadows and heading into the northern part of Eastwood on my own. Of the fog, the kraken — “you should really stay away from water,” Croe put in here, and I couldn’t help but agree — and then of the black dragons, to which the only comment was Aitch claiming to have pissed himself. “The beast looked like a snake!" he said. “Even worse than the werm. Snakes shouldn’t have bloody legs.”
We talked for hours. My throat was parched and hoarse by the time we reached the end, and my back ached from sitting so long in the uncomfortable chair of stone. Arion had long since sat down on the floor near Jaz, and Aitch had laid down, beginning to toss his axe in the air, taking over Jazera’s juggling.
But when the story was finished, when all was said that needed to be said, we sat in silence for a while.
Lessa went and got some drinks from some darkened corner and for the first time, I accepted a glass of ale when I didn’t need it to keep me warm. It was most definitely a need at this point as my thoughts went everywhere.
Jazera was the first one to break the silence. “So why are we here? What’s so powerful that even the White Stone wasn’t good enough, but this was?”
Orro grinned and the two of us spoke the words in a whisper at the same time, causing an ominous chill we couldn’t explain to hang in the air around us.