We walked in silence as we followed the Shadow through the streets. Rather, Jovian followed the Shadow, while I followed Jovian – only his mage abilities made it possible. I was trained well in tracking and following, but Shadows were aptly named as it was similar to trying to track a ghost, one with no purpose.
When the streets were dark and blackened by night, I feared we would lose him completely except right at the moment of thought, he turned into a tavern that had only an unreadable sign hanging above the worn door. We were now in a part of town that would have been poor even during times of wealth. Together we entered the tavern, one gloved hand hiding in my pocket, fingers curled around the hilt of my blade at my hip. Being on the run for my entire life meant being in these places often, but that only made me all too aware of the dangerous types that frequented them.
Of course, they all paled in comparison to the Shadow that now sat in the corner of the bar, his back to us. The dark hood over his head and a sword shaping over the curve of his back, hilt above his right shoulder.
I looked to Jovian for further instruction, but he was already walking across the sticky, wooden floor toward the figure. I followed quickly, my head down, being sure my face was covered as much as possible even in the dim lighting. I was glad it was winter as my hooded cloak didn’t bring so many curious eyes as it would in the heat of summer.
The cloak the Shadow wore was clearly expensive with finely woven wool and hints of grey glowsilk weaved throughout, but it was well worn and rough, showing him a traveler. The blade he bore was sheathed and yet it was clear it was a fine one, even with the stain of oil around the grip where it had been handled so many times. I noticed his boots when I moved up to one side of him, just out of sight of his hood. They were of the most costly of dragon hides with spikes around the edges for spurring as well as fighting, the leather soft where it creased, proving its use.
“Well?” Asked the Shadow, lifting the wooden cup of questionable cleanliness to his lips a moment before continuing his question. “Have you been following me around all day to kill me or to hire me? I hope for your sake ’tis not the former.”
I felt a little embarrassed at being caught, but not surprised, after all, what good was a Shadow that could not feel the shadows that moved behind him?
And this particular Shadow was the best. It was why we had risked going to the Viewing Square when we did - it was the only place we could be sure to catch a glimpse of him.
“The latter,” said Jovian. “For a price you can’t refuse.”
He took another drink. I recognized the action as someone buying a moment to think. “If you want someone dead, you’ll need permission of King Marqis.”
“We have no need of your mercenary skills.”
He said nothing, but I suspected we had caught his attention. No doubt that was what most asked of from the Shadow.
When he said nothing else, Jovian spoke again. “Perhaps we can speak somewhere more private?”
Without a word, the Shadow stood and began walking around the counter. After a moment and a shared look, we followed him. The barmaid turned her back to us on purpose, so that she could later claim ignorance with at least partial honesty.
The Shadow knew where he was going. The hall was a mess of rats and old meat that was beginning to stale, we moved through the filthy kitchen of heat where a single, scrawny cook and an even thinner dishwasher boy turned their backs on us as the barmaid had. We entered a small room filled with barrels of ale and a single, spluttering lantern which hung precariously on a rotting post.
The Shadow closed the door behind us and leaned against it, crossing his arms as he studied us but spoke so quickly that I was sure he’d somehow already done so at length. “An old mage and a little girl. Poor by the looks of you. I highly doubt you could afford my services.”
Jovian reached in his cloak and tossed the Shadow a purse. The Shadow caught it deftly and emptied it out onto his hand revealing a dozen tiny rocks sparkling even in the dim light. I could not see his eyes (how he had seen ours beneath our cloaks, and how he knew Jovian was a mage was a mystery to me) but I knew we caught his attention completely because those stones were dragon crystals, and each was worth over fifty coins of gold. Jovian had just given him enough to live off of comfortably for at least three summers. Comfortable as in to a king.
He carefully poured them back inside the purse and pocketed it. “I’m listening.” He informed us simply.
Though I could not see his face, Jovian was smiling that smile he bore when amused and wary both, I knew. “Meet us at The Stale Barrel on the morrow at high noon. Room eight.”
“I don’t have time for chasing anything.”
“Then you are not what we need.” Said Jovian simply and motioned at the door, causing it to open inward and push against the Shadow in a rude manner as it did. Then Jovian took my arm and led me out, being sure to keep his body between me and the Shadow on our exit.
Back on the street, I risked speaking though I knew we were being followed. “Will he come?”
I fought the urge to grimace – he was always doing that, asking me the same question in answer of my own. He told me it was so that I could learn to think for myself, so that I would have no need to rely on him as he would not always be with me, but I could already think for myself, I was only asking his opinion.
“Yes.” I said.
I sighed. “Because your wealth will lure him.”
“No.” He said. ”Why, Mir?”
I shot a glare in his direction though he could not see it, then sighed again and thought a moment.
A Shadow is usually drawn in by wealth, but this was The Shadow. The best, the deadliest, and even often hired by the king. Though he would be drawn by the riches, no doubt he already acquired enough coin of his own.
“Because he’s curious.” I understood.
“Yes.” He said finally. “He will come.” He did not sound pleased by this, but I felt only impatient – I wanted to get moving, not stand around waiting when we already knew that he would come.
I loosened my grip on his arm and let out a deep breath, speaking to myself. I am Meira Greyov. Nahdiera is my kingdom. With breaths of patience I will regain the throne. With impatience I will fail my father.
The words calmed me, but my impatience still lingered. Morn could not come soon enough.
The dreary grey sky was threatening a snowstorm, making noon look like eve, but at the call of noon, the door opened though we’d had it locked, and the Shadow entered, wearing what he’d worn the night before. Jovian had told me that the Shadow had been watching all night, attempting to discover who we were.
You could not tell he’d had a sleepless night by his alert eyes for which I could now see in the brightness of the several lanterns and the open window.
The Shadow was just as his clothing: fine material but well used. He had a genuinely handsome face, the kind you would expect to see on a powerful lord seeking even more power by charm. Square jaw and piercing grey eyes that were partially hidden by the dark curls of which most were slicked back but a few stubborn ones refused to be tamed. He had broad shoulders, tall, and the scruff of his face was even and clean.
But the skin was scarred, his nose had been broken more than once, his full lips were cracked from exposure, and those eyes were too dark and dangerous to bring warmth. As he closed the door and moved across the room when Jovian motioned to the table, his every movement was clear and precise in the way of a masterful hunter, oozing danger as if it were a perfume he’d soaked in before entering. His steps did not make a single sound.
In the confines of the room, Jovian and I no longer wore our hoods, though it was cold enough still that our cloaks remained draped over our shoulders. The Shadow studied us both openly, those eyes going across first my face before he dismissed me as harmless and then to Jovian for which he watched suspiciously.
Jovian let him look a moment, knowing that he would not be recognized by this man as the Shadow had only been a boy when my parents had been killed. Then he pulled a box from the bed and brought it over to the small table, sitting in the other chair. I sat on the bed, replacing the box’s seat to watch quietly. I, too, was like a Shadow - watching and waiting in the background, but as deadly as the movement of a dragon-glass blade.
Jovian went right down to business. “My niece and I are traders. We collect ancient artifacts of both the elemental and magical variety.”
The Shadow instantly believed he understood. “You wish for me to collect something for you.”
“No.” Said Jovian whom was not my uncle, nor a trader. “It is usually Mir who collects the artifacts,” he motioned to me, “but it’s too dangerous for her alone this time. I want to hire you to protect her during the times where she is unable to protect herself.”
The Shadow narrowed his eyes. “I don’t babysit little girls.”
I straightened, instantly bristling. “I’m nearly as old as you.”
He looked me over again, then returned his gaze to Jovian. “I don’t babysit.” He repeated.
I clenched my fists but said nothing, leaving this to Jovian as we had previously discussed.
Jovian opened the lid of the box with ancient hands and pulled out a piece of parchment with a rough drawing on it. “This is called a Nägo Parğm. See the symbols on the box? That’s ancient Elven, bringing this box to the century of 112 and was used to hold treasures in hiding during the War of Giants. It was apparently lost in the dark lands and people have been searching for centuries for it, but we’ve recently acquired a journal of a male elf that mentions hiding the box, among other things, away from the rest of the treasures.”
The Shadow took the parchment and studied the drawing as he spoke. “Where did this journal claim to hide it?”
“In the caves beneath the Black Mountains.”
At that he looked up, his eyebrow high. “You expect two people to enter the Black Mountains and survive? Or does your niece irritate you so thoroughly you wish her to commit suicide?”
I stood, throwing up my hands. “What could I have possibly done in such a short amount of time to–”
"Mir.” That warning tone again. I glared at Jovian, then sighed and closed my eyes.
I am Meira Greyov. Nahdiera is my kingdom. But not if I get myself killed because I threatened a Shadow.
I slowly sat back down with forced calmness.
Jovian continued. “Mir has memorized a map of the tunnels and knows about where the Nägo Parğm resides. She also knows how to pass through several of the hidden gates. With her as a guide, the passage through should be cut into a matter of days rather than months.”
“An hour inside the Black Mountains is a death sentence. There are werms, mutts, arachiti, goblins–”
“We are both well-educated on what resides inside the mountains, among other things, Arion Conius.”
Stating the name of the Shadow surprised him, as well as myself – not many remembered the names of those marked as Shadows. Even less dared say their names aloud without permission.
Jovian let the Shadow sit a moment before he spoke again.
“We have learned and prepared all we can, but my niece needs protection on her journey, and I am far too old to accompany her. You are the best of the Shadows, so you will have her back.”
Those eyes narrowed. “If you know so much, you must know my price is higher than most but the king can afford when my own life is at risk, never mind when I have to drag along another.”
Jovian put his hand in the box and tossed it to the Shadow. It was a purse, a large one, filled, I knew, with more dragon crystals. “For your travels.” He said.
Then in a dramatic display, he turned the wooden box over completely, making the thousand or so crystals fall out in a loud sprinkling, scattering across the small table and landing on the floor in a black rain of riches. “And this is yours on your return, so long as my niece is alive, and she carries the Nägo Parğm as well as her choice of contents from the treasure trove inside of it.”
As the Shadows eyes glinted in the greed of man, Jovian continued. “If you return without both those things, you will find I’ve misplaced this box of mine and you will never find it. Understand?”
The Shadow by the name of Arion Conius looked up from the glittering display and smiled the smile of a man who had all his dreams at the tips of his fingers and was watching it creep ever closer with each passing second. His voice was thick with greed.
“When do we leave?”