Once again, I was armed fully. In a way that I hadn’t been since before Eastwood. Since ever, really, seeing as I now had a shield.
Apparently, they had quickly come to understand that the sandglass was actually strong enough when heated properly by a Shadow that the goblin arrows could not come through it could not break it – though some had chipped the edges a few times but that was the worst of the damage.
Because if this, they’d made several shields with the sandglass sculptures in the maze of tunnels beneath the labyrinth, and though they were a bit heavy for someone not used to wearing a shield on their back, I was assured repeatedly that it was much, much lighter than a regular shield and far easier to handle.
So, I now had one strapped over my back along with a quiver and bow. Which, I should add here, were of glass as well though we’re gripped with leather. These glass items would be entirely useless once we exited the maze, but until then, they could very well save our lives.
I had knives strapped to me, some made of gold which I doubted I would use but had until I could sell it in the nearest town or trade it in at the bank. My sword was the only weapon of mine that was something I was comfortable with carrying. Though I had to admit to myself, I felt quite fancy with such weapons on me, no matter how useless they actually were outside of the Kings’ Maze.
They were useless inside as well, it turns out, at least useless to me.
Why I carried any of it I had no idea, seeing as none of the knights would allow me to even raise the bow but instead crowded me protectively or carried me tucked in their arms. By the time we exited the maze, I was irritated with every single one of them but tried not to show it as I reminded myself several times over that I was their queen. I was their only chance at pulling the Beoworth family off the throne and bringing their homes back to a beautiful place. Of course they would be overly protective.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel irritated.
Orro didn’t seem to mind, however, as he had been treated the same way except that he was carried the entire time by Aitch, while I was passed around depending on whose arms were needed the most at the time. When we finally got outside of the maze with several injuries healed by the Ruberous Faun but nothing life threatening in the first place, Aitch let Orro walk a ways before he started carrying him again without being asked.
For this, I was grateful; though I had come to quickly love the old man, he was very, very slow at walking. Even worse than Jovian, though he looked healthier when all was said and done.
It was, once again, a boring trip. Other than the odd, easily-defeated creature, there was no attack. No action. No adventure. And when we had even the slightest bit of danger while crossing the bridge over the Wicked River and coming face to face with a very irritated and territorial troll, I was not allowed to do a single thing, forced to watch the others fight it off while Arion held my arm tightly, now to prevent me from joining the fight anyway.
By the time a town came into view, I was just about ready to strangle the lot of them.
And what was worse was that I couldn’t help but think all this traveling was useless anyway.
I was ready. I had what I needed, so why was I wasting time? Yes, it sounded safer to have everyone with me, and to speak to Jovian before confronting Marqis. Thinking about it though, it would be weeks of travel when in the end these people would be useless against a force like Marqis. Yes, they were strong and powerful and excellent fighters - of this I had no doubt - but they were no match against the magic of the Grey Stone.
I waited until we were all safely inside the room of the inn before bringing this up to the others.
Obviously, their immediate reaction was no.
“All you will be is someone else I need to protect,” I insisted. “You must surely admit that’s—”
“It isn’t happening,” Arion told me simply while the others nodded, backing Arion’s words.
And I could not insist further for they wouldn’t listen to another word I said.
The next day though, when they insisted I remain inside until they returned with what they needed to leave with from the market, I insisted fully on going, claiming I would follow them if they tried to go without me. So, I put on the very last of the ointment on my neck and joined them.
Summer was on its way now, coming full force and dragging spring away by the lobes of its ears. The heat was terrible under my cloak, but it was my own fault for coming out in such heat in the first place.
There were not many to question my choice of clothing anyway. Though this was the time of year that carts were usually filling with foods and wool and other such things, it was a dying land that surrounded us all and there was simply not much to see.
Taxes had been too high for so many years that most were homeless, the people learning to take others in during the winter, but in the summer all were laying against buildings on the street or crowding the richer parts of the small town to beg for work.
The amount of rain we’d had recently was good for the crops, along with the lack of frost, but there was simply not enough money to pay workers to harvest them. And those who had the money to did not sell half of them, for no one could afford it anyway.
More and more people were relying on personal gardens on their roofs or in their yards, trading for the other items they needed such as wool and oil and leather.
People all around were sickly. Not with plague, but with hunger. It was so much more horrible than what it had been only a few short weeks ago, that when I saw the man wearing a blue band around his arm, I immediately knew exactly what to do.
I knew I could wait no longer. Not because of my own impatience this time but due to the survival of my people. As things were going, I doubted they would make it through the summer. They needed me.
I would not fail them.
I turned to Arion and the others as I wiped at my neck with my cloak, knowing the sweat would make it easy to take the ointment off.
Arion looked immediately alarmed at my actions. “What are you—”
“There isn’t time to waste,” I interrupted firmly. “If all goes well, I will send dragons to the crossroads in Eltinbur to pick you up. If not... get out of Nahdiera. But I beg you to bring Jovian with you. He’ll be hiding in an inn called Dusted Pine or one called Jemison’s under the name of Jovi Carior.”
Arion’s eyes instantly narrowed with irritation. “You cannot do this, you stupid girl. You will travel with us to–”
I kissed him briefly to shut him up as well as to say goodbye, then pulled back and shook my head. “Take care of them. I’ll need you all at my side to keep me from getting myself killed inside the castle. I hear the bathing rooms for the royals are quite large. I may drown.” And without allowing them to stop me, I turned from my loyal companions and walked away.
The man who had the blue on his arm was leaving the stand with a handful of carrots of pathetic size. They fell out of his arms when I stopped him.
“You wear the blue band,” I stated as he bent to pick up the rolling vegetables.
He frowned at me even as he straightened, leaving half the carrots where they lay so that he could properly puff his chest out and defend himself. “I do,” he said as if it were a dare, chin up, looking both proud and frustrated. “And you are a fool for not doing so. They’re still searching you know, which means she’s still out there.”
I chuckled at his bluster and confidence. “I do not need a band to mark my loyalty,” I said and pulled back my hood before he could try and convince me further. “I have a mark of my own.”
He dropped the remainder of his carrots. “M–My Lady!” he gaped. “Your Majesty, I mean. I…”
I smiled and nodded, removing my gloves. I placed them in the pocket of my cloak, then began flexing my fingers in the open air as I spoke. “Yes. It is I. And I come to you for aide, Sir.”
“I—I am no knight, but I’ll do what I can, Your Majesty,” he vowed as people began to stop and gasp around us, seeing my revealed marks. My name began to get murmured. “It’s her,” they whispered. “It’s the Greyov Princess," and, ”it’s the Queen.”
“What I ask of you is simple: speak my name.” I looked around and spoke up so that all could hear me. “All of you, I beg. Speak my name in your minds a thousand times over. Scream it, if it please you.” I smirked, unable to help myself. “I’m afraid that I’m in need of ride to Qa’elah, and who is faster than a Dragon Knight?”
There were murmurings and silences of shock and awe, some had dropped to their knees as they noticed who walked among them, while others couldn’t seem to do much more then drop their jaws.
But at my words and my smile, many began to cheer or even cry. Tears of joy streamed down faces of the starving, and the few children in the area ran off with squeals to tell their parents or their friends.
I met the eyes of Arion over several heads. He looked a cross between amused, irritated, and worried. Stupid girl, he seemed to be saying. It didn’t matter to me – when I met his eyes, I winked.
I was waiting for them when they came.
It normally took them a few hours to fly from Qa’elah to this distance, but they arrived only an hour after they were sent out. Clearly with so many people saying my name in the same place, it gave Marqis no doubt at all that I was here and so he hurried them.
Hurried his army.
As I had expected.
Over three hundred came. Another hundred or so were heading west, no doubt planning on circling around behind my. And I could feel even more still gathering in Qa’elah, ready to fly off if for some reason I managed to escape.
But I did not wish to escape.
I was waiting on a rooftop when they arrive. Down below, I could see that though most of the villagers had taken my advice to leave, many remained to watch. Some were out in the open while others peeked from the shadows. A few eyes were looking out through the curtains in surrounding buildings.
I hoped none would get hurt because of me.
I stood as I saw the dragons close in and concentrated on my link with them. Testing it. Being sure the connection was as strong as I believed it was.
Their dangerous speed had caused them to be slick with sweat which itched in the air. They were exhausted. They were frustrated. But they were obedient still. I took careful note of the few that would be easy to control while they and their riders circled widely around me.
I waited, watching those that wore the solid blue cloak so that I could see when the order was given.
I was no fool – they wanted me dead.
I would force them to take me alive.
The one with the blue cloak lifted his hand to give the order and I concentrated further. When he threw his arm down – the silent command – I shouted a demand in my mind at the dragons the same way I had forced Sir Jahmus’ dragon to obey. I made the entire inner ring of them feel an uncontrollable itch on their right wing, this had them flinch sharply and therefore swerve out of line.
About one hundred arrows shot out in random arches, not a one coming even close to me. I was too far away to hear the knights of course, but I could imagine their confusion.
I removed my gloves again as they quickly got their dragons under control, faster than I expected but not too fast for me. The air felt cool on my hands as sweat had layered there in the heat of the sun. I shoved both gloves in my pockets though I didn’t plan on using them ever again, then looked around once more, flexing my fingers.
The hand raised again, and I let out a slow breath to prepare.
He let it down.
And I allowed the three levels of my mind to join.
Time slowed around me.
I raised my hands; the action seemed so slow to me, but knew I was moving nearly fast enough to blur to their eye.
I saw the arrows release from their bows. Each aimed at me, ahead and behind. They came slowly toward me. They were at least eight twigs from their bows before I heard the beginnings of the thrum of string.
Just as Jovian had told me, I let my magic build in my hands and my back and my ankles and neck, swelling the marks as if with water or blood. The sensation was strange and different, but it was also familiar and a great relief. It came so easily to me, as if this action was more natural than suppressing it has been.
I suppose that was the truth.
I let it build as the arrows came closer, closer. I waited until – like a bucket of water hanging over my head – they were about to pour down on me.
And only then did I let my magic out, bringing me to my full power for the first time.
The first time your magic is released, Jovian had warned me, it is a physical force you cannot control. Anything near you will push out and, quite literally, explode. If you let this happen inside a room or cave, the chances are that you will be crushed when it all comes back down on you. You would not be the first Greyov to unintentionally kill themselves during release.
He’d warned me so that I would not hurt someone I cared about or get myself killed. He told me this for reasons of safety and caution.
I decided to use it as a weapon.
I was still watching with the three levels of my mind when it came out of me. I could not see the magic in colour or shape, but I watched the arrows be pushed back with so much force that the wood crushed and splintered before they flew outward. The scattered pieces flying toward the dragons, the knights, and the roofs around me.
The roof of which I stood on shuddered violently and all but the beam I balanced on crumbled and cracked, the few remaining wooden shingles reaching from the walls like skeletal fingers . The buildings around me creaked and groaned and shuddered as they were pushed. Some roofs fall inward, others crumbling entirely. Most simply weakened, revealing holes and rot from water damage.
Then I could not concentrate on the three levels of my mind any longer as I worried of the people inside those homes. Were people dead? Did I kill one of my people? And the very second I lost my concentration, all went back to normal pace and I looked up just in time to see the dragons and knights get flung away violently. Some of the riders were ripped from their dragons to fall to their deaths below, while others held on with all they had, leaving it to their dragons to get back under control before pulling themselves back up into the saddles.
There were a few moments of silence after all was settled where they looked at me in surprise and fear. I kept my chin high, smiling slightly as I felt the awesome strength of my magic. It ran through me like the most natural strength possible. It felt familiar, and wonderful, like air after nearly drowning. My vision sharpened, my hearing became wider and more complex, even my muscles seemed to swell with a magic-induced strength.
I had felt powerful before, but now... now, I was power multiplied.
I couldn’t help it – I grinned.
But they did not fear me so much as they feared Marqis, and so it wasn’t long at all before they attacked again. This time coming down to crush me with the jaws of their dragons.
I stood still and steady as ten, twelve, twenty at least ducked and swarmed toward me from all sides. I lowered my hands and concentrated on the link to the dragons, and when each one came near, I knew they could not see me. Nor could they sense me in any way. I did one further by making them think they did see me in different places. With my confidence, the dragons were now so very easy to manipulate and control. Why did I have so much problems before?
My hair ruined my moment as it tangled across my face while the wings sent out waves of wind as they passed, one after another after another. I pushed the messy, curly strings away as if it didn’t bother me, but I was truly wishing I had tied it back tightly for once. The flailing mess was ruining my otherwise-incredible performance.
I had only just gotten it out of my face when the knights decided that the dragons were not working and fought for themselves.
As a dragon swooped by, its rider leaped off the back. I quickly pulled out my sword while I ducked under a blow. They were not trying to capture me nor slow me, they were trying to kill me and that was that so the blow had gone straight for my neck.
Unfortunately for him, this was a mistake seeing as it left him wide open. While his arm was extended, I ducked and thrust my blade up, taking the knight through the heart. Though I’d hit the chest-plate by mistake as well as the spine, the blade went right through with the resistance of soft cheese. My new-found strength revealed.
Another leaped. I turned, raising my sword in time to stop the blade from striking me, deflected it, and twisted my wrist to aim for the one that just landed behind me as I ducked another blow. With my magic out, my senses were sharper, stronger, more detailed...
And far more accurate.
Though I had not turned my head, the point of my blade hit the heart of the one behind me. I kicked the one ahead and, as he stumbled, twisted my blade back around so that it was comfortable in my hand once more and struck. The sword I used was a rapier, which was mainly used for slicing, not hacking, but I hacked towards neck just the same, then trust up into his jaw when he dodged it deftly, going through his skull. Blood ran down the blade and over my hand.
More leaped onto the remainder of the roof, farther down the beam now so they could overwhelm me at once, but I believe I had proven my strength to them quite enough. I did not need to defeat all three hundred of them, I only needed to make a point. To make them afraid.
I focused on that line dragons to find one of the easiest to control as I ran across the beam. Just before I reached the nearest knight - a big one, holding his broadsword with a steady hand - I leaped out onto the open air...
The dragon with his confused rider flew under me. I landed just behind the Dragon Knight.
He turned his head. His eyes widened.
One hand braced on the back of the leather saddle, I kicked him off, slicing his hand when he tried to keep a grip of the reins. After he'd fallen, I maneuvered my body into the proper place, gripped the reins as hard as I could, leaned over, and nearly screamed at the dragon to fly up.
I felt a thrill of fear and awe at the uncomfortable drop my belly made. Then – I was flying!
But the euphoria did not last long.
I hovered as they circled me a hundred twigs into the air. Some were above, some below, but most surround me in front, behind, and to the sides. It was against the dragons’ instincts to hover instead of circle, but I managed to keep my hold on its control as I lifted both hands from the reins and raised them, palms out...
Then as I caught sight of the blue-cloak slowing down in the corner of my eye, I focused on him and deliberately placed my hands behind my head, palms flat against my skull.
It was a prisoners’ pose, not at all a threatening one, and by the look on the blue-cloaks face, it registered.
I was reluctantly impressed when he managed to get his dragon to hover as well. With no mind link, that had to be quite difficult.
I spoke loudly and clearly to be understood across the distance between. “You have a choice before you,” I called out to the blue-cloaked knight. “You can attempt to fight me still and risk me escaping, leaving you forced to return to Marqis empty handed,” I paused a moment, letting that sink in. “Or, you can take me prisoner and allow Marqis to deal with me himself.”
The knights, I was sure, were not exempt from the kings’ wrath. I knew this would appeal to them. Yet I did not know if this show had been enough and so as I waited, I strengthened the mind link and prepare to use the control on the dragons to escape. I would fly to Qa’elah myself if need be. Though the moment I neared, the other half of the army would be sent out and I would have to skirt them as well.
But I had been correct in my original assumption and after a long moment, the lead knight nodded once and called an order.
I was circled in a different way then, as they escorted me toward Qa’elah, keeping several arrows constantly pointed at me by unnerved knights. Down below, about an arm outside of the town and heading full speed toward Qa’elah on the backs of horses, I saw several figures on the road. With my sharpened vision, knew it was my company. I knew, too somehow, that they were looking at me.
I used my mind link to make the dragons assume something was ahead of them and several dozen heard it enough to sway to the side – causing many of the knights to cry out in surprise – before they swayed back and continued on course.
A few shot me a glare for that trick, and I grinned and shrugged in response. I didn’t care if they liked my version of a wave or not. It was not these knights I was worried of.
No. The true challenge would be Marqis.
But I would defeat him. I knew that I would. I had the White Stone around my neck and the Bloodstone in my cloak along with the Ruberous Faun.
And my own magic of course, which tingled through my body with overwhelming power.
Qa’elah began to show far on the horizon a moment later and I braced myself.
Because from my flare of magic connected to the Stone that he, too, could feel, Marqis knew very well that the true queen of Nahdiera was coming for her crown.
I hoped he didn't run away in fear.