“Quickly, Keira. “My love, we must move quickly.”
“Shh, Eron, do not wake her. Not now.” I looked at the child in my arms that were not my arms. So peaceful. So innocent.
But they were not my arms. They had markings, but these arms were not mine.
These were not my arms.
Keira, the man had called me.
They were my mothers’ arms.
A voice from the doorway. Unfamiliar. “Your Majesties, they’re at the gates.”
“Keira, my love, we must go...”
Tears slipped down my – her – cheeks, but I nodded, allowing my husband - my father - to wrap his arm protectively over my shoulders as we rushed out the door into the corridor, babe snuggled into my breast, oblivious to the horror that was coming.
“Sir Tori, where is Jovian?” my husband demanded.
“I am here, Eron.” Jovian ran up next to us, taking his place on my other side as we turned into the hidden door in the wall, though it would not remain hidden for long.
“Remember what we discussed?” Eron questioned, not sounding a king at all but instead only a distraught father. “She cannot use her magic. Not ever. Not until she is ready to fight. And, oh kraken, Jovian, don’t let her go into the Black Mountains without someone worthy at her side. A Shadow. Be sure it’s a Shadow. And her marks, you need to be sure her marks remain hidden as she grows or—”
“I know, my friend. We’ve spoken of this at length.,” Jovian reminded him, attempting to quell the worry.
We entered a small room at the base of the stairs, seemingly useless it was, except for the hidden passage out. I bent, my daughter – no, not my daughter, that’s me – still in my arms and pressed the correct stones one at a time with a shaking hand as the men kept speaking.
“Be sure she knows about the Grey Stone, how it cannot harm her specifically. It’s important, Jovian, extremely important. She needs to know that if she’s to defeat Carigus. No,” he shook his head. “Marqis. Make sure she doesn’t fight Carigus Beoworth, for shenz sake, wait until he’s dead and his son takes his place as king. Anyway, she needs to know that the Stone will refuse to harm her blood. If it’s forced to harm her, the Stone will crumble, and we don’t know what would happen then. I suspect it will kill all of the bloodlines but... no, don’t tell her that." A look of fear crossed his face as he looked at Meira, sleeping soundly. "If she's anything like her mother, she'll sacrifice herself if that's what it will take. You must not tell her."
“I am not sacrificing myself,” I said firmly, finally standing as the wall slipped inward.
He took my arms. “You should be with our daughter, not dying at my side.”
“The Stone knows my touch. Carigus will find me in mere days. It’s you who should go.”
“I cannot pass the borders.” He swallowed tears and bent, kissing Meira on the forehead before placing one on mine, as if he couldn't help himself. Then he let out a breath and turned, pulling out ink and placing it on the table next to the parchment. “I should have had this done already, but I thought we had more time... what can I say to her? What could I...” his eyes were struck with sorrow and guilt. “We’ve failed her, Keira. We’ve failed them all the day I trusted the word of a Beoworth.”
I put a hand on his shoulder as the sound of a crack echoed from the slit of the window, a sign the gates were breaking. “Say what needs to be said. Jovian will tell her of our love and who we were, just write what she needs to know.” Another crack. “Quickly, Eron. Waste no more time in regrets. Her future is at stake, as is the future of our people.”
I removed my hand to shift my daughter up closer, hoping the sound of the gates did not wake her.
I turned to Jovian as Eron wrote hastily on a slip of parchment, who was bundling his mage robe and putting it into a sack so none would take note of him missing. I smiled, if briefly.
“It’s been a long time since I saw you without that robe on, Jo.”
Jovian returned the smile best he could, though at that moment we heard the cracking of the castle gates. They would be entering the castle itself soon, and all would be lost. “Probably back when I was a knight for your father.” He put the sack over his shoulder then placed both hands on mine, like he had when I was a little girl and he needed to tell me something important. “I will protect her, Keira. And I’ll teach her how to protect herself as well. Do not worry for her in your last moments.”
“But... the Black Mountains, Jovian,” I whispered with horror. “We are actually sending her into the Black Mountains—”
“I’m not mentioning that in the note,” said my husband, still scribbling. “I say only 'mountains'. Jovian, tell her of what I truly mean only if you find a way to get past the gates. I trust your judgement, friend. Only the elven king is aware of it the way through the gates, though, and getting the from him will be mighty difficult—” the castle gates opened, we could hear the thunder from the room.
Eron abandoned his words and continued writing with even more haste than before.
Jovian took my shoulders again. “Do not fear for her. Trust in me, as you always have.”
I felt a sob but suppressed it, holding my daughter tighter. ”Love her, Jovian. Show her love for us.”
His eyes softened. “You know that I—”
There was a slam up above. Close. Too close.
My eyes widened – they had found us so quickly!
Jovian yanked the note out from under Eron’s quill and turned to me. There was no time for goodbyes, Jovian took my baby girl from my arms and rushed out the door as quickly as he could, for fear of Meira making a noise and alerting the enemy to her presence.
Together, Eron and I pushed the door closed and it looked sealed and hidden away once more.
My husband turned to me as the sound of boots hammered on the stairs. “I love you, Keira,” he told me. He had said it a hundred times before, but this was not said sweetly or lovingly, he told it to me, being sure I knew with absolute certainty.
I pulled out the knife from my belt and kissed him. “And I love you,” I promised, then reached out with my magic… but hesitated.
He gripped me hard as someone tried to kick door in. “Now, my love. Do it now. They must not be able to find her. They cannot take us alive.”
I let out a cry as I obeyed and used the power of the Grey Stone to snap his neck.
My husband fell, lifeless to the floor.
I gasped, my heart - already aching from the distance of my daughter - shattered at the loss of my love.
But there was no time to mourn either of them.
I turned the knife on myself just as the door opened and Carigus Beoworth himself came in. The look of victory on his face disappeared and his eyes widened upon seeing the king dead on the floor and the position of my knife.
“No!” he shouted, reaching out to stop my hand.
“You will learn nothing from me,” I informed him firmly, the last sentence I would ever speak.
Then I plunged the knife into my heart.
I woke, sucking air in so harshly I almost gagged on it. My eyes opened wide and just as quickly I slammed them shut as the sun was too bright, even at sunset.
“Ah, you are awake. Good,” said Marqis, cheerfully. “You almost missed your own death. That would have been such a disappointment.”
I was being dragged, I realized. My feet dragging on the ground, one arm gripped tightly in each of the guards’ hands, Marqis walking just behind me. There were more guards, so many more.
Ahead, the gates leading from the castle into the Viewing Square stood tall.
No. No. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t done yet.
I threw out my magic, yanking out a tree and—
Pain engulfed me and I screamed, but even before the scream could continue its full course, the pain was gone completely.
“You have two choices before you,” said Marqis as the guards kept dragging me. His words were a horrible echo of what I had said to his knights to bring me here. “You could die screaming in pain, or you could show your people one last bit of strength and die with dignity.”
My lips were dry – too dry to speak – but I managed to stand, my body aching but having none of the pain Marqis could wield.
He chuckled. “I thought you may wish to walk. Open the gates, cousins, the people are waiting.”
Cousins? I looked on my left and right. One of them was the blue cloaked man who had brought me in. The other was the one whose leg I had broken but now healed, no doubt by the Ruberous. It was no wonder they’d wanted me dead - they were family. They were of the Beoworth bloodline.
The memory of Carigus Beoworth's face before my mother killed herself flashed across my mind and I shuddered.
But was forgotten when the gates were pulled open.
The platform was only a couple of steps above the ground, but I was lifted up higher. Lifted up onto the stone casing that surrounded the Grey Stone itself.
Here, I stood on what was the greatest power of my bloodline. Two twigs wide and two long, it had a spike jutting out the top. The Grey Stone demanded sacrifice, and it looked just as grueling as I had once dreamed it to be as a child.
But it was the people that brought the most emotion.
The Viewing Square was packed, just as it had been when Jovian and I had come in search of Arion. All eyes were on me now, and I saw that same hope shining in their eyes as they’d shone at the words of Marqis. Hope that I would not die. Hope that I had a few tricks up my sleeves. More than a few had blue cloths over their arms. I still gave them hope, even now.
But just like Marquis, I would prove to crush their hopes.
I realized with a slight terror that I would actually die today.
My eyes shifted to the rooftops, searching for Arion instinctively. But of course, even if he had managed to travel such a distance so quickly, he would not be able to save me this time, only die with me.
Instead of Arion, white dragons were perched upon the roofs, prepared at any moment to attack anyone below who even dared shout a word, never mind try and help me.
The dragons. Could I use the dragons? Escape perhaps?
But no... not with Marqis so close and ready to give me that blinding pain at any moment in time.
I would die today.
I could barely believe it.
I would die today.
I. Would. Die. Today.
The words kept repeating themselves, over and over again. And with each turn of the words, my fear got stronger and stronger, quickly becoming panic. Then, just as I was about to start screaming and try and make a useless run for it - my eyes landed on someone. Someone I knew.
He stood in the shadows of a roof, his hood up, his figure hidden nearly as well as a Shadow... but it was Jovian. I knew it. I would recognize him anywhere in anything he wore.
He must have seen me looking because he pulled back his hood so that I could see his face, then pressed his hand to his heart - the only way he could tell me he loved me from such a distance.
I wanted to tell him I loved him too, more than he could ever imagine, but I forced my eyes to move away as too many people were watching except... why was Jovian looking at me like that? With fear, yes, but also hope. How could he hope? Could he not see that if was about to die?
Could he? I could almost hear Jovian ask. Asking me a question in answer to my own question, making me think for myself when I want to know what his opinion is. Now, I asked myself.
Could he have hope? If he had hope, then why? Was there something I was missing?
“All set, Your Excellency.”
Ropes had been tied around my ankles and wrists while I’d stood there and this fact should have no doubt brought me fear, but my mind was on the question, determined to get its answer.
I knew the answer, too. It was quite simple really: if Jovian had hope, then there was a reason to hope, and that was that.
Or was I only thinking there was hope because I wanted there to be?
My thoughts were interrupted as I was lifted by my tied wrists and ankles hard enough up to jolt every ache in my body. Looking upwards, I could see the dragons lifting me so that I was hanging by my hands and feet. I knew that if I were to turn my head enough to look beneath me, I would see the spike of the Stone ten twigs below.
They were going to drop me on it, I realized with horror.
I realized this too late.
“Release her,” came Marqis’ calm, nearly cheerful voice.
There was a cry of grief from the crowd and I was dropped. I gasped, my magic going out of me in all directions but with no destination and therefore uselessly. It was simply a last moment of self preservation that would do me no good.
Then I felt the spike pierce my back, slipping between my ribs, going through my body, and breaking another rib on its exit upward just a few fingers below my heart. It had missed my heart, yes, but that would not save me.
Having pushed through the entirety of the spike, my back cracked across the stone edge and my spine broke with a painful snap which I only felt for as long as the echo of the break itself. Then I no longer felt any pain. I no longer felt anything at all.
My head was back on the stone platform, limbs splayed useless around me. In the corner of my eye, I could see Marqis, watching me die with a small, victorious smile. Relief, I saw as well. Relief that his claim to the throne was no longer able to be challenged.
Everywhere else I could see people. Crying in grief as their hope was lost or turning their faces away or reaching out to me.
But my face was now facing west and so I could see the bright orange-pink of sunset, but it was getting blurred by the blackness clouding my vision, the blackness of death approaching — unfortunately, I knew it well.
I forced my mind into the three states, joining as my eyes stared at the beautiful sight that should only be viewed on good days, not days such as these.
I’m sorry father! I shouted in my mind. I have failed you! I’m dying on the very stone that… that…
That would protect me. That would not accept me as something to harm, yet they just killed me with it.
I thought back to that odd dream... had it been a dream? It had felt real, and I could remember it as well as any memory, not like a dream at all. The Bloodstone perhaps?
It didn’t matter. If it were real, then that meant what he’d said was real.
Don’t tell her, or she’ll sacrifice herself...
The Stone would crumble...
Kill off all the bloodlines...
Jovian’s look of hope.
Then I remembered Orro’s words, about destroying the Stone. He’d been speaking of the Bloodstone, of course, but...
“To destroy it, I suspect, you’ll have to force it to go against its purpose. Such as using a Ruberous to harm someone instead of heal them.”
“What would happen if it were destroyed?”
“Can’t say, but if history is any indication, I’d guess it would kill off whatever caused it to go against the force it was. Best not be you who tried to destroy it then, yes?”
Two theories, perhaps, maybe, but...
I felt sure that though I lay dying... that though I would die... so would Marqis and the Stone.
At my surge of joy, I lost concentration and so I lost the hold on my three minds. As the blackness blotted out the vision of the beautiful sunset, I could only think that perhaps it was a wonderful day after all.
But in my last moment in life - when my vision was gone, my heart stopped, and I lay dead... in that brief moment before my mind shut down, I could have sworn I heard the Stone beneath me give an angry, terrifying rumble.