“Here he comes.”
Jovian let out a breath as we looked at the lone rider trotting toward the gate where we stood waiting. Then he turned to me. “It isn’t too late to turn back.” He told me for the third time since we’d arrived earlier that morning.
I found myself laughing. “I’ll be fine, Jovi.”
He sighed, dropping it for now. “Do you have everything?”
He nodded again as he looked me over, his old and wrinkled face - which had been so for as long as I have known him – was creased even further in worry. This was a sight I rarely saw and so I gave him a small smile, reaching out to squeeze his hand with the hopes of smoothing some of them out.
He pursed his lips, unfazed by the act of comfort. “You remember what to do if you run into burrs?”
“Fire.” I said. “Or the underbelly.”
I tilted my head. “Run?”
He spluttered, his eyes widening in an almost bug-like manner. ”No! You aim-”
“-for the roof of the mouth between the rows of teeth and avoid the fangs. I know, Jovi.” I laughed lightly. “I’ll be fine. You taught me well.”
He didn’t seem amused at my jest. “One-on-one, yes, but if you’re outnumbered-”
“Then I have a Shadow at my back.” I motioned to where the Shadow in question had stopped and was waiting impatiently, either just out of ear shot or just within, I couldn’t tell. I lowered my voice in case it was the latter as I turned back to Jovian. “I know what I’m doing. You’ve been training me my entire life for this very quest.”
He grimaced in the Shadows’ direction but then sighed and nodded. He squeezed my fingers. “Don’t lose your temper and remember your patience.” He ordered, then met my eyes seriously and very deliberately reached up and patted my neck. ”Remember.”
I nodded seriously at that, knowing he was referring to the marks on my neck, his constant reminder to keep them covered. “Every moment.” I vowed.
He pursed his lips but stepped away, letting out a long breath. “Go then, so that you can return.”
“Stay safe.” I told him.
He nodded yet again, touching his chest where a few drops of my mothers’ blood hung in a silver vial around his neck rested – the only thing keeping his thoughts safe from the Beoworth family all these years. “Every moment.” He repeated my words.
I stepped away and climbed atop the horse, my body sitting comfortably on the large beast from years and years of practice. But there, I froze a moment and looked back at the man that had been a constant companion for as long as I could remember. Never had I ever been without him at my side. Always he'd been constantly testing me, protecting me, or both. This would be my journey toward regaining the power I would need to defeat King Marqis, and I felt my stomach clench at knowing that Jovian would not be with me.
His eyes softened as if hearing my line of thought and he nodded once, encouraging me that I would be fine, just as I had only moments before been reminding him.
I am Meira Greyov. Nahdiera is my kingdom. I do not need a hand to hold.
I turned from him and toward the Shadow. “Let’s go.” I said.
The Shadow raised a dark eyebrow and motioned with his hand, a bit sarcastically. “Lead the way.”
Ignoring the attitude for now, I went out the gates and I did not allow myself to look back, no matter how much I wanted to.
“Where are you going? The Black Mountains are this way.”
The Shadow raised an eyebrow. “We have several weeks of traveling ahead through bogs, wolf territory, Eastwood, and mudwaters, not to mention that our destination is so dangerous that no city or town resides within twenty arms of it. Most of that time we will be sleeping on the ground.” He pointed to the road and therefore, an inn. “Let’s sleep in a bed while we can. Besides,” he turned his horse without waiting for further opinion. “I have business there.”
I watched him head down the road without looking back and my anger flared again but I kept it from bursting out - what he’d said was true and though I was in a rush, it was reasonable to wish for a bed while we still had the choice.
However, his last statement worried me, and I quickly caught up. “What sort of business?”
“A bit rude to ask, don’t you think?”
“What business?” I ignored him.
He shot me an irritated look but answered. “I made arrangement to meet some friends at the-”
“You have friends?” The shock was clear and honest in my voice. If I’d said it on purpose as an insult, I would have smirked when he glared, but instead I felt my cheeks heating at my honest ignorance and turned away so my hood, once again, hid my face.
This was the only conversation we had during the two-day trip to the next town over.
The town was named Flunna and it had once been as bright and beautiful as the flower it was named after, but in the eighteen years since Jovian had last been to the town, it had changed.
Thousands of bright yellow flunnani flowers still grew wild here in the summer, I was sure, but the winter hid even that beauty and without it, there was no more beauty to be seen. Most villagers were in for the night by the time we reached it, but those that weren’t seemed scrawny and even the young faces looked aged.
Poverty was killing their life even before death was merciful enough to take them.
There were several inns in town despite its small size. I knew this, because the Shadow passed at least four of them before pulling his horse into a stable outside one called simply Green’s. It looked even more worn down than the others, but I followed without complaint – I was used to far worse than this.
It was actually quite nice inside. Though it was old, run down, and filled with drunks and smoke and the stink of sweat, it was clean just the same. I followed the Shadow to the bar.
“Two rooms, Barta.”
The woman – Barta, whom was far heavier than most but made even more beautiful by this fact – grabbed two keys off the wall and tossed both to him with one hand while the other was still wiping down the counter without missing a beat. “Jaz is here.” She told him absently, paying more attention to sticky spot on the wood than he.
“No one else?” He held out a key to me while dropping the other in his cloak pocket.
She shook her head, dropping the cloth long enough to turn to the barrel of ale and pouring two glasses full to rim. “Saw Rian here earlier but didn’t get no room he didn’t.” She went off, bringing the two cups to a pair of men at a far table then coming back with two empty ones and continuing as if she’d never left in the first place. Her hand already on the cloth she’d dropped and wiping the splatter of ale beneath the spigot. “I’ll let you know if he comes back.”
“That’s alright, they’ll be here any time.”
“Back room?” She asked, looking up from her cleaning for the first time. She didn’t even glance in my direction as if I didn’t exist at all, but by her busy pace, I didn’t feel insulted.
The Shadow nodded once and held out a cupped hand. “For the room and toll.” He explained at her questioning look.
Barta put down the cloth as she reached out to accept the payment. The moment he dropped the contents of his hand into hers, her eyes widened, and she clenched her hand shut the second she glimpsed the crystal he’d put there. She looked like she was about to say something, but the Shadow was already turning toward the stairs.
I caught up to him half-way up them. “If you need change for those crystals, I have-”
“I don’t need change.” He turned down a hallway.
“You ask a lot of questions.”
I raised a brow. “I’ve asked you two.”
He grumbled but it was hard to argue as my logic was sound and so answered. “Sometimes it’s not easy to find work and sleeping outside isn’t always possible. The Green’s allow many to sleep here without a price in bad weather. I don’t know a Shadow that hasn’t taken them up on their offer yet, but we can’t always pay them back.” He stopped at a room and turned the key, then glanced at me over his shoulder. “Besides, so long as the Green’s are happy, we get private service and use of the office for business. Now why are you still following me?”
I really wanted to hit him. “Well I don’t know where I’m going.” I said, throwing up my hands.
“Number seven is on that door right there.”
I glared. “I know my numbers, Shadow. I meant downstairs.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You’re having drinks with the Shadows?”
I frowned. “Oh, is that all you’re doing?” I grimaced, I couldn’t imagine being a part of that. I suddenly imagined a multitude of broken noses, knife fights, and thinly veiled threats going on until morning. “I thought for some reason it was more important than that.”
“It is.” He said and turned to the door again, opening it. “I’m bringing them with us to the Black Mountains.”
I blinked. “I... you’re wha–”
He closed the door in my face.
As if that would stop me after such a statement!
I banged on the door a few times, then cursed and dug in my pocket for the pick I’d mastered when I was barely old enough to walk. In seconds, I was pushing open the now-unlocked door and slamming it closed behind me. “You’re what?” I demanded again.
He looked up from where he was washing his face, looking surprised and impressed at my ability to barge in so quickly but far too irritated to admit it. “You heard me clearly, no doubt.”
“You can’t bring more Shadows along!”
“And why not?” He went back to washing his face, then started rubbing soapweed into his scruff, no longer looking at me at all.
“Because you... you just can’t!”
“Your uncle said nothing about having to be the two of us only. And I will pay them from my own coin.” He started scraping the scruff from his face, pausing in his words to do so, then he continued. “As it is, if we try and go without help, we’re not going to make it back.”
“We can if we–”
He was already shaking his head, despite the blade to his face, “You don’t get it, girl, your artifact isn’t the only thing in those mountains. There are at least nine treasure troves that I’ve heard of and stalls of ancient keys to power, not to mention the treasuries of nobles that were left behind in their hurry to evacuate. Shenz, even the White Stone is rumored to be in those tunnels.” He paused to slice more of his beard off before continuing. “Do you know how many times Shadows have been asked to go in there for those things? Just a few years ago, the king even sent a battalion in there for some ruby fun-thing or some other-”
“The Ruberous Faun?” I asked, straightening. Could it be there too? If the king was looking for it, surely...
He gave me an impatient look. “My point is, the whole battalion never returned, and neither did any Shadow that has attempted it. So, if you and I are stupid enough to go in there, we’re not doing it alone, even if you do have some map memorized, which I’m not sure I even believe.”
“Why don’t you believe–”
“There is no map of the tunnels.”
“There is!” I had studied it inch by inch for the past six years. It was most definitely real.
He waved it off and turned away. “The point is, we’re taking the Shadows.”
“I was told to keep you alive, but your uncle said nothing about how I couldn’t tie you up and shove a cloth in your mouth while doing so.” He warned, his voice somehow both completely casual and deadly serious.
I let out a sound that was almost a growl and left the room before I tried to kill him with his own shaving blade. Though I knew it was childish, I was sure to slam the door as hard as I could behind me.