I woke to the door banging open. “Get up, we leave in an hour.”
I swiveled to face the Shadow, being sure my left hand was flat over the marks on my neck while my right was hidden beneath the sheet. “Do you not understand privacy?” I screeched.
But he was already closing the door behind himself.
My heart was pounding. I had locked the door, I know I did, and I’d been under the assumption that I could sleep soundly with relative safety. Of course, that had been incorrect. I remembered Jovian’s words: It is when you are safe that you are in the most danger.
I understood that while hunting and such, as the feeling of safety caused you to let your guard down which, in turn, put you in danger.
Apparently though, it applied to locked doors and private rooms as well, at least when traveling with a Shadow.
I quickly rushed to the bathing tub that hid the view of the door and pulled the hair away from my neck as I basically jammed myself into the frame of the looking-glass. Sure enough, the ointment I used to keep my marks hidden had been rubbed off through the night - at least in some places - leaving patches of red and black across my skin. I did not reapply it before bed as I would have had we been sleeping outside.
I would not make that mistake again.
I quickly reapplied the ointment, rubbing it in with my fingertips. The ointment was clear, but it had concealer magic trapped within. Once the ointment was applied properly, I could see each scar just the same, but I could not see the marks that would reveal my identity. I let out a slow breath of relief at my now-relative safety and brushed my dark hair. It curled into large, messy ringlets which were impossible to tame. Most would hate it, I supposed, as it was unruly and refused to stay clipped. I, however, was glad of it - it was but an extra layer of protection as it helped hide me from the world.
While I was changing into the clothes I had washed and hung next to the fire during the night, I heard a ruckus outside and tossed my cloak over my shoulders before opening the window and peeking out. Sure enough, a Shadow that was not my Shadow was fighting with a stubborn horse out in the yard. He was trying to get the bit into his mouth, but the horse downright refused, neighing and tossing its head. The mountain of a Shadow was cursing the beast while two more Shadows were watching, sharing looks of amusement.
One of the onlookers was my Shadow, the other a woman with hair so blond it seemed to blend with the snow around them – a rarity for one of their kind. As I watched, my Shadow looked up and saw me. Losing his amusement instantly, he made a motion for me to hurry up.
I glared at him but obliged, closing the window and grabbing my pack. I gave the key to someone at the counter who had a different face and attitude from the one last night, then went on out the door. I would have headed to the stables, but I recognized my own grey mare out in the yard so changed my direction, noticing there was yet another Shadow with them now. I glared at my Shadow - how many of his kind had he brought?
“So, you’re the missus that’s going to get us killed.” Said the mountain almost joyfully, who had finally had the bit in his horses’ mouth. He had a mass of black hair that stuck up in every direction giving him a goofy look, despite the intimidating size.
I shot him a look, threatening murder. “I never asked you to come.”
The big man let out a rolling chuckle. “Bit of a temper on her, eh, Arion?”
My Shadow said nothing in reply to that but instead mounted his horse as he introduced the others. “Mir, this is Jazera, she’s the best archer outside of the elves,” the woman nodded at me in simple greeting from atop her own horse. “The silent one is Rian, the best tracker you could find in Nahdiera,” the silent Shadow, the newest one, gave only a polite smile and said nothing. “And this here is the best ax wielder in the land, Aitch.”
The big man grinned. “At your service, missus.”
“I’m Mir.” I introduced myself simply. Reluctantly. It was difficult to glare at this grinning man.
“We know who you are,” said Jazera. “You’re the one whom is going to get us all killed.” She echoed Aitch’s words, but with far more hostility. Though she was clearly speaking to me, she was glaring directly at Arion.
Arion winked in reply to the glare, making Jazera roll her eyes and start off down the road without another word. Aitch followed loudly behind her, calling out a tease to her to which she replied in kind. Rian followed behind us while Arion trotted next to me silently, giving me the opportunity to speak.
“You do have friends. I thought you were jesting.”
He shot me a glare but otherwise ignored me, looking ahead. I realized he was looking at Jazera with more than a touch of worry. I raised my eyebrow. “Is she your woman?”
“Hm?” He gave me a questioning look.
“Jazera. Is she yours?”
He snorted out a laugh. “No,” he said simply. Then, “Any more questions for me, girl?”
“Yes,” I smiled sweetly. “Why are you riding beside me?”
“I’m in charge of your safety. You’re worth more than a thousand dragon crystals at this point, forgive me for not keeping you out of my sight on the road.”
I glared at him. “You can keep an eye on me just fine from five twigs ahead, don’t you think?”
“Actually, it would be much more difficult as I’ve misplaced the eyes I usually keep perched on the back of my cloak. Perhaps when my friend returns them, I’ll do as you ask.”
The fact that his face hadn’t changed even the slightest from his serious look only made my look dryer. “The sarcasm isn’t appreciated, Arion.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “I gave you no permission to call me by my name.”
Well I sure wasn’t going to continue calling him my Shadow now was I? “And I gave you no permission to barge into my room this morn! What if I had been dressing at the time?”
“Then I would have been severely ill for weeks from the sight, no doubt.”
I gaped at the direct insult. “You–”
Something hit the back of Arion’s head and we looked over our shoulders to see Rian glaring at Arion, a reed in his hand and a small sack of dried peas balanced on his saddle between the legs. He shook his head hard at Arion and pointed a sharp finger firmly ahead.
Arion rolled his eyes. “Looks like Rian disapproves of our banter, girl. He cannot speak, so go ahead and ask him all the questions you like.” He trotted ahead, pushing himself to the front of the line while Rian came up next to me, his horse staying level with my own.
Though I was opposed to him coming, I gave him a hesitant smile. “Thank you for that.”
He smiled back and nodded once. His smile was soft, I noticed, almost quiet if there was such a thing. Yet genuine and honest, something I never would have expected from a Shadow. His hair was solid black and tight to his head, his form one of confidence and strength, yet he seemed to me almost quiet in presence. Looking closely, I could see the scars on his face and hands and knew that he was one that would be underestimated during a fight. No doubt he used that to his advantage.
“Did you really just hit him with a pea?” I couldn’t help, not only to break the silence.
He grinned at that and lifted one to his mouth, then held the reed there and blew. I watched as it hit Jazera in the back of the head and she turned, not looking irritated but simply wondering. Rian touched his lips and she turned to untie something from her saddle. When she turned back to us, she tossed a small flask to him and he nodded his thanks.
I understood then that he used the peas and the reed to catch attention. I wondered what had happened to his voice but thought it rude to ask. He took a swig and offered it to me. I smiled and shook my head. He smiled back, shrugged, and we continued on in a comfortable silence.
I found myself wishing Jovian had contacted Rian instead of Arion. It would have been much less complicated.
We stayed in inns for the next six days. Each night the four Shadows stayed downstairs long after I fell asleep, drinking and talking amongst themselves, and each morn I was woken by Arion barging into the room, while each day Rian was my companion and Arion lead the party.
I hated to admit it, I was feeling very much like an outsider, though this was supposed to be my quest. My only companion had ever been Jovian, and though I had been around others often, I had no idea how to interact with even the friendliest of people. I could converse to find information and such of course, but to have simple conversation to pass the time was a deed I’d never had to do.
On the seventh day of travel, I was woken and told to eat as we were starting across the wild lands that day. I felt a surge of excitement and also of relief; yes, it would be filled with deadly creatures, but it was the fastest way to the North Mountains, and that meant one step closer to my throne.
I gathered my things and headed out, expecting to eat on the road, but was surprised to find the Shadows sitting in the very middle of a crowded room. Rian saw me and smiled, patting the chair next to him as if sitting there was the most normal thing for me to do.
Normally, I would smile back at him and perhaps I may have joined them, but there were a lot of people in this room, and for the first day in weeks, the sun was bright enough and warm enough to shine in through the open window.
My whole life I avoided places like this. My hood was up, but it made no difference in such light. My marks felt glaringly obvious though they were covered and hidden. My face – so identical to my dead mothers’ that it often unnerved Jovian – would get me killed if it were seen by the wrong person. It just took a single person who was old enough to have seen the queen, or close enough to the lords to see a picture of Greyov royalty, for me to fall prey to King Marqis.
With the Stone, he could detect any thoughts to do with Meira Greyov and find out where I was. With the Stone, he was all powerful. Even someone thinking casually that I looked like Queen Keira the Sweet could become my death sentence.
I was starving, but I shook my head at Rian with a smile and walked out the door, keeping my hood close to my face and my chin down. Outside, I walked along to the side of the stables and crouched in the shade where the very last of the stubborn snow was clinging to the cold. Winter was not over, but it was a sign of an early spring for which I was not looking forward to; winter meant cloaks and layers and shadows for cover.
Winter was my closest companion and soon it would abandon me to heat and an array of desperate excuses.
“You need to eat.”
I jumped - shenz the Shadow and their uncanny silence! I looked up at Arion and gave him an irritated look, but it didn’t last long when I saw he carried a plate of hot breakfast with him. I took it from him and shot him a rare, grateful look as I saw the steaming sausage, hard-boiled eggs, and steaming potatoes. There was no spoon, but it didn’t bother me much. One day, I would need to use those manners Jovian taught me, but that day was not today; I picked up the greasy egg with chilly, leather-gloved fingers and shoved half of it in my mouth. It was already cooling but I enjoyed it while I could.
“If you were so hungry,” said Arion and I almost jumped again, having forgotten that he was there, “why didn’t you join us?”
I shrugged. “I don’t really like people.”
He snorted out a sound that I realized was laughter bursting out reluctantly. “I believe that!”
Now I frowned. “Why do you say it like that?” I couldn’t tell if he was insulting me yet or not.
He crouched down and stole a piece of my potato as he shrugged. “You communicate better with someone who can’t talk than anyone else.”
“Because Rian’s nice.”
He shook his head with true amusement. “Not my point.”
I slapped his hand away as it reached for more of my food and changed the subject. “Where in the wild lands are we heading?”
“Luqas. Then from there, we’ll cross the mudwaters.”
I thought about that a moment as I reached for my sausage, then changed my choice to an egg, deciding to save my sausage for last. “So, we’re passing through Eastwood here then?”
He nodded, eyeing me carefully now which automatically made me tense. “You ever been?”
I couldn’t very well tell him that I hadn’t, seeing as Eastwood passed across most of the Eastern area of Nahdiera in a crisp and jagged line so I nodded. “Not in this part though. Further south.”
He snorted. “It’s much worse here than it is in the South.” He stood. “Stay close from now on. If you get yourself killed, I won’t be pleased.”
With that, he walked off. I glared after him a moment before going back to eating, only to realize he’d somehow stolen my precious sausage. My fists clenched, and I fought the urge to chase after him and beat him into a shadowy lump.