Heart Stone - (The Dagger of Dragon Rose Book 2)

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Guardians of the Glade

“You must try”- Narissa Silvermoon
“Where do we go know, oh illustrious leader.” Hope made no attempt to keep the contempt out of his voice.
Shaunna smiled brightly, determined not to let his pessimism undermine her resolve. “East from the trident. That is what the magic told Taren.”
Hope opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again without uttering a word.
Shaunna’s smile faltered as she turned to leave. Celeste was standing at the center of the top step, very small and fragile.
“Nobody who has gone away has ever come back. Please don’t stay away.”
Shaunna fell to her knees, wrapping her arms around the child. “I will do my best.”
Celeste pulled away so she could look at her new mother, her white eye pulsing with power. “I know you will.” A single tear slid from her normal eye. “Do not despair, that which has been taken from you will be restored. Keep the feather with you always.” Without another word, she turned and fled into the house.
Everyone was staring at Shaunna as she rose.
“Shaunna, what did she mean?” Saria asked.
“I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m supposed to understand yet.” Without further ado, she turned and began to descend the stairs towards the southern point of the city.
The sun shone brightly on the city as the group turned east. The weather was comfortable for travel, as if the skies were trying to make amends for the past couple of weeks. Fluffy clouds floated lazily across azure skies, cotton ships sailing on the celestial seas.
They skirted the edge of the cliff overlooking the ocean. Shaunna held her fingers together, placing the point on her heart. In a slow, deliberate, motion she drew her fingers away from her heart, kissed the point, and released her fingers in a smooth gesture towards the sea. Nodding silently in the direction of the waves, she turned and continued on.
She’d heard stories of the sea of skies before, but they had always been wrapped in legends and children’s tales. She didn’t think the place actually existed, until Taren returned from the Bard with instructions to find the mythical place. Her disbelief was shaken further by the instructions the magic had given Taren. She was excited to see where the next leg of their journey was going to lead them.
Her hand absently began to stroke the fur of the large white cat that padded silently next to her. She hadn’t even realized that Narissa had changed. Unclasping the cloak from her friend’s neck, she placed it into her pouch.
They walked in silence for most of the day, only breaking long enough to eat a light lunch before moving on.
They stopped in a clearing just off the path around dusk. A babbling brook gurgled by not far from the vestiges of an overgrown fire pit. It was clear others had passed this way before, but it was also clear that it had been quite a while since the last traveler stayed here.
Hope cleared the fire pit, and had a warm fire burning as the others were pitching tents and gathering things to fix the evening meal. The fire was large enough for two pans at the same time. Parel and Saria stood on opposite sides of the blazing fire tending their fare. In a short time the smells of spiced meat wafted through the clearing, enticing odors that set their mouths watering.
The sky was darkening as they sat to partake of their meal. Shaunna watched attently as her companions imbibed the food.
Most interesting was the way that her friend, Narissa, ate. It was amazing how daintily the giant cat ate her meal. She took relatively small bites and chewed her food completely before swallowing and biting again.
The others were all eating in similar manner, except for Saria. She took two or three small bites of the meat, shook her head slightly, and scraped the rest of her plate onto Narissa’s. Trying to attract as little attention as she could, she slipped away to wash her plate at the stream.
Shaunna reflected on the other times she’d seen the sister eat. Each time, she’d eaten barely enough to survive, and either left the rest or gave it to someone else. She seemed to be sick, but she wouldn’t let Hope examine her. There was definitely something going on, and Shaunna intended to find out what it was.
She was waiting at the entrance of the sisters’ tent when Saria returned.
“Saria, can we talk.”
Saria looked at her, obviously annoyed. “Are you going to threaten to kill me to?”
Shaunna reeled as if she’d been struck. “I suppose I deserved that.”
“I’m sorry.” Saria apologized, her gaze dropping to the ground. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“What’s going on? You hardly eat. You are obviously not well. What won’t you let Hope help you.”
“I know what’s wrong. My condition needs to run its course. There is nothing that Hope can do for me.”
“I need you to be at your best. I can’t be worrying about you should we need to fight.” She placed her hand on Saria’s shoulder. “More than that, I still think of you as my sister, even if that is not going to be possible. I care about you. Will please tell me what’s going on?”
“Cera’s the only one that knows. When I used my power to help her, there was feedback and Cera was able to read me as well as I was her.” Tears began to well in her eyes. “I grew up in the deep jungle. My only companion, the shape-shifter Seth Silvermoon. He taught me, protected me, and prepared me as best he could for my return home. We stayed to ourselves as best we could, trading with the native tribes for things that we could not find in the forest.
“A couple of months ago, a scientist came to the area to investigate reports of a ghostly lady who walked the forest with a large white tiger at her side. Apparently, someone had seen me on one of my walks near the edge of the trees and started stories circulating.
“Jethro found me just after Seth was killed. He took over as my protector. He acted as guide on my journey to the portal that brought me home.
“In the weeks and months that we spent together, we fell in love. By the laws of the jungle, we were mated.”
“Mated?”
Saria thought for a moment. “I believe the closest equivalent you would know is ‘married’. We were separated when I was thrown through the portal.” She shook her head, the tears flowing freely from her eyes now. “I am with child. The changes happening to my body are still new enough that I cannot eat much without being sick. I am also sick for most of the night, though I hide it from the others. Please don’t tell anyone else?”
Shaunna stayed silent for several minutes. Her words came haltingly when she began to speak. “Under normal circumstances, this would be happy news. I already have enough blood on my hands, I don’t need to add that of a mother and her unborn child to that. You should go back and stay with Celeste.”
Saria’s small hands clenched into fists. “I’ve spent my life watching women bear children in an environment that was constantly trying to kill them. I can do this, I will do this, and you need me. I am a better healer than Hope is.”
Shaunna could see the strength emanating from the pale woman. “I just can’t. What would Taren think if I let anything happen to you?”
Saria stomped her foot in defiance. “Shaunna, this discussion is over. I am going with you whether you want me to or not. I absolve you of any blame should any harm come to me.” Her demeanor softened a bit. “Please don’t tell anyone else. Your reaction is the reason I didn’t want anyone to know.”
Shaunna just nodded, disapproval plainly mirrored on her face.
Saria threw her arms around Shaunna. “Thank you. Just so you know, I still consider you my sister too.” Without another word, she released Shaunna, and slipped silently into the tent.
“I hope I don’t regret this.” Shaunna muttered as she strode back towards the fire.
The others were just finishing dinner clean up when she entered the circle of fire light. The fire danced in the slight breeze. The animated shadows moving through the clearing brought another fire to her memory. The inn where she had known most of the little happiness in her life was ablaze, it’s owner standing in the nearby road. She could still see the glint of the firelight glinting from his streaming tears, smell the ash and the wooden structure was quickly devoured by the greedy flames.
Shaking her head to clear the memory, she crossed the threshold into her tent. “Oh Taren, how did you do this? I’m not sure I’m cut out to be leader.”
“Is anyone ever, truly, cut out to be leader?” A soft voice whispered from nearby.
Shaunna’s daggers were instantly in her hand.
“There’s no need for those, little one.” He lit a candle and set it on the floor next to her bed roll.
“You!”
A wizened old man sat cross-legged next to the now flickering candle. A long, snowy, beard lay across his lap. Wise eyes glittered beneath bushy eyebrows. Twigs and leaves were interwoven throughout his hair, beard, and clothes. A long, gnarled, staff lay easily in his right hand.
“What do you want?” Shaunna snarled.
“Now, now, is that any way to greet the one who help you learn to survive?”
Shaunna’s memory went back to the five years that she’d spent with the Old Man of the Forest. It was true, he had taught her many of the skills that she’d needed to survive. That was of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. Those skills had not spared her the pain that her heritage had given.
“What so you want with me?”
He smiled brightly. “I was in the neighborhood when I’d heard my old ward was in the area. It’s only been a few days, but I thought I would stop in and say hello.”
“A few days? It’s been eight years.”
He shrugged. “Eight years, a few days, events have a tendency to blur into one another when you’ve been alive as long as I have.”
“Go away, I don’t have time for you.”
He slowly rose, wrapping his arms around her. “I missed you, child. You were the closest thing I ever had to a daughter. I am sorry for the lot life has dealt you.”
Shaunna was shocked to find tears streaming from her eyes. “What are you really doing here, old man?”
Holding her at arm reach, he gazed into her eyes. “I come with a warning. A mad canavar hunts your party. He knows that you have the cause of his disgrace with you. You must restore the flame blade before he finds you. Only the apprentice knows how to do that. Should you fail, Grathius will die.”
She was alarmed by the old man’s words. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I wish to spare you the inevitable guilt your friend’s death will cause. I know that you will blame yourself. You are an enigma to most, but I know you. I know you remember every death you have witnessed, whether you caused them or not. It is the source of the self-loathing that you harbor.”
She stared at him wordlessly for several minutes, tears falling from her chin to the floor. She’d always hated it when he did that. He’d always had the ability to peer into her soul and lay bare all her fears. After years apart, she’d come to realize why he did it and she loved him for it.
He nodded. “You must know what your fears are before you can face them. You must face your fears to overcome them.”
She threw herself into his arms. “I have missed you, old man.”
“I love you too, child. It is time that I must be going. You need to get some sleep. Remember my words.” The last was a gentle command
He blew some dust into her eyes, causing her to fall into a deep dreamless sleep.
The memories of the prior night’s conversation were clear as she opened her eyes the next morning. She rose and quickly dressed for the day in a white blouse and a loose fitting green skirt. Light brown shoes finished her traveling ensemble.
The sun was still hiding behind the horizon as she stepped from her tent, traveling pack slung across her back. Her skilled hands had the tent down and packed in a matter of minutes. The noise of her activities caused Narissa to stir. The large cat crawled to her feet and stretched with a toothy yawn.
“Good morning, kitten.” Shaunna smiled, stroking the course white fur of her friend. “We need to be gone from this place soon.”
In unison, the others emerged from their tents.
“Shaunna, what’s going on. I was having a nice dream?” Hope complained in his usual manner.
“I had a visit from an old friend last night. He came to me with distressing news. We need to be away from here as soon as possible.”
“What kind of news?” Morganna asked as soon as she finished her morning stretch.
“Apparently we are being hunted be a mad canavar.”
Grathius visibly tensed. “I knew this would come. Shaunna is rrright. We must be away from herrre.”
“Impressive.” Shaunna remarked as the last of the tents was packed away just a few minutes later.
They imbibed a light breakfast of cold meat, bread, and cheese as they struck out.
No one spoke as they traveled, choosing instead to save their energy for the heated march that their leader and Grathius set for them. Shaunna called a halt about mid-day. They were all tired. Sweat poured from their face and slid across every exposed bit of skin. Their clothes grew damp in the heat. With the exception of Tarea and Saria, they were all miserable.
“How are you two not dying?” Parel wheezed.
The two sisters shrugged before Tarea answered. “This is not nearly as hot as where I grew up. Yes, it’s warm, but it does not compare to the desert where I lived.”
Saria nodded in agreement. “I was raised in a rain forest. It was not uncommon for the temperature and humidity to reach levels far worse than anything I’ve experienced since arriving here.”
“Shaunna, Grathius, can you come here?” Hope’s voice broke through the conversation.
Hope’s face was tense as they approached.
“What is it, Hope?” Shaunna shielded her eyes from the bright afternoon sun.
Hope just pointed at the ground.
Shaunna examined the ground where indicated. Four large indentations arced around a fifth, massive one. Sharp pointed scratches extended from each of the divots, away from the larger dent.
Grathius sniffed at the print. Growling savagely he announced, “He’s been herrre. I would say less than a week since he passed this way.” He stood on his hind legs, comparing his foot to the enormous print. Grathius was the tallest of the group when he stood on his hind legs, but the print dwarfed his paw. “He has grrrown even larrrger than his fatherrr was. This is unforrrtunate.”
“Who is this mad canavar, Grathius?” Shaunna asked.
He shook his head. “Now is not the time forrr tales. We must not tarrry herrre long.”
Great unease settled over the group as they partook of their light meal. Their eyes seemed to automatically stray in the direction of the large footprint.
Grathius shook his head. “You all have to rrrealize that I am the rrrunt of my pack. I am small, forrr my kind. Talorrren was the son of the pack alpha. He was meant to become alpha afterrr his fatherrr.” The words were meant as an idle explanation, but they alarmed the others.
They finished eating without further conversation and set out again. The sun slid across the western sky as they followed the coastline away from Vidlice. Dusk was nearing when they stopped again. Grathius sniffed out a suitable campsite that was a ways off the path. The colors of the clearing were brilliant, even in the low light of evening. A sparkling stream babbled through the center of the lush green pasture. Twin circles of large mushrooms stood on each side of the water.
“No, I will not do that again?” Shaunna turned to leave the clearing.
Narissa stood in front of her, a massive obstacle barring her retreat. Once Shaunna had stopped moving, the large cat shrank into the tiny form of Narissa.
“You need to do this.” She admonished her friend. “We need the protection that only you can give us.”
Shaunna began to object again, but Narissa cut her off.
“I, of all people, remember what happened last time. If I need to I will invoke the rite of substitution again.” She laid a tiny hand on her friend’s arm, her pink eyes glittering in the half light.
The others started pitching their tents around an over grown patch where several charred logs lay.
Shaunna shook her head in despair as she began to move toward the double rings. She’d never seen more than one ring in a place before. The events of her last attempt invoking the faeries’ protection were still a raw wound for her. She’d thought she’d lost her only real friend then, and she wasn’t sure she could go through that again. Yet here she was, once again approaching the fey for protection, at the behest of that very friend.
Lights began to wink into life as she approached. The faeries ignored her until she stood in the middle of the stream between the rings. She stood there not knowing what she needed to do. She’d never even heard of anyone trying to invoke protection from two flutters before.
Her feet were wet, and the cold started creeping up her legs as she waited for something to happen. Her teeth chattered loudly as the two brightest lights approached her.
“What brings you to us this night, daughter of the darkness?”
“My companions and I request protection. We are hunted by an evil creature.”
The two queens stared at her for several seconds before answering in unison.
“You have much to answer for, but you have started on the path. You and yours are welcome here. You will have the protection you seek for as long as you tarry here. You are welcome to build a flame to cook and warm yourselves. Please ensure that it stays among the logs. Your hunter will not find you.”
Relief washed over her, warming her body. Her feet were dry and warm as she stepped from the water. Turning, she curtsied deeply.
“Thank you.”
Several faeries began to dance around her in answer. Warmth seeped deep into her, lightening her mind and soul.
“What did they say?” Morganna asked as Shaunna entered the camp.
“We will have their protection for as long as we choose to stay.” Her spirits were high. While not a friend to nature, she was on her way. That’s what the sprites had told her, anyway.
She cleared the grass from the logs and the surrounding area, revealing an ash filled fire-pit half filled with hard ash. The logs were dry, and easy to light. With little effort she had a fire burning brightly.
“Shaunna, is a fire a good idea? We are being hunted.” Saria voiced the question that was on everyone’s mind.
“The guardians of this glade have given me leave to start a fire. They assure me that we will not be found here.” With the fire blazing, she left the others to see to the meal preparations and set to pitching her own tent.

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