Deep within the dungeons below the castle halls, a small boy ran in the dark. His bare feet slipped on the stone every few steps, but his heaving chest would not let him slow despite how badly it ached. He turned time and again, searching for the way out. He had followed his father in and hidden in the shadows, undiscovered by anyone. Now, after all that he had seen, he ran for his life. The stale air burned in his lungs, the soles of his feet slapped the stone and dirt with a weary rhythm, but on he pushed, too terrified to slow his pace. After what felt like hours, he emerged into a carpeted hallway, dimly lit by flickering torches. He paused, uncertain where he was or which way he should go. He looked right, then left, his unkempt brown hair flopping over each shoulder as his head pivoted from side to side. The sound of marching feet drove him into the shadows, his thin body pressed tightly against the nearest wall. He held his breath for what felt like an eternity as the soldiers passed. Daring to open his eyelids, the hall was once again clear. He looked left, the direction the soldiers had headed down, then turned right and ran again. Nothing looked as it should. He knew that he had never followed his father into this part of the castle.
Father, he thought, fear brimming up in his mind once more. His father would be furious had he known what the little boy had been up to. They had talked that evening before they parted. "Stay here," Father had said. "I'll be back when you wake up." The little boy had nodded, pretending to fall asleep in the uncomfortable bed of the inn they he stayed in for so many nights. Father always left. Every day he was gone for many hours. He would return for supper, then leave again. "I have business to attend to. Be a good boy and wait here for me until morning." Then he would ruffle the boy's hair, tuck him in tightly, and leave. He always left. Arms and legs pumping as he ran through one passageway after another, the boy shook the image of his father from his mind. This time had been different. This time he had followed. Father didn't know. And now, Father was gone. Gone. Gone. He pushed himself harder, desperate to find the way out.
Blind to the tapestries and suits of armor he had already passed, the little child never saw the woman step in front of him before he ran into her. He bounced onto his backside on the floor and looked up. Standing over him with a look of genuine concern stood a lady dressed in the finest gown he had ever seen. Her hair was tied up perfectly in a neat plait down her neck, and the gold edges of her burgundy dress glittered in the lamplight. His instincts told him to run, but the woman had him at a disadvantage. Towering over his tiny body, she reached out to grasp his hand. "Don't be afraid. I can see you're lost."
"I'm not lost," he answered in a plain, calm voice. "My father is lost."
"Your father?" The beautiful woman's expression turned curiously as she examined his face anew. He looked like no one she could think of.
"Take me to him," she replied quickly. "He must need help."
"No!" the little boy shouted, finding his feet with the woman's aid. "We cannot go back!"
"Alright," she soothed. "Why don't you tell me who your father is so we can find him together?"
"His name is Ren. I'm Wake. Father is a friend of the Queen. Are you the Queen?"
Shocked but instantly pleased with her find, the woman smiled at him. "No, I'm not the Queen. My name is Mistress Kousa." She held his hand tightly. "I'm sure I can help you find your father."
"What did he do to her?" Jinna asked again. Aelish had been very good at avoiding her questions so far. "Tell me, or I won't show you the way out of this castle!" She stomped her foot childishly and refused to walk any further.
Helpless without his guide, Aelish turned around and faced the maid. "I don't know, Jinna. He took her away so that they could both be safe."
"She's not safe without me and River."
Aelish knelt before the little girl and looked her in the eye. "Do you believe me when I say that he is a good man?"
Jinna thought about his words for a long time before she answered. She thought about the rumors, about all the wyverns he had killed. She thought about the burning villages and towns, about the people driven into slavery. She thought about Willow, about how something in her had changed since Raven had arrived. And she thought about herself. Never before had anyone cared about her until Willow and River had taken her under their wings. "Where will he take her?"
Aelish sighed and put one hand to his chest where the recent wound still pained him. Though the arrow was long since gone, its presence haunted his flesh almost as much as the method by which it was removed. "If indeed your friend is the Red Sorceress, then they will be bound for the edge of the world." Jinna stared at him in wonder. "City Lost sits at the edge of the Known Lands, perched on a rocky cliff over the sea. Raven and I were there not long ago. Something calls him to that place. I could see it in him," his eyes looked back upon days past, "as clearly as if I had seen his very eyes." He turned his focus back to the little girl in front of him. "There is a prophecy." She nodded, knowing the story of which he spoke. "That is where we will find them."
Reza wanted to cry out in pain and anger. He wanted to let loose the fury and fear which took up residence in his mind and body, but the stained blanket in his mouth held back any sound he might allow through. He closed his eyes tightly, desperate to choke out the images he would remember forever. His shaking hands held his knees to his chest as he rocked and sobbed in the darkness. Reza knew his role. He knew his destiny, and he knew the end would come, but the in between times were becoming more than he could bear. And so he rocked and held himself in the dark safety of his hiding place. No one asked him for stories, no one crawled into the protection of his lap. No one was left. Something had happened. Something so terrible had occurred that even now, hours after the blood and screaming, Reza's mind still could not rest.
Gently, he released the blanket from his clenched jaw. He ran his tongue over his swollen, dry lips, then whispered a prayer. "Call to me. Call me from this place. I know it is not my time to go, but I beg of you, call to me, and I will run to the edge of the world to join you!" He opened his eyes and looked about the tiny space, recounting how many days he had hidden his little friends here, one at a time, quietly sneaking each one out when the opportunity arose. Some of them wanted to refuse, but in the end they all left. They knew it was best. They had trusted him. "They trusted me," he closed his eyes again, stricken with pain and loss.
A slight stirring in the dust caught Reza's attention suddenly. He threw himself back into the low wall behind him in fright and looked about the room in a panic. Tiny, hungry blue eyes looked back at him from the far corner. "Mara?" he whispered, eyes bulging wide. A little girl emerged into the slant of light through the floorboards. Her face was covered in dirt and dried blood, but she appeared unharmed. Reza reached for her and took her into his arms fully, holding and kissing her like the prized possession she was. "You're alive!" he whispered as loudly as he dared. Dazed and in shock herself, the little girl gazed up at him. She was the only one who had lived through the night apart from the young man. "I must get you out before he finds you."
With a creak and a snap, a floorboard directly over their heads broke loose. Dust-filled light poured into the crawl-space, flooding Reza and Mara in gold. Caked with dried blood, limping, and minus one precious eye, Sanjer snorted triumphantly at the two. "Too late."
Willow's head lolled against her protector's shoulder as they rode slowly through the thickening snow. The movement woke her in increments, taunting her with memories and possibilities. In her mind, it was still late summer. The snow would not return for many weeks. Sunlight warmed her cheeks, but she kept her eyes closed, hopeful that the feeling of Tara's arms wrapped tightly around her would not fade. She had not felt anything so real, so convincing since her time in Torrent, and Willow was not about to let go of the sensation if any choice was to be given to her. The arm under her neck, however, could not fulfill her desire, and its shaking became violent. Abruptly brought to the present, cold and damp down to her skin, sore from head to toe, Willow opened her aching eyes. The face above her stared blindly ahead and was no longer black but white with snow. It bobbed and nodded with the rhythm of the horse's gait, threatening to let them both slip from their perch astride the mighty animal at any moment.
"Raven," she spoke, frightened at how small her voice sounded in the vast field of snow and ice around them. "Raven?" She sat up just in time to catch the rider as he began to slide sideways. Awkwardly, she held his heavier body upright against her own, mentally begging the horse to stop. Sensing the shift in its riders' positions, the warhorse fulfilled Willow's wish and gently halted its steady gait. The handmaiden strained against the sudden contrast of balancing herself and another body so high up in the air, but she held fast to Raven with both arms, determined not to let either of them fall. "You've got to wake up. I can't help you if you don't," she begged.
How many times must I save your life, mo rhua? The voice inside her head was as clear as the layer of ice over the snow upon which they stood. She wondered briefly where it had come from, but it failed to spark a memory for her when so much in the present demanded her attention.
The warrior in her grasp sighed heavily and lifted his head. For the first time she could recall, Willow heard the sound of his breath, every bit as ragged and uneven as the bite wounds covering his arm. He seemed to look at her, but clearly his strength was gone. "Just help me get down from this damned horse!" she yelled at him. The sound of fear in her voice woke him from his stupor. Now was not the time to rest. Wincing under his mask, Raven lifted himself in the saddle and dropped to the snow beneath them. Willow followed him, slow and clumsy in her own movements. Reorienting herself amidst so much white, she saw red where her companion stood. "Let me look at that," she reached for the injured limb.
Suddenly, he jerked the arm away, falling into a sitting position at the bottom of the low hill they had stopped beside. "I'm fine," he told her. Cradling the wound in his other hand, he looked away, unwilling to meet her gaze.
"Fine?" she stumbled after him, falling to her knees in the powder. "Your arm is torn to shreds in a dozen places, and you cannot ride. That is not fine, if you ask me." She was indignant, her green eyes flaring at him like torches. She grabbed his arm once more, this time forcefully. "I swear sometimes, men can be the most stubborn creatures," she mumbled as the tense arm relaxed in her care. Bluish-white flesh peeked from between the horrid amounts of blood and cut skin, and it had entwined itself in the heavy fabric of his shirt. "Give me your knife," she demanded.
"Why?" he asked, shrinking back from her slightly. "I can tend to my own wounds."
Frustrated with all that had happened that night, Willow grabbed Raven's arm roughly, staring his straight in the eye, or at least where his eye should have been had he not still been wearing his mask. "Don't be a child. I need to cut the shirt away to clean and dress your wounds."
The Black Knight jumped to his feet in anger. "Do not speak to me like that!" his voice boomed in her mind.
"I will speak to you as I see fit!" she screamed back. "If you act as a child, I will treat you like a child." Her chest rose and fell rapidly as she let loose the build-up of emotions. "And if you act as a monster, intent on keeping your precious face hidden, then so be it!"
"I am not the only one who has hidden." Willow quailed at his sharp words. "How long did you intend to lead me along until it was convenient to drop me in Tinari's net?"
Shock at his accusation hit the handmaiden squarely in the chest. Never before had she seen such a display of feeling from the Black Knight. His normally reserved nature had cracked and splintered, revealing all the pain and torment of four days spent in the company of lies. "It was not-"
"It was everything to me!" he held his body upright and rigid as he faced her. "I loved you!" he screamed, though his voice had changed. Dropping to his knees in the snow, he whispered the words again, this time sealing Willow's recognition. He had spoken, not with his mind, but with his true voice. Puffs of mist curled from both of their mouths, caught momentarily by the moonlight which had granted them a stage so late in the night. Willow stared blindly at him as her body grew cold. Minutes, hours, perhaps even days and years passed as they breathed together in the cold winter air. Without warning, Raven found his feet and stumbled off into the darkness