Merl ran faster than the Princess believed a man of his age was capable. She had given up trying to free her hand from his. The grip of a hand which had spent a lifetime prying open kegs and casks was impossible to shake loose. Panting as they flew up another stairway, River blurted out, "Where are we going? This isn't the way out!"
Merl didn't bother to answer her. She noticed with each step that an assortment of blades was hidden beneath the man's large cloak. After more twists and turns, they came to a solid oak door. River recognized it immediately. Merl didn't wait to knock. He burst through the door and into the immense, vaulted room, darting right and left to find its inhabitant. "Kousa!" he shouted in impatience.
A beautiful woman in a burgundy gown emerged from a doorway. She stared wildly at the barkeep. "Merl? What are you doing in my-"
"No time for questions!" he bellowed. His free hand grabbed hers with a sharp jerk. "We need to leave this place."
Mistress Kousa took her hand back, making River wonder at the mysterious woman's strength. "I will do no such thing." There was a savage look in her eyes that River did not know. Something was changing the people in this city. The Princess had seen that odd look in the faces of everyone she had passed since the end of the ball. It frightened her. "The tide has turned, brother."
Merl slowed down for the first time since he had brought River out of her chambers. He let the girl's hand drop, and he looked into the dark eyes of the woman before him. River saw the family resemblance, but could not think of two more opposite personalities to be united by blood. She thought of her mother, then, and withdrew her original judgement. From behind Mistress Kousa, a small boy peeked out from the darkness. His eyes met with River's. "I know you want to be stubborn, Kousa," Merl continued, "but this is no time to argue. This place holds death for any who stay in it. You know the power it is capable of."
"I know it better than you realize," she snapped at him. "It is by my will that this power will be released!"
Merl stepped back. "Then it is true," he mumbled. "You were the one-"
"You have always thought you knew so much, brother," Kousa sneered in anger. "But you do not understand Him! He alone will heal this land of its sickness, and the Ancients will again be free!" In her ravings, Merl caught sight of the tiny boy. Instinct filled in the gap between shock and action, and he grabbed the child's shirt, hauling him off his feet and up under the strong man's arm. The room spun around Wake as he was pulled from the room and out into the hall at a run.
"She's crazy!" River shouted as they ran back the way they had come.
"She believes in a story," Merl grunted as he ran with his burden. Deep below them, the castle groaned and rumbled.
Wake shifted in the man's grip, allowing himself to be carried on Merl's hip. "Where are we going?" his voice trembled with the vibration of running.
"Someplace safer than here," Merl glanced at him. "There are tunnels."
"But they don't lead anywhere," River gasped, her legs burning with heat from running up and down flights of stairs. Darkness consumed most of the halls now, and what few torches lit the passages were burning low. Something was not right. It should be morning by now. Daylight should be streaming through the mighty windows on every level of the keep, and yet no light shone. They ran from one torch to the next, hopeful that the hall would not turn before they could see again. With darkness before them, Merl and River slowed their pace, searching for a path on either side. River heard her companion grunt in pain, and she knew he had collided with something. She stepped awkwardly, trying to slow and turn, but something rough caught her shoulder and chest, and she fell down hard on her face in the darkness. "Merl?" she called out, though her voice was shallow with pain.
"I had hoped you would call out my name if you were hurt," a soft voice answered right next to her ear. River jumped and twisted away from the body she had entangled with when she fell, but strong, gentle hands caught and steadied her.
"Aelish?" she whispered. Her eyes strained to see in the blackness, but the slightest outline of his face was enough to send her fully into his arms. He held her tightly, taking joy in how close they could be where none could witness. "I thought my mother..."
"Shh," he rested his forehead against hers. "I'm fine. Wounded, a little lost, but fine. Are you alright, River?"
Choosing to answer him with her heart, the Princess pulled him closer and kissed him tenderly on the lips. Her hands held the back of his head firmly, ensuring that no streak of nobility or righteousness could interfere. When their lips parted, they saw more than the faint light could allow. River's breath was shallow, sore from her heart to her head with each breath, and Aelish knew then that their kiss was meant for the dark alone. He took her hands within his own, clutching them tightly. He nodded, telling her that it was alright. He understood.
"River?" another voice called out. Thin hands searched the carpets and walls until they grasped the Princess' fine, silk gown. "It is you?"
"Jinna!" River called out, taking the maid into her arms. Though still unable to see properly, they knew that time was short. "We have to get out of the castle. Is everyone alright to walk?" River asked.
"Can't you see us?" the little boy answered from only a step or two aside.
River shook her head, then felt silly for doing so. "We need a torch. We need light. Can we go back, Merl?"
"We don't need to go back," the little boy crept closer. "I can see just fine. Do you want to see, too?"
Merl found the others in the faint light and did his best to help them all stand. "I'll go back. Wait here."
"Wait!" the boy shouted. A loud sound snapped in their ears, and then a golden light began to shimmer in the shadows. Jinna's open mouth was the first thing River saw. Merl's astonishment was the second. Between them stood the little boy, his hands alight with magic. "Can you see now?"
Aelish bent down on one knee to face the little boy. "Where did you come from?"
"The forest," he answered simply.
River placed a hand on the warrior's shoulder, and they looked into each other's eyes. Perhaps all was not lost. Aelish stood and faced her, wishing with every fiber of his being that he could take her into his arms once more. "We cannot linger," he spoke aloud, though his words were for the Princess.
"The tunnels will take us to Torrent," Merl stepped forward, eyeing the glowing boy with suspicion.
"Torrent?" River shook herself from the magic of Aelish's gaze. "I cannot leave my people."
"Your Majesty, we have already decided-" Merl tried to explain, but a royal hand stopped him mid-speech.
"That was before we came into the company of a warrior and a cunning spy," she winked at Jinna. "Your place is in Torrent, Merl. Mine is here."
The barkeep's face twisted in frustration. "Princess, I cannot allow this. Please listen to reason. This castle is changing. It isn't safe for any of us, least of all the leader of our people."
"What about everyone else who is still here?" Jinna asked quietly.
Merl took a deep breath and considered her words. "Jinna is right. The safety of my people is more important than anything you can suggest." River took his large hand in her own and willed him to look at her. He did, and his face was filled with humility. "You are a noble man, and you fight for a just cause. I will not forget your deeds when you return." He nodded, understanding that argument with the Princess would not lead to a favorable result. "Take the boy. You may need him. I will send Raven when I find him."
"Raven is already gone," Aelish interrupted. He looked away at the mention of his friend, pain obvious in his young face. "Willow is with him. They ride for City Lost this very hour."
The shock of his news took River by surprise, but she went on, unwilling to spare the time they didn't have on her own emotions. "All the more reason for us to go our separate ways." She looked down at the boy whose hands still glowed with a warm light. "What is your name?"
"Wake," he answered, unafraid.
"Merl is a good man, Wake. You can trust him."
"You're the Princess," he stared at her with large eyes. She nodded. "Should I kneel for you?"
River smiled down at the child in awe of her. "No, you need not do any such thing. All I ask is that you obey Merl and go with him. I think you may have an important role to play in what is to come." She thought about her friend, the handmaiden to whom she had become so attached, and of how their ways had parted as well. "When you find Willow," she addressed Merl, "will you deliver a message for me?" Merl nodded, giving her his full attention. "Tell her that we will restore the balance within the kingdom, and that the people here will be safe under our watch." Aelish stood proudly by her side, knowing that he was meant to reside in that place until the end of his days, whether as her protector or as the champion of her city, even though it meant sacrificing his heart's desire. "And tell her," River choked back her own sorrow, "tell her... we will rewrite the prophecy together once this is done, and it will speak of friendship and love... and cheesecake."
Merl listened to the cryptic message, then bowed humbly before his Princess. Wake took his hand, and together they walked into the darkness, lit by the magic of a boy no one knew was coming.
The world spun below them. The air grew colder and thinner with each beat of the leathery wings. Willow strained ineffectively against the talons which pressed dangerously into her ribs. She could feel Raven at her back, their bodies crushed together awkwardly, painfully. A gloved hand reached around and took her own, indicating that she should stop struggling.
"It will fly higher yet. There is little time," the voice behind her bellowed out into the mist and clouds.
Panic, Willow thought. That was the sound in Raven's voice. It was panic. "How do we get free?" she screamed, though her words were whipped away on the sharp wind. Her hand squeezed the gloved one tightly.
The wyvern shot up through the clouds, bursting through onto an incredible scene. Hundreds of miles of clouds spread below them, lit by a fierce, golden sun. It looked nothing like the world below. Here there was no gloom, no snow, no grey. Had her lungs not been pinched by the solid talons, Willow would have gasped at the beauty. The tiny dragon circled one lowered wing, the other carving a half moon in the sky. Their vision changed to a panoramic view of the mighty, snow-covered mountains to the south. Tara came from the south, Willow mused, realizing that her brain was shutting down. They were climbing too high, and the air was thinning. I would like to see Laris someday.
We are not bound for Laris, mo rhua. Today we travel to Drakkalis. The gloved hand gripped harder, and she felt both fear and bravery surge through into her own hand. Willow strained to look at the masked warrior behind her.
"I just found you," she whispered. "This isn't how it was supposed to be." Her head rested on Tara's shoulder. Darkness crept into her eyes, so that she could barely make out the horizon, the edge of the cloud-scape over the mountains. The wyvern turned again, and Willow felt her stomach and her heart lurch as it descended. They plummeted into the clouds, building speed as the beast tucked its wings into the sides of its body. It turned and spiraled, as though flying was a dance. Its scales were soon covered in condensation, and the mist around them robbed Willow of any visual bearing she could use. She felt the stone wall before it came into view, and the shock of its nearness made her stiffen in fright. The wings of the wyvern snapped open and lifted them over the edge, flapping gently as they hovered over a high, flat turret. The talons released, and both captives fell to the stone surface in a heap.
Willow rolled to her side and tried to sit up, but the world would not stop spinning. A horrible chill spread through her body, sending her into violent convulsions, and she wretched as her stomach and head suffered the brunt of the shaking. She breathed deeply, taking in everything that had just happened. She was alive. They had been rescued, not devoured. They... She pushed herself up onto both hands, kneeling on the cold stone, and crawled over to the black, limp body nearby. "Tara," she whispered. "Tara," her voice grew more urgent. She reached out and took the gloved hand in her own once more, shaking it to get a response. "Wake up," she begged. "Please, Tara. Wake up." The masked head rolled side to side a few times, then the black figure struggled and pushed itself into a sitting position. "Are you alright?" Willow asked, creeping closer. She began feeling all over the obscured body for wounds.
Firm hands met her own, reassuring her that they had both survived the flight without much injury. "I'm fine."
"I thought," Willow began, still frantic. "I thought we were," tears streamed down her stained face. "Oh, Tara..."
Strong despite their wounds and cuts, the warrior's arms took Willow in, holding the shaking girl close. "We're not. Everything is fine now." The hands behind Willow's back left her shoulders briefly, removing first one and then the other glove. Bare, pale flesh glared out against the remaining black. The hands returned, stroking the young woman's tangled hair, pulling her closer in. "We found each other. Nothing else matters."
"This," the redhead's hand drifted up to the black face and traced the lines of features she could feel below, "this matters." They beheld one another in the stillness. A thick fog pulled walls and stone in and out of their sight. Nodding, Raven reached for the edge of the bindings, but the bare hands stopped with a jerk.
"Could it be true?" a foreign voice echoed out in the mist and fog. Willow jumped at the sound and turned to face the stairway. Through the grey light, two figures emerged. One, tall and thin, walked confidently toward the couple. By her side was a second, lower silhouette, slinking and prowling low to the ground. "Willow?" the voice called. Dark, wavy hair and delicate, fur-lined ears framed a familiar face. Her brown eyes twinkled in the dim light, filling with tears as she knelt before her old friend.
"Penna!" Willow leapt forward, taking the other woman in her arms. They hugged as though it had been years, not months, which had passed between them. Willow pulled back and gazed into her friend's beautiful face. "Oh, Penna," she smiled through her own tears, "it's so good to see you." The blue tiger padded up to them and butted his head into Willow's shoulder, pushing them both with his weight. He purred and wrapped his long tail around them. "Grim," she stroked his thick fur, and the memories of the friends she had been torn from overwhelmed her.
"Me, too, right?" Phidi ran up to them anxiously.
"Yes, you, too!" Willow pulled him into the hug, clinging desperately onto all of them. "I've missed you." A shadow crept over them, and they all looked up at the Black Knight who towered over them. Willow blushed, then reached for a hand to stand. She was lifted gently, and came to stand in the arms of her protector.
"You know the Black Knight?" Phidi gazed up at them with wide eyes. "That's really him!"
Penna stood as well, eyeing the stranger with suspicion. "You trust him?" she asked her friend. Grim growled and lowered his ears.
Willow turned to face the Black Knight. The slightest turn of the dark head was all the signal she needed. Now she understood. It had nothing to do with hiding from the past, and perhaps it had nothing to do with Willow entirely. There was a deeper need, a calling which overruled her desire. Raven had become a symbol for the people. He was more than a man. He was more than a hero. He was the one thing which could keep the spirit of these people alive and fighting when all else had failed. Around them gathered dozens of familiar faces and even more Willow had never known. The resistance from within the Drylands City stood proudly. Between were those few gypsies who remained in the Known Lands and had traveled for weeks to reach the edge of the world. Dull swords and sharpened spears were held in hands that belonged on plow handles and horse carts. Weary, smudged faces gazed through the fog at the Red Sorceress and the Black Knight. Against the most impossible odds, they had all completed their journey.
Raven stood still, waiting for Willow's decision. No one else in their presence could have known the inner battle that waged in their hearts. So many years had passed, so many journeys had begun and completed, and so much pain and sorrow had transpired between them, only to be forsaken once more. In her own mind, Willow saw the woman in the mask, bound by something far more important than a need to hide. No one here would know Tara the Southlands warrior, but every mouth in the Known Lands had uttered the name of the Black Knight. Feared or revered, he was the one thing which could upset the imbalance of power in the battle to come. All this time, she mused, I held your hand, I walked by your side, and my heart knew what my mind would not permit.
Turning back to her friends, Willow inhaled the damp air and held it in her lungs. Her lips smiled, but her heart sank in her chest. "Sometimes things are not as they appear on the outside." She said, then turned to the others. "This is the Black Knight." With the last of that breath, she let Tara go once more.
Alone in his mind, though thousands rode in the cloud of snow around him, Captain Fain mentally chastised himself. All had been abandoned in the hunt for the Black Knight. His sudden appearance had mobilized the entire army. Again the Black Knight had eluded them, and again they had failed the Queen. Fain pushed his horse on faster, overtaking his lieutenants and commanders in a fury of snow and ice. They had watched the wyvern kill Captain Vrint, and immediately Fain had taken over. Never before had they encountered a wyvern they could not summon or control. He gritted his teeth at the thought of his leader's untimely death. Vrint was surely disappointed in how things had turned out. This time, however, the outcome would differ. Fain steadied himself as City Lost came into view at the edge of the hills. He had instructed his men not to summon the wyverns without his approval. They could no longer be trusted. This masked warrior, however, was tired and wounded, and, he found himself hoping, possibly dead. As impossible as it sounded, Fain had warned his troops that the Black Knight might have survived the attack.
Then there was the red-haired woman who had been with him. Could it have been the sorceress they had sought for so many years? Captain Fain shook his head and let the thought pass. They would follow the information which had been provided in the night, and if the Black Knight or the witch were found, so much the better.
"You will be interested in what news I bring," the man had bowed humbly at their feet the night before. Vrint and Fain eyed him with suspicion, but with such great numbers in their camp, there was no cause for alarm. They took him into the ornate tent and offered him tea. He took it graciously, though he never removed his gloves.
"You are not the Queen's messenger," Vrint had said. He was an intelligent man, and his army revered his leadership. Under him they had trampled every village from the foothills in the south to Longmire and beyond with fewer casualties than the training camp could claim in a year's time.
"I am not," the foreign man smiled, his dark skin parting to reveal very white teeth. "I am, however, an observant traveler. Perhaps you would like to know who intends to journey to City Lost?"
Fain glanced at his Captain. Both men understood the importance of strange travelers in these parts. Vrint sat forward. "Who travels to the edge of the Known Lands? And how do you come by such knowledge?"
Slowly drinking his tea, the man patiently replied, "I believe there are over a hundred of them now. They intend to assemble in City Lost. To what end, I know not." He paused, then caught the Captain's eye with his last words. "Gypsies." Vrint and Fain no longer struggled to hide their astonishment. Had they not all been wiped out? "Rebels as well," the man went on.
"What fortune do you seek for such knowledge?" Fain interjected. Something about this stranger made his heart beat with warnings.
Astonished at the suggestion, the foreigner clasped at his chest dramatically. "No, no, kind sir, you misunderstand." His lips curled into a most terrifying smile. "I merely seek to help the Queen restore what she has lost!"
"Lost?" Vrint bellowed. He stood quickly and drew his sword, pointing it at the dark man's throat. "Your words are poison! We would know if the Queen had lost anything of value."
"Would you?" he answered, sneering at the Captain's outburst. "Then surely you have heard of the kidnapping?"
Vrint stole a glance at Fain, who looked dumbly back at his leader. No such word had reached them. "Kidnapped? Who has been kidnapped?"
"Why the Princess, of course!" The sly messenger pushed the tip of the sword aside and stood to face the Captain of the Royal Guard. "The leader of the rebels stole away with her in the night." His tone was serious now, and both men realized that they were not in the presence of a mere traveler. This man was someone and something else entirely. "But that is not all he took. A child walks with them. If all three are allowed to join in Torrent with the Red Sorceress, this world," he swept his arms dramatically, "everything you see, everything you desire and hold true in your hearts will be destroyed. Everything."
Vrint withdrew his sword and took a step back. "Who are you?"
The dark man drew himself up to his full height and scowled menacingly at the soldiers. "I am the King in these lands," he answered. "You may call me Tinari." His name echoed in the small space, shaking the bones of the two men. "You will ride for Torrent. You will find the gypsies and the rebels, and you will kill every single one you see. Men, women, children," he inhaled, "kill everything you see." He turned with a flourish, but stopped just short of the tent flap. "Oh, and if you happen upon the witch, do not harm her." He glared at them with the eyes of a wolf. "She is mine."
Reunions and introductions had continued on for over an hour before Merl lost his patience. He had traveled without rest since the night before, running with Wake in his arms. The tunnels below the Drylands and Hillmarch were twisted and cruel, affording no natural light or fresh air. Exhausted but awake for the entire journey, Wake had lit their way. He now stood behind the immense man, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of unique people who had gathered in this crumbling city. Wide eyes stared at loud dwarves with heavy clubs and brave words, and Wake openly gawked at the scaly, green boy who cooed and whispered to the wyvern perched on the grey stone wall overlooking the sea. The brown-haired woman had a blue tiger. Another woman was covered in feathers. She was talking with what appeared to be commoners from the marketplace he had visited when his father brought him into the city. Merl checked in on him regularly, tousling his hair with a friendly hand. He noticed now that the giant barkeep was losing his kind nature, and a nervous energy pulsed in his veins.
Merl stepped forward, eyes lowered before the infamous witch. His steps were sure and steady, but his heart thumped wildly under the old chest plate he had once worn as a captain, a leader of free men. Silence overtook the crowd as he addressed Willow. "The Queen's Army rides this way. They will arrive by nightfall. We are out of time, and we do not have the numbers to fight them." He held his head high. "We can create a diversion, though." He looked into Willow's eyes and held back the urge to ask the questions he had considered for so many sleepless nights. "You're the one Ulhetha told me about," he mumbled.
"She is," the old woman separated herself from the assembly. The journey had worn on them all, but Willow noticed immediately how tired Ulhetha looked. "I think just about everyone knows now, little one." She grasped Willow's hand in her own and held it tight. "This is Merl," she nodded to the aging man. "He leads the resistance. I wish there was more time for you two to talk about everything you have in common, but time is the one thing we have never had enough of." Willow glanced around at the faces in the mist and wondered how everyone had made the treacherous journey to join her in this final place.
"We will meet the enemy on the battlefield. I cannot guarantee how much time you will have." Merl held his quaking hands steady.
Willow understood. It was a sacrifice they believed would make the difference for all the people in the Drylands who could not fight. "I do not know how much I'll need," she answered, looking at Merl. Something about him was familiar, but she could not place his face or his name. "You know this place." He nodded. "I will be in the deepest tunnels."
"They lead only to the sea now."
The loneliness of Torrent crept into the gypsy's bones once more. There was a despair in this place that even the strongest love could not fight. "Protect that entrance with your lives." Merl nodded, then turned on his heel and signaled to his makeshift troops. He stopped before the mist came between them. "The Princess," he began, "sends a message." Willow held her breath, anxious to hear news of her friend. "She remained behind with the other warrior," he inclined his head mistrustfully toward Raven, "and the little maid. They will secure the city. She," he paused, uncertain of the rest of her message, "she also mentioned a cake."
"Cheesecake," Willow whispered, a smile returning to her solemn face.
Merl nodded, then returned to his duties. All but the smallest followed him, men and women alike. What children there were took up positions in turrets and spires as lookouts. All but one left in the crowd. Wake, unsure of his place, approached the red-haired woman. She must be the one in charge, he thought.
Willow caught sight of the boy, and her heart changed its rhythm. She knew him. Her heart knew him, even though her eyes had never seen him. She knelt to see him at his own level, and a question scrawled itself across her brow. Similarly, Wake felt drawn to the kneeling woman. Her beautiful face had haunted his dreams for as long as he could remember. One step from her, he stopped, and with a trembling hand he reached out to her face. She was as real as any person he had known. "It's you," he said.
She took his hand in her own. "I remember you..." His soft, hazel eyes held her own, trusting her to recall what was buried so far in the past. "Wake?" she asked, suddenly panicked. "Wake?" he voice became frantic.
The little boy smiled, though his eyes remained wide. "You know me."
"I," Willow felt the tears on her face before she realized she was crying, "You and I..." The explanation would not come. Without warning, she pulled the boy into her arms and hugged him tight against her. She could smell the forest in his hair. "I remember when you were born."
"Father says I saved your life," Wake breathed as she held him. "What did I do?"
"I was asleep. You woke me up." It took a moment for the words to sink in. "Father?" she asked. "Who is your father?" She took him by the shoulders and held him back to look at him. Rosemary stared back at her in the boy's flushed cheeks and pink lips.
"Father's name is Ren. He's been looking for you, too."