I woke up with a start, the sound of the fire crackling tearing apart my nightmare of memories. I sat up, Garrett sitting near the fire, cooking something. I walked over to him and the fire, the sun rising along the horizon. I sat down next to him, trying to figure out what our next move is. He handed me some meat on a stick and we ate, again, in silence.
I dowsed the fire, as he quickly got himself and my dagger clean in the running water. I waited, staring at the ashes as he used the animal skin to dry himself off and dressed. He touched my arm lightly, “Ready?” He held my dagger out to me, hilt first.
I stood up and nodded before I kicked the ashes to the wind, effectively hiding that we had stayed there. I put my overcoat on, sheathed my dagger, and followed him, trusting him more than I ever would have trusted someone like him. He promised me the Merchant’s death and I would hold onto that promise at all costs. He led me further into the forest until we reached another river.
“Where did you see him?” I asked as we rested, the line of the sun rising high overhead.
“It looked like an old building.” He grabbed a stick and started to draw in the sands. “How old was the Queen?” He stopped drawing to look up at me.
“She turned to her mid-thirties earlier this year and has been Queen for over fifteen years now. When she lost me, she had just started her reign and went to the Dragons to start her quest to save as many as she could. Why do you ask?”
He continued drawing, “Because I’m trying to figure out how he is related to her. Do you know when the previous royalty died?”
I shook my head, “I’m guessing just before she was crowned. Though,” I looked up to the sky, pulling a memory from deep within, “There was a rumor that the previous King and Queen were killed by this King when they entered his lands as a peaceful envoy. It’s what started the quasi-war between our two kingdoms. The Queen was able to bring peace by a treaty saying that she would only enter his lands to see the Dragons, as they are a neutral party who complained at the loss of money from the war.”
He stopped drawing and pointed to the map he drew. “We are here and this is where are need to go. I travelled through this forest, over this mountain and into its peaks. There was a red building, surrounded by snow and sand. He wasn’t in your Queen’s land, but instead in the King’s. He also wasn’t a child anymore, but maybe in his late teens.”
It looked like about a week’s long worth of walking, but this also did not take guards, bandits and the such we would meet along the way. “How often do we need to stop?”
He looked at me oddly, “What do you mean?”
“Part of being a guard is being able to last for a few days without sleep, as long as I keep moving. You can see in the dark, so we can travel at night as well. So, how long do can you last?”
He kicked the sand-map and threw the stick into the river, “As long as you need to. I only need to sleep to search, and anything above that is just a pleasure that I don’t think either of us can have at this point.”
“We need to travel quickly and dodge around the cities and towns. I don’t have much experience when it comes to being off the path, so I’m relying on you to complete your promise.”
“What happens when we find him? What are your plans?” He asked innocently, but I could feel the dark prodding of his question.
“I’m going to kill the Merchant; after that, I have no plan, meaning most likely, I will be caught and sent to the Games.” I smiled ruefully, “It doesn’t seem as bad of a life than allowing the Merchant to live. Maybe,” I looked up again, “If I learn that the King started this, then I’ll do what I can to execute him as well.” I looked back to him, my body glittering with rage, hatred, and grim determination to fulfill my task.
“Since your Queen was killed, her contract is null and void. Since she even thought to let me go, I think helping you avenge her wouldn’t be a waste of my time.” He smiled the same feral smile that I felt within my soul.
I put my hand out to him, “You are free to kill them with me and if you don’t get caught, I don’t see why you couldn’t be free.”
He shook my hand, “For revenge and freedom.” He turned away towards upriver, “We need to head that way and follow the river.”
“Seems easy enough; do you want me to lead or do you need to?”
“You are more suited for combat, outside of assassinations, so you should lead.”
“First bandit we come across, you need to get a weapon to defend yourself.” He nodded as I passed him to lead us upriver.
We walked for a day, both day and night, meeting nothing but the natural sounds of the forest. I heard the twang before I saw the arrow. I threw myself back as the arrow hit the ground in front of me. I pushed Garrett to the ground and stood ready for the next arrow. I came from the same spot as the first, and I slashed the arrow as it came close to me. “Are you going to stay in your hideaway or are you going to come out and face me like a man?”
Bushes and trees rustled all around us, men coming out of the forest to greet us. One sauntered forward, “Wha’ a beat’.” He must have not been close enough to us to see my scarring.
“I want to talk to your leader.” I felt Garrett stand up behind me, putting his back to mine.
“I am th’ lead’r.” He stepped closer and I watched his face fall at seeing my scars. “Wha’ th’ ‘ell is ‘rong wit’ yo’ face?”
“The same thing that will happen to yours unless you tell me who the leader is.” He pulled a knife and lunged at me, but I easily dodged and slashed his arm in the process. He pulled it away, blood gushing from the artery. He glared at me, screamed, then ran towards me, knife held high. I slammed my dagger into his stomach, angling the blade upward into his chest. He gave me wide eyes as he fell to the ground, his knife clattering to the ground.
I knelt and grabbed the knife before handing it to Garrett. I turned to see the other thieves taking a step away from us. “You better tell her who the leader is, or she might go through each and every one of you to find him.”
The bandits split apart to allow a better looking thief to step closer to us. “What makes you think you could take us?” His voice was smooth and cultured.
“I am the Queen’s Guard.” I announced as a warning. The bandits looked to one another, all trying to decide if the reward was worth the risk.
“The Queen’s Guard, you say?” I watched his face go from thoughtful to malicious. “How does it feel to have killed the Queen?”
“I didn’t, but I can tell you that it will be delightful when I destroy her true killers.”
“The King has put out a bounty on your heads and trust me, its enough that we could retire on.” He took a step closer to me but stayed outside of slashing distance. “My archers are trained on you and your boyfriend here, so I wouldn’t try to attack me.”
I put my hand out to Garrett and he handed me the knife back. I quickly threw it into the trees where the arrows had originally came from. I heard the man yell, before he hit the ground. The leader looked to his fallen man then back to me, disbelief on his face. “I’ve dealt with men like you my entire life, and I rose through the rank despite them. Leave us be or…” I smiled innocently, which sent shivers up the leader’s spine.
He looked to his people, “She’s just one Guard! We can take her!”
I flicked my dagger and hit the leader in the chest, “I doubt that.” I stepped up to him and grabbed my dagger from his chest, wiping the blade on his clothes. I looked into his wide-eyes as I watched the light drain from them. “Anyone else want to try?”
The bandits looked to me then to their leader. Rats had more dignity than the scrambling bandits as they ran from us. I stepped over the body of the first bandit, grabbing his sheath, and walked to where the archer lie dead in the leaves. Garrett followed me, not saying a word as he witnessed me kill them. “Can you shoot?”
He nodded, “I can.” I handed him the bow and quiver of arrows, taking the knife back and putting it into the new sheath, latching it around my hips.
I felt my adrenaline start to crash, meaning we actually would need to stop sooner rather than later. “We need to find a safe spot for rest.”
He pointed to the left, “There should be something that way.” I led, following his directions until we found a waterfall for the river we had been following. The sun slit was falling beyond the horizon, bring twilight onto us. He led me into a cave behind the waterfall, a treacherous climb on the smooth rocks. We managed to get into the cave without too much issue. We walked towards the back of the small cave, only about twelve feet from the front, but it was enough to guard the mouth from where we sat.
I took off my coat and set it on the rock beside me. I yawned and knew that I would not be able to stay awake for much longer. I rolled part of the coat up into a pillow and tried to tell Garrett that I was crashing, but I was gone before I had the chance to ask him to guard the cave.
It was the third time I awoke to a fire within a week, and I hoped that it would continue. The small fire warmed the cave air, the smell of cooking fish hitting me. “How long was I out?” I yawned and stretched.
“Only a few hours, but I guess that’s all you needed. The sun is about to rise and we can continue walking.”
“Did you get any rest?”
“Yes, but not in the same way that you did. Guides tend to rest by meditation, but we are fully aware of everything around us.”
I walked towards the small fire and he handed me some fish. “That sounds useful.” We ate quickly and headed out for the day. We slid down the smooth rocks back onto the ground, the sun sliver providing enough light to navigate through the trees and bushes. We found ourselves hiking up the mountainous trail. Trees were thinning on each side, but we were still moving at the edge of the forest. We had to stop for a breather more, not being used to hiking up into the thinner air.
I breathed deeply, trying to get more oxygen into my lungs, but they refused. “How… much… farther?” I gasped each word.
“Need to… sleep…” He answered, his voice just as breathless. We found a small crag with areas where we could sleep off of the sharp rocks. He laid down in one of the crags and I sat in one next to him, keeping an eye out for anyone who could sneak up on us.
I found a stone that reminded me of a whetstone and tasted it. I smiled, knowing that rock flavor anywhere. I pulled out the knife from the bandit’s sheath and started to sharpen it. It took a while until I felt it was sharp enough to make air bleed. I then started to work on my dagger, the sun-sliver starting to set on the other side of the mountains. I kept going until I could no longer see the blade and stone well enough to not mess up the blade. I put both the knife and the dagger into their respective sheathes as I heard rustling coming from the crag next to me.
Garrett sat up and rolled out of the crag, “He’s just over this mountain. The fastest way is going straight up, but there is a safer path that will take two more days.” The two moons rose overhead, their fullness giving us the best light we could have hoped for.
“Safety first, because this would be for naught if we both died trying to climb this mountain.”
“Do you need rest?” He asked since he was able to get some.
“I think I can last for a couple more days.” I hoped.
“Alright, follow me.” He led me around the cliff-face towards a sloping hill that led to the top of the cliff. We took a few breaks when we were could not breathe from exertion. At the top of the cliff, we looked out over the forest and saw a few camp fires glowing in the meadows.
“Those are probably guards and bandits.” I said out loud.
“Most likely.” We turned away from the cliff and found an even taller mountain to climb. “He’s that way, the red building nestled in the hills within the peaks. If we climb that one, then we should be able to see into its valley and find the building.”
“Yay…” I tried to not sound completely like I wanted to die from exhaustion.
“Are you sure you can climb this without rest? There’s snow and ice up there, so this would be the best spot to stop.”
“Can’t.” I pointed to the fires in the forest, “We can’t chance that they will catch up and figure out where we are headed. The Queen was very specific about this and not being caught. It’s what got her into finding a Guide in the first place.”
He took a deep breath, “Let’ head up the snowy mountain.” We did not worry about marauders or guards or any other kind of human finding us along the way up the mountain. I hoped they would all stay in the forest looking for us and we could walk in peace.
The climb was harder than either of us expected it to be. Each step was a gamble on whether there was ice under our feet or a snow drift where we would get stuck. Garrett slipped on ice ahead of me and I grabbed him as he started to slide down the mountain. I sank into another hole in the snow and cursed loudly, pulling my foot and boot out of the snow. My energy was waning in the early morning light, but my sheer stubbornness refused to let me stop.
Wind started to pick up around us, whipping around, trying to freeze us to the bone. Garrett shivered in the light, not having a jacket to wear on this snowed in hell. “There’s a cave up ahead!” I yelled to him to steer him towards it. He turned towards the dark opening and we reached the cave as the mountain became white with snow flurries flying in the wind. He walked to the back of the cave and as I reached the cave, he had a fire lit with some pine needles that were scattered throughout the cave.
He could not stop shivering and with his blue lips, I was worried. I took off my coat and draped it across his shoulders, trying to help him warm up. He tried to argue, but I stopped him, “I’m not the one who has been walking without a coat.”
I sat behind him, my back leaning against his, trying to help him warm up, as the fire warmed his front. I felt my body get colder, but I ignored it. I felt him stand up and the cold air on my back made me shiver involuntarily. He grabbed me and dragged me to a wall close to the fire. He sat against the wall and sat me in his lap, covering us both with the coat. “No reason why both of us can’t be warm.”
“Are we even going to survive this climb?” I asked as I stopped shivering, our combined body heat keeping us warm under the coat.
“We would if this coat could fit the two of us.” He smirked.
“I’ll figure it out after the blizzard stops.” I felt myself fall asleep in his warmth.
“It’s time to get up.” He whispered in my ear.
I looked to the clear sky outside the cave, “How long has the sun been out and the blizzard gone?”
“It took all night for the storm to blow out, but I think it’s safe now. Did you figure out how to make the coat fit us both?” I nodded, pulling out the sharp knife. I stood up and cut the coat widthwise, where it would normally reach my waist. “Why did you do that?!” Garrett shouted.
I handed him the top half. “Because you need more maneuvering room than I do.” I buttoned the rest of the buttons of the coat, which would go down to the bottom of my chest. I used the interior draw strings to create a caplet for me that would keep out most of the wind and cold. I put it on to show him that it would work for the both of us. “Now, we are both warm.”
He put the jacket on, the bottom barely making it to his stomach from the difference in height between the two of us. “It’ll work… Just hate to see you destroy your coat like that.”
I shrugged, “I can get another coat; I can’t get another Guide.”
“True, I guess friends would be hard to find up here.” He grinned.
“Last I checked, I was defective and more Defects don’t have friends.” I thought out loud.
He grabbed me around the waist, “I know that you don’t believe that. And…” He took a deep breath, “I also know that you didn’t believe my apology the first time.”
“You only said it so you wouldn’t get thrown into the Games.”
“True.” He admitted, “But after the last few days with you, I owe you an apology for effectively calling you a monster.”
“Thank you.” I accepted his apology, and he let me go. I looked out into the winter wonderland that was before me. He stepped up next to me, “Still climbing up?”
“Until we reach the top, we will be climbing up.”
“Good thing we rested.” I answered as we left the cave and headed further up the mountain. We were making better time, since we both had been able to get our versions of sleep. It took another day to reach the peak and see the green valley below. I saw a red speck and figured that was the building Garrett spoke of.
We climbed down the mountain into the valley, the meadow still cold, but the snow could not penetrate far into the greenery. We, instead, encountered a different problem. Each step was getting harder to move, our legs feeling like lead with every step. We found the red building and tried to run towards it, but the greenery refused to let us get closer fast than a slow amble.
I gasped when I saw the red building falling apart, black wood where the fire had not devoured the structure. I touched the building and was released from whatever slowed our steps. I helped Garrett climb onto the porch, releasing him as well. I walked through the dead building, until I reached the great hall. Blackened skeletons were lying on the ground, all facing the front of the room. I ran out of the room and threw up bile into the greenery.
Garrett went inside and investigated for me. He could handle the burned smell and the sight, but it was too close to the pile of ashes that was the carriage for me. I saw movement from the corner of my eye and jumped up. I felt the crack of wood across my arm, as I raised it to protect my head. I used my other arm to reach for the knife, but the person moved away form me. I could not feel my left arm, which was lucky on my part, because I was better with my right.
“Who are you and how dare you trespass on this sacred land?” The person, covered from head to toe in black fabric, only his blue eyes showing, a young man, yelled from the other side of the porch.
“I am the Queen’s Guard, you ignorant fool!” I shouted, knowing Garrett was preparing to attack if I needed him.
“The Queen…?” The young man lowered his guard and Garrett tackled him to the porch. I do not know where he found rope, but he bound the young man and sat him near me on the porch.
I moved his mask off of his face and head and tried to remember where I had seen those eyes and face before. I took me a second before I turned to Garrett, “Is this him?”
Garrett nodded, “This is who the Queen showed me, aged little over a decade. This is who we have been looking for.”
I looked at both of them, the memory slamming into my mind, “Do you know who he is!?” He shook his head and the young man looked completely confused. “Untie him.” I handed the knife to Garrett, “I don’t know why she was looking for him, but I know who he is.” I helped the young man stand up. “How long have you been here?”
“For as long as I can remember.” He rubbed his hands over his wrists. “Who are you and what are you talking about? I’ve never met you before.”
I smiled, finally knowing something that could help, “You look just like the paintings of your mother and father.” I looked to Garrett, “Remember the rumor I spoke of? I think he was the reason they were in this kingdom.” I bowed to the young man, “Your Highness, brother of the Queen…”