Nope, I'm not doing this thing anymore. There is officially a sequel in the works, which will basically be Sister of the South from Lindal's point of view, and will probably be called What Happens in Del unless I think of something better. I couldn't tell you when to expect it. I've got a ton of stuff to do IRL, and sadly need to be responsible for a while.
There have been liberties taken with this chapter, in regards to Lief and Company planning their fake names and disguises ahead of time. However, after glancing over the first chapter of Shadowgate, it seems impossible to me that they couldn't have just come up with their story at a moment's notice. They know their parts too well, I think. Also, I had wondered fiercely where they had gotten their coats and caps from, and I hate to think of Lindal stealing them from someone…
Fortunately for me, parts of this update are copied from the first chapters of Shadowgate, with a wink and a nod to my good friend PJ Blindclown, for whom this story was originally written. Read her work, Missing Moments, and pay attention to the second chapter to see where the initial inspiration for this concept came from. ;D
It was early morning on the ninth day when Barda woke. The sun had yet to rise, and the light pouring through the window was still pale and hazy. Despite the patterned blanket pulled nearly to his chin against the cold morning, he felt chilly. A shiver he couldn't fight back raced unpleasantly down his spine. It seemed like something was missing….
As he reached for Lindal, seeking her warmth, he discovered exactly what was missing. He groped around her side of the bed in the dimness, only to find her place empty and cold. His eyes flew open in alarm, darting this way and that, searching for her. It was as if she had never been there at all.
He sat up, fully awake now, and called her name as he peered around the room. No answer came, and no towering, glorious figure appeared in the shadows. He was gripped with deep concern. She had been so upset that night. He supposed that he understood why she was suddenly so afraid, but part of him still wasn't sure if he understood it. Where had she gone, and what was she doing?
Barda jumped out of bed and spent a few minutes searching for his scattered clothes—most of them right where he had left them before. When he emerged from his lover's bedroom, he was barefoot and still pulling his shirt into place. He was too impatient to find her to be bothered with details.
The hallway was deserted, and nearly pitch black. The common room was filled with the same dim light as the bedroom, but no one was there. Even the couch was empty this morning. All around him, there was stillness.
Except, he realized, for the soft sawing sound of a knife, coming from the kitchen—where a lamp shone its light. Relieved to have found his lynx in an obvious place, Barda stalked silently to the kitchen door and looked in.
Lindal was standing at the counter with her back to him, listlessly slicing a loaf of bread. She seemed drained, and very sad, just from looking at the back of her head. Barda was so quiet, her normally impressive senses didn't notice him at all; so he looked into the room just in time to see her give a heavy, mournful sigh and let her broad shoulders droop with exhaustion, not thinking to guard herself.
Seeing her this way, knowing that he was the cause of her sorrow, was like a hot blade in his heart. All he wanted in the world was to take her in his arms and promise that all the things he was unsure of would come true, somehow. But he couldn't bring himself to lie to her, and he knew she would never appreciate it if he tried.
Still, he couldn't stand to do nothing. He had to do something.
She looked up from her work, looking unsurprised to see him. He gave her the warmest, most sincere smile he could, glad to see her after waking up alone. She certainly looked like she could do with a smile; she looked terrible. Her hazel eyes were red from tears and fatigue, but she offered him a weak attempt at a smile.
"Good morning," she mumbled back, the shadow of a smile vanishing as she quickly returned her focus to the loaf she was slicing.
She was avoiding him for some reason. Barda crossed the kitchen to stand behind her, wondering why she wouldn't even look at him. Was she still angry with him? Angry enough to dismiss him? What had she been thinking about all this time, alone in the kitchen? What had she planned to say to him?
He hesitantly reached for her arm, and she paused her slicing at his touch, but she didn't shrug him off or push him away. He placed his other hand over hers, and she laced her fingers between his without hesitating at all. In fact, it felt to him like she was clinging to him again, using his strength as an anchor while she had none of her own. She relaxed, letting her back rest against his chest, and sighed softly as a feeling of rightness settled over them.
However she felt about their fight the night before, it wasn't poorly enough to push him away forever. If she had done such a thing, he wasn't sure what he would have done. His relief was so great, he cuddled her closer and even dared to place a gentle kiss on her neck.
"Another mystery breakfast, my love?" he said in her ear, as playfully as he could. "Why didn't you wake me for it? You know I've enjoyed our mornings together, as much as the nights. I would have hated to miss this one."
She sighed and shook her head as she hesitated. "I'm sorry for what I said last night," she said in a quiet, husky voice that hardly sounded like her own. "It wasn't right or even fair of me to make demands like that."
"I know what the quest means to you. To everyone. I know what it means to me. And I know that you must continue it, to the very end, no matter where it lies. Forgive me for losing sight of that. It was wrong of me to forget it."
Moved by her sincere, humble words, he turned her around and gripped her shoulders, still holding her close. She looked ready to cry again, just from the strain of speaking. He smiled, and placed his big hand against her face.
"There is nothing to forgive, my dear," he insisted. "I only wish you had spoken of it sooner. We might have dealt with it together. I might have been able to help you."
"I didn't want to think of it. We were so happy and I was afraid to spoil that. I see now that I was only being selfish."
"People are selfish creatures. We can hardly be blamed for that. I almost wish I could be selfish enough to stay here, with you, as you said before."
"It takes a remarkable person to put that selfishness aside for others. I am not that person, it seems…"
"Yes, you are. I've seen it many times. You've a bigger heart than a hundred Capicons combined, remember?"
Her eyes grew wide with memory; and to his surprise, she began to laugh. Softly at first, as if she were trying to resist, and then a little louder and warmer. Barda began to laugh too, relieved to see her more like herself. She let her forehead rest against his, and looked him in the eye for the first time that morning.
"It still isn't saying much," she chuckled, nuzzling his face, "but I understand what you meant. How could you have known better, after all?"
"Well, I have learned my lesson since then, and so I ought to rephrase that. You have the heart of a dragon—ten dragons, which is certainly more than we have right now."
It occurred to him too late that Lindal might not appreciate that sentiment, either. But her smile never dimmed, only grew wider and more thankful. She let her head fall to rest on his shoulder, and drew a deep breath. Already, she felt much stronger than she had before. Like she was standing on her own two feet all by herself, and relying less on him to remain upright.
"I love you," she murmured.
"I love you, too. And don't you dare question it again."
She hummed in agreement, but otherwise remained silent. It was a peaceful silence, a sure sign that this troublesome conversation was over and behind them. It dawned on Barda that while he had been afraid that his words in the night had ended their romance, Lindal might have been afraid that she had caused that very thing, herself. They had wounded each other in their own ways. It wasn't the first time they had spoken sharply to one another, but that had been before this great love had formed.
This had been their first fight as a couple. The first conflict they had faced together. And they had conquered it, together. Talking, dancing, making love, and being happy and peaceful were all wonderful, and he still preferred those things greatly to fighting and disagreements. But overcoming this conflict, which might have destroyed them from the inside out, and knowing now that they could do it again if they had to, had brought a new light to their love.
Now they knew that they really could trust each other with any matter, no matter how great or how small it seemed. Together, they really could stand against anything. Even their own differences.
Which, he supposed, was a large part of what marriage was all about.
It was a lovely idea, and he resolved to meditate more on it later. For now, though, he decided it was time to move forward.
"So," he asked, "what is for breakfast, anyway?"
She snorted sharply into his shoulder. "As if you could trick me into giving it away so easily."
"Oh, fiddlesticks," he sighed. "I thought I might get away with it this time…"
Lindal straightened herself and swatted his shoulder playfully, grinning and looking better and better with every second. "Get out eggs and milk, then, while I finish with this bread."
Barda left her with an imploring look as he went to do her bidding. "Please don't spill all our milk this time."
"You know something? Why don't I deal with the eggs this time, while you measure me a pint of milk? I do seem to have grown a bad habit of spilling milk all over myself."
They shared a laugh over that, because it certainly seemed to be true. For now, all was well, and back to normal.
We may go on to spend a great many mornings this way, if I can just make it to the end of this whole thing, he thought. That is a goal… A dream worth fighting for.
It was, indeed, the ninth day; and that only made Jasmine impatient to be moving on. Time flies when one is having fun, and Broome was the most fun place she had ever been to. She hadn't fully realized how long they had been there until just a few days ago. She had looked up to see that they had spent a week in the city, and would need another day or two to make themselves ready to leave. They had exhausted their supplies since arriving, and autumn was quickly changing into winter. They had been in no condition to just walk out into the wild on that seventh day.
That seventh day had gotten away from them all, for… Well, for various reasons. As soon as she had recovered, she had begun making mental lists of the things they would have to purchase before leaving. Wanting to be helpful, Lief had spent a large part of his time actually writing those things down. The list they had compiled was already as long as his arm, and probably still missing several important items.
The main reason the list was so long was because it took into account their need for proper winter clothes. Heavy coats, scarves, gloves, socks, caps… As Jasmine frowned over the list—which she hated to admit she couldn't read much of—she reflected on her 16 years of life in the Forests of Silence, and wondered vaguely how she had gotten through so many winters without help. She wondered if she still could, all this time later.
In any case, she had already decided that today was their shopping day. It would take hours to acquire everything on the list, without counting the time it would take to try on new clothes. That was frustrating to her. In her old life, it would have suited her perfectly fine to set out with nothing but the clothes on her back and the odds and ends she happened to have in her pockets; it was how she had left the Forests in the first place, after all. But those days were over.
"How much money do we have?" she asked Lief as they prepared for their long trip to the market. "Do you think we have enough for everything?"
"I think so," he agreed, patting his jacket pocket, which jingled with the sound of loose coins. "We've already spent a lot of what we had, but we should do well for ourselves. If worst comes to worst…. I suppose I could ask for a discount. I can't imagine the vendors would refuse me, but I would hate to use their good will like that. It doesn't feel right to me."
"If they are willing to lower their prices for you, or even give you what we need for free, you would be foolish not to take advantage of it," she pointed out, crossing her arms and being her highly practical self.
"I don't want to take advantage of anyone," Lief protested. "What kind of king would I be, then? A selfish and greedy one, like all the other before me, that's what kind."
Jasmine considered his reasoning briefly, but wasn't moved. "If they want to help speed their king on his way, to a mission that can save everyone, what kind of king would you be to deny them that honor? A proud and foolish one, like all the others before him, that's what kind."
"The people of Broome would bend over backwards for you, if you asked them to do it. But you haven't asked them to do it—they just would, because they love you. They have every right to aid in your cause, if they want to. And if they want to help by just giving you the basic and rather modest supplies we need, why should you not let them?"
Lief would comment later that it was, in fact, a very logical argument. Jasmine would roll her eyes at that comment, seeing nothing logical about it. She was only being sensible. She had always been the sensible one, she thought.
"Do you think we should wait for Barda?" Lief asked as they left. "He might have a thing or two to add to our list."
"No, we'll ask him later. We will have to come back and lave things, so we will just ask him then. I imagine he has more pressing things to think of right now."
"…Are you sure?"
"Of course, I'm sure. We need our space, and he needs his. Besides, we haven't the time to wait on him."
24 hours could be a remarkably long time, but it could also be very little time. It felt to Jasmine that the ninth day was somehow going to be both. It was going to be a very short amount of time to do all the things they had to do; but it was also going to feel like an agonizingly long time between now and when they could leave. The need to return to their quest had grown more and more urgent in her heart. It felt like every second they remained in Broome was a hindrance.
"The quest isn't going anywhere, yet," Lief shrugged, noticing her obvious impatience. "The least we can do is slow down and enjoy the city for as long as we can. Heaven only knows when we might be here again."
"How can I do such a thing, when the rest of our land is in so much anguish? How can you do such a thing? One corner of our land is free, and that is good; but it doesn't mean we can frolic like children and waste precious time like this. We have work to do!"
Lief laughed lightly. "Whatever happened to, 'what's one more hour or two'?"
"I wasn't myself, then. There were many things on my mind. It was a moment of weakness."
She spun around to look at him, and saw in his face that her words had stung him.
"Do you believe, then, that you care more about the quest than I do? Of course I'm anxious to continue. It's been pressing on me, as well, and you know that. But if you think we should regret even one second we've spent here, you need to stop and think again."
Jasmine sighed, seeing clearly how she had offended him. "That wasn't what I meant. I'm just… Worried."
"So am I," he answered, taking her hand. "Our time here in Broome has been wonderful, and it will be a sad thing to leave it behind; but I know that the rest of Deltora needs us. I know it better than anyone else. We have been here longer than I had planned, and that is my fault. I knew days ago that we should be preparing to go, but I put it off. I'm sorry for that. If I had just spoken up, we might have been well on our way by now. If you think the lost time doesn't bother me as well, you clearly don't know me as well as you suppose."
"I don't think that at all. I'm sorry for making it sound that way. You just seemed so calm, and unconcerned."
Lief smiled in understanding, and put his arm around her.
"It's hard not to be. Just look at this place," he said, waving his hand over their view of the market. "Seeing Broome so revived has brought me so much joy, and hope. I had been doubtful of myself before, not sure at times if we were on the right track, or if there was even a point on carrying on. But this… Of course we must be on the right track. Of course there is a point. And there has been every reason to stay a while and enjoy this triumph. It has revived us, as well, I think. It's given us the strength and courage to face whatever is ahead. It has given us a reason to hope for the best. It has given us a purpose."
"Hm…" Jasmine snuggled against him from the chilly breeze as she thought about this. "Barda found a purpose here, too."
"Yes, he did, didn't he. He never would have found it if we had left so soon. So, really, how can it be such a terrible thing, when lingering here has accidentally done us so much good? I'm not saying we should stay any longer than we have to; but I'm not saying we should regret our stay, either. Let us just enjoy the last few hours we have here, and try not to be anxious."
He was right. Jasmine looked around the marketplace and willed herself to relax. Watching the smiling, happy people, thrilled over the bounty they now had to buy and sell, she found that relaxing wasn't such a hard thing to do. Seeing them like this brought peace and great joy to her heart. She couldn't help but smile as they went on their way together.
"Broome isn't like other cities," she said thoughtfully. "It isn't like Del, or Tora, with their walls and manners. It's such a wild place. The people are so loud and unashamed of who they are. You know how I dislike cities, Lief—I've always found them crowded, and confining, after a life lived in the Forests. Cities have always had a feeling of deadness to me. I never thought I could be so sad to be leaving one. I never dreamed that such a place could exist."
All of Ruby territory was like that, she reflected. Its people were all generally wilder and fiercer than her own. Even D'Or, with its beauty and finery, felt more like home to her than Del ever would. She recalled her first stay in that city, so long ago, and thinking that if this was what cities were like, living among people might not be so bad. She had learned quickly that Deltora's large places were as different as its people, and that very few of them made her feel at home in the slightest.
She had been so anxious this morning, so sick with herself for feeling happy and secure when people were suffering everywhere else. Now, she felt a terrible pang of sadness to have to go.
Several hours later, carrying bags, baskets, and small crates of the things they had bought—or had been happily given—they returned to Lindal's house to drop off their first load of items. They had been pleased to have crossed off most of their list, but still had a long way to go before it was completed, and had decided that they could carry no more on their own. Having learned their lesson in days past, Lief bothered to knock on the front door before just walking in.
"Come in," they heard Lindal calling from inside. Satisfied that they weren't interrupting anything, the two came into the house and began setting their things down.
"We're home," Lief called back, though he probably didn't have to. Who else could it have been, but them? All the same, Lindal appeared in the common room, grinning to see them again.
"Good of you to return," she said brightly. "You nearly missed lunch; we were just about to clean up. You've been to market, I see."
"Just for a few things," Jasmine answered sarcastically. "We won't be here long, there are still a few things left on our list. And if we plan to go north at this time of year, we still need to find sturdier clothes. I can't say I'm looking forward to that…"
"Is that so?" Lindal asked, planting her fists on her hips and looking pleased with herself. "As it happens, our old bear and I had thought of the very same thing earlier, and decided to do something about that, ourselves. Come in here, and see what we found."
Lief and Jasmine followed her into the common room, and she gestured to the couch. Three long, stiff coats of oiled canvas were laid over the back of it. Now that the couple were in the room, they found that the air was thick with the smell of old fish and salt water.
"I have a fisherman friend who owed me a favor," Lindal explained. "I know they aren't much, but coats like these keep our fisher folk safe from the elements all year round, and no one has ever complained, so I imagine they must serve their purpose well. I apologize for the smell; they were re-oiled just a few days ago, and even I must admit, they smell rather strongly."
"I have to agree," Jasmine said as politely as she could. She wasn't exactly thrilled about this find.
"It's good that the oil is so fresh," Lief said, trying to look on the brighter side. "If it snows, these coats will be sturdy enough to keep us dry. I don't care for the smell, either, but I'm sure we will be grateful for it, later."
Lindal nodded in satisfaction. "That was my thinking. My friend and his whole house have lived their lives in coats such as these; the fisher folk all swear by them. I'm not so sure how warm they will be on their own, but at this time of year they should still suffice if you wear them over your usual jackets. Barda still isn't so sure about this, but he has a habit of worrying needlessly over the two of you. It's adorable, if anything."
"I take it you approve of that, then," Barda called form the kitchen, having heard her remark. "I pray you do, as it isn't likely to change."
"Of course I do," Lindal called back. "It one of the things I like best about you!"
Jasmine began to fidget, suddenly uncomfortable and feeling a little guilty. She had been angry with them before, but that had passed. If she was anything, she was glad that her dear companion had found so much happiness. In continuing the quest—which he certainly would, of course—he would leave that happiness behind. Perhaps to never see it again. Suddenly, Jasmine felt terrible for wishing to leave so soon. The sooner they left, the sooner Barda would have to say goodbye, the sooner Lindal would have to let him go.
She hadn't thought of this so far. It hadn't occurred to her, because she and Lief would be together. They had always been together, from the very beginning. She couldn't imagine what would have to happen, to force her to let him go on alone. Oh, he always tried to make her stay behind, to keep her safe and out of the worst danger, because she was precious to him. But she refused. She would never leave his side. Not just because she loved him, but because that was what good, loyal friends do for each other.
And Barda was much the same, in that way. There was no way he was going to leave them to face the unknown by themselves, because he, too, was a good and loyal friend. And in doing so, he was giving up something precious of his own. In the hopes that he might save her—even if he never saw her again.
Jasmine reached for Lief's hand and held it tightly. She felt like her heart might break for her friends.
Lindal was still laughing toward the kitchen, and hadn't noticed that Jasmine's mood had changed so drastically. But Lief noticed, and gave her a comforting smile.
"You know, it might be best to think of false names for ourselves again," he suggested. "Word has probably spread like wildfire that we've been here. Spies will likely be watching and waiting for us. Travelling in disguise would be wise, I think."
Jasmine smiled back, thankful for the distraction he had provided. "That is very true. And this time, we have a few minutes to figure out who we will be in the meantime. We can choose our false names for ourselves, too! There's no way I'm letting Barda pick them again."
Lief shook his head and grimace. "I agree. That was terrible."
"Hey, hey!" Barda shouted from the kitchen. "It wasn't my fault! She put me on the spot!"
While Lief and Jasmine snickered to themselves, Lindal raised an eyebrow at them. "I don't understand…"
"Oh, it's a funny story," Lief chuckled. "We needed false names, this one time. That was how we learned that Barda isn't good at naming things."
Lindal, always in the mood for a good story, immediately looked curious. "Hm. Explain," she said, crossing her arms expectantly.
"Don't you dare," Barda yelled from the kitchen, only to be blatantly ignored.
"Oh, hello, welcome to Rithmere," Jasmine caroled, mimicking Mother Brightly as best she could. "I'll just need your completely real names, please!"
Lief, pretending to be Barda , deepened his voice and said, "Of course! My name is…. Dur…." He let his eyes wander, as if he couldn't quite remember what his name was. "Berry! Yes, that is definitely what my name is."
"Oh my goodness, I do believe that is the stupidest name I've ever heard of."
"Yes, well, my parents didn't love me very much. My friends are Birdie and Twig… Their parents didn't love them, either."
Lindal slapped her hand over her mouth, but it did little to hide her laughter. Lief and Jasmine had to laugh, too. Being stuck with those awful names had been the worst, especially when that continued to be how some people had known them; but looking back from where they were now, they couldn't help but laugh at how ridiculous it had been.
"Stop laughing at me," they heard Barda groan. Lindal turned toward his voice and narrowed her eyes slightly.
"Barda, you are not allowed to name my children," she declared. "I've just decided on it, so put the idea out of your head this instant."
He didn't respond, but they could all hear him grumbling and growling in annoyance to himself.
"So," Lindal said, turning back to them, "you have a tremendous opportunity. Who do you suppose you will be this time?"
"Broome fisher folk, it appears," Jasmine answered, glancing at the oiled coats on the couch. "Perhaps we have given up on fishing, and are traveling north in search of some new kind of work."
"We are probably family," Lief added. "There were so many strange people in Rithmere, it might not have seemed suspicious for a grown man to be traveling with a boy and girl our age. If we are to be fisher folk of the same city, though, it may seem strange if we aren't related somehow."
"Perhaps you are 'Berry's' nephew and niece," Lindal suggested. "You are too old to be his children, but too young to be his brother and sister."
Jasmine liked this idea, and had only one doubt about it.
"No, we will just be his nephews," she decided. "The Enemy has always been on the lookout for a man, a boy, and a girl; and so, whenever I've disguised myself as a boy, his spies have always passed us by. It's easy enough for me to pass as a boy, it seems; I've done so many times. This will be no different."
Lief nodded in agreement, also remembering the times when her knack for disguises had been helpful. It was good to have a plan in place. In the past, their false identities had been somewhat easy to see through, because they had been thrown together in a hurry. This time, they had an alias they could slip in and out of whenever they needed to, and a believable story that few passersby would think to question.
"That answers many questions," Lief said slowly, "but what should we call ourselves?"
"We'll think of that while we are wandering the market again," she decided. "I don't think I can focus on that properly without eating, first. What was left from lunch?"
"Odds and ends, mostly. There's soup and bread, and the last slice of breakfast casserole—if Barda hasn't already eaten it behind my back. I told him to leave it for you, but you can't exactly order a bear around, now can you?"
"When we're done eating, you and Barda should come with us," Lief suggested. "We could use the help, if you don't mind."
"Well, I wouldn't mind that, myself," the woman agreed. Turning to the kitchen, she called, "How about it, old bear? What do say to one more adventures as friends?"
"Just one more? I highly doubt such a thing," came the reply. "Let us have these two fed and be about it, then. There isn't much day left, and a good many dances to be had this night."
And in spite of the things they still had to do in that short amount of time, it felt to Jasmine that Barda had just described an excellent rest of the ninth day. The thought of preparing properly for a long journey, and rewarding themselves by dancing long into the night made her feel more at ease than she had felt all day long.
And so that day had passed. By morning on the tenth day, the whole city was aware that its beloved king would be departing shortly. Word had spread like a disease, filling some citizens with anxiety and sadness; but mostly, the people were excited to see the king off on his journey. There were vague rumors circulating that he might not be simply touring the kingdom, either, as he had insisted the whole time he had been in Broome. After all, as soon as he had arrived in the city, the plague, the drought, and the utter barrenness of the wild east had disappeared over night. As if by magic. The cleverer people and the more superstitious elders refused to believe it had been coincidence.
Lindal had to wonder if Kate had something to do with these rumors. It would be just like her to do such a thing; and even if she was a fiendish gossip, the woman was quick as a whip.
Night had fallen; and with it had come the loudest, brightest, and most exuberant dancing yet. Every night had been one of celebration—first over the miracle of the land's sudden, magical recovery, and then over discovering and hosting the king and his companions. Now, this tenth night was one of farewell. One of looking back over everything that had happened, and rejoicing that all those glorious events were certain to happen elsewhere. Even if the people of Broome had their own concerns to think of, of course they could spare hope and blessings for the rest of the land that had welcomed their ancestors when they had been strangers.
Several dances passed in a happy blur, until a short break was finally called. Lindal wished that it wasn't so. She couldn't stand to waste even one second milling around, when she and Barda could have been dancing and trying to pretend that he wasn't leaving in the morning. But she knew that the band needed a recess, even if she could have kept going for hours as she was.
The two of them were striding toward the refreshment table, when Barda looked around and suddenly became alert.
"I can't see Lief or Jasmine anywhere," he said shortly. "Where have they gone?"
Lindal also glanced around, discovered that she couldn't see them, either, and merely shrugged. She was certain that they couldn't have gone far, and were probably just on the other side of the room somewhere, impossible to see over the very tall crowd in the way. And she was pretty sure that she had seen Jasmine heading toward the hall's entryway before the last dance, no doubt needing to escape the crowd for a moment. Lief had probably gone to find her, himself.
She had thought of saying all this, except she looked toward the doors and spotted the young king with his future queen through the window, just as she had suspected.
"There they are," she said, gesturing toward the window, but not pointing and drawing attention. "It would have been quite unlike them to just leave in the middle of a party. They love these things as much as we do."
Barda seemed relieved to know where they were, and also looked out the window. They could see their young friends standing close together, speaking urgently to one another in the light of paper lanterns. At a glance, it would have seemed that they were using that moment of privacy to exchange romantic words, or perhaps discuss their plans for the morning. Except, after a moment's observation, their faces were far too serious for any of that. Lief kept glancing nervously at something in his hand, then back to Jasmine, then back to whatever he was holding. Next moment, the young man was sighing tiredly, sadly, and is love was gripping his free hand comfortingly in her own.
Something was definitely not right. This much was obvious. Alarmed, Lindal and Barda started straight for the door, intent on finding out what was going on now.
Barda pushed the door open, clearly startling his young friends as he did so. When the two saw who it was, they looked immediately relieved that it was just their usual, trusted companions.
Simply because they hadn't wanted to be pestered by strangers, or because of something more sinister…?
"Lindal saw you through the window," Barda explained, not trying to sound demanding. "What—?"
His serious gray eyes and Lindal's curious hazel fell on the object in Lief's hand, which explained everything at once. It was a parchment note, several of its words crossed out and impossible to make sense of presently. With parts of it missing, it looked like random words. Even so, the hand was plainly recognizable. Lindal would have known Doom's handwriting anywhere. Looking up, she saw with a silent start that a pair of blackbirds sat perched on the railing—one was Kree, and the other had obviously just arrived with the note.
So Doom had sent them a coded note under cover of night. The whole scene spoke for itself, even though they processed the situation in silence, in just a few seconds. Barda looked at her beseechingly, his face heavy with hesitation and a faint flicker of fear.
Lindal decided right away that she needed to remove herself from the situation. The further she involved herself, the more distracted and worried Barda would be. He wouldn't be able to help it, and he would hate himself for it, but he had changed in the last few days. The wall he would have easily put between his desires and his duty was gone. She had pulled it down, brick by brick, until it no longer existed.
"You will be wanting privacy," she said simply. She nodded politely to them, offered Barda a quick, hopeful smile, and turned to go back inside. It struck a tender place in her heart to not belong in this conversation; but she could still respect that, and accepted it at once.
So she was surprised when a hand caught hers and held her back. She turned and looked into Lief's frightened, desperate face.
"No, Lindal, please stay. We need your help."
He had always been so hesitant of asking her for help outright. He had always danced around it, made excuses and apologies for taking up her time when he had requests or questions. She knew it was because he didn't want to seem like a pest, or worse, like a demanding monarch; but it had always peeved her that he could never just ask for help without pretense. In a way, she had to admire that about him. In other ways, he just found it annoying.
This time, there was none of that. There was plainly no time or space for it. The young man was afraid and confused, and needed her. Perhaps that had helped him to realize, at last, that she would always be there for him, and help in in whatever way she could. Pleased by this, she smiled at him.
"What do you need me to do?"
"Lindal, we need to leave. Tonight. Right now! We need to get back to the house, take what we can, and get out of the city as quickly and quietly as possible. No one can see us going."
Lindal was alarmed at once by the sudden declaration, and made no bones about it showing on her face.
"There can't be spies here, in Broome," she insisted stoutly. "Why, anyone in the city will tell you—"
"No, we don't think so. But there are spies lurking outside the city, watching, waiting for us. We must take them by surprise. We must take up the disguises we had planned, and make our move when they are least expecting it. It is our only hope, I'm afraid…"
Lindal hummed to herself, thinking over how this daring escape would go. It would be simple enough. No one seemed to have noticed any of them slipping out the front door; and the whole population was busy dancing at the moment. No one would be the wiser—if they acted at once, while they still had that advantage.
Having decided on this, she grinned down at Lief. He looked miserable, and in need of a little optimism.
"I do love a good surprise," she said, "especially when I am the one doing the surprising. This will be no great feat. Come along, then, let's get you ready to go. We may have a thing or two to do, yet…"
Fortunately, they were mostly packed already. All that was left was for the company to change from their dancing clothes into sturdier ones fit for traveling, and their strong-smelling disguises in the way they had already agreed on. When they arrived back at Lindal's house, they each started silently and urgently off to their own borrowed quarters to set about making this change.
This long into their affair, Barda's things were all in Lindal's room. Naturally, he began walking that way as soon as they came in the door. Before he got very far, Lindal came up behind him, grabbed him by the shoulders, and began steering him toward the kitchen, instead.
"Wait a moment, you, there's one more thing you need to do."
"Oh no, I thought you were joking about that," Barda protested, nearly whining.
"I was absolutely serious. Smelly coats and knitted caps will help hide you, certainly; but you will never pass as a man of Broome with hair and a beard like that! One of them has to go, and quickly."
Lindal hated the idea as much as Barda did. His long, dark hair and beard were part of who he was, which he took great pride in. It had puzzled her at first, but she had soon learned that having total control over that brought him comfort, when so much of his life was confusing and uncertain. She almost couldn't bear forcing him to compromise that. But that part of him was also iconic—everyone knew him by those features, and she doubted that anyone he was close to would recognize him without them.
All the more reason to change them, if he didn't want to be noticed. And most fishermen of Broome were bareheaded and clean shaven, in any case. If he wished to go about as Berry the fisherman, he would simply have to make a few sacrifices. At least she reasoned that if he chose only one, he could still reasonably get by.
He clearly wasn't thrilled with this. Neither was Lindal, who had prepared a clever trap for him while he hadn't been paying attention. She had assembled a razor and a mirror in the kitchen before they had left for the dance. Seeing these all ready and waiting for him on the table, Barda tried half-heartedly to struggle away.
"I haven't had to do this since I was a boy," he sighed, staring doubtfully at the razor.
"Obviously not," Lindal agreed, pushing him into a chair, and then picking up the tools and holding them out to him. "Come now, it isn't difficult in the slightest. It isn't as if I said to shave yourself completely, either. Just cut a bit here and there, and no one will be the wiser."
"And cut myself in the process? No, no, I can't do this." He tried to stand up and walk away as quickly as possible. He had barely risen when Lindal, tired of his nonsense, climbed defiantly on top of him and forced him to sit again.
"You complain enough for ten children," she scolded, grabbing him by the hair and making him face her. "Sit still, and I will do it myself."
With a steady, practiced hand, she took up the razor and began carefully trimming his beard back. He sat stiff and rigid beneath her, hardly daring to move. He looked almost terrified.
"I'm dislike having blades this close to my face," he commented, moving his mouth as little as possible.
"Well, stop mumbling, or I'll put the razor into your neck, for sure," she retorted, yanking his hair as punishment. "And that would be unfortunate, all things considered. The children need you. I need you, too. We all do."
Barda didn't relax, but he fell silent. Of course he trusted her, but he was still uncomfortable. Lindal put all her focus on her work, trying not to feel uncomfortable, herself. Already, he was starting to look very different.
"Hair grows back, after all, and it grows back faster than you would think possible," she said quietly after a moment. "Believe me, I would know. I've had plenty of practice keeping my own head shaved, when there was no one around to do it for me. The other members of the Resistance used to think it strange that I would keep up such a custom, when I was so far from home and likely to never see it again; but some parts of us don't die so easily."
She sighed sadly at the memory, but pushed it away before it brought her any more sorrow than she already felt. Instead, she tried to smile. "Just give it a few days' hard travel. You'll have your beloved beard back before you know it, without me to help you. That will please you, no doubt. I suspect you care more for it than for me."
Barda grunted unhappily at the comment, but didn't dare try to speak while she was still working. Having nothing more to say, herself, but dreading silence, she began to hum quietly. Slowly, Barda began to relax. He was growing used to the razor, and the tune was soothing his nerves.
She had quite a lot of control, herself, she suddenly thought. Doom himself had once commented wisely that women had a strange power, that way—that it was beautifully dangerous, and dangerously beautiful. It had been unclear then how he could have known such a thing so intimately, when he had probably never allowed himself close to any woman in his life. Now that Lindal knew the truth behind the man…
Some parts of us really don't die that easily…
She had thought of that comment often since then, and had sometimes wondered if she even possessed the power he had spoken of. At long last, it came to her that this power had been there all along; it had merely been dormant, awaiting a use. Now it had awoken, and was in her very hands. The revelation filled her with the courage she needed to move forward with the new plan, even though it was hurting her.
The minutes crept by faster than she would have liked, and soon she was finished. She finally set the razor aside, and appraisingly ran her hands over the rough stubble she had left behind. She tried to take pride in her job well done, but it was hard. It was, indeed, as if she weren't facing her old bear anymore. It was as if she were looking at a stranger.
But she was just the same as always to him. His face grew slightly concerned when she went on gazing at him like she had never seen him before. Still, that familiar flame flared between them, now that they were silent and so close together, and alone. Lindal could feel sparks flying and snapping, where she had tried to remain neutral and cold. When Barda pulled her closer still and kissed her with all the force he could muster, it nearly took her by surprise.
There was her old bear, and the kisses she knew so well, quite unchanged, after all. She couldn't help wrapping her arms around him and kissing back, trying desperately to make up for the time they had been cheated. If things hadn't changed so suddenly, they would have been joyously happy. Instead, both their hearts were painfully heavy. Who even knew when they would share a moment like this again? Who knew if they ever would?
The moment might have lasted much longer, and might have even caused a delay that would have driven their young friends from their minds. But when he slid his hand down her back and around her ass, holding her tighter against his body, it filled her with as much alarm as pleasure. She would have given anything to continue down this road… But she remembered that she held the power of the world in her hands, and the power to do what was right. And she couldn't let him forget that he, too, had that power. With a tremendous effort, she pushed away from him and shook her head.
"No," she gasped, the words aching in her throat. "Don't. We can't. There isn't time."
He saw at once that she was right, and his eyes filled with disappointment and sadness as the flame went out. There really was no time at all. All they had time left for was a last tender embrace.
"We were supposed to have this night, at least," he whispered, also plainly finding it difficult to speak. "We were supposed to part with real farewells, and hopeful words, and now this… I can't believe that has been snatched away so easily. I can't believe this has happened…"
"Such is the nature of great adventures," she answered, tears prickling her eyes. "The unexpected is always sure to try and stop us. It only means we must be strong and carry on. If anyone can be strong in that way, I know it is you. You would always do the right thing."
"I certainly like to think so, myself. If you believe that, how could I do otherwise?"
In spite of everything, the pride she felt in him brought a smile to her face, and she allowed herself a single tear for his incredible spirit.
"That's my bear," she whispered, sitting up straight to face him. He reached up to wipe that one tear away, and she held his hand for a moment against her face, savoring his warmth and strength one last time. Then, gathering her own strength, she sighed sharply and finally stood up, pulling him up with her.
"Now then, dust yourself off and let's get back to business. You still haven't changed yet, and the children will be nearly done by now. They will be annoyed to find us dallying here."
Knowing well that this was true, Barda began brushing at his arms and shoulders as they walked into the common room. Bits of his once impressive beard showered to the floor in his wake, leaving a trail that Lindal couldn't spare a second to clean up. The sight must have bothered him as much as it bothered her; but he didn't show a sign of it. Instead, he strode with renewed purpose toward her bedroom to complete his disguise.
Just as he was rounding the corner, Lief and Jasmine both emerged from their own rooms and nearly bumped into him. They both jumped and gasped in surprise when they saw him, probably not recognizing him and wondering what a stranger was doing so suddenly in the house. Barda quickly went on his way before they could comment, leaving them to stare after him in shock.
Lindal watched this uncomfortably, crossing her arms defensively across her chest and sighing to herself. She wondered if his own mother would have recognized him, now. She tried to comfort herself by deciding that if dear old Min had been there to see it, she would have smiled—even laughed—and assured her son that he looked positively handsome. His big, warm heart was what mattered most, she might have said, and it was all the easier to see without that beard in the way, hiding it from the world.
It is what I ought to say, if I can only get him to myself for a few more seconds. He needs to hear it.
"What have you done to him?" Lief asked as they met her in the common room. "He looks completely different!"
"That's the idea, your majesty," Lindal answered, making herself smile. "The two of you look rather different, yourselves. Why, if we had been out and about in the daytime, in the crowded market, I might not have known you at all! You've made your plans well this time."
Lief hardly looked that different, in truth. But the Belt was hidden under his shirt, and the oiled coat was fastened to his neck; the precious cloak his mother had made for him was also stuffed into his pack, and these changed would be more than enough. He looked like the fairly ordinary young man he really was. In fact, Lindal was inclined to think that he looked much nicer this way, even with the woolen cap covering most of his hair.
Jasmine was a whole other matter—she looked completely different, and couldn't have been recognized as female for anything. Lindal had never realized before how very small the girl's breasts were; they had vanished entirely beneath her coat, which had been a little large on her in the first place. She had also managed somehow to twist her mass of hair up and hide it inconspicuously under her cap, so that only a wisp here or there stuck out. The cap didn't even look the bigger for it, and Lindal had to wonder how Jasmine had so expertly defied the laws of nature.
She had also smeared her face here and there with grime from an oil lamp to finish her costume. It did seem, in fact, that she and Lief could pass reasonably as brothers for a time—brothers who perhaps took more after different parents, but brothers, all the same. Lief was obviously the older, more responsible brother, his face clean and his clothes somewhat neat. Being so small and grubby, Jasmine was clearly much younger, likely prone to wandering the streets of Broome with friends and getting into all kinds of mischief, rather than toiling all day at sea.
They would have an answer to any question they might be asked. It was a truly perfect disguise. All they needed now was Barda, and they would be fully equipped to make a daring escape.
Lief dug around in his pocket and fished out a folded piece of paper. "I've written a note for Doom, if you wouldn't mind sending it," he said, handing it to Lindal. "He might not feel particularly safe having a response so soon, but it will still make him feel better to know where we are headed."
"Of course," she agreed, taking the note and stuffing it into her own pocket without bothering to try and read it. Almost certainly it was in a clever code. "I'll send the other bird back in the morning. It will be glad to be home, I suspect."
"Her name is Ebony," Jasmine answered with a helpful smile, glancing at the pair of blackbirds perched close together on the sofa. "I trained her myself, as I trained all our birds, but she is by far the best we have. Aside from Kree, there isn't another bird I would trust with such an important message."
"I'll take heart in that, then. And I'll treat her well, I promise."
Jasmine looked relieved. Plainly, leaving her second most beloved bird in a strange place, in the company of a stranger, had brought her a great deal of anxiety. Well, at least one someone had found a bit of peace in all this mess.
And so, her own heart filled with doubts, Lindal led her friends to the city gate not half an hour later. She imagined that by now, the dancing people would have looked up and noticed that their king and his whole company had vanished. A few more hours would pass, and they would realize that he had been missing for quite a long time. They would notice that she had disappeared as well, and would seek her out for an explanation. She supposed that they would find her alone in her house, weeping without apology as she guzzled what was left of that beautiful bottle of brandy.
Surely, not even Kate will blame me for that. If anything, she will be the first to try to comfort me. Even if she doesn't believe that what I have found is real, she is a better friend than I sometimes give her credit for.
That thought eased her troubled mind ever so slightly, but not enough to cheer her.
The gate was unguarded on this one occasion. Even the guards had been given the night off to enjoy the festivities, for the city never expected visitors this late at night, and there was no threat of invasion. Though as Lindal opened the gates and let her friends slip out before her, she had to wonder if this was wise. This was a better time for the Enemy, enraged at being foiled, to spring a clever trap. As she closed the gates again, she turned in time to see Barda brushing irritably at his face, unused to the bareness he felt beneath his fingers.
"It was bad enough playing the part of a beggar, in the old days," he grumbled, trying to speak of something lighthearted. "But at least I had my beard then. And I didn't stink of fish that died before I was born!"
In spite of everything, Lindal had to laugh. He sounded like a child whose first haircut had gone horribly wrong.
"Your garments smell very strong, I must admit," she agreed. "I suspect that no one will want to keep company with the rough-looking man Berry, and his two young nephews, Lewin and Jay, for long," she added helpfully, calling them by the names they had chosen.
"That will suit Berry, Lewin, and Jay very well," Jasmine answered in her practical way, as Filli squeaked in disapproval on her shoulder.
Lindal suppressed a sigh of vague annoyance. Lief and Jasmine had been so excited for the opportunity to choose their own false names; and so she had expected them to make the most of it. They had chosen very ordinary names, but she disliked the sound of both of them. In her own mind, Lewin and Jay sounded just as awful as Twig and Birdie. Perhaps their newly imagined parents hated them as much as the previous ones…?
"Filli will have to stay hidden," Lindal said instead, glancing meaningfully at Jasmine's furred and feathered friends, perched in plain sight on her shoulders. "And Kree will have to keep his distance."
"I know," the younger woman sighed, glancing at them in turn, herself. "And the journey to Shadowgate will be very long. I only wish Honey, Bella, and Swift were still with us."
Lindal wondered at first who she was talking about, before remembering the horses her friends had been riding when they began their journey. Apparently, they had been very fond of those particular horses, and had almost certainly expected to make their whole journey on their backs. Lindal, having never ridden a horse in her life and having no desire to learn how, couldn't understand it. She wouldn't have trusted any animal to carry her farther than her own two feet could.
"The horses are back in Del by now, no doubt," Barda insisted, seeing that Jasmine was plainly worried about them and daunted by the long walk ahead. "But we may be able to buy others in the north."
Jasmine looked a little more optimistic, and nodded in silent agreement while Lindal shook her head in puzzlement. Lief, meanwhile, had begun to fidget anxiously.
"Thank you for all you have done for us, Lindal," he said with great sincerity. "Send Ebony back to Del in the morning. And remember, the ruby dragon has promised me that it will do the people of Broome no harm—as long as they leave it in peace."
She wished that he hadn't insisted on bringing that wretched beast up again. She didn't want to remember to keep an eye over her shoulder, along with all the other things on her mind. She narrowed her eyes, and they darted off in the general direction of Dragon's Nest.
"Time will tell," she said darkly. "I do not place great value on a dragon's promise. Perhaps the ruby beast kept faith with Doran the Dragonlover. But that does not mean it will keep faith with you."
Perhaps she hadn't spoken so wisely, herself. Her words had only filled Lief's mind with more doubts and anxiety. She wished that she could have rephrased that comment, or perhaps not uttered it at all.
Suddenly, Kree screeched in what Lindal knew was a warning. The stars overhead disappeared from sight, and even a portion of the moon was blotted out. But the moonlight was still brilliant, and in its light shone widespread wings and glittering scales, red as freshly spilled blood.
As if it had a special sense to alert it whenever people were speaking of it, the ruby dragon had appeared out of nowhere when they least needed it to. Immediately suspecting the worst, Lindal hissed in anger and reached for her spear. She never went anywhere without at least one, because she had been taught to always expect the unexpected. This was just about as unexpected and unwanted as it could be, and she was just pleased to be armed when the rest of the city was oblivious.
"Why, the beast has already broken its vow!" she cried over the beating of the dragon's wings, louder than the wind. "It thinks to take advantage of the celebration, and plunder the city!"
She was more than ready to aim the spear and plunge it into the decieving creature's heart while its soft underbelly was still visible. But her aim was totally spoiled as Lief suddenly threw himself in front of her and held out his arms to stop her.
"Wait! Lindal! Let me speak to it!"
Lindal pressed her lips together, biting back a sharp remark that could have been considered treason. It was a whole dragon, for pity's sake! How in heaven and earth did he suppose he could reason with it? Every instinct she had told her to defend her king. However…..
He had spoken to it before, after all. She had been there and seen it with her own eyes, and even she couldn't excuse that away. And besides, the screams of a wounded dragon would only draw an enormous crowd, which none of them could afford. Reluctantly, but never taking her eyes from the dragon, she pointed her spear to the ground.
Lief sighed in great relief, and turned to face the dragon. It had just landed before them, and was settling itself comfortably, as if it expected to be sitting there for a while. Its shape reminded Lindal of a lion, which did nothing to calm her.
"Greetings, King of Deltora," the creature said in an almost formal way, in a voice that they all could hear, though it was clearly speaking to Lief. "You are leaving Broome a little earlier than you planned."
There was something in the beast's voice that was almost… Friendly. It sounded so casual, as if it were merely mentioning the weather, or pointing out a bird in the sky. And Lindal had an immediate impression from the sound of the voice that it was female. It seemed amiable enough… But how had it known so soon that their plans had changed? Lindal wanted an answer to that question, and she wanted it badly; but Lief didn't pause to think of this.
"Yes," he agreed, looking a bit cowed by the size and unexpected personality of the dragon. "It became… Necessary."
The dragon nodded, almost brightly. "I approve. In darkness, we can fly unseen," it said helpfully.
The exclamation had come from Barda, who had spoken for each and every one of them. They were all shocked by the dragon's very gracious suggestion; but they all knew that he disliked being so far above solid ground. As if noticing the big man for the first time, the dragon glanced in his direction and considered him for a moment.
"Sadly, I cannot take you all the way to the second Sister," it said in a more businesslike tone. "My oath to Dragonfriend prevents me from crossing my boarder. But I will take you as far as I am able."
It was still for a moment, gazing over the startled faces before it. Then it suddenly bared its terrible fangs, and Lindal thought for a horrifying moment that it had been playing them for fools. It had convinced them to lower their guards, only to paralyze them with shock, and then devour them all while they recovered. It even growled haltingly… In what Lindal suddenly realized was its way of chuckling lightly.
"Do you like my surprise? Are you not pleased?" it asked, pleased with itself for causing such a sensation. "Dragonfriend always said it was the greatest happiness, to ride upon a dragon."
It waited, still happily grinning its toothy grin, as the people before it processed this. Finally, Lief recovered enough to clear his throat and speak.
"We would be glad of your help," he said at last. "Thank you for your kind offer, Dragon of the Ruby."
The dragon ducked its head politely. "We have been through much together, King of Deltora. You have woken me from my long slumber, and helped to remove a terrible sickness from my place. For the first time in hundreds of years, my belly is full of fat, fine fish, rather than dreams and vows. This suits me much better, I find. You have been a great help to me, and for that, I wish to offer my help to you. Is that not the way among humans?"
"I… Yes, I suppose it is."
The dragon nodded again, this time in satisfaction. "Dragonfriend would have wanted it, in any case. He would had encouraged me to do it, for the sake of his own kind, and I would have agreed. If he could wish such a thing, then it could never possibly be a bad thing. It is a joy to lend you my wings."
With that, the ruby dragon crouched on all fours, waiting for its riders to climb upon its back.
Lief and Jasmine started forward at once, though with no small amount of hesitation. The dragon sat patiently still as they scrambled awkwardly onto its neck, even trying to help them where it could. But Barda hung back, slightly terrified to have to fly on the back of a beast he didn't trust.
And unwilling to leave Lindal like this. He knew well what this meant to her. He gripped her hands urgently, his normal sturdy face pale.
"I don't like leaving you in the care of that thing," she whispered, darting her eyes at the dragon. "I don't trust it, not for anything!"
"I am hardly thrilled, myself," he agreed, also keeping his voice down. "But it seems that I have no choice."
Willing herself to be strong, she nodded resolutely. "Then… I suppose it can't be helped. You will take care of yourself, of course."
"You know that I will. And we will be together again. I promise it."
"Don't forget me."
"How could I, my lovely lynx? You are the whole reason I'm willing to ride that ruby beast in the first place."
She could have broken down and wept in his arms, if time had allowed. She wanted it more than she wanted to be rid of the ruby dragon—which was quite a lot. But she had allowed herself one tear, and one tear only, which she had already spent. What he needed now was for her to be strong. He needed to know that that he could trust her not to fall into despair without him. He needed to know that she could be patient and strong, while he was fighting for everything they hoped would be.
A heavy, meaningful silence stretched between them. It felt like just by looking into his eyes, she had confessed all those fears, but promised to be brave in the face of them for him. And in his eyes, she saw that he somehow understood everything that was on her mind. There were promises of his own, there. Promises that she was certain he would keep, and be able to keep, no matter what horrors he would face.
There was simply nothing left to say. Merely everything left to be understood.
At length, he sighed slowly and raised her fingers to his lips.
"Goodbye, Lindal of Broome."
She nodded, knowing that what he really meant by those words was, I love you. He simply couldn't bear to say it, or he would crumble.
"Goodbye, Barda of Del."
By which she meant, I love you, too. She wished that she could bring herself to say it, but she couldn't do it, either.
He squeezed her hands for a final time, and released her, walking to the dragon with all the determination he could find. He couldn't appear squeamish now. Not in front of a dragon. Not when he had so much worth fighting for.
Once he had climbed onto the dragon's neck, it rose up on all fours and lifted its head high, sending it's riders sliding back onto its shoulders with shouts of surprise. As it spread its wings, it cast its flat red eyes down on Lindal.
As much as she despised the beast and all it stood for in this moment, she couldn't help but be mesmerized by those eyes. They were enchanting, and oddly beautiful. And she was certain that there was a touch of sympathy in them.
"Fear not, woman of Broome," the dragon insisted in the kindest way it could. "Your companions will be quite safe with me. I give you my word. And as you ought to know well by now, a dragon of the Ruby never breaks its word."
With only a few beats of its mighty wings, it was up in the air. The force of its wings, like a freezing gale, beat Lindal almost to the ground. She covered her head with her hands, shielded her eyes from flying dust and leaves. When she was able to look up, the dragon was already wheeling away toward the north. By the time she could stand, she almost couldn't see it anymore.
And just like that, they were gone.
Just like that, he was gone, and she stood alone in the shadow of the wall of Broome.
They had realized their danger of being swept right off the dragon's back only once they were in the air, and fearfully high above the earth. Barda had belatedly fished a coil of rope from his pack—with some difficulty—and handed it to his companions to tie themselves down. Lief had bothered to silently ask the dragon if it minded, and it had laughed softly in his mind.
Oh, hardly. It wouldn't do for you to fall, after you have come so far. I should have thought of it myself, I suppose. But the only human who has ever flown with me was Dragonfriend, and he never required such a thing. Forgive me for not considering it.
The ruby dragon was an incredibly cordial and caring creature, even if it was a dragon. Lief had noticed this right away, when they had met for the first time in Dragon's Nest. Though when he thought of it, this wasn't really surprising. It was the dragon of the ruby, after all. The dragon of happiness. Its personality reminded him of the peoples of Broome, D'Or, and Raladin. It was gloriously fierce and wild, as its territory was; but it was also kind and even gentle, as its people were.
He could easily imagine Manus getting along very well with this dragon, sharing stories and laughing over jokes, and loving their part of this wide and mysterious land together. He could imagine them caring for it together, returning it to its former glory. Making it the way it had been when Adin had been king. Before the Shadow Lord had invaded. Before the Sisters had been put in place. Before the sorceress Thaegan and her children had caused so much damage.
The idea brought a smile to his face. He liked to think that the dragon would approve, as well. It sensed his thoughts, and chuckled to itself.
I always did enjoy the Ralads, it agreed in his mind. They understand our territory as I do, and love it the way it is. Their ways appeal to me greatly. And they always defended Dragonfriend, where others scorned him. They helped him save me. I could never feel poorly about them for that. I look forward to meeting this Ralad friend of yours, someday. He sounds charming.
He is, Lief had to agree. Manus is a very good friend of ours. If you seek him out and mention us, I'm sure he would be more than happy to help you in any way he can. They all will be.
Hm… The Ralads I knew will be dead by now. That is a pity. They were good men and women, and I respected them…. Oh well, it only means that I can know new people, now.
Lief was glad that the dragon was feeling good about things, because he still felt anxious about…. Well, everything. For a long time after that, they flew in complete silence—say for the roaring of the wind as it whipped past them. Jasmine was clinging to him from behind, with Filli and Kree huddled unhappily in her jacket, though she was certainly enjoying herself. She had always liked flying. Behind her, Barda was probably clinging for dear life, terrified in spite of the ropes that bound him safely to the dragon. Unlike Jasmine, he had always hated flying.
Your large companion is different from how I recall, the dragon mentioned abruptly.
We've all had to alter our appearance in some way or another, he explained, suspecting that the dragon wouldn't understand why they would want to disguise themselves. The Enemy is looking for us. He has told his spies what we look like, and so we have made changes, to throw them off for a while. We can travel in some measure of secrecy, this way.
Yes, I noticed this much, but that is not quite what I mean. He is changed on the inside. His heart is not what it was, when I first saw him. It is much bigger, somehow. And much fuller. I quite like it.
Yes… I suppose I like it, myself.
It is because of that woman of Broome, is it not? Is she his mate?
If so, much more has changed than I thought! One hardly makes such a change lightly.
It made Lief uncomfortable for the dragon to speak so plainly about it, or that it had guessed it all so easily. But since it had guessed, he supposed he ought to give an explanation.
Humans do things a little differently, I'm afraid. And I don't know if I would call them mates, but… They have become very dear to one another. It all happened very suddenly.
Dragonfriend called it love, I believe.
If it isn't love between them, I don't know what I would call it.
I thought so. Ah, the way he looked at her. The way he hated to let her go… No one has looked at me that way in a very long time. Dragonfriend was the last. But….
All at once, the dragon grew very sad. There was another, before him.
….You had a mate?
Indeed, I did. A handsome creature, as deep and darkly colored as a dying ember. Yet no flame was dying in him, for he had an incredible spirit, and a wicked sense of humor. He became very dear to me, and I to him; and it happened a bit suddenly, if I do say so, myself. Dragonfriend was greatly pleased to see that we found such happiness in each other. He said that he had held hopes for the two of us. Oh, such a matchmaker, that man was… Our joy was great, in those days.
Lief could tell why the dragon was so sorrowful, when it had been so bright and cheerful, even teasing before. Because of course, its mate was dead—he had been slain by the Ak-Baba long ago.
He had been slain. With a start, Lief knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was riding upon a female dragon.
He didn't need the dragon to finish her tale, and sort of hoped that she wouldn't. But she did, for she seemed unable to stop, now that she had someone to confide her pain in.
The sky serpents were in our place, then. We were preparing a nest of our own, and speaking with great hope of laying an egg in due time. Yet he was fearful of the threat, and would not rest until our young would be safe. We would not bring our little one into the world, only to have it slain by those monsters. And so he flew off into battle, determined to save us. And so he was slain, himself, as the rest of our kin were slain before him. I saw the terrible battle from afar, and saw with my own eyes as he plummeted, lifeless into the sea. My dear one gave his life, in the hopes that I might be safe. But after that, I was alone, and my sorrow was complete.
The dragon's voice was flat and emotionless in his mind, as if she were merely reciting a lesson she had memorized. Unable to help his good heart, he stroked her neck soothingly, and the nerves beneath her scales jumped at his touch, soaking up his comfort.
It all happened a very long time ago, of course, but it is still very painful.
I know. I have lost much, myself, even though I haven't lived very long at all.
Dragonfriend was grieved, also. The day he came to me and learned of my mate's death, was the very day he persuaded me to sleep. It was a sensible plan. And then, it was a blessed escape from the deep sorrow I felt. I had nearly forgotten the whole thing, after so many years spent asleep, and so much excitement. But when I saw the man of Del and the woman Broome, and all they shared, I remembered. I remembered, and I felt deeply for her. I know well what it is like, to bid a dear one farewell, knowing that he might not return. Mine did not. Hers may not, either. She is afraid for him, and afraid for herself, and afraid for the little ones she had perhaps dreamed of who may now never be. I understand. I wish that she could hear and believe it, but I know she will not. She fears and despises me. She would not listen to me, if I spoke comforts to her. That, too, brings me great sadness.
Lief was stunned beyond words of any kind. His own heart was very moved by the dragon's words. The promise she had made to Lindal had been so full of understanding, somehow, and it had puzzled him before. But now he understood exactly what she had meant.
Perhaps one day, she will be able to hear and believe it, he suggested. Much is still to change in the days to come. Any number of things may happen.
I would like that very much. I believe the two of us could get along well, also. Do you not agree, King of Deltora?
I must agree, for you are more alike than I had seen before. Her heart will open one day, I am sure of it. One day, when our land is free, and dragons wheel through our skies once again. I believe it. I believe in you—all of you.
I am not opposed to the idea, myself, the dragon agreed, her old self returning. We are of different clans perhaps; but there are only so many of us left, on the whole. Even I hate to admit it, but we will need each other, before the end. I will be positive about this. It will be a joy to not be alone anymore.
And, for all his doubts and fears, Lief found great comfort and an enormous deal of hope in that. For if the dragon of happiness could dare to defy the looming darkness all by herself, what did he have to fear?
He strained to look over his shoulder, searching for Barda in the darkness. The man was impossible to see, but Lief could imagine his face—set and determined, with something worth fighting for to keep his spirit alive. He would be faithful, and honor his true love; it would sustain the hope that, with good fortune on their side, he would find his great happiness once more.
Lindal and Barda would be together again. He just knew it, in his heart, no matter what would try to come between them. Even if all was dark and uncertain around him, he could be sure of that.
And to that, he had to smile.
I finished this up JUST as the bell tolled midnight, which can only be good juju. At 27 pages, 14K, it is the longest chapter. Mostly because I've rambled in this afterward, but I don't care at this point. 8D
So, yeah, in case you haven't been following along, I've been really frustrated with how long this story has gone on, and the fact that there will be trucking MORE of it later in the year. But for now, this is done. It is a huge relief to my soul…..
Copying word for word out of Shadowgate was a large help, as you can imagine. It was very fun to use the same words, but narrating from someone else's point of view. I've done this before in other fandoms, and it's great fun. It's a good exercise for a creator in a rut, looking for an interesting project, and also for beginners trying to expand their skills. I highly recommend it.
I realized when I began this chapter that I hadn't done a portion of this story from Jasmine's point of view yet. All things considered, this was a good place to use her perspective, as practicality is one of her defining traits. I've never exactly worked with her character so directly before. Somehow, I've always thought she would be challenging, since we are so different in so many ways, and it's hard for me to understand or relate to her sometimes. However, I had a lot of fun with her section, and found a lot of insight by writing it. I am, perhaps, overly fond of it. ;D
Here's a nice, touching story. About two weeks ago, I lay in bed, attempting to drift off to sleep by planning these last few pages. Instead, I conceived the conversation Lief and Joyeu just had, and ended up sobbing into my pillow for about half an hour. Then I stared at the ceiling for another half hour, wondering what I was doing with my life… Then I laughed at myself, because my life was actually about to become pretty fabulous. Then I finally fell asleep, just pleased to have a bittersweet but not entirely resolved note to end this story on.
The dragons are all just so unabashedly candid and earnest, and blatantly not understanding of human customs. I find them positively delightful. My brothers and I came up with a series of short little scenes where they keep popping unexpectedly into Lief's normal day to ask about dumb, random, or inappropriate things (like cows, and carrots, and sex) and he is unable to even with them.
Lief: Someone needs to run to the market for tuna—
*Fortuna explodes into the palace*
Fortuna: I AM HERE. :D
Lief: *face/plam* No, not you, go back to where you go.
Yes, there will be a sequal. You can expect to see it pop up sometime over the summer months, but I couldn't tell you when, since I don't know, myself. So just have this, enjoy it, and praise me. PRAISE MEEEEEEE.
Roses to all,