Once upon a time in a world not so far from our own, there was a kingdom named Jarrett. Like most kingdoms, it had its troubles and its triumphs, but for the most part, its people were content.
Long ago, when Jarrett was nothing more than acres of farmland surrounding a modest wooden manor of twenty rooms, in the days when the great Magicians and Enchantresses walked the land, a good sorceress happened upon the people of Jarrett in the midst of one of its times of trouble. Legend holds that the few people in Jarrett were embroiled in bloody conflict as two opposing men fought for a woman’s affections.
“This shall never more happen,” the good sorceress declared. “To eradicate the need for competition, those in Jarrett shall see clearly when they first look upon the match of their hearts.”
Thus it was that ever after, in Jarrett the people began to see color only from the day on which they first laid eyes on the one they would love as long as their lives lasted. As the good sorceress had intended, this bred greater peace in Jarrett, for who would wage war with their neighbor when they could live peacefully in a world illuminated by the presence of their most beloved one?
As Jarrett had peace in its borders, so it enjoyed peace with its neighbors. Such a small kingdom was of little interest to larger realms. Though greedy monarchs like those of Poldar might normally be interested in Jarrett simply as a new area to control, the treacherous wilderlands surrounding the tiny kingdom deterred them.
Alas, the insignificant place Jarrett enjoyed in international affairs could not last forever. One fateful day, the vagrant seer Luc happened into the realm on the christening day of Princess Noemi. All the kingdom assembled in celebration, and therefore all heard the vagrant seer’s dreadful prophesy:
“Blessed is the princess with kindness and goodness, yet short shall be her days. She shall fall prey to the serpent’s voice and perish by her eighteenth year, unless she beholds the world in color and not only in shade. Only then may the dragon’s speech be thwarted and her life prolonged.”
The king and queen, together with all the people of Jarrett, determined to prevent the seer’s words from coming true. Men of all statuses set out on a crusade to eradicate the dragons from the land. Into every lonely forest and rocky mountain crevice they went, risking their lives to slay the monsters.
As for Princess Noemi, she grew up in the arms of her family. Yet her life was far from normal: Every day since her infancy, she had to sit for hours as an endless line of men was paraded before her, in the hope that one of them would unlock her heart and turn her gray vision into a myriad of colors.
In the wilderlands of Jarrett, Sir Lamar slowed his steed. At first glance, it appeared that a camp of knights lay resting around a campfire. He knew better. Despite the challenges of seeing flames in grayscale vision, he could tell the fire ring held only ashes.
With a grunt, Sir Lamar swung off his horse and knelt beside the closest man. The lack of armor suggested he was at rest, but he lay strewn across the brush instead of atop his nearby sleep roll. A quick glance showed that was the case for all the men.
Lamar squinted, looking for the tell-tale dark stain of blood. There was none. Stripping off his riding gloves, he felt around the man’s neck. Sure enough, there was a faint pulse.
Bent over, Lamar searched the ground. He found what he was looking for a few yards away: Huge, scorched footprints.
Lamar looked on the sleeping knights with sorrow. “Alas, my brothers, would that I could save you. Alas that she came upon you before I did! You are beyond saving now, but your sacrifice will not be in vain.”
He peeked at the pale sky. The eastern edge was already beginning to turn darker gray, but at least there was no sign of her. She would be back soon, within two days, so he did not linger. Sir Lamar sprung onto his mount and turned toward the castle. “She’s heading there,” he told the horse. “Right for the princess. I have to warn them.”
And who knew? he thought, anticipating his first sight of royalty. Maybe he would see color soon—and maybe he would be the next king.
“Thank you for coming,” Princess Noemi addressed the last of the day’s line of men. “I hope you find your match.”
“Thank you, Princess, and same for you,” the man replied to her back.
They were all the same, the farmers, nobles, blacksmiths, knights, and even foreign citizens whom her parents brought in for her to look at. Each stranger blurred together, an indistinguishable, monotonous blob. Her cheeks ached from smiling in thanks and apology at them—thanks that they cared for her life enough to venture far distances on the tiny chance that they would spark the color in her eyes and so somehow save her life, apology that their efforts were for naught.
Gratitude toward the men had always been her foremost response, but in the course of the recent days, Noemi found frustration warring with the more pleasant emotion. Today, she could not even make herself linger until the last hopeful left the room.
“You broke his spirit,” Noemi’s friend Garrin drawled. Footsteps echoed in the stone corridor as he, together with Trace and Verrell, fell in behind the princess.
Guilt twinged Noemi’s conscience. “I did?” She hesitated in the hall. Trace barely managed to avoid bumping into her.
“He will languor in the grief of missing your favor until the day he dies,” Trace placed a hand over her heart and pretended to weep. The boys laughed.
Noemi spun half-way around on her slipper-clad heel. “I should go back and apologize,” she told her friends.
She caught the roll of Verrell’s eyes. “They’re just teasing you,” the young man said.
Noemi glanced at Garrin. A smirk hid in the corner of his lips, verifying Verrell’s claim. She gave Garrin a look of indulgent understanding. “I know,” Noemi assured Verrell. “Still, it was rude of me to leave so abruptly.” Finally decided, she looked back down the hall—and saw him for the first time.
He was tall, clad in the mail and cloak of a knight. A sword swung at his left hip, a quiver full of arrows hung on his back, strapped on by a plain belt running diagonally over his chest. The eagle emblazoned on his breast denoted his character and prestige among the dragon slayers—as noteworthy as the Order of the Lion, but known for far less rage and infidelity. Long hair marked his arrival from a recent campaign in the wilderlands. It parted on his forehead, revealing dark-rimmed, light eyes filled with the strongest wonder Noemi had ever seen.
So that was what it looked like when someone received color vision from the first sight of their true love.
Noemi’s heart lurched in decadent hope.
A small hand grabbed her arm with painful force. Noemi flinched. “Ow! Trace, what—” Noemi glanced over her shoulder and saw the stranger’s wonder mirrored on the familiar face of the Chief Advisor’s daughter.
“Noemi,” Trace breathed, scarcely blinking, “it’s real. It’s—it’s like seeing for the first time.”
“Good sir, may I ask who you are?” Garrin asked the knight. His voice lacked the cordiality of his words.
Princess Noemi looked back at the stranger, view now partially blocked by Garrin’s body. She tried to ignore the sinking heaviness in her chest.
“Forgive me,” the man stuttered. He knelt respectfully. “I am Sir Lamar of the Eagle standard. I came to…” His eyes strayed to Trace. Awe replaced respect.
Garrin crossed his arms. “Yes?” he prompted.
Verrell laid a hand on Garrin’s shoulder. “Give him grace, Garrin,” Verrell reprimanded. “He doesn’t even know his newly-found beloved’s name yet. I’m sure gaining multi-chromatic sight must be quite a shock.”
“I don’t care if he is shocked by a bolt of lightning. If he doesn’t explain his business, I’m going to assume he’s a threat to the Princess.”
Noemi brushed her fingers over Garrin’s arm. He turned wary eyes back to her, but relaxed and stepped aside. “Sir Lamar,” Princess Noemi said gently, “may I inquire what brought you here?”
The poor man struggled to speak. “I…I came to warn you, your Majesty. There—there’s a dragon—I’ve been tracking her for months. She’s heading directly toward this castle.”
“I’m sure your comrades and the guard will not let it near me,” she dismissed.
Garrin was not so easily satisfied. “Hadn’t you better have slain than tracked it?”
“She lives not for my lack of effort,” Sir Lamar defended. “This wyrm is not one of the fire-breathing brutes. She is smart. She is cunning. Her voice sends all who listen into unbreakable sleep, and when they have perished from dehydration, she returns to feast on the corpses and burn their bones.”
The chill of fear joined the heaviness of disappointment in Noemi’s chest. So the vagrant seer Luc’s prophesy was almost upon her. Her eighteenth birthday was in two weeks; she had started to doubt the prophecy was real. If Sir Lamar was right…at least, after almost eighteen years, she finally understood what the seer meant by “fall prey to the serpent’s voice.”
For the first time, his prophecy seemed as real as the people next to her, as real as the accelerated beat of her heart.
For the first time, Noemi truly feared for her life.
It was a curious fact of life that the longer one lived, the faster time passed. This fact Queen Laurene had never felt as keenly as when she held her grown daughter, two weeks from the eighteenth anniversary of her birth, in her arms. The memory of the first time she held Noemi was as fresh in her mind as the memory of yesterday, yet here her daughter was! It seemed the child had passed into adulthood while Queen Laurene slept, barely changed by the passing years.
“My dearest,” she whispered into her child’s raven hair. The golden candlelight brought out reddish tints in Noemi’s hair—coloration inherited from her father.
Noemi pulled away from her, comforting the Queen with her hazel eyes. “Mama, it’ll be okay,” she promised. “It’s just two weeks. Then it shall be safe for me to return.”
“We’ll protect her, your Highness,” the son of the Captain of the Guard promised.
“Yes, we shall,” Laurene’s best friend’s son agreed.
Garrin and Verrell. They were such good boys. Certainly Garrin was a bit prone to hasty action, and Verrell was too inclined to strict and total adherence to the rules—not that a monarch should disapprove of the latter. Her husband would sigh if he heard her thoughts, but he had the sweetest tolerance for her oddities.
If things were different—if they ruled a kingdom other than Jarrett, where the good sorceress’s blessing made it impossible to question who one loved best—Queen Laurene would dearly hope Noemi would choose to wed one of the two boys. Of course, that was impossible. It was far better to hope that Noemi found her soul mate—and quickly.
The Queen’s heart clenched. She and the King had done everything in their power to help Noemi find her beloved. There was nothing left she could do to prevent the dire consequences of the vagrant seer Luc’s prophesy from falling upon her child.
It depended on Noemi now, Queen Laurene thought. She raised a hand to send off her daughter and her small band of protectors. At least Noemi would have Garrin, Verrell, and the enraptured Trace and Sir Lamar to protect her until she could return to the castle.
Noemi would have to find the man who would open her eyes to love and a world of color on her own. Queen Laurene forced herself not to think of the slim odds of Noemi finding him in the lonely wilderlands.
From the top of a hill, Verrel looked out over the valley ahead. The gray, desolate lands sprawled before them, swamp and forest, meadow and mountain blending haphazardly together. A wolf howled in the distance. Verrell barely managed to suppress a shudder.
He had only travelled into the wilderlands once before, then in the company of a small army. The memory of that journey through treacherous lands inhabited only by foul creatures and worthless vagabonds gave him nightmares for years. To say he dreaded this trip, in which he would be protection rather than protected, would be an understatement. Their lack of an actual destination, with instead the goal of simply surviving fourteen days, made matters worse.
Of course, Verrell would never think of refusing to go further. He loved Noemi too much for that. She was his friend, she was his princess, and if they succeeded, she was his future queen.
Garrin’s horse drew abreast of his. “This is a foolish idea,” his friend grumbled. A dark scowl covered his face.
Verrell quieted his own apprehension to reassure Garrin. “It will be difficult, I know, but we have to keep Princess Noemi away from the dragon.”
“You think I’m worried about it being hard?” Garrin scoffed. “The difficulty doesn’t matter. The plan is every ounce of insanity and stupidity. There’s only two weeks left before the prophecy’s averted, right? How the blazes do they expect that to happen now? Oh, yes, a strange knight has bad news. Let’s send the princess out where there’s no chance at all that she’ll find her true love, and even better, into a place where she’s nigh on impossible to defend! As far as strategies go, this one’s rot.”
Garrin’s face was thick with anger by the end of his rant. Verrell tried to think of a response, but the knight interrupted, calling their attention to the land.
“We’ll head toward the forest,” Trace’s intended pointed to the clump of trees to the south. “It’ll give some cover. Then we make for the mountains and skirt to the east. We’ll circle back around their other side.”
In a tone that sounded polite but which Verrell recognized as mocking, Garrin said, “That’s an interesting plan. What makes you choose it?”
The wrinkle in the knight’s brow told Verrell that the newcomer recognized Garrin’s comment for what it was. His estimation of the man rose. Trace’s beloved was perceptive. Maybe he’d better take the time to remember the man’s name.
“It affords the most cover,” he answered, “and it’s unpredictable. She’s excellent at tracking, but going in a straight line would make it far too easy for her. It’s far more difficult for a dragon to fly through trees than for us to ride through them. Our goal is to keep the Princess alive for fourteen more days, not to pass through the wilderlands, so the indirectness matters not.”
“Please,” Noemi’s sweet voice rose for the first time since they left her parents, “call me Noemi.”
The knight nodded. “Yes, Princess Noemi.” Verrell doubted that was quite what Noemi was looking for—but even he often affixed “princess” to her name.
The knight and Trace led the way, with Princess Noemi behind them and Verrell bringing up the rear with Garrin. Knowing Garrin’s eyes and ears were on high alert, Verrell rode forward to come beside the princess. She sat tall in her saddle, shoulders tense under her warm cloak. The only parts of her that moved were the swinging end of her unadorned ponytail and her dark, watchful eyes.
“Princess Noemi,” he greeted her.
She didn’t look away from their surroundings, but she answered, “What is it, Verrell?” Her voice was kind but unusually quiet.
“You shouldn’t worry,” he tried to comfort her. “We’ll all lay down our lives to protect you.”
She did look at him then. Her eyes, usually full of humor or kindness, were sad. “That’s what I’m afraid of, Verrell.”
Trace knew they were on a dangerous journey, she really did. The wilderlands were nothing to trifle with—except they were so magnificently beautiful and vibrant! Looking down on them from the top of Jerrett’s last safe hill had taken her breath away.
Oh, sure, she had heard names of colors before. But she never imagined there could be so many different shades and hues of…brown? Green? And the sky, which had wavered between pale and dark gray every day of her existence, was such a deep, rich blue.
It matched his eyes. Sir Lamar. That wonderful stranger who gave her colors and who, according to the good sorceress’s words, was the love of her life.
“Where are you from?” Trace asked, inexplicably shy. She’d been Princess Noemi’s friend for years, which meant she’d seen thousands of boys and men. Trace hadn’t felt self-conscious around a male in a long time.
Bur of course, it was different with Sir Lamar.
His face was weather-worn. At rest, he looked almost haunted by all he had seen. But he looked at her with his eyes that held the sky, and his lips—a warm color, like…she wasn’t sure what to compare them to—his lips softened. “I grew up in a small village north-east of the castle,” Sir Lamar answered. “I haven’t had a home for the past six years, though, not since I left the headquarters of the Order of the Eagle. I’ve wandered all over, wherever I find traces of dragons.”
Out of habit, Trace shuddered at the mention of the fire breathers. “You would think they’d be nearly extinct,” she observed.
Sir Lamar’s eyes scanned the land ahead of them. Trace thought the action was habit, not a conscious decision. “Within a day’s ride to the safe lands of Jerrett, they almost are,” he agreed. “Further out is different. Most people’s patriotism doesn’t extend further abroad than that, and the few of us who do venture there face more challenges than the foul beasts.”
Trace was about to ask what sort of challenges they might face when their horses entered the forest. Her eyes, already wide to admit as much color as possible, widened further. “Sir Lamar, look!” she gasped. Thickets of flowers covered the ground between the trees, spreading the terrain with a myriad of new colors.
She heard Sir Lamar’s soft intake of breath. He pulled his horse to a stop. Trace barely even noticed herself doing the same.
Beside her, Sir Lamar breathed, “It’s…”
“Beautiful,” she finished. The description was entirely inadequate.
“Magnificent,” he added.
The sardonic tones of Garrin’s voice rang out. “Hey, lovebirds, why are we stopping?”
Of course, Princess Noemi was quick to answer him. “Garrin, leave them be,” she scolded. Trace recognized it as her trademark Garrin-scolding tone, which meant she was amused but knew he was being rude. Noemi felt it her duty to get Garrin to behave in a polite manner.
Garrin’s response showed that Noemi usually failed in that endeavor. “Sorry, Noemi. I just don’t understand why we’re not moving. She’ll catch us fast if we stand still for a couple of lovesick children to stare at flowers.”
“My apologies for the delay, Princess Noemi,” Sir Lamar spoke up. He nudged his horse back into movement, a look of annoyance on his face.
“Nonsense,” Noemi dismissed. “You have every right to enjoy color with Trace. Garrin’s just jealous.”
“Am not!” the Captain’s son protested.
Despite how distracted she was, Trace caught the wistfulness in Noemi’s tone. “Don’t worry, Noemi,” she said just loud enough for the princess to hear. “You’ll see it soon, too. Only two more weeks at most.”
Noemi forced a smile at her. The princess didn’t really believe that, and Trace had to wonder if she even should. If an endless parade of all sorts of men hadn’t brought Noemi her true love, how could these last two weeks before she turned eighteen?
Trace sighed. Worry pinched her forehead. If only there were something more she could do to help Noemi! Not for the first time, she wished they didn’t live in the land of the good sorceress’s curse. She always thought that if it weren’t for the issue of color, Noemi and Garrin would have fallen in love a long time ago. Then they wouldn’t be worrying about Noemi dying on her eighteenth birthday.
Thankfully, her thoughts were cut off just then. An arrow sailed through the air and struck a tree next to the princess’s head.
Damia perched on a tall, sturdy tree. She had been flying for hours. Granted, she was in no rush. Even though her pace was leisurely, she still allowed herself a break.
Her belly rumbled. Knights were gooood, but they lacked the substance she craved. Too weak-spirited to fill her for long, too lowly of birth to be esspecially tasssty. They worked in a pinch, and Damia wouldn’t complain about having to wait another day for her next batch of knights to be ready.
She just wanted more and better.
On the prickly top of the pine tree, Damia sniffed deeply. Over the musty decaying needles and the sharp sap of healthy trees she caught the scent she was looking for: Humans. Tassty humansss.
She snorted. Her tree perch caught fire, but the heat didn’t bother Damia. What bothered her was the particular human scent in the air. Theeese humans she already knew. They were a company of knights, with their annoying pointy sticks. They wouldn’t annoy her much longer. Already, the air held the first hint of the ssspecial seasoning she liked. They were sleeping soundly because of her lullaby, slowly dehydrating and starting to decay.
Soon, ssssoon, she would return to feast.
The tree snapped under Damia’s weight. She unfurled her huge wings and soared up, over the forest. The wind swept over her scales. Mist sizzled where it touched her chest.
She sniffed again. The same smells flooded her smoking nostrils. Even though no one would hear her, Damia shrieked. The sound shredded the air for a second.
She spiraled higher in the sky. She needed to see where she should seek her next meal. A spot to the south seemed to sparkle. A castle!
She would go there next. Castles always had such tassty treatsss. All that noble blood, strong and courageous little humans surrounding the special delicacy of royalty. Damia’s stomach gurgled in anticipation. She would stand at the entrance of the castle and sing them into slumber, then take her time moving from the simple servant hors d’œvres to the sumptuous main course of nobles, finishing off with a royal dessert.
Maybe there would even be a princess! She did especially love princesses. Nothing matched their particular flavor of purity and strength. She would face many legions of pesky little knights with pointy sticks in order to munch on a princess.
First, Damia had to wait for the sleeping knights to ripen. Then she would swoop toward the castle and celebrate her discovery.
He was cold. The ropes that bound him to the splintering tree trunk, which dug into his back, were a little too tight to allow him to slide down and sit. His feet were growing numb—a relief after aching from standing for hours. The rope binding his wrists was too tight, cutting off his circulation and rubbing his skin raw. The shallow stab wound in his abdomen throbbed. He already had a pulsing pain on his face from what was certain to be a black eye, and was maybe even a broken nose.
The worst part was, he should have seen it coming. Before an arrow split the limb next to Princess Noemi’s head, he should have known there were bandits nearby. His father had trained him better than that. Garrin quietly cursed his inattentiveness. Protecting the Princess was his first and greatest duty. Garrin would never forgive himself for failing at his first real opportunity to keep her safe.
“Garrin, language,” Princess Noemi frowned at him. She was tied to the same tree as he was, so Garrin had to crane his neck to see her. Her puffy cheek, still red from where one of the bandits had punched her, made him feel even worse.
Unfortunately, her reprimand caught the attention of their captors. “Oi.” One of the stinky, rag-clothed vagabonds left the fire and stalked toward them. Bits of stew, remnants of the bandits’ supper, clung to his beard. Garrin’s stomach rumbled greedily.
“Watcha saying, then?” the foul rodent demanded. He leered at the Princess.
Garrin sneered, “I said you’re a bunch of filthy beggars, and you’re gonna regret this.”
It had the desired effect. The bandit turned his attention from Princess Noemi. “That right?” he smirked. Garrin saw his first punch coming, but he was powerless to block it.
Trace gasped and the Princess cried out. Their pleas for mercy only riled the man up more.
Several hits later, the bandit seemed satisfied. “That’s right,” he said. “See and that’ll teach you to keep quiet.”
“Please, sir,” Princess Noemi begged. Garrin didn’t have to look at her to know her face was wet with tears. “At least take care of our friend’s wounds, or let one of us tend to him.”
The bandit waved a hand in dismissal. “Lass, we tied up the worst of it. Any more n’ it’d be a waste of our supplies. Don’t want to do that, not till we’ve decided what to do with ye.”
Garrin squinted at Verrell through his swollen eyes. The young man was the only one of their company not tied to a tree. With a couple serious knife wounds and an arrow still sticking out of his shoulder, Verrell was barely conscious. He provided no threat of escape. Garrin knew that, unless they tended to him, Verrell had few days left to live.
The Princess would know that, too, and she would protest, drawing the vagabond’s malice on her. Garrin spoke up before she could. “Then at least give the girls some food,” he bargained.
The man snorted. “T’ain’t likely. Did you hear that?” he asked his companions. “The gent wants us to feed them.” He rejoined the others at the fire amidst their raucous laughter.
Gathering clouds brought nightfall on soon, but they also brought cold. Garrin could feel the Princess shivering through the rope that tied them together. The bandits settled down to sleep and neglected the fire, so even its distant warmth diminished. At least they were no longer under scrutiny—their captors didn’t even leave a man on watch.
The fire crackled down to a weak flicker. Garrin listened carefully for any movement among the sleeping men. He had just decided it was safe to whisper when the pressure on the rope changed and a hand clapped over his mouth.
Garrin’s heart started racing. He tensed to fight, though he still couldn’t move. Then through the dim light he just barely made out Sir Lamar’s face. Firelight glinted off metal. The rope fell away. In a whisper barely loud enough to hear, Sir Lamar said, “You get the Princess, I’ll get the others.” Then he was gone.
Garrin flexed his stiff muscles. The wound in his stomach stung anew. He ignored it, rounding the tree to half-support, half-carry Princess Noemi in the direction of the horses.
She was in no condition to ride on her own. Garrin tied her horse to his on a loose lead and helped the Princess onto his horse. Nearby, Sir Lamar was lashing Verrell into a saddle. While he worked, Garrin slipped the bandits’ horses free from their tethers and sent them trotting away. He preferred to avoid mounted pursuit.
After a few unsuccessful tries, Garrin climbed onto his horse behind Princess Noemi. Sir Lamar did the same with Trace. With as much stealth as possible, they rode away.
At a safe distance from the bandits, Garrin asked the knight, “How did you get free?”
Sir Lamar’s voice came through the gloom of night. “Trace and I held our breath and hunched our shoulders while they tied us up. It left just enough slack to slip out, and they hadn’t bothered removing the hunting knife I keep hidden in the bottom of my boot.”
Stupid knight, to think of something so simple. It was just another reason for Garrin to be annoyed with him.
They rode until the sky lightened enough to see their surroundings, then they stopped in a sheltered copse. Trace fetched water from a nearby pond. Sir Lamar started a fire and cooked a bird that he shot with an arrow. Meanwhile, Princess Noemi and Garrin finally cared for Verrell’s wounds. The wounds were deep and the arrow should have been removed long ago, but there was no sign of infection and no damage to larger blood vessels. Verrell’s condition seemed hopeful, if only he would wake.
Just as Princess Noemi tied the last clean bandage in place, the son of the Queen’s best friend groaned. Garrin laughed in relief. His friend would live.
Verrell peeled his eyes open. “What can you possibly find funny?” he slurred.
“You gave us a scare, Verrell,” he answered. “But sadly you’ll live to annoy us all for many more days.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” Verrel said. His words slid together, but Garrin had never been happier to hear him speak.
After a quick meal, they resumed their journey. Princess Noemi chewed her cheek and hugged her body. “Do you think I might ride with you again?” she asked Garrin.
He looked carefully at her. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Tell me what ails you.”
“You shouldn’t order a princess,” she tried to tease, but the weariness of her delivery made the jest fall flat.
“Princess,” Garrin prompted.
She ducked her head. “It’s just…I’m tired and sore. I’m afraid I’ll fall off my horse or fall asleep while riding.”
In answer, he touched her elbow. “Climb on.”
He still hurt all over and was more tired than he’d ever been, but riding with the Princess, seeing Verrell alert again, and enjoying the triumph of their escape, Garrin felt uncommonly happy. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something about these unusual circumstances felt right in a way that living idly in the castle hadn’t.
Then the clouds opened and began to pour out rain, and the ground turned into a river, and Garrin’s happiness disappeared.
“It’s rising too fast!” the Princess’s offensive companion, Garrin, shouted. He had to shout to be heard, and even then Sir Lamar could barely distinguish his words through the pounding rain and rushing water.
The water was rising fast. Moments ago it had been a damp trail. Now it was inches of swift-flowing brown runoff. “Try to find higher ground,” Sir Lamar yelled back at the man. He grabbed the lead of Trace’s horse in his left hand and turned both of them around.
“Easier said than done,” Garrin complained.
That may have been true, but there was no other option. Already the water was almost a foot high. Sir Lamar’s eyes darted to some branches floating past. “That way,” he pointed in the direction from which the sticks had come. Water flowed downhill, so high ground had to be the opposite way.
The rope in his left hand yanked out of his grasp. Fear constricted his heart. Sir Lamar whirled in his saddle. Trace’s name flew from his lips.
Her huge green eyes met his. Her horse collapsed, knocked over by debris in the water. She disappeared under the muddy flow. “No!” Sir Lamar cried. His heart shuddered to a stop.
Behind him, the Princess screamed. Sir Lamar didn’t care about what predicament she could be in. He only knew that he couldn’t see Trace.
Yards away, she broke the surface. That was enough to propel him off his horse and into the water himself. Before his feet touched the ground, the current knocked him forward. His metal armor would drag him down—but he fought to stay upright, even if it meant running along at the speed at which the flood pushed him.
As Trace fought, he embraced the current. Years later, seconds later, he caught her. Only when his hand closed around her arm did his heart start beating again. “I’ve got you,” he promised.
But they weren’t out of danger yet. Sir Lamar’s distraction cost him his footing just as his back slammed into an immovable barrier. Gasping for breath, he looked over his shoulder. Behind him was a tree, and he had narrowly avoided being skewered by a broken-off bough. “Climb,” he told Trace. Somehow she did, despite her sodden skirts, and somehow he followed, despite his water-logged armor.
High in the tree, he could afford to look after their other companions. The Princess clung to the low branches of another tree. At its base, Garrin struggled to hoist their injured friend Verrell by a rope strung over a branch. Sir Lamar thought it a hopeless struggle: One of the men was sure to lose to the strength of the flood.
To his astonishment, they both survived. Once Verrell was above the water, Garrin tied his rope off and scrambled up the tree himself.
They were all safe—relatively—but their horses weren’t. Sorrow filled Sir Lamar. That horse had been his faithful and trusted companion for many scores of leagues. Now he was gone, swept away to an ignoble death by a flash flood.
All they could do was wait until the rain stopped and the water flowed away. Then they climbed down into the mud. Sir Lamar rolled his shoulders and grimaced. It was time to dry off.
The Princess squeaked, “Ow.” Sir Lamar looked up to see what was wrong. Something small flew at his face. He felt a sharp sting on his cheek before he could slap the insect with his gloved hand. By then the others were echoing the Princess’s expression of discomfort.
He peered at the remains on his glove. Bright red wings, a squishy body—“Carnivorous dragonflies,” he named them to the group. “Run.”
And run they did, as best as they could. His armor rattled with every step. Garrin clutched his side. When Sir Lamar saw the blood seeping through his fingers, he took Verrell’s shoulder from Garrin.
“To the river,” Sir Lamar pointed when the stream came into view. They followed him without asking questions. Only hours after escaping the flood, they plunged again into the water’s current.
But the river’s tide was predictable. Even flooded by the recent rain, it was not too strong for the women near the shore. And it kept them safe: The dragonflies didn’t cross moving water.
Exhausted, with skin wrinkled from moisture and peppered with oozing bite marks, they fought their way across the river and collapsed on the far bank. Sir Lamar dragged his helmet off his head and clawed his way out of his breastplate. The breeze hit the thin layer of his shirt, delightfully cool after the humidity and the impermeable layer of metal he was used to wearing. He dropped to his back with a sigh of relief and closed his eyes.
Sharp pinpricks on his arm took too long to register in his weary mind. When the pain reached his consciousness, he dragged his eyes open. The rustling grass caught his attention. Were it not for his new color vision, he wouldn’t have been able to see the snake slithering away—the toxic torture viper, whose venom caused excruciating pain the second it reached a man’s heart.
Which, for Sir Lamar, was right about now.
The castle was quiet without the Princess. Logically, King Nicolas knew the absence of one girl plus three of her friends made minimal difference in a castle of a few hundred people. But he keenly felt the lack of her presence.
King Nicolas let himself miss his daughter on his walk from the breakfast hall to the guardhouse. He had a meeting with Captain Harbin, Garrin’s father.
“Good day to you, my liege,” the Captain greeted him with as deep a bow as his aging back allowed.
“Good day, Captain Harbin,” King Nicolas replied. “How are our defenses?”
Captain Harbin led him over to a tall, thin window. King Nicolas peered through it. Through the sliver he could make out four guards patrolling the nearest wall. “I’ve called all the guards to active duty,” Captain Harbin reported. “We’ve doubled shifts. I have a team reinforcing all entrances large enough to admit a dragon. And one of my men had the idea for these.” He held up two round gobs in the palm of his leather glove.
King Nicolas frowned. “What are those?”
The Captain rolled one of the gobs between his fingers. “Wax. Sir Lamar told us the wyrm’s power comes from her voice. One of my young guards had the idea that, if none of us can hear her, we shall be beyond her power and thus able to fight her.”
“And this wax,” the King took the other gob from the Captain’s outstretched hand and squeezed it experimentally. “It blocks out sound?”
“When inserted into your ears, yes. It’s as if the world has gone silent.”
King Nicolas smiled. “Well done, Captain Harbin. Is there any way to send some to our children?”
Regret flitted across the Captain’s weather-worn face. “Alas, I know not where they are. Their plan was to take a circuitous, wandering route to make them more difficult to track.”
He nodded. “Then we must hope they discover this on their own. I bid you farewell for now, Captain. My wife awaits me.”
“Give Queen Laurene my respect,” Captain Harbin bid him.
With a nod of agreement, he strode out of the room and in search of the Queen, four gobs of wax held secure in his fist.
He found her staring out the eastern window in their private quarters. “Dearest, come away from the window,” he urged, taking her slender hand in his.
She squeezed his hand but kept her gaze trained on the horizon. “It matters not where I am when she comes, Nicolas. I would rather meet my end knowing it than wait in the dark for it to catch me.”
He reached around from behind her and held the wax balls for her to see. “We are not going to meet our ends, not by this dragon,” he told her. “I just saw Captain Harbin and look what he gave me. You stick them in your ears and they block out sound.”
Laurene looked up at him with a mixture of hope and grief. “Oh Nicolas,” she gasped, “but what if we outlive the dragon’s visit only to find Noemi did not?”
Fear twanged in his chest. How could they bear living without their daughter? He embraced his wife. “Do not think of such things, Laurene,” he begged. “Have hope. Perhaps Noemi’s beloved waits for her in the wilderness. Perhaps she will not fall prey to the dragon’s voice. Perhaps she will return to us and bring us a son to grow our family.”
“Perhaps.” Her voice was muffled against the velvet of his vest.
The door to their room banged against the stone wall. A young man clothed in Jerrett’s heraldry burst in. “My King and Queen,” he exclaimed, “the dragon is sighted!”
“Put these in,” King Nicolas pressed two ear plugs into the Queen’s hand. He squeezed his own and pressed them into his ears. The world grew strangely quiet except for the pounding of blood in his head. Laurene looked at him and nodded when her wax was in place. He took her hand and led the way through halls and passages to the castle keep. The courtiers, maids, and servants were already waiting behind the solid oak doors. Once they were inside, the young guard locked the door behind them.
No sooner were they secure than something strange happened to the air. It seemed to split in half. King Nicolas’s lungs froze. His eyes bulged.
The air slapped back together, vibrating. His hair stood on end, but his lungs worked again. A quick survey showed everyone else in the room wide-eyed but awake, bits of wax poking out of their ears.
All he could do was wait. King Nicolas hated idleness. This was a new form of discomfort, being forced to wait in hiding while his people fought for their lives and kingdom. He started pacing the length of the keep.
A few minutes into his pacing, the air split and clapped together again—and again—and again. The dragon must be angry that her voice wasn’t sending them all into interminable slumber.
Sweat began beading on King Nicolas’s brow. He pulled at the collar on his doublet. The room was growing warm.
Light shone brighter under the door. Then a yellow tongue licked through the crack.
The castle was on fire.
Nicolas pulled Laurene close to his side and backed away from the door. The keep’s floor was earth; its roof and walls were stone. They would survive.
The dragon would not get them today.
Nothing should have been able to wake Garrin up.
He had collapsed as evening approached, exhausted beyond perseverance. The Princess had fallen asleep as soon as they were free of the carnivorous dragonflies, as had Verrell. Even Trace fell asleep earlier than him, after a few hours of helping restrain Sir Lamar. The knight had writhed in agony for hours, until his voice was hoarse. At last the pain sent him into unconsciousness.
Only then did Garrin drop on his back and give up on the struggle to keep his eyes open.
So nothing short of a bolt of lightning should have drawn him into consciousness before dawn. Something did, though. He woke with a jolt to the darkness of a clear night with a crescent moon hanging low in the sky. His heart raced in what felt like fear. Garrin didn’t know why. He had no memory of a nightmare, nor of a loud noise.
Fabric rustled nearby. Garrin pushed himself up on his elbows and looked around. The Princess’s silhouette was dark against the stars.
“What’s wrong?” Garrin whispered.
She started, bringing a hand to her chest. “Garrin, I thought you were asleep.”
“I was,” he answered. “But you didn’t answer my question.”
She sighed and scooted closer to him. “Do you see that?”
He sat up further and followed her pointing finger. There was a light on the horizon, a glowing red light in the wrong place to be the sun. “Yes,” he said.
“Please tell me it isn’t want I think it is,” the Princess’s voice was pinched.
What did she think it was? Garrin didn’t have any ideas himself. If he wasn’t completely turned around, there was nothing in that direction, nothing until the castle. But—
Oh. If that was right, then could it be? Was he seeing the castle burning from a distance, all the way out here in the wilderlands?
There was only one thing that could cause that. Jerrett was at peace with its neighbors. It must be…
“She’s fast,” Garrin muttered. He grunted in the effort it took to stand.
“What are you doing?” Princess Noemi asked. Her small hand grabbed his ankle.
“The dragon’s close. We have to keep moving.”
She was quiet for a moment, still holding his ankle. Then she murmured, “Let everyone sleep till morning. We’re too weary to keep going right now.”
His aching body agreed with her. A sense of urgency made him want to argue. But Garrin was too tired to argue. He sighed. “Okay.”
Yet he could not fall back asleep. The Princess grew quiet. Their companions did not stir. Still, though he lay perfectly still, Garrin’s mind would not let go of its alertness. He decided that resting was better than nothing and resigned himself to wait for dawn. At some point, he slipped into a more desirable sort of paralysis and half-consciousness.
Increasing light and a whisper of movement gradually pulled him out of his insomniac daze. Princess Noemi was up again, but now she was tiptoeing around the camp. Garrin struggled to think. “What are you doing?” he slurred out.
She spun around. “Go back to sleep,” she ordered.
His mind was working better now. A pack and her cloak were on her back. She looked ready to trek on. “Are we leaving? Let me wake the others.”
“No!” she hissed. “It’s nothing. Go back to sleep.”
Understanding broke over him like an egg cracked on his head. “You’re not running away,” he frowned at her, determined to foil her plan.
She crept closer and knelt in front of him. “Garrin, I have to,” she evenly disagreed.
“No, you don’t,” he argued. “That’s stupid. You won’t survive five minutes on your own.”
She straightened her shoulders. “Verrell is badly wounded. Sir Lamar is recovering from a horrible snake bite. You and Trace are exhausted. We’ve lost our horses. And that dragon is closer than we realized. It’s after me. You’re only out here and in danger because of me. I can’t be the reason any of you are injured again, or worse, killed. I’m going to protect you.”
Admiration warmed his chest. She was beautiful, confident, and determined. He could see she was scared, but she was willing to face that fear to protect the people she cared about. Garrin thought he’d never seen someone so brave or selfless.
Something weird was happening to his eyes, something off with the shades he was seeing. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. “And what if she catches you?” he asked of the dragon to distract himself.
“Then I die,” Noemi answered. “I’ve always known it was a possibility. Better I die than all of you.”
That made him angry. “You’re worth more than that,” he said.
His eyes seemed to be working normally now. Maybe it was the fatigue.
She tilted her head back and shook it. “Garrin, I can’t. I couldn’t live with myself.” She looked back at him. The resolution in her face assured him she wouldn’t change her mind. “I’m going on alone, right now.”
It was an easy decision to make. “Fine. Then I’m coming with you.”
Nassty, tricky humans!
Who did they thinks they were? Shouldn’t food know it’s food?
In all Damia’s long life she’d never faced anything like that. Humans were weak little things, easily lulled to sleep by her singing. Their sharp, pointy sticks were only mild inconveniences—if she wanted to play with them before she sang to them.
That was the way it went. That was how the world was supposed to be.
So clearly she was unprepared for what she’d met at the castle.
Damia shuddered in pain. Swinging her wings up and down shifted the slices in her flesh painfully. She could smell her own blood leaving a trail as she flew. Damia didn’t even know how long wounds like these would take to heal.
Stupid, sneaky humans! They’d set a trap, she knew it. They’d somehow gotten word of her approach and set a nasty, tricky trap. Sealing the tasties in a stone burrow, shooting little sticks at her, stabbing when she got close enough to snatch them up.
How had this happened?
How had her voice done nothing? No one, from the tallest to the tiniest human, had slumbered. Damia didn’t understand.
They must have powerful magic to render her powerless! Just to test that she still could sing, Damia opened her mouth and shrieked. The air split open before her voice and snapped back closed when the sound passed.
As it should be.
As it did at the castle!
They were eeevil humanses. They must do witchy things. No good came from witches! Damia knew the song people sang: “Witchy gnarled, bent, and brown. Burn it, burn it, burn it down.”
She let the heat inside her spew out, singeing the tops of the trees beneath her. That’s just what she’d done, burned the witches’ castle down. Served them right.
She flew for aimless hours, seething inside. When she could no longer smell the smoke from the castle, Damia swept down into an opening in the forest. She needed to rest.
She was curling up into a ball when a scent reached her nose. Damia froze and sniffed. A smile replaced her scowl.
A princess had been nearby, and very recently. This was gooood news.
Damia’s belly and back started throbbing around her stab wounds. She would sleep, laying low and recovering for several days. Then she would be off to find her princess.
That would be a nice consolation prize, indeed.
Ancel squinted at the pile of books on his desk and scratched his balding head. “Dear, have you seen my Mythicalle and Fantastique Creatures of the Most Ancientest Landes?” he asked.
Leala didn’t look up from her whirling spinning wheel. “It’s in its place on the shelf.”
Ancel shuffled over to the bookshelves that lined one entire wall of their cottage. He passed the shelves labeled “Urthan Tales” and “Historie: Local and Exotic” and paused before the section titled “Phayar Beasts Great and Small.” Nestled between a book on imoogi and an anthology on sphynxes was the book he sought. He drew it out by its red silk bookmark and settled down in his patched leather chair to read by the fading light of day.
The steady whir of the spinning wheel slowed. “Did you hear that?” Leala asked.
Ancel glanced up from his book. “It’s just the wind, dear.”
“Something is outside,” Leala disagreed.
“You always say that,” Ancel settled deeper into his chair and raised his book. “And then there never is.”
His wife hummed and went back to her work.
A few minutes later, she interrupted her work again, this time abruptly. “There it was again. Ancel, something’s outside.”
“There’s lots of things outside,” Ancel said, “and most of ‘em want to kill us.”
“Oh, stop being so dull,” Leala replied. She plucked the full spindle from the spinning wheel and set to winding the string into a ball.
“I’m an old man. I’ve earned my dullness by years of adventure, and—”
“‘And I’ve had my share of near-death experiences,’” Leala teased. “It’s all very well, but if you wanted to get lethargic and moldy, you should have retired to somewhere other than the wilderlands.”
“Bah!” Ancel scooted deeper into his chair. “There’s too many people other places.”
Something rapped against the cottage door. Ancel froze. He felt Leala’s eyes on him.
Maybe it was just his imagination. She’d been talking about something outside, now his mind was making up noises. His hearing wasn’t what it used to be.
The rapping resumed. It rattled the door this time.
It wasn’t his imagination.
Ancel slid his eyes over to Leala. She raised her eyebrows at him and looked between him and the door.
It was time to do something about whoever—or whatever—was outside. Ancel slid the bookmark into place, set the book on his side table, and straightened from his chair. His hand found his old crossbow and loaded it as he crept to the door. With one hand he balanced the weapon. With the other he slipped the pin out of the door’s lock.
The door swung inward. Ancel’s foot gave it only a hand’s width gap, plenty to poke the end of his crossbow through and peer out of.
A young couple—husband and wife?—waited outside. Ancel observed their bedraggled but fine clothing, the girl’s stately posture, and the boy’s sword and bow in one swift glance. They looked innocent enough. But then again, looks were deceiving in the wilderlands.
“Who’re you?” Ancel barked.
The girl’s mouth opened, but the boy spoke first. “I’m the son of the Captain of the Guard in Jerrett. Who are you?”
Ancel tilted his head back. “What’s your father’s mother’s name?” he checked the boy’s identity.
The boy’s eyes narrowed. “Not until I know if you’re friend or foe of the King and Queen.”
“I’m a retired knight from his Majesty’s service,” Ancel boasted. “Former officer in the order of the eagle. Answer me.”
The boy looked no less skeptical, but he answered, “Trinette.”
That was enough for Ancel to let the pair into his house, though he kept ahold of his bow and stood between them and Leala. “Now, son of Harbin, tell me your name and that of your companion, and why I should give you refuge.”
The boy positioned himself half in front of the girl. “First your name and your wife’s.”
Ancel laughed. “If you think I’ll be telling you that first, you’re a fool. Only a madman would tell a stranger his name here without guarantee of equal exchange.”
“Then you can understand why I do not yield it.”
Leala spoke up, closer than Ancel expected. “Oh, stop competing for who can be the most intimidating.” Her hands were on her hips. “I’m Leala and this is Ancel. Anyone loyal to Jerrett is welcome to shelter in our home.”
The girl’s shoulders sagged. “Thank you,” she said, stepping around the boy. He laid a hand on her arm. “I am Princess Noemi, and this is my friend and bodyguard Garrin. We are grateful for your hospitality.”
Ancel thought his eyes would pop out of their places in his head. “My Princess.” With as much grace as his old joints would allow, he dropped into a bow. “How can we be of service?”
Garrin glanced at the Princess and quirked an eyebrow. She shrugged. He answered Ancel, “You don’t happen to have a son or grandson our age, do you?”
Leala blinked. That was a question she had not anticipated.
“N-no,” Ancel stuttered, for once without a steady flow of words.
“Why?” Leala asked.
To the Princess, Garrin said, “It was worth a try.”
To Leala and her husband, the Princess said, “It just has to do with a prophecy about me. If I don’t see color in the next…what, seven days now?” She looked at Garrin, who touched his fingertips with his thumb and nodded. “I’ll be killed by a dragon.”
“I know the prophecy,” Ancel said. “Every knight these past eighteen years does.”
Leala’s brow knit together. “My dear—forgive me, I meant your Highness—you truly haven’t found your beloved yet?”
The Princess shook her head.
Garrin’s jaw twitched. “And we’re running out of time. When we saw your home, we hoped…”
“But why are you even here?” Leala asked. “Surely it makes more sense for the Princess to be in Jerrett’s capital, surrounded by other people. We easily go months without seeing another living being.”
When the Princess opened her mouth, a yawn came out instead of an explanation. Leala’s maternal instincts took over. “Forgive me—how rude, to keep you standing, when you’re weary. Come, your Highness, sit yourself in this chair here,” she patted the crocheted afghan draped across her upholstered chair. Princess Noemi let the bag she carried drop to the floor and lowered herself into the chair.
“And you, young Garrin,” Leala waved him over to Ancel’s old chair.
The boy’s brown eyes swept the cottage. “Oh, I’m fine,” he said. “I’ll sit on the hearth.”
What a respectful lad, to notice there were only three seats in their home and to put others’ comfort before his own. Leala decided she liked him. “Very well. Now you just rest yourselves. I’ll put on the kettle. You’re in luck, I just baked muffins earlier. Ancel, see what extra blankets you can find.” Ancel finally leaned his crossbow back against the wall.
When the tea was brewed and the muffins warmed, she reclaimed her seat at her spinning wheel and took her spindle and thread ball back up. Ancel cleared his throat. “So,” he said, “what brings you out this far from the castle?”
The Princess took a sip from the mug she held in both hands. “The dragon in the prophecy is after me. We received advance warning from Sir Lamar, another knight of the eagle.”
Ancel frowned. “How d’you know which dragon is in the prophecy?”
Garrin muttered something Leala couldn’t hear. Princess Noemi frowned at him and answered Ancel. “She’s not like other dragons. She doesn’t just breathe fire. Her voice renders the hearer unconscious, and when they have died of dehydration, she returns to eat them.”
Leala’s heart stopped. The spindle slipped from her hand and clattered on the floor. Ancel breathed, “A Lull Wyrm.”
Garrin perked up. “So you know of it?”
“But they’re extinct,” Leala denied. It was not possible. This was grievous news, indeed.
Princess Noemi leaned down and picked up the fallen spindle. She flinched. A bright spot of blood bloomed on her finger. “Ouch,” she frowned. She wrapped a handkerchief around the wound. “Apparently there is at least one Lull Wyrm left.”
Leala turned her eyes to the bookshelves. “Ancel,” she said, harsher than she intended. “An Historie of the Feates of the Lion Knights.”
He pushed himself up from his seat. “Right. Chapter Six, I believe.” He shuffled back to the shelves and drew out an orange volume with a lion’s head emblazoned on the front, then he shuffled back to his chair. He flipped slowly through the crackling pages.
Leala tapped her foot, waiting. Then Ancel’s finger stilled on the page. He lifted his head. “There may be a way to save you,” he told the Princess. “This book says that gobs of wax, inserted into the ears, can block out the song of the Lull Wyrms and save their victims from mortal sleep. Other than that, the only things of import that it says are, ‘Beloved sight awakens the mind asleep,’ and, ‘Where swords fail, the song of the roused turns sleep back on the creature.’”
Garrin frowned. “That’s it? It can’t be that simple,” he grumbled. He said to the Princess, “Don’t tell me we’ve come through all of this when we could have stayed home with some bits of wax.”
The Princess hushed him. “No one likes it when you gripe, Garrin. Sir Ancel—” Leala saw her husband’s cheeks turn pink under his gray beard—“do you suppose we might trouble you for a bit of wax?”
Ancel hummed. “Well, uh, um, sure, I mean, of course. Certainly. Anything for the Princess.”
When the wax was found and made into ear-sized balls, Leala made beds out of blankets for her, Ancel, and Garrin and showed Princess Noemi to the small bed she and Ancel usually shared. “If you need anything tonight, please do not hesitate to ask,” Leala urged.
The Princess relaxed into the mattress with a sigh. “Thank you, but I’m sure this is more than enough after a week of sleeping outside. Lady Leala—” a yawn interrupted her—“I want to thank you for you and your husband’s hospitality and aid. Garrin won’t say anything, but we both truly appreciate it.”
The way she spoke made Leala wonder, despite what had been said earlier. “Forgive the impertinence of an old lady,” she said softly, “but is he your…are you sure you don’t see color together?”
The Princess breathed a laugh. “Oh, no. He’s just a very dear friend. But anyways, I wanted to be sure to thank you, in case we’re gone in the morning. We really shouldn’t linger and put you at risk.”
For just a moment, the look in her eyes was of a young girl scared for her life, not of a Princess of prophecy keeping a calm face for her people. Leala’s heart ached. “There now, dear,” she smoothed the Princess’s black, mussed braid. “Don’t you worry about us. Rest yourself. We’ll be fine till the morning.”
Princess Noemi’s eyes fluttered closed. She sighed. In a moment more, she was asleep.
The next morning, Leala’s back and neck ached from sleeping on the floor. Still, she was sad to see the two young people leave, their bags now stocked with her homemade biscuits and Ancel’s smoked meat. Beside her at the door, Ancel said, “She’ll make it, all right. She’ll best that dragon. See if I’m wrong.”
“Hm,” Leala agreed. She turned into the house. “Well, I suppose we should wear wax in our ears and watch the skies for the next week.”
“Yes, dear, I suppose so.” Ancel shut the door behind him.
With wax wedged in her ears, Leala sat down to her spinning wheel in deafness. She could not hear it, but she knew from memory the repetitive hum of the wheel spinning fibers into thread.
A little while later, Ancel stuck a slip of paper under her nose. Dear, it read, have you seen my Illustrious Past of the Clachan Line?
She pointed to the wall of books. It’s in its place on the shelf.
Underneath the verdant leaves of the trees, Trace trudged along on a carpet of leaves in endless hues of brown. Beside her ambled a horse, one of the bandits’ freed horses that she’d found the day after they lost Noemi and Garrin. The poor, half-starved beast bore Verrell, whose wounds weren’t able to heal properly on their search. Sometimes it had to carry Sir Lamar, too. After the toxic torture asper’s venom wore off, her new-found beloved had partially recovered, but Sir Lamar’s skin and joints were sensitive and his strength faded quickly.
Somehow, Trace had become the most capable leader of their group. She didn’t really know what to do, but she thought maybe if they could just find the princess and Garrin, it would be okay.
They had to find them before the dragon did. Which meant they only had four more days.
The horse’s harness jingled from the beast’s jarring steps. Verrell groaned softly. Trace scrutinized him. He hunched forward in the saddle, his skin lacking the color it ought to have. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
Verrell glanced at her and straightened his back, only to grimace and clutch his stomach. “Just my wounds,” he dismissed her concern.
Trace narrowed her eyes and grabbed the horse’s harness. “Let me see.”
Verrell didn’t argue with her. He peeled his shirt over his many bandages, and Trace saw what was undoubtedly her least-favorite of her new colors: Crimson.
“They’re open again,” Sir Lamar sighed. “We need better tools for treating you. Even a needle and thread would help.”
No one said anything. There was no way to get better tools.
After doing all she could to make Verrell more comfortable, Trace patted his leg. “Hold on, Verrell,” she encouraged. “Just a little longer and we’ll find help for you.”
“You should leave me,” Verrell said when they recommenced their slow walk. “I hinder you.”
Trace winced at her next step. Her feet were little more than blisters. “That’s not true,” she told Verrell.
“And an honorable knight never abandons a comrade,” Sir Lamar added.
A scent in the air caught Trace’s nose. She sniffed to catch more of it. “Wait,” she held up her hand. “I think I smell something.”
The men sniffed, too. Sir Lamar’s noon-sky eyes brightened for the first time since his poisoning. It made Trace’s heart flutter. The knight said, “That is smoke of a house fire. There are people nearby.”
“See,” Trace squeezed Verrell’s arm. “I told you we’d find help.” She sniffed again and tried to find smoke through the thick trees.
Much later in the day, they finally caught sight of a cottage in a clearing. It was small and rough-hewn, with a wooden door, curtains that reminded Trace of the flowers at the beginning of their journey, and a steady stream of smoke rising from the stone chimney. “Who do you think lives there?” she asked Sir Lamar.
“Someone trustworthy,” he said. “Look at the curtains.”
Trace didn’t know if he was joking, and she was too tired to figure it out. Instead, she stumbled across the clearing and knocked on the door. Nothing happened, so she tried again. Still, no one came to the door.
Maybe no one was home. She lifted the handle and pushed, but the door didn’t budge.
“What’s wrong?” Sir Lamar asked. He led the horse carrying Verrell up behind her.
“No one came when I knocked, but someone must be home,” she explained. “The door is barred from inside.”
Her beloved rubbed his knees, a sure sign that his joints were beginning to bother him. “Can you see anything through the window?”
That was a good idea. Trace went over to the window and peeked inside. She could see an old man reading in a worn chair and hear a noise that sounded like at least one other person was in the room. Trace called, “Hello!”
The man ignored her.
She clenched her hands and tried again. “Good man, we need your help. We’re companions of the Princess of Jerrett, and we’re trying to save her life.”
He flipped over a page in his book.
Maybe he was deaf. Trace waved her arms, trying to get his attention.
He finally looked up, and when he saw her he started. The man jumped up and hurried out of sight. A moment later, the door opened. There he stood, pointing a crossbow at them. Too loudly, he asked, “Who are you?”
Trace started to explain when an old woman appeared at his side. She pushed the man’s weapon away with one hand and held something out in her other hand. “There’s a dragon nearby,” she told Trace and her men. Like the old man, her voice was too loud. “Put these in your ears, then come in and we’ll write to each other.”
Trace looked at Sir Lamar for guidance. He shrugged. “Best do as she says. They seem harmless enough.”
The old man with the crossbow didn’t seem harmless to Trace, but she kept her opinion to herself. She accepted the woman’s proffered gift. They were little balls of wax. The woman pantomimed sticking them into her ears, so Trace copied her and saw Sir Lamar do the same. Then she pushed the wax into Verrell’s ears and helped him off the horse. His face drained of color, until he almost looked like he used to back when she only saw in shades of gray. The rest of the world was still in color, though it was now silent. Strange to gain a new sense and then lose an old one.
The old woman appeared at her side, wrinkled forehead furrowed, and helped her move Verrell. Sir Lamar joined them, and the three of them managed to carry him into the dim interior of the cottage. They laid him on a straw-stuffed mattress, then the old woman bustled off, setting a pot of water to heat and gathering scraps of fabric from a bag. Meanwhile, the old man moved around piles of books. At length, he found a stack of tan paper and brought it with a quill and ink over to a table near the bed.
Who are you? he wrote in scratchy letters.
Trace took the quill. We are companions of the Princess of Jerrett, and we’re trying to save her life. My name is Trace, and these are Sir Lamar and Verrell.
The man took back the quill. Well-met. I am Ancel, this is Leala, and your princess left here just two days ago.
Trace and Sir Lamar looked at each other. Her heart sped up. Then they were not far behind. She grabbed the quill and scribbled, Where did they go?
South. But your friend is in no state to travel. Besides, you’d likely be attacked by the princess’s dragon, the old man—Ancel—wrote back.
You’ve seen it? Trace asked. Is that why you made us put wax in our ears?
No, Ancel wrote. But we’re expecting it any time now. And the Lull Wyrm’s voice can’t make you sleep if you can’t hear it.
That really was brilliant. Trace wondered why, in all the almost eighteen years of Princess Noemi’s life, no one had thought to mention that the prophecy’s dragon couldn’t do a thing if they simply put wax in the Princess’s ears.
She wrote, Did you give the Princess wax, too?
Ancel answered, Yes, her and the boy.
Relief made Trace’s legs weak. They had hope. They would thwart the prophecy.
The air shifted. Trace couldn’t breathe. It was like her heart stopped.
Then the air shifted back like a silent clap. She gasped. What was that?
Sir Lamar grabbed the quill and carved out one word: Run. The roof exploded into flames.
It was the dragon.
The straw of the cottage roof welcomed the flame from Damia’s mouth. Human screams filled the air. She smiled and circled the house from above. Their screams were the first nice thing to happen in a week.
She was starving, hungrier than she’d been in almost a century. Despite days of rest, her wounds still ached. Flying syphoned more strength than it should.
The people in the cottage weren’t the princess, she could smell. The princess had been there, though. Damia caught the scent of her blood somewhere inside. These people who hadn’t kept the princess here for her to eat should suffer—really, they should sleep. But whatever sorcery kept the castle awake when she sang was working on the cottage people, too.
No matter. She wouldn’t have had time to wait for them to ripen, anyways. Even though it wasn’t ideal, she could still eat them fresh and crispy.
Little humans spilled out of a hole in the cottage. She sniffed. One was injured, the one in the middle, carried by two others. Humans were strange creatures. Why didn’t they leave the injured one in the rear and take care of themselves like rational food? It would make picking them off so much easier.
Damia opened her mouth and swooped toward the frantic bunch of people. Her shadow gave her location away. The first human spun. Something sprung from it. New, fresh pain blossomed in Damia’s belly. She shrieked.
One of the humans carrying the hurt one stopped and held something up. Sun glinted off of it. A pointy stick!
A new pain sprouted in Damia’s wing. The first human again!
This group was too much work. She was sluggish from her previous wounds, and she didn’t have the advantage of their sleep. They weren’t worth this much effort to eat.
Damia sped up and rose, soaring on toward the delicious scent of princess. She would find other, easy humans to munch on.
And when she bit into the princess, that would certainly make her feel all better.
Two days. Her birthday was in two days.
Little was left of this day. As Noemi trudged after Garrin, the low sun shone through the trees ahead of them. She had to squint to make out the space in front of her through the glare.
Little was left of today. Tomorrow, she would either be in love or dead.
Garrin shouted a second before chaos broke out.
A scaly body reared up in front of him. He backed up into her. The sight of the dragon made Noemi’s blood freeze. It was a day early! Its mouth opened. Belatedly, Noemi thought of the wax in her pocket. She fumbled for it—and light grew in the creature’s throat.
“Duck!” Garrin yelled, shoving her behind a rock. Fire scorched their footprints.
Noemi pressed her back into the rock—only it wasn’t a rock at all! It was too smooth.
Garrin’s sword flashed between them and the dragon. “Stay here,” he whispered. Then he somersaulted to a nearby tree and took off running. Another blast of flame shot after him.
The ground shook like an earthquake. Noemi glanced over her shoulder into another saurian face. Without meaning to, she screamed.
The dragon lunged for her. She sprang away, but she felt the wind of the dragon’s movement. Garrin screamed her name, but she couldn’t do anything about that. She had to keep dodging the dragon.
And then there were two of them! Two streams of fire from two sets of teeth. Noemi ran.
The dragons were far enough away to give her an extra second. She searched for Garrin. He was near a cliff, on the other side of the egg from where she stood. He swung his sword at one of the beasts. Metal met scales. The dragon squealed.
Garrin didn’t see its mate rear to strike.
A scream tore Noemi’s throat raw.
Garrin heard. He lunged toward her, just out of the dragon’s path.
Her heart started beating again. Her vision went sort of blurry.
But there was a rustle behind Noemi and she had to run again. Garrin called to her. She dodged fire and looked. With the hand not battling a firewyrm he pointed to a cleft in the cliff wall.
She could only hope it was a cave. With speed she didn’t know she had, Noemi sprinted for the hole.
The dragon was close. Its flame singed her cheek.
Just a couple more steps.
She squeezed through the gap. It opened up wide, so she ducked to the side and waited for Garrin. Her heart thudded once, twice, and she’d never been more afraid. The darkness quenched all light.
Then his heavy breathing echoed off the walls and the dragons outside shrieked in frustration. Noemi’s knees buckled. “Garrin?” she yelled, desperate to know with certainty that her friend was alive.
“Here,” he panted. His hand found her arm. She reached in his direction. His arms wrapped around her so tight it hurt. “Thank everything that exists,” Garrin laughed.
Noemi squeezed him back with all her strength. “I thought you were dead,” she choked on her own breath.
“Not dead,” he assured her. “I’m not that easy to kill.”
They sat in the dark together, away from the sliver of fast-fading light in the cave’s gray entrance. “What do we do?” Noemi asked Garrin.
“We wait till morning and hope they’re all asleep.” He squeezed her hand. “Get some rest if you can. I’ll take first watch.”
It took her a long time to get any rest. She kept seeing dragons attacking her dearest friend, only now, in the dark, they succeeded. Even with her head resting on his shoulder, it was hard to let go of the grief that image inspired.
Sometime later Garrin woke her. She gave him her shoulder to rest his head on and stared in the direction of the cave’s entrance.
A thin line of gray announced the dawn of the day before her eighteenth birthday.
This was it.
She felt numb as she woke Garrin.
“We have to plug our ears until tomorrow is over,” Garrin said.
“I know,” she said to the darkness in front of his voice.
“Stay close to me, whatever happens.” His words were an order, but Noemi thought it sounded more like a plea.
She reached out blindly and squeezed his arm. “I wouldn’t spend my last moments anywhere else.”
“Don’t talk like that,” he growled.
“Garrin,” she said. “I am truly thankful for your friendship and loyalty. I…you’re one of the most important people in my life.” Her voice trembled. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Now, please give me my wax ear plugs.”
He did, hand lingering over hers. Neither spoke another word. Noemi rolled the wax until she could lodge it in her ears. With both balls of wax in place, all she could hear was her heartbeats counting down to her death. She knew their inability to hear gave Garrin hope, but a prophecy was inescapable. One way or another, she knew it would come true.
Garrin’s hand wrapped over hers again. He led her toward the gray light of early day shining on the dull rocks of the cave opening. Garrin went through first. For just a moment, his body eclipsed the light, leaving her deaf and blind. Her heartbeat sped up. Then the light returned. Noemi crawled after him, out into the morning—
Into the brightest, most vivid world she had ever seen.
Did she whisper it, or just think it? She couldn’t know. The sky—that couldn’t be one color! No, one word would never be able to describe it. The trees, the sleeping dragons—they all looked so much richer, so much more alive than she’d ever seen.
Garrin wouldn’t know. He assumed she’d be following him. But she couldn’t, not now. Someone else was in the cave. Her true love, after all these years! In a cave! Noemi grabbed Garrin’s arm. She had to go back to him. She had to meet the man who made her see color, the stranger who would save her from the prophecy’s dragon.
For a moment, Garrin was too astonished to move. That didn’t happen to him often. Actually, that had never happened to him. But crawling out of a black cave into a world aglow with color—that was enough to astonish anyone.
Maybe having his ears plugged was what had done it? Even as the thought entered his mind, he dismissed it as nonsense. But then…who was she? Who was his true love, the one who changed his vision?
Noemi’s hand on his arm brought Garrin back to his mission. So what if he’d somehow gained color? He needed to get the princess away from the sleeping fire-breathing dragons and keep evading the mysterious princess-eating singing dragon. Garrin turned back to Noemi.
He forgot how to breathe.
She shone with more radiant color than all the rest of the dragons’ rookery. He didn’t know any of the colors’ names, but that didn’t make her any less beautiful. Her hair—her skin—her eyes! She was resplendent in the morning light.
For the first time in his life, Garrin understood the purpose of poetry.
It took him longer to understand what it all meant. It didn’t make sense, after all. True love brought color at first sight, and he’d seen her every day for almost his whole life.
It didn’t make sense, but there was no doubt. Garrin was in love with Noemi.
She pointed back at the mouth of the cave. Her lips were moving, but the wax in his ears kept her words out of his hearing. He needed her to be quiet so she wouldn’t awaken the sleeping dragons. Communicating that without words was going to be difficult.
The sun glinted off her dark hair, drawing out a shimmer of color he’d never seen. The sight distracted him. Garrin reached out to run his fingers over the hued shine. Noemi met his eyes. He saw surprise, suspicion, understanding, and confusion dart across her face in quick succession. She reached out one hand to lay over his heart and placed the other hand over her own.
Are you my beloved? Do you see color, too?
He nodded. Yes. And he took it back: Now that he thought about it, it made perfect sense. Who could he have ever loved but Noemi?
He held one finger to his lips, took her hand over his heart in his, and led her away from the cave and the nearby dragons. It was a painstaking process. He had to watch every step, lest they snap a twig or crumple a leaf, at the same time as he watched the sleeping hulks. Once, one of the beasts shifted. Garrin froze. Noemi must have sensed his tension, because she, too, froze. Anxious moments slipped by in which he hardly dared breathe. The hand on his sword was damp from nerves, but he dared not wipe it dry.
At last he judged them out of the dragons’ hearing. He sped up, slowing only when Noemi stumbled. The day wore on. The overload of colors combined with his dread of the prophecy’s fulfillment to make him feel ill. Would they completely avoid the foretold dragon, now that Noemi saw color? He didn’t have much hope in their luck. If—when—they met it, would the wax work? How would color save her?
Garrin was helping Noemi over a fallen tree when the air seemed to disappear. Almost before that registered in his senses, the air slapped back into him with its normal pressure. Noemi’s grip on his hand confirmed that he hadn’t imagined it. Garrin glanced up, just as a giant lizard with bat-like wings blotted out the sun.
At lasssst! Damia looked at the two tasty little humans scurrying across the soil. Her injuries from the nasty ones in the rock place she had burned still weren’t fully healed, and the new scrapes, from that bunch in the little straw hill, smarted as she flew. Now, at lasssst, it was worth it. Damia sucked in a nice, full breath. Princess. That most delicious of delicacies, that tenderest of treats, that ever scrumptious morsel! Finally, Damia would have her prize.
It was time to let them know she was there. It would be so funny to watch as they scampered around like silly before she sang them to sleep. She swooped to briefly block the sunlight, just as the short-haired one—the one that smelled like ordinary, simple humans, nothing special—looked her way. It made a startled sound that made Damia chuckle, then the game was on.
Yes, sometimes it was best to eat speedily—but she had worked long and hard for this meal, and she deserved to slow down and enjoy it to the fullest.
The humans sped up—as if they could outrun her. It was hopeless, and so it amused her. Damia leisurely glided after them. Their little legs hurried over the rocky, inclining ground. That would wear them out quickly. Part of her was sad that she wouldn’t be able to prolong this fun, but a bigger part reveled that their sleep would soon come at the height of their suffering from fear and exhaustion. It really, really served them right.
Damia sent a breath of fire after them, just to increase their haste. She expected that to send them off in separate directions, but instead they clung to each other. That was strange. Most humanses abandoned each other to preserve their own lives by this point. It put her in mind of something she had seen long before, when she was just a little dragon and her father was training her.
She knew what they were. They were life mates. These kinds of humans stayed together till they died. Well, how lucky for them. They were going to die together.
But wouldn’t it be funny to separate them first? Yessssss. Split them up, then put them to sleep and let them stew until they were sweet and ripe.
Damia set about her plan with renewed energy. She sent stream after stream of flame at their heels, chasing them up steep, thin paths on the hillside. A quick sweep of the landscape showed her what she needed. With confidence and concentration, Damia steered them toward a strip of ground where they would have to walk single file. It took skill and precision to send fire at them at just the right time—but it worked! The princess and her mate sprung in different directions.
Not one to waste an opportunity, Damia swept into the gap between them and chased the princess back downhill. The human stumbled as she ran backward. Honestly, how silly was it, running backward when forward was so much faster?
The smell of fear was strong and appetizing. They were nicely separated, just like she’d hoped. Damia opened her jaws and sang out her song in a loud shriek that split the air.
And nothing happened!!!
That was the last straw. Damia snapped at the princess. The human fell down a couple-foot drop, smacking her head on the way. While Damia hopped down after her, the princess grabbed at her ear, then started shuffling around the ground like she was searching for something. Damia would never understand humans, but at least she would definitely still eat this one—even if it wouldn’t stinking fall asleep!
There was no harm in trying one more time, though. She hated the idea of messing this meal up by eating it raw. Once more, Damia let out her song.
Such was the frustration of the past few weeks that she was actually startled when the princess’s eyes rolled back in her head. It took Damia a second to understand what was happening when the princess slipped down onto the ground.
It worked!! The princess was asleep!
Was the other human slumbering, too? No, she heard footsteps behind her. Damia sprung up into the air. It was a good thing, too. That pesky little ordinary human had one of those sharp sticks in his hands.
She was about to roast him when she happened to sniff the air. More humans were nearby, and if she was not mistaken, they were the same humans she’d met by the straw mound. Damia had no wish to meet more resistance. It didn’t matter now, anyways. Her meal was secure. Though her strange food sometimes hid their dead in the ground, they would not do so as long as it was alive. Damia would leave the princess to ripen for a couple days, then return before she was fully dead.
Feeling reassured and victorious, she sped off toward the horizon.
It was strange being back on a hunt again, but not as strange as Ancel had expected after a good decade of retirement. He could almost hear Leala’s exasperated, “That’s because you refused to really retire. Honestly, who settles down in the wilderlands?” Almost, but actually hearing her would be impossible. Not only would the wax in his ears prevent it, but he’d left her behind at the smoldering remains of their cottage two days ago with Trace and her injured friend Verrell.
Being out and about without the ability to hear made him edgy. Humans had so few advantages over the creatures of the wilderlands as it was that being without one of his senses made him feel vulnerable.
Ancel didn’t like feeling vulnerable.
He climbed over a fallen tree, grimacing at his creaking joints. Two nights on the ground didn’t agree with his body. Blast these youngsters, barging into his live and upsetting everything.
Ancel looked back at Sir Lamar, who was just climbing over the tree himself. When the young knight made a similar grimace, it made Ancel feel better. So he wasn’t just getting old—though the fading puncture wounds on the young man’s neck suggested another cause for his frailty.
Then he saw what they’d been looking for: Footprints, and recent. He knelt—and bumped heads with Sir Lamar. Fine, so they were both good trackers. Ancel rubbed his forehead.
It felt like the air was snatched from his lungs, then it rushed back. Ancel leapt to his feet. He glanced at Lamar, who glanced at him, and then they were both sprinting in the direction of the tracks.
When they burst into a craggy clearing, Ancel just made out the silhouette of a retreating dragon. Sir Lamar plunged on ahead, toward two figures on the ground. His heart sank. Not the Princess and her bodyguard.
It was them, though. That impetuous young Garrin clutched the Princess’s prostrate body, shaking her. His lips formed what must have been pleas, judging by the look on his face.
Ancel dropped to a knee, feeling tears sting his eyes. All their efforts hadn’t been enough. He pulled off his hat and clutched it to his chest.
Sir Lamar picked something off the ground, frowned at it, and held it up for Ancel to see. Wax. It must have fallen out of her ear.
The young knight laid a hand on the bodyguard’s shoulder. Garrin seemed to just now register their presence. His face crumbled. He buried it in the Princess’s shoulder, rocking back and forth. His grief moved Ancel.
She must not have found her true love, after all. What a shame for that kind girl to live her whole life with such a fearful prophesy over her head, then to die young when it could have been prevented.
Ancel moved closer to Garrin and scrawled on the dirt, I’m so sorry. Wish we’d found her color match. Then he patted the boy on the back.
His red eyes followed Ancel’s finger to the message in the dirt. The look on his face was stricken when he read it. Garrin adjusted his hold on the Princess so he could write in the dirt, too.
Ancel couldn’t see the message until Garrin leaned away. He tilted his head and read, Her eyes are a mixture of tree leaves and bark.
Yes, she had green and brown—hazel—eyes. Had the boy lost his mind? What did that matter? Why be all poetic about it?
Wait, Garrin was colorblind. How could he know that?
Nothing was worse than this. His chest was gnawing at his stomach. His mind was an agonizing fog. His heart squeezed so painfully, he was surprised it kept beating.
She lay so still in his arms. Her chest rose and fell in steady breaths. What a cruel mockery. He could have gotten to watch her truly sleep, uncursed by the Lull Wyrm, could have held her in his arms as his wife. Now that was stolen from him.
The blush in her cheeks mocked him. Would that he had never seen color! That would have been kinder than this. Now every sight for the rest of Garrin’s life would remind him that he’d lost Noemi when he’d only just discovered he loved her.
Though he could not hear, he spoke the prophecy’s words with bitterness. “‘Perish unless she beholds the world in color and not only in shade.’” He cursed. “So much for prolonged life!” How was this right? What foul fiend had overridden the vagrant seer’s hope with this doom? The pain was too great. He clung to Noemi, hiding his face against her neck.
When one of the others touched his shoulder, Garrin tried to ignore him. The touch turned into a pull. That infuriated him. Garrin glared up at the old man, Ancel. He was pointing to something on the ground with wide eyes.
Beloved sight awakens the mind asleep, he read. Then he spit on the message. Yeah? Then why hadn’t seeing color saved her?
Ancel narrowed his eyes at Garrin and scribbled with his finger. Garrin read, I think she needs to see you now.
Garrin reread the message, then looked at Ancel skeptically. The old man nodded emphatically and pantomimed lifting up his eyelids.
Garrin’s heart ached, but there could be no harm in giving the daft idea a try. He tenderly lifted the soft skin of Noemi’s eyelids. Her eyes were empty. He looked in them for as long as he could bear it before he carefully closed them.
It was pointless.
But she shifted in his arms. It was slight, but he was certain.
She moved again. Her eyes flew open.
Noemi was awake!
Garrin laughed, though he couldn’t hear it, and held Noemi close, cradling her head against his shoulder. This time, her arms wrapped around him, too. She turned her face into his neck. He felt lighter than normal, and invincible. Noemi was awake.
When at length he remembered that there were other people present, he looked up to find Ancel beaming and Sir Lamar with a genuine, if faint, smile.
Toward evening, Sir Lamar convinced them it would be safe to remove the wax from their ears. “The dragon shall not return for a day, at least,” he said when everyone could hear.
Ancel asked, “So, what comes next?”
The answer was obvious. “Sir Lamar takes Noemi back to the castle,” Garrin said. “Ancel and I’ll wait here and end the dragon.”
Noemi stiffened under his arm. “Do you really expect me to leave you here in danger?” Her rich eyes—hazel, according to Ancel, a mixture of green and brown—looked up at him with sorrow.
“Noemi, you must be crazy if you think I’ll let you stay,” he argued.
“Garrin.” He could never figure out how she made his name into the most powerful reproach. “You still may not order me around.”
Ancel spoke up, voice cautious and appropriately humble. “With all respect, Princess, the boy’s suggestion’s solid. The wyrm will be hard to fight with our few numbers. You’ll be in danger.”
“The dragon seems to be following the princess’s scent,” Sir Lamar spoke up. “That will leave me as her sole defender. While I have no doubt I could defend her against a normal dragon, this Lull Wyrm is, I fear, beyond my skill.” Garrin knew he disliked Trace’s newfound beloved.
Then Noemi’s forehead puckered. She touched a finger to her upper lip. Garrin leaned closer. “What is it?”
She bit her lip. “Sir Ancel, do you remember what your book said about slaying the Lull Wyrm when weapons failed?”
The old man scratched his grey head. “Not so clear as I’d like, but I think it said…the woken’s song sends the beast to sleep.”
The furrows in Noemi’s brow smoothed. Her smile lit her face. Garrin was delighted by and a little in awe of the way she seemed to glow, but he knew he wasn’t going to fully like what she said.
“I can do it, then. I can kill the dragon.”
Yep, he was not happy with this development at all.
Damia slowly swooped over the tops of the trees. She’d had to snack on some lowly humans in the woods, but her wounds hurt far less after resting a couple days. She wasn’t in splendid shape yet, but she would survive.
Damia approached the place where she’d left the princess. Anticipation filled her, giddy expectation of a true delicacy. Thisss would be a meal worth waiting for. It would almost make up for the catastrophe at the castle.
The sun hung low by the time Damia could smell her prey. It reminded her of fire, glowing over the horizon. It warmed Damia’s belly. She loved fire.
But something wasn’t quite right. She sniffed. The scents were there, the smell of sweet princess, hardy lower nobility, and lightweight, common knights. But where was the delectable odor of dehydration?
She stumbled on the humans sooner than she expected, nestled in a sheltered nook she could only approach from one side. Two knights and the princess’s life mate were there, protecting her as Damia expected. The princess herself—Damia shook her head, then checked again.
It could not be!
But it was so. Her prized treat, for which she’d fought so hard, was up and awake.
Damia screeched her rage. She loosed a spurt of flames. The humans saw her and sprang to their feet. The males brandished their sharp sticks, but the princess did something stranger. She started making a noise. Damia thought it sounded like birds chirping, but with more effort.
And with that, Damia’s patience and hope snapped. She was done with this, through with this cursed land where everything went wrong and she ended up increasingly injured, hungry, and perplexed. Damia was leaving for good. She’d find a nice, sane kingdom where her songs sent people to sleep like they were supposed to. She’d gorge herself on greasy peasants if she had to, as long as she was anywhere but here.
She just wanted to make these horrid little humans suffer for all the suffering they’d brought her first.
With a spark of inspiration, Damia sent a stream of fire straight at the princess’s mate.
Who first discovered that all it took to awaken one of the dragon’s victims was for their soulmate to peer into their sleeping eyes? Noemi wanted to know.
When the winged black silhouette of the Lull Wyrm blotted out the sinking sun, she also wanted to know who discovered that an awoken victim’s song could kill the dragon. For that matter, how did anyone have the courage to sing in the face of that beast? Noemi felt her throat squeeze shut and her mouth dry up.
Garrin’s warm hand pressed against hers, lending courage.
Noemi searched her memory for any song. The Wyrm swooped closer. Sirs Ancel and Lamar tensed. At last, a song she had not heard in years came to mind. Noemi sang, tremulously at first:
“Did you ever hear the song
Of true love’s sight gone all a-wrong?
Sadder plight there’s not been yet
Than that of Colbert and Trinette:
Maiden fair and warrior strong
Shared color, but were destined to forget.”
Something wasn’t working. The dragon kept approaching. Garrin pushed Noemi behind him. She sang louder.
“Lovely Trinette, born a serf;
Colbert, who haunted sea and warf—”
Still the dragon did not sleep. Maybe it wasn’t the right song. She searched for another.
“Trickle, trickle, azure brook,
Back to whence you came.
Cackle, cackle, blackened rook,
In the birdcage of your dame.”
But the nursery rhyme didn’t work, either.
The Wyrm was almost upon them. An arrow flew from Sir Ancel’s crossbow. Noemi’s back hit the rocky cliff wall behind them. She tried singing nonsensical, made-up songs and words.
The fleshy wings knocked the knights apart. Sir Lamar’s blade left an open gash across one wing, but he and Sir Ancel bounced off the cliff walls and stayed where they landed.
The beast reared over Garrin. For one horrible moment, she thought it would swoop straight over him and gobble her up whole. She forgot how to sing.
Then bright, vibrant fire spewed out of its mouth. Noemi smelled charred flesh, but she felt no pain. She couldn’t understand what was happening.
The air split and slapped together. Noemi knew this feeling—it had happened just before she fell asleep.
When Garrin fell to the ground, Noemi finally understood. And it felt like her heart split.
A scream tore out of her throat. Even with wax in her ears, she could hear it. Her only thought was of Garrin’s unconscious form. His charred face was the only thing she saw—
Until the dragon collapsed over him.
Sir Lamar heard ringing in his ears. That was what first alerted him to things not being quite right. He shouldn’t hear anything with the wax in his ears.
Color flooded into his eyes, and he remembered where he was. The Wyrm was attacking. He sprung to his feet despite the weight of his armor and tried to understand what was happening. Black hair caught his eye—the Princess. The giant winged reptile hung over her.
Lamar lunged at them. Too late, he realized his sword was not in his hand.
Light glowed deep in the beast’s throat. Sir Lamar was too late, but still he sprinted. Flames, yellow and orange and blinding, enveloped Garrin, who Lamar hadn’t seen until that moment. The knight checked Princess Noemi. She was unscathed by the fire, but utter anguish still filled her face.
Then, almost before he saw it, the dragon fell from the sky. Lamar had to pivot to avoid being crushed. He spun back, panting, trying to make sense of the scene before him. The great and evil Lull Wyrm lay in a still heap over Garrin. So the old knight’s book was right. The Princess’s song had sent the creature to sleep.
When Noemi reached for Garrin, Lamar sprung back into motion. He put a restraining hand on her shoulder and held up his other—wait. She seemed to understand, or at least to trust him.
Sir Lamar returned for his blade. He hefted it. It was a weighty sword, and should do the trick. They needed to be certain, once and for all, that the beast was gone.
His boots scrambled to find hold on the smooth scales, but Sir Lamar eventually managed to climb the dragon’s back. It rose and fell under his feet in a slow rhythm of breaths. Lamar found his balance, raised the sword over his head, and swung. It was surprisingly easy to sever the creature’s head from its body.
The Wyrm’s head flopped over. Bright blood flowed out of the empty neck. It stained the dirt and Garrin—what was the color’s name? Crimson? Cerulean? Well, it didn’t really matter. Sir Lamar slid off the corpse.
The old knight came to them. When Lamar set his shoulder against the beast’s warm side, Ancel joined him. Their boots dug into the dirt. Their muscles strained. The corpse barely moved.
It took half an hour of pushing to free Garrin. Lamar’s face dripped with sweat. He wanted nothing more than to collapse on the ground and breathe. He rallied himself to his duty, though, and wriggled the wax out of his ears.
Now he could hear the Princess’s endless string of pleas for Garrin to live. He thought of Trace. His stomach twisted in fear that some ill might befall her and he would have to suffer the Princess’s pain. Worry did no good, though. He knelt beside the princess and pointed to her ears.
Her small hands shook, so he had to help her remove the wax. “Don’t wake him,” he said as soon as she could hear.
“What?” she exclaimed. She looked at him like he had suddenly become her enemy.
“He is badly wounded. We must return him to the castle, and the journey will be far less painful for him if he is unconscious.”
Her brow furrowed as she looked down at her color-mate. She reached to touch the smoldering flesh on his face, but held back.
Sir Lamar touched her hand. “We will give him water, as one does to a fever victim. Once at the castle, he will have the best care available. You can wake him then. You will see your beloved again.”
Lamar didn’t know if he actually believed that, but he truly hoped he would see his.
He and Ancel managed to carry Garrin between them. Princess Noemi trailed behind with their packs, emptied of all but the necessary supplies. They weren’t able to make it far before the light failed.
“We’re closer to the castle than you’d think,” Ancel promised over dry biscuits. “We’ll have him home by tomorrow night.”
So Lamar’s plan of a circuitous route had worked, in a way. He was glad of that and laid down to watch the stars and wonder what was happening to Trace. He missed her more than he thought possible for a woman he’d known scarcely two weeks. With a bit of good fortune, they would be reunited soon and all would be well.
In the middle of the night, Garrin developed a high fever. Sir Lamar felt his hopes of good fortune dwindling.
Everywhere Queen Laurene looked, there were ashes and rubble. Gone were the stately stone walls stretching toward the sky. She had greeted the day at a small window in her bedroom wall every morning since her marriage to King Nicolas twenty years earlier. Now, that wall was a jumble of stones caved in without wooden floors and beams to support it.
Thankfully, most of the people had survived the dragon’s attack. Some poor peasants had succumbed to the dragon’s voice. By now, their sleep was the unalterable sleep of death. A dozen servants had been crushed when the castle fell in on itself. When they were found, the survivors of Jerrett buried them in a quiet ceremony.
The area immediately around the castle keep was cleared, and that one standing room of the castle sheltered Queen Laurene, King Nicolas, and their closest lords and ladies. For the rest, makeshift tents were erected on the outskirts of the ruins.
While the men and poor women hauled rubble away, the Queen held her skirts and picked her way through the wreckage. She raised a hand to shield her eyes. The east road to the wilderlands was still, just like the others.
Her home was in ruins, but all Queen Laurene wanted was to know if her daughter still lived.
“Your Highness,” one of her ladies-in-waiting exclaimed. “Come into the shade. You will weary yourself.”
“What does it matter if I am weary?” she sighed, but she acquiesced to her care. The cup of water she held to the Queen’s lips was cool and refreshing.
Shouts began in the distance and spread through the ruins. “Go see what is afoot,” Queen Laurene bid her lady-in-waiting.
The girl returned with wide eyes. “My Queen, it is the Princess.”
“Is she alive?” Queen Laurene asked, already climbing in the direction of the people’s pointing fingers. No one heard her, or no one knew the answer.
She reached the road and finally saw. Yes, that was her daughter—and she was walking on her own! Queen Laurene reached Noemi so quickly, she thought she might have flown. She wrapped her arms around the girl. Oh, she would never let go again!
Stronger arms encircled her and Noemi. King Nicolas’s voice shook. “Welcome home, daughter. Ah, my dearest Noemi, you live!”
But Noemi pulled away. Laurene couldn’t understand. There were tear tracks in the dirt on Noemi’s face, some fresh, some old. She wasn’t looking at her parents.
“He needs…please,” the girl choked out. “Help him.”
Only then did Laurene notice her three companions. The young knight Lamar and an old man dressed as a knight bore between them another—Laurene gasped. Garrin! Captain Harbin’s son! His face was half deathly pale with a fever-red cheek, half black and angry red.
King Nicolas called for me to help carry Garrin. Queen Laurene sent a woman for the physician. “Take him to the Keep,” she directed.
They laid him on a cot. Noemi knelt by his side. She looked to the old knight and asked, “Now?”
The Princess tenderly lifted Garrin’s unburnt eyelid. When the boy twitched and awoke with a groan, Queen Laurene gasped anew.
Then the physician was there, shooing Noemi out of his way. Queen Laurene wrapped her arms around her daughter to offer strength. Noemi looked more miserable than Laurene had ever seen. To distract her from her friend’s suffering, Laurene asked, “My dear, what did you do with Garrin’s eye?”
The Princess never looked away from Garrin. As if reciting a well-learned lesson, she said, “Beloved sight awakens the mind asleep.”
What set her daughter to speaking in riddles? What happened to them in the wilderlands?
Noemi asked, “Mother, is there a—a name? For the—” she shuddered—“for the colors on his face?”
Queen Laurene blinked. What? “Noemi, do you see color?” she asked.
Captain Harbin’s entrance prevented her response. “My son!” he exclaimed, kneeling at the foot of the cot. “Please, physician, will he live?”
The physician set down his instruments and wiped his hands. “Good sir, it grieves me to say his recovery seems unlikely.”
It was all Queen Laurene could do to catch Noemi as she collapsed.