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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 Lamarr. 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 Lamarr 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.”
Thanks for reading!! Ashley (and anyone else who might be reading), I’d love your feedback and criticism :) Hope your week is fantastic!