Here’s the second-to-last chapter!  For previous chapters, look here.

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?”

He nodded.

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.

Thanks for reading :)  Let me know what you think!

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