Here are the first two parts to an exciting addition to Leading Edge! We are holding a serial short story contest. One of our staff members has written the beginning to a short story, and it is your job to continue it.
Here’s how it’s going to go: read Parts One through Three, come up with your own idea for how it should finish in Part Four, write it in 2,000 words or less and submit it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll publish the whole story online and in Issue 70.
Update: Congrats to Sarah Keenan, whose submission will be published as the conclusion to the story in Issue 70. Pick up your copy at the end of April!
Daughter of Man
Adana rose several hours before dawn, knowing she had to start out at such an early hour in order to be back before too much fuss was made over her absence. Quietly, in the darkness of her chamber, she dressed into her riding clothes, slipped on her cloak, strapped on her knife and sword (she had hidden the weapons in one of her trunks of dresses), and slung her bow and quiver across her shoulders. She grabbed a pack that was already filled with several water skins, a compass, a map, and bread that she had slipped away from last night’s supper. She didn’t know what she would find out in the desert, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
She left a note that she had written the night before on the writing desk, and then she was finally ready.
Using years of long practice, she crept quietly past her sleeping maidservants and out of her quarters. The halls were easier. Armed like she was, striding slowly and easily, and with her hood pulled low over her head, she looked like one of the guards accompanying the Altian Embassy. Besides, her cloak was almost the exact same shade as theirs, and her gear all looked Altian. There were a few females among the embassy’s ranks, so the few native guards who saw her were not too suspicious.
Even easier than at home, she thought—but with no relish. Few things could make her feel anything close to triumph that morning. She just kept her head low and kept walking.
The stables were the trickiest part, since there were always one or two stable hands that kept watch to make sure none of their precious Havelan horses were meddled with, especially with all the foreigners in the fortress of late. She would have to reveal her identity in order to take her horse, which would cause some fuss and speculation—or else be suspected as a thief, which would cause even more.
Then an idea occurred to her. It still would require her to reveal who she was, but it might smooth along the rest.
So, when she reached the stable doors and the stable hand standing there came alert and to attention, she lowered her hood and said haughtily—as she had seen the Havelan royalty speak to servants—“I am Princess Adanaya of Altian. I have come to ride the new mare the Prince Fahlan gave to me.”
“Your Majesty,” the young man said, his surprise and sleepiness making his accent thick. “At . . . at this hour?”
“His Highness said I may ride her whenever I wish. I am accustomed to rising early to ride in Altian,” Adana continued, starting to frown in apparent displeasure. She felt sorry for the boy, but if she didn’t get out of here soon, she never would, and this was perhaps the last chance she would ever have . . .
But she wouldn’t let herself think of that. Not yet. First she had to get out.
The boy was clearly struggling with this strange dilemma, looking from her, to the way she was dressed, to the stables behind him, and back to her.
“Quick boy,” she snapped. “I did not rise at this hour to be kept waiting in the cold. I am not a little servant girl come to fetch her mistress’s steed. It is my horse after all, and I am only taking her out for a ride. Surely there is nothing in your orders to prevent that?”
Finally, he caved in and opened the door for her with a bow and an apology. She swept past him without acknowledging either, as she had seen Prince Fahlan do so often.
It took her a little to find her gift from the prince—a stunning, spirited black mare of the famous desert breed that were coveted so much in Altian. They were worth five normal horses, but they were guarded so closely by the Havelans that few ever entered her homeland. It had been a royal gift indeed. Under different circumstances, Adana would have been overjoyed at receiving the mare. As it was, she suspected enough of what the gift symbolized for her that this was the first time she had brought herself to ride her.
Fahlan had told her the mare’s name was Ferali, which in Havelan meant “free wind.” She could not help but feel that the name carried a mocking irony.
Saddling Ferali was difficult, since Adana had to be both quiet and quick, and the distrustful mare wasn’t willing to let her be either. She purposely made things difficult enough—shying away or playing tricks—that Adana was sorely tempted to abandon the idea and ride her own beloved stallion, Arris, but she had already told the stable boy she was riding the mare, and Ferali was probably more accustomed to the desert anyhow.
Finally, annoyed and anxious, she rode out of the stable and to the gate. Leaving her hood down, she rode through the palace gate without even a second glance from the Havelan guards in the shadows. When she got into the city, she pulled the hood up once more.
Many people were already stirring, especially vendors beginning to set out their wares. Still, the air was hushed and quiet, and no one cast her more than a glance. In fact, they avoided her gaze and backed out of her way. She wondered why until she remembered that the possession of a horse was a symbol of rank among the Havelan’s. They couldn’t see her face, but they knew she had to be someone of enough importance that they didn’t want to attract her attention.
Finally she passed through the high city wall of Dahlar, the capital of Havelan, and entered the desert. The night made the barren waste seem eerie, especially the sinking moon that lit each rise and rock with silver. The stars were fading, but there were still enough of them that it looked as if the sky were scattered with thousands of drops of light.
Luckily, the moon also made the road visible, so she traveled down it for a half hour or so until she judged that it was time to turn off. From then on, she rode through the mixed sand and dirt, heading for enormous dark shapes in the distance that marked the mountains seperating Havelan from Altian. The one she was aiming for was one of the closest of the shadows: a dark, enormous monolith of a mountain that stood almost alone in the desert, with its brothers farther behind.
It was for this lone mountain that she had come. Called “Darkrise” by the Altians, she had heard its legend ever since she was small, when the mystery had first kindled her imagination. When she had heard that she was going to come here, to this desert, the first thing that had entered her mind was this mountain, and now she was going to see it with her own eyes, before . . .
She shook her head, gritting her teeth. Suddenly finding her slow pace unbearable, she urged her fidgety mare into a gallop. It was as if Ferali had been waiting for this all along, because she took off like an arrow released from a bow or like the wind for which she was named. Relishing in the ride and the cold wind whipping through her hair—her hood had been blown back at once—she leaned into the mare and the two of them galloped through the desert together. For the first time, they were almost one being, if but for a moment.
The Havelan’s had another name for the mountain they rode towards. It was On Iflehan, “The Sleeping One.”
Another half hour of galloping and they had reached the mountain. Here they had to slow down, for the road up the mountainside was narrow and steep. As time went on, it began to get bad enough that Adana dismounted and led the mare forward, scooting along as close as she could to the mountainside. By now the sun had begun to rise, making the ascent possible, for it would have been too dangerous in the dark. She was not especially afraid of heights—and besides, she had come too far, in more than one way, to go back—but she proceeded cautiously all the same.
There were signs that this path was little traveled: jagged bits of the path missing, rocks and boulders in their way, and sometimes even brambles, cacti, or shriveled trees. All these things made the going slower, but she had been expecting that. All the questions she had asked at Dahlar about the mountain and the road up it had been met with evasive answers or outright suspicion. She had gotten the impression that it was either a sacred place to them, or—more likely—the exact opposite. In any case, the reason that kept them back was the one drove her forward, drove her with an impulsiveness and strength that she couldn’t explain, nor wished to. All she had wanted was to get out, to get out and clear her head, and this was where her mind had taken her, long before her feet had.
Finally, about an hour after the sun had risen and she was beginning to feel the heat of it, she turned a bend and quite suddenly reached a broad, flat place where the path abruptly ended.
It was the entrance to an enormous cavern, the opening of which must have been over three stories high and fifty feet wide.
She stopped for a moment, Ferali’s reins still in her hand, and unconsciously her heart began pounding a little faster.
It was here, it was real.
It was one thing to hear about it in a half-remembered legend, or to read about it in old scrolls or a dusty journal, and quite another to stand at the brink and see it with her own eyes. It was just as they said…
It was here. She had arrived.
There were various legends about this place, most of them centering around a great beast that had emerged from the mountain a long time ago—by all her estimates, at least two centuries past or more. The legends varied from there. Some said that the beast was killed by this hero or that; others claimed that a maiden sacrifice had appeased it and it had flown away; others hinted that the creature had merely grown weary of the surface and returned once again to the heart of the mountain, and slept on to that day.
Did she believe the legends? Not necessarily. She did not, for instance, believe that some great beast was about to leap out of the darkness and kill her. If there had indeed been such a beast, it was long dead, and the legends persisted because of the thrill of telling them.
So it was strange that she couldn’t explain, even to herself, the fascination she had with these legends, this place. It was as if something here called to her, as if it held some great secret or treasure that she alone was meant to discover. That was why she was here, now. She had never gotten the chance before, and when she had made the difficult decision she had come here to make, she may never have the chance again.
She took a deep breath and led the mare forward. She hesitated—just a moment—just before the line where the sunlight ended and the rest was shadows.
And then stepped over the brink and into the dark.
It took a little while for her eyes to adjust, and even then, the darkness seemed to stretch on and on. The floor was pitted and uneven, sloping gradually downwards, and she couldn’t see the limits of the cavern, neither of the back nor of the walls.
Suddenly she shivered, a strange feeling coming over her. Now that she was here, she felt a strange reluctance to explore farther into the dark—as if, when she did, she would lose herself forever.
She tied Ferali’s reigns to a jutting, withered tree. She walked over to stand at the edge of the cliff, the line of darkness only a few feet behind her. She stared down at the sun-baked lands below.
Sand and dry dirt spread as far as the eye could see, broken only by shrunken shrubs or islands of sandstone. Plateaus of sandstone were visible as a blurry line in the horizon. Closer and more visible was the cream-colored stone city of Dahlan, with its many spires, glittering domes, and high city wall.
The sun was climbing higher in the sky, and soon she would have to go. She had already taken longer than she would have liked, and she was probably going to pay for it when she returned, but she couldn’t leave quite yet. She had come here for an answer to her own, personal dilemma, and she couldn’t return without one.
Adana squinted out into the desert. It was bright, blinding. Impossible to truly see, impossible to consider, and yet . . .
She tried to wrap her mind around its vastness, tried to think of its possibilities. Surely it must have beauty, somewhere. Surely, somewhere, beneath the dry, scorched emptiness, there must be meaning. Surely in this waste there must be life. Somewhere in this emptiness must be a soul.
She stood there, her mind heavy with questions. What she should do. What she could do. What she would do. All such different things, and no way to reconcile them, to bring them into balance.
She sunk to her knees with a sigh and searched the barren desert, as if it held the answers she needed.
That was when it began.
At first, so softly and gently she didn’t notice. She was so wrapped up in her thoughts, she didn’t feel the growing rumble until the pebbles and her bones began to rattle with the vibrations. She stared at the pebbles, then at the dust and bits of rock falling from the cavern walls, then at her trembling hand.
And finally, with dawning horror, she realized what was happening.
Ferali let out a whinny of fright, rearing and tugging at her restraint. The mare may not have understood exactly what was happening, but she did not need to: she could smell it. Stumbling to her feet, Adana made her way over to the mare, trying to soothe her as she dodged close enough to untie her reins from the rock. Immediately, the black mare danced frantically out of Adana’s reach, her eyes wide with terror. Finally, before Adana could catch her, the mare bolted away from the cavern and lunged headlong down the precarious path.
Adana started to run after her, knowing that if what she suspected was true, she had to get as far away as possible as soon as possible, but an enormous, jagged piece of rock fell from the ceiling above and crashed in front of her, causing her to recoil and stumble backwards. She lost her balance and fell to the floor of the cavern. Another huge rock fell to her left, causing her to hastily scramble backwards. Which was fortunate, because yet another crashed to the ground right where she had been lying.
The shaking was now so bad it rattled every part of her, from her teeth to her bones to her vision. Now thinking of nothing else but to avoid being crushed to death, she scrambled on her hands and knees farther into the cavern, each falling stone or jagged stalactite driving her deeper and deeper.
Then the entire world shook and reverberated with terrible sound as the ceiling behind her entirely collapsed, rock by rock, each making an earth-shaking, grinding boom as it landed.
Then, everything stilled.
There was silence for one . . . long . . . moment.
And then, as if she could endure any more, the roar began. It was a terrible, powerful, bellowing sound that seemed to shake the world as much as the vibrations had. It was louder than a thousand trumpets and contained more raw ferocity and burning power than a thousand furnaces. It was so loud it made her fall to her knees, clap her hands over her ears, and maybe even scream.
Her only coherent thought was that if the very end of the world had a sound, it would be that roar.
Daughter of Man
Adana cowered as the roaring grew louder, cursing her decision to come up the mountain. There had been a good reason why the Havelans had treated the place with fear and distaste, and now she knew why. The cavern floor reverberated with the noise, each new wave of sound shud- dering through Adana and making her cry with fright.
The roars slowed, then quieted to snarls, and Adana knew that she was no longer alone in the cavern. She stood and ripped her bow from her shoulders then, nocking an arrow instinctively and scrabbling back against the pile of rocks entrapping her within the cavern.
Adana strained her eyes against the darkness, wishing she had brought a light, wishing that she would at least be able to see the creature before it ate her. But the darkness of the cavern was absolute. Adana held her breath, tense, listening to the heavy breathing of the beast, feeling the odors of fur and sweat pressing against her nose and mouth. The beast snuffled as it came closer. It must have smelled her by now. It must be preparing to pounce, to tear her flesh to shreds.
A grim resignation came over Adana. She had not expected to escape one captor only to be devoured by another. But she had no intention of dying without a fight.
Aiming wildly in the direction of the snuffling sounds, Adana released the arrow, and instantly there was a squeal and a roar of pain. Something— an enormous paw—knocked her down, and she felt pain explode in her right shoulder as a claw tore through the sleeve of her tunic. Adana pressed her hand to the wound, feeling wetness. She clenched her teeth and screwed her eyes shut, bracing herself for the pain of being torn to pieces; she had certainly only angered the beast further.
But there was nothing, only the labored sounds of wounded breathing— Adana’s, or the beast’s, or perhaps both, she couldn’t tell.
Adana stayed frozen for what felt like an eternity, listening to the beast. Still it stayed at the other side of the cavern, its breathing heavy now. Adana waited until she was sure it was not going to attack her again, and then she scrambled up the mound of rocks blocking her escape, determined to try to shift the loose ones at the top until she could clear an opening wide enough for her to squeeze through. She yelled as, still blind, she banged her head on the roof of the cavern, and then froze again, sure that her yell would incite the beast once more.
But there was no snarl of renewed aggression. It was still alive, that much she knew; she could still hear its breathing. Adana worked as quickly as she could, though with her injury, she could only move her right arm gingerly. Each movement brought fresh pains shooting down her arm and up her neck. Adana wiped sweat—or was it blood?—from her dripping brow. At this rate, it would take her hours to free herself from her tomb.
Sounds came from below. Adana tensed instinctively, her good hand on the hilt of her sword, listening. The creature was moving. There was a scrabbling sound and a clattering of claws on rocks, and Adana realized with horror that it, too, was climbing up the pile of boulders blocking the cavern entrance. Adana drew her sword with a shing! The clattering sounds paused for a brief moment, and then resumed.
“Stay back!” yelled Adana, feeling ridiculous. There was no way the beast could understand her. She slashed at the darkness in front of her for good measure. “I’m warning you!”
The beast made no acknowledgement of this threat, simply continuing to climb, from the sound of it. Adana backed away from the sounds, hoping that in the echoey cavern she wasn’t backing into the beast.
The beast stopped—it must be level with Adana now—but the clattering sounds continued. Adana lowered her sword, perplexed and dizzy from the throbbing in her shoulder. The darkness seemed to be pressing in on her eyes; bright spots were beginning to swim in her vision. Adana blinked. No—they weren’t spots. They were chinks of light!
The beast was shifting the rocks at the cavern’s entrance. Adana watched, dumbfounded, as more and more light began to seep into the cavern, and finally she could see an outline—leathery wings—a mane—two enormous reddish-brown paws, clumsily shifting chunks of rock away from the cavern entrance—but still not the beast in its entirety.
Then at last, the beast gave a mighty heave with its paws and pushed a huge slab out of its way, clearing an entryway in the wall of fallen rocks and raising a cloud of dust. Adana didn’t hesitate. She dashed madly for the opening, narrowly avoiding the beast’s paws as it brought them down at her heels. Was it trying to catch her?
Adana rolled out of the way as more rocks crashed down out of the cavern’s entrance, coughing at all of the dust in the air and moaning in pain as dirt settled in her wound. She looked at the cavern warily, wondering if the beast was going to attack again. The mass of fur at the cavern’s entrance seemed to be moving closer. Adana stood as the dust cleared, turning to face her foe, and then she gasped.
Never before had she seen a creature of such terrible majesty. Paws the size of dinner plates. Leathery wings that could be used as the sails of a ship. A red scaly tail with spines that were almost certainly poisonous. A mane of deep red fur framed the creature’s catlike facial features; blood still dripped from its nose, where Adana’s arrow was deeply embedded.
The beast stood looking at her with quizzical, intelligent eyes. Its golden gaze seemed to pierce right through Adana, who fell to her knees. This must be one of the ancient beings from the legends, she knew, and it was all she could do not to quake. Adana felt the magic of her ancestors tingling in her blood and knew at once why this mountain had called to her so insistently.
A commotion—the sound of hooves racing up the path behind her— brought Adana back to her senses. The creature’s eyes narrowed and its ears flattened against its head. Before Adana could call out to it, it folded its wings against its back and disappeared back into the cavern, leaving the rock-strewn entrance and a cloud of settling dust.
Adana turned back to the mountain path, where a group of Havelan riders were approaching at a gallop, heedless of the treachery of the drop. The leader gave a cry when he saw her. “Princess Adanaya!”Adana closed her eyes. The distaste and constriction she had been feeling the evening before were flooding back.
The riders encircled her, and their leader dismounted, pulling down the hood of his cloak. “Princess Adanaya!” The desert wind had tousled his dark hair, and his browned skin was glistening with a sheen of sweat. He had obviously been riding hard.
Adana stood shakily and turned to face him. “Prince Fahlan,” she said calmly, trying to keep the emotion from her voice. “How did you find me?”
The prince’s brow was furrowed as he came to her and seized her by the shoulders, letting go only when Adana cried out in pain. “I questioned the stable guards when one of the servants found your note. What were you thinking, coming here alone? Don’t you know the legends?”
Another man, probably a medic, dismounted and began checking Adana for injuries. He poured a salve on Adana’s shoulder wound, and she winced as it began to bubble and sting.
“I . . . I . . . ” Adana struggled to find an explanation for why she had been out here at such an hour by herself.
Luckily, Prince Fahlan was not someone who waited for others to make their explanations to him. “Never again,” he said. “You must never come here again, do you understand?”
Adana nodded, knowing that she would under no circumstances obey this order if she got another chance to slip away. Prince Fahlan turned to look at the debris from the cavern’s entrance. He turned back to Adana, his expression probing. “What happened? Something spooked Ferali, or she would not have abandoned you.”
Adana found her voice. “A rockslide. It startled her and she bolted without me.”
“Hmm.” Prince Fahlan’s expression was unreadable. “Nothing else?”
Adana looked back at the cavern’s entrance. “No,” she lied. “There was nothing else. It was just a rockslide.”
Daughter of Man
The moment they arrived back at the palace, Adana told a couple more lies to get the stableboy out of trouble, and then disappeared into her chambers, complaining of a nonexistent headache. When it came to selling her story, it helped that her mouth kept twisting into a grimace. But that wasn’t because her head hurt. She just didn’t like being around Prince Fahlan. He seemed to feel personally responsible for having lost track of her, as if their relationship were more than that of host and guest. As if he had any claim to her.
The moment the court physician had been sent away after making some useless comments on the dangers of rockslides, Adana peered into the corridor and, seeing it empty, hurried to the library as quickly as her bruised knee would allow. It was mostly empty. For such a spacious and well-stocked repository, it appeared to be mostly ornamental—all marble and sand- scorched limestone, colored deep red like the desert. At least, in all the times
Adana had been there, she had only ever seen a few sleepy old men copying tomes at a desk in front.
Adana happily ignored these few other readers as she traversed the seemingly endless shelves with the competence of an avid reader. It took less then ten minutes to find the mythology section. She began pulling books and scrolls off the stacks at random, flipping to indexes only to realize that she had no idea what to call the beast she’d just confronted on the mountain. She could remember what it looked like, though.
Paws. Mane. Tail. Spikes. But none of those descriptions could at all do justice to the sheer size of the thing. Adana shuddered, nearly dropping her book. She couldn’t remember ever having felt so outmatched.
And yet, it had not hurt her. It had allowed her to escape. Which was more than she could say about the Havelans.
Shaking her head, Adana returned to her search. It was two hours later, curled up between two shelves, that she found it: the first illustration that bore any resemblance to what the creature she’d seen. The legend recounted beneath it was not that of On Iflehan, however, but that of an ancient mountain in a land that had, according to the author, sunk into the sea many years before.
Beneath the illustration, in almost unreadable script, she read, “Valwer.” Recalling its intelligent, golden-yellow eyes, Adana wondered if it had ever seen a human before or, if it had, how long it had gone since seeing a human.
Something in those eyes . . . Adana had been taught she was a descendent, like most Altians, of a magical race from the north. She could sense when something around her didn’t obey the natural laws. And that thing, the Valwer, most certainly did not. Leaning against the shelves, spine to spine with endless rows of books, Adana felt a grim certainty that all the world’s knowledge could not save her from a marriage to Fahlan. But the Valwer could.
Adana started at the voice and dropped the book. “My apologies, Prince Fahlan,” she said, scrambling to her feet. The prince bent down to retrieve the book, keeping the page open to where she’d been reading. Adana squirmed as he examined the illustration, his eyebrows climbing higher on his face with each second. When he finally handed it back to her, he said, “Reading myths is generally a safer pastime than exploring them firsthand.”
“I apologize for any inconvenience I may have caused this morning.” “You keep eccentric hours, Princess Adanaya.”
“Well, it can feel restless. Being in here all day.”
“You must be very restless, to seek rockslides for respite.”
She shoved her hands into her pockets. “I’m sorry about the horse.”
“Don’t be,” he said, with the indifference only a born-and-bred prince can truly manage when talking of a prize horse. “Ferali returned an hour ago.”
“Oh.” Adana was grateful she wasn’t responsible for the loss of the most valuable mount in the realm, but couldn’t bring herself to feel too happy. The unflinching nature of Prince Fahlan’s gaze prevented that response entirely.
“Let’s stop playing games with each other,” he said, his habitual charm gone in an instant. “We’re to be wed. Your father wants you out of his kingdom so that your younger sister and her new husband, the Duke of Something-or- Other can ascend the throne, which I assume you know.”
“Yes,” Adana said, wishing his summary of her family’s politics were even a tiny bit less true.
If he saw she was becoming emotional, he ignored it. “You dislike the idea of our marriage, but I do not know why. I am not, I believe, too monstrous a prospect as a husband. I am rich. I am powerful. I have even been described as handsome. And I would not abuse you unduly, though I’m self-aware enough to know that understanding women is not my best skill.”
“Well,” Adana said, floundering a little at the brazenness of such a self- portrait. “It’s not that any of those attributes disqualifies you, but you’re just not the type of person I would have chosen for myself. To marry, I mean.”
“You dislike rich and powerful men?” he asked, his impatience verging on incredulity.
“No, not at all. I just . . . I wouldn’t be happy here. With you.”
“Well, why not? I mean, you’re not my ideal marital partner either,” he said. “I never go for redheads, and I like women that look me in the eyes when I’m talking to them. Not the timid kind, and certainly not the kind who go up to cursed mountains at the break of dawn, making the servants talk and my mother worry. But it would be an advantageous match, and we wouldn’t have to spend too much time together.”
Adana read something in the prince’s expression that justified her still- forming suspicion. He doesn’t want to marry me either, she thought. He’s just angry I’m the one avoiding him and not the other way around.
“Answer me,” he said, in a tone definitely not suited to a library. “Why won’t you marry me?”
She should have walked away. She should have feigned wedding jitters, low self-esteem. (“Oh, Prince Fahlan. I’m simply not worthy of your hand.”) She could have even forced a few tears and been sent away to her chamber for her troubles. But what came out was as far from any proper response as she could think of.
“Because you don’t like me, and I don’t think you ever will,” she said. “You don’t understand me, but you’re so self-absorbed, you won’t take the time to learn any of my habits or dislikes or interests. Because if I marry you, everyone will always tell me how lucky I am and how good you are to put up with me, and I’ll be back where I started. Princess Adana, the most unwanted person at Court.” She saw her father’s face as he told her she would be going on an extended stay to Havelan. There had been no hint of regret or sadness at her parting, merely relief, as if she were a distempered sow finally fat enough to kill. This memory made her angry, not at her father, but at herself, for allowing herself to be treated like an animal. A few months ago, she’d swallowed it. But now, she was either too irritable or too old or perhaps just too tired to pretend any longer. “Well I’m sorry if I’m being difficult for not conforming to your plans, but I’m not going to settle for a life of mediocrity and cold shoulders. And if I have to climb a thousand cursed mountains to get away, then I will.” Adana finished this speech, arms folded, trying to render herself impregnable.
The prince cleared his throat, shifted awkwardly, and finally said, “And this mountain factors into your plans to avoid matrimony how, exactly?”
“That rockslide wasn’t a rockslide. There’s a creature up there. I saw it myself. A Valwer, according to that book. I think it has magic. It’s hard to explain, but I can feel it. I think if anything or anyone can get me out of this life, then it can.”
“And I assume you will stop at nothing to get to said creature so he or she can perform the necessary magic to end the curse. The curse being me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have put it exactly like that, but yes. Basically,” she said.
His expression was unreadable. For an alarming moment, he fingered the hilt of his blade, and Adana wondered if she should be running in the opposite direction. But at last he said, “Well, we finally understand each other. You don’t want to marry me. I don’t want to marry you. But we are still expected to be a happy husband and wife in the near future. The answer to this dilemma is to go to the lair of the beast you claim you saw and which you say has magic that can potentially free us from societal demands. I would protest, but I have no better plan, and I happen to be a skilled swordsman. Given the circumstances, I feel I should accompany you to the creature’s den.”
“Pardon?” Adana asked.
“I know I told you never to return to the mountain, but now I feel you should. To ease your mind and prevent you from making messes in libraries, if nothing else.”
Adana glanced around her feet at the piles of books she’d left in the wake of her researching. “Well, the librarians need something to do. They’d be bored stiff if they didn’t have to clean up after snot-nosed Altians.”
“Spoken like a true aristocrat,” he said. “Shall we go, then?” “Lead the way.”
The return trip to the forbidding mountain was much slower than her morning jaunt. The prince insisted on her riding behind him, and when she protested that they’d move faster on separate mounts, he said, “I told them we’re going on a picnic. It was the only way I could get out of the council.”
“Well, can’t we be going to a picnic on separate horses?”
“No. The servants will wonder.”
“Do you want to get to the mountain before lunchtime or not?” She conceded.
But with her hands around his waist, and her nose pressed into the leather of his tunic, she couldn’t quite maintain such an intense dislike of marrying him. From a distance, she could categorize him and think of the impossibility of their ever being happy together. But the back of his neck looked just like the back of any other man’s neck, and he smelled as sweaty as most.
They dismounted at the base of the mount to spare his horse and walked up, a sense of foreboding growing with each step. When they reached the mouth of the cave where they’d encountered each other mere hours before, he drew his sword and mouthed, “What now?”
Adana wasn’t sure what to do exactly, but then she remembered those eyes, as piercing as they were intelligent. Rising from the crouch she’d assumed behind a grayish rock, Adana said, loudly and clearly, “We need to speak with the Valwer.”
For three seconds, there was no response. And then with a rushing sound, followed by the heavy tread of something unimaginably large approaching, a voice answered, “I am here.”
From the depths of the lair emerged the red-maned, massive-pawed beast Adana remembered. This second time, she could wonder at the magnificence of its golden-brown fur, and the size of its limbs. This time she could sympathize with the prince’s wondering murmur.
The Valwer stood, the vastness of its wings blocking the sun. It was with difficulty Adana managed to raise her head and meet its stare. At last, it said, “I know your desire, young one. And I can grant it. For a price.”