Amaris slept. Three nights consistently she rested, and her thoughts remained clear during the day. She began resembling her sane self again. She had so much sleep that she woke before the others. In the still morning, misty and gray shielded from sunlight, she sat and listened. Quiet.
“I am glad to see you rested.”
“I apologize,” Waylen whispered. A shimmer came from Waylen’s hand amid the dim light of morning rising from dawn. Amaris scrunched her eyes. Waylen uncurled her fingers, and Amaris’s stone lay in her palm. Unclothed from the silver-metal encasement in which Amaris kept the heirloom, Waylen held the stone naked in her hand. Amaris had not laid eyes on the gem without the metalwork for months . . . no years. She held out her hand to Waylen who let the stone slip off her palm and onto Amaris’s. She closed her eyes and inhaled the crisp air before watching the light show between her fingers. Blue and red danced around purple with shoots of maize. It romanced her, flooding her heart that had been stripped clean for three days, filling her now with energy.
“I never understand this thing.” Amaris said to herself.
“Nor I,” Waylen waited for Amaris’s attention and then tossed her the silver encasement. “Have it back.”
Amaris narrowed her gaze on Waylen crossed her arms and walked away. Amaris huffed. How could the stone frustrate her friend? She fingered the smoothness of the stone until the twins began rousing, at which point she secured the stone in its case and clipped it to the inside of her bodice.
That day they exited Waylen’s hunting ground, leaving the overgrowth behind, and headed through thinner forest toward the main, well-traveled road. Amaris expected to see the pounded down earth, dirt covered path soon, but it was almost night when Waylen called a halt.
“I guide you only this far.” Waylen said. “Tomorrow morning we will be on the road, and more than a few of you, I hope, know where it leads.”
“Then you are leaving?” Sion asked, his voice rising in expectation. Amaris’s heart leapt to her throat.
“Try not to flatter yourself, Sion,” Waylen answered. “I told Amaris I would go with her. Do you think I meant to abandon her as soon as the woods thinned?” Waylen smiled with satisfaction. “What good would that achieve?”
The following day proved long and boring. Dirt and dust made its unwelcome entrance as the company made their way onto the road. Thinner forest, brighter sunlight, and lighter colors did not bless Amaris as she had hoped. She felt hot, weary, and through with horseback riding. Sion appeared groggy, the twins hardly spoke to each other, and Illuma seemed removed. Waylen had long since quited the party to scout ahead. Amaris patted Fleecel and urged her to keep moving, when Waylen’s black feline form rushed toward the quiet procession. Fleecel snorted and back stepped. Amaris tried to quiet her horse and looked at Waylen, ready to hush her before the white horse dumped Amaris, but she did not speak. Waylen stood in her right form, panting and trying to slip words through her breathless state.
“Amaris,” she had to take three deep breaths before continuing, “there is a unit ahead of us.”
Amaris gripped Fleecel’s main and peered above the other riders, but she saw only the empty road. “Where?” She whispered.
Waylen put her hand up and cocked her head. Sion started protesting, but Waylen shushed him, and Sion’s jaw dropped. Waylen glared at Amaris . . . no, to something behind her. Amaris turned in her seat, but the road was quiet. It had been quiet all day. “You are all deaf,” Waylen spat out. “Listen,” she paused, and everyone grew quiet, and Fleecel’s counting grew louder. “I hear them behind us.”
Amaris shook her head, “then get us out of here. Where are they not?’
“South. Off the road, all of you.”
Horse hooves scratched the ground and dirt kicked up a small cloud as the horses turned abreast into the forest. Waylen cursed under her breath, telling them to keep quiet. A whizzing noise caught Amaris’s attention, and she looked back, catching the end of Waylen’s shift as she jumped aside. She still did not see any reason to flee, but the sound unnerved her. “Come on Waylen, with us.” Amaris halted Fleecel. Then the sound came again, and an arrow stuck in the ground near Waylen. Waylen rushed Amaris and smacked Fleecel. The horse jerked into a run, and Amaris gripped the main. The other horses flew alongside her. She hoped Waylen was dodging hooves well. After several minutes of flight, Amaris started looking for Waylen; she owed the woman more than thanks this time. When she couldn’t locate the black cat, she pulled Fleecel’s main several times until the mare stopped. Amaris panted while the others shouted at her, yanking their horses to a halt. Fleecel turned herself in circles as Sion’t horse, and then that of the twins stopped, Adreaga just avoiding a collision with Briair. Amaris panicked, and then black fur raced into view. She exhaled as Waylen materialized from the panther form. She braced her hands on her knees.
“Are you alright?” Sion asked, starting to dismount.
“Stay on your horse!” Waylen took a deep breath, “and keep moving.”
Amaris nodded, and looked at the others for a moment before continuing, but stopped herself. “Illuma,” her heart beat fast and she looked back through the woods.
“I am sorry.” Waylen panted. “I am so sorry.” No one spoke, until Waylen talked again. “They have her now.”
“Wait,is she alive?”
“When I left . . . but her position was already beyond me.”
Amaris nodded, considering how protective her remaining companions were of her survival. She locked eyes with Waylen. “We have to go,” Waylen pleaded.
“I know.” Amaris nodded again, this time with more vigor. She leaned closer to Fleecel, and asked the creature to stop, and then apologized quietly. She stroked the mare’s neck. Then looked at Waylen, and then Sion. “Forgive me.” She ignored his confusion, and kicked her heels into Fleecel’s sides, toward the road from which they had fled.
Amaris closed her eyes, and then forced them open to face whatever force she headed to attack, with one unicorn horn and a sword. The distance seemed twice the space to cover in returning than in escape. A clamor rose before her, and the sound of hooves behind her. Then she saw the road, and rushed onto the black and brown muddle of swords and knives. At least thirty, and somewhere inside this crowd Illuma struggled to survive. Fleecel gored a man and tossed him aside, and Amaris cut down another. A loud feline scowl startled Amaris, until she saw Waylen diving in amongst the enemy. Amaris ached to see the collision of her friends and enemies, but searched the crowd for Illuma. Like a slow disease, people fell, but she could not see Illuma inside the vast mass of bodies and blades, nor could she remove her eyes long enough from the mayhem to search her out. Amaris’s arm grew weary, and her sword heavy with blood. She recognized Sion well enough on foot for her to ward off any blows near him, but took his being unseated as a warning.
Waylen had been engulfed in the mass, and Adreaga and Briair . . . perhaps they had not followed. Amaris and Sion no longer fought on the outskirts of the group, men and women slashed at them from all sides. Occasional taunts caught Amaris’s attention, offers for life in exchange for surrender. Promises of protection, as they jabbed at her horse. Amaris became more confused as those she killed dangled a dark partnership in front of her. Meanwhile, soldiers had separated her from Sion. She tried to fight through to him, lest he fall as Amaris felt sure Illuma had already done. The distance grew instead of shrank. Amaris realized her only chance for survival, escape of any kind, was closing fast. Fleecel would not be able to direct herself through the mess to open ground; if the mare lasted long enough to do such. Amaris, and the broach she wore inside her bodice, should not have been subjected to the foolish risk.
She pushed in, rather than out, of the battle. She tried nearing Sion, but still failed. Then a hiss screeched over the battle, too loud for an arrow, then a deep throated groan shook Amaris’s insides. Flames licked across the population of soldiers, chasing them like a serpent. They dove and scurried, but the fiery assault followed again, and then a third time. Amaris started searching the sky for a dragon, but it revealed itself in moments, surveying the charred bodies screaming in flight. It picked them off, first destroying those who fled. The foul thing swooped low, and came near scraping it’s weathered yellow belly on Fleecel’s horn. Amaris leaned close to the horse, but as soon as the dragon lifted away from her, the mare reared. Amaris tried to grip Fleecel’s main, and tightened the the hold her legs had, but she slid backward from her mount. Amaris gasped as the air went out of her, while Fleecel galloped from the scene. An unfortunate man stripped over Amaris and received a knife in the back. When Amaris stood, she realized not everyone had run.
A fresh opponent followed every small victory, it was like fighting against a brick wall. Without Fleecel, Amaris struggled. She forced her way through small gaps and used kicks as much as her blade. She turned and smashed her sword into another, and froze. Sion. They turned backs against each other, and Amaris learned fast that Sion had a good fight. The sensational screams preceding death or following injury deafened her senses, though, and she her hearing started numbing, more each time the dragon passed. The assailants disappeared, and Amaris’s sword tip drooped from exhaustion. How had she escaped? And she could still feel Sion behind her, and glanced to confirm. He stared back at her.
Amaris saw a red flicker in Sion’s eyes, and a hot blast, warm enough to feel through her own sweat, staggered Amaris from behind. She turned and saw flames pouring through the corpses, and froze. She gripped her sword tighter as a few soldiers ran past instead of at her. Her eyes widened. The screams grew louder, and Amaris thought she heard her name, but it blurred. Someone thrust into her from behind, and knocked her blade. The person smashed her into the ground after she had fallen, covering her entire body.
“Stay down!” Sion screamed into her ear.
Amaris pulled her arms over her head and pressed her face into the ground. Sion pressed harder on top of Amaris. Then she heard him stifle cries of pain and imagined his body in flames on top of hers. No! Amaris could not manage the thought or responsibility for Sion’s charred body. She pushed up against the ground, but Sion thrust her down again. “Sion, you’ll die!” She screeched. He had to listen. She could help if he would get off her back.
Amaris felt a weight fall on her shoulder, she thought it was Sion’s head. She threw him off her back, and saw the flames, as tall as standing men surrounded her. She screamed, but in anger, as if by her shrill cries the fire would recede. Then Amaris saw the orange-red blaze peeling bits of black clothing from Sion, and the hood he had managed to pull over his head. She slapped hard at the small blaze on his back, and then pulled the coat off him, rolling him over and stamping out cinders. He had burns, but he would live. She ducked as the black shadow flickered over head, then again, and again. When the beast landed, Amaris laid over Sion, protecting her unconscious friend, probably all she had left of the company from that morning.
The dragon looked straight at her, and Amaris shouted at it. She stood and cursed the wicked thing, threatening empty words against the giant demon. With eyes unmoving from Amaris, his prey, the dragon swooped its tail above it’s head and slammed it into the flames. He did this repeatedly until Amaris only screamed in return. She burried her face into Sion’s back as the ground shook and her body trembled. Stomping, pounding, and slamming continued for minutes until the throbbing inside Amaris thrummed so hard she did not notice when the thrashing of the ground had finished. Then, when her body stopped shaking, she noticed silence.
Amaris lifted her head. The dragon stared. Why had it not blasted her? Dragons needed to eat, and Amaris was game, fair or not. It watched the two weak beings lying helpless on the ground; all other soldiers had gone, and the flames around Amaris had burned out, but the ground under them still had grass to be eaten up. Why had the fire stopped? The dragon’s tail. His infernal thumping and swatting must have extinguished the blaze. Amaris focused on the giant creature. Dark maroon scales shielded the muscled form towering above her. Amaris saw burned bodies littering the ground and wondered how many of her company were among them, or if they had managed to flee. She could not move to search them out, the smoke suffocated her, and she stayed slumped over Sion, still looking at the dragon. Large eyes, dark like water at night, but with a glint of light reflecting from inside. They were green. Amaris lost sight and her head fell.
A moment later, a rough, bark-like force pried her from Sion. She grabbed it, slitting her eyes enough to make out the dragon’s nostrils as they rolled her from Sion. Amaris clawed the ground, trying to move back to her companion. The dragon leaned over Amaris. She did not move. She had no defense against his force. She pried the broach from beneath her bodice and threw it aside. Now it could have her. The beast kept its mouth closed, though. “Do what you will, but stop playing with me,” Amaris said between her teeth. The dragon yanked its head back and jerked it to the side before leaning over Amaris again. It just stared at her. Why her, because she yelled at it? If it cared, it should eat her, not watch her possibly regain strength amid the diminishing smoke. There was no reason this thing did not — “Emirrol?” The dragon’s reaction to Amaris’s strange remark shocked her. His head jerked up and then lowered toward Amaris. “No, I do not believe this is you.” The large green eyes seemed unfamiliar. Amaris broke into a coughing fit, and wheezed herself to sleep.