Chapter 8




he corridors were fairly empty as Blaze strode through, wearing his usual scowl. The few servants bowed with wide eyes, noting that The King was not in a good mood so they could warn their friends. He was almost always in a bad mood these days.

            Blaze tried not to be too bothered by the peasants. He didn't have the time to explode on them; he had an appointment to attend. Focusing on the tapestries depicting famous battles and historic moments in time and such, he tried to defuse himself before he got to the throne room. Those mercenaries had left him fuming, always begging for more money. You gave them the agreed amount, and then they found all the loopholes, did a shabby job, and demanded more money. Then after those idiots came the peasants with their complaints. We need more this! We need more that! What they really needed was a muzzle to keep their mouth shut! He had enough on his plate already, what with all the plots and schemes. Not to mention trying to run a country. Can't the people take care of themselves and let him rule in peace for one measly minute? Obviously not.

            Abandoning the tapestry attempt when he accidentally set one afire, he extinguished it and fixed his eyes straight ahead. He didn't know what he had thought being a King would be like, but he hadn't imagined it to be this boring. It was all conferences, politics, and numbers. His scowl deepened at the thought of those three inconveniences.

            Conferences were probably the most uninteresting things this earth had had the audacity to cough up into existence. You sat there and talked, and then the talking turned into arguing, and then the arguing into shouting. Shouting matches with The King usually didn't end well for the opponent. Needless to say, why even try if you know your superior could have you killed in several different ways; each more painful than the last?

            Politics were equally frustrating. Basically, their idea of a "discussion" was somewhat similar to a conference. Argue for your own benefit, scream hidden death threats at each other, draw weapons, and sit back down—seething—when somebody finally decides to intervene. Some nobles told him it wasn't legal to fill in for The King without his permission, but somebody has to rule when he decides to make a no-show. Besides, technically Stefan wasn't King quite yet. It's not like Blaze didn't have a right to the throne anyway.

            The rest were too scared of him to speak out.

            And then there were numbers; the one thing that he could not stand. The reports were full of them. That's why Winslow was in charge of those sorts of things.

            Diverting himself from that subject, he thought about the Princess. Lately he had found himself missing her company. His whole life he had regarded her as a nuisance—as Winslow would put it—and just another pawn in his plan. But now that he thought back on it, he had only disliked her because of that very reason. She had been the only one that could stand his presence without shaking with either fear or rage. She really wasn't all that bad. What else had he misjudged because of his plot? What else had Winslow led him to believe?

            Too bad they couldn't send out public search parties. Winslow didn't think the citizens would take the news of their beloved princess missing well.

            He stopped outside the giant double doors and exhaled. He could make it through this one. Hopefully Bernard brought good news. Swinging the doors open, he marched across the room and plopped down on the throne, steeling himself for another boring meeting. But first he had the report to take care of.

            Winslow stood there, reciting amounts and costs while Blaze tried his hardest to block it out. He had long since learned that he really didn't learn a thing during these endless speeches, so he let Winslow drag on until he thought he just might strangle all the drab out of his shriveled body, then told him to take care of it. This, of course, never took long.

            "Shut up, Winslow!" His thin white lips compressed as they always did when he cut him off, but Blaze was beyond caring. "Bring in Bernard."

            Bernard's greasy hair was even longer than the last time he'd seen him, his attire shabbier. He looked as nervous as ever, though. Tugging at his collar, he made a shaky bow and made an effort not to look into his eyes. More nervous than usual, it seemed.

            "You bring news of him?" Blaze prompted eager to get to the point. He had never liked beating around the bush.

            The thug didn't need to ask who he was. "Yes, Your Majesty. The news is not good, I fear," he said, wiping his sweaty hands on his shirt. Blaze could just imagine the grime that had smeared from his hands.


            Bernard gulped before continuing. "I sent men after him, I did. Ten good ones. But he beat them! I don't know how, but he must have. They never came back, and I haven't heard from them in a while. He must've had help or something, because I don't see how he could have bested ten good men. Though, I once knew a man that could take on fifteen men, but then he fell down a flight of stairs and died. At least, that's what his wife said. If you ask me she pushed him—"

            "Stop!" he ordered. The fool was rambling. He took on ten men and came out victorious, eh? Impressive. "This time send more. And don't use good men. Use excellent men." Bernard nodded enthusiastically. Anything to keep his skin intact. "Dismissed." He bowed again and hastily made his way toward the doors. "Oh, and Bernard?"

            He stopped. "Yes, Your Majesty?"

            "Don't come back until you have him, dead or alive."



 They stayed the night at the Cotridge's so Jeaine could pack. She didn't need much; a few dresses and some food. Her own horse was provided, a dark brown gelding named Cocoa, and her dog, Kodan, came along, too. Landon didn't object to the extra animal. For some reason, the wolf intrigued him. It did whatever Jeaine wanted it to, protected her, played with her, and yet it ignored everyone else. Everyone except him. He would glance at Kodan and find the wolf watching him intently, as if analyzing his every move. It kind of freaked him out.

            Breakfast was over and they were preparing to go. He almost didn't want to go. Staying at their house was almost like being at home. They were a perfectly normal family, and he was taking Jeaine away. It had crossed his mind several times that he was putting her in danger by inviting her to come. But at the same time, he thought of it as a favor. She obviously was eager to get out of the house and see the world. At least she'd had a choice.

            He spotted her rushing into her room and followed. "Jeaine?"

            She spun around, her dark curls flying. When she saw it was him she relaxed. Who had she been expecting? "Oh. Hello."

            "I just wanted to clear up a few things before we leave. This journey is going to be dangerous, you know. I want you to know what you're getting yourself into." He wouldn't tell her everything, but enough to let her know the dangers. "There are people after us for reasons I can't tell you. Perhaps I might later, but for now you're going to have to trust me when I say I'm not a bad person. Chelsea doesn't know either, so don't feel like you're being excluded. I know what you are, and don't worry, I'm not going to blab unless you want me to. I don't know about Chelsea, but we're going to the Palace of Songs. You're welcome to come, but don't say I didn't warn you that the journey will be dangerous." He stopped; half hoping she would decide not to go.

            She stared at him for a moment before saying, "Okay. If you think I'm going to back down you're wrong. I don't care if the entire Blackmask army is after us! I'm getting out of here." Her hands went to her hips stubbornly and he knew there was no dissuading her.

            "Good. Because they are." Her arms fell to her sides and she stood there, gaping at him. "Listen, we want to travel as fast as we can and I can't do that with an injured side. I need you to finish the job, if you would."

            Composing herself, she put her hands back on her hips. "It's going to hurt." Landon nodded. She shrugged. "All right then." She put her hands on his left side and closed her eyes. A strange kind of pain shot up through his side and he gasped from the suddenness of it. He felt squeamish by the time she was done, and then tired. Jeaine saw his unsteadiness. "It helps if you eat something afterward to regain some energy." He nodded and headed toward the kitchen, helping himself to a piece of bread. At least his wound was gone.

            Chelsea came in and they talked for a little bit about nothing in particular. It was so easy to talk to her. He had to watch himself to make sure he didn't accidentally let something slip.

            "I've been meaning to thank you. You nearly got yourself killed saving me," she said after a while.

            "Well, when you put it that way...."

            "Thank you." She kissed him on the cheek and was gone.

            When they were finally ready to go, he waited patiently as Jeaine said goodbye to her parents. "Be safe and don't do anything stupid," Mrs. Cotridge said, dabbing at her wet eyes. "Don't go into any taverns or anything." Chelsea gave them a reassuring smile and said, "Don't worry; none of us are going into any taverns, Mrs. Cotridge." Why did he get the feeling that she was talking more to him and Mark than Mrs. Cotridge? "Oh, thank you!" the aging woman bawled, pulling her into a crushing hug. "I know she'll be in safe hands." Then she gave each of them a hug. Mr. Cotridge contented himself with a handshake.

            "Thank you for everything," Landon said as they shook hands.

            Mr. Cotridge smiled. "No problem. Come by anytime." They left them soon after.

            The first day with Jeaine went fairly well. She didn't complain, nor was she a nuisance. Most of time she flirted with Mark or chatted with Chelsea. It seemed that she liked to talk, but that wasn't so bad. Overall she was a pleasant person.

            He just hoped she didn't end up hating him for letting her come. Or worse....


Chelsea couldn't help but like Jeaine. She was so bubbly and animated, who wouldn't? She sat in-between her and Mark, chatting enthusiastically. Behind her lay Kodan, silently chewing the bones of his kill. It was obvious Mark wasn't yet comfortable having a grown wolf behind him judging by the way he inched away every time Kodan snapped a bone in half. She didn't blame him.

            Chelsea was more focused on Landon's hand, which had found its way to hers. Landon, however, was entranced in watching Kodan eat. "Landon?" she whispered. He blinked and turned his attention to her.

            "Oh, sorry. It's just...." He trailed off. Jeaine finished for him. "He's an amazing creature, isn't he? Did you know that animals can sense powers in people?" Landon tensed beside her. "Just like the elves. They gave him to me when he was just a pup. Normally they don't come this far out, but sometimes they come to me for help." She cut off, looking sheepish. Why would the elves come to her for help? "Well, I guess I just blew it, didn't I? Then I might as well tell you Landon invited me to come because I'm a Healer." That would certainly explain Landon's miraculous recovery. She had to admit, she had been a little bitter about his invitation. When had she started feeling so protective of him?

            Mark took the news surprisingly well, openly expressing his excitement at the news. If that's what you call giving her a huge hug and exclaiming that she was his savior. Chelsea didn't know if he meant it or if he was in love. The latter was most probable.

            After the commotion was settled down, Jeaine pulled her aside. "I can't figure it out. Have you kissed him yet?"

            "What?" She had caught her completely by surprise.

            "I said: have you kissed him yet? I have to know. I don't mean to intrude on your privacy, but I can't help myself. Well, have you?" Her brown eyes were sparkling ecstatically.


            "What? How come? How long have you known him?" she cried, then glanced around and lowered her voice. "I know he likes you a lot." The way she said it made her feel foolish for not having kissed him already. There was no denying that she had fantasized it more than once. Jeaine seemed to sense this. "I've never kissed a man before, but it can't be that hard. Here, let me show you how." Chelsea was startled when she stood up, marched over to the unsuspecting Mark, plopped down on his lap, and kissed him. At first he was too stunned to react, but it didn't take long for him to shrug off the shock and kiss her back. This kiss put her relationship with Landon to shame, but she resisted the urge to do the same. After they were done, she whispered something in his ear that made him blush and then walked back over to her, ignoring Landon's snickering as Mark ran a hand through his ruffled hair. Jeaine was a bit dazed herself.

            "Wow. That was....bold," Chelsea remarked when she sat down next to her. She couldn't help but smile.

            Jeaine's wide grin was bigger than ever. "See? That wasn't so hard. In fact, that was wonderful! I could kiss him forever." Chelsea believed it.

            "I don't think Landon would take it as well. He's a little more....reserved.  I would probably freak him out," she pointed out. "Besides, I don't know if he likes me that much." Of course, he hadn't done anything to suggest he didn't like her that much, but for some reason she felt as though she needed to have an excuse.

            Jeaine was indignant at the implication. "How can you....Where did you....Of course he likes you! You two were definitely getting snuggly in my bed."

            "How did you know—?"

            "Never mind that. My point is: you can't keep holding hands forever. Kiss him! And tell me when you do, please."


That night she woke up to screaming. She jumped up, ready to fend off another attack, but instead found Jeaine trying to kill a snake that had found its way into her covers. The screaming continued until Mark sleepily cut it in half with his sword. Then she insisted on sleeping in a different spot. It turns out that "away from the snake" was code for "closer to Mark."

            The next morning wasn't much better. It became increasingly difficult to keep her skirt from snagging as they made their way deeper into the Elvin Forest. It wasn't so much a forest as a Jungle. The foliage was thicker, the trees swooping and mossy. According to Jeaine there was one more village before they made it to where the thick of the elves were. Chelsea had always wondered what the elves were like. Maybe if they were lucky they would see one.

            The trek was tedious, but the sights were amazing. She tried to make the best of it, even if her skirt did seem to attract tricky branches. Sometimes the branches were so thick they had to dismount and lead their horses. The girls were having such a hard time taking a step without tripping that the men resolved to pick them up and carry them, despite their protests. Not that she really minded Landon carrying her, it was just really embarrassing. What she would give for a pair of breeches and boots like the men!

            She was relieved when they finally reached the village. She had decided to make some changes on attire.

            "Jeaine and I need to make a trip to a Tailor," she announced when they had found and inn. "You two can come if you like, but if you stay here I expect that you won't get into any trouble like last time." Jeaine quirked an eyebrow as if to say, "I have to hear this."

            Mark shrugged. "Sounds boring. I don't know about Landon, but I'm going to visit the Blacksmith."

            "I guess I'll go with Mark," Landon said, and they split.

            The Tailor's shop was fancily decorated with ribbons and fabrics. Every shade of color was draped about, making the shop hard to miss. The owner was a pudgy woman with large amounts of rouge and a dress that was overly done. She was decked in all sorts of jewelry, making it hard to look straight at her without being blinded by the sun's reflection. "How may I help you this fine day?" she purred, rushing over to attend them.

            "Do you sell men's clothes?" Jeaine asked.

            They picked out some small breeches and some blouses and fitted them to be a little more feminine, but still hardy enough to endure. After they paid their bill, they stopped by the Shoemaker and purchased two pairs of black knee-high boots. With these on, they went back to the inn.  



Landon nearly had a heart attack walking into their room and seeing two men waiting there. It took him a moment to realize it was Jeaine and Chelsea dressed up in men's clothes.

            "What....?" Mark started, sheathing Susan after he made sure he wasn't seeing things.

            "We thought we might spare you the task of carrying us and get some proper traveling clothes," Jeaine explained, grinning at their bemused expressions.

            "Wow," was all Landon managed. Their outfits were tighter fitting than average, leaving hardly any leg to the imagination. Pulling his eyes away, he sat down on his bed and yanked off his boots. "So. How was your day? Better than ours, I hope. Mark got attacked by an old lady with a cane. Actually, when you put it that way, I think it was a pretty good day."

            "I swear she was trying to kill me! She thought I was harassing her grandson when I was showing him my sword and she crushed my toes with that stupid stick of hers!" he exclaimed, plopping down on the bed and rubbing his foot.

            "Well," Chelsea said. "Our day was granny free, if that's what you call a good day." They stayed up and talked and told stories until they were too tired to keep their eyes open. Then he went to bed,  thinking about that kiss he wanted so bad.



"This is so much better. Why don't all girls where this?" Jeaine said, exalting her new clothes as she rode through the undergrowth.

            "Because not all girls have that much sense in their heads," Mark provided. She harrumphed loudly. Chelsea suppressed a smile. They were such a cute couple. She wanted to have a relationship with like that, but she was afraid to make the next move. That wasn't the only reason, though. She felt like she didn't deserve him if she didn't tell him the truth. The funny thing was she trusted him with her life, but couldn't bring herself to tell him. There were so many ridiculous things she was worried about. What if he kissed her for all the wrong reasons if he knew? No, he was better than that. What if he was mad at her for not telling him? No, he would understand. After all, he didn't seem too eager to spill his secrets. He seemed to be in a hurry, too; she didn't want to bother him with her problems. No, he would be glad to help. She just couldn't find a plausible excuse.

            She reined Misty closer to Wildfire, ready to spill her guts, but was interrupted by an earsplitting roar. The horses reared, throwing her out of her saddle. She hit the ground hard, knocking all the air out of her lungs.

            "Chelsea!" Landon cried, jumping off his horse and crouching down next to her. "Are you okay?" She nodded—a little bit dazed—and let him help her up. A low, guttural growl seemed to float out of the trees. Landon drew his sword, searching for the source of the sound. A gust of wind blew through and his head snapped up, scanning the branches. "Mark...." Mark looked up and froze. Following their eyes, she saw what they were staring at. Sitting on a low hanging branch above them was a lime green dragon. 


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