Valeria still felt exhausted when one of the attendants Dariad had assigned her gently shook her awake.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, your majesty,” the young daoine said. “Ignifer has woken up and is asking for you. His majesty says that she’s distraught.”
“Hmm?” Valeria blinked the sleep from her eyes. “Yes, she would be. Give me a few minutes to get ready. Wait in the main room.”
“Of course, your majesty.”
Valeria went to the wash stand and splashed her face, then looked down at her clothes. She’d been so tired she’d collapsed on the bed without removing them, and now they were not only grubby and a little tattered but also sleep rumpled. She hadn’t brought anything with her since she hadnâ€™t expected to be away long enough to need them. Then again Dariad knew that, so… She opened the doors on one of the wardrobes and sighed in relief as she saw various gowns hanging there. She pulled one down that looked like it wouldn’t need help to put on and quickly changed into it before heading into the main room.
“Okay, I’m ready. Take me to her.”
“Yes, your majesty.” The daoine boy bowed.
“What’s your name?” Valeria asked as he led her through the corridors. “I’m afraid I was too exhausted to take it in when you introduced yourself earlier.
“Aldried, your majesty,” he replied.
“Oh! You’re Ema’s younger brother! I remember her mentioning you when I met her. How interesting. Is Ema here?”
“No.” he looked down. “My sister left the city several months ago. She said there was something she needed to do and we’ve barely heard from her since. I know she spoke with King Dariad at length before she left, but whatever she said he’s been keeping it to himself. Though he has mentioned that the Core stopped her telling him something.”
“Yes,” Valeria said. “It stopped Alban telling me some things as well. I don’t like this…”
“You aren’t the only one, Val,” Dariad said as Aldried led her into the chambers where he and Ignifer were waiting. “The Core shouldn’t be keeping secrets from us. We need to talk to Karen when she wakes up.”
“I know,” she agreed and turned her attention to Ignifer, who was sitting on a chair. She was surrounded by several braziers but was still shivering violently and was weeping quietly into her hands. Valeria walked up to her and put her arms around the nymph. Ignifer clung to her and wept for several minutes. Her skin was no longer icy, but it was still only lukewarm rather than hot. “Ssh, you’re alright, Ignifer. You’re going to be okay.”
“I failed you, my queen. He took Salia! I’m so sorry!”
“Hush, it’s not your fault, Ignifer. Once he caught you, there would’ve been nothing you could do. Nothing at all.” Valeria stroked the nymph’s hair. “You need to tell me exactly what happened.”
“I… When we realised that he was going to catch up to us, the thunderbird who was carrying us swooped down into the valley where you found me and let me and Salia off.” Ignifer swallowed noticibly. “I never even caught her name and now she’s dead.” Her shoulders shook as she wept into her hands again. “We made a run for it while she tried to slow him down.”
“She flew into his path and kept on doing it when he tried to go around her. She couldn’t fight him but she could put herself in his path continuously. I’ve never run so fast but I kept slipping on the ice. If I could have just made it to the caves she told me about I could have blocked the entrance but he got bored and grabbed her and…” She shuddered violently. “Her blood was everywhere!”
“I saw,” Valeria said quietly. “So then he came after you and Salia?”
“He said that if I gave him Salia he’d let me live. I think I tried to kick him. Which he thought was funny and then I ran. I ran like you wouldn’t believe. He just waited until I slipped again and then took Salia and…”
“Ate you,” Valeria said softly.
Ignifer shuddered again and nodded. “He obviously enjoyed it as well. He… ugh… he played with me to make me even more terrified. Heâ€™d let me almost escape and then drag me back. I thought he was distracted with me so I shrieked at Salia to run, I think she did because he dropped me and went after her. I was too tired by then to run myself or to see what happened, but I know he caught her, because I heard her sobbing nearby. He laughed at me, told me I was a useless guardian and then it went black. I didn’t expect to wake up.” She looked at Valeria with tear filled eyes. “Why did I wake up?”
“The flame warrior tranfused some of her energy into you,” Valeria replied.
“I see,” Ignifer looked down. “I wish she hadn’t. I don’t deserve to be alive.”
“Of course you do,” Valeria told her sharply. “This wasn’t your fault. This was never your fault! You did everything you could.”
“I should have been able to do more!”
“How?” She asked but Ignifer just shook her head and began weeping again. Valeria was at a loss, so she just held the nymph until her sobs subsided. “Okay, did you see which way he flew off with her?
â€œEast, towards red territory.”
“Thank you,â€ Valeria said. â€œYou’re a good person, Ignifer. I hope you feel better soon. Get some rest.” She slipped out of the room with Dariad. “That isn’t just natural trauma is it?”
“No,” he agreed. “The healer I’ve assigned her says that when the dragon told her she was useless he implanted the thought in her head as well. Told her to ‘die miserable for defying him’.”
“Heâ€™s going to dig out the suggestion and look for any other traps he might have left. I don’t think there will be any though. He clearly intended her to die on the mountainside.”
â€œBut we need to be sure.â€ She nodded. â€œIs Karen awake yet?â€
â€œNot yet, but soon I think. Lydia is still conked out as well. Letâ€™s get you something to eat while youâ€™re waiting.â€
â€œIâ€™d appreciate it, and I should send an imp to Lorelei as well. Tell her Iâ€™ll be gone a while.â€