â€œBut what if they get there first?â€ The Rider was staring off into the distance as he picked at his food.
â€œThen they get it first,â€ Ebona said. â€œItâ€™s not a disaster. You can take it later if necessary.â€
â€œIf no one else takes it first.â€ He sounded bitter. â€œDonâ€™t they know theyâ€™re being used?â€
â€œIâ€™m sure they do, but they donâ€™t know by whom,â€ Ebona said, â€œI remember someone else who was pretty naive about that a few months ago. Two someones, actually.â€
â€œDonâ€™t remind me.â€ He gave a cynical smile. â€œHeâ€™ll pay for it soon enough.â€
â€œWhoâ€™s going to pay for what?â€ Mela asked.
The Rider favoured her with a thoughtful look. Mela flinched.
â€œSorry, Iâ€™m poking my nose where it doesnâ€™t belong, master.â€
â€œDonâ€™t call me that!â€ he said irritably. â€œI donâ€™t own you, and this is your world last I checked. You have a right to be interested in what Iâ€™m doing. Especially given the position youâ€™re in.â€ But from his tone, she knew he wasnâ€™t going to answer her.
â€œYou should tell her,â€ Ebona said. â€œWhat she doesnâ€™t know could hurt her.â€
â€œYes, it could,â€ he said. â€œBut knowing could be worse. He doesnâ€™t know about her yet. Telling her might alert him and you know where that would end.â€ He knelt down by the waterside. â€œIâ€™m sorry, I canâ€™t tell you yet. I will once Iâ€™ve tipped my hand. For now itâ€™s safer if you donâ€™t know.â€ He tilted his head at her. â€œI canâ€™t really ask you to trust me. God knows Iâ€™ve given you no reason. So youâ€™ll just have to put up with it. Have you had enough to eat yet?â€
â€œIâ€¦â€ She decided not to press the issue and answered his question instead. â€œIâ€™ve had plentyâ€¦ but I think Ebona wants another. And would you like me to catch some for later? I know a few tricks to keep them fresh.â€
â€œSo thatâ€™s why merfolk are the worldâ€™s premier fishmongers.â€ He laughed warmly. â€œAnd thatâ€™s a very good idea.â€
Mela caught a couple more trout for Ebona. Then she grabbed some of a special weed merfolk use to keep fish fresh during migrations and wrapped a few more in it. She swam to the shore, reformed her legs, and hauled her catch onto the bank after her.
The Rider laid his hand against her forehead again. â€œAh, good, your feverâ€™s gone down.â€ He took the blanket heâ€™d wrapped her in earlier and soaked it in the lake, then fetched another blanket and did the same with it. He wrapped her in the sodden blankets. â€œHopefully those will stop you dehydrating so quickly, but when you start feeling ill again, tell me.â€
â€œBetter than master, I guess.â€ He lifted her back up on to Ebonaâ€™s back. As he climbed up behind her, she pulled the soaking blankets around her and wondered again why he was being so kind. She pulled out the pendant and asked it once again to find the Ice Heart Bracelet. It wavered in the air for a moment as if it was trying to point in two directions at once. Mela scowled at it and concentrated harder. After a moment, it swung towards the northwest and stayed there.
â€œWhat happened?â€ the Rider asked.
â€œIâ€™m not sure.â€ She frowned at the pendant and pointed to the north. â€œSomething in that direction was confusing it.â€
â€œAre you sure itâ€™s right now?â€ he said.
She nodded. â€œYes. This is where it was pointing before.â€
â€œOkay.â€ They set off in that direction again. â€œYou should try to sleep. Weâ€™ve got a long ride ahead of us.â€
â€œAnd when are you going to sleep?â€ Ebona asked.
â€œWhen youâ€™re too tired to go on, and we have to stop,â€ he replied.
â€œDonâ€™t be facetious. You know unicorns are tireless, and I know humans arenâ€™t. If you doze off on my back, youâ€™ll fall off.â€
â€œYou arenâ€™t my mother, Eb,â€ he said blandly.
She gave a whinnying little chuckle. â€œI know Iâ€™m not. Any foal of mine would have more sense. And they wouldnâ€™t need to sleep.â€
â€œThen stop treating me like a child.â€
â€œWhen you stop acting like one. Promise youâ€™ll nap when we next stop. You know I wonâ€™t let you sleep too long.â€
â€œButâ€¦â€ he said.
â€œPromise. Youâ€™ll be good for nothing if you donâ€™t sleep.â€
He muttered something about her behaving like a mother hen. â€œIf you insist, Iâ€™ll take a nap in a couple of hours. Itâ€™ll have to be in the afternoon, though. I canâ€™t sleep at night here.â€
â€œOf course not. Iâ€™m surprised you can on Gaia,â€ Ebona replied.
Valeria walked across the courtyard of her palace towards the old oak tree. It was the home of the dryads, who acted as her kingdomâ€™s chief healers. Rai was perched among the branches, still in his resting form, and a young beech dryad was sitting next to him stroking his feathers. Valeria held out her hand and he flew down to her.
â€œYour Majesty.â€ He dipped in a bird bow. â€œHow may I serve you?â€
â€œThat all depends. Are you well?â€ she replied.
â€œIâ€™ve recovered my strength, Your Majesty,â€ he said a little too quickly.
â€œSo eager.â€ Valeria smiled at him before turning her attention to the dryad who had jumped down behind him. â€œHas he?â€
The young dryad ducked her head and blushed, her cheeks losing their grey tint and becoming as dark green as her hair, at being addressed directly by her queen. It was a few moments before she replied, but when she did, she had recovered her professionalism.
â€œNot completely, my Queen, but almost. His wounds have healed and his gem is whole again, but thereâ€™s still a slight flaw in it which could render it vulnerable to cracking again if he uses his power.â€
â€œI see. When do you think he will be well enough to go on a mission for me?â€
â€œHmmâ€¦â€ The dryad cocked her head as she considered the question. â€œOne more night in resting form, I think. Possibly two just to be sure.â€
â€œTwo it is.â€ Valeria scowled at Rai as he opened his beak to protest he was fine. â€œTwo is fine, Rai. It means I canâ€™t send you with Maran and Lextra to intercept the Dark Rider, but thatâ€™s okay. I was considering another task for you anyway. Itâ€™s something I wouldnâ€™t trust to anyone else, and it can wait a day or soâ€¦ I hope.â€ Worry made sparks of lightning briefly crackle through her hair.
â€œYour Majesty?â€ he asked.
Valeria turned to the dryad. â€œWhatâ€™s your name, child?â€
â€œSylva, your Majesty.â€
â€œThank you for your service, Sylva. Please leave us for a moment. I need to talk to Rai privately.â€
â€œYour Majesty.â€ Sylva bowed and withdrew back to the tree.
â€œWhatâ€™s wrong, Val?â€ Rai asked once they were alone. â€œI havenâ€™t seen you this stressed since that mess two years ago.â€
â€œI called Huldre down from the mountains. Heâ€™s put some sort of plan in motion to get rid of the humans, but he said something which worries me. I need to you to intercept them before his plan comes to fruition, or at least before theyâ€™re dead andâ€¦â€ She paused and swallowed. â€œI need you to capture the brown haired girl â€“ alive.â€
â€œAliâ€“â€ Rai began and then turned to stare up at the tallest tower, the one which housed the royal apartments, with a startled caw. â€œYou mean you thinkâ€¦â€
â€œItâ€™s possible,â€ he conceded. â€œIt never occurred to me to get a good look at her. What did Huldre say?â€
â€œThat theyâ€™d be coming for Alban and I should use him as bait.â€ She looked down. â€œAnd he has been behaving oddly. I was trying to ignore it, I think.â€
â€œThatâ€™s not good.â€ Raiâ€™s feathers puffed out in agitation and he flapped his wings slightly. â€œBut what are you thinking?â€
â€œThe humans have a saying, Rai: What goes around, comes around. If they are so determined to enslave us, perhaps we should return the favour.â€
â€œValeria!â€ He sounded shocked.
â€œThe dragons are coming again, Rai. I can feel them now.â€ She shuddered. â€œAnd we canâ€™t fight them.â€
â€œIâ€¦ thatâ€™s true, but itâ€™sâ€¦â€
â€œI know. I do know. But I donâ€™t know what else to do. Two years ago I trusted the Warriors, and look what happened.â€ She bent her head to try and hide her tears. â€œWe canâ€™t trust them, but someone has to fight the dragons and those knights of theirs.â€
â€œPerhaps it was a fluke,â€ Rai said. â€œHe was only one and it had never happened before.â€
Valeria gave a bitter laugh. â€œYou donâ€™ t believe that anymore than I do, Rai. Not since the Dark Rider appeared. The Warriors are just like the rest of their kind. Besides, I have Salia to consider.â€