When I woke, it was raining, and I was alone. For all the effort I’d made to get away from Kieran, I couldn’t help panicking when I woke, and he was gone. The rain was coming down in sheets, and I was momentarily confused as to why the fire was still going. I peeked out of the shelter and saw that Kieran’s cloak was stretched out between some branches and seemed to be doing an okay job of shielding the small fire from the downpour.
I shrank back into the shelter and hugged my knees to my chest, trying to control the urge to call out for him, just in case there were enemies nearby. I was hyperventilating before I could get my thoughts in any rational order. I rested my head on my knees and worked hard to get my breathing under control.
The sound of feet slogging through puddles snapped me out of my panic over Kieran being gone but instilled a whole new set of fears. What if the queen’s Elite Guard, or QEG as I’d started to think of them, somehow followed us, and simply waited for Kieran to leave before capturing me? Good grief. I’m a sitting duck. I’m easy prey. I froze. I went completely still, almost not breathing, and squinted as I tried to see past the fire while still shrinking farther back in the shelter.
All I could do was stare in silence as a silhouette appeared on the other side of the fire. My heart pounded, but I stayed still as the figure approached. I let out a massive sigh of relief as Kieran stepped into the light. He was soaked from head to toe, brown curls plastered to his head, and he looked downright miserable.
All of a sudden, I was babbling and couldn’t stop. “Jesus, Kieran, you gave me a freaking heart attack! I woke up, and you were nowhere to be found. Gone! You were just gone without a trace!”
His smirk cut my rant short. “Ironic. Doesn’t taste very good, does it?”
“Your own medicine, princess.”
I felt myself turn scarlet. “I swear to God, if the only reason you left was to give me a taste of my own medicine, I’ll strangle you.”
Kieran laughed aloud. “You’d have to be able to reach my neck, first. I’m not too worried, and as a matter of fact that wasn’t the only reason. I went to get food.”
I had to clap my hand over my mouth to muffle a wail when he held up two rabbits and a handful of scrappy carrots. “Bunnies,” I hissed. “You murdered innocent bunnies? I can’t eat them! They’re just too cute!” I felt tears stinging my eyes and turned away so I couldn’t see the rabbits anymore. “And if you still plan on eating those poor, adorable things, you can do it somewhere else.”
The carrots landed hard in my lap, and I could hear Kieran swearing and muttering about how ridiculous I was as he retreated into the brush. “Lovely,” he shouted over his shoulder as he went. “Fate sent me a stubborn, idiotic harpy to deal with! What did I do to deserve this?”
I refused to respond. I had nothing to do with the bunny-killer until it became necessary again. I couldn’t stop myself from crying over the bunnies, and whispered a short prayer for them. “Dear God, please let the bunnies be in heaven, and may they give that bunny-killing jerk a heinous case of indigestion. Amen.”
“I heard that!” He had the gall to sound amused, and I felt myself getting mad all over.
“Good!” The word was full enough of rage and indignation even to shock me, and I chewed on my bottom lip for a minute. I did not apologize, though, not even when Kieran returned and rinsed his hands with water from the canteen. All he got from me were a death glare and the silent treatment until I fell asleep.When I woke again only a few hours later, it was because my teeth had started chattering in my sleep, and I was shivering uncontrollably. The temperature must have dropped by at least twenty degrees. As I listened in the darkness, I could hear sleet pinging off the trees and piling up on top of our shelter.
All I got in response was a soft snore, and I shuddered, sitting up and hugging my knees to my chest. There was just enough light from the dwindling fire for me to see my breath in the freezing air. I nudged Kieran with my foot, and he jumped violently, pulling a dagger from his boot on instinct. I jumped back and glared at him.
“It’s just me, for God’s sake!”
Kieran groaned and sheathed the dagger, shaking his head groggily. “Why’d you wake me?”
“It’s sleeting. Didn’t the innkeeper say something about it being summer? I’m not sure what summer means in this crazy world, but we don’t have sleet in summer where I come from.”
Kieran sighed and ruffled his hair in obvious frustration. “The queen has a college full of mages at her disposal. She’s probably recruited them to manipulate the weather in hopes of slowing us down and making it easier for her Elite Guard to catch us. I should have expected something like this to happen.”
“Should we go ahead and pack up camp?”
Kieran nodded. “Yeah. We need to put as much distance as possible between us and them, especially considering this development in the weather.”
As we were packing, I heard a high-pitched whimper. Kieran and I both froze, and our eyes locked for a few long moments. We turned in unison, peered out into the darkness and spotted two pinpoints of reflected firelight. We watched, mesmerized, as an emaciated dog slinked out of the darkness to get close to the fire’s warmth. Though obviously starving, the dog was still beautiful, a white Cocker Spaniel with blond spots and big, chocolate brown eyes.
Without consulting Kieran, I raided what was left of our food supplies and found a couple of scraps of dried meat. I crouched at the edge of the shelter and held the jerky out so the dog could smell it.
“What the hell are you doing,” Kieran hissed, shaking his head in disapproval.
“I am not going to let this poor, gorgeous puppy starve and freeze to death. Besides, it could come in handy. The dog could hear the QEG coming before we ever would, and he could give us a better chance at escaping, should they sneak up on us again.”
“You are not keeping that dog.”
I stared him down with a determined smile as the dog gingerly took one of the scraps of jerky from my hand. “Watch me.”
After four days of traipsing through alternating fronts of rain and sleet, I was almost certain that Kieran, the dog (who I decided to call Gabriel because he was my angel), and I were all going to get trench foot. I imagined we would have to be amputees by the time we got to where we were going. We broke through the tree line around sunset, and I gasped when I saw the sheer face of a massive mountain just a few miles across the clearing.
“Almost home,” Kieran sighed, relief obvious in his voice.
“I thought we were going to a fortress of some kind.”
“The mountain is the fortress, princess.”
My mouth fell open, and a choking noise somewhere between disbelief and incredulity popped out. Gabriel’s head snapped up from where he’d been sniffing the ground, and he cocked his head, blond ears perked up.
“Aww, look at that face. I can’t believe you didn’t want me to keep him. Gabriel’s the sweetest puppy ever.”
Kieran scowled. “You’ve named it? Great. Just bloody fantastic. We’re never going to get rid of him now.”
I glared back at him, not backing down. “That’s why I named him. He’s mine, and I’m keeping him. There’s nothing you can do about it. And let me tell you something else, mister, if you ever tried to harm a single hair on that precious angel, I would break every bone in your body with my bare hands. Do we understand one another?”
Kieran threw his head back and laughed so hard tears trickled down his cheeks.
“What’s so funny, pal?”
He shrugged. “It’s just nice to know that there’s something in the world you feel strong enough about to not back down, even if a whole army was after you.”
“A whole army is after us.”
“Fair point. Let’s move. It’ll be the dead of night by the time we reach Tiernan.”
“How the heck do you even get in there? I don’t see any openings in that mountain.”
“The dwarves designed it with precisely that in mind.”
I found myself shaking my head. “There are dwarves in this crazy world, too?”
Kieran shook his head, his expression somewhat solemn. “No. They collectively sailed off the edge of the world and destroyed themselves thousands of years ago.”
I snorted. “You’re joking, right?”
“No, why would I be?”
“Because it is not physically possible for any world to be flat. Because of the way space and gravity work, I’m pretty darn sure that all planets are spherical, which means that they’re still alive somewhere. They’re just not in Daraglathia.”
Kieran frowned. “But that’s not what the histories say. That’s not what the maps show.”
“Well, buddy, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your histories and maps are dead wrong. They’re likely mistakes, at best.”
"And at worst?"
"Deliberate lies to keep the people of Daraglathia from looking for them."