Senara was up with the sun, as much out of necessity as by desire, since Mistress Karen’s cooks needed to get things to start making breakfast. They let her get dressed and then shooed her into the kitchen for her own quick meal before sending her on her way. One of the cooks slipped her a warm loaf of bread and a small crock of honey, “For the road, dear,” with a smile and a wink. Senara tried to convey her thanks with a smile and a nod. Then she was outside, on her own in a part of the city she’d never before visited. She had, however, often studied maps of the city and she pictured one in her head, trying to place herself upon it. She needed to leave by the southern gate, so once she had an idea of where she was, she began making her way in the right direction.
She passed several merchants setting up stalls in various squares and wondered if she could spare the coin to purchase some supplies for the second half of her journey. I will need food, and another water skin. There’s no getting around that. If a night at the inn with meals was ten silver, the twenty I earned helping Edmond should see to that, and then I’ll still have plenty when I reach Eryl and Blaze. Mind made up, she approached a fruit vendor who looked to already be set up. She didn’t dare haggle, not wanting to stick herself in anyone’s memory, and decided to keep up the premise of being simple. She just pointed to the things she wanted and paid the asked for price. Either the vendors took pity on her, or she really had no idea of the value of goods in the city, because ten silver got her plenty of apples, pears, and some cherries, along with cheese, dried meat, another loaf of bread and a sack to carry it all in. She was able to buy another water skin and a refill for her current one–she’d forgotten to do that before leaving the inn–for another three silver, leaving her seven silver after everything.
She felt rather pleased with herself as she continued on her way to the gate. No one looked twice at her, she still had more money than she’d started her journey with, and she had enough food for at least two days. Running a hand over her waist where the map remained hidden, she recalled that there was at least one village she would have to pass through on her way to the meeting place. She could get more food there if necessary. She smiled as she joined the crowd of people leaving the city, glad that things were starting to look up. Despite her blistered feet and aching leg, she felt glad to be back on the road.
The rain started at midday. Senara scarcely had time to find shelter, wedged into a space beneath the gnarled roots of an old tree, before the skies opened up. She settled into the burrow, fervently hoping that whatever creature had made it didn’t come to claim the space during the storm, and ended up falling asleep. A loud crack of thunder woke her sometime later and she winced at the stiffness of her muscles from being in a cramped position for so long. Lightning flashed, back the way she had come, and she risked crawling out of the burrow. Thunder sounded again, further away and behind her. Rain still fell, but seemed to be tapering out. Behind the clouds she could just make out that the sun was setting. She pulled up her hood and fished a pear and chunk of cheese from her bag, then returned to the road with a sigh. “I suppose this means I’m walking through the night again,” she muttered, getting underway.
So it went. Though the temperatures remained mild, the rain came and went through the next few days. She gave up trying to get a full night’s sleep, or a full day’s for that matter. Instead, she walked for as long as she could manage and stopped to eat and nap whenever she couldn’t go any further. Senara made her food stores stretch, worried that she would have to pass through the village at night and not wanting to risk drawing attention to herself by turning up at an unusual time for travelers. Her feet were her biggest worry, since her leather slippers weren’t designed for the kind of walking she’d put them through. She sacrificed one of her shirts, cleaning it as best she could and tearing it up to wrap her feet. The leather was stretched out enough by that point to allow for the extra cushioning of the wrappings. She rinsed them and changed the wrappings whenever she stopped, and this seemed to help. As did the fact that there were farms along the way where she was able to fill her water skins as needed.
Four long days after leaving the capitol for what she suspected was the last time, Senara reached the path into the woods that would lead to the cabin where Eryl and Blaze still waited. She almost missed it, because it was well after sundown and the moon was shrouded in clouds, but the soft hooting of an owl as she passed caused her to look around and notice the break in the trees. “Oh thank the goddess!” She gasped, turning and stumbling down the path. So close to her destination, her body began to scream for her to stop moving, to sit down, and just stop. She limped on, straining her eyes for the markers branded into the trees along the path that led to the forester’s cabin whenever there was a fork or the path seemed to disappear.
It was rough going. Neither the path nor the markers had been maintained in the years this forester station had gone unused. She spared a thought to wonder about the state of the cabin, then let out an unladylike snort. If it’s got enough walls left to support even part of a roof, it will be better than anything I’ve had since leaving the city. And anything she found with Eryl and Blaze would be better than being tied up in a wagon on her way to Astra. I wonder if they continued their trip, she mused, or if they turned around and went back to the palace when they discovered me gone. She suspected that depended on how badly her father felt the need to appease Gram and Hakon, and whether or not Enyon had convinced their father to claim she’d been killed on the journey. Maybe none of my plans worked. Maybe Enyon couldn’t salvage it and they’re after me even now. It was a sobering thought, but it disappeared from her mind as she heard a low, amused laugh up ahead of her. Eryl!
She sped her steps, all but hobbling toward the sound, and stumbled into a clearing. “Eryl!” she repeated, aloud this time, her voice creaky with disuse.
He was standing beneath a tree, his arms crossed over his chest, staring up into its branches. At the sound of his name, he whipped his head around. The clouds shifted and moonlight filled the clearing, allowing her to make out the relief on his face. “Your Highness!” The next thing Senara knew, she was being swept up in a fierce hug, Eryl lifting her off her feet despite the fact that she had a good five centimeters on him. “You made it,” he breathed, squeezing her once more before setting her down. “I’m so glad you made it. I–” All at once he seemed to realize that he still had his arms around her and he let go, stepping back with haste and dropping his gaze, but not before Senara caught embarrassment flash across his face. “Forgive me, your Highness.”
She missed his warmth, and she reached out to squeeze his arm. “There is nothing to forgive, Eryl. I’m glad I made it, too. I almost didn’t.” She took a shaky breath, then set the past few days from her mind, glancing around the clearing. She could see the small cabin–still intact, by the goddess’ mercy– and a lean-to for a horse. There was a water pump and garden that showed clear signs of recent tending. “Where’s–“
Senara! The joyful greeting made her jump.
Eryl laughed and held out a hand to steady her, then nodded toward the tree he’d been standing under when she arrived. Senara peered at the tree and thought for a moment that it was moving, before realizing that what she was seeing was a gleaming, scale-covered tail wrapped around the trunk. The tail uncoiled and disappeared, and then a pair of taloned feet inched their way down, followed by a snout and a pair of shining eyes.
“Blaze?” Senara watched the dragon descend from the tree with care, and took a few steps closer. The dragon was beautiful, although Senara could not make out the color of their scales, they all but glowed as the moonlight graced their back. Senara knelt on the ground as the dragon approached, already the size of a pony, although far more graceful. Blaze reached her and surprised Senara by hooking their snout over her shoulder and leaning in as if hugging her.
I am so happy to see you, Senara.
“I’m happy to see you, Blaze. To meet you.” She reached a tentative hand to the side of the dragon’s jaw as they pulled back, stroking the soft scales, and she realized she was crying.
Senara, are you all right? Blaze shot a worried glance at Eryl, who hurried over to help her to her feet.
“I am,” she reassured them both. “I’m just a little overwhelmed. I honestly wasn’t sure if I would really make it here, and now that I have…”
“Let’s get inside, your Highness,” Eryl suggested. “You can warm up and have some dinner.”
“All right,” she agreed, struggling to her feet. Now that she had stopped, her leg seemed unwilling to cooperate any longer and Eryl had to help her into the cabin. He eased her down on a rug in front of the fireplace and hurried over to the small stove in the corner, shooting her worried looks.
Eryl made stew from the rabbit I caught, Blaze told her proudly, following them inside and settling on the rug around Senara so that she could rest against the dragon’s back. In the light of the fire, she could see that Blaze’s scales were a deep green, darkening almost to black along their tail, feet, and snout.
“That sounds very good,” Senara answered, accepting the bowl from Eryl. “Thank you.” It smelled very good, too. She tested it to make sure it was cool enough to eat and then tucked in, savoring the warmth flooding through her body and beginning to succumb to the exhaustion that haunted her.
“Will you be able to travel tomorrow, your Highness?” Eryl asked after she had finished her bowl. “We really should move on as soon as we can, but–“
“I’ll be all right,” she told him. “I agree. We shouldn’t linger. I don’t know if my father is looking for me or not, but best not to chance it. The sooner we get out of Sunpeak, the better, and I’m afraid I don’t move very fast.” Eryl tilted his head, giving her a considering look. “My leg,” she explained, “the old injury has been aggravated by the weather and–” she caught herself before she could say anything about her captivity, saying instead, “and all of the walking. I hurt my shoulder, too.” She sighed and set down the bowl. “I’m afraid I’m not conditioned for this sort of traveling.”
Eryl nodded, reaching to pick up her bowl. “We have a cart and a horse, so you can ride. For a few days at least.” Seeing her confusion, he elaborated, “I used the cart to bring Blaze’s egg without attracting attention, and I think they’ll still fit in it a little longer.”
But I’m growing fast, Blaze chimed in, looking pleased at this fact. They rested their nose on Senara’s knee.
“Right,” Eryl said. “I figure we can sell the horse and cart once Blaze is too big. Then we’ll have to start moving at night to avoid notice. But it will give you some time to recover, your Highness.”
“Eryl,” she reached out and put a hand on his arm. “You should call me Senara.” His eyes widened, but she insisted. “I’m not,” she drew in a deep breath, “I’m not a princess anymore. I can’t go back. I think we all need to get used to that. Besides, it will be safer for you not to use my title.”
“Of course,” he said, though he still looked unsure. He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, then met her eyes. “Why don’t you know if the king is looking for you?”
“I didn’t leave like I wanted to,” she admitted, “when Father changed the wedding plans, there wasn’t time to stage my death like I intended.” Blaze’s head snapped up and Eryl sucked in a sharp breath. Senara pressed on, “It was the only way I could think to avoid animosity between Astra and Sunpeak at the failed marriage. I was going to have lunch with my brother before that and bring up the alternate trade idea so that when I was gone, he’d have an option to smooth things over, but it didn’t work out that way. I had to slip out from the caravan at night. My brother caught me, but he agreed to help cover my tracks. I don’t know what he told everyone–if they think I’m dead or that I ran off or…” She spread her hands. “I just don’t know. There was no time to do it neatly, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to put the two of you in danger, but I might have. I did my best to avoid notice on the way here.”
Eryl sighed. “We were already in danger. Blaze won’t be safe anywhere in Sunpeak.” He shot the dragon an apologetic glance. “The sooner we reach Radia, the better. It’s good to know that we might be pursued, though. We were already being careful, but we can take more measures.” He looked her over with a critical eye, “An easy start will be your clothes, your High–Senara.”
“I know I’m a bit of a mess,” she frowned, looking down at her trousers and tunic, “but–“
“An absolute mess,” he agreed, fighting back a laugh, “one I never thought I’d see, but anyone who looks close enough will see how fine your clothes were. Not to mention how they obviously don’t fit. It invites speculation.”
“As I said, that’s an easy change.” He rose to his feet, gathering up the dishes. He nodded toward a curtained alcove. “I’ll clean up dinner. There’s a pitcher and basin in there if you want to wash up, and a cot. It’s nothing fancy, but better than the forest floor. Why don’t you get some sleep and we’ll go over our plans again in the morning?”
“All right.” She managed a smile, tired but sincere. “Thank you, Eryl.” He nodded back and slipped outside. A few seconds later, Senara heard the water pump.
Shall I go, too? Blaze asked. Eryl says I must be respectful of people’s privacy for things like washing and dressing.
Senara considered this and decided she did not mind the dragon’s presence. “It’s all right, Blaze, thank you.” She moved to the alcove, pulling back the curtain. The cot was nicer than what she’d had in the inn, and piled high with blankets. “A lot of blankets,” she murmured, raising an eyebrow.
Eryl used them to cushion my egg, Blaze explained, but they seem to have been very useful since then, too.
“Indeed,” Senara agreed, smiling. She glanced around. “Is there only one cot?”
Yes. Eryl said he would sleep on the rug once you got here.
Senara nodded to herself and took half of the blankets off of the cot, folding them up in front of the fireplace so they could get warm. She returned to the alcove and poured water into the basin, then pulled the curtain halfway shut and began to undress. Her coin purses, map, and feather joined the basin and pitcher on the dresser in the alcove. Blaze nosed at the feather with curiosity as Senara dampened the sponge and gave herself a hasty bath, taking special care to clean her feet. Some of the blisters had burst, and were tender, but, goddess’ mercy, they did not appear infected. They did sting when she took soap to them, and she winced, but pressed on. The water was chilly, but it woke her enough to finish her routine. She pulled her tunic back on, leaving the trousers folded on top of the dresser and tucking her slippers under the cot. She sat on the edge of it and untied her braids, combing her hair out with her fingers. She pulled a twig from it and grimaced.
Blaze moved beside her and rested their snout on the cot, watching as she tried to wrangle her hair into a fresh braid. You look different than Eryl, they observed.
“Oh!” Senara flushed, guessing at what the dragon meant easily enough. “That’s because he’s a man and I’m a woman. We have different,” she cleared her throat, “parts.” She rested a hand atop Blaze’s head. “Is it not the same for dragons?” It occurred to her that she’d never seen any mention of discerning sex in dragons. She suspected none of the observers had wanted to get close enough to check. “In some animals,” she added, trying to choose her words carefully so as not to offend Blaze, “you can’t tell the difference between male and female just by looking.”
Yes, Blaze nodded, that is how we are. Or, well, close to that. It only really matters for making eggs, you see.
That was interesting. She spared a sigh, wishing human society could be of a similar mindset, then glanced down at Blaze, curious. “May I ask, Blaze, are you–?”
I’m just Blaze, the dragon responded. I’m too young to be mother or father.
“What do you mean? Are dragons not born one or the other?”
No. We hatch without the ability to be either. When it is time for eggs to be laid, we are given the choice of whether or not we wish to participate, and if so, in which manner.
Senara stared at Blaze. “You choose whether to become male or female?”
Or to remain as we are, Blaze confirmed. Not every dragon wishes to become a parent. Those who don’t tend to the nests’ other needs, like security and hunting.
“I had no idea,” Senara said. She couldn’t even comprehend how such a thing was possible, yet there was no reason for Blaze to lie to her.
You can tell the parents apart from the others, Blaze supplied helpfully. They’re bigger, for one.
“Everyone decent?” Eryl called, knocking on the door.
“Yes, come in,” Senara called back. She glanced down at Blaze, hoping they would be willing to teach her more about dragons later.
Of course, Senara, Blaze answered, picking up on her thought.
It felt to her as if the dragon was smiling.