May 03

The Arcane | Chapter Eight: Keely

    By the time I awoke, my clothes had dried and Miles had roasted me two blackbirds and a fish. “We’ll see about that fish,” he said after I’d changed and packed away the meat. My boots were still damp, but I didn’t need them in the boat. “I caught it in the Iss-Noor. I’m not sure fish living in shadow water are good for human consumption.”
    “I swallowed about half the river yesterday,” I pointed out, slinging my pack over my shoulder. “And I’m fine. I think.”
    “If you say so.”
    We made our way to the pebble stretch of bank where Miles had beached our rowboat. It didn’t appear any worse for wear, though it was a little wet inside. I tucked my pack and boots into the bottom, then helped Miles push the boat into the water. Once inside, I beat him to the bench. He sat in the stern.
    “I know I said I wanted to sleep on land,” I started. “But I think I’ll start sleeping in the boat. So we’ll get there in three days. The faster we get there, the better.”
    “What, you want to get rid of me that quickly?” Miles teased.
    I shook my head. “No, dummy. In fact, I was hoping that- well, that you’d come back to my family’s farm with me. I don’t have any brothers, so my father would appreciate the extra help. I mean, you’d be human again, right? And even if you weren’t, I’d still ask you to come…” I stopped, because he was staring at me. “What?”
    He wove his dark fingers together and stared at the web they made. “I dunno. I guess I just never thought about what I’d do after we kill the dragon.” His shoulders pushed together in a way that was supposed to be a shrug, but it ended up looking like a turtle retreating to his shell. “And- I assumed you didn’t expect to see me again. You didn’t like me when we first met-”
    “Well obviously! I was dead terrified of monsters and you tried to take over my brain!” Letting out a breath, I slid off the bench and leaned forward so he had to look at me. “Miles. I wouldn’t change you for anything. You’ve saved my life twice, arguably thrice. You’re my friend. Now stop putting yourself down and tell me if you’re coming home with me.”
    Miles swallowed. Even though black was the only color his eyes had, I could always tell where he was looking. And right then I knew his eyes were staring dead at mine. “Yeah. I’m going with you.”
    I leaned back. “Good.”
    “Hello, human.”
    I jumped and nearly fell out of the boat. My hand instinctively drew my knife and pointed it at the girl hanging onto our gunnel. She was bone-pale. Her white-blond hair streamed around her like a waterfall, billowing in the water in the wake of our boat. In her sharp, coldly beautiful face were two black eyes, solid and flat like Miles’. Her fingers ended in long, savage points, sharp as the tips of her ears. When she opened her mouth to speak, long, needle canines flashed between her lips. “I come to speak to you. I attempted to save you from the waterfall, but simply pulling you from the boat did not work-” here she narrowed her eyes as if this were my fault, “-so I figured speaking with you would resolve our difficulties.”
    Slightly bewildered, I glanced at Miles, who looked like he was trying not to laugh. “Um. Well, that’s great,” I said. “Thanks for coming.”
    Her face twitched in what looked like annoyance. “Gratitude is unnecessary. I am under orders. I would not help you otherwise.”
    Surprise, surprise. “Who’s giving you these orders, anyway?”
    She frowned. “That’s none of your concern.”
    I opened my mouth to say that yeah, it kind of was, when Miles cut me off. “Keely. Tell Minnow what you told me last night.”
    The lurk didn’t look too happy with receiving commands from an arcane, but she continued. “I have been ordered to ensure your safety on the Iss-Noor until you reach the Quiet Hill. I was the one who brought you the boat. My- the one who gave me these orders believed you would travel upon the river. I do not know if she sent anyone else.” She frowned. “I do not understand. Why am I to protect you? You are a human in a shadow land. Why are you supposed to go to the Quiet Hill?”
    I hesitated, but when Miles didn’t say anything, I spoke. “We’re trying to undo the Turning and lift the Shadow.”
    Keely’s hands tightened on the boat. I got the sense that she was no longer looking at me, but at someplace far beyond my right ear. “There is a curse on the Quiet Hill. It keeps us out. You would slay the dragon and break it.”
    I squirmed. “Well… yes.”
    Keely flashed her needle teeth. “Good.”
    I blinked in surprise. I’d figured that the lurk would be angry about us killing the dragon, but she seemed elated. “Good?”
    “Yes. My queen’s dream will finally come to pass.” She pushed away from the boat. “I shall swim behind you. Goodbye.”

    “She’s fun.”
    “She’s faerie. They’re all like that.”
    I toed my pack. “Who’s the queen she mentioned?”
    “The Faerie Queen, probably. Though I thought she was dead. Maybe Keely doesn’t know that.”
    “And what was that about the curse?”
    Miles shrugged. “I don’t know. Bluewhen didn’t mention anything about a barrier around the dragon. Keely must’ve meant that it keeps faeries out. I doubt she would have included humans and arcanes in that ‘us’.”
    I glanced back at our wake, where Keely said she’d swim. It was impossible to spot her pale form in the dark water. “She seemed very… not Turned.”
    Miles shrugged. “Faeries are full of magic and pride. It’s hard to fit shadows in there alongside their power and egos.”
    I stifled a laugh, hoping Keely wasn’t listening in. She wouldn’t find that dig nearly as funny. Miles smiled, then frowned at something downstream. “Sit in the bottom,” he said. “There’s some whitewater coming up.”

    The rest of the day was a string of rapids. We descended through the series of sharp cliffs that ringed the Quiet Hill, the strange stone formation I deduced was the dragon’s lair. Once, when Keely shoved us ashore before we could plunge over another waterfall, Miles and I found an overlook beside the falls. Before us, the ground fell away like a massive crater and off in the distant center curled the Hill. I could barely see it, but Miles informed me that it was a twisted structure of living stone under which the dragon slept. It sat on an island in a black lake fed by the Iss-Noor.
    I ate the fish first, because I really didn’t want a rotten fish onboard. That and half a blackbird was enough for my meals. While I ate dinner, Miles left to hunt for himself and returned with an excited smile on his face. “I just saw it- we’ll be entering the Fenglow tomorrow morning,” he said. “We should still be there at nightfall; it’s a big place.”
    “What’s so great about the Fenglow?” I asked. “I’ve never even heard of it.”
    He grinned. “It’s a surprise. But you’re going to love it.”
    I frowned. “I’m a little worried.”
    “Don’t be. The Fenglow is actually one of the safest places for humans in the entire Shadowvale; it’s a relic from the Faerie Wood.”
    “The safest place is this close to the dragon?”
    Miles shrugged. “Shadow logic. Don’t question it.”
    Despite his cryptic words, Miles’ excitement rubbed off on me and I found myself willing the water to speed up so I might reach this amazing, mostly safe place sooner.
    I took back my need for speed at the next stretch of rapids. Our boat careened through the whitewater at a dizzying downward velocity. We spun full circle several times, knocking against rocks with alarming ferocity, and Miles had to hold onto me so I wouldn’t fly out. Hissing water splashed into our boat and sloshed at our ankles.
    Finally, Keely gave our boat one final kick away from a cluster of hull-smashing rocks and we cleared the whitewater. The ride became smooth and I let out a long breath, sinking back against Miles’ chest.
    Suddenly I realized my back was pressed against him and his arms were locked around my stomach. It shouldn’t have been any more than mildly embarrassing-- I’d only known him for a little over half a month, so being slightly embarrassed seemed appropriate. And yet a bright heat spread out from my chest and over my neck and face. I found myself wanting to both hide under my pack and never, ever move away. Miles solved my problem by scooting off and bailing water out of the boat. His movements, I noticed, were twitchy and not as graceful as usual. He seemed rather flustered. Not that I was staring at him. Or anything.
    “Anyway,” I said quickly. “I’ll try to sleep now. Keely said that should be the last of the rapids until the falls into the Fenglow.”
    Miles nodded. “I’ll wake you up if anything tries to eat our boat.”
    I smirked, shaking off the awkwardness of the previous minute. “Thanks for having my back.”
    “Anytime.”
    I made myself comfortable in the bottom of the boat, which was still rather wet. My canvas hammock worked fairly well as a water resistant sleeping bag, and my pack became a lovely pillow. Miles sat down in the stern, carefully avoiding my feet. The heat from before still lingered between my ribs, and I imagined it was a rope, tying me to him. Somehow, that didn’t seem so bad.