Rose crested the hill and kept the fuming rage from her cherub features.
In the valley below, a single hoof-churned road led through the ravine, ending at the moat and vertical draw bridge of the castle hunched between verdant slopes. Stone walls caked in mildew and shadows, encircled the dagger-sharp towers. Squinting, she made out the empty courtyard, the slabs freshly washed clean. The surrounding fields lay chard, providing a clear vantage point for the guards walking along the outer walls, armor and muskets gleaming.
“Almost there,” she whispered.
Tearing herself away from the view, Rose reached down and seized Gavin’s outstretched hand. With the aid, he rounded the last jut of granite. He scrambled the last few steps on his own and plopped down in a tuff of grass on the hill’s peak.
“Whoa.” He scrubbed his face with a spindly hand as if clearing his sight. With eyes bulging, he pointed a needle finger at the fortified monstrosity. “What’s that?”
“Nowhere,” said Rose.
“Are they going to help us?”
“Sort of….” Rose lifted her face to setting sun. Wind swirled, scented with the promise of rain and wildflowers.
Drawing in a deep breath tinged with summer and pollen, Rose scanned the hilltop. A rocky outcropping poked from a carpet of knee-high blades. Although eroded by time, she guessed the crevices, the ones deep enough to hide within, remained.
“This way.” She strode to the outcropping and knelt by a thick tuft.
“I’m tired,” said Gavin from his initial spot.
“I know. We’re going to stay here for the night.” She shoved aside the blades of grass, searching. “I think there’s a cave….”
Rose grinned at the fissure she’d found in the rock while Gavin sprung to his feet and scampered with the vigor of morning. “In there.” She shifted and he darted inside.
She slouched onto the grass, listening to his scrapes and grunts as he skittered inside. “Hello?” His call echoed against the stone.
Rose’s smile stretched and she slumped against the granite. The top of the towers poked above the slope, an undeterred reminder of her purpose. Closing her eyes, she sank into the darkness, her body wilting. “Soon,” she whispered.
After another exploratory rustle, Gavin poked his head back outside. “There’s room for you, too.”
Rose rolled her head, giving him a weary smile. “I think I’ll stay out here for a bit.” She pulled her pack off from her shoulder and held it out like a worm on a hook. “Why don’t you heat up the stones and get cozy.”
“Me?!” Gavin’s ebony eyes grew even wider than when he had spotted the castle. He reached for the bag and then halted his hand with a skeptical frown. “Really?”
“I think you’re ready.” She tossed the bag and he clutched the leather sack close to his sweaty tunic.
“I’ll make it just like home.” He vanished and the rustle of him digging into the bag joined the fading light.
Rose cast her gaze to the violet dome overhead. The first stars glinted, visible with the absent new moon. More dots emerged while Gavin trundled within the cave, reciting the stone-warming tune. His tinny voice and movements quieted by the time the sky darkened into a velvet night, illuminated solely by the swath of stars. In the quiet, she heard his rhythmic breathing, the pattern of his deepest sleeps.
“Stay safe in your dreams, my little dove,” she said, rising, “I’ll take care of the rest.”
Down in the valley, embers glowed in the slits within the towers and walls, while the wider windows of the main hall blinked as the hearths dwindled. She counted the stories and pinpointed his room, the one with the balcony and drooping pennants. Instinct told her he lay inside, on the four posted bed with feather comforters and sheets as soft as down. She could all but feel him laying next to her, slumbering and satisfied. The same tears she had shed nearly eight years earlier pooled in her eyes and stained her cheeks. The hopelessness dominating her thoughts then, however, failed to reappear. Now only certainty, in her new found abilities, saturated her every pore.
Clenching her fists so her nails threatened to bite into her palms, Rose bowed her head and closed her eyes.
The chant began deep in her toes and swelled in her mind’s eye like ripples in a babbling brook. She poured all of her weariness from the weeks trekking overland, into the words repeating across her thoughts. The sight of the castle, spurred her anger and she blended her rage into the chant. The idea of failing amplified her wrath as visions of Gavin in his father’s greedy hands stoked her need to protect, to defend, her little dove from the vicious beast she knew all too well. Each emotion layered upon the next and she folded them into her chant until the words tingled on her tongue. Only then did she lift her face, open her eyes and add her voice.
Feathered mist had already begun gathering, but with her soft singing, the clouds mounted. Speeding her rhythm, the sky thickened with urgency, the stars winking out of sight. The wind whirled in agitated gusts, clawing at her skirts and the loose threads of her honey-dark hair.
While the energies mounted, Rose lifted her hand and glared down her arm as if firing an arrow from within her grimy sleeve. She waited until the winds howled, the clouds pressed upon her shoulders and the ground itself trembled. As her round through the chant returned to the beginning, she gave every last ounce of herself to the words. One line blended into the next and as the end neared, she pointed one finger at his room.
Lightning shot out of the sky, piercing through the tiles on the sloped roof sheltering his chamber.
Anguish pierced the night while a burnt smear tinged the air. The guards on the walls scurried in reply.
Rose dropped her arm and she wobbled back, steadying herself on the boulders. Her knees liquefied and she slid into the grass, her body drained and hollow. Leaning back upon the stone, she watched a ribbon of smoke coil toward the clearing sky as the energy she had gathered dissipated like tea into hot water.
The sixth sense warning her of his presence nearby quieted as if soothed by a warm glass of milk.
“It’s done, my little dove,” she whispered. “Now you’re safe.”
Satisfaction buoyed her like a gentle sea. She gave into the swell and drifted off, for once in eight years, into an untarnished sleep.