Korbin had reason to remember his promise to Zaeraiah many times in the next days, especially when as they began their ascent when the land started going upward, about a week later.
He also thanked the heavens for his uncle over and over again. Aside from keeping him company, the older man knew how to survive off of the land, when it was safe to keep on walking and when they needed to seek shelter from the heat of the sun. The days grew steadily warmer until they began their ascent to the hills, and the air was noticeably cooler, and then, suddenly, cold.
Alaroc preferred to stay away from the main roads, choosing to always keep close to the woods. “We do not know,” he told his nephew, “if Lord Jarrad put a price on your head. There are far too many desperate folk who would be happy to oblige the Lord of the Realm of Keat.”
As a result, Korbin and Alaroc did not speak to a single soul along the way. Sometimes they saw people from a distance, but never approached them to talk. Korbin was perfectly all right with this, preferring to stay close to Zaeraiah in his thoughts, day and night.
She was still locked in her tower. Her Name Day and come and gone, and she had refused to marry Lord Jarrad. It was just that simple. The Ancient Rule had required the consent of both bride and groom in order for a marriage ceremony to take place, especially if either one was past their nineteenth birthday.
Lord Jondell begged Lord Jarrad to stay a while longer, thinking that sooner or later, his daughter would give way. Hoping that her will would weaken, he greatly diminished the meals sent up to her, and had taken to having Dame Biani bring up only a pitcher of water and a small loaf of bread to his daughter once a day.
I don’t care, she told Korbin in her thoughts. If you can survive on hares from fields and mudfish from creeks, I can live on bread and water.
We both survive on love, he told her.
I am rolling my eyes to the heavens, Korbin. I have to tell you this because you cannot see me.
Is he gone, though? Has Lord Jarrad returned to Keat?
He refuses, and my lord father continues to give him hope that I will weaken and agree to the marriage, especially if… her thoughts trailed away.
Especially if enough time passes by that I don’t return.
You see, my father is still found by his promise to give Lord Jarrad my hand in marriage, and apparently Lord Jarrad always gets what he wants. My father thinks I will give in eventually, but I will never leave this tower until you return.
If I return.
Until you return, she answered firmly.
* * *
The only time when Zaeraiah was allowed out was when her mother had one of her spells, and Zaeraiah was called to lay her hands on her. On one such occasion, Dame Hulde took her aside, more worried than ever before.
“Your lady mother sleeps almost all the time now,” the Crone told. “I’m afraid young Meister Korbin will be too late.”
“He won’t!” Zaeraiah insisted. “He will make it back, and on time. You will see.”
“You can communicate with him, child?” The Crone asked her curiously.
Zaeraiah did not answer Dame Hulde, instead, she followed the guards back to the north tower.
The Crone looked at Zaeraiah’s receding figure thoughtfully.
* * *
At last the day arrived when Korbin and Alaroc reached the peaks of the Stone Cliffs. It had gotten much colder, and since they were so high up, much more difficult to breathe, especially for the older man. Their travel was sometimes interrupted by Alaroc’s bursts of coughing.
“Don’t mind me, lad,” he said, when he saw the expression of alarm on Korbin’s face. “My old troubles flare up the higher we go. I’ll be all right. According to the Crone’s map, the dragonsblood tree should be at the tip of the seventh peak.”
Korbin counted the peaks with his forefinger. The seventh one had a spectacularly steep cliff, and the nearer he and Alaroc got to it, they began to see the outline of a majestic tree, covered in what looked like red blossoms.
“That’s it!” Korbin cried. “Uncle! We found it!”
“Shhhhhh!!!” Alaroc said, putting his hand over Korbin’s mouth. “Be quiet you young fool! They are not called dragonsblood trees for no reason.”
Sure enough, before long they heard a creaking sound, and then a sound of enormous, flapping wings.
Furiously, Alaroc dragged Korbin to a nearby bush, crouching down.
“Dragonsblood trees are always guarded by a dragon, hence their name. Or didn’t you know that, lad?”
“I always thought dragons were a myth,” Korbin muttered.
“Oh you did, did you? Take a good look, lad. That is no myth guarding the tree. They are dying out, but some of them are still around, evidently.”
“And if it attacks us?”
“If it attacks us there is one way to stop it. Get close enough to its chest until you see the gap between its scales, and plunge your knife in deeply. But look at the size of that beast. Heavens help us get close enough to its chest if we ever have to.”
The dragon looked old, but looked enormous to Korbin’s eyes. Even from where they were, Korbin could clearly see the blue-green scales, sharp fangs and claws of the dragon sitting on top of the tree. The dragon tossed it’s head back and screeched loudly. Threateningly.
Good heavens! Korbin could hear Zaeraiah suck her breath in sharply. That…that…that thing is frightening.
“What do we do now?” Korbin asked Alaroc.
“Now we do nothing. We think and plan. We must observe what the dragon does so that we know when the best time is to get the blooms.”
‘You must come back soon, Korbin. Mother is fading fast. I can barely help her,’ Zaeraiah told him.
‘Hold on, my love.’ He answered. ‘We are so close now.’
* * *
Korbin and Alaric spent the next day silently watching the dragon’s actions. It spent most of its time sitting on top of the tree with its eyes closed. Three times it flew away, and came back with red liquid around its mouth.
“Blood,” Alaroc said, shuddering.
“It goes to feed,” Korbin agreed. “Our best chance is to get as close as we can before it leaves, and then rush to the tree while it’s gone.”
“It’s not going to be easy rushing around on cliffs. But you are right, lad. That’s the best chance we have.”
“We move tonight,” Korbin said, feeling stronger and bolder now. He had been afraid when he first saw the dragon, but now, having spent the day observing its habits, taking a few flowers from the tree seemed more possible.
‘We have a plan,’ he told Zaeraiah in his mind that night, before going on the move with Alaroc again. ‘Storm the heavens with your intentions for our safety. I intend to come back to you soon, and bring back what you need for your mother to be well again.’
‘The heavens keep you safe, my love.’ He heard Zaeraiah say.
They moved that night, and by dawn were as close to the dragonsblood tree as they could get. The dragon itself was asleep, snoring, and with every breath it exhaled, a puff of smoke appeared.
Korbin looked closely at the dragonsblood blooms. They looked almost like roses, with petals growing in concentric circles, but the petals were thick, almost rubbery, and were a bold scarlet even in the pale dawn sunlight.
‘Zaeraiah, are you awake?’
‘I am. I sleep when you sleep.’
‘Do you see what I see?’
‘Did the Crone tell you how many blooms I need to get for your mother to be well?’
‘One. One should be enough. They are very powerful.’
‘Good. I cannot possibly bring the whole tree, though you know I would slay a dragon for you.’
‘Just come back safely to me, my love, and that will be enough.’
‘But if I do not come back…’
‘No! Do not say this!’
‘Listen, my love. Hush. If I do not come back, you need to know that I love you will all my heart, for all of eternity.’
She was weeping now, he could hear her.
‘Do you have a knowing, Zaeraiah? Will I die today?’
‘I have no such knowings. May the heavens preserve you today. If my love were enough to keep you alive you would live for a thousand years.’
Just then, the dragon woke up, and stretched. And made as if to sleep again.
“Just like your sister’s cat,” Alaroc muttered. The dragon yawned, looked around, and without warning, flew off.
“Now!” Korbin whispered urgently, and he and Alaroc ran as fast as they could, and began to climb to the peak.
“Take care, lad! These rocks are precarious and there is a strong wind. Go up ahead, and I will follow you.”
Korbin and Alaroc climbed until they reached the tree. “Go on, lad, cut the flower. I’ll watch out for the dragon.”
Carefully, Korbin unsheathed his knife and cut away at a dragonsblood bloom. It’s roots and leaves were so thick that it took him longer and more effort than he had thought.
He finally pried one loose. “Got it!”
“Good going, lad! Alaroc cried, and then burst out in a loud fit of coughing that almost made him lose his balance.
Straining to help his uncle, Korbin lost his grip on his knife and the flower, andcried out.
“Hush, lad!”Alaroc, steady now, managed to catch his arm, and helped him until he could hold on to the tree again.
Alaroc handed Korbin his own knife, saying, “Do it again. And don’t be such a butterfingers this time!”
Suddenly they heard the flapping of wings that had become a familiar sound by now. “Hurry, it’s coming back!”
The dragon appeared, fire and smoke coming out of its mouth in a fury. Korbin quickly cut off another bloom and pocketed it.
Alaroc said, “Hand me the knife and go! I’ll hold this old beast off as long as I can!”
“No—we go together!”
“Just do it boy!”
Korbin gave the knife to his uncle and began his descent. The dragon flew dangerously close to him, when he heard Alaroc shout, “Over here, you old beast! Come and get me!”
Enraged, the dragon blew its fiery breath at Alaroc, who buried himself deep in the leaves and flowers of the tree. When the dragon paused to take a breath, Alaroc, took a chance, lunged, and threw his knife into the dragon’s heart, hitting it between the scales.
The dragon fell on the tree, shaking it strongly. This threw Korbin out of the tree and he found himself falling off of the cliff.
He looked up and saw the dragon, with its last breath, consume Alaroc with a breath of fire, and then begin to fall as well.
The last thing Korbin remembered was the feeling red liquid covering him as he fell into the ravine a the bottom of the cliff.