Chapter Seventy-Three

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A sound from behind him made Orven wheel around. A strangled cry escaped his lips when he saw a pale, feminine hand snake through the narrow opening he had just wriggled free of. Like some form of rapidly growing fungus, the hand was swiftly followed by an slender arm, its sleeve tattered and bloodstained; a round shoulder; and, finally, a head of golden ringlets.

Ygrael blinked in the sunlight, then turned her face toward him and let out a low hiss. "There you are."

Orven groaned, turned, and began limping as fast as he could down the mountain path. Behind him, Ygrale let out a growl of frustration as she struggled to free the rest of her body from the mountain.

As he hobbled along, Orven cast about, desperate for a niche or crevasse to conceal himself in. Even a clump of cliff hedge would do--but the mountainside was uncompromisingly flat and devoid of convenient hiding places. His only option was to outrun Ygrael, and in his current physical condition, that was a little better than a death sentence.

Still, he staggered on. If he was fated to perish by Ygrael's hand, he'd be damned if he was going to make it easy for her.

It wasn't long before he heard the rapid approach of her feet. Running. She was still running.

There was a sheer drop of a thousand feet or more to his left, an unscalable mountain to his right, and a ragged, winding path to his back; he was trapped.

On impulse, Orven spun around to face Ygrael. The action seemed to startle her, because she came to an abrupt halt not three feet from where he stood.

Panting, she pointed her bloodied dagger at his chest. "So you have decided to face your death after all, traitor?"

"You really have a lot of gall calling me a traitor," Orven retorted, backing up a step and drawing himself up to his full height. "Really, your audacity knows no bounds."

"I am going to gut you like a tuskrutt," Ygrael said, her voice harsh and breathless. "Then I am going to leave your carcass here for the mountain larrs to devour."

"Charming. I'm sure the animals will be most grateful," Orven said, sneering. "But what of you, dear cousin? Will you return to your life of shame and forced seclusion? Or do you plan on becoming an exile? That would be decidedly unglamourous--"

His words were cut short by a deep, resounding roar that shook the path beneath their feet. Ygrael's eyes widened, and she turned to stare up at the sky. Orven followed her gaze.

A dragon was slicing through the clouds toward them, its golden hide gleaming like burnished brass. King Orv's mismatched eyes were fixed on Ygrael, pinning her to the mountainside like a mouse caught in a cat's glare.

"You have had your vengeance, princess!" he cried, great wings buffeting them with gusts of cold air as he descended. "The city is reclaimed. Now it is time to uphold our bargain!"

Ygrael's face had gone chalk white. She seemed unable to move, only stand and watch the dragon king descend.

With a jolt, Orven realized this was his chance to escape. The king wasn't interested in him. He could run--perhaps find a place to hide further down the path--

Without another thought, he spun on his heel and began running with renewed energy; away from Ygrael, and the dragon, and certain death.

He made it nearly ten feet before something struck his back. With a cry, Orven stumbled from the impact and nearly fell. Arms wrapped around his waist, locked in place like a vice. A voice hissed in his ear, "No. We die together, cousin."

Orven barely had a chance to scream before Ygrael threw them both off the edge of the mountain path.


Varyn followed Ygrael's bloody footprints through the castle until she came upon a dusty storage room. It didn't take her long to find the secret panel, and the tunnel beyond.

After fashioning a makeshift torch from a broken chair leg, a bolt of dusty cloth and the tinder box at her belt, Varyn plunged into the dark tunnel.

This section of passage had not been used for many weeks. Its floor and walls had acquired a layer of damp filth. It was easy to follow the trail left by Orven and Ygrael's tread.

Her torch lasted until the tunnel grew too narrow for her to hold it without catching herself alight. She left it smoldering on the tunnel floor and forged on, squeezing her lean body through the painfull tight space until she thought her ribs would break from the pressure.

At last, she saw a light. Moments later, Varyn staggered out onto a wide mountain path. She heard sounds--the rapid, leathery beat of wings; raised voices...

Drawing her sword, Varyn began running. She turned a bend in the path just in time to witness Ygrael and Orven plunge into the abyss. King Orv, his mighty wings beating the air overhead, let out a torrent of flame--but he was too late.

They were gone.

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