Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


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~~Gabriella patiently helped Josie nock an arrow and shoot. They had set a target low enough for her and made sure they weren’t near any other archers for the child to accidentally hit. Some of the other archers came over to give her pointers, enamored by the sweet, little girl.
Meredith frowned as she shot, narrowly missing the bull’s eye a few times before she hit it. She regretted not being able to practice during their journey.
“Don’t worry about it.” Katherine told her, seeming to read the girl’s mind. “You’ll be back up to par in no time.” As she said it, she loosed an arrow and hit the bull’s eye, barely seeming to even need to look at it.
“Right.” Meredith put on a smile, wishing she had that kind of skill. She shot again and hit the bull’s eye, feeling a little better.
“You see?” Katherine smiled and shot again, hitting the center mark with ease.
“You’re quite good.” Meredith observed, although she thought her elven trainer had been better.
Katherine shrugged. “I’ve had a hundred years of practice. If I were no good, it would be a little depressing.”
Meredith was able to give her a more genuine smile as she nodded, although the reminder of the girl’s age was a little discomforting. She looked at Katherine, knowing she was probably the same age as Meredith when she became the guardian and took on the weight of the world. Meredith couldn’t imagine doing something like that. She nocked an arrow and hit the target, again, thinking about her thoughts on the wall and the fact that Katherine was one of the few people in the city who didn’t stay inside of it all the time. That seemed nice, at least. “Are we allowed to travel outside the wall?”
Katherine looked at her, lowering her bow with the arrow she had been about to shoot. “Why would you want to do that? There is still plenty you haven’t seen in the city.”
Meredith shrugged, hoping she didn’t sound insane or ungrateful. “I look forward to seeing the city, but I don’t like feeling trapped, even in such a big place. Constantly being surrounded by the wall makes me claustrophobic, if that makes any sense.”
“I supposed it does.” Katherine shot her arrow, hitting the target, then lowered her bow. “You are free to travel anywhere you like in the city or outside the wall. However, I would ask that you do not go without protection. If you intend to leave the security of the city, please allow me to accompany you.”
Meredith considered that and nodded, feeling a little relieved. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” She loosed another arrow, easily hitting the bull’s eye.

Jeremiah led Nicholas into a secluded room and shut the door behind them. “I trust you were able to dispatch the shadow beasts.”
The king nodded. “They put up a fight, but we managed it without any casualties. Overall, I would say it was a success.”
“Is there anything else we should know about the situation?” The guardian asked, looking out the window with an unreadable expression.
“If you are asking whether we ran into him, the answer is ‘no’.” Nicholas sighed and took a seat. “There’s still no sign.”
“You still won’t say his name.” Jeremiah noted.
“Names have power.” Nicholas didn’t bother looking at the guardian.
Jeremiah turned to the young king, watching his expression. “Are you relieved or disappointed that you haven’t found him, yet?”
“I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Nicholas ran a hand through his hair. “I’m glad to see that Katherine returned well, even if her companions aren’t what we were hoping she would bring.”
“We shall have to trust that the lights are guiding her in the right direction.” Jeremiah replied, refusing to give voice to his own concerns.
The king nodded. “You always have so much faith in them. It is a virtue of yours that I admire.”
“You will understand when you are guardian.” Jeremiah assured him.
Nicholas looked at his hands. “Yes, I’m sure I will.” He was silent for a moment and a shadow seemed to pass over his face, but he took a breath and stood, smiling at the guardian. “Well, if that is all, I have had a tiring journey and would like to rest.”
“Of course.” Jeremiah nodded to him. “Welcome home, your highness.”
Nicholas shut the door behind him as he left, leaving Jeremiah isolated in the room, looking out the window and towards the brightly-lit sky.

By the time they finished their training, William was sore and tired, but not nearly as much as he had been after his first session with Valda. It felt good to know he had improved. Tristan stood silently by, not commenting, still.
“I’ll trust you to meditate, tonight.” Valda told her student. “Be sure that you do.”
William nodded, feeling like she might be able to tell if he didn’t. “I will.”
“Then we’re done for the day.” She turned and headed back to the palace.
William breathed a sigh and was about to sheathe his sword when he caught sight of a blade coming at him from the side. He tried to block, but was too slow and found the point against his ribs.
“Your reflexes are too slow.” Tristan commented, withdrawing his blade. “If I were a servant of the shadow master, you would be dead.”
William stared at him, blankly, for a moment. “I wasn’t ready.”
“You must always be ready.” Tristan replied, coming at him, again. William just barely managed to block. “Do you think the enemy will wait for you to get into your stance?” He thrust the blade forward, making William take a step back as he parried. “They are not usually so generous.”
“I’m still learning.” William pointed out in a strained voice as he continued to block and parry, unable to get a jab in. Before long, the sword was at his throat, ready to deal the fatal slice.
“Not fast enough.” Tristan sheathed his sword. “You are meant to be a great warrior of prophecy, but you are far from ready for battle.”
“Tell that to your prophecy.” William replied, annoyed. He didn’t like people expecting so much from him just because someone foretold a vague future. He had never been a fan of destiny.
“Be patient with him.” Katherine smiled at the pair, having walked over during their duel. “Nobody starts out being great. He is improving as he should. I’m sure he will be able to handle anything that comes his way.”
William gave her a grateful smile, but Tristan just frowned. “I hope you are right, my lady.” He headed back to the palace, barely even looking at her.
Katherine sighed as she watched him go, then turned back to William. “Don’t let him worry you too much. Believe it or not, that was Tristan’s version of helping.”
“I can believe it.” William assured her, thinking of how surly the elf always was. He looked at Katherine and frowned, thinking he might get rather grumpy if he were in love with a girl like her and couldn’t do anything about it. William shook his head, pushing those thoughts away. He didn’t want to feel sympathy for the elf. It was Tristan’s own fault if he couldn’t move on after a hundred years.
Katherine raised her eyebrows at his expression. “Are you alright? You didn’t hit your head too hard, did you?”
William couldn’t help smiling at her. “Maybe a little.”
“We’ll walk you back to the palace.” Meredith suggested. “We’re done with our girls day, anyway, I think.” She looked to the others for confirmation.
Gabriella smiled and gave a nod. “We wouldn’t want him collapsing on the way home, after all.”
“I’ll be fine.” He promised, looking at Josie and smiling. “Of course, I would never refuse an escort of some beautiful, young ladies.” He held a hand out for her and she took it with an amused smile. Together, the group headed back to the palace.

Jake got out of the bath, feeling refreshed. With his time bouncing around foster homes, hiding away in an abandoned apartment, then running for his life in Mirra, he’d forgotten just how nice a long, relaxing bath could be. When he returned to their room, he found his brother standing in front of the window and looking out over the front entrance. Jake couldn’t help smiling. “Is she back, yet?”
Henry jumped and did his best to look confused. “Who?”
“Our fair princess, of course.” Jake grinned. “I look forward to seeing her again when she returns.” He flopped down on the bed, which was another luxury he’d almost forgotten the feeling of having.
“Why would you want to see her?” His brother asked. “Intending to try winning her over with your self-proclaimed charms?”
“She didn’t seem to mind my charms.” Jake pointed out, smiling at him. “Of course, I may be persuaded to let it go if you were to decide to pursue her. I wouldn’t want to get in your way and I am clearly the more attractive brother, so I know it would make your pursuit difficult if I were to interfere.”
“Like she would ever fall for your ugly face.” Henry looked back out the window and smiled as he saw the group returning. He rushed out to greet them and Jake chuckled as he got up and followed, not nearly in such a hurry. Henry reached the entrance hall just as the group was walking in. “You’re back.” It wasn’t the most clever line, but he had been caught off guard by Gabriella, once again. With her hair pulled back and wearing the training outfit, she radiated a whole new kind of beauty.
“We are, indeed, back.” William told him. “Did you miss us?”
“We’re just glad to see you’re all back in one piece.” Jake replied, coming down the steps behind his brother. “We half-expected Valda or Tristan to kill you.”
“Yet I survived.” William held up his arms, as if to prove it.
“For now.” Jake smiled and looked at Gabriella. “It’s always nice to see you, princess.”
Henry frowned, resisting the urge to punch him.
She returned the smile and nodded. “It is lovely to see you, as well. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I wish to take a bath before dinner.” She headed up the stairs, moving gracefully past the twins.
Henry caught his breath as she passed him, desperately wishing he could think of something interesting to say before she disappeared down the hallway.
“That sounds like an excellent plan for me, as well.” Katherine told them, following suit. “I hope to see you all at dinner.” She made her way up the stairs and down the hall before anyone could reply.
Once she was out of sight, William looked at Jake. “Got a little crush on the princess?”
Jake shrugged. “She’s pretty, right?”
“Very.” William led the group up the stairs and the twins fell in with them. Henry was silent, not trusting his own voice. William didn’t seem to notice. “Just be careful about romances here. We don’t really know what’s going to happen, next.”
Jake looked at him, wondering if William could really be that clueless after the way he had looked at Katherine. The younger boy held back a sigh, knowing he probably was. “Don’t worry. I won’t do anything foolish.”
“That would be a first.” William told him with a smile. “So I was thinking we might go see the city tomorrow. I thought it would be fun to have a look around. You all in?”
“It’s a nice city.” Meredith commented. “I can show everyone the orphanage and maybe see some other places.”
William nodded. “This place has a more unique assortment of people than we would find anywhere in our world. It would be a shame to miss an opportunity to meet some of them.”
“Sounds fun.” Jake looked at his brother. “You in? We may find you a nice girl.”
Henry gave him a look, but shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
William looked at Josie. “You, too?”
She nodded. “It will be really fun, I bet.”
“We’re all in agreement, then.” William smiled, thinking that things always felt better when he had his little group with him. “We’ll go after my morning training.” He nearly winced at the thought of sparring with Valda again. “It’ll be fun.”

The group had dinner together with Nicholas, Gabriella, Katherine and Jeremiah. When they mentioned their plans to go exploring the next day, Katherine seemed pleased with the idea. She looked over at Meredith. “Well, since it won’t be until the afternoon, why don’t we get some more target practice in early?”
“Sounds good.” She agreed. “I’m a little rusty from my time without training and I was never really good to begin with.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Katherine smiled at the girl. “You only trained for a week. You are quite good for that. However, there is always room for improvement.”
“Right.” Meredith nodded, realizing the guardian was right. “I’ll appreciate your help.”
Katherine looked down at her food. “Well, it’s the least I can do. We are thrusting you into a war, after all. It would be cruel to deny you training.”
Everyone fell silent at the thought. Nobody liked the idea of the group having to fight and it put a damper on the mood. They ate the rest of the meal in silence, trying not to think about the grim future ahead.

The next day, William, Meredith, Valda and Katherine got up early to train. By the time they took a break, William had a few new bruises and Meredith’s arms felt like rubber, but they both felt like they were improving. They had lunch and washed up before heading out into the city. Katherine had offered to guide them, but the group had refused, wanting it to just be the five of them for a little while. Since coming to Mirra, they hadn’t done anything with just their original group. They walked around the city, aimlessly, checking out different vendors from different races. However, the most impressive part was the fountain in the town square. Geysers of water shot out in every color. Some children ran through, laughing and playing. One pair stuck out among the rest.
Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, ran through the fountains. She kept getting ahead, but she would turn back every minute or two and hold out her hand. He would reach out and their fingertips would brush, then she would resume running and he would chase her. She had dark hair and pale skin, reminding William of how he’d always pictured Snow White. She wore a simple, blue dress and her feet were bare. The boy had brown hair and was taller. His blue tunic and black pants were equally simple and his feet were bare, as well. Finally, he caught the girl and spun her around, making her laugh. The other children watched them, having been careful to stay out of the girl’s way as she ran. It was impossible not to wonder who the pair was.
“Can I play in the water?” Josie asked, looking up at William.
He smiled and nodded, kicking off his shoes. “It looks like fun, after all. Race you?” He ran into the water and she followed close behind after getting her own shoes off. The others were quick to join them, not wanting to be left out. They ran around for a few minutes before William slipped and bumped into someone. “Sorry.” He turned to face the girl who had caught his eye before. Up close, she was even more striking. Her lips were full and had a natural redness. She had big dark eyes with a far-off look. “I’m really sorry.”
She smiled. “It’s alright. Accidents happen.”
The boy came over and took her hand. She held it out with the palm up and he moved his finger over her palm in a rapid pattern. When he was done, he turned his hand over and she did the same.
“What are you doing?” Josie asked, having walked over to William.
The girl smiled in her general direction. “Just having a conversation with my brother.”
The boy smiled and waved at Josie with his free hand, his other hand running over his sister’s palm, again.
“He says it’s nice to meet you. He’s Bard and I’m Melody, his little sister.” She tilted her head towards him. “Emphasis on the little? Really?”
William looked between them, confused. “If you don’t mind me asking, how does that work?”
“Well, we made this language up when we were little. Our parents helped, of course.” She paused as he ran his fingers over her palm. “He says you still look confused. He thinks you haven’t noticed that I’m blind.” She cocked her head. “And he’s deaf.”
“Oh.” Suddenly, her far-away look made sense to William. He looked at their rapidly-moving hands with renewed interest. “I can see how communication might be difficult, then.”
“We’ve found a way around our difficulties.” She assured him. “He’s my brother, after all.”
“And nothing is more important than family.” Her smile was infectious and William found himself returning it. “That’s pretty impressive, though.”
“I’m sure it’s not as impressive as you think. We just learned to communicate differently than other people.” She looked like she was going to say more, but someone came running into the square.
The man was red-faced and out of breath. He looked at the people and called out, “There was an incident outside the wall. A trading caravan was attacked on the way here and they’ve broken down just before they made it in. We’re asking for volunteers to help with the damage.”
William grabbed his shoes and rushed over to the man. “I’ll help.”
As usual, the other four were close behind and many others quickly joined the group, including Bard and Melody.

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