As they left the Keeper of the Flame’s hut, Grayden cupped his hands around his mouth. “Fiona?” he called. “Are you near?”
A few seconds later, the minnow dashed from behind a stone outcropping at top speed, her scales flashing like an underwater lightning bolt.
“Can you take us to the edge of the lake?” Grayden asked, gently fixing a couple of loose straps on Fiona’s seaweed saddle.
Fiona nodded her head and gave a fishy grin.
“Thank you,” Grayden said. He sank down onto Fiona’s saddle and extended one hand to Tillie. “Climb up behind me. We need to stop by the supply hut first.”
Tillie did as she was told, settling down behind him.
After a short ride through the village, Fiona stopped in front of a large square hut guarded by two spear-bearing warriors.
“I’ll be right back,” Grayden said, swimming away. With a silent nod to the guards, he disappeared inside.
“Lovely day!” Tillie said to the guards, straining her eyes to see the sun through the murky gray water above her. “Although it’s kind of hard to tell down here.”
One of the guards glanced at her, made a “hmph” sound, and turned his attention back to the supply hut just as Grayden stepped through the doorway. The young warrior carried a satchel made from seaweed and stuffed with provisions.
“All ready,” Grayden said, settling back into the saddle.
Fiona darted forward, nearly leaving Tillie floating in the water behind her.
After a few minutes of traveling at top speed, the mouth of a narrow, rocky valley loomed out of the water ahead of them. Tillie could see numerous fish-shaped silhouettes crowding the open water above the valley.
“That’s the School Grounds,” Grayden said, pointing towards the surface of the water, “where the fish schools hold their daily lessons. If we stick to the valley floor, we’ll avoid all the traffic. Much quicker!”
As she approached the shadowy mouth of the valley, Fiona slowed, as if reluctant to enter.
Grayden chuckled. “Are the schools of large fish making you nervous?” He leaned forward and patted Fiona’s side. “Don’t worry! We won’t let any big fish eat you up.”
Fiona nodded and continued forward. Walls of rock encased the travelers on both sides, leaving just a narrow path before them. The occassional boulders and frequent curves of the valley floor turned the path into an obstacle course.
“Grayden,” Tillie said, “can I ask you something?”
“Why did it upset you so much when the Keeper of the Flame chose you as her apprentice?”
Grayden didn’t answer for a moment. “I’m not sure. I guess because I’ve always wanted to lead the warriors one day. I just–” He stopped in mid-sentence.
“You just what?” Tillie prompted.
“Shhhhhhh!” Grayden hushed her and gave a tug on Fiona’s reins.
“What’s wrong?” Tillie whispered to Grayden, scanning the valley floor ahead of them for any sign of trouble. She saw nothing.
“I saw movement along the edge of the valley above us,” Grayden said.
“Probably just one the schools of fish, right? You did say the School Grounds were right above us.”
“What I saw wasn’t a school of fish,” Grayden said. “I saw a person.”
“A friendly person?”
In a flash, Lord Mareel sprang from a shadowed recess in the valley’s wall and yelled a single word. “Attack!” Following his command, a dozen warriors launched themselves from the valley’s rim, spears and knives raised.
“Flee, Fiona!” Grayden screamed.
The minnow shot straight up from the valley’s floor, the sudden jolt of motion catching Tillie off guard. She slipped backwards, grasped once for the back of Grayden’s shirt, and tumbled from the seaweed saddle. As she sank to the valley’s floor, Lord Mareel sped towards her, a wicked smile on his face.
Grayden released Fiona’s reins and dove after Tillie.
Fiona continued swimming upward, dodging between the warriors and disappearing over the rim of the valley.
By the time Grayden reached Tillie, Lord Mareel had already wrapped his tentacled arm around Tillie’s neck, the suckers leaching onto her face. The young warrior grabbed for his dagger, but Lord Mareel hooked his harpoon hand beneath both of Grayden’s arms, forcing them upward.
“You swam right into my trap,” Lord Mareel gloated as his warriors circled. “I knew you’d take the valley to avoid the School Grounds. Now you’ll both be executed – one as a spy and the other as a traitor.”
“The Keeper of the Flame won’t allow that,” Grayden said.
“Wrong,” Lord Mareel spat. “I won’t allow the Keeper of the Flame to keep our pod weak. She’ll follow you both soon.”
Tillie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The fact that anyone would hurt that wise old woman stunned her.
Tillie looked at Lord Mareels’ face, twisted with hate. Then she looked at Grayden’s face. He was trying his best to look unafraid, although she knew better. She could only think of one thing to do, so she swallowed hard in the back of her throat and did it.
“You were right, Lord Mareel,” Tillie said. “I am a Lapadanian spy.”
“Tillie!” Grayden yelled. “Don’t say that!”
“Eve and I were sent to spy on your pod,” she continued.
Lord Mareel smiled smugly. “I’m glad you’ve come to your senses and admitted what I’ve always known.”
“She’s lying!” Grayden said, struggling against Lord Mareel’s iron grip.
“As you can see,” Tillie continued, “the Keeper of the Flame and Grayden knew nothing about this. You’ll have to let them go.”
“Oh, will I?” Lord Mareel taunted, drawing laughter from the warriors surrounding them. “Or what?”
“Good question,” Tillie admitted. “Give me one moment.” She mentally formulated a list of “or whats,” including “or everyone will realize what a bad person you are,” “or your warriors will be sent to bed without any supper,” and “or you will make me cry.” None of them sounded particularly threatening.
“Well?” Lord Mareel asked.
Tillie remained silent, unable to come up with anymore “or whats.” One “or what” that did not occur to her was “or a massive school of fish will overwhelm your men, forcing them to flee the valley.”
Luckily for Tillie, however, that is precisely what happened.
Behind and above the warlord, hundreds of minnows suddenly poured over the rim of the valley, their multicolored scales illuminating the shadows as they dove.
At the head of the pack was Fiona.
Fighting the urge to flee, Tillie stood her ground as the fish sped by her, slamming into Lord Mareel. Under attack, the warlord relaxed his grip on Tillie and Grayden, who scrambled free.
Tillie surveyed the confusion around her. Fish slapped at warriors with their tails and butted them with their foreheads. The warriors pressed forward, attempting to defend themselves with their spears, although the graceful fish simply dodged the crude weapons. Sooner than Tillie expected, the skirmish turned into a retreat; the warriors fled toward the open water above the valley and the minnows followed, biting at their heels.
Fiona swam up to Grayden, a wide smile crossing her entire head.
Grayden wrapped both of his arms around her and hugged her tight. “Thank you, Fiona,” he whispered. “That’s another one I owe you.”
Tillie hovered in the water, motionless and confused. “What exactly just happened?” she asked.
Grayden and Fiona laughed, doubling over.
“Fiona’s got a big family,” Grayden said, still chuckling. “Get a hundred or more minnows in one place, and they can overwhelm an entire battalion of warriors!”
“But how did Fiona warn them?”
Grayden raised his eyebrows. Now he was confused. “She told them.”
“Fiona can talk?” Tillie asked, looking at the minnow.
Fiona smiled and nodded.
“You bet she can talk,” Grayden said. “She’s just very shy. Once she gets to know and like you, though, it’s hard to get her to shut up!”
Fiona shot Grayden a look of mock irritation.
“Oh,” Tillie said, a little offended that Fiona hadn’t yet spoken to her. Tillie swam over to the minnow. “Thank you for saving us, Fiona,” she said. “And please thank your family for me, too.”
Fiona bent her head in acknowledgment.
Grayden swam up onto Fiona’s back. “We better get out of here,” he said, patting the saddle in front of him. “And you should sit in front this time, Tillie,” he added. “So you don’t fall off.”