A New Order

"There is something you've never explained to me, Selka," Iorneste said, reclining against the wall at the summit of the Aerie Tower, the Knight-Marshal's quarters. The remains of a meal spread before him on the table, but he had excused himself only minutes ago. Selka had turned her chair to face him, but after a hard day of training she continued to eat.

"Oh?" she said, grey eyes looking up at him as she bit into the roasted flesh of a chicken. It had been three days since she had freed him from prison, and a faint red stubble was returning to her head. He estimated that it would be weeks before her hair returned in full, and he missed it, but did not want to tell her this.

"When I met with your father, I told him my sword was forged by dragons."

"Which," Selka muttered with her mouth full, pushing the food to one side of her mouth to answer more intelligibly, "Turns out was true?"

"Yes. But he scoffed at me, and said that dragons are dumb beasts, that this sword was clearly a relic from a lost age of Man."

Selka took a moment to swallow, and glanced around the room. "That is what we are taught."

"Yet," he said, and he walked back over to the table, and his fingers reached out towards her face, touching her chin and turning it up so that she could once again meet his eyes. The stubbornness was there, and she gave initial resistance, but in the end she obliged him. "You came to Mourne and I in our cell aboard the Cutlass, and you asked about the box. You said that as dragonslayers, it was likely we would know something about 'dragon magic'."

"I...I did," she said, and moved her head away from his hand, looking down. "I did not know you would remember that."

"Selka," he chastised her, "I do not forget anything. I have been very honest with you, it would be nice if you would not keep secrets from me."

She placed the remains of the chicken bone back on her plate, wiping her fingers and mouth on a napkin, and then rose to her feet so that she could more easily meet his height. Selka was not used to giving anyone other than her liege the superior position, and he understood with growing certainty her moods and her principles. His talking down to her was an irritation to her, only tempered by the complicated feelings between them. He followed her lead as she walked over to the balcony looking out upon the nighttime Mir, the moon a pale disc in the black sky.

"Sorens had many ideas, Iorn. Ideas that were shared by very few. Heretical ideas, even. But now I've realized that many of them were right. It was one reason I was able to believe you at all...some of the things you said were things he had told me. Though not nearly in as much detail as you."

"What did he tell you?"

"He told me that there was an entire world, a hidden world, of beings of great power that sometimes lived among us, like the stories of the gods of old coming down to earth in mortal flesh. He said that these beings were dragons, great, powerful, intelligent dragons. So intelligent, he claimed, that the reason no one had heard of them was that they were able to hide among us, to manipulate us, with magic."

The thought both disturbed and excited him. Lamarke Sorens had always been an interesting mystery, but he had not spoken of him to Selka in the past, not wanted to remind her of the massacre at Sandridge, or the loss of Kulvas. "I wonder how he knew this," he mused.

"He never said," she said with a sigh. "He was a man of many mysteries, and he was also my superior, so it would have been out of line to ask."

"So how did you know the box involved dragon magic, Selka?"

She looked away for a long moment, looking into the past. "He kept the box in his quarters. Here. Once I remarked on it, and he told me that what was inside was an ancient artifact, created by the great dragons he had spoken of, as was the box itself. He told me that the box was what made the Dragon Corps possible. He said it would be impossible to open, except..."

Iorneste finished her trailing thought. "Except Sorens knew exactly how to open it. Someone showed him how to open it."

"He said, and I quote, 'A little bat told me'."

He could not stop himself from flinching, and it drew her attention.

"What?" she asked him, moving closer and peering into his face. Under her scrutiny, and within bounds of her animus, he could feel her already getting a sense of what was going on inside of his head.

"Did he say anything else about it, Selka?" he asked, very quietly.

"Iorn, I am not sure...it was about fifteen years ago."

"Try to remember."

She frowned. "Is it really that important?"

"It may be."

She turned her back to the balcony, leaning against it, putting her head in her chin, wrinkles appearing between her eyes. "Let's see..." she said. "On that day, I can't remember why I was in his quarters, which is the room we are currently in, by the way."

"Did he commonly invite you to his quarters?" He asked the question innocently, but the red flush on Selka's face made him feel guilty. "That's not what I meant," he added, before she could speak.

"Not that often," she said, but he could tell she was being evasive, and it disappointed him. Humans were just not as good at deception as Drac, particularly when their animus could tell him everything he needed to know.

"You were lovers?" he asked, sensing her tumultuous feelings regarding Sorens, but her angry eyes and animus lashed him with reproach.

"No!" she growled, and he could feel her urge to slap him. "He was much older than I, and that would have been inappropriate. I'll admit that sometimes I...wished..."

He put his arm around her shoulders, and as volatile as her temperament and the memories he had dredged up were, he expected her to refuse him. But she did not, and the contact of his bare skin against the back of her neck felt very nice. "I am sorry, Selka...at times the words can escape my mouth."

"It was a fair question, you already know so much, you can read so much...it is like you know me."

He felt a gentle laugh bubble in his chest. "Selka, I do know you. But you also know me. In the truest way you can—"

"Through the animus," she finished. "Because I am kiin. I know. He was more like my father, Iorn. Looking back, it was wrong for him to show me so much favoritism over the other girls, and some of them resented it. Eluenne in particular. She made suggestions exactly like the one you just made. But he had known me since I was seven years old, and was a better and more constant father to me than my own. I suppose it was only natural that once I grew older I would have strong feelings for him."

It suddenly made her single-minded drive to seek Sorens all the more explainable. She considered him a traitor, but now he knew that it was not his treachery against Esturia that bothered her the most.

"Let us go back to the time you talked to him about the box. He said that a little bat told him."

"I am sorry, Iorn, I don't remember much about that conversation. I thought he was joking. Wasn't he joking?"

"I don't...I'm not sure," he said.

"So now what aren't you telling me?"

"It's not that I'm not telling you something, it's that I'm hoping you can confirm something before we start chasing shadows."

"I honestly cannot remember. We did not discuss the box often, I'm afraid. I just knew what he said about it, and that when he left, the box went with him. He was very clever about it, Iorn. He told me that he had some business to attend to, that he might be gone many weeks, and he left me in charge, as acting Knight-Marshal. After a couple months, we realized that something had happened. We thought maybe he had come to some dark end, until a man fitting his description was sighted in Lacrasse."

"Did he leave by dragon?"

"No, he never flew. But all of the dragons, sorry, the drakes, they respected and loved him. They would do whatever he said, and even if they were feeling particularly surly one day, he could always calm them down. We had no idea how important he really was until he was gone."

"From how far away could he talk to the dragons?"

"Sometimes they were not even within sight. He would say something like, 'Eluenne is on her way back, she should be here in an hour.'"

"Hmmm. Not even I could do that, not without help. I don't think any Drac could do that without help, except perhaps for a matriarch. So if they would do whatever he said, why did he never fly?"

"You should know this as well as anyone, Iorn. Men can't fly dragons."

"Normally I would agree with you, but Sorens had an edge. He had what was in the box, and now I think I know what it is."

That got her attention. She whipped her head around, peering into his face as if trying to see through his skull to his brain. "You do? What is it?"

"It is only conjecture. But I think it's a Dracmaar. Or a 'dragon signet', in Low Empyrian."

"What is a dragon signet?"

"The last was thought to be lost hundreds of years ago. All save one, currently worn by the ruby matriarch, the strongest of all Drac, Elshavasse."

"Okay, so what does it do? Lets you talk to dragons?"

"I know you tire of hearing about the animus—"

"It's not that, it's just that everything you talk about seems to revolve around it."

"Because it does. The animus is a reflection of physical size, a manifestation of one's emotional and spiritual presence. This is how order is maintained. Drac do not need to fight to solve disputes, we simply meld and the one with the stronger animus will win. This is why males are no match for females, and why we accept our place. There is no arguing with a stronger animus, there is only acceptance and compliance."

"So if you wanted...."

"Don't even say it. I would never do that to you. I would not crush your spirit merely to win an argument, or to get my way. You are not trained, and it would not be fair. Not to mention, I do not think I am capable of doing that yet, even if I wanted to."

"I guess...thank you?"

"I guess you are welcome," he said, and laughed, though felt a sting of pity for her discomfort. "But if it's a Dracmaar, anyone who wears it will find their animus more powerful, and they would have much greater control. There is nothing more valuable to us. We do not even know how they were made. It would be the crowning jewel of any dragon's hoard. It could cast down the balance of power, and raise a juvenile to a position of great strength."

"I see."

"And," he said, feeling the certainty settle into his bones as he said it, "It explains why my sister wants it so badly."

"Your sister? You have a sister?"

"I have two elder sisters. By elder I mean I have one that is almost two-hundred years older, and another that is almost seven-hundred years older."

He could see her struggling to encompass that kind of time scale, and knew that she could not.

"Just when I forget and think you are human..."

"If it looks human, and talks like a human, you will react as though it is human. It's what the First Exile is based on, and would not work otherwise."

"Do not think I'll make that same mistake in the future."

"Well, you cannot help yourself. You do it even now, even knowing what I really am. Some part of you refuses to believe it."

"Do not get overconfident, Iorn. Strahnd suspects that there is something wrong with you. He speaks to me about it daily."

He found a smirk on his face. "Strahnd has found himself supplanted as a dragon expert. I believe he struggles with it."

"And so he does. But no one can argue with your results."

"Which frustrates him even more. Yet he hovers at my side constantly, as if trying to learn my secrets, and asks many questions."

"You could send him away. You are the Keeper now, why do you make Doctor Strahnd your assistant? Do you really need an assistant?"

"He is not my assistant. He is my student."

She tossed back her head and laughed, such beautiful, raspy laughter that he laughed with her. "Your student?"

"Well, he does have quite a lot to learn."

"Embre tells me the other dragons have not flown in months."

"Tomorrow they will fly, Selka. Strahnd will receive quite an education. And so will the rest of your knights."

The sun, as it had for days, beat down like a hammer. It seemed as though everyone was here, and Embre Stormwall had watched the last three days with growing disbelief.

Who was this man, this Yorn Estera, who claimed to be from Summersgard, but had never attended the University? Who was this dragonslayer who walked among dragons without fear, who all moved next to him as though he were friend, not foe? And why had Selka trusted him, when he had been the one to kill her beloved Kulvas?

After meeting with him in private below the Aerie Tower, Selka had emerged with him in her care, and seeing them together, how they interacted, at once distant and professional but at the same time close and concerned in how they spoke with each other, it was clear that they were friends. However, although she may have been a woman warrior, raised from childhood to be such, she was still a woman. The intimacy between them seemed like something more than that.

Selka had named him Keeper, and the look on Strahnd's face had been a priceless treasure that she kept reviewing over and over in her head. Yorn had also released Cloud from certain death, who had rejoined the other dragons, and she had cried with such joy when it happened, despite her attempts to hold back the tears. Whatever her other questions about Yorn, he had earned her everlasting gratitude.

Just a big lizard, that was what many said about her dragon, a violent and dangerous one, but she remembered his first moments crawling from the egg. She remembered cuddling him at night in her room, until he was too large for her room, and was taken to the kennels with the others. But every day she had come to visit him, before the Viceroy's edict after Sorens had left that the kennels were off limits to the knights.

Yorn had reversed that decision, and she had returned several times since to find the place transformed. The implements of torture and control that had characterized the place, caught in glimpses when they would open the great doors to let the dragons out, now were stacked in piles outside of the kennels, to be discarded.

The dragons were not even bound anymore. They had been stripped of harness, of chains, of the bit and bridle, and Yorn had moved among them, applying a poultice to their wounds and speaking to them in a low voice, running his hands along their scales, and smiling at them as they brushed themselves up against him.

The doors to the kennel were now wide open, and Yorn stood before them, waiting. Each of the dragons emerged into the sunlight, ducking their serpentine heads to clear the overhang of the kennels.

In the lead was Korovas, who had slept for the past three days after partaking of an enormous meal. He looked much better than he had when he arrived, and blinked only once in the sun, as it caught his scales they sparkled like emerald. Selka smiled next to her, raising one hand in greeting, and Korovas trumpeted his response, wings flapping and raising a small cloud of grit. The handlers shouted, looking dwarfed by the great creature, their heads rising no farther than Korovas' knees, some of them running forward reaching for the tools and implements that had given them the edge against the dragons in the past, and they found none at hand. Several stopped, chattering uselessly, muttering among themselves, but they need not have bothered. Korovas came forward to the center of the courtyard, next to Yorn, and waited, as faithful and compliant as Strahnd could have ever wished for.

Next to follow was Despera's King, the scarred tissue above his right eye easily identifying him, the socket within it empty. Smaller than Korovas, he deferred to the larger dragon, but his single eye was focused on Despera, who she could see stiffen and judged her sudden intake of breath to be a positive sign. Since the accident, since he had tried to take to the air on his own and had been forcibly restrained by the handlers, losing an eye in the process during the scuffle and burning the western wall, Despera had little interest in flying and had seemed fearful and withdrawn ever since. Whether this was due to fear of King or of what would happen to him, Embre was not certain. Despera had always been unwilling to talk about it.

Cloud came next, and Embre felt a lump in her throat. He was as large as Korovas, as they had both been hatched within days of each other, and lumbered over to the left of his childhood wyrm friend, completing the line before Yorn. She realized suddenly that they were in the same position as the knights, achieving the same formation, with Selka, Despera, and herself looking directly across the field at their dragon, with only Yorn between them.

Strahnd, for his part, stood close to Yorn as well, eyes darting back and forth between them, chattering questions to Yorn, that Yorn did not seem to be answering. From this distance she could not make out his words, but his sense of incredulity was obvious. She shared it somewhat, as there was nothing to control or direct them. Should they decide to take flight or to lash out, there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. Except, perhaps, Yorn. Once again her curiosity and all the questions about him returned, and she had no answers. It was like Sorens had returned, in the form of this young blond-haired man with the scarred face, eyes of cobalt, and the manner of a much older man about him.

Next to emerge was Elshalle, Coelle's dragon, who in his youth she had decorated with flowers and easily recognizable among the others by the golden rings that she had purchased for him and fitted onto his horns. Smaller than Korovas and Cloud, similar in size to King, he took position next to King, again looking across the field to Coelle, who smiled at him with her slight, pretty face. Embre still found it amusing that her dragon was named after the most famous poet of the Many Kingdoms, but coming from Coelle no other name seemed more appropriate.

Whisper and Emerald exited the kennels together. Whisper, Tresha's dragon, leading the younger dragon, who was in many ways as much a child as Freda remained. Embre smiled despite herself, and felt a wistful sense of nostalgia, remembering when Cloud had been so small. Emerald weaved back and forth behind Whisper, head ducking out to peek at Freda, who mirrored his childlike game of peek and spy. Embre cleared her throat, and Freda snapped to attention once more.

The dragons were all assembled in front of Yorn, and the entire courtyard waited for him to speak. She could see Brannoch nearby, the old soldier who had struck up a friendship with Yorn, leaning against the blacksmith's anvil nearby, ducked under the shade. The blacksmith, Ergoth, stood behind him, arms folded and sweat streaming from his body and dark brown beard as the banked heat of the forge beat at his back.

Yorn turned his back to the dragons, once considered a death sentence by the keepers and Strahnd struggled to mirror his motion, head continuously glancing behind him to make sure the dragons were not advancing. Embre stifled a chuckle, bringing her fist to her mouth to hide the gesture and clearing her throat again, though she did not really need to do so.

"I am told there was once a policy," Yorn began, and his voice carried in the muggy air. It was a pleasant voice, articulate, and possessed a kind of deep thrum in it that had always seemed maddeningly familiar to her, and reminded her of something, but she could never place it. "That the dragons should not fly, unless their riders were upon their backs. This means," he said, and glanced over to Strahnd with a censurous eye, "That these dragons were never allowed to seek their own balance in the sky. Never allowed to hunt together. That changes today."

If he expected a response, he received none, although Strahnd's eyes were about to bulge out of his head. He absorbed the pause, continuing on as if unconcerned about the lack. "I would like to call each of you forward, to meet your dragon once more. Starting with our youngest, Squire Freda Swaine."

Freda started in surprise, and she looked over to Embre for confirmation, but with a nod of her head, the short-haired young woman walked across the field to Yorn, and then looked up to Emerald, standing before him. The two looked at each other and Embre could tell by the fidgeting of her hands she was both nervous and excited. Emerald seemed calm and above it all.

"What did you name him, Freda Swaine?"


"That," he said, smiling at her with reassurance, "Is a very appropriate name."

Freda giggled. "I wanted to name him something green, and 'grass' was a terrible name."

"You named him well. Reach forward, Freda, and touch his scales."

She looked back at Yorn, her brown eyes wide. "He is not restrained."

"Forget everything you have learned about dragons, Freda Swaine. I can assure you that he will not harm you, if you are without fear and stand with pride, as one warrior to another. Emerald has much respect for you, and you have never been encouraged to mistreat him. Perhaps because he is a bit too young to bear a rider. Of all of the dragons here," and his eyes scorched Strahnd with accusation, "He is the least damaged by the tender ministrations of the former Keeper."

"Now see here," Doctor Strahnd interjected, outstretched finger threatening to poke Yorn in the chest, face mottled with embarrassment or outrage.

"Hush, you," Yorn snapped, looking down at the doctor's stalled finger as if he wanted to bite it. "You are here to observe, Doctor Strahnd. You have had almost twenty years to perform your demented experiments upon them. You can give me a few days. This is not about you, Ser, it is about these dragons, and the ones who would be their riders."

Freda lost all composure, such was her surprise at seeing how Yorn spoke to Strahnd, her mouth was a large gaping O, and her eyes were wide in unabashed shock. Embre could empathize. No one had ever spoken to Strahnd like that, but she was coming to appreciate seeing him put in his place over the past few days. Cheating a glance over at Selka, Embre saw her biting her lip, attempting to wrestle with an inappropriate grin.

"Go on, young one," Yorn said, his voice soft and barely reaching Embre's ears across the field. Freda looked back up at Emerald, and then moved forward, touching his scales with her hand.

"Tell him who you are, Freda."

She opened her mouth to speak, and he shushed her. "No, not that way. With your heart." Yorn reached out a hand as well, placing it it over hers so that the three of them were touching: dragon, squire, and Keeper. They stood thus for some moments, before Freda cried out in shock, "Oh gods!" But she kept her hand there for some time longer, and Embre was curious beyond all measure as to what was going on.

It took some time, and outside of the knights standing at attention there was a murmur about the people watching in the courtyard. Some openly pointed, chattering with those nearby, others just shook their heads and wondered aloud what was going on. The dragon handlers, in particular, seemed the most confused, some of them throwing up hands in disgust or shrugging their shoulders, the rest staring open-mouthed.

Through it all, the heat continued to hammer down, causing the air to shimmer among the standing dragons.

At long last, Freda withdrew her hand, her fingers trembling. There were tears tracking down her dirty cheeks. "I did not know..." she said, looking up at Yorn.

Embre was surprised to hear Selka's voice next to hear, barely a whisper. "None of us did."

"It was not your fault, Freda. You did well. Stand here, with your friend, while I call the others." Freda turned to face the rest of them, smiling through her tears, and took a few steps backward until she rested her body against Emerald. The young dragon's head snaked down, neck wrapping over her body as his head brushed against her shoulder. She reached out her hands, holding him around the neck.

What in the hells was going on? Freda had never been that at ease around Emerald as he had grown, but she now seemed unconcerned, comfortable even, and Embre felt her heart begin to pound in her chest.

"Dame Tresha Lagarre," he called, and she stepped forward, walking proud across the field, standing before Whisper.

"Whisper, is it not?" he asked her, and she nodded. "Because he is quiet?"

"Yes," she said, and there was a catch in her voice.

"He would not let you ride him, would not fly, even when you speared him with your spurs, even while you cursed him, and yanked on his bridle, which broke his back teeth and dislocated his jaw, screaming at him to 'Fly, you stupid beast?'"

Tresha doubled over as if punched, stepping backwards away from Yorn, her eyes and face looking between Whisper with such wretched guilt that it broke Embre's heart. She had tried much the same failed approach with Cloud.

"It worked for Eluenne," he continued, the judgment weighty in his voice, "Because for her, it was not an act. She was not doing as she was told. She was doing as she pleased."

Embre watched as Tresha could not muster the words to respond, and Yorn held her cruelly in his gaze for a bit longer, before breaking off his admonishment. His voice grew softer, "I understand, Dame Lagarre. But he does not. Not yet. Help him understand, and remember, as one warrior to another."

He raised his hand, and she matched him, hand hesitant, but he captured it and pressed it to the flank of the green-scaled dragon, and from there it went much as before. At first a long silence, and then Tresha cried out, and it was such a cry of pain and sorrow that Embre started forward, hand on her sword.

Then she felt Selka's hand on her arm, and a curt shake of her red-stubbled head to go along with it. "He knows what he is doing, Embre," she said, her voice soft. Embre stepped back into formation. "He knows better than anyone."

"Knight-Marshal, I request an audience after—"

"Granted, of course. But later."

She let Selka's assurances set her at ease for now, and the knowledge that answers would be coming was enough for her to grant Yorn the trust that Selka seemed to feel that he deserved.

Tresha trembled with shock, also leaning back against Whisper, and he mirrored the actions of Emerald, his neck laying across her body, and her unbound hair hiding her downcast face as her shoulders shook. Her arms wrapped around the neck of her dragon as well, hugging him even more tightly than Freda.

"Dame Coelle Eldewinde," Yorn then called as he turned around, and Embre could see his own blue eyes reddened and his cheeks tracked with tears as well, the lines cutting through the dirt on his right check, and crossing over the jagged scar there to form an X.

Coelle did not need further invitation and marched across the courtyard, looking up at her adorned dragon, who turned his head down towards her, meeting her gaze.

"Elshalle," Yorn spoke. "I like that name, as I respect the author. You have also done him great honor with your gifts of gold."

She blinked at him, her blue eyes like his own sparkling across the field. "Really, Ser?" she said in her calm, noble voice. "I was not aware that men read Elshalle."

"Some men do. Some men even enjoy it."

Coelle smiled at him then, "At every turn, Ser, you are more and more rare. I do not fear to touch him, as you must know."

Embre could hear Selka shifting next to her, grinding her feet into the dirt and her teeth together in what, Embre felt, was a very jealous sort of way. She also knew that pretending she was not aware of Selka's reaction was the surest way to keep all of her teeth in her head.

Yorn's smile was bright and natural in response. "Humor me regardless, Coelle. Tell him who you are."

The process repeated much as before, though this time Coelle reached up to touch Elshalle's downturned head. Yorn reached over, touching the dragon as well and Coelle was quiet for a long moment. Composed as ever, she did not cry out, but her eyes were wet when they were done, and she also leaned back against the great dragon, and did not seem to want to stop touching his hide.

"Dame Embre Stormwall," Yorn called, and she felt her feet carrying her forward, but her head felt less settled. She loved Cloud, he was an amazing animal like all of the dragons, but what had happened to the others when they had touched their dragon had unnerved her. Emotional weakness was dangerous in her position, and she had taken a page from Selka in keeping her emotions in check, especially in front of those she outranked, much less before the eyes of everyone in the garrison.

Listening to his hard words to Tresha had hurt her, because she had been of a similar mindset. Cloud was a proud and dangerous animal, and she needed to assert her strength, but he had grown the most unruly after Sorens left. Her attempts to bring him to heel and into the air, usually accompanied by Strahnd's sighs of frustration, had left her feeling increasingly insecure against the others. If she could not even get her dragon to fly, as he once had, how could she expect the others to do the same?

Then Eluenne had come along and done it with Korovas, with insulting, albeit cruel, ease.

She stood before Yorn, but did not salute, as he was a civilian. He spoke first, giving her a formal bow that was well-executed. "Dame Embre Stormwall," he said, with a soft smile. "I believe you know what to do, yes?"

"Not really," she admitted. "But perhaps it will make sense soon enough."

She found Cloud looking down at her, his bright yellow eyes unblinking. Reaching out her hand, she pressed her palm against his scales, still looking up at him. Tell him who you are, Yorn had said. With your heart. What did that even mean?

She tried. I am Embre Stormwall, Knight-Captain of the Dragon Corps, now disbanded. My parents have not quite disowned me, but as the youngest in the family it was either joining the Dragon Corps or becoming a lady-in-waiting to someone of greater importance. My elder brother, Tarne, will inherit the family fortune. This is all I have. I am very sorry for what happened to you. There was not anything I could do to stop it, but I am glad you are free now, Cloud.

There was a strange sense, something she could not place, could not even define. She caught the edge of it, the faintest whisper, and then it was gone.

"Stormwall...you are aptly named, Dame," Yorn said, in a voice so quiet it was for her ears only. He placed his hand over hers, his other hand reaching up to stroke Cloud's neck. "You must let down those walls you have built, and release your storm. He cannot find you."

She felt a nudge within her mind, and the shock caused her to drop her hand, or would have, but Yorn held her firm. "You are strong, Embre," he continued, and she was not sure if she heard him speaking the words or if they were in her mind. "And so is Cloud. Let go, Embre. You can take it, and so can he. Let him know you."

Trembling like a leaf, she felt something, the desire for closeness, the desire to be close, but the wall was there. So hard and unyielding, she did not know how to bring it down, but she was painfully aware of the heavy burden, and wanted to leave it, but after years of holding it, she was not sure how. The two of them stared at each other, almost in a contest of wills, their eyes locked in an unblinking match.

"Remember," Yorn whispered to her, "Once you slept in the same bed, in the same room. His first memory upon hatching, was of you. He will never forget that, and I do not think you have, either."

Like a dam breaking, she felt her eyes burst with tears and the wall inside of her heart came down and a barrage of emotion swept over her and through her, until she was carried away by the flood. There were her own feelings to contend with, but there were others, things she did not understand at first until she realized that they were not her feelings at all.

They were his. They were Cloud's. Glimpses of flight through his eyes, and of the treatment he had received at her hand, both good and bad, the mournful isolation of his time on death row, his sorrow for his perished brothers, the lost female dragon who had flown away, and some part of him yearned to follow. His incredible care and devotion for her, who he thought of like his little mother, touched her most of all. An almost equal amount of devotion was turned towards Yorn, and she was aware of his presence in there among them, but to her he was distant and withdrawn. This was not supposed to be his moment but hers, hers and Cloud's.

She understood at last, and knew how to explain to him who she was. In doing so, she felt who he was as well, and a bond that she had once envied between Selka and Kulvas was now hers at last, and she came to realize, as if someone was translating for her, all of the things that they had done so wrong over the years, and all of the things she had never understood.

It was like there was an entire language she had never known existed, and suddenly she could speak it. Crude enough, but she could speak it, and so could Cloud, and the language was the language of their heart.

When she returned to herself, she noticed that Yorn had removed his hand from Cloud, but she was unwilling to let go, marveling at the sense of him, and the knowledge, the real understanding, that all was forgiven, and they were friends once more.

"Thank you," she whispered to Yorn.

He bowed his head to her in response, patting Cloud one final time before turning back to peer through the haze of heat and moisture that hung heavy in the air.

"Dame Despera Cael," he called, and from this position Embre could appreciate the magnitude and timbre of his voice, it would carry quite well on a battlefield. For her part, Despera looked down at her feet. Selka reached over, putting a steadying hand on her shoulder, and then the two of them began to cross the field together. Despera's green-flecked eyes then sought King, her mouth twisted as if in pain, and the single remaining eye of her dragon watched her approach at the Knight-Marshal's side.

Yorn spoke to her as she approached, his voice firm but respectful. "Dame Cael," he said, head bowing to her in deference. "King has a rare characteristic. Three horns atop his head. Like a—"

"Crown?" finished Despera, but her vocalization sounded thin, and she mustered only a wan smile. "Yes. That is why I named him King."

"I have already discussed the matter of how he lost one of his eyes with Strahnd," he grumbled, and the hard look he gave to the Doctor standing at his side made the man swallow. "But it was not your fault, Dame. You must not blame yourself for this."

"Thank you," she said, but her expression was dubious.

"Please, do as the others did. I will help you."

As Despera brought her hand to the hide of King, the dragon cried out and Despera would have fled, but Yorn caught her in his grip and held her hand to the dragon. "You must see all of it!" he hissed. "It is the only way to pass beyond the pain."

Embre brought her hand to her sword hilt for the second time as Despera began to writhe, to twist, to scream and cry, and King tossed back his head to the sky and let out a trumpeting roar, punctuated with a burst of dragonfire. The handlers stirred into motion, digging into the scrap piles for their sedatives, and Strahnd began to run, putting the rest of the knights between him and the effusive dragon.

Then Despera went quiet, and Yorn stepped back from her, giving King a frowning glance. "No one move!" he shouted. "There is no problem here!"

The world then watched in the still heat and in profound silence, punctuated by Despera's small, gasping breaths and then, soon, shuddering cries of sad release.

Embre imagined the sight as it must have appeared to Strahnd, whose normally well-kept hair was disheveled, the golden stubble on his face and the haunted look of his eyes showing the signs of a man who had received little sleep the past few days. Here they were, their small band of dragon riders and their dragons, part of a new order that had not yet even been named, each of them in close physical contact with the dragons they had befriended from their birth, who they had been kept isolated from outside of training exercises for years, ever since Sorens had left them and Strahnd had taken a more active role.

It was a rebuke to him. A condemnation of all of his methods, and a proof of his wrongness. None of them were dead, the dragons had not run amok killing indiscriminately, and as each of the knights now knew, truly in their heart, dragons were not mindless beasts at all.

If anything, they were a great deal more honorable and genuine than people.

The sense of knowing, not guessing or intuiting, but truly knowing how Cloud felt about her was a treasure that she had never thought to possess. Now, at last, she understood what Freda had said, and what Selka had echoed. We never knew. Selka had suspected, but they had never known this was possible.

Whatever Yorn had done, their eyes were now truly open in a way they never had been before. Her questions about him were now even greater than ever before, but when Yorn spoke his next words she did not question him anymore, as she often had with Strahnd. It was clear that Yorn understood something key here that Strahnd did not, and despite whatever credentials or degrees he might possess, he was not the one with the greater knowledge or understanding of the situation.

And almost in sadness, Embre realized that she possessed more understanding now of her dragon than Strahnd ever could.

"Say your farewells, Dame Knights. It is time for them to fly together, to seek their own company for a time. Now that they know who you are, they will return."

He cast a glance in Strahnd's direction, along with his voice. "This I can promise you."

They all said their farewells then, some of them aloud, but all of them speaking with their hearts. She felt Cloud swell with pride, the creature she had always known him to be yearning for the sky, for sun and the clouds that were his namesake. She wanted nothing more in that moment for him to fly free, to leave it all behind if he wanted, if only to be happy and to finally choose the life he had never been given a chance to choose for himself.

One by one, starting with Selka giving Korovas a friendly pat and leaning her head against him, they took to the air, for the first time without their riders. Cloud thrust himself up from the earth and joined his brothers in formation, circling in the air above. The last to leave was King, who dipped his head to Despera and who leaned forward to give him a tug on his central horn before he winged into the air, joining the others.

They wheeled about to the west, seeking a jet-stream, and then were carried into the distance, disappearing into Aeon's rays.

Yorn turned to Coelle and smiled. "There is a line from Elshalle that comes to mind. Can you think of which one?"

Coelle pondered for a moment, and then spoke as if reading aloud upon the stage.

"For truest love is demonstrated

When one would suffer to let love go,

If their letting go brings greater joy."

The next morning Iorneste had taken the field, and was not surprised to see Selka there already. She and Embre were engaged in mock combat, the two of them having some kind of conversation in the process, and he could hear that at least some of it had to do with him. He had little concern for Selka revealing his secret. They had discussed that at length. Not only would he fail his First Exile if others were told, he was more concerned about her willingness to tell absolutely everything to her liege. Though she had sworn to be honest with him, she had also sworn to protect him, and he had made it abundantly clear to her that his possession of such knowledge would be dangerous to him if the Drac became aware of it, particularly if he decided to act upon it.

While he still remained concerned about what she would tell King Gracellus when next they met, he had little doubt she would keep certain things to herself while addressing Embre.

There had been another problem that vexed him considerably, that he had not yet discussed with her. That she had spoken of little of her time in Earlemont had been strange, that she had cut her hair had been more alarming still, as she was clearly troubled by it and had no ready explanation for it.

This was a red flag for any Drac, and in his observances of her, he had discovered certain barriers in her thoughts, encouragements given by a skilled worker of the animus that had left not only suggestions in her mind, but taboo lines of inquiry into her own thoughts. It had taken some time, but he believed he had cleared the worst of these, though he knew he was no where near as skilled as the one who had tampered with her mind.

But at least he now knew who was responsible. His sister Sheldrache had gone to Earlemont, and one of the things that Selka had been encouraged not to think about had been her escort of the Murian noblewoman (as she had thought of her) to Earlemont. What she had not known was how much she had revealed to Sheldrache, or what Sheldrache had told her to do.

Mourne had told him that Sheldrache had grown quite angry when Mourne informed her that she was under his protection. What had happened to his kiin was as much his fault as anyone's. Sheldrache was angry with Selka, for reasons he could not ascertain, but one thing she did not enjoy was being told what to do.

She had not harmed Selka per se, but she had encouraged her to bring the razor to her scalp, and to remove all of her hair. The message was very clear.

Sheldrache could just have easily encouraged Selka to kill herself.

The anger boiled in his throat and he did not trust himself among the others. Seeking a sheltered alcove, he took the form of the mirhawk and launched into the skies, his anger keening from his mouth.

He was but a short way down the road when his keen eyes spotted a figure moving on the ground far below. He dived to the ground for a closer inspection, landing on a sturdy branch. Confirming it was who he thought, he dropped down the ground, reverting to the form of Yorn in midair, landing on the ground with a solid thump.

The mereling whirled around at the noise, knives already in hand and mouth drawn back into a hissing snarl. His ears went up, sweeping back his hood, and the snarl on his face twisted into a cryptic mereling smile. "Iornesssssste," Gharel said. "Jussssst the one I wissshed to sssee."

"Earlier than expected. What are you doing here, Gharel?"

"I bring you greetingsss from Mourne, who hasss sssent me to you. Phasssse One issss complete."

This did not sound like anyone had been as careful as he had recommended. Still...

"This is very good news, Gharel. Am I to assume you have brought me something?"

"Of courssse," the mereling said, reaching into his cloak and handing him a leather pouch. He did not need to glance inside to confirm what it was, and tucked it into one of the many pockets inside of his coat, making it disappear.

"So now Phase Two is complete. I assume that Mourne is now at work on Phase Three?"

"Yessss. He issss sstronger than I thought. And very ssssmart."

"Return to him, then. He may need your help. And you should not be seen here with me."

Gharel spit. "Good! I did not wissh to ssstay in the Mir!" Without so much as a farewell, thank you, or even an insult, Gharel turned and began racing back up the trail in the opposite direction on all fours.

It often took an entire day or more to execute a Drac's farewell. Humans as well were often known for prolonging their departure. Merelings, it seemed, did not even know how to say goodbye.

The distraction had been enough to calm his ire. He would deal with his sister when he returned to Earlemont. For now, there was still much to do.

Artist Credit


by Zaina Isard a.k.a. "Queen Z"

© 2015 Zaina Isard

Continue to Chapter Nineteen