Fear and Love
She missed her children. It had been years since she had last seen them.
She shifted her feet, but was unable to move them beyond a few shuffling steps. The thick iron chains that bound her about the neck, that latched around her feet, the thick wires that kept her jaws trapped shut, these ensured that she never knew what it felt like to move about freely.
This was her reality, this was her every day.
She was deep in a cave, with only the flickers of daylight to remind her of sun and sky. Sometimes, and it was rare when it happened, a wisp of air from the outdoors would make its way untainted to her cave, and she would breathe it deeply, and her bound wings would raise and she would try to flutter them, but she had grown larger since she had been consigned here, and even if her wings had not been bound, she still would not have been able to fully extend them.
The muck had risen since she had been imprisoned here, too. The back half of her body was mired in foul mud and brackish water that had seeped into the tunnel from the Mir. Though the temperature was of no real bother to her, the sensation of constantly being wet, of constantly being half-submerged and unable to free herself of it, was maddening.
As a drake, her emotions were uncomplicated. Rage and sadness were the hallmarks of her existence. Like many times before, she felt her anger building, felt the fire rising up her throat, threatening to stream from her mouth, threatening to burn everything. If she could have burned herself alive, she would have.
Despite that impossibility, the humans had made it even less possible by muzzling her, and the flame had no where else to go, except to be swallowed. With it came the feeling of burning indigestion and resigned sadness.
Her animus reached out as usual, desperately. Sometimes she could sense them, her brood, her children. They would exchange feelings of longing for each other, comforting each other as best as they were able. But it never lasted long. They would be taken away from her, and sometimes she could even hear their protests, distantly, through layers of rock, and she would thrash against her bonds, straining and pulling and seeking some sort of release, so that she could join them.
In these times, she would thrash against the bonds until morning, but they always held. She had once broken one of the chains, when she had experienced one of her brood being put to death. Then they had done something to her to make her sleep, and when she awoke again, the chain had been repaired, stronger than before, even shorter than the last chain.
Since then, none of the chains had broken, and she was no closer to freedom.
She reached her nose outward, straining at the extent of the fetters, feeling them pulling her back towards the muck, back legs sliding to gain purchase, neck stretching as far as it could, so that her nose could just touch the light coming through the cave opening overhead. She imagined the sun, that almost forgotten light in the sky that had once bathed her scales in its warmth, and how she had basked in it, how she had never considered that there would be a day it would be taken from her.
And then she cried, and struggled with feelings of anger and yearning and sorrow, and wished for death.
The Mir was a foul and distant place in popular imagination, and most of Greatre and Lessre Esturia would have preferred to never know it existed at all. The Mir had once existed, according to legend, as a tiny pocket of swamp, and indeed on the oldest maps that anyone could find, it was often not rendered at all.
But the Mir grew, year after year, little by little. The swampy waters continued to rise, to spread out, overflowing banks and seeking out new lowlands. The flora and fauna of the Mir would come with it: the buzzing flies and the needled-jawed shrakes would surge from the black depths and shallows, the arguans could be heard gurgling and calling in the distance, and the branches of the banar trees would soon be crawling with furry mereling hunters.
Mir's Edge marked the eastern border of Greatre Esturia. Not far from the capital of Earlemont, but far enough away in the event of a dragon uprising as to not pose an immediate danger. Sorens' promise to bring dragon riders to Greatre Esturia had been heeded by the King, but it was after a time of war and appointments and fiefdoms had already been appointed. The only piece of land available to offer to the fledgling order had been at Mir's Edge.
Mir's Edge itself continued to sprawl and drift over time, with networks of wooden bridges (which frequently rotted and needed to be rebuilt) allowing it to maintain some sort of relationship to more solid land, but the town of Mir's Edge did not resemble any sort of human town at all, and there was no outer wall. It was more of a series of small, high islands threatening to be overtaken by the inexorable rise of the waters, linked by wooden bridges.
The largest island within Mir's Edge left no doubt as to its purpose, as unlike the rest of the rustic surroundings, upon it was built a large keep made of solid stone, with a large central tower. It had once been an Esturian landmark in centuries past, before the lowlands below it had been swallowed by the Mir. Despite its origin in the hands of men, the Mir had made it its own. Thick slimy vines crawled up the walls of stone, and the small aqueous wildlife of the Mir treated the structure like any other in the Mir, and scurried around and through it with impunity.
The Dame Embre Stormwall considered the Mir with distaste from atop Aerie Tower, as the morning sunlight of Aeon scattered across the murky waters. It almost looked beautiful from up here, but having spent enough time at ground level, she knew that she would never see it like a mereling did. There was nothing beautiful about the Mir. Not unless a thousand agonizing ways to die was beautiful, and hearing such thoughts from merelings always made her question their sanity.
She wiped sweat from her brow, feeling the air thick in her lungs. Her green dragonscale armor was wet, hot, and uncomfortable as ever in the humid, earthy air of the Mir. She considered, as she had every day since in Selka's absence, conceding to popular demand and telling everyone to save their armor, store it, and practice their drills in more casual attire.
Then she would think of the look on Selka's face when she returned, and banished the idea.
After all, Selka wore it. Every day. Whenever Embre thought to complain to her superior, a similar thought would stop her before she could start. Everything that Selka asked them to do, she would do it as well. When everyone else was turning in for the night, in fact when Selka was demanding that everyone go to sleep, they could often hear her at night, on the training grounds.
Embre was a Knight-Captain, and served as Selka's trusted friend and ally, her right-hand in the Dragon Corps. But even she did not really understand the woman she served. There were some, primarily Eluenne, that insisted that Selka was not well. That she had lost her mind years ago, and would drag everyone down with her.
Those words had landed Eluenne in a great deal of trouble, and it was Embre herself who had assigned her to endless swamp duty, mucking out the black, smelly mud of the Mir that was seeping even now into the lower bowels of the keep. Even so, she could understand why some of the others quietly agreed with Eluenne.
None of them were flying dragons anymore. They were directionless and without purpose, going through the motions in the hope that there would come a day in which something would change. She knew that Eluenne had gone to fetch Selka, but that had been days ago. Though content with the mantle of leadership, she still relied on Selka in many ways, and feared that eventually the rest of the Corps would realize how much she was faking it, how much she was pretending there was still a future for them.
She woke up every morning fearing there was not, and with that came the despair: If this is to end, then what will my life be for?
She kept the wheels that Selka had set in motion, because there was nothing else she could think to do. She had her orders, they all did. She just did not know how much longer she had, before she was ousted from the order like the others.
It had been three weeks since she had last seen Cloud. Just thinking of the name of her green-scaled childhood companion brought such a wretched feeling that she instantly regretted thinking of him at all. In seclusion and isolation for killing one of the dragon handlers, he was as good as dead to her. There was an appeal pending to the court, to which she had not yet received a response, but the court had never granted an appeal in the past.
She knew the rules all too well. If a dragon attacks a person, it is sequestered and punished. If it kills a person, it is sequestered for a time, and if an appeal is not successful, executed. After which its body is plundered for parts, meat, skin, scales, organs for alchemical materials, bones, and the other treasures that comprise the body of an adult dragon.
They wanted to breed docile dragons, of course. Ones that attacked their handlers were not good breeding stock.
When that happened, when he was slaughtered, she would not be able to fulfill her duties. Then she, too, would step down, returning to her family in failure, leaving Selka with a small handful of girls who were barely women.
And Eluenne. A political appointment that refused to get the hint she was not wanted, whose cruel temper seemed to be exactly the thing to get a dragon in the air these days. The less she thought about her the better.
It was a grim situation in her mind, and she bolstered herself to face another day as if nothing had changed, nothing was different. Preparing to assume her mantle of command.
That was when young Freda burst into the tower, panting from the run up the six hundred or so stairs that led to the top of the aerie. "Dame! There's a stranger at the gates!"
"Is he hostile?" she said, snagging her sword belt from the table near the window and buckling it on, walking across the room to the opposite window and looking down below to the courtyard. She recognized Despera's plaited hair, along with Tresha's curls, their weapons in motion.
The one with the long silver-blonde hair standing at the gate was new, however.
"Not exactly," Freda said, as she gazed down at the courtyard, "But he is very handsome."
Embre groaned and headed for the stairs. "Why did you not turn him away?"
"He says he is a friend of Selka's."
"Hmm. We'll see about that. Let's go."
Before Iorneste decided to knock at the front door, he had done some exploration as a mirhawk.
He had soared in gliding circles, considered the enormity of Aerie Tower, remembering Selka's casual claim that she ran up and down the stairs every morning as part of her routine, and could not help but feel impressed. This was not much of a surprise, but he discovered several surprises during his reconnaissance that troubled him more.
For one, he only was able to detect three figures, women, in the green dragonscale armor of a dragon rider. There were other girls and young women there, but he reasoned they must have not yet attained the necessary training, or necessary rapport with a dragon, to be considered knights. Even so, there was but a handful of these younger females, and it was certainly not the large military organization he had imagined.
Selka was Knight-Marshal, but she only had four actual knights under her control, and one of them was Eluenne. To his regret, he did not see Selka among them. She had not yet arrived. Where was she? Despite arriving long before she could have expected, he had felt she would have been here by now, would have hurried to be here so that she could see him. He hoped that she had not run into any trouble.
Though she was careful about the face she presented to the world, in her private conversations with him, Selka had more than once inferred that it was all a sham. That she was keeping up appearances, and that the days of the Dragon Corps were numbered. She had also mentioned how she did not walk among the other knightly orders feeling as an equal, or that she could present herself as one of them. She was not the leader of a large battallion, she was in fact the leader of a small handful, incapable of filling the ranks. Which might have been forgivable, if they could have brought dragons with them to the battlefield anymore.
The drakes themselves were nowhere in sight, and despite his attempts he could not find his way into the kennels, easily recognizable as the newest structure in the area, no more than fifteen or twenty years old, and certainly immense enough to house several dragons, with large doors on the side for bringing them in, all of which remained closed, like stubborn arms folded. If he was going to visit the kennels, it would have to be on the ground, through the front door.
From talking to Selka, from the memories he had gleaned from the drakes, he knew he was not going to like what he saw. He knew he was going to get very angry. He had spent hours circling, planning his approach, considering everything from outright violence to stealth and guile to free the dragons.
In the end, he had discarded all of those plans. This was Selka's life he was tampering with, in addition to the lives of the dragons. Even when he had attempted to show restraint, he still had broken and dislocated Eluenne's arm. It made him hesitant to try the direct approach.
But then he remembered Mourne's orders. He had explicitly ordered him to limit damage to life, limb, and property. He had a feeling that were he to attempt the same maneuver he had tried against Eluenne, that the Binding would cripple him. No matter what violent thing he wanted to do, the Binding would stop him.
In a strange way, and perhaps for the first time, he was glad the Binding existed. It would be a crutch that would allow him to act reasonably, as a human, despite whatever feelings that might rise to the surface.
Still, he dreaded his descent, the loss of his wings, and the need to interact once more like a human being. He feared what he would find, feared how he would react, and feared most of all how it might change his view of Selka. Until now he had not truly been a part of her world, had not seen the place she lived and breathed.
Had not yet seen the horrors she was responsible for inflicting on his brethren.
It was this that terrified him most of all, and this that he did not want to see for himself. In the end, however, he was here for the drakes at least as much as he was here for her. He settled his misgivings, circled down to the earth, and returned to the form of Yorn of Summersgard.
A short while later, he ducked out of cover, walking around and to the front of the gates of the keep of the Dragon Corps. With two ringing, solid knocks against the metal portcullis, he announced himself.
There would of course be regular male guards to keep an eye on the females, and those were the ones who met him at the gate. Truth to be told, there were not enough knights here to hold the garrison in the event of attack, though few would care about a lonely garrison on the edge of the Mir, anyway, and fewer still would be so suicidal as to attack a garrison housing dragons.
In which case, why were they here? He felt affronted on behalf of Selka, having an inkling of how she probably felt about it.
The guards sauntered up to the other side of the portcullis, one holding a crossbow, the other holding nothing but his attitude. This one was in front, gazing up and down, eyes lingering on Iorneste's bare and shoeless feet, and the sneer on his face was pure, natural, and unforced.
"Beggars," the guard said as a greeting, "Are shot on sight."
"Very charitable of you," he replied. "I am here to see someone."
"I doubt very much, vagabond, that there is anyone here that wants to see you. Run off now, before you're tripping over arrows."
He clenched his hands a bit tighter on his staff, but did his best to keep the dragon out of his eyes. "Knight-Marshal Selka Euphrane," he said. "Or her superior in absentia. That's who I wish to speak with. My name is Yorn. I am a friend of hers."
The guard with the crossbow began to raise it into his sights.
"You don't hear very well," said the guard closest to him, "Do you, marsh rat?"
He knew where this was going, and it was going all wrong. "Look," he said, holding up one hand. "I know you must get paid in terms of the number of illegitimate murders you perform upon weary travelers who show up at your gates, dragons-in-residence notwithstanding. But if you loose that arrow, ser, you would be making a costly and perhaps even fatal mistake."
The guards screwed up their faces, trying to parse his words. The one with the crossbow blurted out, "You threatening me, lad?"
"No, the crowned head of Esturia herself threatens you. But it would be more accurate to say that it is a consequence. By threatening me, you actually threaten yourself."
The original speaker, hand now moving to his sword hilt glared at Iorneste. "I'm not going to warn you again, princess. Might think you are clever with fancy words, but both of us are just dying to see what that mouth of yours looks like with an arrow in it."
He was genuinely impressed by their ignorance. It must have taken a conscious effort on their part.
"That will be quite saddening for me, I assure you. But since I have a debt of sixty-thousand dremas on my head that is owed to the crown, I must regret to inform you that in the event of my untimely demise, you will likely be asked to assume my debt. Moreover, I am sure the court will be interested to learn that you shot me merely for trying to have a conversation, denying them repayment."
The guard's breath wafted over on a cruel breeze as he moved closer to the portcullis, face now knit with frustration. It reminded Iorneste in some ways of his conversation with the Admiral. The face of someone who just does not like you, will never like you, and needs only the smallest excuse to hate or hurt you. "Who's to say what happened to you, eh? Could put an arrow in you right now, drag you out into the murk, and let you get eaten by the shrakes. No one would even know."
With appreciation, Iorneste nodded, thrusting out his bottom lip. "Not bad. That would have been a good plan. A minute ago. If you'd shot me right away, that really would have worked. Timing in the execution of a brutish plan like yours is the hardest thing to master, so you are forgiven for your oversight."
"Oh, I don't think it's too late for that," said the guard, eyes glittering piggishly.
"Perhaps. Except that now you have witnesses." Iorneste then looked past the guard, waving in embarrassed fashion to the craning heads of young women in green-scaled dragon armor trying to get a sense of what all the fuss was about. One of them gasped and ran towards the Aerie Tower and out of sight.
The guard cursed and rounded back, stomping his way over in the mud to speak with the knights, leaving Iorneste to the tender mercies of a trigger-happy crossbowman. Despite his levity, he was definitely worried. A crossbow bolt anywhere in the head or even one of his hearts could prove potentially fatal, and despite the eased restrictions on the Binding in matters of life and death, he was not sure he could react in time.
The irony was that the instant the crossbow was leveled at him, he felt the Binding slacken, close enough to qualify as a situation of life and death. He could have acted first with impunity. He could have disabled the crossbow in advance if he had so desired. But not without playing his hand. It was a comfort to him, but a small one. He would still have to react faster than a crossbow bolt at close range, and it was not a scenario he had ever tested, and not one he wanted to start testing.
On the other hand, as he watched the guard huff over to join the dragon knights and begin the process of misrepresenting him, he realized that the outcome of this might be all the indication he needed about who really ruled here.
Assuming the Dragon Corps itself did not agree with the guard and order him thrown into the Mir as well.
The acoustics of the walls and the chattering noises of the Mir denied him hearing most of their conversation, but he definitely heard the name "Selka" mentioned more than once.
They were arguing, causing the guard with the crossbow to look back at the others. He then glanced back at Iorneste, sighed, and lowered his crossbow. "Look," he said, leaning forward and speaking in a hush, "I'm just doing my job."
"That your superior back there?"
The guard removed his hand from the stock and scratched his salt and pepper grey beard. "Yeah."
"You like him?"
"Doesn't matter if I like him. He's my Sergeant. We follow the chain of command."
"What if the command is wrong?"
"Doesn't matter. My duty is to do whatever the hell he tells me to do."
"Hmm. What is your name, ser?"
"Brannoch, thank you. I understand your position, and will keep it in mind. In fact, you have just taught me something very important, that I will also have to keep in mind."
"Huh? I taught you something?"
"Yes. That sometimes people will do horrible things, things they don't want to do, things that might be against their very nature, because their superiors ordered them to do so."
"Well, I guess I never thought about it like that..."
"To whom goes the blame when the horrible thing is done, Brannoch? If you pull the trigger, are you to blame or is your superior?"
"If he orders it, ser, it is on his head, good or ill."
"Interesting. Though that was not what I meant. What I meant is, who do you think is personally responsible for pulling the trigger?"
"I...never really thought about it, I guess," Brannoch said, and he glanced back towards the Sergeant as if looking for help with the answer.
"Then I'd like to invite you to think about it."
"Perhaps a thought for later. I expect I will be here for some time in the future, so we can discuss later if you would be so inclined. Mind if I ask you a completely different question, Brannoch?"
Brannoch wrinkled up his eyes, squinting at him like he was a bug. "You are a strange man. But between us, ser, the most interesting thing that has happened in this swamp in a month. So just because I can't wait to hear what kind of crazy idea is going to come out of your sun-addled head next, absolutely. Ask me anything you want."
Then the guard smiled, and somehow Iorneste knew that he had won him over, and made a tenuous friendship. He pointed down to his bare feet. "Do you know where I can find a leatherworker or, um..." he searched for the word, "...cobbler?"
The guard opened his mouth to answer, but the Sergeant was stomping back over, looking none too happy. Iorneste smiled as cheerily as he could muster, partly because he knew it would infuriate the Sergant, mostly because he now knew who was really in charge here when it mattered.
There was a new arrival, a woman in green dragonscale armor, the tattoo at the side of her neck showing three stripes instead of four. Selka's second-in-command, he guessed. She was not quite as tall as Selka, but was wider, both in body and face. Handsome, but not what he would call beautiful. Her eyes were amber brown, hair a darker chestnut, knotted at the back of her head in a war braid. Despite the heat, she was dressed in the full green dragonscale armor worn by Selka, and her face, like everyone else was sheened in oily sweat, cheeks flushed red.
Everyone except him. He was not sweating. What did the heat matter to him? But he realized he needed to do something about that sooner or later, as he suddenly felt very conspicuous.
"One question," said the woman, pointing to his right cheek. "How did you get that scar?"
It was not exactly a Drac secret. What harm in the truth? "Selka. I threatened her, and she kicked me in the face. This is from her spurs."
The woman grinned. "That's our Selka. Matches up with what we've heard of you, too, Yorn of Summersgard."
"Does that mean I came come in?"
"Yes. With reservations. I assume you won't try anything stupid?"
"You will just have to trust me, I'm afraid. No one would ever admit to such plans."
She laughed, then motioned to the sullen Sergeant to raise the winch, who then delegated it to Brannoch. "I am Embre Stormwall, Knight-Captain of the Dragon Corps."
The portcullis raised.
He extended his hand, and she took it in a powerful grip that impressed him until he realized she was challenging him. Then he simply increased pressure against her hand, which should have caused her to wince, but she betrayed only the mildest tic in her jaw. He released her hand, and smiled as if nothing were amiss.
"Hell of a grip you have there, Yorn," she muttered, flexing her hand.
She was close enough to Selka to make him miss her absence all the more. "Thank you, Dame Stormwall," he said, and walked with her into the courtyard, which he had already seen several times from the air. The other two young women in dragonscale stood nearby. Not quite gawking, but close. "But might I be permitted to inquire what your instructions are regarding me?"
"As it is described to me, you claim to be a dragon expert. It is a special request from the King himself that you be given the opportunity to contribute your observations to our operations here, but you have no authorization to do anything else without Selka's express permission."
"You did not chance to hear when she will be returning, did you?"
Embre shook her head. "I thought she would be back by now. But I have no new word on her from Earlemont."
"Very well. Would you mind terribly letting me begin my observations right away?"
"Not at all. Where would you like to start?"
"With the dragons. First and foremost, I would like to inspect the dragons."
He looked up at the vast edifice, the solid blocky structure of stone and eroding iron, without a single window above the bottom floor, and these were little more than arrow slits, and shuttered from the inside. Embre and the other knights came with her, escorting him to the front of the building.
"Strahnd!" she called out, in a sharp voice that was like a short bark. His ears winced.
Shortly after, with the sound of a steel bolt being thrown, a small door was wrested open, and a slender man stepped out of the door and into the sunlight, blinking and shading his eyes from the suns' rays above. He was wearing a pair of finely-ground spectacles, his blonde hair was cropped close and short around his head, except for a bit of plumage on top.
In many ways the two of them were a mocking mirror image of the other. The Dragon Keeper wore a long coat as well, but his was tailored, snug, and fitted to his body. Yorn's looked like it had been used and worn over several leagues of weary road, whereas the Keeper's looked fresh from the tailor. Yorn's hair was long and silver-blonde, the Keeper's similar in shade, but short and trim. The Keeper's boots were in fact polished black shoes, whereas Yorn did not even have shoes anymore.
Meanwhile, Yorn carried his rune-covered staff in his hand. The Keeper used a pearl-handled walking stick.
Then of course there was the obvious problem.
"Who is this, Dame Embre?" the Keeper asked. "One of my countrymen, it appears?"
"So it appears, Keeper," Embre said. She was calm and respectful, but her voice was not even remotely warm. "His name is Yorn."
"Ahh, it is so good to meet someone once more from the center of civilization! No disrespect intended, Dame, of course."
If she was offended, she made no mention of it. "Yorn will be overseeing your operations, Keeper."
The Keeper's cheerful demeanor dropped. "On whose authority?"
"From His Royal Majesty. I received a message from his hand this very morning. I can go retrieve it if you like."
"Oh, no, no. That won't be necessary. I know you to be an honest woman, Dame Stormwall."
She grunted in his direction, and nodded to Iorneste. "I will leave you two gentlemen to your discussions."
Iorneste bowed to her. "Thank you, Dame Stormwall." He watched her leave, and when he turned the Keeper's arm was already swept towards the doorway, inviting him inside.
"With your leave, ser," he said.
"Most gracious," he said by reflex, and walked past him pausing just as he got to the doorway. "What do I call you, ser?"
The man with the spectacles rose to his full height, clean-shaven features delicate, blue eyes bright behind his lenses. "My name is Aleistre Strahnd. Doctor Aleistre Strahnd. Do you have a surname, Yorn?"
"Estera," he said, also by reflex. It had been a surname that he and Mourne had discussed and agreed upon among themselves back when they were held captive on the Cutlass so many weeks ago. He walked into the opening and into the large and open space within, much closer in appearance to a dockyard storehouse than any sort of standard dragon's lair, but the dragons were here, and at last he could see them.
The smell of tabac leaf, sweat, iron, and certain unknown chemicals assaulted his nostrils when he entered; though the murmuring chatter of the many keepers and dragon attendants who milled about inside did not so much assault, as patter against his ears like rain.
It was not entirely an open space. There were enclosed kennels with massive doors, for instance, although many of those doors were now open. Within some were "stabled" the drakes, each of them bound and chained. Tall ladders, some of them on wheels, large pieces of mechanical equipment, and hooks on hanging chains decorated the interior. There were a large number of workmen inside, some of them already up on ladders. A catwalk like a scaffold made of black iron pipes ran overhead and he could several others moving about up top as well.
Various tools were in evidence inside, some with blood still on their gleaming metal surfaces. Part medical tools, part torture devices by his estimation, and too large for any practical use on a human. He could think of several uses for them upon a particular human, however.
He immediately reminded himself before he could grow too angry that he was here only to observe, and that his role was not intended to be adversarial. Not yet, anyway.
His line of sight no longer blocked by walls of stone, his animus crept out, its invisible lines extending over and through the room. Though his range was quite limited compared to almost any Drac who was his senior, it was still enough to fill the room and he was both delighted and unsettled to see every drake in the room snap its gaze upon him, in an eerily coordinated motion. With their full attention, and as he moved farther into the structure, their anima merged, and he felt himself at the center of them.
It was as if five different lesser minds, bringing their emotions and thoughts along with them, caught him up in a swarm, and he was overcome. He was no longer his singular self, but part of them, sensing and feeling them and knowing them, all at once. It reminded him suddenly of his earliest years, fresh out of the egg. Clutches of eggs often hatched together, and his brood was no different. Drakes and Drac were raised together, and indistinguishable from one another for almost a year. It felt like being back with his earliest siblings again, each of them experiencing, sharing, playing with the other. Each of the drakes wanted to show him something, and he felt a flood of experiences and emotions fill him, let himself be carried along with them. This was not to be feared, but embraced, and he offered them only friendship and compassion in return. For the first time in many weeks, he felt himself surrounded by his own kind, and truly understood as one of them, with no pretenses.
In the span of but a few moments, he knew every one of them. Every ache, every pain, every fragment of memory, spur, lash, of their riders, the young women who comprised the Dragon Corps. And of their mother, of the one they sometimes sensed, but could never see, buried somewhere below, in the dark.
In those few moments, those moments he had been struggling to achieve since he arrived in the Mir, he understood everything he needed to know about the state of the dragons at Mir's Edge. That did not stop Strahnd from giving Iorneste his own opinion on the matter, and his words broke into his thoughts. He dampened the anima connection so he could concentrate, soothing each of them with his mind, and telling them to stop looking at him so much.
"The principle is sound," Strahnd said, walking about within the open structure like a King speaking before his court. His back was to Iorneste, walking towards the drakes, one hand gesturing grandly as he spoke, the other tucked neatly into his vest pocket. "We confine the dracoiste to reinforce the principle of groundedness. They do not fly without a human escort, so if they wish to reach the skies they must work with us, not against us. Physical coercion is often required, of course, but this is early stock. In a few decades, we will be able to select bloodlines that emphasize compliance, making certain of our current measures unnecessary."
Coming back mostly to himself from the anima bond, but still feeling the hurts and injustices of his kin, he decided to ask the least objectionable question first, to calm his temper. "Dracoiste?"
"Ah, yes, have you attended, ser? I assumed that you did, although I must confess I am giving you several courtesies considering your current state and your appalling lack of footwear. This is standardized nomenclature, it is first year stuff at the Laboratorium."
This was news to him. "Dracoiste, is that supposed to be Auld Empyrian?"
"Indeed, ser," Strahnd said, favoring him with a faint smile of approval. "I assumed you attended, my apologies. But if you are a dragon expert, I would then wonder how you claim to have such expertise—"
"If it is Auld Empyrian, it is conjugated incorrectly. It should be Dracoista, pronounced like so."
"Hmm. Auld Empyrian is a dead language, ser. We can only surmise how it might have been spoken, but I assure you that I attended the lectures of the foremost authority on Auld Empyrian, and studied under him for quite some time."
"I will defer to your expertise, then," Iorneste said, knowing Strahnd and his "foremost authority" to be wrong all the same. "And thank you for the explanation. My education was much more informal, though I suspect we have read many of the same authors."
"A self-motivated education is admirable, ser, although you will never attain quite the same level of distinction and certitude as you will by attending the lectures of greater and more esteemed minds than ours."
He let that one pass. Perhaps he was maturing, because he disliked this creature every bit as much as the Admiral Euphrane, and he had not hesitated to needle that man. "Indeed ser, though hubris and age alone do not guarantee wisdom, and certitude is only useful insofar as one is certain of a truthful thing."
"Ser indeed!" Doctor Strahnd exclaimed, and a broad smile was on his face. "Quite rightly put! You surprise me. You would not have read any Baphorel, would you?"
"Yes, Baphorel. Much of Derascaten, which is of a similar school. The works of Calartes are obscure and a bit overwrought, but there are some inspired musings there. And I have always found the Ghanji poet Urra to be an exceptional philosopher who fits quite nicely into that school as well, albeit a poor poet."
Doctor Strahnd considered this for a moment, and nodded. "I can see your reasoning, although I have only read fragments of Urra. His work is hard to find. I would not have made such a connection, but it now seems self-evident upon reflection. Nuance of truth and certainty being a favorite topic of his. Very interesting, ser."
Great Winged Death, he did not want to respect this contemptible man!
"I am curious, ser," he asked instead. "How is it that they allow you to collar and chain them?"
"Ah," Strahnd said, glass lenses shining. "This is the very heart of my work, Mer Estera! Some intervention from the riders is necessary, of course, to guide them into position. At least in this initial generation. Once in position, however, they are given an alchemical concoction of my own invention that renders them docile, and quenches the fire in their belly, making them unable to breathe dragonfire for some time. They also tend to spend a lot of time sleeping under its effects, which makes our job much easier as well. We subdue and bind them, and there they remain until they are needed again."
He was intrigued despite himself, unaware of any such compound in existence. Not all products of the University produced arrogance and buffoonery, it seemed. Some results were actually practical. Albeit, in this case, unacceptable.
"Yet I hear, Doctor Strahnd, that they do not fly."
The doctor turned around to face him, adjusting his spectacles with one hand, coughing softly into his fist with the other. "A momentary setback, I assure you. More aggressive measures have already been taken, with some promising, if early results."
"Such as?" he asked, walking past Strahnd and closer to the drakes. He clasped his hands behind his back as he walked, as he had seen Strahnd do.
"Dragons respond to pain, in this respect they are much like horses—"
He felt his blood begin to boil. He wanted to burn everything.
"—which inspired the idea for the breaking bit. You see, with a breaking bit, you can turn even a wild horse into a domesticated horse, over time. In time, when the horse is broken, you can choose a different bit."
He bit out the words, face still hidden from Strahnd, eyes riveted upon the sad eyes of the drake before him. "I. See."
"Dragons, however, are different. This generation will never be broken, I fear. So for this generation, they must be broken again every time we ride them. The breaking bit has shown marvelous results with Eluenne's dragon, who she charmingly calls Fartbreath—"
The back of his throat burned, his eyes were surely aflame, and his nostrils exuded tiny drifts of smoke. There was enough tabac leaf smoke in here from the keepers that no one had noticed yet, he hoped.
"But we still have so much farther to go. We are also experimenting with a special helmet for the dragon, which will allow the rider to apply pressure to their skull, causing horrible pain. And thus," Strahnd said with pride, clasping his hands before him. "Not just encouraging, but ensuring their compliance."
Iorneste's eyes flicked to the enormous steel thing hanging overhead from cranes and pulleys, which he had at first taken for some kind of movable platform, but in light of Strahnd's words he could now recognize the eye holes, as well as the holes in the side of the helmet, through which two crude screws could be bored via the actions of a remote winch mechanism, clearly designed to be affixed down the neck of the dragon, so that the rider could have control over the screws, and presumably the drake himself.
It went beyond obscene. It was profane.
He took two steps closer to the drake. Then another, and another, closing the distance between them.
"For all your studies of dragons," Iorneste began, marshalling control over his words, attempting to dampen the crackle of fire in his voice. "And all your attempts to master them, you must have noticed..." He reached his hand up, about to rest it against the scales of the drake, feeling the drake's animus rolling against his, the muzzled head of the creature dipping down towards him.
"Ser! Mer Estera!" protested Strahnd, rushing forward and then hesitating behind him at some invisible line. "You mustn't! Mer Estera, he does not know you! Ser, the dragon will kill you! Men, arm weapons! Ready ballistae!"
He paused, his hand still upraised before the drake, watching the keepers begin to panic and scramble, arming themselves with crossbows, and some with firearms. Up top among the catwalk, pointed down into the room, a ballistae was being turned on a winch to face towards the drake. The tight chains binding him ensuring that when the bolt struck, he would be an easy target.
Iorneste examined these chains, fettered into the rock, ignoring the chaos of men surrounding him. Reaching out his hand further, he pressed it against the scales of the drake, and felt the creature's trust and affection more intense than before, felt its head dip down to rub against him. In that moment of shared understanding, nothing else mattered anymore, and he felt his anger cool. His head rested against the drake, and he closed his eyes, the two of them just embracing, just content to be with each other and to be understood.
Strahnd reacted by uttering a stuttering string of Auld Empyrian syllables, badly accented, hand brushing back his hair and drawing his eyes wider with the gesture. "Wait! Stop! Nobody fire! Ser...Ser? How are you doing that?"
The smoke from the cigarre and the pipe hung lazily in the air, captured in the light beams leaked from outside by a few cracked shutters. The sounds of chatter and discussion hushed and everyone stared, watching the moment in stillness. Some of the other drakes shifted against their chains, heads turning towards the scene, causing some of their handlers to jump, but they made no further movements.
Into this silence, Iorneste finished his thought, head still resting against the drake, senses still blurred into those of the drake, soon joined by the questing anima of the other drakes in the room, until they were a chorus of thoughts, impulses, and emotions. He felt as if he spoke for all of them. "...you must have noticed, Doctor Strahnd, that they are noble, not slaves. Proud creatures, miracles from a distant age. Sorens did right to pair them with nobility, yet you think to make them slaves. You think to harness their power the way that mankind has always harnessed power: with force, and determination, letting nothing stop you, not even scruples, in pursuit of your goal.
"But you cannot break a dragon's spirit without killing it, Doctor. You may force its compliance with pain, through domination, but in doing so you neglect to develop the only power the dragon will ever respect.
"You could breed dragons for a thousand lifetimes, and in all that time you will never run across a single dragon that would gently suffer what you consider to be "compliance".
"Dragons are not owned, Doctor Strahnd. They cannot be owned, will not be owned. As you already know, they are not lightly ridden. They can be subjugated for a time, but you will never get them to be content with their lot. They will never be happy with confinement, pain, isolation. Nor can you expect them to breed under such conditions. On a related topic, I do not have to ask about the status of your breeding operations, Doctor, because that is self-evident.
"You have clipped their wings, denied them the taste of what it even means to be a dragon, and tried to turn warriors into weaklings, so that then even weaklings can ride them. Instead of breeding people to meet them, you are trying to break and breed dragons to meet people at their most base, common level. All you have bred in them thus far is despair.
"They are not winged horses, Ser. They are dragons. They are nobility, and treating them like slaves will not turn them into slaves. Your entire approach is in error, from every conceivable angle. Your conclusions are errant because your assumptions are all wrong, and your methods have all the subtlety of a corpse in a rose garden, although I will give you some points for being crudely utilitarian when you are called upon to produce results."
Strahnd's face had fallen, and he was struck dumb for some moments. He then opened and closed his mouth, opening it again. But Iorneste was not watching, and interrupted him before he could speak.
"I apologize if I have insulted you, ser, but you wanted to know how this is possible. It is possible because I am not afraid of them. I stand before them small in size, but large in spirit. It is possible because I respect them. I stand before them as one noble before another, not as master before slave, or even as knight before horse.
"From my perspective, Doctor Strahnd," he said, and his eyes opened at last and found Strahnd's own eyes over the top of his spectacles, "They do not need chains, and never did."
It had been an instructive first day at Mir's Edge, and night found him alone with his thoughts. To Selka's credit, and to counter his impression of Eluenne, he had found the other dragon riders to be possessed of something of a similar spirit to Selka, though none had quite the same measure of iron dedication. They had been nothing but considerate to him, if curious, but for the time being he politely fended them off, acting in an official capacity.
Brannoch had found him a pair of boots that were only a little bit too small for him, but he assumed that he would fix that with a sizing rune as soon as he was able, in the meantime he was able to walk about without playing the role of the savage. To further refine his appearance he had twisted his long silver-blonde hair back behind him, and seeing him struggle with it, the young knight Freda had pushed his hands out of the way and braided it behind him herself. She smiled at him often, and when he would happen to glance in her direction, he would catch her looking at him.
He also adopted a waterskin, and carried it with him, and took sips from it, and also used it to apply a cosmetic sheen of water to his skin, or dampness to his clothes, so that he could at least perform the illusion of sweating.
In consideration for the heat he had also abandoned his coat, and two of the other knights, named Despera and Coelle, had shown him to his modest quarters in the Aerie tower. Most of the structure was empty and abandoned, and only a few of the rooms inside were actually clean, and some floors of the tower were entirely uninhabitable. Perhaps at one point the builders had intended that this massive tower would house many soldiers, but the Dragon Corps was but a few women and a handful of dragons, attached to an entirely different apparatus that was obsessed with breeding and controlling them.
The Aerie Tower was of peculiar construction to his thinking, with the stairs to the structure built on the outside, ascending with no railing to the very top, opening up periodically to level planes with doors leading inside the tower. Ascent between levels was done by going outside, there was no inner access between floors. These were the stairs that Selka would run up and down as part of her exercise regimen, and he could understand the appeal. As he ascended into the night, he could see over the walls, and the expanse of the Mir, and as he ascended further, it was like walking up into the very sky. A fitting ascent for a dragon, or a dragon rider.
The third level from the top was his, and he knew that the door opened into a hallway in which there were many spartan, yet individual rooms, which served as a barracks for nobility. One of those was his, and currently bore his coat. This was not his target now, however, and he continued his ascent, thoughts still turning towards Selka. Why had she not returned yet? What could be keeping her? Is she hurt?
There were so many things he needed to say, needed to do, and he needed her here. He had once thought to come here and he even had a plan in mind. She had changed all that. Now it was not enough to have a plan. He needed her to believe in his plan, too.
The top level of the Aerie Tower belonged to the Knight-Marshal, but he found Dame Embre there, making use of the balcony at the top that ringed the upper parapet of the tower, looking out towards the north, towards Earlemont.
She heard him approach, though he did not try to hide his footsteps. "This is the best part of the day on the Mir," she said. "It cools off, and the air is not so moist, and breezes blow up here. It's also quiet, and the night insects sound peaceful."
"Dame Embre, do you mind if I join you?"
"You may suit yourself. I see you found boots."
"Brannoch was kind enough to give me an old pair of his. But they are well suited for the Mir, so I owe him a debt for that."
"I think he was just being polite to a traveler, to make up for almost shooting you earlier. I'd take it as a gift, and give him your thanks."
"I...will do that. Thank you."
"What are your impressions of the Dragon Corps your first day here, Mer Estera?"
He pondered that, moving over next to her and resting his fingers lightly on the parapet, and leaning his walking stick and resting in a notch in the wall. "Fewer in number than I expected. Much fewer."
"Aye," she said, staring into the stars.
"But well-disciplined, and well-trained. I watched your maneuvers earlier, after visiting the kennels."
"And what did you think about those?"
"Words cannot adequately express my contempt, my despair, my absolute horror."
"On the contrary, I think you expressed your feelings very well just now."
"Mm, yes. It is just...why do you allow it?"
"Because that is how it is. Sorens was fully in charge for awhile, but before anyone but Selka was flying dragons, he took off and the rest of us had to make do with what Selka could teach us, and with the rest of the dragons being...well...it was like they were never the same after he was gone."
"They probably were not," Iorneste said. "So how did the Keeper come into the picture?"
"Viceroy Tulane," she said, and he heard the same edge in her voice that he had heard before when she had mentioned Strahnd. "They were promoting Selka to Knight-Marshal, and he said that he felt it would be too much to expect someone so new to command to assume duties over dragons, and that there were several experts from the University that had offered their services. So Selka was in charge of the Corps itself, but the Keepers were assigned by Tulane, and were given charge of the dragons. They are the ones who tell us if the dragons are ready to fly on a given day. Lately they haven't even bothered opening the damned doors."
"So which one was your dragon, Dame Stormwall?"
"My dragon...you would not see him in there."
"What do you mean?"
"Cloud is in seclusion. He attacked and killed one of the handlers. It's only a matter of time."
He leaned forward, intercepting her vision. "A matter of time before what?"
"He will be executed. Then chopped up and shipped to some lord's table, I imagine, with proceeds going to the Keepers to fund their research, and a modest portion going to the crown as taxes."
"And you are at peace with this? This is happening now?" his voice was too loud, a shout to be honest, and Embre glowered.
"I'm waiting to hear the status of the appeal. But they never grant them. He is as good as dead to me. I am anything but at peace with it, ser, but there is also nothing I can do."
"I wonder what they were trying to do to him when he killed one of them?"
"They did not say. But it does not matter. The rules are clear on this."
"Who made these rules?"
"The Viceroy Tulane."
"That is twice I have heard that name, and twice I have not liked the context in which his name is said."
"Mind your tongue. He is still a lord, and you a commoner."
"Just an observation. One other question, Dame Stormwall."
"Where do they keep the female?"
"In the cave."
"And where is this cave?"
"Directly beneath us, Yorn. You could not have missed the access point when you were inside the kennels. There is an enormous lift in the center, a true feat of engineering, that grants access to the cave. I do not think you would be permitted to see her, however."
"No. Strahnd is very protective of her. Of course..."
"On the far side of this island, built into the north wall, there is a gap, a small gap into the caves beyond. Selka climbed down there once, and when she looked inside, she said she saw the female dragon."
"That is...interesting information, thank you."
"Don't mention it, and you did not hear it from me."
"Clever, Dame Stormwall. Very clever."
She sensed him coming, the drac, before she could see him, and once she could finally see him the drake was surprised to see he was so small, and appeared to be a hawk. But the hawk flew through the gap, her window to the sky above, and came to join her, and soon melded into the form of a man. She was not fooled. She knew him to be one of hers. Their anima merged, and she felt his regal presence, the memories he shared with her of her brood, and she reveled in them, and submitted herself before him.
But he touched her scales, and her wings, and she felt him soothing her, felt his sadness and his concern for her, and it felt like spring in her heart. Her tears fell once more, but this time they were tears of release, tears of joy.
You do not bow to me, little Mother, the drac told her. Tonight, you will fly.
The fetters were thick, and strong, and they had served their purpose well for many years. But his sword was not a normal sword. He had climbed up her back, but she did not mind, and the blade was in his hand, and he drew it back, aiming for the chain.
The massive chains sounded like an avalanche as they hit the floor. The fetters on her mouth, wings, and legs soon followed, a series of smaller avalanches.
You are a slave no longer, mother. You are free.
It was what she had always been dreaming of. The massive drake threw herself forward with desperation, seeking the gap to the stars, feeling the mud slough from her scales as her body slammed into the opening, scrambling claws crumbling the brittle rock and then she was out into the sky, and falling. Painfully, with a great deal of awkwardness her wings unfurled, arresting her fall and then she shouted her joy, her defiance, letting out a mighty roar to wake the Mir. Then she was then arcing back up into the sky, maintaining balance, getting her bearings. Her muscles remembering, and fighting against the disuse of years of captivity.
A single mirhawk watched the great she-dragon fly free, heading east into the Mir, and out of sight.
Dragon Dans La Douleur
By Zaina Isard a.k.a. "Queen Z"
© 2015 Zaina Isard