Indecision and Revelation
The gate slammed shut to his cell with a groaning iron creak and a sound of finality, and on the other side of the gate was Embre's stern face.
"You know," she snapped, "When I told you where she was, I thought you were going to visit her. Not send her loose into the gods-damned wilderness to ravage the countryside and eat my countrymen!"
Iorneste sighed. He had tried to be clever after the fact, but the drake's roar had awoken everyone in the keep, the Mir, and maybe the heavens beyond. As he raced back to seek the sanctuary of his room and an alibi, he could see Strahnd milling about and fretting on the ground as he circled as a mirhawk overhead. Words and snatches of panicked yelling reached his ears from down below, every one of the knights, squires, pages, cooks, blacksmiths, engineers, and representatives of every other human profession that was necessary to sustain this place were mobilized below, swarming like ants. He heard the name "Yorn" spoken more than once.
So it seemed he was already a suspect, they had almost certainly already looked for him in his quarters, so there was no sense hiding out. He did not want them to see him change his form, however, so he landed out of sight, in the direction of the cliffs. Then he walked back to the keep as if he had journeyed up from the cliffs, prepared to meet whatever justice they had in mind, short of his death. This was Selka's true home, and also her responsibility. His intentions actually had been just to visit the female drake. But when he had seen her, saw and felt how she suffered, it had broken his heart. He could not wait a minute longer. Freeing her had made him feel righteous, as if he was fulfilling some sort of destiny or noble purpose.
The same happened when he stopped Selka from doing anything further that she would regret in Sandridge, surely saving at least a few people, and he had been slapped with a hefty fine by the Esturian government and sent to the brig aboard the Cutlass in response to his right actions.
It did seem, he mused from within the cell before answering Embre, that doing the right thing all too often got a person in trouble in the Many Kingdoms.
He raised one hand, very slow and calmly, and made sure to rein in his emotions and his animus, lest at this distance he do more harm than good to Embre. "She will not do that," he said. "She knows not to eat people. They are off of her menu, she will not eat them, much as certain people deserve it."
"You don't get to decide that!" Embre shouted, slamming her hand against the cell door and making it jangle and rattle in the frame. "Did I not tell you that you were authorized to observe only? That you must wait for Selka's command to actually do anything? Yes, I did tell you that. I remember, because it was less than twenty-four hours ago! Why did you come here, so-called Yorn of Summersgard?"
"I came to see Selka, and the dragons."
"I'll just bet you did."
"I would like to free them all, but I will wait for Selka before I take further action."
Embre's face went slack, and her eyes widened. "Are you mad? You are admitting to me that you want to destroy the Dragon Corps! Abolish everything that we've worked so hard for! You are telling me," she said, and her eyes were so flinty he thought they could cut glass, "That you would just set them loose, just like that?"
"Yes," he said. "I would. Because they do not need to be chained. They have you. They trust you. They would return to you, but only if things change."
She glowered at him, still unmoved. "How could you even know that?"
"I just do," he said simply, and sighed. "It is not easy to explain."
"It's not easy for me to restrain myself from marching you out there right now and hanging you from the nearest high post, Yorn. It is also not difficult for one angry dragon to kill everyone and everything in Mir's Edge. Maybe something you should think about before you consider removing a dragon's chains."
"Duly noted, and I am sorry, Dame Stormwall. Truly I am. I did not mean to betray your trust. I was only—"
"I don't care," she said through clenched teeth. "I'm done with you. When Selka comes back, which should be any time now, she'll know what to do with you, I'm sure." She turned away and was almost to the door before his words stopped her.
"She was a mother, Embre. A mother who never saw her children. Barely remembered sunlight. She had not flown in years, ever mired in filth and the stench of the Mir, fed like a feed animal! When she meets one of her brood at all, it is only so that your people can try to force her to mate with them. She was chained, bound, gagged, and tortured. That was not a life for any creature, I don't care how callous you people have become about dragons, but that was beyond even slavery." He felt anger bring heat to his face along with his words. He had never imagined, could not even have anticipated, the abominations that humanity was willing to perform in their drive for domination. Dragons were superior to humans, it was simply known. How dare these humans think to conquer his people as they had conquered everything else!
Embre stared at the door, hand still on the handle. "I never agreed with her treatment, Yorn. Nor did Selka, for your information, but there are still rules that we all must follow. You just trampled all over them. You are a civilian, a commoner, and a foreigner to boot, almost unknown to us before today. I would have been within my rights to execute you already. You are alive only because Selka spoke surprisingly highly of you."
"She will not be happy, I suspect. And I imagine your Sergeant is calling for my head."
"How did your brilliant mind ever deduce that?"
It took him a moment to realize she was being sarcastic, and his chuckle of amusement came too late after figuring it out to sound natural.
She turned her head from the door to give him a very frank look. "You had better hope, pray, whatever you do," she advised him, "That the dragon comes back, and we can capture her again. Because if she does not, at the very least you are going to owe the crown more money than you could raise in a thousand lifetimes."
He did wince at that. The price of a male dragon was sixty-thousand drema, and he had still received a certain amount of leniency to arrive at that figure. What was the cost to them of their one and only female drake, and the future of their dragon rider experiment?
He did not know with certainty, but trusted Embre's figure to be an accurate one. It was almost as if Mourne was standing next to him saying, "Think, Iorneste. What harm would it have done, as abused as she was, to wait until Selka arrived?"
It made him miss his friend. Mourne was the only person he could talk to, and truly be himself with. Even with Selka there was a distance between them that he was sure they both could feel, and most of it was his fault. He was an exile, unable to discuss the truth, yet both unwilling to embellish and mislead her, and adamantly against lying to her. This left him more disarmed by her than he had ever been, and as a result, his explanations never seemed to satisfy either of them.
If Mourne were here, he would have counseled him to act differently. He wondered if the cagey old kiin had reached Earlemont yet, and if he had, how their mission was going.
"I'll leave you to your thoughts. You should be having many of them right now," said Embre Stormwall, and then left the dungeon. He could hear her booted footfalls growing fainter and fainter, clacking on the hard stone, before disappearing altogether.
In the darkness, his thoughts continued to trouble him. All the same, even thinking of Selka in this dark place, and Embre's assurance that she would be returning soon, made him smile. He had tried, and failed, to feel sorry for releasing the drake. This also brought warmth to his heart.
He sat as patient as stone on the cold, dirty floor, leaned his back against the wall, and closed his eyes. His fate, and everything, it all depended on Selka now.
Content, he decided to wait until she arrived. Memories arose of the sun on her face and the feeling of their kiss. He had never forgotten anything in his life, and sometimes he would reread books in his memory. Instead, he found himself replaying the time they spent in Ramilka, missing her, and wondering if she was thinking of him.
Where are you, Selka? What has happened to you?
The air was filled with not quite rain, but a fine mist that spattered Selka and Korovas as they flew through it. Dawn had long since passed, as they had labored through the night. A sense of weariness shuddered through her, and her eyes drooped, but she now recognized that it was not her tiredness. She had flown through the night before. It was Korovas' fatigue she was feeling. How had she ever got in tune with this in the first place?
She leaned forward, patting the dragon behind his wings, hearing him let out a thrum beneath her in response, and she smiled back to him, as if he could see it. Maybe he could.
Memories came to her, of Yorn standing on the beach before her, and of how Kulvas would not attack him. The sword was enchanted, he said, and dragons would not attack him. Yet he never showed the slightest fear of Korovas, or Eluenne, or anyone that she could remember, for that matter. His words, those things he had said to Eluenne, so personal, and so accurate. She had been more focused on Eluenne at the time. But how was it possible that Yorn could have known those things about Eluenne? He had spoken with such conviction it had stopped one of her cruelest knights in her tracks.
"Son of a bitch," she muttered, and felt like a fool. It had never been the sword, it had always been him. Kulvas would not attack him, because he had talked to Kulvas, and her dragon had trusted him, enough to lay down and play dead for him. For a time she had suspected, in calmer moments, that he had in fact killed Kulvas and was only trying to buy her confidence, but she did not believe for a second that his concern and passion for the welfare of dragons was any kind of act. Despite calling himself a dragonslayer, she could not imagine him ever killing one. She already knew he had, if not lied, intentionally deceived the Questioner, letting him believe (as he had also led her and everyone else to believe) that he had killed Kulvas. How many lies had he told, and why had she been so ready to believe him? What did she really know about him?
Her liege was correct. She could not put her trust in him, she could not be so foolish as to give him her heart, until he had given her the truth.
But he could talk to dragons. That much, she now felt, was certain. Once Yorn had encountered Korovas in Ramilka, he had repeatedly promised her that she would be safe flying with him, and that he would obey her. Since then, she felt more and more the feelings and notions of the creature beneath her. She knew he was starving, tired beyond all imagining, and yet fully committed to escorting and protecting her, and there was something else. As if it was important to him to get back as soon as possible, because there was someone or someones he wanted to see.
She did not need to do any flying, it was all Korovas taking a direct line to the Mir, flying with a passion and urgency that seemed to infect her as well, until she was not even sure anymore who was feeling what. It was both strange and comforting.
Yorn might have lied to her about many things, but he really was a dragon expert. That much was certain, and she really needed a dragon expert right now. What she did not need were her feelings distracting her from her true mission: nothing less than saving the realm.
They flew out of the rain and into the sun, and she landed before noon in the courtyard, the keep coming alive and it seemed as if a hundred voices were suddenly shouting at her, "Knight-Marshal!" and "Dame Euphrane!" and even a few of the youngest girls shouting "Selka!" and before Korovas had even settled his wings, she already had the attention of the entire garrison.
She slid down the side and off of the dragon, and she saw five proud knights in green dragonscale armor, bringing a catch to her throat. She was proud to see that the cheers and the hollering came from the keepers, handlers, and some of the youngest pages, but her knights had formed up and stood at attention. How she had missed them! Embre Stormwall was there, of course, her strong, wide face quivering and stemming her tears, but they brewed in her eyes. The rest of the knights were formed up behind her, all of them matching her salute, right fist upon their left shoulder, pressed against their neck and the tattoo that marked each of them.
Tresha Lagarre, and her unruly blonde curls caught the sun like a mane of white gold. She had not held her tears, they openly streaked down her face, reddened nostrils flaring, but mouth beaming a fierce smile.
Young Freda Swaine, though still technically a squire, was as skilled and adept as some of the others in her own way, but the hard life had never dampened her optimism, and they had all come to love her like a younger sister. A constant reminder that there was life beyond these walls, and that enjoyment could be found in any situation, with the right attitude. Not yet a knight, she was the only one in whitesteel armor among her assembled knights, but she was nearing the end of her training. She was not crying, either, but of all the knights assembled she was the one trying the hardest to remain at a salute, bobbing and ducking out, breaking formation in the process, to peek around Tresha's hair to see her and Korovas.
Despera Cael, her auburn plaited hair and her one vanity as meticulous as ever, her features stern and militant, giving no hint of her inner thoughts. She had always been quiet, almost as devoted to her training as Selka, and ever since the accident, withdrawn and terse to a fault. Seeing her face reminded Selka of all the unfinished business that remained.
Coelle Eldewinde was last among them, at times overshadowed by the others. She was the most like a lady among them, the smallest in size and temperament, but her dedication had always impressed Selka. Early on when she had struggled compared to the others, Coelle had received many private lessons from Selka, and they had struck up a real rapport with each other. Her smile was reserved with the decorum that was her characteristic, but her hazel eyes were lambent with happiness.
She looked among the other girls, young pages and squires that looked up to her with awe, voices and lips that chattered to one another. "It's Selka!" "But that's not her dragon!" "Where's Kulvas?" The youngest cried openly, but she was not sure if it was because they missed her, or were scared of her helmet.
She blinked back the tears in her eyes behind the helmet, reaching up under her chin to unfasten it, and removed the helmet from her head, tossing her head as she often did to shake the cool breeze through her hair.
Oh. Her hair.
Every smile fell, every shout and hail died on every lip, and a profound and uncomfortable silence descended. No one seemed to want to meet her eyes or look at her missing eyebrows, and even the damned birds seemed to pick that precise moment to shut up.
Muttering and whispers started, and it was worse than if she had been at court. This was her home, and so many things went wrong so quickly on so many faces.
"Right," she said into the silence. "It's a long story, and no I'm not happy about it. But it's just hair. It will grow back. And that's all I want to say about it. Any questions?"
Stone silence was her answer.
"Good. Then get those stupid looks off of your faces before I knock them off."
She did not care about the reactions of the others, in the crowd, but the reaction of the knights was one that gratified her. When she had seen herself in the mirror, she had thought that she looked demented, and their shock was justified. But she was harder than any of them, because she had to be, and it did not matter if their shock was justified or not. She was still in command, and needed to remind them of that. Hearing her voice, commanding and harsh as it was, was a reminder to them of the old Selka, the one who still had hair, who had left so many months ago to hunt down Sorens, and retrieve the artifact he had stolen.
Smiles returned to the faces of a few, there were even a few laughs, and the look of shock in Embre's face, the hardest to accept, at least turned to grim acceptance. She would not get away with so curt of an answer to her, but they could discuss it later.
Strahnd chose that moment to step forward, the keeper's hair disheveled and his eyes reddened and puffy from lack of sleep. He had removed his overcoat in the heat, sweat staining his shirt, even rolling up his sleeves in an uncharacteristically unkempt fashion. His normally clean-shaven face was covered in white-blonde stubble.
She smirked as he approached. "What is it, Doctor?"
Strahnd adjusted his glasses and pushed back his hair, pausing to look between her and Korovas, and then back to her. "Many things, Knight-Marshal. Many things. I must confess that I was immediately curious about Fartbreath—"
"That's not his name."
"His name is Korovas. I have suspended Eluenne from her duties."
"You are riding her dragon."
"It's not her dragon anymore. Strange that certain wise minds always counseled us of the necessity of a bond between child and egg. Yet here I am."
"What happened to Kulvas?"
"He is gone," she said, but the sadness she felt was the sadness of missing an absent friend, not a departed one. Her statement was greeted with a similar level of shock as the revelation of her bald head, which was even now sweating and feeling the sting of the sun.
"Hmm," he murmured. "What happened to this one's bit and bridle?"
"I threw it away."
"That was rash, Dame Selka. Dragonbone is very hard, expensive, and—"
"Then it's a good thing we won't need to make any more of them."
"Dame, there is something else."
"The female. She is gone."
"What?" she looked around and saw Embre trying to change her uncomfortable expression to a neutral one. On a hunch she turned the question to the Knight-Captain. "Gone how? When did she leave?"
"Your friend Yorn," Embre replied. "And this morning."
"Wait, he is here?" she looked around, as if expecting him in the crowd. "I did not expect him for days! How did he get here so fast?"
"You can ask him yourself, Dame. He's in the dungeon."
She repressed a sigh, but the sigh was in her heart all the same. "Strahnd, get someone to remove that saddle."
The Keeper blinked. "We will need you to escort him into his—"
"No you don't. He'll follow you. He wants to see the others."
"Selka, I really must insist."
At one time, she would have had to work with his insistence, as they both were once technically of an equal rank, responsible for different operations here in Mir's Edge. But not anymore. "Do what you're told, Strahnd. That's an order."
Strahnd smiled at her with such impudence that her hand clenched in her mailed gauntlet. "You have been away for some time, Dame Selka, so you may have forgotten a few things. Let me be content to remind you that I have been placed here by the order of the Viceroy Tulane, and I answer to him alone. You cannot order me about like I am some kind of soldier under your command."
"Oh, yes, forgive me. I have indeed forgotten many things. For instance, I neglected to mention that by order of King Gracellus Ysarde, ruler of Greatre Esturia and the enlightened scion of Erephas, Lord of Truth, who we all serve, the Dragon Corps has been disbanded."
The babble started again. But she raised one hand, and everyone hushed. Discipline, or her ability to command, was still in force.
"All operations here have been turned over to my control. All operations, Strahnd."
Strahnd gasped. "You lie!"
She drew her sword, the sound ringing in the air, and she took slow steps towards him. "That is the second time you have insulted me, Strahnd. Once with your patronizing tone and your insubordination, and now with your accusation that I am a liar. Would you give me satisfaction for such an accusation, Strahnd?"
Strahnd swallowed and in the silence it was like a thunderclap.
"Of course not. But you are a man of letters, Strahnd. Read it, in the King's own hand. If you persist in insulting me for a third time after reading it, I will have my satisfaction." She cheekily reached beneath the gaps in her armor and pulled the scroll case from where she had kept it nestled, between her breasts and close to her heart. It was too valuable to risk losing in the winds, and she had not trusted it anywhere but close to her, next to her skin, where she could always be sure it was still there. She handed Strahnd the case, and watched him open it, pulling out the rich white paper within, and running his fingers over the royal seal as he read it to himself.
His lips moved as his eyes flickered over the page, and then he looked up at her with such a sad and stricken expression that she felt sorry for him. "We might still be able to use your services, Strahnd," she assured him. "But do you agree that you are now under my command? Or do you want to violate the King's order?"
Strahnd rolled up the scroll, tucking it back into the case and handing it over to her. "Of course not," he muttered. "I am not a fool, Dame Selka. I will do as you say, of course. My apologies for insulting you, it has been a very long day. Without our female dragon, I fear that disbanding the Dragon Corps was an inevitability anyway."
She looked around at the equally-stricken faces of the knights, and knew she owed them an explanation. "We are disbanding, clearing our name of the tarnish of Sorens forever. From now on, we start fresh, and make our own reputation. There is too much to do right now to be distracted." She paused, wiping the sweat from her skull, looking at all of their faces as she said, "The Surans have invaded Arrowhead."
She was coming to enjoy shocking them, but if anything their faces made her smile even wider. "We are going to show them what it means to trifle with a knight and her dragon."
Seeing the knights still at attention, she said, "At ease," and they broke ranks at once, running over to her, putting their arms around her, asking her a million questions, and though she answered as best as she could, her feet kept leading her to the Aerie Tower, the only place that had ever felt like home, but this time instead of climbing up, she would need to climb down to find the one that mattered most, to her and her plans.
Strahnd stood where she had left him, looking up at the dragon that looked down at him with a baleful a gaze. The dragon's lean sides heaved and his limbs trembled with weariness, but the look that he gave Strahnd was almost human. It seemed to say, Now it is just you, and me, human. Yes, I remember you. I remember what you have done to us. Can you see how hungry I am? Order me to do something. I dare you.
He turned and looked back in Selka's direction for help, opening his mouth to call her back, but seeing her surrounded with an escort to the tower, all of them chattering and taking her full attention, he closed his mouth again. Then he looked back up at Korovas, completely unbound, unchained, and abandoned by his dragon rider.
Just from the sound of the footfalls approaching, Iorneste knew it was her. The darkness was nearly complete, but not complete enough for his eyes, which saw almost as well in the dark as they did during the day, so long as at least some ambient light remained. The door to his block of cells opened, and he rose to his feet as she entered, the lantern light behind limning her in fire, warming her back and casting light into the room, but leaving her face in shadow.
One thing was certainly obvious, however, and at a loss for what to say as she stood there, just staring at him, he said, "Hello again, Selka Euphrane. I see you changed your hair."
He could swear the dungeon got warmer by a few degrees as Selka let out a long, painful sigh. "You too."
"What is it about my gods-damned hair?"
"I do not know. I just liked your hair. But I like this, too, if you like it."
She turned her back to him, grabbing a lantern and bringing it over near the bars, pulling over a chair and sitting on it reversed. The warm lantern light settled into the hollows of her eyes and face, like sun and shadow, and he found himself moving closer to her, wanting to feel her animus, to see the light in her eyes, and touch her skin.
She stopped him once he got within her personal space, the bars between them, but a flimsy barrier to heart, soul, and animus. "That's...close enough, Yorn. Any closer, and I might forget what I want to say to you."
"Of course, Selka. You are...upset. With me?"
"Yes," she said, her cool grey eyes like ice. "Let's start with the most obvious thing first, Yorn. I hear you released the female dragon."
"Yes," he admitted. "But I am not sorry that I did it. Only that I was reckless and did not wait for you to arrive so I could have your authorization."
"And what makes you think," she proposed, chin resting upon her arm, which itself rested on the back of the chair, "That I would have given you authorization to do that?"
"No," she admitted. "Because this is my legacy, Yorn. This is what I will be known for, and it is what might save Greatre Esturia. We need more dragons, and letting her go may have helped you feel good, but if the King finds out—and he will—you have just made matters hundreds of times harder for me than they ever needed to be. As far as His Majesty is concerned, you might not survive that decision."
The sense of doubt wriggled into his chest with Selka's words, and the earlier words of Mourne he had imagined seemed all the more appropriate. "I did not think of that, Selka."
She looked off into the darkness, away from him. "It is so obvious that you are my younger, Yorn. You aren't used to thinking of the big picture. Spontaneous seems to be your middle name."
"Actually, I do not have a middle name. Where I come from—"
"It's a damned expression, Yorn."
"So much for the future of the Dragon Corps. The King is disbanding it, did you know?"
"He what?" Iorneste struggled to contain his surprise, but with the anwering grim, humorless smile on Selka's face he knew it was a lost cause.
"It was my idea," she said. "We've been invaded by the Surans. They are massing near Arrowshead, one of our oldest cities, but within a belt of land often disputed, as it borders Sura."
"I have seen it on a map. But why disband the Dragon Corps?"
"Because the Dragon Corps was started by Sorens, and Sorens was a traitor. Because we need to create a new order, not cling to an old, dishonored one. Because it will give us the edge of surprise when we fight the Surans. But to do that, I need dragons."
"Selka, much has happened since we saw each other. Could you not tell me what happened to you?"
"Do you think that's important?"
Her curt manner shredded through his animus like it was paper, and his chest felt raw and bleeding at the change in her behavior towards him. Her spirit, her animus, always so powerful, now he knew what it felt like to be on the cutting edge of it. "Selka," he said, reaching out his hand towards her, "You are important. Perhaps I can help. Yes, I would like to know."
"You say all the right things, Yorn, but..."
"But you tell me nothing. I have had a great deal of time to reflect on things we talked about in Ramilka. Never once did you tell me that you could speak to dragons."
He found himself like a fish yanked out of water by a hook, struggling in front of her, mouth opening and closing. "It might be a bit farfetched to say that I can speak..."
"Stop," she said through clenched teeth. "Lying."
He took many moments to consider this, and concluded that she was right. Despite his claim to be honest with her, he had never offered her much of anything. Even in all of his honesty, it was as if she were the Questioner, and he was trying to nudge and lead her away from asking the wrong questions, and distract her with the answers that would be least uncomfortable to explain. "I am sorry, Selka. You are right. From your perspective, I can talk to dragons."
"Not just talk to them. You understand them. You have said this before."
"Yes, I have."
"Almost like you're one of them."
He said nothing, because for the first time since he could remember since leaving Kaer Drac, he was terrified.
"Why is that, Yorn? Some magic from the gods as you conjured up for me before? You and I both know that the gods, if they ever existed at all, have better things to do now than to grant miracles to their worshippers."
He opened his mouth, but could not think of the right words.
"Yeah, that's what I thought. I was wrong to trust you," she said, and got up to leave.
"Selka, wait!" The words leapt from his mouth, urged by his heart. "You are right. Again. I have not been honest with you."
"Which might be the first true thing you've ever said to me."
"No, it is not. I have told you many things that are true, but I never tried to make you understand. I also was not permitted to tell you certain things before."
She caught it, and he appreciated her keen mind. "Before? And yet now you can?"
"I could have told you the night you left, but I did not realize it then. I had never felt what it was like before."
"You still talk in riddles, Yorn! What had you never felt before?"
"What it is like for my spirit, we call it the animus, to be bound to another in kinship. I am forbidden to reveal certain things to the uninitiated, but it different now, because you are no longer uninitiated."
"Why now? Yorn, you're not making any sense."
"Because now, Selka," and he felt the smile on his face burst, "You are kiin."
"Like hell I am. I am not your kin."
"Not kin. Kiin. Note the difference?"
"Among my kind, it is a term of honor and respect for the shorter-lived races, who we deem to be special to us, and who have deemed us special to them as well. It is a bond, and a well-respected one."
"Your kind? Shorter-lived races?"
The words he was about to say died on his lips, and he realized that he was going about it all wrong. "I am going too fast. Let me tell you a story that you have never heard before."
Long ago, in the Age of Wonder, in the time before the stars, when all of the things that are, were not, something happened. We do not know what, we just know that a universe was born, and we were born with it. These first beings coalesced out of the unseen world that exists alongside this one; out of spirit, emotion, and what you call magic, and drew this new physical world into themselves to create strong and powerful shells, bringing themselves into existence. As creatures of great magic and emotion, formed at the dawn of existence, they were in tune with the essence of the world, which we call the aethir. And they could also sense the beyond, the world of spirit and endless possibility, which we call the aerte. They began to work the aethir, drawing it from the aerte to bring form and refinement to all things, passing through eons and existing by whim, and as legend is told, there were only six of them at first. We call them the Matradrac. Your people refer to them as the gods, but the meaning is the same. The Matradrac also had six consorts, who we call the Sagradrac.
From each of these were birthed the first dragons. From red Kela came the Ruby brood, strong warriors and with the strongest affinity to fire. From Astare came the Emerald brood, clinging to the wild and forgotten places, making their lairs in the dark, old forests and jungles, those lost and forgotten places where none but the animals lurk. Other broods were born of these gods, Maere and Isela, Sapphire and Diamond. Last to be born from the Matradrac Esha was the Obsidian brood, with an affinity for deep places, for shadow and guile.
Dragon is a term that is often used, but these first dragons were not like Kulvas or the dragons you know. We call those drakes. They are lesser dragons. Nobility among Runea's creatures, but not royalty.
The first dragons were called the Drac.
The universe was vast, but to the Drac their native home was given to them, and they named it Runea. Over it they were to be shepherds, to hold dominion over all living things, and to guide and protect this precious creation. They passed millennia as if they were decades by your reckoning, and when the lesser races began to arrive, they found the Drac waiting for them, already old and worn into the fabric of the world, and they worshipped the Drac as gods, as intermediaries to the true gods, who existed above and beyond the physical realm and could come and go from it as they pleased.
The gods, meanwhile, spawned all manner of creations in Runea, and the Drac remained unconcerned by most of it, the squabbles of lesser races beneath their notice. The Drac did not see the world as the shorter-lived races did. When they slept, centuries could pass, and it was difficult for them to be much concerned about what had happened while they slept as anything other than a historical curiosity. While they slept, generations of these short-lived races lived and died, and thus were underestimated.
Only the Elvariens shared the Drac's immortal outlook, and though initially there was hostility, the two people formed a bond and an alliance with one another. Particularly when a new race of people arrived and seemed to transform the world, at least to the eyes of the Drac and the Elvariens, overnight. Humanity.
From your earliest dawn here on Runea, you have thrived where everyone expected you to fail. Where other races showed respect for authority, you often showed defiance. Where others had shown trust or a hesitant willingness to work with us, you showed only a desire to expand, to dominate, to crush all foes before you. At the same time, humanity possessed a heart and a spirit that moved us, and intrigued us. Though for a time we ruled you, those days are lost to your memory, because in time you began to rise up against us, and you began your long war and eventual extinction of the Elvariens, and there were many Drac who feared what you would become.
We knew you would not stop, so long as your enemy was before you. So we did something that some of us still regret, and mourn, though it was long before my time, so I view it only as a historian. We abandoned the Elvariens to their fate, hoping that perhaps we were wrong about you, and many of us still underestimated you, so we thought the Elvariens would at the least repel you, but without our aid, they could not, and were destroyed. Humanity must live with that on their conscience, but so must we, I feel, for abandoning them.
We, the Drac, withdrew from the world, creating a new homeland from the aerte, the beyond, and closing off the portal to you, forever. We withdrew into these secret places throughout Runea, the greatest of them being Kaer Drac. My home. Then we closed the doors behind us, and left you to your own devices.
The rest of the history you know, because it is your own history. We did our best to erase the memory of ourselves from your existence. We stole your books, the ones that mentioned us, and any who knew of us personally were captured and taken to the Kaers, there to be given the honor of becoming kiin. The lesser dragons that were born among us, the drakes, we even captured those eggs and returned them to the Kaers. All except for the eggs of the Emerald brood, which were spread among the wild places of the world so far and wide that not all of them could be found. These are the wild dragons you know today, all of them drakes, with green scales, characteristic of the Emerald brood.
About five-hundred years ago my kind had an idea, because we were both amazed and shocked at how you had transformed the world and how quickly you had advanced, and we came to estimate your power even higher, we decided that we should go among you, learn from you, as one of your own.
It was viewed as absolutely imperative to the survival of our race that we come to understand you, perhaps even reach an accomodation with you, but to do that we needed to live among you, discover what you valued, and perhaps learn to value it ourselves.
That is why, ever since, each of us proves our worth to be a member of Drac society by performing the First Exile, in which we leave our people for a quarter of a century, and take human form, walking among you as one of your own. If we reveal who we truly are, or cause a vast mess of things, we fail, and are made outcast in our society. This is why I could not tell you before.
But now you are kiin, as close to being one of us as a human can be. So to answer your many questions, Selka, as I now can at last, I will give you the truth. I cringe to think how you will hate me for it, and I can already see by your face, your body language, and your animus, that you are considering hating me right now. But I tell you, and I swear upon my life, my sword, on the head of my matriarch, Lorchyra, and my sire, Rrachma, to the very gods themselves that all of this is true:
Kulvas is currently safe within Kaer Drac, among many, many others of his kind. He is as happy as he could possibly be, with the exception that I know he thought very highly of you and I am sure he misses you.
Kaer Drac is my home, and I am a Drac, yes, a dragon, of the Obsidian brood.
And my real name, my Drac name, the name I was given, is Iorneste. I am on my First Exile.
That is why I care about dragons, Selka. They are my family. That is why I can speak to them, understand them, and even order them to do as I say.
However old I appear to you, I am in fact seventy-five years old, and this is barely a teenager in the eyes of my kind.
Even worse, I am a male. In Drac society, it is the females who are the biggest, and the strongest, and it is they who rule. That is why I say that there is a similarity between us, my knight, and that I understand how you feel. Both of us attempt to defy our birthright, you even more so than me.
That is the truth, Selka. The whole truth about me. I am sorry.
She did not want to believe him. It was too impossible, too improbable, it was a fairy tale, and he was telling her it was real. After all the lies he had told so far, it should have been too much. She wanted to get up, wanted to leave, throw open the door and consign him to the dungeon forever.
Better that than to listen to what he had just said, to take it seriously.
His face was torn with anguish. "Say something, Selka...."
But she did not know what to say.
"Say anything, please," he begged her.
She lashed out, foot connecting with the old chair and it smashed against the bars of his cell, collapsing into pieces. She opened her mouth and all of her frustration, fear, pain, all of it, it poured out of her mouth in one very raspy scream. It did not even sound like her voice, and she did not really know what was wrong. She did not know what to think.
What was she supposed to think? How was she supposed to react? How could he expect any reaction at all after saying that?
"Well," he said, wincing in the aftermath of her scream, still seeming to ring through the halls, and his voice was very quiet and sad. "I guess that is something."
"You son of a bitch," she said, but there was no anger in her voice. "You liar."
"No," he said, "Not this time. This was the truth. All of it, finally. I stand before you without guilt, Selka, with nothing hidden. Not anymore. And you believe it, I can tell."
"Do not," she hissed, "Tell me what I think."
"I can tell," he insisted, "Because now you are kiin. I feel you. I know you do the same."
"That is infatuation, Yorn," she said, running her hand through her hair, or she would have, if she had still had hair.
"No, it is a bond. One nearly unbreakable, chosen by dragon and mortal."
"Then I chose nothing!" she shouted, and felt hot tears at her eyes. Oh gods...a dragon. Did she believe him, really?
He sighed, walking closer to the bars, and his hand reached out for her. She hesitated to take it, hand hovering over his, and she trembled. "Selka," he said, only in a whisper and the compassion in his voice was enough to bring the tears forth. "You did choose. Not with your head, with your heart. Your animus, and mine. The kiss was just the start, but it could not have happened without that, I don't think. At least not with me, I was so careful—"
"You're saying this is my fault," she interrupted. "Because I kissed you."
He laughed, and she wanted to hit him. "Selka, fault is for unfortunate events! This is a good thing, a fortunate thing."
"You told the Questioner that you were Yorn of Summersgard!"
"I offered to tell the Questioner my story. And I did, indeed, once write a story about Yorn of Summersgard. If I could contact Rrachma, I could show you the very book. Please do not read it, though. It is terrible."
"This is ridiculous."
"The truth, in this case, is rather ridiculous. But I have a feeling that is just how the truth looks, sometimes."
She was not listening to him anymore. "You are not even human."
"Well...technically, no, I'm not. But in most ways that matter, I am."
"Oh?" she looked up, "Were you born human? Do you have human brothers and sisters and parents? Is there really a Drac Orden?"
She watched his face fall, felt the deep sadness that claimed him then, almost as if she was feeling it herself. It reminded her of Korovas, and in some sense this was the hardest confirmation of all to deny.
"I am so sorry." His voice was so soft she had to strain to hear, and he would not even look at her. "It is why I no longer wanted to lie to you, Selka...It became harder and harder to call myself your friend, the more I lied to you."
"But," he said, and he drew himself up, and his blue eyes found hers. "There is something else that is important here."
She did not say anything, waited for him to find the words. She had arrived with an agenda, but it seemed less important now.
"That I am here, and I want to help you. You have the spirit of a dragon! It is this that makes you most suited to lead. I might be older than you are, but what you said was not wrong, either: In many ways, I am a child next to you. You have taught me how to be an adult, how to wield a sword and have confidence in my abilities...and you have taught me what it means to love."
"Stop," she said. "You do not love me."
"We would not be kiin otherwise! It is one reason I am so happy, Selka. You do not know what it means, but for you to be kiin, which I can read in your very animus, it means that you love me, too."
"I do not," she insisted.
"Affection, then. Affection is about the strongest word my kind have for love. It took me meeting you to understand that 'affection' is inadequate word. Take my hand," he offered. "I will show you."
"N-no," she said, pulling her hand back.
"I will prove it to you. That we are one."
"Some other time, maybe," she said, and stepped away from him to a safe distance, facing him in the cell. "But fine, I believe you. You are a dragon. Explains why you freed the she-drake, why you took everything so personally. The spurs, all of it. But that raises more questions."
Yorn nodded to her in response. "Go ahead, you may ask them. I will have no more secrets from you, Selka."
"Why help us? If dragons, er, drakes, as you call them...if they are like your people, why help those who enslave them?"
"Three reasons. The first, because humans will not stop trying to ride dragons. If they are going to do it, if they insist on doing it, then they should do it the right way. They should look at them as fellow warriors, not slaves. I can help with that."
"Hmm. And the second?"
"As I said, they are warriors. They should be a part of a battle, not hunted, trapped, drugged, and treated like domestic prey animals."
"And the last reason?"
"Because of you," he said.
She groaned. "Oh, come on. I'm human, you're not. You, at least, knew that the whole time!"
"I did not even think about, did not even care about that! All I thought about was you. I felt you, Selka...the things that we communicated to each other were beyond words. How I wish I could describe it for you, but they are precious to me. Precious for all time, Selka! Try to remember what you felt then. I still feel the same."
She did not have to remember it, as she had never forgotten.
"For the next twenty-five years, my entire future depends on how well I fool others that I am human. I had better be very good at convincing people I am human. At times I even believe it myself. As far as you are concerned, for the next twenty-five years, I might as well be human."
"So, your strength..."
"Yes. And my weight, regrettably. Most of that comes along during the transformation."
"Gods," her eyes widened. "You asked me if I had ever eaten dragon..."
"And you said yes. And I wanted to kill you."
"I am so sorry," she said.
He smiled, and it made her feel foolish. "I tried to kill you for something you once ate, Selka. You did not even know what you were eating at the time. I am the one who should apologize. You see...until that night, I was beginning to feel different about you. If you remember, before you even kissed me, we were on our way to being friends. But I did not know your people did that. I was shocked, and angry. Very angry."
"Yes, I remember. If I had been less skilled, you could have killed me." It hit her then, finally, and she imagined him standing before her not as Yorn, but as Iorneste, some huge scaled dragon and her face went hot. "Gods...I kissed a dragon," she said, not believing the words as they came out of her mouth.
Yorn said, "I know! More of that ridiculous truth! I kissed a human!"
And they both laughed at the absurdity of it together, and somehow, at least for the moment, it seemed less strange. She walked up to the bars then, fingers lacing over them. He moved up close and she could feel the heat coming off of him, yet he did not sweat. The signs were there, once she knew what she was looking for. He reached his dirty fingers over the bars, resting them on the back of her hands, palms resting against her fingers. With that she let out a gasp, at his touch she became aware of him in a primal way she never had before. It brought back the memory of their first kiss, the heat but also the sense of something else, some vast, powerful force, something larger than herself moving, and being moved with her. Something vast. "Oh my..." she said, turning her head to look into his eyes, "Is that you?" she asked, her voice a hoarse whisper.
But with her question came the answer, and it was not from his lips, but spoken to her heart. Yes. Along with the word came emotions she did not even have words for, but some that she did, and one emotion rose above them all.
It felt as though he was there with her in even greater spirit, enfolding her in his embrace, and with his embrace came all of his power, his years of knowledge, and yet her as his most treasured, desired thing in all of creation. She felt truly loved, and admired, and his bare, naked admiration for her made her blush. Was he immortal? She knew then that he was with her, in her thoughts, as the answer came. Yes.
"I missed you," Yorn said. She could even feel that he had.
"This is..." she said, struggling to form words out of the stream of emotions between them.
"A meld. Our anima. But you are human, so this is not your responsibility to calm, but mine."
She felt the sensation diminish, though not completely. She was not surprised that she missed it when it was gone. It had been like nothing else, and she searched his face with wonder.
"But now you know how I feel about you," he said, and smiled. "How I really feel."
She found that idiot smile on her face. "Yes. I wish I knew how I felt about you."
"Conflicted," he admitted. "But much the same as I. As I was the first time, I am very honored, Selka. Thank you."
"It makes me uncomfortable that you can do that."
"I know, I can feel that, too."
She sighed. "So then you have to go and do it again. You pedantic ass. You miss every cue. It was so obvious all along! I even mentioned that it was like you were dropped naked into our world and didn't know anything. I liked that you were unconventional. I had no idea how unconventional."
"I cannot be sorry for being born, Selka. Nor that I am required, unless I want to spend eternity as a slave, to deceive others during my First Exile about who I really am. I am a child among my people, and a male, which is even worse. In many ways I am just doing what I am told."
That brought her to attention. "And what have you been told to do to my people?"
"Nothing, do not be alarmed. The Drac have no plans I am aware of to do anything of harm to humanity, as I said, they have decided to allow you to follow your own destiny. Exiles are supposed to be left free to follow their own destiny as well. As a male, this time is probably the most free that I will ever be."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that once I complete the First Exile, my reward will be to find a worthy female eregaunte to pledge my services to. In the hope that in a few thousand years she might become a matriarch when the old one passes on. If I am very blessed beyond all others, the matriarch herself, Lorchyra, might decide to take me into her service. They will then tell me what I must do, and I am to obey them."
"That sounds worse than slavery."
He shrugged. "It would depend on the master. It is no different than a human female being married off against her will to a male she has no interest in, in order to secure the fortunes of her family and provide heirs for the male sovereign."
"At least she can die and escape it. Or run away."
"Or join the Dragon Corps."
She chuckled. "I am not entirely immune. There have been proposals, offered by letter, never answered."
"Selka," he said, "I had not thought much to the future, of what it meant when you kissed me. This is not like a Drac at all, because if I think of the future, it is uncertain. I am uncertain if you will like it or not, or if you will come to blame me, now that your life has changed forever."
"Oh," he looked away and pulled back one of his hands, scratching the fine blonde stubble on his face in a very human gesture. "Being a kiin, like you and Mourne—"
"Mourne is kiin, too?"
"Of course. Who else is going to make sure I do not blunder around without a human tutor to guide me? Only kiin are trusted."
"Ah. What were you going to say? I interrupted you."
"Your life has changed forever now that you are kiin. Because you are bound to me, and I to you. Probably the most significant change for you is the safe knowledge that you will never age another day."
"Really? That sounds like a very good thing."
He laughed. "You can never be sure! Some, like Mourne, mope around like it is a horrible curse."
"I never expected to die of old age, anyway, Yorn-este?"
"Iorneste. I never wanted to get old. My joints failing and growing weaker with age, being less able to lead, and watching my dragon survive me, knowing he would be put to death..."
"Yeah," she felt weary from the admission. "Because they assumed the bond was from child to egg, and once the rider dies, the dragon must die, too, because there can be no further use for them, and they are only a liability. Or so it is believed."
The beat of his anger against her was shocking. "Calm yourself!" she shouted, and she felt his anger sputter and die in tandem with the surprised look on his face. "That all changes now, Iorn."
"I liked it when you said my real name."
She felt heat come to her face. "What I'm saying is that I am in charge. Fully, of the entire operation. The Dragon Corps is no more. The keepers answer to me now. We forge our new order and since you are not only a dragon expert, but an actual dragon..."
"You could use my help?"
"Yes, I could."
"What do you want me to do?"
"If you are the man I hope you are, what is in your heart."
"There need to be many, many changes around here, Selka."
"I wholeheartedly agree with you."
"So you are letting me out of this cell now?"
"Sure. Just remember who is in charge, dragonboy."
"I am a commoner, you are nobility. You are Knight-Marshal, Dame Selka. I understand."
"I don't think the word 'commoner' applies to you anymore, but thank you. You are very lucky, you know."
"Why is that?"
"Because I seem to have a recent history of letting dragons off their leash."
"I am glad." He smiled, and in the flickering light his teeth flashed. "Are we of one mind about what needs to be done here?"
"We need to find out now, because we have just over a week to figure it out."
"That is not much time."
"Can you do it?"
"I am Drac, my dear. I can do quite a lot."
"Good answer. Let's get out of here."
"What is our first action?"
"You will see. Come with me, Iorn. You will really enjoy this."
The Slaughterhouse, as it was called, was not even within the keep itself. None of the knights had been allowed there, it was strictly a Keeper function. Until today. Now, Selka had claimed dominion over all operations, in fact was labeled by the crown as the owner of all of Esturia's dragons. For the first time, the knights were going to visit the Slaughterhouse as a group, not singly to deposit an unruly dragon at the doorstep, knowing they would never see them again except on a plate.
Iorneste walked between Selka and Embre, with the rest of the knights filing behind them. They had left behind the keep, walking resolute, eyes forward, as if going to war.
Iorneste felt that it was good to be between them, counted as one of them. Embre had raised an eyebrow to Selka when she had walked with him out of the dungeon, but was perhaps saving her objections for another occasion. The others had looked upon him with mixed parts curiosity and distrust, and he could not blame them for doing so.
At least for now the charade that they were all together as one was complete, and perhaps considering their destination, they all truly were.
The Slaughterhouse was tucked up on the cliffs overlooking the Mir, closer to the land and farther away from the swamp. There were caves beneath, Selka had explained on the way, but dragons that were scheduled to be executed were kept in the main structure itself, a squat building of blackened stone that showed the marks of fire on its surface.
Iorneste could tell immediately what kind of fire had scorched that building, and the pits in the stone and the smooth glass corners were all of the confirmation he needed that this building had faced dragonfire before, and barely survived.
Enormous stacks of bones were arrayed outside of the building, and there were even large flaps of leathery skin stretched outward from the building, and tanning in the sun, like awnings making shade against the midday heat. Selka leaned over, muttering through rigid lips, "Easy, Iorn. Easy."
They rounded a bend, and the structure came into solid focus. Standing out front of the building was an array of soldiers, half of them holding crossbows, the other half holding long rifles. Every one of them was armed and trained on Iorneste and the approaching knights.
"Easy?" he asked, nodding towards the men standing guard in front of the building.
"Okay, everyone," Selka said aloud, "No one do anything unless I say. They will not fire on us yet."
Iorneste felt bad for her inadvertent lie when, after a handful more steps one of the guards loosed a bolt, and it landed only a single step away from Selka's foot. Without hesitation, he drew another bolt from his quiver and began to wind his crossbow. The man standing in their center, his whitesteel armor blinding in the sun, raised his hand and shouted, "Halt! In the name of the King!"
Selka raised her hand, making a fist, and the column behind her stopped. "You in the Slaughterhouse!" she called out. "You are interfering with the King's duly-appointed representative. As of today, effective immediately, all of His Majesty's dragons are in my care. Stand down now, lower your weapons, and I will forgive this treason!"
The man hurled back a reply, "We were given specific orders, Dame Euphrane! From the King himself!"
"Your orders did not come from the king," she argued, "But the Viceroy! I have documents here that will prove the truth of what I say. Put down your weapons! Now! We will approach and I will show you!"
"No!" the man shouted back. "Our orders are clear! No one, save the Viceroy or the King himself may tell us to stand down!"
Iorneste felt annoyed by this pomp and display. "Just say the word, Selka."
"Did you not hear anything I said? I don't need you to save me here, Iorn. You are a civilian, and a spectator in this, you are not to do anything. Is that clear?"
Embre raised an eyebrow and he could feel the heat of her gaze on his face, waiting for his reply.
"Crystal clear, Dame Knight. I will do nothing." He tried to keep the hurt tone of out his voice, but was not sure if he succeeded.
"Are you calling me a liar, ser?" Selka shouted back.
The man paused. "Not at all, Dame Knight! But you are forbidden to approach!"
"Then come to meet us!" she shouted. "And stop acting like a ninny! Someone is going to get hurt, and I have too much to do right now to be filing reports to next of kin!"
The man nodded, "As do I. At once, Dame Knight." He broke from the ranks of his men, muttering some instructions that were lost at this distance, and marched down the road to meet them.
Iorneste found the soldier's response, once he had read through the document, a bit anticlimactic. He was a slow reader, even asked Selka what one of the words in the proclamation meant, but seeing the royal seal he was not about to argue further.
"Stand down!" he shouted to the men. "Weapons down! We have visitors!"
They encountered no further resistance on their way in, but as they got closer the charnel smell hit Iorneste's keen senses like a physical assault. "I am waiting," he muttered, voice nasal from the hand over his nose, "For the part I am going to enjoy."
"Calm down," Selka muttered. "The hardest part is coming upon the scene of the crime. The enjoyable part is setting things right. That's what we are going to do, Iorn, right now. Set something right."
Once they reached the front of the structure, Selka started barking out orders. "You two, open that gate. We wish to see the dragon within." There was a bit of argument to this, but not much, and the superior officer they had met was the first to tell his men to stop jawing and do what the lady ordered.
The gate opened, and within was much darker than the outside. Iorneste squinted, trying to discern details within after being beneath the harsh glare of two suns for the last half hour. Once details emerged, he felt sick to his stomach and his ire rose, burning in his chest. It was not just a slaughterhouse, but also a meat market. Everywhere he looked were jars filled with organs, horns and claws and teeth laid out as if for display, and hanging from a massive hook from the ceiling, speared through the head, swung the butchered remains of a drake.
It was the hardest thing he had done thus far, but he swallowed his anger, tasting brimstone, and reminded himself both of Mourne's rules against excessive injury or property damage, and that Selka had emphatically told him that he had no role here, but to observe. At some point he had to be willing to let her lead, and now that she was kiin and there were no more secrets between them, this seemed like a good time to start.
A large shape moved against the back wall, and the haunted eyes of the drake stared out from the darkness. They said their greetings once their animas met, but the dragon's eyes were not for him, but for Embre.
Selka turned to Embre, placing on hand on her shoulder and very softly saying, "Would you like to do the honors?"
Embre's smile was all teeth. "With pleasure." She pointed at the dragon, bound and gagged and trussed up to the point where he could barely move. "That's my dragon, Cloud!" she shouted. "I order you to release him this instant, in the name of the King!"
Iorneste smiled. Selka was right. He was enjoying this quite a bit.
by Draco Magister, ThemeFinland
© 2015 ThemeFinland