The Dragon Slayer
The dragons and their riders were quiet sentinels of the devastation, watching the burning ruin of the wyvern spire. Caustic smoke that burned the eyes drifted on the winds, carrying with it the nauseating smell of wyvern, rot, and charcoal. The land about the spire seemed as if it was sucked of life, the ground blackened as if by tar, radiating out from the spire like a gangrenous wound.
The Knight Marshal of the order once known as the Dragon Corps watched it astride her great dragon Kulvas, with eyes reddened and unblinking, a hard and savage look on her face, mouth twisted into a grimace. Beside her, on the dragon Cloud was the Knight Captain, and it was she who was the first to speak.
"We should return, Selka," Embre said in the soft tones of reverence of one who speaks to avoid disturbing the dead. "There is nothing more we can do here. Our work is done."
"No," Selka said. "Iorn has not returned yet. We are waiting for him."
Embre frowned, and glanced behind her, seeing the looks of concern on the faces of the other women, although the expressions of the dragons were inscrutable. She turned back around, and leaned closer, voice still hushed. "Selka...it has been many hours, and he has not returned."
Selka shook her head, blinking tears from the smoke out of her eyes. "Take the others. You may return. Make them ready, we leave for the capital tomorrow."
"What are you going to do?"
"I will go after him."
"That is an order, Knight Captain. Whether he lives or not, the job is not done unless he succeeded. I will at least discover that much."
There was no argument to be made to a direct order, and Embre saluted, buckling her helmet onto her head. "Let us go," she said, voice commanding. "Back to the Aerie."
The others followed her lead, and all of them, even Korovas and Matra, following the orders of the Knight-Captain. It was a good sign, Selka felt. She had never been certain that Matra would listen to anyone but Iorneste. Now, it seemed, there was an understanding, one she would never have anticipated before his arrival.
But if he was dead...
She shook her head, buckling on her helmet. Do not invite the spectre of defeat while a ghost of victory still remains. Sorens' words.
Kulvas took flight, headed for the smoking crater. With one mind, they dove down into the hole in the center of the broken spire, and fell deep into the bowels of the smoldering Hive.
He returned to consciousness slowly, as if swimming upstream, fragments of screams and the roar of a wounded dragon echoing in the chambers of his mind. There was the smell of flame and metal and ash, and the feeling of being raw and sticky.
The sick rot of wyverns was nauseating, but there was one smell even closer. A smell of sweat and the grindstone, of dragon leather and sunlowe.
"Selka," he groaned, his voice like chapped leather. He opened his eyes slowly, finding them stuck together, but with concerted force they peeled open and he winced with pain.
She was there, kneeling over him, her eyes wide and mouth parted, glancing over his body, one mailed hand pressing to his chest. A wry grin broke like a red slash on her face. "I guess you'll live," she said. "Though I think you're going to hate life tomorrow."
Hate life? A curious phrase. "Right now," he croaked, "I just want to know why I'm so sticky."
"You got crisped pretty good, Iorn. I thought you said that fire was not a concern?"
Fire? He sat bolt upright, ignoring the protests of his body and cast his eyes about with a mad fever, trying to find him....there! The Yeomi lay still and unmoving, Yrmbane still embedded in its eye.
His coat, although protected by drac runes, was now a charred and burned mess, baring his right arm completely and his skin was a mass of charred, reddened flesh, sticky with his own blood. He reached up, feeling his face, and it felt much the same, and his hair had certainly been singed as well. A grim chuckle started in his belly. "I must look," he grated in a voice closer to his natural voice, "Very alarming."
"Yeah. I mean...you will survive, right?"
"I should. But this was not ordinary flame, Selka. This was the black fire of a Yeomi."
"That's what I said."
He sighed. "They were once Drac, but corrupted from birth by Xules."
"Ah. The mad god?"
"And you killed him."
He stared at the form of the great wyrm, intent to see if there was even the faintest breath. "It appears so."
"He is enormous!"
"And he was only a male. If he was female he might be twice that size."
She reached down, offering her arm. "Can you stand?"
He did not take her arm, knowing he would only pull her over, and winced as he used his arm to lever himself to his feet. His coat hung in tatters, and the rest of his clothes were not in much better shape. He was at least gratified to see that his boots were still intact, only a little singed.
"So how old was he?"
He pondered the question for a moment. "He is larger than my sire, Rrachma. At least a millennium, I would say."
She sucked in her breath. "You just killed a thousand-year-old dragon?"
He could not help but feel a swelling of pride fill him. "I did! I cannot wait to tell Mourne! No one will believe it! A seventy-five-year old haergaunte slaying a Yeomi sagragaunte!"
"A what killing a what?"
"Nevermind," he said. "And I got very lucky. He underestimated me. He knew about the First Exile, and thought I did not have my magic."
"Wait," she said, chewing her bottom lip. "I also thought you did not have magic while you were bound?"
"Mourne allowed certain conditions upon that. In a matter of my life or death, I can use magic."
He looked around. "A few eggs still remain. I was not able to destroy them all before I encountered Erezahn."
"Then let us finish." She looked around the cavern, shuddering. Kulvas stepped gingerly among the fluorescent green pools. Iorneste could feel his disgust.
He climbed up the corpse of the Yeomi, skin crawling even touching the scales of the ancient wyrm. He grabbed the hilt of Yrmbane and pulled, straining with the effort. The claymore pulled free wetly from the eye socket, but Erezahn remained still and unmoving. He saw the blade, still intact, but darker.
"In the old days," he said to her, his grating voice from his raw throat echoing in the cavern. "Your dragonslayers would temper their blades in the bodies of dragons. It was said that it made their weapons even more effective against us."
"Truly?" she asked.
"So goes the legend. I can only hope there is some truth to this, and that this blade will be even more deadly to the Yeomi."
"You hate them, don't you?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I hear it in your voice. And...I feel it. Whenever you say their name I feel the urge to step back, as if you are about to strike."
"Yes," he said, and jumped down to the ground, walking grimly towards the hatchery cavern. "The Drac swore a blood oath, to eradicate them from the earth. There is no quarter with them. I would have died before him, rather than becoming one of his own."
"You will bear the scars of this, you know. Your right arm, especially."
"So be it. Scars are part of the job, yes? With his death, I am truly, at last, a dragon slayer."
"What about the wyverns?"
He shook his head. "Wyverns are not dragons. They are a mockery of dragons, and another legacy of Xules. I suppose it is not strange that I would find one of the Yeomi responsible for bringing them here."
The worked together for some time, destroying the remaining gelatinous eggs, massacring every one of the remaining spawn of the wyverns, and moved about, searching every corner of the structure. He found no tunnels leading elsewhere, which surprised him, as he thought for certain they had bored here from somewhere else. The Yeomi had started the nest here, hoping to spread outward throughout Greatre Esturia. And they would have, had he and Selka's dragon riders not been here to stop them.
"That is everything," he said at last. "The wyvern menace is ended. Here, at least."
"But there are others."
"Many others, I imagine. But hopefully no more within Esturia."
"There is one more thing before we leave, Iorneste," she said, and he turned to look at her upon hearing his full name.
"And what is that?"
"A dragon slayer would take a trophy. I'd recommend his head."
Yrmbane rang as it slid from the sheath into his hand, and the feral grin on his cracked and burned face must have startled her, because she stepped backward, eyes uncertain, hand going to her own sword hilt.
"Thank you for the excellent suggestion, Selka. I must say that I will greatly enjoy this."
Returning to Earlemont raised a few eyebrows, and a few scattered questions, but Sheldrache ignored them. She did not intend to stay long, and as she marched through the corridors of the castle to her quarters she cursed herself, and her younger brother for his effrontery. If the box was in her suite, as he had claimed, she would do what she should have done all along. Take the box back to Kaer Drac, and get one of her kiin to open it. She would have time to puzzle out the rune sequence on her own time, and the box would be hers via hoard rights.
Once she had the box, she need only leave these fools and damn all of the questions it might leave behind. She should never have trifled with them to begin with. She had carried her ire with her during her flight through the night, and now in the light of day her frustration beat in time with her triple hearts. Her animus was a thing of redness, and the males who had once looked upon her with favor gave her a wide berth, sensing her mood without understanding it.
She threw the door open to her room, and began scanning for the box. The bed was neatly made, linens folded and the tranquil order of the room seeming like its own affront. There was no sense of the box here, no trace of its magic. Had it been moved? Or had they hidden it somehow?
She began carefully at first, looking beneath the bed, opening the wardrobe and moving aside the clothing, but as her search continued to come up empty, she became increasingly frustrated and started tossing aside the contents of the room in rising fury. She struggled to swallow the flame in her throat, but with increasing panic she could sense it slipping away from her. It was not here!
She had just lifted the bed, tossing it aside and smashing it against the wall like so much kindling when she heard the door open behind her.
The Viceroy was standing there, and he was holding the box. "Looking for this, milady?" he asked, and his face did not hold the worshipful adoration she had come to suspect, but deep-knit suspicion, and his mouth was as hard as a knife edge. There was also disbelief in his animus, incredulity at the state of her room thrumming from him, and his heart was a wall to her. His loyalty to his king overshadowing her attempts to reach inside and calm him, and her own emotions too turbulent to get a handle for a more meaningful manipulation.
You were outplayed. She heard Mourne's voice from her memory, and realized at once the trap that had been set around her.
"I think it is time you came with us, Lady Shelle Ru...or whoever you truly are." The Viceroy spoke in clipped, hurt tones, and the soldiers arrayed behind him, crossbows raised, appeared equally unmoved.
The curfew was lifted the next day without explanation, and the spirits of the citizenry and residents of Earlemont lifted with it. The gates were opened, and traffic once more flowed out from the main road, leaving for exotic or prosaic destinations.
The people of the city returned to business as usual, the pall that had covered them no longer present, and a sense of normalcy returning to the streets, shopfronts, and residences, with so many unwelcome guests now welcomed to leave and seek new business elsewhere. Inns emptied, and a fresh dispatch of soldiers bound for the front headed west, the knightly orders of Esturia at the vanguard, gleaming in their whitesteel armor on the back of powerful destriers.
The announcement of the dissolution of the Dragon Corps had been made some days prior, and so it was that when the dragons were sighted in the skies above they were met not with a sense of the commonplace, but with shouts of alarm. There were many of them in flight, eight to be exact, one of them noticeably larger than the rest, all of them headed past the dragon kennels and directly for the castle on the hilltop.
They pointed and shouted and called their neighbors, torn between wonder and fear. What did this mean, that dragons were now in the capital, on the doorstep of the Castle Earle?
They landed in the courtyard within the castle walls, surrounded by suspicious guards with raised weapons, only the green-scaled armor and burnished plates of the dragon riders staying their hands.
Selka dropped down from the back of Kulvas, removing her helmet, gratified that she was returning with slightly more hair than when she left. She raised one hand, addressing the assembled warriors. "At ease, gentlemen."
Seeing no response, she frowned, and raised her voice to an imperious tone. "I said, at ease gentlemen. If you loose arrows against a knight of the realm, or His Majesty's dragons, we will not hesitate to teach you better manners."
Not wanting to argue, with a few sidelong glances, the weapons were lowered, the captains of these soldiers giving orders to stand down, but confusion plain upon their faces.
Matra descended, one of her claws depositing a large wrapped bundle at her feet, the other claw opening to release Iorn from her grasp. The spectacle of this, of a man being carried protectively by a dragon, was enough to set tongues wagging, murmurs throughout the assembled soldiery, and hushes of gossip from the arriving nobility.
She looked over to Iorn joining her at her side, and they nodded to one another. He had looked better, but was a bit more cleaned up than when she had found him. The scars and burns of the Yeomi still marred his face and his right arm in particular, but he had replaced his old shirt with a new homespun one. He still looked like a peasant with a sword, but they had not wasted much time getting him better attired.
The seneschal emerged from the midst of the soldiers, bowing to Selka with deference. "Dame Selka," he addressed her. "This is highly irregular, as you must know."
"You are in no danger, Seneschal Urryn," she said. "I would be most pleased if you would inform His Majesty that I have arrived."
He frowned, licking dry lips in the presence of so many dragons. "We were told the Dragon Corps was disbanded. Who shall I say is seeking his audience?"
Selka turned and exchanged a look with Iorn, who simply shrugged and smiled. "Tell him that is is Dame Selka Euphrane, and Keeper Yorn Estera, of the Drac Orden."
They marched down the hallways together, and Iorneste was impressed at the clacking of her boots on the flagstones, the authority with which they rang, the purpose in her stride. She received a few looks of respect, some of askance, and she was above all of it. Her destination was not in any doubt, and she carried her authority with a dragon's grace.
"Are you sure this is wise?" he asked her as they made way for the King's chambers.
"I will not lie for you to my liege lord, Iorn," she said. "No matter what allegiance you may claim that I now owe to the Drac matriarchs. He is still my sworn King. If he wants answers about you, best that you give them yourself."
"I see," he said, and supposed it was better this way. She would not forgive him for dividing her loyalties, and ultimately he was the one who had gotten her into this mess in the first place.
They reached a door at the end of the hallway on the highest floor in the castle, no more distinguished than any other in the hallway, but marked by two guards standing on either side, faces stern and unyielding like stone. Halberds were crossed in front of the door, and though Iorneste had seen such scenes depicted in the illustrations of books many times, it was his first time witnessing the pomp and majesty of royal guards, and his scholarly senses were piqued.
"Dame Euphrane," spoke the one on the left. "His Majesty was made aware of your coming, and bids you enter." The halberds pulled away from the door, and the guard on the right opened it for them.
As soon as they entered, the door was closed behind them, and Iorneste took stock of the royal chambers. They had arrived in a sitting room, with rich chairs, a warm fireplace with a small fire, and a few modest shelves of books.
Past this was an archway into the resting chambers beyond. His eyes were immediately drawn to the bed, though the King was not in it. It was certainly the largest bed he had ever seen, and the thick posts of it would have easily supported his weight. It looked very soft and comfortable, and much as he wanted to roll around in it as a basis for comparison, he assumed that such things were probably frowned upon.
There was a ewer of water and a basin, with fine towels folded nearby for the washing of royal hands, and everything was clean, orderly, and impeccable. Within the orderly room, he was surprised to see an old man, with hair of iron grey and a close-trimmed beard sitting in a chair, staring out the window to the city and lowlands below, with a naked sword forged of whitesteel laying across his lap.
"Selka," he said as they entered. "I see you have brought me dragons, as you promised."
"I have, Your Majesty," she said, and kneeled before him.
"Gracellus," he said with irritation, and glanced at her, and then over to Iorneste, sizing him up with a long, searching look.
Having received no such special dispensation, Iorneste dropped to one knee before the King, aware of the forms of address, and said, "Your Majesty, it is an honor. Please forgive my disheveled state."
Gracellus dismissed his concern with a wave of his hand. "To an old man in his bedclothes, you are overdressed. Please rise, both of you. I assume this man is somewhat responsible for the dragons being here, and being so well-behaved?"
Selka smiled. "Fully responsible, sire. We could not have done it without him."
"Indeed. I hear he even brought a trophy? Some relic from the wyvern's nest?"
Iorneste found it rather odd to be discussed as if he were not even present, and his pride rankled. Was this what it was like to be a commoner among the nobility?
"He did, Gracellus," Selka said. "The head of a great wyrm, the likes of which we've never seen before. It is believed this creature was responsible for bringing the wyverns here, to our doorstep."
"So it would seem," the King said, turning the blade flat and sighting along it to its end, his eyes looking past the tip and meeting Iorneste's own. "That you truly are a dragon slayer, Yorn Estera."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"In addition to being something of an expert on dragons."
"Did you learn this in Summersgard?"
"No, Your Majesty," he said, without hesitation. "I learned it from my father."
"You have sworn no allegiance, Mer Estera. Why is it that you help us?"
There was no need to lie or dance around the truth in answer to this question, and he smiled. "Out of allegiance, and respect, out of love and admiration, for Dame Selka Euphrane."
"Ah," he said, and there was a glimmer of mischief in the old man's rheumy eyes. "And what if something were to happen to Selka Euphrane? What would happen to your allegiance then?"
It caught him by surprise, and his mouth opened and closed with no ready answer to give.
"You understand my concern, Mer Estera?"
He glanced over to Selka, but she was no help. Her features were calm and resolute, staring forward at her King unflinching. She had told him previously that she did not expect to survive to an old age, and to die in service to her liege was the greatest honor that she could imagine.
"Yes, Your Majesty," he answered at last. "I suppose if that were to happen, my allegiance would go with the dragons."
"Oh?" he asked, and he rested the sword back across his lap, and leaned forward. "And why is that, Mer Estera? Why would a dragon slayer have so much allegiance for dragons?"
"Because, Your Majesty," he said, "I feel a kinship with them. We are warriors of a kind, and after spending some time with them, I now feel responsible for what happens to them."
The King nodded, fingers scratching the tip of his chin, looking between the two of them for long moments without a word. The silence in the room was a deep stillness, and Iorneste could hear Selka's heartbeat, could tell that she was nervous about something.
"Tell me of what happened with the wyverns, Selka," he said at last, and Iorneste listened as she relayed the details of the battle from her perspective, including their ambush of the Hive the following day, including how she had found him below, scarred and burned and bleeding, his sword embedded in the eye of the Yeomi. She left out some of the details, about his taking the form of a hawk, for instance, which he found surprising.
The King asked a few clarifying questions, but mostly let her account speak for itself, before falling silent once more into a deep state of pondering. He seemed in no rush, and had no sense or concern for the impatience of others, which a dragon could appreciate.
"Here is what I think," the King said at last. "Mer Estera. I think you to be a man, if indeed only a man you be, of secrets. But I trust Selka, and I trust her judgment, and that you have put your trust in her speaks highly of your character. That you risked your life, traversing deep into the bowels of that four lair, with no guarantee of survival, speaks highly of your courage. So I think, for now...we will trust you, Mer Yorn Estera."
He bowed. "You have my eternal gratitude, Your Majesty."
"Eternal, is it?" The old man began to chuckle, only the faintest wheeze in it. "So you would swear an oath of fealty to me, to the crown of Esturia, vowing to protect her from all harm, so long as you should live?"
As long as he should live? "Your Majesty, I...that is to say..." He clamped down on the words, hating the sound of his own indecision. "Yes, Your Majesty. I would be willing to swear such an oath."
Gracellus nodded. "Good. I do not ask it of you at this time, but your willingness to do so is noted. Thank you, Mer Estera. You may consider yourself an honored guest of the court, your debt to the crown abolished, and you may have free reign of the castle grounds."
"You are most generous, Your Majesty."
"You may go now, Mer Estera. I would like to speak to the Knight-Marshal about military matters."
He was a bit taken aback by this dismissal, but showed only deference in his bow, and turned to leave the room. Selka's last look to him was apologetic.
"Now," the King said, his attention fully directed to Selka. "Let us speak of this Drac Orden you have brought to our doorstep."
The doors closed behind him, and whatever further matters were discussed between the King and his sworn vassal, he was no longer privy to them.
The steward, Morri, turned out to be an excellent fellow and gave Iorneste quarters that made him only too happy. It was a single room, but the room had a bed, and the bed was as comfortable and sturdy as any he had ever seen, although not nearly as sumptuous as the one in the King's room.
The window was of particular interest to him, and once Morri had obtained his measurements and left the room, he opened the window, looking down to the city far below. With no one the wiser to observe his comings and goings, he shifted to the form of the mirhawk, soaring out of the window and down to the city far below, searching for one house in particular, a house in the Sunlowe district, with a green-painted door.
With a jangle of keys, the door to Sheldrache's cell swung open, and the Viceroy Tulane stood within it. It appeared that he hadn't slept, and his animus reeked of fury and desperation. She sat cross-legged on the sole chair they had provided her, wrestling with her own frustration. She had not wanted to argue with several crossbows, but the idea of a Drac, an eregaunte, being locked in a human prison, went beyond embarrassment.
"Where is it?" asked the Viceroy, voice trembling with anger.
She sighed. "You have lost the box already, dear one?"
"Do not call me that!" he shrieked, and kicked the door closed behind him. "You know damned well what I mean!"
Fragments of memory hit her as he came closer, and she stood up, eyes meeting his, her scent wafting into his nostrils, a soft smile hitting her lips as she felt his resolve fading, the realization that they were alone together within the cell, outside of all supervision, and he felt as though he were in a position of power.
She saw no reason yet to disparage that notion.
Reaching out, she touched his face with her hand, and her animus enfolded his like an embrace, and she saw an image in his recollection that drew a gasp from her lips, that of the box being opened.
It was open! They had opened it! How?
She probed deeper, and this time the Viceroy let out a gasp, a mingled sigh of pleasure and pain as she probed deeper, worming into his thoughts, pressing and begging, and asking questions, questions that sparked answers. In her quarters they had also found a fragment, a scrap of paper, upon which were written a long series of runes. Drac runes.
The combination to the puzzle box.
They had opened it, and it was empty.
You were outplayed, Sheldrache. The voice of Mourne once more rang in her mind, and she screamed in fury, and her ire hit the poor mind of the Viceroy with a savagery and trauma he was not prepared for. He did not need to worry long, as his own moaning scream began, she grabbed the front of his uniform, throwing him hard against the wall and with the wet smacking of shattered bones he collapsed to the floor, dead before he came to rest.
Slamming the door open on its hinges, she stormed down the hallway. As the guards approached, crying out a halt, she tossed them aside through strength and the High Art like children, marching forward, seeking an exit.
Mourne awoke in his house to aches, pains, and to an almost-familiar face. It took him a moment to assess his condition, to assure himself that he was not still dreaming. His dreams had been rather fitful of late.
"I am not sure," he said, wetting his dry lips with his tongue, "Who looks worse. Me, or you."
Iorneste smiled at him from a burned, scarred face. "For now, me, I think. But you have looked much better."
"Blame your sister," he grumbled, worming his way into a sitting position, propping his back against the wall, while his young dragon exile helped prop pillows behind him. He winced as he levered his leg forward, scooting to rest all of his pressure on his rump, leaving his leg extended without any pressure beneath it, heel against the floor.
"Where is Gharel?" asked Iorneste.
"Out, I imagine," he said. "He checks on me often, though. I was wrong about him."
"I know," Iorneste said, smile a bit strange and ghoulish on his burned face. "But I am glad that you were."
"I must know, Iorn," Mourne said, "How did you get burned? That does not appear to be merely cosmetic."
"Indeed, Mourne friend. But you should know there is only one sort of burning that a Drac needs to fear."
It was hard to believe, and the realization dawned as he took further stock of Iorneste's condition. The coat he had admired so much was nearly unrecognizable now, the entire right sleeve was missing, and though the shirt he wore beneath was fresh and new, the shirt itself still stuck to the skin of his right arm where it was cracked and oozed from the blackened wounds upon his skin. "When did you meet a Yeomi?"
"Two days ago," Iorneste answered. "I killed him, if you can believe it."
He leaned his head back against the wall, and sighed. "A dragonslayer at last. Congratulations. How?"
"I have you to thank. It was a matter of life and death. He knew about the First Exile. The betrayer thought he had me disarmed...but did not realize that I had access to the High Art."
Mourne found his lips curving. "I thought I would regret that decision. As it turns out, it saved your life."
"Yes, Mourne friend. It did."
"I suppose you have much to tell me about what happened since last we met."
"I was going to say the same to you, Mourne friend, but alas..." His voice trailed off, and so suspicious was his sudden silence that Mourne opened his eyes, searching his worried face.
"We are no longer alone."
She was dressed for a funeral, but her skin was bone white. The mask of humanity hung crookedly on her carnivorous face. Her red mouth was part smile, part hunger. Her eyes were dark like storms, and her long, unbound hair was as black as the night of caves, her clothes pressing against her body, and streaming behind her in the rising winds.
The tingle of electricity was in the air, and it and the winds suited her mood. Iorneste could feel it through her animus, which swept over and enveloped the house as she stepped across the threshold and into the nice little house that Mourne had made for himself. Murder dripped from her eyes, he felt the crushing press of her aura drowning him, heard Mourne begin to gasp breathlessly.
He went for his sword, but she sensed it and moved fast, far too fast. He was pulled towards her, the aethir bringing him into her grasp. She gave him a half-glance, and pitched him behind her. He had barely enough time to tuck his body, and his head still clipped the wall, filling his vision with shooting stars; while the rest of his body hit less resistance at the glass of the window, sending him spinning out into the street.
He crashed into the garden across the street, digging furrows into the earth, continuing to roll and feeling the hard impact of brick and wood as he smashed into the outbuilding, coming at last to a stop, facedown in what remained of the small building.
Everything hurt, and the world would not stop spinning, but he could hear her voice inside of Mourne's house, her footsteps as she moved slowly closer to his disabled friend.
"Where. Is. It," she said.
"That is the exact same question you asked me last time," Mourne's voice came from inside the house, "and I hate to give you the same answer."
There was the sound of something breaking, the splintering of wood.
"Please do not drop the house on me again, either. I worked hard for this house, Shel. Think for a moment! You just attacked an exile."
"He insulted me," came her response. Iorneste rose to his knees, slowly, reaching down into his boot for something. Something he had been hiding for a very long time. Once he had it firm in his grasp he took an unsteady step to his feet and walked back towards Mourne's house.
"No," Iorneste said, before Mourne could answer, as he walked ever closer. "It is you who have insulted me, Sheldrache. You who have attacked and injured my friend, your own kiin. You who have threatened my own kiin, Selka, and the woman I love. You who have interfered with the First Exile."
He stood there in the doorway looking at her, feeling her animus turn back towards him with her attention and her violet eyes. And then as they entered the meld, he raised his hand, showing her the signet ring that was now on his finger. "All. For. This."
He felt the dragon signet's power, his animus swelling as if he was many times larger, many times older than he actually was. He felt her doubts and misgivings, and she cried out as instead it was her turn for her animus to be enveloped, by his, felt his own anger press her down, and he was not gentle. He pressed her down to the earth with as much emotional force as she had used against him when she threw him out the window.
It brought her to her knees, and he could feel her outrage, her panic, her humiliation. I tried to spare you this, he told her. But you would not stop. You would not see reason. You walked right into what should have been an obvious trap. Could you not have deduced that I had the signet all along?
"No!" she said aloud, hair flying as her head moved in negation. "How?"
Guile is a Drac virtue. One you have forgotten, sister.
"Wait," Mourne said, rising up to his feet and pointing. "You have a dragon signet? Is that what was in the box?"
"Yes," he admitted.
"How long have you had that?"
"Since the Maiden's Fancy." He grinned, seeing Mourne's expression warring between admiration and a desire to strangle him. "Come now, Mourne friend," he said. "It was best that you never knew, for obvious reasons."
"No wonder you never sounded that concerned about the box being opened. You'd already opened it!"
"It was easy this time around. I had opened it years before."
What? it was Sheldrache's thought.
"This box belonged to Rrachma. It took me a year to figure out the puzzle, but once I had I would hardly forget it again. Or fail to recognize the box on seeing it a second time."
His mentor shook his head, glancing at Sheldrache kneeling on the floor with a look of pity. "So why steal it at all? What did I risk my life for?"
"Because Selka was the last to hold the box. I wanted her to deliver it safe, and unharmed. If it was opened, they would see that it did not have the signet inside, and she might have gotten blamed as the one last in possession. Once the box was stolen, anything could have happened to the contents, and the signet going missing would no longer be pinned on Selka."
He gave Sheldrache a hard look, and his anger beat down upon her, magnified by the signet, causing her to cringe and whimper, unwilling to meet his eyes. "I especially did not want my sister to retaliate against her. But I failed to account for the depth of her ambition. Her desire for the signet was worth everything to her. Nothing else mattered. The wyverns...we could have used your help, sister. There was a Yeomi among them."
She looked up at that, and he showed her the last moments of Erezahn, holding up his burned and scarred arm for emphasis. "I killed him through luck, but if you had been there, it might have gone differently. It was this duty you should have served above all others, not the acquisition of this signet."
Mourne chuckled, which led to a cough, and he cleared his throat. "So what will you do with it, Iorneste?"
"I will keep it, of course. It is mine, by hoard rights."
"And what will you do with Sheldrache? She has bowed to you. Your animus is now the stronger with the signet, and she has interfered with your exile. By my judgment, that gives you a great deal of latitude in how you deal with her."
He kneeled down on the floor, crossing his legs, and looked directly across into his sister's eyes. He brushed her hair back, behind her ear, fingers tenderly stroking her face, soothing and caressing her animus with his own. "It was never my desire," he said with softness, "To punish her, to hurt her. So I can be merciful. She will leave," and as he said this he pushed the impulse deep into her mind, "And return to Kaer Drac. She will tell Rrachma everything that has happened since she left, and in one year's time, she will return to me, to ask how she can be of service."
Mourne and Sheldrache's mouth fell open almost in unison. "Iorn," he counseled, "Demeaning an eregaunte with the demands of a haergaunte, and a male no less...it is just not done."
"It is now," he snapped, feeling his ire bubbling at the edge of his control. "It is this time. She needs to learn control, to relearn discipline, and she has been too arrogant, too brash in her dealings with mankind to safely wander among them until she has. Besides, by interfering with my exile, she now has a vested interest in my success, as it will reflect upon her."
You know I could have done far worse, he told her. I could have made you my slave. But I do not want that. I want to be a friend to you, and perhaps in time you will recognize this as the gesture it is intended to be.
He broke the meld at once, and reached out his hand, offering to help her to her feet. She could have tossed him through the wall, broken him in half, could have bitten the ring off of his finger, but he knew that she would not. He had won the argument, he had encouraged her to think of him not as an enemy, but an ally. He doubted she would ever be willing to work against him again.
Tears streaked down her cheeks, drying on her pale flesh, and when she reached out for him, he was aware that Mourne stiffened, but he welcomed his sister into his arms, and they shared a tight embrace.
"You are," she whispered into his ear, "One to watch, Iorneste. Well played. Know that as one of my brood, I am very proud of you."
"Thank you," he said to her, and released her, and she walked to the doorway, righting the door on its frame.
"Farewell, Mourne," she said from the doorway, and then she was gone.
They stood there, sharing a long silence, and Mourne wet his lips several times before he found the words he wanted to say. His head shook from side to side as he stared at Iorneste in disbelief. "You are a son of a bitch, Iorneste."
"Careful, Mourne friend, you know my mother."
"I know, you idiot. It's an expression."
He found Selka some hours later in the late afternoon in the courtyard, where were assembled the dragons of the Drac Orden; the order he had invented out of whole cloth, but which now it seemed would actually make the annals of true history. She was standing there near Korovas, and she was addressing someone he had not expected he would see again any time soon.
The woman Selka addressed was not dressed as a knight, but wearing a simple shift, belted around her waist, yet he would not soon forget Eluenne, with or without her armor. Her hair was long, unbound, and beautiful, and it softened her angular face. Her right arm was still in a sling. He stood out of the way, watching as she raised her left hand slowly, to press it against Korovas' side, while Selka encouraged her.
Then, after a long moment, she began to cry, as had the others. Even without his being there, Selka had managed to bridge the gap between human and dragon. It brought a weary smile to his scarred face, the knowledge that although he had shown them the way, the power to continue this bond between human and drake could continue even after he was gone.
After Eluenne had composed herself, she reached out and embraced Selka, and he heard her mutter the words he had thought her incapable of speaking. "I am sorry, Selka."
"Do not be sorry," Selka said in the official voice of the Knight-Marshal. "Just be ready. We leave in two days time. Korovas will be waiting for you."
"I had missed him," she said, and reached up to stroke his scales one last time, as the dragon leaned over to nudge her with his snout. "And I like this name better."
He caught Eluenne's eye as she left, and she hesitated for a moment, but dipped her head once in acknowledgement before walking past him. He tried to look sorry for breaking her arm, but was not sure that he really was.
Selka sensed him, and turned around to find his smile welcoming her. "You," she said to him. "Come with me." She walked without looking back, as if expecting him to follow, which was a safe assumption on her part, as he was certain he would follow her anywhere.
They walked up to the battlements, but instead of facing towards the city, they faced westward, where distantly on the borders of Esturia was the front of battle, and the Suran invaders. They were alone there, and he put his arm around her, smiling as he felt her arm go around his waist, her head nestled into his shoulder.
"Your sister has a lot to answer for," she said to him. "She killed the Viceroy."
"Did she?" He frowned. "I did not know she had done that. But I have punished her, and sent her away. She will not trouble you or Esturia again, I promise."
"She should be facing Esturian justice," Selka insisted.
"There is no way the Drac would stand for that. She has lost face, that will be a greater punishment than you could imagine."
Selka growled. "It is still not good enough."
"I can assure you, Selka, that being brought to heel by a male two centuries her junior will rankle her enough that she may very well wish for human justice."
"You did that?"
"I did. I have the signet, after all. The one that was in the box."
"I would report you for that, but..."
He kissed her on the top of her head. "But what?"
"But the King does not care about the contents of that box anymore. It was always the Viceroy's primary concern, and though my liege seeks Shelle Ru for her crimes, he has the dragons he wanted, the thing that could turn the tide of battle, so he is content with that."
"Good. This signet would only have brought disaster. It is better in Drac hands."
"Your hands, you mean."
He felt her arm tighten around his waist, and he tightened his own arm around her shoulders in response. "My hands, I think, prefer having you in them."
She turned then, and looked up at him, cloud eyes searching his, a cheeky smile at her lips. "I could do better, you know. A fresh stack of marriage proposals came in today."
"Could you? You will not often find many with a face like this one."
She laughed, tossing back her head. "I suppose that is true. And now that I've scarred your face, I suppose I should stay with you when no other woman would have you."
"How fortunate," he said, drawing close, lips brushing hers. "Because I would never want anyone else."
"You always know just what to say, Iorneste. But I think..."
"Yes?" he asked, voice the merest whisper.
"That the time for talking is over."
The sunset was beautiful that evening, but they were too occupied to appreciate it.
Iorneste and Selka
by Zaina a.k.a. "Queen Z"
© 2015 Zaina