"When are they coming back?"
Iorneste heard the steel in her husky voice like a blade sliding from its scabbard. The unsheathed blade in her hand was likewise threatening, the point of it thrust toward him.
He caught it, pushing her blade up, swords crossed. "I am not certain," he admitted.
"What??" Selka shouted, and stepped left, but his blade and his steps followed hers, and as she reversed to make a slash for his head, he slammed the blade near the rain guard against hers, causing it to ring in the air and her own sword to tremble in her hands.
"I hope they will return soon," he added, and winced as her grey eyes narrowed and she launched a barrage of aggressive attacks that kept seeking to riposte around his guard and into his face. So consistent was her target of attack that he bought her final feint, which left him surprised when her foot swiftly raised into the fork between his legs, and connected with a solidity that shuddered up into his belly.
He then discovered the disadvantage of external sex organs as an explosion of nausea and white-hot pain surged through him and he collapsed to the ground with a solid thump, unwilling to seek combat further. "Selka!" he shouted, and her snigger in response only annoyed him further. "I thought...you were a knight! How...oh, by Fang and Flame...how was that fair?" He found his hand covering the wounded area, and rolled over on his side. His eyes were crushed shut against the pain, which was unlike anything he had ever experienced, even when Rrachma had given him his favorite scar.
"Fair?" she asked, her breath coming in quick, conservative gasps, her voice from somewhere above him. "There is nothing fair in battle, and you are not a knight, after all. Besides," and he could hear the smug smile in her voice, though he did not trust himself to look at her yet lest he find himself punching her back. "I owed you a swift kick."
"I fail...to see how," he said, and rolled over onto his back, unashamed about cradling what he felt were his now broken bits, his stomach clenching and groaning and the desire to vomit still present. He fought it down, since a dragon's vomit tended to set things on fire.
"You made it sound, you let everyone think, that the dragons were just going out for a little flight. That they would be back soon."
"It has only been three days, Selka..." The pain had diminished little, and he still had no desire to attempt to stand.
"Was this your plan all along? You've released every dragon that can fly, including the female. We are grounded, Iorn. We need to get these dragons to the front within the next few days. I had hoped I could trust you."
He was almost thankful for her words, they hurt him more than the pain between his legs. "This is not fair, either, Selka. And this, you and me, this is not a battle."
"It was just bad timing," she said.
"They had to go, they had to be free. And they have to return of their own volition. I will not allow them to be slaves. If they are to remain, they must choose to do so, understanding the alternative."
"You need not worry, I expect them to return shortly. I have talked to them."
She groaned. "I hope you do not mean 'shortly' or 'soon' by dragon standards."
"Well..." he foundered on the explanation when he looked past her shoulder into the sky to the west and saw the silhouettes of black wings in the distant sky.
The Aerie Keep at Mir's Edge came alive at the shouts of "Dragons!" and in fact nothing could have mobilized the knights and other inhabitants any faster. The ran out into the open, pointing into the sky, some of the women cheering and clapping their hands. He caught Freda's face among them: she was positively ecstatic.
Iorneste had to admit he was surprised. Despite his promises to everyone that they would return, he had also been keenly aware of what they endured. He did not know if all of them would return, and there was a chance that left to their own devices, they would take a bit more enjoyment in their freedom than suited Selka's timeline.
His eyes were dragon eyes, and seeing long distances was what they were made for, the better to spot details on the ground below. The dragon shapes began to increase, dotting the sky, far more than had left, until a dark cloud seemed to be moving towards them. As his eyes focused on the dragons in the lead, he suddenly was able to count the number of appendages.
It dawned him in with horror that these were not dragons at all.
"Wyverns!" he shouted, opening his throat and launching the words like a cannon shot across the keep, and into the Mir beyond. He scrambled to his feet, wincing. "Make ready, Selka. There are hundreds of them."
They filled the skies like pestilence, swarming from the west like a cloud of doom, casting their shadow across the landscape as they passed. Selka had seen a wyvern once, as a child, dead on a slab and presented to the royal huntsman for a trophy. It was the size of a pony, and its teeth were razor-sharp, and its long, wicked tail was barbed with a cruel spur that looked sharp enough to pierce armor. Unlike other dragons, wyverns had only four limbs, with their front legs attached to long, spindly wings studded with jagged barbs that looked no less lethal than their tail. The stench of the blackened, greenish thing was nearly indescribable, a sickly-sweet rot that hung in her nostrils for days, a smell that had to be scoured from the walls in the room where it had lain.
She was not sure if she imagined it, but there was a whiff of that smell on the distant breeze, and the cloud of wyverns who were no longer so distant. "To arms!" she shouted, and was happy to hear the bell clanging shortly after as Mir's Edge saw the oncoming threat and alerted everyone to seek shelter.
The first of them dove, down to garrison, taking a couple arrows before snatching up one of the fleeing soldiers with its rear legs. Its lambent green eyes were without humanity or compassion, its maw of teeth a demented rictus grin. It carried him up into the air, body curling towards its rear legs as it flew, its front legs/wings fanning the air and pulling it higher. The creature's head snaked down towards its feet, and with a scream and a spray of crimson it snapped off the man's top half. Another wyvern snatched the lower half of the man from the claws of the bloody-mawed wyvern, gobbling up his legs in flight and continuing down to the earth below.
She watched as Iorn ran to his coat which had been lain nearby, and shrugged into it, strapping his sword and scabbard over his shoulder, reaching inside of his coat and impossibly withdrawing the massive unstrung bow of vellarien wood. How did it even fit in there? More of that Drac magic Iorn had talked about? He rested it at the instep of his left foot, stepping over it with his right leg bending and bowing it leftwards over his right leg, grunting with the effort, but snapped the string of dragongut into place, and began to step out of the bow.
Seeing him otherwise preoccupied, when the wyvern descended towards him she caught the thrusting spur of its tail before it could reach his chest, hacking off the end of it with a fierce blow. The wyvern screamed above her, wings fanning and sending up gusts of wind, but she had bought Iorn the time he needed.
She did not know where the arrow had come from, but he pulled and released it with only a second to aim, the arrow slamming up through the softer flesh beneath its jaw, disappearing up somewhere inside of its brain. It fell with a truncated silvery scream as if poleaxed, crashing to the earth between them, and she exchanged a look with Iorn, before he turned and began sprinting towards the Aerie Tower, clearing the field in seconds. He then began to take the stairs ten at a time, vaulting up higher and higher to the top, arrows loosing as he went.
She realized that wyverns stank even when they were alive. They were diving among the yard, and the sound of gunfire and the whistle of arrows filled the air, the projectiles cutting into the flesh of the advancing horde. She caught Embre's eyes across the field, and shouted, "Organize the defense, Dame Stormwall!" Then she sheathed her sword, snatching up a long spear from the training yard, and raced for the Aerie Tower stairs.
The thunder of Embre's voice crashed through the chaos and the screams behind her, "Form up, knights! Shields to the ready! You men there, join formation!"
As she reached the first steps, Iorn was rounding the tower two levels above her. She had to give his aim some real admiration. He never missed that she could see, and though not every shot was a kill, considering the speed of the wyvern's flight and his own movement it was a mastery she did not expect him to have achieved in such a short time. The force of the long black-fletched arrows, however, propelled by his inhuman strength, was a brutally effective weapon. They hit with the force of a gunshot, staggering the wyverns in the air, and sending most of his targets plummeting to the ground below. The wind caught the long tail of his braided blond hair as it blew behind him and she watched him disappear around the other side of the tower, finding a mad smile growing on her face.
She pumped her legs, springing upwards on the balls of her feet, skipping fewer stairs than Iorn had, but in no way a stranger to running up to the top of this tower. He had a head start, and was undeniably stronger than she was, but she had been training for this her entire life. Perhaps she could overtake him?
Whether she could or not, it was time to go to work.
Embre and the knights had formed up in a wall of shields, joined by the Sergeant and the other soldiers assigned to garrison the keep, the Viceroy's men, along with those who had formerly manned the slaughterhouse, now closed. The archers and gunners were at the center of the ring of shields, freely choosing targets in the aerial chaos. Everyone else was locked inside, which was where they should be, but the wyverns were not merely choosing the knights as targets.
They were also attacking the buildings, working in concert with an alien intelligence that unsettled her. While some of them were cut down in a rain of arrow and musket fire, others were trying to fight their way into some of the weaker buildings, and any they caught were shredded and consumed with animal efficiency, and an insatiable appetite. The screams of horror rung in her ears, and she already knew she would be hearing them in her nightmares.
She called the attention of the gunners and archers to one of the buildings within the keep, which belonged to the fletcher and his wife, which a wyvern had thrust half of its body into and was struggling to wriggle inside, breaking through the wall as it did so. The volley of arrows and bullets hit it with great force, but it only seemed to anger it, and it pulled free of the house, leaving a gaping hole behind that would be only too inviting to more of the foul things. It staggered towards them, unable to take flight, and the projectiles continued to hit it, until it finally slumped to the ground only a few feet away. She was not taking chances. Embre speared the thing in the head six times with her sword, just to be sure it was good and dead.
A little girl's cry wailed from the house the wyvern had just left, her cries cutting into Embre's heart. It was Tamra, the fletcher's daughter, and she watched the child stumble out of the house into the yard, covered in blood that was not hers, eyes wide and full of fear as she took in the swirling forms in the sky, heard the sounds of others dying in the yard, the sight of Coelle moving to a downed wyvern, hacking off its head with an axe. She stood there suddenly frozen, her mouth a wide O, eyes red with tears, and then the screech of a wyvern seeing its prey brought Embre's heart into her mouth. "No..." she breathed.
To her left, Despera broke formation, sprinting across the yard towards Tamra. "Despera!" Embre called, "Get back here now! That's an order!"
Despera ignored her, and a shadow passed over her, swooping to close the distance to the little girl. The wyvern began to descend, and she did not need to tell the archers to turn their target to the wyvern, but as it reached close to the ground they hesitated, not wanting to hit either Despera or Tamra. Despera had always been a strong runner, however, and as the striking tail of the wyvern headed for Tamra she threw herself in front of the blow, diving with all of her might, knocking Tamra to the ground.
The wyvern's spur disappeared into Despera's back, and she screamed like nothing Embre had ever heard before. The wyvern soared back up into the air, long tail dragging its harpooned quarry into the air, and Despera continued to flail and scream, but her legs were boneless and Embre could already tell that her spine had been severed. It made its way into the air, until an arrow hit it in the eye with the force of a cannon blast behind it, snapping its head sideways and sending it crashing in an ungainly fashion to the ground. Embre looked up to see Yorn standing near the top of the Aerie Tower, bow still in hand, a grave but unreadable expression on his face.
Despera crumpled beside the wyvern as it hit the ground, twitching and doing little else, the wyvern's spur emerging from her stomach, coated in her life's blood.
"Damn it," cursed Embre. "Tresha," she called to her right. "Close the wall." She ran out to Despera's side, a heavy slash severing the wyvern's tail. She grabbed Despera and Tamra by the collar, pulling them back into cover near the blacksmith's, hearing the thud of impact and two more wyverns crashed to the ground near where they had just left.
Looking down at Despera, she saw her grateful eyes, and the hard-bitten smile that strained her white and clammy face. Despera turned to Tamra, who had become catatonic, and her smile softened. "I-it is w-well," Despera stuttered, grimacing against the pain. "S-she is safe...I c-couldn't l-let them ha-have..."
"I know, Despera," Embre muttered, trying to see through her tears. "Now shut up, you have to rest." She yanked the spur and the remains of the wyvern's tail from the wound, causing Despera to cry out, and took Despera's scarf, wadding it into a ball and stuffing it into her stomach, trying to apply pressure.
"C-can't f-feel my l-legs..." Despera said, looking up at her, body beginning to convulse.
"Nonsense, you're just in shock," Embre said. "You will be fine."
"N-no..." Despera said. "D-dying..."
"Dammit, girl!" Embre hissed, and she felt guilty as Tamra stiffened nearby, shrinking up against the wall. "You are not going to die. That's an order. You stay alive."
Despera quivered, wry smile hitching at one side of her mouth. "M-make me..." she challenged, and then her eyes rolled back into her head, and the convulsions continued to wrack her body from the waist up, but from the waist down she was already dead.
Selka rounded the corner as Iorn dropped the wyvern that had speared Despera. Her scream strangled itself in her throat, as she watched Embre drag her and Tamra away, heard the cries of shock and outrage from her women and the men below.
"I will only say it once," she shouted.
"Sure would be nice to have some dragons right about now, don't you think?"
"You still have one."
She looked up at him, squinting in the sun. "That was a good shot. Thanks, Despera deserved better than that."
"I was not fast enough. She is paralyzed."
"...You can see that from here?"
"Yes. Bleeding badly." Maybe it was his voice, maybe it was the animus, but she could feel his guilt.
She ground her teeth tightly together, scanning the skies. The spear in her hand was leveled, and her scream unstrangled itself, and all of her hate and despair went with it, slicing through the air and into the throat of a diving wyvern, who continued his dive by crashing into the earth.
"What are their weaknesses?" she asked.
"Nothing that will help us right now. We just have to hit them very hard."
"Secure the roof, I'll join you shortly."
While he ran up to pick a fight with the wyverns, she darted into her quarters at the apex, slamming the door behind her.
The summit of the Aerie Tower could see for miles, and unobstructed by the ground view—something he still struggled to get used to—he could see the range and extent of the wyvern horde that assailed them. They swarmed, like flying ants, the Hive boiling free, originating somewhere in the west, and seeking out fresh meat. But why, of all places, would they come to Mir's Edge?
He had only one arrow, inscribed with runes, but after firing that arrow, due to the matching rune on the palm of his fingerless right glove, he could recall it to his hand, and fire it again. In this way he avoided the need for a quiver, and his ammunition was ever at hand, inexhaustible. Even if he were to break the arrow, the integrity rune would ensure that it would return whole to his hand.
This was a losing battle, he could see that now. He drew his arm back and felled another, and as it crashed to the earth, he recalled the arrow to his hand, nocking it and firing it again, and again, the streak of the black-fletched arrow through the air seeking targets like flies amid a swarm, and on the ground below he could see the ghastly remains of most of the civilians who had made the keep their home, down below in Mir's Edge he could see the running figures being snatched up by the wyverns, the desolation that followed in their wake. The trained warriors still survived, but even they would grow tired. Their shields already hung heavy with exhaustion, and it was written in their faces.
They were losing. He might survive all of them, and still there would be no one left to celebrate his victory. Selka...
He shook his head, redoubling his efforts, loosing arrow after arrow. There was only so much he could do, although this was a matter of life and death, it just was not yet a matter of his life and death, and thus the Binding still held firm. Damn Mourne and his rules! He felt the trickle of magic allowed to him by the Binding, the conduit to the aerte still closed, the power intrinsic to his kind burbling below the surface. Yet he was watching the death of Selka's dreams before his eyes. There had to be something he could do to stop it.
Think, dragon, think!
Then it dawned on him. They were fighting on the wrong front.
Selka came from downstairs, carrying a rifle in one hand, and a sturdy box in the other. She dropped it onto the roof, kicking it open and began loading her weapon.
"A firearm?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said grimly, loading a bullet into the chamber. Despite the urgent situation he felt his curiosity bloom.
"I did not know you used firearms."
"We don't," she said, not looking at him, scanning the sky for targets as she brought the rifle to her shoulder. With a squeeze of the trigger the weapon bucked and an explosion of sound and fire blasted from the barrel and he watched the head of one of the wyverns disintegrate. "It is considered a dishonorable weapon."
He smiled, but there was little humor in it. "But effective."
She was reloading, and he caught one of the descending wyverns with his arrow, clipping it and opening up its throat as it passed, already seeking a new target in the courtyard below before it could plunge into an open house and terrorize the inhabitants inside.
"I practiced in secret," she said, and squeezed the trigger again, and the blast caught a swooping wyvern in the chest, flipping it backwards in midair, and it crashed to the ground far below. "Sorens always said it was best to be familiar with all weapons, because you never know..."
"Yeah," he interjected, drawing and firing an arrow over her shoulder to catch the wyvern that passed too close behind her. "Besides, as you said, there is nothing fair in battle. I doubt very much the wyverns fight according to the rules of nobility."
He saw the furrow in her brow, and for a time fired along with her, the two of them choosing targets and launching their shots with deadly accuracy. But he could see the same conclusion on her face that he had already drawn. He waited for her to say it, but did not need to wait long.
"There are too many of them," she said. "At least two more of the knights are injured. We are doomed."
"They are hive creatures," he said. "If we can find and attack the hive, we will draw them back to defend it."
"Which would mean abandoning Mir's Edge to their fate, fighting wyverns all along the way."
"Yes. But perhaps I could—" And then he heard it, distantly, keen ears perking up and he could not disguise his relief. "Nevermind," he finished.
"Giving up already, Iorn?"
"On the contrary, love. The moment you have been waiting for has arrived at long last."
She lowered the weapon, "What?"
Then the sound came louder, and he knew that even she had heard it. The trumpet of a dragon, echoing across the Mir. It was a battle cry.
Embre was exhausted, and it was difficult not to feel defeated. Despera was barely clinging to life, or perhaps had already passed. She had left her undefended, hidden along with Tamra in an apple cart, rejoining the rest of the knights who were still her concern, all of them seeking targets, but the gunners had run out of ammunition, and though they had raided the fletcher's, their arrows were running thin as well.
Coelle had sustained a jagged slash to her thigh, when the lashing tail of an overhead wyvern which had taken the brunt of a volley had struck beneath their raised shields. Freda bled from a cut over her eye, blinking against the blood that coated half of her face, mouth opening and closing in blowing breaths against her exhaustion and blood loss. But resting was not possible, and giving up was not an option. They were warriors, and they would go down fighting.
She heard Tamra's cries over the screeches of the wyverns, over the rush of blood in her ears. That girl had lost everything today, orphaned amid desolation, watching one of their own dying before her eyes, with all hope lost, waiting for the end to come, praying that she would be spared, rescued.
Embre prayed herself, that Tamra would console herself with her vain hope of rescue until the end, though she knew that it was over. The Dragon Corps had been disbanded, and this would be its grave.
Then she heard it, like a clarion call to battle that stirred her blood. She and the rest of the dragon knights and squires, archers, gunners, dragon handlers—all of them recognized the sound. They had heard it often enough before. The trumpet of a dragon, a brazen roar; it called out through the air, like a distant thunder, shaking ground, vibrating bone.
She looked up into the sky, and amidst the swarming plague, dared to hope.
He could tell by the timbre of the dragon's voice, it was the female. He had heard her cry once before. She had returned, and she soared through the sky on outstretched wings, her speed and strength slamming into the thick of the mass, disappearing from sight. He allowed himself only a moment's worry, before the black cloud blossomed with dracfaer and the screeches of the wyverns rose in pitch and volume, carried well after the fire by the winds.
The other wyverns turned their heads and wings as one towards the threat in their midst, circling back to overwhelm the attacker with superior numbers. He and Selka did their best to thin the numbers of those who flew past.
"That," Selka said, pushing a bullet into the chamber, wincing as her fingers contacted the searing hot barrel, "Is the most welcome sight I've seen all day."
He grinned with his whole face, releasing the string of his bow and hearing it thrum as the arrow shot through the air, burying itself somewhere in the chest of a wyvern overhead. It fell straight down, and he dropped his bow to the ground, pulling Yrmbane from its scabbard, and waited. It continued to fall, and when it was about to crush him, he crouched, dropped the sword low to the ground in front of him, then spun, facing away from the dragon, before pivoting and rising to his feet, bringing the full force of the sword from behind him, cleaving the neck from the wyvern at its base, both halves of the creature falling on either side of him, the heavier lower half sliding off the parapet and down to the courtyard below.
"And that," Selka said with a roll of her eyes, "Was a completely unnecessary gesture."
"I thought it looked heroic."
"Your heroics are wasted on me, you showoff. That is one of our dragons, I hope?"
He cast a look back to the skies, seeing the female not much closer, still engaging the throng of wyverns, some of them already clinging to her, like blots of black rot on her emerald scales. "It's Matra," he said.
"The female drake. A name I gave her...it means 'Mother'."
He did not see Selka's face, but her in-drawn breath was clue enough.
"You did not expect her to return," he said, still watching the fray.
"I am glad she did. How is she doing?"
"Not well," he muttered. "There are too many of them, even for her. They will bear her down, and they are vicious, they work together as one mind. They will strip her wings soon enough of hide, bind her limbs, seek to tie themselves to her with their tails. They will bring her down."
"That cannot be!"
He sighed. "It is only what it is, I am afraid. She has thinned their numbers, and I mourn her sacrifice as much as—wait..."
He could sense the question on her lips, and then the sky lit up again with another blossom of dracfaer, and then another, and another, and another, until the sky was filled with burning wyverns crashing to the earth like falling meteors.
She had lowered her weapon, and ran over to the edge of the tower next to him, shading her eyes against the sun. "Gods, what was that?"
"The others," he said, voice trembling. "They are coming to her rescue."
He turned to her and the relief washed over him, and her dirty face had never looked so beautiful. "The dragons have returned, Selka."
"All of them?"
"All of them...and more."
The drakes hit the wyverns like a force of nature, fire cleansing the skies, catching them in their claws as they passed, mouths tearing them apart. One of the wyverns would settle upon their hide, making it past their defenses, and one of their brothers would simply engulf them in their own dracfaer. Each of the drakes were immune to the flame, but the wyverns were not. They scoured the female in seconds, the ball of squirming wyverns that had been trying to burrow into her hide incinerated, leaving her flying free, albeit unsteadily.
It was over in minutes, every one of them fighting to the death, and every one burned alive, the dragons letting out a trumpet roar of victory, the ground shaking, earth rumbling, and the bones in Selka's head rattling painfully in resonance with their war cries.
She watched with fascination and gratitude, the dragons flying ever closer and she could soon pick them out more distinctly at this distance. It was as Yorn said, they all were there. Matra flew at the lead, with Korovas to her left and—she let out a shriek that was beyond her control, for a sight that was beyond her belief.
It was Kulvas. Her Kulvas, the one she had at first thought dead, and later who Yorn had told her was exiled. Impossibly he flew to Matra's right, and she was sure that right now his eyes were as riveted upon hers as hers were upon his. "What? How...?"
"I...don't know," Iorn said.
"Where did you send them?"
"I did not really send them anywhere, I just showed them what to avoid. Those who walk on two legs, for instance."
"You said Kulvas was in...Kaer Drac?"
"I showed him how to get there."
"Then why is he here?"
He felt a bite of frustration at the not knowing, but reminded himself that a life without mysteries was no fun at all. "I still do not know. Surely you do not mind?"
"Are you joking?" her voice was thick. "It was all I ever wanted."
Because he knew her better than she realized, he did not question her words. He simply put his arm around her, and enjoyed it very much when she rested her head against him.
The two of them watched the dragons return, sharing their happiness with each other while it lasted. They knew well enough what sort of sadness awaited them when they got back to the ground.
At any other time, the return of the dragons would have been a joyful homecoming. Cheers would have greeted the returning drakes, of that Iorneste was certain. The timing, as Selka had said, was not good. If the dragons had still been here, most of the dead would still be alive.
Not all the survivors gave him accusing glances, but enough did. Once again, the voice of Mourne was in his head, and as he had heard him chastising him over releasing Matra, the female drake, at the time he had chosen to do it, he heard him again, this time referring to his release of the remaining drakes. He had not wanted them to suffer any longer! To feel the air under their wings, to be free as they were born to be, not chattel to be ridden at a human whim.
Yet he could not look around him, at the decimation that had afflicted the keep and Mir's Edge, and not feel responsible. He busied himself with a task that struck more to the core of his guilt, dragging the heavy carcasses of the wyverns out, far away from the castle, and keeping himself away from those in mourning. As the architect of their destruction, he did not himself feel welcome, even if no one had told him to go.
They did not have to.
Dragons were creatures of pride. To be demeaned by a lesser, by a human, was a fate beyond slavery. It was the murder of one's soul. He had thought he was doing the right thing, and where the drakes had exulted in their freedom, he had felt a paternal pride. They were his to guide in the absence of his superiors. Within Kaer Drac he was small and powerless, but among humans he could be something more—could escape his destiny of servitude and of always being perceived as weak and unimportant compared to the female Drac who ruled his world, his home. His true home.
He made trips back to the keep, but kept his eyes low, focused on the job at hand. They were very few now. The civilians had been protected as best as the knights were able, but the real resistance had been pinned down within the keep. The people below in Mir's Edge had been left to defend themselves, and had either died or fled. The banar trees were empty of chattering merelings, the walkways between the coastal islands were deserted to all but slithering serpents and insect song.
He would have preferred a rain to accompany the mood, normally so prevalent, but the late afternoon was clear and hot. He saw Brannoch laid out on the ground, hands resting on his chest, and it brought him to a standstill. His chest rose and fell, eyes engraving Brannoch's face into his eternal memory. All sound left the world.
His remembered him saying that his son was a tradesman in Arrowhead. He had spoken of him often, and of how when the dragon riders went west, he would ask to be reassigned there. Arrowhead was also where the Suran army was, perhaps even now, besieging and seeking to rush into Greatre Esturia, to conquer it, like a hive of ants.
"I am sorry, Brannoch," he said to the corpse of the man who had been so kind to him, willing the dead man to hear it. He was still wearing the boots the old soldier had given him, and reckoned that they were now his most precious possession. Because he would have no new memories of Brannoch to remember, and the realization of it hit him with a force he had never been able to conceptualize before.
And then she was there. He supposed she must have approached while he stood there over Brannoch's body, but he had not been paying any attention. He stiffened, and kept his face averted from her, body stiff.
Her calloused hand reached up, resting on his shoulder lightly and with her touch he relaxed, relief rushing out of his voice. "I thought..."
"No. You hate yourself right now more than anyone else can muster."
"It is my fault that he is dead."
"You could say that," she admitted. "But you made the decision you thought was right, you could not have known we'd be attacked by wyverns."
"You were angry enough at me earlier today for sending them away."
"I was...I am desperate, Iorn. I took it out on you."
He wondered if she was just being kind because Kulvas had returned, but he did not want her to confirm it, as it was none of his doing. He could not take credit for that, and having one person who did not despise him right now was too much of a gift to squander.
"You are so fragile," he said.
A note of steel entered her voice. "Am I?"
"Humans. All of you. Your lives are so fleeting, and it comes so swiftly and suddenly—"
"Perhaps if more of you were out here looking out for us, things would be different. But perhaps if we weren't always fighting each other, we'd have dealt with the wyverns ourselves."
"Perhaps," he said, eyes still focused on Brannoch, watching the sun's light fading on his face.
"They will not stop, will they?"
"Not until their queen is dead, no. I'd expect them back tomorrow."
"They might not come here. They might go somewhere else, right?"
"But not too far from their hive. At first they will consolidate. The problem is that by the time the first spire of a Hive is visible, and they start emerging to hunt, the queen is well bunkered underground. The flightless digging wyverns will be expanding their tunnels beneath the surface. And, of course, they did not just arrive. They came from somewhere else. They spread like cancer over the earth, but I had thought they had been mostly consigned to the East."
"We do not hear much from the East. The great rift sees to that."
"Our final gift to the world before we left it behind. But the wyverns, while mostly centered in the east, were all over the world. We fought them back ages ago, but wyvern eggs can lay dormant for centuries until the right conditions exist."
"I see. So then tomorrow morning we go to wipe them out."
His hard smile felt desperate on his face. "I like how you say that. Wipe them out."
"Exterminate them," she said, hate in her voice.
"Come over here, Iorn," she said, and as day turned to night, and Brannoch's face sank into shadow, he turned finally to look at her. Tears were in her eyes, and in his as well. Her smile was as hard and desperate as his felt, eyes flickering in the failing light with an almost-madness. Past her shoulder he could see the rest of the knights, standing distant in a half circle around a hole in the ground, staring down into it.
"Oh....no," he protested, hair flying unbound around his face as he shook his head from side to side. "I cannot," he said.
"Yes you can. You did it for Brannoch, and this is one of my own. And your own are there, too."
The drakes were assembled behind the knights, standing guard and mourning along with those who were their friends. Matra sprawled on the ground behind them, not much sorrow in her demeanor, taking little part in the assembly, but she seemed docile and unconcerned by the proceedings. He had felt the tickle of their anima at the boundaries of his, but had been ignoring them as well during his penance.
One by one, they looked up at him and soon he and Selka had everyone's attention. They walked back together, and he forced himself to meet their gaze, to show his sorrow and wretchedness on his face, and once he neared their circle, he looked down into the grave, and there was Despera Cael.
As if on signal, once they had arrived, Freda spoke first, her voice soft and full of deep sorrow, scratchy from tears or screams, or perhaps both. "I remember Despera. She was my friend. No one was better with a spear. I will always miss her." Her words broke off into sobs, and she looked down, tears falling to the ground like silver in the pearlescent glow of the moon.
Tresha reached over, putting her arm around her shoulders, and took her turn to speak. "I was a friend of Despera. She was quiet, but when she spoke, everyone listened. She told me that people talk too much, and act too little. She told me that it broke her heart how King was treated, how sometimes she thought of flying away with him. But she loved it here...she loved us..." And then Tresha could not finish, and settled into her sorrow and her tears.
The pain lit in his chest, and he could no longer look at any of them.
He heard Coelle's words next, soft and poetic. "I will remember Despera always. I will speak of her with love, with song, but not today. Not today, dear sister, because today I can only speak of you with sorrow, and with pride. You gave your life to save another, and there is no greater honor that you could be given than that. I will...write a letter to your mother, like I promised you. That is...all that I can say right now."
Tresha let out a long breath. "I thought you would be doing this for me, Despera. You were a better warrior than me. So strong, and yet so quiet. You never complained. I thought...I did not think that I would be here when you..." She shook her head and her curtain of white-blond hair fell over her eyes and her cries were wrenching and painful, each one like a cut to Iorneste. His shame-filled tears joined hers.
Embre spoke next. "I will always think of you when I smell sunlowe, Despera. I know it was your favorite flower. I will remember you as a tireless fighter, a model knight, a warrior, and a mentor to the others. You disobeyed me," she said, biting her lip. Once she regained control, she continued, speaking evenly against the quaver in her voice. "I am glad you did. You did the right thing, and Tamra is alive because of you. Thank you, Despera, for showing me what real strength is, and what it means to be a knight."
The quietness descended, and he realized that they were all looking at him. "Oh...no...I..."
The steel rasp was back in Selka's voice, a reverent whisper that still gave him no quarter. "Yes, you do, Iorn. Speak your last words to her, before she is gone forever. She has earned that. She deserves that."
"I..." he wet his lips and marveled that he did not, for the first time in his recorded memory, have the slightest clue what to say. He whipped his brain, before deciding to just speak, letting the words come out as they may. "...I did not know Despera very well, and it is my fault she is gone."
That caught everyone's attention, their eyes and expressions masked by grief, but he continued speaking into the silence. "She was a great warrior, who fought for what was right. I will not let her die in vain. I will not forget her, and I will do whatever is in my power to..." To what? To make things right again? The words died and he did not know what to say. He thought they might let him go, but no one spoke up to save him, and he finished his sentence, though not the way he had intended. "...I will not forget the lesson I have learned today. We must always be ready to fight, for those who cannot, even if it means our end. Thank you, Despera, for teaching me in death what I did not see in your life. I am sorry."
Selka stepped forward, hand pressing against his arm as if using him to steady herself, but he knew it for what it was: a gesture of comfort, and he silently thanked her for it. "I met Despera when she was fourteen years old, and had become a squire, like me. I met King when she arrived here, too." King sat the closest of the dragons, his front claws included in their circle, head cast down low, his single eye staring down Despera's body. "Back then, before I became a knight, and later Knight-Marshal, we were all like sisters. We trained hard, we fought harder, and we dreamed of the day we would fly. I don't think any of us dreamed of it quite as much as Despera." Her voice caught in her chest as she looked at King, but she was their leader and would not let them see her break down.
"Every day we knew we could expect her voice to speak up, perhaps the only words she would say all day, 'Ser Sorens, I think King is ready to fly today.'"
The others smiled with the memory.
"I remember the day that Eluenne picked a fight with Tresha. Despera stood up to her, even though Eluenne was older and almost a knight herself. Her courage should never be forgotten," and she uttered the last with such rigidity, eyes so piercing, that none could doubt that it was not a request, but an order. "Because she was everything that we always should have been. She did not complain or grow tired, she did not expect praise for what she did. She simply did what she needed to do, because of who she was."
The smiles remained, albeit sad smiles, and they all stood thus in silence, before Selka finished her eulogy. "I wish I was more like her." She walked across to King, reaching up her hand and placing it against him, stroking his scales.
"She was a true warrior, King," and if the knights were surprised that she was addressing a dragon like one of their own, they did not show it. "We respect her, we love her, and she will never be forgotten, but now she is gone. I...hope you will stay with us, but I would also understand if you felt that you should go. Whether you go or stay...I will still love you as she did, for her sake."
The others turned and reached out their hands, pressing them against King, some resting their heads against him, and it was this more than anything that brought Iorneste to the greatest depths of sorrow, as he opened himself up at last, feeling the loss of King through the anima, vicariously feeling the cacophony of emotional fragments he received from the women who surrounded him. And from within, Iorneste recognized his own love and respect for Selka, who had included the dragon as one of their own, and had offered him comfort.
Night fell, and left them to their mourning, and in the starlight it was as though the world slept upon the ashes of the sadness that had come before.
He kept watch for them in the night, though it had been days since he had last slept. Atop the Aerie Tower he sat thus, arms wrapped around his legs, looking off into the west and the stars, feeling small beneath their notice, and harboring his troubling thoughts and unanswered questions.
Where had the wyverns come from, and why had they come here? Why and how had Kulvas returned? Was he doing the right thing, or had this all been about his own pride? How were Mourne and Gharel doing?
The questions were not answerable, but he sought refuge in their particulars, turning them around in his mind. Then there was a flicker in the moonlight as something passed over it like a shadow, and he was instantly to his feet, sword drawn and in his hand, as the black-winged shape flew ever closer and closer, coming right for him. He braced both hands on the weapon, snarling and ready for battle when suddenly a blanket crossed over him, and he felt her animus.
It was a dragon, and not just any dragon, she was of the Drac.
She drew closer, and shimmered as she landed on the roof, taking the form of a beautiful, elegant woman in a noble's hunting leathers, black coal hair loose and unbound, eyes a glittering violet, her physique and height making her appear deceptively weak. He was not fooled.
As she landed, they entered a meld and began the sharing that was so characteristic to dragons, and so incomprehensible to everyone else. He felt the power of her animus dwarf his, enveloping him, and her thoughts and his conjoined.
It was of course Sheldrache, his elder sister, and he was meeting her at last.
"You must be Sheldrache," he said. "Reashe, eregaunte" he said with respect, and as her mind pricked his to see if his respect was genuine, with her question came his answer back to her on its heels, sharing his truthful feelings of admiration and dismay.
She smiled at him, and gave him the faintest of nods, and he answered by kneeling before her, as was his place. "Iorneste," she said, her voice a velvet purr. "At last we meet."
"I had no idea you would be so eager to meet me," he said and he felt the slap of her anima against his, in a way that made his brain sting, a chastisement for his lie.
"Indeed," she said. "I believe you know why I am here, but I think a few questions are in order first, yes?"
They maintained the meld, but each withdrew somewhat, back to their own islands, thoughts and feelings tingling across the bond to each other. He did not need to nod, merely sent the thought of himself nodding back to her, a thought simple enough to survive all but the most inept of translations.
"To begin with, why are you here, of all places?" she asked.
He sent back his memories of the wyvern attack from earlier. He felt her shock, and she inquired as to why the wyverns were here, and like always with the animus, from her question sprang his answer, which was that he didn't know.
"That still does not explain why you are here."
"Because they need me."
"You could have chosen a simpler life than this."
"I could have. But what would be the fun in that?"
Her laughter was smooth and resonant. "So this was all about fun?"
"That is a rather simple analysis for a Drac, would you not say?"
"Watch yourself, haergaunte. Once again, you forget your place."
"Apologies, I merely meant—"
"I know what you meant, as you knew full well. But to indulge you, I will rephrase my question. What was the deciding factor in choosing to call yourself a dragon slayer?"
"It is still single-minded. There were several factors: For one, it reminded me of a story I had once written. For another, I reasoned that a dragon slayer would be forgiven certain eccentricities that others would be called to task for. Perhaps most importantly, there is no need to hide one's great strength or power—"
Her laughter increased, unabated. "What great strength, Iorneste? What power? You have not even reached a century. You are a—forgive me—small male dragon."
He shrugged. "Yet compared to them, I am so much more. I have strength beyond theirs, but that is really not what they need. It is not my strength so much that matters."
"Then what does?"
"An outside perspective."
"Mmm," she said, and walked over to him, hand stroking along his jaw. He felt her animus slithering around inside of him, stroking him as well, bringing a shiver to his simulacrous flesh. He tried very hard not to moan, but he had missed this kind of intimacy, with one who was so skilled in its art.
"Your mind is unlike any other, Iorneste," she purred. "You are more than you seem. One day I might even take you for my own."
He shrugged. He had no place in that decision.
"I will admit," she said, admiration in her voice and crawling through him like a caress, "Your choice was more clever than I at first imagined. My First Exile was spent behaving and acting as mundane as possible, giving no hint of my true abilities. And you..." She drew her hand away from him, walking past and looking up into the sky. "You flaunt them! And yet they still do not realize!"
He got to his feet, slowly, the languorous feeling of her animus keeping him in no hurry. "I assume they would propose any other explanation first before assuming that I am a dragon."
"Fools," she muttered. "It should be obvious to them."
"They are not fools," he countered. "Just inexperienced. We have left them in the dark, on purpose. We should not call them fools for succumbing to our manipulations, lest we insult our own abilities."
"What are you insinuating?"
"Are you serious?"
She glared at him. "I do not like your arrogant tone."
He had thought she would be more intelligent than this, but perhaps like all creatures of great strength she had come to rely more on this than her intellect. Several appropriate sayings of Rrachma's came to his mind regarding this problem, but now was not the time. "I am not insinuating. The insinuation is made by you assuming that humans are fools because they fell for our manipulations. If only fools could be so manipulated by the Drac, how much strength do we truly possess? Surely some of those who are misdirected are not fools. It would be better to consider them formidable, as it would make our arts seem greater by comparison."
"Ah." She was already bored. "So where is it?"
"Where is what?"
He was unprepared for her response. She did not rush him, merely stared, but her animus crashed down upon him like a torrent, a wave of emotion. He felt her frustration, her rage, the sensation of tearing claws ripping into his throat, complete with the visualization of his trachea being pulled out in a U, and hung from it until his own weight pulled it and everything attached to it from his body.
"Oh," he said. "The box."
"Yes, the box. Do not play me for a fool, Iorneste. You are no match for me, and if you lie, I will know it."
"You should never have left."
"Is that a threat?"
"You know that it is not. I mean, you should never have left Earlemont. It is still there."
She walked to him, inexorable and slow, sliding her hand back behind his neck, drawing his forehead to hers, and whispering, smoke emanating from her nostrils, eyes beginning to glow. "Where?"
"In your quarters, at Castle Earle."
"What?", she shoved him with the lightest of touches, but her strength dwarfed his by several factors and he was thrown from his feet, skidding and rolling across the ground, crashing up against the battlements, head on the ground, feet in the air. He winced, falling over to his side and rising back up to his feet slowly, dusting himself off.
"I had my agents place it in your quarters at the castle," he said. "Of course, you have been gone for some time, I imagine at some point they will clean your room, and find it there."
"It was wonderful to meet you, Sheldrache. I do hope we meet again, under different circumstances. I had hoped you would stay and help us with the wyverns, but it seems you have better things to do. Good luck opening the box."
She cursed at him in High Draccian, leaping from the building and attaining her true form in midair, swooping back towards the direction she came without a look back or a second thought.
A few moments later he heard Selka climbing up, and he turned to meet her.
"So that was her?" she asked.
"I've met her before, you know. Except she called herself Shelle."
"Did she? And I called myself Yorn. We should start coming up with less similar names."
"She is very beautiful."
He shrugged. "Beauty is overrated."
"She said something about making you hers?"
"Her mate, perhaps, in time."
"But she is your sister!"
He blinked at her slowly. "Things are different among my people, and we are few enough that such considerations are pointless. But I already knew you had met."
"Because the mark of her is on your mind, Selka. It was she who encouraged you to cut your hair, and she who encouraged you to forget."
"What? I have no memory of that," she said, hand rubbing over her stubbled scalp.
"That is because she is an eregaunte, a female, and good at what she does. But she is neither smart, nor subtle."
"I wish you had told me that before, I want to have a few...words...with her."
"That would be unwise. She is stronger than I am, and would break you easily."
Selka glared at him, and he shrugged. "I could not resist her, either, Selka. There is no point fighting that which is."
"That is where you and I differ, Iorn. I would rather fight than submit, even if it is a losing cause."
He took the thought, considering it. "Perhaps this is why I love you most."
Her blush was so charming he almost missed the words she was saying, "—because I fight losing battles?"
"Because you do not give up. Humans are known for their defiance, but I think you must be known for it even among other humans."
Her laugh rolled from her, and he felt the unconscious caress of her animus come with it. "I suppose you are right. So she was talking about the box...she meant the box, right?"
"And you stole it?"
"Well, um...not exactly."
"I did not steal it! I just arranged for it to be stolen. That is why Mourne went to Earlemont."
She sighed. "You realize that my duty is to arrest you for this. You stole property of my liege lord. Not doing so makes me an accessory to the crime."
"It was not Sorens' to give, Selka. It belongs to the Drac. Moreover, that box would destroy the new order you hope to build, everything I am trying to help you build."
She was quiet, considering it. "King Gracellus did say that there would be two orders. Ours, and one that would come about once the box was opened."
"But I am still sworn to my liege lord."
"Then you serve two masters, Selka."
"You," she hissed hotly, "Are not my master, Iorn. Do not ever think you will be."
He looked down to the ground, unable to meet her eyes. "You are kiin now, Selka. I am still responsible for you, but...the Drac matriarchs, they are your mistresses now."
Glancing up, he caught her eyes filling with the realization, and she shook her head from side to side, mute with horror. "No."
"I am afraid...yes. And they will live longer than King Gracellus, I can assure you."