Estragon was the copy editor for this years ago but I have made some changes so please do not blame him if there are mistakes.
Sinking down by the fireside in an exhausted daze, I look out across the camp in wonder. A week ago the enemy army that had us nearly beaten suddenly turned into a mass of confused, walking wounded when Dragon took the Demon’s second focus stone. My army, my loyal, compassionate, amazing people immediately switched from a fierce fighting force to a swarm of humanitarian aid workers.
In the beginning I interrupted their work everywhere I went in an attempt to lend a hand. Finally they all came to realize that though I am king I am also a healer and stopped their ridiculous bowing and scraping to me. Now I walk among them more as a peer and am proud to assist wherever I can. These poor tortured souls, they have lost everything. If their families were not tortured and killed in front of them when Morbern took them from their homes, they were conscripted along with them. Nothing was left of their villages but ashes. We work now to heal their bodies but it will take years to heal their minds, if they ever recover. As soon as they are able to travel we will take them to the capital; it will be a strain on our resources but we cannot leave them alone with nothing.
Captain Coby and Vorlayin are in pursuit of the Demon. It fled, still in my brother’s body, with what remnant of its army it could control. I hope they can catch up to it and send it back to wherever it came from, though it may yet be necessary to capture the last of its focus stones.
As I cling precariously to the back of this damnable beast, cursing Yelani in four languages, I try to reach out to Bedrian through our bond. Nothing. I know he lives and yet I can feel nothing of him through our bond. Something goes very ill with my bondmate. Word reached the capital the day we left of the effects our mission had upon the enemy troops. Knowing Bedrian, he is so immersed in his healing it is affecting our bond in some way.
I hate not being with him and I hated still more having to leave Cordial and his wound in the hands of the meager healing staff remaining at the palace, but my daughter needs me now. After discussing with Yelani the treatment the captured Cinos receive at the hands of the Ruoh, I knew I had no choice but to try and catch up to Dragon. My daughter will need a healer and her mother when she is freed. This is why I am now trying my best to cling to the back of an oversized fowl. The gait is nothing like that of my horse. It is almost like having to learn to ride all over again, but the difference in speed makes it well worth it.
Yelani is more concerned, I think, with Dragon and what she may encounter in her search for Ames, than with my daughter. There is something out there in Ruoh territory that she will not speak of yet that worries her severely.
I try yet again to reach through the bond to Ames, but feel nothing in return. I have followed what tracks that I could find to this seemingly impenetrable wall of jungle and now I must go in. Traveling through this is not going to be easy or fast, and I almost wish I had left Bore behind at the Cinos village I passed through days ago. Unsheathing my sword, I begin to hack and slash my way through the heavy vegetation, Bore following on my heels like a huge puppy. I will have to cut a larger path to accommodate him but he is in many ways my best friend. I will not leave him behind, alone, at the mercy of the jungle beasts.
Bore seems to be agitated and nervous. I know he is used to the open and to me riding him but a warhorse should be better able to handle odd situations. I have to wonder what it is that is bothering him. In the past he has alerted me to danger on several occasions before I was able to sense anything myself. The sun seems to be sinking rapidly now, so I will have to find a place to spend the night soon. I do not look forward to a night in this seething mass of life. I imagine the bugs will be fierce come nightfall, and the predators will all be on the prowl.
It is then that I feel it, the hair rises on the back of my neck and a shudder runs through me. We are being watched. Something is stalking us, who or what I have not a clue but I can feel it. Just as I turn to check to make sure the packs are still secure on Bore’s back he rears and begins to stomp and thrash about. Looking down I realize he is dancing on a snake, a brightly striped green and yellow snake and my mouth goes dry. It is a Bamam viper and the most deadly thing known. A bite from it kills in a matter of minutes.
I try to step in to get at it with my sword but Bore’s mad death dance prevents that. It is as if he is intentionally keeping me from helping him. As I step back to avoid flying hooves he lets out a sorrowful equine scream and goes crashing down. No! Gods No! The snake is dead but its fangs are buried in his left fetlock. I rush to him, pulling the snake loose bahis firmaları and flinging it away.
His breathing is labored and his eyes roll wildly as I try to soothe him. No! I cannot lose Bore! Ames taught me a little minor healing and I kneel beside him now and attempt to do what I can for him. His heart is slowing and his breathing becomes yet more labored. My heart wrenches as I try to concentrate and remember what Ames said about strengthening life force.
‘Let him go warrior. You only prolong his agony and pain.’
What? Who? Where did that come from? I turn searching around looking for the source. The voice is in my head!
‘I know it is hard for a mage to lose a familiar but you must let him go now. He has served you well and gave his life to save yours. Honor him by letting him go.’
I turn back and Bore has gone. I scream my grief to the sky.
‘Back up little one, I need more room to land. I come in peace, put away your sword and back up to the edge of the clearing.’
I back up without thinking, sheathing my sword and once again sinking down to my knees. I am racked with great shuddering sobs. Bore has been here for me my entire adult life. He was the first thing I ever cared about when the numbness of my exodus from home abated and the first ever to care about me in return.
There is a great rush of wind and I look up, squinting through the blur of my tears to see the last thing I would ever imagine seeing. A dragon sails smoothly down to land before me. Not a large dragon, only about thrice the size of a horse, but nonetheless a dragon. I am taken aback. Though they are prominent in the mythology and legends of every known race, there has never been any actual evidence of their existence.
Even through the haze of my tears I have to admire the softly glowing bluish grey scales and whirring brilliant blue eyes before me. The large leathery wings shake and flap a few times before settling to its sides. The short front legs with what looks like large hands tipped with long wicked claws reach for me.
‘Come little one, let me offer comfort and solace for a while. You need to rest and grieve in safety. I will hold you through the night so you can mourn your friend. In the morning we will have much to discuss but for now let me comfort you as best I can.’
I don’t know why, but I trust this beast and I walk up to her and settle down in between those front legs, her wings coming forward and enclosing me in a cocoon that oddly smells of catmint.
Jingali pauses his work of mixing herbs and listens carefully. He does not turn to look; that would be too easy. He waits until the two foolish young warriors are almost at the captive before turning to hiss loudly, sending them scampering away. Idiots! They thought I would be absorbed in my work and they could have a quick go with the oddling.
Why everyone seems so enchanted by this ugly, nearly hairless creature Jingali cannot fathom. For it to be claimed by the King is ridiculous. Why would a king want to make a cub with such an ugly creature? It makes no sense. Jingali has not spent fifty winters as shaman to the king to learn nothing. The King gets what the king wants and Jingali will not allow the foolhardy youths to touch the oddling; let them go to the pens of captured Cinos to slake their lust.
Jingali rises and goes to check the incense burner beneath the oddling’s head. The oddling must not awake again. Standing beside the rough wooden frame it is tied to, Jingali reaches out to run his claws through the long red hair. This one is dangerous, very dangerous. Jingali hopes the first attempt the King made was successful because it will be some time before the King mates with anything again. Shaking his maned head in disgust, Jingali moves back to his work, making herbal salve for the King’s burns. He sinks down before the altar of the Dragon, remembering to chant the required prayers before beginning his work with the healing herbs.
One thing is certain: if the attempt was successful and this one drops a cub, she will not live long enough to see it take its first breath. The King still roars in anger and Jingali does not blame him.
Vorlayin stares over the hill in disgust. It is as if the Demon and his army just disappeared. One minute Captain Coby was leading a mad dash to catch them and the next they were gone. Somehow, some way he must have been able to conceal his troops or transport them from here. The tracks just stop at the top of this hill and nothing remains to be seen of them.
There is nothing left to do now but return to the King and the rest of the army. They must be in need of the extra hands to deal with the troops the Demon abandoned when he could no longer control them. It seems, like it or not, we will have to take the last of his focus stones before we can be rid of him completely.
The one good thing about having to deal with thousands of walking wounded is the kaçak iddaa effect it has had on my dear friend Bedrian. He went from lying on a cot in a near coma to being up and about healing for all he is worth in a matter of hours. He seems better now than I have seen him since he left the capital. Perhaps it was just battle fatigue and exhaustion after all.
I approach him now with news of his family that is not going to be easy to deliver. I hope it is not enough to send him into another collapse. I find him bandaging the wounds of a boy that should never have been in battle at all. It seems whatever my brother has become cares little for the age of his conscripts. If it is strong enough to hold a sword or draw a bow he takes it, if not he uses it in his sick torture games, then kills it.
“Bedrian, when you have a moment I need to speak with you.”
“Yes, Your Majesty, just a moment.”
He finishes with his patient and follows me outside and I break the news to him while strolling toward the cook’s tent.
“Bedrian, I guess you realize that Dragon and her group were successful in taking the second focus stone, but I’ve some news of them that is not good.”
“It is Ames, isn’t it? I have felt that things were not well with her for a few days but then the bond between father and daughter is not as strong as between bondmates and with all the wounded and my issues with Jax I cannot be sure of my feelings these days.”
“Yes, Ames is in trouble and Cordial was wounded. Jax and Yelani brought Cordial and the stone back to the palace. He is there now if you wish to go to him. Ames was swept off her mount crossing a river in Cinos territory and has somehow managed to be abducted by a group of Ruoh. Dragon set out after them as soon as the stone was taken, Jax and Yelani are riding as fast as they can to catch up to her now. If you wish to go back to the capital to aid Cordial, I could use you there also to coordinate the preparations for all we will need to deal with these refugees. And if any news comes about Ames, I am sure you would hear it sooner there than here.”
“Yes, I think I will do that and I thank you for the offer. I’d also like to have my belongings removed to the healer’s college for now. When Jax returns we have some things to work out before I want to be with her again.”
“I have not had the chance to ask what happened and I understand if you do not wish to speak of it, but it troubles me to have an old friend in so much obvious pain. Tell me, is there nothing that I can do to help?”
“What happened is that she broke our agreement. We have always both had our little flings when out on campaign, but agreed we would be monogamous at home. For some reason she could not resist the envoy Yelani, and I walked in on them. It is not so much the fact that she broke our agreement that hurts, it’s the emotions I felt through the bond when I walked into that room. Maybe I am a fool for letting it bother me so much; she obviously had the same or nearly the same feelings with countless others away from home but to actually feel it through our bond was just too much.”
“Ah, I can understand your pain then my friend. I have often thought that I was lucky in that the Queen had no mage abilities and could not bond with me. I find the thought of having a woman linked to my mind disconcerting. Not that it matters now, I received word yesterday that the Queen died in childbirth and I have a son. I would appreciate it if you would look in on the babe when you get back. I had word sent to the Queen’s family. I am sure they will want to take care of her memorial. I know it sounds cold of me, but my people need me now and ours was never a love match. I married her simply to obtain an heir and cement an alliance. Frankly, now that I have a son I doubt I will ever marry again. As a queen she did not seem to care for the people at all, and that bothered me greatly. If I were ever to marry again, it would be to someone who, like me, puts the good of the kingdom and its people before all else.”
“I am both sorry for your loss and happy you have a son, Your Majesty. I would be honored to look in on him and will do so as soon as I arrive at the Palace. I shall report to you promptly.”
Yelani has finally stopped for the night and I dismount stiffly from this damnable bird. I feel some slight guilt over my intense dislike for the bird. It seems to be an intelligent and loyal mount but its difference in gait has me feeling so beaten and bruised I cannot bring myself to feel any affection toward it at all. Yelani seems to sense both my discomfort and my mood for she quietly begins to set up a camp and prepare a meal of cold rations, leaving me to brood on my own misgivings.
I can’t help but feel that she is worried about something, and her unease seems to be getting stronger the nearer we get to Cinos territory. I watch her beneath my lashes and finally have to say something.
“Yelani, something is bothering you. I don’t kaçak bahis know what but it seems to be getting worse instead of better. Will you not share it with me? If I cannot help the matter surely just getting off your chest would be helpful.”
“I didn’t want to say anything, Jax, but as Dragon is surely gone into Cinos territory amongst our people there is really no way around it now. I can only hope it helps her instead of becoming a problem. You see my people have worshiped dragons for hundreds of years. It is said that they negotiated the terms of engagement we follow in our raids back and forth between the Cinos and Ruoh.”
“Yes, I see how that could be a problem for Dragon; she is tattooed with several of them. Will they take it as being a good sign or punish her for being blasphemous?”
“I think that will depend on how the Shaman of whatever village she runs into reacts but it should be more of a boon to her. What concerns me most about it is the dragons themselves. I know your culture doesn’t believe in them, but they do exist, and if they are offended it could be bad for my people as well as for Dragon.”
“Dragons? Real, living, dragons? I don’t know what to say to that. Are they all wizards and mages like the fairy tales say they are? How big are they? Ah, now I have a million questions.”
As we crawl into our small tent for the night Yelani begins to tell me of her people’s religion and its tenets. While it is mostly good news, it does worry me about how it will all affect my daughter’s situation. If these dragons do truly exist, then surely they will find a way to aid her. Especially if Dragon is considered blessed, and it’s known she is her mate.
Snuggled into absolute comfort, I wake, realizing what happened the day before and where I am, and I jerk in reaction, alerting my new friend to my wakefulness. She carefully unfolds her wings from around me and eases me to the ground.
‘Did you rest well, little one? I apologize for calling you that but it would be just too strange for me to call you Dragon. Is there not another name I could call you by?’
‘Not really, I had a name before Dragon but those days are far in the past and were not pleasant. I would prefer not to go back to that time in any way.’
‘Then I will just call you sister, it is fitting and more respectful.’
I stand, looking down at Bore’s remains sadly, and realize that I need to remove my packs and gear from him. At first I am surprised no scavengers have been at him yet but then I remember that a dragon has been standing over him all night. I can’t think of many things that would go up against a dragon just to get at a dead horse.
‘You can call me anything you wish but what am I to call you?’
‘The Cinos and Ruoh call me Bryynthde. You may call me Bryn. Don’t forget to take the saddle and bridle as well, sister. I will carry you for a time now but you will also need a horse, for I will not always be with you. When you are ready, I will carry you to meet some of my kind. We want to come to an agreement with you and your people. It has been many years since we meddled in your kind’s affairs, but that is about to change and rules must be agreed upon.’
‘I do not know that I am qualified to speak for my whole race but if it means help in dealing with the Demon and getting Ames back I will gladly meet with anyone.’
‘Ames is safe for now. The only one that could do any harm to her she has… neutralized or should I say neutered. I can take you to her as soon as we meet with my brothers and sisters and work out our agreement. This Demon troubles our kind too and we want to work together to deal with it once and for all. There is also the fact that I have become your familiar and so I will be visible among you. If it weren’t for your people’s attachment to daydreams and fairy tales of slaying dragons it would be much easier.’
I hear a sound like a deep rumbling cough and realize she is laughing; at least my new friend has a sense of humor.
‘Familiar? I am not a mage. Don’t only mages have familiars?’
‘You are aware that you were born with mage talent, yes? The reason you and Bore were so close and he did all the things he did for you was because he was more than just a normal warhorse. He was your familiar and as such there was a special bond between you. It is not the same as the bond between you and your mate, but similar in many ways.’
‘So now I am bonded to you? How did you know what would happen? Can you read all my thoughts?’
‘ I know all this is new to you and I will explain while we go to meet with my brothers and sisters. We really must hurry now.’
‘You said you are going to carry me? I can only assume we will not be running through this mess of jungle, so if I am to ride you in flight how am I to hold on?’
‘You have rope there, do you not? We will make a way for you to hold on with rope for now, and do not worry, for even if you fall off I could pluck you from the air long before you ever came near the ground. Now let’s get that rope! I am anxious to be on our way. Your Ames is safe but they keep her drugged and the longer she is drugged the worse it will be for her later.’