by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
The Shadowlords are defeated and Lord British restored to his throne, but peace is a thing of the past. In a land torn by earthquakes and plagued by monsters, there is always room for heroes...whether Human or Dragon...
Author’s Note to the Reader: This story was originally based upon a book I found in the Library of the Lycaeum during the invasion of the Gargoyles. In essence, the first part of Dragonfire is my version of ‘what really happened’ for that supposed work of fiction, hence that I have retained and used the title of that book for the first section of mine - The Caverns of Freitag.
I would like to add that the Avatar and Companions were intended to play a large part in this book, but it doesn't look like I'll ever get that far.
Dragonfire is also based on Ankalwis - a fanfiction written by Shodan Dragon - and Core of Darkness - a fanfiction by Monomolecular Dragon. Anything in Dragonfire that isn’t already copyrighted by them or by Origin Systems - the creators of Ultima - is purely my own work.
On a final note, I would like to thank these Dragons in particular for their help:
Monomolecular, as his aid on the topic of Weyrs was invaluable,
Shodan, who diligently proofread my story and advised how to improve it,
Nightfire, for her knowledge of the old form of English I’ve come to use, as well as for her dedicated proofreading, both of which were priceless and much appreciated.
Flameblight, for her proofreading and enthusiasm J
I hope this slender tome is worth both the work and the wait.
--Shadow of Light Dragon.
A frigid night wind swept the ramparts of the crumbling fortress. It howled across blackened stones and swirled around the ruined turrets, dislodging uncountable motes of grit and blowing them into the faces of the dragons gathered on the roof of the castle. The dust was ignored, however, in favour of the midnight figure perched atop the tallest tower - the central tower.
He was a dragon of powerful proportions, maybe the strongest in body and mind who had ever lived. At least, that's how the dragons present perceived him. Among the experimental dragons the evil Lord Blackthorn had bred, Deathwings were the ones to be feared, and this black dragon, Memnoch by name, was the greatest among them. Wind blasted towards the black creature, who merely unfurled two vast, sooty-red wings to keep his balance, then spoke in a commanding voice.
"Blackthorn is gone." He regarded the gathering of dragons with his glowing, amber eyes, a feature that was uncommon among his species and served only to add to his reputation. "And we are free! No longer will puny humans use us for experiments! We can rule this land!" A gold-scaled, female dragon named Freitag spread her black wings for permission to speak. Memnoch hesitated, then nodded to her, for while she was not one he overly trusted, she was a Flamewind dragon. Second in power to the Deathwings, her words would be respected and if she spoke in his favour, his task of winning Weyr Leader status would be easier.
"Might I remind thee, Memnoch, that it was but one human," Freitag stated. "No others deserve our wrath."
"We have already suffered theirs, Freitag," replied Memnoch bitterly. "Blackthorn used us as weapons against the humans and we are now feared and hunted." He looked down at the smaller dragon from his vantage point; studying her fine features from the curving spines on her head to the deep scar on her side where the firesac was situated. Memnoch suddenly remembered how she had come by the wound and knew how painful the knowledge of being a dragon without fire - a Flamewind without fire - must be. "Thou shouldst know," he told her pointedly. "It was one of their arrows which ruptured thy firesac."
Freitag sighed. "Fighting humans...will that not bring more to my fate?"
"There are enough of us to ensure it never happens again!" Memnoch answered, clenching one claw for emphasis. His eyes burned emphatically as he scanned the crowd below, and his voice became strangely hypnotic as he invoked his mind-possessing powers. "Much evil came of Blackthorn's tampering with our nature, but some was useful. Shall not the humans be crushed beneath the hordes of daemons which we can summon?"
Dragons sidled and muttered then fell silent as Freitag interrupted with, "Not 'we,' Memnoch. Thou." Then she turned away, pushing through the crowd of dragons towards the decaying parapet.
Memnoch's eyes narrowed dangerously. Because of their enhanced fire or some error Blackthorn had neither anticipated nor fixed, Flamewinds had no magical powers. That made Freitag virtually useless, and to lose other dragons because of one useless Flamewind was galling. A threatening hiss that went unheard in the wind escaped his clenched teeth and he focussed his full attention on the departing Freitag. A mere thought and he could blast her mind to pieces, killing her instantly...no. He could not take another dragon's life. Not yet, anyway. Besides, no one would want to follow another tyrant like Blackthorn had been. All he had to do was prove that he was worthier than their previous human master. "Just because thou hast not magic doesn't mean thou canst not help us," called Memnoch enticingly. Unity was essential for his success and if he lost Freitag here, others would follow her.
Freitag spread her velvety black wings and glanced back at him with pitying green eyes. "I didn't say it because I have no magic." Then her wings swept down and she was aloft.
Dragons suddenly started talking at once and several hastened to follow Freitag, for although they had been bred for war, not all relished the taste of blood. At first, Memnoch was unconcerned for he saw only a couple of Chameleons, a Daemondriver and a Waverunner start after her. But when a Vortex took wing along with another Flamewind, he silently cursed himself for having ever allowing Freitag to have spoken. A few deserters he could live with, but if he didn't do something...now...
Memnoch bellowed for silence and the remaining dragons quieted. "Choose now, my brethren. Those who follow her remain the hunted. Hunted by humans! We can change that. I will lead a new breed of hunters which will have humans as the game." He continued to speak, though without the force of his Deathwing magic behind his words. He made no secret about his plan for the wholesale destruction of Britannia's human population. He knew his kin. They had just been freed from enslavement and many were thinking of revenge on mankind. It was Memnoch's job to inflame that desire and lead his dragons first to a satisfactory Weyr, then to a full-scale war.
Maybe he'd be able to 'persuade' some of the common dragons to join his efforts.
The gathered dragons started to shout proposals and ideas again. Memnoch didn't even care when many turned tail in disgust to follow those who had already left or to seek their own destinies. The majority was now loyal to him. In fact, he had lost fewer than he himself had anticipated. And with the combined powers of his dragons, it would be possible to reduce Britannia's cities to blackened craters.
"The Caverns of Freitag"
"Hearken to the song of Earth,
Whose patient tune is of hope and birth.
Ground to hold us where we may lay,
A path of Stones to guide our way,
So that we may wander,
And never be lost."
The Britannian warship Sword of Virtue cut through the crashing waves like a knife, sending up huge sprays of seawater in every direction. Silver gulls wheeled above the three masts, from which billowed pristine white sails and the serpentine flag of Lord British, Britannia's liege. The sky was a deep blue streaked with fine white clouds that looked like thin shavings of wool stretched out to display their fibres.
Two knights stood in the prow beside the sea serpent figurehead - its gilded wooden scales and fierce blue eyes gleaming in the westering sunlight. The knights watched as the Sword of Virtue rounded the forested cape of a large island to start the final leg of its journey into a large bay.
"The Mystic Isles," the older of the two said, more to alleviate the silence than for any real desire for conversation. He pulled up the hood of his green cloak around his craggy face and watched the glitter of the sun on the salt spray with his pale blue eyes. "Why we were saddled with this job, I have no idea."
The younger knight, barely taller than the other, grinned. He rubbed his clean-shaven chin and regarded his companion from under a shock of brown, red-tinted hair. "Thy knowledge of dragons has absolutely no use in this situation?" he jested.
The older shrugged. "Just because I was assigned to help Blackthorn in his dragon breeding experiments makes me no expert in fighting them. Besides, we're not exactly sure what we're up against yet."
"I think thou dost underestimate thy skills, my friend. True though. We don't know what we're up against." The younger knight leaned against the rails. "Nice island," he commented idly.
Up ahead, the wharves slowly came into view. There were a few fishing boats casting out nets nearby, but only two large frigates - sea serpent cutters, by their looks. Ships built specifically for driving away the serpentine monsters of the deep.
"Looks like we've already attracted a crowd," remarked the green cloaked knight. He pointed out the knot of people awaiting the warship's docking. "Commander Geoffrey said that the plea for help was urgent, but I didn't take him seriously enough."
The other frowned. "Thinkest thou that the claim about rampaging dragons was honest?"
"I rather doubt it. There is every reason against a Weyr settling these islands."
"Not enough food? That may be a reason for dragons attacking humans."
"Maark, that's an old wives tale. Dragons don't eat humans!"
The younger knight rolled his eyes. "Thy pardon. The dragons merely tear them limb from limb."
"Precisely. Thou shouldst not make them more monstrous than we already do."
The ship continued on its stately course towards the wharves and the Captain started shouting orders for the sails to be trimmed. Sailors hurried across the decks and scampered up the ratlines with the impressive agility of men who spend most of their lives at sea.
Three more knights came up on deck and made their way to the bow where their two comrades already stood.
"Maark!" one of them called - a woman with blonde hair that fell in a thick braid to her waist. "Are we there yet?"
"Almost, Meyin!" The young knight called back. "We're getting close to the docks."
She grinned, blue eyes twinkling with mirth. "'Tis good to hear! Seijio and I think Eddath is looking rather ill." She indicated the tall, thickly muscled man stumbling between her and the other knight. His face had a slightly greenish cast to it above his thick, brown beard, and deep circles rimmed his brown eyes. As the three mounted the stairs, he groaned bitterly.
"Eighteen days," he moaned, clutching the wooden railing with trembling fingers. "Do we have to go through this again?"
"Only if thou hast any wish to see home again," Maark replied. "It's a funny thing about ocean voyages," he added to Meyin. "Didst thou ever notice that one must travel across the waters twice in order to go to and from an island?"
"The thought had crossed my mind," she admitted blithely.
The green-cloaked knight clapped Eddath on the shoulder. "Hold on, my friend. We're almost there." He pointed towards the approaching island.
Eddath took a very deep breath and held it determinedly.
Maark grinned then turned to the grey haired knight beside Meyin who sported a rather large moustache. "Thou are feeling well, I trust, Seijio?"
Seijio nodded absently and drew his brown cloak more closely around himself.
"And thou, Captain?" Meyin asked the green-cloaked knight.
He looked irritated. "I've asked thee not to call me that," he reminded her. "It makes me feel like I'm above my friends."
"But thou art above us, oh fearless leader."
He scowled at her but she swept on.
"Knight of the King, stalker of dragons, master of the blade - " She stopped abruptly, then turned to Maark with a questioning frown. "What came next?"
Maark shook his head. "We haven't thought of any more titles yet," he replied lightly.
"Praise the Virtues," the green-cloaked knight murmured. He motioned to his companions. "We'd better finish packing. Come on."
Soon later, the Sword of Virtue drifted into the port and mooring lines were thrown to the sailors waiting on the docks. A gangplank was moved out and the green-cloaked knight - being the highest rank - disembarked first to be greeted by the crowd. First to speak to him was a stout man in official robes common to the nobility.
"Welcome to the Mystic Isles, Sir knight," the man said. "We appreciate thy speed in light of the current disturbances in Britannia."
The knight threw back the hood of his forest-green greatcloak to reveal his rough, bearded face and gave a slight bow, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. "Lord British is doing all he can to restore order after Blackthorn's reign. How can we be of service?"
"...and I am Mayor Arakel, pleased to meet thee also," Arakel said wryly, fingering his short, black beard. "Well, to the point. Giant lizards, Sir knight. With wings."
Maark, in the act of stepping off the gangplank, exclaimed half-laughing, "What?"
The first knight was also smiling. "Dragons, it seems."
"Whatever," the Mayor said, flustered. He stepped aside, allowing the second knight to pass. "They are causing great destruction here!"
The green-cloaked knight's smile faded to a frown. "Human killers?"
"I beg thy pardon?"
Maark stepped in. "Have the dragons killed any humans?"
Arakel hesitated. "Well, there was a fishing incident..."
"Fishing?" the first exclaimed incredulously. "Maark, did Commander Geoffrey sayeth anything about sea serpents?"
"'Twas no sea serpent!" insisted the Mayor. Both warriors listened as he continued. "Last month, a flight of about twenty of these lizards came from the north and settled in the Crystal Mountains. Our islands are small, Sir knights. Already the forests are empty of game and the lizards - "
"Dragons," Maark interrupted.
" - are starting to feed off our livestock," Arakel finished without pause.
"And the fishing incident..?" prompted the first knight.
The Mayor let out a long breath. "Thou canst speak with Ruarb, our Master Ranger, about that." He watched as Eddath, Meyin and Seijio disembarked from the warship, then added, "After resting and refreshments, of course."
The first knight inclined his head politely. "We thank thee, milord. Allow me to introduce my companions. This is Maark," he said with a grin, indicating the clean-shaven, reddish-brown haired man at his side. "And these others are Meyin, Eddath and Seijio."
The identified three, the slender, blonde Meyin, the brown haired and bearded Eddath - still looking rather sea-sick, - and Seijio of the greying hair and bushy moustache, all gave military salutes.
"And what of thine own name, Sir knight?" asked Arakel.
"I am called Gertan, milord."
The Crystal Mountains stood proud and tall in their rocky splendour to the northern reaches of the Mystic Isles. The last golden rays of sunshine faded from the sky to plunge the crags into deepening shadows; the greys, russets and dark colours of stone being overlaid minute after minute by the darkness of impending, inevitable night.
The tallest peak, called Diamond Spire by men because of the colours it threw by daylight, was nothing more than a large volcano with a massive, circular crater at its pinnacle. Whether or not the volcano was still active was unknown to the humans, but the steady, golden-red glow that had reached up from it's crater by night for the past month had given them reason to fear that it was.
Numerous deposits of some unknown crystal speckled the entire range. The effect when light fell on the mountains was a glittering visible to every eye which cared to look. Many of the Mystic Islanders speculated that the dragons - of which they had no knowledge save for very old tales from the most ancient of days - had settled in the mountains because of their jewel-like shimmerings. Everyone knew that dragons hoarded wondrous treasures, and piles upon piles of gold and precious things were crammed into the tunnels of their caverns.
The caves and corridors riddling the Crystal Mountains were both natural and the result of years of mining. When the excavations had yielded nothing besides that small, quartz-like crystal, the humans had abandoned their hopes of rich deposits and turned back to the less profitable but more certain market of hunters and furriers and fishermen. The largest project during that period of seemingly universal lust for gold and gemstones involved the Diamond Spire crater. The Spire had been hollowed out into a single, enormous cavern. From there, the miners had started digging tunnels branching off in several directions. Some of these tunnels had broken into other isolated caves, some wandered around aimlessly then ended abruptly in blank walls.
During the past month, new miners of an entirely different species had continued the work where the humans had left off. Rubble had been cleared, cave-ins had been secured, narrow corridors had been widened, rough floors had been smoothed.
Dragons had taken up residence.
Seventeen of the hundreds of Lord Blackthorn's twisted experiments had flown south to this secluded part of Britannia, the golden-scaled Freitag leading the way. During the long search for a safe haven, most of the dragons had paired off and mated. Thus it was with Freitag, who had joined with the only Vortex dragon in the group - those of the telepathic and mind-reading powers. His name was Khanan and he was the colour of bright emeralds from snout to tail with eyes of bronze.
The night of the arrival of the warship Sword of Virtue, Freitag and Khanan were in their private cavern, resting peacefully in the cool darkness. After a while, though, Khanan's fitful movements disturbed Freitag to the point that she asked him what his problem was.
"A ship, Beloved," Khanan told his mate, finally. "One such as we have not seen since departing Britannian shores."
Freitag sighed and opened her eyes. "Is there danger?"
"Reath thinks so," he replied, referring to one of the dragons who had come with them to the Mystic Isles. Reath was a Waverunner; a dragon who could breathe underwater like a sea serpent. "She was waverunning when the ship docked."
The golden dragon twined her sinuous neck with Khanan's, too tired to be angry. "I thought I told her not to do that in the bay after that human was killed."
"Thou didst," agreed Khanan, folding his green wings. "But is the best place to find fish and of us all, she is the only one who hath the ability..."
"...to deep sea dive." Freitag let her eyes drift closed again. "I know not whether to thank Blackthorn or curse him."
"Thou didst see what happened to others," the emerald dragon reminded her. "Consumed by hatred, just like Memnoch, or mutilated beyond recognition."
"Like Camisra." She shuddered, remembering the beautiful white dragon, twisted to hideous proportions... "Thou art right. Blackthorn is not to be thanked." She shifted, capturing his bronze, gold-lit eyes. "Now, what about the ship?"
"It carried five knights of Britannia here. Reath says they have come to kill or drive us off."
Freitag's eyes narrowed. "She heard this?" Khanan nodded. "Then we hold council tomorrow. All should attend."
"Even Rimitek?" asked Khanan dubiously.
"If he so chooses."
"I think something is amiss with him," the green dragon said softly. "He grows sick."
"No. 'Tis his nature. He senses danger."
"But his non-stop vigil at the cavern opening..."
Freitag interrupted. "Since Reath accidentally caught that fish hook and caused a human to die, Rimitek hath been on edge. He's a Sentinel, remember, bred to detect significant danger."
Khanan replied softly. "So then, the danger hath arrived." He looked around the cavern, his golden eyes roving over the smoothed stone before returning his attention to Freitag. "Dost thou ever wonder what happened to the other dragons?" he asked.
Freitag nodded slowly. "Yes."
"What dost thou thinkest happened to Memnoch?"
"I have little doubt that he established his own Weyr and that most of the others went with him. Except those here and a few others, perhaps." She nestled closer to her mate. "The dragons that Blackthorn captured from around Britannia would have gone back to their homes, I think. Ssathen was the last one to follow us and he said the captives left in every direction - not one stayed with Memnoch."
"We can hope, I guess."
"At this time, Khanan, hope is all we have left. For everything."
Mayor Arakel's dining room was a simple affair of polished wood walls, a brick fireplace and stone floors covered with bright, woollen rugs. The long table bore three candelabras, each of their four arms bearing a glowing taper, and was laden with platters of steaming food. Nine people sat around the table, five of which were the Britannian knights. The other four consisted of Arakel, his giddy wife Lish, Ranger Master Ruarb and Mekaur, the Guard Captain.
"Wine, anyone?" Lish offered. She held out a brimming decanter with one plump hand.
"With thanks, milady," Ruarb said, passing up his goblet. The ranger turned his green eyes back to Gertan. "In any case," he continued. "It would do me great honour if thou wouldst accept two of my people to assist thee. I have a pair of especially fine rangers who can see thee safely to and through the caverns of the Crystal Mountains."
Gertan opened his mouth to gently refuse a third time, but this time Meyin spoke before he could.
"Rangers are taught the basics of magic in Britannia," she told Ruarb. "Is that the practise here?"
"Yes, of course," Ruarb agreed. "I myself am a mage of the Fifth Circle!"
"Magic would certainly be useful where we are going, Captain," Meyin said to Gertan, who almost visible winced at both the title and her feigned earnest tone. She only ever used them when making a point.
"Healing would be most beneficial," Maark seconded, coming to the blond-haired knight's aid. Gertan shot his friend a dark glance, but Maark had his cup to his lips, so none saw his grin.
Mekaur had watched the entire exchange with open amusement. He was a rather tall man with flowing, black hair and the kind of eyes that made one think he was always laughing. It was he who finally stepped in to change the topic. "So, Sir knights, will ye be needing any weaponry or armour besides that which thou broughtest here?"
Gertan nodded. "Some spears and barbed nets would be appreciated," he said.
"Hast thou ever slain a dragon before?" Arakel inquired.
Eddath filled the brief silence. "None of us have, milord, but Sir Gertan hath studied them closely and knows most of their tricks."
"Unless one is the Avatar, it is most likely impossible to confront and kill twenty dragons and live," Gertan said, following Eddath's lead to display some of his knowledge. He put down his cutlery. "We must find a way to drive them from thine islands. If these are non-aggressive dragons, we will have a better chance."
"Thou expectest to strike a deal with these lizards?" Ruarb asked with some scepticism.
"Perhaps," asserted Gertan softly. "Else I could issue a challenge."
Arakel leaned forward, clearly intrigued. "Of what kind?"
"The dragons of old lived in a relatively simple hierarchy. The most powerful - usually one of the older males - ruled the Weyr. Although there are stories of other groups, this appears to be the most common. Dragons could challenge the leader for command through a Combat and the victor, the most powerful, would gain the Weyr. If I defeat their leader in battle, hopefully I can assume command of the Weyr and get the other dragons to leave."
"'Hopefully'?" Lish peeped.
"Or else they'll rip thee to shreds!" exclaimed Arakel. "Then we'll be next!"
"Frying to a crisp is more common," Maark began.
"I think not," Gertan said to Arakel. He sat back in his chair. "These dragons seem indifferent to humans."
"Thy pardon, but they killed an innocent man!"
"There is that. But that's only one death in a month! If they meant thee harm, twenty dragons would have absolutely no trouble in razing this towne to the ground."
Lish turned white but Arakel nodded slowly, then said, "I have one more question. Where did these creatures come from if Britannia hath no water-breathing dragons?"
The knights exchanged glances. The dragons who had landed in the Isles did seem to be indifferent to humans, but they each knew from whence the dragons had come. Every last one of them had been bred for war, destruction and death.
The previously silent Seijio said, "Blackthorn."
Gertan let out a long sigh, then looked at the three islanders in turn. "Milords, allow me to explain. Some time after Lord Blackthorn turned to evil, he started to experiment with the creatures of Britannia in order to strengthen his stranglehold on the people. Dragons were one such species. Originally they were a race of flying reptiles who could breathe fire and even manipulate magic." He nodded at Ruarb's surprised expression. "And they were highly intelligent. They still are, after a fashion, but Blackthorn turned all their strength and cunning to his will and twisted them into weapons which he used against Britannia." He reluctantly added, "After Blackthorn vanished when Lord British returned, the dragons he changed must have found themselves free and some evidently came here. That water-breathing dragon is a Waverunner, milords. They were used to mount an undetected assault on Serpents Hold."
"What other kinds are there?" Mekaur asked.
"The Deathwings were the most powerful. They had mind possessing magics and the power to kill at a distance with a mere thought." He rubbed his hands as if they had suddenly grown cold. "Next in strength were the Flamewinds who had such enhancements in their fire that they could melt solid rock with ease."
"What can we do against such power?" Arakel exclaimed in dismay. "They seem invincible!"
"Each have a weakness, Mayor," Maark interrupted.
Gertan nodded. "I think it doubtful that any Deathwings came here. Ruarb said that the dragons he saw were led by a gold. I've never seen a golden Deathwing."
He went on to explain the other kinds. The telepathic Vortices, the acrobatic Skyborn, the colour-changing Chameleons, the magic-wielding Adepts, the daemon controlling Daemondrivers, the incredibly fast Swiftwings, the battle-skilled Steelclaws and the defensive Sentinels. Each had their own strengths and weaknesses and Gertan spoke of them late into the night.
The sky was dark. Draleen glided beneath the leaden clouds and stretched out his muscles. A long day in the caverns had left him feeling stiff and yearning for the sky's freedom, so he took this opportunity after sundown to fly. The island below shone with blazing torches and lamps all around the bay, east and south to a lesser extent where the fields lay. North and northwest where forest and mountains ruled, were dark. He shut his eyes momentarily to feel the touch of the air and the sensation of free, unbridled flight.
"Draleen?" a feminine voice asked.
Draleen craned his blue scaled neck around to see Reath, another blue dragon, but one whose only duty was to scour the seawater for food. When not braving the water, however, she could usually be found in the Nest. She was also a good friend - attractive into the bargain, and unmated like himself.
"The wind is strong this evening, Reath," he said by way of greeting. "I see I am not the only one in need of a relaxing flight tonight."
Reath smiled, which took the edge off the pain in her eyes. "Underwater flight is not the same as air flight," she confided. Her jaws opened in a wide yawn and Draleen could see the small hook lodged in the soft tissue of her mouth in a place where large dragon claws couldn't remove it. "I must have caught a third of the fish in the sea today!"
Draleen made an effort and grinned. It was hard to see her hurt like this. "At least one of us can try," he said. "But I don't think I'd relish being a Waverunner."
"At times I wish I wasn't," she replied wryly. "Fish for seventeen dragons is a lot of fish!" She beat her wings. "Still...there are sights down there I sometimes think one would be poorer for not viewing."
Draleen regarded the clouds. "Maybe so. But I have all the sights I need up here." He looked down at the island again, acute eyesight scanning the edge of the towne. He remembered Reath telling him that afternoon of the arrival of the Britannian warship and said, "Look, is that one of thy knights?"
Reath looked. "Why...it is! I think that's their leader!" Before she could say any more, Draleen closed his wings and fell away in a controlled drop. "Draleen!" called Reath, worried.
Draleen's ash-grey wings flared out, then he banked sharply to the left towards the knight so that he was approaching the human from behind, almost brushing the rooftops of the houses with his belly as he went. The air rushed past and the tiled roofs seemed almost to change colour as he flew over the separate houses. Levelling himself, he sped straight over the knight's head and let out a roar loud enough to echo between the mountains leagues to the north. Trees abruptly replaced houses and he veered off to the right, circled about, then returned to see the knight's reaction.
The expression on the human's face almost made him falter in mid-flight. Recovering quickly, he gave a powerful beat of his wings and climbed back into the air.
"Are all Skyborn dragons show-offs?" Reath inquired as she fell in beside him. She frowned and peered at Draleen closely. "Art thou well?"
Draleen nodded mutely.
"Well, what happened?"
He took a deep breath. "He...he..." Looking down, Draleen saw the knight had been joined by two other humans. "He wasn't afraid!"
Reath blinked. "Of course he was!"
"There was no fear in his eyes. Only...wonder?"
Reath said excitedly, "But that means we might be able to convince him to leave us in peace!"
"He didn't even draw his sword..." Draleen's jaw dropped as Reath's words sank in. "Thinkest thou so?"
"There is a good chance! We must tell Freitag!" So saying, she turned her flight to the northeast.
"Reath!" he shouted, wheeling to follow. When she glanced back under one wing, still smiling, he gave up and said, "I'll race thee!"
Gertan stared at the mountains, lost in thought. Tomorrow, he, Maark, Meyin, Eddath, Seijio and two rangers would walk out to them and get the dragons to leave - one way or another. He sighed. When he'd been assigned to help Blackthorn in his experiments on dragons as several others had, he'd never thought he might be fighting against the powers he'd seen - and helped - come into being.
"I'm too old for this," he muttered.
In his early thirties, Gertan looked like a man ten years older. The years of Blackthorn's reign had put premature grey in his brown hair and beard, and his blue eyes were tired. Yet he still moved like a young man, and the vigorous training all knights went through had given him a powerfully muscled body.
"What art thou doing out here?"
Gertan glanced over his shoulder at Meyin. "I'm out here because our Lord British promoted Geoffrey instead of me!"
The woman smiled and came forward to stand beside him. "He had a convincing reference - namely the Avatar."
Gertan shook his head ruefully. "Unfortunately, the Avatar wasn't in the habit of inviting Blackthorn's guards to join her in her quests."
Meyin's mood seemed to darken slightly. "I don't blame her," was all she said.
"Nor do I," he agreed. He gestured towards the distant mountains. "Speaking of Blackthorn, we'll be going against his dragons tomorrow." He clenched his jaw. "I thought they were all destroyed! Virtues know they should have been. Such unnatural powers have no place in the world."
Meyin regarded him gravely, her blonde hair shining in the torchlight and her eyes dark with night. "'Twas no fault of theirs that they were hatched the way they were. People can change, Gertan. Can't dragons? Blackthorn's experiments were mindless weapons. These ones..." Meyin shrugged. "They have done almost no harm."
Gertan heard footsteps and looked back again to see Maark appear. The younger knight gave his friend a brief nod, then said to Meyin, "Might I speak with thee?"
Meyin raised an elegant eyebrow. "Go ahead, Maark."
Gertan knew Maark well enough to see he was - for some reason - hiding some kind of profound nervousness. Maark swallowed nervously and added, "Alone?"
A corner of Meyin's mouth lifted in a smile and she winked at Gertan before following Maark back to the line of houses.
Alone again, Gertan sighed, stared at the distant peaks and mulled over several plans for a few minutes. The strangest information he had gotten out of Ruarb was about the dragon that had been leading the rest of the Weyr. The Ranger Master had been using a telescope and had noted that the leader bore a scar on one sides of its body. After several probing questions about the exact location of the scar, Gertan had been willing to conclude that the leader had a ruptured firesac, which meant it couldn't breathe fire. What's more, if it was a gold dragon, it could be a Flamewind.
This baffled the knight. If a Weyr followed the strongest of their number, why would they follow a Flamewind without fire? On top of that, a Flamewind had no magical capability other than its fiery breath due to a miscalculation in Blackthorn's formulas.
Abruptly, a deafening roar came from directly above him and he jumped in surprise, looking up to see a huge, scaled body and two vast wings the colour of ashes speed overhead and off to the north. Gertan watched with silent, awe-struck admiration as the dragon executed a smooth turn and headed back in his direction. It occurred to him, as a creature more than three times his size bore down on him, that he should feel more than a little afraid. In fact, he thought he should feel absolutely petrified.
Dim torchlight reflected off the dragon's blue-grey eyes and in those reptilian, yet strangely human orbs, the knight saw curiosity.
The dragon made a massive downstroke with his wings - the resulting gust of wind nearly knocking Gertan over - then was up and away.
"Gertan! Art thou hurt?"
Maark and Meyin dashed to his side, but he watched the dragon vanish into the night sky before saying anything in response.
"Gertan?" Maark repeated.
"Was it a dragon?"
Gertan nodded. "Indeed it was."
"What did it say?" Meyin asked.
"What maketh thee think I know that?"
"Oh, come now, dragon lore master," she said with a snort. "Make a guess."
Gertan peered at the overcast sky thoughtfully. "'Boo.'"
The other two stared at him for a second, then laughed.
"Well," Gertan went on, "carest to share what Maark told thee, Meyin?"
Meyin tossed her blonde hair back and gave Maark a look of disgust. "He hath not told me anything yet!"
Maark opened his mouth in protest. "But..."
Meyin glared at him. "We can discuss the weather out here!"
Gertan coughed and said, "I think I'll turn in for the night. Be here and be ready at the ninth hour." He then made his escape, leaving the two young knights alone. But his own thoughts were elsewhere.
"That is interesting news," Freitag observed. Her eyes narrowed. "What time is it, Khanan?" she asked of her ever-present mate.
The green dragon squinted in thought. "Just after sunrise, I believe."
Freitag looked at Draleen and Reath. "The meeting is not until noon. I think there will not be enough time to mention this information, so feel free to circulate what ye both saw among the others."
The two blues exchanged glances and Draleen asked, "Freitag, what dost thou think will happen?"
The gold sighed and looked around at the massive stone hall. "I think that unless some deal can be struck..." she hesitated, her neck bowing. "The humans may come in all their force and destroy both us and that which we protect. This is why an all-out confrontation must be avoided."
Draleen nodded. "I understand. I just want to say that I will do whatever thou might ask of me." He lowered his head in respect then turned to leave with Reath behind him.
"Reath," Freitag called. "How is thy wound?"
The silver-winged female answered in a slightly strained voice, "I think it grows worse, but I echo Draleen's words." She also bowed her head, then hastened after Draleen.
Freitag shook her head. "What do I do to deserve such loyalty?"
Khanan gave her a smile. "How canst thou ask that? Thou didst lead them to freedom - an opportunity for peace."
"I led them from one strife to another."
"No, Beloved," Khanan said. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, two thin trails of smoke jetting from his nostrils. "They follow thee because thy power lies not in battleskill or fire or magic. It lies in thy love. They know thou carest for them, so they care for thee."
Gertan's eyebrows shot up. "He what?"
"Proposed," Meyin repeated, displaying the golden ring set with a star sapphire.
"Congratulations!" he exclaimed, Eddath and Seijio echoing him enthusiastically as Maark blushed and Meyin beamed.
The slender knight put her gauntlet back on. "The ceremony will have to wait until we return to Britannia." She smiled at Maark. "But it will happen!"
Maark grinned. "In all honesty, I can't wait!"
The others laughed - even the two rangers Ruarb had sent, Ashel and Atara by name. They were brother and sister, dark haired, blue eyed and both under twenty years of age. Gertan had his doubts about the - in his opinion - underage rangers, and had expected at least Ruarb to see them all off. Rangers were a close-mouthed bunch to begin with. As it was, the five knights and two rangers were alone on the fringe of the towne. Sunrise was long past, the golden sphere of the sun well above the horizon and already warm, especially for this time of year.
"We had best be going, Sir knights," Ashel said. "There are no set trails and it should take us three hours to reach the best entrance on foot."
Gertan nodded. "Very well. Let's get started."
Ashel nodded to his sister, who unslung her bow and entered the brush first to scout ahead. Ashel then followed with the five knights behind him.
Sunlight filtered through the large hole above to illuminate the stone caverns. The Crystal Mountains were aptly named, as dozens of multihued flecks dusted the sloping walls of the Flight Cave. When full sunlight shone through the crater, the caverns were alive with refracted light and dazzling colours. The Diamond Spire volcano was probably extinct, though it was always warm inside, hinting at another option. Shadows fell across the ground as dragons entered through the hole to land inside the Flight Cave and wait for the meeting to begin.
Freitag counted. Sixteen including herself were present.
"Rimitek?" murmured Khanan.
She shook her head, for the black Sentinel dragon, the only one absent, could not be seen. "Let us begin." She stepped forward into the waxing circle of light on the floor, the rays playing off her golden scales. "There is danger," she said to her kin.
Several dragons nodded as if this statement had confirmed a suspicion.
"Memnoch was correct in one thing," she went on, holding up a single claw. "Humans fear us. And now, they hunt us. A ship arrived yesterday bearing Britannian knights. Five of them."
A dragon with lustrous purple-black hide spread his wings for permission to speak. When Freitag nodded, he said, "Of all humans, knights claimed the highest number of dragon lives. I think it wise to believe them dangerous."
A silver dragon unfurled her wings, then stated, "We may not wish to harm these knights, but are our arts not sufficient to keep them out?"
The silver dragon beside her said, "We can use our magic to block caveways!" Realising he'd spoken without permission, he coughed an apology, looking embarrassed.
Freitag smiled. "We thought of that, Ssathen. But can two Adepts secure all the entrances for every day that the knights remain in the Mystic Isles?"
The second silver dragon mulled over that, then shook his head. "Regretfully not."
"Daemons?" suggested a red, after stretching his wings.
Freitag considered. "Canst thou keep them from attacking unless there is no other option?"
"Easily," he answered.
"We could use a few at defensive positions. I'll speak to thee and the other Daemondrivers after we finish." Freitag raised her head. "Now, before we go any further, I think two decisions must be made. Firstly, do any present wish to war with humans?"
Dragons glanced around to see if anyone would express such a desire, but none did.
"Secondly, do any present wish to leave?"
Ssathen spread his wings, then asked, "For what reason?"
"To escape the danger," the golden dragon replied. "I will not condemn any who are afraid."
"Freitag," Ssathen said. "We may be afraid, but more so for our eggs than for our lives."
Again Freitag smiled. "I felt I had to ask. Forgive me if I insulted any of ye. Not all of us have such an obligation." She waited another minute, but no others spoke. "Good. I am pleased."
Reath timidly spread her silver wings. When Freitag nodded at her, she whispered in a thick voice, "I was wondering if any of this is my fault?"
"No, it isn't, though it wouldn't have helped matters," was the gentle reply. "The ship arrived too soon after the accident. The message to Britannia must have been sent scant days after our arrival here." She sighed. "They fear us." Looking up, she noted that the sun was about to vanish over the western edge of the crater. "We spoke of such a threat before, so most of ye know what to do. Even now, Rimitek guards the main ground entrance."
A roar sounded from the distance, reverberating through the corridors and carrying the notes of anger...and pain.
Freitag spread her wings wide to end the meeting. "It begins!" she cried.
The golden sunlight shone through the leaves above, causing the area under the canopy to be illuminated by an emerald glow. The clean scents of wood and fresh water drifted by on gentle breezes, the rustling branches overhead concealing the sight of the mountains and what lay inside.
Ashel stopped and touched a tree trunk, scanning it for signs left by his sister, then motioned for the knights to follow him further east. "There used to be a den of wolves back there," he explained, pointing back in the other direction. "Most, if not all of the game has been taken by the dragons, so if any wolves remain, they're likely to be hungry."
Eddath chuckled at that, then asked, "Are we close?"
"Yes," their guide replied. "Not far now."
"Has anyone actually set foot inside this cave?"
Ashel spoke while giving plants careful glances. "A few. There is a dragon who guards it."
"Perfect," Gertan muttered under his breath.
"Maybe thou canst talk it out of eating us," Meyin suggested.
"Don't laugh," Gertan retorted. "I might have to."
"What if they don't talk?" Maark asked.
Gertan sidestepped a fallen log. "They can," he replied with as much confidence as he could muster. Dragons had that ability and though they had not been allowed to speak while in captivity - at least, not aloud - he felt sure he had seen it in the dragon's eyes last night. "They can."
Eddath glanced at Seijio - who shrugged - and said, "But what makes thee so sure?"
Gertan gave the large knight his best, 'hey, it's me thou'rt talking to!' look and kept walking.
Ashel raised his right fist and everyone halted, closing green or brown cloaks and crouching down to blend in with the forest. The young ranger put two fingers to his mouth and whistled shrilly.
The call was repeated by someone else just before Atara came into view. She was making a fair bit of noise and limping slightly.
"Clumsy," Ashel said disapprovingly as the knights resumed standing. "What's wrong?"
"Turned my ankle on a damned tree root," the girl replied, obviously angry at herself. "Give me a minute." She sat down, pulled off her left boot and opened a leather pouch in her belt. The others could see the beginnings of a bruise on her ankle as she produced few dried plants.
Meyin prodded Gertan in the side. "See? Magic!"
Gertan shrugged. The mystic arts had never held much fascination for him. In fact, since Lord Blackthorn, he found the concept rather repelling.
Atara crushed the reagents together with her left hand and sprinkled them over her ankle while gesturing with her right hand. "Mani!" she said. Her whole leg glowed blue for a minute, then was back to normal. All traces of the bruising were gone.
"Well?" Ashel asked.
Atara put her boot back on and stamped it into place. "Dead north."
"Let's go then."
The seven moved out and soon broke the edge of the forest. A towering cliff face of grey rock greeted them, the gaping black hole bored into it large enough for the average sized dragon to enter.
Gertan announced, "We'll rest a few minutes, then go in." He looked up at the sun, which was high in the sky, then at the dingy cave. "Ashel, canst thou or thy sister make light for us in there?"
Ashel glanced at Atara, and something about their expressions in response to his question struck Gertan as odd. Ashel smiled. "We can, milord."
"Just 'Gertan,' please," he replied, shrugging off his suspicions. "I get enough 'milords' and 'Captains' out of Meyin."
Rimitek awoke without stirring, magically-enhanced senses alerting him to the approach of human intruders. He breathed in, deep and slow so as not to make any noticeable noise, and mentally nodded. The scent of steel was strong. It was the knights he had detected earlier, but there were two other humans with them. He sniffed again, this time smelling the oiled leather and wool of what could probably be rangers. He listened intently, heard the almost imperceptible noise of smooth wood being drawn against stone - someone had put a longbow on the ground - and decided that he was right. Rangers and knights.
Footsteps hushed by the loose, sandy earth patches amongst the stones could be heard next. They came from many directions and the dragon knew that the humans had spread out. It was time to act.
He lifted his head and opened his eyes - not to see the humans, for he was blind, but to show them that he was awake and aware of their presence. Opening his dagger-toothed jaws, the dragon tasted the air and pinpointed the position of each human. Then he opened his mouth again, to speak this time, for he wished no more than his kin for a confrontation. The days of being mindless slaves were over.
Air moved, sound warned him. He ducked his head quickly, feeling the passing of a long weapon over his skull. As it clanged against a stone wall, a second pierced him low in the chest.
Pain flashed through him and his intended words were let loose in a shriek of fury at the unprovoked attack.
A human shouted. Suddenly they were all talking and yelling. Beneath their voices, the dragon heard the steely slither of swords being drawn...the soft click of an arrow being nocked to a bowstring...
The dragon fumbled for the weapon in his flesh and pulled it loose. A spear. Dropping it, he crouched low and expanded every sense; listening, feeling, tasting, smelling...the combination in a Sentinel more accurate than sight.
An arrow zipped past and the dragon reared up, breathing fire. A second later he was lashing out with foreclaws and whipping his spiked tail around with blinding speed. He felt his tail strike someone, a male voice shouted in pain. In a trice, Rimitek crouched low again to feel the positions of his attackers.
One was directly before him. He snapped his sharp teeth at the knight and exhaled a stream of flames. The humans started shouting again and he was acutely aware of new wounds in his body caused by arrows.
"Dragon!" A man shouted. "We have no wish to harm thee!"
The dragon again opened his mouth to speak but a fiery pain exploded in his right eye. Blind he might be, but not to the cold, icy touch of an arrow. Screaming in agonised rage, the dragon gave in to the primal, killing instincts that had served his ancestors...and the lethal skills left to his breed from Blackthorn's twisted legacy.
Razor edged claws swiped out and he heard a human scream. The sound was satisfying. Fixating on it, he slashed out again, his claws raking something hard this time.
Steel scored his left thigh and he wheeled, pouring an inferno of death in every direction. Another blade bit his lashing tail. The dragon moved his head down under a wing and snapped his teeth around something that broke.
Then it was as if cold flames had sliced through his neck. A sword...a severed windpipe.
As the Sentinel dragon strained for a breath which would not - could not - come, he thought for a moment that he could see. All the brightness and fabled colours that he could never have believed existed...then the light faded into familiar blackness once more.
Gertan pulled his broadsword from the black dragon's throat with a grunt of pain. A talon had scored his upper arm and from its looks, had narrowly avoided damaging the muscle.
Seijio grabbed him before he fell and started a field dressing. As the silent knight wrapped a clean bandage around his wound, Gertan looked directly at the two rangers.
"Just what by all the dungeons' foul principles were ye doing?" he shouted at them.
Ashel's jaw hardened but Atara looked almost ashamed.
"I said no one was to attack unless I ordered," Gertan went on, his voice shaking with barely suppressed rage. "What possessed ye to disobey me?"
"Gertan!" Maark shouted, his voice hoarse.
The captain looked over and saw his friend cradling Meyin. The blonde knight had a bloody gouge in her left side. Maark himself looked as if one of his arms had been broken. Returning his gaze to the rangers, he ordered, "Heal them."
Atara hurried to comply with Ashel following more reluctantly.
"Maybe I should leave them behind now before it's too late," Gertan growled.
Seijio tied off the bandage. "It is too late."
Gertan frowned, knowing he was right. A dragon was dead by their hands. How would they be able to persuade the rest of the Weyr that they meant no harm now? Shaking his head, he cast a glance over at Eddath who had suffered nothing more than a singed cloak. "Art thou all right?" Gertan asked Seijio.
Gertan wiped the blood off his sword and sheathed it. Sighing, he strode over to where Meyin was testing her restored body and Maark was stretching his healed arm. There was a large hole in Meyin's mail armour, but she seemed fine.
"Thanks," Gertan said curtly to Ashel and Atara. "Now answer my question."
The former said, "Thou didst say that the lizards can breathe fire. When he rose up the way he did, I thought he was going to roast us…so I threw my spear."
"I threw mine when I saw him throw his," Atara tacked on.
Gertan frowned darkly, knowing that he couldn’t send them back. There might be a way to convince the dragons that it had been an accident - even though he himself doubted that this explanation had been the truth, - but more importantly, and this he accepted with great reluctance, they needed the magic healing the rangers could provide. If the dragons had been angered enough to attack without warning after this…this murder, then his knights would be subjected to the pain he was not really willing to spare the two foolish rangers. To put it frankly, if Gertan was going to continue into the caverns anyway, why risk his skin and the lives of his friends alone? "If this happens again," he said with soft anger, "I’ll send both of ye back to the towne."
"Thou mightest not get the chance, Gertan" Eddath interrupted sombrely. "With the death of this dragon, will not the others attack us on sight?"
Gertan gave him a tight nod and the rangers a dangerous look. "Thou art most likely right." He looked over at the black dragon. "I suppose this wasn’t the Weyr Leader."
"No," said Ashel. "The Leader is gold. Ruarb said he only saw two golds in the whole bunch."
Eddath was examining the dragon’s good eye. "Gertan, was this dragon blind?"
Gertan nodded. "All the Sentinels are. The spell Blackthorn used to strengthen their vision was too powerful - rendering them like this. Seemed like the enhancements on the other senses made up for it though." He added, flexing his sore arm.
Eddath hoisted up his shield to display the deep claw mark on its face. "I agree."
Gertan smiled vaguely and leaned against the dragon’s head. "We were lucky." Regarding the two rangers, he amended, "Very lucky."
Clapping Gertan on his unwounded shoulder, Eddath said, "Hopefully we won’t come up against any Deathwings."
"May the Virtues hear that prayer," agreed Gertan fervently. He looked around. "Well, I guess we should head on in. Can you two figure out which tunnel leads into the main caves?" he asked of the rangers.
They nodded and the party moved on into the depths of the caverns.
Khanan bowed his green head sadly. "Rimitek hath fallen." He met Freitag’s sorrowful eyes. "I felt him die. The humans attacked him before he could speak."
The golden dragon was silent for a minute and Khanan mourned inside. She would blame herself for any hardships. It was the sign of a good leader, but he wished it didn’t have to be.
"Khanan, telepath to Alenair, Losoud and Zora, please. Tell them to prepare the positioning of their daemons as we arranged before."
Khanan did as asked and accessed his Vortex powers to send word to the three Daemondrivers. When he had finished, he noticed Freitag was lying down, her face showing fear. "Beloved?" he asked. "What is wrong?"
"They will demand Combat," she whispered, shaking. "And I have nothing but tooth and claw and tail."
Khanan stroked her side where, long ago, an arrow had struck, destroying her ability to breathe fire.
Freitag closed her eyes as he continued to caress her and said, "Flamewind dragons have no magic at all, my love. Next to the Deathwings we were the most feared." She clenched her foreclaws into fists. "I can’t even gate in a daemon!"
Resting a paw on her forehead, Khanan said, "We may yet find another way to resolve this invasion." But in his mind, he thought only of the Combat and how the rules might be stretched.
"Dost thou feel like we’re being watched?" asked Maark.
Meyin pointed out an irregular formation of rocks. "It’s because those stones look like a dragon." She slung an arm across his shoulders. "How art thou holding up?"
"Oh, fine, considering I almost saw my betrothed gutted by a dragon." He lowered his head as they continued to walk. "Thou didst scare me."
"Maark, we’re knights. We’ll always be in danger and we’re likely to face death every day from now until we die."
He nodded. "I know. But at least try to wait until after the wedding before deciding to die."
Meyin snorted and pinched one of his arms, the one that had been broken and healed. "Same goes to thee."
Gertan motioned for silence as they entered a vast stone hall. There was light coming from somewhere that cast a golden hue over everything, and the air was hot.
"By the Virtues," Gertan whispered. "Dragon eggs!"
Around thirty of the man-sized, grey-shelled eggs were arranged on the sandy floor. Their placement seemed almost haphazard at first, until Gertan realised that they were organised into groups.
A hissing sound caused everyone to look up. The hall was roughly square in shape, and a ledge jutted out from several meters up each wall with the exception of the one the humans stood by. From the caves behind each of these three ledges came a dragon.
"Balconies," Eddath whispered.
The three dragons - two reds and a single green, which perched above the exit on the opposite side of the hall - fixed narrowed eyes on the humans and didn’t move.
"They must be guarding the eggs," Gertan whispered to his companions.
One of the dragons emitted a warning snarl.
Gertan caught sight of Atara, her fingers almost touching one of the eggs. "Don’t," he commanded sharply.
She withdrew her hand and nodded an apology.
The knight looked up and raised his voice. "Dragons!"
A red one replied, "What dost thou want of us, human?"
"I have been sent here to see that all dragons depart from the Mystic Isles."
The green dragon hissed and said, "What if we wish to remain? Wouldst thou kill us like thou didst Rimitek?"
"That was a misunderstanding."
"How canst one mistakenly slay a dragon?"
Gertan shoved Ashel forward. "Tell them."
The boy, slack-jawed at hearing the huge creatures speak, stared at the knight blankly. "I…I…"
"Speak up, small one," rumbled the other red dragon.
Stammering, Ashel managed to explain his reasons for the attack on the Sentinel dragon as he had to Gertan. All three dragons heard his explanation in stony silence, then one red spoke to its companions.
"Khanan says that the small human lies."
The green looked troubled. "The child wants revenge for something."
"A dragon killed my father!" Ashel shouted with sudden vehemence.
Gertan’s eyes widened in shock. The same expression registered on the features of the dragons - as well as some other emotion. They were preparing a defence. Swearing softly, Gertan backed away, one hand dragging Atara with him.
"Out of the cave," he ordered quietly, edging towards the opening.
"Ashel!" Atara called insistently.
Ashel ignored her. He raised his bow into the air and shouted, "I want to kill the lizard that slew my father!" He glanced at Gertan. "No agreements. No truce. Blood for blood!"
"The fishing incident?" Eddath asked of Atara, who nodded with tears standing in her eyes.
The dragons seemed as though they were listening to something. Presently, the green said, "Our Weyr Leader says, ‘thou canst confront thine enemy if thou canst find her'."
Ashel lowered his bow. "The murderer will come to me," he vowed. With catlike speed, he discarded his bow, drew a long hunting knife from his belt and stabbed an egg.
The shell fragmented and liquids bubbled out of the puncture and onto the ground.
The green dragon shrieked as if the attack had been on herself, but the two reds let out a deep keening noise.
Gertan forced his companions back further, leaving Ashel alone to his fate.
"Can’t we stop him?" Atara pleaded.
"The dragons will," Gertan responded grimly. "If we interfere, we’ll all die."
Ashel smashed a second egg with a strong kick then whirled around, sensing he wasn’t alone.
The green dragon suddenly made the same noise the other two had, then all three were silent. Gazing down at the solitary human in the immense cavern…it looked like an arena.
Khanan’s mental message came to the three dragons. "The Adepts have sealed the exits. Zora, as it was thine egg which was first attacked, thou hast the right to choose the human’s fate."
The green dragon trembled with held back sobs. "The human will have a last chance. One more egg and he dies," she thought.
"So be it," came Khanan’s reply. "But defend thine other egg. I feel he will attack it next."
Zora concentrated and a daemon leapt from nowhere to crouch between her remaining egg and the human.
The boy jumped back as the daemon rose up menacingly and slavered, as if hungering for human flesh.
Alenair and Losoud, the other two Daemondrivers, called their own two daemons to surround the human.
"Hear us, human," Zora called. "Destroy that or any other egg and thou shalt perish."
The boy didn’t hesitate. Facing Zora’s daemon, he incanted, "An Xen Corp!"
Holy light enveloped the daemon and it thrashed around, bellowing in fear. Lurching, it ran into Alenair’s daemon and both collapsed.
"NO!" screamed Zora as the boy ran towards her egg and gouged a hole in it with his dagger. But he didn’t stop there. He dashed deeper into the nest, wreaking havoc as he went.
"Release the daemons!" Losoud said with a roar. He and Alenair summoned another hellspawn each and sent them to hunt the human. Those two daemons and the one which hadn’t fallen prey to the ‘Repel Undead’ spell flapped leathery wings and rose into the air to find the boy.
"I’ll kill him myself!" Zora raged, preparing to descend.
"No!" Alenair shouted. "Thou wilt crush the other eggs!"
The green dragon followed the boy’s flight with her eyes. "Then I shall use fire." So saying, she sent a withering blast of flames down over the Nest, knowing that the unbroken eggs would not be damaged by it.
Prowling the grounds were five daemons.
Ashel bashed another egg open below the halfway line so its juices would run out. A tiny, reptilian creature flopped out with miniature wings, each pale scale the size of a human infant’s little fingernail.
"For my father," Ashel snarled, mercilessly crushing the baby drake with his boot.
Brittle bones snapped like twigs. The body was so small, there wasn’t even much blood.
A broad sheet of fire suddenly struck so close that he cried out and shielded his eyes. The skin on his hands and arms blistered as he stumbled back.
"Human!" a daemonic voice screeched nearby.
Ashel darted away between more eggs until he found himself back near his discarded bow. Had he already made a complete circuit of the cave? He looked towards his sister and the knights. Atara seemed to be screaming something, but he couldn’t hear her. She pointed behind him and he slowly turned.
A daemon crouched there. Its fiery eyes captured his and he suddenly found, to his horror, that every muscle in his body was immobilised. The daemon grinned evilly and crept closer, two others following close behind.
A strange voice suddenly spoke in his mind. "We sought no war with humans, boy. But an attack on our children cannot be forgiven."
The closest daemon leered and took hold of Ashel’s right arm. Its red skin felt hot, but that sensation was quickly replaced by a searing pain as the daemon casually ripped Ashel’s arm from his body.
Ashel’s scream was silent to all but himself.
Blood spurted in a crimson fountain and his severed arm twitched on the floor, white bone showing where it had once been connected to a shoulder-joint.
The daemon almost gently gripped Ashel’s left arm then jerked, tearing it out.
As his other arm joined the first on the blood spattered ground, a small part of his mind wondered how he was still conscious.
The daemons closed in, two lifting him up while a third caressingly held the ankle of his right leg, then pulled.
Excruciating spasms of pain racked his body, though it remained motionless. His blood was a constant flow of scarlet, which stained the golden sands below.
The daemon closed its hand around the ankle of Ashel’s left leg and tugged hard.
Ashel’s scream was silent to all but himself.
His mind struggled in vain to break free - it fought like a wounded animal behind bars. He wanted to make his voice heard. He wanted to cry out in derision…in pain. To beg for vengeance…for mercy. To call for help…for death. Anything but this dreadful, worthless, unheard silence.
The daemons released their hold on him and he fell to the floor with his lifeblood forming a wet, sticky pool around him.
A presence suddenly forced itself into his pain-clouded mind and shoved aside the agony. He heard a voice; the same one he’d heard earlier.
"As thou wert deaf to our pain, so are we deaf to thine."
Ashel’s vision cleared enough for him to see the hazy outline of a green dragon a brief instant before he was consumed by a blazing inferno. The flames carried emotions that were almost tangible by reason of their intensity. Rage, anger, sorrow…
Ashel’s scream was silent to all but himself.
Reath's eyes blazed. "Thou shouldst have let me go in!"
"And do what?" asked Freitag calmly, though Khanan could hear the undercurrent of anger in her voice. "Sacrifice thyself?"
"Better one dragon dead than..." Reath speared Khanan with her blue-eyed gaze. "How many were destroyed?" she demanded.
Khanan looked inquiringly at Freitag, who nodded, then sent the telepathic question to the three Daemondrivers. The answer he received shocked him speechless.
His expression was enough to make tears form in Reath's eyes. None of the eggs were hers for she had not mated, despite the fact that the males outnumbered the females. Nevertheless, when not out waverunning, Reath had often tended the nest.
"I could have saved them," Reath whispered, her voice husky from both emotion and the fish hook in her mouth. "It is my fault." The blue dragon lowered her head slightly, then left the cavern.
Freitag closed her eyes. "How many?"
How could one human cause so much destruction? Khanan wondered bleakly. "Too many. We don't have an exact count yet, but..."
"No, don't tell me." She cast a furtive glance in the direction of a smaller cave connected to the one in which they both stood.
Khanan understood. It was where Freitag's single egg lay. Where his single egg lay. "It will be safe there, Beloved."
"I wish I could believe that, my love."
Motioning his head towards the other caveway, the green dragon said, '"They'll be waiting."
Freitag nodded and extended her right foreclaw to him. As Khanan clasped his own paw with hers, she said, "Just promise me that whatever happens, thou shalt be there with me."
He stroked her golden face and replied, "Always, Beloved. Always."
The barrier keeping the humans out must have vanished quite suddenly, for Atara fell forward into the caveway and onto the sand. Before Gertan could stop her, the girl had stumbled to her feet and was running towards the pitiful heap of grimy ashes and blackened bones that had been her brother.
"Atara, wait!" Meyin shouted.
The young ranger ignored her. She only slowed when the five daemons intercepted her. Two of them advanced with outstretched claws; their hellish faces fixed into evil smiles. When the girl abruptly stopped dead in her tracks, Gertan guessed that she was under the same paralysis that had caught Ashel.
Drawing his sword, the knight charged into the room and shouted, "The Virtues strike me down if I permit this to happen! That girl is innocent!"
The daemons backed away and Atara fell to her knees beside Ashel's remains.
"We would not have harmed her," one of the red dragons said. He tilted his head to one side. "Is she kin to the one who died?"
"He was her brother," Gertan answered uncertainly, wondering where this conversation was leading.
"Ah." The dragon sighed deeply, then said, "Human, our Weyr Leader would speak with thee. Touch not the eggs. Take thy friends straight through the Nest and none shall be hurt."
Gertan waved his companions over and helped Atara to her feet. "Art thou well?"
"How canst thou ask that?" she whispered.
"I can't think of anything to make thee feel better," he admitted. "But remember that he died looking for vengeance."
The girl looked at him for a second, then bit her lip and nodded. "Point taken."
He gave her a tight smile, then realised that the three dragons were waiting. Eyeing the daemons warily as they passed through the Nest, the six humans travelled further into the caverns.
Thirteen dragons sat in a semicircle facing the entrance; six on either side of a golden female who seemed to be sitting on a slightly higher level - like a throne.
The humans entered the large, conical hall, their eyes regarding everything with fascination from the sandy floor to the glittering walls to the Flight Hole far above them. The circle of blue sky was getting gradually darker as night approached.
The knight leading the small party of humans stepped forward boldly. Every draconic eye was on him as he straightened and declared, "I am Sir Gertan of Britannia, a knight of the Order of the Silver Serpent."
The central golden dragon nodded slightly. "I am Freitag, Flamewind dragon and accepted Leader of this Weyr." The dragon shifted her wings and asked, "Why hast thou come here, knight?"
Gertan said, "Thy presence on the Mystic Isles is causing the people distress - and some anguish," he added, casting a glance at the young, dark-haired girl behind him. "We have come to ask that thee and thy followers leave these lands."
"Is there no way that we might remain until our eggs hatch?" inquired Freitag.
The knight shook his head. "Those eggs are nowhere near maturity. In barely a month thou hast eaten all the game in the forest...only one of our two species can survive here. Together, both will starve - or end up leaving anyway."
The golden dragon nodded. "This is true. But we cannot leave our children. This is our first clutch since winning free of Blackthorn's captivity." She considered her own words, then put in, "This is our first clutch ever."
Some of the other dragons started murmuring softly, then fell silent as the knight spoke again.
"I doubt I can convince the people to part with their stock to feed thee until thine hatchlings are old enough to fly."
"And I doubt thou canst convince them to leave, either," Freitag noted sadly.
"Canst thou not carry thy remaining eggs to another place?"
The golden dragon's expressive face reflected her regret. "No. Aside from the fact that they are too large - even for us - the probability for accidents would be too high." She peered at the blue circle above with her green eyes. "Besides, the flight will likely be long and the cold air will damage the eggs. Permanently."
"Then thou wilt not leave?" The knight asked, his tone almost turning the question into a statement of fact.
Freitag glanced around at her dragons one by one, her eyes finally resting on the green male at her side. Then she looked at the knight again. "No. We will not leave unless thou hast some way of transporting the eggs while keeping them warm."
"Or unless all their eggs are smashed," a clean-shaven knight muttered.
Several dragons regarded the man angrily and he raised both hands to signal he meant no harm.
The knight Gertan seemed to be mulling over everything he had heard. Finally, he said, "I was ordered to resolve this situation and it appears the only way I can do that is by calling a Combat." He paused and looked at Freitag, as if making sure that she understood the meaning of his words. Finally, he laid one hand on the hilt of his sword. "If thou are a dragon of Honour, Freitag - and I believe thou art - then I give thee my word; should I be slain, my companions will ship the Mystic Isles people away. But should I win, thy dragons must depart. Eggs or no eggs."
In a calm voice, Freitag noted, "Thy terms are acceptable. But can we rely on thy friends to accomplish such an evacuation should we win?"
The clean-shaven knight said, "We can. I will swear it by any oath."
"Then thy challenge is accepted, Sir Gertan. Wouldst thou object to holding the Combat tomorrow?"
"Of course not."
"Good." Freitag pointed towards one of the many adjoining caves. "Thou and thine may rest in there. I will place no restrictions on thine inevitable explorations, but any egg or dragon assaulted will be at thine own peril."
Gertan bowed. "Understood. Until tomorrow."
Without another word, the humans walked by the dragons and vanished down the passage that Freitag had indicated.
A silent minute passed before the golden Weyr Leader roused herself. "As so much of our future rides on this fight, I expect all to attend. Until then, thy time is thine own - but there is an important task most of thee know of that involves the Nest. Khanan?"
The green dragon beside her bowed his head and sent the silent message of the massacre to each dragon. When all had heard his words and stood either in shock or in tears, Freitag unfurled her velvety-black wings and the gathering was dismissed.
Above, the first star appeared in the sky.
"Rather decent of them - all things considered," Eddath said, flinging himself across a springy pallet of heather the dragons had provided.
"Agreed." Gertan sat on his own pallet and started unwinding the bandage on his arm.
"Art thou sure it was wise to challenge them like that? We could have got the Mystic Islanders to help carry the eggs to the Sword of Virtue and then taken them safely to Britannia."
"They wouldn't help," Atara said softly, still looking pale. "They fear the dragons. I think I've finally found out why."
The knights said nothing. It would have been cruel to point out to Atara that the dragons had had every reason to punish her brother the way they had. The dragons had only known one kind of justice during their captivity - and that was Blackthorn's. Not even the companions of the Avatar had been spared his notion of Justice.
Gertan continued to unwind his bandage and winced.
"Does it hurt?" Atara asked him. "I could heal it..."
"Um, I thank thee, but it feels fine."
Atara looked around the cave and said, "Well, I think I'll take a walk then. Be back later." She quickly departed.
Maark glanced up from where he and Meyin were trying to push two pallets together and arched a brow at Gertan.
"She'll be fine." The bandage came off along with a good bit of crusted blood. The cloth pulling at the wound caused Gertan to grunt in pain.
"Which is more than I can say for thee," Maark retorted, regarding the renewed flow of blood. "Thou shouldst have let her heal thee."
Gertan sighed. "She needs to rest." He stretched out on his pallet, his armour on the floor beside him with his sword. "As do I."
Maark looked regretfully at the double pallet.
"Please don't make too much noise," Gertan yawned.
Maark blushed, but Meyin laughed.
"And how is thy wound, my betrothed?" Maark asked her.
Meyin peeled off her mail shirt and lifted the hem of her undershirt to display her smooth, unmarked side. "No even a scar!" she noted, obviously surprised.
Gertan opened his eyes to see, then looked at his sore arm with chagrin.
"Hungry?" Seijio asked everyone.
"By the Virtues, yes!" Eddath exclaimed, jumping up.
"What is there?" Meyin asked.
Seijio held up a golden brown fillet. "Fish."
"Looks like fried fish," Eddath observed, taking one. He threw it at the prostrate Gertan. "Tell me if I'm right."
The fillet hit Gertan square on the jaw but the knight didn't stir. His eyes were shut and his hands were crooked up behind his head in a comfortable position.
"Well, if that didn't wake him, we have nothing to worry about, Maark," Meyin jibed.
Maark seemed concerned. "He looks tired."
Eddath picked a fishbone out of his mouth. "No, he looks asleep."
Eddath nodded and sat down again. "What are his chances tomorrow?"
Seijio tossed a couple of fish to Maark and Meyin who caught them easily.
Maark said, "That golden dragon said she was a Flamewind, but one of the nobles back at the towne - Ruarb? - told us that her firesac was ruptured. At least, that's what it looked like. And that means..."
"No fire," Eddath finished. "And Gertan says that Flamewinds have no magic."
The four knights traded glances, which plainly said that although Gertan had a better chance, a man slaying a dragon would be no easy task.
Reath cradled another premature drake in her paws and allowed a hot dragon tear to run down her face.
So many dead...
The tiny form, perfect features, delicate wings, fragile limbs...it would never know life. Never feel the air under it as it flew, never breathe fire, never live. The small body was almost transparent to the eyes as pigmentation scales received while in the egg had not taken place. It almost looked like the legendary Crystal Dragon.
Reath carried the dead drake to the funeral pyre and carefully put it down amongst the other silent baby dragons. Some were more mature, she saw curiously, perhaps another product of Blackthorn's interference.
Draleen touched her shoulder. "That's the last one. Stand back with me, Reath."
Reath followed the blue Skyborn to join the line of dragons encircling the pyre like a ring. A Ring of Dragons. The notion touched something in her mind, but as the ceremony began, she let the distraction go.
"We gather in body and spirit, mind and heart to see that our beloved kin arrive safely to the sheltering wings of the One Who Watches," Freitag said in a voice which was soft, yet echoed through the nest.
No dragon present knew who the One Who Watches was. Rumour held that Blackthorn had referred to this being several times, and that this being could travel between the stars. This said, they had all agreed that the One Who Watches had wings.
"We represent every aspect of our departed children: Flamewind, Vortex, Steelclaw, Adept, Daemondriver, Skyborn, Waverunner, Chameleon and Swiftwing."
All but two, Reath corrected silently. Sentinel and Deathwing were not present. Rimitek had been the Weyr's only Sentinel and they numbered no Deathwings. But then, none of the drakes on the pyre carried either heritage. Rimitek, like Reath herself, had been unmated.
"We stand for each Element which would have been a part of their lives," continued Freitag. "For Earth, which patiently held them as they grew."
Charag, a Steelclaw Dragon, shuffled forward a step then swept his exotic violet-black wings across the ground. This sent a shower of golden sand spraying across the unlit pyre.
"For Water, which gives us tears of sorrow, which we now shed."
Reath stepped forward and overturned a curved dragon scale holding a few drops of crystalline water so that it fell onto the pyre.
"For Air, which would have lifted their wings."
Ravema - one of the Swiftwings - came forward and craned her neck towards the pyre. Her mouth opened slightly as she blew a light breath over it.
"For Void, which touched their minds and even now takes them away in peace."
Khanan had given this part to Ssathen the Adept, as the silver dragon had lost two eggs. Ssathen shifted his position, then cast a spell. The pyre glowed softly with an oddly beautiful aura as he manipulated the ether waves around it.
"And for Fire, which is alive in all dragons."
Every dragon's jaws parted and from each mouth burst a simultaneous jet of flames to ignite the pyre.
Every dragon, but one.
Reath watched Freitag from the corner of her eye as the flames licked around the bodies of the drakes. The golden dragon's mouth was clamped shut, and the best she could manage was Water as tears streamed down her face. But whether the tears were because of the drakes, or the irony of Freitag's last statement...Reath could only guess.
Freitag's voice was clear and steady as she gave the final words. "We commit these dead to the One Who Watches. May they find rest."
Atara rested on the edge of the volcano, having found a wide tunnel leading up to the surface. Now she lay flat against the rocky slope beside the hole in the mountain's summit.
Clouds had blown in and sky was heavily overcast. Atara got the sensation that there would be no rain, however, and continued to watch the thin trail of smoke rising from the crater to the sky. She had long since given up trying to see her home in the darkness around her. In a way, it was frightening seeing a small area of grey mountainside stretching away to vanish into the black of night. She could almost believe that she was the only one who existed in the whole world.
"Good evening, human," a draconic voice said from nearby.
Atara's back stiffened. "What's so good about it?" she asked sullenly, not even bothering to look at the speaker.
"I'm sorry," the dragon apologised humbly. "I thought that was how humans greeted each other at night." When Atara didn't answer, the dragon said, "I came up to watch the ashes fly."
"The smoke thou dost see is from the funeral pyre of twenty three drakes."
Atara asked, "What are drakes?"
"Baby dragons," the speaker sighed sadly, stepping around to find a sitting place. After a minute of watching the smoke drift, the dragon said, "Why art thou up here, if I may ask? I sense a sadness in thee."
Atara looked at the dragon. It was a pretty blue female with silvery underwings and sea-blue eyes. The intelligence behind those eyes forced Atara to believe that this was not a mindless animal, however much she might like to believe otherwise. Besides, this dragon hadn't killed Ashel, so why take it out on her? "I'm here...remembering my brother."
"Oh," the dragon said uncomfortably. "I'm sorry."
"So am I. How many eggs didst thou lose?"
The dragon shook her head. "None were mine. But all were kin."
Feeling suddenly ashamed, Atara repeated, "I'm sorry."
"It's no fault of thine, human."
"My name is Atara."
"I am called Reath."
"Is that thine only name?" Atara asked, sitting up.
"What meanest thou?"
"Well," said Atara, "Gertan said that most dragons have two names. Or is that just Britannian dragons?"
Reath smiled. "We're from Britannia, but we're uncommon dragons. Reath I always have been and will always be." Then, curiously, "Why did they have two names?"
"Gertan said that one name was given to a dragon at birth and the second was chosen by the dragon itself."
"What an interesting concept."
Atara nodded. "Ashel and I talked about it once before..." she avoided the dragon's eyes. "...before he died. We both made up names for ourselves."
"What didst thou decide?" asked Reath quietly.
"For myself, 'Ivory Rose.' Our mother used to have a garden of white roses at home. They were so beautiful and their scent...and I loved helping her with them." Atara shrugged, embarrassed. "What wouldst thou choose?"
Reath looked thoughtfully at the thinning wisp of smoke. As she did so, Atara frowned.
"What's wrong with thy mouth?" Atara asked.
Reath blinked in confusion, then stammered, "I...I..."
"Come here. I can heal it."
Reath seemed torn by indecision, but eventually stretched out her neck and rested her chin lightly on Atara's lap. Atara touched the deep furrows in Reath's neck then commanded, "Open thy mouth." Reath complied and Atara regarded the puffy wound within. "Wert thou in a battle or something?" She conjured a small light to see by and saw the gleam of metal in the wound. "I'll have to cut that out," she told Reath, and drew her knife. The dragon trembled but Atara worked deftly by reaching into the dagger-toothed maw and freeing the small, bloody piece of metal. Next instant, she was saying, "Mani!" The infection died down instantly and the wound closed.
Reath carefully shut her mouth and said, "Thank thee."
"No problem. Let's see what was causing the trouble." Atara wiped the metallic object off and was soon looking silently at the slightly rusty fish hook.
Reath didn't move. Her eyes were fixed on the blood-smeared dagger, as if she were waiting for something inevitable.
Atara put the down the hook and almost desperately touched the grooves on Reath's neck again. "Mani!" she incanted.
Atara drew in a deep breath. The scars weren't scars as she had previously thought. "Gills?" she asked flatly.
"Yes," Reath whispered, her head still held on Atara's lap, eyes still on the dagger.
Slowly, Atara forced herself to lower the weapon. "Reath? Reath, look at me." She met the blue-eyed gaze. "I am not my brother." Pushing gently, she got Reath to take her head back. "I think we've both suffered enough," Atara continued haltingly. "And more pain won't undo what we've already endured - or give back what we've lost."
Reath lowered her eyes. "Thank thee."
Both watched the last wisp of smoke float up to the roiling clouds and neither spoke for a long while.
Some time later, a rust-splotched fish hook slid down over the steep rocks and into the dark crags below.
Wings stretched to their limits, the golden dragon glided over the Mystic Isles. Her green eyes sought out every detail from the most prominent to the most minute, as if trying to imprint it all in her memory. As if this would be the last time she'd ever fly here.
The leaden sky broke open for a few minutes and the vista was illuminated by cold white starfire.
Freitag watched the silvery glow dance over her scales awhile before climbing higher into the sky; the wind fresh and strong under her vast midnight-black wings.
A sudden urge to roar built up and she released it, the sheer volume and depth of the sound filling the air and finding echo in the clouds. Its meaning had nothing to do with despair and everything to do with hope. A plea for life to whoever listened - not just for herself, but for those who had placed their trust and faith in her.
She plunged through the dense clouds. Her speed increased as she ascended, wings stroking powerfully. Her rhythmic beat faltered only when she passed the hazy border and burst into a place of star-and-moon-lit beauty.
The misty whiteness below the sharply contrasting night-black sky swirled and eddied as Freitag flew over it. In places, formations of luminous clouds stood out, the perfection and stark impossibility of their appearances putting even the proudest sculptors to shame.
Freitag sighed. She was tired and would be in no condition to fight tomorrow if she didn't return to the Weyr and get some sleep. Even so, she closed her eyes and locked her wings, gliding across the cool air of night and listening to the blessed silence.
It was shattered by a familiar voice. "Who do we have here?"
Her eyes snapped open. "Memnoch!" Freitag gasped upon recognising a black and scarlet dragon no more than a winglength before her.
The Deathwing frowned. "Do I know thee?" His face suddenly bore the expression familiar to one who is listening to something. "Freitag?" he inquired incredulously.
Freitag noticed a second dragon behind him, certain that this dark blue male was a Vortex like Khanan.
"Freitag," Memnoch said softly, as if tasting her name. "I never expected to see thee again."
"The feeling is mutual," Freitag replied steadily.
Memnoch paused - listening again, Freitag guessed - then smiled wolfishly. "So. Living with humans has not been as thou didst hope."
"No," she admitted, scowling at the Vortex dragon.
"And thou wilt do Combat tomorrow."
"And thou are afraid because thou hast no fire...no magic...no hope."
Freitag shook her head violently to clear it. Part of a Deathwing's magic was the power to possess minds and few creatures caught unaware could escape their beguiling words.
"And thou art here to ask me for help!"
Freitag blinked. "What?"
Memnoch laughed loudly. "I see it now." He fixed his amber eyes on her. "Submit to me and I become Leader of the Weyr. Thou shalt be safe and secure to hatch the last of thine eggs whilst I crush this puny human knight into dust." He made a clenching motion with one clawed paw.
"No," Freitag replied, forcing herself to think clearly. "I did not come here for that."
"Then why art thou here?"
Freitag looked around in confusion, trying to figure out what her bearings were. Below, the thick blanket of cloud conspired to negate her efforts. "Where..?"
Memnoch's eyes narrowed. "Thou art above my Weyr, Freitag. Until now, my law hath been that every creature besides dragonkind enter here on pain of death."
"Until now, I have never had a dragon not of my Weyr intrude." Memnoch ran his hot gaze over her. "Or wert thou intending to stay?"
"No. I'm...leaving!" Freitag tore her mind and eyes from the Deathwing's and swiftly turned away.
"I can save thy kin. Our kin."
The words echoed oddly and she couldn't resist a backward glance.
No one was there. Freitag looked sharply in every direction, for Memnoch was not one to give up easily, but no dragons were to be seen. Only puffy whiteness below the silent, uncaring stars.
"When thou dost start dreaming in the midst of flight," Freitag muttered, "thou knowest thou art tired." She dropped through the clouds and, finding herself above the middle of the main island, was convinced that it had been a dream.
But as she flew back towards the mountains in the north, she whispered, "They put their trust in me, Memnoch, in me. And I will not betray that trust." Especially not to thee, she added silently, as if afraid the Deathwing could hear her.
Shaking her head, she winged her way home.
"How can such a quiet knight make so much noise?" Gertan muttered.
Usually Seijio's snoring didn't bother Gertan, but the combined nerves and battle-tense muscles were making him restless, even jumpy.
Sitting up, Gertan groped for the candle beside his pallet and lit it. If he was going to stay awake, it wouldn't be in a pitch black cave. By the candle's glow, Gertan looked at his friends.
Maark and Meyin lay entwined with each other, her golden hair spread out across his chest. Both slept peacefully and looked completely happy. Eddath was also asleep. Motionless as a log.
Atara hadn't returned as yet. Gertan stared at her empty pallet then sighed and leaned back against the wall of the cave. Where was she? He spent a few minutes aimlessly tracing the smooth contours of the rock wall with one hand, then sighed again and got up.
Ignoring armour or boots or shirt, he belted his leather trousers, slung his sheathed broadsword across a shoulder, then picked up the candle and flint before padding barefoot from the cave.
Back in the main cavern, he was greeted by hundreds of sparkles bouncing off the high walls. If this place looked so magnificent in the light of one candle, Gertan thought, how would it appear in the presence of dragonfire?
He walked further into the cavern and looked up through the great hole above at the overcast sky, hoping to be able to guess at the time from the light. At that moment, a blacker shadow blocked the sky, and the realisation that a dragon was entering barely registered in Gertan's mind before the knight leapt out of the way. In his haste to avoid getting squashed, the strap holding his sword slipped down his shoulder and he almost tripped over the scabbard.
The dragon avoided him, however, and landed gracefully. "Sorry," she said contritely. "I didn't think to warn thee of the Flight Cavern."
"No harm done," Gertan answered, righting himself. After securing his weapon and relighting the candle, he turned back to the dragon. "Good evening, Freitag."
The golden dragon inclined her head. "And to thee." She moved away from the centre of the room and gestured for Gertan to follow. When they both stood clear of the opening above, she asked, "How art thou feeling?"
"Nervous," he replied frankly. "I've never fought single Combat with a dragon before."
Freitag smiled slightly. "I'm not much of a dragon any more, I fear."
"Thou sayest that because thou hast no fire?"
"That is so. A common dragon with no fire is one thing, but a Flamewind..." her eyes closed briefly, in pain. "One such as I am useless."
Gertan sat down beside the huge creature. "From what I've seen of thee, thy people would argue against thy words."
"I meant in battle."
"But fighting has no importance! No meaning! If thou didst love battles that much, thou wouldst not have left Britannia seeking peace."
The dragon eyed him sadly. "Tomorrow's battle has meaning. We both know it." Gertan was surprised to find the golden face was so expressive. "Events gain so much momentum," she continued softly. "They seem to run away, dragging us with them. Dost thou believe in Destiny, Gertan?"
"In a way. I don't believe that our entire lives have already been mapped."
"Then how dost thou believe in it?"
"I think that everyone's life has a purpose - an ultimate goal. What we become is our Destiny. But how we get there is undecided."
"In mine opinion, Destiny leaves no room for choices." She let out a groan. "What am I talking about?"
Gertan chuckled. "Philosophy was never my thing." He chaffed a cold foot with his hands. "But we all have choices."
"Not when we served Blackthorn," she disagreed, her voice haunted.
The knight couldn't think of an answer to that, so he hid it by rubbing both hands over his face and saying, "I'm too tired to think."
Freitag gave him a wry grin. "Maybe we will be evenly matched tomorrow." She looked away. "Gertan...should I lose, where should my dragons go?"
Gertan shook his head. "I don't want to give thee a wrong answer, but there are dragons living in the Serpent Spine Mountains. Seeking somewhere to go from there would be wise, I think."
"Ahh." She lowered her head until they rested on her paws. Her stretched position gave Gertan a good view of her sensitive firesac. When he asked how it had been damaged, she said, "An unlucky arrow. A flight of dragons was sent to assault a castle and I was one of them. I think someone had stolen the Crown Blackthorn kept locked in his tower and that Blackthorn thought the thief would be in that castle." She shrugged. "Not that it mattered to us. A warrior doesn't tell his sword why the foe must be deprived of his head, only that it must be done. The attack failed, in any case. I was one of the lucky dragons."
"Most of the flight were killed." The green eyes closed slowly and she didn't speak again.
We were both lucky, in those days. Gertan thought. If luck is the right word. Every guard on watch the night of the theft had been put to death by Blackthorn's order. The rest of the guard had been forced to watch them die. People I knew...
Gertan shifted around until he was sitting against the dragon's warm body.
Sleep came quickly.
Khanan woke alone.
Dawn light filtered in from the other caves resulting in a dull glow rather than true light.
The Vortex dragon stretched first wings, then foreclaws and legs, bones cracking in protest as he did. He walked to the small hatching room where his egg lay and peered in cautiously. Everything was ready.
Turning, Khanan paced over to the main passage and entered the flight cavern. He blinked to see Freitag curled up against one wall...with the knight Gertan asleep at her side.
Gently, Khanan touched his mate's sleeping mind and telepathed in an amused voice, "Thou wouldst rather sleep with a human than with me?"
One of Freitag's emerald eyes opened to regard him and the corners of her mouth lifted in a smile before she was asleep again.
Khanan grinned. There was no prejudice in her nature at all. His smile abruptly faded as he considered the knight. He didn't know what had passed between the two - it couldn't have been bad - but getting to know Gertan would have weakened Freitag's resolve to kill him. She could not kill in cold blood and he didn't want that to change.
He wondered if Gertan would have any qualms about killing someone whom he knew. On the verge of using his powers to find out, he stopped when he decided he neither wanted, nor needed to know.
"My plan will go on, regardless," he whispered.
With a short jump, he reached the tunnel the dragons used for leaving the volcano to get to the skies. The hole was only for entering. Clearing the entrance, he looked up at the cloudless sky and saw something that made his jaw drop.
Reath was flying above the mountains, and at the base of her neck near the wing junction sat a human.
Ignoring Weyr rules, Khanan walked back down the tunnel in a daze, returned to his cave, flopped down on his bed and tried to wake up.
"That's not fair!" Maark protested in mock anger.
"Come on, guys," Eddath said. "Meyin! Thou hadst thy fun last night."
"Oh, very well." Meyin released her hold on Maark and bent to retrieve her greatcloak.
Maark rubbed his arm. "All right, maybe it was my fault."
"What are ye fighting about?" Gertan asked as he stepped into the cavern.
"Ahh, nothing," Maark said hastily, which brought stifled laughter from his betrothed.
Gertan let it pass. "Well, we have two hours," he informed them, flexing his sore arm experimentally. "Combat starts at noon."
"Speaking of the Combat, I had the strangest dream last night," said Seijio. Everyone stared at him, for that was almost a week's quota of words in a single sentence. But there were more to come. "I dreamt that Gertan fought all the dragons, not just Freitag." He looked confused. "It's blurred...more than one dragon died, but one of us did too - and not by a dragon's hand!"
"Paw," corrected Maark.
"I hope it was just a dream," Eddath murmured.
Seijio nodded, silent again, and sat down to sharpen his sword.
"I can't guess what it means," Gertan shrugged. "The Virtues grant that it's a clean Combat and that the best man...er, woman...er..."
"Dragon," Maark supplied with a grin.
Gertan rolled his eyes and went over to his armour. "Atara didn't come back?"
"No," Eddath said. "Didst thou find her?"
'No." Gertan sat down on his pallet and a look or surprise crossed his face.
"What?" asked Maark and Eddath together.
Gertan moved around on the heather and looked down. Then one of his hands lifted up a squished fish. "What the..?" he began as the other knights tried unsuccessfully to suppress laughter.
Sixteen dragons faced the six humans standing across the flight cave. Only one of the humans bore a weapon - a broadsword of steel that he held in both hands. His armour was of overlapping metal scales, which were harder to puncture than chain-mail and easier to move with than plate. He wore no helmet that might inhibit his eyesight.
A golden dragon stepped forward to stand in the circle of light falling from the hole above. She spread her black wings and announced, "Here will the Combat be fought for the Leadership of the Weyr." Her wings folded. "Our most powerful against their champion of choice."
The armed knight advanced a pace. "I am that champion. I call this Combat."
Every head turned to stare at the speaker.
"No, Khanan!" the gold exclaimed.
The green dragon raised his head. "As thy mate and thy better in battle, I claim the right to defend thee."
"But - "
"I claim the right, Beloved."
"Khanan..." she began in anguish.
"When we were mated, I swore to protect thee." The green dragon looked at the knight with fierce bronze eyes. "I am the most powerful."
The knight hesitated, looking at both the gold and green dragon in turn. Finally, he nodded. "I accept."
His human companions looked concerned.
The green dragon said, "Then let us make ourselves ready. We begin as soon as the sunlight leaves this cavern." He met the knight's eyes and something must have passed between them, for they both nodded in seeming agreement.
The preparations began.
Freitag moved stiffly from the tinning circle of light, too numb with shock to notice as other dragons moved and whispered. Her chest felt tight - incredibly tight...but with what seemed a great effort, she managed to breathe raggedly.
A foreclaw touched her on the shoulder and she stared with incomprehension into Khanan's bronze eyes.
"Why?" she pleaded silently.
He seemed surprised. "I thought thou didst know," he telepathed. "We follow thee not because of thy past reputation of being one of the most powerful. Look at thy kin."
Freitag's eyes slid over each dragon. They all watched her silently, their expressions pensive.
"We flew after thy lead that day on Blackthorn's fortress because thou didst speak of something we had never heard of or experienced. Peace. Shouldst thou die here, we are lost."
Tears of despair welled in her green eyes. "How canst thou follow me still? In the end, we are still going to fight. We have not won free of war. Blackthorn's legacy is too strong."
"No!" Khanan's thought-shout echoed in the vaults of her mind. "No. Didst thou think that the way to peace would be easy? We shattered it often enough to know otherwise."
"We are still weapons."
Khanan gripped her shoulder gently. "Once I was scouting the Serpent Spine Mountains and I met a dragon. Being what I was at the time, I immediately scanned his mind for any hostility and found this. 'What one is, is not as important as what one strives to be.' Wise words."
A tear coursed its way down Freitag's face. "And what dost thou strive to be, Khanan?"
"I strive to be the mate of a wonderful golden dragon, the father of a hatchling..." he cupped her face in his paws, wiped away the tear. "...and the protector of one who can still dream and has the power to make those dreams happen.."
Freitag smiled and embraced him fiercely. "Khanan," she whispered suddenly. "Who was that dragon thou didst mind-read?"
"I don't know if he even saw me," Khanan replied softly. "There was something familiar about his eyes - as if I'd seen eyes like his somewhere before." He shrugged. "I think he called himself 'Shodan'."
"I could almost swear I've heard that name before," Freitag mused. With a sigh, she changed the subject. "Khanan, whatever happens, never leave me."
"I will never leave thee, Beloved," he telepathed. He looked over at the humans for a second, then back at his mate.
Neither needed to say that it was time for the Combat to begin. Both knew.
They all did.
"But that dragon can breathe fire!" argued Meyin.
"No shield,' Gertan repeated adamantly. "It will slow me down and trip me up."
"But - "
Meyin frowned. "Yes, Captain."
"Don't use that tone on me," glowered Gertan. "I'm the one who's going to be fighting for the lives of an entire populace!"
She nodded apologetically. "Be careful."
"The Virtues be with thee," Maark said. "We know thou canst win."
"May Valour guide thine arm," Eddath put in. "Good luck, my friend."
Seijio clapped Gertan on the back without speaking, his expression solemn.
"One thing I've decided, my friends," said Gertan, "is that Destiny is a matter of choice...not of chance." His gaze drifted towards where the dragons Freitag and Khanan stood. The two were looking silently into each others eyes. "So choose right."
"Thy words seem to have more than one meaning," Eddath murmured, disturbed.
"Why didst thou accept their change in champions so quickly?" asked Meyin.
"If I win, I'll tell thee." Gertan regarded Atara. "How art thou?"
"Better," she replied. Her eyes darted to and from the line of dragons, but she didn't say anything else.
"Just don't think of performing any 'heroics' like Ashel."
"I promise thee," Atara swore. "I'll do nothing to disrupt thy Combat."
Gertan nodded, still unwilling to ask what she'd been up to last night. When she returned his gaze steadily, he subsided with another nod. Suddenly, aware that the cavern was silent, he spared a glance for the dwindling circle of sunshine and watched the last ray vanish over the lip of the crater.
Gertan tested his arm beneath its bandage and felt a slight twinge. Silently, he hoped it wouldn't get any worse.
He raised his sword in salute to his companions, then went to face his adversary.
The green scaled, bronze-eyed dragon stood across from the armoured knight. Around the edges of the enormous cavern stood the companions of each combatant.
"No physical interference from outside," pronounced the golden dragon Freitag. "This will be prevented by force shields raised by the Adepts. No rest periods. Fight to the death." She took a deep breath. "The victor leads the Weyr. Are all in approval?"
As one, every creature replied, "We are."
Freitag turned her head towards two silver dragons. "Shields, please."
The two Adepts bowed their heads and a shimmering appeared in the air. The glistening light spread out and around Khanan and Gertan, encircling them in a wide ring. The field then arched high and formed a dome, blocking off the Flight Hole.
When the Adepts nodded to her, Freitag said, "The shields will keep us out and them in. We can hear and speak to each other, but not touch. They will be lowered at...at the end." She spread her wings. "Begin!"
Khanan opened his mind and almost instantly, he heard the voices of those he fought for.
"We are here."
"Lend me your ears and eyes, my kin. Lend me your strength."
The knowledge rushed in and he sorted it methodically. Battleskill, stealth, aerial manoeuvres, fire power, magic...he organised them carefully so that they wouldn't clash and confuse him.
Then he turned his attention to Gertan.
Gertan drew back and gripped the hilt of his sword firmly, feeling the familiar leather grip that had long ago formed to the shape of his hands, settle comfortably against his palms and fingers.
Khanan seemed to be moving carelessly; his eyes were glazed and he didn't appear to even see the knight.
Chewing the inside of his mouth, Gertan watched warily and kept out of range. Until he was ready, he wasn't about to run headlong into those dagger-sharp talons.
When the dragon's eyes abruptly focussed on him, all thoughts besides those of staying alive flew from his head.
Knights slaying dragons was far from unheard of, but the present circumstances significantly altered the situation. Some would have argued that the dragon would be easier to fell since he was denied the freedom of the skies. He may still be able to manage a few controlled leaps in the cave's restrictions, but true long distance attacks were not available to him.
Then there was the human. Knights usually relied on the speed of a good horse as much as upon their own skills. More commonly, they used the terrain to their advantage. A stand of trees, a mound of rocks...all could be benefited from. No such aids were provided by this cavern.
Human and dragon circled each other slowly, both waiting for the other to strike first, or falter first.
Her mind was linked to Khanan's as were the minds of her fellow dragons, but that part of her which was Waverunner - a skill Khanan didn't need - remained with herself.
Khanan delivered the first attack; a tail strike which would have chopped the knight in two had he not flattened himself to the ground to avoid it.
Reath felt eyes watching her and knew they were Atara's. Her tongue probed into the place where the fish hook had been, still marvelling that it was healed. And healed by a human.
Gertan swung his blade and Khanan avoided each stroke easily, as if he'd anticipated every blow.
Not every human was like Blackthorn, Reath thought. Freitag had always said as much, but the dragons under Blackthorn's rule - those that hadn't been captured - had known only oppression and hatred all their lives.
Khanan's head snapped forward gleaming teeth reaching for Gertan who jumped back and slashed out. Still neither caused a wound.
"Reath," Khanan telepathed. "Thy thoughts are distracting me."
Reath felt the grip on her mind tighten, not so that it hurt, but so that she was forced to concentrate on the task at hand.
Gertan feinted, but the green dragon saw through his ruse and struck out with a foreclaw. The knight ducked and air whooshed past him as the paw swept over his head. Scrambling back, he wiped his streaming face with the back of one leather-clad hand, breathing heavily.
How long had this fight been going for?
The eyes of every spectating dragon were fixed on Khanan. They didn't move, didn't speak, didn't blink.
A tell-tale bulge below Khanan's chest caught Gertan's attention and warned him to move swiftly. The dragon's jaw dropped and an impressive blast of flames rocketed through the space Gertan had previously occupied. Khanan followed up by lashing his long tail out and Gertan, without thinking, jumped aside and tore a bloody gash in the tail with his sword almost by accident.
The dragons' moans of pain were in perfect unison.
Gertan's eyes widened at the sound and he swore, cursing his own folly. Khanan was a Vortex! The dragon's mind was linked to those of the other dragons and his own! That was how he knew Gertan's every planned move before they were acted upon.
"Knowest a lot about us, dost thou not?"
Khanan's voice sounded in his mind and he gasped involuntarily, trying to ignore the distraction in favour of the talons ready to slice his body to pieces.
"Thou didst serve Blackthorn."
Shifting his grip on the sword, Gertan carefully stepped backwards, his eyes never leaving the bronze, gold-shot eyes of the dragon. They followed him, as did the mental voice.
"Thy thoughts are open to me, knight. All thy secrets, thy fears and shames. Thou didst stand the Deathwatch on one of the companions of the human called the Avatar."
Gertan saw the dragon's eyes glitter...then he was plunged into a vision. A memory from his past replayed before his eyes...
"Gertan! Meyin! Get yer worthless carcasses out here!"
Meyin leaped to her feet, slammed on an iron helmet and tossed a halberd to Gertan while seizing her own. "What by the Virtues is going on...?"
The two hurried out and stood at attention. Graesh, the Guardmaster at Blackthorn's Castle, marched up to them. Her red hair was tied back from her piercing, dark eyes. Eyes that were swiftly looking them over.
"This is a special assignment," Graesh barked. "Some of our people just caught some trespassers sneaking around the corridors. The scumbags are chained up in the execution room right now. Ye two," she glared at each of them in turn, "are heading down there right now to assist Lord Blackthorn in the matter."
Gertan hastily swallowed a "Why us?" as Meyin discreetly stood on his left foot.
Graesh dangled a large ring of keys in front of Gertan's face. "Take 'em and get moving!"
Gertan grabbed the keys then he and Meyin hurried to the stairs leading down to the dungeons.
"We better not botch this one up," Gertan muttered to his companion. "It's dangerous enough that we don't support Blackthorn's Laws of 'Virtue' yet we're in service to him..."
Meyin interrupted him with, "I wonder who the prisoners are. Who has the guts to come all the way out here?"
"Maybe they were trying to recover the Crown..."
They reached the room that served for executions and interrogation, as well as being the 'antechamber' for the jail cells. Gertan took his stand to the left and Meyin to the right. On the other side of the room, manacled to the far wall, they could see two people. Gertan's eyes widened as he recognised the captive on the left. He threw a startled glance at Meyin, who returned it with the same measure of surprise. Both knew who she was, yet they composed their faces. If Blackthorn saw them...
But this has to be a mistake, Gertan thought. Not even Lord Blackthorn would dare go up against the Avatar!
The Avatar was a relatively young-looking woman, despite all the stories that she'd been around since the time of Mondain. She had forest green eyes and almost waist-length brown hair, and she was manacled wrist and ankle to the stone wall facing the pendulum-blade rack. There was a dark bruise on her left cheekbone, but she still managed to glare darkly at Lord Blackthorn - who materialised beside her without warning. On the other side of Blackthorn one of the Avatar's Companions was likewise chained.
The torches had thrown the room into an eerie atmosphere. The firelight was dark - if that was possible - and the greasy smoke hung heavy in the warm air.
Blackthorn turned to face the Avatar and gave her an artfully startled smile. "Ah, Elora! 'Tis indeed an honour to meet thee at last!" He looked over at Gertan and shouted, "GUARD! Release this good lady at once!"
Gertan stifled a sigh of relief and hurried forward to obey, keys in hand. He knew it had been a mistake! A few feet from his goal, then Blackthorn raised a hand.
Gertan halted, confused but keeping his face blank. He was close enough to see that the distrust had faded no more from the Avatar's green eyes than had the bruise from her face.
Blackthorn smiled again, his dark eyes on the Avatar. "Since I myself seek Avatarhood, as once did thee, mayhap thou couldst aid me in my quest by answering a question."
She said nothing. Still, anyone could see the clenched jaw, the bleak warning in her lightless eyes.
"What is the mantra of the Mystic Shrine of Honesty?" Blackthorn asked.
Her brows lowered to a frown. She must know, Gertan thought. She must know that he plans to destroy the Shrines with those mantras. Don't tell her, milady...for the sake of Britannia and the True King...
"No, my lord," she said softly. "I do not believe thy claim, and I will not tell thee."
Blackthorn's smile immediately became a snarling frown. "Make not the mistake of laughing at me, simple one!" He gestured to Gertan, who was moving to obey the silent order before he knew what he was doing.
Passing Blackthorn, he unchained the Avatar's friend - a small, nimble, deadly-looking man - and led him to the pendulum-blade rack. The man didn't resist as he was tied hand and foot beneath the large, swinging blade of steel. Gertan marvelled that this man had such trust in his leader.
"Thy name?" he asked softly.
"Toshi," the man replied in a voice that shook only a little.
Gertan left him, whispered the name to Blackthorn as he passed his Lord, then stood near the Avatar as he had before.
On the other side of the room, Meyin overturned a large hourglass.
Blackthorn once again looked at the Avatar. "I will ask thee until the sand has fallen and then will Toshi die. Now tell me. What is the mantra of Honesty?"
The Avatar's face had drained of colour. She was leaned as far forward as her chains would allow, hands curled into fists and eyes on the hypnotically swinging blade. Then her gaze lowered to meet the eyes of Toshi, who lay facing her.
Blackthorn, not looking at Toshi, didn't notice the slight shaking of the man's head. But he took the Avatar's silence as refusal. "Resistance is futile!" he shouted. "Thou must yield the truth unto me! Tell me, what is the mantra of Honesty?"
Don't tell him, Gertan thought, willing his mind-voice to be heard. He'll destroy the Shrine if thou dost tell him!
The Avatar was still staring at Toshi, her face white in the harsh light of the torches and iron braziers. She didn't notice the last trickle of sand leave the top of the hourglass.
"My patience with thee hath worn away!" Blackthorn moved to stand directly in the Avatar's line of sight, blocking off sight of her friend. "SPEAK UNTO ME THE MANTRA, NOW!"
Gertan's hand clenched on the halberd, the sweat beading on his face from more than the stifling heat. He saw the Avatar lift her face to meet Blackthorn's gaze, saw the look in her eyes. In that instant, he knew she'd never remain silent and watch a friend die.
"Ahm." She spoke the mantra firmly, not letting Blackthorn think for a minute that he had defeated her. Not the Avatar.
And perhaps that was her mistake.
Blackthorn stepped back from her and smiled. Gertan momentarily closed his eyes. Rumour held that Blackthorn could sense truth - or lies, rather - because he was served by - or served, depending on whom one believed - the Shadowlord of Falsehood. "I thank thee, my friend!" he exclaimed, smiling once again. But the smile never reached his eyes. "As a token of my esteem for thine honesty - "
The Avatar frowned at the 'joke'.
" - I will grant thy friend a merciful death."
Her eyes widened in disbelief, flicked over meet Toshi's terrified look even as words of denial started to form on her lips.
Blackthorn pointed and a strange darkness surrounded Toshi immediately. There was a scream that cut off abruptly, then the darkness swirled and vanished. The rack beneath the blade was empty.
Gertan, shocked and not wanting the Dark Lord to see it, quickly unchained the Avatar, unlocked the door to her cell and shoved her into the arms of her remaining companions. Before leaving, he met the eyes of the cell's other prisoner, a warrior called Gorn, making sure that he was watching Gertan's next action.
Gorn nodded slightly in acknowledgment as Gertan kept one key, then slid the rest of the ring into the cell's brazier.
Stepping out, Gertan locked the door. Then he, Meyin, and Blackthorn walked from the room.
A short distance away and the Dark Lord muttered, as if to himself, "That seemed a bit easy to me...perhaps the rumour of a way to restore destroyed Shrines was accurate. I wonder if she knows..."
Silently, the two guards escorted Blackthorn to his throne-room, then returned to the barracks. Gertan put the key back with a bunch of others, just before Graesh appeared.
She looked at him, then Meyin, her expression indecipherable. "Never tell," was all she said.
The two went back to their room and found a few fellow guards getting ready for the change of the guard. One of them was Eddath.
"What were ye two doing?" he asked, knowing that neither had duty for a few more hours and wondering why they were under arms already.
Meyin exchanged a glance with Gertan, then looked at Eddath. "Nothing much..."
Gertan shook his head. The vision had lasted maybe a few seconds but it had seemed so real...too real. He had never wanted to see that scene ever again. Jerking his attention back to the Combat, he noticed that Khanan had taken one step closer. Angry, scorning to 'think' a reply to the dragon's last remark, the knight shouted, "Thou didst also serve Blackthorn!"
"We had no choice."
"Thou didst war on Empath Abbey, the Lycaeum, Serpent's Hold and Castle Britannia!"
"We had no choice!" a chorus of draconic voices echoed in his head.
Fire again roared from Khanan's maw to sweep the stones near Gertan's feet. The knight jumped aside just in time and the fire ceased, the rocks that had been struck smoking and sizzling.
"Everyone has a choice!" Gertan replied.
"That is so, but our choice was made by Blackthorn," telepathed Khanan.
Blade whistling through the air, the knight launched an attack on the dragon, dodging under a foreclaw, rolling under a sweeping wing and stabbing upwards.
Khanan lunged backwards unharmed and swiped a backhand blow at Gertan, sending the knight clear across the cavern. The air exploded out of Gertan's lungs as he smashed into the force field and dropped his sword. Through blurred eyes, he saw the dragon advance.
Khanan moved closer to the knight. All this had to look real for Freitag's sake. Extending his neck, he emitted a deep-throated growl. "Thou wert one who assisted in the dragon experiments," he telepathed to the dazed human on the ground.
The reply was mental this time, but distorted; fogged by Gertan's confusion. "That is why I know so much about your kind." Gertan stumbled to his feet and picked up his sword. Its steely length wavered as the knight swayed slightly.
With a single downsweep of his wings, Khanan shot into the air to almost the height of the Flight Hole. Draleen's Skyborn advice came to him and he twisted around, fire cascading from his jaws as he plummeted down with folded wings. Gertan moved slowly and reeled back from the flames, one arm upraised to protect his eyes. Cutting off the fire, Khanan took advantage of the knight's momentary inattention. He darted in and raked his left claw across Gertan's wounded arm, leaving his own talonrip beside Rimitek's.
The sense came too late and his tail suffered another rent near the first one. The other dragons echoed Khanan's snarl, his pain felt by them through their telepathic links.
Improvisation is the key.
Twisting around with a grunt, Khanan stretched his pinions to their limits, bared his teeth and drew himself up to his full height.
Then he severed his mind-links to the other dragons.
"Hear me, human," he telepathed to Gertan. "Thou knowest as well as I that my kin will perish should we remain on these islands. We will starve."
"Yes, I know this," replied Gertan.
"If thy knowledge of dragons is as great as I believe it to be, then thou dost also know that a mother will not abandon her eggs unless she hath no other choice."
"Then thou must be the victor of this Combat. Save Freitag. Save them all." Without waiting for an answer, Khanan attacked, talons tearing through the air towards Gertan.
"How can I win if thou art trying to kill me?"
"I am trying to look like I'm trying to kill thee," Khanan answered shortly, whipping his tail around. "I know not what code of honour humans fight by," he added as Gertan jumped. "But in a Combat, dragons fight...and they fight to the death."
"I am not about to let thee win, knight," Khanan went on bleakly. "But understand that neither will I let thee lose."
Gertan dashed in fast and low, broadsword flicking out with remarkable quickness for its size. "I'm sorry it has to be this way."
Rocking aside, Khanan telepathed, "Believest thou me, so am I."
Khanan met Gertan's eyes gravely for a few seconds and considered himself fortunate. There were much worse ways for a dragon to die. The point of a knight's sword suddenly didn't seem such a bad way to go.
"Promise me that thou wilt send the Weyr to a safe place when thou dose win command."
"I swear, I will try."
Satisfied, Khanan took the offensive; the dying hopes of his mate and kin resting on his own shoulders, and his own hopes.
The Combat lasted for hours as dragon and knight moved together, each countering the other, both showing the signs of weariness and wounds. The fifteen spectating dragons were growing restive. Only one sat erect and still, her green eyes locked on the fighting pair. The five humans on the other side of the cavern shifted uneasily, watching the ongoing battle with critically professional eyes.
"It's drawing to an end, I think," the blonde female said softly, one hand reaching out to grip the hand of the young, clean-shaven knight at her side.
He held it tightly, his face set in determined lines. "Gertan will win."
"This is so pointless," the other woman complained in anguish. "The dragons just wanted peace!"
The knights looked at her, but none disagreed. One cursed Blackthorn under his breath.
Blood stained the rock floor making footing treacherous - particularly for the knight. Still, his movements remained agile and he managed to avoid the slippery patches in his assaults and retreats. The green dragon he fought periodically unleashed a burst of flames that, inadvertently or not, would dry up some of the blood.
"This is madness," a purple-black dragon muttered to a blue with ash-grey wings.
"Which?" was the subdued reply. "The Combat or the termination of the mind-link?"
"Whether Khanan lives or dies, we lose," growled the Steelclaw. "The humans fear us."
The blue dragon nodded, then slammed a clawed fist into an open paw with impotent frustration. "Damn Blackthorn to the lowest hells!" he snarled.
The Combat continued.
A crimson flow dribbled its way down Gertan's right arm and straight into the leather gauntlet he wore. The knight was acutely aware of the fiery pain in the dozens of wounds he now bore and knew it was costing him. The broadsword was heavier, his movements were growing sluggish, sweat matted his hair and sheened his skin...he couldn't think clearly - but that could be an advantage, he considered.
"Don't give up, knight," the dragon telepathed.
Gertan rubbed his forehead with the back of one arm, replacing sweat for a smear of blood. Hefting the broadsword, he made a run directly for the dragon. Khanan let out a shattering roar and breathed fire. Gertan lunged under it, throwing himself forward beneath the red-gold sheet and using it to hide from the dragon's eyes, if not his mind. The blistering heat encouraged him to keep moving forward.
"Improvisation...improvisation..." Gertan whispered to himself over and over like a mantra. "Improvisation..." He stood and lifted his blade, standing behind one of Khanan's hind legs. "Improvisation..." With a quick thrust, the weapon sliced through the scaley hide and tendons at the back on the leg.
Khanan screamed loud enough to make Gertan's ears ring. His hind leg gave out and the knight wrenched his sword free, jumping clear of the gigantic body as it fell with a resounding crash.
Gertan stood panting for a minute, watching as the hamstrung dragon tried unsuccessfully to stand. His wings were spread out on the floor either side of him like enormous silken sails. Slowly, limping, Gertan walked over the green membrane to the main wing junction.
Shutting his mind away from the pain did no good. He still couldn't stand, and now that Gertan stood on one wing, trying to stand would only bring more agony. Not so much physical pain as he could ignore such things with his Vortex powers, but to see the human fall...tear through his wing...hear it split apart...Khanan let out a snarl. Instead, he used his tail. It whipped around, the hard, flattened end rather than the sharp edge slamming the knight in the back and throwing him forward - away from the wingbone and closer to the neck.
Khanan propped up his upper torso with one foreclaw and craned his neck around, seeking to use his teeth. The human couldn't be seen.
Eyes roving, he scanned the ground.
Improv - neck...
The thought betrayed Gertan and Khanan looked up sharply to where the knight sat. Right between his neck and wing junction, sword raised high and point down, ready to cut through his windpipe. Khanan caught his breath a second, realising his mistake. In choosing to block off his pain, he had shut off all touch sensations. That was how the knight had been able to climb up without his noticing.
Gertan abruptly raised his head and met Khanan's eyes with a questioning frown.
With a great effort, Khanan forced himself to snarl and part his jaws as if to breathe a last jet of fire.
Bloodstained steel plunged through flesh, hollow bone and throat. The metal felt like ice severing every nerve, freezing every blood vessel. Not even his powers could block these feelings - the feelings of death approaching.
"Thank thee, knight. Remember thy promise."
Khanan let his head drop, dimly felt it his the ground. He strove for a breath which wouldn't come, and let his eyes wander to the sight of his majestic golden mate. Strength failing, he linked onto her waiting mind and whispered a final word to her with both voice and thought.
"Beloved," he breathed.
Gertan's broadsword descended again.
The golden dragon screamed as if the deathstroke had taken her life instead of the life of the green who now lay dead on the cavern floor. But after that single piercing shriek, she was silent, head bowed and tears streaming from her green eyes.
The victorious knight cautiously climbed down from the dead dragon's back and stepped around the severed head-and-neck to face the living dragons. He was covered in blood - not all of is his own - and his chest rose and fell rapidly as he gasped for breath.
Two of the dragons, both silver scaled, looked at their golden Leader expectantly.
"Lower the shield," came the anticipated command from a grief-thickened voice.
The silvers gestured and incanted, removing the force walls encircling the cavern.
The gold regarded the knight with suddenly dry eyes and he took an involuntary step back, for the usually bright green orbs were dark and without light. They were empty.
"Freitag," he said to her in a hoarse voice, "I claim victory."
"Then thou commandest the Weyr," she replied in a voice as dead as her eyes.
The knight visibly flinched. "I'm sorry."
Flatly, without emotion, she asked, "What are thine orders?"
He sighed, shoulders slumping wearily. He looked like a man who had just been defeated despite all attempts to endure. "I would have thee and thine fly from the Mystic Isles. I know of three places where thou might find dragons in Britannia."
She waited silently, impassively.
"I cannot advise which would be best," he continued slowly. "I have merely read of these places."
"Say on," said another golden female when Freitag gave no response. "I am Nairoch, a Flamewind."
Freitag didn't even blink.
Gertan nodded a greeting. "These are the only three I know of - through their occupants. Blackthorn had ways of prying things from the minds of others," he added, his jaw hardening. "The Serpent Spire - called the Weyrmount by dragons. One near the Dungeon Wrong, which is named the City of the Valorous All-seeing Eye. I think there was a third in the Dungeon Destard."
"Arkkh'dhe Regmur, Regmur Ra'tufidhdh...I know of these places," said Nairoch.
"I'm sorry I can't help more." He cast a glance in the direction of the nest. "Wilt thou take aught with thee?"
She shook her head. "Methinks they will have a better chance here."
The knight looked to the unmoving Freitag. "Freitag," he said finally, with a tone of command. "Lead the Weyr to the Serpent Spine range in Britannia. Once thou dost arrive, those that still wish to follow thee are thine to lead, as was before. From there, thou must decide what to do next - whether to join a Weyr or make one or fight to control one. Freedom of choice will be thine."
The green eyes sparked, then went dark again. "As thou dost command." Turning, she walked to the flight tunnel and entered it, all but two dragons following - a blue and the gold Nairoch.
"Will she be all right?"
The gold sighed. "Khanan always said that he could never live without Freitag...but I believe that the reverse held also. They were of one heart and one mind."
"She must live, Nairoch."
"I will help her," she promised dubiously. "But mental scars as profound as this one are very hard to heal. I watched many die of such things in our captivity." She inclined her head slightly and went to the flight tunnel.
"Reath!" Atara called, running up to the blue dragon and flinging her arms around the tree-trunk thick neck. The dragon carefully embraced the girl, mindful of her sharp talons.
"Fare thee well, Ivory Rose," she said.
Atara smiled and cried at the same time. "I'm so sorry it happened this way! I promise I'll try to protect the eggs."
Reath smiled. "We thank thee." Then she faced Gertan. "I cannot feel gratitude for what thou hast done here, Sir Gertan," she said, almost coldly. "But somehow I get the feeling that Khanan's death was as much his own design as it was thine."
The knight sighed. "Don't make his passing insignificant by letting Freitag die too."
Reath cocked her head slightly to one side. "Thou didst see her eyes. She might already be dead. From that scream she made, I could almost believe it."
A shadow seemed to pass from the blue dragon's eyes and she shook her head sadly. "I will try." One more hug from the young girl, and she was away.
The Weyr was gone.
Gertan looked into the open, bronze-coloured eyes of his dead opponent and sighed rather bitterly. "I hope Commander Geoffrey appreciates all this."
Eddath, Maark, Meyin and Seijio gathered around him, brandishing bandages like weapons.
"Just my arm, "Gertan said, touching the twin gashes. "The rest can wait."
Meyin snorted, but didn't argue.
"What was that blue dragon talking about?" asked Maark.
Gertan told them what Khanan has said as Meyin cleaned his arm and Eddath bandaged expertly. "I just hope that Freitag can live with his sacrifice," he finished, closing first one, then the other bronze eye with his left hand. Accepting a clean cloth from Meyin, he scrubbed some of the blood and sweat from his face.
"I say we rest here until tomorrow morning," Eddath said, tying off the bandage. "Then go back to the towne."
Too tired to argue, Gertan spared a glance for the darkening circle above, then nodded agreement. With Eddath and Seijio supporting him, he limped into the cave they had slept in the previous night.
"How dost thou know so much about these dragons, Gertan?" inquired Atara, wiping away her tears.
"I helped an evil Lord in his experiments," Gertan responded in a self-condemning voice. "He caught - imprisoned - dragons, among other creatures...adapted them...assimilated them...used them as weapons." He shook his head. "First he'd violate their memories - forget the good and remember the bad. He'd instil loyalty in them to himself alone, but one can be loyal to his liege and still hate him. He recorded all their memories, which is how I knew of those other Weyrs. Some of the dragons had come from or had known of them." He took a deep breath. "Then there were the breeding programs."
Atara shuddered at the open loathing in his voice.
"Magic produced accelerated growth. He had no use for immature dragons and hatchlings - he wanted them at their primes, at the peak of their learning and fighting abilities. Even then, some breeds grew faster than others." Gertan sat down on his pallet and Seijio pulled his friend's boots off. "Some of the spawn from Blackthorn's creations survived, others were horrors, still more produced were used for further testing."
Suddenly, Atara put a hand on Gertan's forehead ad muttered, "In Zu."
The knight's eyes closed and he slumped, asleep before he hit the heather.
Atara's face was pale. "I've never cast so powerful a spell before," she said, a bit too quickly. "I watched Master Ruarb cast it once..."
Meyin touched the ranger's shoulder. "Thank thee."
"Knowest thou of the evil Lord whom Gertan spoke of?" Atara asked her.
"We five were all in service to him," the blonde knight said. "We chose to remain thus before...before things changed for the worse. By then it was too late and none of us believed it possible to quit and live."
"Lord Blackthorn's fate is debatable," put in Eddath sombrely. "Some say he was executed in secret and others claim he was banished."
"And what sayest thou?"
"I say that he is gone." Eddath turned his back on her and threw over his shoulder, "Never to return."
"Don't concern thyself with vengeance, girl," warned Meyin. "The dragons can take care of themselves."
Atara angrily shook off Meyin's hand. "A dragon couldn't even defeat a human! What if another like this Blackthorn comes to power in thy precious Britannia? Khanan lost!" She stalked from the cave.
"She cares for dragons?" murmured Maark in surprise. "Too bad a friendship didn't occur before all this mess."
Seijio was looking at Gertan thoughtfully through the dimness. In an almost inaudible voice, he whispered, "Khanan didn't lose."
Freitag closed her eyes and felt the wind caress her face. She imagined the touch was Khanan's.
"Reath is here," said Draleen.
She didn't want to break the illusion - held onto it for a few more minutes. But all too soon, it was gone and she was forced back to reality. I don't want to go back. A tear leaked from one of her eyes and she brushed it away, then reluctantly turned to look at the Waverunner.
Reath joined the ring of dragons and gave Freitag a penetrating look for a second, then lowered her eyes.
"Before we depart," announced the Flamewind Nairoch, "we should pay our respects to the one who died championing our desire to stay." She glanced at Freitag, who stirred herself.
"We gather to..." Freitag stumbled over the formula, emotions seeking to break through. "...gather in body and spirit, m-mind..."
"...my beloved mate, sire of an unborn. He died striving to...to save us." Freitag looked at none as she whispered, "Let none forget his sacrifice."
"May he find rest," the others intoned.
"Reath!" a small, human voice called from the flight tunnel, seconds before the girl Atara ran into view. "Let me come with thee!"
For the first time since their escape from Blackthorn, Freitag felt hatred of humans stir inside herself.
The emotion died. Khanan! Why didst thou die? Why didst thou break thy promise to be with me always?
"Atara, thou dost live here!" Reath was protesting.
"I don't want to any more," the girl shouted. "They all hate dragons! Let me come!"
Reath looked to Freitag, agonised indecision on her face.
"The choice is not mine," Freitag stated flatly. "Her fate is in thy claws alone."
"Please!" Atara begged.
"Thy family..." began Reath.
"Is dead! Ashel was the last."
"Freitag?" Reath inquired. "Please. If thou wilt not make the choice, at least tell me thine opinion."
Freitag frowned at Atara, then at Reath and saw the same hopeful expression on two completely different faces.
"I will not disallow it," she said finally. Turning to the others, she said, "We fly. An it please ye all, follow me to Britannia."
"Will we stop at Blackthorn's fortress?" asked Onoryk, a silver Chameleon.
Freitag shook her head. "We fly until we reach the Serpent Spine Mountains, as we were commanded."
"That is a long way to fly without rest..." Charag began.
"Thou canst handle it. We all can." She watched Atara climb onto Reath's back to sit in the same place where Gertan had cut through Khanan's neck. "Khoritame and Ravema," she added, naming two Swiftwings. "Scout out flanks as we go." Freitag spread her wings. "We fly."
The dragons launched themselves off the top of the volcano and soared easily through the clean air, circling the peaks before they were to pick up speed.
"Reath!" Atara bellowed, trying to make herself heard above the rush of wind. "How fast can a dragon fly?"
Reath laughed. "Thou hast seen nothing yet!"
Freitag flew. She fancied she could hear Khanan's voice and that she could believe he was flying at her side with his green scales gleaming in the waning sunlight.
She let the wind dry her tears and deliberately hardened her face. When they reached Britannia's cruel shores, to show tears or admit weakness would be to invite death.
It was time to start practising that she was fine.
To be Continued in Part Two of 'Dragonfire'...
'Skies of the Soul'
Wherein the dragons choose the next stage of their Destinies,
While the humans must submit to their own.
And the coming of the Gargoyles,
Summons a Heroine