Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Chapter 48: Destroy Them All

Paerys' fury emanates from her like heat from the sun. She's so like her father, Aymeri thinks, his heart torn, so like his lost son. Whatever magic had made her mature so rapidly had denied him the chance to do it differently this time, to raise her better than he had Talfryn. Now, only a few days old and she's already as rash and stubborn as her father was at century old, and just as unwilling to listen to Aymeri's counsel.

"And that's it?" she demands of her grandfather, righteous in her fury, "You're just going to give up, while my father's murder goes unpunished?"

"No one wishes the dragonslayer dead more than I..." Aymeri begins, only to be cut off by her angry snarl.

"Wishing won't kill the dragonslayer!" Paerys shouts, "We must fight!"

"We did fight, Paerys, and seven more of us lie dead. I promised Ico I would not throw myself at the dragonslayer's sword, for her and our daughter's sake. I have not given up, but I will not fight in a war against a human army again. We need a better plan if we are to rid the world of this dragonslayer."

"What is your plan, then?" Paerys demands.

"I don't know!" Aymeri shouts, his anger and frustration getting the better of him. "I don't have one," he admits through lips tightly pressed together, "You must be patient, granddaughter, and give us time to think this through."

Her dragon grandfather had no help to offer, so Paerys went next to her mother's father, the ancient and powerful Auberon. He doesn't have the personal stake in revenge that Aymeri does, but he has what the old dragon lacks, near infinite power, and it is that which Paerys hopes to coax from him.

"You could make the skies fall over them, wipe all the mortals out with just a word, a wave of your hand," Paerys hurls an angry accusation at him, "But you do nothing! You sit by, hiding away here in your dreamworld while the human filth take over more and more land."

"The dragon blood runs strong in this one," Tania whispers to her sister.

"Yes, and with all the power of the fae," Jennicor muses, "A dangerous combination."

Auderon stands, impassive, looking over his hot-tempered granddaughter with a cool eye. "I could do many things, child," he says finally, his voice even and calm, "But this destruction you desire...I will not do that."

A growl rises in Paerys' throat as her first forms into a tight ball, though even in her worst anger, she knows she would never attempt to strike the ancient fae. "I know you have no great love for the dragons, but what of your daughter? These mortals stole her mate from her...will you do nothing?"

"I grieve for Evenfall and her loss," Auberon says, speaking as much about the magical transformation that turned his granddaughter into an adult so rapidly, and thus denying his daughter the solace of nurturing and raising the child her slain dragon had left her with, "But, remember, child, Evenfall had a mother, whose loss I still feel everyday. You, child, are born of dragon and fae blood. But you are also human yourself."

Calling Paerys a human was an exaggeration, his words had been meant to make her reflect on her own ancestry and her connection to the people she just referred to as 'filth', but they only enraged her further.

Paerys growl turns into an animal snarl as she raises her hands above her head. "If you mean to do nothing, then I must act alone."

"Paerys! No!" Jennicor and Tania protest in unison, seeing what it is that Paerys means to do.

"I lay my curse on the dragonslayer, so that he will know my wrath" Paerys intones,  heedless of their warnings, "He will grieve as my mother grieves, he will know despair and loss. Everything he loves will fall to ruin, his children will bring him naught but sorrow--"

"Enough!" Auberon shouts, raising his hand, closing Paerys throat with his will, so that she cannot continue with her curse.

"You are a foolish child, playing with magic as though it is a toy," he says cooly as his granddaughter seethes in her forced silence, struggling fruitlessly against his magic.

"A curse, once spoken, cannot be undone," Tania says.

"And yours, spoken heedlessly and in anger, with no forethought, will have far greater consequences than you intend, and even you will not be able to take your words back," Jennicor concludes.

Auberon releases his hold on her voice when she stops struggling. "I take nothing back!" she spits her fury at these elders who think they can tell her what to do, "The dragonslayer will suffer!"

"I have no doubt that he will," Auberon answers, "And that suffering will spread far and wide, taking the innocent as well as the guilty. I cannot remove the curse you've already laid, child, but I will not permit you to add more onto it. Speak so much as a word of a curse and I will silence you."

Paerys growls, her hand clenching into a fist as she mutters her assent to her grandfather's command. He is far more powerful than she is, and there's nothing she can do to defy his will.

Paerys had had no more luck enlisting the aid of the other dragon nests in the area; Aeaea had lost two mates in the last battle and had retreated into mourning. Like Aymeri, she still nursed a desire for vengeance, but would not act on it with a plan that assured success. Inira and Fearghus, who had lost mates and a son when they still lived in the north, had fled their home to escape this conflict, and had only joined this fight because it had been the will of the majority. Neither of them would join cause with Paerys acting on her own. Ailidh had perished, along with four of her mates, leaving eight of her mates behind, without a nest. Most of them had dispersed, needing to find places in other nests, but Brant and Derrell had remined in Aymeri's camp for the time being, and Paerys pins her last hope of finding vengeance on them.

"We are with you," Brant declares when Paerys asks if they will continue their war against the dragonslayer.

"The dragonslayer took Ailidh and four of brothers. He must pay," Derrell agrees.

"Just tell us what you mean to do."

"The dragonslayer has his army, protected by his metal that weakens us all, dragon and fae. We cannot hope to win by striking him directly. But we can destroy the home he left behind when he set off to war against the other towns."

"There must be soldiers left there to defend it," Brant points out.

"Yes, and they will have their metal. Enough that we dare not attack them from up close. But, two dragons can do great damage from on high," she tells them, "If we cannot kill him, we can destroy what he loves, and make him suffer the losses we have endured at his hands." 

Taran had taken Elara with him as he performed his rounds in his duties as reeve, and Sterren was spending the quiet afternoon in her study, reading, when the fairy appeared to her.

"I am called Winterdream," she said, "And I have come to offer my aid, in exchange for your own."

"What do you wish of me?" Sterren asks.

"You have Auberon's protection, which extends to your whole village. I, too, have a human under my care, but I am not as powerful as Auberon, and cannot protect him from the dark times I see coming. I need you to take this boy, Jean, the grandson of the healer Fransez in Odet, into your home, and keep him safe with you until the danger has passed."

"I will do anything to help Fransez and his kin," Sterren says readily, "But what is this danger you see?"

"I am no prophet, but I see plainly enough which direction this road is taking. The dragonslayer has stirred the dragons to wrath, and fostered the enmity of a powerful and vengeful fae. He has fallen under a terrible curse, one that threatens all he loves, both now and in the future, and I fear for all who live in his lands," the fairy tells her.

Sterren's eyes widen as she takes in this information, "I will gladly take the boy, and Fransez as well, into my house. But, I cannot ride to Odet in my condition," she explains, indicating her pregnant belly.

"Shayeleigh waits for you outside. She can take you there and back in an instant, with no harm to the child you carry," Winterdream promises, "I know you will not ask for a reward, but I will give you one, nonetheless. Your mind is troubled with a secret you keep for a friend, who fears the true identity of the father of her child will be revealed once the girl is born. I can give you an amulet,which, so long as the child wears it, will cast a glamour over her that will make her appearance match the expectations of those that look at her."

Winterdream is right, Sterren would never ask payment for giving what aid she could to anyone in need, but she will not refuse the gift the fairy offers. "That would ease the worries of both myself and Gaelle," she says, "Thank you."

It was a dream, Sterren realizes as she lifts her head, she'd fallen asleep while reading. A dream, but not 'just' a dream, Sterren is sure. The fae use dreams to contact people, and she has no doubt that Winterdream and the favor she asked of her are quite real.

Stepping out into the yard proves it, as Sterren finds Shayeleigh waiting for her their, in the form of the same horse she'd ridden to Odet to rescue the wilder from Reinier's prison.

"Winterdream said you could carry me there and back in an instant," Sterren says, "That the journey would not endanger my baby."

Shayeleigh nickers, and touches her nose gently to Sterren's belly "I'll take that as a promise," Sterren smiles. Before she goes with the fairy, she leaves a quick not for Taran, telling him only that she had to tend to someone in need and expected to be home soon. It's only a partial truth, she knows, but she wouldn't wish him to worry, and will tell him the whole of it when he returns. More than likely, she'll be back before he's finished his rounds, anyway.

As promised, the journey to Odet happened in an instant, and Sterren finds herself in her friend Fransez's home as quick as a thought. Convincing him to leave with her was a whole other matter, and the sun had begun to set before she had finished explaining what Winterdream had told her.

"It's not that I don't believe what the fairy told you," Fransez protests after Sterren's second entreaty that he leave with her immediately, "I know your family has always had a close tie to the fair folk. But if there is danger to Odet, then I must stay and help my people. Surely you understand that, Sterren?"

"I do," Sterren nods, "But the boy?"

Fransez looks fondly down on Jean, "His mother will--" Before he can finish his thought, a loud crash like thunder booms outside, followed by screaming.

They rush outside in time to witness a sight none had ever imagined possible. Two great wheeled in the sky above the town, shrieking as they spat giant balls of fire on the buildings below.

"Lady have mercy," Fransez breathed.

People fled to the square from the burning buildings, screaming and crying, searching for their loved ones.

One young woman, spotting Fransez in the crowd, rushes over to him and Sterren. "Healer!" she cries, "Please, you must come, my Lady is not well!"

"Who is your lady?" Sterren asks the girl, who stares back at her, wide eyed and frightened.

"This is Harildis, one of the Lady Agneta's handmaids," Fransez explains to Sterren, "Harildis, what happened to Lady Agneta? Is she injured?"

"No," Harildis answers, "That is, I don't know. I set out looking for you before...before this," she sweeps her hand to indicate the chaos and fore engulfing the town. "It's the baby, my Lady had these pains in her belly, and she started bleeding..." Harildis starts to sob and cannot continue.

"I'll go with Harildis," Steren decides, "Get Jean to my horse, she'll take him to safety. Then you can tend to the wounded." Fransez nods, agreeing to her plan, and Sterren follows Harildis to the Landgraab's Keep.

The Keep had been hit by the dragon fire as well, the prison tower had fallen and fire raged in the outbuildings. The servants had put Lady Agneta in one of the bedrooms on the lower floor, the one Sterren had stayed in herself when she had been a guest here. As dangerous as it might be to stay here, with the fire so close, it would be just as dangerous to move her in her condition, Sterren decides, taking comfort from the fact that the dragons seemed to have ended their attack as quickly as it came, and that the soldiers were already working on putting out the fires they'd left in their wake.

"You are only recently with child," Sterren observes, "Two o three months at most?" she gueses. The Lady Agneta nods through her sobs. "And these pains?" she asks.

"Like knives in my womb," Agneta says, "Please, I don't want to lose my baby."

Midwifery can be the most rewarding and the most painful of her duties as healer. Sterren has dealt with the heartbreak of miscarriage before, and though Agneta's is the most physically painful she'd ever tended to, it's not the physical pain she worries about the most. "I'll do what I can," she promises, "But it may be too late."

It was an ordeal of some hours as the poor girl labored and finally gave birth to a twisted, gnarled and inhuman mass, nothing like Sterren had ever seen or even heard of. The words Winterdream spoke to her in her dream echo in her thoughts, that Reinier had fallen under a curse that threatens all he loves. It cannot be a coincidence that the dragons attacked moments after Agneta's pains began, and the unusual nature of Agneta's miscarriage suggests a supernatural cause.

"You're going to be all right," Sterren whispers, soothing as she wipes the sweat from Agneta's brow and settles her back into bed, "You should rest now."

"My baby..." Agneta sobs.

"I'm sorry," Sterren whispers sadly, knowing that her consolation will be of no help.

Reinier had been on the road home when the attack came; even at their distance, they could see the dragon fire raining down from the sky onto Odet. He'd left the bulk of his army to ride ahead with a select number men, pushing their horses to gallop their fastest, arriving too late to stop the dragons. They had laid waste to his town, his people, terrorized and frightened, scrambled about to tend to the wounded, rescue those trapped in the destroyed and burning buildings, and to put out the fires. His men immediately rushed to aid them, but Reinier's only thought was for Agneta as he ran into the smoldering remains of his keep. The small huddle of servants tending to their wounds in the great hall told him that Agneta had escaped imjury in the onslaught, but that she'd some trouble with the baby, and they directed him to the room where they'd put her.

The servants had told him a midwife was with her, but of course, they couldn't have known who Sterren was to tell him her name. Of all the things he might have thought when he saw her, tending to his wife in her greatest need, it was just relief he felt, knowing Agneta was in the hands of the best healer he knew, even if he cannot begin to explain to himself how she came to be here.

"Agneta...is she...?"

"She is well," Sterren answers his unfinished question, rising to let him take her place at his wife's side, "But exhausted. The child, I'm afraid, is gone." Though she would have preferred getting out of Odet without encountering him, she's is happy for Agneta's sake, at least, that he's arrived. 

Reinier takes her hand in his, heart breaking as he sees her eyes rimmed red with crying and the stains of tears across her cheeks. "Oh, my love," she sobs, "Our baby..." she chokes, unable to say the words.

He rest his cheek against her hand, letting his tears moisten her fingers. Since he got her letter in ort de Lanne, he had thought of little else than his joyful homecoming, Agneta's smile and sparkling eyes ever in his thoughts, and he longed for nothing more than to be with her. Seeing her thus, mourning the child that she had wanted so much, is as devastating as the sight of his town on fire. "I rode as soon as I got your letter," he whispers, his lips caressing her fingers as he speaks, tasting his own tears,, :It was not soon enough."

"You are with me now," she answers, closing her eyes, only able to relax now that Reinier is by her side again. Reinier gently lays her hand down by her side, leaving her to sleep.

Sterren had heard the couple's brief exchange while she had been cleaning up, and is moved to pity by Reinier's grief. "She will recover," she promises him in a strained whisper, "She can still bear children, I'm certain."

"Thank you for helping her, Sterren," Reinier answers, his voice breaking on her name, torn by his own emotions, his love Agneta, his sorrow for their shared loss, his unresolved feelings for his first love, standing before him now, carrying his child, and very possibly wishing she weren't. "She wanted this child so badly. I told she was so young...why did this happen, Sterren?"

He reaches tentatively for her, an unconscious gesture, just to touch her belly, to make contact with the child he cannot acknowledge.

"Don't you dare touch me," she hisses at him in sudden anger, the words Winterdream spoke about the curse that threatens everything he loves ringing clear in her mind, fearing for the fate of the child she carries, "Do not ever come near my child!"

"I didn't mean..." Reinier fumbles for an apology, shocked by the strength of her rage. 

"This was a peaceful place before you came," Sterren growls through clenched teeth, "We never had trouble with the dragons. You came here bringing war and destruction, and now you've stirred up the dragons and even the fae against you, and their wrath touches us all. You brought all this death and misery down on all of us. The fae have cursed you, and that curse stole the child from your wife's womb. This is your doing, Reinier, and I fear you will destroy us al before this is done."

"Curse?" Reinier sputters, "What curse?"

"Tend to your wife. End your wars. It may not yet be too late," Sterren, avoiding answering him directly, wishing she had never spoken about the curse, not sure if it would bring her bad luck to tell him of it. She whirls away, rushing out of the room before he can think to detain her, hoping that Shayeleigh will somehow know to appear when she needs her. Taran will be worried, she thinks with regret, and no doubt very surprised by the young Jean delivered to his doorstep in place of his wife.

Alone with Agneta now, Reinier kneels by her bedside, making a silent prayer to the Watcher for health.

"That was her," Agnet whispers, quiet and hoarse, "I heard you say her name."

"It was," Reinier answers truthfully, "She's an excellent healer. I am glad that is was she who tended to you."

"She was kinder to me than I would have been to her if our situation were reversed," Agneta says.

"That's not true," Reinier admonishes her gently, "You are kindness itself."

"To you, I am. But I don't know that I could do for her what she did for me, knowing that she carries your child." Her lips quiver as she speaks of the child Sterren carries, the one that still lives and will be born. "Is it true, what she said, that the fae demons have put a curse on you?" she whispers hoarsely as the tears begin to flow anew.

"If it's true, they meant to punish me, my love, and you are suffering for my sins," Reinier answers, unable to hold his own tears in any longer, "This is my doing. I am so sorry, so sorry."

Agneta pulls him down closer, looking into his eyes with a sad and gentle firmness, "Do not say these things, my husband. You are a good man, and righteous. These dragons who attack us in the night, destroying our city, are monsters who deserve to die. These fae demons who would steal the life of an unborn child as punishment to the father are evil incarnate. They have hit us hard, my love, but I know you are strong, and you will strike back, harder. In the name of the Watcher, you will drive these dragons and demons for these lands, cleansing it for decent people to live in safety."

"Yes," Reinier whispers with eyes closed, her words reminding him of his purpose, and casting out the doubts Sterren had sown in his mind.

"Swear it, Reinier," Agneta insists, "Swear to me that you will punish these vile demons who took our baby. Swear to me that you will destroy them all."

"I swear it, Agneta," Reinier promises, "I will not rest until every dragon and every fae demon has been driven from this land. They will pay, all of them will pay, for what they've done."

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Chapter 47: Seven Dragons

It was worse than even their worst fears. The dragons had attacked the embattled human armies in force, but despite the warnings they had had, from Kelyn, from Morvyn, from Ceyrth and even from the fairies, they were not prepared for the devastating effect the metal's power would have on them.

Many humans, from both opposing armies had been slain in the initial onslaught, but it was not enough to overcome them, and even with the human losses, a larger number of them remained to fight against the attacking dragons. Many humans died, but no number of human deaths could make up for the dragons lost in their attack. Six dragons had fallen, and the battle was not yet over. They could still hear the shouts and screams coming from the battlefield below.

"He'll recover, in time," Morvyn says, his voice hoarse. Brant and Derrell, two of Ailidh's mates, had chosen to learn to fight with weapons rather than join the attack in dragon form, but the few weeks they'd had to prepare before the day of the attack had not been enough, and Brant was gravely wounded early on. Morvyn's own months of training with Kelyn and Ceyrth had not truly prepared him for the reality of war on the ground, facing numerous opponents from all sides, the distraction of noise, the dust, the blood, the confusion of battle. He and Derrell, along with Ceyrth covering their retreat with his bow, had barely been able to get the wounded Brant away from that field to a camp far enough from the metal's radius of effect for Morvyn to be able to use his healing magic on him.

The piercing cry of a dragon breaks over the din. It's Aymeri, and, thankfully, it's not the death cry they had had to endure six times already that day. Aymeri's cry is one of retreat, calling an end to their attack. His cry is followed by Aeaea's, calling to her surviving mates to flee the field. That accounts for two of the three nests that took to the battlefield today. Derrell kneels, his arms and chest tensed as he waits to hear the call of his mate, Ailidh, calling back those of his brothers who had survived the day.

Ailidh's cry rises above the others, the shrieking scream of death, the last dragon to fall to battle against the mortals armed in their magic metal. Brant winces as he tries to rise from the ground at the dying call of his mate.

"You can't do anything for her," Morvyn says, restraining Derrell from running heedlessly to his dying mate, "There's nothing down there but death."

A rasping groan of pain and misery is all the response Derrell can muster as his shoulders slump forward, impotent, knowing Morvyn is right, there's nothing he can do now. His mate his dead, his remaining nest brothers are fleeing the field along with Aymeri and Aeaea's nests. Morvyn would speak words of comfort, if he had them. But there are no words that could possibly assuage this pain or restore this loss, no comfort even in being among the survivors. If it were Kelyn...Morvyn shakes his head, trying to rid himself of that thought. When he and Ceyrth pulled Derrell and Brant away from the fighting, Kelyn had insisted on staying behind, to try to get close enough to the dragonslayer to take him down, even as their kindred were falling from the skies around them. In her regular form, she would not make a death cry if she were slain, and Morvyn has no way of knowing her fate.

Ceyrth raises his bow at the slight rustle in the foliage around their camp. 

"Speak now, or die," the alfar growls a challenge at the interloper. Morvyn stands by him, ready to fight off any intruder.

"It's me," Kelyn says, stepping into view. Ceyrth sighs, his relief audible as he drops his bow.

Morvyn rushes forward to meet her, taking her in his arms. "I did get one arrow in him. In the weak spot below the shoulder joint in his armor," she says, not needing to say the name of her target, "But he didn't fall. It wasn't enough to end him. And I never got another chance at him."

She lays her weary head against her mate's shoulder and he he holds her tight in his arms, embracing her in silence. There are no words for the horrors of this day and no solace for what they've lost.

High up in his room in Port-de-Lanne's castle, Reinier can still hear the din from below, muffled by the thick stone walls. In the great hall of the castle, his men are celebrating their victory. Not only did they take Port-de-Lanne, but they had felled seven dragons. Seven dragons in one battle, when to date, no dragonslayer had ever faced more than one of the fierce beasts at a time, Reinier's heart still races with the excitement of that unexpected victory, and the knowledge that his glory and renown would be legend from this day forward. He had personally felled three of the creatures with his own sword, while the other four fell to hi men fighting in groups.

But this victory had come at great cost, whole regiments, from both opposing armies,  had fallen to the fiery breath of the immense creatures, crowds dying beneath their talons, including the Lord of Port-de-Lanne himself, along with his heir and his best knights. As soon as the dragons set on them, killing men without regard for which banner they fought under, the battle ceased being a fight between two armies and became a united defense against the fire-breathing monsters. The dragons had handed Port-de-Lanne to Reinier, but Port-de-Lanne was only the first of the Landgraab lord's intended targets, and the dragons had decimated his forces, leaving him less able to press a successful attack on the next of Penguilly's allies that he meant to take.

Along with the music and shouts of celebration coming from the hall below, Reinier also hears the wails of mourning and the screams of the wounded, and he has no celebration in his heart, despite the victory he'd had this day.

The dragons had come at them in a unified attack, something that had never been seen in the recorded history of mankind. In the oldest stories, groups of men would encounter dragons by chance while hunting or cutting wood in the forests, and one of his Landgraab ancestors would set out to rid the area of the beasts to provide safe passage for his people. In Reinier's own time, these chance encounters were rare, and a dragonslayer would have to hunt for his prey, luring the beasts out into the open to be slain. Sometimes, after he'd slain one, another would come after him within a few days or even hours, as though it meant to take revenge for its fallen brother. The scholar priests insisted that this could not be so, that the dragons were dumb beasts who did not possess intelligence enough to conceive of revenge.

Priests cloistered behind church walls have little enough experience with beasts in the wild, Reinier thinks with scorn. Even the dumb ones are intelligent enough to recognize a threat, to fear death and rage when one if its kind is felled. But this dragon attack today, this was something far different than the instinctual response of animals. This was planned ahead of time, by creatures with intelligence and forethought.

And it was not dragons alone. Reinier had spotted wilders in the melee, one his former prisoner, with his unmistakable blue-tipped white hair. He'd lost sight of them in the dust and confusion of battle, and had not seen them again after that one glimpse, but he did lay eyes on a female wilder later. It was her arrow that found him, giving him the only wound he suffered in today's battle. Reinier hasn't forgotten that it was a female wilder who assassinated his brother, or the words she spoke to him as she sunk her knife between his ribs "You'll never slay another dragon."

Today's attack proved his belief in a connection between the wilders and the dragons. Until today, he'd assumed the wilders served the demon lizards, perhaps sacrificing their children or virgins to them, as ancient tales suggest. But now he's begun to suspect that the relationship is the other way around, and it is the wilders who are the masters. Only a human mind could formulate a battle plan, after all. Beasts of the wild hunt for prey and only attack men when provoked. Never have even the most savage beasts stalked a field of battle or engaged in a fight between the armies of men.

"Reinier, brother, you are missing the celebration!" Gunteras Goth, Agneta's brother, breaks Reinier's reverie, "The men all shout your name and toast your victory. You should be there."

Reinier nods solemnly. Though he may not be in a mood for revelry, he has a duty to his men, and to the people of Port-de-Lanne who he has just conquered. "I should see to the wounded first," he decides, "And then I'll join the feast in the great hall."

"You are a dragonslayer now, yourself," Reinier points out to his young brother-in-law, "And I promised your father a lordship. Port-de-Lanne will require some rebuilding, but it is need of a lord..."

Before Gunteras can properly express his gratitude for this promotion, a squire interrupts with a message for Reinier. "It come from Odet," the squire explains as he hand the scroll to Reinier.

Reinier takes a chair by the fire to read the scroll, written in Agneta's delicate hand. He smiles to himself as he reads about the inconsequential details of her responsibilities as Odet's mistress, hearing the lilt of joy in her voice as though she were whispering the words in his ear. He's been away from her now for some two months time, and he's missed her tender touch more than he'd realized, especially since their communication has been so limited.

"I have one piece of important news," she concludes her missive, "One which I hope will please my dearest lord, and not be a cause for disappointment. As I had hoped, you have left me with child, and we shall have our heir, perhaps sooner than you had anticipated. I pray every morning and every evening for your swift victory, my beloved husband, so that you may return to your growing family all the sooner, and receive my most tender embraces. Your most loving wife, AL."

"Good news, then?" Gunteras surmises from the smile spreading across Reinier's face.

"It seems you are to be an uncle," Reinier answers him.

Gunteras laughs heartily, "I am an uncle; my elder brothers and sisters have already bestowed that title on me. But I am honored to be the first to congratulate you, brother."

"Now that you're a lord in your own right, you'll be needing to find a wife of your own," Reinier teases as he dresses to go back down among the people. "I'll be riding for Odet on the morrow, but you should remain here to get Port-de-Lanne in order."

"Aren't you going to press the attack against Cadillac next?"

Reinier nods, "Cadillac will fall soon enough. But the dragon attack has weakened us. I'll need time to regroup before setting off to another battle. I will return home in the meantime."

"You are too sentimental for your own good," Gunteras laughs, knowing that Agneta is the real reason behind Reinier's sudden decision.

"I have returned, my love, as I promised," Aymeri speaks quietly, leaning over pond where he and Ico would go to make love in private, away from the nest. Her anger at him would not be appeased by loving words or promises, and she had not stayed to bid him farewell before he and Seirian and Fearghus had left for battle. Instead, she'd retreated to her waters to sulk.

"You were right, my love," he whispers, broken and tearful, "We lost much and gained nothing. Seven dragons lay dead, while the dragonslayer yet lives."

She does not respond, so he steps further into the water, immersing himself in her essence. "I need you, my love," he says, "Can you not forgive me?" The water ripples around his chest, caressing him. "Please, Ico," he pleads, "Come back to me."

She relents, finally, and emerges from the waters, holding their babe in her arms.

"I call her Lusinea," Ico says, "And you must promise you will not go back to fight against the mortals again."

"I swear it," Aymeri promises, "I will ever be at your side."