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."

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Chapter 46: My Vengeance

Not since the great war, when the dragons united to fight Aithne and her followers, had so many nests gathered in place for a conference. And once it again, it was war which had brought them all together. Not their war, but that of the mortal who called himself dragonslayer, fighting against his own kind, ravaging the lands that had once belonged to dragons and fae alone in long gone time before mankind had arrived.

Ailidh, an elder dragon who brought only three of her dozen mates to sit with her in council, is first speak, "I have grown used to seeing your fairies by your side, Aymeri, but are we now giving those fae that are not of you nest their own seat by our fire?" she asks, nodding at Auberon's group seated across from her.

"Auberon is here by my invitation," Aymeri say, his tone throwing down a challenge to anyone who would defy his decision.

"I remember a time when my kind and yours held separate places in these lands, and we went years, even centuries, before our first face-to-face encounter," Auberon answers in a gentler tone, smiling at the dragon who asked him here, "Those times are long gone, the forests shrink with every year, and it is our magic as much as yours that protects what little we have we have left from human encroachment."

Ailidh shrugs and makes no further objection to the presence of the fae at their council.

"I remember those days as well," Aeaea says, "There were hundreds of nests in a forest that stretched for miles. Now our kind are spread far, our nests driven apart by the human villages and towns that have grown up here. We've lived away from their kind, and let them take more and more land, and stayed well-hidden from them. But now this dragonslayer has come, making war on the town nearest to my nest, taking our trees, burning our forests. And killing my youngest, who had only just learnd to take his form and fly as a dragon."

"He took my son, too," Aymeri growls, "The humans can kill and make war on each other all they like, but this dragonslayer must die for his crimes against us."

"If that were an easy task, he and all the dragonslayers who came before him would be dead already," Inira says, "This one killed my son, and long before that, a dragonslayer from a previous generation killed my Second. There was not a nest in the lands around the Landgraab's holdings who hadn't lost someone to one dragonslayer or another. That is why Fearghus and I came back here, to the land we were born in. hoping to be finally done with the dragonslayers."

"We will have vengeance for our dead, and we will put an end to this dragonslayer," Aymeri promises, "He attacks us singly, but he has never faced us in our numbers, or tasted the wrath our united nests can bring."

"The war that rages now has already wrought devastation on the land, and has even touched our forests. And you answer to that is more war?" Jennicor asks, rising to speak, with Auberon at her side.

"We mean to put an end to the dragonslayer and his war," Aymeri counters.

"Then you should be aware, he has brought more of that strange metal here, in vast quantities, and has armed all his men with it," Jennicor answers, "Our magic, dragon or fae, is useless in its presence."

"We are dragons; we do not fight with magic, but with our strength. I have no fear of this strange metal," Ailidh declares.

"You should," Morvyn counters, "Our strength in dragon form comes from magic. And that metal is what allows the dragonslayers to take us down. I've felt its effect myself."

"In the northern lands, we arm ourselves as the humans do," Kelyn adds, "And fight them with their own weapons. It's the only way."

Their advice is met with the scorn of the elder dragons. "We fight as dragons, not as men," Ailidh scoffs, and even Aymeri, who Morvyn believed was the greatest hope they had of seeing reason and being willing to change, dismisses the idea of dragons fighting with weapons.

The council ends with the dragons declaring war, planning to attack the dragonslayer's army as a group, in dragon form. Kelyn and Morvyn insist they will fight with weapons, and try to get close enough to the dragonslayer to kill him personally. Ceyrth chooses to stay out of the battle, and remain with Riain, Shayeleigh and Ametair to defend their forest home if need be.

"I fear many more of our kind will meet their end in this battle," Kelyn whispers to her mate, who can only share her worries.

Their worry for their kind and the war looming ahead of them brings Morvyn and Kelyn a sleepless night.

"If I hadn't stupidly killed his brother, the dragonslayer wouldn't even have an army," Kelyn sighs in regret, "Before he took Odet, he only had his his personal guard. Now he rules a whole town and gathers an army."

"It was an honest mistake," Morvyn tries to soothe her, though he knows what she says is true.

"Don't do that," Kelyn says, rising up to look her mate in the eye, "Don't try to comfort me and tell me I meant no harm. In my rush for vengeance, I did cause harm, and I must own it."

"All right," Morvyn agrees, "You did a foolish thing. But you know I've done my share of foolish things as well. Talfryn died because of my my mistakes, and I survived being imprisoned by the dragonslyer. I've wasted enough time brooding over what I cannot change. Now I, we, must find a way forward."

"We must slay the dragonslayer," Kelyn answers.

"Before he slays any more of us."

Kelyn falls on him, kissing him passionately. A sudden cry comes up from the room below them. "That's Evie," Morvyn murmurs, "We should check on her."

They find Evie sitting on the bed they'd made for her in the house they built for their nest, groaning and crying as she holds her belly. Ico had explained to him that pregnancy goes faster for fairies than it does for dragons, but Evenfall's pregnancy has defied even fae standards. Though she must have conceived close the the same time that Ico had, her belly had expanded at a far greater rate, and now she seemed ready to deliver far ahead of the expected schedule.

Morvyn rarely has the chance to make use of his skills as a healer, and this is the first birth he's ever attended.

After only an hour of labor, Evenfall delivers a daughter, who she names Paerys. She has Talfryn's coloring, but the sparkling lights, the same dark red as her father's hair, belie the fae nature she inherited from her mother.

Morvyn senses his mate's regret and sorrow as they leave Evie asleep with her daughter and return to their own bed in the loft, and he knows that isn't the war she's thinking about.

"We are immortal," he reminds her gently, taking her hand, "We have a long time to have our own child."

"But the older I get, the less chance I have of another fertility cycle," Kelyn reminds him.

Fertility has been on Morvyn's mind much of late, with both Evie and Ico falling pregnant so close together, after thousands of years of being childless, as though to make up for Talfryn's loss. Fairy magic follows no rules he or any dragon can understand, but his parents had told him of the sudden increase in fertility among dragonkind after they returned from war. That was how Seirian and Arienh had become mates, how he had been conceived and born. But as the centuries passed and the human villages spread further and became town, the dragons declined, so that even the young females no longer bore as many children as their elders had before him. 

"There is a balance to everything," Morvyn muses out loud, "The world perhaps can only sustain so many dragons. Our numbers are held in check." What he doesn't say aloud is that this upcoming war and the deaths that might follow, might spur a new rise in fertility, and give them the chance to have their own child.

"Let the others go to war, beloved. Your place now is with me, and with our child," Ico pleads.

"The dragonslayer killed my son, Ico. I have to do this."

"Is vengeance more important than me, my love?" Ico asks, "I know you grieve for your son, just as Evenfall does. He left their child without a father..."

"And you fear I will leave our child fatherless as well," Aymeri finishes her unspoken thought, "I promise you, beloved, that I will have my vengeance and come home to you."

"And how can you make that promise?" Ico demands, "You cannot see the future. You cannot know what will happen..."

"I will not allow any man to take me from you," Aymeri says, "I can promise you that."

Ico's fears are not assuaged, but she knows there is no convincing him to stay when he's so determined to go.

"Such rapid growth is unusual, even for our kind," Auberon observes, meeting his granddaughter Paerys, who had been born only the night before, for the first time.

"When I went to sleep, she was still an infant. And when I woke, she was as she is now."

"And she has not spoken?" Auberon asks.

Evenfall shakes her head, caressing her daughter's hair, "Not one word. I fear her mind may not have matured as fast as her body."

Morvyn and Kelyn awaken and join them by the pond, as puzzled by this mystery as the fae.

"Is she fully fae?" Morvyn asks, thinking of Ametair, the only other person to be born of fae and dragon parents, and who is himself neither truly fae or dragon, but something else altogether.

"I think only she can tel us who she is,' Auberon replies, 'She will be powerful, I can sense that much."

A dark scowl forms on the child's face as she speaks her first words, "I am a dragon," she says, "And I will have vengeance for my father."

"She's Talfryn's daughter, all right," Morvyn says, "And she has a dragon's spirit, even if she is fae."