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In a chamber lit by volcanic flow, a small enclave of dragons met. Belaris The Golden presided, tapping his claw impatiently as the dragons settled into their places. Belaris looked up at those in attendance. He noted Molgus The Ancient, noted for his prowess in battle, Sopang, who's exploits in the Dwarven campaigns was legendary and Eamma, Commander of the Field, with her two young aids; the only female dragons in attendance.
"Dragon-kind!" Belaris stood to his full height, barely clearing the ceiling of the auditorium.
"It must be known to all of you by now that humans have come to the Stronghold seeking aid against an enemy. They say that these new men will destroy all the valley, take that which they wish and seek to destroy us as well. My fellows, Dragon-kind has inhabited these cliffs for seven-thousand years. We have raised our fledglings here, sought for peace and stayed apart from man. I do not wish to follow him into any battles. Their affairs are not of our concern."
"But, Belaris," Sopang said, "we have a treaty with men. Our mutual agreement states we must defend one another."
Belaris spun about and stared at Sopang.
"Have you forgotten what happened after the Dwarven Conflict? Have you forgotten what happened when the human's crops failed? Did they hunt down the Dwarves who caused the failure? No! They hunted us. They broke into our caves, destroyed our nests and smashed our eggs. My mate's despair was such that she willed her death. I will not forget and I will not aid man in any way."
Molgus left the stands of seats and slowly strode down the stairs to stand before Belaris.
"You would ignore the decision of the Lord High Dragon?"
"I would not aid man."
"I did not ask you if you would aid man. I asked you if you would ignore the decision of the Lord High Dragon?"
"If it means aiding humans . . . yes."
"Then you are set on treason."
A murmur of hisses spread through the assembly and one young dragon growled. He raised his head and said, "my forebears died at the hands of humans. They desecrated our mound, destroyed our community. I do not trust them as well."
"Ah!" Sopang spat. "What do you know of it? You say your nest was ravaged? Mine was too. In the years following the conflict, there was much confusion. But, may I point to this fact? That no human has dared enter our confines for more than three-hundred years. Otherwise you whom are so young would not be standing here. You know nothing of the past."
"Fare easy, Sopang. These who are here agree with me. If you do not, you had best retreat to your quarters."
"Do you threaten me, Belaris?" The old dragon narrowed his eyes and hissed menacingly.
Belaris puffed out his chest and rose above Sopang's head. He spread his wings to the full length of the room, a defensive gesture.
"Dragon-kind!" The lilting voice of Eamma broke the tension.
The pair of dragons stopped their threats and looked to the female. She was deep purple in color, the tips of her scales iridescent blue and green. She stood at the top of the amphitheater stairs her golden eyes pinned on the pair.
"Whatever your personal reasons, there must be a consideration of our future. If we go to battle against these new men we may not win. Then there would be two bands of humans against us."
"The human seeking aid is Guardian of the Opal Stone, Eamma," Molgus said. He limped over to stand beside the female. His left leg missed three toes, remnants of a wound inflicted in the Dwarven Conflict. His scales were lack-luster with age, showing a dull green.
"Have we forgotten our honor? Has Dragon-kind come to ignore the solemn words of treaty?" He looked around the room at his silent companions.
"What are we if our honor has been compromised by our quick tempers? Have I not lost too? And, yet, I would honor our treaty as must be done."
Belaris considered Molgus a fool.
"You hold to ways that are no longer of consequence, Molgus!"
"No longer of consequence? Our respect is no longer of consequence? I attended this meeting to see what you were planning, Belaris. Now I know."
"Hold, Molgus. There is more than half the council here. They will vote with me this night."
"Then, come. Let us attend the whole of the council and place our votes. Let us see what the Lord High Dragon thinks of your rebellion, Belaris."
Belaris hissed and turned about to look at those who were attending.
"Dragon-kind . . . we have a momentous decision to consider. Tonight we will vote. I will not vote on the side of humans. What you will do . . . is your own affair."
He flapped his huge wings one time then shot up into the sky. He wheeled once, then flew off.
Beneath the dome the other dragons watched. Molgus looked at each of the attendees deciding to hold his tongue. It would be far better to appear to agree with this rebellion and see where it would lead.
In a tower, far away a young woman sat looking out at the hills that bordered her kingdom. She was Ysabeaux, youngest daughter of King Adelbert and his Queen Grecha.
Warm air blew languidly across the young woman's face, her golden hair ruffling back in a gentle sway. She turned as her sister Illeana entered the room. Her sister was always humming a tune and always smiling. Illeana saw only the best things, even at these troubling times.
"Illeana, how can you seem so untroubled?"
"I am troubled, but why pronounce it to the whole kingdom?"
"I should think you would be more serious minded."
Illeana approached closer and took her sister's hand.
"Because I am heir to Father's throne, does not mean I must always be in the doldrums."
"But, Illeana, these are trying times. A great army is amassed at our doorstep and you sing, flitting about as a butterfly would in a spring meadow."
"If every one of us held to somber ways, where would our kingdom be?"
Ysabeaux returned her gaze to the window. No sign of the troubles that had been heralded earlier that day could be discerned from her tower. No wafting smoke from burning cottages and fields, no shouts of harsh battle cries, no sounds of the clash of sword or the pounding thud of catapulted stone could be discerned.
"The battle may be far off, but it is in our land. Father has ordered five mounted regiments to attend to our defense. That goes for something."
Illeana placed her arms around her sister's shoulders.
"You must have faith in our forces, Sister. You must not sell them on the short side. They are sturdy men, one and all."
"Yes, but my dreams have shown me the unvader's number. They are like an ocean come ashore. They sweep over everything."
"Remember, my sister dear, you are a Caller."
Ysabeaux lay her hands on her sister's wrists. Illeana was the eternal optimist. This time, however, Ysabeaux felt that optimism would not solve the problem or carry them through. Action was necessary. Yes, she was a Caller, but she had not detected even the smallest hint of Dragon-kind. Where were they? Why had they not been awakened? Where was the Guardian and the Opal Stone?
Ysabeuax sighed. She stood from her stool and turned to look at Illeana.
"Sister, I will follow the horsemen that father sent. Perhaps outside of these walls I will be able to call them."
Illeana looked at her with shock and concern in her eyes.
"You are Princess Ysabeaux. You do not ride out with companies of armed men. No, I will not permit you to do something so reckless."
"I am not asking for your permission, Illeana. I do not need that. I need you to help me."
"Father will hang me by my toes," and Illeana laughed at the mental picture.
"Father will praise you with commendations when he realizes that you helped me to find Dragon-kind. Please, Illeana. The ancient treaties should be activated. We need help now. The number of the invaders is as a multitude of stars. One cannot put a pin between one soldier and the next. In my dream I see bright crimson robes that mingle with the red of blood. Our villages are succumbing in the north. If you could see as I do, you would not delay."
Illeana paused and looked at Ysabeaux. She placed her hands on either side of her face and studied her for a moment.
"Alright, if you truly believe that much danger exists, I will help you. But, you must be quick. If any member of the guard sees you, they will surely alert Father. I will get you livery and a horse. Be at the north gate at sundown."
Ysabeaux breathed a sigh of relief. Stuffed in this castle she could do nothing. She had to search. She had to find the Guardian. She had to return to the Altar of Faith if it still stood, and contact Dragon-kind. She felt no tug at her conscious mind as she had when a child, when she would sit and sing on the hillside and dragons would come to her. They had slept in peace for many years, but now they were needed. Either they still slept, or the years had found them dead. She hoped fervently for the former and greatly feared the latter
Ysabeaux rode across moors saturated with frosty rain. Her cape billowed out behind her while icy pellets pummeled her face. Discomfort was not important now, only the relief necessary to save her people and her father's kingdom. She had seen for herself the shells of blackened ruins that the Roman army left behind. The stench of rotting corpses, animal and human, rose in putrid waves as she guided her mount through one of the destroyed villages.
Now, she rode in earnest toward the north where, she hoped the Altar still stood. Her horse's sides heaved with the run. Ysabeaux knew she would have to pause to give the horse rest, but the urgency of her quest pushed her forward. It was night, the landscape ahead indiscernible. The fingers of winter trees loomed against the grey-black sky, the only defining edge she could make out.
She reined her horse in at a half ruined structure. She knew she was close to the Altar now, this was an ancient well, blessed by Cernunus.
Ysabeaux dismounted and led her horse deep into the confines of the ruin. It was a stone grotto upon which the Druids had built an arch and raised the stones surrounding sacred water. She scooped water out of the well with her hands and let her weary mount drink. He snuffled into her hands grateful for the respite and fluid.
Ysabeaux pulled her cloak closer around her body. She tugged the reins so that the horse followed her into the grove formed by sacred oaks. The wind and ice were not so bad in here. She knew the horse needed rest. She figured it better to let the beast breath a bit. No good in running it to death.
Ysabeaux secured the reins to an oak branch and climbed a stone wall that surrounded the grove. She stared out across the country to the north. She saw no movement, no destruction. Perhaps things will be different in daylight, she thought. Weariness threatened her, but she shook it off, grabbing at her rations inside the saddle bags. She munched cheese and bread, giving her horse an apple.
After a few more minutes rest, she mounted, left the grove and sped northward.
Ysabeaux knew that she was headed toward the heart of the battle. She knew the north was the hotbed of the action, but the Altar was there and she had to reach that first to open the ancient line between man and dragon.
Ysabeaux mounted a crest. She stood looking down into a valley where tiny pin dots of light littered the area. At regular times figures passed before the fires set along the edge of a long rectangle formed by the borders of the camp. She had no idea how many men the camp held, but, she hurried down from the ridge rather than have the risen moon at her back.
Ysabeaux worked her way slowly down into the valley. She was still a good distance from the encampment. She paused and took four large patches of leather and a ball of twine from her saddle bags. Lifting each foot of her horse, she wrapped the leather around his hooves and tied them off. The Princess patted the horse's side and mounted.
"No tracks and no noise," she said, steering the horse carefully toward the only road leading north. She pulled her cape close around her face, shielding her fair skin from any reflection of the firelight. Slowly, she guided her mount up the road. On her left side the camp hummed with quiet activity. Many were asleep, resting up for the morning's onslaught, but the sharp eyed sentries were alert and awake.
Ysabeaux left the road for a ridge hidden behind high growths of gorse and bracken. Dismounting, she led her horse along the ridge, parallel to the northbound road. Still, she had to be careful, the moon was full and bright, any shadow was a tell-tale, every crack of a branch a warning. She saw a sentry move from the side of the camp and come out onto the road. Whether he had heard her, or saw movement she could not know, but she stilled her mount with a hand on its muzzle and held her breath. The sentry looked about for a few moments, his hand poised at the hilt of his sword. Soon, he returned to his side of the road and disappeared into the darkness on the other side of the fire.
Ysabeaux breathed more easily, gained the northern border of the road and mounted. She sped away, The Altar not far from here.
Belaris circled in the blackened sky above the Roman encampment. He had flown over to see the size of the invading host; thousands of human warriors sat, patrolled or slept here. His night vision revealed the amount of men and he was pleased. He wheeled in the sky, careful to stay near clouds to shield him from the moonlight.
"Hmpf!" he said, softly. These humans are a well organized lot, he thought. He flapped his wide wings and pulled them in close to his body. He rose like a bullet into the darkest part of the sky and looked down. The camp covered a large territory. As Belaris coasted, riding a high level air current he decided he could wipe this camp out with one pass. His superheated breath would burn them all.
But, why? Why become involved in the battles of men. Perhaps they would kill each other off with their senseless battles. No, he would return to his cliffs and the safety of the Great Hall and let these humans fight. As he wheeled about toward the cliffs his mind was on his slaughtered mate and his destroyed nest. Four eggs smashed, the embryos drying in the air. His roar had been heard in the hills and valleys across the land.
Belaris flapped his powerful wings and headed East, toward the cliffs. He hoped that the dragons would follow his instructions and gain control of the Opal Stone. Without that instrument, the human lovers could do nothing against this onslaught. Satisfied with his surveillance, he turned for home.