Branston rushes to save his hand, while Faldashir plots.
Wounds and Worse
Tears fell from Branston’s face as he stood, weeping aloud as the wind blew against his charred hand. He was sure the fire still tore at him, though it wasn’t there. What little feeling he had left in his hand was agony. The searing pain numbed him to his surroundings, and he cried out when Bolthos appeared in front of him.
“Branston,” Bolthos gripped his shoulders.
Branston pulled away, gripping his wrist above the damage.
“Branston,” Bolthos stepped forward. “You need to get to Fangog. Ride your dragon!”
Branston blinked clear his eyes. “Wh...what? I can’t ride it!”
“Yes, you can!” Bolthos gestured to the red beast. “Cling to its leg, sit on it’s foot. Command it to fly you to Fangog. Get to Avless, he can help you.”
“I can’t fly it!” Branston snarled. “That’s suicide!”
“No, it’s not. I’ve done it myself. Command it to fly steadily, land in the courtyard. It would take half an hour by flight. We’re hours away. You can fly, or you can risk infection or death, and definitely longer pain.”
Branston growled. “I can’t do it.”
“Yes, you can.” Bolthos took a deep breath. “I’ll go with you.”
“What?” Branston looked up from his hand.
“I’ll ride my dragon alongside yours,” Bolthos glanced to the animals. “If you fall, I will catch you.”
A wind rustled the pines. Branston roared in pain, his eyes blurring. “Fine!”
“Good,” Bolthos took Branston by the shoulders and turned him to the red. “Command him to take you to Fangog, and land in the courtyard. Think of the direction, the castle, the courtyard. Make the dragon see it, and know where to go.”
Branston stepped toward the dragon, and it growled. I am your master! Branston roared through the link. The growl ceased.
He planted a leg on either side of the beast’s paw and sat. He took a deep breath. Bolthos sat on the gray dragon’s front paw and nodded encouragement.
Go south, fly steady. Make sure I don’t fall. He wrapped his arms around the dragon’s leg, holding tight, careful not to touch his hand. Fly.
His stomach lurched as the dragon leaped into the air and flew south. He wrapped his legs around the beast’s heel. His eyes squeezed shut as the air whipped around him, and his pained scream was lost to the wind.
Fly until you see this. He thought of Fangog, the massive towers and the wall. Land here. The courtyard came to mind, the stone floor and the columns holding a roof above the doors. He sent the message through the “door” that linked him to the dragon, and he felt understanding from the creature.
Pressure kept him against the dragon’s leg, but he expected to fall any moment.
He cried at his pain, wishing it would end. He had seen men get burned like this, and they lost the hand.
He risked opening his eyes. The gray dragon flew near the red, Bolthos clinging to its leg. Branston’s stomach jumped as he saw the landscape. It passed quickly, hills and pine trees flying by. He closed his eyes and cried, both in pain and fear. Wind pulled at his hair, and his cloak hugged his body. In time his arms grew sore, and just as he was wishing it would end, the creature dove.
His body grew rigid, as did his grip as the world seemed to tilt, and he feared falling more than before. If he released, he would fall.
The dragon soon evened out, and landed. Branston fell back as its leg muscles rippled, and he groaned as he hit the stone.
He whimpered and held his arm up. His legs too tired to move. Had that really been a half hour? It felt like longer.
The gray dragon landed, and Bolthos fell off the foot.
“Help!” Bolthos called.
Branston rolled over, blinking tears from his eyes. Bolthos was struggling to rise.
Branston looked to the red dragon. Roar.
He flinched as the dragon obeyed, the sound thundering in his ears.
“We have control!” Bolthos shouted as doors opened.
The red dragon growled as armored men came close.
Don’t attack! Branston commanded. Let them approach. The dragon backed away.
“Get him to Avless!” Bolthos said, rising unsteadily.
Branston couldn’t get up, his legs were weak. When he rolled onto his side he couldn’t prop himself up.
An old man appeared above Branston, frowning.
“Suck on this.” He offered a small fern with veins of blue.
“What is it?” Branston said. His voice was distant in his ears.
“Bite it, and suck. You will fall asleep and I can begin healing,” the man said.
Branston’s vision blurred, but his eyes were dry. He opened his mouth, and the man dropped the fern in.
“You’re going to be okay.”
The rain had eased to a light drizzle, if still dense. Faldashir peered through the darkness as the road came to a rise.
Yes, there stood Tallis Tower. A silhouette on another hill well off the road. Few windows showed dots of orange light. He looked to the treetops, feeling as if he would fall. Veresses was flat, for the most part, but Takinthad was full of ridges and hills. The canopy swayed with the wind that pulled on Faldashir’s cloak, but no break allowed him to see the ground below.
“Is that where we’re going, Commander?” Robert asked. Behind Faldashir, men shivered. He had only brought a dozen, the healthiest since the battle, and they pulled their cloaks and hoods against the aggressive drizzle.
“Yes,” Faldashir said. Louder, for the whole company, “Keep eyes peeled, these are our allies, but they might not know it until we reach their leader.”
A chorus of “Yes Commander” fell on Faldashir with little notice.
“Let’s ride.” Faldashir urged his horse forward, wincing as pain lanced through his knee.
The hill proved difficult, the road muddy. The going was slow and the horses reluctant. One man cursed at his horse many times going down the slope.
As the ground evened out, Faldashir looked to the treeline. “Turn right.”
As the rustling treetops gave shadow, he looked around. This noise made it easy to sneak up on somebody.
“Speak loudly,” Faldashir said. “We don’t want to startle our allies. Was the blacksmith buying weapons and armor?”
“Yes, Commander.” Two men spoke in unison, but one spoke after. “He was wary at first, saying the dead’s equipment is cursed, but we offered a good deal.”
“Good,” Faldashir drew rein and raised a fist. The company stopped. A cluster of men stood ahead. Five, it seemed. Longbows and swords stuck out in the darkness, the men barely more than silhouettes. “Hail!”
The men moved at once, swords rasping from scabbards and bowstrings creaking against the draw.
“We’re friends!” Faldashir raised his hand. “We’re here to see the Prince.”
One man stepped forward, moon beams illuminating his scowl. “Speak the code.”
The man raised a hand, and his fellows eased their weapons. “Good. Follow us.”
The Takinthad men turned and strode away, Faldashir and the Veressans following.
“What’s happening, Commander?” a soldier asked.
“That is for me and the man I’m meeting to know.”
“The Prince?” Robert asked. “These men are Takinthites, why are you meeting their prince?”
“Enough questions,” Faldashir commanded.
The ground rose steadily, soon the tower came into view. Men surrounded the base of the tower, drizzle tapping their armor.
“These man are here on behalf of King Dendlo,” said the Veressans’ guide. “Take their weapons, and their horses, and let us pass.”
Faldashir dismounted, grunting at the impact to his knee. “I will be the only one entering. These men are simply here because the land is dangerous. Are you wary of the creatures that prowl?”
“Yes,” said the Takinthite, turning to him. “Wraiths, and worse.”
“Good.” Faldashir took off his sword belt and handed it to a Veressan. “I am unarmed now.”
Still a soldier came forth and patted him down for hidden weapons. Faldashir growled a warning when his knee was struck.
“He’s clear,” the soldier said, taking his place and his spear.
“Good, follow me,” said the man who had led the Veressans. He wiped soaked hair out of his eyes and turned to the door. With a knock, the door opened.
Faldashir strode past the guards, through the door. The room was simple; stone walls and floor, a wooden staircase wound up the wall. A long table sat in the center of the room covered in lit lanterns and candles, two pewter pitchers and a half dozen goblets.
Five men stood before the table, two of them armored in mail beneath the Sun and Star tabard, armed with swords. The other two wore gray livery, bearing a red hand gripping a sword on their front. The Steel Grip, Faldashir had heard it called. The emblem of the Takinthad prince.
The fifth stood in the center, and was the man Faldashir had come to see. His red coat flowed near to his knees, the hem and sleeves worked in gold scrolls, the collar coming up just below the young man’s shaven chin. A hooked nose hung over a thick mustache, and eyes filled with displeasure watched Faldashir walk through the door.
“Good evening, Prince Othderis,” Faldashir bowed his head as the door closed behind him.
“This is Dendlo’s agent, my Prince,” said the guide.
“Good,” the Prince said, “You may resume your patrol, Aniz.”
“Yes, my Prince.” The man left.
The Prince raised a hand, bejeweled rings on each finger flashing. “Come closer.”
Faldashir obeyed, stopping a few feet from Prince Othderis.
“Care for some wine?” the Prince asked. His voice was high, almost friendly, but filled with stress.
“Thank you,” Faldashir said, taking the goblet offered by a servant. “You know why I am here, I hope.” He suppressed a cringe, the wine was more sour than he was accustomed.
“Yes,” the Prince sighed. “Everything is in order.”
“You’re certain?” Faldashir stopped the goblet as it touched his lips. Too sour. “The people could rise up, the soldiers may fight back, if everything isn’t planned.”
“I know what I am doing,” the Prince’s voice darkened. He ran a hand through his black curls and said, “The gods told me I will be accepted, by most.”
“Most?” Faldashir lowered the goblet. “You need them all to accept you. Those who don’t may be just enough to poison you, or put a knife in your back. Especially with the Breach Wardens dying, you’ll have as many enemies as your father, and you’ll take on more soon enough.”
“It’s a necessary risk.” The Prince took a goblet, his rings tapping the pewter. “You’re still doing your part, I hope.”
Faldashir sighed. “Yes, I am.”
“When it’s done, hold the fortress until I arrive.”
“I will do that.” Faldashir drank the wine in one gulp. “When should I strike?”
“As soon as you can,” Prince Othderis said sadly. “Make his death quick. I don’t want him to suffer.”
Bolthos strode from one tower to another. His hood protected him from the rain, and his blank face gave no hint of his anxiety.
“Good evening, Bolthos,” said a servant carrying a box of scrolls.
Was his message in there? For a week and a half he waited for his message to arrive. He checked the pigeon tower every night, and the keeper of messages was in on his plan. Nobody but Bolthos would get his message.
Opening the door, he strode into the candle-lit room, his eyes adjusting to the light.
Casting back his hood he looked to the keeper. “Any word?”
The old man turned with a scroll in hand, the seal unbroken. “This came for you only a minute ago.”
Bolthos looked to the staircase, which led to the room high up where the pigeons were received. “Give it here.” He stepped across the small room, snatching the scroll.
Breaking the Steel Grip wax seal, he unfurled it and read the tight blocky writing.
The Shift arrives in three days.
Bolthos rolled up the scroll and turned to a table. Holding the paper above a candle, the message was seeped in flame. The paper curled and fell in smoldering pieces.
“Soon?” the keeper asked.
Bolthos nodded, watching the flame envelop the scroll. “Soon.”
END OF CHAPTER SEVENTEEN