The sequel to my first book
You need to read the first book to understand fully this sequel
The Dragon Legacy - Book Two
The dragon glided effortlessly, neck, outstretched head into the wind. His wings beat in rhythm, cutting through the air with an economy of motion. Sunlight reflected off his scaly body, to bathe the dragon and his rider in a corona of blue-tinted light. The dragon-rider held her head back, her dark hair blowing in the wind, a look of ecstatic joy played across her face. Not since her father’s death did Emeldra feel this much at peace. Neither did she have much time to spend either by herself or with Matra. Now, queen of Ladlian with all the responsibility that went with it; as Marcus and Tolvarn kept reminding her. Even Matra scolded her once for complaining overmuch about her duties. Emeldra sighed it wasn’t that she didn’t take her responsibilities seriously or neglect them. Indeed the opposite was true. Emelda carried out her duties as ruler of Ladlian with meticulous care and great enthusiasm. It was what she was born to do and trained for most of her life. She was not without her limits though, the endless domestic and foreign affairs of state, took up most of her time. There were the everyday matters of governance of the castle that needed her attention as well. Emeldra needed time to call her own reluctantly, both Marcus and Tolvarn agreed. Matra as always sensitive to her needs, in spite of what he might say to the contrary; so he persuaded her advisors that she needed a break from the pressures of ruling of the country.
Matra lost altitude as Castle Talmon appeared on the horizon turning; his wings beat once, twice then stretched wide as he glided over treetops. The wind whistled over his back, around Emeldra stinging her face and singing in her ears. Below a town came into view several people looked up and started shouting and waving excitedly. Emeldra couldn’t hear what they were yelling waving back she laughed delightedly.
“They are shouting; it’s the Dragon Queen,” Matra said.
Emeldra felt troubled as she answered. “Oh, I’m not sure I approve of being named Dragon Queen. I hoped they would’ve tired of calling me that by now.”
She had more than one reason for not wanting to be known as the dragon queen or princess. Her announcement of betrothal to Matra though mostly accepted caused consternation in some quarters of Ladlian society. Also, she was unsure if the dragon hierarchy would take kindly to what might be considered a slight on dragon kind. As Castle Talmon drew nearer, Emeldra sighed soon she would be embroiled in the political intrigues of Ladlian society once more.
Matra read her thoughts deliberately leaving out any mention of trouble amongst the nobility as he spoke. “None the less, it is a name they have given you. Have no fear no dragon is insulted by your people calling you so, the opposite is the case.” Matra circled over the castle in a descending arc, gradually drawing nearer the wooden ramp built especially for him. It allowed him to land safely without endangering anyone on the ground. it also made as Matra explained to Sir Halwain for a short quick lift skyward when in a hurry.
Sir Halwain and Marcus Lanton waited nearby with one of the many Amadon maidens who now stayed at the castle. Hedra returned home to deal with growing troubles with the Adoin, the ruling class in Amada. Hedra told Emeldra a little about her home country and what Emeldra learned appalled her. Women had no rights in Amada and were treated not much better than slaves; in fact, women were freely bought and sold even though the practice was against Amadan law. The Adoin turned a blind eye to such methods. According to Hedra, the Adoin turned a blind eye to just about anything if it suited them; murder included. It was how the maidens came into existence in the first place as retaliation to a corrupt male-dominated system. The maidens were considered outcasts. The Adoin more recently put a bounty on every maiden captured dead or alive. Emeldra found herself scowling as they landed she was determined to do something to alleviate the maidens situation one way or another.
Jace ran as fast as his twisted leg would let him, behind he could hear the sound of the village youths thrashing through the bushes in their pursuit. He took a moment to catch his breath and curse his luck. His friend warned him that stealing would get him into trouble. Jace would take no charity from anyone; he survived by himself since his parents died of the quickening fever until now. He was five back then. Now sixteen, he worked when able, for food and a few essentials; he even lived off the land for a while. Times were hard in the village lately though; so he took to stealing food to survive. Jace didn’t consider himself a thief; he took only a little from those who could spare it.
The sounds of pursuit grew nearer gasping for breath, Jace ran cursing the fates that would see him born with a crippled left leg that hampered his getaway. There was a small chance of escape if his friend was there where they always met. He knew he would be safe. No one, especially the village youths who now pursued him after seeing him steal the food from the baker's shop; dare face his friend. Maybe some of the men in the village might try. The youths hadn’t thought to seek help before giving chase, though.
If he could keep going a little longer, the shouts from behind grew louder and jubilant now as they spotted him. Jace hobbled over a narrow stream; trees seemed to pass in a blur. Heart pounding, turning downhill, he slipped and slid; stones bounced and fell in front of him. He caught his jacket sleeve on a gnarled tree stump tearing it free. Jace reached the bottom stumbling through a thicket of evergreen trees; pine needles lay thick on the ground. The sounds of pursuit momentary fading, then he heard them coming down the slope; gasping for breath Jace reached the clearing. The land bear here; blackened tree stumps stood testament to an intense and relatively recent fire. A few trees, even on the outer edges of the clearing; were also scorched. There was no sign of his friend though, Jace thought despairingly, as he fell face down on the ground unable to go any further they would have him now for sure he could hear them. A cool breeze rose to fan his wretched body.
“Maybe my heart’s given up on me, and I’m dead. Save all that trouble of having me hanged for stealing.” He wanted to laugh at the irony if he could but didn’t have the strength. His chest hurt, and his whole body ached. He heard shouts close by followed by cries of dismay. “No, I’m not dead yet,” he spoke aloud, rolling onto his back. Jace lifted his head, looking up at the setting sun peered through gaps in the trees. Shafts of sunlight highlighted a large dark mass which towered over him. As his vision cleared the shape became that of a dragon! Moving ponderously about its wings seemed to span most of the clearing flapping in an agitated fashion. ‘You came! You came!’ Jace said, in a rasping voice, he let his head flop back on the ground and gave a sighing breath.
“No, you are not dead yet!” Said a voice in his head that made him want to laugh and cry at the same time. The dragon’s tone conveyed an implacable if somewhat droll judgement on Jace’s predicament yet also managed to put scorn into the sending. “You are my friend Jace I felt your cry for help, your desperation, why would I not come.” It was a statement of fact, not a question. The dragon bowed his head to regard Jace solemnly.
Jace suddenly felt humbled by the dragon’s simple statement of friendship and trust. He could sense; however, the dragon was leading up to something, whatever it was it was making his friend unusually hesitant. “What’s the matter Soltin is something bothering you? If it’s my stealing food, I promise I won’t do it again not after today. I won’t be able to go back to the village now, anyway.” There was a note of resignation in Jace’s voice. He sighed, wondering where he was to go now and how he would survive.
Soltin lowered his head until he at eye level with Jace his eyes seemed to mesmerise Jace so that he found himself staring back, unable to move. “You have heard of the dragon that resides at Castle Talmon?” The dragon asked abstractly.
“Why. I mean that is, of course, everyone has heard of the great dragon lord who helped defeat the evil dragons and the Dragon Princess some say she is a Queen now too.” Jace wasn’t sure why his friend asked him this. It made him think though of how much he would like to meet the dragon lord and the princess, especially the princess for she is believed to be beautiful. But they were far away in Ladlian, and he a disabled beggar boy from Deryl. He had as much chance of seeing them as seeing the King of Deryl.
“I am a dragon, and you’re my friend!” Soltin sent breaking up Jace’s train of thought.
It took a while longer for him to realise what the dragon was saying. “You would take me to see the dragon lord is that what you are saying? Can you, I mean, is it possible, would you do that for me?” Jace spoke quickly; his words jumbled together.
Soltin blinked his eyes still fixed on the boy. “I can do that; you know then that Matra Fangdragor or the dragon lord as you call him can shapeshift.” He raised his left-wing flapping it restlessly.
Jace broke from the dragon’s stare his eyes widening in surprise Soltin said he would take him to see the dragon lord. No, wait he said he could do that not that he would. And oh, yes he mentioned about the dragon lord being able to change into a man. Everyone knew that though some didn’t believe it. Others said it was just some magic trick or an illusion. He once met an old soldier who fought with the King of Deryl when they defeated the evil dragons. He told him that the dragon lord when he shapeshifted was as solid and real as any man. “I met an old soldier once who was at the battle that defeated the evil dragons. He told me about how some dragons can shapeshift.”
Soltin bobbed his head sagely once again he held Jace in his hypnotic stare. “Answer me this then, which is he in truth, a dragon or a man? First a dragon, then a man or first a man then a dragon answer correctly and you may get your wish,” Soltin asked enigmatically.
It was to Jace a typical dragon type riddle laden with hidden meaning. The more he thought about it though, the more he thought there was something wrong with the question; was the dragon lord a dragon or a man — first a dragon, then a man, or the opposite. He took a deep breath; there was only one way he could answer.
“Both, he has to be both,” Jace answered, licking his lips nervously. The silence that past since his reply seemed to drag until Jace felt he answered incorrectly.
“Explain?” Soltin spoke at last fidgeting in place. He lifted his head no longer holding Jace with his stare; giving Jace time to think carefully before answering.
When the dragon brought his head down to meet his eyes again, Jace believed he had the right of it. “The dragon lord must be both a dragon and man two separate beings,” Jace paused shaking his head trying to find the right words. “Somehow joined together... I don’t know, perhaps only one is seen in the same place at the same time.” He struggled to grasp a concept he barely understood but somehow believed. His head hurt with the effort. He looked up to gaze into the dragon’s eyes.
Soltin lifted his head high and gave a short triumphant roar that startled Jace. He wondered if he been wrong all along and displeased Soltin somehow. Would his friend now turn on him? He started to slowly back away. Soltin’s head came down that quick that he didn’t have time to react; before he was held in the dragon’s hypnotic gaze again.
Soltin’s scaly features seemed to form a smile as he regarded Jace. “Good enough and an astute answer for a beggar boy.”
Jace exhaled relaxing he looked around a moment realising he had been talking for some time. He blinked, staring into the gathering gloom as evening approached. He would get his wish soon Soltin knew the dragon lord, and he would take him to see him and the princess. Excitement mounted within him until he could hardly contain himself still he dared not ask it.
“Do you trust me, Jace? ‘Soltin asked suddenly the question surprised Jace he felt sure Soltin was going to tell him he would take him to the dragon lord now. He felt disappointed more questions where were they all leading too
“Well, yes but I thought--”
“But you doubted me a moment ago do you trust me would you put your life in my hands. I would put mine in yours if the need arose, would you? Search yourself and answer truthfully,” Soltin interrupted.
There was a certain edge to Soltin’s words that made Jace stop and reflect on his doubts. The situation seemed laughably unbelievable when he thought about it — a beggar boy, communing with a dragon that could eat him or turn him to a pile of ash at any moment. He felt Soltin would never contemplate such a thing. “I’ve thought about it, and feel ashamed I doubted you earlier. I trust you with my life more than that I could not imagine not having you around as my friend.” He wiped away tears that came unbidden to his eyes.
Soltin moved his head from side to side; letting out a rumbling sigh his expression and eyes seemed to echo Jace’s. “Make yourself comfortable while I tell you something. After if you agree with what I ask you, we will see, we will see!” The dragon said, returning to his enigmatic self.
Jace sat on a burned tree stump and listened as Soltin explained why he was right in his answer about the dragon lord, and as near as could be in his explanation. Jace didn’t still fully understand it. When Soltin asked him if he wished to join, he answered with confidence, the answer a firm yes. Even though Soltin warned him, it may not work, and one or both of them might die in the process. Jace hoped if anyone were to die it would be him. Soltin shook his head with a look in his eyes that indicated he would not let that happen even if it cost him his own life. More proof as if needed that his faith in his friend was well founded. With calm acceptance, Jace sat on the stump, closing his eyes, placing his trust in the bronze dragon.
Soltin concentrated on his friend thinking of all the times they spent together sharing each other’s company. He thought of his friend's crippled leg and the hardship he endured. The fact that Jace resorted to stealing to stay alive did not enter the equation though Soltin would not condone it neither did he condemn his friend. He poured all his friendship, compassion, and his very life essence into the boy before him. Energies flowed from the dragon to his friend who now lay prone on the dark earth. A glowing nimbus of light surrounded them both gradually the dragon began to diminish in size and fade its substance flowing toward Jace. Thoughts and memories came to him; memories only a dragon would know. He felt strength grow in his limbs his crippled leg straightened no longer twisted — Minutes past before he got to his feet hardly believing what happened. He stood straight and healthy a presence condensed into ethereal form was a part of him now forever sharing his body mind and spirit. Giving him strength, vitality, wisdom also the power of magic; his to command also. The process somehow aged him he felt this instinctively, but only a few years at most. He was sure though that he would not be recognised as the same person. He fashioned a spell drawn from Soltin’s memories to attire himself in new clothes and made his way to the stream to wash and clean up. Stars glittered in the night sky as he looked up refreshed.
“From now I will be known only as Soltin,” the young man proclaimed aloud strolling back to the clearing. “Time to try the reverse.” He stood in the centre unmoving around him shafts of light penetrated the darkness; air displaced pushed outwards in a sudden gust of wind where the young man once stood now stood the dragon. With a triumphant roar, the dragon lifted into the star-studded sky. Eastward Soltin flew, towards Castle Talmon. The night air, feeling cold now as autumn approached; the spirit that dwelled within the dragon did not feel the cold. After passing over towns and villages, Soltin considering teleporting to the castle but the spirit within was new to all this; he didn’t want to overwhelm him. When castle Talmon finally came into view, Soltin decided to land outside the gates to give himself time to prepare.
“Dragon approaching,” the guard called from the ramparts.
Matra and Emeldra sat in the high hall enjoying their evening meal with, Tolvarn and Marcus. The duty guard entered to inform them a dragon arrived outside the castle.
Matra looked up with a cursory distant look “Ah, we are about to have a late guest for dinner,”
“Then we had better go and greet our guest,” Emeldra smiled. She turned to face the young woman waiting attentively behind her, “Jilena, would you inform the cook there will be another guest for dinner.” The woman bowed without speaking and left for the kitchen as Emeldra stood followed by Matra and her two advisors.
Soltin shapeshifted as soon as he landed, although he didn't quite get it right. Realising he wasn’t appropriately clothed, he hastily cast the relevant spell. He knew it would take practice to get it right every time. He felt excited and nervous as the gates opened, and the dragon lord and princess approached.
“Call him Matra, and she is not a princess anymore she is a Queen now, so its majesty. Neither is much on protocol though so don’t worry.” the spirit within informed him. It won’t be long before you're on first names basis,” the dragon said in an amused tone.
Soltin bowed deeply “Ah, Your Majesty... erm, Matra, I'm but a lowly beggar boy who befriended a dragon.”
Emeldra shook her head solemnly reaching out and gently making him stand tall. “No, never that, never that, you are much more, you are chosen,” She rested her hands on his shoulders and drew him close embracing him, “You are our friend so call me Emeldra at least in private,” she said smiling releasing him she stepped back.
Matra stepped forward grasping Soltin’s hand in his own shaking it firmly. “You are the one Soltin joined with, a wise choice.”
The former beggar boy felt overwhelmed and humbled by their words; he could see why the people loved their queen. She had a kind, gentle and compassionate nature. He saw too from a dragon’s perspective, her bright spirit shone, and Matra’s merged with Emeldra’s in harmony. After introducing her advisors, they all returned to the hall where food was laid out for them.
As they sat talking, enjoying the dinner, Emeldra suddenly felt very cold and shivered. The sensation soon passed, but not before Matra noticed. He gave her a concerned look, “What is it, Emeldra?”
Emeldra smiled with a shrug of the shoulders. “Oh, its nothing I suddenly felt a chill, but I’m fine now.”
“It is getting a little late in the year, and colder nights are here, perhaps we should think about lighting the fire in the evenings,” said Marcus.
Tolvarn looked to Emeldra with a nod of the head. “I’ll see to it in the morning; for now I better see the stewart about sorting a room for Soltin,” excusing himself he stood and left.
“I to must excuse myself, I want to do a little reading before retiring for the night,” Marcus said. Standing, he bowed and left, leaving Emeldra, Matra, and Soltin to talk alone.
Soltin told them of his life before he met the dragon how he stole to survive. Emeldra’s reaction humbled him as she shed a tear and once again embraced him. She reminded him of his mother he had only known for a short time. Like the dragon in him, Emeldra and Matra didn’t condemn him for his past actions.
Emeldra gave Soltin a warm smile, conveying the compassion she was known for, “I’m so sorry that you lost your parents and had such a hard life.”
Matra could tell what she was going to say next and said it for her. “You can call this your home now; come and go as you wish.” Once again, Soltin felt overwhelmed by the kindness of both Emeldra and Matra. Feeling, at last, he belonged and had a family. They talked a while longer until Tolvarn returned to show Soltin to his room wishing him a good night. Emeldra and Matra retired to their room.
“It will be nice to have Soltin with us,” Emeldra said, climbing into bed beside Matra. She smiled wistfully. “Now I will have two dragons to take me flying,” she teased entwining her arms around him.
Matra smiled as he pulled her close to him. “Oh, so that’s your plan is it,” They both laughed.
Emeldra walked through a landscape of white and grey shrouded in mist. Ice-covered boulders interspersed with towering glaciers. Snow lay deep on the ground. Drifts piled up against rocks and in the crevices. A biting wind blew, making it feel colder than she ever thought possible. Emeldra, folded her arms around her waist, clasping her hands tight to herself shivering uncontrollably. Her breath steamed in the cold air, footsteps crunching on the packed snow. Suddenly she glimpsed a vague shape moving between the rocks. “Hello, who’s there,” she called; only the wailing of the wind answered her call. Cautiously she continued through the mist; Once more glimpsing a shape moving through the fog. Emeldra stopped, looking around sensing a brooding presence and felt eyes on her watching. Onward through the icy wastes, Emeldra trudged looking around nervously straining to see who or what the elusive presence might be. She sensed anger from the unknown watcher. Yet again, she saw a fleeting glimpse of what could be a dragon.
Then she woke!
Matra leaned over her with a worried frown, “Are you okay, Emeldra? You feel like ice, and called out in your sleep.”
“I’m fine, my love,” giving him a coy look. “But I like it when you are concerned about me.” She smiled sweetly, lifting her head and kissing him firmly on the lips. Emeldra explained her dream as they laid down again.
Matra frowned in thought. “Do you think the few red dragons that survived the battle on the Isle of Storms fled to Tulata and this was a vision about where they are hiding?”
“Maybe, I’m not even sure it was a dragon I couldn’t see it clearly,” she paused. “It may have just been a dream,” she said in conclusion. Though somehow she doubted it. She could tell from Matra’s expression he thought the same, but they said no more on the subject as they went back to sleep.
Casandra, daughter-heir to the throne of Cyomatro, sat on a rotting tree trunk eating bread and cheese. She sipped the warm tyna grimacing at its taste; usually, preferring it sweetened but she ran out of honey a day since; so had to make do. She threw away the dregs rinsing her cup with a little water from her canteen. Getting to her feet, strode over to where her horse waited, packing her belongings in the saddlebag. The surrounding woods suddenly seemed quiet. Without looking up, she took her sword from the scabbard tied to the horse’s saddle. A rustling came amongst nearby bushes, and five men stepped into the small clearing.
“Well, Well, what is a woman doing all alone in these woods?” A scruffy bearded man asked. Casandra guessed him to be the leader of the group. Apart from the one who stood back, they all looked dirty and dishevelled with a desperate look in their eyes.
Casandra stuck her sword in the ground and leaned on it eyeing the men coolly, “Minding my business as you should be doing.”
The man that stood back spoke out with a shake of his head. “I’ll have nothing to do with robbing or molesting a woman; it's not right. Besides looks to me, she’s more than capable with that two-hander.” He turned to leave, calling over his shoulder once more as he left, “Count me out.”
“Curse you for a no good worthless coward Rob Danvy. You're on your own don’t come crawling back later expecting any shares.” The bearded man retorted. His back turned to the others Danvy waved a hand in the air as he left.
The leader faced Casandra once more, giving her an appraising look. “No need for us to come to blows. You could join us how about you be my woman?” he asked, smirking the other three began to snigger.
Casandra stood straight removing her sword from the ground. She hefted it in her hand casually swinging it too and thro. “What cook and slave for the four of you as well as keep your bed warm at night. No thanks, apart from being ugly, your manhood is likely shrivelled and pox-ridden.” Casandra gave the leader a disdainful look as she spoke.
The leader’s face turned red, the veins standing out on his neck as he glared at Casandra, “Bitch!” he waved angrily at the other three “Don’t just stand there teach her a lesson,” he shouted furiously. Hefting his sword, all four men spread out swords at the ready as they advanced on Casandra
Casandra parried a thrust from one of three men while dodging an attack from another countering with a swing which opened the cheek of her first attacker. The leader stayed out of reach, letting the other three do the most of the attacking. One of the men lunged at her, his sword raised. Casandra ducked countering with a thrust that skewered the man in the chest — quickly pulling her sword free as the man collapsed dead on the ground. Keeping an eye on the other men as they circled more warily now. She parried another attack from the one with the cut on his face counter-attacking with a lunge that barely missed his side — turning it into an uppercut that caught the man in the throat. Blood spurted briefly from his neck as the man fell backwards dead as he hit the ground. The leader joined the attack battering against Casandra’s defences. The remaining henchman waited his chance, getting in a thrust across her midriff the sword tearing through skin and sinew but not going deep. Casandra gritted her teeth, biting her tongue as red hot pain seared through every nerve. Now angered at being careless Casandra swung her sword in a blur catching the man across his abdomen. A gaping wound opened spilling steaming intestines onto the ground. The man fell to his knees then face down dead. The leader started to back away. Casandra now caught in a frenzied bloodlust charged at the leader. Her sword held high she spun around with an overhead strike severing the man’s head. His blood-soaked body fell at her feet. His head sent spinning off to land some distance away.
Casandra went to her knees, gasping for breath holding her wounded side cursing she tore off a piece of her blouse to bandage the wound. Standing once more, she took a deep breath, trying to ignore the pain in her side; she cleaned and sheaved her sword, mounting her horse gingerly, leaving the bodies where they lay. Casandra wanted to put as much distance as possible from the grisly site. One hand holding the reins the other holding her side, she nudged her horse forward. She didn’t know how far she travelled or where she headed. Everything was a fever filled blur more than once she nearly fell from the horse. Barely able to keep her eyes open, it hardly registered on her consciousness that it was almost fully dark. Her horse came to a stop as she leaned forward in the saddle. Her eyes finally closing as she fell from the horse.
Casandra opened her eyes to a night sky peppered profusely with stars twinkling prettily like jewels. The crescent moon hung high in the inky darkness casting its light over the land. She raised her head, looking around close by a campfire burned. She groaned, feeling her side it still hurt but not as much. The wound cleaned and re-bandaged. Casandra winced as she pulled herself up to a sitting position a rustling came from nearby bushes, and she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Casandra tensed her eyes darted about looking for her sword seeing still fastening to her horse’s saddle well out of reach she cursed under her breath.
You're awake,” a man carrying an arm full of firewood appeared. He put the wood down, near the fire. “How is the wound? I cleaned and patched it up as best I could.”
Casandra frowned, as she tried to gather her wits and take stock of the situation she believed herself to be in. The man looked familiar it came to her then he was the man that walked out earlier before the fight. She had no reason to trust him; he could have taken her belongings and left her but did not. Instead, he tended her wound and stayed with her, “Why is he helping me?” Suspicious of him but curious about his motives as well. “You could have taken everything and left me for dead.” She studied his features carefully in the light from the campfire as he sat across from her. He was tall, with a thick crop of fair hair and lightly tanned face — his eyes, black, with a well-formed nose, and a mouth that turned slightly up at one end. He wore a leather jerkin over a white shirt and leather trousers with well-worn army-style boots.
He stared back at her, “As I said back then, I don’t rob women it wouldn’t feel right to me.”
“So if I were a man you would have taken everything and left me?”
He continued to stare his expression blank, “Well maybe, maybe not. I would’ve at least tended your wound, made sure you were all right.”
Casandra got to her feet; she half limped favouring side as she moved nearer to the campfire. “Then taken my gear and left me?” She queried as she sat down again, warming her hands over the fire.
He gave her a lop-sided grin, “Maybe,. the name’s Rob Danvy by the way, what’s yours?”
“Casandra,” she answered.
“Just Casandra for now.”
He nodded, “I see, by the way back there, what happen...”
“All dead,” Casandra interrupted.
He looked down a moment sighing, then nodded once more as he looked up, “I’d only been with them a short time I was planning to look elsewhere; knew it wouldn’t end well if stayed with that lot.”
Casandra frowned, there wasn't a lot about Danvy that seemed to make sense. That in turn made her more curious about him, which left her feeling torn because she did not trust him yet either. “You could have helped back there if you felt that way," her tone accusing. "By the way, did you follow me?”
Danvy shrugged his shoulders, “I could tell you could handle yourself, to be honest, I didn’t want to get involved. Call me a coward if you like, but I thought at least I owed them that much.” He paused, sighing as his eyes met hers. “I didn’t follow you, I came across your trail not far back and could tell by the way your horse was wandering you were in trouble.”
Casandra pursed her lips considering a moment, “Honour amongst thieves and murderers is it. How can you think that I doubt they would’ve done the same for you,” she exclaimed in rebuttal.
He sighed looking at her, irritation plainly showing in his expression picking up a log of wood he threw it on the fire; sparks rising from the flames as the log landed and caught fire, “Why don’t you get some more rest there is a settlement not far from here I’ll take you there tomorrow we can part ways then.”
Casandra stood walking gingerly over to her horse she got her sword and returned to her bedroll giving him a sidelong look. “Just in case,” she said, lying down with the sword at her side.
He glared at her then slowly nodded his head as she turned her back on him, Be like that see if I care. He thought as he sat watching her until she fell asleep.
Casandra woke she looked around seeing Danvy already up and waiting she ate a light breakfast. Neither of them spoke as she packed her gear; finally, she stopped and faced him. “All right - I’m sorry,” she pouted. “You’ve helped me when you could have easily left for me for dead I’m grateful to you,” she took a breath . “That doesn't mean I entirely trust you, though.”
He ignored her as he helped her get on the horse she winced still feeling tenderness in her side. Cassandra sighed, feeling guilty, “Are you going to walk all the way we can take turns riding.”
Danvy finally spoke as he regarded Casandra with an uncompromising expression, “You aren’t up to walking far yet, and it's not that far to the settlement in any case.”
Despite what Danvy said it was late afternoon before they reached the settlement which consisted of one street with a dozen or so buildings at the far end a chapel stood. Danvy pointed at the chapel. “There should be a pastor skilled in healing magic. He should be able heal you for a small donation," turning about to leave, Casandra caught his arm, “Wait,” she dug in her saddlebags and retrieved a small bag of coin. “Take this for your trouble and thanks,” she wanted to say more, that maybe he, was not such a bad person as she thought after all but couldn’t say it. He nodded his thanks turning he left her standing to watch him walk away.
Emeldra felt a headache coming on as she walked along the corridor to her study. Having just left another session dealing with pompous lordlings who thought only off there own interests and rivalries. Entering the study, she slumped in the armchair and sighed. Rubbing her temples to try and soothe away the headache she felt coming on. Lines of worry creased her brow as she reflected on the day’s events. Most nobles sided with her and approved of her actions there were a few whom she did get along with and did not agree with her becoming queen; or her betrothal to Matra. Their voices moreover were becoming loud of late as they tried to garner support against her. What worried Emeldra the most was their tactics were beginning to work; there was a recent increase in support in some quarters amongst the nobility for the dissenting nobles.
This was in part due to the policy her late father started off trying to integrate the Paenalirs into Ladlian society. There was still much hatred for Paenlirs who still occasionally raided across the border though only rarely now but enough to fuel tensions between the desert people and Ladlians. Emeldra suspected something else lay behind it. She couldn’t figure out what though. She put one of Doogan’s spies to work to try and get to the bottom of it and route out the exact cause behind the growing decent. Off course it was as yet only a minor problem, in comparison and there were more significant problems to deal with. She knew, however, if she ignored the problem, it would only grow like a festering wound. That was one of the many lessons her late father taught her – do not ignore the small problems lest they grow large and return to bite you when you least expect it.
Emeldra closed her eyes, trying to relax late afternoon sunshine shone through the opened arched window. The summer breeze rustled the drapes cooling the room a little even so the study remained stuffy. Finally, she got to her feet going to the window she held her head high leaning towards the window catching the breeze on her face. “Matra, where are you now?” She sent telepathically, he and Soltin left early morning to scout the border to make sure there were no further cross border raids. She fingered the heartstone still around her neck although its power mostly exhausted now it still aided her a little telepathically. Emeldra refused to part with it now even though Matra told her she didn’t need it anymore. The heartstone helped save her life more than once and was a symbol of their love as far as Emeldra was concerned; she would never part with it now.
There was a brief pause before Matra answered, “We are on our back Emeldra all is quiet along the border.”
“What’s for supper? I’m hungry.” Soltin put in, Emeldra could tell that it was Soltin speaking the tone of his sending was different from Matra’s.
Those less experienced would struggle to tell who it was until they said who they are. Emeldra, however, was more experienced and stronger in telepathic communication than any human and even better than some dragons, according to Matra. Few sorcerers alive equalled Emeldra in the arcane arts also; so much had her power grown. Marcus told her once that he believed in time, she would surpass even those few. Emeldra laughed it off disbelieving. She knew her skill had improved thanks to Matra’s help, but surely not that much.
Realising she hadn’t answered Emeldra shook her head breaking her train of thought she smiled, “It's your favourite Soltin..”
"What? A nice fat cow!" Soltin sent in answer.
Emeldra laughed, "Let us be a bit civilised, shall we. That's the dragon speaking, the man in you prefers game bird pie."
"He is trying to tease you," Matra sent his tone tinged with amusement.
"I know he won't get any pie if he doesn't behave himself," Emeldra sent trying to be serious though she still couldn’t help keep the laughter from her tone. Emeldra watched as the two dragons appeared near the castle. First Matra landed on the ramp shapeshifting followed by Soltin. She left the study to go and greet them as they walked towards the castle entrance.
“You had the same dream again last night?” Matra asked Emeldra after breakfast the following morning.
Emeldra pursed her lips and nodded absently, “Yes, I’ve had it several times now, but I’m still not sure if its a dream or a vision or even if it is a dragon in the dream I never see the watcher clearly.”
Matra frowned concern showing in his expression, “It's undoubtedly a vision it is beyond a coincidence to have the same precise dream that often,” he paused thinking. “What it means I don’t know and why you are the one suddenly having visions. I don’t know what to make of it.”
Emeldra smiled grabbing Matra by the arm and entwining her arm around his, “Well I’m sure it’s nothing serious I didn’t feel under any real threat in the vision so let's not dwell on it for now.” They walked along the corridor to the throne room arm in arm. “Doogan is due back from Amada any day now I’ll be interested to know what he has learnt about is going on there,” Emeldra said as they stopped outside the throne room.
Matra combed a hand through his hair as he faced Emeldra “He’s there under the pretext of setting up a trade deal with the Amadans, are you still intent on going there?”
“Yes, my love, all being well as soon as Doogan returns I intend to make all the necessary preparations to travel to Amada,” Emeldra said in a tone that brooked no argument.
Matra could only nod in agreement, knowing it would be useless to try and talk Emeldra out of it. He felt something strange was going on in Amada something very wrong, but he couldn’t say what. Lately, he began to feel uneasy, the fact he stopped having visions disturbed him, and now Emeldra having a recurring vision troubled him the most. Matra kept his troubled thoughts to himself Emeldra had enough to worry about at home with some lords causing trouble. He considered it would be wiser to stop any dissent at home first before going to Amada, but wasn't sure if he could convince Emeldra.
He became aware Emeldra was staring at him, “What is it, my love?” She asked with concern.
Matra snapped out off his revelry, giving a cheeky smile. “Oh, nothing to worry about Your Majesty, shall we,” he out-stretched his free hand as the courtiers opened the doors for them to enter the throne room. Many nobles and merchants awaited them as they walked down the centre aisle.
Emeldra seated herself on the gold throne with Matra sitting on her left; she sighed, preparing herself for another day of mentally sabre-dancing, and negotiating the vagaries of diplomatic policies of the nobles and their concerns. As well as solving everyday problems, raised by her people. Near the end of the day’s session a noble stepped forward bowing before Emeldra. She sighed, scrutinising the noble carefully her demeanour one of casual indifference. Inside she was fully alert and on her guard.
“Is this the lord Joskin whom you suspect Emeldra,” Matra spoke telepathically.
“Yes, can you read his thoughts?” Emeldra sent in answer.
“Not clearly, I know he fears me, also he doesn't want to steal your crown,” Matra paused. “Rather, he wants to be the hand pulling strings behind the throne.”
Emeldra frowned, staring at the lord more intently making him squirm and fidget nervously. “I see that will never happen as long as I live,” she sent firmly.
Matra gave a quick sideways glance at Emeldra, “Easy, Your Majesty you're making everyone nervous besides lord Joskin,” Matra sent with a little humour though there was an edge to his sending also.
Emeldra briefly looked around the throne room before letting her gaze fall on lord Joskin once more. “My lord I trust you are well and your good wife,” she paused forcing a brief smile to cross her face. “What matter is it you wish to bring before us today?”
Lord Joskin gave an exaggerated bow, “Ah, Your Majesty, I hesitate to bring up this matter once more. Erm, I know you wish to respect your late father’s wishes to continue this policy of integrating the Paenalir with our own. As you already know, however, the people living near the borders are concerned as are most of the people of Ladlian. They do not trust the Paenalir; there is still too much hatred for them,” he paused for effect and gave a sly smile. If only the queen would drop the ludicrous idealistic notion of her late father’s, and if I could get her away from the influence of this shapeshifter. I'm sure I could control this headstrong young queen. “There is already some unrest in Hargwen if you continue with this policy it may cause further unrest, he paused again licking his lips nervously, “ Erm, ah, I fear this could lead to a possible rebellion later,” he hoped he had not gone to far this time.
Emeldra gave the lord a cold stare, “Are you sure it’s not just you and a few other lords that are worried for themselves?” She paused her eyes drilling into lord Joskin’s face. “In any case, we thank you for your concern, my lord, we will take what you have said under advisement. In the meantime, the policy stands – understood,” she finished flushed with barely controlled fury at Joskin’s inferred threat of possible rebellion.
“Ah, yes Your Majesty, Joskin, flushed crimson bowed and backed away mingling amongst the people once more.
“There is someone behind him, but I cannot tell who it is clearly,” Matra sent.
Emeldra calmed herself watching lord Joskin retreat, “I know my love but who? I have tasked one of Doogan’s spies to keep an eye on him perhaps we will know soon who is backing him,” Emeldra felt drained glad that the day’s business was nearly over. “Can you not influence lord Joskin's mind to try and dissuade from his present path?”
“My dear one, you know Marcus always exaggerated my ability to influence peoples minds. I can only give them a nudge in a specific direction if they already are beginning to think in that way. Even then if they have strong willpower it may not work. Besides, you know I do not like to interfere with peoples free will regardless.” Matra’s tone of sending could be considered as condescending by some. Emeldra, however, detected Matra’s need to stress his limitations in this area and his regard for privacy and free will.
Emeldra sighed, “I know Matra, you are right, and I agree with you. Damn, it! It's so frustrating at times, that I just wish for an easy solution to at least one problem for once.” Her tone coloured by her sense of frustration and impatience she felt thus far in not being able to find out who is behind the rebel lords.
Having left her horse at the campsite near a stream, Casandra continued up the mountain on foot. The terrain too steep and rugged here for her to risk her horse any further. She hoped the horse would still be there when she returned; otherwise, it would be a long walk home. She trudged through snow almost knee-deep as she climbed higher up the mountain. Stopping to take a rest; she had a feeling that someone or something followed her. Casandra looked back the way she came but could see no sign of being followed. She took in her surroundings everywhere; ancient fir trees grew to form a dense canopy. She could only see through gaps in the foliage. She shrugged and continued on; eventually, the trees began to thin out. Casandra noticed a tree with large scratch marks gouged into the trunk. “Mountain bear!” Casandra looked around more alert she moved cautiously listening to the slightest sound every muscle in her body tensed expectantly. She came across another tree with scratch marks the bear was marking its territory. She stopped taking a breath the air becoming thinner and harder to breathe the higher she went.
The bear caught Casandra’s scent long before getting near to her but turned away to avoid contact. Then something made the bear stop and turn back. Its eyes glowed red with malevolent intelligence. The bear quickened the pace lumbering onward following the scent through the trees and kicking up the snow as it went. Casandra heard the bear approach before she saw it. The animal broke through the trees a fair distance from her. Experience taught her that most bears usually just roar and threaten and rarely attack unless they feel threatened. If she stood still then slowly backed away, the bear would most likely leave. Something about this bear made her think the animal was probably crazed and intent on attacking. For a bear, it was the largest she had ever seen, covered in shaggy black hair with massive paws; it reared up on its hind legs and roared. Casandra had no defence against a bear this big her sword would be useless.
Downhill gave her the best chance of escape, seeing a relatively dense thicket of trees down to her left she turned and ran plodding through the snow as fast she could. The bear roared and charged after her; she made it to the thicket breathing hard the bear close behind. There was less snow amongst the trees allowing her to move more freely and faster. The undergrowth slowed and hampered the bear. Still, it came crashing through the trees uncaring about how many cuts and scrapes it took it pursued her relentlessly. To her dismay, the thicket thinned, and she could see a clearing ahead the bear would catch her in the clearing she had no choice but to keep going. As she reached the clearing, she managed to get her sword in hand while still running. She would not die easily struggling to keep moving she sucked in ragged gasps of air then stumbled and fell the bear entered the clearing she heard it roar. Casandra turned to look back as the bear roared again - the beast suddenly stopped in its tracks. Casandra saw massive talons dig into the beast’s sides and lift the bear of the ground. She looked up a gold dragon carried the animal aloft; the beast struggled to break free but to no avail.
The dragon carried the bear high and some distance away before dropping the beast. Casandra struggled to get to her feet as the dragon returned landing at the far side of the clearing a shimmering light surrounded the dragon then a woman with red hair appeared. “Cara, is that you?” Casandra finally got to her feet, brushing the snow from her coat as she watched the woman walk towards her.
“Are you all right? You’re not hurt, are you?” Cara said with concern as she finally stood facing Casandra.
Casandra struggled to calm her jangled nerves. She sheathed her sword her hand shaking a little, “Ah, no, I’m fine, thanks to you... I really thought my time was up then,” she gave a grateful bow to Cara.
Cara placed both hands on Casandra’s shoulders holding her tight she pulled her close the daughter-heir trembling in her grip. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner, child.”
Casandra took a deep breath regaining her composure; she gave Cara a curious look, “Have you been following me?”
“I’ve tried to keep an eye on you whenever possible it was fortunate I happened to be watching and not far away when the bear attacked. I think we should make camp for the night it will be dark soon then I can take you where you need to be tomorrow.”
Casandra’s eyes widened a look of alarm crossing her face, “Erm, you mean ah... ride dragon back?”
Cara nodded, smiling, “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of riding dragon back.”
Casandra shook her head, putting on a brave face, “Ah, no, no, afraid of riding dragon back me, of course, not don’t be silly,” she swallowed hard.
Cara laughed in delight at Casandra’s anxiety, “Well, I will go collect some firewood, you can clear the snow to make a place to have the fire.” Cara left walking into the woods as Casandra cleared a space in the centre of the clearing. Cara returned sometime later carrying firewood and a dead rabbit under her arms.
Casandra gave Cara a questioning look, “Isn’t the wood to wet to catch fire?”
Cara put the rabbit down and piled the wood in the space Casandra cleared, “I’ve magic remember. Stand back a little.” As Casandra moved back Cara waved a hand over the wood immediately it began to hiss and steam as the wood dried then caught fire. “That should do it.” She got her belt knife out, skinning the rabbit and cutting the meat into strips. Cara picked up a long piece of wood sharpening it into a point at one end and skewed a piece of meat on the stick she held it over the fire.
After filling her stomach, Casandra sat looking into the fire with a faraway look. Something troubled her. Cara waited for her to speak studying the daughter-heir carefully. “That bear... There was something odd about it,” she began. Cara nodded, waiting for Casandra to continue. “It seemed bent on attacking me regardless no matter what happened and its eyes seemed to have a strange red glow.” She looked at Cara, seeing a worried frown on her face.
Cara pursed her lips, looking across at Casandra, “I’m not sure as yet, but I think it may have been possessed.”
“Possessed! What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s possible it went mad maybe, but I’m not so sure. I think it was possessed by a demon.” Cara said her brow creasing in worry lines.
Casandra went still her mouth dropping open as she weighed the implications if Cara was right, “That would mean the demon lord is not far away if not already in this world.”
Cara nodded gravely, “The fact the bear attacked you means if I’m right, you are going to have to be more careful in future. Also, we must warn Emeldra, Matra, and the others just in case as well.”
“You could be wrong; the bear may have been driven into a blind rage by hunger or an old wound, festering. I've heard of cases like that before,” Casandra said hopefully. She shivered, feeling a chill down her spine, the possibility of the bear was driven mad by hunger, or an old wound didn't seem to fit in this case.
“Let’s teach you how to communicate telepathically,” Cara suddenly said.
Casandra scowled in frustration trying to concentrate, as Cara explained for the forth time how to communicate telepathically, “ It’s no use I ‘ll never get the hang of it,” she said exasperated.
“Calm yourself a minute, try and relax Casandra,” Cara said. She waited patiently for Casandra to calm herself. Seeing her more relaxed, she continued. “Right, now block out all distractions think only of me. No, don't look at me like that you can’t force what you say to pop into my head suddenly.”
Casandra stomped her foot, “Oh, this is impossible.”
“Just close your eyes and think of me. There is a distance between you and me think of it like ripples on the water send your thoughts out across those ripples to me. You can say them aloud if it helps,” Cara explained.
Casandra closed her eyes thinking of Cara she blocked out all other sounds. “Hello, Cara can you hear me?”
“At last, yes I can hear you, try it without speaking aloud now,” Cara sent.
Cara made Casandra practise more, sending simple messages between the two of them until Casandra felt too tired to continue.
Casandra opened her eyes squinting at the bright sunlight. She sat up looking around for a moment; there was no sign of Cara; stretching she, got to her feet, and walked over to where a trickle of snowmelt flowed down over some rocks dipping her hands in the water she splashed it on her face. Casandra returned to the campsite where a pot steaming tyna sat near the fire; getting her cup and some trail bread from her travel pack, she poured herself some tyna and sat near the fire to breakfast. After finishing up, she kicked dirt on the fire snuffing it out, and packed her gear, hoisting her pack over her shoulder.
“Are you ready to go now,” Cara sent.
Casandra looked around startled she hadn’t gotten used communicating by telepathy yet. “Damn it, Cara I wish you wouldn’t surprise me like that.”
“Like what?” Cara sent in an amused tone. “You will get used it soon enough,” she added. As Casandra looked up, the dragon blotted out the sun coming to land at the far side of the clearing. Though the clearing was large enough to hold a fair-sized army, the dragon, filled more half of it. Casandra felt tiny and insignificant, like an ant in comparison to the size of the dragon. “Come on, get on my back time is wasting,” Cara encouraged.
The nearer Casandra got to the dragon the more intimidated she felt by Cara’s presence. Though she had seen dragons on the Isle of Storms, this was the first time she got up close to one. Cara sensed Casandra’s awe and fear. “Don’t worry; I won't eat you or turn you into a pile of ash,” Cara sent.
Casandra took a deep breath climbing onto Cara’s back, “Is that supposed to reassure me,” she sent sullenly. She felt the dragon go rigid as muscles tensed ready to lift skyward. Cara took two steps leaning forward, and before Casandra knew it, they were in the air, the ground getting further away below them. She closed her eyes tight as the wind whistled around and over them. Casandra opened eyes refusing to look down. She held on to the ridge spine, so tightly, her knuckles turned white. As they travelled up towards the mountain peak, the air became colder despite the warm coat she wore Casandra shivered in the frigid air.
“I think you didn’t sleep well last night,” Cara said her tone still amused. “I think we are near enough to peak” she added. The dragon circled her talons the scrapping the treetops. “I’ll get as low as I can then you will have to jump there is no place for me to land here.”
Casandra cursed, “What! Jump I’ll break every bone in my body before even hit the ground.”
Cara circled lower crashing through the tops of the trees to get as low as possible; she struggled to stay aloft and not get entangled in the trees. “Don’t worry; I’ll find a gap wide enough where there are no trees you’ll land in the snow. “There ahead, a gap do you see it? Get ready to jump.”
Casandra looked down, feeling dizzy she forced herself to scan the treeline below, “Yes I see it” she moved into position to jump gritting her teeth she took a deep breath.
“Now,” said Cara.
Casandra held her breath, closed her eyes and jumped! The cold air stung her cheeks as she fell. A tree branch whipped against her side. Opening her eyes, she cursed the gods for their folly as the ground rushed up to meet her all too quickly. At the last moment, she felt an invisible force slow her speed of decent. She landed more softly than she was expecting, but still in a rough fashion; she slid downhill a little before stopping herself. Casandra struggled to her feet, brushing the snow from her clothes. “Well, that was exciting but let's not do it again soon,” she said.
“Are you unhurt?” Cara asked with concern in her tone.
“I’m fine, thanks for breaking my fall,” Casandra answered back.
“It was the least I could do after making you jump. I wouldn’t want that pretty face of yours damaged, and you may have broken a bone or two if didn’t.” Cara sent.
Casandra looked up to see the dragon circling above, “Thanks for the concern. Now, where?”
“The sword is somewhere close by and above you I can sense it’s presence almost like its calling to me. You need to climb higher,” Cara said inexplicably.
Casandra looked around studying the terrain for a way to climb up. She spotted a rocky ledge going up. Tree roots grew out of the ledge in places, making it difficult but not impossible to traverse. “There is a ledge going up that I might be able to use to get higher. What nonsense is that you’re talking about anyway - you can sense it? she asked in conclusion.
“I can't explain it myself I just know you are close to the sword. Start, up the ledge; I will follow you,” Cara sent
As Casandra looked up one more time before starting to climb. The dragon began a dive heading straight for her. “Shit! what is she doing?” At the last moment just as Cara was about to crash into the trees, she shapeshifted, no longer a dragon but human Cara fell to the ground landing gracefully on her feet unlike herself. Casandra shook her head, staring at Cara ruefully then turned to climb along the ledge avoiding the tree roots. Cara followed close behind in places they used both their hands to pull themselves up. The ledge snaked up the mountainside in places so narrow they had to press their backs against the cliffside and move along one step at a time. Casandra looked down as loose stones tumbled down under her feet.
“Once again remind me why I am doing this,” Casandra said a little sulkily, looking up she pushed herself tight against the rockface closing her eyes a moment she took a slow, measured breath.
“You shouldn’t look down,” Cara said her tone firm but reassuring.
Casandra opened her eyes again, nodding her composure once more restored. “It's too late to tell me that,” she quipped as she continued to move along the ledge. Finally, it widened and turned back on itself, coming to an end in a narrow plateau.
They stopped looking around, Casandra could see far into the distance the view was quite stunning. “Nice view. So now what we can't go any further,” she said, taking a deep breath.
Cara frowned looking about a single tree survived on the plateau old and gnarled with some dead branches sparse clumps of grass grew here and there. “The sword is here I can sense it.”
“I see nothing apart from that stunted tree and clumps of grass there is nothing here,” Casandra said, feeling a little frustrated. She walked the length of the plateau searching but couldn’t find anything. She started to walk towards the cliff face; suddenly the ground gave way under her a hole opened up she slid down stones and rubble going in front and following behind. She came to a stop getting to her feet she looked around considering her situation. She hadn’t fallen far and appeared to be in a small cave.
Cara appeared above, “Are you okay, Casandra?"
“Yes, but it is dark down here I can’t see beyond my nose,” Casandra answered, shaking the dust from her clothes.
“Hold on,” Cara left and returned with a short piece of deadwood, “Step back while I throw this down to you.”
Casandra stepped away, and Cara threw the piece wood down before Casandra could pick the wood it burst into flame at one end. “I was going to ask how I’m going to light it, but I won't bother,” she said, picking the torch up. She moved further into the cave. In the light from the torch, she saw a skeleton in rusting armour a shield lay nearby. “He looks to have been warrior judging by the armour and shield.” Under the dim torchlight, she caught a glimpse of steel, “The sword!” She reached down, grabbed the sword hoisting it over her shoulder. “I have the sword Cara,” she sent
“Good return to where you fell I've lowered a long branch to help pull you up,” Cara sent.
Casandra moved back to where she fell dropping the torch she put it out as Cara held one end of the stout tree branch. Casandra stretched and grabbed the other end with her free hand holding on as Cara pulled her up. Back in the light of day, Casandra examined the sword the blade had a little rust, and what looked like dried blood but appeared to be in good condition. The hilt and pommel seemed to be ordinary and were covered with dust and dirt. Casandra swore, “All the trouble I went to for this; it’s just an ordinary sword - Hells bells.” She slung the sword on the ground.
Cara gave her a stern look and picked the sword up, “It must be your time of the month you’ve been bad-tempered since you woke this morning.” She scrutinized the sword removing the dust and dirt from the hilt. “There is an indentation here,” she said, showing it to Casandra.
Casandra looked more closely at the sword, “Does a gem go there?”
Cara frowned in thought before answering, “No, its the wrong shape.”
“A heartstone,” Cara answered.
“You mean like what Emeldra has, does it need that heartstone?”
Cara shook her head, “No its a different kind, besides Emeldra’s heartstone has little magic left," she paused, thinking. "There are but a few headstones in this world no one knows exactly how many.”
Casandra sighed, nodding her head, “Now we need to find a bloody heartstone – just great.”
Emelda sat listening as the spy gave his report. A worried expression crossing her pale features, with Matra, at her side, Matra’s calm manner soothed her and gave some reassurance. They listened. Intently without speaking until the spy finished. Emeldra bowed her head a moment before speaking. “You are saying lord Joskin met with someone in Hargwen?” Emeldra queried.
The spy nodded, “Yes your Grace, he visited an inn there waited for some time. Eventually, a man came and whispered to him shortly after lord Joskin left,” the spy paused. “I followed him to a dark alleyway he met with a tall man I couldn’t see the man’s features well, but I couldn’t help but get a glimpse of his eyes because they glowed red in the dark.”
Emeldra and Matra looked at one and other with troubled expressions, “I see that will be all thank you,” Emeldra said. The spy nodded, turning about to leave he remembered something else.
“There is one more thing your grace,” the spy said hesitantly.”
“Yes, what is it?” Emeldra asked.
“I may have misheard, but I did manage to overhear part of the conversation,” again the spy paused. Matra nodded for him to continue. “Assassination was mentioned, but I didn’t get who only that it would happen soon.”
After the spy left, Matra turned to Emeldra, “ I think you should have guards with you at all times when I’m not with you.”
Emeldra frowned concerned, “I doubt Joskin and his cronies would try to assassinate me. Everyone knows I’m well cable of defending myself; besides, as you’ve said, he wants to control me not get rid of me.”
Matra nodded in agreement, “Yes, I know it’s just a precaution, “ he paused, his brow furrowed lost in serious thought a moment. “Then who do they intend to assassinate and what mischief are they planning?”
Emeldra’s concern deepened she had never seen Matra look this serious before, “I’m not sure. Do you think it was a demon Joskin met with... the red eyes?”
Matra stared at Emeldra intently, “I’m certain, or at least I’m sure the man must have been possessed by a demon.
Emeldra clasped her hands at her waist, rubbing them together a moment. As much as she was worried, she would not let it deter her from her present course. Matra’s features softened, and he smiled, seeing the look of determination on Emeldra’s face. “Doogan is due back tomorrow do you still plan on going to Amada?” He asked.
Emeldra nodded, scowling, “Yes, but I hope to at least find out what Joskin is up to first. I don’t want to leave only to return later to an even bigger problem here.”
Matra bowed his head a moment thinking, “Let's have Soltin keep an eye on lord Joskin discretely. Soltin has been restless; lately, it will give him something to do,” Matra said, looking at Emeldra once more.
Emeldra pursed her lips, “Good idea, he may find what the rebel lords are up to. Now that's decided, let's go and have dinner I’m famished.” She grabbed hold of Matra’s arm as they left the study arm in arm.
Doogan rose to his feet from the comfy armchair as Emeldra, Matra, and the old sorcerer Lanton entered the study. He believed he managed to enter the castle unnoticed in the way he used to in the past. Apparently, he had not allowed for Matra’s dragon abilities to sniff him out. Doogan sighed as Matra gave him a lope-sided grin. Doogan bowed to Emeldra and Matra, “Majesty, my lord.,” he paused, giving Lanton a nod of the head, “Sorcerer.”
Emeldra smiled warmly at her master spy, “How was your trip to Amada, Zack, did they agree on meeting me with and a delegation for trade talks?
Doogan scratched his chin, thoughtfully, “Yes, they agreed... maybe a little too eagerly for my liking, but there again, I’m suspicious by nature.”
“The Amadans are a devious people you should always be wary of their motives,” Markus Lanton put in.
Matra frowned, “What do they know about our Queen?” he asked.
Doogan considered, “They know of her, but they don’t believe her majesty is of any importance. Or a threat to them; forgive me for saying so your majesty,” Doogan paused, Emeldra waved a hand gesturing there was no offence taken. “I asked around, there are rumours about what happened here. By in large most people there don’t believe most of it. Nor do they believe in dragons shapeshifting or otherwise not having seen any for themselves,” Doogan concluded.
“That is unsurprising seeing as a lot of Cyomatrans still don’t believe that dragons exist either,” Emeldra said.
Matra nodded, “That could work to our advantage.”
Doogan looked down a moment looking up once more he spoke his mind, “Your majesty I take it your primary purpose on going there is to find Hedra?”
Emeldra’s features stiffened and her eyes flashed intensely, “Not just Hedra I’m going to help free all the maidens.”
Doogan looked at the others Matra said nothing while the sorcerer seemed to have reservations. “You can't hope to change what’s been a normal way of life there for hundreds of years with one visit,” Doogan cautioned.
Emeldra scowled, “Maybe not, but I can give it a try.”
Doogan is right don’t get carried away trying to change things the ruling class won't stand for it.” Lanton counselled.
Matra nodded after a moments thought, “They are right, let us just go and find Hedra and maybe we can help some of the maidens discretely while we are there. You can’t make everything right just like that; besides I sense something is off in all this.”
Doogan exhaled, knowing the queen had good people around her to advice restraint. Emeldra had always been headstrong even as a child he remembered, “So what about Joskin and his rebel lords?”
Matra chewed his bottom lip, “Soltin has been keeping an eye on him. He is still here and not doing anything to warrant suspicion. What’s more suspicious though is a couple of his strongest supporters have disappeared. I believe Soltin said they were headed towards Cyomatro.”
“That reminds me how is Casandra doing has she found the sword yet?” Emeldra asked, looking to Matra.
Matra nodded, “Yes, there is a but though!”
Emeldra gave Matra a curious look, “But?”
“It requires a heartstone,” Matra explained.
“Well, she is not having my heartstone,” Emeldra said, clasping her hand on the stone around her neck firmly.
Matra grinned, “Easy, your majesty - the sword requires a different kind of heartstone.”
“Oh, Erm right,” Emeldra said sheepishly.
Emeldra sat at the desk, staring out the arched window in the study. It was already the start of the harvest equinox. Dark clouds scudded across the sky, temporally blotting out the sun. Her brow furrowed in deep thought; as she turned back to face her advisors. Marcus Lanton and Tolvarn Halwain sat on the other side of the desk. Tolvarn, as always, sat up-right were as Marcus slouched in his chair. Emeldra smiled briefly, observing her two stalwart friends. They were so different in their approach to dealing with a problem. Tolvarn always looked at a problem from a military perspective and faced it head-on. While Marcus took a more cautious approach and looked at it from all angles before deciding which was the best way. That occasionally put the two at loggerheads. So it was with the problem they were discussing now the rebel lords and imparticular lord Joskin. Emeldra felt the warmth of the sun on her back; as it reappeared from behind the clouds.
“According to Doogan, Joskin and his supporters have been creating unrest along the Paen border, but we have no proof as yet. We should be careful and investigate more before making any rash moves.” Marcus said.
Tolvarn shook his head. “I might agree with you normally Marcus, however, lord Joskin is too clever to make it obvious that he has anything to do with the unrest. While we wait and investigate, Joskin could make a lot of mischief. We need to stamp this out before it gets out of hand.” He explained grimly.
Emeldra pursed her lips, tapping her fingers on the desk several times as she considered. Both Tolvarn and Marcus fell silent, “That’s if Joskin is really the one behind fermenting the unrest,” she said, thinking.
Marcus frowned, “You still think it is a demon or demons behind Joskin? If that is so, all the more reason to be cautious.”
Emeldra chewed her bottom lip, thinking for several moments. Then shook her, “No, I agree with Tolvarn this time, Marcus; if we wait to be certain it may be too late, we need to force his hand...” A knock on the door interrupted Emeldra. Matra entered with Soltin by his side. A bright smile lit Emeldra’s face that disappeared as quick as it came at seeing Matra.
Matra briefly smiled back, noticing the look on everyone’s face’s; he could guess what they had been discussing. “Still undecided what to do about lord Joskin?”
Emeldra shook her head, brushing a stray strand of hair from her face, “No, I have just decided,” she stared at all in the room with a stern expression.
Matra sighed, “I am not going to like it, am I?”
“Reading my thoughts?” she asked pertly.
Matra slowly moved his head from side to side as he answered. “No, I don’t need to; it will be risky knowing you, dear one.”
“You know me too well, my love,” Emeldra said, smiling once again.
Soltin frowned, glancing around the room at all the faces, “So by risky, you mean it could be dangerous?” He asked, silence and all the serious expressions; told him all he needed to know. “ I guess it looks that way,” he nodded, finally answering himself.
The following day Emeldra rode through the castle gates with a small entourage of knights and attendants. Tolvarn and Marcus saw her off. They stood watching in silence until Emeldra and her escort disappeared from view. Marcus finally spoke out, “I think the queen’s plan is too rash. We should have advised against it,” Marcus paused, stroking his beard. “If there is a demon involved, we know little about it nor what it is capable of. It could be very dangerous to go up against one alone,” he concluded worriedly.
Tolvarn turned to face the old sorcerer, his face stony, like Marcus; he had reservations about Emeldra’s plan. “You know what she is like when her mind is set on something. I couldn’t think of a better option, in any case, could you? Besides, Matra will be on hand if needed.”
Marcus shook his head in agitation, “I still don’t like it. We should have waited and gathered more information first.” Saying no more, they returned to the castle, both having their own worries about Emeldra’s plan.
Emeldra rode side-saddle on her favourite dabbled grey mare. She studied the terrain ahead. They passed close to a farmstead with livestock grazing in the meadows. Otherwise, the landscape was mainly flat with fields of lush green and stands of trees with their leaves beginning to fall. A cold breeze blew Emeldra wrapped her cloak tight around herself. The trail stretched out before her in an almost straight line, occasionally twisting as it skirted around unmovable obstacles. Before midday, they stopped to water the horses and have a bite to eat. As they set off again, a light drizzle fell from a grey sky arriving before sunset at the keep of lord Joskin. Joskin’s keep was more of a ranch house than a keep. At a glance, it was a sprawling mix of buildings with a low stone wall surrounding it and wrought iron gates. The main building was three stories high and extended randomly over time. Several outlying buildings were arranged haphazardly around the central keep.
The guards hurriedly opened the gates to admit Emeldra and her party. Emeldra could hear a commotion coming from the main entrance to the keep. “I’m at Joskin’s keep, my love,” Emeldra sent, riding through the gates.
“I know, be on your guard and keep in contact; something doesn’t feel right,” Matra replied.
“Don’t worry, I can take care of myself, Matra .” Emeldra sent dismounting and handing her horse to one of the stable boys that rushed to take their horses. There was no further reply from Matra. Breathless, lord Joskin rushed to greet her with an honour guard. Emeldra thought he didn’t look too surprised to see her though he appeared somewhat more nervous than usual.
Joskin curtsied, “Majesty, what a pleasant surprise; if you had given more warning, I would have better prepared to receive you in my humble home.”
Emeldra gave a pleasant smile while despising his fawning manner. “I thank you, lord Joskin,” she paused as the lord took her hand and kissed it. “If I had given prior warning, it wouldn’t be a pleasant surprise as you say would it,” she concluded, giving a slight titter as if making a joke as Joskin let go her hand.
Joskin smiled nervously and forced a short laugh in return. “As you say Majesty, the servants are arranging your room as we speak shall we go in,” he paused, outstretching an arm in the direction of the main doors. “Ah, I have another guest staying at present, the young lord Ansel of Cotwich. Will be joining us for dinner later. The servants will escort you to your chambers,” he added hastily. Joskin bowed and excused himself.
“Then I will see you at dinner, my lord and look forward to meeting lord Ansel,” Emeldra gave a wave of her hand, parting ways and letting a servant lead her to her chambers. “Why he is so nervous? Is it because of lord Ansel being here at the same time as herself?” Emeldra frowned, considering what she knew about lord Ansel. The young lord only recently took over from his late father, a staunch supporter of her father and now herself. She knew little about the son and never met him before now. “Is Ansel siding with Joskin? That seemed to fit why he is here and why Joskin is so nervous. Or maybe Ansel hasn’t decided yet, and Joskin is trying to win him over.”
The rooms lord Joskin assigned her were lavish and, as expected, fitting for a queen. Emeldra washed, combing out her long dark hair and changed. She wore a sky-blue gown with lace sleeves. She didn’t have to wait too long before a knock on the door. A well-dressed servant escorted her to the main hall. Everyone stood and bowed as she entered, waiting for her to be seated before re-seating themselves. The hall was well lit with chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and wall-mounted torches. A fire burned in the large open hearth at the far end of the hall. Coats of arms decorated the walls along with portraits of Joskin's ancestors. The other dinner guests were as customary Emeldra’s first captain of her escort, lord Joskin's captain. Lord Joskin himself and his wife and lord Ansel came alone. A flurry of activity began as servants brought in the meal. Emeldra glancing around the table at the guests. Joskin’s wife was a small, timid woman who barely spoke. She studied Joskin carefully, watching his reaction.
Lord Ansel seemed to be pleasant and well-spoken. Conversation flowed throughout dinner, mainly concerning everyday life in general. The subject finally touching on the border troubles when Emeldra brought it up near the end of dinner. The atmosphere suddenly became tense, and Joskin seemed nervous once again, giving lord Ansel furtive looks. Emeldra studied the young lord carefully; he seemed unphased by the change in the atmosphere in the hall. His demeanour became one of what appeared to Emeldra of arrogant indifference. After dinner, Emeldra excused herself as being tired and left the others still in conversation. Once again, a servant escorted Emeldra to her rooms; she considered how the dinner went. Something about lord Ansel made her uneasy. Her maid awaited her in her chambers; Emeldra sat on the bed, thinking for a few minutes. She finally came to a decision looking closely at the maid, patiently waiting.
Emeldra started undressing as she spoke, “Jilena, take off your clothes.”
The maid looked startled, “Pardon your Majesty!”
Emeldra ignored the maid’s startlment, “I want to change clothes with you, come on, hurry up.”
Jilena blushed, feeling more surprised, but she had been the queen’s maid long enough to know what she intended. “Majesty, are you sure this is a good idea?” She asked, starting to undress and hand Emeldra her clothes
Emeldra gave the maid a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Jilena. I’m only going to snoop around a little; I won’t take long. Wait here until I return.”
Jilena sighed, nodding, not feeling reassured but knew it would be useless to try and persuade Emeldra not to go. Emeldra peered out the door to make sure the coast was clear. She gave the maid a backward glance putting a finger to her lips before leaving closing the door silently. Emeldra kept her head down as would be the expected behaviour for a maid. Walking along the shadowy corridor, she passed a maid and a couple of servants about their business. One of the servants queried what she was doing. Keeping her head low, she gave a brief reply hoping it would be an acceptable explanation. The servant frowned then waved her on her way. Emeldra let out a pent breath as she continued. She turned onto a broader hallway that intersected with the dining hall, now empty. Turning left, she entered a long corridor. At the far end, just passing a brightly lit area, she glimpsed a figure that she thought looked like lord Ansel.
Emeldra quickened her step as the man disappeared down another hallway. Reaching the end, she stopped and peered down a shorter hallway. At the far end, the man she felt sure now was lord Ansel was just ascending a disused stairway. She paused, waiting for him to disappear from sight. She reached out to contact Matra. Emeldra hesitated, suspicions further raised being unable to get in touch with Matra. Someone was blocking telepathic communication—only a powerful sorcerer or a dragon had such ability as far as she knew—Emeldra shrugged, squaring her shoulders. She continued down the hallway pausing again at the foot of the stairs before cautiously going up the steps.
Emeldra stopped at the top of the stairs; a glimpse of moonlight shone through a partially opened door. Emeldra turned sideways and squeezed through the open door onto what appeared to be a disused balcony on the side of the keep. Hearing voices, she crouched down and crept forward. The terrace was expansive and curved so that Emeldra couldn’t see would what was at either end of the balcony. Keeping low and hugged the wall, she followed the sound of voices. Lord Ansel stood with his back to her, leaning over the balcony, apparently talking to himself. Emeldra spotted some old barrels ahead and snook behind them. Suddenly lord Ansel turned, looking in her direction.
“Who is there?” He asked in a harsh tone of voice. He stepped sideways, catching a glimpse of Emeldra. “What’s this a maid spying that is indeed unfortunate for you.” His tone becoming menacing. Emeldra stood head still down. Her eyes widened as she caught a glint in his eyes in the moonlight. They glowed red. Instinctively she raised a magic shield as lord Ansel outstretched a hand. A blast of powerful energy hit Emeldra’s shield, dispersing around it. She replied with her own energy burst catching the lord off guard. He shrugged it off with comparative ease. Ansel gave Emeldra an appraising look.
“Who are you? You’re no mere maid.” He still didn’t know who she really was. “No matter you will die here, I can’t have anyone seeing me here or using magic.”
Emeldra looked up, staring straight at the lord. “I think you underestimate my capabilities.” She threw another energy bolt at him. This time he turned the spell back on her. She spun around, reeling in pain as her own magic passed through her shield. She stumbled, falling half-conscious to the ground as Ansel closed on her.
“Ah, your Majesty, I might have known it was you. A pity you still have to die, though,” He said, about to cast another spell. A roar of rage sounded as a dragon suddenly appeared, crouching over Emeldra protectively. A bolt of fire from the dragon hit Ansel as he tried to dodge. The right side of Ansel’s face and his side were partially scorched as he made his escape by opening a portal to the void.