Introduction. The proud city of Voldar is
beautiful no more. It is here where the mad Caein first plotted to kill his own
father and in succeeding, he signed his life and soul away. And it is here where
Jenefra, Queen now that her father, brother and husband are dead, resists the
constant assault of the dragons laying siege upon the city and its inhabitants.
sound like none it had ever heard blasted into its mind with such force that it woke the ancient being from its unceasing sleep of centuries.
An agonising flare of bright, sharply cutting pain ran down through the side of its belly even as the sound went on and on before it was suddenly cut off, leaving a resounding silence behind in the recesses of its mind. The phantom pain lingered too for a moment before fading to whence it came.
Drawing itself up, the sinuous neck thrashed furiously from side to side as it realized what had just happened.
Somehow the impossible had come to pass. A dragon, eternal and infinite, was dead and its death shriek and dying agony had been felt across the unimaginable distances.
A dragon was dead.
Ol'dem'brey reared back its head and
roared, a prolonged bellow of fury and anguish, that shook the roof of the cave
with sympathetic vibrations as stones rolled loose from crevices and crannies.
The existence of dragons predated almost to the beginning when the Dream spilled forth and took tangible shape in the form of this world.
Only the Styr were more ancient than the dragons, they who were the first, but as ages withered and dwindled and new ones were forged from the fire and ashes of their predecessors, the elven kind had passed into legend and myths, spoken occasionally only in songs and stories by mortals.
But the dragons remained and they, like the Styr, were immortal.
But now, one of their race had been slain and vengeance would be exacted to the last drop of blood from those who had caused this impossibility to pass.
Ol'dem'breys golden eyes swivelled to the direction of where the shriek had emanated. Slowly, the beast lifted itself air-borne, surprisingly graceful in the air as opposed to its ponderous clumsiness on the ground.
Gliding upwards on the wind currents, its massive wings stretched to the span, the dragon flew powerfully over the Tandala mountains. Giving vent to a long, harsh outcry, it circled the vault of the heavens once as it called imperiously to its kindred.
Gradually, heeding the adamant-dragons summon, dozens of dragons crawled out from their respective lairs and took to the air, joining its flight, so many until the earth below was pitted with winged shadows.
Over miles of emerald green forests, barren deserts, deep valleys and streams of silver rivers, the Winged Death soared in their malignant dance.
A new age would begin.
Atonement had begun.
Voldar had been beautiful once. And even now, riding through the blistered and charred ruins of buildings that lined the streets, Katya could still see glimpses of that archaic magnificence - a miraculously untouched stature carved from purest alabaster in the form of a graceful dancing girl, intact intricately spires nestled here and there within blasted structures that had once been homes, a temple dome standing proudly despite the wreckage surrounding it, a testament of its faith.
A thin haze of smoke and soot covered the entire city, making it hard to breathe, and ash laid thickly on the ground. In the distance, there were flickering reddish lights as structures and buildings seemed to be still on fire.
She could see the grey castle walls that was Lord Maengolths fortress, rising in front of her, looming ever larger as she rode forth with each step, and her resolve strengthened once she observed that it was relatively whole. The only sign of obvious destruction was a few blackened buttresses and crumbling stone walls. The huge citadel was surprisingly unscathed considering the fact that the crux of the dragons attack was intended at this place.
Intended at Wengerim, whom in slaying Seargon the Eternal, had caused this hell to descend upon his own people.
For a brief moment, Katya was tempted to bring down all her seething anger to focus on Wengerim alone. Because of him and what he had done, her home was no more and her father was dead. But she could ill afford to bear grudges against the only person who might be able to help her find Ol'dem'breys lair.
Looking around, she saw makeshift shelters for refugees everywhere. Voldar resembled a besieged city and as with every city that had been under assault, beggars were also in multitudes. Seeing them, Katya felt a hot rush of damning guilt, dressed as she was in the clothes that the elves had given her and riding on a horse that looked more well-fed than some of the wretched that thronged the streets.
"Please, noble Lady, spare us some food."
A barely audible voice caused her to stop her horse and looked down at two small forms that were tugging at her boot. The two children who were begging her were woefully thin and their dirt-streaked faces, pinched with hunger. They were dressed in rags that hung off their skinny bodies but it was their eyes that hurt Katyas heart the most. Eyes that were brimming with a familiar hopelessness that she knew only too well.
She leapt down from her horse and rummaged in the packs that Arleiná had thoughtfully prepared for her journey to Voldar. Bringing out the remaining loaves of bread, she passed them down to the eagerly grubby hands. "These are all I have. Im sorry," she offered awkwardly.
Without a word, they grabbed the bread from her hands and scampered off into a dark alley.
Heaving a small sigh, she was about to mount her horse again when she found that a knot of beggars had gathered around her, their hands outstretched in wretched needing.
"Food, I need food. I havent eaten for three days."
"Lady, help us. Have mercy on us."
"My baby boy is dying, I need coins for a doctor. Help me!"
The circle closed in tighter and tighter until Katya could hardly breath through the stench of the unwashed bodies. The beggars voices rose high and shrilly until it took on a menacing edge that made the young girl placed a palm on the hilt of her fathers sword.
"I dont have anymore. Im sorry." Katya tried to push her way through but the beggars merely hemmed in more aggressively, trapping her as inexorably as they would an animal. "Let me pass, please," she said calmly and as authoritatively as she could.
Someone contradicted her angrily, "You have so much! You can surely spare us some!"
"Look at her hair! Look! She must be high-born!"
My hair? What is wrong with my hair? Katya wondered with some confusion but her attention was drawn away as the wailing voice of a woman screamed next in deep anguish.
"Its your kind that bought this misery on us! My daughter died in the attack! She was trapped in our house when the dragons came! I can still hear her screams when she was burning.... Mirial! Forgive me!" The womans shouting trailed off into painful sobs but others picked up her litany of grief, screaming and shrieking their losses at the bewildered young girl.
Katya shook her head frantically as grasping hands tugged her arms, plucked at her hair painfully. "No! Im not noble! Im like you!" she gasped out, trying to make them understand as the circle of beggars became a furious mob. "Let me go!"
"Liar!" Someone slapped her hard across her face and Katya clenched her teeth as she felt her lips split and a thin trickle of blood ran down her chin. "You and your kind deserves to die for bringing down the Winged Death on us!"
Katyas hand tightened on the hilt of the sword but despite her pain, she stayed her hand and did not draw Medocs sword from the scabbard. She did not want to hurt these people if she could help it. In a way, they were just like her, angry and grieving and needing a channel for their suffering.
However, the noise of the mob escalated and she felt the quality of the air around her changed into something ugly and threatening. Desperately swinging her head from side to side, Katya searched for an escape but found none. All around her were pale accusing faces and everyone had the same expression of embittered rage carved onto their visages like hardest stone.
She gasped out with shocked pain as someone unseen, without warning, hurled a small stone at her with unerring aim and it hit the side of her neck, grazing it. Bringing her fingers up, she touched the spot where the stone had struck and her hand came away stained with crimson.
Another man then picked up a stone from the ground, and then a woman did the same and then another and another and another and Katya realized that an execution was imminent. Her execution. For crimes that were not of her doing.
Fear reached up deep from her belly to grab her heart.
"Leave her be!" Suddenly, a new voice, deep and commanding, sounded above the noise of the crowd. "She has done none of you any harm."
The hate-filled shouts and cries of the mob dwindled to a low, hostile muttering as a tall man pushed roughly through the tangle of people to reach Katya. He held out a hand towards the young girl who took it after a moments hesitation. His fingers enveloped hers and the feel of his callused palm on hers was somehow reassuring.
"The Lady Jenefra has -- " The man started to say but was interrupted.
"The Lady Jenefra is blind to our plight! Look at us! No food, no homes! We are starving! And yet she does nothing to help us!"
The man who had interceded on Katyas behalf, set his mouth in a grim line. "She knows. Lady Jenefra sees your suffering and she is trying her best to aid all of you. Trust me. Trust her."
The same woman, whose dead daughters screams she can still hear, cried out, "You ask us to trust the word of a person who comes from a tainted line! Her brother killed Lord Maengolth! Caein murdered his own father!"
A wave of angry mumblings agreed with her but the tall man kept his peace and instead stared straight into each face of the crowd that had persecuted Katya and under his intense scrutiny, some started to slunk away slowly, shamefaced. A large number still remained, gathered loosely around but they made no move to stop the man when he turned and led Katya and her horse through. They merely stood there silently, staring at their backs until Katya could feel their undiminished animosity searing a hole between her shoulder-blades.
"Wait, what do you mean that Lord Caein has killed his father? Is Maengolth dead?" Katya was stunned as she followed her unknown rescuer. "Is he dead? Tell me! What has happened?"
The man turned back towards her and Katya saw that he was young, probably a few years older than she was, with a shock of dark hair that kept falling over one forehead. But his face was drawn with worried lines and made him seemed more adult. He was wearing a black shirt opened at the neck with a leather tunic over it and mud-stained trousers and boots. Innocuous clothing but well-made. Around his waist was cinched a sword and looking at him, Katya had the distinct impression that he probably knew how to wield it.
"Who are you?" he demanded tensely in a low voice. "Whatever possessed you to ride out into the city at a time like this? Are you so eager to reach Queprurs realm?" His gaze strayed over to Katyas hair and lingered there, his brow creased with frowning puzzlement. "Dont you know how dangerous it was for you to enter the city now, especially looking the way you do!"
"Whats wrong with the way I look?" Katya immediately clapped a hand on her head, feeling for herself the tight crop of curls that covered her scalp. It was short, she knew that, but her hair had been growing at a phenomenal rate since she had wandered into the Thaelon and already, tendrils were tickling the edges of her ears. It felt as hair should, soft and pliable but judging from the way the young man was staring at her head, like she had grown horns, Katya instantly had a strong need to peer into a mirror and see for herself.
Shaking his head with impatience, he spoke again, "Never mind about that. Lady Jenefra has given the command that all high-borns should remained within the fortress walls. Why have you disobeyed her?"
"High-born? But Im not--"
The young man grabbed one of Katyas arm and pulled her quickly down the street, not giving her time to explain. "This is not a safe place for us to remain. They may have let us go for the moment but I would not like to be around when they changed their minds. Come."
"Where are you taking me?" she cried out, panting a little from the pace the young man had set. Her horse, however, pranced cheerfully behind them as he pulled the animal along as well by the reins. "Let go of me!" she said indignantly, jerking her hand up and down frantically.
Against her resistance, he merely gripped her arm tighter and Katya was hauled helplessly along like a rag doll.
"Be quiet." he ordered a fuming Katya. "You are in enough trouble as it is."
"I will not be quiet! Not when Im being snatched off the streets! You could be a robber for all I know! Let me go! And let go of my horse this instant!"
"You could have been killed, you idiotic child!"
"I am not a child!"
"You were certainly acting like one with your foolish thoughtlessness." The note of scorn in his voice infuriated the girl who retorted back hotly.
"How dare you talk to me like...ack!" Katya yelped in surprise as her tirade was cut short when she banged her nose against a solid body that had stopped abruptly.
Rubbing her nose angrily, she glared at the offending back that paid no attention to her whatsoever.
"Open up!" he called out and Katya realized her rescuer had bought her to the fortress of her fathers ex liege lord.
The gray, pitted stone walls of the stronghold stared forbiddingly down at her and before them was an immense, metal gate that was forged in the shape of an great eagle. Thrice the height of Katya, the tips of its wide-spread wings stretched to the ends of the gate.
"I am Lysander, son of Vaelaron! I charge you to open the gate!" The young man shouted with a tinge of impatience.
Vaelaron? Katya started with surprise when she heard. Vaelaron was the name of the man who had succeeded Medoc, when he retired to marry her mother, as the Captain of the Guards as well as the rank of swordmaster. Could this Vaelaron be the same person? If so, then it was little wonder that the young man who had helped her, carried with him an air of confidence and military authority when confronting the angry mob.
From far above, a head abruptly peered over the fortress wall and withdrew just as quickly. Then, slowly, the gate with the symbol of the eagle swung opened with a ponderous creaking sound as hidden mechanisms whirled and clicked incessantly.
Dragging a resisting Katya, Lysander crossed the threshold of the gate and they were at last inside the fortress that Medoc had described to his daughter so many times before.
Fighting against the tide of familiar anger and deep sadness that would inevitably returned at the recollection of her father, Katya blinked her eyes rapidly to clear the tell-tale wetness. She will not cry in front of strangers.
Pinching herself hard with her free hand, the girl swore to herself that she would never weep for the deaths of loved ones again. Not now, not ever.
When the blurry mist cleared from her eyes, she saw that she was in a wide courtyard that led to the actual citadel. It was crowded with livestock, servants and soldiers alike. She could hear the baying of frightened lambs, smell the steaming odor of sweat-stained armor as the soldiers practiced their drills, see the brisk pace of the servants as they went about their chores. The soldiers black and red uniforms were emblazoned with the eagle emblem of Voldar and above the flying eagle with its wings spread, was stitched a likeness of grim-faced Armeros, the God of War. Several of the soldiers cheerfully hailed Lysander as he passed, obviously recognising him and he shouted greetings back to them in a familiar manner that confirmed Katyas initial guess that his father was indeed the Captain of the Guards.
Everything looked almost surreally normal inside the fortress, as if the dragonstorm had never happened. As if outside, Voldar was not lying in near total devastation and as if outside, were not people who were ready to stone a girl whose sole misdeed was that she had tried to help them.
Seeing the look on her face, Lysander explained softly, "Sometimes the only way to stay sane is to pretend. And thats what they have created for themselves here, a semblance of normalcy."
A liveried servant hurried along their way and made a small bow before Lysander handed the reins of Katyas horse over to him.
"But its a lie. This is just a lie." Reared by Medoc to be honest to a fault, Katya felt a grave wrongness pervading her, an abnormality that was emanating from the charade around her. "They should be out there, helping the others," she argued with rising passion.
"Is that the reason you went out?" Leading her beneath a wide stone arch that was supported by two pillars in the shape of rearing unicorns, Lysander raised an eyebrow. "That was foolish. Do you think you could achieve anything by getting yourself killed? The people are upset at the high-borns because of what Caein did and I cannot blame them for their wrath for it is justified." His face tightened when he mentioned Caein.
"Caein is Lord Maengolths son, isnt he? Is it true then? That the son has committed patricide?" Katya asked carefully.
Lysander merely shrugged his shoulders bitterly. "Caein was always proud. Proud of his lineage and proud of his position as Lord Heir after his brothers died." They were inside the fortress now, walking down a long hallway, darkly lit by spluttering, reeking torches. It was cold within the stone citadel and Katya shivered as she clutched her thin shirt tightly around her. Lysander had let go of her hand by now, his attention diverted by the memory of Caeins arrogance. "He would have done anything to protect his place as the next Lord of the Erpheronians. And so Caein made a pact with the dragons and in doing so, sealed his fate and ours."
"He did what?" Katya was appalled, her eyes wide with shock.
"The dragons were laying siege on us. Day and night, without cease. We were fighting a losing battle and the wizards were unable to ward off the beasts. Caein ordered whatever surviving wizards to retreat behind the castle walls. Here, they managed to form a shield over the fortress and prevented the dragons from destroying it completely." he said angrily. "But in doing so, they left the city totally defenceless." Lysanders incensed tone told Katya that he had not approved of Caeins decision to recall the wizards.
The hallway seemed endless as they walked. A few servants passed them and each time, they bowed deferentially to Lysander and to Katya, who was unused to all these attention, misguided as it was.
"What was the pact?" Afraid to know but needing to at the same time, Katya asked Lysander who had fallen ominously silent. "What did Caein do?"
The young man replied coldly, "He promised the dragons that he would personally spill his fathers lifeblood on the Warnaka Mountains. In exchange, the dragons would desist their attacks and leave us alone."
Madness, Katya thought, horrified and she said as much to Lysander.
"Madness? No, Caein wasnt mad. Far from it. He was entirely sane when he plunged the dagger into his fathers heart." Lysanders hands clenched into fists.
"Did the dragons stop? Did they honor their part of the bargain then?"
"No, they didnt. And now, Caein lies dead as well. The dragon, with whom he had made this unholy alliance with, killed him. As a reward for his obedience." Lysanders blue eyes flashed with suppressed fury as he told Katya. "The dragons are spacing their assaults at intervals and worse, we do not know when or where they will strike next. Yesterday, an hour before light rose, they descended upon the west side of Voldar like a pack of locusts. Over a thousand people died, screaming in terror as they burned in their beds."
Her people from her village shrieking madly in pain as the dragon came upon them, breathing fire and death.
Katya placed her hand over her heart and squeezed a wad of cloth over it, her fingers clenched white like Lysanders.
Her fathers charred body, smoking still from the ruins of their tavern, like a slab of cooked meat.
"I have to see Wengerim. I have something very important to ask of him." Remembering her purpose, Katya said anxiously. "I have to see him."
Lysander stopped dead in his tracks to stare at her oddly. "Youre telling the truth. Back there, when you said you were not from Voldar. I thought you were lying because you feared punishment."
"I told you that! Im not noble! My village was destroyed by the dragons and everyone is dead except me." Katya replied, the words coming hard to her as she related her own tragedy to an outsider. "I seek Wengerims help in seeking my vengeance. If you could bring me to him, I...you have my gratitude. Its all I have to offer."
"I cant do that."
Anger, white-hot and agonizing, surged through Katya at his outright refusal. Her cat-green eyes glittered with a strange hectic light as she steadily regarded the young man.
Lysander unconsciously took a step back from the girl he had previously saved from being narrowly stoned to death on the streets. He could feel her fury rising from her in a palpable cloud. Inexplicably, the girl he had scolded like a wayward child minutes ago, had suddenly transformed into a creature that was at once half-wild and wholly dangerous.
"Listen to me. I meant that I am unable to take you to Wengerim. Hes beyond anyones reach now." Lysander explained quickly.
Katya shook her head with frustration, a little of that awful rage leaving her as she tried to make sense of Lysanders cryptic words. First the elves and now this this boy was making her headachy again with riddles.
"Just tell me where Wengerim is and Ill find him myself."
The expression of caution lessened to that of sober despondency on Lysanders face. "You cant find him. Its impossible."
"Why?" Reaching the end of her patience, Katya demanded.
"Because Wengerim is dead. He was killed in the very first attack on Voldar."
Katya closed her eyes with despair at this devastating news. She had pinned all her hopes on the Dragonslayer
"Then my quest has ended before it has begun," she whispered.
She felt Lysanders hand touching her shoulder lightly, giving support, conveying his commiseration though he did not understand the reason behind it. She shrugged the hand off roughly, not wanting pity.
"Wengerims death was a great blow to us. Without him, the people have all but lost their will to fight." Lysander was saying quietly, giving Katya time to recover from her crushing disappointment. "You said your village was destroyed by the dragons. I am sorry but Voldar is not a safe place to be at the moment. We tried to evacuate as many people as we possibly could but the dragons have blocked off all the gates leading out of the city. Its a wonder that you even managed to ride into Voldar unscathed." Here, Lysander stopped to give Katya that same half-puzzled and half-speculative look when he first spoke to her on the streets.
"I came in from the direction of the Thaelon. No-one stopped me at the gate when I rode in."
"The Thaelon?" Lysanders eyes flared with curiosity.
"Im not lying." Katya snapped, stung by his incredulous tone.
Lysander held up his hand in a pacifying gesture. "Im not doubting you. Its just that -- "
"Just what?" She was tired of riddles. Tired of not understanding anything anymore.
Lysander steered her towards the direction of a huge ostentatious gold-gilt mirror that hung off the long corridor.
He stood a little way behind her as Katya stared unbelieving at her own reflection. "Just this." he gestured at her head.
"My hair " Katya trailed off, her green eyes wide and aghast. What had the elves done to her?
Everyone in Yarrow had always said that Katya resembled her father, Medoc, more than her dead mother. Both father and daughter had the same green eyes, same stubborn tilt to their chins the same brown colored hair before Medocs became peppered with gray.
But now, Katyas hair wasnt that rich shade of chestnut-brown anymore. As she stared into the mirror, she saw that her new-grown curls were now silvery-white, the color of moonlight. Her hair was eerily beautiful as it gave off a soft, gleaming light of its own in the dimness of the hallway. But it gave her no pleasure, only shock and a gradual apprehension.
"Why am I like this?" she wailed, horrified at her transformation.
Hárfachón Melór had called her that before they parted ways and so had the High Avá'ránn after she had been shown the vision of the terrible and resplendent woman whose eyes were mercifully closed. And when the elven Queen had placed her hands on Katyas face, that strange feeling that she was somehow being changed inside by that gentle touch she had not asked what hárfachón meant but she instinctively knew this one single, alien word, that had suddenly taken on a deeper, more sinister meaning, was pivotal to her transformation.
"You mean you didnt know? About your hair? Then perhaps something happened to you when you were in the Thaelon." The young man said seriously. "The forest is older than you and I can imagine and there is a legend here in Voldar. That you are never the same once youve been in the heart of the forest. It changes you and they also say there are elven kind hidden within the deepest parts."
At Lysanders words, Katya clamped her lips together in a thin line. Her encounter with the elves of the Thaelon was an intensely personal experience and she was not sure if it would be wise to share it with anyone else.
"If Wengerim is dead and so is Caein and his father, then who rules over Voldar now?"
"The Lady Jenefra but the people refuses to recognize her as sovereign because of Caein and what he did." Lysander answered and he appeared haggard again, the strain showing clearly through his young-old face.
Katya hesitated for a moment before deciding. "Take me to her. I need to see her. Perhaps she can help me now that Wengerim is dead."
Glancing at her determined features, Lysander merely said, "She is in council with the other Lords of Voldar at the moment, she may not see you."
"My father was Medoc, the former Captain of the Guards. She will see me." Katyas tone was firm and the young man was reluctantly impressed and annoyed by her persistence and boldness at the same time. The girl was nothing if not tenacious.
Considering briefly, Lysander finally nodded. "Very well, I will take you to her."
The council room of the fortress was enormous and draughty. Stone pillars, hung with different banners lined the walls, each representing a ruling House. Underneath each flag, were the ten Lords and Ladies of Voldar, five sitting on each side of the chamber. Their eyes reflected differing degrees of outrage at the intrusion and curiosity at the sight of the girl with the silver hair.
Ill at ease, with Lysander walking beside her, Katya tried to ignore their scrutiny and with her head high, she strode steadily towards the front of the council chamber, only stopping when she was a few peds away from a steel throne and upon it, was seated the Lady Jenefra.
Jenefra, wife of the late Dragonslayer, Wengerim, daughter of Lord Maengolth, sister to Caein the Betrayer, was a slender woman, only slightly taller than Katya. The Lady was dressed entirely in black - mourning clothes - although Katya did not know whom she was grieving for, her father, brother or husband, or all three. Her blonde hair was the color of ripened wheat and her eyes, blue as the seas of Goddess Baveras. She wore no other ornaments save her joining ring, an exquisite emerald with a silver band, on her left hand.
The most beautiful of beautiful, as she was known throughout Vardýnn, and she was lovely indeed, despite her obvious weariness. Her beauty was wholly different from another Queen that Katya remembered. Jenefra was mortal and therefore her fairness was human with all of a humans flaws, but those tiny imperfections merely enhanced her looks as her loveliness was transient and thus, it would burn all the more brighter for the simple reason that it would not last.
The High Avá'ránn, however, was eternal, or very near it and the elven Queens beauty was comparable to the moon - cold, remote and unreachable.
A man wearing the dark blue colors trimmed with silver that identified him as the Captain of the Guards, stepped forward and even without the uniform, Katya would have known him to be the father of Lysander. Vaelaron was an older, more weather-beaten version of Lysander with a cropped beard, touched with silvery-gray.
"Lysander, what is this? Who is this girl and why have you brought her here?" Vaelarons voice was soft as he questioned his son, his thick eyebrows knitted together with mild vexation.
"Father, this is Katya. She is Medocs daughter."
At her fathers name, Vaelaron gave an unexpected smile of friendly amazement. "Little Katya? But you were just a tiny babe when I last saw you! How you have grown." The Captain walked towards her, arms extended when he was checked by the irritated voice of a thin, bordering on emancipated, man sitting nearest to Lady Jenefra.
"Captain Vaelaron, this is no time for reunions. Please ask your son to take the girl away. We are in the middle of a very important council meeting." The skinny man said with impatience.
"Of course, Lord Aerlicht, I apologise for my sons intrusion." The Captain made a small inclination of his head. "Lysander, bring Katya to our rooms. Ill speak with her later."
"No, I have to speak with the Lady Jenefra. I have something very important to tell her." Katya spoke up before Lysander could and at her words, another man, sitting three seats down from Lord Aerlicht, gave a derisive snort of laughter. He was as large as Aerlicht was thin and his eyes were filled with disdain as he regarded Katya.
"This is no place for children. We are in the midst of a war and what can a child tell Lady Jenefra? We have no time for games." The fat man voiced his displeasure and the banner hanging over him was black with a regal looking white wolf enclosed within a triangle.
"Father, you dont understand. Katya is from outside." Lysander said urgently, his clear voice carrying over the sonorous stillness of the chamber. "She has come in from outside of the city walls."
"Ridiculous!" Lord Aerlicht contradicted sharply. "No-ones been able to leave or enter since the dragons laid siege on us."
"Yes, Aerlichts right, Captain Vaelaron, your son is either lying or dreaming. Ask him to stop wasting our time. We have a council of war to proceed, if you dont mind." The obese Lord added sarcastically, sneering as he did.
Vaelarons face hardened into granite. "My son isnt a liar, Lord Nikos."
A woman, sitting opposite Nikos, bared her teeth in a humourless grin. "You must pardon Lord Nikos, Vaelaron. He had to skip his noon-day meal today because of the council and the lack of food has made him addled in his wits." The banner over her was blue with a brilliantly stitched phoenix rising from the flames in the center. Her iron-grey eyes were filled with an ironic amusement and her glance on Katya was interested and kind.
Lord Nikos half heaved his considerable bulk from his chair with outrage. "Amalthea, you go too far!" he shouted angrily, his broad, fleshy face red and flushed. "Our deaths are all imminent at the hands of the dragons and you still have the time to listen to a pack of lies?"
At this, several of other Lords and Ladies started speaking all at once, arguing and quarrelling and the noise they made sounded a discordant disharmony within the cold chamber, like a pack of vultures, fighting over a dead carcass.
"Enough!" Jenefra finally spoke up, her voice cutting cleanly through the conflict like a knife.
The ten Lords and Ladies stopped at once, their sudden silence sheepish, as they returned to their respective seats.
"I will not have you fighting among yourselves like squabbling children." Jenefra rebuked sharply. "Katya, isnt it?" The Lady turned to smile warmly down at the young girl although her eyes remained troubled. "I remember your father well. Medoc used to carry me on his shoulders when I was a child."
"Father spoke of you many times as well." Katya said stiffly.
"Come nearer, Katya. Lysander says that you are from beyond the city gates, is this true?"
Katya nodded. "I come from the village of Yarrow, on the very edges of the Silvermarshes."
"Then how is it that you managed to enter Voldar? The dragons have prevented anyone from leaving or entering."
"I dont know." Katya replied helplessly. "I came in through the gate and nothing happened. Thats all."
"Thats all?" Nikos puffed up with ire. "Child, either you are mad or incredibly fortunate."
"Lord Nikos!" Jenefra said warningly. "Katya, continue, please. Tell us what is happening outside."
In a few brisk sentences, Katya related all that had befallen her, excluding the elves she had seen in the Thaelon. But everything else she told, from the first moment she saw the dragons flying over Yarrow, what little she recalled of her nightmarish trek over a blasted land, when she had been hovering between madness and brief glimmerings of sanity, and until her arrival into Voldar.
When she finished, no-one spoke for a few moments and Jenefras lovely features were distracted and her eyes, full of sorrow.
"You bring us grave news, Katya. I had hopes that the dragons had flown directly towards Voldar and would have spared the rest of the territories. But from what you have told me has made me realise that I have been overly optimistic."
"Im sorry." It was the only thing Katya could think to say.
"Its not your doing." Jenefra summoned a ghostly smile. "No blame is laid on you and I am very sorry to hear of Medocs death, more than you can know, for he was like a second father to me."
"Milady, what shall we do now?" Amalthea, who had defended Lysander previously, now asked with a distressed note in her voice. "What can we do now? We are near the end of our resources."
"I will not give up without a fight." Vaelaron replied impassively and Lysander threw his father a proud look.
"And I as well, Lady Jenefra. I shall fight to the death if the need arises." His son agreed.
"Then I fear that need may come very soon." Jenefra heaved a sigh.
Gathering her courage, Katya ventured a question. "Lady Jenefra? If I may ask a favour?"
"Of course, Katya. We owe you a debt for bringing news to us, it was melancholy news but nonetheless, we are hungry for any sort of information at this dark time. Ask your favor and I shall endeavour to grant it if its within my power."
"I seek the dragon Ol'dem'brey for it was him who destroyed my village and murdered my father. I seek news on the dragons whereabouts so that I may avenge Medocs death." Her heart beating so fast that she could hardly get the words out, Katya clenched her hands together before her in an appearance of serenity although she was anything but calm. Jenefra was her only hope left now that Wengerim was dead If she did not know
Jenefras blue eyes had widened when she heard Katyas announcement. Her hand flew to her throat and remained there as she stared at the girl. Her mouth opened and closed slightly and her face turned pale and ashen like someone had struck her full across the cheek.
Lysander and Vaelaron were similarly taken aback and a hushed silence had fallen over the council chamber, even fat Nikos and outspoken Amalthea were subdued as all stared at Katya who did not even notice the sudden change in the air, so intent was her concentration on Jenefra.
Before the Lady of Voldar could say anything, the entire floor suddenly shook and rolled underneath everyones feet, and a deep, booming sound could be heard, echoing loudly, and effectively breaking the utter stillness.
Someone screamed as the violent shaking continued, dislodging debris from the ceiling in the form of little rocks and flakes of dust.
Katya stumbled and nearly fell but was caught by Lysander in time.
"What is it? What is happening?" Katya shouted over the constant roaring noise that was deafening.
Lysanders face was filled with apprehension but also an excited, feverish anticipation. "An attack. The dragons are here."
"The wizards, where are they? Get them to the wall and shield this place!" Jenefra cried. She ran across the floor, aided by Vaelaron.
Amalthea was the only one who answered her as the rest of the Lords and Ladies of the Ten Ruling Houses of Voldar were busy huddling underneath their respective chairs from the falling bits of stone. Nikoss chair could barely hold his girth and he stuck out from every angle.
"Milady, the wizards are exhausted, they have not the strength left to shield so soon after yesterdays attack! We are defenceless!" She was holding to a pillar for support, hugging it tightly as if it was her child.
Screams and shrieks were coming from outside the council chamber with frightening regularity as the entire citadel trembled. A low rushing noise like that of the sea breaking on the shores hissed through the air and Katya recognised that particular sound. She had heard it every single night in her dreams since that grim day of the dragonstorm.
It was the sound of immense, leathery wings flapping as they beat through the air.
"Lysander, on your life, protect the Lady!" Vaelaron ordered as he led Jenefra over to his son and Katya before running out of the door, his boots clacking a driving rhythm on the stone floor as he disappeared through the doorway.
"Where is he going?" Katya wanted to know.
"To the fortress walls, the only weapons we have against the dragons are " Lysander started to say but he never finished for the girl was already speeding out the door, the way Vaelaron had left. "Katya! Come back!"
Distantly, like someone calling her in a dream, she thought she heard Lysander but she paid him no heed as she hurriedly followed Vaelarons path. Her mind was filled with that rushing sound of dragon wings and she could hear nothing else but the dark music it was shaping within her, making her skin throbbed and tingled in tandem.
Her eyes streaming with tears from the abruptly acidic air, Katya choked as she emerged from the hatchway she had spied Captain Vaelaron passed through.
She wiped her tearing eyes quickly with one sleeve and the scene before her was chaotic and crowded with soldiers running everywhere, all intent on defending the citadel from an enemy as old as time itself.
Huge wooden catapults lined the entire edge of the long escarpment and the air was steaming with the smell of sulphur as the soldiers lighted the hefty bronze spears that was at the apex of each catapult. The tip of each spear was doused with a potent mixture of naphtha and pitch which was causing the noxious fumes when ignited.
Dragons filled the sky, surrounding the fortress, with their wings flapping languidly as they hovered airborne. And that was all they were doing, gliding with a powerful grace, their slanted eyes half closed in amusement as they casually viewed the flurry of activity on the battlement wall.
Katya craned her head anxiously for burnished blue-green scales but in vain, for they were too many of the ancient beasts and the smoke partially obscured her sight.
Vaelaron walked with rapid steps towards the nearest catapult and the soldiers manning it, snapped a quick salute - a palm over the chest - when they saw his approach.
"On my signal!" Vaelaron yelled as he made a fist and thrust it up in the air. All activities slowed as his men watched with breathless anticipation. The soldiers swiftly lighted the spears with dripping, oil torches and silence, broke only by the spitting, crackling of the weapons as they burned, fell over the entire wall as everyone waited for the Captains sign.
At this moment, a hand descended upon Katyas shoulder and she nearly screamed, her nerves stretched as taut as the ropes that held the spears in place.
"Lysander!" She turned and hissed when she saw the young man standing behind her in the hatchway, an extremely irked expression on his face. Then, "Lady Jenefra!" as Katya saw a head topped with bright, golden hair bobbed up behind Lysander.
"Lysander, you cant bring the Lady up here, its not safe."
Lysander glared at Katya. "For that matter, you shouldnt be here as well." Then, a little sheepishly, "I couldnt stop her, she was determined to come up."
"I will not cower like a frightened, wailing maid in my bedroom while my people are fighting for their lives." Jenefra declared plainly, pushing past Lysander and following her closely, was a very worried and agitated Amalthea.
"Milady, please! Do come down from here!"
Amalthea gathered her long lavender skirts with one hand as she tried to dissuade her sovereign from an action that was tantamount to suicide in her eyes. Jenefra ignored her and went to stand beside Katya, their backs pressed against the buttress tower behind them.
Amalthea shook her head resignedly as she joined her Lady and the three women stared with suppressed intensity at the Captain who still held his fist against the sky defiantly.
Then with a quick snapping movement, Vaelaron brought his arm down and a flaming barrage of spears was loosed with a simultaneous tight, twanging sound as they flew up and up towards the dragons.
Katya held her breath, willing with all her might that even one of the spears would find a target.
One dragon with deep, glistening red-black scales, reared up on its haunches and flung back its long, serpentine neck before opening its jaws and a long stream of fire exploded forth to envelope the soaring spears in a conflagration of flames. A spear flew wide and avoided the inferno but another dragon, slightly smaller than the red one, lifted up a fore-claw and swatted the weapon away lazily as if it were a match-stick.
Jenefra screamed when the heat reached them and the air shimmered hotly as soldiers cursed and yelled when they realised their first defence had failed miserably.
That was when the dragons began theirs.
The sky shimmered like a desert mirage with jewel tones of every color imaginable as dragons of every shape and size swooped down on a vulnerable Voldar. Fireballs, each as big as a boulder, issued from their opened maws to descend like deadly falling stars on the city below.
"No!" Jenefras moan was full of tormented anguish as she saw her people being slaughtered by the multitudes beneath her. "Stop!" She rushed forward to the edge of the wall, her long black skirts nearly tripping her, but was forcibly dragged back by Amalthea.
"Be careful, Milady!" Lysander warned as he flung his body over Jenefra and Amalthea when he noticed a dragon flying towards the battlement where they were, its massive body rippling with sinewy elegance as the sun glinted off its dazzling blue-green scales. The force of its wings as it ascended towards them, faster and faster, was creating a minor gale that whipped Lysanders hair around his face.
By Armeross sword, its huge, Lysander thought with dismay as he took in the size of the beast, swooping down onto them.
Already, Vaelaron was ordering another strike as panting soldiers hefted more spears onto the catapults but as Lysander looked on, the blue-green shape in the sky grew bigger as the dragons wings spread wide and blocked out the suns rays, throwing darkness on everyone standing on the wall.
Still using his body as a living shield over Lady Jenefra and Amalthea, Lysander remembered Katya but the curious village girl from the Silvermarshes and her strange but oddly beautiful pale hair was no longer standing next to them.
"Katya!" he yelled fearfully when he caught sight of the girl who was running straight for the edge of the escarpment. "Come down! Youll be killed!"
Flinging the two shrieking women through the hatchway, Lysander ran after Katya, so sure that she would be shortly incinerated to a pile of ash by the dragon heading for the citadel in an inexorable path.
Reaching the battlement made from stone blocks that came up to her chest, Katya leapt between two catapults to land precisely on the tip of the wall. Beneath her feet was a sheer drop of a few hundred feet but she couldnt care less. Her eyes only reflected the enlarging colossal form above as it loomed so near that she could feel the heat from the scaly body shrouding her in a blistering wave.
She flung her head back and shrieked one soaring word, like the harsh screech of an eagle that had spied its prey.
Incredibly, the dragon stopped at the sound of her howl, its wings suspended stationary on the heated air. On par with the pitifully tiny mortal standing fearlessly on the edge of the fortress wall, Ol'dem'breys pitiless golden eyes regarded Katya, its snout with its flaring nostrils breathing out a hot breeze that surrounded the girl in misty clouds, curling her hair into damp tendrils on her brow.
Lysander stopped where he was and so did Vaelaron and his men to stare at the astonishing sight of the girl and the dragon, both at a standstill.
"Who isss it that callsss me?" Ol'dem'breys jaws parted and its voice rasped deep and sibilant as a long, thin, blood-red tongue could be seen, flickering within the gullet.
"I do!" Katyas own voice seemed tiny and insignificant in comparison with the dragons booming tones. "I call you, Ol'dem'brey!"
"Who daresss utter my name?"
"I dare it! You murdered my kin and friends!" Katya exploded with tightly reined fury. "I will have my vengeance upon you, dragon!"
Ol'dem'brey flapped his leathery wings almost lazily, and Katya was nearly flung off the wall. Gritting her teeth, she dug her heels against the stones and unsheathed Medocs sword from the scabbard, holding it in front of her.
Then her eardrums nearly burst as Ol'dem'brey laughed, a sound not unlike that of a ships foghorn. Thunderous and deafening, it travelled over the heads of the men and women alike on the fortress wall and everyone instinctively protected their ears with their palms, dulling the dragons mocking laughter.
When the laughing died away, the dragon was visibly amused and something that could almost be mistaken for a smile curved its cruel jaws.
"You think to kill me with that puny sssword of yoursss? I am Ol'dem'brey, one of the three adamant-dragonsss. I wasss old when this world wasss new. I cannot die."
"Theres a first time for everything." Katya muttered defiantly.
"I cannot die but you can, mortal," Ol'dem'brey declared and he raised a wickedly curved claw that was half of Katyas height. "I would like to sssee you die." Saying so, the dragon slashed the claw down as swift as a cat pouncing on a hapless mouse.
Lysander stretched his hand out in a futile gesture even though he was too far away to drag the foolhardy girl from the Silvermarshes to safety in time. But still, he tried. He had known her for less than a day but he did not wish her to die. Not like this.
Not like Caein, savagely disembowelled and with steaming entrails pouring out of his mutilated belly.
Katyas eyes flared but unlike Lysander, there was no fear within her green eyes for herself. She was not afraid of dying, she had died once, that day in Yarrow and Goddess Queprur could hold no jurisdiction over someone who was already dead. Her mind sharpened unbearably like the edge of a well-honed knife, as she impassively watched the claw descended with the sole purpose of disembowelling her.
At the very last second, she dropped down in a crouch, her hands grazing the stone blocks of the wall, scraping the skin off. Her heart beating so fast, she thought it would burst right out of her chest, Katya could feel the force of Ol'dem'breys claw and the wind it created as it passed over her head.
A whispery voice sounded in her mind and it was the gruff, affectionate tones of her dead father telling her to strike now.
Without questioning, without pausing to wonder why, her instincts taking over like a wild animal who was running for its very life from a predator, Katya sprung to her feet the instant the huge bronze-ivory colored claw passed her head.
She hefted Medocs sword by its hilt, holding the blade horizontally from her ear, like a spear. Narrowing her eyes as she gauged the distance, she aimed, her entire arm aching from the weight of the sword but she held the weapon steady.
Obeying, she threw. Medocs sword flying from her hand so hard that she could feel the friction tearing the skin of her palm, as she summoned all the strength, determination she had contained within her since the day her village, Yarrow, was obliterated from the face of the land.
Good...Im so proud of you, daughter...
Medocs sword cleaved, with surprising strength, through the air like an arrow even as his voice faded away in Katyas mind, unerring in its path, and it looked almost pitifully small, a silver needle thrown up against the sun, as it hurled towards the huge blue-green dragon.
Before the dragon could react, the sword that Melór had said was ésh-dél, found its mark to bury itself hilt-deep within the golden iris, accompanied by a wet, tearing sound as it ripped into the soft unprotected cartilage of the eye.
Ol'dem'breys horrendous roar of pain ripped through the air as the dragon reared up so that its armored underbelly was exposed. Its stunted fore-hands frantically clawed at the needle-like sword stuck in its orb as thick streams of blood, clotted like lava, ran down the side of its jaw. Its wings beat out a frantic rhythm of enraged agony, creating a gale that forced everyone on the wall to crouch down against the hard stones.
Fearing a swift retaliation from the wounded beast, Lysander seized his chance to drag Katya down from the escarpment wall with a rough violence that sent them both tumbling down in a heap.
"Let me go!" Katya shouted, trying to break free from Lysanders hold. "I have to see! I have to know!" Her green eyes glittered with an obsessed light that made the young man tightened his grip on her.
Above them, the enraged Ol'dem'brey continued to bellow with frustration, but the sword was too small for its immense fore-claws to gouge it out and it could only fly frantically around in circles. The remaining good eye glared balefully down on Katya and Lysander and the jaws gaped open.
Lysander squeezed his own eyes shut, fear running through every vein of his body, certain that he and Katya would meet their deaths now in a fiery conflagration.
But the Goddess Queprur ignored them this time and the anticipated blast of dragonfire never came. Lysander cautiously lifted his head and when he turned to the sky, the most amazing sight greeted his stunned eyes.
The dragons, and not just Ol'dem'brey, but all of the massive beasts had left off the relentless assault on Voldar and were following their leader, flying upwards towards the sun until none could be seen anymore and not a single dragon remained.
"Theyre leaving..." Lysander breathed in, his mind unable to accept the miracle that his eyes were witnessing now.
He released his hold on Katya and both did not notice the bruises he had left on her arms, as they were gazing up with rapt attention against the departing dragons.
"Oh father..." She had lost the only legacy left to her and the dragon still lived. A deep sense of defeat filled Katya then. "What shall I do now?"
"You can find Ol'dem'breys lair high in the Tandala Mountains." Jenefras sweet voice said quietly and Katya spun around, hardly daring to hope once more.
"My husband told me this before Ol'dem'brey killed him." Despite her dishevelled state and with locks of hair escaping from previously carefully coiled tresses, the weariness had disappeared from Jenefras lovely features, to be replaced by new determination. But as she regarded the young girl, something else entered her eyes, something very much like fearful apprehension.
Slowly and in front of all present, Jenefra swept a deep graceful curtsey before the startled Katya.
"Milady Jenefra, what are you doing?!" An equally unkempt Amalthea, who had followed Jenefra back up to the wall, uttered, looking scandalised at her bowing sovereign.
"You have saved Voldar today." Ignoring her councillor, Jenefra said clearly. "We owe you our salvation and gratitude."
"You shouldnt, please! Stand up, I beg of you." The young girl stammered out immediately, her words stuttering over each other in a hurry. Then her face flamed crimson when she realised that everyone else was following Jenefras example and were bowing or kneeling in various stages around her, even Amalthea after a moments hesitation.
Lysander and Vaelaron were kneeling down on one leg and both had placed an opened palm over their chests, saluting her and Lysander was openly grinning at Katyas evident chagrin. Then the rest of the soldiers, soot blackened and sweaty, placed their palms over the heart, following their Captain, to honour the young girl as well.
"Get up, please." Katya begged, relieved when Jenefra straightened finally.
"The Tandala Mountains." Jenefra repeated. Then her eyes blazed blue flames. "Perhaps you can be the one to help me exact my vengeance." Her tones were soft but Katya recognised the expression of steeled resolve on the womans face. She saw it on her own countenance whenever she looked into a mirror.
"Yes Milady." Katya whispered.
"Your father would be proud of you, Katya," Vaelaron came up to say. He briefly hugged the girl before letting go, his face beaming with pride as if Katya had been his own. "Stay for a while, child. Stay and rest." Despite the Captains gruff exterior and curt manners, his kindness touched Katya.
...Im so proud of you, daughter...
"The dragons may have left, but they will be back." Amalthea was saying tersely. "Milady, we cannot go on this way. You must see that we are losing! The dragons are too strong for us. The priests of the Burning God are our only hope."
Jenefra sighed and rubbed her forehead tiredly. "But Amalthea, you know the Gods always exact a heavy price for such intervention. I do not know if this is wise."
"We have no choice. Wise or not, it is our only chance." Vaelaron agreed.
"But I have heard that the book of the Axhái records such tales of interference as ill-advised because the Gods cannot abolish evil, only chang it somehow so that it will always come back in a different form. What if something worse than the dragons returns to plague us? I cannot bear the repercussions if that happens! How can I answer to my people then, how can I tell them that I have merely bargained away an evil for another evil? Tell me how can I tell them?" Jenefra cried out breathlessly to Amalthea and Vaelaron, her face twisted with emotion.
Behind the trio, Lysander whispered, puzzled, "The Axhái?"
Katya who had been listening to the conversation as well, replied distractedly, "The Axhái are the elves. The oldest of the elves."
"How did you know that?"
Realising that she may have given away more than she had wanted, Katya merely shrugged her shoulders. "I just did," she said dismissively, hoping the young man would not pry further.
Thankfully, Lysander merely nodded, though his brief gaze at her was quizzical.
Meanwhile, Amalthea was pressing forth her reasoning to Jenefra, sensing the others doubts. "But Milady, how can you answer to your people now if you refuse to try? How can you tell them that we may have given up the only chance for their deliverance from certain doom because we simply dare not try?" The councillor said steadily.
Jenefra flinched from the womans words and bit her lip. "Very well, tell the priests to prepare. Let them know that we will do whatever we can to aid them."
Vaelaron nodded as he left.
Watching the Captain go, Jenefra clenched her hands together as she sought reassurance. "I hope we are doing the right thing," she said, fatigue coming over her once more. "Oh Amalthea, I pray we are."
"It is the right thing, Jenefra. It is." Amalthea replied but her voice lacked conviction and she seemed apprehensive and irresolute even though that she had won the argument.
Katya shaded her eyes with one hand as she tilted her head to gaze up at the dazzling blue-white sky, clear of any dragons now.
"I love you, father," she said softly as the rising heat of the noon-day sun and the smell of burning and sulphur encompassed her.
It is said that the Burning God, Foiros, finally hears the bidings of the human priests begging for the help of the gods to finish the torment of the dragons: At the end of the Aér'ai'chanían year the burning orb of the sun descends below the world and returns not before one year has passed, so that a deadly coldness afflicts dragons and humans alike.
Many dragons and humans fail to survive the so called Vardýnnian Atonement in the Year of Darkness.
(Excerpt taken from The Santharian
He found her on the battlement wall, standing at the same place where she had faced down a dragon and lived.
She had propped her elbows upon the stone escarpment, her hair giving off a muted silvery glow in the gloom. Resting her chin onto her palms, an oddly childlike gesture, her eyes were staring thoughtfully across to the city that was lighted by whale oil lamps and flickering candlelight, even though it was but mid-morning. The sky was as pitch-black like tar, without even a single star to illuminate a travellers way.
Walking to stand next to her, he wordlessly passed the cloak over and she accepted his courtesy, shivering slightly as she drew the thick fabric over her shoulders. She had been wearing a wool dress with fur-lined boots and although the wool was thick, it was surely scant protection against the icy wind. Lysander himself could feel his fingers growing numb through the sheepskin gloves he wore. It was always cold now since that day when the priests had pleaded with the Fire God for help.
The price that the Fire God had asked, the price that Jenefra had been so fearful of, it was much too high to pay without any consequences. And the price was a year of such iciness that no crops would grow and no unsheltered animals could live. A year without light, a year of darkness.
A year of atonement.
"Will you stay?"
He didnt know why but this question had become very important to him.
She did not answer him immediately, just kept her pensive silence as she continued to gaze out at the city that was struggling to rebuild itself now that the threat of the dragons was over.
Then she turned and through the dimness of the false night that was only alleviated by flickering evil-smelling torches, he could see the gentle brilliance of her smile.
"Yes, I will stay." Katya said, still smiling and Lysander found himself wishing that he could take that smile and keep it caged in a glass bottle. "I will stay until its time to go."
"When will that be?"
"When Ive learned enough to kill a dragon. I will stay until then." She promised as she extended one hand to the young man.
It was cold, had been so cold since the sun sank beneath the edge of the world and rose no more.
As Lysander reached out to grasp Katyas offered
hand, the shared heat of their fingers gradually but surely warmed the coldness that
enveloped them both.
Chapter written by Dalá'Valannía