CHAPTER IV: WINTER'S END

A SANTHARIAN NOVEL

 
The Tale of Katya Dragonseeker   
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Introduction. The priests of Foiros had prayed for salvation from the Dragonstorm, when the dragons had laid unceasing destruction upon the realm, and their capricious God answered. The price for deliverance: an unending darkness where nothing could grow and beasts, including the dragons, slowly perished.

Foiros has answered but in return for His grace, the people are faced with starvation, famine and disease. Nevertheless, in the face of flickering hope, even the longest and darkest winter must end eventually.

 
1649 b.S. - Month of the Burning Heavens
 

he high priest of the Burning God was a rather intense man with a look in his eyes that bordered on maniacal devotion. His robes of deep crimson hung upon his skinny frame, making him seem even more emaciated. His voice droned on and on in a ceaseless litany of praise to his God as he periodically raised his hands high, fingers splayed opened in supplication, to the dark murkiness of the immediate night that was only partially alleviated by the torches and fire-pits that were lit unceasingly throughout nights and as well as days that was no different from the former. 

Surrounding him were a number of people, heavily dressed in furs and wool to stave off the chilling cold. Their faces were, like the priest, weary and tired but their eyes were full of a hopeful light that could not be denied. Among the worshippers were also several children clinging to their parents. Their thin, pinched visages were dispirited with hunger, and tinged blue from the icy wind.

A scuffle abruptly occurred when a dark-haired boy snatched a miserable piece of hard bread from a child’s fingers. A piercing scream of outrage broke through the droning of the priest and he stopped, irritated by the interruption. 

The surrounding peasants caught the thief quickly and shouts running along the lines of ‘Kill him!’ ‘Hang the little bastard!’ permeated the air, along with ugly and potentially violent currents. While the mob searched for a rope and a good hanging place, they also vented their own frustrations on the unfortunate boy by beating him, ignoring his cries for mercy. 

Just when the noose was draped over his neck, a regiment of soldiers arrived to break up the throng, the normally striking blacks and reds of their uniforms leeched away to a dull gray by the darkness. The muttering of the peasants died away to a low, angry murmur but they dispersed readily enough to congregate once more around the priest who, although unhappy at being ignored during the impromptu unsuccessful hanging, took up his chant again with renewed importance.

The thief, his face a mass of bleeding bruises, was led away by the soldiers and Katya, who had been watching, finally breathed a sigh of relief. The thief didn’t look much older than she and he was so thin that the bones of his clavicle were jutting out almost painfully. Too well she knew the mindless and unforgivable power of a mob. She had tasted it when she first arrived in Voldar, felt the relentlessness and was almost swallowed up by it if it hadn’t been Lysander who rescued her in time. 

Tearing her gaze away from the priest and his hypnotic chant from her vantage point on the secondary battlement wall of the castle, Katya turned to ask her companion in a hushed tone, “Is it time?” 

Her companion nodded her golden head. “Yes. Almost.” 

Katya nodded back, her heart full to bursting with equal measures of excitement, fear and worry. It’s been so long…. what if the priesthood of Foiros were wrong? If they were, it could crush whatever lingering vestiges of hope the people had left. 

“Do not fret Katya. Trust in the Gods.” Jenefra assured the young girl, her smile shining luminously through despite the obvious exhaustion. 

Katya envied the other woman her faith, wishing she could muster up the same conviction. Instead, she just drew her cloak closer around her, shivering. It was so cold, the kind of coldness that penetrated the thickest wool and seeped into your skin to hurt your bones. Warmth and heat seemed so long ago now, memories of another time, another age.
 

The Long Winter

View picture in full size Picture description. Sarvonia awakening after the long winter of the Year of Darkness. Picture drawn by Faugar.

During the past Aér'ai'chanían year, the freezing temperatures were but one element that they had to battle constantly against. The crops failing and animals dying because of the lack of sunlight were the other evils that plagued them as well. Everyone’s faces, the nobility and peasants alike, were gaunt with the shadow of starvation and if it hadn’t been for Jenefra’s decision to mete out rations to the populace from the stronghold’s reserves of food, the death toll would have been much higher. As it was, almost one-third of the tribe had died from the cold, varying illnesses and famine. As the sunless months passed, more and more of the remaining Epheronians who survived the Dragonstorm traveled across the territories to gather in the capital of Voldar until the streets were brimming with refugees and the stench of a city with too many people crammed into it lingered constantly in the air.

But at least most of the dragons were dead, or dying. The beasts too suffered from the dearth of sunlight, the glacial iciness rapidly encroaching into their blazing scorched blood, stilling their hearts slowly but surely, until they stopped beating completely. The scouting parties that Jenefra had sent out came back with heartening reports that they have scoured out most of the known dragons’ lairs and what was left inside were stinking huge carcasses, half-eaten away by starving smaller predators. And if it wasn’t for the lingering superstitious fear that it would bring disaster down upon their heads, Katya suspected that the perpetually hungry populace would have followed the soldiers on their forays to the caverns, if only for a taste of dragon meat to fill their empty bellies. Maybe some did, there was a persistent rumor going around that the meat the black market profiteers were hawking, belonged to dragon variety. 

Although it was the human priests of Foiros who in their arrogant despair prayed to their God for deliverance from the dragons, Katya sometimes wondered if the price for safety, this uninterrupted darkness, was much too high to pay. Many thought so. The dwarven race, already seldom seen around these parts, had wholly retreated to their underground strongholds when the Atonement descended but not before they had sent a delegation to Jenefra, presenting a strongly worded missive from the Dwarf Lord of Clan Mitharims, Ulderon Wilful, that the next time the Humans decide to make a decision that would affect all the nations, they would like to be consulted first. 

As for the others: the Orcs showed no sign that they even noticed that the sun no longer rose and continued with their semi-irregular raids on the villages of the north, and the Elves, well, no one believed in those capricious mythical beings anymore. 

No one, except for Katya and she hoped that Melór and Ar’leiná were safe in their deep forest dwelling. Countless times she wished that she could return to the Thaelon and see them but she knew by doing so she would draw unwanted attention on the Styraía and she also knew that the elusive race hid themselves from human eyes for a reason. But she missed them so much…

“Katya, you should go back down.” A voice interrupted her gloomy thoughts. “You too, your Majesty, Lady Amalthea will have my head if you come down with a chill.”

Katya turned and she recognized Lysander immediately even through the darkness that surrounded her. Nearly one Aér'ai'chanían year into the Atonement had sharpened her sight enough to pierce through the continuous half-gloom like that of a night-creature. 

“No. I should be here. I want to be here.” Jenefra acknowledged Lysander’s concern and then smiled quickly at his grimace when he spoke of her closest and most trusted council adviser. Amalthea’s temper was well known among her peers, especially when it came to the health of her Sovereign Lady. “I want to be here when it…happens.” 

If it happens, was Katya’s silent thought and judging by Lysander’s expression, he was thinking the exact same thing as she.

“Katya should go then, she’s much too young to bear the cold.” Lysander teased, knowing that this would get the Silvermarsh girl’s heckles up every time and he was right.

“I’m not cold! And I am not a child!” was Katya’s provoked reply, her face reddening. Then she caught the twinkle in the other’s eyes and laughed a little in spite of her annoyance. “Lysander Dain, I’ll have you know that I’m almost sixteen summers past and not a child anymore.”

“No. Not a child anymore.” Lysander agreed unexpectedly, his eyes boring into the girl’s face as if he was memorising it by heart. 

His tone and look merely served to make Katya blushed even more. She turned away to focus her attention on the priest again, her discomfort clearly evident. This new facet of her relationship with the young man had surfaced recently and it disturbed her when she made herself think about it. She didn’t know how to respond and wasn’t sure if she wanted to in the first place.

Oh, why did he have to go and change everything! What’s wrong with being friends? Katya thought crossly and rather unfairly blaming poor Lysander who at the moment was watching her turned back, a little forlornly, before Jenefra stepped forward to pat his arm in a motherly gesture. 

“Despite what she said, Katya is truly but a child still. Be patient.” His queen told him knowingly. 

“I will. I’ll wait a whole lifetime and more for her if need be.” Lysander replied softly.

Jenefra smiled but whatever she was about to say was swallowed up as the priest’s chant rose to a thundering crescendo. 

And abruptly it stopped. It was as if a blanket of silence had descended upon the city and smothered it. Everyone, those below and thousands others gathered around the vast city stopped whatever they were doing and waited. 

Breathless with anticipation, Katya clenched her fingers into painful fists, her nails digging into her flesh. 

Hopefulness soared, like a delicate, easily breakable crystal jewel, into the deathly still air.

Moments passed and the starless night-sky was as murky-black as ever, with no sign of leavening. 

“Foiros, lend us your favor. I beg for light to return. My people will die if it doesn’t.” Jenefra whispered quietly, a note of such desolation entering her tones that Katya could hardly bear it.

As the hour of dawn was upon them, the cold merely intensified. Lysander shook his head, troubled, and around them, the murmuring of the soldiers and servants of the fort who had made their way outside started and grew to a rumbling of fearful anxiety. 

The priests were wrong, all of them. The dark is going to go on and on, forever and forever, Katya thought bitterly. The Gods have abandoned us. They don’t care that everyone is starving. And they didn’t care when the dragons came and killed my father and friends.

With that thought, she involuntarily glanced down, briefly, at her right palm. The flesh was criss-crossed with numerous thin white puckered scars and the sight of them was a constant, unbearable remainder of Yarrow’s fate. She had to let out all her blazing rage before it consumed her totally and so Katya did the only thing she could do. 

“Foiros, damn you! Damn all your kind! If you are listening, I hope you choke!” Katya yelled as she shook her fist in the air, her shout reverberating to the ears of the surrounding soldiers and even to the people below. The high priest’s scandalized look was priceless as he craned his head up to stare at the angrily shouting girl, high on the parapets. Jenefra was understandably shocked but Lysander, after his initial surprise, hid an involuntary smile behind his hand. It was just so…Katya somehow. The Silvermarsh girl’s impetuosity would never change despite everything that had happened.

“Haven’t we suffered enough?” Even as she screamed helplessly to the seemingly indifferent God, Katya realized how ridiculous she must sound, but she couldn’t stop. The fury just poured out of her in relentless waves and channeled itself towards the Gods. “Bring the sun back now!” 

In the end, she had to stop as her breaths came out in clouds of white mist and she half-fell against the stone walls for support. A lifetime ago, she had faced down an adamant-dragon at this same spot and survived. This time, her adversary was a God and she was doomed to fail.

To her horror, she felt tears prickling behind her lids and with an effort, dashed them away by blinking rapidly. 

She squeezed her eyes tightly closed, not wanting to see as she blocked out Jenefra’s sadness, Lysander’s pain and the almost awed stares of the rest. 

Then the strangest thing happened. Behind the blackness of her shut lids, the vivid image of a woman arose, startling her with its clarity and intensity.

I know you, she thought with a heartbreaking ache and sense of remembrance, you were in the vision that the High Avá'ránn showed me. 

The extraordinarily beautiful woman’s eyes were still serenely closed and the sense of unimaginable and yet benevolent power emanating from her was as overwhelmingly strong as when Katya first perceived it among the soaring and ancient trees that were the Thaelon.

Who are you? Will you help us then? The Gods won’t so will you?

Was it her imagination then, sprung from her weariness and defeated anger, but did those lips, the subtle color of a pale pink rose, stretched in a faint, almost imperceptible smile of such gentleness that Katya thought her heart would shatter?

Someone was calling her name and she was loath to answer. In that unknown woman’s presence, she felt a sense of absolute love and security that she had not known since her father’s death. She didn’t want to open her eyes ever, if possible. 

“Katya!” But the insistent calling, coupled now by vigorous shaking of her arms, was becoming too compelling to ignore and with a sigh of regret, Katya’s eyes opened gradually to see Lysander gazing at her, his face stiff with worry and with something else, another emotion she couldn’t quite placed. Not anger, something else, something more formidable. Around her, as if filtered through a bronze helmet, she could hear frenzied shouting and people weeping. But it didn’t sound like they were in pain or suffering. In fact, they sounded almost happy.

“Katya, what is wrong? Can you hear me?”

Katya nodded her head distractedly. She felt disoriented, a niggling, something biting at the edges of her mind. She tried to grasp the elusiveness of the wrongness but it kept eluding her until she realized it with an abrupt, sudden awareness, like a swift lightning bolt roaring through her mind. 

Hardly daring to believe, she stared at the sky that was, no longer an unfailing inky-black but a lightening deep violet instead and towards the east, an assortment of brilliant colors she thought she would never see again – blazing streaks of orange mixed with dazzling whiteness rising higher and higher, inching up towards the indigo dawn sky.

“Lysander, it’s morning.” Katya whispered incredulously and the young man nodded his assent.

“It happened when you were in that trance. I was worried about you.” As he told her, the pent-up emotion he was controlling finally gave way to devastating gladness and he lifted Katya with his arms, as if she weighed no more than a feather, and spun her around and around until she was giddy and shrieking with exhilaration. From the corner of her eyes, she could see Jenefra, radiant with joy and tears, madly hugging a similarly affected Amalthea who had come to witness this hard-sought miracle as well. 

Laughing, she threw one arm around Lysander’s neck and as he held her up, she stretched the other hand as high as she could reach, trying to touch the impossible. But in the end, she settled for letting the growing heat of the morning sun play across her fingers and upturned face.

The long winter was over.


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