CHAPTER VI: OF MAIDS, QUEENS, AND HEROES

A SANTHARIAN NOVEL

 
The Tale of Katya Dragonseeker   
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Introduction. Though most of the dragons have perished after the year of the darkness, their malignant spirits remain, fusing themselves with those who possess a seed of evil within their souls. These unholy hybrids have bided their time and now they have awakened to terrorize the realm, leaving only death in their wake.

The tenuous peace established by Jenefra threatens to break and she faces a double threat as dissidents around her eyes the Erpheronian seat of power. Aided by the Astyrhim elves, Katya and Lysander leaves Voldar on a perilous journey in search of a mythical weapon that can destroy the near invulnerable dragon-changed. A weapon guarded by someone even more dangerous than the dragon hybrids: The legendary Bone Queen, fanatical and eternal ruler of a shadow world.

 
1648 b.S. Month of the Singing Bird, Tyrrinths Hold
 

ith a flick of her sturdy hands, Ennide tossed out the large white sheet and as it fell softly against the bed, draping the corners haphazardly, she took a moment to take a deep breath, blissfully inhaling in the sweet, clean scent of sun-warmed linen.

Humming a toneless tune, she quickly and efficiently tucked in the sheet at the corners, smoothing the wrinkles until the bed was as featureless and smooth as a frozen pond in winter. After pummeling the pillows into obedience, she laid them neatly across the head of the bed before proceeding to diligently scrub the surface of a nearby elaborately carved cabinet.

In the midst of her labors, the door to the chamber opened and a voluminous woman entered the room.

“Aren’t you done yet, girl? Taking yer own sweet time I’ll bet, probably wool-gathering as well.” Meregin clicked her mouth disapprovingly.

“I wasn’t!” Ennide protested with indignation.

Meregin narrowed her eyes doubtfully as she waddled into the room and drew a finger across the surface of the cabinet where the maid had been cleaning and inspected the digit critically. Finding no speck of dust to offend her, the woman huffed grudgingly.

“Acceptable. You better finish up Lady Katya’s chambers soon or else Mistress Litora would have something to say about you lazing around when you should be helping to prepare for the noon-day meal,” Meregin said.

There was no love lost between Meregin and Litora who oversaw all the maids within the left wing of Thyrrinths Hold. Meregin herself had been in charge of the maids of the east wing before being transferred to wait personally on Lady Katya. It was well known among the lower ranks of the help and much giggled upon that Litora thought she should have been the one chosen to wait upon Katya Ileri.

“I’m almost done!” Ennide said happily. “And isn’t that a beautiful word?”

“What?”

“The word ‘noon’.” The maid announced to a bemused Meregin. “That we have afternoons again!”

Meregin merely closed her eyes wearily. There were times when Ennide’s unfailing cheerfulness just wanted to make her reach out and throttle that….

“Mistress Meregin?”

She opened her eyes, resolutely putting that wonderful image of a finally quiet Ennide out of her mind. “Never mind noons or nights or dawns, just finish your chores and get down to the kitchen.” With that, she went out of the room, sighing under her breath.

Ennide stood for a while, cleaning cloth still in hand, and her shoulders drooped a little with despondence. The atmosphere around the Hold lately had almost degenerated back to Atonement days. Everyone’s been gloomy since….since….

The girl gave a brief shudder as she reluctantly remembered the events of the past months. The uproar that began as certain people were suddenly inflicted with a terrible and mysterious disease that led them to transform into demon-like creatures. No one knew who would be struck next, anybody could be, from family members, friends and down to the butcher in the next shop. Not all these cursed ones had the same changes though. Some mutated into mindless, ravening beasts which tore into the nearest available animal or human for meat to feed upon. Others retained their human shapes but had enhanced strength and their skin was scale-like. The last type… the soldiers had warned that these were the most dangerous, that they were able to switch between normal-looking human and demonic form easily, so that no-one knew that they had been touched by the baffling plague.

Some even whispered that there was another sort that the soldiers would not talk about and they were the most horrible of all; that there were those who could shift their forms into that of actual dragons.

Those who changed were usually not very nice people though, Ennide pondered impartially as she resumed cleaning. And she was an honest girl and admitted to herself that she couldn’t find it in her heart to be sorry when she learnt of Linn Terolude’s death.
For Ennide had been the servant maid whom Linn had ordered beaten for letting her bath water run cold.

Originally employed by Lady Preya Arkaisa, one of the members of the Ruling Council, Ennide had been assigned to serve her niece, Linn Terolude, in Preya’s house. Ennide didn’t like Linn, who though quite pretty with her masses of blonde curls, was often nasty and cruel to the servants. She had worked Ennide to the bones with her demands and whims and Ennide had been so tired one day that she forgot to add in more hot water to the bath when it ran cold. Linn threw a fit and she ordered two men-servants to discipline the maid. One held her down as the other rained blows upon her back with a heavy wooden stick. As the first strokes landed upon her back, Ennide’s screams had attracted Katya’s attention who was within the house, accompanying Amalthea on a visit to Lady Preya’s house on some Council affairs.

Her face white with rage, the young woman stopped the flogging immediately despite Linn’s threats and took the injured girl away to Thyrrinths Hold where she even secured a position as royal maid for Ennide there after her recovery. Linn was livid but could do nothing, knowing that Queen Jenefra was favorable towards the Silvermarsh girl and that made her hate even deeper.

Katya Dragonseeker

View picture in full size Picture description. Portrait of Katya Dragonseeker. Image drawn by Faugar.

Ennide, on the other hand, since that day, had developed an unquestioning adoration for Katya, which like Linn’s hatred, only diametrically opposite, deepened as Katya herself took the time to look up Ennide when she could in the succeeding days and chat with her like they were just girls of the same age and station discussing mundane things like a new dress or the latest way to tie an intricate braid. Katya had assured Ennide time and time again that they were the same, that she was just a peasant girl but Ennide would have done anything for her, had she asked, but as it was, the only thing she could do was get herself assigned to the task of cleaning Katya’s rooms every morning. She still did it faithfully everyday despite that Katya was no longer in Thyrrinths Hold and that Mistress Litora considered it a waste of time. But Ennide was determined that Katya’s rooms would not get dusty and forgotten but stayed the same as the day she left them, waiting patiently for their occupant’s return.

“And she will return.” Ennide said softly as she gave one last violent rub against the varnished top of the cabinet. Her face, tinged red from the wood, stared back up at her from the polished surface.

As she gathered her cloths and bucket, she did what she had done everyday as well since Katya’s departure. It was almost like a little ritual; the words were sometimes different but the affection, which spurred the actions, remained steadfast. Pausing by the window, she looked out the at the wide expanse, over the teeming city of Voldar with the numerous spires and towers of its buildings, to where she could barely see the shimmering greenness of trees and even further, the hazy craggy tops of mountains.

“May Grothar grant you a safe journey and fair weather! Hurry back soon, Miss Katya!” Ennide shouted, her voice carried forth by the biting winter winds. “We are all waiting for you here!”

She gave several enthusiastic waves through the window with her hand even though she knew Katya would be too far away from here by now to see her waving but nonetheless, she did it. Then she rushed out of the rooms and down to the numerous stairs to the huge kitchen where sharp-tongued Mistress Litora was waiting impatiently for her.

In Jenefra’s private rooms, high above the kitchen where Ennide was earnestly kneading a huge roll of dough, the Sovereign of the Erpheronians was talking with three of her Council members while Cale Perrim made up the fourth in this informal meeting.

“I have some reservations on his suitability, Amalthea. He just seems a little…young,” Jenefra said. Her prefect brow was slightly furrowed as she perused the papers the other woman had brought forth before her.

“I know he is but twenty-five years of age but from what I’ve observed so far, he has more intelligence, sense and honor than Nikos or his lack-wit excuse for a son will ever possessed in their little fingers.” Amalthea concluded her sentence with an unladylike snort of contempt for her dead and unlamented fellow Council member.

“I agree with Amalthea. Lief may be young but he has potential.” The chair that Kel was sitting seemed too small for the big man’s frame and his massive legs stuck out in front of him as he lounged uneasily on it.

“So we have ourselves a deadlock then. Does Aerlicht still protest against the nomination?”

“Yes, he insists that Lief’s lineage to House Lothari is questionable. That it should be Nikos’s cousin who should take over the seat instead.” Trioan Sellus said in his quiet voice.

The Lord of House Sellus was a slender brown-haired man, unassuming in appearance and clothing and seldom spoke during official Council and state meetings. To those who did not know him well, Trioan was extraordinary only because he was so ordinary. Or at least, that’s what he seemed on the outside. Only Jenefra, Amalthea, Kel, Vaelaron and a few select others knew that Trioan had painstakingly cultivated his semblance of innocuous normalcy since he assumed authority over the House of Sellus from his father.
For Trioan Sellus had perfect memory and he could recall every single line from a book he had read ten years ago or remember an entire conversation, word for word, he had with a petitioner from last week. Added to this special ability, the Councilor was also highly intelligent and more importantly, he believed deeply in Jenefra’s right to rule.

“That’s sheer foolishness and Aerlicht knows it! Nikos, that fat bastard,” Kel made an ominous rumble within his throat but stopped short of spitting his disgust out upon Jenefra’s carpet when Amalthea threw him a warning look. “Yes, anyhow, as I was saying, Nikos himself was not of Lothari blood. He married Karliss Lothari and it was a mistake for Maengolth to have sanctioned him as the head of the house after Santwin’s death.”

“Karliss pleaded with my father to allow her to step down in favor of her husband.” Jenefra explained. “Poor Karliss. I’m glad she never lived long enough to see her son turned out the way he did.”

“She knew enough though. That it was Jarat who pushed her in the waters and watched while she drowned. His face must have been the last thing she saw,” Amalthea said, “That murdering hellspawn.”

“I’ve seen Nikos’s nephew. He looks like someone dropped him on the head, several times, when he was a baby.” Kel said.

“Which is why Aerlicht is trying to discredit Lief’s claim to the Council seat. He knows Lief won’t be as dim-witted and easy to control as Nikos was. He’s been trying to reach out to the other Council members by insinuating that Lief’s illegitimacy is an unsuitable factor. Bah! Lief has more right to the Lothari seat than Nikos ever had! Aerlicht has annoyed the Council with his little plans and ambitions for too long. I’ve got a good mind to let him taste the edge of my axe as a lesson in humility.” Kel half-rose from his chair, his beard fairly bristling with anger.

“That is truly amazing.” Trioan said to Kel, his face thoughtful.

“Huh?”

“That you know the meaning of the word.”

“What word?” Kel growled impatiently.

“Insinuate.”

Kel stared at the sitting Trioan who gazed blandly back at him for a while, before breaking out into unwilling chuckles.

“You’re trying to distract me from going out and separating Aerlicht’s skinny head from his neck, aren’t you?”

“Did it work?”

Kel mused. “Yes.” he replied with some regret as he settled down upon the chair once more, the edge of his hasty wrath dulled. “For now,” he added though.

“Not that it would be any great loss, Aerlicht’s death.” Amalthea remarked. “Still, the paperwork later would be a headache and I really would not like to explain to the people that Kel decapitated Aerlicht because he was annoying. However, if we could manage to…dispose of Aerlicht quietly and with minimal fuss…” The councilor trailed off suggestively.

“Amalthea!” Jenefra exclaimed, a little shocked at her closest friend’s apparent lack of conscience. “That is murder!”

“No, it is not. In Aerlicht’s case, it is pest control.”

“Amalthea.”

“Fine, fine. But you have to admit, Jenefra, that it’ll solve a lot of our problems if Aerlicht were to quietly disappear at this moment.”

“He doesn’t have to. It is true that Lief is Lord Santwin’s grandson. My father told me before that Santwin came to him, many years ago when I was not born yet, and told him that he had fallen in love with a girl from a lower family and that he wanted to marry her. She was the daughter of a merchant, I think. Lord Santwin’s parents would not allow such an unequal joining and forbade the match. He was their only son and a good man and thus did not wish to cause his family undue embarrassment. So he obeyed, although I think it hurt him grievously to do so,” Jenefra said, remembering.

“Later, when he married Karliss’s mother, a girl came before Santwin’s house and she had a young boy with her whom she claimed to be his son. It was the merchant’s daughter. Santwin doubtless would have welcomed her and the child, had he been around but he was not. We were having border troubles with the Caltharians then and he was involved in a long campaign on the southern perimeter. However, Karliss’s mother was around and she was not happy to see them.”

“Jealous type, eh?” Kel nodded knowingly.

“Well, I would not put it quite that way but yes, Karliss’s mother was jealous. So she turned the poor girl away, along with Santwin’s son. When Santwin found out, he was filled with rage but tried as he did, he found no sign of the girl or the boy until when Karliss gave birth to Jarat. By then it was too late, the merchant’s daughter, along with her son and his wife had died from the rat plague. But they left behind a baby boy who survived. That child was Lief. A neighbor, knowing the secret of Lief’s lineage, sought out Santwin and returned the baby to him. Santwin never told anyone else of Lief’s existence because he was afraid Nikos would do harm upon him and he had good reason to believe so.” Jenefra sighed heavily before continuing.

“As for the rest, you know much of it already. Nikos poisoned Santwin, after the old Lord disclosed his intention to groom Lief as the next Head to my father. Somehow, Nikos learnt of this and killed Santwin to secure his position. He would have murdered Lief as well if Karliss had not decided to foster the boy under Vaelaron’s care, knowing that Nikos dare not do anything while Lief is under the Captain’s protection. It was a very brave thing for her to do, defying her husband like that and she paid for the deed with her life.”

“But we still don’t have any proof that Lief is Santwin’s grandson.” Amalthea argued. “If Santwin had believed that Lief is his grandson, then that is good enough for me. Unfortunately, Aerlicht and Terylyn do not think it is.”

“How about Preya? What is her stance?” Jenefra asked.

“Her servants say that she is still in grieving over her niece’s death. Most of the time, she stays in Linn’s room, locks the door and weeps.” Trioan answered.

“I never liked that girl. Linn Terolude had a heart the size of a plum-stone and just as hard,” Amalthea said. Then her stern features softened fractionally. “But I understand Preya’s grief at losing a loved one. She had no other kin being barren and her husband died early. Preya was going to groom Linn as her successor and she had high hopes for the girl.”

“So we can rule out Preya’s vote citing the reason that she will not be in any state to make an important Council decision in coming days.” Trioan said. “That leaves us three other Houses to convince over to our side. Strider, Quikos and Rianon.”

“I know Strider. He’s not a bad man, he prefers fighting on a battlefield, feeling the weight of a sword in his hand than to debating lengthy Council matters in a small, airless room. But he has no love for Aerlicht anymore than we do. I think I can persuade him to vote Lief into the Council based on our mutual dislike,” Kel said.

“Good. We will count on you to work on Strider then. Rianon is a sensible woman but tediously analytical. She just doesn’t like to take sides until she knows all the facts and details. But once she does, she usually makes practical decisions. I will throw all the information and statistics she needs about the advantages of Lief’s candidacy until she capitulates. How about Quikos?” Amalthea asked.

“Quikos is an opportunist and even better, he worships only one god called Greed. Offer him money and he will follow you to the ends of the world,” Trioan replied.

“You mean, bribe him? Will that work?” Jenefra was doubtful.

“Your Majesty, trust me. Give Quikos more than what Aerlicht is offering him and he will be yours for life. Or until the next stalled Council election.” Trioan raised one eyebrow and smiled cynically. “With the majority of the Council on our side, Aerlicht and Terylyn will have no choice but to accede to Lief’s candidacy. They will be too cowed to object.

“And these are the kind of people we have on the Council, governing the land?” Jenefra resisted an urge to bury her face into her hands. “Why?”

Amalthea shrugged with some disgust. “That’s the problem we face with hereditary positions. We get the good with the bad and then there are those absolute imbeciles. Damn their antediluvian heads, the First Members, when they decided to appoint their own blood as successors, and making it compulsory for all of us who came after to do so as well.”

“Could we not change it?” Even as Jenefra spoke, she knew the futility of her rhetorical question. The respect and awe accorded to the Council by the Erpheronians was rooted in its ancient beginnings, the fact that it was the earliest form of governmental parliament they had and which had lasted the longest, till this day. To change any aspect of the Council was to incur the displeasure of its supporters.

“Very well. We have settled the problem, more or less. I will announce Lief Sarder’s nomination into the Council and as Head of House Lothari by next month.” Jenefra decided at last. “We have one other matter to discuss before adjourning.”

“The dalá’guourín.” After being entirely still and soundless throughout the meeting, Cale Perrim finally spoke up.

“I thought you had fallen asleep,” Kel laughed.

“Almost did,” Cale confessed, grinning a little sheepishly. “I thought it best that I not interfere with Council matters and rulings. If the people even knew the Queen had a wizard for an advisor, albeit in an unofficial capacity, there’ll be a citywide riot within the same day. Magic isn’t very well-liked these days nor are wizards for that matter.”

“Will these dark days never end? I am weary of them.” Amalthea looked her age as she spoke her words. “I’m getting too old for this.”

“Never. Never too old.” Jenefra reached over to squeeze the other woman’s hand tightly. “You are my pillar, my strength. Without you, old friend, I would never have made it so far.”

Amalthea smiled back at the beautiful woman. “Yes, you would. You were born to be Sovereign, Jenefra. It is in your blood.” She patted Jenefra’s hand comfortingly before letting go, her expression turning purposeful once more. “From the information we received, the time of the Soul Robbery should be over.”

“That’s good news, isn’t it?” Kel wrinkled his brow.

“It is not. It merely means that the transition period has ended and now the real battle begins.”

“Well, that’s not so good news.”

“Obviously.” Amalthea frowned. “Vaelaron has increased the number of patrols in the eastern and northern sectors of the city where most of the changes took place. Security and defense details within the Hold have been stepped up as well. Armeros’s priests are calling for an all out war against Etherus’s followers, saying that the latter are behind the demonic changes. If you ask me, the priesthood of Etherus is usually too passed out under the effects of the ethelian weed to do anything remotely resembling black sorcery. The rest of the other divine factions term it the end of the world. Again. They announced that little tidbit of news at least two times before already, during the dragon siege and the Atonement years. Humph.”

“Still, the level of panic among the people has been contained and it helps that those accursed beasts are lying low at the moment. Not a peep from them since the last reported change…which was…” A rustling of papers ensued for a while before Amalthea continued, “three weeks ago, a Porron Reiq, spice trader by trade. He disappeared after mauling his wife’s face to shreds. Poor woman’s still alive despite that she has no face whatsoever to speak of left.”

It was Kel’s turn next and he reported that the fatalities among the soldier patrols were still relatively small.

“Vaelaron’s holding up pretty well, considering that the man hasn’t slept since Yseuth Callyn was killed in the last clash. One of those damned things just grabbed her head with its claws and tore her head right off before the reinforcements arrived.” The big man shook his head. “We lost a good fighter there that day. Vaelaron’s trying his best now to find someone suitable to fill her position and until he does, the remaining five militia commanders will have to oversee the castle guards and the border camps.”

“Your Majesty, you have not told us where you got your information from regarding these… dalá’guourín. Trioan stumbled over the syllables of the strange word with some difficulty. “Amalthea and Cale know why these unholy changes are happening as do you. And the two guests who arrived on the night of the banquet and yet no-one ever glimpsed during their stay here, they had a great deal to do with the events now, don’t they?” His voice held no censure, just deep-seated curiosity. “Just exactly who or what were they?”

Jenefra and Amalthea exchanged a quick glance before the younger woman gave a nod of assent to Cale. There was no holding back, no time for secrets now, not when Voldar’s enemies loomed ever nearer.

“Lord Sellus, would you believe me if I told you that they were not human but of the elven race?” Cale said calmly.

Kel’s eyes widened as his mouth fell opened with shock at Cale’s announcement. “What?! Elves aren’t real. They are but moonshine stories for children to believe,” he spluttered vehemently.

Trioan merely continued to sit, his eyes thoughtful. “I suspected as much.”

Kel stared at his fellow Council member. “You knew?”

“I suspected. That is not the same as knowing for sure.”

“Nothing escapes your attention, does it, Trioan.” Amalthea sounded visibly amused but her own steel-gray eyes were anything but as they assessed the unprepossessing man sitting before her. “When did you start to know, or should I say, suspected?”

“No. Nothing does.” The man acknowledged without arrogance. Then he answered the second question, “Around the same time as Katya Ileri’s disappearance which, by the
way, coincided exactly the same time with these guests’ leaving. News had come to my attention that there was a carpenter by the name of Dek who swore upon his father’s grave that he had seen an elf walking on the streets of Voldar. I checked out his story and he did not seemed to be lying and the date of the sighting was also the day of the banquet that you supposedly were giving in honor of the ‘guests’. The banquet was intended to be a distraction. You knew the guests would not arrive but your Majesty needed a diversion, for the entire Hold to look the other way as your guests came in through another entrance. But your plans were wrecked when then the Soul Robbery, as you called it, began and from then it wasn’t too hard to piece together the puzzle.”

“A rather scrappy puzzle if you ask me,” Kel mumbled.

“Call it intuition then. A hunch that my hunch was right.” Trioan grinned at Kel’s disgruntlement.

“They were elves and one of them, Lord Melór, requested that his presence and that of his companion be kept strictly secret while they were in Thyrrinths Hold. Even I doubted the veracity of the missive he sent me before their arrival.”

“The elf-lord sent you a message?”

“Yes. It was strange really. I was preparing for my morning meeting with the Council when I suddenly spied this plain sheet of white paper on my table. I could have sworn that a moment ago the same table was as clean as a bone. Lord Melór sent his greetings to the Erpheronian Sovereign in it and requested for an audience, stating that he had very urgent tidings he needed to tell me in person.”

“The Soul Robbery,” Trioan guessed.

“That was the name the elf lord gave as he spoke of it. And later, after the first wave of changes, which you saw with your own eyes, Nikos, his son and Linn including scores others transforming into those creatures, Lord Melór told me why and how it happened and that there were more to come. And I knew his words rang true when the Soul Robbery continued.”

“What’s causing them then? Why the humans? Why us?”

“Because we killed the dragons.”

Jenefra’s mouth thinned as she remembered the day Wengerim, her husband, was brought to Voldar in triumph after killing one of the three known adamant-dragons of the world. She recalled too, seeing him glowing with victory, his eyes brilliant with joy as he handed over to her hands a curved, ivory object.

It was a tooth, pulled from the dead dragon’s jaws as proof of Wengerim’s slaying. She had held it in her arms, this heavy, grim relic, and smiled back at Wengerim and a few days later, they were wedded. She had grown to love him, the man her father chose for her, and he was dead and she would no longer love another. And now, all the darkness that came after, it began then, at that precise moment, with her accepting a dragon’s tooth. Because Wengerim desired her bright beauty.

Her fists clenched as she started to relate everything that the elven Lord had told her on that bright, beautiful morning within this very chamber. Amalthea knew all about it already as she had been present but it was new to Cale, Kel and Trioan.

The elf lord was almost painful to gaze upon, the flawlessness of his hawk-like features and silver hair uncanny. His tall frame sat opposite hers and there was a suggestion, which Jenefra felt or rather perceived, of ancient mysteries, far beyond her abilities to comprehend. His companion, the elf-maiden called Ar’leiná was similarly fair, though her beauty was less sharp-honed and austere than the elf lord. She reminded Jenefra of the setting sun, with her warm red-gold hair radiating warmth and a gentle, almost sad smile. The elf-maid, dressed in a simple green gown, was seated next to Katya and across them were Amalthea and Lysander. There was no other person in the room. Jenefra had made it very clear to the servants and her court ladies that no one, on the pain of punishment, should go near her chambers that morning.

“You say that it is the souls of dead dragons, inhibiting their human hosts, that makes them change?” Jenefra said, horror and disbelief etched on her features as she absorbed the news given.

“We call them dalá’guóurín, dragon spawn or demon in your tongue. They are not true dragons in any sense but an abomination. Only those who are dark of thought, with the seed of true evil, which lies within the heart, can attract these souls. The human race is the easiest to succumb to the temptation. You are a strong race but with your strengths come many weaknesses and doubts as well.” Melór paused. “Your Atonement was a grave error which upset the very fabric and cycle of nature. Dragons were never meant to die. They are eternal, endless, and by killing them, you have merely released their souls, which craved for vengeance. And they have found it.”

“We did not mean it, the Atonement was the only way to end the siege.” Jenefra faltered. “We had not realized…”

“No matter. The deed is done and you will have to bear the consequences.”

From the corner of her eye, Jenefra saw Katya winced as Melór revealed the true reason behind the Soul Robbery. The Queen herself flushed with shame then, knowing that she too had sanctioned the Atonement without consulting the other races first. It was a grave mistake she had made and swore never to repeat again. All the deaths that resulted from this decision weighed heavily upon her shoulders and in her darkest moods, she wondered if her people will ever forgive her. She wondered if she could forgive herself.

“How do we stop it then?” Lysander leaned forward intently to ask.

“You cannot. It is beyond your wizards’ abilities. We can only let this aberration run its course. The Soul Robbery will gain intensity within the next coming months with more changes happening. You can kill a dalá’guóur if you cut its head off when it is in the midst of the transformation. They are most vulnerable then. But after, it will be almost impossible to kill one. Their skin is as hard as dragon hide and your metal swords are no match against it.”

Katya shook her head. “Their eyes are soft and unprotected. That’s their weakness. We can kill them.”

“Provided that one lets you close enough to pierce its eye,” Amalthea said darkly.

Jenefra looked stricken. “What can we do then?”

“Most of the dragon-changed will gather together, to reinforce their numbers. During this time, they will stay out of sight and there probably will be no killings. Yet.”

“And what happens then, when their numbers are strong enough?” Katya wanted to know.

“Then they will attack.”

“But we cannot sit here and expect to do nothing until they do! We do not even know those who have changed if your information about their shape shifting abilities is true! All they have to do is to keep their human shapes to escape notice,” Amalthea said as she pounded one closed fist against her knee angrily.

The elf-maid spoke and her voice was sweet and clear as a spring brook. “Do not lose hope. There is something that might help greatly…” She hesitated and glanced questioningly at Melór who ignored her, his features giving nothing away.

Ar’leiná sighed then, a small hurtful sound so soft that only Jenefra caught it and the Queen’s eyes were filled with compassion and understanding for the other.

“What is it? Tell us, Ar’leiná. Please.” Katya pleaded eagerly.

A strange expression crossed the elf’s face as she started to speak. “There is a legend among the Styrá, that during the Final Wars, one of our kind fashioned a suit of armor that was impenetrable and harder than even dragon skin. If you can get that armor, there is a chance that a weapon, a sword, made from it can kill a dalá’guóur. But more importantly, having such a sword within your possession will make them afraid and might induced them to leave your city.”

“But it is only a legend, is it not?” Amalthea was dubious. “And even if it is true, the Final Wars happened thousands of years ago and who knows whether this armor still exists!”

“She who shaped that armor is still…alive.” Ar’leiná said uneasily, her voice barely above a whisper. “If she does not have it with her anymore, she may know its whereabouts.”

And it had been at that moment, that Jenefra realized, with a brief shiver of shock running down her spine, that the elf-maid was afraid. She was actually afraid and the expression was unnatural imposed upon those lovely, usually composed features.

“Afraid? What can an elf be afraid of?” Kel interrupted as Jenefra paused in the midst of her recounting. “The person who possessed the armor?”

“Maybe, I do not know. What I know is that her fear was real enough and I felt it. And it made me afraid as well. It was Lord Melór who later told us where to find her. And though he did not show it, I think he was loathed to tell us.”

“Find who?”

Jenefra sucked in a breath, suddenly finding it hard to speak. “The ruler of the Moh'rhim.”

Trioan’s brows were knitted together in a frown. “She is not familiar to me.”

“Nor I,” Kel admitted.

“Perhaps you know her better as a ghost story told on the darkest day of winter, my Lords.” Cale replied. His broad face was grim as he spoke. “She is the ruler of the shadow elves but among us, we call her the Bone Queen.”

Trioan started, his composure finally unsettled.

“Are you serious, Cale? The Bone Queen? Gods!” Kel cursed, his normally robust face paled with dawning comprehension. “And that’s why young Katya and Lysander have disappeared, haven’t they? They’re off looking for her and this so-called magic armor.”

Jenefra nodded.

“Was it wise? They are only children.” Trioan asked.

“Katya wanted to go. I could not stop her. That child… you saw what she had done to Nikos and Linn. I do not know how but she has power.” And I am afraid for her, of her… Jenefra did not say the last out-loud but she knew it was true as much as she hated herself for feeling so.

She had seen the nimbus of light surrounding the Silvermarsh girl, the same light radiating forth to destroy the dragon-changed in the blink of an eye. The look on the young woman’s face as it happened was the imperturbable aspect of an avenging Goddess. And watching Katya with the two elves, Jenefra had instinctively felt as well, with a confused sense of mingled anxiety, fear and wonder, how much the girl resembled them. Not in appearance but something far more intangible but irrevocably there. The gradual feeling that Katya was no longer quite human. Reluctantly, Jenefra admitted to herself that there always had been a certain, undeniable strangeness surrounding the young peasant girl, from the day of her arrival into Voldar, already an impossibility upon itself for the dragons were lying heavy and constant siege against the city then and yet Katya walked right in through the gates unharmed. And there was the silver hair, eerily beautiful, unexplainable and another indication of the difference.

“I do not know where her power comes from either but I suspect it is elf-touched. Or cursed, depending on which way one looks at it. Your Majesty, although I do not question your decisions, I wonder too if it was sensible to send Katya away to find the armor. Her strength would come in useful during the coming days if the dragon demons do attack.” Cale pointed out.

“She has a destiny to fulfill, Cale.” Jenefra smiled, knowing how trite she sounded but at the same time, she knew it for another truth. “All heroes do, that is why they are heroes.”

“And Katya Ileri is one?” Trioan murmured. “Pardon me for saying so, your Majesty but some heroes die while achieving their destinies.” The Lord of House Sellus continued bluntly. “We have not heard from Katya or Lysander Dain these few months past.”

Jenefra did not speak while Amalthea glared daggers at Trioan. Then she merely replied, “I know, Trioan. I pray for their safety and return every day.”

A dead silence fell upon the company as each contemplated the fate of their young friends in the privacy of their own thoughts. Finally, the Sovereign of the Erpheronians stood up and walked to the nearest window and gazed out at the same landscape that Ennide had.

Human or not, power or not, Katya was under her protection. And even through her apprehension, Jenefra knew that she had grown to love Katya like family.

Unaware of the little chambermaid’s existence, nevertheless, Jenefra echoed Ennide’s thoughts and hopes into the winds, which swirled increasingly round the tallest tower of Thyrrinths Hold.

Come back to Voldar soon, Katya, and Lysander. And be safe wherever you are now.
 


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