CHAPTER VII: THE QUEEN OF SHADOWS

A SANTHARIAN NOVEL

 
The Tale of Katya Dragonseeker   
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Introduction. Katya Ileri and Lysander Dain have reached the seaport town of Olddon in the hopes of securing a passage across the Aelyvian Sea. Their only chance of reaching the lair of the Queen of Shadows in time to save Voldar from a deadly peril lies with crossing this sea which is notorious for its treacherous waters and weather.

However, among the cutthroat world of smugglers and pirates, there is no honour among thieves, as the two soon discover. Worse, Katya finds herself haunted by terrible memories that threaten her very sanity. Ghosts from the past that will not rest easy even after death are slowly driving her into an abyss where nothing and no one can save her once there.

 

othing lasts forever.

Not empires, not the animals, not mountains nor the seas. Not the ideals you hold to when you were young and everything seemed so vivid, so lucid. Not the Gods.

Not the ones you love.

They are all gone. Jenefra, Amalthea, Vaeleron, Lysander and so many others. Even Katya of Yarrow. All dust and cherished memories now.

Everything ends in time. Even this world is not eternal.

I look out the window across the chamber as I write this and the sun is setting. It is a beautiful sight and all the more so because of its uncertainty. Oh yes, you will shake your head and think, ‘the sun will rise and set tomorrow as it always does, what is so uncertain about that’ and possibly smile at my foolishness when you read this. But what will you say if I told you that once darkness came and covered the lands and it did not go away for a long, long time? Better men and women than I have already recorded this occurrence down but books grow dusty with age and people forget. It is easier to forget than to remember.

The shadows fall. I light the candles in the room and they are sufficient. The regrets come with the evening for this is when one is most prey. Prey to the futile doubts that inevitably claw their way back into the dusk of one’s years, yapping and yelling, giving no peace.

I still regret. I have made mistakes. Small ones, not so small ones and painfully terrible ones that, thankfully, have been few and far in between. I have erred but I should not regret for I had you and you, my dear one, reminds me of all the things I have done right.

You have always wanted to know. I have told you all the stories and still, you wanted more. I have none left inside me to tell.

…no, that is not quite true. Perhaps there is one tale left inside me to tell. The one that I have never told you. Not in its entirety. And once this tale is done, it will truly be over and perhaps I can, I can…

Would you care to listen? Where should I start?

With the dying dragon in its lair, it’s one eye still full of malevolence and spite? Or the remembrance of a pale queen in a dark land? Or of another, a queen in her own right, who gave up her light to give life to something lifeless? A city battered down by too many horrors and death, but somehow, still stood and hoped?

Or maybe, fittingly enough, the end should start in a ramshackle tavern that smelled bad.
 

Month of the Singing Bird, 1648 b.S., Olddon

The tavern smelled bad. The faint scents of human sweat, salt from the nearby waters mingled with the sour smell of dried vomit to create a miasma that was truly unpleasant.

As Katya walked through in the door, she wrinkled her nose at the cloying, noxious stench.

“Father would never have allowed our tavern to smell like this," the girl murmured, trying to breathe shallowly as she looked around the dimly lit room.

There was not much customers this early in the afternoon but what there was, were slumped over tables. A mug of weak-looking brew was in front of most and all were seemingly dead to the world. If Ma'asherom himself had been resurrected from the dead and was dancing through the room wearing only a cap on his head, Katya doubted any of the tavern customers would have even blinked an eyelid.

Gingerly making her way across the filthy floor, she approached the tavern keeper.

The burly man looked up as she stood in front of him and his eyes set deep within his fleshy, pockmarked was unfriendly and cold.

“We dun serve women here,” he said and spat out a gobbet of something vilely green aimed at the floor.

“Well, there’s a first for everything,” Katya replied, cocking her head high to stare down at the man. Having practiced studiously from Amalthea, the councillor of Voldar who could fry a man in his boots with a single glance, Katya was relatively sure that her glare was imposing enough for a none-too-clean barkeeper.

For added emphasis, she dug a few coins from a side pocket and the sound of the metal tinkling on the top of the bar counter did what a dancing Ma'asherom could not. A few slumped heads lifted and peered blearily towards her direction.

After picking one of her coins and biting it to prove its authenticity, the barkeeper looked sourly at Katya and muttered, “Whadaya want then?” and swept the rest of the coins into one meaty palm. “We dun serve no fancy stuff here.”

“A mug would be fine.” Katya was rather hungry after several days of surviving on pack rations of dried baneg and bread with hard cheese but she would have chewed her toes off first than ingest anything from this place.

“Oh wait, make that two. My companion will be here soon after tethering our horses.”

The barkeeper shrugged. He took his time to fill up two mugs from the barrel behind him and thumped them onto the counter.

Cautiously, Katya picked one up, took a sip and raised an eyebrow. Water had been mixed in with the alcoholic beverage. If her father had been here, he would have taken his great sword and used the flat of it to give a beating within the nailsbreadth of his life for the owner of this shady establishment.

But she kept her tongue. She was here in the tavern 'The Sea Witch', situated in the busy port town of Olddon, because she needed something. An open rebuke on cheating paying customers would probably not help achieve her purpose any.

What Katya needed was a ship to the north to find the truth behind a legend so old that it had become a myth among the human race and who had reportedly made her empire among the decaying and rank swamps of the Water Marshes. A ship that had to be fast enough to make the journey within a few weeks for time was something she could ill-afford now and an overland journey through the Tandala and Kuglimz territories would take far too long.

Though she was reluctant to leave Voldar at a period when the Soul Robbery was at its most critical, she knew that if what Ar’leiná had told her, Jenefra and a selected few from the Voldarian Council within Jenefra’s chambers that day was true, then the best hope to stop the dalá’guóurín, those who had been inhibited by the souls of the dragons, was the armour of Avásh'aelía.

She had left Voldar with Lysander by her side and the two Elves, Melór and Ar’leiná, early one morning when the sun was scarcely peeping over the rim of the world and no one saw them riding out of the gates except for Vaelaron and a few of his trusted guards. After discussing it with Jenefra and Amalthea, they had decided that the less people knew about the journey to the Water Marshes, the better the chances for success.

The great road that they were travelling on led out from the south entrance of the city which went around the borders of the Thaelon, on through the towns of Acht and Holm and finally to the Allsiscaey Mountains.

As they rode on their horses, Melór had told her what his people knew of the Queen of the Moh'rhim, the Shadow Elves. What he said did not make Katya feel any more confident of succeeding in her mission. Whoever had the bad luck to stumble into her marshy realms was usually never seen again…or seen in pieces.

The Thaelon was only a day’s journey from Voldar and after warmly embracing Ar’leiná goodbye (Katya did not bother to extend the same gesture of affection for Melór. The Elf-lord looked like he did not encouraged embraces), the young humans parted ways with the elves and hurried on to the town of Olddon.

Veltin was a much larger port town than Olddon and had regular trading routes with the Kuglimz. Most of the routes went up as far as the beginning of the Aelyvian Sea to the Isles of Quios, while Olddon, due to the agreement between the Erpheronians and the Stormcloaks Guild of Quios, only plied the routes between the north-eastern coast of Erpheronia to the Isles of Ram. Olddon's location laid on the mouth of Rayne River which ran down from the Tandala Mountains and into the open sea. And no self-respecting sailor from either port towns would dare venture across the Aelyvian Sea with its treacherous waters and capricious weather.

But it was Olddon that Katya decided to try her luck in for situated at the very end-quarter of the town was what the locals had termed 'Smuggler's Lair', a section of the port that was crammed to the brim by thieves and rogues of every size, shape and inclination. The authorities of Olddon too mostly left the inhibitants of that place alone for the Stormcloak Guild had refused to acknowledge these extraneous presences, citing that the only smugglers allowed were those belonging to their Mainlander branch.

Simply put, how does one bring to justice another who does not officially exists?

"If you are searching for someone to ferry you across the Aelyvian, Smuggler's Lair's your best chance, I'll say," Vaeleron had suggested this to them on the eve of their departure from the walled city of Voldar. "The free men of Smuggler's Lair they call themselves but free or not, they're still slaves to the glint of gold."

And now, right in the heart of the Lair, Katya put her mug down, her voice reaching all around the ale-soaked room, and said, “I need a fast ship that will take me to Tormac in northern Sarvonia. Can you recommend someone? I can pay well.”

The barkeeper gaped at her for some moments before throwing his head back and laughing uproariously, the rolls of fats rippling on his chin as he did. Gradually, the rest of the tavern joined in the amusement and those who weren’t drunk till next week sniggered as well.

Katya reddened slightly but she kept her head up and waited patiently for the laughter to die down.

Finally, the barkeeper stopped his guffaws long enough to say, “What makes you think you can find anyone here crazy enough to take you there? There be thieves and murderers madder than a Ximax rat here in Olddon, sure, but we ain’t that daft.”

“Not even for fifteen pieces of metals?” Katya asked in a casual tone.

She was quite sure she had the attention of everyone in the tavern now and no one was snickering anymore. The tension was palpable as the girl took a small, brown bag out and jingled it before tucking it back into an unseen pocket underneath her travelling cloak.

There was the sound of chairs scraping across the floor as the occupants slowly stood up.

"That be a real foolish thing to do, girlie,” The barkeeper said quietly, his eyes gleaming underneath thick eyebrows. “Your body’s gonna be facedown floating to sea come tomorrow morning and your pockets be a lot lighter then.”

Katya drew her lips up in a sharp, brief smile as several men slithered across the room to where she was, all signs of drunkenness disappeared from their faces.

“Care to make a wager on that?” she asked lightly as she continued to smile.

Outside the tavern, a young man with dark hair stopped as he heard the unmistakable sound of tables smashing to the floor along with various crockery and loud curses. His eyes widened.

Katya!

Drawing his sword, he kicked the tavern door open and rushed in.

Inside, he saw one man groaning on the floor with a bloody forehead while two more surrounded his friend and was presently trying their best to gut her open with their blades.

“Katya! What have you done?” Lysander yelled, appalled.

Katya’s head popped up briefly from the melee even as she fended off an attacker by feinting to the left and then twisting slightly sideways to slam her shoulder against the man’s chest. He stumbled back, an audible wheeze of air coming out from his lungs.

“I was only asking for a ship!” Katya shouted. Her eyes were, incredibly, flashing with merriment as she kept her attackers at bay.

“Watch out! Behind you!” The girl warned.

Lysander turned around just in time to see a man with blackened teeth coming at him, already swinging a punch. The soldier dodged it easily and delivered a stinging kick to the attacker’s buttocks as the man fell with a grunt.

“Five minutes! I left you alone for five minutes and look what you started! A tavern brawl?!”

“It was not my fault!” Katya said indignantly while kneeing another tavern customer in the groin.

Throughout their conversation, Lysander continued to deliver miscellaneous punches and blows to various men with the hilt of his sword and making his way towards the Silvermarsh girl at the same time.

When he was by her side, he grabbed Katya by her waist, ignoring her protests and deposited her on top of a table.

“Stay there. I’ll deal with this.”

Katya rolled her eyes. When would Lys learn that she was more than capable of taking care of herself?

There were still three men rounding up against her friend and while Lysander probably could take care of them, this wasn’t really very productive in their search for a ship.

She looked around for something to stop the fight and spied a...

Katya Ileri grinned.

As Lysander’s knuckles connected satisfyingly with a jawbone, he abruptly found himself drenched from head to toe in a shockingly cold shower of wetness.

The brawl ended in an instant as the foul-smelling water descended upon everyone’s head.

“That always used to work in my father’s tavern,” Katya said as she settled the grimy bucket for washing the floor down, grinning widely. “Now, as I was saying, me and my friend here need a ship to Tormac. And we seek a ship here for we have heard that it is the men of Smuggler's Lair who would venture on such a perilious journey while those of the Stormcloaks Guild huddle under their blankets when the sea grows wild and Baveras shows Her might. Oh and did I mention that we will pay well?”

In the silence that followed, Lysander Dain sneezed.

“Well now, little maid. Pay well, did you say? How well, might one ask?”

Katya turned to the man who spoke. He was sitting in one corner of the tavern, shrouded in shadows.

“Fifteen gold metals,” Katya said confidently and there were muted gasps and nudging from the men around her. A wet and dripping Lysander frowned instead.

On the way to Olddon, he and Katya had agreed that the sum for the journey would be twenty and the remaining ten, given to them by Jenefra, would be sufficient for an overland journey back to Voldar. At least, that was the original amount he thought he and the Silvermarsh girl had agreed upon. But, wisely, he held his tongue and let Katya continue.

“Fifteen? That be a pretty sum truly. Enough to buy a man a modest house and court a sweet wife,” The same man mused aloud. “I am tempted, I must admit.”

“You have a ship?”

“A ship? Aye, I have a ship,” he said, as the men around him sniggered.

Ignoring the derisive snickers, Katya went on. “Do we have a deal then?”

“Tormac you said? That’s a long way, and perilous to boot. The ships of Olddon have business with the Isles of Ram and that is mostly where we ply. To reach Tormac, we’ll have to cross the Aelvyian coast, known for her perfidious nature. Storms come with no warning and have helped bury many a sailor in Baveras’s watery embrace. What's more, the Kuglimz do not take kindly to illicit strangers upon their lands and there are also rumours of pirates trawling the waters.”

“Are not smugglers a breath away from pirates,” Lysander snorted. “When have pirates become afraid of pirates? And we know the sort of business you ply between the routes here to the Isles of Ram. The thieving kind.”

“You wound me with your words, boy! We are not smugglers nor are we pirates, scum of the waters, they are! We are honest, seafaring sailors.” The man they had been speaking finally came out from the dark corner and he was tall, with slightly stooped shoulders. His narrow face was brown like the rest of the men in the tavern, weather-beaten and rough. His nose, however, was a sharp, pointed thing, resembling an eagle’s beak. “Captain Drinn at your service and those who welcomed you with their hospitality just now was my lamentable crew.”

He placed one boot behind the other and made a deep flourish that would not have shamed a courtier. Some of his men grinned gap-toothed smiles as they farcically mimicked his bow but with much less success.

Unperturbed, Katya smiled back. “Captain Drinn, that is why my friend and I came to Olddon. For we have heard that only the best and bravest…sailors congregate here. The ones who know of secret routes to Tormac, water ways that are undetected even by the Kuglimaz.”

“Perhaps. But the risk is not proportionate to the amount you offer.”

“Fine, what would you propose then?”

“Thirty.”

“I do not think your life is worth quite that much. Seventeen.”

“You insult me but I am magnanimous. Twenty-five.”

“Twenty.”

“Done!” The ship captain spoke swiftly as if afraid the other would withdraw the offer.

Katya gave a quick sidelong wink to Lysander who was trying to hold back his laughter.

“We will give you ten first and the rest when we reach Tormac, no more, no less.”

“More to you than a pretty face, little maid,” Drinn guffawed with amusement. “My dear, we have a bargain.”

“Good. Your ship then, where is it?”

“Moored at the docks. A look would you like?”

“Yes. That would be good.”

“After you.” With another dramatic flourish, Drinn gestured towards the door.

A wide berth was given to Drinn and his crew as they walked, well, sauntered would be more appropriate, down the street to the harbour. The other people of Olddon, comprising mostly of prostitutes and other smugglers, seemed perpetually drunk and swaying on their feet but even so, they were sober enough to cast looks of hatred, fear and respect at Drinn and his men.

Katya noticed and pointed it out to Lysander in a whisper.

His only response was a shrug. “Heard about Drinn before I met up with you in the tavern from some others. Apparently he has got somewhat of a reputation, even in a den of robbers like Olddon.”

When they reached the docks, ripe with the smell of slime and salt, Katya spied a wondrous billow of white clouds rising from the mist and she gasped.

“Is that your ship? She’s beautiful,” the young woman said, eyes bright with admiration.

To be sure, Drinn’s ship was lovely, something that Katya did not expect from the raggedy bunch she saw at the tavern that Drinn had introduced as his crew. In truth, she had been expecting something more derelict and…dirtier.

But the ship before her, tethered at the waters, bobbing majestically with every wave, was none of that. The sails were of purest white with straight wooden masts. The prow was an elegant curve of which a figurehead likeness of Baveras, the Goddess of the Seas, was mounted upon. On the side of the prow, painted in elaborate script, were the words, ‘The Talia’.

“The Talia may be small but do not be deceived by her size. She is one of the fastest ships this side of Caelereth. No other can match her speed when the winds are up and Baveras looks down in favour.” The note of pride in Drinn’s voice was unmistakable as his men behind them murmured their assent.

“When do we sail?” Lysander wanted to know.

“A week hence. We had docked at Olddon for supplies and water. And then, it’s off to Tormac. And if you have any pertickler Gods, I suggest you pray to them for surely we will need their favours.” Drinn grinned widely, revealing a mouthful of yellowed teeth.

Month of the Sleeping Dreameress, 1648 b.S., Voldar

A scream pierced the air, slicing through the hot, smoky air.

Vaelaron Dain whipped his head round and cursed, “Armeros’s teeth! I thought I gave the order that this section was to be evacuated immediately after the first deaths!”

The soldier, his name was Bremaris, stammered, “We, we did, sir.”

“That was not the wail of a dying cat I just heard,” Vaelaron said with heavy sarcasm. “Bring two others along with you and find out what happened. Secure the perimeters while you’re at it.”

Bremaris placed a fist over his chest and nodded in acknowledgment. He dismounted from his horse and pointed to two others in the patrol and the three started to head off into the direction of the scream.

“And Bremaris? Do not be a hero. Just find out what happened and report back. Am I clear on this?”

“Yes, Captain Dain.”

As Bremaris and the two other soldiers he had chosen walked away, their swords drawn, Vaelaron heard a low chuckle rumbling behind him and turned.

“Bremaris thinks you can walk on water if you choose.” Kel Branoc smirked back.

“Then he will likely be very disappointed when he sees that I do not walk on water and instead start drowning and spluttering water like every other man who cannot swim.”

“Boy worships the very ground you walk on. Him and practically the entire Voldarian army.” The head of House Branoc, one of the twelve ruling houses of the Council, was dressed in full battle paraphernalia as he sat on his suffering horse next to Vaelaron. His broad chest was covered by a breastplate with the image of a rearing bear in a broken cage, the sigil of his house, emblazoned in black on it.

“Hero worship I do not need. What I do need are men who do their jobs, listen to orders and stay alive long enough to see through this nightmare,” Vaeleron said sharply.

The amused expression on Kel’s face turned solemn. “Indeed. Any thoughts on how long this new Change will last?”

“Cale can’t say for certain. His magic is different from whatever caused this soul robbery. We thought it ended with that incident. That spice merchant, Reiq. Clawed his wife’s face to shreds after he turned. Thought he was the last. This new spate of Changes could last from a week to a year, depending. Or it could be a ripple effect. The dying breath of a dragon before it’s all over and the Change is complete.”

“Yes, I remember talking about that Reiq fellow with the rest in the Council meeting we had, right after your lad and Katya left the city. Couldn’t find a trace of it after it did that to the unlucky woman.”

“Those cursed bastards hide better than a rat on a ship. But Voldar’s a big city. They could be anywhere. Biding their time for an attack. This recent renewed attacks on the civilians could be a ploy to create as much chaos as possible to weaken and confuse us before striking.”

“Gods, man, but you’re cheery today.”

“I haven’t been cheery since Yseuth was torn to shreds by one of those things,” Vaelaron replied, his voice flat.

Yseuth had been one of the five commanders that helped to oversee Voldar’s army. A good soldier and fighter. More importantly, she had been a friend and trusted advisor.

Seeing one of those monsters, hunched over and eating what remained of her broken, bloodied body was forever etched into the grizzled old soldier’s mind and though he had managed to drive off the beast, he had been unable to kill it to avenge her death and his failure sat heavily with him.

That and the thought that Yseuth was not the only one who died in the fight against the dragon-changed. Gods, so many others. Good men and women all.

“Sorry.” Kel offered clumsily, knowing Vaelaron’s friendship with the dead woman.

“Time enough to grief when this is all over.”

“Will it be over? Even Jene-”

That was when Bremaris suddenly stumbled out from the alleyway he and the two soldiers had disappeared into, just minutes before.

His face was streaked with blood, his sword was gone and so was half of his right arm from the elbow down. A ragged stump was all that was left.

“Gods!” Kel swore.

“Captain!” The wounded Bremaris cried hoarsely, “it, it…no warning…tore them apart…” Then he fell onto the ground as the horses sheared away from him in fright from the sharp tang of blood, their nostrils flaring and eyes rolling.

Quickly, Vaelaron issued a series of orders to his men as he brought his horse under control. “Kaye, get Bremaris back to the Hold at once. Emaria, you and your men, come with me while the rest of you fan out and make sure nothing gets through to the other sectors of the city.”

“I’m coming with you, can’t let the Captain of the Guards have all the fun,” Kel grinned ferociously as he swung down his horse with the rest of them.

“This is not a game, my Lord.” Vaelaron said tightly.

“No, it’s a hunt.” The warrior in Kel bared his teeth in a wolfish smile.

“Let’s just hope we are the hunters and not the hunted,” the other man muttered as he unsheathed his own blade.

Moving back to the direction where Bremaris and the two men had gone, Kel and Vaelaron heading the small contingent of soldiers, they did not have very long to go before a low, growling roar that seemed to emanate from one of the houses, now empty because of Jenefra’s order of evacuation of that section since the third death, reached their ears.

Motioning for Emaria and her men to stay back, Vaelaron and Kel proceeded carefully into the front door of the house. Carnage greeted their eyes as they crossed over the threshold and the unmistakable warm, rich smell of blood was everywhere, covering thickly like an unspeakable abattoir.

Kel stifled a shocked gasp at the various arms and legs and other meat parts too shredded within armour parts to have a name littered over what used to the small room of someone’s house.

“I think I see Bremaris’s missing arm,” Kel started to point when the monster burst through from the adjoining room, showering the two men in a mist of wooden splinters as it did, mouth gaping wide in an obscene grin of silver fangs stained crimson.

The Elves called them the dalá’guóurín in their tongue, literally meaning ‘dragon-spawn’. Souls of dead dragons infesting and inhabiting Men who had the seed of evil lying within them. The darkness making it somehow easier for the dragons to merge their spirits to their hosts. But to Vaeleron’s eyes, these monsters were nothing like dragons except for the toughened and scaled skin. They seemed more akin to lizards walking on two immensely thickened hind legs with lengthened forearms that ended in wickedly sharp talons, designed to tear and rend through flesh and bone. Their heads were tapered like lizards as well with huge maws for mouths, topped by inhumanly reptilian eyes.

Emaria appeared at the entrance of the house with her crossbow ready and notched. “Captain!”

“Stay back. Lord Branoc and I will try to draw the thing out. Otherwise, you’re as likely to hit one of us with your arrow in this room than it.”

Nodding, she retreated, shouting for the rest to stand guard outside.

“It’s a big one.” Kel hefted his sword as he slowly circled to the left side of the beast. “A first Tier?”

“Think so,” Vaelaron said, his gaze never leaving the thing in front of him. It swayed slightly, its eyes by no means vacant with the mindless bloodlust of a predator. From his experience, he knew these dragon-changed were highly intelligent. That was how they evaded capture for so long. “It can’t change back. It’s stuck.”

According to the Ximax wizard, Cale Perim, there were three factions, or Tiers as he called them, to those changed by the Soul Robbery. The first kind was the ones who underwent a terrifying transformation into something half-lizard and dragon with enhanced strength and agility, forever locked into that abominable state. The second kind was much the same; only those affected had the added ability to change back into human or dragon-spawned at will. The second Tier was obviously the more dangerous for they could quietly slip back into their previous life and identity without their closest knowing the difference and thus, escaped detection until the hunger struck them and they would change to hunt.

The third Tier was the rarest with only less than a dozen claimed to have witness such a phenomenon. Those belonging to the third stage of transformations had the power to shift completely into the form of a full-grown dragon. Gossip was rife over such transformations although no one could actually prove anything. Most of the time, it usually was the brother of a friend of another friend who claimed to have seen this occurence happen.

More disturbing was that Amalthea had received rumors that her nephew, Drafas Tristin, had been an unwilling and tragic victim to this blight. It was true that there had been no news from him since his moving up to Northern Sarvonia, Amalthea had said, but that does not mean the boy has changed into a dragon of all things and flew off.

Her tone had been brusque and practical but her eyes belied her fear for Drafas.

Fortunately, or as fortunate as you can get in times of dire crisis, the first two stages were more common and while a first Tier was not as bad as a second one, it was still bad and dangerous enough.

With another lung-shattering roar, the scaled beast came at Vaeleron at amazing speed despite its bulk, its arm already pulled back for a swing aimed to tear the old soldier’s head off. Or it would have, had it connected. Vaeleron braced himself, his boots digging into the soft wood of the floor and prepared to hold off the blow with the flat of his broadsword.

The impact, when it came, almost threw him off balance and caused jolts of shock down his arm but he held as Kel came, with his own bellow, from the side of the beast to strike it.

He could have been a fly swatting a large cow. Kel’s considerable might did nothing to dent the dragon-hide toughness of the dalá’guóurín. This was what made them so dangerous and nigh impossible to injure besides the heightened strength. It was hard to kill an enemy you could not even injure.

Kel’s sword bounced harmlessly off the dalá’guóurín’s side and without even turning to look at the Voldarian lord, it flung the man off to the side with its other arm. Kel flew across the chamber like a child's doll to hit a finely carved wooden table, which shattered under the weight of his armour, with a grunt.

“Kel!”

But the brief distraction was precisely what Vaeleron needed. Slipping his hand to his boot, he drew out a dagger and as the beast reared its arm back for another blow at his head, Vaeleron dropped his sword and with all his might, he dove against the front of the beast and slammed his dagger up into the underside of the beast’s throat. The one spot that was vulnerable besides the eyes and their only chance.

His dagger pierced the soft tongue and the beast reared away, choking on its own blood, a black, thick and foul-smelling ichor, and its lengthened arms clawing desperately at its throat, trying to dislodge the weapon.

One of its wildly swinging arms caught Vaelaron’s chest, batting him to the floor and he distinctly heard something cracked and gave way inside his body as a sharp slice of pain penetrated through him and he gave a hiss of expelled breath.

If the beast somehow recovered, he doubted his own ability to stop it with a broken rib and Kel dazed from the blow he took.

However, his fears proved unfounded. Maybe the Gods were watching and occasionally even deciding that it was not his time to die for the beast stumbled a few steps backwards and fell to its side with a muted, gurgling sound as black blood continued to pour out from its mouth. It choked to death quickly. Its baleful reptilian eyes flickered for a moment, staring at Vaelaron, before glazing over. Its tongue, pinned to the roof of its mouth by the dagger, flicking out from the opened maw, was already turning purple.

Dragging himself upright, Vaelaron hobbled to his fallen sword and picked it up, hissing anew at each fresh lance of pain that a step caused. He prodded the carcass with one boot, gouging its eyes out with his sword just in case, and went over to where Kel had fallen.

The larger man was coming around, his eyes opening blearily. He shifted himself up and groaned as he held his head with his hands.

“I think I broke my head,” he told Vaelaron. “Is it dead?”

“Quite. And it will take more than that to break your skull. It’s harder than anything I know.”

“Well, it feels like it’s broken.”

“Stop whining. I’ve got a broken rib and you don’t hear me complaining, do you?”

“But you’re made of stone. Everyone knows that. I’m just a normal mortal man who feels much pain at this moment.”

Vaelaron snorted.

They sat in silence for a while, taking in shallow breaths as the thing they just killed emanated a cloying rotten stench.

“Gods, but that thing stinks,” Kel observed morosely. “Think we’re getting much too old for this?”

“I cannot speak for you, my Lord of the ‘this is not a game but a hunt’, but I most definitely know I am.”

“We have best get back to the Hold and have someone look at that rib of yours.”

“The finest idea I have heard from you so far.”

“Once the blood goes back into my head and the room stops spinning around, that is.”

“Let’s stay here and wait for Emaria to come in and see whether we’re dead. She can arrange for a carriage to take us back to Thyrrinths Hold.”

“A large carriage with cushions.”

“Another excellent suggestion, Lord Branoc. You are certainly full of surprises today."

Ennide was hurrying down the corridor, her arms piled with a heap of laundry needing to be washed. She turned a corner and promptly ran into something that she bounced off from, her arms flailing around wildly and piles of cloth went flying into the air.

“Ow!” She lost her balance and fell heavily onto the floor.

“I am sorry, are you hurt?” The man who knocked into her asked with concern.

“Yes, my backsi...erm, no. I am fine.” Ennide blushed as she realized what she almost said. Meregin always said a proper lady would never use such indelicate language in front of a man.

“Your…” The man trailed off uncertainly.

“No! I’m fine. Really.” The maid hurried to reassure him. “I did not realize someone was coming. I’m sorry too,” she said ruefully.

“Oh well, the sheets are already dirty, I would imagine being dirtier on the floor is not that much of a difference,” Ennide laughed with sudden mirth as she stooped to gather the linen.

“Let me help you.”

“Oh no, I can do it myself!”

“Let me, please. It’s my fault. You are not the only one who should have been more careful where they go,” the man said and the two shared a mutual grin.

As Ennide quickly gathered and folded the fallen linen, she stole a sidelong glance at the man who had bumped into her. He was trying awkwardly to fold a bed sheet into manageability again. Not much older than her, she realized. He was thin to the point of lankiness with brown hair that flopped over his eyes. And those eyes were a deep green in shade and rather beautiful, Ennide thought secretly.

She giggled when the sheet ended up in an odd looking clump and he looked with some helplessness at her.

“Here, I’ll do it,” Ennide stifled a laugh and in a few seconds, expertly patted the errant sheet into a neat square.

When they picked everything up, the young man insisted on helping her carry half of her load to where she was heading.

Curious, Ennide asked, “Are you new here? I have not seen you around the Hold before.”

“Very new. This is only my third time here,” The man admitted. “I was lost to be honest. I had not realized Thyrrinths Hold was this immense.”

“Oh yes, I got lost myself when I first came here too. Do not worry, you’ll find your way around soon enough. After all, I did,” Ennide nodded reassuringly. “Once I ended up in the dungeon even! Of course, there aren't prisoners anymore since the previous Sovereign’s time.”

“Were you not afraid?”

“I wanted to scream,” Ennide confessed. “But thankfully, I didn’t. I might have if there still had been bodies. The other maids said the ghosts of prisoners who died in the Hold dungeon still haunt the place but I do not believe in ghosts. What I did not want to see was…you know, a dead person who's still runny.”

“Yes, I can see how disconcerting and unpleasant that would have been.”

Ennide eyed the man suspiciously, wondering if he was laughing at her. His expression was grave and attentive though.

“Are you laughing at me?”

“No, I was thinking how glad I am to have someone talking to me.”

“Don’t they talk to you?”

He dragged a hand through his brown hair and sighed. “They talk but they do not really talk to me. They speak to the person I am compelled to be.”

At Ennide’s look of incomprehension, he chuckled. “It is…complicated. I never wanted to come here. They said I have to, because of who I am.”

“Well then, you’re here now. You just have to make the best of things. It’s daft, sitting around and wishing. If wishes were coins, we would all be rich, wouldn’t we? Everyone has something to do, even the stable boys. Without them, who would shovel the dung from the stables? We would have smelly stables and stinkier horses,” Ennide told him firmly.

“And if there were no maids, we would have no clean sheets to sleep on?”

“Truly! But only the wealthy and the highborn have their sheets washed for them. As for the rest, we wash the sheets we sleep on ourselves.”

“That doesn’t seem very fair.”

“Life is not fair.” The maid huffed. “It is good, honest work and I get paid for it.”

“I stand rebuked.”

“Oh. Oh! I wasn’t scolding you! I talk too much. Mistress Litora says I do and she always has this pinched look, like a crab has when it is going inside a pot, on her face when she tells me that,” Ennide said contritely.

“And Mistress Litora would be…?”

“She oversees the maids in the left wing of the Hold. And here she comes now,” Ennide yelped belatedly and with a sense of doom, “I forgot about the sheets!”

Quickly, she snatched the other half of the sheets that the man was carrying back into her arms again.

“Where you been, you wretched girl?! That pile of linen was supposed to be carried down to the laundry chambers before noon! Oh, my Lord Lothari, I did not realize you were here.” Litora stopped her tirade to bob an awkward curtsey when she saw who was standing next to the maid.

Lord who?!

Ennide gave a smothered squeak of shock that earned her another quelling look from Litora.

“I hope she was not giving any inconvenience to you, my Lord.”

“Actually, no, she was showing me where the Council chamber was. I’m afraid I got lost,” Lothari explained a little apologetically. “I did not know about the linen.”

“The Council chamber is this way, my Lord.”

“I was there before and I still could not find it. I would be grateful if your maid could lead me to it?”

“She has chores to do, my Lord. The linen,” Litora pronounced direly.

“Oh. Hm. If you do not mind, perhaps you could send the linen to the laundresses instead?”

Ennide thought it was all rather amusing actually, the way Mistress Litora’s face turned a pale shade of purple at his suggestion. She ducked her face behind her armful of sheets and tried not to giggle with incipient hysteria.

“Of course.” The fixed smile on Litora’s face would have been better suited on a skull. She took the pile of linen from Ennide’s arms and instructed through gritted teeth, “Mind your manners now, girl, and step lively. Make sure his Lordship reaches the Council room safely and be on your way back when he is.”

“Yes, Mistress Litora.” Ennide replied meekly. “Follow me, please, my Lord.”

Lothari gave another apologetic smile to Litora in parting and did as he was told.

For a time, Ennide kept quiet and her eyes trained to the floor as they walked.

“I think the floor needs a carpet too.”

‘Wha…?”

“Isn’t that what you were thinking, staring at the floor like that? I had brought it up to Lady Amalthea about a carpet before. Something thick and warm that you can sink your toes into. I hear the Hold gets terribly cold in winter, I told her. Especially with all the windows carved into the walls.”

Despite herself and her awareness of who the young man was now, Ennide could not help but ask, “What did she say?”

“She thought I was running a fever and wanted a healer to look at me.”

Ennide started to chuckle but stopped herself. “My apologies, Lord Lothari,” she muttered.

“I liked you better when you were talking about smelly stable boys and my name is not Lord Lothari. It’s Lief. Lothari is the title.”

“That was smelly stables, not stable boys and I liked you better too when you were not a Lord of Voldar,” Ennide retorted, stung. She could not help it. That disappointed expression on his face; as if implying somehow her new reticence was her fault! She had not known he was a highborn, and one of the Ruling Houses of Voldar. His attire, though well made, was simple and unostentatious. If she had known, she would never have rambled on about stables like that!

He smiled with cheery relief. “That’s better. Now you’re talking to me, not to Lothari.”

“What are you talking about? They’re the same person.”

“Unfortunately, people seem to think so. Jenefra, Amalthea and the rest do. I never asked to be a Council member or head of the House. It only happened because Nikos and his son died.”

At the mention of Jarat, Ennide’s usually cheerful face clouded over and Lief noticed the change immediately.

“You do not like Jarat?”

“I hate him!” Ennide burst out and the intensity of her disgust obviously startled Lief. “He…he raped my friend. She was a maid too and who had refused his advances. So he had her abducted to his father’s house. And after he was done, he let his men…” Ennide’s eyes started to tear but she brushed them away swiftly with her sleeve. “She was so covered with bruises when they finally let her go. We thought she would die. She did not but she might as well have died then. Cenna hung herself a few days later.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I heard Lord Branoc was so angry when he found out what happened that he wanted to kill Jarat but the Queen had to stop him though I think she wanted Jarat’s head on a stick as much as Lord Branoc. No one could prove anything. It was the word of a highborn against a dead maid.”

“I’m glad he’s dead. I was happy when Miss Katya killed him.” Ennide glared defiantly at the young man, not caring if he would punish her for her imprudent words.

“I would have helped Lord Branoc hold that stick if I was there,” Lief said quietly. “I suppose that is one good thing that came out from my ascending the seat of the House Lothari. Whatever I regret, I do not regret that at least. Jarat’s father murdered my grandfather.”

Ennide regarded Lief with new sympathy. “You must have loved him very much.”

“I hardly knew him. I did not even know he was my grandfather until he died. Yet, he was the only family I had left in this world and he is gone.”

"I'm sorry."

The loud, prolonged groan of iron gates opening startled them both.

“Captain Dain’s regiment. They’ve returned,” Ennide walked over to a window ledge to get a clearer view. “There have been reports of the dragon beasts in the south-eastern part of the city…something’s wrong!” She glanced at Lief with wide eyes.

Though they were several peds high above the ground, Ennide could see a number of diminutive figures congregating around the Captain’s troop. They rushed back and forth like scurrying ants and then the two caught sight of a vibrant flash of lavender striding across the courtyard to the unit’s side.

“It is Lady Amalthea,” Lief identified. “She would never greet a patrolling regiment unless something has gone amiss. Maybe Vaeleron is grievously injured. I should go and see. They might need my help.”

“If Vaeleron is wounded, we would have to appoint someone in temporary charge of overseeing the security in the Hold as well as city patrols. I would have suggested Yseuth Callyn but she is dead. Emaria Tresanti I believe would be an excellent option,” he pondered to himself.

Ennide cocked her head to the side as she listened and she gave a sudden smile.

“Is something the matter?” Lief perceived her amusement and asked.

“No, nothing,” she said, still smiling. Reluctant successor to the Lothari name and house or not, Lief had all the bearings and makings of an excellent Voldarian councilor.

“Will…can I see you another time?”

She hesitated and sighed. “That is not a wise idea, my Lord. I am only a servant. And not a very important one at that such as Mistress Litora or Mistress Meregin.”

“You are not only a servant. You are more than that and it is good to have someone to talk to again.” It was not a plea but the entreaty in his voice was hard to overlook.

He was lonely, Ennide realized with a start of surprise. And realizing that, she remembered her first few weeks when she herself first arrived at Thyrrinths Hold. Although Katya had tried to spend time with the maid whenever she could, she had other duties and cares as the Queen's ward and could not constantly be with Ennide. The nights were the worse. She used to bury her face into her pillow so as not to disturb the other girls who shared the same bedroom and cry bitterly. Recalling the pain of the beating that Linn Terolude had ordered and the humiliation and utter fear before Katya rescued her as she wept.

The loneliness passed, as did the memories of the brutality she had experienced. She would never forget but at least she could live with it, and eventually she settled down to life in the Hold but all the same…

“Yes. Alright.” she said with a sigh.

Lief gave an expectedly glowing grin at her capitulation. “I do not know your name though."

“Ennide.”

“And I am Lief. Well met, Ennide.”

“Well met, my Lo…Lief,” Ennide shook her head doubtfully but she smiled back.

“I have to go now, I will see you soon! I promise,” Lief said as he strode off, waving his hand in farewell.

“If anything, at least he would be a much better Lord then Jarat or Nikos.” Ennide murmured as she looked at him hurriedly striding away.

Though Cenna was dead and monstrous beasts stalked the streets of Voldar in and Miss Katya had not returned, the sun still shone with a brilliancy that awed her at times and as long as it did, there still remained hope.

Ennide waved to the far-off distant range of mountains in the horizon from the window. It was her habit and though the one she waved to could not possibly see or know what she was doing, nevertheless, she continued to do so.

Yes, there will always be hope, Ennide told herself, and she could believe it for a little while.

Month of the Sleeping Dreameress, 1648 b.S., The Aelyvian Sea

Katya screamed hopelessly.

“Father! I’m sorry!” left her lips in a long wail as she struggled out from the nightmare of fire, agony and the remembered smell of burning flesh.

Sitting up in the narrow cot, she wrapped arms around her and retched in dry heaves that seemed to go on forever. The moonlight shone down from the tiny window next to the cot as she continued to choke, lungs heaving.

Slowly, the retching stopped and she could breath in great gulps of air once more.

The air she was breathing in now was musty and carried a strong tinge of salt. For a disorientating moment, she did not know where she was, in this dark, sparse little room.

Then it came back to her. Yes, of course, she was on a ship. Drinn’s ship to be exact, the smuggler captain from Olddon. And she was on her way to Tormac in the lands of the savage Kuglimaz to find the whereabouts of the fearsome Bone Queen, ruler of the Shadow Elves, and save Voldar.

Save Voldar…how could she save Voldar when she could not even save her own father and friends? People she had loved?

In the relative darkness of the small cabin that swayed gently as ‘The Talia’ cleaved through the sea swiftly, Katya let the bitterness, despair, and the heartache washed over her in an overwhelming surge. The nightmare still clung to her with clammy fingers and the scent of burnt flesh, thick and sickening, lingered though she knew it was not real. It could not be real. It was only her memories, clawing their way to the surface of her consciousness in nightmares.

She had thought they were gone. Nightmares that came every night after the destruction of Yarrow and left her shaking and gasping as she wrenched herself awake. Horrendous dreams where she relived the last few moments of Yarrow before the dragons came and rained fire on the hapless villagers over and over again. The vision of her father’s skin, sloughing and bubbling as his mouth gaped open in horrifc suffering.

She had thought those nightmares gone, disappeared completely when she flung her father’s sword into Ol'dém'bréy’s eyes. Why have they come back now? And so vivdly as they got worse and worse with each succeeding night.

Human flesh burning, cooking in dragonfire. Oh Gods, the smell…

At the corner of her eye as she gagged anew, she thought she spied something moving.

Katya…

Wanting to scream again but afraid if she did that, she would be unable to stop, Katya stared at the sight of Medoc, emerging from the shadows of a corner. He looked the same as he did, minutes before he was engulfed in an inferno but his eyes were wrong, so wrong. Cold and lifeless.

Eyes that stared back at her, accusing and condemning.

“You’re dead. Father, you’re dead,” she whispered. “I saw you die.”

You let me die.

“No, it wasn’t me, it was the dragons, and I could do nothing!”

You did not save me.

Madness was ghosts who talked to you and accused you with frozen anger in their eyes. Madness was spiraling down a hole that had no end and no beginning and you could do nothing to stop the ascent into the chasm. Madness was the sound of black wings, dry as dust.

Madness was your dead father telling you that you caused his death.

“You are not real. You cannot be real,” Katya’s voice shrilled. “You’re not real!”

At her scream, she felt it. The thing inside her, coiled like a sleeping dragon. The power that had destroyed the dalá’guóurín in Jenefra’s great hall with thrilling, frightening ease. It came awake with a vengeance at her distress and the force of it rocked her back as it burst out in brilliant strands of pure light, illuminating the dim cabin until everything shone with a white, painful radiance that hurt.

That same inexplicable light enveloped her father and he gave a howl of rage as he started to disintegrate, obscene cracks appearing onto his face that was twisted into something demonic and hideous.

You killed me. You murdered me.

“NO!”

As swiftly as it came, the light extinguished itself, winked out like a candle flame, taking Medoc with it and it was dark and quiet once more.

Katya moaned, the sound swallowed up almost immediately as it was uttered. “What is happening to me?” she demanded to the emptiness around her. “What have you done to me?!” There was no answer, only the gentle lapping of the waves as the ship continued on its path.

Her head drooped with exhaustion. Her hair fell forward and she saw the silvery glow of it, shining with its own muted light. The unnatural color was a constant, unwanted reminder of what she was changing into, still changing into. She did not know what she was becoming but she did not want it. It repelled her. Yet, she could not deny that a part of her which craved the power of being hárf'á'chón. That strange, unfamiliar word of the Elves. A word she hated now like she had always hated her hair since it changed.

It was that bitterness which caused her to snatch the dagger from the table and it was the fear of not knowing what she was becoming that made Katya hacked with frantic anger at her hair. The sharp edge of the knife parted strands as easily as butter and before too long, a pile of silver locks pooled around her feet.

“Katya? I heard you scream,” Lysander’s voice, throaty with worry, came through from the other side of the door. He knocked on it insistently. “Katya, open the door.”

Eyes intent on the gleaming, polishing arc of the blade as it cleaved the tresses, she did not answer. She did not notice when the knife slipped once and cut deeply into the palm of her hand. Blood welled from the cut and stained the falling silver strands. Blood-tainted snow, tinged with crimson and proof of her vast guilt. Her fault, her fault. Her father was right; she killed everyone with her foolish desire to see a dragon. The Gods had answered her thoughtless wish. It was her fault.

“Katya!” Lysander’s pounding on the door grew more adamant.

Finally, there was a cracking, the sound of wood splintering as the young soldier threw his weight against the door. The flimsy lock gave and he tumbled in, sword drawn.

When he saw the sight before him, he stopped.

“Katya? Why…” he could not go on, the words stuck in his throat with shock.

Her hair hung in uneven strands around her face and blood from her palm smeared her cheeks, giving her an unsettling aspect. A heap of silver was gathered around her feet and still she held the knife, still cutting away relentlessly.

“Stop it. Katya, stop it!” Lysander found his voice and he came to her side, gripping her hand, gentle but firm. “What is wrong? Why are you doing this?”

Awareness flooded back in gradual waves and Katya blinked. She looked at the young man and then at the dagger in her hand, slick with blood.

“My father came to me tonight,” she told Lysander with a serenity that alarmed him more than the previous blankness in the girl’s eyes as she hacked her hair. She sounded so rational but something was wrong. He instinctively felt it. A thin sourness in the air, like brimstone or sulphur.

“Your father…,” he paused and then went on with infinite carefulness, “Katya, he is dead.”

“No he isn’t,” she smiled. Lysander sucked in his breath at that smile. It had nothing rational or sane about it. It was the smile of someone staring into a bottomless abyss and recognizing the unspeakable things writhing there. “I was wrong, you know. I always thought the dead stayed dead when they burn but they do not. Lys, there are ghosts and they are deafening.”

Katya put her hands over her ears briefly, a manner reminiscent of a child who did not wish to hear something unpleasant, before she folded quietly in a heap into Lysander’s arms.

“Gal’s fine?” Drinn asked.

The sky was misty blue and the waters, stretching to the horizon, were sapphire-toned and Lysander Dain was heartily sick of all these variants of one color. It had been heartbreakingly beautiful at first, this never-ending expense of the sea, and the sudden glint of the sun reflecting from the deep, to someone who had lived most of his life in a walled city before. But after a month's sea voyage, Lysander found himself washing for the sight of mountains, towns and cities. Even a brown, dusty dirt road would be nice.

“So. What happened to the hair?” Drinn continued, referring to Katya who was standing near the stern of the ship. Her silver-white hair hung in uneven strips around her face, and Lysander was suddenly reminded when he had first saw the Silvermarsh girl in Voldar, surrounded by an ugly mob. Her hair then had been shorter then it was now but not by much.

Lysander shrugged. He did not want to discuss the subject of last night with the smuggler, not least because he still had no inkling what had happened. All he knew was that he had heard Katya scream something unintelligible in her cabin. When she had not answered him, he'd broken the door down to see her standing in the middle of the claustrophobic room and cutting her hair off with a dagger before collapsing.

What she had said before she lost consciousness…he did not want to think about it. Did not want to think about the madness he saw reflecting in her eyes.

“I did not realize you were concerned for Katya. Seems a little out of character for you.”

“Naturally I’m concerned, young master. Who would pay me the remaining half of my gold if something happened to the lass?”

Arching an eyebrow, Lysander said, “I’m surprised you have not tried to murder us in our beds for the gold yet.”

“Honor among thieves, m’boy,” Drinn winked.

And Lysander had to be satisfied with that. He had to admit though, that despite his faults, the smuggler had been true to his agreement after receiving half of his promised payment at the docks. A week later, he and Katya set sailed on 'The Talia’. While Lysander bunked with the rest of the crew, he had insisted that the girl be given a room of her own. And the only room aboard the ship had been Drinn’s own cabin. Surprisingly, the smuggler had given it up with good grace with his usual roguish grin.

And his courtesy has continued even when Katya’s night terrors started and the crew heard her screams reverberating, before slowly dying into the air. It must have been Drinn who had told his men not to say anything for they kept quiet and behaved with a boisterous good cheer around the young woman whenever she was on deck. A few times, Lysander had caught one or two of the men crossing their fingers in a swift sign to warn off evil after Katya walked pass them but they did it surreptitiously and he could not blame the men for being superstitious.

Something was very wrong with Katya. It radiated from her like a dark, ominous cloud and touched those that came near her. It made them ill at ease although they did not quite know the reason why. And now, this inexplicable talk of her father being alive when it was known that her entire village had been destroyed during the path of the Dragonstorm along with the inhibitants.

During their journey to Olddon, the two of them had taken the great road that bypassed the forest of the Elves and as they reached the town of Holm, Katya had become uncharacteristically withdrawn and pale and unable to sleep. She would toss and turn and when she finally dropped into slumber, she would fitfully murmur things too low for him to catch. He had wondered and worried until he remembered that Yarrow, her village, was only a day's ride away from Holm.

He had asked Katya whether she would like to go back to see Yarrow for a while since they were that near.

She laughed and her eyes were bitter as she said, "Why? There is nothing there to see but ashes and charred wood. The carrion would have taken care of whatever bodies they'd found by now."

After that, Lysander had not asked her again. He knew of her ever-present desire to find the dragon, the same one who had led the siege on Voldar and killed Medoc Ileri, to exact vengence and he was very much afraid that this ill desire was now driving her steadily towards madness.

“We should be reaching Tormac in a coupla days if the wind conditions are good and the Gods decide not to rain another storm on us again like the one the day before. Baveras protects us but it would not be another moment too soon if I never see another storm like that the rest of my life!” Drinn was saying, shaking his head at the memory of the squall that had blew out of nowhere as they sailed down the Skeleton Coast of the Aelyvian Sea and tossed the little ship up and down like a child shaking a bottle as it crests over the high waves that crashed against it.

Lysander had endured storms before, enraged ones that tore the tops of trees off and howled like a living thing through the passageways of the Hold that shook under their assault but he had never experienced one in the middle of a naked sea upon a ship. It seemed as if the skies had unleashed all its rage and the sea boiled and churned around the unprotected ship in tandem with the lightning streaked clouds.

Drinn had hung on to the steering wheel of ‘The Talia’ as if his life depended on it though the elements howled at him and rain, roughly the size of small stones, hammered against his face and body. Though he was complaining about the ferocity of the storm now, the young man had seen a grin even fiercer than the tempest plastered on the soaking wet sailor’s face as he steered the ship over the cresting waves. His men similarly were manning the ropes or frantically bailing water from the deck with buckets. Lysander and Katya were with the latter as they had no seafaring experience and would only get in the way if they tried to do anything else.

None of the disheveled riff-raff that they had first seen in that stinking tavern of Olddon entertained the thought of escaping the storm’s fury beneath decks but stayed alongside with their captain. Because of this, Lysander’s respect for Drinn’s weather-beaten crew grew, albeit grudging for they were still smugglers all but in name.

As for Drinn himself, Lysander was not sure if the man was daft or loved treading that thin balance that separated life from death for only a madman would lash himself to the wheel of a ship as he drove it inexorably into the eye of a maelstrom.

Madman…Lysander’s face darkened at that thought.

Drinn glanced at the Voldarian standing next to him with a knowing expression. It had been clear to all who could see since the first moment the two young people stepped onto his ship that the boy would carved out the eyes of any crew who would even dare to dart a lecherous smirk at the girl.

“Ah, whatever will come will come, lad. No use breaking your head over a ladle, half filled with broth.” The sailor nodded wisely.

“Have you been drinking again?”

Drinn merely looked offended at Lysander’s question.

Katya clutched the wooden bow of the ship until she feared she might actually break chucks of it off when she released her hold.

Ursha was standing a few peds from her, her back facing the stern. Foiros was shining with a fiery brilliance and all around Katya objects cast a harsh shadow onto the deck or onto the wavering waters. All but Ursha.

It was not the Ursha she remembered when she had been a child in Yarrow, her village. Ursha of the sturdy, brown face with wrinkles that creased around her blue eyes when she smiled. Ursha who had tended all her childhood ailments and who sat her down one afternoon to tell her about the mysteries of womanhood when her month-blood started flowing and she was in a fright, so sure that she was bleeding to death from some dire, internal injury.

No, this Ursha before her was not the same Ursha of her memories. This apparition was blistered all over with gaping red sores, hair singed from a raw scalp while tatters of the brown robe she used to wear when she had been the herbs woman of Yarrow hung off that devastated body. But those blue eyes were unmistakable even when sunk deep into a horribly burnt face.

“Go away. You are dead as well,” Katya whispered, her knuckles straining bone-white as she clutched the prow harder.

Ursha said nothing, unlike Medoc the night before. She only stood there, in that ruined travesty of a body, staring at Katya, eyes dark with unutterable pain and grief.

One of the crew walked past and while he did not walk through Ursha as if she really was a shade from the past, he made a wide berth around the woman. There was an expression of confused bewilderment and even some fear in it as he glanced at where Ursha but it was clear to Katya that he could not see her. It was as if he could sense something was there but his mind could not perceive it fully.

And then, once he stepped out of Ursha's circle, Katya also realised already he had forgotten whatever had happened. The bafflement slid off his face like water pouring out from a bucket. He started whistling a tuneless melody as he brushed past Katya, nodding a brief greeting to her as he strode away to the direction of the galley.

“What do you want?” Katya asked hopelessly. “Is this what madness is? Am I going mad?”

She did not expect answers to her despair but Ursha’s hand slowly raised and Katya gasped softly when she saw that the arm was nothing more than bones with strips of bleeding flesh. She shuddered but forced herself to look on.

The dead woman was pointing to a point in the far horizon, the arm a stark counterpoint to the dark wood of the ship and the encompassing, merciless blue that surrounded them all.

“I do not understand,” Katya whispered. “There is nothing there.” She was certain that Ursha was trying to tell her something, something so important that it dragged her out from whatever dark, cold and distant place the dead goes after they die.

Forgetting her horror and own grief, she took a half-step forward towards Ursha.

“Katya?” A hand shook her shoulder and distracted, she turned away from her old friend.

“Wait,” she told him, ignoring the incomprehension on the man’s face.

Quickly, she swiveled back but Ursha was gone.

Following Katya’s fixed glance at what seemed to be an empty place between the mast and the stern, Lysander felt that familiar chill and worry settled around his heart.

“There is nothing there,” he said carefully.

To his relief, the concentration on the girl’s face changed to one of wan amusement. “I know there is nothing there, now. I may be going foolish but I am not that far gone yet.”

“You will be fine,” he said quickly. Too quickly.

“And if I am not, you can haul my gibbering self back to Thyrrinths Hold and tell Jenefra to lock me up in the highest tower so I will be spared the indignity of wandering in the midst of midnight, tolling a bell in one hand and a candle in the other, looking for my dead father and friends,” The amusement was still there, exhausted and wry, but there was also a note of deadly seriousness in Katya’s voice. Gallows’s humor as Lysander’s father would say.

“Katya…” Lysander began and stopped. He did not know what to say.

“Help me.” Katya’s rising terror at what was happening to her was evident and Lysander nodded. Anything, I will do anything for you. He would tear down the Gods from the skies if that were the help she required.

A gull’s harsh cry sounded then and Katya glanced up in astonished wonder at the circling bird, one hand going over her eyes to shade them from the piercing sunlight. The wind blew a puff and ruffled the jagged strands of silvery shaded hair at her neck. She was wearing a simple white linen shirt, opened at the neck and a dark green skirt that flowed around her ankles like a mermaid’s tresses.

Lysander thought she looked achingly beautiful, in that simple pose, and he became conscious, in one of those transient but startling clear bursts of insight that sometimes descended upon a man when he was in love and deeply, that this was the calm before the storm. And when the storm comes, it was going to be much, much worse than those summer storms he experienced in Voldar and more horrific than the one he had endured two days before on the ship. He hoped he was ready…no, he had to be ready.

“Oh look! Lysander, it’s a gull. What is it doing so far out the sea?”

“Not so far. Our good Captain just informed me that we are but two days away from reaching the mouth of the Liben Delta that runs into Tormac.”

He pointed to where Tormac lay in an exact, eerie imitation of Ursha’s action previously.

Katya went rigid. Yes, of course, how blind she had been not to see. It was a warning. Her old friend had been trying to warn her of what lay beyond that flat expense of water.

Warning Katya about her. Avásh'aelía of the Shadow Elves.

“Soon appears the Queen, she of the Bones,” Katya suddenly said, remembering a line of an ancient children’s’ nursery rhyme. Could it be that somehow her nightmares and the appearances of her father and Ursha were a result of the imminent proximity of the Queen and her gloomy, sunless realm? Sorcery? But of what kind, what sort and for what reasons? Questions answered but more were raised in their wake that seemed impossible to glean the truth from.

“What?” Lysander, standing beside her, asked with puzzlement. She did not reply.

Soon. Yes, very soon. She had an unwanted premonition then, a chill that pervaded her body despite the warmth of Foiros’s orb, that the Queen of Bones would rise out of her lair to greet them the moment they place a foot onto her lands. And her kiss would be sweet and her wrath deadly.

And may the Gods help us, Katya thought, when that happens.

I think the Gods are no more. Vanished into the antiquity of time with the coming of Men and their disbelief. Men with their weapons and magic, their wars and their devouring hunger sweeping across the lands. Perhaps the Elves and Dwarves were right. Perhaps it is better to retreat into your forest fortresses or island sanctuaries and forget that every minute that passes, the world grows stranger and unfamiliar. New faces to replace the old ones who have gone into the mists, leaving me alone.

I have lived for far too long. The world has moved on and without me.

Forgive the addled ramblings of the old. We do tend to go and on about the gloriousness of our youth.

The candlewicks are spluttering and almost burned to stubs of soft wax. My hand is aching and my fingers smeared with ink.It will be dawn very soon. These tired old bones are crying out for rest but I have not much time left to finish this tale. Time, my dear, flows all around us and it is hideously cruel to those that are borne along its remorseless currents.

I shall have to light new candles to write by.

The night is short and the tale is not done. Not yet.

Soon though. Yes, very soon.

 


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