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
As Katya walked through in the door, she wrinkled her nose at the cloying,
“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
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
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
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
who had been inhibited by the souls of the dragons, was the armour of
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
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
"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
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
“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
"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
“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.
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
“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
“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?”
“I do not think your life is worth quite that much. Seventeen.”
“You insult me but I am magnanimous. Twenty-five.”
“Done!” The ship captain spoke swiftly as if afraid the other would withdraw the
Katya gave a quick sidelong wink to Lysander who was trying to hold back his
“We will give you ten first and the rest when we reach Tormac, no more, no
“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
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.,
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
Emaria appeared at the entrance of the house with her crossbow ready and
“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
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
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
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.
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
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.”
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
“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.
Ennide gave a smothered squeak of shock that earned her another quelling look
“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
“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
For a time, Ennide kept quiet and her eyes trained to the floor as they walked.
“I think the floor needs a carpet too.”
“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
“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
“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 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
“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.”
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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
At the corner of her eye as she gagged anew, she thought she spied something
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
At her scream, she felt it. The thing inside her, coiled like a sleeping dragon.
The power that had destroyed the
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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,
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.