|A day shy of a week ago Robotech Master was out on his e-bike when an SUV struck him and drove off. According to the most recent news available, he passed away from his injuries at around 2:00 this morning. I have kept some news up on his user page and, at this point, ask that anyone wishing to leave messages or tributes do so on either his talk page or another page that can be used for such things. His account here and all of the stories he has gifted the Shifti community with will be preserved in memoriam, as we also did for Morgan.|
User:Michael Bard/Pricing Immortality - Book 2 - Immortality Regained
Pricing Immortality - Book 2 - Immortality Regained
|Tales of the World story universe|
- 1 Chapter 12: On Elves
- 2 Chapter 13: A First View of Kelda
- 3 Chapter 14: A Brief Interlude in Faerie
- 4 Chapter 15 - Arriving at Kelda
- 5 Chapter 16 - The Seige of Kelda
- 6 Chapter 17 – The Fall of Kelda
- 7 Chapter 18: Winter in Kelda
- 8 Chapter 19: Death by the Sea
- 9 Chapter 20: Thieving the Dead
- 10 Chapter 21: Calynisha
Chapter 12: On Elves
The elvish race, like the dwarvish race, are descendants of the faerie, the first born of the Gods. The elves are those who refused to fight and hid on the surface of the World in the dense forests. It is there that Tamiola protected them against Vashigan’s absence and shielded them from his rage against all the faerie.
But unlike the dwarves, the elves have never remained hidden. When humankind was created at the beginning of the 2nd Age, the elves were there to teach. They taught humans agriculture and architecture, writing and reading and math. But they didn’t teach the humans warfare.
The humans picked that up on their own.
As time passed the humans multiplied and grew more and more numerous. At first there was lots of room for both races, but then the humans learned to hammer their plowshares into swords and they started trying to take the best of the lands from the elves. At first the elves were victorious in every encounter, but for every human they killed within a decade there were ten more. But for every elf that died there was no replacement for up until a century.
Thus, gradually, slowly, the elves were killed and driven deep into the forested wilderness to hide from humankind as humans took over the fertile plains and valleys and the great cities that the elves had helped them build.
And the great clans of the elves recorded these wrongs from generation to generation, and every wrong done to them by the humans they had once taught and cared for was not forgotten.
Jerishan – Essays on causes of the Dragon Empire
The Dragon Emperor after telling me to wait turned and left. Shrugging I waited a while enjoying my hatchling sister’s company until a pair of female elves came towards me out of the mist. They were dressed pale green and yellow dresses, possibly of silk, and both were holding a large red umbrella for shelter. They stopped in front of me and were silent as I looked them up and down.
Their dresses were indeed silk, and due to their thinness the two were probably freezing and I was impressed that they didn’t show it. One was a blond, and the other was a redhead, and both had their hair in braids going down to their waist. I couldn’t see what shoes they were wearing as their feet were hidden by their dresses.
“Mistress, our master sent us here to lead you to your chambers.” It was the redhead.
I leaned over and kissed a scale on my hatchling sister’s hide and whispered, “I’ll be back to see you.” And then turned and spoke normally. “Then lead on.”
The bland haired elf held the umbrella over me so that they no longer had the benefit of its shelter and then they both turned and waited until I started walking. Then, with one leading and the blond following they led me into the Palace of the Families. We soon reached the entrance and two armoured elves bowed as we walked by. There had been large ornate doors but they’d been destroyed by fire.
The ladies led me through an entrance hall which was being scrubbed but still stank of blood, and then up stairs and down a hallway. There they stopped and turned and, with the blond still holding the umbrella above me, they both curtseyed. “Would our mistress like a bath, some food, or would she prefer to retire for the evening.” Again it was the redhead who spoke.
The redhead stood up while the blond remained and opened the door and led me in. The room was not large compared to what I’d been use to before Calynisha, but it was much larger than any I’d experienced recently. A recently lit fire was burning but hadn’t had enough time to take the chill from the room. Near to the fire was a largish four-poster bed and the redhead stopped halfway between the door and the bed.
She turned and I followed her to the bed which she began to prepare.
“You can go.”
“I can retire myself.”
“As you wish.” Then she curtseyed, rose, turned and left, pulling the door shut behind her.
I undressed myself and spent a while rubbing and polishing Naveela and then sheafing her and setting her carefully on a table, and then performed my exercises before crawling into the bed. The bed was not straw, but was instead down-filled and gloriously soft.
So why did it feel cold and lonely?
It was just me. A new day and I’d feel better and could get my conquest started.
It wasn’t the light of the Aldorashgan that awoke me but instead a light knock at the door.
I watched as the red-haired elf from last night opened the door and walked in. Her hair was still braided but today she was wearing a dress of an off white. As she walked to the edge of the bed I noticed that her feet were bare and calloused, but said nothing as she reached the bed, stopped, and curtseyed low.
“What is you name?” I hated addressing servants by titles or descriptions.
“Have you been given instructions?”
“Yes mistress. I am to bathe you and then take you to join the Emperor who will announce you to your troops.
A bath. I smiled. “Then lead on.” I made my way out of the bed, trying to keep my tail from being pinched, and then stood and took a step and then stopped as Amanthriel, again standing, had my pants folded and over her arm ready for me to wear.
“Would my mistress like help?”
She nodded and handed me the pants and then the shirt as I was putting the pants on. Once that was done she turned and I followed her out of the room, my unpadded hooves loud on the wood. There were two guards at the door and I turned to one. “Make sure that no one enters while I’m gone. Am I understood?”
I started to raise a hand and then stopped. Maybe these didn’t know I was now their commander, and if that was the case then a simple nod was reasonable. However, I did make a note of his face and a note to check and make sure. I turned away and followed after Amanthriel who had stopped to wait.
The trip was short and led upwards to another floor and into a stone tiled room with a large bath. The bath was already filled (one of the things I’d always enjoyed about Mandalor – the running water) and hot. Another elven woman was already in the bath with soap, oil and scrapers ready and it took only a few minutes before I was undressed and making my way down the steps to join her.
There was one problem though. There was a seat against the side for the bather to sit upon, but it wasn’t designed for one who had a tail. By sitting on the front of the seat I managed to kink my tail to the side so that it was not too painful.
“I will take these clothes now and bring new ones that have been prepared for you.”
I nodded and she left.
And then I sat back and enjoyed my bath. The servant carefully washed my entire body, even my hooves, and soaped and rinsed my hair, mane and tail. Then she scraped my shoulders and chest with scented oil before helping me out and over to a cooler bath to rinse. Then it was time for soft furs to dry with, and then perfumes and nimble hands to braid my hair and tail. The hairs of my mane did cause a problem as many of them were very short as they were growing almost directly from my spine but I told the servant to just shave them off. The final step was a stiff brush for my legs and fetlocks which actually felt amazingly good. Why hadn’t I tried brushing my legs before?
And then, as if she’d been waiting – which she probably had been – Amanthriel entered with a soft plain linen dress dyed red which she helped me into as the other girl polished and dried my hooves.
The dress had a slit to let my tail wave freely – the Emperor had been getting things ready.
Finally all was done and I was feeling nicer and cleaner for the first time since I was with Kalibynthn… I shook my head. For the first time since Calynisha had cursed me. Then I followed Amanthriel out and up some stairs and along a hallway to a pair of double doors guarded by a pair of mailed elves with spears and shields.
There we stopped and Amanthriel curtseyed and stated, “I will await your pleasure here, mistress,” and nodded to one of the two elven guards at the doors.
One of the guards nodded and handed his spear to the other and then pushed open one of the two doors and stepped in. “Announcing her eminence, the Lady Ilisri, Claw of the Emperor.”
I stepped through, the loud sound of my hooves on the polished wooden floor spreading into the sudden silence as the guard closed the door behind me with a soft thud. Before me the room was large and airy with bright windows of not too poor quality glass. Almost filling it was a large wooden table of polished ironwood and stained a dark, almost black, brown. There were padded chairs of the same wood along the entire table but most of them were empty for there were only seven people in the room, four elves and two humans, and the panther creature that the Emperor had animated last night, and they were all at the far end of the table.
I reached the head of the table and bowed. “Emperor.”
The panther nodded and then spoke, “This is the person whom I have chosen to be my second in command, the claw of my hand so to speak. She is my general and you will obey her as you would me.”
“Her?!” one of the elves sputtered.
I turned to look at him. He had been seated and was dressed in clean leathers and bore a sheathed sword. “Do I know you?”
He ignored me and continued speaking to the emperor, “She’s gutter trash! I saw her in the underworld with the dwarf Baldorf, dirty and ugly.”
Trash?! I was speechless.
But then the Emperor acted. I sensed his will gathering and then watched the elf suddenly stiffen and his eyes fill with pain. The Emperor’s will held him unable to move or speak, or likely scream.
I turned to the clockwork panther. “Release him.”
The panther’s head turned to look at me. “You order me?”
“I take it that he is here for a reason. Probably because you need him to lead others. And if you need him, then I need him. Release him and I will convince him to behave.”
The clockwork panther made no movement but then I heard a strained gasping for breath and the sound of a body collapsing. I turned to face the elf where he now lay on the floor and waited a moment until he glared up at me. Calmly I asked, “And who are you to call me trash?”
He pulled himself back to his feet and then stood staring up at me. “I am Lord Falagan, Head of the House Cholanari.”
Cholanari – I remembered that name from before the Curse and I wondered if he knew his own history. Still, I couldn’t help but smile at the arrogance in his tone, which reminded me of any one of a number of heads of other house before the Curse, and answered him back. “And I am the Lady Ilisrillianthriel, hatchling sister of Sarsynalithagas.” I could have named my house but I’d rejected that when I killed my father.
His only response was to whisper, “No…” but then his voice loudened and hardened. “A houseless vagabound who owns nothing but legends of a house long forgotten…”
A house forgotten? He must have recognized my name and that of my hatchling sister. Obviously my house was not forgotten, especially with the Spherendracyl in use.
“…that had no heirs that would take it before the fall. Why should I and my elves follow you?”
I took a step towards him. “You will follow me because your Emperor has told you to. You should follow me because I know more about war, and have fought in more battles, than you or your entire house either have or ever will. I am the one who led the final assault upon the home of the gods and I am the one who stood before Vashigan as he fled and turned away!”
A quiet calm voice stated, “And what did it gain you?” I spun around and glared at an elderly elf lady. “You may be skilled in magery which you needed in the past, but now it is an age of mortals and iron. Magery can achieve nothing on its own. What skills do you have in combat?”
“I led the forces of the houses Goffisanth and Salinalas against the house of Linathual and the foresworn that had joined them. While their mages fought each other to a standstill it was I who led the forces to besiege and break the walls at Linathuanan and it was I who led the fight into the high tower. And it was I who slew the mages with my sword.”
She nodded but then Lord Falagan spoke, “You are a houseless peasant.”
So he was one of the arrogant lords as of old. I turned to face him noticing the Dragon Emperor look on with what had to be amusement in his mechanical eye. “I am the last heir of High House Ganisrath. Just because I refused the title does not take it away from me.”
“Then I will take it away from you.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“By the Laws of Old I challenge your title. I do not believe you are who you say you are, and the Gods will guide my arm to strike you down and bare your secrets for all to see.”
“A challenge? Do you know what you’re asking for?”
I just looked at him knowing that he didn’t. Before the Curse if a member of one of the High Houses failed to fulfill her duties then they could be challenged by a younger heir to a duel of magic or sword. If there was no direct heir, then heirs of other houses could challenge but then they would be given a wife by the vote of the High Council (if they didn’t already have one) and killed so that their soul could be reborn as their wife’s child and take up the rulership of the High House without any ties to their old house. “I don’t believe you know. Have you taken a wife?” I could see the old elf lady smile and heard whispers of confusion from the humans.
“Why does it matter?”
“You don’t know. By the Laws of Old you will be given a wife by your Emperor and you will be reborn within her. And, by the Laws of Old the challenge is to the death using a means chosen by the challenged party. I give you one chance to withdraw your challenge and accept me as your Emperor has commanded.”
“I do not withdraw it.”
The old elven lady stood up and took a step between us and turned to Falagan. “You know nothing of the Laws of Old and your attitude has proven that. But if you wish to challenge her then challenge her. Just remember that we both know what she is so I will permit you to challenge her to first blood, nothing more. And when she beats you, you will obey her!”
Falagan bowed and then waited until she stepped aside and then almost spit out the words as he talked to me, “I withdraw the challenge under the Laws of Old but I will not accept you over me unless you fight me by sword.”
“By sword? That is appropriate given that you believe I cannot lead you and your elves. What is the real reason?”
“That is the real reason.”
I took a step towards him. “You and I both know it’s not. I remember the head of your house kneeling before me begging for his life as I stood over him before Falangatha; I remember the snick of my sword as I thrust it into his chest and the sucking as I pulled it out.” He paled – so he did know and that was probably what started his whole objection. I’d have to keep an eye on him. “But I will give you your challenge and I will face you by sword to first blood. Will that settle the matter between us as the Elder has ordered?”
“Yes. Shall we meet tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” I laughed. “We will do this right now.” I turned and started clomping to the door and then stopped as I realized that he wasn’t following. Stopping, I turned back, “Shall I wait for you in the square? Or…”
He leaped out of his chair and almost ran towards me in his rage and eagerness. I just laughed, turned, and pulled open the door as I heard the others following at a more sedate pace. “Amanthriel!”
“Fetch my sword and daggers and bring them to Freedom Square. I have a matter to attend to.”
“Yes mistress,” and then she hurried off.
I waited for the others and ignored Falagan but held the door open for the elven elder and held her hand to pay her my respects.
“Isn’t it I who should be respecting you?” she asked.
I stopped and looked her over carefully. She was wearing a jade green velvet dress that was ornately embossed with flowers and leaves and flowed and billowed over her body. It would have dragged behind her if the bottom had not been held up by some kind of wire. Her hands were thin but strong, and her hair was long and unbraided, but white as the snow the gods had sent us when they knew they couldn’t win. Her face was old and tired, but her eyes still twinkled with humour and I could sense a powerful mage weighing me.
“In this case it is I who respect and honour you.”
“Then I, Basinalri, thank you for your honour.”
Then, holding Basinalri’s hand, I let her show me the quickest way from the council chamber down the stairs and out into the square. Behind me I could hear the others whispering amongst themselves although the Emperor remained silent except for the almost inaudible grinding of gears as he willed his automaton to move. With our slow pace Amanthriel was in the square with my weapons before we arrived and I took a single dagger and Naveela in her scabbard from her and waited for Falagan. It wasn’t long before he and two retainers arrived.
I looked at Falagan and wanted to frown. He was dressed head to foot in ornate and flowing bronze chain, but I could tell that beneath the decoration it provided protection. Below the skirt of the mail were bronze greaves and articulated bronze shoes. His head and face were covered by a massive bronze helm with leaping snarling tigers embossed on each side and a plume of three griffon feathers dyed crimson on the top. His face was covered by the helm and its nose guard so that all I could see was the glint of light on his eyes and his snarling mouth. The only other relatively unprotected parts of his body were his hands, but they were protected with heavy leather gloves. He bore no sword, but a retainer behind him held a massive great sword.
Nothing like stacking the odds. I could have asked for armour, or at least a helm and shield, but there was almost certainly nothing other than leather that could be readied to fit me now. And with the great sword it was much more important that I have mobility than any protection a helm or shield could offer me. Of course the great sword meant that the dagger was almost useless for protection, although I could get lucky with a throw and take out an eye.
I turned to face my hatchling sister’s snout which was almost in my face. “Sarsynalithagas, I have to attend to a matter of honour. This elf,” I motioned back at Falagan, “has challenged me to avenge his ancestor whom we defeated and slew.”
“I WILL NO…”
“There is no risk – the challenge is only to first blood.” I changed my voice to a whisper, “Don’t worry I won’t have any problem.”
Then I heard her voice in my mind, “I don’t believe you.”
In my mind I responded, “Would I…”
And she chuckled in response, “I know you too well – you’re always worried before combat. But I know you’ll win.”
I patted her snout and then turned back. “She will not interfere. Are you ready Lord Falagan?”
His retainer handed him the great sword and he grasped it in both hands. “I am ready.”
I drew Naveela gleaming from her sheaf and turned to face him and bowed to him. He didn’t return the bow and I saw Basinalri frown. “I am ready.”
For a moment there was silence until Basinalri gave the word: “Begin the combat.”
I waited and watched, my attention only on my opponent since anybody with a sword is dangerous. And he didn’t disappoint me as he raised his arms so that they were held in front of his forehead clasping the hilt of the great sword so that its point was facing down. This was the basic defensive position and I suddenly had a slight flush of nervousness remembering the inquisitor and his staff.
I took a step forward and to my left watching him. He stayed in place saving his energy but turned to face me.
Curse! Although I had room to circle and maneuver unlike when I’d faced the inquisitor, and not having a dagger in my leg certainly helped, I had the disadvantage of being unable to take any cut. Thus I couldn’t give him an opening and take a wound and then finish him off as he would then have drawn first blood and I would have lost.
And I couldn’t afford to lose.
I had to win to gain command over the army and I needed to army to take Kelda and the other caldayan cities. And I needed to take the cities to earn my freedom so that I could destroy Calynisha.
By this time we had circled almost all the way around and now we were just under 8’ apart – about the maximum striking distance for the great sword he was using. With my tail high I took a step forward and he didn’t disappoint me as he swung the sword out slightly, angled it upward and swung at my chest. I stepped backward and deflected the blow with Naveela but had to fall back because of the mass of the sword that was rotating around the pivot point of his relatively static right hand.
I deflected it but just barely due to the force of the blow.
Ok so he knew what he was doing. I should have expected that.
Now he started advancing as I circled. He would take a step forward, I would circle and take a step back. He kept the sword in the ready guard position except for a couple of quick strikes at my legs which forced me to give ground since I couldn’t afford a scratch.
Ok. What were his weaknesses? With his helm he had a very limited field of vision. His arms would get tired long before mine. Thus I could either try and wear him out, or I could try for a blow on the helm. Wearing him out would be easier, but I needed a quick and decisive victory to make the impression that I needed. And that meant I had to go for his face, or possibly try under the arms of his elbow as he swung. Of course, the other problem with a great sword is also its strength – the weight of it. Once a swing was started it was hard to change its direction. The way he was holding it with each hand at the opposite end of the hilt maximized his leverage but he would still have to work to move it.
Could I use my hooves? I played around with the idea but rejected it – they would not bleed if they were hit, but given the strength he was showing any blow would almost certainly go up and into my leg. Possibly I could use the flat of a hoof to parry, but that would be hard and dangerous and I decided to keep it as a last resort.
I’d rotated around more until I was facing south and the steady light of the Aldorashgan was in his eyes. It was time to make my move. I took a step back and to my left as I’d been doing and he took a step forward. Then I stepped forward and to the right bringing Naveela low to protect my right.
And he didn’t disappoint.
He took a step forward and to my left and swung with his sword for my left waist. This was the obvious move as it put my guard on my wrong side and by aiming for my waist he minimized my chances of avoiding the blow. I spun around to face the blow and parried with Naveela via a downward swing that added the momentum of my swing to that of the great sword and thus changing its direction to down. Simultaneously I also jumped to hop over the blade.
There was a clang as the blades met, and then a thunk and a scrape as the great sword slammed into the pavement. That was the other disadvantage he had compared to the staff – as the staff was lighter, it was generally wielded higher to maximize its reach, whilst a great sword was wielded to maximize the force of its blows and minimize the restriction of its speed which forced the lower position of the blade.
I landed and spun and using my rotation swung Naveela around and towards his side angling the point to impact under his right arm which was now stretched outward to control the great sword.
Unfortunately he wasn’t stupid either. He must have seen my move out of the corner of his helm and released his grip on the great sword with his right hand using his left hand to keep control as the sword’s momentum acted to keep its course straight along the ground. Thus he was able to interpose his mailed arm in the arc of Naveela. I tried to change the angle to shorten the end point of the arc and get the concentrated force at Naveela’s tip into his arm, but he let the momentum of the great sword pull him a step forward so that he was too close. This meant that Naveela’s blade impacted the mail on his arm which absorbed the force of the blow with only a few broken links. The impact cancelled my momentum, but he still had both his weight and the weight of the great sword so he kept his arm swinging and punched me in my right side as my right arm was now raised and out of position.
However he was not at the end of his arc, and I started to spin to my right and brought my dagger in and under his arm where the mail should have been weakest.
It wasn’t weak enough.
Although the blade of the dagger hit the links it did not penetrate them. At least the force of the blow kept him rotating. Unfortunately I was completely out of position with both weapons at the ends of the arcs in opposite directions so I just dashed forward trying to get behind him. He kept his momentum and by the time I had Naveela in a position for another strike he’d spun around and was facing me with his great sword ready and gripped with both hands.
I took two steps backward to think as we started circling again.
Why had I failed? Naveela should have gone through bronze easily, even against his lower arm. If I had happened to hit a reinforced area which didn’t seem to be the case, the dagger should have gone through the mail. But it hadn’t. There couldn’t be magic involved as Basinalri would stop the combat if there was and if she could detect it. I could check but I couldn’t afford the loss in concentration. Thus, let’s assume there is no magic.
I took a few more steps back until I could see the light from the Aldorashgan reflecting off his arm.
And some of the reflection was not from bronze.
That bastard! His mail wasn’t bronze, it was iron! But that made no sense – in war iron was suicide. The simplest spell would boil the wearer. In weapons it wasn’t a disadvantage as the weapon could always be dropped, but even then it was dangerous as enough magery could shower the wielder and his companions with metal. But if they were armoured this wasn’t necessarily a terrible thing.
So why would he have iron mail painted to look like bronze? It couldn’t be for warfare. Could it be specifically for duels? I’d have to check into that but that seemed the most likely answer. Unfortunately it didn’t solve my current problem. With iron mail my only chance would be a stab with Naveela’s point with all my strength – and that was something he couldn’t afford to allow. So the question became how to use this necessity to my advantage. I still had the dagger and all I needed was first blood. And I could see his chin.
And then I had the answer. Use Naveela as the decoy to force him to defend, and then slip in a strike to his face with the dagger to draw blood.
Now to get him into position. He preferred to swing upward which made sense given the weapon he was using and the speed disadvantage. I had so far attacked when I had the light as an advantage. Thus I waited as we circled until the light of the Aldorashgan was in my eyes before I made my move.
I took another step back, but this time I stumbled but only appeared to fall – I made sure to end up crouched low on my hooves with Naveela raised overhead in defense. Falagan saw that I was down and shifted his grip and swung the blade of his great sword high to swing it down upon me. But it wasn’t too high – about at the height of my waist if I’d been standing. If his helm hadn’t limited his sight this wouldn’t have worked.
As I had with the inquisitor I leapt forward, keeping low, and keeping Naveela raised to protect me. But this time I couldn’t afford to let my opponents weapon touch me and that meant that I couldn’t put a lot of momentum into my roll as I had to keep Naveela above me and keep her blade angled to deflect the great sword to my left. He realized this and tried to angle his blade enough to get past my defense but the weight of his weapon worked against him and I was faster. Thus I was able to change my angle of assault so that the great sword would be deflected to my right instead.
With a clang and a scrape our blades contacted and his great sword glanced away and I was forced onto my side as Naveela’s blade was almost driven into my shoulder. But I had depended on this and had planned my roll with this momentum change and was able to twist my waist and land on my hooves without rolling so that my legs could finish dealing with the momentum of his sword. Then I started standing up and raising Naveela to strike at him.
Once again he was forced to release the hilt of his great sword with his right hand and move his mailed arm to deflect Naveela, and this time I expected that and had Naveela angled so that she and my arm could freely rotate down without interfering with the rest of my momentum. In fact I was able to use the momentum he so kindly provided to help me twist around a gently scratch a nice long wound in his chin.
I could have easily made it deeper but that wasn’t the point of this combat. A nice minimal wound would display my skill much more than a deep and possibly killing gash.
Unfortunately the shallowness of the wound ensured that he didn’t notice, or he chose to ignore it, so he grasped the hilt of his great sword and brought it back into guard as he spun around to face me as I’d once again moved behind him.
But I ignored him and took a few steps backward and then held up the dagger with its crimson stain for all to see and then bowed to my opponent.
“Hold!” It was Basinalri.
“What?” asked Falagan.
“Feel your chin,” I retorted but waited as Basinalri slowly walked forward. Fortunately Falagan also waited as she approached and examined my dagger and then touched Falagan’s chin and showed him the blood.
I smiled as Falagan slumped when he saw it.
“First blood and victory to Ilisri!”
Any other sound was drowned out by Sarsynalithagas’ roaring of approval.
Once the sound had quieted I sheathed Naveela and walked over to Falagan who was having his armour removed by his retainers. After a moment he noticed me.
“Do you now accept me as your leader as ordered by your Emperor?”
He spit out some blood and then muttered almost too low for me to hear, “Damn lucky bitch…”
I clomped forward and grabbed his chin and glared into his eyes. “It was not luck and you know it. It would have been easier for me to shove my dagger through your stiff chin and into the roof of your mouth but I chose not to do so because I need you and your elves.”
He glared as his retainers backed away.
“You have a choice. You can leave and take your troops and foreswear yourself with your Emperor. Or you can serve me as he wills. I could kill you now, or I could kill you later, but I won’t as long as you don’t try to kill me first. But, if by some miracle you did manage to slay me by poison or some other such secret method then in a year and a day I would be back and then you will wish that you were dead. I have been taught the meaning and giving of pain by the inquisition and I know how to keep you alive for centuries.”
“I will serve you.”
“Good. Then I expect you and your men ready to march on the morrow.” And I turned and left.
I had convinced the other leaders of my skill, and with Basinalri’s support they would follow me. But I knew that Falagan would not, even though he’d said he would. I would have to watch my back. But, that did mean that I had the perfect troops for any possible decoy assaults on Kelda’s walls.
Tomorrow the army would begin to march as they hadn’t had any time to settle in Kelda. The barges were being gathered and tomorrow they would be loaded with supplies. A fleet of flying ships would scout and defend the army.
And I would go ahead to spy out Kelda and figure out how to break her.
Chapter 13: A First View of Kelda
The first things you must know are about your enemy. Who you are fighting? Where are they located? What tactics will they use? What war engines do they have to use against you? You must answer each of these questions even before bringing your army onto the field of war. You must know what forces you need to bring. You must know where you need to take them. You must know how you must use them. And you must know what tools the enemy has that can hurt you.
The first and most important thing to acquire before going to war is information. Information will answer these questions. The second most important thing is to make sure the enemy doesn’t get this information on you.
Puldar’s Warfare – Book One
I was strapped on Sarsynalithagas' back and we were flying south along the Simbrani River. Two days had passed since my army had started on its march south.
Kelda was the greatest fortification along the Simbrani River and had always defended the other cities to the south of it from the armies that came from the north. For over two hundred years it had been expanded and its fortifications enhanced and enlarged.
I needed to take it, intact, before the winter made it impossible.
Behind me the rest of my army was on its way. Supplies on barges on the river, the army on foot in the forest alongside, and flying ships as scouts above and in front. The Dragon Emperor had kept the other dragons for his own defense so I only had my hatchling sister.
What else did I need?
"It has been too long," Sarsynalithagas commented in my mind.
"Yes, it has," and I laughed, my voice fading into the dark sky. I leaned back in the saddle that artisans had quickly made for me and let my hair flow backwards.
Suddenly, my hatchling sister stalled her wings and dropped towards the river far below. It was dark as Luani was at the foot of her husband as he judged the dead and only the sparks of the souls the gods had chosen lit the land from above. We'd have been unable to see anything if Sarsynalithgas hadn't summoned a dim light just below us. It was just enough so that we could see it reflecting off the Simbrani River below.
As we dropped, a part of me wanted to scream, but most of me knew what was happening and grinned as I and my hatchling sister dropped towards the river. In a moment we could hear breezes rustling the leaves of the Witchwood that grew along both sides of the river.
Then, after a moment more, just as we were about to hit the water, my hatchling sister opened her wings with a crack and stretched her will along them using her magery to lengthen them, and grab air below. With a suddenness that seemed impossible our descent stopped and I was pushed hard into the padded saddle and felt my tail almost ripped out of its socket. For a second my vision faded, and then the pressure passed, and I and my hatchling sister were shooting along the river, leaving a wake behind from the speed of our passage.
And I laughed and my hatchling sister exhaled a streamer of fire and laughed with me.
"Yes, it has been too long."
The river bent, and Sarsynalithagas tilted to follow its course and let the tip of her wing dip into the water just enough to throw up a faint mist. Then we leveled off.
I sighed and remembered that we were here on business. We were nearing Kelda and since the army was still a week behind we had to be careful. I patted my hatchling sister on her crest just behind her head. "But, the task calls. As much as I would like to swim and play with you until the End of All Things, now is not the time."
In my mind my hatchling sister sighed and then arced upward and started trading our momentum for height. As our forward motion slowed she used her wings and her magic to bring us back up to the height we'd started at. I let her alone and just sat with my eyes closed, enjoyed the barely remembered and almost forgotten sensations of flight. The up and down motion as my hatchling sister's wings flapped, the slight movements as she moved her neck and head to adjust her flight, the cold breeze blowing my hair behind me.
Finally, once we were again high and level, Sarsynalithagas spoke in my mind. "Why didn't you leave when you could?"
"How could you ask that? You're my hatchling sister..."
"But you would have come back, and by now we'd be free to just be together."
"I'd waited too long to ever risk losing you again."
"You wouldn't have. You'd have come back."
Would I? Once I'd returned and buried Naveela into Calynisha's chest to gift her an eternity of pain as I took her place, would I have returned? Yes. But I would have had what I'd fought for for so long. Power, position...
Why did taking Calynisha's place suddenly no longer seem to interest me?
And why was I thinking that Kalibynthn would bring me back and not Sarsynalithagas...
"We're almost there."
I thrust my thoughts into the back of my mind and looked down. The Witchwood had ended and far below, dimly lit by my hatchling sister's light, I could see cleared fields and small villages where the human peasants lived. Beyond them along the east bank of the Simbrani I could see the lights of Kelda.
My hatchling sister doused her light. "Thanks," I whispered in her mind.
And then we were both silent as we drifted on the winds high above the city. If not for the sabretooth fur-lined jacket and pants and gloves I was wearing I would have been freezing but instead I was only cold.
Sarsynalithagas started circling, silently drifting on the winds, as I examined the first city I would take since before our revolt against the gods.
I'd been to Kelda but not for over a mortal century, and there had been many changes. From the light of torches throughout the city and on the walls and towers, I could easily make out the fortifications and buildings. The centre of the city, near the river, was still dominated by the keep which had been built on a low stone rise. The keep was still a massive stone structure dominated by four huge square corner towers each about 40' to a side and about 60' high. I saw that the gatehouse had been lengthened and reinforced with the addition of a third massive tower over the entrance.
Beyond the inner keep was the inner city and harbour. The inner city was surrounded by a stone wall that had been 30' high and 20' thick and didn't look to have changed. It still had square towers every 100' or so and there were still two gates through it. The wall ended at the harbour and extended out into the river along mortal made causeways. What was new was that the wall had been extended until it almost completely surrounded the harbour. The only entrance to the harbour was a gate that was currently open but seemed to have massive wooden doors, probably brozne bound, that could be sealed. Around the harbour and against the walls of the inner keep I could see massive silos that presumably held grain. Dried meet and other supplies were probably stockpiled beneath the keep.
Outside of the inner city were more buildings and structures. The biggest and most important were the various churches and keeps of the many caldayan military orders based in Kelda. I thought that I could make out drills and practices going on. The middle city was also walled, with another stone wall that looked to be the same 30' height and 20' thickness that I remembered. But now the middle city wasn't the end, for an outer city had been built, and around it yet another wall. This wall was massive and looked to be about 40' high and 40' thick and strung with rounded towers along its length. There was a large cleared area along the inside of the wall, outer wall and I could see the rubble of recently burned structures that had been constructed just outside of the three gates that provided the only entrances into the outer city.
They must have just torched the structures so that they couldn't be used for cover when we attacked.
"A little lower?"
We dipped down about 500' and I looked carefully at the top of each of the many towers and saw what I'd feared. The four towers of the inner keep contained massive bombards, a device the captains under me had told me about. These bombards were massive bronze engines of war that could shoot huge bronze balls. The force that propelled these balls was simple iron filings that were placed in the base of the engine and then had a simple but powerful magic placed upon them. The iron would absorb the magic and then would heat and shatter. The energy released as the iron exploded propelled the projectile towards its target. The things were slow to load, and inaccurate, but could throw a four or five tonne ball of bronze and stone almost a quarter of a mile. There were two on barges being shipped with my army but they would take time to setup and would be the primary target of these engines. If my bombards could be destroyed before they could begin to fire, the forces in Kelda could simply bombard my army with impunity beyond the range of anything we could setup.
And there was worse.
I'd hoped that I and my hatchling sister could be used to strafe Kelda as required but I could see that there were scorpions, engines that could shoot huge bolts of wood and bronze, being setup. Once they were all deployed and manned, any kind of strafing run would be suicidal as fifty or sixty five to ten foot long bolts would be shot at me and my hatchling sister. But, looking closely, it looked like only a few were ready which meant that I had an opportunity. I'd have to get closer than half a mile to see, but then, even with the blackness of the winter night, I'd be taking a chance of warning them.
"I've seen what I need to see."
"Shall we return?"
I smiled. "No, not yet. I think we'll still be able to have some fun. But go higher so we can plan."
And then with only her magic so that there would be no sounds of her wings that could be heard, my hatchling sister circled higher.
“What bit of fun do you have in mind my hatchling sister?”
“Do you see the four large bronze things on top of the four towers in the center.”
After a moment, “Yes.”
“We’re going to destroy those.”
As we were talking mind to mind so that Sarsynalithagas’ voice would not be heard far and wide, that word had overtones so that I knew what it meant. It wasn’t asking if I would be with her as I was now, but if I would merge my mind with hers as we attacked the keep. When the faerie had created the dragons one of the aims was to use them as weapons of war between the great houses. Thus they were gifted with magic, but limited magic so that they could not threaten faerie rule.
A decision I disagreed with, but it had occurred before I was born.
Once the dragons had earned their freedom as their own race, they were raised and cared for by the priests of the Church of Tuomyn, he who had created them and had been chosen by the dragons to be god over them. The priesthood raised the dragons and raised a select few faerie youths with the young dragons. The reason for this was to enable the pair to link themselves mind to mind to create a gestalt being so that they would react and fight together as one. Supposedly the pair was raised together so that the younger children of the Great Houses, and the children of the lesser families within the Great Houses, could have steeds and skills to aid their house against others. Thus it was always the younger children, and those who generally had little or no magical talent who were sent to be hatchling sisters and hatchling brothers.
My father made me the exception.
Not only was I the only child of my family, the head of one of the greatest of the Great Houses, I was powerful in magic. Of course that was expected as the Great Houses were formed by those powerful in magery to dominate those who were not so blessed.
The only way to ensure that the gestalt could be created was for the pair to do all things together starting at a very early age. They had to know and to trust each other implicitly. For us that wasn’t a problem. It was the stallion’s spirit hidden within me that might cause problems.
“I don’t know.”
A long pause, and then a hurt whisper. “Why?”
“No, it’s not you. Never you,” leaned down and wrapped my arms about as much of my hatchling sister’s neck as I could. “It may be me.”
“I’m not the same. My spirit shares itself with another. That’s why…”
“Your True Name changed.”
“Then join and I will force the other out!”
“No!” What? “It’s not, well, right. It’s not his fault.”
I explained how I had promised to free the stallion’s spirit within me.
“Then your word is my word.”
What else could my hatchling sister say, but I knew that she meant the words, and that gave me the will to try. “Then let us try, and forge a new gestalt.”
“Yes!” Her voice was eager.
After we’d learned it had always been I who had initiated the gestalt as I was the stronger mage, but that was no longer true. “You’ll have to start. I no longer can.”
And then her mind reached for my mind, and I willed my mind to reach for hers.
The tendrils of our minds, our souls, our spirits, met and embraced and our combined love and joy flowed back and fourth creating a cycle of trust and absolute friendship.
Except for the outsider.
Our love and joy mingled and became one and beckoned through the tendrils that joined us to the outsider.
The outsider was small and afraid and tried to pull away and the tendrils pulled at us.
We started to pull back, but then we stopped for we had promised. So we let the outsider pull away and we followed.
The outsider reached the end and stopped and quivered.
And we stopped and waited, letting our flame pulse gently, and letting our joy and friendship dribble down the link until the outsider stopped quivering.
And then we waited.
And then the outsider made a short movement towards us.
Then the outsider sent a thought, a memory, to us and we took it. We remembered running through a silvery twilight with others, and with our mistress on our backs.
And we sent back our memory of running with him on his back.
And he smiled over the link and took another move forward.
And then we sent him a memory of the pain that we’d share, we and the outsider. The shared pain and the shared curse. And the shared vengeance to come.
The outsider took a step back. He wanted to be free.
And we echoed back his joy and our promise.
The outsider took a step forward.
And then we sent a memory of fighting against Calynisha long ago, before the Curse. Of drenching her in flame and magery and driving her to surrender.
He took the memory. He shuddered, and then roared.
And we roared with him.
And then he was the outsider no longer.
We were falling from the night sky, tumbling with our wings against our body. Part of us panicked, but the rest sent reassurance and then stretched out our wings and grabbed the air and stretched out our arms and held on.
And we laughed as we flew.
But we had a task.
Below us, far below us, was the city of Kelda and the bombards we had to destroy. For a moment we glided until we were above the largest of the bombards seeing it easier with our dragon vision and recognizing it with our faerie mind. And then we were ready.
Together we shouted and roared and neighed and then let ourselves drop through the echoes of our calls.
Together we fell and then our faerie mind supplied the magery and our dragon will shaped it around us.
And together we were saddened, for once our faerie mind would have taken the magery and shaped it with our faerie will and created a greater magery, but we knew it was not to be. But we also knew that below us were only mortals, and we knew that they could not hurt us.
We were almost there.
Now! Our dragon head roared its fire and engulfed the caldaya around the bombard. Our faerie body drew its bow and readied an arrow and let loose at another tower. Our stallion soul screamed its rage and hatred and triumph as it realized it was no longer the hunted, but now the hunter.
Then on a cradle of fire we stretched out our will and grabbed the air and snapped ourselves out of our fall. Our faerie body let loose another arrow and our stallion soul screamed again. And then we grabbed the first bombard and let the momentum gained from our fall push it forward.
And together we watched it fall from its cradle and onto and through the roof of the keep.
Around us we could hear the caldaya shouting, mage lights being lit on the towers. So that was why they had only torches our faerie mind thought, so that they could use the brighter mage lights to signal an attack.
We reached the second tower and landed, hearing the roof creak under our weight for our momentum alone was no longer enough to topple the second bombard. Together we leaned against the bombard, pushing it with our dragon body and our wills, keeping our faerie body protected by the upraised wings of our dragon body. Around us the caldaya on the other two towers and the walls started firing their crossbows but we sreamed our defiance as their bronze heads bounded off our mage shield.
And the second bombard toppled and then fell, twisting and clanging off the walls, to the below below.
The bolts were coming thicker, and some drained our shield which meant that they were tipped with iron, but we still had time. They might chip at our shield, but they were not big enough to tear it down.
Ignoring the fountains of magery shattered iron we turned and stepped along the wall towards the third tower. The caldaya on the wall turned and fled but one didn’t make it and we crushed him underfoot. Our stallion mind wanted to flame them all but our dragon mind refused as the fire was running low and we needed it and our faerie mind agreed.
We reached the third tower and leapt up and landed on the roof and leaned against the bombard we towered above. Our shields were weakening and our faerie mind supplied the image of changing the shield to let the bronze through but still keep the iron out and our dragon mind and stallion mind willed it to change.
The third bombard came loose from its cradle and toppled, and we bathed it in flame and watched it melt and deform. Our shield was almost gone. Just one more bombard left.
And then there was pain. Searing, agonizing, burning, pain.
And I was I again and I heard Sarsynalithagas screaming. And then there was a flash and a spray of blood and I knew that it was my hatchling sister. Deep inside me I sensed the stallion whimpering.
I spun around and saw that a scorpion has fired a bolt – and the bastards must have given it an iron head. Once it had hit it had torn through what shield was left and then impacted and then detonated from the magery in my hatchling sister. The effect of the iron and of the pain had destroyed the gestalt.
I raised my bow and used one of my last two arrows to shoot at one of the caldayan crew, but the range was too great for the shortbow I carried and it fell short.
“We have to leave now! Forget the other bombard!”
My hatchling sister just screamed and bathed the stone roof of the inner keep in fire. I could see the scorpion crew reloading another bolt.
Closing my eyes I leaned down and embraced the neck of my hatchling sister and then forced my will against hers with what strength I could muster. We have to go! Take wing and make for the river – we can hide there. If we stay I’ll lose you!
I think it was the last that got through.
Sarsynalithagas focused her will and leapt into the air. But it was hard – there were still iron-tipped crossbow bolts and they tore at the magery of my hatchling sister’s flight but I forced my will into her own and helped her drive herself aloft.
It wasn’t a gestalt as my hatchling sister was in too much pain, but instead I offered her my love and my life.
And, thank the Gods, it was enough.
Sarsynalithagas leapt into the air with such force that I lost my bow and then she flapped and was above the city.
My hatchling sister dove across the harbour and I could feel the heat of a crossbow bolt impact my leg. I knew that others were puncturing my hatchling sister’s wings and draining the magery from her flight. We were falling lower and all I could offer was my love.
But it was enough to get us out of the city.
I was suddenly jerked forward and opened my eyes and pushed myself up to see Sarsynalithagas clambering onto one of the towers of the harbour wall. And then another leap and we were over the river.
My hatchling sister screamed again as another scorpion bolt hit her and its iron exploded and we dropped like a stone into the river. I had just enough time to suck in a breath before the cold river water closed over us.
Possibly I could have gotten the straps holding me to the saddle and my hatchling sister untied and made it to the surface but I didn’t even try. The fact that we were sinking meant that Sarsynalithagas was seeking safety in the deep darkness. And the fact that I was holding my breath meant that either she had forgotten to change me, or she couldn’t change me.
I refused to abandon her.
In the blackness I closed my eyes and forced my will into hers, using her True Name as my key. But the deeper I dug, the more I feared there was nothing to find.
I swallowed some muddy water to pop my ears.
Where was her spirit? And then I saw it. Deep, hidden, curled up and quivering in fear.
Using her True Name as a spear I forced myself down through her cloaks of darkness and secrecy to where her spirit quivered.
My lungs quivered and a few bubbles escaped. We had stopped sinking and had settled onto the bottom.
I rubbed her spirit, sent my love to pierce it, but all that happened was that she clenched herself tighter amongst her fears.
Then I realized she was whispering a phrase over and over again. “I killed her. I killed her…”
She thought she’d killed me? Why?
The urgency in my chest brought me back into my mind and I felt more bubbles escape and trickle up my nose and vanish towards the surface.
A part of me, the stallion, tried to force a change to horse and try and escape, but I forced it down and made it back to where my hatchling sister was hiding, still whispering.
The whisper didn’t even pause.
Beating on her shell I screamed into her mind, “By the Curse I’m still alive. You didn’t kill me! But you will kill me if you don’t come out here now!”
The whispering stopped.
I knew more bubbles were escaping from my desperate lungs but I forced myself to stay with my hatchling sister. “I’m here with you. I’ll always be here with you.”
“Ilisri….?” The mental whisper was tiny, almost inaudible.
“I’m here. You have to save me from the water, you have to save…”
And then my will was ripped back into my body as the last of my air escaped and in my desperation I inhaled water.
Could I die?
I gagged and felt a few more bubbles of air escape to the surface as the cold water filled me. It was cold, it was heavy…
Everything was dark.
And then I felt a warmth, the will of my hatchling sister. Her love filled me and I could distantly feel changes. Clenching and stretching.
I tried to vomit out the water but instead I felt her will forcing me to swallow.
What was she doing?
She called my True Name and I swallowed again.
I wasn’t so cold, but what was she doing?
She’d changed me!
I swallowed and swallowed again, gulping down water and gasping for breath until finally I could open my eyes and see her.
I tried to call her name but there was no magic to let me speak. All I could do was keep swallowing.
But I must have done something. “ILISRI!”
And then I could speak. “Hatchling sister…”
“We have to get out of here. We…”
I saw her twist and stretch her head around and open her snout to try and embrace me with her tongue, but we had no time for this so I backed away.
“Ilisri?” The sorrow in her voice almost made me dash to embrace her but I forced that urge down.
“We can hug later – we have to leave. They’re hunting us. Can you hold me like this long enough to swim up river for the rest of the night?”
She stopped and stared at me, sorrow making her eyes wide.
I gave in to my urges and swam up to her ear and started rubbing its base. “It’s all right. I’m here, you saved me.”
“Ilisri. Hatchling sister.”
“But we have to leave now!”
“Don’t you love me?”
I sighed. “I love you with my heart, my spirit, my mind, my magery. Never doubt that. I love you so much that I am going to make sure we both survive this. How long can you hold me like this?”
“As long as I need to.”
I pinched the tender skin on the inside of her ear. “Not now!”
She jerked her head away and I kicked my leg tail until I was back at her ear.
“I’m sorry and I love you, but I will not let you die. If you can’t hold me and we have to surface and there’s a warship…”
“I can’t hold you long enough.”
“Then we need another way. Can you fly?”
“I don’t think so…” Her voice was quivering in fear.
“We will get away! I will never leave you again, ever, until the End of All Things!”
I felt a low rumble of love and hope and fear work its way through her.
What to do? “Do you know which was is the far bank from Kelda?”
“Are you sure?”
“I think so, yes.”
“Then start swimming that way, slowly, and I’ll think of something.”
“I know you will.”
With the emotion in her voice I almost lost my grip, but I couldn’t afford to, not for either of us. Then, as my hatchling sister started swimming I started thinking.
It had to be the far bank – the bank with Kelda was almost certainly active with patrols now. There would also be warships leaving the harbour and signals being sent to other patrols. The Simbrani River was about half a mile wide at this point so they could probably get signals across using magelights and that meant that the far bank would have an active search also.
My hatchling sister remained quiet to let me think but I felt our course alter.
Downriver should give us some extra time as they would first concentrate the search upriver for others and for invaders. They would likely think that additional ground forces were on their way to take advantage of any chaos caused by my attack. Unfortunately there weren’t any, but the caldaya had no way of knowing that. The search would probably quiet down by the morning so the question was how to survive until then.
Could we surface and hide there? I could ride her snout and if she stayed low in the water we’d be extremely had to spot, but if a warship did we’d be dead. That meant that I had a last choice option if I couldn’t think of anything else. So, what was a better way?
Ok, what could I do? I could still become a horse. So, could Sarsynalithagas hide in the river while I became a horse on shore and made my way north. No, not only would we separate which I didn’t want to do, but I don’t think Sarsyyalithagas could let me go. And, I would be only a horse and would risk capture and enslavement, and that could delay too long. And Sarsynalithagas couldn’t become a horse because when the faerie made the dragons they’d created them unable to transform. Of course we could transform them – in fact I’d transformed Sarsynalithagas the odd time before the Curse to answer some of her curiosity.
I’d transformed her before, could I transform her again?
I could transform myself. When I transformed her it had been more of a cooperation with me providing the image and her providing the will.
Which meant that I possibly could.
And then we’d go north together with me riding her.
But they would be hunting for anybody, particularly mounted spies that could pass information.
Maybe the surface was the best opt…
The gate! I still had the gate. I could use it to open a way to faerie. We could escape through it and then heal and rest and then come back when it was safe. But opening the gate would be difficult – they would see it forming and a single iron-tipped bolt would shatter it. But if I did it here…
If I did it here we’d pass through to one of the oceans and then could surface and rest.
Faerie it was. A brief trip, a bit of healing, and then back to the army and vengeance on those who had wounded me and mine. Before this had been just something I had to do. Now, taking Kelda was a matter of personal honour.
“Hatchling sister, I have a plan.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Stop here. We’re going to go to Faerie and hide there. Take a bit of time to heal before returning.”
She stopped. “What is Faerie?”
What is…? Of course, she’d never been sent there. “It’s where the gods exiled us after we failed. It’s a world of darkness and silver and magic. It’s home.”
A moment of silence. “Do you like it there?”
“Of course, it’s…” My voice stopped and I wondered. It was the cursed far side of the World where we’d been exiled. For centuries I’d fought and struggled there. I’d fought to return ever since Calynisha had cursed me and sent me here.
So why did I suddenly not want to go?
“It’s the only chance we have.”
“Then wait until the gate is ready. We’ll come across in an ocean or lake so keep holding my form until we can surface.”
I saw her nod.
Then I reached and tried to grasp the necklace – and found that it wasn’t there. It was gone, just as my clothes, Naveela, everything… “Hatchling sister?”
“Could you restore the necklace I was wearing before you saved me?”
A moment passed and I felt my form waver and then I was holding the necklace. Clenching it I forced my will into it and willed the gate to open. And, as it had before, it appeared, small, silvery, but now with a greenish tint, and slowly rotating. Then I poured my will into the necklace and willed the gate to grow. Large enough for me, and then larger still. Large enough for a second born dragon, and larger still. And finally it was large enough for us both.
Through the clenched will of my mind I managed to gasp, “Go through now – I’ll come after.” Then I saw her begin to swim through the gate which showed no sign of her passage as she made her way through it.
It was hard to maintain the gate and I could feel its energies leaking and warping reality around it. This had to be doen quickly – soon mortals would be able to detect the gate, particularly members of the inquisition. Down here we should be safe…
And then my hatchling sister’s tail vanished through the gate.
Letting go of the necklace I swam through with quick beats of my leg-tail feeling the soft touch of the hairs of my horse-tail on each upstroke. With my will gone the gate began to close, but I had lots of time to reach it before it sealed shut.
And then I was at the gate’s surface and into it. The surface was like a tingly gauze but there was no resistance.
And then I was through and the gate closed behind me.
Chapter 14: A Brief Interlude in Faerie
When the Gods created the World, they created its surface, its oceans, its lands, its skies, its heavens. But, knowing what was fated to come they left the other side bare and lonely, naked to the primal chaos from which the Gods came and shall eventually return.
And it is to this place, a place of barrenness, coldness, eternal silver twilight, they sent the Faerie. And from there the Faerie seek their warmth and our souls to assuage their loneliness.
But be wary, for Faerie is a place of chaos and formlessness. There your dreams will pursue and torture you while the Faerie laugh.
The writings of Matturgur of his quest for the Spherendracyl
And then I was through and the gate collapsed shut behind me.
For a moment I couldn’t see Sarsynalithagas, but then I spotted her hovering in the watery darkness waiting for me. A moment later we were together again, speaking mind to mind.
“Shh. I’m here and we’re safe.” I let go and started to swim upward.
In a flash I was back with my hatchling sister. “I’m here. We’re home. Home and for a little bit free. Let’s go up into the light, and into the air.” And then I let go and started swimming upward again, and I sensed my hatchling sister following behind.
I was home. Finally, if only briefly, home.
So why did it feel so lonely?
As the water gradually brightened into a silver glow I began to wonder. I was home. I was in the place I’d lived in for over a thousand years. I was in the place where I would wrestle the power that was rightfully mine from Calynisha.
I broke the surface and gagged up the water in my lungs and started taking deep and thankful breaths of the cold damp air. Looking up I saw that the sky was the same glittering silver that it had always been. Not the glittering silver of a moon or a sun, or of the gleaming of lost souls, but of the primal chaos out of which the gods had created the World and which seeped through the mists through Faerie changing everything they touched except for those of us who had the will and the power to protect those who came to us with minds and wills too weak.
And then I felt the cold. A cold haunting of dreams and nightmares. But I was a power and I had nothing to fear. I swam over to where my hatchling sister’s head was laying on the mirror quiet surface and with a flip of my tail I was out of the water and on her snout. Then I felt her will change and I felt myself twist and clench and grow and then my cursed body was back.
I nickered in nervousness and then realized that it wasn’t me, it was the stallion inside of me.
And I felt a shiver from my hatchling sister.
“It’s all right! I’ll protect you!”
“IT’S SO DARK.”
“It’s home. It’s where we’ll be safe.”
In the distance, like the shush of waves on the shore, I heard a voice whisper, “My daughter.”
I almost screamed out, but I had nothing to fear. I had nothing to fear for here I had power.
“THERE IS SOMETHING HERE THAT HATES ME.”
I walked along my hatchling sister’s head trying to step lightly with my hooves and made my way back onto the saddle. The straps were broken, probably from when my hatchling sister had transformed me, but I knew that she would never let me fall.
Then I heard the voice again: “Daughter I am waiting for you.” The voice was familiar…
Silence except for the rustle of waves on shore.
I touched my hands to her neck and felt her sigh. It hadn’t been her voice that I’d heard but one I remembered from before I had bonded with Sarsynalithagas, before…
No! It was not him. The voice was just in my mind.
“Let’s get out of this water and into the air. There’s land nearby. We can rest and go back through the gate tomorrow. We’ll be safe…
Again the whisper, “I’ll keep you safe.”
Suddenly I was shivering. It was in my mind. Just in my mind. I was tired. Simply tired…
Then Sarsynalithagas used her will and her wings to lift us out of the still water and into the air. Her movement, the up and down of her body in opposition to the beat of her wings that left no motion in the still water below was relaxing, quieting. We went a little higher and then I could see the beach and a charred boat just above the surf line. And behind it an ancient woods, and rising above that woods the polished wood and ceramic towers of a high house from the First Age.
“YOU’RE HOME.” Wonderment filled my hatching sister’s voice.
It couldn’t be. My hatchling sister and I had destroyed this place, burnt it to the ground…
“Welcome home daughter.”
I was so startled and frightened that I almost fell from my seat as my hatchling sister landed on the beach. My father’s magery grabbed me and pulled me down onto the damp sand until I was standing looking up at him.
With a snick I drew Naveela and held it at the ready between us. “I killed you.”
“But are we not all immortal?” And then he became a raven and flew up towards his tower.
The raven! “Kor! Leave me – I refuse your help!”
“WHAT IS IT?”
“The cursed raven! I told him to leave!”
I spun around to look into the eye of my hatchling sister who had cocked her head to look at me while shoving Naveela back into her scabbard. “The raven that was on the beach and then flew up towards the tower!”
“I DIDN’T SEE IT.”
How? The raven had been right in front of me. Hmmm… He could have hidden himself from others – but why? What was…
Raindrops started falling and although I willed them to stop they blissfully ignored me and just came down harder. Sarsynalithagas opened her wing and held it over me as a streak of white hid the always present shimmering chaos followed a moment later but a deep rumble of thunder. I looked out and could barely make out the paved path leading into my home.
Why had the raven created it? What game was the raven playing?
Well I didn’t care, and if the raven created it then I wanted no part of it. If I went in then I would owe the raven something for the shelter and I refused to owe him anything. I turned to my hatchling sister but then discovered that my choice mattered not as I felt my father’s magery grasp me and pull me quickly along the path and into the great hall.
“ILSRI?” I watched her pushing through the woods behind me but only her head and neck followed me into the great hall.
“Enough!” Once gain I drew Naveela and slowly turned around to face the raven, only to look up into the cold black eyes of my father. He was standing on the platform at the foot of his high seat, dressed in his brocaded red velvet robe with a pale yellow silk sash around his shoulders. His hair was braided and wrapped around the points of his ears before falling just past his shoulders.
And in his hand was his whip, coiling and twisting with a life of its own.
I felt my palms grow sweaty but I let none of the fear and hatred show on my face.
“Daughter - I welcome you home. You and your pet.” He stepped down from the platform and stopped four feet away from me. “And I see that I have taught you nothing. Nothing!”
“You taught me to hate.”
“It is not about hate, it’s about power! Power and strength and fear.” His voice turned mocking. “And now you have love.”
Love? “Your sending me to become her hatchling sister is the only good thing you ever did.”
A cold laugh burst from his mouth. “You don’t even realize it do you?”
“I don’t care what you think I have to realize.”
“Oh, but you should realize. It’s of great importance to you.”
“Nothing you can say is of any importance to me.”
He cracked the whip and I couldn’t help but take a step back, the sound of my hoof loud on the polished wood. “Look at you – my powerful daughter, reduced to half a horse. Cursed by the lesser daughter of a lesser house. And now in the service of a mortal.”
“What I do is my concern.”
“Anything done by those of my family is MY concern. Did I teach you nothing?”
I refused to move as the nails of my left hand dug into my palm drawing blood as I clenched my fist in hatred.
“WHO ARE YOU TALKING TO?”
My father continued: “My will and my blood made the Spherendracyl. And my will and my blood made you!”
I sighed releasing my hatred and forced calmness into me. “I killed you before, and I will kill you again.”
“Ah, but we can’t be killed. So what will you do my horse ass daughter? Call for your love to save you?”
And then Kalibynthn appeared beside him, unconscious and in chains.
By the Curse what was going on?! How could my father know about this? And how could it be my father?
“You’re just standing there. Is your love worth nothing?”
And then from behind I heard a scream suddenly choked off. Spinning around I saw that the entrance to the great hall had vanished and I could see my hatchling sister sealed in a glowing sphere of power. And I could see the sphere shrinking and slowly crushing her.
“ILISRI?! WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?!”
I spun back around and glared at my father as he cracked his whip. “Let them go!” Them?
“So you do care for him.” Then, without any effort, he twisted his arm and his whip lazily moved through the air and then cracked into Kalibynthn’s back.
And Kalibynthn screamed.
I took a step forward. “I’m going to kill you.”
“You already have and it didn’t gain you much did it? How many times are you going to kill me before you…
I leapt forward and swung at my father but a sword suddenly appeared in his hand and he parried me easily. Then he struck back and I was forced to step back in defense.
There was another flurry of blows that achieved nothing – we were too evenly matched. But why? He was even fighting like me, not like he used to fight. But I was out of time – other things were more important than killing him. I parried and turned and fled towards the sphere with my father laughing behind my back as I reached it and struck it with Naveela shattering the magery.
Naveela turned hot in my hand and I dropped her and tried to ignore the pain screaming in my palm where I’d been holding her.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”
I looked up at my hatchling sister who was glaring down at me. Why was she glaring?
“HOW COULD YOU DO THAT?!”
Her voice was filled with rage. Rage? At me?
“But I saved you as quickly as I could?”
“SAVED ME FROM WHAT?”
As I spun around there was another roar of thunder and flash of light that flickered across the great hall and revealed the rain that was pouring on my hatching sister’s back.
And that the great hall was empty but for us.
“Where did my father go?”
“He was here!”
“THERE WAS NO ONE HERE.”
By the curse, what in the name of all the powers was going on? “I saw him.”
“HE’S DEAD. YOU KILLED HIM.”
I did. I remembered him on the floor in front of me begging for mercy. I remembered the feel of my sword as I twisted it.
And just as clearly I remembered him standing before me laughing just minutes before.
Who was playing with my mind?!
“What did the magery that entrapped you feel like?”
“IT WAS YOURS.”
“IT WAS YOURS. NOBODY ELSE’S.”
“Kor! What game are you playing?!”
Only the rain greeted me.
Well, if it was a game Kor wanted to play, then the next time we met he would pay the price. For now I wanted to rest and get out of here. I thought for a second of leaving the shelter but decided not to. After all, I hadn’t asked for it but had been dragged into it. Still, something had been here, and that something could not be trusted.
“Hatchling sister, wait here and rest. I’m going upstairs.”
“Because something here is playing with me and they must be taught not to do so.”
“IF THERE WAS ANYBODY ELSE I WOULD HAVE SENSED THEM.”
“Then they have cloaked themselves from you with magery which makes them even more dangerous.”
A loud sigh rumbled from my hatchling sister. “THEN BE CAREFUL HATCHLING SISTER.”
I smiled. “I will, and I will bring back the head of whatever threatened you.”
And then I turned and spotted Naveela on the floor in the dim omnipresent light and picked her up and dried her off and sheafed her. I turned towards the great polished wood staircase leading upstairs and made my way towards it and stopped at the bottom.
Yes, it was still there. A brownish filth caking the wood and marking the place where my father had died. I carefully hopped over it, refusing to dirty my hooves with it, and clomped my way upstairs to the upper hall, and then further up. Somehow I knew that whoever was playing with my mind was waiting for me at the very top.
In his room.
Climbing I remembered. I remembered his teaching me in his study, and his punishing of me there too with the damnable whip that he’d conjured up whenever he felt that I’d failed.
Which had been almost all the time.
I remembered finding out that he had killed the original Naveela, my Swordmistress, and my confronting him in the great hall.
And killing him there.
Afterwards I had simply left with my hatchling sister after burning this place to the ground. I remembered servants screaming as the flame took them but I hadn’t cared then. They had been his, and I wanted nothing that had been his.
I reached the landing at the top and stopped at the closed door, the only sound the tatter of rain on the ceramic tile above, and the hiss of rain and wind on the leaves below.
And then I realized that I was afraid.
Well, whoever it was who was playing with my mind was not my father, and even if, somehow, it was, then it would make no difference. I would not fear them. For I was Ilisri and I was a power!
I yanked the door open and let it slam into the wall as I stepped into the chamber…and stopped.
It wasn’t my father’s study.
The table, the shelves, the books, the scrolls, the whip, all were gone.
Instead it was a simple square wooden cabin that contained only a straw bed and a single occupant.
“Kalibynthn.” I knew it couldn’t be him but I couldn’t help but say the name.
“So my furry yet hard lover has returned.”
It sounded like him but I knew that that meant nothing. Still I felt my heart beat faster and warmness fill me. Why? I’d freed myself of him, sent him away. Why had I sent him away?
He took a step forward and spoke in a quieter voice, “Are you all right?”
“I give you one last chance. Go away!”
He stopped a few feet away from me and looked hurt. His tail was whipping back and fourth.
“I warned you that I never wanted to see you again.” What was I saying – it wasn’t him, it couldn’t be, yet I wanted so much for it to be him…
He took another step forward and then looked up at me. “It was you who brought me here.”
I? I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment and then opened them and looked up at the ceiling. “Raven! I know you’re here!”
“You sent the raven away,” reminded Kalibynthn, or whatever he was.
Turning back to him I glared, “Just like I sent you away. Don’t you remember that I sent you away because you wouldn’t come to Faery?”
I stepped up and glared down at him. “So why are you here?!”
He responded calmly, “I am here because this is my barge. I thought you’d come to your senses. But if you haven’t, then you should probably leave.”
Leave? I didn’t want to leave him. But he wasn’t here…
“Organyth? Where are you?”
“I’m on your barge, am I?” I spun around and stalked to the door and yanked it open letting the wood bounce off the side of the walls of the study, cabin, whatever. “What’s that then?!”
“Are you all right?”
“All right? All right?! I’m not the one with the problem whoever you are. Look! Stairs, wood…”
“It’s my barge.”
For a second I just stared at him, breathing heavily, and then turned and looked.
It was his barge.
I could see the wood planking and the dim patterns of light reflected from water onto the wall of the tunnel the barge was passing through. I could even hear the faint rustle and rattle of water against the hull.
It couldn’t be – but it was.
Sometime later, still staring, I felt his hand-paw on my shoulder and he slowly turned me around. “What is it?” He voice was soft, kind, almost a purr.
“I don’t know. I was home, where I’d killed my father. It was night, a storm…”
“Shhh. You’re here now with me.”
“Where is here? By the curse what is going on?!”
“I’ll keep you safe. You’re here, where you wanted to be.”
I shoved him away and stepped backward and starred at him. “You think that I wanted to be here?”
“You’re the one who brought me here.”
“Here? We’re on your barge.”
“Yes my furry hoofed lover. Alone and lonely. But I’m here for you.”
Was I still in Faerie? Where was Sarsynalithagas? Had something brought me from Faerie here, or had I done it? And then I was embraced and pulled and buried in warm fur and I couldn’t help but start sobbing.
What was wrong with me?
“There, there, let it all out. You’re safe now.”
Why did I feel so safe? Why did I feel that I now had what I was missing? Why did I feel that I belonged more here than when I joined with my hatchling sister?
I gradually quieted and then slowly stood up and took a step back and looked down at Kalibynthn. My voice a whisper, I asked: “Is this love?”
“Do you think it is?”
“Love? Have you forgotten everything, daughter?”
I spun around and it was indeed my father. And the room had changed to the study I remembered. I knew that Kalibynthn was gone although all I could see was the whip my father was holding.
“It is time for another lesson.”
I felt my heart grow hard and hot with hatred and love. My eyes turned cold and I felt my stallion standing behind me. I felt Naveela turning warm at my side and I willed the scabbard to fall to the ground feeling the leather slide off my naked feet. “I won’t take any more of your lessons.”
He laughed and raised his whip to strike but then I made it go away. And then, feeling the thudding pumping of my stallion’s heart against my neck, I grabbed my father in my will. He struggled but his effort gained him nothing and was so feeble I barely noticed. Within a breath I had him and I tore him apart.
Yet the feeling was different. The last time we’d fought it was my hatred that had destroyed him. My hatred and my cold will. But now it was different – it wasn’t hatred but instead love and pity and protection.
And that was stronger than my hate had ever been.
Almost instantly he was gone, and so was this ghost of the past. The rain fled from me and then I was standing on my hooves on the dead leaves and needles beneath the trees with only Sarsynalithagas and my stallion back inside me and the rain falling on me again. I knew that Naveela was lying beside me and I leaned down and picked her up.
And I knew the truth. It wasn’t the raven, it wasn’t Kor, it was myself. Only myself. I was now one of the weak-willed that would go mad as Faerie made my delusions and my dreams real.
And yet, with my hatchling sister looking at me all I could think of was that Kalibynthn was not with me.
I ran up as she lowered her snout and I wrapped my arms around her smaller horn and started sobbing. “I’m sorry, so sorry. It was me…”
“Yes hatchling sister. It was my dreams and my nightmares that almost destroyed you. Can…”
“I CAN FORGIVE YOU ANYTHING.”
“You dare come back?!”
I looked up and saw her on her leather winged horse in the air above the trees. And as I looked I realized a strange thing.
I no longer wanted what she had. For over a thousand years I’d fought to take from her what she had stolen from me. And yet, I had to fight her. It was no longer hatred or envy, it was a simple manner of honour. She had wronged me and she would be made to pay.
But, as long as I was cursed I was weaker than I had been – although I was starting to wonder whether or not this was a curse. If I hadn’t been changed I wouldn’t have discovered Kalibynthn, and now I would have to be careful else I would lose him forever. I could not show her any weakness. “You do not dictate where I can go.”
“Are you so tired of life that you will let me kill you?”
I laughed, and that sound spilled up through the trees making her mount try to flee until she wrenched it back under her control. “I don’t want it anymore. In fact, I should probably thank you.”
“I will kill you!”
I just shrugged and then joined into the gestalt with Sarsynalithagas and my stallion. Unlike last time the merger was instantaneous, an act of love and trust.
My faerie-self climbed back up to her seat and my dragon-self looked up at our adversary and saw her summon her will and strike at us but together we wove a sphere of power, using my dragon-self ‘s will to strengthen it. As Calynisha’s will hit it, I felt my dragon-self strain and saw the sphere bend - but it did not break.
We didn’t have much time.
Whilst keeping the form of the sphere in my faerie-self’s mind, my faerie-self clasped the necklace and willed a portal to open and it started to form.
“No! You shall not escape me!”
And then another bolt of Calynisha’s hatred ripped from the air around her and nearly broke the sphere of power protecting us. My stallion-self wanted to turn and fight but then knew, as did my other selves, that now was not the time and that any fight would only end in our deaths. Instead we added the power of my stallion-self’s will into the sphere as my faerie-self willed the gate to open.
My dragon-self watched Calynisha as she created another bolt of power, but this time it was different. We looked and realized as it formed that it would not be stopped by our sphere, and my faerie self took a moment and changed the mental image of the sphere so that it would and my dragon-self willed the sphere to change. Then my faerie-self finished opening the gate.
The third bolt struck, but this time it stayed, pressing on the sphere, but having little effect through the new structure of our wills. Then the gate was open and my dragon-self carried us all through and Calynisha screamed out her rage behind. It seemed that we could hear, faintly, the cries of an ancient soul now freed, but the cries were of joy for his daughter. But it was too faint to be sure. Once through my faerie-self slammed the gate shut. Then we turned and waited, holding Naveela at the ready for Calynisha to make her own way through. As she came we would have a moment to reach her and then Naveela would be able to strike.
We waited but Calynisha never came so, regretfully, lovingly, we let the gestalt end as our dragon-self turned to fly up river.
Back as myself I just thought about what had happened. Had it been my father we’d heard? Had he really been there. It couldn’t have been. And what about Kalibynthn? I would have to find him, in fact my heart ached to find him.
But for now I had an army to lead and a city to take.
Chapter 15 - Arriving at Kelda
I have dreamed of flight. I have even flew, taking on the form of a raven or a crow, and soaring through the heavens under my own power.
But that was so limiting! It took all my skill to just hold the form, and there was too little to savour the experience.
Which is why I will find another way.
I had a dream tonight, a dream of a wooden ship that sailed through skies, borne aloft upon sails of blue silk. I was standing upon her polished wooden deck, with the wind blowing through my hair, seeing the land spread below me. The forest, the mountains, the lakes, the rivers, and the works of man.
All spread in silent beauty for my own amusement and appreciation from the deck of my ship of beauty.
From the diary of Milisar of Kyndar
It was dawn before I reached the first scouts of my army. The rest in Faerie had given time for Sarsynalithagas to heal and rest, and once in the air the caldaya had nothing that could catch us. I had formed a plan and once we passed the scouts and the sloop that served them as a base for retreat and as a signaling boat, I had Sarsynalithagas land near the west shore and then I jumped into the shallow water. I leaned against her ear as she lowered her head and whispered, “Hatchling sister, my dearest hatchling sister, I must you for a bit.”
“Shhh...shhhh. I will be safe, and I need you hidden. I need you hidden and quiet.”
She responded within my mind only, “But why?!” her sorrow shaking me.
“It’s just for a little while. I need you to be dead, so that I can use you to our best advantage. I will never leave you, until the End of All Things I will never abandon you again.”
“Hatchling sister, I love you, I don’t want to be alone.”
“You won’t be, my thoughts will always be with you. And it is just for a few days. Hide in the river, rest, heal, eat the fish and grow strong, for in five days I will come for you and will have need of you.”
“Only a little time. And you must be quiet, secret, even when I come. I will call from the water, but you must remain hidden. I ask this only because I must.” I almost mentioned that I wanted her to be safe, but I didn’t for fear of her terror when she thought I was dead resurfacing. Some of that must have slipped through into her mind regardless.
“Ilisri, I fear for you, fear for the loss of the joy that I have so recently regained.”
“You must trust me as this is the fastest way for me to fulfill my obligations to this mortal and free me to always be with you. It’s only for a little while.”
“Hatchling sister, I will await you, I will be there and I will be quiet.”
I kissed her on the soft skin inside her ear and felt her pleasure as she slipped beneath the river waters. Silent, I watched as she slipped away into the depths.
As I had planned, I was still an hour's walk away from the camp, and half a day's march for the army. So, I walked back onto the shore, searched through the underbrush until I found a nook in the roots of an oak, and wrapped my cloak around me and went into a light sleep. My army would come to me and then it would be time to plan.
I awoke in the afternoon when a patrol from the inner ring of scouts approached me. They weren’t aware of me, but had gotten very close before the faint sounds they made had awoken me. As they would be armed primarily with bows, it would be safer for me to alert them so I called out, “Hello!”
Immediately they stopped and I heard the rustle of arrows before I heard a voice: “Whoever you are come into the open and give us your name.”
I slowly stood up with my hands held open in front of me. “I am Ilisri, Claw of the Dragon Emperor.” And then I stepped out into a shaft of light shining through the leaves. I could see six elves, five with bows ready.
The leader motioned with his arms and two of the elves began to circle around me and then he bowed. “Claw. I am pleased that you bless us with your presence.”
I nodded and waited a few moments until a whistle came from behind me.
Then he continued. “And I am more pleased that you are alone. How may I serve?”
“I congratulate you on your caution. I need to get back to the army and make plans.”
“The dragon is dead.”
“Killed over Kelda. But I live, and they will pay.”
“But if she is...” He shook his head. “What is done is done. We will escort you back to the army.” He stepped towards me.
“I only need one - you should...” Then I noticed him drawing his dagger, but I wasn’t angry. Instead I reached out and touched its blade and felt the coldness of iron.
He stopped and lowered himself onto one knee and bowed. “I apologize Claw, but your orders were specific in that we were to take no chances. I had to check.”
The touch of the iron would have cancelled any seeming of a spy who might have been disguised as me. “If you had not done so, then I’d have been angry. Stand up, for you did what I ordered.”
He stood up. “Thank you Claw.”
“I need only one escort, you should stay and finish your patrol. May I have your name?”
“Palanas, of House Lorantha. I will send Hinisriel to guide you.”
“I thank you Palanas.”
He nodded and all of the elves but one slipped back into the trees. Palanas bowed. “Claw, if you will follow him?”
I nodded and followed Hinisriel to the army.
Late in the afternoon I reached the wagon with my personal belongings without problems, although we had been confronted a number of times before we were let past. Amanthriel was in the wagon, and when I climbed in the back she curtseyed and lowered her head.
“Bring me water, and when the army has halted, bring me the Lords for I wish a conference.”
“Lady.” She stood up and brought water, and then I sat and waited until the army halted and set-up camp just before the Aldorashgan went out. A short while and I summoned a light and waited as the Lords arrived, or at least all except Falagen. Just as I was about to send a messenger to drag him to my wagon, he finally leaped up into the back and gave a minimal bow before me but no apology. Instead he immediately asked, “Where is your dragon?”
I slowly turned my head and glared at him for a moment, watching his eyes widen just a fraction in fear as his hand scratched the scar on his chin, before I answered. “My hatchling sister is dead.”
“Dead? Then we must retreat!”
I glared at him. “There will be no retreat. We will take the city before winter.”
“That’s impossible. We no longer have the forces.”
“Lord Falagen, we will take the city. That is my will, and all you need to do is to obey.”
He glared at me, oblivious to the other’s looking at him with disdain.
“We will take the city, because that is my desire. I summoned you all here to plan how our army shall approach Kelda.”
Lord Falagen immediately replied, “The approach is simple and obv...”
I raised my voice just enough to ensure that he could hear me, “The approach is mine to decide, not yours. I have been lenient, but you will now be quiet until I address you.” I waited as he realized the others were all looking at him; waited until he finally gave a slight bow and stepped back. I turned away to face all the Lords. “Lady Basinalri, what is the total strength of our air?”
She bowed and then answered, “Claw, the strength is five vessels of war, eight skirmish vessels, and four scout vessels.”
“Lord Falagen, what is the traditional approach?”
“We march up with the air support leading. They engage the enemy air and destroy it, and then bomb the city defenses until they are destroyed. Meanwhile we encamp, begin a ground bombardment until a wall is breached, and then assault through the breach with air and artillery support.” His look was clearly one of disdain.
“And that is what the city is built to stop, and that is why that approach will not work. We will take the city before winter, and with its walls intact. And the first step is the approach.”
Lady Yasilriel stepped forward and bowed and I nodded and gave her permission to speak. “I have received information from my scouts that they have already encountered two caldayan patrols, both of which fled upon contact. Five caldaya are confirmed killed, two are believed wounded. We have suffered no losses. As per your instructions, the withdrawing forces were not pursued.”
“Thank you. Lady Lithanri?” She stepped forward and bowed as Lady Yasilriel bowed and stepped back. “What do you know of the defending forces?”
“As the Claw has already been told, there are significant caldayan military orders in the city already, along with a strong and well-trained garrison. Most of the aerial strength of the Seven Cities is based in the city, and the rest is likely on its way as are reinforcements. We believe that there are four bombards within the city, along with significant artillery on the towers.”
“Your best estimate of the available aerial strength?”
“Based on information from the agents I have in the city, there are currently twelve vessels of war, ten skirmish vessels, and probably six or eight scouts. I have been informed that there were ten based in the city, but I would expect that at least two have been sent to the other cities. Unfortunately I have not received any new information in the past 37 days.”
She bowed and stepped back.
“And that, Lord Falagen, is why a conventional approach won’t work. So far the Dragon Emperor has had surprise and dragon’s on his side. We no longer have surprise, and we have no dragons. And, Lady Lithanri, there were four bombards in the central keep but only one is left. The towers are indeed manned with artillery, either one large scorpion or two small scorpions on each. They are using iron tipped bolts.”
This time Lord Falagen bowed and stepped forward before he spoke. I nodded and gave him permission. “And how do you know this?”
“Last night I scouted the city and raided the keep and was able to destroy three of the bombards. It is possible I destroyed some of the aerial forces on the ground. But, as long as they have one, we still have the problem of reducing it.”
Lord Falagen smiled, bowed and stepped back.
That smile was odd and worrisome. The only reason I could think for it was that he believed that Sarsynalithagas had been killed there.
Lady Lithanri bowed and stepped forward and I nodded. “Then that leaves their aerial superiority as the primary obstacle. I take it you have a plan?”
I smiled. “Yes.”
Lady Lithanri smiled, baring her teeth, then bowed and stepped back.
“We will proceed on the expected preliminary aerial assault. I will lead it. When they send out their aerial force to destroy our outnumbered vessels, then we will engage and destroy them.”
“Destroy? How?” Lord Falagen burst out.
I chose to ignore him. “We will now resume the march and prepare for the aerial assault in six days. All except Lady Yasilriel and Lady Basinalri may leave. We will resume the march at the end of this watch.”
I watched as the others bowed and left, and even Lord Falagen bowed although his was perfunctory. Then I stood up and closed the door at the back of the wagon leaving my magelight as the only light. “You may speak freely.”
Lady Basinalri was the first to speak: “Claw, I admire your skill, but there is no way we can win the aerial battle at 1:2 odds. Especially since Sarsynalithagas is dead.”
I sat down, lifting my tail to avoid sitting on it as I did. “True, but then Sarsynalithagas is not dead.”
“Why did you say he was?”
“My hope is that Kelda believes Sarsynalithagas destroyed. I also hope that certain agencies within this force will make sure that the caldaya know that she didn’t survive.”
“And why would the caldaya believe this?” Lady Basinalri commented.
“When my hatcling sister and I destroyed the bombards, she was wounded and we hid in the Simbrani. They saw us go down. Also, I don’t trust Lord Falagen. He may be sworn to the Emperor, but a failure of this assault, and my death, certainly would not break his oath - even if he provided a little help to Kelda by leaking some information. I just want to make sure that he has the information that I want him to leak.”
“I must be with the aerial assault so that I can time Sarsynalithagas’ attack. Lady Basinalri, you will be in actual command. Sarsynalithagas will be held in reserve far above us, hopefully hidden from the caldayan forces until he is signaled. If Lord Falagen decides to help the caldaya against me, then he will tell them that I will be on the fleet. If he does not, then the absence of Sarsynalithagas and their fleet superiority should encourage them. Either way they should send their entire air strength against us in an attempt to destroy ours, and myself.”
“How will Sarsinalithagas be hidden?”
“I will speak to her in five days in secret. She will await us high above and will attack the enemy fleet when I signal her. Make sure that each vessel has a green flag to run from its highest mast. Now, the primary objective of the initial attack is to set-up as much of the enemy fleet in a concentrated group for Sarsynalithagas, and to suffer as few casualties as possible ourselves. Plan your fleet distribution and attack accordingly.”
“You may go and begin planning. I wish to review the plans the day before the attack.”
“As you command Claw.” She bowed and left.
Then I turned to Lady Yasilriel.
“And why am I still here Claw?”
“For two reasons. The first of which is a scout by the name of Palanas of House Lorantha.”
“I will discipline him my...”
She stopped and waited.
“He met me on my way back, and he took all of the ordered precautions, even given whom I said I was.”
“I would have expected nothing less from my nephew.”
“He is a good elf. The reason I ask is that I would like him to be my personal aide, or an aide in appearance but a bodyguard in reality.”
“Yes. I suspect that he will try something, and I would prefer somebody I can trust nearby in case of need.”
“Can the Claw not take care of herself?”
“I can, but I am not perfect, and I would be much more comfortable with a reserve.”
“Any other answer would have been worrisome. Unfortunately you cannot have him.”
My voice turned cold. “Why?”
“Because he is blood-bound to his patrol. You must take them all.”
“Six would be excessive for an aide.”
“Actually there are eight.”
I must have missed two.
“And would a guard be that much of a disadvantage? If Lord Falagen senses that you are unsure of yourself, he might make his intentions more plain sooner.”
“An interesting thought. All eight it is then - I will be distraught over the death of my hatchling sister.”
“And you said there was a second thing?”
“Yes. For the conquest of Kelda I need you to select the most trustworthy of those below you who are skilled with both bow and sword.”
“What other skills do you need?”
“That I leave up to you, though a wide range within the group would be preferable. I need as many as possible to be selected and equipped with blackened leather armour, along with stone climbing implements.”
“Stone climbing? An odd tool since there is but forest and plains around us.”
“They will separate from the army and remain behind at the edge of the Witchwood, hidden, in reserve, and awaiting a signal.”
“In case we retreat?”
“Amongst other things. I trust you, but not with everything - let the rest remain a secret for now.” I wanted them as both a reserve in case of retreat, and as a secret reinforcement for when I was in the city. “They should be equipped with supplies for not less than two weeks.”
“They could live off the forest.”
“They could, but it might be longer, and they must stay hidden.”
“As the Claw wishes, so shall it be done. I will send Palanas and his elves to you tonight when they return. Is that...?”
“You may leave.”
She bowed. “Claw.” and then opened the door and left, closing it behind her.
I got up, opened the door, and doused my magelight with a sigh of relief. “Amanthriel! I need food and a bath!” I was hungry, and although the best that could be done was s sponge bath from a heated bucket, it would still feel wonderful.
I was seated at my desk in the wagon sketching out Kelda with the only light being that coming from a lantern when I was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Claw, Palanas of House Lorantha to see you.”
Standing up, I picked up and rotated the chair, put it down, and sat down. “Send him in.”
The door opened and Palanas stepped in and bowed. “Claw.”
“Has Lady Yasilriel told you why I asked to see you?”
“Stand up and face me.”
“I asked for you and your elves to be my bodyguard. There are those in this army whom I don’t trust.”
“As the Claw desires.”
“You don’t need to be formal. I prefer those I trust to speak openly and honestly.”
“As the Claw...yes.”
“Good. Your duties are simple. You or one of your men will always be guarding me. They are not to speak unless I speak to them, or we are in private. If we are in private, then you and they may speak freely.”
“Understood. May I ask...?”
“We are alone.”
“The soldiers are worried about the death of the dragon - they whisper amongst themselves.”
“My hatchling sister is not dead. She is hidden.”
“May I ask why?”
“You can always ask - I only hurt those who threaten me.”
“You must have wondered why I ordered that caldayan patrols not be aggressively pursued?”
“Information is a tool. Correct information leads to victory; incorrect information to destruction. By letting the patrols leave, I have created a route for rumours and information to get back to Kelda.”
“Did you have this planned all along?”
“The route yes, the secret death of my hatchling sister is just an opportunity to make use of this to mislead the enemy. I did not know it would be for this reason, but I suspected that I would have information that I would want the caldaya to have.”
“I understand. How do you want my men and I to guard you?”
“I would prefer to always have two nearby. You will arrange the exact individuals and times.”
“Palanas - I trust my subordinates to do their jobs, and unless I have a specific reason I do not interfere. As long as you are loyal, you have no reason to be afraid of me.”
“You may leave and make the arrangements. Ask your aunt to pass the word on through the army as to your new position.”
I watched as he turned and left and then went back to my drawing and pondering. All was coming into place, but I still missed my hatchling sister.
Or was the ache I felt in my chest because of her?
The next five days passed quickly. I could have stayed in the wagon, but I had never been partial to being isolated so I tried to ride a horse. That was...awkward. A mare, and even a gelding, created problems with my stallion as riding was too similar to mounting. A stallion wasn’t much better due to struggles for dominance. Eventually I ended up staying on my own two hoofs as the army was only moving as fast as the infantry anyway. Yes, horses are much faster in the short term, but even a mortal in good condition can jog throughout the day setting a pace that would kill a horse in almost no time.
The evenings were split between familiarizing myself with the forces under my command, and getting fitted for armour before the planned aerial engagement. The forces were mostly elven, with some humans from what had been the Kingdom of Western Kyndaria. There were no caldaya. Almost half of the force were archers, there being a total of 6000. Additionally there were 2000 almost entirely elven heavy infantry spearmen, 2000 almost entirely human loose-order spearmen, 1500 light cavalry and 500 heavy cavalry. The heavy infantry was almost entirely made up of the human mercenaries with a few elven elite guard. My armour was constructed of bronze, as it was armour for battle, and the actual splinted coat was plain and unadorned, as were the greaves. It was the helmet where the artisans put the insignia of my rank. It was a great bronze thing, with a plume of purple horse hair with two white griffon feathers on either side of the plume just above my eyes. I forced the artisans to keep the shield smaller than they would have liked because I preferred mobility. It was of bronze-faced wood with a green dragon enameled on its face.
Eventually the fifth day came, a day I greeted with joy as I thought it would ease the lonely ache in my heart. I slipped away late that night, with Palanas who would not leave me alone, and made my way out of the camp and along the river. Palanas wanted to take a horse, but I couldn’t, and instead showed him why he didn’t need a horse to ride when I changed into my stallion-self. I had explained before hand, and since he knew what I was, he didn’t even blink an eye. After he mounted me, we made our way through the patrols and were soon between the inner and outer ring of scouts. There I made my way to the river and waited for Palanas to dismount before changing back. I stripped myself out of the robes - no sense coming back with them wet - as he averted his eyes, and then stepped out into the river and crouched down and called for my hatchling sister with my mind.
In moments I saw the water rippling in the faint starlight and my hatchling sister’s snout broke the surface in front of me. I slipped through the water and was soon around beside her ear where I began rubbing the sensitive spots.
“Ilisri, you came back!” she whispered in my mind.
“Yes,” I whispered back in her ear, “I told you I would.”
“It has been too long - I feared that you would never come back...”
“Hatchling sister, I would never leave you. I told you that I would never leave you. Why would you even think that?”
“It was so lonely!”
For a long moment we remained together, the ache in her heart easing, but the one in mine remaining unchanged, until she asked in my mind, “Who is that?”
For a moment I thought she was wondering why I felt so lonely, but then I realized that she was referring to Palanas who was still on the shore. “He is my aide and bodyguard.”
“I will guard you!”
“He can go places you cannot, and he is with me when you are not. I trust him, and so should you.”
She snorted derisively.
“I can’t stay with you long, and I need you to prepare for tomorrow when we shall again go to war.”
“I’m sorry my hatchling sister, not this time.”
“We need to destroy the aerial forces of the enemy, and to do that we need to lure them out. If they knew you were aloft, they would not come. I need to be with my other aerial forces so that I can call you when the time is right.”
“I will stay with you!”
“No, you cannot. I must ask this of you for if you are with me then the enemy will not come out. They will stay hidden, and when you are not ready they will come.”
“I will not let you fight alone.”
“You must. I need you to do this. I need you to do this so that we can stay together. I'll be safe, and you'll be safe, and together we'll destroy those who wounded us. I sorrow that I must ask you this.”
“Because I need you to surprise the enemy, to destroy them with your fire when they least expect it. Our victory depends on your success and surprise. Please hatchling sister, this is the quickest way for us to be free.”
“Then I will attack our enemies, tear through their scales, rip the hot blood from their throats as I did in the days of old.”
“They are not dragons.”
“They are ships. Mortal vessels of wood and bronze that fly through mortal magery.”
“You will see tomorrow hatchling sister. Do not claw, just cleanse them with your flame and make them burn. But, only burn those who do not fly a green banner. All of the vessels under my command will have the green banner.”
“I understand, and hunger for the flesh of our enemies. Tomorrow they shall die, and together we shall feast.”
“Only on the fallen, not whilst they are still in the air. You must destroy as many of the ships as you can, for that is most important. But only the ships without the green banner. And you must stay hidden high in the heavens until I call for you, by mind and by green magelight.”
“I will wait, and then I will attack, and together we shall feast on their flesh. With dawn’s light...”
“Shhh...not dawn hatchling sister, but you must take wing now, and then wait high in the heavens, in secret. For then shall we feast.”
“For you I will wait. For your signal dearest hatchling sister. For the end of our separation.”
“Then go and glide and wait for the morrow.”
I kissed the inside of her ear. “Hatchling sister.”
And then I backed away and she rose out of the Simbrani and leapt into the air and with flaps of her wings, and the force of her will, she pulled herself higher and higher into the heavens.
“She is much bigger than I expected.”
I turned to face Palanas as I walked out of the Simbrani, the water dripping off the hair on my legs and tail. “She is of the first born.”
“I thank you for this sight.”
And then I was on the shore, and a moment later dressed, and then I shifted to my stallion-self. We returned without incident.
As the Aldorashgan rose, I joined Lady Basinalri on the upper aft deck of the flagship Manalanthus’ Glory, the largest of the vessels of war. She had great sails on her port and starboard that swept below the hull and almost touched the ground, framing her wood imprisoned mage-cored bronze keel. To the stern was a great rudder, gaily painted with birds and trees, also of wood covered mage-cored bronze. These two were what drove the ship and kept her aloft. Above the keel and the side sails were three gun decks, each with ports for the heavy scorpions and smaller ports for elven archers. The upper most deck was lined with round bronze shields just below a long line of archery ports, and each side had a short roof to defend the bowmen. In the centre was the massive main mast with the three triangular sails. All together she was nearly 100’ long with the hull 40’ high in the centre, and the main mast towering 40’ above that. The two side sails were each on masts 30’ long that held their graceful triangular sails. At the very top flapped a green banner with the symbol of a golden dragon entwined along its length. From the aft deck I watched the archers and gun crews clamber aboard and into their stations. Then I could sense the mage deep within the hull joining his hands to the naked bronze of the keel that stretched into the hull and chanting to raise the ship into the heavens. Around us the rest of the fleet followed.
Riding in one of these mortal creations was not like flying with my hatchling sister. There was no sense of movement, just a gentle breeze and an expanding visual splendour as the army fell beneath us. There was the scent of fresh pine from the wood, the drip of water from the dampened sails, the creak of ropes, the snap of canvas. Faintly the orders of the gunner commanders could be heard preparing the crews mixed in with the low voices of the commanders of the port and starboard archers. I had not expected it, but this mortal creation of primitive magery and craft had its own glory and power.
Last to rise were the tree vessels of war which had bound below them a great net filled with huge stones. These would be used to bomb the last of the bombards, but the plan was for them to be dropped when combat was joined. Their real purpose was to finish the appearance of the bait and force the Kelda vessels to rise to attack us to defend their last bombard.
“Lady Basinalri, how long until you expect the Kelda fleet to meet us?”
She bowed as she turned to address me. “Claw, as there is a good wind we should be over Kelda just before noon. I would expect them to spot us long before that and rise to combat us before we reach the city. It will be a while yet. Would the Claw like some wine whilst we wait?”
I was on the raised bow deck looking down at the harvested stubble below towards Kelda off in the distance when an elvish voice from above called out “Enemy sighted!”
Finally! Although I wanted to hurry, I instead calmly turned around, made my way down to the main deck, made my way between the two long rows of archers stringing their bows, and then climbed up onto the aft deck where Lady Basinalri was peering through a telescope.
She lowered the glass and turned to face me. “Claw, it seems that their entire fleet is rising to the bait. I count 12 vessels of war, ten skirmishers, and seven scouts. Would you like to see?”
I took the telescope and peered through it. The image was slightly blurred, and I had trouble finding the caldayan fleet until Lady Basinalri suggested I look towards the city. Then I saw them, rising up to meet us. Their ships were similar, but their vessels of war were slightly smaller and contained what appeared to be huge boarding ramps at the bow and stern. I could see almost a hundred caldaya, armed and armoured for melee, on the topmost deck. Lowering the glass I turned to Lady Basinalri. “They prefer melee to bow, don’t they?”
“The Claw is perceptive. They will close, lower their boarding ramps, and then send their troops aboard. The archers are lightly armed and armoured against this, and will have numbers on their side along with position. I would also expect that this ship will be their priority target.”
“They know that this is the flagship?”
“Just as we know that the vessel in their centre, with the gold-rimmed flag, is their flagship.”
“How do you expect the battle to proceed?”
“The two fleets will approach in a line. As their forces are larger, they will come from both sides as we fire. Their intent will be to board as many vessels as possible, and then hunt down the stranglers. We will put on extra sail and descend to avoid the boarding, and then scatter after the pass. They will re-organize their main vessels and then send their faster scouts against each individual vessel of your command as it flees in disarray. That is the best time for you to call down Sarsynalithagas. Once she attacks their main fleet, I will signal and the fleet will reform and hunt down each of their pursuing ships one by one with our superior numbers. Does this meet with your approval?”
I bowed to her. “This is your fleet, and I will leave it in your hands. Let me know when to call my hatchling sister.”
She bowed. “I thank the Claw for her trust in me. You may keep the glass for now as I need a wider view.”
I just nodded and put the glass to my eye and watched the caldaya fleet to approach, my tail waving nervously, my hooves pacing me back and fourth across the aft deck. Slowly, almost gracefully, the two fleets approached, our fleet descending slightly to reach the same height as the caldayan forces.
From beside me I heard “Signal the Forest Vengeance, Ancient Glory, and Thoranthriel’s Dream to drop their cargo.”
I lowered the glass and looked up and saw the signal-elf on the lower nest on the mainmast raise a red flag and then turned and watched the three vessels cut away the nets and drop their rocks. They weren’t going to hit the city, but that was not part of the plan for in combat they would be an unacceptable burden. I handed the telescope to an ensign on the deck and then stood and watched the fleets close.
“Signal the mages to begin.”
An orange flag passed on the command, and I felt the raising of magery from the mage in the bow of the Manalanthus’ Glory. It was not a controlled force of will like true magery, but instead a chaotic billowing summoned by primitive will focused by chanting and smoking cauldrons. Quicker than I would have thought the magery was focused and burst into flame, causing a ball of fire to arc towards the enemy fleet trailing a thin streamer of flame that bound each ball to its creator. Moments later more fireballs arced from the other vessels. The caldaya must have had their own mages, for some fireballs sputtered out before reaching the ships, and others hit only dampened sails making the canvas sizzle and smoke, but not catch flame. One scout was hit by a trio of fire on her port side and the fire licked and rose, reaching and stretching green and orange fingers driven by the mage’s desire. In almost no time the ship was aflame and began to descend, the screams of her dying crew faint in the distance.
More fireballs arced across, and soon fireballs from the caldaya ships arced across to attack our own ships. One impacted on the sail of the Manalanthus’ Glory but the canvas only smoked. Another arced towards the aft deck and impacted on the starboard railing, which did catch fire until the fire crew doused it with water.
“Signal the fleet to turn to starboard. Signal port gun crews to fire.”
I watched as two banners, one blue, and one black, were dropped to the starboard side of the main mast, and then the Manalanthus’ Glory began to turn. Elves raced along the rigging, trimming the sails as they snapped around. I could see the archers on the port light their arrows and then fire them, leaving smoke trailed beacons of flame. Soon the scorpions fired their bolts, all aflame, and then the caldayan fleet followed suit. Streamers of smoke joined the two fleets, sparked by lights of fire from the archers. The sails of an enemy vessel of war caught and burst into flame, and the mages concentrated on her and soon her entire form was wreathed in green fire.
An ensign approached Lady Basinalri. “Artanriel’s Child requests to withdraw due to fire damage.”
“Signal her permission.” Then she raised her voice again. “Signal the fleet to turn to port. Signal starboard gun crews to fire.”
This time I watched as the blue and black banners were dropped to the port side of the main mast, and then the fleet turned to port to give the starboard scorpions time to reload. The caldayan ships were close, and I saw one of their scouts pass by one of my skirmishers, and watched caldaya leap across the gap. One was pushed off and fell, hitting the port sail, sliding along its length whilst scrabbling for a grip, and then sliding off the end and falling down to the earth.
The fleets were close, and fires burned in four places on Manalanthus’ Glory, but were fortunately small. The air was filled with smoke and I could hear the screams of the dying as arrow and bolt and fire reached them. Another enemy vessel burst into flame, green fire clawing under its hull and burning the rigging until it broke with audible snaps. The starboard scorpions fired, and were answered by a rain of enemy arrows, each swathed in fire. An ensign beside me was hit to the chest, and fell to the deck screaming; I held my shield high and felt the weight of arrows against it.
But Lady Basinalri stood calmly. “Signal the fleet to scatter. Prepare to repell borders.”
I looked around and then saw the caldayan flagship 20’ off our starboard. She had levered her side masts till they pointed straight down and would not entangle with our side sails. The planks lowered, each 15’ long and 10’ wide, and armoured caldaya ran along them, their claws clicking in the wood, before leaping towards us. One in mid-air was pierced by five arrows and gurgled in death, thudding onto the deck a few feet away. Live caldaya followed, screaming the names of the gods.
“Claw, do not signal yet, I will let you know when.” Again she raised her voice. “To me!”
I drew Naveela whilst the ensigns on the aft deck formed around us. There were screams from the main deck as battle was joined, and soon we were surrounded by armoured caldaya thrusting long spears and bloodied swords. I leapt and fought, killing the caldaya who clawed and leaped to get at Lady Basinalri. It wasn’t graceful, but instead brutal - the deck was so crowded there was no room to do aught but thrust and pierce. Lady Basinalri drew her own sword and we stood back to back, the ensigns around us. In moments the deck was slick with blood and I had to be careful not to stumble on the bodies of the dead - both caldaya and elf. The two flagships had separated, and I could just make out that the lower decks were clear of borders as the remaining caldaya moved up onto the aft deck. Soon only Lady Basinalri and I were still standing.
“The enemy fleet is regrouping! Call Sarsynalithagas now!” Then she left my back and threw herself into the enemy, killing one and then another, before the mass got through her defense.
But that gave me the second I needed. I closed my eyes and summoned a green mage-light and let it rise above me. In my mind I called for my hatchling sister, but only faintly, for now I was the only non-caldayan left alive on the aft deck. Elves were climbing up, and arrows fell into the mass, but I was surrounded. Step by step I moved back, dimly aware of the bodies so that they wouldn’t trip me, striking and ducking, feeling blows slide off my armour. My left hoof skidded in the guts of an elf and I fell against the port railing, but I wove a net of steel and used my shield to throw off a caldaya that leaped towards me. He screamed as he fell to the ground far below taking my shield with him as he dug his claws through the bronze and into the wood. I stabbed Naveela into the upper chest of another, and took a second to wrench her out as a caldayan sword dug into my leg between the greave and my mail.
And then the deck was clear. Elves from the main deck had come and killed the last of the borders.
I pulled myself up, my hooves skidding in the gore, and turned and watched my hatchling sister drop towards the main enemy fleet. With a snap of her wings she halted her fall and then rained fire upon the ships. One died, and another, and another. Arrows flew up towards her, but they were consumed by her fire.
I tore my gaze away and looked for Lady Basinalri, but she was lying on the deck unmoving. Raising my voice I called out, “Signal the fleet to regroup!”
A battered flag was raised and I turned back to my hatchling sister and watched her swoop around and flame another ship. There were holes ripped in her wings, but her magery was strong and she stayed above the caldayan fleet which was scattered in disarray. I could see only four surviving enemy vessels of war through the smoke, and watched as one was suddenly bathed in orange fire.
My hands clenched to the railing, I turned and saw my surviving fleet, three vessels of war and six others, all raining fire upon the enemy as it scattered.
I turned and watched my hatchling sister swoop towards the Manalanthus’ Glory and felt her voice in my mind calling me to join her. The saddle was still there and I smiled, and leapt over the railing as she swept below. Clasped by her will, I was dropped in her saddle, and a moment later I bound the straps and entered the gestalt.
After that it was slaughter. My faerie self made the wards and my dragon self powered them, and together we turned back towards the caldayan fleet, flaming one vessel after another. Their return fire was scattered and ineffectual and my dragon self roared and my stallion self screamed, and my faerie self exalted.
It was late in the day when we landed in my faerie self’s army and the gestalt ended. The caldayan fleet had been destroyed and my fleet was returning to gather rocks to destroy the last enemy bombard. As I leapt off I called out, “Bring cows for my hatchling sister! Bring food for myself and halt the march for the battle is won!”
And then I collapsed, still conscious but too tired to stand, into Palanas’ arms.
The next day the ground forces left the forest. I gave orders that any villages or farms were to be burned, but that any inhabitants were to be given the chance to flee, or killed if they refused. The surviving aerial fleet successfully destroyed the last bombard. Lady Basinalri was fortunately not dead, but she was badly wounded, and was put to bed in my wagon by my order and the army’s surgeons attended to her wounds. The day after that my army arrived outside the city of Kelda and set-up a permanent camp. I had finally arrived and soon the city would be mine!
As the Aldorashgan dimmed, Palanas came to me and reported that a delegation from Kelda was approaching under a flag of truce to negotiate. Then he handed me a telescope and I held it to my eye and looked in the direction he pointed. I spotted a group of five caldaya, all armoured but with no weapons, with one bearing a white flag.
The caldayan bearing the white flag was Kalibynthn.
Chapter 16 - The Seige of Kelda
An enemy at bay is always an enemy to be feared. If they have walls and supplies then they are doubly feared as they have their backs to the walls, yet have supplies and equipment and will to fight and die. Always leave an enemy a way to run; and if you cannot then treat him as though he were a rabid dog, but far worse.
To take the walls away from an enemy, one must first reduce their will to fight. This can be as simple as negotiation, or as complex as disease and fear. A fearful enemy will run if they can, but a fearful enemy trapped will fight all the harder.
But walls can also trap an enemy, make them confident in their strength and invulnerability. This can cause them to make mistakes.
Puldar’s Warfare - Book Five
“Palanas, fetch the other lords and bring them here. I’ll go and see what this delegation has to say.”
“Lady Basinalri is asleep and healing.”
I kept the telescope to my eyes and looked only at Kalibynthn. “She does not have to come. Now go.”
Kalibynthn. By the Curse and Calynisha what was HE doing here? And why was my heart beating faster? Did I actually care for him? It seems that I did. Well, he'd aligned himself to the enemy - I’d had lovers before and I’d have lovers again. I'd told him to leave, and he'd aligned himself against me. So be it. I lowered the glass.
“Bring my cloak and sword.” I wanted to turn around and look at her but I couldn’t, even with the glass down I could still see him in my mind. “Now Amanthriel.”
“As the Claw commands.”
I could hear her behind me in my tent and a few moments later I felt her hands lifting my mane and wrapping the cloak around my shoulders and flipping it hood over my head. All I could do was reach behind as she put Naveela into my hand; automatically I buckled her to my waist.
“Is there anything...”
“You are dismissed.”
“Claw.” I heard her walk off.
It was all I could do was stand and wait as the Lords, all but Lady Basinalri, came and stood and waited. It seemed that this time Lord Falagen had learned respect. “Lords, it seems we have a delegation to meet. Palanas, bring them here, under guard, but make sure that they are not hurt.”
“Claw, we should kill them now!”
That was enough for me to tear my eyes away and turn and look at the speaker. “Lord Falagen, they come under a flag of truce. I will not attack them, nor will anybody under my command attack them. Is that clear?”
“We will conquer and destroy them, so why should we bother talking?”
“We will bother talking because I said so. While they are here you will be silent, unless I direct you to speak. Is that understood, Lord Falagen?”
After a moment he answered. “Yes.”
“Come Lords, we shall greet this delegation in my tent, seated and relaxed. What they have to say should be interesting.” I turned and clomped my way to my high seat at the far end of front chamber of the tent, and the others followed, arraying themselves on cushions around the tent as was customary. Then we waited, in silence, until Palanas arrived.
“Claw, I announce the Warchief Sanisylras, Lord of Kelda, High Commander of its guard and military orders. Warchief, I present you to the Claw of the Dragon Emperor, the Lady Ilisrillanthriel, Hatchling Sister to the Dragon Sarsyanlithagas, last Heir to the High House of Ganisrath.” He bowed and stepped aside and I waited as the five caldaya paced into the centre of the tent.
The Warchief was old, his mane and tail were white and his fur was gray. He was armoured in bronze plate and helm, with banded strips of leather along his lower back. There were three others, two male one female, and Kalibynthn, all armoured similarly. The Warchief bowed and then stood.
“Lady Ilisranthriel, we have come to talk.”
I looked at him for a moment, waiting just long enough for his gaze to flick from my face to the others before I spoke. “Then talk. It only delays your destruction.”
He didn’t react. “Claw, Kelda has never fallen, and it will not fall now. Reinforcements are on their way and with the immanent coming of winter you will die as you waste yourself against her walls. Join with us as honoured allies and together we can turn on this Dragon Emperor and destroy him.”
Lord Falagen was about to speak but I turned and looked at him until his mouth silently closed. Then I laughed. “But Warchief, I have given my word to him.”
“Claw, a word given under duress is meaningless; a word given to evil can only be broken. The Dragon Emperor is bargaining with the fey, sacrificing hundreds to them for his own purposes. How can a lady such as you serve him?”
I looked at Kalibynthn for a moment until he looked away. Then I stood up and took two steps towards the Warchief. “Warchief Sanisylras, do you know who I am?”
“You are Lady Ilisrillanthriel, of the elves.”
“Of the elves?!” I took two more paces, making sure that my hooves were clearly visible as I shrugged off my hood. I stopped and grabbed his chin in my hand and pulled his head up to look at me. I could see the others stiffen until he calmed them with a movement of his hand. “I am Ilisrillanthriel, Hatchling Sister of Sarsynalithagas, heir to the High House of Ganisrath, Commander of the Armies of Faerie, Leader of the Assault upon the Gods! I am not elven, I am fey, and I swore an oath to this Dragon Emperor whose life and goals are as meaningless to me as are yours!” He swallowed just before I let go and I saw his eyes glance towards Kalibynthn.
“I didn’t believe...,” he whispered.
Those words were like Calynisha’s dagger through my heart. Kalibynthn had told him. Had told him and betrayed his promise. I'd half drawn my sword, had pulled my ears against my skull, had scratched the carpet with my hoof, before I forced myself to a semblance of calm. Snorting through my nostrils, I took a step back and let Naveela slide back into her sheaf. “Is that all you came to say?”
“And the rest of you?” he asked, turning to look at the Lords and Ladies an instant each. “Are each of you sworn to this Dragon Emperor and this faerie!? Are all of you going to betray the Gods whom gave you mercy?”
Lady Yasilriel bowed her head and I nodded to allow her to speak.
“Warchief, I speak for all of us. For over a thousand years we've remained while you caldaya and the humans multiplied and grew, raped the forests, pillaged the land, and drove us further and further out into the useless wastes. It ends now. The Dragon Emperor has promised us back our land in return for our aid and we've given it to him, all of us. What do we care for the Gods who saved us only to let us die slowly inch by inch to their new pets?”
The Warchief nodded. “I had hoped to save your souls, but it is too late. The Inquisition warned me that it was, but I had hopes. I sor...”
I didn’t let him finish. “Warchief, I have an offer for you, the only offer you'll receive. Surrender now, all of you. Open the gates of Kelda and give her to us. Only through that will you live, rather than die at our hands.”
“You will never take Kelda.”
“Then it seems that all that needs to be said has been said. Tell the Inquisition to remember what happened to their members in the Undercity below Mandalor.”
He nodded. “Then we'll leave. Let us...”
The Warchief stopped and looked at me, as aware as I was of the half-drawn swords of the others. “We came under a flag of truce. You would betray that?”
“I will speak to the flag bearer for a moment. Alone!”
“Palanas, take them outside and have them wait there.”
He bowed, “Claw.”
As he started leading them out, I realized that the other Lords were showing no signs of following. “I said alone and I meant...”, my voice raised to a scream, “...ALONE! NOW!” For a second they looked at each other, and then they began filing out behind Palanas. I followed and closed and tied the tent flap behind them before turning back to face Kalibynthn.
“So my hard and furry lover, it seems that you are not happy to see me.”
I had Naveela in my hand before he finished his sentence. “Tell me why I should not kill you. Give me one reason why you won’t die at my hand this cursed instant!” For some reason my vision began to blur and I blinked to keep Kalibynthn clearly in my sight.
He took a step back. “Lady...Ilisri...what...?”
I stalked forward, slow step by slow step, as he backed away. “You told them. You told HIM! I told you to leave, to stay away, but you joined with Sanisylras and you TOLD HIM!” I was breathing heavily through my nostrils, and I could feel my mane rise behind my head.
“Told him...what...what are you talking about?!” He reached the back of the tent and stopped.
“And now you lie! I loved you, at least I think I loved you, and you have turned that to ASH!” I could feel my body starting to shift, my hooves soften to feet; my tail shrink and vanish. I could feel magery gathering around me.
“Ilisri, I told him nothing of what you told me. I...”
I let Naveela drop to the floor before it melted in my hands. “You told him I was faerie. Get out of my sight NOW before I break the flag of truce and KILL YOU!” And then my magic grabbed him and threw him out of the tent.
A moment later Palanas looked through the hole. “Claw, what happened....” He stopped when he saw me.
I turned to face him, my rage, my hatred, my soul, all burning so hot my clothes burst into flames and fell as ash beside me. “Get them out of my sight! Send them back to Kelda - this discussion is at an end. Have no one disturb me until morning. NO ONE!” And then I pushed him out and sealed the cloth behind him.
Then I heard my hatchling sister’s voice in my mind: “Ilisiri?!”
“Not now hatchling sister,” I whispered to her, “please not now.”
“NOT NOW!” I screamed and started forming a bubble of magery around my hatchling sister before I dragged the magery back into me. “Please not now.”
I felt her leave my mind as tears started to flow freely.
“Why?! WHY?!” Looking down, I flung the magery around me into the earth, melting the soil into a tear shaped bronze nugget. The last of the magery I used to change this into a bed and cushions into which I threw myself sobbing, feeling my body change back to Calynisha's cursed form.
Eventually I must have fallen to sleep for the next thing I knew was the sound of a dagger cutting away at the heavy canvas of the tent. I spun around on the bed, grimacing at the pain as I crushed my tail, and was on my hooves as the dagger was pulled away from the canvas.
Palanas asked through the hole, “Claw, my I come in?”
I could see the light of the Aldorashgan through the canvas, and shining through the hole. “Send my maid in.”
“As the Claw commands.”
The dagger reappeared and extended the slit to the ground and a few moments later Amanthriel stepped in and curtseyed. “Claw.”
“Dress me, I have much to plan.”
“Would the Claw wish to clean first?”
The raw betrayal in my heart burned seeking something to strike out at and I stepped towards her, my hooves silent on the carpet. “Do you question me?”
“No Claw. But the Claw does not look herself and I...”
“Stop.” I forced myself to stop and swallowed my rising anger. Now was not the time. “Bring me a mirror.”
Amanthriel leapt to her feet and ran around the edge of the tent to a trunk which she threw open with a loud bang. There she rummaged around for a moment before pulling out a polished silver mirror. She approached me, head down, and then raised the mirror in front of my face, her hand shaking.
I could see myself, but with my eyes red, dried trails of tears streaking down my face, my mane tangled and pointing in all directions. She was right - I could not let anybody see me like this. “Amanthriel, I...thank you for bringing this to my attention. You're right. Have Palanas bring in a basin of water and do what you can, but a bath will have to wait until tomorrow as I have much to do today.”
“As the Claw commands.”
I let her lead me around the massive bed I’d created, a huge thing of carven oak and down-filled silk, to the separate private area at the back. There was water in a basin and she quickly lit a fire beneath it with flint and iron and soon was brushing my hair with sweet oils whilst the water heated. Once the water was ready I sat on a chair and let my anger fade as she gently washed my face, wiping away the sadness and with it the peak of my anger. It still burned, cold, deep, but at least I could now think rationally.
When she was finished, I told her to bring in Palanas and I followed her into the outer tent and waited beside the bed until Palanas entered. Then he just stared at what my magery had created.
“Palanas, please bring your men and carry this,” I pointed at the bed, “into the back and get rid of the bed that’s there. I shall be using this one instead.”
He bowed and left and a few minutes later all eight arrived and I frowned as they heaved and groaned as they slowly moved the massive construct I’d created.
“Claw,” Palanas asked, “wouldn’t it be easier to just wait until the magery fades and this thing reverts to what it was?”
I clenched my fists to restrain my anger. “Palanas, mortal magery may be temporary upon this World, but my magery is permanent.” I had thought about just destroying the thing, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so. Instead I turned away from Palanas and let my eyes run along the carven posts decorated with caldaya alternating between states of lust and states of pain. It was a reminder so I wouldn’t forget. Finally they were done and two of them lifted out the old bed followed by all except Palanas.
“It is done.”
“I'd noticed. Now summon the Lords to conference.”
“Claw.” He bowed and left.
I made my way over to the seat and lowered myself down, remembering to be careful of my tail, and waited as the various lords and ladys arrived. Lord Falagen was last as usual. “Lords, it is time to begin our assault upon Kelda. My intent is to winter inside. Lady Basinalri...” She was up, but had an aide with her and an ivory cane which she needed to walk. The priest’s had healed her, but her age had resulted in some damage that would take time. “...I need the fleet to defend the skies over this camp, and to make sure that no-one escapes from Kelda.”
“No one Claw?” Lady Basinalri asked.
“I will say this once, and once only. I want every caldaya in the city dead. There are to be no survivors, and no escapees. There will be no mercy. I will make this city a lesson to the rest of the Seven Cities of the cost of defying me.”
“And is that the only reason?”
I had leapt to my feet, had cantered over to Lady Basinalri’s form, and had half drawn Naveela before I restrained myself. I had been encouraging free speech in the councils, and she, at least, deserved an answer. “That is the reason.”
It wasn’t the only reason, it wasn’t even the main reason and I knew that Lady Basinalri knew that. I looked at her for a moment and then she nodded but I could see in her eyes that she was not satisfied with my answer. It didn’t matter though because she was under my command. Forcing a semblance of calm, I turned away and slowly made my way back to the chair. “Lady Basinalri, you will also dispatch the scouts we have left downriver. The other cities are going to send reinforcements to Kelda and I want to know when they arrive. Is that understood?”
“Good.” I turned to one of the two humans. “Lord Garwin, have our bombards been prepared?”
“Claw, my troops are still digging their emplacements. Baring weather complications, they should be ready to open fire tomorrow.”
Tommorrow?! I wanted them now! However, I let only a frown appear on my face. “Lord Garwin, you may conscript whomever else you need, but I want those bombards ready tonight.”
“But, Claw, there is no way to be certain of their accuracy. Precautions need to be taken to preserve the bronze once firing begins. They...”
I looked around and noticed Lady Basinalri looking at me, looking at me angrily. I raised my arm and Lord Garwin stopped. Calm. I had to be calm and rational. I would not let Kalibynthn endanger my attack. “Lord Garwin, my apologies, but I am worried about how much time we have before enemy reinforcements arrive. I leave the emplacement and preparation in your hands. Take the time you need to be certain of their setup. You may still conscript whomever you need to get this done as quickly as possible.”
“Thank you Claw.”
“Once the bombards are deployed, one will begin an attack on the north gate, the other on the gate of the inner keep. Fire is to be as continuous as possible. Lord Falagen, your troops will have the honour of leading the assault through the breach in the outer wall when it's made. Lord Felgar, your troops will be deployed to deal with any sallies the caldaya may attempt. Their primary target will be the bombards so it is your responsibility to make sure that every sally fails, and that there are no survivors to return. Lady Yasilriel, your troops will provide aid and missile support in this endeavour and the rest of you will encamp and drill. If requested by Lord Felgar you will provide aid to his troops. The order of the final assault will be the heavy spearmen to secure the breach, followed by light spearmen to clean out the outer city.”
Lord Falagen bowed and I nodded for him to speak. “And once we have the outer city, how shall we penetrate the inner walls?”
“Once the outer city is secure, sappers and the bombards will breach the middle wall and we will then follow the same procedure for the middle city. Then the same for the inner.”
“That’s suicide - we don’t have the troops and we'll end up with a city impossible to hold.”
I could see that many of the others agreed with this statement. Well, they would find out the true plan soon enough. “Lord Falagen, that is the plan and those are your orders. You will obey. Is that understood?”
He hesitated for a second, and then bowed and stepped back. “As the Claw wills.”
“That is all. Lady Basinalri, Lady Yasilriel, Lord Felgar will remain.” The others bowed and left, pushing their way through the cut in the tent. “You may speak freely.”
The other’s nodded and Lady Basinalri spoke, “Claw, Lord Falagen is right. Your plan will doom us all.”
“Wait. That is the plan for Lord Falagen to know. Lord Garwin, is there other artillery you can deploy?”
“Claw, there are a number of catapults and a trebuchet. But they don’t have the range or the strength of the bombards.”
“I want you to deploy them once the bombards are in operation within range of the northern section of the outer city. They will provide support for the infantry before the assault.”
“Lord Felgar, the reason your troops are defending against sallies is that I need your best, elite troops. I want to see them in operation so that I can gauge their strengths and weaknesses. The rest of the your men will lead the incursion into the outer city...”
“The rest of the men?”
“Yes. The elite, the most trustworthy, will go in second. I need them untouched and prepared. They are to be equipped with two days rations and survival equipment.”
Lady Basinalri broke in, “Claw, what is your real plan?”
“The real plan is to break into the outer city two days before reinforcements are due to arrive. The initial assault will go as outlined, but when the reinforcements are within one day of the city, the army will withdraw.”
“Withdraw?” Lady Yasilriel broke in.
“Withdraw. You have a chosen group hiding at the edge of the Witchwood now, correct?”
“As the Claw commanded, there are 558 archers hiding within a half mile of the woods edge.”
“Good. Keep them there. Now, as I was saying, one day before the reinforcements are due, the army shall withdraw. My hatchling sister will go with the army, as, apparently, so will I. Lord Felgar, you and your chosen men, along with myself, will hide within the ruins of the outer city and wait.”
“It is my hope that when the relief comes, they will see that the army has withdrawn. They will search the outer city, but I trust that your men will be able to remain hidden. After a full two days, upon nightfall, I and your men will gather within the outer city, and make our way to the north gate to the middle city and take it by direct assault. If possible, we will take the north gate to the inner city in the same manner. Once both gates are secure, or the alarm is sounded, we will signal for the army to return. Those at the wood’s edge will be the first to arrive, followed by the rest of the army. With the gates held, we will take the city, and then break into the inner keep, hopefully through a breach, and take the entire city. With no breaches in either the middle or inner walls, we will be able to hold.”
Lady Yasilriel asked, “If the caldaya launch a pursuit against the withdrawing army, what should my forces hidden at the edge do?”
“That is up to their discretion, but their primary purpose is to remain hidden and secret. Even if a pursuit force makes its way past them, their goal is to reinforce me in Kelda - the rest of the army will have to take care of any pursuing force.”
Lady Basinalri nodded. “I will hide in the city with you. My...”
“No. You have a different task. I want you to remain wounded, out of sight. You will take my place in leading the army. I trust that you can disguise yourself to look like me for a while?”
“Yes, Claw. How will you signal the forces?”
“I will summon a magelight...”
“Claw, there is a better way.”
I stopped and looked at her.
“There is a horn, a property of my house since the First Age. The sound is very distinctive - when you blow it Lady Yasilriel’s forces will hear, and I will know wherever I am. I will bring it for you.”
I nodded. “Then that's it. Lord Garwin, I want to be summoned to witness the bombards when they begin firing. I trust, also, that you all know that these plans must be kept secret.”
“Then you may go. Oh, and Lady Yasilriel,” she turned and waited, "I will need some extra equipment from you. Armour, climbing equipment, etc. I'll have Palanas pass the details on to you in the next few days."
She nodded and left the tent as the others already had.
I was finishing off the meal Amanthriel had brought in when Lady Basinalri pushed her way through the cut in the tent.
“You should get that looked at.”
“I’ll ask Palanas to have somebody neaten it up tomorrow.” I watched as she produced a coiled horn from under her robe. “Is that...?”
“This is the horn I mentioned.”
I took it from her and examined it. It was the hollow form of the coiled horn of a ram, but had been polished until it was as smooth as fine wood, and possessed the same soft glow. There were fine carvings on the surface, mostly worn away, but the ones that remained appeared to depict wild animals in a woods. It had a faint, old, old, enchantment sunk into its soul. “I’m not familiar with this.”
“Not surprising - my family tried to remain out of the house wars in the First Age. With the revolt, and the Forgiveness, my ancestors created this horn as both a reminder of the old times, and as a call in case an heir needed aid. When you sound it, I as the leader of my house will hear it wherever I am, and I will know, dimly, what you are doing.”
“This should serve the purpose well then.”
“It is possible for the plan you described to work.”
“Then I’ll let you get back to your bed to rest.”
She did not turn to go.
“There is something else?”
“Palanas told me of the delegation yesterday.”
“They’re fools as they thought I’d betray the Dragon Emperor.”
“There was one that seemed more foolish than the rest, given your reaction. His name was, I believe, Kalibynthn.”
At that name I could feel my anger begin to rise, but I tried not to show it and instead just nodded. “I met him before I entered the service of the Dragon Emperor.”
“Did you love him?”
I could feel my ears changing, my legs changing, my eyes burning, as I let the horn tumble to the ground. “No.”
“That is a lie and we both know it. Palanas told me how your appearance changed, and it seems to be happening again.”
“I can’t love - that’s part of the Curse! And even if I did it's no business of yours!” I could feel the carpets on my bare feet.
Lady Basinalri hadn’t moved. “Yes, you are indeed one of the fallen.”
“FALLEN?! The gods BETRAYED US!”
“No, it is you who betrayed Them. You fought and They gave you want you wanted - immortality. What has it gained you?”
She did not deserve my hatred, only Kalibynthn did. I turned away, resisting my need to gather magery and destroy what was causing me such pain and hatred. “It has kept me alive.”
“Alive? You were thrown from the World, cursed to never change. You can’t even realize what that means, can you?”
Spinning around, I grabbed her with my will and lifted her above me. “It means that we can never forget the wrong that was done to us.”
“Ilisrillanthriel, I am not one of the fey who can be killed yet not die. You need me, just as I need the Dragon Emperor, and just as he needs you.”
“I NEED NO ONE!”
“You’re right, how could you have loved anybody. You’re of the fey, the Cursed, one...”
With my magery I surrounded my tent with a barrier to keep this private, and then I pulled her down, forced her to her knees, and yanked her head up to look at me. The force of my movement broke the bones in her legs but I didn’t care. “By the Curse I loved him! I LOVED HIM! And all I received in return is betrayal. HE TOLD SANISYLRAS ALL ABOUT ME!!”
Although I could feel her heart beating faster, Lady Basinalri’s voice remained calm. “If you were one of the Cursed, then you couldn’t love him.”
“I loved him and he BETRAYED me!” Pulling my magic back into myself, I fled into the back chambers of the tent and onto the bed I’d created earlier. All around me were carvings I’d created of the caldaya, in fact all of the same caldaya. The silk I’d created even SMELLED of him!
“It seems there is a way to break the curse.”
By the Curse she'd followed me! How dare she! I spun around, cloaking myself in blue and white silk, piling my hair high above me in the ancient style. I even made sure that the clothing would fit my cursed form which I knew would return. “LEAVE!”
“I think that my place is here.”
“HERE?! Your place is where I say it is!”
With a speed that belied her age and infirmary, she stepped forward and slapped me. I just stared at her, my jaw hanging open, too shocked to do anything.
“Listen Ilisrillanthriel. The others remember your ancient glories, and forget the Curse. They remember the wrongs they perceive to have happened to them, and forget the price that was earned last time. A price that was a trap that you have found a way out of.”
Healing my cheek I could do nothing else but listen.
“Did you ask him what he said? Or did you just do what the fey have always done and taken the belief you wanted? Before the delegation left I had him brought to my bed, and I asked. He told them nothing! The only reason he was with the delegation is that he had heard that it was being sent and he had forced himself into it in the hope that his presence would keep the delegation alive.”
“If he didn’t tell Sanisylras, then WHO DID?!”
“The Inquisition told Sanisylras?”
“Evidently you missed someone. It seems that the Inquisition does not like you.”
“It seems that they dislike you more than most. In fact I would say that they hate you - you don’t obey the rules. A fey is banished by iron - you aren’t. A fey cannot change, cannot love. You can.”
“Kalibynthn didn’t tell him?”
“Listen to me you self-centred witch! I let you drag my house into this because you could not be fey based on what I saw and what the Dragon Emperor told me. But you are. And by the Gods, you are not going to drag my house down with you when you destroy yourself!”
I looked up at Lady Basinalri - she was barely standing, held up only by her cane and by her will holding the bones I’d broken together.
“When the fey revolted, my house knew that it was wrong, and prayed that it would fail. We remained hidden, neutral, too afraid to fight the rest of you. That is where we went wrong.”
I could feel the stallion screaming in my mind in hate and sexual frustration; I could scent Kalibynthn all around me; but all I could see and hear was Lady Basinalri and her voice. It drew me, entranced me, haunted me.
“But it was you, your kind, in your arrogance, your greed, your envy, that destroyed us. I have hated your kind for my entire life, but, I find that I can’t hate you.”
My voice came out a whisper. “Why?”
“I don’t really know.”
With my will I restored her legs and then lifted her and lowered her onto the bed. “Please tell me. I need to know.”
“You?! Need something from me and you don’t just take it? You don’t just rip it out of my mind?”
I swallowed, letting the arrogance fade, letting the magery fade, changing the hate in my heart to love. “You don’t deserve to be treated that way.”
“A mortal deserving of respect. I think that’s why. When we met you respected me, even though my skills are pale reflections of the smallest things you are capable of. When Lord Falagan confronted you, you let him make the rules and beat him anyway when you could have simply destroyed him.”
My voice turned bitter as I suddenly realized what she really meant: “Of course you don’t hate me. I’m just a tool, a key for you to use against the other houses, against the Dragon Emperor, against the World. Then you'll discard me like my father.”
“No?! You’re all the same, even Kalibynthn. For a moment I was believing you, but now... Get out.”
“Everybody’s the same. You, my father, Kalibynthn, the Dragon Emperor, even the cursed gods. ALL the same! All using me, manipulating me!”
“No, it’s not...”
“I will take your horn because for this moment I need it. I will blow it and you WILL bring the army back. This will happen because I want it to, regardless of what you want, regardless of what anybody else wants. And after Kelda falls, you will take yourself, and all the troops of your house and leave. Go back to your hiding hole, because if I see you again, I will kill not only you, but I will also destroy your entire house! GET OUT!”
“It’s not that way!”
“I will not listen to your lies. I fixed your legs only because I need you. GET OUT!” I watched, silent, as she turned and fled, stumbling off the bed and out of the tent. I let down the shield to let her leave just to have my hatchling sister rip the roof of my tent.
“ILISRI! WHAT’S WRONG!?”
With my vision beginning to blur, I lifted myself up with my magery, letting myself drop onto her neck. She was the only one who had never, would never, use me. My hatchling sister, my dearest, dearest hatchling sister. I called out for Palanas to hear: “Repair my tent! I'll be back before dawn!”
“Hatchling sister, fly, fly high. I need to be with you, and you alone. Away from the world, away from the mortals, far, far away...”
My hatchling sister leapt, grabbing the air with her wings and her magery.
“Fly high, fly high and far away for a while.”
In my mind she answered, “I will take you wherever you need to be, wherever you need to go. I’ll always be here for you.”
“I know you will my hatchling sister. You'll always be with me. Nobody else'll ever be.” And then, with the magery still within me, I leapt from my hatchling sister’s neck and twisted myself into a dragon as I had done so many ages ago. Then we flew high above the World, so high we could see the faint light of the stars glittering off the ocean. Then we stopped, we clenched our wings around each other, entangled our necks and tails, and made love as we fell from the heavens. I made love with the only creature that would never use me, that would always be there.
It was close to dawn when I returned. The magery had left me and my cursed form had returned and my hatchling sister had kept me from falling. We landed beside my tent, now repaired, and as I let myself fall to the ground still dressed in the silk I’d created, Lord Garwin hurried up to me.
“Claw, you returned just in time. The bombards are prepared.
“It is fortunate that you waited. Lead on.”
He bowed and hurried off, and I followed. Palanas appeared beside me, and I knew that Sarsynalithagas was sleeping after our exertions. But they hadn’t tired me out, instead they’d filled me with energy. I was eager to see these mortal creations.
The trip was short, and eventually led to a mound of fresh earth behind which was an area brightly lit by magelight. And, half buried in the ground, surrounded by wooden skeletons held together by rope and nails, were two huge bronze cannon. Each was nearly four feet in diameter, and each barrel was about 15 feet in length. Here and there at some distance were barrels which I knew were filled with iron filings just by the oppressive aura they gave off. There was a flattened and hardened road leading down to the river, and groups of humans were heaving massive rocks up by block and tackle.
“Claw, we brought some ammunition with us, but I’ve set up a quarry about half a mile up the river where a rock outcropping has been exposed. It’s a softer stone, not as damaging, but it will give us some extra range and shorter reload time. Both the engines are loaded and ready. On your right is Kitrana's Vengeance, and on your left Sarsynalithagas’ Mouth.” He smiled, ever so pleased with himself. “That one came out of the forges in Mandalor just before we left!”
If he wanted to use my hatchling sister’s use name, that was of no matter.
“Herethain! You’ve double-checked the load?”
A short human ran up, his face black with mud and soot, missing his left arm, and holding an abacus. “Lord, shadow measurements confirm the distance from Kitrana to the north gate to be 2782 feet; and the distance from Sarsynalithagas to the keep gate to be 3412 feet. The correct amount of filings that you dictated for these ranges have been prepared.”
Lord Garwin turned to face me. “Claw, they be primed and ready. Be warned that artillery is not an exact science - small changes in the density of the iron will occur. If I may offer you a telescope you can follow me to the top of the ridge so that we can see the results of the first ranging shot.”
“I do desire.”
Lord Garwin offered me a smaller telescope than the one he was holding and I almost took his but remembered that he needed to confirm the range of the shots to maximize destruction. I walked up the mound of soft dirt, my hooves digging into the cold mud, until I was standing on top looking towards Kelda just being lit by the rising Aldorashgan.
“Claw, it is safer for you to lie down - there will be a blas....”
“I will stand here Lord.”
He shook his head. “On your head it be. Herethain! Tell the mage that he may fire Kitrana's Vengeance!” Then he fell to the muddy ground and raised the telescope to his eye. “She’s aimed at the North Gate Claw, finally Kitrana will gain victory over this city which betrayed her over a century ago!”
I raised the telescope to my eye and focused on the gate, still shadowed in the early morning light. The gates were closed, and I could see the glint off metal helms from the towers to either side. Then I could feel a loud chanting behind me, and the summoning of a crude magery. It was raw, unformed, and then it drifted like a cloud towards the barrel of the first bombard.
There was a moment of silence, and then a roar and a long drawn-out explosion that shook my bones and flung me to the mud. Even with my ears clenched tight to my skull gave no relief. Behind me the sky was suddenly lit by fire, brighter than that from a dragon, and there was a roar that would put my hatchling sister to shame. What had these mortals wrought?! Clambering to my knees, I raised the telescope to my eye and found the gate just in time to see a rock fall and slam into the side of the east gatetower. Rock shards went flying as the massive rock shattered, spraying pieces across the blackened ruins in front of the gate.
“Fire Sarsynalithagas’ Mouth!”
I could feel burning shards of iron falling onto my legs where the silk had been blown away and I had just enough time to search out the inner keep when the lightning roared behind me and the air shoved me down into the mud. This time I recovered quicker, and was able to find the rock just before it fell into the inner city, short of the keep gatehouse.
As I pulled myself up, I heard Lord Garwin already shouting. “Herethain! Give Kitrana another half pound - we’ll drop the shrapnel on their hairy ears! And give Sarsynalithagas another two pounds!”
By then I was back on my hooves and turned around to a drifting cloud of black smoke, and through it dimly saw two more rocks being tied onto pulleys connected to the framework around the bombards. Other humans were throwing buckets of water onto the framework as still more clambered up ladders carrying what looked to be stiff brooms on 15’ poles.
“So Claw, what do you think of my babies, eh?! Sorry about the keep, but it was hard to get an exact distance - artillery is an art!”
I forced my ringing ears to unpeel from my skull and turned to him and shouted, “How long before the gates come down?!”
“That depends Claw, depends on their construction and our accuracy! We’ve got the range now! We can get off twelve shots a day, so a week, maybe two, for the North Gate!”
“Keep me informed!” I handed him the telescope and stumbled down the slippery mud and across and out of the gunnery pit where Palanas was waiting. I could see his mouth move but couldn’t hear a word. “You have to shout!”
“Let me escort you back to your tent - it’s been repaired for you!”
I nodded, and followed him, staggering and sliding on the cold soil. My hatchling sister was still asleep - she could indeed snooze through anything. Amanthriel met me there and she said something after which Palanas shouted, “There is a hot bath ready for you!”
Then Amanthriel wiped off my hooves and led me in, pulling me out of the muddy and burned silk, and leading me into the steaming water. There I lowered myself in and sighed, as she started scrubbing at my hair.
Over the next two weeks the caldaya attempted three sallies, two at night and one during the day, and all three were contained although the first one actually got within bow range of the bombards as it was the largest. I even needed my hatchling sister to help destroy them. By then the breach in the north gate was almost ready so I ordered Lord Garwin to switch his attack fully to the gate of the inner keep. I was, however, starting to get worried - I needed the caldayan reinforcements to arrive soon before I damaged the city too much. And then, finally, Lady Basinalri came and informed me that a large contingent, a bit larger than I'd hoped - almost 3000 - had been spotted two days travel to the south. They had minimal air cover so I commanded Lady Basinalri to have our fleet destroy theirs. She just nodded. What rapport we once had, had vanished after she gave me the horn. That night I ordered Lord Garwin to finish off the north gate and gathered the Lords to prepare for a dawn assault.
The pre-dawn was cold, and I was wearing thick furs as I stood with the other Lords about a quarter mile from the gate. Lord Falagen was absent with his troops and Lady Basinalri was officially with the fleet, although in actuality she was in her tent. With the telescope I could see the heavy infantry advancing towards the city in two separated ordered ranks of bronze. They were only 300 feet from the city when magelights were lit and horns blown as they were spotted.
At that point archers under Lady Yasilriel opened fire to provide cover for the advance which continued, now a little disordered as they clambered over the rubble of the gate. That was when the caldaya mounted their counter-attack. A wedge of armoured caldaya leapt and bounded towards the disordered ranks of the foremost advance and into them. The fight was brief and the caldaya were barely slowed down as they broke the front line and proceeded down and out of the breach. The centre of the second line of infantry slowly fell back as the mass of the caldayan advance continued. I could see officers signalling and dimly hear horns blowing, but the caldaya were too eager in their advance so by the time Lord Falagen’s reserves on the flanks advanced and surrounded the main group of caldaya it was too late. Caldayan reserves hit the elven line, and broke it twice, but loose order human infantry under Lord Felgar created a second pocket. The caldaya simply didn’t have the numbers to break out. Those still inside the breach fell back as those surrounded were killed by bow and spear. By noon Lord Falagen had reformed his lines and, with human support on his flanks, he moved into the outer city.
By nightfall, the breach had been secured. Elements of the human spearmen had made it up to the walls on either side of the breach, but the caldaya used what were apparently set iron charges and blasted an additional hole in the wall about 200’ to the east of the gate, securing the wall from further penetration. I had suspected that there were tunnels joining the inner and middle walls to the outer walls, and this confirmed it. The caldaya fell back to prepared fortifications on the standing wall as the human troops advanced into the outer city, setting fire to the buildings inside, helped by flaming pitch sent over by the catapults and the trebuchet. Throughout the night, the glow of fire surrounded the city as the wooden structures burned. There were some fires from sparks started in the middle city, but caldaya doused those, and as the inner city was almost entirely stone structures it was untouched. By dawn the outer city was smoking rubble, and although it seemed like I had gained something, in reality I had gained nothing. The caldaya still controlled the outer wall, and the rest of the city. They could fire on any troops I brought into the outer city, and still sally as they wished.
Shortly past dawn I returned to my tent and summoned the Lords to attend me - all except Lady Basinalri. When Lord Falagen arrived, I began. “Lords, I have been informed that 3000 caldayan reinforcements will arrive in just over a day. As our position is unten...”
Lord Falagen didn’t let me finish. “We’re going to abandon what my elves paid for in blood?!”
“Lord Falagen, this is my council, and thus you can speak only when I allow it. However, your point is valid. I had hoped that reinforcements would take longer and that we would have the city, but we don’t. Lady Lithanri - what’s our best estimate of their forces?”
“Claw, Lords, after the sallies and today's assault, I estimate between 1500 and 3000 caldaya remain within Kelda. That will give them almost 6000 against our 10,000.”
“Ten thousand? I lost only seven hundred, either wounded or dead, on this day. Lord Felgar another five hundred. What happened to the other eight hundred?”
“Lord Falagen, skirmishes with caldayan patrols, both before our arrival, but primarily the lead elements of the calayan reinforcements, have cost us dearly.” Actually there had been no contact with the reinforcements by my order, and the lead elements screening our initial arrival had suffered very few casualties.
Lord Falagen stomped forward until he was just in front of me, looking at me. “And you KNEW this and STILL had me throw away the best of my elves?! For NOTHING?!”
I kept my voice calm. “Lord Falagen, this has been a difficult day for you so I forgive your actions to me. If I had known, I would have ordered the withdrawal sooner.”
“You knew! You had to know!”
“Lord Falagen - you'll be quiet now. What is done is done. You will go to your men, and you will prepare them to return to Mandalor. Prepare your wounded for travel and I will arrange for as many as possible to be transported straight to Mandalor on the aerial fleet. You are needed as the caldaya may attempt a winter counter-assault.”
Lord Falagen spun around and stalked towards the exit. “I will remember this Claw, this along with other things.” And then he was gone.
I sighed. Lord Falagen was going to be trouble come winter, especially once he realized that I'd lied to him. “Lord Garwin, you need to get the bombards and other artillery ready for immediate transport up the Simbrani. We have a bit longer than a day before the lead elements of the caladyan reinforcements arrive.”
Lord Garwin bowed and left.
“And now it’s time for the real meeting. Lady Lithanri, your estimate was true?”
“I would expect there to be 5000 caldaya in the city once the reinforcements arrive. Maybe a few more, maybe a few less, but I would be surprised if there are more than 2000 caldayan warriors in Kelda at this point. It’s possible, but very unlikely. I would also expect a light force to harass our retreat, likely around 1000 caldayan equivalent of light cavalry. That leaves 4000 in the city for your attack.”
“Lady Yasilriel - how many archers have you hidden at the edge of the Witchwood?”
“As Lord Falagen pointed out, 558. We did take some casualties on our approach. I will apprise them of the schedule as we withdraw past them.”
“Good. Palanas, would you bring Lady Basinalri here, it is time for the switch.”
He nodded and left.
“Lord Felgar, how many men have you selected for the infiltration?”
“Claw, I have selected nearly 900.”
“That’s half of your surviving force.”
“Claw, they are dependable. They’re the remnants of the Order of the Winter Storm before it was disowned by the caldayan controlled churches. They're thirsting for revenge, and they will be loyal.”
“And they know what to do?”
“I swear it. They've been supplied, and tonight I will inform them in secret of their mission. By dawn, they'll have deserted into the ruins of the outer city to await your order for the attack.”
“Lady Yasilriel - I will need as many additional elves from you as I can get that are trustworthy. They will follow me in the attack on the middle and inner gate.”
“Claw, I have added 48 of my best to Palanas as your personal guard. They have been briefed.”
Lord Felgar broke in: “Claw, I can provide men for you too.”
“Lord Felgar I thank you, but it is better not. I need only a small force as the attacks must be by stealth, not force. Your men, though skilled, will be armoured and noisy.”
“As you command Claw.”
There was a knock on the post outside. “Enter!” I called and turned to watch Palanas lead a cloaked and hooded figure in. As Palanas tied the flap shut, the figure removed her hood to reveal a duplicate of my cursed form.
Her voice was even a duplicate of my own. “Lady Basinalri?”
“As the Claw commanded.”
Ignoring the whispers behind me, I asked, “How long can you maintain this?”
“Two days. Maybe a bit longer.”
“Has the aerial fleet dealt with the aerial forces with the caldayan reinforcements?”
“Yes Claw. Most of the fleet has remained to harass their advance.”
“I promised Lord Falagen that the fleet would airlift as many of his wounded as possible.”
“As the Claw commands.”
“Lady Yasilriel - you’ve prepared blackened and silenced armour for me? And the climbing equipment?”
“It is ready as the Claw ordered. Send Palanas to get it when you’re ready.”
“Lord Felgar, Lady Lithanri, Lady Yasilriel, you may go. Lord Felgar, your troops should start infiltrating tonight and I'll join them shortly. Remind them to remain hidden until I blow the horn.” Lord Felgar nodded and then the rest left so that only Palanas and Lady Basinalri remained. “Lady Basinalri, please remain here until I send Palanas for you - I need to inform my hatchling sister of this.”
“You haven’t already?”
“I couldn’t - I've left her too many times of late and she deserves what joy I can give her. Palanas come.” I left with Palanas following and reached my hatchling sister after a few steps as she was sleeping just outside my tent.
She awoke as I reached her. “ILISRI!”
I reached her ear and whispered, “In my mind - we must talk of secret things.”
“For my hatchling sister I will flame the World.”
“My army is withdrawing from Kelda.”
“Only to return so that I can consume your enemies!”
“You must go with them.”
Her voice in my mind suddenly sounded small. “Ilisri...you’ll be there too?”
I swallowed. “No.”
Then she roared out loud, “I WON’T LEAVE YOU!”
“Shhh! In my mind! You must leave me, I need you to leave me for this one last time.”
“I need to take this city and I cannot take it with you.”
“Nothing can stand against us!”
“In this age of mortals we are too few. There is too much iron. Remember when we tried...” I felt her body hunch smaller. “It is something I must do so that you can come in safety. I will not risk you.”
“But you force me to let you risk yourself.”
“I ask this one last time because I need to do this so that we can be free of these mortals and together. This is the last time, I swear by the Curse.”
“If you die, I'll destroy the city, bring its towers down amongst them in fire!”
I turned and whispered, “Palanas, bring her,” and then turned back to my hatchling sister. “You mustn’t. If you do they'll kill you.”
“If you die, I have no reason to live. I've been there and I will not be without you ever again.”
“There is something else you must know before I must leave you - there is somebody whom you must treat as me...”
“Nobody is you!”
“She is doing it because I asked - you must treat her as though she is me because I need you to.”
I heard Palanas returning, and heard Lady Basinalri with him.
“Turn and let me introduce you - and remember that I told her to do this. Speak into her mind if you can.” I turned and pulled Lady Basinalri’s hood from her head and then turned back to whisper in my hatchling sister’s ear. “Hatchling sister, this is Lady Basinalri.”
“You are not her!”
Lady Basinalri responded in a whispered duplicate of my voice, “I am not her, I only look like her, and only because Lady Ilisrillanthriel asked me to. I honour you for your love of her and would never seek to replace her in your heart.”
I watched my hatchling sister move her snout and inhale the air around Lady Basinalri, making her cloak ripple in the wind. “You do not smell like her.”
“Hatchling sister, I ask this as a favour, I ask this because I need, you must treat her as me for two days until the city is taken.”
“She is not my hatchling sister.”
“Sarsynalithagas, I will never be your hatchling sister, nor would I want to replace your true hatchling sister. I do this only to help you and her to be together.”
“Because my hatchling sister wishes, and only for that reason, you may ride me. But you are not my hatchling sister, nor will ever be, nor shall you use that name.”
“I understand and thank you Sarsynalithagas, hatchling sister of Lady Ilisrillanthriel. I am honoured that you will let me ride you.”
I turned to Palanas. “Fetch my equipment from Lady Yasilriel.” He nodded and left.
“Hatchling sister, you'll be careful, won’t you? I couldn’t survive without you.”
I reached up and rubbed the base of her longer horn when the skin was most tender, “Dearest hatchling sister, I could not live without you either. I do this only so that we can be together. Lady Basinalri, my army is now yours. Keep it safe, and keep my hatchling sister safe.”
“As the Claw commands. And you be careful for you are now mortal.”
I heard her unspoken words telling me that I could die. “I am not mortal!”
“Yes you are. If you were not, you could not love.”
“I did not love him.” Frantically I searched for something else and spotted Palanas hurrying back carrying a bundle. “Lady Basinalri, I will retire to my tent and depart from there. Stay with my hatchling sister for a while to give me time.” Then I kissed the soft skin at the base of my hatchling sister’s horn and fled.
The costume that Palanas brought consisted of blackened bronze armour, with each split cleverly sealed in black leather. In addition there were soft boots, a black cloak and hood, climbing attachments for my hooves, and a backpack with rope and food and water for two days. With his help I buckled Naveela to my belt and made my way out of the tent and through the army which was breaking camp and preparing to fall back up the river. As we walked, Palanas was joined by his men and the elves given to his command by Lady Yasilriel and all 56 were with me by the time we reached the edge of the camp and made our way across the muddy waste between the army and the breach.
The night was dark, clouds obscured the souls chosen by the gods and placed in the heavens. The only light was from fires within the army, and from torches and magelights along the walls of Kelda. In blackness we reached the rubble of the breach, and the blood and gore and stench of decaying bodies of both elf and caldaya littered the ruin. The scent of smoke still wafted through the air from the burned buildings, and a hint of warmth hinted that the fires were not fully out. Carefully we made our way through the rubble and into the ruins of the outer city. Half the night passed as we crept through the charred wood and brick, making our way along the middle wall towards its north gate that was not opposite the north gate in the outer wall. We stopped when we could see the torches on the gate's towers and then found crevices and hiding places in the rubble and hid, waiting for the dawn.
Chapter 17 – The Fall of Kelda
Lesser generals have written that one should always be aware of what to do if their army is attacked. Attacked form the left, the right, the rear-- All that is true.
But, there is more.
The great generals, the ones that others look up to and admire and copy, they are the ones that attack. Aggressively, quickly, effectively, and from the unexpected, impossible direction.
I study what they did, and I try to think of whatever my opponent doesn't.
And, be prepared in all ways for more conventional assaults.
Queen Kitrana I of Kyndar
It was cold by the time the Aldorashgan rose, shining a pale golden light upon the charred wood and broken stone. I and others had almost buried ourselves in scraps of ruin, and we watched across the rubble-strewn street the North Gate to the Middle City. Magelights had burned throughout the night, and twice an armed party had left through a postern and made a quick sortie into the ruins around the gate. The streets were filled with a cold curling mist and their were flickers of ghosts and spirits of the slain as they awaited Vashigan’s call to judgement. Bells rang to signal the dawn, and with an eerie silence the gates opened and armoured Caldayan began marching out. They were clean and polished, the sun glinting off their bronze, but they were more lightly armoured than those who had defended the breech and I knew that they were being detached to harass the withdrawal of my army.
I felt movement beside me, it was Palanas, and I motioned him to stillness. Now was not the time -- they were far too jumpy still. Together we watched as the column trotted through the streets, I estimated that there were nearly a thousand, but that would leave almost two thousand still holding the city. All I could do was wait and watch as they moved off and the postern closed behind them. The main gates remained closed the whole time.
Time passed. A few feet away an elf in Lord Falagen’s colours lay on the street and a flock of ravens landed and pecked and tore. By the time the postern gate opened again and fifteen heavily armoured caldayan moved out and the raven’s fled, the elf’s face was a gory ruin. I waited and watched as the group slowly moved away from the gate and searched and poked. With military efficiency they reached the body in front of me and kicked it over and stripped it of what my army had left behind -- a dagger, some coins, a necklace with an ivory carving I couldn’t make out. They slowly moved off towards the Simbrani, looking at the rubble, occasionally poking with spears, but I could see that their efforts were more for the sake of making them than any real search. In their arrogance they believed we'd fled, and they KNEW that we were gone. Slowly they moved off and another group of fifteen came out and started moving around the outer city in the other direction. Through the whole time the main gate remained sealed.
Close up and in the daylight, the wall was impressive. Nearly twenty feet high, with a slight arch inward, and coated with plaster to provide a smooth unclimbable surface. At some places the plaster was cracked, or shattered and piled at the bottom of the wall from shards of stones from my attack. Those were the places I’d have to climb. Not the easiest as that would be watched, and not near the gate, but close. By noon I’d found the spot and began to study it.
The day was long and hot, the air stank, and I could feel my mud oozing into my boots. Come dark I would take them off as by the Curse they were uncomfortable. Slowly I pulled a waterskin from my waist and sipped it, swallowing slowly and carefully as I studied the wall. The attack would have to be swift, and silent; especially as I needed to hold both gates before I sounded the horn.
It wasn’t until near the end of the watch that the two groups returned to the postern and were let through. I couldn’t hear the knock, or any whispered password, so the wall was the only option. Waiting I let shadows grow long and it wasn’t until the ravens had returned to their feast that I slowly motioned to Palanas beside me.
“Signal the elves -- I need to know who was captured, and where the reinforcements are,” I whispered.
“Claw,” he whispered and then turned and whispered to something in the shadows, so silent that I heard nothing.
Turning back to watch the gate I waited. Based on the information I had, the reinforcements should be in the field. Since they weren’t in the city, that suggested that they were pursing the rearguard of the army, which was fine with me. But I had to know before I decided whether to try tonight, or wait until tomorrow night. If they hadn’t arrived yet then I would have no choice but to wait. If they were harassing my army, then I would have to secure the gates and hold them against them so that they could be smashed between my army and the walls of what they thought was secure. Even if I held the gates and the keep it would be bloody, as there were likely strongpoints within the walls, secure and stocked, and designed to act as points of resistance. Taking another sip of water I watched, ignoring the ravens, and listened to the bells tolling the setting of the Aldorashgan.
My ears flattened against my skull but I forced them back up and turned to face Palanas.
“Five groups were detected. They fled and were pursued. None escaped. Scouts spotted two large groups of lightly armoured Caldayan that moved north. Numbers are estimated at 2000.”
By the Curse! That meant another 1000 were unaccounted for. Some would have been wounded by the aerial harassment, but not all. They must be following slower and that meant that they would move into the city. I had to wait for them before I could do anything, and that increased the risks. If the archers Lady Yasilriel had hidden were found, then the Caldaya were bound to figure out what was being tried, especially given the groups they’d already flushed out. A concerted search would find us, and their numbers would destroy us. I couldn’t wait, but I had too… They would either arrive soon, or not until tomorrow. If the gates were taken in secret, then we would hold the gates against them, and possibly even lure them in and destroy them through the murderholes within the gate structure. It would be tonight after midnight, when it was darkest with Luani out of the sky and the watch tired. I told Palanas this and pulled out a piece of jerky from my pouch and slowly chewed on it as I watched the gate and wall, occasionally sipping the warm leathery water to dampen my mouth. The Aldorashgan set, magelights and torches were lit, and I watched the shadowy forms along the top of the wall. The bells rang the end of the 4th watch and I slowly touched Palanas and whispered to him to have the men and elves prepare to move. I and 10 others would climb the wall and lower ropes for the rest. Silence was the most important. Then, as Palanas passed the word, I carefully slid my mud-greased hocks and hooves from the boots and wiped the cold gore off and strapped on both the climbing attachments, and the cloth around the hoof to keep my movements silent. In the last moments I clasped Naveela’s hilt and calmed myself. I was always like this when I had time to think and worry, even after the Curse.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and tensed and then turned to see Palanas. I could scent the acidness of his fear, the stink of the mud and decay, but now was the time. Slowly I moved out of my hiding spot and into the cool breeze of the night and slowly crept towards the wall. I could see other shadows beside me, and felt more than heard the stringing of bows and preparation of arrows to cover us. I hoped that they weren’t needed because if they were, then almost certainly we were in trouble.
Too soon I was at the wall and others were around me, black shadows in the dark. A quick stretch of my hands and legs to loosen them, and then I began to slither up the wall, slowly, carefully. Fingertips found cracks in the fine brickwork that had been hidden by the plaster, and the sharpened blackened blades strapped into my hooves could barely fit in so tiny were those cracks. I moved up, slow and careful step by slow and careful step. Each handhold was tested, each foothold slowly pressed as far as it would go before it was tested by slowly applying weight to it. By the time I was halfway up, by fingers ached from the strain, and I felt a continual pain in my hocks from the awkward support of the knives strapped to my feet. Two-thirds of the way up there was a sudden intake of breathe, and then the crack of leather, and creak of cloth on stone punctuated by a muffled thud at the base of the wall. I hoped he was dead, for if he wasn’t, there wasn’t any help for it until the gate was taken. Finally, before me, I could see the crenulations of the walkway and I stopped and listened. Listened and just before I could continue I smelt and heard a tar-soaked torch moving towards me. By the Curse not now! Pressing myself against the wall I waited, barely breathing, as I heard the sound of clinking metal. It stopped, just above me, and I heard voices, and laughter. Something scrambled on the wall above me and I began to free my right hand to reach for a dagger when the laughter grew and a leg was raised and some caldayan pissed over the wall and onto my still form. It was hot, acidic, and stunk, but I couldn’t make a sound, and only moved slightly to keep my legs and hands dry and I slowly moved hand back into position. There was more laughter, and finally movement as the group walked off, and the sound and stench of the torch faded. I waited another while, and then slowly moved, ignoring the pain of my joints, and finally peaked my head over the edge of the wall. With my ears rotating I listened and searched, but saw nothing but the magelights from the gate off to the left. Silently I heaved myself the rest of the way up, and then pulled out the rope and tied it off and lowered it down as other elves followed me. Twelve of us made it to the top, and we crouched in the shadows and waited whilst others made their way to the rope and climbed. The elves were first as they were silent, but Lord Felgar’s men would come when we opened the gate for them to hold it. I waited until there were 50 shadowy forms on the wall, and then motioned for them to follow me as others were still climbing.
I led them crouched against the edge of the wall, and made our way to the open door to the gatehouse in silence. The door had been propped open, and a pair of Caldaya were outside laying on their lower chests and holding their spears. I pulled out a piece of thin black bronze wire, and three others did the same, and when we were ready we ran and leapt onto them and wrapped the wire around their throats until they died, silent except for a gurgle. Others grabbed their spears before they could clatter to the stone. Then I waited and motioned them in -- I was the Claw and I couldn’t risk myself except when needed. All I could do was watch and listen, and hear nothing as the elves slithered through the shadows and garrotted the guards and slit the throats of those asleep. All the elves were on the wall behind me when Palanas returned and indicated that the tower was secure. I followed him in and watched as others stood above the murder holes. Just as I was about to order the gates opened for Lord Felgar’s men, Palanas grabbed me and pulled me to an arrowslit looking out upon the street. Staring, I watched as hundreds of heavily armoured Caldaya marched up the street bearing torches.
By the Curse, the bastards HAD come to the city late after all. Curse them! “Palanas, open the gate for them but have noone speak. When all are in the passage that will fit, lower the outer portcullis and kill them. Signal Lord Felgar’s men to attack from the rear whilst we move on the inner wall.”
“As the Claw commands.”
He ran off and the gates creaked open, fires were lit beneath cauldron’s of oil though there likely wouldn’t be time, and arrows were prepared to signal Lord Felgar’s men. I watched and waited until Palanas came back for me and he and I and 20 others moved into the inner postern and prepared to make our attempt on the inner wall. As the door opened I whispered, “We have a short time -- when the reinforcements are trapped in the passage they’ll raise all kinds of noise and they will be heard. There are probably passages in the wall that don’t connect to the gate that are patrolled. We have to be at the inner gate before the alert is sounded, and on the wall. When the alert is sounded, we want to strike that instant. Palanas -- move those you can spare to the wall opposite the inner gate and when the alarm is sounded support us with bowfire. Concentrate on the gate to distract them.”
“For the Claw.” Although it was a whisper, it seemed a shout, and I led them to the postern gate to the middle city.
We left through a postern gate and crept out through the shadows and around towards the innergate. Unfortunately the inner wall had not been as damaged as the middle war, and all that I could find was clean plaster to climb. It seems that I would have to prove the superlative nature of my skills. With the others waiting in the shadows at the base, I began to climb. The plaster was at least soft, and that was the key. From the other wall I'd seen the structure of the hidden stonework and some careful scraping with a dagger revealed the joints in the stones I was looking for. Then it was a question of climbing one step at a time, feeling for what should be a stone seem, quietly digging away at the plaster to get at it, cleaning it enough to allow a grip, and then proceeding up one step. It wasn't easy, even for me it was difficult.
I was about two thirds of the way up when I heard sounds of battle and screams of rage from the gatehouse in the middle wall. Moments later, I could hear the crack of arrows landing around the inner gatehouse. I forced myself to ignore them. All that I thought about was the climb: feel for what seemed to be the right spot, carefully dig away the plaster, feel in the hole for the seem, enlarge the hole, clean out the dust, and then climb up a little further. Repeat. Time passed. The sounds of combat in the middle gatehouse died down and the rain of arrows on the inner gatehouse slackened, but still fell. I felt an arrow pass inches away from my back from the ground, and heard a gurgle from the wall above me. I couldn't spare the time to look. I was still sore from the other wall, now I could feel little dribbles of blood from my fingernails. The blade strapped to my right hoof worked itself a little loose and I had to put more weight on my left leg, and move very carefully when I moved my left leg up a step.
I was ten feet below the top when I heard movement on the wall, and felt more than heard arrows pass me from below. There was a scream above me, a gurgle, and a clanging sword that bounced off the plaster inches from my face as it rattled and scraped its way to the ground. Tears formed in my left eye from the plaster dust and I pressed it shut trying to ignore its watering as I climbed. I heard more shouting above me, more running, more arrows from below, but this time there were no gurgles or screams. And that suggested that there were caldaya above me waiting in shelter from arrows, waiting until I got over the wall to take me out in safety. Finally I was a foot below and I stopped and rested for a moment. I would have one chance, and already the Aldorashgan was beginning to brighten. With my left hoof I felt around a bit higher and dug into the plaster, then gripping with my fingers I did the same with the right. I was now bent to almost half my height. Balancing my weight on the slight grip provided by the knives strapped to my hooves I crept my hands up, and then, forcing the pain and fatigue from my muscles, I clasped the edge of the crenalation and yanked up whilst I pushed with my hooves. The blade on my right hoof came loose but I was able to apply more pressure with my right hand. Finally I was over the wall, and seven caldaya were advancing towards me with spears and swords.
Turning, I fled away from the gate, yanking Naveela out of her sheath as they turned and followed. Behind me I heard the hiss and crack of arrows arcing over the wall, both from below and from the middle city wall. One of the caldaya screamed and I took that instant of distraction to spin around and slice the outstretched arm of another. He screamed and staggered but five more were upon me with sword and shield. With Naveela flashing I moved towards my right, towards the inner side of the wall, and got some distance before they cut me off. But it was enough. I had room to back up, and unlike in the Undercity, they had the constant terror of death as a rain of arrows fell upon them. Two more went down, and the remaining three leapt upon me, ignoring my blade. I slashed one through the chest, and rolled out of the way of a second, but a third grabbed me and shoved his dagger into my left thigh as I tried to crawl away. If it wasn't for the armour I was wearing, I would have been dead, but instead it just sunk into the muscle and stayed there as I kicked him in the face. That was enough to free me and I fled another few feet and spun around swinging blindly into the face of the same one who had stabbed me, and he went down screaming, one ear hanging by a thread of tissue. I stabbed him in his lower chest and twisted to make sure as the final one went down to another arrow. With my chest heaving, I stabbed and twisted them all in the chest to make sure they were down and then sheathed Naveela. I yanked out the rope, tied it securely and lowered it, and others began climbing. With no caldaya nearby, I yanked out Lady Basinalri's horn and blew it.
Its note wasn't sweet, instead it was piercing, though I knew more than heard it as it rang over the hills. For a moment it seemed as though the world stopped and listened as it echoed into the distance, but then I again heard the hiss of arrows, the padding of feet, the clanking of armour. I blew it again for good measure and then let it fall as more caldaya appeared along the wall in the echoing silence. Drawing Naveela I turned and grinned, surrounded by the bodies of caldaya, one leg drenched in blood with a dagger still sticking out of it. But this time the commander, whoever he was, was smart. He had six of them form a shield wall, as the six behind drew bows. I had just enough time to dive and roll and grab the dropped shield of one of the dead caldayans to hide behind as the arrows leapt towards me. They thunked into the shield with such force that I almost dropped it, and even through the thick oak they extended almost 6 inches out the other side. One went into my wrist and scraped the bone, but I couldn't drop the shield. If I did, I would die; and if I died Sarsynalithagas would die trying to avenge me. Instead I slowly started forward, my hooves moving in beat to the thunking of arrows on the shield I was holding. An arrow went underneath the shield and dug into my right leg, but I concentrated on my hatchling sister, and at the last I screamed and snorted, letting the rage of the stallion fill me. I had just enough time to sheath Naveela before I was filled with rage and I felt myself twisting and stretching, sucking in great breaths of air again and again as I grew. Screaming my rage at the chains enclosing me I felt the mail finally burst and then I was the stallion and I leapt into the shield wall with my weight and bit and kicked and struggled. The line staggered, began to break, but the commander stayed and shoved his spear into my neck but I snorted and ducked so that it didn’t pierce my windpipe and tore his throat out.
The rest broke.
I tried to chase after them, but I felt unsteady, and instead collapsed to the ground on my side. I felt the stallion screaming, and took his mind in mine and felt my body twisting and collapsing in on itself as the world went dark…
The next thing I knew was warm, leathery water dribbling into my mouth. I coughed, and then swallowed, and looked up into the dark sooty face of Palanas. One hand was holding the waterskin, the other was wrapped in bloody bandages. I was lying on a straw cot in a small stone room, with bright line shining through a thin slit onto the floor beside the bed. My armour was gone, my hocks and hooves were naked and clean.
My hand slid to my side and felt for Naveelas' sheath-- which was also gone!
Thrusting the waterskin away, I leapt out of bed, and almost fell before Palanas grabbed me. My body was sore, my soul was weak, drained. I gasped for breath, ears flicking wildly looking for the threat.
"Palanas, what happened? Did they…"
"You're safe, Claw. We have the gates. Lady Yasilriel's force has reinforced our position and we hold both gates. The Caldayans have fled into the inner keep. We've gotten into the wall passages, but are still encountering pockets of resistance. We're sending patrols but are holding off serious attempts to root out the enemy until Lord Falagen's troops return."
Gasping for breath, I pushed myself up and sat back down on the bed, or more accurately collapsed. "Palanas, I want our presence hid as much as possible. When the force sent to pursue my main army falls back to the city, I want to get them inside the gatehouses."
"There may be passwords, Claw, or signals from the keep we can't intercept."
"Do what you can. In the worse case, the army can crush them against the walls, or we can shoot them in the outer city."
"Claw, the Warchief Sanisylras wishes to parley."
I stopped, cocked my head, one ear half folding. "Tell him that there is no parley. He had his chance. All I will accept is their unconditional surrender."
"And the Caldayan's in the city proper?"
"Keep them off and out of the walls. After the tunnels have been secured, we'll send the troops in and kill them."
I let my voice turn cold. "As I told the Warchief, they had their one chance. This city will be made an example of. Nobody escapes. Not a one. When the keep surrenders, take them all and kill them. All of them."
I grabbed Palanas by his chin. "Those are my orders. You will obey them. Is that clear?"
Palanas slowly nodded.
"And one more thing… Any troops that are spared should start patching the hole in the outer wall. We need to hold the port so that we can get supplies shipped down for the winter. And, any ships in port, cut them loose and send them adrift down river."
"We can't let them sink the ships in port and seal off the harbour!"
"Claw, we can't just kill…"
"Palanas," I said slowly, "I gave them their choice. If we let them withdraw, then we'll have to fight them again and again. If we kill them, now, then the next city will open its gates for us. We need to show them the price of resistance!"
"You have my orders."
He paused. "Yes, Claw."
"Now, where am I?"
"You are in the commander's private room in the eastern tower of the inner gate."
"Bring me water, bring me Naveela, and then leave. Disturb me only if there is an attempted breakout. When the army returns, bring Lady Basinalri to me."
Palanas nodded. "And your hatchling sister?"
"Wake me for her too. You may leave."
Palanas gave a shallow bow, and then left, the door thumping shut behind him. A few minutes later he returned with a leather flask of water, and Naveela in her sheath. Then he left.
After putting Naveela down on the dry stone floor beside the bed, and after drinking my fill I lay down on my side. Palanas just did not understand. I had to conquer the Seven Cities quickly, and with a minimal cost. They had to be shown the cost of resistance. If I didn't, the caldaya could fall back to the plains and harass everything I conquered, hit and run convoys and troops. And there was almost nothing I could do to stop that.
Other than make them afraid to do so.
Then I yawned, and went to sleep.
The siege didn't end there. The keep did send signals, and the pursuit force withdraw to the south. They were harried, but I needed to pacify the city. A sally force tried to burn the few ships still in the harbour before they could disposed of, but only one ship was burned before they were destroyed. The hulk didn't sink and was dragged out along with the others. Vigorous patrols around the city spotted an attempt to flee through the bolthole from the inner keep, and foiled it. Fortunately the land for over five miles around Kelda in all directions had been deforested. The main army arrived, and Lord Falagen slowly cleaned out the tunnels inside the walls. There were casualties, and a number were closed off, but we controlled the majority and their actions were not a major threat. The civilians in the city were not a major problem as they were few -- Kelda has always been more a giant fortress than a true city. Non-caldaya were let go, caldaya were killed.
Four months later, as the first flakes of snow fell, the survivors of the garrison surrendered. They came out, and were put in chains and brought before me. Drawing Naveela, I systematically beheaded each and every one of them.
There was no sign of Kalibynthn.
Chapter 18: Winter in Kelda
In which Ilisri winters in the conquered city of Keldar and deals with traitors.
Chapter 19: Death by the Sea
In which Ilisri finishes her deal for the Dragon Emperor and pays a price.
Chapter 20: Thieving the Dead
In which Ilisri realizes what is truly important and tries to rectify her mistake.
Chapter 21: Calynisha
In which Ilisri meets her eternal foe and ends the conflict.