The twine once unwound,
shall again be re-bound,
and from the least of these,
shall come the greatest to be,
all things move both ways,
just as in those ancient days,
that which once has passed,
shall come again at last,
and order’s brightest day,
shall in deepest night decay.
– Book of Entropy, circa 30 B.E.
Rhaeus 40th, 641 E.R.
Wren glanced nervously around a large room as he entered. He had never been inside one of the classrooms, and didn’t really know the nine older children that surrounded him. There was a glimmer of mutual recognition with a girl sitting by the door. After a moment the girl waved Wren over, and seemed to be searching for his name. “Wren, isn’t it?” she finally asked.
“Yes,” Wren said awkwardly.
“Come sit by me,” the girl offered, sliding over on her bench to make room.
“Leave him be sister,” Andrew said, glancing back from the next row, “can’t you tell he’s in the wrong class. No one that young is here.”
Wren hesitantly climbed up onto the bench, and continued to look around the class.
“I’m Audry,” the girl said after a moment, “I don’t know if you remember me.”
“I do,” Wren said quietly. “You arrived last year with your mother, and brother. You had been traveling with a caravan.”
A girl about a year older than Wren, but still clearly younger than the rest of the class entered, and looked around with an even more meek demeanor than Wren had entered with.
“What’s with all the lost kids today,” Andrew grumbled. “Where is Sister Charis to send them to the right room?”
“I’m supposed to be here,” the girl said defensively. “I was just moved up a class yesterday.”
“Scoot over Wren,” Audry said quietly, sliding further down the bench herself. “Come sit with us,” she said waving the girl over.
The girl climbed onto the bench next to Wren, and looked over at him. “Hi, I’m Celia. Have you been moved up a class too, I don’t remember seeing you…”
“No,” Wren said hesitantly, “I was just placed this morning.”
“Have you been traveling with your mother?” Celia asked.
“No,” Wren said uncomfortably, “…mother has just been teaching me.”
“Oh,” Celia said, “is your mother one of the instructors?”
“No,” Wren frowned, “my mother…” he paused, “is Rennae.”
“I had heard the Matron had an adopted son,” Audry said sizing up her new classmate again.
“So your real mother is…” Celia started to ask but thought better of it.
“Dead,” Wren said tersely, and looked away just as the instructor entered the class.
“Two younger students are joining us today,” the woman said. “For their benefit I am Sister Charis,” the woman said looking about the class, and settling her gaze on Wren and Celia. “Would you two stand and introduce yourselves?”
Celia looked to Wren, and then slowly stood first. “I am Celia Adesia, daughter of Renoa,” she said nervously, looked around at the other students in the class, and then quickly sat back down.
Wren got up onto the bench he was sitting on, and looked around at all the faces already turned his way. “I am Wren Ashton, son of Meliae,” he said with some determination, “it’s nice to meet you all.” He looked around again, sat down quickly, and slowly sunk out of view.
Charis pulled a book out from under her arm, and set it between Wren and Celia. “You two will be sharing, I assume you know your basics since you have been placed in this class. Everyone, please turn to page three ten.”
There was a shuffling of pages, and as it slowly came to a stop Charis looked back and forth between her new students for a moment. “Sister Celia, would you read the first line please?” she said in a very proper tone.
“Emp…eror Corin…th was not born to any of the royal lines, of the late age of Kings,” Celia started shakily, “but to a com…an woman often recor…ded as a…har…lot.”
“Very good,” Charis said, and turned to Wren. “Brother Wren, please continue,” she said softly, mindful of the fact that the small boy had sunk all but completely out of view behind the table.
Wren slowly pushed himself up, and got into a position where he could see the book, and search for the next line. “Though…” he started nervously, “though…” he repeated, “his lin…e…lineage is not known for cer…certain, his mo…ther even…tually married a prom…promi…promi..nent…” Wren gave up and sank back into his seat.
Charis sighed, and moved on, her gaze fixing on Andrew whose expression did not suit her. “Brother Andrew,” she said firmly, “please continue for us, would you?”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Jovan 19th, 641 E.R.
“Some mistakenly think it proper to attach ‘Protectorate of the Storm Queen’ to the name of the land Napir. This however both ignorant, and incorrect. Napir itself means Protected. Properly Napir Ami, Protected [by] Storm would be the correct form,” Wren read aloud, and set the book aside with a sigh.
“I don’t see why you stutter so in class,” Audrey offered, her head leaned back against the window, listening to the rain.
“Is easier when it’s just you two,” Wren protested.
Celia reached over from her spot on the floor, and grabbed the book. She flipped through the pages curiously till she found where Wren had left off. She only read to herself though.
“Huh,” she said after a moment. “Napir is one of very few lands that maintains its own language, though its use has begun to wain in larger cities. It says here the suffixes that dragons take are words in Namin, the proper name for the language. Except black dragons, who took the tradition as well, but use allusions to ancient Osyraen instead. Hmm, what’s iron…y mean?”
“How is it used?” Wren asked.
“Etten, for instance, with some ’irony’ is derived from a word meaning ‘loyal.’”
“I think it means…contrary,” Wren offered.
“Oh I remember now,” Celia said with a spark of realization. “The Green Matron’s mate, Mar’etten. Yes, that would be contrary I suppose, and here it is in the footnote. Yes.”
“You could have just read the whole bit aloud to practice you know,” Audrey chided.
“I think there will be plenty of time for that, it’s been raining for days,” Celia cut back. “I will gladly have garden duty for a week just to be outside the cloister for five minutes without getting soaked.”
“The Court Mage says the high winds are shifting again,” Wren offered. “He doesn’t think this position is sustainable, and perhaps it will finally snap back to its normal northern flow, ending the drought.”
“You always come back with the strangest things to say after you visit your sisters,” Audrey said, and gave Wren a funny look.
“I don’t think it’s strange at all,” Celia protested. “I’d rather be learning about,” she struggled for a moment trying to remember the right words, “atmospheric phenomena, than all this old, dry history.”
“If the north was half as dry as these text books, no amount of rain would ever end the drought,” Audrey offered with a smirk, and closed her eyes again.
Celia reached over, grabbed a pillow and threw it at Audrey who caught it without even opening her eyes, wedged it behind her neck, and settled in more comfortably against the window. “You may continue reading, Sister Celia,” she said in officious tone that sounded nothing like Charis, but clearly was meant to.
“You are terrible,” Celia chided, but was noticeably trying not to laugh.
“Terribly bored,” Audrey corrected.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Laeur 13th, 642 E.R.
“Assessment?” an older woman asked leaning over Wren. His hands were just above the forearm of an older man. He was so deeply wrinkled with age that if he had any appreciable gift he would have to be close to the end of his second century. Giftless as he obviously was on examination, he was only likely about ninety. He was also in a deep peaceful sleep.
It felt mostly like fire, tingly, uncomfortable, almost itchy. The result of various inflammation, and irritation through the man’s arms. “Arthritis, in most joints,” Wren said. “Inflammation of the tendons in the right arm. The nerves of the arm are sickly for some reason as well, Sister Seline.”
Selene did her own cursory pass. “Very good,” she said.
“Wait,” Wren said. He shifted down the man’s body, and hovered searchingly over his thigh. “I’ve felt this before, at Broken Hill, when there was an accident. My mother said to mention if I ever felt it again.”
Selene followed the boy, and focused a long moment. “Oh dear,” she said. “A a deep vein thrombosis, nasty little thing. You felt that all the way up at his arms?”
“Yes,” Wren answered awkwardly. “Or well, I felt something was wrong, anyway.”
“Everyone else gather around.”
The ten other students, including Audry, and Celia all gathered around Wren’s patient. The mismatch of a six year old caring for the ancient man was all the more strange as the range of students gathered. Wren and Celia were by far the smallest, and youngest. Audry even was clearly a bit younger than most, nine, ten, even a twelve year old.
“Everyone, one at a time, very carefully, extend your senses in here, just behind the bone of the upper thigh,” Selene said, indicating the location.
The students did one at a time.
“This is a deep vein thrombosis, a clot in a major arterial vein. They are very dangerous, because they can break loose, and wedge elsewhere in the circulatory system. They are also hard to detect,” Selene lectured, as the last student finished their cursory examination. “Now, pay close attention,” she said, and moved back into position herself. “The clot must be carefully dissolved from the free edge, towards its attachment point.”
Everyone tried, at least at first to follow what she was doing. Roughly half could not. It was reduced to nothing more than a fine grain of platelets, until the vein surface itself could be soothed, and healed. “This here,” she indicated, “while not the root cause, is part of the underlying problem. This is where the clot began to form. By smoothing, and making the vein more youthful we will reduce the chance of recurrence for many years. You did very good finding this Wren,” Selene added encouragingly.
“What about the nerves in his arm,” Wren asked.
“Yes,” Selene nodded. “Another reason I called everyone over.” She moved back up the man’s body. “The symptom if you would all care to examine, is largely here, here, and here.” She indicated areas of the forearm, and elbow. Everyone did a cursory pass, more than a few cringed slightly at what they felt.
“What’s wrong with him?” Audry asked uncomfortably.
“I’m sure he has mistaken it for more of his arthritis, but it’s not,” Selene nodded, and moved up to his shoulder. “Here, under his clavicle, I want you to all examine it, and then someone tell me what they think they feel.”
Everyone took a turn, all with a mixture of expression on their face. Wren saw it almost immediately, but when he saw Audry tilt her head, and seem thoughtful, he decided he would stay quiet when the instructor asked.
“Well, anyone?” Selene asked.
Audry glanced at Wren, and Wren justs nodded back at her. She pursed her lips, uncomfortable being the first one to offer an observation. She sighed. “I think the nerve is pinched,” she said.
“Elaborate,” Selene pressed.
“Between the rib, and collarbone,” Audry said.
“Proper term,” Selene chided lightly.
“Clavicle,” Audry corrected herself.
“Very good,” Selene nodded. “Very good indeed. The problems here are two fold. One is through repetitive use. This man is a weaver by trade, poor posture from age, and bad habits hunched over his loom have contributed to the problem, also repeated motions. This alone however was not the full cause. Some of the problem is congenital, the bone is thicker here than it should be. This was not a problem till the muscles that should be holding it up atrophied from posture. Dealing with the bone will be a slow, detailed process, but we can begin restoring the atrophied muscle.”
“Observe,” she said, and began feeding energy into the muscle, encouraging it to pull the shoulder back, and the collarbone up. “There, now to heal the underlying injury.” She restored the long impinged nerve, and moved down the arm restoring life to the rest of it. She then returned to the shoulder. “Normally we try to avoid pain in those we heal,” she said, again lecturing. “Pain however does serve a purpose, it encourages us not to do things that hurt us. I will now grow a sensory nerve here,” she indicated the point of impingement. “It will not hurt him much, but if he assumes a posture that exaggerates his condition it will give him a twinge of warning. Since normally this part of the nerve has no sensation.”
A small cluster of nerve growth formed off the main nerve branch. “This will also encourage him to return, and give us the time to properly adjust the bone, at which point this will no longer bother him.” She rolled her soldiers, and her neck. “Ah hypocrisy, I’ve been slouching myself. Everyone, back to your own patients. Wren, you may begin treating the arthritis. Wait, Audry, may I speak with you.”
Audry returned to the instructor, worried she had done something wrong.
“Where is your broth?” Selene asked.
“I don’t know,” Audry said uncomfortably. “He was being very cranky this morning.”
“Could you have your mother come talk to me, he’s making habit of this.”
“Of course,” Audry said, and with a nod from Selene returned to her own patient.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Vhalun 27th, 642 E.R.
Sister Charis walked slowly down the aisle, looking back and forth at the students following along in their shared textbooks. “Lady Adria, was crowned Queen of Lycia in the year two B.E,” she said stopping at the second to last row. She leaned over the table, and knocked hard right next to Andrew who shot upright from having drifted off. “If you please Brother Andrew, read the next line.”
Andrew looked at the page before him hesitantly, and started to sound it out “Lady Ad…ria, was, cr…owned…”
“That was the previous line,” Charis sighed, “If you ever wish to be assigned to something other than maintenance duties, I recommend you pay more attention.”
“What do we need this for, our gifts are what matter,” he said obstinately.
“And I have not heard particularly astounding things about your healing studies either,” Charis chided him. “Very well, how about you Brother Wren?”
“Ye…yes,” Wren stammered, and found the line in the book he was sharing with Celia and Audry. “Corinth was granted the title of Imperator, supreme commander of Lycia’s armies, and struck back against his homeland. The two year campaign ended with the legendary siege of Tar…sis, and saw Imperator Corinth installed as regent, after King Dar…mon’s defeat before the gates.”
“Very good,” Charis said with a smile, “six months ago when you joined our class I had my concerns that you had been misplaced, but your progress is exceptional. I can only hope others,” she stressed with a sidelong glance, “take after you.”
Andrew shot Wren a dirty look as Charis slowly walked back towards the head of the class. “Now seems as good a time as any to break for lunch, those who wish may read on. Extra marks will be given for those who can read aloud an entire paragraph this afternoon without stuttering.”
Audry placed the ribbon on the page where the class had stopped, and closed the book as Wren and Celia got up to leave. Audry moved to follow, but her brother stopped next to her. “Have lunch with me, and Lena today,” he said in a demanding tone.
“I was going to eat with Wren and Celia in the courtyard,” Audry protested.
“You do that every day,” Andrew countered.
“It’s ok,” Celia said, “there’s always tomorrow.”
“Ok,” Audry said with a frown.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Vhalun 31st, 642 E.R.
Wren considered the intricate web of string wrapped around Celia’s fingers. “I don’t know which ones to take next,” he said with obvious frustration.
“Let’s start over,” Celia said untangling the string, “you go first this time, and then at this step I’ll show you.”
Wren turned as he saw Audry out of the corner of his eye. She was at the far end of the court yard, arguing with her brother rather animatedly. She suddenly pushed him, and stomped off towards where Wren and Celia sat.
“What was that about?” Wren asked curiously.
“Just my brother being stupid,” Audry growled.
“What about?” Celia asked.
“He…” Audry trailed off. “No, nothing. He’s just stupid.”
Andrew walked up on the three and sneered at Wren pointedly. “Fine, stay close to the smart little soul eater,” he growled turning to his sister. “Maybe he’ll eat your soul instead of mine.”
Wren cringed, and shrunk away from Andrew, and Celia rested a hand on his shoulder comfortingly..
“Shut up,” Audry yelled at her brother. “Just because you have nightmares about being hurt by little boys doesn’t mean anything. Wren is sweet, kind, and innocent. You are just stupid.”
“Cassandra said to trust dreams, they are a warning,” Andrew muttered as he walked away.
“And mother said not to listen to Cassandra,” Audry yelled after her brother as he left.
“What did he mean soul eater?” Celia asked incredulously.
“Ever since Wren showed him up in class the other day, he’s been angry,” Audry sighed. “Then he had a couple nightmares. Heard some rumor from one of the other boys, and now he’s convinced Wren is evil.” Wren looked away embarrassed, and obviously uncomfortable. “He’s just stupid,” Audry said and hugged Wren, “you would never hurt a fly.”
“What rumors have they been spreading about Wren?” Celia asked angrily.
“It’s stupid, and not worth repeating,” Audry sighed.
“Tell me,” Celia said, “we all should know, so we can set them right.”
“Like anyone listens to any of us,” Audry frowned. She gave Celia’s insistent expression a dubious look, but finally relented. “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, but they say he ate his mother’s soul.”
“That’s horrible,” Celia all but yelled, “who would believe such a thing?”
Wren pulled away from Audry, got up, took a step away from his friends, and dropped to his knees crying.
“I’m sorry,” Audry said moving behind him, and hugged him again. “I shouldn’t have told you. It’s so horrible, and stupid, and I hate him.”
Wren sobbed, and tried to pull away again, but Audry wouldn’t let him.
“It’s true,” he finally squeaked between sobs. “I’ve always known, Renae never told me directly, but I’ve always known.”
“What?” Celia said in disbelief, “you can’t mean that…”
“She gave me everything, to let me live,” Wren whimpered. “I remember it sometimes, like a bad dream…I can’t wake up from.”
“That’s horrible,” Audry said consolingly, “but that doesn’t make it your fault.”
“It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for me,” Wren cried.
“You don’t know that,” Celia said kneeling down in front of Wren and looking down at him sweetly.
“I…” Wren started, but looked away. “I don’t know.”
“She loved you,” Audry said confidently. “She loved you, and she wanted you to live, that doesn’t make you bad, it makes her good.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 5th, 642 E.R.
Kiannae looked curiously down a side street at the sign for The Grey Lamb as they passed. Mercu had assured the girls that they would not be back. It had been over a year since Laurel would allow the girls out of the castle following the events of their last visit. And even were there any reason to go – which there was not – Mercu had no desire to be scolded at length.
It was a more peaceful day than their last visit. No caravan in town causing commotion with fresh wares, and weary, wealthy travelers. Still a fair number of citizens filled the streets of the village, and it was no surprise that a lone old woman along the road side did not catch anyone’s attention.
Katrisha gasped as a wrinkled hand clasped onto her arm. She turned to face the old woman who held her firmly, and stared at her with vacant glassy eyes. After a moment of silence the woman spoke in barely more than a hoarse whisper, “The second is born but the first to die, yet over the life and death of stars presides.”
Kiannae turned, noticing her sister was no longer beside her, and took a step back towards the woman who held Katrisha’s arm. Before she could even demand an explanation the woman turned to her with fire in her eyes, and spoke wildly, “what then of the heir, the Sylvan first born, the one whom a crown shall one day adorn.”
Katrisha pulled her arm away, and backed up not sure what to make of the woman or her strange words. Her presence was unnerving, it felt almost like a broken mirror reflecting back unidentifiable parts of one’s own impression.
Mercu had noticed the twins were no longer following him, and turned to the scene as the woman all but yelled, “Fear the schemes of the dragon who lies, and a coming age when men wail and cry, dread more the child at the eye of the storm, and for those from which all mortal is torn.”
“That’s enough Cassandra,” Mercu growled as he marched up to them. “We have no need of your fortune telling, and you won’t be paid for spouting your nonsense in little girl’s ears. Come girls, move away from the mad old woman.”
“I’ve no need of coin old bard, my days are short, head my words children, you will do great deeds, and meet uncommon ends,” Cassandra spat.
“What was that about?” Kiannae asked as the trio walked on through the square. She glanced back at the woman still staring after them.
“Just the new resident fortune teller plying her nonsense.” Mercu sighed. “Pay her no mind.”
“What did she say to you before I came up,” Kiannae asked Katrisha.
“Something about second born and first to die, and stars,” Katrisha said with a touch of nerves.
“Like I said,” Mercu grumbled, “ignore it, odds are it means nothing. Simply having heard it will changed it, or at the very worst paying it any head will just lead to its fulfillment.“
“How does that work?” Kiannae said obstinately, “you seem to imply it is real, but that it’s also not to be listened to?”
Mercu sighed, and stopped to lean against a shop porch. “There are a lot of layers to it. The first of which is that people lie, and if they aren’t lying they are getting things wrong. Precognition, and prophecy comes from so deep in the subconscious,” he said tapping his head, “that by the time it reaches the surface it’s a garbled mess tied up in preconceptions, fears, and obscured by past memories.”
“So it’s misleading then?” Katrisha asked irritably.
“Even assuming something useful can be wretched from the mess that is the very process, the result is unpredictable, and can either be self defeating, or self fulfilling,” Mercu said running his fingers through his hair. “Happened to me once. I was told of the woman I would marry, and that I would be my own undoing. The first part might have come true, if I hadn’t known, hadn’t behaved too rashly, and so the second part came true…”
“That’s very sad,” Kiannae said soberly.
“It is what it is,” Mercu laughed, “I’m happy now. I can’t say if I’d be any more happy with her, but I doubt it. I probably would never have met the two of you, Laurel, or lived here at court. I think the long and short of it is don’t trust prophecy, and unless it’s very dire, and very specific, ignore it, and certainly don’t dwell upon it.”
“Dyeing is pretty dire,” Katrisha muttered.
“Yes, but we all die, someday,” Mercu laughed uncomfortably, “did she say how? Did she give you clues, things to watch for, and when to be careful?”
“No,” Katrisha sighed, “except maybe dragons…”
Mercu cracked a crooked smile, “Yes, well, dragons are always something to be careful of. If you spend every day of your life – and it could be well over a century and a half – worrying about the words of a mad old woman who might be nothing more than that…mad. What will you have gained? And what will you have lost?”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Laurel sighed and looked at the two girls before him. “Mercu has told me of your run in with the fortune teller that’s come to live in the village. Does what she said still trouble you?”
“No,” Kiannae lied.
“Maybe a little,” Katrisha admitted.
“Maybe a little,” Kiannae recanted.
Laurel shook his head. “Mercu told me what he told you of prophecy, precognition, and visions of the future in general. He’s right, every bit of it, prophecy is real. It is also remarkably useless. At best it’s like a memory of a dream, a memory of the future, but no less distorted than any other memory in a dream.”
Laurel rubbed his eyes tiredly. “That all said maybe it will give you all some comfort that I’ve heard that prophecy before, or well, a close enough variation. It was ‘the child at the eye of the storm’ that caught my attention.”
“How is that supposed to make us feel better?” Katrisha laughed darkly, “doesn’t that make it more meaningful?”
“Well,” Laurel started, and picked up a black book with an elaborate S embossed on the cover. “The line reads, ‘A woman with hair of purest silver, shall stand at the eye of the coming storm, and from all that is mortal be ever torn.’ I don’t think either of you are in any immediate danger of having silver hair.” Laurel closed the book for emphasis.
“It only speaks of one at the eye of the storm, the other could be dead,” Katrisha said crossly.
“There are a lot more verses,” Laurel said drumming his fingers on the book, “and by most interpretations the woman at the eye of the storm is interpreted to also be the second born, who is said to be the first to die. It also contradicts itself at times, some think that the first to die remark should not even be taken literally. The prophecy most held to refer to the Avatar, referred to his ascension as death. So as Mercu advised you, and as I have always done – save for the necessity of my early schooling – ignore prophecy, it’s rubbish.”
“Ok,” Katrisha said hesitantly, as Kiannae simply nodded.
Mercu entered behind them, and Laurel shot him a look. “Please leave girls, I have things to take care of. You have the rest of the afternoon to yourselves.”
As Katrisha and Kiannae closed the door behind them, Mercu gave Laurel a very shrewd look. “What’s troubling you?”
“I feel guilty,” Laurel sighed.
“What for?” Mercu asked with some confusion.
“They needed to stop troubling themselves, so I left out a line from a prophecy,” Laurel admitted, “and if they ever chose to look into it, they will catch me in that lie.”
“What did you leave out?” Mercu asked with a worried expression.
“‘A woman with hair of purest silver,’” Laurel started, “that was what I told them, to reassure them, since their hair is black. It’s probably nothing really, but the next line, the one I didn’t tell them, reads ‘and eyes of truest emerald green.’”
“You don’t think then?” Mercu asked with agitation.
“No, I don’t. I’ve no interest in prophecy…it’s just,” Laurel trailed off for a moment. “I’ve had the dream myself, the most prevalent of all supposed prophetic visions. The woman at the eye of the storm. I’ve seen her face, it could be either of them, older to be sure, but her hair isn’t grey from age, it’s something else, it shines like polished metal, but flows like satin.”
“Take your own advice dear Laurel,” Mercu laughed darkly, “forget it, ignore it, and move on.”
“If only,” Laurel sighed. “There is one more thing, troubling enough in itself…” he trailed off. “I have heard a report just today that a dragon was successfully captured in Osyrae, and is being force marched to the capital.”
“The fools did it?” Mercu said in disbelief.
“I still worry to what end,” Laurel muttered. “Twice in one day I hear ill tidings pertaining to dragons…”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 8th, 642 E.R.
Jeoffrey pulled his hood tighter. It was far too warm for his tastes to be wearing such apparel, but crowds had made him nervous since the festivities had begun. There was a fire in the hearts of the people of the city since word had come. It had been shouted from the rooftops, criers ran through the streets declaring the great victory. A dragon, bound by mages, being marched fifty miles on foot from the northern steppes. The reports he had received from scouts confirmed it, and the sudden lack of pressure on his people to leave the capital told him that the King wanted them to be there, and see.
It had been nearly two weeks since first word of the capture. Enough time for a message to have reached Avrale discretely, not enough for word to have returned with the same caution. Jeoffrey was anxious, even though he knew King John would have nothing helpful to offer him. Still, just contact would have brought him some peace in such unsettling days.
A great silver cage stood a thousand feet beyond the city gates, past the outer slums that lay in the shadow of the capitals ancient walls. The runes that bound the cage shone with fury that even ungifted eyes could see. It was all a great show, with one obvious purpose; to inspire the people. It was working. Shops and merchant stalls were everywhere, and word was that the dragon would arrive soon.
Jeoffrey moved aside as a squabble broke out between two drunks, and noticed a way out of the dense part of the crowd. The gathered throngs thinned, and his eyes turned down the road. It was lined with people all the way to the crest of a far rolling hill. Two days the estimates had claimed the dragon would arrive. It was then three, and there were whispers the delay had been due to a moment of carelessness, ending in one of the binding mages being bitten in half.
He felt the brush of something, and years on the streets of Osyrae had given him quick hands at that feeling. He caught a wrist barely. Small and quick, it almost slipped through his grasp before he could spin to face the wouldbe cutpurse. His glance was already down, and even then his eyes almost slipped off her as she tried to pull away. She was a bit smaller than he had even expected, and there was something hard about even getting a look at her. The crowd bumping into him did not help.
He caught her other hand before she could stab him with the knife she had meant to slit his purse with. She was very quick, but with both her wrists in his hands he was able to get a good look at her. Her hair was blood red, purer than his had ever been. Her eyes no longer evaded his but stared at him with fire, golden as the sunset. She was about seven, dirty as any urchin, and a beautiful bronze like her countrymen, if just a shade paler. The eyes froze Jeoffrey, they were eyes he felt like he knew. Eyes that made him want to cry.
They were not the eyes of a sad waif ready to worm out of being caught. They were the eyes of one proud, and determined, angry at having failed. They were eyes that should not have been there, and then a bumbling fool stumbled into Jeoffery. He lost his grip, and she was gone. No amount of scanning the forest of legs before him could find her. He tried to convince himself she had even been there at all, that she had been real. He had to force himself to believe, even for a moment, what he wished to think he had seen.
There was movement in the crowd, and Jeoffery quickly got to his feet, and turned around towards the distant rolling hill. He forced himself to look at what was urgent, rather than think of the girl. She couldn’t have been, and the longer he tried to focus on the matter at hand, the more easily it seemed like she hadn’t – that it had all been a trick of the heart, and his foolish old head.
People at the crest of the far hill suddenly moved back down towards the throngs below, and a flash of black could barely be seen as a wing rose fleetingly, and then descended. Jeoffrey watched transfixed as a head slowly came into view, then wings, and a body, all bound with bright blue runes that shimmered, and flashed. The men about the dragon that held it were mere specks in the distance, but the great lumbering beast was clearly defined.
It was closer than Jeoffrey had ever been to a dragon. He had seen a few in the past, in the distance, on a high hill, or up in the sky. It was still closer than he really wished to be. Those other dragons he had been told were greater dragons, intelligent, many times more deadly, but less likely to strike on a whim. This beast being force marched to the capital was a wild animal, a furious monster bound only by the skill of a few dozen powerful mages.
The entire process was hard to fathom – the dragon was like a great marionette, that defied its puppeteers with every step. The throngs along the road spread like a great wave, wisely moving from the dragon’s path, with only a few brave stragglers who let themselves get close. It took over an hour for the dragon to be marched up the hill, and as it approached the cage it flailed, and roared more furiously before finally being forced in.
Jeoffrey struggled through the procession to maintain a vantage point from which he could see, but did not mind at all if that point was very far from the action. As soon as the cage was closed upon the dragon, it was released from the bindings, and threw itself wildly against the enclosure, roaring, and shrieking in pain from the impacts. Ten minutes of this persisted before the silent crowd, which backed ever farther from the enclosure. Slowly as the dragon grew weary, the crowd’s murmur began to transcend the creatures groans and great labored breaths, until at last the massive beast collapsed in exhaustion, and the crowd burst into a thunderous roar.
A strange sympathy rose up in Jeoffrey for the deadliest of all creatures. This wild beast, this monster that dwarfed any man had been subdued by the mages of Osyrae, and the message was as clear to him as to the people. The dragon was the world, and the world would fall just the same, kicking, screaming, and groaning to the bitter end, but in the end defeated. He almost forgot the girl, almost, but not quite. Her eyes had made that impossible.