Death From the Frozen North

by Adam Janus

 

Thousands of years ago, the elven lords of Thantwilanoria fought alongside humans and dwarves, to stop the encroachment of the demon high lords out of the southern wastes.

A great battle ensued, and the evil armies of the demon demi-god, Zaranoth were defeated, and Zaranoth was banished from earth’s material plane, back to hell from whence he came.

One legion of brave elven fighters cut deeper into the tainted demon lands than any other, the warrior legion of house Timbor, led by their patriarch, Sarel Timbor.

Even after the war was won, the demon hunters of house Timbor hunted Zaranoth’s defeated, earth-bound minions far to the south and east, all the way to the great pyramids of the Ikpycgen desert, and the spired cities of the sultans.

Three years after the war was won, the warriors of house Timbor returned north, through the blasted, evil tainted wastelands, coming home to Thantwilanoria, where they received a hero’s welcome. Many in attendance said, even through the jubilation and celebration, the returning heroes seemed changed somehow. Most argued it was just exhaustion, and the horrors of war, while others whispered that they had become tainted by the very evil they fought so hard to cleanse. While fewer still whispered of demonic possession.

House Timbor was awarded nobility and Sarel Timbor a seat on the elven council of nobles for his house’s heroics during the war, despite the whispers.Over the next few centuries, house Timbor grew in power, outwardly to most, they seemed normal elves, worshiping nature and Illunar, god of the sun and creator of the elves. But behind closed doors, House Timbor guarded a dark secret. Under the cover of darkness, the noble Timborians worshiped pleasures of the flesh, depravity, deviance and the dark goddess of the blood red moon, Zareesha, mother of the banished demon lord Zaranoth.

At this time, Thantwilanoria was open to all the free races of the world. Its markets were open to outside trading, as well as its museums, libraries and amphitheaters. On occasion an outsider would mysteriously disappear, kidnapped for the followers of Zareesha’s blood rites and deviant pleasures.

There was sporadic finger pointing, and accusations, as house Timbor grew bolder, the disappearances more frequent. But the ruling houses refused to believe that the Timborian war heroes were anything but upstanding, productive members of elven society, albeit a bit reclusive and taciturn, but they had endured such horrors during the war, that was to be expected.

Eventually, the finger pointers grew, and the whispers turned to shouts, too loud for the ruling council to ignore, and they called for Sarel Timbor to answer the accusations leveled at his noble house, and its members.

Sarel Timbor answered with spears and swords, and a bloody coup attempt ensued.

Elves fought elves in the streets before the ruling house of Dalinora forced house Timbor to retreat to their walled compound, in the northern quarter of the city.

To avoid any further bloodshed, house Dalinora, agreed to allow Sarel Timbor and his followers to leave the city, under order of exile, never to return.

Sarel expected this, and the following night, under the full red moon, the patriarch of house Timbor and two thousand of his followers rode forth from Thantwilanoria. Stripped of its nobility, and cursed with mortality by the arch elven wizards, house Timbor and the followers of Zareesha went into exile.

Most headed northwest, across the wilds of Brynhalla, and through Graode Pass, skirting the then small human trading outpost of Ravenholt. Legend has it that many in Ravenholt awoke to find loved ones mysteriously missing.

Five hundred of the outcasts, led by Sarel’s nephew, Gilperion Timbor, headed south, to brave the southern wastes, and the great Ikpycgen desert, to return to the lands of the sultans, where pleasures of the flesh and deviance was more accepted.

Sarel led his exiles far to the north, and east, where they eventually settled in the Black Pine Forest, on the outskirts of the Frostbite Mountains. There was an abundance of small human fishing villages and fur trading towns to the south upon which they could prey, and the Timborian elves used their inherent magic, stealth, and mastery of nature to become scourges of the north-eastern coast of Ta-Teharun. They took human slaves for their depraved rituals and rites, and over the years their elven blood became tainted. Only the immediate Timborian family kept their blood line pure, becoming insane and more depraved from generation after generation of inbreeding.

Frost elves, they were called by the humans of the region. Not only because of their homes in the northern climes, but also because of their nocturnal activities, avoiding daylight. The Timborian elves became pale, their adaptability to their surroundings gave them an ice blue hue, while more and more of them were being born with snow white hair.

Purely by accident, while colonizing their new home, the frost elves stumbled upon a slumbering white dragon, sleeping atop a clutch of unhatched eggs, deep within the Frostbite Mountains. Taking this as a sign of fate, and a gift from Zareesha, Sarel’s direct descendant, Garel Timbor, and his sorcerous warriors fell upon the dragon’s lair.

At the cost of many elven lives, the dragon was enslaved, her eggs nurtured, and her knowledge extracted by frost elf sorcerers, before the wyrm was sacrificed to their dark goddess. Without the influence of their mother, the dragon hatchlings were raised to serve the frost elves, molding their minds and bending their wills over the course of hundreds of years, until they reached maturity.

This the Timborian lords kept secret, not only from the rest of the world, but from most of their own people, a secret known only to those of pure Timbor blood, and the dragons’ sorcerous handlers.

Those who remembered the fight in the dragon’s lair, who were deemed untrustworthy, were silenced, permanently.

Of course there was a rumor here, a sighting there. Occasionally a frost elf renegade, not of the same mind set of their people, would escape out of the Frostbite Mountains, seeking their own destiny.

But who would believe the insane ramblings of a decadent frost elf? Most were hunted down and lynched for the crimes perpetrated by their people, their warnings un-heeded. Rare sightings were passed off as wayward eagle rider patrols out of Ravenholt, which had grown over the centuries to become the largest open city north of Brynhalla.

After all, there had not been a confirmed dragon sighting north of Kothopia for thousands of years…

Until now…

* * * * *

Like vultures circling a carcass, six dragons circled the burning city of Ravenholt.

They soared on the early spring currents, spiked tails slowly wagging behind them, as if swimming in the chill pre-dawn air. Snow-white scales reflected the roaring fires beneath them that burned so hot even stone melted. Two leviathans remained on the ground, leveling buildings with their tails and fiery breath, and feeding at will.

Frost elf warriors, mounted atop great, saber-toothed polar bears, rode through the ruined north gate unchecked, their curved swords dealing death—women, children, the old and infirm, they spared no one.

On the eastern side of the city, in a partially collapsed temple dedicated to the nature goddess Trinia, two yet lived.

One, a human named Bron Straker, was clad in partially scorched eagle feather cloak, and black riding leathers of an eagle warrior. The leather breeches and boot of his right leg were burned away, exposing red, blistered flesh. In places, the leather had painfully melted to his skin.

He knelt before his dead avian mount, the flesh and feathers of its underside and tail scorched by dragon fire.

The other was a magnificent male eagle called Screech, its valiant handler ripped from the saddle and torn asunder in the initial attack.

Initially, eighteen eagles, the pride and joy of Ravenholt’s military and the last of their ancient breed, had taken to the skies in perfect phalanx formation. They sped their way north, to gather information on the advancing frost elf army, and to give Ravenholt’s military leaders and militia time to prepare the city’s defenses.

Led by three wooly mammoths with huge tusks, the invading force was easily seen from the air, as it thundered across the tundra. Fierce, white-haired elves and their polar bear mounts scouted the land ahead of the horde, and protected its flanks.

Aiming for the Timborian royalty, and frost elf generals riding the great mammoths, the eagles and their warrior handlers swooped in for the attack.

They never saw the dragons coming.

Their scents and presence cloaked by dark magic, and guided by their warlock riders, the dragons descended from the clouds at breakneck speed, slamming into the unsuspecting eagle ranks with claws and teeth, killing seven of the giant raptors instantly.

Bred to combat dragons since before recorded history, the remaining birds recovered quickly. Instinct took over as they regrouped and went on the offensive. Their brave handlers drew enchanted swords, the rune-covered blades folded hundreds of times during the forging process, and heat tempered harder than dragon scales. These magnificent weapons were handed down from generation to generation of eagle riders.

Sentries atop Ravenholt’s walls and watchtowers cheered as the eagles quickly brought down two leviathans in their counterattack, the overcast night sky briefly lighting up with wyrm fire and wild multi-colored sparks from eagle rider swords and iron shod eagle talons impacting dragon scales.

But their jubilation was short lived. The dragons’ superior size, savagery and fiery breath won out over speed and agility.

Several dragons, broke away from the fight, and turned their attention to the city below. They leveled the north gate, creating access for the charging frost elf army. This done, they began eliminating the resistance, incinerating soldiers and civilians alike, seeking out ballistas and catapults before engulfing them in fire, and feeding ravenously on the terrified population.

Bron’s grievously injured mount exerted the last of its energy, and life, valiantly carrying its injured rider to safety, closely followed by the riderless Screech, and a hungry dragon.

The two birds winged their way through the ruined city streets using the thick haze from the roaring fires and their smaller size and agility, to navigate their way through avenues too narrow for the hulking wyrm to follow, as its wings and tail battered and destroyed buildings in the effort keep up with its intended prey.

Bron’s back arched as he sobbed in grief and agony. His long brown hair hung down around his head, obscuring his face.

Tearing its gaze from the smoky sky, visible through the ruined roof of the temple, Screech hopped over debris toward the grieving human, nudging him with its beak before speaking in its own, clicking, cawing language that was understood by all eagle riders.

“Get up human,” said the eagle. “The wyrm that pursued us from the sky is still searching for us, I sense its vile presence.”

Somewhere in the distance a building collapsed, sounding like distant thunder, rolling over and drowning out briefly, the sounds of battle and the screams of the dying.

Bron looked up at the bird looming over him, tears had cut rivulets through the soot and ash covering his face, he could not hold the eagles piercing gaze, for shame, and quickly turned away before replying.

“All is lost—my wife, my child, my kin and my city.” He drew his muscled forearm across his face, wiping away tears and soot. “Leave if you wish, bird. Save yourself. “

In reply, the eagle dipped its feathered head, and nudged Bron again, this time hard enough to knock him over. “I do not wish to save myself, human. I too have lost my home, my mate and my brood.” Anger flashed behind the raptor’s dark eyes as its temper flared. “I am the last of my kind, as are you eagle warrior, and I will not go down in the annuls of history as a coward that died while cowering in the temple of a human god like a rat.” The bird hissed, while Bron pulled himself to his feet, despite the pain in his right leg.

“And who is left to write this history, eh?” Bron dragged his sword from its sheath, and used it for support, leaning on it like a cane. “No one!” Bron spat through gritted teeth, in answer to his own question. “No one is left to tell the tale because we have failed them. Who will know?” His voice trailed off to a whisper.

“We will know, and when we stand before our makers, they will know.” Before continuing, the bird took a step closer, iron shod talons clicking on the rubble. “Will you be able to hold your head up proudly when you meet your maker, human? Or will you hang your head in shame, your vow to protect your city and your people unfulfilled by your refusal to fight to the last, your failure ringing through eternity? It’s your choice, but I choose to die in the air, not in a dragon’s belly, or as a pile of ashes on the ground.”

Bron adjusted the grip on his sword, clenching it so tightly that the knuckles of his right hand turned white. He briefly considered striking the bird as the eagle’s insults rang in his ears. The heat of shame he felt in his face was replaced by anger. The archaic runes etched along the length of his blade glowed and pulsed, reflecting the human’s rage.

“Let your fear and sorrow fuel your rage,” goaded the eagle. “Use it to guide your sword arm, to avenge your perceived failure.”

As Bron shook with barely contained fury, the eagle cocked its regal head to its right.

“Prepare yourself human, a dragon approaches.”

A short second later, the pair felt an almost imperceptible rumble beneath them as the leviathan stalked closer. Boom…boom…boom…boom…occasionally followed by a short pause and the intake of air in short bursts as the dragon tried to sniff out its prey.

Leaning in close to Bron’s ear, Screech whispered some last minute advice.

“When the wyrm finds us, stand perfectly still. It is hunting for food, not kills. Do not act, only react. It will think you are paralyzed with fear.” The eagle raised its beak to sniff the air before continuing, its soft breath rustling Bron’s hair. “A dragon’s night vision is so good it can see the shadows of shadows. Its day vision is equally proficient, but like all creatures possessed of night and day vision, the varying depth of shadow and patches of light from the fires and rising sun will make it impossible for it to focus on us both if we move from shadow to light. When you react, let your instincts guide your actions and be precise. If the battle drags on, the beast will incinerate us. I will take care of the sorcerer on its back.”

The great bird once again lowered its head to nudge Bron in the chest, this time companionably. “Remember, human, you are an eagle warrior, and a dragon slayer,” it said before hopping away, and taking to the air, and the deep shadows of the partially collapsed, high-domed ceiling of the temple.

Muscles taut, standing perfectly still, Bron waited, the seconds feeling like hours.

Finally, after several agonizing minutes, the reverberations beneath his feet ceased, and the dragon’s massive, reptilian head appeared above the ruined eastern wall of the temple. Its eyes, easily as big as Bron’s head, flicked back and forth between the eagle perched near the roof, atop a partially collapsed support pillar, and the human, standing stock still on the ground.

Pulling its gargantuan head back and down, the dragon slammed its horned skull against the already weakened granite and marble wall in an awe inspiring display of power, creating its own entrance, and showering the interior with dust and stone shrapnel. The temple groaned in protest as its crumbling foundation threatened to topple the entire building around them.

Through it all Bron held his ground. He could taste his own blood as it trickled down his face, and into his mouth, from the many nicks and cuts inflicted by the tiny stone missiles sent flying throughout the cavernous temple.

As the dust cleared, the behemoth came into view, directed by an armored sorcerer seated between its folded wings. The frost elf scanned the shadows above in search of the eagle, while silently mouthing the words to a spell.

With deliberate, almost feline ease, the dragon stalked toward the motionless human, huge head held low to the ground, flattening its serpentine neck like a cobra’s. Its forked, snake-like tongue flicked out of its bloodstained maw, savoring the salty taste of fear that rolled off the terrified human in waves.

But the wyrm sensed something else, something unfamiliar boiling below the surface, permeating and mingling with the fear. Curious, the dragon flicked its tongue toward the human again, not noticing the deadly intent burning in its prey’s eyes.

As the leviathan’s tongue flicked mere inches from Bron’s chest, close enough for him to smell rotten meat and sulfur on its breath, he reacted.

His sword arm sped by revulsion and adrenaline, he sliced through the dragon’s forked appendage like it was hot butter. The severed slab of meat fell to the floor with a wet plop.

Surprised by this sudden burst of violence, the dragon pulled its head back as its mouth filled with blood.

Bron acted on pure instinct, bellowing in defiance as he stepped below the beast’s rising head and swung his sword upward, from right to left. Sparks flew as the razor edge of his ancient blade cut through the scales of the dragon’s neck, neatly slicing through the soft flesh beneath, severing veins and laying open the creature’s wind pipe. Blood and noxious fluids flowed from the gaping wound, igniting as they rolled across the floor like liquid fire.

Unable to draw breath, or breathe fire, the desperate, injured dragon slammed its head back down in an attempt to crush the puny human.

But Bron had already stepped aside. Drawing his sword over his head, the eagle warrior hacked down on the dying behemoth’s exposed neck, cutting through scales and bone. His blade passed clean through, ringing on the stone floor. He cut an inch deep into the granite, numbing his arms to the shoulder.

The wyrm’s tail lashed in a final death twitch, bringing down another section of the exterior wall, further compromising the temple’s already crumbling structure.

As Bron’s first stroke fell, the eagle leaped from its perch. First flying around the high -domed ceiling, passing in and out of shadow, hoping to disorient the dragon’s sorcerous rider, before folding its wings in and taking a nosedive directly at the warlock.

Finishing his incantation, the frost elf cast a black bolt of energy directly at the speeding eagle. Dipping its head, the raptor passed beneath the bolt, feeling the searing heat along its back.

Before the spell caster could ready a defense, Screech was on him. As Bron’s final stroke fell, the eagle slammed into its unfortunate target. Iron shod talons punctured the mage’s breast plate and skull, killing him instantly and tearing his broken body free of the harness that held him securely to the dragon’s back.

As quickly as the fight had started, it was over.

Bron stared at the dragon’s lifeless body through a blood red haze as he pulled his sword free from the stone floor. Battle madness and blood lust began to fade, replaced by the pain of his forgotten injuries, and a throbbing in his head from adrenaline hangover.

Wasting no time, the eagle unceremoniously dropped the limp frost elf corpse to the floor, and hastened to Bron’s side.

“We have to take to the air, now,” stressed the bird. “The wyrms are aware of their brethren’s demise. They have sensed their clutch mate’s mental death howl.”

Grabbing the pommel of the saddle, Bron painfully swung upon the eagle’s back, instinctively grabbing for the absent retainer straps, ripped from the saddle and still connected to Screech’s previous, unfortunate rider.

“Keep your feet firmly in the stirrups, hold on tightly with your legs and anticipate my movements,” instructed the bird. “Recall your bareback training. I will not let you fall.”

Nimbly hopping on the dead dragon’s back for a launching point, the raptor spread its wings and did one final lap around the ruined building, picking up speed before shooting out through the gaping hole in the roof.

“What do you plan to do?” asked Bron as they ascended into the smoky haze that obscured the dim light of dawn. “Fly right into the maws of several waiting dragons?”

“I intend to accomplish our original objective, to wreak havoc and cause chaos among the invaders’ ranks,” answered the eagle gruffly. “If we can distract them long enough to allow even one refugee to flee and seek aid, then our deaths will not be in vain.”

Once again the heat of shame colored Bron’s soot and gore covered face. He noticed the dragons had widened their circle around the city, surveying the surrounding countryside, searching for escapees.

Two behemoths spiraled down over the ruined temple of Trinia, investigating the cause of death to one of their own, while another broke away to pursue the eagle and rider now speeding their way northwest.

Bron tried, without success, not to look down at the burning city, its citizens lying dead and dying in the streets. Pockets of resistance still remained, but few and far between. Mounted invaders atop their saber-toothed white bear mounts pointed to the skies in his direction. His will almost quavered again as he tore his horrified gaze from the carnage below to focus on the dragon racing across the sky to intercept the fleeing pair.

Unable to utilize its fiery breath at high speeds, for fear of incinerating itself, the leviathan aimed to smash directly into the smaller, more fragile eagle.

At the last possible second, Screech banked its wings, rising just enough for the winged giant to pass beneath them. The eagle then went into a nosedive, descending on the lumbering dragon from behind before it could turn, and landing directly between the leviathan’s outstretched wings. Screech’s iron shod talons sunk into the wyrm’s hapless rider, pinning the frost elf sorcerer face down to its back.

Bron leaned forward and slashed down with his sword. He felt his weapon grind off the beast’s spine as his slashing blade opened a gaping wound on the dragon’s back, which quickly filled and spilled over with blood.

Roaring in pain, its movements becoming uncoordinated due to the damage to its spinal cord, the injured wyrm tried bringing its head around on its long neck, huge jaw snapping open and shut.

Bron met the snapping jaw with steel, swinging his sword with two hands, cutting roughly through the creature’s bony snout. His blade rang almost lyrically as he withdrew, scraping along teeth and bone.

Disengaging its talons with an audible, wet popping sound, Screech once again turned northwest as the grievously injured dragon, its bat-like wings flapping out of sync, tumbled ponderously toward the ground.

“Hold on human,” the eagle said over the roar of the wind. Picking up speed, they quickly outdistanced the larger, slower dragons.

Bron held his face up to the cold, moist morning air, his hair flying wildly about his aching head, and his eyes watering with the force of rushing air.

The warrior’s feeling of invigoration was short lived though as he saw the smoking ruins of the farms and homesteads outside the city proper. Rage once again welled up inside him, as they raced closer to the frost elf royalty and military command, their silken black banners, bearing the red moon insignia, flapping in the wind.

Unchallenged, they looked down on their conquest from the foothills that overlooked Raven’s valley.

* * * * *

Aganariel Timbor felt invincible, seated high atop his black wooly mammoth mount, surrounded by his personal bodyguard of axmen and war sorcerers, casually looking down on the ruined human city of Ravenholt, as his elven reavers raped and pillaged at will.

Shielding his light-sensitive eyes from the rising sun, Agnariel noted a pair of dragons break from formation, and swoop down on the eastern quarter of the city.

Looking to his hooded personal sorcerer, who stood behind him on the platform built over the mammoth’s back, the frost elf king impatiently nodded his head in the dragons’ direction.

Unlike the sorcerous dragon riders, who where armed and armored in traditional frost blue, Timborian magic users stood out, preferring to wear flowing, blood red robes trimmed in black. The sorcerer bowed before replying to Agnariel’s unspoken question.

“I have sensed the loss of another wyrm my lord,” answered the spellcaster. His eyes down, he didn’t notice the fleeting look of annoyance flash across his lord’s pale, frost blue face.

Before Agnariel could ask his next question, the answer shot up through the smoke in the form of eagle and rider.

All watched eagerly as another dragon broke formation to engage the renegade eagle, confident that the giant reptile would rend the bird to shreds, ending any resistance.

They watched the eagle dodge the dragon’s clumsy attack, then turn on the offensive. Sparks flew as the eagle warrior’s blade made contact with dragon scales once, and then again. A collective gasp of disbelief escaped their lips as the raptor disengaged itself from the injured beast, and headed directly at them.

“The human must be mad or suicidal my lord, surely he does not intend…” The sorcerer never finished the thought as Agnariel lost his composure, and backhanded the stammering elf across the face, sending him flying off the platform, to the ground below.

Fists clenching and unclenching in frustration, Lord Timbor screamed down at his battle sorcerers. “I have lost half my dragons this day, and you make feeble excuses!” Spittle flew from his mouth as he vented his insane fury on the assembled spellcasters. “Your warlocks have flown six dragons into oblivion!”

Tagnariel Timbor, Lord Timbor’s general, and younger cousin, as well as Agnariel’s chief rival for the frost elf throne, shouted a warning to his king from his own wooly mammoth mount. “Agnar, you need to dismount now!” He pointed at the feathered missile and its human rider bearing down on them, leaving the slower, pursuing dragons far behind. Tagnariel then turned to his archers and battle mages. “Archers, fire at will, sorcerers, prepare defensive spells, protect your king!”

Glancing sidelong at his rival, angry at the use of his childhood nickname instead of proper title, Agnariel drew his curved sword and faced the hurtling eagle. His confidence grew as he felt protective magic begin to ripple around him.

“You would like that, wouldn’t you cousin?” The king muttered aloud, spitting the word cousin as if it tasted bad. “For my people to see me leap out of danger’s way in some undignified manner. Not this day, Tag. You will not steal my thunder. Today I carve my niche in history.”

* * * * *

“Brace yourself human!” Screech yelled back to Bron, as its acute, binocular vision picked up the waves of magic rising like rippling heat tendrils from the hot coals of a forge, and surrounding the frost elf king. Screech’s trained sight also noticed that the spell was not complete, and the casters would not have time to finish the incantation before impact.

Extending its talons, the eagle felt the protective spell give way, almost as if hitting water at high speed to snag a fish from the river.

Passing through the invisible barrier, Screech’s right leg made solid contact with Agnariel Timbor’s breast plate, as the elf tried to twist away. Even blunted by protective magic, the force of impact sent the elven monarch hurtling from the back of his mammoth, and broke Screech’s leg like a dry twig.

Worse than that, the raptor felt the elf king’s razor-edged blade drag along its underside, and a crossbow quarrel puncture its lung.

Momentum carried the bird and its rider past the assembled frost elves to the edge of a small stand of pine trees, where it hit the ground with bone-jarring force, sliding across snow and muddy earth.

Even though the jolt was cushioned by the body of his mount, Bron was stunned, and not aware of the full extent of the eagle’s injuries. He used his sword, still gripped in his right hand, to stand woozily on unsteady legs. His entire body aching, he shook the fog from his brain, and stared down at the prone eagle, noticing the red mess spilling from its abdomen.

“I am the last of my kind Bron Straker,” rasped the dying bird in a barely audible voice, using Bron’s name for the first time. Dark red blood flowed from its hooked beak and nostril holes. “Do not let the death of my race be in vain.”

Bron continued to stare in dazed disbelief, as the light faded from the proud bird’s fierce eyes. Then, the harsh reality of his situation slowly sunk in.

“This is where I am going to die,” he said out loud.

But for some reason, he didn’t feel the way he would have thought he should feel. No fear, no regret, and no panic about his current situation or sadness welling up from deep within. Just cold, calm rage.

Hearing shouts in a language he did not understand, and the accompanying footfalls of those issuing the shouts, Bron gripped his gore-encrusted sword, and slowly turned to meet his death.

Looking up the slight rise he and Screech had just slid down seconds before, he saw at least a score of archers, crossbows and longbows leveled at his chest, and twice that number of foot soldiers, frost elf axmen, spreading out in a semi-circle as they advanced down the hill, finely crafted, double-bladed axes in their gauntleted hands. The remaining six dragons now circled above, awaiting their orders.

* * * * *

Dabbing blood from a gash in his forehead, suffered from his collision with the now dead eagle, Agnariel Timbor looked down into the slight depression at the pathetic human, and briefly admired the man’s tenacity. Scorched from dragon fire and bleeding from at least a dozen injuries, the warrior from Ravenholt still stood, ready to battle to the last.

“Take him alive,” ordered the frost elf king. “I will enjoy torturing this one at my leisure.”

As he spoke, the human’s head snapped up, and their gazes locked briefly. Agnariel could see the fiery determination in the man’s eyes as he suddenly charged his frost elf attackers. The cornered prey had turned on the predator.

* * * * *

Even though he didn’t understand what was said, the imperious, pompous tone in the frost elf’s voice set something off in Bron’s head.

Growling incoherently, like a feral animal, his vision waving in a red haze, the human laid into the surprised elven elite. Wielding his sword with both hands, the berserking human hewed through foes like a lumberjack hewing through saplings.

He fought with the desperation of the damned, with the strength of someone who has nothing to lose. Dead elves piled up around him as he dodged and weaved through their defenses, taking many hits but refusing to relent.

With every deadly stroke of his blade, Bron thought of a lost loved one—his wife, his son, and his parents, all the good people of Ravenholt who lost their lives this day. All the while keeping Agnariel Timbor in his sights, the source of his ire, and cause of his pain.

As the frost elves continued to fall from the human’s ferocious attack, a red-robed sorcerer appeared on the hill, and began to mouth the words of a spell. The mage’s high-pitched crooning became a rhythmic wailing that sent chills down Bron’s spine. Axmen retreated, gratefully, as he continued his peculiar incantation, leaving the savage, blood-covered human alone amongst their dead.

Knowing he was doomed if the sorcerer finished his spell, Bron desperately shouted a challenge to the frost elf king in the common tongue spoken throughout the continent of Ta-Teharun. “You need foul sorcery to bring me down, frost elf pig? Is that pretty sword at your side just decoration?” Bron bellowed up the hill. “Is there none among you who can face me in honorable combat, or has all the honor been inbred out of your vile race?”

Bron saw anger flash across Agnariel’s face and spat up the hill, punctuating the insult.

Holding his hand up, stopping the sorcerer’s incantation, Agnariel responded in broken common. “I am not bound by hollow, baseless codes of honor embraced by the lesser races. We follow no moral creed. Honor and morality is a weakness possessed by the Illunar elves, that weakness is the only reason you humans have been allowed to thrive, and overpopulate this earth. That same weakness allowed my ancestor, Sarel Timbor, to ride forth from Thantwilanoria in exile. Thantwilanoria will feel the consequences of their weakness, as you and yours have felt them today.

“Sounds like a lot of fancy excuses, thrown around by a cowardly fop of a false king!” Bron responded. “Human kings earn their thrones through the strength of their sword arms, not some questionable blood claim. You are a cowardly dog, and your victory will be short lived.”

Some of the assembled soldiers were visibly angered by the insults directed at their king and their lineage, but Agnariel also noted a large number of thinly veiled smiles, and the paranoid king had to wonder if there was already a plan to usurp his throne.

“Allow me to part this filthy human’s head from his body, Agnar!” This from Tagnariel, who spoke loud enough for most of the onlooking elves to hear, subtly showing up his cousin once again.

Now, Agnariel would have to accept the human’s challenge. Some among them already looked to Tagnariel as the stronger of the two, and the king’s refusal after his cousin’s acceptance would be political suicide. It would seal Agnariel’s fate, thus paving the way for a coup.

Glaring at his cousin, Agnariel drew his sword, while making a mental note to get rid of his rival as soon as possible. “I accept your challenge human,” he said, and smiled as cheers erupted from his bloodthirsty soldiers.

Shoving Tagnariel out of his way roughly, the king gracefully slipped his white, fox fur cloak from his shoulders, letting it fall to the ground, revealing the signature ice blue armor and chain mail of the Timborian elves.

“Hold my cloak, Tag.

Now it was Tagnariel’s turn to be embarrassed, as he subserviently bent to retrieve his older cousin’s discarded garment.

Bron shrugged off his own scorched, eagle feather cloak, and spun his sword on its wrist thong as he watched his opponent saunter down the hill.

The elf moved with catlike grace and speed, also spinning his sword, while pulling a broad, curved black blade from his belt. The edge was crusted with a noxious green substance which could only be poison.

Bron circled to his right stepping over frost elf corpses, taunting his adversary as he moved. “It would seem your rule is more fragile than you think, eh, pig?” Bron grinned wolfishly at his own humor. “Political climate a bit stormy?”

Agnariel answered the taunts with steel, attacking with magically enhanced speed, so fast that Bron barely had time to parry the overhead slash aimed at his head. As their two blades met with a ringing clash, the elf swept his knife in front of him from left to right. Bron used his greater bulk and strength to push the elf back, feeling the poisoned blade cut through his leather vest, but not reaching the skin of his chest.

Anxious to keep the elf on the defensive, Bron launched an offensive flurry—slashing and hacking, back and forth, up and down, while keeping his feet moving, trying to gain the higher ground.

But Agnariel was skilled, he expertly parried and dodged, giving ground, but not retreating, all the while keeping his poisoned blade poised to strike, waiting for an opening in the human’s ferocious assault.

Determined to wear the elf down, or shatter his sword, Bron continued to batter his smaller opponent, until the elf went down on one knee, holding his sword up before him in a desperate attempt at defense.

Seeing his opening, Bron stepped in and swept his sword low, aiming below Agnariel’s upraised weapon, only to feel his blade cut through nothing but air. It had been a ruse.

The elf leaned back and brought his sword down on Bron’s blade, pinning the tip to the ground, while crossing his left hand over, cutting deep into the bicep of the human’s right arm.

Bron felt the blade tear through his flesh and muscle, cutting tendons and ligaments, rendering his sword arm useless, his sword falling from his limp grasp to dangle from its wrist thong. He could feel the poison coursing its way through his blood stream, at first tingling, then burning. His legs suddenly felt weak, and drawing breath became difficult as his chest began to constrict. He took a couple of staggering steps backward before falling to his knees.

Sheathing his sword and dusting himself off, Agnariel watched as the poison took effect. Almost as if strolling through a rose garden, the frost elf approached the dying human, bending over and grasping his hair with his right hand, and placing the bloodied blade of his knife to Bron’s neck, leaning in close he whispered:

“After I kill you, I will have my necromancers reanimate your filthy, lice-ridden corpse, then I will tear your spirit to shreds and hunt down your soul, and deliver it to Zareesha myself, to torment for eternity in hell.”

Hatred burned in Bron’s eyes as he slowly slid his left hand up his thigh, and met the frost elf’s gaze. “I’m not dead yet, pig,” he growled. With Herculean effort he brought his left arm up.

Protruding from between his pointer and middle finger was a short, sharp push knife, carried by all eagle warriors, primarily used to cut away the saddle straps in a hurry if need be. The blade punched through fine chain link, into Agnariel’s abdomen, between his belt and breast plate.

Bron twisted the blade, searching for the elf’s vitals as the first arrow hit him in the chest. He fell back as Agnariel sought to hold in his bowels, a look of shock on his pale blue face.

Through a blurry haze, Bron saw Tagnariel Timbor’s arm fall, and another arrow hit him in the shoulder. He fell to his back, reaching to the sky with his left hand.

In his delirium, he thought he saw the ghostly image of an eagle before everything went black, and Bron Straker, last of the eagle warriors of Ravenholt, breathed his last shuddering breath.

* * * * *

Far to the south of Ravenholt, under the protective boughs of the great pines bordering Raven’s Valley and the outskirts of the Graode Mountains, Argemon the blind seer stood facing the burning city of Ravenholt.

His aged, milky white eyes turned to the sky as if seeing. At his side was a woman, cowl pulled over her chestnut brown hair, covering her pretty face and captivating dark eyes, which were moist and red around the rims as if she had been crying. In her arms she nestled a child, a boy, no more than a year old, contentedly sleeping in his mother’s safe arms.

“He will never know his father,” commented the woman softly.

Argemon reached out and stroked the boy’s dark hair, guiding his gentle hand as if he could see. “He will know of him Shianna,” the old man responded, turning away from the valley, and turned his sightless eyes to the sleeping child. “They will sing songs of your father’s heroics, Grom, son of Bron.”

Argemon put his hands on Shianna’s shoulders. “You saw the dragons were widening their circles over the valley, searching for survivors. If not for your husband’s heroics, we and our precious cargo would never have made it out of the valley. It’s almost as if he knew,” the old man finished softly, as if talking to himself.

“That does not make it any less painful, Father,” Shianna responded, turning toward the woods and the rest of the refugees from Ravenholt, elders, woman and children mostly.

They walked in silence for a little while, before reaching their despondent comrades and their cargo. Argemon leaned over and whispered in his daughter’s ear.

“You need to be strong now Shianna, not only for Grom, but for them,” he said, nodding toward the hundred or so escapees from Ravenholt, and pausing before continuing. “And for the unborn daughter you now carry in your womb.”

Shianna snapped her head around, eyes wide with surprise from the revelation. “Are you sure, Father?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes my dear. Now, let’s get started. We have a long day, and perilous journey before us.” The old man then started walking down the trail that led through the wooded foothills of the Graode Mountains, sweeping his gnarled staff before him.

Most of the refugees were unaware that, buried beneath the dried food, medical supplies and water skins of the small, mule-pulled supply wagon, packed with warm furs and hay, were fifteen unhatched eagle eggs.

 

Shining Armor

by James Scotte Burns II

 

From the gates of an immense fortress rode a resplendent knight, sunlight glittering off the burnished steel of his fine plate armor. Cheers from the walls and towers embraced him as his mount tossed its head and stepped high through the flowers cast under its hooves. Amidst such revelry, the warrior’s first real battle beyond the spires of his home proved to be with his swelling pride; a struggle in which the outcome at that moment seemed uncertain at best.

Leaving the old stone keep behind, he took to a road through the nearby forest, reveling in the sounds of the wood and the smells of leather, horse, and newly oiled steel. His harness creaked slightly as he reached into his saddlebags for a small wineskin and waxed roll of hard cheese. Although he had broken his fast not two hours since, a simple meal taken on the trail completed his vision of the soldier perfectly, and he had been anxiously anticipating fitting that figure for so very long. The moment’s satisfaction of his martial desires was made even sweeter by the nobility of his cause—the rescue of an innocent and the slaying of the wretched beast that had taken her. His training was superb, his bloodlines beyond question, and his weapons, armor, and mount the finest that his house could provide. His attention, however, was at that moment not all it could have been, as a steel bolt glanced off his gorget and embedded itself, quivering, in a young tree beside the trail.

Choking on surprise, he spun his horse in time to see the next missile fly from a stand of thorny flowering bushes. With no time to pull his shield from its saddle harness, the knight’s left hand raised quickly to protect his face so that the bolt took him in the gauntlet, punching between its fine scales and lodging in the mail and flesh between his fingers. At the ratcheting noise of the crossbow being drawn once more, he bit hard on the shaft of the bolt just below its barbed head, screaming with rage and pain as he pulled it through his hand and spit it contemptuously onto the trail. Snatching a fine dagger from his belt, he let the blade fly in a whistling spin just as the next bolt flew past him from the hedge.

The master-at-arms would have been proud as the knight did not wait for his attacker’s next move, but immediately followed his flying blade in a rush, drawing his long sword and hearing a startled howl cut short behind him as the errant second bolt found another mark behind him. The knight’s dagger flew wide at the last, but caused the crossbowman to leap sideways and up to avoid its flight, exposing him perfectly to the slash of the knight’s sword. With full arm strength and the momentum of the horse’s charge behind the stroke, the brigand was cloven nearly in two, splashing the horse with gore and collapsing in an unpleasant heap. Wheeling, the knight turned to find the source of the second voice. The other highwayman, a larger and evidently slower fellow, was pinned neatly to the bole of a tree. The bolt through the ruffian’s throat seemed a more than equitable reward for the bruise the knight had suffered on his own.

Assuring himself of no more ruffians hiding nearby, the knight dragged the bodies into better view on the roadside. The detritus having been cleaned from his mount as best he could manage using the shabby coat of the crossbowman, he disdainfully tossed the rag on the midden pile and washed his hands from his water skin. Some woodsman would no doubt alert the sheriff and the mess would be disposed of properly. Lamenting the damage to his accoutrements, not the least to him the distasteful stains on tabard and horse blanket, he still congratulated himself on his martial skill, his field dressing—the bandage stopped the bleeding while the salve took nearly all the pain—and his luck with that final bolt. Luck was not something one could learn after all, but was certainly a part of any successful warrior’s desired equipment.

Clear of the forest, the knight took to wide plains that stretched out like the parchment of a tale waiting to be written. On the horizon lay the mountains that were his destination, their folds harboring his fearsome fate. No one knew from where the würm had come, but its travels in this realm were well marked in burnt countryside and the scorched remains of partially devoured livestock. Some thought that it had wakened from a long sleep, angered to find its lands now in the hands of a human king and peopled by his subjects. Others believed it the conjured horror of some amoral dabbler in arcane arts, no doubt slain for his efforts and leaving his creation without purpose or direction. Whatever the truth of the matter, the beast had developed a curious taste for the company of young ladies of high birth. The latest was the daughter of a noble of his father’s protectorate, hence the mission upon which the knight now found himself. A righteous cause indeed, but one that caused him no little concern, his armed prowess with brigands and the like notwithstanding.

Several evenings under the stars, pious prayers, meditations, and reflection upon his cause and his nobility fortified not only his faith, but also his righteous pride. He felt the very essence of chivalry and valor as he ascended the foothills and began the final days travel to his destiny. The hills gradually rose, becoming slopes too steep and rocky for his mount, so he found a small glacial valley with good fodder and a small stream carrying runoff from the heights. Removing harness and saddle, he curried the horse and picked its hooves, speaking gently to it of its part in his righteous mission, and his hope that it would wait faithfully for him to return with his rescued maiden. Then he hobbled it, not as a question of faith, but in goodwill toward the stablemaster, whom he knew held less stock in the horse’s honor.

The day’s climb in armor to the lofty cave mouth was difficult, the sweat running off his chest and back dampening the breeches underneath his leggings, his boots chafing at the heel as he scrabbled for purchase once the path became little more than a rocky cliff. Panting lightly, he finally pulled himself over the lip of an outcropping and spied the objects of his quest. While lying prone behind a slight rise that hid him from the cave mouth, he saw a young woman, plump and pretty for all the dirt that smeared her face, hints of tiny rivulets under her eyes showing the flow of tears now dried. Aside from her battered clothing and nearly matted hair, she appeared unhurt. Coiled about the stone pillar on which the lady was somehow fixed lay the würm.

Scales shifted as the creature breathed deeply with a broad rushing sound like distant wind through an olden forest. Wings folded along its back, the skin a golden leather, it stretched thirty meters or more, blocking the cave entrance behind and nearly encircling the small hill on which the pillar stood. Dreaming, its claws scratched narrow furrows in the soft stone. For a moment, the knight was taken with its beauty—a creature of immense power and legendary grace in flight. The maiden’s quivering sigh, cast from the depths of her own tortured sleep, broke his reverie and the knight cursed himself a fool for finding anything worthy in such an evil beast. It would die by his righteous hand, and he would return the young woman to her father.

Gently, the knight circled the cliff edge to his right, hoping to slip behind the beast’s flanks and take it from behind. Such a creature surely knew nothing of honor and deserved no better. The good leather boots he had donned for the ascent made for surprisingly quiet and swift passage as he rounded the little hill and silently drew his blade from its scabbard. A few more steps and he could clearly see the back of the beast’s head, the great horned crest protecting the softer flesh of the neck and throat before scales took that duty for the balance of its sinuous body. As he neared the creature, carefully choosing the place from which he would drive his steel into its tremendous skull, he could feel its heat, smell the ancient musk of its body. He envisioned the grateful kisses of the maiden and the gold her father would lay before him at the banquet in his honor. With great humility, he would at first gently protest, then accept graciously and later use the gold to purchase land and keep suitable for a slayer of dragons. He hoped he did not have to buy another horse, but that remained to be seen. For now, he raised his blade in the thrusting form he judged best, preparing the stroke that would see him into the ranks of heroes.

Silently, the dragon’s calm amber eyes slid partly open. Not that she needed to see the knight to know where he was and what he was doing. His clanking and stink had been a burning splinter in her rest since he began his ascent hours before. Relieved, she resolved to find fresh bait tomorrow. Or perhaps the next day. Her tail whipped around, curling elegantly in a blur of sinewy grace over her back and toward the spot where she knew the knight stood ready. At the moment his thrust began, the small bony mace that was the tip of her tail caught him below the small of his back, snapping his spine and sending the blade darting over her head, splintering itself on the stone pillar inches above the maiden as she woke to the sudden tumult. The force and swing of the dragon’s blow having sent him skyward, the knight’s final vision was a jet of searing flame that caught him at the top of his arc over the far side of the cliff. Trailing smoke as it spun toward the ground, the carcass in its shining—and in places now glowing—armor crashed into a pile of rusting plate and chain, bones and broken weapons scattered at the base of the cliff’s far side. The dragon leisurely reached up and lightly tapped the pillar with a long foreclaw, releasing the maiden from the spell that had held her there. Blowing delicately at the tiny thing to encourage her flight, she hoped the girl would find the horse in the valley below like the others had. Then she closed her eyes once more and dreamed of the glory that would one day be hers when she returned home a great slayer of terrible knights.

 

The Red Tower

Cover#12SMALL

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Chris Miller

 

She reached the edge of the forest just past dawn. With the sun climbing behind her she sat on her horse and watched the morning spread, made out the hazy outline of the tower at the base of the hills on the horizon. Her breath came in thick puffs through the face-grate of her helmet and the leather straps of her saddle and her kit creaked in the early cold. A cloud of mist and steam shrouded the tower. She had thought it would be taller.

Past the last tall pines of the forest the ground was blasted and burnt-over in a semi-circle, with the tower in the center of the crescent. Piles of white and gray ash covered the ground like a quilt. Black stalks of destroyed trees poked through here and there over the empty expanse. A handful of exposed rocks and boulders, charred from fire, dotted the landscape. She noted a big boulder cracked and cleaved in thin rivulets, the skeleton of a tree like a post. Thin plumes of ash, stirred up by a weak wind, whispered by, and the ground smelled acrid and burnt. She tipped up the visor of her helmet, scanned the ruined piece of land, and sighed.

She wore the greenish, shingled armor of the kingdom’s knights. Grieves buckled up over her shins and over the insteps of her clay-caked boots, and a set of dented, intricate bracers protected her from her knuckles down the backs of her hands and wrists and up past her elbows, where they ended in sharp points with cutting edges. Her helmet was mashed in at the right temple, and the metal ridge that ran from the center of the face-plate up over the forehead and back to the crown was chipped and broken in several places. The wolf’s-tail plume that had hung down her back from the nape of the helmet when she had left the capital was reduced to a fuzzy stub.

On her breastplate the silver wolf’s head with ruby eyes of her father’s house was soldered over the heart. The head was tarnished now from the journey and one of the eyes was gone. Her horse, a tall roan mare, whinnied and shook its buttery mane. Deftly she leaned forward in the saddle and patted its thick neck. At her left hip her long sword flapped against her thigh.

It had taken her several weeks to travel to the red tower from the capital, through the farmlands and the lakelands of the kingdom and out into the wilderness. Even clearly marked as a knight she had been attacked by highwaymen, then harassed by a bear, and finally delayed by an ambitious wizard. The empty plain and the cool sunny morning seemed an unusually quiet ending to her journey. Except for the burnt ground the place seemed quiet and still and peaceful, not the home of a dragon she had imagined.

She had seen the dragon attack, however, outside a village called Hammen. Hammen was the last settlement of the kingdom before the woods began, and she had rested there and restocked before traveling into the woods. Her brothers, the villagers said, had passed that way but had not returned. She said she intended to follow and they frowned at her sadly, resignedly, until she had described the peculiar nature of her plan.

The dragon had come to Hammen’s outlying farms on a cloudy night. First lengths of gold fire streaked down onto the fields, then the silhouette of the dragon had appeared, flying low on its massive wings and yanking up cattle and goats two or three at a time and biting them in half as it flew, dropping the uneaten parts sizzling and still kicking to the ground. From the village square she watched the fires burn high and bright.

The day after the attack survivors from the farms came into Hammen singed with soot and with burnt hands, feet, and faces. Their raggedy horses wreaked of scorched hair. They said after the dragon had destroyed their herds he had fanned the flames with his wings, moving the fire in different directions like a game. First he steered the blaze towards a grain silo and a henhouse, then abruptly turned the flames on a cottage. One family had run into a creek, the survivors said, and the dragon had boiled them alive where they huddled together in the water.

She took off her helmet and tucked it under her arm. It was painful for her to sit in the saddle now for any length of time, and she kept herself rigid in the stirrups. Across the back of the saddle a bow of bone, sinew, and horn was strapped next to a half-emptied quiver of arrows. A knife with a blade as long as her wrist and as wide as her palm was stuffed, hilt out, into her bedroll, and a shield with a heavy iron boss set in the center of a circle of rusted and dented studs covered her back. The items of her kit—a skillet, a wedge of cheese, a few mouthfuls of meal, flint and steel, some scraps of tinder, a roll of bandaging, and a needle and thread—clinked and jangled as she dismounted with a grunt. She took a swig from her canteen, rinsed out her mouth and spit the water onto the ground, wiped her lips with the back of her hand.

A large chest with an iron lock was strapped securely to the horse’s rump. The chest was waxed against rain and inlaid with silver filigrees, reinforced with iron ribs across its top and bottom. The wood was lacquered a light shiny red, almost pink, and feminine fairies and flowers were etched into the lid. Unlike the rest of her gear the chest was clean and undamaged, as if it been carefully cared for as well as unused. She put her hand on the chest’s clasp and patted it like a pet.

With several yanks she ripped her fingers through the tangles of her long dark hair until it hung frizzily over her shoulders. She scratched at her scalp while she dug around inside her kit for the piece of cheese. As she ate she walked her horse out onto the ashes. The ground sank softly with each step. She spit out a pungent wad of cheese and belched. Slowly the red tower came into focus.

The tower stood among the rocky outcroppings at the base of the hills. Wisps of steam and smog rose from the cracks and fissures in the stones, climbed in a thin steady sliver of black like smoke from a chimney. The blocks of the tower’s upper parapet were crumbled, gone entirely in places, and the whole structure, no more than three or four times her height, slumped on one side as if it could not support its own weight. Dead vines, all of them blackened and none with any leaves on them at all, twisted round the tower like veins and near the top she could make out where centuries of bird droppings had left calcified streams down the stones. The wide gates that had guarded the entrance to the mines below were gone. A soupy square of darkness was all she could make out of the inside through the portal. She fed the last palmful of cheese to her horse and tied her helmet to the bridle.

As they walked across the waste she kept one hand on the pommel of her sword and the other on the reins of her horse, checked the sky every few steps or whenever the shadow of a cloud passed by. She realized there was a splatter of blood across the rim of her shield and wondered absentmindedly if it was hers. She noticed a stream, gurgling out from a crevice in the rocks not far from the base of the tower, and she cut for it.

The banks of the stream were, like everything else around the tower, blackened and burnt. However the spring was clear and fast and she cupped her hands and drank deeply. The water was cold and it braced her as she splashed it up over her face and on her natty hair. Alongside her her horse dipped its head to the water and sniffed at it, began to drink. The water had a slight sulphuric tinge, she noticed.

She stood up from the bank and studied herself in the reflection of the water. Her sword hung at her side and her armor, although in poor repair, was still sturdy and solid. Staring up at the tower she stepped to her horse and checked her kit. Her bow was taut, and her shield, although showing splinters and rents in several places, was still sound. She thought of her skill, her prowess as a knight. In her palm she gripped the hilt of her sword and drew it halfway, felt the weight of the armor on her shoulders and down her arms.

Then she felt the sting inside her and looked back at the blasted, destroyed land. No green sprigs poked through the ashes. There was no sign there had been any life there at all. She thought of the survivors at Hammen, and of her brothers. She also thought of the list of villages and towns destroyed by the dragon, a list so long that the end of the scroll dropped to the floor when the vizier read it before her father. She imagined the last thing her brothers, both of them knights as skilled and powerful as she herself, felt was the steel of their helmets melting onto their skulls. She let her sword slip back into its scabbard.

She removed the lacquered chest from the saddle straps and set it down gently by the stream. Then, deliberately, she took the saddlebags, her bedroll, her canteen, and all the rest of her equipment and piled them on the ground. Then she cut the saddle and the bridle and the reins from her horse and tossed them aside. She cut a thin string of leather and tied it loosely around the horse’s neck, attached a small tube with a cork top from her belt to the strop. Her horse stared at her confusedly but patiently with its dark eyes.

On a small square of parchment with a stub of charcoal she scribbled out a short note: Father, I have reached the red tower. No sign of Pitor or Mattias. But the woods here have been unnaturally burned and I am sure this is, as you suspected, the lair of the wyrm. I go now to fulfill my duty as a Royal Protector of your kingdom. I pray that when this message finds you vengeance has been granted to our great house. She paused and read what she had written. She added: To anyone finding this message, please care well for this horse, who cared well for me. Princess Kathrina Tantris, Knight of Lachlanan. After marking the outside of the note with the wolf’s head crest she added the cross-and-star sign that designated the message as royal correspondence. She rolled the note into a tight cylinder and dropped it into the tube slung on the horse’s neck, popped the top on. Gently she turned her horse away from the tower, back over the scorched land towards the woods. She stroked the horse’s flank one last time. Then she smacked its rump.

“Go!” she shouted. “Go! Go home!”

The horse jumped, sprinted out away from her, and galloped back across the ashes. She watched the mare go, faster now that it was unloaded. She realized she had expected the horse to pause, at least to look back at her, but it did not. After a few moments it was only a shape among the pines, then only the soft clomp of its hooves on the needles reached her, then nothing at all. For the first time since she had left the capital she felt fear. A hollow formed in the pit of her stomach and she thought she might vomit up the cheese but instead the lump moved to her throat. She swallowed it back down and waited a long second for the feelings to pass through her, as she had been trained. When the fear disappeared all that was left was her strength, will, and a sharp rage. She glared at the tower.

She unlocked the lacquered chest with the key tied around her neck. Raising the lid she peeled back the red velvet lining, and sweet, soft smells floated up at her. Inside a pair of scented soaps wrapped in pastel papers lay on top of textured washing cloths. Vials of perfume, jars of ointment, tubes of cosmetic clays and powders were all packed neatly under the soaps. Silver bracelets and necklaces, including a comb and pins for her hair, were coiled together in a corner of the chest and a dainty pair of slippers with pointed toes rested on top of a mirror with a gold handle. On the bottom of the chest was a long, light-green gown of sheer satin with a silk hem and cuffs and silver threads sewn into the gown’s curves. She picked up one of the soaps in her gauntleted fist and sniffed at it.

She undressed. First she unfastened the straps of her bracers, then the clasps of her shin grieves. She had to sit down to pull off her boots and was amazed at how moldy and rotten her feet smelled as she wiggled her bruised and grimy toes. Finally she twisted herself around enough to reach the fasteners and hooks of her breastplate, shook it off with a series of clangs. Her undergarment had not been washed since she left Hammen and it was filthy with sweat and grime. Ovular holes were worn through the fabric in the small of her back where she had sat in the saddle and along her side where the armor had rubbed.

She stacked her armor camp-style next to her kit and equipment, the sword across the top of the breastplate. Trying to lift the undergarment over her shoulders the fabric came off in clumps in her hands. She shrugged and tore it off completely and threw it up into the air where it sailed over the stream before crashing a few paces away against a mound of ash.

Naked at the bank of the stream she let the soft wind blow over her. Her body was bruised and scraped in many places and a nasty scar ran up the back of her left calf. Black and blue marks dotted the small of her back and her skin was thickly calloused at her ankles, elbows, and knees. Worse was the stench that came up off of her body, a mixture of smoke and sweat and something rotten.

In the cold water of the stream she washed herself. She used up one entire bar of soap and much of the second, turned the washing cloths black with the dirt that came up from her skin. Leaning back on the pebbles she scrubbed at the scum and lint that had formed a thin film along the backs of her arms, down the insides of her thighs, and over the bottoms of her feet. She soaked her hair in the water and combed it out a hundred times with each hand. Once satisfied that at least there were no more lice or twigs in her mane she considered trying to trim her bangs with her knife but decided against it. Then she washed herself again entirely until there was no soap left at all and her skin was glowing pale pink.

When she was finished cleaning herself she sat on a rock by the bank. She rubbed into her calluses a couple of the vials until the cracked, hardened skin softened some. Gingerly she yanked out her dead toenails and bit down the jagged tips of her fingernails, smoothed them down on the edge of a stone.

As she had been taught by the palace courtesans, she lifted her hair away from her face and used the silver pins to clasp it at the nape of her neck. She powdered her face and shoulders, even used a little to mask the scar on her leg. With her fingertips she applied shadow to her cheekbones and color to her lips and her eyelids, started to pluck her eyebrows but then gave up after seeing the results in the mirror. She did like, however, the way the pins and combs accented the bright blue of her eyes.

She daubed herself with perfume, again how the courtesans had taught her—along the ridge of her collarbone, on the insides of her wrists, at the backs of her knees, around her ankles, and with just a touch at the base of her spine. When she was finished she sniffed herself and thought she smelled like a fruit pie.

Carefully she unfolded the gown and flapped it out a few times in the fresh air. The garment felt so unsubstantial in her strong hands it seemed almost ethereal. She slipped it on over her long arms, unrolled it down over her hips, and tugged the shoulders down. The material was translucent and light, showing the outlines of her body clearly through the fabric but, she saw, hiding the blemishes and bruises nicely. Although the cloth was warmer than she expected she felt as if she was still naked and glanced longingly at her armor. She clasped on the bracelets and necklaces, finally stepped into the slippers and thought they felt like little pillows around her feet.

In the mirror she studied herself. Her legs looked lean and shapely, her backside luscious if still somewhat flattened from the saddle, her breasts small but nicely cupped by the gown. The column of her neck was firm and smooth as marble, and her face looked vibrant, with full red lips and her bright eyes. Her straight nose, accented by the cosmetics, looked inviting and defiant at the same time. Even her hair, festering for so long under the helmet, shined. She practiced her expressions in the mirror for a few moments: coy, alluring, charmed.

Her preparations complete she turned and faced the tower. During her bath the sun had moved over the top of the hills and the tower cast a long shadow. With a last look to her weapons she strode confidently towards the portal, remembered only with her final few steps to walk less like a warrior and more like a killer.

* * *

Inside the tower the sun disappeared. Ankle-deep smog rolled over the ruptured flagstones of the floor and a wet, pungent heat permeated the air. The shapes of broken beams and what she imagined were the debris of ancient tables, carts, and barrels were strewn about. Walls separating the individual rooms and alcoves of the tower had collapsed and half of a stairway to the upper levels hung in the air, its bottom steps gone. She blinked away tears brought on by the smoke, worried that the heat would make her powder run. From a passage across the floor a hazy red light glowed and she made her way towards it. The heat grew hotter and the glow grew brighter until she saw a stone stairwell, leading down. A sound like a lit hot stove rumbled from below. She gritted her teeth as she descended, tripped once on the hem of her gown, and forced her face into the most becoming smile she could manage. The heat intensified with each step.

At the bottom of the stair she stepped out into a huge hollow with a wide expanse of floor and high, domed ceiling cut from the rock. The same eerie red light as above glowed here, but much brighter. Smog made a false sky against the roof of the cavern, roiling like storm clouds with their undersides lit a gruesome red. In the flickering shadows along the bases of the walls she could make out piles of rubble where the mine tunnels had fallen in, but also several still open, with one or two wide and high enough to accommodate a dragon. She sensed the danger in the place and instinctively reached for her hip. Not finding her sword there, she took a breath and smoothed out her gown, walked slowly to the center of the room. A hint of hot slime wafted through the air.

She saw a pile of gold, much of it melted together in a shimmering puddle, in a clump at one of the mouths of the collapsed tunnels, realized that the pile was only a slight spillover and the entire tunnel behind the pile was packed with a solid mass of gold, silver, and gems all melted together. Across the cavern not far from the steps to the first level she saw a spiky mass of swords and spearpoints glittering malevolently in the red light stacked loosely on a foundation of hammerheads and wrecked shields and armor. She squinted at them closely, spotted one triangular shield bent in half but with the wolf’s head still visible, another cracked down its center like an onion slice with the same iron boss as her own shield. She whispered her brothers’ names and swallowed a mouthful of quiet fury.

The reptilian stench grew around her until it was all she could smell. The heat rose. The puff and hiss she had heard at the top of the stairs rose loud as a forest fire. Then the walls themselves seemed to squirm and slide as if they might melt. She felt a warm wind come at her from all directions at once.

The dragon’s head was massive and red-scaled, with two huge gold eyes. Dripping flames poured from nostrils as big as her thighs. Two curved horns like scimitar blades protruded from the flat, ridged forehead and a wall of teeth, each as long as her entire body, formed a terrible smile that shined wetly in the hot glow of the dragon’s body. As the dragon sniffed her his eyes rolled over her from head to toe and his nostrils flared. She braced herself. The dragon’s leathery lips rose the corners amusedly. His voice boomed over her like a bell.

“You smell somewhat familiar,” he said. “Do I know you, perhaps, little one?”

Calmly she batted her eyelashes and folded her hands at her waist demurely. She made her voice husky but smooth, smiled at him with her eyes as she lowered her chin.

“I do not think so, great one,” she said. “I am sure I would remember you.”

The dragon chuckled. It sounded like trees falling and echoed through the cavern.

“Yes,” the dragon said. “I’m sure you would, at that.”

He circled around her, staring and sniffing at her flanks, her haunches, and her legs as each of his steps shook the floor. She pushed her breasts out, slightly, against the gown. The dragon paused behind her and she watched the spiked tip of the tail twitch in front of her as she felt the noxious breath move up her spine.

“So,” the dragon continued, “I am sure you know who I am, at least. But you are?”

“I am Kathrina,” she said. Then added, “My lord.”

“Well, Kathrina, and why have you graced my chamber with your lovely form this afternoon?”

She tried to make herself blush, as the courtesans had shown her.

“I am here for you, my lord.”

“For me? Whatever do you mean?”

“Yes, my lord. For…” she paused for effect. The tail flicked before her, curved around the wall. The logistics of the situation suddenly occurred to her.

“Go ahead,” the dragon said.

“For your pleasure,” she said. “If you would only spare my village, great one.”

“Hm. Yes. How noble. I suppose you’re a virgin then. Too bad. I have no real interest in virgins. So dull, really. Perhaps I’ll simply devour you. I so rarely consume human females.”

She cocked a hip, looked over her shoulder at him, and shot the dragon a smoldering glance.

“I am,” she cooed, “not quite so inexperienced as you might think, my lord.”

The dragon’s head whipped around back in front of her, fast enough that it blew the fabric of her gown taut against the back of her legs. His face, so malicious and so close, made her want to scream. The dragon’s fangs arrayed themselves in a smile.

“Oh, really?” he purred. “Do tell.”

“I have been trained, great one, in the arts of the night. These skills, I am told, are sometimes of interest to more discerning dragons?”

The head and the sharp face dipped and weaved through the haze and smoke as the dragon studied her with this new knowledge. She put all of her weight on her back leg and pouted her lips, dipped her chin.

“Do I please you, perhaps just a little, great one?”

“Yes. But still…”

“But what my lord?”

“Something about your scent. Tell me, Kathrina, you are from this piddly little kingdom?”

“Yes my lord. I am from a small village, just beyond the wood. Hammen, it is called.”

“Hammen, eh?”

“Yes my lord.”

The dragon chuckled again. She winced.

“I can’t ever remember the names, you know. They come to me—mages, knights, priests, mayors and elders—decked out for battle or offering bribes. They say the names so proudly: I represent this or that vale or hillock or grotto or league or guild! Then they promise me death or tribute. As if, as if. I often try to recall where exactly they said they had journeyed from after I’ve destroyed them. I never can.”

He laughed again.

“However none of them,” he hissed. “Have been as original as you, Kathrina.”

He paused and looked at her. A steaming red tongue slashed across his scaly lips.

“Let us see if I will remember the name Hammen, shall we?”

With three thundering steps backwards the dragon disappeared into the shadows and mist. Kathrina caught her breath and relaxed slightly from her performance, saw again from the corner of her eye the remains of her brothers’ armor. Then, through the smoke where the dragon had gone, bursts of silver and golden sparks blazed. The sparks outlined the dragon’s form, demarcated his tail and horns and claws with fizzles and little pops of flame. Then there was an explosion of white light, and the sparks reappeared in a roughly humanoid shape. Slowly the sparks dissipated and the darkness and smog returned. She waited.

After a moment a soft, almost human voice emanated, a low groan from the shadows. She watched as the smoke parted and a thin, naked man stepped to her. He had long, fiery red hair and a sharply angled face, skin pale as a pearl, and beautiful golden eyes. Despite herself she found him attractive until he smiled at her and she saw the row of razor-teeth curled behind his thin lips. He stepped to her and touched her cheek with the back of his hand. His fingers were hot. Then he kissed her and steam rose from his lips. His hands were smooth but firm as they slipped the gown from her shoulders.

They made love in the center of the cavern on the stone floor. He was deliberate and attentive, and in the red light his body, however unnatural, was beautiful. Kathrina had expected a rougher, more monstrous experience, but remained focused on her mission. She kissed the dragon repeatedly and deeply, held him close to her, and coaxed him along. She jangled her jewelry and used the tips of her fingers to stroke his flanks, nibbled on his earlobe, and gyrated her strong fighter’s hips. All of the strokes, caresses, and kisses the courtesans had taught her she employed. She lost track of time, was impressed by his stamina. He turned her body about in his strong arms and she let her limbs go slack as he twisted and contorted above, below, and behind her. He held her tightly against him, his breath pouring down her neck like the contents of a hot pot spilled.

At one point he lay stretched out underneath her, his red hair a blaze on the glowing stones. The golden eyes were shut tight and his mouth, smoking slightly as if he held a hot coal under his tongue, was a screwed-up grimace of pleasure. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on his limbs. In Kathrina’s mind combat postures and fighting techniques raced and the possibilities of her situation, her position, seemed too perfect to ignore. She was, she thought, doomed to die one way or another, and preferred to take this last chance at glory than to waste away. In an instant her hands were locked tight around the dragon’s neck.

As she pushed her thumbs down hard against his windpipe she locked her knees against him, shoved all her weight down through the muscles of her arms, and pressed onto the vulnerable throat. She let out a growl that rose into a scream, filling the cavern with a single note of rage. Under her thumbs she could feel the windpipe begin to give. She was amazed at how easy, how simple, the destruction of the great dragon, seemed to be. She howled in triumph.

Then the dragon opened his eyes and she saw the fire flicker there, and as he opened his mouth she saw the teeth. There was no fear on his face and he did not even lift his arms, just sucked in half a breath and let it go. The last thing she felt as the dragon loosed his flames over her body was a heat hotter than anything she had ever imagined. A final scent of burnt hair reached her and then there was nothing.

With an effortless shove the dragon smacked Kathrina’s blasted body off his waist and onto the stones, where her torso, crisped and smoldering, broke into several black chunks. Drips of fire poured over his lips as he morphed, slowly, back into his true shape until again he filled up the cavern with his scales and claws and tail. He exhaled a noxious cloud. Lowering his head to Kathrina’s remains he gobbled most of her body in a series of quick chomps. He noticed something gamy about her flesh, where it was not burned through. He ascribed this to so rarely eating human females. When he was finished he looked at the little pile of ashes and bones that was all that was left of Kathrina. A few filaments of her gown floated through the air like dust.

“A shame,” he said. “You looked so much better than you tasted.”

A few ingots of silver were scattered where her jewelry had melted and he swiped at them with one of his front feet, nonchalantly knocked them towards his treasure piles where they bounced and rolled among the pools of gold and baubles like marbles. A charred legbone lay on the floor and the dragon picked it up in his claws, snapped it in two, and cleaned his teeth with the tip.

* * *

Some days later attending to his toilet the dragon admired himself in the shine of a huge mirror he had fashioned from the armor of a tall knight he had killed carefully, so as not to melt the plates. He turned his head to the left and to the right, admired the ridges of his jaws and flared his nostrils. He extended his wings and checked them for any blemishes, then inspected each claw for cleanliness. He posed in front of the mirror. He narrowed his eyes menacingly and then grinned at himself.

“Dashing,” he hissed. “Simply dashing.”

Putting the mirror down the dragon paused to relieve himself down an empty mineshaft. Neatly he tucked his wings along his spiked back and whipped his tail out straight behind him. Then, as his water began to flow, he felt a sharp, bright pain move through his groin. The pain was more intense than any spearhead or sword that had ever managed to pierce his hide, more consuming than any spell he had been subjected to. In agony he screamed as the mine shaft flooded below.

Panting and feeling raw through his groin he staggered backwards. A sting settled in there and did not fade. Glancing about the cavern as if he might spot an invisible enemy there he spied the splintered legbone he had been using of late as a toothpick, next to scrap of green satin gown coiled on the floor. At first he ignored them, then something in his ancient genius brought him back to them. Brusquely he snatched the bit of gown up on the tip of a claw and sniffed at it carefully and repeatedly. Just barely, veiled by the soaps and perfumes, he made out the scent of the fatal infection left there from Kathrina’s loins.

The dragon howled out in a mad rage that carried up through the tower, across the burned-out plain, over the pine forest, and reached the little village of Hammen, where the farmers’ wives at work in their huts and fields glanced towards the sound first with surprise, then with devious smiles. A few of the men shuddered at the handles of their plows.

RedTower Plain

Illustration by S.C. Watson