They moved closer to the edge of the trees, the air seeming to thicken around them. Kiaran’s heart beat heavily, her lungs breathing hard. Nurra stood on her shoulder, staring ahead. He was very alert, his dark gray claws digging into her clothing. Her fingers tightened on the reigns of her horse as she kept her sight forward.
Just past the trees, a line of probably two hundred soldiers in red and gold awaited them. They were far down the hill, nearly half of them mounting dragons. Some of the beasts were grounded without any wings while others held their wings toward the sky in anticipation. They continued to watch Kiaran and her army, waiting for them…
Kiaran’s heart sank so deeply, it felt as though she were underwater. Alana stared in fear, her expression grim. Davin gripped the hilt of his sword, keeping his eyes on them. Torin looked to Kiaran, his jaw strong, but his eyes reading otherwise.
One of the front dragons shot into the air as its rider shouted. The warriors charged forward. Everyone looked to Alana, who shouted back. They darted forward as well.
There was no avoiding it.
The clashing of metal filled the air with the smells of charred grass. Kiaran leaped from her horse, feeling more comfortable on her own feet. She drew her swords, slashing through people. Each person she cut down, she counted in her head. At about six, a few arrows were aimed toward her. Nurra flew above her, knocking them off target. She smiled as she moved forward.
Torin sat on his horse as it galloped on the fringes of the battlefield. He shot effortlessly, bringing several men down. He retained from killing them, shooting their legs, arms, and anywhere that may not kill them. A large man was aiming to kill Stella, and he had no alternative but to fire an arrow through his head. As the man fell, he breathed, “One.”
Suddenly, Kiaran was kicked in the back. Falling to her knees, she stumbled across her hands, her swords tumbling just out of reach. Resorting back to her hand to hand combat, she quickly turned around, still on the ground, and kicked the feet from under her attacker. As he crashed beside her, she slammed a fist into his throat. He struggled to breathe while she drew her knife, stabbing him.
Standing, she rushed to her weapons and snatched them up. Her fighting was unique, even for the Avestitians. She threw in random kicks and slammed her elbows into exposed places in the soldiers' armors.
She fought through the enemies as if they were nothing, coming to one of the wingless dragons. Its skin was covered in coin-sized, silver scales. Its face was like the skin of a lizard, its dark eyes staring menacingly at her. It snapped at her, but she scarcely dodged its massive teeth. The man atop the dragon wore light fabrics and furs overtop his scale armor. His only weapon was a bow that he kept at his side, allowing his dragon to fight for him.
Kiaran tripped over one of its talons, slamming to the ground. It slammed a large foot onto her chest, holding her into place. Expecting it to take a chunk of her into its mouth, she was baffled by Nurra. He flew into its face, disrupting the beast. It stood on its hind legs, nipping at him. Suddenly, its teeth sunk into Nurra, swinging him through the air. He tumbled several feet away, rolling in blood and dirt. Kiaran’s body grew numb as her eyes widened. She felt so much pain and anger within her.
Keeping on her back, she lodged a sword between its chest and front leg where the scales were scarce. It roared as it fell forward, toppling onto its rider. Hot blood gushed out of its wound; apparently she hit an artery. She forced herself to keep from looking to Nurra as she raced off, continuing the fight.
Stella was shoved into her. Catching her by the arm, Kiaran kept her on her feet. A massive man, nearly two feet taller than them lunged forward. The women kicked and swiped their swords, fighting perfectly together. They brought him down, and there was another bar to mark her thigh.
Soon, they were separated once more.
The crowd was thinning, and Kiaran grew more nervous. She restlessly searched for any of her companions as she battled the few Avestitians around her. There were flashing blades, swinging shadows, rippling trains of heat. Smoke and fire distorted her view, a few of the dragons breathing flames on her men.
Finally, her eyes landed on Alana. She was knocked onto her knees, several men around her. Beginning to run toward her, Kiaran was slashed in the arm with a wide blade. Her sword was slammed away from her, the other still firmly in her strong hand. Hot blood sprayed across her body as she fell to the hot earth moistened by gore. She cringed as a heavy foot pressed against her back, her chest grinding into the ground.
Avoiding the pain, she was able to roll over just enough to reach around and twist his ankle. He lost his balance enough for her to flee from his clutch. Just as she stood and began to run, she was grasped by a handful of her falling hair. Panic fueled her as she nearly flew backward. Instantly, she took a dagger and sliced the left side of her hair away, escaping his grip. Turning to him, she threw the blade into his throat.
Her legs took her as quickly as she could run toward Alana. They tossed her helmet aside and against all possibility, Kiaran swore she could hear it clank across the ground. The soldiers were arguing back and forth. Alana, though, looked as strong as ever, keeping her wits about her. One of the men standing behind her slapped the side of her head. Kiaran forced herself to race harder, dodging any attacker and avoiding any fights.
The man ahead of Alana lifted his massive blade, the sun glinting off of it. Kiaran’s blood boiled over…She felt as though she were running in place. The blade was brought down fiercely onto Alana’s neck. Kiaran tripped over a limb and fell to her chest. The air was knocked from her lungs as she stared in horror. Blood rolled down her injured arm and from the minor cuts across her body.
She pulled herself up, feeling as if her body was not with her. Grabbed by her arms, Davin spun with her, avoiding a powerful blow from an enemy’s sword. Her eyes finally were torn from Alana’s body as it fell to the ground. She looked to Davin who swung his broadsword at their attacker. He let Kiaran go as he continued to fight, carving through enemies--he could probably kill them all on his own.
Somehow, during the battle, Kiaran was lost once more, her mind spiraling away. She was losing large amounts of blood. Her feet could hardly carry her, constantly tripping on nothing but the flat ground. By this moment, she could hardly tell if the fighting was still happening.
Her ears were numb to sound, her heart aching heavily. She could see no one familiar, pose for some blue uniforms bathed in blood. Ash and blood covered her body as she slowed to a stop.
Her heavy eyes looked up just as a massive dragon slammed to the ground from the sky. Its skin was red, its eyes narrowing. Light from the fires glowed across its massive armor-like scales. Large, stony horns curled from its head, above its eyes and along its back. A woman was mounted on its back between its bat-like wings.
Kiaran fell to her hands and knees, fighting to keep her head up. It opened its mouth, bellowing the most menacing and fierce roar she had ever heard. Its hot breath whipped her hair back. She fell forward, her forehead on the cold earth, unable to move. Never before was she so helpless and dire. Hot tears ran down her cheeks as her sight and hearing began to fuzz away. She was going to die.
There was no fight left in her.
“Take her up and let us leave,” the woman said, her accent somehow familiar.
She could hear the fire crackling across the room. The silk sheets she lied between were soft against her skin. The bandages on her wounds were freshly changed and comfortable. Forcing her eyes open, she gazed at the large room around her. The walls were made of a beautiful, gray stone, the blankets a rich crimson color.
To her side was a door made of glass, a window on each side. Nearly the whole wall was covered in glass and gold. Out the windows, past the balcony, were tall mountains and evergreen trees that were frosted over.
The door was open with rather cold wind rolling over her. As her memory and senses came back to her, her heart shattered once more. The sight of Alana replayed in her head over again. Tears rolled down her face, soaking the silk pillow beneath her head.
They were all dead. She could remember the end of the battle...the silence, the numbing sense in her pounding head...She sobbed loudly, without attempting to hide it. There was nothing anymore. Nothing…
She rolled onto her belly, accepting the pain that shot through her arm and shoulder. Her voice was so pathetic, whimpering and carrying on as such. Rubbing her face in her blankets, she sniffed roughly. Her friends were dead. Everyone--after all this time together. How could she hope otherwise? Living during a war, it was always a chance...but she never thought it would happen.
The door opened and a young woman entered the room. She wore red clothing, gold jewelry lining her neck and ears. Her black hair was pinned back beautifully as her gray eyes were lined in black paints. Her red lips did not smile nor frown as she looked to Kiaran.
“My queen wishes to see you, Kiaran,” she said. Her voice was perfect, soft, and had that infamous accent. She could not place where she heard it.
She slowly sat up, holding the blankets over her mostly naked body. The contradicting air was both hot and cold on her bare back; her tattoos were exhibited beautifully against the fire beside her.
“There is some clothing in the wardrobe. You may wear whatever you like,” she gestured to the dark wooden dresser across the room. “I will wait outside for you as you dress.”
Once the door was closed, Kiaran forced her weak legs to stand up. Her innards were soft and feeble, feeling sick as she walked across the room.
She dug through the clothing, putting on whatever she pulled out first. It was a long, deep red dress, a golden slit up each side of the skirt. The top had very short sleeves, making it easier to fit her bandaged arm into. The top of her back was revealed along with parts of the tattoos of her swords.
Most of the left side of her hair was short, only a few inches, scratching at her face. The rest of her hair was still long, much longer than she remembered, reaching her mid back. She stared at her chest in the mirror, the encircled tree scarred over her heart, and Fargo’s necklace missing. She closed her eyes and steadied her breath as she slowly moved out the door.
The walls were covered with beautiful paintings, much different from those of the other kingdoms. Rather than portraits of important people, these paintings were of mountains, dragons, people who were not posing for themselves to look powerful, but elegant, graceful, magnificent. It was nearly…humbling…
The woman led her to two massive, golden doors with dragons for the handles. The small woman pulled a door open with a large amount of her strength. Inside, the throne was sitting a few steps up from their level on a dais covered in a beautiful red carpet. The fifteen foot tall windows were somewhat narrow and close together, lined in gold frames. Sitting upon the throne was the woman on the dragon that stopped Kiaran in battle.
Her black hair was pinned up in a fanning bun on the back of her head. A gold crown with dragon’s teeth and beautiful gems lined her hair. There were a few unfamiliar markings on her skin, it seemed tattoos were also used within Avestitia. A dragon, somewhat larger than a dog, sat at her side, its skin ridged and deep blue. The eyes of that creature were piercing…a deep shade of blue which was easy to fall into.
The woman stood, her dark painted lips smiling at her. Her eyes were matched with the dragon’s, the deep blue seeping into her irises. The clothing she wore was red and gold with a deep blue sash hanging from her hips. She wore very cooling and revealing clothing as the inside of the rooms were all hot--opposite of their cold climate just outside. Beautiful furs of silver and gray hung from her shoulders and draped down her back. And a white fox skin hung with the blue sash across her waist.
She lifted her arms with acceptance as she said, “You have returned to us, Kiaran.”
Her brows lowered as she replied, her voice raspy from sleep and from crying, “You must be mistaken, I have never been here before, nor have I ever even seen the ocean...How could I have ever been here?”
“Do you not see, child?” she answered, her voice so sweet and addicting. “Your eyes and your hair.” She ran her fingers through the long strands of Kiaran’s hair. “You are one of us, you are a Drakeling. Your heart connects on levels that no one else could ever understand.”
“What do you have to do with me?” Kiaran finally asked.
The woman smiled sympathetically at her. “Oh, my dear, you are my daughter. The heir to rule Avestitia.”
Kiaran’s blood drained from her body, feeling as if it were pooling around her on the floor. Her eyes narrowed as she barked, “You were my mother and you sent me away?”
“It is a custom we have done for years. Once the ruler of this kingdom has a child, they send it to another country. If that little one returns to us, they are meant for the throne.”
“And if they do not return? Do you just leave them with the wolves to fend for themselves without their rightful parents? Do you have any idea the torture I’ve endured with the man who raised me?” Her voice grew louder and stronger as she ranted. “Custom or not, this is out of control.”
“Kiaran, you do not understand,” the woman grew stern. “I carried you for months in my womb, I gave birth to you; my skin tearing as you entered this world. I know love for you that no other ever could. You are my daughter and we are linked together much like we are linked to our dragons.” She threw a hand into the air at her side, adding, “Speaking of which, I am sure you will be happy to reunite with Nurra.”
The little dragon climbed up her body and perched on her arm. He was scarred rather badly with one of his wings missing and the other ripped roughly. Kiaran widened her eyes in shock as she opened her mouth. Nurra leaped across the space between them and landed into her arms.
She nearly began crying as she said, “I believed him to be dead.”
“They are much more powerful than you could imagine.”
Another woman entered the room and whispered to the lady who took Kiaran to the room. Turning to the queen, she said, “Queen Ritiann, the others are growing restless.”
“Take her to them then,” she sighed. “First, however,” she took Kiaran by the stable shoulder and said, “You must keep in mind that I did not do anything I could prevent. I only did what was inevitable. You would not be who you are today if it weren’t for what I have done for you.”
“Your flaw within that is that I hate who I am,” Kiaran glowered as she turned and followed the first woman out the door.
People stared at her as they walked down the halls, their voices soft as they spoke to each other. Kiaran held her wounded arm at the elbow, hoping to release some of the stress on the injury.
It was rather odd that the weather was just beginning to warm, and yet Avestitia was really rather cold. She stared out the windows as they walked. The mountains surrounding them were tall and jagged with snow caps on them. Gray clouds hung near them, looking nearly as thick and unwavering as smoke. The trees were all pines of some sorts, their branches warming up with the faint sunlight on them. Every other window was wide open allowing the brisk air to flow through the walls of the palace. It smelled so crisp and clean, making it refreshing.
They walked down a numerous amount of stairs and moved through several rooms. Finally, they came to a heavy door, taking up the entire wall. A man stood at one side of the door, his enormous arms crossed over his chest. He wore a golden tunic with a red vest over it, looking rather official. The woman nodded at him and he took hold of the massive handle. The door slid across the floor, disappearing into the wall.
A wave of heat exploded from the room, moving through Kiaran’s bones. The room was several stories high and impeccably wide. Several, huge dragons rested inside, breathing invisible vapors into metal furnaces. The room was so incredibly hot that her sight was waving before her. She narrowed her eyes curiously.
“The dragons--willingly--heat our palace, making it possible for hot water and for warm rooms,” the woman explained as they walked in.
Several men were at work, cleaning the dragons, feeding them, and shoving wood into the furnaces. It was incredible.
Walking to one of the smaller doors, the lady knocked on it. A small, elderly woman opened it, greeting them with a smile. She beckoned them to enter. As they closed the door, the old, white-haired woman said, “How is everything, Elsibellem?”
“Fine,” the lady replied shortly. “Our Lady Kiaran is to see them now.”
Kiaran watched them, hoping to know who.
“Ah, the Lady,” she looked to Kiaran. “She is quite beautiful…”
The hallway was narrow and pale, the small torches providing enough light. Walking the short ways down to the door, Elsibellem opened it and led them inside. It appeared to be an infirmary, several men sitting or lying on white cots. Kiaran’s heart throbbed as she recognized some of the faces of her soldiers. They were weak, wrapped in clean bandages. They each slowly looked to her in what seemed like shock.
Her grip on her elbow tightened as her eyes darted from face to face. Finally, her gaze settled on the familiar, horse’s mane hairstyle. “Torin,” she breathed as she took off running.
His back was turned to her, completely unaware of her. His face was in his hands as he was bent over in his bed. Once she reached him, she swung herself around to face him and grasped his shoulders tightly in her hands. He lifted his gaze to her and froze for a short second.
Abruptly, he shot up and pulled her into a tight embrace. She began crying, her arms wrapped around him so tightly that her face was forced against him. Nurra leaped away, watching from the edge of the cot behind Kiaran.
Torin held back his tears as he held her tightly. His heart shattered as she wept, her breathing broken up and sharp. The feeling of his body against her was relieving--so much so that she was unable to stop crying. The thought of the others gone and Torin was left with her. At least one of her friends was still around.
His hand rested on the back of her head, his face hiding in her hair. He finally allowed a few tears to escape as he took a deep breath.
“Kiaran?” a soft voice broke through the air from behind her.
She looked over her shoulder, spotting Stella. Her right arm and side were bandaged up, looking like burn wounds mostly. Most of her hair was cut short, some if it a darker color from burning. Her pleading eyes met with Kiaran’s and she smiled. “I am glad you are alive,” Stella choked.
Kiaran moved to her, holding a hand to Stella’s arm. She watched her momentarily before saying, “I thought I had lost all of you.”
Stella’s eyes lowered as she fought away the tears. “I was afraid too...”
Kiaran turned her head away, clenching her teeth tightly. “And what of Davin?” her voice cracked slightly.
At that moment, there was some slight commotion voiced throughout the room. They turned to the back corner where a few men argued.
“What do you mean?” a familiar voice bellowed. “I’ve been here for far too long. All I want is to see her, to see if she’s doing well at all.”
“This is not up to you,” an Avestitian retorted.
Kiaran narrowed her eyes, looking at the first man. His dark hair and eyes were far too familiar. Her lungs nearly exploded as she shot her hand into the air, shouting, “Davin!”
He turned to her, his face in shock. He shoved past the man and they jolted toward each other. Excitement and relief washed over her as she met up with him. He rested a hand on the side of her neck, his thumb on her jaw. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“Considering,” she shrugged a shoulder. “I thought you all had perished. I had no idea anyone was alive.” She slammed into his body, holding him in her constricting arms.
His insides twisted as he drew her in close, wrapping his arms around her as well. She flinched slightly as he rubbed against her wound. His heart was beating so painfully as he squeezed his eyes, nuzzling his face into her hair.
His hand moved to the back of her head, her hair tangling between his fingers. His shoulders tensed as he attempted to keep his crying away and out of sight. Kiaran kept her arms wrapped around him, their bodies pressed tightly together as he tried to calm himself down. Her face was hot from crying and her mind swirled with so much emotion she couldn’t decide what it was that she was feeling.
“All is well,” Kiaran whispered hopefully. “We are alive and will live for Alana.” Her voice was broken as she spoke.
“I was lost,” he breathed into her hair. “Not only did I lose her, but I thought I lost you.” His hands shook slightly. Her cheeks burned as if the sun had scorched them. “I was...” he trailed off as if considering whether to continue or not. Then, he said, “I was lost without you, Kiaran.”
“Why?” she found herself choking. Of all people, why would he be missing her? She was baffled at the thought. Her eyes were wide as her brows lowered. Her fingers tightened on the shirt at his back, twisting it in her grip. Her chest felt like it was about to burst.
“That is enough,” a strong voice broke through. The man grasped Davin’s arm and pulled him away. Davin tore his arm from him, his eyes burning through the man.
The man was young, his black hair slicked back, his silver eyes rather shocking. He was beautiful--of the likes Kiaran had never seen before. He coolly looked over to Kiaran, a brow rising slightly. His shirt was quite formal, and--surprisingly--green rather than red. As he spoke, his canines gleamed, proving to be slightly sharper than the usual person’s teeth. “Lady, you may come with me. We will return to visit them shortly,” he said.
She glanced between her comrades and the man. Nurra climbed up her dress and perched on her shoulder once more. Finally, she nodded and followed him out of the room. He took her a different way through the palace, taking a bit more time than Elsibellem’s way. Soon, they were outside on a veranda, the cold wind cutting though them. Her dragon eyed the stranger closing, its wing flicking slightly.
She touched her fingers to Nurra, feeling somewhat pulled together and more sane with him. The man looked to her, saying, “I am Cyrin. We are very glad you have made it home.”
“How often do you send out babies?” she asked sharply.
“The last one to be sent out was King Estiahn’s cousin,” he replied. “That was many years ago, and she’s made no attempt to come home.” he answered.
“You will leave your people out there to the mercy of this world?” her voice sharpened. “There were points where I believed I could no longer move. It is hard telling what this girl had gone through.”
“I am sorry, your Highness, but not everyone goes through such hardships,” he replied. “She likely hasn’t simply felt the need to return. If that is the case, she was never meant to become queen.”
“Your traditions are flawed.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand yet,” he sighed.
“I never will,” she snapped. Holding her hand to her heart, she pointed to the tattoo. “I belong to the Zeil where they fight for every child and every member of their families. We do not turn our backs on any of them for they are one of ours. Without each other, we are nothing, we are not divided, we are combined and strong and full of hope and love and power.”
He kept his eyes forward, looking at the forest about them. “That is something they should live by. However, we are not the simple man that they are,” he replied. She narrowed her eyes and he continued, “We are Drakeling. That roughly translates to: Of Dragon Blood. We are connected to the dragons, to each other, to the trees and rocks and even the streams of Avestitia. No matter how we are separated, we are destined to return. The king's cousin has most likely not returned because she didn’t wish it. Your father returned, and now, a few years later, you have returned. You were desperate to come home, deep within your heart, you needed to come home.”
Cyrin rested a hand on his belt, playing his thin, neat fingers over the stitched leather. A dagger hung just beneath his hand, the hilt made of beautifully carved bone. She was beginning to believe him, to understand him. She truly was looking for a place to call home. The Zeil came to mind and it struck a nerve harshly. “What of the Zeil?” she breathed. “They are my tribe…”
“Well,” he turned to her, “I cannot answer that for you.”
Her mind spun quickly and she swallowed hard past the swelling of her throat. She had no intentions of running a kingdom…she was lucky to handle the small tribe at Eava’s Drop, let alone an entire empire. The thought of Rishana without a king was also terrible. With Alana gone, who would take the throne from Murdock?
“Am I expected to rule Avestitia?” she finally asked.
“It is preferred,” he replied.
She inhaled sharply, shaking her head. “There is much to think on right now,” she sighed. “I must speak with my friends again.”
“First, perhaps, you should speak with Queen Ritiann. She has been awaiting your arrival for far too long and has much catching up to do with you,” he advised. He touched a hand to the back of her shoulder and led her back inside and to the throne room.