The streets of Lyewryn buzzed with energy. Elery could hear it from her room, where she sat in front of a large mirror. She folded her hands in her lap while two women stood working on her hair.
"I did not know I would be this nervous. Is it normal to feel this nervous?" Elery rubbed her hands together. "Surely not."
"Of course it is!" one of the women said as she carefully fashioned the hair around one of Elery's delicate silver horns. "The Aldramel will soon bond you and Dallyn together. This is a great moment in any woman's life. Being a princess doesn't exempt you from that."
A sigh escaped the other woman as she worked on a set of braids. "You're so lucky, my lady. I cannot wait to find my bondmate."
Elery took a deep breath and gazed out the window. A few strands of her dusky-blonde hair fell over her face. The handmaidens gathered them again, securing them with a shimmering jeweled clip.
Tiny winged reptiles flew by the window. One settled on the sill to rest its feathered wings.
Elery watched it and smiled. "I wonder if we might find an Asteratrix to form a pact with. Legend says people in a pact with them can fly without wings, and control the wind."
"One thing at a time, my lady," one of her handmaidens said as she stepped away to retrieve a small, jeweled pot from the nearby vanity. "You'll form a spirit pact when you are queen."
"Princess!" A young woman ran in with a bundle of cloth in her arms. "Merchants of Andethayn have brought you a gift."
Elery stood and walked over. Half of her hair was still undone, and the silken strands that weren't bound together by glimmering ornaments fell over her left horn. She shifted the fabric in the young woman's arms and she turned it to briefly inspect the seam. After a moment's inspection, she gasped."Is this dragon hair?"
"The finest," the young woman said.
"M'lady, the king is coming." Yet another woman stopped in front of the door with a bundle of books in her arms.
"I'll have no rest today," Elery said. She took the dress and set it aside before stripping out of the one she was already wearing. She tried to avoid damaging what work had already been put into her hair as she changed. After some help from the others she stood in a flowing silver dress like none she had ever seen. "It's breathtaking..." she whispered as she looked at herself in the mirror. "Dragon hair is so rare. This must have cost the weavers a fortune."
"Elery," a man said from the doorway. "Oh my darling girl, you've grown..."
She turned toward the aged man who stood staring at her. "Not without your help," she said as she smiled and tucked her stray hair behind her horns.
He walked over and hugged her, patting her on the back with a firm hand possessing a strength untouched by age. "I used to worry you would not be ready for the world once this day came, but here you are." He pulled away and held her at arms length, then reached up to fuss with her hair. "I dare say the world is not ready for you."
She laughed. "Father, I'm performing a bonding ceremony. The world won't suffer for that."
"Tiny ripples my child, tiny ripples," he said as he let her go. "This event is the stone thrown into the boundless sea. Soon, your life will be a wave crashing over the shores." He sighed, then cupped her cheeks. Signs of age and battle showed in every scar and wrinkle, telling the story of his life without a need for words. His crystalline amber eyes held years of struggle, joy, pain, and hope that formed scars as visible to her as the ones on his face. "I could admire the beautiful woman you've become for ages."
"Then the ceremony would never start and Mother will never let you hear the end of it," Elery said, touching his hands. "Let me get ready, father. It will be bad form to keep the guests waiting."
"You are right, of course." He pulled away and turned, moving toward the door. "I have a gift for you, once the ceremony is done. See me before you run off." He turned back to give her a look that said, 'and I know you will run off' then smiled again.
"Of course, Father," she said, bowing. When he left, she turned back to the women. "Well, let us finish with my hair." She retook her seat and let her gaze again settle on the window.
The bright city beyond was decorated for the occasion. Colorful ornaments were set up throughout the city as far as she could see from her position. The ceremony was one long-awaited and joyously anticipated by the townsfolk.
Elery paid no mind to what the handmaidens did to her hair. Her mind was occupied with other things, none of which she could easily pin down to make the focus of her thoughts. Rather than try she let them flutter past until finally the young women urged her to stand for one final look in the mirror.
“You look lovely,” one breathed.
“Truly a marvel,” the other chimed in.
She offered a slight smile. “You've done a lovely job. I thank you for all the time and effort you've put into this.”
They each looped their arms with hers and began to walk, escorting her from the room past brilliant white pillars and pedestals holding ornate vases full of cut flowers. She knew her way but stood on tradition, allowing the young servants to lead the way through the castle and out toward the grand ritual site at the rear of the castle.
An altar stood in the middle of a massive white stone circle, shimmering in the sunlight. It was composed of crystal that refracted light into a brilliant rainbow that colored the stone and the thousands of people who'd come to witness the ceremony. Elery stood at her end of the altar with her gloved hands clasped in front of her. Dallyn stood at the opposite end, trying to ignore the dark red hair that fell over his forehead in defiance of the fixing spray that held most of it back. He shrugged a shoulder and gave her a half smile. She returned the smile and her heart squeezed tight.
The altar began to glow and water welled in the curved top until it spilled over the edge. Rather than fall to the ground, it lifted and spun, forming a serpentine creature that arced and curled through the air with no regard for gravity. The water changed to glimmering gold as the creature manifested. Delicate, gauzy wings fanned out from its head and tail, and blue eyes gleamed like gems on its smooth face.
"Seryn children." The creature spoke though it had no mouth. Hearing it speak was much like sitting beside the stream and hearing the water rush over the rocks. It was a vocal quality only a spirit could achieve. "I am the Aldramel, bond-former and bond-keeper. Speak, and show yourselves ready."
"Sacred Aldramel," Dallyn spoke as he took a knee. "We stand here before you to ask your boon. I pledge my life and loyalty to Elery. I wish to feel her pain and sorrow. I wish to know her hopes and fears. I desire that our minds become one, in harmony, until the end of our days."
Aldramel flapped both sets of wings, though it seemed they did nothing to actually keep it afloat. He didn't bob and weave as other winged creatures did. He remained stationary, dripping gold from his long body that splashed on the rock and reverted back to water. "And you, Princess Elery?"
She knelt as well. "I pledge my life and loyalty to Dallyn. I wish to feel his pain and sorrow. To know his hopes and fears. I desire that our minds become one, in harmony, until the end of our days."
"Take to your feet," Aldramel said. "Touch your palms together and raise your hands."
The two obeyed and Aldramel flew forward, coiling his body first round Elery's wrist, then around Dallyn's. Its body, though composed of water, felt solid, and warm like sunbeams. Far beyond what she'd expected. It began to slowly wind around their hands as the crowd looked on.
As Aldramel's wings brushed against their thumbs, an explosion drew screams from the crowd. Debris rained down, filling the area with dust.
Aldramel's body broke apart into water droplets and fell to the ground, leaving half-formed golden marks around the couple's wrists. Elery spun, a tremble spreading through her body as she watched the royal guard rush to the east as guests scattered and screamed.
"What is happening?" the Queen snapped, holding tight to the King's arm.
"Bethgardel soldiers!" A knight hurried forward and saluted with a fist pressed to his chest. "They have violated the treaty, m'lady. Come, to the castle."
Dallyn rested his hand on Elery's wrist. "Come. We must go."
She gathered the front of her dress and nodded, taking his hand and running as well as her dress would allow. They raced toward the castle, past guards streaming from the entrance. They bumped against guests who sought refuge within the castle and made their way to the armory where other knights were preparing for battle.
Elery took off her dress and lay it aside. She hoped it would stay safe through the commotion. "Where is the breach?" she asked as she grabbed a set of wygard chain armor.
"Northeast entrance, General!" a knight said as he strapped a sword to his side. "They use fire casters."
"Bring our water casters to that side. Send healers and runics to protect them." She grabbed her chest plate and made quick work of fastening the straps around her sides before moving on to leg armor. The gleaming silver metal reflected her image as she extended her legs to stretch. Her beautifully-set hair seemed untouched by the commotion so far. "Send geomancy casters to the breach to mend it."
"I fear that it is too late for that m'lady. They've opened multiple holes," another knight said as he hobbled in. Blood seeped from under his armor and pooled on the floor under his left foot. "One hundred of our men have already fallen to the east. I hear word of more in the west."
"They attacked when our detail was preoccupied by the ceremony," a young woman said, her silver brows knit tight.
"But to have killed so many so quickly?" a young man asked.
Elery clenched her teeth, grabbed her sword, and strapped it to her side with a sharp tug of the leather belt. "If the geomancy casters cannot seal the holes, then we will pile the enemies' bodies against the broken walls."
Dallyn stood and took her hands in his, then leaned in and pressed his forehead to hers. "Fight well, my love."
"And you." She squeezed his hands then pulled away, resting her hand on her sword.
As they rushed out to join the battle the weight of the situation hit them. Two large Draggats stormed the battlefield, fire spilling from their wide mouths like saliva. They were stout beasts, with large fins on their arms and thick legs ending in a tangle of toes that looked like uprooted trees. Their crimson bodies burned everything they touched to ash, be it plant-life or the flesh of her fellow knights.
"Summon the Malcolea!" a knight cried as one of the Draggats barreled into him. His armor heated red in just seconds, and before he could scream in pain, his body vanished in a puff of smoke.
Elery turned to see a large green beast swoop from the sky. The Malcolea, her father's pact partner. Its great wings kicked up dust as it flapped and its slender body, much like the Aldramel's, coiled as it moved. Feathers that shook loose turned into drops of water which grew flowers and small trees everywhere they landed. Seeing it drew a moment of relief which faded quickly with the sounds of screaming all around her.
The field was overwhelmed by the enemy. Her own forces were paltry in number and struggled to fight against the hundreds of green-armored knights who remained close to the holes they'd made in their walls.
Elery fled the area, unable to contend with spirits without one of her own. She took to the outer edge of the battle, leaping the bodies of fallen soldiers from both armies to try and reach the nearest breach in the bastion.
She drove her blade into one man's side, then kicked him away to strike another from behind. The third spun and clashed his sword against hers, his silver eyes peering from inside his helmet to meet her own amber gaze.
An arrow flew in from behind him and slipped between the plating of his chest plate and the helmet, piercing his neck.
Archers lined the top of the castle, firing into the crowded battlefield with accuracy unmatched by any other kingdom.
Fire rained from the sky, striking the archers before they could fire another volley. The entire line was bathed in flames, though these were not as merciful as the flames of the Draggat. To suffer a touch of the Draggat was instant incineration. These flames clung to the archers flesh and ate them alive with slow agony. A dozen or more fell from the their perch. Others tried to put themselves out. Their efforts were wasted. Another burst of flames spilled down on them, re-igniting their flesh and clothes.
The scent of death filled the air quickly, as well as the faint stench of rot. The sour stink grew thicker as she neared the hole in the bastion, but she could see nothing outside. The fields that lay beyond held no sign of the corpses she could clearly smell, sparking dread in the deepest reaches of her being.
One after another, soldiers fell around her. For every enemy killed, five of her allies died. She turned her attention from the wall and leaped back into the fray. She struck weak points in their armor, stabbing through joints and gaps, coating her blade with a crimson sheen. She then noticed their curious behavior; something she never expected.
Each enemy who turned to her softened their blows. They avoided causing her harm. Anger swelled in her chest as they pulled away, blocking or parrying her blows but little else. Unlike the first, who actively struck out at her, these seemed determined to leave her unharmed. It was not a mercy she felt the desire to return.
As Elery pushed her way through the field, a burning pain crippled her hand and she dropped her sword. Her gaze lowered to her arm and her eyes widened. The gold mark upon her wrist began to darken.
"No..." She retook her sword with the other hand. "Fall back!" she yelled.
Not many were left alive to hear her. As she looked around the battlefield she could spot a pitiful few still moving.
The Malcolea fought one of the Draggats, spitting orbs of water that sizzled and burst into steam on contact. The areas it hit darkened and cooled, rendering the area brittle and open to sword strikes.
Just as their enemy was poised to land the killing blow, with all but a handful of the knights under Elery's command still able to draw breath, the attacking force withdrew. As the Draggat collapsed and crumbled to dark rocks, the Bethgardel knights slid back through the fractured walls of her city.
Though short-lived, the attack left its mark on their land.
Parts of the castle were damaged.
Bodies and empty armor littered the battlefield.
The Malcolea shrieked and folded its wings, vanishing in a spray of warm water.
Elery's heart squeezed tight as she came upon a corpse with a half-finished marriage bond, its golden light fading along with her own. She collapsed to her knees beside him and rested her hand on his chest, choking out a sob.
Two knights rushed to her side and she stood, taking off her helmet. "Start a pyre," she stated in a quivering voice. "I'm going to check on my father."
"Yes, M'lady." They lifted Dallyn's body and she reached out, taking his hand lightly. When it slipped away, she turned and bit back tears.
There was a time and a place to cry. Now was neither.
She ran through the barren streets to the castle and climbed through one of the broken walls. The stairway leading up to her mother and father's room was smashed beyond use. The bodies of knights and castle maids lay scattered along the floor and Elery's stomach turned sour. With the stench of blood filling the air, invading her senses, she climbed over the shambles of her home in an effort to find someone—anyone—who might still be alive.
Servants lay on the floor, chests gouged open and throats cut. Those who were not dead rested against the wall, hands clasped to their wounds in a desperate attempt to slow the bleeding.
"Father?" she called. "Mother! Answer me!"
One of the servant's children shrieked over the corpse of her fallen mother, her tiny fingers clutching the woman's bloodstained tunic. Another servant, one who'd managed to avoid harm by the looks of him, lifted the child and tried to comfort her as Elery passed.
"Father!" The sourness in her stomach intensified, twisting a knot in her gut.
Footprints leading away from the throne room drew her attention and she stopped. There was no reason the royal guard would take them there. Not during an attack. Yet she felt drawn to it. A quivering hum filled her ears, delivering whispers she could not understand.
Her boots clicked as she she walked down the long hall, hesitant in her approach to the room she'd been in a thousand times before. A place she'd never felt unsafe.
A place that now, even with all her bravery, she dreaded to enter.
The whispers grew louder. For a moment, she paused.
The word pushed her back a step.
Come to me.
She clenched her fists, desperate to still her trembling fingers.
Mustering the last of her strength, she ran forward.
The room opened up before her and her heart shattered. Propped upon their thrones like dolls posed in a window sat her mother and father, blood staining their wedding attire. Her mother still had salt streaks down her face, evidence of the tears shed just moments before she was torn open by the enemy blade.
Her father's sword lay beside his throne, gleaming silver with strange lettering imprinted in the metal. It reflected the light filtering in through the window, casting a beam of its own toward the ceiling.
Elery stumbled forward over broken wood and stone, catching her foot briefly on the ripped carpet. She stumbled and fell to her knees at her father's feet.
How many times had she sat here as he told her stories of his travels?
How often had she held his hand as her mother sat in that very seat, braiding her hair?
She reached up and took his hand as two knights ran in, the metal armor clanking loudly in the empty, lifeless hall.
The knights gasped, but didn't speak. Elery was grateful for that. She pressed her forehead to her father's knuckles, letting a few tears fall before she reached beside his throne to take up his sword.
The lettering shimmered across the surface, glowing crimson. The hilt was warm, like grasping the hand of a living being. She lifted it and blinked away her tears, letting her fingers drift slowly along the corners and curves of the script in the blade.
"M'lady—" one of the knights started.
"Saddle Ishthemir," she murmured as she stood. The shimmer of the lettering dulled. As she turned toward the two, sword in hand, she said, "I will ride north, to the Dark Forest."
The knights collectively gasped and took a step back.
"You cannot!" one said as he took off his helm.
"Lady Elery, the Mad Dragon God lives in those woods," the other said.
"I know," Elery replied, raising the sword to press her forehead against the cool metal. "Upon my father's sword, I swear I will see Bethgardel fall. I will make them pay one hundred fold for their treachery."
The whisper spoke once again, and she opened her eyes. She needed no other assurance of her path.
"You can't be thinking to form a pact with that beast! He will never—"
She pulled the sword away and studied her reflection. Her hair was loose; many of the jeweled clips were lost in the battle. "I will leave him no choice."