Chapter 22: The Last Free Dragon
Daken had decided to return to Meclarya almost as soon as Makret had smuggled him into Dothoro. His conversation with Xari concerning the fate of her brother Egrin had only hardened his resolve to go. He felt so useless in the forest, especially when the other Morschcoda had talked about Erygan’s rampage through the north, or Gelida’s fortification of the Garuthen Mountains. He felt that even Norrin was doing more to help the Remnant just by sitting in Dishmo Kornara than he was in Dothoro. But when he talked to Gelinia Eshtarin and found out that Marrdin had returned to Rista, and was attempting to rebuild his army under the nose of Vorteez, he could not sit still any longer. He knew that Vorteez had been hunting the wild Dragons, but now, he truly felt that it was time to take the fight to the Seven. Now, Daken thought back to his argument with Xari, who Daliana had left in charge while she was gone.
“I have to go Xari.”
“We need you here Daken. You’re a Morschcoda. You should stay with the rest of us.”
“Gelida, Daliana, Edya, and Kallin are in the mountains. Norrin holds Dishmo Kornara. Erygan is waging a ground war in the north. Even Marrdin is gathering his armies. You, Ranny, and I are the only ones not doing anything, and we, or I at least, have the most cause to fight. Vorteez is sitting on my throne, in my castle, torturing my people for his amusement. It is time to fight, Xari. I can’t do anything in the forest. I can’t even make myself a martyr. If I go home, then the Deshika and their Devil masters will remember that they once feared the roar of the Dragon Hearted, and I can make them fear it again.” Xari shook her head, amazed at his reckless stupidity. “If you walk into Meclarya and declare yourself, you will die.”
“If I went alone, yes, I would die. But I’m not that stupid Xari. Any Meclaryan who wishes to march with me can, though I won’t blame any who choose not to.”
“Even if they all go, you’ll be leading a pitiful army.”
Daken wasted no time in thought. He knew how Xari would try to stop him. He knew all of the arguments for why he shouldn’t go. So he had planned his answers. “I’ll stop at Dishmo Kornara. If any of the Dragon Hearted survived, they will be in the city.” Xari sighed. “I can’t stop you then … I suppose you know what you’re doing, Daken. You always used to keep a clearer head than the rest of us.”
Daken shook his head at Xari’s compliment, and half a smile pulled at the corners of his lips. “I don’t think that this is wisdom, but I know that I need to do it. I need my people to know that I haven’t abandoned them to the Seven, especially to Vorteez.” …
That conversation had been three weeks before, and Daken was just now a day away from Dishmo Kornara. There had been one hundred Meclaryan Morschledu in Dothoro, and they had all chosen to come with him. Not all of them had made it. Crossing the Morieden Plains had cost them. Fifteen had died in battle with Deshik patrols, and another seven had died of their wounds, but the slaughtered patrols were a message to both sides. The Deshika were aware that there was someone loose in their bounds who would fight them, and who would win. Clansmen of the Morieden Tribes had also seen the dead Deshika and the Meclaryans across northern Drogoda. The effect on them had been measurable. The raging blood of the Tribes, almost pacified under Vorteez, had begun to flow again. The warrior clans were becoming more reckless and harder to control. From single warriors crossing the plains, Daken had heard stories of Deshik raids, and that the patrols were becoming larger, more frequent, and more heavily armed. They were also leaving less frequently. Daken had heard of the march of the Whip Crackers, and without Vorteez’s elite First Battalion, the Deshika could no longer control the Tribes. And with Vorteez’s mind and eye turned towards the coast, all the War Chiefs could do was throw more soldiers against the raging Morieden. When Daken left the plains, he had absorbed almost an entire clan of Morieden warriors into his small army. The men sought glory in battle, and the women, no less dangerous, sought vengeance. Though he had lost Morschledu, he had gained an army, and now, he was about to make sure that it had the weapons it needed for a determined war that he had not planned on waging. Daken, two Morieden clansmen, and a Meclaryan General sat around a campfire late into the night.
“We know that the Whip Crackers have marched north. Erygan will have to deal with them. But Guinira is marching north as well. Erygan can’t fight both Guinira and Vorteez.”
“Guinira would not have named a boy General if she meant to march to the same fight. She is not marching to join with the Whip Crackers.”
“And Vorteez himself, if reports can be trusted, is not with the Whip Crackers. He is terrorizing the Caladean coast, trying to build a navy for himself.”
“My lords, I have a message.” The boy handed his scroll to Daken and bowed himself away from the fire.
“What is it?”
“Guinira isn’t marching north. She’s attacking Ra-Diavere. The Plains of Moredo are empty of Deshika. The Whip Crackers went north, Vorteez took the rest southeast.” Another piece of paper slipped out from behind the one Daken was reading. “And Comni Hargd has returned to Morieden City. She’s rallying the Tribes while the plains are still free.” The two elders looked at each other. “We should go back.”
“Lady Comni is one of the greatest warriors from the Tribes in many long centuries. She will want all of the Tribes. We have to go back.”
“But, I’m marching on Meclarya. I need an army to march behind me.”
“The Tribesmen can make their own choice. But any elder must return to the city.”
The Tribesmen had chosen to follow Daken, for the moment, and now, Daken’s small army of Morieden warriors and the relatively few Meclaryan soldiers he had gleaned from Dishmo Kornara was camped in the shadow of the Emin-Tal Plateau’s southern face. Drogoda’s silver mines were a close enough retreat in case Vorteez or any of his lesser commanders react with more force than Daken believed he was ready for, but he hoped that the confusion of the Morieden uprising had covered his army’s movements well enough, at least for the moment. What exactly his army could handle remained an uncertainty to him. Like his own Meclaryans, Daken knew that the Morieden were among the most decimated of the various Anarian peoples, but he knew well the legends about them. Legends that only made younger warriors like him scoff, but older soldiers, veterans either of Taren’s Imperial Expansion or other wars, older and bloodier, paid more heed to the reputation of the Tribal warriors of the Plains of Moredo.
Another thing that gave Daken cause for uncertainty where his army was concerned was its fragmented nature. There were numerous Tribes represented within it, and while they were not hostile with each other, neither he nor his Meclaryan soldiers perceived any clear form of communication or even trust between them. He felt that his army was divided, and so, he waited, reluctant to push forward, and not daring to go back.
The clearest example of the division was the manner in which the Tribes made their camp. Each Tribe formed a different shape with the arrangement of their tents. Daken had finally realized something though, after looking at the camp from his more elevated perch, alongside of an old map of Morieden Province. The camp was arranged in such a way that each Tribe’s tents formed the rough shape of their territories in the province. He briefly wondered whether the accuracy went all the way down to each family’s land within each Tribe, but decided that it was better to speculate than to ask, for risk of insulting some of the most battle-ready warriors in all of Anaria.
One by one, the leaders of each of the Tribes began to gather together in a large grey tent, located where Morieden City would be. A few of the surviving Dragon Hearted climbed up to where Daken was to observe the proceedings with him.
“They’re very strange, aren’t they Morschcoda?” A youngish man, not more than two hundred, asked his lord.
“The Morieden Tribes are old, lad. Very, very old. I wouldn’t be surprised if what they’re doing right now is some tradition that stretches back all the way to the Eternal War, or even before.” Now that he was leading them into battle, Daken lamented his lack of knowledge about the Morieden Tribes, but in reality he knew as much as anyone. The Tribes’ history stretched back far longer than that of the Morschcoda Council, and they kept their traditions and secrets, as they always had, to themselves.
“Are they preparing for war, do you think, my lord?”
“I think they’ve been preparing for war for a long, long time. Possibly for many thousands of years. Something tells me that they’ve always known it was coming.” Daken felt his lips move, his vocal chords push the air out of his mouth to say the words, but the words belonged to someone else.
A few more Meclaryans climbed up to be with their kin while they watched the Tribes do whatever it was they were doing. After what felt like hours, though, the only thing of note happened when, as suddenly as they had congregated, the various leaders began to disperse.
One of those leaders came over to where the Meclaryans had congregated. Daken told his men to stay and went down to speak with the Tribesman.
“Dragon King.” The man bowed. His face was painted in shades of blue and black, like Mordak scales.
“I’m not a King.”
The man bowed again. “Not yet. But that may change. The Tribes are decided. The Warriors of the Morieden are yours to command. We have also decided on a course we believe is wise. There is a city east of here. We think that it would make an excellent starting point.” The man left without waiting for Daken’s reply or acknowledging any of the Meclaryans that had followed their Morschcoda despite his order.
“So now they’re telling us how to win a war?” Daken’s soldiers started laughing, expecting their lord to join them, but Daken was quietly annoyed with their behaviour.
“The Morieden Tribes have survived for the last two years under the heel of Vorteez while we lay hidden in Dothoro, and they have fought the whole time harder than Meclarya ever managed.” He turned to face his now silent men. “The Tribes understand war, and always have. The Drogs seem to think it’s all the Tribes have ever been good for.” Daken’s men subdued themselves, understanding that Daken respected the Morieden. One of the older Dragon Hearted spoke. “The only city that they can mean is Criarr. And unless the Morieden know something about our lands that we don’t, possible enough I grant, that would be too great a risk. It’s the capital of Deshik Meclarya, and it’s rumoured that Vorteez spends almost as much time there as he does in Airachni.” Another soldier spoke. “Either they underestimate the Deshika or they overestimate themselves. We only have what, five thousand Morieden?” The other soldiers muttered, but Daken understood the choice.
“We won’t get reinforcements. Five thousand could be the largest army we ever have. The time to strike hard is when you have the heaviest weapon. We might never get a chance at Airachni, but if we can take Criarr, that’s a massive bite taken out of Deshik controlled lands.” Daken looked at each of his men in turn. He felt their resolve strengthen as he painted the picture more hopefully. “Dealing that kind of damage is a risk I am willing to take. Now, send word through the Tribes. We march tonight.” …
The city of Criarr rose abruptly out of the rocky plains of coastal Meclarya. It had been one of the first cities in Anaria to fall to the Deshika while they had been led by Makret Druoth. It had been where The Kindler’s armies had massed before the Battle of Emin-Tal, and where they had retreated after Edya Reeshnar had wounded The Kindler. Criarr was the birthplace of the New Deshik Wars.
Though Criarr was not a true port city, it was roughly where The Kindler’s reinforcements made landfall whenever they came to Anaria. It only had modest defenses, most of which had been destroyed with the Deshik occupation, and the Deshika had not felt it necessary to rebuild or replace much of the destroyed wall or to rehang the ruined, burned gates.
From Daken’s viewpoint, about one league away from the city, it looked like all but one of Criarr’s Dragon Towers had been razed. What made Daken curious, though, was that he could see at least three guide fires burning in that one tower.
“Maybe not so curious,” he thought out loud. “If Vorteez wants to exterminate the Dragons, what better way to attract them and their Riders than to keep the fires lit …” The guide fires were what a Dragon Rider would aim for when attempting to land at a tower. Being able to see the fire meant that nothing was between the Dragon and the landing platform.
Daken’s night vision was no comparison to Erygan’s, or that of any Torridestan, but it was good enough to allow him a reasonable guess at the size of the Deshik force defending Criarr. Daken crawled backwards and went back to his men at the bottom of the hill.
“At least one Dragon Tower is still standing, and several of its fires are lit, which I thought was strange. Likely, though, it’s a trap for any Dragons and Riders still living. Maybe they’re trying to make it look like Meclaryans have already retaken the city.” “Could you make a guess at defending forces, my Lord?”
“If I were higher up, I could be more certain, but I think I have a number.”
“How many, my Lord?”
“None.” Daken shook his head. “I may be wrong, but as far as I can tell, Criarr is deserted.”
Daken’s statement, and he himself agreed to the assessment, was believed to be impossible. It was decided that several Tribesmen would go and scout the city from closer vantages to help determine how the army should proceed.
They returned later that same day. “The Dragon King’s eyes don’t fail him. Unless this is a trap, which isn’t impossible, the city is deserted.”
Everyone looked suspicious, but Daken had other questions. “What about the fires in the tower?”
“How they were set and why they still burn, I cannot answer, Dragon King. But I entered the tower, and saw nothing alive. The tower is filled with nothing but stone and silence.”
An older Meclaryan man sputtered his objection. “But the Deshika can’t have abandoned Criarr. They just can’t have.”
“Why not, commander?”
“With all due respect, my Lord, it makes no sense. It has strategic position, it’s their capital ...”
Daken held up a finger. “We believe it to be their capital. It doesn’t mean that they do. And the city is well behind their lines, lines that no Morschen army has succeeded in breaching or driving back as of yet. Criarr is safe enough, and they don’t have civilians to protect like we do.” Daken looked at a map and at the list of movements that Norrin had given him in Dishmo Kornara. “Vorteez has gathered his armies for a march south. Right now, we’re so deep in uncontested territory outside of a city that it doesn’t make much sense for us to target it in the first place. Likely, he has decided that Airachni is our only conceivable target, and that it is what should be defended. Other cities ... he doesn’t need to leave the men behind to guard them because what’s the point.” …
In the morning, Daken decided not to gamble that Criarr was completely deserted and only sent in one hundred Tribesmen under the command of five of the Dragon Hearted. The group would split into five smaller groups and thoroughly search the city. If it truly was deserted, they would begin to establish modest defences while the news was sent to the main force.
News didn’t take long to reach Daken. Whatever the reason, aside from a small band of Mid-Ocean pirates looking for easy plunder, Criarr had been completely abandoned.
Though Daken believed the report, he still entered Criarr warily. The city’s broken western gate was still hanging by its hinges, and burned into the wood were the symbols of each of the Seven Devils. The Kindler’s Candle was the most prominent, but only slightly smaller was the coiled whip of Vorteez. Surrounding the other two were the Mirror of Venda, Mredic’s Sword, the Bleeding Eye of Sheerva, Estrin’s Hammer and Anvil, and Nasheem’s two spiraling feathers.
Daken thought about those symbols as he rode through the gate. Venda was known as the Pale Enchantress, and for her, the mirror was an apt symbol, and a practical one. During the Eternal War, she had cast enchantments on many of her enemies so that if they saw their reflection in a mirror or anything else, their soul would become trapped in that object.
Mredic was known as the Sword of Alega, deadly in combat and reportedly the greatest swordmaster to ever live. Daken, who had seen Taren Garrenin wield a blade, was not convinced that the Devil’s reputation still held true.
Estrin was historically recognized as the smith who had discovered how to forge Dwarven Steel, and despite his status as one of the Seven, many Noldorin still worshipped him in secret.
Sheerva had been an assassin, according to ancient legend. She was known to be a skilled marksman, and while Daken doubted the report, she was credited as being able to hit a target as small as an eye from a mile away with a projectile no larger than a pin, so long as she had a clear line of sight.
Vorteez’s symbol struck Daken as the most practical: a whip, for a sadistic beast who loved to torture anyone and anything. The sight of it marring yet another part of the land that he loved enraged Daken.
As practical or apt as he thought the first five symbols were, the remaining two baffled the Dragon Lord. The Kindler’s Candle? Perhaps it made sense as far as the name of the Lord of the Seven. Daken did not know enough about The Kindler to speculate deeper meaning. And Nasheem’s spiraling feathers? Daken could only shake his head in confusion as he left the arch of the gate and started down Criarr’s main road. Makret seemed to trust Nasheem, from what Daken remembered from the Battle of the Cardor. That made Daken believe that that one Devil might be somewhat practical. If anything though, that only made his symbol more mysterious.
Criarr was much as Daken remembered it: small stone houses huddled close together alongside of wide roads, surrounding large landing fields that opened up every few hundred yards. Dragon Riders didn’t always have time to land at one of the towers.
One unreported fact about the city, that maybe the Morieden had thought unimportant, was that in almost every one of the fields was a massive pile of broken bones. Daken knew what they were without needing to take a second look: Dragon Bones. Daken had not known well any of the Criarr Dragon Riders, but their obviously violent, torturous deaths angered him beyond words. As did the callous disrespect for the Dragons. Many of the bones had been deliberately shattered in a way that was obviously not random savagery or the accident of falling out of the sky. Dragons were creatures of magic, and even in death, it took strong magic to affect something as strong as Dragonbone.
“We can’t honour the Dragon’s properly. We don’t have the men, the means, or the time.” Daken’s various Meclaryan commanders all nodded in agreement with that statement.
Daken, however refused to accept it. “I can’t and won’t just leave them like this. Vorteez has turned Criarr into a graveyard, one that he has returned to often to desecrate. It is the deepest disrespect to the Dragons if we do not attempt to properly bury them, according to our own laws and traditions.” The oldest Meclaryan, a General three hundred years older than Daken, responded. “My Lord, I understand your position. I do, and if it were up to me, I would take the same stance. But, my Lord, how many dead Dragons are there here? One hundred? Two hundred? As it is, we’re lucky that Vorteez doesn’t yet know we’re here. We start trying to bury two hundred Dragons, someone is going to notice us. That Armandan bastard, Volkure, he’s camped on the Baan-Taar. Vorteez could come back north, or he could send word to Airachni ...” the General smiled. “And have them march.” Daken nodded with his General. “I wish this could be just about the Dragons and honouring them properly, but you’re right. We don’t have the men, means, or time to bury them all properly. But, if by starting the work, we can force someone to take notice and make Airachni march, we could then free the city while it’s relatively undefended.”