“When will I meet your dragon?” Kieran asked, watching as Alistair packed a set of saddle-bags.
Alistair paused a moment, then continued as if nothing had happened. “Tomorrow morning, if fortune smiles upon us,” he said. He looked over his shoulder at Kieran and said, “As I said last night, Isla is quite large. I’d like her to hunt a day more before meeting us at the end of the mountains.”
Kieran nodded, deciding it made sense. He longed to meet this other dragon, the only one to survive the worst of Marjhen’s wrath. However, he knew he must be patient in order to keep her safe. So, he let it be.
“We’ll go into town one final time for supplies,” Alistair said, withdrawing two canvas packs. He tossed one to Kieran and said, “After that, we’ll start heading east on foot. We’ll meet our dragons some distance from Berafell, then we’ll fly the rest of the way to Miren Diréthe.”
“And when we reach the capital?” Kieran asked, his stomach churning at the thought. The last time he had been in the city, he was fleeing for his life.
Alistair grinned. “The Rangers are holding the city,” he said. “You shall proclaim yourself as king to them, and show them the letter. From there, you begin your journey to take the kingdom.”
It seemed to be a solid enough plan to Kieran. Once they had finished packing, the two Fireborn stepped outside. Kieran saddled Max while Alistair dragged a massive saddle out from a shed behind his house. He set it in the middle of the cleared area of the grove, where he claimed his dragon could retrieve the saddle herself. After tossing his saddlebags upon the saddle, Alistair moved to Kieran’s side. After securing the straps and the saddlebag in place, Kieran pressed his hand against Max’s nose before the dragon jumped into the air and flew away.
They began their trek through the woods, enjoying the light, drizzling rain. The skies were overcast with soft, gray clouds, and somehow, everything seemed calm. For a moment, Kieran briefly decided it was the calm before the storm. Knowing my luck, he grumbled to himself, anything could happen.
When they reached Berafell, the village was alive and bustling with joy remaining from the previous night. Children laughed and screeched playfully, racing back and forth across the muddy road as they played. Groups of men hung together every twenty paces or so, laughing and joking loudly, while women gathered to giggle and joke amongst each other. Kieran smiled, realizing yet again that they were his people.
Kieran and Alistair began to gather food and supplies, preparing for their journey west. As they stopped at each shop, Kieran couldn’t help but stare at the shopkeepers and their families. Instead of shame, pride and joy surged through him as he watched and interacted with the people.
They had finished their shopping and were about to leave Berafell when Kieran heard it—the stomping of Imperial boots upon the earth. Kieran shared a frantic look with Alistair, then they turned and began racing through the village.
“Imperials!” Kieran shouted, glancing over his shoulder. “Imperials are coming!”
At once, they joyful, happy air to the village disappeared, replaced by fear and panic. The children screamed in terror, then they were swooped up into the arms of their mothers and fathers. Women and men both retreated to their homes, emerging with weapons of all varieties—kitchen and butcher knives, old, rusted swords, pitchforks, and axes. Kieran and Alistair drew their own swords, joining the crowd of villagers as they stepped forth to protect their home once more.
Kieran glanced to his left and right, to the line of men and women beside him. They were terrified, that much he could see. And yet, determination was set into hard lines on their faces. They were willing to die to protect their homes and families.
I’m not letting anybody die today, Kieran promised.
And neither shall I, Max agreed.
“Kieran,” Alistair murmured, drawing the young king’s attention to him. Alistair scanned the line of villagers, then glanced south to the road ahead of them before saying, “I think we need to keep Maximus away from this battle.”
“What?” Kieran hissed. “Why?”
“I think it’s premature to announce who you are here and now. We need to wait this out, take a diplomatic and objective stand on this situation.”
He couldn’t believe his ears. “I’m not letting anyone die today,” Kieran snarled.
Alistair snapped his head around, fixing Kieran with a fierce expression. “Nor do you have to,” he said. “But I think you need to keep Max, and your fire, out of this fight, if it should come to a fight.”
But it would. Kieran knew that was what the Imperials were coming for—a fight. They wanted blood and retribution for their comrades demise, and Kieran knew that they wouldn’t leave until they had slaughtered the villagers. He could see Alistair knew this too. But Kieran could also see that the old Fireborn was afraid.
He said nothing. Instead, he turned his attention forward once more, focusing on the Imperials that had arrived.
They were marching in four columns, marching through the street in a neat, ordered fashion, led by three officers on horseback. The crowd of villagers tensed, preparing themselves to leap into battle. Then, a battle horn sounded directly behind them. Kieran whirled around, staring in horror at the legion that had arrived from the north. He glanced around, noticing that houses and shops were set up on their right and left. With Imperials coming from the north and south, Kieran realized in horror that they were trapped.
What do you want me to do? Max asked.
Kieran looked up, seeing Max flying high above them. He was high enough no one would notice him at first glance, and even then their first thought wouldn’t be that it was a dragon flying above them. Kieran thought for a moment then said, Wait for my signal.
Amusement and approval flickered through their bond. Max chuckled and said, As you wish, my king.
On a command, both legions halted. The center rider from the southern end urged his forward. When he was halfway between his men and the villagers, the officer called out, “Listen to me, citizens of Berafell! You have committed crimes against the Imperial Army and, so, committed crimes of treason against His Majesty, the King Marjhen!”
Kieran narrowed his eyes. He tightened his grip on Elissér, his knuckles turning white around the red dragon’s head. “Kieran,” Alistair murmured, sensing the rising temperature coming form Kieran’s skin. Kieran ignored him.
“For committing such heinous crimes,” the officer continued, “you are all hereby placed under arrest.”
The rain began to come down harder as the villagers all cursed and screamed at the officer, shouting obscenities and curses at the man. As the chaos of angry, shouting villagers raged around him, Kieran turned to Alistair and said, “I can’t.”
Alistair frowned. “You can’t what?”
Kieran smiled. “I can’t sit back anymore,” he said. He drew himself up, realizing for the first time that he was three inches taller than the older man. “I won’t sit back anymore.”
Shock, disbelief, and anger flashed across Alistair’s face. Then, resigning himself to a decision, he nodded and said, “Very well. I will stand behind you.”
Kieran nodded. “Thank you,” he said. Then he turned to the officer, still seated upon his horse. He was soaked now, but he didn’t keep his inner fire held back any longer. Steam rose from his clothes as he walked forward, fixing the officer with a harsh look.
Kieran stopped when he was five paces ahead of the crowd. The villagers, seeing Kieran had stepped forward, ceased in their screaming and cursing to watch and listen. The officer grinned amusingly down at Kieran. “You wish to say something, young man?” he asked, laughing mockingly.
“Yes,” Kieran said. “I do.” He looked behind him to the crowd, their expressions curious, angry, and frightened. He flicked his gaze briefly up to the sky before turning back to the officer, saying, “You will leave Berafell in peace, or I shall burn you all.”
The officer and both legions stared a Kieran in shock for a moment. Then the officer bent over his saddle, laughing hysterically. His soldiers laughed as well, metal armor and weapons chinking as they moved. The officer finally straightened and, wiping a tear from his eye, said, “And who do you think you are, O Mighty Warrior!” He laughed again.
Kieran smiled. Now, he said to Max. Then he held Elissér before him, tip pointing to the ground, as he said, “My name is Kieran Brennan, son of King Nathair! I am the rightful king of Azkadia, and I am the first of the Fireborn to return to the Land!”
Just as he finished speaking, a mighty roar shook the air. People shouted in surprise, then they all rushed to the sides to avoid being crushed by the huge, red dragon that landed in the middle of the street, right beside Kieran. Max’s scales bristled, prepared for battle. He spread his wings above the buildings to either side of him, then opened his jaws and roared in the direction of the southern legion and officer.
The Imperials screamed in fear, and many of them turned and ran away. Kieran glanced briefly over his shoulder, noticing the northern legion had all turned and fled. The villagers chased after them, screaming battle cries as they ran. Kieran turned back to the officer, who was struggling to keep his horse under control.
“What—no—you can’t—” The officer sputtered, glancing between Kieran and Max for several moments. Max roared again, sending the rest of the legion racing away in terror. The officer’s horse whinnied in fear and reared back on its hind legs, throwing its rider off. Then it turned and ran away, its hooves thudding heavily against the mud.
By the time the officer had pushed himself to his knees, Kieran had stepped forward, closing the distance. He held the tip of Elissér to the officer’s chest, keeping him in place with a hard stare. The officer gulped and began sobbing, begging Kieran to let him live.
“I’m not going to kill you,” Kieran assured the man. The officer looked to Kieran, hope and disbelief playing across his face. Kieran crouched, bringing himself to the man’s level. He smiled and said, “I’m not going to kill you because I need you to deliver a message.”
The officer spluttered as he continued to sob. “To whom?” he asked.
“To my uncle, Marjhen.” Kieran leaned forward and said, “Tell him that Kieran Brennan let you live. Tell him that I know who he is, what he is. Tell him I know he killed my father.”
He spoke softer with every word until he was left whispering. “Tell him that I’m coming for him.”