“Who are you?” the man repeated. “And what do you want with Alistair Gaine?”
“Easy,” Kieran said, speaking slowly. “I’m not an enemy. I’m a friend.”
The man grunted. “You still haven’t answered my question,” he muttered. “What do you want with Alistair Gaine?”
“I’m supposed to meet him,” Kieran said. “I—”
“Drop your dagger,” the man snarled, noticing the blade Kieran held in his hand. Kieran sighed and dropped the dagger, letting it fall with a dull thunk into the mud.
“Who are you?” the man asked again. “And don’t lie to me. I know your name isn’t Lewis. Tell the truth.”
Well? Kieran asked Maximus. Any help?
I’m coming, Max said. In the meantime, I want you to stall.
“Why don’t you tell me your name first?” Kieran asked. He grunted when he felt the blade dig deeper into his skin. He felt a hot trickle of blood run down his neck, and he tipped his head back farther, straining against the man’s grip on him.
“Tell. Me. Who. You. Are,” the man snarled, his voice biting at every word. “Or I’ll slit your throat.”
Kieran chuckled nervously. “Hold on just a minute,” he said, his voice rising in pitch. “Now, I’m sure we can come to some sort of agree—”
Several things happened at once. The man pressed his blade deeper into Kieran’s neck, Kieran stepped backward as he shoved against his attacker, and a roar filled the air. Trees groaned under the heavy weight of a huge dragon, and then bright flames were lighting up the night.
The man cried out and backed away, leaving Kieran’s throat empty and clear. Kieran dove forward, rolling along the muddy ground before he jumped up into a fighting stance. He summoned twin tails of fire to his hands, holding the whips out before him.
“As I live and breathe…”
Kieran frowned at the sight before him. He stood straighter from his stance, staring at the man and Maximus before him. The man wore the same brown cloak that the stranger from the tavern wore, only this time the hood was pulled away from his face. His steel gray hair and beard were neatly trimmed, streaks of silver highlighting his hair. He had bright blue eyes, with a long, jagged scar across left eye. It started at his hairline, then traveled down to his jaw.
Maximus stood before the man, his head held high and his neck arched. His wings were half folded, quivering against his sides. His scales bristled, ready for battle, and while every line of his body was prepared for a fight, his eyes seemed open and calm.
What’s going on? Kieran demanded.
Before Max could reply, the man turned to stare at Kieran. He blinked and took a step towards him. He took another step, and then another, and continued walking forward until he stood a few feet from Kieran.
The man blinked, his expression a mixture of amazement and disbelief. “Is it you?” he asked. “Kieran Brennan?”
Kieran frowned. “How do you know my name?” he asked.
The man chuckled. He glanced over his shoulder at Max, saying, “There’s only one red dragon in existence anymore, and I was the one who rescued him from execution after he hatched.”
“Wait…” The fire whips disappeared from Kieran’s hands as he stared back and forth between the man and Max. “Are you Alistair Gaine?”
The man—Alistair—turned back to Kieran. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time, Kieran. Come with me. We have much to discuss.”
Alistair led Kieran and Max through the woods, where a small cabin sat hidden in a grove. Leaving Max outside to use his wings as shelter, they entered the cabin, and Alistair set to work with building a fire. He stacked a few logs in the fireplace, then snapped his fingers. Kieran gasped, staring at the flames while Alistair moved about the small kitchen, putting a pot of coffee on the stove to brew.
“How did you do that?” Kieran asked. “Are you a magician?”
Alistair laughed, as he brought the chair by the table over to the fireplace. He settled onto the leather armchair beside the fire, then stared at Kieran. “Come now, Kieran,” he said. “I think you know the answer to that question.”
Kieran blinked. He sat slowly on the chair Alistair brought over and whispered, “You’re Fireborn…”
Alistair nodded. “Aye,” he said. “I am.”
“But… how did you…?”
Alistair laughed again. “After Marjhen killed your father’s dragon,” he said, “I had no choice but to flee. I escaped with my dragon, and with your Maximus. After a time, I returned to Miren Diréthe, to hand your dragon over to your caretaker, a woman whom Asher’s mother trusted with her life. A dragon should never be separated from their Fireborn.”
“And where’s your dragon?” Kieran blurted. He cursed himself for being so abrupt. After meeting Oren, he understood how sensitive a topic like this could be.
Alistair surprised him by smiling. “She’s out hunting,” he said. “Isla is very large, and must hunt often.”
Kieran released a nervous breath. There’s more, he said to Max. There are three Fireborn now!
Max rumbled from outside. Then why has he been hiding this whole time?
Kieran frowned. “Alistair,” he began. “If your dragon wasn’t killed, then why have you been in hiding?”
Alistair’s smile fell. “A long story,” he said. “For another time.”
Kieran opened his mouth to protest, but Alistair held his hand up. “I will give you this much,” he said. “I could not return to Miren Diréthe to fight, because I had other matters to focus on. After turning your dragon over to your caretaker, I made haste to the Watch, to be by your father’s side as he died. After he passed, a bounty was sent out. A thousand gold for every Fireborn killed, and another five thousand for every dragon. Marjhen was hell-bent on annihilating every dragon in existence.”
“But why?” Kieran asked. Of that, he still didn’t understand Marjhen’s hatred for magic, or dragons. All he knew was that as he grew up, Marjhen had every magician, wizard, and shaman executed.
Alistair shook his head. “Another long story,” he said, “for another time. But that is not what we’re discussing this evening.”
Kieran frowned. Alistair stood and returned to the stove, where he poured the coffee into two mugs. He returned to the fire, handing one to Kieran before lowering himself back into his chair.
“Then what are we discussing?” Kieran asked. He held his coffee in his hands, allowing it to warm his skin.
“Your plans for the future,” Alistair said after taking a sip of his coffee. He frowned and said, “And your training, of course.”
Kieran frowned. “My training?”
“Yes.” Alistair took another sip and said, “You didn’t think that you’re finished training in your abilities, did you?”
“I… don’t, I wasn’t…” Kieran was at a loss for words. He knew the great Fireborn warriors trained for years to hone their magical abilities, as well as their prowess on the battlefield. But to train in the ways of his forebears himself? The thought had never even crossed his mind.
Alistair chuckled. “Yes,” he said. “You have much more to learn, of that I’m sure. But no matter. We shall train later. Now, for your plans.” He set his mug on the short table beside him, then leaned forward in his seat and peered at Kieran. “What is it you want to do?”
Kieran frowned. “Isn’t that why I’m here?” Kieran asked. “For your guidance?”
Alistair nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Your father’s letter. He simply meant to send you to me so I can act as an advisor for you as I did for him. Your father took my counsel into great consideration, and I know he was hoping you would do the same.
“So, I ask again. What is it you want?”
Kieran blinked, taken aback by surprise. He had expected this man to be telling him what to do, to guide him and lead the way. Instead, here he was, asking Kieran what it was that he wanted? What did he want?
After a moment, Kieran cleared his throat and looked Alistair in the eye. “I want my kingdom,” he said. “I want to free my people from Marjhen’s tyranny once and for all, and I want to kill Marjhen for killing my father and mother.”
Alistair nodded. “You realize,” he said, “that you can’t simply call yourself king? You understand that you must make difficult decisions in order to win your throne? You know that the crown is a heavy burden to bear?”
Kieran nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I’m aware. I understand that mine will not be an easy road.” He had expected it ever since he read his father’s letter.
Alistair smiled. “Very well, then,” he said. He stood and made his way across the small room to a shut closet. He dug around inside for a moment, and when he returned, he was carrying two longswords, both wrapped in an old, faded canvas wrap. He unwrapped one of the swords, revealing a beautiful black, red, and silver sheath with a design of dragons and fire carved and painted on the sides. The pommel of the sword was a red dragon’s head, its teeth bared in a snarl.
Alistair knelt before Kieran, holding the sword before him. Kieran stood, staring from the sword to Alistair, as Alistair said, “This was your father’s sword. The sword’s name is—”
“Elissér,” Kieran murmured. He remembered hearing Marjhen mention the name of the blade, long ago. Before the Dark King assured his rule over the land with an iron fist, the people refused to accept him as their king without Elissér. The blade was passed down from father to son, from old king to new, for thousands of years.
Alistair nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Your father gave this to me, for safekeeping. Now, it is yours.”
Kieran’s eyes widened as he stared at the sword. Alistair watched him, his expression anxious as he waited for Kieran to make a move. Finally, Kieran reached out, gripping the hilt of the sword. He wrapped his other hand around the sheath, taking it from Alistair.
He gripped tightly onto the sheath and in one, swift motion, he drew Elissér. The metal of the blade sang against the air as it was drawn for the first time in decades, relishing in its newfound freedom. He closed his eyes, allowing the strength and power and wisdom of his ancestors to flow into him.
When Kieran opened his eyes, Alistair had taken the other sword from its sheath. He pressed the tip of it into the wooden floor at his feet, bowing his head. “King Kieran of the mighty House of Brennan,” he began, speaking in a low, strong voice. “I, Alistair Gaine, former advisor and right-hand man of your father Nathair Brennan, offer my allegiance to you, the one true king.” He looked up, meeting Kieran’s gaze as he said, “I willingly give you my sword, my life, and my fire, so that you may never walk the path of the king alone.”
Kieran swallowed thickly. Guided by some unseen force, he pressed the tip of Elissér into the floor, resting his hands around the hilt of the sword to allow the dragon’s head pommel to stare at Alistair.
“Alistair Gaine,” Kieran began, his voice much stronger than he thought it would be. “I, Kieran Brennan, humbly accept your services, and would be honored to have you as my advisor and second-in-command, much like my father before me.”
Alistair grinned. He rose to his feet, holding his sword in his left hand. He held his right out for Kieran, and the young king gripped the man’s forearm in his hand, while Alistair grabbed a hold of Kieran’s arm in his hand.
“Forever Strong,” Alistair murmured, reciting the Azkadian words of power.
Kieran smiled. “Forever Strong.”