“Citizens of Avion! Welcome to the tenth annual festival of peace!” The King shouts from the head of the great hall. The hall had been built to house the city’s festivities after the King declared peace and decided that there should be an end to the grief that the city had been suffering from. It was not large enough for all the citizens in the city and so only people from the first ring and a good amount from the second, that supplied the food and decorations for the festivals or those with friends and enough money to buy their way in, were invited. The citizens of the third ring were rarely ever invited to anything and keep to themselves. As a girl I had been able to see some of their celebrations from my balcony. In past years they seemed to get fewer and farther between.
The hall is wide with high ceilings and many chandeliers hang above the many tables set all around the room. There are rows of pillars on each side and between them are tables covered with food. The walls are decorated with heavy dark purple curtains tonight but were normally covered with shields and tapestries woven for the different legions that did battle against the dragons. The building is made of the same grey stones as the castle and has smooth intricately cut mosaics set into the floor. When it was empty you could see the soldier fighting a large dragon carved into the floor. The dragon looked menacing and evil as it breathed orange and red fire made of glass.
There were other depictions painted around the room of soldiers surrounded by light and of the famous battles that they had fought. The builders had created them just for the hall. The people brought their own blankets and pillows to sit on and ate and drank until they were content. This year was no different. We sat on a raised part of the room at the back of the hall in a line with our backs to the wall with the King in the middle. I sat directly to his right normally but this year when I walked in, Cain sat in my spot. To the left of the King sat the Lorina with Cole’s father next to her and after him her handmaidens. The only empty place was next to Cain. I quietly took the spot beside him and sat thinking of what I would say if Katarina had been right.
“Our great city has been through many trials in the past. Assaults from Sea Traders!” the people let out a shout, “And of course attacks from feral dragons!” the people in the hall let out another shout. I heard the drunken men in the back of the hall and could not help but feel a little irritated. It was that they irritated me I just wanted to speak with Alexander about what Lorina had told him and more importantly I wanted to talk to her. My late entrance had clearly annoyed Lorina, by the grimace that she had worn for a moment, but the King looked pleased enough to see me. Although I felt wary about that by the fact that Cain was sitting beside him.
“But through it all we have remained vigilant; strong. We have shown the peoples of this Sidus that we are the force to be reckoned with! That we are the ones to be respected! So let us drink to those that have given their lives and be merry for another year we have once again had a bountiful harvest and peace!” And with the applause the music begins and people start to celebrate. Once the servants place my food in front of me I begin to pick at it. I am lost in thought thinking only of what it is that Lorina has said to Alexander. Suddenly, I feel a light tap on my hand. I follow it to the face it belongs to and realize that Cain is speaking to me.
“Excuse me?” I ask having missed his question.
“I was asking what has you so distracted.” He repeats. I had not realized that anyone had noticed how distracted I was. I knew had missed most of the King’s speech congratulating Cain and only barely joined in the applause at the right time. Not that it truly mattered and not that he needed any more recognition for things that he did. But this is what happens in times of peace, I think.
“Nothing that I can fix right now.” I answer him.
“Well, can I help in any way?” he asks, “I am sure you have noticed how I solve problems at the council meetings.”
“Yes, well this is a personal problem not a council problem.”
“Good, then it can be something we do together.” I realize that he still touches my hand and quickly use it to reach for my glass to take a drink. I glance over at Katarina who had taken the seat to my left and see that she is eating and paying close attention to everything that is happening. I had learned that if Katarina focused enough she could hear thoughts. She had not done so on purpose. She had wanted to know if her mother knew about her sneaking into the third ring. She was so worried that she heard what was in her head. Ever since then whenever she uses that kind of magic she loses herself staring off at nothing. That is how I knew she was listening.
Katarina please help me! I think as loudly as I can knowing that she can hear me. A smile flashes across her face as she turns to Cole and starts a conversation with him instead. I know you are using magic right now! I shout in my head. Do not ignore me! But, seeing that it is no use, I turn back to Cain. When I take a good look at him I notice that he looks very handsome. He wears a grey tunic and a deep blue jerkin. His leather trousers are light brown and he wears a sword on his hip. His blonde hair has been combed back out of his face with the streak of gold going back as well. Some believed that the gold came from birth but I knew that it came from using a gold weapon. The King has a similar gold streak and some gold in his beard as well.
“I do not believe that your help would be of any use.” I say quickly and trying to add more of a hint add, “Besides do you not have other responsibilities as an official General of Avion now?”
“None that can…..keep me from something that I really want.” He hints back his ocean blue eyes looking into mine.
“And what is it that you want?” I ask slightly more perturbed.
“You will have to wait and see after the demonstrations.” He answers.
“Great.” I mumble to myself.
“You look breathtaking tonight by the way.”
“I would rather be in armor if it was up to me.” I reply.
“If it were up to me you would never have to wear it” he states with a smile. “I would—“
“Good thing it is not up to you then.” I interrupt him.
He makes a face opens his mouth to say something more but thinks twice about it and goes back to eating his food. Finally, I think. Now I can figure out what is happening. But when I turn to tell Katarina that I think she was right. I see she and Cole have gotten up to speak with Cole’s father. I smile because it is just what she wanted.
The musicians play the end of their songs and with the sound of a gong the demonstrations begin. Everyone leaves room between the steps leading to where we are seated and turn their attention to the performers. There will be four or five before mine because I was added to the festival last but that does not bother me. It will give me more time to prepare. I had promised Lorina that I would practice and I had not. Only I had been practicing with my bow. Now it was about to be my turn and I still had to choose what I was to perform.
As a royal I was expected to perform. Lorina, each day as we sat and she taught me about being royalty, had reminded me that it was my duty to serve. In serving the King expected me to perform in front of our people. Each year it was thrust upon me to make an impression and each year I felt that I let them down. It was not that I did not try. I certainly did. It was that I was not made for having everyone’s attention. The way they watched me set me on edge. It filled me with anxiety. But there was no escaping my responsibility.
The first performers were a group that danced with fans. Their dresses were a deep red and when they spun shimmered in the light of the fire pits that were scattered around the room. They danced in step with the drums and were finished after a song. The next group told a story of one of our greatest victories against the dragons. They had three people dressed in plain red clothes all moving a large red dragon puppet. And had a young man dressed in grey armor similar to the armor the castle guards wore, holding a prop silver blade.
Before they had even announced their demonstration I knew the story. I had been told this story many times when I was a girl by different servants and handmaidens sent to care for me. Late one night, there was a scout on patrol in the forests close to the city walls. He came face to face with a dragon and engaged it in battle. The dragon boasted of his abilities and of how after he defeated the scout he would call his brothers to help him attack the city.
What the dragon did not expect was the man’s determination to protect the city. They battled until the sun started to rise in the sky. The man was growing tired, but he could see the dragon was as well. So when he jumped out of the dragon’s way the final time he thrust his sword into the dragon’s eye and through its brain killing it. He then ran to the city and warned them of the coming attack and help saved lives. When I first heard the story I cried at the death of the dragon, but when I had heard how they had killed many men, burned our crops, and destroyed our homes I felt a little better.
I had not realized that the King was standing now introducing me until it got very quiet. I looked back at the crowd and realized that all the eyes in the room were on me. I looked over to Katarina who smiled and nodded for me to get up. As I walk to the demonstration space the performers before me bow as they walk back to their seats. I stand in front of the crowd seeing their anticipation and quickly feel my stomach drop in fear. I had never performed in front of a crows before.
I wanted to sing but my throat was too dry. I wanted to dance but my feet would not move. I would have demonstrated my skill with my daggers or bow but I had neither with me at the moment. I rack my brain for something and then a poem comes to me. Lorina had been pushing me to become a more respectable royal and we had spent time reading and reciting poetry. One of my favorites had been about my white blossom tree. It was a little ballad that told the tale of a woman waiting for her love to return from war. And while she waits she plucks flowers from the tree. I close my eyes and repeat it the way that Lorina had taught me to say it.
And once I have finish I open my eyes and look to the crowd of people gathered in the hall I wonder what has them all so awestruck when I see that they are all still staring at me. The hall has fallen so quiet for a moment that I almost think time has stopped. But as I turn to go back to my seat I see that they were never looking at me. My poem was not why everyone was now running screaming from the hall. They fled from the dragon coiling and uncoiling itself against one of the long walls.
As soon as I had sung that last verse and turned I caught its eye. The hall erupted in complete chaos. Before I knew what was happening the dragon roared and the leaped off the wall. It flew around the room setting the tables on fire and knocking people down coming back around towards me. I had never seen a dragon so close and this one was one of the most breathtaking things that I had ever seen. I could not move much less look away. It was a red fire dragon.
It had the most beautiful shimmering red scales, more beautiful than any of the, now laughable, interpretations here in the hall. It even made Cole’s vest look like a fakery. It jumps into one of the fire pits tossing embers onto pillows and seats around it setting them ablaze. Its body, no longer than one of the tables and short limbs, stay close to the ground as it runs. Its wings folded behind its shoulders open as it leaps into the air gently flapping them around the lights and tapestries above us as it sets them on fire as well. They seem to shimmer in the reddish fire that it breathes in all the directions keeping the guards isolated and uncoordinated. I cannot help but stare in awe of its grace and the fluidity of its movements. It seems so unfazed by the destruction that it is causing.
Suddenly, I see it watching me as well, almost like it is as mesmerized by me as I am by it. Out of nowhere I hear my name. Katarina calls out to me again and I can barely make out what she says over the screams that fill the hall. I cannot understand what she is talking about or why she puts out the beautiful red fire on the table that is blocking my view of everyone on the other side of it. Then I realize she is telling me to run. She is saying that this is no accident. It is not part of the demonstrations, the dragons are attacking again. And I am frozen in the middle of it like a fool.
It is almost as if all the sounds that I was deaf to come flooding back into my ears. Everything all around me. The screams and the explosions that send tremors though the floor and up my legs now become a part of the night around me. I instinctively reach for my bow and arrows, but realize that I left them in my room on the floor next to the mannequin, which brings my own fear rushing in. I am defenseless in the most important time of my life. When the dragons are attacking and I am helpless defend myself or my people.
When I look up to find the dragon again. Its eyes are still on me and I know that this time I will certainly be its next victim. And right as it opens its mouth I see the light orange flame crawling up its throat. It is fire that will burn the flesh from my bones and I am still unable to move. Suddenly, I feel myself being pushed out of the way. I hit the ground hard on my right side and see stars after my head bounces off the floor cracking some of the mosaics. My crown falls out of my hair so I grab it and struggle to get up but feel a strong hand push me down and turn to see who is holding me down.
Cain stands between the dragon and I using his spear to redirect the flames. I had known that gold could do that but I was still mesmerized by the spear twisting the red flames in front of me. From where I lie I can see the fury that both Cain and the dragon share. And as soon as the dragon’s fire stops and it rears back to draw another breath Cain moves fluidly. He lets go of me and spins his spear around to slam opposite end of it into the dragon’s head sending it across the room. He follows it as it crashes through the wall and out of the hall. With his hand gone I sit up more and finally get a good look around at what is happening.
I see Katarina using magic to quell the fires and block the people from dragon fire as they escape. Cole is fighting a jade green colored water dragon that appears to be coming out of the river, with his father. He had his sword with him at the dinner and now the blade gleams eerily in the moonlight as the fires reflect off of it. His father looks completely at home giving order to the guards and commanding Cole to keep the dragon busy while he gets all the people to safety.
The King is speaking quickly to Lorina and points to the castle. She kisses him quickly then runs towards the gates. I see the King raise his arms and use magic to set up a barrier to keep the other dragons out of the city. A shimmering gold dome appears and flows down and around the city of the spell he weaves from his hands. I see Lorina followed by her handmaidens who have somehow gotten weapons laced with gold that I can see shining in the night. One carries dual swords; another carries a staff, and the last two short blunt things I cannot see very well because my vision is still slightly blurred. Against my better judgment I get to my feet and stumble after them. I try to move quickly knowing that I will be an easy target because I am alone and weaponless. But my head is pounding and my feet refuse to listen to my brain. I stumble over all the debris in my way trying to make it out of the hall.
As I get to the hole in the wall where the dragon and Cain had gone through fighting, I stop short. I had not seen Alexander in the hall or outside where I looked now. I should never have stopped though. There were so many dragons outside. One of the Jade dragons had climbed over the edge of the riverbank. It had killed three guards and a handful of people and now had its sights set on me. I could see the puke green flames headed for me so I duck behind the nearest statue.
I close my eyes breathing heavily and remember the training that I had received in my head: Move fast. Never stay still. Always have a weapon. Remain calm. Stay Alive. I tell myself.
I realize that I had already broken most of my rules. Part of my dress has caught fire so I rip the bottom half of it off. For a moment part of me is sad to see the dress ruined. The feeling is numbed when I think about everything that is happening. I look around the edge of the statue and see the dragon moving towards me then I hear someone shouting to get the dragon’s attention.
“Hey! Over here you big dumb beast!” Alexander shouts as he races towards the dragon. “You’ll have to kill me to get to her!” He adds as he barrels into the dragon. I want to tell him to run to get somewhere safe but know that I will be more help if I get my bow. I scramble from behind the statue and sprint for the castle. There are dead people everywhere. I am halfway to the gates and I still had seen not a single dragon corpse yet. And the closer I get to the castle the more dead I see. They had attacked the castle first. I see that the attendants and servants, some that had helped me ever since I was a girl, lying still on the steps. There were no guards left anywhere.
I cannot linger. I move with precision jumping over debris and the bodies of the dead that are turning to ash from the dragon flames. Making my way through the scorched corridors and up the stairs to the southern wing where my room is. As I round the last corner I am stopped by a red Fire dragon crawling over the debris in my direction. It also comes to a stop, surprised by my sudden appearance, and then rears back readying itself to breathe fire. Just before it does I spin back around the corner out of the way of the flames.
I had been taught to tell the signs before a dragon had time to breathe fire. The King said that in order to defeat your enemy you had to know him better than he knows himself. Learning about the dragons took years, but I was determined to learn everything I could. I had to be prepared to deal with anything I may face. I remember the first day I had gone to train. The King asked me what I thought of when he said dragon.
“Pretty scales.” I replied Cain’s vest coming to mind.
“Wrong,” he retorted. “And if you think that on the battlefield you will be dead in moments.”
“You asked me what I thought.” I replied back.
“Yes,” He replied sternly, “but only to see how much you needed to learn.” From then on I never answered with my actual opinion again only with facts about dragons. The one that I faced now was not as big as the one that I had seen in the hall. But its scales were still just as beautiful. And dangerous, I reminded myself. It had scales that seemed to start out blood red from its head and end orange at the tail. Its wings were just as long as its body and a leathery red. Its red eyes were on the front of its face which meant, like all fire dragons, it had a poor vision on its sides.
“Come out girl,” it taunts me with its gravelly and smoky voice as I hear its claws scrape against the floor towards me, “and I promise to end your life quickly.”
“Fat chance!” I say searching for a weapon in the rubble. The only one I find is a broken sword that has no real use and is on the opposite side of the hall. It is better than nothing, I think as I take a few steps back and race across the hall towards it. The dragon is waiting not too far away and as I get halfway across lets out another stream of fire. But I am ready again. I feel like my training has finally come to life. I dive beneath the fire and roll picking up the sword and moving out of sight and against the wall.
Deep breaths, I think, keep moving. Make it down the hall grab your bow and kill that monster. I listen to the dragon creep down the hall. I step carefully over to the edge of the wall and wait for it. My whole body aches to run but my head stays clear. As soon as I see the dragon’s snout start to appear around the corner I throw myself into motion.
I kick the dragon in the face and jump over its head as it turns to breathe its orange and yellow flame. On its opposite side I take the broken blade in my hand and bring the sharp side across its eye. The dragon roars in pain and whips its head back clawing madly on its right side. I stay low and move toward its belly watching out for the beasts claws.
I see it moving away and just when I realized what was going to happen I feel the dragon hit me with its tail. I go flying against the opposite wall and crumple to the ground. “Never forget that dragons are animals by nature.” I remember my King telling me, “They will use their entire body as a weapon, especially their tail.” I try to take a breath but I hurt all over. I have to push past the pain and look around for the half sword I dropped just moments before. It sits too far to reach now and the dragon is on the move, climbing up the opposite wall and then across the ceiling to me. I have to move. I think. I clutch my left arm as I run. The sleeve has been torn. My arm hurts and I’m squeezing the crown in my hand until I feel it start to cut. I try to ignore the pain and know the cuts aren’t too bad because I don’t feel heavy blood flow.
“Fool girl!!” I hear the dragon scream, “You cannot escape me!” I just have to make it to my room! I think to myself. I look back and see the dragon moving diagonally across the wall towards me. I push a little harder and then dive into my room as the wall of fire, I just managed to avoid, fills the doorway. I scramble to my feet slam the door shut and lock it then race over to the mannequin.
“No time to worry about armor. Grab and go the dragon will—“ the door breaking in interrupts me talking myself out of trying to find armor.
“Well, well, well,” the dragon speaks again slowly stepping into the room favoring the side that lacks injury. “I guess I do get to eat a princess for dinner tonight.”
“The only thing you will taste tonight is my arrow you big dumb animal.” I retort defiantly. And as he opens his mouth to let loose the fire bubbling in his throat to kill me I raise my bow and fire an arrow that goes through the roof of the dragon’s mouth and lodges in his brain. It falls to the ground with a loud thump and I take a deep breath.
My body reacts strangely to the sight in front of me. To the sight of my first kill. My hands shake but not with fear. I feel no illness from using my bow to kill the dragon. I just crave more. More battle. I quickly pick up my quiver shoving my crown into the bottom of it wishing that I had gotten my armor today instead of the shredded dress I wear now. I had commissioned this armor for myself a year ago. I had decided that I needed a more personalized armor than the kind that the guards wore and the King had agreed. I asked Katarina’s mother to design it for me.
She made the armor a mix of the guards with a little bit of my style thrown in. I had loved it when I saw the design and had it made immediately. It was all black with the inside laced with dark blue silk. The breastplate was low cut and had been shaped like the armor the Generals wore. In the middle of my body, at the bottom of my rib cage, was a sapphire my favorite gem. My shoulders were covered by removable pads and were layered to cover down to the elbow pads. My bow arm is completely covered to maximize protection and defense all the way to my hand. My right arm bare to allow me to reach better for my arrows. The bottom half resembled the guards but was shorter and stopped just above my knees. My knee pads matched my elbow pads and were layered to cover my upper shin to help with kneeling.
Then finally my boots, which were imported, had leather soles that were shaped closely to my feet and had solid padding. Unlike the shoes I had been wearing, I think remembering how they had fallen off my feet as I dove into my room. I really wish that I had my armor now, I think as I move quickly, wrapping my arm in a bandage, and head for the balcony bow strung.