We came to the top of a hill. The stream of refugees had trickled down to nothing, making me believe not a person remained in the west lands.
The horse riders stopped at the crest and allowed us to catch up.
I stood in disbelief. Although the entire horizon had glowed as if from a great conflagration, the actual fire was burning only around a lone castle on a hilltop. The flames were blindingly bright, yet seemed to not burn any of the land around.
We went down into the valley and headed towards the fire. Perhaps it would be much easier than we thought.
The ground shook and a dragon appeared before us.
“Give up you Queen or your kingdom is toast,” the dragon said in an earthquake voice.
“Champion!” the captain of the guard shouted. “Slay me this dragon.”
A man charged the dragon. The dragon didn’t move. The lance hit the dragon, splintering into a million shards and knocking the man to the ground. The dragon didn’t take notice. The man got up, took a minute to orient himself and then charged on foot. The dragon was stone still. The man hacked and hacked with his sword. The dragon yawned. The hacks came farther and farther apart as the man tired. The dragon pulled back a finger and then used it to flick the man away. The man landed a few hundred yards behind us. A few guards went to check on him. They returned, each carrying bits and pieces of the remains. They looked sick.
“Archers, take out this beast,” the captain said.
Eight men gathered and sent off volley after volley of arrows. The dragon ignored them, just so many matchsticks bouncing off of his armor. After the sixth volley, he yawned. A bit of flame came out with the yawn, turning the archers to ash.
The dragon then pulled himself up to tower over us.
“What is going on?” the dragon asked, causing the ground to shake and trees to fall. “The last time I entered this kingdom, I was met with 20,000 fighting men. Sure, I was able to take them all out in about 15 minutes, but at least someone took me seriously. This time I am met by a couple of dozen. I feel insulted.”
A giant fireball, brighter than the sun, rose above the landscape.
“The least you can do is give me some sport. Run off so I can chase you down or something. This is so boring.”
“Men, stand your ground,” the captain shouted.
The dragon reached over and with a delicate twist of its pinky claw ripped the captain in half.
The rest of the men ran, though Merla stayed. I couldn’t leave her, so I stood by her side.
The dragon chuckled for a moment, but then noticed us.
“What’s your story then? Looking for glory? You won’t find it here.”
“No, Vapuro the Great, I need to talk to you,” Merla said.
“You know my name, tiny human, so I will give you two minutes before I devour you.”
“My great-great-grandmother made a deal with you. You were not to attack our country, Branland.”
“Ah, you must be a descendant of Merlina, the Wise.”
“Merla, at your service.” Merla bowed.
“But it isn’t I who broke the promise, it is you. Merlina’s promise was to keep the Malrod women in check. Now one is the queen.”
“No, we only promised to keep them from killing dragons. She has not killed any dragons, has she?”
“Not yet, but her family is notorious. They slaughter dragons for our blood. You may not know this, but as long as a human drinks dragon blood, they will stay young. It is immortality, as long as the supply of blood lasts. If my calculations are correct, your queen is running low on dragon’s blood since her family has not killed one of us in over a century. Your family did put a stop to it, but now she is your queen. What will you do?”
“I will keep the promise.”
“I fear it may be too late, I am the last of my kind.”
“No, you are not. There is another. I have sent my friend Soe-Ar to ask her to come here.”
“Her? I hope you speak the truth. But I can’t see how it will help your situation. I’m sure it would take days or weeks for a human to find this dragon. Why should I resist killing you and your friend right now?”
“Because they are my friends,” a loud voice said from above. In a few seconds another dragon landed in front of us. Even in the dark I could tell this was the dragon we had seen before.
“Ah, Glidilla, you have great timing,” Merla said.
“When the eagle showed up, I almost ate it. But when he said he had a message from you, well, I’m glad I listened. As soon as I heard you had dragon problems, I flew as fast as my wings would carry me.”
Glidilla turned to the huge male dragon. “Hi big guy. I’m Glidilla the Golden. What’s your name?”
The hill-sized dragon turned bright red. “I’m, uhm, I’m Vapuro, uhm, Vapuro Pendraco. Nice to make your acquaintance. Uhm. Charmed.”
“Do you mind putting your little fire out?” the female dragon asked.
“What, this? Yeah, I only lit it to get attention. Not that it did any good, this measly band is all they sent. But I guess it did bring Merla. And, uhm, and you. So it did its job.”
Vapuro turned and lifted his wings high, blotting out the stars. He let a might breath of cold air out, which smothered the white-hot fire.
“There. And your little castle on the top should be fine, I made sure it wasn’t destroyed. I’m not totally insensitive, you know.” He said this last to Glidilla.
Glidilla reached over and whispered something in the mountainous dragon’s ear. He turned even brighter red, which I didn’t think possible until I saw it. She then turned to us.
“Thank you, Merla. We are going to leave you alone. If you need anything, anything at all, even a chat, just call. You don’t even have to send your eagle friend. Here…”
Merla jumped and then smiled. “Yes, you are right. And he does make a great companion.”
Glidilla was looking at me, and chuckled. Vapuro and I traded glances. Until that moment I didn’t know that dragons could shrug their shoulders.
“We best get going, before we are forced to eat the entire Branland army,” Glidilla said. “Bye.”
The two dragons flew out of sight while Merla and I made our way to the ancient castle.
“This is Castle Brinville,” Merla said. “I am sure you know that it was once the seat of power and later became the burial place of kings. It is the most sacred spot of Branland. My relatives on my mother’s side lived here until the Queen married our late king. He took all of my family’s belongs and titles and kicked us out. My father took my mother in, not knowing her lineage.”
We entered the castle and immediately went to the shrine. At the alter was a splendid couch carved with great care from a single piece of marble. On the top was a skeleton. At first I thought it was also carved of marble, but then Merla spoke.
“These are the remains of the last great king, King Brinwald. His bones have fossilized and fused into the marble.”
“So the sword is his.”
“It was his. Now it is ours, or at least it is Silriend’s.”
She shushed me.
“To continue, we need his blessing. If we receive it not, our quest is doomed.”
A sign? What type of sign was she looking for? The skeleton just lay there.
I heard a flutter of birds, who had made nests in the unused castle. Something caught my eye.
A single feather flowed down and landed at the feet of the ancient king. A beam of light from the rising sun flashed into the shrine and illuminated the feather.
“Dirty pigeons,” I muttered.
“That isn’t a pigeon feather. It’s from a stork.”
“Yes. Storks are considered good luck.”
A wind came through the shrine, causing the feather to blow into the air. It came my way, so I tried to catch it. Feathers being what they are, it turned and swished, always out of reach, until it finally came to rest in my hair above my ear. I reached up to remove it.
“No! Don’t touch it. You’ve been chosen. This is our sign.” She gave me an odd look, more of a smirk than a smile. “Besides, it is quite captivating in your hair.”
I blushed. I had once heard that storks were good luck, but far more often heard that they bring babies. I’m a farmer and know where babies come from, so I usually took it to mean that a stork is a sign of virility or sexuality.
Of course I had just discovered that Merla was of the line of the greatest wizards, philosophers, teachers and thinkers in our land. Not just of the line, but a direct female-to-female descendant of the smartest, most skilled person our kingdom had ever known. She was out of my league, sign of virility or no.
“We must go,” Merla said.
“To Slore, to finish this.”
I took another long look at the mortal remains of King Brinwald and then followed Merla out into the light of a new day.
Note 2 – Sue gave us two photos to use this week, the one at the top and the feather near the bottom.