After breakfast I could still not shake the sleep from my eyes. I walked to a field at the edge of camp and sat down. My mind was as close to blank as I ever let it get. I stared at the weeds and wildflowers around me, not comprehending what was happening. I knew there was movement as the camp got ready for breakfast and glanced nervously at the armies on either side of us, but it didn’t register.
What did get through were the wings. I didn’t really see them, just felt them, or guessed as the shadows passed. There were more birds than just Soe-Ar, many more. And though they were all big, not all were eagles. I frowned at the flowers in front of me, but the wings still filled my mind. They were ever present in the background.
“We are late,” a voice said. I turned. Warph had been sitting with me the entire time, yet I just became aware.
“So we are, my friend.” I got up and went to the center of camp.
Merla was already in the middle of a speech. It was odd. She was able to shape her voice so all in our camp could hear, yet it didn’t carry beyond. I began to concentrate on the words.
“That is correct, we hope to win without lifting a weapon. Not only are we far outnumbered, but do we really want to kill our foes?”
There were murmurs of “snow demons” and “the evil of Slore”. Merla just shook her head, then held out a hand.
“Listen, my friends. The army from Slore is not evil, but is driven by evil. The so-called ‘Snow Demons’ are just normal people, but Zurlfed is evil. He drives his warriors by fear. They fight in a frenzy and will keep going until they are dead because they know that what awaits them if they don’t is far, far worse than anything we can do to them. They would run away, or turn on Zurlfed, if they could. They are not our enemy, but he is.”
“And the other army?” a voice shouted.
“The other army are our fellow countrymen. Yes, some of them are bad, using the power of their swords to keep you in your place. They are also driven by the evil queen. But most are our friends.”
I saw many nods.
“All of that being said, we must prepare to fight and fight to win. We have advantages of terrain and our secrets. We also have some not-so-secret help.” She point up. Everyone could see the dragon wings far up in the stratosphere. “But we do not want to fight unless needed.”
There were more nods.
“Remember, there is a lot at stake today. The biggest is ‘Freedom’. Your freedom. I want to lift you all up on wings to be above the positions society has given you. Hear me out and understand. You need to be free to make choices that effect your life. You need to be free so that you are allowed or not allowed to do things by the merit of your actions, not because of who your parents are. Freedom to have equal justice for all, no matter your station in live. Freedom to be proud to be a common warrior, a potter, a merchant or even a farm hand.” I could have sworn she looked at me when she said “farm hand”. But she continued without pause. “Freedom to create our own destinies. If we work hard, it is for us, not some lord in a castle. That is why you are all here. You are tired of having all choice taken away and the direction of your lives dictated by someone who would never even look at you.”
There were some cheers, but she shushed them.
“We are reaching for the stars today, but know that we may not reach them in our life time. We may not even hit the moon. But if we take a step on the path and can hope that our children or our children’s children will see a day when all are treated equal, all that we do is not in vain.
“So spread your wings, today we learn to fly!”
The cheers sounded even louder. As Merla was smiling at the crowd, I saw someone go up to her and whisper in her ear. She caught my eye and motioned for me to join her.
The soldier led us to a man. “Ma’am, this is the emissary from Queen Marfascence, Lord Dunquat.”
“A pleasure, Lord Dunquat. Can you please relay to your queen that I wish a private audience? Just the three of us, myself, the queen and my partner, Sir Lorunce.”
“Sir Merla, that is the queens intentions. Look over there.” The man pointed. There was a small tent in the middle of a field between our small group and the queen’s army. The sides were open and a person was sitting inside of it. “That is Queen Marfascence, awaiting your presence.”
“Great, let’s go.”
We walked across the field to the tent. It was perfectly positioned so a person inside of the tent could see anyone approaching long before they arrived. As we drew closer, I recognized that the person inside really was the queen.
When we were close, Lord Dunquat bowed to us and went towards the queen’s army. We continued until we stood at the threshold of the tent.
“Come in,” the queen said.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Merla said.
We entered, walked up and did a quick bow. She was still our queen, after all.
“Please be seated,” the queen said. We sat, but the queen frowned. “I thought we were to meet alone, just the three of us.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Merla said. “That is what we are doing.”
“No it isn’t. I may want to talk to the king of the little folk at some point in time, monarch to monarch, but not today. Please ask him to leave.”
“Silriend, are you here?” Merla asked. I heard a grunt. “Please leave us alone.”
“Good, but please ask your pet to leave as well.”
“I am not a house dog!”
“Warph,” I said, “please leave us. This is private.” I chuckled. “And if you were a house dog we wouldn’t be asking you to leave.”
I heard some grumbling, but I could also tell the giant wolf left.
“Much better,” the queen said. She looked directly at Merla. “I see that you have learned who you are and your history. Good. It doesn’t do well to keep secrets. And you are still with this farmer’s son, which shows you either have true nobility or are stringing him along to get from him what you need.” She smiled at me the way I am sure she would smile at a pesky fly the moment before she swatted it.
“Yes, Your Majesty, I did learn my past and destiny.”
“Destiny? Well, let’s not get too carried away.”
The queen studied us for a minute.
“I am not stupid, you know,” the queen said. “I understand what I am up against. Of course I consider you a foe, but not an enemy. I like to keep foes around. It keeps me honest. But I do want to take vengeance on my enemy, Zurlfed.”
“As I said, I am not stupid. I know if I were to fight you I would be against the little folk and their friends, the fairies. I’d also be against the wolves and other beasts of the woods. And all of the wings lets me know that the very birds of the sky would be on your side. As to the dragons, well, that is another matter.”
“You know that I would win,” the queen said. “But at what cost? The price would be so high. But let’s not talk about that. Yet. No, I have another proposal.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“If you were to step aside and let my army pass, we could attack our common enemy, Zurlfed. I would win. But there is much more that you need to know, so much more. As I said, it is best not to keep secrets.”
Merla nodded again. I had a feeling she already knew what the queen was going to say.
“My ancestors worked for Zurlfed. Like the Snow Demons, we were more slave than servant, but at a much higher level. We were the Dragon Slayers. His power was based on our skills and sword. I’m sure you are aware that dragon blood has the ability to keep those who drink it young. The meat also has special powers, but at a great cost. Zurlfed ate that flesh gladly, cementing his evil.
“As I’m sure you are aware, my great-great-great-grandmother escaped Zurlfed. She was able to take the sword and a supply of dragons’ blood that would last hundreds of years, though leaving Zurlfed a supply that will last more than 20,000 years.”
“Yes, but then she went and killed a dragon almost the minute she escaped,” Merla looked angry.
“Of course she did. She just wanted a supply of blood more than what she had. Your family, though, caught wind of it. They delayed my great-great-great-grandmother so by the time she had a chance to preserve the blood, it had gone bad, rotted away, and was no use. Your family them went to the extreme of making it so my family could not see the dragons and so could not call them with the sword. That was a spell that the big lout flying above us shattered by coming into my kingdom and announcing himself. Idiot.”
“And you are telling me this tale, why?”
“Because I want you to know exactly what your choices will mean. If we go to battle, I will call down your two dragons and kill them immediately. It is not that I want to, it is that I would have to act before they decimated my army. I would then have to go after the wolves and birds. I would eventually win the battle, but at horrific loss of life on all sides, including making the dragon species extinct. Yes, I would gain a supply of dragon blood to last by millennia, but it would be finite. You and your army would be destroyed along with countless innocent animals. And as for me, I would not be able to win against Zurlfed. He wouldn’t be able to win either, and we would call it a draw. He would take away much of my limited supply of dragon’s blood, and his reign of terror would continue for even more thousands of years.”
“And as opposed to that, you propose?”
“If you stand aside I will quickly dispatch Zurlfed. Most of his poor servants will survive. I will be able to take his dragon blood and leave your two friends alone. Sure, his supply is finite as well, but in 20,000 your friends may have repopulated the world with dragons. If I occasionally, say every 10,000, maybe 15.000 years, cull one, would anybody no the difference? And who knows, perhaps I would be content with a life of only 20,000 years and leave your dragons to their own. Either way, the dragons will not become extinct, there would be no wholesale slaughter of animals and birds and many thousands of people would survive.”
She smiled her evil smile again.
“More than that, if you choose to stand aside, I will allow you to take your small army and all of the surviving Snow Demons and carve out a new country in the remains of Slore. Of course, after I extract the dragon’s blood. It will be yours to rule. Or, you can even make that stupid republic you have been talking about.
“So, do we have a deal?”
“Thank you, Your Majesty, that is a very kind offer,” Merla said. She was going to concede. For some reason, my stomach did a flip-flop at this thought. It felt wrong.
“But,” Merla continued, “I need a little time. Zurlfed wants to talk to me. I agree that he is evil and I will not make a deal to join him or anything else as stupid, but I do need to talk. And I need to think. Can I give you my decision tomorrow morning?”
Queen Marfascence frowned, an ugly expression.
“What is there to think about? Did I not give you a great deal?”
“You did, Your Majesty. And thank you for such a great deal. It’s not just giving Zurlfed the curtesy to talk, it is also discussing it with the eagles and wolves, the little folk and the dragons. I’m sure you know that I do not want to fight you! You are right, I would not win and many innocents would be killed. But I need time.”
“So be it. You have until sundown. You may go.”
We stood up, then bowed low to the queen. We backed out of the tent, bowed again, turned and then left.
As we walked back towards the camp, I could see fast moving clouds of black wings. These weren’t eagles, hawks, falcon or kites. The dark winged clouds were crows preparing to feast on carrion.
I glanced at Merla. She was grim. Yet she also had a glow around her, a glow of nobility. It was as if she had sprouted angel wings, though, of course she hadn’t.
I did not know or understand our future, but I knew that I would follow Merla to the ends of the Earth.