”Ranadin’s wish is unusual”, the elder Dopta stated and each of the council elders nodded in silent agreement.
”What are you thinking of, gate guardian? Your silence puzzles me.”
”She speaks the truth, Dopta”, Tomari said.
”We live in fear of the humans and hope every day salvation would come from the mountains, but those of our people who live on the mountain don’t even know of the survival of their kin in Caroon. And who of us know how many breathe in the mountain citadels the same way we do barely living, hoping, waiting for the very same salvation we crave? It is our turn to step up and show the way. We are not cripples.”
Tomari’s words were accompanied by many assenting murmurs. Many of the elders spoke, some for the release of Ranadin, some against her wish. This was not the first time the council of elders had met a difficult situation. They were all experienced in the matters of politics of Caroon.
Many of those who gave words spoke favourably about Ranadin’s wish. They had seen many years of the humiliation and suffering that the snakekin of Caroon had met. The first one to completely speak against Ranadin was the most eloquent of the elders, Yoning, who had waited patiently for his turn.
”Ranadin is the most talented of our youth and more intelligent than many on this council. She comes from a pure-blooded line of dragons and is braver than any other snakeman or woman of Caroon that I have met in my considerable lifetime. Has any one of you thought of the danger she would be setting herself and us? Are we sure that the Dratoans of our high home country are ready to remember and help us? We are a taint in the rich history of our people. A great reason to the fall of the greatest empire in all of time was the Dratoans of the lowlands. The empire fell due to our weakness.”
None of them wanted hear the truth of the words Yoning spoke, but no one protested. They knew the elder was right. It was truly the fault of their ancestors that the Dratoan Empire had fallen.
They had become weak, different from the snakekin of the mountains. They had crossed their lines with the lines of humans and their lives in the kind conditions of lowlands had made them soft. They had had slaves. No humans could had ever been seen in the mountain citadels, unlike the mountain-like cities of which Caroon was the greatest.
None of them knew what to say after Yoning. As in any debate, all sides had to be brought forth. Tomari had forgotten how old fashioned Yoning had always been. After the gathering she stopped him in one of the corridors leading away from the council chambers.
”You have never had faith, Yoning. Never believed that there could be something better, that there could be something more to life than this eternal trap that hides the sky from us. Never any confidence in change and succeeding of any quest. I can assure you that every one of us, even you, can here the call of the stars in our bones. The yearning grows each day and only when we return to the boundary of the skies can we find peace. Take a leap of fate for once in your bloody life. I believe in Ranadin. She is your own flesh and blood.”
Yoning became angry.
”I lost my Daralan to that world you speak so highly of!”
”Don’t you forget that I lost a child too. Several in fact, or have you not forgotten the death of Gav’s father? I only have my grandchildren”, Tomari countered.
”I only ever had Daralan, and you would take Ranadin from me as well? Is it my fate to be old man without family?”
”Gav is intending to go with Ranadin. We will be alone together. I do not have a mate left.”
Yoning shook his head at Tomari as if he could not understand her words. This irritated the gate guardian greatly. The old man had looked at her the same way for decades, and they had seemed especially confused twice: the day Dirro and Daralan united their lives in the ceremony of unity and the day Ranadin became an orphan.
The council met several times during the following weeks. Each time Tomari returned home more and more exhausted. The gatherings lasted for hours, sometimes more than a day. She would never answer the questions Ranadin and Gav posed her only sighing every time.
Yoning’s point of view had risen in popularity in the council, and Tomari wasn’t happy about it. Her opponent had won this round. She had no weapon against the man who had always been the most charismatic of the elders. He used his gift for words to bend the other elders to his will.
”I can see what you are doing. Don’t think it will affect me. Ranadin has never asked anything of you. Will you not hear her this one time she asks something of you? All she asks is the blessing to try to free her people?” Tomari fired him after an especially long and tiring council meeting.
”My only child was taken from me, let me save the only piece of her I have left”, Yoning countered with a weary note in his voice.
”And if the last piece of Daralan could bring back your daughter and free our people, bring us back to the skies?”
”You would sacrifice Ranadin for the greater good? Is it not too much to ask for someone’s life, especially of one we both love dearly?”
”She offers it freely!”
”Guardian, you are cruel and cold hearted.”
Yoning’s last words silenced Tomari. She knew she was being cruel. She had always been that way towards him. Many had speculated that they had loved each other for many years, but neither one was ready to admit it.
The rumour was one that was only very carefully repeated behind the elders’ backs, but it never died down. Most of those who lived in Caroon were convinced that the rumour was true. Something had happened between Tomari and Yoning when they had been young. Nobody knew what it was, but it had turned into this bitter rivalry.
Being aware of her actions Tomari observed the old man carefully. She had never seen even a shred of emotion in the ice blue eyes. Now there was a lonely tear that fell from the edge of one of his eyes. It took the gate guardian aback, and she left him alone.
The gathering of the council on the matter of Ranadin’s wish had been declared to be the last. It was filled with heated arguing and many votes. The council of Caroon stayed in their chambers for three days and nights behind closed doors without food or water. As a remnant from their ancient sky faring forms the snakekin had the ability to go long periods of time without nutrition. Three days was nothing compared to the lifespan of a Dratoan.
At the sunset of the third day the doors opened and the silent elders returned to their homes. The snakekin did not have the indefinite capacity to stay awake without food and three days without both was hard on them. So the elders slept for a whole day and a night before anything was told to the folk of Caroon.
Tomari was one of the many tired elders who were happy to return to their families. It was custom that the elders lived with younger generations where they were honoured and taken care of. Yet some of the elders did not have families as they had lost them to the world of men either through death or captivity.
The gate guardian did not stay awake for long, but fell into a deep sleep. She could only thank the heaven and the stars that her curious and stubborn granddaughter was not there when Tomari had returned. She would have been drowned by questions which all would have had one final answer the young snakewoman would have wanted to know.
It did not take long for Ranadin to hear from those of the same age as her that the elders had returned amongst the folk. She made her way home as swiftly as she could and there she met Gav who told her not to disturb their grandmother. But she did not listen and went into Tomari’s chamber.
”Granna! Granna!” she demanded impatiently shaking the old woman to wake her up. But Tomari did not move as she was so deep in her resting trance. Ranadin soon gave up and searched out her grandfather who was the only one of the elders who was still awake.
”Grappa”, she greeted the man she had not spoken to in many years with a curtsey. Yoning returned the greeting with a bow giving the young woman permission to speak. ”What is the verdict of the council?”
Yoning was greatly disappointed when he heard those words from his daughter’s daughter. He had not expected them, yet in his heart he had known that had been her reason for seeking him. He watched her for a long time and then diverted his eyes from hers as he answered:
”The council verdict is final. The elders speak with one voice: you are not to leave Caroon on your quest, but become the keeper of the gates as your grandmother has been before you.”
Anger and disappointment filled her heart and Ranadin’s eyes blazed golden with an inner strength.
”The decision could not have been unanimous! Tomari would never have allowed such a thing!” she shouted blinded by her rage.
”May the world and the stars of the sky hear my last words here: I will never become the keeper of the gates!”
Yoning was left alone with his anguish and the wrathful words echoing in the corridors after his last surviving family member fled his presence.
Gav watched with mixed feelings as Ranadin disappeared into the winding labyrinth with feet made quicker with anticipation. Gav was sure his cousin was searching for Daralan’s father. And when she returned with a similar speed, she was not motivated with happiness, but a bitter determination.
Tomari had told Gav about the unanimous decision of the council. How Yoning had been able to make even her see how wise it was not to let Ranadin leave the dark maze city. Yoning was clever.
Disbelief shone from Ranadin’s face as she stepped into her chambers to gather her battlestaff, that was formed like a double-ended war scythe, and her pack that she had prepared for the long journey ahead were her departure allowed by the council or not.
”Rana…” Gav began. Ranadin turned swiftly on her heels her white braid flashing in the air like a serpent, her eyes flashing dangerously.
”What?” she asked gazing at her cousin with a warning in her eyes.
”I don’t think now is the right time to leave”, he suggested carefully.
”And why not?” she demanded preparing to fight even her cousin for the right do by her own will.
”Well, the militia of Ferengeti is vigilant when the sun is up. The stars are the safe haven of our kind.”
Ranadin heard his point and considered his wise words slumping down in acknowledgement. The old proverb was true and had led the Dratoans safety countless times. She let her anger slip slightly and smiled a bright smile at her cousin, but it never reached her eyes. Ranadin kept the battlestaff in her hand and swung it with lightning speed and stopping it right before it would have decapitated him. Gav jumped backwards as if to escape, but grabbed the blunt practice staff that was secured on the chamber wall. It was his answer to Ranadin’s challenge.
She began a new attack filled with an unholy rage and Gav answered her rapid, careless movements with an almost lazy-like ease. Ranadin was talented with her weapon of choice and dangerous when calm, but her anger made her slip and allowed Gav to retaliate.
As they continued to spar the fire in Ranadin’s eyes turned to a glad, laughing light and he answered with a satisfied smirk. He did not know of a time when sparring had not cured Ranadin of her almost insurmountable and long lasting tempers and cheered her up. What did irritate him was that he was the target of her aggression most of those times.
They fought and played until the stars came up and a rested Tomari woke up to the clashing of wood on wood.
”How long have you been on with this?” she asked exasperated. Ranadin’s mischievous expression gave them away.
”Is it not time to stop?” she suggested with a raised eyebrow and the cousins settled.
”A new day for Ranadin’s ceremony of adleten has been set. It will be on the day of the full moon during the season of the summer sun”, the gate guardian revealed to them.
”But, granna, that is the day of the stars”, Ranadin complained.
”The day after tomorrow?” was Gav’s contribution to the conversation.
”Yes, Ranadin, on your birthday you will be named the heiress to the keeper of the gates of Caroon and begin your apprenticeship for a role you will hold for the rest of your life”, Tomari said with finality.
To Gav’s surprise Ranadin set her battlestaff between her hands in front of her chest and bowed down to her grandmother respectfully. She said not a word to avoid lying to the gate guardian and her face remained expressionless as plans began forming in her ever clever mind.
Tomari nodded satisfied with her granddaughter’s reaction and turned to look at Gav. She indicated for him to follow her. Ranadin stayed in her stiff position until they disappeared.
”She will not submit to the will of anyone”, Tomari stated with a sadness in her voice.
”She is planning something”, she continued with a questioning tone. Gav did not answer immediately, but looked at the tunnel which was dark except for the torches bringing flickering light to it. Nobody lied to the gate guardian, especially those who had lived the steely woman for all their lives.
”She will go through with her original plan. She thinks it her destiny”, he said and it hurt his heart to think of his cousin getting into trouble because of his words.
Tomari hummed thoughtfully.
”Those who are nearer to dying then being born should avoid such words of destiny that burden young, passionate minds, like Ranadin. Were I on my death bed I would speak words that would bring joy and remember me with fondness.”
Gav smiled at her words, but the elder was serious.
After her cousin and grandmother had disappeared Ranadin sat on her bed and hid her battlestaff carefully behind it. It was their ready for her to defend herself against humans, and why not against her own kin were it necessary. She was called the most talented of the warriors of Caroon, especially when it came to the handling of the battlestaff.
She knew well the dance of that of her weapon and the dance of the sword blade. She knew the secrets of the darroi wood as she had always been its most avid student. Darroi was a wood that grew only on the Dratoan Mountains, on the hills of the holy mountain, their beginning. It was hard as a diamond, but yielding so it would not break.
The staffs of darroi had been commonplace in the ancient world, but had become scarce since the golden age of men had begun. Darroi was embedded with dragon fire and essence that gave it almost magical qualities in the hands of a true Dratoan, but in the hands of a human it became a stick of normal oak.
Her own weapon Ranadin had found in the mazes of Caroon far away in its depths where no one lived and where no one had wondered for many centuries. There were places in the underground city that even the snakekin dared not visit.
Ranadin, as it was in many other cases, was also here an exception. She was braver than any other who lived in Caroon.
She caressed the staff’s smooth surface that was decorated with ancient letters of the Dratoan language. Tomari had taught her the ancient letters to her when she had been a young girl. The ancient symbol language was taught to the children of Caroon in addition to the human writing in order for them to be able to find their way in the mazes as the paths were written in the old tongue.
The staff had four words carved on it:
To the Lionstar, with love King Feorn.
She had thought the battlestaff suited her as her name that was in the new snaketongue sky lion translated to Lionstar in the oldest of dragon languages.
She sighed and lifted her travel pack from the end of the bed opening it to check if all she needed was still there. A compass, a water flagon, dried meat, thinbread, a dagger, a map of parchment and a sleeping bag. She checked also her cousin’s pack just in case he did decide to join her. To her delight it was all as it should be.
She knew that Tomari and Gav were speaking of her. The old woman had raised her and knew her better than anyone else, except for Gav of course. And she knew if Tomari asked anything about Ranadin’s plans, Gav could not lie. Nobody could, not to the keeper of the gates.
”Are you sure this is wise?” Gav asked the elder as he followed her through the corridors. She was moving through the empty tunnels with a swift pace that belied her age.
The snakekin were in their homes fasting and spending time with their families. It was a tradition as old as the dragons in preparation for the day of stars. The celebration had gained even more popularity after the transformation into man-like form, as the year before the new day of stars had been a time of fear. Even then the former lords and ladies of the skies had gathered into small groups to better their chances of survival.
”What else can I do? Am I to force her to a life of servitude to this city that lives in fear, to fate she does not wish, even though it has been this way for all the time we have been in these mazes? Why should I free her? She could die or be captured…”
Tomari was truly unsure for the first time in her long life.
”When I think of her loneliness in the wide world…”
She could not end her sentence. The emotions threatened to overwhelm her in a way they hadn’t for many a year. She was more confused, more afraid than ever before in her life.
”She would not be alone”, Gav said interrupting Tomari’s flow of ever down spiralling thought. She gazed at the young snakeman surprised.
”She trusts me more than anyone else. You should know that.”
Tomari nodded, and then nodded again as if she had finally come to some conclusion. She grimaced and her almost white teeth shone in the dim light of the torches.
”When will she leave?” the grandmother asked him.
”Possibly, or even preferably tonight. Humans fear the darkness, but our eyes can see by the light of the stars and the moon”, Gav answered and they hurried back home where Ranadin awaited their return.