Ell led Ranadin to the training grounds where there were several observing Joarik’s men drill their fighting skills. The men were admired for their discipline and power as they moved through their exercises with their torsos bare in the crisp morning air. Ell joined his comrades with enthusiasm and the worried demeanour he had been wearing since he and Ranadin had arrived at the castle disappeared as he followed the instructions of his master.
“Winter is nearing”, one of the noblemen following the training said.
“It is nearing time to go and oversee the planting of next year’s seed”, another mused.
“Our most gracious king would be happy to see us go. I am getting tired of the bother caused by this visit. I would like to return to my wife and children to enjoy the last vestiges of autumn”, a third concluded and got up from his seat.
“I believe that is exactly what I shall do”, he continued taking his leave from his comrades hiding his scorn in respectful bows and meaningless politeness. His step was lighter the closer he came to the castle and the fulfilment of his plans.
“Foolish man”, a fourth nobleman growled as three others followed the example of the one leaving and decided to return to their homes and loved ones.
“Home sweet home”, stated the last man to leave towards the castle. Some hours later the king was happy to dismiss ten noblemen with his blessings. Less people to bother him.
No one spoke to Ranadin for all the time she watched Ell on the training grounds. Something in her made the noblemen stay away and the ladies were too busy giggling and ogling at the muscular men flexing in their deadly dances.
Ell returned from his master sweaty, but happy. Ranadin had loved the peacefulness that prevailed outside the castle walls, but it was now time for her to return to its rocky confines. Even after living in the open for a few days, she missed the freedom of the open ground and the mystery of the forest.
As they began they made their way back to the castle, Ell noticed his friend’s shoulders slump in defeat the closer they came to it.
“Let us go riding”, he suggested and headed towards the stables. Ranadin stayed quiet as the stable hands saddled horses for them. Ell requested a calm one for her and she was given a friendly chestnut mare who was used to train children. Ranadin had never imagined herself on a horse. Ell was a natural when she had a hard time staying in the women’s saddle.
“Heavens”, she prayed as she swung on the mare’s back like a ship lost in a storm. Ell rode next to her giving her instructions. As soon as Ranadin had understood how to not fall and move with the beast, she passed the human as she encouraged her mare into a trot, and then further into a gait. Ell was not far behind and they raced and gambolled over the fallowing fields like they would be the only creatures alive in the whole world. Ell watched with admiration how Ranadin who had never ridden in her life became one with the chestnut.
As the day went by, they could hear the echo of bugles travelling across the hills. They could soon see the great company following the mighty sound. The company was led by the king whose crown shone in the bright sun. He seemed refreshed. This, Ell thought, was caused by the ever decreasing amount of nobles surrounding him as they departed in ever greater numbers.
“Oh youth! Is it not too beautiful today to stay at the castle?” the king asked with an almost carefree smile on his face.
“It truly is, uncle”, Ell answered. He tried to be excited about meeting him, but failed as his worry for Ranadin’s safety gnawed at his insides. Far away from the oppressive walls of the great stone building they were safe from discovery and the snakewoman had been happier. Now she had returned to her shy role. She was such a strong woman and it felt completely wrong to Ell to see her act with such weakness. It did not suit her, even if it had been his idea.
“My dear lady, are you quite alright?” the king queried turning to the pale Dratoan.
“Yes, sire”, she answered feeling queasy inside.
“You look as if you have seen a ghost. You are sure?”
The concern the king was displaying was genuine, but it made Ell fight hard against fending off a headache that was brewing in him. Of course it seemed as if Ranadin had seen a ghost, the judging eyes of her father and the tormented spirit of her mother for not slipping a dagger in between the king’s ribs on sight. She nodded to the king’s words and he was placated.
“Truly this day is not fit for illness or sorrow. Look, nephew, who I have brought with me”, the royal turned to a new subject and as he spoke Ytja rode forth revealing her presence.
“Your cousin has joined my court to further her education. I do hope you come and visit us in Ferengeti. I have found the most suitable suitor for her”, he continued with enthusiasm, but glancing at Ell slyly.
“As you wish, sire”, the young man answered showing the appropriate amount of respect.
“But you must excuse us, uncle, I must escort the lady Rana back to the castle. We have not broken fast since morning, and I fear that does impair my ability to protect her, as you know is my vow.”
“Nonsense! We decided to go for a lunch in the country on this fine day. Do join us”, the king advised and unmounted his horse. The rest of the representatives of his court followed his example, and the servants that had followed them began raising a pavilion. It had no walls offering an appropriate amount of shade. The floor was covered in luxurious carpets and cushions to serve as seats.
“Nephew, you must sit with your cousin and lady Rana, I insist you sit on my right.”
A crafty light flashed in his eyes, but none of his subjects saw it, and as so it was noted by solely Ranadin. The general opinion of the king was that he was an unsuspecting and benevolent fool with extremely good fortune as most things turned in his favour. Ranadin knew better as did the king himself. He stopped at nothing to get what he wanted and he had his mind set on solving the mystery of lady Rana’s destination.
“This is an honour, your majesty”, Ranadin said with bile rising in her throat as she carefully sat in the indicated spot. The king beamed at her words and she struggled to not show her disgust with the contents of her stomach.
“Do call me Taumring, please, dear lady”, the king said to instigate an air of familiarity that had not existed before. The wrinkles in Ell’s forehead deepened. As a member of the king’s family he knew the man’s ways better than many others.
”I thank you, sir Taumring”, Ranadin uttered pasting a smile on her face keeping her eyes hidden. The king would have wanted to grab the young noblewoman by the chin to see the continuously concealed orbs, but he restrained himself to play to his court’s sensibilities. Suddenly Ell lifted his cup high in the air declaring:
”To lady Rana of Alta and her future husband lord Damman!”
The courtiers exchanged puzzled looks wondering had the king’s nephew’s actions been appropriate. The king Taumring put their wondering to rest as he also lifted his cup and repeated Ell’s celebratory words.
To Ell’s great fortune lord Damman was mostly unknown amongst court. He was old as the land he owned and as poor as one could be by still being able to be a nobleman. He lived as a hermit far in the north on a small border estate with his equally ancient servants. Lord Damman was known as the Homeless which meant that he belonged to no known city or family line.
The courtiers followed the king’s example and lifted their drinks to drink to their health:
”To lady Rana of Alta and lord Damman!”
”May their union be long and prosperous”, the king smiled almost cruelly. Lightning cracked over the sky that had suddenly darkened.
”We should return to the safety of the castle”, the king said and the all of his subjects followed his not so subtle order.
Ranadin walked out from under the cover of the pavilion and stayed there standing as the humans were fleeing from the sour weather. She observed how Ell stopped to speak with Ytja who was listening to his words with devotion. Her face suddenly turned irritated and she slapped Ell on the side of his face. The young man’s sad eyes followed his cousin as she flounced to her mount.
Ranadin then turned her face to the sky closing her eyes and letting the rain slide off of her. She had never felt water fall from the sky. She could taste the clouds and the brightness of the air that lived high above the mountains, and she had never wanted the form a dragon as much then. They were not meant to live bound to the land, but fly free roaring in the thunder racing against the storm winds testing the strength of their wings.
Ell came to her leading their horses behind him.
”Do you need any help?” he asked. Ranadin regarded the chestnut mare that had turned almost black in the pouring rain and shook her head. She mounted the beast and followed Ell to the castle gates. In the courtyard she said farewell to the horse by petting its silky mane. It blew warm air that flew upwards as steam.
”Do you like her?” a young voice asked from behind. Ranadin turned to find the child who had greeted Ell the previous day.
”It is a very nice animal. Does she have a name?” she inquired in a friendly tone. The child considered her carefully from under his brown bangs.
”Summerwind”, the boy finally answered.
”It sounds like a peaceful name.”
”It is. Summerwind is the kindest of all the horses in the whole wide world”, the boy said proudly and jumped of the stool he had been standing on behind the stall door. He approached the mare that lowered its head to his level and snorted at him affectionately. A true smile formed on Ranadin’s face by its own volition as the boy lifted his hand to the mare’s neck and stroked her gently.
“I believe you. What is your name?” Ranadin probed. The boy viewed at her suspiciously at the completely soaked woman.
“My momma said not to speak to strangers.”
“Your mother is very wise.”
The boy’s face brightened unexpectedly.
“I like you. You’re much nicer than the other adults, like papa. He’s not very nice. Always orders us around”, he explained excitedly.
“What if I’m not an adult?” Ranadin asked mysteriously. The boy contemplated her with frowning.
“But you are, aren’t you? I heard you were going to marry some old geezer. Only adults can marry. Momma said.”
“Is that what you hear? No, I definitely am not an adult yet.”
“Why aren’t you home then?” the boy examined.
“I was very naughty, I did not listen to my parents. I was sent away, very very far far far away”, the Dratoan revealed.
“Where do you come from?” the boy then wanted to know. Ranadin shrugged.
“From Alta, I guess.”
“What do you mean, you guess? Don’t you know where you are from?” the boy wondering at her silliness.
“Well, I’ve never actually lived in Alta.”
“Where have you lived then?”
Ranadin glanced to the ceiling ill at ease and then answered:
“Oh, you mean near the king?”
Now the snakewoman found her feet most interesting.
“What’s your name?”
“You can call me Rana.”
“It’s not your name then?”
His voice was confounded.
“A part of it. But… If you tell me your name, I’ll tell you my whole name”, she persuaded.
“Farrim”, the boy answered without hesitation curiosity growing inside him.
The boy’s expression was triumphant, but Farrim continued his interrogation in a steady, serious voice.
”That’s not a normal name, though pretty. What does it mean?”
“Well that depends on how old the tongue is. In the younger tongue it means sky lion, but in its oldest form my name is Lionstar.”
“Your parents liked the sky?”
“Yes. But where I come from the sky is a very big part of the way we live.”
“And where is it you come from?”
Ranadin looked at her nails thinking for a while. They were long and sharp as daggers. She tried to find a flaw in them, anything at all to fix, but there was nothing. She then crouched down indicating for Farrim to come closer with her finger. He did and then Ranadin spoke in a whisper.
“Do you promise not tell anyone?”
Farrim nodded solemnly.
“To no one at all, or cross your heart and hope to die?” the snakewoman confirmed.
“Stick a needle in my eye. Promise.”
She then paused for effect.
“I come from…”
Farrim’s excitement grew until the boy was positively shaking. Finally, hoping she would not live to regret this, she spoke.
The boy stopped moving all together and for a moment she was afraid he had stopped breathing. But the boy hadn’t and was regarding her with a new light in his eyes.
“You are a Dratoan”, he stated shocked. Ranadin nodded hoping to all hope that the strong reaction was not a cue for the boy to start running and telling everybody that there was a member of the snakekin of Caroon running free in the castle. The time stretched longer than when she had kept the information away from him.
“You shouldn’t be here”, he finally said breaking the awkward silence.
“You’re right”, Ranadin confessed. She saw in the eye of her mind a flash of the coming bloody war where both innocent and guilty would die. She imagined how someone would find his little form, the brown hair and the green tunic smeared with blood, in the midst of burning houses, a woman crying over him and a man vowing revenge to those who had caused this.
But they did the same to us.
The words were hissed in her restless soul echoing in the emptiness.
“What are you doing here then?” Farrim questioned.
“I am on my way north, home”, she explained.
“And how did you end up here?”
“Ell of Adanor”, she said without any other clarification.
“My big brother? Wicked.”
“Your brother?” she repeated disbelieving. She then examined Farrim closer and could instantly see the similarities between her friend and this boy. They both had the same brown hair, though the younger boy’s was a shade lighter, and eyes, and the same facial features.
“What’s your story, Farrim? I thought Ell’s family was back in Adanor.”
It was the boy’s turn to be surprised and avert his eyes uncomfortable. Farrim’s head and shoulders sunk his normally bright and energetic countenance turning quiet and almost shy.
“Momma and papa are dead. They sent me to uncle and brother. I’ll be knight too, just like Ell will be and uncle is.”
“My parents are dead, too”, Ranadin said and pulled the boy in to an embrace. He burrowed into it sobbing silently. They sat there on the straws of Summerwind’s stall for a long while guarded by the mare. The boy finally broke the embrace and Ranadin smiled at him sadly.
“This is our little secret, right?” Ranadin asked quietly. The boy nodded happiness returning to him. He had known all along that there was something different about lady Rana. Something special and unhuman. Farrim had been many times praised for his perception skills and he had been predicted to become an archer.
“How come you’re not an adult though you’re so big?” the boy asked changing topics.
“The snakekin have a ceremony of adulthood. I can’t be an adult until I’ve had my ceremony.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty. How about you?”
“Nine. You’re adults only at twenty? Ell was an adult already at fifteen!” Farrim exclaimed.
“We live longer than humans, besides twenty is not that much more than fifteen.”
“How come you didn’t pass?”
An innocent question, but painful and filled with shame for a Dratoan.
“I ran away”, Ranadin said.
The boy’s eyes were wide now. In their world humans, especially women, belonged to the land. They were tied by practicality and defence in addition to laws and duty that were more harshly enforced on women.
“I did not walk the path of my foremothers. I did not want to be the guardian of the gates.”
“You people have inherited jobs?”
“That’s stupid. It’s good you ran away. Are you happy?”
“Am I happy?” she breathed. Farrim was a rare child. She could sense a special destiny in him, a talent the ancient dragons all had, but now was rarer.
“A group of very bad men took my cousin away when were travelling through the Great Forest”, the snakewoman told him.
“Oh”, Farrim breathed.
“What was he like?”
“He was my family. Kind, yet stern. We used to spar with battle staffs.”
“I thought there had to be something like that. You looked too strong to be a shy lady.”
“Is that what you think?”
“That’s what I think.”
“Well, if you saw through my ruse so quickly, I hope the others believe I’m shy lady Rana.”
“They do. You are pale as any lady should be. It’s only me. I’m perceptive, remember?”
Farrim carried himself with pride, but then shrank again to his normal stance as Summerwind pushed him with her muzzle as if to tease him.
“It is very good to be as perceptive as you are.”
Ranadin’s compliment made Farrim blush.
“Thanks”, he said shyly.
Thunder cracked in the distance causing Summerwind to jerk. Farrim shushed and caressed her to calm her down.
“Miserable weather”, Ranadin declared.
“Yes. The weather is always like this when winter comes. We usually study all day if it’s raining, but today is a free day. I like studying, but the others think it’s boring.”
“The others are wrong. You will become an educated and civilized man one day.”
“Do you like humans?” the boy asked suddenly and then hid behind the mare’s mane.
“Some”, she answered without pause.
The boy’s voice was hopeful, and trembled a bit with the fear of rejection.
“And Ell”, she filled his unfinished sentence.
“Is it because we haven’t killed anybody like you?”
Ranadin weighed her words carefully.
“It is because you treat me as your equal, as a person.”
“What’s so amazing about that? You are people. You talk, build and feel.”
Ranadin huffed trying to conceal her laughter. The innocence of the young.
“So that is how humans are defined.”
“That’s how I define people. Uncle Taumring doesn’t like Dratoans at all, but I’ve always been interested in your kind.”
“Really? Tell me, what is it you know about my ‘kind’?”
“You ruled us once.”
Ranadin confirmed his answer with an accepting gesture that also signalled Farrim to go on.
“What was it like?”
“Ruling? None of my kin remembers such things. It has been so long…”
“No, I mean flying-“
“I’m not that old. Snakekin haven’t flown for thousands of years.”
“But…” Farrim insisted.
“There was a dragon in these parts not two centuries ago.”
“Truly? I haven’t heard that any one of my kin has ruled the skies since the breaking of the holy ancestor.”
“It terrorized my very very great grandparents. Ate the sheep and burned the crops.”
“That is very bad, but dragons do not bother their heads with such simple things as burning crops and eating sheep. They aren’t at all like that.”
“I know that. You made us forced labour”, Farrim challenged afraid that the snakewoman would be offended.
“Not in the beginning”, Ranadin answered self-consciously.
“In the beginning?”
“Yes, in the beginning of time we were good and wise rulers of the world. Humans were our subjects, but mostly friends and allies. The ancient humans worshipped us as their gods and swore upon the fact that we brought a blessing onto the lands.”
“But what went wrong?”
“We were corrupted. Humans offered us the lands shining riches as sacrifice, gold and gems. They were prized greatly by humans due to their beauty. Love made us blind.”
“There were humans who were not subdued by the dragons. They broke our most sacred statue, the image of the first dragon. In that statue lived the spirit of the first dragon. It had been captured into the form so that dragons could take form. Those free humans took the spirit of the first dragon and prisoned it into an innocent human.”
“I didn’t know that. We did that?”
“In those days, also humans were powerful. But in the end they lost their power. My kin has lost many abilities over the years, too.”
“Tell me more”, Farrim begged.
“It is late. Some other time perhaps.”
“Please, please”, the boy continued persistently.
“Why such an itch?” Ranadin wondered.
“We had a nanny who told us all kinds of things about the Dratoans. She was one. I don’t know where she came from, but she sometimes mentioned a place called Piras. But she died in the same accident as momma and papa.
Ranadin’s happy expression disappeared only to be replaced one of unadulterated astonishment. She was right. There were cities like Caroon in other places as well. Piras was still alive though it had been believed to be completely destroyed as it had been one of the first cities where the humans had rebelled and conquered.
“Would you tell me the Dratoan creation story? Faugtari promised many times, but she never had the time…”
Farrim’s badgering disappeared as Ranadin was completely consumed by the new information the little boy had given him.
“Another time”, she could hear her distant voice say and vaguely registered his disappointment. She had no time to react when her feet took her mechanically out of the stall and then further to the staircase leading up into the castle where she bumped right into king Taumring of Deles.