“Lady Rana! What a surprise! We had begun wondering where you had disappeared when you did not attend dinner with Ell”, the king exclaimed delighted, but his voice faded as the words flowed out of him. Ranadin’s eyes had blinked open in surprise and their unusual colour gleamed in the torchlight like golden stars.
The king jumped back and his hand landed on the hilt of his sword. Ranadin began backing away as the king drew his sword out of its sheath inch by inch. Her eyes travelled wildly around in the staircase trying to find a weapon.
Taumring started slowly closing in on her and together they moved down the staircase. When they came to the last landing Ranadin turned in a flash her hair cutting through the air like razors and ran through the stable as quickly as she could. She could hear the king yelling something behind her.
She burst into the rain and promptly tumbled as her foot snagged in the hem of her gown. She got up swiftly and ripped the hem standing in the soaked courtyard only in her frilly underwear and unpractical ribbon socks. She yanked the socks off and began sprinting. Behind her she could hear the neighing of horses and the king cursing the slowness of the stable hands. Even with her superior sight she could hardly see farther than her nose in the storm, but then lightning struck over the sky lighting the world only for a moment, but for a great enough time that Ranadin could see the guards trying to close the heavy gates. She sped up her steps and slipped through crack between the gates.
“OPEN THE GATES! LOWER THE BRIDGE!” she heard the angry king bellow over the raging storm. The guards obeyed him immediately, but Ranadin had already swam over the moat and shivering from the cold had come to land on the muddy beach on the other side.
Without delay she got up and ran. She ran far and could hear the clatter of hooves behind her on the hills where they had ridden in a beautiful weather only hours ago. She risked a glance behind her and saw the torchlight illuminating the great group of cavalry in pursuit of her. The riders were directing the horses in every which way as they were not sure which way she had gone. A new lightning strike came with a yell:
And the sound of speeding mounts.
Ranadin had never run like that. She had been active all her life and sparred with the snakekin of her own generation and older. She had ran and walked in the never-ending mazes, raced with them and laughed triumphantly as she had won over everybody else. But all of that had been fun, the past times of a young Dratoan yet to achieve her adleten, yet to see the outside world.
Had the humans pursued her on foot, she would have left them behind by now. She had never raced against a horse so she was unsure on how much to speed and how much to conserve her strength. These horses were rested and fed with riders clothed in light gear. They had taken pursuit with only a moment’s notice, so the knights were not in full uniform.
Warning bells rang through the long castle corridors. Ell who had been deep in thought was jerked into awareness seeing his fellow warriors move to the courtyard where men were mounting recently equipped horses. As he saw his uncle the king sitting on a horse in the very front of the gathering group with a fierce expression on his weathered face Ell could feel his heart drop.
One of his worst fears had come true.
Taumring had not seem him, but was searching him with his eyes. Shrugging his shoulders the king bellowed out an order to ride out and Ell speedily mounted one of the horses and hid amongst the warriors from his uncle’s sharp gaze as they moved outside into the vast countryside.
The rain was thinning as Ranadin continued running. The velvety night covered the sky and she could feel exhaustion weighing in every part of her body. She had slowed down, but so had her pursuers. The slippery ground was dangerous and the riders did not want their mounts injured.
The world was dark, even the moon had disappeared behind the clouds. The world was light every now and again with occasional lightning as the storm moved away. Ranadin sped up when she felt the ground become more even. Her pursuers had noticed the same thing. She could feel the ground vibrate closer to her.
“Ah!” Ranadin screamed as her foot slipped and she began rolling down a steep hill. She couldn’t hear the riders any more, but she could hear nothing else either. The night around her had become silent and the only sound was the occasional thump when her body collided with the ground. The world stopped and she could hear a distant call. She could feel gentle hands touching her cheek and she opened her eyes only to see red as her body convulsed in pain.
“Rana”, a familiar voice whispered. She wanted to answer, but no sound would escape her. The hands studied her to catalogue the injuries she had received from the fall. Suddenly the hands disappeared and she could hear soft footsteps disappear into the darkness.
“Oi! It’s hear!” he heard a harsh voice yell and then a kick to her side. The agonizing pain disappeared slightly and Ranadin could make out the light of the torches surround her. She regained feeling in her legs and rolled taking out the feet of one of the warriors. The fallen warrior cursed from pain.
As Ranadin used her momentum to get up another of the three warriors grabbed her and threw her back into the ground. Ranadin yelped with agony as her right arm hit the ground. Her left one seemed healthy enough so she pretended to be subdued.
The first warrior had gotten up and was nearing her furiously. The warrior drew his sword, but before he could strike Ranadin had grabbed the dagger peeking out of his boot and sliced a deep wound into his leg. This was accompanied by more foul words and Ranadin used the warriors’ momentary distraction to her advantage and grabbed the sword that had fallen to the ground. She knocked all three out and then attempted to jump onto the back of one of the horses when an arrow flew just by her ear.
Abandoning her plan, she began running again holding her broken arm to her body. Her injuries slowed her down and her initial weariness made her lose her breath. She guessed she had broken some of her ribs.
Ranadin could hear a horse speed towards her when her hair was grabbed. The snakewoman extracted her healthy hand to try to loosen the iron grip of the person ripping her hair from its roots. The ache grew to a throbbing pain that was too much to bear. She would never forget the sight of a golden blade swinging towards her.
Ell watched from atop of his horse amongst the other warriors how his uncle carefully approached the white haired woman lying on the ground. Her face was bruised and blood slowly dripped from her temple. Her left hand was in an unnatural position. Her feet were bare and clothes were dirty from wet grass and mud. Only a moment earlier Thull had been holding the yelling and flailing snakewoman by the hair. Several pure white strands had fallen off and were scattered far outside the ring created by torchlight.
“Look at that…. Animal that has slithered freely under our very noses.”
Taumring pointed at Ranadin with disgust standing a bit away from her body as if afraid she was only pretending and could jump up at any moment to kill all of them. He could hear discordant muttering amongst the men. To his amazement some expressed pity for the young creature that had been treated with such cruelty.
Ranadin looked very frail, breakable, in a way that she came only close to when she was sleeping. Yet even then the snakewoman emanated an aura of unhuman strength and grace. When she was awake and herself one could not help but admire her courage and self-awareness. But this was his uncle’s will that the Dratoans, a proud and beautiful people, would turn frail and dead in this way.
“Is Ell here?” the king asked and turned to the group of warriors. His comrades around him moved away to reveal him to his uncle. Ell stepped forward, the warriors regarding him with sympathy and agreed silently to remember the lad with honour. With their eyes they silently asked for forgiveness for their betrayal, but Ell really could not care. Not when there were greater things to worry about.
“Where did you find that thing?” Taumring asked sweeping his hand towards the snakewoman.
“Her name is Ranadin, and she is my friend. She saved me in the Great Forest”, he answered trying not to show how much he truly cared.
“Saved? Is that the tale this filth has fed you?”
“She has not fed me any story. It was her cousin who fought against my captors when I begged for help. And then she and another of her kin saved me from the blood ivy”, he explained to his uncle patiently.
“This is what you claim to be true?” the king confirmed barely shaking of restrained rage.
“Yes, sire”, Ell assured. The king shook his head with disappointment.
“I will let it live for now and let the healers take care of its injuries. But its door must be locked and it will constantly have two guards. It will not be allowed to escape again”, the king ordered. The warriors followed them immediately and built stretchers to which they lowered Ranadin with surprising gentleness. They tried to hide their sympathy for her, but many kissed their fingers and laid them carefully on her forehead or cheek blessing her in the custom of their people as they would have done to their own daughters and sons.
“And you”, the king said turning to Ell. They exchanged gazes with neither blinking.
“You will come with me to Ferengeti tomorrow, so you will be free of this bitch whom has filled you with her foul love potions.”
Taumring filled his words with as much poison as he could feel in his body. Ell met his gaze steadily and coolly.
“As I said before, her name is Ranadin and she is my friend. Would you ask anyone here, they would tell you, my heart already belongs to another”, he said angering the king further with the complete and utter emotionless of his voice.
She dreamed. The world was white. The room was white and a white sun shone outside. She was up in the heavens, but it was not cold in the heavens and the icy fingers of winter did not creep into a lighted room like a dog wishing to warm itself by the fire. The icy fingers died before they could touch her and a silver haired woman dressed in all whites stepped into the room. She had wrinkles around her eyes that had the look of someone who had seen many years and many things.
“So you have woken at last”, the woman remarked in a friendly tone.
“You have slept a long time. You have been the most difficult patient I have ever had. I wish there had been more knowledge about the anatomy of your kin.”
She observed the old woman in confusion, but the woman acted as if there was nothing odd about the surroundings and proceedings.
“It is quite unusual that Taumring would allow you to live. He treats your kin with such contempt. Ancient enemies we may be, but there has been peace from the mountains and the ruin cities for so long that now we are repeating the same mistakes.”
As she spoke the elder went about her business and pulled out a needle that had a glass tube tied to it, the tube filled with a bright fluid. The woman stuck the needle into Ranadin’s leg and then grabbed a clean white linen to wipe away the gold-flecked blood from the wound the needle had created.
“You are fortunate, but I’m sure you know that. It still hard to believe as the king’s hatred has not diminished by the least. There must be some goodness and honour in that heart of his for recognising that you saved his nephew. Ell is a wonderful young man. Too bad he fell in love with that vain girl, the lady Ytja. Well, too late now. They’re married now, and hopefully that will contain her ways. Always being jealous of Ell’s attention. That boy’s eyes have never strayed, it is he who should be more careful with his heart.”
Ranadin sat up in surprise.
“Ell and Ytja are mated? When was this?”
“O dear, you haven’t heard? Of course you haven’t, you have been asleep so long. It was no more than two weeks past in Ferengeti. And what a magnificent wedding. Did you know he named Ell his successor? Completely out of the blue. Many had speculated that sir Joarik’s son would be the next king, but his majesty could not have chosen his heir better. What is your name, dear?” the elder explained continuing her chores and moving around Ranadin’s sickbed like a busy bee.
“Ranadin Dirroceris”, she answered following the woman’s movements getting dizzy. She laid her head back on the elevated pillows.
“It is wonderful to finally make your acquaintance. I am the castle healer madame Physisia Silva Bantrin-Salvach, but you can simply call me Physil”, the woman introduced herself and smiled in a way that made her seem younger.
“Do you not fear me, madame Bantrin-Salvach?” Ranadin inquired. The healer laughed good-heartedly.
“Physil”, she corrected gently and then added:
“Why should I fear someone who is as vulnerable and mortal as I am, or any other creature who wears the old earth? It is not my task, nor my worry to think about the past, the future, or the thoughts of others. It has been and will be my destiny to save and heal. And have I not accomplished this quite well with you?”
There was unmistakable pride in her voice. Ranadin nodded and answered Physil’s warm smile with a small one of her own.
“So Ell is in Ferengeti?” she confirmed.
“It is so, baderyn. And this makes you sad?”
Ranadin shook her head. Physil left her alone, finished her many tasks and left the room. Soon the lord of the castle, sir Joarik, stepped into the room his heart filled with mixed feeling.
“You saved Ell”, he stated. Ranadin did not answer, merely stared back at him with her unblinking, golden eyes. She felt like the main attraction of a bizarre exhibit.
“Th…” the man began and then appeared to need to gather himself.
“Thank you”, he finally blurted out rudely, but at least he had said it. Ranadin acknowledged his words with an acquiescing move of her head and let a small smile creep onto her face. The smile did not reach her eyes, but Joarik seemed more relaxed. Behind him stood an apologetic Haumm and behind him lurked Frenna who made no attempt to hide her disgust.
Joarik left the room and as the door opened Ranadin could see a glimpse of too heavily armed strong warriors who kept an eye on the corridor and her door vigilantly.
Now it was Haumm who approached her winking at her suggestively. Her only response was to lift one of her eyebrows. Haumm only smiled when he turned away and left. Frenna stayed seeming to not know if she should flee or meet the potential danger. The lady straightened her back.
“It is your fault that my son lost the chance to become king. If you interfere any more in the affairs of my family I will personally rip your heart from you with my bare hands”, she hissed so quietly that Ranadin’s guards could not hear her. Then Frenna opened the door and bolted out as if fire chased her.
Physil ordered Ranadin to stay in bed for one more week. She could barely get up to sit when the elder healer was already pushing her down. Madame Bantrin-Salvach meant well, but it led to the most boring time period in Ranadin’s life.
It was soon over though and she was allowed to move about the castle. Six bulky guards had been assigned to guard her, two always behind her, two in front and one on each of her sides. Joarik allowed her to go outside for walks, but she was not allowed to ride. The guards followed her everywhere. They were her standard guard and overtime they became to see her more as a friend then a prisoner.
They took it upon themselves to protect her from the stones cast by the children. The guards and Farrim were her only friends. Many of the warriors treated her with sympathy and were friendly towards her. It became a popular tradition among them to invite her to them to tell them stories about her life in Caroon and the legends of her kin. They were very interested in everything she told them, and then one day she told them how the world was born from the Nothing.
“The Nothing felt lonely and filled itself with the Sky, but when there was a sky, there was not only the Nothing. The Sky cried for the death of the Nothing and its tears shone brightly for the love in their creation that they became the many stars. The stars joined in the cry of the Sky and from all of their tears for loneliness and death a magnificent creature with strong wings and a noble form. That creature roared and woke the stars and the Sky from their sorrow. The stars looked upon the creature and could not stand its beauty, brightness and voice, so they fell from the sky.
“The creature roared once more and the stars joined together and created the Earth which the Sky took into its protection. The creature went to live in the Earth and moved about it shaping it. Deep ravines and high peaks were created in the skin of the Earth and these became the mountains and the seas. The Earth watched the Sky and fell in love. Through their love the blood of our world, water, came into the world. The water flowed down from the mountains that were closest to the Sky and made rivers and lakes until they came to the seas.
“The water and the roars of the creature tickled the world which laughed. From the music of the world’s laughter statues came up from the water and they were filled with joy of life the world felt, and the inheritance of the Nothing and the Sky was tied into them. The water statues moved of their own accord and came to the Earth where the sand mixed with the water making the statues solid. They grew hair and they had faces.
“As the water flowed some of the many drops fell on the Earth outside of the world’s veins and the joy of the world was caught in them. These drops became many types of plants and some of the water statues ate the plants becoming plant eaters. Other statues smelled the delicious smell of the plant eaters and decided eat them. They were the ancestors of the animals we know today.
“Then came the last water statues that walked upright on two feet and they looked around. They cut down trees and lifted rocks from the Earth and these they made their first weapons and home. And they ate everything the world offered them.
“The Sky looked at the world with the stars glimmering in its canvas and it appointed the first creature the leader of the water statues, and the Sky gave the creature a wise and good mind that would treat all living things with respect as it could be blinded by its beauty and magnificence. The last water statues were humans and they gave the first creature a name, Draco, the dragon.”
That story was the warriors’ favourite. They heard it many times, but they also heard the stories of the destruction of the holy statue and the kingdoms of the snakekin.
Joarik observed from the side-lines as the trust and affection his guards and youngest nephew held for the snakewoman grew. He hid the guards’ glowing reports from his wife who had vowed vengeance to the Dratoan after Haumm lost his chance to inherit the crown of Deles. Frenna refused to see how relieved her husband and son were.
Joarik had always known that Haumm would have been a poor king. Haumm was happy that he would never have to carry such a great burden. From early childhood he had hated the seed his mother had planted of him becoming king. It was one of the many reasons he had begun acting out, he wanted to be seen unworthy by his mother. Through all the antics he had tried Haumm had been unsuccessful in incurring his mother’s wrath. It had been a great boon that Ell had made Frenna’s plans fruitless.
Joarik sighed and turned to his desk which was lit by the natural light shining through his window. He could hear the clatter of hooves hitting the hard ground and many others charging after the rider. The gates shut with a bang unyielding not allowing the lone rider to escape. Joarik could not delay his wife’s message to the king forever, to inform Taumring of the awakening of the snakewoman.