Ranadin woke with a start in the first hours of a new morning. Her skin was cold and clammy with sweat. The fire had faded yet it wasn’t cold she was shivering from, but another nightmare that had felt real. A fear had grown in her heart, a fear that had stopped her from sleeping. Her insomnia had been going on for weeks and the vibrancy of her being had faded. Her hair had lost its subtle shine and was grey to the eyes, her golden eyes had become a dull yellow and her skin was ashy. She resembled a walking corpse.
Farrim had not come to her to hear stories any more and the guards had found her unwilling to speak with them. She was mute, and they had become to fear her in her frail state. Those of the snakekin were supposed to be strong and brave, even cold-blooded and unfeeling, they thought. Ranadin felt lonely amongst all these strangers, a people who did not understand her constant worry and deep contemplation over the symbols of her culture.
She remembered vaguely that she had had the same dream when she had been young, but the recurring nightmares had strongly brought back the memories of her childhood back. In the dream she was chased. She ran, but she did not move, she screamed yet no sound could be heard. Her pursuer or pursuers got constantly nearer, but did not approach her. They surrounded her, but she was able to escape just before she was caught.
The amount of the pursuers changed from one to countless others their faces changing constantly. Sometimes she could see the face of king Taumring, and other times an unknown young man. It never mattered who or how many there were, the only thing she knew for sure was that were she ever to be caught her destiny would be death or eternal slavery.
Ranadin watched as the sun rose on the white sky. The time of daylight got shorter and shorter which was odd to her. She was so used to the unchanging dim of torches. Snow made the world shine even in the darkness of night. The sun rays reflected from the surface of the snow travelling to all directions making it seem softer.
The hills around the castle were vague shapes rippling like mirages on the edge of her vision hiding much life. They resembled clouds that would fill the light blue sky on summer days. Maybe they were the clouds of summer come down to earth to rest bringing the chill of the high heavens with them.
Ranadin had heard that the humans believed the heavens to be hot for it was where the sun resided, but it was warned in Dratoan legends never to fly too high for the danger was that your wings would freeze. With frozen wings the only way down was falling and no other dragon could save you.
Humans had a similar story, another warning to the earthbound creatures. It was a legend of an inventor and his son who were prisoned in a high tower that had no stairs down. They built wings with feathers, wood and candle wax. They had fled flying over the sea. The father had warned his son about flying too low for the seawater would make the wings heavy. He also cautioned his son not to fly too high for the heat of the sun would melt the wax. The legend of the snakekin was similar. The first dragon, Draco, had taught its first youngling, Ceris, to fly in this fashion.
“Do not fly close to the ground for otherwise you will destroy the dwellings of humans as you are strong and they are fragile, but do not fly too high so that your wings will stop baring you and you will fall and destroy the dwellings of humans, for you are strong, but not infinitely so. Always remember your finite power, this is strength. Be always careful about it, for were you to destroy the dwellings of humans, you would not only take your own life, but those of others, lives not offered to you.”
The youngling had not listened as it had been too excited about its first flight. Draco tried to make sure that Ceris had listened to his words, but the youngling had only nodded eagerly and made impatient noises. In the end Draco let its youngling shoot into the sky.
Ceris was frightened by the height of the mountain and was not able to be airborne. It began surging towards the ground, but was able to pull up knocking down some trees just as it was about to meet the tree tops. Draco shook its head and flew after its young. It tried to warn Ceris, but the youngling did not listen and in the euphoria of its speed Ceris flew higher and higher closer to father sky.
The youngling began losing feeling in his body and there was less and less air to breathe. Ceris began falling. The wise Draco had stayed lower circling through the heavens and immediately saw when its dear youngling began its descent from high above. It flew to catch Ceris, but failed. Down on the ground it created a crater with the impact taking many humans and their dwellings with it to the nether world of the dragons. Draco fell into a deep depression and helped the humans rebuild their homes. They felt sorry for it, even when it had been Draco’s youngling that had brought them so much misery. The foolishness of youth.
Tea always came to Ranadin exactly when she woke up. Tep’s wife was not surprised to find her so. The first morning that the nightmare had roused Ranadin, Tea had been severely startled by her consciousness and had gazed at her admonishingly. After Ranadin had told the woman that she had suffered from a nightmare that the woman could do nothing about, Tea had calmed down.
Some mornings Tea had observed her restlessness suggesting several methods of curing her from her dreams that had ranged from single discussion, to teas made of calming herbs and a changed diet. Ranadin had consented to try the herbs, but they worked only when she had thoroughly exhausted her energy reserves, and to be so completely drained was a foreign concept to the snakekin.
She had requested to train with her battle staff, but the guards and warriors had refused to even contemplate asking permission from Joarik. Their greatest protest was that women should not fight, not even snakewomen. In the end Ranadin had exhausted the warriors by running the circumference of the castle walls several times a day. The first time she had went running the guards had been in full gear, but had soon come to regret this when they discovered how fast Ranadin was.
They ran now with only their trousers on, but they refused to remove their footwear unlike Ranadin as they were more susceptible to the cold. Nobody had denied her the running as the castle was surrounded by large expanses of open ground. Were she to escape, it would be discovered quickly.
Ranadin preferred her leather uniform, but she was allowed to use the old gowns of Joarik’s mother as Tea had thought earlier. He had given her permission with a formal letter.
It is refreshing to the castle to see the youth of my beloved mother grace these halls again. I have missed her for years, and your presence reminds us of her. I knew my mother better than my brothers, and I know she would have adored you. She would have been appalled by the actions of Taumring.
We hope you will enjoy your stay with us.
Sir Joarik Pathraon
The head of the house of Pathraon, the lord of the fortress of Loulea, the governor of Aquilonem, the commander-in-chief of the maintenance army of Deles, the prince of the city states of Adanor and Alta
No other letters from Joarik had been forthcoming and she rarely saw her host.
Tea dressed Ranadin in a light yellow gown that had sleeves following the curves of her arms tightly and was tied at the waist with a thick gold chain. She then tied the snakewoman’s hair into a ponytail that she tied with another, thinner golden chain. After Ranadin had been dressed, a knock came from the door and one of her guards stepped in.
“Sir Joarik would like to see you in his study.”
The guard was unusually formal and his face was tight as if he had heard bad news. Ranadin exited her room and the guards gathered around her tighter then they commonly did. They eyed their surroundings with more vigilance in a way that suggested they expected an attack from their own. They glared severely every one they encountered on their way.
They arrived to Joarik’s study where the lord of the castle had his back towards the door for he was gazing outside of his window, one of the few covered with glass panes. Joarik’s summons had come unexpected as he had clearly indicated that he wished to have as little as possible to do with the Dratoan. The man’s gaze had always avoided where she stood. She was a ghost who had caused only too real troubles.
“Your grace”, the guard intoned in the same formal tone and the lord indicated towards the chair that was on the other side of his desk. The guard pulled out the chair to allow Ranadin to sit in it. She smiled at him gratefully and took the seat organising the hem of her gown subtly and then crossing her arms in her lap gracefully. She wore on her face a polite, lightly interested expression that observing the other women in court had taught her to don. She had adopted many of their mannerisms to fit into this society she did not belong to.
“Have you enjoyed your stay?” Joarik asked and turned to look directly at Ranadin.
“I have, your grace”, she answered, not a lie though not the complete truth. The man nodded satisfied with the answer. He was stiff like the guard was.
“I do think it is enough you call me sir Joarik.”
Ranadin nodded continuing to wear the same distant mask. The castle lord was bothered by something, stalling, looking for words. He paced behind the desk when he finally sat down on his own chair almost violently.
“It… Against my best efforts the news of your waking has come to my brother’s attention and he is on his way here.”
His stance was apologetic and he rose to begin pacing again. Ranadin didn’t react immediately. It was the custom of humans, and even longer custom of the snakekin, to consider carefully before responding to such news. Her cousin had never had such skill. Ranadin on the other hand had always been contemplative. She was able to make quick decisions, but even her decision to leave on her quest had been a decision that had taken years to mature. Calm and collected thoughts were prized highly amongst the Dratoans, when such actions were used for carefully crafted subterfuge in the human society.
“I understand. You have shown me great kindness, it is not your place to protect me from your ruler”, she said without inflection.
“As these are likely the last days of my life, may I follow my own customs?”
Joarik was confused. The snakewoman’s words were surprising to him. In his experience people became rebellious when their lives were threatened feeling cornered and lashing out or finding a way to escape. He did not voice his thoughts, but said:
“Yes, I believe that is reasonable. Dismissed.”
Ranadin got up to leave, but then she paused and turned back to the man who had turned back to the window with a contemplative air about him.
“Sir Joarik, may I inquire to something else before I go?”
Joarik nodded absent-mindedly.
“Is it too much to ask to be allowed to dance with the battle staff again?”
He turned sharply to gaze at her with scrutiny. He then grunted and picked up a quill scribbling something on a piece of parchment.
It is by the decree of Sir Joarik Pathraon that Ranadin Dirroceris of Caroon to be allowed the use of her confiscated belongings barring that she use them to escape or harm the castle inhabitants.
Ranadin smiled at the words and gave the slip to one of the guards who had been waiting in the hallway. They read it without comprehension. Then one of them shrugged and they led her to the store room where her belongings had been taken. They took her battle staff stepping aside to allow her to change into her more practical attire. One of the guards breathed out when Ranadin stepped out of the storeroom in a loose cotton tunic, a tight leather vest and britches and boots styled for combat and heavy travelling. Her hair was in a long golden braid that flowed down her back as a thick cord.
“So this is Ranadin”, the leader of the guards, Wech, huffed. The snakewoman hissed snappily making the guards smiles grow.
“Are we to venture to the training grounds?” Wech’s right hand Dael asked.
The guards felt more like an honour guard as they escorted Ranadin passed servants and other inhabitants of the castle who were staring at them with disbelief. The snakewoman seemed to have recovered something that made her a completely different creature, a sense of power and life emanating from her.
When they came to the training grounds the guards took of most of their gear knowing that Ranadin was quick. She did encourage them to wear light leather armour as she was quite strong as well. By now having learnt to listen to her words about her abilities, they followed her advice.
The guards gave her the battle staff and then pulled out their dulled training swords taking ready stances. She began her attack almost lazily literally, as she had called it, dancing becoming one with her weapon in a way that none of the onlookers had ever seen before. She came to regret going easy on the guards, as she had to almost struggle against the men who were using their full strength against her. She could feel that she was still weakened from her injuries and time unconscious.
She was disarmed. She had been holding her weapon too loosely and it had been knocked away from her hands. Being without weapon did not phase Ranadin for even a moment, she crouched down and began attacking them with expert kicks and punches. And now she unleashed her complete strength and skill against them.
Their sparring had gathered a great amount of people to with them of which some mocked her. After bringing out her complete force the fight did not take long and soon all of her guards were on the ground groaning with aches and pains for she had held back enough to not injure them seriously. She was left standing in the middle of the training grounds barely breathing harder than when she had begun.
The onlookers began dispersing, whispering fiercely amongst themselves. As they left Ranadin turned back to her guards helping them up ensuring that they truly were well.
“It is only our pride that truly is hurt”, Dael said with a coughing laugh.
“Bruised and defeated by a woman. The horror”, Wech teased making Ranadin smile slightly.
Ranadin began limping back towards the castle making her way to the hospital wing where Physil was taking care of a young girl who had a cut on her forehead. After taking care of the girl Physil got up eyeing Ranadin critically from head to toe.
“And what in the blazes have you done to yourself?” the old woman asked clearly vexed.
“I was at the training grounds”, the snakewoman answered. Physil shook her with disapproval and clicked her tongue.
“No, no. This will not do at all. You are still recovering; you have strained yourself. You need to rest and begin more lightly”, she rambled.
“I have never strained myself, as you say, not even when I have trained a whole day”, Ranadin protested. The healer shot her with a murderous glare.
“Well then you hadn’t broken several bones and laid in a bed for weeks. Only light sparring or I will order you to stop completely!” Physil threatened and then turned to her next patient, a young boy who had just stepped into the hospital wing, with a kind smile.
In the end Ranadin did follow Physil’s orders and began again lighter. Her condition improved quickly after she reacquainted herself with exercises from her childhood. They trained several hours a day and the endurance that did not come naturally to humans improved in the guards. They had learned to be quick running with her, and many warriors joined them seeing the benefit in her training regimen.
Days passed. There was no word from the king about his decision about her fate. Ranadin began wishing that her life could be easier. Instead of the warriors only joining her, she began actively training the castle troops meeting with approval from Joarik. Her guards were the most advanced as they had been with her longer. They continued to protect her and were proud to be considered her bodyguards.
Some of the men complained about her technique calling them too feminine, but she told them it was the way all of the snakekin trained, they were ancient practices that had remained unchanged from the times of the Dratoan Empire. They did not believe her, but did as their fellow warriors not wanting to be worse.
The training began with running followed with their own sparring. It was not until they ran well, fast and long, that she moved to the next task. She sparred with each of the warriors to determine their strengths and weaknesses as most of them were already fully trained and had years of experience behind them. She then developed programmes that developed each of these skills.
After each day the warriors were out of breath and sore. They could hardly keep up with her even with all their skill. They were so hungry that they ate whatever was given them without complaint. Ranadin saw that the food was building their muscles to be bulky instead of enduring, so she changed their diet as well.
“The food must be lighter and of better quality. White meats such as chicken and fish would be preferable. They should have many vegetables and the bread should be made of the dark grain. They must avoid wine and beer”, she advised madame Farning who listened to her words carefully. The head cook was refreshed with new instructions as she now had the chance to develop and experiment instead of making the same dishes she had for years.
The first night the new diet was implemented, it was met with many complaints about the amount and lightness. They craved their pork.
“This is not the food of men!” one of them yelled and hit his fist into the table. Joarik observed the warriors actions with interest. He was still granted the food he wished to eat, but Haumm had joined Ranadin’s training and was gazing to his father’s table hopefully.
“And when there is war and you have become used to fattening food you are allowed to eat to your hearts’ content? Is there a limited amount of food at the camps? It is good that you learn to eat with more moderation. You will get used to this food and in the end you will not wish to return to your earlier ways. This is the way my people have dined since we became earthbound”, Ranadin encouraged. Some of the warriors nodded and other mumbled their protest, but since there was no other type of food forthcoming, they ate what was given them.
“Milk is the drink of children!” was the next loud objection she heard. It came from a knight in his prime, a man who was known to be very particular about his honour.
“And yet children are strong, are they not?”
Her question was met with assenting murmurs.
“Do you know why?” this was directed to the knight who had raised his voice. He shook his head his blond hair swinging lightly.
“They drink their milk.”
Many laughed, but the knight was sour after being humiliated by a snakewoman.
When she had seen to the improvement of the individual skills of the warriors she moved onto improve their skills in working together. She organised them into groups that would attack each other, or would team up against her. This did not mean that she allowed to abandon the other parts of the training, they were still required to run and strengthen their weaknesses.
In a show of support already the next evening the same food the warriors ate was served at the head table. A new trend was born amongst the castle’s high born women. They liked to watch their health following a lighter version, more suitable version of Ranadin’s routine. They even took up running after with the help of Tea, Ranadin developed gear that was suitable to the women, yet proprietary. The only lady not following was Frenna, but nobody was surprised about that.