XII. No Life, No Death

“Sabharor”, the stranger answered.

“Are you afraid?”

A shiver ran down Ranadin’s spine as he asked the question that she tended to ask the warriors. She gathered herself not to show the stranger any weaknesses.

“I, Ranadin, do not fear death, nor life”, she answered and Sabharor nodded at her words. He then surged forward to test her swiftness. Ranadin followed his movements. As Sabharor surged Ranadin retreated lifting her arm towards the sky and extending her neck like dancing.

They stood frozen like that for a time that seemed to last long. Sabharor began his attack again swinging his staff so quickly that human eyes could not see it as more than blurred lines. Ranadin answered his blows with the same speed. They sometimes stopped to look at each other. Their eyes flashed from bloodthirstiness to keen interest. Sabharor winked at her when she did a move he found impressive, and she would answer his winks with a seductive smile. Neither was fooled by the playfulness. It was a classic trap.

*****

“Look!” Gav whispered to Avagan who had turned his eyes to the forest. There had been an unusual amount of people around the castle for an amount of days and brimmed with curiosity they had come closer to follow the tournament.

They had seen Ranadin on the first day fighting and laughing like comrades with the humans like they were old friends. She did seem to avoid the strangers who were in the several tens if not hundreds. Then she had disappeared for a few days, but now she had spent the whole time from dawn fighting humans. They had heard that a great prize had been offered for beating her. Their surprise was greatest when the castle inhabitants defended her.

“Fascinating”, Avagan had voiced and after a few fights he had lost all interest. He did turn back now when a strange black rider had appeared from over the hills and had challenged Ranadin. He was strong and was an equal to her strength.

“Impossible!” Avagan yelled confusing Gav.

*****

Sabharor’s and Ranadin’s dance quickened. Hairs began falling from the braid Tea had so carefully crafted and the ribbons began impairing her vision. Even Sabharor’s neat hair was messed up by the fighting. The darroi staffs clanked together locking.

“Who are you?” Ranadin wondered.

“If you win, I might tell you”, the stranger dared. Ranadin huffed and feinted. Sabharor was not fooled and he answered the real offense. It was Ranadin’s turn to gain the upper hand and the stranger’s to defend.

*****

“Tanara, look at how they move! Ranadin taught me and the other knights of Loulea to fight like that”, Haumm stated with admiration in his voice. Tanara observed him with jealousy.

“Do you like her more than me?” she asked trying to turn his attention back to her. He turned to look at the little Thormaian.

“She is a snakewoman, dearest”, he said in explanation. Tanara laughed at Haumm’s silliness and admitted to herself that one would be fool not to admire the Dratoan.

*****

“What’s impossible?” Gav asked, but Avagan did not answer disappearing into the forest. Gav followed him and they climbed up into the tree.

“What in the heavens?” Gav exclaimed when he found Avagan digging through the whole cottage from the beds all the way to the grain storage. He dived into the food stuffs and returned with several stacks of rolled up parchment.

“These are my old notes from when I studied in Ferngard. I must check something”, he explained.

“Now?” Gav wondered incredulously. Avagan did not listen as he became engrossed in the parchments opening each one carefully. He read quickly and then threw the one he was reading into a growing pile behind him. His eyes travelled over the pages until at the last parchment he got up and showed it to Gav.

On the parchment was a picture of a tall man and a woman who had slightly pointed ears, straight black hair and angled eyes. The man’s arms were bare and muscled, the woman toned. Under the picture was a text.

Dimdraac. Most commonly known as a myth, but in truth extremely rare. Dimdraacs are the offspring of an altedraac and a Dratoan and are created under the same conditions as altedraacs: if an altedraac and a Dratoan are forced together, no child is born, but out of their love a dimdraac comes forth. The greater the love, the stronger the dimdraac. In some instances, they can be even stronger than Dratoans. There are some legends where a dimdraac won over three Dratoans, but this has been proven to be myth. However, in most confrontations between a dimdraac and a Dratoan, the dimdraac comes out the victor. They are also inherently intelligent and cunning. Conceiving this kin is illegal as a dimdraac is completely uncontrollable and will do nothing that will not serve its own purpose. Dangerous kin, advised to avoid by all possible means. The kin have a liking to savagery, though there are some exceptions.

“How do you know it’s this dimdraac?”

“You would know best. Have you ever seen anyone hold their own against your cousin in the way this man is?” Avagan asked. Gav shook his head.

“But it can be another of our kin”, he suggested. Avagan looked hurt.

“That is even more impossible. There is no known case of the kin fighting amongst ourselves. It is against our very beings”, he asserted. Gav lifted his hands in a sign of surrender placating the older snakeman.

*****

“I hope this man wins Ranadin”, Frenna said to her sister-in-law.

“And why is that, dear Frenna?” Joarik’s sister wondered.

“Have you not heard? Haumm lost the crown to Ell”, Frenna snapped irritated. She hated that nobody showed sympathy towards her predicament.

“Really?” her sister-in-law stated.

“I always thought he did not want to become king.”

Frenna felt like hitting her, but abstained to not bring shame to herself or her husband. She wallowed in her anger and prayed for the black rider to kill Ranadin. That wretched assassin had failed, as had her eunuch Carisis. Even the king could not be trusted. Maybe the dove had never arrived.

*****

Ranadin squeezed her staff harder than she ever had before. She was breathing and sweating heavily. Sabharor was not normal, and gave no mercy. The man was winning after Ranadin had fallen. Blood flowed from her nose to the white snow. He moved closer, but was surprised as Ranadin turned rapidly felling him to the ground. Sabharor spit out rocks and got up.

She noticed that there were beads of sweat on his brow. This gave Ranadin new strength. She had been close to giving up. Why was she fighting? Why did she wish to live? The morose thoughts dampened her spirits. There was nobody else in the world, but her and Sabharor. All of a sudden her hands were empty and she felt a hard kick in her stomach.

*****

“No!” Gav yelled. They rushed to the edge of the forest only to see Ranadin to lose her staff and fall to the ground. He knew his cousin was an excellent warrior who did not give up. Gav could not understand how the dimdraac had been able to make the staff that had been Ranadin’s most beloved possession since she had been a young ceris fly from her hands. Not listening to Avagan’s protesting Gav shot out running towards the arena where the stranger was preparing to give the killing blow.

*****

Ranadin observed Sabharor lift his arms over his head. She watched the scene from outside of herself. She could hear the audience calling him to stop. He had won. She felt like she was dreaming when she saw a man with flaming red hair appear into the arena. She woke up. It was Gav. Gav was alive.

The audience looked in wonder when a new stranger came to the arena grabbing Ranadin’s staff and approaching Sabharor with menace in his steps. The black clad man had become aware of the new threat.

“No, Gav!” Ranadin yelled and leapt to grab at Sabharor’s feet. Gav did not listen to her continuing his approach while Sabharor was distracted by trying to kick Ranadin away from him

“To me!” Ranadin ordered and shot out her hand when she retreated from Sabharor. Gav threw the staff to her seeing that she no longer needed his help. Sabharor turned his attention to her. She surprised him with a blow that knocked away his weapon. She then divested herself of her weapon attacking the man.

She punched him in the face and they grabbed each other. He tackled them to ground where they rolled like a perverted image of lovers. They separated leaping to their feet. Ranadin aimed a kick to his groin, but Sabharor grabbed her leg attempting to twist it. Before the man could go through with his plan Ranadin jumped grabbing him from behind hanging on his back like taking a piggyback ride.

She wrapped her hands around his neck to strangle him. He countered by throwing himself on his back to the ground knocking the air out of her lungs. Her hold on him released. They had drifted near to one of the staffs which Sabharor grabbed and swung towards Ranadin’s head with full strength.

Fortunately she was able to roll away before the staff beheaded her. She continued to escape in the same fashion until she came to the other staff. As Sabharor was preparing to lunge, Ranadin leapt to her feet with lightning speed. He redirected his attack, but Ranadin dodged it. Their staffs clanged together once more with neither getting much headway.

*****

“Madman”, Avagan cursed, but did not follow Gav continuing to observe the fight from the cover of the forest. He saw how Ranadin regained her will to live and got a hold of herself after seeing her beloved cousin. She did not allow Gav to fight for her, but threw herself at the dimdraac’s feet demanding her staff back. Now they were at a draw.

*****

The sun was setting and the situation was the same. Ranadin and Sabharor stopped and from a mutual agreement ran to the opposite ends of the arena to breathe for a moment.

“Are you afraid, mistress?” Sabharor’s mocking voice carried over the arena.

“I am not afraid, stranger, not of life, not of death.”

Ranadin’s voice was surer now than at the beginning of the battle.

“Are you afraid, stranger?” she yelled in return.

“Of nothing!” he answered defiantly.

“Truly?” Ranadin asked and lifted one eyebrow questioning him.

“NO!” the man growled and surged forwards. Ranadin mirrored him and their staffs met locking together. They did not move only staring at each other. Hate burned in their hearts and neither was ready to give up.

“How do you want to die, mistress?” the man asked. Ranadin started. Silence fell over the arena.

“Old, after I have brought freedom and honour to my kin”, she answered.

“And who are your kin?” Sabharor inquired.

“I am snakekin. The mountains, stars and the sky are my kin”, came her answer.

“And who are your parents?”

The question confounded Ranadin. She was sure that the man was trying to undermine her.

“Daralan and Dirro”, she stated.

“Daralan Yoningceris?” he clarified, and Ranadin did not like the smirk that had appeared on his face after she had nodded.

“Do you know what I am?”

“An idiot”, Ranadin hissed, but Sabharor ignored her.

“I am a halfdraac”, he answered his own question.

“Really? I didn’t your kin existed any more”, she spoke with mock disbelief.

“O little one, it is true.”

Sabharor’s words and sweet tone sounded ominously. The suspicious light in Ranadin’s eyes encouraged the man to continue.

“The former king greatly enjoyed cross-breeding.”

Sabharor broke their lock and they began their battle anew.

“My training has now come to an end”, he told her. She could guess the rest.

“I have come to kill you.”

XI. The Challenger

As Ranadin had predicted the warriors adjusted to their new food, and meal by meal old foods were reintroduced to them, but in smaller quantities. There were no more complaints. Then came the day Ranadin gave the warriors praise and to honour her they founded a new order of knights. They called themselves the Knights of Anguis, and their members referred to each other as snakeswords. They said their order would be world renown and to celebrate this they announced that the castle would host a tournament.

It took them weeks to prepare the tournament. The snakeswords named it the tournament of the Winter Serpent and vowed to hold it each winter. It was an odd time for such an event as most tournaments were organised during the summer season. In despite of this it gathered a great amount of knights from all around Deles and even from the neighbouring countries.

*****

The white surrounding the Loulea castle was now dotted with tents of many shades of colour. Only the highest ranking guests could be given accommodation in the castle while others slept in the temporary canvas buildings. Banners and streamers whipped in the cold wind adorned with the different colours and seals. It was as if a rainbow had come down from the heavens to lighten the world.

The castle guards and warriors had been sent out to hunt in the Great Forest, and the kitchens were busier than they had ever been. The food was set out in the courtyard where all were allowed to partake in it. Frenna seemed to have momentarily forgotten Ranadin’s existence and enjoyed her spotlight as the lady of the castle.

Servants moved between the tables. People spoke and tested each other’s strength playfully. Sometimes men broke out into fisticuffs, and the guards worked hard to keep the order. All around Ranadin there was gambling, drinking and general merriment even though the tournaments true challenges would begin the next day. Few were wise to abstain from too much festing.

Ranadin barely touched her food and only imbibed water. Her guards were accustomed to her ways, so they too followed her example. They observed their fellow humans with scorn and secret envy.

From outside the edge of torchlight some voices could be heard calling out in pleasure. The whores of nearby villages had been drawn to the great amount of potential customers. They were normally banned from the castle grounds, but now they were mostly ignored in the mass of humans.

Around midnight, mothers began herding their children to their beds, and the festivities began slowly winding down until the last joy lovers were dragged into the great hall of the castle singing drunkenly. The floor of the great hall had been covered with straw and blankets. It was full of deeply breathing and snoring mounds, but not all were asleep. In the far corner of the hall there was a band of Thormian bards quietly having a conversation around a small lamp. Some blankets moved rapidly with quick breaths coming from their confines.

Ranadin was one of the last ones to leave. Only Dael and Wech had stayed to guard her. They walked passed the hall and along the empty hallways to Ranadin’s set of rooms. Suddenly there was a thud as a figure dressed in black was tackled by Ranadin. A knife flashed in the faint light. The guards stared at the figure confounded wondering how it had appeared so suddenly. Their thoughts were dulled by fatigue.

The figure’s face was covered only its eyes peeking from a small slight as it crouched low on the floor ready to pounce on them if they moved even a muscle.

“Go”, Ranadin ordered the figure.

“You will not have me this night.”

The figure huffed and disappeared into the night.

“Why did you let him go?” Dael asked attempting to comprehend what had happened. Ranadin did not answered but stepped into her rooms locking the door behind her. She then moved a large cabinet in front of the door. Just in case.

*****

It had been some time since Ranadin had slept in so that Tea was the one to wake her. The woman had been disappointed that Ranadin no longer allowed herself to be dressed in beautiful gowns of elaborate design. She pictured Ranadin as a lady whose beauty surpassed all others in the land.

Tea had especially loved emphasising Ranadin’s eyes with complicated hair-do’s and using different shades of yellow and gold to bring out their shine. She wanted to arrange the snakewoman’s white hair into a halo around her exquisite face.

Despite her fervent wishes Tea was obedient and had taken Ranadin’s order of leather britches, vest and a cotton tunic to the tailor. The order was delivered by her very hands only a few days later. Tea now allowed Ranadin dress herself, but she refused to relinquish the right to do her mistress’ hair. She had the talent to combine beauty and practicality. Today she long braid that followed her scalp tightly and then flowing down her back. Then grabbing her recently shined battle staff, Ranadin was ready to fight.

*****

On the first day of the tournaments no actual competitions had been scheduled, but the morning was filled with shows of feats of some of which had been organised by the Knights of Anguis with the help of Ranadin.

The audience was suitably impressed as the knights’ swords flew through the air in a perfect choreography. They attacked Ranadin as one letting their blows come close before she blocked them last minute with her staff causing the younger noblewomen in the crowd scream and sigh with fear and excitement. The show ended with the snakeswords tying Ranadin’s hands behind her back and setting a sword on her neck.

After this there were archery competitions. The competition for the youth was won by Farrim who was just old enough to participate. He was the centre of attention for the rest of the day and many warriors praised his skills predicting him to become one of the best archers of his generation. The series for squires and master archers were won by Thormaians and the one for knights by a gomm from the land of Gome.

The next day followed with duels where the only weapon allowed was the sword. This was divided into three groups, the master swordsmen, knights and squires. It was common knowledge that the best swordsmen came from Missaile, and so the winner was naturally a Missailian lord who refused to speak anything else but his mother tongue though he knew Maaroan which was the mother of all human languages. Missaile was a small kingdom whose inhabitants were all inherently prideful. They allowed for only one word in Maaroan.

“Interpreter! Interpreter!”

They were infamous for these words. There were no knights in Missaile, so the knights’ series was won by the gomm who had been triumphant in the archery ranges, and the most talented squire was a young man from the south of Deles.

*****

On the third day began the jousting competition, though it was not heralded as the main event of the competition to the dismay of those who did not come from Loulea. Wild rumours moved amongst the crowd about what would happen on the last day of the tournament, everything from war games which was to be attended by everybody to wild partying. It was a long list as there was no bounds to the imagination of humans.

Joarik and Haumm participated in the jousting competition to uphold the honour of the house of Pathraon. As per tradition many knights carried the favours of their chosen ladies in the form of scarves tied to their lances and necks. Joarik wore the violet of his wife and the green of his sister. Haumm on the other hand had won the favour of a Thormaian lady, and showed it with a light blue scarf.

The snowy ground became hard and dark after a whole day of horses spurting and trampling the white blanket under their hooves. The knights’ armours turned muddy as warriors fell to the ground from the force of the lance. Swords clanked loudly as the competitors attempted to overcome their opponents.

Many bones were broken with a sickening crunch and others received deep wounds when a sword was able to cut them at a weaker point of their armour. Ranadin saw madame Bantrin-Salvach command a great army of healers in her own personal battleground. Physil shook her head at the mindless violence, but did not comment upon it. She lived by her own rules of not judging, but went about healing her patients.

Ranadin had heard from some of even the visiting noblewomen that Physisia Silva Bantrin-Salvach was the most famous healer in all of the eleven kingdoms. She was known for her neutrality as she would heal enemies and allies. Nobody knew where she came from, but the inhabitants of Loulea had been overjoyed when she had fallen in love with madame Farning’s predecessor and had stayed even after becoming a widow.

It was not only her neutrality that had made her so known, but also her creative and innovative solutions developing the old healing techniques. She was invincible in her skills. The visiting warriors were happily surprised to find themselves under the best care.

“They dare to be more daring in their attacks, now that our Physil is here for as far as we know, no one has ever died under her care. Naturally she cannot resurrect the dead, but barring that and old age, well”, a noblewoman whispered to Ranadin forgetting about her inappropriate outfit. Ranadin followed how Joarik lost his fight after getting quite far in the tournament and he left the field holding his back with a grimace. His wife and sister did not scold an old man, but welcomed him for he had returned to them uninjured.

“I think this is the end of my tournament career. My back is not my friend any longer”, Joarik cursed and Frenna gave him a sympathetic look, the first one since Ranadin had arrived. She hugged her husband and kissed him on the cheek. Joarik seemed surprised, but smiled at her warmly. Joarik’s sister turned away to follow the competition.

Haumm did very well. He fought with his full concentration only turning to his Thormaian lady after he had one each battle. She would smile at him shyly from under her veil. In the end it was Haumm that was declared the winner. And the young lord who had always been sick for attention paid no mind to the many people who wanted to praise his prowess. Instead he rode right to where the lady was sitting and they gazed at each other as if they were the only ones in the world. Ranadin got the funny feeling that Haumm had competed for something else than the honour of his house and the order he belonged to. She was not the only one to have seen the enchanted moment between the two youths. The knight who Haumm had just won marched on Joarik and Frenna.

“Are you the parents of that boy?” the knight inquired in Maaroan with a strong Thormaian accent. Joarik nodded and Frenna radiated pride.

“And you are?” Joarik countered in a polite note.

“I am sir Justisen Lamenin Orthodren of Sarrac, the supreme commander of the army of Thorma and the prince of Sarrac”, the knight answered and glanced into the direction of Haumm and the lady who were now speaking quietly.

“That most honoured lady that your son is with is my daughter Tanara Lamena Orhodrena the Gentle. It would seem that she regards your son very highly.”

“It would seem the feeling is mutual”, Joarik remarked.

“Is your daughter betrothed?”

“Yes she is, and she has been miserable since the day she received the news. I have not seen her this happy for quite some time”, sir Justisen said. Then he smirked.

“But it is in the custom of our land that a betrothal can be undone even on the day before the wedding. My house would be honoured to promise the hand of my daughter to your victorious son.”

“It is Haumm’s choice, but I highly doubt that he would decline such an honour”, Joarik answered and looked knowingly at the veiled Tanara and his son who had removed his helmet laugh together. Sometimes they fall into a comfortable silence.

“Haumm. That is the name of your son?”

“Yes. Haumm Zemes Pathraon, a prince of Deles, and second-in-command of the royal cavalry, the heir to the thrones of the fortress of Loulea, the province of Aquilonem and city states of Alta and Adanor.”

“Prince? Last time I heard he was the heir apparent to the throne of Deles”, the fellow knight wondered.

“An heir to the throne was not declared until my brother chose our nephew Ell of Adanor. He married my daughter Ytja”, Joarik revealed. Frenna grimaced letting her bitterness bleed through a moment, but smiled then quite fetchingly for the joy of her son’s engagement.

“Should we not tell the young ones?” sir Justisen suggested and the three parents made their way to Tanara and Haumm.

*****

The last day of the tournament dawned the sun rising to shine brightly over the world. Tea had had the tailor make a black silk shirt and a black leather vest both embroidered with gold. Tea weaved black and gold ribbons into Ranadin’s usual braid. She had also shined the battle staff to make its black lacquered surface glow in the sun as if made of metal, the blades on each end sharpened.

A completely new arena had been reserved for this event with stands built around it. On one edge black tent had been erected for Ranadin. She was to stay in it while the snakeswords performed a carefully practised dance of their weapons. She could picture them battling this way in true war, like the war they were showcasing.

For half of the snakeswords were dressed as Dratoans and the other half as humans. They replicated the decisions the snakekin had made. Before the fighting they had acted out the shattering of the ancestral statue and the victory of humans over the dragons. Then they had showed the Dratoan Empire and the struggle of the serfs. As from a signal the knights stopped in their movements as Wech’s voice echoed over the arena.

“They had won us twice, and we had won them twice. We have hated each other for many an age. This year it is exactly two thousand years since the fall of the Dratoan Empire and the snakekin withdrew to the mountains. For all this time we have lived peacefully, but all around Maaroa there have been battles since that time. Our hate is deeply seated, but this is the dawn of a new era. We welcome the lady Ranadin an Caroon, the snakewoman the Knights of Anguis honour with this tournament.”

Ranadin stepped from the black tent dressed in black and gold. She moved to stand in the middle of the arena standing regally. The humans did not welcome her, but she had not expected that. They observed her with wide eyes, some gaping. Some knights reached for their swords, arrows were pointed at her. Wech signalled Ranadin’s guards, and they gathered around her protectively. The Gomm who had been successful during the tournament got up and spoke his voice thundered over the arena.

“I, gomm Gauril Rawergol, wonder what this is means, Joarik Pathraon? What is the reason you fraternize with this enemy of the human kingdoms?”

Many nodded at his words. Joarik stood up.

”This member of the snakekin who moves freely amongst us saved the life of the heir of Deles, the crown prince Ell of Adanor when he was captured many months ago. She has been granted her life by king Taumring himself”, the lord of the castle declared.

“Yes, she moves freely, Pathraon. That is not appropriate. To the dungeon!” gomm Rawergol counter demanded.

“You see she has guards. And no escape attempt has been made by her, no move against my people. What crime has she done to deserve to be put to the dungeon?”

The gomm was silenced. He was a guest in another country where the king had pardoned this creature. They could not judge her for her mere existence. The knights relaxed the grips of the handles of their swords, and the archers let the bowstrings loosen. The audience settled after a while. Wech gave a new signal and the guards moved off of the arena.

“We challenge all those who dare. The one who wins Ranadin an Caroon will leave this castle with a thousand gold pieces.”

Joarik’s proclamation was led with many knights and swordsmen line up to try their strength against the snakewoman. Wech laughed at them.

“If you want to have any chance at victory, change into leather armour”, he suggested kindly. Most of the knights scoffed, but others remembered that Ranadin had fought on the first day and had been fast and so followed Wech’s advice.

“First one, step up”, Dael shouted and the first knight did just so.

“What is your name?” Ranadin asked stepping in front of the man.

“Jon Thuur”, he answered.

“Are you afraid?” she inquired. He shook his head making her smile predatorily.

“I cannot hear you.”

“I am not afraid.”

“Prove it.”

With that the knight charged towards the snakewoman. Ranadin sidestepped him easily yawning theatrically. The man repeated his dashing technique before realising that it was ineffective. He began hacking with his sword finding that Ranadin’s staff did not break under his steel. After some time Thuur fell to the ground with exhaustion and the next one stepped to replace him. The challengers learned from each other and tried not to repeat each other’s mistakes, but the line depleted quickly until there was nobody left.

“Is there anyone who will challenge the mistress?” Wech called out. The guards led by Dael began moving around the arena trying to see if anyone was brave enough. Nobody stepped forth and silence fell when the beat of hooves could be heard and black horse with a black rider appeared on the top of the hills. He had black boots that peeked from under a black cloak that flowed behind him as the horse galloped down to the arena coming to halt. The man dismounted and flowed over the ground like death itself.

“I will fight the mistress”, he intoned and removed his hood revealing jet black hair and black-bluish eyes. His hair followed the crown of his head coming to rest halfway down his back. His hair was tied in a half ponytail and gleamed in the sun.

His face was pale accentuated with a sharp nose and invisible lips. His eyes were straight and eyebrows drooping, straight lines. Ranadin and the man were like day and night. Her white hair and golden eyes were a strong contrast to his darkness. A black staff was strapped to his back. He took into his hands removing his cloak. He was wearing only a vest. His arms were bare and toned.

“Darroi?” Ranadin confirmed nodding towards his weapon. He answered with a nod of his own.

“May the challenger step forward”, Wech stated and the man obeyed.

“What is your name?” she asked as she had for each of the preceding opponents. The man smiled cruelly.

X. Knight Training

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.

IX. The Winter Eunuch

The first wondrously crafted flakes of snow began lightly falling from the equally white sky when Avagan led Gav up to a high tree in the Great Forest where a small cottage stood inconspicuously. There were two beds in the cottage, a fireplace and a stone table for food preparation which also worked as an oven when it was placed on top of the fire.

The golden haired snakeman had vast stores of wood, water and grain under the floorboards of the cottage. They would have been able to live comfortably for several weeks on the top of the island-like tree. The only thing he did not have was game as it did not keep as long as grain and water.

The view from the tree tops reached far in all directions. It was quite clear why Avagan had chosen his home, as the tree was the tallest as far as the eye could see. Even the stone castle could be seen from the cottage. It was not hard to miss such an imposing structure that was like a mountain in of itself as it rose in the midst of a scenery of vast valleys and rolling hills. It was like a cat crouched in waiting to pounce upon anything that disturbed its peaceful sleep. It cast a long, dark shadow over the tree tops which shivered as if in fear when the frosty wind blew through them.

“How many of these places do you have?”

“Almost a dozen and I am currently building a few others”, Avagan answered after lowering his face towards the fire place.

“And here you have been an observer for all this time?”

Avagan nodded and reached his hands towards the flames. The cottage door and windows were tightly shuttered and the only light came from the fire and some candles that stood on the stone table. They had moved from tree hideout to the next during their journey for Avagan to make sure they were still in good condition, hidden and safe. They had visited five others just like the one they were in now moving along the road that moved through the heart of the Great Forest all the way to the river which they had followed to the east.

In some of the cottages there had been a single bed, but in others, like this one, there was two. When Gav had wondered about it Avagan had refused to answer, but after travelling together for weeks he finally caved.

“Once I was not alone, I was held company by my wife Ijait who I brought here from the comforts of Ferngard. It is the worst thing I have ever done. She was not happy to live in the wilderness in the midst of the human heartland away from her social circles in the capital. We both come from lines of high rank and she was used to the comforts of life. She liked moving from home to home even less. I had built three before I brought her here.

“She was with child in those days and longed to stay still, the warmth and comfort of civilisation and the waiting hand of her servants. When the ceris was to be born, I took her back to the city. After birthing she refused to return with me. Ijait and my son Ereior stayed even when I returned. Last I heard Ijait had a new mate and a daughter, Acetres.”

*****

In the morning they went hunting. During the night the world had been covered by a thick layer of white frost. They had raided Avagan’s stores donning winter boots and cloaks to stay warm in the chill. The snow had the advantage of revealing the tracks of animals. They moved silently in the fresh blanket as silently as they would have moved were there no such layer.

Avagan had given Gav a bow and a spear which were better suited for hunting than the young man’s usual weapon, the battle staff. It was effective against sentient beings but beating a wild hare to a pulp was challenging even for the faster reflexes of the snakekin.

When the sun rose bringing greater light they located their prey. A small herd of roe were grazing peacefully between the sparser trees. The dawn was still and no wind blew allowing them to approach the shy animals. Too late one of the roe signalled the others of the danger and the herd dispersed into the woods. One of the roe was caught by an arrow piercing its heart. It seized in the grips of death and Gav speared it to end its suffering. The spark of life dimmed from its eyes leaving behind only a corpse.

*****

Dragging the body of a roe, especially such a big buck, up a tree was hard work, but the strength of two snakemen was sufficient to make the task easy enough. Gav observed whike Avagan pulled on sleek leather gloves, pulled a knife from his belt and slashed the animal’s stomach open. The intestines fell out colouring the wood platform crimson.

The Dratoan then grabbed a big dish and lifted the intestines into it careful not to make any holes in them. Setting the dish aside he took out the next tool, a long, thin knife that had an exceptionally sharp blade. Deeming the already gleaming metal seemingly inadequate Avagan sharpened the blade further. With care and the sure hands of a surgeon he removed the roe’s skin carefully coming out with one solid piece. It was a long process that took all of Avagan’s concentration. When the skin finally detached, the snakeman tied a rope in its four corners tying it tightly to a frame he had rigged to the platform a long time ago.

With the roe hide behind him, Avagan then cut the meat into even strips separating the lighter meat from the dark into two new dishes.

“The cold is beneficial to the handling of the game as there is little danger of the meat ruining”, he spoke as he worked. In the end all that was left was a pile of bones that they neatly piled on the edge of the platform.

“Those the animals do not take, we will use”, he answered to Gav’s curious expression, but did this little to explain his actions to the young redhead. Next they turned their attention the intestines dividing them to edible and useable. Avagan hanged the stomach to dry as it could be used as a water skin or a pouch for medicines. The heart and the liver were deemed edible. The intestines they threw down from the edge of the platform to be eaten by the forest animals.

*****

The sun was already creeping down to sleep when the roe had been processed. Avagan had left the roe hide to dry as he planned to tan it to make much needed clothes. He disappeared for some moments only to return with two bird eggs. He took some of the grain crushing it into flour and mixed it together with the eggs.

He rolled out the dough and placed in the sliced heart making two pockets of dough which cooked to a golden brown over the stone table that was now placed over the fireplace as Avagan turned them to let them cook smoothly. A delicious smell filled the cottage and Gav felt his hunger rise. They had not eaten all day.

“A pasty with heart”, Avagan offered. Gav took it with gusto and let his teeth sink into the soft, hot bread.

*****

The weather turned colder day by day. Nothing happened for a long time until one day a white clad form travelled by Avagan’s tree. The form was creeping quietly to not be observed. The human was always different and every time it came out of the castle it was stopped by the castle warriors. Something was going in the castle. The two snakemen were unsure why the messengers coming from the castle were being so secretive, but it was obvious that whatever was going on, the lord of the castle did not want the news to be carried beyond the castle walls.

“How in the blessed heavens can we find out what is happening?” Gav voiced their mutual frustration. He turned to Avagan.

“Are you able to surmise something from their behaviour?”

Avagan had to think for a moment before shrugging.

“I am unable to pinpoint it.”

Gav growled irritated.

“It is unusual that this lord would act dishonestly. I have observed his whole reign and never have I seen him to be unjust or working against the benefit of his subjects. I have heard him called noble and fair by the farmers who have moved in the forest.”

“Thank you, I feel so much better.”

Avagan did not react to Gav’s sarcasm, but observed as the first messenger to have passed their way stepped into the clearing that was located at the base of their perch. Before he was able to do anything to stop Gav, the young snakeman had surged over the edge of the platform and climbed lower to hear and see what was going on.

The messenger stopped under the tree and turned towards the castle. As he expected the castle gates opened and the castle knights rode out. He crouched down and opened a cage. He took forth a dove that had a scroll tied to its foot. Only after the knights had moved closer did the man throw up the dove which opened its wings and flew unwaveringly towards the south. The knights had expressions of disbelief as they surrounded him.

“Your lord will never defeat the king, or my lady”, the human said with an unnaturally high-pitched voice.

“You would not speak such foolish words, Eunuch, if you knew sir Joarik”, one of the knights countered. The Eunuch cackled.

“That snakewoman has poisoned your minds against the kingdom and the king, traitors.”

“Our loyalty is to our lord alone. We do not decide who his loyalty belongs to”, the knight answered proudly. The Eunuch kneeled to the cold ground revealing his bare feet from under his black cloak. They were dark blue from the cold.

“Honour to the fatherland, death to its enemies. Honour to the fatherland, death to its enemies…”

The Eunuch repeated his mantra his high pitched voice echoing in the air unbroken even when the knights dismounted and tied his hands. Gav saw his opportunity and swooped to the ground grabbing the Eunuch. The knights were surprised to see him and were unable to react when Gav had already disappeared back into the tree. Recovering from the swift sight, the knights shrugged and rode back to the castle. The message had been sent. There was nothing more they could do.

The Eunuch did not move but allowed Gav to drag him up the tree to the platform. Avagan glared at him furious, but when his gaze moved to the Eunuch he became curious.

“And who is it you have so graciously brought to us as a visitor?” he asked. Gav gasped for breath and the Eunuch continued to be statue-like.

“This is one of those messengers… I thought… Maybe we could interrogate him”, he was able to say breathing heavily. The Eunuch was a small man. Avagan lifted him easily and carried him into the cottage placing him in the middle of the floor. The man continued sitting frozen in his stance uncaring of his surroundings.

“What is your name?” Avagan queried.

“Eunuch Carisis IV, the most faithful servant of her grace, the lady of the castle, Frenna and the sworn enemy of all unnatural creatures.”

The Eunuch’s high pitched voice shocked Avagan.

“What do you know of the goings on of the castle?”

“These matters do not belong to animals. They may know a name and fealty, but no other words shall pass the mouth of Carisis.”

The Eunuch spoke as if they were not there or completely brainless unable to understand the insults meant for them.

“I will show you who is an animal! I shall break each bone in your body, if you do not speak.”

The Eunuch only smiled at Gav’s temper.

“It were an honour to die at the hands of animals. It would be my last deed and the ultimate sign of my loyalty to my mistress”, he hummed contently. Gav rolled his eyes unable to believe his ears. A cruel smirk twisted Avagan’s normally serene face.

“So be it. You are of no use to us either way, but your mistress, she is beautiful is she not? I believe she would look even more breath-taking lying peacefully in her bed, lifeless.”

The Eunuch’s eyes turned from blankness to complete horror at the thought.

“You would never”, he denied finally addressing them as intelligent beings.

“Yes. We are snakekin, soulless killers, with no respect for human life.”

Avagan’s every word seemed to affect the Eunuch physically like poison darts or burning flames clawing at his cold heart.

“Of course, we might spare her, if you were of use to us…”

The Eunuch was ready to believe whatever and the hope to spare the life of his beloved mistress turned too tempting. He grabbed the opportunity desperately.

“It… It woke”, he hurried to say not knowing what an important piece of intelligence he had just revealed. Avagan and Gav looked on with disgust as the Eunuch tried now to bend to their will. With a common movement they tied the Eunuch by the waist and hanged him in the tree at rider’s height. There the Eunuch Carisis IV was able to contemplate his life.

*****

“Do you still suggest we leave her there without any help at all?” Gav demanded to know. Avagan nodded and leaned back in a relaxed pose. He settled his hands behind his head.

“I am fatigued. Can we not speak of this later?”

His words were emphasised with a great yawn.

“Later?! She could be dead later!” Gav barked.

“Gav, you are too young to understand everything”, Avagan stated sitting back up.

“Too young? I’ll show you too…”

“And your temper is fiery as your hair and eyes. You take everything as a personal insult. And heavens is Ranadin way too young, but nothing can be done. The journey has begun.”

Avagan’s calm enraged Gav even more. He wanted to invade the castle and get his cousin. But he could not deny the elder man’s wise words.

“How far is it to Ferngard from here?” he asked after a moment when he had calmed down enough to think clearer.

“Three days with non-stop, direct travel, two weeks while evading”, Avagan answered automatically and his curiosity was woken. After a pause Gav continued:

“And you know the way, but Ranadin doesn’t?”

“Yes, I imagine it is so.”

He leaned forward as is typical for a person intrigued of a topic.

“When she leaves that place we must lead her, otherwise she will fall into the clutches of humans again. I do not think the heavens will be as kind again”, Gav reasoned. Avagan pursed his lips, tilted his head and shrugged in a sign of uncertainty and acknowledgement of the potential of the idea. Gav sat on his cot and laid down. The elder snakeman followed his example and a long silence fell over the cottage broken only by their breathing and the crackling of the fire until finally even that faded and they plunged into total darkness.

“Your idea has a merit, though it is interference in her destiny. Though it might be the will of the heavens that it is this way”, Avagan spoke suddenly. Gav who had fallen into the place between sleep and wake jerked awake, murmured in the affirmative before falling into a deep sleep.

VIII. The Wish

A dark form neared the black hole that rose eerily from the earth in the middle of an otherwise flat terrain. It led underground to the remains of great ruins and further to the centre of an ancient city. Tomari observed the stranger from her well-hidden alcove. The dark form stopped at the gates and looked around. The stranger’s shining eyes stopped to take in the carvings on the wall.

Tomari waited for the form to turn and leave for humans feared things they did not understand. But the stranger studied the markings closer and turned to look down the corridor. The unknown form moved into Caroon and moved directly passed her alcove without a look to his sides. Quiet as the summer wind the guardian of the gates came out from her hideout and lifted her staff to strike the unusual intruder. Suddenly the intruder spoke.

“I assume you are the gatekeeper Tomari”, a man’s voice said and the stranger turned. The man had golden hair and white eyes that shone in the torchlight.

“Who are you, stranger?” Tomari hissed with suspicion. The man gave a friendly smile.

“I am Avagan an Granwald, most honoured key of Caroon.”

“You are from the Great Forest? None of the mountain know that this city breathes the spirit of our kin”, Tomari wondered.

“I come for I have met she who the heavens look upon seeing courage and power”, the man said.

“Ranadin? How is she? And Gav?”

”She has gone from me in good health, but on her way to my home she lost her cousin.”

Tomari nodded and leaned heavily into the rock wall. Avagan did not continue for he could see the shadow of a strong woman who was held together by the last threads of a form that had become frail. Tomari stood straighter putting her weight on her staff. Despite the support the elder staggered. Avagan caught her before she fell.

“Two more corridors”, the guardian of the gates mumbled and the man followed the elder’s instructions. They came to a group of room like caves of which Tomari indicated to one. Avagan lowered the elder gently on to the bed situated in the room.

“How old are you, honoured one?” he asked. The old woman sighed with exhaustion.

“Today I am 792”, the guardian of gates informed him with pride and then breathed heavily.

“Fetch Yoning, Ranadin’s grandfather. Do not permit the council to accompany him. Follow the path of Avaintri to Faethorium, and from there take the biggest corridor and find the third cave. He will not be asleep, but he will not want to be disturbed, the stubborn old fool. He MUST come.”

Avagan nodded. In the nearest junction he found the carvings of the star cluster of Avaintri the Oceanwoman and followed the path it showed to a great hall that had many corridors leading from it. The ceiling of the hall had been painted with a material that was sensitive to the changings of the sky. On it the galaxies and planets moved. A great flash of light revealed that somewhere in the depths of the heavens a star had died.

Faethorium meant the Holy Hall and there was one of such nature in all the places the Dratoans had lived. This one was a typical representative of the architecture of holy places built during the golden age. It was perfectly round and in the middle there was a fudrithum fountain which was decorated by depictions of the city’s history. The newest carving was from the time the city was destroyed.

With much terror those devils who were born from the laughter of the world after us came into the midst of their former masters armed with rocks, swords, spears and spades. What they found, they used as weapons against us. The cruellest of them took children and weapons as their weapons using their limbs as clubs. They killed us in our beds the young pregnant mother to the bravest of the Caroon’s warriors.

After this horror had spread some of us ran away and came to safety as the city had been built upon a city and the Faethorium, the centre of our white city, the noble structure that used to stand above us before it was burned and the stones taken to build the homes of humans, was the same.

This city is Caroon, the white light and peace, and we are the last ones here. In our midst are also those who have run away from the motherland and have told us about the new horrors the humans hatred has inflicted upon our people. For the memory of our deserted streets and home this city will be known as Dunfau, oppression and war.

It is declared that none of our kin shall ever travel along the old pathways or on the earth to Ferengeti. Cruel are their ways, but without sacrifice we will die.

It was uncommon that the ceiling of the Faethorium was painted as it was built with an open roof so the heavens could be observed in their natural beauty. The biggest decoration of fudrithium was typically a statue a copy of the holy statue or another important figure. The fudrithium prima of Caroon was a tall, sleek haired man whose hair was plated with gold and eyes were diamonds.

“Auffanir Caronnis, the builder and founder of our great prison and refuge.”

The voice coming from behind Avagan was strong and echoed in the lonely emptiness of the great hall.

“Yoning”, he guessed and turned. The old man didn’t seemed surprised for a stranger to know his name.

“The only one in these parts”, the old man intoned. He approached Avagan slowly keeping a steely eye on the intruder. As he moved the elder spoke.

“No one has breached the gates of Caroon, not in the time of our guardian. Who do you think you are to be able to walk these halls?”

“The gates have not been breached and the guardian is still perfect in maintaining her post. She has sent me to get you. She says it must be only you, no other.”

Yoning huffed and stopped only a few steps away from Avagan.

“My duty is to follow the laws and traditions of our kin, and I have never shirked my duty”, the elder said decisively and Avagan was doubtful of turning his head. Taking actions in to his own hands the snakeman lurched forward grabbing the elder and pulled Yoning after him.

*****

Yoning was surprised to find Tomari in her bead breathing with great difficulty. The weakness of the guardian increased quickly and without warning.

“She is dying”, the elder stated disbelieving. Avagan nodded.

“You are a healer, heal her”, the man insisted.

“She has decided that it is time. She wishes to leave. There is nothing I can do.”

Yoning growled angrily and turned to Tomari.

“And the gates? Who will guard them when your worthless heir has run?”

“The western gate has a successor. Bainice will take my staff and Daussa will take hers”, the old woman tried to calm, but Yoning refused to listen to her.

“You will not die.”

“Really, Yoning? When have you ever told me what I will do or not do?”

Tomari’s breathing became ever laboured. The old man did not answer.

“You should have thought of it long ago.”

Yoning stumbled to his knees and lowered his head on the guardian’s fighting chest. He shook and Avagan understood that the elder was crying like he hadn’t for countless ages. Snakekin did not have the tendency to cry, but Yoning was crying for centuries of sorrow onto the grey fabric of the snakewoman’s tunic.

Tomari lifted her hand and caressed the elder’s head making a shushing sound. Yoning lifted his head and kissed Tomari with all of his being. Avagan turned away feeling an intruder in their tender moment. He stepped into the corridor and found it filled with the citizens of the maze. Each one had a necklace on which hung a black light. The eyes present were full of sorrow and none of them questioned his. Some tried to enter, but Avagan needed only look at them significantly and they stopped.

After a long while Yoning came out and nodded solemnly. Avagan let in the first ones to say farewell to the base of their very society who was much loved. A steady line formed at the door of the cave where as one went in another came out. Some who came out had rare tears in their eyes, others wore a calm, fond smile.

As the mourners moved back to the caves surrounding the Faethorium along the path of Avaintri they looked back now slightly curious about the stranger. Then finally the last of the snakekin had gone and Avagan followed Yoning back in to the room.

Tomari was laying calmly on the bed as if she was ready to leave already. She turned her head slightly to see them. A calm smile was on the guardian’s lips to which Avagan answered, but Yoning turned his face away.

“He is coming”. Tomari said her voice unwavering and breathing now more evenly. Yoning lifted his gaze.

“No one is coming, Tomari. They have all gone.”

Yoning’s voice was harsh, but softened as his words came out.

“He is coming”, the guardian said with the same certainty that spoke of the sun rising from the east each morning. Yoning opened his mouth to protest further when a shadow cast from the door covered them. Both snakemen in the room turned to see what the source of darkness was. At the door stood a man with tattered clothes and dirty skin. His hair was auburn.

“Granna”, the man said and stumbled forward. Yoning and Avagan let him pass and the newcomer kneeled by the bed. Tomari’s smile widened. She lifted her gaunt had to wipe some of the dirt from the man’s face.

“You need a wash”, the guardian admonished. His red eyes shone with tears.

“Granna, I must…”

“Shh”, Tomari interrupted.

”Ranadin must not now, not until our people are free.”

“Granna, I…”

“Ranadin will not know. Vow to me, Gav, that you will not tell her and you will make sure that she will not be told by anybody else that I am gone”, the guardian’s voice was unyielding. The man sighed.

“If that is your last wish, I vow through my honour granted by the heavens and my form granted by the earth, that I shall heed it.”

Tomari nodded and lowered her head to the pillow closing her eyes. After a few silent moments her chest did not rise, and no breath left her lips. The guardian of the gates was gone.

*****

Great gongs echoed in the Faethorium where the snakekin of Caroon had gathered to watch the fudrithium. The gongs were only ever played in moments of great joy or sorrow. Tomari’s white-clad form had been set on a ceremonial plate of silver that was carried only by the strongest.

Those amongst the carriers were Avagan, Yoning and Gav as they had been the last ones there as the guardian had left for the stars and added her name to their multitude. The path of Avaintri the Oceanwoman was followed to come to this world, and it was the same that escorted the dead to their graves.

The ceremonial plate was carried so high that all snakekin could see the guardian’s grey braid flowing down from the edge of it. Crying and wailing mixed with the lonely song of the gongs creating the rhythm of the funeral procession that moved in along the trivain lines of the Faethorium going around the great hall in spirals. Those spirals represented the cosmos in which the Oceanwoman was the guide.

The ritual march ended at the altar that had stood in front of the fudrithium since the founding of the city. The ceremonial plate was set upon this altar. The carriers surrounded the altar in a circle to guard the body that would be there from dusk to dawn. Through all that time the snakekin could come and say their farewells to the deceased and gifts to the family. The carriers had the right to turn away those they perceived as the enemies of the deceased as the holiness and the purity of the body were vital and were not to be desecrated.

As the dawn rose the elders came carrying with them the symbol of Tomari’s status. Each of the elders kissed her forehead. They set the staff, the symbol of the guardian’s power, in Tomari’s hands and took a torch from the hand of the statue of Avaintri. The torch they lowered to the feet of the guardian.

The fabric began burning with bright flames and the elders formed their own circle around the carriers. They opened their closed wall into a half circle so that once more everyone, friends and enemies, could say the final goodbye by kissing the forehead of the burning body. The last ones to do this were the carriers of which the very last ones were those who had been dearest to the deceased.

After this they all watched as the guardian burned to ashes and the ashes to smoke until the only thing left in the flames was the sign of the guardian of the gates of Caroon. The silence remained unbroken as Bainice, the blue haired and eyed guardian of the west gate, stepped on the dais of the fudrithium and took the staff from amidst the flames.

The flames were holy and could burn those who did not deserve the sign of power. Bainice lifted the staff high above her head to show that she was indeed worthy. Not including the carriers and the elders the snakekin kneeled and lowered their foreheads to the ground to show their acceptance. The carriers bowed their upper bodies and the elders inclined their heads.

The ringing of the gongs broke the sorrow filled silence and the snakekin began to celebrate. It was in accordance to the ancient ways that no one would touch food or drink until the deceased had begun their final journey. It was time to honour the new guardian of the gates Bainice who in turn gave her symbol of power to her daughter Daussa.

*****

“So you decided to make words into truth. I am greatly curious about what happened with those bandits”, Avagan said when peace had returned to the mazes. Gav looked at him with interest as they traversed the path of Avaintri towards Gav’s family’s new home that was situated closer to the Faethorium.

“How did you know about that?”

“I know everything”, Avagan insisted and Gav eyed him suspiciously. The snakeman’s eyes shone mischievously as he slapped Gav in the back.

“I am only kidding. The truth is a very lovely one of our kin climbed my tree without permission.”

“What happened to the human?” Gav wondered and irritation towards Avagan flashed in his blood red eyes.

“Survived and is currently travelling north with Ranadin. Last I heard Ranadin was in the sleep without rest and the human had been sent to Ferengeti as the king’s new favourite”, the snakeman said and Gav saw red. Before he knew what he was doing his hands were around the stranger’s throat and he was pinning Avagan to the wall.

“She is unconscious?!” Gav’s angry shout echoed about the corridor’s rocky words like a caged animal.

“It is not my fault, neither is it the human’s. They were good friends”, Avagan assured him, but Gav’s grip did not let.

“Friends? No Dratoan, especially Ranadin, is friends with a human. They killed her parents, as they did mine. Don’t you dare lie to me about her. She would not betray us!” Gav raged. The older snakeman observed him carefully.

“You would call it betrayal. Why did you then rush to save the human when he called for help?” he challenged and Gav lowered his eyes in defeat.

“I thought it was a draac.”

The man’s voice was quiet.

“You are lying.”

“I am not.”

“You are.”

“No!” Gav roared and punched the wall. Avagan gave the young man a knowing look and released himself calmly.

“A draac can be easily recognised from a human, even if one has never seen a draac. Their hair is messy, the skin yellowish and their eyes lizard-like, shadows of human eyes, pale and almost white. They have odd curving claws that glimmer even in darkness.”

Avagan had begun sketching into the soft ground a picture that looked to Gav a lot like Ung. The snakeman then moved his hand and began to draw a new image.

“We, the snakekin, are a regal race that surpasses the draacs and the humans in intelligence and beauty as well as strength and innovativeness. Our hair is always smooth and reflects the colour of our eyes. Our eyes are the greatest difference between us and the others. When we were dragons our forms were covered with a scale armour and all had their distinct colour. Our eyes have taken that colour.

“Other physical differences are our sharp nails that cannot be seen, but felt and the slight tapering of our ears which also requires closer inspection. And we never seem sick or tired always flawless.”

The new picture was a lot like Avagan, but Gav could see familiar features from other Dratoans.

“The human is between us and the draacs even though draacs are combination of our and humans. They have many different skins and hairs. Where we are bright and vibrant and the draacs pale, they are both. A human child of only a few months age is most like us, as is the elder most like a draac.”

The third image was a tidied up version of the bandits that had taken him. Gav thought surprisingly that not all humans could be ugly or evil. He then quickly shoved away such thought. Avagan continued without seeing this.

“There are two types of draacs: ancu and alte, the low and high. These days there are only ancudraacs, but during the Dratoan Empire there were altedraacs who melted back into our people after the destruction of the empire. The difference of alte and ancudraacs lies in their physical form instead of their abilities. Sometimes altedraacs were so beautiful that they exceeded even our kin in their beauty. Their eyes were bright and their hair varied as the humans’ does, yet brighter, though their skin had the same yellowish tint. Yet draacs are short-lived. They cannot live older than 160 when humans live in very rare cases to the age of a 100.”

The fourth figure was very beautiful and Gav opened his mouth to speak. Avagan’s continuing presentation interrupted his line of thought.

“The inheritance of humans and snakekin have never melded peacefully. This can be seen in the way a snakeman cannot impregnate a human female, yet a human male can impregnate a snakewoman. It is their feelings towards each other that determine if the draac will be an ancu or altedraac in physical form. Negative emotions are guaranteed to produce an ancudraac, when the greatest love can create a beautiful altedraac. This is why humans capture snakewomen. Ancudraacs are perfect workers, they are diligent, loyal, and obedient and are also happy with very little when altedraacs are the nobles of the species. They are strong-willed and wilful.”

Gav observed Avagan with a sort of resentful respect. There was not only hate between the kin of men and snakekin, but it was the existence of the ancudraacs that seemed to be the continuing presence of a grudge that might have otherwise been forgotten by time.

“You wish to know why I helped the human”, Gav said and white eyes turned to him pinning him a sharp gaze.

“I ask of you then this: how can humans treat a youngling of their own kin with such cruelty?”

“Humans are naturally greedy. If they see the use of something, they seize the opportunity with a desperate hunger”, Avagan explained dispassionately.

“That is barbaric! How is it you know so much of their ways?”

The inquiry didn’t come as a great surprise to the golden haired snakeman.

“I am of the mountains, I have seen the passing of our form from the rulers of the heavens to these earth bound ones, in my youth I have seen the turning of our great hearts to vanity and riches, I have seen the cruelty of our race, our rise and our fall. And I have always observed the different kins that walk upon this land, and as our kin retreated to the mountains after the fall of the Empire, I have observed the humans and the draacs as they thrive.”

Gav did not react for a while, silenced by the words of the ancient snakeman.

“Who was the youngling?”

“Ell of Adanor, the nephew of the king of Deles and a squire.”

Gav made a choked sound. His eyes almost popped from their sockets and his mouth opened and closed dumbly like the mouth of a fish as he battled to compose himself.

“Why do we delay? Ranadin is amongst humans, should we not mount a rescue?” he asked carefully. Avagan shook his head.

“If she is alive after being exposed, she will continue to do so.”

But even Avagan’s voice did not hold its usual confidence and brevity.

“Regardless, we shall travel in some days to the region she resides, but we will not interfere with her fate which has made her path solitary time and time again. This is her quest.”

“And you come to this conclusion how?”

Avagan was tiring of the incessant questioning of the ceris. Gav had passed his adleten, but compared to Avagan’s vast age, the redhead was as young as a baby.

“She left these chambers without the blessing of the elder council, a quest that should be venerated and aided by all our kin, then not far into the first day of your journey you, her closest ally, disappear, and now the young human has been removed from her presence as well. This is why I did not join her myself.”

Gav wanted to ask the elder how he knew all this, but stayed silent as he sensed the elder’s irritation.

VII. The Rage of a King

“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:

“There!”

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.

VI. Little Brother

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:

“Near Ferengeti.”

“Oh, you mean near the king?”

Now the snakewoman found her feet most interesting.

“Yes.”

“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.

“Ranadin.”

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.”

“All right.”

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.

“Caroon.”

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.”

Ranadin started.

“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.

“Why?”

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?”

Ranadin nodded.

“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.

“Not completely.”

“Why not?”

“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.

“Me?”

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.

“But what?”

“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.”

“And then?”

“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.

V. The Castle

When Ell was finally able to escape madame Farning and return to his suit it was late afternoon and the sun was slowly setting across the sky. With him he bore an immense amount of food which he could give Ranadin who must have been bored to death in her little closet of a room but then.

He opened the door only to find the snakewoman soundly asleep. He inched in as carefully as he could and set the food on to Ranadin’s table. He tried to exit as carefully as he had come, but he snagged his toe on the bed posts.

“Au!” Ranadin heard and was up in a flash ready to defend herself only to find Ell trying to swallow down a thousand different curse words that had appeared in his mind convincing him that uttering them could relieve his pain. Ranadin laughed and then glimpsed at the food the young man had kindly provided.

“How long was I asleep?” she wondered getting up and taking a seat at the table.

“It’s afternoon now. I’m sorry it took me so long, but once madame Farning, the castle cook, sees you, there is no escape.”

Ranadin noticed that Ell had washed and changed. She then turned to look at her own hands that were black with grime.

“I think I’m in need of a wash myself”, she observed causing Ell to leave. Soon she could here puffing as a servant came to fill Ell’s tub with warm water.

“Yes, I will wash myself. No, there really is no need. Do believe me. Yes, I will be fine. Yes, thank you”, she could hear him reassure the one who had brought the water in. Soon after the door clicked and Ell’s head appeared in the chamber door.

“The way is clear. You can now enter the bathing chamber”, he recommended. Ranadin grabbed her pack where she had packed an extra layer in the form of her formal wear. Undressing she got into the heavenly warm water. Next to the tub was some soap which she used to scrub her skin clean. All of a sudden Ell surged into the chamber.

“Ell”, came the voice of a young woman from the parlour.

“Yes, Ytja?” the young man called back.

“I heard you had returned. Father would like to meet with you”, the woman answered and moved around the room. Ell swore into his armpit and then spoke loudly through the door.

“I can’t right now. I’m bathing. I’ll see you at supper. Tell that to uncle.”

“Fine, cousin dear”, the woman answered and then left with a loud banging of the door. Ell than turned to Ranadin who was watching him with a raised eyebrow.

“I’m sorry. Part of the act”, he stammered noticing her nakedness. A blush formed on his neck and his face turned red.

“I understand”, Ranadin said and gave him a pleasant smile. This made the young man escape the room hurriedly.

It wasn’t long after Ell left and Ranadin got up from the bath and rinsed herself with a bucket of cold water. The servant had helpfully set out a cotton towel which she used to dry herself. She then dressed in her formal wear and knocked on the bathing chamber door in order to alert Ell to make sure the coast was clear.

Soon enough he opened the door and breathed deeply as he saw her. Ranadin was wearing a long white tunic which was low cut and had split sleeves accentuated with excess fabric. The tunic was long enough to be considered a very short dress. Under she had a black collared shirt that covered her tightly to the wrists. On top she had golden wrist guards. Her legs were covered with black leggings and her feet were covered with her boots that now shined. She glowed like a small sun with her golden eyes, white hair and skin.

“You must come to dinner and meet my family”, Ell whispered in awe. A terrified expression appeared on Ranadin’s face and she shook her head rigorously, absolutely speechless…

*****

Nobody looked at the beautiful, white haired woman Ell the Adanorian escorted into the ballroom. In normal circumstances such a beauty would have been acknowledged, but currently the king of Deles was visiting and the king was a very demanding guest, especially when it came to his food.

If the occupants of the castle wished to stay in the favour of the king they had to provide him with the very best they could afford. This created extra work for the staff who was so very busy they had no time to notice anything out of the ordinary or to be aware of anybody else, except of his royal majesty.

The ballroom was filled with the king’s courtiers and noblemen and women of the surrounding countryside who had come to Joarik’s estate to fight for the king’s attention and the chance for greater power.

The king on his part hated these particular bloodsuckers who dressed in fashionable wear and imitated those of higher standing than them without pride. Joarik had gotten into his brother’s graces by his own merit, but the country noblemen and women completely disregarded both facts. They were dishonest twats who had nothing to lose kissing the king’s royal bum, so the king was doomed to suffer their presence wherever he went.

Ell and Ranadin were sitting at a side table far away from his family that was located on both sides of the king. Ranadin tried her best to keep her eyes hidden. Their unusual golden colour was a dead give-away to what she was. They ate quietly in the corner speaking amongst themselves when Ytja walked by.

“Ell, here you are. Father wants you to come and meet the king. And do bring your friend along. You have nothing to be ashamed of. She is a very striking beauty.”

“I am not ashamed of her, dear cousin. She is merely extremely shy. I do apologize, but I must decline the most generous offer”, he answered her.

“It was not a request, Ell”, Ytja remarked to his displeasure resulting in him doing as had been ordered. They moved carefully towards the great table. Ranadin followed him keeping her eyes fiercely to the ground letting her long hair which she had left open for the occasion cover most of her face.

Uncaring of Ell’s attempts to take them to his uncles the long way around the ballroom, they did eventually end up in front of the king and lord Joarik who looked to his brother for permission to speak. Getting this permission he quickly rose and raced to hug his nephew.

“Welcome back, Ell!” he greeted heartily. The young man smiled to his uncle, but did not turn Joarik’s attention to Ranadin. This was futile as the man noticed her himself.

“And who is this, nephew?” he asked curious. Ell glanced at the snakewoman trying to seem nonchalant.

“This is Lady Rana of Alta. I met her on the road here. She is on her way north to be married to a boring hermit of a nobleman. She had been abducted, and as it is not appropriate for women to travel alone, I decided to take responsibility of her safety. She is quite shy, my lord”, he explained without pause turning then to greet the king. The king acknowledged his bow. Ranadin curtsied mustering as much respect into the gesture as she could.

“You have quite beautiful locks”, the king commented.

“I thank your majesty for your graciousness”, Ranadin answered apprehensively constantly afraid of being revealed. Thankfully the low regard for women in this culture worked to her advantage and it was not uncommon to see such humbleness. They were asked to join them at the table and Ranadin was seated between Ytja and her mother Frenna.

*****

Ytja watched jealously as Ell kept looking at lady Rana with a crease of worry on his forehead trying to determine if the Altaian noblewoman was doing well. The woman constantly hid her face under her beautiful hair and ate as if she feared to be revealed for some horrible crime.

“Have you travelled much then?” Frenna asked.

“No, your grace”, the lady answered politely.

“What is it like in Alta this time of year?” was Ytja’s question. Rana did not turn to look at her, but spoke to the plate.

“I am unsure. We are never in Alta this time of year. We normally life more north on my father’s estate as it is cooler there in the summer. But I have been told it is unbearably hot, lady Ytja.”

“What is your family like?” Frenna quizzed.

“I love them very much, your grace”, the noblewoman responded.

“Please, any friend of Ell’s is a friend of ours. I invite you to call me Frenna”, Ytja’s mother requested and smiled her talented diplomat’s smile. Ytja thought she saw the lady smile inside of her hair. She was about to continue her examination when a servant came to speak with lady Rana. She got up full of dignity and changed places with Ell. His place had been by the king. The worry on his face deepened as he saw where Ranadin was now.

“You must really like her”, Ytja whispered to her cousin who had changed quite a bit after he had disappeared. Ell turned to look at her with weariness in his eyes.

“Ytja, if you knew what this is about, you would not be so bitter”, he whispered back.

“Then tell me”, she tried to lure.

“It is not so simple, dearest”, he answered and did not speak for the rest of the evening all his concentration on lady Rana. Ytja folded her arms and pouted. Even the dessert could not cheer her up and it was her favourite, madame Farning’s legendary chocolate cake.

*****

Ranadin was stiff with fear when she got the invitation to sit by the king of Deles. She was finally in a place where each snakekin of Caroon would have liked to be, a dream of centuries, made of quite different things than the dreams of humans. She was sitting next to the leader of the murderers of her kin and she wished deeply in her heart that killing him at that point would have done some good. But a new king would always rise.

Just around this particular table there were several who had the chance to rise to the throne after the current king. Even her friend Ell was an heir. Maybe it would be better if he were king, but Ranadin did not have her battle staff and she would be dead before she could have killed the other heirs to the king to make Ell first in line.

And the question remained, would Ell still be her friend and the friend of snakekin if she killed his family? More than likely not. So Ranadin had to be satisfied with sitting there at the table next to the one person she hated the most in the world and hope to the heavens she was not revealed. That the king did not want to speak to her, but only had the desire to surround himself with beautiful people.

“Lady Rana”, the king began. Ranadin’s heart skipped a beat.

“Yes, your majesty?”

“Why is it I have never heard of you? One would think your beauty known across my kingdom”, he wondered.

“My father is very protective of me, your majesty.”

“And yet he lets you travel alone?”

“He died on the way. We were attacked.”

This silenced the king for a moment. His curiosity had been aroused. There was something odd about this woman. Something very unusual. He had never met somebody so young who had such wisdom. Lady Rana was quite a rare treasure.

“Who is the fortunate man to have your hand in marriage?”

“I do not know him”, Ranadin answered fearing she was answering more and more through her own mouth than the mouth of her persona.

“Your father was a very peculiar man”, the king stated.

“Yes, your majesty. He was a hermit.”

“A hermit with daughter of such radiance?”

“He became so when my mother died, your majesty.”

“I’m sorry to hear about your loss.”

“I thank you for your words, your majesty”, Ranadin said receiving the king’s apology. It was ironic that the king had been the one of her mother’s capturers, one of the murderers of her father.

“If you will excuse me, your majesty, but I am quite fatigued from all the travelling. May I have your blessing to leave your presence?” Ranadin asked picturing the peace of Ell’s servant quarters in her mind. The king allowed her to leave. Ell followed her example and jogged to her. Ranadin faked feeling weak by holding her head as if it was pained. To all the world she was very pale, so she did not need do much to convince her audience of her condition. Ell supported her as a true gentleman and helped her away from the room. As they passed Ytja, he tried to catch her gaze, but failed.

*****

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea”, Ell stated as he closed the door to his suit safely behind them.

“A good idea? If the king were to find out who I am…”

Ranadin dared not finish the sentence. Anything could have happened and she was still in the castle. She was not safe.

“Will they not wonder about where I am sleeping?” she asked clearly interrupting whatever was on Ell’s mind as he froze in shock. He had been pacing back and forth and now he slapped himself on the forehead.

“Oh dammit! Of course Lady Rana of Alta must have a guest room”, he exclaimed and let out a string of colourful curses that he had learn as a young boy from the seamen visiting Adanor.

“And what of the lady Rana who has only two sets of clothes of which the other is unsuitable for a sensitive and shy noblewoman? When it comes to the weak creature I portray I do know that they usually have an extensive wardrobe with them.”

“You were robbed”, Ell reminded her. Ranadin lifted a finger to silence him smiling wickedly. The brilliance of the young man’s mind continued to astound her.

Ell called a servant who was allowed in on the secret that there was something odd about the lady Rana. The man was mute and illiterate, and in addition Ell trusted him completely. He was called Tep and he led Ranadin through the long winding corridors of the castle to an empty set of rooms in the guest wing. All other rooms were filled by guests flocking to the king’s presence like moths to a flame.

In the morning Tep told his wife who was deaf that a high born lady had nothing but one gown to wear. Ranadin had gotten up early as was her custom ready to dress in her travelling clothes when Tep’s wife Tea appeared to protest her choice in dress.

“This is not appropriate!” she exclaimed and disappeared only to return with a generous amount of gowns that fit Ranadin surprisingly well. They had belonged to Ell’s grandmother who had been a beautiful petite woman with light hair. As a part of her role as castle seamstress Tea had maintained the wardrobe in the chambers of lord Joarik’s mother that had gone untouched since her death.

After dressing into the beautiful sunflower coloured dress with golden embroidery in the sleeves, hem and collar Ranadin felt restricted as normally her clothes had been designed for comfort and agility. She did not forget her role, but pretended to be the timid noblewoman and ended up wondering in the many hallways of the vast castle until she met Ell who was on his way to practice sword fighting. He had been neglecting his training long enough.

“Could I not leave already? If I ran I could come to the mountains only in a few days and I would be safe amongst my people”, she complained.

“The more north you go, the more there is habitation. Most Delesians live around here”, Ell explained causing Ranadin to curse.

“Is there no wilderness?”

He shook his head sadly. Ranadin was stuck.

IV. Humans

Ranadin sat on the edge of the platform gazing up to the stars where she could see them strengthening as the sun snuck over the sky to spend the night somewhere else. Soon humans would settle in their beds and would stop doing their chores in the world where they did not need fear constant attacks in their loving home. Humans were not prosecuted for their race as her kin was.

She could sense another presence behind her as the newcomer sat beside her.

“It is a lovely night that is being born”, the snakeman said. Ranadin turned to watch Avagan who was smiling wistfully into the sunset and then his gaze met hers. A lonely tear, rare to the snakekin, rolled down her cheek. She wanted to mourn Gav who had always been in reach, but she had a mission that was now even more important. She stood and a challenge was in her whole being.

“You are sure? I was once known as the best warrior on the mountains”, the highland Dratoan warned.

“You have met your match”, Ranadin answered and surged forward. Avagan was barely able to dodge her attack as they moved into a blur of motion.

*****

Ell could feel the top of the tree thumping around him and he feared he would fall to the ground. He held tightly to the bed feeling sea sick.

He had never expected such kind treatment from the snakekin as he was human, but he could see that they were wild beings with customs and ways he could not understand.

He got up carefully and opened the door, but retreated in the same split of a second as he had almost been hit by a bladed weapon. Fearing the attack to continue, Ell raised his gaze only to find the most amazing sight in front of him.

Instead of an attack directed at him, it was as if the two Dratoans were fighting full force with an intent to kill each other. Their faces were twisted in bloodthirsty grimaces, deadly scowls on their brows. They moved faster than Ell could fathom, but decided to brave it anyways.

He stepped forward only to find himself on the ground, nose bleeding fiercely with two worried snakekin gazing down at him asking him how he was feeling.

“I’m fine”, Ell said and let Avagan help him up. He held his nose that was painful, though thankfully the bleeding had stopped.

“What the hell were you two doing?” he asked puzzled. Equally mad smiles appeared on their faces.

“It is the way of our people to work through strong emotions”, the snakeman answered.

“It is dangerous to walk in the middle of a fight, has no one taught you that, squire?”

“I thought you had stopped”, Ell complained feeling like a moody child. Ranadin’s smiled turned benign.

“Silence is never the sign of the end of war. The only true silence in this world is when there is no man standing on the battlefield”, she explained. Ell nodded his answer, then pointed to the door and his nose.

“I was holding my staff in this fashion”, Avagan said and then proceeded to showcase what he meant by lifting the dark, thick stick of wood in front of his eyes. It was long and had reached all the way to the door, and Ell had walked right into it. The human rubbed his nose in sympathy of himself. He knew that such wood was extremely hard.

“Who won?” Ell wondered as he lay down. He felt faint and barely saw the two Dratoans shrug with no clear conclusion. He smiled knowing he had interrupted them.

*****

“That boy sleeps a lot”, Avagan stated with a slight sneer. Ranadin made an agreeing noise in the back of her throat but did not answer as she kneaded the dough expertly.

He admired her hair that was as white as the snow on top of the holy mountain. He had not seen the like for many centuries, not since the death of his wife. The memories invoked made him want to touch to feel the softness of the strands.

But he knew to hold away such thoughts as she was not his wife who had been well into her majority when they had met. This young woman did not need to bare more burdens than she already did, a girl who for the looks of it was barely out of her adleten.

“I should continue on my journey”, the young snakewoman sighed. It was time for her to accept that her cousin was irredeemable.

“When are you leaving?” he wondered and winced when her sun coloured orbs turned to him filled with disbelief.

“When am I leaving?” she repeated.

“I thought you were to join me.”

“I had said so, but I have had time to consider the matter more closely. This is your journey, your quest, your destiny, one that has only been given to you through the words of your father. These things never happen under the skies due the decision of a mere child such as yourself. I do not know if it is meant that I am your travel companion. That is not decided by me.”

Her shining eyes narrowed into shining slits that almost blinded him. Yet Avagan refused to back down.

“Who knows, if your cousin was taken away from you for the very same reason.”

Ranadin said nothing struggling to stay calm. She began working on the dough again with some more force than before.

“Only the destiny of the skies knows”, Avagan whispered careful not to light a blaze that was threatening to explode. But instead of erupting, Ranadin huffed.

“I do not believe in destiny”, she hissed and continued kneading. The bread dough seemed to be in pain, but her body was tight as a stringed bow. Avagan thought it wise to leave her alone after that and stayed as silent as possible so that he would not need to suffer under the wrath of a snakewoman.

Nothing scared him more.

*****

As the new morning rose Ell woke up and realised he was alone in the cottage. He got up quickly, pulled on his boots and slung his cloak on his shoulders. He rushed outside and looked down from the edge of the platform. He could see neither of the snakekin, but the vine was swinging slightly as if it was being used, but he was unsure if the one using the vine was climbing up or on their way down. He couldn’t even decide which option was preferable.

If both of the snakekin left, he could stay in the cottage and make a reclusive life there. The option was oddly fascinating for a human who had come from a big city where he had had many friends. Yet there up above the forest he would never have to worry about the future or his family’s expectations.

He then glanced down at the still swaying vine forgetting all about being a hermit. A new decision solidified in his mind and he grabbed the vine beginning to slide down it at an alarming speed. He landed on his but at the feet of Avagan and Ranadin who were both looking down at him with equal expression of amusement.

“What?” he asked from his position on the ground. Silence reigned while he got up and observed the snakekin from top to bottom.

“Oh.”

Ranadin lowered her eyes and then turned them to the north hopefully. She would’ve liked to be on her way already and the human was delaying her. But Ell had made up his mind.

“I wish to come with you”, he said with no sign of doubt in him. Ranadin regarded him with surprise and Avagan froze.

“Ell… You do understand my destination, do you not?” the snakewoman inquired carefully. Ell shook his head in denial though he had a funny feeling he did know.

“I don’t care”, he said stubbornly.

“She is travelling to the mountains, the home of our people”, Avagan revealed before Ranadin was able to react. She glowered at the snakeman murderously and then rolled her eyes. The young man nodded. Avagan’s words only confirmed his suspicions.

“I don’t care”, he repeated.

“And death, you do not fear it? Because it is most certain that you will be killed the moment you step into one of the Dratoan citadels”, Avagan confirmed.

“I don’t care”, Ell continued without pause. The life of the snakekin was much more interesting than his had ever been or could ever be.

He had never revealed such a thought to anybody, but he had always been fascinated by the snakekin and had wanted to visit their homeland. His father had had a true Dratoan as his nanny and he had learned much about their culture and legends.

The snakekin exchanged glances and Ranadin motioned Ell to follow. The young man had no other possessions, except for his cloak, and after they had said their farewells to the kindest snakeman Ell had ever met, he followed the other into the unknown.

*****

Ranadin could have travelled twice the speed if the human had not accompanied her. The companionship was welcome though she would have wanted to run and be at the root of the mountains in only a matter days. Or so she assumed at least.

Ell made a lot of noise while he moved through the ever lighter forest. The eyes of the human were weak. But the young man did not complain just held his eyes on Ranadin’s agile form so he would not be left behind. Nobody would come and look for him here. He being saved the first time had been a fluke and against all the rules Ell knew.

When the sun had risen they came to a vast and deep river which bordered the Great Forest signalling its end. Ranadin raised an eyebrow in bewilderment. The Great Forest was only a few days in breath. When she examined her surroundings she saw an ancient bridge that seemed to be from the age of the Dratoan Empire. She turned to Ell who was smiling.

“That is the bridge of Gezensten. My uncle lives near here. Gezensten is only half a day away in the north over the bridge, and my uncle’s farm is just an hour away by foot following the river to the east.

Ranadin acknowledged his words and removed her pack. She opened it only to lift out a piece of rope. Ell only looked at her oddly when she offered it to him. Sighing she rubbed her forehead in frustration.

“Ell, is it not possible that you have captured a Dratoan while you have been away? I cannot walk free amongst your kin.”

She explained this as if it was elementary. Ell finally understood grabbing the rope and tying it loosely around the snakewoman.

“Tighter”, Ranadin ordered harshly and he followed her instructions though carefully and apologetically. Soon they were on their way towards the farm owned by Ell’s uncle.

On their way to the farm, Ranadin told Ell that she came from the mazes of Caroon where there lived hundreds of her kin. Ell spoke of his life in Adanor as the son of a merchant and the ocean. About his uncle Joarik, his brave son Haumm and beautiful daughter Ytja whom Ell loved and who he thought, or at least hoped, loved him back. He also mentioned Joarik’s horrible wife Frenna and about her affair with the gamekeeper. And of course Joarik’s bastard son Thull whose mother was the gamekeeper’s wife.

“…and Frenna slapped Haumm around the ears. Haumm was red with embarrassment because his friends were there. His long-time girlfriend Gulda left him soon after. Well, served him right fooling around in the barn with Ytja’s best friend and being found out.”

Ranadin laughed and was about tell Ell a funny story about Tomari and Yoning, but paused when she spotted a large mass of stone rising ahead of them. Ell stopped and pointed at the formation.

“That’s my uncle’s castle”, the young man presented with a shy pride. Ranadin could not help, but notice the banners flying in the castle turrets. Some were a deep blue with a great eagle flying over an empty battleground and on the battleground there was a double-edged sword, but in the tallest of the towers flew the colours of the Ferengeti militia. Ell followed his friend’s eyes and sighed deeply.

“My other uncle is visiting. He is infuriating. Even if he is king, it does not mean he can treat his family like dirt.”

Ranadin’s sharp gaze focused on Ell.

“You are of royal blood?”

“I wish I were anything else”, Ell cursed putting great weight in those words. Ranadin felt slightly better. She was not the only one who hated Ferengeti.

“Come on. Let’s enter through the side gate”, the human urged and she followed obediently. This time.

*****

The castle courtyard was magnificent. The grey stonewalls rose high above Ranadin’s head. There were embrasures everywhere making it easy to defend even the inner parts of the castle. The sides of the courtyard were filled with stables, smithies, servant apartments and the entrance to the kitchen.

The yard was in constant motion as smiths, cooks, cleaners, servants and other hired help ran around in an organised chaos filling their duties. Ranadin had never seen so many humans in one place at one time.

Ell moved carefully over the yard trying to stay out of everybody’s way. A group of human children ran from behind the hennery chasing the poor chicken whose feathers flew all over the place making it hard to see through the obstruction.

One of the children saw Ell, waved towards him and then re-joined the group. The child turned once more to curiously peek at the beautiful woman standing by Ell with her hands tied. The child’s interest soon turned as they heard the dinner bell ring. The child’s friends had already ran towards the sound like a pack of hungry wolves and the lone young one joined them.

The sound woke the other people on the yard out of their ever busy minds. Tasks were put to rest. The smith who had been making a sword cleaned his hands and wiped them into his apron. The stable boy swept the horse dropping by the wall, set the broom to carefully rest against it and then ran towards the kitchen to join his comrades. The chambermaid met her dear by the one of the many doors leading to the courtyard, kissed him on the cheek and they moved towards the food together as the man wore a silly, dazed smile on his face.

Ell regarded them. Life had went on normally without him. His stomach rumbled, but he made his way with the snakewoman to the other side of the now empty completely yard.

“I am taking you to my suit of rooms. You’ll be more comfortable there”, the young man explained in a friendly tone as they stepped into one of the many corridors that led into the depths of the castle. Ell turned to climb a spiral staircase which they climbed up three stories. There they came to a new hallway filled with doors one of which Ell opened. They came into a small parlour where there was a table for more than one person and more doors leading into other rooms.

“Bedroom, weapon storage, bathing chamber, servant quarters”, Ell listed pointing at the different doors which gave no other indication to what they could have been. They were without decoration.

“I don’t have personal servant at the current time, so you can stay in the servant quarters. I think it’s safe.”

They stepped into a small room with a desk, a wardrobe and a bed. The floor was covered with a warm animal fur. There was a window that had an ordinary view to the courtyard. The first ones had already returned work and the children had books with them as they head to the castle school.

The child who had greeted Ell earlier was leading the group this time way ahead of them seeming enthusiastic. The other children were dragging their feet. Only two other seemed slightly more enthusiastic about the prospect of learning something new. They were the youngest of the group and Ranadin thought they must have only recently began going to school.

”I’m apologize, Ranadin, but I need to lock the door to this room, so that no one gets suspicious and comes in here.”

Ell was extremely regretful, but the snakewoman merely inclined her head. The young man took her pack and battle staff setting them carefully on the bed.

“I’ll go eat now. Do you need anything? Any special salves?” he inquired like the good host he was. The snakewoman stayed silent merely repeating her head movement.

“If you want to clean up, you only need tell me, and I’ll have warm water brought up. I’ll… go now”, he said and locked the door on his way out. Ranadin sat on the bed and realised she was exhausted. She had not slept for two whole days and settled under the coarse, yet warm cotton sheets.

*****

Ell sneaked into the kitchen hoping the head cook would not see him, but that hope was futile. Madame Farning always knew what happened in her kitchen, especially if you did not belong there.

“Good heavens, Ell! I haven’t seen you for a while. Where have you been? Your uncle is very angry and worried. The search party returned yesterday. Oh my, how dirty you are! Now, go clean up. You will not get anything from this kitchen until you are dressed in a new change of clothes. I should tell your uncle. Not yet? All right then…”

And so on. Madame Farning was an ample and folksy busybody who adopted her mother hen tendencies whenever possible. Ell who had wanted to be unseen could not escape the castle cook who was the queen of the kitchen. Nobody could escape her.

III. The Great Forest

A great majority of the inhabitants of Caroon lived as close as possible to the centre of the mazes. Those who belonged to Tomari’s village lived closest to the gates, but even they lived as far into the maze as was allowed a distance between an elder and her people by the laws of the snakekin.

Due to her role, Tomari and her family lived as close as the gates as they dared, and yet their series of chambers were so deep into the mazes that no human had ever been so far in. The humans always wanted to keep the gates and the light shining through in their sights even though all of the tunnels were lit up with torches. They knew that they could have never found their way into the heart of the mazes and back to the gates again.

The mysterious markings on the walls scared them and sometimes they glowed in the darkness creating an eerie feel to the endless darkness they thought the underground city was engulfed in.

To the Dratoans, those markings worked as road signs helping them navigate through the mazes if they ever got lost. This was a rare occurrence as living in the inhabited parts of Caroon prepared one with excellent skills of direction and recognition of small signs of difference in the tunnels that to the humans seemed all the same.

Nobody knew what hid in the unknown parts of the mazes, not even the snakekin, who dared not explore there. The legends spoke of monsters, spirits and immeasurable treasures the ancient Dratoans had hidden in their dungeons.

But there were always those who were curious and went exploring. The humans had always assumed that the mazes only reached to the area under the old ruins, but in reality they reached to every direction under the ground. Some of the oldest tunnels led all the way to the catacombs of Ferengeti. Most of the snakekin did live under the ruins or nearby as it gave them a sense of communion with their great history.

There were four gates of Caroon: in the north, south, east and west. The east gates were known to the humans as they faced the great human capital of Ferengeti. The others had been hidden and forgotten by the flow of time, but the snakekin of Caroon used those to actively traverse into the world of outside.

Each gate had its guardian, but Tomari was the keeper of all the gates, to whom all the other guardians answered. The keeper of the gates lived traditionally near the east gate, but there was a separate guardian for it.

The east gate was the most dangerous of all of the entrances due to the constant attacks by the humans and so it was used more rarely.

Tomari led Gav and Ranadin to the northern gate as the Dratoan mountain range was situated in that direction. If one travelled through the skies straight north, one would come to the first Dratoan capital Ferngard which was near the holy mountain.

*****

The darkness outside of Caroon was different. It was not complete but shone as if to promise a new sunrise. The world was vast. It stretched endlessly to all directions as it was not limited by any visible walls. Their eyes could see all the way to the far horizon.

The land was covered with rich fields of wheat, corn and barley that fed the great kingdom of Deles and even those who lived in Caroon. The earth was full of form, it travelled up and down, and it was filled with different plants of more colours they had ever imagined.

There were groups of trees here and there forming forests where animals, birds and other dwellers found safety. Now the world was quiet, as many of the creatures of the aboveground where sleeping as they lived during the sunlight hours. Only a few prowled the world searching for food.

Gav had seen a lot of this before when he had gone for the scavenging hunts. He had also seen the glimpse of a beautiful morning that had not been hindered by the gates of the city. But it had been too close to the hateful humans and their bountiful food sources. It had been his first trip outside of the light of torches where he had seen the world of free creatures unburdened by fear, pride or tradition. No worry about manmade structures and their integrity, only the sky above their heads.

Ranadin was brave, but when she saw the world the first time, as we all have once first gazed upon it, she was amazed by the greatness and vastness of it all, the realm of the free. The mountains that were their destination could not be seen because the gentle roof of clouds protected the night sky and stopped the rock giants from coming and conquering the lowlands.

There was a hole in the mountains revealing a bright and dark sky. The canvas of the sky was filled with small orbs of light that shone their fire from far far away. They were the great friends of the dragons, the legendary stars. They welcomed Ranadin to the world under the free sky and she could feel her father watching down at her through their all seeing eyes. She knew she could never again live without their light.

”Shall we?” Gav asked at the gates of Caroon and Ranadin turned to look at them filled with a new excitement. She hugged Tomari whose cheek glistened with a lonely tear, the only tear she had ever shed during her long life. She let the tear go and fly to the stars to deliver her wish of protection for the Skylion, the Lionstar, the hope or destruction of their people.

*****

The sand under her pale feet felt amazing. It felt vastly different to the cold, hard ground of the mazes. This earth gave away under her feet and felt soft. It made it feel wonderful to walk in the fresh air.

Instead of traditional white garb, they were clothed in deep black garments that helped the darkness hide them from human eyes. Gav glanced at his cousin who breathed deeply in the wonderful air and walked with the enthusiasm of a five year old. Her body vibrated with excitement every step she took and her artfully braided hair framed her face like a halo of an angel. Her golden eyes were restless as they took in the new world in front of her.

She knew so much, yet she knew nothing. Gav knew now that this had always been Ranadin’s goal, which she had trained for this all her life. The soul of a wanderer had been freed from its prison.

*****

Ranadin sensed the approaching sunrise before Gav did. Its warmth crept into the world and a new, fresh scent filled the air. They were a short trip from a large woodland that reached across the surface of the land from north to east.

”This must be the Great Forest marked in the ancient maps”, Ranadin said remembering the map she had brought with her. She had observed the map so many times during her life thinking of her father’s words and planning her journey that she did not need to consult it directly any longer.

Gav nodded and they sped their pace to a run. They could not be met on the roads of Deles as during the days the militia of Ferengeti patrolled the roads frequently.

*****

Like its name suggested the Great Forest was indeed very great and thick. Ranadin and Gav did not need to run far into the forest to lose complete sight of the road. They continued their way deeper into the old wood in hopes of better protection. The stopped only after they had come to a small opening that was surrounded with poison ivy which affected humans negatively. The plant was named by humans, but the snakekin knew it by the name of blood ivy due to the colour of the liquid it secreted.

They fell asleep unafraid and calm, not knowing to fear the animals of the forest. In fact the spirit of dragons that was carried by all of snakekin kept even the bravest of beasts away. Their rest was calm and untroubled.

*****

Ranadin’s peaceful sleep was disturbed by the smell of fire. Thinking Gav had made a camp fire, she opened her eyes only to be greeted with a most unusual sight. Her cousin was already awake and seemed to be as surprised as she was.

The opening was filled with lizard like men, women and children who were covered in dirt and rags.

”Who are you?” Ranadin asked in the Dratoan tongue, but the beings that seemed very much like them did not react or seem to understand her words.

”Rana, I think they are Draacs that have escaped the human cities”, Gav whispered to her. She nodded and cleared her throat to speak again in the human tongue of Delesian, a language she had studied but was greatly unpractised in.

”I am Nadine, and this is my brother Varn. May I inquire to who you are?”

The Draacs seemed startled and they gathered into a tight group of knotted hair to seemingly negotiate an answer. The leader of the group turned to the outsiders.

”Wuh forst thowt yee weor humans, but nar na man hez sich colourful eyes. Wuh knar yee hev othor names, yas lyin.”

”How do we know you can be trusted? We are Dratoans and we are on our way to the mountains.”

”Wuh wud betra othor slaves. The’ are comrades”, the leader reassured.

The two young snakekin exchanged glances. Gav stood up and addressed the leader who observed him with mixed yellow eyes.

”What is your name, Draac?”

”Ung”, was the leader’s answer.

”Gav”, Ranadin heard her cousin counter pointing at himself, then he offered his hand to the leader of the Draacs. Ung seemed to be a bit dubious at first, but mimicked Gav’s actions. Her cousin pressed their hands together and bowed in greeting as was custom amongst the snakekin. Ung followed suit and then pulled his hand away quickly to make sure he was uninjured. Gav smiled then and Ung answered with a tentative one of his own.

”And you?” Gav asked in snaketongue from Ranadin. He gave her an imploring smile making her sigh. Yet she did not move to follow his request. Their gazes locked and a battle of wills commenced. Ung lifted his eyebrow in questioning confusion as he followed the unspoken communication. After a while she turned away and moved to greet Ung.

”I am Din.”

She refused to grant full victory to Gav by revealing her full name. Ung nodded and they were asked to follow the group to the Draac camp. When they came to what was Ung’s home a fairly beautiful woman came out followed by a small child of about the age of five.

”Me missus Fane an’ wor daugthor Daralan. She wes named a neeble lady iv yor kin”, the Draac leader introduced them with pride in his voice. Ranadin who had fallen into a sort of bored frost woke up as she heard the name of her mother. She surged forward with all the strength of a desperate snakewoman and stepped in front of Ung.

”Where is she? Where is Daralan, the lady of our kin?” she asked with a hopeful and desperate gleam in her eyes. Ung backed away startled, but Ranadin would not back down.

”Is she still alive?”

Ung’s wife Fane stepped forward despite the protestations of her husband.

”She wes alive when wuh left three months ago.”

Ranadin straightened to her full height, lifted her pack and battlestaff from the ground where she had left and began walking, but was stopped as Gav grabbed her arm.

”Where do you think you are going?” he asked with barely restrained anger.

”To Ferengeti. I need to try to save her”, Ranadin insisted with a faraway look in her eyes.

”And forget Dirro’s words, your destiny, Lionstar?” Gav asked speaking her name in dragontongue.

”But…”

”Would she not have a better chance of being rescued if we first went to the homeland and gather others of our kin to help us? You forget, that my mother is there too, and the mother of many others!”

”But…”

”You cannot afford to be selfish. If this is where you falter then we might as well return to Caroon and you can take upon you the guardianship of the gates as was meant to be.”

Gav would not let go of her arm. They’re gazes interlocked once more with equal stubbornness. Ranadin relaxed the muscles in her arm. After a little time Gav relaxed his grip on her arm and let go. As soon as this happened Ranadin grabbed her battlestaff and attacked her cousin with a furiousness she had not displayed before. Gav was forced to duck her attacks and answered her blows sweat flowing down from his brow. The Draacs observed the fierce fight in horror.

As she realised the dance of staffs did not have the wished disabling effect on her cousin, she changed to sword fighting. Gav mirrored the moves of the snakewoman and the woods rang with the unholy noise of metal on metal. The Draacs retreated in the blood ivy just in case the noises created by the two furious Dratoans had been heard by humans.

They fought for what seemed like hours. Eventually they tired and their swords met interlocking as did their gazes with golden and red lightning thundering in their eyes. They had come to an impasse.

Ranadin had given too much of her will to her cousin that day. So she concentrated on the last of her strength and pushed Gav to the ground with his sword flying through the sky in a perfect arc. She then took her supplies and ran into the forest. Away from the Draacs, away from Gav, and away from the horrible humans. She was fast and soon was far away.

*****

Gav sat up. He was hurting everywhere and he knew he would be black and blue for a good while afterwards. Ranadin had never beat him so thoroughly. The Draacs observed him carefully from amongst the ivy. Ung was the one to creep to him and speak.

”Let hor gan. Cum wi’ wor. It be safe in wor hidin place”, he suggested and set his hand on the snakeman’s shoulder. But Gav shook off Ung’s hand, stood up and gathered his pack.

”I have raised her from the day the humans took her mother Daralan, and killed her father Dirro.”

With these words he left Ung’s Draacs and began running at a quick, yet steady pace into the same direction had disappeared only a moment earlier.

*****

Ranadin ran until darkness fell over the world as it did every night. She stopped exhausted to find herself a place to sleep. She studied the age old trees around her and jumped deftly on one of the lower branches of the biggest trees there. She swung herself on the next one and began climbing until she had come to a branch that was high enough to protect her, yet wide enough to accommodate her comfortably.

She sat down in the curving branch and wrapped her legs around it. From the high tree she had a breath-taking view over treetops. Ranadin smiled and relaxed wandering on the edge of sleep and awareness. Suddenly she heard a branch crack and she looked down.

A dark figure was scanning the ground and quite surprisingly the figure looked directly up towards her perch. It jumped into the tree nimbly and began climbing with alarming speed. It crouched onto the branch next to her gazing her with its piercing white eyes. Neither dared to move.

”I sleep here. Find yourself another tree”, Ranadin boldly spoke breaking the silence. The figure still did not move from its uncomfortable crouch. She waited for an answer and got in the form of nod. The figure grabbed a vine that was hanging right next to her head. It then quickly climbed up the vine and disappeared into the top of the trees.

Curious as ever Ranadin quickly secured her battlestaff to her pack so she could follow the mysterious figure up the vine that beginning to be pulled up. But she grabbed it and climbed up the tree with great effort.

When she had gotten to the top, she landed on something flat that turned out to be a surface built onto the very highest branches of the tree. And on the platform there was a small cottage. The white eyed figure was observing her from the doorway. It then shook its head and motioned her to come in. Ranadin stepped from the cold night air into the home that was warmed by a cosy fireplace. The figure was still standing in the doorway, but it had taken the hood down baring a head of pure golden hair.

”Why have you broken my peace?” the figure asked and his ability to speak startled Ranadin. She soon recovered and answered.

”I am on my way to the north. I will be on my way again as soon as there is enough light in the world to see.

He turned to look at her revealing his face that was austere and pale.

”Golden eyes…” the man whispered suddenly seeing Ranadin’s eyes and turned away seemingly frightened. He began murmuring to himself. Deeming the man a lost cause, Ranadin turned to leave, but was stopped by his next words:

”Do not leave. Please stay the night. It seems as if you could use some good rest.”

”I thank you for your kind offer, but I must decline. I do not trust you though I sense you are kin. I know not of you”, she answered hesitant.

”And yet you followed me”, he stated. She could not argue with that. Instead she tried another tactic.

”Perhaps if I knew your name and you would know mine, I could stay.”

The man straightened his stance.

”Avagan.”

”Ranadin.”

*****

When the sun had set Gav had stopped for the night. Ranadin was already far away and he knew he would not be able to find her during that day. The forest was vast. A young snakewoman could be anywhere.

”Stubborn, irritating….” he cursed as he prepared himself for the night. When the sun rose he knew it was like searching a needle from a haystack.

*****

”You are on your way to the mountains? Where do you come from?” Avagan inquired.

”Caroon”, Ranadin answered. Avagan who was chewing a piece of meat almost choked on his food.

”You must be joking with me! That is impossible. No one comes from Caroon, it is a dead city, a heap of ruins. Completely destroyed and disappeared from the modern maps”, he exclaimed in disbelief.

”Only from aboveground. We live in the mazes under the mountain city”, she told him. Avagan’s wonder turned into seriousness. He turned away and looked to the moon that was shining over the forest.

”Why are you travelling to the mountains?”

”Our people have been held captive in the ruined cities and as slaves in the kingdoms of men. Snakewomen like mother are captured to act as broodmares for Draacs. They are no better than whores. I am fulfilling my father’s last wish.”

Avagan turned to her with an air of gravity around him.

”You are starting a war”, he stated.

”I only hope for freedom for our people and the chance to return to the skies, but if it is war that it takes, then so be it”, she answered without hesitation to his silent challenge.

”I shall go with you”, the snakeman then said with determination.

”I don’t really know. I don’t think Gav would like company.”

”Who is he?”

”He is my cousin”, she answered and laughed. Then she remembered that she had left him behind and stood abruptly.

”What is it?” Avagan wondered when a look of slight panic descended upon his house guest.

”Gav. I almost forgot about him. I was upset and left him behind. I must find him!” she said, grabbed her staff and rushed to the cottage tree and climbed quickly down the tree. Avagan barely had time to grab his own weapons and follow after her. Ranadin was young and she had always been quicker than other Dratoans.

Reaching the ground Ranadin dashed off into the direction she knew she had come from. She quickly left the older snakeman behind her. She soon came to an opening where she could find the signs of a fight and the remnants of Gav’s pack.

To his surprise he soon reached Ranadin who had stopped unexpectedly in the middle of an open bit of land. She fell her to knees and bowed her head in sorrow. There between her legs was Gav’s amulet, a piece of jewellery she had made for him not ten years ago. He had never taken it off after that. She lifted it gently and pressed it against her chest beginning to wail silently.

Avagan inspected the opening carefully finding no signs of blood or any other indication of dead. The night was silent around them as the snakeman returned to Ranadin’s side and put his hands on her shoulders. By now she had become completely silent.

When she returned to the world her sensitive ears picked up a slight unusual rustle of leaves. She got up and began carefully creeping towards the source of the sound that had become behind a bush of blood ivy.

”Avagan”, she hissed, but he was already there like a ghost of the wood. They had found a young human male who was tied up and was showing symptoms of ivy poisoning though he was unconscious. The snakeman took out a wooden cup and filled it with some water from his flagon and then added a powder from a pouch in his belt. He then massaged the man’s throat encouraging him to drink the potion that countered the effects of the blood ivy

”Why are you helping him?” Ranadin asked in a voice filled with disgust and hate. Avagan calmly finished what he was doing and took the man into his arms.

”He might be able to tell us what happened here and whether or not your cousin is alive”, he explained as they began travelling back to his home. Ranadin could not argue with his reasoning, so she stayed silent.

*****

They transported the human to Avagan’s cottage and set him on the only bed in the small house. Avagan applied a topical cure on the young man’s cuts that had come in contact with the vile plant. He told that the cure was made of the roots of the ivy, and could be made into a paste or a potion depending on the portion of water to the powder.

They repeated this process three more times throughout the night before there was a marked improvement in the young man. His fever fell and he began breathing evenly. Ranadin had no patience to wait for the human to wake up to know of her cousin’s fate, but Avagan cautioned her about it. By noon the youth woke up.

”How are you today?” Avagan asked politely with a friendly countenance. The youth was unable to speak, but kept looking at the unnaturally white eyes of the man before him.

”What is your name?” Ranadin asked trying to mimic Avagan’s tone. The youth seemed to relax as he saw that there was a woman in the room.

”Avagan, do you have some cure for speechlessness?” Ranadin wondered dryly. The human tensed once more with her words. Avagan got up from his bedside seat and took out a green, fresh smelling powder that he mixed with some more water. Then he returned to the bed.

”This is mint, human. It will help you if you have a sore throat”, he offered kindly. The young man shrunk as small as he could on the bed. Ranadin tried to give the boy the cup, but he continued to be stubborn.

”It would be nice to know your name”, Avagan said and sat back on the chair causing the human to try to get even farther away from him.

”I will tell you whatever you want just as long as you don’t force me to drink your poisons”, the youth finally said.

Avagan barked out a short bit of laughter.

”If by poisons you mean medicines, you have already consumed them. We saved you from blood ivy. If we truly wanted you dead, we would have left you to the mercy of the forest. Do not be foolish, dear boy”, the snakeman reassured the boy in a calm, but amused tone.

”Well if you did save me, the least I can do is to give you my name. I am Ell of Adanor”, the young man spoke in a more reasonable tone.

”Adanor? You are far away from home. What are you doing in the Great Forest?”

”I am a squire. I live on my uncle’s farm by the creek. A week ago a band of men attacked me and have kept me as their prisoner ever since”, he told them and carefully took the cup of mintwater from the bedside table.

”And when did you came in contact with the blood ivy?” Avagan continued his soft interrogation.

”I was intending to act dead so they would abandon me. My plans to change as the men arrived to an opening where they intended to camp when they found one like you there. I could care less if it was friendly or not. I called for help and it woke up attacking the men like a huge predator cat. Tied as I was, I could be of no help, so I hid. And apparently ended up in the blood ivy”, he told them.

”Is he still alive, the one of our kin?” Avagan asked.

”I don’t know. I wish I did, I owe him, and you my life. I hid as you remember. Who was he?” Ell wondered.

”My cousin Gav”, Ranadin answered and Ell’s smile disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

”I’m so sorry. This is all my fault. Had I just become a merchant like father… the youth cursed. Silence descended as Ell continued to blame himself. Ranadin soon grew tired of his self-flagellation and interrupted him.

”No, it was a sum of many consequences.”

She heard herself say the words and was surprised to find that it was not that easy to blame him for what had happened, even if he was human.