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Fireblade: Chapter 20


I HAVE NEVER LONGED to hold back the dawn as much as I do right now. Lying in the warmth of Marin’s arms, whispering together in the darkness, losing ourselves in deep, passionate kisses and lovemaking as if the terrifying future awaiting us can be somehow wiped away with one night of love and happiness.

I want to hold every sensation of this night vivid in my memory. The feel of Marin’s skin warm against my body and the soft brush of his breath against my neck as his lips caress me.

If we survive to escape and live as exiles I want to recall the feeling of silken sheets and perfumed air, this fleeting bubble of safety surrounding us now. Something good from our past to bring into an uncertain future of hiding from harsh justice in crumbling barns and dusty oases.

Alina has twice managed to deter her maid Bettany from coming in here to wake Marin, insisting that his military training means he can be ready in mere minutes. It is true, but the idea that he needs to sleep and rest longer in order to be refreshed and ready for the coming battle is so contrary to what he is actually doing, I almost give away my presence by dissolving into laughter.

“Shh!” Marin presses my face against his chest. “You’ll have the whole security detail in here if Bettany hears anything that doesn’t sound like me snoring.”

I can feel his muscles trembling as he tries to suppress his own laughter.

“You don’t snore.”

“She doesn’t know that.”

“Why does my sister need a maid anyway? She loves getting herself in and out of new clothes. Whatever finery she has been allocated for today’s pageant will be total bliss for her.” I run my hands down the smooth skin of  his back.

“Tradition. Making sure everything is done just as it has been for centuries. I think it gives people a sense of continuity, that if the country has survived for so long it will continue to survive. Apart from that, your sister does need some help with the layers of cosmetics to get her skin tone nearer to yours. She doesn’t spend most of her time outside as you do.” His fingers stray longingly up one of my suntanned arms before tracing a path across my breasts and down to my stomach.

I redirect his hand to somewhere far more interesting.

“You mean Bettany knows…”

“No. Alina somehow convinced her it was a personal fashion choice.”

“Hardly a convincing story, though? I thought the nobility always tried to look as pale as possible to distinguish themselves from the peasants.”

He gives a dismissive shrug. “She’s the Queen. Add in her talent for persuasion and she could have them all following her example within days, even if she announced that pink and purple hair was the latest height of elegance.”

I have to gulp back another burst of giveaway laughter at the very idea. It is exactly the kind of mischievous prank my sister would love. Another surge of voices from the other room has me poised to hide under the covers before Alina’s persuasion deters Bettany once again.

“My sister wasn’t very impressed by some of Samaran’s nobles.”

“I know. Another inevitable decline brought on by my father’s dependence on Lord Farang.” Reluctantly, Marin leans over and reaches for his clothes. “Fortunately a few of the aristocrats have managed to hold on to their integrity in spite of the slow corrosion of values that damned traitor inflicted. Too many years of plotting with the Usurper, so skillfully done that even the Elders of the High Council never noticed. At least this crisis has exposed those still loyal to the country and prepared to defend it––and those who are not. Jantian will have some work to do when this is all over.”

“So long as Alina is safe. Thank you for finding her a place with Kashia’s merchant associates.”

His answer speaks genuine admiration for Alina’s talent.

“Your sister is one of the most accomplished undercover agents Kashia has ever come across. We’ll need spies more than ever in the chaos that will follow this battle, even if we win the field.” Marin dips his head to the window. “It’s almost dawn. We have to move.”

I try to focus on what happens next before my desire to simply stay here forever takes over. My clothes are almost dry and I mutter a quiet message of thanks for Alina’s thoughtfulness in leaving them beside the brazier. The hood of the soft grey Eldrin cloak covers my hair and Marin pulls it a little further over my face. He nods approval.

“That should be enough to get you as far as the hidden passages––”

He looks round at the quiet knock on the bedroom door and hastily pushes me aside out of Bettany’s sight.

Deris steps into the room. The Fae warrior is doing his best to sound suitably deferential while at the same time ensuring that Marin has a clear sightline across to Alina who is watching from the far side of the salon.

He makes a formal bow. “Your Grace. I have been ordered to escort you to the ceremony.”

Marin pauses, watching my sister carefully until a brief nod of understanding passes between them. A tense moment passes before Alina knocks a pot of cosmetics off the table, instantly stooping to clean up the splurge of bright red lip-gloss that smashes and splatters across the tiled floor. Predictably, this provokes a horrified squeal from the maid.

“Your Grace! Please, you must let me do this!”

As soon as Bettany drops to her knees Alina steps between us, spreading the voluminous skirts of her dress to conceal my departure alongside Marin and Deris.

We walk outside into the corridor and Deris and I shift places to march on either side of Marin, two Eldrin bodyguards escorting him to the assembly hall. A brief pause to check that no one is watching before I slip through one of the hidden access points to the spy-passageways.

My instructions are to wait in the cave at the far end of the escape tunnel. Deris has already recalled the guards from there, so I should have a clear run. Then he will come to collect me and escort me down to the wide meadow outside the walls of the Manor, ready to ride out with the other commanders at the head of the army.

Which would have been a perfectly adequate plan if I had not decided to venture a little further from the cave and into the surrounding trees to look down on the soldiers assembling far below in the distant meadow.

Instead, the first thing I notice from my vantage point high on the hillside is the dark cloud rising from the forest to the north, darkening the sky like an approaching thunderstorm. Except that I know with terrible certainty, my worst fears have come to pass.

A great swathe of the forest is burning.



MY BREATH IS SEARING my lungs by the time I have run flat out for several miles through brittle, tinder-dry forest to reach the fire. Gaunt, blackened trees point barren fingers accusingly at the sky and the smoking ruins of a tiny village rear misshapen crumbling walls from a sea of grey ashes.

There is no sign of the villagers and farmers except for the shrouded outlines of their charred corpses, lying beneath this suffocating blanket of ash. If this is Zandar’s idea of keeping it to a minimum, I dread to think what a full-on reaping would have caused. I just have to hope he is willing to engage in a mighty effort at mitigation. I raise my voice to scream a summons into the scorching air.

“Zandar!”

I wait, knowing he will hear me, watching the ripples of spark and flame playing up and down my arms and wondering for the hundredth time why the dragonfire doesn’t burn through me as it caresses my bare skin.

The beat of the fire-drake’s great wings thunders overhead as he stalls his flight-path to land in front of me.

Are you ready to fight your battle now? I saw the army of your enemies approaching as I circled high above this valley.

It isn’t easy to hold back on the furious expletives tearing through my mind. Dragonlore has its own strange codes.

“You set the forest on fire. We have to quench it.”

He looks around at the approaching smoke already flowing over the summit of the ridge like a creeping carpet of death.

Yes. It is many years since I encountered such a place. So much potential. So much rich fuel.

The ripple of satisfaction in that last word jolts me into studying him more carefully. What I had first dismissed as shock-induced imagination is actually true. He really is larger than before. And glowing with more heat and flame and searing power than I had thought possible. No wonder Annubia is a baking desert of sandstorms and heat mirages.

What in the name of the Five did I think I was doing, bringing a creature like this into Samaran? How could one person possibly hope to control this flying inferno for long enough to win a battle, without destroying every living thing engaged in the conflict?

Right now, this disaster is on me. I have to do something. Getting angry with an enormous fiery creature that sees no problem in what it has just done will only be counter-productive.

“Zandar, we have to make a firebreak. Destroy the trees around the fire and contain it until it dies.”

As you wish.

He dips his head to let me scramble up to my perch on his neck and then takes off in a great roar of sound and heat.

My only experience of creating fire-breaks came at the end of a long summer drought almost five years ago, when I saw my first and only forest fire. Until now, that is.

The call for aid came from the seaport at the end of the cart track that runs past my village. Streams had dried up and it was taking too long to draw water from the sea. The only chance we had to save Seasca was to raze the trees in a great curve around the outskirts of the town and deny the flames further fuel.

When the emergency was over, our village Elders took it as a warning and ordered a broad swathe to be cut on either side of the cart track where it ran past Caerlen, as a precaution against future wildfires. That this open area had then become the site of the doomed battle against the first push of the invasion was something none of the Elders could have foreseen.

I steer Zandar back and forth across the path of the flames, urging him to use his scaly head and wings to batter the trees to the ground until nothing but a carpet of shattered trunks and mulched leaves remains for the hungry flames to feed on.

“Zandar, fire needs air as well as fuel. Can you deaden the air above the firebreak?”

Why would I do that? It would deplete my power instead of restoring it.

I search for reasons that might have meaning to an Elemental. “Because you already have more than you need. More than when you arrived here.”

I do not see the relevance.

“Because you are destroying the allies of Annubia. You swore an oath to the Power Mage of Rahimar.”

A long silence, followed by an even longer sigh.

As you wish.

He swoops low over the firebreak and I feel the tug of his depleting energy as the air collapses to nothing and the flames die. He continues the circuit until we are almost back to where we started and I have checked that nothing remains except smoking blackened stumps devoid of flame.

A lone rider is waiting by the ruins of the devastated village. As we descend I can see clearly who it is.

Jantian. He must have seen the smoke while riding back from Maratic and diverted his route to find out the cause of the trouble.

Once again I have to face the judgement of the Master of the Eldrin for more of the over-confidence and lack of control that has caused yet another disaster.


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