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Fireblade: Chapter 21


I LEAP FROM ZANDAR’S neck, a haze of guilty confusion scrambling my thoughts, to land in a cloud of powdery ash near the accusing mounds of grey-shrouded corpses. I turn to face him.

“Jantian, forgive me. I thought I could control a firestorm, use it to defeat an army. I was wrong.” I sink to my knees on the smoking ground, wishing it would open up and carry me away from my actions and their consequences.

Neither judgement nor sympathy here. His voice bears the severe edge of command I always find so intimidating, every time I hear him issuing battle orders to the Eldrin.

“It’s done. Deal with it. There will be time for reparations later. Your presence is needed at the head of the army within the hour.” His gaze moves to the glittering monster coiled behind me. “If you leave the dragon here, can you call him from the battlefield?”

“Yes.”

“Then come.”

I take a few steps back and face Zandar. His size and ferocity have not diminished anything like as much as I had hoped after extinguishing the fire.

“You don’t have long to wait now. Can you remain within the area you already burned until I call you?”

In the empty silence that follows I can feel his questing urge and hunger reaching out to claim more fuel. I glare at him, focusing my will against his desire until the force of it and the partial binding between us is wrestling and conflicting with his instinct to flare and burn and grow.

And finally it seems to reach an equilibrium. He dips his great scaly head in acquiescence.

As you wish.

I just have to hope that means the same in dragonlore as it does for me. Jantian reaches for my arm to pull me onto the saddle with him before quickly turning the horse downhill. We should be back at Blackthorn within the hour but I feel completely confused about what is expected of me now.

“Jantian, I don’t understand why you want me to call Zandar. I can’t be sure he won’t go out of control again and destroy our entire army. In any case, you know I already pledged to the Shadowblade that I would not even try, and he has kept to his side of the bargain.” I hesitate, my mind flitting back to the last time I spoke with Shadow. “Up to now at least…”

I break off uneasily. The reminder of that ‘unfinished business in the city’ he had disappeared to attend to only brings more uncertainty.

“Read this.” Jantian pushes a crumpled scrap of parchment into my hand. “One of the Eldrin researchers discovered it late last night. It is only a fragment, but we think there are still more yet to be found in other hiding places.”

He must be taking the search seriously if his people have been ordered to work through the night. I scan the faded letters, artfully contoured around the ragged shape of the page as if it had been already old and worn before quill and ink were applied.

.

No one knew where she came from.

The powerful Fae warrior was a mystery. Her origins were not Elvish from the Western Isles, but neither were they Djinn of the Annubian deserts or Kaan from the forested swamplands of Rapathia.

The warring tribes of Eldaran hailed her as the leader they had been waiting for. Someone who at last could win their freedom from the powerful Elementals who had dominated their lives for too long.

But even a Power Mage cannot see all the future paths leading from her chosen battle plans. Valara’s victory would sow the seeds of future disaster, even as she established a golden age for Eldaran and its people.

Now as I, Jaren, watch the seeds of a dark future being sown in the founding of this great new nation, I hold to one last hope. That the descendants of our Queen will one day see the flaws in this philosophy and make the necessary changes to reclaim a better future than we are gifting them now.”

.

I twist around in the saddle, trying to see Jantian’s face as if it might somehow make the message clearer.

“What is so significant about this? It’s not much more than a summary of what you already discovered, scattered among the fragments of Eldaran history that are already recorded in the other scrolls.”

“Read the other side.”

Frowning, I turn the page over.

.

Valara did not speak often of the remaining survivors of her kind, those last few she left behind on the southern continent. From the little I have learned, there is a chance that one of the greatest among them, Nissanda, made different choices at Rahimar. I pray that this lore will pass down through her descendants.”

.

The words might be hopeful but they don’t convey anything to tell me what I should do in the next few hours and days of having to lead an army into battle, when I have no military training in strategy. But that is not the reason for the sudden shock running through my body and numbing my fingers. The astonishment comes from the impact of the tall, graceful image drawn carefully in faded ink at the foot of the page.

I try to concentrate, afraid the precious parchment will crumble from age or fall from my useless hands and be lost in the haste of our ride to Blackthorn. When I find my voice it is little more than a whisper.

“Jantian? You must know more about this, surely? I have to be able to understand it.”

“First, look at the parchment it is written on. It is not from Samaran like the other scrolls we found. And it is of finest quality. Several of the other scrolls contain drawings of Valara herself, and this one is markedly different. Most likely it was a portrait of one of the survivors that Valara spoke of, a picture that she carried with her. Now, look at the way the text is distorted to fit around the worn edges and into the space above the drawing. I think Jaren added his own script here, soon after Valara was murdered. Then he concealed the scroll in a separate place in the hope of bringing as many clues together as he could, for a future generation to use.”

Jantian waits in silence for a few moments, waiting for me to respond. I know what he sees, but I still can’t find the words to express what I feel.

Because the face gazing up at me from the yellowing parchment is the face of Isennia, my mother.

Jantian’s voice seems to be coming from a distance.

“Ariel, I have never met anyone from your family except you and your sister but even so, the likeness is remarkable. I was hoping you would be able to provide the missing information.”

At last the scattered images and feelings settle enough to let me gather a few words in response.

“The distinctive shape and pose of her body. I have seen it before. It’s the same as the wind-eroded rock-carving outside one of the entrances to the pinnacle of Rahimar. This is Nissanda, the Power Mage of Annubia.”

He doesn’t reply for a few minutes. We both need time to sift through what it might mean and make connections with what we already know. I leave him to come up with conclusions first, seeing as he is not having to deal with quite so much emotional turmoil.

“Ariel, Samaran’s history is limited to the formal stories of the Five Warriors that the priests and village elders repeat almost word for word. The Eldaran archives have more detail, nearly all of it written by the scribe Jaren and subject to the limitations caused by his policy disagreements with Valara. After that time, there are very few contemporary accounts that survived the internecine power-struggles following Valara’s death. And there are no records of what happened to her descendants. It seems most likely that they scattered, moved away from Maratic, married Samarians, became invisible among the population.”

He waits for me to make the inevitable connection. I am still staring at the graceful lines of the drawing.

“Invisible, but not disappeared. And every now and then, when the bloodline is strong enough, an individual discovers that they have an affinity for training at Maratic… So the Eldrin are all distant scattered descendants of Valara who have been drawn to Maratic and the training that follows?”

“I think so. And somewhere in the faded past, someone from Nissanda’s bloodline left Annubia and arrived on these shores. Does your tribe, the Sylvani, have any stories about their ancient origins?”

I try to think back to the fables my mother sang and recited to send me to sleep as a child.

“Nothing I can think of, except… many of them started with the line, “Long ago, when the land was warm and fruitful, before the frost descended’… I didn’t give it much thought at the time. I assumed it was just… well, old-fashioned poetry.”

“Until you tie it together with other information and even then it’s still partly guesswork.”

“But… it would explain why I survived the initiation with Zandar?”

“Yes, it would. Not only that, but I think it gives a clue to the reason Marin has such a strong affinity with Maratic. The name that Prince Tieran took when he renounced his birthright. It was the name of his grandfather on his mother’s side, Marin al Valaran. At first I assumed it had simply come from some distant ancestor overhearing a fragment of Maratic’s secret history and using the name to enhance his family status, but now I believe it to be another clue to Valara’s lost bloodlines.

“Does Marin know?”

“I have been sharing the information the hawks delivered from Maratic over these last weeks, but he has not given it much thought. It doesn’t help with the decisions he has to make over the next few days.”

“So how can we…”

There is no time for all the questions crowding into my mind as we approach the narrow side gate in the defensive wall of the Blackthorn grounds. Deris and Nem are standing guard outside and hurriedly open it to let us in.

The small cobbled courtyard is deserted except for one of the maids who is clutching a bulky pile of clothing, and Marin who is leading two enormous warhorses. Deris almost pulls me off Jantian’s horse in his haste to connect me with Marin, the black destrier, and the appropriate regalia. Not necessarily in that order.

The Elf warrior sounds more exasperated than I have ever heard him before. “Ariel! It would have been really helpful if you could have simply waited where you were supposed to be, just for once!”

“Sorry. Temporary change of circumstances.”

Marin raises an eyebrow. “Dragon trouble, at a guess.”

He must have seen the smoke as well.

“Not good. Details later.” I can tell there will be no chance for anything else until I have been prodded and squeezed into the role they have all been preparing for me over these past few weeks. The maid steps forward with the pile of clothing and then stares at me with an indignant gasp.

“What in the name of the Five have you been doing? I finally get you properly clean and polished and you’ve already gone and covered yourself in ash and soot!”

For a brief moment the refreshing lack of deference collides with my sister’s radically changed appearance, leaving me with yet another layer of confusion to deal with. Only a few wisps of pale blond hair stray from under the neat white bonnet, but it is also the cleverly nuanced shift in the way she moves and turns her face away that had me fooled until she spoke.

“Sissy! What are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to go into hiding until I get back?”

She dumps the clothing into Deris’ arms and scrubs away at my face and hands with a damp cloth. “Easier for me to hide in plain sight after I publicly paraded in here wearing all that.” She dips her head to the scarlet cloak that Deris is already draping over my shoulders. “Lucky I brought a cloth to wipe all the sunburn-cosmetics off my face. I should have guessed you would go looking for trouble the instant you were out of my sight.”

She glances up at Marin and the two restless beasts he is trying to calm. “Sooner you than me on top of that enormous black horse though. If you hadn’t come back from Annubia it would be me trying to stay on top of it, pretending I’m about to go off and fight the invaders.”

I resign myself to a few more minutes of being scrubbed and dressed until the final jewel-encrusted gold band is wedged onto my forehead. Alina instantly switches back to her flawless act as a maid, averting her eyes and making a demure curtsey.

“Your Grace, you are ready and you look perfect.” She flashes one of her most mischievous grins in my direction before scurrying back through the servants’ entrance to the house.

I watch her go, amazed at the way she can change her voice and appearance so rapidly and convincingly, from Sylvani villager to courtesan-spy to elegant Queen, and from there to co-conspirator and now an almost-invisible servant. Seeing this, I now feel more confident that she can make a smooth transition to high-placed cleric in charge of merchant shipping––or whatever new role her undercover work with Kashia might demand.

Deris grabs my foot to heave me unceremoniously onto the restless black stallion and I turn the horse to fall into step beside Marin.

“Now what?”

“Just stay close to me, look confident, and wave encouragingly.”

Nem opens the gate and we ride out, following around the great curve of the boundary wall to the broad plain where the army is waiting.


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