(Formatted for Web Reading)
(Formatted for Web Reading)
Fergus felt her eyes following him as he leaned into the boulder covering his position. Well-hidden behind the rocks, he was unseen by the invaders of the clan Maekel. He lifted his hand in the direction of his chieftain, Rhymus, and blue flame flickered in his palm. His skin shimmered, threatening to reveal his dual nature, but he held on to his true form. The dragon inside paced back in forth in his mind. He growled, showing Fergus his razor-sharp teeth, but angrily relented to Fergus’ command to retreat. Fergus took a deep breath, harnessing the power of the dragon’s gift.
Rhymus nodded to Fergus. The clan quietly waited to advance. He lifted his arm and pointed toward the meadow. In a breath, the calm dissolved into chaos as the Elohite clan emerged from the tree line. Rhymus led the charge, sword drawn. His voice carried over the valley, “For our lands! For our clan! For our honor!”
Hundreds of men dressed in blue and green tartans scrambled from inside the forest, following their leader. Their minds set on vengeance, their bodies sculpted for war. A shield wall advanced upon the Maekels, and from behind flaming arrows flew overhead, landing inside the Maekel lines. Men shrieked in surprise as the arrows rained down.
Magnus Maekel stumbled, but caught himself, with the end of his staff. Anger flickered in his eyes, and black smoke billowed from his nose. His dragon, T’argo, was close to the surface. The Maekel Mage lifted his staff into the air, signaling for his clan to advance.
Men wearing red and green tartans, and carrying broadswords fought their way forward, breaking through the Elohite shield wall. The warriors converged in the middle of the field. Metal struck metal and echoed up into the trees.
Men screamed their final death notes, as others shouted to rally their clans. Voices thundered through the valley, driving wildlife deeper into the forest, and sending a large flock of doves into the air.
The Goddess Lorna watched the slaughter from a high branch, her golden eyes alert to any sign of Elanvanin within the Maekel forces. Her thoughts drifted across the field, sensing the presence of every man, beast, and tree. She sighed before projecting her thoughts to Fergus. I don’t sense him. The Maekels are alone.
Fergus’s flame-kissed, blue eyes glanced in her direction. Thank you, my Lady. He twisted his staff with a flick of the wrist, and it shortened. He quickly holstered it at his waist. Fergus took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. His body shook, as he released his dragon, allowing the ancient creature to take to the sky. Rendor’s scaly blue skin shimmered brightly in the sunlight, and his wings glistened like sapphires. The Maekel forces ran backward, as Rendor fought his way forward, tearing and slashing at the warband before him. He tossed men into the air like twigs. The Elohite clan gained ground behind him as he pushed the Maekel men aside. Rendor growled sending a massive pillar of fire into the air in front of him, and he climbed high into the sky.
Magnus Maekel’s eyes flashed red, and he growled, unleashing T’argo. T’argo’s scales glistened like rubies as the sun bounced off his sides. He lurched into the sky after Rendor, tearing at him with clawed feet. Rendor roared in pain but leaned forward clinching T’argo’s neck between his long teeth. Dark green blood trickled into Rendor’s mouth. T’argo pulled away, pushing his claws further into Rendor’s hide freeing himself. Rendor flew higher into the sky, and T’argo followed.
Lorna watched the fighting; her heart beat loud in her ears. Even in her goshawk guise, she felt as though her stomach were in knots. She hated to see men fight, even if the cause were just. Above the carnage, in the meadow, Rendor swooped down from the sky, T’argo on his heels. The dragons locked arms, as though in a ferocious mid-air dance, and took again to the sky.
To Lorna’s right, a flock of birds drew her attention southward. A thin smile traced her thoughts, as she watched the carrion birds circle. She glanced back to the battle; the Elohite’s had driven the Maekels back toward the river. A soft tug reached out to her mind, pulling her thoughts downward toward the forest. A boy of seven summers was hiding behind a tree. She flew down and landed lightly on his shoulder, reaching out to his mind.
Young one, this is no place for you.
Karn frowned. “I know, my Lady, but I wanted to see the dragons.”
She cawed low. Run on back home, now. Lady Freya will be wondering where you are.
Karn scrunched his face into a pout. “I don’t want to. Father won’t know I was here.” His blue eyes implored her. “Please, let me see. I’ll hide.” He clasped his hands in front of his chest.
Lorna shook her head. It is too dangerous.
Karn’s nostrils flared, and he tried again.
“Please. I know you can keep me safe. You can do anything.”
She huffed and shook her head side-to-side. Almost anything, Karn. No one, goddess or otherwise, can do everything. She nuzzled his ear. Now, if you insist on staying, get up into that tree, and climb up as high as you can. When the battle is over, you better beat your father home, or he will toss you into the ice floe.
Karn nodded. “I will. I promise.”
And, you best pray Lady Freya hasn’t noticed you missing. She nipped at his ear with her beak. Hurry now!
Lorna flew back to her perch high above the valley and watched the battle. She closed her eyes and reached out to Fergus. She felt his mind alongside Rendor’s. The dark blue dragon had freed himself from T’argo and had landed in front of the Elohite warband. Now my mage!
The air around Rendor shimmered as he disappeared. Reunited with his dragon, Fergus climbed up an outcropping of limestone. He towered over the carnage as T’argo retreated back into Magnus’ mind. Magnus ran toward Fergus, staff extended.
Fergus caught Magnus’ eyes and laughed. He released the staff holstered at his waist. With a flick of the wrist, it transformed back into his Aspen wood staff. Etched on its sides the ancient tongue glowed blue, and resting at its top between silver branches, the blue flame burned. He raised the staff high above his head.
Magnus lifted his sleek black staff, into the sky. The red flame flickered in the top beneath a thorny finial. He stepped forward. Spit flew from his mouth. “You’ll never defeat us, child of Lorna.”
Lorna listened as Fergus quieted his mind ignoring Magnus’ taunts. She felt the burning sensation that filled his veins as the battle disappeared around him and the power of the blue flame enveloped him. His voice, loud and energetic, came alive as he spoke the words of ancient Arcadian.
In answer, Lorna’s shrill caw echoed through the trees, and Fergus’ blue eyes glowed even brighter. Magic shrouded his body with an energy field, and Fergus struck his staff into the boulder below him. Blue flame shot outward from the top of the rod sending a great wave of light across the field, leaving behind a distinct cinnamon odor that hung in the air.
Karn wiped the magic from his eyes, which had momentarily burned with the flame. He leaned forward against the tree branch until he hung precariously close to falling and waited.
The wave made contact, Magnus and his warband were thrown back hard to the ground unable to move. Fergus crossed the battlefield and stood over the Maekel mage. He lowered his staff until the finial rested only inches from Magnus’ face. The blue flame flickered outside of its cage, dangerously close to his cheek. “Today is not your day, scum of Elanvanin. You’re in the Lady’s lands.”
Another long, high-pitched caw pierced the air.
“You see, she watches, even now. Remain silent if you value your life.” Fergus lightly touched the flame to Magnus’ right cheek. His skin seared leaving an ugly red patch of melted flesh. “Oops.” He lifted the staff, grinned, and whispered, “Just something to remember me by.” Fergus turned on his heel and motioned to Rhymus. “Lord Chieftain, I await your command.”
Rhymus stepped forward. His blue and green tartan billowed in the wind. “Men of Anwell Maekel, arise.”
Fergus nodded and waved his hand in an upward motion, “I release you all, of the clan Maekel, but Magnus Mage of Elanvanin. I command you to stand.” As though tossing a rock, Fergus threw blue flame across the field.
The men slowly climbed to their knees and stood on shaky legs. “Keep still, as my lord addresses you, or you will find yourself unable to move forever.” Fergus planted the bottom of his staff firmly against the ground.
Rhymus stepped forward, “Today, this feud is at an end. I will see no more shedding of my clan’s blood. Return to Selindale. Plant. Love your women. Stay away from Bardai. If you step foot back on my land, I will not be so generous. Take your wounded. Get your dead. Now leave.”
A slight murmur raced through the crowd.
Rhymus lifted his hand to silence them. “But, there is a price for your freedom. I will have your swords.” He turned to Magnus. “And you Mage, hand your staff over to Fergus.”
Fergus circled his hand in the air and lifted it upward, granting mobility to Magnus. Slowly, the Maekel Mage stood. Magic pulled him forward until he stood directly in front of Fergus.
“I will have your staff.” He snapped his fingers, and Magnus dropped his shortened staff into Fergus’ open hand.
Fergus motioned again, binding Magnus with invisible cords. He spoke softly to the staff. Instantly, the black wood glowed blue. He tossed the rod at Magnus’ feet. “No mage should be without his staff.” Fergus took a step closer until he stood a few inches from Magnus. “Also, I will have your dragon.”
Anger radiated in Magnus’ face. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Fergus snapped his fingers. “Wouldn’t I? T’argo, from this day forth you are locked inside, never to roam free again. He snapped his fingers once more, and blue flame sparked from his fingertips. He released Magnus from his bonds.
Magnus growled and retrieved his staff from the ground. “This is far from over, Elohite.”
Fergus held his gaze. The flame in his eyes danced wildly. “Oh, I think it is.”
Rhymus signaled to his clansmen. “Collect their weapons and send them on their way.”
Karn walked behind Fergus along the banks of the Braiden River, only half listening.
“This, young Karn, is a willow tree.” Fergus cut a piece of bark and stuck it in the pouch at his waist. “Its bark is used for medicine.” He cut another section off of the tree and slid it beside the other one. “When steeped in tea, it cures a headache, fever, and stomach ache.” Fergus continued down the path but stopped next to a plant with small black fruit.
“This is the Bella Morte root. Notice how the leaves shine in the sunlight. The berries look similar to small blackberries but don’t let that fool you. They will bring death.” Fergus opened his pouch and withdrew a smaller leather bag. He pulled a few berries from the plant and shoved them into it. “If prepared correctly though, they can treat earaches. Your mother treated you with this two winters ago. Do you remember?” Fergus paused. “Karn, are you paying attention? This is important!”
Karn watched him with wide eyes. “Yes. I am.”
Fergus frowned. Then why aren’t you answering me?”
Karn shrugged. “I. Well. I was wondering if I could see the dragon.” He ran his splayed fingers through his hair.
In the back of his mind, Rendor paced. Fergus shook his head. “Rendor is not a toy. Nor should his presence be taken lightly.”
Karn took a step back, but not entirely out of Fergus’ reach. “But, I want to see him. I want to fly with him.” He pointed to the sky.
Rendor stood on his hind legs in Fergus’ thoughts. I will take him to the sky. I can show the boy.
Fergus clapped Karn on the shoulder. “No. Not today. Today you are to learn about the healing arts. It is of the utmost importance for you to be able to care for yourself if some harm should fall you or a companion.”
Karn scowled. “Fine.”
Rendor pouted, and Fergus shushed him.
Fergus followed the trail beside the river, Karn close behind. “Here, you see. Deer fallow. And what is it good for, Karn?”
He frowned when Karn didn’t answer and looked over his shoulder. Fergus’ face broke into a smile. “What have you found?”
Karn pointed to a large boulder half buried in the river. “Look at the water. It folds against the rock, but it doesn’t move.”
Fergus nodded. “Yes, the water parts for the rock, because the rock is firmly planted in the riverbed.”
Fergus leaned into his staff. “But, as the water pushes against it, it wears down. Someday, that rock will succumb to the river and disappear entirely beneath its surface.”
Karn scratched his head.
“Years from now, no one will even know it was there. It is strong but will not leave an impact on the river. The river is a powerful force. One of the most powerful of Lorna’s creation.”
“But, not the most powerful. Her dragons are the most powerful.” Karn grinned.
Fergus felt Rendor puff his chest outward, and he rolled his eyes. He bent to face Karn. “More so, Karn. The water holds the power of life and death.”
Karn knit his brows and leaned into Fergus’ side.
“You know Karn, in our own lives, we must choose if we are the rock or the river.”
Karn scrunched his face and cocked his head to the side. “How can we choose, Fergus?”
“All men have a choice, Karn.” Fergus straightened. “Today, you get to decide if you want to stand fast like the rock, or flow like the river.”
Fergus straightened the collar at his neck. “Today, you can follow in the footsteps of the greatest dragon riders before you. You are blessed child. Not only do you carry the dragon’s blood within your veins, but you are the son of the seventh generation of Elohites, descendants of Caladain. You are special.”
“Isn’t Orin, too? Why me?”
Fergus chuckled. “Yes, Orin is special too, but his destiny is to lead the clan, and he is not Lady Freya’s son. She was a seventh daughter of the seventh daughter, and you are her first born. You, Karn, are uniquely able to bear Lorna’s gift, and I am offering it to you. You are her choice to carry the flame when I’m gone.” Fergus clapped him on the shoulder. “I think you’re a good choice, boy.” He smiled. “Karn, you are chosen. Do you understand?”
Karn shrugged and looked away. He stared at the water. Light danced across the surface, as the water rushed down the river. Images of battle raged in his mind. “Fergus, why do some people follow the red flame of Elanvanin?”
“Why, indeed? It’s a good question, child, but not easy to answer.” Fergus bit his bottom lip, then sighed. “But, I’ll try. Some people still follow the first ways of Elanvanin. He, god of fire, is strong and powerful, and he calls most to those who crave power. Some of the first men couldn’t resist his call, and because of that their clans have devoted themselves to Elanvanin’s ways.”
Karn squinted up at Fergus. “Clans like the Maekels?” He bit his lip.
Fergus nodded. “Yes, like the Maekels.”
Karn glanced at the river. His eyes followed a chunk of ice floe moving with the current. “If Elanvanin’s ways were first, how come we follow Lorna?”
Fergus chewed on his lips. “Well, a long time ago, before man, Lorna and Elanvanin walked together. They were happy, and lived together in peace, but eventually that changed.” Fergus cleared his throat and patted Karn’s shoulder. “You will learn more about their histories after planting time.”
Karn groaned. “More studies?”
“One can never study enough, Karn.”
Karn rolled his eyes.
“Anyway, the reason why.” Fergus coughed. “Lorna and Elanvanin walked together until one day she met a hunter named Caladain.”
Karn shuffled his feet.
Fergus ran his fingers through his beard. “This gets rather complicated for a young boy to understand. Let me just say that people took sides after what some believe was an indiscretion. Our clan followed Lorna because we are the people of Caladain. Her chosen.”
“Oh. Why didn’t you just say that?” Karn knelt and picked up a rock slightly buried underneath a patch of grass.
Fergus shook his head. “Child, you are aging me. I swear by Lorna’s creation I am going to look five-hundred before we get back to Bardai.”
Karn laughed. “You already look five-hundred.”
Inside Fergus’ mind, Rendor laughed. Kids got a point.
Fergus snarled. Keep your thoughts to yourself, friend. Fergus looked back at the boy.
Karn tossed the rock he found into the air and caught it in his hand. “Fergus. I’m bored.” He glanced in the direction of Bardai. “Why do I have to learn all these things? Ian doesn’t. He’s in the hayfield waiting for me. We’re supposed to kill evil dragons.” Karn dropped the rock on the dry ground. It landed with a thud next to the toe of Fergus’ boot.
“Karn, every Elohite child has to learn. You are the son of Rhymus and Lady Freya, and because of that you have more responsibilities than others.” Fergus cleared his throat. “Ian will be apprenticing with Ryland soon. He is to become a blacksmith.” Fergus sighed. “It is high time you boys stopped chasing mounds of hay. You must be prepared for what your futures hold.”
Karn scowled. “Does Ian know?”
“He will be told, child. Don’t worry about Ian. Today, you must choose your path. It is imperative that you gather as much knowledge as you can, while there is still time.” Rendor shielded Fergus’ mind, only allowing him a slight glimpse of what was to come, but even with the shield in place, Fergus was overcome with a wave of emotion. He wiped a tear from his eye. “Our futures are written, but our journey is not. The goddess has laid out your destination, and you must be prepared to face it.” For a moment, sadness flashed in Fergus’ eyes, then he smiled. He handed Karn a skipping rock. “Cast it across the water, Karn.”
Karn threw it. It skipped once before sinking beneath the surface. “Stupid rock!”
Fergus laughed. “Patience. Everything worth doing takes practice and knowledge. That is why you must give attention to the things I’m trying to teach you. Watch.” Fergus produced a small amount of blue flame from his fingertips. It pooled in his hand.
He rotated the flame between his fingers flattening it into a blue disc. He placed it between his thumb and forefinger, and with a flick of his wrist, skipped it across the water. The disc danced on the river’s surface until it reached the other side, and then skipped its way back. Fergus held up his hand and caught it. The flame disappeared.
Karn’s eyes widened. “That was incredible!” He pretended to cast flame across the water.
“That, Karn, is just the beginning. You have two paths laid before your feet. You’re the second son of Rhymus. Your brother, Orin, will be chieftain.”
Karn stared up at him.
“Someday you could be a second chieftain, but what honor is there in that? If you choose to be the next mage, you will know greatness beyond your wildest imaginations.” Fergus’ eyes sparkled. “Only you can decide which path you’ll take. I’ve asked your father, and he is willing for you to apprentice. But, in the end, it must be your choice.”
Karn studied his feet, then looked into the horizon.
Rendor paced across Fergus’ thoughts. He is making a mistake. Make him learn, Fergus. You can force him.
Silently, Karn stared into the distance. The sun hung low on the horizon.
Hidden in the branches of a large willow tree, a goshawk with golden eyes watched. Lorna awaited his decision. I doubt he will even remember our time together. It’s a shame children grow out of their belief.
The pair stood silent, as the sun dropped lower in the sky. Finally, Karn shook his head. “I want to be a fighter, like my father.”
Fergus gently rested his arm on Karn’s shoulders. He choked the disappointment from his voice. “As I said, it’s your decision, Karn. I will not force you to learn.”
Rendor growled. He must learn.
Fergus sighed inwardly. He will. He watched the river flow a little longer, then patted Karn’s back. “Let’s go home.”
A shrill cry pierced the evening air, and Lorna flew away.