Buford Strongarm stood a little taller as the honored guests approached. His back ached and his knees moaned, but today was not a day for complaints. No, he had stood at the main gate of the inner city all day fueled by a pride given only to a select few fortunate enough to be given the honor of King's Guard.
The guests paraded up the stone archway, waving towards the crowd of commoners gathered outside. Most had never laid eyes upon their former enemy, and many were shocked to find that Queen Landrel was not the two-headed ogre children's stories had made her out to be. Buford afforded a quick glance from his visor and found her to be a comely middle-aged woman with graying hair and sad eyes. She wore a sapphire gown lined with a myriad of jewels, and atop her head was placed the crown of silver swan's wings, the crest of Charton.
As the Queen pulled abreast and was announced to the congregation within, the King’s Guard of Airiondale broke from their places of vigil and aligned themselves along the bridge on either side. They unsheathed their swords with military precision and held them aloft tip-to-tip, creating a steel tunnel.
A carriage approached and stopped at the end of the bridge. A guard in Charton-blue dismounted his horse and opened the coach. The crowd swooned and gushed as the Princess of Charton emerged in a vivid white wedding dress, along with her maids-of-honor dressed in sapphire gowns.
Buford felt his heart leap, not from romanticism, but from the hope that this Princess had come to represent: a hope of a future born in marriage, a future of peace. For two generations, all of Buford’s adult life, had the kingdoms of Airiondale and Charton been at war. Neither side ever gained a distinct tactical advantage, dragging the war on and on until many had forgotten what had caused the conflict in the first place. There were conflicting reports of who had initiated the truce, but it didn’t matter to Buford. What did matter was that the war was ending, and his wife and daughter would live in a world without wondering if he would return from another venture into enemy lands.
As the bride passed, one by one the swords were returned to their sheaths in a dramatic presentation. When the last blade was put away, the King's Guard of Airiondale turned and placed a fist on their chests as a sign of loyalty and unification.
The procession wound its way through the rough stone arch and down the short, cobbled street to the temple. As the princess ascended a short flight of stairs to enter the main hall, several white doves flitted out of the temple, followed by a short, bearded fellow who muttered a few curses at the birds, then, perhaps realizing his embarrassing predicament, escaped back inside like a dog with his tail between his legs.
The princess had stopped to survey the scene. She laughed, and then continued inside. Two large wooden doors were pushed shut behind her, somehow finalizing the event in Buford’s mind.
A raspy voice knocked him out of his musings.
“I can’t believe that King Elzon is going to let this happen.”
“What’s that, Madcap?” The speaker had been Terrowin “Madcap” Black, another member of the King’s Guard. Buford had known the man for many years. In a battle, there are few he would rather have by his side. He had earned his nickname early in his career during the charge on the Forked River by rushing and killing five Charton hatchetmen single-handedly. Off the battlefield, however, his tongue was often a liability.
“These Chartons,” he spat. “Despicable if you ask me. Damn despicable. How can he do it? How can a prince of Airiondale find it in himself to be with that Charton girl? Just isn’t right. Not at all.”
Buford was stunned, but not surprised. “That ’girl’ will someday be your queen. I think this is a good thing.”
“She won’t be my queen. No, sir.”
The two stood silent for a moment while Buford determined how best to continue the conversation. Inside the temple, trumpets bleated a joyful march and ended as quickly as they began. A woman’s voice could then be heard talking aloud in a thick accent, but Buford was disheartened that he couldn’t make out the muffled words.
“I heard they brought in a cleric from Brez,” Terrowin chimed in. “I guess the Airion gods aren’t good enough for them anymore. We have to listen to some southern savage go on about her tree gods or some such nonsense.”
“I heard you were participating in the arena matches tomorrow?” Buford asked, hoping to change the subject. He knew that Queen Landrel and King Elzon had agreed upon a third party to perform the wedding rites so as to not show favor to either faction, a decision Buford thought just.
Terrowin took the bait. There was nothing else he liked better than to boast of his prowess with his warhammer. “You heard right. Someone’s got to show these Chartons a thing or two, and if I can’t do it on the battlefield anymore, then by damn I’ll do it in the arena. Too bad I won’t be able to take them on first-hand, but there’s hearsay that the gamemaster has something special planned for the lot of us, a nasty beast of some sort. Bring it on, I say...what was that?”
Buford had heard the sound, as well as felt it: a low rumbling accompanied by a momentary shaking of the ground. “Maybe something fell,” he ventured, looking to the parapets.
Another inhuman shriek pierced the air, causing Buford to jump.
“That came from inside!” Terrowin alarmed. A chorus of screams from beyond the temple doors confirmed his observation. The bellowing of the crowd intensified, and the thump of many fists could be heard pleading for a way out.
Buford and the rest of the King’s Guard surged forward, pushing the massive doors open inwardly. Veterans of combat all, each had a weapon in hand, ready to deal with whatever may lay within. Before the twin doors made it halfway open, something smashed against the doors causing them to shut forcefully. Several of the guards who had been helping were flung back as if they were being flicked aside by some unseen malevolent force.
The remaining guards surged forward in resolve to open the doors. Buford join them, and Terrowin fell against the massive door next to him. “I knew it,” he exclaimed as he pushed with his entire weight. “A dirty trick by the Chartons I tell you.” Terrowin opened his mouth to say more, but whatever force had been holding the door in place suddenly gave way, and the doors opened with one last heave.
Chaos. Rows of pews knocked over, the altar destroyed. Tapestries hung limp and torn. The gathered crowd scrambled to far corners and out side-ways, trying to escape the wrath of a great serpentine monster. Lizard-like in color and texture, the monster was three times the size of a horse and twice as quick. It darted about on four squat legs while a long, thick tail whipped back and forth like a reptilian mallet. The creature shrieked once more as the Guard surged into the hall, revealing a set of jagged teeth.
"A drake!" someone called out. Buford didn't need to be told. He had seen plenty from afar in his travels, but never this close. Distant cousins to dragons but just as deadly, drakes were a terror best left alone.
“Fan out. Try to distract it,” Terrowin said to the Guard.
Buford made to go left, but the beast jerked suddenly and came at him. On instinct Buford slashed with his blade and connected with the creature’s lower jaw. Enraged, the drake recoiled his head in a screeching fury, and Buford took the opportunity to complete his move, coming around to the rear of the beast.
Terrowin took a position directly in front of the drake. He held a massive hammer in one hand, and taunted the monster with the other. “Hey, hey, you stupid lunk! Come here and let daddy give you a little treat!” The drake snapped its jaws in response, and Terrowin hopped to the side, spun, and in one graceful move clobbered the beast on the snout.
The impact stunned the drake. It hobbled backwards a few steps, shaking his scaled head. Buford saw his moment to strike and took it. Rushing in, he reversed his sword as if holding a long knife, meaning to sink the blade into an eye. The drake recovered too soon, though, forcing Buford to retreat a few steps. He found himself side-by-side with the lizard, and on impulse jumped up on its back. Straddling it like a great bull, he attempted to crawl forward to the head while the monster thrashed in anger. Somehow, he held on.
“Over here, hey! Hey!” Terrowin called to the drake. “I’ve got another treat for you, you ugly lout!”
The drake lurched back, straining its slender neck in an arch. Buford tried again and again to find leverage to stab with, but the beast would not remain still.
Buford became aware of a flapping sound, one that seemed out of place amidst the pandemonium. The drake heard it as well, and flitted its eyes back to look for the source.
The moment had come. Buford slammed his blade downward.
Falling. Fast. An inhuman howl. Feathers. A stone wall. Darkness.
II. The Queen
Smile, she told herself. They can’t tell the difference between a forced smile and a genuine one, but they can note the absence of one.
Queen Landrel put one foot in front of the other, step-by-step, and crossed the ornate bridge leading into the heart of Castle Airiondale. Tall statues of gallant Airion knights stood above the gathered crowds, mocking her mood with heroic poses.
The oddity of the moment boggled her, and she forced a cynical giggle down her throat. Never in her wildest nightmares could she have dreamed of such a day, a day that her only daughter was to marry the heir of Airiondale. In the days and months leading up to the moment, Landrel had often wondered how it came to this, but could only cogitate one answer.
Charton had lost the war.
Oh, on the surface it was a truce, an equal measure of surrender. But Landrel knew better. She knew of the depleted Charton treasuries. She knew the squalor her people lived in and had learned to accept as normal. She had heard the whispers of dissent bubbling under the surface of society. But most of all, she had seen with her own eyes the passing of her husband, King Damilion, and with him any hope remaining of victory ceased.
Indeed, it was Damilion who had set the peace into motion before he fell victim to his illness. Foreseeing the eventual downfall of his Charton, he had written to King Elzon for his desire to see reconciliation, and had pledged his own daughter as an act of faith. Two weeks later, Damilion was dead, and Landrel was left to oversee the fragile peace.
Not that she wanted or cared to. She still, and always would, despise Airiondale. But, she knew what must be done, so she forced another smile and continued her slow march to see her daughter wedded.
“Our seats are to the left, your highness,” Florinco, Charton’s Wizard Regent murmured. “Next to the altar.”
Landrel nodded and entered the temple. A wide aisle cut through the middle of a long hall, and on either side row upon row of pews were teeming with the highest families of both Airiondale and Charton; Airiondale on the right and Charton of the left. A distinct visual reminder of the societal divide was easily observed as the groom’s side consisted of various hues of red and crimsons, while the bride’s side tended towards Charton Blue.
The Queen made her way down the aisle, gritting her teeth behind her smile. Behind her, a unit of trumpets blared, announcing the arrival of her daughter.
As the queen neared the end of her sojourn, a commotion erupted from a side door near the right of the altar. The door was open, and a man’s voice rose from within in some kind of annoyance.
“Get back here!” the voice bellowed. The sound of troubled cooing and the beat of wings ushered from the room, and a half-dozen white doves suddenly fluttered forth. A man appeared, huffing and jumping after them.
Landrel could not recall ever seeing a more unclean individual. He was short and squat, and had a belly that sagged out from underneath his overshirt. His face was a rat's nest of hair, long and clumped by dirt, food, and other things Landrel wished not to think of. He stumbled into the hall, clapping his hands and whistling after the birds. They complied with his apparent wishes by lighting in the rafters.
The queen took her seat of honor while the bird man wandered towards the altar. His eyes were transfixed upward, unaware and uncaring of the audience. A few audible snickers peppered the room, while others exasperated.
"Excuse me, sir." The man had bumped into Florinco. "Just trying to get the birds back."
Florinco righted himself with a look of contempt. "Look what you've done you hairy ogre!" He pointed to his blue robe where a dark, watery stain was growing.
"I'm very sorry, sir. I'll make it up to you...oi! Get back here you birds!" He was off again, as the doves had made their way to the open doors of the temple.
Florinco turned to the queen. "Your highness..."
She shook her head and motioned for him to sit. "What do you expect from such people?" she whispered.
"Your highness," he began again, "he broke the gift." He indicated the wet spot on his robe.
She shot a look. "You had it with you?"
"I felt it safest with me."
She bit her lip. "Can you make a new batch?"
He nodded. "With time."
"Do it. Have it ready before sundown, or I'll have you reading sundials and telling fortunes in the waste lands. Use discretion. Go."
Florinco's face blanched white. "As you will." He got up and exited just as the princess entered the temple to a fanfare of trumpets.
The audience rose. The princess made her way to the altar, the congregation sat down, and the cleric entered.
"Alangrande ste namas plelgrios," the cleric said in the old tongue. Two bodies, one mind. Landrel wondered how many understood the ancient language.
“Today will be marked in future generations as a day that hate was overcome by love,” the cleric continued. She looked to Elzon and then to Landrel. “A hate that has endured for far too long.” She turned back to the bride and groom. “Is love not the perfect antidote to hate?”
Landrel squirmed as she watched. Her daughter did not love this man she was marrying. No. She may love the idea of marriage, not the person. This mention of love was nothing more than a fool’s gambit.
The service progressed; the sacraments were brought forth and the rites were spoken. Landrel tried to distance her mind, noting the lines on her hands, the thin film of dust on the pew’s arm.
It was impossible. As the ceremony came to fruition, the cleric’s voice became an abrasion, growing in intensity and annoyance until Landrel was seething. She became hyper-aware of the circumstance, and panicked. No, no, no! I can’t let this happen!
She stood up and wheeled as if drunk.
All eyes focused on her.
She opened her mouth, prepared to say something.
Landrel never got the words out, for at that very instant an inhuman roar blasted through the hall in a deafening cacophony.
III. Young Friends
Ben mucked the stall as fast as he dared.
“You done yet?” Marty’s voice called.
“Almost,” he yelled back.
“Good,” she returned. “I’ll be by the fountain when you’re done.”
Ben put his back into the work, desperate to complete his chores. Already he had fed the chickens, slopped the hogs, milked the cows, and all the while Marty pestering him to hurry up, for as soon as he could get away from his work, they would have an afternoon of complete freedom, something that did not come along often for the pair of ten-year-olds.
The streets were empty when he emerged from the stables. He took a few jogging steps towards their meeting place and then froze, turning back towards his small house. His shirt was filthy from the day’s chores, and he wanted to change. He only had one other decent shirt, but he had scrubbed it the night before and had laid it out to dry outside of his window.
Wearing clean clothes was something of a challenge for the son of Castle Airiondale's gamekeeper, but Ben had made it a personal pledge to present himself in the best way he could, especially in public. Part of it was Marty; she was the daughter of one the King’s personal guard, and it did not feel right to be in her company looking like he just rolled around in a pig pen (which he may very well have).
But, the real reason Ben did not want to be seen looking unkempt was his father, and not because he pushed Ben to keep his appearance to an excepted societal level. In fact, it was the exact opposite. His father was the gamesmaster. He was expected to watch over all of the castle's animals, be it foal or fowl or anything in between. No other in Airiondale could boast of greater or broader knowledge on the keeping of creatures: how to keep them strong and make them stronger, how to cure them of illness, and how to break them for the use of the kingdom.
The problem was that his father didn't just tend to animals; he lived like one. He didn't bathe. He had not cut his hair in years. He ate his food with his bare hands and wiped them on his already soiled clothing. "Dirty Sven" the locals called him behind his back and under sniggers.
Ben's father was a joke, and Ben was determined above all else not to be like him.
After the quick change, Ben raced off to find Marty. She was just where she said she would be, lounging by the great fountain in the cobbled square.
"So," Ben said as he sidled next to her, "what should we do?"
Marty raised an eyebrow. "We could go see what they've got in the arena. They've had the place crawling with guards for the past week, but with the wedding going on, I'm sure we'll be able to sneak in."
Ben swallowed. "Father told me to stay away."
Marty laughed. "So did mine, which means it's something good." She leaned back and ran her fingers through the water. "Besides, they're both at the wedding, along with everyone else. They'll never know."
Ben bit his lip. "I don't know. I don't want to get in trouble..."
"Oh, come on you big chicken!" Marty teased as she slung a handful of water up into Ben's face.
"Hey!" Ben reached down to retaliate, but she was already gone.
"Can't catch me, you chicken. Bok, bok, bok!"
"Want to bet?" he returned, giving pursuit. He chased her to the end of the square and back through the stables. Abruptly she doubled back, but instead of heading back into the square, she made a quick left though the servant housing. She made a quick game of hide-and-go-seek in some hanging laundry, and then she was off again past the barracks and over a large stone wall.
Ben knew where Marty was leading him, but he was caught up in the moment of childhood bliss and let her. They held their arms out like birds, and for brief instant as he closed his eyes he could imagine soaring high above the castle, looking down at the people like wriggle-worms for him to gobble up in his avian belly.
Marty came to the entrance to the arena and stopped for a second. It wasn’t the main entrance, or even a rear one. The two had discovered it the past summer while exploring the castle by happenstance. In actuality it was little more than a hole and a bit of collapsed wall creating an opening just large enough for someone small to squeeze through. Marty glanced back at Ben with apprehension on her face, smirked, and then disappeared down the hole.
“Good gravy,” Ben swore under his breath. He didn’t think she would go in. The first and only time they had gone down into the dungeon had been a less-than-pleasant experience, and he had doubted Marty would tempt fate again. He peered into the hole. “Marty?”
“Bok, bok, chicken.”
“Marty, get out of there! Remember last time?”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I don’t see anyone down here anyway. It’s safe.”
Despite Marty’s assurances, Ben’s heart was thumping as he climbed down. The room was dark, damp, and cramped with barrels, casks, and various janitorial instruments. A planked door stood open on the other side of the small room leading to a row of empty cells lit by the occasional torch.
“Come on,” Marty hissed. “Let’s have a look around.”
Ben nodded uncertainly as fear and excitement rushed through his blood.
Marty went to the doorway and stuck her head out. “All clear, like I said. Come on.”
The two walked out into the hall. There wasn’t much to see. On either side of the room thick bars ran from ceiling to floor, creating two rows of ten cells apiece. Midway on both sides the bars gave way to intersecting halls. The hallway that ran to their right led to a side door where they ventured the jailor’s quarters were, and the hallway to the left led to another open doorway leading downward. It was too irresistible to resist.
“We’ll just see where the steps lead to, and get out of here,” Ben stated.
Marty nodded and her devilish grin reappeared. “Chick-en.” And she was off again.
Ben was going to say for her to stop-and-wait-there-maybe-someone-down-there, but she was already halfway down the steps. He grunted in annoyance and followed. This time he was determined to not let her win, and put every effort into catching her. The stairs went straight down and leveled off to a long hallway. When he reached the bottom, she was only a few yards ahead, and he knew that he could reach her before she arrived at the end of the hallway.
Marty heard Ben’s approaching footsteps and let out a quick yip. She attempted to speed her pace, but Ben was closing quickly. The exit was just a few more feet. Ben put out his hand, preparing to grab her.
She made the doorway just a hand-width away from him. She darted left, endeavoring to avoid his game of tag, and ran headlong into a grown man, knocking him over.
Ben rounded the corner to find Marty picking herself up alongside the man. He was dressed in strange, dark blue robes. He had an odd appearance to his mustached face, and a dark, wet stain running down one of his pockets.
But the man was not the thing that Ben’s eyes were drawn to. His first thought was of how much bigger the room was compared to the rest of the dungeon. It was wide and domed, and sunlight beamed in through an open hole at the apex. Just beyond the man and Marty was a sight that terrified him to the core. He froze in fear.
"I'm so sorry," Marty said, not seeing the peril beyond. "We were just playing around, Mister. We..."
"Never mind that, child!" He turned and faced the terror. "My sleep spell was broken. The drake is free. Run!"
IV. The Cleric's Letter
My dearest Yana,
Much has occurred since my last letter. No doubt you have already heard of the trouble that befell the wedding, and I am sorry if you worried for my safety. I was uninjured in the attack, save for a few bruises.
You may have wondered how this event came to pass, as many others have. I have my own ideas from observations I have made, but no clear proof of anything. In all honesty, I believe the blame is to be put on no one thing, but on a multitude of small matters that built up into the final chaotic conclusion. As sad as it might have been, the light of the ancient ones has illuminated this event, and turned a panic into a positive.
If you recall the messengers that had originally been dispatched to our sanctuary from both Charton and Airion, they were a people vastly different from us. Speech, culture, and attitudes—they were so different from our life in Brez that I wondered how words I might impart to them might be interpreted.
But, as we discussed in counsel before my departure, it was a delicate time for these two kingdoms. The very fact that they had sought us out for the union had been enough initiative for us (or at least for me) to make the trip to Airiondale and perform the service. Here we had two kingdoms who had suffered twenty years of warfare, and all for naught. They were ready for peace and a new beginning, and if my actions could help speed those things into being, then I determined to do what I could. These were people that had only forgotten what it was like to live without hatred and animosity, no matter how different their appearance and viewpoints were from our own.
My feelings were justified on the trip to Airiondale and the initial few days I was there. My hosts were most generous, almost to the point of excess. Lavish gifts were presented to me: jewels, clothing, exotic spices and fragrances. I declined them all, of course, and although I explained our ways, I still feel like I somehow offended them each time I refused their offerings.
Gradually, I began to doubt my preliminary assessment of these people. As you may have already guessed, their understanding of happiness has been incorporated with a sense of affluence, that is, the more you have, the happier you are. But it goes beyond that, for what if two persons were equally wealthy? Then another measure is used, a measure of power. In its essence, that is what their war was about: two wealthy entities struggling to obtain supremacy over the other.
None of this became apparent to me until the night before the wedding. Underneath their outward enthusiasm, I detected an undercurrent of fear and sadness. I put aside my reservations, though. After all, these people had been victim to decades of war. They had come to not only know heartache and grief, but to expect it. That was the night I met the Queen of Charton, and my doubts were grounded.
A great banquet had been arranged, and I was to attend. Both royal households were seated at a great table, and I was bid to sit betwixt them: red Airiondale to my left and blue Charton on my right. Next to me were the bride and groom, followed by King Elzon and Queen Landrel, respectively.
Having spent the better part of a week in the castle, it was not my first meeting with Elzon. I found him to be a stern man, one of conviction and resolve. He exuded a businesslike air at all times, discussing only the practical nature of any subject—a true who, what, when, and where type-of-person. It is well known that his wife died giving birth to his son the prince, and it would seem that his filling both parenting roles had an effect on his temperament; he had no choice but to become a model decision-maker, a quality that is well accorded to one in charge.
If Elzon was an archetype of precision, then Landrel was one of negativity. Her middle-aged face wore deep lines from a constant scowl, and although her words were welcoming, her eyes told a different story. It was plain that she did not want to be there, and for a time I was worried that she may do or say something that would inhibit the wedding from ever taking place.
But then I thought, this woman has recently lost her spouse, and is now given the responsibility to see her only child given in wedlock to a man that until a few months ago, she would have gladly seen hung from the gallows. It is hard enough on parents to see their children become a part of a new family unit, knowing that the time of childhood is dead forever, and that a new reality has taken form. I reasoned that Landrel had every right to scowl, and as hard as it is for her to bear it, one day she will look back on these days with a fonder memory.
Still, her manner gave me pause.
The day of the wedding was something to behold. I cannot begin to express to you the euphoric feeling I encountered throughout the castle that day. Cooks hummed cheerful tunes while they prepared the coming feast. Families spent the day sight-seeing the local shops before the merchants closed down their stores to join in on the celebration. Decorations adorned every door, and great banners of white and gold spanned the crowded streets.
My day was spent in preparation of the service, and although I had written a formal sermon, I woke up that morning with a feeling that I should speak from the heart, not a book. I retired to the temple’s antechamber to meditate.
I had not gotten halfway through the Iblen Litany when I was interrupted by a great commotion. Unbeknownst to me, the antechamber had been delegated to house a drove of doves to be released at the conclusion of the wedding. Sven, the gamesmaster of Castle Airiondale, apologized profusely for the mishap, but I assured him that he was not intruding and to continue with his duty.
While the birds were brought in, Sven told me a little about his life. Nothing important, just trivial things. He was a simple man, but a hard worker, and I believe much cleverer than he believed himself to be. I think this was because of the way others treated him, as I witnessed no less than two verbal jabs directed towards him in the short time we spent together. I felt sorry for him, and said a prayer that he would someday find his true worth.
The wedding started as planned, and even though I was initially nervous to address such a large crowd, once I began speaking, the gods let loose my tongue, and it was no different than any other service I have ever provided. It was going well, that is, until the queen of Charton stood up whilst I was mid-sentence.
I have already reported to you about my concerns for this woman. I was afraid her hate had become her security, and may never find the courage to shake it. When she stood up, my mind reeled, trying to find a way to control the situation.
Landrel would later claim that she stood up to alert the crowd of the drake. Many believed her. Most, in fact. But the desire to see things a certain way, to fit a memory into a certain mold because to not do so would upset a fatal balance in one's mind can override the starkest of truths. And the truth of this matter is this: there is no way that the queen knew of the drake, not in that moment. No, she stood up for something else. I don't have to tell you what I think that was. No matter. The queen has since quadrupled her resolve to this union, and she has the drake to thank for it.
When the drake attacked, the congregation became a madhouse. An impulse, perhaps the most basic impulse of all, filled the room in a rush of panic. Fathers and mothers barely gave a thought to grab their children before trying to flee, and some, I'm afraid, not at all. Husbands abandoned wives. Brothers and sisters abandoned siblings. With a word, I can describe those moments: horror. Pure and absolute horror.
Somehow in the first few seconds of the attack, I was knocked over. By what or whom, I am unsure. As I recovered and came to my feet, the drake had already made its way to the far end of the hall. It was in that moment of terror that I witnessed more selfless acts occur than I had the entirety of the rest of my life.
I saw the guards from the exterior push their way into the temple, not knowing what threat they faced. I saw men and women, Charton and Airiondale alike, rush to overcome this grave threat. I saw a man taunt the beast, exposing himself for assault, so that others could come at the beast undeterred. I saw a man leap atop the monster to try and stab the beast, disregarding his own personal safety.
And then from the corner of my vision I saw movement of white dots in the air. I turned and witnessed Sven opening cage after cage, releasing the doves into the temple. The doves scattered, drawing the drake’s attention, if only for a second. That second would prove to be enough, as the guard who had jumped atop the drake seized the moment and buried his sword hilt-deep into the monster’s brain. The drake lurched in a final death-spasm, and the guard was flung hard against the wall.
I witnessed one final act, and it was perhaps the most poignant one of all. In the rubble before me, I saw a man helping a woman out of a large pile of debris. She had been caught under a mound of overturned pews, and the man dug and shifted as if his own child were underneath. A closer look revealed to me that the man was King Elzon, and my heart became cold as frostrock as I realized the implications.
My eyes swept the room, seeking. Huddled in a corner I found my goal: the prince, his blue cloak and arms around the frightened princess. With the drake dead, she ran forth to the guards, praising their bravery and seeing to the wounded.
My gaze returned to the king. He had picked up a massive block and shoved it aside. He reached in, and pulled Landrel from the heap.
Now, I cannot prove this, but I believe that the queen experienced an epiphany as the king helped her up. Perhaps she couldn't believe that anyone from Airion, let alone its king, would assist her in any fashion. Maybe it was just the shock of the moment, or seeing her daughter alive, unhurt, and helping Airion guards, but from that moment forward, a change occurred in Landrel, and for the better.
The fallout of the attack was immediate. People wanted answers, and suspicions ran high. Even I, an outsider, was looked at with a critical eye, but that soon proved to be folly. The truth, or at least a part of the truth (I'm unsure that it will ever be truly known publicly), arrived in the temple hall minutes after the drake was slain.
Two children rushed in, looking for their fathers. One found his easily: he was the son of Sven, the gameskeeper. The other, a young girl, was ushered to the far wall, near the dead body of the drake. Her father had been the one to slay the beast, taking a hard fall in doing so, and she sat with him as he recovered.
Afterward they told their story, and the focus of suspicion fell upon the wizard from Charton. Landrel dismissed the charges with her own story. "The wizard asked me if he may obtain a few magical items during our stay. He had heard a drake was in the arena dungeon, and drake's blood is highly sought after. It must be taken while the drake is still alive, so he had to do it today, before the arena games on the morrow."
Was the wizard up to no good? It is hard to say. My head says yes, but my heart tells me to let it go. But as I said, this story ended well, so if it took the meddling of a Charton wizard to arrive at the conclusion that occurred, then we must all praise the gods.
The wedding was performed later that night, just after the stroke of twelve. It was the queen who insisted. Most of the congregation had left by then, and Elzon and Landrel picked several of those who played a part in the day's events to hold special honor and stand next to the wedded couple as the rites were said. The children attended, as did their fathers Sven and a guard named Buford. Another attended, the one who distracted the drake, a man named Terrowin, whom, along with Buford, the princess herself had asked to attend. Finally, Landrel and Elzon.
I bid them all join hands as the final words were said, and tears of joy flowed freely. Especially from Terrowin. He wept like a babe.
That is the end of my tale, dear Yana. I am to stay a few more days here in the castle, but I do so of my own volition. Hope abounds here, and it is infectious. There is rumor of a unified kingdom, as the old names of Charton and Airion would be replaced by a new moniker, as well as a new, well, everything.
I look forward to seeing you soon,
cleric in the service of Brez
© February, 2014 Neil W. Howell
Neil W. Howell lives in Southeast Missouri with his wife, three children, a dog and a cat.