IN THE MIDDLE of a curved, golden-stoned room, holding a strung bow and taking careful aim, stood a dragon. The ringed target was the smallest he could find in the armoury. His visibility was poor in the dark room. Only one small gap in the heavy shades let in a shard of light from the dazzling day. His chestnut eyes focused intensely on the target, glistening gently in the darkness, for a dragon could admit more light into their eyes than a human. To look at him would be to see a human. One with thick brown hair, hanging loosely off his handsome face, slightly obscuring his sharp jaw and aquiline nose. Golden-plated armour encased his lean, muscular frame. Yet his strength was far greater than his human appearance suggested. His name was Darnuir, Prince of Dragons, and, despite his sixty years, he was the only heir to the throne.
Brackendon looked on with a patient curiosity. Tall and slim, the young wizard wore iridescent robes of sapphire blue. He held a mighty wooden staff, which stood just taller than he did. It was silver in colour and the wood had been expertly smoothed. His own eyes sparkled silver with the magic that had been gifted to him. Unlike Darnuir, his hair was short and already had a grey tinge to it, despite his youth, as using magic slowly drained a human’s body of its physical appearance. Brackendon had stopped counting the grey hairs long ago.
He was impressed by the intensity with which Darnuir both prepared and took his shots. The Prince’s actions were altogether non-human. They were too quick. Darnuir had the sort of rapidity that would snap the muscle and sinew of a human man. This was of course to be expected; yet it had always caused Brackendon a slight unease to see dragons in action. He had decided years past that this discomfort stemmed from fear. Not the fear of imminent danger, he had decided, but the fear of knowing that you are powerless against this thing. Like being around a predator, not knowing if it will strike. If it will kill. This fear was tempered by his own power, but he had always wondered how ordinary humans must feel when surrounded by dragons. Very afraid, he had concluded. Reasoning that this fear must cause most of the tension between the two races. Darnuir released his arrow and sent it slicing through the air to bury itself in the centre of the target.
“Another perfect shot,” Brackendon said in a calm voice, giving a token clap of his hands. He then flicked his hand upwards and the heavy shades covering the window lifted, filling the room with light. “How many is that then?” he asked. “Nine?”
“Ten actually,” Darnuir said. “I’m surprised at you Brackendon, wizards are supposed to be highly intelligent.”
“True. But you’ll find that wizards tend not to concentrate on trivial things such as how many shots you have hit in the centre ring.” Darnuir made a noise that indicated he felt otherwise. Brackendon continued, “Remember we’re at war, Darnuir; it makes a lot of things seem trivial.”
“This is no war.”
“Oh? Then what is it?”
“It is a game to him, I think. No war lasts for decades unless your enemy is enjoying the carnage and your own people are too weak to repel their attackers.” He fired another shot that cut deep into the centre of the adjacent target.
“Another town was evacuated yesterday to save them from the oncoming demons,” Brackendon said quietly. “They say it is a force greater than we have ever encountered?”
“No one knows the exact numbers. Too few scouts have returned from the Crucidal Road to give a precise picture. Rectar will have been gathering everything for a final push. He has been slowly reclaiming the lands we re-conquered last year,” Darnuir spat bitterly. “Now we have only the city left.”
Darnuir dropped his bow, unsheathed his sword, and began running a practiced finger along the metal of the blade. Brackendon noticed that Darnuir did this when he sought comfort. The Prince had always preferred his sword to his bow. Darnuir was talented enough with his ranged weapon, but Brackendon could frankly think of no one alive who could equal Darnuir with the sword. Well, perhaps his father, but then he had the Dragon’s Blade. Even so, the few spars he had witnessed between the two had always been close.
“Lost in thought again?” Darnuir asked him impatiently, sword in hand, and clearly anticipating an attack.
“Hmmm?” Brackendon emerged from his pondering.
“You think too much,” Darnuir said.
And you don’t think enough, Darnuir.
Brackendon knew better than to say such things aloud. Yet he couldn’t stifle a chuckle.
“If you’re quite finished telling me of our doom, I assume you would like to continue your training?” He pointed his staff at a barrel full of swords. As the swords flew into the air towards Darnuir, several broke off to veer to his left and right. Darnuir twisted smoothly on the spot and raised his own sword to clash against three of the enchanted ones. The Prince ducked and lashed out as he rose, cleaving two of the swords in half and they clattered to the ground. Brackendon sent in another six swords as backup, still chuckling.
Brackendon moved his fingers rapidly to control the weapons, each finger dancing in circles, and jabbing whenever he saw a chance to strike. Darnuir parried and destroyed another one, sending the remains flying across the room. He moved with unfathomable agility as he engaged his invisible assailants and, before too long, he had beaten most of them off. Brackendon had never considered Darnuir’s movements to be graceful or elegant; it was no deadly dance he was performing. His actions were brutal and powerful, yet deliberate and measured. ‘The strength of a boar mixed with the cunning of a snake’; Brackendon had read that somewhere once during his studies. True as the description was, it was another matter entirely to witness it.
“Very good, Darnuir. Very good,” he said. Darnuir finished off the rest of the swords, neither sweating nor out of breath. “I think that will do for now. We’ve been here almost the whole morning and your father was quite explicit that you were to meet his guests when they arrived.”
“You speak as if the King of Humans and the Queen of Fairies are not above you?” Darnuir asked.
“We wizards, Darnuir—”
“Are dead and finished,” Darnuir interrupted. “Your order is broken. Just like we all are. We have crumpled before Rectar’s forces and done nothing.”
Brackendon was taken aback. A short temper was not an unusual trait of dragons, yet lately, Darnuir had grown more quarrelsome. No doubt, the recent failure of the Three Races to counter Rectar, their great enemy, was to blame. Brackendon attempted some consolidation.
“Castallan betrayed us all, especially the wizards. Surely you cannot hold all those who wield magic accountable for him?”
“No,” Darnuir admitted, “I cannot.” A silence fell between them, Darnuir seeming no more placated. He sheathed his sword before rounding on his companion once more. “Do you think we can win this?” he demanded. “Do you think we can hold the city?”
“That is not for me to decide,” Brackendon said. “That is for your father and his council, of which you are a part. I have no voice there. If you wish to lend weight to your own hope to defend the city, then you must do so with the strength of your own words.”
“How diplomatic of you,” Darnuir sneered. “My father,” he chewed heavily on the word, “and his wise council will not have the courage for it. Mark my words, we will evacuate this entire city next.”
“If that is his decision then you must—” Brackendon began again.
“Must what? I must what, Brackendon?” spat Darnuir, tearing from the room in his fury. Brackendon gave chase immediately, drawing on a little magic to give him the necessary speed to catch Darnuir, who was fast by nature. Using magic to enhance movement like this was cheaply done and carried little risk of an overdose. He felt the power flow through him as it boosted his body. Up to his shoulder and down his arm to his staff.
I must still be careful. It would not do if I poisoned myself before the demons arrived.
He found Darnuir not far down the corridor outside the training room, leaning against one of the large, rectangular windows cut out along the wall. Many of these windows lined each curving corridor of the Royal Tower and offered magnificent views of the city. From their vantage point, all of the northern and western segments of Aurisha could be seen.
The windows were in small bays that were just big enough for a fully-grown man to stand in; however, ancient spells prevented anyone from falling out and the elements getting in. Without them, Darnuir would have fallen out and down into the sprawl below, for it looked as though he was leaning on air alone.
Brackendon approached the Prince, feeling a little apprehensive. “You must respect his decision,” he said simply.
“I know,” Darnuir replied, his voice low and bitter. “And I will always do my duty. I’m sorry,” he said with genuine apology, “but all my life we have been fighting. Sixty years of an endless struggle. You are still young, but come back after another forty years and tell me if you too are not tired of the stalemate. Of this lack of action.”
Brackendon was lost for words. He often forgot how old Darnuir was. Dragons lived well beyond even the healthiest of humans. Before Brackendon could marshal his thoughts, a tall figure appeared at the end of the corridor. It was none other than the King himself. Although broad and powerful like most dragons, Draconess bore little resemblance to his son, aside from stature. His hair fell at the same length, yet it was lighter, almost golden in places. His jaw was less broad and defined, and his eyes glistened a pale blue. Yet signs of his burden were evident. His face, while softer and kinder than Darnuir’s, was strained with a deep weariness. His hair was unkempt and tatty, his eyes were dark and sunken, and his shoulders drooped perceptibly, as if his responsibility had physically manifested itself upon him.
“Darnuir,” Draconess said softly as he made his way towards his son. He stopped just short of Darnuir and seemed to toy with the idea of embracing him, before fumbling with his hands. The Prince’s expression remained frosty.
“Father,” Darnuir said a little stiffly, “we were just on our way to the docks.”
“The wind has been poor, I doubt the ships will arrive on time,” Draconess said.
Brackendon sensed that to remain would be improper and perhaps unwise, given the potential row that might ensue. Politely, he addressed the King.
“If it is possible, my Lord Draconess, I wish to return to my study,” he said with a small bow of the head. “Arkus has been pestering me to move to his own Kingdom. He says I ought to be with my own people and I’d rather not suffer his childish pleas today.”
“Of course, Brackendon,” Draconess said. “He has been asking me to order you too. I suspect he wants you to try and re-establish your Order, but I don’t think that would be wise at present.”
“Indeed it would not, my lord; at least you seem to listen to my counsel,” Brackendon said appreciatively, and gave Darnuir a little smile. “Do give my best wishes to Kasselle.”