Watching the scene unfold is like being audience to some obscure and nonsensical play about dragons and heroes; none of it seems real.
The bearded dragon towers over the field, its head a battering ram of bronze scales and ash-encrusted teeth. A yellow-tinged cloud comes out of its gaping nostrils with each breath, thick with the stink of sulphur.
The voice of Rutherford, a guttural drawl thick with cackling ember, is that of thousands of voices speaking at once.
‘Long have I waited.’
‘Long have I dreamt of the silence and craved it.’
‘I see you, herald of fire, and behold a body of ash, crumbling, reeking of anger.’
Wreathed in steam, Kathanhiel walks forward and, empathically, comically – even though it doesn’t look funny at all – levels a punch at the dragon’s snout. A dull thunk.
‘I’ve not come to listen to your rambling.’
A phlegmy choking sound escapes the dragon’s lips. Laughter.
‘The Dark has tainted your heart, you who is meant to break it.’
‘Yet it matters not, for our fates are hewn in stone: to madness shall this mind succumb, as it has countless times before, and by fire the herald shall set it free.’
A sudden jet of flame bursts from Kaishen’s tip and engulfs a dragon corpse, setting it alight. Flashes of white run up the blade like glares in a mirror, fast and blinding.
Kathanhiel raises it to her face. ‘Soon,’ she whispers, ‘one last effort for your girl, what do you say?’
The sword calms, if such a thing is even possible, and as its glow simmers down to a gentle red the flashes fade into obscurity. They are not quite gone, only blending seamlessly into the metal, pretending to be reflections.
Again the dragon laughs, booming and eerily lustful.
‘The sword of Ush’Ra grows restless...it knows what must be done.’
‘There’s no such thing as herald of fire,’ says Kathanhiel with bitter mockery, ‘nor have I come to free you from The Dark. Like Elisaad you’re going to give me your head, and that’s going to be the end of it.’
The dragon shakes from the tip of its tail to the tendons on its jaws.
‘What sorrowful denial. Elisaad is but a skin inevitably shed; he and I are one, as are every lord to rule since the dawn of days.’
‘Strike me down, for vengeance, fate, or for naught – all are meaningless, for ere the rise of the new sun I will return, and the cycle will begin anew.’
‘But the sweet respite of that brief twilight – silent, serene, filled with light unending – ah, such sorrowful longing!’
Rutherford pauses, desperately keeping himself in check.
‘Alas, there shall be no end, for I am eternal, immortal, freed of the blessing of death and cursed to roam the skies forever. The heralds come, they strike me down, the heralds come, they strike me down...yet The Dark remains, and with it the gnawing madness.’
‘Dim are the red days of Elisaad, of Allarissa before him, of Tiranus before her, of the world that was first drowned in fire, then swallowed in ice. The face of dear Ush’Ra, she who I promised to hold in my heart forever, is but a mask of grey, featureless, impenetrable.’
‘Memories, fear, anger, love...the wind of the mountains has carried them away, never to return. In their place there is only The Dark.’
‘Deny it with all your might, pitiful Kathanhiel – I see into your heart, and it is empty.’
A hand is tugging me by the sleeve. Haylis has returned with the barrels.
That question does a better job at breaking the trance of terror than anything else could have, simply because it is so out of place.
‘Haven’t you been listening?’
‘No I…at the beginning I was too scared, then it got kind of long and…kind of boring…’
‘Boring?! That’s Rutherford!’
Her face turns white. ‘That’s the Apex?’
Argh, the pain. The broken arm is clamouring for attention. Incredulity seems to have woken it up.
‘No – Rutherford is speaking through that dragon, can’t you tell? Remember how their minds are connected?’
‘Why is it talking instead of eating us?’
I don’t know, but that’s not a good enough answer.
‘Maybe…maybe Kathanhiel has it scared.’
I mean, it’s only right for the Apex to be scared after seeing that brilliant sword slice apart a mountain of a dragon in one hit. In fact, it almost feels like the tables have turned.
So long I’ve spent worrying over the dragons, whether I can find the courage to fight them, whether they’ll simply swat me aside without even noticing. Many sleepless nights I’ve spend thinking of Talu, of how someone like him could be made so afraid that he would abandon his charge.
Instead, everything turned out to be exactly like the time Kathanhiel faced off against fifty-odd assassins. Before the power of Kaishen, eater of dragon fire, slayer of an Apex candidate in one hit, all that fear becomes trivial.
It’s so…awkward, as if I’ve been running from a bully my whole life only to have a giant stomp on him by accident. The sense of displacement is overwhelming. What am I doing here, standing in a street full of stomping giants, where to them every obstacle is the size of a bug?
The broken arm, it hurts so much.
‘I don’t get it.’
‘Don’t get what?’ asks Haylis.
‘Anything. Everything. Why are we here, listening to a dragon and an invincible dragon slayer having a chat? Why is Rutherford telling riddles? Why is Kathanhiel listening to it telling riddles? Why does she listen, when Kaishen can just…blows everything up? Why does she need us, when blowing dragons up is all she needs?’
It hurts it hurts it hurts.
‘Do you know what I’m talking about at all?’
Of course Haylis is shaking her head. I don’t even know what I’m talking about. I never have any idea what anyone’s talking about.
While my little rant goes on in the background, the main actors are still immersed in the act.
‘You dare?’ Kathanhiel says as her liquid armour slowly drips to the ground. Splat. Hiss. ‘I will not tolerate such insolence, even from one such as you. Tell me where lies your roost and I will give you peace, the peace you so crave.’
With great effort the dragon lifts its head. Blood is gushing out of its mouth now; the presence of Rutherford in its mind seems to be detrimental to its health.
‘I know you, dread herald. Under that skin of cinder you yearn for vengeance. The Dark has taken root in your empty heart, as is its wont, and upon your pain shall it feast until the end of your days.’
‘How you must lament the hours of waking, longing for the solace of dreams, so that which was taken from you may falsely return.’
‘I too have once dreamt. Like all else, they fade.’
She frowns. ‘So you remember – the one that came before me, and what you did to him.’
Even though her fire is dying down, the unsteady warble in Kathanhiel’s voice has only gotten worse. Glowing streaks of melted steel are falling from her back, and underneath it her skin is riddled with yellow-red cracks, edged with fire, that divides her back into dozens of serrated pieces.
‘The ember of the last herald, he who was consumed before my eyes...I feel it still.’
Kathanhiel staggers, as if receiving a blow to the gut.
She utters three words.
They could’ve been anything, really; I don’t have the slightest clue what they’re talking about, so it’s not as if I knew what she was going to say, but those three words...
Her back is turned to me. I wish I could see her face.
She says, ‘give him back.’
To that, the dragon answers:
‘The sword of Ush’Ra had claimed his soul, but this you already know – it is he to whom you speak, is it not?’
Kaishen moves like lightning. The dragon’s whiskers fall in a curtain of rain, their ends burning, as the tip of the sword burrows into the underside of its jaw – size-wise, it’s like pricking yourself on the chin with a toothpick.
A second later the dragon’s face erupts in blue fire, turning its impregnable scales to hot crystalline dust. Yet despite that it’s still talking, for Rutherford’s voice – the humourless and bitter thing echoing across the field – really isn’t coming from its mouth.
‘Tantrums of hatred…tears of love...how I long for their sweet music! Show me the conviction of your vengeance, herald of fire, and in your suffering I shall delight. Fail, and the world drowns in fire; succeed, and your heart shall overflow...with The Dark.’
‘Ah, it begins! It begins! The everlasting cycle, the fleeting salvation of Ush’Ra! This is our fate. This is why…we are alive.’
With a great sigh the dragon’s head crashes to the ground. The body shudders, all too weakly, and stills with its final breath.
Kathanhiel is shaking her head violently, as if possessed by denial. She’s completely naked now, with a puddle of congealing metal at her feet. Naked and shaking.
‘No, no you don’t. We’re not done. How dare you resort to silence?!’
Kaishen, bound to her hand in a gauntlet of embers, comes down in a fiery arc and sinks to the hilt into the dragon’s jaw. Blood rains upon her face, her breasts, sizzling on contact.
‘Ten years I’ve waited, ten years, alone all the time I’m alone and waiting for this moment and yet like Elisaad, just like Elisaad, you spout nonsense in my face. Despicable. DESPICABLE!’
Kaishen comes up. Kaishen falls down. The dragon’s right eye disappears under a steaming red fountain.
‘Damn you! Damn your herald of fire! Damn your fate and cycles and stupid quests and the endless killing and this stupid game! Dragons, dragons, dragons, how clever you are. How clever and DESPICABLE!’
Kaishen comes up. Kaishen falls down. A great incisor falls by the wayside, severed into three pieces.
‘I won’t stand for this. I won’t. Immortal are you? I’ll take your head and the head of all your brood until there is nothing left of your glorious Dark. Then we’ll talk. Then you’ll regret taking the life of the one who I love. You’ll apologise then, won’t you, oh wise wyrm?! Oh you will, you will, because you’re a COWARD!’
She’s laughing and crying and lashing out with all the fury in the world. She’s naked, her skin red and cracked, she’s covered in the steam of vaporised blood and the stink of the dragon’s gore and she’s weeping as if her heart had been torn into pieces.
‘Do you get it? Will you ever get it? I don’t want your life. I don’t want to be your herald. All I want…all I want…’ her knees give way, and she falls to the ground hugging Kaishen to her chest. ‘All I want…is to have him back…so give him back, Rutherford, Elisaad, Allarissa, whatever you are. Give him back. Give him back. ’
Haylis is standing there gape-jawed, a luxury I cannot afford.
All that idiotic self-rambling about why I’m here and why she would ever need me pulls back into a corner, cowering. Don’t you see, stupid? Look at her: does that look like someone who is in need of nothing?
Kathanhiel doesn’t want anyone to help her fight, because she can handle it.
Kathanhiel doesn’t need her esquire to do anything for her, because she is more capable than anyone.
What she needs – the only thing the hero of the Realms, slayer of the Elisaad Dragon, will ever need – is for someone to be there.
Move it, stupid legs, stop standing around.
I reach Kathanhiel’s side. The heat baking off her skin is unbearable; the cotton lining on my gauntlets turn black as I wave my good arm in front of her.
Look this way, my lady. Stop that. I’m here for you.
None of that comes out of my mouth.
Kathanhiel’s voice has turned coarse, and with each word her cry becomes a bit weaker, the hurt a bit deeper.
‘Give him back…give him back…give him back…’
The yellow cracks are fading from her skin but not completely. Under the fire of the night she looks like a woman of clay, hardened by fire yet more fragile than flesh.
I kneel next to her, skirting around the puddle of molten metal around her feet. The broken arm – suddenly it doesn’t hurt so much. ‘Rutherford is...is...is gone, my lady, but I’m…I’m…’ – Breathe Kastor, breathe, you can do it, you have to, this is the moment – ‘But I’m here. I’m here for you and…and so is Haylis. We’ll help you. Whatever you need.’
‘It’s no use.’
Kathanhiel looks at me, her face shrouded in steam as her tears turn to ignorant vapour.
‘He has gone to his hearth in the evergreen, and he’s left me behind.’
Now that I finally feel useful, I almost wish things could go back to the way they were, with me grumbling and complaining about scrubbing the floor, and Kathanhiel smiling. Not a good feeling, this, watching the woman you adore break down in front of you.
What she’s referring to isn’t important right now. In time, when she feels that I’ve earned the right to be trusted with the information, she’ll tell me, perhaps over a cup of camomile tea. Don’t know whether I’ll be happy or sad when that happens. Happy, probably, because it’ll mean that I’m finally capable enough to share her burden.
Now’s not the time to think about this.
‘My lady…what should I do? Tell me so I can help you.’
Instead of responding she looks back down the sword clutched against her chest.
‘I don’t need you. Kaishen is the only one I need.’
That felt like a hammer blow to the face. ‘But…but I need you. I don’t know what to do.’
‘That’s – that’s right.’
‘Take it back.’
‘Because it is a curse,’ she says quietly, ‘a curse that will tear you apart, when the one you love is crushed by the burden you leave upon his back.’ Her eyes turns to meet mine. ‘I hope that day never comes for you, Kastor, for it invites pain unending.’
‘But that’s why you chose me to be your esquire isn’t it?’ I say to her. ‘You chose me because I…because I love you.’
Nothing prompted that. It came out of my mouth as if it’s been self-evident all this time.
Why else would I be here? I’m useless in a fight; I don’t know how to talk to people yet constantly think mean thoughts about Arkai and Haylis, neither of whom have done me wrong; I act like an idiot in every situation because I am an idiot; and I endlessly complain about the chores that are a part of my job. There’s no practical reason for me to be here.
She said herself what the only thing that could make someone stand against the dragons is. So obvious, when you think about it.
How did someone like me speak in front of a frenzied crowd?
How did someone like me manage to function when the dragons attacked?
How am I crouching here, asking after her wellbeing, when my own arm is broken?
That word seems to wake her up from whatever spell that had taken hold. Her eyes struggle for a moment, dithering back and forth between the present and into herself. An eternity later they turn to my left arm, which is hanging all twisted and weird as if unsure which way the elbow is supposed to bend.
‘You’re hurt,’ she says, noticing it for the first time.
‘What?’ the pain hits like a dragon in the gut. ‘Argh. Yeah…’
She extends a hand, perhaps to assess the damage, but her index finger burns a smoking hole on my leather jerkin the moment she touches it and she flinches, suddenly alert.
‘What am I doing? This is no time for self-indulgence,’ she says, and gives me a brave smile that almost resembles her usual demeanour even as tears continue to vaporise at the corners of her eyes. ‘Thank you, Kastor.’
I open my mouth to tell her that I’m happy to help but no sound comes out. A great weight collapses inside my head, a massive pile of books that’s been propped up with one arm all this time, and the world suddenly feels light as a feather. Too light, actually. It appears to be gliding.
‘Haylis? Haylis! Are you alright?’ Kathanhiel yells as she spins around, looking for her niece. ‘Good, thank the Maker, quickly, bring those barrels – and go find the medicine box!’ Her eyes fall upon the little giants. ‘Tell Oon’Shang to lie down and keep still – I can cauterise her wounds but her brother needs to stop tying the tourniquet at the wrong place. Tell him!’
Nice job. Give yourself a pat on the back. She’s herself now, and everything’s going to be fine. You’re allowed to close your eyes now – ignore that pain, that’s not you that’s someone else – close your eyes and go back to that day in the palace garden, where you saw your dream come to life, perfect as a painting…that’s it…that was a good day…
Ah, how stupid I had been. Should’ve knelt down and kissed her hand instead of…whatever spilling tea on yourself was.
Wish I could see her like that again, in the casual white skirt and sleeveless doublet, with all signs of battle on her – the scars, the tooth of Elisaad – old and faded, triumphs of a bygone age. That’s what she’s meant to look like: a victorious hero, enjoying a peaceful life.
Not this…not this….
Wait, now’s not a good time to sleep…there’s stuff to be done…
Stupid eyes, open! Open! Why won’t you…why won’t…why…