Haylis gives me a fearful look; she too has seen what’s behind the clouds.
‘What do we do?’
‘We cut them down,’ Kathanhiel says casually.
‘But with Oon’Shang wounded we can no longer move fast enough to spread their numbers; but I am weakened by the fever; but my mind is shackled by ghosts of the past. Any of these excuses would suffice to end our lives. So I shall not make them.’
Kathanhiel stands and steps out of the water, graceful as ever, but a tendon on her shin is jerking rapidly, struggling to cope with her weight. As she shuts her eyes to the rain she teeters ever so slightly, as if fending off a wave of dizziness.
‘I know not what the brood is waiting for – the rain’s end, perhaps, or a signal from the Apex – but we cannot idle as they regroup.’ She turns to Haylis. ‘Forgives me, dear niece, but there is an errand I must ask of you.’
Haylis’s eyes drift worriedly between Kaishen and Kathanhiel’s face. ‘What is it?’
‘Go to Iborus.’
‘But...what...aren’t we doing that right now?’
‘Take my horse, and have Oon’Shei escort you. Ride night and day and you’ll be at the fortress in four days. Wait until the brood draws away from the siege, then rally the Mirror Phalanx and have them meet us on the highway.’
The off-handed way she regards taking on what could be thousands of dragons seems insane, given her current state.
‘Draw away? Why would they draw away?’ Haylis asks.
‘I shall gather them to me.’ Her eyes turn back to the sky. ‘It’s the only way to dictate their movement, and our best opportunity at joining forces.’
‘Gather – all by yourself?! ’
‘It is not up to you to doubt my abilities.’ Kathanhiel says sternly.
‘But you’re – you’re –’ Haylis waves at her in exasperation.
I can finish that sentence for you: naked in the rain, holding a burning sword that’s stuck to her hand, barely standing, head all messed up, and planning to draw the attention of certain death.
But this is Kathanhiel we’re talking about; she, by definition of who she is, cannot fail. The alternative is the Realms being laid to waste, give or take a few hundred thousand lives.
‘I’ll look after her.’ Oh no I’m saying weird stuff again. ‘I’ll make sure we’re still alive when you get back, Haylis.’
What – why – how are you – who do you think –
The two women give me looks I haven’t seen before: bemused incredulity from Haylis, as if a squeaky mouse just spouted philosophy; and pleasant surprise from Kathanhiel; her eyes look... no, that has to be my imagination; the rain, it’s pulling my leg.
No way she’s on the verge of crying.
Oon’Shei is understandably reluctant when told that he’ll be leaving his wounded sister behind, and only relents after Oon’Shang tells him off through a series of silent (to us humans) finger-jabbing and head-knocking. It looks comical, but I imagine it to be quite touching. Who knows how many times they’ve argued like this?
Who knows if this isn’t the last?
No, don’t think about that.
He kneels and lays down the sickle blade at Oon’Shang’s feet. Oon’Shang, in exchange, pricks her finger upon the five remaining javelins, coating their tips with her blood, and ties them onto his back with elaborate knots.
The goodbye ritual of us humans aren’t as ceremonial, but don’t mind me for being a little emotional anyway. Although we’ve not been the best of friends, it’s sad to see Haylis leave; not that I’ll miss her – I probably will – but you can’t survive that night together without liking each other a bit more.
Kathanhiel embraces her and plants two kisses on her cheeks, which raises a number of questions. Should I also...initiate the kissing? Or stick with offering a handshake like I planned to? Would it be awkward to not offer a kiss? Maybe she doesn’t want to be kissed. Now that I think about it, maybe she won’t even want to shake my hand, which would be really awkward.
Luckily she gives me a rib-crushing hug that leaves no room for making a fool out of myself.
‘Don’t die,’ she breathes into my ear. ‘Think of the money you’ll make by not dying.’
‘Thanks, I won’t, I will.’
Bobby seems happy to be ridden again; all that time locked up in a dark room and pushed around must have renewed its longing for the open road. Haylis, with her two small satchels, looks to weigh next to nothing on its back.
This means Oon’Shei can go all out. Normally his speed would far outstrip that of a horse, but Bobby is no casual chestnut – it’s time for the prized stallion of the vassal states to show its prowess.
The pair look bizarre heading off together, like the beginning of a slapstick routine that would end in awkward silence. Within minutes they’re gone.
Good luck to you. Good luck to me.
I look up from my spot on the roof. The dragons are still circling, showing no sign of descent. They seem to be waiting.
‘As expected, they’re here only for me.’ Kathanhiel, wearing one of her treated shirts and her crystalline greaves, looks at me quizzically. ‘You seem calm.’
Am I? My hands are so sweaty they can sate a thirsty camel.
‘N-not really, no.’
She hesitates. ‘Regarding the matter of my...’ for a moment it looks like she’s about to say something else, ‘my...decision to send Haylis away, I would like to ask for your opinion, Kastor. Perhaps I made it too lightly, in an ill state of mind.’
For five seconds I just stand there, hand frozen in the middle of brushing wet hair out of my face. Two fat raindrops land on my left eyelash, muddling half the view.
The look on my face changes the one on hers. ‘Forgive me. How unbefitting it is that I should doubt myself.’
‘I-I don’t know where to begin, my lady. So much has happened...and no one else can remain can do what you do given the...circumstances...and it’s not the place of an esquire to offer opinions on...well...stuff.’
‘Yet you do it often.’
‘Perhaps not through words,’ she says, ‘but it is easy enough see what you think. Right now you think me mad for taking on the brood in such an irresponsible fashion.’
‘I – that’s not what –’
‘No need to excuse yourself. Such thinking is merely a result of your changed perspective. When you look at me now...you look at me. The false worship is gone from your eyes, and doubt naturally rises in its place.’
Her voice is so soft yet so hurtfully clear.
‘But this is who I am: a woman holding her pride like a broken shield, pretending to care about everything around her because it is her job to care. This is who I’ve always been, a little girl playing hero.’
My eyes are fixed on my feet but I can feel hers on the back of my head. It’s impossible to look up at first, simply because this is what I’ve always done in her presence: looking down.
But it doesn’t feel right anymore.
‘Knowing this, dear Kastor, would you still serve me as you did before?’
So frustrating, the way that question is asked, as if she expects me to use what she said to justify not doing my job properly. Absurd, isn’t it? The terms of my contract haven’t changed.
As always, despite my snappy thought process, what comes out of my mouth is a slurry of mumbles strung together by runny syrup.
‘I...I don’t think...I don’t know what to say, I never know what to say...but I’m here, I’ll always be here if...when, when you need me. That’s not a fancy line I learned from a story, my lady. I’m not saying it to act tough or...or fulfil a...wish...or something...’
Give yourself a pat on the back for failing to answer the question, dumb idiot.
Kathanhiel raises an amused eyebrow. ‘I don’t think....you answered my question.’
We look at each other for a moment; her face that of one who has spotting an exceptionally ugly toad, mine that of perennial confusion with a dash of self-loathing.
Probably...should say something.
‘Uh...yes...no...I mean no, I think?’
‘Might you be referring to...forgive me, what are you talking about, Kastor?’ She asks.
To avoid further confusion, and to give myself time to think about how to be more idiotic, I shrug.
Thus the scene is set: under an overcast sky thick with bloodthirsty dragons, on the roof of a broken coach, with a wounded giant dozing below, I give a nonchalant shrug to the great dragon slayer because I’ve confused myself with her question.
Ah, I see.
Kathanhiel covers her face and begins to shiver all over, stabbing Kaishen repeatedly at the roof. Why are her laughing fits so violent? Look at that steel, she’s about to put a hole through it. Woe to the miscellaneous furniture in her vicinity.
‘I know not – how did it end up like this?’ She stammers between fits of choking. ‘Were we not having a serious discussion?’
I’d bet ten crowns on my face being the colour of beetroot. ‘I – I think you’re just tired my lady...it wasn’t really that funny. Perhaps you should rest.’
‘If only I could.’ She points to the sky with a lingering smile. ‘Come, my esquire, let us stand against the enemy together.’ Her voice is warm with emotion. ‘And after our foes are no more, I shall tell you the tale of a stubborn little girl who wanted to save the world.’
She turns around and raises Kaishen in honour guard.
‘Help me,’ she whispers, not at the human next to her but at her sword. ‘I know I’ve already asked for too much, a lifetime of debts never to be repaid, but there is one I must not let down. So help me.’
At her urging Kaishen’s glow intensifies; strands of white lines effervesce from its tip and entwine into familiar shapes: triangular dragon heads, each with a slithering tongue. This time, however, they number not half a dozen, but in the hundreds.
Quickly, look away!
But the temptation to stare is overpowering. The very memory of their little dance is tilting my head to the sky. Can’t wait to see them again, the cute heads, bobbing up and down, left and right –
Turning to me, Kathanhiel says a simple line that’s louder than thunder.
‘You need only look at me.’
Her face isn’t yet glowing like the night before, but specks of gold are already shining in her pupils. Adorned with perfect eyelashes and irises that are at once blue and green and red and grey, they are alive and dancing – don’t think I’ve ever seen them like that.
‘The Thralls are not for human eyes,’ she says, ‘for they are the seeds of dragon fire, made to scorch minds. Look at me instead.’
At first I figure it an impossible task. Avoid the beautiful little dragons, are you kidding? Then she smiles. ‘Your ardent gaze gives me strength, Kastor. They remind me of the way I used to look upon my master.’
Several loose strands tangle up in my head.
‘What...what was he like?’
A long pause.
‘He...I thought of him exactly as you think of me now.’
‘Does that mean you...you...?’ I couldn’t finish.
‘It means I’ll see his face again, when I go to his hearth in the evergreen and knock on his door as an intrepid guest,’ she says gently. ‘Perhaps he has forgotten about me. What will I do then?’
A memory comes: me, sitting inside the guest room, pouring over a hand-drawn map of the Endless Ranges. There had been a block of text under a stick figure wearing a circle-and-crescent hat, the same symbol that is tattooed on her stomach: I took from him the Bane of Dragons, and left my heart in its place. One day I shall follow the sound of its beating to his hearth in the evergreen, and muster the courage to ask for his hand.
I speak up without knowing what’s about to come out of my mouth, but I speak up anyway because the sudden pull in my chest is demanding that I say something.
‘He’ll be waiting for you, at the door and holding it open, because it’s your home.’
Kathanhiel visibly starts. ‘Home?’
The Thralls begin to rise into the sky.
‘Home...’ she says slowly. ‘I know not a dream so beautiful.’