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Blood & Scale

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OOC: Private RP between myself and Kyo.

 


 

Blood & Scale

 

Once, a long time ago, our lands were watched over by riders astride fierce and wise dragons. Under their watchful eye, the lands of Suros prospered. Peace reigned amongst the races and cultures of our world. None went hungry and there was justice for all. But alas, it was not to last. Amongst the riders, there was none more powerful or more respected than Aemon. But this was not enough for the rider. He did not wish to guard Suros, he wanted to rule it. He forced several riders to join with him, and together they killed any and all who opposed him. He destroyed the order of the riders, and spent the next thousand years hunting them to extinction. Under his rule, chaos and strife have returned to the land. The people live in fear of the tyrant King, and have long-since forgotten the age of the riders, and hope along with it. But all is not lost, for one rider remains. One dragon. Together, they carry the hopes and dreams of the people of Suros, in the form of an unhatched dragon. One who has sensed the presence of it's rider...

 


 

Moonlight danced through the trees as a figure darted across an ancient log which had fallen across a river. They were fleet of foot, agile and graceful. Running through the brush like a deer. The forest was dark and mysterious, lit only by the moonlight and a scattering of fireflies, yet it was not unwelcoming. At least, not to her. She ran up the side of a small rise and then just as quickly she effortlessly leapt onto the lowest of a sturdy old tree's branches. She climbed the tree with the skill of a monkey. Up, up, up she went. The trees of her forest were so tall that they made those of the human realm look like twigs. Eventually, she reached the top and broke the tree canopy and looked out across the forest. She had heard a series of loud cracks as something had tumbled into the forest, followed by a sonorous boom, as though Gwaen herself, Mistress of the Anvil, had struck a blow with her mighty hammer.
"Well, do you see anything, Vaedwyn?!" A voice called from down below.

Vaedwyn's wry grin spread across her mischievous face and amber eyes as she peered out, her long but unruly silver hair flew behind her at the beck and call of the wind. She was beautiful, of average height and slim of build, and carried with her the traits of her people - the elves - most notably her long, sensitive ears which ended in a point. Ducking back down and scrambling down the tree as quickly as she'd scaled it, she landed on the ground a moment later to be greeted by an older-looking girl with golden-hair. Unlike Vaedwyn, she was voluptuous and made Vaedwyn's beauty look plain, even boyish by comparison. She was frustrated by her excitable friend, and it was evident on her face. She didn't have the time or interest for this.
"Did you hear me?" She asked again.
"Yes, yes!" Vaedwyn replied and then ran on.
"Well?!" The golden-haired elf gave chase.

"Well what, Torenth?!" Vaedwyn asked, charging on.
"You haven't heard a word I said!" Torenth called, a twinge of annoyance seeping into her voice. Vaedwyn was always like this. She was younger, much younger than Torenth. And unlike her, she was impatient, excitable and reckless. She was always chasing after her friend into some kind of trouble, usually head-first and usually that meant she was the one to get in trouble, even though it was Vaedwyn who always instigated their little adventures, as she called them.
"Sorry! But look, it's just up ahead!" Vaedwyn ran as fast as she could, the trees passing her in a blur until suddenly she came dashing out of the forest into a small clearing. Long grass filled most of the clearing, with a single old tree, that looked as though it was dead. Vaedwyn ran through the grass, noting that several of the tree's large branches had been snapped. At last she stood in front of the old tree, and stared down at the peculiar object lying at it's base. 

Seconds later, Torenth appeared and let out an audible sigh, "Oh what have you found now..." She moaned.
"I don't know!" Vaedwyn replied, smiling as she looked at the large oval object. It looked like a stone, but it was larger than her head and had a peculiar iridescence to its surface. As she bent down to touch it, Torenth released a panicked noise and she looked back at her friend with a raised brow, "What?"
"Don't touch it." Torenth pleaded, nodding at it. "We don't know what it is, it could be dangerous!"
"Well we're never going to find out if we don't pick it up, are we?" Vaedwyn laughed and before her friend could say another word, she picked it up and stumbled backwards in surprise, realising at once that if this was a stone, it was the lightest stone for it's size she'd ever found. It was also giving out some kind of warmth. Lastly, the surface was smooth. So smooth it felt as though it's surface had been polished by an artisan. There was no friction to the peculiar stone whatsoever.

"I love it." Vaedwyn whispered, "I'm going to show this to Mogwé!" She turned and started walking back towards the village. 
"I give up." Torenth grumbled, and followed. And this is how it always went. Vaedwyn would find some creature or object and bring it back to the village, and then who got the blame? She did. Vaedwyn was only twenty years of age. Torenth was nearly thirty years her senior and yet even she was considered a child by their race's standards. Though she'd heard that in the human lands she was considered middle-aged. That frustrated her immensely and yet it didn't seem to bother Vaedwyn at all. She was altogether far more concerned with her ridiculous collection of oddities and knick-knacks. She knew how this would go. They'd get home, Mogwé would take one look at that thing, and then she'd lecture her for what felt like hours and she'd be sent to bed without a proper supper. 

 


 

"Do you have any idea what you've found?!" Mogwé roared, pacing the living room. Mogwé was one of the village elders, they didn't know exactly how old she was, but she was definitely in the thousands, yet she didn't look a day over thirty-five. Her skin was slightly tanned, and she had dark golden hair. The only signs of her age was her eyes, which were as dark as they were wise. They looked as though they had witnessed all the ages of Suros. Right now, however, they looked troubled.
"I'm sorry, Elder Mogwé, I shouldn't have let Vaedwyn leave the village after night, but--" Torenth started.
"We'll get back to that." Mogwé interrupted her abruptly. "Put that down, right now, Vaedwyn." 
"I'm sorry, Elder..." Vaedwyn apologised, hanging her head as she placed the large stone down on the table in the middle of the room. Their home was formed from a tree, a process where the most magically skilled of their people would sing to the forest, bringing a tree to life that would grow into a shape to accommodate them, including rooms and furniture that would grow right out of the floor. "But..." Vaedwyn looked longingly at the beautiful oval stone, "I just thought it was--"

"Nevermind what you thought!" Mogwé growled, "I need to convene with the elders. Torenth, I want you to keep watch over that and don't let anyone near it. Nobody, do you understand?" Then she muttered to herself as she charged out, "May Algolith preserve us..." Leaving Vaedywn and Torenth on their own. Torenth sat down beside the stone, eyeing it with suspicion while Vaedwyn leant against the stairs which coiled around the edge of the room leading to the floor above.
"What a lot of bother for a silly old stone," Torenth sulked, letting out a sigh, "I'm probably not going to eat for a week." 
"Lighten up..." Vaedwyn replied, and Torenth looked up in surprise to see Vaedwyn dangerously close to the object. 
"Hey!!" Torenth snapped, pointing at her friend, "Leave it alone!!!" She yelled, "You heard what Mogwé said." 
"I know, but there's light..." Vaedwyn looked transfixed as she approached the stone.

Glancing at the object, there was definitely no light coming from it. Torenth stood up and quickly moved between her friend and the stone, "Stop it, Vaedwyn. I'm in enough trouble already, Mogwé said to leave it alone, and if you touch it you're going to get me in a lot of trouble that no- hey--!!" Torenth shouted in surprise as Vaedwyn deftly side-stepped her friend and reached for the stone. There was a deafening crack as Vaedwyn touched the stone and she yelped in pain. Torenth stumbled backwards, shielding her eyes from a sudden flash of blinding light and hit the ground unceremoniously.
"Vaedwyn?! Vaedwyn!!" She yelled, her ears still ringing. Eventually the flash of light diminished and Torenth darted her eyes around the room, for both the stone and her friend. But neither were where they should have been. Instead, on the table, there looked like the hollow remains of the stone. It's iridescent shards scattered across the table. She turned her attention to the other side of the room and saw Vaedwyn lying on the floor out-cold. 

Torenth quickly pulled herself to her feet and ran to Vaedwyn, lifting her up. Immediately, she noticed something worrying about her friend. There was a long, thin diamond-shaped white mark, almost like a scar but defined like a tattoo, running from near the top of her forehead down to between her eyes. Further still, was the fact that her friend was unconscious. But even more so than that, was the rumbling growl of a dangerous creature that sounded so close she thought she could feel it's breath on the back of her neck. Torenth gently lowered Vaedwyn to the ground and slowly stood up, she didn't want to leave her friend defenceless to whatever was in the room with them. Whatever had come out of what was now, obviously, an egg. But it was enough to frighten Mogwé and she was a powerful sorceress, and what could she possibly do against such a creature? No, it made more sense to get help. So Torenth ran from the house like a lightning bolt, leaving Vaedwyn alone in the house.

Vaedwyn awoke in a panic, there was a great weight on her chest like she'd never felt before. She wheezed and coughed and to her great relief, the weight was removed from her. She leant up, but did so carefully as she felt dizzy and had a throbbing headache. Then, as her eyes focused, they fell upon the source of the weight on her chest. The creature was around the size of a large cat. Yet it was a reptile, with four legs, and two wings. It's scales were black as jet and glistened in the orange glow of the candlelight. It had a long neck and muzzle with a pair of horns stretching out from the back of it's head. The little creature was sat, waiting patiently, almost expectantly.
"Ugh..." Vaedwyn rubbed the back of her head, "What are you then...?" She muttered, eyeing it up and down, "You're nothing like anything i've ever seen before." The creature stared back at her and let out a long, purring growl, then quickly nestled up to her and collapsed onto her lap, falling asleep. 

Moments later, Mogwé came rushing into the room, with Torenth in tow and a half dozen other elves, including several elders. They took one look at Vaedwyn and the creature sat contently in her lap and the elders of the village looked at one another in silence. Their troubled glances all that was required. Mogwé stepped forwards and bent down, examining Vaedwyn's forehead.
"Vaedwyn..." Mogwé sighed, shaking her head, "... you've doomed us all."
"What?! Why?!" Vaedwyn cried, looking for support from the other elders, but finding none. Their glares conveyed their feelings, and when she turned to Torenth she could see that even her friend felt the same way. What had Torenth been told? "I-I don't understand, it's just a lizard..." The creature on her lap gave a disgruntled huff.
"That is no lizard." Mogwé's eyes widened in fear, "That, is a dragon. It's bonded to you, and when it did, every rider would have felt it. And there's only one that matters... King Aemon. He knows now that there's a new rider in Suros, and he will do everything in his power to own you... or destroy you. He will burn this village to the ground, and kill everyone in sight..."
"I-I don't..." Tears began to flow as Vaedwyn placed her hand along the neck of the little dragon, "I didn't know... I-I..."

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Everyone in the room fell silent. The heavy beat of wings from outside panicked everyone in the room. The elders scattered, fleeing from their home. Yelling that the King had come to kill them and take what was his. That his riders were descending on them. Outside, Vaedwyn heard screams and crying. She heard the clash of metal as the guards of the village charged, screaming battle cries. Then suddenly a terrifying roar echoed through the village, and all the colour drained from Vaedwyn's face. The clatter of metal as swords and shields and spears were dropped and their guards fled along with the rest of the villagers. Vaedwyn leapt to her feet, knocking the little dragon to the ground. It let out a little annoyed growl and then Mogwé grabbed hold of Vaedwyn and pulled her up the stairs.
"What are you doing?!" Vaedwyn yelled, resisting futilely.
"Whatever happens, I won't let that human turn you into one of his cursed riders." Mogwé snarled, and then Vaedwyn saw it. The glint of metal in her hand. She was carrying a dagger. "If I have to, i'll kill it, then you'll be nothing to him. He won't be able to use you, we'll die but at least he won't have his prize!" 
"Let me go!!" Vaedwyn struggled, and then suddenly the little black dragon leapt up, snarling and snapping its jaws. It clamped down onto Mogwé's wrist, drawing blood. Mogwé shrieked and dropped the dagger and scrambled up the stairs to the second floor. "I won't let anyone hurt you..." Vaedwyn picked up the little dragon and then ran for the front door, which had been left ajar. She dashed out the front door, but it was too late. An enormous, terrifying dragon stood at the other end of the courtyard. It looked bigger than a building. Atop it, was a rider. Vaedwyn's breathing quickened, and before she knew what she was doing, she was running. Fleeing for her life.  

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The ground shook as the great beast dropped down from the sky. Guards armed with spears and shields quickly gathered around it, terrified but standing strong as was their duty. The dragon's amber eyes darted around in it's head, it's pupils tightening in to tiny, black slits. It let out a slow, clicking snarl as it turned it's body around in circles, over and over again, it's head and tail swishing back and forth, watching, waiting. It's copper scales shimmered in the light as it dared the circle of guards surrounding it to come forth. One of the guards, out of nerves more than anything, shifted on his spot, moving just an inch to the left. The dragon's head whipped round at the sudden noise, nostrils flaring as it bucked it's head, thrusting with the single, large horn on top of it's snout. Then it opened it's mouth, exposing an enormous maw of fanged teeth, and it let out a blood curdling roar, and the people began to scream. The guard dropped his shield and ran, and the other's hesitated. The dragon roared again, spreading it's wings out in an aggressive gesture, and that was enough to cause the rest of the guards to flee. 

"Aw right ya big show off!" A broad, rough voice yelled. The dragon immediately stopped roaring, and let out a short snarl, followed by a chuffing noise. It lowered it's head and neck to the ground, and a man stepped out of the saddle on it's back and put his feet on the ground. He was incredibly tall, towering over the elven villagers nearby. He wore thick armor over his broad frame. The leather fixings were coated with intricate knot patterns, and the plated gauntlets and pauldrons were etched with rough, scratch-like symbols known as runes. His armor was lined with thick, tawny fur. "Right then ye can stop puffin' yer chest, the pale yins have put their pointy sticks down." He said to the dragon. The man had a head of thick, wild, hair. It was the colour of fire, reaching his shoulders, tied loosely behind his head, with two thin braids dangling from the right side of his face. He ran his hand over the thick braid of his beard and sighed, looking out at the terrified courtyard in front of him. 

"Okay!" He called out. "It's okay! He's a big softie, really. Turiel's no gonnae hurt any o' ye, I promise. Come on out!" The dragon let out another unimpressed chuffing noise and growled irritably, indicating he might have been having second thoughts about hurting them. 
From out of one of the tree houses, a she-elf approached. She stood defiant before them, while the rest of the village disappeared within seconds. "My name is Mogwé, I am an Elder of this village. You may be a rider, but no rider has entered this forest in a thousand years. We have a long memory, our last one of dragons was of fire raining from the sky, torching our forests and our homes and slaughtering our people. I do not recognise your face, rider. I know you are not the King, but sadly..." She paused as a bitter tone etched into her words, "... we could not see their faces from so far above our forest."

"Awright, hen." The man said with a nod. "Well the name's Agron, and this here..." He stuck his thumb out and pointed over his shoulder at the angry dragon standing behind him. "This is Turiel. Now he's just a bit pissed aff, he does'nae like spears, ken? On account of folk keep chuckin' them at 'em. Anyway, am no here for a wee chat. I'm lookin' fer a dragon. No as big as Turiel, mind. A wee yin." Agron held his hands up in front of him, only a few inches apart to indicate the size. 
"The dragon would be a newborn?" Mogwé asked.
"Aye." Agron said with a nod. "Just a wee thing. No doubt hidin' wi' a new pal. One wi' a funny lookin' scar. Y'ken the drill, hen. Yer old enough."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you," Mogwé raised the dagger in her hand and threw it to the ground where it stuck, "The dragon is dead. I won't allow it to fall into the hands of the King."
"Away an dinnae talk pish, hen." Agron replied, waving his hand dismissively at her. "Ye think a dinnae ken when a newborn falls near me?" He tapped his chest. "That kind o' tragedy does'nae escape an old heart. Now, unless ye want the Tyrant to come knockin', ye better show me where they are." He sighed, a mixture of empathy for the woman, and frustration. "I'm here to protect it. The wee thing's found it's rider, an' it's been a long time comin'. If ye don't help me, then the dragon an' it's rider will be a lovely pair of corpses soon enough, and yer whole town along wi' them."

Mogwé bunched her hands into fists as she stood before the rider, then eventually she buckled and shook her head, "I don't know where they are." She held up her arm, showing him the bite mark, "She fled the village, fearing you were the King."
"Smart." Agron said with a grin. "Right, well, c'mon then." He said and he started walking towards Mogwé. "Y'ken this forest better than me." He said. Then he turned back towards Turiel. "Dinnae just sit there, away an scout ahead!" He yelled. Turiel stood up with another soft growl, but did not protest. Then his wings fanned out, causing more villagers to gasp, and he leapt up, beating his wings and taking off into the sky, disappearing from the village and descending in to the depths of the forest, flying low over the trees. 
"I think I know where she'll go..." Mogwé turned and led Agron out of the village. As they walked, she looked the human up and down, "So, where have you been all these years, Gardwyn?"

"North, with my kin." Agron replied. "Even the Tyrant's eyes don't see far in the Fjords. Yer an old yin, hen. Can ye not see it? Feel it?" Agron sniffed and held his arms out openly in front of him as he walked. "There's been a change in the winds. A millenia we've waited fer it. The Riders had to stay hidden...but maybe no fer much longer."
"I suggest you go back to the north and stay there." Mogwé replied coolly, "The King and his riders all but destroyed your order. The age of the Gardwyn is over." 
"Expected more from one such as yerself, if I'm honest." Agron replied. "Ye dinnae get tae decide that any more than I do. Suros has spent too long in the dark. I mind when you lot were the wisest of us all. I mind yer kind as bein' more fierce, ken? Ye were the people the Gardiel respected enough to stand beside." Agron let out a soft chuckle. "...Naw, ye dinnae get tae decide, hen." He pointed skywards, and Turiel's shadowy form swooped over the trees, blackening the forest for a fleeting moment before tearing off again. "They decide." He said finally. 

"You're as wise as they say, Gardwyn," Mogwé nodded, "Our people have forgotten themselves. As has much of Suros. If an awakening is to happen, it will need the riders. Vaedwyn is a special child," Mogwé laughed then, as though she'd only just realised, "You are a rider, you know our ancient tongue. You must see the irony in her name."
"Hmph." Agron smiled. "More like a sign, if ye ask me." They continued through the forest for a while, and on occasion Agron would make odd expressions, as if he was conversing with someone, but he didn't make a sound. Then finally he spoke again. "Where are we goin'?" He asked. 
"To the southern glade. We're here, see?" Mogwé stepped forwards and pushed through a heavy section of brush, and sure enough, the forest opened out into a glade with an old, broken tree in the centre. Mogwé looked up at the old tree and its broken branches, and then saw Vaedwyn sat in front of the tree with the newborn dragon prancing around in front of her as though goading her to play. "I had a feeling she'd be here. She comes here often."

"Ah..." Agron said as he looked upon Vaedwyn, and the newborn dragon. "Aye...a good match." He said with a smile. He stepped further in to the Glade but stopped walking as he saw Vaedwyn look at him, a concerned expression on her face. "Greetings." Agron said softly. "Sorry if I scared ye back there, lass. How's yerr wee pal doin'?" Agron took a couple of steps further, slowly and carefully. "Bonny thing, isn't she?"
"Leave us alone!" Vaedwyn quickly leapt up and put her back to the tree, at her surprise and fear, the little dragon turned on Agron, growling and baring it's teeth.
"Now there we go!" Agron said with a wide grin. "Look at that, fierce fresh out the shell. Oh, aye, yer gonnae be a handful, I can tell." Agron crouched down on one knee, looking the dragon in the eyes. He tugged at the fur around his neck, craning his head to expose his lower neck on his right. A white scar sprawled across that side of his neck, jagged like lightning. "Ye've nothin' to fear o' me, wee yin. Me an' yer pal Vaedwyn, we're the same."
The little black dragon eyed his mark, but either he'd gotten too close or she still didn't trust him, as she snapped at his neck. "She doesn't like you!" Vaedwyn yelled at him, "I don't like you!" She added, "I won't let you take her..."

"Who said I'm gonnae take her, eh?" Agron said, and he stood up and backed off a few steps. "The pair o' ye are bonded now. Dae ye understand what that means? There's no friendship quite like it, lass." Agron looked up, and Turiel's black shadow cut through the sky and then disappeared again. Agron nodded, agreeing to words that no one had spoke. "Turiel says ye've got courage. High praise comin' from that grumpy ol' lizard, let me tell ye." 
A sliver of doubt appeared on Vaedwyn's face, and she looked to Mogwé for guidance. Mogwé sighed and nodded to confirm what the man was saying. Vaedwyn let out a breath she'd been holding for the past couple of minutes and her shoulders relaxed, "Why are you here? If you're not here to take her away, what are you here for?"
"Well, I wisnae plannin' on bein' here at all, actually." Agron admitted. "Y'see, lass, that dragon...she was with me. She's been with me fer a long time. She didnae fall from the heavens, she fell out of my satchel." Agron pointed up at the sky. "Turiel and I were just passin' through. But the dragon, well, she sensed ye. She knew she had to be with ye, so, she took matters intae her own hands."

"Turiel?" Vaedwyn glanced up at the sky, but saw nothing. "I thought the riders were all dead..." She muttered, looking him up and down, "All except the King."
"Aye, and so does the King." Agron replied. "And I'd like tae keep it that way." He put his hands on his hips and looked up at the sky again. "Turiel and I are like you and, er, well we'll just call her the wee yin for now. He's a bit bigger, mind, but he's no all bad. He's waitin' up there, does'nae want tae scare ye, ken?  But, well, if ye'd like, ye can meet him."
"Meet... Turiel?" Vaedwyn looked up at the sky again, "You have a dragon..." She whispered in awe. Just then, she felt something strange. And she jerked backwards out of surprise, backing up into the tree. "What was that?!" She asked, frowning and looking around. "It felt like..." She shook her head in confusion, "I don't know, I never felt anything like that before. It was excitement, but... I wasn't excited. I can't..."

"Settle down, lass." Agron said, holding his hand out. "I know it's a little strange at first, but yer gonnae have tae get used tae it. The wee yin is bonded tae ye." He placed his hand on his heart. "Yer hearts are one. Ye can feel each other's joys an' fears. But ye have tae be careful, ken?" Agron indicated to the little dragon. "When ye get scared, she does too, ken?"
Vaedwyn looked down at the little black dragon, and it stopped growling at Agron long enough to look up at her, "You did that?" She asked, frowning. The dragon sat back on it's haunches, staring up at her. Then she felt something pushing against the edges of her mind. At first, she resisted it instinctively. But somehow she knew the strange presence belonged to the little dragon. Eventually she managed to calm her mind, and a wave of complex emotions not of her own, washed over her. A mixture of confusion and reflexive anger persisted, which was likely her own fault. But far stronger was a feeling of contentment, trust and love so powerful that it overwhelmed her.

"Hmm...now yer gettin' it." Agron said with a nod. "It'll get easier. By the time yer my age it'll be as natural as takin' a breath."
"What do you mean?" Vaedwyn asked, looking from Agron to Mogwé and back again, "Does this mean i'm a rider?!" The disbelief was clear on her face.
"Aye, of course it does." Agron said with a nod. "What else would ye be? Dragon's are shite at ploughin' fields, ken?"
"You hear that, little one..." Vaedwyn grinned, and the little dragon continued to stare up at her, "I'm your rider..." She held out her hand and knelt down and the dragon closed the gap between them and pressed the top of it's head into her palm.
"Well, ye might need to wait until it gets a wee bit bigger." Agron said with a soft chuckle. 

Suddenly there was a rush of wind and the sky blackened. Turiel broke through the trees and landed on the ground behind Agron, scraping his claws along the earth and chuffing irritably. "What is taking so long, Agron?" The voice was low and booming, but it could only be heard by Agron. 
"I told you to wait." Agron replied out loud, as a courtesy to others. "Ye could have scared the poor lass half to death!"
"If she is so easily frightened she will never last the trials ahead anyway." Turiel replied. He moved forward, passing Agron, his head lowering until he was only a few feet from Vaedwyn and the newborn. He sniffed the air around her, and then simply stared at them both for a long moment. 
The little dragon pounced onto Turiel's snout, grabbing it by her talons and clinging to him, sinking her teeth harmlessly into his scales and growling.
"You're a little out-classed, little one... come back!" Vaedwyn held her hand out and to her great surprise the dragon released it's grip and vaulted off the end of Turiel's snout and landed beside her.

Turiel let out an approving growl, and tilted his head only slightly. "See, Agron? This one is not so easily startled. Their bond is strong, even at this early stage. The pup, she sees it. The Cloud Rider...." Agron's eyes narrowed as if it was searching for something hidden deep within Vaedwyn. Then he let out another approving growl. "This one has...fire."
"Are ye feelin' alright?" Agron said, folding his arms. "That's the second time you've complimented someone today. That has to be the first for this century."
"Today...is a special day." Turiel replied, closing his eyes for a moment. "...For the first time in a long time...I am with kin."
"Are you..." Vaedwyn looked to Turiel then back to Agron, "Are you talking to your dragon?" She shrugged, "I don't hear anything. Can I talk to my dragon? Will she talk to me?"

"She will." Agron said. "In time. She's just a baby, does'nae know how tae yet. But perhaps in a day or two, maybe less, maybe more. But, aye, I can hear Turiel, he speaks tae me in my mind, and I can speak directly in tae his, if I want tae. And they'll talk tae each other as well, soon enough."
"She listens, though." Turiel added, and he gazed at the little dragon. "You can hear me, little one, can you not?"
The little black dragon pulled her head back from Vaedwyn's palm and turned to stare at Turiel, she sat upright on her haunches and examined him with a critical eye.
"I don't know what to say. This morning, I thought the dragons were gone. Now there's two, and one of them is mine..." Vaedwyn blinked in shock. "What... what am I supposed to do now...?"

"Well..." Agron said, and he let out a heavy sigh. 
"You have to tell her." Turiel said, and he turned away from Vaedwyn and the newborn and padded off to the other side of the glade, and lay down. "I would tell her for you if she would only open her ears."
"Right, right..." Agron said, shaking his head. Then he folded his arms and looked at Vaedwyn. "King Aemon and his three Lieutenants are the only other dragon riders who still retain their dragons. The rest are all gone. There are a few riders left, but their dragons have perished, their wills broken. Ye and I, lass...we're the only ones left who can stop King Aemon. Tae accomplish that much, I will have to train ye. And to do that..." Agron sighed. "...Ye will have tae leave this place."
"But... this is my home." Vaedwyn shook her head, "I've never left the forest before." The little dragon leapt up into her arms and she held it up as it nestled into the nape of her neck, "And besides, what difference am I going to make? I'm not a warrior."

"Not yet." Agron said. "But you can become one, if you come with me. I can teach ye how tae use a sword, an axe, a bow, or whatever ye choose. I can teach ye how tae use magic, and how tae fly. Ye'll never learn that stuff on yer own, lass."
"Tell her the whole truth." Turiel said, and he let out an annoyed growl. 
"I was gettin' to it!" Agron replied heatedly. He let out another sigh. "But...more importantly. Vaedwyn, when ye made a bond with the wee yin, I felt it. Every rider feels it. Even King Aemon. He's going tae look for ye. If ye stay here, he'll find ye. What's more...he'll kill everyone who lives here." Vaedwyn shook her head, there was a dozen different emotions rushing through her mind and she struggled to know what to think. But then the presence of her dragon pressed against her mind, reassuring her. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself and looked to Agron. "I'll do it." She nodded, "I must, to protect my people." 
"You ask a lot of her, Gardwyn." Mogwé spoke up at last, "I don't expect you to make a promise you can't keep. To keep her safe from harm. But if you swear to me, in the ancient tongue, that you will do everything in your power to see that she is trained as a rider and equipped with the skills to defend herself, her dragon, and Suros... then you may leave with her."

"May leave?" Turiel growled, his eyes narrowing on Mogwé. "The Eladrin thinks this is her decision. Amusing."
"Aye." Agron said with a nod, ignoring Turiel. He let out a brief sigh and then looked directly at Mogwé, and when he spoke it was in the elvish tongue. "I swear to you, Mogwé, Elder of Eladrin, on my honour as a Gardwyn, that I will do all in my power to ensure that Vaedwyn is trained in the ways of Gardiel and Wyn, and make her a protector of Suros, one that the Eladrin will be proud of."
"So be it." Mogwé replied, "And you must always remember, Agron..." Her face became stern, "While the dragons are above our laws and ways, you are as bound to us as the rest of Suros. The riders are not above the law. You cannot simply take who you please simply because it is to your benefit. Doing so against the will of the rider, or their guardian," She indicated herself, "Would set you down a path our King now treads."
"Then I can go?" Vaedwyn asked, turning to Mogwé for confirmation.
"You are old enough to make your own choices, though many of our people would disagree. You must do what is right for you, and for Suros."
"I will." Vaedwyn grinned, "I'll become a dragon rider, and i'll find a way to stop King Aemon, I don't know how, but I will..." She felt a weighted thump against her chest and looked down at her dragon, "Right. We will."

"Finally." Turiel said, and he stood up from his spot on the ground. "Can we leave before the Eladrin has another bout of parental madness?"
"I guess I'd be foolish tae hope for more than two compliments in one day." Agron said, rolling his eyes. "Well, then we best be off." Agron turned to Vaedwyn. "Ye can go say yer goodbyes if ye like, but they'll have tae be quick. King Aemon is a far ride fae here, but we'll want to get as far ahead of him as we can. Besides, he'll move quicker than us in the sky. We'll need to take horses for now."
"I can't waste the time..." Vaedwyn reluctantly admitted. She turned and hugged Mogwé, "Tell Torenth why I had to leave, she might not understand."
"I will." Mogwé returned the hug, her voice broke but she contained her tears.
"Alright..." Vaedwyn took a deep breath and let it out, "I'm ready." Then she turned back into the forest, brought her thumb and index finger to her lips and let out a long shrill whistle with a dozen rapid changes. Seconds later, two horses came galloping out of the forest and trotted up to her. She patted them down and led them to Agron, "Shall we?" She asked, a lop-sided grin spreading across her face.

"Already provin' useful." Agron said with a grin. He turned to Turiel. "You take tae the sky an' keep watch for us. I'll ride wi' Vaedwyn."
"Well I was hardly going to get on the horse now, was I?" Turiel replied, rolling his eyes. Then with a beat of his huge wings he took off in to the sky once more and disappeared beyond the tree tops. Agron pulled himself on to the back of one of the horses and grabbed the reigns. "Come on then, lass." He said with a grin, then he dug his heels in to the horse and took off. 

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Vaedwyn and Agron had been riding throughout the day and all through the night, at a brisk pace, and there was no sign to the end of the forest. For a long time, Vaedwyn was content to remain uncharacteristically silent and pensive. She let Agron lead their horses onwards, while she spent much of her time playing with the little dragon perched on the edge of her saddle. Every now and then she would leap away, playfully trying to avoid Vaedwyn's grasp. However as she leapt into the air, and beat her wings, she was unable to find enough lift and tumbled to the ground. Unperturbed by the fall, she would catch up to the horse and leap back on, and so it went until the rising sun of the next morning.
"What do dragons eat?" Vaedwyn asked, encouraging her horse to catch up and ride beside Agron.
"Whatever they like." Agron replied with a soft smirk. "Dinnae worry about the wee yin. She was born ready tae hunt. She'll know when she sees somethin' she wants, and she'll have nae bother catchin' it herself."

"Oh... how do dragons know how to hunt and understand us from birth? You said it knew I was her rider, how is that possible?" Vaedwyn looked down into the dark amber eyes of her dragon, the hue strangely matched her own. She saw innocence, but intelligence also. What did a dragon think about?
"Well, tae answer that I'll have tae tell ye a bit o' history." Agron said, before letting out a little cough, clearing his throat. "If there is a beginning tae the dragons, then naebody kens what it is. More likely, the dragons have always been here, they're linked wi' our world, in a much more profound way than any other race, even yer own." Agron stopped for a moment, gathering his thoughts. "See, dragons are immortal. As long as they dinnae fall tae injury, o' course. This applies tae their eggs as well. Tougher than diamonds, I've never seen anybody manage to crack a dragon egg. Naw, they only open when they find their rider, and until then they are nigh on indestructable."
Agron turned his head to look at the little dragon sitting with Vaedwyn. "Now, as ye know, there aren't many dragons left. So, how long do ye think that wee yin's been laying dormant, waiting in her egg, just for you to come along, hm?"

"I don't know..." Vaedwyn muttered in awe, looking down at her. She looked up in response and they held their gaze for a long moment, "Have you always carried her egg?" 
"Naw, not always." Agron replied. "But for the last millenia, certainly. An' the dragon that laid her did so long before then. Aye, make no mistake, she may be a wee thing, but that there is an ancient beastie. In fact, that egg was laid around the same time that Turiel was, the only difference is he hatched about 1300 years ago."
"Elo..." Vaedwyn gasped in elvish, and then her grin returned, "When can I ride her?" She asked excitedly.
"Well, first she needs to learn tae fly herself, and she needs tae get big enough tae hold ye, and even then, well..." Agron let out a soft chuckle. "Riding isnae as easy as it might first appear, lass. If ye hope to ride her, then ye must ride as one."
"What does that mean?" Vaedwyn asked, paying no heed as the trees around them began to space further and further apart until they emerged from the forest altogether.
"Dragons can move at blinding speeds, lass." Agron explained, "One wrong move and ye could slip right off her back and plummet tae yer death. She'll know where she needs tae go, when she needs to turn, when she needs to climb, and tae dive. Even wi the best reflexes in the world ye cannae anticipate how she'll move, ye need to just..." He struggled to find words to describe it. "...Ye need to just know, dae ye understand? Yer minds, yer hearts...they have tae be one."

"Oh..." Vaedwyn said feebly. Her mind was a torrent of thoughts, each one fighting to the surface. She thought of her family and friends back home, she hoped they were safe from the King and his riders, she wondered how long it would be before she was a rider. When was she even considered a rider? Was she a rider now? That was unlikely. Was it when she was first able to fly with her dragon? That seemed the most likely assumption. Suddenly she looked up, realising at last that they'd left the forest. "This is the furthest i've ever been from home..." She muttered, looking around, "I've never seen outside our forest. It's very... open." 
"Aye?" Agron said, and he looked around. "I was born on a mountain, lass. This place is downright cramped by comparison."
"It's not..." Vaedwyn looked around, considering the hills and valleys stretching out before them, "It's not what I expected." She said at last, but after a moment's consideration she perked up, "I think it's better. Sometimes the Draduin share stories with us about the outside world, but to see it with my own eyes..."

"Aye, well I can only imagine." Agron said. "Once ye fly, and ye will, all o' this." He cast his arm out, indicating to everything on the horizon. "It's tiny, lass. Just a crumb compared to what ye'll see. I envy ye, really. I mind when I first traveled the world. It was a different time. I rode with my fellow riders, and oh did we have some adventures in our youth... aye, different times."
"Tell me about the riders!" Vaedwyn grew excited once more, and even the little dragon perked up and looked at Agron.
"I can tell ye many tales, lass." Agron said with a warm smile. "When I was a wee lad, back in Luftjall, the riders were the pride and joy of the land. There were many of them, and they had strongholds all over Suros. Up in the north there was one rider in particular. Magar was his name. He rode with Ethanriel, she was one of the most famous dragons that ever lived. Strong of will, and of heart. She was the pride of our people, and she was one of the oldest of her kind." Agron took a deep breath and sighed, looking a little misty. 
"When I was a young lad, during my seventeenth winter, I was called to the rider's stronghold in Luftjall, along with all the other folk my age. Ethanriel had laid eggs, seven of them. There must have been twenty of us that entered that day, hoping tae pass the trial, tae be chosen. But even with seven eggs, only myself and another, Jona, were chosen." Agron looked up at the sky for a moment, watching for Turiel's small image flying high above them. 
"Of course, that was when I met Turiel. He hatched on the same day as Jona's dragon, Sariel. The two were twins, brothers of a champion's stock. In the years that came the other eggs were hatched, of course. All males. All brothers." Agron looked down for a moment. "We rode with Magar and Ethanriel, seven Gardwyn tied to seven Gardiel brothers. The north had never seen such a magnificent family. Of course... now only Turiel remains." Agron sighed, and suddenly went very quiet, staring off down the road ahead.

Vaedwyn let the silence hang in the air, until a thought occurred to her, and she smiled, "Not any more." Before Agron could answer, a long dull sound echoed from the distant forest. A horn. Immediately, Vaedwyn looked back over her shoulder, her eyes darting for signs of activity. "No... no no no no..." Vaedwyn turned her horse around, and then she saw it. A great black plume of smoke rising out of the forest. "NOOO!!" She screamed, tears filling her eyes. She urged her horse into action and took off before Agron could stop her, the little dragon on her lap snapped at her hands and arms, trying to stop her, but she wouldn't stop. Failing that, the dragon leapt from the horse and took off into the darkness of the forest ahead of her. Vaedwyn could see a light up ahead, it looked like fire or...

The horse let out a surprised scream as it bucked onto it's hind-legs, throwing Vaedwyn from the horse. She fell to the ground and as she pulled herself back up, ready to run towards the smoke plume, she realised where the light had come from. From out of the shadows of the forest, a black form stalked towards her. It was her dragon, but it was far larger than a cat. It was closer to the size of a lion now, and was snarling menacingly, frightening the horse so much that it bolted towards Agron. Vaedwyn's face scrunched up in anger and she tried to run past her dragon, her despair and rage at seeing her village burning had overwhelmed her surprise at seeing the sudden shift in size of her dragon. Every time she tried to get closer to the smoke, the dragon blocked her path until at last it let out a snarling roar that echoed through her mind until she heard...

NO!

Vaedwyn jumped and staggered back in surprise. Her heart was beating out of her chest, as her dragon snarled in defiance.
"Vaedwyn!" Agron cried as his horse slammed to a halt nearby. He immediately leapt from the horse and came to her, grabbing her firmly. "Lass...we need to go, now!" He said with urgency. "Right now!" He added, and he looked up pleadingly at the sky.
"But my village is burning!" Vaedwyn screamed, her eyes darting to the sky above. She imagined she could hear the sound of thumping, howling sound of enormous wings. Dragon-fire spraying through the village as they descended upon it. She desperately tried to break free of Agron, but he was far too strong. 

"I know, lass, I know..." He said softly. "But we have to keep going." There was a beating of wings and Turiel descended from the sky at speed. As he neared his wings caught the air, and he slowed, crashing down to ground with a low, grumbling snarl. 
She must come with me, Turiel said to Agron, and he turned his neck to look at Vaedwyn's dragon. You must fly. 
"Come on!" Agron said as he picked up Vaedwyn, carrying her with relative ease despite her protests. He heaved her on to the front of his horse, and got on after her. He gave a whistle and Vaedwyn's horse came to him. He grabbed it's reigns so it could ride alongside him. "Turiel, keep hidden!" Agron said. "Stay with her, and just... please be careful." 
Just you worry about Vaedwyn, Turiel replied. He turned back to the other dragon, his amber eyes filled with a piercing, righteous fury. You must fly.

Vaedwyn's dragon, while as large as a lion, was still minuscule next to Turiel. She looked back at her wings and flexed them to the extent of their wingspan. For a few seconds, she was immobile, but then suddenly, she burst forwards into a full sprint. She opened her wings, and began flapping them and she lifted from the ground for a moment before falling back. She kept running, flapping and getting bursts of lift and then as a wind caught her wings, she lifted off from the world below and soared into the sky. Vaedwyn found herself transfixed by the spectacle, and she was gripped by a gnawing desire she'd never realised she'd had before. She wanted to fly. She needed to fly.
Turiel let out an approving growl, and with much less effort, he took off after the young dragon, quickly gaining on her and moving past her, slowing for her to follow him, leading her away from the road, flying low and behind cover. "Don't worry." Agron said. "They won't stray far. Now come on, HYA!" He dug his heels in to the horse and rapped it's reigns, and the beast of burden took off like an arrow being loosed from a bow, speeding down the road, and away from the approaching smell of ash.

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As the hours passed Agron had steered the horses away from the main roads and disappeared across the flat, open prairies to the West of the Elven forest. He rode quickly and silently, and seemed to be in deep concentration. He clung close to the hills where he could, and whenever they passed a small wood he would steer into it for cover. As they rode the sky overhead turned golden to sign the coming of dusk. They had passed through the prairies and reached a large valley with a river running through it, and lush trees growing all around it. As they drew closer, Agron felt an all too familiar sensation of something pressing against his consciousness. He welcomed it in, and suddenly an image of the valley, seen from the skies above, played in his mind. Through Turiel's eyes he saw his path ahead from a new perspective. Then the image changed, as the dragon's keen eyes focused in on a small cave tucked away in the depths of the valley. There, He heard Turiel's voice call out in his mind, Get inside, we must speak in private.

Agron sped through the valley and within 10 minutes he had reached the cave and came to a stop. He got off and let Vaedwyn get down. 
"Quick, lass, inside." He said hurriedly. "Take the horses." He added and ushered her inside with the two mares. Then he turned around and looked skyward. Turiel wasted no time descending from the skies, the newborn in tow behind him. The large dragon looked on edge, and Agron sensed his urgency. "Speak, old friend." He said. "What's on your mind?" Turiel let out a snort in response, and paced back and forth in agitation. 
It is as we feared, Agron. Turiel said. They reached us far too quickly. There are no encampments close enough to Eladrowan, even on horseback they could not make it in mere days. You know what that means. 

"Aye, it means he sent one of his lieutenants." Agron replied. Turiel let out a long, foreboding growl. 
I must leave, Agron. You can run day and night, but all you will accomplish is broken steads and hungry bellies. Turiel looked up at the sky. I will head back and face them. It will buy you some more time.
"Absolutely not." Agron replied fiercely. "Ye'll get yerself killed!"
Do you forget who you speak to, old friend? Turiel replied, a prideful note to his voice. I am Turiel, son of Ethanriel. Nordlings sing songs in my honor. I am the great Northern Squall, Eldest brother of the Sororheim Makirog. I will not be bested by Enslaved children.

"They aren't children any more." Agron protested. "Ye may be the eldest of your kind, but Aemon's dragons aren't younglings any more. Ye don't know how many were sent, what if all three of them are there?"
Three against one hardly seems fair. Turiel replied, but quickly added, For them. Agron sighed and ran his hand over his pleated beard. 
"Turiel...I dinnae like this." He said worriedly. 
I do not like it either, Turiel replied, But given the circumstances it is the only option we have. Better the dragon than it's rider, is that not how the saying goes?

"It's a shite saying." Agron replied gruffly. "But...ye've already decided. I cannae stop ye. Fine, but I'm givin' ye three days, Turiel."
Good. Turiel replied. Take what you need. Rest here for tonight, and at dawn head for Babbleridge. Continue through the valley then go south, follow the river until you reach the main roads again. The town is but a few miles down the road. The humans there are quite welcoming, if I recall. Get settled, and wait for my call, then I will meet you at the eastern bluff, by the white oaks. Turiel leaned down, extending his neck so that Agron could reach the the supplies he carried. Agron removed the blankets, the last few bread rolls, and a thick length of fabric that was tied up with ropes. As he backed away he grabbed hold of Turiel by the large horn on his nose. 
"Be careful, I mean it." He said. 

Turiel gave an appreciative growl in response, then turned around to face Vaedwyn's dragon. Little Gardiel He said directly to the dragon, Protect Vaedwyn, at all costs. Remember what I have taught you in these past hours. Listen to Agron. You must trust him, for he too wishes Vaedwyn to be safe at all costs. Grow strong, for when I return, your true training begins.
The dragon stalked to the front of the cave entrance, turned to face Turiel and bellowed at him before disappearing into the cave. Turiel chuffed in response, and gave Agron a quick bow of his head, before turning and bounding off across the ground, before leaping and tearing off in to the skies. Agron watched him leave, and kept watching until Turiel had completely disappeared from view. He picked up his supplies and walked in to the cave. 

"Right then!" Agron said as he entered the cave. He tossed the supplies on the ground and patted his stomach. "Well, lass, I am famished. How about you?"
"Oh!" Vaedwyn grinned sheepishly, "I haven't eaten since I found the egg..." She rubbed her abdomen, realising for the first time just how hungry she was.
"Excellent!" Agron replied with a grin. He removed the ropes around the bundle of wrapped blankets and revealed what was a small armory of weapons. It included two regular swords, a longbow and quiver of arrows, a variety of daggers, a hatchet axe, and one very large claymore that seemed to be in an all together different league than the rest. It was covered by a red sheathe, with a dark steel cross hilt, with a Nordish knot design at the end, a red leather grip, and a dark steel pommel crafted in the shape of a dragon's head. The huge sword was built to be used by the tall, hardy Nords, and Agron swiftly removed it from the pile. "Right then, pick a weapon." Agron said. 

Vaedwyn frowned as though she thought she'd heard him wrong, "Didn't you just ask me if I was hungry?" She asked, her eyes wandering across the weapons, yet her gaze kept falling back to Agron's claymore.
"Aye, I did." Agron replied with a nod. "Bein' hungry is a great source of motivation. Now pick up a weapon."
Vaedwyn let out a short, frustrated sigh. "Can't we eat first and train after?"
"Are yer ears clogged, lass?" Agron asked, frowning. "I told ye tae pick up a weapon. Ye dinnae eat until I'm satisfied. Is that clear?"
"Fine." She growled, then looked over the available weapons. The axe didn't interest her, nor did the dagger. She picked up both blades, one was a shortsword with a surprising amount of weight. The other was a longsword, a little lighter and with greater range, but it didn't have the striking force behind it that the shortsword had. She opted for the longsword. She held the weapon in her right hand and shrugged, "Now what?" She asked, irritably.

"Now we see how much work I have cut out for me." Agron replied. He picked up the shorter sword, it's extra weight being no trouble for him. "Outside." He said, and they both walked outside of the cave, the sky was now a beautiful, crimson glow. "Tell me, Vaedwyn, how old are ye?" He asked as he flourished the sword in his hand. 
Vaedwyn's dragon followed them outside and sat at the mouth of the cave, watching in silence. "I'm twenty." She replied, looking at the sword in her hand.
"So by yer people's standards, still very much a child." Agron said. "Nord children work and train from the age of ten. They are considered adults by the age of fifteen. As far as I'm concerned, yer a young woman, so I'll no be givin' ye any leeway."
At being reminded of her age and status, Vaedwyn clenched her fist in an attempt to temper her annoyance. "I started training with a sword a few months ago." She replied, "There wasn't a lot of call for warriors in my village."

"Well, lass, in case ye haven't noticed, we're no in yer village any more. Yer an elf, though, so I should be thankful for that. Yer people might look like a bunch o' wimps, but I've never seen any other race learn as quick as ye do." Agron held his sword loosely at his waist. "Time tae prove it tae me. Let's see yer offence, lass. Ye'll notice that's no a wooden stick yer holdin', ye need tae learn quick, so ye come at me with the intent tae kill me, or I'll knock ye on yer arse, understand?"
"I think I get the gist." A lop-sided smile spread across her face as she raised her sword. Swift as a bird of prey, Vaedwyn darted forwards, slashing with her blade. But to her surprise, Agron countered it effortlessly. She attacked several more times, her form was exactly as she had been taught, she was agile, had perfect reflexes, and yet still Agron bested her. Was this because of his training, or because he was a rider, or both? She had only been training for a few months, but she had neglected to mention she was one of the top students. She took to fencing like a natural. But right now, she was getting frustrated. Especially as she had always been taught that no elf could be beaten by a human.

"Good." Agron said with a smirk. "Excellent form, ye'd do no bad in a wee competition. But this is life or death I'm teachin' ye, lass. In a real fight, yer opponent won't just wait around for ye to eventually stick 'em with a lucky strike." Agron suddenly lashed out with a vicious swipe, clashing with Vaedwyn's blade and knocking it from her hands, before holding the tip of his blade to her neck. "Dead." He said, frowning. He stepped back from her and relaxed his blade. "Right then, pick it up, and try again."
Vaedwyn gingerly held her wrist and walked over to pick up her sword but suddenly her dragon charged at her and knocked her to the ground. The dragon stood over her and roared at Agron, and Vaedwyn realised then that he had moved to attack her when her back was to him. She wanted to yell at him, but every complaint she made, she realised he'd have an answer to. This only frustrated her more.
"Stop it!" She growled, pushing her dragon off her, "Get off!" She pushed the her dragon away, and pulled herself to her feet, while her dragon sullenly stalked back to her spot at the mouth of the cave.

"Vaedwyn." Agron said sternly. "The wee yin was only tryin' tae protect ye." He sighed with a note of irritation, and perhaps a little disappointment. "Ye've a lot tae learn, clearly." He said, and suddenly Agron advanced on her, attacking relentlessly, even somewhat cruelly, considering their gap in skill. Again and again he swung at her, ensuring that she was kept on the defense, and giving her no room to maneuver. "What is a rider on her own, eh!?" He yelled. "Just a wee girl, nothin' more, that's what!"
Vaedwyn wanted to yell at him but she couldn't find the breath, she was doing everything she could to stop his attacks from connecting. Her muscles felt like they were on fire, and her wrist felt like it was ready to snap. "When yer dragon comes to defend ye, do ye know what she's risking!?" He yelled at her as he kept attacking. "Her life! That's what! Do ye think she does'nae bleed!? And what's more, lass." Agron finished with an almighty swing, knocking the sword from Vaedwyn's hand again, before sweeping her off her feet with a swift kick to the back of her leg, and pointed his blade, once more, at her throat. "When you die, she dies! Your life isn't just yer own any more!" He pointed towards the dragon, fuming with anger. "It's hers too!"

Vaedwyn gasped as the air was knocked from her lungs, she looked back at her dragon, still panting from exhaustion, and reconsidered what she'd done. She felt shame for having lashed out at her for coming to her rescue. But just then, a thought occurred to her. Her dragon met her gaze and for the first time, Vaedwyn didn't wait for her dragon to make contact with her. She took a deep breath, and tried reaching out with her mind. She didn't know if she could reach her, but maybe with a simple enough message. Two words.
Scare him!
Quick as a flash, her dragon charged Agron, roaring and baring her fangs. She leapt into the air, talons glistening but as Agron reacted, Vaedwyn reached up, grabbed the hilt of his sword in one hand and sucker-punched him with the other. Agron stepped back from the blow and reached for his lip. Silence fell over the valley for a moment, that could well have been an eternity. Agron looked at the blood on his fingers that had came from his busted lips. He looked at Vaedwyn, still angry with her, but he felt like perhaps there was hope for her. 

"Yer lucky that she's loyal." Agron said, pointing at the dragon. "That's how ye should be fightin'. Dragon and rider, as one. But ye cannae rely on her tae always bail ye out. Ye have tae protect her tae." Agron walked over and picked up Vedwyn's sword, gathering it with his own and started walking back to the cave. "I've had enough for now. Both o' ye need to work on yer connection, an that's somethin' I cannae teach ye. Take the bow and go hunt us some dinner. Take the dragon wi' ye, perhaps she'll show ye a thing or two." And with that Agron went back in to the cave. 

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"He's just like everyone else!" Vaedwyn muttered, stepping over a rotten tree stump as she walked through the wood. "He tells me i'm not a child, then treats me like one anyway!" She spoke with exasperation, looking to her dragon for support, but she simply walked alongside her and stared up at her silently. Vaedwyn sighed. She knew it wasn't her fault, but she wanted to speak to her dragon directly, she was tired of their indirect, broken messages to one another. She was desperate to make a connection, and she could feel that her dragon was too, but neither of them were there yet. They'd been walking for nearly an hour and seen little more than squirrels and small birds. If things went on like this, it looked like squirrel was going to be on the menu. Vaedwyn adjusted the quiver on her back and tightened the tension on the bowstring.

"It's rubbish." Vaedwyn explained, when her dragon looked at what she was doing, "Look at this, just look..." She held the bow in front of her dragon's face, "Humans don't understand archery at all." She said, scowling at the bow in her hands. They walked in silence for a few minutes until something made her flinch. Then it hit her again, and she realised what it was. It was beginning to rain. Within minutes the wood was hit with a light rain that although seemed inoffensive, had actually soaked her through to her skin. She shivered, feeling entirely unhappy as they trudged through the fallen leaves and debris which were quickly turning into a stodgy mud. 
"Do you have a name? Am I supposed to give you a name?" Vaedwyn asked suddenly, "I mean, what else am I supposed to call you..." She looked to her dragon for advice, but she only stared back at her quizzically, "Don't give me that look. I can't keep referring to you as 'dragon', y'know." She shook her head, looking up at the clouds with a frown. 

Up ahead, a twig snapped. Vaedwyn's dragon froze as still as a statue, and she knelt down beside her. She looked at her dragon's line of sight and followed it back until she saw it also. A deer moving through the wood maybe a hundred yards ahead. Slowly, quietly, Vaedwyn reached over her shoulder and pulled an arrow from the quiver, and nocked it carefully. She raised the bow, took aim and loosed the arrow. The projectile flew true towards its intended target, but something startled it and it bolted before the arrow could find it's mark. Vaedwyn was about to complain when she saw what had spooked the deer. An enormous brown bear chased after the deer but at the pivotal moment, the deer managed to zigzag and throw the bear off it's path. The deer pranced away into the wood, leaving the bear panting and chuffing.

Fear gripped her. She looked to her dragon who remained frozen, staring at the bear. Vaedwyn touched her on the back and silently tried to move backwards, her dragon slowly began stepping back but as they moved, something must have alerted the bear to their presence. Whether it was noise, or smell or perhaps the bear simply caught sight of them, she wasn't sure. Panic washed over her in great waves, and she felt her dragon trying to calm her, but it wasn't working. The bear turned, roared and charged. 
Vaedwyn fumbled for the arrows in her quiver, she pulled two out at the same time, and they both fell to the ground. She quickly grabbed one and tried nocking the arrow, but her hands were shaking. She looked up, the bear was a lot faster than she'd realised. It was too late. It was almost here. Vaedwyn screamed as she felt the bear's hot breath on her face and leapt back in surprise as her dragon collided with the bear at full force.

The bear was larger and stronger than her dragon, but it wasn't as fast, and she had to admit, her dragon's ferocity made the bear seem passive by comparison. The huge bundle of fur and scales rolled back and forth, as mud and rainwater sprayed everywhere. Vaedwyn nocked her arrow and took aim, but she couldn't loose the arrow. What if she hit her dragon?! She stood there frozen, screaming in her mind, wishing that Agron and Turiel were here, or anyone. She could feel the tears flowing down her cheeks and the knots in her stomach as she fought with the contrasting sensations of being rooted to the spot by fear, and yet desperately wanting to rush into the fray and save her dragon. She heard a terrible wail as the bear's enormous maw clamped down on her dragon's shoulder and Vaedwyn screamed and ran at them, dropping the bow in the process. She reached for her skinning knife but as she ran towards them, bellowing a battle cry, the bear changed priorities. It dropped her dragon to the ground and charged her, it's tongue lolling about as great globs of spittle trailed. Up close, she saw it's matted fur, wild yet focused eyes and the dozens of wounds it had suffered from her dragon.

Something was boiling up from deep inside her. As Vaedwyn charged the bear, she gripped her dagger tightly, she only had one shot. She couldn't get anywhere near the bear, it would tear her apart in the first swipe. She had once chance. One. She threw the dagger with all the force she could muster, with a single word resounding in her mind, over and over. Kill. As the dagger left her hand, she felt a chill run up her spine and suddenly all her energy was drained from her body. Her legs were weak, her knees shaking. She felt them buckle beneath her, and she was falling. The bear was charging her, the dagger was glowing white hot. And then she hit the ground, and her temple struck a stone. Darkness. 

 


 

"Stop..." Vaedwyn muttered. A long tongue lapped the side of her face a second time. "Stop it..." She muttered, pushing out with her hand and touching something rough. Like a lightning bolt, images flashed through her mind, reminding her of what had just happened. The bear. Vaedwyn's eyes shot open in surprise and she started to panic, looking around frantically. She was freezing cold, covered in mud and soaked to the bone. Her hair clung to her face, and her dragon licked her face again, cleaning it of the mud and blood that was caked to it. "Yeuch..." She groaned, but smiled. Then she saw the wound on her dragon. Most of it was superfluous, where the bear's teeth had scraped along the surface of her scales, but it's canines had punctured them. Thick, dark blood oozed from the wounds. "No no no..." Vaedwyn tried to pull herself to her feet and almost collapsed again. Why was she so tired? It felt like she'd been training with Agron for days, not hours. "I-I don't..." She gingerly pressed her hand against her dragon's wounds, "I don't know what to do..." She looked around desperately and that was when she saw it. The bear.

The bear was dead. It's enormous body lay still. But what killed it? At first it wasn't immediately obvious. It was covered in deep scratches and bite marks but nothing that would have stopped it. Then she realised. There was something wrong with the bear's right eye. It wasn't looking at anything. And it was the wrong colour. The orb in it's socket was not its eye at all. It was the pommel of her hunting knife. Vaedwyn gasped. Had she done that? The knife was buried so deep only the pommel remained visible. There was no way she was going to be able to pull that out, she thought. She shook her head in disbelief, but then the matter at hand refocused her. She tore off the ends of her sleeves and split the cloth into four small pieces then took the first, and slowly bundled it up and pushed it into her dragon's wound to staunch the bleeding.

Ouch! Be careful!
I'm sorry! Vaedwyn thought, then grabbed the second piece of cloth. She bundled it up, then froze. Her eyebrows raised as it dawned on her that she had just heard her dragon. Slowly, Vaedwyn followed the long line of her dragon's neck until she was looking up at her head and into her large amber eyes. I can hear you...
A
pparently, she replied. 
I can hear you! Vaedwyn laughed, more tears streaming down her face. She leapt forwards and hugged her dragon tightly. 
Oof! She recoiled in discomfort, Be careful... She chided delicately, but lowered her head to press against Vaedwyn's cheek.
A-are you okay? She asked, across their link.
It hurts, actually. Her dragon replied, matter-of-factly. There was a level of mirth in her voice she hadn't expected, and a nobility in her tone. Vaedwyn found herself smiling like an idiot and burst out laughing, hugging her dragon once again. This time, a little more carefully.

You asked me my name? Her dragon reminded her.
Yes... Vaedwyn nodded.
The black-scaled dragon rose to her full height, spreading out her wings, before resettling them. I am Auriel.
I'm so happy to hear you at last
, Vaedwyn was smiling from ear-to-ear as she felt warm feelings of love blanket her. But, how did... She looked at the bear.
That is a question I think best left to Agron. We set out to find food, and that is what we have done.
"I hope he likes bear..." Vaedwyn muttered aloud, grinning.

 


 

There seemed no signs of the rain coming to a stop any time soon, but that didn't bother her. Vaedwyn walked up to the mouth of the cave and nodded to Agron, who was stood just inside. She was covered in mud, blood and soaked through. Missing her bow, hunting knife, her sleeves were torn and she looked like she'd been through hell, but a grin was plastered on her face. "Hey..." She said, giving him a nod.
"Crivvens, lass!" Agron exclaimed as he got a look at her. "I said tae go catch dinner, no go for a swim in the mud! Look at the state o' ye!"
"What are you complaining for? Aren't you hungry?" She asked with a grin, then there was a triumphant trumpet from the skies above and a howling whistle as something descended from the clouds at speed. Vaedwyn quickly stepped out of the rain, and a couple of seconds later an enormous body crashed into the ground and a moment later Vaedwyn's dragon landed beside it. The body belonged to an enormous brown bear. It was covered in wounds and the pommel of a hunting knife was stuck deep in the socket of it's right eye. 

"My my..." Agron said with a bewildered expression. He stood over the corpse of the bear and examined it for a moment. "You know usually we hunt dear and rabbits, lass. But... I'll gie ye points for effort." Agron couldn't help but crack a smile. "So, dare I ask what happened?"
"I... i'm not sure." Vaedwyn confessed, "We found a deer, and then this bear attacked us, Auriel fought it but then it charged me and I don't really understand what happened, somehow I did this..." She knelt over the bear and pointed at the pommel stuck in it's eye socket. "I can't even get it out. I've tried. Anyway... I passed out, and when I came to, well..."
"I see..." Agron replied, stroking the braid of his beard, he seemed deep in thought. Eventually he clapped his hands together and rubbed them. "Well, let's get this big bastard skinned and gutted, and I'll tell ye all about it." He walked up to the bear and gripped the hunting knife in it's eye socket. He put his boot on the bear, and with a single, firm pull the knife finally came away. He moved around the side of the bear, and as he passed Auriel, he bowed to her. "Auriel, nice tae finally meet yer acquaintance."
Auriel bowed her head slightly and asked Vaedwyn to speak for her, "And you, Rider." 

"Well done." Agron said with a nod. He got to work on skinning the bear with Vaedwyn's help. During the process he decided to teach her some more about being a Rider. "What happened wi' ye, well, apparently it used tae happen sometimes with elven riders. Y'see it's yer common tongue, so it's all the more easy for ye to do it by accident."
"Do what by accident?" Vaedwyn asked, frowning.
"Magic, lass." Agron said, and he was beaming as he spoke, clearly a little proud of her. "The Elvish tongue, as ye might know, is essentially the root language of Suros. Yer entire history is steeped in the art o' magic. What I was taught, and what I'm quite inclined tae believe is the truth, is that the Elven language uses the 'true' names for things. There's magic in these true names, ye know the name, ye have power over the thing, see?"

"That's what I was taught, but..." Vaedwyn shook her head, that wasn't possible. She'd never used magic before. 
You're a Rider, Vaedwyn. Vaedwyn turned to look to her dragon. There are a great many things no longer out of your reach.
"It's been a long day..." She muttered, running her hands down her face.
"Aye, it has." Agron agreed. "But it'll feel better when ye get some food in yer belly. But Vaedwyn, we need to have a chat about this. Yer gonnae have tae be more careful usin' yer common tongue from now on. Magic is very dangerous, and if ye use magic beyond yer own abilities, well, ye could kill yerself, lass. Worse yet, ye could accidentally hurt someone ye didn't intend tae."
"Is that why I passed out?" Vaedwyn asked.
"Aye, most likely." Agron nodded. "Magic takes a bit out of ye each time ye use it. It takes time for that strength tae come back, and it's up tae you to realise what yer limits are. I can teach ye the rules, and ye ken the words yerself, but only ye can know yer limits."
You'll have to learn where your limits lie, Auriel added.
"I was only thinking one word though?" Vaedwyn looked from Auriel to Agron, "All I could think when the bear attacked me was 'Kill'."

"Mm..." Agron nodded. "A dangerous habit, and one that's hard tae kick. When ye use magic, ye cannae deal in absolutes, lass. Ye've nae idea how it could backfire on ye. Take the word 'kill' for example. Did ye stipulate how? Did ye say who by? Or when, even? A direct command like that, one so certain and final, it's hard tae predict how it will work."
"I'm going to have to be a lot more careful from now on." Vaedwyn sighed, looking down at the bear carcass.
Yes, Auriel added, brushing her cheek against Vaedwyn's. We both will.
"Well ye know now, and that's what matters." Agron said. "Ye know, yer learnin' dead quick. Took me 6 months tae learn how tae use magic. Didnae speak tae Turiel for a full fortnight, either. Ye've got a long way tae go... but ye'll get there, lass."
And still, i'm afraid it won't be fast enough, Vaedwyn thought.
Auriel craned her neck down and picked up a large chunk of bear meat and swallowed it before walking deeper into the cave to find a place to rest. Some things we can prevent, Vaedwyn. Others we cannot, it is not good to dwell on such things. Get some rest while you can.

 


 

The forest was on fire. Flames surrounded the village. There was nowhere to run. Mogwé stared in astonishment as the horror unfolded in front of her. Villagers ran to and fro, trying to stop the spread of the fire. Children were crying in the street. Animals scattering into the darkness of the forest. The full moon cast it's light down upon the village until a great shadow eclipsed it. It grew, and grew until the shadow covered the village. Mogwé looked up, gripping her staff. Her knuckles were white under tension. Again, the horn of their village sounded. But she knew already, it was too late. The great red dragon crashed into the centre of the town, snapping at the nearest villager and missing them by inches, but as a woman darted around to it's side it whipped it's head around and managed to grab her by the leg. Its fangs sunk into her leg and she screeched at the top of her lungs in horrifying pain and then fell silent as the dragon bit down on her head. It grabbed her by the torso, and swallowed the body whole. 

The dragon tucked its wings into its back and the rider sat upon the saddle dismounted. He was dressed in black armour with the red sigil of the King emblazoned on his chest. A sword, wreathed in flame. The rider rubbed his hands together, warming them after the long, cold flight. He stretched and looked around, his face obscured by his helmet, a great helm that matched his armour. On his hip was a single sword. He scanned the village, then his eyes fell upon Mogwé.
"She-Elf!" He called to her, but did not approach. He held out his hand for her to come to him instead. He did not chase people, that was unnecessary. Mogwé considered running for a moment, every instinct told her to run. Her legs wanted to carry her in the opposite direction, even as she approached the man. But she knew that running was pointless. When she was just a couple of feet from the rider he looked her up and down. "You are an Elder, are you not?" He asked, nodding at her staff.

"I am." Mogwé replied, speaking through teeth clenched so firmly together she thought they might shatter.
"My name is Kardran. I am an emissary for the King." Kardran bowed his head ever so slightly.
"It would seem so." Mogwé replied insolently, taking her chances. 
Kardran remained silent and still. His lack of anger or response chilled her and suddenly she realised that it was not the rampaging dragon, attacking and eating people behind Kardran, that the villagers should be afraid of, but Kardran himself. The rider let the silence go on for a few minutes, meanwhile the roar of his dragon mutilating her villagers went on unchallenged. Eventually, he cleared his throat, then grabbed his helmet and pulled it off. Kardran was a man that appeared to be in his forties. He had short scruffy black hair, a short black beard and a scar running horizontally through his nose and across his cheeks. He might have been handsome once upon a time, but now his face was scarred, and his eyes were sunken and dark.
"Tell me, Elder," Kardran sniffed as he put his helmet to his waist and then indicated their surroundings, "Do you enjoy this, hm?" 

"What do you think!?" Mogwé spat, trying to keep her tears in check.
"I think you must enjoy it, just a little, hm? Else, when I arrived, on a mission for which the objective must surely be clear, you would have told me immediately and thus saved your village this discomfort." Kardran looked around and noticed a child crying in the street. "Boy!" He called, the child did not answer, "Boy!!" He yelled, and the boy looked up. "Come here, boy." He commanded, and the child did so.
"Don't." Mogwé growled, her hands shaking. "I--" 
"I know." Kardran nodded, as he took the child's shoulder and then lifted the boy up so they were face-to-face, "But you see, what I want is irrelevant, Elder. This must be done, so I offer you a choice, hm? You can tell me what I want to know now, or I can find out eventually," He looked back over his shoulder, watching as his dragon collided with the nearest tree-house, splintering it to pieces and killing everyone inside. "After Uruk has vented his frustrations."
"I will never tell you any--"
"LIAR!!" Kardran screamed at the top of his lungs, shaking with rage. He continued shaking, his breaths shallow. Eventually he calmed down enough that he took a deep breath and repeated it, "Liar." He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and then placed his helmet back upon his head. "You will tell me, or they will die, hm?" He replied, his voice tinny within his helmet. Then he put the child back down, stroked the boy's cheek and promptly snapped his neck.
"NNNNOOOOOOOooooo!!!" Mogwé wailed, abandoning her staff and falling to her knees to catch the lifeless body of the child.

"It was a rider." 

Kardran turned his attention from Mogwé, looking to the girl with the voice so quiet he almost hadn't heard her speak. He walked up to her, and she recoiled. "It's alright girl, it's alright. I won't hurt you." Kardran put a hand on her shoulder comfortingly, and nodded. "Tell me, and this can all be over."
"Tell him nothing, Torenth!" Mogwé wailed, amidst her cries of anguish, "NOTHING!!" She screamed.
"You can end this, Torenth. You know you can." Kardran reassured her, "I will take my dragon, hm? I will take him, and leave this place. All you need to do is tell me where they are. Where did they go? What direction? North, hm? Yes? North? South, perhaps? West, East. Spit it out, girl, hm?" Torenth hesitated, but slowly she leant in. Kardran removed his helmet and inclined his head as she whispered into his ear. "Mm, mm." He nodded, putting his helmet back on. "Thank you, Torenth. Thank you, hm?" She nodded quietly, then Kardran looked to his dragon, Uruk. There was a period of long silence. An exchange.

Kardran turned back to face Mogwé, still knelt upon the ground, cradling the dead child in her arms. Tears streaming down her face in abject horror of the man stood in front of her. "You think me evil, hm? Elder? Do you?" Kardran asked, frowning. "You think me evil - for this?" He waved at the chaos, death and destruction surrounding them. "No." He shook his head, "I am the King's rage, sheathed. You will never have the honour of knowing it drawn." Then Kardran grabbed the hilt of his blade, and as Torenth loosed an ear-splitting scream, he drew the blade. The metal a bright crimson, just as the scales of his dragon. He whirled the sword around, pressed the tip to Mogwé's sternum, and drove the blade into her body. She gasped, as though stung. Then her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and Kardran yanked his blade free, wiped it on her dress, and sheathed it. Torenth was still screaming as he replaced his helm and grabbed her by the wrist and started pulling her back to Uruk. "Be you all blessed, for your ignorance of the King." He muttered.
Kardran reached out with his mind, Uruk? He asked.
What answered was an unintelligible white noise. A screaming roar of pain and hatred and anguish, washing over Kardran in unrelenting waves.
Burn it. Burn it all! Kardran quickly withdrew from his link to Uruk, unable to stand it for a second longer. He threw Torenth onto Uruk's saddle, climbing on himself. Uruk took an unfathomably deep breath and when he opened his mouth again, he retched liquid flame across the entire village. Killing hundreds in seconds, leaving none alive. Uruk bellowed before lifting into the air with a single beat from his wings, and disappeared into the inky blackness of the sky.

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Agron had awoken shortly before dawn. He had left Vaedwyn to sleep for a little longer in the cave, curled up next to Auriel. She needed the rest more than he did, and besides, he couldn't rest well knowing Turiel was still out there. He was too far away for Agron to reach him, to check if he was okay, and the thought unsettled him. So he got his things together and left the cave. He strolled down to the river just as the day's first light began to rise over the valley. By the river he stripped out of his armor and clothing, and stepped into the river, cleaning himself. The cold water was bracing, but refreshing all the same. Afterwards he dressed and gathered his things. On his way back to the cave he walked through the trees, gathering plants and herbs from the ground. He found some Amaranth, and some Burdock, both plants you could eat. He also managed to find some blackberries, and when he was done he placed all he had found in a cloth and wrapped them up, before heading back to the cave. 

He had wrapped the leftover bear meat in wraps of cloth the night before. He took a couple of the slabs and chopped them up. Then he made a small fire and filled a pot with water from the river. After the water had boiled enough, he threw in the Amaranth, and the Burdock, both quite bitter when eaten raw, but much tastier after being boiled. Once that was done he emptied the pot and began to fry off the chunks of meat. The sizzling of the pan and the smell of cooked meat quickly roused his companions from their sleep. "Mornin'!" Agron said quite loudly, intending to wake them further. He sprinkled some salt on to the steak while it cooked, and retrieved a small pestle and mortar, and placed the blueberries inside, grinding them up in to a paste. 
Vaedwyn began to yawn as she awoke, only to be drowned out by Auriel's long, loud yawn. "Morning..." Vaedwyn pulled herself up, having been resting against Auriel's torso. "Smells good." She muttered, wiping the sleep from her eyes.

"Aye, well so it should. Breakfast is the most important meal o' the day, ken." Agron said with a smile. "And dinnae fret, Auriel, there's plenty left for ye." He pointed over to the cloth-wrapped slabs of meat that were sitting near the wall of the cave. "Dig in, we're headin' for town today, so there's nae point rationin' it." He stirred the pot as he spoke, and when the meat was thoroughly cooked, he dropped it in to two bowls, along with the burdock and amaranth. Then he took the blueberry paste and drizzled it over the top of each. He held a bowl out for Vaedwyn to take. "Come on, eat up and go clean yersel' up by the river. I want tae get going as soon as yer done."

Vaedwyn ate in silence. Hungrily consuming her breakfast. As she ate, she glanced at Agron while he was busy packing up, then returned to her food.
He's nothing like I pictured a rider...
And how did you picture a rider? Auriel asked, finishing the last slab of meat with a satisfying crunch.
I don't know... Vaedwyn replied, thinking about it. All the stories I heard about riders growing up were about great battles, heroic deeds.
You shouldn't confuse a story with the reality. They can be both, or neither. Even heroes wake up, cook their breakfast and clean their pots and pans. The good ones, anyway.
I guess you're right. Vaedwyn nodded, finishing the last of her breakfast. She thanked Agron for the meal and walked down to the river, followed closely by Auriel. The water was cold, much colder than she'd like, but she washed her clothes quickly and as Auriel suggested, placed them on her torso where they quickly dried while she washed herself. Once she was dressed, she picked at her torn sleeves.
Thank you, for that, by the way. Auriel nodded at the bite wound on her shoulder, which was healing nicely. She sunk her face into the river and took long, draining gulps as Vaedwyn sighed.
Doesn't do much for my image though, does it? She smirked, picking at her sleeves again. Come on, Agron's waiting for us. And they walked briskly back to camp.

When they returned Agron was outside packing their supplies on to the horses. "There ye are." He said as they approached. "I've got somethin' for ye." He added. He reached over to a the ground next to him and picked up a few things. First he handed Vaedwyn the sword she had been using for training, complete with a sheathe and belt for her to wear. "Use it keep yerself safe, and Auriel tae." he said as he handed it to her. "Also there's this." He said, and he handed her a length of folded, black cloth with a thick fur-lined inside, and on top was a silver pin shaped like an intricate Nordic knot. "Might be a bit big on ye, but it'll keep ye warm. And we cannae have ye walkin' about lookin' like a beggar now, can we?"
"Oh, thank you..." Vaedwyn smiled, taking the cloak. She unfurled it's length and swung it around her back, fastening it with the pin. Then she felt the inside and lifted the large hood. It was a little large, but warm and light. 
Very fetching. Auriel added, a little amused.
Vaedwyn shot her a look then turned to Agron, "Why are we going to town?"

"Babbleridge is a wee town not far from here." Agron explained. "Friendly wee place. A lot o' travellers pass through there, they get all sorts, so most folks winnae look twice at an Elf and a Nord. We can rest there, get some decent supplies and hopefully lay low." He smiled weakly as he thought of the other reason they had to go there. "Also, its where Turiel is gonnae meet us. He's...taking care of a few things. Makin' sure we stay safe."
"But Auriel can't come into the village?" Vaedwyn asked, frowning.
I'll fly high enough that i'll appear as a bird of prey, Auriel replied.
Vaedwyn nodded, "Where do we go from there? I don't understand what i'm supposed to be doing. I know we have to oppose the King, and I have to train, but how do we fight the King?"

"Och, lass." Agron shook his head. "That's the end goal. We're a long way from that. Right now we need to keep movin' and keep trainin' ye. Right now ye need to focus on that. Speaking of..." He turned around and got on the back of his horse. "Yer takin' the charge today. There are times much like this where a rider and dragon must travel apart. But even then we still work as a team. Suros is massive, and navigatin' the land can be a slow process, and we've no got time tae spare. But it's much easier tae see the lay of the land when ye've got a birds eye view, or, dragon's eye in this case." He gestured for Vaedwyn to climb on her horse. "Turiel's no here tae keep us right, and I cannae train ye wi' a sword when we're ridin', so since ye seem tae be bonding so well wi' Auriel, both of ye are gonnae work together to take us tae Babbleridge. Sound good?"

"Alright. We can do that, right?" Vaedwyn nodded to Auriel who lowered her head slightly to acknowledge Agron. "Alright!" She pulled herself onto her horse and took off, then Auriel bounded forwards and quickly leapt into the air, bursting into the sky. She disappeared into the clouds in seconds. Agron took off after Vaedwyn and quickly caught up, riding alongside her. 
"This should be interestin' tae see." Agron said. "Yer connection wi' Auriel only goes so far. If she moves out o' range ye'll no be able to hear her. Besides, speaking with her is just the first step. When ye start really bonding, ye'll be able to feel each other's emotions, yer senses, including sight. Auriel might be able to tell ye where tae go, but can she show ye?"
Vaedwyn laughed and repeated Auriel's reply, "I think we'll take that one step at a time, shall we?"

"I like yer confidence, lass." Agron said with a grin. "So how about another challenge. Y'see, I already ken the way there. Let's see if ye can work together and beat me there. If ye win, then I'll buy ye somethin' nice when we get tae Babbleridge. Whatever ye like."
"You'll regret that!" Vaedwyn laughed and then leant down and whispered something to her horse as it galloped along, and suddenly the creature burst forwards, working twice as hard. It's hooves beat across the ground, carrying her ahead of Agron in a matter of seconds, "Keep up, old man!" She cheered and felt the laughter coming from Auriel high above the clouds.
"That's the spirit lass!" Agron cheered after her, laughing heartily. He dug in his heels and urged his horse to go faster. Then as he got a little closer to Vaedwyn, he held out his hand and whispered something delicately. The scar on his neck flashed white hot for a moment, and then without warning, the trees up ahead started growing at incredible speed, their branches twisting and coiling around each other, diving to the ground and creating a thick mesh barrier in front of Vaedwyn. As her horse suddenly stalled to turn Agron pulled away from her and sped off in front. "See ye at the finish line, lass!" He called back to her, roaring with laughter. 

Vaedwyn loosed a curse in Elvish and spurred her horse onwards, trying to make up for lost ground, but Agron had a clear lead now. She wanted to call Auriel down to spook his horse, but there were two issues with that. First it was just as likely to spook her own, and second, if they were anywhere near the village it would be too dangerous for Auriel to descend. Then it occurred to her. If Agron wasn't above using magic, why not match tactics? She mimicked him, raising her hand to aim at Agron's back and thought carefully. She had to command something, but do so without requesting a certainty. She also had no idea how much energy using the magic would take from her. It could leave her weakened to a dangerous point. Reluctantly, she closed her fist and decided against it. She'd only used magic once before, and it had almost killed her. She wasn't willing to try again quite so soon. Instead, she urged her horse to close the gap between them, whispering words of encouragement in Elvish. As Vaedwyn gained on him, Agron gave a delighted chuckle. They had a fair few hours of their journey ahead. This was going to be interesting. 

 


Turiel flew low over the trees of the Elven forest. He knew he was close now, all he had to do was follow the smell of ash, and death. Soon he found himself flying into a black fog of smoke and ash, and snarled angrily as he navigated through it, descending lower until he emerged on the blackened, scorched earth of the courtyard he had stood not days before. Despite it being dawn, the skies were blackened with smoke, leaving the Elven village plunged in darkness. Embers crackled all around him as he paced the courtyard, his long neck weaving from side to side, searching and sniffing at the air. Most of the village had already burned to a blackened pile of ash, he had missed the perpetrator by a few hours at least. He snarled viciously, cursing what he felt was a blatant misuse of a dragon's fire. 

Wretched, he thought as he paced the eerily quiet village. Mad King...just what hell have you wrought on my brethren? Turiel stopped in his tracks, smelling at the air, before turning and stopping by a pile of charred remains. The first figure was difficult to make out, the body was so mangled and burnt. He brought his head down and sniffed at the remains, inspecting them. Then he brought back his head in horror, as he realised it was not one body, but two. A woman's charred body, cradled protectively over that of a small child. He let out a long, rattling snarl of digust, and turned to the next corpse. Another female, her body blackened, but he could see that she had been wounded previously from where she clutched her own body. His slit-like pupils narrowed as he realized who she was. No...the Elder, he thought. The mighty dragon pressed his muzzle up against Mogwé's corpse, and he could feel the heat permeating out of her charred remains, but it did not burn him. As his scales touched her, however, he felt the tiniest whispers of her presence that lied within. 

She was dead, that much was certain. What he felt emanating from her was something beyond death, something that he, even with all of his years, could not truly explain. He felt her pain, and the terrible burden put upon her as the protector of the village. He sensed her sorrow, her guilt of failing at her duties. But beneath that he also felt her pride, and passion, and her fierce loyalty, and her warmth. He had felt the same in Vaedwyn, the qualities which the Dragons often referred to simply as 'fire'. Something welled up inside him, and threatened to surge outwards. The shear evil of this deed was weighing on him, and the sickening infection of madness and chaos hammered at the walls of his mind, urging him to give in. However, he would not, ever, give in to it. A debt is owed, he thought, Oaths bound and strengthened through the ages, passed on from mother to child. Eladrin...our first allies, our awakeners, even now you risk all to defend us. I vow it, I will not let this debt go unpaid. I will take your vengeance, and I will add it to my own. They will know my fire!

Suddenly Turiel's head shot up to the sky as he leaned back, his wings stretching out to their full span, and he let out an almighty, furious roar that shook the crumbling wreckage of the village, and echoed through the entire forest. Flame shot from his open mouth, burning hot and bright like a beacon, cutting through the black smoke, menacing it until finally it breached the dark clouds, and light pierced through on the the ground of the courtyard. When he stopped, Turiel let out an angry snort and plumes of smoke steamed from his nostrils. Then he turned and leapt, and went skyward once more, beating his wings as quickly as he could, he soared across the forest hellbent on finding the ones who had done this, he had to, he could not let them find Agron and Vaedwyn. He would stop them, no matter the cost. 

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Once again, Vaedwyn was forced to change direction as she realised she'd taken the wrong route. At this rate, Agron would be in town while she was lost in the middle of nowhere. She reigned in her horse and looked around, she'd lost sight of Agron, and she was having trouble holding the link strong between her and Auriel.
Where is he?! She asked.
He's a few minutes ahead of you, he's following the road! Auriel replied, though she sounded distant. Vaedwyn cursed and set off once more, encouraging her horse into a gallop. She wasn't sure she'd ever catch up to Agron now. They'd been riding for hours and he had been consistently ahead of her. 
There has to be a way to get to Babbleridge faster! Vaedwyn called back to her partner. She rode in silence for a few minutes while Auriel scanned from above. It looked as though Agron had won, until suddenly Vaedwyn was forced to bring her horse to an immediate stop. An image flashed before her eyes.
What was that...? Vaedwyn asked, trying to make sense of the image, even as it faded.
Turn right, off the road, you can cut through and make it to town before Agron! Auriel replied, and hearing that, Vaedwyn didn't hesitate. She immediately turned her horse from the path and realised then just how muddy it was. But she was still making good ground, and if Auriel was right, then in a few minutes she would be ahead of Agron, and they'd only be minutes from the town after that.

A few nail-biting minutes later, and she burst out of the brush and saw Babbleridge up ahead. Vaedwyn couldn't help herself, she let out a cheer as she came to the last stretch, she tried to tell Auriel, but she was too far away. Likely because of their proximity to the town. She brought her horse to a stop and let out the breath she'd been holding then waited. Vaedwyn dismounted and looked back down the road, but there was no sign of Agron. Then she heard footsteps behind her, and before she as much as turned, she knew it was him.
"You're so fast..." Vaedwyn held onto her horse for support.
"Well I did know the way." Agron said with a smirk, patting Vaedwyn on the shoulder a little too roughly. "But ye'd have still beaten me if ye'd worked together."
"We were." Vaedwyn replied, a little annoyed. She wasn't sure what went wrong, whether Auriel had explained it poorly, or more likely, she'd turned off the road too early or too late. It didn't matter now. "What are we doing here, anyway?" Vaedwyn looked at the town ahead of her. It didn't look like much, even by her village's standards.

"I told ye already." Agron said, folding his arms. "We're stoppin' here tae resupply, rest up and wait for Turiel." He turned back to Babbleridge. The small town was a human settlement. The buildings were comprised of wood, with thatched roofs, and no real roads to speak of. The ground was a dark, sloppy mud, constantly trodden over by the people of the town, stopping any grass from growing. In the distance there were a few small farms, but the town mostly dealt in trade from passing merchants, and so the market square was the main focus. "Folks from all o'er the place pass through here. It might not look like much, but ye can learn a lot from such places. Elven folks have their own way o' doin' things, but ye never know, maybe ye'll learn to appreciate different people, and different customs."
"If you say so..." Vaedwyn muttered, looking around, "How do people feel about the riders? I know what its like in my village, and I think for a lot of Elves, they value what the riders were, but now...? I don't know. I heard stories growing up, but the Elders never spoke of them much. Maybe they were trying to bury painful memories."

"Hmm...well, tae most folks the riders are just legends." Agron explained. "Yer people make a point of rememberin' history, but most folks are too busy just tryin' tae survive tae bother pickin' up a book. That's just the way things are, and probably for the best, eh?"
"Why do you say that?" Vaedwyn asked, "I know the riders aren't popular with everyone, but... they brought peace and prosperity to Suros, didn't they?"
"Aye, once upon a time." Agron nodded. "But that was a millenia ago. Bear in mind, with the exception o' the Elven, most folks feel pretty lucky tae reach 80 years old, but in the King's wake times have become tougher. Disease an' famine are rife. If a farmer has a bad winter, he might no see it through to the next year. An' poor crops effect the merchants tae, and with taxes bein' so high it's difficult for people tae save their coin. People are too focused on keepin' themselves alive tae worry about old heroes. Especially ones that are'nae here tae help them any more."

"But we're here now, right? We both have dragons, can't we just... announce ourselves? Wouldn't that give people hope?" Vaedwyn looked out across the village, it seemed such a small, simple place. Yet the people seemed happy, at least on the surface. It reminded her of her home.
"Maybe." Agron replied. "Or...we could terrify 'em. People have'nae seen dragons in years, lass. Only the King and his Lieutenants are known tae ride them, an' people fear them. Besides, the King has an army at his disposal, including a bunch o' spies and informants. If we reveal ourselves like that, King Aemon would move in and slaughter us, and then what good would that hope be, eh?"
"I guess I was quick to forget how everyone reacted at my village when they saw Turiel..." Vaedwyn chewed her lip in thought.
"It's a smart reaction." Agron said. "Fear can save yer life. For all yer village knew, I could have been one of the King's Lieutenants. I'd rather they feared me than welcomed me, in that regard."
"I never looked at it that way," Vaedwyn sighed, "I've a lot to learn." She muttered irritably. "The world I knew is a lot smaller than I realised."

"Aye, true." Agron nodded. "But dinnae be so hard on yersel', I wisnae much different when I was yer age. Probably worse, really." Agron took the reigns of Vaedwyn's horse and began to lead it into the town. "Come on, we'll get yer horse in the stable then head for the inn. We'll have a bit o' lunch an' then we can have a wander. Ye need some new clothes."
"Alright." As they walked, a thought occurred to Vaedwyn as she mulled over Agron's comment about being worse than she was at that age, "Agron, do people change a lot when they become riders?" 
Agron didn't answer immediately. He thought about the question and sucked in his breath, humming as he thought. Eventually he spoke, and his voice was careful, and a little guarded. "People change a lot throughout their lives, even the ones that only live half a century. Bein' a rider means ye see a lot more of the world, both the good and the bad, ken? How that affects ye depends on who ye are as a person. Sometimes it changes ye for the worse, sometimes for the better. But change ye will, in one way or another."
"Alright..." That was probably the best answer she was going to get out of him, for now. Vaedwyn turned her attention to the matter at hand. With their horses stabled, it was time for food, and she was starving. Who knew saving the world would work up such an appetite?

When they arrived at the inn it was, surprisingly to Agron, rather empty. A couple of people were sitting at tables alone, while a pot-bellied gentleman with a balding head and a bushy, brown mustache was cleaning the tables. "Greetin's." Agron said as they entered. and he nodded at the balding man. "Are ye the owner?"
"I am that." The man replied, not looking up or continuing what he was doing. "What can I do for you?"
"A couple o' hot meals, and a couple o' rooms, if that's awright?" Agron asked. 
"Mm, really?" The owner said, and he looked up at them. "Sorry, haven't had a lot of travellers lately. Two rooms isn't a problem, and my wife is just making some stew and potatoes if you're willing to wait. If not I think we have some rolls left, and some Ardwin cheddar."
"Cannae say naw tae stew an' tatties." Agron said with a grin. He reached for his belt and retrieved a hefty pouch of coins. He placed it on the table and opened it, retrieving some of the gold inside and handing it to the owner. "That enough?" He asked
"Uh...yes." The owner said with a soft smile. "Take a seat, I'll fetch you something to drink. We've got wine or...?"
"Could murder a pint if ye've got yin." Agron said.
"Just the local piss water, it's not very good." The owner admitted. 
"That'll dae." Agron replied. 
"And...for the young miss?" The owner asked, turning to look at Vaedwyn.

Vaedwyn hesitated, having been unable to follow half of the conversation, "I... I would also kill a pint." 
"Mhm..." The owner nodded slowly, frowning at her, then walked off to see to their menu. 
As she sat, Vaedwyn looked around the inn, it was small and grotty but there wasn't another option on the table, "Not all humans speak like you, do they, Agron?"
"Heh. barely any." Agron replied. "For starters, I'm no human, lass. I'm a Nord. We're similar, I'll grant ye, but Nords are a bit taller, a bit hardier. We share a common ancestry, though. But I'm from the North of Suros, a land called Skovaer."
"Oh..." Vaedwyn nodded at his sword, "So we must stand out then? An Elf and a Nord, carrying weapons..."
"Weapons are fairly commonplace among travellers, the roads are dangerous after all." Agron said. "No that ye'll see many like mine, I suppose." Agron patted his sword as he spoke. "A Claymore's typically a Nord's weapon, a bit too big for anyone else. And this one is a bit special, but I'll tell ye more about that another time." The owner returned with their drinks, and as he laid them down Agron took his own, and then quickly took Vaedwyn's and drained half of the contents before handing it back to her. "A half pint will dae you, lass." He said with a smirk. "I've seen an Elf shoot a man off he's horse fae a quarter mile away, in that sense yer just superior. But when it comes tae the drink...well, ye've nae stomach for it."

"I'll thank you not to underestimate me," Vaedwyn snatched the half-drunk pint off the table and took a swig, then shot a 'See?' look at Agron, before looking back into her cup, "What's in this?" She asked, licking her lips and taking another swig, "Tastes like bitter berries..." She muttered, taking another long draw. By the time she'd reached the bottom of her cup, she was holding her head upright with her arm, elbow to table. Staring lazily into the bottom of her cup, while pushing lumps of stew around in the bowl. She would pause to tear a piece of bread off and dunk it in her soup, but each time she left it too long and it fell apart in her hands and incorporated into the stew. "I am jusht as good ash anyone they tell you..." She muttered, eating a mouthful of stew. Just then, she heard a distant voice, calling out to her.
--aren't you listening to me?! Auriel yelled, and Vaedwyn jumped in her skin, sitting bolt upright.
I'm drinking berries with Agron, Vaedwyn replied, yawning. 
You're drunk! Auriel snapped in disbelief, I can't believe that...
You're really great... y'know? Vaedwyn said quietly. Auriel failed to suppress a little chuckle. 

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With Vaedwyn more than a little inebriated, Agron decided to leave her to recover in her own time and decided to spend the rest of the day taking a tour of Babbleridge. The town, in some ways, looked much the same as he had remembered. The buildings were the same, if a little more run down, and the way of life seemed the same, if a little harder going. However he had remembered the town as being quite busy, always with new faces passing through. Yet now, so it seemed, travelers turned up less and less. This was troublesome, as travelling merchants were important to the town's economy. The farmers would trade their stock for gold and useful supplies. Yet, by the looks of things, this was not happening nearly as often. He stopped in the market to speak with one of the venders who was tending to a small stall that with 5 skinned pheasants hanging from it's roof. 
"A crown each, if you're interested." The vendor said, turning around to face Agron. As he turned the skinny gentleman craned his neck up to meet Agron's gaze. "My...you're a big fella, aren't you?"
"So they tell me." Agron replied. "A crown each for these?" He said, pointing at the birds. "Not that it's any of my business but aren't ye sellin' yerself a bit short wi' that price? Pheasant goes for 3 crowns up in Amerus."

"Trust me I'd sell them for more if anyone would buy them." The vendor replied. 
"That bad, eh?" Agron asked. "What happened tae this place? I mind it bein' quite busy when I was last here. Must have been...only a decade or so ago."
"Mm, yes things were better then." The vendor replied with a nod. "We had a long winter a few years passed. Bad harvest meant we weren't able to keep up with the demand. The merchants were pretty understanding but that didn't help that we couldn't satisfy their demand. Made their trips a lot tougher, a few folk died. The next year round word had spread, people began to take other routes that were considered safer. Things might have picked up but to make matters worse the bridge to Angar broke. Not many travellers are willing to make the journey through the valley, and the Elves are not fond of outsiders traversing their forest."
"Ah, that's a real shame." Agron said with a sigh. "Well I hope things will pick up, eh. I'll take all of yoer birds." He said, and he retrieved 15 crowns from his pouch and placed them on the stand. 

"Ah, that's very generous." The man said. "But I won't take charity."
"It's no charity, it's a fair price." Agron replied. "Tell ye what, have another 3 ready for me tomorrow, and there's another 6 crowns in it for you as well. Sound fair?"
"I...thank you." The vendor nodded. He retrieved two of the birds and handed them to Agron. "Her you go. Thanks, once again."
"Take care." Agron said with a nod, then he left the stall and made his way to another. After that he made his way to another, and another, and then to the butcher's, and then he paid a visit to the farm.

"What's this for?" The innkeeper asked as Agron walked in with his arms full of produce. He placed them on the table by the door and turned to the innkeeper. 
"Well, I had a wee thought." Agron said. "There's more of this outside. If yer wife is up for it, I thought you could cook all this up tonight, how's that sound?"
"But...what for?" The innkeeper frowned. "There's barely a soul in this place."
"Dinnae you worry about that." Agron replied. "Just make sure there's a mighty fine feast waiting for when I return." The innkeeper scratched his head and let out a resigned sigh. 
"Well, if you're sure. Don't see the harm since you paid for it." He said, and he started collecting the food and taking it through to the kitchen. Meanwhile Agron retreated up the stairs and went to Vaedwyn's room, and found her laying on the bed. 

"Sobered up yet?" He asked with a grin. "I've got work for ye."
"The room is spinning." Vaedwyn growled, her forearm over her eyes, "I can't move, or I think i'll be sick. Why do humans drink this?"
"Because when yer no a wee lightweight, it gives ye a nice buzz. Warm's yer heart, let's ye forget yer worries, an' it takes the pain away." Agron said. "But I'm afraid ye've had enough time for rest, lass. Time for ye to do some good, so up ye get."
Slowly, Vaedwyn slid herself to the end of the bed, and dripped off the end of it and pulled herself up to standing - just barely. Taking a deep breath, she shook her head, trying to clear the fog in her mind, which felt like it helped a little. "You're a liar, and i'll never drink that again." She muttered, "What am I doing?" Vaedwyn asked, looking up at him through squinted eyes.

"Yer goin' tae cheer a few folk up, that's what." Agron said. He urged Vaedwyn to follow and he led her down the stairs and out of the inn. They walked through the streets of Babbleridge and Agron began to explain. "Riders were the guardians o' Suros, their responsibility was to bring balance and order tae the world. When those maddened by power ever decided tae rise up, the riders would be there to stand up for the common man. That time will come once again, lass, ye can be sure o' that. For now, though, we can do good in other ways. This town was once a favoured stop for travelling merchants, and it meant good business for the folks who live here. Through no fault of their own, their business has dried up and left them strugglin'. Now, there's little we can do about that for now, but what we can do is bring a little cheer to their hearts, if only temporarily."

"Is this part of my training...?" Vaedwyn asked, frowning at Agron.
"Aye and naw." Agron replied. "Ye'll no be learnin' how tae swing a sword much on this venture, but maybe ye'll learn something more important." Agron led them to the stables where they got their horses, and he saddled them up ready to leave. "We're heading back up the road." Agron said. "It's a fair few miles away, then I'll show ye what we need tae dae." He said. With that they were off. The travelled back the way they came, but did not head back to the Valley. Instead they travelled further north up the main road, and in about half an hour they reached their destination. 

They had arrived at a large expanse of water. To the left led out towards the Eastern Bluffs that faced the ocean, and the distant roaring of a waterfall rushed through the air. To the right the water led deep in to the mountainous valleys. The bridge was the only way that travelers could cross from this side. "Y'see the bother?" Agron asked. He got off his horse and stepped on to the bridge, pointing across the length of it. "Broken out there in the middle. Tough tae fix without the right equipment. The current sweeps everythin' away. Ye need skilled bridge makers to fix that. Dwarves, or Elves I suppose." He grinned at Vaedwyn. "Oh, yer an Elf, I almost forgot." He added. "Well, go on then, fix it."

"I'm twenty." Vaedwyn muttered, "And i'm not a bridge builder." She shrugged her shoulders at the bridge, "Whether we're master craftsmen or not, that takes hundreds of years to master, i'll be no better at fixing that than any man in this village."
"Oh, right, my mistake." Agron said with a nod. "I'll go tell the lads back at the town tae just use their dragons and their magic tae help them, shall I?"
"Is it safe for Auriel to land near the road like this?" Vaedwyn asked, she stepped out onto the bridge and tested her weight on it. "I've never fixed a bridge before, and I've barely started using magic," She let out an exasperated sigh. This was not what she had pictured when she imagined having a real adventure.
"Think o' it as a creative exercise." Agron said. "Aye, it's a main road, but there's few that come this way with the bridge bein' broken. Sure, someone might come along, but Auriel has a view fae the skies, she'll have a better idea than you of what is, and is'nae safe. As fer the bridge, ye just need tae think about it. Powerful magic takes a lot out o' ye, but delicate, simple magic isnae so bad. Use yer brain, and think small. It's about complexity, not complication, ye understand?"

"I think so..." 
Use your magic, use your mind. Auriel added, and showed her that there was nobody for miles in any direction. The bridge itself seemed study enough, she didn't need to support its structure, just repair the damage. 
"So I need the planks or something that would fill the gap and something to bind it... Couldn't I just bind the planks with magic?"
"Perhaps." Agron said. "Much like a lemon ye'll have tae suck it an' see. But consider what this bridge is used for. Dae ye think a few planks will hold when an entire caravans are passin' o'er it?"

"Right." Vaedwyn muttered, staring at the bridge. 
Where are the missing planks? The nails? Auriel suggested.
Vaedwyn realised where they had to be. I think i'm going to get wet... She replied, and walked down to the water's edge. Vaedwyn leant down and plunged her hand into the water. It was freezing cold. She quickly withdrew her hand, looking up at the nearby waterfall. Just from putting her hand into the water she could feel how strong the current was as well. It would be very dangerous for her to step into the water, but she was pretty sure she wouldn't be strong enough to pull planks of that size out of silt, mud and water. I could use a hand, you know? Vaedwyn added, she heard laughter and then a few seconds later she heard a distant howling. A large shadow swept over her and Auriel came swooping down through the clouds, slowing her descent with rapid wing beats until she landed with a dull thud.
I can see them, they're partially buried. Auriel swept her gaze over the water, her keen eyes quickly locating the wooden planks.
Have you grown? Vaedwyn asked, standing next to Auriel. She realised that Auriel's shoulder was now almost at her head. 
I'm trying to quicken my growth so you can ride me, there's no time to wait.
Vaedwyn put her hand to Auriel's side and stroked her, I never asked you to do that.

I know. Auriel replied, sweeping her long neck around so she faced her rider. She lowered her head until they were next to one another and then pressed her forehead firmly against Vaedwyn's, before pulling back and wading into the water. As she did so, the water level rose and the banks threatened to burst. Now get the planks!
Thanking Auriel, Vaedwyn quickly stumbled down into the now knee-high water and mud. It was still freezing cold, but at least she wasn't up to her neck in it. One by one, she grabbed each of the planks and heaved them out of the mud and clambered back up onto the bank with them, feeling refreshed each time the spray around Auriel's edges hit her, cooling her from the tiring work. It took nearly an hour, but she finally fished the last plank out of the mud. Her skin felt numb, but now there were a dozen planks laying on the bank. Vaedwyn crawled onto the grass, caked in mud and shivering and collapsed onto the ground, then Auriel leapt out of the water and bounded onto the grass and laid beside her.

Come here, i'll warm you. Auriel lifted her wing, ushering Vaedwyn inside who did so without complaint. As she crawled inside, Auriel pulled her wing back down and close into her, covering Vaedwyn, then exhaled her hot breath into the living tent. Her shivering stopped within a minute, and soon enough, she felt good as new - though still covered from head-to-toe in dry mud.
"I just need to find the nails somehow..." Vaedwyn called to Agron from beneath Auriel's wing.
"Well, we could ride back to town and get some." Agron said. "Or ye could look tae nature for help." He added. "Remember when we rode here? I used magic tae have the trees block yer path. Trees need light and water tae grow, somethin' we have plenty of. The strain on yer will tae use such magic isnae as severe as ye might expect. Provided ye give the tree the means tae grow, it can make use o' that, instead o' yer own will. Yer people were the first tae use nature in such a way, creating structures o' great beauty that complimented the wilderness surroundin' it."

"Grow a tree, sure..." Vaedwyn pulled herself out from under Auriel's wing and brushed off some of the excess mud that had caked to her clothes. She walked back down to the edge of the water, dipped her hands and washed her face until most of the mud was gone. Then she turned her attention back to the bridge. One by one, she pulled the planks back into place and laid them loosely next to one another. This in itself would allow her to walk across it, but anything more substantial, perhaps even a strong wind, would be the end of the bridge.
You have three options, from my perspective. Auriel spoke up, catching Vaedwyn's eye as she turned back, Either return for more nails, retrieve them from the river, or bind the planks through magic.

Vaedwyn considered each option for a long while. If she returned to the village to ask for nails, she knew that she would be taking valuable resources from an already poor people. She could dredge up the nails from the riverbed, but there was no telling how many she'd need, or how much strength the magic would take from her just in finding and pulling one from the mud. Then there was the third option. The one that Agron had mentioned. Using nature to help meant she could use her magic to encourage, rather than forcibly direct. It would be less involved. Potentially more chaotic, but far less risky. She had seen her people sing to the trees in order to grow their homes. But they were skilled masters, with thousands of years of experience. She was just a child. 
A Rider. With magic that will one day far exceed their own. Auriel interrupted her thought-process which had been infected with self-doubt. She nodded to her partner with a smile and took a deep breath. Not to mention, a rather impressive young Dragon. Vaedwyn couldn't help herself, she started laughing, and had to explain their conversation to Agron upon his bemused expression. 
"Alright," Vaedwyn said at last, "I'm going to try and use magic..."

"Aye, okay." Agron said with a nod and folded his arms. "Mind what I've taught ye, and proceed when yer ready. I'll stay close and keep an eye on ye." He moved so he was stood near her, so that he could step in should any trouble arise. 
"Okay." Vaedwyn took a deep breath and exhaled, hoping her fears and doubts would follow. They didn't, but at least she felt a little better. She took another deep breath, looking the bridge over. She could feel Auriel and Agron's eyes upon her back, as she approached it. Placing her hand on the edge of the bridge, she waited. She wasn't sure what she was waiting for. Maybe a sign. Maybe she was still wrestling with doubt. She tried to consider all the words she could use to call nature to her bidding. Every time she did, she found herself making more and more complicated requests. But the more she did that, the more faults she found with them. She could hear Agron and Auriel's words banging around in her memories, reminding her to keep it simple. To make sure not to bind herself to the magic, or use an absolute. Eventually, the long, cleverly worded spells fell away from her choices. She found too many problems, and worried more about what problems she had yet to find in their meaning. Instead, she choose one word. The word she kept falling back to. So she gripped the edge of the bridge, and feeling the heat of the scar on her forehead as it began to glow with a brilliant white light, she spoke a single word in Elvish.

"Life."

The ground rumbled in front of her, and Vaedwyn gasped as she felt a tingling in her fingertips. She could feel the magic being drawn from her. Suddenly roots shot up out of the water, wrapping themselves around the bridge, weaving through planks both fixed and loose, constricting as they reached up over the sides of the bridge as enormous saplings breached the surface of the water beside the bridge. The saplings rose up, growing rapidly, turning into trees that could rival the size of those in her homeland. The roots embedded deep beneath the water, and the grass all surrounding them suddenly sprouted with thousands of wild flowers, their vibrant colours spreading out like a rainbow all around them, blooming in a great wave. Vaedwyn felt a numbness in her hands, and slowly pulled away from the magic. For a panicking moment, she thought she would be unable to let go, that the magic had hold of her. Then as she pulled away, it reluctantly released her and the trees groaned to a halt as their branches blossomed with large dark green leaves, dotted with tiny white flowers. Vaedwyn stumbled back and fell into the grass, now as much a field of flowers as anything. 
Beautiful, Auriel said quietly, as Vaedwyn stared in disbelief at what she had done.

"Well..." Agron said as he put his hands on his hips. "I daresay yer capability with magic is quite strong, stronger than it was wi' me. Perhaps due to yer lineage, perhaps just because of who ye are, or perhaps its both. At any rate...ye've done very well, lass." Agron nodded at her approvingly and gave a little smile. "Come on, let's head back to the town. No doubt ye'll be hungry after that."
"I... I didn't..." Vaedwyn shook her head in disbelief. She felt cold, and her limbs were tingling like they were asleep. "I did that?" She asked herself, frowning. She couldn't believe that something like that had come from her. She'd never used magic before. In truth, she wasn't even sure if that was what she had intended to do. But Agron was right, she was starving. She pulled herself to her feet, sharing a moment with Auriel before the dragon leapt into the sky and disappeared. "Alright, I need to eat." She replied, "A lot."


When they returned to the town they said nothing of Vaedwyn's afternoon spent fixing the bridge, after Agron instructed her not to. He explained that they didn't need that kind of attention, or praise, and that the doing of the deed was reward enough. However word got back to the town very quickly, as other travelers caught sight of the marvelous bridge that had shot up out of the water when nobody was looking. The excitement and joy that followed the news had quite rightly lead the village to celebration, just as Agron had hoped. That evening the Inn was packed full. The food he had provided made for a wonderful spread, and the people of the town ate, drank, and sang merry songs at the thought of a future that looked decidedly less bleak. 

Agron tossed a bare turkey leg on to the plate in front of him, he had eaten every scrap of meat from it, and would have probably ate the bone as well if his teeth were stronger. He let out a loud belch and patted his stomach in contentment before washing down a few gulps of ale. "So, dae ye understand why I had ye do that?" Agron asked to Vaedwyn as he cast his arm out, gesturing to the busy inn full of happy, cheerful people. 
"I never realised fixing the bridge would impact their lives so much..." Vaedwyn whispered from across the table, she stuffed a wad of bread in her mouth and started chewing, chasing it with a mouthful of water. She'd decided ale was a bad idea. While chewing and swallowing a large mouthful of stew, Vaedwyn began to wonder just how little these people had. Was the inn as stocked as it appeared? Did the townsfolk eat like they were now? Were they even able to procure meat and fresh vegetables? If fixing the bridge had created this surge of happiness, just how dire a situation were they in? Life was hard for them, far harder than she'd ever imagined.

"Aye, for a town like this a bridge really does make a difference. But they aren't alone in their troubles." Agron said, finishing the last of his ale. "It wasn't always like this though. And it'll no be like this forever if I have anythin' tae say about it." Agron was about to rise to get another ale, when an image flashed in his mind. He was suddenly flying low over the trees, arcing over a small town. Then his eyes were focused on the bluffs farther ahead, he flew lower, and faster. Turiel was back, and going to their arranged meeting place. But he had no words for his rider. And the speed in which he moved was troubling. "Come." Agron said suddenly as he rose for the table. "Gather your things, we're going."
Vaedwyn rose from the table, grabbed her things and relayed the message to Auriel before leaving the inn after Agron. "What's wrong?" She asked, looking around for signs of danger.

"Turiel has returned, which means our stay here has ended." Agron replied, not wanting to unnecessarily alarm Vaedwyn until he knew what was going on. "Call Auriel when we get outside the town. Tell her to head for Eastern Bluffs." They made their way to the stables in a hurry, and Agron quickly packed their equipment on to the horses and they rode off into the night. As Vaedwyn pulled herself onto her horse, she reached out to Auriel. Something was wrong. Where normally she could sense a distant thrum of emotion and thought, now there was only a void. The harder she pressed, the more she found a wall blocking her from her dragon. Just as Vaedwyn was starting to panic, she found an opening but she almost instantly regretted her discovery. A flash of white hot pain washed over her, muddied with panicked anger and sadness. Vaedwyn yelped and fell from her horse in surprise.

Vaedwyn!? Are you alright?! I'm so sorry!! Auriel called to her from across their link. The painful ringing in her head slowly ebbed into a background thrum.
What was that? Vaedwyn asked, trying to blink back the pain. She pulled herself up and tried to calm her horse.
Later! You must hurry! Turiel is hurt, Vaedwyn!
She could feel the pain and panic in Auriel's tone and her feelings were in turmoil. Truthfully, Vaedwyn panicked too, at the thought of so powerful and unique a being as Turiel being hurt. She couldn't even picture the great, old dragon coming to harm. What could have done that? She pulled herself back onto her horse, and followed Agron out of town. It was about 20 minutes out of the town before they reached the rocky bluffs that faced out on to the sea. In among the white oak trees, a dark form lay on the ground, groaning. 

Agron got off of his horse instantly and ran towards Turiel. He briefly acknowledged Auriel before he reached out with his hand, and also with his mind. He pressed against Turiel's consciousness, and found it resistant. Flashes of fear and anger flickered in his mind. Images of a battle in the sky. Fire raged, and dragons roared. But Turiel would not speak to him. "Light" He practically swore in Elvish and there was a sudden flash, that quickly dimmed and became a cool, blue orb of light, that shone like the moon. Agron gestured and the light cast itself over Turiel's body. His scales were harder than diamond, and while there were signs of scorches, his body looked fine. Agron moved around, inspecting the tail, and then he checked the wings. He returned to Turiel's head and laid his hand over the horn over his nose. He cast the light over the dragon's eyes, and found them closed tightly. Open them. His voice was calm, but it was clear it was not a request. Turiel opened his eyes, and Agron frowned. The amber colour of Turiel's eyes had faded, blotted out by a thick, black ink-like material that was dancing menacingly around his iris. 

Vaedwyn quickly dismounted, chasing after Agron, arriving as Turiel opened his eyes. She gasped upon seeing the strange, inky blackness squirming across the dragon's iris. "What is it?!" She asked, trying to catch her breath. She looked to Auriel for answers but her dragon was just as panicked and frantic as she felt.  "What happened?!"
"He's been in a fight." Agron said. "He keeps showing me images of it, but it's fragmented. He's strugglin' tae keep a connection wi' me. It can happen when one or the other is in immense pain, or trauma." Agron indicated at Turiels eyes. "Sinister magic." He said. "Dragon's are difficult tae injure, as ye might have guessed. So they've used magic tae cast this stuff intae his eyes. It's a rare oil made from the sap of a Karist tree. Not many of them left in this land. It burns like all hell, and they've not just thrown it over his eye, they've pushed it inside, and sealed it there with magic. 

Auriel roared at the sky, raking the ground with her talons as her tail swished back and forth in irritation. She stalked back and forth, glancing back at Turiel occasionally.
"But you can fix it, can't you?" Vaedwyn asked, her fists clenching as she tried to wrap her head around the fact that there was anyone in their land who would do such a thing, to anyone or anything.
"Aye, I can." Agron said with a nod. "But this is...the worst kind o' magic, due to it bein' so effective. It's an easier thing tae cast than it is tae remove. I'll be more than a bit sleepy, ken?" Agron sighed and held his hand up at Turiels eye. Peace, old friend, He said to him privately. Turiel's breathing settled as he concentrated, focused by Agron's voice. When Agron spoke again it was in elvish. "Cleanse." He said first, and the scar on his shoulder and neck burned bright. The muscles in his arm tensed as he drew the dark liquid from Turiel's eyes, and slowly the liquid began to disappear, burned away by the cleansing magic. "Heal" He said afterwards. His arms began to shake, and Agron felt cold all of a sudden. The milky, damaged tissue in and around Turiel's eyes began to repair, and slowly his eye returned to the golden amber it had been before. Agron released his magic, and he slumped over, turning his body so he could sit on the ground. He rested his head in his hands, being very still and silent. 
Thank you., Turiel's voice echoed through his mind, and he felt a surge of relief. 

"Is he alright?" Vaedwyn asked, looking from Turiel to Agron and back again.
Better than before, at least. Turiel replied, gently pressing his consciousness against Vaedwyn's mind. He did not yet know if she could hear him, but at the very least she would be able to sense his presence by now. 
"He'll live." Agron said weakly. "I'll need a minute or two..." He added, swaying a little. 
"You should rest." Vaedwyn corrected Agron, "Both of you." She looked to Turiel, but expected to hear his response from his Rider, "Were you followed? Who did this to you?" She paused, thinking, "We need to find somewhere safe and secluded..."

I would not have returned were it not safe Turiel said, this time directing it at Agron. Agron...Vaedwyn's village. He burnt it to the ground. All but one perished.
What dae ye mean? Agron replied. Someone survived? Turiel let out a displeased growl. 
I gave chase. Anger got the better of me. He explained, It was Kardran. Uruk carried an Eladrin girl. Fortunate, in a way. Had he not been preoccupied with the girl's safety, I might not have survived. He caught me with that spell, but I caught Uruk with my claws, and fled. I managed to gain some distance from them. I made sure to leave a trail, with luck they will think we are headed to Makarash in the south. It will not be long before they discover they were wrong, we must make haste and gain as much distance from them as possible.

North, then. Agron replied. That girl troubles me, why would he take her?
I do not know. Perhaps he thinks she will lead him to Vaedwyn. Whatever it is, it is not good.
"Right, well..." Agron finally spoke aloud. "Vaedwyn...I'm sorry, lass. This'll hurt ye, but I dinnae like keepin' secrets. Ye'd only resent it more when ye find out later."
"What are you talking about?" Vaedwyn asked.
Steel yourself, little one, Auriel replied, cautioning her. 
"What's going on? What's happened?!" Vaedwyn snapped, looking to Agron.

"Ah...this is not easy for me tae say." Agron said. "A man named Kardran visited yer village. He's one of the King's Lieutenants. I'm...I'm sorry, lass. The bastard destroyed it. Only one survived, because he took her. A young girl, apparently. He's likely usin' her tae try tae find ye."
The words struck her like arrows. The dull pain rattling around in her mind seemed to warp and become a cacophony of white noise. Sound seemed to drain away, as she watched Agron's lips move, but nothing reached her. Everyone in her village was dead. Her friends, her family, the Elders. People who had lived and known one another for tens of thousands of years. Snuffed out of existence. Only one remained alive, a young girl? Vaedwyn didn't need to ask who that was. Children were highly valued in their society, but also as equally rare. There were only five children in their village, and only two girls. She was one of them, and her best friend, Torenth, was the other. Vaedwyn took a step back but caught her heel on the ground and fell onto her backside where she remained, staring off into space. Tears silently slid down her cheeks.

It may sound cruel, Turiel turned to Auriel, speaking directly to her. However...we cannot stay here for long.
"Lass...I..." Agron sighed, defeated. There were no words to make this better. 
Get up, Vaedwyn, you must get up, Auriel pushed her muzzle into Vaedwyn's side.
They're all dead...
Please get up, Auriel pushed harder, coaxing her to her feet. Auriel then refocused on Turiel and tried to make a connection. Though only Riders and mages are able to project themselves into other's minds, dragons are not bound to the solitude of mortals. At least, not those dragons who have bonded with a Rider. Auriel finally solidified the weak connection that Turiel had begun days ago, speaking to him directly at last. She has closed herself to me, but we must move before Kardran can find us. She found the elder dragon's mind to be powerful, and deep. Elves are strange creatures, their thoughts are unlike humans, and it is like being swallowed by an endless ocean. Yet to her surprise, Auriel found Turiel's mind to be far more alien and intimidating than she had expected. It was as though she was thrown into a void, where she could not move or breathe, for the presence bearing down on her.

Auriel... Turiel's voice spoke the name with a tone of weight and gravity. Their link fully established, the name had come to him naturally, to him it was only obvious, once she had allowed him to see who she truly was. Time is of the essence, indeed. However, this is perhaps a moment where we must leave things to Agron. You have watched him, you have seen how he trains her. Each lesson is layered and multifaceted. A moral for every swing of a sword. It is the way of his kind, their minds so young they need to learn so much. Even this experience is a lesson for her. Turiel considered Vaedwyn for a moment. While the girl was truly broken in that moment, he was waiting for what he knew to be hidden within her. Give her time...her sorrow will ignite her heart. She will become fire. You already know this, even if you do not realise.
"Lass?" Agron spoke, interupting the conversation of the two dragons. Slowly he had managed to get up, but he still felt tired and cold. "...Be sad, lass. Don't let anyone tell ye that ye cannae be sad. Hold on tae that feelin', remember it always. But, an' this is important, channel it. Peaceful scholars might tell ye that revenge is never worth it. They are wrong. Your loved ones are dead, and there is'nae anythin' ye can do about that. But ye can stop the one that did this."

Vaedwyn gripped the pommel of her sword tightly, the knuckles on her hand turning white. She wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her forearm and held out her hand to touch to Auriel's forehead, "I will." She replied, "I swear it." She fought back her tears and turned to face Agron. He, in turn, picked up his own sword. He gripped the claymore in both hands, and with a single pull he drew the long, thick blade from it's sheathe. It's blade glinted a golden-copper colour under his magical light. As Turiel rose up to stand behind him, his own scales shimmered in a colour that was almost identical. "Skaevolg." he said as he raised the sword up for her to inspect. "In Nordic it means Calamity of the Sky. Forged wi' the strongest materials, in one o' the best forges, usin' secret techniques passed down by the Eladrin. It will never dull, and never break. The blade is forged with a gift, y'see. A gift only a Rider can be bestowed, and can only be given freely by a dragon." Agron turned to Auriel and gave her a brief nod. "No more buildin' bridges, lass." He said as he focused on Vaedwyn again. "We ride north. On the way I'll train ye properly. It'll take weeks tae reach the Dwarven capital, and in that time, I promise ye two things. First, I'll make ye a warrior fit tae wield a sword like Skaevolg. Second..." Agron sheathed his blade once more and turned to Auriel. "Ye'll fly."

"We're going to see the dwarves?" Vaedwyn asked, her brow raising in surprise, "Why?" Then as an afterthought, she added, "I've never met a dwarf..."
"Aye." Agron nodded. "There's a few reasons for that. Firstly it takes us north, and further away from the King's reach. Secondly, ye'll be safest there. The Dwarven cities are almost impenetrable. Third, and perhaps most important, The Dwarves have the best forges in Suros. Ye need armor, and a decent blade, and only the best will dae." Agron smirked a little and made his way to the horses. "Saddle up, lass. We've a long way tae go."

 

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Agron hadn't been kidding when he said it would take weeks to reach the dwarves in the northern mountains. They had travelled on horseback for weeks, training with sword and magic. Vaedwyn watched as Auriel grew in size and strength, until she rivalled Turiel in length. Her body had less bulk yet she was more agile in her movements. She had a longer tail and wings that were very large for her size which she explained to Vaedwyn - with an undercurrent of pride in her voice - the ways in which they gave her excellent control in the air. Vaedwyn quickly took her early lessons in martial combat and with Agron's help, she became a quick and tireless opponent, though still she was rarely able to win a duel but for when Agron made a mistake, for which he was quick to remind her that mistakes can be made by anyone. Even the most legendary fighter can be defeated by the unexpected, and it was that which he taught her to combat. Awareness of her surroundings, and the ever-changing field of battle.

One day, while they were riding side-by-side, and Turiel and Auriel flew overhead, Vaedwyn frowned as a shadow was suddenly cast over her. For a fleeting moment, she thought that Kardran had finally found them, as they had heard rumours of a rider slowly moving north, cutting a path through every village or town he passed. It was one of the reasons their journey had taken so long and arduous, as they'd been forced to avoid places with people in the hopes that Kardran would ignore such populated places. Vaedwyn had also noted the change in herself. Her body had become leaner, her muscles were beginning to show definition, and she no longer found her sword heavy to wield in one hand. She had grown in confidence in her abilities, but still had a long way to come. However, the shadow that cast over her now, was thankfully not from Kardran and Uruk. No, they were cast into twilight as the sun touched the edges of the northern mountains, and the valley behind them grew dark quite suddenly.
"Is it far now?" She asked Agron, staring up at the mountains ahead of them. She knew that the dwarves lived underground, somewhere in the mountains, but she had no idea if they were minutes or days away from them. There didn't seem to be any sign of them at least. She wondered if that was because they had learnt how to hide their presence from the King, and perhaps that was one of the reasons they had remained untouched by the betrayal of the Rider order.

"In terms o' proximity, we're already there." Agron explained, and he nodded his head towards the ground at their feet. "The Dwarven tunnels are far reachin' and there are countless entry points. Yet I could'nae tell ye o' more than a handful. Even if ye find an entrance, the ancient mechanisms used tae open them are each unique and intricately clever. The Dwarves love their secrets, and they guard them close to their chests. As to how long it'll take us tae enter, well, that depends on the Dwarves." Agron gave a knowing smile and cast his eye over the landscape. "There are some things ye need tae know about the Dwarves. Firstly, they are our allies. Their cities are the last bastion of freedom from King Aemon's grasp, even the Nord's must pay a heavy price for their unwillingness tae bow tae him, we have nae cities tae speak of any more, we have tae hide in the harsher parts of our land, living on the barest we can afford without bein' noticed."
"But the Dwarves..." He continued, "Their strongholds were built before the time o' the Riders. A time before Men and Elves roamed this land. At that time they were the primary source of food for the dragons, an' so they built their cities to be impenetrable to such creatures. Which is why even Aemon cannot reach them. That, and the fact that they are sneaky and careful. But even now they dinnae have any love for dragons. Turiel and Auriel won't be welcome here, but they will be tolerated only because of our presence."

The Dwarves are close-minded and selfish, Auriel joined the conversation.
Why? Vaedwyn asked.
When Aemon attacked the Riders, and began spreading his seed of chaos across the land, the free peoples of Suros stood against him. Humans, Elves, Nords and many others joined under a single banner, but when they asked the Dwarves for help, they buried themselves deep, forsaking all. Big, hairy, ticks. 
Vaedwyn frowned, though she took Auriel's words with a grain of salt, she'd never heard Auriel react so negatively about anyone but the King and his lieutenants. It was enough to make her wonder about the Dwarves. "Will they be safe?" She asked. "For that matter, will we? Did the Dwarves even support the Riders?"

"They are cautious." Agron replied. "Some believe them cowardly, but that's just not true. However, they care for their own welfare above others. I cannae fault that, it's no everyone's desire tae be altruistic. They are slow tae trust, and won't lend their support without a great deal of scrutiny. Everything has a value to Dwarves, and if ye can show them that ye are of value to them, they can be the fiercest o' allies. Sadly, their secretive nature left them constantly at odds wi' the other factions o' Suros, the Elves especially. Ye have tae mind that the Dwarves were the indigenous people o' Suros. The Elves came across tae this land fae a far off place, and they were slow tae hold a helpin' hand tae the Dwarves. Old grudges, tae be sure, but they still hold up to this day."
Vaedwyn muttered an Elven curse and spoke up, "Great. So i'm an Elf, with a dragon. I'm sure this will go just fine." She said sarcastically.

"Aye, but yer a Rider." Agron pointed out. "The Riders were the exception for the Dwarves. Our age led tae a far decreased threat from the dragons they feared. They dinnae see the dragons as the complex, intelligent creatures ye know them tae be. Tae the Dwarves they are beasts o' burden, no different fae the horse yer saddled on, except far more terrifyin'. They see the riders as great people who hold mastery o'er wild beasts that could'nae be tamed. And that holds another predicament. The dwarves covet that which is rare and special, and right now yer a young rider, fit for moldin' in an image that could benefit them greatly." Agron frowned at the thought. "It's important that we maintain our alliance wi' the Dwarves, lass, but dinnae let yersel' be manipulated, ken?"

"I never realised being a Rider involved such... politics." Vaedwyn sighed, as they rode into the mountain pass. "Somehow I--"
I smell something... Auriel interrupted her. Something carried on the wind, it's... 
What? Vaedwyn asked, frowning. She looked up at the sky for signs of Auriel and gasped as she saw two enormous bodies come hurtling towards the ground. Auriel and Turiel were darting through the sky, weaving and tucking their wings tight into their bodies to narrowly miss being struck by great boulders, rope nets attached with weights, and bolts the size of spears. Auriel flew close to the ground as a net swept over her back and missed her by inches. Her feet bounded off the ground, helping her to lift back into the sky and then another net hit her in the face and wrapped around the front of her wings. What little lift she'd gained was suddenly pulled from her and she hit the ground with an almighty crash, kicking up plumes of dust that coated the area with a choking, blinding fog. A distant voice echoed through the mountains. 

"Thas wick. A'Elf, Nord an' a couple a scaly gobshites. Away an' feck off with ya!"

"Fuckin' arseholes!" Agron growled irritably. He leapt down from his horse and went running at a sprint with his claymore strapped to his back, he let out a sharp whistle. Turiel suddenly changed his course, pulling in to a steep dive towards Agron. As the dragon swooped down, his claws raking the earth lightly, Agron hopped up and grabbed the large horn at his nose, and Turiel took them both skyward. Showing an inhuman degree of nimbleness, Agron let go of Turiel's horn and descended down the dragon, until he sat himself comfortably in the saddle. 
Turiel flew high above the Dwarves, spinning at the apex, before arcing backwards and descending back to the earth, making a beeline for them. A bombardment of nets and bolts shot through the air towards them, and with a fierce roar Turiel unleashed a jet of fire, incinerating the nets to ash, before turning on his side, making his form lean and straight as he passed through the barrage of bolts. Boulders came flying next, and Agron held his hands out as if to brace himself against them. "Shatter! He snarled in Elvish, and the boulders exploded into dust that sprayed over him and Turiel, irritating but harmless. Turiel crashed into the craggy edges of the mountains where the assault had come from, and let out a blood curdling roar, as a unit of Dwarves, their hiding spot revealed, scowled fiercely, brandishing axes and swords, ready to face the beast even if it meant their death. 
"Put those away ya crazy, wee bampots!" Agron yelled as he climbed over Turiel and descended on to the rocks. With a flourish he drew Skaevolg from it's sheathe and brandished it threateningly. "I'm all down for a square go, but I dinnae fancy yer chances, ken?"

"Aw laudy daw, ya great gobshite ye!" One of them, a dwarf with a long, thick black beard, pushed his way to the front of the group, "Beat it up ye hole!" He thumped his axe against his armoured breastplate and then levelled it at Agron, "Ya mincin' fancy, think ya a big dick wi' tha beast at ye? Feck yerself wid'it!" Vaedwyn leapt off her horse and ran to Auriel to check she was alright, she knelt beside her dragon and waited silently as Agron and the dwarf sized one another up. She gripped the hilt of her weapon, ready to join in the attack should anything happen.
"Hard man are ye?" Agron asked testily. "Awright then, big bollocks, just ye an' me then, aye? Attack a bunch who mean ye nae harm and then ye go actin' the big man? Like yer in the right here? Just mind the only reason I'm standin' here is so Turiel doesnae rip yer wee baws fae between yer wee stumps, ya clown! So, aye, if yer that keen tae get knocked on yer arse then come right ahead!"
"Says'a eejit what throws shapes an' comes stompin' in our mountains!" The dwarf retorted, "Wee Billy big bollox, eh?!" The dwarf yelled, to the nervous cheers of his retreating unit. "Ye an' ye King are auf ya nut, fella! Get ye gone, afer I park ma sack on ya gob!" And to punctuate this, he grabbed his junk and shook it in Agron's direction.

"I serve no King." Agron growled. "Open yer eyes for a moment. Dae ye no recognize the one behind me?" He tilted his head back towards Turiel, but his eyes stayed fixed on the Dwarf. "Firstborn kin of Ethanriel. Guardian of the fuckin' North! Or have ye been hidin' in the ground so long yer heid's turned tae mush?"
"Ye a fibbin' chancer!" The dwarf yelled back at him, "Full'a shite! Not a bloody one free a'his nonsense! Now, away an wash the back a'ye bollox!"
"Aye, not a one." Agron agreed. "Two." He corrected.
Another voice called from across the other side of the mountain pass, "Aye we've another here, Bradan!" 
"Bollox, is'er!" Bradan - the dwarf with the long, black beard - yelled back.
"On yer ma!" The other yelled back.
"Fecker..." Bradan growled, glancing at Agron for a moment, "You," Bradan pointed at Agron with his axe, "Wait right there, ya great bastard." Then he turned and quickly descended into the mountain path, traversing the loose shingle without issue. He waved his axe in front of him with disdain, cursing the dust, "Flippin' ticker'an Moira's pea sup..." Eventually he bumped into something and followed it around to see a she-Elf stood beside what he'd knocked into. A young dragon, with scales of jet. 

Bradan sniffed, then turned back to face Agron, "Aye, well... whas tha craic, chum?" Bradan shoved his axe into his belt and nodded to his comrades to remove the net pinning Auriel to the ground, and then walked back up the slope to Agron where he stood before him with his hands on his hips, looking up at the tall man, a winning grin on his face.
"Are we square, then?" Agron asked. 
Far from it, Agron Turiel's voice snarled in his head. The tiny ones dealt the first blow. Yet they have suffered none in consequence. My kin demand punishment for such deeds.
Wheesht, you. Agron replied, shaking his head.
Bradan frowned at Agron but shook it off, "Aye, it'll do." He nodded, "Sorry, pal, but ye can't be too open-minded, ye brains'll fall out." And on that, Bradan ushered Agron, Turiel, Vaedwyn and Auriel to follow him and his unit into the mountain path. For a while, they walked in silence, until Bradan abruptly turned into a cave. It was black as pitch inside, but the dwarves lit torches and led them through a winding maze of tunnels large enough even for the dragons to walk freely down, though Turiel almost got stuck a couple of times. Eventually, after nearly an hour of walking, they saw light at the end of their path. Bradan and the other dwarves cheered and quickened their pace, which Vaedwyn matched and within seconds the light dazzled her. 

Stepping out of the tunnels, the place before them opened up in a way she could never have imagined. They were in the very heart of a mountain itself! The dwarves had carved out it's interior, and now there was a great city, built of mountain stone. The architecture was exquisite, even by Elven standards.
"Welcome t'Baile! Home fer our kin!" Bradan clapped his hands together. As he led them through the city, Vaedwyn found herself stunned into silence. The city had been carved with the utmost of care. The city had large, winding paths that were woven throughout the dozens of levels, homes built upon homes built upon homes. The smoke and hot air vented from the top of the mountain which had been carved out like an enormous funnel.
It would have been useful knowing that, we might have just flown in... Auriel thought, sharing it with Vaedwyn who nodded silently in agreement, still stunned by what she was witnessing. The Dwarves they passed came in many different shapes and sizes she hadn't been expecting, though they were generally shorter and stockier than humans, and even more so than Elves. However, Vaedwyn was equally stunned by the Dwarven women. They were all rosy-cheeked, voluptuous, beautiful women with hair in shades of blonde, browns, and a rainbow assortment of reds and coppers. They were also strong, as on their ascent to the palace at the top of the city, Vaedwyn saw women working iron, breaking stone and matching their men in every regard.

Vaedwyn looked to Agron who seemed as taken with the city as she was, then suddenly the group stopped before a huge set of black marble doors, the entranceway to the palace that watched over the rest of the city. Vaedwyn couldn't help but gasp, and she even felt Auriel's amazement at the craftsmanship and ingenuity of the Dwarves, though that quickly vanished when the started cries and muttered words began to creep into Vaedwyn's ears. In her dazed state, she'd not heard the quiet rumbling of discontent as they moved through the city. She hadn't seen the figures watching from the alleys and shadows. Vaedwyn felt then, now more than ever, that she and everyone in the party were in danger. Just then, the doors opened and everyone walked inside and the doors slowly closed with a resonating boom. Bradan led the party through the great hall, until he stopped and knelt before a short flight of steps that led up to a large iron throne. Sat atop it was a dwarf with a large white beard, with a single thick braid running down the middle, and a thick white mane of hair upon which nestled a golden crown befit with hundreds of jewels. The dwarf looked ancient, and yet he seemed untouched by his age. His eyes were sharp and keen, and he watched each of them enter the hall with a glare that forced Vaedwyn's eyes to the floor. As they approached him, Bradan relayed their names to the King, and announced his name to them, "King Eirnin, the Iron Blood!"
The King leant forwards on his throne, which Vaedwyn couldn't help but think was an incredibly uncomfortable-looking seat, and cleared his throat, "Tell me, Riders, what brings ye to m'land? Yeh've no right t'be here. The Dwarves want nothin' of ye, an' nothin' from ye. I should kill ye where ye stand." Vaedwyn tightened her grip on her sword, just as fear had gripped her itself. Had they walked into a mountain, or a tomb?

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A long, deep growl reverberated through the room, and the Dwarves present looked to Turiel, their gaze tense and their hands looked ready to grab their weapons at any moment. Easy..., Agron said calmly to Turiel. There was a long, tense silence as Agron watched the King with a furrowed brow, his eyes narrow, considering the man. "Yer men have already attacked me and mine without provocation on this day, and I'd advise yer Excellency against doin' so again. Ye've been shut up in here a long time, but I know yer people, ye clutch on hard tae anythin' o' value, including yer history. As such ye know our policy when it comes to unprovoked assault." Agron's voice was firm, but he was careful with his tone. What he said was not a threat, more like advice, or a warning. Yet he was unsure if King Eirnin would see it as such. 
"I asked ye t'explain yehself, Rider, when a'wan' advice, i'll ask." The King looked to Turiel and Auriel, then his eyes wandered over Vaedwyn for a moment before returning to Agron, "I don' care if my kin struck ye first. My lands are m'own t'protect, an' I do as I damn well please. If ye know the Rider King as ye should, then ye know I've reason t'make the first move."

"Aye, an' just the same, if ye know the Rider King, ye know why we're here." Agron replied. "There is no safer place in Suros tae hide from King Aemon. Vaedwyn here is an Elf, so I ken her age might be difficult tae discern, but I assure ye she's but a few decades intae her life. Yet here she stands before ye, a Rider. The first in over a thousan' years. Too long have I been the last Rider, and that time has passed. Nowhere else is safe for Vaedwyn. She's young, and has much tae learn. It is my wish that she trains here."
"I want t'help ye, Rider. I do. But y'understan' that keepin' ye both here is a great danger to my people?" King Eirnin shook his head in frustration. "That man is a blight..."
"Agreed." Agron nodded. "But I know Aemon...personally. He is nothin' if not thorough. As soon as he finds a way tae do so, he'll be at yer door whether we're here or no. But this lass right here..." Agron held his hand out and grabbed Vaedwyn roughly by the shoulder. "She can be a force that stands at yer side, or one that stands against ye. Aemon won't see any value in her death. He wants her alive, another Rider for his ranks. An' believe me, he'll make her serve him the way she is right now. The ones who serve him now...they were good people, once. Sure, us bein' here is a risk to ye, but another Rider in Aemon's rank is a greater risk. No just for ye, but for all of Suros."

The King loosed a long sigh as he ran a hand through his beard in thoughtful contemplation, "There's no lying in ye, Agron. I like that. Makes a change from our Clan Lords, of that there's no doubt." King Eirnin looked to his right, where a dozen dwarves were stood and Vaedwyn realised at last that they were unlike the others present. They had to be the heads of the Clans. So the Dwarves had some kind of democratic process?
The Clan Lords decide who will be King, and they can change this decision at any time they wish, as long as there is a unanimous vote, Auriel confirmed. 
I have to do something to help... Vaedwyn replied, looking from Agron to the King. 
You must be careful, Vaedwyn. You can't know the extent of the King's machinations.
I have to try. Vaedwyn stepped forwards, and the King turned his attention to her.
"And yeh've been strangely quiet fer a Rider, she-Elf," The King noted, curiosity on his face.
"My name is Vaedwyn, King Eirnin." She corrected him and the King raised his brow at her and looked to Agron.

"The lass told ye her name." Agron said, folding his arms. "Why are ye lookin' at me? As she just showed ye, she's got a tongue of her own."
"That she does." King Eirnin turned back to Vaedwyn, "Apologies, Vaedwyn. To both of you. It has been a long time since we've entertained guests. 200 years, or thereabouts, an' we've never been good hosts." The King stood and walked down the steps from his throne.
"We've come a long way, King Eirnin. My family and friends have been killed, my village burned to the ground. I've nothing to go back to, because Aemon decided he had to have dominion over everyone and everything. I spent the first twenty years of my life hearing tales of Dragons and Riders, and the fall of their..." She paused, smiling, "Of our order. I've pledged to kill Aemon, and restore peace to Suros. But I need your help, please..."
"Come," The King ushered Vaedwyn and Agron down the hall, away from the prying ears of the Clan Lords, and in a hushed tone he added, "What I have chosen to do, will be contested. It is possible, with enough support, I may be dethroned. I have shown you opposition in the hopes of softening the Clan Lords disquiet but I fear it may not be enough."

"We dinnae benefit from dysfunctional leadership." Agron said. "I'll no cause ye any more trouble than is necessary. Better yet, if we can dae anythin' tae help yer people, we will. Our best hope for the future is if the Dwarven people are united. King Aemon would seek out any source o' disquiet in yer council, and he would use it tae destroy ye from within. People fear his Riders most of all, but his true power lies in his keen understanding of Suros' political structure. How dae ye think he gathered enough power tae take control in the first place. Spies, subterfuge, workin' fae the shadows. I'll no be responsible for any weakness in yer ranks."
"I fear his spies have long lai' dormant in my Kingdom," Eirnin spoke confirmation but did not acknowledge with his expression, he glanced at the Clan Lords, "The best ye can do, is show my people wha' the Riders can be. All they have are stories o'death and carnage, in-fightin' and chaos. Give 'em hope, help them while yeh here in whatever way ye can, but I warn ye..." The King gripped Vaedwyn's shoulder, "Mind yer back. Trust no-one. Our politics're known to make use of assassination and a great many unsavoury things. I wouldn't be surprised if a Clan Lord thought t'kill ye in hopes of gainin' favour with Aemon, or the other Lords." 
"I'll be careful." Vaedwyn nodded, looking to Agron.

"Ye'll do better than that." Agron said with a nod. "Ye'll show them how fierce ye are, so that they'll think better o' tryin' tae seek quarrel with ye." Agron smirked and turned back to the King. "We'll need quarters, and the dragons can hunt and take care of themselves. I'll need plenty o' time tae train Vaedwyn, but otherwise consider us one o' yer own. Put us tae task in whatever way ye see fit." 

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Ushered into their new accommodations by Bradan, Vaedwyn found it to be a modest but pleasantly large room. The ceiling was so high that when the enormous door swung open, Auriel was able to step inside without needing to crouch. Bradan explained that the King had ordered two storerooms to be given to his new guests so that their dragons could bed beside them in a gesture of good will - though Auriel pointed out to her that it was more likely he wanted to discourage unwanted visitors in the night. Vaedwyn sighed, smiling upon seeing her bed. The covers felt soft and cool to the touch, she threw her pack to the end of the bed as Auriel stalked to the end of the long room and nestled down on a thick thatch of hay that had been laid out for her. Vaedwyn sat down, expecting relief, but instead, she felt something hard. She pulled back the covers, and saw that her bed had been carved out of the mountain stone much like the room itself.
"Well..." Vaedwyn grit her teeth, "I guess it's off the wet ground, at least." 
I see now why the Dwarves are such a surly lot, Auriel quipped, nestling down on her hay. 
"Joke all you want, i'm sleeping next to you tonight." Vaedwyn replied. Just then, there was a knock at the door. She opened the smaller, inner-door designed for the dwarves to enter through, leaving the larger storehouse door closed, and greeted Agron with a smile, "Hows your bed?" She asked, her eyebrow raising just a touch as a grin spread across her face. 

"Y'mean 'how's yer brick slab'?" Agron said with a soft chuckle. He stepped inside and swept his gaze around the room. "Beds are'nae that comfy here, but a hard bed is better for yer posture anyway. At least ye can be closer tae Auriel from now on, eh?"
"It's strange... I felt safer with Kardran at our backs than I did walking through the city. And yet..." Vaedwyn shook her head, "I don't know. It's hard to describe, but I want to say i'm happier here? That probably doesn't make any sense." She let out a short sigh, "So, what are we doing?" 
"What we always do." Agron said with a grin. "Just cause we've got a roof and a bed does'nae mean I'm lettin' up on ye. Grab yer sword an' follow me. The Dwarves have a duelin' area where they train, we can use that."
"And here I thought i'd get a day off..." Vaedwyn muttered, fastening her sword to her belt and chasing after him.
Don't be ridiculous, a day off? Us? Auriel chuckled and followed her out, pushing open the larger door with her snout, she walked slowly to match pace with Agron and Vaedwyn. After a short walk however, they saw Bradan sat upon a wall, smoking a pipe.

"What are you doing up there?" Vaedwyn asked, frowning and looking up at the Dwarf. 
"Smokin'," He replied, looking down at them with a squint. 
"No, but I mean what are you doing up there?" Vaedwyn asked again.
"Aaah..." Bradan nodded, realising what she meant, "Am sittin'," He replied, then a large grin spread across his face and Vaedwyn realised he was playing with her. Bradan hopped down from the wall, a jump that would have broken a human's legs, and then nodded to Agron, "Hows about yea, chum?"
"Off tae train." Agron explained. "If yer free ye should come along wi' us. A fresh perspective might dae her some good, ken?"
"O'yea ya see a law' down 'ear, big man." Bradan laughed and stamped his pipe out on the side of the wall and followed them.

The training area was a large, open arena of sorts. Racks of various weapons coated the walls, and work benches sat at either side. Archery targets had been placed along the far wall, and there were a few practice dummies on display. Agron walked up to one of the racks and retrieved what was, for Dwarves, a long sword, but he held it in his hand like a short sword. He retrieved a wooden targe and fitted it to his left arm. "Right then. Ye've come a long way. So far ye've been fightin' an opponent equipped much the same as yersel', so now ye'll face an opponent bearin' a shield. This fight'll be different, I cannae draw as much power to ma swing wi' one hand, but I've got enough strength in one arm tae knock ye on yer arse all the same. But the shield gies me an advantage, so let's see how ye overcome it."
"Quickly." Vaedwyn retorted, drawing her nimble longsword. Bradan sat down on the edge of the arena, where there was space for rows of stone steps used as seating. Auriel stalked around and sat beside him and the pair watched Vaedwyn and Agron size one another up. There were at least three dozen other dwarves fighting in the arena but none of them paid any attention to the Riders, if anything, they actively ignored them. 

With a flourish of her blade, Vaedwyn swept forwards across the arena, barely moving at all, just gliding across the dusty ground, but as she raised her sword to strike, she kicked a plume of dust up into Agron's face, and quickly followed with a powerful downwards slash.
If it had not have been for his shield Agron might have been finished already. He turned his head to avoid dust getting n his eyes, and brought the targe up to take the full force of Vaedwyn's strike, and he blade battered against the strong wood with a loud thunk. He thrust the targe forward a few times, taking the force of her attacks, but also driving them back with force. He swung a horizontal slash with his sword which Vaedwyn nimbly stepped back from, but he advanced again, bringing the sword down in a diagonal swipe. His sword struck hers and the pair backed off from each other. Agron grinned and stretched his neck, tilting it with a distinct cracking sound. 
He remembered his first fight with Vaedwyn, and how the sheer force of his strikes had knocked her blade from her grip with ease. The young woman he faced now had an iron grip, holding her sword so tight that it might as well have been an extension of her arm. "Good start, excellent use of misdirection." He said. "But ye'll need tae try harder than that, lass!" He advanced on her suddenly, keeping the targe close to his chest, as he relentlessly swung at her, the same way he had done in her first session.

Each strike that hit her sword, Vaedwyn angled the blade as she'd been shown, deflecting the majority of the force. Barely a vibration reached her hand despite the strength of Agron's blows. Vaedwyn weathered his attacks, slowly backing off, lowering her blade, feigning weakness until Agron attacked one final time and she whipped back, and snapped forwards quick as a cobra, dodging his attack and then slamming into his shield, knocking him back, and then she was on the offensive.
The sight of a slight, young girl forcing back a man twice her size had caught the attention of a few of the Dwarves training nearby. They stopped what they were doing, watching with a sudden curiosity as Vaedwyn advanced on Agron, her strikes fast and true, and each time the Nord batted them away with his shield. Yet Vaedwyn showed no sign of stopping, and her strikes only became faster, and more precise. As she struck once more he swung his arm out to deflect the blow with the targe, but it had been a feint, and he swung wide. Agron's eyes widened as he saw Vaedwyn's blade piercing towards his neck. He leaned backward as the blade's edge lightly nicked the skin on his throat, and as the blade was withdrawing he fell to his left side and rolled across the floor, before returning to his feet. He drew his sword over his head and brought it back down on Vaedwyn, but she gracefully stepped aside, and suddenly she brought her blade down on his own like a bolt of lightning, and the blade of his sword split, cut clean in two. 

Shocked to a pause, Agron realised too late as the point of Vaedwyn's blade sat against his neck, stopping him from moving forward, even an inch. He let out a heavy sigh, but a grin spread across his face as he gazed at Vaedwyn. Not only had she bested him, but as she stood before him he could see that she had not tired, and was ready for more. "That's ma girl!" He cried, followed by a hearty chuckle. "...I cannae teach ye any more of the sword, lass. Ye've mastered it beautifully."
Bradan let out a hoot and Vaedwyn smiled, taking a deep breath and letting it out as she relaxed. Auriel let out a long, trumpeting cry which she'd never heard before. Everyone in the arena turned to face her, several of the Dwarves warily backed away and yet at that moment, she realised that more than 30 Dwarves were watching them. Vaedwyn could feel a heat in her face unrelated to the duel.
Well done, little one! Auriel cheered, passing love and pride across their link. Have you noticed your audience? 
Yes, a little disconcerting... Vaedwyn replied, smiling nervously at the Dwarves. The expressions on their faces were mixed. Some were impressed or downright awed, and yet a large number were also unimpressed, scowling or otherwise unreadable. It made her nervous. Alright, I think I want to go now...

"Geez, am jaded jus' wachin' ya, girlie!" Bradan gawped, chuckling. "Bu' ya'know ye could be usin' an axe, now thas--" 
"Ah sling ye hook!" One of the dwarven watchers stepped forwards, "Thas' nah a weapon fer tha', look--" 
Then more joined in, "Slabberin' eejit, step awf, ye--" 
"Mate will'ye back off afore ah lose ma hed!"
"Yeh full'a shite!"
"Ye'ce shake ye mam an'da cocks woul' tumble oat!" 

Bradan whirled around and savagely head-butted the Dwarf who'd made the most recent inflammatory comment. The red-bearded dwarf collapsed to the floor like his strings had been cut, and for a frightening second there was a terrible silence. Vaedwyn had never seen things escalate so quickly, or be shut down even faster. She watched in stunned silence until Bradan started laughing, and the rest of the Dwarves joined in. 
"Tha' was too fair, Donal, ye stupid fecker. Ye leave a fella's mam outta da' now." One of the Dwarves chuckled.
"Ri'!" Bradan clapped his hands together, "Who's t'get bolloxed then, hm?!" 
Vaedwyn tried to resist, she tried to explain, but it was no use. Bradan grabbed her around the shoulder and she suddenly found herself surrounded by two dozens Dwarves, singing and chanting as they stepped over poor, unconscious Donal, on the way to do... well, she wasn't entirely sure what. But she suspected by the end of it, she'd have a headache.

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The coming hours were full of food, drink and merriment. Bradan and the other Dwarves had gathered in an enormous hall, Rows of tables were lined up across the length of it with benches for each, and there were hundreds of Dwarves seated around them. They had moved some tables and made space in the corner of the room for Auriel, and Turiel had joined them as well. The group sat in the tables nearby the two dragons and they gorged themselves on roasted boar, with plenty of bread, cheese, grapes and apples to go around. Agron had set aside a large section of his plate for potatoes, that had been chopped up and deep fried in large vats of boiled grease. 
"Ah fuckin' missed chips!" He said happily as he stuffed another handful in to his mouth. He was on his 11th or 12th pint by now, and he had become rosy in the cheeks, with a glassy stair. "Now...where was I? Oh, aye!" He cried, gesticulating wildly with the large chip in his hand. The Dwarves settled in, listening intently. 

"So there we were! Just me an' Jona...and we're dragons anaw, ken?" He flailed his arm towards Turiel, who gave shook his head disapprovingly, but his eyes glinted with amusement. "This fuckin' upstart Lord, Vemryn was his name. Well, this was...whit...well it was fuckin' ages ago, ken? Anyway, This wee cunt managed to rally a couple' hunner folk tae follow 'im. Came marchin' up fae Brae Mor, torched three fuckin' villages along the way. Took the fuckin' fight right tae oor door, kin ye fuckin' believe the bollocks on 'im?" A grumbling noise of agreement settled across the table as the drunken Dwarves nodded. "So the rest o' the Riders have fucked off doon tae Makarash for some fuckin' council nonsense. So s'me an' Jona versus a few hunner numpties wi' swords an bows. So I ride doon on Turiel, ken, and am a young lad back then, eh, so I'm fuckin' rarin' for a swedge an' they cunts were askin' for it. Time a git doon there, Sariel's swoopin' o'er the whole fuckin' brigade. Archer's were pish, not a fuckin' bolt hit 'im. Sariel lands next tae this Vemryn bastard, fuckin' knock his horse oot fae under 'um wi' a swish o' his tail!"

The ripple of laughter coursed over the table, but then people settled once more. "So Vemryn's on his arse, an Jona fuckin' hops off and grabs the poor cunt. He punches the bastard square in the puss, strips him down and takes his keks aff. Ties the fuckers tae the own boy's spear and hauds it in the air, waving the fuckin' thing back and forth. And he yells 'that's it lads, ye've surrendered, now fuck off back to yer shiteholes 'fore ye hauf tae tell yer missus why ye've nae breeks left!" The table erupted in raucous laughter, and Turiel let out a growl of mild irritation. He turned to Auriel.
He tells this story every time he get's drunk. Each time it differs. Turiel shook his head. The thing is I have no recollection of the events for the life of me. I am almost certain he dreamt it once after too much whisky.

Oh lighten up, will you, Auriel playfully nudged her side into Turiel. Let them have some fun, She turned to watch Vaedwyn laughing at Agron's story. Usually she felt a constant thrum emanating from the young girl. Pain, fear, doubt. But right now, it was almost gone. Auriel wanted that to last, at least a little while. She let out a long sigh that made several of the nearest Dwarves shuffle uncomfortably. They've earned it. Turiel fell silent in contemplation, glancing over at the table every so often. Meanwhile Agron was silent once more on account of his mouth being crammed full of another large handful of chips. The table fell silent for a moment, everyone sipped at their drinks, and mumbled to themselves, waiting for someone to speak up. 
"Sho wish ye lot bin doin' aw thesh yearsh, eh?" Agron asked, his mouth still full of chips. 
"Livin'," Bradan spoke up, interrupting the Dwarf beside him who tried to answer. Bradan packed his pipe before hanging it from the corner of his mouth, "Wha' ye'spect? We've no King ruinin' are day. Ged up, has a drink, plough, kiss 'er g'bye an' work the fiel'," He lit his pipe, "An' wha'bout yoo, Rider? Where yoo been then, eh? Me great daddo said the Riders wouldn' stop until they'd taken the throne from Aemon. We might be coards, aye, whats yer excuse?"

Agron's expression became sober for a moment. He examined the contents of his tankard for a moment, considering how to answer. "Thir ur some stories a kin tell...an' others I cannot." He replied finally. "It were winter...the snows had fallen heavy, but oan tha' day..." Agron sucked in a shaky breath as he recalled. "...The snow wis stained red. History books tell ye the last stand wis at Myre's Gap. Many o' the men folk had turned sides a' that time, but few still remained loyal. Men o' Lendsay, Rekash, an' Damascia. The Nords stood strong but they had fallen greatly in number. The Elves, o' course, wir the most resilien', but the old yins think about the long game, ken. They could tell tha' we wir fightin' a loosin' battle. Eighteen Riders still lived, but on'y five dragons. By the end o' the battle there wir on'y two. Those that lived fled, or surrendered. I dinnae blame a one o' them fir tha' though." Agron drained the last of the contents from his tankard. 

"But...history is told by the winners, they say. Another battle came after that. Jona and I, an' a few other brave souls, we faced off one last time against Aemon an' his Riders. A foolish choice. In the end...I'd be dead anaw, and Turiel, had it no been for Jona an' Sariel's sacrifice. Turiel lost the last o' his brothers, the last of his kin. That's when it sunk in. If a died...if Turiel died, there'd be nae dragons left 'cept Aemon's. So I fled, an' I hid. On'y one bit o' good came fae that battle." Agron put his arm around Vaedwyn like a proud father, and he beamed as he looked at her, and then to Auriel. "See...I did'nae flee wi' out a wee prize for ma troubles. I stole an egg...a female. The last chance o' a bright future." Agron removed his arm from Vaedwyn, and leaned across the table, with a serious look. "There's more tae tha' story, Bradan. But I cannae tell ye it. Things ha' been happenin' aw this time, aw these years. We never stopped fightin'. There are forces that move in the shadows...ones that move tae strike out against Aemon when the time is right. Ye'll just have tae trust that they ken what they're doin'...cause I cannae tell ye no more."

Bradan was silent for the entire story, his face unreadable. By the time the story was told, the room had fallen silent. Not a single Dwarf remained jovial, they hung their heads in their cups and tankards. Bradan held the end of his pipe and took a long drag, chewing the smoke before exhaling it, "Thas' a sour taste..." He muttered, not referring to his pipe. The Dwarves murmured their agreement.
"We bin actin' the pack 'o fools," A woman spoke up, as she approached the table, a pint in her hand and her face and fingers stained with soot, which didn't dull her raw, wild beauty, "Bunch o' yahoos wi'faces in'a rock. While tha' lot been dyin'. Am sorry, Rider, fe'me an' mine. We wronged ye." 
"Aye Moira, we have an'that." Bradan buried his face in his mug as he brushed tears away.

"Perhaps it'd o' been different if folks like yersel' had been around at the time." Agron replied. "But a hold nae grudges. It's easy tae call ye cowards, or say ye wronged us. But yer people had a home that could protect them fae what was tae come. I wonder if any o' the other races o' Suros wid dae any differen' if they were in yer shoes. In the end we protect ourselves, an' thas nae thing tae be ashamed o', after all ye are aw here now, an' there's nae tellin' if that'd be the case if ye'd rallied tae the call, ken?"
"Thank you, for taking us in." Vaedwyn spoke up at last. She stood up and the eyes of the room turned to her, "Auriel and I want you to know that we'll do everything we can to dethrone Aemon."

"Ye can star' with takin' is 'ead!" Bradan added quickly, and the room erupted into laughter.
"Ah had somethin' made up fer ya," Moira nodded back at the kitchen, and a dozen Dwarves entered the main drinking hall, carrying two enormous barrels. Each one must have had more liquid in them than everyone's drinks in the room combined, and then some. They placed them down in front of Turiel and Auriel and quickly retreated, "Are thanks t'ye, Dragons. We needn' be afrai' a yer sort, an' we're tankful a' all ye done." Turiel lowered his head and sniffed at the barrels, before rearing back in disgust. 
This is...poison. He said to Agron
"it's fuckin' Dwarven Whiskey ya daft ol' lizard!" Agron replied out loud, laughing heartily. 
It smells like the oil they burn for their siege weapons... Turiel said. 
"Aye, well...they use it for that tae but..." Agron replied, scratching his head. 

Turiel gave Agron a skeptical look, and then he tentatively lowered his head to the barrel, and lapped up the contents briefly, but he reeled back, his eyes closed shut. He started retching, his jaws snapping wildly as he hissed and coughed. Then a thunderous belch followed and a plume of fire erupted from his mouth, causing a number of the Dwarves to step back in surprise. Agron slapped his knee and broke into a fit of laughter, tears streaming from his eyes. He laughed so hard that he fell off of his chair and then continued laughing. 
I don' know whats the fuss about, ish fine, you big old baby! Auriel shared her reply with Turiel and Vaedwyn and she laughed as she realised she'd already consumed a large portion of the barrel. Then regretted laughing as she found herself gripping onto her table as the room span around her. She'd deliberately not taken as much as a sip of alcohol for fear of getting drunk, but it seemed that Auriel was unable to control her senses across their link. It was everything or nothing. And regrettably, it was everything. 
You're drunk. Vaedwyn poked her jokingly. 
Dargons don't get drunk, I know my limitsh. Auriel muttered, holding her head up high, as though she was above it all. And i'll thank you not to make the shame comparishun again. Then she started to stand, wobbled and the Dwarves at the end of the table panicked and tried to get away.
Lie down! Vaedwyn demanded with a smile, walking up to Auriel while holding the edge of the table for support. She placed her hand on the black Dragon's muzzle. I'm going to step outside for some air, you're making me dizzy.

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The cool mountain air felt good in her lungs. Vaedwyn took another deep breath, trying to clear her mind. She was feeling better within minutes, but could still feel the foggy miasma permeating her thoughts from across her link to Auriel. She reached back across to her dragon and tugged at her mind.
Mmm? Is everything alright, Vaedwyn? Auriel asked, she just sounded tired now. It seemed alcohol didn't last quite as long as it did with Elves.
Everything's fine, but I want to go for a walk and be alone with my thoughts...Vaedwyn paused, Do you mind? She asked hesitantly. Auriel tried to hide it, but she felt a twinge of something come back across their link. She knew Auriel didn't like being parted from her for any time. Vaedwyn was growing easy being linked to Auriel also, but she still wanted some space. Eventually, Auriel's quiet reluctance shifted into something else as she came to a realisation. 
That's not such a good idea, actually, Auriel stated, It could be dangerous, we know we can't trust every Dwarf and--
Well of course we can't trust every Dwarf! Vaedwyn replied, annoyed. I can't trust every human, but that didn't stop me, and neither will this. I'm going for a walk, and that's that. Another long pause, and then Vaedwyn felt Auriel slowly pull away from her, and their link was severed. 

Vaedwyn jerked in surprise, she hadn't deliberately pulled away from her link to Auriel in some time and it was a disconcerting feeling. Like she'd left something behind she needed. Immediately, she felt cold and alone amongst the Dwarves wandering past her. Some of them muttered things. Some of which she heard, either because they wanted her to hear them, or because they didn't realise that Elves hearing is more sensitive than dwarves. Its the ears, of course. Most of their comments were positive or curious. A few were hurtful. She wanted to run back inside, apologise to Auriel and return to the warmth and familiarity of the inn. But she couldn't. She had made her bed, now she had to lie in it. Even if it was made of stone.

So she started walking. Vaedwyn wasn't entirely sure where she was going, but it didn't entirely matter. She just wanted to walk. She followed a flight of stairs down through the levels of the city until she saw a passageway that looked rather interesting, then turned off down that. The houses were truly beautiful. Covered with intricately carved runes and markings and all done by a master architect that had found a way to have thousands of heavy stone houses carved out and stacked upon one another without being in danger of collapse from the weight from higher levels. Vaedwyn took another deep lungful of fresh mountain air and was reminded of how thankful she was that the Dwarves had devised some form of ventilation. She looked up into the darkness of the mountain far above, which eventually turned to light at the open top of the mountain. She was part way through trying to solve the riddle of how the Dwarves had an enormous opening at the top of their mountain - which could be rather convenient for a Dragon, such as Aemon's and his lieutenants - and yet claimed to be impervious from assault by Dragon or Rider, when a faint noise behind her pulled her from her thoughts.

Vaedwyn looked over her shoulder and saw a Dwarf dressed in black, holding a long bottle, with a short dark brown beard. He took a long swig from the bottle as he slowly followed her down the path. At first, she ignored the Dwarf. He was walking down the same path as she was, but that wasn't out of the ordinary. But as her pace quickened, she heard him match it. That was when panic set in. She wanted to reach out and contact Auriel immediately. She reached out with her mind and felt nothing. Was she too far away? Was Auriel's mind too clouded by drink? Whatever the case, Vaedwyn instinctively turned back in the direction of her dragon. But that was, of course, the same direction from which she'd come, and the direction the Dwarf was now coming towards her. He raised his bottle, and pointed his finger at her. 
"'Ey! 'Ey, girlie!" He yelled, "C'mere a sec, hey?"
There was no more time for uncertainty. Vaedwyn turned, and ran. She ran as quickly as she could, hearing the Dwarf's yelling, cursing voice behind her. It was getting further, and further away from her. She turned the next corner, but as she did so she could hear the Dwarf running up behind her.
"EY!!" He yelled at the top of his lungs. Vaedwyn cursed, she started running again, but then she saw a door to one of the homes open up ahead of her.

"Vaedwyn! In'ear, girl!" Moira yelled to her. Vaedwyn ran as fast as she could, not daring to look back for fear of seeing the Dwarf right behind her. She ran inside, and Moira swiftly shut the door behind Vaedwyn and locked it multiple times with deadbolts. Moira and Vaedwyn both let out a sigh of relief at the same time. Vaedwyn started laughing, and Moira joined in and suddenly she felt a lot better. They heard footsteps outside, and both of them fell quiet. The footsteps wandered back and forth for a few minutes, as though confused, and then eventually they grew faint and then absent altogether. Moira chuckled at last and let out another long sigh.
"Well, my gawd, girl, if ye don' attract da fellas, ah don' know wha' wud," She shook her head and rubbed her temple before crossing the room.
"I'm really sorry to intrude, Moira," Vaedwyn apologised. 
"Is alrigh', don' worry. Ma gaff is yers, an' ye shakin'... yeh wan' a shlice a swit cake? That'll set ya balance." 
"Oh, thank you." Vaedwyn nodded, smiling. Moira offered her a chair at the dining table and she took it. Moira was right, her hands were shaking. She had to get her mind off her pursuer, "Is this your home, Moira? It's very nice." 
"Ah yeh, it's a wee bit berren, but ah keep it neat an' that," Moira replied, she brought over a pair of plates and a large sticky-looking cake. She picked up the knife from the cake board, hovered it over the cake, and indicated, "Will this do ye?" She asked. It was too much, Vaedwyn leant over and pointed at the cake with the forefinger of her left hand.
"No, just--"

Dazzling pain.

Vaedwyn jerked as though someone had come up behind her and spooked her. She wasn't sure quite what had happened. Moira was smiling at her expectantly, and so, she wanted to explain to her this surprising, peculiar sensation, but as Vaedwyn reached to touch her chest with her right hand, she looked down and realised her left arm was pinned to the table, while the cake knife was about two inches into her chest.
"Moira?" Vaedwyn asked stupidly, her mind not quite accepting what was happening. Then quick as lightning, Moira's hand whipped from pinning Vaedwyn's arm to the table, to grabbing her mouth. Moira thought the girl was going to scream, and she clasped her hand over her mouth. At that moment, there was a deafening noise. Neither Moira nor Vaedwyn had ever heard anything like it in their lives. It was the true, unbridled, unmitigated rage of a Dragon. 

The noise snapped Vaedwyn out of the haze of her mind. Vaedwyn realised that Moira, sweet, kind Moira, Moira who had defended her and served her drinks not an hour ago, had just stabbed her in the chest. The realisation brought reaction. Vaedwyn reached up and grabbed Moira's hand, the one holding the knife, and yanked it away from her chest. Moira was so surprised by the girl's strength that she leapt back but she was just as quick to recover. Moira leapt at her, brandishing the knife that still gleamed with Vaedwyn's blood on it. Vaedwyn darted out of the way, trying to pull her sword. She'd barely managed to pull it a couple of inches from the sheath when Moira grabbed her wrist and pushed it back down, stopping her from drawing her weapon. But as she tried to stab her again, Vaedwyn fell back, using her attacker's weight against them and fell onto her back, flipping Moira up and over. The Dwarf woman flew across the room and crashed into the floor, giving Vaedwyn just enough time to pull her sword from it's resting place. As she tried to lift the blade however, she winced, her wound made it difficult to lift her arm above her ribs.

The other arm. She would just have to use her other arm. It wasn't her dominant arm, but luckily Agron had forced her to learn with both. A skill she was reluctantly, silently, but repeatedly thanking him for right now. Moira charged her with a battle cry, and it all happened in a matter of seconds. Vaedwyn's sword clashed against a vicious-looking dagger that Moira must have had hidden about her person. She blocked Moira's attack once, then knocked her off-balance, and struck. Moira's head rolled across the floor as her body collapsed and blood quickly pooled at the point of severance. 

"I... I-I..." Vaedwyn stammered, the sight of Moira's corpse splayed across the floor kept Vaedwyn rooted. She saw Moira's blank, hatred-filled gaze staring back at her from her severed head, and even now she could barely believe that she had tried to kill her. She remembered she was still holding her sword and tried to sheath it, but as she looked at the blade, and saw Moira's blood smeared across it, she dropped the weapon in surprise, and nothing would root her any more. Vaedwyn fled from the house, tears streaming down her face. She could feel Auriel's presence strike the boundaries of her mind like a battering ram. She was able to resist Auriel for all of about a second, and then the Dragon's mind came rushing back into contact with her own, flooding her with thoughts, feelings, images and all manner of panicked emotions. 
VAEDWYN, WHAT HAPPENED?! Auriel screamed. 
She might not have been able to stop the link from being re-established, but she wasn't going to wait and talk. Leave me alone! She cried, but she could feel Auriel ignoring her, she sensed the Dragon's white-hot boiling rage. Image after image of Auriel's thoughts were nothing but her rampaging through the city, tearing the Dwarves asunder. Her teeth sinking into the soft flesh of their faces as they cried out and were suddenly, immediately silenced. One by one. The extent of Auriel's rage terrified Vaedwyn. 

As she fled the house, Vaedwyn ran down the path until she reached one of the main roads and started running down the stairs to the lowest levels of the city, but as she did so, she heard wings beating overhead and no matter her speed, Auriel landed a few feet in front of her, blocking her escape. 
WAIT!! Auriel roared at Vaedwyn,who turned and tried to run the other way, but Turiel landed with Agron and suddenly there was nowhere else to go.
Just leave me alone! Vaedwyn whirled on Auriel.
NO!! Auriel snapped back at her. You're hurt... I knew you were... Auriel took a cautionary step forwards, sniffing Vaedwyn's wound who recoiled in response and winced, gripping the site where the dagger had entered her flesh. She looked from Agron to Auriel and back, desperate to flee but trapped in a corner like a mouse by a couple of cats.
"Just ye stay still!" Agron bellowed, still clearly quite drunk. "Fuckin' backstabbin' bunch o' shitebags, I'll fuckin' flay the lot of 'em!" He snarled as he closed on Vaedwyn and grabbed her by the arm, holding her in place. "Sit still!" He barked as he inspected her wound. His grip was tight around her arm, his body shaking with rage. "Who did it!? Tell me!"

Vaedwyn pulled away from him, but unable to, she broke down in tears, "I-It... was Moira!!" Crippled, finally, by the realisation, Vaedwyn fell to her knees and sobbed, still burning with disbelief and fear, confusion and anger. She clutched her head with her hand and wept silently.
"Turiel!" Agron roared. "Find her!" The dragon, for once, did not immediately jump at the chance of violence. Instead he stood rooted to the spot, his old ambers staring angrily at Agron. 
Release your grip. His voice echoed in Agron's mind, bold but calm, and full of authority. You are hurting her, you fool. Agron looked down at his own hand and instantly released his grip, seeing the bruising that was already beginning to form. Guilt washed over his face, and with a heavy sigh he ran his hand over his forehead. 
"Lass..." He said, his voice trembling. "I..."
Auriel, Turiel spoke to her directly, projecting his voice in a commanding way to make sure his words were heard through her rage addled mind. She needs a healer. Take her, now. It was not a request, but an order.
Auriel raked her talons across the ground in anger but snaked her long neck beneath Vaedwyn's arm, lifting her to her feet. From there, she pulled away and delicately nipped onto the back of Vaedwyn's shirt and carefully encouraged her to sit just behind her shoulders.

Vaedwyn?! Auriel asked, but there was no response. She tried to reaffirm their link but could feel Vaedwyn drifting in and out of consciousness. There was no other option left to her. She had to try. Even if it was quite possibly the worst idea she'd ever had. She had to try. No, she would make it. No matter what. Bounding towards the nearest building, Auriel leapt forwards, her talons latching into the roof before she spring-boarded from the building, and spread her wings to take flight. The weight was too much. Within seconds she was falling back down to the city below. She'd barely made it a few feet. Auriel furiously beat her wings, trying to gain lift, she had cleared most of the buildings, it was a straight shot to the palace now, as long as she could remain airborne. The muscles in her wings were on fire, and she roared in agony. As she started to descend, she grabbed hold of another building rooftop and leapt forwards, trying to gain a little more air. She had exhausted everything she had, there was no more left. The muscles in her wings began to seize, and she tumbled from the sky. As she did so, she turned mid-air, Vaedwyn's body coming free from her back as she fell to the ground, unconscious. Auriel quickly pulled the young girl into her body, wrapped her wings over Vaedwyn and herself, and plummeted. The initial impact was so painful she thought she was going to black out. She came to a stop in front of the palace, as the doors opened and hundreds of Dwarves swarmed out. Guards, attendants, and all manner of people. Auriel rolled onto her side and opened her wings, letting Vaedwyn slide onto the floor, but as the palace attendants approached the girl, Auriel snarled at them and they immediately retreated.
"Great Dragon Auriel!!" King Eirnin's voice echoed throughout the cavernous city, "Trust that no harm will come to your Rider, I will have my personal physician attend her and should any harm come to her--" Before the King could finish his sentence, Auriel loosed a bellowing, ear-splitting roar which ended in a threatening snarl. "Yes..." The King nodded, and then jerked his head at his nervous attendants which finally approached Vaedwyn, moved her onto a stretcher, and carried her into the palace.

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Mere hours had passed, but it was long enough that Agron had sobered himself. It had taken time to gather the clan chiefs, and more time afterwards for them to confer on their own. Eventually the enormous doors to the great hall opened, and it was Bradan who met with Agron and Turiel, and escorted them once more through the enormous room. There was no wonder or merriment this time. They walked in silence, and before long they ascended the steps to the throne. Turiel leaped the height and length of them with little effort, and when Agron joined him at the top, the mighty dragon moved around him, and sat at the edge of the stairs, barring anyone the chance to leave the way they had came. The room was completely silent, the clan chiefs looking to one another, some a little nervous, and then their eyes finally fell to the King. Agron folded his arms across his chest, but he said nothing. All that he wanted to say was written on his face. His eyes were dark and furious, and they demanded an explanation. 

"Ah can make no apology t'make up fer this," King Eirnin spoke at last, adjusting his seating on the throne, "A terrible business, but wha' would ye ask o' me, Rider?" Agron took his time when answering. A ripple moved across his mouth as he chewed on his tongue, his eyes narrowed for a moment. 
"And what use is a request tae ye?" He replied, finally. "Barely a day gone and I find daggers thrust in oor backs. Vaedwyn, ma charge, near lost 'er life, an wi' it any hope o' stoppin' King Aemon. An ye haud yer hands up at me, aw aye, terrible business, awfy sorry pal, what kin a dae for ye. Ye owe me much, an' so soon tae. Keep this up an ye'll be bankrupt by the weeks end."
The King sat stoic upon his throne, weathering the insults, when Agron paused, he sat forward and held his hands up, "Should a King be held responsible fer all his kin, so? If ye wish it, exact ye vengeance on me, would it make ye feel better, Rider. I've already lost two a'mine, s'don' think yeh alone in this evil. Ah don' know wha' made 'er, but Moira took tha' life o' a young ma, an' ah find it herd t'believe tha' Moira, who was'a pillar o' tha community, could do such a thin' but there we are. She did."

"Tha's exactly what a King should be held responsible fer!" Agron snapped, his anger rising. "That is yer burden, an' may ye feel it's weight on yer shou'ders for aw o' yer reign, and then some years after. But killin' ye helps nae'body. Moira's dead, an they'll be nae tears sheddin' fae ma eyes fer her. A came here tae keep Vaedwyn safe, but a've brought her tae the viper's pit. Naw, we'll be takin' oor leave. But just ye mind what a said tae ye. I said Aemon wis gonnae come knockin', didn't I? Well take a guid look aroun' ye, cause he's awready here."
"I see." The King nodded, considering Agron's words, "She were alone? Neither o' ye would take ah guard, so she had ah dragon so?" Eirnin paused, raising an eyebrow expectantly, "No?" He frowned, "So I see, then. Ah shoulda known ma blacksmith o'er hundred and FORTY FECKIN' YERS WAS AH..." The King panted, trying to control his rage, and took a deep breath, "... was ah spy fer Aemon, ah worse yet, he did somethin' with 'er." The King let out his breath and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, "Ah don't know yeh pain, Agron. Here, i'll do as ah can. But if yeh want, so go? Ah won' stop ye."

"Ah...there it is." Agron said. "Fear. Guid, at least ye've sense enough fer tha'. Well, a hope it keeps ye wary enough tae survive what's tae come. If ye'd caught me on a better day, a might've helped, but Vaedwyn is far too important. That's what ye failed tae grasp, Eirnin. She's the on'y chance we have." Agron shook his head. He turned and walked back towards the steps, and as he reached Turiel he stopped, waiting for the dragon to step aside. When he did not, Agron put his hands on his hips. Just what are ye daein'? We're leavin', now.
The blame is shared. Turiel replied, and he did not so much as budge. You were reckless. If Vaedwyn had died, it would have been your fault just as much as it was any of these people.
Turiel, get out of ma way, now. Agron projected sternly. Turiel's head lurched forward like the crack of a whip. A thunderous roar filled the hall, shaking the foundations and echoing for almost a full minute after. Agron stepped back, scowling at the great beast. He let out a heavy sigh and rubbed his nose, before turning back around to face the king. 

"I think..." Agron turned his head and gave a cursory glance at Turiel, scowling at him once more, before turning back. "I think he wants a word. Will ye hear 'im?"
"If'n 'e has a touch more respec' fer moi King tha' yoo, tha'--" Bradan pointed accusingly at Agron. 
"Enough, Bradan. The man's u'set, leave 'im be. Speak yeh mind, Dragon." The King leant back on his throne and waited patiently for the Dragon's words to come rolling out of Agron's lips. Agron nodded, and there was a pause. Agron seemed to be communicating silently with Turiel for a moment, and then he took a deep breath, and closed his eyes, concentrating. His eyes remained closed, but Turiel brought his head closer, so that it sat in the space above Agron's, his eyes ever watchful. 
"Greetings to you, Iron Blood. I am Turiel." The words came from Agron, and it was still very much his voice, but he had lost his thick accent, replaced by one more commanding and regal. "Son of Ethanriel, The Great Northern Squall, Dragon of the Sororheim Makirog. Make no mistake, to speak directly with me is a privilege awarded to few, and it is one I extend to you, and yours." Turiel turned his head to gaze at each of the clan chiefs, and finally to Bradan, before turning back to the King. "Agron speaks with anger, but do not fault him, for his kind are young, and are slaves to their emotions. All who stand here have sworn to protect Vaedwyn, oaths spoken freely, or implied through service. All of us have failed to uphold that oath, myself and Agron included. I propose that we do not waste time further lingering on who is to blame, and accept our parts in this, each of us. A disease infects your proud city. Let us cleanse it, together."

"This is no fer me t'answer, Copper King, yeh've got m'sword whether the Lords agree t'help or not, but ye would suffer greatly wi'out it." King Eirnin turned to face the Clan Lords, "An' yoo?!" He asked in a loud voice, "Have yoo no shame? No a word a'tween yeh, that ye stan' silent... but as it is..." The King shook his head and sighed, "Clan Lords, yeh've the right t'refuse, bu' ah urge yeh... help 'em." 
"The Clan Lords will vote." One of the Dwarves spoke up, "D'we lend our resources, time an' more or leave th' rude, ungrateful grasslanders t'the'selves? Speak."


"Clan Mordha denies support a'them what spits fire at our backs."
"Feck th' lot o' ye, Clan Craith denies ye."
"Our Clan Padraag supports ye, Rider. Ye have quartz fer'blood."
"Faolain wi' ha' none o' this shite."
"Clan Aodenn lends ye what we can, so." 
"The great Clan Dufaigh says yeh've wax in ye box if ye refuse t'help. Ye have ours."
"Baoill ne'er refused a Rider afore, an' we won't stop now." 
"Ya are all feckin' mad, ya are. Duinn will have no part in it."
"Bhaine offer ye our help, Rider, an' may they fear it."
"The Clan Conmara are at'ye side, Rider."
"But we'll not. Clan Dunvar stand apart."
"Aye, nor we. The Clan Yuul will no help a Nordling an' his mad beastie."


"Six against six. The Lords are tied o' their support?" The King raised his brow but before an answer could be given.
"Are'ey feck!" Bradan stepped forwards proudly and banged his fist off his chest armour, "The mighty fine Clan O'Ruairc stands a'side tha' Riders, an' always well. Feck t'all the knob-slobbers what say otherwise ya great flippin' feckers!" He barked at the other Lords, "Aye, am lookin' at Yuul, ya moist pipe!" Bradan spat at the floor and laughed at those Lords who took offence, silently cursing the loud Dwarf.
"Then the vote is no longer tied... the Lords will assist ye, Rider." The King let out a sigh, "An' yeh'll need it."
"Feck luck! We've feckin' Dragons don'tcha know, Kingy?" Bradan grinned.

Turiel let out an approving growl and nodded his head. He spoke once more through Agron. "An agreement has been made, and a wise one it is. No good will come of the Mad King's influence, and so I give fair and much needed warning. Those who serve the Mad King will do so only briefly, for we will reveal their trickery, and I will ensure they are given just reward." And with that Turiel retreated from Agron's mind, and the fiery-haired Nord opened his eyes, letting out a relieved sigh. 
"Hmm...well...looks like a ken who the boss is noo, eh?" He said, turning the Turiel and frowning. Thank ye, ol' friend He added, projecting to Turiel. The dragon only gave a small nod in response. Agron turned to Bradan and folded his arms across his chest. "Right then, pal. If there's trust tae be given, it's tae yersel'. Ye've shown Vaedwyn kindness as if she were yer own. Let's go see how she is, and then we can talk. If we're gonnae dae this I'm gonnae need to hear a lot from ye on how tae proceed." 

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Vaedwyn woke with a start. Nightmares had plagued her, giving her no comfort. But even as she slept, she felt the presence of someone in her mind, calming her. Auriel. Her dragon was nearby, assuring her it was just a nightmare, and yet it was difficult to believe so when she had been asleep. She looked around the room, it was not her own. The room was nearly twice the size of her own, though the ceiling was far shorter and the door a normal size for the Dwarves. It looked as though she was in the palace. She heard footsteps.
"She's not ready though!" A woman growled.
"Gerronwiddit, woman!!" 
She recognised the voice immediately, it was Bradan. But he wasn't alone. "It's okay, i'm up!" Vaedwyn called out from her room. She heard a disgruntled sigh from the woman outside, and then suddenly she yelped and Bradan knocked the door open and barged in. 
"Are ye nekid, girlie? An' if not, why so?" Bradan laughed, his eyes beaming at seeing Vaedwyn, then he stepped to one side, to let his companion inside.

"Oot the road ye bloody lech!" Agron shoved Bradan as he stepped past and as he caught sight of Vaedwyn he stopped, his shoulders slumping, and he let out a sigh. "Aw...lass." He said, shaking his head. "How are ye feelin'?"
"A little weak. The nurse said the blade was poisoned," She quickly added, "But i'm alright now! They gave me some kind of anti-venom?" She looked to Bradan who nodded quietly, "But it's healing quickly. Auriel said she'd try to lend me some of her strength, so I think that's helping. I'm not sure, but I feel a lot better than I did a few hours ago." 
"Well, tha's great, lass." Agron said with a nod. "But I'm afraid we've no got time fer sittin' in bed. Lift yer shirt and gives a look." Agron approached the bed and knelt down so he was at Vaedwyn's level. "Dinnae worry." He said, "I'm just gonnae speed things up a wee bit."
"Thank you," Vaedwyn replied, pulling herself up in bed.
"Ah righ', aye," Bradan laughed, "Jus' ge' ou'ye knickers an' he'll jus-- AW!" Bradan whirled around, putting his back to Vaedwyn as she pulled the bandages from her bare chest. "Righ', what? Thought ah heard ma name..." He muttered, his face turning red. Then he quick-stepped out of the room as Vaedwyn frowned with confusion at him.

"Fanny." Agron muttered with a soft chuckle. He turned his attention back to Vaedwyn and held out his hand at the spot where her wound was, holding a few inches from her skin. "Heal. he uttered in Elvish, and he tensed as he felt his magic going to work, the scar along his neck glowing brightly. After only a moment he removed his hand from her and let his magic fade. "There." He said as he stood up. "Ye've still a wee bit to go but ye should be able tae get about near the same as usual."
Vaedwyn looked down and felt where the blade had entered her chest, and she felt something rough, "I still have a scar...?" She asked, dejectedly. She reached over and grabbed her shirt and pulled it on, then got dressed and once she'd pulled her boots on, she stood up from the edge of the bed. As she stood, the room swayed. She closed her eyes, standing as still as she could for a moment, and then it passed.
"Aye." Agron said with a nod. "Scars are good. Help ye remember." To demonstrate his point Agron pulled back the fabric of his sleeve to reveal a thin, white scar running up his wrist. "Turiel, when he wis a wee newborn. Caught me wi' one o' his claws. An' that's just the smallest scar, lass."

"I can't believe it..." Vaedwyn muttered, sullenly. She shook her head in disbelief, "Moira... was it really her...?" She looked to Agron.
Agron didn't answer immediately. He sat himself on a stool opposite the bed that he was clearly far too large for. He hunched over, resting his arms on his knees as he faced Vaedwyn, and he rubbed his hands together, considering his words. "Aye, lass. It was her." He said finally, his expression grim. "I'd hoped ye would'nae have tae learn this quite so soon, but ye were gonnae realize it at some point. A lot of people are gonnae try tae harm ye, others'll try tae use ye, as a tool, as a symbol....or as a weapon." His expression was hard, but his eyes were soft and sad. 
"People are afraid, and ye are, tae them, a shinin' ray o' hope. Now, no everyone kens how tae deal wi' that. After such a long time livin' under the King's rule, people dinnae trust a good thing when they see it. Their reaction, sometimes, is tae use it tae benefit themselves, or in some cases they wish tae snuff it oot entirely, fer fear it's light blinds them."

"I don't feel like a light." Vaedwyn growled angrily, and walked out of the room. She walked down the steps, finding Bradan staring at something that was apparently quite interesting on the wall. "What are you doing?" She asked, frowning at him. 
"Ah Vaedwyn, how were ye?" Bradan asked nervously.
"I'm fine, Bradan. But I need to see the King." Vaedwyn demanded. 
"Wha'? Why's tha' then?" Waves of shock rippled over Bradan's face.
"Because I can't let the Clan Lords see me weakened." Vaedwyn walked on, with Bradan quickly matching her pace.

When Agron caught up he grabbed Vaedwyn by the arm to stop her from moving ahead. "Are ye mad?" He asked. "Last time I left ye on yer own ye got intae this mess, and then ye go runnin' off without me again?"
"I'm not alone, Bradan's with me. Auriel knows i'm up and she's waiting for me in the main hall, and besides, you won't always be there to protect me. The first time," Vaedwyn yanked her arm out of Agron's grasp, "The very first time, that I was alone, I got attacked, and I wasn't strong enough. If I didn't have you, and Auriel, and healers and guards then i'd be dead. I have to get stronger." She finished walking down the flight of stairs then walked out into the main hall.
We both do, Auriel corrected her. Vaedwyn smiled and looked down to the far end of the hall, to the throne. She could see the King was still deep in conversation with the Clan Lords.
Good, she thought, Maybe I can scare them enough they'll do something stupid...
If the Clan Lords are involved as it is believed, perhaps surprise will reveal the Lord who ordered your demise, when he sees you alive and well? Auriel mused, and Vaedwyn agreed. There were a lot of good reasons to confront the Clan Lords. She had to make her position clear. She wasn't an attendant, or a squire to Agron. She was a Rider.

"King Eirnin!" Vaedwyn's voice carried through the hall. The King looked up and saw her approaching, flanked by Auriel, Agron, Turiel and Bradan.
The King raised his hand to silence the Lords, "What is it, Rider?" 
"I would address the Clan Lords, if I may?" Vaedwyn replied, her tone and expression were stern. The King studied her a moment then nodded, and she turned to face the Clan Lords. "Some of you may be surprised to see me up and about so soon," She paused, studying their faces, "As you all know, I was attacked by an assassin. A blacksmith who has lived and worked in your city for decades." She paused again, choosing her words carefully. "I believe she was motivated to do this by one or more of you." She spat the word, and at the accusation, the Clan Lords erupted with denial and outrage. 

"Wha' gives 'er tha right teh question are loyalty?!" One of the Dwarves barked.
"I'm a Rider." Vaedwyn replied, "It's my right and responsibility to keep peace and balance throughout these lands. One or more of you tried to stop me. Tried to kill me. Clearly, you didn't do a very good job. Might I suggest an assassin next time, and not a blacksmith?" She turned and started to walk out. 
"Impudent babby!" The Faolain Clan Lord snapped, "I'll not have yoo tellin' me mah business wit'--" 
Auriel charged forwards, roaring at the top of her lungs, and the Clan Lords scattered in abject terror. Not one of them remained but the King. The Clan Lords disappeared into the adjacent rooms and slammed the doors behind them. Auriel reared up and sat down, turning to face Vaedwyn.
Well that was dramatic, Vaedwyn raised an eyebrow at her. 
What? Auriel replied defensively, I was simply...
Terrifying them, yes. Vaedwyn shook her head but grinned all the same. "Thank you, King Eirnin. With your leave, we'll return to Moira's home and start our investigation there, and..." Vaedwyn looked to the closed doors, "... when the Lords have changed their underwear, would you inform them they are to expend every resource in finding the one who ordered my assassination?" The King nodded with a smile and Vaedwyn turned to leave.
"Tha Lords?!" Bradan choked out the words, then cleared his throat, "Ah shit me cacks an' scaly were runnin' away fer me, ne'er mind tha Lords." Then started laughing nervously, his gaze wandering to Auriel with a new-found appreciation and respect. 

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They returned, briefly, to their quarters where Agron retrieved Skovaer and strapped the great blade to his back. He also took a short sword and attached it around the belt at his hip. He had removed his weapons inside Baile as a courtesy to the Dwarves, but the time for courtesy had long passed. "Arm yersel', lass." He said to Vaedwyn. "All ye can carry and use comfortably. I'll no have us bein' caught wi' our pants round're ankles again." He retrieved a small dagger from his belongings and slid it in to his boot. 
"Do you think we'll be attacked again?" Vaedwyn asked, as she tied a quiver to her back, and then shouldered a longbow.
"Perhaps, but it's best tae be prepared aw the same, lass." Agron said. They left their quarters and when they returned to the streets outside Turiel and Auriel were waiting for them. "Turiel, I'll need ye tae keep watch o'er us. If we're followed, let me ken." The dragon nodded in response, and without another word he turned and took off into the skies. Bradan was also waiting for them, puffing on his pipe as usual. 

"Howya, Vargr?" Bradan asked, taking one last puff of his pipe before knocking out the still-burning ash.
"What did you call me?" Vaedwyn asked, frowning.
"Vargr..." Bradan repeated the word, tamping his pipe. "Don' tell us ye don' know Vargr?" Bradan scowled, looking to Agron with a look of expectation, then pointed the end of his pipe at the man, "Ye great dope, why ain't ye learnin'er Dwarvish 'istry?!" 
"Oh aye, course." Agron nodded. "I telt her about the last thousan' years o' yer contributions tae Suros, that is tae say, fuck all."

"Ah ye a dry shite..." Bradan muttered irritably, "Ahright then, lissen, long afore 'em pointy-ears turned up - yeh soun' though," He pointed out to Vaedwyn, "An' way long afore any o' 'em tall folk turned up, it were jus' us an' the scalies, right? An' they were'no bound scalies like what y'are, right? Were meaner 'en mean. Killed an' scoffed us, an' are sheep an' such, an' our crops an' homes... Well, ye get the idea. Anyway, chief o' these scalies was one, 'is scales were black as night, an' he brought great storms with 'im. Crackin' lightnin' an' thunder like ye ne'er believe. We thought we'd all be scoffed, bu'then one day a young girly was at pickin' flowers, an' there was this great scaly, ready t'just scoff her, right? Well this great black dragon swept down, an' killed the other one and spoke with the girl."
"But..." Vaedwyn interrupted, "Only Riders can hear Dragons...?" 

"Will'ye let me tell yeh?!" Bradan growled, huffing. "So, this dragon says to the girl, that ye'll bring the Clans together, an' be Queen o' the Dwarves. First o' the line." 
"What was the dragon's name?" Vaedwyn asked, captivated by the story. At this, Bradan frowned.
"Well, I... well... there's..." Bradan chuckled uncomfortably, "I don't... there's no names given Dragons in our stories, sorry girl."
An oversight we will have to rectify. Auriel replied, which Vaedwyn repeated.
"Ah-- aye." Bradan smiled, "Point is, are first Queen's name jus' so happened t'mean, 'One-That-Watches'. Now, tha' name was only given t'one after, thousands a' years ago. Ye once leader o' the Riders, as a sign o' respect. But, since ye took that blade in ye chest, i've heard none but speak ye name 'Vargr'. The one that watches o'er all."

Agron folded his arms and rolled his eyes, unimpressed. After a moment he cleared his throat to speak. "She has a name, an' it's Vaedwyn. A fine name it is, an' if she's tae be remembered, it should'nae be by the name o' some long dead Queen."
"Yoo shut'chu fookin' mout!" Bradan growled, getting genuinely quite angry at Agron, "Ye Dragon made it clear back 'der that he's the sensible one, but i'd no realised you were so quick t'chuck mud on the fledgling respect are folk 'ave given ye, long overdue though it were, they's tryin'!!" Bradan huffed smoke through his nose, turning to face Vaedwyn, "Took all the--" Bradan muttered, while pulling something from his back, "--fun-suckin' tree-legged--" He walked up to Vaedwyn and thrust a weapon into her hands. "Have it, and may yeh stick'im widdit first!" Bradan growled, and then marched off down the steps towards Moira's house, content to walk alone for a time. Vaedwyn held the longsword in her hands for a time before she unsheathed it. The work was exquisite, incredibly sharp and lighter than the standard sword she'd been using. It was not a Rider's sword, but it had to have been a gift fit for royalty. Vaedwyn turned to Agron as she fitted her new sword to her belt.

"Why did you have to say it like that? He was being kind. They're all being kind! We came here to seek safety and build some kind of relationship with the Dwarves, and you're still spitting venom at them. We have to learn to forgive, Agron!" Vaedwyn adjusted the bow on her back and waited for Agron, showing him she was ready to go. Agron walked with her, and as he did he explained his previous comments. "I've nae quarrel wi' Bradan." He said, shaking his head. "But that stunt ye pulled back there, it has ramifications. Whether ye meant it or no, back then ye showed just what kind o' Rider ye are. Ye scoffed at their traditions, their ways, an ye made it clear yer status as a Rider put ye above them. Other Riders were like that, including Aemon. That's no tae say I think poorly of yer decision, far from it. But ye need tae decide how people are gonnae see ye. Sure, I could compare ye tae the old tales of ma people, and yer the spit of Mahveir, another Elven Rider. But dae ye want people tae remember ye as the legacy o' someone that came afore ye, or dae ye want tae be remembered as Vaedwyn?" 

Agron let out a huffing sigh and resigned himself. "Maybe a spoke oot o' turn. It's yer own decision in the end. But I'll warn ye against placatin' tae the wants of others. Make enough promises an' sooner or later ye'll find yerself caught between loyalties. It's a treacherous game, but it's one ye have tae play. Like it or not yer words carry weight."
"I've promised nothing but to dethrone Aemon." Vaedwyn replied, "As for being remembered, I don't care. History will choose to remember me as it likes, I won't be able to stop or change that but by my actions, not by who i'm likened to. They mean it only as endearment to a figure they care about."
Even so, Agron has a point. You must be careful. Auriel added, walking behind them slowly, so as to keep pace. The Dwarves seem quick to praise, and quick to forget when needed most...
Bradan wouldn't forget us, Vaedwyn replied irritably.
We barely know him, Auriel replied. Just listen to Agron, Turiel and I. We're on your side. You're the Rider, if you say we are to fight, then we will fight. If you say we are to flee, then we shall flee. But you will take my council.
Always, Vaedwyn replied, apologising. "I'm sorry." Vaedwyn said aloud, at last, glancing at Agron, "I'm just trying to figure things out."

"Aye, no easy task." Agron said with a nod. "The Rider's tales are excitin', and they fill hearts wi' hope an' passion. But they're jus' tales, lass. Don't ye go thinkin' we had it all figured out. History paints us as a united clan that held dominion o'er all, but life's rarely so simple. Sororheim Makirog, they were the Rider's o' Luftjall, maself included. Make no mistake, we were Rider's o' Nordúr, first an' foremost. There were other fortresses, other Riders, an' while each made a dutiful effort tae help all o' Suros, there were times when we didn't see eye tae eye. The Elven, fer example, concerned themselves very little wi' the affairs o' others. Yer very different fae yer kin, y'ken?"
"Am I?" Vaedwyn shrugged her shoulders, "I've never seen Valir, I wouldn't know. Mogwé..."  Vaedwyn hesitated on her adoptive mother's name. "She, uhm... she said once that people in my village aren't like other Elves. She said it would be difficult for me... if I ever met Valirian Elves, that is."

"Aye, I imagine it would, lass." Agron nodded. "Took me a very long time tae get used tae it. Aw the pleasantries, the bowin', and dinnae get me started on the bloody dancin', eywis dancin', could'nae stop 'em!" Agron let out a hearty chuckle and the pair fell into a brief silence, as they came across Moira's home, where Bradan waited. Agron nodded to the Dwarf as he met him. "Du'vrit or vasr knovar, Bradan." He said in the Dwarves own tongue. It was an apology. He pushed open the door of Moira's house and lowered his head as he stepped through the door. 
As Agron, Vaedwyn and Bradan stepped into Moira's home, they were greeted with Moira's corpse. Vaedwyn noticed that it had been unmoved, untouched. Being in the room again made her feel sick. She wanted to run out as quickly as she could. But she knew she had to stay. She glanced at Moira's still-staring head which lay several feet from her body.

"Why hasn't she been buried?" Vaedwyn asked, turning away. 
Bradan shook his head with disgust, "Dwarves who were disgraced don' get teh sit amongs' the stone. She'll rot there 'till there's naught left bu' bones." Despite what had transpired between them, Vaedwyn felt pity for the woman. She didn't understand why she'd attacked her, but it didn't matter. If there's an afterlife, she shouldn't be refused. She was dead now, she'd paid enough. Something caught her eye, and she looked to the back of the room. There was a closet, and something was sticking out from the bottom of the closet door which was slightly ajar. Vaedwyn drew her blade and approached.

"Careful, girl!" Bradan warned, his hand already on his axe. Vaedwyn nodded and then grabbed the door of the closet and pulled it open swiftly. Before she could react, she was pinned to the floor and let out a yell in surprise. But Bradan and Agron moved quickly to pull her attacker off her. It was a body. It was Moira. 
"But then... what's... what or who is that?" Vaedwyn asked, turning to look at the decapitated corpse. Just then, a noise made everyone in the room spin back around to the closet, and from behind a layer of coats, stepped down a young Dwarven girl, no older than twelve or thirteen.
"Aw gawds, is Moira's snapper, Aoife. Nobody gave 'er a thought..." Bradan knelt down and held out his hands, but the girl remained frozen. Her eyes staring off into space. "Ahright 'der girl," Bradan delicately picked her up and put her face into his chest, shielding her from her mother's body and the decapitated doppelganger. "Poor thin' musta seen it all an' got trapped in there with 'er an all..."

Agron let out a growl of disapproval at the situation. "Take the wee lass intae another room, eh?" He said as he knelt down over the doppelganger's corpse. "A lassie should'nae hauf tae see this." He began to examine the corpse, turning his face away from the group. A sensation of overwhelming guilt washed over him. How could he have been so mistaken? A deep frown emerged over his face and he became deathly silent. 
Bradan nodded and carried the girl into the kitchen, while Vaedwyn knelt down beside Agron, "So it wasn't Moira that tried to kill me?" Vaedwyn asked, her gaze turning from the doppelganger to Moira's body and back again. They looked identical, how was that possible? Agron rubbed at his beard for a moment, silent as he cast his eye over the corpse. It was identical to the real thing in every way. Even a twin wouldn't look as perfect. 

"S'worse than a thought." Agron said finally. "Somethin' like this is'nae just a danger tae us, it's a danger tae all the Dwarves. This here, lass...this is some serious magic. No a trick or an illusion." He gently prodded the face of the corpse as he spoke. "Flesh shaped and contorted. Brutal and painful fer the subject. What lies underneath...impossible tae tell. Could be 'nother Dwarf, or somethin' else."
"Poor Moira..." Vaedwyn muttered, "I didn't even know she had a child." Her gaze turned to the kitchen as she wondered about the girl's future. She couldn't even imagine what it would be like for her going forwards. "Does this mean that Aemon is directly involved?" 
Aemon, one of his lieutenants or perhaps a particularly powerful mage? Auriel replied after the images of the room were shared back to her across their link. A dark thing, indeed.

"Let's no jump tae conclusions. We've done enough o' that already." Agron said. "Search her body. There might be somethin' that can lead us tae whoever orchestrated this."
"It wouldn't be very smart to leave something that could be traced back to a Clan Lord." Vaedwyn replied, as she leant over and tried to turn the doppelganger's body onto it's side. 
Unless they were sure it would succeed, Auriel replied grimly. 
As Vaedwyn pulled, she yelped and darted back as the corpse turned grey, cracks spread across the body and even the clothes she wore, and then the body fell in on itself, turning to ash. Vaedwyn let a string of Elven curses fly before she regained her composure. Her yells brought Bradan back into the room, having left the young Aoife in the kitchen. 
"Wha'whassit?! How're--" Bradan was shocked into silence.
"She just..." Vaedwyn shook her head, unable to find the right word. But something glinted and gleamed from amongst the ash. Carefully, Vaedwyn reached forwards and grabbed hold of a small metal ring with a symbol of a ram's head on it. "Look." She passed it to Bradan who growled a curse and then spat on the ground.
"Duinn. Clan Duinn. Them feckin' evil..." Bradan gathered himself, reminded that there was a young child in the next room, "Well... what noo?"

"We confront 'em." Agron said as he rose. "Their Clan leader better have a guid explanation fer-" He cut off from what he was saying. 
Agron, something is happening. Turiel's voice echoed in his head. 
What's goin' on? Were we followed?" Agron asked. 
No...but there is a lot of activity. Guards lie dead at the palace. Turiel replied gravely. 
"Piss an' shite!" Agron swore. "Bradan, blood's been shed at the palace. Go, protect yer kin. An' Vaedwyn..." He paused, his lips tightening. He knew Vaedwyn would not like what he was about to say. "Take care of the wee yin, I'll deal wi' this."

"I can't let you deal with this yourself, you don't even know what's happening! There could be anything up there, you don't know!!" Vaedwyn yelled, as Agron ran for the door, she chased after him. As Agron crossed the threshold he turned around and barred Vaedwyn's passage, his figure like a mountain in front of the small Dwarven door. "Yer not ready fer a battle, Vaedwyn. Ye can duel admirably, but in a battle against who knows how many opponents, ye've nae idea how differen' it is. Stay close tae Auriel, an' help the people here. I'm no askin' ye, I'm tellin' ye." There was a thunderous crunch from outside, and when Agron left the home Turiel was waiting outside. He heaved himself on to the dragon's back and looked back at Vaedwyn, and he looked saddened by his own actions. Then Turiel took off into the air and left Vaedwyn alone with Auriel. 

"I'm not waiting around any more," Vaedwyn growled, checking the sword Bradan had given her. She paced around the room for a few seconds, weighing up her options. But she'd already made up her mind. Vaedwyn rushed for the door, only for the room to suddenly be cast in shadow as a large body landed in front of it. 
I didn't wait a thousand years for you to get yourself killed, Auriel stated, simply. 
Enraged at the betrayal, Vaedwyn opened her mouth to curse at Auriel, but she was unable to say 'I hate you!' in Elvish. It was simply not true. As her mouth tried to form the words it was as though she had forgotten them, frustrated by the barriers of her own language, she yelled, "I'm very angry with you!" And to her surprise and satisfaction Auriel recoiled, stung by her words. Vaedwyn stalked back to the dining table and sat in one of the chairs.
"I-Is it safe to come out yet?" Asked a quiet voice from the kitchen. Vaedwyn turned to see Aoife waiting in the doorway, and suddenly all her anger and bile washed away as she was reminded that some more than others needed protecting. She held out her hand and the little girl ran into her arms and together they sat, waiting for Agron's return.

Turiel tore off across the city at speed, and in only a few short minutes he had reached the castle. They landed at the steps and Agron hopped off, drawing the short sword at his belt. Turiel sniffed the air and growled in disapproval. Blood, he said. ...and...a wicked stench. Our enemies are within. He craned his head towards the palace entrance. 
"Go." Agron said with a nod, and in response Turiel let out a clicking snarl and bounded forward. His wings spread out and he was airborne once more, descending into the depths of the palace. Agron ascended the steps, stopping to observe the corpses of the slain guards. They had been wickedly ravaged, not just by blade, but by magic. Agron let out a curse and kept going. He reached the gates and disappeared inside. More corpses greeted him as he passed through the great halls, and as he heard Turiel's blood curdling roar he quickened his pace. He sprinted through the doors of the main hall and emerged on a bloody scene. Turiel was stalking around in the corner of the room, sniffing and snarling. More guards lay slain, and a few of the Clan chiefs were cowering, shaken from their ordeal. Eirnin stood over a body, a great hammer clutched in his strong hands. He turned when Agron approached him, and his expression was one of grave and furious anger. 
"Yeh too late, Rider." Eirnin said between breaths, "Duin's Clan Lord's dead."

 

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Vaedwyn walked across the room, stopped at the wall, turned and walked back to the other side. She'd been pacing for a while now. Still no word from Agron or Turiel. She wanted to run after them and help. She was worried they were in danger, but Auriel refused to let her leave Moira's home. She also had Aoife to take care of. The young girl remained sat at the table, her little legs kicking over the side of the chair as she stared at the ground. Vaedwyn couldn't look at her. Every time she did, she started to well up with tears. She saw a lot of herself in Aoife. A young girl who had lost her mother. Mogwé was the only family she'd ever known, though she knew she was not her birth mother. She had been raised by the Elder, and saw no difference between the two. Now Aoife had been touched by Aemon's darkness, just as she had. Vaedwyn turned and walked back to the other side of the room once again, when she heard a quiet but distinct sound. Crying. 

The muted sobbing stopped Vaedwyn's pacing, and she turned to look at Aoife. The young girl was hunched over, wiping furiously at her face. Vaedwyn walked up to her and knelt beside her, putting her hand on the little girl's hand and gently lowering it from her face. "You don't need to hide it."
"A-Ah don't want t'c-cry..." Aoife stuttered, trembling.
"Sometimes its better to cry, Aoife." Vaedwyn rubbed the girl's hand gingerly.
"M-Me mammy s-said it'd b-be awrigh'," The tears flowed freely down her cheeks and Vaedwyn clenched her jaw, trying to stay strong for her, "Bu' e' wasn', it were horrible." Vaedwyn nodded quietly and pulled Aoife into a hug, and the girl erupted into sobbing, wailing for her mother. They stayed like that for a long while until Aoife's sobs turned into quiet murmurs and eventually fell silent. Soon after, she straightened up and wiped her eyes, "Yeh tha Vargr, ain'tcha?"
"Y-yeah, I guess..." Vaedwyn muttered, letting out a short sigh. 
"Didja see tha' 'orrid fella hurt me mammy at 'er work?" Aoife asked, expectation in her voice. 

"It's not..." Vaedwyn started, but trailed off, "I can't see everything, Aoife. Riders watch over things, they look after as many people as they can."
"Oh... thas' why yeh couldn't save me mammy...." Aoife whispered, and bit at her thumb nail.
Vaedwyn's shoulders shook as she tried to stay strong for the little girl. She could tell her it was alright to cry, but that was a luxury she couldn't afford for herself. Not right now. But as she stood there, staring at the girl, something she'd said suddenly came to the forefront of her mind. 
"Did you say the one you hurt your mother... did you say he hurt her at your mother's work?" Vaedwyn asked, frowning. Aoife nodded silently. "Your mother was a blacksmith, wasn't she?" Again, Aoife nodded. Vaedwyn gave the little girl a squeeze on the shoulder, "Thank you, Aoife..." Her words were feeble and ineffective, but she knew there was little she could say to help right now. Vaedwyn stood and let out a deep breath before asking if Auriel had been listening.

Yes, of course, Auriel confirmed. And it's a bad idea.
Hear me out, Vaedwyn replied irritably. We have nothing from this place but a couple of bodies, what if the doppelganger left some clue behind that would reveal its motivations, or maybe something that could directly link Clan Duinn to Moira's death? Isn't that worth knowing? Vaedwyn could feel an uncharacteristic indecisiveness to Auriel's thoughts. 
... It's still a bad idea. She replied, eventually. Agron and Turiel are dealing with who-knows-what, and we've been given charge of Aoife. 
Well we don't even know where Moira's smithy is, but Aoife could show us, then I could check inside while you look after her? Vaedwyn reasoned with her partner, and she felt Auriel weighing her options. Please, I have to do something to help, Auriel. Don't you want to do something too?
Of course I do! Auriel growled from outside the house, but then moved away, and the orange glow of lamp light shone into the room once more. Fine, but let's hurry.

 


 

"It's down there..." Aoife pointed down the road. Past the rows of houses, across a bridge, there was a large open-walled blacksmith's positioned beside a small waterfall that turned a wheel, and operated a number of functions. It seemed like a perfect location. Vaedwyn was yet again impressed by the ingenuity of the Dwarves. She couldn't see anything wrong with the smithy from here, she had to get closer, look around inside. She turned to check on Aoife, who looked understandably uncomfortable. She hadn't wanted to take the young girl as far as here but they'd been unable to find the smithy without her help. Admittedly she hadn't been many places, but Baile was far larger than her own home town. She gave Aoife a little squeeze on the shoulder, and asked her to stay. The girl didn't need to be back there any time soon. If that was where it happened, it wasn't a place of good memories any more. Vaedwyn touched the pommel of the sword Bradan had given her, hoping it would imbue her with something. What, she didn't know. Courage, perhaps. The wisdom to find something of use.

Please, be careful, Auriel reminded her. 
You be careful. Vaedwyn retorted, and walked over the bridge, leaving them behind. Being this close to the waterfall truly brought home just how powerful a thing it was. She felt the cool spray dancing across her skin even though she was a stone's throw away from it. As she reached the other side of the bridge, she wandered over to the wall-less smithy, it's roof supported by dozens of enormous stone columns. At first, nothing seemed amiss. She saw tools out, the forge was still hot. A number of projects were laid out, waiting for their master to return. Then Vaedwyn noticed something about a large stone container full of water. The water itself was incredibly dark. Vaedwyn pulled her sleeve back and dipped her hand into the cold water, and when she pulled it out, it came out red. She looked at the ground around the container, and saw pink splotches dotted all around. Reluctantly, Vaedwyn rolled her sleeve all the way up her arm and reached back into the container. It was deep. The blood-rich water was almost at her shoulder when her fingers scraped the bottom. Slowly, carefully, she ran her fingers across the stone, searching. After a minute, she felt something tap off the side of her forefinger. She reached back to grab it and before she could fish it out of the water she felt the most intense panic she'd ever felt in her life.

Vaedwyn opened her mouth to call to Auriel, but a hand grabbed her hair and plunged her head underwater. She was drowning. She felt white hot pain as she struggled to stop the water from entering her lungs, but they were on fire. She needed air. She struggled, kicking out as her hands desperately sought the edges of the container. At last, she found purchase on the other side and with all her strength, she kicked back and hit something hard. Suddenly, the pressure on her head was no more and she yanked it back out of the water, gasping for air and choking, coughing up bloody-water. Vaedwyn whirled around, drawing her sword, and in the same instant she saw Auriel across the bridge. Her dragon laid on her side, she wasn't moving. Boiling anger rose up from deep within her. She drew her sword and turned on her attacker. The figure before her was cloaked in black, a white mask with black eyes obscured their face. Whoever they were, it didn't matter. Vaedwyn charged, and despite her anger, she remembered her lessons. She was careful not to overextend herself, her form was as close to perfect as she'd ever managed. She started to raise her blade to land her first blow, then her enemy spoke one word.

"Heat."

Vaedwyn screamed and dropped her sword in surprise. As the sword clattered to the ground, she saw it was white-hot. The palms of her hands were horribly burnt and blistered. It didn't matter. She reached over her shoulder, pulling the bow from her back but before she could nock an arrow, she felt a presence in her mind. But it was not Auriel. No, this was something alien and unwelcome. She panicked, she knew she had to protect herself, but she wasn't sure how. She tried to block out her thoughts, to guard them from the interloper, but she couldn't stop it. The walls she rose were as brittle as old clay, knocked down as barely more than annoyance. As she tried to raise a defence, the pain increased. She could feel the probing tendrils of the interloper seeking out every piece of information, and then she realised what it was looking for. It wanted to find her true name. Vaedwyn had yet to learn her true name, but the thought that this enemy could learn enough to guess it terrified her. She redoubled her efforts to defend herself, but the pain forced her to her knees.

Don't fight it. The voice echoed around her mind. The more you fight, the more it will hurt. The words reverberated around inside her head until she was no longer sure if they were the interloper's or her own thoughts, telling her to give in. She screamed in pain and frustration and then suddenly the tendrils of the interloper's mind withdrew from her, leaving the whole world spinning. Vaedwyn fell to the ground, and emptied the contents of her stomach. She couldn't even sit upright, let alone stand.
"You are weak." The one behind the mask growled, their voice feminine but stern. "If not for Agron and Turiel, you would be dead." She spoke their names with as much familiarity as she would have herself. Vaedwyn felt shame, for being unable to fight this enemy. For being unable to protect her thoughts. "You don't even know your own name." 
"Please don't hurt Aoife..." Vaedwyn pleaded. As if on command, Vaedwyn looked up to see the young girl stood beside her attacker. "Run, Aoife... run..."
"I have no reason to harm her." She replied, looking down at the girl, "Her mother was an inevitable casualty." 
"Don't talk about her like that..." Vaedwyn growled, trying to pull herself to her feet.

The masked woman knelt down and picked up Aoife and held her in their hands, "Come with me now. Command your dragon to do likewise, and i'll leave them in peace." Vaedwyn shook her head, she wanted to scream out for Agron, Turiel, Bradan, anyone. But no-one was coming. She was alone, even Auriel was unable to help her. Vaedwyn dropped her head to the floor, and touched her forehead to the cold stone in defeat. "Good." The masked woman nodded, "I'll wake your dragon." As she turned away, Vaedwyn pulled her head from the ground and reached for her sword. The weapon was still white-hot, but she picked it up regardless, screaming in pain as she yanked herself up from the ground and charged. The masked woman whirled back on herself in shock. Unable to draw her blade in time, the masked woman blocked with the only thing she had. Aoife. She raised the little girl into the path of the attack, and Vaedwyn screeched in agony as her blade struck the girl in the shoulder, killing her instantly. Vaedwyn tumbled forwards as the masked woman drew her sword. She hit the ground, rolled across the floor, and as she came to a stop she turned and tried to get to her feet, the sword still clutched in her hands.

The masked woman struck only twice. The first attack knocked the blade from Vaedwyn's hands, and the second sliced up the left-hand side of her face and she crumpled to the floor. The masked woman sheathed her blade but as she reached forwards to grab Vaedwyn she yelled in pain and her knee buckled, forcing her to kneel. She clutched at her head as though she was in terrible agony, "No!" She roared, "I had to!!" Then she turned and fled, leaving Vaedwyn lying on the cold stone floor. The deep gash in her face bleeding profusely, the blade had taken the use of her left eye. Vaedwyn slowly turned her head to the side, and saw Aoife's lifeless corpse beside her. Pain and despair were the last things she felt, she closed her one remaining good eye and let darkness take her. To where, she did not care.

 


 

Slowly, Vaedwyn opened her eyes. Everything hurt. She groaned as she tried to pull herself up, but a hand was gently pressing her back down, encouraging her to remain in the bed. She tried to focus, and saw Agron looking down at her. For a moment, she couldn't remember what had happened. Then suddenly everything came rushing back to her, a flurry of images and suddenly tears were flowing down her cheeks again.
Agron's expression was worn, tired and riddled with guilt. His eyes were dark, and he looked like he had not slept in days. Yet even as Vaedwyn began to cry, he did not soothe her with comforting words as he was prone to do in times past. He remained deathly silent, his eyes watering, expressing his pain on her behalf, and finally he lowered his head in shame.

"I'm so sorry..." Vaedwyn whispered, "I should never have left Moira's house..." She stared down at her hands. Her palms were white and felt strange, they were rough to the touch, like sandpaper. They had been healed, but of course, the burn scars remained. Vaedwyn reached up, remembering the woman's final attack. She closed her left eye, and touched her eyelid, she felt a line running down it, which went from near the top of her forehead, down to the bottom of her cheek. She closed her right eye, and her world turned dark. She was blind in her left eye. "It's all my fault..." She muttered.
"No, lass..." Agron replied, his voice hoarse and quiet. "The fault is ma own." He let out a heavy, shaking sigh, and his frame seemed to slump from the pressure. "I should never o' left ye alone... again. I thought Baile would be the safest place for ye, but a was wrong. Now...ye've suffered grievous wounds, an' yer in more danger than ye ever were tae begin wi'... an' it's aw ma fault."

"You couldn't have known..." Vaedwyn muttered, and closed her eyes. Aoife's lifeless face stared back at her. Vaedwyn quickly opened her eyes, shaking her head, "I'll never be strong enough to fight Aemon... I don't know who or what that was, but she was powerful... she was so powerful, I couldn't do a thing to her, and when I..." Vaedwyn broke down again, she couldn't stop thinking about Aoife.
"Perhaps a showered ye wi' too much praise." Agron said softly. "Ye mastered the sword, but a should ha'e been clear...that even that is'nae enough. A've been a poor teacher tae ye...so much ye have yet tae learn, an' that I cannae tell ye because ye lack the skill tae be trusted wi' the knowledge. I should never ha'e stopped here...we should ha'e kept goin' to oor true destination. I'd hoped we'd be faster if ye learnt tae fly but..." He fell silent once more.

"I'm not strong enough..." Vaedwyn laid down and turned onto her side, "I was never strong enough. Auriel choose wrong." Something moved across her skin and fell onto her arm, she looked down and saw a small, smooth stone pendant with an Elvish rune on it. Agron must have given it to her. She laid her head down on her pillow and stared at the wall.
"Dinnae think yersel' so wise as tae question the choices o' a dragon, lass." Agron said. "Yer strong. Stronger than me... Ye remember the bridge?" He smiled softly. "I did'nae tell ye... but that kind o magic ye did... a Rider's never managed such a feat so soon intae their trainin', an' every day we trained yer speed an' grace became greater than a could o' hoped. A'm an old man, Vaedwyn. What ye've accomplished in weeks, took me months... years in some respects." He rubbed his hands together, softly, as if polishing a small stone between them. "Dinnae feel scunnered due to the skills o' yer elders, they've had much longer tae hone their skills. When yer ready, ye'll fly, I'm sure o' that."
Agron lifted his hand to touch the small rune pendant on her neck. "Never take this off, from now on. Yer encounter wi' that... monster, it's left ye open to them now. Until ye learn tae block yer mind, they'll be able to reach in an' see what they like at any time. Until then, this rune will stop'em. But... ye've become a danger tae the people o' this mountain. As soon as yer able, we'll be leavin'." Vaedwyn didn't reply, she grabbed her sheets and pulled them up over her shoulder and lay there with her back to Agron.

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As the days passed by Agron saw little of Vaedwyn. Her injuries and defeat had left her vulnerable, and lacking her usual optimism and passion. Equally Agron was torn up by his own failure to uphold his responsibility to her, and the promises he had made to himself to keep her safe. He spent the days busying himself in preparation to leave. He helped the Dwarves in the recovery of this terrible event that had resulted in the loss of many of their proud warriors and guardians, charged with keeping them safe. Unrest washed over the city like a noxious fog, sewing seeds of distrust and bitterness among a race that were renowned for their long-held grudges. The very revelation of Aemon's machinations to covertly manipulate the Dwarven inner council was devastating for the common folk, and sparked outrage in the loyal clan lords, who began to question the effectiveness of their elected King. 

I must fix this. Agron projected to Turiel as the pair sat on a ledge upon the higher reaches of the underground city, watching people move around below, getting on with their lives. I came here an' spoke o' debts owed, an' the changin' o' the ages, yet in the end it is I who now owe much to these people.
You know full well that such manipulation takes time and planning. Aemon's dark tendrils has already rooted themselves deep within the rocks before we arrived. Turiel's head lowered and snaked over the ledge, sweeping from left to right, watching over the people below with far keener eyes than Agron. At the very least the subterfuge has been revealed, and King Iron Blood will not rest until he has rid his proud city of the festering weeds that lie deep within it. His title may be the cost he pays, but I feel that will do little to stop him. With the distrust among the clan lords, it will be difficult for them to unanimously decide on a new ruler, and so Iron Blood may yet keep his crown.
Perhaps. Agron said with a sigh. He got down from the ledge and dusted himself off. I'll speak wi' him. There are other things we need before we leave, an' with luck he may help us.

Very well, then I shall see that no more of our time is wasted. Turiel replied, rising up to his full height. It is time for the little one to cease her sulking. A duty that lies with Auriel. And so, she too must stop her sulking. Emboldening her, however, is a duty that lies with me.
Well, I don't want you to push her. She's been through a lot. Agron said. 
You need not concern yourself with how I choose to train my charge. Turiel replied The breeze has no right to tell the tempest to calm itself. The tempest rages, and so too, do dragons. With that Turiel pushed off from the edge, and descended down through the city, leaving Agron to set off to have words with the King. 


Turiel found Auriel in the same place he had always found her the last few days, waiting outside the small infirmary room where Vaedwyn had been resting. He approached her slowly, making no effort to hide his presence, and when he reached her side he waited, silently. 
For a long time, Auriel remained silent, content to remain motionless and still, like a statue. When she finally spoke, it sounded more to herself than Turiel.
She has not spoken to me in three days, Auriel lowered her head, Her mind has always been a forest, dense and alien. Yet now night has fallen, and it has become an altogether different place. The sounds which comforted me, now in the darkness, make me fearful of what lies within. I failed her.
That you did. Turiel replied, his voice without any reassurance, and he did not move to comfort her. I sense your shame, and well you should welcome it. It is what you deserve.

Auriel's talons raked the ground as they dug deep into the stone. Then leave me to my shame, old one. Turiel did not speak immediately, but his nostrils flared and thick plumes of smoke jetted from them, billowing and dancing in the calm, windless air. Then he said, A pity. You chose a strong Rider, one that few, if any, compare to. For her to be tied to a dragon who is weak and pathetic. No...not a dragon. Dragon's do not allow such qualities to infect them. A lizard, then? Is that what you are?"
Would you like this lizard to scratch out your eyes? To be blinded by one so weak and pathetic would be shameful indeed... Auriel snarled, her gaze never leaving the room she knew Vaedwyn to be in. Plumes of smoke vented from her nostrils as her tail flicked back and forth dangerously. Turiel's amber eyes focused, his pupils becoming tiny, sharp slits. He moved suddenly, and with speed that seemed unnatural for such a large creature. With a throaty growl he snapped at Auriel, and though she was quick to react to his snapping bite, she was not quick enough to move out of his way as his huge frame charged into her, bashing his crested head into hers, before bringing his claws up and swiping her neck, pushing her down to the ground, digging his claws in to her throat. 

I am not Agron, and I will not tolerate insolent pups! He snarled at her. You will show respect, or you will be punished accordingly. That is how our race operate. You have no right to sulk and lick your wounds, you have no right to snap at elders, and you certainly have no right to threaten, for you are of no threat to me. Clearly you need to be educated, and at haste. Lesson one; when I speak, you listen. When I command, you fulfill it. You will be given no leniency, you will succeed, or you will fail. That is how it will be, always, until you are strong enough to stand against me. Do I make myself clear?
Auriel scrambled beneath Turiel, her talons lashing out and despite her strength, they barely pierced the surface of his scales. She hissed and snapped at his face, trying as hard as she could to take his eyes. Furious rage took over and her tail lashed out from beneath him and whipped the old dragon across the face, but despite drawing blood from her whip-like tail, despite everything, she was unable to move him. As she reached forwards to bite him again, she was drawn up and slammed against the ground a second time and the wind was knocked from her lungs. 
Remove yourself from me... She snarled, settling down.

Either remove me yourself, or yield. Turiel replied flatly. Your demands are meaningless. Only strength will be respected. I could kill you right now, effortlessly. Vaedwyn has grown stronger each day, she excels in ways she does not even realize. She pushes herself with all of her might, she is fire, and more dragon than you. And now she lies broken, her flames dim and dying. That is because while she grows strong, you are still weak. You and Vaedwyn are one, her strength is yours, and your weakness is hers. So, what will you do? Only by becoming strong can you ever hope to stoke her flames.
Auriel roared at Turiel, her scales smoking and crackling as she struggled beneath him. She stretched, as her muscles tensed, and she began to grow. Her tail lengthened, the wings at her back grew larger and wider, stretching down her back. Her talons lengthened even as her legs stretched out and gripped Turiel's ankles. Her body grew in size as her neck lengthened and broadened, and as she grew her scales seemed to vibrate with electricity. In a matter of seconds, she had reached maturity. Though small for a female, she almost rivalled Turiel in size, yet not in bulk. She latched onto him with her talons and instinctively drew in breath. Crackling electricity danced along her mouth and when she opened her maw, a beam of heat and light, flame and electricity shot out, scorching Turiel from chest to neck.

With a pained roar, Turiel's jaws erupted in brilliant, white hot fire that coalesced with Auriel's own breath, and the pair of dragons were engulfed in a raging storm of fire, lightning and smoke. Dwarves began to scream and cry out, gathering around the explosive scene. The two dragons thrashed, their limbs and tails whipping in and out of the smoke, until finally Auriel was thrown out of the smoke and crashed on the ground, but quickly got back up, rearing to face Turiel's next assault. He emerged as the smoke began to settle. As his body came in to view his scales on his chest and neck were blackened, with an orange glow and they hissed and sizzled. His eyes were ablaze with fury, his pride wounded, and the pain of his injuries all combined to send his temper soaring. Even with her sudden growth, she could not match the bulkier dragons sheer, brutal strength. Yet when he considered her now, his movements were careful, and far less brazen, for in that instant she had become an opponent worthy of his attention. He stalked her for a moment, snarling and growling, seething with anger at her rebellious and insolent nature. Then, with an annoyed chuffing sound, he lowered his head in a bowing motion, letting his chin sit but a few inches from the ground. Well met, Auriel. He said in an approving tone. At last, we truly meet.

Auriel reared back, spread her wings, and roared. Her bellowing echoed through the cavernous city of Baile. The Dwarves marvelled as their cups shook, and their seats vibrated. The lamps surrounding Auriel glowed brighter and brighter until the fire inside them shattered the glass. Deep within the Palace, Vaedwyn stirred. 
Auriel!? Vaedwyn shot up in bed, and started to get dressed. She paused, looking at herself in the mirror. But then she ran out into the hall, and ignoring the protests of the nurses charged down the stairs and ran out into the street as Auriel landed back on her forelegs. Turiel turned, alerted to her presence. When he looked at her, he only let out a soft growl, and stepped aside to let her pass him, for even if he has words, he doubted he could yet reach her mind. 

Vaedwyn paused just long enough to nod to Turiel, before running to Auriel. She had to lower her neck for Vaedwyn to be able to touch her muzzle, and Vaedwyn looked into Auriel's eyes, each of which were nearly the size of her head. She was magnificent, regal and powerful all at once. 
You've grown, Vaedwyn smiled weakly, "Even I can see that..." 
Do not be sad, Vaedwyn. Two eyes, one eye, it matters not. You are my Rider, Auriel replied, pressing the side of her head into Vaedwyn's chest.
Our journey has barely begun, but I don't even recognise myself in the mirror any more... She took a deep breath and let it out.
Good, Auriel replied, Then we are stronger than our past selves.
Next time will be different, Vaedwyn stated, thinking of the masked woman, Next time, we'll be ready...

In the higher reaches above the scene Agron watched from a ledge as the events unfolded. At the resolution of it all, he could not help but force a small smile. Then he turned away, leaving Vaedwyn to have her moment on her own, and he made his way towards the palace to confront Eirnin. He was greeted to a greater display of security than he had saw previously, with the guard patrols trippled in number. Fortunately he was welcomed inside and made his ways through the halls to find Eirnin. The King was not sat upon his throne as usual, but was in the middle of speaking quite passionately with a unit of Dwarven warriors. The palace seemed bustling with activity, and it was clear that Eirnin was not taking recent events lying down. He stopped speaking as Agron approached, and quickly relieved the guards and turned to greet the Rider. 
"A see yer gettin' yer hands dirty, Sire." Agron said with a greeting nod and a soft smile. "If there's anythin' I can dae tae help, be sure tae let me know afore we leave."

"There's noo a thin'," King Eirnin replied gruffly, he looked as though he'd been missing sleep. "Ah've given call fer m'folk t'up an' leave Baile, with ye both leavin' an' with an agent o' Aemon skulkin' about, we've not enough t'defend a'selves with. But we'll be alright, Baile will home the Dwarves again." A paper was handed to the King as he spoke, and he signed it and focused back on Agron, "But now a'think about it, there's a couple thin's yeh coul' do."
"Name them." Agron said with a dutiful nod. "An' I'll see tae it that they're done."
"Ah would've asked Moira t'make 'em, may the stone take 'er an' bind 'er..." Eirnin seemed to become sullen for a moment, but picked up, "But, first... ah've had ar'smiths make youn' Vaedwyn a light armour, somethin' fer everyday use. Ah'd ask she wear it tonight, afore ye leave, there's a celebration in 'er honour, an' in yeh own. The Clans've decided, Vaedwyn will be named Dwarf-kin, an honour that's not been given in a thousan' yers."

Agron was silent for a moment, biting back an urge to say something, but then he thought better of it. He nodded in response. "A'm sure she'll be honoured. I'll see that she gets it. Thank ye...but perhaps I can ask for a few things in return?"
Eirnin's expression shifted as he watched Agron, "Yeh don' approve, Rider..."
"I don't." Agron replied, but seeing Eirnin's expression he was quick to add; "No disrespect, Sire. Yer people are a fine bunch, an' they've had a profound impact on Vaedwyn. It's...just who I am. Riders of ma time, s'much as they tried, always got tangled in politics, an' allegiances. It was a costly error. Yer sentiments are sound, an' I know ye dinnae dae this tae manipulate her, but Riders live long. When yer reign ends, who's tae say yer successor feels the same way? Or the one after that, for that matter. I dinnae wish tae see her make promises tae people, only tae have it used against her further down the line. But...it's her decision. Old as a am, ma view is jus' as jaded as anyone elses. So indulge an old man in his worries, an' let's leave it at that. I'll no stand in yer way."

Eirnin nodded quietly, "Right'," he muttered, "Ah can see why that'd give yeh pause." He breathed deep and considered for a while, "It's not been done b'fore, but ah'll say it clear when 'r if she accepts, none can hold sway o'er the Riders. She may become a part o' us, but she owes us none, an' we her much. An' what is yeh requests, Agron?"
"The first is simple enough." Agron said. "Auriel needs a saddle. I've got the coin fer it, I just need it made. Ye might need tae take her measures, though. She's...grown a fair bit." He gave a soft chuckle. 
"Yeh coin're useless 'ear, Rider." Eirnin shook his head, "Not a word from me, but ah'd wager there's not ah Dwarf'd accept yeh money if ye dipped it in whiskey. Yeh'll have yer saddle by dawn, an' no later. Is'er anythin' else?"

"Aye, an this yin is a bit trickier." Agron said. He removed Skovaer from his back and place it in Eirnin's hands, the great claymore being more than twice the height of the Dwarf. "Check the blade an ye'll no doubt ken what this sword is. The works from yer forge are spectacular, but they'll no stand up against a Rider's blade. Vaedwyn will need one, an' the ways in which it's made is lost tae even me. But I'm no master smith. Tell me, is it within yer skill tae make such a blade?"
Eirnin loosed a deep muttering in Dwarvish, the likes of which should not be repeated, "Ah've heard 'em say a Rider's blade was such but i'd dare not believed it meself..." He studied the blade for a few minutes, drinking it in. Looking over every inch of the weapon. "There's much wi'in are power, Rider. This ain't it. There's things needed fer such a blade. Moira could'a told yeh what... there's only one left alive now tha' could, Moira's teacher, an' he an't held a hammer since Aemon took 'is wife an' bab."

"I understand." Agron nodded. "But could he be convinced tae make exception? I would'nae ask if it weren't important." 
"Yeh'd have t'ask 'im yehself," Eirnin replied, and whistled for the attention of the nearest guard. He spoke to the Dwarf in a hushed voice, and the guard ran from the palace at speed. A few minutes passed, and the guard came back with another stood beside him.
"Yeh summoned me, King?" Bradan asked, stepping forwards, a frown etched on his brow. 
"Bradan...you're the one who..." Agron lt out a soft chuckle to himself. "I should o' known." Agron quickly reiterated what he had said to Eirnin, and allowed Bradan to also examine Skovaer. When he had finally finished he said. "I'm aware o' yer situation...but I still have tae ask, can you do it, Bradan? For Vaedwyn."
Bradan examined the sword from a distance, as he tamped his pipe, lighting it before taking a long draw. As he exhaled the smoke, he gave his answer, "No."

Agron let out a heavy sigh through his nose. "I...am disappointed, Bradan. Sure enough a' understand yer reasons, an' I'll respect yer choice, but should ye reconsider at any time, be sure tae find us. This is'nae just something I want fer Vaedwyn. She needs it, ken?"
"'Cus ah were ah stupid ape, an' wanted t'live above groun' with the sun on m'back an' tha grass 'tween muh toes, ah fought m'wife, told 'er tha' Baile was not a place fer raisin' a bab, tha' we could live free in the woods." Bradan replied, "An we did, yes. Fer a while, an' then Aemon's soldiers swept o'er the wood, lookin' fer Baile an' the remnants o' the rebels. Didn't matter we weren't with the rebels, that we were peaceful. Didn't matter that ah told Aemon 'isself that i'd ne'er make another sword again fer as long as ah live, but fer him. Ah stood there, an' swore i'd do whatever 'e asked, jus' t'let 'em go. Know what 'e did, Agron?" Bradan's nostrils were flaring wildly as the pipe hung loosely from his trembling lips, dropping to the floor as he grew in volume and speed, "Aemon took mah wife an' fed 'er t'tha great brute o' 'is an' still I tol' 'im i'd do anythin' fer 'im, i'd spy an' steal an' kill an' make him an' army o' m'Clan, an' he fed m'daughter t'the beast..." Bradan's hands were trembling uncontrollably, "It didn' matter t'him. Aemon didn't care what ah did. He wanted a blade, an' ah made 'im one. He took mah wife, mah daughter, an' ah made 'im a sword! An' then 'e tried t'kill me wi' it!!" Bradan undid the piece of armour he wore over his chest, letting it drop to the floor with a clatter, and then lifted his shirt. A terrible scar ran up through his belly, winding a path like an errant river.

Agron let his head drop to his feet. He felt shameful for asking Bradan to do such a thing. He felt shameful for pressuring a broken man that had already suffered so much. And he also felt shameful, knowing that even with this knowledge, he would continue to press him. "Bradan...ye need explain no further. I understand all the reasons why ye refuse the request, an' I can only hope that ye understand an' forgive me for pressin' the matter, but ye know that a must." Agron looked the Dwarf in the eyes, and his gaze was pained but steely with resolve. "The fact that Aemon carries a Rider's sword only reinforces ma request. Vaedwyn needs a worthy blade if she is tae face that man and his army. She has nae hope without it."
"Ah couldn' do it if ah wanted!" Bradan yelled, "Ah don' have th'metal, or the runes, or the know-how! It's lost t'me, Agron, don' yeh understan?!" He growled at Agron, "Tha' monster reached into m'head an' stole the knowledge from me, along wi' the faces o' mah wife an' child, jus' so i'd not remember 'em afore ah died. But ah survived an' now ah can't even tell yeh the colour o' mah wife's hair!!" Bradan's face turned red and tears began streaking down his cheeks. "Even if ah wanted to ah can't..."

Agron put his hand on Bradan's shoulder, and he nodded in empathy. "Say no more, friend." He said softly. "If it cannae be done then so be it. When the time comes, I'll face that bastard masel' if I have tae, an I'll make sure he pays for what he's done tae ye."
"Metal, runes, knowledge," Bradan repeated these three things, "Yeh find 'em... yeh'll know where t'find me." Bradan looked at his pipe on the floor, then turned and left them and it behind. 
Eirnin sighed and rubbed his temples, "Tha' man 'as suffered worse'an most. Do as he says, an' maybe a sword can be forged. Nothin' more can be promised. Ah'm tired, Rider. Take yeh things an' ready yer ward, fer tonight we celebrate. But for now, leave me t'mine."
"Aye." Agron said with a nod to both of them. "Thank ye, both o' ye." With another nod he turned and left the men, and decided to make his way back to Vaedwyn. In the morning, with luck, she would be ready to continue their training.

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Shadows sifting through rays of light. They moved through the twilight, a muffled noise echoing around them. The sound of heavy boots marching across stone. The figure approached a tall flight of stairs, but dared not ascend a single step. They knelt before them, prostrating themselves. Their body formless, little more than smoke and shadow. They raised their head, their mouth moving, but their words were muted and indistinct. A hand raised, cutting them short. They recoiled as a ferocious roar knocked them onto their back, a terrible screeching cry that took the warmth from their bones. They pulled themselves back onto their knees and lowered their head before the accuser. Shadow seemed to bleed from this figure, dripping down the steps of the long staircase and pooling around the one who knelt. Pain. The air was drawn from their lungs, their skin was on fire, their eyes were blind, their thoughts were nothing but noise and they begged for death, and were denied. But then relief. Something stopped it long before it's time. The dark figure stood atop the flight of stairs turned and looked directly at her. It's eyes were darker than the shadows that formed it's body, and they were looking right through her. She was screaming, running. But she couldn't get away. It knew her. Intimately.
"--like you--" His words were mocking, his voice a rumbling of thunder.

Vaedwyn woke screaming, clawing at her bedsheets in the darkness. She felt a presence in her mind.
--dream! It's just a dream, Vaedwyn, wake up!! Auriel was yelling in her mind. Vaedwyn finally slumped over and clutched at her face. She was sweating profusely, her bedsheets were damp and she felt like she'd not slept a wink during the night. She'd never had a nightmare so vivid before. 
Tell me again, Auriel, or else i'll think i'm still dreaming, She pulled herself out of bed and started to wash. 
It was, just a dream, little one, Auriel repeated, then paused, Are you up, then? She asked gingerly. 
I suppose I am, Vaedwyn muttered, taking a deep breath and letting it out with a sigh. She could see a glimmer of orange light from the lamps outside their room. There was no indication of time, but it didn't matter, she wasn't going back to sleep after that.
Everyone's still asleep, will you come for a walk with me? Auriel asked.
A walk? Where? Vaedwyn asked, looking to the back of the room. 
Auriel lifted her head from the pile of hay that was her bed - a considerably smaller bed than before now she'd grown - and nodded to her. I'll show you, come.

Is it much further?! Vaedwyn asked. She could think of no time where she was more thankful for the link between a Rider and their Dragon than now. She was out of breath and her legs were on fire. They'd been walking for hours. And by walking, according to Auriel, that meant scaling up a mountain. Her Dragon seemed to do so with little issue, her claws raking into the stone and scaling it with little difficulty. However, despite Vaedwyn's agility and endurance, even as an Elf, she was reaching her limit. Twice she'd almost tumbled down the side of the mountain only to be snatched by Auriel's tail and placed back up against the rock face. 
Not much! Auriel replied. She'd said that a half dozen times already.
I'm exhausted! Vaedwyn heaved herself up onto a boulder and then had to quickly scramble up onto the next ledge as the boulder gave way. As it tumbled down the side of the mountain, Vaedwyn looked down and realised she could no longer see the entrance to Baile. They were up so high that she thought if she reached up she could touch the clouds. I think i'm afraid of heights, She added. 
Nonsense! Auriel laughed.
You won't be laughing when i'm sick on you... Vaedwyn grumbled.
Come on, slow poke! Auriel replied chuckling, and then suddenly she disappeared.

Auriel?! Vaedwyn called. There was no response. She could still feel the presence of her dragon, but there was silence. She took a deep breath, readied herself once more, and leapt up and grabbed the next ridge, and to her surprise, a pair of hands grabbed her around the wrists and pulled her up onto a relatively flat surface. Vaedwyn thanked the Dwarf who nodded to her, muttered a guttural 'Vargr' with a smile, and rejoined his comrade beside Auriel. The two Dwarves were fussing about Auriel who was stood, watching them disappearing beneath her, fastening buckles and clasps as she stretched and adjusted her wings and shoulders and moved her legs when they requested.
"What is that?!" Vaedwyn asked aloud, her eyebrows raising in surprise.
"Is ah Dragon saddle, Rider," One of the Dwarves replied, making the final adjustments, "Was requested by yeh teach." 
"Oh, but..." Vaedwyn looked around them. The ridge they were stood upon stretched out around the side of the mountain and a long stone platform had been built into the side like some kind of runway. "What are you...?" Vaedwyn frowned, and turned her attention to the saddle. "You can't possibly think..." 

It's time, Auriel replied, confirming. You are my Rider, I your Dragon. We must fly together.
B-but we're not even ready?! Vaedwyn shook her head, You've barely reached maturity, I can't see out my left eye!
We'll adjust, Auriel raised her head and lowered her body, Get on.
I... I don't think--
--Vaedwyn, Auriel interrupted her, Do not let fear rule you. You are the bravest person I know. I know this, because we are one now. There are no secrets between us. You fear many things, but you have not let them stop you coming this far. That is true bravery. I have never flown before, and yet... it calls to me. I must...
Vaedwyn hesitated, but reached out and grabbed the edge of the saddle, I feel it too, She said, and pulled herself on. We weren't meant for the ground.
We can be free of it! Auriel dug her claws into the ground, and spread her wings. The Dwarves ran back out of the way.
A strong wind kicked up and the Dwarves pressed themselves against the side of the mountain, but Auriel stepped out and weathered it, the freezing cold air felt bracing against Vaedwyn's skin, and cast her long silver hair behind her. We can be free... Vaedwyn repeated, staring at the ground far below them. The trees little more than tiny green dots.
You have but to ask it of me!! Auriel yelled excitedly, craning her neck around so that one large, glassy amber eye gazed upon her Rider. Vaedwyn stared back at her, and for a moment, it was as though she was staring into her true self. A wry grin spread across her face, and it was as though her demons could not touch her. Not here.
"FLY!!" She yelled at the top of her lungs, and Auriel roared triumphantly and leapt from the mountain.

Vaedwyn's scream drowned out the howl of the wind around them as she clutched on for dear life. She could feel the wind trying to pull her straight out of the saddle. She clutched onto the handles of the saddle until her knuckles were white, and quickly readjusted herself so her feet tucked into the holds and she no longer felt as though she were going to fly out. It was only when she overcame her immediate fear of falling out of the saddle, that she realised Auriel had closed her wings, and they were plummeting towards the ground like a bolt from a crossbow.
Auriel? Vaedwyn asked nervously, as the ground came rushing up towards them. Auriel?! She yelled.
NOT YET! Auriel yelled back at her. Vaedwyn gripped tightly to the saddle and pulled herself in, and then suddenly something strange happened. As the trees turned from indistinct green blots, and the details of the ground below came into being, Vaedwyn realised she never wanted to touch it again. She was no longer a creature of the earth. Being there was only a temporary state, one she could not maintain. A weight was lifted from her shoulders and she screamed, not from fear or pain, but for joy.

Vaedwyn whooped and hollered, she thought that she saw, just for a moment, a smile trace the edge's of Auriel's lips. Then her partner spread her wings in the twilight of the dawn, as the fingers of the sun grasped and gripped the earth and began to pull itself across the landscape. The sudden lift from Auriel's outstretched wings pulled them from the ground at the last second, dust dirt and pebbles flew across the ground beneath them as Vaedwyn marvelled at their speed. Trees flickered past like bolts of green lightning. Within seconds they had crossed the valley and with a single mighty beat of Auriel's wings they lifted up into the mountains and then dived back down into another valley and made a beeline for the lake ahead of them.
"This is amazing!" Vaedwyn yelled, leaning back on the saddle. "Are you happy?!" She asked.
I could ask to be nowhere else! Auriel replied, and suddenly she darted down towards the water and Vaedwyn was forced to grab onto the saddle once more. Auriel tucked her wings into her body and they dropped into the water with an almighty crash. Vaedwyn almost gasped as the water was freezing, but fought the instinct and blinked until she could see. Auriel darted through the water as easily as she had flown through the air. Fish spooked and swam in every direction to avoid the alien invader. Then as quickly as she had entered it, she swam for the surface and breached, spreading her wings and beating them until she gained enough lift to soar back up into the warmth of the early morning sun. Auriel and Vaedwyn flew for several hours, tracing the lines of the mountains and exploring everything the area had to offer. When Auriel told her it was time for them to return to Baile, Vaedwyn sighed and nodded with a smile still touching her lips.

Auriel took them higher and higher until they must have seemed like a wisp of black smoke rising into the heavens. Vaedwyn realised she was taking them to the tip of the mountain, that had been hollowed out, but as they reached it, she realised there was no entry. So it was magic.
Yes indeed, the Dwarves use an illusion to protect themselves, Auriel confirmed.
But then, couldn't Aemon and his lieutenants destroy Baile if they knew about it? Vaedwyn asked. 
Possibly, possibly not. I don't pretend to know what their mages have done, all I know is we will be able to enter. And as she finished speaking, they approached the tip and her talons sank into the mountain, disappearing. Vaedwyn watched as the snowy peak smothered her and as her head disappeared inside, she saw Baile laid out below her. But something was wrong. As they slowly circled down to the city floor, a large procession of soldiers marched up to meet them, and with them, Agron. Vaedwyn leapt from Auriel and landed on the ground before them and stood to her full height, and she saw reflected in the eyes of the Dwarves, how she appeared to them. Her hair was windswept and as wild and unknown as her eyes, her movements were fluid and quick, but purposeful. She realised then, who she was, and she had many to thank for that. Mogwé, Agron, Auriel, Turiel, Bradan, Eirnin and all the Dwarves and so many more yet to thank. She had become who she had always intended to be, but never knew.

"Sorry we've been gone for so long," Vaedwyn nodded to Agron, "What's wrong?" She asked, looking at the Dwarven soldiers who remained silent.
"Best ye see for yersel', lass." Agron said gravely. He held his hands behind his back and stood aside so that Vaedwyn could go ahead of him.
"Alright..." Vaedwyn frowned, looking back at Auriel who only nodded at her. She turned and moved at a quick pace, flanked by the Dwarves, with Agron beside her and Auriel bringing up the rear. She reached the top of the steps which led directly to the palace, but before she could enter the main doors, she heard something off to one side. A side path off to the right. She turned and looked to her comrades for explanation but none replied. She went with her instinct and followed the winding path until it fanned out into an enormous courtyard with a large white ash tree with pink blossoms at it's head. Thousands of Dwarves stood on either side of the courtyard, and the rumbling of discussion died down into silence. Vaedwyn couldn't quite believe what she was looking at. She saw King Eirnin stood before the white ash tree, flanked on either side by the Clan Lords, including Bradan, and once more she turned back to Agron for explanation.
"Go on." Agron said with a soft chuckle, and he shoved Vaedwyn lightly. "This is yer problem, lass, no mine. Deal wi' it however ye must."

Hesitantly, Vaedwyn stepped forwards. Each step she took, she looked at the faces of the Dwarves as she passed them. In some, she still sensed distrust. But there was no animosity as there had been when they'd first arrived. She felt safe walking amongst them. Many of them were friends, people who had offered her advice, kind words, or better still, words that had been hard to swallow, yet were for her benefit. A confused, lop-sided smile started to spread across her face, and moments later, she heard a noise behind her. She turned to see one of the Dwarves, a young girl, clapping. Then, more joined in. And more. And more. Until thousands were clapping and cheering and shouting her name. Vaedwyn! Vaedwyn! Vaedwyn!
By the time she reached the King, the deafening crowd began to silence itself at the King's request, and Vaedwyn bowed to the King out of respect. Eirnin smiled warmly to her and as Eirnin ushered Agron, Turiel and Auriel to join Vaedwyn at the front, Vaedwyn glanced to Bradan who gave her a quick wink, before resuming his composure.
Agron rolled his eyes as he came to stand with Vaedwyn, and was surprised when Turiel nudged him from behind, making him trip and nearly fall over. The dragon made a strange, rhythmic noise in his throat that sounded an awful lot like laughter, and then he turned to Vaedwyn and nodded to her.

King Eirnin cleared his throat and stepped forward, looking at Vaedwyn, but addressing everyone present. His voice was loud and clear, and carried across the courtyard without issue. "We've lived in an age o' silence!" He let his words echo around the courtyard before continuing, "But we'll be silent no longer! Aemon's choked the voices o' tha free peoples o' Suros fer far too long, an' we've been deaf to their cries! But we'll be deaf no longer! The age o' wonder is before us..." Eirnin paused and motioned to Bradan who stepped forwards, he was holding a sack of red cloth. "In ages past, our ancestors held moot to honour our allies. Those warriors an' scholars what did us a great honour." Eirnin ushered Bradan forwards and grabbed hold of the edge of the red cloth, "But only those strong enough t'accept the mark o' the Dwarf can be considered kin! Will ye?!" And Eirnin pulled the red cloth from the bundle in Bradan's hands, and she saw a branding iron with a symbol of a hammer, the head facing down. She thought carefully on what Agron had told her. About making promises. She would have to be mindful with her words, but giving a part of herself to the peoples of Suros seemed the right thing to do.
"I will." Vaedwyn nodded, "I WILL!!" She yelled, and the crowd cheered. Eirnin took the branding iron and asked Vaedwyn to lower her shirt so that her lower neck was exposed, he turned and held out the branding iron for one of the Clan Lords, the leader of the Clan Conmara. The Dwarf stepped forwards and held the branding iron between his hands and began speaking in Elvish, a great long string of words spoken so quickly, and with hushed tones that she only heard a number of words. But the phrasing was inoffensive, the gist being 'Hammer of Suros', it was not a binding incantation. She heard words of healing muttered over the brand, and then the dwarf quickly released it and when Eirnin faced her again, it was as hot as the sword she had picked up to defend herself just days ago. The reminder caused her to look to her palms once more.

"Prepare yehself!" Eirnin called out, as Vaedwyn knelt and lifted her head back. Eirnin positioned the brand before her neck, between her collarbones and then pressed it into her skin. Vaedwyn grit her teeth, the sensation of burning made her want to recoil or cry out, but she couldn't. She remained knelt before the King until he lifted the brand from her and to her surprise, he then knelt and lifted the brand in turn. "You are Dwarf kin, Vaedwyn of Elflands! Select your brother, and know that I, Eirnin, King of Dwarves do give yeh my family as yeh own, should yeh want it." He pulled down his shirt to offer his own skin. Vaedwyn didn't know what to say, or how to act. She wanted to turn to Agron for help, but realised almost immediately that this was something she had to choose for herself. 
"Your offer is greatly appreciated, King Eirnin!" She replied loudly, so that all could hear, "And I would accept you as a great honour, but there is one other, who I would call brother..." King Eirnin nodded with a smile, and Vaedwyn turned to look to Bradan, who immediately dropped the branding cushion in surprise.
"M-me?!" Bradan stuttered, "A-Ah don' know what t'say, girl..." He looked like he was getting ready to cry and so Vaedwyn smiled and quickly grabbed his hand. "A-Aye, o'course ah want t'be yeh kin, yeh are in all bu'name already..." He knelt before her and pulled his shirt down and braced himself. Vaedwyn held the brand with the head of the hammer facing down, just as the King had done, and then she hesitated. She didn't want to hurt Bradan, regardless of tradition. But Bradan had already noticed, and quickly pushed himself into the brand. His face turned red as he weathered the pain and then Vaedwyn quickly pulled away. The pain was already diminishing and when she looked down she saw that the hammer of the brand was not a burn at all, but metal. It was already cool to the touch, it was as though someone had forged a hammer into her very skin. Bradan stood, and she saw the matching hammer on his own body. He offered her his hand, and she threw herself into his arms, hugging him.
"So be it!" King Eirnin called out, "Vaedwyn, o' Clan O'Ruairc, Vargr, Rider of Auriel, the Obsidian Queen!" 

Not bad, hm? Auriel gave Turiel a playful shove with her shoulder.
Not bad, indeed. Turiel replied, a note of amusement in his voice. But why don't you get back to me once you have songs written in your honour. Turiel shoved her back, showing that their earlier altercation was resolved. 
"Enough o' that." Agron said out loud to Turiel. "Yer heid's awready the biggest yin in the room, literally."
Auriel made a snort sound that sent Vaedwyn into fits of laughter, and a number of the Dwarves joined in, adding cheering yells to Turiel and Auriel both. 
It seems old wounds are healing... Auriel mused.
About time, Vaedwyn nodded, stroking Auriel on her flank. The cheering from the dwarves didn't seem to be stopping any time soon, Vaedwyn was content to remain there for a while longer, but then she felt a hand on her shoulder and Agron nodded to follow her. Bradan gave her a pat on the back and joined in the celebrations as Auriel and Turiel watched them leave, entering a small room at the back of the courtyard. Inside, the room was fairly bare save for a small candle burning on a table, and a cloth-wrapped bundle sat on the table beside it.

"That was... something." Vaedwyn said, laughing.
"Mm... that it was." Agron said with a nod. "I wis wrong about aw this, I thought... I thought it'd be a poor decision ye'd make. But... ye've gave them hope. Got them backin' yer corner... an' that's no small thing. Ye've done well, lass."
"It's a start, at least." Vaedwyn nodded, then quickly sat up on the table, her hand traced below her neck where the hammer lay in her skin, "What now?" She asked.
"Well, I said we'd stay here until ye can fly...and now ye can." Agron said, looking extremely proud. "So...we'll be leaving. Going into the heart of Nordúr to Luftjall, where ye'll be trained by someone who's been waitin' for ye. It'll be quite different fae all o' this, so I suggest ye drink it in while ye still can."
Vaedwyn looked back, she knew Auriel was outside, she could feel her presence in her mind, but she didn't need to discuss this with her to know her feelings on it as much as her own, "We're ready to leave now." She said at last, "We have to continue my training. I have to get stronger, or i'll never be able to stand against Aemon."
"Aye, true enough." Agron said. "But dinnae ye rush yersel'. Ye've made friends here, they deserve tae see ye off. Luftjall...once upon a time it was a beacon fer ma people, the true home tae Riders in Nordúr. But it's a ruin now, lass. We'll be alone up there, which is why it's the best place for yer trainin'."

"No tha' alone!" Bradan barked, banging his fist on the door frame to signal his entrance, "I'd fancy comin' along, if yeh'd have me? Ah'm ah great warrior, an' ah know ah have the blueprint fer ah Rider's blade in 'ere," He tapped his head with his knuckles, "An' besides, ah've ah score t'settle..."
"Yer more than welcome tae." Agron replied with a grin. "But I warn ye, once yer wi' us, yer wi' us until the end. Vaedwyn must train alone at oor destination, but ye once asked me where the fight was in this age. It's time ye knew."
"There's naught fer m'here now," Bradan replied, folding his arms, "Ah'll stay here an' drink an' bicker wi' the Clans, or maybe ah can help yeh on yeh gran' adventure, learn a few thins an' wi' luck shove m'boot up Aemon's arse. That'd suit, yeah." 
"That'd suit us jus' fine, lad!" Agron said with a hearty laugh, and he clasped Bradan's hand in his own with a firm grip. "But have ye thought aboot this clearly, short arse? We'll no be travellin' on donkeys y'ken. Never seen a Dwarf fly, an' I think Turiel'd sooner paint his scales pink than have ye on his back. Proud, y'see?"

"Well ah suppose ah'll jog, so?" Bradan grinned at Agron. Vaedwyn turned her attention to something outside and Bradan turned to look at her. "Wha's it, girl?"
"Auriel says, 'I would allow none to ride me but Vaedwyn herself.'" She paused, then continued, "She says, 'Neither Agron nor a King of Dwarves may know my speed." 
"Well ahm shit outta luck..." Bradan bit his lip.
"However," Vaedwyn continued, with a smile, "Seeing as how you're kin to my Rider..."
"Ah thas grand, that." Bradan choked back a tear and then he remembered, "Oi!" He poked Agron, "Have yeh not given 'er the present yet?!"
"Nah no yet." Agron confessed. "Been too busy flappin' oor gums, ken?" He gestured towards the wrapped cloth on the table. "Go ahead, lass. Have a look fer yersel'."

Vaedwyn frowned and walked up to the table and pulled the cloth covering away. Beneath, was a set of beautiful plate armour. Despite it's strength, it felt very light, and was designed between the main armour pieces to look like scales. Vaedwyn smiled appreciatively and then noted the long black cloak beneath the armour. She immediately began to change, and Bradan marched out, muttering, "Ever in'a state o' undress, is no bloody right..." Vaedwyn chuckled at Bradan's embarrassment. After a few minutes of figuring everything out, she tied the last armour pieces on her back and then the final pieces - her forearms.
"Would you?" She asked, holding them up to Agron.
"Certainly." Agron said as he stepped over and started working at the fastenings. There was a moment of silence as he did so, and there was an air about Agron like he had something he wanted to say, but he just couldn't find the words.
"What?" Vaedwyn frowned at him.
"Aw, lass..." He said with a sigh. "...I jus' feel like I failed ye. A kept ye away when I should ha'e kept ye close. Ye could ha'e died...an' that's ma fault. I told ye tae stay in that house, I left ye there like a bloody fool. I...I'm just, I'm so sorry."

"Thanks," Vaedwyn pulled her arms back, and reached over for the cloak. She pulled it around her shoulders, fastening it to her armour with the clasps and then sighed, looking back to Agron, "Things happen, Agron. You were never going to be able to protect me. I chose this life, as much as it chose me. The scars I carry, i'm responsible for, and i'd have far worse to show for it if not for you. I owe you a lot." She reached out and grasped Agron's shoulder and gave it a squeeze before hugging into him. A minute passed and she heard Bradan clear his throat.
"They're waitin' fe'yeh," Bradan muttered, "Sorry." 
"Alright!" Vaedwyn took a deep breath and stepped back, "It's time to leave Baile. Agron, Bradan, Auriel and Turiel, I know I can trust you with my life, but more than that, I hope you can trust me with the fate of Suros, I won't let you down. That's a promise I will keep, no matter the cost." She nodded to Agron, then turned and walked back out into the light of the courtyard, to the sound of trumpets and the cheering of the Dwarves that once cursed her name. 

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When the time came for them to leave, Agron had spent a great deal of time going over the essentials of dragon flight with Bradan, Turiel had an expression of mild irritation and overall annoyance as Agron used him as a prop for his explanations. "So the saddle is necessary cus the scales'll rip right through yer breeks." He said as he indicated to Turiel's large, copper scales. "Now y'see these?" He lifted a set of leather straps that hung loosely at the feet of his saddle. "Normally we tie these tae our feet if we're gonnae be doin' some crazy flying, otherwise ye'll end up fallin' aff, ken? Oh that's 'nother thing I need to 'splain to Vaedwyn. Or Auriel I suppose. See the air get's dead thin the further up ye go. Then it just...stops, ken? The dragon flies too high ye could suffocate, so mind o' that as well. Oh an if a dragon ever does this..." And so he went on and on, listing a variety of situations and scenarios that could ultimately end up in death or serious injury when riding a dragon. Until finally he said, "...but truth be telt, Vaedwyn an' Auriel will keep ye right anyway. Ye can just enjoy the view, ken?"
"R-Right..." Bradan nodded, seeming to take everything in, but shook his head and quietly muttered, "Is not right... Flyin' Dwarf..."
"Och, away an' dinnae talk pish!" Agron said, slapping Bradan on the back. "The dragons dae the flyin', no you. Me and Vaedwyn fly jus' as well as a Dwarf does; like a fuckin' rock!" Agron laughed heartily, entirely unaware that he probably wasn't making the Dwarf feel any better. 

"I noticed it was harder to breath when we came to the tip of the mountain." Vaedwyn placed her supplies on her saddlebags. "But don't worry about it, Bradan."
"Don' worry?" Bradan laughed, "All ah do is worry these days, girl. Is all a great modern mess! A Dwarf on a Dragon... me mam would pitch a fit."
"Well ye wanted tae come." Agron replied with a grin. Then he climbed on Turiel's back and got himself settled in his saddle. "Come on then, time's wastin', I want tae reach Luftjall in a week, so we've got a lot o' ground tae cover, even on a dragon."
Vaedwyn leapt up onto Auriel and sat in the saddle, then shifted forwards so there was enough space for Bradan. "Well come on then, if you're coming!" Vaedwyn laughed. 
"Gimme a second!" Bradan growled irritability. He tried to come at Auriel from a number of different angles and positions, unsure of how to scale her. 
Oh for goodness sake, Auriel turned and snatched at Bradan, lifting him from his shirt as a cat would her kitten, then plonked him down behind Vaedwyn.

"One last thing, a'fore we go." Agron said. "Normally Riders can talk tae each other through our links. But, for now, if ye need tae speak tae me, jus' tell Auriel and she can speak tae Turiel, an' he can relay it tae me, ken?" 
"I've tried. But I haven't been able to speak with anyone but Auriel." Vaedwyn held the handles of her saddle and readied to fly.
"Well just speak tae Auriel an' she'll handle the rest." Agron said. He gave an excited grin. "Been a thousan' years since a had someone ride at ma side, am fair chuffed, lass!"
Then let's go. Turiel said and he let out a soft, crooning call. Then without warning he bounded forwarded, fanning out his wings, and straightening his tail, before suddenly leaping off of the ledge and soaring upwards through the mountain city of Baile, rising almost vertically towards the exit at it's summit. 

Auriel trumpeted in excitement and leapt into the air, beating her wings swiftly to rise faster and faster as Vaedwyn laughed, gripped tightly around her waist by Bradan who was making the most horrific wailing. In seconds, they beached the mountain top and felt the freezing cold air on their skin. Auriel banked to the side and caught up to Turiel, playfully nipping at his heels as she passed him. Turiel responded by gently flicking Auriel's snout with his tail, which amused him enough to let out a rumbling laugh. This continued for a while, both Turiel and Auriel doing various things to pester one another, and Auriel constantly trying to show off with her speed and grace, which Turiel made a point to ignore wholeheartedly, as a matter of principle. Before long they had been flying for hours. The lush scenery of greens and browns began to shift to a scene of thin plains of snow, and mountainous rocks of blue, gray and slate. Large evergreen trees formed small forest pockets in between the many rocky hills and mountains they passed. 

Each evening they would make camp and rest. After hunting for food they would sit around a fire and tell stories. Agron continued to train Vaedwyn in swordplay. He began to use Skovaer when fighting her, noting that she would need to understand the power of a Rider's sword, and how to combat it. Each day he began to introduce magic in to their training. Using it to misdirect Vaedwyn, or throw her off guard. 
Though Vaedwyn slowly progressed with her use of, and knowledge in magic, she found it difficult to adjust to the loss of her left eye. Her depth perception was off, and she had to make a mental adjustment in all her actions, which was at times quite difficult. Most often when Agron pressed his advantage and she found herself cornered. Yet Agron never offered her any respite when they trained. He was as hard on her as he had always been, perhaps harder than before at times. He kept telling her that her enemies would not care about her impaired vision, and would not go easy on her because of it. 

On the 6th day of their journey, the winds in the mountains of Nordúr had become bitter and biting, especially up in the sky. Snow and hail battered into them, freezing their knuckles and toes, and the dragons could not fly as quickly or as effectively as they usually could. Yet Agron would not allow them to stop for rest and to wait out the storm. He knew they were now so close to their destination. After hours of enduring the dreadful chills of winter, Turiel let out a low, far reaching cry, signalling for them to descend. Though the snow was so thick and heavy they could not see very far, Turiel descended first and Auriel followed. Before long they reached the ground, and in the heavy snow they could see shapes emerging. Old, broken long houses were blanketed in snow. Carts and stalls were left on the sides of the roads, and the destroyed remnants of ancient stone statues lay among the ruined town they now stood in. Agron stepped down from Turiel and trudged through the snow covered ground, stopping short of one of the broken statues. He bent down and swept the snow from one of the pieces, revealing it to be a shattered piece of a dragon's head. "We're here." He called loudly through the heavy snow. He stood once more and looked ahead of the group, deeper in to the ruined town. 

A hint of something larger lay ahead of them, mostly hidden by the fierce storm. But as they drew closer the shape became clearer. A set of grand, enormous steps led up to what appeared to be a tall, thin mountain. Then as they reached the foot of the steps, the storm began to settle a little. As the snow thinned out in the breeze, a series of lofts began to emerge around the rocks, so high above that they could only be reached from the sky. "Dragon roosts." Agron explained. "The caverns within are dark and deep, perfect for Turiel and Auriel. But the Rider's lived just ahead." He encouraged the group to follow him up the steps, where at the top they stood on a large, round courtyard that looked out on to the town that, at one time, held many people. A large, stone door stood at the base of the pointed rock ahead, it's face carved into a rough but strangely beautiful etching of seven dragons and Riders, all gathered around an 8th dragon, that towered above the rest, a true giant even of it's own race. 

Vaedwyn hopped off Auriel and covered herself in her cloak. Bradan jumped off and half his body disappeared into the snow. 
"Oof! Gawds, bloody snow!" He muttered and started to push his way across the snow, while Vaedwyn was able to move across its surface, barely breaching the snow. 
"Are we here?!" Vaedwyn yelled over the howling wind.
"Aye!" Agron replied. "This is ma home, lass. An' I hope ye find it fit enough tae be yours tae." He smiled at her, but before they could continue their conversation the doors to the ancient fortress opened. Through the thin crack between the doors a jet of dark grey cut through the snow, bounding towards them at speed. The creature stopped only a few feet from them. The wolf was larger than any seen in the lower regions of Suros. It's bright, blue eyes were deep and penetrating as it watched each of them, wary but unafraid. Then, it padded towards Vaedwyn, staring at her the longest, as if lost in her form. 
Vaedwyn knelt before the Wolf and ushered it into her arms where she whispered to it as she stroked it's side. When she stood, the wolf stepped back, examining her a while longer before moving away.

"This is Maugrim." Agron said, more for Bradan's benefit. "He's a big fella but he's a nae harm." Agron approached the wolf and scratched him behind the ear, which Maugrim seemed to enjoy. He let out a soft chuff, and then he walked back towards the doors, and the rest of them followed. Agron pulled the doors open properly so that everyone could fit inside. The doors led to a long corridor lit by torches along the walls. The corridor was wide, and the walls were the same stone as the spire the fortress had been built in to. Along the walls were ancient Nordic runes, carved in decorative stripes across the length of the corridor. Various armors and weapons were mounted to the walls, along with pieces of thick, heavy armor that was too large to be worn by any race but a dragon. Maugrim disappeared down the corridor and stopped short of a man who patted him softly on the head, and turned to greet his visitors. 

"I have been waiting for you Vaedwyn, Gardwyn vas Auriel" The man said with a soft smile. He was tall with a lightly tanned complexion. His black hair was long and tied back in thick braids, and while his height suggested he was Nord, his muscles were lean and slight. His features appeared more delicate than Nords were meant to have, and while his accent was similar to Agron's it was also eloquent, and delicate. Most notable, however, were the man's ears. They were pointed, like an Elves'. "Welcome to Luftjall, friends of Agron, Gardwyn vas Turie. I am Jona."
Vaedwyn nodded to the man, greeting him with a bow. Auriel pushed her way through the snow and stood beside Vaedwyn.
"Ah, you are much more radiant in person, Auriel." Jona said as he gazed upon the dragon, bowing. Then he turned to the rest of his guests in turn. 

"Bradan, it has been long since I have gazed upon your people." Jona said as he bowed to the Dwarf. "For you to find courage to ride in the sky, where none of your kin have before you, it is truly an honor to meet one such as yourself." He bowed a second time. Before Jona could address Agron, Turiel shoved his head between them and let out a pleasant growl, lowering his head so that Jona could touch him. The Elf smiled and gently placed his hand on Turiel's snout. "Of course, it is a great pleasure to see you again, my old friend." Jona said. Turiel chuffed, closing his eyes in a content, peaceful manner. There was a long pause as Turiel and Jona conversed at length, in the privacy of their minds. Afterwards Jona simply smiled and nodded. Finally he turned to Agron. "Always finding yourself in the heart of excitement, aren't you, my brother?" He said. 
"It finds me whether ah seek it or not." Agron said with a chuckle. He held out his hand and gripped Jona's firmly, then he pulled the Elf in for an brief embrace. "Sorry ah took longer than expected. A lot has happened."

"Indeed." Jona said with a nod as he stepped away from Agron. "I have watched your journey through the water. It has been perilous, to say the least. We have much to do, and much to say." Jona wheeled around gracefully and addressed Vaedwyn once more. "I have long wished to have words with you, Vaedwyn. I have many questions for you, and I hope that you will have some for me, as well. But first, you have had a long journey, you must be weary. I must let you get cleaned up, and I will prepare some food. You must all be starving."
"Thank you, I'm--" Vaedwyn started. 
"--Bloody starvin', where's this grub then?" Bradan marched on ahead to the bemused expressions of the rest of the party.

"Small in stature but large in appetite, if I recall." Jona said with a genuine smile. "Please go an explore, Vaedwyn. Our halls once held many, but now there is only myself and Maugrim. You may stay in any room that pleases you. Or, if you prefer, you may live in one of the roosts above, with Auriel. There are less comforts up there, but many Riders enjoyed to rest with their dragons in the past, and you are welcome to do the same if you choose." 
"Away an' have a look aroun', lass." Agron agreed. "Jona and I need tae catch up. Ye'll like it here. There's a library full o' books about our history, an' there's some songs and poems in there as well. Auriel should be able tae follow ye everywhere, this place was built with dragons in mind." Agron gave her a light pat on the shoulder, and then he, Turiel, Jona and Maugrim all left to follow Bradan and prepare some food. 

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Vaedwyn and Auriel spent most of the day walking around Luftjall, taking in the sights. At first, she'd been quite excited to see one of the strongholds of the Riders. But the more she explored, the quieter she and Auriel became. Eventually their conversation fell into silence, and Vaedwyn trudged through the snow, listening to the howling of the wind. The snow was as deep as her waist, and she struggled with every step. As she walked, she saw great statues of both Dragons and Riders. None of them meant much to her although a couple of names flared memories from Agron's passing mentions. She walked through what she assumed was a large courtyard and noticed that one of the walls had broken away. Her curiosity peaked, Vaedwyn stepped through the large break in the wall. She could hear Auriel's yell in her mind but it was too late. Vaedwyn placed a foot out in front of her as she looked out across the mountains, and shrieked in surprise as her foot disappeared deep into the snow. The snow from all around and below her gave way, and suddenly she was tumbling down the side of the cliff.

Something struck her in the ribs and knees. Something hard. She fell through an opening and hit the ground as a pile of snow fell on top of her.
Are you alright?! Auriel yelled to her.
I'm fine, just my pride... and my ribs... Vaedwyn growled, taking a cautious breath to see if her ribs were cracked. They were not, thankfully. She took another, deeper breath and then pulled herself free of the snow and stood up as best she could. She was surrounded on all sides by walls. Or rather, the ruins of walls. She'd fallen into a building? Maybe that was what she'd fallen through. There was certainly no roof to speak of.
Vaedwyn... Auriel's call was quiet, yet urgent. She was upset. 
What is it? Vaedwyn asked, trying to squeeze between two sections of the wall closest to her. It was only upon leaving the building that she realised it was not a man-made structure at all. She turned, and to her horror realised she had been standing in the ribcage of a Dragon's gigantic skeleton.

Words could not do justice the emotions that ran through her. She fell backwards into the snow and sat there for a while, as Auriel drifted down from the cliffside and landed with a heavy thump into the snow beside her. Neither said a word to one another for a long while. Vaedwyn's eyes slowly scanned back and forth, from the Dragon's tail to it's snout. It was far larger than Auriel or even Turiel. It must have been ancient, once. 
Come on, you'll get sick, we should go inside... Auriel said at last, standing. 
Please... Vaedwyn spoke softly through their link, and Auriel craned her neck down to catch Vaedwyn's eye. Please don't leave me... don't do anything that... I can't... I can't imagine my life without you... I just... I don't think I can... Tears started to flow and she wiped them from her cheeks quickly, so they would not freeze on her skin. 
I'm not going anywhere, little one, Auriel replied solemnly, giving Vaedwyn a very gentle push so that she fell back into the snow, causing Vaedwyn to smile, if only a little. They stood and Vaedwyn pulled herself into Auriel's saddle and she took off, bringing them back up to the cliff-side so that they could return.

 


 

"I can't believe how cold it is here..." Vaedwyn growled irritably, she walked into the hall with Auriel by her side. Her dragon easily stepping through the enormous double doors. Slowly, she pushed closed the doors behind her, shutting out the cold as much as she could. After brushing off her cloak, she tried warming her hands by breathing hot air on them and approached Jona and the others.
"Ah, good." Jona said as they neared. "Dinner will be ready soon. There's some bread on the table, that is if the Dwarf hasn't eaten it all."
"Y'see anythin' nice, lass?" Agron asked. "What dae ye think of ma home?"
Bradan ignored Jona's poke at his appetite, as his face had only just emerged from his tankard, his beard sopping wet with mead as he then leant forwards and grabbed another chunk of bread and stuffed it in his face, before leaning back on his chair with a content sigh.

"Nice?" Vaedwyn parroted the word, unsure what to say. "Yes... I like the statues..." She said at last, smiling as best she could.
"I...see." Agron said, a forlorn expression on his face. "Er...well that's guid, lass." He nodded. He sat himself down at the table and sipped from his tankard. Jona watched the exchange with little more than a raised brow to show his interest, but he refrained from remarking at all. Instead he sat himself down at the other side of the table and clasped his hands together in front of him. He eyed Vaedwyn. "Are you cold?" He asked.
"Yes." Vaedwyn said, without hesitation. "I'm not... i'm not used to it being this cold. Outside the forest, it's quite cool, but I never thought it could get this cold..." Vaedwyn breathed into her hands once again and approached the table, her eyes scanning it for food.
"Then I suggest you [i[warm yourself." Jona replied, as if this was the easiest thing in the world to do.

Vaedwyn looked from Jona to Agron to see if she was missing a joke, she didn't want to be rude and she hadn't entirely gauged what kind of person Jona was. Eventually she nodded to herself, thinking she understood him, but then found herself apologising, "No, sorry, I don't understand. How do I do that? I don't see a fireplace..."
"Agron, have you taught her nothing?" Jona turned his eye to his hold friend. Agron looked annoyed at the question. 
"I was teachin' 'er how tae survive, how tae fight an' hunt." He replied defensively. 
"And teaching her how to keep herself warm even in the coldest climates is not a survival skill, then?" Jona looked unimpressed, but he eventually smiled and turned back to Vaedwyn. "Agron might not have taught you, but you are an Elf, and you seem perfectly capable of using your brain. There are a number of solutions that are at your disposal. Can you truly see none?"

"Well you said I was an Elf - you're implying I should use magic?" Vaedwyn frowned, "I thought magic was only to be used as a last resort... it can be dangerous."
"Oh yes, absolutely." Jona said with a nod. "But short of a fireplace, or some blankets, extra clothing, or anything else. Well... wouldn't you say that magic is the last resort in this situation?" Jona unclasped his hands so that they were flat against one another. Then he began to rub his hands together. "It's the friction between our hands that create warmth when we rub them together. But as you likely know, doing so can be tiring after long periods, and serves only to warm your hands. However, consider what it is that creates the heat, and how it can be applied to the entire body." Jona stopped rubbing his hands and clasped them together once more. "Or, if you like, you can make the walk to the upper floors and retrieve some blankets."

"Right..." Vaedwyn turned and looked at the stairs, they seemed to go on forever. She'd use magic if she could. First, she tried using fire. That was an immediate mistake, and she felt the panic as readily as Bradan's expression, when she caused a ball of fire to erupt in her scarred palms. Unable to immediately stop the ball of fire, Auriel had to knock the doors open and Vaedwyn was forced to throw it out into the snow, where it disappeared into a hole of it's own making and left steam coming from said hole for several minutes. A dozen or so more tries as she worked through a method to bring her heat safely. Each time it was a failure, and she was getting tired. Using so much magic was taxing, regardless of what she'd been told about an Elven Rider, it certainly didn't feel like she had endless energy. Not yet, anyway.

She gasped as her next attempt took a heavy toll on her reserves, and quickly abandoned the magic, thankful that she had been taught about absolutes. She was certain that a few seconds maintaining that magic would have stolen her life. Eventually, she fell upon the idea that creating heat had nothing to do with friction at all. When blood is spilt it is hot from the body, and in many climates their bodies are able to adjust to an extent. So perhaps she could simply encourage her body to raise it's temperature. It took nearly an hour, but eventually Vaedwyn found a way. It wasn't ideal, and it certainly wasn't 'pretty' magic. But her now numb fingers were beginning to tingle and return to warmth at last.

The rest of the table ate as they watched Vaedwyn, though none were more studious than Jona. After a short while he had abandoned his dinner altogether, and simply watched Vaedwyn with his chin resting gently above his clasped hands. When she had seemed to have resolved her dilemma he let out a disappointed sigh. "Very slow to come to conclusions which should be obvious." He said to her. "I shall have times of study added to your regime. You know little of the world, and that must be remedied with haste."
"I--" Vaedwyn held her finger up to defend herself, but could find no hole in Jona's statement. It was true. Instead, she grabbed a piece of bread, kicked over a stool in anger and began the long march up the stairs.

"She has a fierce temper." Jona said, rolling his eyes at the childish display. "Not unlike someone else I know."
"Aye, well ye could have been a bit nicer about how ye went about it, ken?" Agron said as he picked the last remaining bits of meat around a lump of fat in his hand. "Ye have to mind she's far fae home, and well out o' her depth."
"I was being soft." Jona replied. "The Elves would tear her to shreds the way she is now. You cannot teach her the same way as you were taught, or indeed how I was. Her kind weave magic as if it were second nature. Suros remember them as unstoppable fighters, but you know well that it is an offensive claim. Her people's strength lies in their great minds. She must learn to use hers." 
"Aye, fair enough." Agron said with a nod. He considered the bare bit of grizzle in his hand for a moment, trying to find any last scrap of meat. Then he gave up and popped the whole thing in his mouth and chewed on it. "So when does she start?" Agron asked
"Tonight, of course." Jona replied. "We will require absolute privacy." Jona turned to Auriel. "Even from you I'm afraid."

Auriel felt Jona's presence touching the barrier on her mind, and she lowered it enough to allow them to speak. I fail to understand the need for privacy, there are no secrets between Vaedwyn and I. Auriel snorted, a plume of smoke wafted through the hall, and smothered Jona for a moment before passing through him and along the hall. My apologies, Auriel added, her tone not entirely genuine.
I would not expect her to hide my teachings from you Jona replied calmly. However, some of her lessons will require her to rely solely on herself. Your presence gives her strength, in so many ways, and I would not have that. She must grow strong on her own, so that the two of you can be even stronger together. Besides, I think you will be kept busy anyway. Jona turned his head towards Turiel. Dragons train dragons. That has always been the way.

I may be elsewhere, Arndwyn, but I am ever close. A growl rumbled deep in Auriel's throat. You are her teacher, and she your student, but she is still a Rider. She is not your chambermaid or cook. Solitude is a feeble excuse for poor manners. Auriel stood and turned for the stairs.
That one also has a fierce temper Turiel's voice said to Jona. Auriel is typical of a young one. They always think they know best. Not your concern, however.
Thinking oneself right is not a trait exclusive to the young, Auriel retorted, chuffing. Then she started up the stairs, and before she broke contact with Jona, she added, I don't like you. With that said, Auriel disappeared upstairs.
Jona said out loud with a smile. "Rather, it is yours, Turiel." He got up from the table and retrieved some of the left over food and put it on a plate. "I will go make amends." He said with a short bow. Then he too made his way up the stairs. He travelled a great height before he found Vaedwyn and stopped at the threshold of the room she was in.
"May I come in?" He asked.

"What do you want?" Vaedwyn asked coolly, stroking Auriel's muzzle.
"To talk, for now." Jona asked, and he waited at the threshold. "I brought you some more food. I'm sure you are likely hungry after all that."
"What do you want to talk about?" Vaedwyn asked, looking over to him. She nodded at the table beside the bed she was sat on, indicating where he could put the food. Then she returned her focus to stroking Auriel's snout, looking up at her large amber eyes as they stared back at her own. 
"Anything you like." Jona replied and he entered, placing the plate of food down. "Perhaps you could tell me of yourself, your thoughts and fears. Or perhaps you have questions for me. I would be happy to answer them all, it has been a long time since I have had new friends. I do hope that we become such."
Vaedwyn glanced at Jona, assessing him quietly and without expression. Something she had yet to realise she was rather good at doing, and was unsurprising as silent judgement was a trick most often used by most Elves. She took a deep breath and let it out, ignoring his last few words, and focusing on his request instead.
"I came from a small village of misfits and outcasts," Vaedwyn began, "I spent my life in solitude, with few friends, abandoned by my parents, raised by an Elder of the village." She paused for a moment, "I spent my days learning to hunt, to speak with the animals, hoping that one day I would see the rest of the world. I got my wish - a Rider burnt down my village. He has probably killed everyone I know... I don't have many fears any more." She paused again, turning to face Jona, "Because most of them have already come true."

Jona did not respond too quickly. Instead he simply nodded, and his expression became deeply somber, which seemed more of a match to his eyes, which had always portrayed little more than pain and sorrow. "Truly I know your pain, that of grave loss." He said finally. "I apologise if I have come across as unwilling to help you. My intention was to see your capabilities, and yet I was quick to offer unwanted criticism, and offered little in encouragement. It has been a long time since I have even tried to teach another, and when I saw an Elf... I presumed too much from such a thing." Jona found himself a seat and sat down. 
"I should know better, after all." He raised his hand to his ear. "Appearances can be most deceptive, and offer little of the soul inside." He was silent for a moment, then he looked up at Vaedwyn. "Apologies, please go on."
"I can tell." Vaedwyn nodded, "I don't know what proper Elves are like... but I know when I look upon an 'Unseen'." Vaedwyn spoke the Elvish word for an Elf often seen as undesirable, as she looked over Jona, "I don't expect you to hold my hand, y'know? But I came here because I needed help. I don't need to be treated like a child, even if I am young, I know I am..." 

“I will ensure that I do not.” Jona replied. “Yet you must also understand that my actions are not always as they appear. Throughout your training I will do and say terrible things, things that may seem exceptionally cruel. It is not who I am to do such things. It will… pain me terribly. Yet it is something that must be done, and I have chosen to take responsibility for it, to enact suffering upon you that Agron cannot do, for he fears that you will hate him for it.”
Jona looked sad at the mention of his friend. “He looks to you like a daughter. He has not said as much but his eyes are very telling. He could never do what is necessary and so I have chosen to do it in his stead.” Jona held his hands out in front of him in a motion of submission to her, like a beggar. “It is my wish that we share with one another, and become true friends. This is important to me, for when we are finished, you may very well hate me. And I would not blame you for it, either.”
"I don't think I could hate you, not really." Vaedwyn shook her head and sighed, "There is only one person I really hate, and I won't be able to hold a grudge for very long, if you can take me down the next path that will ultimately lead me to stopping him."

“I hope that you do not…” Jona said. “…but I fear that you will. For the essence of your training lies in protecting your mind from Aemon. In order to do that I will have to attack your mind… quite relentlessly. I will not hold back, I will rake at your thoughts with all the strength I can muster, for Aemon will not show you mercy, and thus I cannot either.” Jona turned to Auriel. “And that is why you cannot be present, great one. I fear you would seek to shield her, as is your nature. But to do so would only serve to endanger you both in the times to come.”
"He's right." Vaedwyn muttered, and her hand grazed the air as Auriel pulled her head back out of her touch. Auriel's head craned up and then she turned and left in silence. "Auriel knows you are too, but... she says that doesn't mean she has to be happy about it." Vaedwyn let a laugh escape and she reached for her food. Again, he was right, she was starving hungry.

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Before he left for the evening Jona had explained Vaedwyn's itinerary for her time at Luftjall. He instructed that each morning she would wake at the dawn, and before eating she would meet with Agron for sparring practice. Once Agron dismissed her, she would then be allowed to have breakfast, followed by bathing herself and changing in to some fresh clothes. Afterward Turiel would take Auriel for training and she would spend the rest of the morning and the afternoon with Jona. Afterward she would be allowed time on her own with Auriel to fly, and to explore the lands with which she was to make her home. When the night fell they would have dinner, and then she would have studies before bed. Jona had asked that she read the Elven texts in the library, to have a better understanding of the words of her people. He also asked that she learn the language of the Dwarves, and the Nords. When he was finished he bid her goodnight, and then he left her. 

When the sun rose the next day there was a sudden, loud noise as a hefty fist battered against her door like it was trying to break it down. "Wakey wakey, lass!" Agron's voice bellowed cheerfully from the other side. "Get yer sword and bring Auriel. I've got some fun in store for us!"
"Oh, Gods..." Vaedwyn muttered, pulling herself out of bed.
"The Gods'll no help ye here, lass. Get yer arse out o' bed an' meet me in the courtyard. The snow's stopped, looks quite braw actually!" The sound of footsteps fading away signaled that Agron had left her. 
Are you awake? Vaedwyn asked, as she finished getting dressed.
Let sleeping Dragons lie, Auriel muttered, not moving. Vaedwyn rolled her eyes, grabbed her sword and nudged her Dragon as she walked for the door.
Come on, it's your fault i'm here, you're not leaving me to this...
I take issue with that line of reasoning, Auriel muttered in response.
Without flying, the journey here might have taken months, for all we know. So come on, Vaedwyn walked out the door and started down the steps.
Charming. Auriel stretched out her body, her limbs and lastly, her talons. Then yawned and trundled down the stairs after her partner.

When they met at the courtyard outside the main doors it had been cleared of snow by Agron. He stood waiting, for the first time free of the armour he had traveled in. Instead he wore brown trousers and a dark blue tunic that was made of thick, warm material and beautifully detailed with intricate knot-like designs. The neck and shoulders held a thick fur line, and he wore similar gloves and boots. In his hand he held Skovaer, and he grinned cheerily as he saw Vaedwyn. "Nothin' like chilly baws tae get ye up in the mornin', eh?" He said with a chuckle. 
Vaedwyn shivered reflexively and looked around curiously, "I think I prefer the forest." She noted, "But i'll adjust..."
"Ach ye'll warm up soon enough, lass." Agron said with a grin. He inclined his head upwards, and Turiel emerged from one of the higher roosts, and dropped off the edge, descending in a vertical dive, before finally levelling off and landing behind Agron, his frame curling around his Rider defensively. "Today's sparrin' will be a wee bit different." Agron explained. "Today ye fight as ye should, as Rider an' Dragon. Extra power, an' extra responsibility. Also, I'll be usin' magic as I have been previously. If ye want tae get anywhere, ye better learn quick, or ye'll be hurtin' real bad by the time Jona get's ye."

A string of curses left Vaedwyn's mouth as she climbed onto Auriel's back, "Warm indeed..." She muttered, "It's colder up there than it is down here!" She held on tight as Auriel launched them into the sky.
"Just ye wait till the adrenaline kicks in." Agron said with a chuckle. He climbed on Turiel's back and tied the harnesses round his feet. "Now, in a fight in the sky there's a lot o' considerations tae be made. Magic is the main threat, followed closely by tooth, claw an' breath. If ye get close enough tae use yer sword then do so, but I doubt it'll get tae that. Yer lesson today is about strategy. Use wardin' words tae protect Auriel, or a decent Rider'll drop her fae the skies with a click o' his fingers, ken?"
Nodding silently, Vaedwyn cast an aura over both herself and Auriel, she tried to make it deflective rather than reversing anything. Hopefully that would mean anything striking them would be redirected with enough force to protect them, and at as little a cost to her energy level. Once finished, Auriel turned and banked back down towards Turiel, ready to land on the Dragon and knock him out of the sky before they barely had a chance to pull away from the ground.

"Och yer no playin' fair!" Agron yelled. He thrust his palm outwards towards Auriel, and unseen force crashed into Vaedwyn's ward like a cannon ball, knocking her from her course long enough for Turiel to launch himself into the sky, flying low over the ruins of the town, and letting out a prideful roar, goading them to give chase. 
Auriel tucked her wings tight into her body, dropping from the sky. She picked up enough speed, opened her wings and flashed towards Turiel like a bolt of lightning. She opened her mouth and a beam of fire and electricity ripped through the sky towards them. While slower, Turiel had experience on Auriel, and had anticipated her attack. He deftly swerved out of it's trajectory with a spin, and with a beat of his wings he suddenly rose up in a half loop, tilting round to right himself in the air, and came tearing back towards Auriel. With a roar his jaws opened and his fire burst from his jaws, menacing through the air between them like a wildfire burning it's way rapidly through a forest. 

Auriel flew faster and faster towards the inferno until Vaedwyn was forced to tuck herself tightly into Auriel's body. The fire approached them and at the last second Vaedwyn let Auriel know she was ready. Auriel lent her strength to her Rider, and Vaedwyn held her hand out in front of her, the diamond scar on her forehead glowed as she channelled her magic and reinforced the power of her wards. The fire burst around them, leaving them relatively unscathed, and Auriel crashed into Turiel at speed. The two dragons spun through the air, locked in a frenzy with one another from the impact, and spiraled towards the ground. Gritting his teeth Agron spat a few words in Elvish, and suddenly the snow from the ground rose up, chasing towards them with speed. The snow began to hammer into Auriel, clinging to her body, and covering her eyes, before a final flurry smashed into Vaedwyn's face. Turiel took the opportunity to throw Auriel from him, and hurtled towards the ground, catching the wind just before he hit it, and rising skyward once more. Auriel darted back down towards Turiel as he rose up to meet her, she dodged his raking claws and snatched at Agron, trying to pull him from his saddle as Vaedwyn deflected Turiel's attacks.

Agron drew Skovaer as Auriel's claws came at him, and with a hefty swing he sliced at her, cutting at her talons and staving off her attack. At the same time Turiel twisted and coiled around Auriel, the claws of his hind legs raking at her scales, his powerful jaws gnashing at her, trying to break through Vaedwyn's wards with sheer, brute force. 
Vaedwyn did everything she could to try and retain control of their duel but she was no longer focused on attack. She had been forced into switching her attention to maintaining her wards. When Turiel choose to attack them with full force, as Agron sliced at Auriel like an angry mosquito, Vaedwyn found herself unable to maintain them. She felt the warmth leak from her bones like a great crack in a dam. Auriel roared as the ward broke and Turiel's hind leg sliced through her flank, then Vaedwyn found she could no longer hold onto the bar of the saddle, her fingers could not do so much as close into a fist let alone grip, and she fell from Auriel, plummeting towards the ground as she drifted out of consciousness.

Turiel immediately detached himself from Auriel and backed off as Agron prepared a spell to catch Vaedwyn, but he needn't have bothered. Even with her injuries Auriel was quick to descend and snatch Vaedwyn from the air, and began making her way back to the courtyard, with Turiel and Agron following close behind. When they landed Agron got down from Turiel and approached Auriel as she laid Vaedwyn on the ground. He sighed and knelt down next to her, placing his hands over her chest and head. Drawing energy from Turiel, he began his healing spell, allowing the power within him to flow through into Vaedwyn, and with it he sent her warmth to settle her chilled body. "C'mon lass..." He said, frowning. 
Slowly, Vaedwyn opened her eyes. But as the rrealizationof what had happened dawned on her she closed them again with exasperation. "I'm so sick of getting tossed about like a feather in the wind!" She griped, "Did it take you this long?" She asked Agron.

"Longer." Agron replied with a smirk. "Yer trainin' wi' Jona should help. Y'see a battle between two spellweavers is a tricky thing, It's a battle o' the mind more than anythin' else." Agron grabbed Vaedwyn by the arm and helped her up from the ground. "Ye did well for a first attempt. Yer wards are strong but yer funnelin' too much o' yer power intae them. It's better tae create a series of small, delicate wards that each do a simple thing than tae create a big catch all. Deflective barriers are essential at times but they should be a last resort, as they can eat away at yer power. Ye should layer other wards on top o' them that aren't as taxing but can deal with more specific attacks. It helps tae know what yer opponent is thinkin'. Auriel had her defences up, her mind was like a fortress, but dragons are naturally talented at that. Yours was wide open though, lass."

"But I don't know how to protect my mind!" Vaedwyn growled irritably. "I don't need reminders on what I'm not good at, I need lessons to fix it..." Vaedwyn brushed herself off and adjusted her sword before walking back to Auriel.
"An' that's exactly what ye'll get." Agron said with a nod. "Go get yersel' some grub and get cleaned up. Meet Jona in the library. I need tae go speak tae Bradan about some things. We'll be headin' out fer a while but we'll be back for tea time, eh."
"Alright." Vaedwyn nodded sullenly, and left to find Jona. She had a feeling that the past few weeks had meant little. Her real training had begun. She took a deep breath, and quickened her pace, raising her head with a renewed resolution.


After she had eaten and bathed, Jona met with Vaedwyn in the library while Auriel left to train with Turiel. When Vaedwyn arrived Jona was waiting by a table among the various shelves of books. On the table was a single candle lighting the room, as well as a pot of tea and two cups. He made a motion for Vaedwyn to sit, and poured her a cup of tea. He slid the cup across the table towards her and gave a soft smile. "So, I watched your sparring match this morning. Truly you are a creature meant for the skies. In future you might want to harness your legs, but do not take that as a negative comment, you and Auriel fly well together, you move gracefully with her. I was pleasantly surprised, most novice Riders would have fallen off much sooner."
"Wonderful. I'll just find a tactic where falling off my Dragon beats Aemon. Maybe if I land on him..." She muttered. Vaedwyn sat down and pulled the cup of tea to her and studied it for a moment before taking a sip. "What was it like?" She asked, looking up, "As a Rider, back then? Every time I've asked Agron he goes quiet."

"A natural reaction of soldiers who have experienced the cruelty of war." Jona said with a knowing nod. "However, I have promised to give you any answers I can, and so I will tell you." Jona took a sip of the tea and let out an approving gasp, savoring it's taste. Then he placed the cup down and leaned forward on the table. "While Agron is a long-lived man, he has the mind of a short-lived species. He remembers the most recent events with much more clarity then he does the ones further back. He had a happy childhood, a loving mother and father, two brothers and a sister. It might surprise you to hear that his family were carpenters. Agron spent his early years of manhood crafting sturdy and beautiful furniture. Doesn't sound very like the man you know now, does it?"

"He made furniture?" Vaedwyn's brow raised dangerously high. "I can't imagine that..."
"Well, we can't all be warriors." Jona said. "However, that all changed when Agron went to see Ethanriel's eggs. When Turiel hatched it was perhaps harder for him than myself. I, of course, am a mutt of sorts. Never truly feeling like I belonged, when Sariel hatched for me it truly was the greatest moment of my life. Agron had a family though, and becoming a Rider meant walking away from his responsibility to them. He had brothers who could take the reigns of the business for him, but it is difficult to leave your family like that. Yet he could not ignore his bond with Turiel, and he soon came to accept his destiny. At this time there were a lot of Riders, and there was procedure in how we trained newcomers. Agron and I were subjected to a busy schedule of training much like what you are going through now, but it was a slower process. Magic, for example, was something we only trained Riders with when they were considered ready. A luxury we do not have currently."

Jona took another sip of his tea before resuming. "Battles were fought often throughout our life, but none were quite so horrific as the war with Aemon and his Lieutenants. Many lives were lost, and distrust grew like a sickness throughout the nations. People of all races began to tire of the constant hardship, and the Riders felt this as well. With each battle we began to lose a bit of ourselves. So much death takes its toll on even the bravest of men and women. We lost our brothers and sisters slowly but surely, until only a few remained. I still remember the moment where we knew that we could not win this war. During a particularly long and grueling battle we had managed to pin down all three of Aemon's remaining Lieutenants. They were no match for Magar and his dragon, Ethanriel. However, Aemon arrived sooner than we expected. Together with his dragon he killed Magar, and with him Ethanriel, the mother to our dragons, and a great symbol to all the Riders. With her death all remaining hope was bled from us. It saddens me that you could not meet Ethanriel...her wisdom knew no bounds. She seemed to always know what was happening before it did, and while she was a fierce warrior, she was the most gentle of souls."

"I wish I'd seen her too." Vaedwyn smiled and took a sip of tea before asking another question, "Why did Aemon do all this? And why was he able to overcome so many powerful riders?"
"That...is a complex question to answer." Jona said solemnly. "But, I will try. First of all you have to understand that Aemon was not always the tyrant you know him to be. In the time of the Riders he was a brilliant man, gifted in magic and swordplay. He was also a very charismatic fellow, well liked by his colleagues. Really...I fear things could have went very differently for him. He was, at one time, a decent man." Jona wrapped his hands around his cup and looked up at the ceiling wistfully. "I did not know him as well as others. He was not of the North like Agron and I, but we each met him on a number of occasions, and he never seemed to be anything other than honest and decent. However, he was born of a time when the Riders were most powerful, and their numbers had swelled. Arrogance and entitlement were always sure to follow. We are not above corruption, and while our order always maintained our neutrality, Riders began to take sides, to favour their own, or those who paid more handsomely."

"We all share our part in that particular failing. Agron is a proud Nord, he held his people in greater favour than others, even still to some extent, although the war humbled him significantly. It might be difficult to hear this but Agron was not always the man you know, he was once young, arrogant and prideful. He has many regrets...as do I." Jona sighed and shook his head. "Aemon was very vocal about his distaste of the Rider's corruption, and he grew increasingly irritated by the law and order enforced by our leaders. Eventually he won the hearts of many Riders, and rallied them against their own order. By the time they realised that Aemon's righteous thoughts had been twisted to a need for absolute power and control, it was already too late. In the end it was the unwavering goodness in his heart that led him to fall so deeply into the dark."

"I'm afraid." Vaedwyn replied, "if he was amongst the best of the riders, but still fell to darkness... I'm afraid I have little hope. "
"Do not let Aemon's path shape your own." Jona said. "Aemon made a choice to walk the path he does. He chose to enforce his vision upon Suros, no matter the cost. Yet you, Vaedwyn, so far I have only seen you stand for the vision of others. Both you and Aemon may have the same values of what is right, but the difference is that Aemon believes that his way is right, and you do not know what way is right, but you try your best for everyone around you. You are a selfless soul, Vaedwyn. Be proud of who you are."
"I..." Vaedwyn stopped herself and reconsidered her question. She didn't want to talk about that any more. "What about you, Jona? I know so little, if you're to teach me, I'd like to know more about you ."

"Ah, well there is much I can tell you in that regard." Jona said, brightening with a slight smile. "My mother was born of a Nord man and a dark-skinned human woman, and my father was an Elf. Obviously I was born and raised in Nordúr. My father was a Rider before me, he rode with Krioch. I never saw him very much, he was stationed in the south of Suros. My mother was a seamstress. I tried to make my trade as a hunter before I became a Rider. Afterwards Agron and I became very close. Sariel is Turiel's twin, they shared a close bond and as such so did their Riders. It is fair to say that if Agron was a proud and passionate Nord, then I was quite the opposite. I held little regard for my people when I was a young man. Rather, I was obsessed with proving my worth as a Rider. There was a time when common folk feared me. I say this with no pride in the matter...but I was quite something on the battlefield once upon a time. I killed many, and I rather enjoyed it, shameful as that is to admit. Sariel was my closest friend, I fear I allowed myself to become too much like a dragon. People died by my blade, and I felt nothing, it was just the way of things."

"That is, until I spent time with the Elves." Jona said with a smile. "It was through their teaching that I learned of the sanctity of life. Yet by that point I had already shed much blood unnecessarily, and it was too difficult for me to stay there with them. I returned to Nordúr as a changed man, but one willing to do the horrible things that were necessary. The war was in full swing by that point, I could not bring myself to live a pacifists life. And then...then I lost everything." Jona winced as if the memories had inflicted him like a physical wound. "I'm sorry...I do not wish to speak of that time any more. Are you ready to begin your lesson?"
Vaedwyn listened in silence, nodding and watching Jona with a new appreciation for her teacher. She let out a short sigh, "Yes, I'm ready."

"Good." Jona said with a nod. "Now in order to protect your mind, you must understand what you are protecting against. The link you have formed with Auriel, it is something you can do naturally with her, but in reality the magic itself is something you can do with anyone. Spellweavers can take a great many years to learn such a thing, and there are many more who simply cannot touch another's mind. Yet even those people can be taught the basics of how to protect their own mind from mages and Riders. So, tell me, have you ever encountered it. Have you ever, say, tried to speak with Auriel, and found that you could not?"

"Yes, there have been times when I tried to speak with her when she was angry or upset and I felt like I was hitting a wall." Something occurred to her, "So can anyone learn to invade a person's mind?"
"No, only those who can use magic. Something which is quite rare among most folk, but it is a talent inherent in Riders." Jona explained. "Now, Auriel will be naturally very good at blocking her mind. Dragon's think differently, it is easier for them to form the thought of an impenetrable wall, and keep it closed even in the heat of battle. The same technique is what is taught to most people who require it. It is a simple concept, but one that requires a lot of skill. You need to find something that is important to you, something that you can focus on and let it fill your mind, blocking out anything else. Now, there are more advanced techniques but, for now, let's start with the basics." Jona rested his hand on the table. "I am going to reach in to your mind now. It will be painful, as I will be forcing my way through. This is so you can feel it happening, that's important. You must learn to notice that sensation because a skilled spellweaver will enter your mind delicately, and quietly. So, find something to focus on, and then tell me when you're ready."

"Okay," Vaedwyn concentrated for a short while, then when she was ready, she raised her head, met Jona's gaze and gave him a quick nod, bracing herself as she did so. Jona didn't make so much as a single motion to convey he had begun. He reached out with his mind and quickly found Vaedwyn's. He pushed into her consciousness forcefully, and he saw her visibly wince at the action. Immediately the image of a wall appeared in his mind. It was old, and comprised of stone bricks that were held together with crumbling concrete fixtures. With a single, sudden push the wall crumbled under his will and he could feel Vaedwyn's panic and pain as his will began to rifle through her thoughts and memories like dark tendrils, clawing at her flesh. Focus His voice thundered inside her mind. Do not get distracted. Rebuild your defensives, quickly!
Vaedwyn concentrated, trying to recoup from the initial assault. She could still feel the presence in her mind, and despite knowing it was Jona, she couldn't help but instinctually want to remove the uninvited intruder to her mindscape. She tried to focus on the wall she had created and tried to reimagine it as she had experienced in Auriel's mind.

Another wall rose up, barring Jona's path. He nodded approvingly, as this one was crafted much better. It was a solid wall, with no cracks he could find. He tested his will against it and found that he could go no further, but it was not the last trick up his sleeve by far. Suddenly he slammed his fist on the table with a loud bang, and in that instant he felt Vaedwyn's wall crumble. He wasted no time delving deeper in to her mind, rifling through her memories from Baile, forcing her to relive the horrible experience of her defeat by the sorceress who took her eye. Do not get distracted. His voice echoed through her mind. You must close yourself off from the world around you
Vaedwyn yelped in fear, lashing out. She scrambled out of her chair, reaching for her sword.

"Peace!" Jona said, holding his hands up as he retreated from her mind. "Calm down, Vaedwyn."
Panting fervently, Vaedwyn couldn't remove her hand from her sword hilt even though she knew on some level that the woman who had attacked her was probably thousands of miles away. "I can't!" She growled, wrestling with herself.
"Then you will die." Jona said softly, blunt as it was, his tone was full of sadness. "That will be enough for today. Please go rest until Auriel returns, then fly with her and ease your mind. I will see you at dinner." He stood up from his chair, looking entirely ashamed of himself. "That brought me no pleasure, Vaedwyn. But if one of Aemon's lieutenants reaches into your mind like that, they will not allow you to draw your sword. They will immobilise you and break you, and then kill you." He looked down at the floor for a moment. "When you are ready...I would like to talk about that woman. Her presence...it troubles me."
"I don't ever want to talk about her again." Vaedwyn growled, pulling her hand slowly from her sword hilt. Then she hurriedly thanked Jona for the tea, and left, feeling ashamed of her inability to protect her mind, and more so, that she found a deep-routed fear of the woman who had attacked her.

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She pulled the covers closer around her, looking for warmth. Vaedwyn tried to sleep, but the dragon eyrie built into the mountainside gave little protection from the elements. Shivering as she turned over, a draft of cold air danced across her back. Her eyes shot open in surprise. Auriel was asleep behind her. She was thankful that her surprise hadn't woken her dragon. Vaedwyn pulled the sheets up around her and decided she wanted to sleep directly beside Auriel. Putting her feet to the cold stone ground, she quickly darted across and stepped over one of Auriel's hind-legs, then laid down beside her dragon's stomach. She touched her hands to Auriel's scales, and found instant relief in her body temperature. Outside, a storm was raging. Snow and hail flashed past the cave entrance, whirling around in a dancing flurry. For a while, she was content to sit there, watching the storm, until her hands were warm enough she pulled them from Auriel's hide. She tucked them inside her covers and rested her head against Auriel. The sun was coming up, soon Jona would announce that she was to begin another day of training.
"Ouch..." Vaedwyn pulled her hands out from under the covers and looked at them. The scarred white flesh of her palms aggravated her, but that wasn't the problem. Her hands still felt warm, no, hot even. And they were getting hotter and hotter. Suddenly, she heard a wet pat, as something splashed onto her covers. She looked down and saw red, then winced as something got in her eye. She held her hand up reflexively, and found a painful strike running down her face. She was bleeding!

Vaedwyn leapt up from under her covers, her face was bleeding! Her left eye, there was blood in her eye! She winced, trying to wipe away the blood using her hands, only to recoil in pain as the heat in her hands exploded with intensity. She looked down, squinting through her one good eye, to see her pain was not unfounded. Her hands were ablaze with fire. She screamed, turning to look to Auriel for help. But she was sound asleep. 
"AURIEL!!" She screamed, beating the fiery balls of her fists against her dragon's side, but there was no response. She slept as soundly as before. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder, pressing down firmly. She turned, and saw Aoife, Moira's child, standing in front of her. 
"It's your fault." Aoife said simply.
"What?!" Vaedwyn recoiled, pressing her back against Auriel. 
"It's your fault i'm dead." Aoife took a step towards her. 
Vaedwyn turned and saw the hand on her shoulder, it belonged to Aemon's sorceress. She gripped Vaedwyn ever tighter, forcing her to kneel, "Submit!!" She yelled at the top of her lungs, and Vaedwyn awoke screaming, drenched in sweat, despite the cold of the eyrie. Auriel was shoving her firmly, desperate to wake her rider, but to no avail.
Jona!!! Auriel called to him, even as Vaedwyn continued screaming and clawing at her bed-sheets, living a waking nightmare. Auriel roared so loudly that it shook the walls of the eyrie, little stone chips fell from the ceiling and vibrated on the ground. 

The roar of a dragon in the night, a call Jona had not heard in several lifetimes, woke him with a start. The elf's eyes immediately became sharp and focused, he rose from his cot. A dagger, previously hidden, appeared in his hand in a flash as he stared into the darkness of his room. His body was tense, and ready to face danger even in the very moment of waking. 
A low, rumbling growl came from the floor beneath him, and Maugrim's eyes glinted in the moon light from his window, as the old wolf roused and got up from his resting place. "The lofts..." Jona said softly, "Come, my friend." And with that he shot out from his bed, draping a robe over himself and moving hurriedly through the stronghold. It was not long before fast, heavy feet sounded through the halls alongside him. Then Agron, bare chested and in a panic, strode past him with uncharacteristic speed, drawing on that strength that is often found in parents when their children are in danger. 
When they had reached the large double doors of the entrance, there was a dull thud from the other side, and the doors were slowly dragged open. Turiel's silhouette was dark against the pale blue night as he let out a soft growl and lowered his head. Agron leapt on to his back without a word, and Jona latched on to the dragons spiked crown, hauling himself up as Turiel was already pushing off into the sky. Their journey was brief, climbing to the heights of the stronghold, to the lofts where only dragons could reach. 
When they landed at the balcony of Auriel's cave Jona took the lead, with a murmur he called forth subtle power and the blade of his dagger began to emit a cool, blue fey-light to guide them. 
"Lass! Are ye hurt!?" Agron called.
"She yet dreams" Jona replied, his voice calm and rational. "Observe." He cast the strange light of his dagger over the scene, Auriel's form hunched over Vaedwyn, fierce and protective. They slowed their advance considerably, wary not to provoke Auriel. "Speak with me, Auriel. Tell me what troubles her mind?" Jona asked.
Pain! Auriel lashed out with her mind, her strength bombarding Jona with a series of images relayed from Vaedwyn's waking nightmare. Help her! It was not a request. 

Jona moved closer as Auriel allowed him to kneel by Vaedwyn. He stared at her for a moment. Her suffering was clear enough by her pained expression. He touched her brow lightly, she was sweating but her skin was icy cold. He pondered for only the briefest moment, and then he beckoned for Agron to join him. "Come, be close to her. It will help." Jona said. Agron complied but his expression was worried. 
"What are ye gonnae do tae her?" He asked. "Whit's wrong?"
"She is lost in the dreaming, it is swallowing her." Jona said, as he allowed his own mind to reach out to Vaedwyn's. "We must find her in the dreaming, guide her home. It..." He trailed off, his thoughts becoming vague and cloudy as his consciousness entered Vaedwyn's. "A dreaded passenger rakes at her soul... dark tendrils... thorned barbs tightening... torture... pain... fire... it burns at her."
"Jona!" Agron snapped heatedly. "Snap out o' it! What are we tae dae?"
Jona stared blankly for a moment, and then he twitched his head slightly. In but a moment his healthy features looked drained and tired. "She suffers, Agron." He said in a croak, and he swallowed to moisten his throat. "I know you are not Elf, your mind is unlike ours but... you must be with her. Show her you are there, that we are all here, and she is safe."

"I dinnae ken how tae dae it like ye do, but ye ken I'll bloody well try." Agron said with a nod. 
"Reach out to her as dragons do. Delicate, unobtrusive. We must enter her mind but we cannot simply kick down the door. It would be far too traumatic for her. Instead we must simply knock at the door, call out to her."
"An' what if she does'nae open the fuckin' door? What if she cannae?" Agron asked
"We must... trust that she will, that she can." Jona said gravely. "Now, together, with me..."
And so Jona and Agron reached out with their minds. Quickly they found each others, and then together they began to delicately delve into Vaedwyn's. They were greeted with frantic alarm, pain and fear. Their thoughts became less distinct as their minds coalesced. The pain and fear rattled at Jona's mind, the old Elf's sensitive emotions causing him considerable pain. Yet from Agron's mind came a rebellious, impetuous disregard for fear. Sensitive he was not, Agron had long rid himself of the fear of pain and darkness. His bravery, and his will to protect emboldened Jona's mind, and together they pushed on once more, gently calling for Vaedwyn.

Voices. Voices in the darkness. Vaedwyn turned her ear to listen for them, but the sorceress stood over her, cloaking her in shadow. Vaedwyn saw figures, silhouettes amongst the shadows encircling her. The darkness tore at them, but they were forcing themselves towards her.
"Agron? Jona?" Vaedwyn frowned in confusion in her dream-state, even while her physical body stared blankly into space, guarded by Auriel.
"Get thee gone, you are not welcome here." The sorceress stepped between Vaedwyn and her comrades.
"Ye got that arse backwards!" Agron snarled back at the sorceress. "Now fuck off back tae the hole ye crawled out o', ye two bit shade!"
"Caution, friend." Jona warned. "In the dreaming a nightmare can be as harmful as a steel blade to your neck." Jona turned his attention to the sorceress. "Besides, there is no sense speaking with such a creature. She holds power only because Vaedwyn allows it."
"I may only be a memory, or a shade, of what I really am. But it is enough." The sorceress replied, she was clad in the armour the day she had fought Vaedwyn in the city of the Dwarves. Her face obscured by a white mask, it's only features - two black slits for eyes. "And you, Jona? Are you enough? Or you, Agron?" Her grip slid up from Vaedwyn's shoulder, up to her neck, and her fingers elongated and wrapped around the girl's throat, slowly constricting like a hungry snake.

"I fear not a shade who gloats of her mastery over a child's mind." Jona replied. "I seek no harm on any creature, but do not mistake my caution for weakness. It is a far greater challenge to face me, I assure you. I am a dreamer, and I have dreamed for centuries." As he spoke there was a very subtle shift in the shadows. Something large stalked within them that had not been there a moment before. 
"Vaedwyn." Jona spoke calmly, but when his voice came forth it was huge. Not loud, but huge, all encompassing, with no apparent source. "Remember what I told you, do not get distracted." There was a sudden, loud bang that shook the ground. The sound was a memory, the noise of Jona's fist smashing against the table, that had pulled down her carefully constructed mental walls.
Vaedwyn jumped with a start, and both her mental and physical selves turned to gaze at Jona. As she pulled from the grip of the sorceress, she returned to the waking world in full. But as Jona and Agron left her mind, an echo faded away amongst them. You are ours...
"Agron!" Vaedwyn choked as she launched forwards and grabbed her mentor with relief. At last, Auriel's jowls finally lowered, hiding her fangs. Her talons relaxed and her neck raised so she could look down upon the scene in front of her. She had felt the fear, pain and panic of the waking nightmare as much as Vaedwyn, and it had hurt her to be unable to stop it. 

"Aw, thank fuck for that." Agron sighed in relief as he hugged Vaedwyn close. "I dinnae ken what just happened, but I'm glad yer safe, Lass."
"I don't feel safe..." Vaedwyn muttered, when she finally pulled away, she held firmly onto Agron's hand, "The sorceress. I think she left some part of herself inside me. While I was trapped, I could feel whatever that... shadow of her... whatever it felt. I understood. It was like..." She scrunched her face in trying to describe it, "It was like... pain, and frustration, and... shame. She wasn't what I imagined... and there was one other thing..."
"Tell us as much as you can, please." Jona asked, giving a slight nod. "We must know if we are to stand the best chance of helping you."
"The sorceress..." Vaedwyn frowned, "She knows us. I don't just mean you, and Jona. I mean she knew who I was. And I think... I think she knows we're here." 
Jona was silent for a long time. Nobody spoke in the interim, they all seemed to be waiting, unsure what to make of this new knowledge. Eventually he let out a short sigh. "It is possible. It seems that we erred in thinking the amulet would protect you." Jona said. "If she has woven some sort of dark link within you then... I am uncertain how much or little she could know."
"Should we be expectin' a fight?" Agron asked. 
"Unlikely, but not impossible." Jona replied. "There is a reason we have made our home here all this time. This is our land, and so we know how to traverse it's treacherous routes. Still, we should take precautions. I will send Maugrim out to find his pack. The wolves will scout for us, bring us news of any forces that draw near."
"I'll no risk Vaedwyn's life on the word of some big dugs." Agron said with a frown. "Even with a small army we could'nae defend this place if Aemon decided tae bring down the hammer."
"Then why hasn't he done so, in all these years?" Jona asked. "This is Ethanriel's  seat of power, our home. You should trust that it will protect us."
"I'd trust it a bit more if we had a few hunner men and some siege." Agron grumbled. 
"Regardless, Vaedwyn will always be at risk no matter where she goes if she does not complete her training. So much so that you hide certain truths from her still, and she is smart enough to see it." Jona replied. 

"I... er... aye, well..." Agron looked annoyed, and a little ashamed, hazarding a guilty look at Vaedwyn.
Vaedwyn looked from Jona to Agron, gripping her mentor's arm ever tighter, "What is he talking about?!" 
"Lass...I cannae..." Agron's eyes focused on Jona and there was a quiet anger boiling within them. 
"Consider it just another motivation." Jona said, ignoring Agron. "Show me that you can protect your mind, and then Agron can tell you everything. Otherwise providing you with guarded secrets is as good as telling the witch that has latched on to your mind."

Vaedwyn accepted Jona's compromise, albeit in frustration. She bid them goodnight, and they returned to their quarters, while Vaedwyn wiped the sweat from her brow and fell in a heap against Auriel's side. "You were strangely quiet." She said aloud. 
What more was to be said? Auriel replied, her tone implying something.
What are you getting at...? Vaedwyn asked with a barb of irritation. 
I felt the same thing you did, little one. The sorceress is bound by Aemon's magic, as he does all his slaves. One such order, as I now know, was she was not, under any circumstance, to harm you. But I understand now, that the wound she gave you, Auriel lowered her head so that her eye was level with Vaedwyn's gaze, Was not to take your sight, to debilitate you, but to take your head. 
I know... Vaedwyn scratched at the scar on her cheek, But why would she try to kill me, if Aemon wants me alive?
That, I cannot tell you. Auriel's gaze lowered as her expression seemed to become introspective, then she lowered her head to the ground. Sleep now, you have training in the morning, and you will need your strength. I will watch over you.
As you have always... Vaedwyn ran her hand along Auriel's muzzle, But I think tonight, I will not rest. Vaedwyn laid down and placed her head upon one of Auriel's forelegs, yet she was exhausted in spite of her words, and soon she was sound asleep. Auriel lay awake for the remainder of the night, watching her with a keen eye, and relishing in the steady rise of the morning sun.

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Jona awoke, as he always did, right before the dawn. With Vaedwyn’s arrival now several months behind them, Jona had become somewhat used to the young woman’s noise in the early hours. That was not to say she was particularly loud, but rather his delicate ears had become accustomed to the silence of a solitary life. For months he had heard the distant sound of her morning protests and her heavy feet thumping out of bed with a clumsiness that the girl only seemed to display upon first waking. This was often followed by a lot of hurried sounds, and the echoing of her sprinting through the halls trying to make up lost time.

Yet this morning he heard nothing at all. No cries of complaint, no gentle growls as her dragon companion gently roused her from her bed. It was as if he had dreamt the last few months, and had found himself once more alone within the walls of his home. Yet he knew that could not be the case. For the stronghold held a warmth to it now. In the literal sense, he knew this to be the work of Bradan. The Dwarf had become rather fed up of the shivering cold and had taken it upon himself to ensure that wood logs were cut and that all the hearths within the great stone walls were lit and burning brightly.

Yet the warmth Jona thought of was something much more insubstantial. It was the kind of warmth one associates with a home, a place of comfort and safety. A place where there were friends and family. He had found little need for such things in the many years prior, and yet now that it had returned to the place, he now realised how much he had missed it. With a soft smile, he made preparations for his morning routine.

It was hours still before he finally left his quarters. His mornings always consisted of deep meditation and reflection, followed by bathing, and then finally he dressed. The tan skinned elf stepped lightly through the halls, his long, braided hair was tied back behind his head and he wore a deep red tunic, with dark trousers and thick, fur-lined boots. When he reached the dining hall he found that the table had already been set, and Bradan was sat on a chair puffing away on his pipe as he always seemed to be doing.

“Good morning,” Jona said with a slight nod as he neared the table. His gaze moved to the windows, where the curtains had been pulled open, allowing light to pour into the hall. In the light, he noticed that someone had taken the time to remove all the banners and beat the dust out of them, before replacing them. “Have our friends returned from this morning’s outing?” He asked. “I did not hear them get up.”

"Elves are funny things y'know." Bradan replied, staring at the smoke gently wafting up from his pipe, "Unchanged fer a thousand years, in mind, body an' action. Yet she spends a few months with ye and now that mental case is sat outside in the snow, talkin' t'birds an' whatever else y'do." Bradan audibly tutted, clearly somewhat displeased. Jona gave a slight smirk and held his arms behind his back.
“Well, I could say that she spent nary a week with the Dwarves and yet managed to experience her first hangover.” He said, showing his teeth. “…But I shan’t.”

"Hmmm," Bradan laughed, "Well you've got me there. Anyway, what ye standin' around here fer? Ah, expect she's waitin' fer ye."
“I expect she has not even returned yet.” Jona replied. “It’s far too quiet. Though I suppose I should go check, shouldn’t I?” He turned as he finished his sentence. “I’ll be back shortly.” He added as he left the dining hall and made his way out of the stronghold.

He was greeted by a cool breeze and a clear,blue sky. The seasons had begun to change and the ground was now only coated in a thin layer of frost. While it would never truly become warm in Nordúr, there were times such as this where leaves would begin to return to the trees, and grass would grow through the thin frost. He heard the gentle chirping of birds and the whistling of the wind in the trees. Otherwise, the morning was utterly quiet and incredibly peaceful. However, just as Jona was beginning to enjoy the quiet, it was shattered as an enormous roar echoed through the mountains. Two great shadows swooped round from the mountains behind the stronghold, their long, graceful forms hugging tight to the towering walls, before swooping down for a dive over the courtyard and back into the air, with a whooping cry.

“C’mon, lass! I ken ye’ve got more in ye than that!” Agron cried tauntingly. He was straddling Turiel in reverse, standing but in a wide-legged crouch, with one hand gripping one of the spikes protruding from the dragon’s back. His other hand held his large sword, and he was staring back at the black dragon advancing quickly towards them.

Auriel cut through the air like an arrow. Drawing her wings tight into her body, she plummeted towards Turiel and at the last moment, she whirled around and opened her wings, but Vaedwyn was absent from the saddle. A shadow grew over Agron and Turiel darted out of the way in the nick of time. Vaedwyn held out her arm, narrowly missing Agron as she fell past him. Auriel was ready, and in seconds had repositioned herself below her rider, catching her effortlessly as Vaedwyn took the reins and gave chase.

"Nearly had you that time!" She yelled over the howling wind. Agron replied with a hearty laugh and let go of the spike, nimbly moving further down Turiel’s back with grace undeserving of such a large man. Turiel went for another dive, and this time, Agron leapt from the creature’s back, falling only briefly before gripping onto Turiel’s tail. Then, with a powerful flick of his tail, Turiel sent Agron back up towards Auriel, and with a forward flip, he landed on Auriel’s back, swaying slightly to steady himself. He stood in a fencer's stance and gestured to Vaedwyn. “Let’s see yer form on the back o’ a dragon then, lass!”

Vaedwyn pulled her feet from the harness, and simultaneously turned to face Agron as she leapt to her feet. Stood atop the saddle, her legs steadied her as she pulled her sword from its sheath.
"Auriel says you could do with skipping a meal, or two!" Vaedwyn laughed, a lyrical sound that cut as easily through the wind as Auriel could the sky.
“I’ll cut that weight fae yer arse in a minute ya cheeky wee shite!” Agron cried as he lunged forward, thrusting his sword at Vaedwyn’s chest, which she deftly tilted to avoid, before advancing on him. Agron brought his blade up to parry her on and metal clashed, ringing through the air as each strike connected. “Where’s the power in yer swing, hen?” Agron taunted. “Mayne ye should’nae o’ skipped a couple o’ meals yersel’”

"Maybe you should watch your back!" Vaedwyn retorted, speaking the elvish word for 'Stone' as she charged. A pebble struck Agron on the back of the head as Vaedwyn's sword clashed with his. As they fought Vaedwyn lifted her blade as though to strike, and as Agron blocked she lifted her leg directly forwards and kicked him like a disgruntled mule, throwing him from his feet. Vaedwyn watched as he fell from Auriel, her long tail rushing past him.

Agron tumbled rapidly towards the ground, and Turiel moved to catch him, falling at such an angle and speed to match Agron’s, and gently he arced underneath him, allowing his rider to land on him without too great a force. Then as they neared the ground his great wings fanned out wide and caught the wind, slowing his descent until finally he landed on the ground, mere feet from where Jona stood. “Heh!” Agron exclaimed as he climbed down from Turiel and looked to Jona. Sweat was visible on his forehead and he looked like the fight had tired him adequately. “She’s becomin’ a sneaky sort…” He grumbled.

“The word you are looking for is cunning, old friend.” Jona replied with a soft smile.
“Aye ye would say that.” Agron replied with a nod. “Ye were a sneaky bugger too in yer day.”
“One must be cunning and wicked at times.” Jona said. “Consider if that pebble had been, instead, a sharp rock. I daresay you’d be less chatty after that blow.”

“Aye, right enough.” Agron agreed, nodding. There was a gentle thump as Auriel finally landed, and Agron turned to face her. “No bad.” He said with a smirk. “I think ye’ll be ready for the gauntlet soon.”
"Gauntlet?" Vaedwyn asked as Auriel stalked up to stand beside Turiel. She had grown over the past few months, and though still slight in frame compared with her male counterpart, she was now his equal in size, and with her elongated neck and tail, might even have become longer. Vaedwyn leapt from Auriel to land beside her comrades while Auriel playfully nipped at Turiel's heel. "You've never mentioned a gauntlet before..." Vaedwyn looked to Jona for an explanation.

“There’s a specific path through the mountains where Riders used to train.” Jona explained, “It involves traversing the steeper climbs of the mountains and passing through deep caverns that come out on the other side of the mountain. It is difficult for the dragons to fly in such conditions, and to make things more challenging the mentors would lay traps along the way.”

“It’s no joke, that’s fer sure,” Agron added. “I mind one time I nearly took a spear through ma heid! Haha! Aw it’s funny now, but ah near shat ma breeks at the time!”
"It sounds... interesting," Vaedwyn said quietly, considering his words carefully.
This test is for both rider and dragon? Auriel asked, Vaedwyn conveying her words.
“Of course,” Jona said with a nod.

Lot’s of tight corners and narrow passages Turiel said to Auriel, You might have an easier job of it than I did…if it was not for all the traps, that is.
We will be dragon and rider. Your test will not stop us.
"The dragon has spoken," Vaedwyn added, with a wry grin.
“And yet it is a trial you shall both face another day,” Jona said. “I’m afraid it is time for your training with me. Go eat and bathe, and then join me in the library as usual.”

Vaedwyn did not protest at this, as Jona might have expected from her only a month ago. Instead, she simply nodded and bowed slightly, before leaving to complete the tasks she had been given.
“How’s she getting’ along?” Agron asked when she was out of earshot.
“Stronger every day,” Jona replied. “I suspect she may be ready for the next step.”
“Aye?” Agron asked, raising an eyebrow. “Took me years tae be ready for that.”
“She’s an Elf,” Jona replied. “A true one, unlike myself even. She will grow far more rapidly than you or me.” And with that, he turned and headed back inside to eat before going to the library.

--- --- --- ---

“Hmm.” Jona murmured thoughtfully. He was sitting across the table from Vaedwyn, the pair locked in a battle that only went on in their minds. “I think….yes,” He said as he tilted his head. “You’ve done it. There is no way I can force my will through the wall you have constructed.”
Taking a deep breath and exhaling it slowly, Vaedwyn opened her eyes and acknowledged Jona with a smile, "That was unpleasant." She stated simply, her eyes lowering to study the grain of the table's wood.

“What is more impressive is your focus.” Jona continued. “You did not allow yourself to be distracted by noises and sensations around you. You’ve come a long way…in fact there is little more I can teach you when it comes to walling off your mind.”

"It doesn't feel natural." Vaedwyn replied, "Putting up a wall, it feels strange." She saw the expression on Jona's face and apologised, "I'm sorry. You've taught me much, and I'm still trying to process much of it."
“Do not apologize,” Jona said. “In this case you are correct. Walls are not natural things, they are constructions. They are also a simple construction for all races to understand and adequately visualise, which is why they are the first step. However, that does not mean that a wall is the most effective defence. Can you think of why?”

"Is it because a wall can be broken, or worn down? It's stationary, and made by mortal hands?" Vaedwyn's comments were as close to questions. Jona shook his head from side to side as if only half in agreement.
“Well, yes…it is those things, and so much more.” He said. “Ultimately walls are simple structures, good at defending in a simple fashion. Normally walls are lined with guards, or are defended by catapults and ballistae. Moreso an invader has to travel to even get to a wall. If the wall is your first line of defence, then you are concluding that the enemy is already at your door. Is that not a rather foolish way of thinking?”

"I never thought of it like that..." Vaedwyn replied, but had nothing more to add. She seemed struck by the thought that she might lay dozens or even hundreds of obstacles for an invader to overcome in her mind. That would require an immense discipline. One she was as yet unable to maintain. Jona watched the thoughts whirling in her head and he smiled brightly.


“You have much to learn yet.” He said as he leant closer, “but do not let that sour your achievement today. There will always be more to learn, but today you have shown that you can defend your mind as adequately enough to at least aid you in a battle. Perhaps now I can share some things with you that have been, well, guarded.”
"There seems to be an awful lot of secrets, but..." Vaedwyn sighed, "If Auriel was here, she'd say it was for a good reason. Truthfully, I understand that just as well." She kept Jona's gaze, "What has been kept from me?" She asked directly.

“First…” Jona said with a smirk, “Is more something I wished to keep as a surprise of sorts. You see, just like every other aspect of your bond, your mind is stronger with Auriel nearby. The skills you have developed may not seem like a lot, but when Auriel is with you her will can…transform your defences. Make them stronger, or perhaps more flexible if that is what is required. Her mind will enhance your own.”
"That seems logical." Vaedwyn replied, "That she enhances my other abilities, strengthens my magic. There's no reason it wouldn't be true for my mind."

“Yes, exactly.” Jona said with a nod. “Now…the second thing is something I am willing to share with you. It has required you to attain this level of skill for me to feel comfortable sharing it with you. You see…it is a memory. My memory.”
"Why do I need to see one of your memories, Jona?" Vaedwyn asked, frowning.
“There are several reasons…” Jona said calmly. “First is a lesson that is difficult to explain without you experiencing it. If you witness my memory, you will feel it as if it is happening to you. There is a danger in being a Rider, especially when you have a life so filled with pain. I wish to show you that danger, so you can avoid it yourself. Finally, this memory pertains to the individual who has plagued your mind. That woman…I am afraid to say that I have met her before. She is…the source of my single greatest pain.”

"Then... show me." Vaedwyn straightened in her chair, she tried to keep her expression neutral, but unlike her kin, she was not as gifted in that pursuit. Her brow tightened as she gripped the edge of the table, acutely aware of what she might soon be experiencing.
“Very well,” Jona whispered, his throat tightening. “This…it’s going to hurt…but it will pass, I promise.” And with that Jona once more reached out to Vaedwyn with his mind, but this time, he did not invade her memories, instead he pulled her into his own, and the ground beneath them fell away.


 The entrance to the tent was pushed open as a tall, lean figure pushed past in a hurried but purposeful stride. The figure was dressed in a form-fitting, green leather tunic, and trouser, complete with fixings of silver mail lined into the most vulnerable areas. A green hood covered his face, and the man held a long bow in his right hand, it’s quiver strapped across his back. At his waist two matching long daggers were housed in their scabbards, their design clearly of elven work. He strode towards the large fire pit in the centre of the camp and grabbed the shoulder of a soldier warming himself near the flames.

“Bring me Commander Varo, and be quick about it!” The hooded man snapped, his voice regal and full of authority. The guard seemed startled as if he had not heard the man come up to him.
“Oh, Master Rider!” He exclaimed. “Uh, yes sir! R-right away!” He added, before moving at a light jog, his plate armour clanking as he went. The hooded man turned back to the fire, folding his arms as he waited quietly for the soldier to return with his Commander. However it was not long before he was joined by another man who was dressed in dark armour so thick that it could have been made of stone, it's designed that of Nordúr. The man stood next to him, mimicking his folded-armed stance.

“Ye’ve heard word?” The man asked, his tone gruff and weary.
“Aye, brother.” The hooded man replied. “Sariel feels the beat of their wings. Aemon’s band of traitors will be upon us within the hour.”
“If they reach the battlefield there’ll be another assault.” The other man, Agron, replied. “It’ll be a slaughter.”
“Which is why we will end the ceasefire before then,” Jona said, pulling his hood down from his face. His younger face was darker around the eyes, and much more gaunt around the jaw.
“An’ how does that make us any better than them?” Agron replied heatedly. “If we start an assault during an agreed ceasefire, we’ll catch them unaware, hundreds of their men will be slaughtered, thousands maybe.”

“Exactly.” Jona said darkly.
“I dinnae like it.” Agron replied flatly. “That’s no how we were taught to handle a battle. It’s sneaky…deceitful.”
“One must be cunning and wicked at times.” Jona said. “They would do the same if the tables were turned.”
“An’ that’s exactly why we shouldn’t!” Agron barked. “The people fear Aemon enough without fearin’ us as well! Actions like this, what would that say tae folk? That we’re not better than Aemon!?”

“A more favorable option to death.” Jona said coldly. “Sariel agrees.”
“Sariel is a dragon, Jona!” Agron growled. “They are natural hunters, and they are fightin’ for their survival. We may be as close to them as family, but we are not the same. Ye need to remember that.”
“We are one.” Jona replied, and his tone was that of a deep, ancient growl that seemed entirely chilling coming from an elven tongue. Agron shivered.
“I hate when ye dae that.” He said as he shook his head. “There is such a thing as bein’ too close, y’ken?”
“You…could not possibly understand.” Jona replied scornfully. “Even I have felt Turiel’s thirst for blood. He wishes to avenge his mother, as does Sariel. You hold him back. Why?”

“Because pain clouds even a dragon’s judgement!” Agron snarled. “And dinnae you dare act like ye ken Turiel like I dae.”
“It is likely that I do.” Jona replied, his dark eyes void of any emotion. “You should let go of your grip on morality, brother. I understand, it is hard for you. A craftsman…you pour your life and soul into the inanimate, and give it life. I have always been a hunter, Agron. A predator.”
“This is a far fuckin’ cry from huntin’ Elk!” Agron bit back sourly. “What’s it the Elves teach? To honour the life taken? For every creature, every single one, great or small. Yer tae appreciate it, tae show it respect. I never understand all their airy-fairy gibbering but I at least understood that.”

“And the Elven also made it abundantly clear that I was not one of them.” Jona replied, a hint of bitterness in his voice. “No, I am Sariel, and Sariel is I. Together we will break the ground beneath those who dare offend us. We will show all the terrifying cost of angering a dragon.”
“Yer impossible!” Agron yelled, and he began to storm off. “Hell mend he!”

--- --- --- ---

Suddenly the ground gave in beneath them, the fire and the camp dissolved, and they were flying at speed, crashing through thick clouds of black smoke. Jona broke through the clouds on to a scene of black ash, fires burning all around the valley. Drums banged rhythmically like thunder, and horns blew through the air as a bloody battle raged on beneath them. Metal clashed upon metal. Arrows and spears whistled through the air and the dragon Jona rode suddenly swerved, gracefully avoiding the deadly spikes that flew up towards them.

The light of the fires below glinted off Sariel’s form, showing his copper scales and the distinct silver plate that had been attached to his frame. They did not converse through their link in a way that could be adequately described. Rather than a conversation between two entities, it was as if their minds were truly one. No additional confirmation was required beyond the briefest thoughts; their decisions being made in perfect tandem.

Instense heat rose up from the battlefield and Sariel glided upon the thermal currents, until they reached the beginning of the enemy lines. There was a blood curdling roar to their left, and Turiel, clad in his own plate and with Agron riding on his back, tore off into a deep dive. Sariel took off after him, following closely as the wind rushed loudly past them. Then there was a sudden crescendo and screeching sound as they swooped low over the clashing forces and opened their gaping maws.

Fire blanketed the enemy lines. Screams rang out as warriors flailed in agony, the ground beneath them scorched to ash. The twin dragons swept over the enemy forces, before doubling back to the front lines and landing gracefully within the heart of the battle. With a furious howl, Jona leapt from Sariel’s back, his bow drawn, and he loosed an arrow on his descent, sending it straight through the neck of one of the soldiers.

When he landed he ducked into a forward roll and rose up on one knee, his hands were a blur as he knocked another arrow, drew back his bowstring, and loosed the arrow at another soldier with blinding speed. Another soldier charged at him with a cry, but the nimble elf leapt and rolled over his exposed back, dropping and sweeping his leg out, knocking the soldier to the ground. He drew back his bow again, and loosed another arrow at the soldier’s head from mere inches away.

A line of soldiers advanced on him with their spears extended, and Jona retreated backwards. Sariel’s enormous form loomed over him instantly, and belched out another jet of white hot flame, incinerating the soldiers in a wide arc in front of him. Underneath the dragon’s hde, Jona continued firing arrows out into the field, downing soldiers one after another, while Sariel cleared away any forces brave enough to close in on them.

As he did he reached out with his will. His mind swept over the battlefield, rapidly sifting through the minds of the enemy soldiers, each one protected by an invisible force. In moment he had found the source of the protection; an enemy spellweaver deep within enemy lines, her magic flowing out from her. The spellweaver’s mind was a fortress and he could not easily penetrate it in such a situation, and so he settled for another option.

Jona drew another arrow, knocked it, and drew back his bow string once again. He pointed his arrow in roughly the direction of the spellweaver, and with a gentle whisper in the elvish tongue, an eerie, blue flame of magelight exploded from the arrowhead. He loosed the arrow and it went off, sailing through the soldiers, the magelight guiding it like a beacon as it traveled. Then, after only a few seconds, the arrow disappeared inside the hood of a robed figure, the spellweaver, who quickly collapsed to the floor, dead.

The soldiers felt the sudden absence of their magical protection and their panic washed over Jona, and he found it strangely satisfying. A sliver of a smirk spread across his lips, but quickly vanished as Sariel’s senses coalesced with his own. “She nears…” He hissed.
We shall spill her blood in honor of our mother Sariel’s thoughts pushed through, merging with his own. And with their minds made up Jona climbed back on to Sariel and they took off to the west, away from the fighting, and to where another rider was approaching from the mountains.

The rain came in sheets, as heavy and constant as a river. A difficult time to fly for even the most seasoned of riders. The battle seemed distant, but it's sounds carried far. The clash of metal echoed, but for a moment the battle seemed to stall. A terrible screeching roar pulled the attention of the soldiers fighting on both sides of the battle. Aemon's right-hand lieutenant had arrived. Her dragon's shadow cast itself across the mountains, the only sign of it's inky black hide, passing through the night sky, occasionally illuminated by streaks of lightning.

"Jona!" The woman yelled from atop her dragon. She was clad in armour matching her dragon, and had long silky blue-black hair. She was striking, her eyes fierce yet calm. No elf before or after, had ever been so beautiful. "Moriel and I have come to end this! Surrender, and spare your men's lives!"
Jona’s blood boiled as he heard the words, or perhaps it was Sariel’s. He did not care. All he could think of was killing this woman. This traitor to their kind. This woman who he had once looked up to, who he had once hoped to be like.

“Naerwen!” He roared through the storm, lightning flashing as if in response to his call. “By Ethanriel’s honor, your life is forfeit on this day!” He cried as Sariel rushed to meet Naerwen’s ebony dragon, and with a prideful roar the sky was suddenly engulfed in light, as white hot flames burst from Sariel’s jaws; huge, burning and hungry, the fire seemed to spill out through the sky in every direction, sizzling the falling raindrops into steam.

Naerwen's lips were a blur, as she whispered spells, weaving great magic at speed. Moriel opened her enormous maw, and from it spewed a jet of freezing air, so powerful that it instantly froze the droplets of water and ash falling through the sky. Moriel's freezing beam met Sariel's white-hot flame, and an explosion of steam smothered the mountains. Naerwen banked to one side, sensing the approach of the rider. She felt an assault on her mind, and with a grin, she let him enter. There was no wall. There was no fortress. No river to cross. No mountain to climb. There was only falling darkness. Nothing to grab. Nothing to slow his descent. Jona was tumbling through her mind, and the deeper he went, the harder it was for him to pull back. Moriel needed no urging from her partner, she rushed up to meet Sariel and the two clashed, biting and clawing at one another as Naerwen tore her black-bladed sword from it's sheath and swung at Jona's neck, certain to cleave his head from his body.

Sariel’s presence within Jona’s mind rushed through him like a storm. In one instant he was falling in infinite darkness, and the next he was flying, soaring back up through the dark void, wings beating furiously. He suddenly snapped back from out of Naerwen’s mind and with a jolt of energy he leaned back and out of his saddle, and this time he really was falling through the darkness. He watched as Sariel remained in a clinch with Moriel, and for a moment the hope drained from him.

Then a deep, booming voice thundered an ancient word through the storm, and lightning clapped down upon the two dragons like a lance, forcing them to separate. Sariel parted and immediately went into a vertical dive, closing the huge distance between him and his rider in moments. Sariel swooped under Jona and caught him gently, scooping him back up on to his back, as he began to rise once more. As he rose a triumphant roar shot through the blackness and Turiel barreled into Moriel, tooth and claw whirling in a frenzy.

Agron vaulted from his position on Turiel’s saddle, his large copper blade, Skovaer, drawn and held high to bring down upon Naerwen. Naerwen held her hand aloft and her native language sang through the night. The storm whirled around them and struck at Agron with a ferocity unmatched by even the most dangerous of tempests. This storm had been given purpose. The rain pelted Agron and Turiel, freezing on contact. Before Agron could as much as lower his blade, he could barely move his arm, let alone attack. Moriel turned her head and her deadly ice cut a path across Turiel's chest that sent a howl matching the winds into the air. Then Naerwen refocused upon Jona and his dragon, as Agron and Turiel dropped from the sky. "You've forced my hand!" She yelled. Moriel flew at them like a dart.

Brother! Sariel’s voice boomed through every mind that held the capacity to hear it. Sheer, dreaded panic rose up through Jona and he struggled as Sariel dropped in another dive, frantically hurtling towards his twin. Jona slowly turned himself on the saddle so he could face Naerwen, gripping the saddle tightly with one hand, the other held up at his face the try to block the beating rain. His mind raced as he searched for the true words that existed in the lexicon of his mind, searching for something. Anything that could aid him.

You cannot unmake the storm she has woven, Sariel’s voice boomed in his head. But you can save them…
I can save no one if Naerwen reaches us!, Jona replied.
Leave that to me… Sariel’s voice replied, his tone unnaturally calm, with a strong hint of sorrow. I will leave the rest to you. Take care of them.
“What!?” Jona cried out loud, confused by the dragon’s remark. Then Sariel suddenly bucked, and Jona felt himself fall from the dragon’s back and go tumbling down through the darkness, as Sariel rose back up, to face Moriel and her rider.

“NO!” Jona cried as he fell through the rushing wind. “SARIEL!!”
Thank you for holding on to my hatred with me. Find peace now. Save them.
“SARIEEEL!” Jona’s cry carried through the night, his voice screeching like metal, and he screamed until his lungs burned, and his throat felt like it had been skinned. Then he saw the distant forms of Turiel and Agron still falling, and something clicked in his mind.

For a brief moment he was focused. He shut everything out. He ingnored the rushing wind, and the overwhelming sense of dread that came from not knowing how close he was to smashing into the earth. He pushed away his fear of losing Sariel. He pushed away his anger and his doubts, burying them deep down inside of him until all that was left was a quiet, cold calm. And then he began to sing.

His voice was gentle, so much so that it could barely be heard in the rushing storm. He sang the true words, words that came from his heart, the words that made him ache like he had not done so in so many years. He felt the magic weaving it’s spell upon the world, and yet he was unsure what exactly it would do. So he sang all the more, over, and over, until he finally crashed into something. He felt great vines gently lower themselves under his weight, taking all of the force of his fall into themselves. His body still hurt from the fall, but he felt himself descending slowly as the great roots he had summoned began to lower him gently towards the muddy, soaking earth.

There was an angry roar nearby, and he saw Turiel thrashing violently in the roots, confused and disorientated. Jona began to thrash as well, tearing the roots from himself and rushing towards the dragon as fast as his battered and bruised body could carry him. Finally he practically fell on top of Turiel as he slid through the mud, reaching him.
“Get off ya bloody great brute!” Agron yelled from beneath the great dragon, who was tearing and biting at the roots which were holding Agron tightly. “I’m fine! Get off!”

“Elo…” Jona sighed, relief washing over him. His friend was alive. Turiel was alive. He had done it, he had saved them both. He sagged momentarily, the fatigue of weaving great magic had taken it’s toll on him, and for a moment he almost forgot the looming threat above him. The reminder struck him more severely than any blade could hope to.

In a single instant his heart suddenly exploded in pain. It felt like someone had stabbed it with a thousand burning blades. His gaze fell upwards as a final breath of fire lit up the sky. Then there was another moment of darkness, then a flash of lightning. Sariel was falling to the earth. He wasn’t moving.
“No…” Jona whispered as he clutched at his chest. “No…nono…noooo.” He wailed as he fell to his knees.

There was an almighty crash as the great beast hit the earth, and it shook under the force. A mournful howl cut through the air from Turiel, and Jona…just broke. Everything collapsed around him. Pain like nothing he had felt in all of his long life suddenly washed through him, paralyzing him as he lay down in the mud. Maddeningly he begged and pleaded to all the gods and the spirits he could think of, he murmured all the true words he knew, he offered his life, all lives and any life in exchange for the one that had just been taken.

“Jona!” He heard Agron scream, and he felt a large, firm hand grabbing him firmly. “Jona! Get up!”
Jona mouthed wordlessly, his eyes wide and frantic. None of it felt real, or perhaps it all felt far too real. There was no stage of doubt or disbelief. He knew it. Deep in his heart he knew the very moment it had happened. Sariel, a piece of him, the most important and dear thing to him, was gone.

Moriel's landing sent a dancing vibration through the mud and puddles of rainwater, indistinguishable from a boom of thunder. The great black dragon loosed a low moan of pain as her rider slid from the saddle and fell into the mud. Naerwen turned onto her back and looked up at the sky. Her face had been gouged open. Three long tears ran from the top corner of her face, down through her nose, through her cheeks and lips, and down her neck, and shoulder.

"My face..." Naerwen howled, "MY FACE!!" She screamed, her hand shaking before her, afraid to as much as touch her features for fear of what she would learn. Blood quietly gushed, pooling beneath her as she shivered on the ground. Moriel moved her head over her rider, shielding her from the rain. Naerwen reached up to her face, and pulled her hand across it. As she did so, a mask coalesced. Her other hand touched Moriel on the snout, she turned her head to see Jona marching towards her. His footfall dashing the mud as his hands sought her neck. Elvish rattled through her lips, she had to risk a magic that was beyond even her, or it would be the end of them both, then and there. The last thing she saw, before she vanished, was Jona's face. His eyes. Then she was gone. The sorceress was an elf. She was a rider. Her name was Naerwen. And she had murdered Sariel.

Jona could not remember how much time had passed since Naerwen had escaped him. He did not begin to rouse until he heard the clattering footsteps of men approaching. He turned to find a unit of Aemon’s forces advancing on him and Agron, their weapons at the ready as they called for him to surrender. His first reaction was to go for the daggers at his hip, but he paused as a more sinister thought came to him. “…Life…is fragile.” He whispered to himself. The soldiers advanced closer. He lowered his hands to his side, and it appeared as if he had given up the fight. Agron came to his side, sword in hand, and turned to him.

“Jona…A-are you-“
“I’m fine.” Jon replied darkly. “…We should leave.”
“We’ll need to fight…” Agron replied.
“No, we won’t.” Jona replied. He looked up at the soldiers who had surrounded them, and his expression was filled with furious anger. ”Die!” He snarled in Elvish, and he reached out with his will and all too simply; he snuffed the life out of each and every one of them, constricting their blood vessels and cutting off their air, until each soldier lay dead at his feet.


A tremendous force coalesced suddenly within Jona’s mind and thrust Vaedwyn away from it. They were back in the quiet corner of the library. Jona sat across from her, his hands were trembling. Tears dripped on the wooden table from his head, which was bowed deeply to avoid her gaze. “There…” He said with a trembling whisper. “Her name is Naerwen. She is an Elf, a true Elf…and she is one of the most formidable women I have ever had the displeasure of meeting.”

Tears flowed freely from Vaedwyn's eyes and she hung her head, desperate to speak some words of comfort, yet knowing that nothing she could say would comfort him. Jona's dragon had been taken from him, and until that moment, she didn't truly understand what that meant. It wasn't like someone had killed a friend, or a family member. It was as though someone had reached inside you, chosen the things that make you special, the things you cherish in yourself, and then ripped them from you. You were no longer whole. You were just a shade.

“There are perhaps many lessons you can take from that memory.” Jona said quietly. “Though it is decidedly quicker to simply say that I was wrong, Vaedwyn. About a great many things, as it turns out.” Jona swallowed and tried to clear his throat, before he looked up, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Riders who lose their dragons will never be whole again, make no mistake about that. Yet…it is clear to me now that I was on a dark path. I don’t think many people would have liked the person I was likely to become had Sariel lived.”

Jona suddenly reached out and gently held Vaedwyn’s hands in his. “Intense emotions will bleed through the link between you and Auriel. In times were both rider and dragon are emotionally wounded…it is possible to become lost, to become a monster. Remember that, and listen to Auriel’s guidance. But also know that despite her wisdom, how she feels is not always right.” Jona looked into Vaedwyn’s eyes for a long moment. “You must guide her as well, for she is prideful and fiercely protective. A dragon will always sacrifice their own life for their Rider, for they cannot live if we die, and so they assume that if they sacrifice themselves then at least we shall live…and perhaps they feel that is a better fate than death.” Jona rose from the table and began to walk away.

“It is not better in any way.” Jona said. “At least now you know that. When the time comes for you to face that woman, I will do all in my power to aid you. Hers is the last life I will be glad to take.” And with that he left the room.

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Snow drifted down onto the balcony from where Vaedwyn knelt. The clouds hung heavy, but the winds were calm. She held herself against the wind biting her cheeks, and chapping her lips. Her hands tightened into fists placed upon her lap. She had grown accustomed to the silence, save for the howl of the wind. So when the sound of heavy paws padding, and talons scratching stone approached her, she was all too aware of it. She felt a warmth touch her mind and she knew it belonged to Auriel. Her mind was still guarded, but she was able to link with her dragon without yielding her defence.
I was wondering when you'd show up, Vaedwyn continued looking out over the balcony. The stone railing had been knocked away, or worn over time, and so the view was clear and unobstructed, though it would be easy for one to fall over the edge. Auriel came closer but stopped near the balcony and glanced down at the floor with a look of suspicion.
Do you think they made even the balconies with a dragon in mind? Auriel asked, sniffing the floor.
I expect so... Vaedwyn replied, and waited. She could sense that Auriel was uncertain. Baby, she added. Auriel snorted in disgust, and stepped forwards, joining her.
I was thinking of your safety, you know. I'm the one with wings, remember? Auriel laid down beside her rider and looked out at the view she now shared with Vaedwyn.

The mountains were beautiful, mysterious. They seemed to stretch on forever, reaching for the stars, enshrouded by cloud and mist. The gentle snowfall tickled Auriel's snout and she shook her muzzle and made a long sighing noise that sounded almost wistful. The snow was beautiful, and she was glad to be here, but she did not like the cold. The silence grew between them, it was comfortable, easy. They needn't fill it with prattle like new friends. They were old souls, content to be in one another's company. Silence had a time and a place. Vaedwyn decided it had had it's moment.
I spoke with Jona. He showed me a memory, the battle...
The skirmish against Naerwen, Auriel finished. Vaedwyn had shared her thoughts in full, and in this respect, Auriel knew everything she knew.
Yes.
You know more today, than you did yesterday, yet your thoughts are troubled? Auriel nudged her rider and Vaedwyn smiled, but the smile quickly faded as she continued to stare up at the large amber eyes of her dragon. She couldn't begin to imagine what it would be like to lose Auriel.

Naerwen... batted them aside as if they were nothing. Vaedwyn waited, expecting a response, but Auriel just stared off at some point ahead of them in the mountains. Are you listening?! Jona and Sariel, Agron and Turiel. All four of them fought her, and she cast each of them aside like they were little more than a nuisance. Were it not for Sariel's sacrifice, they would all be dead.
You can't know that, Auriel cautioned. And yes, I am listening.
Her dragon was a bit like you, Vaedwyn mused.
She was nothing like me! Auriel snarled, her neck coiling back as her muzzle retracted in distaste.
No... I suppose not... sorry... Vaedwyn leant back on her legs and looked up at the sky.

I can't help but feel like something is missing. Everyone acts as though they've told me everything. I can protect their secrets, because i've learnt how to guard my thoughts. So why does it still feel like i'm missing a piece of the puzzle? She shook her head in frustration.
Maybe it is a piece, they do not have? Auriel asked thoughtfully.
You may be right... Vaedwyn leapt up from her kneeling position and stretched after a prolonged period of stillness, she was stiff. Shall we go?
Lead on, Auriel playfully shoved her in the back, pushing her forwards. It was time to get ready... for the gauntlet. 

 


 

Vaedwyn, flanked by Auriel, walked into the main hall. Jona and Agron were in heated discussion, but the moment they entered, their argument fizzled out.
They were talking about us, Auriel observed.
I know. Vaedwyn agreed, from across their link. She approached the table and nodded to her mentors, "We are ready."
Agron and Jona looked to each other briefly, and then back to Vaedwyn. 
"It appears you are..." Jona said with a slight pause and a sigh. He glanced at Agron for the briefest moment before rubbing his palms together. "Then it is about time we tell you what it is you are truly about to do." He turned to Agron and offered his hands out for him to explain. 
"Aye...er...well." Agron said, scratching his head. "That is tae say...Vaedwyn. When we run the gauntlet, well, it's a one way trip. If ye choose tae dae it now, then we'll no be back here for a long while. That means...er..."
"It means that if you choose to continue your path, then your training here will be complete. It will be the next step in your journey."

"I..." Vaedwyn hesitated.
We are ready, Auriel reassured her.
"I... have a lot to learn. But my time with you has... has come to an end." She bowed to Jona. A smile spread across Jona's lips. 
"No, child." He said. He looked both happy and sad as he came to stand closer to her. "We shall see each other again. Just... not for a little while."
Suddenly Vaedwyn surged forwards and gripped Jona in a hug, pressing her face into his chest to hide her tears. To her, it had felt like moments, and yet in her long stay here, despite her demons, she had found a measure of peace. Now that was all coming to an end, and she was afraid she would never see Jona again.
Jona squeezed her tightly, smiling as he did. "I'm glad." He said happily, "That you did not come to hate me as I had feared."
"That makes two of us." Vaedwyn muttered sheepishly, smiling as she brushed aside her tears and composed herself. Auriel took a step forwards, closing the distance to Jona. She stood, towering over the two-legged, pointy-eared humanoid and studied him carefully. Finally, she turned to look at Vaedwyn. 
I am ready. She said simply.
Ready? Vaedwyn asked, confused.
To cast my thoughts and link to those who are not my rider. They will hear me, as only you and my kin have heard me. And at that, she cast out her thoughts and touched the minds of both Agron and Jona. Then she greeted them, as she would old friends.
It is liberating to speak to you directly, at last, Anarion... She said to Agron. It was 'Father' in the Elvish tongue. She looked to Jona, then. Tornoyo'em. 'Master'. Then to the surprise of everyone - most of all Vaedwyn - the great dragon fell to her haunches, her neck lowered, and she bowed to them.

Agron let out a small chuckle and folded his arms in front of him, nodding approvingly. Jona paused for a moment, caught off guard. Then he slowly lowered his head, and moved his hand to his face to wipe at his eyes. Finally he lowered himself until he was bowing lower than Auriel. 
"It is an honour, Auriel." He said, still in the bow.
"Aw fer gawdsake nah..." Bradan muttered, stomping down the stairs and shattering the moment entirely, "Why dont'cha jus' ge'a room an' be done with it, ya bunch'a weepy-eyed sad sacks." Bradan loosed a raucous laugh and threw himself into the nearest chair. "So whassis then?" He asked, looking around the room as his pipe was placed in the crook of his mouth.
I never thought there would be a day when I found myself agreeing with the runt. Turiel's voice echoed through the minds of all who could hear him. The dragon had been snoozing in a corner, and had lazily opened his eyes before opening his jaws in a great yawn. If we stay in this keep any longer you shall all grow plump and slow. Turiel chuffed as if annoyed. Set your sentimentality aside for a moment little cloud rider. If Auriel has finally found her voice, then perhaps you have found your ears.
"I have found more than just my ears here, old one." Vaedwyn replied, looking to Turiel. "I have been given purpose. Now, I would set it to task."
Turiel's chuckle resonated pleasantly through Vaedwyn's mind. It does feel so good to be heard. He said to her, and his sleepy eyes became alert and fierce. To be heard... it makes me feel like a young buck once more. No better time to fly, do you not think?
"Think you can keep up?" Vaedwyn asked, a wry grin spreading across her face.

Turiel responded with a thunderous roar of challenge that echoed through the halls, shaking the old stone. Then he nodded at her approvingly. There's that fire! He said to her, and then he stalked off to leave. Jona, until next time my dear friend. He said to the half-elf as if he was going to be back in just a short time. Though, to such an old creature, perhaps the wait really would feel so brief.
"Right then." Agron said, clapping his hands together. "The decision's been made, I suppose. Let's go."
"Be careful." Jona said. "The trial ahead... it's dangers are real. Proceed knowing that a mistake could cost your life."
"Wha'?!" Bradan choked and coughed on his pipe, pulling it from his lips as he stood up, "Er, 'ello? I asked ye - wh'the feck is goin' on 'ere, hey?!"
"Come on, i'll explain on the way." Vaedwyn clapped Bradan on the back, and with that gesture alone, he chuckled and shrugged off his confusion and everyone filed out of the hall. The next leg of Vaedwyn's journey was underway. The gauntlet lay before her. She was ready. At least, that's what she kept saying to herself.

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