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Valentine

Blood & Scale

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Although they had set out in the morning, by the time the group had landed again the sun was already beginning to set in the sky. They had travelled further north, deep within the mountains of Nordúr. They had left behind the ruined settlements of the Nord folk, they had climbed so high through the mountains that the air was thin and it was harder to breath. They had landed on a cliff edge that was relatively flat and had done so because all that lay ahead was treacherous, sharp rocks.

“This is the last time we can land.” Agron explained. “There’s a thin passage that leads to our destination from the ground below, but it takes days tae traverse and it’s nae route tae be takin’ on a Dragon.” As he spoke Agron began to unpack some of the supplies from Turiel’s pack. He took out some bread and a flask of water. He took a quick sip and passed it back, before snapping off a piece of bread for himself.

“Ye’ll want tae eat, but no too much.” He said, “Ye’ll likely throw it up otherwise. The path we’re takin’ is through a series o’ tight gaps between the rocks. This mountain is full o’ interweavin’ caverns. There’s a bunch o’ entrances but only one wide enough fer a dragon tae get through. What’s more we cannae fly o’er the peak, it’s so high there’s nae air tae breath.”

As the flask and bread were passed to her, Vaedwyn thanked Agron, and took a small chunk of bread and a long drink. Food was something she needed little of. At least in comparison with humans, and even less so compared with dwarves whose dense musculature brought them a faster metabolism.
"This sounds like a gauntlet in and of itself, but you say there are other obstacles, ones that riders have placed?" Vaedwyn asked, returning the flask and bread.

Traps, and more besides, I expect, Auriel added.
“Aye, there’s a lot more than that.” Agron said with a nod. “The entrance comes in at a steep drop. We’ll have tae dive right in. The light will go before ye reach the bottom, then ye’ll have to rely on yer other senses. Ye hit the rocks below that could be the end o’ ye right there. Then the caverns will get narrower, and at times the Dragon’s won’t have enough room tae open their wings. They’ll need tae climb through.”

The first section is too dangerous for any one to lay traps. Turiel explained, taking over from Agron. Once the path becomes easier to traverse, expect man-made opposition. Mostly pressure traps designed to cause cave-ins. Once we breach the caverns we’ll be moving through a narrow passage between the rocks. We should be able to fly free, but there will be ballistae set up to spear us. If you hear a war horn then that means men will be setting up to man the trebuchet. Also nets… Turiel let out a low, rumbling snarl. I hate nets.

"Men?" Vaedwyn looked from Turiel to Agron, "You never said anything about men... I thought we were alone out here..."
No more half-truths, Agron. The gauntlet is not just another training tool, is it? Auriel rose up and focused on Agron.
“Indeed not.” Agron said with a nod. “This is’nae just a test tae prove somethin’ tae me, or tae yersel’, it’s also to prove it tae them. On the other side o’ this mountain is the big secret, lass. The one I could’nae tell ye because the risk was too great. An’ no just a risk to us, but a risk to an entire city of folk. I’m…I’m sorry I hid it fae ye both. Thousands o’ lives were at stake. Only Bradan could know…Dwarven minds cannae be read, y’see?”

Vaedwyn's glare turned to Bradan who quickly excused himself, "We'hey is no my fault ye mind is soft an' mushy, if all o'yeh had th'mind o'a dwarf we'd no be in this mess. There'd be no lieutenants, no armies linin' up behin' Aemon, an' we'd a mushed 'im good a long time ago, righ'?! Don'be givin' me tha'eye, girl."
"So why are we going there? And why are they hidden? I've never even heard rumours of a city in Nordúr."
Nordlings survived? Auriel asked, surprised by this revelation.

“It’s quite a tale, lass.” Agron said. “Y’see, If ye recall from yer studies the Nord folk dinnae have family names. At birth we are given a name for ourselves, and then once we reach adulthood we are given a choice. Once there were a great number of Houses in which we could align ourselves. Some were more known than others. Jona, for example, was of the House of the Wolf. They were hunters mostly, assassins at times. I come fae the House of the Bear. O’ course all o’ the Houses were destroyed when Aemon marched North. All but the House of the Hare.”

"Why did they survive when the other Houses were destroyed?" Vaedwyn asked.
Because Aemon made the mistake all men make Turiel replied, letting out an amused rumble, What should man fear of a harmless, little Hare? Hare’s are only good to make meat, and furry boots.
“Aye, except Hare’s are quiet and quick.” Agron said. “The House of Hares were a secretive but noble bunch. They hid themselves away where even most Nords could not find them. When Aemon’s forces came the House of Hares sprung into action. They rescued many refugees, both Nord and Human. They helped them travel the treacherous path, one no man could find unless they knew it was there. They lead them through a network of tunnels that ended on the other side o’ the mountain we stand on.”

Man yet resists the Tyrant King. Turiel said. The Resistance awaits…
"There are people fighting against Aemon?!" Vaedwyn's expression changed from suspicious to immediately ecstatic, "I-I'd heard rumours that his caravans had been attacked but i'd always assumed it was bandits - are there many of them? Who's their leader? How long have they been in the mountains?" Her questions seemed to have no end. "Do we--"
"More important like - what are we t'them?" Bradan asked.

“Aye, well…” Agron shrugged a little. “Soldiers could verify who we are if we took the long route. This is the only way too treacherous to be guarded. They’ve likely heard whispers o’ a new Rider, but…we’re essentially breakin’ in here. They’ll assume we’re hostile until they see Turiel.”
Then perhaps, Elder, you would like to lead the way? Auriel suggested.
That was always the plan Turiel replied.
“It’s good that ye’ve opened yer mind enough to hear others.” Agron said to Vaedwyn, “We need to communicate. Listen to every instruction Turiel gives you, there is no room for questioning. Dae ye understand?”

"I think so." Vaedwyn nodded. "But why are we going to this city?"

We are a part of the resistance. Whether we join them, or not. If we do not stand with Aemon, we stand against him. He will soon learn he cannot twist you into one of his miserable lieutenants, and then, he will want us both destroyed. I must guess we are doing the only reasonable course of action, we will combine our forces. Auriel looked to Agron for confirmation.

“That’s up tae you.” Agron replied. “I’ve never sworn allegiance to them, I took my oath a long time ago and it’s still in effect. Yet I aid them when I can, and they tolerate that because of Turiel. He helped in the escape, it would have been a catastrophic failure without him. In that sense he’s somewhat of a hero in their eyes.” Agron shook his head. “That’s getting off point though. Ye need tae be careful who you go on bended knee for. I’ve already warned ye about making alliances, but it’s yer own life. These people will support ye, should ye find that it’s needed.”

"We'll deal with that when we come to it." Vaedwyn shook her head and nodded at the passage up ahead, "First, we have to get there."

Alive, preferably. Auriel added.
“Then let’s do just that.” Agron said with a nod.

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

Not long after they had ascended again, they had climbed higher up into the mountain’s reaches, until up ahead Turiel began to fly in circles, waiting for Auriel to catch up. When she arrived his voice pushed into her and Vaedwyn’s thoughts.
We go straight down, wings tight. Gravity will be working tirelessly against us. The wind is low, and the cavern is cold with no thermals to ride on. You must trust me, wait for my signal, then pull up swiftly. Sight will fail you, so follow your nose and the sensation of the breeze, slight as it will be. I have trained you Auriel, I know you can do this. Are you both ready?

I am. Auriel said confidently.

"It looks like a long way down..." Vaedwyn added, staring into the blackness. A strange, disgusting noise distracted her. It sounded as though something was dying. Hacking and choking and inhaling it's final breath. Then suddenly it switched to a short, guttural snort. Vaedwyn looked over her shoulder just in time to see Bradan finish gathering a mass of spit and mucus in his mouth, and then he spat with all his force, making her retch. In spite of Bradan's fear of heights, he leaned over the side of the saddle to watch his spit disappear. Then he listened intently as Vaedwyn tried to control her gag reflex.

"IT DIDN' EVEN SPLASH, YE SEE THA?! WHERE'S IT?!" He roared in disbelief. "FECK THIS, LIKE!!" He gripped Vaedwyn and the saddle like a petrified ape.
“Too late to bail now!” Agron said with a roaring laugh.
Dive. Turiel ordered, and then he dropped down into the hole in the mountain. They moved at incredible speed, the sheer force of gravity making their stomachs turn. This was not the sheer, unbridled exhilaration of flight. They were simply falling. Further, and further they descended until there was no light left. They plunged forever in a mass of darkness, with the hollow, dreadful noise of their descent rushing past their ears. Somewhere further down in the darkness Turiel’s mind reached upwards and found his companions.

Watch. Remember. Turiel’s voice commanded. Then there was a sudden flash of light and hot air rushed past them as Turiel sent a burst of fire beneath them. The cavern was briefly illuminated, and they could see that the floor was close. They could also see went suddenly horizontal and became a tunnel. Then, once again, they were plunged into darkness and they knew that now was the time for action.

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A flash of light, Turiel's fire, then the ground was rushing up to meet them. Darkness once more. Bradan gripped onto Vaedwyn's waist tightly, she could sense his fear and if she let it, she would have given in to fear herself. But the rush of flight, danger and the unknown, kept her senses sharp. Suddenly, she felt the air pressure change.
"Now!!" She yelled, trying to pull up as Auriel fanned her wings and tried beating them to slow their descent. Vaedwyn felt a heavy vibration rattle through Auriel, and through to her, they had landed. Bradan tried to slide out of the saddle, but simply collapsed onto the ground and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Aw thank ye, Gods..." He wheezed, gripping the dusty cavern floor.
"What's next?" Vaedwyn asked, asking Agron, but staring ahead at the pitch-black tunnel. 
Scent will guide us. Turiel answered before Agron could. There was a crunching of heavy feet moving in the darkness as the dragon proceeded through the tunnel. Moss and damp signal water's trail through the cracks. Yet more subtle is the fresher scents of wildflowers that carry in the slightest of breezes. Follow that and we shall reach our goal. Avoid the paths with the stench of rot, only death awaits in those tunnels.

"Death?" Vaedwyn frowned.
In the dark, some things need not be disturbed... Auriel noted, staring out at the inky blackness.
"Dragons are needlessly cryptic sometimes." Vaedwyn replied, then held her hand aloft and spoke the elvish word for 'light'. A strange luminescence coalesced at her palm, with brilliant shades of green and blue mixed with the most brilliant white light. For a moment, she was dazzled. The tunnel lit up around them, and Vaedwyn shivered in discomfort as a number of things retreated into the shadows.
"Aye alright this is more like it..." Bradan strode on ahead of them, his eyes searching the tunnels ahead.
"Scent will guide us..." Vaedwyn muttered, repeating Turiel's advice.

The orb of light hovered along in front of the group, guiding them down the tunnel. Eventually, the tunnel came to a stop, branching off in two different directions. Bradan looked at each of them in turn, his head shifting from one to the other, and back again. He turned and looked to Vaedwyn, giving her a shrug. Stepping forwards, Vaedwyn moved down into the tunnel on the right. She smelled the air, and could feel Auriel doing so as well behind her. She wasn't sure what she was trying to find, there were no particularly powerful smells. Just a mild, dampness to everything. She could hear water droplets splashing on the ground up ahead. She walked out and over to the tunnel on the left, and wandered down a short ways. At first, there didn't seem to be anything different. It was Auriel that noticed it first.
Sour... Auriel made a hacking noise as though she'd gotten a bone stuck in her throat.
She was right. There was a smell, quite distant though it was, of something rotting. Maybe something was dead and decaying, and maybe there was something waiting for it's next meal to replace the scraps it had left behind of it's previous visitor. They'd take the tunnel on the right. She didn't fancy coming to the source of whatever that smell was.

"So, then..." Bradan spoke, breaking the silence that had held for several minutes. "Agron, will ye tell us wha' dragons were like 'afore they were pairin' wi'elves, an' then yeselfs? Y'know there's a lot t'be tol' in Dwarf texts but not eh lot of it's on dragons, i'll tell ye that much."
"Well... am no exactly a Historian or anythin', Bradan." Agron said with an awkward shrug. "Yer talkin' about a long time a'fore a was born, an' even that was over a millennia ago." He sighed and rubbed his hands together, warming them as he contemplated his next words. 
"So, before they bonded wi' the Eladrin-" Agron paused, knowledge passing through his mind, supplied by Turiel, "Before the Eladrin even crossed the sea tae come tae Suros, actually. During that time the Dragons ruled this land uncontested. There were no creatures as strong or as intelligent as they were." Agron paused again, apologetically holding his hands up to Bradan. "Or, well, at least they thought so at the time. There was nae dialogue between the ancient Dwarves and the Dragons. They considered yer folk tae be primitive and uncivilised, just like the rest of the animals."
"Bloody sky lizards..." Bradan grumbled.
Well this sky lizard knows better. Auriel continued walking as Vaedwyn relayed her comment to Bradan.
"Ah, ah well ah meant no offence, that is, present company excluded, an' all that, and eh..." He trailed off into silence.
That's alright, no offence taken... Auriel replied, then a beat, ... bearded rock ape. Vaedwyn grinned as she spoke Auriel's words aloud. 

For a moment, Bradan looked stunned, then lines spread across his face as it screwed up in laughter and he had to hold his sides as he walked. Auriel chuffed, a sound as close to laughter as could be made by a dragon, and even Vaedwyn found herself laughing, a beautiful, lyrical series of notes that echoed through the tunnels and though he would not have said aloud, made Bradan glad to have been a man who could appreciate the company of a woman that could bring light to even this dark place, in more ways than one.
"So, before the dragons were bonded to the elves, they were wild..." Vaedwyn mused, glancing at Agron.
"Wild, aye." Agron nodded. There was a loud snort and Turiel pushed his head forward, bearing his teeth a little. 
Are you implying we are now tamed? He asked Agron, a testy edge to his tone, as if daring Agron to say it. 
"Right, sorry. They are still wild." Agron corrected. "It's more like...how dae ye say it?"
Primal. Turiel offered, 13 centuries and you're still in dire need of a dictionary.
"Oh shut up!" Agron snapped back, frowning. "Okay, so they were primal, okay?" He turned back to the group to continue. "They did not speak to each other with their links as they do now. There was no need, they just...well." Turiel let out a low, rumbling growl, followed by a hiss, as if to demonstrate. "Aye, that."

"Y'know..." Bradan cleared his throat, "Ah sometimes think y'all are messin' wit' me. How d'ah know fer sure that these dragons can talk, an' understand like we can? I mean no offence but i'm a sceptic, an' ye could jus' be sayin' wha'ever ye like we'er this one says it or not." He jerked his head back at Auriel, who responded by stretching out her long, crane-like neck and gently bumping Bradan in the back. The dwarf hit the floor like a bag of wet sand and scrambled to get back up to his feet. "Righ'! Right'ye are then, right... obviously..." His face turned pink in embarrassment.
"I'm sorry, Bradan," Vaedwyn smiled sadly at the dwarf, "I know its hard for you to understand. You only had one interaction with a dragon, and... I understand."
The stump sells himself short, as usual. Turiel mused to the group that could hear him, He understands our communication well enough. A nudge, a snarl, a hiss. That is all our ancestors needed for expression. We only learned to speak this way because the ones we bonded with could not grasp our language. Yet the Dwarf grasps it well enough. He ended by letting out an approving little chuff, moving his head in a slight, upward nod towards Bradan.

 


 

The tunnels seemed to stretch on and on, with no sign of ending. The initial choice of left or right, soon became far more complex as the tunnel system expanded into dozens of paths. It became harder and harder to discern if they were going the right way. Sometimes, Vaedwyn and Auriel found themselves sat positioned between two entrances, trying to gauge which one might have been the slightly less foul-smelling tunnel. After walking for several hours, Bradan began dragging his heels.
"How much longer is it?" He called out to the group.
"A while longer, I expect." Vaedwyn replied, but noticed the exhaustion on his face. It seemed the dwarf's gusto for the tunnels had run out when they didn't soon end at a bright light and a hot meal. Though she didn't disagree, she was getting tired and felt claustrophobic. She wasn't used to being so cramped. Even in the dwarf city, it was far more open, so much so that it often didn't feel like they were living inside a mountain at all - at least until you looked up and saw darkness far above the city. Vaedwyn knew she wasn't the only one, either. Both Auriel and Turiel found it difficult to move in the tunnels, unable to fly and at points they even had to squeeze to get through certain sections.

"We should bed down for the night." Vaedwyn let out a short breath and walked over to the tunnel wall and slid down on her back until she was sat on the floor. Auriel slowed and shuffled over to one side and laid down, giving Bradan just enough room to sit on the other side, while Agron and Turiel were just behind them. After a couple of minutes, a chill set in. Vaedwyn moved closer into the middle of the group and went to create a flame. Then it occurred to her, that she would have to funnel magic into the fire constantly, as there was no fuel source. That was no good. Instead, she grabbed a dozen or so stones off the path and put them in a pile, then cast heat into the centre of them until they were glowing red hot. Then, she only needed to occasionally warm them, and the stones would give off enough heat to stave off the cold.

"I wonder what i'd be doing right now..." Vaedwyn said quietly to herself, but Bradan caught her eye and she explained, "I mean, if Auriel had never come into my life. If... all of this... had never happened. I think I would still be hunting in the forest. I wonder if I would have been allowed to leave my village and go to the city one day... i've never seen the city of my people. My... Mogwé used to tell me that we're very different from other elves. The elves in the city are dreamers, magic-weavers, artisans and warriors... maybe now i've got you..." Vaedwyn put her hand on Auriel's flank with a warm smile, "Maybe i'll see the city now... I think Torenth would have liked that..." Caught off-guard by her own emotions, Vaedwyn fell silent as tears welled in her eyes. After everything that had happened, she had been so busy she had all but forgotten her friend. Whether she was travelling, training or in peril, she was kept occupied. How could she have forgotten her so soon? She slumped down and laid back on Auriel's side.

"Y'know, there's a sayin' that folk have; it's 'don't dwell on the past', eh." Agron said out loud as he lay down on the rocky ground. "They say that because they live short lives. The past, if they dwell on it, can distract them from the now. It can fill them with pain and misery, and there's no sense wastin' a short life bein' miserable." He sucked in a breath and was silent for a moment. There was an echoing drip sound from water droplets somewhere deep in the tunnels. 
"But I say ye should dwell sometimes." He said finally. "Elves, the ones in the city, the dreamers. They contemplate their past and their memories wi' a depth an' clarity I could ne'er truly understand. Y'see when ye live that long...if ye don't stop to remember at times...ye forget." Agron smiled weakly as he recalled memories from a past that seemed like a different life altogether. 
"I had a younger brother and sister when I was your age." He said. "Hamer and Roan. My father was called Aran, my mother, Shae. They were my family, my world, my everythin' an' the thing is... they were all gone before I was barely 120 years old. I've outlived my family by countless lifetimes. I've watched my nephew's nephew's nephew grow old and die. If I did'nae stop tae remember them... well it'd be all too easy to forget 'em."

Agron's story lay on Vaedwyn's mind as she closed her eyes to rest. It had been a long day, and there was much yet ahead of her. She wondered on the trials she would need to pass, the obstacles she had to overcome. She wondered about the lives of those who chose to take up the mantle of 'rider', and even spared a thought for who Aemon might have been, had he not done the same. Would he have still been the person he was now? Was he destined to become a tyrant, or could destiny be shaped?
Sometimes your thoughts baffle me. Auriel brought her head down to eye level with Vaedwyn. Our ultimate goal is the destruction of Aemon, but you wonder who he might have been? What does it matter. He is a monster. That is the truth of this world.
That is the truth of your world. And for many, but I don't know if it is the truth for him. Vaedwyn replied. 
Auriel snorted, That, would be a fiction of his own creation.
Maybe. Maybe i'm some... hero, who is here to save the world and unite everyone under one banner, but i'm sure for many i've brought a lot of pain and hardship to their lives. I have to keep an open mind, I think perhaps Aemon is who he is, because he closed his mind to others...
Well, I shall eat him, Auriel stated matter-of-factly, as she yawned, coincidentally flashing the weapons of said deed.

 


 

The light hovering from Vaedwyn's magic had dimmed, the stones which had once been red-hot coals, were now glowing a gentle orange. Bradan, Vaedwyn, Agron, Turiel and Auriel were all asleep and had been for several hours. The tunnels were quiet, but that quiet was just enough, that if you listened closely, you could hear the little scurrying of insects, the digging of a mole, and all the little things that lived in the dark. Suddenly, however, all these whispers... fell silent. The silence persisted, if only for a few minutes, then slowly, very slowly, there was the quietest of short, rough, scratches. And another. And another. Tiny pebbles and dust fell from the ceiling of the tunnel, peppering everyone below. The scratching, scraping, gnawing at the rock above, continued. Soon, little flecks of rock fell from the ceiling, harmlessly landing in the dust of the cavern floor. The noise grew louder, yet still it was almost unnoticeable. All the more so to those weary from their travels. 

At last, a small opening formed in the rock above their heads, something emerged. It's head was grasping, clawing at the air. It sought purchase, and when it found none, it wriggled to get free of it's tunnel, so that it could enter the cavern below. Even as it was writhing out of it's opening, another opened in the tunnel ceiling. And another. And another. Soon, there were dozens, maybe hundreds of fist-sized holes opening above. The creatures - each of them the length of a man's arm - fell silently to the floor. Some landed directly on the sleeping travellers, some even landed on the dragons, but they were so light, that nobody was woken. The creatures had swallowed air as they breached their tunnels, and drifted down to the floor so as not to disturb anything, or anyone. They wriggled and writhed over the party, each worm finding an ideal purchase. Then each, in turn, raised their bulbous little heads which exploded open like a blossoming flower, each petal ringed with teeth, to attach themselves to the bodies of the party. Agron, Vaedwyn and Bradan had at least half a dozen sucking copious amounts of blood. The disgusting, cream-coloured leeches quickly changed in colour. From cream, to pink, from pink to bright red, from bright red to a dark crimson. Their bodies pulsating with each gulp. Auriel and Turiel were covered in them, dozens of them attached in every nook and cranny the vile creatures could find.

A few minutes passed, no-one was waking. Vaedwyn, Agron and Bradan looked ill, the colour was drawn from their cheeks, along with the warmth. Auriel shivered, as she too was affected, and her enormous, vibrating body shook Vaedwyn awake. It took her mind no more than a second, to pull itself from the haze of sleep, and realise she was covered in huge, pulsating leeches. She screamed in surprise, shoving at one on her arm which reluctantly detached, hissing at her as it fell to the floor. Her scream had already woken the rest of the party, who had had a similar reaction. Auriel roared in shock and panic, trying to stand only to find the tunnel ceiling too low for her to gain full height. Her tail swung dangerously back and forth as she tried to whip the leeches with her tail, and bite at them from where she could reach.
"Agron!!" Vaedwyn screamed for her mentor as Bradan hopped on one foot, trying to grab the leech that had affixed itself to his other leg. 
Agron spat a series of guttural Nordic curses amongst what was likely a fair amount of terrified gibbering, his hands flailing to swat the nasty creatures from his flesh. "Gah! Run, lass! RUN!" He yelled frantically as his legs began moving. A great roar thundered through the tunnels as Turiel thrashed in sheer anger, snapping and swatting at the creatures, his scales rippling as the dragon bucked and flailed to throw them from his body.

Vaedwyn, Agron and Bradan sprinted through the tunnels, blind as moles with the leeches still trying to find purchase on them, even as they knocked them from their bodies. They ran, not just because of the creatures sucking their life's blood, but because they had two stampeding dragons, charging behind them. Vaedwyn had never seen a dragon in such a state of panic before. It was clear, that not many had ever found themselves in the depths of these tunnels and the horrors within. Everything their ancestral memory taught them about, prepared them for and educated them, had not seen fit to include enormous, blood-draining leeches capable of piercing a dragon's scaly hide. They careened through the tunnels without regard for those running in front of them. Vaedwyn dodged as Auriel's head swung through the cavern, almost clipping her and dashing her against the wall of rock.
"Keep running!!" She yelled, over the noise of the enraged dragons. Vaedwyn put out her foot in front of her, to take the next step and found nothing. She had no time to scream, or warn the others, and suddenly she was falling. Tumbling over herself, down a steep, scree-covered decline. She felt sharp rocks slash at her limbs and face, she heard the dragons bellow as they too fell over the edge and were falling behind them, ready to crush them at any moment. She heard Auriel's long tail whip over her head, and was glad she was not a little taller, for it might have decapitated her. Then just as suddenly, she hit the ground and scampered out of the way. Agron and Bradan landed next and both of them knew just as quick to move out of the way, and then with an ear-shattering clatter, Turiel and Auriel landed behind them. They were all of them, free of the leeches. However, now they had another problem. They were lost.

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“Well we’re in a wee bit of a pickle now, eh?” Agron said with an exasperated sigh as he began skulking about, feeling along the walls and muttering to himself. “…creepy little bastards.”
Strange things lurk in these tunnels. Creatures that have never seen the light of day. Turiel said, having managed to settle himself a little bit. The commotion has unsettled the rock walls. Too many smells. Dust, blood, the ichor left by those disgusting things. He sniffed at the air a little more fervently and let out a frustrated rumble. This tunnel smells of rot, and strange fungus. We should not have went this way.

"I'm sorry, next time i'm falling down the side of a subterranean cliff, i'll remember to roll left, instead of right." Vaedwyn grinned to herself, smelling the air and instantly regretting it.
"Well... we're fecked." Bradan grumbled, "But a'least ah gotta see a dragon shit is kecks before ah croaked. Tha' was somethin'..."
Speak a word of it at your own peril. Auriel warned, her tail whipping back and forth in irritation as she licked at one of her wounds. Vaedwyn passed the message on to Bradan who was more than happy to remain silent on the subject from then on.

“Y’know we might actually be in some real bother here.” Agron admitted. “We can chance walking in any direction but, there’s no guarantee we’ll even find an exit.”
I won’t allow myself to die in a cave, it’s pathetic. Turiel replied.
“I’m glad yer feelin’ confident but that does’nae mean we’ve got any more of a chance of findin’ our way back tae salvation. We need tae pick a path, and hope it’s no the wrong yin.”
Easier said than done. Turiel grumbled. This entire tunnel stinks of…something…it’s strange. I don’t like it.

"We can only keep on moving forwards. There's no going back now." Vaedwyn brushed herself off, and started walking.
"Right ye are." Bradan followed after her
“Well, that’s that decided.” Agron said with a shrug and followed after them.
I do not like this., Turiel said as he followed them along. I sense something is wrong…
“Oh really?” Agron called back to him. “We’re lost in a maze o’ tunnels, most of which lead to fuck all but our own demise, and aw this after being dinner fer some leeches! An’ ye sense somethin’ wrong, aye? Bout time anaw!”

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

By the time Agron had stopped to have a think about where he was going, he realized that he wasn’t entirely sure how long he had been walking. His stomach felt strange, like he might have been hungry, but it was a distant kind of sensation that felt less relevant than it probably should have. He looked around and squinted in the darkness. He tried to recall the word he used to summon light, but it escaped him entirely. “Vay…er…Vaerwee….er…lass!” He muttered towards Vaedwyn. “What’s the word fer, er, y’know…tae turn the lights on, ken?”

"Who's there?!" She called out into the dark, taking a step back. "I heard a voice..."

My mind... is fogged... A voice spoke in her mind.

"Who said that?!" She yelled into the tunnel, pushing her back to the tunnel wall. She looked around, she was sure she wasn't the only one in here. But, she couldn't remember why she was in here in the first place, or why she couldn't see. Come to think of it, she couldn't remember her own name.

“Are ye fer real?” Agron asked, screwing up his face. “Ye cannae be serious, lass. It’s me…er…er…”
Agron. Turiel’s voice thundered in his mind.
“Fuck me! Haww….shit maself there.” Agron replied, he could feel his heart thumping from the fright. “Where’s the wee yin? Is he still wi’ us?”

"Eh ahm feelin' funny like..." Bradan leant up against the rock wall and slid down onto his backside, "Ah feel like i've been smokin' some o' tha' red leaf wha' Gripper gave us once."
"Hello?!" She called out. Suddenly, she remembered. Her name was, "Vaedwyn!" She said aloud, surprising herself. "My name is Vaedwyn..."
"Whu...?" Bradan raised an eyebrow, "Why'm ah no seein a thin' here, righ'? Ahm fookin' blind ah geez what'll ah do..."
"I'm blind too!" Vaedwyn called back, "How did we get here?!"

“That’s what am sayin’ ye bunch o’ nutters!” Agron cried. “It’s fuckin’ dark I need the word fer light, I cannae think o’ it. It’s like…er…” He snapped his fingers as if the action would somehow bring the word to the forefront of his mind. “Fuckin’ elves an’ their fancy words….”
Elves... The voice in her mind, that didn't belong to her, Light... the word you need, I remember... Vaedwyn... I can't...
"Light!" Vaedwyn yelled the word, lifting her hand high, and the room was bathed in a brilliant bluish white light.

"HEY!!" Bradan yelled in surprise, as he saw an elf and a man stood near one another. Something about them seemed very familiar, but they were also strangers to him. Then Bradan heard something behind him and he turned to see two dragons blocking the exit behind them and he recoiled in horror, backing up past the man and the elf, until he knocked into something with a little give. He turned back around, and stifled a scream that came out as a little squeak.

There was someone here, that did not belong. Vaedwyn looked at her, and unlike the others for whom she was unsure about, this woman was, without a doubt, a complete stranger. She was tall, slender and graceful in her movements. Her skin was slightly tanned, and her hair a golden colour. Her long, pointed ears betrayed her race - she too, was an elf. The woman was beautiful. For that was what she was. She was not a young girl, or a matronly dwarf. Her beauty was enough that she made Vaedwyn look plain, boyish once more, and Bradan found himself staring, his mouth agape. The woman was dressed in the plain clothes of a peasant, but what skin was on show, was littered with the scars only a warrior comes to know. Over her mouth and nose, there was a small mask made of bright orange leaves and woven string which affixed the makeshift mask to her face. She stood there in silence, looking at each of them in turn. Her beautiful, emerald green eyes as sharp as the stone for which they seemed to reflect.

“You…” Agron said as he pointed a finger at the woman. “You….you’re…” Then he suddenly stumbled down on to one knee. His head swam with confusion, he felt like he was spinning, tumbling down further and further, with no end in sight. When the world slowly began to right itself, Agron noticed that the woman was holding him upright. “I…I think we need help.” He admitted.
The woman placed one hand on Agron's shoulder and the other around his back, and began to lead him down the tunnel. Bradan watched in disbelief, but as she grew further and further from him, Bradan quickly ran after them. Vaedwyn frowned, unsure of the woman, yet at the same time, she seemed harmless, and standing here was doing her no good, so she followed. Auriel saw the group of two-legs leaving, and there was little else here, she didn't like tunnels, she wanted to be able to fly, and maybe the two-legs knew how to get out, so she too, followed.

They followed the woman for an untold amount of time. Several times Agron lost track of what he was doing, and all of the tunnels he walked along seemed to look the same. Every so often he felt familiar aches and pains pushing through the haze, but they still seemed far too distant to make him worried. There was something about the Elven woman, more than just her beauty. He had met Elves before, he was even mildly certain he had met this one before. Yet her image was a shimmering, glowing beacon. There was a warm energy that seemed to irradiate from her, and he wanted nothing more than to stay close to it.

And suddenly there was a lot of light. Agron was sitting down, and the haze was beginning to part. The feeling of fresh air in his lungs was marvelous, but with each breath he felt reality coming back to him with a crash. The distant pains and sensations he had been feeling were now at the forefront of his mind. His legs were burning, his feet felt raw and swollen. Further still his stomach felt like it had twisted in knots, his hunger beyond anything he could remember feeling before. He could not wholly remember how long they had been lost and wandering, but the sheer amount of stress on his body meant that it had been at least a couple of days.
“I…thank you.” He sighed weakly, but his voice was full of gratitude for the woman and her timely intervention.

The she-elf left Agron's side to fetch water at a nearby stream. Bradan and Vaedwyn were stood next to one another. It wasn't until Bradan turned and asked her what she was staring at, that Vaedwyn realised she had been staring at the clouds for several minutes. She shook her head, feeling a fog lift from her mind and soon, everything became clear. She also became acutely aware of a pounding headache, an empty stomach, sore muscles, scrapes, cuts, bruises and large, strange lesions on her body and limbs. As the elf was coming back, Vaedwyn noticed her at last.

"Oh, thank you!" She said, taking a step forwards, "I think you saved us back there and--" The she-elf looked up, her hands cradling a small wooden bucket half-filled with water. When she saw Vaedwyn, she recoiled, stumbling back in surprise.
"H-Hey!" Vaedwyn held out her hands, "It's okay, i'm a rider, my name is Vaedwyn..." The she-elf frowned and looked her up and down, and then slowly she lowered herself to the ground, and left the bucket there. She pointed at it, and then took a step back and kept her distance from the group.
"Whas her problem?" Bradan asked, sidling up to the bucket and picking it up. He took a long drink and coughed, half-wheezing as he spoke, "Oh geez whas' in tha' thas' rough... bu' ah feel better though..." He passed the bucket to Agron.

Agron took the bucket and drank it’s contents, instantly tensing and clutching at his stomach. There was a horrible twisting in his gut as the liquid entered his system, and it was like all of his insides were suddenly, and violently stretching out again. “Gah!” was all he could manage before he gave a little, choking cough and lay back, focusing on breathing.
It was that smell… Turiel said, as he started coming back to his senses. Some sort of gas. He added, and then he stretched open his wings and tore off from the ground, gliding down towards the stream to get himself a drink.

Meanwhile Agron studied the silent woman who was keeping her distance from them.
“D’ye know me, lass?” He asked. “I feel…I feel like we may have crossed paths but…well I’ve met a lot o’ elves. If yer out here then ye must be fae Burrow, surely?”
The she-elf brushed a lock of golden hair out of her eyes and confidently walked up to Agron and knelt down enough that she was eye-level with him. A smile spread across her lips and she nodded, gently hitting herself in the chest with her palm, and then hitting Agron in the chest with the back of her hand, and nodding once more. Then she slapped him roughly on the shoulder and shook him with a grin still plastered on her face.

Agron squinted at her some more, and then his eyes widened as realization dawned on him.
“Atma!” He gasped in almost a whisper. He blinked and his eyes became a little wet with tears. “Atma!” He cried again, this time more jubilantly. “Aw, a cannae believe it! Yer alive!” He began to laugh, a great belly laugh of genuine joy. He sprung to his feet, ignoring the pain that worked hard to remind him of how much he needed to rest.

“Oh, this is Vaedwyn!” He said, gesturing to her. “She’s, well…I had an egg. One of the last, y’know? Well it hatched fer her an’ well, y’know how it works but-“ He cut himself off. “Atma…yer alive. I thought I’d lost everyone. I thought it was only me an’ Jona left.” He smiled weakly. “…Is…is Gethari wi’ ye?”
The woman nodded at Agron fervently, smiling still, though her eyes darted at Vaedwyn now and then. Vaedwyn smiled at the woman who didn't seem to register her response.

I don't think she likes me. Vaedwyn voiced her thoughts to Auriel.
She doesn't trust us. Auriel replied.
How can you tell?
Body language. Auriel reared up, stretching her wings and enjoying the freedom of the open air as she settled back down once more. You might say it's our second language. Or I suppose, our first.

I don't like her... Vaedwyn grumbled, crossing her arms.
I am not surprised.
And what did you mean by that?! Vaedwyn turned to look at her partner.
I just meant... Auriel turned her head so that their eyes met, ... that she is Anwa'elda. The True Folk. One whose rights remain intact, while yours have been stripped. You are an outcast.

Thanks for the reminder... Vaedwyn looked back to Atma, watching as Agron spoke to her. She wasn't talking. In fact, she hadn't said a word since their meeting in the caverns. Vaedwyn noticed she seemed to convey her thoughts and wants with her body language. A thought occurred to her. Maybe she could speak to Atma via a mental link? Agron knew her, so perhaps she was a rider? There was no harm in trying, as if she wasn't a rider there was likely to be little response, and if she was then perhaps she could open a dialogue. Vaedwyn reached out with her mind, touching the edge of Atma's consciousness. What she found, made her recoil. An endless, turbulent red ocean. The water was heavy, and her head quickly dipped below the waves. She was drowning. And then suddenly, she was alright. She had stumbled backwards into a sitting position and Auriel had moved in front of her to hide her actions from the others.

That... was foolish. Auriel chided her. Pick yourself up, before Agron sees you. She has a powerful mind, and one not to be trespassed upon. Vaedwyn nodded in agreement. Of that, there was no doubt. She picked herself up and looked to Atma, who was watching her carefully now, the smile Agron had given her remained in place, but her eyes betrayed something else. Something Vaedwyn couldn't describe, but it chilled her.

Agron continued chatting with Atma, outwardly he seemed not to notice her silence. However, in truth, since the moment he had recognized her he had begun putting things together. There was a lot of the woman he had once known still there in front of him, but there were a lot of things missing. Most notably, she was without her companion. Atma, it appeared, has suffered a similar tragedy to what Jona had. Perhaps worse. Jona was not a true Elf, like Atma. Her kind had always been a wonderful but elusive bunch of creatures to Agron, who despite knowing their ways quite well, still never truly understood them.

“So, we were on our way tae Burrow.” Agron said, finally catching Atma up on the events. “I’d hoped tae test Vaedwyn, an’ maybe test Lady Commander’s defenses at the same time. I daresay we bit off more than we could chew.” Agron bowed his head gratefully at Atma. “Thank you, ye truly saved us.”
If the lady Gardwyn would do me the honor, I would have her ride with us to Burrow. Turiel said as he landed softly on the ground, returning from the stream. After all, I am in her debt.
“Heh, that’s some high praise.” Agron said with a chuckle, and repeated the words for Atma.

After listening to Turiel's words, conveyed through Agron, Atma seemed to think for a short while. She considered each of them in turn, her eyes focusing on them for a few - very long - moments. Then at last, she made her decision. She nodded and with a leap that would have made an athlete jealous, she was upon him. She patted Turiel affectionately on the side, and then nuzzled into his warm hide, as a kitten might upon it's mother. Atma seemed at peace, and no longer concerned with interacting with the outside world.

“Right then, that’s settled.” Agron said and he moved with a start. He checked the supplies on Turiel’s back and after a quick rummage he retrieved some bread buns that were wrapped up individually. He tossed them back to Bradan and Vaedwyn. “Eat quickly. Last stretch is a short yin, but it’s goin’ tae be dangerous, ken.” He approached Vaedwyn and leant down so he could speak in her ear.

“From here on out I need ye tae do somethin’ for me. Ye cannae tell anybody though, right? No even Bradan.” He said in a hushed whisper.
Vaedwyn frowned and looked to Bradan without thinking, the dwarf winked at her and went back to what he was doing, "Why can't I tell Bradan...?" She asked. In a short space of time, Bradan had become one of her closest friends, and the thought of deliberately hiding something from him upset her.

Because he’ll no like it. Agron replied to her through his link, I’ve no been tae Burrow in o’er a decade, lass. There’s folk I trust there. Folk like Atma. However…there’s a lot o’ politics goin’ on there. It’s no just a couple o’ riders who know magic there. There’s a whole coven o’ spellweavers. An sure, there’s an army, they’re all green but. No seen any real action at least. In fact the real strength o’ the rebels is the spies, and the mages.

Agron paused a moment, his expression grave. Jona taught ye how tae guard yer mind, and also taught ye how tae push intae another’s. I…I need ye tae search through the mind’s o’ the people ye meet in Burrow. Most will have had trainin’ to tell if they’re mind’s been attacked, an I’m no askin’ ye tae do tha’, but as a Rider yer gonna have tae get used tae doin’ this. Just a light touch, mind.
"You want me to invade people's..." Vaedwyn checked herself. Her voice was raising in anger. "... people's minds?!" She whispered angrily. "Forget Bradan, I don't like this! And you say you trust Atma, but you haven't seen her in a really long time, right? People change! And she doesn't talk, and she doesn't trust me!"

“Atma just saved yer life.” Agron replied sternly. “She’s a Rider, Vaedwyn. People grieve differently, keep that in mind.” He let out a sigh and wiped at his forehead. “Vaedwyn…ye wanted me tae stop hidin’ things from ye. Well this is somethin’ we need tae do. Burrow has ne’er been attacked in the entire time since the rebellion set it’s roots here. Dae ye really think they’ve remained hidden all this time? There are several key people in Burrow who are goin’ tae pull on ye for their own reasons. Blackcrow, he was once a rider. Now he’s the rebellion’s spymaster. Man’s a snake, always has been. Second is Vigo of the House of Dragons. Third, an’ I do think ye can trust her but…I could be wrong. Third is Freya Le Teague, current Lady Commander of the resistance.”

Agron gripped Vaedwyn by her shoulder tightly, his expression was serious but filled with the worry a father has for their child. “This is’nae like the Dwarves, lass. There’s a lot o’ players here, from a lot o’ different places. We can do a lot of good here, but that also means we have to do what is necessary…even if it does’nae seem right.”
She couldn't help it. Vaedwyn swallowed. The enormity of Agron's words had struck her such that she was unable to answer at first. Slowly, she found a voice, "Alright. Fine." She said, but pulled away from him, "But invading people's minds and saying its for good reasons I can only imagine was the first step down a slippery slope for tyrants like Aemon." With that, Vaedwyn walked over to Auriel and pulled herself onto her dragon's back.

Auriel caught Agron's eye, She's right, you know. The dragon added, and then she leapt into the air, and her beating wings pulled her far from the ground, leaving Agron to watch them ascend alone.
“But that wisnae-“ Agron started but he gave up, frowning.
Leave it for now. Turiel said to him, This wasn’t the best time to tell her that.
An’ when’s a good time, like? Agron replied heatedly.
If you had taken a larger role in her magical training perhaps she might have learned by now. Her only encounter with mind magic has been at the hands of Naerwen. On top of that Jona taught her that the mind is a sacred place.

The mind is a sacred place. Agron replied, frowning. She just misunderstood me. I meant just a light touch, just a glance, enough tae spot somethin’ amiss, y’know?
You worry she will be taken advantage of again, that another villain will get close to her as Naerwen did.
“Exactly…” Agron said out loud, his voice a dry croak. He climbed up on Turiel and made sure that Atma was comfortable in the saddle behind him. Then they took off through the skies, Turiel’s wings beating rapidly to catch up with Auriel.

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

They did not slow until they found themselves flying through the gap in a large canyon. The walls were high, and close together on either side. The high cliff faces were thick with shrubs and trees, and the ledges and caverns all around had ample space for cover. The entire area was the perfect spot for an ambush. Agron had not spoke with Vaedwyn since they had left, but he couldn’t keep it up any longer, not now.

Eyes up, lass. He said across their link. Sentries no doubt spotted us a few leagues back. They’ll no strike until we cannae turn back. Expect a near constant onslaught until we get through the pass. They’ll be buyin’ time fer troops tae mobilise.
Can't they tell we're not Aemon or his lieutenants?! Vaedwyn asked Agron.
Riders upon dragons. There hasn't been more than a single dragon ally alive in a thousand years, Vaedwyn. Dragons are enemies! Auriel kept pace with Turiel, her eyes scanning in every direction.

That an, rebels joinin’ the cause take the long way round. They get checked by spellweavers, interrogated. We’re bypassin’ that. The Lady Commander doesn’t care for anybody who acts above her laws.
Fuses were just lit. Turiel interrupted, his excellent hearing clearly picking up on something they hadn’t. A few images of locations he had mapped out suddenly flashed through their minds. We move now!

Turiel let out a defiant roar and banked hard to the left, diving as a series of explosions shook in the cliffs above them. Rocks broke off from the cliffs and began hurtling down towards them. Turiel dodged the first lot of boulders, weaving around them, as Agron lifted his hands up and spoke a word. The boulders above them shattered into dust and fell down on them harmlessly. A horn blew through the air, and from the thick brush below, there was a barrage of whip-cracking noises like a series of tight ropes being cut.  Suddenly a barrage of tiny, black needles came flying out of the trees below. Yet as they ascended upwards it became clear they were not needles at all. They were large, pointed spears that were soaring towards them like a dark haze.

Vaedwyn watched from above, as the spears rushed up to meet them. There were hundreds, and they were not ordinary spears. They were dragon killers. Spears far larger than anything that could be thrown by human hand. Their points were barbed, designed to penetrate, and to remain embedded.
Auriel!
I know!!

Auriel turned around, facing the onslaught of spears, and took a deep breath. When she exhaled, crackling fire and lightning burst from her mouth and cut through the spears like a beam, incinerating dozens and destroying the momentum of dozens more as the lightning arced and leapt from spear to spear. It wasn't enough. Vaedwyn acted quickly, she lifted her hand, and the scar on her forehead began to glow as she recanted a spell in Elvish. It was complicated, as complex a magic as she had ever attempted to weave. Even as she continued to speak, she felt the energy being pulled from her body like a warm blanket being yanked from someone soundly sleeping. The electricity exploded in ferocity, expanding and encompassing the spears until it enveloped every last one, then with her last words, the bubble of crackling electricity imploded in on itself and the fallout sprayed everywhere.

The spears were shattered into tiny shards, and though they were flecked with splinters the size of their fingers, they were still alive. Vaedwyn gripped tightly onto the reigns of her saddle, she felt weak, as though she had been running for days without rest.
"Steady there, lass, ye alright, ah got ye!" Bradan held her around the waist and patted her on the shoulder. "That were nifty!!" He added, grinning.

We must press on before they reload the ballistae Turiel warned.
“Climb!” Agron yelled in order, and Turiel began to beat his wings and fly higher, into the upper reaches of the canyon. Agron reached out with his will once more. He felt his own brand across his shoulder burn as he searched the high cliffs and ledges, his will sifting through the locations frantically like invisible tendrils. Then, finally, he found the recognizable sparks he knew to be sources of life. He penetrated the minds of the sentrymen above them. He sent a word into their minds, and with it a sensation of relief and hope. He felt their minds fight it, felt them panic as they realized what had happened. Good, he though, They’ve been taught well.

However the men seemed to settle themselves, and soon there was another horn blow calling through the air. The men in the higher reaches had sent word they were standing down. Yet that still left the soldiers in the woodlands below them, and any other sentries they had missed. What’s more there was a distant, thunderous noise. Hoofbeats against the floor. Reinforcements were arriving on horseback.

Auriel stayed close to Turiel, following his lead, but it felt as though the world was closing in around them. Vaedwyn heard the beat of hooves both ahead and behind them. The ballistae were being reloaded. She had to think of something. Right now, they were preparing to fight armies on two fronts. Up ahead, the canyon narrowed. It looked like it could trap them, but she could see a passage through. The space was so tight, that she hesitated to even suggest it, but as she began to assess the gap, she felt Auriel turn towards it. It seemed her mind was made up.

"Agron, follow me!" Vaedwyn yelled over the howl of the wind as Auriel tucked her wings into her sides and plummeted towards the canyon floor. Soldiers loading ballistae panicked and hit the ground as Auriel fanned her wings and passed over them, gliding through the canyon, casting a shadow over the soldiers as they passed. Auriel was picking up speed, she beat her wings, the great gusts of wind knocked soldiers over, several ballista, and even trees snapped in the dragon gale. Then something strange happened. Vaedwyn felt her heart beating. But it wasn't the rapid thumping of her own. It was the steady, rhythmic drum of Auriel's. She blinked, as she felt the world coming into clarity. Suddenly colours were so dazzling she struggled to understand them all. The soldiers below them almost glowed against the backdrop of rocks and plants. She felt the resistance of the air as she lifted her wings, and the thrust she was afforded as she brought them down. She could see the gap ahead of her. She could make it!

Tucking her wings, tight into her body, she shot through the initial opening of the gap, whirling diagonally through the tight squeeze as she began to fall. Her talon-studded hind legs kicked off from the canyon wall as she turned a sharp corner and used the last bit of momentum to propel herself to the other side. The sun dazzled her as she came out onto an open valley. She spread her wings and she was looking down at Auriel's back once more. Her heart was thumping harder and faster than she'd ever known, her entire body was shaking. With what, she was unsure. Fear? Excitement? Both? It didn't matter, she was through. Moments later, she heard a clattering of rock, and Turiel came bursting from the canyon, his more stout body had given him a harder time in navigating the tiny gap, but he was also the more experienced flyer, and so it seemed he passed through just as she had, no worse for wear. Vaedwyn wanted to whoop and holler, but as she turned ahead of her, she saw hundreds of men on horseback. Quivers full of arrows. Catapults and ballistae numbering in the hundreds, lined out behind a far-reaching river. Behind it all, she saw it. Burrow. The city they had been trying to reach ever since leaving Jona. Yet there was one last obstacle. The beat of a thousand, thousand men and women, clad in armour, marched towards them.

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"By the Hammer of Crona!" Bradan growled with disbelief, "Would'ja look at that?! There's no way we can fight that, even wi'a couple a dragons!"
"I know what we need to do!" Vaedwyn shared her thoughts with Auriel, who after a moment's hesitation, acquiesced. This wasn't something they could just fight their way out of. They were trapped, surrounded on all sides. They knew they had to get to Burrow. What was the one thing that Aemon's lieutenants would never do? How could she show these soldiers that they were not Aemon's dogs? Auriel flew low to the ground, sweeping over grass and flowers until at last her paws struck the ground and she quickly began to slow. Before Auriel had come to a complete stop, Vaedwyn threw herself from the saddle and landed in front of her dragon.
Try to look small. Vaedwyn asked of her partner.
I'll try... Auriel replied dryly. She fanned out her wings, pressing them to the ground, lowered herself onto her belly and rested her head upon the ground. Vaedwyn thanked her for swallowing her pride, and turned to face the oncoming army. She pulled her sword from it's sheath and thrust it into the ground and then knelt beside it with her head bowed. 
"You'd best do the same." Vaedwyn spoke to Agron, as Bradan fell to one knee and watched the oncoming army with trepidation.

There was a sudden beat of wings, and a thump as Agron landed on the ground, Atma landing not far behind him. They stood next to Vaedwyn and Bradan as Turiel flew low to the ground, flying closer to the army ahead. 
"Too proud." Agron said, shaking his head. He winced as Turiel finally fanned his wings and landed on the ground, craning his head up to face the sky and letting out a blood-curdling roar. The front line of soldiers steadied their spears, and the archers prepared to fire, but their arms shook with fear. 
I dare you! Turiel projected, not that any of the men could hear his voice. Who among you is so bold as to loose the first arrow upon me? Who among you is brave enough to suffer my wrath!? No sooner had he thought it, than an arrow flew through the crowd and caught him in the upper part of his leg. The arrowhead was wedged between his scales but ultimately the wound was harmless. Turiel growled and looked forward as a figure carrying a bow emerged from the waiting army. 
She was far from imposing. The woman stood an inch short of 5 and a half feet, and she was dressed in form-fitting, black leather armour with golden trims, and a white tabard with the emblem of a blazing sun covering her chest. She had short, thick black hair that made her look like a pixie, or perhaps a young boy. Her figure was feminine but muscular, and her face looked plain and hardened, but it seemed that she might have once been beautiful. 
The woman carried a sword sheathed at her side and had not bothered to prepare another arrow in her bow as she walked closer to Turiel. When she came to be but an arms length from the dragon, he leaned down towards her, snarling viciously. The woman folded her arms and scowled back at him. 
"Stop that!" She barked. Turiel snarled again and pushed his head towards her, baring his teeth. The woman, who might have seemed to some to be insane, leaned forward until she was holding her upper body inside Turiel's gaping maw. 

"Go ahead, then!" She said. Turiel hesitated. "Hm? Oh don't tell me Turiel the Great Northern Squall was just posturing?" The woman leaned out of his jaws and looked up expectantly. Her cold, blue eyes brightened for a moment, clearly amused by the dragon. "Well?" She asked. In response Turiel huffed and turned around, stalking back towards Agron. The woman allowed herself a smirk, and then turned around, her face cold and plain once more. 
"AT EASE, MEN!" She roared, her voice projecting so far back that it was fairly possible the whole force of soldiers could hear her. She ushered for one of the officers to come to her and he did so dutifully. She issued a few whispered orders and the officer nodded, and left to spread them to the troops. As the formations began to part and reorganise, the woman walked towards the company. She eyed each of them in turn, but eventually her eyes remained focused on Agron. 
"12 years gone, and this is how you saunter back, is it?" She asked, her cold stare biting at him like winter itself. "You better have some explanation."
"Aye, course." Agron said, folding his arms. "Thought I'd test yer defences. Live trainin's good for the troops, naw?"
"I will decide what is and is not good for my troops, Rider." The woman snapped. Then her gaze flicked to Vaedwyn, and her eyes narrowed. "You are either very brave or very foolish, child. Our armies are trained to attack the black dragon, Moriel, on sight. The wiser path would have been to go through our proper route, where we could have verified that you were not our enemy."

"I expect i'm a little of both." Vaedwyn replied, still kneeling. At last, she stood, dwarfing the other woman in height. "I am Vaedwyn, i've come to seek aid from Burrow."
"Aid from us?" The woman frowned, and then shook her head slightly. "And what exactly do you require us to aid you with, young lady?"
"I have one goal, to end the life of the tyrant, King Aemon." Vaedwyn reached forwards and grabbed her sword, pulling it from the ground and replacing it in it's sheath, "To that end, I intend to unite the many races and factions of our lands, because only through unification can we defeat him and his lieutenants."
The woman did not respond immediately. She just stared at Vaedwyn. However this was not the stare Vaedwyn normally received. She was not awed or stunned. She was not proud of Vaedwyn, nor fearful of her. The woman's stare was cold and entirely unimpressed. "You can go unite the rest of Suros. My people shall pass on your offer of a quick death." 
"Now hang on, Freya." Agron interrupted. 
"You will address me as Lady Commander, Rider." Freya snapped back at him, her tone icy. "Remember where you stand. You have sworn no fealty, and this is my land, my people. You will remain here only as long as I allow it, and don't forget that."

A bellowing trumpet sounded from behind Vaedwyn, she had no time to intervene, she believed even if she had there would have been no stopping it. Auriel raced towards the woman Agron called Freya. Knocking the soldier to the ground, Auriel pinned her there with her talons placed on either side of her body. She roared at Freya, and raked her talons across the ground, leaving two large scars of dirt either side of her.
What will-- Auriel spoke and Vaedwyn quickly conveyed it to the Lady Commander.
"--you allow?!" Vaedwyn was uncomfortable repeating words she didn't necessarily agree with, but it was her partner's right to speak as much as anyone, and further, there was no use in getting in a dragon's way. "You cower in the rabbit hole, thinking the fox will tire and sate his hunger elsewhere! You could not stop me from reaching you, and I am a yearling! Vaedwyn is a fledgling Rider! You would wither and turn to ash before the four Betrayers and their mules. You might well avoid a quick death, but in so doing you would die a slow and painful death." Auriel lifted her paw from Freya, and huffed a short breath of smoke form her nostrils at seeing more than a dozen soldiers at her sides, with spears at the ready.

Freya got up hurriedly, and her nostrils were flaring from adrenaline and most likely anger, yet she kept it in check when she spoke. "Threaten me all you like, Dragon. I will not budge. Look upon Burrow." She gestured towards the city. "We are rebuilding, growing in number. We will take the fight to Aemon, when we are ready. Yet I will not let countless innocent people die on the command of your prideful lot. The Riders failed, and when they did the rest of us suffered, because we relied on you. No more shall we rely on you." Freya planted her feet and folded her arms, her eyes narrowing as she met Auriel's. "I am no appointed Queen or Empress. My people follow me because I have sweat and bled for them. And when necessary I have put my boot to their arse to make them follow me. I will not cower to you, Dragon. I will not cower to Aemon himself."
Freya turned around, showing her back to Auriel and gesturing for her soldiers to stand down. "Posture if you must, as Turiel has."  She said, shaking her head. "But the old protector knows that I do not yield, not here in my domain. So you shall follow me, Dragon, or you shall begone. Am I clear?"

I like--
"--this one." Vaedwyn repeated Auriel's words, with a smile, "She'll do nicely." Then Auriel sauntered off in the direction of Burrow, but not before snarling at the nearest group of soldiers, who quickly fled at her aggression, having seen what she had done to their commander. That too, gave her pleasure. Vaedwyn let out a breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding and nodded to Freya.
"Thank you," She said, "For standing your ground." She started to walk, adding, "I know fighting Aemon now would be a mistake. I didn't come here to gather an army and march on his castle... not yet, anyway. I came here to ask for aid, I need a willingness to join forces when the time comes. You said yourself, that you're training your people to fight back against Aemon. I think that day is coming, and sooner than you think. We will all need to be ready."

"And who exactly are you speaking for, girl?" Freya asked. "You and the old Nord may be Riders, but the two of you alone are not a force strong enough to convince me to march, I can assure you." 
"There is three of us." Agron pointed out. Freya looked around and then her eyes fell down to Bradan, and she frowned. 
"...Sorry is the hairy child supposed to impress me?" She asked
"Are ye speakin' t'me, girlie?" Bradan looked around and pointed at himself and then shrugged his shoulders and laughed, "Lissen, feek, if ah wanted'n impress yah i'd drop mah pants." And gave her a quick wink as he joined the procession. "So thas' three, an' if ye like what ye see, maybe i'll show ye mah sword." Atma walked up to Freya, ignoring Bradan, and held up four fingers.
Six. Auriel added.
"Seven, if you count Jona, and you should." Vaedwyn couldn't help but smile.
"Seven, fantastic." Freya said, rolling her eyes. "Look, I'm having enough trouble in my own city. All is..." She hesitated, "...all is not well here at the moment. I'm afraid I cannot speak more on the matter."
"Vigo...still?" Agron asked. 
"I said I cannot speak on it any more." Freya replied, frowning. "Vigo and his Nords do not follow me, and if we cannot unite then I have a hard time believing we can convince the other nations."
"Vaedwyn convinced the Dwarves to poke their heeds oot the ground." Agron said, beaming at Vaedwyn. "She can be surprisingly convincin' if ye let her."
"Of course she is, I'm sure everyone is very excited about a new Rider. Her existence heralds the return of your order and renews the people's hope." Freya still frowned, however. "But we shall see how hopeful they remain when Aemon begins to butcher them."

"I don't intend to return the Riders to power, Freya." Vaedwyn stated.
Freya stopped walking at that. She turned to Vaedwyn, and for the first time her gaze was not cold. It was searching, earnestly, trying to see if Vaedwyn spoke the truth. It was momentary, however, and her coldness returned. "Lady Commander." She corrected, and continued walking. "I haven't the time to welcome you properly. If you require food and drink you best have coin. If not you can eat in the mess with my men, and you'll earn it with a day's labour. You will find Burrow is spacious, but few of our buildings are built to accommodate Dragons. Perhaps speak with Vigo, he has always ensured that his quarter is fit to accommodate the saviour."
"I'm no saviour, any more than you are my Lady Commander, Freya." Vaedwyn smiled at her, "Thank you for welcoming us to the city. I'd like to speak to you again." Vaedwyn gave a short bow to the woman, and jogged up to walk beside Auriel.
I'm impressed, that was rather eloquent. Auriel turned to look at Vaedwyn.
I'm sweating like a pig. Vaedwyn replied, trying to stop herself from visibly shaking.
Well yes, obviously. Auriel noted, a tone of amusement to her reply.

"Er, lass." Agron jogged up beside her, and he was chuckling slightly. "I'm not wantin' tae burst yer bubble or anythin' but..." As they approached the main gates of Burrow they began to hear a rhythmic chanting. "When the Lady Commander was talkin' about the saviour...er...she didn't mean you." 
As they passed through the gates, Turiel soared over their heads, and there was a sudden gasp within the rhythmic chanting, and then it continued. As they drew closer the chanting became more distinct and they could hear the words. 
"Turiel! Turiel! Turiel! Turiel!" Over and over the people chanted, and Turiel let out an impressive roar, which only led to cheering and clapping from the city dwellers who were out on the streets, revelling in the return of their saviour. 
The streets of Burrow were wide and had plenty of space. The streets were cobbled, and the houses had been built up on top of each other to conserve space and accomodate their rise in population. The entire city was surrounded by a large wall, with guards along the parapet, and stationed at each of the gates. As the group reached the central square they could see that the city itself was sectioned in to various quarters. It seemed that to the south the design of the building took a drastic change, resembling the long houses in the ruined Nord villages they had seen on their travels up. 
A large keep could be seen in that direction, and there was another large keep in the opposite direction, which is where Freya had gone with her forces. 
"There's two Garrisons in the city, one for each army." Agron explained. "Ye've met Freya and it might be worth holdin' off on meetin' Vigo, maybe we could...Ah, here we go..." Agron sighed. They had reached the centre of the square, and Turiel had stopped to pose and posture next to the large, brass statue in the square that was a much smaller bust of his own head.

It's a lovely statue. Auriel looked the bust up and down, You're much fatter in real life...
"Don't poke the bear." Vaedwyn said aloud, scolding her partner who took Vaedwyn's words with a mental smirk. Atma walked up to the statue, glanced at Turiel and hesitated for a moment, but then she kissed her hand and put it to the statue's muzzle, and quickly excused herself. Vaedwyn watched as the soldiers returned to their homes or their posts, each of them repeating the same action Atma had done just a moment before.
So, you're something of a celebrity here, hm? Vaedwyn looked to Turiel with a wry grin.
Agron and I faced off against Kardran and Uruk. We prevented them from discovering Burrow. Turiel explained, and his tone did not seem especially prideful despite all his posturing. They understand little of the bond between Dragon and Rider. As a result, they do not recognise Agron's contribution to the fight.
"I'd like tae keep it that way." Agron said, shaking his head irritably. "Last thing I need is a bunch o' bampots fussin' o'er me, ken?"
It feels good to be appreciated. Turiel said warmly. We have spent so much of our lives alone. I enjoy the brief visits here.

"Brief it may have to be. I'd like to conclude our business here as quickly as possible and look at completing my training." Vaedwyn looked to Turiel's statue for a few seconds, "Whatever the people here are dealing with, it can't be as important as dethroning Aemon."
While that may be true, a Rider should never turn away from those in need. Auriel reminded her, to which Vaedwyn simply nodded.
"Agron!! You old goat!!"
Vaedwyn frowned, unable to process what she'd just heard. She'd never heard anyone refer to Agron like that before, including her in her most ample of tantrums. She turned to see a large, muscular man with a bald head and a thick black beard. He was at least eight feet tall, and must have weighed the same as a bear. Or perhaps he had eaten one. Both were plausible. The man thumped Agron on the shoulder and then grabbed him and pulled him into a bear hug that looked as if it had been anyone but Agron, they might have been suffocated.
"Yer a sight for sore eyes, Gethari!" Agron said with a grin as he released the embrace. He slapped Gethari lightly on his bald head. "Look's like yer hair's finally finished migratin' tae yer chin!"
"Looks like yer finally able tae reach it, ya wee thing!" Gethari laughed raucously.
"It's great tae see ye ol' friend." Agron said with a grin and a slight shrug. "Especially since a thought ye were deid, eh."
"Aye is no bad like, is it?" Gethari frowned, "So why'm ah dead an look be'er an' yoo?" Then burst into laughter again, "So tell us eh, pipsqueak, what yeh been doon wi'yehself?"
"Aw y'know, ye go fer a wee stroll an' afore ye've noticed it's been o'er a decade, eh." Agron said with a shrug, then he thumbed in Vaedwyn's direction. "Truth be told I wis daein' ma rounds down south an' ma last egg jumped right out ma satchel. Wis keen tae meet her new partner." Agron gestured for Vaedwyn to come closer. "Vaedwyn, this is Gethari. Atma's husband, an' a Rider."

"It's an honour to meet you." Vaedwyn approached, and offered a bow.
"An yer the wee thing what got an egg tae hatch eh?" Gethari raised an eyebrow and smiled, "Well good on yeh lass, there's no a thing yoos want more'n a dragon in yeh life, am sorry t'say but mah beastie kicked the bucket savin' mah life like, but he gie'd it laldy, so I cannae fault 'im."
"Yeh bloody massive..." Bradan muttered, staring up at Gethari. 
"Aye alright down there, wee fella, gaw look'atcha, yoos lot're a right wet mess." Gethari's smile turned lop-sided as he looked across the party.
"Aye well it's been a bit o' a long journey." Agron said. "We'd probs be deid anaw if it wisnae fer Atma findin' us." Agron gave a soft, slightly embarassed chuckle, and then his stomach made a noise like distressed sheep. "Er...sorry. Fair starvin' if am honest."
"Righ', les get ye fed!" Gethari walked through the streets, and people naturally moved either side of him, making it easy for those walking behind him to get through the crowds. As they walked, Bradan tugged at Vaedwyn's sleeve, she turned to look to him and saw him grinning.
"Look right," Bradan whispered, "Ah've ah great idea, what if ah grab mah axe, an' sit on 'is shoulders, an' we form like some kind of double giant?" Vaedwyn could only shake her head and laugh, "Ah know!" Bradan exclaimed, his grin widening, "Ah it'd be grand like..."

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Lady Commander Freya Le Teague was not accustomed to moments of peace and solitude. From the moment she had re-entered her keep she was pestered by advisors, and speakers for various groups and factions within the city of Burrow. She kept walking in the hope that they might give up, but as usual they kept pace with her, forever vigilant in their quest to waste her precious time. So she strode through the halls of her own home, with her personal guard following dutifully behind her, whilst several stuffy old men in robes clutching scrolls followed her.

“Lady Commander, might I speak with you about this year’s festival of the hunt?” One of them asked
“Now is not the time.” She replied dismissively.
“But, Lady-” The man protested and Freya shot him a dark look.
“I have spoken.” She said firmly. “You can submit it for discussion at the next assembly. Now leave.”
“Y-yes, apologies, Lady Commander.” The man said with a soft bow and shuffled off. Another man had already begun prattling.

“…the people are getting quite excited about the Savior’s return. There are whispers that the Riders have returned to power, and that an Elf Rider and her dragon have come to rally us against the Tyrant King.”
“Tell the people that we have no intention of going to war.” Freya replied. “The presence of the Riders changes nothing.”
“Of course, Lady Commander.” The man bowed and shuffled off. Several more exchanges like this occurred until finally Freya reached the door to her study and opened it. When the few men left went to follow her in she spun on her heal and shut the door, leaving her guards to deal with the men.

She made her way over to the large desk by the window and sat down at it, sighing with frustration. It was just like Agron to make a mess of things. He had always caused a stir when he came to Burrow. Freya even remembered the trouble he gave her predecessor. Agron and Turiel had always been intermittent guests in her life, even since she was a child. There was once a time when even she had marveled at the great dragon and his Rider, but age and experience had lessened it somewhat, and finally the burden of responsibility had extinguished it altogether.

She knew Agron to mean well, but he was a renegade who had never led people. He was, she thought, just like all the Riders; arrogant and all too sure of himself. Yet he never seemed to comprehend the damage he dealt when he finished making a ruckus and flew off into the sunset once more. First of all, he had completely embarrassed her, by breaching the defenses like that. She had managed to pass it off as of little concern, but she knew that there would be consequences for her.

Furthermore, Turiel’s presence always brought hope to the people. She had once thought that a good thing, but had realized eventually that hope was a dangerous thing to give the people. It made them overconfident, reckless and foolish. Agron was an encouraging man, and he made the people of Burrow feel like they were strong. That might be something that they would require one day, but for now it was simply a lie. They were not strong, not strong enough to face Aemon. That much was certain.

And now Agron had brought along a young prodigy, a new Rider and an elf at that. And in their brief exchange Freya had already seen Agron’s less than subtle touch upon the girl. She was prideful and arrogant even in her earnest desire to be forthcoming. She had not even realized how much she spoke with authority, like she had any right to dictate such things. The thought of it made Freya’s blood boil. The last thing she needed right now was a defiant young girl putting ideas in people’s heads.

The door to her study opened and Freya let out a little sigh. “Oh for the love of…” She said as she stood up and whirled around the face whatever brave advisor had decided to enter her study. She stopped speaking however, as a more imposing figure closed the door behind him. The Nord man was of similar height to Agron, but his long, black hair was almost down to his hips. It hung down in thick, matted dreadlocks. He was clean shaven, but his face was marred by tiny scars from various cuts and scrapes, along with one particularly vicious burn scar on the right of his face. He wore a black patch over his right eye, but his left was a dark green, which was staring at Freya with a horrible, hungry energy to it.

He was dressed in the thick, fur-lined leathers that was typical of Nords. The thick, steel plates on his boots, gauntlets, and shoulders was carved with the same knot-like filigree that Argon’s armor had. At his side her carried a short war hammer strapped to his belt.
“Vigo.” Freya said, her tone neutral, but her eyes betrayed her dislike for the man.
“Freya.” Vigo replied in a throaty voice, his tone slightly mocking.
“Lady Commander.” She corrected.

“Ye dinnae refer tae me as High Scale, so I’ll no be referrin’ tae ye as Lady Commander.” Vigo replied matter of factly. “Now then, I think we need tae have a wee chat.”
“I wonder what about.” Freya replied, rolling her eyes and folding her arms.
“Ye know what about. Turiel has returned, and brought wi’ him a doe.”
“I don’t think it’s quite like that.”
“And what dae ye ken?” Vigo asked her, frowning. “This is an opportunity tae bring back their kind.”

“This isn’t quite what I expected from you, Vigo.” Freya said, shaking her head. “I thought you had come to convince me to march again.”
“Oh I’ll no be needin’ ye tae march anymore.” Vigo said with a grin. “I came here as a warnin’ tae ye. The House O’ Dragons have guarded Burrow for o’er long now. Ma people waste their talents sittin’ about waitin’ for Aemon tae come tae us. We’re no spies, we’re warriors. Without a battle tae fight, we cannae truly live.”

“Always so melodramatic.” Freya replied, “My decision has not changed, Vigo. I will not march my people to their deaths.”
“Aye well, we’ll just have tae see.” Vigo said with a wolfish grin. “Just mind a gave ye another chance. Change is comin’. Turiel is the key, him and that young doe.”
“Auriel.” Freya said. “And she is a fierce creature. Not some child who hides under her teacher’s wings. I don’t know what you think you know, Vigo. I do know, however, what you seem to always forget.”

“An’ what’s that, eh?” Vigo asked.
“Agron and Vaedwyn were chosen.” She said coldly. “You…never were.” Vigo’s eyes narrowed, and his jaw tightened. The man was never very good at containing his anger. After a moment he seemed to calm himself, but his nostrils still flared when he exhaled.
“Ye know what of what ye speak.” He said finally. “Just remember, they’ve come lookin’ for an army, and unlike you I’m willin’ tae gie them one. An’ I’m sure they’ll understand ma price.”

With that Vigo turned and left the study, and Freya was left alone again. She let out the breath she was holding, and turned back to her desk. She cursed Vigo, and she cursed Agron and Vaedwyn. Intended or not, they had stirred up a whirlwind of trouble. Now she was going to have to deal with it.

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The door swung open, Gethari and Atma led the way into their home, with Vaedwyn, Agron and Bradan following them inside. Auriel asked to remain in contact with her through their link so that she might remain a part of the conversation, as for obvious reasons, both her and Turiel were far too large for either of them to fit inside the rather modest home. That in itself surprised Vaedwyn. Gethari was a very tall, broad man, even by Nord standards. He ducked as he stepped inside the doorframe, and his head almost touched the ceiling. Gethari waved them into the living room, "Yeh wanna sit down now, right? Ye tired an' I don't want mah guests standin' on principle." As he spoke, Atma passed them, shooting her husband a glance only he understood, then vanished into their kitchen. "Eeh... i'll be back alright?" Then he too, left. 
Vaedwyn turned to Agron as she sat down, "How do you know them?" She asked, her eyes looking over their home. It was simple, very little in the way of knickknacks or personal belongings, though there were two wildly different swords crossed over the fireplace. An old dog lay in the corner, it looked like it was made of grey carpet, and when they entered it raised its eyebrows high enough to look out from under it's mop of hair, then made a 'fuff' noise as it huffed out, and went back to snoozing.

"Well." Agron said as he plopped his backside down on a chair. "Luftjall was where most Nord Riders started. Gethari was nae exception. He was just a lad when I first met him. Might no look much different age-wise, but I've got a couple hunner years on 'im. I was ridin' wae the Sororheim Makirog by that point, a brood o' Riders an' Dragons that were sires o' Ethanriel. Gethari wis'nae a part o' that but I'd see him at Luftjall now an' again, help out wi' his trainin' an' the like." Agron smiled warmly as he recalled the old memories. 
"Course we seen a bit more o' each other when the wars started but there was a good while where he spent a lot of time in the south wi' the Elves. That's where he met Atma o' course. Cannae quite mind how old she is. Older than me, ken. Much, much older..."
"Wow... but she's so beautiful..." Vaedwyn glanced back towards the kitchen.
"Yeh no bad-lookin' yehself lass, jus' give it a few thousand years an' you'll fill out, hey?" Bradan grinned, but his humour was lost on her as she scowled at him. As she opened her mouth to respond, there was a clatter from the kitchen that forced them back into silence. A few seconds later Gethari walked out and apologised. 
"Aye well... ahm sorry folks, but we've no got none o' yeh usual food, it'll be bread an' greens if thas' alright?" Their host looked strained, he smiled all the same.
"That's fine, I didn't eat a lot of meat until I started travelling with Agron, anyway." Vaedwyn smiled, offering support. Bradan growled and grumbled as he was like to do, but he too accepted that they were guests in their home, and he'd eat whatever was put in front of him. Gethari's gaze turned to Agron and lingered.

"No be the first time I've dined on rabbit food, Geth." Agron replied with a shrug. "Hats aff tae ye, lad. A rare thing tae see a vegetarian Nord."
"Yeh make compromises," Gethari replied, as Atma entered the room with a long metal platter full of freshly prepared fruits and vegetables, fresh warm bread and soft butter and a variety of preserves. Atma sat down and took a stick of celery, eating it in silence save for the quiet 'crunch' of each bite. Vaedwyn looked around the room, and back to Gethari. She wasn't quite sure why the mood was how it was, but she was hungry, so she tried to ignore it. She leaned forwards and picked a slice of bread from the platter, buttered it and began to hungrily consume it. Gethari sat down beside Atma, his chair groaning. She looked to him and nodded at Agron. 
"Right," Gethari picked up an apple and took a large bite, "So, Agron, watcha doin' here hmm? You an' this wee rider, an' the hairy fella? I an't seen yoose in..." He trailed off, trying to think back. 
"A long time." Agron finished, not entirely sure on the time-frame himself. "Well, in truth we've spent the last wee while at Luftjall wi' Jona. No many other places safe fer Riders. There's the Elven city I suppose but..." He paused, looking at Atma, and choosing his words carefully. "I... wanted her tae see what she was fighting for. Y'know... before the Elves get a look at her."

Atma paused eating, a stick of celery hanging from her teeth. Her eyes lingered on Agron, then she bit through the celery, a loud crunch filling the room, then her eyes settled on the platter in front of her. Vaedwyn frowned and looked to Bradan, who shrugged in response. Gethari cleared his throat.
"Well, yeh must all be tired, yeh welcome tae stay wi'us while yeh here, there's nowhere safer." Gethari took another bite of his apple, "As fer yer dragons, I dunno..." He looked to Atma as if she might offer a suggestion. She looked as though she was going to ignore the question, but once she'd finished the food in her mouth, she stood and walked outside and Vaedwyn heard Auriel explain through their link that Atma seemed to be showing them to a nearby cave where they would have the space to lie down and move as they pleased.
"Awright!" Bradan piped up, once Atma had left, "Now whats her problem?!" 
"Yeh have tae understand, Bradan, neither of us a'seen a dragon in years, decades even. Nevermind a new dragon, or rider. There's a lot o' things tae process, an' truth be told, some o' it I don't understand, she won't tell me everything, something about yeh upsets her, Vaedwyn." 
"About me?!" Vaedwyn asked in surprise, looking to Agron for an answer.

"A never much understood her when she did speak, tae be fair." Agron said with a shrug, before looking at Gethari. "Er, no offense like, Y'ken am no daft on Elves."
"Couldn't take offence from yeh, Agron. But..." Gethari sighed, "Atma does'nae cause trouble fer no reason... but ye seem lovely enough, girl." 
"Good to know." Vaedwyn grumbled, but she perked up. She wanted to know more about the town of Burrow, "I want to go exploring."
"Well ye can explore away, lass." Agron said dismissively. "I'm fair knackered like. The only exploration I'll be daein' is a quest to locate the guest bedroom for a kip, ken?"
"Fine." Vaedwyn muttered, standing immediately and walking out. She'd had enough of talking and eating, she needed to stretch her legs. 
"Dinnae worry, she'll be alright on'er own, i'd say she's one tae look after herself." Gethari mused and with a short chuckle he looked back to Agron, "So then, what exactly are you wantin' to do here? There's hardly an army, regardless o' what that Vigo'll tell yeh, an' there's nothin' left in me an' Atma but memories, sadness an' what little magic remains from them days." 

"Burrow might no be much on it's own." Agron said with a nod. "But we might stand a better chance than ye think." Agron thumbed towards Bradan. "Bradan o' Clan Duin. His clan currently holds the crown. An they've only gone and named our wee lass as Vargr. They're ready to march wi her."
"Dwarves are all fine an' good, but Suros needs more'n a few wee folk, nae offence fella," Gethari held his hands up. 
Bradan snorted, pulling his pipe from his belt, "Ah'll have yew know," He growled, thumbing tobacco into his pipe, "If ah'd ah wanted it, yeh'd be about three feet shorter, big man."
"Ah don't doubt it." Gethari bowed slightly to the dwarf, who lit his pipe and ignored the man, "But we need men too, an' Nords, such as we are. The elves must join us, the Circle of Magi, the wandering tribes, ah mean fer gawdssake, Agron, we're talkin' 'bout a bloody war!!" Gethari snarled, his voice raising.
"All in good time, Geth." Agron said, holding his hands up placatingly. "Just let Vaedwyn dae her thing. The Dwarves have been hidin' in the rocks for a millenia, an' in less than a week she had them pitchin' for a square go wi' Aemon himself. She's... she's somethin' else."

"Aye," Gethari nodded quickly, "An' that's somethin' else, where'd yeh find 'er?!" Gethari pointed outside, "Yeh brought that damn egg 'round here an' must have shown it to every damn person in the village an' not one was fit fer it, an' then ye up an' vanish for decades? Were you showin' it tae Elves an' Dwarves now? My wife hasn't a mean bone in her body, but she took one look at that young lass an' I saw the anger in her face. Where've yeh been, Agron?! Who is that lass?!" 
"She's eh... what ye call them again?" Agron tutted and sighed. "Thingmabob. Y'know, the outcasts."
"That girl is a Tau'shi?" Gethari considered this information for a long while, "I cannae believe it." He said at last, breaking the silence, "What did she do to become an outcast?" 
"Dunno." Agron said with a shrug. "Dinnae much care, if am honest."
"Well yeh should!" Gethari shook his head in disbelief, "You're looking to raise an army, an' that army is dependant on gatherin' the forces o' Suros under a single banner, but if the Elves wilnae follow a Tau'shi, then the Circle of Magi could reject her, and without their support and endorsement yeh'll be stretched too thin, Agron." Gethari sat on the edge of his seat, "Yeh have tae understand their reasons fer this, because a nasty surprise down the line might unravel the whole thing. Ah know you, yeh might want to rely on instinct fer this, but instinct won't hold wi' the Elves. Ah know, ah've been coupled wi'one for a thousand years, right? Yeh have to do this by the book, man." 

"Ye think I dinnae ken that?" Agron said, a hint of anger in his tone. "Dae ye e'er mind o' folk callin' me 'Agron - The Great Diplomat'? Naw." He shook his head. "I'm a warrior, Gethari. I spent my first 300 years crackin' skulls, and the next thousand tryin' to pick up the pieces. I dinnae understand the Elves all that much, as ye well ken. But if a ken one thing it's this; Auriel chose her. That egg waited longer than any egg has ever waited! The Elves have tae respect that."
"Yeh don't understand, Agron..." Gethari's face looked pale, "Yeh don't... yeh don't know 'em like I do." Gethari gripped his knees with his bear-like hands, "Ah've seen it before... if she goes tae the Elves, an' she's no strong enough, if she's no smart enough, if... Agron..." Gethari swallowed and locked eyes with his friend, "They'll use their magic an' tear their bond apart an' force Auriel tae one o' their own..."
"They'll try..." Agron said darkly, and his eyes were filled with confident resolution. "An' ye asked me why I came here? Trust me Geth, she's no goin' anywhere near that forest until there's nae other option."
"It might not be up to you." Gethari sighed, "'A rider holds the fate of all Suros in their hands.' That's what we were taught. We grew up thinkin' it meant any rider, that it was a reminder of what it meant to be a rider. But, Aemon took those words and made them his own. Now he's the rider that holds Suros' fate, an' I cannae think that girl, no matter her strength, will be able to stop him, any more than a dam can stop the river. Sooner or later, it always breaks."

 


 

Footsteps trudged through the snow. They wavered and staggered from side-to-side as their owner tried to remain upright. Drops of blood splashed off the crisp white snow. Torn plate armour dropped and sunk into the powder. He wrapped the black cloak around his body and held the hood so that it remained covering his scraggly black hair. He looked out at the mountains ahead of him, his dark, sunken eyes searching desperately. Voices carried on the wind. The flicker of candlelight. Anything. Before him, it was a frozen wasteland. One that had taken him weeks to navigate even to this point. And he had so much further to go.

"Kardran..." When his name had been spoken by the King, he had shivered.
"Your Majesty?" Kardran dared not look up. He saw the thick, black boots of the King. He saw the edge of the throne, as he knelt before it. 
"... where is... the girl?" 
The question seemed innocent enough. It was contemplative. It was neither angry nor expectant. Simply... curious. Despite this, Kardran found he was unable to use his voice. The words would simply not form. He opened his mouth, but found little more than breath escaped his body.
"You have, after all, had months..." 
"I know, Your Majesty, but i've..." Kardran stopped, he saw a gloved hand rise, cutting him off.
"Naerwen...?" Aemon asked.

Kardran took another step through the snow. It was almost up to his knees. He buckled and fell forwards, stopping himself from collapsing into the snow with one hand. The other was bandaged and splinted beneath his cloak. The exertion had opened his wound again. He stopped a moment and reached down, grabbing the knot that held the tourniquet in place, and tightened it by holding it with one hand and grabbing the knot with his teeth and yanking on it. He stifled a scream and coughed wretchedly. The cold was freezing him to the bone. He pushed on.

"My King, I did everything in my power to--"
"Naerwen, do not lie to me." Aemon's voice carried through the grand hall, only silence followed it. "I commanded you not to harm the girl. She is... precious to me. But in your haste, you almost killed her and my wards enacted upon you a penance, did it not?"
"Yes..." She whispered. 
"Yes." He mused.
"I would gladly seek out the child, My King." A new voice joined them. The voice belonged to a young woman with black hair, streaked with grey. Her eyes were wild, and constantly searching as though they could not rest. She stepped forwards, clad in nothing but tightly bound black rags. 
"Priscilla, I seek to own this girl, not destroy her..." Aemon shook his head as Priscilla bowed, backing away as she chuckled to herself.

The mountains lay ahead of him. The rumours claimed there was a town out there, somewhere. Kardran winced with each step, the pain exhausted him even more than the physical exertion. But he had to keep going. He had no choice. He held his still-functioning hand up and gazed into the palm, there he created a flame and pressed it to the snow in front of him. It threatened to go out within seconds of touching the snow, flickering and dancing at the edge of extinction, but he managed to maintain it and with it, he carved a path.

"I know who to send..." Aemon said at last, smiling.
"My King...?" Kardran stood, bowing to Aemon, ready to perform his duties.
"No, Kardran... you have failed me once too often..." 
Kardran swallowed, he didn't know what to do. What to say. He was shaking.
"I think, yes... she is ready... and you, Kardran, may go... before you do, however...?"

The flame in his hand began to die, he did everything he could to maintain it, but his strength abandoned him and he was forced to release the magic or let it consume him. Maybe that would have been better. The flame flickered and vanished and he trudged over to a nearby tree and lay down against it. He took a deep breath, or rather, he tried to. But as he inhaled, he choked as pain shot through his body and triggered a coughing fit once more. The pain was excruciating. And yet, he was numb to it. He did not hear the distant thundering roar. The squealing, gnashing, misery of his companion. He was two no longer. He was but one. He was a shadow of a painful memory, and little else. Kardran collapsed, and closed his eyes. Soon, death would take him. At least then, he would know peace. 

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