The last three days had passed drearily for Mona. It had taken only a day to learn to read Mab and his endless prancing was beginning to irritate her. What she would give now for an easy striding mount. Azti was busy keeping an eye on everything and everyone. At times he had approached her and she had hidden behind an expression of boredom. She wished she could hate him for making her think he liked her. Those smiles he gave seemed so special, but she knew she was fooling herself.
Depression set in and she tended to ride to the edge of the group, taking in the scenery, which grew more spectacular by the day. Each night she stared at the blank page in her diary, unable to write anything new. Her Mother had started telling them about her home in the Tors, and the way of life of the people there. Mona knew she was supposed to find it interesting. Instead it made her yearn for her father, her home, her own room to be depressed in.
As they pulled up to make camp on the third night, Mona stayed astride her horse, much to his annoyance, watching the bustling camp uninterestedly. Mab shook his head and pulled hard on his bit, jerking the reins from her hands and in so doing nearly yanking her arms free of their sockets.
“Stop it,” she warned, but he ignored her voice throwing his head in the air and nearly smashing her nose. Her simmering temper flared, and grabbing the reins she yanked him round hard setting her heels to his sides. Mab leapt forward, up the trail ahead and Mona kicked him again urging him on into a gallop. At first he was unwilling to leave the smell of grain and hay, but eventually he took the bit and went. She knew she was going to be in trouble for this, but right now the need to run, was intense. There were shouts behind her, she could hear her name being called, but it only spurred her on. What had initially been pent up anger was fast becoming a wonderful release.
The pounding of hooves alerted her to an approaching rider. She flattened herself to Mab’s neck and looked ahead through his ears.
“Mona.” Azti’s voice echoed off the surrounding mountains.
For some reason the sound fuelled her urgency and she planted her heels into Mab’s girth. Somehow the gelding found more speed, but even so, stealing a quick glance behind her proved he was no match for Azti’s mount.
Now what? He would catch her shortly, how should she react? She suddenly felt stupid.
The trail just ahead widened into a small plateau overlooking a valley below. Mona sat up straight and jabbed Mab hard in the mouth with one rein to pull him round in a circle. It took him a minute to get the message, but he eventually stopped, and stood blowing and throwing his head up and down. Mona watched Azti pull his mount up smoothly.
“I thought you were out of control,” he called, “But I see I was mistaken.”
With a small nudge Mona urged the now weary gelding forward, back down the trail, not looking at Azti.
“I just needed a run,” she said quietly as she passed him.
He brought his horse in next to hers and she could feel his eyes on her. Eventually he spoke hesitantly.
“It would be wise to have someone with you next time you want a gallop. I sense no danger as yet, but it doesn’t mean it is safe.”
She stared pointedly ahead saying nothing. She had managed to make him treat her like a little girl. The emotions that whirled around inside her were so jumbled up, that she didn’t know what to think or feel anymore. She willed herself to say nothing. If she spoke she was sure she would explode.
As they rode back into the camp she spotted her mother pacing up and down outside the tent. Dismounting reluctantly, she gave Mab a small pat before handing him to a young groom who came rushing up to claim his white flecked charge. Ignoring Azti, who dismounted quietly beside her, she met her mothers gaze with a defiant glare.
Liasna was fuming. “In the tent.”
She pointed at the flaps. Mona considered defying her Mother. But suddenly the fight went out of her and wearily she entered the warmth of their shelter and began peeling off her outer garments.
“What do you think you are playing at?” Liasna demanded from behind her.
“I just needed space,” she muttered.
“You put yourself and your horse in danger, and all for what. So that the man you have taken a fancy to can pursue you?”
“No.” Mona turned at that suggestion, feeling her anger build again.
“Well that is how it looked. I have warned you about him Mona. It is a very cruel game you are playing.”
“I am playing no game Mother. I… I…” but the words wouldn’t come. She marched into the sleeping quarters and flung herself down on her bedroll. Any minute now she knew that all the rage and frustration that had been boiling up inside her for days would spew forth and she tried desperately to damn it before it was too late. The last thing she wanted was for her Mother to hear her crying. Grabbing her pillow tightly she curled into a small ball and blinked back the hot tears. Squeezing her eyes tight shut and ignoring the hungry grumblings of her stomach, she willed herself to sleep.
In the middle of the night she awoke, ravenous. Quietly, so as not to wake anyone, she tiptoed out into the main tent. A bowl of fruit sat on the low table, and she crunched on an apple, trying to make sense of her tangled feelings. On an impulse she peered out through the flap. The air smelt fresh and enticing. No one was in sight. Keeping to the shadows she crept quickly away from the huddle of canvas and feeling like a thief, walked over to the very edge of the flat expanse they presently occupied.
The moon was bright and she could see clearly. A spacious ledge offered a hidden seat and she clambered carefully down. The air was crisp and clear, cooling her anger. She sat down on a convenient rock and took in the landscape. The view from here was breathtaking, a circular valley hidden in the snow-capped mountains, shining in the white light of a waning moon.
And she had been foolish enough to think she wasn’t being watched.
“Don’t you ever sleep?” she asked Azti’s silhouette quietly as he jumped down to join her.
“I have no need.”
He perched next to her, stretching his legs out in front of him. She tried not to be aware of his closeness, squeezing her eyes shut blocking him out.
“Have you been crying?”
“No,” she said a little too abruptly. It was hardly a lie. There were no tears now. He looked away from her and she suddenly felt guilty at her tone.
“I had an argument with Mother. It is nothing.”
She couldn’t bear to look at him. He was so beautiful and the thought that she could never have him tore her apart. She fought hard against the next tide of tears; she wasn’t going to cry in front of him.
“You have seemed,” he paused as if searching for a word, “inaccessible the last few days. Have I done something to upset you?”
She shook her head vigorously, all the while screaming inside, Yes, Yes, Yes.
“It is a lonely thing, to have power, of any kind,” he said watching her profile. The light was behind them casting a shadow over her face.
“Friends are hard to come by. Your offer of friendship was something I thought I wouldn’t find on this trip. I apologize if I have inadvertently made some problem between us.”
Mona couldn’t bear this. She took a deep breath and turned to face him. “I am still your friend Azti. It’s just…. It’s just hard to know that I can never be more.”
There she had said it, and she actually felt slightly better for doing it.
He smiled at her and took her cold hand in his own, squeezing it. “You do not know me Mona. When I am gone you will soon forget me. There will be others.”
Tugging her hand back, she crossed her arms around the front of her chilled body.
“That doesn’t help,” she whispered.
He took his cloak and threw it around her shoulders before speaking again.
“I will tell you a tale from my life before I became a Knight of Isil-Ra. I came from a family who were fairly placed in society. My father’s best friend was also our Liege, and he had two daughters. The first would inherit from him, and so, at birth was betrothed to the son of another land. It was a political betrothal and one that was considered to have far reaching consequences that would benefit all involved. But my Liege valued the friendship of my father very much, and so his second daughter was betrothed to me, the oldest son. I remember the day she was born. I was nine years old and knew that this baby if born a girl was to be my future wife. I suppose I was a fairly serious boy, as I took this role to heart. I watched her grow and become a very beautiful child who I knew one day, would be a woman that I would be proud to call my own.”
Mona watched him now, caught in the moment. He seemed lost in a distant memory, and she wanted to hug him and make him happy in it.
“I loved her from afar until the day I…. had to leave. What I am trying to say is that somewhere in the world you may have a secret admirer that loves you and can do nothing about it. Love is something that can always be given by anyone to anyone.”
They sat silently gazing into the night, each deep within secret thoughts but intensely aware of each other.
“That is a very romantic tale,” she sighed eventually, “But I doubt I have any admirers. And I probably do not deserve any.” She thought for a moment. “So correct me if I’m wrong but I can love you, but never be loved by you is that right.”
He stared at her for a long time.
“I am by necessity celibate Mona. To be involved in a sexual act would deplete my power, or rather the power of my God in me. If that power goes I die, for it is all that keeps me alive. This means that marriage is out of the question for me, unless the woman chose to be celibate too!”
Mona was shocked at his frankness and felt her cheeks glowing warmly.
“To become a Knight of Isil-Ra,” he explained, “you have to be on the verge of death. If He thinks you have qualities that He needs, Isil-Ra can offer you the chance to join his army. It saves you from death, and gives you a task that not many can accomplish, to save mankind from evil, but there is a price, the hardest being celibacy. For I am still a man in that respect.”
He pulled a knee up and rested his chin on it, looking far away.
“So you can be loved by me, in the platonic sense,” he finished.
He turned back to her and smiled wistfully. Mona’s heart was beating very loudly.
“Does that mean you could hold me,” she whispered tentatively.
He looked at her and smiled. “Yes.”
“And kiss me,” she hardly dare murmur.
He didn’t speak; just stared at her again, as if drinking her in. It was the most wonderful moment of Mona’s life.
“Yes I could kiss you.”
Her heart leapt in her chest.
“But I think it would kill me,” he whispered and the sadness that suddenly clouded his eyes nearly shattered her heart.
But then warmth spread through her as she thought again of his words. She had been right. He did like her, did want her. He just couldn’t do anything about it.
And then the true import of what he had said crashed down on her again, settling in her stomach like a lead weight.
“Perhaps you should go and get some sleep. It grows cold out here, and we have a long way to go tomorrow.” He spoke softly looking her straight in the eye.
She winced at the controlled hunger there and wondered at the strength of these men. Reaching out, she touched his hand and smiled.
“Promise me, we will always be friends.”
Nodding he said, “You have my word.”
Mona rose stiffly and took one last breath of the night air, before giving him her best smile and walking back to the tent.
“Dorien, I haven’t seen you in a while,” Talia smiled coyly.
Dorien looked up tiredly at the maid. He had spent the last day and a half in meetings and overseeing preparations and now he was trying to read through the first reports that were coming in from the dragon riders. It wasn’t really sinking in and he knew he needed to rest. He also was well aware of what that smile meant, and wrapping an arm around the girl’s waist he pulled her to his knee. Talia wasted no time in pleasantries and he always wondered what a warrior she would have made if her passions had not been all of the sexual nature. Right now though he had no complaints. An hour or two with Talia would at least give his mind a break.
Appetites eventually sated, their limbs entwined in familiar embrace, he dosed lightly, radiating satisfaction.
No, he didn’t want to talk, but she persisted.
“Yes,” he answered at last.
“Is the old man in the infirmary your father?”
“Where did you hear that?”
He was awake fully now, wondering what gossip was circulating.
“Oh, you know what its like here, everywhere! I just wondered.”
“No. He’s just someone I knew a long time ago.” He pushed away the guilt.
“Do you think he’ll last another session?”
He frowned. “Session?”
“With The Master. They say that’s what gave him a heart attack.”
Dorien tensed, mind alert again.
“You all right?” she touched his shoulder lightly.
Jumping quickly from the bed he pulled on his abandoned clothes.
“Yes. I have work to do that’s all.”
He scraped together the reports and turned at the door.
“Stay here as long as you like. And thank you.” He smiled swiftly and flew from the room.
He stormed down the corridor, not sure where he was going. A session with the Master meant that his father’s mind had been searched for information. How did he not see this? He stopped and leant back against the wall. What else was going on that he didn’t know about? Perhaps The Master did know of Deverous’s intentions, but had wanted Dorien out of the way so he could interrogate Galron. He kicked the wall in frustration. He had stayed away from the infirmary, not wanting to seem overly concerned, thinking that would protect his father. But now he must go. His attempts had been futile; he needed to speak with Galron.
The Infirmary was quiet, just the one monk again in evidence. He said nothing, only nodding at Dorien as he passed. This time he opened the door carefully, but no one else was in the room.
Galron looked at him, his face dour.
“What do you want?”
Quickly he closed the door and hurried to his father’s side.
“Father, I just heard what happened,” he whispered.
“Don’t call me that,” Galron looked away from him.
“I haven’t time for that now,” he growled in frustration, “ Just tell me what they did to you.”
Galron looked surprised for a moment. “You don’t know,” he scowled, “Not as high up here as you thought?”
“I haven’t got time for our arguments now. I’m trying to help you. Please tell me what happened.”
The urgency in his voice seemed to at last get through, and Galron’s eyes misted over as he spoke quietly, a quiver to his tone,
“He raped my mind.”
Dorien stood back from the bed, his worst fears confirmed. So now the Master had information about everyone at the Palace, as well as his own early years. Then a fresh thought gripped him.
“Father, this is important. Did Liasna bear my child?”
Galron scowled at him.
“Why does that matter to you? You took from her what you wanted.”
“It’s important,” he whispered frantically, pushing away the guilt that forever dogged his steps, “Did she?”
There was a long silence and the atmosphere in the room suddenly became heavy.
Doriens’ heart pounded in his mouth. The certainty he had felt was true. A strange warmth flooded his chest.
“Was it Karayana?” he asked quietly.
Galron looked shocked and then his lips curled in laughter, which ended in a fit of coughing. Dorien impatiently helped him to sit up and sip some water.
“No. Karayana is not your daughter.”
He chortled to himself, while Dorien collapsed back into the nearest chair. He felt like some one had just died. He hadn’t realized how completely he’d thought she was his own, how he had believed his own imagination. Trying not to show his despair he whispered, “Then who is?”
The deep cold of stone washed through him opening a hole so deep he knew it could never be filled. He lurched from the chair and left the room unable to speak.
Mona sat bolt up in bed. Azti’s words had been swimming around her head all night, and she felt groggy and irritable. She knew something had been eluding her, and her brain wouldn’t leave it alone. Now she thought she had it. She jumped up out of her warm bedroll, and quickly pulled on her clothes to avoid the chill air.
“Mother,” she shouted entering the main part of the tent.
Liasna was tucking into an apple for her breakfast and she looked up in shock.
“Mother, was I ever betrothed?”
Liasna gave her a strange look, her apple halfway to her mouth.
“Why do you ask that?” she asked quietly.
“Because I want to know. Karayana was, what about me. It would seem odd if I wasn’t.”
Her mother put down the apple and sighed, chewing her lip.
Mona sat down on a cushion.
“I knew it,” she said triumphantly, “Azti was my betrothed.”
Her eyes blazed with a fire that Liasna was not sure she wanted to see.
“How do you know this?”
“He told me, in a round about way,” she added quickly, “He loves me Mother. He has loved me from the day I was born.”
Liasna felt a sudden pang of pity for her sixteen-year-old daughter. Love at that age was such a passionate affair, yet passion was the one thing she could never share with Azti. She had to speak with him. He had been re-miss to even hint of this to Mona, but perhaps she should pity him too. The thought of spending the rest of this trip with her daughter and her ardent love seemed daunting.
“Mother, Mica, there’s dragons!”
Briyden half tumbled through the doorway of the tent, followed by a harassed looking guard. He bowed quickly.
“My ladies we must take cover in the woods immediately.”
Liasna paled and made a swipe for Briyden as he ran passed her towards the sleeping quarters.
“Quick. We must go.”
“My sword.” Briyden was pulling away from her.
“We’ll get it later.”
“No Mother,” but he was stopped short as the guard scooped up the frustrated little boy and ushered them all out under the cover of the trees.
Azti stood at the edge of the forest looking down the trail. He caught Mona’s arm as she ran passed, pulling her up.
“I want you a good way back. They’ll land when they spot the tents. Get everyone out of sight.”
He looked very far away, as if he were focusing on something other than Mona’s face.
“What about you?” she gasped.
For a minute he looked at her, but his eyes held such a wild look that Mona wished he hadn’t.
“This is my job,” he pushed her towards the trees,” Now run.”
Mona fled, her heart pounding in her throat. She caught up with her mother and the guard and tried to speak through her panic.
“Azti says we must get right back out of sight.”
The guard nodded and quickened his pace until they were in the gloom of the thick pine trees. After a rapid head count, he made everyone crouch down as low as possible and ordered silence. Mona tried to forget the stories she had been told as a child, about dragons stealing maidens. This was ridiculous there were no dragons. Briyden must have got it wrong, but a week ago she would have said that the Knights of Isil-Ra were nothing but a fairy tale and now here she was in love with one. Mona shuddered.
The forest around them was silent. After a couple of minutes she began to wonder whether this was a false alarm. Just as she began to relax her cramped muscles there was a roar from overhead that reverberated through her whole body. At the same moment an intense glow appeared at the edge of the woods, as bright as a fallen star, moving away from them. The roar again filled the air, and Mona felt her legs turn to two jelly like lumps. She looked at her mother, who sat holding Briyden to her. She had her eyes closed as if she were meditating. The guard on her other side had his sword drawn, as did all the rest. A huge shape suddenly blocked the starry glow, and a crescendo of noise ensued. She covered her ears trying to block out the unearthly screams, but they were just too loud. Please let Azti be all right, she prayed desperately. Suddenly there was a scream from the left of the group, and a woman pitched forward, an arrow protruding from her back.
“Ambush!” her guard shouted. He pushed her behind him, and within a minute her mother, Briyden and herself were completely surrounded by soldiers. Liasna held both her children now and Mona could hear her heart racing. Somehow, knowing her mother was as scared as her made the situation even more frightening. They moved as one unit finding small shelter behind a holly bush.
“Tal, see if you can find out what goes on with Azti.”
“Sir.” A young soldier broke off from their group and zigzagged back towards the camp. The noise was deafening, and effectively covered any noise from their ambushers. All Mona could see was the back of the soldier in front of her. A rain of arrows suddenly filled the air, one hitting the man next to her in the forearm. He paled quickly and then dropped like a sack of potatoes onto the ground. Liasna gasped.
“Poison,” their guard roared. Making a quick decision he shouted, “Retreat back to the camp.”
“Captain Sedge, Is that wise?” Liasna’s voice sounded shrill to Mona’s ear.
“I cannot protect you from poison arrows out here, My Lady. I have no choice.”
Again, moving together they started back through the tall pines. Mona gritted her teeth against the piercing roars of the dragons. Two more soldiers went down, and then another swiftly followed. Mona caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, and looking round realized that a black horse was coming at them full pelt.
“Captain,” she screamed, but they were so close to the dragons now that she couldn’t even hear her own voice. Before she had chance to grab the nearest soldier and alert him of his peril, he was cut down in front of her. An arm wrapped around her waist and jerked her up and over the front of the saddle as easy as if she were a rag doll. Her forehead crashed down, hitting a hard kneecap. For a moment she saw stars, and a wave of nausea hit her hard. She vomited mid gallop, but there was no let up in the pace. Then sunlight struck her. They had left the wood. Turning her head towards the front made her queasy again, and she had to shut her eyes. A hand grabbed her clothing and the horse came to a halt. As she opened her eyes she had the feeling of being encased in a leathery cocoon, and then she was lifted again, but this time with such force that her stomach couldn’t keep up. The wind whipped her hair across her face. She wretched again, and opened her eyes to see the ground falling away fast. A bright light appeared to be following her. Giddily, she watched it propel itself into the air and land inches from her face. There was another deafening roar, that she could do nothing to block. Her arms were pinned at her sides and the most she could do was wiggle her fingers. Then Azti’s face appeared out of the starlight. His eyes blazed, and she couldn’t look at them. She felt an intensely warm hand stroke her throbbing forehead, and the pain vanished.
Then he was gone. As far as she could discern he had climbed up onto the dragons fore arm. Then her whole world started to spin. She couldn’t keep up with it; there was no reprieve, just a sudden lurch interrupting the constant turning. Mona shut her eyes and tried to stay focused, but her mind kept getting left behind, and eventually she had no choice but to let it go, and descend into darkness.
Liasna watched the great golden beast fly straight up in the air with her daughter in its huge clawed grip. Horror was too insignificant a word to describe how she felt, standing helpless on the ground. Briyden was whimpering, his head hidden against her stomach, behind her there was the sound of fleeing people, orders being passed, and defences being made around the camp. But she was rooted, her hand sheltering her eyes against the glare of the sun, and the intense brightness emanating from Azti. She watched as he reached the dragon, and clambered up its foreleg. The dragon screeched so loud that she almost lost her balance.
“My Lady, quick, you must get in the tent.” She didn’t even look at Captain Sedge.
“Mona,” she said.
“Azti will save her. Please you must save yourself and your son.”
Liasna drew herself up, and gripping Briyden tight, ran quickly for the cover of the tent. It was only then that she noticed the dead dragon that had fallen in front of it. It was vast and dull, almost a sad sight to see such a huge and once powerful creature, crumpled in a heap on the ground. As she pulled back the flap she stole one more look over her shoulder. In an attempt to rid itself of Azti the golden dragon was tumbling through the air. Azti had reached the back of its neck, and as she watched he stabbed down hard with his sword. The dragon lurched, its screams reaching fever pitch. He stabbed again, and again. Suddenly the dragon went completely lifeless in mid flight, its spinal cord severed. Liasna had never seen anything fall so fast. She flung Briyden inside the tent.
“Stay there,” she yelled after him.
Gathering her skirt into one hand she sped around the dead dragon. An arrow whizzed past her ear, but she ignored it. A golden dragon was plummeting to the earth, her daughter still held in its grip. Azti was perched atop its back, somehow keeping his balance. And then it hit the road, and she pitched forward as the ground lurched from under her. There were shouts from behind and the clash of metal, as her soldiers and the ambushers came together. She sprang back up onto her feet, trying to see Mona.
“Azti where is she?”
Azti was preoccupied. He still glowed, and Liasna found it hard to look at him. He seemed unharmed by his fall to earth. She followed him around the beast until they found the foot that clutched Mona tightly. She was unconscious, and Liasna ran to try and free her, but Azti beat her to it. He held up a glowing hand to stop her from coming closer, and then bent and began hauling on the leathery fingers one at a time, until Mona rolled free. Then he knelt at her head and placed a finger to each temple. Liasna sank to her knees at his side.
“How is she?” she whispered.
“Not good. No bones are broken, but I can’t reach her. Her mind has gone deep. Hopefully, given time, she will make her way back to us.”
“Why, where, how can we get her back?” Liasna felt stupid, helpless.
Azti placed a hand on the top of her head and she felt a warm flush of energy enter her body, calming her mind.
He picked up Mona.
“Come,” he said quietly, and set off back towards the tents, Liasna following close behind. The battle was almost over. One group of four men stood back to back, but her soldiers had them surrounded. She looked away, not wishing to see them slaughtered. Bodies were strewn around the camp, and at least five wore the Den insignia. She felt utterly sickened. Briyden ran to her as she held back the tent flap for Azti to enter.
“Is Mona alright Mother?” he asked in a small voice.
“She will be,” Azti answered for her. He was slowly returning to normal, and sparkled now, with the remains of whatever magic had consumed him.
“I will ask Captain Sedge to join us.” He left them, and Liasna took a damp cloth and wiped Mona’s face clean. She seemed to be breathing easily, and her face was peaceful.
“Please come back to us.” Liasna planted a kiss on her forehead. The young face showed no response. Holding Briyden close, she stroked the damp hair away from Mona’s eyes and began to hum a lullaby. She rocked the little boy, and tried to keep the tears at bay.
“I wish you were here,” she whispered picturing Morden at her side.
Azti entered, followed by the Captain.
“I have made a decision that the Captain agrees with, I only need your consent.”
Liasna stared at him.
“I think the Torlunders can help Mona. If I take her on my horse I can reach them by the early hours of tomorrow morning.”
“It is still three days ride to Tor,” Liasna gasped.
“But quicker on my steed. Of course this is going against my orders. I was sent to see you all safely to Tor.”
“You think my daughter needs urgent help?” she asked quietly.
Azti’s eyes flicked across to Briyden.
“I think it would help her healing.”
Liasna didn’t quite know what he implied.
“I will come too.”
“My Lady, your horse could not possibly keep up with mine. It would only slow my progress.”
Liasna wondered how they would manage another attack without him.
“Time is that important?” she asked.
He nodded, and his eyes stole a glance at Mona’s form.
“I would like to make a suggestion, My Lady,” Sedge piped up. “I think we should leave everything we possibly can behind, and ride hard for Tor. Hopefully we can make it in two days, and if Azti comes back to us as soon as he gets Mona to safety, I feel confident that we will be safe. Not one of those brigands escaped us. It will take a while for our enemy to find out the outcome of his attack, and then he must regroup.”
Liasna nodded wearily.
“You have my consent,” she said, getting slowly to her feet. “Leave as soon as possible.”
Azti needed no more than that. He scooped Mona up and marched out of the tent.
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