The Dragon Wakes
The dragon stirred, uneasy, a rumble rising from deep within like a guard dog roused. In the manner of his kind, he raised his huge head and listened with all his senses. The time had come. After a hundred years of guarding the secret, the time had come. The elements told of the rising danger more clearly than any royal crier. The stink of fear tinged the wind. The sounds of destruction throbbed through the earth as men marched.
Sitting on his haunches like a giant cat, he wrapped his spiky tail around himself. His black scales melted into the darkness of the cavern. Only his red eyes, sad now with the knowledge of what lay ahead, glittered in the gloom.
Looking into the past, he searched out the shadowy faces behind the elusive Manu Sinistra, those greedy, brutal men bent on destroying the royal houses. The dragon shifted heavily as the scenes of conflict and destruction flickered with blurred faces identified only by their emblem, a fist within a golden circle on a field of green, a sign of deception and cruelty that men of all ranks had feared. It would be the same again. An enemy with many hidden faces.
But another picture rose from the mists of the long-dead past: King Olog. It was Olog who brought forth a few brave hearts to be knighted in secret oath against the merciless Manu Sinistra. It was Olog who knew that the evil hand lay festering in defeat, growing stronger as memories and caution faded. It was Olog who chanted the legend, hiding his prophecy for the future deep within its lines, a warning for those who would come when he himself had faded into myth.
Now, as the warrior king had foretold, the time had come to call true hearts together: those who knew and believed; those who knew but did not believe; those who did not yet know.
The dragon drew a deep breath. “Let hearts with honor and courage hear me.”
He wrapped himself in the Dragon’s Veil, its dark cloud shutting out all distractions. As the blackness caressed him, he began to chant, as minstrels and bards had sung through the ages, a story for places beyond words, Olog’s Legend of the Golden Kings.
A deep sigh rose as he finished. Who will heed me? He wondered. Whose face shall I see before me this time?
The dragon lowered himself into a comfortable ball, tucking his bony head across his folded legs. With eyes closed, he began breathing deeply, rhythmically, opening his mind to find those who would answer his call, and those who would need him. Snatches of faces flickered through his mind, hesitating at the green-eyed girl, and then pausing for three nondescript boys before stopping on the face of an old and dear friend.
“So it begins again,” he said softly to the darkness, hoping the aging knight would answer him once more.
The cold, heavy air hung over the old man like a shroud. His long, thin fingers wrapped around a piece of firewood that trembled as he tossed it on the fire. The cold burrowed into his bones now. Moving his chair closer to the hearth, he drew the long fur-lined cloak tightly around himself, pulling the hood over his head. Without turning he knew someone stood outside the door to the room.
“Come.” His voice was as icy as the wind blowing through the castle halls.
The young scribe hesitating at the door took a deep breath, but still he shivered as he entered the overheated room. It was hard to know what to expect from the violent liege of this strange castle where retainers vanished without warning. He’d heard the whispers and seen enough to keep his guard up at all times.
A faint rustle told the hooded man that someone had entered; the smells of ink and pigments told him it was his scribe.
“Yes?” The old man waited. He always waited, as his father had waited, and his grandfather had waited before him. Years and generations of waiting.
“Word has come from your brother, Sire.”
“Continue, Marcus.” He waved irritably.
“The ascension invitations have been received by all the kingdoms. The date is set.”
“At last!” The thin figure sat up taller, breathing heavily with the simple exertion.
“The scroll, Marcus, now.” The menace in the icy command made Marcus move quickly to obey.
The skeletal hand that reached out for the scroll was covered with wrinkled, graying flesh, the long finger tips tinged an unhealthy blue. Like the hand of the dead, thought Marcus, flinching as it brushed him. The hooded man did not notice.
Reverently unrolling the ancient scroll, the man said in gasping breaths, “The facts. We need to check the facts.” He stared intently at the words whose ink was brown with age, Legend of the Golden Kings, written in an archaic script.
Scanning the scroll, he unrolled to the last four stanzas, his finger running under each line as he read softly to himself. It was a ritual he had repeated many times. When he finished, he started over, reading aloud.
In a time of thirteen.
“The scholars have decided that this is the time of thirteen because…?” The old man’s unblinking stare fixed on scribe.
The heat and the stare made Marcus queasy. “This is the first time there have been thirteen princesses for an ascension court, and each of them will enter her thirteenth year during the ascension year.”
One hundred years to mist
The man looked up at Marcus, who rushed the answer.
“One hundred years have passed since King Olog’s death,” Marcus answered, small beads of sweat forming across his brow as his shoulders tensed. He knew the next line had been the subject of disquieting discussions and the cause of at least one death.
The Prince of the Mountains
“There is a prince from one of the kingdoms near the Great Mountains?” The voice came from deep within the fur-lined hood.
“Yes, from Mishlund, Sire. There is one royal son.”
“Not Atonia? It’s at the base of the Great Mountains. Olog’s kingdom.”
“No, Sire,” They had been over the questions many times. “The only royal child from the House of Atonia is a daughter. The librarians and spies confirm this.”
“And there are thirteen princesses the right ages?”
The gnarled hand went back to the scroll tracing the next line.
The thirteenth princess true
“And the thirteenth princess?”
“The scholars selected Princess Kyra of Mishlund. She was born on the thirteenth day of the thirteenth month in the thirteenth year of her father’s rule, and she will be thirteen this year.”
What might have been a smile flitted across the arrogant, bony face, the dark, sunken eyes glittering like a snake before a strike. “How thoughtful of the House of Mishlund to make our task so much easier,” the liege said. “The thirteenth princess and the prince of the mountains in one royal house. How convenient.” A merciless chuckle escaped his withered lips sending an involuntary shudder through Marcus.
The claw-like nails on his withered hand moved on through the legend, making faint, rasping sounds like tiny beetles skittering across the parchment.
Friend of the Unicorn
The empty eyes inside the hood looked at Marcus.
“Spies report that Princess Kyra’s closest friend is Princess Arelia of Atonia, and the guardian on the Atonian coat of arms is the unicorn.” Marcus knew the end of the audience was thankfully near.
Unknown guards her brother
“And Kyra, our thirteenth princess, does she protect her brother?”
“The spies report that she does, Sire.”
The scribe watched as his master’s thin blue lips read soundlessly and his gnarled finger underscored each word in the last stanza, returning to reread the first line again.
Mounted on the sun’s son
Without looking at Marcus the man asked, “And the horse?”
“Your brother has the horse, Sire. He keeps it with him at all times.”
“And he and he alone rides it?”
“Yes.” Marcus held his thoughts. He had heard a messenger joking with the stable lads about the undisciplined horse and the vicious attacks it made on any and all who came near it. The horse harbored a special hatred toward the liege’s brother—a notoriously inept rider—who used cruel means in a vain effort to control the animal.
The bony hand moved line by line down the scroll one more time.
“All the signs are confirmed. We begin the time of the prophecy. You will need to send messages.”
The man pulled his chair closer to the fire as Marcus prepared his stylus and ink, and fastened the parchment to his writing board. Once the parchment was in place, and the ink readied, Marcus waited silently for the message.
“Send out this message to my brothers.” The voice quivered and stopped. “Move your men, and prepare your arms. Our time is now.” He stopped again. “Be ever vigilant against the Black Dragon Knights.”
Marcus blurted in surprise, “Black Dragon Knights, Sire? As in the legends?” The scribe froze as he realized what he’d done. This lord tolerated no questions.
Surprisingly, the haggard face broke into an ominous smile, clearly visible in the dark recesses of the hood. “We are also in those legends, Marcus.” He pointed to the tapestry hanging over the fireplace, a field of green with a single fist encircled in gold. “The Manu Sinistra. We are just as famous, and like the Black Dragon Knights, no one believes in us either.” The eyes contracted to small glittering points, glowing eerily with reflected firelight. “But this time, the story will have a different ending.”
As he slumped into the chair, the man hissed ominously, “A final ending…for the royal houses.”
As Marcus gathered his writing box and slipped out of the room, his heart pounded wildly, sweat dripping down his face. Fear knotted his stomach. The legend. It was happening, really happening, and he could tell no one, not if he valued his life. No one. Yet he had given his word on oath of friendship when his apprenticeship ended, not knowing he had been lured with falsehoods to this strange castle, a ruin hidden far from any court or royal holding. What of honor, he wondered as his thoughts returned home to Atonia. He hurried to the safety of his chambers, glancing uneasily over his shoulder as he went.
The master of the castle stared silently into the fire, listening as the scribe’s footsteps grew faint. A hulking man lumbered from behind the screen that blocked the castle drafts from his master’s back.
Without turning, the old man said, “Once the messages are dispatched, you know what to do with our young scribe.”