It was worse than even their worst fears. The dragons had attacked the embattled human armies in force, but despite the warnings they had had, from Kelyn, from Morvyn, from Ceyrth and even from the fairies, they were not prepared for the devastating effect the metal's power would have on them.
Many humans, from both opposing armies had been slain in the initial onslaught, but it was not enough to overcome them, and even with the human losses, a larger number of them remained to fight against the attacking dragons. Many humans died, but no number of human deaths could make up for the dragons lost in their attack. Six dragons had fallen, and the battle was not yet over. They could still hear the shouts and screams coming from the battlefield below.
"He'll recover, in time," Morvyn says, his voice hoarse. Brant and Derrell, two of Ailidh's mates, had chosen to learn to fight with weapons rather than join the attack in dragon form, but the few weeks they'd had to prepare before the day of the attack had not been enough, and Brant was gravely wounded early on. Morvyn's own months of training with Kelyn and Ceyrth had not truly prepared him for the reality of war on the ground, facing numerous opponents from all sides, the distraction of noise, the dust, the blood, the confusion of battle. He and Derrell, along with Ceyrth covering their retreat with his bow, had barely been able to get the wounded Brant away from that field to a camp far enough from the metal's radius of effect for Morvyn to be able to use his healing magic on him.
The piercing cry of a dragon breaks over the din. It's Aymeri, and, thankfully, it's not the death cry they had had to endure six times already that day. Aymeri's cry is one of retreat, calling an end to their attack. His cry is followed by Aeaea's, calling to her surviving mates to flee the field. That accounts for two of the three nests that took to the battlefield today. Derrell kneels, his arms and chest tensed as he waits to hear the call of his mate, Ailidh, calling back those of his brothers who had survived the day.
Ailidh's cry rises above the others, the shrieking scream of death, the last dragon to fall to battle against the mortals armed in their magic metal. Brant winces as he tries to rise from the ground at the dying call of his mate.
"You can't do anything for her," Morvyn says, restraining Derrell from running heedlessly to his dying mate, "There's nothing down there but death."
A rasping groan of pain and misery is all the response Derrell can muster as his shoulders slump forward, impotent, knowing Morvyn is right, there's nothing he can do now. His mate his dead, his remaining nest brothers are fleeing the field along with Aymeri and Aeaea's nests. Morvyn would speak words of comfort, if he had them. But there are no words that could possibly assuage this pain or restore this loss, no comfort even in being among the survivors. If it were Kelyn...Morvyn shakes his head, trying to rid himself of that thought. When he and Ceyrth pulled Derrell and Brant away from the fighting, Kelyn had insisted on staying behind, to try to get close enough to the dragonslayer to take him down, even as their kindred were falling from the skies around them. In her regular form, she would not make a death cry if she were slain, and Morvyn has no way of knowing her fate.
Ceyrth raises his bow at the slight rustle in the foliage around their camp.
"Speak now, or die," the alfar growls a challenge at the interloper. Morvyn stands by him, ready to fight off any intruder.
"It's me," Kelyn says, stepping into view. Ceyrth sighs, his relief audible as he drops his bow.
Morvyn rushes forward to meet her, taking her in his arms. "I did get one arrow in him. In the weak spot below the shoulder joint in his armor," she says, not needing to say the name of her target, "But he didn't fall. It wasn't enough to end him. And I never got another chance at him."
She lays her weary head against her mate's shoulder and he he holds her tight in his arms, embracing her in silence. There are no words for the horrors of this day and no solace for what they've lost.
High up in his room in Port-de-Lanne's castle, Reinier can still hear the din from below, muffled by the thick stone walls. In the great hall of the castle, his men are celebrating their victory. Not only did they take Port-de-Lanne, but they had felled seven dragons. Seven dragons in one battle, when to date, no dragonslayer had ever faced more than one of the fierce beasts at a time, Reinier's heart still races with the excitement of that unexpected victory, and the knowledge that his glory and renown would be legend from this day forward. He had personally felled three of the creatures with his own sword, while the other four fell to hi men fighting in groups.
But this victory had come at great cost, whole regiments, from both opposing armies, had fallen to the fiery breath of the immense creatures, crowds dying beneath their talons, including the Lord of Port-de-Lanne himself, along with his heir and his best knights. As soon as the dragons set on them, killing men without regard for which banner they fought under, the battle ceased being a fight between two armies and became a united defense against the fire-breathing monsters. The dragons had handed Port-de-Lanne to Reinier, but Port-de-Lanne was only the first of the Landgraab lord's intended targets, and the dragons had decimated his forces, leaving him less able to press a successful attack on the next of Penguilly's allies that he meant to take.
Along with the music and shouts of celebration coming from the hall below, Reinier also hears the wails of mourning and the screams of the wounded, and he has no celebration in his heart, despite the victory he'd had this day.
The dragons had come at them in a unified attack, something that had never been seen in the recorded history of mankind. In the oldest stories, groups of men would encounter dragons by chance while hunting or cutting wood in the forests, and one of his Landgraab ancestors would set out to rid the area of the beasts to provide safe passage for his people. In Reinier's own time, these chance encounters were rare, and a dragonslayer would have to hunt for his prey, luring the beasts out into the open to be slain. Sometimes, after he'd slain one, another would come after him within a few days or even hours, as though it meant to take revenge for its fallen brother. The scholar priests insisted that this could not be so, that the dragons were dumb beasts who did not possess intelligence enough to conceive of revenge.
Priests cloistered behind church walls have little enough experience with beasts in the wild, Reinier thinks with scorn. Even the dumb ones are intelligent enough to recognize a threat, to fear death and rage when one if its kind is felled. But this dragon attack today, this was something far different than the instinctual response of animals. This was planned ahead of time, by creatures with intelligence and forethought.
And it was not dragons alone. Reinier had spotted wilders in the melee, one his former prisoner, with his unmistakable blue-tipped white hair. He'd lost sight of them in the dust and confusion of battle, and had not seen them again after that one glimpse, but he did lay eyes on a female wilder later. It was her arrow that found him, giving him the only wound he suffered in today's battle. Reinier hasn't forgotten that it was a female wilder who assassinated his brother, or the words she spoke to him as she sunk her knife between his ribs "You'll never slay another dragon."
Today's attack proved his belief in a connection between the wilders and the dragons. Until today, he'd assumed the wilders served the demon lizards, perhaps sacrificing their children or virgins to them, as ancient tales suggest. But now he's begun to suspect that the relationship is the other way around, and it is the wilders who are the masters. Only a human mind could formulate a battle plan, after all. Beasts of the wild hunt for prey and only attack men when provoked. Never have even the most savage beasts stalked a field of battle or engaged in a fight between the armies of men.
"Reinier, brother, you are missing the celebration!" Gunteras Goth, Agneta's brother, breaks Reinier's reverie, "The men all shout your name and toast your victory. You should be there."
Reinier nods solemnly. Though he may not be in a mood for revelry, he has a duty to his men, and to the people of Port-de-Lanne who he has just conquered. "I should see to the wounded first," he decides, "And then I'll join the feast in the great hall."
"You are a dragonslayer now, yourself," Reinier points out to his young brother-in-law, "And I promised your father a lordship. Port-de-Lanne will require some rebuilding, but it is need of a lord..."
Before Gunteras can properly express his gratitude for this promotion, a squire interrupts with a message for Reinier. "It come from Odet," the squire explains as he hand the scroll to Reinier.
Reinier takes a chair by the fire to read the scroll, written in Agneta's delicate hand. He smiles to himself as he reads about the inconsequential details of her responsibilities as Odet's mistress, hearing the lilt of joy in her voice as though she were whispering the words in his ear. He's been away from her now for some two months time, and he's missed her tender touch more than he'd realized, especially since their communication has been so limited.
"I have one piece of important news," she concludes her missive, "One which I hope will please my dearest lord, and not be a cause for disappointment. As I had hoped, you have left me with child, and we shall have our heir, perhaps sooner than you had anticipated. I pray every morning and every evening for your swift victory, my beloved husband, so that you may return to your growing family all the sooner, and receive my most tender embraces. Your most loving wife, AL."
"Good news, then?" Gunteras surmises from the smile spreading across Reinier's face.
"It seems you are to be an uncle," Reinier answers him.
Gunteras laughs heartily, "I am an uncle; my elder brothers and sisters have already bestowed that title on me. But I am honored to be the first to congratulate you, brother."
"Now that you're a lord in your own right, you'll be needing to find a wife of your own," Reinier teases as he dresses to go back down among the people. "I'll be riding for Odet on the morrow, but you should remain here to get Port-de-Lanne in order."
"Aren't you going to press the attack against Cadillac next?"
Reinier nods, "Cadillac will fall soon enough. But the dragon attack has weakened us. I'll need time to regroup before setting off to another battle. I will return home in the meantime."
"You are too sentimental for your own good," Gunteras laughs, knowing that Agneta is the real reason behind Reinier's sudden decision.
"I have returned, my love, as I promised," Aymeri speaks quietly, leaning over pond where he and Ico would go to make love in private, away from the nest. Her anger at him would not be appeased by loving words or promises, and she had not stayed to bid him farewell before he and Seirian and Fearghus had left for battle. Instead, she'd retreated to her waters to sulk.
"You were right, my love," he whispers, broken and tearful, "We lost much and gained nothing. Seven dragons lay dead, while the dragonslayer yet lives."
She does not respond, so he steps further into the water, immersing himself in her essence. "I need you, my love," he says, "Can you not forgive me?" The water ripples around his chest, caressing him. "Please, Ico," he pleads, "Come back to me."
She relents, finally, and emerges from the waters, holding their babe in her arms.
"I call her Lusinea," Ico says, "And you must promise you will not go back to fight against the mortals again."
"I swear it," Aymeri promises, "I will ever be at your side."