Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Chapter 48: Destroy Them All

Paerys' fury emanates from her like heat from the sun. She's so like her father, Aymeri thinks, his heart torn, so like his lost son. Whatever magic had made her mature so rapidly had denied him the chance to do it differently this time, to raise her better than he had Talfryn. Now, only a few days old and she's already as rash and stubborn as her father was at century old, and just as unwilling to listen to Aymeri's counsel.

"And that's it?" she demands of her grandfather, righteous in her fury, "You're just going to give up, while my father's murder goes unpunished?"

"No one wishes the dragonslayer dead more than I..." Aymeri begins, only to be cut off by her angry snarl.

"Wishing won't kill the dragonslayer!" Paerys shouts, "We must fight!"

"We did fight, Paerys, and seven more of us lie dead. I promised Ico I would not throw myself at the dragonslayer's sword, for her and our daughter's sake. I have not given up, but I will not fight in a war against a human army again. We need a better plan if we are to rid the world of this dragonslayer."

"What is your plan, then?" Paerys demands.

"I don't know!" Aymeri shouts, his anger and frustration getting the better of him. "I don't have one," he admits through lips tightly pressed together, "You must be patient, granddaughter, and give us time to think this through."

Her dragon grandfather had no help to offer, so Paerys went next to her mother's father, the ancient and powerful Auberon. He doesn't have the personal stake in revenge that Aymeri does, but he has what the old dragon lacks, near infinite power, and it is that which Paerys hopes to coax from him.

"You could make the skies fall over them, wipe all the mortals out with just a word, a wave of your hand," Paerys hurls an angry accusation at him, "But you do nothing! You sit by, hiding away here in your dreamworld while the human filth take over more and more land."

"The dragon blood runs strong in this one," Tania whispers to her sister.

"Yes, and with all the power of the fae," Jennicor muses, "A dangerous combination."

Auderon stands, impassive, looking over his hot-tempered granddaughter with a cool eye. "I could do many things, child," he says finally, his voice even and calm, "But this destruction you desire...I will not do that."

A growl rises in Paerys' throat as her first forms into a tight ball, though even in her worst anger, she knows she would never attempt to strike the ancient fae. "I know you have no great love for the dragons, but what of your daughter? These mortals stole her mate from her...will you do nothing?"

"I grieve for Evenfall and her loss," Auberon says, speaking as much about the magical transformation that turned his granddaughter into an adult so rapidly, and thus denying his daughter the solace of nurturing and raising the child her slain dragon had left her with, "But, remember, child, Evenfall had a mother, whose loss I still feel everyday. You, child, are born of dragon and fae blood. But you are also human yourself."

Calling Paerys a human was an exaggeration, his words had been meant to make her reflect on her own ancestry and her connection to the people she just referred to as 'filth', but they only enraged her further.

Paerys growl turns into an animal snarl as she raises her hands above her head. "If you mean to do nothing, then I must act alone."

"Paerys! No!" Jennicor and Tania protest in unison, seeing what it is that Paerys means to do.

"I lay my curse on the dragonslayer, so that he will know my wrath" Paerys intones,  heedless of their warnings, "He will grieve as my mother grieves, he will know despair and loss. Everything he loves will fall to ruin, his children will bring him naught but sorrow--"

"Enough!" Auberon shouts, raising his hand, closing Paerys throat with his will, so that she cannot continue with her curse.

"You are a foolish child, playing with magic as though it is a toy," he says cooly as his granddaughter seethes in her forced silence, struggling fruitlessly against his magic.

"A curse, once spoken, cannot be undone," Tania says.

"And yours, spoken heedlessly and in anger, with no forethought, will have far greater consequences than you intend, and even you will not be able to take your words back," Jennicor concludes.

Auberon releases his hold on her voice when she stops struggling. "I take nothing back!" she spits her fury at these elders who think they can tell her what to do, "The dragonslayer will suffer!"

"I have no doubt that he will," Auberon answers, "And that suffering will spread far and wide, taking the innocent as well as the guilty. I cannot remove the curse you've already laid, child, but I will not permit you to add more onto it. Speak so much as a word of a curse and I will silence you."

Paerys growls, her hand clenching into a fist as she mutters her assent to her grandfather's command. He is far more powerful than she is, and there's nothing she can do to defy his will.

Paerys had had no more luck enlisting the aid of the other dragon nests in the area; Aeaea had lost two mates in the last battle and had retreated into mourning. Like Aymeri, she still nursed a desire for vengeance, but would not act on it with a plan that assured success. Inira and Fearghus, who had lost mates and a son when they still lived in the north, had fled their home to escape this conflict, and had only joined this fight because it had been the will of the majority. Neither of them would join cause with Paerys acting on her own. Ailidh had perished, along with four of her mates, leaving eight of her mates behind, without a nest. Most of them had dispersed, needing to find places in other nests, but Brant and Derrell had remined in Aymeri's camp for the time being, and Paerys pins her last hope of finding vengeance on them.

"We are with you," Brant declares when Paerys asks if they will continue their war against the dragonslayer.

"The dragonslayer took Ailidh and four of brothers. He must pay," Derrell agrees.

"Just tell us what you mean to do."

"The dragonslayer has his army, protected by his metal that weakens us all, dragon and fae. We cannot hope to win by striking him directly. But we can destroy the home he left behind when he set off to war against the other towns."

"There must be soldiers left there to defend it," Brant points out.

"Yes, and they will have their metal. Enough that we dare not attack them from up close. But, two dragons can do great damage from on high," she tells them, "If we cannot kill him, we can destroy what he loves, and make him suffer the losses we have endured at his hands." 

Taran had taken Elara with him as he performed his rounds in his duties as reeve, and Sterren was spending the quiet afternoon in her study, reading, when the fairy appeared to her.

"I am called Winterdream," she said, "And I have come to offer my aid, in exchange for your own."

"What do you wish of me?" Sterren asks.

"You have Auberon's protection, which extends to your whole village. I, too, have a human under my care, but I am not as powerful as Auberon, and cannot protect him from the dark times I see coming. I need you to take this boy, Jean, the grandson of the healer Fransez in Odet, into your home, and keep him safe with you until the danger has passed."

"I will do anything to help Fransez and his kin," Sterren says readily, "But what is this danger you see?"

"I am no prophet, but I see plainly enough which direction this road is taking. The dragonslayer has stirred the dragons to wrath, and fostered the enmity of a powerful and vengeful fae. He has fallen under a terrible curse, one that threatens all he loves, both now and in the future, and I fear for all who live in his lands," the fairy tells her.

Sterren's eyes widen as she takes in this information, "I will gladly take the boy, and Fransez as well, into my house. But, I cannot ride to Odet in my condition," she explains, indicating her pregnant belly.

"Shayeleigh waits for you outside. She can take you there and back in an instant, with no harm to the child you carry," Winterdream promises, "I know you will not ask for a reward, but I will give you one, nonetheless. Your mind is troubled with a secret you keep for a friend, who fears the true identity of the father of her child will be revealed once the girl is born. I can give you an amulet,which, so long as the child wears it, will cast a glamour over her that will make her appearance match the expectations of those that look at her."

Winterdream is right, Sterren would never ask payment for giving what aid she could to anyone in need, but she will not refuse the gift the fairy offers. "That would ease the worries of both myself and Gaelle," she says, "Thank you."

It was a dream, Sterren realizes as she lifts her head, she'd fallen asleep while reading. A dream, but not 'just' a dream, Sterren is sure. The fae use dreams to contact people, and she has no doubt that Winterdream and the favor she asked of her are quite real.

Stepping out into the yard proves it, as Sterren finds Shayeleigh waiting for her their, in the form of the same horse she'd ridden to Odet to rescue the wilder from Reinier's prison.

"Winterdream said you could carry me there and back in an instant," Sterren says, "That the journey would not endanger my baby."

Shayeleigh nickers, and touches her nose gently to Sterren's belly "I'll take that as a promise," Sterren smiles. Before she goes with the fairy, she leaves a quick not for Taran, telling him only that she had to tend to someone in need and expected to be home soon. It's only a partial truth, she knows, but she wouldn't wish him to worry, and will tell him the whole of it when he returns. More than likely, she'll be back before he's finished his rounds, anyway.

As promised, the journey to Odet happened in an instant, and Sterren finds herself in her friend Fransez's home as quick as a thought. Convincing him to leave with her was a whole other matter, and the sun had begun to set before she had finished explaining what Winterdream had told her.

"It's not that I don't believe what the fairy told you," Fransez protests after Sterren's second entreaty that he leave with her immediately, "I know your family has always had a close tie to the fair folk. But if there is danger to Odet, then I must stay and help my people. Surely you understand that, Sterren?"

"I do," Sterren nods, "But the boy?"

Fransez looks fondly down on Jean, "His mother will--" Before he can finish his thought, a loud crash like thunder booms outside, followed by screaming.

They rush outside in time to witness a sight none had ever imagined possible. Two great wheeled in the sky above the town, shrieking as they spat giant balls of fire on the buildings below.

"Lady have mercy," Fransez breathed.

People fled to the square from the burning buildings, screaming and crying, searching for their loved ones.

One young woman, spotting Fransez in the crowd, rushes over to him and Sterren. "Healer!" she cries, "Please, you must come, my Lady is not well!"

"Who is your lady?" Sterren asks the girl, who stares back at her, wide eyed and frightened.

"This is Harildis, one of the Lady Agneta's handmaids," Fransez explains to Sterren, "Harildis, what happened to Lady Agneta? Is she injured?"

"No," Harildis answers, "That is, I don't know. I set out looking for you before...before this," she sweeps her hand to indicate the chaos and fore engulfing the town. "It's the baby, my Lady had these pains in her belly, and she started bleeding..." Harildis starts to sob and cannot continue.

"I'll go with Harildis," Steren decides, "Get Jean to my horse, she'll take him to safety. Then you can tend to the wounded." Fransez nods, agreeing to her plan, and Sterren follows Harildis to the Landgraab's Keep.

The Keep had been hit by the dragon fire as well, the prison tower had fallen and fire raged in the outbuildings. The servants had put Lady Agneta in one of the bedrooms on the lower floor, the one Sterren had stayed in herself when she had been a guest here. As dangerous as it might be to stay here, with the fire so close, it would be just as dangerous to move her in her condition, Sterren decides, taking comfort from the fact that the dragons seemed to have ended their attack as quickly as it came, and that the soldiers were already working on putting out the fires they'd left in their wake.

"You are only recently with child," Sterren observes, "Two o three months at most?" she gueses. The Lady Agneta nods through her sobs. "And these pains?" she asks.

"Like knives in my womb," Agneta says, "Please, I don't want to lose my baby."

Midwifery can be the most rewarding and the most painful of her duties as healer. Sterren has dealt with the heartbreak of miscarriage before, and though Agneta's is the most physically painful she'd ever tended to, it's not the physical pain she worries about the most. "I'll do what I can," she promises, "But it may be too late."

It was an ordeal of some hours as the poor girl labored and finally gave birth to a twisted, gnarled and inhuman mass, nothing like Sterren had ever seen or even heard of. The words Winterdream spoke to her in her dream echo in her thoughts, that Reinier had fallen under a curse that threatens all he loves. It cannot be a coincidence that the dragons attacked moments after Agneta's pains began, and the unusual nature of Agneta's miscarriage suggests a supernatural cause.

"You're going to be all right," Sterren whispers, soothing as she wipes the sweat from Agneta's brow and settles her back into bed, "You should rest now."

"My baby..." Agneta sobs.

"I'm sorry," Sterren whispers sadly, knowing that her consolation will be of no help.

Reinier had been on the road home when the attack came; even at their distance, they could see the dragon fire raining down from the sky onto Odet. He'd left the bulk of his army to ride ahead with a select number men, pushing their horses to gallop their fastest, arriving too late to stop the dragons. They had laid waste to his town, his people, terrorized and frightened, scrambled about to tend to the wounded, rescue those trapped in the destroyed and burning buildings, and to put out the fires. His men immediately rushed to aid them, but Reinier's only thought was for Agneta as he ran into the smoldering remains of his keep. The small huddle of servants tending to their wounds in the great hall told him that Agneta had escaped imjury in the onslaught, but that she'd some trouble with the baby, and they directed him to the room where they'd put her.

The servants had told him a midwife was with her, but of course, they couldn't have known who Sterren was to tell him her name. Of all the things he might have thought when he saw her, tending to his wife in her greatest need, it was just relief he felt, knowing Agneta was in the hands of the best healer he knew, even if he cannot begin to explain to himself how she came to be here.

"Agneta...is she...?"

"She is well," Sterren answers his unfinished question, rising to let him take her place at his wife's side, "But exhausted. The child, I'm afraid, is gone." Though she would have preferred getting out of Odet without encountering him, she's is happy for Agneta's sake, at least, that he's arrived. 

Reinier takes her hand in his, heart breaking as he sees her eyes rimmed red with crying and the stains of tears across her cheeks. "Oh, my love," she sobs, "Our baby..." she chokes, unable to say the words.

He rest his cheek against her hand, letting his tears moisten her fingers. Since he got her letter in ort de Lanne, he had thought of little else than his joyful homecoming, Agneta's smile and sparkling eyes ever in his thoughts, and he longed for nothing more than to be with her. Seeing her thus, mourning the child that she had wanted so much, is as devastating as the sight of his town on fire. "I rode as soon as I got your letter," he whispers, his lips caressing her fingers as he speaks, tasting his own tears,, :It was not soon enough."

"You are with me now," she answers, closing her eyes, only able to relax now that Reinier is by her side again. Reinier gently lays her hand down by her side, leaving her to sleep.

Sterren had heard the couple's brief exchange while she had been cleaning up, and is moved to pity by Reinier's grief. "She will recover," she promises him in a strained whisper, "She can still bear children, I'm certain."

"Thank you for helping her, Sterren," Reinier answers, his voice breaking on her name, torn by his own emotions, his love Agneta, his sorrow for their shared loss, his unresolved feelings for his first love, standing before him now, carrying his child, and very possibly wishing she weren't. "She wanted this child so badly. I told she was so young...why did this happen, Sterren?"

He reaches tentatively for her, an unconscious gesture, just to touch her belly, to make contact with the child he cannot acknowledge.

"Don't you dare touch me," she hisses at him in sudden anger, the words Winterdream spoke about the curse that threatens everything he loves ringing clear in her mind, fearing for the fate of the child she carries, "Do not ever come near my child!"

"I didn't mean..." Reinier fumbles for an apology, shocked by the strength of her rage. 

"This was a peaceful place before you came," Sterren growls through clenched teeth, "We never had trouble with the dragons. You came here bringing war and destruction, and now you've stirred up the dragons and even the fae against you, and their wrath touches us all. You brought all this death and misery down on all of us. The fae have cursed you, and that curse stole the child from your wife's womb. This is your doing, Reinier, and I fear you will destroy us al before this is done."

"Curse?" Reinier sputters, "What curse?"

"Tend to your wife. End your wars. It may not yet be too late," Sterren, avoiding answering him directly, wishing she had never spoken about the curse, not sure if it would bring her bad luck to tell him of it. She whirls away, rushing out of the room before he can think to detain her, hoping that Shayeleigh will somehow know to appear when she needs her. Taran will be worried, she thinks with regret, and no doubt very surprised by the young Jean delivered to his doorstep in place of his wife.

Alone with Agneta now, Reinier kneels by her bedside, making a silent prayer to the Watcher for health.

"That was her," Agnet whispers, quiet and hoarse, "I heard you say her name."

"It was," Reinier answers truthfully, "She's an excellent healer. I am glad that is was she who tended to you."

"She was kinder to me than I would have been to her if our situation were reversed," Agneta says.

"That's not true," Reinier admonishes her gently, "You are kindness itself."

"To you, I am. But I don't know that I could do for her what she did for me, knowing that she carries your child." Her lips quiver as she speaks of the child Sterren carries, the one that still lives and will be born. "Is it true, what she said, that the fae demons have put a curse on you?" she whispers hoarsely as the tears begin to flow anew.

"If it's true, they meant to punish me, my love, and you are suffering for my sins," Reinier answers, unable to hold his own tears in any longer, "This is my doing. I am so sorry, so sorry."

Agneta pulls him down closer, looking into his eyes with a sad and gentle firmness, "Do not say these things, my husband. You are a good man, and righteous. These dragons who attack us in the night, destroying our city, are monsters who deserve to die. These fae demons who would steal the life of an unborn child as punishment to the father are evil incarnate. They have hit us hard, my love, but I know you are strong, and you will strike back, harder. In the name of the Watcher, you will drive these dragons and demons for these lands, cleansing it for decent people to live in safety."

"Yes," Reinier whispers with eyes closed, her words reminding him of his purpose, and casting out the doubts Sterren had sown in his mind.

"Swear it, Reinier," Agneta insists, "Swear to me that you will punish these vile demons who took our baby. Swear to me that you will destroy them all."

"I swear it, Agneta," Reinier promises, "I will not rest until every dragon and every fae demon has been driven from this land. They will pay, all of them will pay, for what they've done."