YULLIK FELT THEM the moment they arrived. He’d known they were coming. He’d felt the big storm gathering on the horizon, drawing closer and closer, and known it had nothing to do with the weather.
Dragons had come to Aquila.
A smirk tugged at his lips, because it hardly mattered: dragons were already here. Aquila had many secrets, some it had even managed to hide from him until recently.
A flash of heat raced through his body, burning inside his veins. Yullik gritted his teeth as claws shot out of his fingers and toes, gripping the wooden arms of his chair and scratching the stone floors. His body arched upwards, but he growled and held himself down, held himself back, kept himself in check.
Not yet. Not here. This wasn’t part of the plan.
The fire faded and Yullik slumped panting in the chair, arms and legs shaking. He could feel them. By the fires of his ancestors, there was so much power out there, walking on Aquila’s soil. His soil. Yullik had claimed it for his own. Now a dragon had come to take it.
“Not this time,” he whispered to the darkness, a fire sparking in the ashes of the grate. “Not again.”
Not ever again. He’d lost too much to dragons already. He wouldn’t lose this too.
With a great effort of will, he managed to retract the claws on his feet. He left the ones on his hands; they might prove useful. Breathing deep, he stood up and paced to the nearest window. Night lay over Aquila, thick and quiet. Stars glimmered overhead, revealing nothing of their thoughts. Somewhere out beyond the cove, the storm that wasn’t a storm was waiting, crackling with purpose. Yullik ignored it. He knew that power, had faced it before. He didn’t fear it.
Nor did he worry much about the power glimmering in the west. It was smaller, younger, weaker. Still a threat, of course, but Yullik wasn’t worried. He was more concerned about the first dragon he’d sensed on this mountain. The one that stirred out of the darkness. It shouldn’t have worried him. It wasn’t a Clan dragon, it shouldn’t be powerful. Yet it was old and strange and connected to Aquila in a way Yullik didn’t fully understand. And it could hide from him. He didn’t like that, didn’t like that at all.
Yet compared to the power standing somewhere east of him, it was nothing. Because he knew that power, that ancient force. He hated it.
Pressing his hand against the glass, Yullik stared eastwards into the darkness and let the fire wash over him. “For you, Father.”
Glass screeched as his claws raked down the pane and he doubled over, mouth contorted in a silent scream. Panting, he stared at the stone floor through a wash of gold, clenching his fists until blood dripped from his palms.
“Guard!” he shouted, knowing his kaz-naghkt were waiting outside the door. “Fetch the Monster. I have a task for him.”
There was no reply, but Yullik didn’t need one. His kaz-naghkt were obedient. They would bring Willym to him.
Yullik fell to his knees and let the fire and pain wash over him. He was strong, he was determined, he was in control. When his skin began to ripple and his bones to grow, he forced them back into the shape he had been born to. He was in control. He was in control.
The pain almost overwhelmed him. Throwing back his head, the fire poured out of him.
A wooden chair burst into flame. Yullik watched it burn through a haze of gold as slowly, surely, his breathing and heartbeat slowed, and he was finally in control again.
Looking down, he studied the bronze claws that curled where his nails had once been. He flexed his fingers. They retracted. He flexed again: they returned. Smiling, Yullik pulled his claws back in and stood up.
“Interesting,” he murmured, just as his kaz-naghkt returned and knocked on the door. “Come in, Lord Willym. I have a mission for you.”
* * *
DAWN ARRIVED TOO soon for Lyrai’s liking. Even though this moment had been a long time in coming, now that he was on the brink of returning not just to the mountain but to the citadel, it felt too soon. Surely it must be, since their numbers were so few. Still, Lyrai had his orders and, like a good lieutenant, he would follow his captain’s lead.
Myran began waking everyone in the dark. Breakfast had been prepared, but few – not even the hardened campaigners – had much appetite. Then it was into the eyries to gather the miryhls and mount up, ready for when the sun returned. Stirla arrived first, bringing news that Captain Huro and his men were already in the process of relieving the other lieutenants of their posts. Then came Honra, swiftly followed by Fleik, who grumbled about death missions and not wanting to miss anything.
By now the sun was two hand’s widths above the horizon and there was nothing left to wait for. On Captain Myran’s nod, the Riders lifted into the air to make the last, short flight up and over the ridge. A steep-sided cleave, heavily forested even at the sharpest point, sliced down the mountain until it flattened into a wide, cleared space.
Beyond that rose the wall. Gates that had for years stood open and unheeded, allowing the grazers to take their livestock in and out all day, in all seasons, were now firmly barred. Narrow windows that had once provided shelter and protection for Lyrai and his defenders, now glared like unfriendly eyes, concealing any clues as to whether the keep was defended or not.
Having left their miryhls grounded and hidden in a clearing on the far side of the ridge, Captain Myran led his lieutenants over the top to a lookout point from where they could all stare down into the deep shadow that filled the cleave. The Heights waited below, silent and watchful. Lyrai wasn’t the only one to shiver at the sight. Once it had been their last defence. Now it was their first challenge.
Captain Myran stroked his jaw and eyed his lieutenants. Fleik and Honra stood on one side of him, Stirla and Lyrai on the other. He looked at Lyrai the longest, clearly debating how strong his youngest lieutenant would be and whether this might be a task too difficult for him. Pride stung, Lyrai pulled his shoulders back and stood a little taller. The captain’s lips quirked in silent acknowledgement and he nodded.
“Honra, you’re with Lyrai. I want you to take your flurries down and scout around. Let’s see if the general was right about our enemy’s complacency.” Stirla and Fleik shifted as if about to protest. The captain didn’t even spare them a glance. “The rest of us will prepare to attack, seeing as the elder is so certain our enemy already knows we’re here.”
“Beyond doubt,” Elder Goryal said, emerging from the shadow of a nearby yew and making Fleik jump. “But what measure of welcome he will extend to us, remains to be seen.”
“He likes games,” Stirla growled, and Lyrai grimaced in acknowledgement. He’d only encountered the mysterious Yullik once, but it had been memorable.
“Of course he does.” Goryal’s smile was wry. “He is a dragon.”
“Half,” Lyrai pointed out. “He’s only half a dragon. The rest of him is human.”
“Which makes him doubly dangerous,” Captain Myran said grimly. “To wing, lieutenants. Let’s see what surprises our enemy has waiting for us today.”
~ Next Chapter ~