Wednesday, September 14, 2016
By itself a rock, a tiny, little rock, probably no bigger than Gabe’s fist, when he’s in his human form, is a stupid little thing.
Load a hundred pounds of them into a trebuchet, fire it at what’s left of the Furies, and those tiny, little rocks become wing shredders. And at least that many are arcing toward Daegan, Gabe’s wing mate, right now.
Most of a dragon’s body is impervious to tiny, little rocks. Even a lot of them. A hit to the flank, or the tail, or neck will only sting. But Dae’s wings, just like the wing of any dragon, is delicate. Smooth, soft skin, Dae’s are high sheen black satin, translucent when the light is right, strong enough to tame the wind and handle the storm, but not strong enough to take a blast of small rocks fired at high speed.
Gabe watches Dae heed his warning, pull his wings tight to his flanks, sending him hurtling down, under the cloud of stones passing through where he’d been, a few of them bouncing harmlessly off his flanks.
Momentum pulls Dae forward, gravity yanks him down. Down too far, too fast. He’s in a full dive right now, and the castle walls are getting too close.
Gabe’s shoulders cry out in sympathy at the near dislocating jerk as Dae opens his wings wide to pull himself out of his dive, barely twenty feet from the walls of Blennistraude. Like Gabe, he’s already got a collection of tiny holes in his wings, and Gabe glides, not even breathing, waiting to see if they rip as Dae lands.
Dae’s wings flex with the force of the air beneath them, but they hold, and his feet hit the ground with a thud Gabe can feel in his guts, but not hear. He’s much too high up to hear any of it.
Gabe exhales. Dae’s past the flack. He’s run the gauntlet and come out in one piece.
Gabe isn’t. He’s still got to get through it. Though, with Dae on the ground, it’s about to get easier.
Dae, like every other dragon, has fire that’ll crack stone, sear a man to ash, and turn metal into slag. But it’s only good for that at about twenty feet. Those tiny, little, fucking rocks, they’ll punch holes in a wing at a range of close to three hundred feet.
And archers… Gabe considers archers a deadly curse these days. The strongest archer on earth can’t pierce dragon hide with an arrow, not even at point blank range. But his wings…
And of course, Blennis found every man, woman, child, or jackass that could hold a bow, and stuffed them into his castle, put them on the walls, between the parapets, at the windows, and then cut every tree he didn’t need for his defenses into arrows. There are a ton of archers down there, next to the godsdamned trebuchets, trying to put holes in him.
Can’t put as many arrows in the air as tiny fucking rocks, but archers aim and they’ve got an even longer range.
If Blennis had never fought dragons before, he would have given up there. He would have built his gauntlet and left it at that.
But Blennis is one of only three lords left who haven’t bent the knee to Corwin M’Gy, Gabe’s father. He’s been watching this war for years, and as keep after keep has fallen, the uncaptured knights, squires, farmers, and peasants have fled for the free cities. And with their weary bodies, and whatever they could carry on their backs, those knights brought stories of how to fight dragons.
So, Blennis knows how to defend against dragons.
Trees. Hundreds of trees, carefully planted all around the walls of Blennistraude. From underneath, from a human perspective, they look pretty. The iron spikes between the trees are not pretty. But it doesn’t matter if they’re pretty. Put enough trees and spikes into the ground, and a dragon can’t land, not safely.
Punch enough holes in his wings, and he’s can’t stay in the air.
Gabe can feel the silent screams behind him. At least two of his Furies fell from the skies, wings shredded, and landed in the trees and spikes. A ton of dragon flesh slamming into fifty-year-old oak and hardened iron spikes: that’s the end for a dragon with too many holes in his wings. The trees break, crack, and those cracked trees drive straight through dragon hide.
The iron spikes just finish the job.
No, an arrow won’t pierce dragon hide. An oak will. A ten foot long, six-inch square, fire-hardened iron spike certainly will.
That’s what’s in front of Gabe. Close to half a mile of wing shredding fire from above, and certain death below.
Gabe circles. He’s got to get lower before he can go in for his own final descent. Time to get past the gauntlet.
Dae’s on the wall now, and Gabe feels him smile. Time to even the score. Once a dragon closes, the battle’s over for the human trying to fight it. There’s no human alive who’s got a defense against a dragon when the dragon can bring his fire into the fight.
Dae’s closed. The humans are fucked. Right now they just get a second to choose how to die. Leap off the wall or taste fire. He exhales, fire crackling over the battlement, stones shattering in the heat, men screaming for the two seconds it takes for the air to burn in their lungs.
He glances up at Gabe after the first wash of fire is laid down. They’re wing mates. It’s Gabe’s job to watch Dae’s back, and vice versa.
Gabe shifts his attention, seeing the threat, and rolls mid-air, taking a moment’s glide on his back, claws extending upwards, neatly ripping the knight coming at him right off of his contraption of wood and leather wings. He’s never seen one of them try that before. But the high tower is high enough to glide from. Build some wings, jump off, pray for wind, and maybe, possibly, Eathal, the King of Winds, Lord of Storms, would be kind and keep you up.
For this knight, shrieking in Gabe’s claws, Eathal was kind. He agreed to hold him up, let him circle and crest. For a moment. But the King of Winds is fickle. He only loves for a moment at a time.
Gabe pulls his left wing in, spins, opening both wings, finding equilibrium again, with the ground under his hands and feet again, and opens his hands, sending the knight plummeting to the ground.
Staying in the air is hard enough with wings attached to your back. It takes years of effort, practice, and skill. The poor bastard who just landed with a crashing thud through the tree branches didn’t have any of that.
Gabe’s got to move, fast. The trebuchet is almost reloaded. Dae’s closing in on it. But not fast enough to get it before it shoots again. More of those fucking little rocks will be in the air in a second, trying to turn his wings to rags.
Little holes. A few of them, small enough, and a dragon can stay in the air. Fly wrong, catch the wind too suddenly, and those little holes can grow big. Too many, too big… If that happens, Eathal will drop him just as easily as the knight.
And he’ll be just as dead as the knight if he hits the ground from a thousand feet up.
Gabe pushes through the air twice, good hard flaps, getting closer to the walls. He pulls his wings in tight. The trebuchet fires, those fucking rocks strip his sides, sting his face, but his wings are safe, and he’s plummeting, fast, toward the walls.
This time, his shoulders are screaming for real, not sympathy, as he extends his wings and grabs the wind, feeling one, two of those little holes split along the whole length of his right wing. He screams in his head at the pain, and wishes he had voice to do it out loud. He spins in the air for ten feet, burning off some speed, but not enough. Ten feet up, he shifts back to his human form, tucking arms, legs, and neck in, rolling with the collision, and before he’s back up on his hands and knees, he’s in his dragon form again.
It takes him a breath to get his bearings. Stone beneath his hands and feet, wing throbbing with each heartbeat, knights in front and behind him, running away as fast as they can.
But once he’s got his bearings, he smiles, at least, as well as a creature without lips can smile.
It is not by accident that the 78 dragons left in Gabriel M’Gy’s command are called the Furies.
And having gotten through the gauntlet, the Furies are about to let everyone in Blennistraude know exactly how they got their reputation. Starting with the men who shoot those tiny fucking rocks at them.
Gabe inhales, taking a deep breath, feeling the spark in his throat, ready to blast the men between him and the line of trebuchets.
“PARLEY!” He hears the scream, sees the white flags being thrown up all over the castle.
He turns his head away from the knights in front of him and exhales a blast of fire that blackens the wall next to him, cracking the stone, but nothing else.
As a dragon, he has no voice. None of them do. But his thoughts carry. He sends the command to what’s left of his forces.
He sees his men circling. Pausing in place, following the terms of the white flag.
Anyone who’s fought the Furies knows who the commander is. Gabe’s not easy to miss. As a dragon he’s thirty feet long, the greens of grassland in sunshine, and usually, somewhere at the front of the lines. (If dragons can be said to have lines.)
The knight moving toward him is old, trembling, unarmed, and holding a white flag.
Gabe eyes the flag. It’s a proper gonfalon. Kept proud and stiff on a mast of wood. No way to misinterpret it. No possibility of overlooking it. Lady Blennis must have spent at least a few days working on it.
She would have. The faster it becomes clear an offer of surrender has been made, the more men who survive, and with her husband (maybe), son, and grandson all fighting, she’d want her men home again.
A few steps closer, and Gabe knows who’s standing before him, Lord Blennis himself. Or more accurately, Sir Orlin Blennis. When they took the outlying line of forts to get to the castle, there were rumors that Orlin had fallen and his son, Anyn, had taken over.
Obviously, some other bald, old archer had burnt. Not like every castle they took didn’t have a few dozen of the old coots lurking around, ready to sprint out as soon as a parley was called. There are probably more than a few dozen of them running away from Blennistraude as fast as they could, right now.
They all wear bracers these days. Even the men on the trebuchets are wearing bracers. That’s the mark of the rebellion. If refusing to be ruled by someone who has no legitimate claim to rule you can be called a rebellion.
So, bracers. Might as well have some sort of uniform. The light fades into soft, well-worn black leather, and glints off of silver buckles. When an Emperor sends in dragons, you show your resistance by wearing a symbol of what kills them. Blennis and all the rest of them would probably be wearing little fucking rocks on chains around their necks if that wasn’t already the symbol of the Blockheads.
Given the chance, Gabe and his men would be wearing those damn bracers, too. And that thought starts to cool his battle rage. He begins slipping out of his fight and into his role as commander.
Orlin stands before him, head bowed, shoulders slumped, and waits. Fifteen years ago, Blennis was a friend. Ten years ago, he was an ally. Five years ago he became wary when the newly titled Emperor Corwin M’Gy’s war refused to end. When M’Gy found traitor after traitor; and stronghold and keep, knights and lords alike, were slowly eaten alive by his forces in a war for empire; Blennis broke with M’Gy and dropped his support.
M’Gy labeled him a traitor.
And five years later, he stands before Gabe, eyes downcast, flag clenched in a trembling fist, defeated. His voice shakes as he says, “We seek terms.”
Gabe nods. He lifts his hand and gestures for Blennis to come closer. He does, looking unhappy. But he knows what’s going to happen. In the years Gabe’s commanded the Furies, he’s taken all but one parley the same way.
When Blennis is right in front of him, Gabe lays his hand, lightly, in his dragon shape, his hand is the size of the Blennis’ chest, across his back, and casts his magic.
A moment later, they’ve teleported back to the space in front of Gabe’s command tent.
And there, and only there, does he drop the shape, and the protection that comes from his dragon form.
Standing before his foe as a man, a naked man at that, Gabriel M’Gy says, “Lord Blennis. Lorcan will take custody of you and draw up terms. Once they are set, I will take your surrender.”
Blennis looks him up and down, likely remembering the boy Gabe was the last time they met. Or maybe he’s just surprised to see that a dragon’s clothing doesn’t come with him when he shifts between his forms. It could be the cuts striping Gabe’s right side, and the spring-grass-green blood oozing from them. Whichever it is, after a moment of it, he looks to Gabe’s eyes, and says, “What is there to draw up? Your terms have been the same every time.”
“My father’s terms. Were I not bound, I would not deal with you such.”
“Were you not bound, this war would have ended a decade ago.”
Gabe nods. Possibly long before that.
Lorcan M’Gy, Lord of Gynn, ruler of the South, Gabe’s best advisor, the father he wishes he had, steps out of the command tent. He and Orlin have known each other a long time, and Gabe can see the understanding between them as Lorcan says, “Come, Orlin, let’s get this settled.”
There’s a routine that goes with a surrender.
First, always first, there’s the butcher’s bill.
A dragon cannot scream. Not with voice. Eowrn, Gabe’s great-grandmother’s husband, and their best healer, thinks that the space where they should have a voice box is where their fire lives. Or maybe the one burned the other out. Either way, they cannot make noise, not by voice. Not as dragons. Once they’re humans again, they can speak just fine. It is, as Eowrn puts it, ‘One of the great mysteries of our kind.’
But they can scream silently. Most of them can project thoughts well enough to be understood without speaking. Most of them can understand those projections well enough to converse voicelessly with his fellow dragon.
And all of them are sensitive enough to feel the screams of the wounded and dying.
And the camp of the Furies, after a battle, throbs with the unvoiced screams of dragons.
Gabe wishes he didn’t know the way so well. He wishes he didn’t know any of this so well.
But he does. Through the tents of his men. The tents of real fighters. Right now, most of them are empty. The only ones that have people inside, or laying around outside, convalescing in the sun, are the ones filled with the wounded from the last three days of taking the outskirts of Blennistraude.
The few of his men who are there to see him, nod, and several offer smiles. If Gabe is back, it means the fight’s done, at least for now.
Through the tents of the “reserve” forces. Gabe’s teeth grit at this. Emperor Corwin’s precious little knights, all shiny in their pretty armor and sharp pointy swords. His father refuses to allow him to use them for anything other than holding towns and keeps, after his dragons have won them. They’re also pleased to see him. Life in camp when you can’t fight is boring, and him being back means some of them will soon be on occupation detail, and the rest will soon be moving to wherever the next battle is.
Past the chapel tent the Blockheads pray in. Once upon a time, there would have been many chapel tents, for each of the gods. Once upon a time, his men could have found comfort in the words, images, songs and rituals of the faiths they’d been brought up with.
Once upon a time was seven years ago, now only Corwin M’Gy’s God is allowed to comfort their men.
Gabe’s men stuck with the old gods. Most of them, for obvious reasons, setting their faith in Eathal, King of Winds, or Curith, The Eternal Flame, and didn’t find Corwin’s unnamed, un-voiced, unpowered specter hiding on the top of a mountain particularly comforting.
Many of those pretty, shiny knights do. Blockheads. Just as dense and stupid as the rock they worship. Gabe thinks with scorn as he walks past that tent. He can hear several of the knights in there, murmuring their prayers to a rock that doesn’t answer. He can’t understand why they do. Not like their rock has ever done much for them. And yet… they have a tendency to wander in and out of the Blockhead’s tent at all hours, with their little rocks around their necks, softly clinking against their armor when they walk.
Gabe has intentionally never set foot in there, and short of a direct order from his father to do so, never will.
Past the commissary. Past the armorer. Someone has to keep the knights shiny and pretty. His men don’t wear armor. At least not made of metal. Like Dae, some of the northern dragons have sun visors to protect their eyes from the glare. As for the rest of them… their skins protect their vital organs, and the armors can’t figure out how to protect their wings and do it light and flexible enough to keep them in the air.
Gabe has little use for them. The knights spend a lot of time there, making sure their armor is clean and pretty. Clean and pretty knights, with beautifully jeweled and lacquered armor, in their velvet cloaks, and satin decorated saddles makes Emperor Corwin happy. He likes to line them up on their horses and have them trot around, sparkly in the bright sunshine.
Gabe snorts at that as he walks past the corrals. The knights are ‘practicing.’ They’re trotting around and poking targets with lances, and… And it’s all bullshit. They’ll go to tourneys and parades, but fight a real battle? Risk getting hurt? Gods, no!
That’s what Corwin has Gabe and his Furies for.
A thousand more feet, and Gabe can see the healers’ tents.
They keep the healers’ tent as close to the line as possible. The barely one hundred knights that Gabe trusts guard it, and do the job, along with the calmest and strongest of the horses, of going out and gathering up their wounded and dead.
The healers tent is, as Eowrn put it, “An oasis of calm in the midst of Horror.”
That’s how he runs the place. Among screams, mental and physical, through pain projected by thought and magic, amidst blood, limbs, shit, and sick, Eowrn and his other healers move, calm, quiet, gentle, and soothing.
Sometimes Gabe wonders why Eowrn lets himself look so old, other times, like right now, as a grown man cries in agony at what’s happened to him, he knows why Eowrn has chosen the look he sports. Wispy gray hair, skin creased with wrinkles and more wrinkles yet, spotted with time, soft, gentle hands that shake just a little. Eowrn must look like the beloved grandfather that the men remember from their childhoods. And if that look can offer some comfort…
“How many?” Gabe asks Eowrn as he works on Tedwyn M’Cul, carefully putting his innards back into his body.
Eowrn, without straightening up, or stopping the magic that’s slowly knitting together organs ripped and crushed by a two-hundred foot fall into iron spikes, and then pulling them back where they belong, and with any luck relieving the pain that goes with it, sends Gabe a weary look.
He speaks with his voice, because long ago Eowrn found it was much easier to get into the small places that may need healing in his human form than in his dragon one. “Like the last hundred times we’ve done this, Gabe, I can’t tell you that until the fight’s really done.”
Hundred times? Thousand times? Too many times. Every fight save the first one ended this way, with Gabe asking the butcher’s bill, and Eowrn not yet having the tally.
“Then tell me what you know, now.” It’s almost a ritual for them. He’ll ask. Eowrn won’t know, not really, not yet. But he’ll know the dead. He always knows the dead. Some say Eowrn can see them, that as the years went by and he buried old friends and new, he learned the trick of seeing them.
Gabe’s never asked if that was true.
Eowrn shakes his head, looking much older than he should. Nine-seven years old. Old even for a dragon, but the years have fallen heavy on Eowrn of late. Of course, they all look old these days. Thirty-one years of war, the last six of them without a break, will do that. “Gypten, M’Rafe, Callumn, and Fryn have fallen.”
“Fuck!” Gabe says it slow and intense, voice adding fire to the syllable as he rubs his eyes. “Wounded?”
“Twenty-three are here. Once you’ve got terms, we’ll be able to get the rest off the field and castle.” Eowrn looks Gabe over. Like any dragon that’s recently shifted from his winged body to his human one, he’s naked as the day he was born. “Go get dressed. Lorcan will be back with Blennis soon, and you must be ready to receive him.”
Gabe shakes his head; he’s so tired of this.
He heads back to the tent he shares with Dae.
Home sweet home. Gabe thinks, missing his real home, down south with Dae, Lorcan, and Eorwn where the sea and land are constantly stirred by cold winds.
He ducks through the door of his tent. It’s a round, seven-poster, in his colors of green and black. It’s too big for wing mates, the pairs of dragons who fly together, fight together, and watch each other’s blind spots in a fight, and too small for a proper command tent.
They have just enough room for their bed and the table his maps are stretched out over. It’s obnoxious to not be able to offer his visitors a place to sit, but it’s what he has. All equipment is the responsibility of the Lord, in his case, Corwin, and to use his own money to outfit himself with the space he needs would be an insult, an unmistakable comment as to the Emperor’s inability to suitably outfit his forces.
That didn’t stop Gabe from opening his purse to provide better… everything, really, for his forces. Of course, his forces do not entertain, they do not meet with emissaries from castles about to be taken, nor do they parley for terms. They are, in the eyes of the men who “matter,” invisible.
Meanwhile, he and Dae have gotten a reputation for “sparse” living.
But, “sparse” or not, he is still his father’s representative in this, and as such, he must look the part.
If it was entirely up to him, he’d have skipped dressing, taken care of his men, dealt with Blennis in his skin, then reported back to his father and been done with this farce for another night.
But it’s not up to him.
So, he will dress, properly, and he will take Blennis’ surrender. Please Lord Eathal, King of Winds, let this be DONE! he prays to the god he barely believes in. He’s had more than a few Lords get their hands on the terms, and decide that they were better off fighting, giving their children and grandchildren a chance to run. If he is lucky, Blennis will decide he loves his life more than his freedom, then Blennis will decide to bend the knee to Corwin or the Blockheads, either Gabe will cast the spell that binds Blennis and his men to the service of Corwin M’Gy, or the High Presbyter will do his thing to bind Blennis to their faith, then Gabe’ll face Corwin, report, and then, finally, he’ll be able to collapse into an exhausted heap, eat something, and maybe, if this goes better than he expects, share a bottle of wine and a woman with Dae.
And if things go really well, he might get a day or two to rest, and for his men to heal, before the next fight.
Because there’s always another fight.
Though, as he thinks about it… Maybe not too many more them. If Blennis doesn’t renege, that means there will only be two Lords left, who are still in command of their own strongholds, who haven’t bent the knee to Corwin. So, theoretically, at some point, they might, possibly, be done.
Gabe scoffs at that idea. The Emperor, will always have another land to try and get him killed conquering.
He crosses the tent, opening his trunk, and pulls out his good hose. Fine lambskin, made specifically for him. He pulls them up, sighing. They’re vastly too hot for this sort of weather. High summer in this part of the world means hot, sticky air that only stirs when Eathal turns mean, raging with thunder, lightning, and tornados.
Gabe closes his eyes and tugs the hose up his legs. They’re fashionable. And they’re fighting him, unwilling to creep up his legs, because his skin is damp and sweaty.
If it was up to him, he’d rarely dress for anything besides warmth, and then only in deepest winter. Dragons from the south aren’t bothered by cold, and though Gabe isn’t originally from the south, it’s where he’s spent most of his twenty-eight years, and after most of his life spent in a land of perpetual cool, he grows hot much too easily, and cocooned in layers of silks and velvets exacerbates the problem.
After a bit more tugging, he manages to get the hose all the way up. He pulls out a linen tunic, and rolls his eyes. He has to dress to accept terms. It’s not enough to beat the poor bastards into submission, he’s got to look like he’s just stepped out of fancy court ball when he does it.
Though, if it was up to him, he wouldn’t be getting ready to accept terms from anyone, because if it had been up to him, he, and his Furies, would have stayed in Gynn, and let his father go off on his mad quest to conquer everyone around him on his own. If it had been up to him, he would have renounced his name, and happily been one of Lorcan’s men.
But Sir Gabriel M’Gy, Commander of the Dragon Knights, Lord of the Furies, Heir to Emperor Corwin M’Gy, presumptive ruler of this land upon his death, must always dress properly. And he must fight. And when his father commands, he must obey.
Gabe sits on his trunk and pulls on his boots. Green lambskin hose, white linen shirt, black silk velvet tunic, soft dun boots, black leather belt. It’d do.
If he had a mirror, he might check to see he’s properly put together, but a mirror isn’t anything he’s willing to waste space on.
Not that it matters all that much. He’s worn this face and shape for so long it takes almost no energy or thought to hold.
Most of the time, as a man, Gabriel M’Gy is the picture of what a Knight, heir to his Lord, should look like: a long ginger topknot he keeps braided into a tidy queue, moss green eyes ringed by long ginger lashes, fair skin unmarred by scars or hidden by beard, a long, lean frame that moves with grace and ease. He’s got the body of a fencer, someone who can take a man apart with a sword.
He stares at the rapier he’s supposed to wear for meetings like this. It’s long and thin and has sparkly green-yellow opals on the hilts and decorating the sheath. It’s worth a small fortune. He’s useless with the bloody thing because no dragon in his right mind spends a minute training with a blade. He’d sell it in a heartbeat, use the money to get his men better equipment, but it’s a gift from his father, given when he took command of the Furies, so when he’s doing things like this, acting in his father’s stead, he needs to be wearing it. He straps it on, and takes a step, cursing as it gets tangled in his legs. The damn thing is never in the right place, always flapping against his leg, or knocking things over in his tent. He fidgets with his belt, and gets the scabbard into something approximating the right place.
At least when he’s standing still, he’s the image of what a young man of Gynn should look like. But, of course, he would look like that.
All of his kind look, more or less, depending on personal taste and local beauty standards, like that.
Dragons learn young that magic brings power, and power brings enemies, and it’s much easier to enjoy a long and happy life when your enemies are few and far between. So, almost before they can walk, definitely by the time they meet their first tutors, all of his kind learn to control their magic into a glamour.
After all, most men cannot despise that which they find beautiful. Thus, the first defense any dragon ever musters is his glamour.
He’s worn it so long that it takes little thought and almost no energy.
But almost no energy isn’t no energy, and tired from the fight, from the spells he’s cast, thinking of the spells he still has yet to cast, Gabe lets his glamour drop.
He roots around in Dae’s trunk, knowing there has to be some food in there. Dae’s always got some sort of snack. There is a bag of nuts and dried meat tucked into Dae’s trunk. There are a few stray apples on his table, among the maps and next to the wine. Put that together with a bit of a rest, and he’ll be ready to deal with Blennis.
His hair was burnished red-gold when the fighting started, and it was long. His queue hung to mid-back. For twenty-one summers he had lovely hair. It had had a little wave to it, and strands of it would work free from his queue and curl slightly around his shoulders, neck, and forehead when he was training hard.
The girls had liked that. Dae did, too. He’d poke Gabe with his elbow when the practice fights were done and tell him to stop breaking the girls’ hearts, while winking at the serving ladies, and when they were out of sight, he’d wrap that queue around his hand and pull Gabe close for a kiss by it. Later, those nights, they’d find one of the girls and play with her, and each other, together.
Now, at almost twenty-eight summers, his hair is almost gone. His long tresses almost got him killed when his father sent him in to a fight as a man, and he’s kept it cropped at less than an inch long ever since. Red-gold faded to almost entirely gray before the third year of fighting ended.
His skin is fair, and always was. Though, in his true form fair means white jade with leaf green undertones. On his wrists and ankles, his veins show through, moss green, like his eyes. He bleeds green, even when he wears his glamour.
Before the fighting started, his skin was smooth, unmarred by scars or marks. Before the war, the few cuts, nicks, scrapes, and dings he gathered in learning how to fight had melted before the tending of the healers.
Then the war came, or more precisely, came for Gabe. It’s been going on, on and off, longer than he’s been alive, so eventually, he was swept up in it. And once it came, Gabe no longer ran to the healers as soon as he was hurt, and none of the injuries he’d dare waste a moment of a healer’s time with came close to a nick or cut.
He, like all of his kind, fights mostly in the air, so his man-shaped body is riddled with scars on his back, sides, and the insides of his arms, where his wings would be on his dragon body. And it’s true that an arrow won’t pierce dragon hide, but a lance wielded by a knight on a destrier in full plate will. He’s got a thin, green lightning bolt scar across his face, and a missing piece of his left ear, to remind him that when fighting cavalry on the ground, a wing mate is just as important as he is in the air.
Worry lines crease his forehead, line his eyes, and ring his mouth.
Should he ever stand next to his father in his real skin, it would be difficult to tell which of the two is older.
Twenty-eight summers, not all that old yet, but as Lorcan says, ‘After the first real battle, all soldiers are old or dead.’
And Gabe is old.
He eyes his bed. The terms Lorcan and Blennis are working out cover retrieving each side’s men. They cover who Blennis will bend to. That usually takes an hour. He could grab a moment of rest.
On his right side, a long line of fire darts from hip to armpit. If he were to shift back, that’s where his wing would be ripped. In his man form, it’s a long, thin line of pain down his side.
It will hold. Nothing bad enough to see the healers about. Eat. Rest. Check the maps. Get the butcher’s bill. Take the terms. And report back to The Emperor.
Sir Orlin Blennis is an honorable man. A million years ago, before his father started on this folly, Gabe had known him. Not well, they were not close friends, but they had met on several occasions. That’s true for most of the men they fight. Only so many heads of great clans, so they all know, or at least recognize, each other.
Blennis is weary, exhausted by the fight, and on his feet by pride, alone.
Up close, Gabe is coming to the conclusion that the report he had gotten that Blennis was dead was only wrong in the severity of what had happened. Easy enough to do. Swoop low, lay down a line of fire, swoop high again, that can make it difficult to tell who’s dead or who’s wounded. Toss a few good healers into the mix, and right now, Blennis has more than a few good healers, and a report of a death is awfully hard to confirm.
This close, in his tent, Gabe can still smell the smoke that went with that report on Blennis’ tunic. He may not have died in the outer defenses, but he definitely fought in it. Unlike Gabe’s knights, who have time to do things like visit the laundresses and have their armor buffed to a high shine and their clothing cleaned, Bennis and his forces have been fighting.
And he smells like it. Smoke, charred meat, blood, sweat, stale fear, stale piss… Lorcan always offers food, wine, and a bowl of water to wash face and hands in, and Blennis has apparently taken advantage of all three, but the fight is in his clothing. It wafts off of Blennis. He’s fought as long and hard as he could, without sacrificing every man in his castle, or for that matter, the castle itself. Gabe’s men have leveled bigger piles of rock than Blennistraude in the past, and hopefully they won’t have to do it again in the future.
“No desire to parley terms with my son?” Blennis says while seating himself.
Gabe hands over a goblet of spiced wine. “No desire to parley, no desire for any of this, but I am Oathbound to my Lord.”
Blennis knows that, and knows what it means. He drinks and nods his head in appreciation for the drink. “Your Da’s a right son of a bitch to run you through this.”
“That’s an unkindness to my grandmother, who was a fine woman. He’s an asshole.”
Blennis smiles at that, approving of Gabe’s words. Then his face falls as he thinks of what’s in front of him. “Your terms are harsh.”
“My terms are non-existent. His terms are harsh. But they are his, and I am bound to make you, or your son, or grandson, or great grandson, or his regent, until there are no men left in your holdings, bow to them.”
Blennis nods, very tired, and drinks again. “I still have custody of eight of your force.”
“I know.” Eight knights he desperately wants and needs back. But his father’s terms have not allowed him to recover his men as part of the bargain. Unless Blennis refuses these terms, returns to the fight, and Gabe takes his stronghold, and then dungeon, he will not see his men until after the war. “And if it were up to me, I’d agree to softer terms to get them back, but I cannot. I am bound.”
“I know. If I won’t bow?”
“Then as soon as you return to your castle, your safe conduct ends, we will attack again. The reserve force,” that term tastes bitter to Gabe. ‘Reserve force,’ more like the army that should be fighting these battles. The army that’s actually good at fighting against castles. The army that’s actually properly equipped for it. “and the siege engines will be hard on my heels. You will be attacked from air and ground, pummeled by trebuchet, burned by my forces, and beaten until you submit. Take the terms, and ensure your son and grandson survive. The Emperor is not immortal. And if it’s ever within my power, things will get better.”
Blennis fiddles with his wine, thinking. “That’s the question now, isn’t it? Will it ever be within your power? If your Da intends you to rule, he’s being a right fool about how he uses you and your forces. If he intends your brother, Alwyn, to rule, his battle plans make a lot of sense.”
Gabe grits his teeth. “I know.” And he does. Some days he wonders if the entire point of this war is to get him killed and take him out of the line of succession. Other days he knows that’s only half the point of it, the other half is to make sure his younger brother has a splendid, huge land to rule when he comes of age. “Will you bow?”
Blennis takes a long drink, and sighs deeply. “Tell me about Alwyn.”
Gabe shrugs. “He’s young. I haven’t seen him in three years, and the last time we met he hid behind our father the whole time. He looked like he expected me to eat him. But what can you know of a man from five minutes together in the same room when he’s barely out of childhood? I don’t imagine he’d be worse than the Emperor.”
“That’s not a high hurdle to leap.”
Gabe tilts his head in agreement.
“They say the Blockheads rule him.”
Gabe shrugs again. “They certainly may. His uncle is highly placed among them. Or his mother might. I don’t know much about her, either. Corwin keeps me away from them, doing his best to make sure there’s no chance of any of his family developing any sympathies for me.”
Blennis nods at that. He takes a gulp of his wine. He puts the wine down, and slowly lowers himself to his knees before Gabe.
Blennis looks up at him. “What now? I’ve… heard how it works, but…”
“If it’s any comfort, it doesn’t hurt. At least, not physically.”
Blennis shakes his head, derision leaching off of him. “Being his pony will hurt my head and heart.”
There’s a lot of sorrow for bad choices in those two words, and Orlin looks up with kindness in his eyes. “You do, don’t you, lad?”
“If you can bear it, I can, too. Get it done, and with any luck, sooner than we both expect, you’ll meet me as my Lord.”
“May all the gods, even the Silent Voice of the Blockheads, hear your words.”
“Amen. Do it fast.”
Gabe supposes this is one of the great ironies of his life. He can cast this spell. He can take a man on his knees, in this case, Orlin Blennis, and bind him body and soul to the whims of Corwin M’Gy.
But Corwin can’t cast this spell himself.
Only a dragon can cast this, or any other, spell, and Corwin isn’t one.
He places his hands on Blennis’ shoulders, and takes a breath, feeling for the magic. It’s there, always. Sometimes it’s further away, a bit more difficult to find, sometimes weaker, needing extra coaxing to come to him, but it’s always around somewhere. He pulls it to him, taking whispers of it from the wind, a hair more from the river half a mile off. Blennistraude is built on a good stone foundation, nice, solid energy there, and all around him campfires burn, offering him fire magic to pull from.
He collects that power in his hands, blends it with his own magic. Normally, he prefers to keep his own energy out of the spells he casts, magic is tiring enough without using his own resources, but this magic requires both the magic of the caster, and some of the life energy of whomever it binds.
His thumbs stretch out, making skin on skin contact with Blennis’ throat. There, in his skin and the thrum of his heart, lies the magic that makes a man alive.
Gabe blends all of them together, and readies the words. “I speak, you answer.”
“Will you bind your life, your property, and your sword, to the service of Corwin M’Gy and his legal heir?” The question should say ‘heirs,’ but Gabe’s already unhappy enough to be doing this, he’s not about to allow anyone he binds to be torn between him and Alwyn once his father dies.
“Will you follow any direct order given you by your new Lord?”
“Do you do this willingly, understanding the consequences should you disobey or fail an order?”
“I do.” If Gabe has ever heard any two words more bitterly spoken, it’s only because he’s had to do this at too many keeps over the last five years.
“And what is the consequence?”
“My death. The magic will end me as soon as I try. And should I disobey or fail an order, my kin and men will be branded Oathbreakers, exiled from society, and hunted by the law. My lands and property, and their lands and property, will be forfeit, offered as bounty to anyone who brings in a member of my family or any of my men.”
“You understand. Swear your oath.”
“I, Owin Blennis, pledge myself, my life, my lands, my men, and my family, to the service of Lord Corwin M’Gy, and his lawful heir. From now until my final breath or his, I am his man.”
The words said, Gabe feels the magic spread and swell between them, he sees the glow, and though he cannot see auras the way Dae does, Dae would tell him that Blennis now wears Corwin’s mark upon his colors.
A moment later he removes his hands, and Blennis stands up. “Now what? Do I go home?”
Gabe shakes his head. “I will escort you to the Emperor’s court. You will be given rooms commiserate with your standings, and your Lady, and your servants will join you there when they can. In…” Gabe thinks through it. They’re close to five hundred miles from Stjerne, Corwin’s capitol. Using his magic, he can make the trip in less than a minute. Corwin’s men use no magic, so he has to figure out how long it would take a man on horse to traverse the distance. “two or three weeks, one of Corwin’s men, and his house, will arrive at Blennistraude to rule in tangent with your son as a regent.”
Blennis snorts a laugh at that. “I’m to be held captive and my son will have a nanny on his back making sure he doesn’t try to wiggle out of the terms.”
Blennis reaches a shaking hand for the goblet of wine, gulping it down, fast, and then he slams his goblet down. He licks his lips and straightens his back. “Then lead me to my gilded prison, my Lord, and may the fates, the gods, and all the powers of heaven and earth fuck your father until he bleeds.”
“From your lips to the gods’ ears, Sir Blennis.” Gabe takes a sip of his own wine.
Lorcan has been lurking in the background through all of this, keeping quiet. Gabe knows why he’s here, and it’s not just to keep eyes on Blennis and make sure he doesn’t try something stupid. This time, when he speaks, it’s to Lorcan, “You’ve spoken with Eowrn?”
Lorcan nods. “I have it.”
Gabe takes a long drink of his own wine, wishing it was stronger. There are some things a man should not have to take completely sober, and the butcher’s bill is one of those things. “How bad?”
“Four dead, eight captured, forty-four wounded.”
An evil, foul taste fills Gabe’s mouth. “That’s more than half.”
Rage follows hard on the heels of that taste, filling Gabe with blind fury. For a second it holds him, completely erasing everything else. Then, after a few seconds, and likely a calming spell from Lorcan, it eases.
“I need to see my father.”
“Aye, son. Dae is with the wounded. You see him when you’re done.”
“I will.” I always do. He stares at Lorcan, both of them know that time with Dae is one of the few things keeping him going.
Lorcan nods, he’s known since both of them were children how much his son means to Gabe. Gabe nods back, forces the rage further back. It’s time to make sure that things are done properly.
This time, Gabe offers his hand as a man, and Blennis takes it. Another moment of gathering magic, a moment of concentration, and they find themselves five hundred miles to the south east, before the gates of Stjerne, Corwin M’Gy’s capitol city.