The sky held no sign of the rain that had raged across the land for two days. The sun was warm and bright, and the puddles had already started to dry. Doom guided his tawny horse, Dawn, around the muddiest parts of the road.
Since he had taken up his chosen lifestyle of wandering the kingdom, he did try to return to Del more than just for Dragon's Night. Yet time had passed with great speed, and he found that a year had passed before the annual celebration loomed before him. In that time, Lief had written to him often and at great length, and brief letters from Jasmine were not so unusual, nor were longer ones from Sharn and Barda. Still, as he drew closer to the city, he realized how much lighter his heart felt to be home.
He slowed Dawn to a trot as he approached the city gate. Although Deltora was in peacetime, Lief was no fool, and kept the entrances to the city guarded. He raised his hand in greeting, and halted before the two guards.
"Well met, Doom," said one of the guards, a woman he recognized as Elsbie. Her partner, barely out of boyhood and clearly new to the guard, gazed up at him with unconcealed admiration. "Let Ira take your horse."
At the sound of his name, the young guard broke off his stare and hurried over. Doom unseated himself and pulled his pack from the saddle. He gave Dawn a quick pat and handed her reins to Ira, who flushed and led her away to the stables.
"The young ones take some time to adjust," Elsbie said with some amusement as the boy left. The red brand on her face crinkled upwards as she smiled. "You have a welcome party, it would seem. She has been waiting since lunchtime."
Doom thanked her, and walked through the gate. A girl of twelve sat upon the ledge that bordered the road, swinging booted feet back and forth. Her loose dark hair blew in the breeze, and she pulled a rough shawl closer around her shoulders. She looked like any youth skirting lessons or an apprenticeship, but Doom knew it was not so.
"Anna," he called out, and when she turned her face broke into a delighted grin. She slid from the ledge and ran towards him, enveloping him in an embrace.
"I knew you would come!" She cried happily. "Mother warned me that you might miss the festival this year, because you did not arrive yesterday, but I knew you would not."
"I was delayed by the storm; surely she will forgive me," Doom said dryly, but he smiled as he pulled away. "I had to stop at an inn for the night, for fear of drowning my horse in the rain."
"I am glad you are here now. Mother will be so pleased, too," Anna stared up at him, wide eyes framed by her mass of curling, dark hair.
Doom looked upon his granddaughter's excited face. "You have grown very much in the past year."
"Have I?" She shrugged modestly, clearly pleased.
"Indeed. You are looking forward to tonight, I trust?" They began to walk quickly into the city. Anna had inherited her parent's swift feet.
"Oh, yes. Everyone is pleased that the rain has gone."
The streets of Del were filled with people. Children were relieved from lessons on Dragon Night, and hardly any of the shops were open. Many of the young ones were dressed as Lief, Barda and Jasmine, but Doom spotted a few ambitious dragons, as well as some dressed as others who had been present during that that long, long night. One boy even sported a jagged scar that he had painted across his face. He caught Doom's eye and his mouth fell open in awe. Anna saw what her grandfather was looking at and laughed.
"You must have so many stories," she exclaimed, as Doom gave the boy a brief nod. "I wish to hear of everywhere you have been since I saw you last."
"I will be staying in the city for a little while yet," he assured her, and Anna's face lit up in delight. "I fear my stories will not be as exciting as you might wish, but I promise you will hear them."
Two little red-haired girls approached, so similar in appearance that they had to be sisters. The older girl had pinned her hair up tightly against her head, and wore a sheet of yellow paper around her waist, painted with brightly coloured circles to represent the gems. She clutched tightly to a wooden sword. The younger girl's hair had been carefully disheveled and she held a large toy bird. Both had streaked charcoal on their faces and clothes to look as if they had been covered in dirt and ash.
"Princess Anna," the girl dressed as Lief called boldly, as her sister, dressed as Jasmine, hid shyly behind her. "Will you be at the party all night?"
"Of course," Anna knelt beside the girls with surprising grace. "You both look wonderful! Did you make the belt yourself?"
The girls flushed with pleasure. "Father helped," the little one said softly. "We asked him to dress as Barda tonight, and he said he would."
"How nice," Anna said. "I hope to see how you all look together."
The girls giggled nervously, and darted away.
Anna rose and dusted off her knees, and shot Doom a self-conscious smile.
"You did well," he assured her. "They will not soon forget that."
"I want to ensure their happiness," said Anna, suddenly solemn. Doom knew she did not just speak of the girls. "They love my father more than I can say. I do not want to disappoint them."
She surveyed the crowds before them. Her eyes looked much older than her body.
"That would not be possible," Doom said firmly. "You love them, and you want to keep them safe. That is all that Lief does. It is enough."
Anna ducked her head and smiled; a child once more.
"Come," Doom felt a twinge in his shoulder, and he slung his bag to his other side, as they continued to weave through the excited crowds. Faces turned as they passed, and some of the people called out their names. "We do not wish to be accused of idleness, do we?"
"Certainly not. Mother claims that she does not like when children dress as her, but I do not believe her," Anna informed him, as another little Jasmine ran by. "She says this, but she is always so kind to them."
"That is her way," Doom shrugged. He recalled how Jasmine's mouth had fallen agape the first time she had seen a little girl dressed in her image.
"Yes," Anna said with deep fondness.
"How is your father?"
"He is always occupied, but he is well. I know he is looking forward to tonight, and he has missed you very much."
"And your brothers?"
"Very well," Anna said brightly. "Endon was a little ill a few days ago, and I know he feared that he would be made to miss the party. Now that he is well again, he is more excited than before. And Jarred has recently decided that Josef is to be his best friend, and has taken to following him around where ever he goes. Our poor cousin is far too sweet to ask him to stop."
Doom smiled. It was still strange and wonderous to hear of his family discussed in such a simple and happy manner. They reached the palace hill, and began to ascend the slope. It was swarmed with people dragging tables and setting up chairs, lit brightly by the mid afternoon sun. Many eager volunteers were gathered around where the great bonfire would burn, placing wood into formation. He spied several familiar figures.
Jarred and Josef were setting trays of glasses on a large table. Jarred's tray shook with excitement as he placed it heavily on the table, but Josef steadied it with a careful hand. The older boy held himself in the regal yet delicate way of a Toran, but looked far more like his father. At nearly fifteen, Josef was almost fully grown, and his face had lost the childish softness that it had had held even last year. He saw Doom, and nudged the boy gently. Jarred looked up with interest.
"Grandfather," he called loud enough to turn several heads, when he saw who Josef had. He grasped Josef's hand and pulled him along with him.
"Welcome back, Doom," Josef said when they reached them. "It is good to see you. But, if you will excuse me, I promised my sisters that I would help them finish painting their dragons when I finished bringing the glasses down, and it is getting late."
"Josef and I already painted mine!" Jarred boasted, gazing after the older boy with admiration. "It looks just like the ruby dragon. Endon's is the diamond. Anna did not want to make one this year, she said she was too old."
Anna flushed. "That is not true."
"I heard Father tell Mother that you said so," Jarred said simply. He darted away before Anna could say anything else.
Anna furrowed her brow with annoyance, but Marilen and Ranesh's eldest daughter ran towards them, and threw her arm around Anna's neck.
"Where have you been all day?" Little Sharn demanded. After a moment she looked up with wide eyes, and gave Doom a bright grin, which he interpreted as her greeting. She had lost her two front teeth.
"I will see you soon, Grandfather," Anna said quickly, before she allowed the younger girl to pull her into the crowd.
Doom raised his hand in farewell, and heard another cry of welcome in return. Lief was carrying a table across the hill with the help of a palace guard. When they had set it down, the king bounded towards him, his face still filled with boyish excitement, despite the tolls of tragedy and time.
"Doom!" He cried, embracing him warmly. "We have missed you!"
"It is very good to see you," Doom said truthfully. He never really realized how much he missed his family until he was surrounded by them.
At the sound of her husband's voice, one of the figures turned from the skeleton of the bonfire. Doom watched as Jasmine turned to face him, and then tapped the person next to her upon his shoulder. Barda looked over, and let her tip her remaining pieces of wood into his hands, allowing her to make her way toward Doom and Lief.
"You were meant to come yesterday," Jasmine accused, in place of a greeting when she arrived.
"Indeed," he said dryly. "I was delayed by the storm."
"Well," she embraced him quickly, but he did not miss the happiness in her eyes. "It is good that you are here now."
Barda followed closely behind her. His hair had turned nearly completely grey in the last years, a fact that he often attributed to Lief and Jasmine, with fond jests.
"We are almost ready, I think," he told them. He turned and clasped Doom's hand warmly.
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly. Although the city was engaged with revelry through out the day, the royal family and their volunteers had spent the time preparing for the evening's main festivities. Doom aided where he could be helpful, mostly with Sharn, helping his friend simmer great pots of mulled wine. He ignored Lief's insistence that he rest, for he was a guest, and he had travelled far from the north.
The sun began to set, and torches cut through the darkness like starlight. Even as the night grew dark, the hill was illuminated. People left the smaller parties in the city, and joined the excitement on the hill. Musicians and dancers called up a merry scene, and Doom had to step around laughing revellers who were happily well into their drinks. The great tables were laden with food and wine, and children ran underfoot upon wooden dragons of various sizes. Doom spotted the red-headed girls with their red-bearded father.
Lindal sidled to his next to him and pushed a full glass of rich red wine into his hand with a wink. He sniffed it, and then sipped it carefully. It was dry and bold, the way he liked it. He thought of late nights long ago, stuffed into small booths in crowded taverns, whispering plans with Lindal and his other most trusted members of the Resistance.
"How would you compare this to the festivities in Broome?" He asked his friend after a moment.
"Dragon Night in Broome is a sight to behold," Lindal admitted, for the festivities often began a week before the celebrated night, and usually did not stop until days after. "But what good is a party without the people you wish to celebrate with?" She clasped his shoulder and melted away into the crowd.
The cries of children filled the air, counting down from ten. When they had finished, seven palace guards threw lit torches onto the massive pile of kindling, igniting a roaring bonfire to signal midnight. The children cheered and rushed towards the blaze, heedless of the warning calls of their parents. Dozens of fires were being lit across the kingdom, but none as grand as the one in Del.
Doom sipped his wine contently, and gazed around at the delighted faces illuminated around him. His grandchildren had gathered with Barda and Lindal's children, as well as Marilen and Ranesh's, and other children of the city that Doom did not know. Jarred was clapping and jumping, and Endon, who had pulled Sharn over to join them, clutched tightly to his grandmother's hand and stared at the fire with undisguised awe. He saw Marilen at the great table, filling wine glasses for herself and Manus. When they had collected their drinks they joined Ranesh, who was deep in conversation with Gers and Zeean. Barda and Lindal were standing close to the flames, roaring with laughter at something that Brianne had told them. People danced everywhere, and children screeched and ran, thrilled to be up so late. The party spilled down the hill and into the streets of Del. Doom could not see the Forge from where he stood, but he could picture where it would be. He remembered his wife, who would sway around the Forge as she sang songs that she made up, until he would join her— laughing— in a dance. A smile tugged gently at his lips and the sound of her singing seemed to weave between the sounds of fiddles and flutes. The wine sizzled comfortably in his veins and he shook his head and turned back to the party.
The king and queen stood watching the celebration, swaying gently with their arms wrapped around each other's waists. Passing Deltorans would raise their glasses toward the couple, a toast which they heartily returned. He watched as the queen pressed a gentle kiss to the king's cheek and broke from his embrace. Then Jasmine turned and made her way towards her father, as if she had felt his eyes upon her. She stopped at his side and together they took a silent drink from their glasses.
"So much has happened, and yet sometimes it feels to me as if no time has passed at all," Jasmine said after a moment.
Light from the bonfire and the torches flickered across her face. New and shallow lines around her mouth were suddenly made visible, brought forward by the shadows cast from the fire. Jarred scurried from the darkness, clutching his wooden dragon to his chest. He threw his arms around his mother's waist and let out a wordless cry of childish delight. Jasmine smiled and squeezed his shoulder tightly. Doom looked on; his heart felt unbearably full.
He tilted his head up, half-wondering if he would see dragons swirling amongst the stars, as sometimes a few would on the night named in their honour. Yet dragons cared little for the dates imposed by Deltora, and the sky was empty.
Dozens of faces that he knew, and hundreds that he did not moved before him in the night. All were aglow with laughter and happiness. He thought of his wife, and his best friend, and all of the others he had lost who would have been delighted by the scene before him.
How you would smile to see your people filled with such joy, my dearest friend, Doom thought. As he pictured Endon's pleasure, fireworks began to fill the air, lit from the bottom of the hill. Jasmine caught his eye and grinned fiercely.
So much had been lost. So much had been gained.
It was enough.
It was more than enough.