In the darkness Hanorh's suffering was easier. He could pretend that the mournful bellow of his voice were the voices of other dragons as they echoed off the cave walls, or remember better times when his mate had still breathed and he had sung her asleep. It had been sixteen years now, and still her name came only as a hiss of pain to his lips and in his mind; her blood still dried on his scales, though the last of it had washed off years ago.
'Lord! Great one! Your song is sad!' A human voice interrupted his own, one that he knew and half hated, but he repressed a growl. It was only by the grace of the gods that she had been spared in the cataclysm birthed by his fire and fury. First there had been the soldiers who had escaped. They lay easy and unwatchful on open ground, complacent in the belief that there were no more dragons to slay. The copper had made sure they all burned. But then Hanorh's vengeance was insatiable, and the scent of Freyne clung acridly in his nostrils as he followed the trail back to the keep. There it was not only the castle that felt his fire, but also the homes around it, consuming innocents, women and children, and the dragon was without remorse. After all, his entire family had been taken from him, why should not the men suffer equally?
'Are the stars shining tonight?' he asked distantly. The stars were where his love resided now, and beyond his reach after the slaughter he had committed. Sharply did the last image of his mate come to him, burning.
'No,' called the sad voice of the queen. 'No bright souls glitter in this darkness.' They were taken from me, the copper thought bitterly, all of them.
He heard shuffling and scraping, and curiosity overcame the sudden whim to chase them all out of the cave. With heavy, slow footsteps designed to impress the men with their own insignificance, the drake came from the black depths of his cavern to survey his visitors.
'Aislinn, daughter of the Celts,' he greeted cordially enough.
'Whose people loved your kind and called you friend,' she replied earnestly. They were all dead too, slain by those of the new religion as an example of those who would not follow. All the years he had spent in trying to learn more about humans had only shown him how much he still did not understand. No other creature waged war on others of their kind for such unimportant reasons.
Hanorh looked down at the trembling, gasping youth on the litter. The seed of the dragonslayer, brazen with the sign of his house across his chest. It had been a black boar in the first years of his reign, but the slaughtered green dragon was the shield above his lintel when the copper had burned it down.
'The King's son; cruel and full of trickery.' There was little difference between the generations. 'Is this why you've come dragon slayer's wife!' he demanded.
'Dragonslayer's widow,' was the retort. She seemed more angry than grieved. 'This boy is not his father,' she insisted. 'This knight here is his mentor; he has taught him the Old Code.'
For the first time the copper looked at the tall knight clad in black that stood at the side of the queen. There was something to him that showed his goodness, but good intentions were not enough to change Nature.
'I need your help.'
The drake watched as Aislinn pulled back the red cloak and stained shirt worn by the prince, thoughts coalescing in his head. When she removed the pad covering the wound, Hanorh felt oddly hollow.
'The wound is deep; you know what you ask.' It was the most ancient of all wisdom. The boy's heart was evil, but perhaps the purity of a dragon's soul could succeed where a man's tutelage had failed. It would give the people a better life than that they had been living under the boy's father. Dragon and man would be united once more in brotherhood. And Rheshrah. His soul would be free, and he would be with his love again. This could be his only chance at redemption.
'I will teach him your ways. He will grow in your grace, he will grow just and good! I swear!' Aislinn's promises were desperate, made by a mother over her dying son, and once again the copper was reminded of that last day of carnage and the sound of his mate's final shuddering breath among her fallen children.
'No, the boy must swear. Give me your sword knight.' There was no retreating now.
'Your sword!' Aislinn prompted. The man stood stupefied at being addressed by a dragon directly.
With the blade in his hand, Hanorh felt keenly the ebbing of the young man's life.
'Don't be afraid,' Aislinn murmured. 'He can save you.'
'Now listen to me, boy,' Hanorh growled, shaking off the thoughts about the fragility of life. 'Swear that your father's bloodlust and tyranny died with him. Swear that you will live and rule with mercy, come to me and learn the once ways –' the copper felt the fear pulse in the boy's heart, his blackness shrinking from the power of his voice. 'Now swear!' Compulsion wracked the prince's frame, fuelled by the memory of what had been and the knowledge that now things could change.
'I swear,' the boy gasped. It was his last. Hanorh felt no remorse.
'Einon. Einon!' The knight's eyes filled with anger. 'He's dead!' the sword was yanked away with a shriek of sparks that left a scar down the blade.
'Peace, Knight of the Old Code,' the drake commanded. For his love and his soul he would bring the boy back to life. There was only this hope left. 'Witness the wonders of an ancient glory.'
And it was done. His fate lay now in the hands of a youth corrupted by the tyranny of his father and arrogant of his own worth. If his heart could not purify these weaknesses, then all hope would turn to despair. He would never see Aurha again.
'Live, and remember your oath.'