The red dragon and his rider had been through much since they had first Bonded just over five years ago. Both wore their fair share of scars and had spots that ached when the weather turned foul, though they were both still considered young by their elders. Even now, after they had managed to open the Dragon Gates and brought Mala-Shae and the other sleeping dragons back to Surdana, there was still much work to be done. With the Order of the Flame resurrected, the work load was lighter but the Desert Lords, half-men, Black Wings and various other forces were still very much active.
The sound of wings approaching broke Rynn from her absorbed thoughts. "It is Grethar," a deep voice rumbled through her. Rynn smiled and pat Arokh's neck companionably, grateful they were still together. Grethar had been among the first to Bond with the returning dragons, though he had no martial training of his own at the time. His Pranth was a lovely sapphire blue and complimented Arokh nicely, being of a comparable size and configuration.
"General Rynn," he hailed, the desire to grin evident on his young face. He had yet to grow out of the chubbier facial features of youth but his hazel eyes sparkled under an unruly mess of curly brown hair that fell just past his ears. He was wearing the familiar riding gear which consisted of tough leather pants and a jacket of the same material to keep away the wind chill. Heavy boots ensconced his feet nestled firmly in the stirrups attached to the saddle modeled after the same ones horseman used with their own creatures. Stiff leather gloves lined with soft fur protected his hands from the cold and light damage. As seemed to be the norm near the castle, he was lacking the hard leather helmet they were supposed to wear when riding. Seeing that she wasn't wearing hers either, the General refrained from commenting.
Rynn sighed, raising a brow when Arokh chuckled beneath her. Grethar had a habit of idolizing her and she felt every bit her age when he was around. She was not an old woman but neither was she so young anymore, now in her early thirties, but it felt like so much more. She figured a lifetime of fighting would do it to about anybody and she had no idea how Dehrimon managed it either. Not only that, but she really didn't feel as if she fit the title 'General.' It was true that she was the General of the Order of the Flame, mostly by default, but when not at the head of the ranks, she preferred to be herself…like when it was just her and Arokh. Those had been good days; dangerous and sometimes harrowing, but good. "Yes, Grethar," she finally responded when he was close enough to hear without having to yell. Amusingly, Arokh and Pranth matched their strokes seamlessly, flap for flap, careful to maintain the distance between them.
"Commander-in-Chief Dehrimon requests your presence in the council meeting hall at two. The Desert Lords have been active again," he added in a quieter tone of voice, his gaze shifting around nervously.
She gave him a look to keep his mouth closed. "Even among friends, such talk should remain behind closed doors." Rynn waved an ungloved hand to forestall any other words. "Let him know I'll be there shortly."
"Yes, ma'am," Grethar saluted smartly, slightly chagrined. With practiced ease, he leaned with Pranth as the pair wheeled away gracefully. The rider looked as natural as Rynn herself did now. It was gratifying to see after all the work he'd had to do just to be on par with those who had any militaristic training.
"Another meeting," Arokh sighed, a longing for the skies evident in his voice.
"You don't have to be there you know," she reminded him in a wry tone, her eyes wandering the skies and taking note of the nearest markers. The only other flying form at present was the receding pair that had just left them.
"I'm aware. But you're there." The dragon's horned head pulled back slightly and he glanced at her out of the corner of his golden eye. The simple answer warmed her more than she cared to admit. Easily, she leaned forward and lay prostrate upon his neck, the saddle straps holding her secure in case he needed to perform any aerial maneuvers. His leathery skin was warm and pleasantly aromatic, and the day was not so cool as to be uncomfortable, even without the majority of her riding gear. With the steady sound of his wings flapping and the great beating heart, Rynn presently nodded off, oblivious to the worries of the world.
She was gently jostled awake by his careful landing, the backwing sweeps difficult to smooth out. Years of practice had given him the ability to land softly and he was known to have one of the lightest wings among his kindred, but some things you just couldn't help. "We have arrived." Carefully, Arokh settled his wings against his shoulders, mindful of his rider still waking up, and leaned down so Rynn could dismount easier.
"You should have woken me," his rider chided, though there was no sting in her voice. She threaded an errant strand of her windblown red hair behind her ear, the confining ponytail no match for the flying speed of a dragon. A glance down at her riding saddle showed her the safety rigging and in a moment she had unhooked the clasps and released the braided leather straps before sliding down his shoulder and arm. With her height, the distance wasn't too great but she enjoyed the courtesy he offered her by settling lower. The walk to his head was only a few steps and he watched her with warm regard. "I had not meant to sleep so long," she admitted, practiced enough to acknowledge she wasn't getting any younger.
"Perhaps you would allow me to sleep through our meeting then," he winked, a chuckle rumbling through him.
"Old man," Rynn laughed, caressing his smooth cheek in the process. He closed his eyes in obvious pleasure and she smiled anew. "Come on. Let's go see how long they've been waiting." She had no idea how much time had passed as of yet and wouldn't know until she got within the castle walls.
Side by side the pair made their steady way down the stone paved path that led to and from the landing platform. The reinforced structure had been renovated shortly after the dragons had made their return and it was still used with great frequency as of today. The dragons were welcome to land anywhere there was sufficient space to do so but out of courtesy, most of them used the platform. A pair of guards on either side was stationed every twenty paces or so, ever vigilant. Just because the dragons had returned did not mean they were safe. They knew well that the most dangerous creature was a cornered one.
The path continued through a great arch in the outermost wall that led to the castle which had been modified to allow room for the dragons. As the pair approached the main doors, the two guards pulled them open at the same time and bowed as the pair walked through. A huge hall opened before them with large pillars rising at least a dragonlength from the floor to support the arched ceilings. Glowing wall sconces, kept alight by magic, lined the walls, banishing the shadows. Lady Myschala's castle was a place of light and few shadows were to be found anywhere. Assassins would be hard pressed to find sufficient hiding places in this area.
Arokh easily fit between the pillars and Rynn was able to walk beside him without feeling pressed for space. More guards at the top of the raised stairs pulled open the inner double doors to allow entry to the next room. It was a greeting room, with halls and staircases leading to various rooms throughout the castle. Here and there, a castle servant could be seen making their way to and from their destinations, eyes politely downcast as they spied the pair. Rynn and Arokh paused to watch them briefly, both acutely aware that in another time, she at least would have been disregarded as unimportant. It was but a moment's introspection and then the thought was gone. They returned their focus to the immediate vicinity. Immediately ahead were two ornate chairs where the lord and lady would traditionally see guests. The only ruler, Lady Myschala, was not in attendance at this time, as expected. Easily, they made their way to either side of the chairs and met behind where another set of doors and guards blocked the path.
The male and female guard glanced at each other and nodded, confident that neither was bewitched. Both had minor casting abilities to call in order to banish deceptions or summon additional aid. With a bow, they opened the slightly shorter doors. Arokh had to duck to get through but it opened up into a hallway where a clever portcullis was raised at the end, allowing easy access for now. They heard voices from within before they saw them and Rynn coughed politely to announce their arrival. She had no doubt they could hear Arokh but she preferred common courtesy.
Even brighter mage light met them as they entered the circular room, a table in the center dwarfed by the space around it; another alteration for the dragons. No other dragons were present at this time but four other persons were in attendance. Lady Myschala, the head of the castle was resplendent in the gown of a queen, thorn-like protuberances decorating her shoulders and crowned by the ornate headdress confirming her position. Lord Marshal Dehrimon was to her right, garbed in chainmail instead of his customary plate. He had taken off the gloves to allow for greater dexterity and his helmetless head shone in the bright light, bereft of hair. He didn't look much older than he had when Rynn had met him five years ago, but there was weariness to him now, around his hazel eyes where crow's feet gathered at his temples and the edges of his mouth.
The sorceress Jade, from the Desert of Tears and newly appointed court mage stood on the Queen's left. She was still the same sultry woman who seemed to enjoy showing her cleavage in the low-cut, form fitting gowns she favored, but there was a new air of respectability about her. She kept her dark brown hair pulled back tightly and decoratively pinned at the back of her head, accented by a deep red choker around her throat and pierced ears, currently adorned with finely woven golden hoops. The most recent addition to the council, when he was in attendance, was Chief Ranwulf, the leader of the Northman and Ravenshold. He was still bedecked in the furs he traditionally wore while in his own area and looked a bit on the wild side with a brushed out beard and long, coarse black hair he did little to maintain. He always said that fur and hair was warmer than 'noble dress' when one lived in the snow. Next to Ranwulf, Rynn didn't look quite so out of place in her dressed down riding gear.
Because Myschala's castle was one of the few places left standing, there were few council members to be added. Ranwulf already counted himself as a temporary member as the journey here was fairly long and there wasn't always a dragon at hand to go retrieve him. In time, when the human populous and the number of cities was given a chance to grow, more members could easily be selected from the persons available; but for now, their race was still recovering from the long servitude and near extinction it had almost suffered.
The dragon and his rider were greeted with nods and relieved smiles. "Rynn. Arokh," Lady Myschala murmured warmly. All four knew well how much they owed to the pair. They had been given a fighting chance and they were all loath to throw it away. "Join us, please," she beckoned, gesturing to the large map now laid out over the table top. Many maps had been made of the surrounding areas in recent times, but this one had been carefully maintained, altered after every moderate change in boundaries. Only the most skilled cartographers, with the aide of visual confirmations from the back of a dragon, were allowed to update the carefully preserved parchment.
As their collective gazes fell to the landscape, Arokh politely sidled to the side with a fond pat from Rynn. It was clear he wanted to listen instead, but it didn't hurt he knew every inch of the map by heart either; even the most recent changes. Dehrimon leaned forward and stabbed at the Desert of Tears, the last known stronghold of the remaining Desert Lords aside from the floating isle of Stratos which was difficult to reclaim. "We have seen recent activity here." He paused to catch their gazes and murmured, "They are far from finished." As the most militant of the group here, he understood the inherent danger in their altered dealings with the Desert Lords.
Myschala spoke up now, a pensive expression on her face. "We think they may be coordinating a joint attack with the remnants of the denizens of Kragmoor. The number of our opposition never seems to end." She shook her head and glanced around the table. "If this happens, the only thing that will keep them at bay will be the aid of the dragons."
"And you will have it," Arokh rumbled from where he lay; one great golden eye open and appraising her. "We have no love for them ourselves." The dragon did not have any personal vendetta against the Lords but they had been too rough with the humans and because they threatened the Dragon Knights, they too were a menace.
"I will do what I can to counter their magics, but few of my apprentices are ready for that sort of combat," Jade mused, annoyance and concern warring on her features.
Rynn finally opted to speak and her words were cautionary, "Your aid is greatly needed and appreciated, but we must not risk you unnecessarily. We have none to replace you and Myschala cannot teach them with all the other duties she has." It was not the first time she lamented her failings in the use of greater magics. She had a rudimentary knowledge but her focus had been marshal and she was exceptional with the sword but magic and the bow were secondary.
"The fact still remains we need casters to match them effectively." Dehrimon stated bluntly, a frown matching his tone.
"Ravenshold has some casters that we may be able to lend for a time," Ranwulf offered. "I can ask my people and see if some would volunteer, but we do have concerns with the half-men and the yetis in our region." He focused his attention on Rynn solely. "Rynn, you did us an invaluable service in curbing the encroachment of the half-men, but they are not finished; nor are the wartoks or the ice golems."
His words were met with frowns or thoughtful expressions. Dehrimon appraised him briefly and then had to shake himself. They were on the same side after all and they did need someone to watch their back. Surdana was susceptible on many fronts. "Any aid you could provide would be welcome," he finally acknowledged.
Ranwulf nodded to the Commander-in-Chief. "Zeggoro will likely have some recommendations or suggestions I could relay."
Jade seemed slightly ruffled by the comment, but she too, let the animosity slide. They were in a fight they could not afford to lose and childhood rivalries could easily be set aside for the time being. Lady Myschala smiled graciously, "Please send out greetings and our thanks to Master Zeggoro."
"Of course, your Ladyship," Chief Ranwulf saluted, placing his fist over his heart and bowing his head slightly.
"How are the dragon knights coming?" Dehrimon queried, changing the subject.
Rynn started at the abrupt question and then collected herself. A brief thought of Grethar made her smile and shake her head, "They are coming along well enough. I believe those who came from the guard and have military training will be amply prepared before we move against the enemy. The younger ones we should send sweeps of to corral any Black Wings in the area. The aerial maneuvers would be good for them and we could benefit from fewer of them in the air. Not to mention Quaalus would thank you profusely for any eggs they might find."
Her comment prompted chuckles from those around the table. Quaalus was an odd one but he had some good ideas and he was an absolute wizard with the alchemical ingredients he handled all the time. "He may be able to concoct some potions to help in the upcoming battles as well," Jade added. "The gods know we don't have nearly enough healers." She had two very promising casters who specialized in healing spells but they were just barely out of journeyman status and nowhere near being promoted to master. "Perhaps we could use some of the younger or newer riders to ferry the injured to a safer distance?"
"Now that is a fair idea," Dehrimon commented as he continued to stare at the map. "Where would we set up that sort of station though?" His voice was low, indicative of him thinking out loud, but Arokh heard him well enough and chose to respond accordingly.
"You could use the first plateau at the mouth that overlooks the entrance to the Valley of Tears. Easy enough to defend from ground troops as there is but one path to it on foot and it creates a natural bottleneck." He glanced at Rynn for confirmation.
"And with the dragons acting as ferries and guards, it should be one of the safest places in the area. You need only be concerned about the Desert Lords themselves and possible projectiles from archers and casters on the ground. Still, it does have the advantage of height and any ranged attackers you set up there would have twice the advantage. As long as we stay away from the edge, we should be fine and the dragons can keep watch for any other dangers we may not be able to see." Rynn's face was tense in thought and she carefully traced the plateau on the map, trying to recreate the vantage point in her mind. She had a nagging concern that if they could see the plateau as being a prime spot to defend, then so could the enemy, but nothing had been decided as of yet.
Her interest piqued, Jade leaned forward, her bosom threatening to spill out over the top of her dress. Ranwulf, at least, glanced at her appreciatively, while the rest, moderately inured to her charms, focused on her words instead. "I can set protective wards and we may be able to station some of the more experienced casters there as well."
At length, Myschala cleared her throat and all eyes drew to her. "We may be getting ahead of ourselves." Puzzled expressions met her gaze, though Dehrimon at least paused and nodded at her in acknowledgement. "I think we are still too in the dark here. We must know more about who we are facing and how many of them there will be. This is no time to get careless!" she spoke firmly, reining their enthusiasm in.
Dehrimon sat back, a pensive look on his face. "You are quite right. Our current status as victors is by no means assured." The Commander-in-Chief looked at Arokh and nodded. "We must move with care. I will see to a scouting party once we adjourn."
"We will go," Rynn volunteered for her and Arokh immediately, almost half-way to the door before she paused.
"No, General Rynn," Dehrimon stated flatly, reminding her of her primary duty. "But I would appreciate your recommendation for a suitable scout leader."
Both Rynn and Arokh appeared annoyed at the denial to scout but they conversed quietly as they rifled through their fighters. Nessa and Yarith were a good possibility but so were Khage and Linrei. The former was one of her four captains and the latter was a very knowledgeable lieutenant who had remained one only because he chose to. He had more than enough qualifications to be promoted but he felt he was not prepared for that responsibility yet. With his mindset, Rynn could not argue keeping him where he was…
In the end, rank and the overall effect on morale swayed them to select Nessa. "If anything does happen during the scouting mission, she will know better what needs to be done." Arokh fully agreed with her on their decision and allowed her to do the talking. He simply watched from behind Rynn and looked naturally imposing as only a dragon could.
Her selection was met with approval and acceptance. The rest of their meeting went over the possible wards Jade could provide and the supplies that would be necessary for the number of troops they were hoping to be able to call upon. This was all contingent upon the plan that they would be meeting the opposing force at their ground and that the Desert Lords and their allies did not stage an assault on them in the meantime.
Rynn and Arokh departed first with Jade in tow. They were happy to oblige her request for a ride. The sorceress still lived in the tower overlooking the castle and no one could convince her otherwise. She had conjurations aplenty to guard or warn her and the dragons favored her tower and the surrounding peaks as good perching spots. Jade hugged Rynn tightly around her ribs as she sat side-saddle behind her, the dress proving to be problematic while riding. The dragon knight would have been more concerned but she had every confidence in her dragon's capability and felt the sorceress had enough good sense to hold tight. It did not hurt the ride was quite short and this close to the protections of the castle, very few enemies would dare approach without very good reason.
The trio arrived safely as Arokh landed with practiced ease on the outstretched platform, seemingly made for that purpose if not for its being so narrow. Easily, the dragon walked to the landing around the tower and paused while Rynn assisted Jade in climbing down. The sorceress fussed with her dress, trying to keep from stepping on it while the rider lowered her down slowly. Once on the ground, she brushed her skirt out and nodded thanks to the pair.
"Take care, Lady Jade," Rynn smiled and waved as the sorceress headed for her tower doors.
Jade glanced over her shoulder and smiled, "And you as well, Rynn. Arokh." She paused at the threshold and added, "I still think you would make a good caster. That would be something they haven't seen yet. A mage Dragon Knight." She winked, only half in jest. Some would consider it an ill omen as the last great one had been Navaros, but times changed and perhaps that was what they needed now, but for a more noble cause.
"And lose the edge I have with my sword?" Rynn scoffed playfully as she pat the hilt of the longsword still strapped at her hip. "Dehrimon would skewer me. But I thank you for your confidence." She bowed at the waist and waved once more before patting Arokh's neck.
"Take care, sorceress," Arokh murmured deeply. He turned tightly in a circle and headed back for the end of the stone structure that he had landed on. Large wings unfurled before he stepped off the edge and let the wind catch him, flapping hard twice to settle himself into an easy glide.
Jade watched them fly away back towards the castle. Even having seen them more often these past five years, the sight never got old. Wistfully, she sighed and stepped back inside, setting the protective ward back up as she did so. One could not be too careful in these times.