Grim-faced Bran stared down at the body of his squire. The young man – little more than a boy, really – was face down in the blood-drenched mud of the battlefield, an arrow lodged in his neck. Bran knelt, yanked the arrow out and turned the dead boy over. Green eyes stared sightlessly back up at him, and with a rough sound Bran rose and turned away.
He signaled two of his knights and motioned to the boy. “Why was he here?”
“My Lord…I know not. Albert should have been in camp.”
“I know where he should have been. That was not my question.”
The second knight shook his head, equally as befuddled as the first. All three were tired and sweaty, soaked in blood, sweat and grime from battle. “I can only guess, Captain, that he disobeyed orders to help you. You know Albert doted on you.”
“See to him.” From his belt Bran pulled a long dagger; he set it on the dead boy’s chest. Spinning on his heel, muddy cape flowing behind him, the knight captain strode away to see to the rest of his men and work out the problems that arrived with battle’s end.
He mounted his horse an hour later, as the moon began to shine bright in the sky. Around him, his men wearily did the same. Forcing away his own exhaustion, he turned his horse and spurred it forward. Behind him his second-in-command called orders and encouragement.
It was a night’s journey back to the castle. If they remained where they were, it was unlikely they’d live to see the sunrise. The recent battle had been costly enough. Bran closed his jewel-blue eyes briefly, the pain of Albert’s death washing over him. The boy had reached his fourteenth summer only a few months ago, and had been made squire at the celebration. Dead now, never to be made a knight as he had always dreamed.
Bran was tired of it. Nearly thirty-five years now, and involved in the knights since his own fourteenth celebration. Squire to a mighty knight, he had not seen battle ’til his seventeenth year. A year later he was finally knighted himself.
Death after death after death. Too many years, too many battles. Albert was the last blow – he was done.
Now all he had to do was tell the King that.
Six hours passed in a blur of exhausted misery for Bran and his knights; only thoughts of bed and food kept them going, underscored with fear of another battle. But pass the hours did, just as the faintest shreds of light began to appear on the horizon. A call to the guards and the gates rose, the sound of grinding metal and wood painfully loud in the dark morning.
They thundered across the bridge, the gate slamming down behind them. The knights dismounted, handing their horses over to hastily woken servants, and strode into the main keep. Bran dismissed them, managing a smile at their quiet but enthusiastic cries of gratitude. He turned and made his way to his chambers, letting out a happy sigh at the sight of the fire already lit and supper spread out before it.
His pain eased some, taking in the familiar tapestries and furs that decorated his room, the sword and shield of his father on the wall.There was a knock at the door, “Enter.”
“My Lord,” a short servant bowed as he entered. “We thought you would like a bath, and had the water heated.”
“Of course, my Lord.” The servant bowed again, and called the other servants to bring the tub and heated water. In short order they had all prepared, “Where is Albert? Shall we summon him to assist you?”
“Albert is dead; shot by an arrow. I will be fine alone.”
“My Lord,” the servants bowed and exited.
Bran sighed and began the slow process of removing his armor. It was hard enough with assistance, all but impossible alone. But the thought of someone so quickly replacing his squire turned his stomach.
Thankfully the water was still plenty warm when he sank into it and began to scrub away the filth and blood acquired on their hunt for bandits and rebels. He rose from the water only when it had cooled to the point of being uncomfortable. Running his fingers through his reddish-brown hair, he considered calling someone to trim it, and then decided against it. It trailed only just to his neck, and was not therefore a problem yet. Besides, he would not be going to battle again for a long while. Assuming the King would accept his resignation, he may not ever have to worry about the length of his hair again.
In a sleepy daze he ate the meal that had been set out for him, then half walked, half stumbled to his bed. Pulling the linens and heavy furs up, he was asleep.
A pounding at his door woke him, and he blinked blearily at the sunlight pouring through the one small window – someone had pulled aside the tapestry he usually draped across it. The pounding continued, and he shouted a garbled “Enter!” as he threw back his furs and clambered from his bed.
He barely noticed the early morning chill, throwing on one of his good tunics, made from green velvet, the King’s coat-of-arms on the front. A servant bowed and greeted him, “My Lord, the King commands your presence immediately.”
“I will be there once I am dressed.”
“Yes, my Lord. I shall tell him.” The servant was gone.
Pulling on his high, black leather boots and raking his hair into some semblance of order, Bran completed his attire with leather bracers for his arms, over the heavy undershirt, and his sword belt and blade. As an afterthought, he added two knives – one for his boot, one for his waist.
He nodded greetings to knights and lords as he passed them, but did not slow.
The throne room was as sparsely decorated as the rest of the castle, only the richness of the tapestries and the extra furs on the floor marking it as a special room – that and the presence of the king himself.
Bran dropped to one knee and bowed his head, one arm across his bent knee, the other braced against the floor for balance. “My Liege.”
“Sir Bran of Trenton. I see you have survived yet again. Your legend grows and grows,” the king stroked his thick black and gray beard, contemplating the knight before him. Bran was a knight through and through, admired and envied by men and sought after by more than a few ladies of the court. His rough life of battle had somehow left him looking better rather than worse, unlike so many of his brethren. Tall and broad-shouldered, his entire body was built for armor and sword, shield and warhorse. The tough, sharp lines of his face gave him a stern, somber appearance. The ladies loved to sigh and say how he always looked handsome but so sad – and how they would like to make him happy. “Have you a report for me?”
“Majesty,” Bran did not look up. “We have killed many of the bandits on the border. Last night on our journey home, we were ambushed by a band from the North. We defeated them, took the head of their leader, but it is my belief that we will see them again – and with increasing frequency.”
“Why do you say that?” the King sat straighter in the wide chair that served as a throne in his winter castle. Velvet and wool stretched across his wide girth, the gold trim bright in the dim chamber.
“This is not the first time the rebels have given us trouble, as you well know Majesty. Moreover, they attacked us with familiarity – they knew we would be there. And if we had lingered, I have no doubt more bandits would have fallen upon us.”
“And what would you recommend?” The king asked. “The North cannot – or will not – control its own. We have not been able to do any better.”
“I know not, Majesty. But to spare the lives of your men, I would suggest a ceasing of the bandit hunts. At least until we have a better understanding of them.”
“I will consider it. You have done well, Sir Bran of Trenton.” The King stroked his beard again, “I hear you lost another squire. Would you like me to select a new one for you?”
“Nay, Majesty,” Bran’s head was still bowed, but the pain in his voice was unmistakable. “I will not carry another boy to his death.”
“If the boy dies, then he is too soft. You know that.”
Bran refrained from comment.
“You have something to say, Trenton. Speak your mind.”
“My Liege…you have knights aplenty. You want for nothing, insofar as your army is concerned. I have served you faithfully twenty-one years. I grow weary of watching comrades and children die before my eyes. I beg you to release me.”
It was not often the king was taken by surprise. He frowned, “I am not so well off that I afford to lose the best knight in my ranks. Especially when trouble from the north worsens with each passing day. You should know that.”
“Of course, Majesty.” Bran stared unseeing at the floor.
A frenetic pounding at the heavy double doors interrupted whatever the king had been about to say, and with a frown he motioned to one of the guards to open them.
A messenger came tumbling through them, panting heavily. He fell to one knee beside Bran. “Majesty…a dragon…” he paused, gasping for breath. The king waited, until he was able to speak. “A dragon has been sighted, two days journey from here, high in the Black Hills.”
“A dragon?” The King grimaced.
Bran looked up at the King, “Allow me to see to it.”
“I am not wasting a knight as valuable as you on a dragon.”
“Majesty, with all due respect, you can either send me now or send several less experienced men before finally giving in and sending me. Lose none or several, my Liege?”
“Bold, Sir Bran. Very bold. But true, I will admit my error. Go then. We will talk more of your freedom when you return. I cannot give it now, but perhaps in five more years I can grant what you desire.”
“As you wish, Majesty.” Bowing his head again, Bran rose smoothly to his feet and, turning neatly around, strode from the throne room. The messenger followed him out, sharing details of the dragon before running off to inform the town that help was on the way.
Bran stalked morosely toward his chambers. He had known the King would never set him free…but he had still hoped, and thereby set himself up for the hard disappointment.
Five more years…in five more years he would be unable to appreciate the freedom. Likely having it would drive him mad, for the only way to survive too many years of battle and death was to grow to enjoy it. And he did not want that fate.
But that made him wonder what he would do with freedom. He had a castle, lands…gifts from a King that he never was permitted to enjoy. But he had no lady…wanted no lady, really. He was a warrior, born and bred. What knew he of courting and romancing? The soft ways of women were foreign, and these days he was happy to leave them thus. No, he did not want a wife and children.
A companion would not be so bad though; someone he would not have to fret over in battle, a friend rather than a comrade or subordinate. But the King had commanded him to remain five years more in his service…so it was doubtful he would ever get even that.
Better to let a dragon kill him now, than wind up crazy with bloodlust later. He was not so foolish or arrogant to think he could escape such a fate; his own master had fallen victim to it, despite the good man he had been when Bran had served as his squire.
So the dragon it would be. But no one else need know what he had in mind. He could kill the dragon, and be brought down with it.
The best way to fight a dragon was the wrong way. No armor, no warhorse, nothing save a sword. All else weighed you down, and armor was little more than oven and casket, when the dragon in desperation resorted to his fiery breath. And horses, no matter how brave or hardened to battle, could not stand to be anywhere near a dragon. Probably because horses and cattle were favorite foods.
Stripping off his good tunic, Bran replaced it with a worn black one. This one was shorter, stopping midway down his thighs. The sleeves were short, to accommodate him when the weather was hot. Currently however it was very cold, and so he left his wool undershirt on. Next went light armor – also black, simple. A jerkin to go over what he already wore, heavier leather for bracers, and his good sword belt rather than his dress one. His sword, a few daggers, and his travel pack.
He glanced around his room, lingering on those few things he had thought worth keeping. There seemed little point in carrying them with him. If they were here, they could go to others when he perished. Without a backward glance, he turned and left.
His horse was waiting for him in the main courtyard, a massive and proud black stallion, built to wear armor and carry a fully armored knight. A warhorse, and one that was beyond compare. Crush, Bran had named him, for at that he most certainly excelled.
To his knights he bid a fond farewell, light and laughing because they thought he would be back in a week’s time. He had neither the heart nor method to tell them otherwise.
The villagers made him smile. It was hard to remain despondent when so many people were so happy to see a perfect stranger when more often than not strangers were a bad thing. They were weary and dirty, and no doubt hungry after working the fields and shops all day, but nearly the entire town had turned out to greet him and offer him room and board.
Moreover, they knew his name. Apparently the messenger had known who he was.
His horse was unaffected by the near-stampede of people, standing unruffled in the midst of them. Bran waved them all to silence, “Your kindness humbles me, gentle people. Truly. I appreciate your offers, but rather than linger in your pleasant company, I would continue on toward the dragon. Mayhap I will abuse your hospitality upon my return.” He could see they were disappointed, despite the pleasure they must feel at knowing the dragon would soon be dead. “Perhaps you have some food to accommodate a traveler?” This was met with enthusiastic nods and scrambles for the appropriate foodstuffs. Before long Bran found himself over laden with meat pies, jerky, dried fruit and even a couple rounds of cheese. “I thank you. Now tell me what would be the best route up through the Black Hills to the dragon’s lair?”
In short order Bran was on his way, an extra pack added to his saddlebags, stuffed with food and even a skin of wine.
At the castle, by now they would be carrying out the funerals for the fallen knights, and Albert’s parents would be mourning. They would not even care that Bran was absent, so accepting were they of the ways of knights, bound eternally by duty and obedience.
He wished his thoughts were still so noble. But his eyes had long ago ceased to see everything as perfect and golden. His obedience belonged to his King, but he chafed under it. He had earned his freedom, the chance to enjoy the prizes earned. It was regretful they would go to another before he even laid eyes on them. But better to die now as a man, than later as a monster.
The Black Hills. Called thus because they were so thick with forest, only the scantest sun broke through to shed light on the forest floor. He left Crush at the edge of it, as already the horse was showing signs of fear. But it also meant the dragon was not too far off – perhaps a day or two.
How strange, to realize that he would be dead in two days time. Never, in all his imaginings, had he thought he would end his days in this manner. But it was better than what his King would have of him.
Bidding Crush a fond and reluctant farewell, he left the stallion to graze in the field, knowing eventually the horse would either wander away and grow wild, or return to the castle. He hoped the stallion would opt for the former. Turning resolutely away, Bran vanished into the dark forest.
It was eerily silent beneath the thick canopy of trees, the dark broken periodically by patches of white-yellow light. Every now and again, a bird would chirp or some beast rustle in the brush, but on the whole it was quiet. As if the animals hid.
Which they did. Even wolves seldom ventured out with a dragon in its midst. Bran continued on, undaunted. It was only a little past the midday hour, and he was fresh from dinner and the relatively easy ride up the hills. He could walk for hours; only total darkness would keep him from continuing on in the moonlight.
Near dusk he came across a small clearing, and the sound of a creek not too far away decided him. It was time to make camp for the night; tomorrow he would no doubt meet the instrument of his demise.
For supper he feasted on two of the meat pies given to him by the villagers, complimenting it with dried fruit and the wineskin – wondering with a smile where a poor villager had come across such a fine wine. No doubt guilt over the method of its obtainment had spurred the poor man to hand it over to him.
Settling back on his sleeping roll, heavy wool cloak wrapped around him and the fire high to last through most of the night, he made sure his sword was close to hand and fell asleep gazing at the bits of moon and stars visible through the roof of leaves.
It was raining when he woke; he knew it more from the sound than from any actual rain. Little of it could break through the forest canopy, the branches and leaves were that thick and solid.
His breaths were puffs of white air as he gathered his meager belongings and put out the fire. Pulling his cloak tight, he checked the fire one last time and then pressed on. Distantly it occurred to him that he should be unhappy, but the dark forest was soothing in its quiet. No voices, no clashing of sword against armor or flesh. For once he was free of everything, and had naught to kill but a dragon. And that seemed a death more reasonable than that of another man, another squire.
He walked for hours, eating breakfast as he walked and stopping only briefly for dinner. There was no point in hurrying, but neither could he find a reason to stall or linger. It seemed best to press forward.
Not too long after dinner he came across another clearing, this one larger than the one he had used the night before. He began to cross it, enjoying the sunlight in the midst of the dark, cold – albeit soothing – forest.
A sound shattered the silence, and Bran went cold. He was dressed to do battle with a dragon…but this was the sound of a wolf.
Wolves never traveled alone.
Drawing his sword and tensing, Bran spun and braced himself as, sure enough, three wolves appeared in the clearing behind him. Dragon there may be, but clearly these wolves were hungry enough not to care.
More growls broke the quiet, and shortly Bran found himself surrounded by five of the beasts, their coats dark and thick and covered in mud and burs. They bared their teeth and tensed to spring.
He managed to take down two of them, but one caught his left forearm and rendered it useless, pouring blood on the forest floor. Another took his right ankle, and he though he got another before his world went black.
Bran woke to the crackling of fire and the hooting of an owl. His eyes fastened on the stars and moon shining overhead, and he realized he was alive.
And in a great deal of pain. Struggling to sit up, he examined his left wrist, which had been clumsily bandaged. So too his right ankle, and a wound at his left thigh. Fingers trailed along the rest of his body, but other than some soreness and what felt like a relatively shallow cut at his left side, he seemed okay.
You are awake.
Bran’s head snapped up, and he fought the dizziness the movement caused. Perhaps he had injured his head as well, because there was nothing else to explain why a dragon was stretched out on the opposite side of the fire. A head injury was the only explanation.
That or a dragon really is sitting across from you. The voice in his head was vastly amused.
“Are you…speaking to me? Have I truly lost my mind, to think a dragon speaks to me?”
A dragon is speaking to you, but you have not lost your mind. Nearly your life, except that a dragon saved you as well.
Bran glanced at the bandages binding his wounds. Great effort had been put into wrapping them, but little skill. “I thank you,” he said quietly.
Should it come so easily to him? This speaking to dragons? He had never heard before of a dragon speaking to humans.
That is because either they are more interested in killing, or they die before they realize that listening and speaking are possible.
“I thank you, dragon, for your kindness. I do not deserve it, especially since I came here to kill you.”
I thought as much, though you do not smell of any intent to kill.
“I…do not smell of…I do not take your meaning.”
Humans. You smell of despair, human, but not of violence. You have admitted to your plans to slay me, and yet still I smell no such desire upon you. Puzzling, to say the least.
“You are…a means to an end. I have no desire to kill anyone or anything. I wish only for freedom.”
I see. Death is rather a more permanent sort of freedom than humans want.
“It is the only kind I am permitted.”
Then why did you fight the wolves? I scented upon you no desire for death, when I scented your blood and that of the wolves. Should I have left you to die?
“N–” Bran fell abruptly silent.
So perhaps death is not the freedom you seek.
“It is all I am permitted. My King has taken any other form from me.
Ridiculous. But humans are seldom anything else.
If you hold us in such ill regard, why did you bother saving me?
I do not hold you in ill regard. Quite the contrary. And I had no desire to see you die, especially when you were fighting so hard to live.
“As I was here initially to kill you, it strikes me that it would be better to have let me die.”
Foolishness. Killing one human will not stop others from coming to attempt to kill me. If anything, it would merely encourage them. I much prefer when the forest is empty of humans.
Bran did not answer, momentarily distracted by the search for his pack.
Behind you. And be careful, I am not the most skilled of healers and I do not think those bandages will hold up well or long.
“The effort is appreciated, no matter the lack of skill…but how did you manage it?” Bran paused digging food out of his bag to star quizzically at the dragon.
Dragons were roughly twice the size of a horse, all muscle and stomach and scale. In the case of this dragon, the scales glistened a rich, gold-brown in the moonlight. By day they would be nearly a perfect gold. His snout was long, the nostrils flaring whenever the powerful creature was amused or annoyed. Strong legs ended in wicked talons, and his eyes as he stared at Bran were a swirling, glowing yellow. Bran eyed the talons, “How did you manage to wrap my bandages?”
Does it matter how it was done?
“…I suppose not.”
Eat and rest. There has been enough talking for now.
Unable to think of a reason to protest the orders, Bran obeyed.
He woke to a tugging at his cloak, and scrambled up in a panic. Pain lanced through his arm and leg, and he quickly ceased moving. He stared up into swirling yellow eyes.
There is no cause to fear, human.
“I know. It has been a long time since anyone got that close to me in sleep. I usually wake well before they reach me.”
In my presence, you may rest easy. Come, it would be best to depart this place. You can finish healing in my cave.
“I do not understand your kindness.”
In your condition, it is better to accept it rather than question it.
Duly reprimanded, Bran slowly gathered his things and followed the lumbering dragon out of the clearing. It was disconcerting, how quietly the dragon moved through the trees. But Bran could not really linger on the observation, his mind and body fully occupied with the effort it took to walk. Sweat glistened on his brow, and he grit his teeth, pressing on and following the dragon several feet ahead of him.
The dragon stopped and swiveled its long neck, blinking at him. I did not realize walking would prove so difficult.
Bran managed a smile, “I am sure it is easier to deal with a bad ankle when you have four legs.”
A good point. You may ride upon my back, if you like.
“I could not.”
It is only practical. As you are now, we will spend another night in the forest, and that I do not much care to do. Come, I think you can manage to climb onto my back.
Reluctant to admit his own weakness, Bran shoved aside pride and opted for practicality. Awkwardly he clambered up and onto the dragon, amazed at how warm and smooth the scales felt. He had listened often, as a boy, to the stories of the knights who had slain dragons. Oft had they spoken of talons and teeth and the fatal, fiery breath. Never had they spoken of dragons talking, or of the smooth, slick feel of scales, the warmth the emanated from them.
I am sure they were occupied with other things.
Bran flushed, “How is it you read minds?”
Speaking by normal means is somewhat difficult. The dry humor was unmistakable, and Bran smiled.
“I suppose so. How far to your cave, sir dragon?”
We should reach it by midday, barring further encounters with wolves. And my name is Topaz.
“Ah. I am Bran of Trenton. It is an honor to meet you.”
The honor is mutual, Bran of Trenton. Might I hope that you have given up any plan to kill me?
“You may rest easy. I am not so devoted to killing that I would slay my rescuer.” Not that the dragon really had anything to fear from a knight who could not even manage to walk.
The dragon seemed to agree, because Bran could feel it laughing. That is reassuring to hear, never the less. I would hate to know I am healing my killer. Now rest.
Bran surprised himself by doing just that, lulled by the dragon’s steady, graceful movements through the forest, half-dozing as they journeyed.
Wake up, sir knight. I doubt you would appreciate a tumble off.
“No, I would not,” Bran replied groggily. “I thank you.”
No thanks are necessary. I serve myself as much as I help you.
“I fail to see how helping me does you any good.”
Let us go inside and get you settled before we get tangled up in discussion.
Bran nodded, and slowly made his way into the cave. Though the entrance was low, after a few feet the cave opened up into rather a spacious cavern. The floor was covered in furs and skins, far more clean and tidy than Bran would have expected of a dragon’s lair. A trunk was in one corner, and he had to fight his curiosity to see what was inside. A low table was set in the middle of the furs; a book spread open on it and three more stacked nearby.
He was utterly confused. Topaz chuckled in his mind again. Not what you were expecting, Bran of Trenton?
“No…why has no one ever spoken of dragons such as you? Surely I am not the first to see such wonders.”
But you are. Few knights ever slay a dragon in its layer…and mine is somewhat different from that of most dragons. Besides, most knights care only for the kill and the rewards that come from a successful kill.
Sighing, Bran nodded in understanding. “Only fools and the courageous dare to fight dragons. If you die, you must have been a fool. If you live, your courage makes you a hero.”
So you were prepared to die and go down in history as a fool?
Bran winced. “I had not really thought about it.”
My impression is that you were not thinking about much of anything.
“I suppose saving me gives you the right to reprimand me?”
Unable to support himself any longer, Bran dropped awkwardly down upon the furs, near the table. He looked at the books with admiration. “These are worth a fortune. Where did you get such exquisite books?” His expression turned wistful, “I always wanted to create a library…but when do knights ever have time to read?”
Certainly dead knights do not have time for it.
“Are you always this way when a stranger tries to get himself killed?”
Only when he plans to do it by killing me.
“You have a point.”
Yes, I do. So what do you plan to do, Bran of Trenton, once you are healed?
It suddenly occurred to him that he could not leave. He could barely walk, and trying to walk back to where he’d started would most likely get him killed. At best it would permanently damage his leg…which could go a long way toward solving his problem. But living as a crippled knight was as bad as waiting five more years. So it seemed he would be with the dragon for as long as Topaz tolerated him.
If I had not wanted you to remain here for as long as it takes you to heal, I would not have brought you here.
“It is rather disconcerting, the way you read my thoughts.” Which made him wonder why he was so accepting of all these strange things. A dragon that could read minds and speak to him…a dragon that had saved him, and did not mind sharing his home with an injured knight who had initially set out to kill him.
I think perhaps your initial misery, combined with your injuries, has made you more accepting of things you would ordinarily reject. Your defenses are lower than they would otherwise be, so to speak.
“Another good point.”
I have lots of them.
“Of that, I have no doubt.” Bran looked around the chamber, yawning.
Get some rest, now that you are warm and safe. You will sleep much better here, than on the cold forest floor or on my back.
“Have I not rested enough for one day?”
Rest is the best way to cure all manner of wounds. And you have many of them to heal.
Bran nodded, unable to come up with a reply. Laboriously he stripped off his boots, and then removed his sword, dagger and belt. With another yawn he wrapped up in the nearest pile of furs and fell almost immediately to sleep.
Disorientation lasted only a moment as he woke, before he recalled the odd events of the day before. He looked around the cave…but it was empty.
Rising, he went about slowly exploring the room, stubbornly ignoring his throbbing wounds. The single chest against the back wall turned out to hold more bandages, a few tinctures, and other miscellany. He frowned, puzzled as to how the dragon made use of it all. Certainly the talons he remembered would not be capable of opening the chest or handling its contents.
Well, it was a mystery the dragon seemed to like keeping to himself. Bran set to work re-bandaging his wounds.
I see you are well rested. Bran heard the thoughts and the movement as the dragon lumbered into the cave several minutes later. Need you assistance?
“I am managing well enough.”
Very well. Have you enough food for breakfast?
“Yes, plenty.” Bran frowned, still utterly confused as to the Dragon’s generosity.
As I said, I have my reasons. Bandage your wounds and eat. Then we shall talk.
Bran obeyed, and several minutes later he was seated at the low table, the dragon settled down across the floor opposite. “So, your reasons?”
I have been discovered here. Despite my care, and my efforts to eat no more than is necessary, the animals I steal for food have numbered too high to be ignored. And of course, being a dragon automatically makes me a threat.
There was a note of bitterness in Topaz’s voice that Bran could not miss.
I would like a permanent home. It grows tiresome, always moving around every few months. I grew accustomed to living in one place; I should like to live that way again.”
“A home?” Bran was surprised. “You would like me to provide you with a home?”
Knights always have their own lands, I had hoped that maybe a dragon buried somewhere at the edge would go largely unnoticed, and with permission granted to remain there, I would be in no danger.
Bran was silent. “Dragon.” He shook his head, “Topaz. For saving my life, I would gladly share my land with you. But I have never seen the lands the King granted me almost ten years ago. Always I have been kept at his side, or in the battlefield. Whether they are suited to a dragon or no, I could not tell you. I also do not know how safe you would be, without my presence there to assure it. My deepest apologies, for being so unable to express my gratitude.”
You came here hoping that killing me would gain you freedom. I saved you, hoping to gain my own.
“It seems my freedom is what we both need. You are correct, it is amusing.” Bran, however, did not smile. “It is unfortunate that I know not how to obtain it.”
Running away is not an option?
“I am a King’s Knight. I do not run away.”
Unless it is to kill yourself.
Bran sighed. “I think, Topaz, that you have made my stupidity abundantly clear on previous occasions.”
It bears repeating. Humans are nothing if not dense.
“Seeing as you are hoping to make a home of my home…”
Of course. Let us return to the matter of your freedom. As you appear to have recovered from your bout of stupidity, what ways are there of obtaining freedom?
“Death, of course. Most likely in battle. Or I would have to accomplish a feat worthy of a reward as great as freedom.
What sort of feat would merit that reward?
“I have no idea. There is no great threat to overcome, no challenge to surmount. All that threatens the King at present is the bandits of the North.”
Stopping these bandits would gain your freedom?
“If I were to annihilate them entirely? Yes. But that is an impossible task. No one knows anything about them these days. And alone I cannot hope to kill them.” Glum, Bran sat bent over the low table, drumming his fingers across it.
Five years ago, the Northern King was betrayed and killed. It sent the country tumbling into chaos, and it was sealed away from the world. In present day the country is still in turmoil, for their current leader is incapable and within the court officials do not trust one another. The bandits you speak of were once nothing more than peasants and soldiers, now driven to desperate measure to make up for the lack of trade and commerce that is the result of their forced isolation.
“How do you know all that? We have been hard pressed to come by such information…everyone sent in has failed to return, save for a precious few. And they had little to tell us.”
I once had a home in the North Country…the death of a loved one forced me to leave.
Something about his words sounded strange. “A loved one? Dragons have loved ones? But they are solitary creatures…”
Ordinarily, yes. But my circumstances were far from ordinary.
“Might I hear the tale? Or do I presume?”
I do not mind telling it. I am thirty-three years old. Quite old, given the rate at which knights kill us.
Bran made a face, “Must you reprimand me at every turn?”
Topaz’s nostrils flared with amusement. You are fun to tease.
“Oh.” Bran could not think of anything to say to that.
The dragon continued with his story. Almost twenty-five years ago now, when I was only a child, I was nearly killed by a Northern knight. But he was young and foolish and did not finish the job by taking my head. Instead he left me to bleed to death…some time later, an older man wandered through the wood. To this day, I do not know why he was in the forest. I think perhaps he was collecting something, or perhaps merely out for a walk.
But he saw me, and was unhappy. He debated on whether to finish the job or not. Surprised that he was hesitating, I told him I did not want to die. His nostrils flared again in amusement, as his swirling eyes focused on Bran. He was much less calm than you about hearing a dragon speak.
“You scared him?”
Scared and delighted, more like. Like most men, he had no idea dragons could communicate. He thought it utterly fascinating – and immediately decided to try and save me.
“Sounds like he was an interesting man.”
He was. His name was Rowan, and he was what you would call a Sage. Quite a respected one, enough that when he brought a dragon home a few months later, very few protested. And those were quickly silenced.
“A Sage? You mean a magic user? But those are only myth.”
Perhaps to you they are only myth. But they do exist.
“I believe you. Until recently I did not think a dragon could talk. If that is possible, I am hard pressed to doubt the existence of magic.”
You learn quickly, for a human. Perhaps there is hope for you yet.
Bran rolled his eyes, and half-smiled. “So you lived at the castle with him?”
Yes, for nearly twenty years I lived there. Perhaps I should have left sooner, and returned to this lifestyle…but I grew fond of it. You humans are idiotic at times, but not complete idiots. There is…a certain charm to your lifestyle. Except for the incessant need to kill dragons and one another.
“You will get no argument from me on that quarter. And do not make another jibe, I truly have learned my lesson.”
If you insist on taking away my fun.
Bran smiled. He was slowly growing used to the Dragon’s sly humor. “I did not mean to interrupt your story.”
I strayed first, there is no harm done. Where was I? Ah, yes. Nearly twenty years I lived there, and quite happily. Especially the last twelve…but I will elaborate on that later. Suffice to say that I was well liked by many…and severely disliked by others. When the King was slain, so too was my Sage. Because he was the King’s head advisor, and his staunchest supporter.
“I…but…could you not have helped?” Bran shook his head, “I am sorry, I did not mean that the way it sounded. More, I meant to ask how it was done, that you were unable to help.”
I was not far away when it occurred; in the next room actually. If I had been a bit faster…but even then, it would have taken the magic too long…
“I do not understand.”
It is quite simple. Rowan spent years teaching me many things, including magic. He created a special necklace for me…unfortunately it was taken. But I still know the spell…His talking ceased, replaced by a soft, lyrical chanting.
The limited light in the chamber, provided by torches, seemed to fade and shimmer. Bran’s eyes misted, and he rubbed them.
When he opened them again, he gaped at what he saw. He could not think of a single thing to say.
Gone was the dragon. In his place was a man with dusky skin and rich, dark brown hair falling around his ears in soft waves. He was tall and slender, all tight muscle and no excess fat. He wore a tunic the color of dark mahogany, with hose and leather boots to match. A plain brown belt was cinched at his thin waist. Bran could not take his eyes from the man’s skin…never had he seen skin that color. Browned by the sun, yes. But his skin was similar to the cinnamon that was used only on holidays. It was an earthy, warm color, and suited the slightly softened angles of the man’s face, the toned lines of his body.
Odder even than his skin was the jewelry. The man had yellow-brown jewels in his ear, and three strings of them around his neck, resting against the dark skin bared by the low-cut edge of his tunic. They were only a few shades darker than his eyes, which were a stunning gold-brown and so strangely bright in the dim light of the cave. “Who…”
The man smiled, making his handsome features…beautiful, Bran could not help but think. He had not known a man could be beautiful. “Recognize me? I would imagine not. It took six years before Rowan managed to create the spell to make me human.”
“Yes,” the man smiled again. “Quite a fascinating spell, is it not?”
“Quite,” Bran echoed weakly. “That explains a lot.”
“Yes,” Topaz sat down across from him at the table. “Are you okay?”
“I am well enough. A bit overwhelmed perhaps…but I am rapidly growing used to strange things.”
“Shall I finish my story then?”
“By all means.” Bran tried not to stare at Topaz, eyes drawn again and again to that dark skin.
“I lived with Rowan as a dragon for eight years. During the first two, teasing me for being so uncomfortable around humans, he playfully suggested that he should find a way to make me one. I said that would be rather interesting…and over the course of the next six years he proceeded to do exactly that. Eight years after I went to live with him, he succeeded in turning me into a human. This,” he motioned to himself, “Is the result. Several years later, when Rowan and the King were attacked…I was in the room next to their own, reading. I heard their cries too late. Their killers attacked me when I arrived.” He looked at Bran, “I can only maintain this form for a few hours at a time, and then I must rest for a day or so. After he made the spell, Rowan created for me a necklace that permitted me to keep this form indefinitely. They knocked me out and dragged me away, into the woods. Stabbed me and took the necklace.”
Bran said nothing, waiting for him to finish.
“If they had left it on, I would have died. But they had always disliked me, especially as a human. Unholy, they called it. So restoring me to my rightful, bestial form was probably what they had in mind. Anyway, it was what saved my life.”
“You did not go back?”
“I wanted to…but there would have been little point. My Rowan was dead, and he and the King were the only two I ever cared strongly about. And he always hated violence…it would have hurt him dearly to see me reduced to slaying them out of petty revenge.”
“A wiser being than I.”
“It was harder than it sounds. I wanted nothing more than to burn the lot of them to cinders. But it would have saddened Rowan, and I could never bear to see him unhappy.”
Bran smiled faintly, “I think it commendable. Would that I had someone to whom I was half so devoted.”
“Now that you are not intent on killing yourself, perhaps you will find such a person.”
“You are never going to be cease remonstrating me, are you?”
Bran shook his head, “So what do you we do now, sir dragon?
“Nothing until you are healed. And then? Perhaps I could not exact revenge…but for five years I have done little more than hide and mourn. After all Rowan did for me, perhaps it is time I did something to return his kindness. You seek freedom…mayhap together we can wrest control of the North from those who usurped it. Surely such a feat would earn your freedom…and I would then gain a home.”
“It sounds a worthy endeavor to me. But we should not linger here too long. They will think me dead, after several days have passed, and send others to kill you.”
“We will move in a few days, when you are healed sufficiently to manage travel. In the meantime, rest, read. Enjoy what limited freedom you have.”
“I thank you, Topaz. I have done nothing to merit the kindness you have shown me. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
Topaz brushed his words aside with a shrug, “As I said, I have my reasons. Besides, once I too was left alone in the woods to die. I would be the greatest of hypocrites if I had left you.” He rose gracefully to his feet, “Now I will go find food. Read, rest.”
“Are you sure it is wise for me to go on my own?” Bran kept his eyes on the castle below them. At the crest of a hill, just off a well-used road, they stood looking down at the castle still a few miles off.
“It is the only way. As a dragon, I could wreak a great deal of havoc…but that is not what we want. Without my necklace I can provide little help.” Topaz shook strands of hair from his face, sending his earrings dancing. “Five years I’ve been gone…so what is actually occurring now, I know not. So it is up to you to determine the present circumstances.”
Bran nodded, “And where shall I look for you?”
“See the forest just beyond the field behind the castle? There is a well-used path that winds its way through it. Eventually it takes you to the harbor city. However, perhaps a twenty-minute walk or so into the forest, you will come across an immense tree, covered in ivy. Behind it, out of sight, is another path. You will not see it, unless you know to look for it. Take that path until you come to a small waterfall. I will wait for you there.”
“Very well. Wish me luck, Topaz.”
“May good fortune favor you, Bran of Trenton.” Topaz smiled, distracting Bran briefly from the task at hand. The dragon rose fluidly to his feet, “Take care, and do not act rashly. I will await you at the waterfall.” And with that he was gone, into the forest to make his way around the castle and to the meeting spot.
Sighing, Bran checked his weapons and squared his shoulders. He assumed an easy but rapid pace, looking for all the world like a soldier that had somewhere to be but was in no particular hurry to get there.
He met several others on the road, some going his way, others heading in the opposite direction. Halfway to the castle he paused for dinner, propped up against a tree at the roadside.
Footsteps approached and Bran tensed as shadows fell across him. He glanced up at the soldiers standing over him. They were dressed just as lightly as he was, though their leather armor was brown rather than black. One carried a broadsword and three daggers that he could see. The other carried a crossbow.
“Mind some company, stranger?” The one with the bow spoke, whipcord thin and bony. But muscles rippled as he motioned to the ground around Bran with his crossbow.
“Our thanks, brother.” The swordsman spoke in a much more mellow tone than his companion, though he looked the more dangerous. He was built much like Bran, broad chest and shoulders, arms and legs strong from swordsmanship. Looking at him, Bran wondered if the man had once been a knight himself. He looked as if the weight of armor would bother him not at all. Their accents were the long, lazy syllables of the South, so it was entirely possible.
The crossbow man brought out their food and a skin of wine. Taking a swig, he offered it to Bran. “Share with us, fellow soldier.”
Bran offered them a friendly smile, “What brings you this way? Southerners seldom venture into the North.”
“Work, of course. What work is there for men of battle in the South? Far too quiet there. And we hear there is a great deal of noise up here. And what of you? Your accent says you hail from the West.”
“I find it aggravating to dance to the king’s tune. I much prefer my own music.”
The swordsman grinned, “A runaway knight, eh? It is either a brave man or a foolish one that swears fealty and then runs away.”
“And which are you then?”
The man laughed heartily, “I prefer to call myself brave, but if I am caught I am certain I will be calling myself every kind of fool. And you, sir?”
“It is my opinion that only the foolish lack enough sense that they can act bravely.”
That surprised a laugh from the crossbow-bearer. “Well said, brother.” He smiled, the sharpness of his features easing. “I am Gerald of Longmoore. My friend is Keverick of Cherrior.”
“Bran of Trenton. An honor.” Bran passed the wine to Keverick.
“It is good to know we will have at least one friendly face upon our arrival. Rumors say the noise here, though great, is not the friendliest – not even to allies.”
“I have heard much the same.” Bran said.
Keverick grinned, “At least we will not be bored.”
“I would rather be bored than dead,” Gerald returned sharply.
“Calm down,” Keverick said unconcernedly. “If it looks to be too bad, we shall simply take our leave and head elsewhere.”
“We had better.”
“Whatever you command,” Keverick smiled at Gerald, and the two stared at each other a moment.
Bran had the feeling that they had forgotten he was there. Something was strange in the way they looked at each other…but he could not figure out what. He shrugged it off, eating the last of his midday meal and stowing the rest.
Gerald coughed, and returned his attention to Bran. “Our thanks, for allowing us to join you. Shall we complete the journey together? The more the merrier, as they say.”
“A fine idea. I am used to be surrounded by fellow knights; solitude does not rest well with me. The company would be appreciated.” Bran smiled as he climbed to his feet and joined the other two back on the road. He did enjoy being back among soldiers; he had missed other people in the month it had taken him to heal.
Not that he had ever truly been lonely. His mind strayed to the reason for that as he walked. Topaz was…soothing to him. He had never met anyone like the dragon, and he still found it hard to breathe whenever he looked at Topaz in human form…and those swirling eyes were disconcerting when he was a dragon. No, he had never been lonely. Quite the opposite.
In fact, he realized he already missed the dragon. This was the first time he had been back among people since he’d left to slay the dragon. In another hour or so he would be back in the hustle and bustle of the castle, lost in the hard life of a soldier. The quiet, easy life in Topaz’s cave seemed very far away, and he wished it were closer.
But, he would see Topaz that night if he could manage to get away. That would have to content him. In the meantime, he would focus on the mission.
He was rapidly growing fond of Gerald and Keverick. The swordsman had indeed once been a knight, but for a lord rather than a king, and he had rapidly grown bored of what he termed “the fat pig’s incompetence.” Gerald had been a hunter for the same lord, and they had become fast friends. They left when the situation at their keep turned from bad to worse, and had been wandering slowly North ever since.
There was still something strange about the two of them, but Bran could not figure out what. The way they looked at each other, the way they interacted and responded to each other…something about it was familiar, but he could not place it. He shrugged -it would come to him eventually.
Getting accepted into the ranks had been an easy matter. Banditry was even worse inside the country than it was at the border, which made Bran grimace. Nor was he the only mercenary-type seeking wages as a castle soldier. Most of the official army had apparently run off to become bandits. Well, if nothing else came of this venture, it would gain him a great deal of information.
He could discern no clear leader. An older man, Vladimir, seemed to be in charge for the most part. But it seemed a tenuous a control at best, at least to his eyes. He knew what ordered soldiers were like…these men were seriously disordered. Money controlled them, not loyalty.
And money ran out.
Proving himself was easy. After countless battles astride Crush, both of them heavy with armor? Combating bandits and enemy soldiers in less than ideal conditions? Fighting in a practice arena in only leather armor was almost painfully easy.
Bran barely managed to keep a straight face, when after his trials he was assigned to the soldiers that would be keeping bandits from the city. “Back where I started,” he muttered softly. But that also meant he was free to do as he pleased until his assigned unit returned – they were still on patrol.
He wandered around those parts of the castles he could visit without suspicion. It was clear that control was tenuous at best; maintained only because the servants needed the money and home, and the mercs liked the money.
Frowning, lost in thought, Bran wandered into what turned out to be an ill-kept garden. Most likely, no one had the time to spare to tend to a luxury when there were so many necessities. That or the one who had favored the garden was no longer around to see that it was maintained. Rowan had liked the garden, as had Topaz.
“It is rare to see anyone from the West,” a voice like oil interrupted his reverie.
Bran tensed, and turned slowly around.
Vladimir stood at the threshold, arms folded across his chest, dark green eyes narrowed suspiciously as they examined Bran. Several rings glittered on his hands, a fat ruby, a heavy emerald, among countless others. A fortune in jewels on his thin, spidery fingers. “Especially one as skilled as you. What does a knight of the Western Realm here?”
“I grew tired of always being on my knees,” Bran shrugged.
The older man sneered, “Indeed. And you find it better here?”
“Money is a fine mistress. And there is no king to force me to obeisance. Have you any complaints, my Lord?”
“None at present, sir knight.”
“I am a knight no longer.”
Vladimir turned dismissively away, long, heavy robes swirling around him “That remains to be seen, Bran of Trenton.”
Bran resisted the urge to smirk as the man vanished. They were so busy suspecting him of spying for his King, he need not worry about them discovering Topaz.
Which reminded him that he’d best be on his way. He did not want to be wandering the forest in complete dark. Perhaps he could commandeer a lantern from supplies.
Nodding to himself, he traced his steps back through the winding halls of the castle and back toward the main hall. From there he knew his way to the supply room. And all the others were either in the dining hall or practice arena…where Vladimir had slunk off to, he did not know. Best to be quick then.
But the sound of people in the storeroom brought him up short…something sounded strange. Slinking up to the door, just barely ajar, he pushed it gently open and looked inside.
It was sheer shock that kept him silent.
Gerald and Keverick were locked in an embrace; the noises he had heard were the swordsman pressing the other man against the shelves on the far wall. And Bran suddenly realized what about them had always bothered him—they were lovers, and clearly in love. He had seen several comrades and subordinates act that way. But with women, not other men. He had heard of such things…but seeing it was something else altogether.
Face hot, he forced himself to turn away. He was a man, yet at the moment he felt very much like an untried boy. Disconcerted, he did not notice the door swing further open or the two men who jerked apart inside. Suddenly desperate for solitude, he stumbled into the first empty room he came to.
A treasury of some sort. He was briefly distracted by the discovery; utterly disgusted that the disorder was so bad it resulted in such a room being left unlocked. It made him wince, to think about how much must have been lifted from the chamber. Because it was obvious that a great deal more than was present should have been in the half empty room.
Of course it was entirely possible that Vladimir himself was emptying the room to pay for his makeshift army. Bran focused desperately on thoughts of the man that seemed to be the one he was after – anything to distract him from the image of his new friends kissing each other like there was nothing else they would rather do. He had never seen anything like that.
Feeling his face heat up again, he looked around the room for distractions. His eyes landed on a small cask, the lid throne back to display a mass of jewelry. Some of the pieces were pretty, but a closer examination revealed them all to be fake jewels. He lingered on a piece that looked somewhat out of place alongside of the others. Instead of gold or silver chain, it was a thin band of soft, pliant brown leather. And rather than glass, the yellow-brown stone set in gold and fastened to the leather was quite real.
He drew a sharp intake of breath, realizing what it was he held in his hand. But why was it right here in plain sight? Then again, why would anyone think it worth hiding away? The dragon that had once worn it was long dead, so far as they knew.
Without hesitation he stowed the necklace beneath his jerkin, then spun on his heel and, checking the hallway, crept quietly out of the treasury and toward the back of the castle. Nodding in passing to the servants in the kitchen, he slipped out the servants’ entrance and through the small courtyard outside.
Dark was rapidly approaching, and so he wasted no time in making his way across the field and toward the forest where Topaz had instructed he go. Reaching it, he made his way along the road there until he came across the tree that Topaz had said he would find.
Stepping around it, he could just make out a path. He glanced up – it was getting far too dark to attempt the unknown way.
“Need a light, brother?” Gerald spoke up from behind him. Light flared as he lit a torch.
Bran spun around, thoroughly dismayed that he had let himself be so easily followed.
Keverick agreed, “You must be troubled indeed, brother, to let yourself be so careless.”
“I am more curious to know your reasons for following me,” he put his hand to the hilt of his sword. “I prefer to call you friend rather than enemy.”
“Peace, brother.” And Bran suddenly realized they appeared nervous. Gerald raised the torch so they could better see each other. “We were afraid only that the…incident in the supply room might have displeased you. And then we thought it strange that you would choose now to take a walk.”
Bran was grateful suddenly for the dark. “My apologies for disturbing you. I had not expected…” he fell silent. “Be at peace. I was surprised, nothing more.”
The other two men relaxed. Keverick smiled, “That is good to hear. So why do you take walks in strange woods at night? Is there anything we can assist you with?”
“I had hoped to beat the dark here,” Bran said slowly.
“Be at peace, brother. Secrets we can keep, and if it is mischief you are about, then our assistance you could probably use. Better to help a friend than that snake back in the keep.”
“Mayhap…” Bran smirked briefly at the description of Vladimir as a snake.
“We intend you no harm, brother. It is only that in you we see a kindred spirit. We would like to assist you, if we may.”
Bran nodded slowly, “It is true that I could use the assistance. And if you prove treacherous, I shall have only myself to blame.”
“We shall prove only helpful, I vow it.” Gerald held the torch out to him, “Lead on, brother.” Hands free, he swung his crossbow from his shoulder. The muscles in his arms rippled and pulled as he loaded it. Beside him Keverick drew his sword. “Never know what awaits you in these woods.”
At that, Bran could not help but laugh. “On the contrary, I know exactly what awaits me in these woods. But as you say, there could be a surprise or two.” He drew his own sword, and turned to lead the way down the slight path.
They walked in silence, all of Bran’s attention on their path to avoid losing them in the forest. He smirked at his companions’ soft words, exchanges on how oddly silent the forest was. Suddenly he went still, cocking his head as a sound reached his ears. He smiled, “I hear water.”
“What?” Keverick asked.
“A waterfall.” Bran smiled, “We are nearly where we need to be.” Sure enough, only moments later they reached a clearing. A waterfall of only perhaps a dozen feet or so in height poured into a small pond at the center of the clearing. Moonlight cast strange shadows on the grass and water.
“By the Queen! What is that!” Gerald half-shouted, stumbling to a halt so abruptly that Keverick crashed into his back.
“It…” Keverick spoke in an awed whisper.
Bran laughed and approached Topaz, stretched out along the bank of the pond. He stroked the dragon’s muzzle.
You brought friends, I see.
“What was that?” Gerald asked.
“Indeed I did.”
Are you sure that was wise? They seem rather jumpy.
Keverick was staring at them oddly. “I think…I think the dragon is talking.”
“Dragons do not talk.”
I beg to differ.
Bran sheathed his sword and propped the torch in the hole of an old tree stump. “Be at ease, friends. Topaz will do you no harm.”
“Topaz?” Keverick asked, sheathing his own sword and warily approaching. “The dragon has a name?”
The dragon would prefer you speak to him, rather than around him.
Staring at the dragon in uncertainty, Keverick slowly nodded. “Of course. My apologies. I feared my sense had fled me. Instead it seems my manners have run off.”
“How is it you are able to speak, dragon? Forgive me, Topaz.”
All dragons are capable of speech.
“It is humans who are incapable of listening.” Bran finished for him.
You are taking away my fun.
“Hardly. You still have Gerald rendered speechless.”
“I am not speechless. Merely trying to ascertain whether or not I have lost my mind.” He glared at Bran in wry amusement, “I can see why you were unconcerned about trekking through a forest in the dark.”
Wolves are occasionally a concern.
I think it amusing.
Bran snorted, and then smiled at his confused-looking friends. He motioned them to sit, and explained to them how he and Topaz met, as well as what they were up to.
Gerald yawned as Bran finished the tale, “How fascinating.”
“You really think the two of you can bring this country under control?”
Better than doing nothing, and as I am sure you have noticed the country is not capable of taking care of itself.
“That makes no sense to me. Why have the people not risen up? Rebellions can go a long way in the right situation. ‘Tis how the South broke free, years and years ago.”
I am not sure you three would ever notice it; a few decades ago I would not have. There is a barrier preventing anyone from leaving the country; from what I can read of you three, there are few soldiers left. My impression is that the people are too busy trying to survive to mount a rebellion. They also lack a leader – a rebellion without a leader is nothing more than a riot.
“And no one in the castle will do anything; they are all too busy trying to stab one another in the back.” Gerald grimaced, “What do you mean by a barrier?”
Bran looked up at Topaz, “You mean Sage work?”
Yes. Vladimir, I suspect. After Rowan, he was the strongest Sage.
“Poor betrayers indeed, if after slaying their King they could not take control.”
Too much in fighting. They all of them were deceivers; after their mutual goal was accomplished, their cooperation dissolved. How do you trust men whom you know are quite capable of betrayal?
“An astute observation. So what do we do now? Four have no better a chance at overthrowing a Sage and his minions than do two.”
I am more interested in why the two of you are so ready to rise to a cause with which you have nothing to do. It ill fits with the mercenary image you are attempting to portray.
Bran frowned at those words, and glanced with suspicion and disappointment at the two men he’d already started to regard as friends.
Keverick grinned lazily, “Oh?.”
“We are knights of the South, sent by our Queen to investigate what is occurring here in the North.” Gerald looked apologetically at Bran, “That is why we latched onto you on the way here. You were clearly Western, and the West seldom interferes in anything. You have no need; the West is the strongest and most stable of the four Realms. We wondered if perhaps your plans were similar to our own. It turns out they are, after a fashion. We were not trying to deceive, it just seemed pointless to mention why we were hired to come here.”
“Is there anything else you are withholding?” Bran asked coolly.
Now, now Bran. You trusted them enough to bring them here; do not doubt yourself now. Little has changed, and I read nothing dishonest in their thoughts. They seem honestly interested in helping.
Bran frowned at Topaz.
Do not look at me like that. And they cannot hear me now, so if you share your thoughts you need not worry that they will them from me.
I am not angry. But if you knew all along, you might have shared the knowledge with me.
It seemed a relatively small thing. As they say, it changes nothing. Merely who is really paying them to get into fights here. Something else is bothering you.
Have you not already read those thoughts? Bran felt his cheeks turn hot, and once more he thanked the darkness for hiding his flush. He was too old to be acting in such a manner! But he still could not forget the image of the two men together in the supply room.
I see. And I do not ‘read’ thoughts, as you say, unless they are at the forefront of your mind. As they are now. How amusing, that you are so easily flustered by a simple kiss.
Can we discuss this later? Or never?
I meant no offense, Bran. It is rare that you are so discomfited. The dragon’s voice was sly, and his nostrils flared a moment before he returned his attention to Gerald and Keverick. I think the issue is resolved. You are sincere in wanting to assist us?
“Yes,” Gerald nodded. “That is our duty, and it would benefit all four nations if the North was stable once again. It is not the only country to have suffered from its isolation.”
“Better than working for Lord Snake.”
“We have not been here a day yet and already you are that disgusted with him?” Bran asked with a laugh.
Keverick wrinkled his nose, “I know a bad leader when I see – and smell – him. He would never last a day under the service of the Queen. I am impressed he has lasted as long as he has here.”
His magic is a large part of that. To get rid of it, you must kill him. But to kill him you must get past his magic.
“Why can we not simply put you to work?” Gerald asked. “A dragon could end things quite easily.”
“The cost would be too high…and Topaz was once a friend of the King and his Sage.”
I could provide more assistance if I were able to assume my human form for more than a few hours.
“Oh!” Bran smacked himself. “How could I forget?” He dug beneath his jerkin and pulled free the necklace he had discovered earlier. “Topaz, is this your necklace?”
By the…Bran, where did you find that?
“So this is it?” he asked eagerly.
Yes…that is my necklace. Bran had never heard Topaz’s voice tremble before.
“So how does it work?”
Simple, really. Topaz began to chant his spell, and Bran closed his eyes to avoid the disorientation that always accompanied it. When he opened them again, Topaz was human.
Whatever he had meant to say was forgotten, as the memory of the supply room kiss slammed through him. But instead of Gerald and Keverick, the image was of him and Topaz. Bran started coughing, embarrassed and disconcerted as it struck him that his admiration of Topaz’s beauty and dark skin was not as innocent as he had assumed. He was immensely grateful that Topaz was currently human, where he could not read Bran’s thoughts.
He forced those thoughts away until he had the time to ponder them, and warily looked at Topaz as the dragon accepted the necklace he held out. He ignored the questioning looking Topaz sent him, shaking his head and waiting in silence as the dragon donned the necklace. “That is all that is required?”
“Yes. The necklace merely ‘locks’ the spell so that it cannot be undone – except by removing the necklace. How he accomplished it, I know not. My lessons ended prematurely.”
“I thought you were a dragon.” Gerald finally managed. Beside him Keverick was still silent.
“I am,” Topaz said, smoothing the front of his dark tunic. His earrings jangled as he moved to brush strands of hair from his face. “It is a long story…suffice to say that Rowan, the Sage who rescued me, created a spell to make me human.”
“Why?” Keverick asked shrewdly.
“Because, to use his words, there are things I can only understand when I am human. He was quite intent on teaching me many things. And there were things we both learned, that took us rather by surprise.” Topaz for a moment looked sad, but it was gone a moment later. “Are the two of you going to be all right?”
“We will be fine. Do not mind us. We are a trifle overwhelmed but we shall recover.”
“Excellent.” Topaz turned to Bran. “And you?”
“Something appears to be bothering you.”
“No…I am fine. Perhaps a bit tired.”
Topaz quirked a brow, but let it go.
Bran coughed, “So what do we do now?”
“We gather the bandits,” Topaz said firmly. “Amongst the soldiers, I had many friends. They loved the King, and greatly respected Rowan. Hopefully they will have not forgotten me.”
“So I go from killing them to recruiting them?” Bran sighed and sat down next to the torch. “How strange my life has become. I had no idea attempting to kill a dragon carried such a penalty.”
“Maybe the next time you decide to get yourself killed, you will think upon this and reconsider.”
Bran sighed again, shaking his head and smiling despite himself.
Gerald grinned, “Attacked by wolves, eh? Let me guess, you left out the part where you were trying to find and kill the dragon?”
“Yes,” Bran said with a grimace.
Topaz smirked, “He also left out the part where he decided that he was also going to let the dragon kill him.”
“What?” Keverick exclaimed.
Bran glared at Topaz, “Because as Topaz is fond of reminding me, I was a fool.” He turned to regard them, “And I did not lie when I said I was tired of my life of servitude. I begged my King to release me from his service, and was despondent when he refused.”
“Why not simply leave and go elsewhere?”
“Because I am a Knight, and it would be dishonorable to simply vanish. Death at least is a valid way out.” He rubbed the back of his neck, “And I had nowhere to run. My life belonged to my King. I have no friends, no family, and I have never seen the lands with which I was gifted years ago. And only hours before I begged for freedom, I had lost a squire of whom I was inordinately fond. I was not at my best when I made the decision to slay and be slain by a dragon.”
“Fealty is only as good as the man asking for it. If the Master is unworthy, take your leave. You seem to be doing well, with your life as your own and not his.”
Bran smiled, “Yes. I am grateful that events transpired as they did.” He glared at Topaz, “Though I wish someone would relent in reminding me of my past stupidity.”
“Why ever would I do that?” Topaz asked with an idle grin.
“As entertaining as this is, should we not be focusing on the problem at hand?”
Topaz nodded, “True. As I said, we need to locate the bandits. Which should not prove difficult…I had quite the time avoiding them today. But I think now we are ready to be seen?”
“I agree.” Keverick rose, eager and ready to move forward with their plans.
Gerald was less hasty, “Is it not rather late to begin such endeavors?”
“No,” Topaz shook his head. “It is early in the evening yet. Besides, how many times do you think you three can sneak out here before you are discovered? Best to act now, while the advantage is ours.”
“True enough,” Gerald rose and stretched, then hefted his crossbow. “Lay on.”
The dragon nodded and took up the light. Bran fell into step just behind him, allowing Topaz to lead the way to…wherever it was he was taking them.
He led them out of the clearing and back along the path they had come. Gerald held his crossbow at the ready, but Keverick and Bran kept their swords sheathed. Halfway back to the main road, Topaz suddenly veered from their path and led them deeper into the forest.
The lantern swung and bobbed as he moved, erratic light guiding them through the dark maze of trees. Above the canopy spots of moonlight broke through to cast strange shadows. Save for their footsteps and the occasional muttered curse as one or another tripped on a root or clump of dirt, all was quiet. Topaz continued to lead them deeper into the forest.
Some time later, Bran thought he caught traces of light. Murmurs from Gerald and Keverick indicated they saw the same thing. Topaz merely glared at them in the dark. As they came into a clearing, he saw there was several men gathered around two moderate fires. Rather, they had been gathered. Now they stood with swords drawn as the four of them entered the clearing.
One man separated himself from the crowd of bandits and approached them cautiously. “Who are you?” he asked sharply.
“Trey of Mistdale,” Topaz said softly, “Do not tell me that you have forgotten me entirely?”
There was a beat of silence, before the man’s jaw dropped in shock. “But it cannot be…Lord Topaz?”
“But you were slain!” Around Trey several other men gathered, explaining Topaz in awed whispers to the few who did not of him. Trey motioned them to silence with a cut of his arm. “Where have you been? We thought you dead.”
“It is a long story, Trey.”
“Then come, eat and tell it. Who are your companions?”
“Friends and allies. Gerald of Longmoore and Keverick of Cherrior, from the South. And Bran of Trenton, from the West.”
Another silence fell, “Bran of Trenton?” Trey peered through narrow eyes at Bran, who stared solemnly back. “You are the Knight Captain of the Western King.” His voice had gone cold, “We will not share fire and food with one who has slain so many of us.” He drew his sword again, “Not even for you, Topaz.”
Bran’s voice was neutral as he replied, sword still sheathed. “And what of you and your men? Abandoning your castle to prey on civilians whose only crime was to live on the border? And you have slain many of my knights.”
“We do what we must to survive.” Trey’s face flooded with unhappiness, but the steel returned to it a second later. “How could you possibly understand? We are bound here, with no way out to seek help. Instead of a worthy King, would-be leaders change nearly by the month. And many of the bandits preying on your people are not knights, but simply peasants desperate for relief.”
“That does not excuse your poor behavior. You are – or were – a Knight Captain yourself. It is poor leadership indeed that would allow knights and the people to resort to violence against those who have done no wrong.”
Trey glared and hefted his sword. “I do not much care for your words.”
“It was your own words that provoked mine. Peace, I say. My intentions are only good.”
“I care not for the intentions of a pretentious Westerner!”
Bran drew his sword and deflected Trey’s sudden blow, blades clashing loudly in the semi-dark clearing. He forced the man away, then raised his sword to continue defending. A brief glance at Topaz as he stepped back and to the side showed the dragon was utterly dejected – and disappointed. Bran frowned, suddenly filled with fury.
With a rough cry he parried Trey’s next blow, then struck out in an unexpected dash forward, moving in close and swinging hard enough that it jarred the other man to block it, slowing him momentarily. Trey was unable to block his next blow, and the press of Bran’s blade to his throat ended the brief duel. Bran’s voice was stern, “This is not the time for personal grievances, Trey of Mistdale. Topaz has come all this way, and enlisted my aid, to see that your country becomes again the place your King and the Sage Rowan loved. You are hurting him, fighting with me. Is that how you treat friends? Or do you no longer consider Topaz a friend?”
Trey’s infuriated expression faded as Bran’s words struck him. He cast a glance at Topaz’s unhappy face, and let his sword fall to the ground.
Bran withdrew and re-sheathed his own blade. A thin line of blood marred Trey’s throat; the Northern Captain ignored it and retrieved his own sword.
“Perhaps I overreacted,” Trey said shortly to Topaz, before turning away and with a jerk of his head indicating they should follow. “Come, there is much to discuss.”
It was well onto early morning before everything was concluded. Trey looked at Bran and offered a begrudging apology, “You go to great lengths for us.”
“As I said before, it benefits all of us to see the North stable again. And ’tis better to earn my freedom this way than to wait indefinitely for release from a King that most likely will not grant it.”
“I was unfair, when first we met. My apologies.” Trey held out his hand.
Surprised, Bran shook his head. “Be at peace,” they clasped wrists. “I would be more concerned if you had acted pleasantly.”
“Peace, then.” Trey looked to Topaz, “It is still incredible to me that you are alive. Have you a plan in mind?”
“Vladimir cannot be killed lightly,” the dragon said pensively. “Though there is no doubt in my mind that he must die. First though we must find the focus of the barrier spell.”
“Killing him will not break it?” Bran asked.
Trey shook his head, “No. Spells do not work that way. The South and the West have never practiced magic, so you would not know. A spell such as the one Vladimir has cast is bound to the land upon which he cast it. Much like the markings that the Easterners ink into their skin. But there should be a…focus somewhere, an anchor of sorts. But only Vlad would know what that is, and he undoubtedly has it protected. If we kill him without knowing what the focus is, we could search for years and never find it.
“I…sort of understand.” Bran said. Beside him Gerald and Keverick shrugged, equally confused. “So we need first to capture him and find this…focus.”
“Exactly,” Topaz said. “Though of course it will not be that simple.”
Bran sighed. It would take them months to repair the damage wreaked by turmoil and strife. First and foremost was gathering the bandits and restoring them into a proper army of knights…plus the peasants to calm and bring to order, along with a number of other matters. There was little point in killing the man responsible if they did not have the support of the people.
It was nearly dawn before they ceased talking, and on weary feet they followed Trey and his fellows to a place where they could rest in safety.
It had taken them many months to get to this point. Months and a great many losses. With Topaz’s guidance and Trey’s assistance, Bran had rallied the bandits and people and made them the country they once had been. The mercenaries hired by Vladimir and his unreliable cohorts had either been persuaded to join or routed entirely. Vladimir’s magic had taken its toll on them, but Topaz had kept the worst of it from them.
Now all that was left was Vladimir himself, and the barrier.
Taking possession of the castle was the easy part. There were few threats left, and the those few foolish enough to attack them – Bran could only suppose they were well paid and desperate for that pay – were cut down by either him or Trey as they made their way to the backroom where Vladimir was lurking. They had cut off all other possible routes of escape.
Reaching for the doors to the throne room, Bran frowned as Trey firmly pushed him away. “Allow me,” the knight captain said, “In case he has sabotaged it.”
Trey ignored him, and drew his sword. With effort he shoved open one of the heavy doors, braced for any possible attack. Warily he stepped into the throne room, decorated in blue and gilt.
Vladimir sat lazily on the throne, looking for all the world like he had not a care in the world. Until he saw Topaz. “You! How is it that you are alive? We killed you.”
The dragon tapped his necklace, “You should have left me my jewelry, fool. A wound fatal to a human is naught but a scratch to a dragon.”
His face twisted with anger for a moment before Vlad managed to smooth it out. “So what are your plans now? Killing me will not fix anything. Unless you plan to take my place.”
“No,” Topaz said softly. “I am not a King. And we must have the barrier, before we are to kill you.”
“If you think I am going to give you the focus, you are severely deluded. I will kill myself before I give that to you.”
Bran raised his sword and began to respond, but he was cut off by a motion and look from Topaz. “Allow me, Bran.”
“As you wish, Topaz.” With a nod and dip of his shoulders, Bran stepped back.
Topaz stared with narrow eyes at the thing, oily would-be king. He turned toward his companions, “Wait for me outside.”
“What?” Trey said in astonishment.
Bran cocked his head, then sheathed his sword and nodded again. Grabbing Trey by the upper arm, he hauled the man who had become a friend back. “Be careful, Topaz.” His eyes were intent as he gazed at the dragon.
“Of course.” Even as they were still walking out, Topaz began to unfasten the necklace at his throat. As Bran closed the heavy doors behind them, he could see the familiar form of the dragon filling the large chamber.
He turned to the disgruntled Trey, “I think he knows where the focus is…and you cannot begrudge him the revenge he has been denied for so long.”
“Of course not,” Trey said, frustrated, “But I would have liked to have seen it. That man has ruined more lives than Topaz’s.”
Bran nodded, “Yes. But-”
“But nothing. Be at peace, I know my place.”
Smiling, Bran changed the subject. “Keverick and Gerald are not yet returned?”
“They are returned,” Keverick said from the doorway. “And we have a gift from the Western King, for his knight errant who is working to rescue the North.”
The two Southern knights had volunteered to go as messengers to the West, to inform that country of what was occurring in the North. They were the last of three sets of messengers to return. Gerald grinned, “He was most displeased to hear that you were still alive and had declined to inform him sooner. His gift is sent in the hopes that once your ‘idiocy’ is concluded, you will hasten back to his command.” He paused, “But there are a few who accompanied your surprise who have other ideas.”
Bran frowned, confused and upset. “What?”
“Come see…where is Topaz?”
Trey motioned Bran to go on, and explained to the two himself how Topaz had ordered them out of the room.
Outside, Bran let out a cry of surprised delight. For in the courtyard was Crush, surrounded by a great many faces that he thought never to see again. Silence fell for a moment, and then Bran found himself nearly drowning in knights. He let their remonstrations and cries of joy drown him.
At last they quieted, save the occasional mutter that they could not believe he was still alive. “Brothers, what do you here?”
A dark haired knight replied in an offended tone. “How could we not come, when we heard our Captain was still alive? And Crush has missed you something awful, Captain. No one could touch him, except for your Southern friends. I think somehow Crush knew they had been with you.”
Another knight nodded, “How could you Captain? We thought you were dead. It has been abysmal without you. Why did you not send for us?”
“I…there was never a chance,” Bran fumbled. He shook his head, “And your fealty is to your King, not to your Captain.”
“To that fat oaf who does nothing but sit and point?” his red-haired second-in-command sneered a reply. “Nay, Captain. Our loyalty is yours, not his. We were grief-stricken by your death. And then we discover you have been alive all the while? Broke our hearts Captain, that you did not call for us. We would have come immediately.”
Bran was overwhelmed. “I…I am sorry. I thought ‘twould be best to leave you out of it. I myself did not realize just how entangled I would become. It started out as a quest to kill a dragon.”
“We will forgive you this time,” a blonde knight said with a grin. “But see that you do not do it again.”
“I shall endeavor to stay away from further rebellions. And I shall call for you should I find myself entangled in one.”
“That will do, then. Now go pay attention to Crush before he crushes us for keeping you from him.”
Bran needed no further encouragement, but moved to stroke and pet the horse he had regretted leaving behind. The horse nuzzled him, obviously pleased to see his master.
The reunion was interrupted by the clamoring and murmuring of his men as they stared at something on the steps. Turning around to see, Bran realized they were staring at Topaz, who was once again human. The dragon was clutching something in his right hand.
Leaving his horse, Bran dashed up the steps to Topaz’s side. “Are you all right?”
“I am fine. I suggest no one go in the throne room for bit, however. It smells quite vile.” He smiled tiredly, his eyes much lighter than Bran had ever seen them. “I never quite thought we would reach this point. Here is the focus…I knew the moment I saw it on his hand that it would be in this in.” He opened his hand, and glittering on his palm was a ring Bran distantly remembered seeing on Vladimir’s hand. The band was made of gold, and set into it was a fat, glittering ruby. “It belonged to Rowan, a gift from the King one year. He held it dear, and Vlad had always envied him for bearing such a gift when the King had never given him more than a nod.”
“Not very clever of him.”
“I think ’tis obvious that Vladimir is—was—far from clever,” Trey said dryly. “So are we free then?”
Topaz whispered a spell over the ring, and for a moment the world went hazy. When it cleared again, Trey’s face was remarkably lighter. Bran had not realized until then just how tense his friend really looked.
“The spell is gone!” the black-haired Captain of the North crowed. He beamed at Bran and Topaz, “You really have done it.”
Bran shook his head, “This was Topaz’s endeavor. I have done little.”
“On the contrary,” Topaz said firmly. “You are the one who gathered the bandits.” He forestalled a protest with his hand, “It is true that Trey and I got them to stop and listen, but it was you and your story that moved them, united them. So too with the people. These men,” he motioned with a sweep of his arm to the knights and mercenaries gathered before the castle, “Follow you. I am your advisor, little more.”
“Indeed,” Trey agreed. “We are all your faithful followers, Bran of the North.”
“Of the…what are you saying?”
Topaz grinned, “As usual, dearest Bran, you are the only one to remain utterly oblivious to yourself. In all these months, have you never noticed that these people have made you their leader?”
“Leader? What? I am no leader. Merely a knight in search of his freedom,” Bran shifted his gaze from Topaz to Trey, then to Gerald and Keverick. He grew more discomfited, “Besides, surely there is already an heir somewhere waiting to claim his throne?”
“Nay,” Topaz shook his head. “The King lost his wife when they were both young. He refused to remarry, and there were never any children. His parents died several years before he was killed. Vladimir knew what he was doing, in that respect. There are no challengers to the throne; and even if there were they would not succeed in taking it from you.”
“The throne! Are all of you are mad?” It was starting to strike him just want they intended for him. “I am no king. I am not fit for it. Besides, you or Trey has far better a claim than I.”
“Nonsense,” Trey said. “I would make a terrible King, so too would Topaz. You are the one we have chosen, despite the fact that you never seemed to notice.”
Bran shook his head, “But all I wanted was freedom and a home in which to enjoy it.”
Topaz smiled in gentle amusement, “You are still dense. It is a good thing you have the four of us to save you from yourself.” He turned to Trey and Gerald, who were closest to Bran. “Make sure he remains there.”
The men grinned.
Turning, Topaz moved to the steps and down one, so that he was just below Bran. He addressed the people assembled in the courtyard, “People of the North! You are free!”
The cheers continued unabated for several long minutes, and died down only so that Topaz could give them further reason to celebrate. With his arm the dragon indicated a pale-faced Bran, “I present to you, your savior and new King – Bran of the North!”
The response to this statement was deafening, and Bran would have fled but for the grips that Trey and Gerald had on his arms. Shaking them off, he glared briefly at them both before taking a deep breath and stepping forward to the accept the role he could not find a way to refuse.
It was nearly midnight when Topaz guided an exhausted Bran to his chambers, which had been hastily cleaned and scoured of all that remained of the vanished Vladimir. No traces of the man had been found anywhere, and Topaz refused to explain what had transpired. But it would be several days before the acrid smell of burned flesh vanished from the throne room.
Wearily Bran sat down in a chair set beside the massive fireplace at the far end of the King’s chamber – his chamber. It was unnerving. He looked anxiously at Topaz. “This is not what I wanted, nor what I had planned when we began this adventure.”
“Nor had I. But it was not hard to foresee it, once we began in earnest to repair the country. No matter what you think, my Bran, the role suits you.”
“I do not want it.”
“That only makes you that much more suited.”
Bran’s shoulders sagged, “I sought freedom, Topaz. Not to be a King. My King will not be pleased by this turn of events at all.”
“He is your King no longer,” Topaz said sternly. “He is your equal now. I should think you are the better, actually. You are Bran, King of the North. Best get used to it.” The dragon knelt beside him, “And are you certain that it was freedom you sought, when you ventured into the woods so long ago?”
“What do you mean? Of course it was freedom.”
“It does not seem that way to me. I thought that you would have figured it out by now. You are by far the densest human I have ever met.”
“Thank you,” Bran said dismally. “So what do I want then, if not freedom? Because if I am to be King, I most definitely do not have that.”
Topaz set his arms on Bran’s, resting on the arms of the chair. His gold-brown eyes were warm, voice soft as he replied. “To not be alone? I think, in your mind, knighthood is linked with loneliness. So you sought to free yourself from it. But look at you now – the growing adoration of a country, three steadfast and loyal friends, and many countrymen from the North who abandoned their King to join you. And you have me.”
“Topaz…” Jewel-blue eyes dark with confusion and suppressed longing, Bran stared into the dragon’s eyes. How many times over the past several months had he tried in vain to avoid his strange feelings for the dragon? Too many to count. It seemed there was never a good time to work through them, and every time he saw Gerald and Keverick together, his feelings for the dragon became that much harder to ignore. It should dismay him, to feel this strongly for a man who was not even really that. But he found resisting impossible, and that resistance crumbled a bit more every time he saw Topaz smile, or the sunlight beat down on that dusky skin, or even when Topaz teased him yet again about how they met in the forest.
“You look like a lost little boy,” the dragon chuckled softly. “Besides the fact that I can read minds when I’m a dragon, you are not very good at hiding your thoughts when one knows what to look for.”
Mortified, Bran jerked his eyes away from Topaz’s gaze. “That does not bode well if I am going to be king.”
“Stop that. You will make a splendid king. And I will always be here to help you…” the dragon reached up from his kneeling position, breath warm against Bran’s cheek, making him shiver. “If you had not been so busy trying to hide, you might have noticed that I was watching you just as often.”
“What do you mean?” Bran turned back, only to encounter Topaz’s lips.
Topaz’s mouth was as warm and soft as his eyes had been earlier, the dragon’s gentle heat making Bran gasp in surprise, before he moaned a soft defeat and returned the kiss full measure. A stray hand reached up to grasp Topaz’s hair, delighted to discover it was as thick and soft as it had always looked. The hand slide down his neck and across his shoulder, and Bran reveled briefly in the feel of that dusky skin under his fingers, as wonderful as he had always imagined.
He broke the kiss with a gasp, suddenly remembering that he needed to breathe. Topaz’s eyes were unfocused a moment, but they cleared a moment later and he grinned at Bran. “I think it rather obvious what I mean.”
“I suppose so,” Bran agreed faintly. “But…why…what about Rowan?”
Topaz shook his head, “I have spent the past six years mourning Rowan. I loved him dearly; he was my teacher and the one who made me human. But even if we met because you wanted to kill me,” his eyes sparkled at the old, familiar tease, “There was too much about you not to admire and grow to love. Perhaps it is strange…but I think not, really. Rowan made me human, but you are the one who made me want to be human again. And remain thus, for however long we both live.”
Completely overwhelmed, Bran wordlessly shook his head and stood. He pulled the dragon close, reaching up with one unsteady hand to stroke a dark cheek. “I am most definitely not worthy of such words. Certainly you are far grander than I deserve. But…I feel like I am free when you are around. Like nothing I have ever felt before. So even if I am unworthy, I would keep you close anyway. I think that if I were to lose you, I would gladly let the wolves have me.”
“Then I suppose I shall just have to remain close. Who but a dragon is capable of saving you from your own idiocy?”
“You are the only.” Bran ducked his head to meet Topaz’s kiss halfway, wrapping his arms around the dragon and pulling him close.