1.3.1 Discovery of the Horde
Astrid pushed her empty plate from her. She had come home for a late dinner after a day of exploring the Spine and began another argument with her mother.
“But hunting is poor. Only for one night.”
“You’re fifteen, hon, and it’s too dangerous outside the valley to be by yourself.”
“I’ve been over every inch of the mountains, mom. It’ll give me a better start tomorrow morning. Please, mom. Little Wing will be there to protect me.”
“No. Not unless you bring Selina or another female Rider.”
“But they’re on duty. Mom, please.”
Astrid pursed her lips and turned. “We’ll see,” she mumbled and slammed the door of their little cottage. Just outside waited her dragon and without so much as a hello, she mounted and took off.
Little Wing carried her along the volcanic core of the Spine, the impassable mountain range which divided North from South. The late spring meant poor hunting: the deer stayed under shelter and the smaller game like rabbit and fox remained too exhausting to track. The clouds to the west warned that a hard rain would come tomorrow, so she planned to use the window of good weather to explore. But her mother would not let her venture so far alone. Instead, they joined the dragons on the highest peaks to watch the sunset and make their plans.
The clans called them Swallowtail when Astrid and her dragon flew together; partners but not Riders. Every Rider had a part to play in village life as hunters or couriers to neighboring valleys. But they did not invite her and she did not expect them to: Riders thought her too independent, and she thought them too arrogant and condescending to the dragons. Except for her oldest friends, Selina and Finn, she rarely crossed paths with Riders.
She was happy as long as she remained free and not constrained within the high cliffs surrounding Inverness, and each day found her further from home. But now a day’s ride presented the same barrier to her explorations as the valley walls once did. The constraint produced another fight with her mother and another reason to run away.
To give herself time to think, Swallowtail joined the dragons to enjoy the dramatic sunset signaled by the oncoming storm clouds. Two gentle kicks from her heel told Little Wing to roll over and dive a thousand feet to a high ridge with a clear view west. They landed and jostled the others for position.
As the sun approached the horizon, an older dragon flew erratically before the group, and then dashed away to the northeast. Astrid and the dragons watched but did not follow. The old dragon came back and squawked for attention, and this time all but Little Wing took off and pursued him. When the old one came back a third time, it was clear what he wanted, and Swallowtail followed.
The old one sped to the northeast, high above the Blois River. This is where she wanted to go but was told not to, and never overnight. Even if she turned back now she would still be late and needed an explanation for her mother. But I had to, mother, she thought. The old one clearly wanted us to follow him. Someone may have been injured or required help. Mother will understand. She pursed her lips. And if she doesn’t, well...
One-by-one the other dragons returned home or landed to enjoy the setting sun until Swallowtail followed alone. At sunset they neared the northern edge of the mountain range where the Blois spilled over the falls into the foothills of Cherryth. There were no true borders here, only ragged lines on the maps indicating where passage south was dangerous for all but trained climbers.
Little Wing carried Astrid past the hills and over regular rows of conical tents and flickering orange campfires. Beyond the fires, they glided over a plain where men slept in the open. In the dim light of Fures, the smallest moon, they glided toward a dark funnel that meandered across the field. But her dragon pulled up short when they hit a wall of flies which choked them both and left them unable to see. Her dragon fluttered to a landing and snorted to clear his nose.
Astrid dismounted and recognized the funnel as a tornado of crows with vultures circling higher overhead. She walked toward it and stepped on something soft. A gust of wind swept past and the stench of rotting meat struck her like a blow, and she realized where she stood. This was a field of battle where the fallen men and horses lay unburied. Unable to control her revulsion, she retched.
A few meters away red eyes lifted from their work tearing at the bodies below them and moved slowly toward her with low growls. Wild dogs, she thought and remembered the warnings that dogs were not shy of humans like wolves. Terrified, she ran to Little Wing and mounted. As he took off, his claws raked the wild beasts that jumped to bite his legs.
Little Wing settled on a hillock near the old dragon. After retching what little remained in her stomach, she crawled to the edge of the cliff to observe. She could not discern the dark shapes moving in the gloom she sat and waited for another moon to rise.
When moonlight from Lon flooded the scene below, Astrid gasped. Thousands of armed men wove their way through the foothills and up the Blois River Valley, the same river which passed through Inverness many miles to the south. Huge machines crowded the narrow mountain trails: engines of war known only from stories, projectile weapons that could loft stones the length of three hundred men.
Astrid turned to the old dragon. Why the urgency? she wondered. She would certainly tell the Inverness Council of the battlefield and the invaders, but they were still many leagues from home. Why would the old one bring me here? She had no answer for him and prepared to mount Little Wing and return home when a piercing shriek sent chills up her spine—the cry of a dragon. Immediately she put her hand on Little Wing’s muzzle to stop him from crying out in response.
After Elen, the third and brightest moon, rose above the horizon Astrid recognized a frail and sickly dragon struggling against the heavy chains which bound him. The old one that had brought them looked at her and cocked his head as if expecting her to explain this horror or stop it.
Astrid shook her head. “There’s nothing I can do.”
The old dragon took off, and she mounted Little Wing to follow.
A single wingbeat aloft the chained beast wail again, and her dragon replied before she could stop him. Soon after she felt something hit her saddle and her dragon screeched. She reached back to find a crossbow bolt embedded in the thick leather behind her leg, pulled it out, and stuck it in her boot.