Rhianon-8. War and Magic

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She was awakened by a terrifying noise. The walls of the castle seemed to be shaking, as if some force was destroying the sky and the earth beneath them. Rhianon opened her eyes and noticed how the crystal on the dressing tables trembled and the pendants of the chandelier shook. Everything from the bases of the earth, the piles and foundations to the uppermost spires on the towers was in motion. It felt as if some giant was destroying a grandiose structure with his mighty fist like a toy. What was it? Was it an earthquake, a hurricane of unbelievable strength? Was it a storm or a doomsday?

At the last guess, she jumped up and began dressing herself in a hurry, not waiting for the fairy maids. What if it was Madael who had come with all his hellish army? What if right now he was standing under the gates of the castle, demanding her surrender, and the noble Ferdinand, of course, would not agree to part with his imaginary spouse? If it were his will, he would not give her up to any demon. But Madael, even alone without his infernal army, is capable of crushing not only the entire royal castle, but Vinor as well. He could turn an entire country to rubble without a second thought. Once he walks through the streets of the city with his flaming sword without his helmet on, those who don’t have time to take his head off will go blind or mad at the sight of him. And if he were to summon a pack of his dragons, they’d have no trouble turning half the world to ash.

With horror, Rhianon could hardly think straight. She grabbed the most sumptuous of her dresses. The ceremonial garment had been the first to arrive. The ceremonial garment fastened at the front with dainty gold buttons, like a royal emblem. She kept the dragon comb in her hair until she went to bed. Surprisingly, it did not prevent her from resting her head comfortably on the pillow. But she had strange dreams, as if she were lying dead under a mountain of treasure in a dragon’s cave, not living in a castle. Maybe it wasn’t her, but some other girl. The dream seemed so real.


It was Domian already knocking on the door of the secret passage that he appeared to have known about long ago. Last night they had agreed that he would snitch on her about everything that was going on in the castle and help as much as he could. He respected the fallen angel’s friend in her so much that he was willing to forget all self-interest. He didn’t really have any hobbies. He was tired of power and the impossibility of delaying the impending infirmity and old age. All his dreams had long been to gather as much information about Lucifer’s army as possible and, if possible, to get closer to it. Rhianon had helped him get so close to his cherished dream that the poor man felt dizzy. He had realized from the first that had it not been for her arrival in Vinor he would never have found the angel’s wing feather. If Rhianon had not come, the winged knight that Domian had been able to see at the tournament would never have arrived. Rhianon had advised him not to look too closely in the future, lest he lose his sight. Only she did not know whether Domian would have the fortitude to heed her advice when temptation was near again.

All along it seemed to her that Madael would come here and his appearance would prove devastating not only to her, but to everything around her now. She just didn’t think it would happen so soon.

If Domian was knocking on her door this early, something incredible had happened. Yesterday, when he’d helped her carry and hide the sword, he’d acted surprisingly manly, today his voice was trembling. Then something terrible was about to happen. Rhianon did not immediately think of him bringing her news of another attack. What if war had already begun? Had Manfred found powerful new allies and attacked Vinor himself? It was unlikely to happen, and yet fear struck her.

For a minute she came to her senses, not even rushing to let the waiting Domian in. He must have thought something must have happened to her already, because he looked extremely frightened. The first thing he did was to look at the window, which was wide open.

«Close it!» He pleaded.

«But why is it?» Rhianon took her time. Her windows were too high above ground level. Even if a storm were to break out below the cliffs on which the fortress towered in the Royal Harbor, it was unlikely that the spray from the waves would reach that high up. «Is there a storm coming? Or are we being taken under siege? Should I be wary of enemy arrows?»

He shook his head in the negative.

«Very well,» Rhianon knew of only one kind of creature other than a bird that could fly in here. An unsettling suspicion stirred in her heart again. Could it be Madael?

«It is better for you not to be alone now. It will be safer in the throne room. The men are gathered there. The archers in the towers are ready to fire, too, if necessary. They’re good shots. But their arrowheads aren’t designed to penetrate such armor.»

«You intrigue me,» Rhianon took her hand mirror and gazed at her reflection. She hadn’t slept much tonight, but she looked beautiful. Behind her was the reflection of a misty dawn and an open window. Something seemed to gleam in the gray sky. Rhianon noticed that the curve of a wing was reflected in the mirror.

«Be careful!» Dominic warned her.

She stepped back from the window and peered beyond, where she could make out the shape of a dragon. She focused her sharpened vision. The dragon must be able to see her from this distance, but he didn’t need her. She really needed him, though. He was a bright copper-yellow hue, with incredible green eyes like emeralds and a golden crest across his back.

«Just don’t get Vivian here. He needs his dragon scales armor alone,» she grinned, took one last look in the mirror to fix her disheveled locks, and was off before Domian could stop her.

«Where are you going?» He clasped his hands in despair as he struggled to keep up with her. «The throne room, I told you, is where everyone is…»

But she was hurtling up the countless flights of steps and spiral staircases. The more swiftly the others flocked down into the warmth and safety of the throne room, the more she was drawn upward, to the very spires of the towers, to the parapet, to the gray overcast skies. She had been afraid of heights before, but now she longed to go up. Soon she was on the roof. It was cold up here. The archers, who had already prepared to shoot, didn’t even notice her. Some were drawing the bowstring, others were checking the sharpness of their arrows, and some were firing cannons and heavy cannonballs. The dragon was just approaching the castle. In another minute it would either fly swiftly over the spires or attack. If the second happened, there would be a battle that these people might not win. Rhianon imagined how pathetic they looked in the dragon’s eyes. They were small and frail, with their bows and toy sabers or swords. They would do him even less harm than needles would do a thick turtle shell.

Rhianon held her breath. Here was her chance to negotiate with the dragon. It is with another one. This one was much bigger than the one she had played with in the cave. It was prettier, stronger, and surely more powerful. Rhianon knew he could see her even from a great distance. She stood on the parapet. The excitement was so great that even the fear of falling down in front of him meant nothing.

«Notice me! Notice me!» She begged him mentally. «I need to negotiate with you.»

Her puffy azure dress fluttered in the wind, must have looked like a banner. In any case, the frail maiden figure must attract a dragon. He is drawn by beauty and innocence, something Dennitsa had before he fell. Dragons are magnetically attracted to anything that even remotely resembles him. And who is more like him than she? So she must be more precious to them than all the other innocent maidens, or gold, or jewels. They must all strive for her, and even fight over her if they must. It would be better if they fought at her side. Rhianon trembled with anticipation. Just a moment more and she could look into his eyes, reach out and touch the sharp teeth of the comb on his head, mentally start a conversation.

It was very cold on high ground. Even the archers, dressed warmly under their cuirasses, were freezing, their fingers straining the bowstring and laying arrows trembling, either from strain or from cold. She herself was warmed by the flames that beat beneath her skin instead of her blood. Her magical power was growing. Even if a dragon came at her with fire, she could summon her power into an invisible shield and fend off the blow. She didn’t want to burn the dragon herself. For him it was a bad time anyway. It was going to rain. Rhianon felt the first raindrops hit her face.

«I must speak to you, please!» She was whispering instead of speaking mentally. «Just look at me!»

Look at me! This is how the forest fairies beg the wayfarers to turn around at the seductive voice and be captured by them forever. In fact, she wanted the same thing. Rhianon expected that by recognizing in her the likeness of his first warlord, all the infernal creatures would serve her. With her own tame dragons, she could become the strongest ruler in the world. How to make them at least look at her and discern in her all the things they had long loved and lost.

If the dragon has already spotted the lonely figure standing on the parapet with her golden head and the stolen comb in her hair, what is he waiting for? It is, after all, his comb. Rhianon had already guessed. The dragon flew here to return what he had stolen. Naturally he would have returned it, along with his new victim. Surely, in his mind, any girl who wore his jewelry herself would also become his property. He could sense from afar that a living creature owned his thing. He planned to grab it along with the comb and carry it away with him. So what is he waiting for? Why doesn’t he pick it up and rain fire down on the castle while he still has the strength. And will he be able to spew jets of flame when the storm comes? Rhianon didn’t even know that.

She noticed how the dragon slowed its flight. It regarded her long and intently. Sharply glowing eyes glittered in his forehead. It looked as if it reflected a rainbow. The curved horns bent just above it. Its nostrils flared menacingly, but it kept its fire out, though that had been its intention just a moment ago — to explode the castle in flames. Rhianon suddenly realized that she could read his thoughts. She’d never been able to do that before. Could it be because of the comb?

In any case, a ridge would not have the power to make a dragon hover in the air above the tower and gaze at the young queen. The archers amicably lowered their arrows, but they bounced off the dragon’s armor in an instant. One of the arrows that ricocheted back struck the archer in the shoulder. Now his comrades were supporting him, and he was bleeding. Someone shouted that it was time to fire the cannons. Rhianon hoped the dragon would fly over the tower before the gunner lit the fuse. Or would a cannonball also do it no harm?

«Could we make a deal?» She turned to him mentally.

Maybe she thought the crowned head bowed slightly, as if to pay her respects. That’s how you bow to your mistress.

The clawed paw did not reach forward to take the comb out of her hair. The dragon stared at her carefully, almost appraisingly. And then suddenly it turned and flew away.

«No!» Rhianon was furious. She even clenched her fists. She would have loved to fire at him now, to scorch his impenetrable tail and wings and spine. But she was being watched. The tower was full of archers, squires bringing arrows and gunners. All these people must not know that their queen could breathe fire as well as a dragon.

Rhianon was furious. How many witnesses watched as the dragon turned and flew away from her? Now they all knew of her humiliation. Instead of serving her, or at least grabbing her and carrying her away to negotiate elsewhere, the dragon simply abandoned her and flew away.

Had she had strength enough, she would have torn it to pieces herself to make armor from its scales and wear it as a battle trophy. She knew such warlords who made cups for themselves out of the skull of a defeated enemy. Now she even understood them. She wanted the same thing. But a dragon that had flown away was beyond her reach.

And on top of that, there were so many onlookers watching her fail. They were the only ones who looked at her with admiration. Of course, they didn’t know that it wasn’t her victory, but her defeat.

Rhianon slid surprisingly easily off the parapet, careful not to look down. The height frightened her. The roof of the castle became wet with rain drops. Carefully avoiding the puddles, she wandered away into the warmth and comfort of the castle chambers. And just as she was leaving, a thunderstorm began.

«He wants to see you,» the spirit whispered in her ear, not even paying attention to the fact that she didn’t want to hear it. The quiet whisper merged with the crackling of the fire in the fireplace, and it was impossible to distinguish one from the other.

Rhianon rested her head on the back of the carved chair and watched the play of the flames in the fireplace’s yawning fireplace. Today it did not irritate, on the contrary, it sent a kind of pleasant current through her veins. After soaking in the rain, she didn’t feel hot from the flames inside her. This had happened to her for the first time. Had one mishap made the fire in her go out?

Rhianon was not even sure what the invisible interlocutor was talking about. And when she did, he was already breaking news.

«You didn’t see that the dragon didn’t fly back out to sea, did you?

«Well, yes,» she nodded apathetically.

«There are caves beyond the forest where no one lives yet, and he waits there…»

She nodded apathetically.

«Why is it?»

«You must tell him what you want from him?»

«What is it?» Rhianon turned her head in confusion. She couldn’t see the spirit behind her, of course, but she could distinguish his voice better.

«He knows you want something from him. Well, he’ll grant you anything you want. I can tell him.»

She didn’t know whether to be more surprised by the helpfulness of the spirit or by the dragon’s willingness to cooperate with her.

«Wouldn’t it be better if Vivian found him first?»

A dragon slayer! Rhianon grinned. It wasn’t the left and the cleansed world that he wanted, it was just impenetrable armor. Rhianon did not believe that Vivian had enough strength of his own to defeat a dragon alone, or even with an entire squad. If someone resorted to magic to drug the beast with a potion that deprived or trapped it, then Vivian with his sword could already prove to be a hero. But who would dare do such a thing?

Rhianon began to drum her nails against the armrest of her chair. Sparks shot out from under her fingernails, lightly marring the smooth, polished surface.

She didn’t know how to call out to the spirit, for it had no name, so she only asked quietly.

«Could you answer one question?»

«What is it?» He answered readily.

«Why do dragons turn their backs on me now? Am I so ugly that I frighten them? Or is it something else?»

He grinned quickly. The laugh was like a slap in the face. It was the same way she felt when the dragon turned away from her.

«They don’t like me for abandoning Madael?»

For the first time, the spirit did not find something to answer. His jaw must have dropped, or he was running out of words.

Rhianon stared sadly at the flames. It was as if she were right. For all her charm and resemblance to their fallen leader, they loved him more. They still did.

She clawed at the chair with her fingernails. What charm it takes to be worshipped by those you cast into hell.

«I want to be like him,» she muttered into the void.

«Well, then you must learn how to wield a sword,» the spirit inside her responded.

Rhianon was in complete agreement, except that she wished it wasn’t enough.

Rhianon made an appointment in the forest before the caves. The spirit insisted that she should not go there herself, because it would be easier to send him, but as always Rhianon insisted.

She could send no one else on such an important errand. Besides, how could she have known that the spirit would give the dragon exactly what she said, not her own embellished version.

She could only negotiate with someone in person. But the forest greeted her with a sullen silence. The large clearing in the thicket, where someone had uprooted and felled all the trees, was empty.

The place had been cleared, but the dragon was gone. Rhianon already regretted wearing the crest that was supposed to be the identifying mark.

She waited until she began to notice some movement behind the trees. She was immediately reminded of the nighttime treasure hunters. What if something similar was happening in this forest?

She listened to the silence to catch the clatter of shovels against the hard ground and scraps of conversation. Some voices were indeed conversing in the thicket, but it was not about stealing or digging up anything at all. Rhianon kept listening, though. She could not do anything else while she waited for the dragon. The speaker was not a woodcutter or a late traveler. Rhianon even ventured to step away from the clearing for the meeting to look at them.

«Don’t go!» The spirit warned her as she made her way along the moss. «I can eavesdrop and tell you later.»

«Don’t,» she said in a whisper. «I can hear everything. But I want to see.»

It was unnecessary to explain to him that the conversation had already intrigued her, and only that she wanted to spy on the talkers. Who are they? That was what was most intriguing to her. It would have been difficult for a human to see in this darkness, but she had long ago noticed in herself the peculiarity of seeing well in the dark.

«One of them is Vivian,» the spirit warned her at once. «He’s here to hunt dragons, you understand. He has a nose for them.»

«And who is the other one?» She’d guessed that from the hoarse tone, but felt obliged to ask again.

«It is the pretender to your hand,» the spirit said, hesitating for a moment.

Rhianon understood him at first. She’d seen countless suitors for the hand before, and the furthest thing from her mind might have been that he was the least likely to succeed.

But it was hard not to recognize the husky voice. It sounded like it had dropped a few octaves since she’d last heard it. It used to be a little pleasant, but soon it would be a bass. It was as if Prince Rothbert’s throat had been cut. She even chuckled at the thought that one of the dragons he had never tamed might have stepped on his neck. The prince had escaped, but he was hoarse. Such a scenario seemed amusing to her. Rhianon even managed to get a glimpse into Rothbert’s thoughts. He did not sense that he was being spied upon. Rothbert was spying on someone else, and his mind was elsewhere. Rhianon, on the other hand, had learned many interesting things. For example, as a child, this sneaky little magician, who had already detected the rudiments of evil in himself, put frogs in the laundry of washerwomen, and sent locusts on plowmen. He poured his potions into the ladies’ linens to cause a festering rash, and he bewitched the men’s weapons so that they would break during battle. He destroyed his own as well as others without remorse. He also grew unusual reptiles in his flasks and released them into rivers, wells, or sewers. Then the harmful boy began to wait to see if his pets would grow into bloodthirsty dragons. Sometimes these experiments succeeded. Here was one time he managed to raise a dragon right in the well of his home castle. The night it was discovered, there was a commotion in the yard, his father’s dukedom was crumbling because the dragon demanded tribute, and the nasty boy was laughing in his room. That’s when someone came to him… Rhianon couldn’t make out a face in his mind, as if that fragment of Rothbert’s memory were completely absent. She could only wonder if it was someone from the School of Witchcraft, or someone even more dangerous. She could see little else about the night visitor, but she did see a tower in Rothbert’s mind, a tower of books from the ground floor to the ceiling beams, and a girl who lived in that tower. There was nothing there but twigs braiding the walls and books. There were no entrances or exits. Nevertheless, the prince had his eye on the mistress of the tower named Diana. She had already turned him down, but it didn’t matter to him.

«You said there was another,» Vivian’s pleasant baritone was hard not to recognize.

«All you have to do is to wait. I’ll make sure he loses his strength.»

«Very well, then, I must get some help.»

«You can’t do it alone?» Rothbert even snickered. «That would be fair.»

«But you said it yourself,» Vivian seemed unabashed at being accused of a lack of valor. «By the way, if I hadn’t taken men with me to the borders of Menuel, you would have left me alone.»

«Don’t be silly. There was no one there to fight. Everyone was already drugged by the fog I’d put on them.»

«And I thought those black things had ravaged their land. They were feasting on the battlefields, too. On dead bodies,» Vivian put his hand up to his dull, young head. «Yes, I remembered, you said you had some sort of condition before you let me kill the dragon.»

«Yes, there is,» Rothbert rubbed his palms together, rolling out a glowing lump. «You’ll leave me his carcass, all of it. No tongue, no eyes, no spilled blood. Do you understand?»

«But why is it?» Vivian obviously didn’t understand.

«You idiot, I have to prepare the next potion.»

«But you said you could only make useful substances and miracle cures out of the organs of these monsters.»

«Why shouldn’t poison be useful if it can be applied to whoever needs it?»

«Well…» Vivian was clearly hesitant.

«By the way,» Rothbert interrupted him. «You won’t touch the scales this time, either. I’ll need my armor soon, too.»

Rhianon turned back, sensing someone approaching the appointed spot. It could only be him, the dragon who must serve her. She knew that Rothbert’s trick would not go away already as she made her way resolutely toward the clearing. The trees, fallen and uprooted from the ground, were a chaotic sight. It looked as if a hurricane had passed through here, but Rhianon knew that a living thing was the cause of it. She would have to negotiate with the dragon herself, and they would figure out with the spirit how to steal Rothbert’s potions and rob him of his powers later.

To steal the flasks with his lizards and ingredients for magic solutions, she will send a spirit to his principality. The dragon will have to fly over the sea again and wait until she summons him. This will be soon, the war has almost begun. The messengers with her announcement have already been sent, and the place of the first battle has been set. The dragon will have to fly to her on that day and no later, and only if she needs his help. That is her only wish. When they met on the cleared ground in the thicket, he bowed his head again in reverence, as if he hadn’t noticed the glint of a comb in her hair that had been stolen from his treasure.

«You will go to his castle,» Rhianon insisted. It was difficult to get anything out of the spirit, but she demanded, pleaded, threatened with clenched fists until he began moaning.

«I don’t want to go there,» he squeaked.

«And what you want is of no concern to anyone.»

«Maybe I’d better follow Vivian.»

«He’ll be out in the woods all night. We’ll have to keep an eye on him later, not now.»

«I would rather follow other dragon. He lives in the caves near the Duchy of Rothbert. He is the one who keeps the prince in fear. He is a wise man. He has a tower of books carved there in the mountain. He keeps the scrolls of an angel who called himself Mastema. You are not interested in that.»

She almost dropped the brush she was running through her hair. Mastema! Madael! He was the same under every name. Only his character was different for everyone.

«With his runes, his coils, his annals, and so much more, I learned in his own tower,» she cut out. «There is not much the dragon can teach me. He is only a follower, not an innovator. Madael was the first to rise, and the others only followed.»

«And now they’re all biting their claws in frustration. Take me, for example…»

«I don’t care about your complaints. If you wish to be with me, serve me, but if you will not do as I command, I swear I will find a spell that will banish you once and for all.»

For a moment the room was silent. She could even hear the fire crackling on the logs. Any sound would have seemed loud now.

«Well, all right,» the spirit agreed reluctantly and in such a mournful tone as if she were sending him to his own execution.

Rhianon wasn’t going to feel sorry for him.

«While you look around the castle and steal anything of value, I’ll have a word with the dragon you told me about.»

«You’ll have an easier time with him,» the spirit cheered up. «He could be called a scholar. At least he has more of his memory than most. Or rather, he’s forgotten almost nothing. You know what I mean?»

She nodded. The sight of the angels, who retained memories of their former glory only in their dreams, depressed her. To her mind they were magnificent even now, looking like the living contents of a jewel box in their dragon armor. But they had been different before, truly beautiful, wise and seductive. Now, when they looked at their own reflection, they could feel only pain. So they preferred to gaze at the jewels and gold as a reminder of their former brilliance.

Some dragons still retained their former minds, they also collected books. Madael said that the greatest punishment for most of them was the loss of their sanity. It is hardest for those who have lost all or part of their memory, because the mind tries to return to something former, but runs into a wall of timelessness. It’s painful to know that you have to remember something that’s slipping away. But from here on earth, the creators of poetry, music, and verse emerged. Their partial memory pours out only as fantasy, and their path lies toward the Cathedral of Thunder and the ritual knife. At the thought of the blood sacrifice, Rhianon shuddered. Those renegades of Madael’s army, condemned as punishment to feel like mere humans, sacrifice their mortal bodies to gain their lost wings. But at least they can do so by becoming their former selves, albeit extremely angry, while magical beings have no such option. It is only for those who have suffered most. Rhianon imagined how crushed an angel felt, retaining scrappy memories of brilliance but forced to consider himself a mere mortal. People do not accept him, heaven rejects him. Hell puts a choice before him. And then there is the Cathedral of Thunder and the bloody path to it. Sometimes she dreamed that she was walking down this path lined with roses. Her feet are already wounded and bloody from their thorns, and there is still no end to the path. Madael said that this path appears only during an eclipse of the sun, when one of the chosen ones is ready to take it. No man would ever walk this path, only those who belonged to his army. Rhianon was not one of them. By tearing her own guts out during the ritual, she could only die. Or did the fact that she had slept with a fallen angel make her equal to his host?

She had many difficult questions. Perhaps the wise dragon could answer them all. Of course, only if he retained all of his former mind, not just the remnants of it.

Though if he collected the scrolls that held the symbols and secrets of the angels, then Rhianon could read them herself. She understood their language, so the mysterious writings would be comprehensible to her as well. She knew that the important thing was not to trouble oneself with trying to read or decipher something, if she was strong enough to do so, and if she got close enough to the forbidden, the mysteries would reveal themselves to her. That was how she first understood the magical symbols, just by looking at them. That was how she began to understand the language of beasts and birds. That’s how she learned to read minds.

And that wasn’t all she could do. She could see more clearly than dragons. She could sense the presence of supernatural beings from afar. And she could hear everything for miles around. She could hear everything, down to the smallest of sounds. Sometimes it seemed to her that not a cacophony of voices, but a whole cobweb wove the world, and in this cobweb she could distinguish any sound.

Thus she knew that the dragon was awake even before she approached his cave. It was hard to call it a cave, to be exact. From a distance the magnificent tower, with its many staircases and branching passages, might have looked like a real building, but only up close did she realize that it was carved entirely out of the mountain. It had once been a mountain range, but now it took the shape of a bastion. It would have passed for a fairy joke if the light in the distant windows had not been burning.

As they approached, another oddity became apparent. The tower had no gates or doors, only arched windows, disproportionately huge and devoid of glass or any visible barrier. They seemed to beckon birds to fly in.

Rianon could not fly. It was the one ability that Madael had never given her. But she had her pegasus. He could easily carry her to one of the huge windows. This time, though, he hesitated for a long time. She reassured him in a quiet whisper, explaining that she would be fine. Just in case, he would have to stay close to one of the windows to help her out. They had been traveling together a lot lately and had become very close. Rhianon could easily read his mind because he let her do it herself. So she learned that before, that is, when he was still an elf, his name was Noreus, and there was a time when he sought advice from this very wise dragon, under whose tower they were now. All members of the magical race who could not remember something themselves turned to him for advice or help. The fairy slipped out of one window in tears seemed to be no exception, and apparently the dragon had refused to help her or told her something that upset her greatly. Rhianon glanced at a figure in greenish attire hovering overhead. She resembled someone strongly. Rhianon had seen a peaked cap with a veil over her red curls before, but what was the name of the fairy who wore it? Certainly she was not one of the fairies who had met Rhianon at the ball. Who was she, then? She looked a little like a spinster, but they were tiny, and she was tall and statuesque. Rhianon followed the figure until it disappeared into the darkness. The transparent wings fluttering behind her reminded her of those of a dragonfly.

«Well, what are we waiting for?» She asked Noreus. It was his duty to get Rhianon to the window, preferably not the one the dragon was watching. Rianon could tell from a distance that he had recently returned from a hunt. His lair still smelled of blood and his claws of heat. He knew how to make candles light with magic, not fire. The wax in them never melted, but there was enough light to illuminate the library. Truth be told, the light was a luxury rather than a necessity, since a dragon could read in total darkness as well. For Rhianon herself, the distant moonlight was sufficient to discern all the lines of a book, and she could see just as well in the dark. She wondered what sort of power she had to be able to distinguish letters in the dark, unless they were fiery. To her ultra-sharp hearing came the quiet rustling of pages, the sound of dragon breaths, the scraping of claws. He did not pull books from the shelves, but brought them to him in time of need, brought by magic. He did not write himself, the quill itself drew strange symbols on the parchment. Only it wasn’t ink, it was blood. Blood was what he needed. So once a week he went out hunting. Rhianon sympathized with his victims. More often than not, he would mutilate them severely before he killed them, but the angelic knowledge inscribed in the scrolls demanded their blood.

Once in the tower, she felt insecure at first. Everything here was quite nicely furnished. Apparently, the dragon had not lost its love of luxury. Only occasionally she could see burnt marks on the soft carpets and claws imprinted on the black wood of the shelving units.

Could it take on human form? If so, she would be more comfortable negotiating with him. If he could briefly become a gallant cavalier, they would have something to talk about.

Rhianon caught him studying the scrolls. She watched the beautiful emerald scales gleam in the candlelight for a long time. It seemed to emanate a myriad of sparkling sparks all by itself.

«I want…» She only stepped out of the shadows when he noticed her. Her tongue was barely audible and yet she tried to explain out loud, not mentally, what she was doing here. He did not listen, however. The wise glowing eyes were so perceptive. He stared at her intently for only a second, and then his clawed paw rose and beckoned her forward. The claws moved so confidently and gracefully, as if they were thin angelic fingers, not ugly claws. And for a moment Rhianon thought she saw a beautiful blond creature, not a beast as sparkling as a jewel. It beckoned her into a world of forbidden knowledge, and Rhianon was ready to enter it.

When the spirit had finally completed its task, she was already sitting in her bedroom, intoxicated by the knowledge she had gained. The sage dragon did not hesitate to agree to help her because he knew beforehand the power was on her side. He could foresee the future or his mind helped him utter prophecies. It didn’t matter to her, as long as he was on her side. Sometimes Rhianon saw a beautiful young man in his place, leaning over books. The vision usually lasted only a moment. It would seem strange to people. A richly dressed and handsome young man could not have been so keen on ancient scrolls, much less write them in someone else’s blood. Naturally, sorcery was involved.

Already going through the witch potions she had stolen from Rothbert, she kept remembering her interactions with the dragon. She enjoyed her time in his tower. Perhaps she would visit him often, especially since he didn’t mind.

«Why are you very late?» she scolded the spirit. He grumbled resentfully.

«You could have done it yourself.»

«I was busy elsewhere, you know. Did you get it all?» She didn’t seem to have too many bottles and jars. Now we’ll have to destroy it all. She couldn’t figure out how to use it all for her own purposes. Unless she could use magic to determine what was in which vial.

«You can tell it by the scent,» the spirit advised.

«What is it about here?» Rhianon gazed excitedly at the flasks, something fluttering inside.

«You should destroy them now, unless you want them to spread all over the castle. I warn you, one day, they’ll be able to break the glass. Look, they’re gaining strength already.»

Rhianon stared at the flask that was first in her hands. It looks like the spirit was right. Something green and large, with bulging eyes, was clawing at the glass. Soon the flask would be cramped. Rhianon, unable to stand her disgust, tossed the glass into the fireplace. The throw was accurate. The green creature from the shattered flask went straight into the flames, and most surprisingly in the fire it began to grow.

«Quick, move the screen!» She demanded of the spirit. Grunting and complaining, he hurried to carry out the orders.

«You shouldn’t do that, madam, they’re all easy to free.»

«I’ve seen Rothbert release them into the sewage. Did he do that as a child?»

«A villain from a young age is a villain,» said the spirit. «Humans, unlike us, it’s as if they were never innocent.»

«Neither were you. Only he was,» Rhianon remembered Madael. One of the chests the spirit had brought, bright gold, looked so much like a piece of his armor. She flung open the lid, but strangely enough the trapped creature was cute. Rhianon beckoned to it, and it jumped out onto the table, spreading its thin wings gracefully.

«It looked like a tiny dragon,» she remarked, peering at the pale gold skin and patterned tail. The expression on its face was a little treacherous, but it was cute all the same. «It looked like a toy made of gold. Cute,» she was already playing with him.»

«And this one is real,» the spirit commented. «But it’s still dangerous to keep him. He may soon grow noticeably in size.»

«I’ll keep this one, anyway,» Rhianon watched as her new pet sat down on an open book she had just borrowed from the dragon’s tower, examining the symbols painted on it. The scent of an unfading rose also attracted him, and he pulled it toward him with his paw.

«What is about these?«The spirit asked about the flasks.

«Throw them down into the chasm. Destroy them. You’ve got to think with your head for once.»

After muttering something incomprehensible, the spirit obeyed. The flasks were gone, so he must have taken them to the abyss or somewhere else. The main thing was not in some water channel, where they could grow in peace. Rhianon had not had time to warn him of that, and now she had only to rely on his ingenuity.

She was distracted by playing with her new pet. It was no bigger than a kitten, but it was beautiful. She had never imagined that a dragon could be so petite and so beautiful. It was as if it had been cast in pure gold and brought to life by magic. Its eyes sparkled like two aquamarines. The patterned wings twitched. The claws, too, were gold. And the hide reflected the moonlight. Not a monster, but a toy. She was glad she had stolen it and let it go.

«You are priceless, little one,» she whispered, handing him a ribbon of her hair to play with. Despite his size, however, he proved surprisingly clever. Instead of playing the silly, helpless kitten, he studied the book and gathered glittering objects from the table to form his own little treasure chest. He, too, is beckoned by gems. So let him keep what he finds for himself.

«Will you have somebody like him?» The spirit who had just returned asked nonchalantly. How could he have made it through the task so quickly? Rhianon shuddered in surprise.

«I hope you brought them far from the castle, didn’t you?» She teased him.

«They’re at the bottom of a chasm a long way from here, milady. And you have no intention of parting with the golden toy, have you?»

«Don’t touch it,» Rhianon said, shielding her pet.

«Tell that to sir Vivian,» snorted the spirit.»

«Don’t worry. He won’t come into my chambers.»

«But the little dragon might slip out.»

«I’ll keep an eye on him,» Rhianon promised.

«It’s difficult. He’s restless. What if someone sees him?»

Rhianon was about to say that if she was to have a lover, it would be an angel, not a man, but she remembered Ferdinand. Though he was the least of her worries, he would mistake her new pet, like the harpy, for a charming overseas beast recently imported by merchants from distant lands. In general, he would be able to find a reasonable explanation for everything.

«Would you like to give birth to one?» The spirit’s ominous whisper above her ear sent a chill down her spine.

«Leave me alone,» she commanded.

«But it can be so soon,» he kept repeating himself. «You will give birth to a dragon, beautiful and golden. Gold is his father’s color. The moment it comes into the world, Madael’s watch will chime, and he will know.»

«Don’t you dare to speak his name. You mustn’t.»

«I know.» He snapped back. «But I’ve already broken every possible rule for you. There’s nothing left to do now.»

«Is it for me?» She looked incredulous. «Who am I to tell you that you have to do anything for me? You didn’t even see me before I came to Vinor. You were sitting here all alone, waiting for someone to pick on, and I was the only one who showed up. That’s all.»

«You’re shortsighted.»

«And you’re a bad kiss-ass. You can’t convince me that you were in love with me long before you saw me.»

«Considering what you look like, none of us can help falling in love with you. You’re the kind of girl you can see from a distance. And it hurts to look at you, if you must know. It hurts to be far away from you, and you won’t let me be near you.»

«I think it’s because of the baby,» she tried to comfort him. «If he really is his father’s son, he is your future lord. You see him in me, and your instinct to serve is working. You see it as love for me, but when Edwin is born, it will be different.»

Edwin! This is the first time she has uttered his name. Rhianon had already promised the spirits that she would call him that. What is so magical about that name? And why did she think she would not give birth to a monster? After all, the invisible interlocutor had already informed her that she would give birth to a dragon. Why, then, does she need a special name to make it unavailable to his father. All dragons are subjects to Madael anyway. And yet it seemed to Rhianon that now, by naming him out loud, she had stirred up something unforeseen. It was as if she had deliberately made a comment to inform his immortal father that Edwin existed. Madael has a right to know that he is about to have a son. Yet he does not know this. Perhaps he has no idea. The name, like a spell, must hide the truth from him. But it’s not like he flew here in anger to demand his child back, so the spirits haven’t lied. He could still be, though. He can assert his rights to the child, and then really be war. Or rather, war will not change anything; the duel must be between her and him. Rhianon prepared herself for that. Madael’s son would be prince of Vinor, no one would ever know the truth. You can’t pass off a monster as Ferdinand’s child anymore. And a boy, even handsome as an angel, could pass for a brother of Florian and Claude. They need a younger brother, don’t they? Perhaps in the future some disease will take the lives of the older princes and Edwin will be king. Rhianon stared at her own fingernails with exaggerated attention. It wasn’t fair, but Setius was in the castle, after all. He could have brought the vibe of the very creepy contagion that roamed beneath Madeel’s tower here. And if he didn’t bring it in now, he might bring it in later, she might ask him to, if he didn’t figure it out himself. All of them cursed and beautiful are themselves interested in their lord’s son being first in everything.

Rhianon watched the miniature dragon on her desk. He was perched on the pages of an open book, and a fragrant rose now lay beside him, along with several other precious ornaments, which he scrutinized. He must have been cramped and uncomfortable in the box where he had been locked up, for now, free, he was wrinkling painfully and kneading his stiff claws.

He was very handsome. Rhianon admired him as if he were a rare jewel. It was a gift she had never dreamed of receiving. It would be good if, contrary to the spirit’s warning, it did not grow, but remained as diminutive as an expensive toy. Then it would be possible to spoil it, to give it jewelry, and to put it to sleep on a velvet pillow. She wanted a pet like that, and he, despite all his dexterity and laudable agility, was in no hurry to get away from her.

Rhianon took the brooch out of the box and held it out to him, to which the little dragon reacted with great joy. He was real, or he wouldn’t be so fond of jewelry. Rhianon had noticed that he wasn’t interested in just any object, only the purest stones and trinkets of gold.

«So you are still in the power of your former master,» she gently caressed his golden-tipped head, combed and feathered with sharp ears. The little dragon obviously did not understand her, but his claws slid enchantingly over the gold, so reminiscent of Dennitsa, almost forgotten but still unconsciously and warmly loved. To Rhianon herself, too, he reached out as if he had known her for a long time. She even laughed at the warnings of her invisible companion.

«Well, my little one, if you believe him you will soon have a brother like you in every way,» she stroked the golden head, which was nice and warm, and laughed merrily. «Then you will not only share the contents of my boxes. You will also have to fight over Ferdinand’s crown.»

She figured the little dragon wouldn’t mind snatching the glittering crown from her head even now. She would lend the crown to him for a while. She was even curious to see how, for its tiny size, it would manage to try it on. The suddenly and long silent spirit apparently disapproved of her jokes. Rhianon didn’t care. Let him keep his mouth shut; if he was dissatisfied or jealous of something, that was his problem. She watched as the little dragon greedily gathered jewels from the table and laughed. In the same way she was going to take treasure from her enemies.

More than revenge

It was heavenly strife. It was the deafening noise of wings beating against each other. It was the scratching of claws against thin angel skin. Shouts and accusations like a bird’s cackle. It was the dazzling gleam of swords. He was already nearly blinded once when he looked at Dennitsa. He dared to swing his sword at him, and now his hand was withering and worms were crawling in it. But the ruthless and beautiful angel still continued to beckon him through sleep.

Bertrand awoke in a cold sweat. He was still alive, and that was his greatest misfortune. It had been better to have died long ago. Then, on the battlefield, he had not yet understood that his happiness was to put his chest to the blow, not to repel it.

Until now, in the darkness of his bedroom, he had seen the battlefield illuminated by an unnaturally bright light. It was neither sunrise nor sunset. The light was not coming from the sun at all, though at that moment it seemed that the fiery ball of sun had become unnaturally close to the ground. In fact, the sun had disappeared behind the clouds; it was not in the sky. But the helmet fell from the unknown warrior’s head for a moment, and the glow became unbearable, so much so that it hurt his eyes. Even the tears that seeped from his eye sockets could have turned fiery in that moment. Bertrand could still feel the burning in his eyeballs. His vision was much worse than before, but that wasn’t what was most frightening. He seemed to be losing his mind, slowly and painfully. The longer he lived, the clearer the picture of a brutal overhead massacre overlapped with reality. And each time it became more terrifying.

He told the servants to leave a bowl of cold water and a wet towel beside his bed, but even ice would not bring down his fever. His shriveled hand burned as if it had been placed in an oven and roasted over hot coals. The healer, who tried in vain to conceal his own fright, bandaged it tightly, but the ugly growths were showing through even the bandages. They seemed to be diseased and living on their own, and there were worms in them, so disgusting they were not even in the grave earth. Maybe they weren’t worms at all. Bertrand almost screamed when he suddenly noticed that some disgusting creature that looked like a big rat had come up to the bandaged stump and was trying to gnaw at the growths.

He had been wary of rousing the servants who guarded the closed doors with their shouts. He did not want the vassals or the peasants to know what had happened to their feudal lord. Rumors were already rife in the surrounding villages. When the nobles talk of the devil it is even worth fearing an attack on the castle. In addition, the healer, no matter how well paid, must have told someone about the horror he saw. And they, in turn, told others. Another day or two and there would be a riot. But much scarier were the dreams. The creature that glowed beneath his armor by itself and beckoned him to the precipice, across the field where the massacre was taking place, became something secret, hidden and unspeakably cruel. No one was allowed to speak of it, his tongue would not obey, it was scary to see it in his dreams, but it was scary not to see it either.

The withered hand, with its living thorny growths, reacted to the thought of Dennitsa with unceasing flashes of pain. Bertrand could no longer move the arm, as if it didn’t exist at all, but the withered ashy creature it had become seemed to live on its own. It parasitized the weakened body, threatening to devour it like a fungus.

Bertrand was too weak to light a candle or reach for his dagger. He couldn’t even see in the darkness what the nasty creature was getting at his arm. Nor did he have the strength to drive it away. He tried to see the strange big rat and could not, but the candle at the head of his bed suddenly flashed on its own, revealing from the darkness the fine binding of the window, the brown bearskin on the floor, the carved chair and the creepy horned demon chewing on his bandages.

The scream stuck in his throat. He had only dreamt of creatures like that, but he had never seen anything like it in his life before, and he had no idea that such an abomination existed. In his dreams such creatures had eaten corpses on the battlefield. Was this not a dream, too? No, his needle-sharp teeth had jabbed into the outgrowth on his arm, and the pain, a red-hot arrow that pierced his whole body, was very real. Not a dream, then. The bloodthirsty creature grinned, the crooked horns on its head twitching, the black ashy skin on its shapeless body with its tail and claws gleaming greenish in the candlelight.

«It is leprechaun!» Said a beautiful and resonant voice came out of nowhere. It sounded like the echo of celestial spheres and heavenly melodies, only there was something cruel in it as well as indifference. The next moment Bertrand saw the glint of a sharp, mirrored blade reflecting the room. He braced himself for the worst. Now the sword would slash across his neck, and the dainty hand clutching the golden hilt of the sword would next be clutching his severed head. He covered his eyes in anticipation of retribution, but no blow came. The blade slid gently downward, and a sudden, shrill, nasty squeak reverberated through his ears.

When Bertrand opened his eyes, the foul creature, which had been nibbling at his arm, was writhing in deathlike convulsions at the tip of its great sword. The green face was writhing painfully, but the leprechaun was not dying. How long would his agony last? Bertrand involuntarily shuddered in horror and disgust, and the creature hooked by the sword still continued to squirm and wriggle, but he could not get off the sword.

«They’re immortal, these creatures, as you see,» the same beautiful voice explained indifferently. For all its melody, it was surprisingly cruel. Such sangfroid was to be envied. The hand that gripped the sword with the creature writhing on it didn’t even waver.

«You should be used to them getting so close. It’s people’s good fortune that they all don’t see it. But you look at it once, and then you see things like that everywhere. It’s maddening, isn’t it?»

The question might have seemed sympathetic, but the tone of voice was unsympathetic. A cold, calculating voice, knowingly and indifferently explaining the essence of all human suffering, could only belong to an angel.

Bertrand did not immediately dare to look at the nocturnal visitor. At first he watched only the starry spheres outside the opened window, not daring to shift his gaze to the figure in front of his bed. The dainty hand clutching the gilt hilt might well have been a woman’s, but aren’t all angels marked by maiden beauty.

For a moment Bertrand caught the subtle scent of lilies that followed the figure. In a strange way it mingled with the smells of burning and fire, but it was still as divine and intoxicating as her voice. It sounded so cruel, but it seemed so all-knowing and beautiful. That’s the thing about angels, for all their coldness, they are beautiful. They pity no one, but you want to beg for mercy. They can only be compared to the stars, distant, not warming and still beckoning.

«The changes that happen to you will increasingly attract leprechauns and creatures like them, though your hour has not yet come. But it is coming. You are first on my list, for you did not side with me when the palace wrangling broke out, when you could have.»

Only now did he look at the speaker. The hand that held the sword was now thrown slightly to the side, and his face, unbelievably beautiful in a halo of tangled golden curls, could be seen. Her translucent skin shimmered with the moonlight. Golden lashes touched her cheeks, her half-covered eyelids didn’t flutter, and her lips curved contemptuously. How he would have liked to kiss those lips, even on his deathbed. He would have given anything for it. They would have smiled at him amiably, but the cruel expression that played over their faces was scalding cold. No one’s contempt could humiliate and scorch a man more than that of an angel. The higher being merely looks, but it’s as if he’s looking inside you, seeing all the baser instincts hidden inside, and you feel crushed.

Bertrand groaned in agony. The shriveled hand suddenly began to ache unbearably, as if it had been cut and tortured like a separate living being.

«Do you remember me?» The calm voice, asking something, was beyond his comprehension. Yes, of course he remembered. A battlefield, a bloody massacre, people fighting and dismembering each other right in his way, he risked being hit with a chain or an axe, losing an arm or a leg or a head or being killed altogether, and he didn’t care. Shattered bones, severed limbs, and swords swinging dangerously close to him no longer matter. He wades through the jumble of fighting and corpses without fear of being killed, because at the end of the field at the precipice a helmetless knight awaits him. The warrior with wings stretches forward with his arm partially clad in armor, and even hell is not afraid to follow him. The skin on his face is so transparent it could be mistaken for the smoothness of a cloud, only the arcs of his eyelashes and eyebrows stand out in bright gold against the pale luminous background. His curls, too, are golden. From beneath his pale lips the blood he had drunk, but which his internal organs had never accepted, was about to ooze out. Bertrand had seen in his dreams how this creature drank the blood of the warriors he had defeated, whether still alive or already slain, and then vomited, because unlike his subjects, he did not need food. In spite of this, the angel has become as bloodthirsty as his servants. His servants! Bertrand shifted his gaze in horror to the leprechaun twitching convulsively at the tip of the sword. He was struggling to free himself from the blade, but he could neither break free nor let out his last breath.

«Evil is as eternal as the god who created it,» the calm, angelic voice said. «You wonder that a divine being can be served by infernal creatures. But isn’t this world a mishmash of the sublime and the perverse. If anything were to be different, it would have been so from the creation of the earth, not only below, but also in heaven. All things are not as we would like them to be; all living things must suffer, and the chosen of the higher powers have suffered far more than lowly traitors like you. But in its time everything falls into its place, because one truth remains immutable. Do you realize what it is?»

He found the strength to shake his head in the negative. Dennitsa’s beautiful face compelled him to do so. Why did it seem so feminine to him, like his girlish voice and posture? Is it Dennitsa? Or is it someone who looks like him?

Her golden hair didn’t fan across her shoulders but slid gently down her back, her shoulders seemed too narrow even under the cloak, the gaudy fabric below her chest glowed like brocade. All this told him something. But of what is it? Or rather who is it? Someone he had forgotten, though he should have remembered, and now the angel reminded him.

There was still the princess he had sworn an oath to. He had never kept his promise to serve her. Bertrand raised his hands helplessly to his face. How could he have forgotten? Rhianon! He had never had a chance to examine her up close, but he knew she looked like that divine warrior. It was as if they were one.

Meanwhile the merciless voice continued melodiously:

«Touch an angel just once, you rulers of this world, and you will be ashes even before the one you have offended takes your throne.»

Now he recognized her. The maiden’s voice was so cold and vengeful. Rhianon was bent over him, oblivious of the leprechaun writhing on her sword, and she had never looked more dazzlingly beautiful to him. Her beauty was in itself the worst revenge. She killed just looking at her. A living person could not be so beautiful. Did that mean she was already dead? Or is she immortal? In her guise, a relentless, emotionless being, which is commonly called an angel, speaks to him.

«The Creator cruelly tests his favorites, but if you at his instigation, offend one of them, and your suffering will not end. You must be feeling it already,» she held out her hand, and the candlestick was already in her fingers as if she’d told it to go flying over the bed. Rhianon tilted it so that the hot wax flowed onto the bandaged stump.

Bertrand screamed in pain enough to startle not only the castle but the villages beneath it. But no one came.

«They have other things to worry about,» Rhianon glanced quickly out the window. «I must be going now, but they must see my seal on you.»

She pulled out a signet ring, the same one he had already seen on her father’s finger once when he was sworn in. Seeing such a seal on him, everyone would know that he supported Rhianon, not Manfred. He didn’t care anymore. He couldn’t even hear the screams and noise outside the windows. And there, in the darkness, there seemed to be dozens of torches blazing.

«The villagers aren’t happy,» Rhianon said, frowning. «They should have been, long ago and not now. Personally, I think it’s too much for Sky to bear with the terrible punishments it’s inflicted.

She straightened up, putting the candle back the way she had taken it, that is, in a completely untraceable way. In her presence, things seemed to move on their own, windows opened, water jugs disappeared and spilled, the flames in the fireplace flared.

Bertrand reacted too keenly to the heat to start a fire, and now the fire in his bedroom was even too much. How could that huge cloud of flame fit in a single fireplace yawn? There seemed to be a whole elemental raging there.

«I must go now!» Now Rhianon was looking only at the sword-wielding leprechaun, as if Bertrand were gone or would soon be. «There will be others after you. Anyone who has wronged me in any way will pay more than your feeble human imagination can ever imagine.»

She smiled, indifferently, contemptuously, wickedly… so that he could tell by that smile alone that she was not lying and in no way exaggerating, even downplaying. Her triumph was yet to come, and it would take place on blood and bones.

No words of farewell were uttered; instead, Rhianon merely tilted her sword gently, allowing the leprechaun to slide down onto the bed. After she left, he stared briefly at the lingering, bloodless hole in his belly. The bewilderment at the idea of the wound on his toothy green face was almost immediately replaced by a hungry grin. The wounded man became even more bloodthirsty than before. Bertrand realized only now how naïve he’d been to think the angelic creature wanted to play down his torment. On the contrary, after waiting only a moment, it had increased it. The freed leprechaun pounced on its prey even more furiously than it would have. The helpless stump was at the mercy of a greedy mouth full not of teeth but of needles. After Rhianon’s departure, Bertrand felt too crushed to think at all, rather than move. Now he was even easier prey than before, which the creature did not fail to take advantage of. Perhaps the castle, with its servants and knights trembling before the devil’s affliction of their lord, would be even easier prey for the rebellious peasants. They will need no knives, no pitchforks, not even wood cut down and sheared for a battering ram. The servants here are in such turmoil that they will open the gates themselves. And when they burst into the master’s bedroom, they will realize that they were not wrong in their speculation.

Rhianon considered the naked sword in her hands. Her eyes must have glittered even more ominously than the deadly blade, because Ferdinand, who wanted to cross the threshold, never dared to do so.

She didn’t need him to come in. She knew all the news he wanted to tell her as it was. Not only could she read his mind easily, the sounds from the closed council chamber came to her ears as if the voices speaking there were communicating directly to her. She knew that there was to be war. Everything had been decided. Everything would not be enough for her now.

«I will go with you to the first battle,» she turned to Ferdinand, who had finally decided to enter the hall.

«But…» He was momentarily taken aback. The sword in her hand even startled him. The dwarf was right. The blade was begging for blood at every moment. Not just begging, but demanding. Her hand was strong enough to restrain it. It was for now. Too bad once it tasted blood, it wouldn’t be able to stop. It wanted to now. And Ferdinand was very near, so seductive, so close, so alive… it could be dead in a moment.

Rhianon took a few steps away from him. The long azure train draped behind her on the floor, cramping her movements, and yet she felt herself ready to fight. The sword was thirsty for blood. All she had to do was control it, pointing it at her enemies and not at her supporters. Too bad there was no choice now. Apart from Ferdinand there were no other people present. And blood had to be spilled now. The sword demanded it. She held it back with difficulty.

«You cannot go to the battlefield with me. You are not a knight,» Ferdinand began, for the first time, to dissuade her from doing something. He was frightened. She could see that.

«How can you fight with your frailty… and in your position?»

Oh, yes, he remembered about the child. It was the child of the devil. Rhianon grinned. With a flick of her hand, the sword made a dangerous arc that slid almost across his face. She played with the flame. In one second she had to bring the sword down. Immediately there was a squeak. When she raised the blade forward, there was already a strange creature with green skin and a gutted belly fluttering on it.

«Well, do you suppose there’s much in the world that you’re not yet familiar with?» She watched with pleasure the range of feelings on Ferdinand’s beautiful face, from amazement to almost disgust and fear. The infernal creature’s clawed limbs fluttered violently. A black liquid gushed out of its ripped abdomen. One drop of this substance and her new dress would be hopelessly ruined, but Rhianon was not frightened. She was watching her husband’s emotions more closely than she was watching the creature’s futile attempts to thrust herself up and off her sword.

«You have no idea what a fairy is capable of. To put on my armor and fight is the least I can do.»

«But you could be hurt or even killed,» he murmured in confusion. He could no longer call the creature wriggling on the tip of her sword a pleasant little beast from abroad, but he could at least cling to shards of truth. «Even with magic, you are not immune to injury.»

«How would you know?» She grinned triumphantly. «Look!» she grinned victoriously.

She let the creature go, but pressed it to the floor with the tip of her sword so that Ferdinand could see how its torn abdomen magically healed. It was as if leprechaun had never been wounded.

«He might still take you to the treasure, if you don’t lose him on the way. Who knows, maybe the pot of gold isn’t buried where the rainbow begins, but right under our horses’ hooves on the battlefield. We can take him with us to show us the right place. After all, the enemy troops will not be frightened away by this little fellow. He can be wounded and even killed, well, almost killed,» she pressed on him with the tip of her sword, but it had no effect other than another sob. «They’re immortal, you know. So am I.»

«Are you sure?» He was still hesitant. The dainty jagged crown pressed lightly against his smooth forehead. She was only now noticing it; if he didn’t send it back to the blacksmith to straighten it out a bit, it would push his wrinkles back into his old age.

«That’s true, Ferdinand, subconsciously you knew it already when you met me there by the swamp, but that didn’t stop you. Ten, maybe twenty more years, and you’ll grow old, but I won’t. The fire inside me won’t let that happen. If you thought a fairy could take the throne beside you, why can’t she fight? You think I am not yet acquainted with marquee, carnage, and cannon volleys. I have fought before, and as you can see there are no wounds or scars. My head is still on my shoulders. But I have seen more than the wars of men among themselves. Other creatures far more dangerous than humans are capable of warfare.

«Have you seen them, too? Was it in battle?»

She nodded.

«I have seen them, and the warlord, too. If he weren’t here, I could take them all into battle now and win instantly. But for now I would have to be satisfied with men.»

«My men will not fail you,» he promised her with sudden seriousness. «They can fight.»

«It is a startling statement for one whose troops have never been in battle.»

«But they are well trained, though all they do is joust, train, and occasionally help other warring countries, but I know they will prove themselves in combat

«And we’re outnumbered,» Rhianon shot him back. «Who can resist that?»

«You’re pleased

«Yes,» she agreed. «But revenge knows no boundaries. If I were to fight him at the head of an army of evil spirits, and die in the aftermath, I would accept without hesitation. Whatever the price of my enemy’s head, I would get it. The deal with the devil doesn’t matter anymore. The only devil is the one you hate, not the one holed up in a tent far from our world.»

«But you have seen what he is like in battle?»

She shrugged indifferently.

«Whether he’s on our side or theirs doesn’t matter, I can be stronger than him,» she pressed the leprechaun harder against the floor, making him squeal in pain. «Angels used to fight, too. We are two angels. And only one of us is the strongest.»

She let go of the leprechaun. The leprechaun leaped up and sprinted off, running so fast that she barely had time to follow him. The tip of her sword greedily absorbed the black blood. In a moment it would not be enough for it.

Rhianon quickly turned away from Ferdinand. His proximity for a sword in her hands was too tempting.

«I am going into battle, whether you like it or not. You cannot win without me. You may object now, but once you know Manfred better, you will see how right I was. Your astrologers are nothing compared to his tricks. A battle with him without the use of sorcery would be lost in an hour.»

«I’m not against the protection of enchantments, believe me, but if you have to risk it…»

«I’ve risked all my life,» she turned sharply, barely able to hold her blade, which was already hissing with temptation. «That’s what I am.»

She was taking a risk even now. His unprotected throat was close at hand, and her fingers were struggling to hold the twisted, gilded hilt, which curved into the shape of a salamander with its outstretched wings forming a cross and a thin tail that curled into a hilt. The dwarf smith did his best, and she didn’t even thank him. After the sacrifices she had made, it was unnecessary. The steel had drunk their blood only recently, but its appetite had only grown.

«I need the armor,» she only now noticed that Ferdinand had even noticed where his queen had gotten such a rare and unusual sword. Well, his lack of curiosity played right into her hands. To live in marriage with a fairy and not interfere with her affairs, the betrothed must be completely intoxicated by her.

«Also my own camping tent and squires, my warhorse will be Noreus. That’s the name of the horse I was given,» she quickly explained, noticing his bewilderment. It’s a good thing he doesn’t ask whose gift it is. Such a question would have been more difficult to answer. She would have had to make something up as she went along, and Rhianon didn’t like to lie. It was better to keep silent about loving a fallen angel than to lie that you had never seen one. Lies had become disgusting to her as of late. Madael would say it was a purely angelic trait. A proud, exalted creature never lies, for it is above all and has no one to ingratiate itself to. To hide the fact that she opened her paradise in the arms of a demon, Rhianon was not going to. Everyone would see her worth in the war anyway. Soon her supernatural allies would join her army. All she has to do is click. The wise dragon in the tower gave her an unusual horn, trumpeting it to summon all the evil of Vinor and himself. The further she went, the more supporters she found. She is queen of the evil spirits, and soon her army will be innumerable.

«And by the way,» she was about to leave, but she remembered on the way out. «I’ve tamed the little dragon, so no one can touch it.»

Ferdinand gasped.

«Don’t be worried, it won’t get any bigger while I’m around it. But keep the others away from it, especially Vivian, with his dragon-fighting instincts. I will not forgive anyone who touches my pets.»

She had to hurry. The blade in her hands was becoming almost uncontrollable. It thirsted for blood, anyone’s blood, even that of Rhianon herself. And the scabbard of it remained in her bedroom. Never again would she leave them lying around. The feeling of holding a snake in her hand, ready to sting, grew stronger and stronger. On the way she couldn’t find a single mouse or rat to stab it, so she could temper its bloodthirstiness, at least for a while. And to kill a man in the castle she would not dare. She was still lucky that Gwendolyn and Ulrich’s disappearance went unnoticed by anyone. For that, the spirit had done its best. He advised her to use spells that took away the memory of everyone. Only astrologers could have suspected anything, but they were powerless. Rhianon was even glad now that she had broken their web. At least from then on they tried not to get in her way anymore. Their strength had been unequal in the beginning, and now she could easily destroy them all if she wanted to.

The scabbard, made by the same dwarf, and covered with special runes that held back the power of the blade, remained where she had thrown it. She quickly hid the sword in them, and yet the blade managed to cut her. It hissed triumphantly, but only for a moment. A drop of blood immediately burst into flames on the carpet, reminding Rhianon that to wound her was to endanger one’s own life as well. Apparently, the wondrous sword was no exception. She clutched the hilt and felt that it would not dare to hurt her a second time. The enchanted sword, as if for the first time, became a natural extension of her hand, recognizing her as its true mistress. She was stronger than it, which meant that only she could wield it. Rhianon grinned. Everything was now falling into place. This weapon must obey her will, not the other way around. It can be difficult to wield a sword that pierces and slashes at will. It can want blood all it wants, but it must be guided by her.

«Can I be the best knight I can be? Better than him?» She asked, but the spirit did not respond.

He would not say a word. Rhianon grew furious at him, but quickly recovered her composure. For if she could not make all arrangements with Madael herself. She needed to know this. Would he bow to her, even if he were stronger himself? If he loves her, he must. And she needs at least one more look at him before the fight begins. She remembered the pendant she always carried with her now. It kept changing shape without end, so she hid it behind her corsage so it wouldn’t embarrass people with its changeability. Lately it had taken the form of a sword, a tower, or a salamander writhing in flames. She had grown weary of its endless transformations, but now, as she pulled it out into the light, she saw only a flat, golden blob. What could that mean? It looked like a drop of liquid gold, only it was solid and the flat droplet felt like there was no beginning or end. She squeezed the pendant in her hand.

«What are you doing?»

A nasal voice made her shudder. She hadn’t heard it in a long time, and she didn’t expect to hear it anymore. It made her dumbfounded for a moment. Rhianon had no idea the dwarf could be so far off the ground. Her tower was high above the sea that lapped at the rocks. Only an angel or a dragon could reach it, and only someone with wings. Fate, however, who had crawled out from behind a pedestal in the corner, was quite unlike either of them.

Perhaps he had used the tunnels to get in here, Rhianon consoled herself, and then turned away from him. She tried not to see that the dwarf was acting as if this were his moment of triumph. He would never take anything from her again.

He grinned, but she couldn’t even look at him.

«Don’t disturb me to think.»

«Thinking about where you’d like to go?» He suddenly became very wary. «I can see it in your mind. I couldn’t go there even with the pendant.»

«Of course you wouldn’t. Now go away.»

But he didn’t budge. She shrugged nonchalantly, ignoring his bad manners. When a lady demands, one must obey, but he evidently did not know that.

«Well, you may remain, for in a moment I shall be gone anyway.»

She looked at the pendant and mentally wished for one place, her bedroom in the celestial castle, the bed where Madael so often slept, his curls scattered on the pillows frolicking with leprechauns. He shook off strange insects and black fairies from his wings. She wanted to be where she saw him again, but the pendant didn’t seem to understand her until she imagined all the passages and galleries of the castle beyond the clouds. It was nothing again. Something wasn’t right. She’s not imagining things well, or the gnome’s presence is getting in her way. He lurked in a corner and waited. Rhianon chose to forget his presence and imagined the place even more clearly. Now that she concentrated on one object entirely, it should work. Her thoughts ran faster than the wind through balustrades of flowers, gardens of paradise, massive arcades, enfilades of gleaming halls, and even a bird house. Somehow, despite her flight of fancy, it all seemed terrifyingly empty, and yet she persisted in imagining the vaults of the grand heavenly structure.

«I want to be there. Immediately,» she demanded.

And the pendant was suddenly gone. She clutched it in her fingers, a hollow space.

«What? What is it?» She stared at Fate, perplexed. The dwarf was clutching at his bubble-like belly and writhing in laughter. He looked as if he were going to burst.

«You tricked me, didn’t you?» Rhianon stepped menacingly toward him and snapped her fingers together, sending out sparks.

«It is not at all.» He moved swiftly out of her way. «You’re just forgetting something, aren’t you, my pretty?»

«What’s that?»

He stared at her triumphantly, his dark eyes sparkling with angry beads.

«You make a wish for a place that isn’t there, and the gold pendant loses all its power. You send your magic to emptiness, and emptiness is what you get!»

He disappeared, and Rhianon was still staring after him in amazement. What did he mean by that? You can’t wish for magical places, but she did, and she succeeded. But places that aren’t… Wasn’t there a castle in the sky? That’s where she lived. And the messenger, who had seen it in the light of dawn, claimed it was there. But the pendant was gone, as if she had really sent it into the void. Did that mean the castle was gone? Rhianon didn’t want to believe it.

How was that possible? She still couldn’t come to her senses. It was like a nightmare dream. She would have considered it a dream if the pendant were still with her. But it was gone.

The miniature dragon was poking around her chest of drawers, clawing at the boxes and counting how much jewelry was hidden in each one. He was so amusing. Rhianon tried to distract herself from her thoughts by watching him. She hadn’t even given him a name yet, she had to name him something and still be able to use magic to make him respond to that name.

«Nugget,» she decided after a moment’s hesitation, and the little dragon turned at the sound of her voice, twitching its wings deliberately. He was perched on top of the chest of drawers, clawing at the handles with only his claws, wondering if the new name suited him. Rhianon thought it did. Since, curled up in a ball, he would have looked like a solid gold bar with aquamarine eyes, anyone would have guessed to call him a nugget.

«It sounds silly,» the spirit said angrily. At last he spoke up. Rhianon almost laughed. She could tell if he was being silent enough to bite him in the ass and he would speak again.

«You must obey my whims, even if you deem them foolish. Otherwise you can go away.»

There was a moment’s pause, after which a heavy sigh blew through the silence.

«It’s a good thing you didn’t call him a pot of gold. It would have suited him, too.»

The remark came just right. Her little pet was already a treasure collector, if only within the confines of his lady’s room for now. The spirit must have put up with her whims rather than leave. Rhianon felt victorious. Lately it had been surprisingly easy to insist on her way with him. She’d even figured out the easiest way to do it. All she had to do was demand that he obey her or get out, and then victory was on her side.

«So are we preparing for war?» The spirit’s question caught her off guard.

«I’m already doing it.»

«You’re not doing it well.»

«Yes, how dare you!» She instinctively grabbed her sword and suddenly realized that it was useless. There is no blood in the veins of a disembodied spirit, so the wondrous blade cannot be turned against it either.

«Did you at least check to see if all those you recruited would answer your call?» He continued to lecture her. «What if they can’t keep their word — the spirits and the fairies and the dragons? They’re all tricky. You expect them to rescue you from the first danger on the battlefield.»

«I’ll prove it when I march,» Rhianon observed recently, noting that the tiny creatures even accompanied her on her walks and often on her hunts. Dwarves appeared under her horse’s feet every now and then, escorting her, and pixies flew overhead. When she hunted with the royal retinue, she knew that she could lure the magical creatures from the thicket and they would bring a doe, weasel, or deer to her themselves. They obeyed her as they did their lord. What alarmed Rhianon most of all was that her instincts had become like Madael’s. Once she had shot a doe with a bow, she felt a strange thirst. Even before the huntsmen had begun gutting the carcass, she wanted to put the flask under the trickle of blood, or press her lips to the wound. What if she had done it in front of everyone? Madael could, unashamedly on the battlefield, drink the blood of the wounded if he wanted to. He was surrounded by those who understood him. And she had to have the decency to avoid the bonfire herself. Vivian, who had joined the hunters, looked at her suspiciously enough. He was good himself. Rhianon only managed to spot one small dragon in the thicket, but it was quite active, not inebriated. He was beyond Vivian’s control. If it got out of hiding it could have torn apart their entire small squad, but when it spotted Rhianon it only quickly tilted its head and hurried to hide.

Rhianon was about to mentally warn Vivian not to stare at her so stunned, but the smell of flayed game was so irritating to her sense of smell that she couldn’t think of anything else. The smell of blood became a lure. She wanted to put the goblet under the scarlet stream and in place of the slit throat of the doe, she imagined Manfred’s throat.

Soon it would not be a fantasy, but a reality. For some reason Conrad came to her mind first. Pulling out the dagger with which to finish the animal, Rhianon imagined the prince’s throat. He had encroached on her, he deserved to die. Even Madael would decide exactly as she did.


Douglas woke up suddenly. He felt as if someone was there. Someone he had been waiting for a long time.

As soon as he managed to doze off. He hadn’t been able to sleep for a long time. Suddenly sleep enmeshed his consciousness like a spider’s web. The young man didn’t even have time to control his magical defenses. He shook his hand carelessly through his tangled hair, dyed with special solutions to a searing black color. Before, an effort of thought would have been enough to tidy it, but now he was using his hands instead of his charms like a normal man. The whole thing felt more like an obsession.

Good thing all his captive supernatural beings hadn’t scattered while he slept. Douglas glanced around anxiously and was suddenly dumbfounded. Standing before the window open into the night was him… the one he must have been waiting for forever. A scarlet cloak fluttered behind his winged back. It wasn’t hard to guess how the guest had entered his tower. Why would he need a window, though? He could probably pass through walls, seep through cracks with air or flowing water, or burst into flames. He was everywhere, and everything was under his control. Just now the wind was blowing nearby, but it didn’t penetrate the open window. The net for the stars stretched beneath him remained unbroken.

A handsome, muscular hand clutched his sword, but Douglas knew that his guest would not challenge him to a duel. He was here for something else.

The young man could barely catch his breath. How long and hopelessly he had dreamed of this moment. And now the miracle had happened. It was a frightening miracle. The sight of the angelic beauty made his blood run cold.

He was not afraid of going blind at the sight of angelic features. It had not already happened to him. So it would not happen to him again. But the chiseled profile, framed by golden strands, made him feel a kind of morbid admiration. There he was, Dennitsa. He’s right there. Incarnate. Douglas, try as he might, had never been able to make sense of the complex structure of supernatural bodies. It was almost incomprehensible. Even now it was difficult to determine where ether ended and matter began. The guest seemed to him quite tangible and material and at the same time incommensurably more powerful than a physical being could be. Even the wings that fluttered slightly behind him seemed so powerful. One swing of them could knock a man to the ground.

Douglas swallowed hard. Why did he hesitate, the fool? He had waited all his life for this moment, and he did not dream of waiting. Right in front of him in his tower isolated from the world stands the very man he has so ardently dreamed of. Perhaps he is only here for a moment before his inevitable disappearance. So he should take advantage of that moment.

He could ask for something. Instinctively he could almost sense that his guest was waiting for it and even ready to respond. Douglas’s lips went numb. It was so hard to believe in the long-awaited moment. Already seeing the immortal warrior here was an indescribable reward.

«Don’t be afraid!» the angel moved toward him, smoothly and not at all menacingly, but Douglas pressed himself against the wall in fright. Bookshelves of books fluttered and caged creatures whirled behind him, sending a charming smile across his pale lips. He reached forward and touched Douglas’s hair with long slender fingers. The young warlock was dazed. The sensation was unspeakable. Here almost ethereal yet unspeakably strong hands slid over his strands, winding them as if to tie them into a net. Shining blue eyes in a halo of golden lashes look inside him. They were seductive pale lips quite close at hand. Dennitsa himself… Douglas had many horrible or noble names swirling on his tongue that were worth calling him: Lucifer, Masemma, Beelzebub…

«You know my name!» The golden voice came through as if through him. «The one I prefer.»

«Yes,» Douglas nodded uneasily. He saw his dream so close, and at the same time he was suddenly stung by a sharp sense of disappointment. Was this what he’d been dreaming of lately? If so, he was very close to him. So why was Douglas suddenly looking for different feminine features in his face? Rhianon’s. Why couldn’t she come to him now? Why had Mastema come instead of her? After all, Douglas had been dreaming of nothing but her lately.

It had taken him some time to realize that the beautiful angel had not come to him with an offer of intimacy.

«Does your king want me in his army?» His pale lips curved into a sneer that sent a chill down his spine. It was a statement, not a question, and yet Douglas nodded.

«It is a curious suggestion…»

Even Douglas’ captive creatures in the cages and corners of the tower chuckled, recognizing the sneer in Dennitsa’s tone. Douglas, on the other hand, did not know where to put his eyes.

«I promised…»

«I know it,» the angel interrupted him. «You don’t think there’s anything I don’t know.»

«Well…» The young man felt like a fool. His idol had deliberately dragged him through the mud, chiding him for his naivety. «I think nothing escapes your attention, Monsignor.»

«Monsignor,» the beautiful pale lips sneered again. Douglas noticed that the mocking grin bloomed on them like a rose, so beautiful were they. He’d never been a poet, and yet the comparison was self-evident.

«It’s a funny way of putting it, but I like it…»

The laughter never came, but in Douglas’s mind it rang, like the clang of gold in a dragon’s cave, deafening yet husky at the same time.

«It is too low for you,» he murmured fearfully.

«But it conveys the essence,» his golden lashes lowered suddenly, casting no shadow across his cheeks, only a glow. «I was never the first…»

He frowned thoughtfully, as if weighing recent memories.

«No, you are the first, and only you,» Douglas dared to retort, and then he bit his tongue. The hand that had been stroking his curls nearly closed around his throat.

«She doesn’t think so,» Madael whispered.

Douglas had no further objections. He remembered Rhianon. The mere sight of her would make everything he had ever lived before vanish in a moment. He could understand Dennitsa, his passion, his love, his self-denial… He was not prepared to lose for her, was he? Douglas was suddenly frightened.

I love you, he almost said, both of you, and that is the only reason you should not fight. Fight the whole world, but not each other. Why can’t you be against all, but together? But apparently everything had already been decided without his advice. Douglas panicked, and the hand that was clutching him suddenly grew harder. Freeing himself from the statue’s grasp would be much easier than throwing it off.

«Demand whatever reward you want from your king, little one, for convincing me to take your side.»

«But…» Douglas was taken aback. The golden voice was like an echo. How tired he was. «If you are with them, you are against her.»

The very guess stunned him. He stared dumbly at the gorgeous face, as if frozen for a moment. His laughter, which sounded sudden, like the clinking of coins rolling across the floor, completely threw him off balance.

«She has a husband, if you remember,» the angel reminded him, laughing bitterly. «Or have you finished watching her?»

The hand that held him against the wall grew even harder. Douglas shrank back.

«Even I could kill him… with my own special methods, of course. Send a bird with poison into his dining room, for example. No one would even notice its claws slipping over the king’s glass.»

«I want to kill him in front of her,» Madael protested with an implacable tone. There was no point in arguing. Douglas gave in immediately.

«Does she love him? Do you think so?»

«I don’t think so,» the angel shook his head. «I would have sensed otherwise. But she is with him. That’s good enough for me,» he said, his voice abruptly steeled. «Tell him I’m taking the girl anyway. And the Crown Prince I am taking too. The rest goes to your lord, since he has no objection to my being at his side.»

The steel palm let him go, but Douglas was in no hurry to leave and carry out the order. He was still staring at his guest in stupefaction.

«You don’t have to do that, do you?» He guessed. «You should be on her side, not his. Such is the supreme command. Am I right?»

«Go away!» Suddenly there was such hatred in his beautiful eyes that Douglas had the good sense to run for the door. «Remember, boy,» the harsh voice said as he drew nearer to the door. «Here on earth, I’ll decide for myself what I do, what side I fight on. I have been ordered enough by the Lord before, and I do not need your advice anymore.»

It was meant to be. Douglas knew that. You can’t command the strongest forever, even if he’s a prisoner. One day the chains would break. Rage allowed him to realize his superiority. Good if that rage wasn’t being unleashed on him now. Douglas could almost hear the angel clock, somewhere in the immeasurable distance, chiming an alarming beat. It is done. It was time. He shrugged, resigning himself to the inevitable.

«Well, then it’s time,» he said, not really counting on Madael to understand or approve of such observations of himself. But the angel only grinned.


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