Chapter 2

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The light was fading fast, but the black-clad priests still had to perform the rituals and wouldn’t be rushed no matter how much the seated council members glared at them from the stage. The priests passed among the score of supplicants, making holy signs and chanting, taking care to anoint each one properly before moving on. Drummers deep inside the temple's craggy walls beat a steady rhythm that matched the stomping feet of those standing before its imposing cliff. The runner now wore their flying leathers, dark browns and blacks, padded in places but supple enough to allow them to move freely. A high priestess paused in front of each rider and dipped a brush into a golden bowl held by an initiate, before flicking the water over the rider's shoulders and moving on to the next.

The snow was falling thicker, and the audience grew agitated, the cold adding to the restlessness. The square was quiet, however, just the steady drumming coming from high up in the temple, a deep thud that sought to drag the heartbeat into line.

Rell pulled his coat tight and watched his sister wishing he could be at her side, not that he wanted to make the climb just that it felt odd to be so close and yet unable to reach her. She was tall and sharp-featured, her mass of black hair tied back as tightly as she could manage. In her youth, Ariella had threatened to shave her head more than once, but a stern lecture from the housekeeper had stopped her from reaching for the scissors. She shifted from side to side in little hops, working to keep the cold from her muscular limbs. Rell did the same and received an impatient glare from Kynon, but Rell ignored him and continued to fidget.

Growing up, Rell and Ariella had been inseparable and Rell had often picked up her habits, not that she complained, but it angered their father, and he'd sought to separate the two by sending Ariella to a school for girls. According to the young Ariella, the establishment was little more than a prison camp and she'd started her first day by fighting with the matrons. It took only a month before the twelve-year-old Ariella escaped and returned to her brother. From then on, any attempt to return her was met by fierce resistance from them both.

It had been this way until the past year when Ariella had moved out of the family home. It was Ariella's choice to enter the temple as an initiate, the first step to joining the ranks of the dragon riders but it came at the price of leaving her little brother behind.

“Damn this snow. Why couldn't it have held off a little longer?” Kynon frowned up at the low clouds. The sun had vanished an hour ago and a bank of thick clouds was threatening to fall upon the city. The temple’s spires were already shrouded, and in a short time, the entire edifice would be hidden from view. "We won't be able to see them climb at this rate."

“Not as if this isn’t tough enough already,” Rell cursed and glared up at the clouds. “If those priests don't get a move on, they’ll be climbing in a blizzard.”

More heads turned upwards, and the muttering of the crowd must have become audible to the priests as they seemed to pick up the pace. Two of their number lifted a gilded horn five feet in diameter from a large chest and held it up for a third to approach the mouthpiece. Firelight glinted from the gold and jewels encrusted on the surface, a dazzling display that brought whispers of awe from those at the front of the crowd. The priestess looked to the high priest on the podium, he nodded, and she blew the horn. The sound was at odds with what they expected, high pitched and shrill. Rell clamped his hands over his ears, wincing as the priestess blew again and the plaza echoed with the shrill call. Heads turned expectantly to the east, but if there was meant to be a reply of some sort it didn't come, at least not at once.

A hush fell upon the crowd as they waited in the thickening snow. The twenty supplicants stood at the base of the cliff in a line, occasionally looking over the shoulder as if waiting for a signal. Their breath came out as clouds of mist. Ariella slapped her gloved hands together and stared up at the cliff face furthest to her left. Rell followed her gaze knowing instinctively what she was planning. He'd listened to Ariella talk about this race since they were small and followed behind her as she traced the route up the cliff face to the temple towers. Every year she would study each stage and try to plot her own path through it. They would race each other from the monastery halfway up the flanks of Orphin's Mount all the way to the centre of the town. Rell always won, but Ariella never gave up chasing him. They would stand where she now stood alone staring up and talking about the best way up.

“Rell,” a man said quietly from behind the brothers and they both turned in surprise to see their uncle Victor standing behind them. He clasped his thick coat tightly and stared out from under the brim of an enormous fur hat, his bushy eyebrows almost hiding his eyes. He looked up apologetically at his towering nephews and smiled thinly. “Your father wants to know if there was anything of interest in the collection.”

“Now?” Rell answered sharply and turned away to see that his sister had stopped pacing, her eyes locked on a distant spot above her.

“I’m sorry, Rell, but...” Victor didn’t get to finish before Rell, regretting his dismissal, turned back to him and placed a hand on his uncle's shoulder. The Quintos were a large family, most living under the same roof and working together, but out of all the aunts and uncles, it was only Victor that showed any affection for Rell and his sister.

“There was a shipment of silks from Rekrar, I only got a glimpse before the master had it moved to the back, but the pattern was unique.”

“He seeks to keep it for himself?” Kynon asked.

“I can't see a man like him wearing silk, but he might be aiming to sell it.” Rell was eager to end the conversation, but a thought occurred to him. “I learned today that the current master of the collection isn't opposed to unofficial trading.”

“You think he would accept an offer? They never have before. It would be a misstep to approach and find out he was an honest man,” Victor asked, surprised and intrigued by the idea.

“I had it confirmed by Tanis only a short while ago. The man is crooked. He’s open to a deal, but it must be done soon before he enters the tithe into the records. He’s still there, I believe.”

Victor looked back at the huddle of old men, his brothers and cousins all talking business.

“Kynon, I want you to go to the West gate directly and make a deal with the master. Get us a fair price mind, it's not worth the risk if the profit isn't there,” Victor said.

“In the snow? The climb will be treacherous, and I’ll have to do so in the dark. I should leave it till first thing in the morning.” Kynon looked to the west, but the clouds hid the mountains and the pass. He nodded in agreement with himself, but Victor didn’t look so sure.

Rell felt an almost palpable joy at the opportunity for mischief but let it pass, satisfied with just the image of his brother arriving at the gate frozen and stumbling in the dark only to find he was on the wrong side of the valley.

“Brother, I think our uncle is correct in seizing the opportunity but as much as it pains me, I must point out that I spent the day at the east gate. If Tanis is there ask him to make the introduction, if not then just drop his name anyway when you talk to the master of the tithe. You’d best go now before it gets any thicker.” Rell pulled his coat tight around his neck and gave a theatrical shiver.

“That may be so, but as I said the path will be too treacherous in the snow.”

“Nephew, the path is not all that bad. I've walked it many times and quite recently. Even in my old age, I found it not too taxing. If the snow worries you then take my servant with you, he’s a hardy sort and will keep you from slipping or getting lost in a snowbank.” Victor showed no sign of subterfuge, but Kynon knew his younger brother well enough to be wary.

The old man signalled to his servant who was standing a few yards off. The man was over forty, mute and walked with the subservient stoop of a man that had spent most of his life enslaved, except he hadn’t been born in captivity. Up until the age of seven, he’d roamed the edges of the desert region, living in a small family group that he no longer remembered. Standing side by side they were the image of each other, only discernable by the thicker clothes the older Victor wore.

“Oster, I want you to accompany Master Kynon to the west gate, make sure he doesn't get lost. Wait for him and then bring him back to the house.” Victor gave his instruction but before dismissing the servant he pulled the younger man’s coat about him and fussed over his hat. “You’ll catch a cold out here if you're not careful.”

“East gate, uncle,” Rell said and then repeated the location to Oster. The servant nodded and shuffled to stand by Kynon's side.

Kynon scowled at the servant and then set off with barely a grunt, heading towards the east side of the plaza with Oster trailing after him.

Rell smiled to himself and turned his attention back in time to see Ariella step out of the line, startling the youthful men, and women lined up with her. She walked past them until she was on the far left of the group, as far as she could get without being admonished by the priests.

“What's she doing? She left the pack,” Victor said stepping forward to take Kynon’s vantage point.

“They all go for the front three towers,” Rell answered over his shoulder. “They’re the nearest to the cliff and the easiest to climb but only a few aim for the other nine. What usually happens is that they fight all the way up and then those in the rear have to change direction and cross the bridge to the dome and then cross over to the next towers. Ariella and I watched for years and came to the conclusion that it's best to avoid the fight and go directly for the fourth, the eastern corner.”

“She really has a chance at this doesn’t she?” Victor asked and Rell turned at the genuine hope in the old man's voice.

“Kynon thinks it doesn’t matter, that her fate's already been decided.”

“Kynon is like your father.” Victor cast a quick glance to see that no one was listening before whispering to Rell. “They both think only in terms of profit. The heart doesn’t make any money, so they dismiss it. Your mother was a dreamer, just like you and Ariella.”

“I’ve never heard you speak of her before?” Rell said. Victor seemed to realise that he had just broken a taboo.

“Your father couldn’t stand to think of her. I wish…” Victor stopped speaking and rubbed a glove over his deeply wrinkled face. He was the eldest of the Quinto’s, but he wasn’t at the top of the pile. He shook his head and turned his grey eyes to the temple. “It rules everything, all of us.”

“I don't understand, uncle.”

A deep roar erupted from the western edge of the square, rolling like thunder around the plaza and waking everyone up. Expectant whispers filled the long silence that followed. The snow fell heavily onto upturned faces, but no one moved an inch. The call came again, higher-pitched than before, sharp enough to make the scalp crawl. Rell pulled his hood up and tucked his head into his shoulder but couldn't turn his eyes away from the orange clouds lit by the fires in the square. Powerful wingbeats churned the clouds as a long grey form flew just above the square. A hand shot out from the crowd as someone spotted a smaller object at its side. An orange wing tip dipped beneath the cloud, quickly followed by more as the strange flight of birds flew just inside the clouds. They passed swiftly, and the clouds became still once more.

The horn blew again, and the racers broke into a mad dash to the base of the cliff. The first three climbed at an impressive rate, pushing ahead of the others that started with the shoving before they were a dozen feet off the ground. Ariella disappeared from sight as she chose a tougher but solitary line. Rell strained to follow her, but the mass of climbers was in the way. A man cried out as his foot was pulled away from the wall by a woman climbing lower than him. He waved his arms, but was unable to get a hold and fell twenty feet before colliding with the wall and sliding to the smooth stone of the plaza. He wasted no time in getting up and despite the blood that ran from a cut to his cheek, he started the climb once more.

A scuffle broke out as tempers flared and the crowd shifted as everyone attempted to get away from the fight. Ripples spread out from the fight as people pushed against each other. A squad of guards left their post and rushed to reach them before the fighting spread. The temple had a low tolerance for violence during the tests, not from squeamishness but from past riots. With over a hundred entrants there were a lot of family members in the square each one pinning their hopes on the young person that was doing all the work.

Rell turned his back on them and focused on the climbers. When he spotted Ariella he pointed her out for their uncle to see. She’d made excellent progress and was on a level with the lead four, but they were concentrated on the fore tower while she was cutting an angle towards the westernmost.

“Come on, Ari, just keep going,” Rell said under his breath as Ariella entered the cloud bank and was lost to sight. Two climbers in the rear pack must have concluded that Ariella was on to something because they changed direction and followed her. Soon they were all in the clouds and all the crowd could do was wait for the sign that they had made it.

The guards made quick work of the fighting families and were dragging a few away just to teach the rest a lesson when a scream rent the air. Heads snapped upwards as a body tumbled into sight. Limbs twisted as a young woman bounced off the rocks. The torchlight made it difficult to see, but all heard the crunch as she came to rest at the base of the cliff. A few people howled and Rell felt the crowd surge forwards, but the guards braced and shouted for them to get back. Somewhere in the audience was a family desperate to see if it was their child that had fallen.

“Was it Ariella?” Victor asked gripping Rell by the back of the arm.

“No, uncle,” Rell said. From his elevated position, he could see the priest rushing to the base of the cliff.

“Did you see?” a man cried to Rell from nearby.

“Was it a girl?” another asked. Heads turned to look at Rell.

“A woman,” Rell called back. “Blonde hair. That's all I saw.”

“Not Jarena then, thank the gods,” the man said, and the people in his group breathed a sigh of relief.

“Someone's child though,” a woman said and a few of those around her nodded in agreement. “Is she moving?”

“I think so. The priests have her,” Rell said.

"She's in Orphin's hands now." The woman made the sign of their god and nodded her head in the direction of the volcano. Others around her copied her example but Rell kept his arms folded.

Something shrieked from the direction of the temple roof and Rell tensed as the first of the dragons broke through the cloud to swoop low over the heads of the people. It was small, barely the length of three men from snout to forked tail, but a squat rider sat in front of the wings in a high-backed saddle, hunched forward and holding onto a short rein.

The crowd cheered and threw their hands up in salute as the rider turned her dragon in a wide arc before climbing back up into the cloud. Another shriek soon followed, and the next rider appeared. A man this time, only half in the saddle and hanging on for dear life. He didn't fly so low but dropped below the cloud long enough to be seen. A flurry of dragons appeared over the next few minutes, Rell scanned them quickly dismissing them as soon as he realised none of them was Ariella.

Another minute passed with no sounds but then a man broke the cloud bank, the dragon he had attempted to ride swooping low and racing over the city. The crowd pushed back in a panic, not wanting to be under him when he landed. The man tumbled through the air but as he neared the ground another dragon swooped in towards him, its rider reaching out to grab him. Rell gasped as his sister caught the falling man by the leg and pulled on the reins with her free hand. Time slowed as she clung on and the great beast shrieked at the load, flapping its wings furiously. The powerful downdrafts fanned the charcoal braziers, sending embers shooting into the air and towards the podium. Servants dashed forwards to screen their masters and guards strove to drive the crowd back from the expected point of impact. The dragon quickly slowed its descent, but it wasn’t enough to prevent it from crashing into the ground with a heavy thud, scattering people that had been too close.

Rell ran down the steps and pushed his way through the crowd, desperate to reach the crash site. Over the heads of the people in front of him, he could see everyone on the podium standing and shouting. Some patted at scorch marks on their furs while others gesticulated wildly at the crashed dragon. A leathery wing struck upwards, and Rell heard the shriek again. A man shouted a warning, and everyone looked up to see two more dragons swoop down from the cloud. People crouched in fear, leaving Rell with an unobstructed view of his sister hanging limply from the saddle as the dragon got to its feet. She flapped about as the dragon sought to dislodge her from its back but she'd had the presence of mind to secure the straps on her legs before taking flight.

One of the dragon's wings stuck out at an angle and Rell ducked under it but dodged back as the injured animal snapped at him. The man Ariella had saved came out of his daze and scampered away just as a priest ran forward swinging a smoking orb on the end of a chain. The priest wafted it the smoke as close as they could to the dragon's head, dancing back and forth to stay out of range of its bite. Unable to stand the dragon clawed at the ground and let out a pained shriek as it snapped its jaws at the priest but the man bravely stood his ground confident that the smoke would have the desired effect. The dragon locked onto the swinging object, its long neck swaying back and forth and it slumped onto its right flank. Seeing his opportunity Rell ran to catch Ariella just as a buckle snapped and she partway slipped from the saddle.

“Rell, what are you doing here?” Ariella asked groggily. A priestess untied her leg on the other side and then pulled her from the saddle. Rell wanted to follow, but he knew enough to stay put. She was in the temple's world, and he couldn't cross over. Instead, he took a step back and watched as the priestess led her toward the podium. Ariella pushed away from the young priestess and tried to cover her limp but Rell caught it. She'd injured herself in the fall but just how badly he'd have to wait and see. A guard shoved him back as priests swarmed forward to tend to the injured dragon.

Rell did as he was ordered frustrated that he couldn't be at his sister's side.

 

Darkness had fallen before the riders returned to the square and mounted the podium. They now stood in a line before the council members and waited for the high priest to swear them into the ranks of the dragon riders, but the priests were involved in a spirited argument and no one in the plaza had any doubt who they were discussing. Ariella stood on her own at the base of the steps, still dressed in her riding gear. Those that had successfully flown to the eerie wore warm furs and thick clothing.

The priests huddled together not far away and talked agitatedly but quietly.

“She got to the spire and claimed a dragon, that's the test. Then she saved someone's life, how can they not let her in?” Tanis said. He and Barris had raced down to the plaza, hoping to reach the judgement in time, only to find it had been delayed.

“Well, the tradition is that they land their dragons in the eyrie thereby taking their place in the ranks of the riders,” Barris said and nodded to the west where on a clear day the wide tower that served as the dragon’s roost dominated the skyline. “Without that, they could argue that she didn't complete the flight. The only hope is that they let her mount her rightful dragon here and complete the flight. That would be the honourable thing to do.”

“Honour coming from those thieves?” Tanis gestured to the ranks of priests and nobles behind the podium. “They didn't get there by being honourable and fair.”

The dragons were out of the elements and tucked away inside the roosts that filled the tower's honeycomb interior. As it was those gathered could barely see across the plaza for the amount of snow that was falling. It wasn't yet a blizzard, but it could soon well turn into one and people were already drifting towards the edge of the crowd, impatient to be off home once they entered the winners into the book, if only the priests would hurry up.

“She saved the life of another, that's got to count,” Rell said, but the doubt was already creeping into his voice. Tanis was right, the temple wasn't known for its compassionate understanding.

“Who’s that getting up?” Tanis said straining to see what was happening under the sagging awning. The snow was collecting on its wide roof and servants were doing their best to shift it before the structure collapsed. Only thirty council members remained, the others already having departed and those that remained were growing angry at the priest's prevaricating. In an attempt to hurry things along, one of their number descended to join the handful of priests gathered near the winner's podium.

“Is that Arens?” Barris guessed.

“No, it's a woman.” Rell cursed. “It’s Hazen. Ariella won't stand a chance with her sticking her nose in.” Rell wanted to hit something but settled for slamming his gloved fist into an open palm.

“What's so wrong with her?” Barris enquired.

“She hates my father, something between them from long ago before I was born,” Rell said. “If we run into trouble, she’s usually on the other end of it. She kept my father's name from the temple donation list.” Rell strained to see over the guards and the gathering of temple staff milling around, performing some function that Rell failed to discern. He mused that the temple must be empty at that moment, scrubbing brushes discarded and candles left untended.

“It might not even be about Ariella. There could be something else going on,” Barris said hopefully, but Tanis scoffed at the notion.

“You think the high priest has mislaid his incense balls? Come on, it's got to be about the crash. They normally have it over and done with by now. Those blind idiots can't come to the right decision,” Tanis said.

“Careful, Tan. Don't forget where you are,” Barris said. The guards weren’t too far away, but the heavy snow stifled any sound. Tanis shrugged his shoulders but eyed the nearest guards warily.

Rell swore and held his hood out to keep the snow from his face. He was finding it difficult to see the podium clearly. “It wasn't a crash, they both survived thanks to Ariella. You didn't see the ungrateful bastard. He was angry at her. She saved his cursed life, and he looked at her as if she'd crossed him. If I see him again, I’ll crack his skull.”

“Let it go. Besides the fact that as a prospect for the Dragon Eyrie he could certainly defend himself, it won’t do any good. You know how much your sister put into this. It was the same for that man. He was ready to die, to fall to his death for the chance to enter the hallowed ranks of the dragon riders.” Barris folded his arms across his wide chest but caught Tanis scowling at him. “What?”

“Why have you always got to be so measured? Can't we just hit someone and not think about the rights and wrongs?” Tanis said.

Barris pondered the words for a moment and then nodded. “You’re right. But you’ll need help to exact vengeance. Tanis will help you.”

“This is it.” Rell pointed to where councillor Hazen was speaking to the high priest. Hazen was short and blocky with a large fur-lined hood that concealed her face, but as she stood close to the priest, she seemed to loom over him. She spoke calmly at first but when the golden-robed high priest raised his hands in anger the councillor shut him off with a jab of her finger in his chest. The high priest looked suitably chastened, and he listened dutifully.

“He’s nodding along,” Tanis said.

The gaggle of priests broke up as councillor Hazen returned to her seat. She pulled her robes around her and hid within the deep hood. Rell watched her talk to the other dignitaries as she sat down and folded her robes around her. They smiled, and one patted her on the arm.

“Smug bastards,” Tanis said under his breath, but Barris still heard.

“When you end up in a cell, I’ll come to see you and bring food from your mother,” Barris said.

The high priest mounted the podium and raised his hands to get everyone's attention. The twelve contestants stood in a line while the high priest stood with his back to them and addressed the congregation, what remained of it since over half of the townsfolk had left and gone home.

“We must hold to tradition, for without it what are we? We would become little more than barbarians and that we cannot become, for we are the light in this land and the dragon riders are our torchbearers. As such they must hold tighter to the formal ways.” The high priest gestured to where Ariella stood at the bottom of the steps. Rell could just see her between the ranks of guards lined in front of the podium. She stood as still as a statue, her face fixed in a stern expression, her lips tightly pursed and her eyes fixed on the distance. Snow clung to her shoulders, but inside her, a fire must have been burning because she showed no sign of discomfort.

“While you completed the tests, you failed to return to the eyrie. Your actions saved another's life, but the duty of a dragon rider is more than that. You will not be joining the ranks of the riders.” The crowd gasped at the high priest’s words, and some mutterings of discontent filtered among the hundreds that remained. Rell didn't listen any further to the words of the high priest. The old man's mouth moved, and his hand pointed for Ariella to leave. His sister showed no emotion as she turned her back on the priest and strode into the crowd. Rell felt a hand brace on his shoulder, and he turned to see the ruddy complexion of Barris. The big man shook his head and nodded that they should leave. Rell cut through the crowd, followed by his friends to find Ariella.

 


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