Characters: Kotryna Rayn, Fisher Hassan [Jorth], Sheila
World: Black Flames
Rating: PG, I think. I can't think of anything too adult about it, really.
Word Count: 4,054
Total Words: 13,182/20,000
This is the biggest thing I've written for this so far, I think, and it took forever and I got so bored of it. But after a certain point I knew I had to just get it finished. So, here it is!
Elegant Forest Tour
Kotryna jerked her head up, a defensive glare ready as she searched for the source of the voice. She saw a tall man with a touch of the island’s customary olive skin, on the lightest end of the spectrum, a messy mop of dark brown hair, and what appeared to be brownish eyes, but it was hard to tell with the distance between where he stood in the aisle between the cells and where she sat, knees to her chest on her dingy cot.
“I’m here to show you the fort and escort you to your dormitory.”
With an small nod, Kotryna took a deep breath and stood as he unlocked the iron door to her cell. The man's eyes were dark hazel, surprisingly kind with very young laugh lines and flecks or green and gold. A pair of men a few cells down whistled and called to her as she was led past them. The soldier seemed uncomfortable and stepped to shield her from their vision. She refused to be touched by the gesture, bristling instead at the perceived insult; she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself and didn’t need his protection.
“I am Journeyman Hassan. Fisher Hassan,” he told her as they exited the cell block. “You’re on the lowest level of the fort, the dungeons. Obviously. I’m sure you don’t really want a tour of this place after the time you’ve been having, though.” He seemed to say it more to himself than as a question to her, though, which was a relief to her. “We’ll just take one of the lifts up through each floor. This way…” They headed around a corner and soon reached an open space. To one side was a closed door and in front of them was the wall with three lifts. A part of her couldn’t help but be fascinated, as well as excited to ride one again. “That door over there is the warden’s office. She’s a real bitch, so try to stay on her good side.” To one of the two waiting servants at the lifts, a pair of strong men, Hassan directed, “We need one floor.”
“Yes, sir,” replied the man, bowing deeply. Kotryna thought to herself, They’d better not expect that from me.
The servant opened the gate to one of the lifts and bowed them in. Hassan followed Kotryna on. The men outside began a crank and the lift rose. While anxious butterflies danced in Kotryna’s stomach, she found herself fascinated by this ingenious technology. Perhaps she had just never been privy to it, but in all her travels, in all the beautiful places they’d been invited, she’d only seen stairs. The one that had come close was in a palace with an enslaved earth mage, who’d lifted platforms of rock up shafts in the walls, but they’d been too wary to trust it.
Either the men were slow or the dungeons were buried very deeply, but it seemed to be taking an extraordinarily long time to reach the first floor. Hassan shifted his feet as though nervous, but asked her with a steady voice, “So what did you do?”
“Excuse me?” she asked, surprised.
“To get arrested and have to work here. I’m curious what happened.”
She huffed, debating refusing to tell him, but then she decided not to be too hard on him. He was the first person to show her something even close to kindness. Attempting to keep her accent as understandable as possible, she explained succinctly, “I was pimped and did not want to. I attacked him for defense. He was one off your soldiers. My man left me here.”
He was quiet for a moment before gently putting a hand on her shoulder for just a second. “I’m sorry.”
Kotryna shrugged. “Do not be.” Her tone was ambiguous whether or not she didn’t want him to be sorry because she was happy to end up here or because she simply did not want his sympathy.
Finally they reached an opening in the shaft and a servant rushed over to open the gate and let them out. Her escort waved her out first, politely. They toured the first floor, a bustle of activity. Sometimes he spoke too fast and she only pretended to understand, but she felt she got the idea of everything he showed her and told her. There were indoor stables, with huge war horses and smaller, but still powerful patrol horses. These took up most of the room in this huge level. There was another stable complex on the grounds outside of the main fort building, too. Thousands of horses to match with the thousands of soldiers that never would find a match with a dragon or gryphon. Hassan showed her huge stores of grain and potatoes and preserved goods and spare supplies. She was floored by the sheer amount of food. She’d never seen so much in one place.
“I’ll show you the grounds last,” he told her, steering her back to the lifts. “To the main atriuml,” he instructed the waiting servants. They climbed onto a lift and began to rise. “We’re passing through all the chamber levels,” he told her as they passed several openings without stopping. “They get nicer as you get higher. Higher ranks.”
“Why is dat?” she asked. “Who can want to climb dese stairs or wait for dis lift?”
“Well, after a certain rank, the soldiers are all joined with a dragon or a gryphon. It’s much easier to fly onto the balcony for them and the higher they are, the easier to get in without having to penetrate the tree-line, which is less safe for the bigger beasts.” He indicated the lift and continued, “These are used mostly by the servants and slaves. Sometimes the cavalry will use them. They’re not supposed to; no one reports them, but if they get caught by certain generals they might get in trouble. They’re supposed to use the stairs. It’s good exercise.”
“What are you?”
“Journey Rider Fisher Hassan, joined to black Jorth,” he recited proudly.
“Dat is a drake?”
“Yes. I’ll let you meet him if you’d like.”
A lurch of fear turned her stomach, but she didn’t let it show. “Perhaps. If time is here.”
He made an interesting face at her poor grasp of the language, amused, but he didn’t tease her. “Where are you from?”
“Naioi,” she replied succinctly, a bit defensive as though she were challenging him to make fun of her.
“My mother has family there still,” he told her. “Not much anymore, but I think I have a great-aunt or something. Her mother came here when she was a young woman.”
That got a bit more of a respectful look from Kotryna. It meant very little, truly, when it came to his character, but he had been kind to her thus far and was kin to her homeland. It meant something to her tired heart, desperately searching for some familiarity in this strange place. “Haff you known any off the language?”
He shook his head. “She did - my mother. But anything she and my grandmother taught me, I’ve forgotten. I didn’t care for it like I should have as a child and I came to the fort when I was twelve. My father is a soldier at Hamira Lakes. After that, I had no use for it and forgot it.”
“Shame. It is a beautiful language.”
“That it is.”
“How many years do you haff now?”
“Umm… You, er, your age?”
“Oh, um, I’m nineteen.”
“Not so old you are stupid now.”
He looked shocked and startled, jerking her eyes to her to find her grinning for the first time since a month ago before she arrived. He laughed. “Maybe not. Maybe I’ll learn again.” The lift stopped with little warning then, a roar of people and dishes hitting her ears hard. Shaking her head and furrowing her brow, she managed to adjust and he waited patiently. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes. Dat just… surprised.”
Hassan chuckled. “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? I’ve only come up this way a few times.”
The stepped out into a vast, bustling, round hall. Uniformed officers and servants milled around, talking, shouting, eating, cleaning up, fetching. There was a long, heavy table on a slightly-elevated dias at the head of the room where a handful of older officers were scattered, eating or looking over documents or both. In the middle were two much larger chairs, more ornately decorated than the rest. They were empty right now, but she suspected the reigning Master Riders reserved those spots.
Large doorways at intervals along some of the walls led out into seemingly nowhere, giving way to the open blue sky. It hit her then how high up they were. The giant red trees of the Elegant Forest were famous, yet this fort had climbed up and out of its clutches. Soldiers were going in and out of the openings and it dawned on her that that must be where the dragons and gryphons perched, dropping off their riders and waiting. The same nervousness that had come earlier at the mention of Fisher Hassan’s black dragon reappeared and she felt a little dizzy.
“This is the main atrium, the heartbeat of the fort,” her soldier escort explained. “We feast here, we celebrate here, we mourn here. They can set up stages and platforms and decorate this place so extravagantly, you’d think you were in some far off royal palace - and this is a palace for us. You know the Masters at Elegant outrank the whole chain, right?” Kotryna just blinked and nodded even though she hadn’t known that and really could barely comprehend anything he was saying then. “We do everything in this hall, or in any of the small atria off of it. Mostly, though, it’s just where we eat and drink and conduct our daily business.” He pointed to a pair of large double doors that seemed to swing freely as someone passed through them. “That’s the kitchens over there. You probably won’t ever have to work in there, but I don’t know much about what you’ll be doing.”
“Dare are so many people,” she murmured. “I did not imagine you could haff so many soldiers. And dare are free off dese forts?”
“Yes. Elegant Forest Fort, Fort Hamira, and Whispering Hollow Fort.”
“Whispering Hollow? Dat sounds frightening.”
“It’s not, really, but it is very eerie. It’s a hollow at the top of a mountain. I think it used to be a volcano once, thousands and thousands of years ago. Sometimes, when the wind blows just right, you hear a sound like children whispering. The fort is located on the rim.”
Kotryna felt creepy bumps tingling across her skin at the image. For a brief moment her imagination ran away from her and she got lost in it, but then she shook herself free of it. If there was anything wrong with the place, they wouldn’t have built a home there.
“The next three floors are the infirmary, as well as the roof sometimes, if a dragon or gryphon is injured. They’re very restrictive about access up there, so I won’t be taking you up. We should go back down to the grounds now. The training arenas need constant maintenance and there will be an iyshan soon, but that’s off-site so I won’t be able to show you that. You’ll probably be serving or something when it happens.”
“I am sorry. I do not know dat word? I-yoo…?” Kotryna asked, confused.
Hassan repeated more slowly, “I-yuh-shan. Iyshan. It’s an ancient name given to the ceremony when a rider joins with his dragon for the first time. Or gryphon, but I think that’s just because we didn’t feel like coming up with a different name for something so similar.” He led Koru back to the lifts. “Ground floor,” he instructed as they climbed on. “One of the gold queens clutched a few months ago and in another month they should be hatching. There are three eggs in the sand now. One could be a queen.”
“What does queen mean? For drakes?”
“The silver or gold females.”
“I do not understand any off dese.”
“You’ll learn.” Fisher launched into a long explanation of the different colors, their genders, their sizes, clutching ability, and Kotryna barely followed any of it. Between the language barrier and the sheer amount of information he was dumping on her, she simply could not follow it. All she understood was the brief amount of information she received about the queens and then that black dragons were the biggest males and he was very proud that he had been joined with one. “Not that I’d be ashamed to have landed a turquoise or anything—” Kotryna had never heard the word turquoise in her life that she could remember and had no idea what he’d just said, but just nodded anyway, “—because any dragon is an absolute honor. Hundreds of people will be here in the week they’re supposed to hatch, standing about and hoping they hatch, for just three eggs. And if they don’t become too old, they’ll do it all again next time, however long that will be from now.”
Trying to follow, she nodded again, hoping she looked interested. “How many tries did you haff?” she asked.
“Four. Which is a lot, actually. I’ve stood for three dragon clutches and one gryphon. The chain has been particularly fertile the last two decades.”
Then he began explaining the complex fertility of the beasts and a few sentences in, Kotryna was lost again. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the lift slowed to a gentle stop. Going down had been much faster than up.
“Come on. We’ll start with the gardens.” They made their way through the bustling activity in the main level to a large, ornate set of double doors. “These are the main doors, but there are a few more exits you’ll learn.” Two servants pushed them open and they walked through. A flat, worn stone path led away in a straight line. Here in the daytime, she could see what had appeared the night she’d been arrested to be only a dark, indistinct wall. Instead, she saw clearly the beautifully sculpted hedges that lined the path and occasionally wove away. It appeared to form a basic maze, but an expansive one. The hedges stood probably around four feet tall. Seeing over them, Kotryna got a glimpse of beautiful rosebushes and flowerbeds and vines and flowering trees. The warm air and late summer sun felt amazing on her skin after her weeks of captivity. She took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet-scented air. “You like it?”
“You all get time off. You can spend as much time out here as you like. Now, this goes on about a hundred or so yards until you reach the main gate, but that’s not where we’re going.” He led her through a smaller side path near the main entrance that cut through the garden. They wove through the beautiful display and Kotryna tried to walk slowly, to savor it, but Fisher Hassan’s pace was too quick. He had made her comfortable, she realized, but this was just business. And through his rambling about colors and ranks, she realized one thing, of the thousands of soldiers they had that worked on their feet or with horses and were lower ranked than he because of it, why were none of them picked for this mundane task? He certainly must have better things to do.
“Where we are going?” she asked.
“Training grounds. Last stop before I show you back to your quarters.”
The gardens eventually let up at a stretch of open courtyard, with the large, flat stone from the main path and a number of stone benches, shaded by a stone roof. It was not deep but stretched wide. Directly across from where they stood was a pair of large wooden doors with similar carvings to the larger, heavier, more ornate main doors. “Through here,” he told her, opening the door for her. They stepped through and were standing on the edge of a huge open area. Ringing it was a stone area with an overhang and columns, but the actually grounds were made of packed dirt and were open to the sky. It was mostly smooth, but she noticed some large gouges and marks in one area. Following her gaze, he nodded and told her, “Those are from some young dragons.” He led her toward them.
“Young?” she repeated disbelievingly, looking at the size of the claw marks.
He laughed a deep, throaty chuckle, one that suggested amusement at her expense, but was not cruelly mocking. “In age, at least. They’re born about… oh, three to maybe a little over five feet long, without counting the tail, depending on the color. They get to their adult length by two years old, if not sooner. There was a flight training session at dawn this morning. I was in it, actually. Jorth’s only a year and a half old.” He shook his head. “Anyway. That’s how I ended up leading you around. It’s supposed to be punishment, I suppose, for mouthing off a little. Lucky you’re a pretty girl and not horrible company.”
Before Kotryna could decide how much disdain to show him in an effort to put him off, he changed tacks, leaving her confused and wondering if he meant it as purely a compliment. A rare thing in men, especially those in positions of authority. “Your job here will be to keep the grounds smooth. Wetting the arena down each evening and filling in holes. Also, you’ll learn some equipment care. We take care of our saddles and armor, so mainly you’ll take care of dummies and any of the stock weaponry. We all have our own issue, but don’t always use it, or will use a different form of weapon here if training in a skill we don’t normally specialize in.”
Kotryna noticed the doors around the covered area and put together that they must lead into storage rooms. “What is your specialty?” she asked.
“Sword. We’re all supposed to learn crossbow and I’m as good as anyone, but I’m really good with a sword.” Without warning he turned his head away from her and toward the sky, eyes blank. A grin appeared and he nodded. “I get to keep my promise.” Then, suddenly, an enormous black shape descended on them and Kotryna screamed, leaping away toward the shelter of the overhang and columns, but falling instead and hitting the dirt hard.
“Monster!” she screeched in her native tongue, the only way she could express her terror. The beast landed next to them and furled its wings in against its side. From her spot on her back, she got a look at a beast that had to be at least twelve feet long, not counting the tail that encircled them casually. The thick, spined tail had to be another seventeen feet almost. The pitch black skin was rough and knobby, like some of the huge river beasts she’d seen stuffed and on display in the east, in the houses of noble lords. It appeared to bend and flex and wrinkle like skin. The huge wings had a thin membrane that folded up like empty sails between the long, pointed wing metacarpals. Razor sharp claws tipped huge talons, like a cross between a lizard and a bird on the back pair, fully capable to grab with an opposable thumb on the front pair. The head was the worst part. Huge and spiny, a feral set to the mouth and wide eyes. The eyes made her whimper and tremble. There was no pupil, just a hypnotically swirling vortex of pale, glinting color, like an opal, but alive. It was fascinating, but terrifying. The dragon turned his long, thick neck to her and put his head just feet away from her, peering at her with those eyes as though he could see her soul. The hot breath made her skin hot, but she was already sweating from fear.
“He’s trying to help you up,” Fisher told her, obviously struggling to hold back laughter. “Grab his nose.”
“No!” she shrieked.
“Miss Rayn, he is not going to hurt you.” The eyes turned a solid pale green and a low rumble emanated from deep within the dragon’s chest, causing hot puffs of smoky-scented air to waft over her and she squeaked. “He’s laughing!” Fisher exclaimed through his own laughter now released, slightly exasperated.
Trembling, Kotryna pushed herself up into more of a sit and, gathering what little reserve of courage was preventing her from soiling herself, reached out for a protruding horn on the tip of the dragon’s nose. She gripped it tight and the dragon carefully lifted her head so that she was upright. For a brief moment, her feet were an inch or so off the ground and she shrieked a little, but then he placed her at the right height and she stumbled as she caught her balance. The black dragon pulled his head away as she let go and looked at her with the green eyes.
“You see those eyes? When they feel a strong emotion they solidify into one color. Right now he thinks you’re really, really funny.” Fisher had a big grin on his face and now it was obviously mocking.
Angry, she let out a string of Naian curses, shouted at him. His amusement turned to surprise, mouth forming a small O. The dragon’s eyes returned to the swirling opal. “Dat was not funny!” she exclaimed. “He is terrifying!”
Fisher laughed a bit more gently this time, shaking his head. “If you could hear him talk, you wouldn’t think so. He jokes around more than any dragon in this fort, I think.”
“Day talk how?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest and watching the monster nervously as he stretched out in the sun like a large dog, closing his eyes as he sunbathed his smoother underbelly.
“Telepathically. And, you know, they’re supposed to look terrifying. They’re beasts of war — shut up, Jo, you know you are.” The dragon had rolled his head to look at his rider and let out a huff, laying his head back down. “He took offense to the word ‘beast,’” Fisher explained. “Now let’s go. Jorth, wait here.” The dragon continued to lay there and Kotryna had a feeling he hadn’t planned on moving anyway. Fisher reached for her and she walked to him, following his lead as he led her to a covered corridor leading off from the arena and toward the fort that towered over them. There was a ladder at the entrance to allow access to the rows of seating she’d noticed along the rim of the arena. They past that and at the end of the hall there was a single door. Fisher opened it for her and they found themselves in the ground floor of the fort, in the middle of the bustling activity again. Fisher led her to the servants’ quarters, a large dormitory with rows of bunk beds. There were two, one for men and one for women. “Many of the servants live outside of the grounds and have families, but those who are single or can’t afford to live here. Because, well, you’re a prisoner, you have to live here,” he said uncomfortably. “So, Sheila will direct you to an open bed,” he pointed to a tall woman who was thick around the middle with a lot of muscle on her. She looked somewhat mannish and very stern.”
“T’ank you for touring me,” Kotryna said.
He shrugged nonchalantly. “Don’t thank me; it was a punishment. I didn’t mind though. I hope I see you around. Just get over the fear of the dragons, all right? You’re going to be seeing a lot of them from now on.”
From across the corridor, Sheila spotted them. “Oy! Hassan! Git out! Don’t be flirtin’ with me girls! Ey, who’s that?”
She started to move toward them and Fisher ducked out the door. “Goodbye!” he called as he disappeared.