As she entered the garden at Dragons Keep, agitation rattled Allena’s senses. Instead of only Guard Commander Lurik’s flerdragon being upset, as had been the case the previous day, today all the miniature dragons fluttered and dove like bats chasing bugs. The stench of burnt sulfur, from the small spouts of flame the flerdragons spewed, overwhelmed the fragrant blooms of the flowers and Gliffon Trees. Chitters and squawks filled the garden with an off-key, nerve-tangling din.
Allena projected soothing magic and opened her mind trying to discover the source of the flerdragons’ turmoil. None of them would eat, nor would they speak to her. Even Whisperwind, the one who had chosen her, gave no clues to the cause. Maybe her father, Clan Chief Colvin, would return soon and know what to do. She left the garden to wait in the bailey for him.
Pacing the width of the cobblestoned Dragons Keep’s bailey, Allena worried not only about the flerdragons but also the hunting party. They were late. Very late. It was so unlike her father.
Her mother, with years more practice at hiding fear, stood silently before the Keep’s double doors, watching the open gate.
The shout from a guard on the south wall-walk, “Runner approaching fast,” sent both women rushing to the Keep’s main gate. Searching the shadows of dusk clouding the forest, Allena’s pulse quickened. A man sprinted toward them. She pulled magic to enhance her vision, noting his dull brown and forest green leathers.
The guards on the wall readied their bows, while those at the gate raised shields and pikes.
“Hold your arrows, that’s Cousin Gareth,” Allena shouted. He’s supposed to be in Alliandre representing the Dragon Clan on the Council.
Gareth glanced over his shoulder. He wasn’t merely running. He was fleeing! From what? Allena shouted to the guards, “Watch the forest.”
Her cousin skidded to a stop a few paces in front of them. He gasped between breaths. “Aunt Millesant, close the gates. Halurdow…in the forest…preparing to attack.”
Millesant tucked her arm beneath Gareth’s and helped him inside, calling, “Bring water!” Allena’s glance flicked between her panting cousin and her mother’s clenched jaw. When her mother nodded, Allena shouted, “Close the gates! Man the walls! Halurdow in the forest!”
They retreated to the Keep’s main doorway to the accompaniment of blaring trumpets sounding the alarm. The frantic notes reverberated and echoed against the whitestone walls of the Keep. Kinsmen piled from the buildings, grabbing bows and quivers of arrows as they rushed to the wall-walk.
Allena dashed inside the Keep weaving through household servants as they shooed the children and mothers into the great hall. Reaching her room she donned tunic and trews, belted on her sword and grabbed her bow. When she returned, her mother and Gareth stood near the Keep’s doors deep in whispered conversation.
Gareth finished speaking to her mother saying, “The two Njae went to seek help from the other Guardian Clans. I loaned Timalas my horse. He rides to Wolfwatch. Tayril returned to Eloweer to rouse the Njae. He couldn’t promise how successful he would be, although I know he and at least twenty others will come.”
Of course Tayril would help. He and Allena planned to wed next moon-turn if her parents agreed to the union.
Millesant surveyed the wall-walk and shook her head. “Not enough to fight two thousand Halurdow, and we’ve no full-fledged mages here at the moment.” Her mother’s magic tingled against Allena’s back as the protections set on the Keep’s door were activated.
Puzzled, she asked her mother, “Why?”
“Can’t spare the men to guard these doors and those inside need time to lead the children to safety.” Her mother stood tall and radiated calm.
How can she do that? Where’s father? Had he run into the Halurdow? “Cousin, where were the Halurdow you saw?”
“Riders approaching,” A guard on the wall shouted. “The Guard Captain’s carrying the Chief.”
Allena’s hand tightened on her bow. She fought to keep her worry from showing as her mother gripped her shoulder.
Millesant called, “Any enemy chasing them?”
“Not that I can see,” the guard shouted back.
“Wait until the last moment and only open the gates wide enough for them to pass single file.” In a whisper to Allena she cautioned, “I’ve a bad feeling. Be alert.”
Captain Lurik entered first, her father slung across his saddlebow. The other six riders crowded inside behind him. Allena’s heart thudded. Her father didn’t move. Blood stained his clothes. She glanced at Lurik’s face. Cold, emotionless. Her mother’s hand on her shoulder tightened. “Allena, take Gareth and use the side entrance. Warn the caretakers to save the children. Send the flerdragons to summon the clan. Go. Now.” Her mother pushed her toward the east wall.
A guard shouted from the wall, “Halurdow attacking from all sides.”
Allena whispered, “What about you?”
“I buy time for you to do what must be done. Gareth, go.”
“I’ll stay and fight.”
“No you will protect Allena, the new Chief of the Dragon Clan. Follow her orders.”
Tossing her father’s body to the ground, Lurik and the members of his party drew their swords. “Millesant, surrender the Keep.”
Her mother stood taller and drew her short sword. “No.” The word, amplified by her mother’s magic, resounded throughout the bailey.
“You want to die,” Lurik waved his sword at the wall-walk, “and take all of these men to their deaths with you? Why?”
Millesant stared at her husband’s body. “Duty and honor, Lurik. Concepts you don’t understand.”
“Worthless ideals, Millesant. Surrender and the Halurdow will allow everyone to live.”
The Twin Gods’ radiant blue magic shimmered along her mother’s sword. “Dragon Clan will fight.”
Arrows flew from the ramparts: some aimed at Lurik and his men, while some, shot by those who sided with Lurik, struck loyal guards. Allena and Gareth dashed toward the door at the base of the east wall.
Lurik’s command, “Stop them!” echoed through the Bailey.
Allena dodged a bolt of hissing Halurdow magic that shattered paving stones, showering her with slivers of rock.