â€œAh! Youâ€™re well!â€ Saeaera said as Daniel and the others emerged into the great hall of Waldhafen. â€œCoreâ€™s guardians, Dark Warrior, you know how to scare people.â€
â€œYeah, Iâ€™m sorry about that. I had no intention of attracting the Dragon Lordâ€™s attention to you when I came here.â€
â€œThatâ€™s not what I mean, silly. We were worried by how badly hurt you were.â€ She gave him a crooked smile. â€œAnd you never stood a chance of sneaking around behind his back, you know. Anyway, Shadavar would be crippled but for him. He sent aid.â€ She snorted briefly.Â â€œThatâ€™s going to ruin the reputation heâ€™s been cultivating, especially with the stories coming out of Caerdu.â€
â€œStories? Caerdu?â€ Daniel asked.
â€œShadavarâ€™s okay?â€ Mela said simultaneously.
Saeaera smiled at Mela. â€œHeâ€™s still recuperating, but that dragon healer the Dragon Lord brought with him stabilised him until we could get someone there.â€ She shook herÂ head. â€œA dragon who can heal – that should be impossible.â€ She looked back at Daniel. â€œSpeaking of healing, weâ€™d better see to your mother. At least I assume that nasty case of Essence Burn is why your father sent her with you.â€ She gestured with her hand and two young dryads ran up. One took his motherâ€™s bag while the other put an arm around her waist and helped her away towards the living quarters.
â€œYes, it is,â€ Daniel said. â€œSheâ€™s never been this bad before. He said someone was aggravating it.â€
â€œIâ€™d agree with that diagnosis. But we can fix her up, I promise,â€ she said.
â€œI hope so.â€ Daniel stared after his mother for a moment, then looked back at Saeaera. â€œWhat were you saying about Caerdu?â€
â€œOh, the Mountain King sent us an imp. The message it was carrying was disturbing. It seems refugee nobles from Elapyron city tried to stage a coup and were using some sort of mind control on his subjects. They tried to kill your siblings as well.â€
â€œHe said something about Elapyron being rott- wait, how did you know they were my siblings?â€
Saeaera looked down. â€œThe forest listened to your conversation with the Water Warrior,Â Daniel. You mentioned the light warrior was your sister and that you were a quadruplet. Then Dariadâ€™s imp said she was there with her siblings, who were the Fire and Ice Warriors. Itâ€™s not exactly a leap of logic.â€
â€œNo, I guess not,â€ he said.
â€œCan I see Shadavar?â€ Mela interrupted.
â€œOf course.â€ Saeaera led them up a ramp to a large treehouse which was clearly acting as a makeshift infirmary. Shadavar lay on a bed ofÂ bracken at one end. The rest of the single large room was filled with beds containing a surprising number of young dryads and forest haltia. None of them seemed to be injured but most of them were unconscious. Attendants of various species drifted between the beds checking on them.
Daniel looked at Saeaera questioningly as Mela rushed over to Shadavar and knelt down beside him.
â€œWhat happened to them?â€ he asked.
â€œWeâ€™re not sure. Shadavar was the only serious injury, but the dragons did take some prisoners… and then they returnedÂ them. Theyâ€™ve been fed on but theyâ€™ll all survive, and theyâ€™re otherwise unhurt. We thought they might have beenÂ subverted somehow, but the ones whoâ€™ve woke up have sworn to a unicorn that they arenâ€™t and their minds donâ€™t seem to have been tamperedÂ with. Then that imp arrived from Caerdu and it seems this isnâ€™t the first time the blue ones have done this.â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€ Daniel asked. When she sighed and told him the rest of what the ImpÂ had shown them, he paled. â€œNo wonder he said the place was rotten.â€ He frowned back at the rows of beds. â€œBut Iâ€™ve never heard of dragons releasing their prey.â€
â€œNo,â€ she agreed as they walked over to join Mela by Shadavar. â€œSome of them treat their renegades well enough, I suppose, but the rest of us?â€ She shook her head. â€œThis is new.â€
â€œBlues raiding is new as well, Sae,â€ Shadavar said. He sounded tired as he looked up at Ebona. â€œIâ€™d greet you properly, shadow sister. But they wonâ€™t let me try and stand yet.â€
â€œI understand, life brother.â€ Ebona knelt beside him and touched horns with him. â€œHeâ€™s right though. Blues donâ€™t generally raid for prey, or they didnâ€™t until about eighteen mon- oh!â€
â€œEbona? What is it?â€
â€œMy herd used roam in Moralan, which is near the edge of blue dragon territory. There were several waves of a mysterious plague in the area at the time. Everyone who survived – which werenâ€™t many – fled. Moralan is still abandoned.â€
â€œI remember that.â€ Saeaera said. â€œIt was intractable and attempting to heal it just aggravated it. We found a cure eventually but it had already burned itself out. You think thereâ€™s a connection?â€
â€œWhat if the plague also affected the blue territories, or even originated in them?â€
â€œA population crash would explain why they started raiding. It doesnâ€™t explain them returning their captives.â€ Saeaera looked up as the alarm gong sounded. It wasnâ€™t a frantic claxon like when the dragons had attacked, but a more measured beat. â€œWhat the hell?â€
â€œWhat does that mean?â€ Daniel asked.
â€œSomeoneâ€™s got past our defenses but the guards arenâ€™t sure if theyâ€™re a threat,â€ she replied. â€œWeâ€™dÂ better go and see whatâ€™s happening.â€ She reached into her skirt and produced the life heart bracelet. â€œBefore I forget, Sarah and Birke left this for you.â€
â€œThanks!â€ He took it and followed her to the door.Â â€œWeâ€™llÂ come with you.â€ He lookedÂ around to check that Ebona and Mela were following him.
Saeaera stared at him for a moment and then nodded. â€œVery well.â€ She led them to the same observation platform heâ€™d been to with Sarah Tyler. While Saeaera went and spoke with the guard who was sounding the alarm he stared out at the town. It wasnâ€™t as burnt as he had expectedÂ from the amount of fire the dragons had been throwing around during the attack. Some of the trees had obviously had singed branches pruned and he could see where the odd charred wall had been hastily patched, but the place was basically intact. A board creaked behind him andÂ he looked around to find Saeaera standing there, frowning.
â€œWe have a small delegation of blue-eyed goblins and renegade speakers outside the gates.â€ She sounded baffled. â€œThey have a binding truce flag and claim theyâ€™ve been sent to negotiate.â€