“D-did he…” Valeria’s voice shook as she stared at Darya’s slumped form.
“He leapt between you and Huldre’s attack,” Karen confirmed. She was kneeling by Kyle, who must have passed out when Darya lost consciousness. Valeria frowned slightly at that. How had she forgotten the bond affected humans that way? But she had more pressing concerns. She took a breath to pull herself together.
“Why would a renegade save me?” she asked.
No one answered, of course. They were all just as baffled as she was. One of the dryads ran over to Darya and looked up at Valeria questioningly.
“Your majesty, should I?”
“Yes.” Valeria didn’t have to think about her answer. “He saved my life, I can’t let him die.”
The dryad knelt down by Darya and began to tend to his wounds.
“It’s not quite as bad as it looks,” she offered after a moment. “His shield and yours combined seem to have taken a lot of the force from the attack and the goblin silk seems to have blocked some of it as well. And it’s staunching most of the bleeding as well.” Her tone was studiously analytical but then she shook her head and frowned. “It’s still more severe than anything I’ve had to treat before.”
“Will he live?” The concerned question came from the doorway.
Valeria’s head shot up and she recoiled instinctively from the sight of a dragon standing there. He wasn’t one of those involved in the attack, either. It seemed they had vanished, taking Sirin and Maran with them. That meant this one had just jumped in – which the throne should have warned her about – and he had blue eyes not green. Valeria swallowed convulsively. Dariad had told her what that meant.
The Dryad who was tending to Darya squeaked weakly at being addressed by him and her brown skin developed a sickly grey tinge.
“I’m not going to eat you, child.” The dragon – who had to be Ystelyan – smiled reassuring at her. “If nothing else it would be counterproductive when you’re trying to help my friend.”
“Friend?” Valeria couldn’t repress a cynical snort at that.
Ystelyan cast her an understanding look. “But Darya is my friend, your majesty. No matter what you think of the matter.” He stepped across the threshold, walked over and knelt down by Darya. “You’re very skilled, child. It looks like you’ve stabilised him.” The dryad cowed away from him and he sighed. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Alban made an angry sound in is throat. Valeria looked at him and saw he had raised his bow and was aiming directly at Ystelyan’s heart. “You so much as touch her and I’ll kill you.”
Ystelyan gave an amused snort, glanced towards Karen and raised an eyebrow. “Not today you won’t, boy. But it looks like you might actually stand a chance in a couple of years.” He looked at Andrew and then at Lydia and mild surprise crossed his face. “All of-” He broke off, rose to feet abruptly and strode towards Lydia. She raised her sword defensively but he ignored it and grabbed her wrist. He turned it, examining the silver bracelet which nestled next to her heart bracelet.
After a moment, he gave the girl a quizzical look. “Well, that is interesting.” He dropped her wrist and returned to Darya. He bowed to the young dryad. “You have my gratitude, child.” He lifted Darya into his arms and then disappeared with him and Kyle.
The palace is secure, Your Majesty, the throne said. Well, as secure as it can be with first dragons and trolls with strange powers involved. May I offer a suggestion.
I suggest that you empty and lock down the palace while you’re in Waldhafen. That will protect me from just about anything.
Good idea, she replied. I’ll do that.
But now you must deal with the cells. I think you arrived just in time.
Cries of relief met them from the ring of cells when they entered the dungeons beneath the palace, but it was all Valeria could do to not flee back to the throne room and leave her servants and the warriors to the release the prisoners.
The air was rancid with the stench of sweat and excrement. Dozens of innocent speakers had been crammed into each cell. Cells that were only supposed to hold one or two prisoners a piece. It seemed her brother had removed even the basic amenities such as beds and buckets that simple compassion called for in order to fit them all in. From the wan looks of the first ones to exit their cells after they were released, they hadn’t been fed either.
The central area of the dungeon had obviously been used as a processing area for the prisoners. There were chains and several of those circlets on a large wooden table, and blood stains on the floor that gave mute testament to the fact that some of the prisoners who had been through here had fought for their freedom.
“Oh my God!” The horror in Karen’s whisper made Valeria rush over to where the girl had opened the door of one of the few cells that seemed untenanted. By the time she reached Karen the girl was inside and cradling a tiny moss child. The toddler, who couldn’t be more than three years old, had no obvious wounds yet was bleeding severely. It looked like the blood was seeping through her bark-coloured skin. Karen was rocking the mercifully unconscious child gently and sobbing. “Why?” she whispered. “Why would anyone do this?” She began to glow softly and Valeria knew that she was attempting to heal the child. The girl had a decent secondary life affinity. She turned and waved one of the dryads to assist her.
“She’s just a baby!” The dryad paled when she saw her patient. She choked back a sob but set to work to aid Karen with comendable professionalism.
“I…” Valeria began but trailed off and swallowed the lump in her throat before trying again. “It looks like it was for the same reason that Sirin’s mother wanted to execute Darya when he was born.”
“And why my birth family abandoned me,” Alban added softly.
Karen looked at them for a moment and then gently pushed aside the girl’s short fringe of wispy lichen-like hair to look at her forehead. “Yes, you’re right.” She looked over to where two typically short adult moss people lay unconscious. “It looks like her parents tried to protect her.”
“Yes.” Valeria walked over and checked that the moss people were still alive and then called for two more of her healers to attendents to attend them. “It looks like they were beaten until they lost consciousness and then left them. They probably intended to use the circlets on them later, so they didn’t want to kill them. But Maran must have been attacking travellers.” She shuddered at that. “They’re certainly not my subjects. I’d know if a moss person heart friend had been born inside my borders.”
“They look like traders from Waldhafen,” Alban agreed.
“They do.” Valeria winced. “How am I going to explain this to the Council when we go there?”
“Truthfully,” Alban suggested mildly. “This isn’t your fault, mother.”
“Yes it is,” she lamented. “I never realised that my own brother was a monster.”
“He hid it-” Alban broke of at the sound of another sob from Karen.
“Damn it!” she exploded. “They’ve inverted the child’s essence, her own life force is attacking her from the inside. We can stabilise her but we can’t heal her.”
“Essence inversion is a dragon trick but no dragon did this,” the dryad assisting her agreed. “I don’t understand.”
“It must have been Huldre,” Valeria said. “He used the same trick on your friend Korrig didn’t he?”
“The exploding shield, you mean?” Karen nodded slowly. “It’s certainly the same principal…” She trailed off. “But if it’s a dragon trick, perhaps the ambassador can help. If there’s a treatment for this other than keeping the kid stable and hoping the corruption clears eventually, then the goblins would know of it.”