One moment the skies were clear; the next, rain fled from them in terrified haste. Einur raced for his cave shelter, leaving his sheep, undisturbed by the downpour, still ripping up grass. Reaching the cave, he crouched just inside, shivering – already drenched despite his swift retreat from the open field.
As his shivers subsided, he raised his fingers to his mouth and blew a shrill whistle. Presently there came the beat of wings, and a dark form alighted beyond the cave opening.
“Come here, Efrix,” commanded Einur, and the dragon slithered in. His body fit snugly within the stone walls; he was a small specimen of his kind.
“Einur?” came a second voice from outside.
“Is that you, Gernhr?”
“Einur!” Gernhr’s voice was filled with terror. “You must come at once!”
Einur’s heart nearly stopped.
“Move!” he snapped at Efrix, shoving at the dragon’s scaly side with his hands. Slowly the creature wedged himself back out, Einur shaking with fear behind him.
“Have they taken Lody?” he shouted, taking hold of Gernhr’s shoulders and shaking his friend. “Where is she?”
Gernhr broke free and shook his head, trying to catch his breath. “No, no, Einur, not Lody. Einur, your name was drawn!”
Einur’s mind froze in relief at Gernhr’s initial reassurance, the latter part of his statement not registering at once. Then it filtered through.
The thought of this happening had never once occurred to the boy. Rather, the possibility which had haunted him ever since his little sister’s birth was that she would be chosen, that she would be taken to the Temple from where no child had ever returned. That Lody would be sacrificed to the Great Achiel.
Gernhr was watching him when the dizzy blackness faded from his vision. “You know what we planned if Lody was chosen, Einur. It’s little different now it’s you instead of her. You can run off, Einur, live in the wild somewhere. I’ll even come with you, if you want me to.”
He broke off and stared at Einur, whose eyes were glassy and confused.
“You aren’t going with the Illyrië, are you?”
Einur revived himself. “I’ll go right now. But you mustn’t come with me; your mother needs you. She will take care of Lody, no?”
Gernhr nodded. Then he tensed.
Einur stood still for three seconds, but he did not have Gernhr’s swift hearing.
“Run! They’ve tracked you here!”
“Efrix!” called Einur, and quickly embraced his friend. “Goodbye, Gernhr. Tell Aloden I love her, and I’ll come back as soon as I can.”
He jumped onto Efrix’s back and exclaimed, “Go!”
The dragon didn’t move. Einur repeated his order once, twice, panic leaping into his voice.
“What are you doing, Einur? Go!” shouted Gernhr.
Einur glanced behind him; the hirelings of the Illyrië were in sight now, coming over a small hillock. There were ten or so, perhaps fifteen. Einur kicked Efrix hard in the sides.
“Go, you stupid creature!”
Still Efrix remained on the ground.
“Just leave him and run!”
The pursuers were only a few hundred feet away. Einur gave them one look and slipped off Efrix’s back, running now for dear life up into the bracken. His path led him up the side of a small mountain, yet his pace slowed not at all. The yells of his enemies were close behind him – with every step he took, he expected to be yanked back. Gradually, however, the shouts grew further away, and then died out altogether. Einur allowed himself one brief pause and looked down the mountainside. The would-be captors had become worn out by the race up the steep slope, and had retreated. He couldn’t see Gernhr anymore; please the Great Achiel he was unharmed.
But won’t the Great Achiel be enraged that he helped the sacrifice escape? he thought. Yet he could do nothing but turn and go on.
His steps soon became stumbling, and presently rest became imperative. If only Efrix hadn’t been so stubborn, Einur could’ve ridden on him instead. But what a ridiculous thing for the dragon to suddenly do! Why, everyone used dragons as their mounts; the creatures were bred for that very purpose!
The dragon himself landed beside Einur just then.
“You wicked creature!” the boy told it, and it snorted and nuzzled its snout up against his shoulder. He gave it a slap and repeated his admonishment, but the slap was gentle and the admonishment no harsher.
They settled into positions as comfortable as the rain-soaked ground and Einur’s wet clothes allowed. Einur still made a pretence of being angry; but Efrix led out periodic soft snorts until his master rubbed the top of his scaly head and laughed, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
They went to sleep with Einur snuggled against Efrix’s warm side.
Einur woke early to find Efrix again gone but the sun returned. As he waited for Efrix to come back – as he was sure the dragon would – he breakfasted off henla, a type of leaf that grew year-round and was very nourishing. The flavour was slightly tart, making the leaves an invigorating morning meal. He was finishing his breakfast when Efrix arrived.
“Where did you go?” he asked, rubbing his hand up and down Efrix’s back. “Have you found breakfast? Good, let’s go!”
He climbed onto Efrix and the dragon lifted off. The day was beautiful; there wasn’t a cloud anywhere in the azure sky, and a light breeze blew Einur’s blond hair off his shoulders.
The sun showed it was little past noon when they alighted to find some sort of dinner. Einur found nothing but more henla leaves; he ate these whilst Efrix flew off to look for his own dinner.
He woke from a brief nap feeling delightfully warm and extremely relaxed. Through his still-closed eyelids the sunlight streamed into his mind, and he drank it in lazily. Then something blocked the light, and irritably he opened his eyes to see what had happened.
Over him, staring down into his face, stood a man, his hair and beard pale green, and his eyes sea-blue. He wore forest-green robes and carried a long staff engraved with the recurring motif of a fish.
“Einur, is it not?”
Einur scrambled onto his feet. “How do you know my name?”
“I have my sources,” replied the man. “And as I do know it, in fairness I should give you mine. I am Chywion, and some of what I know, you must learn.”
“What you must know to perform your task.”
Without realizing it, Einur was backing away from the stranger ever so gradually. “What task?”
“Stop moving!” commanded Chywion, and abruptly Einur noticed his slight movements backward and stopped. “Sit, and I will explain everything to you.”
Einur sat in obedience, and Chywion seated himself facing the boy. He laid his staff on the ground beside him and drummed on his cheek with his long fingers, his eyes keenly taking in everything observable about Einur. Einur flushed and scowled.
“I haven’t got all the time in the world. If you have something to tell me, you had better do it quickly.”
A smile darted across Chywion’s lips. “You should do well,” he said cryptically. “Well. Are you a follower of the cult of the Great Achiel?”
“Of course,” muttered Einur, but the look in his eyes gave the lie to his words.
“Despite your attempt to hide it, you hate the cult and all that goes with it. Do you not?”
Einur’s glance jumped up to meet Chywion’s, then descended again to the ground. He did not reply.
“Do you not?”
Einur was still silent, but Chywion did not look away from him.
“Do you need me to answer?” Einur said at last.
“I know what your answer is, yes, but I do need you to tell me yourself.”
“Why do you not wish to answer me?”
“Oh, all right. Yes, I hate the Great Achiel, and I hate the Illyrië, and the whole business. Now you can execute me. That’s what you want, after all.”
Chywion smiled, a genuine smile of friendship. “That was the thing furthest from my mind,” he replied.
“What was closer, then?” Einur was still argumentative in his tones, but he could not deny to himself that he was interested in this man – or whatever he was – greatly interested. He wanted to know of what task Chywion spoke, and against his wishes he began to believe that Chywion was probably on his side… Side? Where did that idea come from?
“Although you hate it, do you believe in its truth?”
It was a question Einur had never considered before in his fifteen years, and it gave him pause. Finally he answered, “Yes.”
He was honest. “I’ve no idea.”
“Give it up.”
Einur might have hated the cult and wished to leave it, but still he was shocked at the blunt words that suggested such a thing. “Give it up?”
“So I said.”
“So many questions! Not only have you no conviction in your belief, but had you, it were wrongly placed. There is truth in the cult of the Great Achiel only in the sense that there is at least a seed of truth in everything; besides this, there is only evil.” He held up his hand to prevent Einur’s open mouth from generating another enquiry. “No more questions, Einur! Listen now, and question after. For what I have just stated is the basis of your task.
“I will begin my story far back in the history of Kelyan. Precisely five thousand years after the creation of the world, the Second Tribe of LoRien rebelled against the Master of the Kelyanic Harmony, creating their own demonic cult worship – the very one to which men yet hold this very day. The First Tribe also succumbed to the evil spread by the Second Tribe, but the Third Tribe refused to join with the others. Battle was joined between the Tribes; the First and Second were victorious, and the remnants of the Third escaped into… well, into oblivion.”
“Doesn’t anyone know where they went?” exclaimed Einur before Chywion could continue.
The older man shook his head.
“Is my task to find them?” Einur was curiously intrigued by Chywion’s tale, and the mystery of the lost Tribe called to him somehow.
Einur repressed a cheer. “What else?”
“Listen.” The rebuke was impressively gentle, but it completely calmed Einur’s excitement. “Unless it is checked, the cult of the Great Achiel will continue to grow in evil, as it has for the past five thousand years. However, it cannot be checked, except by one means.”
Again excitement surged from Einur’s heart to his throat. “How?”
Chywion did not answer his question directly. “The first part of your task is to find the lost Third Tribe; more precisely, to find their king. That is the easy part.”
Certainly Einur was excited about this quest, yet he gulped now. “That’s the easy part? They’ve been lost for five thousand years and that’s the easy part?”
“The second part is more vague. The fall of the cult can be caused only by a sacrifice made by one person.”
“What kind of sacrifice?” Visions of the culture of human sacrifice with which he’d grown up flitted through the young man’s head, and he thought of his little sister.
“That is unknown.” Seeming to sense the uncertainty now tormenting Einur, he added, “But it is not of the kind of which you are thinking.”
“So I’m supposed to find this tribe that’s been lost practically since the beginning of time, and then someone’s supposed to make a sacrifice that no one knows any details of.”
“I am glad to see that you have absorbed my instructions so well.”
Einur sat silently for some time. If I do this, I supposedly have a chance of getting rid of the danger to Aloden… if they don’t draw her name whilst I’m gone, which is actually quite likely, considering they probably cheat at the drawing… But this quest thing is such a ridiculous idea! Yet if there’s a possibility of giving Aloden better chances of surviving her eighth year… What else am I going to do with myself anyway? I can’t go back home now, and it can’t really hurt me much to go journeying all over Kelyan. And really, I’d do anything to destroy something that might hurt Aloden. Doesn’t hurt that it’s an evil cult either.
Chywion nodded. “Do you trust me?”
“No, Einur. Do you trust me?”
Confused, Einur repeated his answer.
“Einur! It is not enough to say you trust me. You must trust me. Think about it first, as you did about accepting your task. I do not wish you to take this lightly. You must not take this lightly.”
Again Einur sat in thought. Yes, he trusted Chywion – to a human degree at least. True, the man was unlike anyone he’d ever met, but this somehow didn’t decrease his trust, instead increasing it; few of the people in Einur’s life had been worthy of trust, and the differences between the Illyrië and Chywion attracted him. Besides this, there was also an aura about Chywion which spoke of something much greater than the man. Yes, he decided, he not only trusted Chywion but also trusted him.
He was about to tell Chywion this when Efrix returned, alighting close beside his master. The dragon observed Chywion with as much suspicion as a creature can gather. Efrix seemed to shrink from the stranger, and if dragons had had the capacity to fear man, Einur would have said that without a doubt, his dragon was terrified of Chywion.
Chywion was frowning. “That is your dragon, if I am not mistaken.”
Einur nodded briefly, but changed the subject back to the previous one. “I do trust you, sir, with all my heart.”
“Are you willing to prove it?”
Confused, Einur blinked. “Yes?” he almost questioned.
Chywion unbuckled something from around his waist and held it out to Einur: a long sword in a plain leather scabbard.
Einur took it, his stomach suddenly alive with nervousness.
“Now kill the dragon.”
He nearly dropped the sword. “Kill Efrix?”
Chywion only stared at him.
“But he’s my mount, he’s my friend!”
“On your quest against evil, no dragon is a friend of yours. Did you not say that you trust me?”
Slowly, Einur turned to Efrix. Efrix – yes, it was Efrix, but at the same time it was not Efrix. The dragon’s coal-black eyes were turning red, and its chest blazed orange: the latter a clear sign of anger, the former a phenomenon Einur had never seen in a dragon.
Then Efrix spoke.
“If you kill me, you too will find death.”
Einur shrieked aloud.
“If you kill me, you will find despair.”
Einur continued to scream.
“If you kill me, you will find oblivion.”
It was Chywion’s voice, but deeper and richer than before; and it quieted the dragon for a moment. Efrix turned his eyes to Chywion, and seemed no longer afraid of the man but contemptuous.
“And as for you, you fool…”
“Enough, foul creature!” Chywion cried again. “Einur, kill him now!”
Trembling uncontrollably, Einur stooped and raised the sword, which he had dropped when Efrix first spoke. The fingers of his right hand wrapped convulsively around the hilts, he faced what had been his dragon – and now seemed to be so once more. Efrix’s eyes were again a normal black, and his chest silver-grey like the rest of his scales. Despite what he had just witnessed, a doubt filled his mind. Had it not been but a dream?
Did you not say that you trust me?
He looked towards Chywion, who now did or said nothing to influence the young man’s decision. He looked back at Efrix, who gazed at him with his familiar, submissive, friendly gaze.
Did you not say that you trust me?
A sudden conviction filled Einur, a conviction that by distrusting Chywion, he distrusted something – or someone – far greater. He raised the sword… and drove it with all his might into Efrix’s neck.