by Amanda Cast
Skirting the Line
Everything was carved with dragons and elves killing creatures of the underdark, or at least it was assumed that it was the underdark. Pandora wished she could stop and inspect them. The artwork made her feel something of which she had no familiarity.
Serene pulled her along and Greg pushed her forward. The hatchlings stayed close to her.
“They like killing things,” Topaz said in a hushed whisper that bounced against the stone and magnified.
The guardian dragons glared at him for silence, but he gave them his normal defiant expression. Pandora wondered if he could hear the stone’s story and see its maddening patterns. She touched his back. Emerald was at her other side.
Rubio flanked Serene and Star flanked Greg. Both of the humanoids touched their escort’s back. Serene stroked Rubio’s back. Her fingers traced around the ridges that were forming along his back.
“We are here,” Hannin said and the door opened on its own.
Pandora’s first thought was of the arena temple in the Temple District. Everything was red and black. There were statues of the black Shadow dragons that were the size of the hatchlings set in different poses with their wings spread or folded as the pose demanded. Scale patterned necks were arched and craned for battle and for vanity.
Red was pooled at their feet and pedestals.
The black skinned elves were crafted out of obsidian. Their head was made of a red stone that was the color of freshly welling blood. They held obsidian weapons with scarlet hilts and ruby pommels.
It was ostentatious. It made Pandora’s stomach hurt and her mind became jumbled in a chaos of red and black. Topaz pressed closer to her. Were the stones still talking to him?
She rubbed his hide, but the comfort she was trying to give felt lost.
On a black stone throne with rubies shining in the dim light sat a woman with hair died red. It looked like blood was raining from her head and cascading down her shoulders.
“Welcome, Speakers and boy of no tongue,” she greeted. She was lounging on the throne with her legs crossed at the knees. Her dress was white and slit high up to her hips so that all of her long, slender legs were showing. “Welcome dragons of Stone, Dreams, Fire, and Ice. My home is your home, my city is your city. May you be at peace and sleep satisfied and in comfort.”
“Greetings, Lady of Varanar,” Pandora and Serene said together and bowed. The hatchlings echoed the greeting and touched their noses to the black floor. No one had ever told them how dragons were supposed to bow.
Her eyes went passed the girls and the dragons and settled on Greg. “It is customary for the Lady of a City to be bowed to in her thrown room.”
“My people only bow before God,” Greg said with a deep, powerful voice that Pandora had never heard him use before. It echoed and vibrated throughout the room.
“You are with my people,” she told him.
One of the guards drew out his sickle blade, but the Lady of Varanar raised her hand to stop him. She said something to him in their Underdark language and he retired the weapon.
“My people bow only before God. For generations we have had no need for such movements. I ask that you respect that.”
Pandora’s brow knit together. “May I make a request from you, Lady of Varanar, from one Speaker to another?”
The elf looked at her with a raised, red eyebrow. Her lips were pursed together in irritation. “That depends on the request, Speaker.”
“It is Greg’s religion that prevents him from bowing to anyone other than his God. To ask him to do so is against the tenants of free faith that those of the cloth have long held dear to prevent more wars between the peoples of this world. I would ask that you allow him to keep his back straight and his culture strong. He is the only one of his kind in this world. He has a culture that should be explored and respected.”
“You are a child. You cannot imagine the importance that there is to bowing,” she said.
“In our world we bow in respect to those we view as our betters, Lady of Varanar. People such as myself have many betters and bow frequently. Bowing is empty to us. We do it out of habit, not out of respect or love,” Pandora said. She was uncomfortable and felt like an idiot, but she knew that Greg would not bend and did not want him harmed for his stubbornness.
“You do not respect me?” she asked.
“I do,” Pandora said, “You are a leader of a City of great wealth and power. You live and thrive in a world that is harsh and unforgiving, but I do not bow out of respect. I bow because it is customary to do so. It is not customary for Greg to do so. In the time that I have known him he has not yet bowed once.”
She narrowed her eyes at Pandora and then said to Greg, “What is your position in your world?”
“I am a king, a lord, a noble, a freeman, and the lowliest of peasants. I am all things because I am nothing and everyone else is the same,” he said.
She snorted. “A pretty speech,” she said. “For the Speaker I will allow you your straight back.”
“I am grateful,” he said and Pandora gave a soft smile.
The Lady of Varanar’s attention was grabbed by Hannin. He was speaking in the language that the elves used instead of draconic. Greg whispered a paraphrased translation to the girls.
“He is saying that Amazon here has heard the story that the stones tell.” The matriarch’s red eyebrows pulled together and she replied. “She says that it is disturbing news. No elf has heard the story since her grand mother. Only hearts that sing as a stone can hear it… I don’t know they aren’t making much sense.”
Serene agreed with a silent nod. Her right eye lid twitched.
“Hannin is upset because the dragons have been denied the tale. No one understands it who has not seen it. It is impossible to explain.”
“Is that why they’re so upset?” Serene asked.
“It has to do with a measure of a heart. None have had the heart who have approached the palace of stone. It has lain silent and still,” Greg said, but his face was wrinkled with concern.
“She doesn’t believe?” Serene asked.
“She does, but she is not so concerned. It is a sign of weakness and magic all at once.”
“Pandora is not weak,” Serene said dismissively.
“Will you let me talk?” Greg asked. “Anyway, I think they mean sympathy. Having sympathy and empathy for their enemy is a weakness of soul and spirit to them. They are a warlike people.”
“They can believe what they want,” Pandora said.
Greg’s eyes narrowed, but they were directed at the floor and through the hatchlings that were gathered at their feet. His expression was so intense that Serene began to lean closer as if to read his thoughts.
The dragon guards moved closer at the last thing she said and Greg said, “No,” in the same voice that he had used earlier. The guards hesitated. “They don’t want to be with anyone else.”
“What did they say?” Serene asked as the hatchlings began to hiss and spit angrily at the grown dragons.
“They want to take them away from you because you are not strong enough to raise children here,” he said.
“That is not their choice to make,” Star said. “It is ours.”
“You are not even six months old yet,” the Lady of Varanar said. “You do not get to choose what it is that happens.”
“They do not want to be apart from us,” Pandora said. “We are their mothers. We have accepted the task and will be their mothers until they decide that they will no longer have us.”
“That is not for other children to decide. You are not even in your monthly flow. You are weak in spirit and soul, Speaker. To raise a hatchling one needs to be strong and stern.”
“You don’t even know her,” Topaz said angrily.
“Look at them, they have no respect. No manners.”
“How many two month old dragons do you bring here and insult?” Serene asked and shook her hands hard at her wrists. She squared her shoulders and braced her legs apart.
The woman said nothing to this. “They will be put under the control someone older and wiser. Each will have their own ‘parent’.”
“No!” Rubio said and wrapped his body around Serene. “You will not separate us. You will not!”
“They are our mothers,” Star said. “They love us. We won’t leave them.”
“While you are with us—“
“Then we will leave,” Emerald said and everyone turned to stare at her except for Pandora and Serene.
“Why would you leave here?” she asked Emerald. “You belong in the Underdark. You belong with us. You are a dragon of Dreams and Mysteries.”
“I will not be separated from my brothers and sister. I will not be separated from my mothers. You are weak in spirit, not them. You have no idea what they have given up for us and what they have lost.”
“They are here with the dragons of Dreams and Memories to give them food and shelter. They are not forced to earn their keep in this harsh world. They have given up nothing.”
“That is a lie,” Serene said with her fingers stretched out taunt. “I have no idea where my father is. He could be dead and he is all the family I knew before I met Pandora. You know nothing about us or our spirit or our strength.”
“Perhaps I should test you,” she said. “You have heard the story. You are weak and your spirit is poor.”
“You know nothing of my cousin,” Serene yelled and Pandora put a hand on her shoulder.
“And what would your test be?” Pandora asked. She could feel the familiar anxiety pricking at her finger tips and gripping her heart and releasing it at every beat. She took a deep breath and felt the air fill her lungs with every nerve.
“Perhaps combat to the death,” she said.
Pandora frowned. “Why to the death?’ she asked.
“Is there no more strength than in taking a life?” she asked.
Pandora was not a killer, though she would kill to protect those that meant the most to her, she did not want to go out of her way to take a life. “The weak must kill their enemy to ensure their survival,” Pandora said, remembering something she had read once, “One of strength can spare their foe and fear not for their life.”
“Your foe uses resources you and yours could use,” she told Pandora.
“My concern in this is small,” Pandora said. “If you are unhappy with my family then we shall take our chances in the caverns and leave.”
“You would disrespect me and face a chance of execution?” she asked. “It will not be pleasant.”
“I would leave. If you would not let me then I suppose I will have to fight to the death if need be. I would rather not have it come to that. Life is a precious thing that should not be taken lightly.”
“Do you think we take our lives lightly?”
“I think you hunger for mortality,” she said simply. “You fight and kill because you can die and gain peace in no other way.”
“I have given you one boon, Speaker, and I will give you no other. If you wish to keep your children and your friend then you and your cousin must prove that you deserve the right to raise them.”
“Then we will,” Serene said. “I’ll take out an army of dragons for my children.”
“You are a child,” the Lady of Varanar said, “And you will die a child.”