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by GL Roberts
In the highlands of Alban near the waters of the Inbhir Nis, Lady Athebryn waits for her dragon to bring word of the enemy across the sea. At her side is her beloved Princess Thalynder. Once handmaiden to the Princess, Lady Athebryn now stands ready to lead the hastily gathered army of clanns and kingdoms to battle against the marauding Vík Ingr.
If they are successful, Lady Athebryn will win the hearts and minds of all, uniting Alban under one banner. But if they fail, then all hope for a united Alban may be forever lost.
Jewel of Fire is the second book in GL Roberts’s beloved Shieldmaiden series.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"My stories come from many sources. A glance. A song. A silent walk in the woods. Even a painting. The Shieldmaiden series stepped out of a muted painting of the highlands of Scotland. A landscape of jutting rocks, rolling hills and endless vistas. I saw my heroine Bryn standing on one of the rocks looking out over a roiling sea. A story that started as a girl in love with a princess became a young woman in love with a country and its many clanns. Bringing her princess along for the adventure of a lifetime."
The battle to keep the clanns safe was fought over hundreds of years. Each generation bore before them the standard of Athebryn of the Brae. Embroidered on the standard in silver thread is the Tree of Life, symbol of the High Clann Brae. Flying above the tree is a silver dragon and a dragon rider. Lady Athebryn rides with her sword drawn high above her head and the light from the jewel on her brow, a beacon to all her people.
The battle began long ago, when dragons were innocent and man still amazed by the magic of the heavens. The Druids, children of the earth, with their compassion for all living things admired the dragons. They taught their wisdom to the fledgling nobles, and dragons became the property of the royal born. The elves, eldest of all races, chose not to deal with the dragons and thus separated themselves from the world of man. The Druids in their wisdom reserved the dragon lore for a time when it was most needed. Man coveted the dragon. It is that greed that forced the dragon’s hand.
King Heardred stood on the banks of the fjord and shouted to the gods. “I will have my revenge!” In his heart he believed his beloved son Helstun was dead. Helstun would not return to Götaland, leaving the realm to fall to Heardred’s stepsons Hygid and Heoroth. The thought of either of those two sitting on his throne brought bitter bile to Heardred’s throat.
Helstun’s delayed return was an ill omen for the King. The fact that Marget, his current wife and his brother’s widow, had given birth to four children before she became his wife, did not rest easy with the seers. They blamed her for not providing more than one son to the King. No one thought to blame the King.
Heardred did not wish to wait for the other boats to return from their raid. Yet, being impulsive would not bode well with his people. He could not afford to lose the faith of his subjects, so he waited. He needed the fealty of his people to feed his armies. He needed the seer’s good graces to appease the growing number of houses that were laying claim to his throne.
Heardred had the extra boats filled with supplies and kept his army at the ready. He was prepared to man the boats and launch at a moment’s notice. He would not waste one minute once he received news, good or ill on Helstun’s fate. Even if his son returned to him, Heardred did not intend to wait for winter to take the northern islands from the painted Picts or the docile Druids.
“Odin, I beseech you,” Heardred called. “Lend me your strength, and I will build you an Empire.”
Skerrabrae was another half day’s ride from the Standing Stones, and the company was already exhausted. The morning had started with the loss of the High Dragon and the birth of a revolution. Though now, if you asked, all would say it was more a dream than a reality. The evidence was there: the crown that sat on Bryn’s forehead and the jewel that seemed fused to her skin; the additional dragons and dragon riders that now rode with the company; and the knowledge that the enemy was moving toward them. All those things were tangible, touchable, accepted. Yet, they were just beginning to understand that their friend Bryn had changed.
Bryn suspected from the moment Meylarn—the High Dragon of only two months—had replaced her dead father Meldred that Meylarn’s light would shine only briefly. It was in the hearts of all the dragons she met since leaving the Realm that Touches Two Seas. Their hearts believed a change was in the wind. They believed she would be the one to initiate that change. Bryn convinced the company of the need to slay the men who took Pict as slaves and looted and destroyed the outlying Pict and Druid villages. She believed that those men would kill those in her company had she not acted.
Her first priority was the welfare of the Princess Thalynder. Killing the Jarl and his men would surely start a war. She understood she was generating a turning of the tide and initiating a revolution. If the clanns would gather and fight the raiders, Bryn would know her challenge had been met. No matter the outcome. Uniting the clanns under one banner was of utmost importance. One leader, one cause. Life was the best cause of all.
Bryn looked behind her to the others of her company and wondered if they truly understood what happened back at the Standing Stones. They were nearing Skerrabrae, and the farther away from the Circle they moved, the less likely the events that took place that morning seemed possible. She could see some of the company still looking up at the new dragons in their group and shaking their heads. When they looked at her, it was with unseeing eyes. “As if in a dream,” she mused.
Meydra flew slowly above the company. She listened to Bryn’s heart as Bryn debated with herself. Her companion, Druid and Dragon Daughter, doubted her new position.
It is a dream for some, Meydra told Bryn. It will be a nightmare for others.
Meydra could feel the anxiety building in Bryn’s heart. At the Stones, Bryn accepted the crown and embraced all that the Stones whispered to her. She accepted her ancestry and the truth that she was possibly the last of a long line of Dragon Daughters. It was easy to do so with the Stones telling you their story and weaving a magic spell over the company. It was harder in the dimming light of evening with no shelter and a cold wind blowing. There was still much for Bryn to learn and accept. Her resolve was strong. Meydra embraced Bryn’s heart with her own. Bryn released a heavy sigh.
“We will stop here for the night,” she instructed the company. She reined her horse to a stop. “It has been a long day, and weariness will cause us to make mistakes. We need a hot meal and a bit of sleep.”
Bryn dismounted from her horse, the ever steady Pymmar, and released his reins. “Go now and sup, my loyal friend.” Pymmar rubbed his nose against Bryn’s shoulder. He bent his head to nibble the grass. Bryn walked to a small group of stones and stared down at the ground around them.
Arryn, now a dragon rider himself, still had doubts about the events of the day. The death of Meylarn and the subsequent joining of Meydra and Bryn confused him. He had not spoken with Bryn since leaving the Stones. All the years watching Bryn grow to become a woman, Arryn thought he understood her. Shieldmaiden to a princess. Druid child in a world of changes. She was given a choice at the Stones. He was as uncertain about the choice as she appeared to be. Bryn chose this path, knowing she would place herself where others might not wish to follow. The path would be difficult and treacherous.
Arryn dismounted and called to his dragon. In a heartbeat’s time, the dragon swooped down to stand upon the ground before Arryn.
“Take up watch in the east, my friend,” Arryn said aloud. “We are weary and sleep may find us soon.”
The young dragon nodded at Arryn and lifted silently up and flew toward the east to sit and keep watch over the darkened sea. Arryn watched as his dragon disappeared into the fading light. He walked over to where Bryn still stood looking at the circle of stones.
“You have been very silent.” Arryn bent down to stir at the ashes in the inner circle. A fire had been there recently. But for the moment, Arryn’s attention was on Bryn and not the ash. He stood up and gazed at Bryn. The crown sitting on her forehead with its center jewel fused to her skin glowed softly in the twilight. He reached up to touch the jewel, but Bryn gripped his wrist.
“No. You must not yet touch the jewel. It will burn you.”
Arryn frowned. “Are you in pain?”
“No, Arryn.” Bryn gave him a soft smile. “I am bathed in warmth only.” She pushed some ash around with her boot. “This fire has not been long out. I do believe we will meet up with others in Skerrabrae.”
Arryn studied the ash and beckoned Prince Malcolm to join them.
Malcolm approached but kept his distance until acknowledged. A frown turned the corners of Bryn’s mouth.
“We will have company at Skerrabrae,” Arryn said over his shoulder to Malcolm.
“Join us, Malcolm. As a matter of fact, I want you all to draw closer for a moment.” She motioned to the others who had been standing around. They were like perplexed children, waiting to be told what to do.
Bryn studied each of the company: the elves, Neulta and Leus, with their stony faces; Kenna, Princess of the Bridei clann; Malcolm, Prince of men belonging to the southern realm of Alban; Arryn of the Epidii, friend and ally. And her beloved, Thalynder, Princess of The Realm That Touches Two Seas. All wore faces lined with concern and full of question.
“You are uneasy. Nothing has changed.” She clutched the sides of her tunic as she spoke.
“How can you say that?” Leus asked. “You have a jewel embedded in your forehead. You glow as if lit from the inside. Your voice is stronger, your stature taller.”
“You are our new leader,” Kenna added. “We are just waiting for your direction.”
Bryn took a step toward her company. “We have the same tasks we had last evening. We need a fire. We need food. We need sleep. Yes, I am physically changed, but I am still Bryn. I still breathe. I still ache. I still hunger.”
Arryn chuckled. “I think we were waiting to see if you also walked above the ground or sprouted wings.” His statement brought smiles to the faces of the others. “After all, it is not every day you see what we saw. Some of us may even doubt what we saw at the Stones. We all could have been dreaming.”
“We are awake now. Let us make a fire, prepare a meal and discuss just what you saw,” Bryn said. “The sooner you air your concerns, the sooner we can move forward. I am weary, and I would like to end this day with a hot meal and rest.”
Thalynder reached out and took Bryn’s hand. “Would you like to help me cook?”
Bryn and Thalynder provided a meal of rabbit and marsh grass. The company sat and rested as the sun settled deep on the horizon. The sky would darken only slightly this time of the year. They were so far north that the sun would dip just below the horizon and there travel around to the east to rise again. Bryn let Kenna and Leus clean up after the meal, all the while watching the interaction between the two. She could see that Kenna was fascinated by the tall regal elf, and much to her surprise, noted that Leus appeared to be just as fascinated by the little Druid princess. Bryn wondered if Kenna even understood that it could have been her that was to lead the clanns. Kenna’s mother was an elf-sister, aunt to Bryn and sister to Bryn’s mother, and had every right to think her own kin would someday wear the crown. Thus far, the idea did not seem to cross Kenna’s mind. If it had, she was keeping very quiet about it.
As the company rejoined each other at the fire, Bryn stood up. “I have need to speak with Meydra, after which I would like to sit and talk with you. Please excuse me for a moment.” She started for the area where the dragons had gathered in the dusk.
Thalynder watched her walk away. “She looks tired. Could we not persuade her to sleep?”
“She will rest when ready,” Neulta said. “She has much to do before we return to lower Alban.”
Thalynder shook her head. “She is still human. Surely, if she still eats, she still needs to sleep.”
Arryn nodded. “Yes. She does need to sleep, My Princess, but I believe she has one last task before she can truly rest for the night.”
“And what is that?” Malcolm asked.
Arryn turned to him. “Assure us that she is still the same Bryn inside the new wrappings. We can see the physical changes on the outside. We can only guess what is going on in her mind. Nevertheless, I believe her to be struggling with her heart. She cares for the entire population of Alban. Not just the Picts, not just the Druids, not just the clanns or the lower kingdoms. Her heart is with Alban and all its inhabitants.”
“She carries a great deal on her shoulders,” Kenna said as she sat down with the others. “I am glad it was not I who was chosen to carry this burden.”
Arryn smiled. Kenna could have just as easily been tasked with this burden. He understood from all he saw in Anethar’s book and on the Gathering Stone at the circle that Kenna was also of the line of Athyl, daughter of an elf-sister, cousin to Bryn. They carried the same blood with perhaps the exception of Kenna’s father. That may be the difference, he mused.
“It is a fantastic tale,” Malcolm said. “Had I not witnessed it myself, I would never believe it coming from another’s mouth.”
Bryn walked out to the dragons and greeted all with her heart. She stood in front of Meydra and held her arms open. Meydra bowed her head and they touched foreheads. The jewel in Bryn’s crown and the one on Meydra’s forehead glowed with a soft pink light. The two stood silent for several seconds. Bryn released her hold and stepped back a pace. She chose to speak aloud and in the ancient tongue of her clann. The words flowed effortlessly.
“I believe they are forming their questions now. I want them to speak from the heart and go as far as they need to be comfortable.”
“I sense that they are apprehensive only because of the jewel at your forehead,” Meydra replied in the same tongue. “They can understand a strong leader, a warrior to lead them, but they do not understand the dragon lore.”
“That too is what I believe. How do I explain it to them when I can only see the explanation in my mind, and I cannot find the right words to describe what I see?”
“Take each question separately. Each will turn over in your mind, and the answer will be back at the Stones. You were told this.”
Bryn chuckled. “Yes, but I was not given a clue as to what the questions would be.”
“True. There is one other thing you must know now before reaching Skerrabrae.”
“What is that?”
“You will be met by the Elf-Sisters at the ancient home. They have already arrived and await your coming. You will be asked to confirm your decision, and you must accept your new name.”
“I am Athebryn,” Bryn replied. “I have already accepted that name and all that it implies.”
“I know that, as did Meylarn.”
“Meydra, tell me, why was Meylarn chosen to be High Dragon if she was to give up her life so soon?”
“I could not give up mine.”
“You were chosen to be the High Dragon after Menchor?” Bryn asked.
The other dragons answered in unison. “It was her destiny.”
“Why did Meldred, and Meylarn after him, become the High Dragon after Menchor and not you, Meydra?”
“I had to refuse, for the moment. I had other duties to perform before I could assume my true position. Because Meylarn was the direct line to Meldred, it was the best explanation for the other dragons. All expected me to take Menchor’s place until you were conceived. When it was clear that Meylarn would die when she gave you her heart, all believed I would finally assume my place. To have done otherwise would have led to a different outcome for both of us.”
“I did not know that there were dragon rules. Your species is far more complicated than I realized.”
Meydra snorted. “We are not complicated. We are simpler.”
Bryn thought about it for a moment. She touched the jewel at Meydra’s forehead. “Simple and truthful, trustworthy and noble. Admirable qualities.”
“Your strong suits as well,” Meydra said. “I will set up a perimeter for your defense, though there is nothing out there tonight. We will eat and keep watch.”
“Thank you my friends. I go now to hear the questions.”
Bryn approached the fire and heard the whispered voices of the others as they debated amongst themselves. She cleared her throat and walked into their circle. “The dragons will take turns hunting. After they have eaten, they will set up a perimeter for our comfort. There is no threat this night.”
“That is good to hear,” Arryn said. “I for one could use a long sleep. It has been an eventful day.”
“It has, Dragon Rider.” Bryn sat down next to Thalynder.
Arryn laughed. “That is one thing I have not yet adjusted to.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Malcolm said. “Once you accept that you do not have to shout to get their attention. I used to scream Coeur de Fer’s name all the time until he told me he has excellent hearing.”
“Wait until you ride one for the first time,” Kenna chimed in.
Arryn frowned. “I had not considered being on the back of one. I don’t know that I can do that.”
The company laughed, and the charged air around them dissipated. Thalynder reached for Bryn’s hand.
Bryn moved closer and put her arm around Thalynder’s waist. She kissed Lynder on the cheek. She glanced over at Neulta. “You have been very quiet, Neulta. Are you unsure of your place in this company?”
Neulta fidgeted, which for an elf is very uncharacteristic. She glanced at her brother. Though her voice was no louder than a whisper, she spoke to the company, “There is a need to return to our home and report what we know. Yet, we are excited to be here. We find ourselves torn between remaining with you and the company—becoming a part of a great adventure—and remembering we are elves and of a different race than the rest of you.”
Bryn smiled and shook her head slightly. “You are of a different race, yes. But you are of the same earth. Do you eat when hungry?”
“Yes,” Leus said.
“Do you sleep when tired?”
“Yes,” Neulta replied. “I understand what you are saying. We are not so different than humankind. Our similarities attract my brother and me to this company. However, we were charged with witnessing a transformation. Now that this transformation has taken place, we should be returning to our kin.”
Bryn leaned a little forward and spoke softly to Neulta. “I am, as you now know, an elf-sister. My ancestors were elves or half-elves. Does that not make us kin?”
Neulta looked from Bryn to Leus. “We know you are a cousin, and thereby, kin.”
“Stay with us for a while longer, Neulta. We have yet to reach Skerrabrae. Once there you may find that your need to return to your kin is not so great.”
“What do you expect to find at Skerrabrae?” Arryn asked.
“Back in the Realm That Touches Two Seas, the Arch Druid told me I would find answers at the Stones and questions at Skerrabrae. He believed I should know the answers first, which is why we went first to the Stones. What lies at Skerrabrae is unknown to me, but I think it will be the question you already carry in your heart, Arryn of the Epidii.”
Arryn smiled at Bryn. “What question is that?”
“You are wondering, as is Kenna, Malcolm, the elves and my Lynder, just how do we unite the clanns.”
“Yes, that is one question,” Malcolm said. “How can the clanns be united when they have been separated and isolated for so many years?”
“For millennia,” Bryn corrected. “So long ago that few remember what it was like under one banner.”
“But I thought Queen Athyl united them and that her daughters lead now in her stead,” Thalynder said. “That doesn’t sound like millennia.”
Bryn turned to her. “True. Perhaps it is the term daughters which confuses you. Daughter refers to any woman of the bloodline of Athyl. I am a daughter of Athyl, as is Kenna, as are my mother and Kenna’s mother. Our mothers are elf sisters. Blood relatives with lines that trace back to Athyl who herself was the daughter of elves. Some may be many branches out from the trunk of the tree, but they are daughters all the same. Over the years they became known as the Elf-Sisters.”
Malcolm looked thoughtful. “Oh, the bloodline is the qualifier. Not necessarily a claim to a royal lineage, but a direct link by blood.”
“Yes. Some of our ancestors renounced any royal ties and left to form their own clanns. Such is the case of Arryn’s clann. Arryn also carries the blood of Athyl. So long as there was a bloodline back to Athyl, the prospect of uniting the clanns remained.”
“Are you now that queen?” Malcolm asked.
“I am joined with the dragons. From this moment forward, all will be as new to me as it is to you. A queen may not be what is intended as my role. Skerrabrae will, I hope, reveal what lies ahead for this company. Myself included.”
“You especially,” Leus said. “The joining cannot be a random thing. There must be a reason for the event to have happened now and to you.”
“Of that we can be certain,” Arryn said. “Nothing happens without a purpose.”
“Does the jewel burn?” Kenna asked.
Bryn was sure Kenna’s question served to redirect the company to the smaller questions riding on their tongues. “It warms me, though I must caution the rest of you. The jewel will burn you if you touch it. If you remember the story of the dragons’ origins, you will understand that the jewel is pure stardust. The fire of a star lies within the jewel. In time, it will cool enough to be touched, but for now, exercise caution. When the time is right, I will welcome your touch.”
“Can you hear all the dragons?” Arryn asked.
“I can. They all speak to my heart. I can hear their words when they direct them at me. However, I cannot eavesdrop.”
The company laughed. Bryn was making it easy for them to become less intimidated by her and the idea that she was now a Dragon Daughter. And though none called her such, she felt it was on their minds.
“Why do you take the trouble to ask us to speak with our dragons if you can save the step and speak directly with them?” Leus asked.
Bryn squeezed Thalynder’s waist. “I know some of you can sense things in your dragon. Some dragon riders can even hear simple words placed in their minds by their dragons. It is why the bond must be initiated by the dragon. They must be able to meet your mind with theirs. Or your heart. My ability is just more finely tuned. I can hear their words, feel their emotions, sense their character. However, these dragons are bonded to you dragon riders. I would never consider supplanting you. I ask you to keep your bond strong and to do that you must continue as their companion, speaking and tending to your own dragons.”
“Why are there not more dragon tears among the riders?” Kenna asked.
Thalynder turned her head to look at Bryn. Bryn could read the same question in her eyes.
Dragons must endure intense emotional stress and much pain to produce tears. Many die soon after. Bryn took a deep breath and composed her thoughts. “There is great magic in the tears of a dragon and considerable sadness. Many dragons die after shedding tears. Many are weakened by the act. Most must endure excruciating pain, and that is why very few mortals have ever seen or been exposed to a dragon’s tear. Most dragons hide their tears deep in the earth or carry them to drop in a deep lake or sea. Dragon tears are rare, and for that they may be deemed valuable. It would be wrong to covet dragon tears.”
“Can a dragon be forced to shed a tear?” Malcolm asked.
Bryn was disturbed by the question. From Arryn’s frown, he appeared just as unsettled. For as a dragon rider himself, Malcolm was longer bonded than Arryn. It was obvious the question also disturbed the dragons. Soft moans of pain filled her ears. “Yes, Malcolm. Yes, they can be forced. But to do so would mean the death of the dragon. Why would you ask that?”
“Knowing the limitations to your weapons is valuable in battle.” Malcolm’s voice contained no regret. “I would think that as a leader you would want to know your army’s limitations.”
Bryn crossed her arms over her chest. “I would. Nevertheless, the dragons will not be a weapon in my army. They took an oath long before man stood upright and walked upon the earth to do no harm to humankind. To ask them to be our armor or our weapon would be to ask them to break an oath older than time.” Bryn heard the voices of the dragons echoing her words. She hesitated when she heard a dissenting voice among the dragons. She listened for a moment at the other dragons debating with their kin. But with all the voices speaking at once, she could not tell whose voice it was that caused her concern.
“They would be an asset,” Malcolm continued. “Our army would be unstoppable.”
“And we would be as the raiding hoards, pushing our weight around, becoming everything we abhor in our enemy,” Arryn said. “That is not the clann way.”
Malcolm pressed on. “It may become useful. It is something we should consider if we truly mean to rid Alban of this threat.”
Bryn listened as the men debated. She understood why Malcolm felt this way. She also understood from where Arryn spoke and agreed that using dragons as weapons was not the clann way. It never was. Dragons had always been companions. Yet again, she could see the logic behind Malcolm’s thinking. It was something she would discuss at length with Meydra. In her heart, she did not want to ask this of the dragons. In her head, she realized that with the dragons, the tide could be turned and her homeland could be bathed in a peace that may well linger for generations.
The path had many turns and twists. For the moment, the only option for her was to get the company to Skerrabrae. There was much work to be done to unite the clanns under one banner. A murmuring rose from the men to discuss the issue further. She turned her attention to the rest of the company.
“We need sleep. The last leg of our journey is before us. By this time tomorrow, we will find other issues to debate. For myself, my concern lies first with uniting the clanns and the kingdoms to fight as one. The dragons will play a role in our efforts, of that much I am certain. Take your thoughts and rest for the night. We will leave for Skerrabrae after a quick breakfast.” She rose and pulled Thalynder up with her. “Thank you, all of you, for remaining in the company and choosing to follow me. I do not know what path our feet will tread, but it will be to the benefit of all. Goodnight friends.”
Bryn took Thalynder’s hand, and they walked out toward the dragons who sat with their backs to the company, their eyes and ears ever mindful of the movements in the night.
Though the midnight sun was just below the horizon and the sky glowed with a soft lavender, the night was as still as if it were the blackest of winter nights. Thalynder held tightly to Bryn’s hand as they walked out to the dragons. The others followed, as it was custom to bid your dragon goodnight, though the rest of the company hung back from the two women.
“Will we sleep together, my Bryn?” Thalynder asked quietly.
“We will, my Lynder.”
“Can you hold me close with that crown on your brow?”
“I can, and I will. What is troubling you?” Bryn stopped before reaching Meydra and An Yun.
“It is Meydra and An Yun. I do not know how to start.”
“To trust An Yun. I do not wish to hurt her feelings, but I was so young when Meydra became my companion. I cannot remember how I began to trust her.”
“As a child you trusted everything.” Bryn reached for Thalynder’s other hand. “Close your eyes.” Thalynder complied. “Now, see An Yun. She chose you, Thalynder. She found your heart and wished to be with you. That is a great gift. Trust An Yun as you trust Meydra. She will not fail you, and you may even find that since she chose you above all others, your bond with her will strengthen far beyond what you had with Meydra.”
“If that is true, then will not Meydra be jealous?”
Bryn smiled. “No, my love. Meydra can never be jealous of a bond. She is a dragon and does not think as we do.”
I can love, Meydra said to Bryn’s heart. I have loved you all your life.
As I have loved you, Meydra. We want to ease this passing for Lynder.
Worry not, Dragon Daughter, An Yun said. The princess will soon feel the difference, and she will rejoice.
“Come, let us say goodnight to our girls. Tonight we will sleep in each other’s arms and dream sweet dreams.”
“That is my first order of business.” Bryn turned to the dragons behind her. Each dragon bowed before her. She pulled her cloak around her shoulders and over her forehead and the company did the same. All now were cloaked against the cool sea air.
“Reveal not my name,” she told the company. “I am Bryn of the Brae for now. Athebryn must wait to be named by the elders.” She started down the hill toward an uncertain future.
From the center of the small village, a lone figure watched the dragons descend and line the hills. A smile creased the woman’s lips. Legend was about to cross the pasture and enter the ancestral village.