“What is it?”
“Maur’s bloodstone. The last drop of blood from its heart—the fatal one. All dragons who die by bloodletting spill one of these at the last; but you’d need a hawk’s eyes to find that last curdled drop from a small dragon.”
“Then you keep it. I’m grateful for its wizard-defeating properties, and if I have the great misfortune ever to need to defeat another wizard, I shall borrow it from you. But I don’t want it around.”
“Very well. I shall keep it. And you will know where to find it if ever you have the need.”
“I will know. But gods preserve me from needing that knowledge ever again.”
The North, always the North. No matter how many were defeated, always another plan from the North.
Whispers begun, as they always did, trickling through ears and through minds, before any real mischief started. Aerin and Tor had exchanged grim glances at the reports from the barons’s council - the fourth solas after Nyrlol had been vigilant over the signs of demon inteference, talking at length over any suspect behaviour on the part of their peoplse or their lands. For several years these reports had consisted of the mundane coincidences of the everyday, but now? Now the dead were walking.
Aerin felt wearily that she could do without the sight of messenger’s livery, bringing in new tales of this necromancer of no little skill had risen, denying the dead their rest.
She had hoped, believed, that after Maur and after Agsded, that they would never be facing anything of that level of despair again. It left her unsettled and shaken.
Bad enough that families faced their loved ones on the other side of a blade, but the horror of that that had obscured the fact this was not a plan of a man out for mischief, but the first incursion of a wizard intent on tearing down the barriers between life and death itself.
Armies were mustering, fear and anticipation was building - until suddenly the course of events took a turn that no one had expected.
The necromancer had sent a messenger of his own, asking for a parley with the condition that Aerin herself broker the discussion.
Aerin and Tor had argued passionately for a day before they set out, Tor concerned that if the necromancer targeted her then they would be facing a far bigger problem than if they sent Katah or another sol or sola, Aerin arguing that she might be the only one able to deal with whatever the necromancer threw at them.
Tor eventually threw up his hands and said they would both go, but his voice was still echoing in her head. “I fear because I sense this is another place in which I cannot follow you, Aerin. This is not a churakak duel in which I can understand and watch and have faith in you. I fear this is the moment in which I lose you, not to death but to something far worse! But I cannot and will not trap you into a prison where we aren’t equals.”
Aerin looked again at Tor riding next to her as they approached the lone figure waiting for them at the designated meeting point. His love and faith in her was as steadfast as he was, but his vulnerability still lay with her and the parts of her that he could not touch.
Sometimes her heart could not handle the affection overflowed when Tor showed just how much he respected the parts of her that he didn’t understand.
She folded away her love as they came to a stop before a man so ordinary looking that Aerin was taken aback.
“Greetings.” The necromancer smiled all oily and slick at Aerin, who shuddered at the cold press of a mind against hers.
‘Such an honour to meet the kinsman and kinslayer of Agsded.’
Impressions of hours spent at study, of a careful distance, of a man tiptoeing gently for a foothold around a much brighter sun, a vicious and petty happiness at Agsded’s death...
Talat’s brave daughter Itran pulled Aerin back to herself, dancing to the side in a few steps of a dance, sending Aerin lurching.
She smiled back all teeth and stubborness.
The dinner they sat down to that night at the camp that had risen swiftly around them was one of the most awkward that Aerin had ever attended, which said something considering her youth.
“The whole of the North is aware that the Lady Aerin defeated the dragon Maur,” the necromancer had said abruptly the moment they were seated.
“Yes.” Aerin said shortly.
“What was it like?”
The necromancer pressed on and on, not content with Aerin’s blunt answers, deflecting any attempts to divert the conversation into more neutral topics.
“I would like to see with my own eyes one day the site of such a mighty battle. I understand it was not far from here?”
The bloodstone, Aerin realised. This is what the whole charade was about. He was after the bloodstone.
She smiled blandly. “I cannot quite recall the exact location. I was badly injured.”
Aerin was glad when the meal was over. She did not like the thought of spending a night here but even the mere chance for peace could not be ignored.
Tor looked at her as they entered their tent and remained silent, the words clearly behind his eyes saying that he knew something was going on and that he would leave it until Aerin was willing to speak of it herself.
Instead, he wrapped himself tightly around Aerin and sighed. “Sleep, my dearest. At least one of us should.”
He kissed her cheek. “I love you, always.”
She didn’t need that reminder, but when was it ever bad to know down to your bones that you were loved?
Despite Tor’s warmth next to her, Aerin struggled with sleep, drifting into a doze only to be woken up again, drifting until - numbness, such as she had only felt once in her life, spread through her as sleep struggled to overtake her. Numbness or – tendrils, snaking around her mind...
Her mind opened and opened again, visions flashing of the future, things that could be, things that did not make sense. A tall woman with golden hair, reaching back to her in surprise, Maur’s gleaming malevolence, her mother and her uncle playing as children, metal monstrosities driving lines of iron through Damarian lands now dusty and barren, a ship who was a person who was a ship carrying so much pain and anger, a young Luthe with no mage mark stubbornly sitting at a gate, a voiceless woman smiling gently at her, a field of dandelions as far as the eye could see, no, not dandelions, a blaze igniting at the corners, spreading, burning, consuming, spiraling through paths...
“If you bound it into your Damarian Crown, it would make whoever wore it invincible.”
Aerin blinked, and shook her head. A sword that was not Gonturan was at her side, a heavy weight was on her head, a redness that sparked against her temple. The Hero’s Crown?
“Your Majesty?” A hesitant voice from a bowed head. Perlith?
“What?” Aerin snapped, and Perlith groveled to the floor.
Aerin looked around, and Perlith was not the only one grovelling. Galanna, missing a hand. The third-sol who had once sneered at her and refused to dance with her, heavily scarred. The baron’s daughter who had mocked her spending time with Talat. All grovelling, not a single person on their feet.
She stumbled, and braced herself – against her father’s throne.
Everything was red, blood coloured. Where was Tor? She looked around frantically, not a single person meeting her eye. No Tor.
She ran for the door, fleeing for the familiarity, only to stop in stunned horror as she reached the gardens – or what was left of them.
Everything was shattered, the castle in ruins. Her home, Tor’s home, her father’s home... only the throne room stood unscathed.
She put her hand to her head and touched the Crown, ripping it from her head. It was no longer the crown, it was twisted and red and at its centre sat Maur’s bloodstone.
“Look at the amount of harm Agsded did with the Crown alone.”
Aerin screamed. No! This was not right! She had given the bloodstone to Luthe, Maur’s poison would no longer be able to touch Damar.
Twisting whispers – ‘give to to me.... and I will set this right...’
“Aerin!” Tor shouted.
Aerin! Luthe shouted.
Aerin stilled, and took a moment to calm her panic, silently thanking them – all three of them.
Tor and Luthe for their love and the necromancer for lighting a flame of golden anger in her that could cut through this illusion. This pettiness had to stop, and the man who started a war to get something as powerful as the bloodstone would no longer be allowed to prey upon Damar, and would never get the opportunity to hurt those she loved.
She had thought that the parts of her were mortal and not quite mortal and that one part of her could rest while the other part was free but there were multitudes within her. There was a part of her that was not just her father’s child and her mother’s daugher, but her uncle’s kinsman, there was a ferocious part of her that wanted to learn and master her magic, there was a part of her that was Luthe’s, a part of her that was Tor’s, a part of her that belonged to the children she was yet to have.
So many parts, for her limits were no longer mortal.
And that was okay, because all parts of her were more than enough for this threat.
She threw the crown to the ground and drove her heel down with all the strength she could bring to bear both magical and physical, shattering the bloodstone.
The world shattered around her and a scream of fear and pain that was not hers echoed through her head.
Aerin blinked, and steadied, taking a deep breath, and another. She turned to Tor who lay next to her, fear in his eyes, and kissed his fear away. All would be well.
When the camp begun to stir in the morning, the necromancer was gone.
No guard or servant nor solider had seen him leave, but when the hesitant head of the guard came to let Aerin and Tor know, he was greeted by the queen that had fought and won on Maur’s plain, a queen blazing with strength and self confidence, a queen that he would die for.
His breath caught in his throat as Aerin smiled directly at him, warmth spreading through his body. He bowed, and left dazedly, and heard his king say through ringing in his ears:
"All will be well."