This short-story appears as an interlude in Drakon Book III: Firstblade (published June 13, 2017).
CHAPTER LXVII. The Stars Will Bring Him Back
by C.A. Caskabel
Zeria’s fairy tale. As she whispered it to Aneria. As I heard it.
“You will never see the stars again, my love,” said the exiled prince.
Dalma remained still, like a pale statue of a long-forgotten goddess, not even looking at him. She was standing outside the damp cave that had become their refuge whenever she had no sleep. Moons had come and passed like this and such words made her neither sad nor worried anymore.
The fir trees around her were cloaking all sight of the horizon, sunrise or sunset. On bright days, the sun would glow at noon like a descending kindling fire and illuminate a small opening among the branches. On a cloudless summer night, the moon would shine a faint silver hope on her pallid skin. But not the stars. They were too tiny, too timid to penetrate the evergreen forest that had become their fortress.
“You will not feel pity for me, my love,” said Dalma. “You never will. I am here of my own will. All your princely bravery and valor would not have brought me here against my wishes.”
How did I fail her? Prince Draton wondered.
A few months ago, there was no warning of the dark fate that would befall them.
Dalma was the one of royal blood, not he. She was the daughter of the king of Lenos, a lord who ruled the vast, once-fertile fields west of the great forest and the thousands of starving slaves and farmers. He was a lord who had aged more than his years and a man of many possessions. His palace was a grim gray-stone castle that didn’t betray his wealth at first sight. But it had grown like an evil tree downward and sideways with the digging of tunnels, storage rooms and dungeons filled with treasures and gold. The king had no wife and no heart; whether he had lost them on the same night, whether the first caused the second or the opposite—nobody cared to remember. Men oftentimes tend to forget what brought the shadow of darkness; like moths, they are drawn to the source of the new light.
And the only light in the palace was Princess Dalma. For all the king’s sulkiness and callousness, he had in his daughter the gifts of her mother. Beauty, wisdom, and magic. For she could read the stars, sing the animals into obeying her and breathe a red blossom onto the flowers; though most of these were lies that men and women both loved and hated to repeat about the princess.
Draton had grown up at the edge of the forest and came to Lenos on his sixteenth year, at his father’s request. He was the youngest son of a hunter and had brought gifts for the king: a young fallow deer still dripping blood from the snout, its black-pebbled eyes shining still, two hares hanging from their hind legs, their snow bellies pierced red and their front legs in a suspended last hop, and a sack of quail that he emptied in front of the throne with a boyish smile of accomplishment. The quail fell atop one another onto the marble floor; a mesh of rich gray plumage, clawed talons, and chestnut-brown blood.
The king’s hierophant knelt on top of the dead life to read Draton’s fate and purpose. He then walked up to the king and whispered in his ear:
“This boy brings death, my king.”
But the king was genuinely pleased at the sight of so much purposeless death, and he ignored the deranged old man. He demanded that the boy stay forever in the palace. He made him the Master of Hunting and ordered the Masters of the Arts and the Letters to educate the young man as if he were a prince.
Draton fell in love with Dalma the first moment he saw her, as men do when they recognize in the same face the beauty of a flower growing alone at the banks of the lake, the reason to stop hunting life in the forest, the skipping heartbeat that makes even a rested man shiver, and the determination to do good even when it is not to their benefit. He entered the palace a boy that morning only to go to sleep that night a young man in love.
No, Dalma did not fall in love with him on the very first day. She had lived in a palace full of gold and darkness, jewels and hatred, hand-carved cutlery and senseless savagery, and all that, along with her education, made her cautious that opposites can coexist. She came a step closer to Draton the first day because his smile captured her attention. On the second day, he made her laugh as he gazed at her like a mesmerized statue, same as those of the hundred gods and demigods that filled the sacred temples. On the third day, she saw the boy studying with his new masters. She noticed the faintest autumn breeze moving his locks on the fourth day. He offered her—the princess of all people—an apple on the fifth day, as they came across each other in the narrow hallway. On the sixth day, he was wearing new clothes without a speck of dried blood from a forest hunt. She liked that. They spent every afternoon together after the seventh day.
By his twentieth year, Draton had become a man whom no one could distinguish from a born prince—a poet by choice, a huntsman occasionally when the king demanded it, a fierce swordfighter, and a brave rider of the wildest horses. Dalma was blossoming, and so was he, but Lenos was not anymore.
Autumn was now called the season of drowning rains, winter that of freezing death. Spring was now known as the season of swarming locusts, and summer had become the season of plague.
The king ordered the hierophant to lift the curse, but the pagan priest said that the gods had cursed Lenos and craved sacrificial blood. It was not the first time he had made the same claim, and the king had repeatedly and secretly agreed to this barbarity.
“A sacrifice then,” the impatient king replied and then ordered his guard. “Burn this madman alive. Now!”
There was no need for a pyre. The guards torched the hierophant’s coat of quail plumage and bird bones, and it instantly became a mantle of agony.
None of that had any effect. The locusts kept swarming. The few remaining palace guards were spending most of their efforts trying to keep the starving peasants from breaking the gates that had been shut and barricaded. There was brutal death outside the castle and a seething turmoil inside it.
Draton and Dalma repeatedly begged the king, “Open your gates; give them some of your gold, your bread.”
But the king did not want to hear a word about it. “There is not enough food even for us. How long since we had stuffed quail and venison on this table? And they do not cry for gold. The gods have abandoned them, and gold will not cure them. They cry for hope.” And revenge was the rest of his thought, but he kept that wisdom to himself. “Gold will not cure the plague or bribe the locusts to turn south. Even if I give them all my gold, they will waste it.”
For once, he was right. The peasants had no need for gold. Lenos was ripe for a new god.
The dark-robed priest of martyrdom rode one day on a dying donkey among the flooded huts. He heard of rain, ice, locusts, and plague and whispered to them about a New God. They had believed in the old gods for too long, and that was the reason for their demise and suffering, he said. His Lord was the Only True God, he shouted. This New God did not play a double-reed harp by a river, or dance and drink, and he didn’t need sacrifices of animals. He was like them, the suffering folk. His tears were burning and true. He was not raised in a palace, he had no noble education, he was not a warrior, and he couldn’t offer much in this life but would offer them everything in the afterlife. He was the One True God who knew right and wrong for all things, unlike all the false gods who were vile and envious because they were made by man and filled with man’s weaknesses.
The peasants embraced this New One God and Great Prophet. Outside the king’s castle, the priest became more powerful by the day and gathered more faithful every night. He soon marched to the palace gates. The thousands of starving peasants crashed the rotting cedar planks that separated the two worlds, and no one dared to stop them. They stormed the inner bailey and smashed the statues and the temples of the old gods. They raided the storage rooms, only to find them empty of meat and wine and full of useless gold and silver gewgaws. That only fueled their anger.
“Death to the old king, death to his kin and the old gods,” they cried as they stormed the most private temples and the hall of the throne.
They burned down the old god of the sun and the rains and thunders because he had abandoned them, and the god of war and weaponry and iron craftsmanship, and metallurgy. The three goddesses of music, hunting, and beauty were the ones the priest loathed more. A naked goddess smiling in front of men. What if she is actually powerful, he thought as they hammered her statue. They destroyed the halls of the gods of medicine and of the stars because they had brought no miraculous cures nor fulfilled wishes. They burned down the goddess who blesses the crops, but who could blame them for that? Locusts.
But before they came to burn their king himself, he raised his arms and shouted to the priest of the one god of absolute wrong and right. “Mercy, my priest. I believe. I believe. I denounce my kingdom and my gold, and I will now obey the New One Faith.”
Dalma’s face tensed with worry as she witnessed the destruction in the hall of the fallen throne. She turned to Draton. “My father is clever like a fox. He is old and sick now. He knows his end is coming and his gold will do him no good. He will side with the priest who offers eternal life. A suitable trade for both.”
The priest said, “God accepts your repentance, king who worshiped the false gods, but you have to make amends for the decades of misery you have caused to these poor peasants. Make a true offering.”
“I give you all my gold and my palace.”
“And it will become a church to worship the Lord. But, is that enough?” the priest asked looking around the hall.
The peasants shook their heads.
They want revenge. A sacrifice. After all, they have been pagans for so many centuries, the cunning king thought. Old habits die hard.
“The faithful have suffered, old king. You have to join them in suffering, else your repentance is untrue,” the priest said.
The king felt no responsibility for any of the peasants’ miseries, yet he was smart enough not to oppose the priest.
“I offer you, Priest, my most precious treasure: Princess Dalma. She will not be a princess anymore; she will become a servant of the New One God.”
Draton held Dalma’s hand and looked around the hall. The peasants were still shaking their heads; from hatred or hunger, he couldn’t tell. So many eyes on her. A few of the priest’s followers were carrying pitchforks and sledgehammers. The rest were bare-handed, but their looks didn’t give him any comfort either.
“So be it,” sighed the priest. “The princess will become a servant of the Faith, and she will live a humble life in this hall, which will become the church of God for the rest of her days, serving the Almighty, cleaning and caring for the church, veiled in black, until her soul is purified of all the false gods and their teachings. She will not marry or ever step away from these walls.”
The loud cheers of the faithful filled the palace walls with joy and the marbled floors with drool.
Dalma fell to her knees, but not to plead or beg. To Draton’s amazement, she immediately veiled her head in black as the priest had ordered, and she made the sign of the New Faith. She even thanked her father. She truly thanked him that moment because she had inherited only one great gift from him: his cunning mind.
Amid the raucous mob and the destruction of the marble statues of the helpless old gods, Dalma stole the one moment she needed and said to Draton, “See this window they broke, on the east side of the hall. Tonight, at the moon’s first quarter, I’ll leave through that and walk on the narrow ledge. Be not afraid of me. I’ll reach the balustrade with the carved marble roses on the northmost corner of the hall. I’ll tie a rope there and climb down. Take the fastest two horses and wait for me underneath it. We ride far and away, never to come back. Do you know a hiding place where we can be forever safe?”
“The forest,” said Draton, though the same moment he uttered the word he knew that not even the wildest of beasts could be completely safe anywhere, and forever was a promise he couldn’t dare to make even to his one true love.
By dawn, they had left the fields of Lenos far behind them, riding eastward for the first time. The freedom was intoxicating, accentuated by the beating hooves of their horses, the realization of the sudden and unimaginable fate they had just escaped, and the newfound independence outside the palace. The forest kissed Dalma first, and Draton kissed her many times afterward.
The king was outraged and frightened that he would lose favor with the one New God of Wrong or Right and nothing in between, the New God of black serpents and white doves and no other beings. He feared that his daughter’s acts would keep him forever out of the verdant gardens of eternal life. Again, he was fast to take control of his fate. “Priest, you saw and heard my daughter just yesterday. She is a young woman filled with love and praise for the New God. Draton kidnapped her against her will. He is a wicked man, and even as a boy, he was raised to kill and slaughter. All those quail. He is the one we must hunt down. I beg you to save my daughter from this evil.”
The priest didn’t ask the king for anything. He didn’t demand that the king hunt them down, nor did he ask for their heads. Instead, he condemned all violence of the old gods. He did only one thing. He told the king stories of the afterlife in hell, which he whispered during the nights when the winds howled. The eternal burning of the infidels.
A whole moon passed, and the dying king had not slept for a single breath, tortured with anger and fear between his sheets. He dreamed of spiders giving birth; he dreamed of burning flesh falling off the bone. He dreamed a Holy Quest.
“A Quest,” he announced, and any worthy man of Lenos and the surrounding kingdoms of the new faith joined. The one to kill Draton and bring back the princess would be forever blessed and become the new lord of Lenos upon the king’s death. And there would be gold—gold for those who would betray Draton and Dalma’s hiding place, for those who would capture them, for those who would fight and kill for God. Kill in the name of God and earn eternal glory.
“Fear not,” the priest said as he blessed the armored brave youths who set out to find Draton. “God is by your side.”
“And so is gold,” said the king. Those would be his last words. The next morning, he was found frozen stiff, so frozen that everyone was certain the kind dead king could not possibly be burning in hell.
A hundred brave and greedy men, and who can tell deep inside who was who, marched east, but they didn’t find anything more than starving peasants and muddy fields covered with dead locusts. The New God’s mercy had yet to reach that far east; it was reserved for the afterlife. The frightened peasants pointed into the forest. They had seen a woman with dark hair and eyes of a color that shone even in a foggy day disappear in there, together with a hunter with curly brown locks.
A hundred men entered the forest.
A hundred days in a row, the pelting rain fell upon the fir.
Draton had chosen his lair carefully: a gloomy cave, almost under the ground, at the end of the northernmost forest of the evergreens. It was a harsh place, where the trees ended against the craggy slopes and the rising mountain was pierced by endless similar caves surrounding his. All but his own cave were the refuges of bats that woke up at sunset and made the tree branches come alive with beating wings and squeaking sounds. It was a forest of the snake and the mountain lion, the worst of places for any armored youth to wander around.
For some, it was the jaws of the mountain lions; for others, the swarming bloodthirsty bats. For most, it was the snakes that slithered through their sleep and up their tunics, and for those few who made it closer to Dalma’s cave, it was Draton’s arrows. Thirteen of the one hundred escaped alive. The armored skeletons of the rest lay half-covered in mud in the forest, where it kept raining relentlessly for a hundred days and nights.
“Help us, Priest,” the trembling voices of the shamed survivors cried when they reached Lenos. “This is no man we are fighting. He has four strong legs and the fanged jaws of the mountain lion. He is as fast and cunning as the python. He can fly and hide like the bat. His wings are without plumage, only bone and slime, and his tail is a venomous arrowhead that pierces even our armors. Help us fight this abomination.”
The scribes and the painters sketched the beast with charcoal as it was described to them: a giant scaled snake unlike any other, with beating wings without feathers—only bones and dark skin, with four legs, clawed talons, and the jaws of a lion.
“He is the Horned One,” said the priest, so the painters added horns.
“He is the one who escaped from the fiery gates of hell,” said the priest, so the painters added fire-breathing nostrils.
The priest saw the drawing and with forced amazement he proclaimed in front of hundreds of terrified peasants who now believed him more than ever before:
“You see who we are fighting here. This is no common man with the name of Draton. This is the Horned One. Drakon will be his name from now on. Paint many wooden paintings of him, give them to all of our churches and faithful, so that all may hunt him to the ends of this earth. The quest must not stop.”
In the forest, Draton and Dalma were living a bitter tale of passionate love and restless agony. The passion waned, and the agony waxed. The moon rarely shone full, and Draton was drowning in guilt. One night, as he guarded the front of his cave, he felt so sad that he turned and said to Dalma, “You will never see the stars again, my love.”
In the morning, Draton stared at the rotting skeletons of the boys who had come to kill him and save Dalma and felt no pride—only more sadness. “I never wished to kill them. Why has this madness risen over false and true gods that don’t even dare to show their face?”
“You have to stay here and defend our nest, my love. I am pregnant, and I know it is twins I carry.”
It had not stopped sleeting in the north mountain for a hundred days of winter. Dalma was shivering in the cold, and her face had become pale-white from hiding in the sunless cave among the bats. Draton looked at her silent smile of confidence and support, and he felt so weak because he couldn’t keep his promise of eternal love and safety, of boiled rabbit and red berries and fresh sunlight. He couldn’t stand this any longer.
“This senseless tale of death needs to stop now, Dalma. I am going to find the priest and ask him for a truce. Or cut his throat.”
But he didn’t say those words aloud to her. He just gave her a kiss on the brow as she was sleeping, not on the lips, a parting kiss that wouldn’t keep him there. He knew she would never accept it, and she wouldn’t let him go. He tied the written words on the leg of the grayest pigeon, and only when he was riding hard out of the forest did he let the bird return to the cave and let Dalma know.
Draton rode across the plains that were still devastated from the heavy rain and the locusts. First, he came across some traveling peasants who had been exiled because they kept the old pagan faith.
“Can you help us, Prince? We still believe in the old gods, and there is no place for that here anymore,” they told him.
“The age of princes has passed, and truth be told, I was never born one. Go and hide in the forest. In the northern caves, you will find my princess, and she will protect you there,” he said. “Do not even dare go there to harm her, because she is a powerful witch. The lion and the snake will tear you apart, and the bats will rip out your eyes.”
He then came across more peasants, but they had accepted the new faith. “We curse you, Drakon. God has given you a new name, and it has a k so that you kneel before him.” The prince told them only about the lion, the snake, and the bat, and nothing more, and he kept riding west to Lenos, his face now a rictus of fear. It was not death that scared him but the hatred in their words.
The priest’s sleep was restless and filled with nightmares when Draton entered his cell silently, like a bat gliding through the window.
“Wake up and don’t make a sound, Priest of the New God. We must speak,” Draton said.
The priest flew up from his bed sheets, and his back thumped against the wall as he whispered holy words.
“What do you want here, Horned One, abomination of Hell? Did you fly in here in the form of a slimy bat, you bloodsucking thief of the young and innocent?”
“What madness is this? Who are you to call me all these names? You see me, I have no horns, and I mean no evil to you. You came from nowhere, we have never harmed you, and we never wished to harm you. You preach love and compassion, but you have unleashed fire and death. I ask for peace, and remember that I have never asked for war.”
“It is too late for that,” said the priest. “You should have abolished your false gods. The One True God prevails.”
“My gods were false because I wanted them so. I wanted them to be imperfect so I could always do better than they—always climb higher and learn deeper.”
“The words of your forked tongue do not deceive me. The peasants, the many, were suffering under your false gods. Now they have embraced the True God.”
“Have you visited the peasants recently? Do they suffer less now?”
“They have always suffered, but now their suffering has a purpose. They are martyrs in this life so they can be rewarded in the next. Repent and kneel before me.”
Draton thought of that, if only for a few breaths. Could peace be so simple? If he just knelt once, would all the bloodshed end? But he knew even though he couldn’t hear her, what Dalma would say, and he couldn’t accept.
“This god of yours seems to know only wrong and right. I want none of that. He knows everything so he can learn nothing. He will bring darkness for centuries to come, and he has no power to replace the gods of medicine and metallurgy and the harvest. And he will never understand the goddess of song, music, and beauty. But I am not here to talk about gods. Enough of that,” said Draton, his blade unsheathed and touching the beating heart of the priest.
“What are you here for?”
“You are trembling, Priest.”
“I tremble because I have to defeat you, not out of fear for my life,” said the priest.
“You tremble, a moment before afterlife,” and that’s all there is to it, Draton thought. That’s the whole truth. “Your god is false.”
The priest grabbed the painted wooden icon that was hanging on the cell wall, and put it between Draton and himself like a shield of magic. Draton saw the painting clearly now, the details up close: the slain drakon, the armored youth with horse and spear triumphant over him. Τhe gentle face of the young horseman; so powerful and innocent as it was thrusting the spear. Blood everywhere.
“Night and day the faithful are painting thousands of icons,” said the priest with shaky knees and a voice faking fearlessness. “Every mother has one of those now; every son is born with one over his cradle. ‘Kill the Drakon,’ is the first dream of the young.”
Draton realized his fate. “It will be thousands of them. And I’ll have to kill them all,” he said.
“Thousands of thousands,” answered the priest. “Millions will come and take on the mission. Who can resist this great fate I promise them? A princess, eternal life, the blood of the snake. In the name of my God, I will send millions against you.”
“You will never stop, will you?”
“No. I have no choice,” said the priest.
Dawn was coming fast and would wake up everyone at the palace. Dawn was coming, and its light was washing away hatred, its birdsong covering with a mantle of sadness the young prince. Draton had no time.
“Why? Why all this death? I never meant harm to you.”
The priest was not trembling anymore at the sight of Draton’s weakness. He stood up from his bed and said to the young man, “You see, my God is one of right and wrong. For right to exist, one has to know the wrong.” His voice was calm and soft and penetrating like the spear of the haloed horseman. “And it cannot be a vague, frivolous thought or a passing, guilty feeling. Wrong has to have a face and an abominable image. It has to have horns and breathe fire, and now you have taken on this burden. These are simple folk, after all. They need to know the face of evil, or else they will soon abandon the New God. Kneel and admit it. My God is true; he is true because millions believe he is. And that’s more than enough.”
“I never asked for this fate.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore. There is a quest; millions will join, and one day someone will have to fulfill it. Or at least claim so.”
“Then I accept. I’ll be your Wrong if that’s all you want. I’ll take your k and call myself Drakon. A k to kill my foes, a k to kiss my love, and a k to know that I never asked for this.”
“You must never see her again.”
“A k to kindle a fire of hope for a thousand years. I will open my drakon wings, though they are not real but exist only in your tales, and I will fly away to the ice of the North. I will abandon Dalma and all the forest, and you will stay away from them. I will not ravage your lands and your armored young, and you will never again go into the forest to hurt my children. And that will be the end of it. You will rule this land but you will spare the forest. We will be tangled in an endless, bloodless war, and I will never show my face again.”
“You sacrifice your love?”
And that was enough of a victory for the priest. His archenemy, love, was defeated. He knew that young men could be blinded only by faith or love. He had only to kill the tales of love to kindle the faith of the many.
“Fly away, Drakon, and never come back!” shouted the priest, victorious. As the guards broke into the cell, Draton was already galloping away, his threadbare raven mantle slicing the morning fog like the slimy wings of a drakon. “Look at him, defeated! Drakon has fled into exile to the desolate ends of the world. All rejoice and pray: the Evil One is no more!” shouted the priest.
Drakon rode for days and nights all the way to the North, across the icy plains. He never reached the forest or came close to it, and he never saw his children. He sent a milky-white pigeon back to Dalma with his last parting words.
From now on, I have become the Drakon, my love. I saw my face drawn in their wooden paintings, and it is so powerful an image; not even truth can change it. I will not be the cause of death anymore; of your death. We have created life and children, and I will not raise them among the skeletons. Bury their skeletons, love our children, and never come searching for me. I cannot return for as long as I exist because that will only mean your death.
Dalma’s burning tears drowned in the freezing rain. Her only companions now were the hunted pagan peasants who sought refuge in the forest. Her tears dried only when her two daughters were born. She named them Dasia and Alia, and they are the ancient mothers of the forest tribe, the Dasal, the hunted children of Lenos, the last believers of the lost false gods. On the same night, Dasia and Alia came to life, the rain stopped. The sky cleared, and the stars mirrored bright upon the green pond of Kar-Tioo.
A new star appeared brighter than ever in the North, and the peasants asked Dalma what they should name it.
“This is no star,” Dalma said. “You see, it never dips below the horizon; it stays there to guide home the ones who have journeyed far away, and it stays there as a watchful eye to protect us from harm. But if you need a name, name it εδρακων, the eye of the Drakon.”
As the years went by, the twin girls grew. They were identical but for the color of their eyes. Dalma was growing old—more slowly than everyone else, but still aging. She would start the fire at night and blow a faint kiss to the North before her brief, lonely sleep, and she would always remind her daughters:
“Know this, my little ones. That is no star; that is the Drakon’s eye watching you. They say he can fly like the bat, and he is fierce as the lion. Wise and lethal as the serpent.”
“And what do you say, Mother?”
“I know that he has the gentle heart of the dove. He will always protect you. He went away because that was the only way to keep us safe, but one day he will come back. He will come back for the same reason: to save us from the gravest danger. The stars will bring him back.”