Thick and blinding; the air was stiflingly warm. Breanna squeezed through the dirty tunnel on all fours feeling out in the loose dirt in front of her for the path ahead.
She could hear the cries of children in the dark, and the scuffling and heavy breathing of her friends as they all forced their bodies through the too-narrow crawl space. Somewhere, through the thick layer of earth and rock above, she could hear pounding like a battering ram hitting the ground and shaking it all the way down to her scuffed knees.
She held her eyes tightly closed, if she believed the darkness was her own doing, somehow it was better. Somehow it didn’t feel as closed in.
The stone tunnel was low and narrow, even crawling on her hands and knees, her head brushed the ceiling of rock. Koax and the Elves would have been forced to crawl along on their bellies and for once thankful she was small. But the tiny crawlspace felt as though it was narrowing further and her chest was heavy. She needed to get out, to breathe without loose dust caking her face and choking her. She didn’t know how long this would go on for. Was there even a way out? Were they heading deeper into the earth? Would they die here? Clawing at the rock to free themselves, choking on dirt?
“Come on yous lot; last bit!”
Mim’s distant voice, barely distinct and muffled by the bodies between them, gave her hope. It wasn’t far now.
She squeezed her eyes and mouth closed, but she could still taste the dust on the air and the grit between her teeth. In her blindness, she reached out searching for a path through the dried mud, roots, and rock. She opened her eyes as a bright shard of light burst through. Four strong hands grabbed her arms. Her knees hit the rocks as she was pulled up. Suddenly she was out. The bright world came back into view.
She scrambled to her feet, coughing and breathing the clean air in deep gulps. She shook the worst of the dirt from her hair, and brushed the heavy layer of caked mud from her clothes as she hurried away from the escape shaft searching for her friends.
Koax and a young Druid woman were helping the next person struggle from the tunnel. There were youngsters and children all around, it looked as though only a few parents had fled alongside them but most of the Druids had stayed behind to take their chances defending the Druid stronghold.
The tunnel exit had been concealed amongst rocks. In the distance, she could still hear the pounding of that battering ram but it was difficult to tell how far they had travelled, crawling on their hands and knees. Curious, Breanna clambered up the grass incline to look down upon the valley below.
“Bree?” She stopped short, turning to Broc, and he gestured frantically to get back. Shaking her head and feeling like a reprimanded child, she crawled back down to join him.
Their journey had only just begun. The small army of Druid children and their mothers were hurrying along a narrow track bitten into the grass by years of regular use. Some were enjoying themselves as if it was a great adventure, but most were clinging to their fathers and mothers. Some cried, but many were silent and afraid.
Breanna looked around for Leasha, and found her with Mim who was eager for them to keep together. She wanted to speak to Leasha, but she wasn’t sure what to say. She wasn’t sure how she felt. She wished the world wasn’t moving so fast. But even if she had known how to voice her feelings, with Broc and Mim so close at hand, she wouldn’t have been able to bring herself to say them out loud.
She relied instead on an awkward smile, and an awkward touch that never quite amounted to a holding of hands and was all too brief.
The path ran along the apex of a low hill and led them beyond a clearing, but it was like no clearing Breanna had ever been inside before.
It was made of stone.
Breanna edged towards one of the huge standing rocks guarding the circle enclosure. A bark-like roughness was hewn into the surface as if those who had created this place had wanted them to be trees. But trees that would last for eternity.
Instead of soaring up high into the sky making her heart rise with them, these ‘rock trees’ were cut off like stumps with a mantle of another stone laid across the top.
Breanna could feel the magic thrumming within. As she reached out to brush the stone with her fingertips the hair on her arms stood up and the thrill of power soared through her body. It was almost too much. She pulled away quickly turning to Mim questioningly.
“Midwinter Clearing,” Mim explained, then stopped and thought for a moment, “This place strengthens magic,” she looked down her nose at her apprentice, “It may be a good place to try…”
Breanna knew what she meant, the magic thrummed through her. She brushed her fingers against the warm stone. The strength of magic in this place would help her hear the Dragon’s Whisper.
The intricately carved bark upon the rock made her feel she was back home in the forest with a thousand connected trees all around her amplifying her power in a way that she had never understood until now.
She needed to focus on that strength and let it run through her.
She lay her palm upon the rock and that same sudden thrill of power tickled across her skin but she didn’t pull back this time. She sunk into it, like a warm bed. Listening all around her.
The buzz of power, the thrum of thousands and thousands of voices, she could hear everything. The world was loud and busy. Birds, deer, people, oroc, horses, the army, the swell of Druids angry and triumphant. She searched for the loudest voice the strongest in the chorus… and there she was: the Dragon.
Louder than anything else around. Surrounded by power but by far the strongest magic. Breanna drew closer, calling to her. She wanted to hear her. If she could hear her, if she could enter her thoughts enter the dragon realm at this distance she could control them, stop the army, stop their march forward, stop everything.
As if she were reaching out her hand again, back on that beach, ready to lay her palm upon the snout of the Water Wyrm, Breanna reached out to lay her mind upon the mind of the Dragon. To see through its eyes and know its mind.
In a sudden flash, a bolt of lightning in time and power, her mind touched with the Dragon’s. In an instant, she could see through her eyes, see the soldiers all around her; she was walking up to the battlements she had been victorious, she had won her war, and was coming to claim her prize.
But she could sense an invader. She could sense Breanna at the edge of her thoughts. For a fraction of a second, she was afraid… and then she was angry.
A blast of power threw Breanna from the stone and she landed, winded on the ground.
For a moment, her mind was free. She could no longer hear the Whisper.
But then it hit.
Louder and stronger than ever before.
It sucked the air from her chest, pushed thoughts from her mind and drowned out every other sound with its thunderous, demanding roar.
Breanna covered her ears but to no avail, the Whisper was within her.
The fire of rage tore at her and, for the first time since she’d heard the Whisper on that fateful day her father fell, it spoke.
‘WHO ARE YOU?’ it demanded, ‘HOW DID YOU SPEAK TO ME?’ The Whisper pushed further, delving into her thoughts. Its claws seeped into her mind scouring for answers. She squeezed her eyes shut desperately trying to stop the Whisper’s hunt for answers but it didn’t need her eyes to see; it saw her father, limbs stretched out, rising impossibly from the ground as his soul was ripped from his body. It saw the devastation of her village, Grainneaog sinking below a horde of webspinners, howlers on the horizon speeding towards her, Meadowvale, the Fenwater Marshes, the Water Wyrm…
“Please!” she screamed, but the Whisper refused mercy. It pushed and pushed, taking everything, stripping every thought from her relentlessly. It saw the Elven hill fort, the Sycorax swooping towards them, the poisonous talon in her gut. Leasha healing her, Leasha stroking her cheek, Leasha leaning forward-
“No.” Breanna spat the word, forcing her body to stand, and for a moment her anger matched that of the Whisper. She opened her eyes, but she could no longer see her surroundings. Instead, she seemed to be staring right into the face of a woman whose golden-eyed look of surprise slid into a smirk of superiority.
‘You’re strong, little one,’ her words were silent, spoken without a sound and yet they resonated deep within Breanna’s body, ‘but you’ll never be strong enough.’ Then the woman laughed. It was a cruel laugh, it cut into her, mocking her for even trying to resist the woman’s power.
Breanna opened her mouth to reply, to tell the woman that she was strong enough, that she would beat her, that with her friends and the Wizards they would all stand against her and the pain she was inflicting would be turned back, that no one would fall to her malice again.
But the woman had gone.
The sudden absence of the Whisper was like a gust of wind that knocked her to her knees.
She coughed as she tried to get the air back into her lungs.
Leasha was at her side, her warm hands on her body as she helped her to stand, and took her frail body into an embrace.
“The Dragon?” Mim asked her eyes wide as she leaned heavily on her staff.
Breanna shook her head. “It was her,” she whispered.
Mim’s eyes widened further she glanced back towards the steady caravan of women and children hurrying through the stone clearing. “We need to move.”