The little reed-boat, packed with the six companions and their supplies, moved steadily along the river guided by the practised hand of Koax.
Breanna’s thoughts turned to the Wizard Tor.
A nervousness swelled in her belly. How long would Broc be able to stay with her before he returned to the forest? What was the training regimen of the wizards? Would it be like the training for the hunt? Would there be more tests? Would she fail day after day while others thought lower and lower of her as had happened at home? All the while their enemies grew stronger, the dragons took lives, and the golden-eyed woman searched for her. Her stomach clenched in on itself and her body tightened in anguish.
Mim clambered over their packs, rocking the boat slightly in her determination to sit beside Breanna. “Dragon March,” she said, nodding with satisfaction, “ancient nesting place of the oldest and most magnificent of all the creatures upon this land of ours: the Mother Dragon.” She leaned over on her twisted oak staff staring at the view to the north with a doleful grin upon her lips. “Now Poppet, the lands of Dragon March comprises dozens and dozens of scattered villages grouped together into ‘Hundreds’, each one ruled by an Elderman.”
‘Of course,’ Breanna thought, with a sinking heart, ‘a lesson. No wonder she was so excited.’
“The ‘Hundreds’ are grouped into Shires, each ruled by the Shire’s Reeve, who reports to the Master of Dragon March at a regular council-“
“‘Tis a Mistress now,” Cassian spoke off-handedly, but Mim snapped her head around so quickly to stare at him that Breanna was suddenly afraid for her friend.
“What?” Mim demanded.
Cassian turned a little paler and stumbled his response, “Apologies, I did not intend to interrupt-“
“Tell me what you mean, boy? Who told you there was a Mistress?”
“A-A Court Messenger, before we left Meadow Hall,” he looked around to the others, surprised Mim was interrogating him about his news, “we received word, that is the Queen received word, that the Master of Dragon March had passed and his replacement was a woman… but I mean… ‘tis not important.”
“Not important!” Mim appeared angrier at the dismissal of his news than she was at the breaking of it. “There have been Masters of Dragon March for generations! Generations, boy! They barely let women own themselves let alone rule, and you think a Mistress of Dragon March is not important?”
“Apologies,” Cassian stammered again, “so ’tis good news, no? Women gaining the respect-“
“Respect?” Mim spat the word, “This is not respect, boy. This is fear.” Her dark bushy brows lowered into a deep frown and she stared out at Dragon March as if it had committed a personal insult. Suddenly she emitted a low growl and threw up her hands. “Well, there is little use to changing our plans, now.”
“Changing plans?” Breanna asked, she so little enjoyed this sudden change in Mim that she almost wished she was still droning on about Druid Government. “How does this affect us?”
Mim turned and her look was so grim it tightened the knot in Breanna’s belly further. “It’s her.”
Her blood turned thick and cold. She grabbed her brother’s arm instinctively and her head felt light. “What? It can’t be! How can you know?” the question was desperate and futile; she knew it was true. She knew it made more sense than anything. The woman she had seen through the dragon’s eyes, the woman taking the power of the dragon’s as her own, the woman who’s rage frightened Breanna more than anything had frightened in her life, that woman was not just some Mage sitting in a hidden cave biding her time. She was a Queen. “What does this mean?” Her words were a hollow whisper.
But Mim shook her head. She opened her palms in defeat, looked to the sky and shook her head again.
“What is the matter?” Broc asked.
It was only then that Breanna realised how quiet the others had become, all eyes were upon her, and all eyes were wide in curiosity. She swallowed not knowing how to even begin. “I don’t know.”
“I do,” Mim said, and her admission surprised Breanna; only a few days ago she had refused to speak on the subject. “Only it shouldn’t be possible.”
“None of this should be possible,” Cassian pointed out, “Dragons should never have attacked us, Breanna should never have been able to hear their thoughts, and no one should ever have been able to control their hunger and turn it elsewhere. Yet… here we are.”
Mim nodded and seemed, for the first time, to agree with Cassian. She took a deep sigh and began; “There was a mage, brought to learn at the Tor at a very young age. She was strong-willed, determined, clever, all things which would have made her a great Wizard.” Mim patted Breanna’s shoulder with a smile. “She had a particular interest in runes in how they draw power, how these seemingly inconsequential marks and lines can draw out the power of an artefact, increase it even.”
Breanna’s hand went to her necklace. The runestone she carried still channelled the heartbeat of her aunt Fia. She was gifted with runecraft, and Breanna had enjoyed watching her find the lines of power on a stone or a branch. She’d often wondered how it worked and how she found those lines of power.
“It eventually became clear that Olwen,” Mim continued, “for that was the young Mage’s name, was so determined to master this art because she intended to place these runes upon herself.”
Leasha snorted, and Mim turned to her with disdain.
“Well,” Leasha explained, “even wooden staffs are almost impossible to make; no one could make runes work on a living creature.”
“She did,” Breanna replied quietly.
“What? How? How could you know?”
“I saw her… when I…” she took a deep breath and decided to just say it. “I saw her through the eyes of a Dragon. She has them. She has runes on her skin but whether they work or not-“
“Oh, they work,” Mim replied.
“Well then; it’s her.” Broc shrugged. “That’s who we have to go to. That’s who we have to stop.”
“Only one problem with that, boy,” Mim looked at them all gravely, “she died.”
Broc laughed. “No she didn’t,” he replied flatly, “if Breanna saw her, then she must be alive.” Breanna felt a swell of gratitude that he believed her so firmly and so without question despite the extraordinariness of what she claimed.
“She might well be alive now, but I know for certain she died some time ago.”
“You’re wrong,” Broc said with a shrug.
“I’m not wrong, boy.” Mim’s cheeks were turning a shade of scarlet, it was the most animated Breanna had seen her since they first met. “I am certain she was dead because I was the one who killed her.”
A long silence descended over them.
“Well, either way,” Broc said finally, appearing to take the revelations in his stride, “that is where we should go, is it not? Dragon March, to this Mistress of it. Why are we wasting time visiting Wizards now that Breanna can control the Dragons?”
“Yes,” Leasha agreed enthusiastically, “We’ll find her, if you really knew her, Mim then perhaps we can go to the council at Dragon Hold, ask for an audience-“
Mim laughed cutting Leasha off mid-flow, “I didn’t just ‘know her’, girlie I murdered the woman!”
“I agree,” Cassian added, “If we can solve the cause of the attacks then it is our duty to follow it up.”
“Do you all have cloth-ears and stone skulls?” Mim barked, “my hand killed The Mistress of Dragon March, and you think we can just walk into her court?”
“She does seem to have recovered,” Broc was deadpan but Breanna could see the curl at the edge of his lips, “Perhaps she has forgiven you as well?”
Leasha laughed and slapped Broc hard on the shoulder as he grinned. But for once it was Breanna who could not see the humour in their game.
The boat rocked as Mim stood, looming over the companions sitting in giggles. “We are not here for some lark,” Mim didn’t need to shout, her tone was ferocious and their smiles started to fall. “Yous lot are here ONLY to make certain this girl,” she pointed to Breanna, “makes it to the Wizard’s Tor alive. Nothin’ else.” She cut the air with her hand signalling finality. “And even- even! – if a mission to Dragon March could save us all, do you honestly think yous lot are the best people we have to send?” She looked down at them and their heads hung low. Mim sighed and shook her head. “Gods forbid that the fate of the world should ever be in your incompetent hands.”
“Halt!” Cassian cried, waving an arm, “Halt! Halt!”
The boat lurched to a stop with such force that the font end tipped up and landed back on the water with a hard splash. “What see you?” Koax called.
“There.” Cassian pointed ahead, not to the river but to the south bank. A mound with a wooden palisade, rising to a small fort and a tower. It was silent.
“What is it?” Broc asked moving next to Cassian to peer out at the little fort.
“Cass?” Leasha asked, “What’s going on?” She whispered the words, and he glanced at her, shaking his head slightly.
“Something is very wrong.”
“What is it now?” Mim asked impatiently.
“The Elf sees,” Koax pointed to the fort, and Mim peered at it.
“Right, lovely. Now, let’s gedda move on, shall we?” She nestled down again, and the others exchanged a glance.
“Do you want to check it?” Breanna hissed, already knowing that he fervently did.
He glanced back to the fort and turned to her with an apologetic look.
“You must leap to the bank,” Koax called out.
Cassian looked down at the dark swirling water and nodded. “It won’t take long,” he assured them.
“We’ve delayed long enough,” Mim spoke firmly but with closed eyes, “if the Elves wish to stay here, good luck to ’em.”
Leasha and Cassian exchanged a pained glance and Breanna was certain that should either of them disembark, Mim would not wait for them. She would paddle the boat herself if it came to it.
“I…” Broc started. Breanna knew what he was thinking, she knew he meant to offer to go, ensuring their safe return. But just because he was her brother did not mean the Wizard would be any more patient. There was only one person who could guarantee that the boat would be here when the Elf came back from his investigation.
“I’ll go,” Breanna announced.
“You will not.” Mim sat bolt upright and wide awake. She turned to Koax and gestured at him to keep moving, with a guilty shrug to Cassian, the Fenner followed orders and the boat continued.
“Then go on without me.” Breanna snapped, turning to Mim and immediately regretting her harsh tone. But the Wizard merely raised her brows and looked away. “What are you doing?” Breanna asked seeing Leasha checking her weapons and boots.
“You’re not going anywhere without me.”
“Or me,” Broc added.
“No,” blurted Brenna, “You two stay here and,” she glanced at Mim, “monitor… things.”