Princess Alexia of Okrannel raised a gloved hand to shade her eyes as the green dragon upon which she rode dipped his right wing and began a lazy circle. Below lay Narriz, dusted in snow and spread out in several concentric semicircles emanating from the crescent harbor to the west. King Fidelius' castle stood on the highest hill, with a clutch of cylindrical white towers that soared toward the sky. The brightly colored flags and pennants flapping away added an element of reality that banished any hope that she was dreaming.
Beneath her the dragon's flesh undulated as powerful muscles drove its wings. Though the air so high was quite frigid, the heat from the green dragon's body made the space beneath a long red cloak quite warm, and she gladly shared that warmth with Crow. She pressed herself against his side, then turned and kissed his scarred right cheek.
He smiled and his brown eyes sparkled. "What was that for?"
"To make sure you don't forget that I love you. And that I support you, no matter what happens below."
He tightened his arm around her shoulder. "Thank you."
The dragon turned his head back toward them. "Perrine is circling the castle's courtyard. We are welcome."
Resolute, a Vorquelf with sharpened elven features, pointed ears, and eyes of pure silver, curled his lip in a sneer. "Hardly welcome, Dravothrak. We will be tolerated until we deliver our news, then we will be reviled. We bring them word that hope has died, and few will have the heart to continue on past that."
Prince Erlestoke of Oriosa adjusted the black mask he wore. "They know they cannot stop you from landing, Dravothrak, so they accept with feigned grace what they cannot prevent."
The prince's words came in grim tones that nearly matched those Alyx had gotten accustomed to hearing from Resolute. The Vorquelf had been fighting over a century and a quarter to free his homeland from Chytrine, with no success. Will Norrington had been the key to her defeat and his death at Vael seemed to seal the fate of the Southlands' free nations. Arriving at the gathering of world leaders to tell them hope was indeed dead was something she had never anticipated.
She looked again at Crow. "I do wish you would let me be the one to address the council."
Erlestoke nodded in agreement. "Or me. They will accept it better from either of us."
Crow shook his head and his beard brushed against Alyx's cheek. "First and foremost, Will was my charge. I should have kept him safe. And while I agree with everyone that he chose his time of passing, and chose nobly and well, the burden of his death bears most heavily on me. Second, and you all know this is true, King Scrainwood would blame me even if Will's ghost appeared, absolved me of responsibility, and cursed Scrainwood for an idiot. Short of you throttling your father and replacing him, there is nothing that can be done to prevent the blame from falling on me."
The prince's hazel eyes blazed. "Who says throttling him is not an option?"
Crow's chin came up. "I do. The third reason I have to deliver the message is simply that we know that whoever delivers it will be reviled and never trusted again. None of the rest of you can afford to be moved out of the way given the discussions that must take place. Alexia and you, Highness, have the military expertise that will stop Chytrine's troops."
Resolute's sneer melted into a mirthless smile. "You make no case as to why I should not address their august majesties, my friend."
"You mean, aside from the fact that you openly hold them and their councils in contempt?" Crow laughed quickly. "This is a council of humans, Resolute, and they will not take well to being lectured to by one old enough to have known their great-grandparents. Moreover, you will need their help if you are to retake Vorquellyn. For you to speak to them would be to jeopardize that goal. This will need to be handled diplomatically."
Dravothrak opened his mouth in a serpentine grin. "I will not lecture, but you will permit me to emphasize the gravity of the situation, yes?"
Alyx nodded. "As we discussed."
The dragon bobbed his head twice, then folded his wings and they plummeted from the sky. Their cloaks, scarves, and blankets snapped in the rush of air. Frost nibbled at Alexia's cheeks and her eyes watered. She held on tightly to the leather riding harness and watched the tear-blurred castle grow ever larger.
Then, suddenly, Dravothrak spread his wings again and beat hard with them. His head came up, his tail went down, and his mighty legs absorbed the impact of his landing. Snow billowed up around them, as if they were caught in the heart of a blizzard, then Dravothrak breathed a fiery plume that reduced the snow to steam.
Alyx and the others slid from the dragon's back in the fog, to the accompaniment of screams and harsh curses. Then, Perrine descended down through the mist. The female Gyrkyme, who had been Alexia's lifelong companion, landed lightly, furling her raptor's wings. Tall and slender like an elf, but covered with down and feathers after the pattern of a falcon, she smiled and hugged her sister.
"King Augustus called the crowns together when I told him you were coming. They were grumbling, but this display silenced the lot of them. Well done, Dranae."
Dravothrak, now having assumed the form of a tall, powerfully built man with dark hair and a full thick beard, bowed his head. "I am glad it was effective." He fastened the red cloak at his throat and gathered it about him to cover his nudity.
Alexia peered into the thinning fog, seeing dim forms moving through it. "Which way?"
Before Peri could answer, a small, green, humanoid creature, with four arms, four glassy wings, two legs, and two antennae above compound eyes, buzzed in through the fog and circled the group. "This way. Qwc knows. Come, come, hurry, hurry." In the blink of an eye he was off again with a ghostly vapor vortex curling in his wake.
Alyx slipped her right hand through the crook of Crow's elbow and followed the Spritha. Dranae and Erlestoke came next, with Resolute and Peri bringing up the rear. Dressed for winter--and most armed for war--the company struck a sharp contrast with those assembled for the council. The guards stationed on the walls and along the passages were outfitted for combat, but Saporicia had clearly sent its best troops northeast to the Murosan border. These soldiers were old or very young--and some were still pale from having seen a dragon land in the courtyard, then vanish in flame and fog.
The royal retainers for the various leaders wore finery that mocked the state of the world. Alyx suppressed a shiver as she imagined whole households planning how they could array their wardrobes to best advantage. While the kings and queens would deliberate, their staffs would battle each other, pressing advantages and wresting concessions. Politics necessitated they look ahead, past Chytrine, to position themselves to take best advantage--even if that positioning might be exactly what allowed Chytrine to take over the world.
Ahead, Qwc hung in the air at each intersection, making the courtiers sent to escort them shrink back. Some did so at a buzzed word, but at least one clawed at his face. The Spritha had spat a smothering wad of webbing at that man, and Alyx's horror was transformed into wicked delight as she recognized the purple face as that of Cabot Marsham, King Scrainwood's aide.
Marsham, his face still sticky with white tendrils, started to snarl, but Erlestoke cut him off with a sharp command. "Back away, dog. You should feel blessed he deigned to notice someone as insignificant as you."
Marsham's chubby face drained immediately of color. He gagged, then turned and darted away, heading up the stairs to which Qwc pointed. The chamberlain slipped twice in his haste, crying out as he barked his shins once, but scrambled on quickly.
Erlestoke laughed. "He looked as if he'd seen a ghost."
Alyx graced him with a raised eyebrow. "You are believed dead, you know."
"Indeed. Shouldn't he have been happier to see me?"
Resolute just growled.
They mounted the broad stone stairs and ascended to the second landing. The short corridor leading east opened into a large room with vaulted ceilings and fanciful murals depicting spring revels. Three large windows at the room's far end admitted a flood of morning light that silhouetted many of the functionaries in the back rows of benches. Toward the front, however, where rulers and their most important advisors gathered behind tables and banners proclaiming their nations, Alexia had no difficulty recognizing faces.
She likewise recognized the expressions which, at first, as they caught sight of Erlestoke, went from shock to guarded delight. Then some, rather quickly, darkened. Others followed, heads turning to confer with companions. Necks craned, heads bobbed, then whispers began to filter back and forth, filling the chamber.
King Fidelius, a small man of middle years with thin grey hair and a withered left arm, opened his strong hand in greeting. "Princess Alexia, it is good to see you. Had we known you were coming sooner, we would have prepared a proper welcome. Your friends I recall from Yslin, save the man in the cloak and this one who, if my eyes do not deceive me, is Prince Erlestoke of Oriosa."
Alyx nodded, drawing off her cloak and scarf. "Your welcome is appreciated, Highness, as is the speed with which you all assembled. We bring you news of great import. This is Kedyn's Crow, and he has accepted the responsibility to make our report."
Crow stepped forward. He'd spent a quarter century traveling with Resolute and waging a private war against Chytrine. Scars crisscrossed his body and old injuries made him ache, but even though the pain of Will's death weighed heavily on him, his shoulders did not slump and his head did not sag wearily. He moved with the strength of a younger man--strength born of a conviction that Chytrine had to be stopped no matter the cost--and seeing that strength brought a smile to Alexia's face.
He made her proud, and that made her love him even more.
Crow slowly drew the mittens from his hands and unbuttoned the sheepskin coat he wore. "My lords and ladies, I bear grave news. In Yslin you were presented with a lad, Will Norrington. He was the fulfillment of the Norrington Prophecy. He was in my care and under my protection. With me and my companions, Will did much good, from Vilwan and Port Gold to Fortress Draconis, Meredo, and Muroso. His courage and spirit can be attested to by thousands.
"Yesterday Will spoke for humanity at the Congress of Dragons on Vael. He spoke eloquently, arguing that the dragons alone should be custodians of the DragonCrown fragments. He argued one of Chytrine's sullanciri to a standstill and when the dragons agreed with him, the sullanciri attempted to murder one of them. Will prevented that murder, but could only do so at the cost of his own life."
Crow's words tightened into a croak as his hands balled. Alexia reached out, closing her hand on his shoulder. She felt the tremor running through him and squeezed.
King Scrainwood slowly rose from behind Oriosa's table. He unfolded himself and straightened in a manner that somehow struck Alexia as wrong, but she could not place why. He moved as a man might, but there was something else there. Something evil, which came through in the venom saturating his words.
"The Norrington is dead? What further proof is needed that you are indeed the traitor, that you are Chytrine's agent? You betrayed heroes an age ago, and you betrayed Will Norrington now." Scrainwood pointed a quivering finger at Alexia. "Come away from him, Princess. To be near him is to be in jeopardy, and to call him friend is to hold a viper to your breast."
Alexia started to mouth a protest, but Crow unballed a scarred fist and laid it on her hand. He gave her a glance full of love and confidence, then hardened his expression and turned to face the crowned heads.
"This ends now, King Scrainwood."
Scrainwood's eyes widened as he opened his arms. "You dare threaten me, here and now? You are evil's agent."
Crow snorted. "And how do I threaten you, King Scrainwood? I have no sword. Is it that you still feel the sting of my slaps on your cheeks? Is it your shame that wounds you, and your memory of it that makes you fear me? Fear rules you, and it infects all of you here. I have never liked you, nor have you ever liked me, and that is the way of the thing. It cannot be allowed, however, to doom the world."
He looked past and around Scrainwood. "For a quarter century there have been two strategies for dealing with Chytrine and her threat to the Southlands. One has been defensive, as exemplified by Fortress Draconis, and perverted by Oriosa's covert acquiescence to Aurolani pressure. Do not be smug. All of you have adopted this strategy to a greater or lesser extent. The fact that you are here, not at the head of armies pushing into Muroso, is further proof that you think this strategy can win.
"Resolute and I, on the other hand, have waged a war against her. We have cost her troops and leaders. We have thwarted plans. We have slowed her advances. We may not have stopped her, but we are only two. As part of our war we sought the Norrington. We plucked him from the slums of Yslin, trained him for his role, watched him assume it and acquit himself well."
Crow's voice tightened a bit, but deepened as well. "One of you dismissed him as gutterkin and a whoreget, yet he won his place in history. While still a youth, he inspired men with a willingness to fight and even die for him, and many did--all in opposition to Chytrine. His death won for us a neutrality among dragons. As a nation they will not fight for Chytrine."
Scrainwood sniffed. "A better man would have won them to our side."
"Silence!" Crow's shout produced astonished expressions on faces long unaccustomed to taking orders. "You are all playing at games. You need to make serious decisions, and you can't do it with posturing, nor with a lack of information, and it is information I bring."
He turned and pointed to Dranae. "This companion of ours is Dravothrak, a dragon in manform. He is our ally, as Chytrine has allies. In the mountains of Sarengul he slew one of her dragons. There are others among dragonkind willing to help us."From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Grand Crusade by Michael A. Stackpole. Copyright © 2003 by Michael A. Stackpole. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.