The men stretched to loosen tired backs and legs. They pulled jerky and dried fruit from their saddlebags. Using the horses for shade, they squatted near each other. “What do you think the elves will do when we arrive?” one of the men asked his companion.
“Don’t know,” the corporal responded. “I don’t trust ‘em, though. They can mess with us any way they want. I don’t like ‘em.”
“Hope Lord Owen knows what he’s doin’ with them,” the other responded.
All of the men were talking quietly among themselves. Owen listened with half an ear as he straightened his clothing and beat the dust of travel from his trousers. He chewed on a piece of jerky at the same time. He dropped the reins, using them to ground-tie his horse. He walked to the stream and filled his water skin with cool water.
Standing up, he wrapped the binding around the neck of the dripping skin.
He absently looked along the line of trees that followed the stream. His eyes paused at movement on the other side. Flashes of color and sparkle dazzled his eyes. Frowning, he looked back at Saleth. The elf was watching him steadily. Owen looked back toward the other side of the trees. He stepped across the stream, using the stones that appeared to have been placed to create a path. He couldn’t remember if they had been there when he’d filled the water skin or not.
He shook his head and pinched his wrist. Yes, he was awake.
HeartStriker, is this real?
As real as you are, the sword answered quietly.
Owen reached the other side of the creek. Pushing through the last edge of brush and trees, he stopped in astonishment.
“Ah…” the breath escaped him in wonderment.
The grasslands on the other side of the trees were filled with white horses whose coats shimmered and sparkled in the sunlight.
No, they weren’t horses and they weren’t white. The sun struck every color from those glittering coats. It was as if they were sprinkled with diamonds. These beings were more slender than any horse though they stood as tall as his charger. Their eyes were huge. Delicate ears swiveled constantly on a head that looked more goat than horse. Their babies bounced and hopped among the grazers.
The movement of a large body pushing through the brush could not turn him from what he watched. Navar joined him at the edge of the trees. Navar snorted.
At his sound, every head jerked up and around in his direction. The creatures flowed together, babies in the center of the group, wary adults facing what they perceived as a threat.
Fairy mounts, used for the Great Hunt, Navar told him, dismissal in his tone. They would eat you as quick as look at you.
No, they would not responded HeartStriker. They sense the magic in his blood and in me. Walk forward, Owen.
Owen obeyed HeartStriker’s request. He started walking toward the herd. What are they called? he asked the Sword of Light.
They are Agni. They have served the elves for millennia.
Owen continued walking. His heart picked up speed. The herd moved forward, many heads tossing in agitation. One of the Agni, larger than the others. pushed to the front as the rest began to circle around Owen. He could feel the magic building, he knew not to what end.
He locked eyes with the leader of the herd. The circling Agni ran faster and faster, raising a cloud of dust around him. With a bugling call, as clear and sweet as a bell, the leader trumpeted. The circling animals stopped as one, turned to the center of the circle as one and bowed to Owen.
He stood, bemused. Keeping his eyes on the leader, he bowed deeply. Some kind of recognition passed between them.
Well done, Lord Owen. HeartStriker and Navar spoke as one.
Owen looked back to the tree line. Navar, Saleth, and Samanach stood watching him.
The shadow of something huge swept over the tableau.
The Agni reacted instantly.
Pushing the babies to the middle again, they grouped themselves in a circle, heads raised to confront the danger. Teeth bared, heads tossing, squeals of anger filled the air.
The Red Dragon glided to a landing between the Agni and Owen’s travel companions. She moved to Owen, her long neck snaking down to his side to claim him as hers. Waves of magical power flowed out from her body.
Owen turned and bowed deeply to her.
The Agni stopped as if frozen in place. Eyes wide, they watched as the Dragon raised her head and roared to power. The whirlwind swept into being around her form, rising into the sky as black as night in a mad swirl of dust and chaff, finally slowly dissipating.
Owen stood firm against the wind.
Aeden, OathKeeper held in her hands, crouched ready to fight beside him.
“Lady, all is well,” he told her, reaching out cautiously to touch her on the shoulder.
Eyes fierce, she looked at the Agni as she slowly straightened.
The leader narrowed his own eyes, shook his head in dismissal and turned his back on both of them. He gave a snorted command and the rest of the herd whirled and galloped away toward the Citadel.
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