Chained to a rock and tossed off a cliff by her boyfriend, Aranya is executed for high treason against the Sylakian Empire. Falling a league into the deadly Cloudlands is not a fate she ever envisaged. But what if she did not die? What if she could spread her wings and fly?
Long ago, Dragons ruled the Island-World above the Cloudlands. But their Human slaves cast off the chains of Dragonish tyranny. Humans spread across the Islands in their flying Dragonships, colonising, building and warring. Now, the all-conquering Sylakians have defeated the last bastion of freedom–the Island-Kingdom of Immadia.
Evil has a new enemy. Aranya, Princess of Immadia. Dragon Shapeshifter.
When Aranya’s eyes cracked open, it was to light upon the stars nestled between Jade’s crescent arms. A night bird flew by overhead. She saw that she wore the remains of her dress, and a mountain of chains.
For the first time in her life, she felt cold.
Torchlight flickered nearby. Drawn by the light, she turned her head on the cold stone. A grim throng rolled into view. Mostly Sylakians, they wore heavy red robes against the pre-dawn cold. She realised where she lay.
The Last Walk.
“We await the hour of judgement.”
Her eyes flicked to Yolathion. He stood ramrod-straight nearby; it was he who had spoken, but his voice had never sounded so devoid of life, Aranya thought. She could not speak. Her mouth was stuffed full of cloth. A rope tied it in place, pulling her lips back cruelly. They would not care for the comfort of a proven enchantress.
All she could do was watch and wait.
She would fly.
Now there was an irony.
Slowly, a perversely exquisite dawn fired the eastern sky. The stars became indistinct. The crowd stirred slightly to allow Beri, Zuziana and Nelthion through to the front. Aranya could not bear what she saw in their faces. She closed her eyes.
Her thoughts were choked with regrets. The dawn, her last dawn, had never seemed so evocative. She feared to watch it.
But when boots tapped the flagstones, approaching her, Aranya opened her eyes. From a distance of twenty feet or more, the Supreme Commander glared at her. It was a cold comfort that he kept such a distance for his safety. Aranya could not have summoned so much as a puff of smoke. Her inner fires were mute.
“My son lives,” he announced.
The crowd murmured. Aranya let out a breath she had not known she was holding.
The Sylakian spat, “But you burned him, Immadian enchantress. You cast the fires of your magic into his face and burned his sight from him. You killed four Sylakian Hammers.” The Supreme Commander addressed the crowd. “The penalty for an enchantress is death. The penalty for burning my son is death. Accordingly, I sentence you, Aranya, Princess of Immadia, to walk the Last Walk until your body is seen to fall into the Cloudlands. May there be nothing left for the vultures to pick over.”
Silently, Yolathion limped to her side. Aranya wondered how badly he was hurt. She had tried to protect him; trying to direct the fire outward while shielding him with her own person. Yolathion untied the rope and pulled the wadding of cloth out of her mouth. He helped her stand up. But he immediately put his dagger to her throat.
Yolathion proclaimed, “Let the last words of the condemned be heard.”
What could she say?
Aranya’s mouth was terribly dry. She rasped, “I regret not killing the Butcher of Jeradia as he so richly deserves.” Well, that certainly captured their attention. “Beri, you were a mother to me when I had none. Zip, a beautiful friend, when I had none. Take care of each other. Please tell my family–” she choked up. What could she tell them? “Tell them how much I love them, and how much I wished I could fly.”
She turned to face the Last Walk.
Yolathion put his hand on her shoulder. At the end of the walkway, Aranya saw a block of stone with a chain attached to it. They really wanted to be sure she’d drop straight into the Cloudlands, she thought. The old stories still held weight. No graceful dive off the edge for her. No enchantress transforming herself into a bird and flying away.
It should have been called the longest walk.
Ten Crimson Hammers processed with her and Yolathion. Perhaps they thought she’d make a break for the rajal pit. Her feet brought her alongside the block of stone. Her body and her mind seemed to belong on different Islands.
Yolathion knelt, clearly in some discomfort, to fit the manacle depending from the stone about her ankles, locking them together. “I’m sorry, Aranya,” he said, unexpectedly.
“Me too. I think I could have loved you, Yolathion. But your loyalty and your heart lie with Sylakia. I could never love that.”
Her words hurt him; she read it in his eyes. Just another regret she would shortly leave behind.
Yolathion lifted her in his arms. Two of his fellows hefted the block.
“On the count of three,” he said. “One … two … three.”
He tossed Aranya over the edge.