Shyela looked down over the congregation of twelve squabbling men. Sitting on a thrown carved mahogany and inlaid with gold and ruby upon the dais she watched with growing disgust. The group had once been united under her, and now they lay scattered and power hungry. One thousand years of humanity had changed them all. The hearts of men are greedy and the years had corrupted them. Shyela alone still belived in the power of her speices. The Change was drawing near and it would bring them a new power. A power that would allow her once mighty people to rise up again and take dominion over all of Antaria.
In a few minutes the millenium would turn and it would be time to cast aside their filthy human skins. The dawn of the new year would bring about the birth of a new species. The men however were undecided. They argued and hesitated until the noise hummed through the cavern where Shyela had made her palace, nearly 200,000 years before.
“Silence!” She commanded.
The small group went quiet immediately though they still shifted nervously. Rising up to her full six foot stature Shyela prepared to address her people. She could remember a time when there would have been thousands gathered at her feet. Now only a dozen remain, all of them male. Her red velvet dress clung to her body like a coating of blood as she paced before them. Above all she was the fairest, and above all she was the most powerful. She knew this, she knew this well.
“The time draws near.” Shyela said calmly. “Soon we will be free.”
“But what if we turn out worse?!” One of the men dared to shout, he knew the others were on his side now.
“Yes! Exactly!” Another called. “Humans already hold dominion over Antaria, we would be best to stay this way and take over from inside the government.”
“We should stay human!” Several cried.
“No!” Shyela screamed. “No! We have failed to become powerful enough in this form, we have failed for a thousand years! It is time to Change! We will become more powerful!”
“You don’t know that, Shyela.” A dark man growled. He was the strongest among the men and most respected. “We could spend the next thousand years as Sheep!”
The congregation started to buzz again. They were all in agreement now.
“I don’t want to be a Rooster for a thousand years again!”
“Or a Dog!”
“Yes, this is the best form we have ever taken. Let us not waste it on chance!”
“We must stay human!”
“I for one will not stand on the pyre tonight.” The dark one, named Orion, declared firmly.
“Fools! Cowards!” Shyela cried. “The ages have made you all afraid, and weak! If our numbers weren’t so small you would not have this disease!”
“That may be true, Shyela, but look around you. Our numbers are small.” Orion bowed deeply. “And as the Great Queen you will not let us touch you to replenish the numbers.”
“You would only pass on your weak blood!” Shyela snapped. She lifted a torch out of its holder near her thrown and raised it above her head. The torch's bright flame was put to shame but the colour of Shyela’s brilliant red hair. “You have followed me for 200 millennia. Trust me now!”
“No! We have trusted you for too long and it has gotten us nowhere!” Orion pushed the other men away from the great pyre in the middle of the cavern. “Go ahead, Great Shyela, give up the powerful form you have. Turn yourself into a Rat and you can gain control of the world through the sewer, where you are most at home.”
Shyela spat at Orion. Taking the torch she climbed to the top of the pyre. When the midnight chime struck she defiantly threw fire down at her feet. The flames licked greedily at the oil soaked wood and at the hem of her velvet dress. She stared coldly at the men who had backed away in fear. When the flames had consumed her the form of a great bird with wings of fire could been seen. The cry of a fantastic eagle split through the silent air and as if it was a cue the flame died out.
For a long while the congregation stared at the heap of ashes. When a crack of thunder shook the very stone beneath their feet the ashes leapt into the air. Swirling madly around the gray dust blinded the men who started to yell and scream in the confusion. When the ash settled the full impact of their mistake became clear.
A dragon so beautiful it was a terror to look upon rose up before them. The scales were as red as the ruby throne and flickered with the light of a thousand torches. The sinuous body spoke of grace and power. Golden horns and claws gave the dragon a look of royalty. Onyx black eyes glared hatefully down at the men.
Shyela had been reborn! She stretched out her membranous wings and roared in triumph. The miraculous recovery was no surprise, even if her form was, for Shyela and the twelve men were the last of a race of Phoenix. Born anew once a millenia from the ashes of the dead. Feared and hunted by man their numbers dwindled, but they still remained every hopeful of gaining control over the lands.
And now, after countless years of waiting the Phoenix had the power of the Dragon!
“Llandra!” Meka cried. “Get back here child!”
“Now, Honey, don’t go screaming your lungs out to the empty wind.” Chuckled her husband. “You know she’ll be back, let her have some fun.”
“But it’s indecent!”
“No one is around to see.”
“I don’t care!” She protested. “If Llandra is ever going to be married she is going to have to start acting like a proper woman!”
“She’s only 15. Let her be free for a while. Let her ride.”
If she tried Llandra could just barely make out her mother’s shrieking over her horse’s pounding hooves. However she didn’t try, she made straight for the forest feeling the power of Takio under her. Takio was the most agile stallion for hundreds of miles around. At seventeen hands high he towered over his young mistress when she was grooming his jet black coat.
In the forest they were as one. Quick as thought Llandra guided him between tall trees, over streams, and into deep meadows of thick grasses. Today was a particularly sunny day, but the fall chill kept the pair from becoming uncomfortable during the hard gallop. Llandra’s green cloak whipped about wildly in the wind and the hem of her dress rose indecently as her mother feared for she refused to sit sidesaddle on her steed. As the trees beside her became blurs she felt the troubles of her home life slipping away. Takio brayed with delighted as he leapt over the five foot stone wall that marked the edge of the farm land. Llandra took the jump as if she herself had flown into the air.
When they came to the azure lake that lay a few miles from the farm Llandra let Takio take a much needed drink. The lake was deep and to one side there was a twenty foot sheer cliff of rock that gave the lake an odd shape. Hoping down Llandra wandered off along the lake shore and picked a flower for her long red hair. At the sound of horse hooves approaching she expected to turn to find Takio about to nuzzle her to get back to the ride. Instead she was greeted by the harsh voice of Zapar. Zapar was older, almost eighteen, with a spotty complexion and wiry frame. His fine clothing and black velvet cape displayed his family's wealth contemptibly.
“Why has such a lovely flower place a weed, in comparison, in her hair?”
“Get back on your mule and go away, Zapar.” Llandra mocked.
“Mule?!” Zapar spat. “Insolent female! If you knew your place, girl, you wouldn’t speak to me or my horse like that! My father...”
“Your father doesn’t scare me!”
“My father owns the land your filthy peasant family scratches a meal from.” Zapar dismounted and seized Llandra by the shoulders, she tried to back away but the lake prevented her. “That means my father owns your family, and what he owns I own!”
“Don’t touch me, Zapar!”
“I’ll touch what I like.” Zapar hissed lecherously. He pulled Llandra close and forced her into a kiss.
“Takio!” Llandra cried when she could breath again.
Takio was there in a flash. Rearing up on his back legs the black stallion was a menacing figure. Zapar’s bay gelding neighed and backed away. Llandra forced herself free of Zapar’s icy grip and leapt up on Takio’s bare back, she had never liked saddles and neither had Takio. She gripped the reins and spun Takio around. Without so much as a nudge the dark horse exploded into a full gallop.
Zapar quickly caught his bay, mounted, and chased after the fleeting pair. Llandra’s blood pounded in her ears as she heard Zapar’s horse drawing closer. He had been getting braver and more desperate as she had grown older. Now that she become more or less a woman he had been hounding her daily. When they reached a meadow clearing Zapar’s lighter horse started to close the gap between them.
Knowing that she’d never out run Zapar, Llandra chose to out maneuver him. She pulled the reins hard to the left and Takio turned around like a bird in flight and plunged back into the forest. Zapar had gone a hundred feet before he could get his bay to turn around. Once in the forest Llandra steered Takio in a weaving path through the thick trees and under low branches.
Zapar followed more slowly waiting for another break in the trees to give him the chance to catch up, he didn’t have near the control or confidence through the trees. Llandra had made the mistake of moving up towards the foot hills of the Tri-Peak Mountains so Zapar got his wish. As the trees thinned he put on speed and came closer once again. By this time both horses were frothing at the mouth and their heavy hooves ripped up the soft loamy soil.
Galloping along the top of the cliff above the lake Llandra realized that she no longer had a chance at out pacing Zapar’s bay. At Llandra’s command Takio stopped dead and whipped his massive body around to face the on coming bay. Zapar’s face lit up with surprise. He pulled at his horse’s reins so hard that the froth on the sides of its mouth turned pink with blood. The bay screeched to a stop ten feet in front of Llandra.
“Giving up so soon?” He sneered.
Llandra didn’t answer, she tugged Takio’s reins to the right and gave him a sharp kick. Without a second’s hesitation Takio followed orders and sailed off the edge of the cliff. Twenty feet later horse and rider plunged into the deep lake. Zapar scrambled off his horse and looked over the edge to see that Llandra was still on Takio’s back and that he was swimming to shore.
“I’ll still be waiting for you when you get home, Llandra.” Zapar got on his abused horse and forced it at top speed toward the farm.
Bendel woke around mid day. He was getting old and he knew it. After shuffling into his blue robe he paid a few minutes of attention to his slightly matted gray hair, although after all these years he still hadn’t grown a beard. Walking over to the kitchen caused his flutter-cat to swoop down from the cottage rafters on purple feathered wings. The flying cat hovered in the air in front of old wizard purring and whining for food.
“Good morning, Ciro.”
“Yes, yes, I know, it is far past your breakfast time. Forgive an old man.”
“Thank you.” Glancing over at the calendar to see just how the year was coming along Bendel froze. “Great Yapar! It’s only three days till the new milennia!”
Ciro flew effortless back to his rafter, he knew now that he’d have to catch his own breakfast. Bendel rushed over to his desk and started rummaging through the scrolls. He tossed paper after paper aside. Finally he opened the desk and found the scroll he was in search for.
Bendel lit a candle on his desk with nothing more than an intense look. With the added light he began to read through the scroll. Taking out a quill he wrote some calculations down on a scrap piece of parchment. Every now and then he would look back at the calendar to make sure he wasn’t going senile. Ciro plopped down on his desk and played with the working quill.
“This means trouble, Ciro.” Bendel muttered.
When he done the calculations several times over and come to the same conclusion the wizard snatched his staff and a sack. He haphazardly threw food, clothing, a few bottles containing different colored liquids, an assortment of packets filled with powders, and a handful of charms into the sack. The bag weighed no more than it had empty thanks to a quick spell.
“Come along, Ciro.” Bendel called. “We must warn the King!”
“Yes, now. It is important.” Bendel pointed at the calendar with his staff. “Soon it will be the Year of the Dragon!”
Llandra was shaking with cold and the aftermath of adrenaline by the time she and Takio reached the final wall before home. Takio automatically picked up speed as he neared the wall and despite the day of vigorous exercise he leapt over it gracefully. Llandra had Takio approached the house slowly, she did not relish having to explain to her mother why she was soaking wet.
When the house was in sight another, less pleasant, sight came into view. Zapar’s bay horse was tied up outside and was calmly nibbling on the flowers in her mother’s garden. Llandra hadn’t thought she could get any colder but suddenly a chill cut her right down to the bone. She knew what Zapar was up to. In a month Llandra would turn sixteen and would be eligible for marriage. Her family couldn’t refuse him even if they wanted to, and she knew her mother would never even dream of refusing him.
Takio started to shift nervously when Llandra didn’t make any move to take him to the barn. Llandra took the hint, but when she got there she didn’t take off his halter. She had made her decision and it involved riding again. Llandra snuck up to her room and crawled in through the open window. As quite as a church mouse she slipped off her wet dress and crawled into a dry one. She’d have to take her wet cloak because it was the only one she owned. Taking a shoulder sack from the closet she filled it with clothing. After a moment of debate she stuffed her flute into the sack. Lastly she dug her purse out from under her bed. She only had a few gold Meckels, but it was better than nothing.
Once back out in the barn she added a horse brush and Takio’s show halter to her sack. The show halter was silver in colour with blue knot work on it. Llandra had worked for months to buy it and she wasn’t going to be parted with it now. She gave Takio a quick rub down with a towel and added that to the over stuffed sack as well.
Llandra jumped back on Takio and faced him back towards the woods. Takio almost refused, but he trusted his mistress. Avoiding the side of the house with the living room windows the pair slipped off into the gathering night. When they reached the wall both Llandra and Takio balked.
“Am I really going to do this?” Llandra asked herself. “Where will I go?” She thought about what had happened that afternoon and hardened her resolve. “Anywhere but here!” She answered herself out loud. She patted Takio’s neck. “Can you make it over the wall one more time, boy?”
It felt like he understood her question as he started to run towards the wall. For the last time he vaulted over the wall that separated the farm from the Wild World.
It was dangerous to ride fast through the woods at night and Takio was tired from his long day of riding. Llandra rode hard anyway, she wanted to put as much distance between herself and Zapar as she could. When morning came and she wasn’t home he would be out looking for her.
Llandra could imagine the fury on her mother’s face when she finally found the wet discarded dress in the bedroom. She knew her mother wouldn’t feel an ounce of sorrow or worry. She would just rattle and rage about how ungrateful her brat daughter was. Llandra felt no regret for leaving her mother. In fact she would have run off before if it wasn’t for her father. Llandra felt a pang of conscious as she thought of him. He would miss her greatly and vice versa. Suddenly Llandra was overcome by guilt for the selfishness of her act. She decided that she would go to the city and when she had made enough money to buy her family’s land and freedom she would come back. Then she could stay with her family and be safe from Zapar.
The only foreseeable problem was getting to the city itself. Llandra had only been there once as a child and all she remembered was that it took many days to get there. In fact as she and Takio rode on through the woods she wasn’t even sure she was heading in the right direction.
Llandra was jarred out of her thoughts when Takio stumbled on an exposed root. He didn’t fall, but he did stop. Llandra was about to urge him on when she noticed how his muscles were shivering beneath her thighs.
“Poor Takio. I’m sorry.” Llandra dismounted. “I’ve worked you too hard today, haven’t I? I’m just scared. We’re on our own now Takio, just you and me. Come on, there are some caves near by.”
Caves riddled the hills in this part of the ancient forest and provided shelter for all sorts of creatures. Llandra approached one large enough for herself and Takio very slowly. Usually the more open caves did not have permanent residents, it was the caves that went deep underground that were dangerous. They held yathors, kittlies, and worse. Llandra knew that Takio could smell any of these animals and would warn her if this cave was not safe to sleep in.
Takio hesitated at the low cave mouth and sniffed loudly at the stale air. Satisfied that no one was home he walked inside. Llandra followed and found that the cave only went a few yards back, just large enough for the two of them. Takio was so tired he laid down immediatly. Laying down against him as a pillow Llandra fell asleep in the space between two breaths.