The endless pursuit dragged on and on and on. Hest was sickened by it. It was not that he felt any sympathy for the creature they hunted. It was the utter boredom spiked with sudden uncontrollable danger that roiled his belly.
The Chalcedean and his fellows were determined to take the dragon, to harvest blood, scale, eyes, flesh, tongue, liver and spleen. And whatever other bits of her they salivated over each night as he waited on them at the galley table. Tonight, the Chalcedean and his cohorts were full of wild optimism. They slammed their mugs on the table for emphasis and praised their own cleverness and courage in persevering so long. The dragon was theirs, and with her death, fame and glory would come to them. They would kill her, plunder her body and go home to fame and riches and, sweetest of all, safety for themselves and their families. The Duke would cease his threats and shower them with gifts and favours. Cherished sons long held hostage in horrific conditions would be restored to them.
So they spoke by night when darkness forced them to cease their drudging hunt and tie up for the night. By dawn, they would once more stalk the dragon. The damned beast refused to die. She trudged away from them, day after day and possibly long into the night. Each day, the impervious ships battled the current until they caught up with her. Twice she had lain in wait for them and sprung out in a wild attempt to capsize their vessels. She had splintered oars, and eaten two rowers who had fallen or been flung overboard by her attacks. She seemed to take great pleasure in crushing them slowly in her jaws as they shrieked in agony.
It had not discouraged the Chalcedean. Lord Dargen was relentless.
Captives had been taken from below decks to replace the rowers who had been lost, chained to oars as if they were slaves. The merchants and Traders were poor replacements for the work-hardened slaves and sailors that had perished. Yet the Chalcedean and his followers seemed not to care that nineteen of twenty arrows shot at the dragon either missed or splashed uselessly into the river. If the twentieth one loosened a scale or stuck for even a moment in a tender part of her body, they roared and screeched victoriously.
Hest did not see why they put so much effort into it. It seemed plain to him that the dragon was dying. Daily she looked more dilapidated. She was obviously incapable of flight. She carried one of her wings partially open at an odd angle. Her colours were faded and the smell of her was terrible, a stench of rotten meat. Rousted from wherever she had finally taken rest at night, she now put most of her energy into staying out of range of their arrows. Sometimes she sought refuge in the reed-beds at the swampy edge of the river. Lying down, she became almost invisible to them. Then Lord Dargen would force some of his men over the side to harry and taunt her into showing herself. Some of those men became food. Privately, Hest believed that if the Chalcedean would stop feeding his henchmen to the dragon, she would sooner succumb to her injuries and die.
But he did not say so. He did not wish to end up on the end of an oar. Yet he feared that, at the rate Lord Dargen was spending men, it would be inevitable. The Chalcedean seldom gave him an order any more. Hest kept himself busy and out of the man’s sight, making every effort to be both useful and invisible. For hours every day, he carried out menial tasks, wiping tables, stirring porridge or soup, and any other work he could find to occupy himself. He had, he thought bitterly, adapted himself into the ideal slave, endlessly labouring without need of direction.
The only thing worse than the constant drudgery were the times of absolute terror when the dragon attacked the ship. Those could happen at any moment, he had discovered. Pestered and poked enough, she would turn and lash out. Her roars lacked spirit, more the response of a cornered rat than an enraged predator. Yet even so, every attack damaged one ship or another and often enough, claimed a life.
He jerked at the sound of his shouted name, and the men gathered at the table roared with laughter. The Chalcedean did not. He was scowling, displeased with his servant. Hest tried not to cower. He had several reasons to fear. He had stolen two pieces of bacon that morning on the pretence of cleaning the pan. And he had purloined a water-stained cloak that one of the Chalcedeans had thrown to the deck after the dragon had given them an unexpected drenching. It served as his bedding now and he was pathetically grateful for its thin comfort. But now, as dread rose in him, he cursed himself for a fool. He had not been that cold nor were the deck planks that hard. That discomfort was not worth his life!
The Chalcedean’s cheeks and nose were red with drinking, or perhaps just from recent splashes of river water. They all looked the worse for wear by now and Hest dared not imagine how he appeared. His hands and arms were scalded red to the elbows just from his cleaning tasks. But his master only took a heavy brass key from the pouch at his belt and said, ‘Go to the second aft hatch and bring us back that little keg of Sandsedge brandy.’ He looked around the table at his men, swaying slightly. ‘I don’t think it’s too early for us to celebrate. Tomorrow she will surely fall to us. That spear from Binton went deep today, did it not? Did you see how her blood bubbled as it met the water? Dragon blood! Soon enough we’ll have plenty of it. So emptying the keg to hold it tonight might be a wise course of action!’
Two men cheered, but the others at the table shook their heads. Hest’s heart sank as one of them snatched the key back from him and stuffed it back into his master’s pouch. Anger blossomed on the Chalcedean’s face and Hest knew he would bear the brunt of it. ‘Your master is drunk. Only a fool celebrates a victory before it is in his hands. Take him back to his bed for the night. Tomorrow, perhaps, you will have to bring us that cask.’
Lord Dargen rose unsteadily. His hand hovered over one of his vicious little knives. ‘You are not in command here, Clard. It is something for you to remember.’
The man did not lower his gaze. ‘I know it well, Lord Dargen. You lead us, and you have borne the hardship of doing so. But I follow you, and not the wine in your belly!’ He grinned as he added this, and after a moment, the fury melted from the Chalcedean’s face. He nodded slowly and relieved smiles broke on the faces of the other men at the table.
Lord Dargen turned to Hest. ‘I am going to bed. Take a candle and precede me, Bingtown Trader. When we go back to Chalced, perhaps I will make you my valet. I have never had a valet, but you appear well suited to the task. As long as you keep your hands to yourself.’
The men at the table roared with laughter. Fury burned in his heart but Hest bent his mouth in an approximation of an appreciative smile. Dismay that such a fate could await him warred with hatred for the man. Would it be much worse to be eaten by the dragon or drowned in the river? As he sheltered their candle from the wind on the way back to the deckhouse and his stateroom, he wished he had the courage to push the drunk overboard, even as his wiser self reminded him of how his companions would react to the loss of their leader.
Death was not far away. They knew it, the carrion eaters and blood drinkers, and they swarmed around her. Some did not wait, but darted forward to try for a chunk of her flesh or the opportunity to latch onto one of her wounds. She longed to shake them off, to dart her head down and make her predators her own meal, but she did not. Let them come. Tintaglia moved in silence, ignoring the swarms of small vampire worms and the fish that kept trying to take a bite of her. They might feed on her tonight; they would almost certainly feast on her tomorrow. But no human would draw her blood or slice her scales free; no human would lay her belly open and take her heart with bloody hands. No. If she could not escape them, she would at least ensure that they joined her in death.
She had taken some rest earlier in the day, if it could be called that. As evening fell, she had found a gap in the forest wall and crept back among the trees. She could not go far, but she had stiffly wound her aching body among the trunks and tree roots and, for a short time, closed her eyes.
That had surprised her. Of late, when she found a place and a moment to sleep, exhaustion dragged her under into a dark cavern that could scarcely be called rest. More like a bite of death, she thought to herself. But that brief rest had brought her a gobbet of an idea. Some ancient ancestral memory had uncoiled in her mind and when she awoke, it awaited her. Ships had a vulnerable point. Every ship needed a rudder, be it a sweep or a steering oar. Destroy those, and neither vessel could manoeuvre well.
She had been stupid to flee them, to let them attack and chase her. The only times she had gained any blood from them were when she had lain in wait. But they had learned to anticipate those ambushes. She had attacked them when they were awake and alert, their arms ready to hand, and the light helping them to see. Now as she paced slowly and silently through the water back toward the ships, she hissed in silent satisfaction. The lights of the anchored vessels beckoned her, spilling a pale betrayal of their silhouettes onto the river’s face. But she would be almost invisible to them, a black shape in the black water.
She did not deceive herself. This was her last bid at survival. If she did not destroy or at least disable her foes tonight, she did not think she could live through another day of their harrying. The infection from her original wound seemed to have spread to all the minor injuries they had dealt her since then. She was not healing; daily her injuries worsened and she weakened. If she could only rest, make a kill, eat and rest, then perhaps she could muster the strength to plod on toward Kelsingra. Flight was beyond her now. She could scarcely move one wing, and the thought of springing into the air, snapping it open and beating her way up into the sky seemed no more than a long-ago dream.
They had moored their boats with their noses upstream. She would have to pass them as silently as possible, then turn and attack. She hoped to disable both ships and then flee before they could retaliate. It was not a dragon’s way of fighting, to strike and then run, but she was not living in ordinary times for dragons. She carried within her eggs that would mature and eventually be ready for laying. She had caught the scent of dragons on the one damaged vessel; there was a faint chance that there was a colony of viable dragons at Kelsingra. But it was hard to believe and until she knew, she felt that the fate of her race rested on her. If these stupid men so bent on killing her succeeded, they might well have eradicated dragons for ever.
The thought steeled her resolve. She would disable their ships and escape. And when she was healed, she would return to destroy not just them but the evil nest that had bred them. She had heard their speech and recognized words from her ancient memories. I know where you spawn, she thought at them. I and my offspring will fall upon your land and leave not one of your nests standing. We will feast on your kine and your children, and foul your drinking places with carrion. You will be the ones eradicated, and no memory of your ways will descend from you.
She was so close now that she could hear their muffled voices and stupid laughter. Laugh well, for a final time, she thought at them. Her path would take her between the two moored vessels, in water deep enough to conceal her and shallow enough that her claws would not lose their grip on the river bottom. She bent her legs slightly, crouching so that only her eyes and nostrils remained above the water, and began her stealthy approach.
Lord Dargen breathed out the fumes of Hest’s own wine as he staggered along beside him. He gripped Hest’s shoulder and leaned on him, cursing him when his stumbling feet jostled him against the railing. ‘Stop. Stop!’ he commanded Hest suddenly. ‘Need to piss. Stay and watch, Bingtown Trader, and see the weapon a Chalcedean bears.’ He was, Hest thought, very drunk indeed.
He kept his grip on Hest’s shoulder as he staggered to the railing and Hest had perforce to move with him. He moved aside in distaste as the man made lewd comments about Hest’s supposed desire for him and Hest’s lack of endowment. The night was not peaceful. Animals called to one another in the nearby forest and ghostly gleams of luminescent hanging moss made mad ghosts in the trees. The yellow lamplight from the windows of the ship fled the vessel in long bars of light on the river’s face. A ripple in the water’s surface caught Hest’s eye. He stared, wondering what disturbed the slack current between the two vessels. A large gleaming eye glared up at him and then was lidded abruptly.
‘The dragon!’ Hest shouted. ‘She is right alongside us! The dragon is in the river!’
‘Idiot!’ The Chalcedean cursed him. ‘What is frightening you? A river pig? A floating log?’ Lord Dargen staggered to Hest’s side and looked down. ‘There is nothing there! Just water and a coward’s imagining.’ He seized Hest’s wrist and with shocking strength dragged him closer. ‘Look down, Bingtown coward! What do you see? Nothing but black water! I should throw you in so you can see for yourself!’ With his free hand, he seized the back of Hest’s neck and shoved him forward so that he leaned far out over the railing. Hest shouted wordlessly and struggled, but even drunk, the Chalcedean had a madman’s strength. Worse, as Hest stared, a gleaming blue eye looked up at him from the depths. The rest of the creature was invisible, cloaked in the black water, but he knew it was the dragon that looked up at him with hatred. And waited.
‘It’s there! Look for yourself, there! See the eye, look!’ His voice rose and cracked into a woman’s squeal.
The Chalcedean laughed, drunk and guttural. ‘Over you go, Bingtowner!’
The boat gave a sudden wild heave sideways. The shrieking of splintered wood competed with the harsh cries of the men in the galley and the terrified screams of the hostages trapped below decks. Hest clutched at the railing and a wordless scream escaped him. The Chalcedean staggered free of him shouting, ‘Arms! The dragon attacks us. Kill her, kill her now!’
As the boat tipped again, the Chalcedean lord was flung against the railing. For a long moment he clung there, and Hest dared to hope to see him tip over the edge. But the next onslaught from the dragon flung the ship in the other direction, and he slammed against the ship’s house. ‘Attack!’ he roared, fury and fear diminishing his drunkenness.
The door of the galley was flung open and men poured out onto the deck, weapons in their hands.
‘I wish the city would light itself here,’ Rapskal complained.
Privately, Thymara agreed with his sentiment even as she recognized the impossibility. Even this magical city had limits. Only certain bands of metal woke to light, and not all of them still worked. How they worked at all was still a great mystery, but she now recognized Elderling magical works when she saw them. And in this part of the city, they seemed to have chosen to use it as little as possible. Almost, she remembered why. She turned away from the memory tug. The statues in the nearby squares were only statues, silent and unmoving. They were of lovingly worked stone, but no shining silver threads of memory gleamed in them.
The keepers had gathered at the well plaza to bend their backs to clearing the debris. Alise was there and, for the first time in weeks, she carried her case of paper and pencils. She seemed to take immense satisfaction in the new supplies that Leftrin had brought her. She clambered through the stack of broken timbers and sketched a copy of the lettering on one. The timbers had been amazingly well preserved, and Thymara had heard her speculate to Leftrin that the thick glossy paint that coated them had something to do with it. Leftrin had grudgingly agreed even as he muttered his disappointment that his work crew was here instead of applying their efforts to reinforcing Tarman’s dock.
Thymara stretched her aching back and tried to see the plaza as Alise did. It was not easy to mentally piece it together. A graceful and lavishly decorated roof of carved wood supported on stout wooden pillars had sheltered the walled well at one time. The roof had been pyramidal, and painted green and gold and blue. It had given way to time and possibly violence. Carson had pointed out that some of the timbers were torn while others had rotted. Mixed in with the timbers were chains and pulleys, the remnants of a windlass that had once cranked up a large bucket from the depths. Carson had directed the keepers to pull the metal parts to the side and to preserve every piece they found. ‘We may be able to reassemble at least part of it,’ he said.
Leftrin had looked at the heaped sections of broken chain and whistled low. ‘Can the well have been that deep?’
And to that question Mercor had replied, ‘The level of Silver receded over time. It was, indeed, that deep.’
The dragons had all gathered to watch them in a hopeful shifting circle. They came and went as hunger drove them away to hunt, gorge and sleep, but they always returned to the plaza as evening was shifting into night rather than seeking the baths or the sand wallows. Thymara privately reflected that this was the most time any of the dragons had spent with their Elderlings in weeks.
The palpable anticipation of the dragons had infected all of the keepers. Every one of them, as well as Leftrin’s entire crew, had put aside all other work to labour at clearing the site. Leftrin had insisted that a skeleton crew must remain aboard his beloved liveship, but the crewmen had alternated duties so that each one had spent some time at the well plaza. Big Eider’s incredible strength had been indispensible to moving the larger pieces of timber, while Hennesey and Skelly had sorted usable lengths of chain from short sections. Thymara had marked well how Hennesey grinned as he worked, jesting and good-natured as she had never seen him before. Perhaps it had something to do with how Tillamon, well attired in Elderling dress now, was always the one to bring him water and to stand beside him asking earnest questions as he affably explained all to her. Tillamon was not pretty; her scaling and the wattles along her jaw reminded Thymara more of an armoured toad from the Rain Forest rather than a graceful Elderling. But then, Hennesey with his scars and work-roughened hands was not a gem of masculine beauty. And neither of them seemed to care much what anyone else thought of them so long as they were pleased with one another. Tall, slender Alum looked more out of place as he struggled to find tasks in Skelly’s vicinity while enduring the solemn scrutiny of every other crew member. Bellin in particular watched him with measuring eyes and a flat mouth.
And so the long work day had gone, with Alise scribbling and the others sorting and moving broken things. Before long, a round hole, bigger across than a tall man’s height, gaped up at them from the centre of the simple plaza. The remains of a brick wall encircled it. The well was wedged full of more wreckage. ‘Going to have to rig a hoist to clear that,’ Swarge observed dourly. ‘Almost looks like it was stuffed down there apurpose,’ he opined, and Carson had agreed with several colourful profanities added.
It had not just fallen; debris had been deliberately packed into the well until it lodged there. Even after a tripod of salvaged timbers had been erected over the well mouth, the task of removing it included breaking it free before it could be hauled up out of the mouth. As the level of debris receded, Leftrin insisted that any keeper climbing into the hole must wear a harness and have a tender. ‘No telling when that wreckage could all give way and fall in, Sa knows how deep. Don’t want a keeper or crew-hand going down with it.’
And so the hard work of clearing the packed wreckage had begun. From dawn until dark the keepers toiled, and all the while the dragons had watched, pacing eagerly and sometimes crowding so close that keepers were forced to plead, with much flattery, for them to move back and give them all room to work. Even as night stole the colours from the sky, the dragons clustered there. Some merely stood; others prowled as if they expected game to erupt from the well shaft. Spit nosed through the heaped piles of chain, undoing most of a day’s work. Carson heaved a great sigh. ‘Dragon. Leave off that, unless you want it to take us even longer to solve this puzzle.’
Spit stopped his rummaging and lifted his head. His eyes gleamed. ‘Silver is everything. In traces we gain it when we drink from the river or eat prey that has done so. It is threaded through the stones and bones of this place, and moves deep beneath the earth here.’ His words were measured and spoken calmly. ‘All creatures that live here gain some Silver from what they eat and drink, and once dragons had to be content with that. We knew that the prey of this land and the waters of this land were more rejuvenating to us than anywhere else we hunted. We heard each other more clearly when we hunted here, and we could hear humans as well …’ His words trailed off and it felt to Thymara as if the night darkened around them.
‘Spit?’ Carson asked as the extraordinary flow of thought dwindled and ceased. He was not the only one staring at the mean little silver. Spit was standing stock still, staring sightlessly at the crumpled walls of the old well. The silence stretched.
Mercor broke it. ‘I feel that Spit spoke true. I cannot remember all the events he spoke of, but what I can remember fits with what he said.’
‘Give me that!’ Carson commanded suddenly. He advanced on the small dragon and peered at him sternly. After a long pause, Spit’s jaws opened slightly. A length of chain dangled from his mouth, and then spooled out to clank to the stones of the plaza. Carson crouched down to examine it but did not touch it. ‘What just happened?’ he demanded of no one and everyone.
Mercor blew air from his nostrils. ‘There must have been a trace of Silver left on the chain, and Spit found it.’
‘Only a tiny bit,’ Spit admitted blissfully. ‘I smelled it. And I took it while the rest of you were standing and staring like cattle.’ His satisfaction was poisonous.
‘Now there’s the Spit we know,’ Carson muttered, and then he and the other keepers dodged away as the other dragons surged forward to investigate the well wreckage. But their snorting and shuffling of the chains and broken timbers evidently yielded nothing to them. They dispersed slowly, going back to their watch, and Thymara knew that every keeper shared her wonder. If a tiny amount of Silver could work so great a change in Spit, even temporarily, what would a flowing supply of it do for the dragons? And what would they be willing to do for it?
Sintara had visited the work site no less than three times. She had spoken little to Thymara but radiated approval at how hard the girl was working to clear the well. Thymara resented how the dragon’s enthusiasm could warm and energize her, but could not resist it. She knew she worked harder when the blue queen was watching over her. She was not the only one. Even Jerd had come to lend a hand with an enthusiasm she seldom showed for hard labour on a chilly day. Thymara had avoided her, preferring to work alongside Tats and Rapskal. It warmed her in a different way to see how easy they were with one another now. Tats had evidently been sincere about setting his jealousy aside, and Rapskal had never shown signs of feeling any. Could it be that easy, she wondered, and found that she hoped so. She had been able to relax and be more herself. When they paused in late afternoon to eat a simple meal that blessedly included hot tea with sugar and hardtack as well as their perpetual smoked meat, Jerd had strolled by behind them and made a smiling remark that the three of them seemed to have found something to enjoy together.
Thymara had let it go by and told herself that she was proud of having done so.
But with night coming on and the cold rising from the earth to chill her hands and face, she wanted only to go home. Yes, home, she affirmed to herself. Her cosy room with her small hoard of personal items was home now. Clearing the well would have to wait for tomorrow and daylight, she thought to herself, but the others did not seem to share her desire for rest. Carson and Big Eider and Leftrin had moved to the well’s edge and were staring down into it.
‘Too dark to work any more tonight,’ Leftrin declared.
‘I’m too cold to do more right now,’ Tats called up from the depths.
Kase and Boxter were on the line for the hoist. As they pulled him up to the lip, Nortel and Rapskal were standing by to grasp his harness and swing him to sure footing. Even through his Elderling scaling, his face was red with cold and his hands looked like claws: Rapskal had to untie the knots of his harness.
As Tats stepped clear, he added, ‘I think we’re nearly there. That last chunk of timber you hauled up, the one with the piece of chain attached to it? After you hauled it out of the way, I felt around and there was a partial hole. There’s still some clearing to do, but I think there’s only two more chunks blocking it. After we jerk them out, we’ll have a clear way to the bottom of the shaft.’
‘Was there Silver at the bottom?’ Veras asked eagerly. Her nostrils were flared and the spikes around her neck stood out like a ruffle. Jerd stood by her queen dragon, her face echoing the question.
‘Can you reach it?’ Sintara demanded. She pushed to the front of the circle and, ignoring Leftrin’s shout to be careful of his hoist, stalked over to peer down the hole. ‘I can’t see it,’ she said after a few moments. ‘But I think I smell it!’
‘The wreckage smells of Silver. That’s all.’ Spit was pessimistic, as always. ‘All the Silver wells have gone dry, and we are doomed. I’m glad I took what I found on that chain.’
Heeby gave a mournful call, and Rapskal dropped the harness he had been holding to run to her side. ‘No, my beauty, my darling. We are not giving up. Far from it!’ He spun back to face the men standing by the shaft. ‘Can we not lower a light of some kind? To give the dragons an answer tonight?’
Despite the deepening night and the cold, the attempt had been made. It had taken several tries. The first torch they dropped landed on the blockage and rested there, burning and blocking their view of anything below it. But by its light, they dropped two more torches, and one fell through the gap.
Thymara had lain on her belly, part of a circle of keepers peering down the hole, as the first burning torch fell. It briefly lit the gleaming walls. The shaft was perfectly circular and smooth: she saw no sign of individual bricks facing it. The flames made a shimmering reflection as they fell. And fell. Thymara was impressed with how deep her fellow keepers had descended to clear the blockage. She glanced over at Tats. ‘I couldn’t go down into the darkness like you did. I just couldn’t.’
Rapskal was on the other side of her. ‘Surely you could,’ he asserted quietly. His words irritated her, but she could not think why. Usually, when he said she was stronger or braver than she thought she was, she felt flattered. But not tonight, looking down into blackness.
‘I could, perhaps, but I wouldn’t,’ she countered, and he was silent.
When the third torch fell through the gap Tats had seen, it seemed to fall forever. But it did not go out.
It was keen-eyed Hennesey who said, ‘There’s something silvery down there. But not much, I don’t think. I see what might be a bucket turned on its side. But it’s not floating and neither is the torch. Looks like it’s resting on the bottom. The bucket is what I can mostly see. It’s huge.’
‘Why so large a bucket?’ Thymara wondered aloud.
‘Big enough for a dragon to drink from,’ Rapskal asserted quietly.
In the uneven, flickering light they studied what they saw at the bottom of the shaft. Carson summed it up: ‘Looks like the well filled up with sediment and went dry, and then someone broke the mechanism and dumped it down there, blocking the shaft. If there’s any Silver down there still, it’s not standing visible. I’m not sure this is worth our time.’ He gave a weary sigh and stretched. ‘My friends, I think we should give this up.’
‘Clear the rubble away.’
‘It can be dug deeper again. Elderlings can go down that hole.’
‘Can any of the Silver be brought to the surface?’
The dragons trumpeted their anxious queries. Thymara felt their longing for the precious stuff. It was like a thirst for water, only deeper.
‘NO!’ Spit’s furious roar drowned out all others. ‘Must have the Silver! We must! Kill you if you stop trying!’
Mercor slowly moved until he stood between Spit and the keepers. He favoured him with a long, black stare. The small silver dragon lowered his head until his muzzle pointed at the ground. He hissed low but he also stepped back.
‘Dragons don’t just want the Silver. They need it,’ Thymara said quietly. The knowledge had simply risen in her, some common bit of Elderling lore. But her words were spoken into the shocked lull that followed Spit’s outburst, and all seemed to hear them. The keepers waited, bewildered by the intensity of the dragons’ response until at last Mercor spoke, his words measured and slow. As he often did, he ignored Spit’s outburst.
‘Once, there were places in the river where the Silver ran just beneath the water. And dragons could get what they needed for themselves. There were seasons when it ran shallow, and sometimes, after an earthquake, one place would lose its Silver, but we would scent it out in another. It was precious stuff, and the best seeps were protected jealously by the strongest drakes.’
He was silent for a time, as if he sought the most ancient of memories. Kalo made a deep chuffing sound, a territorial warning. Thymara had never heard any dragon make such a sound before but instantly recognized what it was. Baliper, who so seldom spoke, added, ‘Many a bloody battle was fought for a Silver seep. Dragons were less touched by humans then. We were different creatures.’
‘A savage time,’ Mercor agreed, but he sounded almost wistful for such conflict. ‘We made few Elderlings then … only singers, I think. But some settled here, brought by their dragons. They made a little village. They did not go near the seeps or know of Silver. It was not for them. But then, after a quake much stronger than any we recalled, Silver rose in one of the human-dug wells. The first humans who discovered it died from touching it. But the dragons that ate their bodies became powerful of mind. It was a pure, true flow of Silver, much better than any we had ever tasted. All learned to drink long and deep of the pure Silver pulled up from that well. We began to speak with humans and to use the power of the Silver to shape them into forms more suitable to attend us. They became true Elderlings. From dragons, they gained the power of the Silver, and they built this place, a city for dragons and Elderlings to share. When another quake closed that well, our Elderlings found other sources for us. Some lasted a long time, while others failed quickly. I do not have a memory of how or when this Silver well was dug. But I do have ancestral recollection that once this well near brimmed with Silver.
‘Here a dragon could come and drink his fill. And that was well, for the Silver seeps grew less predictable and harder to find. At great risk to themselves, our Elderlings dug this well bigger and deeper, and built a kiosk to shelter the well. As the Silver receded, it became more and more difficult to bring it to the surface, but they found ways to manage it. Wells were made deeper, this one in particular. The Silver from this well seemed to ebb and flow with the seasons, sometimes shallow, sometimes flowing. Other, lesser Silver wells in this area eventually went dry. But this one remained, always, and so it became our treasure.’
Mercor paused. Thymara heard only the breathing of dragons and Elderlings and the distant whispering of the river. He spoke again. ‘We were not the only dragons then. There were others, but without the pure Silver, they were not clear-minded as we were. Sometimes, they were little better than the lions and bears they hunted in their own lands. When we encountered them, in mating flights or migrations to the warm lands, they could smell the Silver on us. They wanted it. And sometimes they followed us back here, to the source, but we stood them off. They came, sometimes in droves, but always we prevailed against them and sent them back to their own regions.
‘As Kelsingra prospered, we made many Elderlings, to tend the wells for us, and to make places of warmth and comfort for us in the winter season. And to help us guard this, the best source of Silver in the world. And so our city grew around it. The Elderlings quarried stone that had threads of silver running through it, and found many uses for it for themselves. We used Silver to change our Elderlings, and in turn, they used what they learned from us to change this part of the world. The Silver remains here, in threads in the stones, and it speaks to us of those days. But dragons cannot drink stone. And if this well has failed, and we have found no more seeps …’
‘Why do dragons need Silver?’ Sylve spoke her quiet question.
Her dragon swung his large head to look at her. Black on black, his eyes spun in the torchlight. Thymara felt that he spoke with reluctance. ‘It extends our lives, just as we extend the lives of our Elderlings. It is a part of us, in our blood and in our venom and in the cases we weave as serpents for our transformation. That was why Cassarick was so important. The clay banks there have Silver in the sand. It cannot be drunk, but in our thread-spinning, it holds memories for us, in much the same way as the stones held memories for the Elderlings. It helps us to recall our ancestral memories as we pass from serpent to dragon. If the Silver is gone from the world, much of what dragons are will be gone also. We will continue, but I think our wealth of memories may be greatly shortened. Our minds will dim. And our lifespans dwindle.’ He lowered his voice and added, ‘As will our ability to shape Elderlings.’
The great golden dragon turned to look down on Malta and Reyn. As always, Malta carried her bundled baby against her chest as if she were a child and he her dearest doll. Even in the cold of night, she would not part from him. Did she think he could not die if she held him close? Mercor spoke words that drove all colour from her face. ‘If Tintaglia ever returns, she will need Silver to change your child to a creature that can survive. All our lives depend on Silver, in one way or another.’
‘No. Noooo!’ Malta drew out the word in a low cry and then turned to her husband, folding herself into his arms and sheltering the child between them.
Anxiety rippled Sylve’s brow and she reached out a sympathetic hand to touch her dragon’s face. ‘Mercor, if there is any Silver to be had in any way, I will get it for you.’
‘I know,’ the dragon responded calmly. ‘That is what Elderlings do. But I will warn you that it is at peril of your life that you touch Silver. Dragons may drink of it, but any touch of it on human skin is a precursor to a slow death. Only some of the Elderlings mastered it. At a cost.’ He fell silent for a time, musing, and no one ventured to speak.
Malta lifted her bowed head. Tears tinged pink with blood showed on her face. ‘But you said I had been touched with Silver. If that is so, how is it that I am not dead?’
The dragon shook his great golden head slowly. ‘Elderlings found a way, but I do not recall the details of it. They could touch it and wear it on their hands to work their magic. It gave intent to stone, and spoke to wood and pottery and metal, bidding it be a certain shape or react in a given way. And those things did as the Elderlings bade them. They made doorways from it, entries of stone that they used to travel to their other cities. They created buildings that stayed warm in the winter. They made roads that always remembered they were roads and did not allow plants to break them. The most powerful of them sometimes used Silver to transform themselves at death, going into the statues they made to preserve a strange sort of life for themselves.
‘Sometimes they used Silver to heal, to recall for the body how it should be and help it to make itself right. Their own skill with the uses of Silver contributed to their long lifespans. If an Elderling still existed with such a great level of skill with the Silver, he might even be able to heal your child. Magical creatures, those ancient beings were. But perhaps their time is past, not to come again. And perhaps so it is with dragons.’
‘Don’t say that!’ Sylve cried and flung herself against his flank. She was not the only keeper to stand with brimming eyes. Had they come so far to fail?
Reyn gathered Malta and his child close to him and spoke a promise to her. ‘If there is Silver to be had, I will get it for Phron.’
Tintaglia was weaker than she had thought. The blows she had dealt to their tiller had splintered it but not shorn it from the ship as she had intended. She snaked her head in and seized the wood in her teeth, clamping her jaws on it and tearing at it, intending to pull it free of the vessel. Instead, the ship gave way to her pulling, throwing her off balance. She reflexively opened her wings to brace herself, and the unthinkable happened.
It was a lucky cast of the spear. Even the man who threw it gave a wild shout of surprise when it struck and went in. Tintaglia screamed. In the darkness, the cast had unerringly found her weakest spot, striking the swollen site where the buried arrowhead still festered. She felt a hot stab of unbearable pain, and then the soft infected tissue gave way and the arrowhead tore free. Blood and fluid poured from her into the cold river water. Pain surrounded a terrible relief of pressure as the wound drained. The world spun around her, starlight glinting on the river’s face. She struggled to get away from the ship.
The first blow from the pole hit the side of her head. Suddenly there were men at the railings of both ships, raining blows down on her with oars and poles. Arrows shot at close range thudded painfully against her even if they did not pierce her scaling. In her confusion, she had trapped herself between the two vessels instead of evading them. Someone flung an empty cask; it struck the back of her head and for an instant, she was stunned, her head sinking beneath the water.
She lifted her head to the wild cheers of both crews. They were killing her and she knew it. Fury washed through her that puny humans should be able to treat a dragon so. Heedless of how she exposed her underbelly, she reared onto her hind legs and battered at the ships with her front legs. At the same time, she threw back her head in a wild trumpeting of anger and despair.
They kill me! The men of Chalced have stabbed and bludgeoned me. I die! Dragonkind, if any of you yet live, avenge me! IceFyre, if you can hear me, know that our young die unhatched! Avenge them!
Carson spoke gruffly. He sounded almost apologetic, as if he had told Malta the child must die. ‘I said the well was sanded in. Not dry. There are ways to dredge out a well and open it again. Drinking-water wells in the Rain Wilds mud in often enough. I just wonder why this well isn’t full of water, as close as we are to the river. Tomorrow, when there is more light to work by, we will hook onto that pot and all lend our backs to drawing it up. And then we will be able to see more clearly how deep the Silver is. But for now, it’s getting colder and I suspect we will have rain again before morning. Let’s get back to shelter for the night, now. All will look better on the morrow.’
The keepers were nodding and some of them were taking up torches from their makeshift holders. Hennesey offered his arm to Tillamon and she accepted it readily. Skelly was saying a private farewell to Alum behind the stack of timber. The dragons were turning to begin their slow promenade through the streets toward the sand beds or the hot-water baths as keepers and crewmen gathered tools from the work site. Spit followed last, head down, hissing a dribble of venom that sizzled as it hit the paved streets.
‘They need Silver to live?’ Tats said quietly beside Thymara.
‘To live long. And to pass on their memories to their offspring, I think,’ Thymara replied. Reluctantly, she added, ‘As we will need it. I suspect the old Elderlings extended their own lives by repairing their bodies as they aged.’
They had both heard Mercor’s words. It simply made it more believable to discuss it with one another. Neither mentioned what had been said about Malta’s baby, nor what it might mean to future children born in Kelsingra. In her heart, Thymara believed the child was doomed. He needed a dragon that had not been seen in years, and a magical element that had not flowed in decades. She felt sorry for the family but held her heart back from feeling too much. Privately, she was grateful she had not risked a pregnancy. She had no desire to feel what Malta was feeling.
Rapskal was suddenly beside them. ‘Tomorrow, I think that some of us should find the smaller wells that Mercor spoke of, and see if they are still dry. It seems to me that if a well goes dry because of an earthquake, perhaps another one might open it again.’
‘Good plan,’ Tats said, and in his voice she heard his worry for his green dragon. She tried to decide how she felt about this possible threat, and felt an echo from Sintara as she said, ‘I will wait to see how we fare with this well before I become too fearful. It may be that the well is shallow but refills fast. Some Silver at least we can draw from it, once the final blockage is cleared.’
‘There is that!’ Rapskal exclaimed hopefully. ‘And my Heeby will need …’ His words trailed away. His eyes widened as he drew a deep breath and then held it.
‘Rapskal?’ Thymara ventured.
He turned his head sharply, and his eyes suddenly focused on her. ‘Treachery most foul! Dragons are set on by men! We must fly to her aid, now, tonight!’
His words were nearly drowned in the wild trumpeting as the dragons took up his call. A moment later, the meaning of it all permeated her brain. Somewhere, a dragon was dying, killed by humans. A queen dragon. Tintaglia! Tintaglia, she who had guided them all up the river as serpents, Tintaglia was falling to human treachery! She summoned them to avenge her!
‘Tintaglia, Tintaglia!’ Malta’s anguished shriek was a higher note among the dragons’ trumpeting. ‘If you and your offspring die, so do mine! Blue queen, wonder of the skies, do not die! Do not allow yourself to be taken!’ She turned suddenly and spoke to the other keepers. She stood tall in the night and the force of her plea was something they all felt. ‘Elderlings, rise! Go to her aid, I beg you! For the sake of my child, yes, but for the sake of all our dragons! For if you let this happen to sapphire Tintaglia, what safety is there for any of you?’
Malta gleamed in the yellow light of the torches and lanterns, and with a strange thrill, Thymara recognized the Queen of the Elderlings. No wonder all of Jamaillia had seen her so, commanding with words as compelling as the glamour of the dragon. Thymara was suddenly certain that if Tintaglia could feel Malta’s words, she would take heart from them.
‘We fly!’ Rapskal roared in response. His voice had gone husky and wild. His eyes glared with fury and the set of his mouth made him a stranger to Thymara. He paced among the churning Elderlings and dragons, seeming suddenly taller. ‘My armour! My spear!’ he cried aloud. ‘Where are my servants? Send them for my armour. We must fly tonight. We cannot wait for light, for by then she may have gone into eternal darkness. Rise up and seize your arms. Ready the dragon baskets! Bring forth the battle harness!’
Thymara stared at him, open-mouthed. She felt caught alone in a vortex of whirling times. Tellator. Tellator spoke in that tone of command, Tellator strode like that. All around her, dragons were rearing and trumpeting furiously. Keepers darted among them, some imploring their dragons to stay safely here, to not try to fly in darkness, while some of the keepers had moved clear of a horde of dragons shaking out their wings and snapping their necks to fill their poison glands. Rapskal’s peculiar behaviour seemed to have gone unnoticed.
He strode toward her, a clenched-teeth smile on his face. She froze as he took her in his arms and held her to his heart. ‘Have no fear, my darling. A hundred times have I gone into battle, and always I have returned to you, have I not? This time will be no exception! Have faith in me, Amarinda. I will safely return to you, both honour and life intact. We will turn back any that dare to enter our territory uninvited!’
‘Rapskal!’ She shouted his name and broke free of his embrace. Seizing him by the shoulders, she shook him as hard as she could. ‘You are Rapskal and I am Thymara. And you are not a warrior!’
He stared at her oddly as he drew himself up taller. ‘Maybe not, Thymara, but someone must fight, and I am the only one who has a dragon willing to carry me. I have to go. Those cruel murderers have attacked a queen dragon, seeking to butcher her like a cow! It cannot be tolerated.’
The voice was Rapskal’s and the very earnest stare was his too, but the cadence of his voice and the words he used were Tellator’s. She tried again. ‘Rapskal, you are not him. And I am not Amarinda. I am Thymara.’
His eyes seemed to focus on her again. ‘Of course you are, Thymara. And I know who I am. But I also bear Tellator’s memories. The price of his memories is a small one, and that is to honour the life of the man who gave them to me. To continue his duties and work.’ He leaned closer to her and peered into her eyes as if looking for something. ‘As you should honour Amarinda’s memories by continuing her tasks. Someone must, Thymara, and that someone is you.’
She looked at him and shook her head. She became dimly aware of Tats standing beside them, watching them both intently. She could take no time for him now, regardless of what he thought. She held tight to Rapskal and spoke earnestly. ‘Rapskal, I don’t want you to be Tellator. I don’t want to be Amarinda. I want us to be us, and whatever we do, I want it to be our own decision, not some continuation of someone else’s life.’
He gave a small sigh and shifted his gaze to Tats. ‘Watch over her, my friend. And if I do not return, think well of me.’ His eyes met Thymara’s again. ‘Some day, you will understand. And sooner, I think, would be better than later. For the sake of my honour and my word. Heeby! Heeby, to me!’
He turned away from her. Some other woman from another time exclaimed, ‘Your sword! Your armour!’ She very nearly ran after him.
But Tats was at her side, holding firmly to her arm. He spoke by her ear in the milling chaos of dragons and keepers. ‘He has neither, and never has had them. Thymara. Come back to me. You cannot stop him. You know that.’
‘I know.’ She wondered if Tats spoke of Rapskal charging off to fight a battle weaponless, or of his assumption of another man’s life and duties. She looked at the man beside her. Tears welled painfully in her eyes. ‘We’re losing him. We’re losing our friend.’
‘I fear you may be right.’ He pulled her into his arms, held her head against his chest to shield her as all around them, dragons trumpeted and then leapt from the ground to take flight. The wind of their beating wings battered them and their war cries buffeted her ears. In moments, they were high above them.
Thymara lifted her eyes to watch them go, but the overcast sky had swallowed them all, and only rain fell on her uplifted face.
Day the 6th of the Plough Moon
Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
From Kim, Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick
To Trader Finbok of the Bingtown Traders, Bingtown
Dear Trader Finbok,
I am in possession of a message from you which, I must admit, confuses me greatly. Either you have sent this message to me in error and are unaware of the great damage such a missive could do to my reputation, or you are a villain and a scoundrel who deliberately seeks to disgrace me. Perhaps you are deceived by some evil person who has slandered my name by pretending to be me. I choose to hope that you are not truly the malicious sort of person who would risk both our reputations.
The letter I received not only claims that I have been sending you information stolen from other Traders’ messages but also shows that you have been paying me a great deal of money for such information. And it declares that unless I surrender certain information about your son, of whom I assure you I have never heard, you will betray me to the Guild Masters in Bingtown!
I am astonished and shocked to receive such a letter. It has occurred to me that perhaps it is actually from an enemy of yours who seeks to cause you financial and social disaster! For surely, if I took this to the Guild Masters, protesting my innocence, they would present it to the Bingtown Traders’ Council, and leave it to them to determine if you have been a party to the theft of secrets of other Traders and profited by such knowledge.
Please immediately reply to this missive so that we may clear up this whole matter.