‘Dead things float.’
The Chalcedean spoke the words firmly, as if ordering someone or something to comply with them. The weary men gathered on the deck shuffled their feet, but no one replied. It was all too obvious to them that perhaps dead dragons did not float. In last night’s uproarious battle, they had slain the blue monster and seen her sink beneath the water. Many of the men had cried out in dismay as the lifeless hulk had sunk. The others had counselled them to wait, she would rise.
The sun had passed its zenith. No carcass had bobbed to the surface yet. No one had slept. All hands had kept watch on the water, fearing at first that the dragon was not dead and might venture another attack. Then, as the night wore on and she did not rise, they watched, fearing that their long-sought prize, the foundation of all their dreams, was on the bottom of the river, for ever out of their reach.
They had probed the area between the moored ships with their longest poles and felt only water or river bottom. One hapless oar-slave, secured by a rope about his ankle, had been thrown overboard and commanded to dive as deep as he could and see what he might see. He had not wished to go; he had cried out in protest as his fellows had obediently lifted him and then flung him over the side. No swimmer he; he had sunk, and risen to the surface to splash and beg for help. The shouted commands for him to dive and look for the dragon carcass had not, in Hest’s opinion, moved him.
Rather, his own ineptitude had sunk him again. The second time, they had dragged him from the water by the line about his ankle. He had lain on the deck like a dead thing, his skin kissed red by the river, puffing air into his lungs, his eyes filmed with grey from the acid water. They shouted at him, demanding to know what he had seen. ‘Nothing! I saw nothing, I see nothing!’ The man’s terror at being blind had robbed him of his fear of his master.
The Chalcedean had kicked him disdainfully, proclaimed him useless and would have discarded him over the side if one of the others had not insisted that a blind man on an oar was better than an empty bench. Hest had noted that none of the Chalcedeans had volunteered to dive overboard.
Now as the rising sun granted them enough light that they could see under the trees, they scanned the nearby banks to see if the dragon’s carcass had washed ashore. There was nothing. Then the Chalcedean had announced that perhaps the current had carried their prize downstream. His haggard men stared at him with sick doubt in their eyes. The dragon was gone and they knew it.
Their leader did not share their gloom. ‘Oh, come!’ Lord Dargen cajoled them. ‘Will you rest now and let our fortune slip away from us? The current has carried our prize downstream. We will seek her there, and know that every stroke of the oar carries us closer to home as well as closer to a golden future!’
It sounded like chicanery to Hest, a mother’s lie to make a child open his mouth for the bitter medicine. But the crews accepted it and began to make ready for a day’s travel. What choice did they have? Odd, how living as a slave was showing him how little choice most men had in their lives. His existence had always been shaped by his father’s authority. Last night, when his stolen rags and chill hold had begun to seem like a cosy refuge from standing on the deck holding a lantern aloft for the searchers, he had reconsidered Sedric’s fantasy of the two of them running off to a distant country. Sedric had voiced it only once, toward the end of their time together in Bingtown. Hest had scoffed at it back then and forbidden him to speak again of his idiotic dream.
Hest had recalled the quarrel in detail as he had stood on the darkened deck, spending hours of his life functioning as a lamp stand as he held the lantern high. It was Sedric’s fault he had come to this, he had decided. His lover had dreamed of gaining a fortune and moving far from Bingtown, to dwell together in luxury where they would not have to hide their relationship from Hest’s wife or Bingtown society. Hest had told him not to be ridiculous, that they were fine as they were. Hest had had no wish to gamble his comfortable life. But, whether he willed it or not, Sedric had cast the dice for them. And instead of a fortune and a life of freedom in some exotic location, he had won slavery for Hest and whatever peculiar exile Sedric now endured.
He had heard the dreams of the Chalcedean dragon-hunters. Sedric had not imagined the vast value of dragon parts. For the first time, he wondered if Sedric had gained his ambition, had harvested blood or scales, sold them and gone off to live alone the dream that Hest had mocked. No. He had not. For if Sedric had taken such plunder to the Duke of Chalced or to any of the trade contacts they knew, these others would have known of it. Perhaps they would even have been able to go home, knowing that someone else had finished their terrible quest for them. And if Sedric had acquired a fortune, he would have come back to Hest and pleaded with him to go with him. Of that Hest was certain. Sedric would always come back to him.
So. What had become of Sedric and Alise? He did not much care why his frumpy little wife had not returned to him, but what had kept Sedric from his side? Being so deeply infatuated with Hest in his juvenile and romantic way, surely if Sedric could have come home, he would have, with or without dragon’s blood to trade. And Captain Leftrin had claimed that both Alise and Sedric were alive. So much he had gleaned during his time in Trehaug and Cassarick.
‘What is that?’ A man’s cry, full of wonder and perhaps fear sent everyone scrambling to the rails to peer over the side. Had the dragon returned? But a glance at the lookout showed him pointing, not at the river but at the sky.
‘Parrots,’ someone exclaimed in disgust. ‘Just a flock of blue and green parrots.’
‘And gold and silver and scarlet and blue,’ another man cried.
‘They’re a bit big for parrots …’
It was not a flock of birds startled from their canopy home. These creatures came on swift, wide wings, more batlike in motion than birdlike. They flew in formation like geese, and even the powerful down-strokes of their wings were orchestrated, as if someone called cadence for them. Hest stared with the others and felt blood drain from his face. His hands and feet tingled and he could not voice what someone finally shouted, his voice still tinged with disbelief:
‘Dragons! A flock of dragons!’
‘Fortune favours us! Ready your bows!’ Lord Dargen shouted joyously. ‘Attack as they fly over us. Let us bring down one or two of them, and return home with our holds full of dragon parts!’
For the first time, Hest realized that the man was mad. Insane with fear for his family, believing that somehow he could get the magical items that would bring them safely to him when he returned home. Hest suddenly knew with terrible certainty that they were no longer alive, that they had died terribly, probably months ago, possibly screaming the Chalcedean’s name as they perished.
This quest was all the man had left. It was only a fantasy. Even if he filled the ship with chunks of bloody meat and kegs of blood, there was no grand life for him to reclaim. To fulfil his mad goal would be as disastrous for him as to fail. But this was his life now and he was trapped in it as surely as he had imprisoned Hest in his madman’s mission. Whatever doom he had brought upon himself, Hest would share. Weaponless, he stood and watched them come. Creatures of legend, glittering like gemstones against the endless grey sky, in the distance they looked more like adornments to a lady’s elegant music-box than vengeful flying predators. All around him on the decks of both ships, men were running and shouting, stringing bows, demanding arrows of their fellows, limbering their arms with their throwing spears. They have no idea, Hest thought to himself. He had seen the blue dragon of Bingtown, Tintaglia, once. It had been in the distance, as he returned to Bingtown after she had driven off the Chalcedean warriors. He had thought her pretty then.
But on his return to the city, he had seen what a dragon’s wrath could do. She had not intended to pock the paving stones with acid holes, nor fill the harbour basin with sunken ships. That damage had been incidental. He had seen the harm that one dragon, fighting on behalf of a city, could do.
He stood on the deck and tried to count the oncoming dragons. He stopped at ten. Ten times dead was very dead indeed. The slaves chained to their oars were praying. He was tempted to join them.
The dragons had flown through the night, ignoring cold and fitful rainfall. Sintara had expected to be exhausted by dawn, but they were not. They had flown on, as the sun rose, and on as it climbed into the sky. They had flown as if they had but one mind, reverting to the animals that perhaps dragons once had been. Mercor led their formation and Sintara had been proud to fly to his right. Blue-black Kalo had taken his left, and then Sestican and Baliper. Those three, she knew somehow, had been a long time with the golden dragon, perhaps swimming with him as serpents once. Quarrel they might among themselves, but now there was a common enemy to fight and vanquish. All differences among them were gone. Even their thirst for Silver had been suppressed. Fifteen strong, they had risen to Tintaglia’s cry for vengeance.
Silver Spit lumbered along at the tail of the line. Copper Relpda flew strongly, her early awkwardness scarcely a memory for her now. And ridiculous red Heeby flew wherever she would, now part of the formation, now trailing it, now flying to one side. Her slender scarlet rider sang as they flew, a song of anger and vengeance, but also one that praised the beauty of angry dragons in flight and painted a glorious victory for them. Ridiculous, and ridiculous that she and the others enjoyed it so. Thymara had complained more than once about how freely the dragons used their glamour to compel their keepers to tend them. Yet not once had she ever even admitted the power that human flattery and praise in song could exert over dragons. She was not the only dragon who flew with her mind full of Rapskal’s glorious images of exotically beautiful dragons triumphing over every obstacle.
They had flown straight, not following the river’s meandering course. Dawn had come earlier for them than it had for the ships on the river’s surface. The tall trees that surrounded this section of the Rain Wild River also blocked the earliest rays of the sun. The dragons had flown over the treetops, feeling the warmth of the sun limber their weary wings, and then, as the trees gave way to the open space of the river, they had seen their enemies in the distance.
‘Vengeance, my beautiful ones, jewels of the day! We will visit death on them, a death so glorious they will die praising you!’
‘Destroy them all! Sink their ships!’ Kalo’s trumpet call of fury rang against the dead grey sky.
Rapskal laughed aloud. ‘Oh, no, my mighty one! There is no need to destroy such useful vessels. Only the killers must die. Leave enough for crew to row our prizes home! Some we may allow to live, as servants, to tend our kine and flocks for us. Others we may ransom! But for now, blaze terror into their hearts!’
The young Elderling glittered scarlet in the morning light, his garments of blue and gold like a battle banner in the wind. He broke into a deep-throated song in an ancient tongue, and Sintara discovered she recalled it of old. When Rapskal paused at the end of a stanza to draw breath, the dragons trumpeted in unison. Her hearts swelled with fury and joy at her own mightiness. They neared the hapless boats and swept low over them.
The ships rocked in the wild wind of their passage. Those few who remembered to release their arrows saw their puny missiles wobble and spin in the dragon tempest. Leaves and twigs from the nearby trees showered down with a shushing sound and even the river leapt up in wavelets. The force sent Hest staggering to the wall of the ship’s house.
‘We’re going to die here!’ he shouted, for he suddenly saw it all clearly. The dragons would circle back and overfly them even lower. But no wind need they fear, for the danger of the acid they would spew down on them would make the wind seem like a friendly pat. Even a falling drop of the stuff would kill a man, eating through clothes and flesh and bone until it emerged from a stumbling corpse and buried itself in the earth. If the dragons breathed it out as a blanketing mist, only sodden wreckage and sizzling bones would remain of them.
Hest screamed wordlessly as the images fully penetrated his mind.
‘Get off the ships! Hide in the trees!’ Someone shouted the order, and a wave of men scrambled to obey. From beneath the closed hatches, screams of terror rose but there was no time to think of anyone except himself. Get off the ship! It was his only possible chance to survive. He rushed to the railing and leapt amid a fountaining wave of other men doing likewise. He was fortunate that his ship was closest to the bank. The water, cold and stinging, closed over his head. He had shut his eyes tightly as he jumped and as he came up he floundered blindly, scarcely daring to open his eyes until he felt the slimy river bottom under his boots. Then he blinked rapidly, feeling the river water sting and haze his eyes for a moment before he scrabbled out onto the muddy, reed-choked bank.
He was one of the first ashore. Behind him, all was chaos on the boats and in the waters between them. Men had jumped haphazardly, some on the river side of the vessels, to be swept away in the stronger current there. Others were trapped between the ships, half-blinded and stunned by cold water and terror. They yammered and shrieked as the dragons swept back over them. The wind of their passage rocked the vessels, and the cries of the drowning men were submerged by the ear-splitting roars of the dragons as they passed. Hest was stunned by the sound, staggering and covering his ears. A full knowledge of the majesty and power of dragons suddenly filled him and he fell to his knees, weeping to think that he had dared defy such magnificent creatures. All around him, men were doing the same, begging for forgiveness and promising lifelong servitude if only they were spared. They knelt or prostrated themselves in the mud. Hest himself stood, his arms uplifted to the sky, and suddenly realized he was shouting praise to their beauty. In the distance, the dragons were beginning a wheeling turn. He knew two things with certainty: this time they returned to kill, and then, with an even greater clarity, he knew that the thoughts and feelings of the past few moments were not his own. It’s like a dream, he told himself. A dream in which I do and say things I would never do or say in my waking life. This is not me; this is not of my own will. Then, as the dragons approached, all rational thought fled.
Every human who could flee the ships had. Sintara was vaguely aware of men wailing in trapped dismay. Some were jumping about, heedless of how they damaged themselves as they fought chains that secured them to rowing benches. Humans evidently confined humans. Why, she could not guess and did not find it intriguing enough to puzzle about. It did not please her when Mercor led them to land in the shallows of the river and then wade ashore, but she sensed his purpose. The humans were now cut off from their ships. A few, she knew, fled mindlessly into the forest. They would die there, tonight or tomorrow. Humans were not able to live without shelter and food.
But others crouched in the grasses or hid behind trees or simply prostrated themselves, sick with terror. Not one had been killed by tooth or claw or dragon’s breath. Those who had perished had wrought their own deaths, their little minds unable to stand before the terrible glamour of a dragon’s wrath and majesty. As the dragons waded out of the river, some of their captives wailed in terror. Then Heeby spoiled their grand procession out of the water by skidding to a halt on the mud bank, sending muck up in a spattering spray over the cowering humans. Sintara snorted in disdain.
She noticed that Rapskal did not leap down from the scarlet dragon’s back until she had moved to a less marshy site. Then he hopped down, his gay Elderling cloak aflutter about his shoulders. Those few invaders who were capable of a response other than terror gasped in awe at the sight of him. Grudgingly, she had to admit that he looked far grander than the squat humans in their murky clothes. Tall and slender, he was a fitting companion to the dragons. He looked about, a grim smile on his face, and then flung his cloak back over one shoulder. She felt almost proud of him as he strode forward and ordered the humans, ‘Stand up! Come forward! It is time to be judged by those you have wronged.’
They obeyed. Even as the dragons eased the glamour that held them, the humans obeyed. Pulverized by terror, they had already been defeated. Wet and shaking with cold, they came forward to stand in a huddle. They were a motley assortment. Some were in rags, thin and scarred. Others were attired as bowmen, with leather on their wrists and close-fitting shirts, and there were those in the finery of noblemen. Of old, dragons had known all these sorts of men, and found that, stripped of their fabrics, they were all soft-skinned shrieking monkeys.
Hest found himself obeying the command to come forward for judgment. He had found a small corner of his mind to call his own, so even as he stepped forward to join the others in a kneeling row, he recognized that the awe and terror he felt were not entirely rational. He dared a quick glance at the faces of his fellow captives. Some looked as blank as sheep facing slaughter but in others, he saw the struggle in their eyes. He knew a moment of consternation that some of the Chalcedean’s rowing slaves were more cognizant of their own minds than the nobles who had commanded them. Then there was no time to think of anything, for a tall scarlet warrior was striding toward the line. Hest had never seen such bright garments as he wore. He walked with a fighter’s stride, but wore no armour nor carried any weapon. Perhaps he needed none.
He stopped a short distance from them. A red dragon had followed him to his inspection, but it was the great golden dragon that towered over both of them that held Hest’s gaze. The creature’s eyes were large and liquid, black over blackness. They seemed to swirl as he gazed into them, radiating calm. The largest dragon of all, a blue-black mountain, towered over the others. Light seemed to sink into him and vanish into his shimmering anger. His silver eyes reflected nothing. Someone spoke, the red man or the dragon, Hest did not know. ‘Have you offered harm to a dragon?’
‘No,’ he said, for he had not. He had never shot an arrow or jabbed with a spear. He found himself standing and stepping back. Others were doing the same, slaves and crewmen and even one of the Chalcedean bowmen. Some remained kneeling and Hest had an ominous sensation of doom.
‘Judgment is done,’ the scarlet man proclaimed. ‘You who have dared to raise hands against the glory of a dragon will spend the rest of your lives in servitude to them. That is the mercy of Mercor the Wise. A workman’s village awaits you, where you can become useful. If you fail to serve willingly and well, you will be eaten. One way or another, your lives are forfeit for what you have done. You others have been part of a most evil expedition. You are not without guilt. But your families can buy you back, if they are inclined. If not, you can find useful labour among us. That will be discussed later, after we reach Kelsingra. For now, those who are evil will be transported in constraints.’ He narrowed his eyes for a moment, and then pointed at two slaves and a crewman. ‘You three will see to that. Confine them. Then organize a crew. The rest of you will bring the ships to Kelsingra. Those we claim as rightful booty, for you have invaded our territory without our permission and forfeit all that you have brought with you.’
He turned away from them and the shocked murmur that was arising. ‘That is as much mercy as can be offered to you,’ he concluded without regret and walked back to the waiting red dragon. She lowered her huge head and sniffed him. He stroked her face, his own expression becoming silly with affection for the beast.
Hest knew a moment of utter disbelief. ‘But …’ he began to protest, and then fell silent as the Chalcedean leapt to his feet. He shook his head like a man who stands in a swarm of midges and then raised a shout. ‘No! I will never be a slave. I am Lord Dargen of Chalced and I will sooner die than bow my head to the yoke!’
His hands were just as fast as Hest remembered them. The little knives were snatched from hiding and took flight as if they had wills of their own. They did not miss. They rattled like hailstones off the hulking blue-black dragon’s thick scales. One stuck for a moment at the corner of one of the great creature’s silvery eyes. He shook his head and the dagger fell free. An oily drop of scarlet dragon blood welled from the wound and began a slow slide down the dragon’s face.
The Chalcedean gave a shout of triumph. It rang oddly in the absolute silence that had framed his act. Then a smaller silver dragon gave a shrill trumpet of outrage. But the blue-black one made no sound as he took one step forward. All around the Chalcedean, his fellows crouched or cowered as the dragon stretched his head toward the man. He did not hiss or roar as he opened his jaws. As a man might snap an offending branch from a wayside path, the dragon bit the Chalcedean in half. In one head-snapping gulp he swallowed his head and torso. A moment later, he picked up the man’s hips and legs and likewise downed them. Then he turned and stalked off. One of Lord Dargen’s hands and part of a forearm had been sheared off in the dragon’s first bite. It remained where it had fallen, palm up on the muddy earth as if offering a final plea. One of the other Chalcedeans turned aside and vomited noisily.
The scarlet man seemed unsurprised and untroubled. ‘He has had his wish. He will not bow his head.’ He turned back to his dragon and leapt lightly onto her shoulder and then settled himself just forward of her wings. She snapped her wings wide. All around them, the other dragons were crouching and then leaping skyward. Wave after wave of wind, heavy with the smell of dragon, washed over Hest, until only the red dragon and her scarlet rider remained. The warrior looked over them with hard eyes.
‘Do not be slow. If you need guidance, look to the sky. There will always be a dragon over you, making sure that you do not pause until you reach Kelsingra.’
Then, to Hest’s astonishment, the red dragon made a trundling run down the muddy strip of riverbank before leaping into the air. She flapped her wings frantically and ungracefully until she was airborne. In another time and place, he might have laughed at her ridiculous launch. Today, he knew only a moment of great relief that the dragons were gone.
A ringing in his ears that he had not noticed faded. He blinked. The day seemed dimmer, the smells of the swampy riverbank less intense. Around him, other men were shifting, looking at one another, shaking their heads and rubbing their eyes.
‘They made us accuse ourselves!’ one of the Chalcedeans shouted in fury.
A slave next to Hest stared at the man and then a sneer crossed his face. ‘Is that what it takes to make a Chalcedean tell the truth? A dragon standing over you?’
The man lifted his fists and advanced on the slave, who stood his ground to meet him.
Someone screamed. A silver dragon swept in low over them, and the slave stood alone. Hest had a glimpse of a body dangling from the dragon’s jaws before it flew over the trees and out of sight. He turned and ran for the ships. He was not the first to get there.
There was an interruption in the light. And another. A gust of wind rattled the tall rushes all around her. Tintaglia managed to open one eye a slit. She was still dreaming. A female green dragon looked down on her. Too late.
I fear you are right.
She had not seen the golden dragon. He had landed behind her. It was only now, as his head came into view, that she knew he was there. He sniffed her, his black eyes roiling with sorrow. The infections are too far advanced. She will not fly again. He lifted his head. A shameful way for us to lose her. Killed by humans. No dragon should die so.
Other dragons were alighting nearby. A blue queen, a silver drake, a lavender drake. Dragons. Real dragons, dragons that could fly and hunt.
Dragons have avenged you, Tintaglia, the golden one told her, as if he could sense her next thought. The humans have been judged and punished. Never again will any of them lift a hand against dragons. The golden dragon glanced skyward. You were long coming back to us. Perhaps you had given up on us, just as we had given up on you. But we will not abandon you here. Your flesh will not rot, nor be food for rats and ants. Kalo will gather your memories, blue queen. And all of us here will bear our recollections ever forward through time. Your name and deeds will not be forgotten among dragonkind.
A scarlet Elderling stepped forward. She had not seen him, had not known that Elderlings had returned to the world. She thought of the three she had begun and knew a moment of sorrow. Incomplete, and without her continued presence in their lives, doomed to die. The scarlet Elderling was speaking. ‘… and a statue to your glory shall be raised in the centre of the new Kelsingra. Saviour of dragonkind, first queen of the new generation, Serpent-Helper, you will never be forgotten so long as Elderlings and dragons still breathe in this world.’
His praise warmed her, but only faintly. He was not a singer such as Selden had been. She thought of her little dragon-singer, only a boy when she had claimed him, and knew a moment of nostalgia for him. Dying, she sent a thought winging to him. Sing for me, Selden. For whatever time remains to you before my death ends you, sing of your dragon and your love for her.
Somewhere in the distance, she thought she felt a response from him, the sympathetic thrumming of a far string in tune with her own heart chords. She closed her eyes. It was good to know that a drake would circle over her and watch her death, good to know that no small animals would chew at her as she lay dying, that her memories would not be feed for maggots and ants. All she had learned in this life, all she had known, would go on in some form. It would have been better if she had been able to lay her eggs, if she had died knowing that one hot day her serpent offspring would wriggle free of their shells and slither down the beaches to begin their sojourn as sea serpents. It would have been better, but this, at least, was as good a death as any dragon might have.
The keepers had awakened to a city bereft of dragons. None strolled out from the baths, gleaming in the spring dawn. None alighted in the square with a rush of wing and wind. In the absence of the dragons, the city became vast and empty and far too large for humans.
Tats had been startled when Thymara tapped on his door to waken him. If she hadn’t come, it was likely he would have slept longer. But he rose, and went down with her to enjoy a hot cup of fragrant tea and a round of ship’s biscuit with jam. Odd, how such simple foods seemed so good after a time without them. Midway through breakfast, Thymara had set down her cup and tilted her head. ‘Do you hear anything from Fente?’
Tats closed his eyes and reached out toward his feisty little queen. He’d opened them again almost immediately. ‘Still flying, I think. I wonder how far they are going. Whatever she’s doing, she’s intent on it and wants no distractions.’ He cocked his head at her. ‘Has Sintara spoken to you?’
‘Not directly. She seldom does when she’s away. But I felt something, a thrill of excitement. I wish I knew what was happening.’
‘I’m almost afraid to know,’ Tats admitted. ‘The way they rushed out of here was frightening. So much anger in the air.’
‘And Rapskal became so strange,’ Thymara added shyly.
Tats gave her a look. ‘He’s my friend, still,’ he said. ‘Don’t think you can’t speak of him to me. I think he has spent more time in the memory-stone than any of us, and it’s beginning to show. When he returns, I think it’s time we sat him down and talked with him about it.’
‘I fear it may be too late for that. He’s so sincere in his belief that this is how Elderlings are meant to live, immersed in the memories of those who have gone before us.’
‘Perhaps he is.’ Tats had drained the last of his tea and looked reluctantly at the few uncoiled leaves in the bottom of his cup. ‘But I won’t give him up without trying.’
‘Nor I,’ she admitted, and she’d smiled at him. ‘Tats,’ she had added frankly, ‘you are just a good person. My father once told me that about you. “Solid to the core”, he said. I see what he meant.’
Her words flustered him more than any declaration of love could have done. He felt his face heat with a rare blush. ‘Come. Let’s get down to the well and see what is to be done there.’
He had not been too surprised to see that Leftrin and Carson were already at the well site and discussing methods of reaching the Silver. Carson had been pragmatic. ‘It doesn’t look like there’s much left blocking the way. Send someone down with an axe, and a hook and line. If the blockage won’t come up, chop at it until it goes down.’
‘Send who?’ Leftrin had demanded, as if no one would be foolish enough to go. ‘That’s deeper than any of the previous jams. It’s going to be cold down there and pitch black.’
‘I’d never go down into that black hole,’ Thymara had muttered. She’d shuddered.
And Tats was almost certain that was the reason why he’d stepped forward, saying, ‘I can do it.’
They had sent him down with a hatchet and a line and a ship’s lantern. Leftrin himself had fastened the harness they rigged for him, and the captain hadn’t said a word of protest when Hennesey had checked all his knots. ‘Better once too often than once not enough,’ he muttered, and Tats had felt his belly go cold.
The descent had taken an eternity; allowing his body to dangle freely from the line had been the hardest part. He’d listened to the sounds of the heavy timber and the pulley rigged to it as they took his weight, and he began his creaking descent. They lowered him slowly, and the lantern in his left hand showed him almost smooth black walls; the worked stone that comprised it fit almost seamlessly together. His right hand gripped the line that held him, and he could not seem to let go, even though he knew it was securely fastened to his harness.
The voices of his friends receded to anxious bird calls in the distance. The circle of light overhead became smaller, and the sounds of the straining line louder. The harness dug into him. And down and yet down he went.
When he came to the wedged timbers, the circle of light overhead had become a well of stars. It made no sense to him. He shouted up at them that he had reached the blockage. He gave his weight to it, standing on the heavy plank, and felt the line that held him go loose, and then abruptly tighten again. He felt like a puppet, suspended weightlessly on the plank. ‘A little slack!’ he shouted up at them, and heard their distant voices arguing. Then they complied and he stood, balancing on the blockage. He lowered his lantern to rest it on the plank.
They’d sent him down with an extra piece of line tied to his harness. His first task was to unfasten it. It was surprisingly difficult to do, for his hands quickly chilled. Once he had it freed, it took a surprising amount of courage before he could bring himself to kneel and then reach down to wrap the line around the timber he stood on. It was a hefty piece of wood, as big around as his waist and just slightly longer than the well shaft was wide. He knotted the line with the knot that Hennesey had insisted he use, and then tested it, pulling with all his strength. It held.
Then he moved on his knees to the higher end of the timber, took out the hatchet looped to his hip, and began to chop. The vibration travelled, at first just an interesting phenomenon, and then an annoying buzz in his knees. The wood was dry and hard and lodged as tightly as a cork in a bottleneck. He wished he had a heavier tool with a longer handle, even as he realized the hazards of trying to stand on and chop something under his feet.
He spent a good part of the morning chopping away this final barrier in the well. He had to pause to warm his hands under his arms and rub the numbness from his knees. Only his Elderling tunic kept the cold at bay. The tips of his ears and his nose burned with cold.
Eventually, the timber under his feet began to give small groans. Even though he had known the harness stood ready to take his weight, he had roared in terror when the beam suddenly gave way beneath his feet. The short end of it fell away into the darkness. The larger piece fell and swung wildly, the knotted line singing with its weight. He dangled next to it and only slightly above it. He clung to the lines with both hands, knowing a moment of shame when he realized he had dropped his hatchet in his terror. A heartbeat later he was being hauled up so swiftly that he could not even brace his feet on the wall to steady himself.
He was dragged over the lip of the well so enthusiastically that it took the skin off his shins. Big Eider picked him up in a rib-crushing hug of pure relief that he was safe. But Thymara was the next to seize him in an embrace and he counted his moment of terror a fair price for feeling her hold him so close and hearing her whisper, ‘Sweet Sa, thanks be. Oh, Tats, I thought you were gone forever when I heard you shout!’
‘No. Just startled, that’s all.’ He spoke over her head, his arms still around her. She was so warm under his chilled hands. ‘The way is cleared once we haul up that last piece of timber. We can go after the Silver now.’
Hennesey and Tillamon had just arrived to trade shifts with Big Eider. It startled Tats to realize that a full shift had passed since Hennesey had sent him down the shaft. The mate dropped easily to his knees and peered down the well. ‘That’s even deeper than I thought it was. First thing is to haul up that old beam and then get the bucket out of the way.’ He got up slowly with a wry grin. ‘Time to go fishing, boys.’
Leftrin took the first fruitless turn at the ‘fishing’. It was arm-wearying, shoulder-wrenching work. Hennesey had rigged a line through the same pulley that had supported Tats. On the end of it was not only a heavy hook, but a necklace made of flame jewels. Malta had brought it and all but begged them to use it to light their way to the well’s bottom. Wrapped a few feet above the hook, the gleaming metal and sparkling stones gave off their own light as Leftrin attempted to guide the hook down. The illumination did not spread far. He lay on his belly, one hand on the line, and tried to guide the hook toward what they guessed was the handle of the bucket as he peered down into the well. It was far deeper than Tats had descended. Too deep, Leftrin had decided, to risk sending a person down.
When his back began to ache unbearably and his eyes to water and blur, he gave the task over to Nortel and stood up slowly. His gaze travelled around the circle of watchers. The keepers and some of his crew watched anxiously. At a distance behind them, as if their misery were too great to bear any company, were the King and the Queen of the Elderlings.
Malta sat on a crate that Reyn had carried there for her, her baby in her arms. Her eyes were fixed on the crumbled wall that surrounded the well. Her Elderling robes gleamed in the sun, and a golden scarf swathed her head. Spring sunlight glittered on the fine scaling of her perfect features. ‘Dignity,’ he thought as he looked at her. Dignity, no matter what. Reyn stood beside her, tall and grave, and the three together were like a sculpture of royalty.
Or misery, when one looked at their faces. The child was crying, a thin breathless wailing that made Leftrin want to cover his ears or run away. Neither parent seemed to hear it any more. Malta did not rock Phron or murmur comforting words. She endured, as did her mate. They waited in a silence beyond words, their desperate hope as thin and sharp as a knife blade. The well would yield Silver and somehow one of the dragons could tell them how to use it to heal the baby. The child wailed on and on, a sound that peeled calm from Leftrin’s mind. Soon, it will stop. He will be exhausted, he thought to himself. Or dead, was the darker thought that came to him. The child was so emaciated now that he did not want to look at him. Scales were slipping from his greyish skin; his small tuft of pale hair was dry and bristly on his head. Leftrin knew that if the well yielded Silver, the parents would risk touching him with it. They had no other course. For a long moment, he tried to imagine what they must feel, but could not. Or perhaps dared not.
She spoke his name breathlessly, and the weakness in her voice jerked his eyes to her. Alise appeared at the bend of a narrow street, walking slowly toward them as if the weight of her Elderling cloak were almost too heavy to bear. ‘What is wrong with her?’ Tats muttered, and Harrikin quietly replied, ‘She looks drunk. Or drugged.’
Leftrin spared a moment to shoot them a warning look, and then hastened toward Alise.
‘She looks very sick,’ Sylve suggested.
Leftrin broke into a run with Sedric and Sylve not far behind him. Up close, Alise looked more haggard than Leftrin had ever seen her. Her face was slack and heavy and his heart sank as he gathered her into his embrace. She sagged against him.
‘I found nothing.’ She spoke the words loud and clear but there was little life in her voice. She leaned into him and looked past his shoulder at Malta. Her voice had the quaver of an old, old woman. ‘My dear, I tried and I tried. Everywhere. I have spent the night listening to stone, touching anywhere that I thought they might have stored it. I feel I have lived a hundred lives since last I spoke to you. Many things I have learned, but of how pure Silver might be used to heal, of how to touch Silver and not die, I have found nothing.’
Alise swayed in Leftrin’s arms and he tightened his embrace to keep her from falling. ‘Alise, I thought you had gone apart to take some rest! How could you risk yourself so? We are not Elderlings, to fearlessly touch the stones!’
‘How could I not?’ she asked him faintly. ‘How could I not?’ She laughed brokenly. ‘The music, Leftrin. There was music, in one place, and dancing. I wanted to forget what I came for and just dance. Then I thought of you and I wished you were with me …’ Her voice trailed away.
He tipped her face up to look into her eyes. ‘Alise?’ he begged. ‘Alise?’ Her gaze shifted to meet his. She was still there. A bit of life came back into her face. Sedric hovered nearby, with Sylve at his side. He knew they wanted to help but he could not surrender her to them. He suddenly saw them as Elderlings, impossibly different from himself and the woman he held in his arms. He spoke hoarsely by her ear. ‘Why did you do it? It’s dangerous. You know it is! Regardless of what Rapskal may say or the others do, we know what memory-stone can do to us. Many of the Rain Wild folk have drowned in memories. Perhaps Elderlings can use such stones without threat, but we cannot. I know you wish to know all about the city, but touching the stone is something you must leave to the others. What could make you do such a foolish thing?’
‘It wasn’t for the city,’ she said. He felt her pull herself together. She stood on her own now, but chose not to leave the circle of his arms. ‘Leftrin. It’s about the baby, little Phron. And Bellin’s babies, never born. About—’ She paused and took a long breath, then plunged into it. ‘About your baby that I would want to bear some day. You heard what Mercor has told us. If we live near the dragons and the Elderlings, then we will change also. Skelly will change. Our children will continue to be born Changed, and for those of us not Elderlings with dragons, they will die young. As we will. If there is another way, we have to discover it, my dear. No matter the cost.’
Her words drenched and drowned him like a flash flood. He hugged her close to him, his mind whirling with possibilities that had never seemed quite real to him before. ‘I’ll clear the well,’ he promised her. ‘I’ll get that bucket up and out of the way. It’s as much as I can say for certain, but I’ll do it.’
‘It’s the missing piece,’ she said into his chest. ‘Of that I am certain. Silver is what is needed. You will be restoring full magic to the Elderlings.’
Now, there was a frightening thought. He looked around at the keepers, marking how they had drawn near to hear her words. All these youngsters with magic. What would they do with it? Use it wisely? He shook his head at such a foolish hope.
Malta had stood and Reyn had trailed her as she approached them. Her lips were chewed and chapped, her hair like straw. The babe in her arms mewed endlessly. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘For all the ways you have tried to help us, thank you.’ Leftrin did not doubt her sincerity, but pure weariness and unadulterated sorrow sucked the heart from her words. She might have been thanking Alise for a cup of tea instead of thanking her for risking her sanity.
Leftrin stepped back, holding Alise by the shoulders. ‘Bellin!’ he barked suddenly. ‘Take her down to the ship. Get a hot meal into her and see that she goes to sleep in my stateroom. I want her out of the city for a night at least.’ As Bellin approached, Leftrin looked at the well with new eyes. ‘I’ll clear it,’ he promised her again.
Alise muttered a protest, but did not resist as the deckhand took her arm and led her away. As they walked away from him, Leftrin heard Bellin’s husky words. ‘Oh, Alise. If only it can be. If only it can be.’
The ‘fishing’ consumed the rest of the day. The line was long and the ghost-light of the jewellery barely enough to see anything by. Sedric took a fruitless turn at the effort. A hundred times, a thousand times, the hook slid past the bucket’s handle without catching on it. Keepers and crewmen, all took turns. All failed. When Sylve finally hooked it, she gave a single whoop of excitement.
‘Keep it taut!’ Carson barked at her, but he grinned as he said it. Everyone gathered in a circle around her held their breaths. The Elderling girl grasped the line firmly, holding the tension while Carson slowly took up the slack on the other side of the pulley. ‘Got it,’ he told her, and very slowly she let go of the rope. She backed away from the well’s edge and then stood up, arching her back. Lecter came without asking to take up the line behind Carson. ‘Slow and steady,’ Carson told him, and he nodded.
All saw the strain as the two men pulled. The rope creaked, and Leftrin came to add his strength. ‘Stuck in the dried muck,’ Carson guessed breathlessly and Leftrin grunted in agreement. The rope creaked more loudly and then Sylve gave a small shriek as all three men abruptly stumbled back.
‘You’ve lost it!’ she cried. But she was wrong. The line swung slowly as it took the weight of the bucket in full.
‘Keep the tension on it,’ Carson advised them. ‘Go slow. We don’t know how strong the bail is on the bucket. Try not to let the bucket touch the wall; it might jar it loose. Then we’d have it all to do over again.’ Sedric watched the keepers trade their grips, hand over hand, as the ancient bucket slowly rose toward the surface.
The sun was toward the horizon when the flame jewels finally emerged and the handle of the bucket was seized with eager hands. ‘It’s plain damn luck that line held,’ Leftrin exclaimed as they lifted it over the lip and onto the ground. The keepers crowded round. It was, as Rapskal had speculated, large enough for a dragon to drink from, lovingly crafted from dark wood lined with beaten metal.
‘Silver!’ Tats had gasped.
Sedric stared at it, unable to speak. Carson came to rest a hand on his shoulder and stare with the others.
It was obvious the bucket had long rested at an angle at the bottom of the well. There was a slope of packed silt in the bottom of the bucket. Draining away from it and gathering itself into an uneven puddle on the bottom was Silver. Sedric stared at it, his breath caught in his chest. Yes. He understood now what Mercor had said about the stuff, that it was in the blood of dragons. For that was where he had seen it before.
The unwelcome memory burst into his mind. He had crouched in the darkness, full of greed and hope, and cut the dragon’s neck and caught the running blood. She had not been Relpda then, his gleaming copper queen. She had been a muddy brown animal dying on the riverbank, and his only thought had been that if he took her blood and sold it, he could buy himself a new life in a distant land with Hest. He had trapped her blood in a bottle and left her to her fate. But he remembered now how the dragon’s blood had swirled and drifted in the glass bottle, scarlet on silvery red, always moving before his eyes.
Yes. There was Silver in dragon’s blood, for he watched it now as it stirred and moved like a live thing seeking an escape. Such a shallow puddle to evoke such awe in all of them! It drew itself together in a perfect circle and stood up from the bottom of the old bucket like a bubble of oil on water. There it remained in stillness, and yet silver in every variant of that colour moved and swirled through it. ‘It’s beautiful,’ Thymara breathed. She stretched out a hand and Tats caught her by the wrist.
Malta and Reyn stood side by side. The babe fell suddenly silent.
‘It’s deadly,’ Tats reminded them all. The young keeper looked around at the circle of faces that hemmed the bucket and its contents. ‘What do we do with it?’
‘For now? Nothing,’ Leftrin declared sternly. He met Malta’s stare with one of his own. ‘We brought it up. There’s Silver down there, though this is scarce enough to wet a dragon’s tongue. What little we have here, we save until the dragons’ return, in hopes they can use it to save the baby. Do any disagree?’ His eyes roved the assembled keepers.
Sylve looked shocked as she said, ‘What else would we do with it? All of us want the young prince to live!’
Leftrin concealed his surprise. Prince. So they thought of the sickly child, and so they had risked all for him. He cleared his throat. ‘Well then. I say we take no more risks this evening, but set this aside and all of us go take some rest.’
She could feel the light fading from the day. Her last day? Probably. Pain lived in her, a fire that did not warm her. Some little scavenger, braver than most, tugged at her foot. Tintaglia twitched, a reflex that hurt now, and it scampered off into the rushes to wait. Not for long, she thought. Not for long.
She felt him land not far from her. The thud of a grown drake vibrated the mud beneath her, and the wind of his wings washed over her. She smelled his musk and the fresh blood of his latest kill. It stirred hunger in her, but suddenly even that sensation took too much effort. Her body released her from that need. Nothing left to do but stop.
She felt him coming closer.
Not yet. It was hard to focus the thought at him. I’ve had enough of pain. Let me die before you take my memories.
Kalo came closer and she felt him stand over her. She braced herself. He would finish her with one bite to the back of her neck, at the narrowest part, where her skull joined her spine. It would hurt but it would be quick. Better than feeling the ants that were already investigating her wounds.
Blood from his jaws dripped down, falling on her face and on the side of her mouth where her jaw hung ajar. She tasted it with the edge of her tongue. She drew a sharper breath. Sweet torture. Her eyes flickered open.
The big drake stood over her. Light touched him, gleaming him black and then blue. A river pig hung limp from his jaws. The blood dripping onto the side of her mouth was warm. He had brought his kill here to devour while he waited for her to die. The smell of it was intoxicating. She moved her tongue in her mouth, tasting life one last time.
He dropped the pig right in front of her.
Her incredulous response had no words.
Eat that. If you eat, you might live. If you live, I might find a mate worthy of my size. Kalo wheeled away from her. I will make a kill for myself. I will be back.
She felt the sodden earth under her shudder as he leapt into flight. Stupid male. She was too far gone for this. It was of no use. She opened her jaws slightly and the fresh blood ran over her tongue. She shuddered. The dead pig was so close to her, reeking of warm blood. She could not lift her head. But she could snake it along the ground on the length of her neck, and open her jaws wide enough to close them around its water-gleaming hindquarters. She closed her jaws, her teeth sank in and blood flowed into her mouth. She swallowed it, and her hunger woke like a banked fire does to wind. She lunged, snapped, and tipped her head up to swallow. A short time passed, and she lifted her head. She had dragged the pig closer with her first assault on it, and now she could scissor off chunks and gulp them down. Blood and life flowed back into her.
Pain came with vitality. When the pig was gone, she shuddered all over. Small creatures that had crept closer under cover of darkness suddenly scattered back into the rushes. She rolled onto her belly and then gave a roar of pain as she lurched to her feet. She walked to the river’s edge and then out into the icy water. Ants and beetles that had come to feast on her wounds were washed away in the water’s chill rush. She felt the acid’s hard kiss and hoped it would sear some of the lesser wounds closed. She groomed awkwardly, too swollen and stiff to reach some of her injuries. And the worst one, that still held part of the damned Chalcedean arrow, forced her wing out at an odd angle. There was less pressure from it since the second piercing and it seemed to be draining still. She forced herself to move the wing and felt a rush of liquid down her side. She screamed her fury at the pain to the night, and night birds lifted from the trees and a passing troop of monkeys fled shrieking from the river’s edge. Good to know that something still trembled in fear of her. She staggered from the water and found a less trampled place among the tall rushes and fern fronds and lay down to sleep. Not to die. To sleep.
That’s good to know. His thought touched her before she felt the wind of his wings sweep past her. He landed heavily, and the gelid earth quaked beneath him. She smelled fresh blood on him; so he had made another kill and fed himself.
Tomorrow morning, I will hunt meat for you again. He stretched out his body casually beside hers and she knew a moment’s unease. This was not the way of dragons. No dragon brought down prey for another, nor did they sleep in proximity to one another. But his eyes were closed and the stentorian breath of his sleep was regular. It was very strange to have him so close to her. Strange, but comforting, she thought to herself, and closed her eyes.
Day the 6th of the Plough Moon
Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
From Erek Dunwarrow, former Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown, presently residing in Trehaug
To Kerig Sweetwater, Master of the Bird Keepers’ Guild, Bingtown
Master Sweetwater, I send this sealed missive by a bird released from my wife’s own hand from her coop here in Trehaug. I write of a matter of great concern to all of us.
I trust you to remember that I was your apprentice once, and that from you I learned my standards of honesty and integrity. I am now married to Detozi Dunwarrow, long known as an excellent and honourable bird keeper here in Trehaug.
This day as I approached Detozi’s coop to deliver her noon meal, I heard and then saw a bird in distress, a messenger bird tangled and hanging by his foot. I climbed out into the smaller branches of the pathway and was able to cut him free. Imagine my surprise to recognize a bird I had myself raised in Bingtown, one that was subsequently sent as an unmated male to the coops in Cassarick. Although he was unbanded, I assure you that I recognize this bird. In my care, he was known as Two-toes, and was unusual for hatching with a missing toe. Even more shocking was when I confirmed what I recalled from the red lice plague.
This bird had been listed as one of those that had perished in the Cassarick coops.
The message fastened to his leg was not in a Guild tube, the bird was badly fed and in poor health, and the careless manner of the fastening for the message tube was responsible for his becoming entangled.
I believe he was sent from Cassarick to Trehaug clandestinely, and only by happenstance have I intercepted him. Please do not suspect me of ill-doing; I have concealed the bird in my home until I can bring him back to full health. He deserves that at least. I have preserved the illegal message packet unopened. I beg you to tell me to whom I can entrust it here, for I fear to hand it over to the very villain who has constructed this deceit.
If you find fault at all with how I have handled this, I beg that all blame fall upon me and not Detozi. This is none of her doing, but only mine.