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The dragons looped in wide circles over the river like swallows. Their flight looked effortless. The scarlet one was Heeby, and high above her, flying in an ever-widening gyre was Sintara, a blue gem against the blue sky. His heart soared as he finally spotted a set of emerald wings. Fente. His very own Fente. She had been flying for three days now, and every time Tats glimpsed her aloft his heart swelled with fondness and pride. Tinged, of course, with anxiety.

Foolish one. I am a dragon. To me the skies belong. I know this is hard for an earthbound creature to grasp, but this is where I have always belonged.

He could only smile at her condescension. You fly like thistledown, beauty on wings.

Thistledown with talons! I go to the hunt!

May you find red meat!

Tats watched her tip her wings and peel away from the others, heading toward the foothills on the far side of the river. He felt a pang of disappointment. He probably would not see her again today. She would hunt, kill, gorge, sleep and in the evening she would return not to him but to Kelsingra, to soak in the baths there, or to sleep in one of the awakened dragon sanctuaries in the city. He knew it was for the best. It was what she needed if she was to grow and improve her flying. And he was so glad that his dragon was one of the first to achieve flight. But but he missed her. Her success had left him more alone than ever.

On the shoreline before him several other dragons were attempting what she had mastered. Carson was standing beside silver Spit, holding the tip of the dragons extended wing as he inspected it for parasites. Spit already gleamed like a polished sword. Tats could tell that Carson was forcing the dragon to stretch his wing in the pretence of further grooming. Spit was rumbling in a way that was both unhappy and threatening. Carson was ignoring it. Not all of the dragons were enthusiastic participants in their exercises and practice. Spit was among the most recalcitrant. Ranculos was reckless one day and sullen the next. Midnight-blue Kalo simmered with dignified resentment that mere humans dared to supervise his efforts to fly, while Baliper was openly fearful of the moving river and would not attempt flight near it. Most of the others, he thought to himself, were simply lazy. Training to fly was demanding and painful work.

Some, however, were intent on achieving flight, regardless of the cost. Dortean was still recovering from crashing to the earth through some trees. Sestican had torn a rent in the membrane of one wing. His keeper Lecter had held the injured wing open and wept as Carson had stitched up the tear.

Mercor stood erect, his golden wings spread wide to the thin sunlight. Harrikin and Sylve were watching him, and Sylves face was pinched with anxiety. Harrikins dragon Ranculos watched jealously. The gold drake lifted his wings high and then gave them a short, sharp snap as if to assure himself all was working. He gathered himself, setting his weight back onto his hindquarters. As Tats watched, he leapt, wings spread and beating frantically. But he could not gain enough altitude for a full beat of his wings and the best he could manage was a long glide in parallel to the river before landing clumsily on the sandy shore. Tats let out a long sigh of disappointment and saw Sylve briefly cover her face with her hands. The golden dragon was growing thinner as he grew larger, and he did not gleam as he once had. Learning to fly and to hunt for himself was now a matter of survival. For the others as much as himself. Where he led, the other dragons would follow.

Mercor held an odd sway over the others, one Tats did not completely understand. In their serpent incarnations, he had led their tangle. It surprised Tats that a loyalty from a previous life prevailed still. But when Mercor had proclaimed that the flighted dragons must hunt only on the far side of the river, and leave the game on the village side alone so that the keepers might better provide for the grounded dragons, no one, dragon or keeper, had protested. Now the other dragons watched him limbering his wings, and Tats hoped that if Mercor made a successful flight, they would all become more willing in their efforts.

Once the dragons could fly and hunt, life would become easier for all of them. The keepers would also be able to transfer their lives to Kelsingra. Tats thought of warm beds and hot water and sighed. He lifted his eyes again to watch Fente in flight.

Its hard to let go of her, isnt it?

He turned reluctantly at Alises question. For a moment he was stricken, thinking she had seen to his core and knew how he pined for Thymara. Then he realized she spoke of his dragon, and tried to smile at her. The Bingtown woman had been quiet and grave of late, and distant. It was almost as if she had returned to being the stranger among them, the fine lady from Bingtown who had startled all of the Rain Wild keepers when they had first discovered she was a member of their expedition. Initially, she had competed with Thymara for Sintaras attention, but Thymaras competence as a hunter had soon won Sintaras belly if not her heart. Nevertheless, Alise had created her own place in the expedition company. She did not hunt, but she had helped groom and tend dragon injuries as best she could. And she had known things, information about dragons and Elderlings that had helped them along the way. For a time, it had seemed she was one of them.

But Alise had not been chosen as keeper by any of the dragons, and Rapskals declaration that the city belonged to the keepers had thrust her to one side. Tats still winced when he thought of that stark confrontation. When they had first reached Kelsingra, Alise had asserted her authority and decreed that nothing must be touched or changed until she had had a chance to thoroughly document the dead city. Tats had simply accepted her rule, as had the other keepers. It surprised him now to realize how much authority he had conceded to her simply because she was an adult and a scholar.

But then had come the confrontation between her and Rapskal. Rapskal had been the only one of the keepers with free access to the city. His dragon Heeby had been the first to take flight, and unlike the other dragons, she had not minded carrying a passenger on her back. Heeby had provided passage to the city for Alise many times. But when Rapskal and Thymara had ventured to the city to explore and had returned the next day with a trove of warm Elderling garments to share with the other ragged keepers, Alise had been incensed. He had never seen the genteel Bingtown woman so angry. She had cried out to them that they must put the garments down this instant and stop tugging at them.

And that was when Rapskal had defied her. He had told her, in his direct way, that the city was alive and belonged to the Elderlings, not to her. He had pointed out that he and his fellow keepers were Elderlings while she was and would remain a human. Despite his own heartbreak that day, despite seeing Thymara beside Rapskal, Tats had felt a flash of deep pity for Alise. And a stripe of shame and regret to see her so quickly retreat and withdraw from their company. When he thought about it now, he felt a bit guilty that he had not at least knocked at her door to ask if she was all right. He had been nursing his own heartbreak, but still, he should have gone to ask after her. The truth was, he hadnt even noticed she had been missing until she reappeared.

Did her effort at conversation mean she had recovered from Rapskals rebuke? He hoped so.

He smiled at her as he replied, Fente has changed. She doesnt need me as she once did.

Before long, none of them will. She was not looking at him. Her gaze tracked his dragon across the sky. You will all have to start thinking of yourselves in a different way. Your own lives will come to have more significance to you. The dragons will take command of their own fates. And probably ours as well.

What do you mean?

Now she looked at him, a direct look with her brows raised as if startled that he did not immediately grasp what she had told him. I mean that dragons will rule the world again. As they used to.

As they used to? Tats echoed her words as he followed her toward the riverbank. It had become a new habit for all of them; the keepers and the flightless dragons gathered in the morning on the riverbank to discuss the days tasks. He glanced around and for a moment was seized by the beauty of the scene. The keepers were gleaming figures in the fleeting morning mist, for all wore their Elderling garments daily now. Their dragons were scattered across the hillside and along the bank. They were limbering their wings, beating them hard against the meadow grass or stretching out necks and legs. They, too, gleamed brilliantly against the dew-heavy grasses of the wet meadow. At the bottom of the hill, Carson had given over his efforts with Spit and waited for them, Sedric at his side.

The leadership had evolved, Tats realized. For all Rapskals charismatic speech when he had returned from Kelsingra, he had not assumed the command as Tats had thought he might. Probably because he was not interested in being a leader. He was handsome and cheerful, beloved by his fellows, but most of them spoke of him with a fond smile rather than deep respect. Rapskal remained as odd as he had always been, introspective one moment and bizarrely social the next. And happy with whom he was. The ambition that would have burned inside Tats was not even a spark to him.

Carson was by years the oldest of those who had taken on a dragon. It seemed natural to cede authority to him, and the hunter did not shirk from it. For the most part, Carson assigned the daily tasks to the keepers, a few to groom and otherwise tend to the remaining dragons, and the rest of them to hunt or fish. If a keeper protested that he had a different task in mind that day, Carson did not let it become an issue. He recognized their individuality and did not attempt to impose his authority on them. As a result, all seemed to accept it.

Alise had quietly claimed some of the menial but necessary tasks of daily living. She tended the smoking racks that preserved fish and meat for them, gathered edible greens and helped groom the dragons. Sylve, never the most successful hunter, had turned her energies to the preparation of meals. At Carsons suggestion, the keepers had returned to large shared meals. It was strange but nice to return to the communal meals and talk they had shared when they were moving the dragons upriver.

It made him feel a bit less lonely.

As they used to, and will again, Alise continued. She glanced over at him. Seeing them in flight, watching all of you change it puts a different light on all that I discovered in the course of my early studies. Dragons were the centre of the Elderling civilizations, with humans a separate population that lived apart from them, in settlements like the ones we found here. Humans raised crops and cattle which they traded to Elderlings in exchange for their wondrous goods. Look at the city across the river, Tats, and ask yourself, how did they feed themselves?

Well, there were herds on the outskirts of the cities. Probably places to grow crops

Probably. But humans were the ones to do that. Elderlings gave themselves and their lives over to their magic, and to tending the dragons. All they did and built and created was not for themselves, but for the dragons who overshadowed them.

Ruled them? The dragons ruled them? He wasnt enjoying the images in his mind.

Ruled isnt quite the right word. Does Fente rule you?

Of course not!

And yet you gave your days over to hunting for her, and grooming her and otherwise caring for her.

But I wanted to do those things.

Alise smiled. And that is why ruled is the wrong word. Charmed? Englamoured? Im not sure quite how to express it, but you do already know what I mean. If these dragons breed and bring more of their kind into the world, then inevitably they will end up running the world for their own benefit.

That sounds so selfish!

Does it? Isnt it what humans have done for generations? We claim the land as ours and turn it to our purposes. We change the channels of rivers and the face of the land so that we can travel by boat or grow a crop or graze cattle. And we think it only natural that we should shape the whole world to be comfortable and yielding for humankind. Why should dragons be any different in how they perceive the world?

Tats was quiet for a time.

It may not be a bad thing at all, Alise observed into his silence. Maybe humans will lose some of their pettiness if they have dragons to contend with. Ah, look! Is that Ranculos? I would not have believed it possible!

The huge scarlet dragon was in the air. He was not graceful. His tail was still too skinny, and his hindquarters flimsy for his size. Tats was about to observe that he was only gliding after a launch from a higher point, but at that moment the dragons wings began to beat heavily, and what had been a glide turned into laboured flight as he gained altitude.

Tats became aware of Harrikin. The tall slender keeper was racing down the hillside, almost in his dragons shadow. As Ranculos beat his wings and rose upward, Harrikin cried out, Ware your course! Bank, bank your wings left! Not over the river, Ranculos! Not over the river!

His cry was thin and breathless, and Tats doubted that the huge dragon heard him at all. If he did, he paid him no mind. Perhaps he was full of exhilaration; or perhaps he had decided to fly or die trying.

The red dragon lumbered into the sky, his hind legs dangling and twitching as he tried to pull them up into alignment with the rest of his body. Some of the other keepers were adding their voices to Harrikins now. Too soon, Ranculos, too soon!

Come back! Circle back!

The red dragon ignored them. His laboured efforts carried him farther and farther from the shore. The steady beat of his wings became an uneven flapping.

What is he doing? What is he thinking?

Silence! A trumpeted blast of sound and thought from Mercor quenched them all. Watch! he commanded both humans and dragons.

Ranculos hung suspended, wings wide now. His uncertainty was plain. He tipped and teetered as he began a wide circle, losing altitude as he did so. Then, as if realizing that he was closer to Kelsingra than the village, he resumed his course. But his weariness was evident now. His body drooped between his wings. The intersection of dragon and river became both obvious and inevitable.

No-o-o-o! Harrikins low cry was a sound of agony. He stood stiffly, hands clutching at his face, his nails sinking into his cheeks as he stared. Ranculoss glide carried him farther and farther from the village. Below him, the grey rivers greedy current raced relentlessly. Sylve gave Mercor a cautious glance, and then ran to stand beside Harrikin. Lecter plodded down the hillside toward his foster-brother, his broad shoulders slumped as if he shared Harrikins desperation and already knew the outcome.

Ranculos began to beat his wings, not steadily but in panic. Their uneven rhythm tipped and tilted him. He fluttered like a fledgling fallen too soon from the nest. His destination was the far side of the river but despite his battle with the air, all knew he could not attain it. Once, twice, thrice his wingtips scored white on the rivers face and then his drooping hind legs snagged in the current and the waters snatched him from the sky, pinwheeling him wide-winged into the greyness. He slapped his wings uselessly against the water. Then he sank. The river smoothed over the spot where he had fallen as if he had never been.

Ranculos! Ranculos! Harrikins voice went shrill and childish as he fell slowly to his knees. All eyes watched the river, hoping for what could not be. Nothing disturbed the rushing waters. Harrikin stared, straining toward the water. His hands went into fists as he shouted, Swim! Kick! Fight it, Ranculos! Dont give in! Dont give up!

He lurched to his feet and took a dozen steps toward the water. Sylve, clutching at him, was dragged along. He halted and looked wildly about. Then a shudder passed over him, and he cried out, PLEASE! Please, Sa, not my dragon! Not my dragon! The blowing wind swept his heartbroken prayer to one side. He fell to his knees again, and this time his head bent and he did not rise.

A terrible silence flowed in as all stared at the empty river. Sylve glanced back at the other keepers, useless horror on her face. Lecter moved forward. He set one heavily scaled hand upon Harrikins lean shoulder, and bowed his head. His shoulders heaved.

Tats stared silently, sharing his agony. Guiltily, he stole a glance at the sky. It took him a moment to locate Fente, a winking green gem in the distance. As he watched, she dived on something, probably a deer. Unaware or uncaring? he wondered. He looked in vain for either of the other two dragons. If they realized that Ranculos was drowning, they gave no indication of it. Was it because they knew there was nothing anyone could do? He did not understand the seeming heartlessness of dragons toward one another.

And sometimes, toward their keepers, he thought as the blue beauty that was Sintara abruptly swept across his field of vision. She, too, was on the hunt, skimming the distant hills on the other side of the water, unmindful of either Thymara standing alone on the shore or Ranculos perishing in the rivers icy grip.

Ranculos! Sestican bellowed suddenly.

Tats saw Lecters head come up. He spun and then stared in horror as his blue dragon began a lumbering gallop down the hillside. Sestican opened his wings as he ran, baring the bright orange tracery on his blue wings. Lecter left his collapsed brother and began his own run on a path that would intercept his dragon, bellowing his pleas for him to stop. Davvie ran after him. The big blue dragon had been practising flight assiduously but even so, Tats was astonished when he suddenly leapt into the air, snapping his body into arrow-straight alignment and gaining air with every beat of his wings. He cleared his keepers head but even so, he was barely a wing span above the rivers surface as he began his attempt to cross. Lecter dissolved in hoarse screams of No! No! Youre not ready yet! Not you, too! No!

Davvie came to a halt beside him, both hands crossed over his mouth in horror.

Let him go, Mercor said wearily. There was no force behind his words but they carried to every ear. He takes the risk that each of us must chance, sooner or later. To stay here is to die slowly. Perhaps a swift drowning in cold water is a better choice. The gold dragons black eyes swirled as he watched Sesticans ponderous flight.

The wind whispered across the meadow, scattering rain as it came. Tats squinted, grateful for the wetness on his cheeks.

But perhaps not! Mercor trumpeted abruptly. He reared onto his hind legs as he turned his gaze far downriver to stare at the opposite shore. Several of the other dragons mimicked him. Harrikin shot suddenly to his feet as Spit exclaimed, Hes out! Ranculos crossed the river!

Tats strained his eyes but could see nothing. The rain had become a grey haze, and the area the dragons observed was a warren of Elderling buildings crumbling into the water. But then Harrikin exclaimed, He is! Hes out of the river. Bruised and battered, but hes alive. Ranculos is alive in Kelsingra!

Harrikin suddenly seemed to notice Sylve. He swept her into his arms and spun with her in a giddy circle, crying, Hes safe! Hes safe! Hes safe! Sylve joined her laughter to his joyous cries. Then, abruptly, they stopped. Sestican? Harrikin cried. Lecter! Lecter! He and Sylve set off at a run toward Lecter.

Lecters blue dragon had neared the far shore. He arched his body, bending his head and shorter front legs down toward his suddenly dangling back feet, touched the ground with all four feet, wings wide, and for one instant, his landing was graceful. Then his speed betrayed him, and he tumbled in a somersault, wings still open. A mixed chorus of cheers, groans and a few hoots of laughter met his clumsy landing. But Lecter gave a wild shout of joy and leapt into the air. He spun, froggy grin wide to confront those who had laughed, demanding, And can your dragons do better? He spotted Davvie and caught his lover in a crushing hug.

A moment later, his foster-brother and Sylve had engulfed them both in a wild embrace. Then, to Tats astonishment, Harrikin plucked Sylve free, spun her once and then, as he landed her, kissed her deeply. The gathering keepers were shouting joyously as they converged on them.

It all changes, Alise murmured quietly. She watched them embrace, saw them caught up in the mob of their friends, and then turned back to Tats. Thats five now. Five dragons in Kelsingra.

Ten left here, Tats agreed. Then he added, as he saw that Harrikin and Sylve still held one another, oblivious to the whooping crowd around them, It has changed. What do you think of it?

Do you believe what I think matters to them? Alise asked him. The words could have sounded sour, but her question was sincere.

Tats was silent for a moment. I think it does, he said at last. I think it matters to all of us. You know so much of the past. Sometimes, I think you can see more clearly what may become of us He faltered as he realized his words might seem unkind.

Because I am not one of you. Because I only observe, she spoke the words for him. As he nodded dumbly, embarrassed, she laughed aloud. It does give me a perspective that perhaps you lack.

She gestured at Sylve and Harrikin. Hand in hand, they stood beside Lecter. The other keepers surrounded them, laughing and rejoicing. Davvie was with Lecter, and they, too, held hands. In Trehaug or Bingtown, that would be scandal. There, they would already be outcasts. Here, when you look aside when they kiss, it is not in disgust but to grant them privacy.

Tatss attention drifted. He noticed Rapskal moving through the clustered keepers to stand by Thymara. He said something to her, and she laughed. Then he set his hand to her back, his fingers light on the mounded fabric of the Elderling garb that concealed her wings. Thymara gave a wriggle like a shiver and twitched out of his reach, but no offence showed on her face.

Tats looked away from them and back to Alise. Or perhaps we look aside in envy, he said, surprising himself with his honesty.

It is hard for loneliness to gaze on happiness, Alise admitted, and Tats realized that she thought his remark had been directed at her.

At least, you know your loneliness will end soon, he pointed out.

She rewarded him with a smile. It will. And eventually, so will yours.

He could not find a smile to answer hers. How can you seem so sure of that?

She cocked her head and looked at him. It is as you said. I have a different perspective. But if I tell you what I foresee, you may not like the answer.

Im ready to hear it, he assured her, wondering if he was.

She gazed over the gathered keepers and across the river. On the far side, he could just make out both dragons through the falling rain and mist. Ranculos had emerged far downstream of Sestican but was working his way along the riverbank. Sestican was a small blue figure making his slow way up one of the citys main streets. To the dragon baths, Tats suspected. Soaking in hot water was almost all the earthbound dragons spoke of any more. He let his gaze wander to the dragons on the near shore. They stared with longing. Mercors neck was stretched toward Kelsingra as if sheer will could lift him there. Silver Spit and squat Relpda stood to one side, heads cocked like puzzled children. The other dragons were arrayed in a fan behind Mercor. Blue-black Kalo towered large over Jerds small queen Veras. Baliper and Arbuc stayed a safe distance from the short-tempered black drake as they gazed longingly at the far shore. Tinder, the sole lavender dragon now developing tracery of royal blue on his wings, stood beside the two oranges, Dortean and Skrim. The last two dragons reminded Tats very much of their owners, Kase and Boxter. They always seemed to be in proximity to one another. Alises measured words broke into his thoughts.

You are young, even by Rain Wild standards. By Elderling count, my studies tell me your life has barely begun. You have not decades, but lifetimes before you. And I suspect that as Kelsingra comes back to life and its population grows, you will have many young women to choose from. You will find someone, eventually. Or possibly several someones, over the course of your many years.

He stared at her, shocked into silence by such a prospect.

Elderlings are not humans, she asserted quietly. Of old, they were not bound by the conventions of humans. She looked away from him, across the river to Kelsingra, as if she could see the future in the misty city. And I expect it will be so again. That you will live apart from us, and by your own rules. She inclined her head toward the rejoicing. Now is not a time for you to stand here with me. You should go join them.

Alise watched Tats hesitate. She thought him brave when he gave a tight nod and then started down the hill toward his own kind. He was the only one of them who had begun this journey as the tattooed son of a slave rather than a born Rain Wilder. Sometimes he still believed he was an outsider. But she could see the truth. He was as much an Elderling as any of them now, and would be to the end of his days. She pondered that as she hiked back to her cabin and sighed as she opened the door and entered her tidy domain. They were Elderlings, bonded to dragons, and she was not. She was the lone human on the landscape for days in all directions. The only one not bonded to a dragon. Her loneliness leapt up to strangle her again. She shook it off, turned her thoughts away from the rejoicing and longing on the riverbank and chose her tasks for the day. Green alder branches were needed for the fish-smoking racks. And there was always a need for dry kindling for the cook-fire. Both were becoming harder to find as the village exhausted the easy supply within an hours walk. Both remained important gathering tasks and well within her capability. Not grand or sophisticated work, but it was hers. The vines she had discovered had proved to be excellent for weaving lightweight baskets for carrying twigs or kindling. She picked up one and shouldered into it. She had her own life and purpose. She took up the stout stave that Carson had brought to her which doubled as a walking stick. If she intended to stay in this part of the world and live alongside the Elderlings and their dragons, then she had to adapt to her new station.

The only alternative was unthinkable. Return to Bingtown and her loveless sham of a marriage? Return to Hests brutal mockery and her shadow life as his wife? No. Better a bare hut on a riverbank, with or even without Leftrin, than a return to that life. She squared her shoulders and firmed her will. It was so hard not to retreat to her supposed usefulness as a scholar of Elderlings and dragons. But she was learning. The work she did now was humble but essential and satisfying in a very different way from what she was accustomed to.

Sylve had asked to be shown the way to the wintergreen berries. They would go together this afternoon to gather more berries and leaves and scout for other patches in the area. And they would go armed with staves, lest the pard returned. She smiled to herself as she thought of how astonished Carson had been at her tale of how she had frightened the big cat. He had made her promise to be at their shared meal that evening, to tell everyone what she had seen and where, and how she had evaded death. Made her promise also not to venture on such an extended exploration without a partner and without informing someone first.

That night, standing before them and recounting all she knew about the legendary pards from the Elderling manuscripts of old, and then revealing how she had pretended to be a much larger creature to panic the animal, had been rewarding. Their laughter at her tale had not been mocking but admiring of her courage.

She had a place now and a life, and it was one of her own making.

Day the 22nd of the Fish Moon

Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

From Kim, Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick

To Winshaw, General Registrar of Birds, Bingtown

I think it is ridiculous that a simple accounting error is leading to suspicions and accusations against me. I have told the Council numerous times that I am the victim of prejudice simply because I came to this post as a Tattooed rather than as one Rain Wilds born. The current journeymen feel a loyalty to their own kind that leads to this sort of suspicion and tattling. As they seem to have nothing better to do than spread evil rumours, I have doubled their duty hours.

Yes, there is a discrepancy between the number of birds in our cotes now and the number that existed before the red lice plague completely subsided. It is for a simple reason: Birds died.

In the crisis of the moment, I did not pay as much attention to paperwork as I did to attempting to keep birds alive. For this reason, yes, I burned dead birds before other bird keepers had witnessed that they were, indeed, dead. It was to stop the spread of contagion. And that is all it was.

I cannot give you evidence of their deaths, unless you wish me to ship a package of ashes from the incineration site. I do not think that is a task worthy of my time.

Do you?

Kim, Keeper of the Birds, Cassarick

Postscript: If any keeper sites are in need of journeymen, I have a surplus, and will gladly release any of them for service. The sooner my own apprentices can replace those disloyal to me, the sooner the operation of the Cassarick station will become more efficient and professional.

CHAPTER ONE Ending a Life | Blood of Dragons | CHAPTER THREE Hunters and Prey