Hunters and Prey
Sintara waded out of the river, cold water sheeting from her gleaming blue scales. When she reached the shore, she opened her wings, rocked back on her hind legs, and shook them, showering the sandy bank with droplets. As she folded them sleekly back to her sides, she feigned oblivion to how every dragon eye was fixed on her. She let her gaze rove over all of them, staring dragons and frozen keepers.
Mercor broke the silence. ‘You look well, Sintara.’
She knew it. It had not taken long. The long baths in simmering water, flights to muscle her and plenty of meat to put flesh on her bones. She finally felt like a dragon. She stood a moment longer to allow them all to notice how she had grown before dropping to all fours again. She regarded Mercor in silence for a few long moments before observing, ‘And you do not. Still not flying, Mercor?’
He did not look aside from her disdain. ‘Not yet. But soon, I hope.’
Sintara had spoken true. The golden drake had outgrown his flesh, as if the meat of his body were stretched too thinly over his bones. He was clean, meticulously groomed as ever, but he did not gleam as he once had.
‘He will fly.’
The words were confident. Sintara turned her head. Her focus on Mercor had been such that she had forgotten there were other dragons present, let alone a mere human. Several of the Elderling youths had paused at their tasks to watch their encounter, but not Alise. She was working on Baliper, and as her hands moved over a long gash on his face, she kept her eyes on her task. The gash was fresh; she was blotting blood and dirt from it, rinsing the rag in a bucket at her feet. Baliper’s eyes were closed.
Sintara did not reply to Alise’s assertion. Instead, she said, ‘So you are Baliper’s keeper now. Do you hope he will make you an Elderling? To give you a better life?’
The woman’s eyes flickered to Sintara and then back to her work. ‘No,’ she replied shortly.
‘My keeper is dead. I do not desire another one.’ Baliper spoke in a profoundly emotionless voice.
Alise stilled. She set one hand on the scarlet dragon’s muscular neck. Then she stooped, rinsed her rag, and went on cleaning the gash.
‘I understand that,’ she said quietly. When she spoke to Sintara, her voice echoed Mercor’s exactly. ‘Why did you come here?’
It was an irritating question, not just because they both dared to ask her but because she was not, herself, certain of the answer. Why had she come? It was undragonlike to seek companionship with either other dragons or humans. She looked for a moment at Kelsingra, recalling why the Elderlings had created it: to lure dragons. To offer them the indulgences that only a city built by humans could provide.
Something that Mercor had said long ago pushed into her thoughts. They had been discussing Elderlings and how dragons changed humans. She tried to recall his exact words and could not. Only that he had claimed humans changed dragons just as much as dragons changed humans.
The thought was humiliating. Almost infuriating. Had her long exposure to humans changed her, given her a need for their company? Her blood coursed more strongly through her veins and her body answered her question. Not just company. She felt the wash of colour go through her scales, betraying her.
‘Sintara. Was there a reason for this visit?’
Mercor had moved closer still. His voice was almost amused.
‘I go where I please. Today, it pleased me to come here. Today it pleased me to look on what might have been drakes.’
He opened his wings, stretched them wide. They were larger than she recalled. He flexed them, testing them, and the breeze of them, heavy with his male scent, washed over her. ‘It pleases me that you have come here, as well,’ he observed.
A sound. Had Alise laughed? Sintara snapped her gaze back to the woman, but her head was bent over her bucket as she wrung out her rag. She looked back at Mercor. He was folding his wings carefully. Kalo was watching both of them with interest. As was Spit. As she looked at him, the silver male reared back onto his hind legs and spread his wings as wide as they would go. Carson stood between them, looking very apprehensive. ‘It needn’t be Mercor!’ the nasty little silver trumpeted suddenly. ‘It could be me.’
She stared at him and felt her poison sacs swelling in her throat. He flapped his wings at her, releasing musk in a rank wind. She shook her head and bent her neck, snorting out the stench. ‘It will never be you,’ she spat at him.
‘It might,’ he countered and danced a step toward her. Kalo’s eyes suddenly spun with anger.
‘Spit!’ Carson warned him but the silver pranced another step closer.
Kalo lifted a clawed foot, set it deliberately on his tail. Spit squalled angrily and turned on the much larger dragon, opening his mouth wide to show his poison glands, scarlet and distended. Kalo trumpeted his challenge as he snapped his wing open, bowling the smaller dragon to one side as Carson leapt back with a roar of dismay to avoid being crushed.
Kalo ignored the chaos behind him.
‘I will fly the challenge!’ the cobalt drake announced. He lifted his gaze to Sintara. She heard a distant cry and became aware that far overhead, Fente was circling. The small green queen watched it all with interest. The heat of Kalo’s stare swept through her, and suddenly all she felt was anger, anger for all of them, all the stupid, flightless, useless males. A rippling of colour washed through her skin and echoed in her scales.
‘Fly the challenge?’ she roared back at all of the staring drakes. ‘You fly nothing; none of you fly! I came to see it again, for myself. A field of drakes, as earthbound as cows. As useless to a queen as the old bones of a kill.’
‘Ranculos flies. Sestican flies,’ Alise pointed out relentlessly. ‘Two drakes at least have achieved flight. If they were the drakes you wanted …’
The insult was too great. This time, Sintara spat acid. A controlled ball of it hit the earth a body’s length from Alise. Baliper surged to his feet, eyes spinning sparks of rage. As he charged, Alise shrieked and ran. A spike on one knob of his outflung wings narrowly missed her. Sintara braced herself, flinging her own wings wide, but cobalt Kalo intercepted Baliper. As the two males slammed into one another, feinting with open mouths and slashing with clawed wings, the air was filled with the shouts and screams of Elderlings. Some fled, others raced toward the combatants.
Sintara had only a moment to take in the spectacle before Mercor knocked her down. Gaunt as he was, he was still larger than she was. As she sprawled on the turf, he reared up over her and she expected him to spray her with venom. Instead he came down almost gently, his heavy forefeet pinning her wings to the earth and pressing painfully on the flexible bones.
She opened her jaws to spew acid at him. He darted his head down, his mouth open wide to show her his swollen acid glands. ‘Don’t,’ he hissed at her, and the finest mist of golden acid rode his word. The stinging kiss of it enveloped her head and she flung her face aside from it.
He rumbled out his words, so that the others heard, but he pressed them strongly into her mind at the same time. ‘You are impatient, queen. Understandably so. A little time more, and I will fly. And I will mate you.’ He reared onto his hind legs again, lifting his forefeet off her wings as he did so. She stood up awkwardly, muddied, her wings bruised and aching as she folded them back to her body and scrabbled away.
The battle between Baliper and Kalo had been brief; they stood at a distance from each other, snorting and posturing. Spit cavorted mockingly, a safe distance from the much larger drakes, randomly spitting acid as scampering keepers cried out warnings to one another. Sintara saw Alise watching her; the woman’s eyes were large and anxious. When she stared at the woman, she backed up, lifting her hands to shield her face. It only made Sintara angrier. She fixed her fury on Mercor.
‘Don’t threaten me, drake.’
He turned his head slightly sideways. His wings were still half-open, ready to deal a stunning slap if she sprang at him. He spoke quietly, only into her mind. Not a threat, Sintara. A promise.
As he closed his wings, his musk wafted toward her again. She knew her scales flushed with colours in response, the reflexive biological response of a queen in oestrus. His black eyes whirled with interest.
She lifted onto her hind legs and turned away from him. As she sprang into the sky, she trumpeted, ‘I hunt where I will, drake. I owe you nothing.’ She beat her wings in hard, measured strokes, rising above them all.
In the distance, green Fente trumpeted, shrill and mocking.
She turned slowly at the sound of Tats’s greeting. Tension knotted in her belly. She had been avoiding this conversation. She’d seen in Tats’s eyes when she first returned from Kelsingra that he knew what had happened between her and Rapskal. She hadn’t needed or wanted to discuss it with him. On the days since then, she had not avoided him completely, but she had thwarted his efforts to find her alone. She had found it almost as difficult as avoiding being alone with Rapskal. Tats had been subtle about trying to corner her. Rapskal had shown up on her doorstep the evening they had returned from Kelsingra, smiling far too knowingly when he asked her if she’d care to go for an evening walk.
He had come to the door of the small cottage she shared with Sylve and ostensibly with Jerd as well. The three had moved in together almost as soon as the keepers had settled in the village. Thymara could not recall that it had been a much-discussed decision; it had just seemed logical that the only three female keepers would share lodgings.
Harrikin had helped them select which of the dilapidated structures they would claim as their own, and he had spent more than a few afternoons helping them make it habitable. Thanks to Harrikin, the chimney now drew the smoke out of the house, the roof leaked only when the wind was extremely strong, and there were shutters for the window openings. Furnishings were sparse and rough, but that was true of all the keepers’ homes. From Carson, they had crudely tanned deer hides stretched over pole frames as a basis for their beds, and carved wooden utensils for eating with. Thymara was one of the best hunters, so they always had meat, both to eat and to trade to other keepers. Thymara had enjoyed her evenings with Sylve, and enjoyed them even more when some of the other keepers came by to share the fireside and talk. At first, Tats had been a frequent guest there, as had Rapskal.
Jerd spent few nights there, returning sporadically to shuffle through her possessions for some particular item, or to share a meal with them while she complained about whichever of the males she was currently keeping company with. Despite her dislike for Jerd, Thymara could not deny a perverse fascination with her diatribes against her lovers. She was appalled at Jerd’s casual sexuality and her tempers, her spewing of intimate details and how frequently she discarded one male keeper to take up with another. She had cycled through several of the keepers more than once. It was no secret in their small group that Boxter was hopelessly infatuated with her. He alone she seemed to spurn. Nortel had been her lover for at least three turns of her heart, and copper-eyed Kase had the distinction of having literally put her out of his cottage as well as his bed. She had seemed as astonished as angered that he had been the one to put an end to their liaisons. Thymara suspected that Kase was loyal to his cousin Boxter and wanted no part of breaking his heart.
But that first evening after her time with Rapskal in Kelsingra, of course, Jerd had been home, and full of small and cutting comments. She took care to remind Thymara that Rapskal had once been her lover, however briefly, and that Tats, too, had shared her bed. Her presence had not made it any easier to tell Rapskal gently that she did not want to walk out with him that evening. It had been no easier to refuse him the next day, nor to put him off on the next. When finally she had told him that she doubted the wisdom of what she had done, and that her fear of conceiving a child was greater than her lust for him, Rapskal had surprised her by nodding gravely.
‘It is a concern. I will take it on myself to find out how Elderlings once prevented conception, and when I know it, I will tell you. After that we can enjoy ourselves without fear.’ He had said these words as they walked hand in hand along the riverbank, only a few evenings ago. She had laughed aloud, both charmed and alarmed, as she always was, by his childlike directness about things that were definitely not childish.
‘So easily you set aside all the rules we grew up with?’ she asked him.
‘Those rules don’t apply to us any more. If you’d come back to Kelsingra with me and spend a bit more time with the stones, you’d know that.’
‘Be careful of the memory-stone,’ she had warned him.
It was another rule they had grown up with. All Rain Wild children knew the danger of dallying in the stored memories in the stones. More than one youngster had been lost to them, drowned in memories of other times. Rapskal had shrugged her concerns aside.
‘I’ve told you. I use the stones and the memories they hold as they were intended. Some of it, I now understand, was street art. Some of them, especially the ones in the walls of homes, were personal memories, like a diary. Some are poetry, especially in the statues, or histories. But there will be a place where the Elderlings stored their magic and their medicines, and when I discover it, there I think I will find what we need. Does that comfort you?’
‘Somewhat.’ She decided that she did not have to tell him right then that she was not sure if she would take him into her bed even if she knew it was safe to do so. She was not sure she could explain her reluctance. How could she explain to him what she did not understand herself? Easier not to talk about it.
Easier not to discuss Rapskal with Tats as well. So she turned to him now with a half-smile and an apologetic, ‘I was just about to go hunting. Carson has given me the Willow Ridge today.’
‘And me, also,’ Tats answered easily. ‘Carson wants us to hunt in pairs for safety. It’s not just Alise’s pards. Less chance that we’ll be spooking each other’s game away, too.’
She nodded dumbly. It had been bound to happen sooner or later. Since the keepers had gathered to discuss how best to encourage the dragons to fly, Carson had come up with a number of new ideas. Dividing the hunting territory to prevent conflicts and hunting with a partner for added safety had been one of them. Today, some keepers would be hunting the Long Valley, others the High Shore, and some would be fishing. The Willow Ridge paralleled the river and was, as they had named it, forested mostly with willow. It was prime range for deer to browse, and Carson had reserved it for his best bow-hunters.
She had her gear and Tats had his. There was no excuse not to set out immediately. After the morning’s conflict, Thymara had wanted to flee. Even though Sintara had taken no notice of her, had possibly not even seen her watching from the riverside, Thymara felt shamed by her dragon. She had not wanted to be around the other keepers; she didn’t want to hear what they would be saying about her spoiled queen. Worse was that she kept trying to find a way to justify Sintara’s arrogance and spite. She wanted to be able to defend her dragon. Sintara cared little or nothing for her. She knew that. Yet every time she thought she had divorced her feelings from the blue queen, every time she was sure she had made herself stop caring about her dragon, Sintara seemed to find a new way to wring emotions from her. Today it was shame.
She tried to shake herself free of it as Tats fell into step beside her. It wasn’t her fault. She had done nothing, but it did not help to know that. As they crossed the face of the meadow and passed the other keepers and the dragons, she told herself she was imagining that they were staring after her.
Kase, Boxter, Nortel and Jerd had drawn grooming duty for the day. They were going over the earthbound dragons, checking for sucking parasites near their eyes and ear-holes while encouraging them to stretch out their wings. Arbuc was cooperating in his sweet but rather dim way while Tinder paced impatiently while awaiting attention. Ever since the lavender dragon’s colours had started to develop, he had shown a dandyish side that had several of the keepers chuckling about his vanity. Alise was smoothing deer tallow into the new scratches that Kalo had given Baliper.
Once the dragons had been groomed, the keepers would encourage each of the remaining dragons to make an effort at flight. Only after they had complied, at least nominally, would they be fed. Carson insisted.
Thymara did not envy them their tasks. Of the dragons, only Mercor was patient when hungry. Spit was as foul-tempered, obnoxious and rude a creature as she’d ever met. Even Carson could barely manage him. Nasty little Fente had been able to take flight, thank Sa, but gloriously green-and-gold Veras remained earthbound, and she was as vindictive as her keeper, Jerd. Kalo, the largest of the dragons, was almost suicidally determined to fly. Davvie was his keeper but today it was Boxter tending the dragon’s numerous cuts and scratches he had acquired in his spat with Baliper. The spat that Sintara had provoked. Thymara walked faster. A day spent hunting and killing a deer and dragging it back to camp was definitely preferable to a day spent dealing with the other keepers and their dragons.
At least she no longer had to deal with her own dragon. She cast her eyes skyward as she thought of Sintara and tried to deny the pang of abandonment she felt.
‘Do you miss her?’ Tats asked quietly.
She almost resented that he could read her so clearly. ‘I do. She doesn’t make it easy. She touches my thoughts sometimes, for no reason that makes sense to me. She will suddenly be in my mind, bragging about the size of the bear she has killed, and how he fought but could not lay a claw on her. That was just a couple of days ago. Or she will suddenly show me something that she sees, a mountain capped with snow, or the reflection of the city in that deep river inlet. Something so beautiful that it leaves me gasping. And then, just like that, she’s gone. And I can’t even feel that she’s there at all.’
She hadn’t meant to tell him so much. He nodded sympathetically and then admitted, ‘I feel Fente all the time. Like a thread that tugs at my mind. I know when she’s hunting, when she’s feeding … that’s what she’s doing now. Some sort of mountain goat; she doesn’t like how his wool tastes.’ He smiled fondly at his dragon’s quirkiness, and then, as he glanced back at Thymara, his smiled faded. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to rub salt in the wound. I don’t know why Sintara treats you so badly. She’s just so arrogant. So cruel. You’re a good keeper, Thymara. You always kept her well groomed and well fed. You did better than most keepers. I don’t know why she didn’t love you.’
Her feelings must have shown on her face for he abruptly said, ‘Sorry. I always say the wrong thing to you, even when I think I’m stating the obvious. I guess I didn’t need to say that. Sorry.’
‘I think she does love me,’ Thymara said stiffly. ‘As much as dragons can love their keepers. Well, perhaps “values” is a better word. I know she doesn’t like it when I groom one of the other dragons.’
‘That’s jealousy. Not love,’ Tats said.
Thymara said nothing. It was getting dangerously close to a prickly topic. Instead, she walked a bit faster, and chose the steepest trail up the ridge. ‘This is the shortest path,’ she said, although he hadn’t voiced an objection. ‘I like to get as high as I can, and then hunt looking down on the deer. They don’t seem as aware of me when I’m above them.’
‘It’s a plan,’ Tats agreed, and for a time the climb took all their breath.
She was glad not to talk. The morning air was fresh, and the day would have been cold if she had not been putting so much effort into the climb. The rain remained light, and the budding branches of the willows caught some of it before it touched them. They reached the crest of the ridge, and she led them upriver. When she struck a game trail she had not followed before, she took it. She had decided, without consulting Tats, that they needed to range farther than usual if they were to find any sizeable game. She intended to follow the ridge line, scouting new hunting territory as well as, she hoped, bringing home a large kill today.
Silence had enveloped them since the climb. Part of it was the quiet of the hunter, part of it was that she didn’t wish to talk about difficult things. Once, she recalled, her silences with Tats had been comfortable, the shared silences of friends who did not always need words to communicate. She missed that. Without thinking, she spoke aloud. ‘Sometimes I wish we could go back to how things were between us before.’
‘Before what?’ he asked her quietly.
She shrugged one shoulder and glanced back at him as they walked in single file along the game trail. ‘Before we left Trehaug. Before we became dragon keepers.’ Before he had mated with Jerd. Back when romance and sexuality had been forbidden to her by the customs of the Rain Wilds. Before Tats had made it clear that he wanted her and stirred her feelings for him. Before life had become so stupidly complicated.
Tats made no response and for a short time she lost herself in the beauty of the day. Light streamed down through breaks in the overcast. The wet black branches of the willows formed a net against the grey sky. Here and there, isolated yellow leaves clung to the branches. Under their feet, the fallen leaves were a deep sodden carpet, muffling their footfalls. The wind had quieted; it would not carry their scent. It was a hunter’s perfect day.
‘I wanted you even then. Back in Trehaug. I was just, well, scared of your father. Terrified of your mother. And I didn’t know how to talk to you about it. It was all forbidden then.’
She cleared her throat. ‘See how the trail forks there, and the big tree above it? If we climb it, we can have a clear view in all directions, and a good shot at anything that comes that way. Plenty of room for both of us to have a clear shot if we get one.’
‘I see it. Good plan,’ he said shortly.
Her claws helped her to make the ascent easily. The trees of this area were so small compared to those of her youth that she’d had to learn a whole new set of climbing skills. She had one knee locked around a branch and was leaning down to offer Tats a hand when he asked, ‘Are you ever going to talk to me about it?’
He had hold of her hand and his face was inches from hers, looking up at her. She was mostly upside down, and could not avoid his gaze. ‘Do we have to?’ she asked plaintively.
He gave her some of his weight and then came up the tree so easily that she suspected he could have done it by himself all along. He settled himself on a branch slightly higher than hers, his back to the trunk, facing in the opposite direction so he could watch a different section of trail. For a short space of time, both of them were quiet as they arranged arrows to be handy and readied their bows. They settled. The day was quiet, the river’s roar a distant murmur. She listened to bird calls. ‘I want to,’ Tats said as if no time had passed at all. ‘I need to,’ he added a moment later.
‘Why?’ she asked, but she knew.
‘Because it makes me crazy to wonder about it. So I just want you to tell me, just so I know, even if you think it will hurt me. I won’t be angry … well, I’ll try not to be angry and I’ll try not to show I’m angry if I am … but I have to know, Thymara. Why did you choose Rapskal and not me?’
‘I didn’t,’ she said, and then spoke quickly before he could ask anything. ‘This probably won’t make sense to you. It doesn’t make sense to me, and so I can’t explain it to you. I like Rapskal. Well, I love Rapskal, just as I love you. How could we have been through all we’ve been through together and not love one another? But it wasn’t about what I felt for Rapskal that night. I didn’t stop and think, “Would I rather be doing this with Tats?” It was all about how I felt about me. About being me, and that suddenly it was something I could do if I wanted to. And I did want to.’
He was quiet for a time and then said gruffly, ‘You’re right. That makes no sense to me at all.’
She hoped he was going to leave it at that, but then he asked, ‘So. Does that mean that when you were with me, you didn’t want to do it with me?’
‘You know I’ve wanted you,’ she said in a low voice. ‘You should know how hard it’s been to say no to you, and no to myself.’
‘But then you decided to say yes to Rapskal.’ He was relentless.
She tried to think of an answer that would make him understand. There wasn’t one.
‘I think I said yes to myself, and Rapskal happened to be the person who was there when I said it. That doesn’t sound very nice, does it? But there it is and it’s the truth.’
‘I just wish …’ His voice tapered off. Then he cleared his throat and made himself go on, ‘I just wish it could have been me. That you’d waited for me, that I’d been your first.’
She didn’t want to know why yet she had to ask. ‘Why?’
‘Because it would have been something special, something we could have remembered together for the rest of our lives.’
His voice had gone husky and sentimental but instead of moving her, it made her angry. Her voice went low and bitter as venom. ‘Like you waited for your first time to be with me?’
He leaned forward and turned his head to look at her. She felt him move, but would not turn her head to meet his gaze. ‘I can’t believe that still bothers you, Thymara. After all the time we’ve known each other, you should know that you’ve always meant more to me than Jerd ever could. Yes, that happened between us, and I’m not proud of it. It was a mistake. There. I admit it, it was a huge mistake, but I was stupid and, well, she was right there, offering it to me, and you know, I just think that it’s different for a man. Is that why you went to Rapskal? Because you were jealous? That makes no sense at all, you know. Because he was with Jerd, too.’
‘I’m not jealous,’ she said. And it was true. The jealousy had burned away, but she had to acknowledge the hurt that remained. ‘I’ll admit that there was a time when it really bothered me. Because I had thought there was something special between us. And because, in all honesty, Jerd rubbed my face in it. She made it seem like if I had you, then I was picking up her leavings.’
‘Her leavings.’ His voice went very flat. ‘That’s how you think of me? Something she discarded, so I can’t be good enough for you.’
Anger was building in his voice. Well, she was getting angry, too. He’d wanted her to tell him the truth, promised he wouldn’t get angry, but obviously he was now looking for any excuse to show her the anger he’d felt all along. Making it impossible to admit that, yes, she had since then rather wished it had been him rather than Rapskal. Tats was solid and real in her life, someone she had always felt she could count on as a partner. Rapskal was flighty and weird, exotic and compelling and sometimes dangerously strange. ‘Like the difference between bread and mushrooms,’ she said.
‘What?’ The tree branches creaked as he shifted his weight. A distant scream sounded.
The sound came again. Not a scream. At least, not a human scream, and not a sound of distress. A sound of excitement. A call. The hairs prickled up on the back of her neck and arms. The sound came again, longer, rising and falling, a wailing noise. As it started to die away, another voice took it up, and then another. She gripped her bow tightly and set her back firmly to the tree. The sounds were coming closer. And there was another noise, a heavy thudding of hooves.
Tats moved through the tree, clambering around until he was above her and staring in the same direction. She could almost feel the hoof-beats; a very large animal was running in their direction. No. Two. Three? She hunched down to grip the tree and peer along the game trail.
They were not elk, but were perhaps kin to them. Antlerless, with large hummocks of flesh on their front shoulders, and taller at the shoulder than Carson. They were running flat out, throwing up chunks of forest floor as they came. They were too large for this game trail; they were running down it because they’d been driven. Low branches slapped against them and broke as they fled on. The nostrils of the creature in front were flared wide and blood-red. Flecks of foam flew from his mouth as he came on. The animals behind him were as frantic. They breathed out shrill terror as they ran and the stench of their fear hung in the forest after they’d thundered past. Neither she nor Tats had even nocked an arrow, Thymara realized in disgust.
‘What were they …?’ Tats began, and then a long wailing cry rose and fell again. Another answered, and it was not distant now, but coming closer.
Thymara knew what wolves were. They did not live in the Rain Wilds, but even so, in the old tales that people still told, wolves were the ravening predators that made people shiver in the night. Her imagination, she now saw, had been insufficient for the task. They were huge creatures, red-tongued and white-toothed, shaggy and joyous in their blood-thirst. They poured along the game trail, five, six, eight of them, running flat out, and yet somehow still managing to give tongue to their hunt. It was not a howl, but a yipping, wailing call that said all that meat would soon be theirs.
As the intervening trees and branches blocked them from sight and their hunting calls began to fade, Tats climbed down past her, and then jumped with a thud to the ground. She sighed and shook her head. He was right. After that cacophony, no game animal would remain anywhere in their vicinity. She followed him down and called out in annoyance, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’
‘No, I’m not. I’ve got to see this.’ Tats had been walking. Now he broke into a jog, following the same trail the elk and the wolves had taken.
‘Don’t be stupid! They’d be just as happy to tear you to pieces as those elk, or whatever they were!’
He didn’t hear her or he didn’t care. She stood a moment, wondering if her fear or her anger were stronger. Then she started after him. ‘TATS!’ She didn’t care how loud she yelled. There was no game left in this area anyway. ‘Carson told us to hunt in twos! Those wolves are exactly what he warned us about!’
He was out of sight and she stood still for one indecisive moment. She could go back and tell Carson and the others what had happened. If Tats came back, it would seem childish tale-carrying. If he didn’t, she would have let him go to his death alone. Teeth clenched, she put her bow on her back and took an arrow into her hand as if it were a stabbing spear. She hiked her tunic up and tucked it into its belt and set out running.
Running was not a skill the tree-raised children of the Rain Wilds practised much. She’d become a better runner since coming to this place, but it still felt almost dangerous. How did one run and remain aware of one’s surroundings? How could she listen when her heart was pounding in her ears, or scent anything when panting through her mouth?
The game trail wound along the ridge, avoiding the densest brush and threading its way through the groves of trees. Tats, she discovered, was a strong and swift runner. She did not even see him for a time, but followed the trampled trail the immense deer had left.
When the game trail left the ridge and plunged across a steeper slope toward the river, she caught her first glimpse of Tats. He was running, bow gripped in one hand, head down, free hand pumping. She lifted her eyes and saw, not the hunt, but swaying brush that told of the fleeing animals. The whining excitement of the wolves carried back to her and infected her with something of their frenzy. She tucked her chin to her chest, tightened her wings to her back and ran, bounding in leaps as the slope of the trail became steeper. ‘Tats!’ she called again, but breathlessly and without carrying power. The trail suddenly twisted, heading up the slope again. She gritted her teeth and pounded on.
Lifting her head, she saw Tats ahead of her. He had paused at the crest of the hill. ‘Tats!’ she yelled, and this time she saw him turn his head. He stood still, and much as she would have liked to slow down, or even to drop to a walk and catch her breath, she pushed herself to run up the hill.
As she reached his side, she found herself both breathless and speechless. Tats, too, stood staring down and across the hillside before them.
The hunt had gone on without them. The deer and their pursuers must have leapt across the extremely steep slope before them. The whole hillside was pocked with hoof-prints and flung earth. Below them, the remains of an Elderling road paralleled the game trail for a short distance before turning toward the river. From their vantage point, Thymara could see that the road ventured out onto the ruins of a bridge, where it ended abruptly in jagged timbers and tumbled stone. Once that bridge must have spanned the river, a feat that seemed impossible now: she could glimpse the other end of the bridge on the far side of the river, similarly truncated.
Far below the ragged end of the bridge’s arc, the river foamed and boiled. On the near shore, the road that once must have joined to the bridge approach was a succession of broken surfaces. Trees had encroached and parts of it had broken and slid down as the river gnawed at the shores. Of the roadway that should have led to their current village, there was no sign. Long ago the river had shifted in its bed to devour it, and then shifted back, ceding its place to tussocky meadow.
‘They’ve got them cornered,’ Tats announced. ‘The wolves must know this place. They’re driving the deer right out to the end.’
He was right. Her eyes found first the fleeing animals and then, through a screen of trees, the wolves behind them. She glanced back at Tats, only to discover that he was sliding down the steep slope. He’d started out in a crouch, but soon sat down abruptly and slid. He vanished from sight in the rough brush that cloaked the lower slope.
‘Are you STUPID?!’ she yelled angrily after him. Then, cursing herself for a bigger fool than he was, she followed him. His passage had loosened the scree and rain had made the earth slippery. She kept her feet longer than he had, but eventually fell over on one hip and slid the rest of the way, earth and brambly brush bunching up against her as she went down. He was waiting for her at the bottom.
‘Be quiet!’ he cautioned her, and then held out a hand. Grudgingly she took it and let him pull her to her feet. They scrambled up a short slope and suddenly found themselves out in the open on a section of the old road.
Nothing now blocked their view of the drama in front of them. The wolves were indeed driving the deer. Decorative stone walls framed the bridge’s approach, funnelling the deer out onto it. The lead animal, swifter than the other two, had already realized his error. He’d reached the end of the sheared-off bridge and now moved unsteadily, his huge head casting back and forth as he looked for some safe passage down. There was none. Far below him, the waters raged past.
One of the other animals was limping badly, and had fallen behind. The second beast was still running, apparently unaware that they had been driven to a drop-off. As they watched, the pack of wolves poured out onto the bridge. Unlike their prey, they did not slow or hesitate.
The lagging animal was engulfed. It went down, a single shriek its only protest. One of the wolves clamped its jaws onto the staggering animal’s throat, as two others seized its hind legs. A fourth jolted into its shoulder and it went down and then over as yet another wolf went for its belly. It was all over then, long legs kicking hopelessly as it vanished under its attackers.
The second deer, spurred by the scream of the dying animal, raced forward. Oblivious, or blinded by panic, it reached the end of the bridge and leapt off.
The lead deer had come to bay. The largest of the three, he rounded on his pursuers. There were only three of them now, for the rest of the pack were engrossed in the creature they’d already pulled down. The immense deer shook his head, menacing them with the memory of his antlers, and then stood tall, waiting. As the first wolf slunk in, the deer spun and kicked out with his hind legs, scoring a hit on the first wolf, but a second rushed in, to get under him and then turn his ravening jaws up to his belly. The deer hopped awkwardly, but could not break the wolf’s grip, and as he struggled to get away, the last wolf sprang for his throat. By then, the first wolf was on his feet again. Thymara was astonished when he sprang from the ground, landed on the deer’s back and then darted his head in to bite right behind his prey’s head. The great deer staggered another two steps, and then folded onto its front knees. He died silently, trying to walk away even as his hindquarters collapsed. As he fell over, Tats let out a pent breath.
Thymara realized she still had hold of his hand. ‘We should get out of here,’ she said in a low voice. ‘If they turn around, there’s nothing between them and us. And no place for us to run where they can’t run faster.’
Tats didn’t take his eyes off the scene before him. ‘They’ll gorge themselves and they won’t be interested in us.’ He suddenly snapped his gaze skyward. ‘If they get a chance,’ he added.
Sintara fell on them like a blue thunderbolt, striking the thick huddle of wolves tearing at the first deer they had downed. The weight of her impact sent carcass and wolves sliding across the bridge deck to fetch up against the stone wall. She rode them, her rear talons set firmly in the carcass, her front claws tearing at the wolves as they went. By the time they slammed into the wall, she had closed her jaws on a wolf and lifted it aloft. Others, yelping in pain, sprawled in a trail behind her. None of them would hunt again.
A fraction of a breath behind her, Fente hit the other deer and the three wolves that had killed it. Her strike was not as fortuitous. One wolf went spinning off the end of the bridge, and her impact sent the carcass flying after him. The second died in a screaming yelp while the third, ki-yi-ing in fright, fled back the way they had come.
‘Tats!’ Thymara shrieked the warning as the creature galloped toward them, but in one motion he swept her behind him with one arm while brandishing his bow like a staff. As the animal came on, it grew impossibly large, until she abruptly realized it truly was that big. If it had stood on its hind legs, it would have been taller than Tats. Jaws wide, tongue hanging red, it raced directly at them. Thymara sucked in a breath to scream, but then held it as the terrified wolf suddenly veered past them and scrabbled up the steep slope, to disappear in the brush.
Belatedly, she realized she had a tight grip on the back of Tats’s tunic. She released it as he turned and put his arms around her. For a time they held one another, both shaking. She lifted her face and looked over his shoulder. ‘It’s gone,’ she said stupidly.
‘I know,’ he replied, but he didn’t let her go. After a time, he said quietly, ‘I’m sorry that I slept with Jerd. Sorry in a lot of ways, but mostly that it hurt you. That it made it harder for us to …’ He let his words trail away.
She took a breath. She knew what he wanted to hear and what she couldn’t say. She wasn’t sorry she had been with Rapskal. She didn’t think it had been a mistake. She wished she had considered the decision more coolly but she found she could not tell Tats she was sorry for having done it. She found other words. ‘What you and Jerd did had nothing to do with me, at the time. At first I was angry about it because of how I found out, and how stupid I felt. Then I was angry because of how Jerd made me feel. But that’s not something you could have controlled or—’
‘Of course! We’ve been so stupid!’
She stepped away from him to look up at his face, affronted. But he wasn’t looking at her, but past her, at the truncated bridge. She tried to see what had startled him. Sintara was still there, feeding on deer and wolf carcasses. Fente was gone, as was the sole dead wolf that had been the only fruit of her strike. She’d probably gulped it down and taken flight. As she watched, Fente came suddenly into view, rising up from beyond the tattered end of the bridge. The slender green dragon beat her wings steadily, rising as she flew across the river. Halfway across, she banked her wings sharply and flew upstream, gaining altitude as she went.
‘Why are we stupid?’ Thymara demanded, dreading his answer.
He took her by surprise when he exclaimed, ‘This is what the dragons have needed all along. A launching platform. I bet that half of them could fly across the river today if they launched from here. At the very least, they’d get close enough that even after they hit the water, they could wade out on the other side. They can all fly a bit now. If they could get across, soak in the waters, chances are that they could re-launch from that end of the bridge, and have a better chance of flight. And hunting.’
She thought carefully about it, measuring the bridge ends with her eyes and thinking over what she’d seen the dragons do. ‘It would work,’ she agreed.
‘I know!’ He seized her in his arms, lifted her up against his chest and whirled her around. As he set her down, he kissed her, a sudden hard kiss that mashed her lips against her teeth and sent a bolt of heat through her body. Then, before she could react or respond to his kiss, he set her down and stooped to pick up the bow he had dropped when he embraced her. ‘Let’s go. News like this is more important than meat.’
She closed her mouth. The abruptness of the kiss and Tats’s assumption that something had just changed between them took her breath away. She should have pushed him away. She should run after him, throw her arms around him and kiss him properly. Her hammering heart jolted a hundred questions loose to rattle in her brain, but suddenly she didn’t want to ask any of them. Let it be, for now. She drew a long breath and willed stillness into herself. Let her have time to think before either of them said anything more to one another. She chose casual words.
‘You’re right, we should go,’ she agreed, but lingered a moment, watching Sintara feed. The blue queen had grown, as had her appetite. She braced a clawed forefoot on the deer, bent her head and tore a hindquarter free of the carcass. As she tipped her head back to swallow, her gleaming glance snagged on Thymara. For a moment she looked at her, maw full of meat. Then she began the arduous process of getting the leg down her gullet. Her sharp back teeth sheared flesh and crushed bone until she tossed the mangled section into the air and caught it again. She tipped her head back to swallow.
‘Sintara,’ Thymara whispered into the still winter air. She felt the briefest touch of acknowledgement. Then she turned to where Tats waited and they started back for the village.
‘This is not what you promised me.’ The finely dressed man rounded angrily on the fellow who held the chain fastened to Selden’s wrist manacles. The wind off the water tugged at the rich man’s heavy cloak and stirred his thinning hair. ‘I can’t present this to the Duke. A scrawny, coughing freak! You promised me a dragon-man. You said it would be the offspring of a woman and a dragon!’
The other man stared at him, his pale-blue eyes cold with fury. Selden returned his appraisal dully, trying to rouse his own interest. He had been jerked from a sleep that had been more like a stupor, dragged from below decks up two steep ladders, across a ship’s deck and down onto a splintery dock. They’d allowed him to keep his filthy blanket only because he’d snatched it close as they woke him and no one had wanted to touch him to take it away. He didn’t blame them. He knew he stank. His skin was stiff with salt sweat long dried. His hair hung past his shoulders in matted locks. He was hungry, thirsty and cold. And now he was being sold, like a dirty, shaggy monkey brought back from the hot lands.
All around him on the docks, cargo was being unloaded and deals were being struck. He smelled coffee from somewhere, and raised voices shouting in Chalcedean besieged his ears. None of it was so different from the Bingtown docks when a ship came in. There was the same sense of urgency as cargo was hoisted from the deck to the docks, to be trundled away on barrows to warehouses. Or sold, on the spot, to eager buyers.
His buyer did not look all that eager. Displeasure was writ large on his face. He still stood straight but years had begun to sag the flesh on his bones. Perhaps he had been a warrior once, his muscles long turned lax and his belly now heavy with fat. There were rings on his fingers and a massy silver chain around his neck. Once, perhaps, his power had been in his body; now he wore it in the richness of his garb and his absolute certainty that no one wished to displease him.
Clearly, the man selling Selden to him agreed with that. He hunched as he spoke, lowering his head and eyes and near begging for approval.
‘He is! He’s a real dragon-man, just as I promised. Didn’t you get what I sent to you, the sample of his flesh? You must have seen the scales on it. Just look!’ The man turned and abruptly snatched away the blanket that had been Selden’s sole garment. The blustery wind roared its mirth and blasted Selden’s flesh. ‘There, you see? See? He’s scaled from head to toe. And look at those feet and hands! You ever see hands like that on a man? He’s real, I promise you, lord. We’re just off the ship, Chancellor Ellik. It was a long journey here. He needs to be washed and fed up a bit, yes, but once he’s healthy again, you’ll see he’s all you want and more!’
Chancellor Ellik ran his eyes over Selden as if he were buying a hog for slaughter. ‘I see he’s cut and bruised from head to toe. Scarcely the condition in which I expect to find a very expensive purchase.’
‘He brought that on himself,’ the merchant objected. ‘He’s bad-tempered. Attacked his keeper twice. The second time, the man had to give him a beating he’d remember, or risk being attacked every time he came to feed him. He can be vicious. But that’s the dragon in him, right? An ordinary man would have known there was no point starting a fight when he was chained to a staple. So there’s yet another proof for you. He’s half-dragon.’
‘I’m not,’ Selden croaked. He was having trouble standing. The ground was solid under his feet; he knew that, and yet the sensation of rising and falling persisted. He’d lived too long in the hold of a ship. The grey light of early morning seemed very bright to him, and the day very chilly. He remembered attacking his keeper, and why he’d done it. He’d hoped to force the man to kill him. He hadn’t succeeded, and the man who had beaten him had taken great satisfaction in causing him as much pain as he could without doing deadly damage. For two days, he’d scarcely been able to move.
Selden made a lunge, snatched his blanket back and clutched it to his chest. The merchant fell back from him with a small cry. Selden moved as far from him as his chains would allow. He wanted to put the blanket back around his shoulders but feared he would fall over if he tried. So weak now. So sick. He stared at the men who controlled him, trying to force his weary brain to focus his thoughts. He was in no condition to challenge either of them. To which would he rather belong? He made a choice and changed what he had been about to say. He tried to clear his throat and then croaked out his words. ‘I’m not myself right now. I need food, and warm clothes and sleep.’ He tried to find common ground, to wake some sympathy from either man. ‘My father was no dragon. He was from Chalced, and your countryman. He was a ship’s captain. His name was Kyle Haven. He came from a fishing town, from Shalport.’ He looked around, hoping desperately as he asked, ‘Is this Shalport? Are we in Shalport? Someone here will recall him. I’ve been told I look like him.’
Glints of anger lit in the rich man’s eyes. ‘He talks? You didn’t warn me of this!’
The merchant licked his lips. Plainly, he had not expected this to be a problem. He spoke quickly, his voice rising in a whine. ‘He is a dragon-man, my lord. He speaks and walks as a man, but his body is that of a dragon. And he lies like a dragon, as all know that dragons are full of lies and deception.’
‘The body of a dragon!’ Disdain filled the Chancellor’s voice and eyes as he evaluated Selden. ‘A lizard perhaps. A starved snake.’
Selden debated speaking again and chose silence. Best not to anger the man. And best to save what strength he had for whatever might come next. He had decided he stood a better chance of survival if he were sold to the courtier than he did if he remained with the merchant. Who knew where the man might try to sell him next or to whom? This was Chalced and he was considered a slave. He’d already experienced how harsh the life of a slave could be. Already known the indignity and pain of being something that someone owned, a body to be sold. The sordid memory burst in his mind like an abscess leaking pus. He pushed it aside and clung instead to the emotion it brought.
He clutched at his anger, fearing it was giving way to resignation. I will not die here, he promised himself. He reached deep into the core of his being, willing strength into his muscles. He forced himself to stand straighter, willed his shivering to cease. He blinked his rheumy eyes clear and fixed his stare on the rich man. Chancellor Ellik. A man of influence, then. He let his fury burn in his gaze. Buy me. He did not speak the words aloud but arrowed the thought at the man. Stillness grew in him.
‘I will,’ Chancellor Ellik replied as if Selden had spoken his words aloud and for one wild moment, he dared to hope he yet had some power over his life.
But then the Chancellor turned his gaze on the merchant. ‘I will honour our bargain. If a word such as “honour” can be applied to such deception as you have practised against me! I will buy your “dragon-man”. But for half the agreed price. And you should count yourself fortunate to get that.’
Selden more felt than saw the repressed hatred in the merchant’s lowered eyes. But the man’s response was mild. He thrust the end of Selden’s chain toward the Chancellor. ‘Of course, my lord. The slave is yours.’
Chancellor Ellik made no move to take it. He glanced over his shoulder, and a serving man stepped forward. He was muscled and lean, dressed in clean, well-made clothes. A house servant, then. His distaste for his task showed plain on his face. The Chancellor didn’t care. He barked out his order. ‘Take him to my quarters. See that he is made presentable.’
The servant scowled and gave a sharp jerk on the chain. ‘Come, slave.’ He spoke to Selden in the Common Tongue, then turned and walked briskly away, not even looking back to see how Selden lurched and hopped to keep up with him.
And once again, his fate changed hands.
Day the 25th of the Fish Moon
Year the 7th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
From Reyall, Acting Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown
To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug
Enclosed, an offer of a reward for any new information regarding the fate of either Sedric Meldar or Alise Kincarron Finbok, members of the Tarman Expedition. Please duplicate the enclosed message of a reward and post widely in Trehaug, Cassarick and the lesser Rain Wild settlements.
To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, a brief greeting from her nephew and an explanation of this new packaging for messages. I will write this directive on an outer envelope of fabric, and afterwards stitch it shut and dip it all in wax. Within is a tube of hollowed bone, sealed with wax, and within that an innermost tube of metal. The Guild leadership insists this will not overburden the birds, but I and many other bird keepers have reservations, especially concerning the smaller birds. Clearly something must be done to restore confidence in the privacy of messages sent and received, but this seems to me a measure that will punish the birds rather than root out any corrupt bird keepers. Could you and Erek add your voices to the opinions given on these new message holders?