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Spirits in the Hills

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Title Page

Spirits in the Hills

Author’s Note

The Defenders’ Apprentice sample

Also by Amelia Smith

Spirits in the Hills

a short story

Amelia Smith

 

To discover more stories set in the island wold of Theranis, visit www.ameliasmith.net or sign up for the author’s mailing list.

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2016 Amelia Smith

All rights reserved.

 

ISBN-10: 1-941334-12-1

ISBN-13: 978-1-941334-12-6

 

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, events, and locations are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons or events, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

[]

 

 

Sovara looked back. The valley lay in shadow behind them. Above and beyond its shelter, the sunset sky burned orange and gold over Na’s mountains. She had not crossed this frontier for thirty long years or more. She’d been a girl then, dreaming of finding a place where she belonged, and she had found it. Now, her skin had begun to crease and wrinkle while she wore her sword-wielding callouses disguised as a charwoman’s hardened hands.

“Do you think the others will come?” Varin asked. He was so eager and green.

“Why would they?” Amigat said, blocking off anything she might have said. “It’s probably a false alarm. The Cereans have been wanting to mine our hills for generations, why would they start now?”

“I only know what I heard,” Sovara said. “Three trading ships at Lemirun keep when they should be coming to Anamat, and their men talking about digging holes in the hills.”

“Vague rumors,” Amigat grumbled. “I have my tavern to keep.”

Sovara said nothing. Amigat’s tavern was a great asset to the Defenders, as was his sword arm, but he grated on her nerves.

They walked on in the fading light, past the last of the spring green flushing the meadows, into the wild hills where only the hardiest weeds cut up through the rocks. Pink clouds streaked across the purple skies and seagulls reeled out over Anamat harbor like foam on the waves.

“What if they are mining?” Varin asked.

“We would know,” Amigat said. “Lemira’s part of the shrine would go dark.”

Sovara shuddered. “Let’s not let it come to that, and besides, Konnat says the connections aren’t so strong anymore. He’s not sure how long it would take before the shrine changed.”

“I don’t see how they can kill a dragon,” Vain said, “a dragon they can’t even see.”

“They can,” Amigat said. “That’s what the song of Enat says, that we must defend the dragons with our lives. You’ll understand when you study more.”

Varin sighed. Sovara was unsatisfied with that explanation, too.

“It’s not that simple,” she said. “True, most people can’t see the dragon’s bodily form, but they can see the hills and the gems. Those are the dragon’s body and blood. If a dragon’s ground is wounded she will break the earth, or maybe die. Everyone feels an earthquake and crops wither in a drought whether or not the dragon appears to the farmers.”

“I suppose,” Varin said. He looked up at the sky, seeking the usually-invisible dragon.

“I don’t want to believe they can die, either,” Sovara said.

“Believe it,” Amigat grumbled.

As they reached the shrine, he produced a jug of ale from his pack.

“You carried that all the way up from the city?” Sovara said. “No wonder you’ve been walking so slowly.”

“I don’t trust the ale in these hills,” he said. “Besides, someone has to bring a proper offering for the border shrine.”

He was right about the offering, even if his preference for his own ale was pure conceit.

“Let’s drink to Anara, then,” Varin said, understandably eager for a taste of Amigat’s ale.

They gathered in a loose triangle in front of the shrine, where a small statue of Anara reared, wings unfurled. They passed the jug, each drinking deeply once – Varin slightly longer than his elders – then poured the rest out into the bowl at the statue’s feet. Sovara extended her mind, seeking a trace of the dragon in the earth, but Anara was in the sky if she was anywhere. Amigat kept his eyes closed for a long time, his lips moving in silent prayer.

Somewhere out over the ridge line, an eagle cried. Amigat looked up. “We might as well go on,” he said. He looked back over his shoulder again and again, until their view of the city disappeared behind the mountaintop boulders. Sovara looked back too, but not as often. She kept her eyes on the trail and listened.

That night they made camp in the barren land between the realms.

“Did you see her?” Varin asked as they rolled out their blankets.

“Anara?” Sovara said. “No, not today. I wish we had. I’d feel better about this journey if she’d blessed our going out.”

Amigat grunted agreement. “I would have liked to see her again,” he said.

“Is this Na’s country?” Varin asked.

Sovara shook her head. “It’s not. It’s a barren place, between the dragons’ realms.”

“It feels empty,” Varin said. “It was like that in parts of the mountains on my way to Anamat.”

“At least you didn’t meet Na,” Sovara said. Na was the wildest of the dragons, the only one who had never made peace with humankind.

“I would have been honored!” Varin was wide-eyed as a child, even with the downy beard covering his scarred chin and the hardening muscles on his chest and arms.

“You would have been terrified,” Sovara told him. “Na’s no friend of men, not fond of having us in his land. But he is splendid.”

“More splendid than Anara?”

“Different,” Sovara told the apprentice. “If Anara is a river, he’s a winter storm. I’m sure he’s never carried a priestess on his back.”

Amigat yawned. “Enough speculating. I need to sleep.”

Sovara held back what she’d been going to say next. Had Amigat ever seen a dragon apart from Anara? She wondered what Lemira would be like after all these years, and whether the dragon would remember her at all.

§

They set out again at first light and reached Lemira’s border at sunrise. At this shrine, it was Sovara who left the offering and ribbed Amigat about neglecting his part.

“At least I had mine for the civilized lands,” he said.

“There’s nothing uncivilized about Lemirun,” Sovara said, “it’s just doesn’t have a city.”

Varin nodded. He was from the provinces, too.

This shrine held an earthenware dragon with a fat belly. Amigat made a perfunctory prayer and it was Sovara’s turn to stand a long time while the other two fidgeted. She tried to shut them out, to listen for the thrum of the dragon’s pulse in the soil beneath her feet or in the growing things around her. Her mind drifted, turning over small pebbles of memory like water flowing down. Somewhere out there, Lemira waited but she was faint, too faint to drive off the scratching at her bones.

Anara was a strong dragon, with crimson veins of passion running through her soil. Sovara remembered Lemira as being yellow or orange, depending on the light and the season, but it had been a long time and she’d been a child then. Following the echoes of her memories, she opened her eyes to see a slightly brighter streak of green along the hills.

“That way,” she said, pointing. Even with ordinary sight, she could see the line where the dragon had passed. Anyone could, if they knew where to look.

“I say we follow the road,” Amigat said, blocking her view.

“There will be some kind of a trail, I think,” Sovara said, “and we’re more likely to see signs of the dragon if we go that way.”

“On the road we’ll get more news of these foreigners, be more likely to cross paths with these supposed miners,” Amigat said.

“I say we follow that line,” Sovara said. “Konnat sent me first, and I believe I’m senior to you.”

“You’re not,” Amigat said, though she was, even if he’d always denied it.

“Besides, I know this dragon better. I think it’s fair to say you don’t know her at all.”

“He didn’t put either of you in charge as far as I remember,” Varin said.

“Then it falls to you to break our impasse,” Amigat said, frowning at Sovara, “though I’d wager I could take both of you in tournament, even fighting together.”

Sovara heard hooves on the trail below them, a snorting of horses or some other beast. She held up a finger for silence.

Varin disappeared into the underbrush behind the shrine, Sovara and Amigat followed him. Their hiding spot lay exactly in the direction of the thin green line she’d seen. They waited, breathing quietly, not looking at one another.

The horses thudded along, hooves hard on the ground. They snorted, uneasy in the dragons’ country. One shied away from some small motion in the undergrowth, even thought it was probably just a snake or a mouse, rather than a dragonlet.

The rider made some soothing sounds, words in a foreign tongue.

“Cerean,” Amigat mumbled.

Sovara glared at him, but the horsemen probably weren’t listening, anyway.

“They’ll calm down across the mountains,” one of the local guardsmen said to the foreigner with the nervous horse.

The Cerean didn’t reply. A few steps past the shrine, the group stopped to water their horses and to drink from their own flasks. One of the Cereans wandered back to look at the shrine. He stood a few paces away, staring at it so intently that he didn’t see Sovara move a small bough aside to watch him. He was a young man, not much older than Varin, with a neatly trimmed beard and the oiled hair that so many foreigners favored. He frowned at the statue of Lemira. One of the local guardsmen came up to stand beside him.

“You think they still live, these dragon gods of yours?” the Cerean asked.

“I don’t know,” the guardsman said. “I’m glad for my mother’s sake I won’t be here when they breach the ground, though.”

The Cerean only grunted at that. He gave the statue a quizzical look then surveyed the countryside behind them. “I do wonder, myself,” he said. He spoke in the language of Theranis, but quietly enough that the man he was with either didn’t hear or chose to ignore him. “I almost feel that she can see me.”

Sovara held her breath. Up ahead, the other half-dozen horsemen swung back into their saddles.

“Don’t dally!” one of them shouted. “We have the pleasures of Anamat ahead!”

With that, the company of horsemen – half Cerean, half men of Lemirun – rode off across the mountain pass.

The Defenders waited in their hiding place until the sound of the horses faded away.

“They do plan to breach the ground,” Sovara said, breaking the silence.

“But they have misgivings,” Amigat said, “enough to stop them.”

“Some of them, if we’re lucky,” Sovara said. They weren’t that lucky, hadn’t been since the Darkest Night.

Still, the Cerean had sounded doubtful. Doubt was good. They could use it to play on the fears of the men and the memories of their people. The Cereans might not know the old stories, but the men from the village and the guardsmen from Lemirun keep did. If they suspected that the dragons might live, maybe they wouldn’t be so eager to steal the lifeblood from the land. The Defenders could be like spirits, like ghosts in the hills. Perhaps they could send the Cereans away using fear alone.

“Would the three of us be enough?” Varin asked.

Amigat and Sovara looked at each other.

“It depends on how many of them there are,” Amigat said. “But probably not.”

“We have to try, though,” Sovara said. “It’s what we came for.”

Amigat nodded. “It’s why we exist at all. Still, I think it would be better if I went back to get reinforcements.”

Sovara shook her head. “No,” she said.

“I’d be back soon,” Amigat said.

“I think we need to take our chances, hope that the Enatel will see clear signs of the threat in the shrine, in the world tree,” Sovara said. “Besides, if it comes to a pitched fight in the next few days, we’ll need you with us.”

Amigat grunted his agreement. He had a better sword hand than almost anyone. “Don’t you order me,” he grumbled.

But she had. And he had obeyed, though not eagerly. What was the world coming to?

§

At dusk a few days later, they tried to count the dark shadows crossing the light of the campfires. In the dark and distance, it was impossible to get a perfect count, but with eight fires it was not a small company. They skirted around the camp, counting well over a hundred men, at least half of them foreigners, mostly traders and laborers. They saw a few Cerean fighters with broad, leaf-shaped blades dangling across their backs.

“They have twenty horse, or something close to that,” Amigat said.

“I can’t stand to look at the beasts,” Sovara said, half to herself.

“I don’t like them either,” Varin agreed.

“Horse won’t make any difference in the hills. Everyone knows they don’t like the brush, or dragons, if it comes to that,” Amigat said.

“Ever fought a Cerean?” Sovara asked himt.

“Not hand to hand,” he admitted. “Just a trick here or there to turn them off the trail. How about you?”

“No. Not really,” Sovara said. “I saw one of them in a tournament once, but I wasn’t up against him.” She’d been in the boys’ division hiding in plain sight, as usual. “I wonder what they’re like.”

“It looks like we’ll find out,” Amigat said.

They crept around the edge of the encampment and rejoined the road just before the village. The tavern lay a stone’s throw from the temple, much as Sovara remembered it. The temple porch had three bays. One dim lamp burned deep inside the center bay, and the smell of incense was faded, as if no offering had been made there recently despite the presence of so many men. The unsmiling barmaid offered only tankards of ale and a plain meal of bread and stew, served with as few words as possible. Sovara, Amigat, and Varin took a table in the corner and sat there for the better part of the evening, but they overheard very little. Three local men and one half-grown child came in to buy jugs of ale to carry home. Two men sat by the hearth for the time it took them to down a tankard and went on their way, avoiding the newcomers.

The taverner had reddish hair, like Sovara’s. He was three years older than her, if he was the cousin she remembered from her childhood. He did not recognize her, of course, with her hair under her cloak and her charade of being an overly well-equipped boy soldier.

“How far from the gate are we, do you think?” Varin asked as they left the village.

“Don’t remember exactly, even if it’s in the same place,” Sovara said. “There should be a path up this way, to the high pastures.”

“You’re from here?” Varin said. “No wonder you heard the news of Lemira, then.”

Sovara shook her head. “It was a lifetime ago. I belong to Anara now.”

“Some of us have always belonged to Anara,” Amigat bragged.

Sovara felt the dislocated twang in her heart, the piece of herself that told her she was bound more to Anamat than to this once-quiet place. She led the way up through the woods, following contours of the land which came back to her like the contours of her old self.

They soon came to the place she’d been looking for, an ancient plane tree so broad that a farmstead could have been built on its roots if the ground hadn’t been so rough and steep.

“We camp here,” she said.

§

The next morning, Amigat went down to learn more from the villagers while Varin kept watch at the tree, looking for signs of the other Defenders on the distant strip of road just visible beyond the woods. Sovara hiked up to the lower slopes of the summer pastures. Being early in the day, they were deserted except for small birds searching for old seeds and new worms. Trees blocked her view of the village below. It had been a long time since she’d stood here. Everything looked emptier and drier than she remembered. It looked so poor that she almost sympathized with Amigat’s dismissal of the provinces, but this land was alive in her memory, and it was alive now even if it was not as lush as the Anamat valley.

If it hadn’t been for that bright streak she’d seen from the border, she might have worried that the foreigners and princes were right, that perhaps the dragons were dead after all.

A flash of movement in the corner of her vision drew her eye, but it was only a grass snake slithering up onto the sun-warmed rock. She climbed further, searching for the boulder she’d once sat on to watch her family’s scattered flocks. Mid-morning found her still sitting there, arms wrapped around her knees, looking down at the corner of the village. The older children were gathering with their goats. Another snake slithered up, almost joining her on the rock before it smelled her presence and slithered away to some safer place. Two hawks circled overhead.

At a motion in the trees, Sovara flattened herself to the rock.

“Why here?” a man’s voice was saying.

“This is where they said. I just follow orders.”

“I’d rather orders kept us in the shade. Too bare up here.”

“Hmm.”

They were two men carrying spades. They dug a shovelful here and a shovelful there. Sovara could almost feel their spades rattling Lemira’s bones. The dragon had to be nearby. The men inspected each shovelful, rejected it, and moved on.

Another set of voices rang up the slopes. The miners faded into the forest just before the goatherds arrived. Sovara slipped off of the rock and headed into the woods, heading away from the men with their spades.

The Cereans were still looking for gems in the soil, which meant that the would-be miners hadn’t found Lemira’s gate. There, at the entrance to the dragons’ realm, her vein of gems and power lay open, vulnerable. Perhaps she and Varin and Amigat together could find a way to stop them before they found it, before they tapped the dragon’s lifeblood.

On the old trails through the woods, Sovara hadn’t seen much sign of the dragon, only struggling wildflowers, tight-curled buds, and the odd lizard or bird here and there. When she came to the end of the trail where the gate had been there was only a small clearing, empty except for a few buzzing flies.

Back at the plane tree that night, Amigat had little encouragement to offer.

“We’re outnumbered,” he said. “The villagers say that the dragon is dead or gone, and I’ve seen nothing to suggest otherwise. I only pray that Lemira can rouse herself to roast them all.”

Sovara stared out through the tree’s sheltering boughs, thinking.

§

When a child left the villages to become a scrappling of Anamat, she became dead to the villagers, a new person no longer related to the place of her birth. Sovara had lived by that belief for so long that being this close to her childhood home made her feel like a ghost haunting the place. The house of her former self stood at the edge of the village just as she’d left it. The man and the woman in the yard looked very much like her parents had, as if they’d been frozen in time and hadn’t aged at all. It had to be someone of her own generation, maybe her brother and that young woman he’d been planning to marry, not so young any more.

A girl walked out of the house with a herder’s day pack slung over her shoulder. The elders scarcely acknowledged her. The older child, a boy, emerged leading a team of oxen. He and his father carried their plow out to the fields, swatting at the oxen as they went.

Sovara leaned against a tree. As she rested there, she glimpsed something out of the corner of her eye, but it was only a bird, not a dragonlet. The girl and her goats walked past, and she followed, moving silently through the wood. The girl left the goats at a patch of grass in the forest and turned onto a nearly overgrown trail, leaving her flock behind.

A short walk took them to a broader trail, one that Sovara had missed the day before. She felt the dragon’s presence, or maybe it was only nostalgia. The girl was slender, still a few years shy of womanhood. She turned off onto another overgrown path which led from somewhere near the village temple straight to the dragons’ gate.

It was certainly the gate, though a stranger might just as easily have missed it. It was no clearer than the streak of green across the hills had been, just a patch of open ground in front of a shallow cave. The offering place was empty except for winter leaves and pollen, not even the base of a statue remained there. The girl placed a piece of bread on the shelf, made a silent prayer, and turned back to the path.

Sovara stepped out of her hiding place. The girl startled, backing up toward the cave.

“I mean you no harm,” Sovara said.

“Lemira defend me!” the girl said.

Sovara stayed where she was, just at the edge of the clearing. The girl stayed back but did not run away.

“You’re going to Anamat, aren’t you?” Sovara said. “I left an offering here when I went, some thirty or more years ago. Are you sure you want to go? It’s getting harder to find apprenticeships every year.”

“I don’t care,” the girl said. “There’s no place here for me.”

Sovara nodded. The gate didn’t look like much, but now she could clearly sense the passage behind those tangled roots and stones. Even dragon-blind men would be able to see the crystalline stones around the cave’s mouth. It looked dusty, as if Lemira still slept.

“Has Lemira flown yet this year, since midwinter?” Sovara asked.

“I saw her once, last moon. I don’t see her often.”

“Does anyone else here see her?”

The girl shook her head. “I don’t think so. Did you?”

Sovara nodded. “When I was younger, I did,” she said. “But not since I returned. I wondered if it was true, what the men in the camp say. I am glad there’s still someone who sees her.”

“Half the people in the village say she’s dead. I think even the priestesses doubt she’s still with us. They’re going to mine.”

Sovara walked over to the cave mouth and rested her hand on one of the rocks. “Our lore tells us that mining the hills is what killed the dragons of other lands, in Cerea, in Ganat. Now those places are barren. Farmers can barely scratch a living from the soil. They say that the earth is the dragon’s body, and if we open a vein, they will bleed.”

“And so the foreigners come to plunder ours? It’s not fair,” the girl said.

“So we must stop them.”

“We? There is no one here who would stop them, even if they could. The headman wants their gold, and the priestesses will take it, too. Only a few of the farmers protested, but not enough. They sent the old medicine woman away, along with the elder priestess who was here, the one who’d known Lemira for years. I don’t even know where the prince sent them.”

“What about the children? Do they still see the dragon.”

“We – some of the younger ones still believe,” the girl said.

“I have an idea,” Sovara said, though it was not fully formed, and was not even a very good idea. “Can you bring those children here tomorrow morning?”

The girl shook her head. “Then they’d know how to find this place. It’s supposed to be a secret. That’s the only thing that’s kept it safe so far.”

“Not for very much longer,” Sovara said, looking in the direction of the Cerean camp. “She’ll need more than forgotten secrets to keep her safe now. I have two comrades with me, and we will do what we can but it’s not likely to be enough. Others might come, too, but they might not. We need your help.”

“There’s no way to stop them now,” the girl said.

“Probably not,” Sovara admitted, “but we can try.”

§

Sovara gave the girl her best table knife as a gesture of good will and sent her on her way. She waited, listening to the sounds of the woods in the sleepy noontide, insects buzzing softly in the shade, the birds quiet. The forest dozed except for a distant trilling of songbirds and a low hum, a low, long-forgotten hum. She took her sword from its sheath and laid it flat across her hands in a gesture of offering. The hum faded. Had she imagined or dreamed it? Nothing stirred, as if Lemira was still far beneath the earth, or nowhere.

Amigat should be returning to the plane tree now, she thought. She wondered if the Enatel had sent any more help, if they would be able to find the plane tree and Varin. Could they save Lemira, or could the dragon save herself?

Sovara closed her eyes, leaning against the slope of the earth beside the cave. It was nearly dusk. She dozed until the sound of approaching humans woke her. Roused, she climbed up the slope as quickly as she could and hid behind a bush just over the cave mouth. There were two of them, only two of them, a man and a woman: Amigat and a priestess.

“So this is the place where the dragon lives,” Amigat drawled. He regarded the cave mouth as if it were an oddity, something he had never seen before. “Not very impressive.” One of his arms draped across the priestess’s shoulder, his fingers dangling over her breast.

“They say she used to live here,” the priestess said. She was rather young, with soft brown hair falling in a curtain over half her face.

“Not any more? That’s a shame.”

“I think she only hides from us, or sleeps. I thought you were a true devotee, but now I’m not so sure. I shouldn’t have brought you here.”

“I should silence you so you cannot tell the others,” Amigat said. His voice was stern, but he smiled and took her chin to kiss her. He reached for his knife.

Sovara burst from her hiding place. Amigat pushed the young priestess away and she landed on her bottom with a cry.

“Leave her,” Sovara said.

“Oh, it’s you,” Amigat said casually, as if his heart wasn’t racing. It was, though. She could tell by the visible pulse on his strained neck. He drew his sword. “When were you going to tell me you’d found the place?” he asked.

“I’ve only been here since morning. The Cereans haven’t found it yet. I’ve been keeping watch, which is what anyone would have done.”

The priestess scooted on her bottom all the way to the edge of the clearing, as if she might bolt into the underbrush.

Sovara kept her eyes on Amigat. “So you pretended to be one of them?” she said.

Amigat shrugged.

“And you?” she turned to the priestess, now that she was fairly sure the young woman was safe from Amigat’s sword. “You betrayed Lemira to one of them?”

The priestess hung her head. “He seemed sincere in his devotions,” she said.

“I was; I always am,” Amigat said.

“And they were going to find her anyway,” the priestess said. “They’re on the vein, the one that comes up from the east. At the rate they’re going, some of them will reach this place tomorrow or the next day. Besides, no one has seen Lemira in years.”

“Someone has,” Sovara said, “even if it’s just a child. She cannot be dead.”

Amigat sheathed his sword and leaned against a tree as if he were striking a pose by a signpost on a city street corner. “Have you seen her?” he asked.

“I’ve heard her,” Sovara said. “I think I have, at least.”

“And you say they’re coming anyway?” Amigat demanded of the priestess.

She nodded. “But if you’re not one of them, then what are you?”

“A ghost,” Sovara cut in. “We are ghosts, both of us. You had better forget you ever saw us.”

The priestess looked back and forth between them. “You don’t look like ghosts. And you don’t feel like one,” she said, pointing to Amigat.

“Go find the others, if they’ve come,” Sovara told Amigat. “For now, the priestess and I stay here.”

Amigat left, without so much as a word of apology to the priestess, or to her.

Some time after he had gone, when the sky was mostly black, the priestess spoke. “What are you?” she asked again.

“A ghost,” Sovara said again, “one of the Defenders of the Dragons. We are the heirs of Enat, as you and all priestesses are heirs of Ara. A hundred or more years ago we went into hiding. Once, Anara had a stone of power in the courtyard of Ara’s Landing, the temple by the harbor. It radiated light and power through the city. If you’ve ever seen an old piece of weaving or jewelry, or even some of the old buildings, you can see the fineness of the work, its closeness to the heart of the land.”

The priestess nodded.

“Men from Enomae came and stole that stone. We, the Defenders, were supposed to be guarding the temple. We failed. The governor and the princes disbanded us and we lost our place in the courts, our place in history.”

“And became ghosts?”

“As you can see, a few of us are living, breathing people. Not enough of us, though.”

“You left the temples undefended,” the priestess said.

“There are not even enough of us to defend the dragons any more,” Sovara said.

The priestess looked to the cave mouth. Perhaps she saw a flicker of life there in the dusty darkness.

“I can’t. I can’t stay here. I have to go back to the temple. We are only three priestesses, and with so many men in the village… They were told to stay away, but some of them come anyway, like your friend there.”

Sovara sighed. “He isn’t one of them.”

“He would have killed me!” the priestess said.

“I hope that he only meant to frighten you, but he also thought you’d betrayed Lemira. If he had been one of them, as you thought he was, it would have been a betrayal.”

The priestess went to the edge of the clearing and hugged her knees to her chest. A rock came loose on the hillside and rolled down, bringing a shower of dust and pebbles with it. The tiny rockfall landed in front of the cave mouth. Left alone, the mountains would soon block this entrance to the dragons’ realm.

“You can’t go. It’s night, and you’ll need to help us at first light if Lemira is going to live.”

“Do you really think she still lives?” the priestess asked, her voice rising with hope.

Sovara considered. There had been no signs of a dragon’s death along the road. flowers bloomed, the rains came and went, the sun shone. Besides, there had been that streak of green across the hills, and the girl who said that she’d seen the dragon.

“I do,” Sovara said, “but she seems to be hiding, hiding from the priestesses, at least.”

The priestess might have nodded, but in the darkness it was hard to tell. Sovara rolled out her cloak as a makeshift blanket. The priestess sat cross-legged, eyes closed against what the moonlight might have shown her. Sovara tried to sleep. She felt a fierce aversion to the priestess, who had taken Amigat for one of the prince’s men and betrayed the dragon for his sake. With another woman, they might have curled together for warmth, but not this one, no more than she would go to Amigat for comfort.

Sovara woke at dawn. The priestess had been awake before her, but only got up as Sovara opened her eyes. The priestess stood up and walked over to the offering place. She did not seem to see Sovara. When leaves at the edge of the clearing rustled, she did not turn to look. The girl from the day before appeared, holding Sovara’s knife in her hand. She stared at the priestess. “What are you doing here?” she demanded.

The priestess lit a bit of incense in front of the still-untouched offering of bread, ignoring the girl.

“And you?” the girl asked Sovara.

“If the dragon does not appear,” Sovara said, “we must be her voice, her wings, her teeth, her fire. We will drive them away. Bring the other children here and I will show you what to do.”

The girl frowned, but she nodded assent before she went away.

It was as if the priestess was trying to reach the dragon with her silence, to ask forgiveness. She seemed not to have noticed that the girl had come and gone. Sovara pulled her hair back, rolled up her cloak, and oiled her blades while they waited.

Soon, she heard the girl and the other children on the path. She met them a short distance from the clearing. There were only five of them and they were very young, but they needed to try. Sovara prayed that Lemira would come to save these children, and herself.

“Can you make this noise?” Sovara asked the girl. She made the dragon call, a high, ringing noise which echoed far across the hill. She could make it with her mouth alone, though it was better with the horn, but she only had one horn, and she might need it again.

“I can try,” the girl said.

She made a passable attempt, not quite right, but one of the younger children tried and made a bright, clear sound. Delighted with his success, he showed the others what he’d done and soon they were all calling, seeing who could make the call loudest, highest.

“Quiet!” Sovara ordered.

The children froze.

“This may become a very serious game. I want you all to scatter and climb into the trees. When the men of Cerea arrive, make that sound with all your might, one after the other.”

“Until when?” the girl asked.

“Until they scatter, or until you must run to save yourselves.”

The girl held up her hand. “I hear them,” she said.

“Then go,” Sovara said, shooing the younger children away. She held the girl’s arm for a moment, asking her to stay.

“Is Lemira still golden, or orange?” Sovara asked when the younger ones had gone.

The girl shook her head. “Sometimes a little,” she said, “but mostly I can see right through her, like she’s just a ripple in the air.”

This was going to be hard. “And you’re sure it’s the dragon?”

The girl nodded emphatically. “I hear her.”

“Then let’s make the men of Cerea hear her, too.”

§

Back at the cave mouth, the priestess was rocking and humming to herself. “She’s coming, you know,” she said in a sing-song voice. “She’s coming.”

A call sounded from away to the west, from the direction of the plane tree. The children had sighted the Cereans, or maybe just the local guardsmen who were in league with them. Sovara hoped that the children were well hidden. She climbed up above the cave, took out her small horn, and echoed their call.

A dozen men burst into the clearing: two local guardsmen, several Cerean laborers with picks and spades, a few Cerean guardsmen, and one Cerean in the garb of a wealthy merchant. The sound of the children’s calls and of Sovara’s horn echoed off the hills. The Cerean guardsmen drove two stiff-backed priestesses in shackles before them, but they handled the women warily. One of the local guards made a warding motion. The Cereans started muttering to themselves, speaking prayers or entreaties to some foreign god with half-closed eyes and upturned faces.

The elder of the two captive priestesses wriggled in an attempt to get loose. She lunged towards the young priestess who had spent the night in the clearing, but her captors jerked her back. “My dear,” she said, but the young priestess looked up at her through clouded eyes, babbling nonsense syllables.

“Shut that woman up!” the Cerean merchant said, pointing to the babbling priestess.

On the hills, one of the children sounded a dragon-call louder than before, and three more trumpets echoed it. Sovara added hers. The other Defenders were coming, thanks be to Na. The men of Cerea and the guardsmen paused.

“She comes!” The young priestess’s voice rang loud and piercing as trumpets. “SHE COMES!”

The man who appeared to be second-in-command ordered the local guardsmen forward. “Silence her!” They hung back. Two of the Cerean guards put swords to their backs and drove them toward the cave mouth, keeping themselves as far away from the mad priestess as they could get. The other Cereans lagged behind them, wary of the woman’s distant eyes and the curses of the dragons.

From her perch on the slope, Sovara couldn’t see the mouth of the cave, but a faint golden light played on the undersides of the leaves. It was not sunlight.

The priestess was so far gone into her trance that she did not seem to notice the approaching men. She stood, swaying and keening. The Theranian guards stopped about an arm’s length away from her and refused to go further, even though the blades pierced through the clothes on their backs, broke through the skin so that the blood began to seep out in slow drops. Finally, one of the Cerean guards pushed a Theranian aside and stepped up to grasp the priestess by the arms.

The merchant shouted something in Cerean as another foreign guard reached the priestess. The second Cerean took a fistful of her hair and pulled back her head, setting his knife at her neck. Sovara stood. She thought she saw a movement in the trees, but she wasn’t sure. The sound of horns and dragon calls echoed on. The children were trying their best, and the other Defenders were coming, they had to be.

An arrow shot past her and she leaped down. She pulled the second Cerean away from the priestess, took the knife out of his hand with one swift flick of the wrist and turned it on him. He scarcely seemed to notice what had happened before he fell to the ground.

She cast the knife away as the man fainted at her feet, then turned to deal with the next Cerean, but he was not where she had left him, and the ones who’d been behind him still stood back. The priestess had taken that one young Cerean by one hand. She lead him into the cave, into Lemira’s mouth, oblivious to the armed men closing in on her, and making him forget them, too. He dropped his sword and he was slack-jawed with awe as he stepped into the cave.

“Stop them!” one of the men shouted. The Cereans surged forward. Sovara blocked one blow then another, a man almost on top of her fell away at her cut and she went for the one behind him, while a third, at her back, got the butt end of the hilt in his gut. She reached the mouth of the cave as more men came at her while the two other priestesses wailed and the golden light grew and blood spilled on the ground. Metal clashed on metal, metal on bone, stone on flesh. The wind rose.

Another fight had broken out, but she was too busy keeping the Cereans back – four of them now, no five – to turn to see who it was. The man she was fighting fell away and Amigat entered the clearing, beating two Cereans back towards her. They fought with short swords, tending to favor crushing blows. Her sharper, stronger blade could reach past their shorter, heavier swords. She advanced and rejoined the fray.

“Stand back, cease your madness!” the merchant shouted at Amigat, who ignored him. Then another voice sounded, a booming voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once:

“He takes orders only from me.”

Sovara knew only one man who could do that: The Enatel. Why had he come himself?

The merchant pointed at Amigat. “Eliminate that man, and whoever is with him,” he barked. The priestesses squealed. “And them,” the merchant added, “if they can’t stay out of the way.” The two captive priestesses shrank back to the forest’s edge while the first one who’d come, the one Amigat had brought, pulled her entranced Cerean deeper into the cave, both wrapped in the light of the dragon. There was long moment of silence inside Sovara’s mind as she watched them, wondering. He was not of this land, and yet he could see Lemira while so many of her own people could not. But then, Enat and Ara had been foreign born across the seas, too, long ago.

Across the clearing, Amigat cut down two Cereans with quick strokes, one after the other. More were coming, mining invaders and Defenders, too. There were too many of them, except that Sovara had the high ground, and the Enatel was there. Sovara sounded her horn, then took up her sword again.

The earth rumbled. The clearing filled with men. The two priestesses shrieked. Amigat cut through the guardsmen until he reached the two captive priestesses. He cut their bonds and sent them running down toward the village, running as the cave quaked. Stones and dirt slid down the hillside. One of the Theranian guardsmen ran with the priestesses. He was an older man, and he looked askance at the cave mouth, worried. The young priestess and her Cerean had nearly disappeared into the darkness of the earth, now glowing golden as they faded into Lemira’s gate, their steps slow, as if they waded through thick honey.

A stray sword hit Sovara on the back swing, knocking her to the ground. She came up into a crouch, defensive, and caught sight of the Enatel standing at the edge of the clearing. Harron and Ferrent on either side of him, Tennest and Varin brought up the rear. Her sword-companions had come, and not too late. One of the other Cereans was almost in the cave now, too, but he tripped. The Enatel rushed forward to finish him.

One of the Cereans struck at Sovara from behind, but she swiveled to block the blow. The foreigner’s sword shuddered as it met hers. He stepped back. She turned to meet the next man, and the next, her arms shaking with their blows but powered by the force of the earth pouring up through her to meet them, to drive them back.

The girl, or someone, if it was not the dragon herself, sounded the call from the hills and it was echoed again and again, more than was possible with only a few children and a handful of Defenders. The few men of Theranis who’d remained in the miners’ company fled, pale-faced, into the brush. The Enatel was hit. The Defenders closed ranks around him, forming a half-circle. Amigat was not among them. Sometime in the fray, he had fallen. A bleeding, dying guardsman lay across his lifeless body like a blanket.

A hot wind blew at Sovara’s back and she felt it give fire to her heart, to her sword. The priestess, the mad priestess, dashed all the way into Lemira’s open mouth to the other realm and the young Cerean with her.

For a moment, a misty calm descended over the clearing, just long enough to hear an eagle answer another eagle high above. A sword swung down. A man screamed.

The dragon came. Sovara could see her out of the corner of her eye, the golden orange scales she remembered, the silvery wings, and Lemira bending down to breathe fire on what was left of the foreigners.

The forest blazed, but only in a small circle around the clearing. Beyond that, village children stood holding burning logs and torches, watching the foreigners go. There were more of them now, drawn by the sound and the light. The dragon soared up over the trees, over the flames. Sovara lifted her sword, heavy now again, to fend off one last attack. She pushed the Cerean mercenary’s weapon away, threw it into the wood. She followed its brazen flight as it arched, reflecting golden scales as it flew and fell into the smoke.

As the last foreigner ran down the slope, down to whatever was left of their camp, down to the keep town and the harbor beyond, down to the boats that would carry him away, Sovara sat and watched the dragon. Lemira was no mere ripple in the air. It was as if she’d been strengthened by the spilled blood, or by the unraveling of the young priestess’s mind, by her going into the cave with that foreigner.

“No!” a young man’s voice cracked. It was a voice she knew well.

Sovara turned to see Varin crouched over a fallen body. It took her a long moment to understand who it was: the Enatel.

Around the clearing, most of the fallen bodies were foreigners, but there were some of their own, too, including Amigat under the man he’d taken down with him. Tennest lay at the opposite side of the clearing, the back of his neck and his tunic blackened by fire. Amigat’s face was oddly peaceful, more peaceful than it ever had been in life.

A few of the village children approached the edge of the clearing, but they quailed at the carnage and fled, trailing their firebrands behind them. Sovara thought she saw the girl running up the slope to the high mountain path to Anamat.

Lemira circled above, growing to fill the sky.

“Come here,” the Enatel croaked. The strength was running out of him, pouring away into the earth with his blood. He looked smaller already, lighter, falling away. He’d been so solid, so strong, never anyone stronger.

Sovara knelt at his side. The Enatel coughed, blood spurting out of his mouth. He tugged at the medallion around his still-muscular neck and somehow broke the cord. He handed it to Sovara. “Back to the city,” he said. “Tend the shrine.”

“You can’t die,” Sovara whispered.

He did not waste breath responding to that. “My office cannot. You take it.”

“I can’t,” Sovara said. “Garren, or even Tennest.”

“No, you. You are the Enatel now.”

Varin looked up at her in some surprise, but then he bowed.

“I’m not ready,” Sovara said. “Besides, I’m a woman.”

“No one… ” said the Enatel, or Konnat, as he’d been called before he’d held the title. “Never ready,” Konnat said. “Not important. Last of our line. Take it.” He thrust the medallion at Sovara and she took it. It glowed in her hand, whether by its own power or from the reflected light of the dragon, she wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter.

She looked up at the sky, but Lemira had faded leaving only the shadow of herself in the clouds which gathered on the horizon, leaving only the dimming glow of the cave behind her and green grass springing bright and new around the fallen men.

When Sovara looked down again, Konnat’s sputtering breath had stopped. She closed his eyes, and together she and the apprentice Varin carried him and the other fallen men to the mouth of the dragon’s cave.

Those who had survived – only Varin, Ferrent, Harron and herself – kept watch until nightfall. The interlopers did not return. They shared a little bread that one of the dead men had brought in his pack, and they drank from a trickle of water running down the hillside.

At midnight, the noon of the full moon night, a breath of wind woke Sovara. She felt the dragon’s wings beat the air. Lemira’s form blocked out the moon, then with a flash of light she disappeared into the earth and was gone.

By morning, the bodies of the fallen were gone. The remaining Defenders – so few of them – set out for Anamat to wait, and to train for the next battle whenever it came, knowing that it would come.

§

Author’s Note

 

 

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This story is a prequel to the [_Dragonsfall _]trilogy.

The Defenders’ Apprentice

Chapter 1

The pale fire tongues of the dragons’ realm flickered away as the warmth of the rite receded into the offering place, into the earth. The heat between their bodies flowed into the place where he could never follow. Thorat gazed up at the eggshell dome as he reached out to run his hand along Iola’s smooth back. The trance was leaving her, too, leaving them alone together as themselves, at last.

“I’ll send for tea,” Iola said.

Instead of answering, Thorat pulled her closer. They had so little time together.

She draped the red robe around her shoulders to go out to the garden to summon her attendant. When she danced, that robe became a river of molten fire, but now it was just very fine clothing, separating him from her and reminding them both of her calling. As ambassadress, she had dozens of petitioners, princes and guild masters, wealthy merchants, the governor. He’d come to bring the Defenders’ offering, but he wished that he could come just for himself, to be friends again, even ordinary lovers.

When she returned, she went to a quiet alcove, far from the altar where he lay. He pulled away from the last thin traces of dragonfire and went to sit beside her, holding hands, human again. When he edged closer, she pulled away and turned to face him, letting only their feet touch.

“Tell me: what news do the Defenders bring this year?”

“We haven’t been down to the shrine yet. I should have waited until after that, but Sunna said that you wouldn’t be able to see me after tonight,” Thorat said. “There aren’t enough of us to go to all the gates every year, either, but those we saw were quiet.” The worst news wasn’t news at all. They hadn’t had a single new apprentice in years. Dragonsight was dying out, and the Defenders with it.

Iola nodded. “The princes tell me that the dragons guard their own gates now, or so they must be doing, to keep the foreign miners away.”

“I don’t know what keeps them away, but I’m fairly sure it’s not the princes.”

“Surely, they wouldn’t let their trading partners steal the heart of their lands.”

Was she so isolated here that she believed that? “At least the foreign miners can’t find the gates on their own, so there’s that much to keep the dragons safe, even when we can’t go,” Thorat said.

Iola looked down at her hands and frowned. “Unless a priestess helped them.”

She was not utterly ignorant of what was happening beyond her marble walls, then. A long moment stretched between them, and he was about to reach out to hold her hand when she spoke again.

“Who is the Enatel?” Iola asked. “He can’t be dragon-blind, so why does he send you rather than come to me himself?”

Thorat hesitated. It seemed hard to believe that after all these years, she still didn’t know who the Enatel was, but he’d seen no reason to tell her, and apparently no one else had either.

“Of course I want to see you, more than I want to see anyone else, I really do.” She bit her bottom lip. “It’s only that I wonder.”

Thorat took a deep breath. There was no reason not to tell her. “The Enatel is a woman now, even though she’s Enat’s heir, so of course she can’t come.” Sovara was a thin, gray-haired woman who had nothing good to say about priestesses in general, stealing offerings meant for the dragons, lazy in their luxuriant temples.

“She did send our offering, though,” he said. “She made it herself.”

“She could come to me,” Iola said. “The rite is not dependent on the petitioner’s sex, you know.”

“It isn’t? I don’t think she knows that. I’m sure I didn’t.” He didn’t much like the thought of Sovara lying with Iola, though it wasn’t as bad as the thought of the governor heaving over her, understanding nothing.

“Most priestesses aren’t willing to draw from another woman as they would from a man, if they even know how, but you’re right; I would rather see you, while we can,” Iola said. “Show me now: what did she send?”

Thorat handed her the package and she leaned against him as she unwrapped it. She smiled with appreciation as she held it up to see, a double-edged blade, wider than most, with an intricately worked handle.

“A dragon-grooming dagger. How lovely,” she said.

There was a quiet clatter of cups and plates as Iola’s attendant set the tea tray down outside. Iola brought it in and placed it on a low table between them. She poured Thorat a glass of wine, then filled her own cup with tea. She reclined, her raven hair flowing down over the crimson robes and alabaster skin. He reached for a cake.

“The Aralel wants me to retire, but I can’t,” she said.

“Why not? You’ve been ambassadress a long time now; what is it, five years?” Most ambassadresses didn’t last nearly that long. The journey to the dragons’ realm wasn’t easy for a human, but then, Iola was closer to the dragons than anyone else he’d ever met.

“Six years. This will be my seventh descent.”

“There must be dozens of priestesses who’d want to be ambassadress, despite the danger.”

Iola shook her head. “Dozens of foolish, dragon-blind girls. It’s not that there aren’t enough; it’s just that they’re not the right ones. A few of them might survive one voyage, but no more than that.”

“I wouldn’t think it would be so hard to find priestesses.” The Defenders couldn’t find apprentices with dragonsight, but that was different. After all, his order wasn’t supposed to exist, while the priestesses offered wealth, power, and as many of Theranis’s best cakes as a person could want, every day. They were very good. He took another.

“The oracles say that there’s a scrappling this season who might be fit to journey to the dragons’ realms. There was one last year, but they missed her. I hope they don’t miss her again this year.” She looked up at Thorat. “You’re out on the streets. If you find that girl, the one with dragonsight, could you bring her to me?”

“I’ll do what I can,” Thorat said. “Anything for you.”

Iola half-smiled. “They all…” She stopped herself, but Thorat knew that he’d said something foolish, something that made him sound like just another lust-addled petitioner. He drained his cup.

“If you retired, you could leave the temple,” Thorat said, another absurd idea. The only place retired priestesses went was to the hills, and there were bandits in the hills, lawless, violent men. He shuddered at the thought.

Of course, Iola laughed. “Not yet, not yet. Besides, I’ll be a creature of the temple and the dragons as long as I live.” Her face shone in the lamplight. It was true, but that didn’t make him want her less.

“Darna and Myril left the temple, didn’t they?” Thorat said, as if Iola were like them.

“They never wanted to be priestesses, not as I did. I am this.” Iola indicated the room around her with its rich carvings, draperies, jewels, and the offering place. It was foolish to try to imagine her in a mountain hermitage wearing flea-ridden furs.

In the outer courtyard, a bell rang.

“I told them, no more tonight,” Iola said, sounding suddenly tired. She grasped Thorat’s hand, then wrapped her arms around him. He held her, wishing that the moment could go on forever.

“It could be the new Slaradun prince,” she said, pushing him away. “It would be good to have some taste of Salara before I see her again. In any case, you have to leave. After Midwinter, come see me as soon as you can. Promise it. Swear it.”

“I will. I do.” Thorat let her pull him back into the bath chamber, the way he came and went in secret. “Be safe; be well,” he said, though it didn’t seem like enough. “Send my love to the dragons.”

Iola glanced to the outer doorway, then ran back and kissed him, full on the lips.

“Now go!” She pushed him toward the secret passage.

Thorat hurried away before any more foolish pledges of love could fall from his lips into that unforgiving splendor.

§

Eppie woke under the still-cool shade of the bridge. The traffic of feet and carts grew noisy on the bridge above and the sun beat hot on the canal bank. The others were still sleeping beside her. She sat up carefully, not wanting to wake them yet. Mist rose from the canal in delicate feathers, fading into the air. The dragonlet—if she was not only a figment of Eppie’s imagination—hid in the crevices between the stones, her green scales blending with the moss-green rocks and twining into the earth, as dragons were said to do.

“Hey, lazybones,” Eppie whispered, prodding one of the sleeping boys.

“What?” Squid grumbled.

“It’s morning.”

“’Course it’s morning,” he said. “I’m going back to sleep.”

Squid had gone to the taverns the night before to pick pockets and look for an apprenticeship. Mostly to pick pockets, though; that was what he usually did when he wasn’t fighting. Eppie was nearly his equal in both pursuits – pickpocketing and fighting – but he was better known. Probably that was just as well. Squid left a trail of confusion in his wake, like ink, like the darkness he disappeared into. If he’d ever had another name, it was long forgotten.

“They’ll run out of bread,” Eppie said.

Squid half sat up. “I don’t need the temple hens’ bread. You go.”

He rolled over as if to go back to sleep while Eppie wormed her way out of the blankets. Squid was always grumpy in the morning, but today he was more talkative than usual.

“D’you think the dragons will kill her this year?” he asked.

“The ambassadress? I don’t know,” Eppie said. “Do you think we’ll get real apprenticeships?”

Squid shrugged. “I got a lead. I might go on that Ganatean trader; able-bodied seaman, they’d call me.”

Eppie hesitated. Squid was prone to bragging, but he’d never come close to getting an apprenticeship before. “That could be all right,” she said, thinking of sailing the seas. “I’ve got nothing. D’you think I could join up too, be a sailor?”

Squid shook his head and sank back down under the blankets. “Not for a girl. They don’t have girls on their ships, not as sailors anyway. Just as cargo, they say.”

Eppie shuddered.

“Go on to the temple,” Squid said. “You know they’ll take you, and at least you’ll eat. Otherwise, there’s the foreigners’ brothel.”

Eppie shuddered at that as she walked away. No one wanted to go to the foreigners’ brothel, over by Merchants’ Wharf. There was no dignity in it, and you didn’t even learn to read. In a way, though, it might be better than the temple, where the walls seemed to close out every sound of the outside world, where the silence stifled everything, and where she’d never seen a dragonlet, not that they showed themselves often by the docks, but she’d glimpsed them there sometimes. In any case, she didn’t want to go to the temple, but Squid would never understand why. She could talk to him about almost everything else, from fighting to scavenging and which of the green-knees would last the season, but never about the dragons. Like most people, he didn’t see them, and he thought that those who did must be drugged or just crazy.

Eppie followed a side street around to the back of the temple to get her share of festival bread, keeping to the shade as she went. In two days’ time, the ambassadress would go to the dragons again, maybe forever. On that morning, she would see Anara again, and could look at her without worrying. She always did, at festival times, and then she wouldn’t have to pretend not to see, since everyone else would be pretending that the [_could _]see, for a change.

Behind the houses, the white marble walls of Ara’s Landing stood closed to the outside world, unbroken by windows or ordinary doorways. The temple was self-contained, like an egg, indifferent to the fate of anything outside its walls, except that they did give bread to the scrapplings, the Children of Anara, until they found their work or else fled back to the dragon-forsaken provinces. That suited Eppie fine for now.

The temple’s towers reached high above those closed-in walls, their gilded roofs shining above the city. Eppie looked up at them, as she always did when she was close to the temple. She told Squid that she thought the watchmen went there, looking for scrapplings trespassing on rooftops, but he said that was ridiculous, which of course it was. The priestesses would never let a watchman so deep into the temple. The truth was more ridiculous, or would be to Squid. Once, she’d seen Anara there, and not even at a festival time. As far as Eppie knew, the only other person who saw dragons anymore was the ambassadress, and she was hardly an ordinary person. Sometimes, guildsmen or soothsayers claimed to see Anara as a shadow at crossing times, when everyone was drunk, but no one believed them.

Even without Anara spreading her wings over the gilded towers, the temple was beautiful. It was as big as the governor’s palace and far outshone the columned shrine that the Cereans were building to their philosopher gods at the far end of the harbor, facing away from their brothel, of course. The dragonlets seemed to shun the temple despite its beauty, as if Anara didn’t trust it any more than Eppie did.

She joined the pack of ragged scrapplings outside the back gate. There were young ones from the near provinces and a few others she’d seen the year before or the year before that, newly returned to the city, trying their luck with the guilds again.

“Hey, Eppie,” one of them called. “What are you still doing here? Not an apprentice yet?”

“Shut up, lapper,” Eppie said. “I bet you’re going home to your mama again this year, too.” She hadn’t, not once, even though it was only two days’ walk to her home village. Sure, she’d been tempted that first winter, but she wanted to stay in Anamat, not get stuck back home, herding goats, with no chance of anything more.

The priestess at the gate let the scrapplings in one at a time, counting them, measuring them. She turned away three of the older ones. Eppie willed herself to look smaller. She wore boys’ clothes, and so far, the priestesses hadn’t seemed to notice that she was a girl underneath. She was starting to wonder how long that could last, but her tunic was shapeless enough to cover her for now. She slipped through the gate with the rest, some two or three dozen of them, and shouldered her way to the front of the crowd.

A red-robed priestess sat beside the old one who tended the oven. She looked sadly at the scrapplings. “It seems to me,” she said to the elder priestess beside her, “that when I was on the streets, there was enough for everyone.”

“Now, now,” the elder said. “You’re not as old as all that. When I was young, the guilds even begged for apprentices, none of this nonsense about fees you had.”

Eppie stared despite herself. Imagine, the guilds begging for apprentices!

“It’s true, my son,” the elder said to Eppie. Then she winked. “But you’re here for the bread, and maybe the ambassadress’s blessing.”

Eppie’s face fell. “Oh. Is that today?”

“Of course it is,” said the younger priestess, who was rather beautiful, if a bit weary-looking. “We seek our novices, but you—” She looked into Eppie’s eyes. “You’re not a boy, are you?”

“Not gonna be a priestess, either,” Eppie said.

“We’ll see about that.” With that, the younger priestess sashayed away, winking back over her shoulder in a way that Eppie didn’t like at all.

§

After early training at the sword hall, Thorat found that he couldn’t fall back asleep, even though he knew that he should rest. It was the morning before Midsummer Eve, and Iola would be blessing the scrapplings. Hoping for one more glimpse of her, he took a walk back down to the temple. Ragged youngsters crowded the street. The land was drying up, and the people were getting poorer, especially the scrapplings.

“Why go now?” the gate priestess was saying to one scrappling. “She is almost here for the blessing. You could find an apprenticeship.”

The scrappling shrugged. “I don’t need her blessing. Anyway, the guilds all say they don’t have room for our kind.”

Thorat wondered how true that was. He had to spend a great deal of time away from Anamat, but it had been hard to place their last apprentice in the swordsmiths’ guild, despite the Defenders’ long clandestine association with them.

There was a stir in the courtyard as the ambassadress emerged. Iola stood on a small stage, veiled in silk and incense. Through it, even from outside the temple, he could still see that she glowed with what they had shared together, the heat of the earth, the glory of the dragons. A gong sounded. Thorat bowed his head and began to pray.

“O great ones, who rule the bounty,” they began together.

Out of the corner of Thorat’s eye, he noticed a small movement. The scrappling had slipped the key away from the priestess on guard and was opening the gate, just wide enough to squeeze through. Thorat turned his attention back to the ceremony. Even the scrapplings who had been left on the street outside paused in their scuffles. They listened, even if they didn’t know the words well enough to speak the prayer themselves.

“For Anara’s wings bring sun and storms,

Her tail sows marvels in its wake,

Across the seas and in the –”

Thorat’s sword hand moved reflexively to stop the fingers reaching for his pocket. He twisted the wrist before he even looked to see who the pickpocket was.

“Ow!” the scrappling said.

It was the same one who had just left the temple against the priestess’s orders.

“Stay,” Thorat commanded. The scrappling tugged, but he had a firm grip on the wrist. The prayer droned on and he mumbled along, tightening his grasp now and then to keep the pickpocket near.

As the prayer drew to a close, the novices surrounding Iola rang a chorus of bells. Thorat looked up into her eyes. Every time he saw her felt like the first time they had met on that mountain path, the first time he had come to save her. His heart yearned to do it again, to save her forever.

The thief slipped out of his grasp. Iola wasn’t supposed to be looking at him, anyway, wasn’t even supposed to know him. Thorat grabbed at the twice-escaping miscreant.

The scrappling would have gotten away, but just then, a dragonlet scurried along a wall, and he – or she – stopped to watch. So did Thorat. The dragonlet’s crossing gave him just enough time to reach the pickpocket and grab an arm. Thorat watched the dragonlet go. A look of confusion crossed the scrappling’s face.

“What are you looking at?” the scrappling demanded.

Thorat studied the face, dirty and thin. The scrappling had short, ragged hair, and was a little too tall to have no whisper of hair on the upper lip, if this were a boy, but too sharp and awkward to be a girl. But then, some girls were sharp and awkward.

“I believe I was looking at the same thing you were,” he said.

“I wasn’t looking at nothing!”

“I think you were,” Thorat said.

“You can’t arrest me,” the scrappling said. “You’re not even the watch. You’re just a palace guard. Governor’s toady.”

Thorat sighed. He hated even looking like the governor’s toady even when it was only for a day or two at Midsummer, and he hadn’t officially been hired. It stopped people from asking questions—stopped most people, anyway. The youngster squirmed.

“No, I can’t arrest you,” he said. “You should be more careful whose pockets you pick, though. I’m just a poor guardsman. Besides, I used to be the best pickpocket in the East Market.”

The scrappling snorted. The gate was open now, and the ones who had gotten their share of festival bread were hurrying out to take cover in their own corners of the city.

The dragonlet reappeared, dancing along the roofline of the building opposite, one of the weavers’ warehouses. It glinted red and gold, dancing on the red-brown tiles of the roof, then disappeared. When Thorat looked down, the scrappling was still following some motion there with her—or his—eyes.

“Is it still there?” he asked.

“What?” the scrappling said. “Let me go!”

For a moment, their eyes met. He knew, they both knew, what they had just seen. “I believe that only a very few of the priestesses would have seen that,” he said quietly.

“I won’t be a priestess,” the scrappling said.

“Can’t be, or won’t?”

“What’s it to you?” she said.

“Nothing much,” Thorat said. “But if you don’t want to be one, you’d better find something else to do, and soon.”

One of the red-robed priestesses was talking to the one at the gate, pointing at the scrappling girl whose wrist was locked in his grip.

“I’ve got to go,” the girl said, pulling away.

“I have work for you,” Thorat said. “Meet me at the top of the first bridge over the east canal at sundown.” A worried look crossed the girl’s face for a moment, quickly replaced by affected nonchalance. She nodded, and he released her. She ran full tilt toward the east canal, her festival bread held tight against her chest.

“I have an aunt who needs help with her housekeeping,” Thorat shouted after her, not that she would believe him.

§

Eppie didn’t even feel like detouring to the east gate to pick pockets. She’d been caught. No one ever caught her. If she was getting that clumsy, maybe she should let the governor’s guardsman turn her over to the watch. She couldn’t believe it. It was common wisdom that you couldn’t pull off every heist, that they’d get you sooner or later and send you back to the provinces or lock you up in jail, but for three years, she’d dodged them all. Three whole years and a few moon-rounds, and she’d dodged them all, until now.

A stupid palace guardsman had caught her. But he wasn’t just any guardsman. He saw dragonlets. He’d even seen her seeing a dragonlet. It made no sense. No one saw dragonlets, and if anyone were going to see them, it would be a priestess, or a soothsayer, or someone like that. Maybe a valley farmer, at festivals. Certainly not the governor’s thug. Worse, he’d wanted to meet her there, on the very roof of her home shelter. It was as if he’d known, as if he could read her mind.

Eppie scaled down the rocks and hid in the shadows to eat. The others had all woken while she was away and had gone off to do their begging or thievery for the day. Even the dragonlet was nowhere to be seen. Dragonlets didn’t like midday; they preferred twilight and rain. Eppie found the water jug in a cranny in the stones and took a swig. It was a bit stale but not too bad. The festival bread more than made up for it. Eppie bit into the soft dough, tasting an apricot, spices, and honey. If only she had some tea, it would be perfect.

As she ate, her heartbeat calmed. The water shimmered dully in the heat, and a few scraps of kitchen garbage drifted down toward the harbor. Under the surface, a fish swam. Above, the road across the bridge was quiet. Flies buzzed. Everything was just as usual, but that man, that stupid guardsman, had seen her in a way that no one else had seen her, and he was coming to get her. She felt that she ought to get away – he’d caught her trying to pickpocket him – but where would she go? She knew well enough that she couldn’t go on the foreigners’ ships, even without Squid telling her so. She wouldn’t go back to Lemirun, that was for sure, and of course the guilds wouldn’t have her. Whatever the guardsman was offering, it had to be better than the silence of the temple, the suffocating silence of it, the absence of the dragonlets.

Now that she was a little calmer, a little safer, now that she was alone, she could think. The man was quick and he could see dragonlets. He was handsome, too, with shining brown hair and clear eyes, crinkled at the corners as if always ready to laugh. He was the kind of man that girls gazed at wistfully, especially girls who weren’t pretending to be boys so they wouldn’t get pulled in to the temples or worse. At least the priestesses had their dignity and the power of the dragons to strengthen them. A man didn’t go to a priestess to feel his own might; he came to honor hers, or at least that was how it was supposed to be. But because men didn’t see dragons, didn’t know what they were coming to honor, they mostly just leered and spilled their seed anyway. No, she did not want to be a priestess. She’d rather fetch water and sweep floors for that guardsman’s aunt, or whatever it was he wanted her for. She could do worse.

§

[_The Defenders’ Apprentice _]is available as of June 28th, 2016. If you’d like to order or pre-order it, you can find links on my website: www.ameliasmith.net.

These prequels to the Dragonsfall trilogy are available now. The rest of the series will be published later in 2016.

 

Scrapplings, Children of the Dragons

Darna shouldn’t have been born – priestesses aren’t supposed to have babies – and she most certainly shouldn’t see dragons. After all, no one else does, except in Anamat, or so the minstrels say.

She sets out for the city of Anamat. Along the way, she meets Myril, an older girl with frequent premonitions and an eerie sense of hearing.

Then there’s Iola, who is so dragon-struck that she actually wants to be a priestess. She’s blind to the corruption in the temples.

Thorat is Iola’s champion. He sees dragons as much as the girls do, but unlike them he blends easily in to a crowd.

Apart from these four, the city seems to be nearly as dragon-blind as the provinces. Darna scavenges for scraps, but apprenticeships cost more than she’s likely to earn. When she’s offered a sack of gold beads for a small bit of thieving, she takes her chances… and ends up angering the dragon herself.

 

Priestess of the Dragons’ Temple

Once, Iola flew with a dragon. If she can become ambassadress to the dragons’ realm, she might fly again, but first she must navigate life as an ordinary priestess. The temple is not the perfect sanctuary she’d hoped for. Some of her fellow priestesses dragon-blind and corrupt. Worse, they see Iola’s devotions as evidence of greed.

 

The ambassadress returns, too sick to fly again. Iola is chosen nurse her, and to have a chance at taking her place. Iola’s main rival, Tiagasa, was raised in a prince’s palace. She thrives on political intrigue and gossip, and her lover is about to become governor of the city.

 

Iola is just a village girl dazzled by dragons. Her few friends and allies aren’t much more savvy than she is. Still, they hope to persuade the new governor to make Iola ambassadress, and to choose faith over scheming, one way or another.

 

Spirits in the Hills, a short story

Sovara listens for any threat to the dragons, the life force of the land. While posing as a maid in the governor’s palace, she overhears foreigners plotting to raid a dragon’s gate. They’re heading to the gate closest to the village where she was born, a place she left decades before.

 

She rallies her fellow Defenders to block the invaders, but only a few members of this small secret society of swordsmen set out for the provinces; Sovara, her least-amiable brother-in-arms, and one green apprentice. They‘re scouting party set to battle a merchant army.

 

 

 

Not in the Anamat series:

 

 

Eddystone Light

My father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light

Slept with a mermaid one fine night.

From this union there came three:

A porpoise, a porgie and the other was me.

 

Jack studies accountancy, lives with his maiden aunt in an upright Victorian household, and smells like a fish. The fishy smell drives girls away faster than they can be introduced.

 

When Jack visits his lighthouse-keeper father on the Eddystone rocks, he meets his mother for the first time since he was a baby. She’s a mermaid. Jack’s mother sends him on a quest to find his two lost brothers, a porpoise and a porgie fish.

 

Along the way, Jack falls in love, battles carnival hucksters, and is scolded by a porpoise… and then he meets the mermaids.

 

 

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Spirits in the Hills

In the governor's palace, Sovara poses as a maid. She listens for any threat to the dragons, the life force of the land. One night, she overhears foreigners plotting to raid one of the dragons' gates, close the home village she left decades before. She rallies her fellow Defenders to block the invaders, but only a few members of this small secret society of swordsmen set out for the provinces; Sovara, her least-amiable brother-in-arms, and one green apprentice – a scouting party to face a merchant army.

  • ISBN: 9781941334201
  • Author: Amelia Smith
  • Published: 2016-06-01 13:20:12
  • Words: 13198
Spirits in the Hills Spirits in the Hills