The Endonshan Chronicles Book 1
By Cy Bishop
Copyright 2016 Cy Bishop
352 years before The Division
My legs ached as I crested the hill, dark clouds making ominous rumbles above my head. I paused a moment to survey the valley below. The tip of my bow smacked against my thigh as I stopped, and I had to readjust its position and resist the temptation to throw it off and leave it to rot on the side of the road. It was mostly just for looks. Anyone looking to stir up trouble with travelers on the main road was less likely to harass a solitary Elf woman if it looked like she might be able to defend herself. Still, if any trouble did arise, I’d be reaching for the sword hidden under my pack, not the bow.
But appearances mattered, and a fight deflected is better than a fight won. I sighed, settled my bow in place, and returned my focus to scouting the valley for tonight’s resting place. The trees thickened into a forest further down the hill, all but obscuring parts of the road which only remained clear of the underbrush due to regular travel. From my position, I could see a village nestled at the foot of the hill in a cleared section on the south side of the road. It was shockingly tiny for a settlement along the main road. Further in the distance, I could see smoke rising as a friendly sign of a larger settlement another hour’s travel away.
Another rumble preceded a cold gust, making me pull my cloak tighter around my body. It was later than I would have liked to still be on the road, especially with the threatening weather. I ignored renewed complaints from my legs and proceeded down the hill. One of those two settlements was sure to have an inn. Hopefully the closer one.
I slowed as I neared the village and got a better look. Three buildings rested along the road, with a larger covered area behind them forming the village center, a community gathering space. Smaller buildings circled that covered area, most likely homes. The buildings along the road would be businesses, and now I could see the symbols neatly fixed to the doors indicating first a healer, then a smithy, and lastly an inn.
The symbols made me rethink my choice. Only the most traditional Elves still used those as indicators of services. The rest had adopted the more common hanging signs used elsewhere along the road. I had no problems with tradition as a rule, but without knowing if the village was Traditional or Sectarian, it could be dangerous for me, a woman traveling alone, to stop there. A Traditional village would find it abnormal, but would still treat me as it treated all women, as a valuable treasure to be honored and protected. A Sectarian village, on the other hand, saw women as little more than slaves, lesser beings designed to serve and tend to the men. Walking into such a village without a proper guardian was ill-advised.
Better to avoid the risk entirely, especially when I knew a larger settlement was within reach. Larger meant more likely to follow modern customs. It might not even be an Elf settlement at all. That would keep things simpler. I kept my eyes forward and continued on. I wasn’t looking forward to walking another hour, but it was for the best.
The clouds chose that moment to give up their burden. I instinctively ducked my head as heavy raindrops pelted down, the wind blowing them directly into my face.
It wouldn’t hurt to at least step inside the inn and see, I quickly decided with a reverse of direction. If it turned into a bad situation, I would simply leave. I ducked into the building and shoved the door closed behind me, blocking out the frozen wind in exchange for the comforting heat of the firepit in the middle of the room.
Four men sat together at one of the long tables on this side of the firepit, looking up from their interrupted discussion. On the other side of the firepit, two boys and a smaller girl stared at me from their work in the kitchen.
“How is that soup coming?” a woman asked, brushing past the children to approach me. They immediately returned to work.
The woman smiled and spread her hands in greeting. “Good evening, raisa. Welcome to Emsha and our inn. Come in and dry off.”
“Thank you,” I said. I took another step in, deliberately taking it slowly until I had a better gauge on the men’s reaction. They were all watching the door behind me, waiting for my guardian to follow me in.
The woman politely dipped her head toward the men. “Pardon the disruption, tabe-me, but we have a guest to attend to.” Her voice rolled smoothly over the endearment form of the male honorific.
The darker-skinned man quickly stood. “Of course, raisa-me.” He turned to me. “May I offer you tea, raisa?”
“We would both enjoy a cup of tea. It’s just the thing on a day like today,” the woman said, sitting at the nearest table and gesturing for me to join her.
I immediately relaxed. It was Traditional. I would be safe here for the night. “Thank you,” I repeated, taking off my wet cloak and hanging it on one of the provided pegs on the wall. Thankfully I’d coated it recently, or it would have soaked right through. As it was, I still left a trail of water droplets on the floor as I crossed to join the woman and set my pack and bow down on the floor beside me.
She beamed at me. “I’m Tarvia, and this is my husband Thone. Our children, Luka, Kaisal, and Fasha.” The boys gave quick, practiced bows at the introduction and then returned to their work. The girl curtsied, but lingered, staring at my bow.
“It is an honor to meet you all. If it pleases you, my name is Alita,” I said. Perhaps a bit more formal than necessary for an innkeeper’s family, but it never hurt to err on the side of politeness in a Traditional village. It actually surprised me how easily I fell back into the old dance of manners and polite phrasing.
“Is that yours?” Fasha asked, pointing at the bow.
“I’m sure it belongs to her guardian,” one of the men at the table behind me said, his voice heavy with meaning. “I trust he’ll be along soon?”
I felt my muscles tense. Most Traditional villages understood by now that not all women traveled with a guardian, whether Elf or otherwise. Thone and Tarvia’s interactions made it clear enough this wasn’t a Sectarian village—no Sectarian Elf man would let his woman give him directions, no matter how subtle and respectfully put—but perhaps I’d made an error in assuming a Traditional village would accept my position in life.
“I’m sure he’s on his way,” Tarvia supplied. “Fasha, get your space cleaned up.”
“Yes, Maman,” she sighed, still looking at me over her shoulder as she took her time returning to the kitchen.
It would be easy to lie and say my guardian was detained, but that wasn’t me. “I must beg your pardon, tabe-ro,” I said, deliberately using the elevated honorific for bonus manner points.
“Speak as you need,” Thone said, looking a bit pleased at my wording.
“I am sorry to tell you that I do not travel with a man.” Sorry to tell them, yes. Sorry to not travel with a man, no. “I am not married, and my family…” An unexpected catch hit my throat. I took a slow breath. “My family is no longer with me.”
The man who had spoken earlier looked even more displeased now, but Thone merely said, “We understand that some people are unable to hold to the old ways. You are welcome to rest here as long as you need.”
The sour man stood and wandered closer, eying me from under bushy brows. “One might wonder what a guardian-less woman is doing with such a fine bow.”
“Erret,” Thone said, warning in his voice.
I merely smiled. “I hunt.” There were limited acceptable tasks for Elf women in Traditional villages, and hunting was borderline. But if they were willing to accept me being without a guardian, they should accept that as explanation enough.
Erret’s frown deepened.
Thone spoke before the other man could. “Forgive me, my friends, but I must see to my duties. We will continue our discussion another time.”
“Of course.” A wiry man lightly tugged at Erret’s arm. “Maker watch you, tabe-ro, raisa-ro.” The other men echoed the farewell and left, though Erret did so with greater reluctance.
I glanced from Thone to Tarvia, suddenly grateful I’d chosen to err on the side of politeness. They weren’t just innkeepers; the villager’s use of the elevated honorific meant that these two were the leaders of the village. “Forgive me. I don’t intend to cause trouble.”
“There’s no trouble.” Tarvia accepted a steaming mug from her husband and smiled at him as he placed another in front of me. “We see many different types of people along this road. Not all hold to our traditions the way we do.”
Thone kissed the top of his wife’s head and sat beside her, sliding one hand into hers and taking a sip from his own mug with his other hand. “If I may ask, what brings you here, raisa?”
“The storm, I confess. It caught me as I was passing.”
He nodded. “We see many travelers pass by, but few stop.”
Thoughts raced through my head, namely among them being that if they used the more common way of advertising their services, they might see more business, but I knew it wasn’t my place to say such things to the village leader. I sipped my tea instead and felt the warmth spread through my body.
“You said you hunt?” At my nod, he continued. “Is that your trade, then?”
“Less a trade and more of a way to care for my needs. Meat to eat, fur to trade.” It was true enough, though it wasn’t my bow that felled the animals. No reason for them to know such details.
“You have furs to trade? We may have some who would be happy to discuss a deal with you. Fats as well, if you have them.”
Tarvia adjusted her hand in his and gave it a squeeze. His dark skin, nearly matching mine in tone, looked all the darker in contrast against her light hand. “I’m sure that our guest is tired at this late hour and may not wish to address matters of business, tabe-me.”
Thone looked slightly embarrassed. “My apologies.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I will thank you for a comfortable bed, but I’ll be glad to barter tomorrow, if there are some who would be interested.” I paused. “I may go out in the morning, briefly, but I’ll be back before long.”
“I’ll see who might be interested in trading before you return, then.” Thone drained his mug. “As for the comfortable bed, a night’s stay with evening and morning meals will be two regals.”
I nearly choked on my tea.
“But we can go to one regal with some trade supplies if needed,” Tarvia quickly supplied.
I shook my head. “No, two regals is fine.” They’d misunderstood my reaction entirely. I’d never seen such a nice, well-kept inn along the main road charge so low. I’d even been to rathole taverns well off the beaten path that charged five regals, and you had to sleep with one eye open to avoid getting robbed blind.
“It’s more than reasonable,” I continued. I wanted to say more, but again, it wasn’t exactly my place. I hoped they might pick up on the hint in my statement and press for details, giving me permission to correct their business practices, but neither seemed to notice.
Tarvia smiled. “It’s settled, then. Relax, child. We’ll do whatever we need to help you feel at home.”
I almost laughed out loud at being called a child, but managed to hide it with a gracious smile and dip of my head. At thirty-seven, I was considered well into adulthood in any other place I stopped. Some might even consider me to be approaching old age. But this was a Traditional Elf village. I wasn’t yet forty, so I was still, for all intents and purposes, a child.
I dried off quickly sitting beside the fire and eating the hearty soup served by a shy and giggling Fasha, then retreated to my room for the night. It was cozy but far superior to most places I had stayed. Especially considering that last night’s lodging was the back end of a cave. I nestled down under the blankets and was asleep in no time.
The earliest rays of morning woke me, promising much nicer weather than the evening before. I prepared for the day as quietly as possible and slid my bow and quiver on my back. The pack could remain in the room; I trusted these people to be too honorable to rummage through a guest’s belongings. And I wouldn’t be gone long enough for there to be trouble requiring my sword.
I slipped out into the main room to find Thone, Erret, and the wiry man turning to greet me.
“Good morning, raisa,” Thone said. “I trust you slept well?”
“Your accommodations are most comfortable,” I said, trying to regain my composure. I hadn’t quite expected anyone else to be there so early.
“Since you have no guardian, I thought it best to ask Erret and Rik to accompany you into the forest for your hunt.” Thone lifted a hand before I could figure out the polite way to voice my protest. “I understand that you are likely accustomed to hunting alone, but there are dangers in these forests which you may not be used to. I would feel responsible if harm came to you.”
Great. I had no answer to that one, no reasonable way to insist against the escort. I was stuck with these men, which meant I had to abandon my original plan for the morning. It might even mean I’d have to actually hunt. How long had it been since I last fired my bow? I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t exactly back out and pretend I hadn’t been planning on hunting, either. Not with the bow so obviously on my back.
At least the smaller man, Rik, looked pleasant enough. Erret looked about as pleasant as he had behaved the night before.
“Would you care for something to eat before we leave, raisa?” Rik asked.
“Thank you, but I’ll eat when we return,” I said. With any hope, hunger would force us to return before we found anything.
“Then let’s get on,” Erret grunted, picking up his own bow and striding to the door.
Rik politely dipped his head and gestured for me to precede him.
I hoped my smile looked mannerly rather than forced.
We entered the forest directly across the road, the underbrush a bit thinner so near the main travel route but the broad tree roots more than making up for it. I was grateful that the men seemed as interested in silence as I was. I kept my eyes on our surroundings, watching for any little signs of movement. At least I was still practiced in that.
We walked for nearly an hour with no signs of game. Enough time had passed to make a reasonable retreat. “Perhaps today is not my day,” I said quietly. “Thank you for accompanying me, but it seems returning to Emsha may be the best choice.”
“Good,” Erret grunted, turning.
“Game is thin here,” Rik said. “But we may find more if we go a bit further.”
“Not too much further,” Erret said, shooting him a look from under those bushy brows.
“Of course not. But we’re well within…” Rik glanced at me. “Well within our rightful territory.”
It was sweet, Rik being willing to go further for my hunt, but I was ready to be done. “Thank you, but I think it’s best that we turn back. I do not wish to delay my travels. But again, I—”
Movement caught my eye, interrupting my statement. Tawny brown fur moving at a casual pace through the trees just ahead. Exactly what we’d been looking for and what I’d partially hoped not to find.
The men caught my pause and glanced the direction I’d been looking, falling silent at the sight of the lithe rekin. Good meat, soft fur, strong leathers—just what any hunter should be looking for. Rik gave me a little nod to go ahead.
I moved slowly, taking my bow and preparing an arrow, my mind once again trying to remind me that it had been far too long since I’d actually used such instruments. An Elf woman traveling alone and hunting for trade was hard enough for these Traditionalists to swallow. An Elf woman traveling along and hunting for trade who couldn’t make a shot like this would be even harder for them to believe.
I drew in a slow breath at the same pace I drew the bowstring. Found my aim. Prayed to the Maker that my skills hadn’t grown too rusty over the years. Released the string.
The rekin fell.
Rik smiled. “Perfect shot.”
My smile was more of relief than triumph. Either I was very lucky or the skill had, like the polite dance of Elf society, lain dormant but undamaged by time in my mind.
“Satisfied?” Erret asked. “Or do you require more game, and so we must continue this pretense that we accept this sort of behavior out of a woman?”
Rik gave him a harsh frown.
I didn’t break my smile. “I have found your pretense most satisfactory, tabe-ro. Rest assured it is quite over now. As I said, I do not wish to delay my travels.” I headed toward my prize, ignoring whatever response he might have. Perhaps my words had been a bit more sarcastic than necessary, but I wasn’t concerned. I actually felt much like he did. The pretense was over, and I could move on.
Three Elf men reached the rekin at the same time we did. The largest one stepped forward. “Good morning, friends.”
A hand caught my arm. Rik stepped forward, lightly pushing me just behind him. Erret stood at Rik’s side. Neither touched their weapons, but I could see how tense they’d become.
“I would wonder,” the large one continued, “what you folk from Emsha might be doing in our territory.”
“I’m afraid you are mistaken, tabe-ro,” Rik said. His tone was submissive, overly polite, though his posture remained upright and stiff. “Krenish hunting territory begins another fifty paces from here.”
“Is that so?” It didn’t sound like the man was looking for an answer. He glanced back at the other two, then eyed the rekin. “This is an excellent shot. Who made it?”
Rik and Erret looked at each other. Neither spoke.
I stepped around Rik’s side. “I did.”
All eyes fixed on me.
“You?” the leader asked, raising an eyebrow.
“She is just a traveler,” Rik interjected. “We were merely providing temporary guardianship. She is not a member of our village.”
The leader ignored him, sizing me up. “Come here. Who are you?”
I stepped forward and politely dipped my head. “As he said, I am merely a traveler. If it pleases you, my name is Alita.”
I caught a flicker of motion and looked up too late. His fist slammed into my jaw, knocking me off my feet. Bursts of light exploded in my eyes as my head crashed into something solid on the ground. My heartbeat pounded in my ears as my senses fought to restore order.
My hearing cleared enough to hear Erret shouting something about laying a hand on a lady. Rik crouched beside me, one hand on my shoulder, but his focus remained on the three strangers, his other hand on his sword. Erret’s own weapon was drawn, his tan face a shade redder as he shouted at the other men.
The leader’s eyes narrowed. “Do you intend to challenge me, pest? Have you forgotten what happens when your people stir up trouble?”
Rik stood and pushed Erret’s sword hand down. “We did nothing wrong. We were well within our hunting territory. And the lady is not a member of our village, so your rules do not apply to her.”
“That’s exactly what will spare Emsha from suffering our wrath. There would be dire consequences if she had been part of your pathetic little village and shot a rekin in our part of the forest.” The leader paused, glaring at Erret and Rik. I could barely hear his next words over my heartbeat still drumming in my ears. “Unless someone feels the need to disagree and interfere with our business.”
Erret bristled, but reluctantly sheathed his sword. Rik looked at me with a pained, almost apologetic expression.
I tried to get up, but my body wouldn’t cooperate. Everything was too fuzzy still, too muddled, and that blasted pulse in my ears seemed to only be getting louder.
The leader stepped forward and set an arrow on his bow, aiming it squarely at my chest. “This area of the forest belongs to the city of Krenish. Hunting here is punishable by death.” He drew back the string. “Pity you chose to rely on these cowards as your guardians.”
Of all the times to be without my sword. I struggled to move, but my body was still trapped in the haze of pain that wracked my head. My heart thundered in my ears all the louder.
Then I realized why the heartbeat seemed so loud.
It wasn’t mine.
“No!” I managed to gasp.
The man laughed. His thumb caressed the end of the arrow in preparation to release.
And then he was flying through the air, his scream echoing behind him. The arrow bounced off a nearby tree with a dull thump.
A massive, scaled hand with long talons at the ends of its three fingers shook the ground as it planted beside me. I heard the other men shouting in alarm as the rest of the dragon followed, a huge, purple-hued head lowering down and exhaling blasts of hot steam in their direction.
Which one hit you?
I drew in a slow breath, still trying to regain control of my limbs. The one you already knocked halfway across the forest.
Oh, good. I’m sure he won’t be too hard to find. She crouched in preparation to leap into the air. I’m going to roast him whole and paint a mural with the ashes.
The world shifted around me. I was losing my grip on reality. Axen…
She paused, almost looking abashed. Right. Sorry.
I dimly saw a scaled finger hovering above me, the ridged edges of each scale which stood out prominently in other areas softened and worn down. A flood of energy rushed through my body, jolting my system so sharply that I gasped and bolted upright. It wasn’t quite a healing energy, not like healers use, but it would help the mending process begin and keep me standing for a time, at least.
Seeing and hearing clearly once more, I took in my surroundings. The remaining two strangers stood to one side, looking outright terrified. They had their weapons drawn and aimed at Axen, but even they could see how pitiful their tiny swords looked against her massive figure, her head easily larger than all of us combined. Erret and Rik stood to the other side, both looking confused and frightened. They kept a careful distance from both the dragon and from the other men.
Rik saw my look and gestured frantically. “We’ll distract the beast,” he whispered loudly. “You run!”
I had to resist laughing at his misguided, though sweet, bravery. Instead, I turned to face the other men. “There appears to be a misunderstanding. These men are not my guardians.” I put a hand on Axen’s cheek. “This is my guardian. If you have a problem with me, you’ll have to take it up with her.”
Axen released another snort of hot steam toward the hostile men. They both fled, and she snuffled in amusement. They scream like infants.
Hush. I turned back to Erret and Rik. Now for the part I dreaded. Sure enough, though they still kept a fearful distance, Erret stared at me with horror while Rik looked between Axen and me with uncertainty. Their minds refused to let them accept what they’d seen.
I rubbed Axen’s eye scales and gave her a pat. Go. I’m safe now.
She let out an acknowledging snuffle and leapt into the air, her wings slashing out to catch the wind and soar away.
Erret’s mouth was working. “That… That…”
“Was a dragon,” I supplied, keeping my tone adequately submissive and gentle. “I apologize to you both. It was never my intent to frighten you. I know this must seem strange.”
“Strange?” Erret exploded. “Strange? That’s what you think this is? You summon a dragon from nothing, and you think that might seem strange?”
I opened my mouth, but he was still going.
“What evil sorcery was that? How dare you bring such vile magics into our village? We are a respectable people!”
The ground tilted slightly. Axen’s energy was already wearing off; I must have been hurt worse than I thought. I did my best to draw in a slow, steady breath, trying to keep control. “I can assure you—”
“Assure me nothing, witch,” he spat. “You endangered every person in my village by coming here with your evil, and I will not stand for it!”
“Erret,” Rik said, “that’s enough. She’s injured. We need to take her to Magra for care.”
“Over my dead body, we are! I’m not letting her near our village again!”
The world shifted once more. “It would be best for me to leave now.”
“You’ve got that right,” Erret snarled, jabbing a finger toward my face. His voice seemed to swirl a little. “You will never again come back to this forest. Or our village. You won’t even travel the road past us. You hear me?”
Rik caught Erret’s arm and pushed it down. “Banishment is for the village to decide, not you. Thone will sort this out.”
“I’m not letting her near Thone!” Erret snarled. “She is a vile witch, and it is only for the sake of your weakness that I don’t gut her on the spot!”
It was the last thing I heard before everything went black.
Quiet voices disturbed the oblivion around me, drawing me back to awareness.
You’re awake, small meat one. I was growing impatient. What happened?
My eyes weren’t quite interested in opening yet, but I could feel a soft bed beneath me and warm blankets over my body. I’m assuming Rik won the argument. My head throbbed, but not as painfully as before. I no longer felt quite so unstable and dizzy, either. I’d been tended by a healer.
I gave you energy. Wasn’t that enough?
I hit my head on a root or rock or something after I was struck. It was more than your energy could overcome.
I sensed rather than heard her exasperated snort.
The voices quieted, and a cool hand touched my forehead. A paradoxical warmth spread out from the fingers, soothing another degree of the pain. I opened my eyes to see a silver-haired woman smiling down at me, her face the color of burnished bronze.
“Good afternoon, raisa,” the woman said. “Do you know who I am?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t had the honor of meeting you, but I take you to be the healer, raisa-da.”
She chuckled at my use of the suffix for the honored position of an elder. “You flatter me, child, but raisa will be fine. I haven’t quite gained enough years to be due that honor as of yet. I am Magra. What is your name?”
“If it pleases you, my name is Alita.”
“And do you know where you are?”
I glanced over and saw a cluster of people on the other side of the sparse but warm room. Tarvia. Thone. Rik and Erret. Another man I didn’t recognize, perhaps the other man who’d been visiting Thone when I arrived yesterday. Erret was glaring at me.
“Emsha. I’m in Emsha.” I returned my attention to Magra. “I assume in your home and place of business.”
She looked even more pleased. “You’re mending well, though it was quite a blow to the head. You’ll need to spend the day resting here, but you should be able to stand by tomorrow.”
Thone stepped forward. “We have some questions for you.”
“Which I’m sure can wait for tomorrow,” Magra said, her voice polite but carrying a rather dire warning just beneath the surface. “She has been through a trauma and needs her rest.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I can answer their questions. To the best of my ability, that is.”
Magra pursed her lips, but stood aside.
“First, I will apologize that you were caught in the middle of what should be our problem alone,” Thone said, his stance and voice almost regal in formality. The poor guy wasn’t sure what to do with me, so he did as all Traditional Elves did when uncertain: resort to the highest manners. “The city of Krenish has long had… a complicated relationship with us. We have done our best to maintain the peace, but it seems those men came out seeking to cause trouble today.”
It wasn’t that hard to put together, given the way the men behaved. Krenish was the larger city I’d seen from the hill, and their people were bullying the much smaller Emsha. I was suddenly glad I hadn’t pushed through the rain in hopes of finding a modern settlement. It sounded like Krenish was a Sectarian Elf village, more interested in dominating others than in anything resembling actual honor.
“Second,” Thone continued, “I want to assure you that you are in no danger here. We merely wish to come to an understanding of what may have happened—”
Erret folded his arms. “Explain to him your unholy alliance with that monster.”
I bristled, first at the reference to Axen as a monster and then at the word ‘unholy.’ But defensiveness and sarcasm wouldn’t suit me here. Instead, I dipped my head. “Forgive me for being contrary, tabe-ro.”
Thone nodded. “Speak as you need, raisa.”
I breathed in before speaking, maintaining steady control and stealing a moment to think through my wording. They wouldn’t understand it all, so I needed to give them a version that they could understand. “The dragon is my family’s guardian, a legacy passed down through the generations. The legacy was my father’s, but he passed it to my older brother before he and my mother were killed. My older brother was my guardian for a time, but those that killed my parents came after him as well. His final act…”
The annoying catch struck my throat again. I swallowed it away. “The last thing he did was bequeath the legacy upon me, so that the dragon would be my guardian and protector. But I can assure you all that neither I nor my parents nor my brother used any magic in the process.” My thumb lightly rubbed against the ring that nestled on my third finger, so worn with age that it nearly vanished against my skin.
Erret’s scowl deepened, but Thone looked thoughtful. “May I ask how this bond is formed, then?”
Trickier, but still doable. “It is inherent to the nature of the dragon herself. Axen chose to create this bond with my family. It is her natural ability to do so.”
Thone looked back at Tarvia and the others. The man I didn’t know responded with a shrug, and Tarvia, Rik, and Magra appeared perfectly satisfied. When Thone turned back to me, his face was more relaxed. “Thank you for your explanation, raisa. Forgive us for prying.”
Erret let out a barking laugh. “You find this ridiculous story satisfactory? This woman,” he said it like it was a bad word, “has brought the vilest manner of evil into our village with her unnatural bond with a… a creature.”
My hackles rose again, and this time my mouth responded before I could fully think through the direction I was taking. “If you will forgive my boldness, tabe-ro, but I must ask: on what grounds, or based on what evidence, do you claim my connection to the dragon is evil?”
Erret glanced at the others, but they simply waited for him to answer. He snorted. “Isn’t it obvious? The very nature of it, a bond between being and beast, is vile.”
“What about its very nature makes it evil?”
His mouth worked a couple of times before sound came out. “Because… because it’s clear to anyone who looks that only evil magics could create such a bond.”
“Why is that clear?” I knew I was pushing, but I had gone too far to back down now. “Why are you so certain it couldn’t be formed in a way which does not rely on evil magic?”
The look in his eyes was similar to that of a trapped animal. “It… you… Because! It’s evil. Anyone can see that!”
“Forgive me once more, tabe-ro, but I wish to make certain I understand.” My tone had returned to the formal, polite one. Perhaps too polite. “So you do not actually understand this bond or how it is formed, and because you do not understand it, it therefore must be evil?”
“Yes!” he snapped. Then blinked. “I… You didn’t…” He blinked a couple more times, then fell silent.
Any sense of victory I might have felt in that moment was squashed when I saw the disapproval in Thone’s eyes. In fairness, my point was valid, but I’d unnecessarily embarrassed a prominent man of the village in front of his leader. I couldn’t help feeling a little bad.
“Forgive my wording. I am certain that’s not actually what you meant, tabe-ro,” I said quietly. “I only intended to say that there are many things in this world which we may not fully understand but are not necessarily evil.”
Erret’s face soured even further. “You—”
Whatever he’d been about to say was lost in a shout from outside. Thone leaned back to see out the window beside him, then turned to the door. “Erret, Jaska, Rik.”
The men immediately fell in step behind him without a further word, and they vanished out the door.
Tarvia peered out the window, then looked at me. “You have a bit of a tongue on you.”
“I’m afraid that’s true, raisa-ro. I apologize for offending.”
She waved a hand. “Understand that Erret is one of the leaders here,” she said, a slight scold in her tone, but then it softened. “But that does not mean we always agree with everything he says. I’m glad you were not injured too badly, raisa. Rest and feel better.” With that, she straightened and moved away from the bed.
I craned my neck toward the window, but couldn’t see what was going on outside. “Is everything okay?”
“Don’t concern yourself. You worry about resting.” Magra straightened the chairs at the other end of the room, apparently where the men had been sitting while waiting for me to recover.
The voices outside grew louder, sharper. Magra looked out the window, then hurried to the door. She glanced back at me. “Stay put and relax. I’ll be back before long.”
I waited until the door shut, then carefully sat up, testing the movements slowly to give my wounded head time to adjust to the new position. Magra’s work had been thorough, and though I felt slightly dizzy, I was able to stand without too much difficulty.
Magra’s home rested on the main road, and the window beside the bed gave me a full view of the scene. The women of the village clustered near the buildings, a few tightly gripping the wrists of boys who leaned and strained for a better view. The men of the village stood in the middle of the road, facing east, toward Krenish. I’d wager the entire village was out there, and it struck me how tiny Emsha really was. The men numbered somewhere in the low twenties, it appeared from the group on the road. Part of me hoped there were more elsewhere, but based on the number of buildings I’d seen, it seemed these truly were all there was.
But the focus of the voices was beyond that group, where a larger group of men stood. Three times the numbers of the Emsha men. And right in front, the two men who’d run away from Axen in the forest.
The bullies had come to exact retribution for their humiliating defeat.
I rushed to the door and hurried outside, passing Magra before she could realize what was going on and stop me. I ignored the protest behind me as I skirted around the men and came to a stop squarely between the two groups.
The two men from the forest nudged a bulkier man beside them, gesturing toward me.
I drew in a deep breath and placed my hands together at my side in a peaceful gesture. Axen, get over here. “I understand that you have certain laws about hunting in your territory, and that justice is required. I am the one who hunted in your forest, and I am not a member of this village. As such, any problems you have must be addressed to me.”
The bulky man eyed me slowly in an unfriendly and almost inappropriate way, taking his time with the examination. I could practically feel the anger rising from the men behind me at the disrespect being shown to a lady, but I held my ground and ignored the gaze, waiting for a response. No reason to make a fuss over the eying when I was after something much bigger.
Finally, he shifted his gaze behind me. “You let this female speak for you, Thone?”
Definitely Sectarian. If I’d had any doubts before, they were gone at the contempt and derision the man had loaded into that two-syllable word.
Thone was slow to respond, his words carefully measured. “The lady speaks for herself, Jennik. She is not a member of my village. She is free to do as she chooses without my say.”
Slick. Slicker than I’d expected out of him, in fact. He’d gracefully absolved himself and Emsha of any responsibility for me or my actions, but he hadn’t officially made me an outsider. If he and his men decided to take my side, the way was still open for them to do so.
I lifted my head and met Jennik’s gaze straight on. I’d done my duty for politeness. Now it was time to face the bully.
The larger man’s face twisted like he’d smelled something foul. “Stand aside,” he spat at me. “I won’t be dishonored by a lowly woman.”
I didn’t budge. “I am not here to dishonor anyone. Your quarrel is with me. I am the one who hunted in what your men claimed to be your territory. I am the reason your man was injured. Thus, any resolution to this problem, including any consequences for these actions, must start with me.” Come on, Axen. Get over here.
A grumble rolled across the Krenish men. Jennik’s eyes narrowed, and he slowly drew his sword. “Choose your words wisely, female. Or I may do exactly as you request.”
Again, the reaction behind me was palpable.
“You would threaten an unarmed woman?” Thone’s tone was respectful but with anger and outrage straining his voice.
Jennik’s lip twisted. “The female said that our problem is with her alone. Unless you wish to involve your village?”
The Krenish men drew their weapons, looking eager for a fight.
My muscles tightened, my arm longing to reach behind me and draw my sword. But I didn’t have my sword. Not that it would have done much good against so many enemies. Still, I felt even more exposed and vulnerable without it.
Axen, where are you?
I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with so little awareness of the sky above me.
I glanced up, a subtle, flickering glance. Greyish clouds obscured the sky, but one patch looked just a bit darker than the others and moved in slow circles above us.
My body relaxed. I kept my face still to hold back the instinctive smile. I turned my head slightly to address Thone. “Tabe-ro, thank you for your defense. I do not wish to involve your village. This is my problem to address.”
Then I turned back to Jennik’s smirking mug. “You are free to remedy this conflict between us as you best see fit. But, as your men may have told you, you will first have to address this matter with my guardian.”
Axen dropped from the clouds with a piercing roar, circling above the Krenish men. Half of them all but dropped their weapons to cover their ears and cower, shouting in alarm. Even Jennik took a step back, cringing away from the sky.
Behind me, women screamed and rushed into buildings, dragging curious children with them. The men didn’t follow, but I had a feeling they responded with as much fear as the Krenish men. It was natural. The right way a person should respond to the appearance of a dragon.
Axen circled one more time, then dipped lower toward the road behind me. The Emsha men scattered to the side, and she landed where they had been standing with a ground-shaking thud. Most of the Krenish men lost their balance and fell as the ground rocked. Many of them didn’t try to stand back up.
She spread her wings in a threatening manner, hissing steam toward my would-be attackers, weaving her neck back and forth like a snake while keeping her keen gaze fixed on the men.
Bit of an overly dramatic entrance, don’t you think?
With an overly dramatic introduction like that, how else could I have entered? she retorted.
I bit back another smile and addressed Jennik, back to my exceptionally polite voice. “May I introduce my guardian, Axen. If you have a problem with my behavior, she is happy to discuss the matter with you.”
Jennik had managed to keep his feet through all this, but he was several paces further away from me now than he had been before Axen made her appearance. He was crouched, one hand down toward the ground for balance and the other holding his sword sideways between himself and the dragon. The tip only shook a little.
His face twitched a couple of times before he spoke. “Thone! Is this what your village’s ‘honor’ has come to? You hide behind a female and a monster, leaving them to handle your problems? You coward!”
I hadn’t expected that Thone would respond. I’d assumed he would have run inside when Axen landed. The man deserved a lot more credit than I kept giving him.
He stepped out from where he’d taken cover beside the inn, though he still kept an eye on his distance from Axen, and addressed Jennik. Polite. Careful with his wording. And… did I hear a note of amusement in his voice?
“From what I heard, tabe-ro, the lady is correct. She is the one who shot the rekin, and it was her guardian that injured your man. Your quarrel is technically with her, not with us. I’m not hiding anything. It is simply not my business to interfere.”
Jennik’s expression darkened further.
I pushed, just a nudge. “Did you still wish to discuss the terms of consequences?” Perhaps I’d overplayed the innocent tone, but I didn’t care. “Because my guardian is prepared to address the issue.”
Axen blew out another snort of steam, just a touch hotter this time.
Yelping, the Krenish men shielded their faces from the blast. Jennik, to his credit, only lifted a hand to fend off the heat, his head barely tilting away, unlike the cowering men behind him. His eyes fixed on me, searing with rage and hatred. Sectarian men hated nothing more than being shown up. My being a female made it that much worse.
He snarled, then shouted a command. The whole group spun and retreated, vanishing quickly down the tree-canopied road.
I relaxed, finally letting my arms drop back into a more natural position at my sides.
Axen snuffled in amusement. Aww, and I wanted to chat with them. We could have had tea and cookies.
I rolled my eyes and turned to face her. A few Emsha men stepping out from the cover they’d taken caught my attention instead. Thone and Rik looked almost as amused as Axen, but others glared between her and me, displeased with the massive creature blocking the road.
Erret stomped forward, but stopped short when Axen looked curiously at the approaching Elf. He scowled and jabbed a finger at me while backpedaling a couple of steps. “Take your… your abomination and get out of our village!”
What an unpleasant little thing. Would you like me to eat it?
A couple other men chimed in their agreement from a safe distance.
I raised my hands in a peaceful gesture. “Of course. We’re leaving. I apologize for the trouble I’ve caused.” I turned and walked toward the inn. I’d have to send Axen into the forest while I gathered my things so she didn’t upset the villagers any further.
“Thone!” Tarvia flew out of the inn, her eyes wild with panic. “I can’t find Fasha! She’s gone!”
Distracted, I slowed.
“I’m sure she’s here in the village, just in a friend’s house,” Thone soothed, pulling his wife close. His glance my direction was probably intended to be subtle. “As soon as things are safe, we’ll find her.”
Right. My cue to leave. I picked up the pace again. Axen, I need you to…
“She went to play in the forest,” a gangly teen boy said. “I saw her earlier.”
Tarvia and Thone both spun to look at the road the Krenish men had vanished down. Thone’s face looked paler than usual.
“We’ll go,” Thone said, biting each word. “We’ll bring her—”
A child’s scream echoed from further down the road than I could see, sending ice down my back.
Axen responded to my alarm with an adrenaline surge of her own. She dropped her head to my side, her ear near the ground. I caught one of the larger horns at the crest of her skull. She swung her head upward with a neat flick, dropping me into place at the top of her neck. I found my grip on her scale ridges as she leapt into the air.
Wind snapped my braid from side to side and tried to sting my eyes, but my focus was downward at the road I could barely see between the trees, searching for signs of movement. Nothing, nothing… There. Many bodies raced along the road toward Krenish. The trees were too thick for Axen to land, but I spotted a clearer area not far ahead.
There. That’s the place.
She snuffed in acknowledgement.
A loud horn call cut through the howl of wind in my ears, coming from just below us. An answering call came from within the city ahead. I peered ahead and saw activity. Jennik was calling for reinforcements.
I shoved myself upright and climbed down her neck toward the dual ridges of plates forming a V down the length of her back to her tail. Get to the city. Keep the reinforcements from reaching Jennik’s group.
She snuffed again, adjusting her pace. I’d have to reach her tail by the time she reached the approaching clearing, or I’d be tumbling through trees.
My foot hit one of the plates. I immediately spun and dropped flat on my back, sliding along the one place where her scales were smooth enough to allow such a thing. She bucked her shoulders as I passed, giving me a quick speed boost.
As I reached the base of her tail, it dipped toward the ground. We’d reached the clearing too soon. I curled into a ball and let gravity take its course along the steep slope of her tail. When I reached the very end, she flicked upward just slightly to cushion my landing. Still, my shoulder hit packed earth with a resounding shockwave through my whole system.
I rolled a few times before regaining my feet. The world dipped once or twice before equilibrium restored. A rising nausea informed me that Magra hadn’t been kidding when she said I wasn’t ready to be up and about, but I clenched my teeth and forced it to stay down. This was more important than a little head injury.
My fingers twitched toward my back. I still hadn’t grabbed my sword. Oops. I hadn’t exactly thought this one through.
Fortunately, I’d had plenty of experience with improvising in the past.
The group of men slowed when they saw me standing in the middle of the road, peacefully facing them with my hands in the polite form to one side, as before. Mumbles of disbelief rolled through them.
Jennik led the group, a struggling child flung over one shoulder. His eyes narrowed as he came to a stop a careful distance from me. His gaze flicked across the trees around us, then he roughly yanked Fasha off his shoulder and shoved her in front of him, keeping a firm hold on her shoulder. She winced in pain and tried to twist free, but he squeezed harder, drawing a cry of pain and a fresh wave of tears.
“What is your plan, female?” Jennik asked, once again loading the word with as much contempt and derision as he could. “Are you going to have your dragon attack us now? Anything your monster does to us will get the child first.” He finished with a smug expression.
I decided against pointing out the irony of him calling Thone a coward for hiding behind me when he himself was literally hiding behind a child. “I’m not here to fight. You can see I’m unarmed. And unless you think the dragon is somehow able to hide behind one of these trees, then you can see I’m without the dragon, as well. I simply want to talk.”
He snorted. “I don’t talk with females.”
“You will have to make an exception. The child has nothing to do with what happened in Emsha. If you truly require justice for the rekin I killed, then do as you must—but to me, not the girl. Let the child go.”
“You’re going to let us kill you.” Jennik snorted again.
“If that’s what it takes.”
“You’re just going to call your dragon again.”
“I won’t. Not if you let the girl go.”
He laughed. “Right.”
He didn’t believe me, and I couldn’t say I blamed him. “I may be new to this area, but I can tell you’ve had a long-standing agreement with Emsha. I imagine it’s a fairly luxurious deal for you. A whole village afraid of you, ready to cater to your whims, relinquishing their hunting grounds at your every say?”
He eyed me, but didn’t say anything.
“I can imagine you also get some sort of tribute on a regular basis. I won’t be so crass as to ask how much, but I am sure that it’s quite comfortable to live on your end of the deal.” I leaned forward. “But what will happen to that deal if any harm comes to the daughter of the village leader? Every target has a breaking point. They will rally their entire village to come against you.”
“You think that frightens me?”
“No. And it shouldn’t. Except they won’t stop until you’ve been forced to kill every last one of them. No more people to push around. No one to kowtow to your demands. No more tribute. Is that really what you’re after?”
A few of the men exchanged uncomfortable looks.
“If blood is required, then take mine, and all will be well. But don’t risk your own—and lose your cushy lifestyle—over a little girl who had nothing to do with this.”
Shouts came from the back end of the group. The men from Emsha were catching up. Most of the group turned to face the approaching threat.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Even from here, I could see the rage in the Emsha men’s eyes. They were proving my point far more clearly than I could have with any further words.
Jennik scowled at me. “You’re going to accept justice?”
My heart skipped. I told it to be quiet. “Yes.”
“As long as we let the girl go?”
He shoved Fasha toward one of the men behind him and drew his sword. As he slowly approached me, seeming to watch for a trick, five other men followed, placing themselves between the girl and me.
“If I see the dragon, the girl dies,” he hissed.
“You won’t.” My arms screamed to move, especially with the way he held his sword—so easy to disarm!—but I forced my body to remain still. Quiet. Submissive.
He came to a stop at my side and lightly traced his sword point over my shoulder. “It’s good that you’re finally accepting justice for your crime against us.” He used the flat to slap the backs of my knees. I let the blow land and dropped to the ground.
“But I’m afraid that’s not enough to cover how deeply you offended us. More payment is required.” He grinned. “The girl will do.”
I looked up as he swung his sword, laughing. Ducked under the swing. Caught his arm, pulled myself up, used the momentum to slam my palm into his face. Blood spurted from his nose as the laughter changed into an enraged roar.
I was already gone, dodging around the next man, aimed straight toward the far man clutching Fasha. A sword flashed. I stepped inward, too close to the man for his swing to reach me. My elbow slammed into the side of his face and knocked him backwards. My hand found his sword, ready to pull it free.
Another blade slashed my way. I shoved the man’s hand upward, using his grip to block the incoming blow. Both blades tumbled free.
Instinct screamed for me to pursue the lost blades, but my goal kept me focused. Weapons didn’t matter. Reaching the girl was all that mattered.
I spun past a grabbing arm and felt a fresh bout of nausea and dizziness. Gritted my teeth. No time for that now. I shoved another arm away. Almost to the girl.
A hand caught my hair and yanked backwards. I spun to deliver another palm strike. As my hand connected, a blade bit into my arm. I dropped sideways before it could do too much damage, berating myself for not seeing it coming.
The girl screamed.
I rolled back to my feet, facing the man holding her. He pressed a knife against her throat.
No time to hesitate. If I paused, they’d get me. I wove around another attack. The man screamed some threat at me, his hand shaking. I caught his wrist and twisted it to the side, sending the knife twirling harmlessly away. At the same time, my elbow connected with his throat, silencing whatever he had been shouting. I snatched Fasha out of his grip, leaving him to stumble and grasp at his throat, wheezing.
The solid wall of men in front of me forced me to skid to a stop, keeping my body low to the ground. The men from Emsha fought with fervor, but were still far too outnumbered. I’d hoped to dash forward, through the Krenish men, and reach them for shelter, but there was no way through.
I was trapped.
I need you.
I shifted my weight to reverse direction and found the men, minus the one still nursing his near-closed throat, surrounding me, weapons at the ready and cold hunger for revenge on their faces.
Jennik’s lips twisted in an unpleasant smile. “Impressive, for a female. But not good enough. Hand over the girl.”
Fasha’s skinny arms clung tight around my neck. She was trembling.
I slowly exhaled and began to straighten, just a little. I kept my head low as if in defeat, but examined each man in turn, my eyes searching for a weakness, the one weak link I could break through. They were all furious at having been shown up by a woman, that was clear enough. It seemed they weren’t about to let it happen a second time.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Fasha, then whispered too quietly for the men to hear. “Hold on and don’t let go.”
Her grip tightened.
I let out a slow breath, my eyes on Jennik but my focus on the man to his left, the olive-skinned man whose sword jerked erratically as he faced me.
I wrapped my arm around Fasha and bolted straight for him.
Shouts of anger echoed around me. A blade stabbed for my side, but I ducked low to dodge it and avoid a strike from the other side at the same time. I stumbled as I straightened, but didn’t slow for a moment.
Jennik roared and swung. I spun past the blade. Something caught my leg and set it on fire. I’d missed another strike. My leg gave out, dropping me toward the ground. Fasha screamed in my ear.
I clenched my teeth and turned the drop into a roll, coming back up on unsteady feet on the other side, outside the circle of attackers. A hand grabbed at me, but I dodged and ran with everything in me, clenching my teeth against the tearing fire in my leg. Had to get away. Had to reach the clearing.
Air rushed around me in a powerful gust. She was ready. I just had to get to the clearing.
My legs stumbled, and the dizziness returned. Fasha whimpered into my neck.
Had to reach it.
I saw a shape drop in front of me and grabbed hold without conscious thought. Axen flicked her tail upward. I flew through the air toward her solid body. Twisted myself to shield the girl from the blow. Hit Axen’s scaled form hard enough to knock the air out of my body.
Fasha’s screams and the echoing screams from my legs deafened my senses.
We were sliding. Falling. I struggled for a grip on one of the scale ridges sailing past me. I’d done this before, more times than I could count. But never with a burden. Never with an injured leg and grazed arm and numb fingers that wouldn’t find a grip. I could see the ground beneath us getting closer. Fasha screamed again.
What’s wrong with you? Axen twisted partially sideways, trying to get underneath me. My fingers closed around a ridge. Our slide jerked to a stop that threatened to pull my arm clear of its socket. I struggled for air.
What is wrong with you? she repeated.
I looked down and saw movement. The approaching reinforcements, no longer held back by Axen. Break up the fight.
She was all too delighted to comply. She swooped in a circle, doubling back along the road, seeing the fighters below with her finely-tuned dragon senses. She ducked her head beneath the tree canopy and let out a blast of steam, then delivered more of the same to the approaching men. From the heat I felt at her side, she wasn’t holding much back. It wasn’t enough to kill them, but they would be fools to stay put and risk another dose.
My arm shook as I fought to keep my grip. I should climb higher and get a better position on Axen’s back, but I couldn’t coax my muscles into movement. Darkness and light fought an impressive battle at the corners of my vision.
You didn’t hurt anyone from Emsha, did you?
They’re all fighting so close. I avoided them, but some might be a little red.
I exhaled. Are they done?
She tilted her wings and retraced her path, ducking her head below the canopy once more. A couple of high branches tore at my legs, nearly unseating my grip.
She snuffed without any steam as she lifted her head, her thoughts filled with glee. They are now. The last ones saw me, wet themselves, and ran.
Go. I was too exhausted to say anything further. Back to the village. My whole body was shaking now. It took all my focus to keep my grip on Axen’s side.
Axen landed without warning, settling on the road as gently as she could. It was still more jarring than I was ready for, and I lost my grip, tumbling free toward the ground below. Axen’s wing snapped out underneath me, creating a sort of slide and gentler descent. I wrapped myself around Fasha as tightly as I could manage, and we tumbled down the wing, rolling a few times across the ground before coming to a stop.
Fasha disentangled herself from me in a flurry of bony elbows and knees, then raced toward the inn, screaming for her mother. I tried to sit up and failed. Axen dropped flat to the ground, snaking her neck around to rest her head at my side, tucking me into a protective semi-circle. What’s wrong with you? Do you need energy again?
Energy would blow my system at this point. I took a couple of slow breaths, then tried again, managing to get myself into a seated position this time. I couldn’t feel my leg. One look made it clear how much blood I’d lost. I need to bandage this and stop the bleeding. Then we need to move on. I tried to tug the tear in my legging wider to use the material as a bandage, but couldn’t get the fabric to budge. The men will be returning soon. They’ll need tending to. I yanked again with the same results. No one will come out into the road to help them while you’re here.
She snuffed. Want to bet?
Cool hands covered mine and gently moved them aside. “Let me see,” Magra said, kneeling at my side. She clucked her tongue, pressing her hands over the wound. Warmth flowed from her fingers. “Do you not recall me saying something about resting today?”
I met her eyes and saw a teasing sparkle there. “My most… sincere apologies, raisa,” I managed to say, my voice about as cooperative as the rest of my body.
The pained numbing in my leg eased into a more soothing sense of numbness. My vision and mind sharpened with renewed energy.
“There,” Magra said, leaning back. “I’ve stopped the bleeding, and you should be strong enough to stand, at least. Let’s get you inside.” She helped me to my feet. Dizziness threatened to return me to the ground, but she slid under my arm and supported me. At least I wasn’t as nauseated as before.
She paused and dipped her head respectfully toward Axen. “Thank you, raisa-dragon.”
Axen blinked. What’s that supposed to mean?
She respects you.
Magra and I turned to find Fasha standing behind us, watching with wide eyes. The girl’s gaze flicked to my leg. “Are you hurt bad?”
I did my best to smile, though it may have looked more like a grimace. “Nothing more than Magra can handle. I’m just glad you weren’t harmed.”
She carefully bowed with practiced movements. “Thank you, raisa-ro.” She hesitated, then scurried forward and squeezed me on my uninjured side.
Before I could react, she let go and turned to Axen, repeating her bow. “Thank you, raisa-dragon.” She didn’t hesitate this time before dashing forward and flinging her arms wide against the side of Axen’s cheek.
Axen stared at me blankly. What is it doing?
It’s a hug. A sign of affection.
Oh. Cute tiny meat thing. She batted her eye, drawing a giggle from Fasha.
I heard male voices approaching. You better go. Hunt for your dinner. I’ll be all right here.
Where do I hunt?
Childish laughter trickled through my mind, the old joke that had become tradition between us. Where does a dragon the size of a castle hunt? Wherever she wants.
But I couldn’t give that answer this time. Stay to the west. Away from Krenish. If they’re smart, they’ll accept their loss and not press for further humiliation, but we don’t want to goad them.
She snorted and launched into the air without response. She was irritated, part at being sent away, part at my not participating in our usual banter, part at the need to cater to the ego of a bunch of bullies. I couldn’t entirely blame her for that last one.
“Papan!” Fasha raced to meet the approaching men. Thone scooped her up into his arms, and Tarvia ran to meet them, the three of them clinging to each other.
I turned away and shuffled a step toward Magra’s home, prompting the healer to help me forward. It was a private moment of celebration for the family and the village, not something I was part of. Besides, Magra’s healing energy was wearing off. I needed to lie down.
Rik jogged to my side. “Were you hurt?” He saw my leg and sucked in a breath. “Here. Let me help.” He reached like he was going to pick me up.
I instinctively jerked away from his arms, accidentally running into Magra and almost knocking both of us over.
Rik caught my arm and steadied me. “I’m sorry,” he blurted, looking embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
The world was tilting again. I drew in a slow breath. “I can walk.”
He bobbed his head. “Right. I’m sorry.”
“But you can do me a favor and take my place,” Magra said, stepping away from my side and gently nudging my weight against him. “I’m not as young and strong as I once was.”
Rik obediently stepped to my injured side and supported me.
Why did I suddenly feel like Magra had betrayed me? I kept my eyes forward as she briskly walked ahead to hold the door for us.
When Rik spoke again, it was quieter. “I saw you there, in the fight. I tried to get through to you, but…”
“There were too many,” I finished for him. “I’d intended to get to where you and the others were, but I had to change plans. It all worked in the end.”
“I’m glad you weren’t hurt too badly. I hate the thought of what might have happened. What did happen, for that matter, you getting hurt.” He cleared his throat. “That is, for a lady to be in danger like that, it’s not right. You might not have always been in the traditional culture, but here, we prize women as the greatest treasures the Maker gives us.”
“I know,” I interrupted. “I understand.”
We were almost to Magra’s. Just a little bit further. The world shifted again in that disconcerting way, and I realized I was putting more weight on Rik. I tried to balance myself again.
“You fight well,” he said after a moment. “For a…” He broke off, as if realizing that finishing his though might not generate the ideal response.
“For a woman?” I finished it for him, unable to help myself.
He actually chuckled. “I was going to say that, out of habit. But then I realized, you fight well. Really. I know some men in this village who wouldn’t have made it out of there with as few injuries as you did.”
My cheeks felt warm. “I… I see. Thank you.”
To my relief, we crossed the doorway into Magra’s house. Rik helped me to the sickbed. He might have been planning to help me lie down, but I twisted away from him and plopped onto the mattress before he had a chance. “Thank you for your help.”
He gave me a small bow. “It’s you we should be thanking. We owe you a debt of gratitude for the way you rescued our leader’s daughter, even at great risk to yourself.”
Magra shooed him toward the door. “You can gush later. She needs rest.” She sat down at my side. “Now, you lie down, and listen to your healer this time.”
“Yes, raisa,” I mumbled, already sinking into the soft bed. I drifted off to sleep with her cool hands pressed against my leg, her healing warmth hard at work to knit the wound and heal the flesh.
It didn’t seem like much time had passed when I woke, but the angle of the golden sunlight streaming in the window suggested that it was several hours later. Thone sat beside my bed, a bandage around his upper arm and a book in his hands.
He glanced up at my stirring and put his book aside. “How do you feel?”
I tested my limbs. My arm whined, my leg ached, and my head registered a formal complaint at the rough treatment my body had endured while it was still recovering. But Magra had again worked wonders, and the world stayed level as I sat up. “Well enough, thank you.” I looked at the bandage on his arm. “And you?”
He flicked a glance down at the bandage. “Not nearly as bad as it could have been.” He lifted his arms higher, and I saw the skin was markedly redder along his forearms and hands. “I could have done without the scalding, but I suppose that was my own fault for not running the instant I saw the dragon.”
My cheeks burned. “My apologies. She—”
He waved a hand. “No apologies necessary. We would’ve lost quite a few of our men if she hadn’t intervened and sent the enemy running.” He paused and cleared his throat, seeming to come to the point of why he’d been waiting at my side. “It was a very brave thing you did, facing those men alone. And noble, intervening in a problem that had little to do with you personally. I cannot adequately express my gratitude for you saving my daughter’s life.”
I ducked my head, finding the old habits of manners returning now that I was no longer facing a group of Sectarian thugs. “It was the right thing to do, tabe-ro.”
An awkward expression crossed his face.
I realized I had inadvertently put him in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, I’d saved his daughter, and he was grateful for that. On the other hand, I was a woman. Women weren’t supposed to be placed at risk—or place themselves at risk. They were too valuable for such dangerous activities. I inwardly cringed, unsure how to proceed.
He spoke haltingly, obviously just as unsure as I was. “I do not wish to seem… ungrateful. I understand that you are accustomed to a more,” he weighed his words, “liberal approach to life than is traditional. And we do not presume to tell others how they should or should not approach their own lives. But here in our village… You see, the way we view women is with an elevated position, one of value.” He hesitated again, fumbling for words.
“One does not use an intricate tapestry as a cleaning rag. One does not set up a crystal goblet for archery practice. One does not place a fine vase as the target for a wrestle-race.” The words slipped from my mouth with recited ease, unearthing feelings of a time long in my history when I’d learned all the traditional ways.
He looked relieved. “Then you understand, raisa. We certainly admire your bravery and are, unquestionably, eternally grateful to you. But here in our village, it is not right for a woman to place herself into such danger.”
“I will do my best to restrain myself from further heroics.” I managed to say it with only the tiniest note of sarcasm.
He shifted his gaze down to his book, back to looking awkward. Perhaps the sarcasm had come across more strongly than I intended.
The moment stretched long until I couldn’t stand the silence. “I’m sorry your daughter had to go through such an experience.” I spoke quietly, testing the waters. “It must have been quite traumatic.”
Thone slowly nodded. “Traumatic. Yes, it was. Horribly.” He eyed the window. “So traumatic that she can’t stop telling everyone about how she got to ride on a dragon.”
Was that a glint of humor in his eyes and tone? I almost smiled.
“Most in the village have agreed that you are welcome to remain here as long as needed,” he said. “We will see to your needs until you are ready to continue your travels. They are less concerned about having a dragon so close to the village as they once were.”
“Because she helped save your daughter?”
“That, yes. And seeing the dragon lying peacefully while a child clung to her cheek like a tree-snit did much to make people reconsider their concerns about the dragon being a danger to us.”
This time I did smile.
“Granted, there are still some who are vocal in their displeasure and would rather see the dragon gone.” He sighed, looking almost awkward again. “And those are fairly prominent members of the village, at that. If I don’t ask you to be on your way, I’ll have to face their wrath.”
Erret among them, I’d wager. “I can leave. I don’t wish to cause trouble.”
He shrugged. “On the other hand, if I did ask you to leave, I’d have to face the wrath of my six-year-old daughter. And that, quite frankly, is far more terrifying than anything those loudmouths might do to me.” He smiled.
A laugh escaped my mouth. “That is indeed a quandary. I can’t say that I blame you for your choice.”
His smile widened into a more relaxed state, and I got the feeling that I was seeing him as his family and village usually got to see him, not worrying about tending to a guest or dealing with a threat, but simply enjoying the pleasures of life as life exists.
“I will confess that many hope you will stay,” he said. “Admittedly for selfish reasons. Having a dragon nearby certainly will go far to ‘improve’ our relationship with Krenish. But I understand you were traveling when you came to us and don’t expect you to change your plans for our sakes. If you need to continue on your way, then enjoy our hospitality until you are well enough to carry on. But if you were seeking a more permanent home…” He gestured with his hand. “You are welcome here.”
A mass of emotions knotted tight in my chest. I opened my mouth.
He stood. “Don’t feel you have to decide now. For the time being, Magra has asked me to convey that the only thing you are permitted to do is rest.”
I closed my mouth. “Of course. Thank you, tabe-ro.”
He bowed. “Our gratitude is with you, raisa-ro.”
The door shut behind him, and I nestled into the soft pillow and mattress. I hardly paid attention to the comfort around me, though. Instead, I dug into the knot in my chest and worked to untangle it, trying to sort it all out.
Part of me was flattered. He’d shown me great honor in the way he’d talked to me. He’d even called me ‘raisa-ro,’ though my position certainly didn’t merit such an honorable title. Imagine, the leader of a village using such respect to address a mere wanderer!
And the village as a whole—or the majority, at any rate—had welcomed me to stay. Though I obviously didn’t agree with their Traditional stance on women being forbidden from participating in anything dangerous, I recognized what a bold step it was for the village to be willing to allow me to stay as one of them after they had seen for themselves my skills in a fight. The usual response would be to politely offer me hospitality and then wish me well and send me on my way. Despite what Thone had said, that went beyond selfishness of wanting a dragon guardian on hand, especially seeing how they were accustomed to their relationship with Krenish.
I’d spent so many years traveling on my own that the thought of staying in a village, of calling one place home, seemed foreign. For me, ‘normal’ meant walking the road, finding a place to stay the night, trading, moving on. Aimless, yes, but comfortable. Easy to keep Axen away from prying eyes that wouldn’t understand our bond. Safe. It was the same thing I’d been doing all my life, ever since I was a little girl.
A cold feeling crept into my mind, and I shifted my thoughts. Could I really adapt to village living? Could I survive in a Traditional village? I would have to conform to certain restrictions, certain standards. It would be difficult to restrain my instincts, to silence the responses born of years of training. The thought of never practicing with a blade again, or having to sneak around to practice, made me frown. Too foreign. No, I couldn’t stay put.
But something else tugged at my mind. If I left, what would that mean? I’d be free to carry on as I always had. Free to practice whatever skills I saw fit to practice. Safe in the routine of my normal life. And what of Emsha?
A nudge of cold trickled into my belly. I knew bullies. I’d encountered plenty in my life. If they found someone weak enough to make a victim, then they resisted any force that would require them to stop their bullying. Jennik would find another way to target Emsha, a more subtle way, some way to manipulate and shove Emsha back into the victim’s role, where they belonged, in his eyes. And that was even with Axen and me still present. What would they do if Axen was gone?
The cold in my stomach spread. I had humiliated Jennik. I had challenged him publicly in the streets and forced him and his men to flee. I had challenged him in front of his men, alone and unarmed, and escaped victorious. And I had prevented him from carrying out vengeance on the men of Emsha by breaking up the battle and once again forcing him into retreat. But he couldn’t get revenge on me. He had many fighting men on his side, but not enough to take on a dragon.
And what did bullies do when they couldn’t take out their anger and humiliation on the cause of those feelings? They found the nearest weak target and took it out on them. If I left, that would be Emsha.
I closed my eyes. I was stuck. I wanted to move on, but if I did, it would open the way for Krenish to charge in and wreak vengeance and destruction on Emsha. As long as I stayed, Krenish would have to keep their distance.
I made a face. This stinks.
Yeah, they do sort of smell, don’t they? Strange little meat things.
I couldn’t help but smile. That’s not what I meant. We’re stuck here. If we leave, those bad men will come back and attack Emsha.
I sent a jab of scolding displeasure her direction. So that’s a bad thing. These people are victims through no fault of their own.
Then make them not victims anymore.
How do you propose we do that?
I don’t know. Find them a dragon?
I rolled my eyes. Ha, ha.
Make them stronger?
They already are plenty strong. There just aren’t as many of them here as in Krenish. I paused. I suppose we could help them attract more people to their village. It should be able to grow, being along the main road, even as Traditional as they are. But that will take time. More time than I’m interested in sticking around.
What about one of those paper things?
I frowned. Paper things? A book?
No, the paper things. The things that say, I will not attack you because you will give me meat, and you will not attack me because I will give you rocks, and it makes everyone happy.
A peace treaty based on a trade agreement. I remembered witnessing a signing between two larger settlements along the main road almost a decade ago. Axen had been fascinated by all the pomp and ceremony. It had taken a lot of convincing to keep her watching from the nearby mountainside instead of plopping herself into the middle of the crowd to get a closer look at the proceedings.
I wasn’t entirely sure how far Krenish could be trusted to stick to an agreement on paper. But it could be that Emsha did have something valuable to offer on which a treaty could be founded. Something which hadn’t been discussed before because Krenish was too busy bullying Emsha to consider other possibilities. And a formal treaty was taken seriously by the crown. I had been traveling east, but I could head west and stop by the Meeting Hall to notify them of what had transpired. Official approval and oversight of the treaty would give Krenish extra motivation to behave.
It wasn’t a perfect plan, but it was better than anything else I could come up with. Yes. A peace treaty. That might do it. I smiled. Thanks, Axen.
She yawned. You meat things have such easy problems to solve. How to coax a rekin out of its hole at breakfast time—now that’s a problem.
As the day passed, I found it easy enough to obey Magra’s orders to stay put and rest as my worn-out body insisted on frequent naps. Fasha stopped in to deposit a wreath of flowers on my head. Rik visited to check on me twice, probably out of some need to feel he was doing his honorable duty. At one point I saw Erret stomp past the window and shoot a glare in my direction. I resisted the temptation to wave.
Jaska returned as the day set into evening and set to work cooking dinner and attending to the cleaning duties around the house.
“Don’t forget to make enough for our guest, tabe-me,” Magra said from where she worked in the corner, weaving fresh bandages. I hadn’t realized she and Jaska were married, or that she was married at all, for that matter. She had a stronger air of independence about her than the other women of the village.
“Thone insisted that he and his children tend to our guest’s dinner.” Jaska looked up at me from his sweeping. “If that is acceptable.”
“It’s an honor,” I said.
Sure enough, Thone arrived a short time later with his family. After greeting Magra, Jaska, and myself, Thone directed the children through moving a small table to a more central position beside my bed, then spreading out a meal. He served while the children found chairs for him and Tarvia. They sat on the floor and waited for their turn to get their food.
Tarvia had been chatting with Magra, but she sat in the chair closest to me once the meal was ready. “Magra tells me you should be well enough by morning to no longer be constrained to bed rest. I imagine that comes as a relief to you.”
It did. As easy as it had been while I napped the day away, my body was stronger now and already getting itchy for movement. I never had been good at staying in place, whether it was settling down or merely sitting for too long. “I will be glad for the chance to see more of your village.”
“As long as you take it easy.” Magra gave me a look from across the room before returning to her meal with her husband.
“It’s a great village,” Fasha piped up around a mouthful. “Jec lets me play with the hammers sometimes. And Lashia braids my hair. And—”
Thone cleared his throat, and she quickly returned to her food.
“It seems like a very nice village,” I said. “I’ll be sure to meet everyone I can.” Everyone actually interested in meeting me, that is, I thought. I didn’t doubt there were a few more like Erret who would be displeased with my decision to stay.
We ate in silence for a moment before Thone spoke up. “I trust your dragon is well?”
I sensed her pleasure as she downed her own dinner. “Quite, thank you.”
He glanced at the window, then down at his food. “Might I ask where it goes?”
I tried to make sense of the question and failed. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
He got that awkward look again. “That is, where is it now? I would assume it doesn’t stray too far from you, but obviously it’s farther than my people tend to travel through the course of the day. I’m sure they would have mentioned if they had seen it.”
Ah. He was curious how something so big had gone unnoticed until she chose to join my side. And wanting to make sure Axen was staying a safe distance from his people. I gestured to the northwest. “She prefers the environment and,” I glanced at the children, “fauna in the mountains.”
“What’s a fauna?” Fasha asked.
Her oldest brother elbowed her. “Hush while the adults are talking.”
“Fauna is what the dragon eats,” the other brother whispered a little too loudly.
Fasha’s eyes turned round. “Oh.”
I bit back a laugh.
Thone gave the children a scolding look, then turned back to me. “But the nearest mountain is nearly a day’s travel from here.”
“As I’m sure you can imagine, Axen is able to travel much faster than we can.”
“I see.” He paused. “It—she—truly is that far away?”
I let my mind slip closer to hers, to see more of what she saw around her. Sparse trees outside a dark cave. A few bones left from her meal. A breathtaking view of the valley stretching far below her perch.
“Yes, truly. It’s quite normal for us. I travel the roads, and she avoids disturbing people. So much as she can.”
“Then you don’t spend much time together?” Tarvia asked.
“Not too much.” A hunt and ride in the mornings. Sometimes another in the afternoon, if I could find a quiet place away from people for her to pick me up. And another in the evening before I found a place to rest for the night. Plus regular chatter between us throughout the day. Some might call that ‘much time,’ but it was less than it once was. Besides, my answer seemed reassuring to both Tarvia and Thone.
Fasha set her empty bowl aside and stood to tug at my sleeve. “Excuse me, please, raisa-ro.”
“Are you going to stay here?”
I glanced at Thone, who looked as interested in the answer as his daughter was. “I believe I will. For a little while, at least.”
The little girl beamed. “Yay.”
Thone’s expression was a bit more sedate, but no less pleased. “I’m glad to hear that. You’ll be welcome to stay with us for as long as you wish.”
“Thank you.” I hesitated, unsure how detailed I could be with the children there but still feeling a need to express the reason I was staying. “I normally keep to my travels, but I wasn’t certain about possible consequences of my departure. Specifically where Krenish is concerned.”
Tarvia stood. “Children, take our things home and see to the cleaning.”
The three immediately gathered up the remaining food and dirty dishes. Fasha gave me a bow and a peck on the cheek before scurrying after her brothers. Tarvia bid me goodnight and followed the children, leaving me alone to discuss the matter with Thone.
Once they were gone, I folded my hands in front of me. “I am concerned what Jennik might lead his men to do if they find a dragon is no longer in residence in Emsha.”
The look in Thone’s eyes made it clear that he, too, had thought about that possibility. “He won’t be happy about how you bested him and his men.”
“And if I leave, I fear he’ll take that out on you and your people.” It was perhaps a little too bold for me, an outsider, to presume to discuss village politics with the leader, but I broached the subject regardless. “However, I thought that while Axen is here to prevent them from trying anything too bold, you might be able to find grounds with Jennik to form a peace treaty.”
Thone snorted, but caught himself. “I’m afraid we’ve attempted diplomacy with Jennik in the past. He isn’t interested in peace.”
“Forgive me for speaking boldly, tabe-ro.” I didn’t wait for consent before continuing. “Jennik was not interested in peace with a village he could overpower and bully into submission. He may be more interested in discussing terms of peace now that he can no longer do that.”
Thone leaned back and scratched at the short whiskers on his cheek. “His pride is great. He wouldn’t demean himself into speaking peace with a village he deems lesser than his own.” He stood, marking the end of the discussion. “Thank you for your concern, raisa, but I’m afraid our troubles with Krenish will not be so simple to resolve. Do not stay for our sake if you would prefer to travel on. We have faced their wrath before and will face it again. We weather through, as we always have.”
I settled back into the bed, my limbs itching to move even more now. Maybe he was right. Jennik would never agree to peace. I was only delaying the inevitable by staying. I should just leave. Maybe right now, while Magra was busy helping her husband clean up after their own meal. I could rest on Axen’s back as easily as I could rest in this bed.
But my stubborn streak kept me planted firmly in the bed. I’d said I would stay, at least for a time, so that’s what I was going to do. I would find a way to convince Thone to talk to Jennik. And I’d help them find some reasonable agreement based on something that would last long after Axen and I had moved on. I would.
That, or I could eat them both.
I closed my eyes. No, Axen. You may not.
The next day, I got up and freshened myself, eager to get lost in the forest and let Axen find me. A short flight, a little distance from the ground-based problems, and then I’d return to Emsha to settle into the strange new life I’d be living for the next few days.
My leg twinged slightly, but it got easier to ignore with each step. I had to remind myself that Magra said I’d have to take it easy today and let my body finish healing. I wasn’t used to being able to walk so quickly after an injury like that. I had to admit, I could get used to being around a proper healer. I’d tried to learn the art myself once, but just didn’t have the talent for it.
I opened the door to find Rik on the other side, reaching for the handle. He looked as surprised as I felt.
He recovered quickly, though. “Good morning, raisa. I heard you were doing better today.”
“I am. Thank you.” I saw the trees behind him, on the other side of the road, and longed to be running free through them. No, not running. Walking. Sedately. As fast as I could.
“I’m glad to hear that.”
I nodded and stepped to move around him.
“I thought you might like a tour of the village,” he offered.
I exhaled slowly to keep my response polite. “Thank you, but perhaps that would be better later.”
“Oh.” He looked surprised again. “Did you have plans for the morning?”
Yes. Big plans involving the wind in my face and perhaps a couple of rolling spins through the air. Gentle rolling spins. “I…”
That was when I spotted Erret marching in my direction with a determined look on his face.
My frustration boiled upwards but caught in my throat, held back by old habits of polite mannerisms and culture. If I let Erret start with me, I doubted even that would be enough to restrain it. And I needed to remain at some semblance of peace with the villagers until I could help fix things between Emsha and Krenish.
I turned to face Rik squarely and forced a smile. “Actually, I would like a tour of the village, thank you.”
A brief look of confusion disappeared into a smile. He offered his arm.
I didn’t take it, instead gesturing in the opposite direction of Erret. “What’s this way?”
He turned, accepting my refusal with grace. “That’s… the end of the village.”
“That sounds like a good place to start. One end to the other.” I started in that direction.
Rik caught up and walked at my side.
I glanced over my shoulder to see Erret glaring after us, but then he turned and stomped away. I finally relaxed. Part of me would have loved a chance to tell him off, but that wouldn’t have made life here any easier for me. And it was already going to be hard enough as it was.
Rik proved to be a polite and attentive tour guide, though there wasn’t much to see. A field nestled in the forest behind the main village. Most of the men worked there, tending to budding crops which would supplement the meaty diet they gained by hunting the forest. Several men cast dark looks in my direction, but most of the workers politely dipped their heads in greeting. Children helped their fathers, though others flitted through the forest, playing chase games and occasionally stopping long enough to gather berries and wild fruits.
The houses themselves were simple, low buildings arranged in a generous circle. The covered space in the center of the circle was, as I’d suspected, a community gathering place. Many women sat there now, enjoying the light breeze and sunlight now that the rains had temporarily moved on. They worked on various arts and chatted, occasionally calling out directions to a child running past. Like the men, some were less than welcoming to my presence, but others called out greetings and expressed their pleasure that I was well.
“And that brings us back here,” Rik said, walking toward the road. “You know the inn and Magra’s, of course. The building in the middle is Jec’s smithy. I imagine you don’t have much interest in that sort of place.” He paused. “And that’s Emsha. It’s not very big, I know, or grand, but it’s a good village with a lot of good people. And very friendly.” He paused again. “I mean, I know you haven’t seen all of them at their best. They’re really a lot nicer than they seem. Even Erret.”
I was sure Erret was very nice to everyone who fit his mindset of how people should or shouldn’t behave. I nodded and returned my attention to the businesses. Fasha had mentioned Jec. I couldn’t remember anyone else she’d talked about, but at least I could tell her I’d met one of her friends. “If it pleases you, I’d like to meet Jec.”
He looked only a little surprised and nodded. “Of course.” He held the door to the smithy for me. The smell of hot metal and ashes, the tools hanging from the ceiling, the rhythmic ring of hammer against metal all transported me back in time, and I found myself the most relaxed I’d been since I first entered Emsha.
Rik slid around me and hurried forward to get the smith’s attention. “Jec, I’d like to introduce you to our visitor.”
Jec wiped his hands on a rag as he turned. He was old, possibly the oldest man in the village, with wispy silver hair sticking out from skin darkened by years at the smithy fires. Heavy lines crossed his forehead and nestled in the corners of his eyes. His eyes whispered of a vibrancy and strength his age would deny, though.
I bowed politely. “If it pleases you, tabe-da, my name is Alita.”
“I claim the pleasure as mine,” he said. “Jec.”
The shortness of his words made me remember that just because I wanted to meet him didn’t mean he wanted to meet me. He might feel more like Erret, preferring that I wasn’t there. “I apologize for disrupting your work. I won’t delay you further.”
“Nonsense. Far be it from me to be called a poor host. Have a seat. I’m sure I have some tea here.” He wandered to a cupboard near the forge which I hadn’t noticed before and set to rummaging. “You’re the raisa with the dragon, hmm?”
I saw a stool with only a couple of misshapen molds made of firmed sap resting on it. I picked up the molds and sat down. “I am.”
“Can’t say I ever had the pleasure of meeting a dragon myself. Should like to introduce myself before you carry on your way, if it’s all the same by you.”
His request startled me, and I found myself smiling. “Of course. I’ll see it done.”
He shifted his search to lower cabinet. “Saw you in action yesterday. Can’t say I’ve ever seen a lady dashing around and taking swings at her attackers like that.”
“I imagine you haven’t.” I glanced at Rik and measured my words. “I understand that isn’t common for Traditional Elf women.”
“Don’t see why not,” Jec grunted as he strained to reach something.
I was too startled by that one to speak at first.
Rik coughed politely. “It would be inappropriate to place someone so valuable at risk.”
“Pshaw.” Jec opened a tin, sniffed it, made a face, and shoved it back into the cabinet. “My tools are my life; doesn’t mean I stick them on a shelf and avoid using them for fear they might break.” He tossed a wink my direction. “And most ladies I know are a mite stronger than a mere hammer.”
Rik didn’t have an answer for that.
I chose to remain silent. I was suddenly glad I’d decided to come meet this man.
Jec walked back toward us, shaking his head. “I’m afraid I’m to be called a poor host after all. No tea.”
“That’s quite all right,” I reassured him. His words and company were comfort enough for me. “I wouldn’t want to spoil my appetite for lunch.”
He smiled, then glanced down at my hands. “What’s that?”
I looked down and realized that I was still holding the molds. I’d been unconsciously smoothing them back into shape. My cheeks warmed. “I apologize. They were on the stool.”
He took them from me and examined them. “This is good work.”
“My father worked with metal. I used to help him with his molds when I was small.”
“I see.” He didn’t probe into my family’s past, to my relief. “These old hands still grip a hammer and sword well enough, but I’m afraid they aren’t so good with such delicate work. I heard you might be visiting for a few days. If you’re ever looking for a way to pass the time, I wouldn’t say no to a little help, and I’ll pay well.” He set the molds aside. “I’ll have tea next time, too. Promise.”
I hadn’t thought much of what I’d do to pass the time while staying put. While I hoped most of the time would be spent brokering peace, I supposed there would be moments that needed filling. And Jec’s company was infinitely more comfortable than that of the stiffer Traditionalists in the village. “I’d be honored. Thank you.”
“I help Jec at times,” Rik chimed in. “Carrying coal and things.”
It seemed an odd fact to volunteer, but I nodded to be polite.
“He’s a good helper. Strong lad. Not much of a mind of his own, but he’s got his moments.” Rik reddened at the frank assessment. I bit my lip to hide a smile.
Jec eyed me. “I’m sure a pretty young lady could help him find his own thoughts, though.”
Now it was my turn to blush.
“Thank you,” Rik said a little too quickly. “Thank you for the very nice chat. I’d better get her to the inn now, though. For lunch.”
“Thank you, tabe-da,” I echoed and cringed internally at how quickly I spoke, almost as bad as Rik. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Jec.”
He just grinned and dipped his head in response.
Rik didn’t say anything as he walked me to the inn, to my relief. He opened the door for me and paused. “Sorry about him. He’s…”
“It’s okay. I know older people often are prone to speaking their minds. Even if what they’re saying doesn’t make much sense.”
His smile looked stiff. “Right. Right. Anyway, is there anything else around the village you’d like to see? Anywhere you’d like to go after lunch?”
Into the forest. To be with Axen. “No, thank you. I think I’ll enjoy a quiet afternoon.”
He bobbed his head again. “Okay. Rest well, then.”
“Thanks for the tour.” I turned and hurried inside.
Tarvia was already there, directing Fasha through meal preparation. The girl insisted on serving me herself and managed to present the bowl of stew without spilling too much. She was delighted when I told her about meeting Jec, but Tarvia called her back to her work before she could gush too much. Thone wandered in not long after with the boys in tow, all of them smelling strongly of hard labor and the outdoors. The boys served his food, then dished up their own and dug in with gusto.
I politely ignored them all, knowing this was likely a customary time for Tarvia and Thone to enjoy one another’s company. I didn’t realize I was being addressed until Thone cleared his throat.
“Pardon the interruption, raisa.”
I looked up, startled.
“I was wondering how you enjoyed your morning with Rik.” He had a slight glint in his eye, and I got the feeling there was something he knew about Rik that he wasn’t saying.
I decided to ignore it. “He gave a very nice tour, thank you.”
“You seem to have something on your mind.” Tarvia squeezed her husband’s hand like a gentle correction. “We won’t disrupt your thoughts.”
The perfect opening. “I do have something on my mind,” I said as if in confession. “But it wouldn’t be my place to pry.” A little manipulative, perhaps, but it was the way of polite Elf society.
Tarvia shook her head. “You are our friend. Ask what you wish.”
“I gather Emsha has been paying some manner of tribute to Krenish for some time now.”
They looked at each other for a moment before Thone replied. “Yes. Regals, when we have them. Otherwise, a portion of our furs or crops.”
“I wondered what other goods of value Emsha produces.” Something valuable enough for a treaty agreement.
He shrugged. “We are a small village. Most of our effort goes to the work of everyday life and little more.”
I took another bite and savored it while I thought. “Is there something of value nearby? A lode that could be mined, perhaps?”
“No.” His voice had turned a bit cooler. As he swallowed down the rest of his food, I saw that he understood clearly what I was asking. He set his empty bowl on the table, kissed his wife, and stood. “Boys. We need to get back to the field.”
Tarvia looked a bit surprised as they left. She eyed me, clearly suspecting that there had been something underlying the exchange. “Is something wrong, raisa?”
Part of me was tempted to tell her my idea, to get her on my side, but that would be improper. It was neither my place nor my business to share with her something that was her husband’s place to talk to her about. If he wanted her to know my suggestion, he would have told her after I first brought it up. Sometimes the manners of Elf society worked to my favor, like the requirement to address problems with a woman’s guardian. Other times, not so much.
I exhaled. “No. Thank you for the meal.” Time to retreat to the forest, now that I didn’t have Rik hovering at my side. Time to find Axen.
The door banged open as I stood, and Erret stormed in.
Tarvia immediately straightened, her posture formal but stiff. “Thone already returned to the fields, tabe. Unless you had something to address with me?”
“I have business to address, but not with you, raisa-ro.” He glared at me. “I will have words with you, and you will not run away this time. You have much to answer for.”
Tarvia bristled and seemed to suddenly occupy the entire room. “I will beg your pardon, tabe, but this is my home, and Alita is my guest. I will not tolerate harsh words spoken here.” Her tone was like a mace wrapped in silk, elegant but hard and unquestionably dangerous.
Erret blinked, some of his bluster fading. But it returned quickly, barely concealed behind gritted teeth. “Then I will speak with her outside.”
My fingers curled involuntarily. The last thing I wanted was to sit down and chat with this man. If I tried to escape to the forest now, it was pretty clear he would follow and harangue me until he got his way. But I wasn’t interested in spending the day hiding in the inn, either. I already felt confined enough having been unable to escape the village yet.
What’s happening, small meat one? You’ve gone all fizzy inside.
“If she desires,” Tarvia said to Erret, her voice gaining more of an edge.
Part of me wanted to shout out to Axen. Come get me, take me away from these crazy people! I managed to restrain the impulse. It’s fine. Just dealing with… foolishness.
So bite something. That usually solves it.
“It is my duty to see to the protection of this village. It is my job to get to the root of any threat that might be present,” Erret snapped.
“Excuse me,” I said abruptly, unable to keep the tension inside any longer. My mind raced for a good escape route and latched onto the first idea it came up with. “I promised Jec I would help him with his work. I must be on my way.” I brushed past Erret and hurried out the door.
He followed me, no big surprise there. “Jec will have to wait. You might have the others in your thrall, but I’m not so easily fleeced. Now tell me the truth. How are you bonded to the creature?”
“Because she wills it to be so.” Only a few more paces to the smithy. I did my best not to break into a run and let him see how badly I wanted to be away from him.
He scowled. “You know that’s not what I was asking. How did it happen? What was done to bring about this unnatural connection?”
It took a conscious effort not to take the bait. I was nearly to the door. “Good afternoon, tabe.”
“You are not going anywhere until you answer my questions!” he thundered, slamming a hand into the doorframe to block my path.
He was still speaking when I ducked under his arm, shoved the door open, and hurried inside. “Good afternoon, Jec. I’ve come to help you with your molds, as you asked.”
Jec looked up from his work, a slightly bemused expression on his face. He saw Erret still sputtering in the doorway and turned with a casual smile, a hammer in one hand and a red-hot length of metal in the other. “Hello, tabe-Erret. Is there something I can do for you?”
Erret looked like his face was swelling with restrained anger. I had the feeling that if he’d been facing one of the younger men, he’d have stormed in and reamed us both out. But he wouldn’t dare do such a thing to an esteemed elder of the village. It wouldn’t be honorable.
He finally shook his head. “Excuse me, tabe-da.” He turned and stormed off.
I leaned against one of the support beams. If that had gone on much longer, I wouldn’t have been able to hold my tongue, and that certainly wouldn’t have earned me any love from the village. If anything, it would mean that some of the people accepting my presence might reconsider their position.
“Bit of a battleax, that one,” Jec mused. “Has a nose problem, though.”
I raised an eyebrow.
He tapped the end of his nose, leaving behind a black smudge. “Too long. Always ending up in the wrong places.” He returned to his work. “I’m afraid I must be called a poor host yet again. I haven’t managed to acquire any tea since you were last here.”
“It’s fine,” I reassured him, amused. As if enough time had passed for him to get tea.
“The molds are over there, if that was what you wished to do with your afternoon,” Jec said, nodding toward a pile.
I walked over and picked one up. It wasn’t, but at least the wide smithy space, the smells and sounds of my childhood, and the peaceful older man made the place feel much less confining.
I glanced toward the window as I smoothed out the first mold. The road looked clear. I could take a few minutes, smooth out a few molds, and then slip out to the forest before Erret returned to ambush me. With any hope.
I was on the second mold when I caught a glimpse of movement out the window. I squinted, searching for the source, and finally saw it. Erret leaned against a tree just inside the forest, well-shadowed by the foliage above.
Ire flared up so sharply that I almost deformed the mold in my hands worse than it had been when I started. He was waiting for me? I should have known he wouldn’t give up so easily.
I weighed my choices. Spend the rest of the day hiding in the smithy or leave and face Erret. Everything in me wanted to walk out the door right that second and let him try to intimidate me. I had a good share of choice words at the tip of my tongue ready to unleash on him.
But pesky reason and wisdom cautioned against it. I still wanted to retain Thone’s favor and stay in the village long enough to resolve issues between Emsha and Krenish. I couldn’t do that and publicly ream one of the more prominent men of the village.
I aggressively straightened the mold and tossed it aside. It went against my nature to hide from confrontation, but I was too smart to let my nature get in the way of my goals. It chafed to be stuck indoors, but at least it was here, with Jec.
He plunged his work into the trough of water and stretched, wandering over to the window. “Lovely day.”
“Lovely,” I agreed without feeling. I hadn’t really noticed much.
“Seems a shame to be cooped up inside, especially for young bones.”
No kidding, friend. I shrugged.
“But perhaps there are reasons to stay inside. To avoid certain unpleasantries. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same.”
He had seen Erret skulking in wait. I nodded.
“It would be a shame, though, to be trapped by one’s own desire to avoid being drawn into a scene.” He whistled and returned to the anvil, pulling the work out of the water and inspecting it. “It’s a good thing, then, when a building has two exits.”
I perked up.
“Especially when one of those exits, the one just off the other end of the forge, can’t be seen from the road.” Jec yawned and set the piece aside before drawing the next one from under the forge coals. “And leads directly behind Magra’s home, from where it’s easy to enter the forest. Unseen from the road.” He shrugged. “If one is concerned about such things, that is. Terrible day to be cooped up.”
I dropped the mold in my hands back onto the pile, rushed over to plant a kiss on his cheek, and scurried to the door he’d indicated. It was half buried behind a hanging rack of heavy aprons, but all I had to do was push a couple of the aprons aside to reach it. I cracked the door and peeked outside. Sure enough, the wall’s angles were just right. I couldn’t be seen from the road.
“Thank you so much, tabe-da.” I paused, looking back at the molds. “I promise, I’ll help with the molds tomorrow. Or later tonight.”
He waved with his hammer. “The molds will still be the same tomorrow as they are today. The sun might not be.”
I gave him a grateful smile, then darted out the door, hurrying between his shop and Magra’s until I reached the back end of the buildings. I took another glance around, mostly looking at the inn. Perhaps I could slip along that way and duck into my room for my pack. I’d gone too long without my sword in reach.
But the buildings here stood at an angle which shielded me from the area of the road where Erret waited. The inn stood a bit further away from the other two, following a slight bend in the road and leaving a large gap. Erret was more likely to see me if I went that way.
Better to avoid a confrontation. I was finally getting my escape into the forest; I shouldn’t push my luck by trying to get my sword. I hurried along the back of Magra’s home, checked the view on the other side, and darted into the forest.
My leg twinged as the trees and underbrush enveloped me, reminding me that I wasn’t supposed to be pushing myself. Oops. Perhaps it was for the best that I’d never been able to master the healing arts myself. When I was injured, it normally meant days of pain, which forced me to remember to go easy on myself. While I appreciated the accelerated process and relative lack of pain, it was easier to forget the need for caution and the risk of reopening wounds.
I slowed to a steady but brisk walk. Probably still faster than I should have been going, but I didn’t particularly care. I was already breathing easier, my muscles relaxing, my heart singing to be out of the claustrophobic village and surrounded by an environment far more natural to my normal life.
It’s about time, slowpoke.
I rolled my eyes. Go chew on a grickle.
I sensed her snort, and I smiled.
You’re moving too slow. I’ll come get you.
Not yet. I was still too close to the village. We don’t want to draw extra attention. Let me get a bit further.
I walked until I was confident the villagers wouldn’t notice Axen’s approach, then called for her. She didn’t even bother landing; she just dropped her tail and scooped me up as she shot past and swooped back up into the air, giving the tail a sharp snap to fling me toward my position at the back of her head.
My leg twinged sharper than before as I landed in place and found my hold on her scale ridges, but I was laughing too hard to care. Any tension left in my body drained away as we rose high enough to be mistaken for a distant bird from below.
I rested my forehead against her scales. I missed you.
Me, too. You, I mean. She snuffed. Let’s just leave. Keep going. They’ll be fine.
They wouldn’t, but her words still drew me in with powerful temptation. I wanted so badly to do exactly that.
We can’t. I need to at least try to help them. If I can’t, then we’ll leave.
She snorted. You’re too nice.
I know. I smiled. Humble, too.
She snuffed again and dipped sharply along an air current before shooting back upward.
I closed my eyes. Felt the wind bite my face and rattle my clothing. Enjoyed being home.
I slipped through the forest toward the back of Magra’s house, feeling a bit silly for sneaking around like a wayward adolescent. I peeked out, then slid into the village, hopefully unnoticed. When Erret didn’t appear out of nowhere to charge me, I relaxed and walked toward the inn.
“There you are,” Rik called, jogging toward me.
I tried not to let my cringe show. “Good afternoon, tabe.”
“Where were you? I wanted to ask if you’d like to go with me to collect some eskerberries. I didn’t find you at Thone’s, or at Jec’s, or at Magra’s. Were you visiting someone?”
He looked momentarily confused, then he looked back toward the forest, then at my shoulder. His tone dampened. “Oh. I see.”
I glanced down and saw a few twigs stuck to my tunic. He’d put together that I’d gone into the forest alone, and then realized what that meant. He might not be against Axen like Erret, but it didn’t mean he liked the idea of the dragon’s nearness to his village.
“If you’ll excuse me,” I said, reaching for the inn’s back door.
He nodded and quietly walked away.
I felt a little bad, though I wasn’t sure why. He seemed interested in spending time with me, even if he wasn’t a fan of Axen. It felt strange.
I shook it off and headed into the inn. The room was quiet, with no activity in the kitchen. It was too early for the evening meal, though not by much. I shut the door behind myself and turned to see only one other person in the room with me.
“I knew you couldn’t hide forever.” Erret’s voice was dark, darker than before.
I spun for the door.
He was already there, knocking it shut before I’d gotten it open enough to slip out. I turned for the other door, but he caught my shoulder and slammed me against the wall.
“No escape this time, witch,” he seethed. “You’re going to answer my questions.”
My brain snapped through a series of orders. Go for his instep. His nose. His sensitive area. Twist his hand from the thumb to break his grip. Elbow to the throat, sweep his legs, and escape while he’s incapacitated.
I drew in a slow, deep breath. No, Axen. I’ll be all right. I summoned all the composure I could and met his enraged eyes with my own calm ones. “Remove your hand. You’re hurting me.”
He squeezed harder in reply. “I asked you a question earlier. You’re going to answer it now.”
I had to clench my hands into fists to stop them from doing what came naturally—breaking his grip and flipping him onto his back. I kept my gaze steady and went for the safest possible route: Traditional Elf protocol. “If you have concerns, then I’m sure Thone will be happy to speak with you. I will answer any question he asks.”
Erret’s face twisted further. “How dare you? You are a woman, and you are answerable to me!” His fingers dug in, making my shoulder throb.
I’m your guardian. Let me take him!
Despite the pain, I didn’t let myself flinch. “I am a woman, yes, but I am not a member of your village. Unless you have been appointed judge, Thone is the one with the authority to question me. Speak with him about what you wish to know.”
“Authority?” he thundered. He yanked me forward and slammed me into the wall again, sending a jarring pain through my body.
A distant roar pierced the air.
Erret’s face immediately paled, but he didn’t loosen his grip. “It can’t get me without hurting you,” he hissed.
It wouldn’t help to make snarky remarks about my guardian now. Nor to comment on how precise her aim was, how her remarkable senses could distinguish friend from foe and target her attacks accordingly, how her sharp claws could pluck a tree-snit off a tree without so much as scratching the bark.
Axen. I’m serious. Stay back.
I’m going to tear him apart!
I’m handling this. Stay. Back.
I felt her reluctant acquiescence and returned to the problem before me. “As I said, if you have concerns, speak to Thone. Now remove your hand. I wouldn’t want someone to walk in and think you were threatening an unarmed lady.” A jab to his sense of honor would get me further than a jab to his throat, though the second might have been more satisfying at the moment.
The redness returned full force. “How dare you? You wretched snake!” His other hand shot upward.
Before I could move to counter the incoming blow, the door flew open.
Erret froze, arm still poised to strike, as Thone and his boys walked in, the boys jabbering and joking until the door shut and they spotted us. I had never seen Thone’s kind, jovial face turn so dark, as dark as it could possibly get. “Boys.”
The two boys disappeared down the back hallway without a word.
Erret backpedaled a couple steps away from me, his arms dropping to his sides.
Blood rushed to my shoulder. I rubbed it, keeping my mouth shut. There was no need to speak. Thone had seen more than enough.
“I… I understand how that must have looked,” Erret said, his voice quiet but gaining confidence. “But she’s hiding something from you. She disappeared all afternoon to do Maker knows what. As a member of this village, it’s my duty to watch for threats, to protect us all from—”
“Are you certain that is what you wish to say for yourself?” Thone’s words dropped like a rock on the ground, heavy with judgment and threat.
Erret’s fists clenched. “Tabe-ro, you know I would never challenge you. This female is a threat. A danger. Perhaps it is harder for you to understand after she saved your daughter, but evil can do good things for the purpose of fooling the innocent. You must consider whether your gratitude in the matter of your daughter may have blinded you to the truth.”
I’d been mistaken. Thone’s face could get darker.
The other door opened, admitting Tarvia and Fasha, the girl carrying a basket of berries. Tarvia’s smile vanished as soon as she saw the three of us. “Fasha.”
The child vanished after her brothers with the same haste.
Erret looked from Thone to Tarvia, his jaw muscles twitching. He finally bowed. “Forgive me, tabe-ro. I seem to have made a mistake.” He then bowed to Tarvia. “Forgive me, raisa-ro. It was not my intent to disrupt your home.”
He turned, but Thone put a hand on the door, much the way Erret had done to stop me from leaving.
Silence thick with crackling lightning passed between the two men before Erret finally, slowly, turned to face me. His bow was painfully stiff. “Forgive me, raisa-ro. I should have gone to Thone with my concerns.” It was like he was spitting venom on the floor to cleanse it from his mouth.
He turned back to the door without waiting for any acknowledgment from me.
Thone remained still a moment longer, then dropped his arm. “We will speak later.”
Erret’s response was almost too quiet for me to hear. “Yes, tabe-ro.” He vanished out the door, and it slammed shut behind him.
My leg throbbed, vehemently protesting the sustained tension and adrenaline in my system. I sank to the floor.
“Send for Magra.” Thone crossed to me.
“I’m not injured.” I drew in a slow breath, trying to calm my racing heart. He probably wouldn’t have looked so concerned if he knew my reaction wasn’t from fear but from holding myself back for too long.
Thone lifted me to my feet and helped me to the table, and Tarvia set a mug of water in front of me. “We’ll have tea ready shortly.”
I nodded and sipped the water, barely hearing as she called for the children to return to the kitchen and set to work on dinner.
“What did he say to you?” Thone’s voice was quiet so the children couldn’t hear.
I took another drink. My shoulder still ached, but moving my arm helped some. “He wished to question me about my relationship with Axen. I told him that he could take his concerns to you, and I would answer any questions you asked me.”
He was calmer now, but the rage still lurked behind his eyes. “As it should be.”
“I am certain he didn’t intend to disrespect you. If I may say, I believe he is afraid. He is convinced that I am some partaker in evil magic, and he sees me as a genuine threat. That is what directs his behavior.”
Thone laughed in a sharp, jarring tone. “His disrespect to me was not what concerned me the most about his actions.”
Tarvia sat in the seat opposite me and pushed a steaming mug toward my hands. “Are you certain you don’t need to see Magra? Kaisal can summon her. It isn’t any trouble.”
“Thank you, but he didn’t hurt me.” I’d probably have a bruise on my shoulder, but it was nothing to waste a healer’s energy on. I drew in the tea and relaxed into the comfort.
Thone met his wife’s eyes, his fist tightening. “If I hadn’t walked in when I did…”
Then one of his top men would have a bloody nose and a swollen throat. “I thank you for your intervention. I am sure he would have restrained himself from doing any real harm.”
He looked at me, and I got the feeling he knew that I could have defended myself. But all he did was nod. “I’m glad you weren’t injured.” He stood and joined the children in the kitchen.
The meal was more subdued than the previous ones. Thone left the instant he finished eating with a look on his face that suggested someone was about to deeply regret his choices. I finished my own food quickly and escaped to my room.
The first thing I did was draw my sword from its hidden spot and tuck it under my mattress. I doubted Erret would push matters, and doubted even further he’d take the risk of entering the inn, much less my private room, but it never hurt to be prepared. It made me feel better to have the blade in reach again.
The quiet caught my attention as I lay on the bed. Axen.
I’m not talking to you.
I sighed. Axen, I can’t have you swooping in and terrifying the villagers over every little scuffle. It was nothing I couldn’t handle by myself. I’m fine.
She gave no response.
I sighed again, then relaxed and allowed myself a small smile. When you roared, he just about soiled himself.
She couldn’t mask the immediate rush of delight she felt at my words.
You should have seen how pale his face got, too.
How pale? she asked.
I thought you weren’t talking to me.
Shut up and tell me how pale.
My smile widened. Just shy of pasty. He tried to sound brave, but he was scared out of his wits.
Her giggle skipped through my mind. Serves him right.
I closed my eyes and sank into the bed. Serves him right indeed.
Faceless men chased me over jagged rocks, Erret leading them on with angry shouts of ‘witch’ and ‘evil.’ His hand closed around my arm. I spun to knock him aside, to lash out, but Thone stood just behind him, watching with vague interest. I couldn’t attack Erret without ruining my standing with Thone. Erret yanked me closer and screamed in my face, his words coming out in a billowing cloud of choking, acrid smoke.
I bolted upright in bed, coughing. It took me a disoriented moment to sort the dream from reality. Erret, dream. Smoke, real.
I raced to the door. Axen!
Already on my way.
Smoke filled the hallway, forcing me low. Orange flames devoured the tables. One of the benches had fallen over, too close to the end of the hallway. I couldn’t go that way.
A shape appeared on the other side of the blazing bench. Thone, his arm wrapped over his nose and mouth to protect them from the smoke.
“I’m all right,” I shouted above the crackling flames. “Get your family out!”
He disappeared, and I ducked back in my room. Threw my cloak over my shoulders. Grabbed my sword and pack. The pack went through the window, smashing the wooden lattice to create an opening large enough for me to climb through.
I slid out feet first and landed on solid ground outside, in the middle of chaos. Fire lit the sky. People ran every direction, screams mixing with the roar of the flames.
Movement to my left. I turned and saw a blade flashing my way. I locked it with my own before fully registering who it belonged to. I dimly recognized seeing the stringy hair and awkward, gangly limbs before. With Jennik. The man’s eyes widened in mutual recognition.
Anger boiled through me. Jennik had sent his men to attack Emsha while everyone was asleep, torching the buildings and killing as many as they could in the ensuing panic. I twirled my wrist, knocking his blade aside and moving in closer for a clean strike. He danced back, then scampered away.
I was about to pursue when a woman ran past me, shouting. Another Krenish man charged after her. I stepped in his path, ducking low to catch him across the midsection, and flipped him over my body. He rolled back to his feet, but I was already there, sending his sword flying and knocking him across the side of the head with the hilt. He dropped heavily to the ground and didn’t get back up.
More screams. A couple attackers blocked the exit to a nearby building. A child’s wail came from the other side of the wall as smoke poured out the door.
My vision flashed red. One of the few Traditional virtues I treasured was the principle of honor. Only a coward causes harm to those who cannot defend themselves.
I shouted as I charged the men. They turned as I slammed into the first one, knocking him to the side. The second one deflected my swing and returned with one of his own. Something caught at my ankle, and I had to jump to one side while parrying the incoming strike.
A woman darted out of the building, two children in tow, and raced away before either men noticed. Good.
The second man raised his sword to swing again, but hesitated. A roar from the sky made his decision for him. He skittered back, grabbing his friend and pulling him behind the building.
Axen landed on the road. What do I do?
Fire or steam wouldn’t help matters here. She could easily pick out the attackers from the villagers, but right now, I was more concerned with the buildings and the possibility of others being trapped. We need to get these fires out.
She reared up and flapped her wings. The ensuing wind would have knocked me off my feet if I hadn’t been braced for it. Some of the flames near the road died down, but the rest were too strong.
The attackers scrambled to their feet as soon as the gust quieted and scattered, taking cover behind the buildings. The villagers took advantage of the reprieve to escape into the forest, dragging the young and the injured with them.
I looked around for signs of anyone left in the buildings. Can you tell if anyone’s trapped?
She snuffed. No meat things. Just fire.
We need water. Lots of water.
She leaped into the air and flew off.
The moment she vanished, a strange sort of howl came from behind me. I turned to find the stringy-haired man standing a couple of building lengths away, hands cupped around his mouth. A signal?
The attackers emerged from behind the buildings, their eyes on me.
Of course. They’d hesitated to engage me at first because they didn’t know where Axen was. Now that she was gone, the man signaled that all was clear.
I spun, looking for a clear route away, or at least to a more defensible position, but there was none. A solid ring of men closed in around me, moving with slow caution, a few keeping an eye on the sky above. The rest filled in gaps between burning buildings, blocking the way through. If anyone from Emsha tried to reach me, they’d have to fight their way through men or flames to do so.
I was alone.
It was simple logic, simple enough that even their thick skulls could muddle it out. If the girl is connected to the dragon, then kill the girl to get rid of the dragon. My left hand curled into a fist. The edges of the ring dug into my skin. I wasn’t going to let that happen.
A man lunged forward, testing. I knocked his sword aside and left a long gash on his arm before he withdrew. Movement behind me. I ducked under the strike as I pivoted, but he pulled back before I could lash out.
I could call Axen back. Maybe I should. But then who would deal with the fires? All of Emsha would be burned to the ground, and likely much of the forest along with it.
But I couldn’t risk these men killing me. It wasn’t just about me. It was about what would happen to Axen. I had to call her back.
One of the men suddenly screamed, not a scream of attack but of terror and pain. The others near him turned, but Jec was already sliding into the center of the circle, pressing his back against mine. He held a sword in each hand, one glowing bright with reflected flames. It took a second look before I realized that it wasn’t reflecting anything; he’d grabbed one of the partially formed swords from the forge, still glowing hot and steaming.
The attackers rustled a bit. A familiar, grating voice spoke. Jennik.
“We have no interest in you, old man. Walk away while you can.”
I shifted to see the leader, standing almost out of my range of view in the circle. He had the smug look of someone who’d gotten exactly what he wanted.
Jec leveled the swordbrand at Jennik. “You know us old folk. Don’t walk so well anymore. I’ll stay where I am.”
Jennik’s eyes narrowed. “So be it.”
It was the command his men had been waiting for. They charged as one.
I moved at the same time, lunging forward and to the right, toward the weaker fighters. If I could force a way through, I’d grab Jec and make a break for it.
As I’d hoped, my attackers were well trained in general thuggery, but not in coordinated attacks. They swung madly the instant they came in range, putting their comrades at just as much risk as myself. I blocked the first few strikes, dancing one way and another to avoid more, watching for my opportunity. One man had to duck to one side to avoid another’s wild strike. I took advantage of the distraction and knocked him off balance, sending his sword flying.
But his friends stepped into the space too quickly. Not enough room for me to get through. And I’d moved too far away from Jec, too close to the circle. A hand grabbed my hair and yanked my head backwards.
Then released with a shout of pain. I blocked a blow and glanced back to thank Jec, but it was Rik standing behind me, his sword joining mine in holding back the attackers.
The stringy-haired man leapt forward while my blade was locked with another man’s. I kicked him back, but not before getting a swift gash across my sword arm. I sucked in air and switched hands. I wouldn’t last as long with my left hand, but it was better than nothing.
I’m almost there. Axen sounded anxious to be back at my side.
I dodged backwards and found my back against Jec’s again, Rik at my side. Axen would be here soon. The men wouldn’t dare keep up the fight with the dragon towering over them. I just had to hold on a little longer.
“Get behind me!” Rik shouted, pushing my shoulder.
I blocked a strike that had nearly taken his arm off and tried not to let his foolishness distract me. Chivalry was noble and all, but we couldn’t afford to lose a single blade from this fight.
Just a little longer.
I deflected another strike and barely dodged to the side to avoid a kick aimed at my midsection. My leg ached at the sharp movement. Light flashed off a blade swinging at me, but Rik caught this one, knocking it aside and lashing out at the attacker.
A sense of familiarity washed over me. My older brother, his back to me, the two of us fighting together as one unit, protecting each other. It had been far too long since I’d fought with someone at my side.
I didn’t let my memories hinder my focus. I parried a blow and swished my wrist inward. Only the man’s hasty retreat saved him from more than a shallow cut across his chest. The smoke was thicker now, making it hard to breathe. I lifted my injured arm across my face, breathing through my sleeve as I dodged another strike.
The ground shook, announcing Axen’s arrival.
There was no time to think things through. Do it!
The attackers had paused in their onslaught, startled by the shaking ground, looking toward the threat. I grabbed Jec and Rik, yanking them to the ground with me moments before a flood of water blasted the circle to pieces. I clutched the men tightly, holding my breath until I thought my lungs would burst.
Scales grated rough against my skin, and Axen closed her hand around the three of us, lifting us free of the torrent as she shifted her aim to the buildings. Screams and hissing steam competed with the gushing roar of the water, but I hardly noticed as I coughed and sucked in clear air. Jec wheezed beside me, thumping a fist against his chest and panting. Rik gasped on my other side, coughing intermittently with muscles frozen in fear, his fingers clinging to the scales and his eyes fixed on the ground far below.
I released my grip on their arms, pausing to pat Rik’s arm. “It’s okay. You’re safe now.”
He didn’t answer, just trembled and clung.
Jec eyed the scene below. “Safer than they are, that’s for sure.”
I was impressed by how he seemed to be taking this all in stride. Somehow it didn’t surprise me that he would be so calm about sitting in the palm of a dragon several stories above the ground. I peered between Axen’s fingers to see what Jec referred to.
Jennik’s men floundered in the water, struggling to regain their footing in the heavy mud it left behind, scrambling to flee. Axen’s other hand helped a few with a well-placed flick, sending them flying into the forest back toward Krenish. The rest did their best to run before she could get to them, their only reprieve being the fact that she was mostly focused on extinguishing the fires.
The buildings were in sad shape, soggy and smoky and dripping, but most of the fires were gone now. Axen unleashed her spray on the remaining building, reducing the flames to black ash and smoke. She eyed the few unlucky men who hadn’t managed to regain enough ground to retreat. With a snort, she swished her mouth around and blasted a narrow stream of water at them, sending them tumbling in the correct direction. They came up spluttering and ran, never looking back.
I leaned against her finger, closing my eyes as I felt her amused chortle rumble between our minds. Nicely done.
Did you have any doubts?
I grinned. Never.
She lowered the three of us to the soggy ground. Rik immediately jumped off and scrambled several steps away before recovering his dignity. Jec paused to pat Axen’s thumb a couple times. “You get a nice view up there, raisa-dragon. Not that I’m keen to see it again anytime soon.” He climbed down off her palm. “But perhaps someday.”
I jumped down after him and surveyed the smoking ruins of the village. Most of the buildings were still fairly intact, thankfully, but others barely stayed upright. We’d have a lot of work to do to get it put back together. Go on. We’re okay now.
She snuffed, bent down to nudge me with her snout, and flew off.
Rik jumped backwards, stiff and on alert, staring after her with wide eyes before looking back to me. “I thought she was going to… I mean…”
He fumbled for words a moment before finishing lamely. “I thought she was going to eat us.”
Of course. I knew too well what her head nudge meant, but it must have been terrifyingly out of the ordinary for him to see a dragon’s head zooming in so close to him. I tried to think of the best way to describe it. “It was… a hug. That was her way of giving me a hug.”
He stared a moment longer before finally nodding in a way that suggested he still didn’t understand, but would rather feign understanding than get further explanation. Then he straightened, seeming to gather his composure. “Were you hurt?”
Always the proper Elf gentleman. “Not too badly. You?”
He looked down at his clothes, and I saw a few tears that hadn’t been there before, some lightly edged with red. “Just some scrapes.”
“Lucky for us those morons don’t know how to work together,” Jec grunted. “We might’ve actually been in trouble or something.”
I turned to him, but he waved a hand before I could speak. “I’m fine. Takes a bit more than deadly, overwhelming odds to slow this stubborn old fool down.”
I smiled a moment before realizing that we still were the only three standing inside the village. The others hadn’t returned yet. The three of us had managed to escape with only a few cuts and bruises, but what about the others?
“Which way would your people go to evacuate?” I asked.
Rik started toward the back end of the village. “Beyond the fields. They probably headed for the river. It’s the safest place to be in a fire.”
Jec and I fell in step behind him. We walked in silence for a while before it occurred to me that I should be speaking.
“Thank you. Both of you, for coming to my aid.” I paused. “How did you get past them?”
Jec shrugged. “I’m a slow mover. Old joints. I just made it outside my smithy when I saw your dragon flying off and all them Krenish boys moving in after you. Call me old fashioned, but it didn’t sit right, that many going after one. Figured I’d help the odds.”
I smiled again. “Thank you.” I looked to Rik and waited.
Jec was apparently waiting, too, because after a moment of silence, he nudged Rik. “Well?”
Rik cleared his throat and gave me a funny look. “I was looking for you, actually. I hadn’t seen you make it out of the village and wanted to make sure you were okay. You know, because you’re a guest of the village and all.” He cleared his throat. “It’s the honorable thing to do to make sure the guests are safe.”
“Mm-hmm,” Jec hummed, looking amused. “Honorable.”
I wanted to shove him and wasn’t entirely sure why.
Rik’s face reddened, but he continued. “I was on the other side of the inn when your dragon arrived. I took cover, but once she was gone, I heard them signaling and knew they were trying something. I had to fight my way through a couple to get to you, or I would’ve been there sooner.”
“It’s nothing to apologize for,” I said. “They went to great lengths to try to keep everyone else away from me. Thank you.”
He glanced back at me, but before he could speak, raised voices caught our attention. Shouting. Another fight? We glanced at each other and wordlessly hurried our pace, jogging the remaining distance.
The trees thinned, revealing that Rik was correct; the villagers were all there, at the river. Many women huddled at the sides of the group, clutching children close. Red-faced men shouted at each other in the middle. My eyes searched the banks, the trees, the surrounding area, but saw no signs of attackers. It wasn’t a fight with Krenish. The men of Emsha were fighting about something else.
A man whose name I couldn’t remember spotted us as we emerged from the trees. He jabbed a finger my direction. “There she is! You must act, Thone. She’s already destroyed our village. Get rid of her now before she gets us all killed!”
I came to a sharp stop, part of me shocked by the man’s words and part of me even more shocked that it wasn’t Erret speaking them. I spotted him standing just behind the speaker, though. He gave me a triumphant glance before looking away.
Thone raised his hands. I saw now that the men stood in two groups. Thone stood in the middle, ever the peacemaker. “Let’s calm down and discuss this—”
“No!” another man on Erret’s side thundered. “We knew she was a threat from the beginning. We should have just handed her over to Jennik and been done. We never had this sort of trouble before she came along.”
“Never?” Tarvia spoke softly from just behind her husband.
The man scowled. “They never torched our village to the ground before tonight, did they?”
“Some may have believed Jennik wouldn’t dare attack us with the dragon nearby, but obviously it isn’t true,” the first man continued. “We must hand them over and make restitution before they do even worse.”
“There’s no need for that,” a younger man said from the opposing side, my side, I assumed. “All she has to do is send that dragon to Krenish, and we’ll never have anything to fear from them again.”
The statement left a foul taste in my mouth, and I found myself shaking my head. No matter how great the temptation, no matter how grave the situation, I would never use Axen for massive, unbridled slaughter like that.
“And she refuses,” the first man spat. “She could save us, but is unwilling to do so. We must protect ourselves. Take her!”
A few actually stepped forward as if to do so. Rik and Jec moved in front of me, their weapons ready.
“Hold,” Thone thundered. “You will not act without the agreement of the village.” Thankfully, it was enough to stop them, though they glared at me with venomous hatred.
“Thone is wise,” Erret said, his voice quiet but strong. His calmness chilled me more than his rage. “We must come to the rational, intelligent decision here. We all know why he would hesitate to take any action against the woman. But I fear that these attacks from Krenish will only get worse as we continue to shelter her. We permitted the unnatural and abhorrent to invade our village, and this is the punishment we get for our indiscretion.”
“Unnatural?” Magra snorted. She stood just beyond the men on my side. “Abhorrent? You only say that because you don’t understand the nature of her dragon or their bond.”
“One only has to look at what she holds to see how unnatural, how far outside the proper order she has fallen.” Erret’s quiet voice carried through the entire gathering.
I looked down at my hand and blushed as murmurs spread through the crowd. My sword. I didn’t even have a sheath to put it in, either, so all I could do was lower it to my side. It had been so instinctive to me to use it that I’d forgotten I wasn’t supposed to do such things in this village. Women are treasures. A woman who places herself in danger is one who has rejected her own value and defies her true nature. That was what I saw reflected in the eyes looking at me.
Erret’s expression turned almost smug before he put on a pitying face and turned back to the others. “We have done our duty to this stranger. We have taken her in and cared for her. But she has only brought devastation upon our heads in return. We must not let emotions and sentiment cloud our judgment.”
I exhaled slowly. I couldn’t let myself be handed over to Krenish to die. I hated the thought of abandoning Emsha to whatever vengeance Krenish would unleash—and I had no delusions that the damage they’d done today would be enough to satisfy their bloodlust—but it looked like I might not have a choice. Many eyes glared at me with fury and blame. Others looked away in regret. Erret had won them over.
“I’m not of much importance,” a woman said softly from where she sat at the outskirts of the group, clutching two children close to her. I recognized her immediately as the woman who’d fled the burning building while I occupied her attackers. “So perhaps my words won’t carry much weight.”
Thone moved forward and helped her to her feet. “Speak, raisa. You are just as important as anyone else here.”
She hesitated with all the eyes on her, but plunged forward. “I don’t know much about natural or unnatural. But my children and I would be dead if it wasn’t for her. She bravely faced two men to spare us the chance to escape.”
“She saved me, too,” another woman chimed in. “I was being chased by one of Jennik’s men. If he’d caught me…” She shuddered.
A few murmurs spread.
“I am sure she intends well,” Erret said quickly. “I do not believe she means to bring such troubles upon us. But we must look at the outcome as a whole. We have lost our entire village because of her.”
“No, we haven’t,” Rik spoke up.
Erret looked like he wanted to snort, but managed to hold it back. I would have been impressed by how well he was maintaining the façade of peacemaker and caring citizen if it didn’t aggravate me to see how everyone was falling for it.
Instead, he shook his head. “It’s a sweet sentiment to note that we all escaped alive and thus can continue on as a village, but we may never recover from this. We cannot rebuild an entire village from the ground up while dealing with attacks from Krenish and continuing to support our people.”
“I mean, the village isn’t gone,” Rik corrected. “It wasn’t destroyed.”
All eyes fixed on him.
He shifted his weight. “The dragon returned with water and put out the fires. Most of the buildings survived. I saw one, maybe two that will need replaced entirely, but the rest only need repairs. The village isn’t gone.” He paused. “Muddy and damaged, but not gone.”
The first man spoke again. “But this doesn’t change the fact that she brought this on us. Erret is right. She is unnatural. She must go.”
“And what’s so unnatural?” Jec said.
Everyone fell quiet at the rumbling voice of the elder.
“It seems to me that the Maker has given each of us a natural instinct to avoid harm, to protect ourselves. What is it to you if this is how the Maker’s natural gift manifests itself in her?”
I tried not to let my jaw drop too far. It was one thing for Jec to make a comment in support of my swordplay in front of Rik in the privacy of the smithy. It was something else entirely for him to publicly declare his support in front of the entire village. I wanted throw my arms around him and kiss that wrinkled, soot-darkened cheek.
He wasn’t finished. “I, for one, am glad she is capable of defending herself. Those men came with the intent of killing her. If she couldn’t handle a sword, she might be dead now. Would any of you declare this a good thing, for a woman created in the image of the Maker to be struck down by those cowards?” No response, just a lot of uncomfortable shifting and glances downward.
“And even if you aren’t so compassionate, then perhaps you can still recognize the importance of her survival for purely selfish reasons.” Jec folded his arms. “If she’d died, would the dragon have returned to extinguish the flames and drive off our attackers?”
I noticed a few red faces on Erret’s side. Embarrassed to be told off by a village elder? Angry at the insinuation that they would only care about a lady’s safety for selfish reasons? Maybe a little of both. I kept my mouth shut, sending silent thoughts of gratitude in Jec’s direction.
No one spoke for a long moment. Finally, Erret cleared his throat. “With your gracious pardon, tabe-da. I’m afraid the larger point is being missed. We have lived for decades without any attack or severe trouble from Krenish. But now, in just a short span of time, our village has been marched upon, one of our children has endured a kidnapping, and our village has come under severe assault, resulting in injuries and damaged buildings. It will take us months to recover, with all the lumber that must be gathered while we maintain vigilance to watch for further attacks.”
He gained momentum. “And it is all because of this woman. It was because of her choice to humiliate Jennik, rather than allowing us to address him diplomatically, that our child was taken and our village was attacked. It was because of her refusal to accept her place in society which created this new hostility. And it was her actions that turned their ire on us in the first place. She was the one who insisted in taking part in a hunt. She was the one who shot the rekin. She brought this on us. If she had simply left the village and allowed us to deal with Krenish, as we’ve always done, none of this would have escalated to this point. None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for her!”
Rik laughed. “Is this a joke?”
Erret stared at him, startled.
“You and I were planning on hunting that morning anyway. We’d have gone to the same place and shot the same rekin and brought down the same wrath from Krenish. You know full well this isn’t about her. This is about Krenish and their insistence on fully dominating us, grinding us under their heels and doing whatever they please at our expense—including changing the rules of our peace on a whim. You and I both know we weren’t in their hunting territory when we found that rekin. You can’t pin the blame for that on her.
“As for the rest, you’re right. We could have just knelt down, put our heads on the chopping block, and let Jennik enact whatever violence he desired upon us. Perhaps after he killed a few innocent people, his bloodlust would have been satisfied and things would have gone back to the way they’ve been. But is that what we truly want?” He addressed the whole group now. “For the first time in decades, we have a chance for defense against their cruelty. And what’s better? To die for no reason because they have an insatiable bloodlust and drive to kill the innocent? Or to die while taking a stand for ourselves?”
Several men quietly stepped back away from Erret’s group. The ones that remained kept their eyes on the ground.
“What do you say, Alita?” Thone asked.
The question caught me off-guard. I hadn’t expected to be given a voice in this meeting. Jec and Rik took small steps to the side, remaining close but leaving space for me to speak.
It took a moment to decide my wording. “It was never my intent to stir trouble between you and Krenish. And while I agree that they are wrong in their claims to have been slighted, I still feel some responsibility for their renewed hostility toward you. As such, I wish to stay, to lend Axen’s strength to your defense.” I briefly met Thone’s eyes. “And I hope to help find some agreement or settlement of peace between you and them before I leave. But I respect your leaders. If you wish me gone, I will leave.”
“I want her to stay,” Fasha declared loudly, the child’s voice carrying through the silence that followed. “And I like the raisa-dragon.”
A few people chuckled, more out of release of tension than out of actual humor.
Thone exhaled slowly. “We have much to consider. It would be foolish to make any rash decisions at this point. Let’s return to the village and assess the damage. We will make our decision once we’ve had a chance to think it through.”
Erret was the only one who looked truly displeased with Thone’s choice to delay the decision. He wisely kept his mouth shut, though, and trudged after the others back toward the village.
Rik and Jec stayed close to me, surreptitiously watching the group that had taken Erret’s side. It seemed that none of them were interested in causing trouble, mostly walking in subdued silence. A few quietly murmured, but it was difficult to tell their tone or mood.
Magra joined my side as we walked back to the village. “I’m beginning to give up on the idea that you will ever slow down or take things easy.”
A sharp pain jabbed upward from my leg, reminding me of the still-healing injury. I’d gone and set Magra’s work back yet again. “I would be happy to take things easy. It’s hard to do when one’s lodging catches fire.”
She shook her head. “At least you’re still walking, by some miracle.”
We reached the village near the end of the group. People waded through ankle-deep mud and puddles to cluster around the buildings that had gotten the worst of the fires, some wailing over the damage and others discussing strategy for repair. Several men were pushing at the support poles of the gathering shelter in the center. Between the damage from the fire and the powerful blasts of water, it now leaned heavily to the south, the timbers creaking and threatening to give up entirely.
Erret cast a dark look in my direction. “It will take weeks just to collect the necessary wood, much longer to make the repairs. I suppose the people of Krenish will be honorable and leave us alone as our focus and energy is diverted to this work?”
“We’ll do what we must,” Thone said, rolling his sleeves up.
Axen landed in the road with a ground-shaking thud.
Many villagers gasped and jumped, while others turned with curious eyes. Her head remained low, out of sight on the other side of the buildings, then she leapt into the air and disappeared into the sky.
What are you up to?
She hid her mind from me with a childish giggle. Whatever she was doing, it was as much a surprise for me as for the villagers. I sloshed through the mud between the smithy and the inn, then stopped with a smile at the massive tree in the road.
“What is this?” Erret demanded.
“She’s helping.” I waved toward the damaged buildings. “She knew we would need lumber to make the repairs.” Even better, she’d managed to find old, fallen timber. Old enough to be seasoned and ready for use, not so old that it had rotted. Perfect for our needs.
Impressed whispers flew through the villagers.
A gust of wind preceded Axen’s return, and we stepped back as she landed and deposited a second tree beside the first one. She snuffed with pleasure before leaping into the air again.
Thone eyed the trees, then turned to me. “Thank you.”
“It was her idea, actually.” Nicely done, Axen. I felt her giggle again.
Erret still looked sour, his bushy brows hunched downward, but he was the only one showing any displeasure anymore. “We’ll still have to strip off the branches and cut it down to planks. And many of our tools were damaged in the fire.”
“I’m sure we’ll find a way to manage,” Thone said. “Jec?”
Jec nodded. “Most of my tools survived. I’ll have more soon.”
Axen deposited a third tree. More?
Yes, but try something else first. I sent a mental image to her and hoped she understood well enough.
She tilted her head, then slashed at the first tree, raking her claws along the entire length. The tearing, snapping sounds were loud enough to drive the watching crowd to flinch back and cover their ears, children pressing their faces into their mothers’ sides. Branches fell off either side of the trunk.
She repeated the gesture three more times, drawing her fingers closer together with each pass. Instead of a tree, there was a mess of branches, leaves, and seven tree-length planks. Not a perfectly even cut, and perhaps a bit thicker than they might have been if sawed by hand, but more than sturdy enough to do what was needed.
When she stopped, a few men moved forward to inspect her work. They talked amongst themselves for a moment before turning back with nods, though they looked surprised to be approving her work.
I did good?
You did great. I glanced at the smiles around me and had another idea. One more thing.
She leaned over the smithy, planted a claw on the top of the center shelter, and gently tugged at it until it creaked back into its original upright position.
I grabbed one of the larger discarded branches and headed for the structure to brace it.
“Come on,” Jec called as I wedged the branch in place. “Let’s get it secured. Unless you want to leave it up to a dragon and a lady?”
Men immediately rushed to gather more branches and join me. Once it was fully braced, Axen let go. The support beams groaned a little, but held.
I glanced around and saw nothing but grins and nods of approval. Jec shot a wink in my direction. Erret was conspicuously occupied with something else.
We worked long into the night. Axen brought more trees and split them into planks. Some men cut the planks down to shorter lengths while others worked on repairing and rebuilding. Some of the younger women helped carry planks or hammer nails, while others carried tools, brought refreshments to the workers, or cleaned the damaged objects from inside the buildings. Even the children helped, gathering leafy branches too thin for use and scattering them over the mud until they grew too sleepy to continue helping and were shooed to bed by their mothers.
I did the best I could not to make any waves. Once the center shelter was braced, I found the pack I’d left on the ground outside my window, now quite soggy. I stashed my sword in the hidden compartment and tossed it all back through the broken window. Then I joined other women, helping carry planks. I found myself near Thone and picked up a hammer to work on securing a new wall beside him. “I’m sorry this came to your village.”
“I don’t think anyone blames you for this.” He glanced over his shoulder toward where Erret was helping rebuild the damaged support in the center structure. “Not anymore, anyway.”
“I’m glad.” I took a moment to pound in another nail, thinking through my next words carefully. “I’m concerned this won’t be the end of it. I can have Axen stay closer, but Jennik will only escalate matters from here. I don’t want to see anyone hurt.”
“They will do what they think is best, no matter how wrong they might be. It’s how things have always been.”
I pushed as gently as I could manage. “I can’t stay here forever. Perhaps in the morning, you and I could go to meet with Jennik and see if some peaceful arrangement can be reached?”
He sighed. “I already told you, there is no reasoning with that man.”
“He may find himself more reasonable with a dragon looking over his shoulder.”
“Thank you for your efforts, raisa, but it simply won’t work.”
Frustration chomped at my tone. “You won’t even attempt to speak with Jennik and find a way to resolve things with him?”
“Why, of course he will.” Tarvia’s voice came from behind us, sounding scandalized and indignant all at once.
We turned to find her standing with a tray of steaming mugs in one hand, the other hand planted squarely on her hip. Her gaze fixed on her husband. “How wonderful that Alita is willing to help broker some sort of peace between you and Jennik. And if there is even the smallest chance, the slimmest hope that some agreement might be reached, then of course you will pursue that hope, as the wise village leader that you are. Won’t you?”
He shifted his weight uncomfortably. “I…”
“After all, there’s no possible way talking could make matters worse than they already are. And I’m sure that Axen will provide reasonable incentive for Jennik to agree to some sort of treaty. Don’t you think?”
I turned my attention back to my work, not wanting to embarrass Thone by watching him squirm.
“Right,” he finally said. “Of course.”
“Good.” Tarvia sounded pleased with herself. As she should. “Then you’ll leave once you’ve both had a chance to rest, refresh yourselves, and eat.” She shooed us toward the inn. “Go on and sleep. We’ll finish what we can and resume work in the morning. You two worry about bringing an end to this senseless violence.”
I retreated to my relatively unscathed room without another word. It was easy for outsiders to look at Traditional Elf society and feel it oppressed women, but anyone who was familiar with its inner workings knew that it was largely the women, not the men, who wielded the true power. Not that anyone within the society, male or female, would ever admit to such a thing. I had never been more grateful for that fact than now.
Morning came fast with a thump at my door. “Raisa? When you are ready, we will go visit Krenish and see if Jennik is willing to talk.”
Thone. The hint of reluctance hiding under his tone suggested that Tarvia had awakened him and set him on today’s task. “I’ll be out shortly,” I called.
I stretched and sat up, feeling the strain through my entire body. Yesterday’s activity had been a bit much, especially with my still-healing leg. But I didn’t seem too much worse for the wear. Or so I thought until I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the room’s glass. I cringed at the myriad soot streaks and the frizzy mass of hair staring back at me. If I was going to broker peace, I needed to reach a minimum level of presentability.
My thoughts rumbled about today’s task as I worked on cleaning myself up, re-braiding my hair, and changing into my slightly more formal, cleaner attire stashed in the bottom of my pack for the rare occasions I needed to look nice. Broker peace. It sounded so simple in those words, but how was I supposed to accomplish this? I knew how to adapt to my environment well enough to get through trade deals, but I’d never been the best with diplomacy. I didn’t even know where to begin.
Where you always begin anytime you go to a new place, I told myself as I wiped the last of the mud off my boots. Get people talking. Listen. Someone will eventually say something useful.
I just had to hope that the same remained true here.
I lingered in the room a moment longer, debating the merits of bringing my sword, but decided against it. It would look strange to carry my pack, and I had nowhere else to hide the blade. Thone would be with me, and I’d make sure Axen stayed close. I’d be fine.
I stepped out into the main room and discovered the space full of villagers sharing breakfast. Probably the people whose homes had been damaged too much for them to try to cook today. I walked toward an empty spot, but slowed as I became acutely aware of how many eyes stared openly at me. I glanced down, briefly afraid I’d forgotten my leggings or committed some other significant breach of etiquette.
“She looks pretty.” Fasha stared at me in wonder. “Like a girl.”
“Of course she does,” Tarvia said quickly, bustling over to usher to me to a seat. “You look lovely, my dear. Have some breakfast, and then you and Thone can set out for Krenish.”
Her calm acceptance of my appearance broke the spell for most of the diners, and they returned their attention to their food, but others continued to stare a moment longer. I did my best to ignore them as I started on my own meal. Their reaction was ridiculous, nonsensical. It was like they’d never seen a woman with a clean face before.
In fairness, I realized, they’d never seen me looking nice before. I never bothered much with my appearance. I’d arrived travel-worn, and I hadn’t done much to improve that look the following morning, assuming I’d be making a couple of quick trades and then moving on. And since then, I hadn’t given my looks a single thought with all the craziness going on. Still, I must have been a true fright for them to stare at me like that.
I finished my food quickly and handed off the dishes to Luka before meeting Thone near the door. “Ready?”
He looked like he’d rather be doing anything else in the world, but he simply nodded and held the door for me. I stepped out, but let Thone take the lead on the road. The deeper I kept my mind in the Traditional ways, the more smoothly things would go.
Rik jogged up to Thone. “Are you leaving? We still need…” His voice trailed off, his eyes on me. “Wow.” He blinked. “I mean, you look very nice today, raisa.”
Exasperation boiled upwards, but I swallowed it back. “Thank you.” If only Tarvia was there to holler at us to get moving.
“We’ll be back before long,” Thone promised Rik. “Help keep the workers focused.”
“Yes, tabe-ro,” Rik nodded sharply, almost like a salute. He glanced at me again before heading back toward the village.
Thone resumed walking with a sigh. “It’ll take some time to reach Krenish. Are you certain you feel up to it?”
Looking for an excuse to delay. I hid a smile. “I’m a bit stiff, but walking will do me good.”
He glanced back at the village. “As the leader, I should be helping with the work. This will keep me away too long. I fear my wife doesn’t entirely understand such things.”
She understands too well, I wanted to say, that you just don’t want to do this. Instead, I nodded sagely. “I understand, tabe-ro. Perhaps it would be better if we could get there sooner?”
He paused. “We have no riding sentinals here.”
The long-legged mounts certainly would cut down our travel time significantly, but that wasn’t what I’d been asking. “No, but we do have a flying dragon. She could get us there in minutes, if you would be comfortable riding on her.”
He blinked and stared. “You would allow me to ride her with you?”
Was I imagining things, or was there a note of eagerness in his voice?
He abruptly cleared his throat. “I mean, I’m not certain how proper that would be. Perhaps it would be best if we simply walk.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but a strange rumble caught my attention. The ground shuddered beneath my feet, almost like if Axen was landing behind us, but I knew she was far off in the forest indulging in a hearty breakfast. I spun, my heart in my throat, ready to face a strange dragon, but there was nothing. Nothing but continued rumbles. I kept my weight low as the ground shook and trembled. I’d been in earthquakes before. I knew how to respond.
So why was my heart still in my throat? All I could hear was my heartbeat—my own this time, I knew that for sure. Terror constricted around my chest, making it hard to breathe. One thought dominated my mind, forcing out any chance for calm and reason.
This wasn’t an earthquake.
Cold swept through my system. I knew this feeling. I’d had it before. When? I couldn’t remember.
I’m coming. Axen sounded as frightened as I felt.
“Raisa? Are you all right?” Thone’s voice interrupted my thoughts.
I blinked and realized that the rumbling had stopped. I quickly straightened and brushed myself off, embarrassed at my reaction. “I apologize. I was… startled.” It sounded lame even to my own ears, but he accepted it graciously enough.
He turned back to the road. “Perhaps we should wait and make sure the ground has done all it intends to do. Tomorrow might be safer.”
Still ragged from the panic that had gripped me moments before, I lost my grip on social niceties. “It is better not to delay. If you wish to walk to Krenish, do so. I’ve no desire to take all day at this, so I will fly on Axen and meet you there.” My feet itched with a desire to get off the ground, away from the memory of the foreign-yet-familiar rumbling.
Axen landed with a thump behind me, sending another tremor up my legs, but this one was comforting. I had to exercise restraint to keep myself from running and throwing myself on her.
Thone hesitated, then shifted his weight uncomfortably. “Well, I suppose if you have made up your mind to fly there, then there’s nothing I can say about it.”
That’s right, there isn’t, I thought, but somehow managed to keep from saying it out loud. I strode to Axen’s side and reached toward her horns, tilted just within my reach.
“But I suppose that if you do intend to fly, then there’s no reason I should slow matters by walking.” Thone hurried to my side. “If you feel it’s appropriate.”
I felt myself relaxing. “I do.” Put your head down. We’re going to climb your neck scales.
She snorted as she lowered her head to the ground. Why can’t he climb on the normal way?
I’m not interested in giving him a lesson on swinging from horns. I want out of here.
I felt my own desire reflected inside of her, but also the same puzzlement. Neither of us could quite place why the rumbling was so familiar or so alarming.
As I climbed into place and directed Thone behind me, I resolved to put it out of my mind. There was nothing I could do about it. The best thing was to focus on the task at hand. Get to Krenish. Figure out a way to get two stubborn men to agree to peace. The sooner that was accomplished, the sooner I could leave.
Thone had barely settled into position, gingerly gripping a scale ridge, when Axen launched herself toward the sky. The man let out a yelp and clung to her neck tighter than a frightened tree-snit.
I barely noticed, instead feeling an immediate sense of safety and freedom as the wind tore free across me. It felt so good that I didn’t correct Axen when she chose to circle above Krenish a couple of times before landing in an empty field just to the side of the settlement. The circling probably set more of a threatening tone than we wanted, but I was too eager to stay in the air for as long as possible to care.
Axen rested her head on the ground and waited patiently for us to climb off. I turned to see if Thone needed a hand prying his frightened grip loose.
His eyes shone with exhilaration, a few patches of hair sticking straight up from the wind he’d caught behind me. “That was…” He cleared his throat, seeming to regain some of the culturally dictated dignity he was supposed to exude as a leader. “That was certainly different.”
I grinned, feeling more endeared to him than ever. “Pardon me for saying, tabe-ro, but you may wish to smooth your hair down before we meet with Jennik.”
He fixed his hair and climbed down. His legs wobbled slightly on the ground, but he regained his stability and walked closer to the city’s edge. I followed behind him.
The place looked empty, but then I saw eyes peering out through windows. Our approach had likely frightened the people into taking shelter. I briefly regretted allowing Axen that freedom.
Jennik cracked a door in a larger building nearby and first glared at us, then at Axen.
Thone came to a stop. “We’ve come to talk.”
Jennik glared a moment longer, then cautiously stepped out from his shelter. “Talk, huh? I doubt that. Come to get a little revenge for last night, more like. Go ahead and let the dragon do its worst. We’ll unleash double back on your pathetic little village.”
“We’re not here to attack you,” Thone said, keeping his voice steady.
A handful more men emerged from buildings, clustering behind their leader. More joined in, apparently emboldened when Axen didn’t toast them all on the spot.
Jennik snorted. “You come with that beast and no intentions of attack, is that what you want us to believe?”
“The dragon is only here to make certain no harm comes to me as we talk,” Thone said. Smooth. “But I have no intention of hurting any of you. I only wish to find a way to resolve our problems.”
“I’m sure.” Jennik spat at Thone’s feet. “Then get back on your dragon and get out of here. We have no interest in talking.”
Thone glanced back at me. He didn’t say anything, but his face said it all for him: see? I told you they wouldn’t listen.
I was no diplomat, no question there. But that didn’t matter. Diplomacy and tact weren’t going to be much good here right now. Jennik and his men were defensive, and we wouldn’t get anywhere unless they moved past that. I dipped my head in a slight bow of deference to Thone. “I beg your indulgent pardon, tabe-ro. I’m afraid I must step outside my place.”
He gave me a questioning look, but I’d already turned to Jennik. Any trace of deference and manners were gone now. They wouldn’t help. I had to speak his language. “You don’t seem to understand. If I wished, your entire village would be gone in less than a full minute.”
Jennik gaped, then his ears turned red as he shot me a furious glare. “Are you threatening me, female?”
“Hardly. I’m informing you of your fairly precarious position.” I gestured toward Axen. “She would swoop down over your village and strike the buildings as she passed, collapsing the structures and trapping your people inside. Then she would make a second pass, unleashing her flames and torching every building to cinders. And don’t worry about anyone who wasn’t trapped inside the rubble. She has keen senses unlike any we possess. She can track every enemy down by their scent, no matter how far they run, no matter where they hide. She will find you.” I took a moment to look over the whole group, making eye contact with as many as I could. “Every. Last. One.”
Axen let out a snort of steam toward the air.
The men jumped back, looking decidedly more pale than they had a moment before. Even Jennik looked like he had just swallowed a berry only to learn it was poisonous. He cleared his throat, still feeling a need for bravado. “If you so much as try it…”
“You’ll do what?” I let my laugh ring out loudly before leaning closer to him, meeting his eyes without blinking. “You tried to kill me, and my guardian is fully aware of this. What chances do you think you have of making it out alive if I unleash her on your city?”
His mouth moved a couple of times, but no sound came out. A war raged across his face between the outrage of being spoken to in such a manner and the knowledge that every word I’d said was true. For the first time in ages, he was facing a superior force and was helpless to defend himself against it.
Good. Now it was time to move forward. “It’s true that I could have you all destroyed before you could do any further harm to Emsha. It certainly would be an easier way to address the problem here. But I have no interest in doing so. Nor does Thone. He came here because he has no desire to see you or your people come to harm, even though you have made it clear you do not hold the same respect for him and his people. He would rather come to some peaceful agreement with you than simply destroy you all.”
Jennik’s lips twisted darkly. He glared at Thone. “I see how it is. Now we have to lie down and give you everything, or else you kill us all. You think you can just push us around now that you’ve got a pet dragon at your beck and call.”
“She is not a pet,” I snapped, then caught myself. That wasn’t the most important misconception to correct right now. “And she is not at anyone’s beck and call. In fact, neither she nor I will have any part in this discussion. This problem is between you and Thone, so it is the two of you who will need to find resolution. As Thone said, the dragon and I are merely here to make sure you don’t take advantage of the situation and try to kill him when he has come to you in peace.”
“Right,” Jennik sneered.
“It’s true,” Thone said. His voice sounded stronger now, bolder. “For decades, you and your people have exploited and even killed our people without reason. But even after all that, I’m not interested in bringing harm to you or your people.”
His eyes rested on the road back toward Emsha for a moment. When he turned back, a new glint of resolution shone in his eyes. “My people will not accept this treatment any longer, dragon or no dragon. The dragon could leave today, you could rush to our village and start your slaughter, but we will not lie down and accept your domination any further. We will fight until there’s no one left for you to claim your tributes from any longer. But I would prefer that we come to some agreement for peace here today. A treaty that you cannot change the terms of on a whim. A treaty that will benefit both your people and ours.”
Jennik’s eyes narrowed. He seemed to be trying to gauge if Thone was bluffing.
I was glad I wasn’t expected to speak, because I was too stunned to do so.
Axen’s shocked thoughts flew through my mind. What did he just say?
She couldn’t precisely understand everything around me, but she understood the meaning and intent well enough. She was just as startled as I was at Thone’s willingness to stand up to the bullies. Rik’s speech last night must have inspired him. And perhaps a bit of my own counter-cultural boldness had helped, as well.
Jennik’s jaw muscles worked a moment longer, then he jerked his head to the side. “Let’s talk.”
The two leaders walked several paces away to speak out of earshot of both myself and Jennik’s men. The men glared at me briefly, but kept a careful distance, mindful of Axen’s watching eye.
Their hostility didn’t bother me. I watched with a renewed sense of hope as the two leaders begin stiff negotiations. It had been a long shot, the longest I’d ever pursued. But it looked like it just might work. With any hope, I’d be on the road and back to my travels, to the proper order of my life, by evening.
The ground rumbled.
I froze, the same incapacitating terror flooding back into my system as the packed dirt trembled beneath me. Axen’s own fear lanced through my mind, pinning me further in place.
The men crouched slightly to ride out the shakes, grumbling about another earthquake so soon.
I wanted to scream it. This isn’t an earthquake! This is something much worse. Something terrible. Something deadly.
Even if I could have forced my locked vocal chords to produce sound, I couldn’t say such things. I knew it wasn’t an earthquake, but I didn’t know what it was. I had no explanation or answers. Only fear.
The shaking turned into a violent rolling, rattling motion. My leg gave out, and I landed hard on the ground.
The men shouted in alarm and drew away from the violently swaying buildings. People spilled out of the structures and fled toward the road, the one open area safe from the rattling buildings and trees all around. Jennik raced after his people, swearing loudly.
Thone staggered across the swaying ground. “We have to get back to Emsha!”
My body wouldn’t move, wouldn’t respond. The ground moved beneath me as if it wanted to swallow me whole. I couldn’t breathe.
“Raisa!” Thone’s voice barely made it through the terror clogging my brain. He caught my arm and pulled me to my feet. “We have to go. Hurry!”
Axen dipped her head toward me, her eyes wide and darting.
I grabbed her horn and almost forgot about Thone, barely grabbing his arm in time to pull him up behind me as Axen flicked her head upward, depositing both of us on the back of her neck.
Thone yelled in surprise and clutched at her scale ridges. The shout was torn away from him as we took to the air.
I clung to Axen’s neck, unable to take my eyes off the violently shaking trees below. This was wrong. Too wrong.
Then Emsha was below us. People rushed around, shouting and helping pull each other along the rolling ground, seeking the safety of the open field behind the village or the road in front.
Axen landed and lowered her neck to the ground.
Thone jumped down and started shouting directions, but I didn’t hear them. Axen leaped into the air, and we left the shaking village far behind us.
When the fear finally subsided and my thoughts cleared, I found myself in darkness, lying on Axen’s head, my fingers absently stroking the soft edge of her ear. A soothing purr thrummed deep in her throat.
Memories trickled through my mind. We’d rested like this many times when I was only a child, her thrum calming me and my fingers calming her. I breathed slowly in and out, trying to make some sense of what had happened. Guilt flicked through my mind for the way I’d run away instead of helping, but I knew I wouldn’t have been any help had I stayed put. I’d frozen. Why?
Looking back on it now, the earthquakes didn’t seem so scary. I’d been in worse before. What had been so different about this one?
I lightly squeezed the edge of Axen’s ear. Did you recognize the shaking?
A shudder passed through her body, interrupting the thrum. Yes.
What was it?
I don’t know.
I exhaled slowly. I know it from somewhere else, but I can’t remember where or what it was.
I felt her agreement in my mind. She also recognized it, but couldn’t remember what it was. I searched my memory, scrolling back the years. Coldness gripped me as I descended into my childhood, colder and colder until I gave up and clung to Axen’s scales.
She shivered beneath me.
I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, twisting the ring around my finger a few times until I’d recaptured my calm. We’ll have to keep trying to think of what it was. But for now, we should go back and see if we can help Emsha.
She shivered again.
Hopefully it will be over by now, I added. If the ground was still shaking when we got back, I wasn’t sure I would be able to convince either of us that landing and helping would be a good idea.
It better be. She reluctantly stood and shuffled out of the cave.
We were halfway up one of the mountains not too far from Emsha. I could see the valley stretching below with no signs of the thrashing quake. It looked like it was over.
Axen launched into the air, and before long, we landed on the road beside Emsha.
Don’t go too far.
I could feel the resolution in her promise, and it comforted me as I slid down to the ground. I patted her hand before she took off.
The village was bustling with activity as people worked to assess the damage to the buildings. It didn’t look like the structures had been harmed too badly by the shaking, though the center structure was back to leaning again. It might have to be rebuilt entirely. Good thing there was still plenty of lumber on hand from last night’s work.
There was some comfort in letting the terrifying experience melt into memory and focusing instead on the task at hand. I walked into the village, looking for Thone and eying the buildings as I went. A couple homes with unrepaired fire damage sagged more than before, but that seemed to be the worst of it. Mostly I just heard a lot of excited chatter about the ‘earthquake,’ how it was the worst one some had ever seen, how the older village members remembered a worse one some time back but couldn’t quite agree on how many years it had been since.
“There you are.” Rik fell into step beside me. “Are you all right? You left so abruptly, I was concerned.”
I felt my cheeks warm. “I’m fine. Have you seen Thone?”
“Sure, this way.” Rik angled toward the back of the village. “I suppose that if I had a way to get away from that quake as quickly as flying, I’d want to take it.”
The blush grew, joined by a flush of indignation. I wasn’t some coward to run away in the face of danger.
And yet, that’s exactly what I’d done.
He glanced at me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that in a bad way. I’m glad you were somewhere safe. I was just musing, perhaps if something like that happens again, we could put the other women and children on Axen to get to safety, too.”
Of course. He didn’t mean to imply I was a coward. He was just being the quintessential Traditional Elf man. Get the treasures to safety and then deal with the problem.
“But I’m glad you were safe. I was worried. I mean, I wanted to be sure you were, well, safe.” He trailed off lamely.
“Thank you.” I spotted Thone ahead, helping secure angled beam to add extra support for a wilting house. “I see him. Thank you for your help.” I quickened my pace toward the village leader, leaving Rik behind.
Thone glanced my way as I approached. “You left in a hurry. Is something wrong?”
My cheeks burned anew. I wasn’t sure how to answer his question. How could I explain the soul-numbing terror I felt over a little rattle in the ground?
“No,” I lied. “I apologize for leaving you so abruptly, tabe-ro. I hope no one was hurt?”
“Thankfully, no injuries.” He surveyed the buildings around him. “But those earthquakes didn’t help our repair efforts.”
“I understand. I’m glad no one was hurt.” I moved on, knowing I was rushing matters but not caring. “Now that the…” I couldn’t bring myself to call it an earthquake. “Now that things are calmer, perhaps we can return to Krenish?” More than ever now, I wanted to finish this and be on my way.
He shook his head. “Later. After we know there won’t be any further earthquakes. It won’t do us any good to get there and have our negotiations disrupted by another quake. Besides, I’m needed here, helping repair these buildings. Some of them might not last through another shaking unless we reinforce them now.”
That was that. My feet promptly demanded that I turn and march to the road, get scooped up by Axen, and disappear beyond the horizon, never to return. Most of my mind and body agreed with that plan.
But I’d always been stubborn. I couldn’t just let this go and leave Emsha helpless. Something inside of me trembled at the thought of staying put. I silenced it and marched over to the table set up outside of Jec’s smithy, grabbed a hammer, and joined in with the workers.
Hours passed on razor’s edge, with me jumping at any tiny rattle around me, before my nerves began to settle. The shaking hadn’t returned. Maybe it, whatever it was, truly was over. As I grew calmer, I mulled things over in my mind. I’d faced down charging beasts, highwaymen, terrible storms of all types, all with only the smallest twinges of fear that were easily ignored and set aside for the sake of what needed to be done. For that matter, it wasn’t that long ago I’d faced down Jennik and his men, alone and unarmed, with no fear except that they would hurt Fasha before I could get her to safety.
So why did a little rumble in the ground turn me into a useless, helpless mess of terror?
No matter how much I turned the matter over in my mind, I couldn’t find the answer. When I pounded in a nail hard enough to leave a deep indentation in the wood, I realized that the lack of answers was getting the better of me.
It must have been something from my childhood. Some deep-seated phobia that I’d forgotten. In which case, it wasn’t worth dwelling on. I’d just have to be strong enough to ride out the fear next time.
If there was a next time. I wiped my brow and looked at the sun. It was near evening, and there hadn’t been the slightest trace of shaking since I’d returned. Whatever it had been must be gone now.
Something rumbled through me, a more familiar and less frightening sensation. Hunger. I felt it echoed from Axen.
Go hunt. I’m safe.
Are you sure?
In spite of her words, I could tell she felt much the same as I did. Nothing had happened for hours. Nothing was going to happen. It was okay.
I’m sure. Go eat. Find something crunchy.
A flash of delight and anticipation shot to me from her mind as she took to the air.
Rik tapped my shoulder. “May I have the honor of escorting you, raisa?”
I turned. The center structure had been restabilized in the time I’d been working on homes, and the tables beneath were covered with all manner of sumptuous foods. Most of the benches were already filled with villagers happily chatting. Nothing like the fulfilling sense of a day’s hard work followed with a feast to bring up spirits.
I’d been so distracted by my own puzzle, I hadn’t even noticed the feast being prepared or the people gathering. I set my hammer aside and accepted Rik’s waiting arm, letting old habits of tradition guide my steps. “I am honored that you would ask, tabe.”
He beamed and walked me to one of the empty spaces, helping me to my seat on the bench before dropping down beside me.
I followed the others’ lead in loading up my plate, but no one took a bite of the food yet, waiting for the rest of the workers to join the meal.
Once everyone was there, Thone stood up at the head of the gathering space. “We have accomplished much together. Jennik and his bullies may try to bring us down. Even the ground itself may turn against us. But we remain together. We rebuild. We refuse to allow such things to defeat us. And that makes us mighty.”
A rousing cheer rose from the crowd.
He raised his cup, gave thanks to the Maker for the village and the meal, and everyone dug in.
Rik chatted at me through the meal. Erret gave me the occasional stink eye from one of the other tables. People around me occasionally told me how glad they were that I’d come and that Axen was here. I gave polite responses without really hearing much of it. I still couldn’t shake the sense of unease over the morning’s bizarre events. I simply couldn’t find a way to set it aside and join in the joviality around me.
It plagued me throughout the entire meal and followed me like a storm cloud as I helped clean up along with everyone else. After carrying a third load of dishes to the newly repaired inn for the children to wash, I escaped out the front door and breathed in the twilight air, focusing on emerging stars above. I couldn’t stay here. I couldn’t keep this up. Either Thone went with me to Krenish first thing tomorrow morning, or I left.
A tug of guilt pressed against my soul. Leave them to whatever vengeance Jennik would unleash. I was almost tempted to just call for Axen to wipe out Krenish and solve the problem in the fastest way possible.
I shook the thought aside, feeling sick for even entertaining such ideas. My thumb lightly rubbed against the edge of my ring. I couldn’t use Axen as a weapon. I knew the implications of such things. I couldn’t allow it.
Rik leaned against the wall beside me. I hadn’t noticed him approach. “What’s wrong?”
I exhaled. “Nothing.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry. I mean…” I tried to think of a way to put it. “I’m not used to staying in one place. It leaves me out of sorts.” It sounded pathetic to me, but hopefully not to him.
“It must be lonely.”
His comment caught me off-guard. “I’m never lonely. I have Axen.”
“I can’t imagine only having one close friend. Never being surrounded by people I love. Never knowing anyone else, not in any real sense.”
I shrugged. “It’s what I’m used to.”
“Is that why you hold all of us at arm’s length?”
I looked at him now, unsure how to respond. I thought I’d been perfectly polite, at least for the most part. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I just meant…” He fumbled for words. “Perhaps if you gave yourself a chance to truly get to know us, then staying put wouldn’t seem so bad.”
I looked down, unsure how to respond to that and feeling distinctively uncomfortable.
Voices down the road saved me from having to say anything. A group of travelers drew nearer, looking worn out and ready for rest.
I leapt onto the chance for a distraction—both from Rik’s strange comments and from my own internal puzzle—and stepped forward to greet them. “Good evening, friends,” I called loudly.
They quieted slightly, then one called back. “To you as well. You look like you’re enjoying this fine evening.”
“I am indeed. And you look ready for a hot meal and a pleasant night’s sleep.”
Rik almost choked behind me. “Raisa…”
Thone stepped out of the inn, apparently curious about my loud voice. He gave Rik a questioning look.
The leader of the group chuckled. The group was close enough now to make out more clearly. They were all Kadrians, with the high pyramid-shaped ears, wide cat-like eyes, and flat noses typical to their kind, and he was one of the tallest I’d seen—which was saying something, considering how tall Kadrians naturally tend to be. He smiled my way. “Yes, though I’m afraid we still have some travel ahead to the nearest inn.”
I laughed. “Don’t be silly. You’re about to walk past the finest lodgings I’ve ever stayed in.”
Thone frowned at me. It wasn’t proper to make a gaudy display like this for any Elf, but especially not for a woman.
I didn’t care. I patted the building behind me. “Finest food this side of the mountains, I guarantee it. And the beds alone are worth minstrel’s songs. I wager you’ve had your fill of burlap stuffed with straw masquerading as a mattress?”
The looks on their faces told me they had.
“Then your bodies will sing the songs of heavenly choirs for a night at this inn. They boast the softest, most divine beds I’ve ever found at any inn along the main road. You’ll think the Maker came and took you without your notice.”
Thone stepped toward me. “Raisa,” he said quietly, “perhaps you should go inside.”
Boasting, brash, bold. All the things Traditional Elf culture hated. If I went inside, he would apologize for disrupting their travels and wish them well on their way. He would only pursue their business if they asked further questions.
I ignored him. “And it’s all for a mere six regals a night per head. That comes with your evening and morning meal, mind you. Have you had a chance to enjoy Traditional Elf cooking?”
The travelers stared at me, round-eyed.
Thone cleared his throat loudly. “I apologize for my friend’s behavior. She’s quite mistaken about the cost.”
“I thought so,” the leader laughed in relief. “I’ve never seen a place along the main road which charges less than ten regals a night, and that rarely includes any food.”
Now it was Thone’s turn to gape.
I smiled and stepped past him. “In truth, they should be charging ten regals, but as I’m occupying one of the rooms, two of you will have to share one room, and thus the discount. And it certainly is the case that they charge a bit less than they ought, but they have been greatly blessed here, and they merely wish to extend that generosity to others.”
One of the women whispered to the leader, looking at the inn’s windows with the longing of a traveler past ready to put her feet up and enjoy a fresh meal.
He eyed the inn. “We’ve traveled this way before many times. I never knew there was an inn here.”
“A quirk of Traditional Elf culture.” I gestured to the symbol on the door. “They use more subtle indications of services, rather than the large hanging signs more commonly used. This symbol is the sign for lodging and food.”
Another traveler tugged at the leader’s sleeve and whispered.
He nodded. “Well, I dare say we’re ready for some food and rest. Thank you, miss.”
Thone recovered enough to give the group a proper greeting and usher them inside. I heard an immediate flurry of activity from inside the building as Tarvia rushed to direct the children through serving the guests.
I couldn’t help but smile. A pleasant distraction indeed, and I couldn’t help feeling I’d done a proper good deed here. With any hope, the Kadrians would be pleased enough with the service here that they’d spread the word. There was no reason Emsha shouldn’t be a growing, booming center of business along the road—no reason except for the fact that they didn’t advertise their services in a way that anyone else might recognize.
Rik was staring at me. “That was…” He lost whatever words he might have had.
I could see his thoughts clearly enough on his face, though. Part of him was impressed and pleased that I’d brought business to his village. Part of him was scandalized that any Elf, especially a woman, would speak so boldly and crassly about such matters. It would probably break his mind to learn that my sales pitch had been mild in comparison to the usual hucksters steering travelers toward services in other cities along the main road.
“Good evening, tabe,” I said and turned to the inn, ready to collapse into bed and bask in the new feelings of accomplishment.
The door opened before I reached it, and Thone, Jec, Erret, and Jaska stepped out.
As Erret quietly shut the door, looking like he’d rather not be there, Thone squarely faced me. “We wish to have a word with you, raisa.”
I nodded, unsure what to think. Was I about to be told to be on my way, that they didn’t tolerate such behavior here? Part of me almost welcomed the thought.
Thone glanced at the others. “You… mentioned that our method of indicating our services is not typical.”
I nodded again.
His strong stance faltered, only slightly, before he continued. “We have never been interested in abandoning tradition for the sake of others’ demands.”
I still couldn’t quite gauge where this was going. “Of course.”
“But sometimes traditions change with time.” He shifted his weight. “And it seems that if travelers do not know the services we offer, then perhaps they would not stop and seek those services.”
I finally caught a glimmer of direction. “That is true.”
He glanced at the others again, looking awkward.
Jec cleared his throat. “Perhaps you can help us know what sort of signs the typical traveler would be looking for.”
“Of course.” I almost smiled, but caught myself and put on a properly respectful, serious face. “It would be my honor.”
“Good.” Thone bobbed his head. “Tomorrow, then. First thing. And…” He paused. “And perhaps someone who has traveled much would have a better idea of the value of our services. We have no interest in cheating anyone,” he added quickly, “but we wish to charge what is fair. For all parties involved.”
“I would be happy to assist however I can.” A nugget of a thought seized my mind. A risk, but one worth taking. “After you and I have spoken with Jennik and resolved matters between you.”
Thone’s expression turned sour.
Erret glared. “I don’t believe it’s your place—”
“No,” Thone interrupted. “Very well, raisa. First thing in the morning, we will visit Krenish and see if we can resolve matters. And upon our return, even if Jennik refuses reason, we will discuss this business.”
If I was in any other village, I’d have shaken his hand. Instead, I pressed my hands together at my side in proper deference and lightly bowed. “As you have said, tabe-ro.”
I woke the next morning feeling wonderful. We would resolve matters with Krenish. The travelers would spread word about the amazing and inexpensive inn at Emsha. The signs would draw in more travelers. And I could go on my way, knowing I’d left the place better than it had been when I arrived.
I ate with the Kadrians, chatting lightly about the surrounding areas and hazards of traveling the roads. As we finished our meal, the leader caught my attention. “You were right, miss. This is the finest inn I’ve ever stayed at.”
“Tell your friends,” I said. “This place isn’t going anywhere.” I noticed Thone frowning slightly at my manners and once again ignored him.
The Kadrian grinned. “We certainly will. And we’ll be back in a few weeks as we return to Innsbrooke.” He patted his stomach and directed his voice toward the kitchen. “And I know I’ll be looking forward to another round of this amazing cooking.”
Tarvia politely dipped her head along with her children.
The Kadrians wished us all a pleasant day and left.
Thone was still washing up and preparing for the day. I waited as long as I could manage, then finally wandered outside to the stand in the middle of the road and wait in the sunlight. I was impatient to get moving, but not nearly as impatient as I’d felt before. I knew the travelers would do as they said and return to stay here again, as well as telling their friends about this place. Everything was finally going right.
The ground rumbled beneath my feet.
Terror shot through my system, rooting me in place. I closed my eyes and forced myself to take deep breaths. It’s nothing but an earthquake. It’s just a childhood phobia returning to haunt you. It’s nothing to be afraid of.
I opened my eyes just as hands burst upward from the ground around my feet.
A new terror shot through me, so sharp and painful that I couldn’t breathe. The shaking slowed as creatures dragged themselves out from under the surface, hissing and snarling. Squat, round bodies covered with dirt-matted fur. Flat heads barely higher than my waist. Short legs. Long arms. Impossibly long hands.
I spun for an escape route. I was surrounded. The road, the forest, even the front edges of the village filled with the creatures. Images flashed through my mind, muddling my thinking. My parents. My brother. Flashing swords. Blood everywhere. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. I had to run. Had to get away.
Nowhere to run.
The creatures hissed again and surged forward.
I was screaming and wasn’t sure when I’d started. My arms flew without conscious direction, slapping away the hands that grasped at me or catching wrists and sending the owners flying. My legs finally chose to act, kicking and staggering forward in a desperate attempt to find a path, a way to break free and get away from these things. I had to. Tears blurred my vision but couldn’t blot out the images of blood and death and pain that filled my mind. Other voices shouted in alarm. I dimly saw villagers spilling from the inn, the smithy, the village center into the mass, struggling to fight their way toward me.
Hands caught the back of my tunic and yanked backwards. I staggered, struggling to keep my balance, and managed to knock a couple of them aside. But there was too many. They caught my legs, my arms, my tunic, even my hair. My throat burned from screaming as I tumbled backwards, landing hard on the ground. The tearing hands yanked my arm away from my side. Clawed at my hand.
My fingers instinctively curled into a tight fist even as I fought to twist free. Sharp claws raked across my hand, dug into my wrist. Teeth sank into my arm. My ring bit into my flesh as I squeezed my fist tighter and tighter, hardly noticing the hands tearing at the rest of my body, all my focus centered on the ring. Had to keep it safe.
Rik caught one of the creatures and threw it aside. Reached to pull me to my feet. A dozen creatures leapt on him, knocking him backwards. The trees moved above me as the creatures dragged me toward the forest. I kicked and twisted with all my might. Too many. I couldn’t break free.
The shouts were distant now. The creatures kept my rescuers from reaching me. More teeth sank into my wrist, squeezing tendons and almost forcing my hand open. I clenched my fist harder, tighter. Couldn’t let go. No matter what else happened, I couldn’t let go.
A large tree loomed above, followed by roots and dirt and darkness. A hole. They were dragging me into a hole. I screamed anew, panic giving me new strength to fight. The grips on my other arm loosened, and I grabbed at one of the roots, caught hold. They jumped onto my arm, clawing and biting and tearing until my grip slid free and I plunged into darkness.
A roar shook the tunnel. Axen’s tail wrapped around my waist and yanked me free. I flew through the air and slammed into her side. The last few creatures that had managed to cling to me lost hold and tumbled shrieking to the ground below.
I caught her scale ridges. Adrenaline fueled me onward to scramble up to her head as fast as I could, where I clung to the back of her neck and trembled violently. Tears streamed down my cheeks.
I remained still for a long time, crying and shaking as the wind whipped around me. As the tears subsided, I finally pulled myself back together. We have to go back.
She didn’t answer, just kept flying onward at full speed.
I squeezed her tighter. Axen, we have to go back. We can’t abandon Emsha to those… I shuddered. We can’t leave them to fight alone. We don’t even have to land. Just torch them all from the air.
She still didn’t answer.
I reached out to her mind, trying to make her see why we couldn’t just leave those people in the hands of those monsters. Instead, I saw glimpses of memories, knowledge long lost hidden in the corners of her mind and mine.
The creatures. The rumbling ground that preceded them. Why I’d always stayed on the move. Why it felt so wrong and unnatural to stay in one place for too long.
My knuckles tightened on Axen’s scales.
Dear Maker, they found us.
When I finally managed to get my hands to stop shaking again, I tried again with Axen. We need to go back. At least to make sure the people are okay. We can blast those dungheaps back into the ground they came from.
I could feel her reluctance, but we were both a bit calmer now, calm enough that she could see reason. She snorted with displeasure a few times, but banked to the right and turned back the way we’d come.
My grip on her tightened the closer we got. Would the creatures still be there? What had they done to the villagers? Would the village still be standing at this point? Heavy guilt weighed on my chest for fleeing. It was good and right that Axen pulled me out of there, but we should have stayed and helped the battle from the air. If anyone was hurt, it would be my fault, first for drawing the creatures there and then for abandoning the village at the first chance I got.
Emsha was just ahead. My breath caught in my throat. I didn’t see any signs of creatures filling the roads. Had they been fought off? Had they killed everyone and left? Were they lurking in the forest and buildings, just out of sight, waiting to ambush me as soon as I returned?
Axen flapped her wings hard, gaining a bit more height. We aren’t landing.
No. We’re just looking.
It took conscious effort to slow my breathing and lean forward enough to see. A few people stood in the road now, pointing toward Axen and waving off to the side, apparently beckoning more people out of the buildings. They were still alive. And not under attack. The creatures had left?
Axen circled the village as more people spilled into the road, staring up at us, gesturing, talking amongst themselves. I spotted Thone near the inn entrance. He waved wildly for our attention, then gestured for us to land.
We aren’t landing, Axen repeated.
My heart thudded against the base of my throat, making it hard to breathe. I squinted at the fields, the buildings, the forest. No signs of the attackers.
Give the forest a steam bath. Not enough to kill things, just enough to make it uncomfortable. If the creatures were hiding, they wouldn’t be for long.
Axen was happy to comply with my suggestion, and she dipped to skim just above the treetops, blasting jets of steam from her nose as we passed. I only heard a couple of squawks in protest—most of the forest animals hadn’t yet returned after all the activity in the edge of the forest earlier. No signs of the creatures.
Others had joined Thone in gesturing and calling for us to land.
They were safe. The creatures were gone. And with me gone, the creatures wouldn’t return. Maybe it would be for the best if I just left.
I like that plan. Let’s do that.
I sighed. And then what will happen with Krenish? If we leave, Jennik will lead his men against Emsha. They’ll be slaughtered.
Their problem, not ours.
Axen, I scolded.
Fine. We torch Krenish, then we leave.
No. I exhaled. I couldn’t really explain, couldn’t make her understand the dangers of such choices. Or my responsibility to her. No, we have to try to solve it peacefully first.
She snorted with annoyance.
More people waved. Still no signs of creatures, of rumbling earth. There weren’t even signs of the holes in the dirt any longer. The villagers must have filled them in.
And if they’d had time to fill in those holes, then the attack must have been over for a long time. The creatures had either been defeated or left on their own. Either way, the immediate threat was gone.
I closed my eyes. I wouldn’t let myself be a coward again. Land.
Much of our memories were still jumbled, but there was one truth that stood out loud and clear. They won’t come if you’re too close, I pointed out. They don’t dare.
Her displeasure shot through my mind like an arrow, but she knew I was right. Fine. But I’m staying right on the ground with you the whole time.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
She landed in the middle of the road, taking it slow enough for the villagers to clear the way. She lowered her head to the ground. It might look to anyone else like she was resting, but her muscles remained tense, ready to snatch me up and take to the air in an eyeblink if necessary.
I slid down from her neck and took a few steps toward the inn, stopping before I was out of her arm’s reach. I had to take a slow breath so my voice wouldn’t shake. “Is everyone okay?”
The villagers hung back, keeping their distance from Axen. When it was clear Axen staying put, Thone, Rik, and Jec finally approached.
“We’re fine. What about you? Are you all right?” Thone looked me over with concern in his eyes.
My cheeks warmed. “I’m not hurt. I apologize for leaving like I did. I should have stayed and helped fight those creatures off.” I looked at each one, then glanced at the villagers behind them. No one seemed much worse for the wear. “No one was hurt in the battle?”
The men looked at each other. “As soon as Axen rescued you and left, so did the creatures,” Jec said. “Just crawled back into those holes and disappeared. We watched and waited for a few minutes, but when nothing happened, we filled the holes in. There’s been no sign of them since.”
Rik was staring at me, worried. “Alita, they were after you. Just you. Why? What were those things?”
Ice raced down my back, triggering a shiver. How could I explain this to them?
“What is she doing here?” Erret’s voice boomed with barely controlled rage. He started forward, but paused when he saw how close he would have to get to Axen to reach me. His face screwed up, and he stormed to Thone’s side regardless of the dragon.
Let me bite him.
Erret jabbed a finger at my face. “Haven’t you done enough damage here? It’s not enough to bring the wrath of Krenish on our heads, now you’re bringing attacks from the very ground!”
“That’s enough.” Thone’s voice was firm.
Erret spat at my feet. “You still want us to believe you have nothing to do with evil magics? And yet demons rise up from the depths to drag you back to their master!”
My fists tightened. I’d never wanted to hit someone more in my life. But I’d made a habit of restraining myself, and I wasn’t willing to break that now. Besides, in a way, he was right. It was my fault the creatures had come to Emsha. I’d brought this danger to them.
Rik was starting to speak, his face red with anger, but I spoke first.
They all gaped at me.
“Not about the magic,” I amended. “But you’re right that it’s my fault this danger came to you. And I’m sorry for that. That’s why it’s so crucial that Thone and I make peace with Jennik quickly. Because I can’t stay here. If I stay, those things…” My voice caught. “They’ll just keep coming.”
A smug smile rested on Erret’s lips.
Rik stammered for a moment. “Raisa, no! I mean, you aren’t to blame.”
“How do you know that? She confesses to it herself,” Erret retorted.
Thone put up a hand, silencing them both. He met my eyes with the same look of kindness as when he’d encouraged the woman to speak in the meeting by the river. “We are not honorless cowards who would enjoy the protection and aid of you and your dragon, and then turn around and cast you out at the first sign that we might have to face some danger to protect you in your time of need.” He cast a sidelong glance at Erret. “Not all of us, anyway.”
Erret squawked in protest.
Thone continued, speaking over the other man’s outrage. “Of course we respect your freedom to leave or stay as you prefer. But do not leave for our sake, to protect us. We are not afraid to take arms against an enemy, whether it is our enemy or yours. The choice is yours, raisa. But if you do choose to go, then at the very least I hope you will offer some form of explanation.” His eyes remained gentle, his tone soft. “What were those creatures? Why are they after you?”
The shards of memories flooded my system and choked me for a moment. My hands curled tight. My thumb rubbed over the edge of my ring. “They murdered my family.”
The silence thickened around me. Thone finally broke it, his voice still just as kind. “Why? And why are they after you now?”
The edges of the ring bit into my skin.
“I told you, the dark magic draws them,” Erret grunted.
“Shut up,” Rik snapped.
I looked down. “I was young when it happened. Just a child. Too young to understand what the creatures wanted. In fact, the pain of the loss had blocked the memories from my mind. I didn’t remember these creatures, or that they were the reason I never stayed in one place for long, until today.” I took a deep breath. “To my understanding, it is the bond with the dragon that draws these creatures, first to my family, and now to me.” The words came out sterile, calm, belying the tempest still lurking inside.
Erret scowled and looked about to say something.
Tarvia brushed past him with what might not have been an accidental bump and wrapped a cloak around my shoulders, drawing me tightly into her maternal arms. “Come inside, child. Have some tea. You’re safe here.”
“She’s not going anywhere until we get some real answers!” Erret snapped.
Fire blazed behind Tarvia’s eyes. “Stand aside, Erret. She is one of us, and we take care of our own.”
He sputtered, but others were already pushing him aside, reaching out to me, offering words of comfort and promises of protection.
A strange sense of warmth quieted the tempest. I glanced back at Axen.
She snorted. Go. I’m staying here on the road so those foul meat specks don’t come back.
It briefly occurred to me that it would be an interesting welcoming committee to any travelers on the road. But it seemed to be a quiet day, and I felt infinitely safer with Axen’s proximity, knowing the creatures wouldn’t dare come close with her here.
Tarvia led me into the inn, and within moments I was seated with the cloak nestled tight around me, a steaming mug of tea in front of me. Magra nestled at my side, softly crooning as she mended the scratches and bites on my skin. The other villagers surrounding me, still making their declarations. We’ll protect you, no matter what comes. We’ll fight those things off if they dare show their faces above ground again. They aren’t that strong, we just weren’t prepared for them last time. If they try it again, they won’t get within a housespan of you.
By the time my cup was empty, I felt calm, composed. “Thank you. I am overwhelmed by your kindness and grateful for your acceptance and protection.” I faced Thone across the table. “However, it is still best for everyone involved, myself and Axen included, if we can quickly establish peace with Krenish so Axen and I can move on.”
Was that disappointment I saw in so many faces? I must have been imagining things.
Thone nodded sagely. “If that is how you feel, we will respect that. You and I can go speak with Jennik now, if you wish.”
I nodded and stood, returning the cloak to Tarvia. She pulled me into a warm embrace, and I felt oddly unwilling to break it before she did. “Thank you,” I murmured quietly.
Rik put a hand on my shoulder as I moved away from the table. “I’ll come as well. We’re going to do everything we can to keep you safe.”
The back door flew open and slammed into the wall. Startled, I turned to see who it was—likely Erret—but couldn’t see anyone.
Then I saw the long arms and heard the people shouting. Adrenaline blasted my system in a torrent. I spun for the other door, but the creatures had surprise on their side. They had already cut off my exit.
Axen roared from outside, and hot steam buffeted the back of the building. She’d spotted the attackers and sent the rest of them running, but there were still too many inside. Where I was trapped.
Rik pushed me behind him, his sword already in hand. More people shoved in at his side, forming a solid protective ring around me. I saw Thone leading the charge forward, slicing his way through the creatures, working to clear a path to the door.
Creatures scrambled over the tables, leaping at me. Rik swatted one out of the air with the flat of his sword. Jaska beside him caught one by the legs and swung it around over his head, knocking others aside.
The panic began to subside. I was safe. They were keeping me safe.
Metal clanged on metal as the creatures skittered through the kitchen, drawing shrieks from the children. Tarvia swung a hefty pan and knocked two of the attackers silly, forcing the others to backpedal and reconsider their route.
“Go!” Thone shouted from the door.
The path was clear. Rik immediately took charge, leading the group in escorting me swiftly out to the road, out to Axen. She promptly snatched me from the middle of the group and tossed me onto her back, ready to spring into the air.
No. Stay put. Let’s clear the rest of these creeps out.
Her response was a mixture of displeasure at the thought of staying so close to the creature and delight at the thought of crisping them.
Steam only. We don’t want to hurt any people or buildings. I shouted to the people below. “Get to cover!”
They didn’t need to be told twice, scurrying away. The creatures that had chased us out of the building now stood fully exposed to Axen’s wrath.
She blasted jets of steam at them, barely restraining herself enough to keep the temperature within control. Her claws sent a mass of them sailing back toward the forest.
The remaining creatures scattered into the forest, encouraged along their way with several more bursts of steam until they were all gone.
The villagers emerged from cover, cheering and congratulating each other.
My fingers lightly stroked Axen’s scales. I was okay. We’d fought them off before anything bad could happen. My thumb rubbed against the ring’s edge. I was okay.
And the villagers had protected me. None of the creatures had even gotten close, for that matter. It was foreign, the thought of others stepping to my defense. Not that it had never happened before, but that was different—any decent being who saw someone attacked on the road would jump in to help. These people wanted to protect me, not just as some random stranger in need of help on the road, but as someone they knew and cared about.
The thought sent a strange, uncomfortable feeling through my system. I shook it off. Focus. Get Thone and go to Krenish. Get this deal settled. And move on. Then everything would be as it should be.
Axen lowered her head so I could climb down.
Rik jogged to my side, his face bright with exertion and the exhilaration of victory. “We did it! I told you we’d keep you safe.” He grinned. “Those things don’t stand a chance with us around.”
His delight was contagious. I couldn’t help but smile. “You did, indeed. Thank you.”
Thone joined us. “Do you need a moment to recover?”
“I’m fine,” I replied. “If you’re ready, I’d like to go to Krenish now.”
He nodded, called out some directions to Jaska and Jec, then climbed up Axen’s neck without another word.
Rik balked, looking up at Axen. “Um…”
“It’s okay if you’d rather stay here,” I said, starting my own climb.
“Uh…” He glanced back, then squared his shoulders. “No. It’s fine.” He climbed gingerly behind me.
Axen had the decency to wait for me to help him get settled in a secure position with a firm grip before she took to the air.
Rik yelped and clutched her scale ridges tighter. Thone, for his part, was grinning.
We circled Krenish a couple of times before landing in the open field. Jennik and a group of his men emerged from buildings. Leaving his men behind, Jennik walked straight to the point where he’d spoken alone with Thone before.
“I think he’s ready to talk,” Thone mused, looking pleased. He gave me a nod. “I’ll be back.”
“We’ll be watching,” I promised. I still didn’t trust Jennik to be too concerned with matters of peace.
Thone climbed down and crossed to greet Jennik. The other Krenish men eyed Axen, then watched with bored expressions as the two leaders met.
Rik didn’t move, knuckles pale on his grip. “Should we… should we climb down?”
“If you want, you can. I’m going to stay here.” As comforting as it had been to be protected by the people of Emsha, it felt more comfortable, more familiar to have Axen’s bulk parked beneath me. There had been far too much oddness in my life the last several days. It was a relief to be back to something I knew.
“Oh. Okay.” He shifted his weight, but his hands remained tightly secured in place. “It’s quite, um, different. Flying.”
It was the best feeling in the world to me, but somehow I got the impression he didn’t have the same reaction. “I imagine it wasn’t like anything you’re used to.”
“That’s for sure.” He seemed to catch himself. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
I almost laughed. “It’s okay if you didn’t like it.” My thumb traced the edge of the ring. “I suppose I’m used to it. I’ve been around it most my life.”
A moment passed before he spoke. “I’m sorry about your family. I can see why it was so terrifying for you to see those creatures again.”
My fingers tightened. “It was…” I exhaled. “I wasn’t prepared for it.”
Axen snorted, and I looked up to see Thone approaching.
I frowned. “Something’s wrong.” There’s no way they could have negotiated peace terms that quickly. Could they?
Rik straightened, finally releasing one hand to reach for his sword.
But Thone only climbed back to his position on Axen’s neck. “He won’t talk to me today.”
“Why not?” Maybe I needed to go down and have a few choice words with Jennik again.
“They’re still repairing from the earthquake. And apparently there’s a rumor amongst his people about creatures coming up from underground.” Thone shook his head. “I tried to explain matters, but he insisted that he and his people would conduct their own investigation. He did say he would meet with me tomorrow at midday to discuss terms, though. He’s still willing to talk. Just not right this moment.”
Tomorrow? Midday? My eyes strayed to the horizon, full of longing. I wanted to be out of here. On my way. Back on the proper course. No more of this staying put nonsense.
“To be honest, I doubt matters would have been resolved in a single day even if he had been willing to speak today,” Thone said softly. “If you feel that you need to leave, then you must do what you feel is best. We will deal with Krenish, regardless of what may come.”
Axen’s heart joined mine in mutual desire for the road, to be on our way.
“What you may not know is that things have been escalating with Krenish for some time now,” Thone continued. “It was only a matter of time before we would no longer be able to accept their treatment of us and be forced to take a stand. In a way, you did us a favor by bringing us to that inevitability. I might have tried to delay dealing with it for as long as I could, but it’s not right for them to get away with treating us how they have. We needed that encouragement to take a stand for ourselves.”
“Not to say we wouldn’t like it if you stay,” Rik added. “Not just because of the protection your dragon provides. And we’ll keep you safe.”
I looked down at the ground. I really didn’t want to abandon Emsha, especially not when Jennik was willing to try to establish peace. And this afternoon’s events had proven clearly enough that these people could keep me safe from the creatures.
She snorted in irritation. Fine. We’ll stay. But just until tomorrow.
I rubbed the back of her ear. “We’ll stay. At least until tomorrow’s meeting, when we can see how the negotiations are going.”
Axen repeated her irritated snort.
Thone nodded. “I’m glad to hear that.”
“That’s great.” Rik grinned. “I’m glad you’re staying. I mean, we’re all glad you’re staying. All of us. When they hear about it, that is. Back in the village. They’ll be glad.” He cleared his throat and looked embarrassed.
Thone seemed to be hiding a chuckle. “Let’s be on our way.”
The road was buzzing with activity when we returned. Axen landed at the far end of the village, where there were fewer people.
I stared, unsure what I was seeing. The remaining planks had been collected and spread out over the road, and men were hard at work securing the planks together.
Jec waved as he approached. “Hope you don’t mind, tabe-ro,” he called up to Thone. “The way I see it, we can’t have things making holes in our main road for travelers to twist their ankles in. And those things came to the inn through the door, not the floorboards. I figure they have a mite trouble getting through solid wood.” He shot a wink my direction. “Don’t see any reason to make life easier for those nasty little brutes.”
Rik, Thone, and I climbed down. Axen inspected the road work, then snorted her approval before taking off. She landed in the middle of the forest not too far away, hungry for a meal but unwilling to put too much distance between us.
Jec turned to me. “I gather you’re staying a bit longer?”
“Jennick’s willing to meet tomorrow at midday.”
“Good. Then we can discuss those signs you were telling us about.”
I spent the rest of the day in the inn. Men and women wandered in and out to listen as I talked with Thone and Jec about what businesses looked like in other settlements along the main road, what travelers expected, what signs indicated the services, and the typical value for services rendered. It seemed that just about every villager in Emsha took a few minutes away from their work to listen, though I noticed Erret never stopped by. Probably sulking. Better than getting in my face and telling me how evil I am.
The evening passed quietly with no further signs of the creatures, to my relief. Still, I slid my sword under my mattress once more as I went to bed. If they decided to take advantage of the night to try something, I would be ready.
Axen’s impatience woke me early the next morning. Is it midday yet? Can we go?
I flopped an arm over my eyes and groaned. Midday is when the sun’s at the highest in the sky. You know that.
I know. But I’m bored.
That’s your problem.
It’s your problem now.
If we’d been curled up in a cave together, I’d have thrown the nearest rock at her. Go find some breakfast. I’ll call you when it’s time.
Too awake to fall back asleep now, I rolled out of bed and took a minute to restore my appearance to order once more. All the high-speed flying hadn’t done my hair any favors, but the braid had helped keep it from growing too wild.
Breakfast was ready by the time I left my room and was finished entirely too soon, leaving me with too much time before midday. Normally I’d be running to the forest to find Axen and go for a morning flight, but I found myself meandering through the village instead. The thought of this being my last few hours with these people left a bittersweet note in my heart. As eager as I was to be on my way and back to the normalcy of my nomadic life, part of me almost felt sad about leaving.
I made up my mind to spend some time helping Jec in the smithy. Of everyone in the village, he’s the one I most wished I could’ve spent more time with.
As I went through the main entrance along the road, I was pleased to see a new sign hanging near the door, sticking out for travelers to clearly see. The inn and Magra’s home boasted new signs, as well. They weren’t quite as polished and flashy as most, but that was the Traditional way: subtle and demure is always better than gaudy. And the symbols were clear enough. No question, this would bring more attention and business to the humble little village.
Jec hardly glanced up as I walked in. “Morning.”
“Good morning, tabe-da.” I headed for the pile of molds.
The door behind me opened, and I turned to find Erret filling the frame. Every muscle in my body tightened, ready to bolt or defend myself.
He shuffled his feet, looking away from me. “Good morning, tabe-da. Good morning, raisa.”
I blinked. He actually sounded polite. Not the strained politeness of maintaining appearances in front of Jec, either. Something was different.
“Morning,” Jec replied cheerily.
I dipped my head, cautious but polite. “Good morning, tabe. If you need to speak with Jec, I can come back later.”
Erret shook his head. Scratched the back of his scalp. Looked up, over, everywhere but at me. “I, um, I actually was hoping to speak with you.”
Right. So he could start in with the wild accusations again without any witnesses. I folded my arms. “Go ahead.”
He glanced at Jec, then the floor, then finally at me. “Excuse me, raisa. I meant, I wish to speak with you in private.”
Part of me felt like my suspicions had just been confirmed, but part held back. There was no anger or rage in his eyes, no tension behind his muscles to belie his words. No tension behind his voice, either. He wasn’t straining to keep his voice quiet and gentle. He actually was speaking courteously. To me. That almost left me more worried than if he’d come in yelling.
Distinctively awkward now, I let my arms drop to my sides and shifted my weight. “I’m sure Jec isn’t the type to eavesdrop on a private conversation.”
Erret fidgeted. “Of course not. But there are some things I wish to say to you, and I would prefer it to remain… private.”
My cynical side was losing ground. If he was faking this polite act to get me alone to yell at me, he’d suddenly become a far greater actor overnight than he’d been the entire time I’d known him. He was hiding what he wanted to talk about, but he didn’t seem angry or devious or shifty. If anything, he just looked uncomfortable.
I folded my hands together and met his eyes, waiting. I wasn’t going anywhere with him without knowing what he wanted.
He shifted his weight a couple more times, then finally looked down and quietly spoke. “I… I need to apologize to you, raisa. I’ve treated you unfairly.” His voice dropped even quieter. “I was wrong.”
It was the last thing I’d expected out of his mouth. I searched his body language for some hint of deception, for some trace of falsehood in him, but saw none. Instead, for the first time, I saw just how deflated he looked, like a heavy burden of guilt was trying to drive him into the ground. He didn’t want to talk in private because he wanted to avoid witnesses. He wanted to talk in private because he was ashamed.
The realization startled me. I knew how to deal with a bully. I knew how to deal with a threat. I wasn’t entirely sure how to deal with… this, whatever it was. I looked at Jec, but he was studiously ignoring us, giving Erret the privacy he wanted.
I turned back to Erret. I was going to be leaving today. Might as well give both of us the chance to clear the air. And if this was some sort of trick, I wouldn’t hold back this time. I wouldn’t bite my tongue to avoid reaming him and risk losing ground with Thone. After today, my standing in the village wouldn’t matter. And, if he intended to attack me, he’d find out just how sharp my ‘unnatural’ fighting skills were.
“Jec,” I said, “please excuse me. I need to have a private word with Erret. I’ll be back shortly.”
He nodded, humming off-key as he worked the metal.
Erret looked surprised, but held the door for me. “Thank you, raisa.”
A few people worked on the road, putting finishing touches on the new wood covering. No privacy there. I looked around, then took the lead, walking toward the end of Magra’s place. We could walk around the outside edge of the village, beside the forest. Close enough for the villagers to hear if I shouted. Close enough for Axen to reach me if needed. But far enough away from people to give Erret the comfort of no witnesses to his embarrassment.
He remained quiet until we turned the corner of Magra’s house and began walking between the buildings and the forest. “When you came…” He paused. “What I mean is, you and the dragon…” He lost momentum again and fell quiet.
It took a minute before he tried again. “I know that there are other Elf settlements out there. And I know that not all of them still hold to the Traditional ways. And not like Krenish, either. Many of them are still honorable in many ways, but not…” He sighed. “Not in the old ways.”
I continued walking at his side, listening, waiting. And keeping a close eye on his body language for any indication of deception.
“What I’m trying to say is, I know not everyone still does things by the old ways. And maybe that’s not always a bad thing.” He chewed on his lip. “Either way, I was out of line. The way I spoke to you, the way I treated you. It was dishonorable and disgraceful. I was so blinded by my fear of something new, something foreign, that I failed in my duties as an Elf man. I failed to treat you with respect and honor. And I am deeply sorry for that.”
I was staring at him now, unable to help myself. I saw nothing but sincerity in his eyes. Regret. Sadness. He truly felt sorrow for how he’d treated me. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “What changed your mind?”
“Yesterday.” A self-deprecating smile pulled his lips upward a fraction. “I finally saw you as a person, not as a threat. I’m sorry, raisa. It’s how I should have seen you from the moment you came.”
My panic. My fear. The villagers joining together to protect me. My vulnerability had forced him to see me through a new perspective. I would have normally been embarrassed at the thought of him seeing me as someone weak, but I was too relieved that he finally recognized how misplaced his animosity had been.
He turned and raised his hands in the customary gesture of friendship and peace. “I know I don’t deserve forgiveness for what a monster I’ve been toward you. But I hope you can find it in yourself to forgive me. I hope we can put this behind us and start over.”
I searched his eyes. Remorse. Hope. His sentiments were genuine.
I placed my hands against his. “Of course.”
He moved too fast for me to realize what he was doing before it was too late. His fist slammed into my jaw, bashing me against the house we stood beside. Lights and pain danced through my head, blinding me as I struggled to keep myself upright. Sounds roared in my ears without order or meaning. Something yanked at my hand.
A strangled scream tore from my throat as I felt the ring slide. Something inside of me slid at the same time, deep roots twisting themselves loose. I clenched my hand as my other arm flailed wildly. I couldn’t see or think clearly through the pain trying to drag me away from the world. My fist hit something without effect. A second pain tore through my arm, breaking my grip. The ring slid again.
“No!” I screamed, but the word wouldn’t come out. The ring slipped from my finger.
Everything inside of me churned in a mass of chaos, terror, agony. The roots snapped and tore free, clawing through my entire being and leaving behind nothing but a trembling husk on the ground.
Erret looked at me with sad eyes, then vanished into the forest.
“Raisa?” The voice grew more urgent. “Alita, answer me.”
A hand gripped my shoulder, another pressed against my cheek. Sounds muddled through my ears in a chaotic mess. I felt cold and warm all at once. Rik’s face floated in front of my eyes.
I blinked. “Rik.” My voice came out weak, croaking.
He gently pulled me upright. He looked worried. More than that. Frightened. “What happened?”
The warm subsided, then returned with a fresh blast. Someone ran past, screaming. I stared after them, trying to get a handle on my surroundings. There was some meaning, some comprehension evading my grasp.
“Look at me,” Rik ordered, moving back into my line of sight. “Can you tell me what happened?”
My throat was dry. Something was wrong. Something was missing. The swirling world finally began to settle back into order. The numbing roar in my hearing diminished.
And then returned anew. Everything turned cold, as cold as the emptiness consuming me from the inside out. I knew that roar. No. I didn’t know it. I recognized it, but I no longer knew it. Axen.
I gasped and looked around. Rik stood beside me, holding my arms, keeping me upright. Magra and Tarvia hovered on either side of him. Men and women rushed back and forth, shouting for water. Behind them, the forest burned.
I broke free of Rik’s grip and bolted into the flames.
Axen. It was like I’d been sawed in half. The deepest part of me had been brutally ripped away and discarded. And I couldn’t get it back. She felt the same confusion, emptiness, agony I felt. And without me there to guide her through the pain, she was dealing with it the only way she knew how.
Another roar. The ground shook under my feet, nearly knocking me flat, but I kept running, struggling to breathe through choking smoke, dodging flaming branches as they relinquished their hold on their trees.
I reached her as she raised her arms and slammed them into the ground once more, rattling the world before unleashing another torrent of flames. Her roar shredded what was left of my heart. I ran forward and jumped onto her hand. “Axen! Axen, listen to me,” I shouted as loudly as I could.
She snorted and shook her hand, nearly knocking me off.
She couldn’t understand me now. She didn’t even recognize me. She couldn’t. But I had to find a way to reach her. Some way to convince her to leave, to stop this destruction before she killed everyone.
“Axen!” I screamed louder, clinging tighter, trying to force her attention on me.
She roared and slammed her hand against the ground.
The edges of her scales tore at my hands as I lost my grip. I tumbled over myself several times before regaining control of my direction, just in time to avoid rolling into a blazing fern.
She waved her head back and forth, roaring and howling. It was like a stab through my chest. She was calling for me. Trying to find me.
Tears blurred my vision. “Axen! Axen, I’m right here. You have to listen!”
Her waving grew more wild, her roaring more anxious. She lowered her head to take a deep breath. I didn’t stop to think. I raced forward and leapt into the air, landing on her snout and clinging with all my might.
Startled, she flicked her head upward, but I already had a solid grip. “Axen, look at me!” She shrieked and shot another blast of fire. I clenched my eyes as the flames rushed past me, threatening to sear my skin. I wouldn’t let go. I wouldn’t. She slammed her hands into the ground and shook her head again, wilder this time, trying to shake me loose.
She didn’t know me. Couldn’t recognize me. I was just some random animal that had gotten stuck against her scales. “Axen!” I shouted again. I met her eyes, trying to find some spark of recognition there. “It’s me!”
Her claws flew, snatched me off her snout. The tip of one stabbed into my side, drawing a scream of pain. I gasped for air as her fingers tightened around me.
She glared at the tiny speck she’d pulled off her snout. All of her pain, all of her rage, all of her confusion channeled at a new target. She was going to kill me.
I gripped her thumb. Rubbed the edge of her scales. “It’s okay.” I couldn’t manage more than a whisper. I kept my eyes locked with hers. At least my death would no longer mean hers. “It’s okay.”
She drew in a deep breath. Her eyelid twitched with uncertainty. She hesitated, then unleashed her flames at the sky. Her eyes remained upward as she crouched to take to the air. I fell from her hand, forgotten. Wind washed over me as she sprang into the air and took flight, the last thing I was aware of before I hit the ground below.
Quiet voices drew me back to awareness, inviting in bits and pieces of the world around me. The faint smell of smoke, distant, like a recently extinguished fireplace. A soft bed beneath me. Gentle warmth. A hand in mine.
I opened my eyes to see Rik sitting beside me. A large bandage covered much of his right arm. The same side of his face was red and blistered.
Something seemed missing, like I was forgetting something significant. I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I went with what I did know. “What happened to you?”
He came to immediate attention. “You’re awake!”
“What happened to him,” Magra said, stepping around him to put a cool hand on my forehead and examine my eyes, “is that he ran into the burning forest to drag you back to safety. Now hold still and let me look at you.”
I obediently moved limbs, fingers, and toes at her directions.
She pressed her hand against my forehead once more, and I felt soothing warmth for a moment before she released me. “She needs rest.”
She was speaking to someone other than me, almost sounding like she was scolding, trying to head off an argument before it could start. I looked past Rik, trying to see who else was there.
Thone. Jec. Tarvia. Erret.
Everything went cold again as knowledge returned in a rush. I scrambled off the bed and lunged at him with a scream. My legs wouldn’t hold me. I’d have hit the floor if Magra and Rik hadn’t caught my arms. Magra pushed me back onto the bed as Rik stood between me and Erret. He glanced back at me, worry battling the fury in his eyes, before he turned to Erret. “What did you do?” he demanded, his tone dangerously quiet and cold.
Erret folded his arms and said nothing.
“Give it back.” Desperation choked my voice so that I could barely get the words out. “You have to give it back!”
Rik drew his sword. “Answer me!”
Thone stepped between the men and put his hands up. “Put it away, Rik.” He turned to Erret. His tone suggested he was just as angry as Rik. “What have you done?”
A muscle twitched in Erret’s jaw before he spoke. His voice was quiet but perfectly calm. “I did what I had to do to protect our village. And to protect her.”
I wanted to scream, to run at him, to tear his eyes out. My entire being shook as Magra tried to make me lie back down. I hardly noticed the burning pain in my side.
“Protect her?” Rik burst out. “She almost died! How can you call that protecting her?”
Thone again silenced him. “Explain.” His tone was not a merciful one.
Erret looked at me. That genuine sadness and remorse once again rested in his eyes. “I did not realize you would be hurt, raisa. I never meant for you to be wounded.”
Rik stepped to the side, blocking me from his view. “Don’t you dare speak to her.”
“Enough!” Thone snapped. He looked from Rik to Erret. “Explain yourself. Leave nothing out. Now.”
“The ring she wore,” Erret said. “It was forged of evil magic to bind the dragon to her. I only sought to free her from the influence of those magics before it was too late. I never intended for her to be hurt in this way. Nor did I realize the dragon would go crazy like it did and burn the forest.”
I tried to scream at him again, but all that came out was a strangled squawk. It was getting hard to think straight through the pain and rage, and the emptiness held me paralyzed.
Thone looked at me, then turned to stare at Erret. “Ring? What are you talking about?”
Erret shifted his weight. “I truly am sorry that this resulted in such pain. But I know even she will be grateful once she recovers. She might not have even realized how much that thing was affecting her.”
Rik’s grip on his sword tightened. “You’re going to start from the beginning and explain this. All of it. What makes you think the bond affected her? How do you know all this?”
“I don’t have to answer to you,” Erret said, his eyes narrowing at the smaller man.
“But you do have to answer to me.” Thone’s voice was as cold, as deadly as when he’d found Erret about to strike me in the inn.
Erret’s lips pinched inward before he spoke again. “We saw those creatures as attackers because we only saw them pursuing her, but we were wrong. They fight against evil magic wherever it appears. They knew how dangerous her bond with the dragon is, and so they were only seeking to end that bond before it led to the destruction of her and everything around her. What she likely never knew is that the evil magic forming the bond causes the dragon’s mind to gradually take over the person’s mind, until the dragon’s inherent desire for destruction becomes all the person seeks, as well.”
He sighed. “It’s insidious because it’s so gradual. But even we could see how she had already turned to unnaturally violent ways. It was only a matter of time before the dragon’s influence over her mind was complete. The bond, forged by evil, had to be broken before that could happen.”
Thone’s eyes narrowed. “Are you saying you spoke to these creatures? And you believed what they had to say? Are you mad?”
“No!” Erret paused. “I didn’t… Those creatures realized that we would never talk to them and learn the truth because, from what most of us saw, they had attacked an innocent woman. We would never listen and understand that they were actually trying to save her—to save all of us. They had to go somewhere else and find someone who would help them bring us this message.”
“Where?” Thone demanded.
Tarvia’s eyes widened in horror. She pressed a hand over her mouth.
Rik’s voice came out low with disgust, disbelief, anger. “Krenish.”
A flash of betrayal crossed Thone’s eyes. His face twisted in a dark scowl.
Erret put his hands up. “It’s not like that. Last night I was in the forest when I saw Jennik and one of those creatures approaching. I drew my sword, but they were both unarmed.” He shook his head. “I’m not so dishonorable as to strike down an unarmed opponent. I intended to leave, but Jennik explained the problem. This is bigger than our differences with them. If she had been left under the influence of those dark magics, both Krenish and Emsha would have been wiped out completely.”
His eyes searched the others, seeking understanding. “Don’t you see? There’s only one reason Jennik would have worked with these creatures. Only one reason he would dare come near our village alone, unarmed. It was because of this mutual threat, something far more critical than his pride or his desire to bully us. What could be more important than that to him but the threat of imminent death? And more than that, he promised he would sign a treaty of peace with us if I agreed to help eliminate this threat by removing the ring which formed the bond and handing it over to be destroyed. He’s willing to surrender all claims on us, our trade goods, and our land and hunting grounds over this. How could this be a lie, if he’s willing to go so far?”
His voice had gained strength through the explanation, his usual arrogance edging back into his tone. “The only possible explanation is that it’s true. That she truly was a danger. And I just saved us all.” He glanced at me, his eyes once again reflecting sorrow. “I am only sorry that she was injured in the process. I had seen her as a threat all this time, but once I knew the truth, I realized she was just an innocent victim. A person in need of help. I only wish she could have been saved without so much harm coming to her through it.”
No one spoke, some staring in disbelief, others in uncertainty.
All of the rage, all of the pain and agony wrapping up throughout me, boiled over and shattered into pieces. All that was left was the emptiness. The debilitating numbness. I spoke from the depths of that emptiness, quiet and toneless. “You’re an idiot.”
Anger flashed across Erret’s face. The others turned to me, but none of them spoke to correct my blatant rudeness to a city leader. I doubted I’d have reacted well if they had.
“Your logic is based on the assumption that Jennik knows the truth. You ignored the possibility that the creatures lied to him, too.”
He blinked. He obviously hadn’t thought of that.
“The bond between myself and Axen wasn’t due to an evil spell. It has nothing to do with magic. The ring harnesses a small amount of her energy. That’s what forms the bond between her and anyone who wears the ring.” My gaze shifted to the wall. “And that’s why it’s so crucial that I wear it.”
Thone stepped closer. “Go on.”
“You all know that she is my guardian.” Was. A new pang didn’t quite pierce the numbness surrounding me. “What you didn’t know is that I am just as much a guardian to her. The lie the creatures told contained a partial truth. The bond has an influencing effect between the dragon and the person wearing the ring. But it isn’t me who is influenced by her. She’s the one influenced by me.”
I found Erret’s gaze. “She cannot understand our world. She can’t comprehend our speech, our ways, even our nature as living, sentient beings. But through her bond with me, she sees our world as I see it. She can’t always understand specifics, but she understands the basic meaning of what people say around me. She sees through my eyes. It’s my perspective that determines what she sees as a safe place to rest or a dangerous place to be avoided.” I paused. “It’s my perspective that determines which people she sees as friends to be protected and which people she sees as enemies. To be destroyed.”
Tarvia’s hand covered her mouth again. Dawning understanding crossed the others’ faces.
“The way she sees the world is based on who wears the ring. If the ring is on the finger of someone who wishes destruction on their enemies…” The unfinished sentence hung for a moment before I continued. “That is why I protect the ring. That’s why I’ll never use her as a weapon. It’s my responsibility, passed down to me from my family, to protect her from being used for destruction and death.
“That’s why I travel. Because those creatures hate all beings that live on the surface and would love nothing more than their own personal dragon to unleash on the world above them. If I stay in one place, they are able to track me down to try to get their hands on the ring.” I shook my head, never breaking eye contact with Erret. “And because you were so stupid, so eager to believe you were right, that my bond with Axen was based on some evil magic, you’ve gone and handed them exactly what they need to destroy us all.”
Erret sputtered. “That can’t be true. She… she’s still under the influence of the spell, that’s all. If what she says is true, then how is she even still alive? The creatures could have killed her and taken the ring when they first attacked. They had the opportunity.”
“Kill the bonded person, kill the dragon. They want their weapon intact. Killing me would have killed Axen and made the ring worthless.” Something inside me felt that I should be speaking with anger, with conviction, with some emotion, but nothing could pierce the deafening numbness.
“But,” he tried again, “you must be mistaken. If these creatures really are only seeking to use the ring to make the dragon attack all of us, then why hasn’t it happened? It’s been over a day now.” A note of triumph entered his tone. “If what you said is true, then they would have already attacked.”
“The bonding process is… difficult. Both for the dragon and the person. The unbonding process is even worse. Bonding with a dragon too soon after an unbonding places the person into the middle of that, combining the two into one. It’s too dangerous.” A flicker of light, just a glimmer, forced its way through the numbness. “They have to wait for Axen to recover before they can attempt to form a bond with her.”
Erret had no response to this.
Rik turned on him. “You almost killed her! And you might have killed all of us, all because of your stupid pride!”
“Enough.” Thone exhaled heavily. “Leave, Erret.”
Erret stared. “I did this to protect us. All of us. And we have no proof she’s telling the truth.”
“You had no evidence that Jennik and that creature were telling the truth, either. She’s right. You accepted their story because it matched what you wanted to believe.”
“It’s my duty to protect our village from any threat of danger—”
“Enough!” Thone seemed to grow another handspan taller and broader. He pinned Erret with a cold, unforgiving glare. “It’s your duty to bring any matter of concern before the village as a whole, so that we can decide a course of action together. You took this into your own hands. Now you may have doomed us all. Get. Out. Now.”
I hardly noticed the exchange. The flicker of light had grown stronger, one single thought driving the numbness back.
The creatures hadn’t bonded with Axen yet.
I swung my legs off the side of the bed and stood. My knees buckled and almost gave.
Rik steadied me. “You need rest.”
I shook my head. “They haven’t bonded with Axen yet.”
He stared, clearly not understanding.
“It’s not too late. I have to get the ring back before they can form the bond.”
Comprehension dawned in his eyes. He nodded. “I’ll go. You stay here and recover.”
That wasn’t about to happen. “I’m going.”
“While I admire your courage,” Magra said, putting a gentle hand on my shoulder, “you’re in no shape to go anywhere.”
What I wouldn’t give for a burst of energy from Axen right now. The thought burned through me like scalding acid, leaving me too raw to care about tradition or propriety. I turned to face her squarely. “You can give me enough energy to get me through this if you choose. Or you can refuse. And I’ll go anyway, and someone will have to retrieve my broken, bloody corpse from underground.”
She gasped and took half a step back. Glanced over at Thone as if looking for help.
Jec gave me a slow nod before addressing Magra. “She’s made up her mind to go with or without your help. You’ll have to decide whether to help her or wash your hands of her death.”
I almost expected Thone to scold me, to tell me to get back into bed, that this was too dangerous. Instead, he simply squeezed Tarvia’s hand. “I’ll go, as well.”
“We all will,” Jec said. “As many of us as can swing a blade.”
“No.” There was one possibility I hadn’t brought up before, not wanting to make things any more complicated than they already were, but now it had to be said. “It’s likely the creatures lied to recruit Jennik’s help. But it’s also possible they promised him something else. Protection for Krenish. Treasure. The right to watch Emsha be the first to burn. If Jennik was in on the lie, then now, with Axen gone, is the perfect time for them to attack. You have to stay here and protect your village.”
I took a deep breath. My legs were shaking and threatening to give out again. “Besides, the creatures’ tunnels are small and dark. Greater numbers won’t be an advantage. It’s better for one person to go in and evade detection than for a mass to enter and try to fight on their territory, on their terms.”
Magra sighed and put a hand on my arm. Warmth flooded through my body, bringing with it a surge of energy. She gave me a scowl. “Since it seems I can’t convince you to care about your own well-being.”
I squeezed her hand. “Thank you.”
“Two can hide just as well as one,” Rik said. “I’m coming.”
Magra finished her work, and I turned to the door. “No. I’m going alone.”
Curious, frightened gazes followed me as I passed through the inn, retrieved my sword, and marched back out to the road. The holes in the road were all covered by the planks, but I passed the wood surface into the forest on the other side. It wasn’t hard to find the large tree, the one with the hole the creatures had tried to drag me into. The villagers had covered over the hole, but hadn’t managed to collapse the tunnel entirely. It didn’t take much digging before I found the entrance. A sick feeling washed over me at the memory of the last time I’d seen this hole. I funneled it into more fuel for my determination and pressed on.
Daylight vanished behind me as I crawled into the tunnel. Part of me instinctively wanted a candle, but I ignored the desire and slowed my crawl while my eyes adjusted. Years of spending a portion of my life in caves eased the transition, and it didn’t take long before I could see well enough to navigate without running into anything.
The tunnel broadened gradually, larger and larger until I could just barely stand upright. The edges were choppy and rough, not smooth as they’d been near the surface. If anything came, I could flatten myself into one of the dips in the surface and hope I went unnoticed.
It was a flimsy hope, and I knew it. I had adequate dark vision. These creatures lived and breathed nothing but darkness.
I ignored the logic my brain was trying to impose on me and pressed on toward an upcoming bend in the tunnel.
Movement. I spun my sword into ready position and heard a sharp grunt. The creatures coming around the corner had already spotted me. I lunged forward, slashing madly. I had to silence them before they raised the alarm and let their entire army know I was there.
I felt, rather than saw, two of them fall under the first strike, another with the second. Hands caught at my ankles and knees, yanking hard. I lost my balance and fell into a heavy lean against the tunnel wall, trying to shove myself back up with one hand while swinging with the other hand. Little flecks danced around me, the smallest glow from their eyes as they surged at me, grabbing at any limb they could get hold of.
I’d overestimated my dark vision. Or underestimated theirs. My clumsy strikes hit nothing but air. A lucky swing caught something, but only a glancing blow. Not enough to slow them down.
They, on the other hand, had me pinned against the wall and nearly had my sword arm incapacitated. I struggled to twist free, but there were too many. Or they were too fast. I couldn’t tell in the dark.
Hands yanked harder at my legs, and I shot down the wall, hitting my head twice on the descent to the tunnel floor. A heavy weight landed on my chest. I could dimly see the creature standing on top of me, a large rock held above his head, poised to smash it into my face. I twisted and struggled again, trying to knock the creature off, trying to break free.
A light flared to life back the way I’d come and shot above my head. I got a brief glimpse of the snarl on the creature’s face before the light extinguished into the wall beyond me. I couldn’t see anything in the aftermath of the bright light, but a whooshing thunk sound preceded the creature on my chest staggering and falling away, the rock thudding to the ground beside me.
The creatures hissed and snarled, their grips on me loosening some as they struggled to recover their dark vision and identify the new threat.
Another light flared, closer now, and Rik lunged at the creatures, knocking some aside with his bow in one hand and slashing through more with his sword in the other.
I jumped on the opportunity to break my sword arm free and lash out at the momentarily blinded creatures, freeing myself from the many grips. The two of us together, aided by Rik’s lantern, brought a quick end to the rest of the group.
Rik passed me and retrieved an arrow from the wall, checked to make sure the shaft was still straight, and returned it to his quiver. “Were they able to sound the alarm?”
“Not that I could tell.” I dusted myself off in a pretense for what I was really doing, pulling myself back together. I’d been foolish to charge in here alone, even more foolish to assume I wouldn’t need any sort of light source. Rik had thought better on both counts. I felt the painful pressure of words that should be spoken. “I—”
“I told you I was coming.” He shouldered his bow and turned toward the curve ahead. “Are you ready?”
I gripped my sword. Nodded.
We hurried forward in silence, Rik keeping his lantern low and dim. We needed enough light to see, but too much would be a beacon announcing our approach. Speed and secrecy were our best allies.
The tunnel wound back and forth, growing deeper at a steady rate. The length and silence stretched into an oppressive weight against me. Would we find the ring before the creatures could use it? How would I get it back safely if they used it before we could reach them?
Shouldn’t I be saying ‘thank you’ or something like that to Rik?
I glanced at him, but his focus remained forward, his eyes scanning the tunnel ahead for any signs of movement. I followed suit. We turned a corner and almost ran headfirst into a cluster of creatures. One creature shrieked before Rik’s blade silenced it. Its comrades lunged forward, but with the lantern gleaming, we had the upper hand. The cold emptiness inside of me felt a little bit easier to endure with each creature that fell under my sword.
The last one bolted down the tunnel, screaming madly. I was about to throw my sword, but Rik was faster. The creature dropped with an arrow standing proudly erect from its back.
Rik extinguished the lantern, and we both pressed ourselves into the uneven tunnel sides, hiding as best as we could behind larger ridges. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until my lungs began to ache.
After several minutes passed with no signs of incoming attackers, I cautiously pried myself off the wall. “I think we’re safe,” I whispered.
The lantern returned to life. I blinked several times. The light was dim, but still felt painfully bright after the pure darkness that had surrounded us moments before. He gave me a nod, and we fell in step side-by-side once more. I wondered where Axen was. What she was doing. If she felt as lost and alone as I did.
I was distracted from my thoughts by a faint glow ahead. I stopped, putting up a hand to signal Rik.
He immediately stopped and put the light out.
Sure enough, the tunnel ahead looked brighter than the inky blackness behind us, if only by a little. We pressed against the sides of the tunnel once more and edged our way forward, our senses on alert for any signs of incoming danger.
I couldn’t figure out what the light ahead meant. These creatures were underground dwellers. They functioned better in darkness than in light, didn’t they?
We came to a gentle curve. I stopped at the edge of the turn and peered around.
My breath caught. The cavern ahead was massive. Axen could have stretched out from nose to tail without brushing any walls in any direction. She could have stood upright and stacked a second dragon on her shoulders without reaching the top.
Tunnels stretched out in all directions from the cavern. Ours met near the top. Narrow ramps connected some tunnels to others, wrapping around the outside edges of the cavern in meandering and uneven spirals, but many tunnels had no visible ways to be reached.
The light came from rocks embedded in the walls throughout the cavern, glowing the faintest blue light that combined to give the entire space an eerie, almost sacred feel. It was still less light than Rik’s dimmed lantern, but enough to see what we needed to see.
Rik kept his lantern extinguished. Partially because the rocks provided adequate light. And partly because the cavern was alive with movement.
At first it seemed that the walls were moving, but as soon as my eyes adapted to the fainter blue light, I saw that it was the creatures. They rarely used the ramps, instead simply climbing directly up the walls at insane speeds. Vanishing into tunnels. Emerging from others. Clustering in the center of the ground below and then rushing off in different directions. It was a hive of excited, rapid action.
My stomach twisted. Getting ready for their moment of glory, bonding with a dragon and using it to unleash death on the world above.
A flash of the old terror tried to resurface at the sight of so many creatures in one place, but it quickly faded. The emptiness inside of me and the drive to resolve that emptiness were stronger than the fear.
Still, looking down at the massive network of tunnels, something inside of me couldn’t help wondering if this had been such a good idea. How would we know which tunnel to take? How would we get through so many creatures unseen? I hadn’t expected such an enormous space.
Rik eyed the cavern over my shoulder. He looked ready to say something. I steeled myself for an argument. He was going to try to convince me to give up, that it was too dangerous, that we’d just get ourselves killed down here. And while I would never agree with such a plan, I knew he was right.
“It’s huge,” he whispered. “I can’t believe this has been here, so close to us, and we never knew it.”
I remained on edge, ready for the moment he dropped the other shoe with arguments to give up or go back for more fighters. “I doubt it has been. They have some settlements, but mostly they make their homes as they go. The larger earthquake we felt was them digging this so they would have a home base while they came after me.”
His eyebrows shifted upward. “They made this in that short time?”
“There’s a lot of them.” I almost cringed at my own words. True, but I’d just pointed him back toward a really good reason for us to abandon hope and flee.
He studied the cavern once more. “We can assume the leader or someone of similar importance would be the one with the ring,” he whispered so quietly I could barely hear him. “And most likely figures of importance would be in the grandest area. Biggest tunnel, possibly even decorated.”
He was strategizing. Planning how to proceed, not talking about turning back. I hadn’t expected that. I felt a sudden rush of gratitude.
He studied a moment longer, then gestured. “That one looks most likely. More traffic coming and going that way than the other ways.” He gestured toward the other side and lower. “That one down there would be my second guess.”
They were good guesses. He was right, both of the tunnels he’d pointed out were larger and had more creatures flowing through them. More of the light rocks clustered around the entrances, too, if I wasn’t mistaken.
“So the only question left is how to get there unseen.” He moved back and leaned against the opposite wall, one hand rubbing his chin in thought and the other hand lightly tapping his leg. Dirt streaked his arm where he’d leaned against the wall behind me.
I found my eyes drawn to that arm. “Hold still.”
He immediately reached for his sword.
“No, hold still,” I corrected. I approached him and ran my hand over the dirty spot. The walls were slightly damp, enough to make the dirt into a sort of thick mud. Enough that my work spread the dirt further over his arm. I pressed his wrist against the wall and examined the arm in the blue light.
The dirt blended against the wall seamlessly.
He saw it, too. “Perfect.” He rubbed the rest of his arm against the wall and set to work smoothing the mud.
I crossed back to the other wall and grabbed some mud. Skin, clothes, hair, everything had to be covered. I hadn’t bothered with any sort of sheath for my sword, so the shiny metal had to be coated, too.
I finished in time to see Rik spreading the last bits of mud over his neck. He’d done a good job coating himself, save one patch of light golden skin showing through at his cheek.
He looked me over. “You missed…” He touched his nose.
I scooped a little more mud off the wall and spread it over my nose.
He shook his head. “No, um…” He touched his nose again.
I tried to spread the mud better, and then he was standing in front of me. He cautiously reached forward, moving slowly and watching my eyes for any signal of refusal. I held still and waited. He carefully brushed his fingertips over my nose, getting the missed spot covered.
“Thank you.” I hesitated, feeling suddenly aware of his closeness. “Um, you…” I tapped my cheek.
He reached up, nowhere near the right spot.
I touched his cheek and smeared mud over the patch, his skin disappearing under the dirt. My eyes flicked upward as I finished, found his gaze fixed on mine.
I quickly stepped back. “You’re set.”
“You, too. Thanks.”
I nodded, gripping my sword tighter than necessary. I crossed to the tunnel wall with the most light and pressed myself into one of the gaps behind a ridge. “Does it work?” I closed my eyes.
A rustle of movement silenced any answer Rik was about to give. He pressed back into his own gap, all but disappearing behind a ridge as a group of creatures climbed into the tunnel, some pulling themselves up from below and others dropping in from above. Grumbling snarls crossed between them.
I closed my eyes. Held my breath. Didn’t dare let a single muscle move except for my fingers, slowly clenching around my sword’s hilt.
The snarling sound passed me without pause. Continued along. Past Rik. No signal that either of us had been spotted.
The sounds gradually disappeared down a further curve in the tunnel. I waited until all was silent before I chanced cracking my eyelids.
The tunnel was empty.
I exhaled in relief and peered outward to make sure nothing else was coming.
“It’s clear,” Rik’s voice came from right beside my ear.
I nearly jumped straight out of my mud coating.
“Sorry,” he whispered, stepping out of the different gap he’d pressed himself into at some point while my eyes were shut. “I wasn’t trying to startle you.”
“It’s fine.” I scanned the cavern once more. No signs of any interruption in the activity around us, but that would change in a hurry once those creatures found the ones Rik and I had dispatched further up the tunnel. “We’d better go.”
He nodded. I could see a certain grimness in his look, made all the darker by the mud coating his face. I felt the same in my own heart. We weren’t going to make it out of here alive. It was just a question of how far we’d get before we were caught. But I wasn’t about to accept or acknowledge that fact. It looked like he wasn’t, either.
We carefully eased out of our tunnel, keeping our backs pressed flat against the cavern wall to descend a narrow path. We had to be extra careful traveling this way, avoiding covering too many of the glowing rocks as we went. We could blend in with the walls, but flashing lights would be an immediate beacon for attention.
I ducked into the next tunnel we reached and hid myself in a wall gap, taking a moment to just breathe, collect myself, brace for the next path along the cavern wall. Rik vanished into a gap across from me.
I was about ready to move on when some creatures scurried toward us from deeper in the tunnel. I clenched my eyes shut and waited. I heard some of them descend. Others scraped at the top of the tunnel before the sounds disappeared. All going different directions. None noticing us.
A faint glimmer of hope came to life. Maybe this would work.
We inched our way along the cavern like that, stopping and hiding in tunnels along the way, trying to avoid light-heavy areas, occasionally having to scale the walls. But each step brought us a bit closer to the largest, brightest tunnel. A little closer to the leaders.
A little closer to my ring.
We were only steps from the large tunnel when shrieks rang out from above. The creatures had finished checking the tunnel we’d used as our entrance. They knew there were intruders in their home.
I lunged for the tunnel. We’d been caught, but I was going to get as far as I could before they brought me down.
Rik caught my arm before I got two steps and yanked me back against the wall, into one of the larger depressions. Pressed himself tight beside me. I instinctively closed my eyes.
Creatures rushed past, never noticing us. They were looking for tall beings, not for slightly lumpy spots on the wall. No one notices the things they aren’t looking for.
Activity continued to buzz around us, and I waited a long time before finally cracking my eyes a fraction. Snarls and hisses resounded through the cavern as the creatures hunted, searched, tried to figure out where the intruders were. The tunnel beside us was almost empty.
Rik nudged me, lightly gestured with his head. Time to move, to get into the tunnel.
I waited for a clear moment, then ducked around the corner and melted into a gap near the tunnel’s mouth. Rik passed me and pressed into the next gap. A couple creatures passed us, then he started to move deeper into the tunnel.
I stayed put, squinting to search the cavern once more. This didn’t make sense. If this was where their leader was, where the ring was being kept, wouldn’t they be more worried about defending this tunnel from intruders? Shouldn’t we be seeing more creatures, not fewer?
The answer was simple. Our assumption had been wrong. The largest, brightest, busiest tunnel wasn’t where the leader was.
Rik tugged at my arm.
I shook my head, continuing to study the immense tunnel system.
There. Creatures ran out of all of the tunnels, ran into certain tunnels, but there was only one tunnel where the creatures clogged the tunnel’s opening and parked themselves in a defensive posture.
The one place they were most focused on defending had to be where they had the ring. It just had to be.
I pulled Rik to my side and gestured.
His eyes roved over the cavern before he nodded. He understood.
We waited by the edge of the tunnel, staying out of sight, until it was clear enough for our next move. The activity was starting to slow as creatures reappeared at tunnel entrances, hissing toward the creatures gathered below. Reporting in that tunnels were empty of intruders. With any hope, they’d assume the intruders had already left.
Sure enough, loud snarls from below sent the creatures scrambling back inside the tunnels. Probably for a more thorough search. It would be harder for our camouflage trick to work now that the creatures were looking closer for hidden invaders. We had to move slow enough to avoid catching attention, but fast enough to avoid the searchers.
A handful of creatures popped up from below and scurried into our tunnel. I held my breath again as they passed. Grumbling sounds trailed after them. They weren’t happy.
I caught Rik’s eye. He nodded. We slipped out of the tunnel, hurried to the next one, disappeared inside its mouth. Once we were confident none of the creatures had seen us or were looking that direction, we did it again.
All the while wondering, what would we do once we reached the leader’s tunnel? Creatures still clogged the entrance. Too many for us to fight through. Besides, if we tried to fight, the rest of the creatures would come running. We’d be dead before we could get ten steps into the tunnel.
We were almost there. It was easier moving now. Most of the searchers had moved deeper into the tunnels now, leaving the entrances fairly easy for us to pass through.
I saw Rik squinting at our target tunnel. He was likely wondering the same thing as me. Maybe rethinking his choice to come with me. It was foolish. Suicide. Maybe wondering if he should try to work his way back up to the top of the cavern and find a way out.
But he simply checked for movement and led the way to the next tunnel. Only two tunnels between us and the target.
I checked this time. Some of the guards were looking our way, so I waited. And waited. Every time one creature would stop looking this direction, another would turn and scan the nearby tunnels. If we moved, we’d be spotted for sure.
My side ached. Magra’s healing energy was starting to wear off. I tightened my grip on my sword. This had to work. It wasn’t a choice. Get the ring back or die trying.
It was starting to seem that the latter was the more likely option.
The creatures glanced up as more reports flooded in. I seized the opportunity and inched my way into the next tunnel, Rik at my side. I wanted to run for it, to dash for the next hiding place, but didn’t dare. I was taking a huge risk as it was with the searchers above looking down so close to where we moved.
I reached the tunnel. Slid into a new hiding place.
One of the creatures grunted, turning our direction.
Rik immediately stepped into the gap next to me, pressed tight against my side as the creature slowly approached, sniffing and squinting.
I held my breath.
Another creature snarled. The investigator hissed and sniffed, closer now. He had to be staring right at us. I wanted to scream and lunge forward, cut him down, slice my way through the mass of creatures in the next tunnel. It took all my willpower to keep myself still. There were too many of them. I had no chance of making it through. All I could do was hold still and hope with all my might that the mud would keep me invisible to his senses.
The sniffing sound grew fainter. Then a grunt, further away. I hazarded a tiny peek. The creature had rejoined his comrades at the tunnel entrance.
My leg threatened to give out, but I refused to let the adrenaline dissipate. We hadn’t been caught, but that still left us with the problem of a whole swarm of creatures between us and our goal. And no way to get past them without being spotted.
Rik’s hand slid into mine. Squeezed. Then he charged with a wild yell.
I was too stunned to move. Instinct screamed that I should follow him, join my sword with his, but something held me back, something about the way he’d squeezed my hand.
The creatures shrieked and lunged forward to meet him. He danced back, struck down a few, stabbed emptily at a couple more, and danced back further.
He shouldn’t have missed those stabs. He’d done it on purpose. What was he doing?
The creatures surged at him, and he bolted, fighting his way into one of the opposite tunnels. The guards followed in full shrieking force.
Emptying the target tunnel.
I moved before any of them could regain their senses and consider returning to their guard positions. Slid into the tunnel unseen. Made it down the first bend before I had to press myself into a gap to hide from oncoming grunting sounds.
I closed my eyes. Sent a quick prayer to the Maker that Rik would make it out of the tunnels alive. He’d sacrificed himself to give me a chance at reaching the leader. At getting my ring back. My muscles tensed in a new sense of determination. I would make it. He’d given me the chance I needed, and I wouldn’t let it go to waste.
Once the creatures passed me, I slid deeper into the tunnel, only occasionally having to stop to hide from passing creatures. Probably extra guards going to scout out the situation in the cavern and see if the intruder had been caught.
The tunnel opened into a larger room. Only a few of the light rocks rested here. I could barely see anything. I stayed hidden in a gap and waited for my eyes to adjust.
Movement gradually shifted into basic shapes, and basic shapes turned into creatures. Some lounged while others scurried around, apparently in service to the lounging ones. The dirt floor piled into a mound at the far end of the space, and one creature sat high on further elevation on the mound. The servants paid special attention to him.
I carefully slid around the corner, out of the tunnel and against the wall of the room. I saw no sign of the ring, but how would I? It was such a small thing in a large, dark room.
Still, it had to be somewhere prominent. Near the leader, most likely. I crept my way along the wall, keeping to the gaps and closing my eyes whenever one of the creatures looked my way. Had to stay blended. Invisible.
Halfway around the room gave me a better view of the space around the leader. Various raised spots were covered in shiny rocks, larger stones, food items of indeterminate type. No sign of the ring.
I glanced up and saw his gaze fixed on mine. My breath caught as his eyes narrowed.
He’d seen me.
I didn’t pause long enough to think. As he stood with an angry grunt, I charged forward, leaping past startled creatures, my focus aimed straight at the leader. I could reach him. I could bring him down before they got to me.
Fingers slapped at my leg, almost catching a fistful of cloth, but I sidestepped before the creature could get a solid hold. Jumped over one of the shrieking loungers. Almost there.
A heavy weight slammed into my other leg, sending a sharp pain through the recovering wound. I staggered, but kept going despite the creature clinging to my leg. Lifted my sword.
Another weight hit my back, knocking me forward into my own momentum. I windmilled for balance, but another landed on my shoulder, driving me into the ground just paces away from the throne mound. Pain shot through my head, my neck, my side.
I shoved upwards, twisting to knock the creatures off my back. More weights, more hands. My arms shook and gave, trapping me flat against the ground, the right side of my face in the dirt. They pinned my sword arm against the hard dirt and clawed at the weapon. I slashed blindly from the wrist and managed to hit one of them before they could regain control.
I struggled, kicking and squirming with all my might, but there were too many. Hands wrapped around my neck, yanking tight until I couldn’t breathe. My vision turned white as I fought helplessly. I hardly noticed when the sword was ripped from my hand.
The leader made a loud grunt. The hands loosened. I coughed, unable to struggle or do anything but gasp for air.
More snarling sounds came from the tunnel. I dimly saw a massive group piling into the room, dragging a struggling Rik. The mud on his face was streaked with a glistening liquid, black in the faint blue light.
He spotted me and redoubled his efforts. “Alita!”
I closed my eyes. We were caught. We were dead.
The leader snarled a few commands, surveying the two of us. One of the creatures presented him with my sword. Half of the mud had come off in the struggle, revealing glinting metal. He inspected the blade, then leveled it first at me, then at Rik. Then he set it carefully on one of the raised spots near his throne. A trophy.
One of the creatures on my back hissed. Either my imagination supplied a question mark at the end of the hiss, or I was getting better at understanding their tones.
The leader once again evaluated first me, then Rik. Then he spoke in the common language, his voice rough and guttural. “Bring them.” He smiled unpleasantly. “Let them see.”
The creatures bound our hands behind our backs, tied ropes around our necks to drag us along in their midst as they surged behind their leader. Out of the tunnel. Along the spiraling ramps. Sometimes climbing steeply enough they were nearly dragging us by our necks.
Rik worked his way closer to me and spoke under his breath. “Did they hurt you?”
It seemed an absurd question to ask. It didn’t matter. They had us. We were dead, maybe not right away, but that was the inevitable conclusion. What did it matter if we got a couple knocks on the head before that happened?
But he continued shooting worried looks my way. I finally shook my head. I’d ask him the same to be polite, but the blood on the side of his head already provided the answer, and manners didn’t seem to make any difference now.
He leaned closer. “We’ll find a way out of this.”
I almost laughed out loud. But his naïve optimism was sweet, in a sense, and I managed to give him a little smile and nod.
They didn’t take us back to the tunnel we’d entered, instead parading through a series of unfamiliar, intersecting tunnels away from the main cavern. I could feel us getting gradually higher. When the light appeared further ahead, I had to squint.
We emerged from underground into blinding light. I heard shouts of alarm. The unmistakable sound of swords swishing free of scabbards.
Then Jennik’s voice. “Calm down, all of you.”
My eyes adjusted. We were in the middle of Krenish. Jennik stood on a platform with a couple of his goons, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. His people filled in half the space in front of the platform. The creatures filled in the other half as the leader strode up onto the platform, flanked by a few of his own. Their eyes looked different now, darker. Some sort of adaptation to make them able to quickly transition between below ground and above, apparently.
To the side of the platform, Thone, Erret, and Jaska crouched with weapons in hand, staring at the platform in alarm as the leader and Jennik made half-mocking bows to one another.
Thone spotted Rik and me. His eyes narrowed. “Jennik, you must listen to me. This is what we came to warn you about. These creatures lied to you. That ring is not evil magic, like they claimed. They’re going to use it to destroy us all.”
Jennik’s eyes widened. “Really?”
My heart sank as I saw the smirk remain behind his fake alarm. He knew.
Erret stepped forward, still gripping his sword. “Yes, it’s true. They deceived us all. You can’t give them that ring. They only want control of the dragon so they can unleash it as a weapon against us.”
Jennik looked like he was considering Erret’s words. Then he smiled. “Well, not all of us.”
Erret’s jaw dropped.
Jennik laughed. “You thought these pea-brained creatures came up with that story? They had no idea how to convince you lot to stop protecting the girl. But I knew how narrow and backwards you are. All I had to do was gasp and wring my hands over a little ‘evil magic,’ and I had you right where I wanted you.”
He reached into a pouch at his side and pulled out a small object.
I lunged forward. A sharp yank at my neck almost knocked me flat. The creatures forced me to my knees, Rik on his knees beside me.
Thone raised his sword, his face dark. “Let them go and hand over the ring.”
“Or what?” Jennik laughed. His men around him and in the crowd all put their hands on their swords in a casual gesture. They weren’t in the least concerned. Three men from Emsha were nothing in the face of their numbers, not to mention all the creatures.
My head sank, too heavy to hold up. I’d failed.
The creature leader stepped closer to Jennik, greedy eyes fixed on the ring, his hand outstretched.
Jennik held the ring higher, well out of the leader’s reach. “Not so fast, my little friend. We had a deal.”
The leader grunted. A few more creatures scrambled onto the platform and dropped rough bags woven from flattened vines at Jennik’s feet. A small, glittering rock tumbled free from one of the bags. Gold.
Jennik studied the bags and nodded his approval. “And the other half of our deal.” He cast a disdainful look over his shoulder at Thone, then in the direction beyond, toward Emsha. “That pathetic village is the first one you wipe out.”
“As you say,” the leader snarled. He thrust his hand more sharply, impatient to receive his treasure.
Desperation clawed the words free from my numb throat. “You’re a fool, Jennik. What assurance do you have that they won’t turn the dragon on you and your city? They have no love or loyalty to anything living on the surface. You—”
The rope jerked hard against my neck, cutting off my next words. I coughed as it relaxed.
Jennik snorted. “You think he’s dumb enough to use the dragon to attack while he and his people are standing here?”
“So he’s going to stay in your village forever?”
The rope jerked again, harder this time, and knocked me backwards to the ground. One of the creatures jumped onto my chest, a sharp rock in hand.
The leader snarled, stopping him. “I said, she will watch.”
The creature glared at me before reluctantly climbing off. Hands shoved me back into a kneeling position. The one holding the rope kept it slightly tighter against my throat, a reminder of what would come if I tried to interrupt again.
But the desperation had faded back into numb resignation. Jennik wasn’t interested in listening. It was no use.
“Don’t do this,” Thone called out. “She’s right. These creatures will turn on you as soon as they get the chance.”
Jennik rolled his eyes. “Self-serving attempts to stop your inevitable destruction. Pathetic.” He placed the ring in the leader’s outstretched hand.
A cheer rose from the creatures, primal and chilling. The leader raised the ring high in triumph. Shoved it onto his finger.
He buckled with a pained cry, a cry echoed by a resounding roar from the distant mountains.
Ice stabbed through my lungs, making it impossible to breathe. I’d only heard that particular roar tone once before. When I was a child. When I first put on the ring. Tears streaked my face.
“It’s not too late,” Thone shouted. “Take it from him now, before he has a chance to use the dragon. He’s only going to destroy you, Jennik. Don’t be a fool!”
Jennik glared. “I’m getting tired of your ugly face.” He waved a hand toward his people. “Be done with them.”
The Krenish men drew their weapons and advanced on the small group from Emsha.
“No!” the leader hissed, shoving himself partly upright, his voice drawn with pain. He sucked in a couple of breaths, glaring at Jennik. “I decide when the prisoners die. Not you. Me.”
Jennik’s eyes narrowed. He pointed to Rik and me. “Those are your prisoners. Do what you want with them. But these are my prisoners. I’ll decide their fates. And mind your tone with me, you dirt-eating belly-crawler. If it wasn’t for me, you’d never have gotten your hands on that ring in the first place, and don’t you forget it.”
The creatures around us stiffened, facing the Krenish crowd. Braced for a fight. The creatures on the platform with the leader drew closer to him, snarling.
I lifted my head, watching intently. There might still be a chance.
The leader struggled to his feet, already regaining his strength. His eyes were nearly slits as he scowled at Jennik. “Get out of my face, worm dung. Your voice disgusts me.”
“Worm dung?” Jennik thundered. “I’ll show you worm dung!” He yanked out his sword.
The leader skittered back a few steps, more of his creatures leaping up onto the platform to stand between him and Jennik. “Fine,” the leader hissed. His fingers toyed with the ring’s edge. “If that is how you want it.”
A new roar shook the air from the direction of Emsha. Drawing closer to Krenish.
Jennik spun, his face paling. “We had a deal!”
“I don’t make deals with worm dung,” the leader spat. He spun and bolted back toward the tunnel, his guards with him. He snarled out a few phrases in their grating language.
“Get them!” Jennik screeched. His men surged forward.
The bulk of the creatures charged, ducking under swinging swords and knocking men’s feet out from under them left and right.
The rope pulled tighter. I jumped to my feet, lurching forward hard. The rope bit into my neck, but the creature was pulled close enough I could catch part of the rope in my bound hands. I spun and yanked, pulling the rope free, and kicked the creature away before it could recapture its grip.
Most of the creatures were too busy obeying the leader’s command to attack to pay attention to my escape. I turned to Rik, but the creatures already dragged him toward the tunnel. He staggered, trying to keep his footing.
A creature jumped on my back, pulling at the rope on my neck. I stumbled and landed on my knees. The creature jerked and screamed in pain before falling beside me, a bloody gash across its back. Hands caught me and pulled me upright. I looked up at my rescuer as he pulled the rope off my neck. Erret.
I stiffened and jerked away, but he kept his grip on my arm.
“Hold still,” he said, his voice quiet. He sliced through the ropes on my wrists.
Choice words made a beeline for my tongue, but one thought drove them away. “Rik.” I spun. The group had almost vanished into the tunnel. I couldn’t leave Rik in the hands of those creatures.
Erret’s grip on me tightened. “Stay here where you’re safe. I’ll—”
I didn’t give him a chance to finish. I yanked his thumb backwards to break his hold, jerked my arm free, and bolted.
More creatures followed behind the group with Rik, shoving forward. He tripped and disappeared under their trampling feet. I shoved my way into the group, weaponless except my fists and feet. I had surprise on my side, managing to knock a few clear, but the others hissed and turned on me. Erret caught one by the neck and threw it before slashing a couple others. I slammed my elbow into one squat face. Kicked another one before it could get a grip on my leg. Another group of creatures surged toward us, fleeing the chaotic fight raging in the center of town.
Erret spun to face them, sword ready, bushy brows looking fierce. “Get him out of here!”
Rik coughed as I knocked the last creature off him. I pulled him to his feet, and we staggered away from the tunnel as fast as we could. Erret backed his way after us, swinging his sword madly to keep the creatures at a distance. They seemed to decide that we were less important than their retreat and gave up, disappearing into the tunnel.
Rik groaned as we dropped to the ground below the trees, finally safe. For the moment.
I pulled the rope off his raw neck. “Are you okay?”
He bobbed his head and coughed again.
Erret cut Rik’s hands free. “We can’t stay here. We have to get to Thone and return to Emsha.”
The roar came again, directly above our heads now. Screams of panic and terror echoed after it. My heart stilled in place.
“Get down!” Erret shoved both me and Rik back as a wave of heat exploded from the center of Krenish. People shrieked in pain as the remaining creatures shouted in victorious delight.
Jennik ran with his men, shouting frantic orders. The men fired arrows into the air, but the projectiles bounced uselessly off Axen’s tough scales.
I couldn’t stop staring at the sky. At Axen. So close and so far away all at once.
She swooped low for a second strike, spewing another stream of flames at the buildings below, then lashing out at some of the archers, sending them flying.
My eyes rested on one of the treetops above me. No, not close enough. Not yet.
“Come on!” Erret was yelling in my ear, trying to pull me to my feet, dragging me away.
I shoved him off, my eyes still on the trees.
“Are you stupid? We have to get out of here!”
“He’s right,” Rik joined in, pulling at my other arm. “It’s not safe here.”
“Go.” I jumped and caught the lowest branch above me. My side screamed, but I ignored it and all the other pains voicing their complaints throughout my body. This wasn’t a choice or an option.
“What are you doing?” Rik shouted above the chaos.
I pulled myself onto the branch and grabbed the next one. The sooner I reached the top, the better. “Get Thone and Jaska, and get out of here.”
Erret snarled and reached for my ankle. “I’m not going to let a woman—”
Rik caught his arm before he could grab me, then met my eyes. I was surprised to see his usual concern tempered by understanding. “Maker’s favor.” Then he shoved Erret, pushing the larger man back toward where we’d last seen Thone and Jaska.
Another surge of gratitude toward Rik shot through me. I jumped and pulled my way upward as fast as I could. The trunk narrowed and swayed as I neared the top. I climbed until it was too thin to support my weight if I tried to get any higher, then turned to scan the area.
Krenish was in flames. Many of the buildings had already collapsed. People tried to flee, but the horde of creatures fought them back, forcing them to stay in the open, exposed to Axen’s attacks. Her claws cut through the stream of refugees, sending people tumbling in all directions as she passed, leaving the creatures untouched.
My chest ached. She didn’t know what she was doing. She only saw a threat, a danger to be eliminated. What the leader had told her to see.
Her work here was nearly done. A couple more buildings. Then she would torch the remaining people. I didn’t have much longer before she would turn her attention to the next target. Emsha.
I watched her circling pattern. Gauged the timing. Part of me felt no fear. I’d done this thousands of times before. Simple.
But I’d always been bonded to her before. If I misjudged, she would adjust. If a wind gust struck at the wrong moment, she’d catch me. That wouldn’t happen now. She was probably completely unaware of my perch high above her dive space.
She finished a circle, flapped her wings. Dropped into another dive.
I counted down the seconds. Steeled my nerve.
And I jumped.
The wind slapped my clothes and hair as I free-fell. I squinted hard to keep my eyes open enough to see. And then I slammed into her back, air rushing out of my lungs. I caught her scale ridges and clung on. She roared and twisted, distracted from her attack on the people below by the foreign object latched onto her.
I climbed up to the V-shaped ridges of plates on her back and sheltered under the angle there, holding her scales tight with my hands and pressing my back against the ridge. It was the securest place on her body, and it would be near impossible for her to throw me off. Not that she wasn’t trying. It was a struggle to keep my grip as I climbed my way upwards, toward her head. She blasted flames at the ground below and swung her arms behind her, trying to grab me, but I was out of her reach.
I finally got to her neck. Then the back of her head. Her claws nearly caught me before I found my position, wrapped around the back of her ear. For all her precision, she couldn’t grab me without scratching her most sensitive part. She shook her head and snorted in frustration.
I clung to the edge of her ear. “Axen, listen to me! You have to stop. These people aren’t your enemies. Please, hear me!” Axen snorted again. An arrow barely missed her head, and she blasted flames at the ground.
“They got the ring. That’s why everything looks different now. But it’s not right. You’re seeing what the creatures want you to see. You have to stop attacking!”
She swooped upward and dove at the ground again, spewing flames at the trapped people. She couldn’t understand. And she’d decided that I was only an annoyance, not a threat. So she was going right back to what she’d been doing before I landed on her. Destroy Krenish. Then destroy Emsha.
Despair weighed at my muscles. I couldn’t get through to her. And even if I managed to free the people of Krenish below and rallied every single fighting man in both Krenish and Emsha to storm the underground cavern with me, I’d never reach the ring in time. I curled up tighter, feeling my failure like an ache deep in my soul. My fingers unconsciously rubbed the soft edge of her ear.
She roared her way into another swoop. The feelings, the sensations around me, swept my mind away.
Pain tearing through my mind, crippling my small body. The newly formed bond.
Terror as creatures spilled from the ground, charging at my weakened brother.
Him pulling me to my feet. Staggering. Struggling to get away.
Creatures tackling him.
Me tumbling away, wailing, ignored on the ground.
My brother falling.
The creatures pulling his hand free. Seeing no ring. Screaming in fury.
Blood. So much blood.
Screams tearing through my throat. My terror and anguish reflected back to me through the still-raw bond.
The creatures turning, sniffing, surging at me.
Axen snatching me up from their midst. Flying away at top speed.
Me on her head, clinging tight in fear. Wrapping around her ear and clutching its softness.
Hiding in a cave. Safe but still shaking with fear.
I suddenly became aware that the roars in the present had quieted. The swooping had turned into a choppy circle. No more flame bursts at the ground below.
My throat vibrated. I was humming without realizing it. It was the lullaby my mother used to sing to me. The same song I’d hummed as a little girl on that first night, curled up against my dragon’s ear, shaking from terror and the wrenching images of my brother’s dead body.
Axen changed direction abruptly, her head waving. She roared, a different roar. Calling. My breath caught. I hummed louder and kept running my fingers over the soft edge. She twisted again, then slowly landed in the field away from the city, far from the trapped people. She alternated between snorting and mournful roars. She was confused. Something was wrong, she knew, but her mind was too twisted with the leader’s mind to be able to recognize what it was.
“Axen,” I called. “It’s me. Can you hear me?”
She snorted again, then lowered her head and jerked through a sharp, violent shake. I lost my grip and went flying to the ground below. I hit hard and tumbled a few times before coming to a stop. By then, she was already leaping into the air once more. Fear jumped ahead of the pain crying for my attention. I’d failed again. She was going back to her attack.
She roared again, then turned and flew away. Toward the mountains.
I slumped in relief. She knew something was wrong, but couldn’t figure out what. So she was doing the same thing that had brought her comfort in the past: hiding. Angry snarls and shrieks pulled me back to the moment. The creatures stomped their feet and howled, pointing after the retreating dragon. The men shouted and lunged at the creatures. The dragon, they’d been helpless against. The creatures, on the other hand, were easy enough to reach.
I struggled to my feet. Nausea caught me in a dizzying grip for a moment, but I fought through it and pushed onward. I couldn’t stop now. It was only a matter of time before the creature would be able to reassert his dominance over her. I had to get the ring away from him before that could happen. I found a discarded blade on the ground and joined the fight.
One group broke through the circle of creatures. A stream of women, children, and many men rushed to the road, fleeing toward Emsha.
The creatures started after them, but those of us who remained fought all the harder, driving them back. It didn’t take long for the creatures to realize they were outmatched. They might still have the advantage of numbers, but we had the weapons and the rage fueling us onward. And their numbers were sharply diminishing as a result.
One of the creatures let out a blaring shriek, then bolted back toward the tunnel. The others quickly followed. I chased after them alongside the fighting men. I’d follow them all the way to the throne room. Get the ring back. Take the leader apart piece by piece. The last of the creatures vanished into the tunnel, us just behind them. The ground shook.
“Look out!” someone in front of me shouted. The surge of pursuers abruptly changed directions. I shoved past one of the fleeing men and pressed onward. Someone caught me by the shoulder and yanked me backwards. I fell clear of the tunnel as it collapsed in front of me.
“What are you, crazy?” the man holding me demanded.
I stood and turned. The fighters were already heading back to Emsha after the others who had fled. I’d have to go that way, too. Get to the other tunnel under the roots of the large tree.
“Well?” The man gave me a shake. Then he paused. His eyes widened. “You! This is your fault!”
I shoved his hand off, not in the mood for discussion or diplomacy. “I’m not the one who handed a dragon over to a complete stranger for a few chunks of gold.”
He scowled and drew his sword.
“Go ahead.” I glared at him in a fierce challenge. “And what will you do when the dragon comes back?”
“She is coming back. Unless I can get to the leader first.”
Another man eyed me suspiciously. “You can make it so the beast won’t attack again?”
“I can. But I’ll need help.” I turned toward Emsha and started to run, but my body rejected the motion. I settled on a jog, only slowing long enough to retrieve a discarded scabbard from the smoking battlefield. I spotted a short dagger nearby and tucked it under my tunic as an afterthought. Just in case. Then I resumed on the route to Emsha.
I heard the remaining men muttering before they fell in pace behind me.
We reached Emsha to find the road full of people. Thone and Jennik faced off in the center of the mass.
“I told you, we will freely help you rebuild,” Thone said, “but you no longer have any ground to stand on to make demands or threats.”
“You’re the one who brought the dragon into this!” Jennik retorted, his face red.
I strode up to them. “Actually, that was me.”
Jennik’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “You! You did this!” He yanked his sword out.
Thone’s own sword blocked it before it got much further. “You did this to yourself, and you know it. Now put it away.”
Swords appeared throughout the crowd, everyone on edge, ready and waiting for their respective leaders to give the signal to attack.
I reached forward and used my fingertips to push both swords in front of me downward. “You can bicker about who’s to blame later. Right now, I need your help. All of you. We have to go underground so I can get the ring back and prevent those creatures from using Axen to attack again.”
Jennik’s eyes narrowed. “You can stop this?”
He eyed me only a moment longer before sheathing his sword. Thone copied his movement. The men around us relaxed some, but remained on close watch for the slightest sign of returned hostilities.
“How?” Jennik demanded.
I had to let myself slow down for a moment. Jennik was a man who solved his problems with violence, but I couldn’t let him kill the leader, not while the leader still wore the ring. I’d have to be careful how I worded this.
“The creature you gave the ring to. I need him alive. Then I can regain control of the dragon and guarantee there will be no more attacks.”
A man behind Jennik snorted. I vaguely recognized him, possibly from my first encounter with Krenish. “There aren’t any attacks right now.”
“Not right now, no. But the dragon is still under the creature’s influence. It’s only a matter of time before the attacks will resume. And next time, they won’t stop for any reason.” The longer the bond remained in place, the stronger it became, the more adjusted Axen’s view became to the wearer’s interpretation of the world.
Jennik surveyed me. I could practically see his brain hard at work. “You said you need the leader alive. Why?”
“It’s the only way for this to work.” If I let on that killing the leader would kill Axen, they would just storm the cavern, kill the leader, and consider the problem solved. I couldn’t let them kill her.
“So that gutter wretch gets away free?” he snapped, clearly displeased with the idea.
“No.” Perfect. He’d given me what I needed to know. “Here’s the deal. You and your men come with us underground and fight our way through the remaining creatures. Their numbers are weakened now, as many as they lost once the dragon left. Help me capture the leader alive. As soon as I’ve done what needs done to stop the dragon attacks, you’ll get your side of the deal.”
“The leader. He’ll be all yours to carry out whatever justice you see fit.” I saw the bloodlust flare in his eyes and knew I’d found the right nerve. I pushed it, just slightly. “You can show him what happens to anyone foolish enough to cross you.”
The men behind him muttered, but he put a hand up, silencing them. He evaluated me a moment longer, then held his hand out.
I shook it.
He held on a moment longer than necessary, his eyes hard. “I haven’t forgotten what you did to us.”
“And I haven’t forgotten your deeds, either. Now let’s be done with this before he can rally the dragon to return.”
He paused, then released my hand with a nod. “Give my men a moment to ready themselves.”
It occurred to me that I had simply assumed that Thone would also be in agreement with my plan and that he and his men would join in the fight. I turned to apologize and properly request his help, but he was already directing his men, preparing them for the upcoming fight.
The crowd eased back as Thone and Jennik gave orders to their respective people. I slid through the mass of people toward the large tree with the massive roots. My leg and side joined in concert, other random joints and bruises adding lines of harmony, trying to convince me that collapsing would be the best idea at this time. I ignored the music and pressed on. I couldn’t slow down now. I had to get the ring back. My legs wobbled as I neared the tree.
Magra caught my arm and pulled me to face her before I reached my target. “You’re going to kill yourself if you try to keep up this pace.” She had been chiding before, teasing, even scolding. Now she just sounded serious. Angry. Perhaps a little frightened. I met her eyes and knew she was right. But all I could do was nod in agreement before turning toward the tree once more.
She sighed in exasperation. “Alita, I can’t give you energy like I did before. There are too many injured people who need my help.”
Another exasperated sigh. She caught my arm again, giving me a surge of energy. Not as much as before, but enough to keep me together. “That’s all I can do. Do me a favor and don’t let it be for nothing. There’s no shame in letting someone else help you if you can’t go any further.”
That’s what I was already doing, recruiting so many people to help me reach the leader. I nodded. She looked like she might say something else, but instead turned and scurried away, lips pressed tight. I took the last few steps to the tree. It came as little surprise that the creatures had already collapsed the tunnel, probably when they first discovered that Rik and I had intruded on their domain. I set to work digging.
Another pair of hands joined mine, golden in tone with dry mud streaking them. “I was afraid I wouldn’t see you again,” Rik said. “I saw you fall when Axen landed, and I tried to find you in the battle. I was afraid you’d been captured again. Or…” He cleared his throat. “I’m glad you made it out.”
“You too.” I shoved a clump of dirt to the side. “I mean, I’m glad you made it out, too.”
He leaned forward to see me better. “Are you sure you’re up to this? You look terrible. I mean, not that you ever look terrible. But for you, you look terrible.” He scratched his head in frustration. “That’s not what I meant to say.”
I ignored his fumbling and kept digging. “The sooner we get my ring back, the sooner I can rest.”
He worked in silence beside me a bit longer before looking up again. “I don’t think we’re going to find the entrance. I think they collapsed the whole tunnel.”
I looked up to see mostly darkness. The tree roots sprawled out over my head. He was right. I’d found the tunnel long before this point last time.
A sharp pang shot through me. What did this mean? The whole tunnel was gone? How would we get in? The creatures had collapsed the tunnel in Krenish, too. Where else could we go?
I sat back on my heels and stared at the wall of dirt in front of me as if I could make it vanish through sheer force of will. There had to be something.
“What now?” Rik asked.
I closed my eyes. “I don’t know.”
“We could go back to Krenish—”
“They already collapsed that one.”
“We could check. Maybe they just closed the entrance.”
“And waste another hour on the road?” My words flew out harsher than necessary. I sighed. “I’m sorry. I mean, we don’t have the time.”
He looked around. “They came up through the road. If we pry up the planks, perhaps some of those holes are still intact.”
That’s right. The tunnel under the tree had been the largest tunnel, certainly, but not the only one. The road was a long shot, though.
But the road wasn’t the only place they’d come from.
I stood, shaking the dirt off me as I hurried back toward Emsha’s side of the road. “They came through the forest on the other side of the village before. When they came into the inn. There’s got to be a way through there.”
Rik followed on my heels.
Thone caught up on one side, Jennik on the other. “Where are we going?”
“We’re finding the way underground,” I said. “Have your men ready.”
Jennik didn’t look thrilled to be taking directions from a woman. Thone accepted it with surprising grace.
It had been far too long since the attack to find any signs of where the creatures had come through or tracks to indicate their retreat path. I strode through the forest, searching as best as I could as I went.
Rik turned to Thone and Jennik. “Have everyone spread out. The creatures may have closed the entrance to the tunnel, but likely didn’t collapse the entire thing. Look for any places where the dirt has been disturbed.”
Some of the Krenish men grumbled something about a kebbit hunt as they drifted away from the group, occasionally poking at the ground with their sword tips as they went. Rik wandered some, but never drifted too far from my side.
“Here!” Jaska shouted.
We all hurried to his side. By the time I reached the front of the crowd, two men had joined Jaska in digging through the loose soil to the tunnel beyond.
Rik lit a lantern and held it high. “No point in stealth with this many men.”
Light was a risk last time, but it would be our ally now. Many other men were ready with lanterns, as well.
“Then let’s go.” I slid past Jaska and proceeded into the tunnel, Rik jogging slightly to catch up.
I was one of the shortest people in the group, but even I had to remain stooped as we continued through the tunnel. It didn’t expand quite as much as the other ones I’d been in. I kept my sword in hand as I crouch-walked over the rough surface. I was used to making my way over the uneven terrain. The men behind me, not so much. I heard a lot of thumping and grunted exclamations as we continued.
I caught Rik’s eye. No point in stealth, indeed. The corner of his lip lifted slightly in amusement, catching the significance of my expression.
I returned my attention forward. The creatures would hear us coming and attack the tunnel, where their small bodies and the narrow space would give them the advantage. We wouldn’t be able to spread out and surround them, and most of our fighters would be trapped too far back to be any help. They, on the other hand, would be able to duck and scurry around our legs. We had to be ready.
The tunnel gradually broadened enough I could stand upright, though the top of my head still brushed the top of the space from time to time, knocking fresh dirt into my hair. I spotted a faint glow ahead. We’d already reached the cavern? Why hadn’t the creatures come to meet us by now?
Rik looked as uncertain as I did. “We should have seen some by now.”
A lanky man slid past me and skittered close to the tunnel end, pressing himself against the side and peering around for a surreptitious look. He remained still for a long moment, then turned. “They aren’t here.”
“Not here?” Jennik demanded, shoving forward.
I followed him, Rik and Thone beside me and the rest of the men hurrying behind them, craning their necks for a view.
The tunnel ended at the top of the cavern. The spiraling ramps and myriad tunnels were the same before, as were the dimly glowing blue rocks set in the walls. But last time, the walls had seemed alive with all the activity. Now everything was still. Silent.
My heart slowed into painfully heavy thuds against my ribs. What did this mean? They’d abandoned their home rather than risk us reaching them? I would never find the leader in time. Axen would be lost.
I sucked in a steadying breath and forced myself to focus. I couldn’t assume the worst. I had to assume the best. We’d cut down their numbers significantly. They might be taking cover, assuming a protective stance around their leader rather than risk spreading themselves out and weakening their defenses.
The men behind me started grumbling. They aren’t here. We came all this way for nothing.
I took a moment to reorient myself, then pointed to the lower, larger tunnel where we’d found the leader last time. “We start there. If they aren’t there, we search the tunnels, one by one, until we find them.”
“And if we don’t?” Jennik asked, an implied threat hanging behind his tone.
“Then we’ll hunt them down like the wastiks they are.”
His smirk suggested he liked my answer.
Rik and I led the way down the spiraling ramps. One ended too soon, and we had to scale our way down a length of wall to reach the next one. More grumbles followed behind us, but I ignored them, keeping my focus on the tunnel. He had to be there. He had to be.
Last time, our progress had been painfully slow, inching our way from tunnel to tunnel, doing our best to avoid detection. This time, the route to our target went much faster but no less painful. My heart thudded at every odd noise, certain that the creatures were about to flood out of the tunnel I was passing. That tension combated with an even more terrifying thought, that the creatures actually had abandoned their home and would never be seen again. Along with my ring.
It was getting harder to breathe.
We reached the correct level and approached the tunnel. It was as dark as before, but no creatures plugged the entryway now. The air felt too thick. Wrong.
“They aren’t here,” someone grumbled.
Jennik shot a scowl over his shoulder—the speaker must have been one of his men—then eyed the tunnel. “If this is really where their leader hides, why aren’t they guarding it?”
I didn’t have an answer. Rik didn’t, either.
Mumbles rose behind us. Words like ‘waste of time’ and ‘fool’s errand’ buzzed around my ears.
“We’ve come too far to give up,” Rik said, stepping forward into the tunnel without looking to make sure the rest of us were following. “We stick to the plan. Check this tunnel, and if the leader isn’t there, we scout the others.”
He paused and glanced back at me, only me.
My feet led me forward to walk at his side, and we continued into the tunnel. It suddenly didn’t matter if the others followed or not. He was going to make sure this task was seen through to the end, regardless of what we faced or how many allies we had on our side.
Clumping footsteps echoed through the tunnel behind us. As glad as I was for Rik’s support, it was a relief to know we still had enough swords with us to make our mission successful.
We wound our way through the tunnel. Came to the last corner. Turned to see the large room beyond.
Empty. The mound sat unoccupied. A few of the treasures were missing from the raised sections around the throne. No leader. No lounging creatures of importance. No servants scurrying around to see to their needs. They were gone.
I felt like someone had torn my lungs out through my ribcage. The absence of creatures and the missing items pointed straight to my deepest fear: the creatures had abandoned this place.
“Nothing here,” Jennik declared unnecessarily, giving me a look.
I sucked in the first real breath of air since we entered the room. “Then we check the other tunnels. There’s another large one that might be of importance to them. We’ll try that one next.”
“We should split up,” someone suggested. “We can check more tunnels that way.”
“It would be faster,” Jaska said.
“But more dangerous,” Rik countered. “Whoever finds their hiding place might be killed before they can alert the rest of us.”
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take.” Jennik turned and waved his men back the way we’d come. “Let’s move.”
Rik and I fell into step, now at the back of the group instead of the front. I still felt the weight of oppressive silence crushing my shoulders, even with the stomping feet and quiet mutters as the men planned out how they would divide themselves.
“We’ll stay with a large group,” Rik offered.
The weight grew.
“Or we can stay near the center so we can hear the instant anyone finds anything. It’s up to you.”
I slowed. Something was wrong here. Something about the heaviness I felt.
Rik looked back toward the throne room. “Maybe you’d rather stay here and look for clues of where they might have gone?”
“Shh.” I held still for a moment. I’d been so caught up in my fear of the creatures being gone, of never retrieving my ring, of Axen being in their grips for the rest of her life, that I’d interpreted my feelings as part of that fear. But it was something more. My senses weren’t as sharply honed as they were when bonded with Axen, making it harder to interpret what my body was trying to tell me.
“Stop.” My voice rang and echoed strangely in the tunnel.
The mass of men slowed to a stop and looked back at me.
I searched the tunnel around us with my gaze. Closed my eyes for a moment. Opened them again.
The ceiling blinked back.
My hand was on Rik’s arm. “Your bow,” I whispered, so quiet he had to lean closer to hear. “Shoot the ceiling.”
He stared at me.
I didn’t look away from the spot on the ceiling where I could swear I’d seen the tiniest movement, even as the more rational parts of my mind tried to convince me that I’d been imagining things, that the flickering lights from the lanterns had tricked my eyes, that I only wanted something to be there.
Rik notched an arrow, took aim upwards, and let it loose.
A creature fell, screaming.
My sword was already in hand. “They’re on the ceiling!” I spun back toward the room. The creatures were still here. They’d just been hiding. Which meant the leader was still here, too. Before I could get two steps, a torrent of creatures dropped from the ceiling, flying at us with shrieks and claws and teeth. I threw one over my shoulder before it could get a grip on me. Caught another with my sword. The tunnel filled to bursting with chaotic shouts and snarls as the men faced the ambush, struggling to cast off the attackers and cut them down.
I knocked another attacker aside and slashed at one short body after another, driving my way deeper into the tunnel. Had to get back to the throne room. The creatures were many, but not nearly as many as before, and it showed. Their thin numbers barely slowed my progress forward.
One of the creatures ducked under my slash and jumped at my chest. His sharp claws cut through my tunic and dug into the flesh above my heart before I was able to redirect my strike and send him tumbling to his brethren below. I had to gasp and drive the pain to the back of my mind. They weren’t holding back now. I didn’t wear the ring. I had already witnessed the leader complete the bond. They had no reason to restrain themselves and keep me alive.
A shriek came from behind me. I spun and lifted my sword in time to intercept the creature before he could get close enough to slash at me. Hands caught my hair and tugged backwards, trying to pull me down. I bent my knees and slid one foot back for a stronger stance, then lunged my upper body forwards hard enough to break most of the holds and send one creature flying over my head. It tumbled into two others, knocking all three of them down.
I jumped over them and continued my fight forward. I was almost to the room. Nearly there.
More creatures dropped from the room’s ceiling to try to block the way. But the chaos behind me had quieted as the men eliminated the creatures’ advantage of surprise. We were a stronger force than they were prepared to face. And in this situation, the uninhibited rage of Jennik’s men worked to our advantage.
We drove the creatures back away from the tunnel end. I gained more scratches and a few bite marks, but the enemy was falling faster than their damage could match. They’d lost too many of their fighters up in Krenish after Axen flew away. They no longer could swarm and overwhelm us like they could before.
Archers slowed at the tunnel end, staying close to the cover of the walls and firing randomly at the ceiling to find more hiding creatures. A few ignited the ends of their arrows before firing, bringing more light to the ceiling and revealing the slightly furrier mounds of dirt hidden on the uneven surface. I stabbed a creature that had chomped down on my leg and cast it aside. The leader had to still be hiding on the ceiling. And now it was only a matter of time before we found him.
A mass of creatures dropped down onto the throne mound. One stood in the middle, panic in his eyes. The leader. I slashed forward with renewed energy and purpose.
“Stop!” the leader shouted above the chaos. He shoved a couple of his guards aside so he could be seen. A blade glittered in his hand, turned toward his own throat. “Stop, or I kill myself!”
My lungs collapsed once again. I froze, unable to move.
The fighting behind me quieted as the men turned their attention to the mound. The creatures backed up slightly, waiting for their leader’s directions.
Jennik’s eyes narrowed. “Good. Kill yourself. You deserve nothing less than death.”
“No.” The word was out of my mouth before I could stop it.
The leader’s face twisted with a smirk. I wouldn’t let him die, and he knew it.
“Why not?” Jennik demanded. He turned his blade toward me. “We had a deal.”
I’d already tipped my hand, told the leader everything he needed to know. There was no point in hiding anything from him. From Jennik, yes. From the leader, no. “We can’t let him die until I’ve regained control of the dragon.”
Jennik continued to stare at me with the same expression. Trying to see where the trick or trap was.
“I have to have the ring before he dies,” I pressed. “Then you can kill him. But not before.”
“Not much reason for me to hand over the ring then,” the leader hissed. He lightly twisted the blade at his throat so the metal caught the light. “Leave. All of you.”
“Not a chance,” Jennik snapped.
“Leave now, or I slice my throat open and you lose your precious dragon!”
I tried not to cringe.
Jennik turned that stare on me once more. “Lose the dragon?” His face relaxed. He’d figured it out. “Go ahead, then. I have no qualms with that.”
Thone’s blade lit against the corner of Jennik’s neck. “We do.” The men turned on each other in a flash, blades turned at each other in threat, though they still tried to watch the creatures for any signs of resumed hostilities. Thone glanced at me as if asking for directions.
The leader looked like he might burst into delighted laughter.
I wanted to throw up. “We have to leave.” I couldn’t let him kill Axen through the bond. I would have to return in secret, infiltrate, find another way to get the ring. But even I knew that was a flimsy hope. More likely the creatures would flee. Regain control of Axen. Use her to wipe out the above world.
“Then we leave.” Thone took a step back toward the tunnel, ‘guiding’ Jennik with him.
Jennik grunted in angry protest. “How dare you! I’ll crush you and your pitiful town—”
“How do you intend to do that?” Thone asked quietly.
Jennik’s eyes flicked to the group of men. Their numbers had been almost equal after the dragon attack. Now, after fighting through the ambush, it looked like Emsha had a few more blades on Krenish.
“We have no intention of bullying you as you did us,” Thone continued. “But we will not allow you to act foolishly and get one of our own killed.”
“The dragon?” Jennik burst out incredulously.
Thone’s eyes met mine. “Yes. The dragon. Now move.”
Jennik sputtered for a moment, but reluctantly obeyed.
My feet felt heavy as I backed toward the tunnel. I wanted with everything in me to abandon reason and throw myself at the leader, tackle him to the ground, pull the knife away, tear the ring off his hand. But I knew I’d never get that far. I knew the look in the leader’s eye. He would kill himself rather than see defeat. And if he couldn’t have the dragon, no one could.
“Not you.” The leader glared at me with tiny, glittering eyes.
My feet slowed. “What?”
“You stay. The rest leave.”
“She’s coming with us,” Rik barked out, stepping toward my side.
The creatures shoved him back away. He raised his sword to strike.
“Drop it!” the leader ordered, tightening his grip on his knife in threat.
“Do what he says,” I said. My heart had finally restarted, now pounding in double time. The leader wanted me to stay. Probably to kill me as vengeance for what I’d done. I didn’t really care why. All that mattered was that I was staying. Maybe I would get another chance after all.
Rik froze, his jaw muscles twitching, before he reluctantly lowered his arm and dropped the sword at his side.
“Good. Now leave with the others,” the leader said.
He didn’t move for a long time, staring at me. Then he turned and silently trudged after the others.
The leader watched until the men had disappeared around the first bend in the tunnel. He faced me. “Drop your sword.”
I unlatched the belt and tossed it aside.
A couple of creatures scooped up the discarded items and scurried back away from me, keeping me enclosed in a tight circle.
“Now tell me how it works.”
I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t that. “What?”
“Tell me how it works!” He glared at me. “The dragon attacked. Then it didn’t. Make it work again.”
He didn’t know I’d been the one to interfere with Axen. He didn’t realize that it was only a matter of time before his mind would reclaim hers. He thought something was broken.
I tried to keep up appearances, to show only defiance with a trace of fear. Not the relief I felt at knowing he didn’t understand the bond nearly as much as I did. Not the calculations that clacked onward in my mind, working out how to turn this to my advantage. “I’ll never tell.”
“You will!” He jabbed the knife toward his neck again.
“I think you’re bluffing. You’d kill yourself to keep us from getting the ring back, but this is different. You want to use the ring. I won’t tell you how. Killing yourself won’t help anything.”
His eyes narrowed. “You know that my death means the dragon dies.”
I folded my arms. “I know. But I think you still want to use the dragon. You’re not going to kill yourself now that there’s no immediate threat to you and your people.”
His lips twisted, but his grip on the knife shook, just a fraction. I was right. He was completely willing to kill himself to keep from being captured, but he wasn’t willing to kill himself over my stubborn refusal to cooperate.
He finally spat on the ground and lowered the knife. “Fine.” He grunted, and a couple of creatures vanished into the wall behind him. If I squinted, I could barely make out the tiny tunnel they’d disappeared into.
“My men will reach surface before yours,” he said. “Not many people still in your little village, is there? So many…” He licked his lips. “Children.”
His tone sent ice through my veins. “You wouldn’t.”
He laughed. “You think that’s true? I wouldn’t harm children along with all the other people on the skyside?”
I clenched my teeth. “You’re just going to kill them anyway with the dragon.”
“I didn’t say my men would go kill them. No, I think a few children will come and join us here.” His gaze latched on mine. “Their experience here will depend on how helpful you are.”
The cold deepened. I instinctively tried to cover the horror I felt, but then thought better of it and let it show. “Don’t. Please, leave the children alone.”
“I can have my men return before they take a single one. But you have to give me what I want.” He jabbed the knife in my direction. “Tell me how it works.”
I let emotions battle across my face. Anger. Fear. Uncertainty. And finally, resignation. “Call your men back. I’ll tell you.”
“I don’t believe you. Tell me first.”
I hesitated as if considering pushing the matter, then hung my head. “You have to attune the ring.”
“Attune to your body. Then you’ll regain control.”
“You have to turn it to the right.”
He stared at me. “Turn it?”
I drew a circle in the air with my finger. “To the right.”
He looked dubious. Looked at the ring. Back at me.
He slowly twisted it on his finger. Stared at it a moment before scowling at me. “It didn’t work.”
“That was just the first turn. Now you have to turn it to the left. Twice.”
His lips peeled backwards. “You’re lying. You’re trying to trick me.”
“I’m not! It’s the same thing I had to do when I first bonded with her. The bond works at first through emotional energy, but that wears off too quickly. The wearer has to be attuned properly to the ring or it will never work again.”
“Tell me all of it. All the turns.”
I spoke it as I made it up, using a slightly sing-song voice as if I was reciting something from memory. “Right, two lefts, a right, a far right, three lefts, two far lefts, two rights, a left—”
“Stop!” He scowled. “You’re making it up. Turning a ring won’t make the dragon work again.”
“Of course it does.” I let myself sound exasperated. “The ring contains her energy. Dragon energy. It can’t mix with your energy and bond you properly just sitting inside a ring. You have to attune it to your body so the bond can be complete. The vibrations of the ring against your finger, along with your focus on the ritual, is what allows that energy to be released.” I drew out the words ‘focus on the ritual’ as if scolding a child who wasn’t paying attention to a lesson.
He stared a moment longer. Looked at the ring. Back at me. “What was the next turn?”
“It’s been too long since you did the first turn. You have to start over now. Turn it to the right.”
He scowled. One of the creatures beside him grunted and hissed. He snarled and slapped the creature, sending his subordinate cringing back away from him.
He glared at me one more time, then turned the ring.
“Now two lefts.”
“That makes no sense,” he hissed. “It is all left. How do you turn two lefts?”
“Turn it left, pause, turn it left again.”
He did so.
He stomped his foot and glared again. “What is far right?”
“You have to turn it more than before.”
He turned it.
“No, more than that.”
He turned it more.
“No, even more.”
He shrieked. “You! You’re making it wrong!”
“I told you, it has to be more. But now you have to start over because you paused. A far right is really far.”
“Like this?” He twisted again.
“No, more than that.”
He spat at the ground again. “This is impossible! We’re killing the first child they retrieve!”
“No!” I protested. “I told you, it is possible. I’ve done it myself when I first bonded with Axen. But it’s hard to get the motions right. My brother had to show it to me.” I held my hands out and mimicked the motions in the air.
He squinted at my rapid sequence. “Do it again.”
He stomped his foot again. “That’s what I was doing!”
“No, it’s different.” I took a step forward. “I could show you—”
He flicked the end of the knife up to his throat. “Not another step.”
I obediently stopped. “Okay, then I just have to keep trying to explain it.”
His mouth twitched. He couldn’t make up his mind what was worse, allowing me near or trying to muddle through my spoken directions.
Finally he hissed. “Come here. But no tricks.”
I tried not to look happy as I approached at a respectful pace. Perfect. All I had to do was get him focused on the ring, then I’d grab the knife, pull it away from his neck, tear the ring off his finger before he could react. I could do this.
He shoved the knife at one of the creatures standing behind him. He spoke his orders in the common language for my benefit. “If she so much as blinks wrong, kill me.”
My feet stumbled, triggering pain in my side. Exhaustion and my wounds were reasserting themselves. And my plan wouldn’t work now that the knife would no longer be within my reach.
The pain stayed in my side. I shifted my weight and realized it wasn’t my injury that hurt. The stumble had moved the knife I’d hidden under my tunic earlier.
My heart sped up. There had to be something I could do with that. Some way…
A new plan formed in my mind by the time I stood at the leader’s side.
He glared. “Show me.”
“A far right is like this.” I kept my demeanor all business, simply focused on instructing a petulant student on the proper method for completing the bonding. I hovered my fingers near his and mimed a dramatic twisting motion.
He tested the motion.
“No, this.” I inched my fingers closer and mimed the motion once more.
He echoed the movement.
“That’s it. So do the first moves. Right, left, pause, left—” I stopped. “No, longer pause. Like this.” I inched just a fraction closer and mimed the proper timing for a pause.
He tried again from the beginning.
A hiss came from the tunnel behind us. He and the other creatures glanced back to hear the report of the creatures coming in.
I didn’t. I grabbed his hand with one hand. Drew my knife with the other. The leader let out a shriek of warning, but it was already too late. My blade shot through the narrow bones on his wrist, severing his hand from his body.
He screamed and collapsed on the ground as I spun and bolted toward the main tunnel. The creatures shrieked and surged to meet me.
Shouts echoed from the tunnel. The men, fighting their way back into the room. They hadn’t left, only gotten out of sight and waited for the opportunity to return. I yanked the ring free, discarded the hand, and forged onward, aimed for the sound.
Too many creatures between me and them. Not enough to overwhelm our whole fighting force, but far too many for me alone. I ducked under one’s grip only to get caught by three more. The knife in my hand flew back and forth, cutting back one attacker after another.
It wasn’t enough. They leapt onto my shoulders, my back, my chest, clawing, biting, tearing. My weak leg buckled. Too many clung to my hand, trying to break my grip, trying to get to the ring. Hands closed around my throat. Teeth sank into my arm. They slammed my head into the hard dirt floor, making lights and darkness flash around my vision.
The flashing lights turned into reflections on flashing blades. Rik tore one creature off my neck as Thone sliced into another. I choked and gasped as more men cut their way through the knot of creatures on me, but my vision continued fading. Magra had been right. My body couldn’t keep up this pace.
Pain tore through my arm. My grip slipped. The ring fell from my hand. I screamed and lunged after it, landing on top of it before any of the creatures could snatch it away. Long fingers clawed after mine, but I managed to grasp the ring and clench my hand around it once more.
Rik pulled me to my feet as the men drove back the creatures far enough to form a protective ring around me. “Are you okay?”
I couldn’t answer. I wasn’t. I was fading fast. And the men were fighting to keep the creatures away from me, but the creatures were fighting even more ferociously now, determined to avenge their leader and regain the ring. If I passed out, I’d lose my grip on the ring. I couldn’t let that happen again. There was only one way to be sure that the ring stayed with me, even if I passed out. But it would leave me helpless.
My vision blurred and shifted. I was about to be helpless no matter what I did.
Rik was calling my name. I looked up at him, barely able to push the words out. “I need you.”
He blinked, then nodded in understanding. He turned, sword ready, prepared to strike down any creature that managed to breach the protective circle. Ready to protect me.
I squeezed the ring a moment longer, working up my nerve. It was dangerous. But it was the only way. I put the ring on and tumbled into darkness and flame.
The ground shook and swayed beneath me. Rhythmic.
Voices drifted at a distance. Sunlight filtered down through blurred streaks and blots of green.
One voice raised in an almost jubilant tone. The responses matched the tone but remained quieter.
Rik adjusted me in his arms, and I could dimly see the other men walking through the forest, keeping a careful distance from him.
“She told us you can understand us through her,” Rik said, his voice low and cautious but steady. “Or at least understand the basic meaning of what we say. So I hope you understand when I say that I appreciate your care for her. I care about her, too. I know why you want to keep a close eye.” He hesitated. “I was just wondering if you might consider keeping your eye a little… less close.”
My vision cleared some more. Rik walked through the forest, carrying me. Axen trotted happily on his heels like a tame pet, her massive head bobbing just above his.
I closed my eyes. Axen.
Her delight flooded my body. Small meat one! Where did you go? You disappeared and everything was dark and there were very bad things on the ground trying to kill me so I had to fight them but then I heard your voice and I looked for you but I couldn’t find you.
I let my mind mix with hers, basking in the familiarity, the rightness, the wholeness I felt. She would never fully understand what had happened, and I wasn’t inclined to tell her. We lost each other for a time. But now we’re back.
She snuffled in joy.
Rik jumped and tensed at the abrupt sound, but to his credit continued onward at the same calm, steady pace.
I finally forced myself to stir. “I can walk.”
He looked down at me, surprise and relief on his face. Then he returned his eyes forward. “Nope.”
I almost laughed at his audacity. “No?”
“Magra was willing to let you run yourself into the ground only because it was an emergency and because you were going to do it whether she gave you enough energy to keep going or not. But she’ll have my head on a pike if I let you push yourself beyond what your body can handle now that the emergency’s over.” He shrugged awkwardly. “She’s a leader in our village, and not far from eldership. I’m way more scared of her wrath than of yours. Besides, I agree with her. You need rest to recover.”
I snorted, but he continued onward undaunted.
Axen, give me some energy.
I glared up at her. You too?
He’s taking you to rest and get better. You’re hurt more than I can help. I like his plan.
She snuffled again, her giggles dancing through my mind.
I sat near the head of the gathering place in the center of Emsha. I’d tried to take a seat further back, away from the center of attention, but Tarvia had been quick to drag me up here. I tried not to fidget as Jennik and Thone went through their speeches.
Rik was right; Magra had no patience for my stubbornness now that the emergency was over. She’d all but tied me to the bed to keep me resting until my body had sufficiently recovered. I’d had to get my news filtered through the various visitors. Fortunately, Rik visited frequently, and his accounts were the most informative.
The creatures the leader had sent to kidnap children had reached the village, even made it into the inn undetected. They’d gotten within only a few paces of Fasha before she saw them. Her screams had nearly deafened them. Then the boys tackled the creatures while Tarvia rushed over with a scalding pan fresh off the fire. Their return in defeat had been the hissing that distracted the leader enough for me to get the ring. Rik reported that two of the creatures had rather interesting burn marks around their heads.
After I put on the ring, the men had kept the creatures off me long enough for the rest of the fighters to reach our group. A few creatures had seen the direction the battle was going and fled. The rest were wiped out. The leader had tried to escape, but he’d still been crippled by the pain of the bond being broken. Jennik had calmly seized the leader by the ankle, saluted Thone, then dragged the creature away with the rest of the Krenish men following. No one from Emsha knew what exactly happened to the leader, and no one really cared to.
The men of Emsha and Krenish had spent a couple days collapsing and filling in tunnels while I recovered. Axen even helped stomp on the places she could reach to pack the dirt solid. The men figured, there might be more creatures out there, and they might return someday, but there was no reason to make it easy on them. And if they ever felt the ground rumble like that again, they’d know what to look for.
Then the people of Emsha helped Krenish rebuild. Thone made it clear there were no strings attached. The people of Emsha knew what it was like to have their homes destroyed, and they were glad to help others recover from the same tragedy. Rik did an impressive imitation of the chagrined expression Jennik wore when he heard Thone say that.
Now we all sat here, Krenish and Emsha alike, watching as Jennik and Thone formally signed a treaty of peace between the two settlements. No aggression. Mutual defense. Open hunting ground rights. Trading as desired with no obligations, and fair deals only.
No tributes, no demands, no bullying.
Rik had happily told me he was glad Jennik had finally come to his senses and recognized how much the two settlements could benefit each other if working cooperatively instead of against each other.
I suspected a good deal more of it had to do with the fact that Krenish no longer outnumbered Emsha in fighting men. And it looked like that would be the continuing trend, with the amount of travelers I saw stopping for services in Emsha just in the few days I spent resting. But it seemed that some part of Jennik’s agreement was also inspired by Emsha’s kindness and by their unified work against the creatures. I hoped in time he would come to see what a treasure the people of Emsha really were.
The ceremony wrapped up, and I stood with the others, applauding as the leaders shook hands. Children hurried through the crowd, putting steaming plates of food on the table.
The smell tempted my stomach, but as everyone finished clapping and began turning to find their seats and dig into the food, I took advantage of the disorder to slide through the crowd and slip into Magra’s to collect my things. I left through the front door. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t want to draw out any big farewells.
I glanced back between the buildings. The people chatted and laughed, men telling dramatic stories about the fight in the underground cavern, children listening with large eyes, women talking about the future of the two settlements. Peaceful. Happy. As it should be.
I turned my back and slipped into the forest. Axen waited for me only a bit deeper. I’d be on her back in a few minutes, and then we’d be on our way.
I jumped and spun, startled.
Rik stood a few paces behind me. He almost looked lost.
I nodded. “I don’t typically stay put, remember?”
“But that was because of the creatures. They’re gone now.”
“I still prefer my life the way it is.”
“Oh.” He shifted his weight. “I, um, we’ll miss you. All of us.”
I nodded, feeling acutely awkward. This was why I’d tried to slip away unnoticed. “I’ll miss all of you, too.”
I turned and resumed walking.
I exhaled and faced him again. “Yes?”
“I’ll miss you.”
“You said that already.”
“No.” He shook his head and took a few steps, closing the distance between us. “I mean, I’ll miss you. Me. I’m sad you’re leaving. I’m glad for you, because I know this is what you want, but I…” He glanced down, then back to meet my eyes. “I wish you were staying.”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t have if I’d wanted to.
“I hope you stay safe. And I hope that maybe someday you can come back and visit us again.” He held my gaze. “Visit me again.”
It took a minute before I was finally able to nod.
He stood in silence, and all I felt was his nearness. Then he walked away.
I had to remind my feet that they were supposed to be moving. I turned my back on him and continued on to where Axen waited.
Axen squirmed, lying on her back and lightly pawing the air as she stretched like a housepet.
I folded my arms. What do you think you’re doing?
Enjoying a good back scratch.
I can do that. Roll over. We’re leaving.
She pawed at the air again and let out a contented rumble as she wiggled back and forth. I like it here.
Exasperation flashed through me. Then we’ll make sure to come back and visit. Now let’s go.
You like it here, too. You don’t really want to leave any more than I do.
I found myself looking over my shoulder. I could still see Rik’s departing form. He’d almost reached the road.
Her snout bumped me hard enough to push me a few steps his direction. Go kiss him already, will ya?
I scowled at her.
She returned the look.
“Rik.” It was out of my mouth before I could change my mind.
He stopped and turned, a sort of hopeful smile on his face.
My heart gave a little skip. I hesitantly stepped forward and found myself jogging to him.
He stepped closer, looking unsure.
And then I was in his arms, my lips pressed against his. He grunted in surprise, but then his stance softened and his arms wrapped around me in response.
I didn’t know what I was feeling. The only thing that came close was when I was with Axen. Like everything in the world was right. Like nothing could go wrong again. Like I was home. Only one clear thought rang through my mind.
Maybe staying in one place wasn’t so bad after all.
-da (dah): The Elf honorific suffix indicating elderhood, a position of high honor and respect amongst the community.
Elf (ehlf): One of the four races of Kenara, a short people group with large, single color eyes, small noses, and ears featuring a pointed tip.
Emsha (EHM-shuh): A small village along the main road populated by Traditional Elves.
Endonsha (ehn-DAWN-shuh): A planet with a single landmass covering two-thirds of the surface. This landmass is divided into two countries, one of which is Kenara.
Grickle (GRIK-‘l): Unpleasant reptiles with four legs, a brightly colored tail, and a vile odor.
Kadrian (KAY-dree-‘n): One of the four races of Kenara, a tall people group with high, almost pyramid-shaped pointed ears, flat noses, and wide eyes featuring a vertical slit of a pupil.
Kebbit (KEHB-‘t): Large rodents considered to have succulent meat, but are near-impossible to hunt due to their skill for creating decoy dens and false trails.
Kenara (kehn-AHR-uh): The eastern country on Endonsha’s landmass, where the cities of Emsha and Krenish can be found.
Krenish (KREHN-‘sh): A moderate-sized city along the main road populated by Sectarian Elves.
Maman (MAH-m’n): A term of familial endearment used by Elf children for their mothers.
-me (MAY): The Elf honorific suffix indicating a deep and romantic love.
Papan (PAH-p’n): A term of familial endearment used by Elf children for their fathers.
Raisa (RAY-suh): The Elf honorific for women.
Regal (REE-g’l): Standard Kenaran currency.
Rekin (REHK-‘n): Very large rodents with lithe bodies, short padded feet, and protruding fangs. They are plentiful on Endonsha and valued for both fur and meat.
-ro (ROH): The Elf honorific suffix indicating respect and honor.
Sectarian (sehk-TAYR-ee-ehn): A sub-sect of Elf culture where women are subjugated and oppressed, treated as little more than slaves.
Sentinal (SEHN-tihn-‘l): Mount animals, somewhat rare but speedy due to their massive size. They have long, slender legs which stretch above the treetops, round bodies, stretched, snaking necks, and a nose like an upright spear set on a round head.
Tabe (TAH-bay): The Elf honorific for men.
Tree-snit (TREE-sniht): Small rodents with large eyes, furry round bodies, and skinny tails, most commonly found clinging to tree bark of a close color to their fur to hide from predators.
Wastik (WAH-stick): A general Kenaran term for insects or pests which are to be exterminated.
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About Cy Bishop
I enjoy life in the Pacific Northwest with my family and a constantly excited, thick-headed black lab. I obtained a degree in Counseling Psychology from Northwest University in Kirkland, WA, which I use to create fully dimensional characters with unique personalities and quirks. When not writing, I can usually be found reading, watching movies, or wasting entirely too much time on the internet.
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Welcome to Endonsha, a planet inhabited by many races of people filling its single landmass. Oh yeah, and there are dragons. And magic. You know. Alita is content with her life of travel, never staying in one place for long, mostly to avoid drawing attention to the fact that she has a rather unusual traveling companion and guardian: a dragon named Axen. But Alita gets caught in the middle of deadly tension between two settlements, forcing her to set aside her normal life and stay put until they come to a resolution which will allow her the freedom to move on. The longer she stays, the more unsettled she feels, sensing that she’s forgotten about something important. About some reason why she stays in motion. About something that could destroy her entire world.