Paul Cook, Tonya C. Cook
Brother of the Dragon
Flames roared into the chill blue sky. Jetting from every fissure in the stone wall, they combined in the open air into a great eruption of fire. Loose rocks and a few unfortunate men were hurled skyward, and a loud boom, deeper than thunder, reverberated off the walls of the valley. The fireball blossomed like a monstrous flower and quickly burned out. In its wake came a column of gray smoke, then nothing.
Amero opened his eyes. For a moment he was dazed, seeing blue sky above him instead of the foundry roof. His ears rang. Lifting his head, he saw he lay on the ground six paces from the foundry door. Inside the shattered building, all was smoke and flickering flames. His workmen staggered to and fro, stamping on smoldering embers.
“Arkuden! Your arm!”
Dully Amero looked down and saw his left sleeve was on fire. The little flame was creeping up his arm. Daran, the apprentice who’d warned him, slapped at the burning material, extinguishing the fire.
“Are you well, Arkuden? Say something!” The boy’s eyes were ringed with heavy smudges of black soot.
The pain in his arm brought Amero to his senses. “I’m all right,” he said hoarsely.
“What happened? I was carrying wood for the firebox, but before I could unload it — whuff! And I was out here!”
“Sounds like the journey I made. Go see if anyone else is hurt.” The apprentice got up and headed to the workshop door. Amero pulled himself to his feet and called, “Count heads, Daran! I want to know if anyone’s missing!”
Dusting soot from his hide trews, Amero followed the boy inside.
The foundry was a shambles. Through the swirling smoke, Amero saw his new fire-feeder was wrecked. The wood-and-leather fan, powered by the legs of six sturdy apprentices, had been too successful. Too much air had been forced into the firebox, causing it to burst.
He found a man sprawled on the floor, out cold. It was Huru, his shopmaster. Hauling the unconscious man to his feet, Amero draped Huru’s arm over his own shoulders. He was heading to the door when the timbers in the roof gave way, sending a shower of burning splinters to the floor.
“Everyone out!” Amero shouted. “Get outside now!”
The stony beach below the foundry quickly filled with coughing, bleeding, smoke-blackened men. The early morning air was cold, and they shivered in the short kilts that were the usual attire inside the sweltering workshop. A few sat on the damp, sandy ground and nursed burns or bruises.
Amero called for water. The first dipper he gave to Huru, and the cold liquid brought the shopmaster’s dark eyes fluttering open.
“Arkuden… who threw the thunderbolt?” he grunted.
“I guess I did,” Amero said ruefully. “The furnace blew back in our faces.”
A head count showed everyone had made it out. One of the copper pourers, Unar by name, had the most severe injury. Hit in the eye by a flying stone chip, half his face was bloodied. Amero sent him to a healer with an apprentice to lead him by the hand. The rest of the workers were in reasonably good shape, though shaken by the blast.
Passersby stopped and stared at the sooty crew and the shattered remains of the foundry. The people of Yala-tene were accustomed to their chiefs odd ways, but this was a novel sight.
Once he was sure his men were all right, Amero went inside again. The foundry roof was completely wrecked. Sunlight pierced the drifting dust and smoke in a hundred narrow beams. Shards of gray roofing slate littered the floor. Charred wood, still smoking, lay everywhere.
Amero went to the crucible — a great stone pot cut from a single block of granite. Rough ingots of copper and tin were visible inside. Though the heat had fused them in numerous spots, they were not melted together. After all the fire and fury, his dream of making bronze was still unfulfilled.
“It’s a wonder we weren’t all killed.” Amero turned to see
Huru standing in the doorway. The shopmaster added, “What do we do now?”
Amero kicked a still-glowing ember with his bark sandals. “Start again,” he said. “Bronze won’t make itself. We’ll have to fix the workshop first, then build another fire-feeder.” He grimaced. “A smaller one, this time.”
Back outside, they found the workmen being tended by a dozen young men and women dressed in white doeskin robes. The well-scrubbed youths moved among the sooty men, administering cool water and dabbing their cuts and burns with pads of soft, boiled moss.
Amero frowned. He knew he ought to be grateful for the help, but he wasn’t. This help came with an unpleasant price.
“Greetings, Arkuden! Praise the dragon you are well,” said Mara, one of the white-robed youths.
“Why are you here?” he said. “I didn’t ask for help.”
“I sent them.”
Standing on the gravel path was Tiphan, son of Konza, leader of the Sensarku, the Servers of the Dragon. Not yet thirty, Tiphan was tall and sharp-faced, with shoulder-length blond hair and a beardless chin. The young people were his followers. Amero clenched his hands into fists then forced himself to relax.
“Greetings, young Tiphan,” he said, brushing stone chips from his short brown beard. “What brings you to my humble workshop?”
“I was on my way to the Offertory when I saw a column of fire in the sky,” Tiphan said. Though young, he had a deep, resonant voice. “My first thought was that the Great Protector was paying us a visit.”
“Duranix isn’t here,” Amero said bluntly.
Tiphan looked over the chaotic scene and dusted his hands lightly together. “I see that now. The fire was your doing, Arkuden?”
“An accident,” Amero said. “We have a lot of repairs to do, so if you would take your people away…”
“As you wish, Arkuden.” Tiphan clapped his hands, and the Sensarku ceased their ministrations and fell into line behind their leader. Huru cajoled his men to their feet, and the foundry workers filed back to the ruined workshop.
“Your efforts to make bronze have not yielded much success,” Tiphan said. “How long have you been trying, Arkuden? Ten years?”
“Perhaps men weren’t meant to make bronze. It is, after all, the hide of our Protector.”
“The elves have been making bronze for generations,” Amero observed.
“Elves are not men,” Tiphan countered.
Amero bit back a sarcastic reply, saying mildly, “You’ll excuse me, Tiphan. I have much to do, and I don’t want to keep you from your own work.”
“The fields, Tosen…?” said Mara, standing close behind Tiphan. Tosen was a term of respect meaning “First Servant.”
The young Sensarku leader nodded. “My father and I are going to view the planting of new seedlings in the orchard. The dragon has given us word that winter is over.”
Amero folded his scratched and bruised arms. “Planting, now? It’s too early. The seedlings will perish in the cold.”
“It is the Protector’s word.”
“Duranix is not a weather seer.”
“What the Protector says must be so,” said Mara. Tiphan nodded approvingly.
Amero looked at the proud, serene faces behind Tiphan. How firmly they believed their leader’s words! He envied the haughty Sensarku chief. It must be pleasant to have such unshakable confidence, to inspire such unquestioning loyalty.
Four burly men in hide shirts and fur leggings arrived, bearing Tiphan’s father, Konza, in a litter. Behind them came four more bearers with an empty chair for his son.
“Greetings, Amero!” said Konza with a wave. In his early life, he’d been a tanner, and his arms were stained red-brown up to the elbows from years of working hides. Now he was nearly sixty, and his gray hair hung in limp strands around his deeply lined face.
“Long life and health to you, Konza,” Amero replied. He meant every word. Konza, though a bit foolish, was a good-hearted friend. He was also a valuable check on his son’s ambitions.
For twelve years, Tiphan and his father had taken sole responsibility for feeding the dragon. In the old days, any hunter in the valley could offer up part of his catch to Duranix in gratitude for his protection. Konza had started the practice of choosing only the finest beasts for the dragon’s meal. It was only fitting the dragon should get the best, Konza said. It demonstrated how much he was revered by the people he guarded.
Tiphan refined the procedure further. Believing the dragon shouldn’t have to snatch his meals off a pile of dirty stones, the young man began scrubbing the dragon’s cairn himself. Other young men of the village sought to share the honor of serving the dragon, so he gradually gave over the onerous cleaning duties to them. Younger boys and girls learned to wash the sacrificial animals, and later, the enclosure around the cairn itself.
Father and son received no direct encouragement from Duranix for their efforts. The dragon seldom spoke to anyone but Amero, but where once he’d merely swooped down and carried off a raw carcass, he now perched atop the high wall surrounding the cairn and ate the cooked offering in full view of the reverent youths below. Everyone took this to mean the dragon was pleased by their labors, and over time the Sensarku grew in size and prestige.
The four bearers lowered their poles, bringing the empty chair to ground level. As Tiphan climbed in, Konza said to Amero, “We’re off to the orchards.”
“So your son said. Have a look at the bridge as you cross it, will you? The winter’s been hard. I hope the supports aren’t stretched or rotted.” The vine-and-plank bridge across the river that fed into the lake was one of Amero’s early projects. Anyone crossing the river had to use the bridge or pole over on a raft. The current was too swift to swim safely.
“Yes, the bridge,” Tiphan said, signaling his bearers to go. “One of your useful creations.”
Before Amero could retort, the bearers took the two men away, followed by smiling acolytes. More than a little angry, Amero left Huru to supervise the cleanup and stalked away.
He crossed the spray-drenched beach below the waterfall that dominated the valley and gave its name to the Lake of the Falls. The sheer cliff face had just one visible opening on the north side of the falls. A complicated tower of timber and vines rose from the ground to the hole. Amero went to the base of the log tower and pulled hard on a vine rope. The apparatus squeaked, and a large rattan basket sank slowly toward him. This hoist was another of his early inventions.
He climbed in and started the counterweight down. As he rose, the whole village of Yala-tene was visible, spread out beneath him.
The settlement had grown against the base of the cliffs like a cluster of toadstools on an oak stump. In the twenty-two years since its founding, it had changed from a random collection of tents and lean-tos to a permanent town of eleven hundred souls. Narrow dirt streets snaked between the field-stone houses (some of which had as many as four floors), and smoke curled up from over six hundred chimneys.
Twenty-two years, Amero mused. A lifetime by nomad standards — time enough to grow up, mate, and raise children.
Instead of children, Amero had raised a village under the watchful eye of his friend, the bronze dragon Duranix. The dragon dwelt in a cave hollowed out of the cliff face behind the waterfall, and though he had little to do with the daily lives of the villagers, Duranix remained Amero’s mentor.
Though Duranix stood ready to defend the people of Yala-tene from dangers natural and unnatural, he often left the valley for days or weeks at a time, keeping a watchful eye on the land he claimed as his domain. His absence at the time of a nomad attack twelve years earlier had convinced Amero that a more reliable defense for the village was needed. From this was born his notion of a protective wall.
Curving out from the mountain north and south of the village was the great stone wall. The wall didn’t look imposing from this height, but at ground level it was a different story. Four-fifths of the wall around Yala-tene had been completed, and the last gap, a fifty-pace stretch facing the lake, would be finished after the next harvest.
Work on the stout barrier was done mainly in the winter, when fields were fallow and the herds were kept shut in their pens. Women, men, and children labored on it, and the work was hard. The loose stones littering the valley floor, tumbled round by the river, were not stable enough for the wall, so heavy blocks had to be cut from the cliff behind Yala-tene. These were dragged on log sledges by gangs of villagers and piled up. Early sections had collapsed before attaining their full height. The budding masons learned to make the wall wider at the bottom than the top, then the structure stood solid and firm.
Two other structures stood out. One was the Offertory, where Konza and Tiphan served meat to the dragon. This was a square, roofless building, surrounded by a wall six paces high. Konza handpicked the whitest stone in the valley for it, and the Sensarku acolytes kept the place spotless inside and out. The courtyard inside was covered with washed white sand from the lake, regularly raked and cleaned by Tiphan’s young adherents. In the center of the Offertory was the altar itself. Once a rude pile of stones, it was now made of dressed blocks laid in sloping courses.
The other major building in Yala-tene was Amero’s workshop, lately the scene of the furnace explosion.
The basket bumped to a stop. Amero tied off the counterweight and climbed out.
He was immediately struck by the smell in the cave. For years he’d lived here with Duranix and had become accustomed to the pervasive odor of the dragon. These days he spent most of his time in the village, and the sharp aroma — lizardlike and oddly metallic — was very noticeable.
“As though humans don’t stink,” boomed a voice from the rear of the cave.
“You’re hearing my thoughts again,” Amero called back.
Duranix’s broad brazen head rose from the stone platform on which he slept. “You think so loudly that I can’t help it.”
“Don’t listen, then.”
His sharp tone caught the dragon’s attention. Duranix’s huge green eyes, slit by vertical pupils as long as daggers, followed Amero as he went to the cold firepit and sat down with his back to the dragon.
Duranix crawled off his bed with peculiar serpentine grace. With no more sound than the scrape of a few bronze scales on the rock floor, the huge creature drew up beside Amero.
“What vexes you? Speak,” Duranix ordered, “or take your gloomy spirit to some other cave.”
“I demolished the foundry this morning,” Amero said, smiting his knee with one fist. “The fire-feeder I made forced too much air into the furnace, and it burst.”
“I thought you smelled sootier than usual.”
“I failed again. The foundry is a wreck.”
Duranix shrugged, a gesture picked up from Amero. “Build another. Your devices have failed before.”
“Yes, so Tiphan has reminded me!”
“Ah.” Duranix coiled his tail around Amero, surrounding him with a wall of living bronze. “This is the true cause of your mood.”
“Tiphan wants to be chief of Yala-tene.” Now that the words were out at last, Amero was surprised by how angry they made him feel.
“Time was, you didn’t want to be chief. Now you fear Tiphan will take your place?”
“I only want to do what’s best for the village. Tiphan wants what’s best for Tiphan. And you help him!”
“Yes! You eat your meat for all to see, encouraging them to think you honor the Sensarku with your presence. Why don’t you eat in the cave like you used to?”
“They amuse me. All that washing and cleaning! Tiphan’s the funniest of all. His mind’s so narrow I can hardly hear his thoughts, but he’s so obvious in other ways that he makes me laugh.”
Amero stood up and stepped over the dragon’s tail. “Did you tell him that winter was over?”
Duranix blinked. The movement of his eyelids sounded like swords being drawn from scabbards. “The boy asked me if I thought it would snow again this season. I said I didn’t look forward to any more snow.”
Amero shook his head, seeing how Tiphan had misread the dragon’s casual comment. “If he tells the planters to start now, we may lose the year’s fruit crop!”
“I could pluck his dull-witted head from his shoulders,” Duranix suggested. “That would put an end to your troubles.”
“Oh, be serious! It’s not worth Tiphan’s life.”
“Isn’t it? You said the harvest might be ruined.”
If the harvest is ruined, Tiphan will he too.
Amero’s thought carried plainly to the dragon, and Duranix narrowed his eyes. “You’d let folk in the village go hungry to best Tiphan?” he asked, the barbels on his chin twitching in curiosity.
Amero flushed at having his selfishness discerned. “I’ll not let anyone go hungry. Once the foundry is repaired, we’ll have bronze to trade with the wanderers who come through the valley. We can barter metal for food.”
“And if your metal-making fails? You’re gambling with the empty bellies of a lot of people.”
Amero lowered his head. “Maybe the weather will stay mild and the seedlings thrive.”
“And maybe I’ll start eating roots and berries,” said Duranix dryly.
A score of men and women, still clad in winter furs, hunched over their work. With hoes they grubbed small holes in the sandy soil, and into each hole went a tiny fruit tree. By the shore of the lake they planted apple trees, because these needed the most water. At the foot of the mountain the villagers placed walnut trees. Sturdy walnuts could stand the rockier soil and occasional slides of dirt and stones from the higher slopes. In between the apples and walnuts were planted the most valuable trees of all, burl-tops. A single burltop tree could provide a family with bushels of brown fruit, to be dried, eaten fresh, or pressed to extract the sweet oil inside. Windfall limbs made excellent handles for tools, and sloughed-off bark could be made into shingles, sandals, baskets, or buckets.
Everyone thought it was too early for planting. Snow still lay on the slopes above Yala-tene. A four-day thaw had broken winter’s ponderous grip on the valley floor, but the boggy land held meltwater too well. Yet, as Tiphan had ordered, the planters had come to break ground on the west side of the lake for a new orchard. Seeds held back from last year’s harvest had been planted in small pots and carefully tended all winter. Exactly when to transplant the green shoots into the ground was a critical decision.
A gentle chiming filled the air, a sound like the fall of icicles from the plateau above the town. One by one the diggers raised their heads, the distraction offering them an excuse to ease their aching backs. Morning sun glinted off burnished bronze, flashing in their eyes. The Servers of the Dragon were coming.
Two litters appeared, coming down the path from Amero’s bridge. Eight sturdy bearers moved slowly, their feet gripped by the same gritty mud that hampered the planting. The men in the chairs were covered from neck to ankles in heavy robes made from hundreds of small bronze scales, sewn to an underlying doeskin shirt. The scales tinkled as the chairs swayed from side to side.
The planters leaned on their tools, waiting for their visitors. When the bearers arrived, they halted and lowered the litters to the ground. With a distasteful glance at the mud around him, the younger bronze-clad man remained seated, but the elder left his chair to join the workers in the mire.
Jenla, eldest of the planters, raised her hand in greeting. “Welcome, Konza. Welcome, Tiphan, son of Konza.”
“Greetings to you all,” Konza replied cheerfully. With every step his bark sandals sank into the sodden turf. The hem of his heavy metallic gown dipped into the mud.
“Father,” said Tiphan. “You’re in the dirt.”
“These good people spend their days in the mud,” his father replied. “Why shouldn’t I dirty my feet to speak to them?”
“We are Sensarku,” Tiphan said, his tone indicating the number of times he’d had to remind his father of this. “To be worthy of the great dragon’s favor, we must be pleasing to his eye. You won’t be if you muddy his scales.”
“I’ll wash before I return to the Offertory. Don’t be so proud, boy! We’re all Servers of the Dragon.” He gestured to the diggers, waiting patiently in the cold mud. “Aren’t we?”
Tiphan sighed. “Yes, father.”
Turning back to Jenla and the rest, Konza smiled. “I bring good tidings. We have the dragon’s word no more snow is expected this season. You can plant your seedlings knowing the weather will only get warmer.”
Jenla’s square face brightened. “That’s good, Konza. When I dug my first hole, I tell you I was thinking ill of our Protector. The soil is too wet, but so long as there’s no snow, the land will dry, and the trees will grow.”
“You should always believe the words of our Protector,” Tiphan said coldly.
“They believe,” Konza said, grasping the old woman’s hand fondly. “Jenla remembers how hard life was before Amero and the dragon taught us how to live.”
“We must return and prepare the evening’s offerings,” Tiphan said loudly.
Konza smiled indulgently, his deep-set brown eyes gleaming with gentle tolerance. “My son was very young when we came to the valley,” he explained. “He doesn’t remember wandering the plains each day, searching for food and shelter.”
The old man clasped hands with the diggers he could reach, wishing them all fair sun and dry skies. By the time he resumed his seat in the litter, not only were his feet and hem muddy, so were his hands and sleeves.
Eight pairs of brawny arms hoisted father and son off the ground. Hampered by the soggy earth, the bearers slowly worked their way around until they were facing Yala-tene.
The planters resumed work. Jenla stood idle a bit longer, scanning the sky. Most of it was a clear blue, but heavy gray clouds crowded around the southern peaks, as if ready to slide down into the valley.
Tiphan’s bearers were younger and stronger than his father’s, and they soon outdistanced their fellows. Even if they’d been close enough to converse, Tiphan would’ve remained silent. All the way back the younger man fumed.
His father was hopeless. He had no sense of dignity, no feel for the importance of their positions as Sensarku. That he would descend to the ground and soil his robe was bad enough. That he would clasp hands and consort with ordinary diggers was worse. He would have to remind his father yet again of the proper way to comport himself. As Servers of the Dragon, they were not common people any longer, and they had to be worthy of their place.
When Tiphan’s litter reached the outskirts of the settlement, cattle herders tending their beasts greeted him. The older ones hailed him the traditional way, by raising both hands high — a plainsman’s greeting meaning, “I’m a friend. I’m unarmed.” The rest, villagers of Tiphan’s generation and younger, bowed their heads as he passed. No one knew where this custom came from. Some said it was the way elves showed respect to their lords. Whatever the origin of the gesture, Tiphan liked it.
The stock pens were full of long-horned oxen, lean from subsisting on dry hay all winter. When the outer valleys thawed, the herds could be turned loose to graze on the fresh green grass growing there. Their flesh would sweeten and be all the more pleasing to the Great Protector.
Behind the ox pens were long, narrow horse corrals. Some of the mares had foaled early and were trailed by leggy offspring. Tiphan frowned. He did not approve of horses. They reminded him of the savage nomads who had chosen not to live under the wings of the dragon. The nomads roved the plains outside the valley, many on horseback. Filthy, lawless barbarians, they stole cattle, kidnapped women and children, and did not respect the Sensarku.
Tiphan forgot his dislike of horses and the people who rode them when the village wall came into view. Where finished, it was eight paces high and three paces thick, and even the haughty Sensarku chief thought it a grand project, worthy of the dragon’s people.
Under the wall were clustered an ever-changing forest of tents and ragged lean-tos. Wanderers of every stripe came to the valley to trade. Born in the open, some folk could not adapt to the close streets and roofed dwellings of the village. They pitched their tents and remained for one day or a hundred, trading game, labor, or objects for food and handicrafts.
Something in the muddle of scruffy tents caught Tiphan’s eye. He leaned forward, saying, “Leave me at the wall.” The lead bearer grunted acknowledgment and steered his comrades to the open defile.
To prevent enemies from simply storming the necessary openings in the wall, Amero’s builders created a low, extra wall in front of each opening. Those entering Yala-tene by these baffles had to zigzag around the short wall before they could enter. In times of trouble, heavy timbers or boulders could be set in the baffles to block them completely.
The bearers lowered Tiphan’s chair to the ground. He rose with a musical clatter of bronze scales and stepped down. Moments later, his father’s litter arrived.
“Why have you stopped, son?” Konza called.
“I want to check the progress of the wall. You go ahead. Preparation of the offering must commence by midday. Will you see to it?”
The old man blinked. “Gladly.” He sat back, plainly puzzled. “But I thought you were in a hurry to get back.”
“I was.” To Konza’s bearers, Tiphan said, “Take my father to the Offertory.”
With a concerted shout, they set off, giving Konza no chance to countermand his son’s command.
Tiphan sent his own bearers away as well. He strolled along the outside of the wall, admiring the evenness of the stonework, the precision of the seams between the blocks. Amero’s masons had learned a great deal about laying stone in twelve years. This newest section of wall was their finest effort yet.
Turning away from the wall, Tiphan walked down to the wanderers’ camp. Eyes watched him from scores of open tents, yet for all the roughness of the encampment, he had nothing to fear. The inhabitants might call their town Yala-tene, meaning “Mountain Nest,” but to outsiders such as these, it was known as Arku-peli, or “Place of the Dragon.” No one dared interfere with Tiphan. His dragonscale robe made it plain he had access to the powerful Duranix.
Tiphan spied a tall, conical tent near the center of the camp. Bark walls meant the owner was too poor to have a tent made of deerskin. A flap of woven ivy hung over the entrance, reinforcing the image of poverty, yet on the leafy doorflap hung a bronze disk two handspans wide, embossed with an image of the sun. Bronze was rare and valuable, quite out of place on such a lowly shelter. It was this artifact that had caught Tiphan’s eye.
The Sensarku swept back the flap with one hand. The interior was dark and smelled of sour mold and raw meat. He saw crossed feet, clad in bark sandals. They retreated from the shaft of light Tiphan let in.
“May I enter?”
“As you choose, but close the flap.” The speaker — his name was Bek — had an edge in his voice, the sharpness of danger and guile.
Tiphan stepped in and let the mat of vines fall shut behind him. Darkness closed around him. Tiny points of sunlight pierced the interior through chinks in the bark shell. By these Tiphan could see Bek sitting on the far side of the tent. A few rough stones piled in the center of the floor served as a firepit. The rest of the tent was crowded with rattan baskets and bags of moldering leather.
“What do you have for me this time?”
“What you asked for,” Bek said.
Tiphan’s eyes widened. “Show me.”
“It wasn’t easy to come by and won’t be cheap.”
The shadowy figure stood. Bek was little taller standing than sitting. As he slipped past, Tiphan caught only glimpses of his strange host: tattoos scrolling down his neck, a blue stone fixed in a pierced earlobe, a reddish pigtail hanging down his back. And what was hanging from the back of his belt? A panther’s tail?
Bek knelt by a tall basket and pushed off the lid. The rattan container was crowded with cylinders of stiff white parchment. The tattooed man drew out one scroll, checked the glyphs on the butt of the wooden rod, and handed it to Tiphan.
“Kinsheesus Talikanathor is its name, more or less. In the argot of Silvanesti priests it means ‘The Way to Bind the Sun.’”
Tiphan parted the scroll. It was filled from side to side and top to bottom with Elvish script. Glosses on the black text were scribed in red. He was still learning the language, and the poor light did not make deciphering the ornate, feathery writing any easier.
Tiphan let go of one side, allowing the scroll to roll itself shut. “What do you want for it?”
For the first time the little man looked his customer in the face. Both his eyes glowed in the dark, and in different colors. His right eye was cool, greenish blue, like the belly of a carrion fly. The left eye was yellow, like the stars in the constellation of Matat, the dragon.
“Give me your robe,” Bek said.
Tiphan laughed. “This robe is worth more than your life!”
“This book is worth more than both our lives.” Bek removed the scroll from the Sensarku’s hand and carefully returned it to the basket with the others. “You can’t walk into a scribe’s shop in Silvanost and ask for these tomes, you know. They’re forbidden! I took many chances getting it.” He drew a stubby finger across his throat. Tiphan ignored the ugly gesture. Bek continued, “This book has commentaries by Vedvedsica himself. Did you see the passages in red ink? His hand, his wisdom.”
Tiphan knew the fame of the elf priest Vedvedsica. For many years he’d been the first sage of Silvanos’s realm. Then, a few years ago, rumors had reached Yala-tene of his downfall. It was said the wily Vedvedsica had been exiled to an island far away in the southern sea.
“I’ll give you four pounds of bronze,” Tiphan told him. “Or six pounds of copper. I also have some gemstones.”
Bek shook his head. His eyelids closed for the space of two heartbeats, and when they opened again, his irises had switched colors — now the right one was yellow, and the left blue.
“I want the robe off your back, nothing less,” Bek said, grinning. His teeth were uncommonly long and pointed.
“There’s ten pounds of bronze in this robe!”
“With this book you can command the elements!” The little man held the lid poised over the basket. “Last chance. What say you?”
Tiphan’s hands positively ached to hold the manuscript again. Jaw clenched, he unclasped the buckle of his belt and let it fall to the dirt. Dropping his arms, he shrugged the heavy robe off. It piled around his feet like musical, golden snow.
The little man handed Tiphan the scroll. “Wise choice, my friend. Knowledge is much more valuable than bronze,” he said. To Tiphan’s amazement, the panther tail attached to the back of the man’s belt moved, lashing once from side to side.
“You seem to crave bronze well enough,” Tiphan said, slipping the parchment roll inside his white doeskin shirt.
“A fella’s got to eat. While you’re here, can I interest you in another book? It’s also from Silvanost, very rare, suppressed by five priesthoods.” In answer to Tiphan’s questioning look, Bek elaborated. “ Girthas Laka Morokiti, ‘Dialogue of the Courtesans.’ It tells of the amorous doings of highborn Silvanesti ladies.”
Tiphan sneered. “Keep it. I seek wisdom, not lechery.” He picked up his belt, raised the door flap, and added, “But if you find more like this, contact me in the usual way.”
“Good fortune to you, excellent Tiphan!” Bek called cheerfully. “Always a delight to serve you.”
The Sensarku walked away. He glanced back once and regretted it. The bookseller stood partially concealed in the door of his tent. Where sunlight fell on him, the illusion of humanity failed utterly. One leg, one arm, and his shoulder were covered by charcoal fur. A single yellow fang protruded from his whiskered upper lip. The supposed panther’s tail curled around Bek’s ankle, twitching with feline amusement.
At long last the screaming stopped. The blazing tents collapsed in a shower of sparks, and the night grew dark again. Laughing and talking loudly, the raiders drifted back to the despoiled camp. Having chased down and killed the last of their terrified victims, they fell to looting the camp.
There was little to be had. The only livestock were four goats and six oxen. No more than twelve plainsmen had been in camp when the raiders struck. All were now slain. All but one.
The girl pressed herself into the grass close beside a speared ox, using the fat beast for cover. Her tangled, waist-length black hair screened the pale oval of her face from view. She held her clenched fists to her mouth to keep from making a sound. Tears streamed down her cheeks. When the screams of her kinsman stopped, she heard one of the raiders tell another to start butchering the animals.
A rider approached at a canter. She prayed to her ancestors to let the darkness shield her, to let the rider go to another beast. The carcass shifted slightly as he prodded it with his spear.
“A big one here!” he shouted. “Gunsa, bring a hatchet!”
With that, the girl sprang to her feet and bolted. The ox was between her and the rider, and he was slow to react. She ran for her life, bare feet pounding in the dry grass.
“Ai, Zan! Another dove!” the raider cried. Two-score throats, all yelping with delight, answered him. The rumble of many hooves filled the night behind her.
As long as she had room to run, she kept to a straight line. Soon enough the horses would outpace her, and she would use her greater agility to dodge them. That was her plan, anyway. There was no cover in the tall grass, just open ground in all directions. Tonight the endless plain seemed more endless than usual.
She caught sight of raiders to her left and right, cantering along, just keeping pace with her. They were at least twenty paces away. A single glance over her shoulder revealed ten riders trotting behind her in very leisurely fashion. Puzzled, she slowed a bit. The raiders reined in. Her puzzlement grew. Why didn’t they try to take her?
All of a sudden there was a loud neigh, and a large horse reared up in front of her. It was so close its forelegs struck her in the ribs, sending her sprawling. Where had he come from? She could have sworn the way ahead was clear.
She rolled to her knees, wincing from the horse’s kick. The animal towered over her, and she felt a cold flint spear tip, already wet with blood, pressed against her throat. Bracing herself for death, she closed her eyes.
The point moved away. A stern voice commanded, “Stand up.”
She opened her eyes and got a good look at the rider for the first time. He was dressed in a cloak the same dark gray color as his horse. No wonder he’d been hard to see. The rider’s head was covered by a grotesque hood, made from the skull of some horned beast and embellished with leather flaps and paint. To a more ignorant victim, he could have been taken for a spirit.
The girl rose, clutching her bruised ribs. The rest of the raiders arrived, forming a ring around her and the hooded man.
“Kill her, and let’s be off,” said one of the new arrivals, barely giving her dirty face a glance. There was silence as the hooded man continued to regard her.
“What’re you waiting for, Zan? Let’s — ” the fellow began again.
With no word of warning, her hooded captor swung his spear in a wide arc, catching the protesting raider on the jaw. His hands flew up, and the man toppled backward off his mount. No one else said a word or moved to help.
The hooded man called Zan dismounted. He took a length of rawhide rope from his belt and said to the girl, “Put out your hands.” When she did not comply, he barked, “This can go around your hands or your neck!”
Reluctantly she presented her wrists. He cinched the hide strap around them tightly.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Beramun, daughter of — ” She couldn’t finish and couldn’t stop the tears from welling up in her dark eyes. Her parents were dead. All her kin were dead.
“You’re mine now, Beramun,” the man said, heedless of her suffering. He remounted, keeping the end of the hide rope in his left hand. “Try to run away, and I’ll have you hamstrung.”
He snapped more orders to his men, sending half back to the camp to butcher the fallen animals. He led Beramun and the remainder of his hand across the dark plain to a dry ravine. There, a few bored-looking raiders guarded a collection of terrified captives kneeling in the dirt, hands tied like Beramun’s. At Zan’s command, the prisoners stood. Beramun’s rope was secured to the others.
After a satisfied survey of the prisoners, Zan said, “Back to Almurk. We’ve meat for us and captives for the Master.”
The prisoners were driven forward in a stumbling, weeping mass. More riders joined the loose column. Beramun, who was good with numbers, counted three times twenty warriors on horseback. In addition to their twenty-seven captives, the raiders had taken eight live oxen, sixteen goats, and a pile of lesser booty. This was heaped on captured travois, drawn by stolen oxen.
Beramun could hardly believe what had befallen her so suddenly — her family killed and she taken captive. Yet, she was young and strong, and so she kept going even as three of her fellow captives fainted. Those who collapsed met quick fates. Speared, their corpses were cut loose and left by the wayside. Shocked, the remaining prisoners began to carry or drag any who fell.
The eastern sky brightened behind them. Beramun glanced back at the coming dawn. They were marching due west. West of the plains lay a mountain range called the Limbs of the Sky, and south of that was the Edge of the World.
Daylight did little to allay Beramun’s fears. Frightening as the raiders were by night, by day they were worse. All were hard, rangy men, hungry-looking as wolves. They wore their long hair loose and decorated themselves with paint, bones, and sparkling stones. They rode bareback with only a thong bridle and reins to control the animals. Perched on their shoulders was their principle weapon: a flint-headed spear. The shafts were so long that a mounted man could impale his target even if it was flat on the ground.
The band never stopped moving. Plainsmen all, the captives were accustomed to long days afoot, but it was still a hardship to move at such a pace with no food and only a little water doled out grudgingly when the leader, Zan, ordered it.
To distract herself from her misery, Beramun studied Zan. He’d shed his fearsome hood when the sun warmed the air. He was young, only a few seasons older than she, making him about twenty. His hair was light brown, parted in the center and drawn back into a thick hank. Remarkably fair-skinned, he had a surprisingly childlike face with a boy’s downy cheeks. There was no mistaking the hard set of his hazel eyes though. For all his boyish looks, Zan was no innocent.
After marching all day, they came at last to a swiftly flowing river, running south to north. Beramun wasn’t familiar with the land this far west, but some of her fellow prisoners told her the river was called the Wildroot. Its racing current meant the captives couldn’t cross on foot, and it was too swift for the horsemen to ford. Beramun expected the raiders would turn north or south to find a likely crossing, but Zan ordered the band to halt.
The captives sank gratefully to the dusty turf. Beramun’s well-callused feet were burning, and her ribs still ached from the kick Zan’s gray stallion had given her. She was also monstrously thirsty. Not until after the raiders and their horses had drunk did two men bring hide buckets of water to the captives.
Hands still tied, Beramun and a woman named Roki held one bucket steady so the older prisoners could drink. Then she and Roki shared what was left. Roki was short and sturdy, with big hands and a pleasant, strong face.
“Wonder what they’ll do with us?” she said in a husky whisper.
Beramun shrugged. She’d heard tales of clans who stole young women to be mates, hut Zan’s raiders had taken men and women, young and old alike.
“Some of the riders called us ‘slaves,’” she offered, “whatever that means.”
“It means we work for them, do whatever they say.”
“For how long?”
“Till we die.”
Beramun stared. “They can’t do that!” she exclaimed. “We’re plainsmen too!”
“Doesn’t matter to the likes of them.”
Zan and several of his lieutenants rode by. He stopped short when he spotted Beramun among the others.
“You there,” he said. “Stand up.”
Dazed by thirst and fatigue, Beramun didn’t realize he was speaking to her until a fellow captive prodded her sharply. She got to her feet.
The raider on Zan’s right, a balding man wearing an elaborate collar of bear and panther teeth, looked her over. One eyebrow climbed his high forehead.
“You’re right, Zannian. You have an eye, don’t you?” he said.
“It’s just a girl, Hoten,” said the man on Zan’s left, a dirty fellow with deep-set eyes. “Close your eyes, they all look alike.”
“You’re a pig, Kukul.” Zannian said. “You know nothing about beauty.”
Beramun was only distantly aware they were talking about her. She’d lived her whole life among kinsmen too close in blood to be considered possible mates. She had little idea what strangers would make of her looks.
“Will you keep her for yourself?” asked bald Hoten, smiling.
Kukul snorted. “Only if his mother approves!”
Zan turned on him. “Hold your tongue, you scab! I am chief of this band, and I answer only to the Master!”
Kukul held his hands up, palms out. “Peace, Zannian, peace! I jest!”
The raider chief twisted his horse’s head around. “You’d be wiser to obey more and joke less!”
He trotted away. Hoten called, “Zan, the girl — do you want her culled out?”
Zan gave a quick shake of his head. “All captives belong to the Master. If he allows it, I’ll take her, but not until then.”
Kukul rode after him, leaving Hoten with Beramun. Looking down, the older man said, “You’ve caught the eye of our chief, girl. Mind what you do, and you might come out of this far better than you imagine.”
Beramun, who had been staring at the ground in embarrassment, raised her eyes to meet the raider’s. Though she didn’t understand just what the raider chief had in mind for her, she thought it had to be better than slavery or death.
The sun went down, and still they squatted on the east bank of the river. The bored laxity of their guards encouraged some prisoners to think of escape. The younger men on the other leash worked their way into the midst of Beramun’s group. A red-haired fellow Beramun’s age pushed in shoulder to shoulder with her and Roki.
“Name’s Opet,” he whispered. “The raiders caught my family southeast of here, in Khar land. They’re heading for their own camp, so we better escape if we want to live. Are you with me?”
Roki and Beramun exchanged looks. “Yes,” they said in unison.
“Good.” He slipped a hand under his buckskin shirt and drew out a small, sharp chip of obsidian. “When they settle for the night, we’ll cut our bonds and go.”
“Is that your only plan?” Roki said, shaking her head. “You won’t get six steps before they spit you like a partridge!”
“We’re not gonna run,” said Opet, eyes shining. “We’ll jump in the river. They won’t be able to use their horses to catch us. Can you swim?”
“Yes!” said Beramun, feeling a surge of hope. Roki’s wide shoulders slumped.
“I can’t swim,” she muttered. “I’m probably not the only one here who can’t.”
Beramun clasped the downcast woman’s hand. “I’ll help you!”
Roki shook her head. “Have you seen that current? Your ancestors will bless you if you manage to make it across by yourself!”
Opet frowned. “We have to try. The raiders are waiting for something — maybe another band to join them. If we don’t act soon, we’ll likely be surrounded by even more of them.”
Roki’s eyes flickered between their captors and the racing river. At last she nodded. “I’ll try. If it’s the will of the Great Spirits, I’ll make it across.”
Word of the plan passed among the prisoners. Opet’s sharp black stone was likewise passed from hand to hand. On his advice, the rawhide ropes were cut just to the point of breaking. At the right moment, all the captives had to do was snap the last bit of thong and race to the river. As Roki had feared, some of the prisoners could not swim, but all vowed to chance death by drowning rather than face whatever fate the raiders intended for them.
Raiders moved among them at sundown, bringing water and evil-smelling jerky for a meager meal. The captives submitted meekly to the jeers and kicks of the raiders, biding their time till the planned escape.
Time seemed to crawl. Many of the weary captives fell asleep, as did quite a few of the raiders. Lutar, the red moon, rose from its resting place and cast a sanguinary light over the plain. All was still. Even the spring crickets were silent.
Opet crept up to Beramun and tugged at her elbow. “Time to go!” he hissed. His hands were free, and with a sharp tug, he broke the weakened thong around Beramun’s wrists.
Quietly, the prisoners stirred their sleeping comrades. No more than twenty paces separated them from the rushing water. Beramun gathered her feet under her, poised to flee.
Opet slapped her on the back, and she took off like a rabbit, sprinting down the stony riverbank. The time for stealth was over. Her footfalls and those of her fleeing comrades were loud in the quiet night.
The noise roused the raiders. Some tried to mount their horses while still weighed down by sleep and fell heavily to the ground. Zannian, barefoot and bareheaded, shouted orders as he wrestled with his nervous gray stallion.
Beramun reached the water first, with Opet close behind. She dived in, surfaced, and waved for Roki to follow. “Come on!” she cried.
Roki hesitated only a moment before fear of her captors overcame her terror of water, and she charged into the river. She floundered close enough for Beramun to grab the back of her shirt. Swimming out from the shallows, the two women were hit by the rush of the current. Roki panicked, pounding the water with her feet. Beramun had no breath to spare for soothing words. Tightening her grip on Roki’s clothing, Beramun crawled against the powerful rush of the river.
The older woman calmed when she realized she wasn’t drowning. Also heartening was the sight of mounted raiders trying but failing to urge their horses into the river. The animals would not advance beyond the firm footing in the shallows, so all the raiders could do was hurl spears at the fleeing captives. The long weapons made poor projectiles and fell short of the swimming prisoners.
All at once the night sky blossomed with an eerie green light. Beramun slung wet hair from her eyes and saw that a pine copse on the far shore had burst into flames. She continued her desperate swim, certain her eyes were deceiving her. How could flames be green?
Without warning, Beramun slowed her strokes, and Roki promptly sank beneath the surface.
Rising again, the older woman sputtered, “What are you doing?”
“Look there!” Beramun cried, treading hard to keep her head above water. She stared with wide-eyed terror at the western shore.
Hovering in the air above the burning trees was a huge, winged creature, many times the size of the largest horse or ox. Its long, skin-covered wings moved up and down in broad strokes, fanning the green flames consuming the pine copse. Four muscular limbs dangled beneath the creature, and a long, serpentine tail balanced an equally sinuous neck.
“What is it?” Beramun cried in horror. “What is it?”
Roki clung to her, eyes fastened on the fantastic creature. “Stormbird!” she replied.
The monster alighted on the riverbank. Shouts went up from the assembled raiders, and Beramun wondered if Zan’s men would fight the gigantic creature or flee.
Opet and some of the stronger swimmers were nearly to the other side. They too had seen the stormbird and were trying to give it wide berth. The creature reared up on its hind legs and waded into the water. It struck as swiftly as a viper. Raising its head again, it held a man trapped in its jaws.
The sight was too much for Beramun, and she panicked. Seeing this inconceivable monster killing a fellow plainsman struck terror into her heart. When she froze, the current rolled her and Roki over until they were both choking for air. Once, when she surfaced, Beramun saw the stormbird transfer the screaming man from its jaws to one taloned claw, then its head darted down and seized another man.
A sandbar in midstream rushed up, and Roki managed to plant her feet, stopping their headlong rush. They clung to the sandbar and watched in terrified disbelief as the monster crushed a man in each claw, then dropped the bodies in order to capture two more screaming victims.
Upstream, Opet and a few others gained the shore out of reach of the stormbird, but they weren’t safe from its wrath. The creature opened toothy jaws wide and, with a roar greater than a hundred panthers combined, expelled a stream of green vapor from its throat. The cloud swallowed the escaping plainsmen. Some dropped where they stood. Others stumbled forward a few steps then collapsed, writhing in agony. Ten men soon lay dead.
Only Roki and Beramun remained in the river. Over the noise of rushing water they heard Zannian yell, “Come back, you women! You can’t get away!”
“We must return,” Roki said, her chattering teeth not hiding the bitterness of her words. “Better those two-legged beasts than the stormbird!”
Beramun, nearly fainting from exhaustion, didn’t move. “I don’t think I can make it to either side.”
Roki hugged her friend closely for both warmth and comfort as the stormbird dropped onto all fours and prowled down the bank toward them. When it was opposite their position on the sandbar, it halted. Roki’s arms tightened convulsively on Beramun.
“It’s coming!” the older woman gasped. “Spirits, save us! It’s coming!”
The creature did indeed rise up on its hind legs and spread its wings, but it did not take to the sky. Instead, it brought its foreclaws together, talon to talon, and slowly furled its wings tight to its back.
Before Roki’s fear-filled eyes, the river calmed. The current slowed to a gentle flow. When the stormbird pulled its claws apart, a channel opened in the water, growing deeper and wider as it approached the sand spit. Water receded from the sandbar, leaving a walkable passage in the raging river.
“What’s happening?” asked Beramun groggily, trying to lift her head.
Roki swallowed hard. “The monster is parting the river!”
Soon there was a dry channel as wide as four horses abreast. Zannian led his men into this trough without fear or haste. By the time he reached the sandbar, Roki had pulled Beramun to her feet. The two women stood waiting for him.
The raider chief gestured, and Hoten appeared with new bonds. This time the raiders not only bound their wrists, but hobbled the women’s ankles as well. Unable to take more than short, shuffling steps, Roki and Beramun made their way down the sandbar to stand miserably beside Zannian’s horse. Roki was still supporting the younger woman, and Beramun’s violent shivering shook them both.
Zannian’s eyes narrowed. Reaching behind, he pulled out his bedroll — a coarse, horsehair blanket — and dropped it across Beramun’s shoulders. Thumping his bare heels against his mount’s sides, he rode on.
Beramun stared after him in surprise. “Why did he do that?” she asked as they pulled the rough blanket around themselves.
Roki gave her a disbelieving look that slowly changed to sympathy. “You don’t know, do you?” she said gently. “You’re a good-looking girl, Beramun. Beware of him, especially when he’s kind to you.”
The surviving captives came shuffling toward them, hobbled and chastened. Beramun and Roki fell in at the back of the line.
When they reached the west bank, the prisoners were ordered to stop and forced to kneel in the cold mud. The stormbird, near enough they could smell the lingering stench of its poisonous breath, broke the spell on the river with a twitch of its scaly shoulders. Water crashed back into the trough and resumed its course.
A common tremble ran through the captives, now under the black eyes of the stormbird. Zan and his men didn’t seem afraid of it. In fact, the young chief rode up to the beast and saluted with his spear.
“Hail, Master!” he exclaimed. “Your arrival was well timed.”
“Lucky for you,” intoned the monster in a rasping but surprisingly humanlike voice.
“We would’ve caught them again,” Zan said. “Not as easily as you, great Master, but we would have. We thank you.”
While Zan reformed his men, the stormbird gazed down on the cowering captives.
“Why do you rodents try so hard to escape?” it asked, tail tip switching back and forth. When no one dared answer, the monster seized a captive plainsman. The man was bound to the next prisoner, and he to the next, and so on, so the entire line of terrified captives was dragged aloft.
The man in the taloned claw screamed piteously. His tormentor looked at him with the glee of a child holding a captured beetle.
“Why do you risk death to escape?” rasped the monster, shaking the man. The fellow’s head snapped back and forth. “Why, little beast?”
“To b-be f-free!” the man blubbered.
The stormbird tossed its head toward the empty plain. “You’re not free out there. You must hunt and scrounge and fight every day to keep the breath in your flimsy little bodies. How does that make you free, eh?”
“Because we go where we will!”
The words were torn from Beramun’s lips by a surge of anger. That anger changed to fear as the monster dropped the terrified man and thrust its reptilian face to within an arm’s length of her own.
“And where do you go?” the creature asked, showing entirely too many ridged yellow fangs.
The hot, stinking breath on her face made her sick. “Wherever — ” It came out so faintly, she had to clear her throat and begin again. “Wherever the Great Spirits guide us.”
“Spirits? Ha! Who are these spirits?”
Why had she spoken? Beramun wondered miserably, terror welling up inside her. Yet the stormbird expected an answer, so she stuttered, “They are th-the makers of all things — the s-sun, the moons, the plants, and the beasts of plain and forest.”
“And I?” said the hideous creature, its face coming even closer to hers. “Was I made by your Great Spirits?”
“Yes,” she said faintly, her legs wavering like grass in a strong wind.
The black, slit-pupiled eyes widened. The monster threw back its head and roared. It took Beramun a heart-wrenching moment to realize the beast was laughing. Curiously, this display of mirth made the raiders draw together, anxiety evident on all their faces.
“Pretentious vermin!” the stormbird bellowed. “No one made the dragons! We were born from Chaos, forged of fire and fury! The world is ours, and you worthless insects are merely pests to be tolerated or exterminated as we see fit.”
The monster stretched up to its full height. “I am your master now. I am Sthenn, the Wakeful One, the Shadow Who Does Not Sleep, called Greengall, Deathbringer, and the Terror of Night. You live by my whim alone, and my whim is that you serve me. Is that clear, vermin?”
Zannian rode up, his skull-topped hood propped under one arm. “Patience, Master,” he said, an edge in his voice. “They all struggle at first. They wouldn’t be plainsmen if they didn’t try to escape, but they’ll give no more trouble, I promise you.”
Sthenn gazed down at the mounted man for a long moment, and his angry posture relaxed.
“More and more,” he said, “I understand Duranix’s interest in humans. Such amusing, infuriating creatures. It will be delightful to discover whose are best — mine or his.”
Beramun understood none of this, but seeing the stormbird’s anger fade helped her own fear subside, and her heart slowly resumed a normal beat. When Sthenn had reared up, she thought her life was over. Fortunately, the great beast was easily distracted, as Zannian’s intervention proved.
She looked again at the youthful chief as he got his band moving again. Thief and killer he was, but he was brave, facing the dragon’s rage like that. In some savage way, he might even be honorable.
Drawing the borrowed blanket close around her shoulders, Beramun hobbled along with the rest of the captives. She did not notice Roki frowning at her, nor did she remember the older woman’s warning about being wary of kindness from her human captor.
The sun shone several days, then the clouds that had been lurking on the mountaintops like a pack of gray wolves swept down into the Valley of the Falls. A damp mist clung to every surface in Yala-tene, and when the feeble sun set, the dew turned to ice.
Repairs on the foundry came to stop. Stone blocks grew too slick to handle safely, and visibility fell to just a few paces. Amero and his workmen tried to carry on, but the cold made their fingers stiff and clumsy, so Amero called a halt, dismissing the men with a sigh. He soon stood alone in his ruined workshop.
Lately life was so full of delays. None of his recent projects had come to fruition. The town wall, though well advanced, should have been finished a year ago, and his bronze experiments could not resume until the foundry was repaired.
When he was younger, it seemed he had all the time in the world to solve the questions that surrounded him. Now there was little time for anything but daily work.
Shaking off his gloom, Amero resolved to visit Unar, the man whose eye had been injured when the furnace blew apart. He left the shattered building and stepped out into the frosty night.
Finding a house in the warren of streets wasn’t easy, even on a bright, sunny day. To identify themselves, most householders painted their family’s totem symbol on their doors. Amero came at last to the door with the hook-billed turtle and knocked on the worn cedar panel.
The door opened. Highlighted by fire was a face he knew well. It was Unar’s widowed sister, Lyopi. She held a flaming brand.
“Amero,” she said. She was one of the few people in the village who called him by his given name.
“I’ve come to see Unar.”
“He’s sleeping, but you’re welcome.” Lyopi stood aside, and Amero entered the warm interior of the house.
The ground floor was a single large room, as in most houses in Yala-tene. A dull red fire crackled on the hearth. As Lyopi dropped the burning stick onto the fire, Amero saw Unar was propped on a heap of furs, a soft willow poultice on his injured eye.
“How is he?” Amero whispered.
“The eye is lost,” Lyopi replied. “Old Memmet the healer removed the stone chip, but could do nothing for his eye.”
He took her hand and squeezed it gently. “I’m sorry. Better it should be my eye.”
“Don’t say foolish things.”
She pulled free of his grasp and moved to the dark periphery of the room. Without a word, Amero followed.
Lyopi seated herself on a stool by the wall. Not seeing another chair, he sat on the floor at her feet.
For almost a year, Amero and Lyopi had been together, as intimate as mates but still undeclared to the rest of the village. Some gossips believed he was taking advantage of a lonely widow, but in fact, it was Lyopi’s choice that they remain apart. By custom, to be Amero’s mate, she would have to live in his house and give back her first mate’s property to his kinsmen. Because Lyopi did not want to relinquish her home, she and Amero remained friends and occasional lovers — a situation that suited her fine and Amero found tolerable.
She pulled the thick, loose braid of her chestnut hair over her shoulder and leaned back against the stone wall. Her brown eyes, usually so warm and full of life, were dull as they regarded her injured brother.
The silence stretched for several long seconds, until Amero asked, “Why so sad, Lyopi? Unar’s strong. He’ll live.”
Her gaze shifted. “Yes, but what will he do? A one-eyed man is a poor hunter.”
“There are other things a man can do besides hunt.”
She uttered a short, bitter laugh. “We’re still plainsmen, Amero. Hunters. Living inside a pile of rocks hasn’t changed that.”
“Unar will always have a place in my workshop, if he wants it.”
She made a quick gesture, wiping tears from her cheeks. “Even in summer?” she asked, knowing he usually employed helpers in his shop only during the idle months of winter.
“Even in summer. Unar’s not the only one who doesn’t hunt, you know.”
Lyopi offered a fond smile, which soon faded. Leaning her head against the cool stones behind her, she closed her eyes.
Thinking she looked very tired, Amero rose to leave. She reached out and caught his hand. “No. Stay.”
Suddenly embarrassed, he replied, “I didn’t come here for that.”
Sometimes she seemed to read his mind almost as well as Duranix. “I know,” she told him, putting a hand to his bearded cheek. “Stay anyway.”
So he did.
Across the fog-shrouded village, another light burned far into the night. Tiphan lived with his father in a modest one-story house close to the Offertory. Like everything else in his life, Tiphan’s home was as tidy as he could make it. Sensarku acolytes cleaned it for him daily, just as they cleaned the Offertory grounds.
Tiphan sat at the one table in the house, peering closely at the document before him. For five nights he’d yearned to study the arcane manuscript he’d bought from Bek the bookseller, but every night his father had stayed awake, talking, prowling around the house, and generally making himself a nuisance. Finally tiring of the delay, Tiphan had sprinkled yellow tane pollen on Konza’s dinner. Soon the old man was snoring away on his pallet.
Once Konza was asleep, Tiphan removed the prized manuscript from his secret cache. By the light of a fat lamp, he puzzled over his newest acquisition.
Behold the Way to Bind the Sun, it began. To command the stars, the beasts, and the flowering things, know this: As embers carry the fading heat of the fire, so do certain stones, gems, and wood of trees carry the dying light of heaven. When the gods a wakened in the Age of Twilight Sleep, they rose by their natures into three realms — Good, Neutral, and Evil.
Tiphan’s fingers grew stiff from tracing the line of ornate script. He flexed his hands, closed his eyes briefly, then resumed reading.
Each did claim the spirits then living, and they fought a great war over who should rule the spirits of life. At first Evil was strong, and dealt Good many a blow. The Neutral lords saw this, and said, “Let us aid Good, that Evil will not next try to destroy us.” So the alliance was forged, and Evil subdued. Yet, as are all gods, Evil is immortal, and perished not. The minions of Evil turned to living stone by the servants of Good and Neutrality, inhabit the world to this day.
Tiphan paused. He was beginning to see where the treatise was heading.
These stones are Power, and the sage who finds them may use their Power to effect all manner of change — the sun to go dark, the summer to yield snow, the dead to rise and walk among the living. All this and more is possible.
Next to this last sentence was another’s handwriting in scarlet ink: Circle of standing stones, ten leagues east of the mountains, between the headwaters of Thon-Thalas and Thon-Tanjan.
If Bek had spoken truly, this was the hand of the great elf priest Vedvedsica. To the Silvanesti, “the mountains” were the very range where Yala-tene was located. The two rivers named were known to all plainsmen. A great battle had once been fought there by a Silvanesti host, led by the warlord Balif against the nomad warriors of Karada, sister of their own Arkuden.
Tiphan’s hands trembled. To think there might actually be such a circle of powerful stones so close by! With such stones, could he have power like the great Vedvedsica?
Konza snorted and mumbled in his sleep. Tiphan cast a quick glance over his shoulder. The old man soon settled down, his breathing deep and even.
Tiphan tiptoed to the hollow in the wall where he hid his cherished manuscripts. He had two other tomes, spellbooks really, describing in cursory terms how certain spells were to be cast. Also in the hole were fragments of various
Silvanesti works — treatises on astronomy, herbalism, even animal husbandry and metallurgy, subjects that some people like that fool Amero found fascinating.
Tiphan drew out the particular piece of parchment he sought. Called a “map,” it was a large triangular fragment, the corner of a larger sheet of the finest sheepskin. In four colors of ink, the map showed the plains west to Khar, the forest at the Edge of the World, part of the Silvanesti’s forested homeland, and the southern range of the mountains. Two fine lines of blue ink snaked south and east to the distant sea, showing the Thon-Tanjan in the north, the Thon-Thalas in the south.
Tiphan smothered a laugh. The unspeakable Bek’s manuscript was a real treasure. All that remained was to collect the stones of power. He could leave tomorrow, before the rising of the sun. Konza could oversee the cleansing of the Offertory and preparation of the dragon’s meals, but Tiphan would need help on his journey, someone to carry his provisions and to hunt along the way.
Who should he take? Who could he trust? Sorting through the ranks of the Sensarku in his mind, the answer came quickly: Mara and Penzar.
Tiphan returned the map to his cache. With the stone in place, no one could tell what was there. He donned his warmest garment, a black panther cape and hood covered with white dove feathers. On a stand a few steps away, his father’s brazen robe gleamed. The stand that should have held Tiphan’s bronze robe was empty.
Tiphan stifled another laugh. What had seemed so high a price a few days ago he now deemed cheap. Konza had asked about Tiphan’s missing robe, but so far he had fended off the queries. Once he returned laden with stones of power, no one would question his judgment on anything ever again.
He lifted the door latch and stepped out into the night. Yala-tene glittered in the soft, pearly light of Soli, the white moon. Tiphan skidded down the frosty lane until he reached the house of the Sensarku women. Next door was the house of the male acolytes.
Unlike the other villagers, the Sensarku lived in communal homes, treating each other as kinsmen. Townsfolk thought this odd, but it was considered a great honor to be chosen to join the Sensarku. Some of the proudest families in Yala-tene willingly gave their sons and daughters over to Tiphan’s keeping.
Walking straight into the women’s house, Tiphan took a lit lamp from its niche by the door. Raising it high, he called, “Mara? Where is Mara?”
Midway down the row of sleepers, a girl sat up, rubbing her eyes. “I am here, Tosen.”
“Come. I wish to speak to you.”
Holding a rabbit-fur blanket around her shoulders, Mara padded on bare feet past her dozing sisters. At seventeen, she was not the eldest of the female acolytes, but her devotion to the great dragon and to Tiphan was unquestioned.
She pushed a tangle of curly auburn hair away from her freckled face. “What is it, Tosen?”
“We have a task to perform, Mara. A very special task,” he whispered, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. “You must prepare for a journey.”
“Over the mountains, to the east.”
She blinked, her brain still befogged by sleep. “When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow before dawn.”
That woke her up. “Tosen, I bring the dragon’s meal to the Offertory tomorrow! My father selected a fine yearling ox — ”
“Lower your voice, girl! This is more important! Do as I say. Dress warmly and pack food and water for the two of us for twelve days.”
“Two of us, Tosen? Are we going on this journey alone?”
“No, Penzar is coming, too. He’ll bring his own supplies.” Mara let out the breath she was holding. Eighteen-year-old Penzar was a fine hunter and tracker. He could certainly supply game for them, wherever they were going.
“It will be done, Tosen,” she said, bowing.
“Say nothing about what we do, even to your sisters,” he murmured. “And bring a weapon.”
“We’re going to the wilderness, beyond the eye of our Protector. Do you have a weapon?”
“A bird stick. A quartz knife.”
Tiphan returned the lamp to the wall niche. “Good night, Mara. I’ll see you at the entrance to the Offertory when the morning moon sets.”
“Yes, Tosen. Good night.”
When Tiphan emerged from the women’s house, a raw wind was scouring the street. He faced away from the wind and hurried to the men’s house. The scene with Mara was repeated as he roused Penzar, telling him they were going on a special journey.
The boy scrubbed a hand through his sandy hair, causing it to stand out from his head in short spikes. Blearily, he said, “Leaving? Has the Arkuden cast you out?”
“No, fool. I have an urgent task to perform on the far plains. You and Mara will serve me on the journey.”
“Yes. She’s strong, keen-eyed, and a good reader of weather signs. You’ll be our hunter and tracker. Bring your hunting spear and supplies for yourself for twelve days.”
Penzar nodded. “Aye, Tosen.”
As Tiphan left he was startled to see sleet falling. He headed home, the tiny particles of ice stinging his face. Sleet began to pile up in silver drifts against the houses. His breath plumed out, hanging in the air like smoke as he skidded across the frozen streets.
Duranix had told him there would be no more snow. He thought of the seedlings the villagers had planted. Ice was not snow, but it certainly meant woe to the tiny fruit trees. Had the Protector been wrong, or had he, Tiphan, misunderstood?
Alone in the empty street, Tiphan shook his head. The Protector was never wrong, and it seemed unlikely that he, the Protector’s chief servant, would be wrong either. Trust the dragon and believe in your own wisdom, he told himself. Believe, and all will be well.
Little noises teased Amero’s ears. He didn’t want to notice them. He was too comfortable. Snuggled deep under a pile of furs, his nose buried against the back of Lyopi’s neck, he was content. The noise was probably Unar, bumping around the dark interior of the house.
The noise grew louder. Someone was hammering on the door. Amero bolted upright. He heard loud, unintelligible talk in the street outside.
Lyopi pushed herself up on one elbow. Tendrils of hair had worked free of her braid and stood out around her face. “What is it?” she said crossly.
“I don’t know. I’ll find out.”
He made for the door. “Amero,” Lyopi called, “you might want some clothes.”
He looked down at himself and grinned. “It is cold out.”
The room resounded with more blows on the door. Amero pulled on his leather breeches and buckskin shirt. When he opened the door, he caught his foreman in mid-knock.
“What is it, Huru?” asked Amero, squinting against the morning light. People were running in the street.
“Sorry to wake you, Arkuden, but there’s trouble.”
Lyopi appeared behind Amero, wrapped in a black bearskin. “What trouble?” she asked.
“Ice fell all night. The fields are covered with half a span of sleet. The orchard planters are furious. They say the dragon lied to them, told them winter was done.”
Amero sighed, scrubbing his fingers through his short hair. “I knew this would happen. Where are the planters?”
“At the Offertory, demanding an explanation. Old Konza can’t handle them.”
“Konza?” Lyopi’s dark brows rose in surprise. “Where’s Tiphan?”
The dark-skinned man shrugged. “No one knows.”
Amero closed the door and put on his sandals and cloak. Lyopi began to dress as well.
“I’ll come with you,” she said.
“No, Unar needs you. It’ll be all right. I won’t let anyone hurt Konza.”
She frowned. “I’m not worried about Konza.”
Amero kissed her and hastened away with Huru. His first steps in the street sent him sliding into the wall of the house across the way.
“Watch your step, Arkuden!” Huru warned. “The ice is very bad.”
The rest of the town seemed empty, with none of the usual morning hustle. Amero soon saw why. Most of the townsfolk were crowded into the streets around the Offertory.
Konza, backed by Sensarku acolytes, was blocking the entrance to the sacrificial altar. Amero saw Jenla at the head of the outraged planters, shaking her fist under Konza’s nose.
“… what he told us, and we believed him!” she said. “We spent two days on our hands and knees, putting in all the seedlings we had! If they die, what will we harvest?”
“The loss threatens us all,” Konza said. His lined face was white with cold and anxiety. “No one meant to mislead you — ”
“Great heaps of good that does us now!” howled another planter. “Without fruit, without nuts, I’ll have nothing to barter for meat or hides for my family.”
“The elder trees still live,” Konza said weakly.
“They’re played out!” Jenla cried. “For the past four years they’ve yielded less and less. Last summer we got just threescore and one bushels of apples from the whole orchard, and only four-score and eight of burl nuts!”
Amero pushed his way through the crowd of curious onlookers until he was standing between Jenla and Konza. His presence caused an immediate change in the mood. Konza and the planters visibly relaxed.
“Arkuden,” said Konza. “I’m glad to see you.”
“As am I,” Jenla added. “You can right the injustice done to us!”
“What injustice?” asked Amero.
She repeated her earlier charges. When she finished, Amero said, “Who told you winter was over?”
“It was Tiphan!” said a man behind her. The other planters took up the cry and repeated it until Amero held up his hands for quiet.
Jenla said crossly, “He spoke the words of the Great Protector, Arkuden.”
Amero smiled. “Then we should ask the dragon.”
A murmur went through the crowd. No one was quite sure what Amero had in mind, but it was more interesting than huddling by their hearths on a frigid morning.
Amero tried to move past Konza but found his progress blocked by the close ranks of the acolytes.
“Stand aside,” he said.
“Only Sensarku may enter,” replied a stern-faced youth.
“Boy, I was living in the cave with the dragon before you were born,” Amero retorted. “Stand aside. I am the Arkuden, the dragon’s son. If he tolerates me in his home, he won’t mind me in his dining hall.”
To Amero’s astonishment, the acolytes stood their ground. Konza ordered them to move, and they reluctantly parted, allowing Amero into the Offertory.
Inside, he gazed up at the high walls and scrubbed stonework. It was a very different place from the day he and his sister Nianki had fought rebel nomads for control of Yala-tene. The cairn where the rebels nearly burned Amero alive was then a rude pile of sooty stones. Now it had the air of a sacred place, somehow more important than merely the spot Duranix took his meals.
Konza and the female acolytes trailed behind him as he walked around the high altar. The crowd gathered around the entrance and peered in. The male Sensarku barred their way.
White sand crunched underfoot. Sleet covered the sand, making the courtyard around the altar gleam like white metal. On the far side of the altar, Amero found steps inset into the stonework. He started up. The girls on Konza’s heels protested.
“He is not clean!” said one. “He defiles the Protector’s place!”
Konza whirled, his gray fox cape lifting from the force of the spin. He scowled at the assembled girls.
“Hold your tongues!” he snapped. “Amero is the true son of the dragon! He may go where he wishes.”
The acolytes, chastened, said no more, but they watched with intense resentment as Amero mounted the steps.
The platform was quite high. Only the village walls were taller. Amero had often seen the top of the Offertory from his lift, but he’d not been on the great cairn since Tiphan had forbidden it to non-Sensarku. It was a simple structure, a solid stone platform ten paces wide by fifteen long. In the center was a firepit to roast Duranix’s meals. Short pillars at the corners of the pit served to hold the ox or elk carcass above the flames.
Konza joined him. The wind was blowing less, but it was still bitterly cold atop the high altar.
Amero turned and faced the waterfall, several hundred steps away. Duranix! Duranix, will you come? he thought. There was no answer but the whistle of the east wind.
Amero frowned as he concentrated on sending his thoughts again to the distant dragon.
Duranix, there’s a problem in the village. Please come.
There was still no answer from the dragon, but Amero felt a tingling in his ears. Assuming it was from the cold, he cupped his hands over them. The tingling grew stronger, and then a faint sound, little louder than the wind, seemed to scratch inside his head.
It’s too cold to go out. What do you want?
Amero was so startled he staggered and nearly fell when his feet slid on the icy altar. Konza grabbed his arm to steady him.
“What is it?” the old man asked, seeing his astonished expression.
“Nothing. It’s icy up here, that’s all,” Amero managed to say, though his mind was whirling.
This was astonishing! From the beginning of their acquaintance, he’d known Duranix could read his thoughts. Yet only now after so many years did the dragon demonstrate that Amero could also hear Duranix’s replies.
Don’t be such a child. Duranix’s voice echoed inside Amero’s skull. You’ve always had the ability to hear my thoughts. Remember how, many years ago, you heard the thoughts of the yevi?
Stunned by the revelation, Amero recalled himself to the business at hand. Please come down, for your sake and mine!
Spears of sunlight poked through the low-lying clouds, raking the frosted landscape with light. Amero waited for an answer. After several seconds, he turned away.
“He’s not coming,” he said, annoyed.
Konza clutched his arm. “No, Arkuden! See. The Protector comes!”
Amero looked up in time to see Duranix bursting through the wall of plunging water, wings spread wide.
A concerted “Oh!” rose from the people below. In the years since he’d saved them from the nomad attack, Duranix had not appeared very often in broad daylight. The Sensarku offered their sacrifices at dusk or dawn when most villagers were at work or asleep.
Duranix put his massive bronze head down and dived straight at the Offertory. Wings folded, he plummeted directly toward Amero and Konza. He grew larger and larger, showing no sign of slowing or turning. Konza let out a yelp and crouched as low as his stiff back would allow, sure they were about to be smashed flat.
At the last moment, the dragon flung open his wings and swooped up, his claws missing the crown of Amero’s head by less than a span. Unimpressed by his friend’s display, Amero remained standing. The icy wind of Duranix’s passing tore at his cloak and blasted his face.
They’re already afraid of you, Amero told him. You don’t have to show off.
Duranix beat his wings hard and dropped his clawed feet. He came to rest on the platform, which creaked under the weight of his nearly fifteen-pace length. Curling his wings tight around his chest, the dragon spoke. “Thunder and lightning! It’s too cold to be outside!”
“That’s the problem,” Amero said. “The planters planted their seedlings, and now they’re afraid the ice will kill them.”
“Well, it’s winter,” Duranix said.
Konza made a surprised sound.
“When you spoke last with Tiphan,” Amero said, “did you tell him there would be no more snow?”
The dragon flicked his tongue impatiently. “You know I didn’t. Let them take it up with Tiphan. He’s at fault here.”
Amero turned to Konza. “Where is Tiphan?”
The old man, neck craned back, couldn’t take his eyes off Duranix. Something akin to worship lit up his face. “I don’t know,” he said. “He left before dawn this morning. Something about an important journey.”
“He left Yala-tene?”
Konza nodded. Amero was incredulous. Tiphan was openly scornful of the wandering life. The old ways of the plainsman held no appeal for him.
Duranix exhaled on his foreclaws. Out came an arc of brilliant blue-white fire, like lightning. Konza’s adulation turned to fear, and he crouched in terror, his hands coming up to cover his head. There were screams from the people below.
Duranix paid no attention to them. “That’s better,” he said, clapping his smoking claws together. “It’s too cold out here. You should get inside, Amero.”
I will, as soon as you speak to the people.
Duranix finally noticed the villagers milling around the Offertory entrance. As his angular reptilian head turned in their direction, many people pushed their neighbors, intent on escape. The rest seemed rooted in place, staring back at him in shock.
I see I shall get no rest until I do, Duranix replied. From the center of the platform, he sprang to the top of the Offertory’s surrounding wall. Gripping the top of the wall with his rear claws, Duranix flapped his wings and stretched out his long neck for balance. The villagers’ fear turned to near panic.
Once he’d settled himself, Duranix gazed down implacably.
“People of Yala-tene!” he boomed. The villagers froze in place. “Some of you think I told Tiphan, Konza’s son, that no more cold weather could be expected. This is not true. He asked me if I thought it would snow again this season, and I said I didn’t want any more snow. That is all.”
A figure clad in baggy woolens cautiously approached the perching dragon. “Tiphan mistook you?” Jenla asked loudly.
Duranix looked the old woman straight in the eye. “Yes.”
“Then our quarrel is with Tiphan!” she declared.
Amero hurried down from the platform and emerged from the Offertory. “Tiphan is gone,” he announced. “He left Yala-tene this morning.”
The villagers digested this with puzzled, unhappy mutters. A young Sensarku, as much in the dark as anyone, asked, “Will he come back?”
“I don’t know, but we must act quickly to save the orchard,” Amero said. “Everyone must lend a hand. Gather all the hay you can find and take it to the orchard. We’ll spread it over the seedlings to keep them warm.”
Konza, also down from the altar, added, “We can build fires between the rows to warm the soil.”
Amero slapped the old man’s thin shoulder. “Good thinking! Let’s get to it. Duranix, will you start a fire for us across the lake?”
The bronze dragon agreed.
“But if we use our hay,” said a fellow in a herder’s apron, “what will the oxen eat?”
“Moss and lichens,” said another. “It keeps the elk alive all winter. Why not oxen?”
Buoyed with hope, the villagers dispersed. Amero watched them with relief. What looked like sure violence had been diffused by a unifying task.
“What?” Amero looked up at Duranix.
They’re such children. One minute furious, the next minute happy.
“They’re good people. They’re your people.”
“So they are.” The dragon spread his wings in preparation for flight. He shivered, and the tips of his wings curled as a massive sneeze erupted from his nostrils, followed by wisps of steam. “But in the future, can you arrange to have these little dramas during warmer weather?”
The Edge of the World, according to the plainsmen, was not a range of sky-piercing mountains or a trackless, endless sea. For them, the Edge of the World was a forest, one so dense, dark, and thickly grown that it forever blocked the way westward.
There were stories of lone hunters or small bands of plainsmen who had tried to penetrate the mysterious woodland. So far as anyone knew, none had ever returned. The east was better understood and less feared, even with the menace of the Silvanesti there. Humans had explored all lands to the north, east, and south, but the forest at the Edge of the World remained an impenetrable barrier.
The raiders drove their prisoners into this fearsome territory without hesitation. Beramun and her fellow captives quickly realized Zannian’s men had secret trails marked out in the underbrush. Many times the plainsmen were guided through a barely visible opening in a thick hedge or made to climb over a heap of fallen logs, and there on the other side would be a hidden path.
Sthenn left them before sunrise. For such a powerful creature, he showed increasing anxiety as the sky lightened, his voice growing more and more shrill, his orders becoming wild and contradictory. Beramun imagined the dragon spent most of his time in the deep forest and thus found the full light of day hard to bear. When the first pink rays of dawn appeared in the east, Sthenn halted the band of humans trailing in his wake.
“Zannian!” he snarled. “Zannian, where are you?”
“Here, Master. I’m here.” The raider chief, on foot, stood close to the dragon’s haunch.
“Ah. Quiet, aren’t you? Rodents are so stealthy.”
“What is your will, Master?”
“I return to my den. Hurry your cattle to Almurk. You shall wait upon me tonight.”
Some of the raiders let out mutters of surprise, and Zannian said, “Tonight, Master? It’s at least twelve leagues to Almurk. I counted us there by tomorrow morning.”
Sthenn flexed his leathery wings and hissed, “Do not dispute me! Do as I command! Use the whip on the captives and your men if you must, but be in Almurk before the sun next rises!”
Zannian could only bow and say, “I do your will, Master.”
“See that you do.”
Before the eyes of the amazed captives, the dragon’s body grew thin and pale. His extremities changed to green mist, which the day’s early breeze dissipated. His wings followed, then his massive torso. The last thing to vanish were the dragon’s malign black eyes, slowly blinking until they faded from sight.
Roki, shoulder to shoulder with Beramun, shuddered. “We are lost,” the older woman said hopelessly. “If we remain in that creature’s power, our lives will be measured in days.”
Beramun forced herself to be cheerful, for her friend’s sake. “Don’t speak of it,” she said, clasping Roki’s chill hand. “Whatever his power, the stormbird must be mortal and have some weakness. So long as we live, there is hope.”
Her gallant sentiments were cut short by Zannian’s shouts. He ordered the prisoners’ hobbles cut so they could move faster.
“You’re in Sthenn’s realm now,” he warned, gesturing to the gloomy trees around them. “Try to run away, and you won’t last ten steps off the path. Our Master has filled the forest with beasts of his own making. Their only purpose is to kill the unwary, so keep to the track and do as you’re told!”
Tired but fearful, the captives moved down the narrow trail in a column of twos. It wasn’t long before they had proof of the forest’s deadly purpose. One of the raiders fell asleep while riding, and his horse strayed off the path. It ambled to a short bush growing beneath a leafless tree. Slim yellow fruit hung from the bush, and a temptingly sweet aroma wafted to the hungry prisoners as they passed by. Before Zannian or the other riders had noticed their sleeping comrade, the horse nosed into the bush and nibbled a yellow fruit.
A snap louder than any whipcrack split the air. Hairy brown tentacles burst from the ground, enveloping the horse. The raider was thrown to the ground. Two tentacles seized the startled man around the waist and neck, drawing him under the seemingly solid soil and putting an abrupt end to his hoarse screams.
“Hoten! Kukul!” Zannian yelled. “Save the horse!”
Warily, the two riders jabbed their long spears into the ground around the bush. Beramun heard a high, keening shriek of pain. Blackish fluid oozed out of the dirt where Kukul’s spear penetrated. The tentacles loosened their grip on the horse, and Hoten snagged its bridle, leading the animal to safety. Grinning, Kukul gave the ground one last jab. Foul-smelling liquid spurted out, drenching his spear and arm. Kukul jerked his weapon free and rode back to the waiting band.
“It’s gonna be sore for a while,” he boasted. Extending the reeking spear, Kukul deliberately wiped the vile ooze across the backs of two prisoners. “Faw! The takti smells a lot better above the ground than below.”
Takti was a south plains word meaning “fisherman.” Beramun understood the wry reference. The creature buried itself under loose soil and extended a lure that had the appearance of a fruit-bearing bush. When unsuspecting prey tried to eat the fruit, tentacles seized them and dragged them into the takti’s maw. The comparison to a fisherman’s baited hook was grimly appropriate.
The prisoners needed little goading to get them moving again. They stumbled deeper into the forest. Slowly their surroundings changed. The oak, yew, and alder of the upland woods gradually gave way to cypress, juniper, and elm. The dry brown soil became black and soft, and an air of decay permeated the forest. Wispy gray widows’ hair moss hung in long clumps from the branches of trees.
Midday came, and still the column lurched onward. The raiders’ horses began to pant from exhaustion and thirst. Still Zannian would not let anyone stop, lest they incur the wrath of Sthenn. Instead, he ordered his men to dismount and lead their horses.
Red-eyed vipers as thick as Beramun’s thigh occupied low branches above the trail. Spiderwebs two paces wide filled the gaps between some trees. Other dark things scurried away as they passed, a thousand rustlings and stirrings in the thick mat of rotting leaves covering the forest floor.
Beramun noticed they’d been going downhill for quite some time. Worn, white tree roots snaked across the trail like bleached bones. That and the smell of decay reinforced the impression they were passing through a burial ground. The widow’s hair was so thick on the trees that very little sunlight reached the ground.
She lost track of time in the perpetual gloom. The trail seemed endless, sometimes winding left, sometimes right, but always down and down. The ground grew damper until it squished between her toes with every step. The air was warmer, wetter, and heavier.
Something touched her arm. Beramun flinched, thoughts of vipers and carnivorous monsters flashing through her numbed brain. Looking up, she saw Zannian riding alongside her. He’d tapped her with the butt of his spear.
“Water?” he said, holding a hide-wrapped gourd. He shook it to show her it was full. The sound was nearly more than she could bear. Her parched mouth yearned for water, but Beramun saw her fellow prisoners eyeing the gourd as well, licking their cracked lips.
Swallowing hard, she shook her head. “Not unless there’s some for all.”
Zannian’s face hardened. “Be thirsty then!” He trotted back to the head of the line.
“Next time take what he offers,” said the man behind her. “He wants you. You can use that.”
“I want no favors from him,” Beramun replied in a low voice.
The man shrugged and muttered something that ended with “stupid girl.” Roki, at least, gave her a heartening smile.
The last leagues passed in blur. The trail changed from a path worn into the hard soil to a raised hillock of dry ground surrounded by a stinking morass of rotting vegetation. Night fell, and still they blundered on. Prisoners began to collapse from exhaustion and thirst, some dropping in mid-stride. The raiders were in no better straits. More than one toppled from his mount. Those who fell off the trail into the brush never emerged again. A brief grunt, a thrash of limbs, and it was over. No one had the strength to help them.
Some inner power kept Beramun going. Her arms and legs felt carved from wood. To keep herself moving she blotted out all thoughts — her murdered family, Zannian, his terrible dragon master. The world narrowed to the patch of ground in front of her. Nothing else existed but her next footfall.
Finally the awful trek ended. At the head of the struggling column, Zannian reined up. His men followed suit, some of them actually weeping with joy. The prisoners, insensible to commands or curses, kept tramping forward until the foremost fetched up against the halted horses, tripped, and fell. Those behind fell over them, and so on, until the whole wretched column lay gasping on the ground.
“This is Almurk,” Zannian rasped. He cleared his parched throat. “This will be your home until you die.”
In spite of the fatigue that dragged at her limbs, Beramun couldn’t resist lifting her head for a look. They were in a clearing about sixty paces wide. A broad dirt path divided the clearing in two. On each side were clusters of rude huts made from lashed saplings and sheathed in leaves, mud, and bark. Smoke hung in the still, dank air, blending the fetid odor of the swamp with the smell of burnt wood and unwashed humanity.
Though the clearing was free of trees, a heavy canopy of vines growing across the branches that ringed the settlement blotted out the sky. The canopy held in the smoke and smells and probably kept Almurk as dark as twilight all day long.
Hoten, Kukul, and the rest of the raiders dismounted and began shouting at the prisoners. When the wretched folk did not comply fast enough, they were whipped and kicked until they got moving. Many of the prisoners could do no better than crawl on hands and knees, heads hanging, sides heaving.
The continued mistreatment of her fellow captives made anger flare in Beramun’s heart. She staggered to her feet, staring coldly at the men trying to drive her into a penlike enclosure. They knew she had found favor in their chiefs eyes, so they hesitated to strike her. Captives clustered around her, using Beramun as a shield against their tormentors. The pitiful group clung to each other as the girl’s dark eyes remained fixed in silent fury on the raiders.
Kukul rode over, scowling at the clump of unmoving captives. “Why are you standing there?” he snarled. “Get moving!”
“Water,” Beramun croaked. “We need water and food.”
“You get what we give you when we give it to you!”
“No! Now!” Her shout was tinged with a courage brought on by exhaustion, fear, and outrage. “If you mean to kill us, then do it. We won’t be starved and parched to death!”
Infuriated by her defiance, Kukul snatched a long obsidian knife from his belt. Beramun’s flash of courage faltered at the sight of the naked black blade, but when she glanced backward for a way to flee, she saw instead her fellow captives. Their gray, suffering faces had been transformed by her desperate defiance.
Their need transformed her too, giving her new strength. Pulling Zannian’s blanket from her shoulders, Beramun twisted it quickly around her left arm. Kukul slashed at her, and she used the blanket to ward off the blow. She felt the stone blade snag on the coarse cloth. Backing up, she dropped awkwardly to a fighting crouch. The humid air was heavy and thick, and she had no strength left after the long forced march. Her best hope was that Kukul was spent, too.
Kukul uttered an obscenity and cut at her backhanded. Beramun fended this off with her padded wrist, then used her free hand to punch the raider’s face. Blood flowed from his nose. He howled and jabbed at her exposed belly. Beramun twisted away, lost her footing, and fell hard.
Grinning triumphantly, Kukul advanced until he was standing over her. He pinned her blanket-wrapped arm to the ground with one foot, then raised his knife.
Beramun, gasping for breath, squeezed her eyes shut.
Death did not arrive. Instead, she heard a gurgling noise and the astonished cries of her fellow captives. Opening her eyes, she saw a slender, flint-tipped spear protruding from Kukul’s throat. Dark red blood covered his chest. The obsidian knife fell from his fingers, his knees folded, and down he went, falling backward across Beramun’s ankles.
She kicked free of the dead man. Zannian appeared. He picked up Kukul’s knife. In his right hand he held a strange device: a carved stick as long as his forearm, fitted with a leather strap on one end and a small leather cup on the other. A short spear like the one that had killed Kukul fit loosely in the leather cup. She saw immediately how it worked — by whipping it overhand, the stick hurled the small spear with great force.
“Did he hurt you?” the chief asked.
Beramun didn’t answer. Her gaze locked on Kukul’s lifeless eyes.
Zannian said sharply, “Stand up.”
She snapped back to awareness and did as he ordered. He unwound the blanket from her arm. The center of the bedroll was slashed in several places.
Beramun stared at her arm as though it belonged to someone else. There was indeed a long cut from her wrist to her elbow. Blood dripped slowly from the tip of her little finger, soaking quickly into the black earth.
“So I am,” she said.
The night, the camp, and Zannian’s face swirled before her eyes as the last of her strength deserted her.
Beramun awoke upside down, her head and arms dangling. A greenish yellow light offered just enough illumination for her to see. It took her a moment to realize she was being carried over someone’s shoulder. The legs and feet beneath her might have belonged to any of the raiders. She noticed a carved wooden rod hanging from her carrier’s waist and recognized the odd weapon. Zannian had killed Kukul with it.
The raider chief was carrying her down a dark tunnel. Stones had been set in the soft soil to make a firm, dry path. The light was coming from clumps of villainous-looking toadstools growing in cracks in the paving. The gills radiated the sickly glow, and the stems and caps were a dull, dark red, like raw meat.
The path slanted downward. Turning her head, she saw the tunnel stretched behind them. No entrance was visible — just an unmeasurable darkness. Dampness clung to her skin, but she resisted the urge to shiver. Her injured arm was wrapped in a hide bandage, but she wore the same short, ragged shift she’d gone to sleep in two days before.
Zannian stopped, and Beramun closed her eyes, maintaining her limp, unconscious pose. The raider chief bent his knees until her feet touched the ground, then he caught her under the arms and lowered her to the ground with care. Hearing his footsteps move away, she dared crack an eyelid to see what was happening.
They were in a large, circular room, ten paces across. The floor dropped away in stages, resulting in a series of stone steps leading down to an open hole. Even more toadstools grew here, resulting in a relatively brighter view. Zannian stood on the lowest step, facing the hole and stretching his arms wide.
“Great Master,” he intoned loudly, “I am here as you commanded.”
Beramun heard scratching noises near her face. Opening her eye a bit wider, she spotted three huge cockroaches, each as big as the palm of her hand. Their bellies and spiny feet made soft scraping sounds as they clambered over the loose debris on the floor. Disgusted, Beramun clenched her eyes shut. She had to set her teeth firmly to keep from crying out when the giant insects crawled over her chest to investigate the dried blood on her injured arm.
Bad as the cockroaches were, a new, louder noise chilled the blood in her veins. She opened one eye and looked toward the pit, from which the noise came. It was a hard tapping, like wood or bone against stone, followed by the distinct hiss of skin rubbing on skin. That and a rising acidic stench announced the coming of Sthenn.
“Master! I await your orders!” Zannian cried.
A large claw rose out of the black pit and gripped the edge of the lowest step. It was the dewclaw on the dragon’s wing joint, as big as Beramun’s slim hand, though yellowed and eroded like a tusk of weathered ivory. The reek of the dragon’s poisonous breath grew stronger. Emitting rapid clicks, the roaches fled to crevices in the wall. Beramun wished she could follow them.
Her breath caught as she watched the dragon slowly emerge from its lair. A second dewclaw appeared, followed closely by the forward-curving horns atop Sthenn’s head. His horns were stained and notched from untold years. The dragon’s broad brow rose above the edge of the pit. His head was heavy and square, the color of ancient jade. Along his muzzle and the underside of his throat, his scales were ragged, corroded-looking. The barbels on his chin were thick and the palest green of all, as if their color had leached away with the centuries.
“I am here as you bid, Master,” the young chief said.
“That is good,” rasped the dragon. “I don’t have to tear your head off.”
Zannian stepped back from the rim of the pit as more of the monster emerged. Sthenn’s body was slender and serpentine. Gray-green scum mottled the edges of his scales, and he exuded a powerful reek of age, mold, and uncleanness.
He perched on the stone ledge that lined the opening of his lair. In the confined space, his presence was overwhelming. Beramun felt cold moisture trickling down her face and neck, the sweat of pure fear.
“What’s this?” asked the dragon, swiveling his head toward her. As he did so, Beramun closed her eye.
“A slave,” Zannian replied. “We took her on the raid.”
Beramun heard the dragon come closer. She could almost feel his baleful eyes boring into her. She begged all her departed ancestors to spare her from too much pain, to make her death mercifully quick.
Something cold and sharp raked through her hair, and this time Beramun begged her ancestors for the strength not to shriek aloud.
After an interminable time, the dragon said, “All rodents look alike to me. Why bring it here?”
“I would keep her for myself, Master, if you allow it.”
The hovering presence above her withdrew. Beramun’s heart eased its frantic thumping.
“Why this one? Many females have come to Almurk in recent days. What’s special about this one?”
Zannian did not answer immediately, so the dragon repeated the question, his powerful voice rising into a higher register, lending it a curiously feminine tone.
“She’s beautiful, Master.”
“What do rodents know of beauty?” Sthenn sneered. “That frail, thin hide of yours isn’t capable of beauty.”
“True, Master. May I keep her anyway?”
Beramun was certain she’d given no sign she was awake, yet something had alerted the dragon, for he said, “Let’s ask the little squirrel. She’s listening to your plea.”
The dragon’s claws closed around her waist, and she was lifted from the stones. The time for pretense was gone, so she vented her pent-up terror in a loud, ringing scream. Zannian took a step toward her. The green dragon’s slit eyes flickered to the raider chief.
“You wish to help her?” Sthenn asked, chuckling malevolently.
“Master, I — ”
Sthenn swung his claw in a wide arc until Beramun’s feet were dangling over the open pit. Her frantic squirming inside his claw only seemed to amuse the monster more.
His black mirth made Beramun furious. “Go ahead and kill me!” she shouted. “I won’t be forced to mate with any man!”
The dragon’s hard laughter echoed off the walls. “Hear that, little Zan? True love indeed!”
“Please, Master,” Zannian pleaded, his face crimson. “Don’t hurt her.”
“And if I told you to choose between serving me and having this black-haired wench, what would you say?”
Beramun saw the raider’s throat work as he swallowed hard. “I will always serve you, Master.”
Sthenn tossed Beramun onto the upper steps. She landed hard and rolled, coming to a stop against the niter-encrusted wall. Her tumble scattered the loose debris, sending some of it rolling into the yawning pit. She realized many of the “stones” she’d been lying on were actually human bones.
“Take her, boy, and use her as you see fit!” Sthenn cackled. “When you tire of her, bring her to me — though beautiful rodents likely taste much the same as ugly ones.”
The dragon lowered himself backward into his hole. His feculent laughter echoed upward long after his monstrous form was lost from view.
Zannian knelt by Beramun and helped her sit up.
“Don’t touch me!” she snapped.
He withdrew, but said, “Mend your attitude. Those who break the laws of Almurk end up here, as meat for the Master.”
“How can you serve such a monster? How can you feed your fellow humans to him?”
“Sthenn is the source of our future greatness. With him as our master, we will forge a great tribe and conquer the plains!”
Beramun ignored his helping hand and stood, bracing herself against the sticky wall until her knees ceased shaking.
He watched her through narrowed eyes. “You can live as the chiefs mate or die as his slave. The choice is yours. Until you decide, you’ll work like the others in the tannery.”
He indicated she should precede him up the tunnel. She limped past, bruised from her hard landing, and they walked in silence. The long tunnel eventually ended on a blank wall. Looking up, Beramun saw an opening. A ladder made from peeled saplings was positioned in the hole. Weary, her entire body aching, she began the climb up.
When they emerged, she saw it was still night. Zannian pointed wordlessly to the pen where the other captives slept. Head held high, Beramun limped into the low-walled prison.
Tiphan and his young helpers left the valley through Cedarsplit Gap, climbing into the low-hanging clouds as they went. Everything they wore or carried soon acquired a thin coat of ice. Once they crested the pass, they encountered a frigid wind that cut through their furs. By the time the sun rose above the eastern range, all three travelers were numb to the bone.
Tiphan consented to a pause in the lee of a promontory for refreshment. Strengthening drafts of Hulami’s best wine got their blood coursing again.
“The wind shouldn’t be so bad on the downslope,” Mara remarked.
“I hope so,” said Penzar, lips blue with cold. “Tosen, now that we’re out of Yala-tene, can you tell us where we’re going?”
In reply Tiphan opened his hip pouch and took out the scrap of Silvanesti map. He spread it on a convenient rock and pointed approximately halfway between the eastern rivers.
“Here,” he said.
Penzar touched the ragged edge of the tom map reverently. “This is elven?”
“Yes. It represents a place, like you might draw a picture of a person you know.” Tiphan drew his knife and deftly scratched a few lines on the rock face behind them with the bronze blade. Mara and Penzar squinted at the image. It was a simple face — round head, eyes, nose, the suggestion of a mouth.
“This might be anyone,” Tiphan said. “So I add — ” He scored a curling line from the back of the image’s head. “Now who is it?”
Penzar said, “Mara!” and the girl echoed, “Me!”
“If I drew a three-sided lake with a waterfall at the broad end, you’d know what place it was, wouldn’t you?”
The boy grinned. “Of course, Tosen.”
Mara was studying the crude likeness on the rock. She glowed with her pleasure at having been chosen as the subject of her leader’s lesson, but she quickly resumed her serious countenance.
Standing out from the sheltering boulder, she said, “The wind dies. Shall we go?”
As they crossed the high divide between east and west the wind subsided. It was still freezing and extremely dry — too dry for snow or ice — but the sun was bright, and they made good time. Penzar moved ahead, scouting for hidden danger and game, but he found neither. The mountains were desolate this late in winter, and save for few birds of prey wheeling in the faultless sky, they saw no animals at all.
By afternoon it was Mara’s turn to scout ahead, which she did with her bird stick in hand. If she scared up a covey of quail or a grouse, she could bring down a bird in flight with her carved throwing wand. Unfortunately, she found the rocky crevices as lifeless as Penzar had.
At this height, the sky was clear, blue, and free of clouds. Shading her eyes, Mara looked to the eastern horizon. Slender, thready clouds reached out from the edge of dawn, like long white fingers. It was snowing, possibly raining, somewhere far to the east, but she reckoned the moisture wouldn’t reach them for several days.
The clatter of loose rocks ahead woke her from her reverie. She drew her arm back, ready to throw her stick at whatever was moving up ahead. Listening, she heard something else: the rhythmic fall of hooves.
Mara turned and sprinted back up the trail. Topping an outcropping of rock, she spied Tiphan and Penzar in the distance and ran even harder. When she was close enough, she gasped her warning.
Horses meant nomads or elves. In either case, the trio was in no position to meet hostile strangers. They hastily quit the trail, taking shelter between two boulders. Penzar stood with spear ready as the others peered around the rocks to see what was coming.
Four swarthy heads appeared, bobbing as they came. They had leathery faces and shoulder-length black hair, lank and woven through with vines and leaves. They weren’t elves or humans, and as they drew nearer, it became plain they were not riding on horses. They were horses below the waist.
“Centaurs,” Tiphan whispered.
The four leaders were followed by a crowd of others, all weighed down with baggage — furs, hides, bedrolls, tools, and woven willow panniers. Mara counted twenty-two centaurs in sight, with more coming over the ridge. This was no hunting party. This was an entire tribe on the move.
The lead man-horse reached the spot where Tiphan, Mara, and Penzar had left the trail. In their haste to hide, they hadn’t obscured their tracks, and the centaur saw the signs of their passage. He held up a hand, shouted something in a guttural tongue, and the whole tribe halted. Gray-haired elders cantered forward to confer with the scout. With much gesturing of arms and stamping of hooves, the scout made his point. Bending his forelegs, he knelt and sniffed the stony ground. Slowly he raised his head until he was staring directly at the humans’ hiding place.
“Tosen?” Penzar whispered, gripping his spear.
“Be still. I’ll deal with them.”
Tiphan stepped from the crevice. The centaurs spotted him and began an excited babble. Four of them galloped up, flanking the Sensarku leader.
“Mara! Penzar! Come out,” he said evenly. “Penzar, leave your spear.”
“But Tosen — ”
“Do as I say!”
Mara emerged from the cleft in the rock and stood confidently by her leader. Penzar came out more slowly, eyeing the fierce-looking centaurs with obvious suspicion.
One centaur, whose hair was liberally streaked with gray and whose dark horse’s body was likewise dappled with silver, approached Tiphan. He scrutinized the Sensarku and uttered a short sentence in his own tongue.
Back in the rocks, Tiphan had thought he recognized this centaur. Now it was time to test his memory.
“Miteera?” he ventured. “Miteera?”
The centaurs pranced and muttered, obviously startled to hear the word from human lips.
“Miteera,” said the gray-dappled centaur. “Your face I not know.”
“I am Tiphan, Konza’s son. Peace to you, Miteera, and to your people.”
“Know you me… how?”
“I know many things,” Tiphan said, smiling. “I am chief of the Sensarku, the Servants of the Dragon.”
“Ah!” Miteera turned to his people and gave them a rapid explanation in their own tongue. To Tiphan, he said, “From Arku-peli?” Tiphan admitted they were. “Your chief Arkuden?”
The smile faded from Tiphan’s face. He forced it to return. “Yes, the head of our village is the Arkuden,” he said. “What brings you and your people to the high mountains, Miteera?”
The old centaur’s face darkened, his gray eyes narrowing. “Pushed out eight suns ago. By B’leef.”
It took Tiphan a moment to realize Miteera was saying “Balif.” To be certain he asked, “The Silvanesti drove you out? The elves?”
Miteera nodded and spat on the ground. “Old Ones with fire and metal drive Miteera people out. Many die. We go to sunset. Leave B’leef.”
With a few more questions, Tiphan pieced together the rest of the story. For some time, the Silvanesti had been systematically driving the centaurs from of the woodland between the two branches of the Thon-Tanjan. Eight days ago, Miteera’s tribe had fought a pitched battle against Balif’s army and lost. Many centaur warriors were killed. All that remained of Miteera’s tribe was now fleeing west to escape the conquering elves.
“Long’go, Arkuden save Miteera from yevi. Arkuden friend. We find Arku-peli this way?” asked the old centaur.
“Yes, the high trail will take you to the Lake of the Falls,” Tiphan replied.
“Where you go? To sunbirth?”
Tiphan admitted they were heading east. The centaur shook his head and twitched his long, gray-streaked tail. “Bad. Bad to go,” he said. “You meet Old Ones. Meet death.” He mimed a sword thrust into Tiphan’s gut.
“We go on the Arkuden’s business,” Tiphan said. Mara arched an eyebrow at her leader’s easy lie. “Would you lend us one of your warriors, to go with us and help us avoid the elves?”
Miteera looked doubtful, but he put the question to his band. Several centaurs seemed willing, and the chief chose a youthful one with a russet-colored horse’s body and like-colored hair, who stepped forward from the crowd.
“Elu,” said Miteera, “most brave and strong. He go with you.”
“Why does he want to go?” Penzar blurted, suspicious still.
Miteera pointed a gnarled finger at Mara. “Elu like two-leg girl. He go for her.”
Mara blushed, and Penzar sputtered, “Tosen, you can’t — ”
“We humbly accept your help, Miteera,” Tiphan said, silencing his acolyte with a glare. “Welcome, Elu.”
“Him not talk,” Miteera said. “You point, he know.”
Elu shouldered his bundle of belongings and took his place at Tiphan’s side. The rest of the centaur band trotted past the humans. Miteera remained until the last of his people was gone then bade the humans good-bye. To Elu, Miteera addressed an elaborate farewell, which involved much stamping of hooves and clasping of arms. At last, the chief cantered away. Elu raised his club in salute.
Keeping his voice level, Penzar asked, “Tosen, why did you ask for this savage to accompany us?”
“Isn’t it obvious? A centaur is the next best thing to a pack animal.”
“But he has designs on Mara!”
“Then he’ll work hard to please her.” Tiphan took the heavy packs from the acolytes and draped them over the unresisting Elu’s withers and back. The centaur’s bright green eyes widened slightly, but he accepted the new burdens without complaint.
“Tosen, will we encounter elves, do you think?” asked Mara.
“I doubt it. We’re not going so far east as the Tanjan woods. Once we get to flatter land, we will have to keep sharp watch for Silvanesti, I’m sure, but I don’t expect to meet them in strength.”
Long clouds from the east overtook the sun. A cold wind rose with the shadows and teased wisps from Mara’s thick braid. She pointedly ignored the admiring look the centaur gave her.
“Come,” said Tiphan. “We ought to reach the tree line before dark.”
Penzar retrieved his spear, saying, “I’ll scout again.”
“Let Mara,” said Tiphan smugly. “She can be the carrot for our centaur friend.”
Mara was not amused, but she took the lead, and they resumed their march. Fifty paces behind her came Tiphan and Penzar. Elu, silent and strong, walked patiently at the rear, laden with the baggage.
Amero knelt by the water’s edge and dipped his hands in the cold lake. Mud and dried blood loosened from his sore fingers, clouding the clear water.
Across the lake, smoke rose from scores of small fires between the rows of seedlings. It had taken two days of back-breaking labor to clear the ice from the orchard, swathe the tender seedlings in mounds of straw, and get the warming fires going. It was too early to tell whether their efforts to save the orchard would be successful.
Like everyone else, Amero tore at the frozen soil with his bare hands, pulling sharp shards of ice away from the delicate plants. As he looked at his cut and bleeding hands, he dreamed of metal tools for every villager — bronze that would cut through ice and frozen turf, turning hard land into garden. More than ever he knew the future of humankind lay in the mastery of metal.
“You’ll get chilblains if you stay out here with wet hands.”
He turned, recognizing the voice. Lyopi draped a fur cape over his shoulders and held out a steaming mug of tea. Rising, Amero took the clay cup from her hands. Its warmth against his sore palms was just the solace he needed.
“Thanks,” he said. “I sometimes wonder how I lived so long without you to take care of me.”
She laughed. “So do I.”
They strolled back to the unfinished section of the town wall. Even before they reached it, Amero could hear chimes and sistra ringing inside the Offertory. The Sensarku made their instruments from Duranix’s cast-off scales. Amero considered it a waste of good metal, but the Sensarku were devoted to their ceremonies and repeated them every day.
“I wonder what happened to that fool Tiphan,” said Lyopi with characteristic bluntness. “I didn’t think he was the type to run away because of a single blunder. He was too proud for that.”
Amero sipped his tea. “He hasn’t run away. He’s on some quest.”
“How do you know?”
“Anari, who sleeps near Mara, told me Tiphan came in the night and woke Mara to tell her they were going on a journey. He also took Penzar, who’s a good tracker. They left before any of us knew about the danger to the orchards. He’s gone to the east to find something.”
Lyopi crossed her arms, burying her hands beneath her arms to keep them warm. “Find what, do you think?”
“Common sense, I hope.”
Flames flickered up above the walls of the town and Offertory. Lyopi drew in breath loudly. “They’re ‘purifying’ the cairn because it was touched by your unclean self,” she said. When Amero didn’t reply she added, “Aren’t you offended?”
“Why should I be? I don’t care what beliefs the Sensarku follow as long as they do their work and mind the village elders.”
“Very wise,” she said, with mild irony. She knew when Amero said “village elders” he really meant “the Arkuden.”
A new, more distant sound drowned out the chanting from the Offertory: the sound of rams’ horns blown by sentinels high on the cliff above Yala-tene. It was a danger signal, warning of an impending attack.
Amero and Lyopi raced to her house. Whenever an alarm was raised, all able-bodied adults in the village gathered at the north end of Yala-tene armed with sword, axe, or spear. Amero found Lyopi’s injured brother Unar trying to rise from his sickbed in answer to the call.
“Down, down,” Amero said, pushing the wounded man back on his pallet. “No one expects you to fight.”
“But, Arkuden — ”
“Lie still, Unar, or I’ll have your sister sit on you.”
“Ugh, threaten me with anything but that!”
Lyopi glared at them. “Shut your mouths, or I’ll raise lumps on both your heads!” She brandished a stone-headed axe. “I’m not so stout that you should fear me sitting on you, brother!”
“True, you weigh less than the dragon,” Amero quipped. He found a hunting spear and tested its heft.
“She’s more like a sturdy calf,” Unar said.
“Quiet you, or I’ll have your other eye out!”
Unar subsided at last. Lyopi tied a heavy leather cap around her head and went to the door.
“Are you ready, Arkuden?”
He shouldered the spear. “I am. Lead on.”
Barely two score villagers had gathered by the unfinished wall. The rest were out hunting or working in the orchards on the other side of the lake. The horns continued to blow, but now they were sounding from the mouth of Cedarsplit Gap. The strangers were moving fast, right down the path to Yala-tene.
The armed villagers chattered nervously among themselves. What sort of danger was bearing down on them? Elves? Nomads?
“Form a circle!” Amero shouted.
The villagers with spears presented a hedgehog of flintheads to the unseen foe. One by one the horns died away. Eventually, the sound of massed hoofbeats reached the villagers.
“Horses!” someone cried.
“Nomads! The nomads have come back!”
Villagers on the extreme ends of the formation began to back away.
Amero shouted, “Stand where you are! Stand fast!”
The frightened folk rejoined the circle, crowding closer together.
The noise grew louder. Dust rose from the mouth of Cedarsplit Gap. The villagers’ nervousness spread to the cattle and horses penned on each side of them. The animals milled about, neighing and lowing.
A column of dark-clad riders burst from the pass. They thundered out a hundred paces, halted, and surveyed the scene. Amero squinted through the whirling dust. They looked like small, dark-skinned men on ponies, not rangy nomads or fair-skinned elves.
The riders launched into motion again and came straight at the defenders. At sixty paces the dust parted enough for Amero to see who they were.
“Raise your weapons!” he cried. “Spears up! It’s Miteera!”
Confused but relieved, the villagers shouldered their arms. The centaur herd slowed when they saw the spears rise. Amero stepped out of the formation and held up his hands.
“Greeting, noble Miteera!” he shouted. “Welcome to Yala-tene!”
The gray-haired chief of the horse-men trotted forward.
“Hail, Arkuden! My eyes weep to see you!”
Arms wide, man and centaur embraced. Time had not dulled Miteera’s fierce smell, but Amero was so relieved that he felt like he was holding an armful of flowers.
The remainder of the centaur tribe ambled down the ravine into the open valley once they saw there was no danger.
“What brings you to our valley, noble chief?” Amero asked. “It’s been ten years since I saw you last.”
“Ah, Arkuden, such evil speaking I must do! My people are driven out!”
“Driven out? By who?”
“The Old Ones.”
The centaurs were rough, primitive folk, but they were valiant fighters. To dislodge the entire herd would have required -
“A great host,” Amero muttered. “Balif?”
Miteera nodded, frowning. “Aye, Arkuden. We could not stand before fire and metal.”
Amero studied the warriors at Miteera’s back. Many bore recent wounds, and all looked tired and trailworn.
“Fear not, Miteera,” he said. “You are welcome here. Will you stay and take greens with us?”
“One night only, Arkuden.”
“Why the hurry?”
“Is word of kokusuna.” This was the centaurs’ word for “spirits.” It also meant, in a vague way, “omens.”
Amero led the centaurs to the water troughs used by the village’s horse herd. The visitors weren’t insulted. Centaurs considered horses kin and in general held them in higher regard than humans. As the centaurs refreshed themselves, one of them spoke to his chief. Miteera clapped a gnarled hand to his brown forehead.
“Ah, Arkuden! Your people seen on mountain!”
Miteera explained how his band had encountered three humans in the high mountains. Through the old chiefs oblique descriptions, Amero understood the three to be Tiphan and his two acolytes.
“Were they well?” he asked.
“Hale, not wise.” The centaur shook his head at the incomprehensible foolishness of humans. “They go sunbirth. B’leef there.”
Amero was puzzled. Tiphan was headed east, toward the elves? “Did he say exactly where he was going or why?”
“Nah. They hunt. Not say what.”
Amero’s face betrayed his concern, and Miteera clapped him on the shoulder, saying, “Fear not! Elu I give — strong, good fighter. He guard good.”
Amero called for fodder to be brought to the hungry centaurs. The centaurs ate the sweet grass ravenously, plunging their faces into piles of fodder and coming up with great wads of hay sticking out their mouths and clenched in both hands. They chewed noisily, slurping water to wash everything down.
While they fed, Amero plied Miteera with questions about the elves. According to the centaur, Balif’s army had appeared in late summer, following the course of the Thon-Tanjan. They pushed into the centaurs’ homeland slowly, stopping every few leagues to erect stockades, which they filled with warriors. The two races first clashed about the time the leaves changed color. Elf cavalry wiped out one centaur warband, driving the rest of the herd into the eastern bend of the Tanjan, trapping them against the swift-flowing river. The destruction of the centaur tribe seemed certain. And then -
“B’leef turn away,” Miteera said. “Fight old enemy. Karada.”
Amero stepped back, thunderstruck. It could not be! The old centaur was mistaken — not Karada!
Karada, born Nianki, was Amero’s only blood kin. He had not seen her in twelve years. She was known throughout the plains as Karada, meaning “Scarred One,” from the scars of a vicious animal attack she bore on her face and neck. Fifteen years ago she and her band of nomads had been the scourge of the Silvanesti, raiding their outposts and threatening their new settlements. Twelve years ago, after being defeated by Balif, Karada’s shattered warrior band had come to Yala-tene, where rebels in her ranks tried to overthrow her and loot the village. Together, Amero, Duranix, Karada, and her loyalists had defeated the rebels, led by Hatu the One-eyed and Karada’s blood foe, Nacris.
With the village secure, Karada and her people had departed. Though Amero had hoped she would return, neither she nor her people had ever come back to the Valley of the Falls.
Stories had reached him of his sister’s ongoing fight against the Silvanesti. Karada had become the nemesis of the elf general Balif. For years she thwarted the elves’ plans of conquest in the north and east. Four years ago, wanderers passing through Yala-tene brought a tale of Karada’s death. Pursued by elite Silvanesti warriors, she and her band were said to have been trapped on a flat-topped escarpment in the far north, overlooking the inland sea. Five times the finest warriors of Silvanost tried to storm the plateau, and five times they were hurled back by Karada’s ferocious fighters. Finally an elf priest came forth and called down fire from the sky. The wooded plateau blazed from end to end, and when the flames went out days later, the elves found the burned bodies of Karada and all her band. That was the tale the wanderers told, and Amero had believed it — until now.
“She’s alive?” Amero asked eagerly, “Karada lives?”
Miteera shrugged. “I not see. Old Ones cry, ‘Karada! Karada!’ and ride away. Not kill us.” The old centaur’s eyes gleamed. “Karada is kokusun. No kill, ever.”
Amero didn’t know what to think. It wasn’t only the centaurs who thought his sister was a spirit. Many people, villagers and nomads alike, believed her to be the living spirit of the plains. Amero knew that if anyone could escape the might of Silvanos, it was Karada.
Amero saw the centaurs bedded down for the night then returned to the cave. He told Duranix what he’d learned from Miteera, both the story of Karada and that the centaurs had seen Tiphan and his two acolytes in the eastern mountains.
“Shall I go after Tiphan?” Duranix asked, slanting a look at his human friend.
“He chose this path. Let him follow it.”
“It would be convenient if the elves rid you of your problem.”
Amero was genuinely shocked. “I don’t desire his death!”
Duranix’s brazen lids clashed as he blinked. “I don’t see why not. He wouldn’t weep if you fell off the mountain.”
“I try to be better than that,” Amero said, kicking at the hearthstones.
The dragon stared as Amero gazed into the fire. Finally Duranix asked, “What about Karada? I can search for her, if you want.”
Amero shook his head. “How do you search for a kokusun? Can you spot a spirit from on high and take it in your claws?”
“If you ask me,” said the dragon, “I will try.”
Days followed days in a blur of hard labor, filth, and fear. Beramun worked in a tannery, stirring huge clay vats of molten beeswax. The wax was kept boiling as sheets of cowhide were dipped in it. Slaves had to lift the hot dripping hides out of the wax and carry them on poles to the molding shed where the leather was pounded over carved wooden forms and allowed to dry. The result was a shell of tough, hardened leather that other slaves trimmed into breastplates.
Roki worked in the molding shed. Beramun was able to see her several times a day when she brought in steaming sheets of leather. Roki explained that the raiders wore the hardened leather shells over their shirts to protect themselves from knives and spears.
“There are so many,” Beramun said, eyes traveling down row upon row of hide-covered molds filling the shed.
Roki flopped a hot, limp hide over her workbench. Molten wax splattered on both women, as it did a hundred times a day, leaving them with tiny, livid burns on their arms and legs.
“There must be more raiders than we’ve seen so far,” Roki said grimly.
Beramun learned other prisoners worked in a knappery, pounding out flint spearheads all day, and still another group cut and trimmed score upon score of green saplings for spear shafts. Zannian’s plan was all too obvious: He was going to raid on an even greater scale.
From sunrise to sundown the slaves labored. When it was too dark to see, their captors sounded a drum and herded them back to their walled enclosure. They were fed the same coarse food the raiders ate — a stew of nuts, wild greens, mushrooms, and the tough, unsavory meat of a common forest bird. It was not generosity that filled the slaves’ bowls. Roki said they were fed well so they could work all the harder.
After consuming their large bowls of flavorless but filling stew, the slaves went to sleep. Like the others, Beramun slept where she sat and did not stir until the drums rumbled at dawn, calling them back to work.
She wondered at her deep and dreamless rest. All her life she’d been a light sleeper. Living on the open savanna had taught her to remain alert to any possible danger. Since Almurk reeked of peril, how did she sleep so soundly?
One evening she feigned illness and gave away her food to those around her. Moments after finishing their meals, the captives fell fast asleep. Though tired and sore, Beramun felt alert. When vigorous shaking failed to rouse Roki, Beramun knew her suspicions were confirmed: The raiders were putting something in the food to make the prisoners sleep.
The next day she passed this information to Roki. The older woman was surprisingly unmoved.
“At least they allow us to rest,” she said with a shrug.
“But don’t you see? If we don’t take the food, we can stay awake and escape from here!”
Roki peeled a dry breastplate off the form and tossed it on the pile with the others she’d made that morning.
“We’ll never get out of here,” she said flatly. “If the raiders don’t catch us, the stormbird will. Or would you rather be eaten by some spirit-cursed monster in the forest?”
“I’d rather escape this muck hole and live free,” the girl insisted. A guard, sauntering through the molding hut, brusquely ordered Beramun back to work. She shouldered the poles and hissed at Roki, “I’ll not eat any more of their food.”
“Then you’ll starve.”
The day did not improve after that. One of the slaves was stung to death by bees while removing a section of honeycomb for the waxworks. The forest bees were the size of Beramun’s thumb, and the poor girl was overcome so quickly there was no chance to help her. The girl was an uncomplaining worker, no more than fourteen. That was all Beramun knew about her. She didn’t even know the girl’s name.
As the guards routed the bees with smoky pine knots and carried the girl’s body away, Beramun could only think she had been someone’s child. She must have had a family who cared about her, yet she had died alone and unknown in this horrible place.
Beramun refused to accept the same fate. She resolved to escape that very night.
After work, the usual stew was served. Beramun waited until the guards were gone then gave her portion away, ignoring her growling stomach. She considered telling her fellow slaves about the sleeping potion then changed her mind. Many of them had lapsed into sullen indifference, like Roki, or else openly collaborated with the raiders in hopes of currying small favors. Not wanting to risk exposure of her plan, she decided to keep it to herself.
She feigned sleep a long time before making her move. The slaves’ pen resounded with snores and wheezes as the exhausted captives dozed under the influence of the potion. Beramun didn’t bother trying to open the heavy gate but simply climbed the low wall. She had one leg over the top when something grabbed the ankle still inside the pen. A scream formed in her throat, but she stifled it. Looking down, she saw Roki had hold of her foot.
“Come back!” the woman said hoarsely. “You’ll be killed!”
“Why aren’t you asleep?” Beramun replied.
“I didn’t eat the stew. I knew you would try this!”
“Join me or not, but let me go!”
Roki hesitated a few seconds, but to Beramun it seemed like an age before the older woman’s callused hand released her ankle. By the feeble starlight penetrating the canopy of vines overhead, Beramun saw Roki’s cheeks were wet with tears.
A lump formed in Beramun’s throat. The woman had been her friend, the only one she’d made among the captives, but she couldn’t remain here.
She swallowed hard and said, “Farewell, Roki. Smooth trail and — ” She stopped, unable to complete the plainsmen’s usual farewell. There would be no smooth trail or open skies for Roki here.
Beramun lifted her leg over the wall and prepared to drop three steps to the ground. Suddenly Roki exclaimed in a loud whisper, “Wait! I’m coming!”
“Hurry!” Beramun replied and dropped to the ground. The moldering turf muffled the sound.
Her friend clambered over the rough wall and fell heavily against Beramun. Her landing was frighteningly loud, and they froze for a moment to make sure they hadn’t been heard. There was no sound but the trill of the night creatures in the forest.
The two women stole across the empty camp, hand in hand, with Beramun leading the way. She went directly to the lean-to where the newly made spears were stacked and took one for herself and Roki. Somewhere in Almurk a dog barked. Huddled against a pile of spears as high as their shoulders, the women listened fearfully. The dog made no other sound.
“Where shall we go?” Roki whispered close to Beramun’s ear. “The trail we came in on?”
“Too obvious. We’ll have to strike out through the forest.”
Roki recoiled in horror, clutching Beramun’s arm. “That’s crazy! We’ll be eaten alive!”
“Go back then. The slave pen is right there.”
Roki said no more but transferred her tight grip from Beramun’s arm to the shaft of her spear. With hand gestures, Beramun indicated she intended to go straight across the camp, skirting the opening to Sthenn’s lair. Roki looked very much like she wanted to protest, but clamping her lips tightly together, she nodded.
They slipped by the yawning hole in the ground, glancing nervously into its dark depths. North of the pit were the hovels where the raiders lived. Outwardly, they were little better than the pen enclosing the slaves — simple structures of scrounged stone, wood, bark, and mud plaster. There was a strong smell of woodsmoke there, and the tang of roasted meat. Something else, too — a sour, musky odor Beramun had never smelled before. It wasn’t the dragon or any human, no matter how filthy. It reminded her of predatory beasts, like panthers or wolves, but it was different, too. Stronger somehow, like a whole pack of flesh-eaters collected in one noisome spot.
The strange smell came from smaller, ruder log structures scattered among the huts. These small dens were too low for a human to stand in. Beramun and Roki gave them wide berth.
A shaft of light fell on the path before them. The women paused, tracing the yellow glow back to its source. Standing in the midst of the raiders’ huts was a larger, better-made dwelling with a moss-thatch roof and smooth wattle-and-daub walls. It even had windows, which were covered with wicker shutters. Voices could be heard, speaking from within.
Smitten with curiosity, Beramun crept up to the bigger house, ignoring Roki’s frantic tugs on her shirt. She leaned the spear against the wall and stood up on tip-toe, trying to see through the loosely woven shutters.
The light came from a mussel shell just inside the window. It was filled with burning fat. Beyond it, another lamp burned, and between them sat Zannian. He was drinking from a clay cup and listening to a heated harangue from a gray-haired woman sitting with her back to the window.
“… can’t be ready for another ten days,” the woman was saying. “The breastplates are made, but they’ve not been dyed the proper color yet.”
“You and your color,” Zannian said, irritated. “Why must your band have green hoods and chests?”
“To honor the Master. The Jade Men will fight to the death for him when I command.”
“When you command, Mother?”
Beramun could hardly contain her surprise. Of course Zannian had parents, but to find his mother working alongside him for the vicious green dragon was astounding. She crept forward, gripping the window sill to steady herself. Roki crouched at her feet, trembling.
“I command them, and the Master commands me, as you well know,” the old woman said.
He looked past her for a moment and his expression changed, just slightly, and only for the barest instant.
Zannian said, “All right, make your green dye. You can have ten extra slaves to help. Now go.”
“What’s the hurry?”
“I have other tasks.”
She knocked aside his empty cup. “Yes. Drinking. Very important!”
“Good night, Mother.”
His farewell, spoken with finality, silenced her at last. The old woman rose laboriously, leaning heavily on an oak crutch. Beramun saw her left leg was wrapped in leather trews. Her right leg, also wrapped, ended at the knee.
She hobbled to the door. Pausing there, she turned, and for the first time Beramun glimpsed her face. She had dark gray eyes, a sharp chin, and slender, bony hands. Though deeply lined, her face was not that of an old woman, but it did speak of a very hard life. Something about her face chilled Beramun. This, she decided, was a woman capable of anything.
“I hear there’s a girl in camp, a girl you fancy,” the woman said, and Beramun listened intently.
“Yes, so?” said Zannian.
“You’ve no time for girls, you know. Not until the Master’s plans are carried out.”
“Why don’t you let me worry about that?”
“Once we fake Yala-tene, you’ll have your pick of girls, Zan. Keep your mind on the Master’s will till then.”
He looked straight at the window where Beramun was peeping. “I will have what I will have. Neither you nor the Master need worry about it.”
Beramun shrank back from the window. Roki clutched her leg, inquiring with large, frightened eyes. Beramun wanted to run, but a flood of light appeared from the open door of the hut as Zannian’s mother hobbled away.
The women crouched low beneath the window. When the door flap closed again, Beramun moved. Before she could recover her spear, Zannian threw the shutter open, lamp in hand. Beramun was caught in a patch of soft yellow light. She froze, transfixed by the sudden illumination. Roki slunk away in the shadows, unseen.
“I thought I saw someone,” Zannian said, his youthful face flushed. “What are you doing here?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said, not without irony. “I thought I’d walk around and see the rest of the camp.”
“Not a wise idea. The camp isn’t safe at night. Come inside.”
Zannian waited until she started toward the door, then he closed the shutter. Beramun knew if she ran, he’d overtake her before she could reach the trees. With a discreet wave to Roki, she continued to the door. Zannian was there, holding the hide flap open for her. She ducked under his arm and entered.
It was very warm inside, a condition aggravated by the heat of the flaming lamps. A sweet aroma she couldn’t identify hung in the air. Zannian sat down on the floor and bade her do likewise. He watched her closely as she sat, his guileless face betraying an obvious appreciation for her looks, dirty though she was.
“How long were you out there?”
She wouldn’t answer.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m pleased to see you,” he said, finally breaking his gaze and taking up a gourd. He poured a golden liquid from the gourd into a small clay cup. He held it out to her, and she realized this was the source of the sweet smell.
“Try it. We make it from the honey we collect from the hives.”
Beramun took the cup but waited until she saw Zannian pour himself another measure and drink it. She held the cup to her lips and sipped. The stuff tasted as sweet as it smelled but burned as it slid down her throat. Beramun coughed and coughed.
Zannian grinned. “Don’t let the sweet smell fool you. Mead’s strong.”
Eyes filling with tears, she set the cup down. He refilled both cups.
“You can’t escape, Beramun,” he said suddenly.
Her eyes met his. “I wasn’t — ”
“Yes, you were. You figured out we put tane pollen in the slaves’ evening meal. Last night you didn’t eat yours to test your notion, and tonight you tried to escape.”
Her incredulity was so obvious that he smiled.
Beramun was suddenly struck by a strange thought. Tidied up, Zannian would be handsome. His smile, like a conjurer pleased with a trick, gave his face a whole new aspect. At the river, he’d given her his blanket. He’d saved her from Kukul and risked the dragon’s wrath by defending her. Was he a good man in spite of himself?
“Nothing happens in Almurk I don’t know about,” Zannian said. “I was raised from the earliest age to rule this land, and I shall.”
The odd moment was shattered. Beramun shook her head, angry for entertaining such ridiculous thoughts, even for a moment. This was the man who’d led the murderers of her father, mother, and kinsmen!
He mistook her gesture for disbelief of his grand claim. “I will,” he insisted, “and you can be mine, Beramun — mate to the chief of all the plains.”
“Why do you keep after me?” she snapped. “Aren’t there girls here whose families you did not destroy?”
“My master and my mother taught me to take only the best,” said Zannian, unmoved by her rebuke. He tossed back his mead. His cheeks reddened. “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. Eyes like the night sky filled with starlight, hair darker than a raven’s wing… and I will have you!”
He spoke like a bard, which astonished Beramun, but she was even more stunned when, with frightening speed, he caught her by both wrists. She tried to twist free, then made fists and attempted to hit him, fighting as Zannian dragged her to him. She hit him in the ribs, a glancing blow. Snarling, he slapped her across the face with his open palm. The blow made her ears ring, and she spun to the floor. In a heartbeat he was over her, pinning her facedown on the cold clay.
“Don’t fight so hard,” he rasped in her ear. “This can be a pleasant night.”
The thought of an entire night at his mercy put new strength in her limbs. Beramun drove her elbow backward into his stomach, and he rolled aside, gasping. She got to her knees before he seized her by the shoulders and pulled her backward. Then Zannian let out a grunt and went limp. Momentum carried Beramun onto her back, and she landed atop the young chief.
She scrambled to her feet and whirled, panting with exertion, rage, and fear. Instead of Zannian, however, Beramun faced Roki. The older woman stood a step away, holding her spear reversed. She’d subdued the amorous chief with the butt-end of her weapon. Zannian was unconscious.
“Why didn’t you stab him with the point?” Beramun demanded.
Roki shook her head. “I’ve never killed a man.”
“Nor have I, but if ever there was a time — ” She tried to wrench the spear from the woman’s grasp, but Roki resisted.
“We must go!” the older woman whispered urgently. “The night wears on, and we must be far away before they discover we left.”
Beramun poured sticky mead over the lifeless Zannian. If anyone came looking for him before daybreak, they’d think him drunk and not raise an alarm. She relieved him of his bronze Silvanesti dagger, a hawk feather cloak, the only full waterskin in sight, and a round of mushroom bread.
Roki stood guard by the door, urging speed. Beramun took a last look around, and they dashed outside and plunged into the forest on the north side of the camp. The forest swallowed them, and in moments Almurk was lost from view.
The rising sun was the only witness to their flight. The heavy weave of vines, trees, and hanging moss kept out all but a little light. What could be seen sparkled through minute gaps in the canopy, like daytime stars.
The initial excitement of their escape passed quickly as Roki and Beramun found their pace slowed to an elder’s walk. They crept along, probing ahead with their spears, searching for carnivorous monsters and footing firm enough to support their weight. The necessity for the latter had been borne in on them the hard way. While it was still dark, Beramun stepped in a morass. She lost Zannian’s hawk feather cloak to the dragging embrace of the mire, and only Roki’s timely intervention saved her life. Thereafter they went single file through the dense undergrowth, poking and prodding the black soil carefully.
Just after daybreak, they paused to rest under an elm so large the two of them could not circle its trunk with their arms. Covered in sweat and mud, they sat under the vast tree and quickly consumed the bread and water they’d stolen from Zannian.
They had just begun to scrape the mud from their legs with elm twigs when they heard the howling. The twig fell from Roki’s hand.
“What’s that? Wolves?”
Beramun leapt to her feet. “No. Yevi! They’re hunting us!”
They ran, pointing their noses at the brightest patch of sky, east. Beramun kept glancing back toward the sound of the hunting pack.
Haste made them careless. Dodging around in thick underbrush, Beramun became separated from Roki. Before she could worry about that, the ground went treacherous again. Her foot sank into muck up to her ankle, and she went sprawling. Zannian’s bronze dagger flew from her hand.
She had no time to search for it. Something low and gray flitted through the dense foliage off to her left. Leaves and twigs snapped continuously behind her. Her pursuers were very close!
A woman’s scream rent the air. Roki! Beramun ran toward the sound, snatching at trees and saplings to keep her feet from sinking into the soft soil. A dozen paces along she came to a shallow, soggy ravine. To her horror, she saw Roki, pinned on her back by a large yevi. The beast was vaguely wolflike, with shaggy gray fur, pointed ears, and a long, fanged muzzle. There the resemblance ended. Twice as large as any wolf, the creature’s limbs were unnaturally long and bent forward at the knee, unlike the back-crook of a canine leg. Instead of padded paws, the monster had distinct fingers with which it gripped the fallen woman’s arms.
Roki and the beast struggled. She could no longer scream with the creature at her throat. The monster seemed to be trying to throttle her into submission.
Beramun took up Roki’s dropped spear and thrust it hard into the animal’s flank. It immediately released its prey and let out a weird, yelping cry: Ye-ye-ye!
The bestial cry was answered from the surrounding trees. Terrified, Beramun leaned on the spear shaft and drove it home. The gray beast collapsed in a welter of purplish blood. Beramun wrenched out the spear and knelt by Roki.
The older woman’s eyes were open but unseeing. Beramun shook her and called her name. Roki’s throat was horribly twisted, though the skin was unbroken. Pressing her ear to the older woman’s chest, Beramun heard no heartbeat. The beast had crushed Roki’s windpipe.
Tears welled in Beramun’s eyes. She stood and plunged the spear again and again into the carcass of the dead creature, screaming out her anguish.
The weird cries sounded again, louder, closer. They penetrated Beramun’s fury, and she froze, panting, spear raised for yet another thrust. Staring down at Roki’s body, she vowed not to let these evil beasts take her alive.
Scrambling out of the gully and still weeping copiously, Beramun straggled on, slashing at a tangle of creepers with her spear. She heard the rush of moving water ahead.
The hated yelping cry came again — so much closer now that Beramun put on a burst of speed. She dived through a wall of green vines and suddenly found herself in midair. With a breathless cry, she plunged into water.
Holding her spear and kicking with her feet, she rose to the surface and looked back. A pair of the hideous gray creatures stood at the gap she’d made in the wall of vines at the river’s edge. Though they continued their howling and slavering, tearing at the vines with savagery, they couldn’t or wouldn’t jump in after her. With a surge of bitter triumph, Beramun let her spear go and began to swim in earnest.
Alternately swimming and floating on her back to rest, Beramun outdistanced her pursuers. The current was steady but not swift, and she had no trouble staying afloat. After almost a league, the water grew shallower, and she found herself bumping over algae-slick rocks. The stream widened into a calm lake, whose shore was dotted with cypress and yew trees, heavy with hanging moss. A small green island rose up in the center of the lake. Beramun swam to it.
The island, little more than a hump of tangled tree roots encrusted with mud, had no beach to speak of, but she dragged herself out of the water and hid among the cypress knees. There were no signs of pursuit. Gradually, her heart ceased to hammer, and her breathing slowed. Wrung out with fear and grief, Beramun eventually slept.
When she woke it was dark and cold. Wind stirred the placid surface of the lake, drawing the warmth from her limbs and leaving her shivering. Her shift was in tatters and afforded her little more than protection for modesty. She tore off handfuls of moss and stuffed them inside her shirt for warmth. It didn’t help much. Hunger gnawed at her belly.
A broad shadow passed over the island. Beramun cowered, glancing anxiously upward. She saw nothing but cypress trees and hanging moss. Working her way out of her hiding place, she stood in the small clearing at the heart of the island and surveyed the sky.
Lutar was well up in the sky. A large cloud, driven by the south wind, hung close to the crimson moon. It must have caused the shadow, she decided.
Shivering harder now, she wondered if she dared build a fire. There was certainly enough tinder on the island, and cypress wood for a firebow. While she hesitated, weighing comfort against safety, Beramun didn’t see the massive claw behind her slowly closing. When she finally felt the pressure around her waist, it was too late.
She screamed once and tore at the hard, scaly claw, but her efforts were futile. Hoisted into the air, she found herself face to face with the green dragon once more.
“Little rodent,” Sthenn said, voice dripping menace, “I was beginning to think you’d never wake up.”
Strength drained from her limbs like sand from a sieve. She could fight no more. She would follow Roki to the land of their ancestors where her parents waited.
The dragon shook her. “Wake up,” he said crossly. “Wake up, or I’ll put you to sleep forever!”
“What’s stopping you?” she murmured.
“This has been great fun,” Sthenn replied, showing his decayed, ragged fangs. “Hunting humans is quite stimulating. I must remember to do it more often.”
“Some day,” Beramun said, “the rodents will strike back.”
The dragon closed his claw just slightly, and Beramun felt her ribs creak. Breath gushed from her body, and her vision faded.
“Where were you going?” the dragon hissed. “If you had escaped the forest, where would you have gone?”
Though her body spasmed with the effort of drawing breath, she found her lack of sight a blessing.
“Home,” she said, her voice little more than a sigh.
“No,” said Sthenn, flicking his black tongue against her face. She jerked her head back violently at its touch. “Yala-tene, rodent. Yala-tene is where you want to go.”
“Yala-tene?” She’d heard that name before.
“A collection of humans in the mountains far to the northwest. You want to go to Yala-tene,” Sthenn said in a bizarrely soothing, sing-song tone.
“Can’t.” Beramun’s voice was nearly soundless. Her head felt swollen and pounded with pent-up blood. She was only moments from blacking out. “Can’t escape.”
“Yes, you can.”
Sthenn opened his claw. The sudden release of pressure let Beramun breathe again, but she immediately swooned, her head falling back over his talons. The green dragon parted her shift with a single nail, exposing her left shoulder. Holding the same nail to his mouth, he breathed on it until it began to glow a dull cyan. He then pressed the glowing nail tip hard against Beramun’s flesh. She moaned but did not wake. When Sthenn took his claw away, an iridescent green triangle, slightly larger than a human thumbprint, appeared above her heart.
The dragon’s mouth stretched wide as he admired his handiwork. A wheezing giggle emanated from his chest, sounding like the working of an ancient, rotted bellows. Spreading his scar-etched wings, Sthenn took off and flapped lazily across the water. Alighting on the high shoreline on the northeast side of the lake, he laid the unconscious Beramun on the ground. He reared up on his hind legs to stare down at her, tiny and supine at his feet.
His voice again taking on the strange sing-song quality, Sthenn said, “Remember, little rodent — Yala-tene. Go to Yala-tene. Go to Yala-tene.”
As in a dream, Beramun frowned and rolled onto her side. “Yala-tene,” she sighed.
Sthenn took off, circled once, then flew back to Almurk. He had no fear the girl would be harmed, even in her dazed and helpless condition. There was no creature in the forest at the Edge of the World who would dare harm one who bore the green dragon’s mark.
Though Amero had hoped to question Miteera for more clues about Nianki, the old centaur proved true to his word. He departed with his entire herd before sunrise, long before the Arkuden awoke at Lyopi’s house.
Amero sent children running through Yala-tene with orders to summon the village elders. Before the morning frost had melted off the cliffs, he told the elders about the elves’ attack on the centaurs and exhorted them to finish the village wall as soon as possible. There was some grumbling over his proposal to let the very old and very young tend to fields and stock while the rest labored on the wall, but most of the villagers saw the necessity. None wanted their best defense left unfinished if there was the slightest possibility the Silvanesti might attack.
Amero left the elders debating around the council fire. Only Konza followed him. The elderly Sensarku caught up with Amero before the latter reached the basket of the hoist to Duranix’s cave.
“Arkuden, a word,” said the old man, and Amero paused. “Did the centaurs by chance see any sign of my son?”
Amero looked abashed. “The news of Balif made me forget. Yes. Miteera met Tiphan and the two acolytes in the mountains. The old chief lent them one of his warriors to guard them. Why did Tiphan go, Konza?”
The elder Sensarku looked annoyed. “He doesn’t tell me where his mind is. He thinks I’m too old and foolish.”
Amero placed a hand on Konza’s shoulder. “I’ll ask Duranix to keep an eye out for your son. There can’t be more than one band of three humans and a centaur roaming the mountains together.”
The old man thanked him profusely then departed. Amero climbed into the hoist and set the counterweights in motion. It had been three days since he’d last been to the dragon’s cave. Amero found the cavern cold and dark. With no frail human to complain, Duranix hadn’t bothered to light a fire.
“Duranix!” Amero called. “Duranix, are you awake?”
There was no answer. He got out a flint and some tinder and knelt by the firepit. Hot sparks soon had the fire blazing. As he prepared to call again, the firelight showed him that the dragon was quite close by — just on the other side of the hearth, in fact. The unexpected nearness of the vast creature startled Amero. He let out a yell and fell backward.
“Thunder and lightning!” he said, borrowing one of Duranix’s favorite phrases. “Why are you lurking in the dark?”
The dragon’s burnished scales glowed red in the firelight. “I am listening,” he rumbled.
“I’m not certain. There is a sound in the air that is not a sound, a smell of something that has no smell.”
Amero was instantly concerned. Duranix was not given to fancies or vague feelings. “Is it dangerous?” he asked.
“Anything unknown can be dangerous.”
Amero explained about the Silvanesti threat and the mission he hoped the dragon would perform. “Could it be Balif and the elves you sense?” he asked.
Duranix shook his horned head decisively. “Not elves.” Amero looked at him inquiringly, and the dragon added, “It’s from the other direction, from the west.”
Duranix went to the lower cave opening and sniffed the night air. His dorsal spikes stood up. “There’s a storm coming.” He looked at his human friend and said, “I shall go east as you wish.”
“What more should we do? Are we in danger from the west?”
“There is time yet,” the dragon said. With a spring of his hind legs, Duranix hopped up to the largest of the cave openings. “Watch the setting sun. The storm will come from there.” He shook himself, as if dispelling the unsettling sensations. “I shall return soon.”
“Keep well,” Amero called. “Beware of Balif and his host.”
“Ah, I fear no blades, even in their thousands.” Duranix’s forked tongue flicked out. “I will be like the hawk — watching, keeping out of reach, and striking only if it suits me.”
He entered the plummeting wall of water quietly, almost wafting through. It was completely unlike his usual exuberant exit, and it troubled Amero as much as Duranix’s cryptic farewell.
For seven days Tiphan and his little band tramped eastward, following the mysterious marks on the scrap of Silvanesti parchment. Elu maintained an impassive silence, but the acolytes lent ready ears to Tiphan’s vision of the future. He dreamed of many new villages, each with its own Offertory, spreading across the plains. At the center of this growing realm would be Yala-tene, and the heart of Yala-tene would be the grand new Offertory Tiphan planned to build one day.
“Does the Arkuden agree with your plans?” Mara asked.
“He will see the wisdom of our ideas,” Tiphan replied. “Just as the great Protector brought peace and comfort to one village, so shall we bring it to every part of the land.”
Mara’s head swam with the magnificence of the Tosen’s vision. She tried to imagine many Yala-tenes dotting the plain, each with a whitewashed sanctuary and loyal Sensarku, sending their smoky offerings aloft to please the great dragon. The vastness of the concept left her dizzy — or perhaps the dizziness was the result of their pace. They’d been walking since sunup, and it was well past midday.
She wobbled from side to side in the tall grass. Tiphan, walking ahead of her, continued to talk, spinning his dreams of the future. Before she fell, a strong, rough arm went round her waist, bracing her up. She shook off her dizziness and looked up. With a surprised cry, she pulled free of Elu’s gentle grasp.
“Elu,” Tiphan said sharply. “You must not touch her. Understand? Mara is Sensarku and not to be handled, yes?”
The centaur regarded him with good-natured indifference.
Tiphan came back, took Mara’s hand, and drew her away. She felt a surge of happiness at his touch, but he simply led her a few steps away from the centaur before letting go.
“Keep clear of him,” was all he said, and resumed the trek.
“Yes, Tosen.” She was rather glad he turned away quickly. He missed seeing the color rush to her cheeks.
Penzar came running over the low hill southeast of their path. Elu gripped his club and raised his head, alert for trouble. Penzar arrived, out of breath, and pointed back in the direction he’d come.
“Silvanesti!” he panted.
Alarmed, Tiphan demanded, “How many? How near?”
“There are signs a large band of elves passed here not two days past. Some on foot, some on horseback. They were moving south to north.”
“We must keep clear of them,” Tiphan said. By gestures, he indicated the centaur was to take the lead. Without complaint, Elu cantered away, his club resting on his sun-baked shoulder, his bright green eyes already scanning ahead.
Penzar regarded him thoughtfully. “Brave fellow,” he said. “He’s tangled with Silvanesti before.”
“He’s a savage,” Tiphan corrected. “He doesn’t know any better.”
Despite the increased danger, Tiphan insisted they go on. Long after the sun set, they hurried toward their unknown destination. Late in the evening, under a splendid ceiling of stars, Tiphan finally called a halt.
The three villagers dropped where they stood, worn out by the journey. Mara was starting to resent the way Tiphan was driving them, then she saw him take off his sandals and unwrap his leggings. The blond doeskin strips were stained with blood. Their leader had spared himself least of all.
Elu returned with a brace of rabbits. Mara built a twig fire, and they ate in silence. Tiphan and Penzar fell asleep when they were done, without even spreading their bedrolls. Mara wanted to sleep, but she knew someone had to stand watch.
Elu, his four legs folded beneath him, watched the fire subside to a handful of glowing coals. He ate his fodder, and when he saw Mara nodding sleepily, he fetched a blanket from his panniers. He held it out to her, careful not to touch her.
“Thank you,” she said, taking the soft goathair wrap. She suddenly felt a bit ashamed. Elu really wasn’t so frightening. In his own rough way, he was actually quite gallant. He also seemed wide awake, so she asked, “Will you stand watch?”
Without a word, the centaur walked off into the darkness. For the brief moment before sleep claimed her, Mara saw him silhouetted against the stars, facing east.
It was still night when Mara woke. She couldn’t tell how much time had passed, and she looked around wildly, terrified at having fallen asleep in the open. Her companions were still dozing. A glance showed Elu still on watch in the star-dappled distance. The plain was strangely quiet and devoid of life. She heard none of the usual crickets or night birds.
Rolling over, Mara saw a blue light playing in the sky, not far away. She thought she heard a faint sizzling sound as forked streams of azure fire arced upwards. A hot wind played on her astonished face. Blue lightning from a cloudless sky?
Mara flinched. Tiphan had awakened and was watching the spectacle. “This must be what I came to find,” he said in an awed but oddly serene voice. “I didn’t know exactly where to go, but I believed the way would be revealed. And so it has. Rouse Penzar, and follow me.”
So saying, he rose and walked away, leaving all his gear behind. He strode past Elu without even a glance.
Confused but excited, Mara shook Penzar awake, and they gathered up their baggage. Soon all three were trudging after their leader, now lost in the darkness.
Penzar was shaking his head. “This is not good. This is not good.”
“What are you muttering?” Mara asked.
“It’s not wise for the Tosen to go wandering off. We should stay together.”
Elu suddenly held out an arm, stopping them. He hefted his club and sidled off to the left, into the untrampled grass.
“What is it?” Mara whispered.
Penzar gripped his spear tightly. “I don’t know.”
Elu reappeared, silent as a ghost, and beckoned. Reluctantly they left Tiphan’s trail and followed the centaur. Twenty paces from their original path another track appeared. A single line of horses had passed this way on a converging course.
Elves. They looked anxiously ahead where Tiphan had disappeared. Elu beckoned, and reluctantly they followed the Silvanesti’s track, arms ready. Just then the blue aurora ended without warning, leaving the moonless night profoundly dark. Elu continued to lead the way, placing his heavy hooves with great care so as not to make too much noise.
The grass thinned, replaced by patches of open, sandy soil dotted with loose stones. While Mara looked for Tiphan, Penzar squatted in the dirt and counted the prints of more than a dozen different horses.
Elu stopped abruptly. Mara came up behind him, and she shuddered violently. The air had suddenly gone intensely cold. It was as though they’d crossed some potent, invisible barrier. Mara opened her mouth to exclaim, but Elu put a finger to his lips, signaling silence.
Penzar reached the threshold of cold air and uttered a low grunt of surprise. Mara gripped his arm and pointed ahead.
Against the background of stars they could see many lofty, upright shapes in silhouette. They had reached a field of standing stones.
Mara had spotted Tiphan twenty-five paces away. She hurried to him, followed closely by Elu and Penzar.
“We thought you’d been taken by elves!” Penzar exclaimed.
Tiphan was running a hand over one of the granite sentinels. “Elves? I’ve seen no elves.” He frowned and complained, “Odd. I get no sensation of power at all.”
Mara jumped a bit when he seized her wrist, saying, “Here, you try.”
Dutifully, she pressed her fingertips against the cool stone. She shrugged. “It feels like an ordinary rock,” she reported. Penzar tried, with no better results. Elu stood back, refusing to touch the monolith.
“I’m sure this is the place,” Tiphan insisted. “It matches the description in the manuscript, and I’m certain this is where the blue lightning came from.”
“Why is it so cold?” Mara asked, breath pluming from her mouth and nose.
“It’s like the boulders have sucked all the warmth out of the air,” Penzar said.
Muttering, Tiphan wandered into the field. There was no pattern to it. The stones seemed randomly dispersed. Nonetheless, they obviously were not a natural formation.
Tiphan caressed several of the monoliths in turn, feeling nothing. Their initial fear overcome, Penzar and Mara did likewise. Only Elu refused to enter the forest of standing stones. He backed up and stood on the edge of the field, his face a mask of concern.
“Come here!” Tiphan shouted. “Bring tools!”
Mara and Penzar converged on their leader. Penzar had a mallet with a heavy diorite head and a deer-antler pick. At Tiphan’s direction, he struck the corner of one monolith with the mallet. It rang with a surprisingly clear tone, but nothing resulted.
“Again,” said Tiphan. “Harder.”
Penzar swung with both hands, and this time a sharp triangular shard flew off. Mara retrieved the chip and Tiphan put it in a small pigskin bag he wore around his neck. After similarly collecting six good-sized slivers, Tiphan moved on.
Behind the stone they’d chipped was an especially tall block. Tiphan directed his helpers to sample it as well. As Penzar raised the mallet to strike, however, something gleamed on the ground at his feet. He lowered the stone hammer and bent down to examine the bright object.
“Tosen, look!” he said excitedly. “Bronze!”
Tiphan and Mara crowded close. It was a broad metal chisel, plainly of Silvanesti make. The cutting edge was dusted with granite.
“Why would they leave a fine tool like this behind?” Mara wondered.
“They probably mislaid it in the dark,” Tiphan replied.
“Maybe there’s more lying around!” Penzar shuffled his feet in the grass. Bronze was rare and valuable. If the elves had been careless once, they might have been careless twice.
Mara got out her flint. The ground was littered with tufts of dry grass, so she piled up a goodly heap and lit it. A small smoky flame licked up, throwing their shadows high on the tall stones.
“Any more bronze?” asked Penzar, studying the ground by the new light.
Suddenly, Mara gasped, and Tiphan uttered a cry of alarm. Penzar looked up to see what startled them.
“By my ancestors!”
Protruding from the monolith before him were several slender pairs of hands, a knee, and some toes. Higher up, a number of faces appeared, half-embedded in solid rock. Their mouths gaped open as though screaming, but they were filled with cold granite.
Mara stumbled back, covering her face with her hands. Recovering from his initial revulsion, Tiphan stepped closer, peering at the lifeless faces.
“Elves,” he reported. “Probably the same ones who rode here ahead of us.”
“But why are they like this?” Mara asked, her face white.
Tiphan frowned. “They must have committed some offense against the spirits dwelling within.”
“Let’s leave, Tosen,” Penzar pleaded.
“Not yet. I want samples of that rock, too. Mara, make a torch and check the rest of the field. See if more Silvanesti were captured by the spirit-stones.”
Mara hesitated only briefly. She’d been a Sensarku since she was eight years old. The long habit of obedience to her Tosen’s will kept her from fleeing in terror. She used the turned shaft of an elven javelin to make a torch. To the javelin’s bronze head she tied a bundle of dry grass, then held the grass to her dying fire. It blazed up, and she found more lost equipment: sandals, waterskins, knives. Tiphan directed Penzar to use the elven chisel to cut out a stone sample near the embedded bodies. She saw his hands were shaking, but he obeyed the Tosen.
All the nearby boulders held captive bodies. The largest stone held no less than five elves. The ground was covered with lost tools and trinkets — buckles, helmets, knives, scabbards, finger rings, even a sword or two. Looking over the debris, cold sweat broke out on Mara’s chilly brow. Belt buckles and finger rings? Had the Silvanesti taken these off before the stones swallowed them? It seemed unlikely, so why hadn’t these trinkets been consumed as well?
Trinkets. Weapons. Bronze. Copper. Gold. All their metal was at her feet, not in the stones.
She whirled, dropping the torch. “Penzar, stop! Don’t use the chisel!”
Even as she spoke, the ringing of metal on stone reached her ears. Instantly, the deep chill of the field was displaced by a wave of hot wind emanating from the struck monolith. A flash followed, so bright she was blinded even with her eyes clenched shut. Dropping to her knees, she crawled toward where she’d last seen Tiphan and Penzar.
Shrill screams assaulted her ears as she crept forward. The flare in her eyes was fading, and as she regained some of her eyesight she beheld an awful vision: Penzar, arms buried up to the elbows in the gray granite boulder. The stone had softened, resembling gray dough as it flowed thickly toward Penzar’s torso. Mara yelled and grabbed Penzar around the waist.
“Help me, Tosen! Help me!” she screamed over Penzar’s horrible cries.
Tiphan stood several steps away, staring open-mouthed. The massive boulder continued to pull the boy in, and Penzar’s shirt ripped apart as he was dragged from her grip. His frantic pleas for help changed as he saw the gray ooze inching closer to Mara.
“Get away!” he gasped.
Powerful arms hurled Mara aside. She fell back, tears of terror streaming down her face, and saw Elu step past her and grab hold of Penzar’s legs. The centaur’s hard muscles strained, but the boy was already lost. Thick tentacles of liquid stone entwined around his neck, pulling his head in, filling his ears, nose, and mouth. His cries ended in a ghastly thick gurgle. With a final sound like rushing wind, the stone block enclosed him completely.
Wavering tendrils reached out, blindly seeking more prey. Elu darted quickly out of reach. Mara continued to shout Penzar’s name.
“It’s too late!” Tiphan shouted. “He’s gone!”
As the words were said, Penzar’s hands and the left side of his face appeared on the monolith, as though he was bobbing to the surface of a pool of granite. His eye sockets and open mouth were gray with solidified stone.
“It was the metal,” Mara sobbed. “It’s all around us! Penzar and the elves were swallowed by the stones because they touched them with metal!” She turned her face into Tiphan’s shoulder, weeping helplessly.
“The stone mallet did not arouse them,” Tiphan said slowly, recognizing the truth of her words. “So the lightning we saw must have occurred when the boulders came alive and engulfed the elves.” He nodded his head slowly, wonderingly. “Such amazing power!”
Mara raised her tear-stained face and regarded him with outrage. He neither comforted her nor lamented the loss of Penzar, who’d been a loyal acolyte for years. Worse, Tiphan stared at the dreadful stones with a look of near ecstasy.
Pushing herself away, Mara took Elu’s proffered hand, and the centaur led her slowly away.
Tiphan grabbed the diorite hammer and began to peck at the hulking monolith, just an arm’s length from where Penzar’s lifeless hand protruded, fingers curled in supplication.
“Come back!” he called over his shoulder absently. “I want samples from all these stones.”
Mara neither answered nor returned, and Tiphan soon forgot her as he concentrated on reaping his harvest.
Zannian clapped his hands to announce his arrival. From within the great tent, a voice said, “Enter.” He parted the flaps and passed into the wide, circular room.
The ground was covered with rotting peat, and gray moss hung from the tent roof. A pair of yevi, wearing heavy leather collars studded with obsidian spikes, stood up when the young warrior entered. They growled deep in their throats until a languid voice commanded them to be still.
Reclining on a heap of moldy leaves and peat was a bizarre figure, humanlike, yet weirdly inhuman. The creature’s head, arms, back, and legs were vivid green. Its belly was white like a frog’s. Each hand was tipped with five overly long, yellow-nailed fingers, each foot with a like number of slender, prehensile toes. Its human-shaped head had two forward-facing eyes, a long nose, and a sharp, jutting chin. A shaggy green mane covered the creature’s scalp and reached to its shoulders. Its eyes shone like polished emeralds.
“Master,” said Zannian, bowing low. “There’s been a sign in the sky.”
“Yes, I felt it. A flash of considerable power. Did you locate it?”
“Yes, Master. It came from the east, six days’ ride from here. It must be the dragon in Arku-peli.”
“Of course.” The green creature probed through the loose mass of rotting leaves on which he lay and found a glossy black roach. He held it between two fingers, watching for a few seconds as it kicked vainly, then popped it in his mouth. Yellow fangs flashed briefly as he chewed.
“Shall we set out for Arku-peli at once?” the young warrior asked.
“There’s no hurry. I have injected a drop of poison, and it will take some time to work its way to our enemies’ heart. Until then we may bide our time. You know my messenger, don’t you? The black-haired rodent you craved?”
“I know, Master.”
Zannian suppressed his impatience, trying to see the wisdom of the dragon’s way. Sthenn — or Greengall, as he preferred to he known when in this form — delighted in formulating schemes of elaborate cunning. Yet Zannian had no doubt his master would do just as he intended — destroy the bronze dragon Duranix and make Zannian chief of all the plains.
“My mother has the Jade Men drawn up,” he replied. “Will you come see them?”
“If I must. How is your mother?”
Coming from the green monster before him, this question struck Zannian as oddly funny. He laughed briefly, then stifled his mirth when his master’s face curled into a frown. A long green leg uncoiled, striking Zannian in the chest. He flew across the tent, hit the oxhide wall, and slid to the ground.
“Do not open your foolish mouth at me!” Greengall snapped. “I hate it when rodents bray.” He rolled to his feet. In this form he was imposingly tall, but very thin. His reedy physique was as deceptive as the rest of his appearance. All the power and strength of a green dragon resided in him, no matter how awkward his outward shape.
Zannian slowly got to his feet. His chest ached from the blow, but no bones were broken. Greengall’s buffet had been a measured one.
“My mother awaits your attention with the Jade Men, Master,” he said hoarsely. He lowered his eyes as the shambling green scarecrow stalked past him.
Attended by his yevi escort, Greengall strolled from his tent. Outside, the squalid camp stirred. They were a long way from Almurk and the Edge of the World. A day after the two women slaves had escaped, the green dragon announced it was time to begin the advance on their enemies. The entire band, one thousand strong, had mounted their horses and ridden out of their dank hideaway, following an unmarked trail set out for them by their monstrous master. They did not go alone. In the midst of the mass of horsemen trudged a mob of slaves and stolen animals, both groups whipped forward with equal brutality.
On the open plain, the raiders swept all before them, capturing small bands of plainsmen and their herds. Those they did not capture or kill fled, and before long the great plain was barren of animals and men.
Zannian led his men to the ford of the Great Plains River, and there they stopped. Like most of the dragon’s machinations, the halt was unexplained. For three days they remained in camp, sending out only small raiding parties. Now, on their fourth night, Sthenn ventured forth as Greengall to inspect his savage host.
Oxen stirred fearfully when they caught Greengall’s reptilian smell. Raiders stopped whatever they were doing and bowed as he passed. Slaves scrambled out of the way, anxious to avoid his notice. The trees around the camp were already hung with the bodies of captives and raiders alike who’d displeased the master. The presence of so many corpses lent a pervasive air of death to the camp. Only Greengall and his yevi didn’t seem to find it oppressive.
The disguised dragon paid little heed to the raiders or slaves, giving the corrals and tents only a cursory glance. Zannian led the way through a gap in the tents. They entered a gully running from the nearby hills to the river and ascended the slope toward a ravine. Three blazing torches, each surmounted by a polished white human skull, marked the entrance to the ravine. Greengall smiled when he saw the death’s heads and fondled them in passing.
The ravine itself was well lit by two-score blazing torches arranged in a box of fire, twenty paces to each side. Inside the square was a block of warriors standing shoulder to shoulder. Each was outfitted with a dark green leather breastplate and hood, a brace of spears, and a green-painted wooden shield. They stood absolutely still, even when Greengall came into view.
Sitting in a crude litter at the head of this silent company was Zannian’s mother, Nacris. Two of the hooded warriors stood on each side of her as bearers.
“Greetings, Master,” she said, her voice as rough as her appearance. Greengall barely gave her a nod.
“Is everything ready?” Zannian asked.
“Ready for anything,” she replied. Her flint-colored eyes glanced quickly over the rows of silent warriors.
Greengall stood by Nacris, elongated hands clasped behind his back. Zannian stood on his master’s other side, a half step back.
“Begin,” said Greengall.
“Jade Men! Salute!”
Nacris’s voice carried crisply across the gully. The block of warriors shifted in unison, moving their feet a space apart, spears held before their masked faces.
“Hail, Sthenn!” they cried in unison. “Hail, Deathbringer!”
“Charming,” said the altered dragon. “I like their color.”
Nacris allowed herself a brief, triumphant glance at her son, then snapped, “Spears up!”
A hundred weapons rose as one. At her command, the first rank, ten warriors, raised their shields and approached, marching through the line of torches. They halted. Not only were their weapons painted green, all their exposed skin was too.
“They walk beautifully,” Greengall said acidly. “Now, let’s see them fight.”
“Fight who?” Nacris asked.
“Why not Zannian?”
“Master, you can’t mean that!” Nacris protested. “He’ll be killed!”
The monstrous face regarded her with total calm. Nacris bowed her head and looked at her son. The young man’s face was like stone, revealing nothing of his inner thoughts. Without a word of resistance, he pulled the bone-and-leather hood down over his head. Drawing a bronze elven sword, he stood ready to receive the spears of the Jade Men.
“Fight to the death,” Greengall said calmly. “Give the order.”
Nacris opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Her lined face twisted with indecision.
Greengall smiled. “Give the order, or I’ll tear your other leg off.”
“Jade Men, attack!” she cried.
The spearmen spread out and tried to box Zannian in. He didn’t wait for the ring to close but charged the nearest warriors. He beat aside one’s shield and ran him through. The green-painted warrior fell, clutching his side. Zannian dueled briskly with two other attackers as his first victim struggled to regain his feet. There were no war cries or oaths as the men fought. Their silent dedication was total.
Zannian broke two more shields with his metal blade before the first spear points began flashing past his chest and face. He sidestepped the fast thrusts, giving ground until he was backing up the slope of the hill behind him. Two Jade Men combined to harry Zannian at the same time. He beat one, lopping off the flint head of his spear, but the other delivered a resounding crack to Zannian’s thigh with the shaft of his weapon. Down went the raider chief. The green-painted warriors crowded in for the kill, and only then did the Jade Men make noise: a thready whistling, as they sucked air excitedly through their sharply filed teeth. Nine spears rose high, ready for the final thrust.
Greengall said, “Enough.”
“Hold!” Nacris shouted.
The Jade Men obeyed, but their eyes remained intensely focused on their foe. Even the wounded man, supported by a comrade, was still staring at Zannian.
The raider chief got up, a sheen of sweat on his bare arms. “They fight well,” he said.
“Good,” said Greengall, nodding. “For what use do you intend them?”
The crippled woman bowed her head. “Any task you choose, Master. They will run until they drop, fight until killed, and slay without mercy anyone you order slain. They live to serve only you.”
It was the simple truth. The Jade Men had begun as one hundred babies, stolen from their murdered parents and raised in Almurk to become Sthenn’s invincible, unquestioning band of killers. The oldest of them was now sixteen. Nacris had trained them to worship the green dragon as father and master. She herself was the closest thing to a mother any of them would eyer know.
“They seem like useful little rodents,” Greengall said mildly. He asked Zannian, “What do you think of them?”
“Their fighting skills are great,” the raider chief replied honestly, “but there’s no good in being fearless. A warrior should fear failure.”
Greengall laughed loudly, the upper half of his head tilting backward from the hinge of his oversized jaw. “There’s one other thing all your warriors should fear,” he chortled. “They should tremble before me, for I am Death.”
The sky was painted from zenith to horizon with many thousands of stars, all silently lighting the land beneath. They were Beramun’s guideposts. She had walked a long way from the Edge of the World, passing the many days in solitude.
The high plain was usually teeming with life — herds of oxen and elk, bands of plainsfolk following the herds on their yearly route from south to north and back again. This spring, she had encountered few animals and even fewer people. She caught glimpses on the far horizon, but all fled from her before she could reach hailing distance. Rabbits and other small game also gave her wide berth.
Reduced to eating roots and grubs, she stumbled onward, guided by some inner voice that kept her face pointed toward the rising sun. She lost track of the days and of her location, until late one night she came to a broad river, flowing from south to north. She knew this river, if not the exact spot where she stood. This was the Great Plains River that divided the world she knew into East and West.
The slow-flowing water was no obstacle to her, and she descended the riverbank to the water’s edge. There she stumbled upon a small ox herd, sheltering by a copse of laurel trees. The beasts stirred from their sleep and began to low loudly. She murmured soothing words at them, but the animals seemed unusually alarmed by her presence. Powerful bulls rolled their eyes and pawed the ground at her approach. The oxen nearest her jostled their comrades hard to avoid her.
“Stupid beasts,” she muttered. She would have loved to spear one and feast on beef, but she had no weapon. Reaching the water’s edge, Beramun paused to tie back her long hair with a strip of hide, and she saw a flash of fair doeskin in the deep shadows beneath a nearby tree.
“Who are you?” the stranger said sharply. It was a woman’s voice.
“Just a wanderer, passing by.”
“What are you doing to my beasts?” demanded the woman. “You’re one of those raiders, aren’t you?”
“No! I’m just a plainsman. I escaped the raiders myself not long ago.” Beramun advanced a few steps, only to have the sharp end of a herding stick presented to her chin. Beramun slowly held her arms out from her sides. “I mean no harm,” she insisted.
“Let me see your face!”
Beramun backed away from the shadows until starlight fell full upon her. This placed her closer to the oxen, and they grew restless again, bawling and milling about.
“Where are you bound?” the herder asked.
“The village of Yala-tene. Do you know it?”
“Everyone knows it.” The woman’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “You don’t look like a villager.”
“I’m not. I go to warn them about the raiders. They’re coming to attack the village.”
The oxen grew more and more distressed. Hemmed in by the closely growing laurels behind them, they splashed into the river, working their way through the shallows, away from the young woman on the riverbank. The herder backed away with her animals. “How do you know what the raiders do?”
“I told you, I was their prisoner.”
“Maybe you’re their scout!”
“No!” Beramun shouted, stamping her foot in frustration. At this the frightened oxen gave way completely. They were only fourteen strong, but they stampeded right at the lone herder. The woman let out a yell and dropped her stick, fleeing ahead of the churning beasts. Horrified, Beramun rushed to help. The oxen put on a frenzied burst of speed at her approach, as if the green dragon himself were after them. The herder yelling and the animals bawling, they disappeared around a bend in the river.
Cursing the stupidity of oxen, Beramun went back to the tree where she’d first met the herder. She found the woman’s hide cape and provisions bag. The bag held an apple, a few dried mushrooms, and a hunk of smoked fish. Beramun devoured the food greedily.
After she’d eaten, she drank deeply of the cool river water, then washed the mud and filth from her face. When she tugged her torn shift out of the way to douse her neck, she saw a dark blot on her chest. She peered at the strange mark. It was smooth, almost shiny when the river water ran off it. It wasn’t sore, and it felt no different than the rest of her skin. She had no recollection of how she got the strange mark. A bruise perhaps, or a bite from some virulent forest insect? Since it wasn’t painful, she paid it no more mind.
Beramun rolled the hide cape and tied it in a bundle on her back with a leather thong, then slipped into the water. The river was wide and the current modest, so she made good progress. Halfway across, she heard a thin, distant shriek from the shore behind her. Treading water, she looked back. The western horizon was alive with an orange glow, like an enormous grass fire. Huge shadows moved against the flickering backdrop of flame. A sudden flash of memory came over her. Her family’s tents burning in the night, the screams of her kinfolk, and the excited shouts of the raiders mingling in a horrible din.
Fear raked her like a knife in her stomach. Turning away, Beramun swam hard, slapping the water in her haste to get across. She dragged herself out and collapsed in the gray mud, breathing hard. She raised her head and saw the firelight on the horizon was gone. Only starlight remained.
Tiphan spent a full day collecting samples of the spirit stones. When darkness came, he returned to camp laden with the stone chips, uncharacteristically beaming.
Mara had remained in camp with Elu. Since Penzar had vanished into his stone tomb, she could not bear to go near the monoliths. She bore Tiphan’s indifference in silence for two days, but as he sat, sorting the rock chips by size and color and placing them in hide bags, she decided she’d finally had enough.
“Tosen,” she said. “We must leave here.”
“We will leave when I’m done,” he said firmly.
“No! Tonight! This place is cursed!”
“Nonsense, girl. The stones attack only when they’re struck by metal. I’ve chipped off scores of samples with the stone hammer we brought from Yala-tene, and I’ve suffered no ill effects at all.”
“Then what about the elves? Won’t they be returning to find out what happened to their fellows?”
“How should I know? Shall I abandon this great find to a threat that may never appear?”
He put down an angular gray nugget. “You disappoint me, Mara. Where is your faith? We’re in this wondrous place on the dragon’s business, trying to bring power and glory to our village, and you want to abandon it all?”
She didn’t want to weep again, but the tears started anyway. “I was thinking of Penzar,” she whispered brokenly.
“Penzar was a good lad. I’m sorry he was lost,” Tiphan said with some feeling. His blue eyes narrowed. “He was also loyal and obedient. Will you dishonor his memory?”
As Mara stared back at the man who’d dominated her days and a goodly portion of her nightly dreams over the years, a strong new emotion flared in her breast. Disgust. In spite of his words, she saw no remorse in Tiphan. How could she ever have thought she was in love with him? He cared nothing for her, nothing for Penzar. They were simply tools, beasts of burden like the selfless centaur he called a savage.
She shivered suddenly. “I’m going home tomorrow,” she stated flatly. “Without you, if I must.”
“I won’t permit it!” Tiphan retorted. “It isn’t safe for you to travel the plains by yourself.”
“Elu will go with me.”
Tiphan jumped to his feet. “You will not leave!”
Up to this point, the centaur had been standing behind Mara, arms folded. As the argument progressed, however, Elu’s attention was drawn away. Mara and Tiphan went back and forth, angry and adamant for several minutes before realizing the centaur had gone.
“Now where did that savage run off to?” Tiphan snapped.
Mara pulled a burning brand from the fire and held it high. She got a glimpse of Elu’s russet-colored hindquarters moving away from them in the high grass.
“There,” she said, dropping the brand back into the fire and starting after him.
Tiphan caught her arm and spun her around rather abruptly. Mara slapped him hard across the face. It was hard to say which of them was more shocked by her action, but it was Tiphan who recovered first.
“Get hold of yourself, girl!” he said, shaking her hard. “I know Penzar died horribly. I was there! But there are greater matters at stake here. If Yala-tene is to grow and survive, we must gain the secret of the spirit power! Can’t you understand that?”
He was shouting at her now. Dazed, she turned her face away and said nothing.
“You’re a fool,” Tiphan said, letting her go. “I made your life too easy. You know nothing of sacrifice.”
The injustice of his words sent her anger soaring again. “I’ve served you loyally for more than half my life!” she exclaimed. “Penzar died in your service, and you care nothing for us! All you care about are your own selfish ends!”
Mara ran after the centaur. It was deeply dark on the savanna, with no moons yet risen and the stars veiled by layers of clouds. Tiphan muttered an oath, checked to make certain he was wearing his bronze knife, and set out after his wayward acolyte.
Mara followed the clear trail Elu had made, her heart still pounding from the argument. When the trampled grass suddenly ended with no sign of the centaur, she halted, puzzled and frightened.
“Elu?” she whispered. Something rustled in the grass. She gripped her throwing stick. “El — oh! ” A rough hand grabbed her leg, pulling her down in the high grass. The hand came up to cover her mouth, and she realized it belonged to the centaur.
Mara’s green eyes widened in astonishment at hearing him speak. He removed his hand from her mouth and pointed. She turned.
A long way off, half a league or more, sat a figure on horseback. His dark cloak and hood rendered him almost invisible against the night horizon. If Elu hadn’t pointed him out, Mara knew she would never have noticed him.
“There are more,” whispered the centaur. “Four hands.” Twenty. Centaurs counted by fives, as in five-fingered hands.
A swishing in the grass announced Tiphan’s arrival. “What are you doing down there?” he asked, too loudly. Mara waved furiously for him to be quiet.
“Get down!” she hissed. “Elves!”
Tiphan dropped to his hands and knees and crawled toward them. Mara told him what Elu had observed, omitting that the centaur had spoken their language.
“Are they looking for their comrades?” Mara wondered.
“Maybe, or they may simply send out patrols to keep track of intruders,” Tiphan murmured. He glanced back at their own camp. Their fire, which had always seemed so tiny, now looked like a bonfire, lighting up the sky. “We must get back to camp and safeguard my stones.”
No one objected to putting more distance between themselves and the elves. They crept back down the same path Elu had first made. Elu stomped out the campfire and covered the embers with dirt. The night was still quiet. There were no signs they’d been detected by the Silvanesti.
“I suppose we must go,” Tiphan murmured. “If the Silvanesti catch us…”
Draping their sparse gear around their necks, they stole away. Tiphan insisted on carrying the many bags of stone chips himself, though he could hardly stand upright under their combined weight. Elu tried to take some from him, but the Sensarku leader brushed his hands away with a sharp word.
The centaur took the lead. He kept his torso low. Mara followed in a crouch, and Tiphan brought up the rear, bowed down as much by his weighty load as from caution. The path led down a slight hill to a dry creekbed lined on each side with pines. As the tops of the black pines hove into view, a screech owl gave forth its weird laughing call. The clouds parted, and the white beams of Soli split the darkness.
Without warning, a rush of armed, shouting figures erupted from the trees. Moonlight glittered on bronze spear points. Mara screamed and threw off her burdens to flee. Tiphan would not abandon his precious rocks. He slung the heavy bags into the brush and dived after them.
Elu straightened, a hefty stone in each hand. He hurled them at the oncoming elf warriors, knocking down two at the front of the closely packed ranks. Eight Silvanesti on foot attacked the lone centaur, jabbing at him with their light javelins. Elu fought them off with his club, wielding the stout stick with considerable skill. He connected solidly on one elf’s shield, sending him sprawling into three others. When the Silvanesti found they couldn’t simply overwhelm Elu in a rush, they drew back and cast javelins at him. He dodged or batted aside all but the last two. One took him low in the side, near where his human torso met his equine body. He bellowed, dropped his club, and snapped the shaft with his bare hands. The second spear slashed across his neck, opening a wound that bled copiously. Rearing, Elu shoved the stump of the javelin through his side and plucked it out from behind. The elves rushed again, and he lashed out with his hooves, laying out one after another.
The valiant centaur retreated up the hill, bleeding from his grievous hurts. He threw back his head and shouted the centaurs’ distress cry — a strange ululating call designed to summon any of their kind within hearing distance. The Silvanesti knew the sound well, and they hesitated, unsure whether more centaurs would appear.
None did, but Mara rose up from her hiding place and threw her bird stick. She was behind the elves, and her weapon caught one below his brazen helmet. In the dark, his comrades did not see the slender stick or who threw it. All they saw was one of their number throw up his hands and fall facedown in the dirt. This disconcerted them more, and they fell back to the line of dark pines.
Mara ran to the staggering Elu, bolstering him up by slipping her shoulder under his blood-drenched arm.
“Come on,” she said. “Stand up! We must get away!”
“Club… spear…” Elu said.
Mara recovered his weapon and armed herself with an elven javelin.
They stumbled up the hill, crashing noisily through the high grass. When they reached the crest of the hill, instead of open land ahead, they saw a troop of Silvanesti cavalry, waiting patiently.
Mara’s knees failed at the sight, and she slid to the ground.
“Stand, Mara,” Elu said, leaning on his club. “Better to die on your feet, even if you do have only two of them.”
He held out a hand to her. She could see his teeth gleaming in a smile. She let him pull her up.
Soli broke through the clouds, bathing the savanna in chill white light. The elves swung their spears down in one motion and advanced.
Elu squeezed the girl’s hand, which had gone cold in his grasp. “Afraid?” he asked.
She licked her dry lips. “Yes.”
“Don’t be. If we die well, our enemies will speak of us, and our spirits will live in their memories!”
Clatter from behind heralded the return of the Silvanesti foot soldiers. Mara wrapped both hands around her captured javelin.
“Elu,” she whispered, never taking her eyes off the oncoming riders, “why did you stay silent so long? You speak our tongue better than Chief Miteera.”
“You can learn more by listening than by talking,” he explained. He winced, and his left foreleg buckled slightly. Gasping, he drew himself up again and grinned. “Not so dumb for a savage, yes?”
At forty paces, the mounted elves charged.
Tiphan groveled in the sod, hugging the sacks of stones to his chest. He heard the clash of arms, followed by shouts and the terrible cry of the centaur. He shuddered. If Elu was dead, then the girl was too. It was time to save himself and get his treasure back to Yala-tene.
He worked open the drawstring on one bag and groped inside. These fragments were taken from a particular standing stone, situated in the center of the field. Unlike the other boulders, which were granite or sandstone, this monolith had been streaked with gold. Tiphan knew from his Silvanesti manuscripts that gold had a special affinity for spirit power. That was why the elves used it for priestly instruments and amulets.
He removed from the bag a large piece of stone flecked with the yellow metal and pressed it between his palms. His knowledge of conjuring was rudimentary, but he was desperate.
He heard movement in the grass nearby. The elves were coming! He closed his eyes and sent his plea to the spirit stone.
Save me! Save me! By the power of this stone, save me from my enemies!
Nothing happened. Tiphan repeated the silent, heart-felt plea again and again. Yells from the surrounding grass sent spasms of fear through his gut. He clenched the stone until it cut into his skin. Blood seeped out between his fingers, staining the grass where he lay curled into a tight ball.
A rumble, as of distant thunder, signaled the approach of mounted Silvanesti. In spite of his terror, words suddenly broke through his clenched teeth, resounding in the darkness: “Take me to Yala-tene! Save me! Take me to Yala-tene!”
A strange sensation spread over his hands. Though hot with sweat and sticky with blood, his extremities suddenly felt cold as ice. At the same time, Tiphan felt a glow on his closed eyelids. He cracked his eyes open and saw the shard in his hands exuding the same blue-white light he’d seen in the spirit lightning.
What was happening? Had his plea been heard?
Holding the stone in one hand, Tiphan scooped the other bags into his arms. Just in time, as the cold light grew larger and larger, finally engulfing him. His terror evaporated in triumphant joy. The charging elves faded into the now dazzling blaze. Tiphan exulted. Success! The power was in his hands at last! He’d done it!
As the open plain faded before his vision, Tiphan heard the sound of laughter.
The days following Duranix’s departure were mild and sunny. The ice in the fields melted, and the planters waited anxiously to see whether the orchard would survive. Layers of hay and smudge fires helped, but the final proof would be evident soon. Either green shoots would rise from the soggy fields, bringing with them the hope of a new crop, or they would not. Dead seedlings, like dead bodies, remained buried in the unforgiving ground.
Amero busied himself laboring on the wall. News that the Silvanesti were on the move again put new urgency into the work. He kept Duranix’s vague fears of a western threat to himself. He saw no reason to frighten his people with a menace too shadowy to name.
The best stone for the wall was quarried from the cliff face between the village and the mouth of Cedarsplit Gap. It was dense gray-white granite, speckled with black. The method of building, which had evolved over many seasons’ work, was simple but effective. The blocks were dragged on huge travois from the quarry to the base of the wall. Long ramps of packed earth rose along the inside and outside of the wall. Timber supports kept the ramps stable while building proceeded. The ramps were paved with smooth cobblestones taken from the abundant supply washed into the lake by the waterfall.
Looking back now over the length of finished wall, Amero marveled at how many of the heavy stones had been moved over the years. It was punishing work. Many times Amero passed his nights at Lyopi’s house, where she patiently wrapped his battered hands with strips of soft doeskin soaked in mint and other soothing herbs. There he slept like a dead man, yet awoke every morning eager to continue the arduous task. There was something very satisfying about raising the great wall around Yala-tene.
After eight days of community labor, the northern gap was finally closed. The new stretch of wall was as yet only head-high, but a continuous ring of stone enclosed the village at last. To commemorate the accomplishment, a celebration was declared for the next evening.
On the morning of the feast, firepits were dug and cords of hardwood laid for a hot, ashy fire. The air filled with sweet smoke as oxen began to roast. Food stores in the long tunnels hollowed out of the mountain were relieved of dried fruit and vegetables, stored there since the autumn harvest. That evening, when all was ready, the builders saluted their success. Though wine flowed freely, it was not a riotous gathering. Most of the people were too tired to celebrate too strenuously.
Songs were sung and tales told. The stories were of the old life on the plains, of endless wandering and life at the mercy of nature, great hunts, pursuits by fierce animals, deadly storms, floods, and marvels encountered on the open savanna. As the words were spoken, Amero watched the faces of his people. The young listened to the old tales closely, enthralled by the everyday hardiness of their ancestors. The elder villagers, many of whom had lived the nomadic life, reacted to the tales in different ways. A few smiled, but many sat with eyes downcast or with a far-off look that spoke of memories at work. Several wiped away tears.
As he listened, Amero’s own memories stirred. His thoughts were not of the wandering life, but of Duranix and Yala-tene. He’d lived more than half his life in this valley with these people. What a long way we’ve come, he thought.
Talk died as the work of many days caught up with the villagers. Snores became plentiful. Some of the crowd tottered away to sleep in their own beds. Others just put their heads in any convenient lap and dozed.
Amero, fuzzy with wine and fatigue, watched the flames in the firepit burn down to a glowing pool of embers. Lyopi was curled up beside him. Looking down at her fondly, one hand idly smoothing her chestnut hair, he gradually noticed something strange was happening. The flames in the firepit were slowly dying, yet light bathed the banquet scene — a bluish-white shine like Soli’s glow, but more intense and pervasive. The strange light, Amero realized, was coming from inside the town.
He stood gently so as not to wake Lyopi. Others in the crowd were still awake, and they had noticed the strange light, too.
“Arkuden,” said Udi, the beekeeper’s son, “what can it be?”
“I don’t know,” he replied truthfully.
“It’s coming from the Offertory,” Hulami said.
Indeed it was. Amero set off for the enclosure, followed by a dozen townsfolk. From four houses away, he could see the source of the light was indeed the Offertory. The eerie glow filled the street, washing the color from everything it touched.
When they reached the entrance to the Offertory, they found the Sensarku assembled in the courtyard, kneeling before the high cairn. Atop the stone platform stood an elongated, pear-shaped ball of light, so dazzling it hurt the eyes.
“What is this?” Amero blurted. The reverent acolytes nearest the entrance held fingers to their lips and shushed Amero. Irritated, he strode into the courtyard. The acolytes tried to stop him, but he kicked them off roughly and called, “Konza! Konza, what is going on?”
The old man, crouching by the altar, stood up. “Quietly, please, Arkuden!” he said, voice taut with emotion. “Do not insult the Omen!”
Konza sidled through the ranks of his followers and took Amero aside. “It appeared after sunset,” he whispered. “The boys were washing the cairn when this… spirit-omen arrived.” He looked up at the bright mass with wonder on his face. “It must be a sign from the dragon!”
Amero was doubtful. Duranix had many abilities, but Amero had never known the dragon to do anything like this.
He went to the footholds cut into the front of the cairn. More Sensarku protested, but Konza quieted them with a look. More curious than afraid, he climbed toward the orb. Up close, it gave off no heat and made no sound, but the light was truly blinding, and Amero had to shield his eyes. It seemed to be spinning rapidly, like a child’s top.
Listening intently, Amero became aware of a faint, massed whispering, as though scores of voices were murmuring at once. The voices seemed to echo, as though coming from a hollow place, like the deep interior of a cave. Amero strained to make sense of the words, but could not.
Questions burned in him as brightly as the strange light. He wanted very much to touch the brilliant object, to know what it was made of. He drew his bronze Silvanesti dagger. It was a span long, with an oilwood handle. He extended the point at the orb. The whispery, distant voices increased in volume as his blade approached. They grew so loud that Amero winced in pain, but he still couldn’t understand them or pick out a single voice from all the chaos. It seemed clear the voices didn’t like the dagger.
“Do you hear that?” he shouted over the din.
Konza was just a few steps away. He said, “Hear what, Arkuden?”
Setting his jaw, Amero shoved the dagger forward. Voices and light merged into a clap of thunder. All Amero had time to do was fling an arm over his eyes before his feet left the platform. He landed hard on his back, the impact driving the wind from his body.
Breath and sight slowly returned. Amero was on the ground, propped up by a pair of acolytes. They were patting his face and rubbing his hands. Their faces wore definite “I told you so” expressions. He brushed the youths aside and rose, grunting from the pain in his back.
Three steps away, Tiphan lay in the midst of a chattering circle of young Sensarku. He looked more than strange. Every bit of color had been bled out of him. He appeared to be clad in snow-white buckskins. His long blond hair and eyebrows had also turned white. His eyes were open and the look on his face positively beatific.
“Tiphan, son, can you hear me?” Konza was saying, hugging the young man desperately. “Say something! Can you speak?”
Amero pushed through the flock of gawking acolytes until he stood over the dazed Tiphan. He broke Konza’s hold on his son, seized the young man by the front of his shirt, and dragged him to his feet. Beneath him lay a number of small leather bags, likewise bleached of color.
“Where have you been, Tiphan?” Amero demanded, shaking him like a child. “Where are Mara and Penzar?”
Tiphan’s limp neck stiffened. He raised his head and looked Amero in the eye.
“Arkuden?” he said hoarsely. His eyes, still brilliant blue, took in his surroundings, and he smiled. “Home.”
Pulling free of Amero, Tiphan climbed atop the altar where all the Sensarku and townsfolk below could see him.
“People of Yala-tene!” the colorless man cried, flinging his arms wide. “I have come home!”
Riding warm updrafts and weaving through sparse clouds, Duranix flew far out over the plain. He glided for leagues, steering by small movements of his tail. The sight of his shadow racing across the land below stirred up herds of elk and deer and the occasional wild ox, but for many days he had encountered no other creatures. The lack of wandering plainsmen made the otherwise teeming savanna seem oddly empty.
Duranix could see as well in darkness as in daylight, and the fall of night was a good time to leave his lofty vantage point and inspect the terrain in a stealthier manner. Many creatures, on two legs and four, went abroad in the night and hid by day. To spot them, the dragon landed and prowled the savanna like a panther.
He’d flown almost two hundred leagues, he estimated, since leaving Yala-tene. Such efforts emptied the belly and dried the throat. As soon as his hind legs touched the ground, Duranix’s thoughts turned inexorably to his hunger and thirst. The latter he slaked in a shallow tributary creek of the Tanjan. Meat would require a bit more exertion.
He strode through a copse of trees in the gathering dark, sniffing the wind for game. Catching the pungent scent of pig, he lowered his belly to the grass and crawled forward, nose to the trail. The only sound he made was that of his scaly hide sliding over the new green grass. He slithered right and left, following the meandering boar’s track. The smell grew stronger as he went, indicating the pig was near.
Suddenly, he glimpsed the animal’s brushy, black tail as it dug in the sod, looking for sweet roots. It never saw Duranix sweep up from behind, mouth agape. A snap, and the dragon’s daggerlike teeth made short work of the full-grown boar.
Still, it would take more than a single boar to satisfy his raging hunger. He sat up on his haunches and flared his nostrils wide, trying the air.
Lutar peeped over the horizon, enormous against the distant low hills, Its red light made the grass and trees black and gave his bronze scales a bloody cast as he searched for game.
He halted, catching wind of something quite different from elk or deer. The air carried a residual tang, almost as if lightning had struck nearby, though the sky had been clear for several days.
The only other force Duranix knew that could so singe the air was spirit power — a great deal of it. Sensing no other dragons nearby, he decided the source must be the elf priests Amero had warned him about.
The dragon noticed a path trampled through the weeds. Dropping his nose to the ground, he detected the scent of elves and horses. Since the path bore in the same direction as the scent, he followed it. Different, more familiar, aromas assailed him — human, centaur, the cold stink of metal. A piquant odor overspread all the rest: blood.
Duranix arrived at a wide area of flattened grass. Four dead horses, stripped of their tack, lay on one side of the clearing. The broken shafts of several elven javelins lay on the ground, their bronze heads having been salvaged. Scattered blankets, clay cups, and water gourds completed the scene. The aura of exhausted spirit power led off into the tall weeds a few paces away.
Before investigating further, Duranix decided to eat the dead horses. The humans had a saying: “Hungry enough to eat a horse,” meaning they were so ravenous they didn’t care what they ate. Duranix saw little difference between elk or horse.
He opened his mouth to sear the horses with a blast of fire, but halted abruptly when he saw an arm at the bottom of the heap of horseflesh. Living with Amero had given him a certain respect for thinking creatures. He couldn’t scorch the whole pile without removing the human first.
With a hungry sigh, Duranix tossed aside the top three carcasses. To his surprise, he discovered the arm belonged to a centaur. It was plain the man-horse had died hard. His body bore many wounds.
Duranix pulled the centaur’s body out of the way and roasted the horses. Once he’d eaten his fill, he incinerated the centaur. It was a small favor to a race he grudgingly admired, giving the fallen warrior a thorough cremation rather than leaving his body to the scavengers.
Picking his teeth with an equine leg bone, Duranix turned his attention to finding the locus of the spirit power he’d sensed earlier. He soon tracked it to a small clearing where the green growth of spring had been banished somehow, leaving the grass flattened and dead white, like the horse bone he held. The sensation of departed energy was amazingly strong here.
Duranix shook his head, wondering what had happened. The glint of metal caught his eye, and he retrieved from the grass a fine bronze knife. From the markings on the hilt, he recognized the weapon. It had belonged to Tiphan.
The presence of the single centaur at the battle now made sense. Amero had mentioned that Miteera sent one of his people along with Tiphan’s little expedition. The centaur had given his life in a bloody fight. What had become of Tiphan and his two acolytes?
As the dragon poked about for more clues, something stung his left rear claw. He lifted the limb, expecting to find another bronze blade in the grass. All he saw was a small, flat, stone chip, about the size of a man’s ear. The stone was dark gray granite streaked with gold and was neither hard enough nor sharp enough to penetrate his hide, yet he had he felt it intensely when he trod on it.
He picked up the stone — and immediately flung it away, shaking his claw as though burned. The mental shock he had received was intense. The tiny granite chip screamed with spirit power.
Things became clear in an instant. Tiphan was behind this. The young Sensarku, always hungering for power, hadn’t left Yala-tene on some pious quest. He’d gone in search of stones containing spirit power and had obviously found what he sought — with devastating results.
The obvious next step would be for Tiphan to return home. The fading trace of expended spirit power hinted that the human had found a quicker way home than walking or riding horseback. He’d used the power, or the power had used him.
Here was a danger far greater than the Silvanesti or hostile nomads. Foolish, ambitious Tiphan now had spirit power in his hands! The ignorant human had no idea of the damage he could cause or the danger he and his people faced from his rampant stupidity.
He could he in Yala-tene right now.
Duranix launched himself skyward, the Silvanesti threat forgotten. While he had been dawdling here on the eastern plain, snacking on boar and horse, a hideous danger was aimed at his valley, his home. If he flew as fast as he could, he could reach Yala-tene just after dawn.
If there was anything left of Yala-tene by then.
“Bad. This is very bad.”
Jenla knelt in the muddy orchard. She probed through the hay with a stick, gently lifting it to see if any green sprouts were visible. So far, she’d crawled down half a row without finding a single shoot.
“Are none alive?” asked Tepa anxiously. Without fruit trees, there’d be no blossoms. Without blossoms, his bees couldn’t make honey.
“Not yet.” She slid her damp knees forward and probed again. A slender shoot, more yellow than green, poked up through the soggy soil. “Ha!” Jenla crowed. “Apple tree!”
“That’s one.” Tepa ran a hand through his thinning gray hair, repeating sadly, “One.”
“Tiphan will answer for this.” Jenla marked the sickly seedling with a stone. “Heed my words — and watch where you step!” she said loudly, pushing Tepa away from the single live tree she’d found.
The old beekeeper wasn’t listening. He was gazing at something far away, brow furrowed w T ith effort. When she noticed his distraction, she followed his rapt gaze, shading her eyes.
“What do you see?” she asked. Though he was old, Tepa’s excellent vision was well known. His keen eyes could still track bees in flight.
He concentrated for a few seconds, then shook his head. “I’m not sure,” he finally replied. “There’s something lying on the bank below the bridge. It’s not moving.”
“Probably a dead mountain goat, washed down from a higher valley. Maybe we can salvage the hide.”
The orchard was empty of other villagers, as work this morning was concentrated in the vegetable gardens, out of their sight. In companionable silence, the two elders walked along the shore toward the object Tepa had seen.
When they’d covered about half the distance to the unknown object, Jenla asked, “Can you tell what it is yet?”
He didn’t answer, and Jenla wasn’t surprised. Tepa was a cautious man. He didn’t volunteer opinions unless he had facts to back them up.
They drew nearer, and Jenla suddenly saw movement from the object. “It’s alive,” she said.
Simultaneously, Tepa cried, “It’s a girl!” He ran the rest of the way to the prone figure. Jenla shouted hoarsely at him to wait for her.
Tepa reached the fallen figure. Skinny arms and legs stuck out from beneath a mound of piebald oxhide.
“Can you hear me, girl?” he asked. She didn’t answer. He used the tip of his staff to lift the filthy hide. A cloud of flies rose up, and Tepa flipped the hide away, exposing the fallen stranger.
She was thin to the point of gauntness, wearing a tattered shift crusted with dried mud. Her bare legs and arms were black with muck, and her waist-length black hair was matted and stiff. Tepa could see her bony ribs moving through a gash in her shift. Her eyes were closed.
Tepa dropped to one knee and gathered her in his arms. When he lifted her, her head lolled back.
“Poor little one,” the beekeeper soothed. “You’ve traveled far, haven’t you?”
Jenla arrived, panting. “Careful, old man!” she said sharply, though not without affection. “She could be a spirit, even a dragon in disguise.”
Tepa dipped his hand in the stream and let the cool water dribble across the girl’s forehead. He chided Jenla, clucking his tongue.
“This is no monster,” he said, “just a lost girl, who’s gone too long since her last meal.”
The girl’s eyelids fluttered open, revealing eyes as black as her hair. Seeing Tepa, she began to struggle. He let her go and stood back with Jenla. The girl rubbed her eyes and got to her feet, regarding the couple warily.
Tepa asked gently, “What’s your name?”
“Beramun.” She dusted sand and dried mud from her doeskin shirt and kilt, keeping wary eyes on Jenla and Tepa.
When nothing more seemed to be forthcoming, Jenla asked, “Who are your people?” The custom among plainsmen was to introduce themselves by the names of their parents.
“I have no people. I’m Beramun. That’s all.” She pointed past them to the town across the lake. “Is that the place called Yala-tene?”
“It is,” Tepa said.
Beramun sighed, her eyes closing briefly. “At last! I’ve wandered through half these mountains, looking for this place.”
She swayed a bit on her feet. Tepa stepped forward to help her, but she shrank from his proffered arm.
“When did you last eat?” he asked, stepping back.
“I don’t know.” She looked in the leather bag looped around her shoulder. From the way the limp bag hung, Tepa knew it was empty.
Beramun added, “Some days ago, it seems.”
“Well, come with us, girl,” Jenla said firmly. “We’ll feed you.”
Beramun resisted. “I must speak to your headman first!” Fear darkened her wan face. “I bring news of great danger!”
She was so insistent Jenla relented, and the three of them set off for Yala-tene at once. On the way, Tepa found a few dried apple slices in the pocket of his wraparound tunic. He offered the fruit to Beramun. She took them without hesitation but otherwise remained silent, obviously not intending to divulge her news to anyone but the headman of Yala-tene.
After a long, slow walk, they reached the village wall. Beramun had never seen such a structure. She marveled at the large stone blocks and how tightly they fit together. Inside, the town bustled with activity. Potters carried their wares to the kilns on long, ladderlike racks. Basket makers, coopers, and cobblers haggled over barter rates with the folk who gathered the raw materials — woodcutters, tanners, and the fishermen who cut rushes in their spare time.
Beramun was overwhelmed by the tumult. She had never seen so many people in one place, and everyone seemed to be going in all directions. They spoke her language but much more quickly than she was accustomed to. Here and there she saw black-skinned men and women she knew came from across the sea.
Her head swam as she tried to make sense of the cacophony. The old man, Tepa, tried to talk to her, but Jenla shushed him. Beramun gave the woman a grateful look. The teeming streets passed by in a blur, and an ache quickly bloomed behind her eyes.
At last they came to a low, rather tumbledown structure made of round rocks and slabs of bark. Fire glinted from within. In front of this building many people had gathered. Some were speaking with great heat at the top of their lungs.
Her guides led her through the crowd to where two men, one standing, the other seated, were loudly declaiming. The standing one was tall, and rather good-looking, but his hair was white, which seemed odd for one with such a youthful face. His eyebrows and eyelashes were also white, giving his whole face a very strange cast. The seated fellow was some years older. He had very short light brown hair and a closely trimmed beard, not at all like the luxuriant beards she was used to seeing on men his age out on the plains.
“… further evidence of Silvanesti plots against us,” the younger, white-haired man was saying. “My companions were cruelly slain — even the centaur Miteera sent to help us!”
The seated man looked even angrier, his face red above his whiskers. “And I say you had no right to go off on your own like that!” he countered. “Your folly cost the lives of two young people you were entrusted to guard. What did you say to their parents, Tiphan?”
White Hair replied loftily, “I said they died for the good of Yala-tene.”
His opponent scowled, drumming his fingers on his knee until he spotted Beramun in the crowd. The drumming stopped. He stood up.
“Jenla. Tepa. Who is this?” he asked.
The two villagers moved forward with the girl between them. Jenla explained how they’d found her, finishing with, “She says her name is Beramun, and claims to bring dire news for you, Arkuden.”
The name caused Beramun to stiffen. “Arkuden?” she repeated. “You’re a dragon’s son?”
He smiled, his hazel eyes filled with restored good humor. “I’m Amero, son of Oto and Kinar. ‘Arkuden’ is a name the folk hereabout call me. What news have you, Beramun?”
He had a kind face and pleasant voice, and Beramun relaxed a little. “Before Soli last waned, I was taken prisoner by raiders on the south plain. These men have horses and range all over, robbing and killing as they please. Their leader is called Zannian.” She noticed Tiphan glaring at her, obviously irritated by her interruption.
“Go on,” Amero said kindly, giving Tiphan a stern look.
“This Zannian is planning to make war on all the peoples of the plain,” she finished. “I spent some days in the raiders’ camp, making leather shirts for their warriors. I saw many, many spears being piled up.”
“We have nothing to fear from raider trash,” said a stout fellow with a reddish beard, standing nearby. “We have our wall, and we have the mighty protector, Duranix.” His words inspired many approving murmurs.
“What is Duranix?” asked Beramun.
“A dragon,” Tiphan said, looking down his thin nose at her. “Powerful in spirit, wise in counsel, mighty — ”
Beramun recoiled. “Dragon! You also serve a monster?” She was horrified. Had she come so far, endured so much, only to find herself prisoner of yet another evil beast?
The crowd jeered and called her names for insulting the one they kept calling “the Protector.” Amero quieted them. Then, his soothing tone gone and his voice edged with urgency, he asked, “What did you mean by ‘you also serve a monster?’”
“Zannian and his band have a dragon master, too!”
All talk ceased. Tiphan stared hard at Beramun, his eyes narrowing. “What dragon is this?” he demanded.
“His name is Sthenn. He’s a green dragon who lives in the forest at the Edge of the World.”
For five or six heartbeats there was no sound, then every man and woman present began exclaiming loudly and at once. They surged around Beramun like a storm-tossed sea, waving their hands wildly, pointing to the mountains, pointing to the sky.
“- evil dragon who created the yevi — ”
“- as powerful as Duranix?”
“Duranix? Where is Duranix?”
“He must help — !”
On and on, until Beramun pressed her hands over her ears to muffle the cacophony. She closed her eyes as well, trying to shield her aching head from the tumult. Someone touched her on the shoulder. Opening her eyes, she saw it was the headman, Amero.
“Come with me,” he said close to her ear. “We’ll go some place quiet to talk.”
Trust was difficult. The news that these people were the followers of yet another dragon had shaken her badly. However, the kindness in his face and the appeal of a quiet place swayed her, and she let herself be led away from the agitated crowd.
Amero brought her through the throng to the cliff face close by. A basket made of wooden poles lashed together stood there. He climbed in and held out his hand to her.
She hesitated, and he said, “You’re safe here, Beramun. No one will harm you, least of all me. Come.”
More than the words themselves, his gentle manner reassured her. He explained that the hoist would lift them safely up. After a moment of nervous hesitation, she climbed in with him.
During the ascent, she held tightly to the sides of the basket. When the contraption finally bumped to a stop high off the ground, she tried not to look, but her eyes were drawn to the drop.
By the ancestors! The people below looked small as beetles! The thought made Beramun smile. Not so threatening from a height, the crowd did resemble a swarm of beetles roiling in the sunlight after their rotten log home had been turned over.
Amero tied off the basket and helped her climb out. The interior of the cavern was huge and dimly lit.
“You live here?” she exclaimed. Her voice echoed off the high ceiling, the words coming back to her over and over. She laughed with childish delight at the effect.
“Duranix made it,” Amero explained. “He and I both live here.”
Mention of the dragon’s name killed Beramun’s playful mood. “Dragons are monsters,” she said flatly. “How can a man live with one?”
“Duranix is no monster. He’s the greatest friend a man could have. All that I’ve become, all that Yala-tene is, is due to my friendship with Duranix.”
Even through her mistrust, Beramun could hear the sincerity in his words. He went to the pit hearth and stirred the embers until they flamed. An elk haunch was on the spit there. He sliced off several generous pieces and offered them to her on the point of his knife. She hesitated only an instant before taking the knife and gnawing the meat with evident hunger.
Amero filled a leather cup from a pool of water by the cave wall. The basin was kept full by a rent in the outer cave wall that allowed water from the falls to trickle in.
He handed the cup to Beramun, then moved away, puttering in the recesses of the cave, allowing her to eat in peace.
After blunting her hunger pangs, Beramun rinsed her face and arms. When she returned to sit by the fire, Amero came back to question her about Sthenn, Zannian, and the raiders.
She told him all she knew, from the moment she’d been captured to her final escape down the river.
“Two hundred raiders or more you say, with a dragon behind them?” Amero muttered. He was standing at the entrance to the cave, frowning thoughtfully. The setting sun painted the sky scarlet beyond him.
“You believe me, don’t you?”
He nodded, and she sighed gustily, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Arkuden, if you’ll give me a quiet corner in this beehive of a village, I’d like to rest a bit. It’s been a long journey from the Edge of the World.”
“It’s better if you stay up here,” Amero said absently. “Duranix is away, and there are things going on in the village I’d rather you not get involved in.”
Beramun demanded, “Are you keeping me prisoner?”
He regarded her with a distracted expression. “You can come and go as you please. It really would be best if you stayed here, at least until Duranix returns. He’ll want to hear your story. Sthenn is his ancient enemy. They’ve fought each other before.”
Beramun chewed her lip, thinking. She hated confinement, but after many days on the run, always terrified Zannian or Sthenn would appear over the next hill or beyond the next grove of trees, she was weary beyond belief. The cave was blessedly calm and free of the hurly-burly of the teeming streets below. The constant rumble of the waterfall was actually rather soothing, and the food was better than anything she could scrounge on the plain.
Amero’s deep musings were interrupted by loud snoring. Turning, he saw Beramun leaning against the hearth, fast asleep. He scratched his chin thoughtfully. Her brief wash had removed the worst of the mud from her face, revealing her to be a pretty girl, thinned by too much hardship. Young, too. Her self-assured manner had fooled him at first, but looking at her now, he knew she couldn’t be more than sixteen or seventeen.
Something about her arrival bothered him. He couldn’t decide exactly what, so he cut himself a helping of roast elk and sat nearby, eating quietly. Duranix’s warning about an unknown peril loomed larger than ever. They had their choice of dangers: elves on the move in the east, Sthenn and his human host reported in the southwest, and perhaps worst of all, the strange incident involving Tiphan. The facts were indisputable. Tiphan had been transformed by some unknown power, and his naked ambition to take over Yala-tene was now as shockingly plain as his newly whitened hair.
Amero suddenly felt small in the great cave, small and insignificant. He wondered where Duranix was just then. Swallowing the last bite of elk, he sat down on the hearth across from Beramun and watched her sleep.
The closer he got to Yala-tene, the more Duranix grew disturbed. Something was terribly wrong, and it wasn’t all due to that fool Tiphan’s dabbling with forces he couldn’t control. The sense of menace he’d detected before leaving the village was still building like invisible thunderheads, foretelling a storm of terrible magnitude. Though still too vague to identify, the signals were stronger than before — stronger and closer.
Duranix landed on the cliffs above the village, where years before he’d fought the rebel nomads of Hatu the One-eyed and Nacris. He inspected the sleeping town. Though the starry night seemed peaceful, the chill he felt throughout his massive body confirmed the worst: The malign presence had come to Yala-tene. It would have to be found and expunged as quickly as possible.
He flew into his cavern, shaking off the waterfall’s momentary deluge as he always did. The dying embers of a fire and the smell of roast elk told him someone had eaten recently. His heat-sensitive vision picked out a single warm body, sleeping by the hearth. Amero was home.
Duranix stalked across the cave and exhaled a small bolt of lightning into the firepit. Flames blazed up. Familiar surroundings and the nearness of his human friend raised Duranix’s spirits.
He pushed his head close to the sleeping mound and boomed, “Wake up, boy! I’ve much to tell you!”
The sleeper jerked upright. With a start Duranix realized it wasn’t Amero, but a female with long black hair. Her mouth opened, and she screamed, scrambling around the hearth away from him. She kept on screaming, face contorted by utter panic.
“Cease that noise!” he roared.
Like a judicious slap in the face, his command worked.
The girl’s jaws worked in silent horror, then she shouted, “You’re the dragon!”
“How brilliant you are! Who are you?”
She pulled herself together and replied in a calmer tone, “Beramun. I’m Beramun. You… you’re Duranix, aren’t you?”
“I am, and this is my home. Why are you here?”
“Amero brought me — ”
“Did he?” His eyes narrowed. “Where is the hospitable Amero?”
“I don’t know,” she said, looking around rapidly. “He was here when I went to sleep.”
Duranix circled the hearth. Beramun scampered away, maintaining her distance. “Are you the female he’s been tending in the village?” the dragon asked.
Her face colored. “No! I only arrived in the valley yesterday.”
“Then why did Amero bring you here? It’s not his custom to lodge strangers in our home.”
Beramun stood up, tugging at her twisted clothing. “I came to Yala-tene to warn him, to warn everyone,” she said, untying the braided hide belt at her waist and smoothing her kilt.
“Warn them of what?”
“Zannian’s raiders.” Beramun had to loosen the wraparound shirt in order to unbind her arms. When she did, the shirt fell away from her shoulders, exposing the green mark high on her chest.
Duranix’s pupils expanded. Without warning, he sprang through the fire. She had no time to dodge, but did let loose another bloodcurdling scream as his bronze talons enveloped her.
“You are his!” Duranix bellowed.
“Let me go!” she shrieked. “Let me go, monster! Let me go!”
He reared up on his hind legs, and for a heart-stopping moment she thought he meant to dash her against the cave wall. Instead, he carried her to the largest opening, the one directly behind the falls.
“You belong to him,” Duranix said coldly, his great voice carrying easily over the rumble of the water. “Did he send you to destroy me?”
“Destroy you?” Beramun’s voice was shrill with terror. “Belong to who? I don’t know what you mean!”
He thrust her out of the cave. Hundreds of paces above the ground, she now clung to Duranix as fiercely as she had fought his grip a moment before.
“Why did you come here?” he bellowed.
She screamed the words as fast as she was able. “To warn the people of Yala-tene about Zannian and his raiders — ”
“Lies!” Duranix leaned farther out and pushed Beramun into the edge of the plunging stream of water. At its heart the waterfall had sufficient force to break bones and tear hair out by the roots. Even here, the torrent forced Beramun’s head down and pounded her back. She choked until he hauled her in.
“Why did you come here?” Duranix demanded. “What is your purpose?”
“I told you — ”
He extended his foreclaw toward the water again.
Tears streaming down her drenched face, she cried, “No! No! It’s the truth! I swear by my ancestors! It’s the truth!”
A shout came from behind. Turning his broad head, Duranix saw Amero vault out of the basket and rush toward them.
“Stop it, Duranix! Don’t hurt her!”
“Are you mad, boy? She is one of Sthenn’s creatures!”
“No! She came here to warn us about Sthenn!”
Duranix examined the limp, bedraggled girl in his grasp. His brazen lip curled in disgust, and he tossed her to Amero. The latter managed to catch her, staggering backward under the unexpected burden.
“What’s gotten into you, Duranix?” Amero said, lowering Beramun to the floor. “I’ve never seen you mistreat a human so!”
The dragon’s ribs worked hard as he inhaled and exhaled, calming himself. Finally he said, “She wears Sthenn’s mark! She is his creature, no less than the yevi that killed your parents.”
“See for yourself. High on the left side of her chest.”
Amero gently parted Beramun’s sodden hair and peeled back the wet doeskin. The green triangle stood out plainly. He touched it lightly with a forefinger. The mark was smooth, the edges flush with the girl’s skin.
Beramun came out of her daze and pushed weakly at his hands. “What’re you doing? Don’t touch me!”
“What is this mark?”
She held her shirt tight to her neck. “I don’t know. A bruise!”
“Have you always had it?”
“No. I noticed it after my escape from Almurk.”
Amero quickly recounted to Duranix her story of capture by Sthenn’s raiders and her escape.
The dragon listened, motionless and silent, but when the tale was done he said, “This is the shadow I sensed coming, Amero. This is the danger that threatens us all. She was marked by Sthenn. She is his creature. Better she dies now, before she can do his evil here.”
Beramun gasped and stood on shaky legs to run. She looked about wildly, realizing she was hopelessly trapped in the cave. Duranix made no move toward her, but Amero stepped between the dragon and the girl.
“There’s no proof she’s here on Sthenn’s behalf. Maybe the mark is just a bruise.” Even to his own ears, it sounded weak, and Duranix was not likely to be wrong about such a thing.
“I smell Sthenn all over her,” the dragon told him, crouching low and coiling his powerful legs beneath him. “I sensed his presence a hundred leagues away. Now I know why — he sent this girl here.”
“But why? She has warned us about his plots!”
“You don’t understand the poisonous subtlety of Sthenn’s mind. If he sent her here, there is a black reason behind it.” Amero folded his arms across his chest. “I won’t let you harm her.”
Silence ensued, heavy and tense. Amero knew he was no match for the dragon, but he honestly could not imagine that Duranix would hurt him. Though he was still a strange and oft-times unfathomable creature, Duranix had been Amero’s friend too long for the dragon to disregard him.
Finally, Duranix relaxed his attack stance. “Very well,” he said calmly. “Shield her if you must. There’s no understanding the irrational feelings humans have for each other.” Amero breathed more easily, but the dragon’s next words troubled him anew. “I warn you though, by all that’s passed between us — this female is doing Sthenn’s work, and we will all come to grief if you let her live.”
Amero looked over his shoulder at Beramun. “Go to the hoist,” he said quietly. “Wait there for me.”
She obeyed immediately. The dragon’s eyes followed her every step.
“There are other dangers here,” Amero said, hoping to divert Duranix. “Tiphan returned yesterday by means of some kind of spirit power. He claims to have mastery over it.”
“I feared as much.” Now it was the dragon’s turn to tell Amero about his findings. He described what he had discovered on the plains — the remains of a bloody fight, the residue of power, the spirit stones, and the dead centaur.
Amero shook his head sadly at the loss of Miteera’s gallant warrior. “Tiphan’s changed — or been changed by these stones,” he said solemnly. “Even his appearance is altered.”
“He seeks to imitate the elf priests. He would become like Vedvedsica.”
“He must be stopped!” Amero declared. “That power is as wrong for humans as it is for elves. Just look at the evil done by Pa’alu all those years ago with a simple amulet!”
Pa’alu had been a nomad warrior who’d been in love with his chieftain, Amero’s sister, Nianki. When she failed to return his affection, he had made a deal with the Silvanesti priest Vedvedsica for an amulet to compel Nianki’s love. A terrible accident had occurred. The amulet had indeed caused Nianki to fall in love, but that love was directed along unnatural lines, toward her brother. Much sorrow had ensued, leaving Pa’alu dead, Yala-tene wrecked by the rebellious nomads, and Nianki driven into self-exile with her band of loyal followers.
“I’ll search for this Zannian,” Duranix declared. “You’ll have to deal with Tiphan for now.”
“Konza may still have some influence over his son. I’ll speak to him in the morning.”
Amero intended to say more, to smooth over their confrontation over Beramun, but it was not to be. Having spoken his mind, Duranix stalked to the rear of the cave. It was obvious he was still angry, and Amero’s heart was heavy as he returned to the hoist.
Beramun stood in the basket regarding him nervously. Somehow, his many burdens seemed to lighten when he looked at her, and he smiled.
“Is all well?” she asked.
“Well enough,” he said, climbing in and pulling the slip knot. The basket sank toward the ground.
She wrung water from her long hair. “It was brave of you to defend me,” she said quietly.
“I was in no danger. Duranix would not hurt me.”
“He’s a beast. A very great beast, but not human. Can you be sure of him?”
“Very sure.” Amero looked into her black eyes. More sure than I am of you. He kept that thought to himself.
The basket bumped into the pile of sawdust Amero used to cushion the landing. He climbed out first, then helped her jump down. His hands were still around her waist when she skidded in the sawdust. He held on to keep her from falling.
After a few seconds, she said, “You can let go now.”
Amero released her. He was thankful the dark night hid the blood burning in his face.
“Thank you, Arkuden.” She clasped his hand lightly. It was a simple gesture of gratitude, nothing more, but the fleeting contact set his heart racing.
By lamplight the stones looked very ordinary: mottled gray chips of varying sizes. A few had streaks of gold in them, but only a few. Konza sat at the table in his simple house, the pile of stones before him. Across from him sat his son, his appearance so strangely altered by his recent journey. Konza had begun to believe the alterations ran even deeper than mere appearance.
“You see, father, these stones are the key to power,” Tiphan said, running his hands over the dusty pile. “According to my elven manuscripts, they contain a portion of the power of a mighty spirit confined to the stone in ages past.”
“These bits of rock?”
“Yes. Here is a treasure greater than all the bronze in Silvanost!”
Tiphan was sorting the stones by size and weight. Even the bits that flaked off them were pushed carefully into a tiny heap. Konza watched this peculiar process with a plainly skeptical expression.
“How did Penzar and Mara die?”
Tiphan’s blue eyes, seemingly all the brighter for the white lashes now framing them, lifted from his work to stare at his father. “Elves killed them. I told you that. We were set upon by more than a hundred Silvanesti warriors. Penzar was slain, then Mara, and the centaur. It all happened so quickly, I couldn’t help them. The only reason I survived was because of the stones.”
“I see.” The older man drummed the tabletop with his fingers for a few seconds, then shook his head. “No, I don’t. How? How were you able to command the power of the stones?”
Tiphan smote the table with his fist, causing his father, the stones, and the small lamp to jump. “Questions, questions! What troubles you, old man? Aren’t you happy to have me back alive — and in possession of such enormous power?”
“Yes, Tiphan, I am.”
His tone was so sincere, Tiphan felt guilty. He sat back with a deep sigh. “Very well, father. I’ll show you how I was able to master the stones.”
Rising, he went and removed the loose stone that hid his secret cache. He poked his arm into the hole and felt around for his scrolls. He found the longest parchment roll, drew it out, and unrolled it a span.
“Here,” he said, showing the Silvanesti book to his father. “This is The Way to Bind the Sun, a book compiled by elf priests. It describes the stones of power and how a practiced artisan can use them.”
Konza didn’t even glance at the scroll. “You know I can’t read,” he said.
“You could learn! I’ve studied every scrap of Elvish script that’s come into this valley and talked to wanderers and traders who know the Silvanesti. This book tells of an ancient war among the spirits and how the victors and the defeated chose to remain on this mortal world, locked in stone for all time. Whole, these spirits are too willful for man or elf to control, but a small fragment can be called upon to release its power!”
Konza was plainly impressed with his son’s erudition, but his expression was troubled as he asked, “What will you do with this power?”
Tiphan gestured broadly. “Help Yala-tene, of course — in a hundred ways! The power is directed by my will, so whatever I wish can be done. Think of the deeds I could do! Instead of sweating long days to break stone and haul it to build the town wall, I might be able to command the stone blocks to rise and fly themselves into place! I could call forth rain in a drought, or sunshine during a deluge. If the harvest was poor, I could command the gardens to flower and grow heavy — ”
“Ah!” Konza struck his forehead with the heel of his hand. “The orchard! I forgot!” As Tiphan rolled up the Silvanesti scroll, the old man explained how the late icefall had ruined the spring planting.
“The villagers were very angry with you,” he said. “Amero spoke to the Protector, and he told the planters you had misinterpreted his words when you claimed he said winter was over. If you’d been here, I think they would’ve torn you to pieces!”
Tiphan smiled thinly. “But I wasn’t here. Isn’t that proof the power seeks me as surely as I desire it? Why else would I have had such an overwhelming urge to leave Yala-tene on that particular day?”
Konza was taken aback. Tiphan had always thought well of himself, but since his return he was acting as though he, and not the great dragon, was the protector of Yala-tene. He didn’t even grieve over the deaths of his acolytes. When he spoke of the Arkuden, his tone now was openly arrogant.
“Son, you must make amends,” the old man insisted. “Somehow you must help the planters.”
Tiphan had returned the scroll to its niche. Turning slowly, he said, “You’re right, Father. That’s a fine notion.” He scooped up a single stone from the table. “I’ll do just that!”
He draped a sheepskin robe around his shoulders and raced out the door. Konza had to scramble to catch up.
The night was bright, the air crisp and cold. Their exhalations formed clouds around their heads.
“If you want to see the orchard, shouldn’t we wait for daylight?” Konza panted, pushing himself to keep up with Tiphan’s brisk stride.
“There’s no time to lose. The next sunrise will shine down on a new orchard, and a new village!”
They crossed Amero’s bridge, their sandals thumping loudly on the planks. It was quiet in the upper valley, still too cold at night for frogs and crickets to serenade. By the time they arrived at the upper end of the orchard it was just after midnight. Lutar was chinning itself on the horizon, and a vague pinkish light colored the scene before them.
Tiphan stopped so suddenly Konza bumped into him.
“Now what?” asked the old man, shivering despite his robe.
“Watch, and say nothing,” was his son’s portentous warning.
In truth Tiphan wasn’t at all sure he could invoke the power of the stone he held tightly in his hand. His escape from the elves might have been an accident, sparked by desperation. Still, Konza was watching. Better to test his technique before his own father than a crowd of skeptical villagers.
Tiphan pressed his palms together, the stone wedged between them. Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, he concentrated.
Power of the stone, hear me! he intoned silently. Bring forth the bounty of the soil! Raise up these wasted seeds into thriving, abundant trees! He repeated the wordless command over and over.
Nothing happened. The night remained very still and cold. Tiphan felt a trickle of sweat run down his temple.
“Never mind, son. Let’s go home.”
His father’s gentle, pitying tone infuriated Tiphan. “Don’t interrupt!” he snapped. Speaking made him remember an important fact: He’d rescued himself from the elves by speaking the words aloud!
“Power of the stone!” Tiphan intoned in a loud voice. “Hear my plea! Hear my command! Bring forth the bounty of the soil! Raise up the withered seedlings from waste and death! Come forth in life and plenty! Release your power! Come forth! Come forth!”
The air around them shimmered. They felt a whisper of heat on their faces. The stone in Tiphan’s hands grew warmer. Very quickly, it became painfully hot.
Raising both hands high and never ceasing to shout his invocation, Tiphan hurled the stone at the straw-covered field. As it flew through the air it left behind a visible trail of golden sparks.
When the fragment hit the ground, there was a noiseless burst of white light. Konza turned away, hands over his ears, believing a thunderclap would follow. None did, but a lengthy wash of warm air enveloped them.
“Tiphan!” Konza gasped. “What’s the matter?”
His son had fallen to his knees and was shaking violently. Konza took him by the shoulders, thinking to aid him. However, the old man recoiled sharply when he saw his son’s face.
Tiphan was laughing. Paroxysms of mirth shook him from head to toe.
“Now do you see, old man?” Tiphan sputtered. Savage laughter continued to wrack him until tears ran down his cheeks. “ Now do you see? ”
Konza looked at the ice-ravaged orchard. Something was indeed happening. Releasing his hysterical son, who collapsed onto his hands and knees, Konza walked into the frosty field. Where once the ground had been covered with damp hay, there was a now a fine green fleece growing from the foot of the far cliff down to the water’s edge.
Konza knelt, brushing tentative fingers over apple and walnut trees, burltops, and more. Tiphan hadn’t simply repaired the seedlings killed by ice. He’d covered the entire expanse of ground in finger-length sprouts of all type and description.
A hand fell on Konza’s back, and he flinched.
“Isn’t it wondrous?” breathed Tiphan.
“It’s terrifying!” said Konza honestly.
Here was power to rival the great spirits. As his eyes roved over the dense mat of seedlings, Konza knew that such power wasn’t meant for ordinary men. He looked at his son nervously. Tiphan’s thoughts were obviously running along different lines.
“The land will yield everything to us,” the younger man said, spreading his arms wide and inhaling deeply. “The world will be our garden! Nothing can resist my power!”
Duranix had searched from the mountains to the Plains River, detecting no trace of Sthenn or his minions. This troubled him. There had been a far greater odor of the enemy back in Yala-tene, Duranix reflected, emanating from that black-haired girl.
Thinking of Beramun made the dragon angry. He was certain she was up to no good, though how she fit into Sthenn’s machinations wasn’t clear.
He turned south, crossing the landmark river. There were always plainsmen on its shores, watering their animals or traveling by raft or canoes. Nomads were keen-eyed and alert to any danger. He resolved to question any he could find about Zannian’s band. For that, he would need to take on human shape, since the wanderers would flee at the sight of his natural form.
He landed in a grove of cherry trees. Hidden by clouds of pink blossoms, he shrank to a stocky, broad-shouldered, brown-haired man who vaguely resembled Amero. The disguise would not only allow him to approach any nomads he might meet, but would also serve to muffle his presence to Sthenn, if the green dragon was in the vicinity.
Duranix emerged from the cherry trees and began to run. Human form or no, he ran faster than any other creature on the plain, surpassing even the astonishing speed for which the panther was famed. By noon, he was gazing down from a hilltop on the distant silver band of the river’s southern fork, and he’d encountered neither raiders nor plainsmen. He found the lack of customary nomads extremely disturbing. This time of year the savanna should have been dotted with many small bands moving south behind migrating herds of elk and oxen.
Duranix stretched his senses wide, drinking in the faintest whiffs of auras and aromas. There was a sizable herd of oxen within range. He made note of that. A fat ox or two would be a fine antidote to the enormous hunger he’d built up after many leagues of running.
Before racing off after his dinner, he caught another scent that put an end to his thoughts of food. Humans, two or three at most, with horses. At last, he had found the nomads he sought.
A shrill whistling filled his sensitive ears. He quickly spotted the source of the sound. A bawling ox calf galloped through the widely spaced trees. Behind it was a trio of humans on horseback, whistling and shouting. They had long spears and were obviously trying to bring down the runaway beast.
Duranix loped down the hill, angling to intercept the galloping calf. His sudden appearance on the beast’s left spooked the calf, and it veered away. Between the dust and flower petals from nearby trees, the riders didn’t see the calf change direction. They thundered straight ahead, whooping, until the one on the far left spotted Duranix. He reined up and shouted something to his comrades, who likewise slowed to get a look at the stranger.
In the space of a few heartbeats, Duranix realized these fellows weren’t simple herders chasing a stray calf. They carried no ropes but were armed with flint-tipped spears and wore weird leather hoods decorated with animal bones, teeth, and vivid stripes, swirls, and splotches of paint. That much of the girl Beramun’s story was true. There were raiders on the plains.
Followers of Sthenn weren’t likely to respond to polite queries, so Duranix took a more direct approach. He charged the center rider. The man’s horse shied violently, rearing on its hind legs. The rider, taken by surprise, fell and hit the ground hard. He rolled twice and lay still.
The other two riders drove in, spears leveled. Duranix sprang at the nearest one, whose hood bore a wide stripe of bright red paint. The dragon grabbed Red Stripe’s spear shaft in both hands and yanked. The man flew off his horse and landed in the dirt.
With no time to dodge the third human’s attack, Duranix hurled the captured spear at him. Backed by a dragon’s muscles, the long spear drove all the way through the last rider. His hands flew up, and he toppled backward off his animal.
The first two men were senseless, so Duranix went over to the one he’d speared and hauled him to his feet. He tore the fearsome hood from the rider’s head, revealing him to be a young man with shaggy black hair and only the thinnest sprouts of beard on his chin.
“Speak,” Duranix said roughly. “Who are you? Where do you come from?”
The raider coughed blood. His eyes roved wildly, taking in the unmoving lumps that had been his comrades. “Takanu,” he gasped, “from Almurk.”
The disguised dragon recognized the latter name from Amero’s recital of Beramun’s escape. “Is your chief named Zannian?” he demanded.
The raider nodded feebly. Duranix dragged him to where his horse waited, cropping the spring grass a few paces away. Faint surprise registered in the dragon’s mind as he noted that all three horses had remained nearby. Unlike most of their kind, they didn’t seem alarmed by his dragon aura.
He held the reins of Takanu’s horse with one hand and, with the other, threw the raider onto the animal’s back.
“I’m going to spare you, Takanu, to go back to your chief and deliver this message — stay away from Yala-tene or face certain, swift death. Do you understand?”
The raider didn’t reach for the dangling rawhide reins. He sat slumped in his saddle, one hand clutching his wounded side, shaking his head.
Duranix repeated the message more loudly, adding, “Now go!”
“I can’t,” the raider groaned.
“Why not? Your wound isn’t fatal.”
“I can’t return defeated, spared by an enemy,” the raider insisted. “I’ll be punished. Better to die now.”
What kind of savages was he dealing with? “Then tell them you fought me and I ran away,” the dragon said with some asperity. “Tell them whatever you like, so long as you deliver my warning.”
Takanu slipped a hand into his shirt. When he brought it out again, there was an obsidian dagger in his fist. Quicker than thought, he stabbed himself in the stomach and slid sideways off his horse.
Deeply vexed, lightning snapping around his head, Duranix rolled the raider over. Takanu was dead. His hard landing had driven the dagger deep. Another messenger would have to be found.
The disguised dragon stripped the two unconscious men of their clothes and weapons. He retrieved their horses and lashed the raiders facedown across their mounts’ backs.
To make certain Sthenn knew exactly who was sending the message, Duranix reverted to dragon form and searched his body for a loose scale. He found one on the back of one knee. Tearing a long strip of buckskin from a raider’s shirt, the dragon tied the scale in place over the man’s face. He sent the horses on their way with slaps on their rumps.
Satisfied he’d made his point, Duranix turned his attention back to his voracious appetite.
Jenla could not believe her eyes. The day before, she and Tepa had found nothing in the orchard but muddy hay. This morning, the field was alive with thousands of tiny green seedlings, so densely packed she could barely see ground between them. Falling to her knees in the dirt, she touched the tender shoots with her fingers, hardly believing they were real.
“Believe what you see.”
Jenla’s head snapped around toward the unexpected voice. There stood Tiphan, looking strangely colorless in the golden light of morning.
“It’s amazing,” she said, breathless. “How could such a thing happen?”
“I did it.”
Her wordless shock seemed to please him. “I have acquired the spirit power previously known only to the elves.” With a beneficent smile Tiphan added, “Since our great protector misled us about the weather, it seemed only right that I repair his mistake.”
Though she knew his version of events wasn’t accurate, Jenla didn’t argue. Tiphan frightened her. What with his arrival in the Offertory in a flash of light and his strange new appearance. “Well,” he said, “aren’t you going to thank me?”
“Thank you, Tosen.” Frowning at the seedlings, she muttered, “These will have to be thinned, or they’ll choke each other out.”
“You’re welcome, Jenla. Peace to you.”
He wandered away, still smiling. Jenla dismissed the unfathomable Sensarku from her mind, her thoughts returning to the task before her.
She plucked out a handful of apple seedlings to make room for the others to grow. Tossing them over her shoulder, she loosened the soil with a sharp wooden stick. Tearing out more seedlings and throwing them behind her, she created a neat row where none had existed. After she’d worked down a few steps, she glanced back to survey her handiwork. What she saw stopped her cold.
The discarded seedlings, torn from the soil, were growing! They had already put down roots and were even now righting themselves. The thick mass of plants turned their leaves to the sun.
Unnerved, she dropped her stick and shouted, “Tepa! Udi! Tana! Come here!”
From other parts of the fields her friends came running. When close enough to behold the restored orchard, they halted abruptly, and their jaws dropped. At her impatient urging, they approached again, their eyes fastened on the writhing carpet of seedlings.
Jenla related Tiphan’s claim to have “repaired” the damage done by the too-early planting.
“He can do that?” asked Udi, awestruck.
“The proof is here,” Jenla said. “The seedlings are alive — unnaturally so! Torn out, they keep growing!” She gestured at the pile. “We have to find a way to thin them.”
Tepa pondered the problem. “Burn the unwanted ones,” he said. “That should take care of them.”
All around they could hear a faint but steady scratching sound. Astonished, they realized it was the sound of the orchard growing.
“Get help!” Tepa told his son. “Hurry! If we wait too long we’ll need axes to thin the saplings!”
Udi ran to the next vale to recruit the villagers working in the vegetable gardens. Tepa scrounged twigs and dry grass and started a small fire. They began thinning the seedlings and tossing the unwanted ones on the fire. Soon enough, the fire had grown to considerable size.
Across the lake, Amero noted the rising spiral of smoke and wondered what was burning. He was overseeing repairs of the foundry while waiting for Tiphan. He’d sent runners throughout the town, seeking the Sensarku chief. Tiphan finally arrived with a full entourage of acolytes, all starry-eyed and awestruck by their leader.
Outwardly calm, Amero inwardly seethed. He didn’t want the young, impressionable Sensarku present when he upbraided their leader. Sitting on a stone bench outside the ruined foundry, he pointedly did not rise when Tiphan reached him. Instead, he continued whittling a cedar stick with practiced nonchalance. Tiphan halted, and his acolytes spread out on each side.
“Welcome, Tiphan,” Amero said. “I hope you’re recovered from your journey?”
“Quite recovered, Arkuden.”
“Send your people back to the Offertory, please. This doesn’t concern them.”
The Sensarku leader spread his arms wide. “I have no secrets from my children.”
Disgusted by his turn of phrase, Amero almost cut through the aromatic stick with a single stroke. Recovering, he said, “Let me speak plainly. I’m concerned about you, Tiphan. You left here as one person and returned as another.”
“Is that wrong, Arkuden?”
Amero met his eyes. “No, but you brought something with you I cannot tolerate in Yala-tene.”
“What would that be?”
Tiphan smiled broadly. “It’s no secret I have acquired the power known to the priests of the Silvanesti,” he said. “I have said so publicly.” The joy on the faces of his acolytes reflected his own. “What an elf can do, now I can do. What arts they master, I can master, too.”
“No one can control the spirits. To try is folly. You’re like a man who juggles flaming brands — as long as you catch the cool end, you’re fine, but sooner or later you’re bound to burn your fingers.”
Tiphan’s smile vanished. “I never thought to hear such craven words from you, Arkuden. You, who have lived with a dragon and wrested metal from the very rocks beneath our feet? Why should you fear this power? It exists, stored in stone, for the wise to use, just as your metal lies hidden in ordinary rock. You dig it out to help us, to make life in Yala-tene better. My goal is the same.”
The scrape of feet behind him made Amero glance over his shoulder. His workmen were crowding the windows and door of the foundry, listening to Tiphan speak. From their faces, it appeared the Sensarku was winning his point.
“There’s a grave difference between copper and spirit power,” Amero countered, standing at last. “Metal, once smelted, is just metal. It neither harms nor helps, but does the will of the hand that wields it. This power you crave is not like that. Using it is like setting a wild beast loose from a trap. It may run away, or it may turn and bite you. There’s no controlling it. If you try to use it, it will destroy you, Tiphan, and may very well destroy Yala-tene, too.”
Tiphan shook his head sadly. “You’ve grown old, Arkuden, old and cautious. I’ve called upon the power twice already, and both times reaped the benefits.” He pointed across the lake. “My power has insured a bountiful harvest for seasons to come by saving the frozen seedlings. It also saved me from the elves, who attacked me on the plain.”
Amero folded his arms to stop them trembling with anger. “Attacked you?” he said coldly, “Mara, Penzar, and Elu were attacked, too. How is it this great power of yours couldn’t save them?”
“Have all your schemes borne fruit? Did they come without cost?” Tiphan retorted. “How many died when the storage tunnels were being dug? What about the people injured in your experiments? What was the final tally of dead after the nomads were welcomed into the valley?”
The smug look on the face of the Sensarku leader was suddenly too much for Amero. Furious, he started at Tiphan, but was stopped by the young believers who rushed between him and their leader. Fists clenched at his sides, he glared at the eight or so acolytes blocking his path.
“Stand clear, Tiphan, if you want to insult me!”
“You see our wise Arkuden,” Tiphan said loudly, addressing the rapt workmen in the foundry’s windows. “Outmatched in words, he has no other remedy but fighting.”
“You must give up the stones you collected!” Amero shouted.
“I will not.”
“Duranix will return soon and compel you to do so!”
All eyes turned to Tiphan. He pursed his lips and lowered his head, looking thoughtful. “I will always obey the will of our great protector,” he said solemnly, “but I have the right to make my case to him in person.”
Amero sneered. “That will be a song worth hearing!”
A new group of acolytes arrived. They hailed their leader and brought out a gift they’d made for him: an ankle-length mantle of the best white fox fur. They draped it over his shoulders and cheered. Satisfied he’d made his point, Tiphan led his large group of followers away.
Fuming, Amero turned his back on them. The sight of his workmen, standing idle as they witnessed Tiphan’s little spectacle, made him even angrier.
“Well?” he snapped. “Furnaces don’t mend themselves!”
Sheepishly, the men returned to work. He was about to join them when Lyopi and Beramun arrived.
“I heard you shouting as soon as I stepped out of my house,” Lyopi said. “I knew Tiphan couldn’t be far away.”
Amero took a deep breath, trying to rid himself of his ire. “He has a talent for baiting me.”
“And you have a talent for letting him.”
Lyopi’s comment sounded accusing to his ears, but before Amero could reply, Beramun spoke up.
“You should thrash him,” she said. “Disrespect to a headman shouldn’t be tolerated.”
Lyopi raised an eyebrow. “You don’t know our Arkuden. He talks his foes into submission far more often than he beats them.”
Again Amero felt stung by her tone. Why couldn’t she be more supportive, like Beramun?
Turning to the girl, he said, “Are you lodged comfortably?” He had asked Lyopi to keep Beramun out of the dragon’s sight.
“Yes, Arkuden. Lyopi has shared her home with me.”
“I always do my best for the lost and strayed,” Lyopi said wryly.
Amero ignored her bait. “Duranix has gone out to investigate your story. He’ll search the western plain for signs of Zannian’s band. If they’re out there, Duranix will find them.”
“You’ll dine with us tonight, Amero?” asked Lyopi, taking Beramun by the arm and drawing her away. She noted with a frown how closely Amero’s eyes followed the girl.
His answer was slow in coming, but finally he shifted his gaze from Beramun to Lyopi. “Yes, I will,” he said at last.
“Then bring a brace of rabbits, or a deer haunch,” Lyopi snapped. “I’m not your mother, to wait on you hand and foot.”
The women departed, leaving a surprised Amero wondering what had put steady Lyopi in such a bad temper.
Sunset arrived red as blood. Scouts came in tired from their daylong rides, their throats dry as the dust that coated them from head to toe. Stolen wine flowed freely. Zannian let the thirsty scouts drink their fill, and the camp grew loud with intoxicated boasts of warrior prowess.
Some had returned with loot and new captives — a few head of oxen or goats, or families swiftly rounded up as they tried to sneak across the plain. All captured humans were herded past an old oak stump by the river. Sitting on this stump was Hoten, son of Nito. He was in charge of tallying the new acquisitions, scratching marks on strips of bark to record the chattel — beast or human — taken by the raiders. Behind him sat Nacris, keenly watching from her litter.
After the latest pair of oxen were driven away, Nacris announced, “That makes six score and seven oxen taken. Not bad.”
“Five-score and nine of those came from the single herd we took six days ago,” Hoten replied. “Since then, only eighteen oxen have been brought in. Word has spread. The wanderers are keeping out of our reach.”
“What of it?” she said, shrugging. “We’ve enough meat now to last all winter, and when we take Arku-peli, we’ll have even more.”
“A wise hunter doesn’t pluck a bird he hasn’t caught yet.”
She scowled, shifting in her litter. “You’re a gloomy bird yourself, Hoten. Don’t you believe in the might of our master and the skill of my son?”
Hoten put down the quartz shard he used to mark the bark strip and rubbed a hand over his sweaty pate. “There’s no doubt of either,” he said evenly. “Our master is powerful, and Zannian is a great warrior.”
Rowdy laughter in the center of the camp abruptly died. Hoten stood to see what had quelled the men’s high spirits.
“What is it?” Nacris pushed herself up with her hands.
He frowned. “Looks like some of our men have come back bested.” He hurried away, leaving Nacris cursing and calling for her absent bearers.
Hoten pushed his way through the drunken raiders. Two horses had ambled into camp with riders tied facedown across their backs. Both men had been stripped of clothing and weapons. One was dead with a cracked skull, but the other was only groggy from his long ride upside down.
Hoten sent a runner to find Zannian and ordered the live man released. The rawhide bindings were swiftly sliced. He fell heavily to the ground. Some of his comrades laughed.
“Shut up,” Hoten snapped. “Oswan, what happened to Siwah? Where’s Takanu?”
The man couldn’t say. The dead one, Siwah, was brought over to Hoten for inspection. He had a strange sort of hat on his head. In the fading light it glinted like metal.
Hoten jerked the object off Siwah’s head. It was metal, a thin, curled sheet.
Cursing loudly, Nacris and her bearers bullied their way through the throng. When she spotted the object in Hoten’s hand, she uttered an oath of surprise.
“Give that to me!” she demanded.
Hoten handed the strange metallic token to her just as Zannian arrived.
“What’s going on?” the chief asked.
“Someone beat three of our scouts,” Hoten said. “That thing came back on Siwah.”
Nacris had been turning the burnished metal object in her hands, trying its hardness with her thumbnail, even sniffing it.
She snapped, “Where did this come from, Oswan?”
He shrugged. “It was just there — on Siwah — when I woke up.”
“Summon the Master.”
“What is it?” Zannian asked his mother, reaching for the object.
She yanked it out of his reach and cried, “Summon the Master! Now!”
The raiders knew Nacris did not invoke the green dragon lightly. They whispered among themselves uneasily, as Zannian ordered Hoten to fetch Greengall.
“Takanu’s dead,” Nacris declared, putting the metal leaf on her lap. “These two were sent back as a warning.”
“How do you know?”
“This, boy!” She waved the metal at Zannian. “Wait till the Master sees this!”
Soon, Hoten returned with Greengall. The crowd of warriors melted away, making a path for the towering creature. A few bowed their heads. Most just sought to avoid the gangling monster’s eye.
“Why do you summon me?” Greengall said irritably.
“Look at this, Master!” Nacris held up the metal leaf in both hands.
Greengall’s vertical pupils contracted to black slits, making his eyes appear even larger than usual. He took the leaf from her.
“What is this?”
“A scale, Master.”
“I know it’s a scale!” he bellowed, swatting her across the face with it.
The sharp edge cut deeply into Nacris’s cheek. She bore her hurt in silence as the hardened warriors drew back in a body, fearful of Greengall’s rage. Nacris dabbed at the blood running down her face and looked up to her harsh master again. She laughed. The low, cheerless sound drew all eyes.
To Zannian’s surprise, Greengall, who hated the sound of human merriment, chose to ignore the transgression instead of punishing it. Clearly the mysterious fragment was important.
“Who brought this here?” Greengall asked, looking around. No one spoke.
Zannian alone had not retreated. Handing his bleeding mother a scrap of doeskin to press to her wound, he said calmly, “Oswan, step forward and tell the Master your tale.”
Trembling as much from new terror as from his recent ordeal, Oswan fell to his knees before Greengall. In halting words he told how he and his comrades had spotted the runaway calf and given chase, how a strange, powerful man had appeared and unhorsed them. That was all he remembered.
“A man, you say?”
Swallowing audibly, Oswan replied, “Yes, Master.”
“Does this look like the skin of a man?” He flung the scale to the ground. It rang musically against a rock. “He is near! My old friend, the plaything of my youth, has come to seek me out!”
Zannian was puzzled. “Who, Master?”
Nacris said exultantly, “The bronze dragon, Duranix!”
She resumed her perverse cackling. The raiders muttered and shifted uncomfortably. Greengall, catching Nacris’s mood, started giggling, his green mane lifting as his chortles rose in volume.
“It was only a matter of time before dear little Duranix paid us a visit,” he said. To the raiders, he shouted, “Why do you fear? I slew this lizard’s mother eight hundred years ago, and Amylyrix was thrice the dragon Duranix will ever be! It was inevitable he would take the field against us. I will deal with him. You have only to slaughter his foolish herd of humans, and your task will be done.”
“Having an enemy dragon on the plain will make our task harder,” said Zannian.
Greengall thrust his hideous face close to the young chiefs. “Is that a complaint, rodent?”
With remarkable aplomb, Zannian stood up under the monster’s baleful gaze and replied, “No, Master. An observation.”
“Good.” Greengall grinned, showing tight rows of sharp, conical teeth.
He picked up the scale and tucked it under his unnaturally long, green arm. “Continue as before,” he ordered. “Sweep the savanna clean of all nomads and game animals. That will prevent the villagers from getting news or fresh meat from outside their valley. Once that’s done, we’ll make our advance on Arku-peli.”
The raiders cheered, but it sounded forced. Greengall departed, his grotesquely long legs bowing out as he walked away.
Several paces distant, he stopped. Turning back, he added, “Oh, yes. Hang that one.”
Oswan blanched and held out his hands. “Spare me, Master!” Oswan wailed. “I did no wrong!”
“You let the enemy get the better of you,” Greengall replied. His face contorted in a wide, wicked grin. “Hang a while, and consider your failure.”
Hoten signaled, and Oswan was seized by comrades and dragged off, screaming his loyalty and innocence. Greengall, ordinarily very fond of hangings, ambled back to his tent, idly licking the bronze scale. Zannian hesitated a moment between his bleeding mother and his freakish master, then followed Greengall.
“Master!” he called, as the latter was about to enter his tent.
Greengall turned, taking the scale from his lips.
“Why not spare Oswan? If the men were ambushed by a dragon, they had no chance to win anyway.”
Zannian blinked. “Why kill him? We’ll need every man for the battle ahead.”
Greengall lifted the flap of this tent. “Hanging him will encourage the others.”
Greengall ducked inside and reclined on his couch of rotting leaves. Zannian hovered near the flap, wishing his master would light a lamp. He heard a scrabbling in the peat and leaves, followed by a muffled crunching. Greengall must have found a rat or roach.
The dragon swallowed and said, “Don’t hover there like some cautious bat. Come in!”
Zannian stepped forward and let the flap fall.
“It’s time your scouts were given their special spears. Make sure the potion is applied to the bronze tips.”
“Take no more prisoners until Duranix is found. Any man your riders meet might be the dragon in disguise, so kill any humans you find until I tell you to stop.” Greengall belched loudly. A horrible stench filled the tent. “One other thing, Zannian.”
Greengall stretched and scratched himself, his talons scraping loudly against his leathery skin. “The human female you once desired is not far away.”
Heat flared in the young warrior’s breast. “Beramun? Where is she?”
Zannian’s heart raced. Greengall might be lying — he certainly had a black sense of humor — but what if he wasn’t?
“She couldn’t have escaped if I hadn’t allowed it,” Greengall continued smugly. “She is where I wished her to go. Through her, Arku-peli will fall. She’s my egg in little Duranix’s nest.”
“When the valley is ours, I will have her?” Zannian asked, with undisguised yearning.
“That is up to you, little Zan. If the fight does not consume you both, she may yet be yours. When the village is in ruins and the Lake of the Falls is saturated with the blood of Duranix and his nest of rodents, you may claim whatever you want from the remains.”
Greengall dismissed Zannian, and the young man withdrew, his head spinning. He was filled with new zeal, new purpose. If it meant finding Beramun again, he would tear down the mountains with his bare hands. He’d been stricken from the time he first saw her, and her escape had made his desire for her grow unbearably. Now that he knew she was in Arku-peli, he couldn’t wait to lead his men into battle.
Thoughts of fighting and the black-haired girl put a swagger in Zannian’s step. He walked back to the firelit camp humming happily, not even noticing the body of Oswan swinging from a tree.
The sounds of the night abruptly ceased. Frogs, crickets, owls, and other denizens of the dark fell silent. The sudden silence stirred Duranix from his nap. He opened one eye.
He spotted a line of horsemen riding in single file along the southern horizon. From the gear they wore, he deduced they must be from the same band as the other three he’d fought. Evidently his message to Sthenn had been ignored.
Duranix crawled from his resting place. Rocks tumbled away as he straightened his stiff legs. Noise carried far on the savanna, and the column of riders halted, hearing the clatter.
The dragon sprang into the open, expanding to his true shape as he hurtled into the air. Landing at full stretch, he spread his wings, threw back his head, and sent a bolt of white-hot lightning blasting from his throat.
The raiders reacted strangely to the terrifying display. Instead of galloping away, they broke formation and charged. Nonplussed, the dragon watched as the small party surrounded him, spears leveled.
Duranix swiped at the nearest rider. Rearing up on his hind legs, he exhaled his fear-inducing breath at the rest of the men. To his immense surprise, the men and horses did not bolt. Both men and beasts wore masks over noses and mouths, and the leather masks were smeared with some kind of oily paste. Duranix knew Sthenn dabbled with herbs and potions. Apparently he had prepared his forces for this type of attack.
A sharp pain flared in Duranix’s right leg. He’d been so astonished by the failure of his fear-breath that he’d failed to notice the last rider in line. The fellow had worked in behind and pricked the dragon’s right rear leg with a bronze-tipped spear. With a roar, Duranix whirled on his attacker.
The dragon’s claw shot out and plucked the raider from his horse. The man was a brave fellow and didn’t scream, even when the dragon bit his head off.
Duranix hurled the body at the raiders, then spat the man’s head at them for good measure. Still they did not flee, but merely circled out of reach.
The dragon tried to pull the spear from his hip, but the flimsy shaft snapped, leaving the bronze head embedded. Bellowing, he lunged at the nearest rider. The human’s pony pranced sideways, narrowly avoiding Duranix’s talons. The raider had the temerity to jab at the dragon with his spear.
Once more Duranix was taken aback. These insane humans were trying to fight him! Humans always fled when he attacked. These raiders, mounted on fleet horses, could have galloped away at any time, but instead they maneuvered around him, making menacing thrusts with their puny spears.
Puny but painful! Duranix’s hip wound burned. The pain was so abnormal he had a terrible moment of insight. He leaped backward several paces and groped in the wound to find the spearhead. He shuddered in agony, but persisted and found the jagged triangle of bronze. With the tips of two talons, he teased it out and gave the point a quick sniff.
Poison. The smell was pungent and fetid — Sthenn’s personal blend.
Six of the raiders marshaled themselves and charged. Duranix feigned a greater hurt than he felt and awaited their attack, head hung low. At the last moment, he launched himself over the charging horsemen, vaulting above their heads and alighting behind them.
Their comrades shouted warnings too late. With two wide sweeps of his claws, Duranix cut the men to pieces. Foreclaws dripping gore, his eyes flashing with fury, he faced the remaining three raiders.
“Flee!” cried one. “We’re outdone!”
“Stand fast!” bellowed another. “Remember Oswan! If I’m to die, let it be fighting a great beast, not kicking at the end of a rope!”
So saying, he gave a full-throated battle cry and charged. A heartbeat later, the other two kicked their mounts into action as well.
With pain singing through his leg, Duranix had no patience left. His mouth gaped, and a lightning bolt issued forth. Three riders, their horses, and a goodly patch of savanna were reduced to cinders in the twitch of an eye.
As the smoke rose into the starry sky, Duranix sank to the ground, panting. Numbness gripped the muscles around his wound, and when he tried to stand, the useless limb would not support his weight. Hobbling to the dead raiders he hadn’t incinerated, he stripped off their chaps and tore the leather into strips. With these he made a tourniquet to restrict the spread of the poison from his leg.
It scarcely helped. The weakness was spreading rapidly up his haunch, toward his wing. When he tried to fly, he was so badly off balance he tumbled headfirst to the ground.
After four such spills, he gave up, exhausted. The numbness now encompassed his right leg and wing, and was creeping across his lower back.
The dragon raged at his own stupid complacency. He’d known these humans were allied with Sthenn, and yet he’d let them get close enough to stick him with their primitive weapons. He pondered gnawing off his poisoned leg, to keep the toxin from reaching his heart. The limb would grow back eventually, but until it did he would be a helpless cripple, easy prey for Sthenn or his bold human minions.
Duranix limped eastward, moving awkwardly on three legs. Keeping to creeks and gullies, he avoided showing himself, in case other raiders were tracking him.
As the white moon set and the deep stillness of late night settled over the plain, he was reduced to crawling. His right rear leg and right wing were completely useless, and his left leg had begun to tremble under his weight, Duranix had to pull himself forward with his foreclaws, occasionally assisted by thrusts of his weakening left leg. He kept this up for some time, putting more and more distance between himself and the raiders.
The rustle of wings overhead was followed by a ground tremor, as something heavy alighted nearby. By this time, Duranix was so dazed with pain and fatigue he hardly noticed.
“Dear, dear,” said a simpering voice. “What a sight!”
Duranix pushed himself up with his forelegs and lifted his heavy head. “Sthenn!” he rasped. “Where are you, you wretched lizard?”
“Behind you, dear friend, as always.”
Duranix looked back. Sthenn’s silhouette blotted out the stars. With great effort, the bronze dragon hauled himself around to face his adversary.
Sthenn watched his struggle with amusement. “It’s been a long time, little Duranix.”
“Not long enough. Come to finish me off?”
Sthenn blinked his dark-veined eyes. “Finish you? Certainly not. That would be too easy. You’ve a long way to go yet. All the way back to Arku-peli.”
Duranix stretched his jaws wide and loosed a bolt of lightning large enough to split a mountaintop. Sthenn leaped into the air, his desiccated wings flapping just enough to keep him aloft, and the bolt flashed harmlessly beneath him. Duranix quickly corrected his aim and another blast blazed forth. Sthenn rolled to one side, dodging easily.
“A merry game!” he declared. “I wonder which of us will tire of it first?”
The second bolt left Duranix prostrate. Sthenn landed nearby and approached with wings folded. Drawing himself up to his full height, he looked down on his helpless foe with enormous delight.
“Be still, little one,” the green said soothingly as Duranix tried to rise. “I won’t harm you further… yet.”
“What do you want?”
“Can’t you guess? Your land, your humans, your lair, your life. I’ve spent centuries planning your destruction. There’s no hurry. My beautiful plot is still playing out.”
Duranix clenched his eyes shut, summoning all his strength, then he began to crawl away. Sthenn watched avidly, enjoying every agonized movement
“Shall I tell you my plan?” he asked. “I am quite ingenious, you know. The first step was to create the yevi. I thought I could rid the plains of wandering humans with them, but you interfered more directly than I expected.” Sthenn’s amused expression darkened. “When you recruited the two-legged rodents to serve you, I had to do the same. How do you stand the smell of them?”
“You get used to it,” grunted Duranix as he dragged himself forward.
“You never were as sensitive as I. Still, my humans have been useful to me. They’re more vicious than the yevi and a good deal more clever. The boy Zannian has a great talent for bloodshed. While waiting for your favorite pet to age, I groomed my own to be a conqueror.”
Duranix’s head snapped around in surprise, and Sthenn nodded, pleased by the effect of his pronouncement.
“Destroying your favorite human is part of my plan.”
The green dragon stepped with exaggerated daintiness around his struggling foe. He extended a single gnarled talon and tapped lightly on Duranix’s open wound. The bronze dragon flinched but made no sound.
“Painful? Bad as it is, it won’t kill you. I didn’t compound a lethal dose. You will become more and more helpless, but you won’t die.”
Helpless. Duranix refused to let his enemy see how that word terrified him. Instead he spat, “Coward! Kill me if you dare! If you don’t, I swear on the deaths of my mother and clutchmates, I will kill you! ”
Sthenn grinned widely. “Ah, your mother. Amylyrix was a worthy opponent.” He slowly shook his head in a mockery of sadness. “How tragic she was unable to protect her offspring in the end. Come to think of it, she didn’t protect herself very well either. And that makes me the better dragon, yes?”
So saying, the green dragon sank his claws into Duranix’s injured leg. The bronze roared loud enough to rattle the stars. Rearing up, he tried to grapple with his tormentor.
Sthenn easily caught Duranix’s foreclaws in his own. “You’re weak,” he taunted, shaking his head in mock sorrow. “There’s no pleasure in besting a weakling.”
Duranix saw an opening, drew back and smashed his horned skull into Sthenn’s face. The ancient bones in the green dragon’s face were thick and hard, but his aged flesh was not. Duranix’s horns punched through Sthenn’s brittle scales into the gray flesh beneath.
Sthenn shrieked in hurt and outrage. Duranix lunged again and clamped his jaws around the old dragon’s throat.
Sthenn let go of Duranix’s foreclaws and backpedaled furiously, all the while working to pry the bronze dragon’s jaws apart. Too sick to maintain his grip, Duranix felt his bite weaken. Sthenn slipped free.
The green dragon hurled himself backward a full twenty paces. “You dare to hurt me?” he said shrilly. “You’ll suffer tenfold for this!”
Duranix felt a surge of exhilaration. Despite his terrible weakness, he could still hurt his enemy. He rasped, “Come! Let’s fight the way our ancestors did, by tooth and claw! Leave the humans to settle their own disputes. I’m a third your age, and I have only three limbs to fight with! What do you say? Let’s have it over and done with now.”
Sthenn kept his distance. “Fool,” the green dragon sneered. “My poison will rot your innards before the flowers fall from the trees. Not till then will we meet again. It will be a pretty reunion, for I shall pick you apart like a cockroach!”
Sthenn launched himself into the sky, opened his wings, and flapped to gain height.
“Soon, little Duranix!” he called from above, his high-pitched voice echoing through the dawn. “Think of me as you suffer in the days to come!”
It was early afternoon, and Duranix had been gone four days — far too long for an ordinary look around. At first, Amero hadn’t worried. The dragon came and went as he pleased, but with enemies reputed in the area, his prolonged absence seemed more ominous.
From the hillside below the cliffs, Amero could see across the rooftops of Yala-tene to the still incomplete town wall. The final gap had been closed, but the stonework was still only head high. He’d have to scrape up what idle hands he could to resume work there.
Someone came up behind him, and he felt a cool hand on his shoulder. Expecting Lyopi, he was startled to find it was Beramun. He stared at her. He’d suspected she would be pretty once the filth of her arduous journey was cleaned away. What he hadn’t realized was that she would be beautiful.
Well-scrubbed and dressed in Lyopi’s clothes, Beramun had put on a little weight since her arrival, and her skin had acquired a healthier hue. Unbraided, her hair fell in a dense black wave just past her waist, with shorter tendrils curling around her oval face. Her eyes were large, dark as ebony, and fringed with thick black lashes. She was the loveliest woman Amero had ever seen.
“Arkuden, do I disturb you?”
The true answer brought a rueful smile to his face, but he said, “No, not at all. How are you? Do you have all you need?”
“Yes, thanks to you.” She did not look satisfied, however, but worried. “Where are the raiders?” She stepped beside him. A tall girl, she stood nearly eye to eye with him. “They could have been here by now if they wanted. What are they doing? I hate standing idle, waiting for lightning to strike!”
He smiled. “I know how you feel. Duranix has been gone a long time, and no wanderers have entered the valley from the western approaches for seven days. It’s like the savanna swallowed dragon and nomads alike.”
“Can’t we do something?”
“I don’t know! Something! The raiders are coming, and I feel as though I’m doing nothing!” She bit her lip and added in a low voice, “Your woman doesn’t like me.”
“Lyopi. She’s your mate, isn’t she?”
“No!” More calmly, he explained, “We’re not mates. We’re… friends. She lost her man on a winter hunt a few seasons past. She and I keep company. If we became mates, she would have to leave her home — ”
“And you live with a dragon.” Beramun laughed. It was a light, cheerful sound that warmed Amero.
“What about you?” he asked. “Have you a family? A mate?”
“What family I had perished at the hands of Zannian’s raiders.” Her beautiful face darkened. “One day I’ll see him dead for it.”
“Revenge is a bitter fruit, Beramun. When your enemies die, it doesn’t make the pain go away.”
Beramun didn’t answer. The sun slid behind a band of clouds. She shivered with the sudden chill and gazed up at the sky. Amero thought he saw a tear trembling in the comer of one eye.
“Since you have no family,” he said, “you should live with us in Yala-tene.”
“I’m a girl of the plains, Arkuden. Your village seems strange to me — so enclosed, so crowded and busy.” She gestured at the mountains. “Even out there, the cliffs feel like they’re closing in on me.”
“You get used to it. We all came from the plains, Beramun. Please stay. I offer you my protection, and — ” He stopped, temporarily unable to speak. As her lovely face turned toward him, dark brows lifted questioningly, the rest of the words came out of their own volition. “And you could become my mate.”
Obviously unprepared for such a declaration, she managed a smile. “You’re kind, but I don’t know you, and I wouldn’t take a man for safety’s sake alone.”
Ashamed of his boyish blundering, he assumed his most serious chieftain’s demeanor. “Forgive me. I must go. Tonight I’m leading a search for Duranix, and I must prepare.” He walked quickly down the hillside as soon as he finished speaking.
Beramun watched his rapid departure in bemusement, then turned her eyes from the village to the valley beyond. A moment later, Lyopi hailed her.
“The Arkuden just left,” Beramun said as the older woman came up behind her. “He said he was going out tonight to look for the dragon.” Lyopi nodded, and Beramun added, “I want to tell you, because you’ve been good to me. The Arkuden just asked me to be his mate.”
Lyopi blinked in surprise at the girl’s blunt words. Guardedly, she asked, “What did you say?”
Beramun shrugged. “I’m not ready to be anyone’s mate. The Arkuden’s a nice man, but he’s too old and too strange for me.”
To Lyopi the words sounded flippant and disrespectful, and her temper flared. “Go back to the house, Beramun,” she snapped.
“There’s chores to be done, girl. If you think I’m going to house you and feed you for nothing, you can think again. Even Unar has to share the work, and he’s my kinsman.”
“You’re not my mother!” the younger woman protested hotly.
“Then go. elsewhere, but don’t insult a good man with your foolish talk!”
Beramun stepped back, stung by her words, then her outraged expression changed. “So that’s how the wind blows,” she said, nodding sagely. “I’ll go. Thank you for your hospitality, Lyopi.”
“Thank the Arkuden. You were his guest, not mine.”
They parted, both feeling ill-used. As she stalked away, Beramun decided she’d had enough of Yala-tene. What she wanted most was to roam the wide plains and sleep beneath the open sky. She’d warned these people of Zannian’s raiders. Now she was done with them.
A crimson sunset brought stillness to the Valley of the Falls. It also brought a well-deserved rest to those working in the gardens and orchards. Tired villagers swung their tools onto their shoulders, put the dying light of day at their backs, and headed home.
Atop the wall, Amero watched them stream in. Their voices were happy and their pace casual as they talked of the day’s work and the evening meal to come. Threats from unknown human raiders didn’t seem real on a mild, rose-tinted evening like this.
Villagers waved and called greetings to the Arkuden. After welcoming everyone, Amero picked up his spear, water gourd, and provisions bag, and descended to ground level. Four young men waited for him there. The one Amero knew best was Udi, Tepa’s son.
“We did as you bid, Arkuden,” Udi said. “We have food and water for four days, and every man has spear and knife.”
“Good. Remember this is not a war party. If we meet any raiders, we’ll hide rather than fight. Understood?”
The other young men nodded their agreement.
They set out, girded by the long shadows of dusk. There was no need for stealth in the valley, so one boy produced a reed pipe and blew a tuneful air as they crossed Amero’s bridge and ascended the broad gravel path into the western pass.
Night was well in place by the time they reached the mouth of the pass. Here a fork of the Plains River meandered away to the northwest, and the rugged peaks smoothed into a series of low, steep hills, fringed with small stands of trees.
Amero sent the best tracker in the group, Paharo, Huru’s son, ahead to look for traces of Duranix. When the dragon flew, he left no tracks on the ground, so Paharo searched for any accidental signs — broken treetops, swirls of dust laid down by the sweep of Duranix’s wings — but found none. He returned and told Amero the trail would not be easy to follow, especially by moonlight.
“We’ll go a while longer,” Amero said, “then camp when Soli is highest. Agreed?”
The young men readily assented, and the search party headed southwest.
The night was filled with the usual sounds: the click and whir of insects, the soft flutter of bats, an occasional owl hoot or far-off panther wail. Periodically, Amero sent out a silent mental call to the dragon. He received no answer.
The full moon climbed among the stars and cast a bright light on the countryside. When Soli peaked in the vault of heaven, Amero called for rest. Paharo chose a convenient hilltop for their campsite. Amero had forbidden a fire, so they ate cold rations. The Arkuden and Udi took the first watch, and the other three bedded down.
Amero left the crown of the hill and settled against a locust tree. Sipping water from a gourd bottle, he sat and studied the stars.
The two great constellations — Matat, the dragon, and Pala, the winged serpent — faced each other on the eternal plain of the sky. The stars reminded him of when his mother used to explain their patterns to him and his sister Nianki and their little brother Menni. She had called Matat a “stormbird,” not realizing her true name. Matat was a dragon, like Duranix.
His thoughts thudded back to earth. Duranix. Where had he gone? What if he was gone forever? Amero tried to imagine life without his mighty friend. It was like contemplating the loss of a hand or an eye. He depended on the dragon so much.
Duranix had been the only constant in his world since the day his parents were killed by the yevi. If the dragon hadn’t rescued him and brought him to the Lake of the Falls, it was unlikely he would have survived.
Amero closed his eyes once more and sent out a silent call. Duranix, where are you? Come back, old friend. I need you!
There was no reply, and with a sigh, his thoughts turned to the other face haunting him: Beramun. He felt like a fool for having spoken to her so bluntly. His lack of tact was the result of his years as unchallenged leader of Yala-tene. Twenty years ago he wouldn’t have dared say such an audacious thing. Amero’s patience, like his youth, had fallen away with the years.
Beramun’s life was far removed from his chosen path. For her, wandering was still the only way. She was young, too, with a young person’s sense of invulnerability. It was impossible to contemplate death or old age when your limbs were strong and your body full of vitality.
Perhaps that’s why he was so drawn to her — for her beauty, yes, but also for her vigor, that joyful freedom of the open plain, where each day began fresh and new. His days were regular and much the same. He had many burdensome responsibilities and saw the same people day after day, season after season.
One of those people was Lyopi, the living opposite of Beramun. Amero found it easy to see the differences between them but difficult to explain why both attracted him. Lyopi was strong, warm, comforting, and sensual. She made him feel calm. Beramun excited him.
He furrowed his brow. How he wished Duranix were here. Even sarcastic advice was better than no advice at all.
The whisper of footsteps in the grass caused Amero to sit up. Udi appeared, ducking under the newly leafed trees.
“Arkuden,” he said tensely, “I heard something.”
“I don’t know what it was, but it came from a patch of thorn bush on the back of the hill.”
“Wake the others then join me there — quietly!”
Amero crept to the far side of the knoll. A dense thicket of briars filled the dark ravine between this hill and the next. He crouched low and listened.
Sure enough, he heard light, regular breathing. He was so focused on trying to pinpoint the source of the sound that Udi’s sudden appearance at his side caused him to flinch.
“Do you hear it?” Udi’s voice was almost soundless.
Amero shrugged. It could be a bear. They were fond of the berries found inside such thickets.
At Amero’s gesture, they moved apart and headed silently down the hill. When they reached the edge of the thorny growth, a new sound froze them in their tracks. A cough, followed by the light clearing of a throat. The two men exchanged looks. Not a bear. A human. Perhaps a raider scout?
Amero raised his spear high and signaled for Udi to do the same. They would flush out whoever was inside. The Arkuden nodded, and both weapons thudded into the dense tangle of thorns and leaves. Nothing happened.
Amero indicated they should try again. This time something definitely shifted within the brush, away from Udi and toward Amero. With both hands the Arkuden jammed his spear into the tangle. He was rewarded by a low cry of distress.
“Stop!” said a voice muffled by the dense brush. “Don’t strike again!”
“Come out at once. This thicket is surrounded!”
The pile of greenery heaved, and a person came crawling out, belly to the ground. When the stranger stood up, moonlight caught her face. Amero yelped with surprise.
“What are you doing out here?”
“I go where I choose,” she replied tartly. The rest of Amero’s party arrived in time to hear this exchange. The boys snickered, and she added, “I left the village this afternoon.”
“Your woman, Lyopi, expected me to work for her. I refused, and she put me out.” Beramun’s dark eyes narrowed. “You made it hard for me to stay with her when you asked me to be your mate.”
The boys were openly amused to hear their old Arkuden had tried to woo this beautiful young wanderer. Amero ignored their grinning faces, though he felt his own burning with embarrassment.
“Why did you come this way?” he asked, annoyed. “Isn’t this the land threatened by Sthenn and the raiders?”
“It’s the land I know. Where else could I go?”
Amero was too tired to continue this pointless exchange. “Back to camp, hoys,” he said. To Beramun he added, “You’re welcome to join us, if you wish.”
She shrugged. “If you’ve got some of those dried apple slices with you, I’ll stay for breakfast.”
“I have a bag full,” said Udi, shaking it.
They climbed the hill to their little camp. Paharo regarded Beramun curiously. “How did you get in and out of those thorns without being scratched?” he asked.
Beramun glanced at her bare arms. “It’s a trick my mother taught me,” she said. “Thorn bushes have a nap, like fur. You have to find the nap of the thorns, and go in and out with it. Briar thickets make good places to hide and sleep. Nothing bigger than a rabbit can get in.”
“You’re bigger than a rabbit,” said Amero.
“I guess I am.” She laughed, and Amero’s anger melted away. He found himself noticing how the moonlight glinted off her ebony hair, how it limned her face with silver.
Paharo and another boy took over watch duties so Amero and Udi could sleep. Beramun chose a spot away from the men and stretched out on the ground. Though she had neither blanket nor cloak, she quickly fell asleep.
Amero was collecting his gear when Beramun woke, the morning sun raking her face.
“Arkuden? What — ?” she began, squinting up at him. “Good morning. Get ready, we’re moving out.”
She shook the sleep from her brain and stood, brushing twigs and grass from her clothes. Udi and Paharo passed around dried fruit and elk jerky. Beramun recovered her meager kit and fell into line with the rest.
“Are you coming with us then?” asked Paharo, chewing a brown wedge of apple.
“Until you find the dragon,” she said. “If the Arkuden doesn’t mind.”
“You’re welcome,” he told her. “But you must be one of the parly. Don’t go stalking off on your own without telling us.”
It was a warm, sunny morning, but there were signs change was coming. Fat white clouds crowded the sun, and by midmorning, low, gray clouds had come pushing down from the north. The men donned their grass capes and hoods. Beramun had no such storm gear among Lyopi’s hand-me-downs. Paharo offered her his cape, hut she declined it, saying she’d been rained on before.
The land flattened gradually, the hills shrinking. Trees became fewer. An ocean of waving grass displaced the patches of knotweed and flintgrass that dotted the foothills like sparse locks of unruly hair.
As they beheld the open savanna, Amero suffered pangs of memory. He’d not been to the great plain in many years, and his childhood came back to him in a painful rush. His first dozen years had been spent out here, wandering behind Oto, Kinar, and his fierce elder sister, Nianki. Too young to hunt, he’d often cared for baby brother Menni while Kinar prowled for roots and grubs. The fingers of his left hand curled with the memory of that tiny hand in his.
The ghosts of years past vanished. “Eh?”
“Paharo has found a trail, Arkuden.”
“Found it? Where?”
Udi pointed at the sea of grass, waving in the cool southern wind. “It looks like the Protector alighted here. He continued on foot that way,” he said, gesturing to the south. “The trail disappears a short way on. High grass can conceal even a dragon’s footprints.”
Amero nodded. “We’ll have to spread out. Divide into pairs. No one is to lose sight of the others at any time, understand?”
The four young men promptly paired off, leaving Amero with Beramun. Grinning at their Arkuden and the young woman, the boys waded off into the waist-high grass, sweeping the ground ahead of them with their spears.
“I’m sorry,” Amero said to Beramun.
“The boys think they’re being funny.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said. She set out, parting the grass with her hands like a swimmer.
“Wait,” Amero called. “Don’t get too far ahead.”
“Why not? It’s my country, after all.”
“It was mine, too,” he muttered, plunging into the grass.
They made slow progress through the thick spring growth, and the only things they found in the grass were snakes and hopping rats. When the sun neared its zenith, Paharo sang out from his place on Amero’s left.
“Arkuden! A track!”
Everyone converged on the spot where Paharo crouched in the grass. A large, bare human footprint was plainly visible once he’d pushed back the tall weeds.
“He’s taken human shape,” said Udi.
“Walking like a man, we can track him,” Paharo added.
Amero looked in the direction the print pointed. “Still going due south. I wonder why?”
“The river lies that way,” Beramun offered. “The raiders must cross it somewhere.”
They re-formed and moved out, Paharo leading, along the dragon’s trail. They moved deliberately, careful to find the next footprint before proceeding.
Cool wind rushed over the savanna, heralding a storm. The clouds darkened, lowering until it seemed they would touch the grass itself. Amero halted the party for rest and food. Not long after they stopped, a spear of lightning flashed to the ground some leagues away.
“We’re going to get wet,” sighed Udi.
They finished eating quickly and got moving again. Beramun took the lead this time, slipping through the tall weeds like a deer, scarcely disturbing the stalks as she passed. Compared to her, the village boys moved like clumsy oxen, tramping loudly and leaving a plain trail behind.
Just as the first fat drops of rain splattered on Amero’s head, Beramun came scrambling back on all fours. “Down! Down!” she hissed. “Get down!”
They dropped on their bellies. Udi was nearest Amero, so he grabbed Udi’s wrist and whispered, “Ask her what’s amiss.”
Udi relayed the message. Back came a one-word answer: “Riders.”
The clouds cracked open. Lying on the ground, Amero could see raindrops running down the grass stems, making little craters in the dirt when they landed. Over the pelting rain he heard a whistle, followed by a shout. He couldn’t make out what was said, but the speaker was male and only a few paces away.
With hand signals, Amero indicated that his companions should spread out so a single rider couldn’t stumble over all of them at once. The boys crawled off into the grass. Beramun stayed where she was. The clop-clop of horses’ hooves was plain now. Amero gripped his spear tightly.
“Ho, Tezar!” the rider called. “Any signs?”
Any reply from the distant Tezar was lost in the drumming rain. Amero was horrified to see Beramun suddenly get up on one knee. He gestured frantically at her to get down.
A horse came through the tall grass on Amero’s right. Drawing in his hands and feet, Amero made himself as small and still as possible.
There was another, brighter flash of lightning, followed at once by a booming roll of thunder. While it was still echoing, Beramun ran up to the first rider, cupped her hands under his right heel, and heaved. He hit the ground and, dazed, pushed himself up on his hands and knees.
Amero rushed forward and struck the raider on the head with the shaft of his spear. The man dropped facedown in the grass. Glaring fiercely at Beramun, Amero waved for her to get out of sight.
She answered his glare with a shrug, then vanished into the grass. Amero crept away, too. Moments later, a pair of horsemen reached the scene and found their comrade out cold, his horse cropping grass a short distance away.
Amero held his breath, but the newcomers burst into raucous laughter. “Drunk again, Wenaman?” said one.
“Better get him up before Hoten sees him,” growled the other raider.
The men heaved their limp friend onto his horse. Lightning flared, showing that their leather chestplates and hoods were embellished with garish paint, bones, horns, and animal teeth.
They rode on, and Amero lifted his head slightly to follow their progress. They headed northeast in the direction of Yala-tene.
Blinking hard against the rain, Amero turned to look for the rest of the raider patrol. He expected to see perhaps a score or so of riders. What he did see froze the blood in his veins.
Hundreds and hundreds of men on horseback, heads bowed against the rain, filled the plain in a ragged line half a league long. On their heels came a sizable herd of oxen, and behind the cattle was a bedraggled, slow-moving mob of people on foot. On each side of these obvious captives were more mounted men. Some prisoners were laden with towering packs or harnessed to long travois heaped with bundled goods.
In all, Amero estimated there were more than a thousand people crossing the plain. This was no scouting party, but the host Beramun had warned them about. She had greatly underestimated their numbers.
A dark suspicion rose in Amero’s mind. Was her mistake genuine or part of some complex stratagem to catch Yala-tene off guard? Was Duranix right about her?
Amero made himself small in the grass and tried to think what to do next. He had to get his people out of the raiders’ way, then they had to find Duranix and get themselves back to Yala-tene. All without being caught.
The sky lowered further, and though it was early afternoon, the day grew as dark as evening. Rain pounded down like a waterfall. Muddy water cut shallow gullies in the sod. Amero had to crawl on his belly through this muck to get away from the wide-ranging outriders. He thanked his ancestors’ spirits for sending the rain to shield him and his companions.
He barely managed to get out of the way before the main body of raiders rode by. He was close enough to hear voices calling out commands, complaints, and harsh jibes. He smelled the ox herd. An odd thumping noise he didn’t recognize at first turned out to be the sound of blows delivered to the backs of the raiders’ prisoners. Riders guarding the captives dealt these blows repeatedly, almost rhythmically, to keep the tired, reluctant mob moving.
Many paces away, behind and to Amero’s right, Beramun was hiding in the grass. She had upended the first rider because she thought they could steal his weapons, but he’d been seen by his comrades.
Peering through the grass and pouring rain, she watched the sodden herd of prisoners stumbling by. She recognized the faces of many of her fellow slaves from Almurk. She thought of Roki and the screams of her murdered family, the memories bringing anger and filling her with determination. Armed only with a short flint knife, she crawled toward the marching mass of prisoners.
As she slithered through the mud, Beramun came upon Paharo lying quietly in the weeds. She halted alongside him.
“We must do something!” she hissed in his ear.
“Against so many?” he replied. “What can we do?”
“They mean to attack your village! Here’s a chance to strike a blow before they get there!”
Rain streamed down Paharo’s dark face. Her words obviously struck a chord. He drew a knife from his waist and nodded. “We can free the prisoners. Some may be strong enough to help us. The rest can distract the riders long enough for us to get away.”
Beramun gave a sharp nod of agreement. Shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, the two crawled toward the plodding mass of captives.
A mounted man passed them, eyes averted to keep out the driving rain. Paharo dashed forward in a low crouch. Beramun followed. Prisoners on the edge of the crowd saw them but wisely kept silent. Another burst of speed, and the pair reached the slaves. They slipped into the slogging crowd, masked from view by the mass of captives.
“Here, take this,” Beramun said, giving one of them her knife. “Cut your bonds.”
“Free as many as you can, then wait for our signal,” Paharo added. “When it comes, everybody run for it!”
The knife was passed quickly from hand to hand. The flint blade worked its way deeper into the crowd, but those already free milled around nervously. Most wanted to run immediately. Others ached to attack the nearest raiders. They made garrotes from their rawhide bonds and surreptitiously picked up stones from the ground.
“Any sign of the green dragon?” Beramun asked, glancing around.
Stark fear showed on every face, and a pale woman said, “Greengall’s probably in the rear.”
Paharo was confused by the name, and the terrified prisoners explained. None of them had seen the dragon in either of his forms since yesterday.
Relieved by this news, Beramun pushed through the line of freed slaves and walked deliberately into the open. She kept going, even when a guard rode up and shouted a challenge.
“You! Get back in line!” the raider barked. “What do you think you’re doing?”
She whirled and batted his spear aside. Repeating her earlier trick, she cupped her hands under his heel and upended the astonished raider. He splashed to the soggy turf. Before he could get up or call for help, freed prisoners fell on him, pounding him into silence.
Paharo appeared. Beramun thrust the bridle of the fallen raider’s horse into his hands. “Go back to Yala-tene,” she told him. “Warn your people.”
“I don’t ride very well.”
He climbed on the animal’s back. “The Arkuden is here somewhere. I should find him!”
“I’ll find him. You tell everyone Zannian is coming! They’ll be more likely to believe you than me.” Beramun ended further discussion by slapping the horse’s rump. The animal bolted, and Paharo had to give all his attention to staying on its back.
The prisoners burst into action. Almost half were free, and they scattered to the four winds. Some put their heads down and ran for their lives, others remained to fight.
Raiders on guard duty tried to summon help, but their rams’ horns were soaked and produced only mild bleating noises. They had little time to use the horns anyway before going down in a hail of stones. A few raiders charged the seething horde, spearing several prisoners. They too were dragged from their horses and beaten unconscious or killed. Smarter raiders wasted no time with either rams’ horns or resistance. They galloped away at once to get help.
“Flee! All of you!” Beramun cried. “Go in every direction! Spread the word! Warn everyone about Zannian and his monstrous master!”
As the lightning flared and thunder crashed, two hundred slaves took to their heels. Beramun watched them go with immense satisfaction, rain streaming across her broadly smiling face.
She watched too long. The gray line of horsemen suddenly stopped receding and began to grow larger. Zannian was coming.
Beramun armed herself with a stray spear. The only cover in sight was a stand of birch trees, their white bark visible through the downpour, perhaps a quarter-league west. Spear in hand, she raced for the trees.
She’d gone fifty steps when someone popped out of the weeds in front of her. She lifted her spear to strike, then saw it was Amero.
Dodging nimbly around him, she yelled, “Run! Zannian’s coming!”
Together, they sprinted for the trees. The growing rumble they heard now wasn’t thunder. It was horses — many, many horses on the move.
“We’re going to die,” Beramun gasped.
Amero looked back quickly. “Yes, we are. Keep running.”
The raider band spread out in a wide line to sweep up as many runaway prisoners as possible. It seemed to Amero that fully half the raiders were chasing him and Beramun, which hardly seemed fair. Was there no one else for them to run down?
They reached the small copse of birch saplings and fell down behind them. Their pursuers saw them disappear into the stand of trees and galloped after them.
Beramun took her eyes off the oncoming raiders long enough to see the Arkuden butt his spear in the ground and brace it with both hands. She imitated his position.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Beramun glanced at the Arkuden, her face stiff with fear. “What?”
“I’m stupid,” Amero muttered. “I’m too old for this! I should be home working in the foundry, bouncing my children on my knee.”
“You have children?”
He sighed and shook his head, eyes fixed on the oncoming horsemen. They were only ten paces away now.
The raiders whooped and jostled each other. Many crowded in to reach Amero and Beramun, thinking they could ride through the slender birches. The springy young trees bowed, but did not break, tripping the horses. A dozen riders went tumbling in the mud.
The riders behind them saw the danger and pulled up. Amero lunged through the press, spearing a raider in the chest and pushing him off his horse.
Another rider impaled himself on Beramun’s weapon. The force of his fall tore the shaft from her hands. Disarmed, she ducked behind Amero.
Amero recovered his spear and thrust at another rider. This fellow parried with his own weapon and jabbed at Amero. The flint point raked down Amero’s chest, slicing his leather vest but sparing his skin. He stumbled back out of reach.
“Time to go!” he shouted to Beramun.
Without a second glance, she ran. Amero tried to catch up, but she was half his age and toughened by life on the savanna. As he fell behind, he glanced back and saw more raiders coming. The ones tangled in the birch stand were also getting back on their horses.
At first he barely heard it over his own ragged breathing, but it came again, this time very clearly.
Amero exulted, even as he sent his thoughts to his friend. Duranix, where are you? I need you!
I am near, but I’m hurt, Amero.
Tell me where you are!
The dragon’s instructions filled Amero’s head. While running, he searched for the landmarks Duranix was using to guide him. Ahead on his left, at the edge of a storm-washed ravine, he saw a solitary gray boulder protruding from the grass.
“Beramun!” he yelled. “This way!”
Despite the fifteen raiders at her heels, she swerved immediately toward the Arkuden.
You’re near, Duranix said in Amero’s head. I can smell you even in the rain. Look for the stump of an ash tree with red toadstools growing on it.
Amero swiped rain from his eyes and searched. He saw the stump on the crest of a small rise, ten paces distant.
Beramun overtook him. “Where are you going?” she panted.
He wasted no breath on a reply, just grabbed her arm and dragged her onward.
The raiders hurled short, flint-tipped spears at them — missiles the length of a man’s forearm. Though small, they arrived with great force, burying themselves in the mushy turf. All missed, but the sight of them gave extra strength to the fleeing couple’s tired legs.
When the ash stump was close enough to touch, Amero planted his feet and spun. Not expecting his sudden stop, Beramun blundered past, crashing into the old tree.
The ground between Amero and the raiders erupted. A massive horned head, gleaming dull bronze, rose from a hole artfully dug in the sod. Cursing, the pursuing raiders hauled back on their reins. It was too late.
Duranix’s jaws gaped, and a bolt of fire erupted from his throat. It wasn’t his usual blue-white lightning, but a glaring orange-yellow flare. It sufficed for the purpose. In two blinks of an eye, the raiders were consumed.
“Duranix!” Amero cried, running to greet his mentor. The great reptilian head turned toward him, and Amero halted in shock. Duranix’s eyes were dull and yellowed. He was holding himself up with both front legs, while his back legs sprawled uselessly in the hole beneath him.
“Don’t just stand there like a fool,” the dragon snapped. “Get in!”
Amero waved to Beramun. “Come on!”
She balked, and Duranix snarled, “Leave that creature outside. Better yet, kill her where she stands!”
“If I come in, she comes in, too!”
There was no fire in the ailing dragon’s eye. His mighty head hung low as he gasped, “Hurry then. I can’t hold this up much longer.”
Beramun still hesitated, so Amero yanked her arm roughly and snapped, “Do you prefer to be found by Zannian?”
She let him pull her into the pit.
Duranix’s head sank, allowing the sod on his back to fall into place, covering the opening.
As had been his habit for many years, Konza walked home carrying supper in a wicker basket. Unlike his son, he did not rely on the acolytes to collect his necessities. Old as he was, he preferred to go out among his fellow villagers and collect his own victuals.
Nearing home, he saw smoke rising into the leaden sky over the Offertory. Though Duranix had been gone six days, Tiphan insisted the offerings be made as usual. Konza deplored the waste. All that good meat burned to cinders, sustenance for no one.
At home he found the door flap down with three sturdy poles pegged in place, barring the entrance. The ground floor window flaps were pulled down tight as well. Puzzled, Konza set down the heavy basket.
“Tiphan!” he called. “Tiphan, why is the door barred?”
There was no response. It was late, and he was hungry. When his son did not answer a third time, Konza got down on his knees and pushed the flap inward. There was just room between the ground and the lowest guard pole for him to pass. Konza wormed his way inside and stood up triumphantly.
His victory vanished when the unnatural chill inside hit him. His breath formed mist in the air. Then he noticed the light.
The single-room house was divided by partitions made of wooden poles and rattan mats. The partitions formed a wall between the two beds. Behind the wall, on Tiphan’s side, a strange, greenish light shone, brighter than any lamp or torch.
Still no answer. Vexation gave way to concern.
Ever practical, Konza unpegged the poles on the door flap and brought in his basket, setting it on the table by the hearth. He picked up a thick, ironwood walking stick and walked slowly around the partition. The air grew even colder. Goose bumps rose on his arms.
There was Tiphan, seated cross-legged on a mound of furs, surrounded by his Silvanesti scrolls. Eyes closed, hands cupped together at his chest, he did not appear to be breathing. Floating in the air above his hands was a sizable chip of spirit stone. The bright greenish light emanated from the levitating stone.
Konza was dumbstruck for a moment. Gathering his scattered wits, he breathed, “By all our ancestors! What are you doing?”
The floating stone wobbled, as though reacting to his voice. Konza held out his walking stick, meaning to knock the hovering stone away. Before the wood touched the stone, Tiphan’s eyes sprang open.
Konza cried out. His son’s eyes were no longer blue. They were ice-white from corner to corner.
“Beware, old man.” The voice came from Tiphan’s lips, but it was not his son’s. Deeper, more powerful, it resonated strangely inside the stone house, sounding like several voices speaking in unison.
Konza lowered the walking stick with a shaking hand.
“Who are you? What have you done to my son?”
“We are many, old man. Fear not. Your son is with us.”
“Are you the spirits held captive in the stone?”
“That is as good as any explanation.”
“Give me back my son!” Konza demanded.
“We hold him not. He is here because he sought us. Through him we shall find release from our prison.”
“Liars! Deceivers! You tricked him! Restore him to me!”
He — they? — laughed, a low chuckle, arid with the dust of bygone ages.
Konza gripped the sturdy walking stick in both hands and shouted, “Tiphan! Son, if you can hear me, hold fast! I shall release you!”
He brought the knurled ironwood down hard on the hovering spirit stone. The instant the wood came in contact with the shard, a silent blast of light filled the small house.
Hundreds of eyes watched Tiphan. Nothing was clearly visible, just the suggestion of forms and shapes beyond the boundaries of his sight. They spoke in whispers or shouted in unison, a chorus of a thousand separate voices, which he understood despite their numbers. They were calling him by name.
Join us, they said. Be our gateway to the world we once knew, the world of light and color. Do this, and we will share with you power undreamed!
The words sent a thrill of exultation through Tiphan, and he eagerly consented, yet even as the spirit host enfolded him, a fragment from his newest scroll flashed through his mind.
The Way to Bind the Sun contained a gloss by a sage named Kerthinalhest, who had lived many hundreds of years ago. According to Kerthinalhest, not all the spirits who fought in the great war had gone into captivity voluntarily. Some had been imprisoned by still greater spirits, forced into silent oblivion after ferocious resistance. Kerthinalhest believed minions of Evil were present in the stones in equal numbers with spirits of Good and Neutrality. Great care must be taken, he wrote, to choose stones containing only beneficent spirits.
The spirits sensed his doubts. We are Good spirits, they told him, unjustly imprisoned in this shell of unfeeling rock. Free us! Lend us your mind and body. Great will he your reward! We, the Many, shall favor you above all mortals.
Tiphan’s mouth opened. He was ready to agree when he heard his name being called. This voice was very different from the others. It sounded frightened, then angry. The Many tried to drown out the new voice, but no matter how much they whispered, screamed, and teased at his senses, the voice succeeded in reaching him.
“Give me back my son!”
It was his father’s voice, and he sounded terrified.
Tiphan turned toward a slim column of light. He held out his hand -
A thunderous explosion struck him, and all the voices cried out as one.
Tiphan opened his eyes. His sight returned slowly, and he found he was lying with his back against a cold stone wall. Every muscle in his body ached, as though he’d been flung against the wall.
The house was dark, but he could make out familiar shapes. He took a deep breath and sat up, cradling his throbbing head in his hands.
Give me back my son!
His father’s furious words echoed in his head. “Father?” Tiphan called. “Father, where are you?”
The only answer was the incessant ringing in his ears. Groaning, Tiphan stood and looked for flint with which to strike a light. In his groping, he found the small table holding the clay bowl of tinder and the lamp had been knocked over.
Powerful tremors shook Tiphan. The house was so bitterly cold! The spilled lamp oil had congealed in the chill, and his hands and feet were numb. He headed toward the door to open the flap and let in light and heat. As he crossed the room, he trod on what felt like gravel. He hissed in pain as the sharp bits cut his bare feet.
Once the door flap was opened, the last of the day’s light flooded in. He turned back and beheld chaos.
Everything had been thrown to the floor — tables, stools, loose clothing, furs. There was no sign of his father, but just inside the door a large basket lay on its side, dry beans and burlnut flour spilling across the floor.
His father had come home, but where was he?
From the overturned basket, Tiphan’s gaze fell upon a sight that made his heart race. Beside his bed was a strange mound of whitish gravel, the same stuff that had cut his bare feet. The mound was shaped like a man — two separate, long piles for the legs, two more like arms, a higher, rounded area for the head, and a thick section for the torso.
Tiphan knelt and ran his fingers through the stuff. It was like soft limestone, the color of old bones. Instinctively, he knew he was touching the remains of his father. Konza had come home and found him entranced. Taking fright, he’d interfered, and this was the result. The thwarted spirits had taken Konza’s life.
Tiphan felt oddly detached as he looked at the crumbling remains. A part of him regretted Konza’s death, but his head still rang with the voices of the Many. He could hear them still, calling him…
The crinkle of parchment distracted him. His precious Silvanesti scroll lay curled up on the floor under his foot. He lifted his foot quickly and picked up the scroll. Chalky white dust cascaded to the floor when he unrolled it slightly. The scroll was undamaged.
Fortunate, Tiphan mused, turning his back on Konza’s remains. He had much to learn before he dared converse with the Many again. Righting the table, he spread the Silvanesti scroll and began to read.
Pairs of torches blazed atop the wall on each side of the west baffle. A lone watchman stood by the southern set of torches, shielded from the night wind by a long fur cloak.
Anuca, son of Montu the cooper, gnawed absently on a strip of smoked venison and wished something would happen to enliven his dull duty. His friend Min, son of Nubis the stockman, had seen stars racing across the sky the night he stood guard. On this dreary night, there were no stars. So far, all Anuca had done was keep his torches lit in this wretched wind.
The hoofbeats of a fast-moving horse caught his ear. Shoving what was left of his snack in his mouth, Anuca took a torch in one hand and his spear in the other. He pondered how to summon help. He had no third hand to hold the ox horn he was supposed to blow. Dithering a moment, he put down the spear to take up the horn.
“Hold!” he shouted, waving his torch. “Who are you?”
The horse skidded to a stop, and the rider slid off the animal’s neck and fell inelegantly to the ground. In a heartbeat he was up again.
He snatched the dangling bridle and led the horse in. Anuca jogged down the ramp to meet him. Another sentinel, summoned from her post by the sound of hoofbeats, joined them.
“What’s wrong?” the sentinel, Lyopi, demanded.
“Paharo’s back!” Anuca called. “Say, Paharo, where’d you get the horse?”
“From the raiders! They’re coming this way! Rouse the elders and tell them to gather in front of the foundry!” When Anuca and Lyopi regarded him blankly, the trail-worn Paharo barked, “The Arkuden’s life and the safety of the whole village hang in the balance! Gather the elders at the foundry! Go!”
Before long the entire adult population of Yala-tene was crowding into the open ground in front of the foundry. The village elders arrived, sleepy and dazed. Only Konza was missing. In his place came his son, for once not surrounded by a pack of adoring acolytes.
Paharo related in detail what he’d seen. Many hundreds of mounted warriors on their way to Yala-tene, but no sign as yet of a green dragon.
“What of the Arkuden?” Lyopi demanded. “Where is he?”
Paharo looked at the ground. “The last I saw, he and the nomad girl Beramun were running for their lives.”
A murmur went through the crowd. Tepa said, “Did you find any trace of the Protector?”
“We were following a ground trail, but we came upon the raiders and had to flee. Whether the Protector lives, I can’t say.”
Sounds of soft weeping slowly filled the air. Paharo, his message delivered, slumped against the side of the foundry, his knees quaking with fatigue.
Nubis spoke for many present when he said, “We must send messengers to meet this Zannian, to see if he can be persuaded to spare our village.”
“No!” said Paharo, snapping upright again. “You can’t expect mercy from men like these! I saw a vast crowd of folk, bound hand and foot, driven along by the raiders. Beramun told us Zannian makes slaves of all he captures — those the green dragon doesn’t kill for sport!”
Nubis spread his hands. “How can we resist such a war-band? We’re not fighters.”
“We have the wall,” said Jenla. “I will fight any enemy who tries to scale it.” She planted her hands on her hips. “I maybe old, but I won’t give way to cutthroats! Who will fight with me?”
Many brave voices responded.
“And what will you do if the green dragon appears?” Nubis demanded. “Will you fight him, too?”
“Yes!” shouted Paharo. “If the choice is slavery or death, I’ll fight to the death!”
The meeting quickly degenerated into an argument, with everyone loudly voicing their opinions on whether or not to fight.
Tiphan stood to one side, listening calmly. He strolled to the low wall around the foundry and stood on it. Concealed in his left fist was a fragment of spirit stone. He held his right hand high, fingers spread. Pale blue fire blazed from his fingertips. He whirled his hand around his head, creating a fiery corona in the air. The disputing villagers quickly fell silent, awed by his display of power.
When every eye was on him, Tiphan spoke. “We must destroy our enemies,” he intoned.
Into the surprised silence Tepa said dryly, “A fine plan, Tosen. But how will it be done?”
“By me, with the spirit power I command.”
That sparked a fresh round of wrangling. Could the arrogant young Sensarku really defeat Zannian’s band and a green dragon by himself? Shouldn’t they consult the Arkuden?
Jenla’s voice carried clearly above the tumult. “Forgive our doubts, Tosen, but you haven’t answered the question. How will you destroy the enemy?” she asked.
Tiphan turned to the nearby cliff. Drawing back his right hand, he hurled a ball of bright blue fire at the towering rock face. It struck and burst with a sound like thunder. Dirt and rock dust showered the stunned crowd.
“The Tosen will save us!” Nubis shouted.
“Alone?” Jenla retorted.
“We must send a party of spearmen to escort him,” said Montu. “Twenty — no, forty! — of our strongest young men. They can march out at daybreak.”
“Forty men can do little against Zannian’s hundreds,” Paharo advised.
“They won’t have to!” the cooper replied, fired by the Sensarku’s display of power. “He needs protection only while he summons the blue fire. Isn’t that true, Tosen?”
Tiphan cleared his throat. “That is so.”
The respect dawning on all their faces elated him. He spread his arms wide. “No spearmen are needed,” he declared. “I shall go forth with the Sensarku. My followers will be my shield.”
Consternation erupted. Most of the acolytes had never been out of the Valley of the Falls. Even as hunters and trackers they were backward, having spent most of their time serving in the Offertory.
Tiphan ended the argument by saying, “Very well. Choose six villagers to serve as guides. Paharo, will you lead them?” The tired scout nodded. “Good. We shall muster outside the west baffle at dawn.”
Tiphan stepped down from the wall. Jenla blocked his departure.
“Tosen, where is your father?” she asked.
“My father? He is gone.”
“Having seen the great good it did me, my father has undertaken a journey to the east to learn more about the spirit power.”
A small crowd had collected around Tiphan and Jenla. “Who went with him?” she asked.
Jenla blanched. “You let an old man go into the wilderness alone? Are you mad?”
“He insisted on it. He wanted to strengthen his heart by privation and gain the benefit of ancient wisdom as I did.” Tiphan pushed past her into the dispersing crowd, adding quickly, “Peace to you, Jenla. Good night.”
“He’s lying,” Jenla said after Tiphan departed. “Konza was no fool. He wouldn’t go on such a journey by himself.”
She turned to Paharo with a thoughtful frown and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Guard yourself well, son of Huru,” she said. “If what I fear is true, you face as much danger from your friends as your foes.”
The downpour had slackened to a steady drizzle. After the prisoners’ escape, Zannian recalled his men to a central point on the open plain. There, Nacris and Greengall waited for news, while the Jade Men formed a square around their tent.
Greengall sat on the muddy ground. He enjoyed the dampness, though he complained that the high plain was not properly fetid like the black soil of Almurk.
From time to time riders appeared, bringing reports of the round-up. When important information came in, Zannian ducked under the tent to inform his mother and master.
“Six more slaves have been retaken,” Zannian told them. He checked the tally scratched on a slab of slate. “That makes fifty-four we’ve gotten back so far.”
“I hope the wretches catch their death!” Nacris said, shivering in spite of her cape and furs. Absently she scratched the black scab on her cheek where Greengall had cut her with Duranix’s scale.
“Is there any word of the nomads who aided the escape?” asked Greengall.
“Very little, Master. Stories vary. It seems four or five plainsmen slipped past our outriders and reached the prisoners. All the dead so far are known to us.”
“And Duranix? Any sign of him?”
“None, Master. He seems to have vanished.”
Greengall wove his unnaturally long fingers together and cracked his knuckles. Nacris winced at the unwholesome sound.
“He’s not far away,” Greengall said. “I can smell him. His wound is festering delightfully, and he is in great pain. Remember, Zannian, there’s a special reward for the man who finds the bronze dragon.”
Zannian bowed his head. “I’ll remind the men.”
He walked back out into the rain, mounted, and rode away to confer with his warriors. Nacris eyed Greengall, squatting in the mud like a monstrous frog.
“Why do you toy with your enemy?” she asked. “Duranix is a dangerous foe. Why didn’t you kill him when you had him cornered?”
Greengall picked up a glob of wet dirt in his hand and slowly closed his fingers into a fist. Shiny black mud oozed between his fingers.
“Any dragon, even a meddlesome bronze, is worth more than all you miserable rodents put together,” he explained. He flung the mud to the ground, splattering Nacris’s foot. “Contesting with Duranix has been the greatest pleasure I’ve ever had. If all I wanted was to kill him, I could have done that when he was a hatchling.”
“Why didn’t you?”
He grinned widely. “I knew his mother, Amylyrix. We fought long and hard for this same territory, one thousand two hundred years ago. Neither of us could gain the upper hand until I found her nest in the Easthorn Mountains, far from here, and brought an avalanche down on her. Her clutch was buried under half a mountain, and she herself was mortally wounded. I sat atop the pile of stones and waited for her to die. It took eleven days.”
Nacris understood. She dreamed of the day she would stand over Karada’s dying body.
“I thought I had disposed of her whole brood,” Greengall continued, “but as I sat there listening to Amylyrix expire, I heard a hatchling mewling under the rocks. Curious, I dug him out. It was Duranix. His mother had shielded him from the weight of the landslide with her own body.”
“A mother’s finest deed,” said Nacris sincerely.
The grotesque creature gave her an inscrutable look. “Yes, very noble. I picked up little Duranix by his tail and told him, ‘I’ve killed your family, but I’m going to let you live. Do you know why?’ All the little scalesucker could do was puke and whimper. I rapped his skull with a stone to make sure he was listening. ‘I’m going to let you live,’ I said, ‘so I can kill you later.’”
Time passed with only the sound of dripping rain to mark it.
“Do you understand?” Greengall asked, coming out of his reverie to give Nacris a probing look.
“The bronze dragon owes his life to you, however reluctantly.” From beneath her tangled, graying hair, Nacris’s eyes glimmered like rain-flecked flint. “How he must hate you.”
“I hope so! What a waste if he doesn’t!”
Nacris settled back in her litter and closed her eyes. What a monster she was consorting with — conniving, endlessly cruel, and with a vicious sense of humor. Having Sthenn for an ally was like sleeping with a deadly viper. The question was not if it would bite you, but when.
No matter. The green dragon was simply the means to an end. To destroy a powerful, clever enemy, one needed powerful, ruthless allies.
Twelve years ago she’d lost everything. Karada had killed her mate, Sessan, then helped Duranix defeat the disaffected nomads led by Nacris, Hatu, and Tarkwa. Tarkwa perished in the fight. Hatu was hunted down and murdered by the bronze dragon. Nacris alone had survived, hurled into the lake by Duranix, her leg shattered by the fall. A clan of ox herders had rescued her from the river below Yala-tene, but her leg had been too far gone to be saved.
The herders went south to Khar land, and Nacris went with them, slowly recovering. She vowed by all her ancestors that she would one day have her revenge on Karada, the village of Yala-tene, its protector dragon, and its headman.
One bitter winter day her adopted clan was massacred by the Almurk raiders. Nacris recognized one of her attackers as Hoten, son of Nito. Bald Hoten had been part of the rebel faction she’d led against Karada. He spared his old chief and took her deep into the forest at the Edge of the World to meet Sthenn. There, her dreams of vengeance began to take a more definite form.
“I have need for one like you,” Sthenn had told her.
Grateful to be alive, Nacris promised her loyalty, saying, “I no longer ride, but I know how to lead warriors in battle.”
“Any hothead can do that. I have a different task in mind, one more nourishing to the black heart I see within you.”
He had departed as the green dragon but returned in the form she came to know as Greengall. He brought with him a dirty, disheveled boy of twelve. He had introduced the child as Zannian, then added, “Boy, meet your mother.”
It was hard to say who had been more astonished, the child or the woman. The boy spoke first.
“Mother? How come I haven’t seen you before?”
“She’s been away fighting,” said Greengall. Venomous irony dripped from his words. “Now she’s come back to raise you properly. Isn’t that right?”
Nacris stared at the ragged hoy with his rat’s nest of light brown hair. Through the caked-on dirt, she could see intelligence shining from his hazel eyes — intelligence and mistrust in equal measure — as he gazed back at her.
She glanced at Greengall. He was smiling, his horrible, too-wide grin revealing sharply pointed teeth. She voiced none of the questions that tumbled through her brain. Instead, she simply nodded. At that moment the bargain was made.
“Yes, I’ve come back,” she said to Zannian, opening her arms. “Come here, son.”
The boy let the strange woman hug him, though he didn’t return her rough embrace. After a few moments, Nacris pushed him away, brushing the matted hair from his face.
“I want to hear all about what you’ve been doing,” she said. Looking past Zannian to Greengall, she added, “You must tell me everything.”
Nacris became a mother. Later, she added to her vicious brood the orphan boys who became the Jade Men. Like Zannian, they were raised to know no right but force, no truth but fear, and no pleasure but obedience. She told herself she cared for none of them. They were tools for a task, nothing more. Why then did she feel a pang of fear when the Jade Men demonstrated their fighting skills against Zannian and yet felt nothing when a Jade Man was gravely wounded?
The rain continued to fall. Nacris imagined the cold drops washing away all her feelings and all her fears, until only pure hatred was left.
At daybreak, Paharo and his five fellow scouts gathered under a cloud-shrouded sky. Dampened by intermittent drizzle, they waited for the Sensarku. When Tiphan and his acolytes arrived, the sight of them left Paharo and his scouts blinking in amazement.
They were twenty young men and women, none older than eighteen, clad in white doeskins. Their hair was plaited with spring flowers, and on their shoulders each bore a spear, its shaft daubed with white paint. Another five pairs of acolytes, also dressed in buffed doeskins and with flowers in their hair, drew five travois. The travois were heavily laden with supplies — by the look of it, enough to feed them all for twenty days.
Tiphan, walking proudly in the midst of his followers, was draped in doeskins of dazzling whiteness. His pale face was likewise coated with white paint, as were his hands and arms. Bronze dragon scales covered his chest. With his already white hair and eyebrows, he looked like a spirit in human guise. Only his eyes contained any color. They shone brilliant turquoise in the midst of his eerie pallor.
Paharo shook off his astonishment and got his scouts moving. They trotted away, spears on their shoulders, while Paharo wended his way through the immobile acolytes to speak to Tiphan.
“Tosen,” he said, glancing up at the midmorning sun, “are your people going like this? Soft clothing and bark sandals won’t last a day on the plain. Thorns and sharp stones will tear them to bits.”
The ghostly white face regarded him coolly. “All will be well, child. Believe in the power I command, as my children do.”
Paharo refrained from pointing out the Sensarku leader was only four years older than he was. Instead he said, “Very well, Tosen. We’ll scout ahead. When we reach the mouth of the valley, we’ll wait for you.”
“Thank you,” said Tiphan. At his command, his acolytes readied themselves to march.
Paharo jogged after his comrades, shaking his head. They had wasted good daylight waiting for Tiphan and his people, and when the Sensarku finally arrived, they were burdened with so much clothing and heavy supplies they couldn’t possibly make fast time. If the raiders attacked, the Sensarku would be easy prey unless Tiphan’s power actually could save them. For the sake of all Yala-tene, Paharo desperately hoped the Tosen could do the things he boasted.
The pit was stifling. Rain had filtered through the sod, reducing the floor of the hole to cold mud. Amero and Beramun huddled together in front of Duranix, listening to the drumming of horses’ hooves as the raiders crossed the plain searching for them.
While Beramun shivered in silent misery, Amero pressed an ear to the dragon’s cavernous chest. Duranix’s heart labored slowly, like the muffled thunder of a dying storm.
What happened? Amero asked silently. Did you fight Sthenn?
Not Sthenn, although I saw him. One of his humans pricked me with a poisoned spear. Sthenn excels in making noxious potions. This is one of his worst.
What can we do?
Duranix exhaled hard. There was a moist rattle in his lungs. I removed the spearhead, hut the poison is in mg blood. Sthenn said it wouldn’t kill me, hut I don’t trust him. If I don’t find treatment soon, I fear the worst.
I won’t let you die! Amero laid a hand on his friend’s massive foreleg. Duranix’s scaly skin felt uncharacteristically moist and warm.
The dragon did not answer. Duranix’s eyes were closed, and his heartbeat was still abnormally slow, his breathing labored.
With nothing to do but wait, Amero and Beramun at last succumbed to exhaustion. Lying in the dirt in front of Duranix, they slept.
When Amero woke, the air was dank and hot. Drenched in sweat, he yearned for a cool breeze and a drink of water. He climbed the side of the pit until his head bumped the layer of sod covering the hole. He found a crack and managed to work his fingers through. Peering through the resulting opening, he saw the starry sky. Night had fallen.
He slid back down to the bottom again and felt around blindly until he located Beramun.
Though he tried to be gentle, she awoke with a start and cried out.
“Shh!” he hissed. “It’s me, Amero!”
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to wake you quietly. It’s dark out, and I thought we could use some fresh air.”
She pushed past him and scrambled up the slope, bumping her head into the tangle of roots and dirt atop the pit. After a moment of fruitless struggle, she grumbled, “How do we get out of here?”
“Stay still. I’m coming up.”
He joined her at the top and found the seam again. Together, they heaved aside a triangular piece of sod. Cool air flooded over them. Both gasped in relief and shivered at the sharp temperature change.
Beramun put a foot on Amero’s thigh to push herself out, but he grabbed her ankle.
“Careful!” he whispered. She nodded curtly, climbed out, and Amero scrambled after her.
The storm had moved on, but tattered remnants of clouds periodically hid the stars. In the distance, the plain to the east was dotted with many small red flames — the campfires of Zannian’s band.
They found a brook flowing below a nearby hill. Joyously, they drank their fill, then washed the grime from their feet, hands, and faces. Amero wondered if the other boys had escaped. Beramun told him she’d sent Paharo off on a raider’s horse to warn the village, but he had no idea what had become of Udi and the rest.
Somewhere in the dark a wolf howled. Amero stood up, alert to the danger.
Beramun kept washing. “He’s leagues away,” said the girl, pouring a double handful of fresh water over her feet. “Don’t be so nervous.”
Running a hand through his damp hair, he said, “It’s been a long time since I was hunted.”
“I’ve been running since the night the raiders killed my family.”
“My family was killed by Sthenn’s followers, too, many years ago.”
“No. Yevi.” Amero sat down on the bank of the brook and told the story of his fight with the gray marauders.
“The dragon saved you,” Beramun mused, looking back toward the pit where Duranix lay. “I wonder why?”
“Sthenn’s creatures were in his territory. When he came to investigate, he found me. He destroyed the yevi pack only because he didn’t want Sthenn poaching on his territory. It was no more than that. Later, I think he saw me as an interesting animal to keep around.”
“Like we keep dogs?”
Amero smiled. “Something like that. Eventually, we became friends.”
A heavy scraping sound interrupted their storytelling. This time they both stood up, alarmed. Amero saw the dark bulk of the dragon crawling toward them. The sight of the mighty Duranix, dragging himself along on his belly with his two front limbs, stunned him profoundly.
The two humans stood by helplessly as the bronze dragon drew near. He dipped his snout into the stream and gulped loudly. While Duranix was busy drinking, Amero inspected the dragon’s wound.
“It’s festering,” he reported. “I should lance it.”
Duranix snaked his head around. “Will that help?”
“It will release the pressure.”
The dragon blinked once, eyelids clicking. He laid his chin down on the grass and closed his eyes. “Proceed.”
Amero drew his bronze dagger. Beramun exclaimed, “You’re going to cut him?”
“The poison needs to be bled out. It won’t cure him, but it may make him more comfortable.” Amero gently probed the edges of the wound with his fingers. “I ought to have a fire going, to cauterize the wound, but…” He shrugged. A fire was impossible with the raiders so close by.
Beramun took several steps back. “You’re crazy! Hurt him, and he’ll tear your head off!”
Amero ignored her. He put the point of the dagger against the sealed wound and pushed. Duranix didn’t even wince. Muscles straining, Amero worked the dagger in deeper, pressing until black blood coursed from the cut, soaking his hands. Swallowing the nausea in his throat, Amero held his place and cut deeper.
Suddenly, Duranix’s injured leg flexed backward in a powerful kick that tore a deep gouge in the turf. Amero flung himself out of the way, and the hard talons missed his belly by only a finger’s width.
Duranix raised his head. “I felt that! ” he rumbled.
“Sorry,” said Amero, flat on his back on the ground.
“Don’t be! That leg has been numb for days!” Reptilian brow furrowing, Duranix tried to lift his injured limb. Quivering with effort, it rose slowly, then fell back.
“That’s good!” Amero pushed himself up on his elbows. “Try again.”
The dragon bent back and took hold of his poisoned leg with his foreclaw and worked it back and forth. He hissed in pain as more poisoned blood surged from the wound. The grass and stream were stained by the spreading, foul pool. Holding her nose, Beramun retreated to higher ground.
“That’s better,” Duranix said. “It burns like fire, but at least I can feel it!”
“Can you walk?”
Duranix tried to stand and failed. “No. It’s still too weak.”
Amero threw handfuls of water over the dragon’s leg, washing the black blood away. As he labored, he called up to Beramun, “Do you know what larchit looks like?”
“I need as much as you can find to make a poultice.” Amero rinsed his dagger in the stream and wiped it on the grass. “Here. Cut me some, please.” She took the weapon in one hand and, still holding her nose with the other, departed.
“I wonder if she’ll come back,” Duranix murmured, head down on the ground once more.
Amero finished washing the dragon’s leg. “Why wouldn’t she?”
“Sthenn has marked her for his own, Amero. Sooner or later, she’ll betray you to him.”
Amero sat down by the dragon’s head. “Can’t you spare her some trust? I’ve been with her for days, and she’s done nothing wrong. Oh, she miscounted the raiders, but…” He waved a hand dismissively. “She could’ve betrayed us to them a dozen times, but she didn’t. She’s been nothing but what she seems — a girl, alone in the world, pursued by evil forces.”
In spite of his fevered exhaustion, the dragon cocked a metallic brow at his friend and teased, “Irresistible, isn’t she?”
“Oh, shut up.”
They listened to the crickets awhile, then Duranix’s nostrils flared. “I’m starving. Have you anything to eat?”
Amero looked in his shoulder pouch. “A little trail bread, some elk jerky — ”
“Give me the meat.”
The jerky was in two folded strips, each as long as Amero’s forearm. Enough to feed a man for three or four days, for the dragon it was less than a bite. It disappeared quickly into Duranix’s maw.
“We’ll have to move soon,” Amero said. “We don’t stand a chance against Zannian’s band by daylight.”
“You should go ahead on your own. I’m too slow. It will be easy for them to track me.”
“I won’t leave you behind.”
“Don’t be stupid. I won’t be able to defend you from the whole band.”
“Who asked you to? Have you ever considered that I might be able to defend you? ”
“Silly human! Think of the female, then. Do you want to see her killed?”
Amero’s argument died, the anger on his face fading into worry. He could take responsibility for himself and for the dragon, but not for Beramun.
Duranix closed his eyes tiredly. “You see? You must go without me.”
Before Amero could reply, Beramun returned with an armload of larchit leaves. They found smooth stones on the creek bank and set to pounding the fleshy green leaves to paste. Amero smeared several handfuls of the paste on Duranix’s wound. “You know this won’t cure me,” said the dragon.
“I know,” Amero said.
“Then why do it?”
“It will soothe your hurt. Isn’t that enough?”
Duranix lowered his head to the ground. “Stupid man,” he said, but there was no rancor in his words.
Beramun said little until Amero had finished ministering to his giant friend, then she asked, “What next?”
“We must get to Yala-tene,” he replied, rinsing the sticky larchit sap from his hands. “If we can get Duranix to the village, our healers can treat him.”
She chewed her lower lip and scuffed a heel in the dirt. “It’s a long way to the mountains. Do you think we can evade Zannian’s riders over that distance? I don’t.”
“You may be right. You should go.” Amero cleaned the dagger again and returned it to its sheath. “If you strike out due west, you might avoid the raiders altogether.”
She folded her arms. “You’re telling me to leave?”
“Yes. I want you safe.”
Beramun jumped up, eyes flashing. “Who said you could decide my fate? Those vipers out there wiped out my family. I will see them served the same!”
“Don’t shout,” murmured Duranix, eyes still closed. “They’ll hear you.”
She flushed, then snatched up Amero’s spear. “I’m hungry,” she declared more quietly. “I’ll bring back game.”
She stalked off, leaving Amero staring after her. Before he could speak his confusion, a low, bass rumble rose from Duranix’s throat.
Amero circled around to glare at the dragon face to face. “Are you laughing at me?”
“You’re making progress, boy. If we survive, she may give herself to you yet.” Hot puffs of air from Duranix’s chuckling stirred Amero’s hair.
“That’s not funny.” A smile crept across Amero’s face even as he said it. “Boy” indeed! Though he was thirty-eight, in
Duranix’s company Amero frequently felt like the thirteen-year-old he’d been when they met.
Soon, his laughter was mingling with his friend’s.
Beramun returned from her hunt empty-handed. The countryside was barren, she reported, everything chased away by Zannian’s mounted patrols. By then the eastern sky was blushing toward dawn. It was clear they would be dangerously exposed come daybreak.
Amero and Beramun cast about for some spot where they could make a stand. Hiding in the pit again was out. The sod was beginning to sag under the weight of the previous day’s rain. The sunken rim of the hole was a dead giveaway. The bottom of the hole was knee-deep with mud as well.
While the two humans traded increasingly desperate suggestions, Duranix struggled to his feet. He had feeling in his hind legs again, but they were still too weak to support him. Stretching his wings wide, he could tell by the pain in his shoulders he couldn’t take to the air, either.
He lifted his head as high as he could and surveyed the distant raiders’ camp. The sun, veiled by a lingering cloud, was rising behind the camp, and he could see the humans stirring. It was only a matter of time before their mounted scouts found his little group.
Duranix shifted slightly on his forelegs. Mud squelched between his claws. Looking at the viscous soil, a marvelous, far-fetched idea blazed through the fevered haze in his mind. Digging his claws into the mud, he bowed his neck until his jaw rested on the wet turf. From deep within himself, he summoned the fire inside.
Duranix’s brazen skin grew hotter and hotter. The mud on his limbs and belly dried to a gray powder and flaked off. Steam rose around him. He continued to pour his depleted strength into the damp soil, heating it until the previous day’s heavy rains were given up in the form of mist.
Amero was still searching for a likely place to hold off the raiders when he noticed the shallow creekbed was rapidly filling with fog. Already, all he could see of Duranix was the arch of his spine and the top of his bowed neck. Fascinated, Amero watched the mist fill the ravine, creeping up the hillside and flowing down the other side. A light breeze helped move the mist across the open plain. He was soon surrounded by one of the thickest fogs he’d ever seen.
“Amero? Amero, are you there?”
“Beramun! Over here!”
She appeared out of the murk like a black-haired wraith. “Duranix is weaving a mist to hide us from the raiders!”
They worked their way back to the creek and used it to guide themselves to the dragon. Golden morning light filtered through the fog, tinting it the exact color of Duranix’s scales, and they missed the dragon completely. They backtracked. In the end they found him only because Beramun walked directly into his chest.
“My ancestors!” she exclaimed. “He’s become fog himself!”
“Not quite,” Duranix replied. “But close enough for our purpose.”
“How long will the mist last?” asked Amero.
“It will remain only as long as the wind and sun allow. Once gone, I cannot renew it. My strength is used up.”
Amero grabbed Beramun’s hand. “Then we’d better get moving.”
Before breaking camp, the Jade Men left behind a macabre honor for their master: a mound of severed heads, taken from the slain prisoners. It stood higher than a man, and the green-garbed warriors forced the recaptured slaves to march past it. Nacris had not ordered the deed, but she approved it. The surviving captives trudged silently by the gruesome pile, their earlier pride in the escape completely gone. A few paces beyond the grisly warning, the mist swallowed them.
“Move on,” Nacris commanded. Four Jade Men hoisted her litter onto their shoulders and followed their comrades into the fog.
A dark shape passed overhead. Fog swirled, and Sthenn, in full winged form, landed beside the column of Jade Men. Nacris ordered her bearers to stop.
“Greetings, Master,” she called. “Queer weather, isn’t it? At sunrise the day was as clear as a mountain stream.”
“So it was.” Sthenn stretched his ancient limbs and preened. “This is no ordinary fog. It stinks of metal.”
Nacris regarded him blankly.
“Duranix, fool!” he barked.
“The bronze dragon lives? I thought he was poisoned.”
“He is. By this subterfuge he seeks to hide from my scouts.”
“I warned you not to judge him lightly.”
The green dragon cocked his misshapen head and snarled, “Have a care, old rodent! Task me with your warnings, and you may lose another limb.”
Nacris paled, the scar on her cheek standing out vividly. Her fear seemed to satisfy him.
“The air is drying,” he said, his angry tone gone. “The fog won’t last much longer. When it clears, I will find poor little Duranix.”
He was right. For the first time in hours, Nacris saw faint shadows appear.
“Have the Jade Men spread out,” the dragon told her. “If they find Duranix before Zannian’s men do, I’ll grant you a boon, my little cripple.”
With a few running strides, he took to the air. Amber mist spun behind him, quickly obscuring him from view.
“You heard the Master,” she said to the Jade Men. “Find that dragon!”
All but her bearers departed, and Nacris sat back in her litter. They were two days away from the Valley of the Falls. In two days, her revenge would truly begin.
She knew the favor she would ask of Sthenn. The Jade Men’s tribute to their master had given her the idea. Once Arku-peli had fallen, she would ask him to send swift scouts to every corner of the plains to find her former chief. When Karada was found, Nacris would send her gifts from the new mistress of Arku-peli — the heads of her brother and the bronze dragon, salted and cured like elk jerky.
The Sensarku marched along in good spirits, chattering and enjoying the dry morning after the thunderstorm. They camped the first night by a branch of the Plains River, laid fires, and generally behaved as though they were on a casual hunting trip rather than a war party.
The second day dawned much like the first, with no sign of raiders, a green dragon, or their own lost people, but the acolytes’ ease was shattered by midmorning. Paharo and his scouts had kept their distance from the noisy Sensarku, save for periodic reports to Tiphan. Before noon on the second day, the acolytes were alarmed to see all the scouts suddenly returning as fast as they could run.
Calming his followers, Tiphan ordered his spearmen forward. Fingers fumbling a bit, he tied a special belt around his waist. In it were fourteen separate pockets, each containing a fragment of spirit stone.
“What news?” called Tiphan as Paharo returned.
Though the morning was mild, beads of sweat glistened on the scout’s forehead. “Something strange, Tosen. The day broke clear, but an unusual patch of fog has appeared to the southwest, and it’s moving our way.”
“Fog? Is that all?” Tiphan frowned, adding, “Wait. You say it’s moving?”
“It’s like no mist I’ve ever seen.”
“How fast is it moving?”
“It’ll reach us by noon at the latest, I’d say.”
Tiphan nodded. “Then we shall continue our advance.”
The scouts muttered, their disagreement with this strategy plain.
Paharo, trying to keep his tone respectful, said, “Tosen, I don’t advise it. Anything could be in that fog — anything!”
“Then the further from Yala-tene we meet it, the better for our people,” was his lofty reply. To his acolytes, Tiphan said, “Make ready! We will proceed.”
“Tosen, please! This isn’t wise.”
“I’ll be the judge of that, Paharo.” Tiphan noted the apprehension on the faces of the other scouts. “Have your men stay in sight until we reach the mist,” he said. “No sense getting separated.”
Gradually the southern horizon took on the color of pale bronze as the sun played over the gently rolling fog-bank. Without being ordered to do so, the Sensarku slowed then halted in a body to gaze at the strange phenomenon. The oncoming mist slowly swallowed isolated trees and waving grass.
“Why have you stopped?” Tiphan’s voice rang out.
Nervously, the acolytes shouldered their weapons and started forward. All talk ceased.
Tiphan debated using one of his spirit stones to dispel the fogbank, but decided to save his power for more serious threats. When they finally entered the murk, he congratulated himself on his wisdom. The mist flowed around the Sensarku, but nothing untoward happened.
Paharo was not so confident. Conditions were entirely wrong for such a mist, and it behaved most unnaturally. The fog held together in the wind instead of tearing into wisps, as was usual. Despite his concerns, Paharo and the scouts continued forward.
Moments later the scout on his far right suddenly stiffened. The fellow held up his hand, and his comrades halted. He knelt in the high grass. The others followed suit, obeying his silent warning.
Paharo heard what had alarmed the boy — a swishing sound of movement in the grass ahead and to their right. It could be a deer or pig, or it could be a raider approaching. He strained his eyes to penetrate the mist, but it was so thick the Sensarku thirty paces behind him were completely hidden.
Paharo got a whiff of a sour aroma he knew well — larchit paste — as two figures loomed out of the mist. He could make out only enough to know they were humans on foot. He brought his spear up, ready to cast.
One of the intruders stumbled and cursed. Though the words were muffled, Paharo recognized the voice. He grinned in relief.
“Arkuden!” he called out. “It’s Paharo. We are here.”
The two newcomers closed the last few steps rapidly, revealing themselves to be Amero and Beramun. With many grins and back slaps, Amero was reunited with the young hunter.
“Did Udi and the rest make it back to the village?” the Arkuden asked quickly. Paharo explained he hadn’t seen the other boys since Beramun had sent him off to warn the village.
Just then, the loud footfalls and careless jangling of the young Sensarku rattling their gear pierced the fog.
In response to Amero’s questioning look, Paharo explained, “We’re guiding the Tosen and his acolytes to turn back the enemy.”
“What?” the Arkuden exclaimed. “They’ll be slaughtered!”
Another sound forestalled any reply: a heavy dragging noise, as though a large, laden travois was approaching.
“Duranix is coming,” the Arkuden explained. The scouts were thankful to hear the dragon was alive.
“He’s grievously hurt,” Beramun warned. “Look yonder.”
Duranix was pulling himself along with his powerful front legs. When he saw Amero talking with the young hunters, the dragon lowered his head to the ground and sighed gustily.
“I can’t go another league,” he said.
“How far are we from the valley?” asked Amero.
“At a hunter’s pace, a day and a night,” Paharo replied. “With the Sensarku in tow, two full days.”
Amero’s face reddened. “The arrogant fool. Where is Tiphan?”
“He is here.” Tiphan strode through the murk, leading his followers. “I rejoice to find you alive, Arkuden.”
“I’m sure you do.”
Tiphan spied Duranix lying motionless in the grass. He bowed to the dragon. “And our Protector! How fares he?” he asked solicitously.
“Weak,” said Amero. “The raiders wounded him with a poisoned spear.”
The acolytes huddled behind Tiphan, pointing at the unmoving dragon and murmuring unhappily. Amero resisted an urge to push among them and box their ears. It was Tiphan who deserved his anger, not these foolish youngsters.
“Shall I heal him?” Tiphan said simply.
All conversation stopped. “What?” Amero asked.
“Shall I call upon my spirit power to heal the Great Protector?”
Amero, Beramun, and the scouts exchanged surprised looks.
“Can you?” the girl asked.
“All things are possible to the wise,” Tiphan said smugly. Gripping his staff, he walked to Duranix’s side.
“Great Protector,” he declaimed loudly. “May I, the first of your servants, attend you?”
The dragon opened one eye. “Did you bring me an ox haunch?”
“No, Protector. I’ve come to heal you.”
“I’ve no patience for jests, little man.” The eyelid clicked shut.
“I have the power, Protector. May I use it to aid you?”
A sigh echoed in the silence. “Do what you will. I can go no further.”
The Sensarku leader bowed. He waved the acolytes forward and had them stand in a ring around the prostrate dragon. Taking one of the largest fragments of stone from his belt pouch, he wedged it into a slot cut in the head of his staff.
“Behold! Power from the time before men and dragons!” Tiphan raised his staff, then lowered it until the stone chip hovered a finger’s width above Duranix’s forehead.
The dragon’s eyes snapped open. He exclaimed hoarsely, “Thunder and lightning! That’s — !”
“Is it all right?” Amero interrupted, stepping forward.
“Stand back!” Tiphan commanded. “The power is not for ordinary men!”
Duranix said nothing more, so Amero kept silent, though his gaze moved uneasily from the Sensarku to the prostrate dragon.
Tiphan began his invocation as proscribed in the Silvanesti books, repeating again and again a simple, clear command to the power in the stone. At first, he did this silently, in his head, but as his blood warmed with the force of his concentration, the words spilled loudly out of his lips.
“Heal the wound!” he cried. “Cleanse this tainted flesh! By all the power captive in you, I command you, spirit of the stone, to heal this wound!”
Softly at first, then rising in volume as their master’s voice likewise rose, the acolytes took up the chant.
“Heal! Heal! Heal! Heal!”
The stone glowed. Tiphan was trembling from head to toe, and sweat dampened his colorless hair. He lifted the blazing stone away from Duranix’s head, holding it as high as his arms and the length of the staff would permit.
“Let it be done!” he screamed, and brought the staff down like a club.
For the briefest instant Amero imagined he saw a plume of sparks trailing from the dazzling stone. Then it struck Duranix’s head between his horns, and a tremendous flash of white light erupted. Amero reeled away and fell, taking Beramun down with him. As he hit the ground, he heard the full-throated roar of the bronze dragon.
Zannian cantered forward to confer with his lead riders. The vast fogbank was at last beginning to dissipate, after they’d spent half a day plodding through the impenetrable murk. Riders on the west side had found signs of humans on foot, moving northeast, along with a broad bloodstained trail flattened in the grass — the trail of the wounded dragon.
He ordered a hundred men to gallop northwest to intercept the wounded creature and his helpers. Poisoned spears were given to every fifth man.
Then came the explosion. It began as a distant flash in the fog, like far-off lightning, but instead of fading, it grew larger and brighter until it engulfed Zannian and everyone around him. He felt a sharp bite of cold on the exposed flesh of his face and arms. When his eyes recovered from the blinding glare, he saw the fog had been swept away. Not a trace of the mist remained.
Sthenn, who had been flying overhead all morning, emerged from the blast out of control and plummeting to earth. He landed hard a score of paces from Zannian, his breast and chin striking the ground. The warrior chief rode over to the floundering green dragon.
“Master! Thank you for clearing away the fog!”
“Worthless rodent! I didn’t do it!” Sthenn said shrilly, and Zannian was shocked to see portions of the dragon’s hide were blistered and smoking. He held his wings awkwardly away from his body, as though it was painful to move them.
“A great power has been loosed,” Sthenn said. “Power not seen in these parts in my lifetime!”
“By the bronze dragon?”
Before the green dragon answered, he tried to fold his wings. Several enormous blisters on his wing membranes ruptured. Sthenn’s howls of anguish were so loud Zannian’s horse shied. Mad with pain, Sthenn rolled and thrashed in all directions, swatting riders from their horses. His hind feet tore huge clods from the ground as he shrieked in agony.
Zannian, fighting to control his mount, dodged frantically, but a buffet from the dragon’s wing felled him and his horse. He hit the ground, rolled away from the gray stallion, and kept crawling until he was well clear of the great beast’s tantrum.
At last the aged green dragon mastered his temper and roared an answer to Zannian’s question. “That was no dragon spell! One of those detestable elf priests must be nearby. Only they have the means of tapping the ancient spirit power!”
Gingerly, Sthenn stood on all fours, breathing heavily. “Get your men together,” he told Zannian.
The raider chief formed his band into three large blocks of horsemen, with the center under his personal command. It took some time for all the warriors to gather, and before he was done mustering them, Nacris had arrived with the slaves and the Jade Men.
“Where have you been, woman?” hissed the dragon. “Get your warriors in order. There’s going to be a fight.”
“But my men — ” Zannian began.
“Keep them here!” Sthenn thundered. “I want the Jade Men to strike the first blow!”
Flushed with lust for battle, Nacris barked orders. She deployed the Jade Men in a single line ahead of her son’s block of horsemen, spears and shields ready.
“All is ready, Master,” Nacris reported. “Where is the foe?”
“They are near. Start your men forward at a walk, and beware of trickery.”
Amero’s eyesight and hearing slowly returned. He got to his feet. All around, scouts and Sensarku alike were rising groggily from the turf. Duranix, however, was not in sight. All that remained was a large flattened spot in the grass where he’d lain.
Amero ran forward, horrified. Had Tiphan destroyed Duranix?
“Look!” shouted Beramun.
Following her pointing finger, Amero saw a dark spot against the bright blue sky. It grew rapidly in size as it plunged toward them.
The bronze dragon was falling toward them at a tremendous speed. When he was close enough for those on the ground to see the individual scales of his hide, he threw open his wings. Extending his long neck skyward, Duranix let loose a roar that shook the ground.
Amero jumped up and down, waving his arms. Duranix was alive and flying!
The dragon banked steeply, and Amero saw his mighty shoulder muscles coiling and uncoiling with every sweep of his wings.
The dragon landed in the grass as lightly as a swallow. Amero ran to him. Not only was Duranix healed, but he seemed larger than before. The underside of his belly was higher off the ground, and his length had increased a good five paces.
“My friend, you’re enormous!” Amero exclaimed.
Duranix turned his head this way and that, taking in the expanse of his new physique. “I do seem to have grown. It must be a side effect of the healing power. Won’t Sthenn be surprised!”
The acolytes had gotten Tiphan to his feet and were dusting the gray dirt of the savanna from his white doeskin robe. His staff was found and brought to him. It was shorter now by half — the end where the stone had been wedged was gone, vaporized.
“The Protector?” he asked, still dazed.
“I am here.”
Tiphan’s eyes widened to take in the dragon’s new dimensions. “Glorious!” he cried. “Great Protector, you are restored!”
“So I am.” Duranix paused, seemingly at a loss for words, then added, “I thank you.”
Tiphan did not bow but smiled widely and held out his hands. “I do but serve you, Great Protector!”
The acolytes, though disheveled and still trying to locate their weapons and gear, raised a ragged cheer.
A rhythmic rumbling, rising steadily in volume, cut into the celebration. Two of Paharo’s scouts ran off while the Sensarku regrouped. Just as they’d gotten themselves into some semblance of order, back came the hunters at a hard run.
“The raiders are coming!” they cried. “Hundreds and hundreds of them!”
“I think you were healed just in time,” Amero said, shifting closer to Duranix.
“Listen, all of you!” the dragon announced. “I am healed of my wound, but I haven’t eaten in many days, so I’m not at my full strength. It would be best if we withdrew.”
Amero, Beramun, and Paharo’s scouts grabbed their gear and started to retreat. The Sensarku stood their ground, awaiting their Tosen’s orders. The sound of the oncoming horde grew louder by the moment.
“My heart is full of gladness to have rendered good aid to our Protector,” Tiphan said, smiling beatifically, “but we came here to defeat the enemy, and that is what I shall do.”
“You can’t stand against them!” Amero declared.
“I have the power.” Tiphan’s brilliant blue eyes regarded him coolly
Exasperated, Amero looked to the dragon. “What do you say?”
“We’re too exposed here,” he said. “If we stay and fight, I can kill most of them, but you will all likely die, too. If Sthenn’s with them, none of us may get out alive. We need a defensible place.” He looked to the low hills east of their position. “That tallest hill — we’ll make a stand there. That should keep them from overrunning us.”
Beramun and the scouts set off running, leaving Amero and Duranix behind — Amero arguing with Tiphan and Duranix awaiting his friend.
“Tell your people to join us,” Amero ordered Tiphan.
“The Sensarku will stay. We shall save everyone.”
“Tiphan! The green dragon may be with them! You’re gambling not only your life but the lives of your followers!”
Proud disdain showed on Tiphan’s face. “I fear no green dragon. If my power can heal our benign Protector, it can smite a malign attacker.”
The sound of the approaching horsemen was like thunder and not very distant thunder at that.
Amero turned helplessly to Duranix. “He’s mad!”
“Tiphan, as your Protector, I order you and your followers to come with us,” said the dragon.
The acolytes appeared ready to obey. Before they had taken two steps, however, Tiphan halted them with a word.
Shouting could be heard over the noise of the pounding hoofbeats, and he said, “Fear not, mighty Duranix! I will protect my people!”
Amero tried to appeal to the acolytes directly, but none of the Sensarku would budge.
Duranix had had enough. Even as Amero continued to plead with the young folk, the dragon lowered his head and snagged the back of Amero’s tunic in his teeth. He lifted his protesting friend off the ground and stalked away. He easily overtook Beramun and the scouts and set Amero on his feet among them.
“Tiphan?” asked Paharo, glancing back the way they’d come.
Amero shook his head, face red with anger.
“Is it possible he can defeat them?” Beramun asked. “He does have great power at his command.”
“He’s an ignorant savage, playing in flames,” Duranix said bluntly. “The only question is, will he burn up your enemies or himself?”
Zannian and his chiefs, riding in the forefront of the raiders, halted abruptly. He flung up a hand, signaling the rest of the band to stop as well.
“Did you hear that?” he exclaimed.
Hoten, at his right, nodded gravely. “The voice of the bronze dragon.”
“His death scream! The Master’s poison has done its work!” Zannian exulted, wrapping the reins tightly around his left fist. “Now there’s nothing between us and Arku-peli but a few scouts! Send word to my mother. Loose the Jade Men! Spare no one!”
He kicked his mount into a gallop. The raiders raised a spontaneous shout of triumph and followed. When they topped the next rise, an unexpected sight met their eyes. “What’s this?” Zannian wondered aloud.
On the opposite slope, a small party was drawn up in a circle. There couldn’t have been more than thirty or forty of them, all on foot, dressed in white, and lightly armed.
“They look like children,” snorted Hoten.
Sthenn’s warning about trickery rose in Zannian’s mind. This couldn’t be as easy as it appeared.
“Hoten,” he said. “Take a hundred riders and follow the Jade Men.”
“Aye, Zan. We’ll have no trouble.”
The chief shook his head. “This smells bad to me. The Jade Men are fierce, but too young to know battle. Be ready to support them in case of treachery.”
“Aye, Zan.” Hoten picked up a hundred raiders from the band behind him. They loaded their throwing sticks, and at Hoten’s command, started down the slope.
The Jade Men, formed in a single line, gradually brought their flanks in, forming a silent circle fifty paces from the white-clad villagers. With their painted skin and dyed leather armor, they hardly seemed human. Nacris followed in their wake, her litter carried on the shoulders of four muscular bearers.
To their credit, the villagers did not waver at the sight of death marching toward them. They held their small circle. In the center, a white-haired figure stood, holding aloft a short wooden staff.
The Jade Men closed to within thirty paces. Nacris saw a flickering halo around the villagers’ leader. In the next heartbeat, a stream of fire, like horizontal lightning, lashed out from the circle of villagers. The ground exploded under the Jade Men’s feet. Stones, dirt, and burning clumps of grass flew everywhere. Five green-painted warriors were thrown down.
The Jade Men closed the gap in their line and continued their silent advance undeterred. A second blast burst upon them. This time, Nacris was hurled to the hillside and two of her bearers were struck dead where they stood. She rolled over in the grass and tried to drag herself to safety.
From his place atop the facing hill, Zannian watched with disbelieving anger. His fury grew as a ragged cheer rose from the circle of villagers.
“What is this force they command?” he shouted at no one in particular. “Why wasn’t I told they could do this? Where is the Master?”
Sthenn was reported to be some distance in the rear. Zannian sent riders to fetch the dragon.
“Tell him they throw fire at my men!” the raider chief yelled as the messengers sped away. “We need him to overcome them!”
Zannian turned to his mounted warriors. “The rest of you, form on me!” he ordered, and the balance of the center block of raiders, two hundred strong, closed ranks. “No throwing sticks. Spears! Use your spears!”
Two hundred flint-tipped lances swung down. Bellowing hoarsely, Zannian led them down the hill. Reaching Hoten’s band, Zannian united both groups and started toward the ring of cheering villagers.
When they were sixty paces from the white-clad enemy, a third bolt of lightning lashed out, flying over the heads of the Jade Men and hitting the ground scant steps from Zannian’s gray stallion. The raider chief felt the heat of it on his face, and dirt and stones flew wildly, but he kept going.
At twenty paces, a fourth bolt was unleashed, but it was far smaller than the others and flew harmlessly wide of the raiders, tearing a smoking hole in the hillside. That was the last. The Jade Men reached the slender line of villagers and fell on them like wolves.
As the enemy’s blood flowed, the Jade Men gave voice for the first time, chanting, “Greengall! Greengall!” Most of the villagers were speared where they stood. A few tried to run, but none got more than a few steps before being cut down.
Zannian found Nacris sitting propped on the wreckage of her litter, trying to see the battle. He extended a hand to her. She swung awkwardly onto the horse behind him.
“How goes the fight?” she said.
“Your Jade Men are wading through the enemy’s blood.”
“They closed for the kill despite the lightning?”
“Not one turned away.”
Her hard face split in a savage smile.
Zannian approached the surviving villagers. He was astonished to see them fall back to protect their leader. The lightly armed youths surrounded their leader in a wall of living flesh, batting aside spear tips with their bare hands. Two even threw themselves on spearpoints to keep them from piercing the man in the center of their circle.
Zannian put a ram’s horn to his lips and blew the call that ordered his men to stop fighting. The mounted raiders halted, but the Jade Men continued to press in, spearing the helpless villagers.
“Order them to stop,” Zannian told Nacris. “I want to know about this power they possess.”
She had to give the command twice, but the Jade Men finally drew back in a tight square in front of Zannian’s horse.
Seven young men and women, their white doeskins torn and drenched with blood, clung together around their leader.
“Yield or die,” Zannian said, halting his horse only a step away from the panting, bleeding group.
The villagers’ leader maintained his straight-backed, arrogant posture. He was a strange-looking man — tall, pale, with hair the color of midwinter snow.
“I am Tiphan, first servant of the great dragon of Yala-tene.”
“Are you? And where is the great dragon of Yala-tene? Why does he leave his followers to perish like dogs?”
“I sent him away,” Tiphan said proudly. “I am the defender of my people.”
“You’ve done a job of it, too.” Zannian’s eyes raked over the dead youths. “Was it you throwing that blue fire?”
“Tell me how you do it, and I may spare your life.”
“I possess the ancient power.” Tiphan’s proud stance was wavering, exhaustion evident on his face. He trembled, but said, “Send your warband away, and I will instruct you in the ways of the Sensarku.”
Zannian laughed. The man’s gall was amazing.
A large shadow swept over raider and villager alike. Zannian’s amusement became grimmer. He said, “You’re the one who’s about to learn something.”
With a strong backwash of air, Sthenn landed. Tiphan’s young followers wailed when the saw the green dragon. The white-haired man spoke sharply to them, and they dragged themselves off their bellies and wrapped their bleeding arms around him, seeming both to support and draw strength from him.
“What have we here?” Sthenn said. “Is this the source of the power I felt? I can’t believe it!”
Tiphan drew himself as straight as he could. “I am Tiphan, first servant of the great dragon of Yala-tene.”
“Friends of my old friend Duranix, eh?” Sthenn, blistered hide oozing pus, hopped several steps and landed heavily in front of the Sensarku. “How charming. Did he teach you those tricks?” The hideous green head snaked closer. “Did he?”
Tiphan tried to maintain his defiant stance, but he shrank from his hideous questioner. His reply was nearly inaudible. “No. I learned them myself.”
Sthenn’s jaws parted slightly. He blew a stream of cyan-colored gas on the villagers clinging to Tiphan’s legs. Coughing and retching horribly, the acolytes slid limply to the ground, poisoned by his breath. Sthenn’s bony claw darted in and took hold of Tiphan’s waist. He hoisted the man into the air.
“Nothing is funnier than a rodent who thinks he’s important,” the green dragon said. He raked a single claw down Tiphan’s chest, slashing open his doeskin robe and drawing blood. “Tell me, wise rodent, what’s become of my dear, dear friend Duranix?”
“He… lives,” Tiphan gasped, eyes streaming tears from the gas.
“Of course he does!” Sthenn squeezed his hapless victim until blood spurted from Tiphan’s nose. “But where is he now?”
“Impossible!” Sthenn shook him hard, snapping his head forward and back. “Don’t lie to me, rodent! His hindquarters must be rotting by now!”
The light of pride flared one last time in Tiphan’s blue eyes. “I cured him,” said the Sensarku leader.
Sthenn could see he spoke the truth, and the dragon howled with pure vexation. He spread his jaws wide, intending to bite Tiphan’s head from his body, then changed his mind. Instead, he began to squeeze, gradually tightening his grip around the man’s waist, savoring each snapping bone.
Tiphan’s head lolled back, his tongue protruding, and the green dragon relaxed his grip slightly, planning to draw out his death for as long as possible. Tiphan’s head slowly came up, and he opened his mouth. With his last breath, he called upon the remaining stones in his belt.
A ball of white fire engulfed him, sending horses and men reeling back in terror. When it vanished seconds later, Tiphan was gone, and so was Sthenn’s foreclaw.
The green dragon screamed. The stump of his right foreleg was blackened and smoking. Torrents of anger, pain, and outrage poured from his throat. He fell to the ground and thrashed wildly, hammering his head into the turf. His tail whipped about, smashing anyone and anything it struck. Panic-stricken, the raiders fled their master’s agony, riding away pell-mell to escape.
Zannian and Nacris fled too, pausing on a nearby hilltop to watch Sthenn’s torment.
Hoten joined them. Like his chief, the elder raider looked down on the green dragon’s display with an unsympathetic eye.
“So the Master lost a hand?” he asked.
“Yes,” Zannian answered. “It’ll grow back, in time.”
Hoten watched the scattering raider host and sighed. “It’ll take time to get the men back together.”
“Don’t even bother until the Master finishes his fit,” Nacris put in.
“How long will that take?”
Nacris leaned forward tiredly, resting her head on Zannian’s back. “Until he’s done.”
Several leagues away, Duranix halted in his tracks. He was walking rather than flying to avoid giving away their position to the raiders. When Amero noticed the dragon wasn’t at their heels, he doubled back.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Tiphan is dead.”
Amero pulled up short. “How do you know? Can you hear his thoughts, too?”
“He was too weak-minded for that.” Duranix waved a claw in the air as if shooing a pesky insect. “I heard something though, like many voices whispering of his death.”
Amero tried to feel sorry for Tiphan, but he could generate little sympathy for his foolish, headstrong rival. However, his heart was heavy, thinking of the beguiled young people who had died with their Tosen. He hurried on. With the Sensarku gone, there was nothing standing between them and the raiders.
Duranix followed more slowly, looking back in the direction of the Sensarku’s last stand. Whatever his motives, Tiphan had healed Duranix and given his life to save the dragon and the others. No human had ever done such a thing for a dragon before.
The sweetest sight Amero could imagine appeared: the walls of Yala-tene. He stood at the foot of the bridge that bore his name, a lump growing in his throat. They had come through.
His people had passed an uncertain night in a hasty defensive camp. Strangely, no raiders had attacked them. The peaceful night made Paharo and the others wonder if the Sensarku had succeeded and defeated the raiders after all. Duranix quickly quashed their hopes. It was possible Tiphan had delayed the raiders, he said, but he would know if Sthenn had been killed.
The orchard was in full bloom, and drifts of white and pink blossoms greeted Duranix and the weary humans as they crossed the bridge into the valley proper. The billowing petals lent an unreal air to their crossing, for these were from Tiphan’s enchanted trees, already twice as big as was natural for this time of year. If their growing continued, the villagers could be harvesting fruit well before the summer was over.
Jenla and the planters were working in the orchard and saw the lofty striding figure of Duranix before they spied Amero and the others. They came running, shouting cries of welcome. Though happy to be home, Amero had dismal news for them.
“The raiders may yet be coming,” he told the gathering of gardeners. “We must make ready to resist their attack. This Zannian leads a host of fifty score warriors and has the help of a vicious green dragon.”
“What of Tiphan and the Sensarku?” someone asked.
Grim silence revealed their fate more clearly than any words. Jenla shook her head, saying, “Pride was his undoing. Others may weep for him, but I can’t.”
Though Amero agreed with her, he knew of at least one person who would grieve. “I must tell Konza about this,” he said.
It was Jenla’s turn to reveal bad news. “Tiphan told us his father had gone east, seeking more of the spirit stones, but no one saw him leave,” she explained. “Trackers combed the upper passes, but they found no sign Konza had been through. I think Tiphan silenced his father, so the old man wouldn’t try to stop the ill-fated expedition.”
“Murder?” said Beramun, wide-eyed.
Jenla said no more, and the word hung in the air.
“We’ll puzzle that out later,” Amero told them. “We must get our defenses ready.”
“At least we have our Protector back,” said Tepa, taking in the dragon’s larger size. Duranix said nothing, his gaze still fixed on the western peaks.
The gardeners followed Amero’s little band back to town. Horns blew in a loud, flat chorus. Children lined the tops of the walls, and the elders trooped out to greet them.
Amero was pleased to see Udi, Tepa’s son, among the villagers. He had arrived in Yala-tene after Tiphan’s group had departed.
Duranix boosted Amero atop the lower wall. From there he addressed his people.
“Friends,” he said, “I’m glad to be back with Duranix and the brave scouts who came to find us. I grieve the loss of all the Sensarku.” He could not bring himself to mention Tiphan’s name. “Sad though I am, there’s no time for mourning. The threat from the raiders is grave. There are fifty score of them, led by a green dragon.”
Shocked silence greeted this announcement.
Nubis the stockman was the first to find his tongue. “When will they get here?”
“I don’t know, but we must make ready immediately. From this moment on, Yala-tene must become a war camp. Every villager over the age of fifteen will carry a spear at all times. Children will gather food and fodder for the animals. Every baffle must be sealed. By this time tomorrow, I want Yala-tene closed up tight and ready to fight!”
No one cheered, but no one objected either. Amero named his foundry master Huru as his second-in-command. Hulami the vintner was to take charge of the supplies of food and water. Montu and other craftsmen were to make weapons.
When he’d finished, Amero turned to Duranix and asked, “Do you have anything to say?”
The dragon’s head now rode well above the top of the wall, He surveyed the villagers clustered around him for a moment, then said, “Remember this — the raiders are not coming to steal your cattle, burn your homes, or carry off your women, though they will do all those things if they get the chance. They come at the will of Sthenn, who wants nothing less than the total destruction of Yala-tene.”
Few villagers dared ask questions of the bronze dragon. Jenla did.
“Why do they want to destroy us?” she said. “We’ve never done them any harm.”
“You exist. That is cause enough,” Duranix told her. This plainly did not satisfy her, so he elaborated. “Sthenn is a creature of corruption and chaos. He despises order in any form and hates any authority but his own whims. This village is an affront to his ideas and a threat to his desire to rule the plains as he does his native forest. You cannot bargain with him. You cannot buy him off. Your only hope is to fight. If you can defeat his horde, I will deal with him.”
Jenla nodded. “Let what the Protector says be done,” she said.
“Arkuden, about the baffles — ” Paharo began.
“I know.” Amero looked up at Duranix. “Can you bring boulders from the cliff and use them to block the entrances?”
Hungry and depleted from his long crawl across the plain, Duranix nonetheless agreed. There was no choice. No one else in Yala-tene could move enough stone in so short a time.
The villagers scattered to their tasks. Hulami marshaled the very old and the very young to gather food and water for people and beasts alike. Paharo remained behind after the villagers dispersed.
“Arkuden?” he said. “A word, please? I have an idea.”
Amero took the young hunter aside, and they conversed in low tones. Amero listened attentively, nodding in agreement with what Paharo was saying.
“Do it,” the Arkuden said at last. “Take whoever you need, but no more than thirty all told. I can’t weaken our defenses by more than that.”
Paharo went through the village, tapping young men and women to join him. He picked fleet, able hunters every one, none over the age of twenty. Bringing this band back to Amero, he announced his final selection: Beramun. She was still by the Arkuden’s side.
“Not her, Paharo,” Amero said quickly.
“Why not?” she protested.
“You don’t even know what you’ve been chosen for!”
“I don’t care what the task is, so long as I get to fight Zannian!”
He stepped closer and said privately, “I prefer you to stay here.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. What could you have for me to do that’s more important?”
He had no argument greater than hers. Voice tight with concern, Amero told her, “Be careful, girl.”
“You too, old man,” she joked, and took her place with Paharo’s group.
After a brief explanation of his plan, Paharo led them toward the river at a jog.
Zannian gazed up at the hulking gray mountains. He’d never seen real mountains before, but his expression did not show awe or fascination. Instead his youthful face was etched with deep frustration. Too many things were impeding his progress. Someone would pay, and pay in blood.
Hoten rode up to his chief. “The trail goes straight in,” he reported. “It can’t be more than two days old.”
Zannian scratched a newly sprouted patch of beard on his chin. “Straight in? The dragon too?”
“Aye. The tracks run right down the center of the pass as far as we rode.”
Zannian turned his horse to face the open country behind them. His men were strung out all the way to the horizon, still regrouping after their headlong flight away from the injured Sthenn.
“We’ll hold here a while,” he said. “Some of those dogs won’t get here before sundown.”
Hoten cleared his throat and spat. “Speaking of stragglers, where’s the Master?”
Zannian eyed his lieutenant. “Those who speak that name lightly come to bad ends.”
“I mean no disrespect,” said Hoten, his tone anything but respectful. “I only wondered where our mighty leader is now that we’re at the enemy’s throat.”
“He’ll return when it suits him.”
No one had seen Sthenn since he’d lost his claw to the villager’s spirit stones. Weeping acid tears of pain, the dragon had flown away, leaving the raider band in total disorder. Most of the men who’d ridden away from the green dragon’s torment slowly returned. Others never came back. Without Sthenn’s fearsome presence to stiffen their spines, they deserted for good. For a time it seemed the entire band might fall apart.
It was Nacris who had acted swiftly to keep the raiders together. On her orders, the Jade Men captured ten deserters and put them to death. Lacking trees from which to hang them, Nacris had the men beheaded and their heads displayed on spears.
Along with fear, she wielded another potent weapon — the power of greed. She reminded the men of the booty waiting in Yala-tene. She loudly scoffed at the notion Sthenn would not return. The desertions ceased, but it would be several days before the entire band was together again.
The young raider chief yearned for battle. Slaughtering those fools in their fancy robes wasn’t fighting, merely killing. Daydreaming of past battles, he suddenly found his thoughts filled by the black-haired girl. Sthenn had promised she was in the valley ahead.
Zannian licked his dry lips and wrapped the reins tightly around his left hand.
Hoten noted his chiefs characteristic gesture. Zannian always did it before riding into battle.
“Take a scouting party into the pass, Hoten,” Zannian said. “Leave your horses and go on foot, quietly. That narrow pass is perfect for ambushes. I want you to make sure the way is clear for the rest of us.”
“We get to be the bait?” A warning glance from his chief made Hoten shrug and add, “As you say, Zan.” He rode away to cull a suitable patrol from the men on hand.
Hoten found Nacris hobbling about on a crude crutch near the mouth of the pass, close to the stony banks of the Plains River.
“Careful you don’t fall in,” Hoten said, dismounting.
She laughed. “No water can harm me.”
“How can you know that?”
“My death’s been foreseen. The Master himself divined it. Neither water, nor fire, nor stone, nor metal shall kill me.”
He left his horse cropping the sparse grass. “Do you really believe that?” he asked, putting a hand to her weatherworn cheek.
She neither acknowledged his gesture nor pulled away, but said, “Why not? A dragon’s eyes see further than mine.”
He took his hand away. “I see another way to interpret that augury — Sthenn himself will kill you one day.”
Nacris laughed again, a short, harsh bark. “I’ve thought of that, too.”
“How can you be so indifferent?”
She hobbled a few steps away and looked into the pass, still misty in the morning light. “My life ended here twelve years ago,” she said flatly. “The man I loved died, the woman who killed him lived, and I was crippled. Since then, I’ve been waiting to take my revenge. When I have it, then I can rest what remains of my body.”
Hoten knocked her crutch aside and caught Nacris in his arms. Bitter and hard as she was, he cared for her.
“If I threw you in the river and held your head under, what would you do?” Hoten whispered.
Her lack of fear infuriated him. “That’s all?”
“I’m not strong enough to fight you.” She looked him squarely in the eyes. “If you want a struggle, wait till we capture Arku-peli. There are many women there who can gratify you.”
Disgusted, he released her, picked up her crutch, and thrust it at her.
“Now I know why the Master gave you command of the Jade Men,” he said. “You’ve become as soulless as they are.”
In a cold fury, he left and rounded up the first twenty men he found idling by the water. He had each arm himself with a throwing stick and bundles of missiles. They left everything else behind — horses, food and water, heavy spears, and shields. Bait they might be, but Hoten saw no reason to weigh his men down. If the villagers were waiting for them, speed would be more valuable than armament.
They tromped past Zannian. The chief was listening with ill-disguised annoyance as his mother lectured him on tactics. Hoten acknowledged his leader with a nod. Mother and son both ignored him.
The outer pass was wide, with the river flowing down the middle. Heavy sandbars and tumbled gravel filled the floor of the ravine, tufted here and there with knifegrass and brittle scrub. The pass was twelve paces wide at this point, but the frowning cliffs and lofty slate peaks beyond made it feel much narrower. The men kept bunching up as the burden of the surrounding heights bore down on them. Time and again Hoten had to give the same warning.
“Stand apart, louts! You want some mud-toe villager to drop a stone and get six of you at once?”
The tracks, human and dragon, led unequivocally forward. Hoten followed them for three leagues, then the prints abruptly vanished. The tracks didn’t lead off in other directions. They simply disappeared. The gravel ahead was free of marks.
“Did the dragon pick them up and fly away?” wondered one of the raiders.
“Maybe,” Hoten said, but he wasn’t convinced. He squatted to study the ground more closely.
“It’s spirit power again,” said another man uneasily. The men muttered among themselves, clearly not finding such a thing hard to believe.
“There are no spirits at work here,” Hoten said harshly. “Not unless spirits use pine boughs to sweep tracks away.” He held up several loose pine needles, still sticky with sap. “This happened not long ago.”
Behind Hoten a voice called out, “Someone’s coming — many, and on horseback!” The raider was kneeling on a patch of rock, his hand pressed flat against it. Hoten did likewise and also felt the heavy vibrations. The strength and rhythm of the pounding could mean only one thing.
“It’s our own people,” Hoten announced. “It’s too soon. I’ll have to head them off.”
He ordered his men to hold where they were, then ran down the stony slope.
He soon spotted the outriders of the main band. Standing atop a convenient outcropping, he waved his hands over his head. The horsemen stopped. Zannian emerged from the ranks and rode to meet his lieutenant.
“What news, Hoten?”
“You came too soon, Zan. My men are only a hundred paces farther on. The bronze dragon himself could be hiding in the cliffs above us, and we wouldn’t know it until it was too late.”
“You give the mud-toes too much credit,” Zannian scoffed. “The ones who escaped us on the plain are probably home by now, and the rest are wetting their breechcloths just thinking about our coming. We should attack before they have a chance to regroup.”
“I think that’s unwise, Zan.”
The chief shrugged. “Then argue with my mother. It’s her idea.”
Hoten looked for Nacris, but she wasn’t to be seen. “We’re going,” Zannian announced. “Find a horse.”
One of the lead riders shouted a warning. Hoten pushed through the standing horses to the water’s edge, and Zannian followed him on horseback. They soon saw what had made their man cry out: a body, floating facedown in the river. From his clothing, it was clear he was a raider.
At Zannian’s command, two men waded into the stream, snagged the drifting corpse, and hauled it back to shore. Hoten turned the man over. His forehead bore a terrible wound.
“It’s Besh — one of my scouts,” Hoten said, frowning.
“Looks like he fell. Clumsy idiot.” Zannian turned his horse around and called to his men, “Forward!”
The chief rode away. Fuming, Hoten stared at the body. What was Zannian thinking? He was always bold, but never so rash. What was wrong with him?
A horse was brought, and Hoten mounted. He took a spear from the hide scabbard draped over the horse’s neck. Still filled with misgivings, he joined the stream of riders filing into the shadowed depths of the gorge.
The column strung out as the raiders thinned into a narrow line just two riders wide. Hoten made his way forward until he was riding alongside his chief. He remained watchful until they came to the spot where he had left his scouting party. His men were nowhere in sight.
“What trickery is this?” Hoten growled. He dismounted and searched the stony riverbank. Not a trace of his nineteen men remained.
A figure suddenly appeared out of the scrub a hundred paces upriver. Several raiders yelled to alert their leader.
Zannian shaded his eyes to see who it was. There was no mistaking the mane of jet hair, the slim shape, and insolent stance.
“Beramun!” Zannian drew his bronze sword and brandished it above his head. “My elven blade to the man who takes that girl alive!” he cried.
The raiders cheered, urging their horses forward. The girl awaited their rush, hands on her hips.
Hoten grabbed the bridle of Zannian’s mount, shouting, “It’s a trap! Can’t you see that?”
“Let go!” the chief shouted, shoving Hoten away with his foot. “I swore to have that black-haired girl, and have her I will!”
With a hundred raiders well ahead of him, Zannian charged down the canyon at the unmoving figure. Hoten’s frantic warnings were lost in the din.
When the horsemen were sixty paces away, Beramun turned and sprinted up the ravine. The men followed, whooping and brandishing their spears, each believing he’d be the one to win the fine elven blade.
As the foremost riders passed a twisted cedar tree, Beramun scampered up a sloping heap of rocks by the south wall of the gorge. From behind this mound a dozen armed villagers appeared, spears ready. The raiders slowed, saw how few of the enemy stood before them, then charged onward, laughing.
Hardly had the triumphant shouts left their throats than a hail of heavy stones, some as large as a man’s head, rained down on them. Horses and raiders toppled.
Zannian, held up by the flailing mass of fallen men and animals in front of him, turned his horse this way and that, dodging missiles. He caught sight of Beramun again, standing with her comrades. The sight of his men being routed by a bunch of dirt-scrabbling farmers filled Zannian with fury. He drove his heels hard into his mount’s flanks. Riding over his own fallen men, he closed within thirty paces of Beramun.
“Give yourself up, and I will spare your life!” he shouted.
She did not move. “I won’t ever be your slave again!”
Zannian notched a dart into his throwing stick, but before he could fling it, a block of red sandstone grazed his horse’s neck. The startled animal bucked, forcing Zannian to drop his weapon and hold on with both hands to avoid being unseated. While the gray stallion danced and twisted, more stones flew down. One struck Zannian squarely in the chest, and he fell into the mob of fallen raiders.
Hoten saw his chief go down. He took command, calling for darts. This forced the villagers to quit their place atop the rocky mound. They fled up the gorge on foot. The raiders couldn’t pursue because of the continuing barrage of stones and spears.
Hoten ordered half his men to dismount and scale the cliffs. They ascended steadily, protected from projectiles by the overhanging peak. Moments after they reached the top, the bombardment ceased.
After sending the unconscious Zannian to the rear, Hoten led fifty mounted warriors after Beramun and her comrades. They quickly caught up to the fugitives. Spurred by their chiefs promised reward, the raiders concentrated on Beramun. Her companions dueled with the raiders until their backs were quite literally against the canyon wall.
“Slay all but the black-haired girl!” Hoten roared.
The raiders closed in. Their reluctance to harm Beramun bore against them. With no such compunction staying their hands, the villagers drove back the first wave of raiders. Hoten called for darts, but his men feared hitting Beramun and losing the bounty, so their attack came to naught.
Many of the villagers had lost their spears in the previous attack and were reduced to throwing stones at the enemy. The youth on Beramun’s right went down, felled by a spear in his chest. Two raiders jumped off their horses and tried to grab her. She hit one on the head with the shaft of her spear. The pole snapped, but the man went down. The second raider caught her by the wrist and delivered a vicious backhand blow.
Beramun slammed into the canyon wall and slid to the ground, dazed. The raider who’d felled her reached down to claim his prize. His triumph was short lived. A deafening roar filled the tight confines of the gorge. Rocked by the terrible sound, Hoten and his men looked up to see Duranix hovering over the gorge, his wings flapping hard to keep his enlarged body aloft.
The bronze dragon roared again. As one, the raiders dropped their weapons and leaped on their horses to flee. Duranix lowered his head and blasted them with a bolt of lightning. The ground shattered beneath them, dust and rocks flying in all directions. Most perished, and the few survivors raced down the canyon on foot. The dragon landed in front of them. Jaws gaping, he incinerated them, one after another, until not a man or horse stood upright.
Beramun pushed herself onto her hands and knees. A weight on her arm turned out to be the raider’s hand still gripping her wrist. It had been burned off above the elbow. Paharo helped her pry the dead fingers loose.
The smell of singed flesh filled the air, and the view downstream was obscured by drifting smoke and dust. The surviving villagers approached the dragon.
Beramun called, “Well timed! Another ten heartbeats, and we’d have been done for!”
Duranix whirled, his burnished scales flecked with soot and blood. The swiftness of his movement and the ferocity of his expression caused them all to shrink back in alarm.
“I don’t want your thanks!” he snapped. “Do you think I enjoy slaughtering Sthenn’s worthless slaves? Do you?”
“We’re grateful you saved us,” Paharo said humbly.
“Amero asked me to. Thank him. Now get back to the bridge. He’s waiting for you there.”
The villagers started back to Yala-tene. Duranix remained, staring at the empty vista before him. Seeing him linger, Beramun turned back and said, “What are you waiting for?”
Duranix looked down at her. “Sthenn is near. I feel him. Don’t you?”
She touched the front of her tunic, fingers resting atop the green mark on her chest. “I’m not his creature,” she insisted. “I’m a free woman.”
“Go, before I forget Amero’s wishes and kill you right here!”
Infuriated, she yelled, “Stupid beast! I’ve done nothing wrong!”
Duranix lowered his huge head until it was only a handspan from her face. “Perhaps you don’t know the evil Sthenn has planned for you,” he said. “But anything is possible — sedition, betrayal, murder. I won’t let you harm Amero.”
Beramun’s back was against the cliff wall. She could only stare into those huge green eyes, her throat too dry to speak.
Suddenly the dragon whipped his neck around, head thrusting skyward. Mouth gaping, Duranix roared.
Beramun dropped to the ground, clapping her hands over her ears in a futile attempt to block the powerful sound. The rocks beneath her resonated with the endless roar.
Through a red haze of agony, Beramun saw a winged shape fly overhead. She knew that shape and why the bronze dragon roared. Sthenn had returned.
Duranix continued to bellow a challenge to his ancient nemesis. Stones cascaded down both sides of the canyon, plunging into the river and piling up along the canyon walls. The terrible sound grew so unbearable that Beramun screamed. She couldn’t hear her puny cry over the omnipotent voice of the dragon, but she screamed and screamed until her throat was raw.
The thunderous roar finally ceased as Duranix spread his wings. With two running steps, he vaulted into the air. The tips of his wings scraped the walls on each side of the canyon, but he cleared them and soared aloft.
Breathless, Beramun forced herself to her feet, her back braced against the canyon wall. She was surprised to see another figure rising from the debris some paces away. One of the raiders had survived: the bald one, Hoten.
Looking fully as battered as she, Hoten regarded Beramun blankly for a moment. In unison they turned their faces skyward, where Duranix was climbing to meet his enemy in a final duel. Soon the paths of both dragons took them out of sight.
Without a word or sign of acknowledgment, Hoten and Beramun stumbled away: he, back to his chief, and she, to the Lake of the Falls.
By the time Beramun returned to the valley, Yala-tene’s defenses were in place. Boulders and logs had been piled across the mouth of the canyon, making it difficult for the mounted enemy to ride directly to the bridge. Villagers armed with spears and stones were in position atop the stone towers that anchored each end of the bridge. Barricades of timber and thorn bushes blocked the north end of the bridge. When Beramun arrived, tired and battered, Amero and the village elders were in the midst of an argument.
“We must prepare the bridge to fall,” Amero was insisting. “If the raiders get the better of us, we’ll have to destroy it. The river’s too deep to be forded, so they’ll have to take the time to build rafts.”
“Destroying the bridge means abandoning the orchard and gardens to the enemy!” Jenla protested. “The greatest part of our food supply lies in those fields. How can we give them up?”
“We have food stored in the town caves,” said Huru.
“How long will that last?” demanded Tepa. The usually mild beekeeper was red-faced and sweating. “Without food, we can’t stay inside our wall for long!”
Then Amero spotted Beramun. A look of vast relief crossed his face. He called out to her, cutting off the elders’ angry debate. Jenla and the rest fell silent as the Arkuden ran to meet the nomad girl.
Beramun slumped tiredly against a felled log.
“Here, take this,” Amero said, handing her a dipper of cool water. “I was beginning to think you were lost. What happened?”
“Duranix,” she said between gulps of water, “saved us.”
“So Paharo said. What was the roaring we heard?”
She winced at the memory. Her skull still ached from the awful noise. “Duranix saw the green dragon in the sky, bellowed a challenge, then flew after him.”
“Flew after…?” Amero cast a quick glance at the village elders and lowered his voice. “He’s gone?”
Beramun drained the gourd dry and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “I saw the look in his eyes. He won’t return until Sthenn is dead.”
“Say nothing about that!” he whispered to her. “Our people may lose heart if they hear their protector is gone.”
Jenla called for Amero to rejoin the elders, and he did. The argument began anew over whether the bridge should be destroyed. Standing in the midst of his contentious people, Amero looked more tired and strained than Beramun had ever seen him.
The screech of a falcon caused her to look up. The feathered hunter wheeled in lazy circles across the flawless blue vault of the midday sky. Somewhere up there in the boundless ocean of air, the two dragons were winging toward their final destiny.
After Duranix cleared the canyon rim, he climbed as rapidly as he could, never losing sight of his foe. Sthenn continued to glide in a vast, lazy circle, five thousand paces above the mountain peaks. Filled with barely contained fury, Duranix retained enough presence of mind to know this wasn’t right. For all his age and cunning, Sthenn was fundamentally craven. It was completely unlike him to wait patiently for Duranix to catch up. The evil beast must be up to something.
As he reached the halfway point in his climb, Duranix saw Sthenn drop his right wing and glide off to the west, away from the Valley of the Falls. So that was his game! He wanted Duranix to follow him away from the valley, leaving Yala-tene alone against Zannian’s host. It was a brutal, unsubtle stratagem, and it showed how well Sthenn understood him.
As he continued the pursuit, Duranix told himself the loss of a few hundred humans was worth the destruction of the vile green dragon. It came down to a cold calculation: It was better for Sthenn to be dead than for Amero to be alive. There would always be more humans. They bred like rats, died often and easily, and kept the world constantly stirred up. Amero was a good fellow for a human — amusing, engaging, and thoughtful, and he conceived a constant stream of schemes and ideas. It was possible he’d find a way to cope with the raiders on his own.
Sound, logical reasoning. So why did it feel so wrong? Why did Duranix have a thoroughly irrational desire to wheel about and descend upon the advancing raider horde?
He couldn’t break off the chase. He couldn’t allow Sthenn to escape. If fortune favored him, he might finish his enemy and return in time to save Yala-tene as well, but if the chase took too long, if Amero died before he could return, then Duranix vowed that Zannian’s band would not long survive the death of their master.
As Duranix’s mind wandered, so did his navigation. Unconsciously, he fell into a slow northward bank, which would eventually bring him full circle, back to the Valley of the Falls. While he wrestled with his conscience, he failed to see the green dragon also changing course, doubling back toward him.
Duranix’s instincts saved him. At the last moment, he sensed danger and turned sharply away, and Sthenn’s outstretched claws found only empty air. Laughing, the green dragon pulled out of his dive.
“Little friend, do I have your attention?” he sang in the ancient dragon tongue.
Duranix’s answer was a bolt of white-hot energy. Sthenn maneuvered out of its path and returned the favor with a stream of poison gas. The green dragon’s breath could kill any warm-blooded creature. To Duranix it was merely a noxious irritant.
“Come, come!” Sthenn said, hovering. “I expect better from you than this!”
“Taunt away,” Duranix replied, laboring hard to maintain his position with wings shorter than Sthenn’s. “Use up all the witticisms you have, Sthenn. The time is coming when your dead, stinking carcass will be the only joke you have left!”
“Excellent! So it’s death you want, little friend?”
“Death for you, wyrm!”
Sthenn drew his dangling limbs up close to his body. Duranix saw one foreclaw missing. A blackened stump was all that remained. A smile curved his brazen lips. The arrogant Tiphan must have hurt the green dragon after all.
“Come,” Sthenn said with unusual gravity. “I give you this one chance. The world is wide. Follow if you can, and we shall see who finds death first.”
Sthenn rolled away, heading due north. Duranix briefly considered throwing another blast at his back but chose instead to conserve his strength. The bronze dragon flapped hard after his speeding quarry. Nothing else mattered now. He would not give Sthenn up, even if it meant chasing him to the end of the world.
Night fell. A profound silence enveloped the Valley of the Falls.
To deny the raiders help in locating them, Amero decreed no fires should be lit in the camp around the bridge. The villagers ate cold food, raw or dried, as their parents had done when wandering the vast plains.
“You know,” Paharo said, chewing a thin strip of dried elk meat, “I really hate raw flesh. I don’t see how you old folks stand it.”
“You children are spoiled,” said Jenla, sitting on a stone between Tepa and Paharo’s father, Huru. “I never even tasted cooked food till I was thirty.”
“Why didn’t you cook before you lived in Yala-tene?” asked a young woman behind Paharo.
“No one thought of it,” Amero said. “On the plain, once you made a kill, you had to butcher it on the spot and carry away what you could before wolves or panthers came to take it away from you. There was no time to do more, so taking up flint, building a fire, and cooking your meat never came up.”
“On a hunt we always roast our catch,” said Paharo.
“Spoiled,” repeated Jenla.
An owl hooted close by. Conversation ceased. Everyone listened intently until the owl hooted again, farther away.
Amero stood, taking up his spear and shield. “I think I’ll have a look at the bridge.”
Nubis shrugged. “It’s still there, Arkuden.”
The villagers chuckled. Amero smiled and walked away. One of the sentinels atop the south tower looked down and waved. He waved back.
For almost twenty years the bridge had connected the halves of the valley. It had been one of Amero’s first successes. With no timber in the valley long enough to span the river, and with no way to join short planks together that would bear much weight, building a bridge seemed impossible. The solution appeared one day when Amero heard an old man complaining to his mate that his belt no longer fit, and he needed a longer one. She responded tartly that there was no sense wasting good cowhide on his growing paunch. Amero watched as the thrifty woman braided short lengths of rawhide around narrow wooden pegs, expanding her man’s belt.
He adapted the same idea to make the bridge. A series of planks formed the walking surface. Vines were woven around the ends of the planks to join them one to another. At each end of the bridge, the vines were tied to stakes on shore, anchoring the long, flexible structure. The bridge sagged under heavy loads, however, and it was Duranix who suggested towers or posts be erected with supporting lengths of rope running from them to the bridge. The first wooden towers were eventually replaced by stone pillars.
The bridge had served without fault for many years, and had borne countless villagers and wanderers to and from Yala-tene. When his sister, Nianki, left the valley with the remnants of her nomad band years ago, they’d ridden their horses across with no difficulty. Amero knew the raiders could do the same. They must not be allowed the chance.
He paused halfway across the span. The river was deep here, its dark water coursing swiftly beneath his feet. The water would make an effective barrier to Zannian’s horde.
He looked both ways to make certain he was not observed. The night hid him well. Drawing his bronze dagger, he sawed at one of the main support ropes that stretched from the stone tower on the north bank down through a series of wooden brackets and up again to the south tower. The braided vine was as thick as his ankle, and it took a good deal of effort to cut.
Casting furtive glances over his shoulders, he kept up until the vine was cut over halfway through. Crossing to the other side, he repeated his work on the other rope. If the bridge were heavily strained — as by a mass of mounted raiders — it should collapse. If needed, a few strokes with a stone ax would part the ropes quickly.
He strolled to the north end of the bridge and called to the guards posted on the north tower. Neither one replied. Amero snorted. The fools had fallen asleep at their posts.
“Ho!” he shouted. “Wake up! Lookouts are meant to look!”
Something darted across the open ground beyond the barrier of timber and thorn bushes at the end of the bridge. Low and gray, its silhouette was definitely not human.
Amero froze. Pairs of red eyes gleamed in the darkness. An old fear, long buried but never forgotten, gripped his heart. He retreated slowly, not daring to turn his back on the yevi.
A quick flick of his eyes upward showed the sentinels hadn’t budged. He knew now they weren’t shirking. The lookouts were dead.
Amero backed another few steps, and a single yevi leaped over the barricade at the north end of the bridge. It landed lightly in front of him. He presented his spear and drew a deep breath.
“Wake up!” he bellowed as loudly as he could. “The raiders are here! The raiders are here!”
Both ends of the bridge erupted. Raiders and yevi who’d been lying in wait threw themselves at the barricade. Yevi sprang over the obstacle while hooded raiders attacked it with axes and poles. On the villagers’ side, Huru quickly mustered the townsfolk into a wall of shields five ranks deep. As previously rehearsed, the townspeople marched in close order to the end of the bridge and halted.
Amero meanwhile lunged with his spear but missed the yevi stalking him. The hump-shouldered creature snapped its heavy jaws time and again, trying to catch Amero’s spear shaft.
A second beast leaped over the hedge of thorns. Not wanting to battle two at once, Amero pushed his attack, slamming his shield into the first animal. It rolled backward into the second yevi, and they went down in a tangle. He quickly drove his spear into one, twisted it sharply, withdrew, and stabbed the second. He felt the flint tip pierce fur and flesh, scraping bone beneath. Giving a yell of triumph, he yanked his spear free. One yevi lay still, the other whined as it crept away, dragging its useless hindquarters.
Amero sprinted for the friendly end of the bridge. Just as he reached the wall of shields, a column of raiders four abreast came galloping up the gorge. Amero could see more than thirty men had infiltrated their defenses. They were dressed in dark leather capes and hoods, their faces smeared with dark green paint. Ten or more yevi moved among them, laughing their peculiar, distinctive cry.
The riders approached the bridge, led by a mounted figure in a macabre hood studded with animal horns and teeth.
Surrounded by torch-bearers, the fellow raised his hood and shouted, “People of Arku-peli, listen to me! I am Zannian, chief of Almurk! Put down your weapons! If you resist, we’ll kill you all!”
The villagers huddled behind their shields. Encouraged by their silence, the hooded man said, “Lay down your spears, and I will spare your lives! This is your only chance for mercy!”
Amero shouted back, “This is our valley, and we’ll defend it!”
“Die then!” The chief yanked his hood back down.
Riders dropped deer-antler grapples into the tangle of thorns laid around the end of the bridge. Then a mob of slaves was driven forward. Whips snapping, the raiders forced the captives to haul on the rawhide ropes attached to the grapples. The thorn barrier quickly came apart.
“Stand ready!” Amero shouted. “Those in the back, brace those in the front!”
Villagers in the rear of the formation pressed their shields into the backs of their comrades. Some laid their spears over the shoulders of their neighbors, creating a bristling hedge of points. Their steadfastness didn’t discourage the raiders. In fact, Zannian’s men seemed outraged at this show of resistance. Screaming threats of bloody death and destruction, they thundered across the bridge, slamming into the wall of shields.
The bridge was too short to allow a full charge, but the impact was still enough to dent the line deeply. It was an awkward fight, with the raiders jabbing at the villagers’ exposed heads and the villagers stabbing at the riders’ legs. Zannian ordered more men across the bridge to press home the attack.
Leading from the front rank, Amero shoved his spear forward and felt it strike home. A raider reeled off his horse, a deep wound in his thigh. He fell among the churning horses’ legs and was impaled by another villager before he could escape.
Horses reared, lashing out with their hooves, and several villagers were knocked down. Gaps opened in the line of shields, and the raiders pushed forward to exploit them.
Beramun found herself trapped on all sides by friends and foes. Hemmed in so tightly she could hardly breathe, she threw down her wooden buckler and climbed on the back of the man in front of her. A dart whisked by her face. Raiders who couldn’t reach the front line were using their throwing sticks to bombard the tightly packed villagers.
Beramun clambered over the heads of battling townsfolk until she reached the entwined supports of the bridge. She hauled herself up the thick cable under a constant barrage of darts. One scored a line across her calf, another tore through her hair, just missing her skull. She kept climbing.
Atop the south tower, she found both sentinels slain, their bodies studded with darts. She pried stones loose from the ledge and dropped them into the mob below. The crowd was so dense, it was impossible to miss, and she brained several raiders.
Realizing there would be no quick victory, Zannian ordered his men back. The raiders retreated, to the jeers of the elated villagers. A few townsfolk broke ranks to chase the raiders and were set upon by the yevi, hiding in the shadows on the bridge. They were dragged, screaming, into the darkness. Amero called the rest back, anxious to prevent unnecessary casualties.
As the raiders withdrew up the canyon out of sight, the villagers set up a cheer, thinking they’d vanquished their enemy. Their joy was short lived. In moments, the raiders came galloping back. They’d retreated only to gain room for a charge. Thundering down the slope three abreast, each raider was bent low, their long spears leveled.
From her high perch on one of the bridge’s support cables, Beramun shouted, “Form up, quick! They’re coming back!”
Amero yelled, “You, on the far right and left, move in behind and support the front!”
The bridge was thirty-two paces long. When the raiders were halfway across, Beramun cast her spear at one of the lead riders. She missed, but a horse in the second rank tripped on the shaft and went down, hurling its rider into the river. Another horse stumbled on the first fallen beast, then another.
The momentum of the raiders was so great that they surged past the fallen men and horses and hit the wall of shields. The villagers directly in their path were ridden under. The second line collapsed, but the third held. Villagers in the broken lines cast aside their shields and hauled raiders off their horses. A close, bloody fight ensued at the south end of the bridge.
“Push on!” Zannian bellowed from the north bank. “Kill them! Ride them down! Go! Go! ”
Raiders emulated Beramun and began climbing up the bridge’s rigging. Six of them closed on the lone girl. Her spear gone, all Beramun had was a flint knife and whatever stones she could pry loose from the tower top. Standing fearlessly exposed to enemy darts, she knocked two raiders off the rigging in quick succession.
More and more horsemen piled onto the bridge. The villagers’ line was slowly bending backward under the sheer weight bearing against it. Amero’s people dug in their heels. Men and horses toppled into the river, and the swift current bore them away.
A creaking groan sounded, and the bridge canted to one side. There followed a louder crack, and one of the cables weakened by Amero broke. The thick cord whipped through the air, knocking several riders into the river, and the west side of the bridge collapsed, pitching everyone in the water.
A roar went up from the embattled villagers. Raiders and their horses were swept away by the frigid current, though a few clung to the planking still attached to the bridge. The attackers who’d gained a toehold on the south shore were soon battered and subdued.
Beramun had noticed the weakened condition of the upper rope on her side of the bridge. She hacked at it with her knife. At last, the cable parted. Men still clinging to the crazily canted bridge were swept away. The water roiled with people and horses, some swimming, some drowning, others already floating lifelessly. A handful of villagers ran along the water’s edge, bombarding the frantically swimming raiders with rocks and spears. Any raider who made it to the hostile shore was swiftly dispatched, their bodies thrown back in the river.
On the north bank, rams’ horns sounded the retreat. Dejected raiders rode down the canyon out of sight of the cheering villagers. The yevi slunk away as well. The green-daubed men melted into the shadows at the foot of the western cliffs. Though Amero could no longer see them, he was sure they were still there, lurking in the dark.
Zannian alone remained, gazing over the battlefield. He removed his fearsome hood and threw it down in disgust. By the light of the blazing barricades and in full view of the people of Yala-tene, he removed his leather breastplate and drew his bronze sword. Slowly, deliberately, Zannian scored a cut along his left breast. Dark blood seeped from the wound. He extended his bright blade to the gawking villagers, so they could see the blood on it.
The formerly cheering townsfolk fell silent. Nubis asked the question for everyone: “Is he mad? Why does he injure himself?”
“He’s sending you a message,” Beramun said grimly. “This defeat is a small hurt, like the cut he gave himself. He’s not giving up, not after one fight.”
His message delivered, Zannian laid the bare blade on his shoulder and rode away.
Zannian withdrew his men from the pass, leaving a score of Jade Men and yevi to make sure the villagers didn’t reoccupy the heights. When the sun rose, the majority of the band was drawn up on the western plain: nine hundred twenty-two warriors on horseback, another forty without mounts, and just under two hundred slaves and prisoners.
Nacris, Hoten, and the lesser captains sat crossed-legged on the ground in a semicircle, listening to their chief. He stood before them next to a framework of willow upon which was stretched a soft, tanned sheepskin. Drawn on the skin was a crude map of the valley, as deduced by reports from their scouts and information forced from their prisoners.
“Here is our goal,” Zannian said, pointing to the center of the map. “Arku-peli itself lies here, between the eastern shore of the lake and these cliffs. There are only five entrances to the valley, and three of them lie on the eastern side — Bearclaw Gap, Cedarsplit Gap, Northwind Pass. On our side there are two — the pass we know, which the villagers call the Plains Gap, and this unnamed canyon, impassable to us.”
“Why impassable, Zan?” Hoten asked.
“It’s only a few paces wide, and the river fills it completely.”
Zannian picked up a clay dish of red ocher, the same pigment his men used to paint their faces. He dipped a well-chewed willow twig in the thick paint and snaked a red line through the Plains Gap to the river.
“Half the band will ride to the spot where the bridge once stood and hold the mud-toes there.” He drew a line down, parallel to the riverbank. “The rest will ride south and take the gardens where the villagers grow much of their food.”
“We destroy the gardens?” asked one of the captains.
“No,” Zannian replied. “We live on their food, weakening them and strengthening ourselves.”
The men nodded, murmuring approvingly. Nacris ended the optimistic mood by asking, “What about the bronze dragon?”
The circle fell quiet. Zannian folded his arms. “The Master has seen to him.”
The chief bristled. Failure in battle and the sight of Beramun still out of his reach put him in no mood for sharp questions, even from his mother.
“The Master has lured the bronze dragon away. He won’t be a factor in our fight.”
“Then neither will the Master.”
Zannian glared at her. “We don’t need him to defeat these mud-grubbers! They’re clever, they’ll resist for a while, but they can’t stop us!”
Some of his more zealous underlings got up and shouted, fiercely echoing their chiefs sentiments. One by one the other captains stood, vowing death and destruction to the villagers. Only Nacris and Hoten remained seated — she by necessity and he by choice.
When the shouting subsided, Hoten asked carefully, “What is our next step?”
“Capture the gardens,” Zannian told him. “If you take any prisoners, I want them alive. We’ll put the slaves to work tending the crops. I’ll lead the rest of the band to the river to keep the villagers in place.”
“What about the Jade Men?” Nacris wanted to know.
“Keep them close but out of sight. They’re our secret dagger, and when the time comes, they’ll be the first across the river.”
Zannian collected the four hundred best horsemen in his band and led them into the pass. On their heels came Hoten with the balance of the raiders, including the men who’d lost their mounts. Next came the slaves and prisoners, dragging heavy burdens of weapons and supplies.
Nacris and the remaining Jade Men were the last to go. Standing silent and immobile in the hot morning sun, the Jade Men’s green face paint and green clothing made them look like an orchard of weird, man-shaped trees.
Nacris looked them over proudly. “Sons of Greengall,” she said loudly, “our master has gone away to do battle against the beast whose range we have invaded. With the bronze dragon gone, there is nothing between us and victory but a few hundred hut-dwellers who think they can defeat us with tricks and traps and piles of stone. But we know better!”
One of the Jade Men raised his spear in salute, then plunged its head into the ground.
“No retreat!” he vowed. “We will not leave this valley without victory!”
“No retreat!” echoed his comrades. “Greengall! Greengall!”
Nacris let them chant a while, then held up a hand for silence. They quieted.
“We will make the river run red with our enemies’ blood!” she said. Leaning forward in her litter, she added, “But there is one villager you must not kill. I speak of Amero, called Arkuden, the headman of Arku-peli. The Master has given this man to me to use as I will. When the battle joins, I will point him out to you. Mark him well.” Her flinty eyes raked over the ranks of green men. “In my hands it will take him many, many days to die, and from him I will have the answer to my final vengeance. No one, not even my son, will deny me my due! Do you understand?”
“Yes, Green Mother,” they replied as one.
At her nod, they picked up their weapons and marched into the steep pass, the last of the invaders to quit the plain.
Despite their initial success, it was clear to the villagers they hadn’t won the war. All day, while they worked feverishly to strengthen their defenses, they knew they were being watched. Zannian’s band remained out of sight, yet from the crags above the swift river to the shadowed crevices beyond the ruins of the fallen bridge, a thousand hidden eyes saw everything being done on the open floor of the valley. Work stopped periodically as nervous villagers stood and stared at the far shore, trying to catch sight of the invisible menace. Calmer heads, like Huru or tough old Jenla, had to scold or cajole them back to work.
On Amero’s instructions, the east bank of the river was covered with obstacles to hinder the raiders. Stakes were pounded deep into the sandy loam and long vines were strung between them, creating tangle-traps. Though his people were exhausted from the night’s battle, Amero kept them working. Busy, they had less time to be afraid.
He walked among them tirelessly, offering encouragement, settling disagreements, helping out whenever any difficulties arose. He hammered stakes, braided vines, and even helped comb the shoreline for bodies and weapons washed up during the night. While working on this last task, he came across Beramun piling up raider spears and leather breastplates in heaps. A score of dead raiders lay nearby, stripped of arms. Some villagers were preparing a pyre for them.
“Greetings,” Amero said to the girl. “Are you well?”
“Well enough,” she replied. She threw two boiled cuirasses on the growing pile.
“I saw you on the bridge tower last night. You fought like a panther.” Beramun did not reply, but stood staring down at the debris of battle, arms folded. “I mean that as a compliment,” Amero explained awkwardly.
She shook her head, dismissing his words, then kicked the heap of stiff leather armor. “I helped make these,” she said. Tears welled up in her jet eyes. “There was another prisoner, a woman named Roki, my friend — ” A sob interrupted her words. “She and I escaped together, but she…”
Her misery made his heart ache, but Amero didn’t dare take her in his arms. He settled for taking her hand. The moment was fleeting. She noticed the others were watching them and freed her hand, scrubbing the tears from her cheeks.
Hulami the vintner arrived with a caravan of travois loaded with food and drink.
“Arkuden!” Hulami called.
Without another word, Beramun slipped away. Amero drew a deep breath and let it sigh out.
“How goes the work in the village?” he asked the vintner.
Hulami handed her chief a skin of wine. “Well, thanks to the dragon, the north and south entrances are sealed, but the western baffle still has a gap. I asked Montu to organize a gang to finish the job, but the other elders in the village are protesting. They say if the last opening is blocked, everyone outside will be trapped if the raiders cross the river.”
“Blast them! We’ll see about that!” Amero shoved the wineskin back into Hulami’s hands. He named Huru to command in his absence, then stalked back to Yala-tene.
The western entrance was just as Hulami described, partially open. The filled section looked fine. Duranix had torn up boulders the size of small huts and wedged them into the gap between the baffle wall and the main wall. A hundred men pushing at once could never dislodge such mighty stones.
On the other side of the baffle, two villagers stood casual guard, leaning on their spears. One of them was Lyopi.
“Why isn’t this gap closed?” Amero demanded as soon as he was within earshot.
Taken aback by his bluntness, Lyopi replied, “The elders chose not to. How wall you and the others get back inside if there’s no opening?”
“If we fail out there and the wall stands open, the raiders will ride right through,” he snapped. “I won’t have the town’s safety endangered by stupid half-measures!” He cupped hands to his lips, calling, “Montu! Montu, where are you?”
“Calm down,” Lyopi said. “I thought the raiders had been turned back. Why so angry, Amero?”
“Many good people died last night to keep our village safe! Their deaths mean nothing if the village falls from carelessness!” Red-faced, he shouted for Montu again.
Since reason had no effect on his bad temper, Lyopi shouted back, “You’ll find the elders at the Offertory, Arkuden! Go and rant at them, not me!”
Without another word, he did just that.
The town was nearly empty, with so many people at the river camp or manning the walls. The Offertory felt especially abandoned. Before they’d left, the Sensarku had put everything neatly away. Their communal houses were closed and shuttered. The walls of the Offertory were as clean and white as ever, but windblown sand had drifted through the opening in the sanctuary wall, marring the spotless inner courtyard.
When Amero approached the cairn, a flock of crows rose squawking from the top, scattering ash and burned bones. Amero circled the cairn and found Montu and the remaining elders sitting on the sand. Slabs of roast were piled between them. Open pots of wine and cider lent their acid bite to the air. The elders were dining heartily on elk meant for the dragon.
“Greetings, victorious Arkuden!” cooper Montu hailed him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Amero demanded. They regarded him blankly. “Why didn’t you finish closing the western baffle?”
Adjat the potter said, “Arkuden, if we close that last opening, no one can get in.”
“That’s the purpose of the wall, idiot!” Amero shouted.
Stunned by his unusual harshness, Adjat said, “But you’re outside, with so many of our friends and kinsmen — ”
“And fourteen of our friends and kinsmen died last night to keep the enemy at bay! I won’t have you endangering the town out of misguided feelings for me or anyone else. Close the baffle at once! This very morning. Do you hear?”
“The Protector’s gone, and there aren’t any young men left to do the heavy work,” Montu protested.
“Then do it yourself!” he shouted. “Turn out every soul left in Yala-tene — the old, the young, the sick, the lame — and let them carry stones. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Arkuden,” said the cooper meekly. “Yes. We’ll begin right away.”
They put aside their meat and filed out of the Offertory. Following them, Amero added, “If you need ready stone, pull down these walls.”
The elders halted in a body, aghast. “Pull down the Protector’s place?” said Adjat.
“The Sensarku won’t protest,” Amero said coldly. “Leave the cairn if you must, but take all the stone you need from the Offertory walls.”
“Very well, Arkuden.”
Sentinel horns blared. Amero cast about wildly, seeking the source of the alarm. The horns were too close to be the lookouts on the cliffs. They must be on the town wall.
He raced through the streets to the western entrance, irrationally fearing that the raiders had somehow jumped the river and were advancing on the wide-open town. As he ran up the ramp, he spied Lyopi among the crowd and worked his way to her.
“What is it?” he demanded, out of breath.
“Look there.” She pointed. Dust was rising from the orchard and gardens across the lake.
Everyone stared, crestfallen, but Amero said, “This was bound to happen. They failed to overwhelm us last night, so now they’ll try to get around us. They’ll try to land at different points along the lake and river. We don’t have enough people to defend the whole shoreline.”
“Will Duranix come back in time to stop them?” Lyopi asked.
Everyone atop the wall looked to Amero, waiting for his answer. He realized he couldn’t lie to them. “Duranix flew away to fight the green dragon,” the Arkuden said. “That means we’re on our own, but so are the raiders.”
There was complete silence for several heartbeats, then an elderly woman spoke up. “Can we win, Arkuden?”
“We’ll win.” He managed a smile. “Those savages fight only for lust and loot. We fight for our homes, our lives, and the lives of all who come after us. They are many, and ruthless. We are few, but determined. We’ll win because we must.”
No one cheered, but several heads nodded in agreement.
The crowd slowly dispersed. Lyopi turned to go back to her guard post, but Amero caught her by the arm.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“For what? Shouting at me? I’m not a child. I’m not going to cry because you raised your voice to me.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry for more than that. I’ve been acting like a fool half my age.”
He saw a teasing light glowing in those familiar brown eyes. “Half what age, Amero? You never stopped being a boy.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said ruefully. “I feel like a lost child right now. Duranix is gone, Beramun cares nothing for me, and I need all the friends I have left.”
He leaned forward to kiss her. Lyopi turned her face slightly and he kissed her cheek.
“Go,” she said, giving him a none-too-gentle shove. “If we’re both still alive at midsummer, we’ll be friends again.”
She was right, of course, he thought ruefully. His boy’s heart was still there, inside the breast of the desperate headman.
As he was leaving, Amero spied Montu leading a long line of villagers toward the last gap in the wall. Each carried a sizable rock in his or her arms. When he saw that, he finally believed his own proud words. They would win. They had to.
Hoten stood at the water’s edge below the orchard. While his horse drank from the lake, he took in the distant view of Yala-tene. This was the broadest part of the lake, but he could easily make out features of the village in the distance. There was the wall, and a white peak that looked like some sort of altar above the yellow sandstone defenses, and beyond it was the tumbledown heap of stones and timber that served as the village foundry. Between the southern edge of the wall and the great waterfall was an open stretch of rocky beach a quarter-league long. Some obscure wooden structures were clustered at the foot of the falls.
Looking up, Hoten eyed the high cliffs behind the town. That was the place to be! From there, one could rain fire and death on any part of the village. If the raiders could gain those heights, Yala-tene would be forced to surrender. Unfortunately, because of the intervening mountains, lake, and waterfall, the only route to the eastern cliffs involved leaving the valley and journeying far to the south, through a lower pass, then north again through the eastern foothills. Such a trip would take many days, through territory infested by centaurs, elves, and the warlike human nomads of the east — not a practical strategy.
Hoten started back to the old bridge site to confer with his chief. On his way through the orchard he found eight of his warriors standing idly around the base of a young apple tree. He demanded to know why they were lazing about.
“Hoten, look at this!” one man exclaimed. He snapped off a slender green stem from one of the apple tree’s low-hanging branches. He thrust the sprig into the dirt, directly in front of Hoten’s horse, then stood back, arms folded.
“What are you playing at, Kej?”
“Wait! Just wait!”
A minute passed. The men kept looking from the twig to Hoten and back, and grinning broadly.
“Somebody tell me what’s going on — now!” Hoten demanded.
“Look here!” Kej pulled the twig out of the ground. It wasn’t a twig any longer; a thin tangle of roots hung from the broken end.
“Eh?” Hoten dismounted and took the twig from Kej. “That’s impossible!”
The men pulled up other twigs they’d planted before he arrived. Each had a tuft of fine new roots. Hoten reluctantly accepted the evidence of his eyes.
“This is some rich soil!” Kej said, laughing.
“Shut up. There’s something strange at work here.” Taking the rooted stem with him, Hoten mounted his horse. “You men get to work,” he ordered. “Zannian will be here soon, and I don’t want him to see you idling around watching plants grow!”
He rode away. At the bridge site, the standoff was still going on. Raiders rode to the water’s edge, yelling and shaking their spears. Across the river, a block of villagers, drawn up on the facing slope, stood stolidly behind their cowhide shields.
Zannian slumped on his horse, chewing a strip of venison.
“Zan, the gardens are ours,” Hoten reported, “but there’s something you need to see.”
He held out the twig and explained what he’d observed. Zannian listened but didn’t believe it any more than Hoten had at first.
The chief held out a hand. Hoten put the tiny apple tree sapling in it. Not bothering even to look at the twig, Zannian threw a leg over his horse’s neck and dropped lightly to the ground. He shoved the tender shoot into the grainy sand by the water’s edge.
“I’ll make you a wager, Hoten. If this sprig grows noticeably by tomorrow, I’ll give you the pick of any horse in the band.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
Zannian’s grin was feral. “You get the honor of leading the first attack across the river.”
An honor indeed. Zannian knew the initial attack would be the bloodiest fight in the valley.
“Well, what do you say?”
“I don’t need a new horse, hut there is a wager I’ll make with you.” His chief nodded for him to continue. “If that sprig is larger by tomorrow, I want your mother for my mate.”
Zannian couldn’t have been more surprised if Hoten had asked to mate with the green dragon.
After staring at him for several startled moments, the chief burst out laughing and said, “I’ll take that bet, but I won’t call you father if you win!”
“And I won’t call you son,” Hoten replied.
There was no disputing the outcome of the bet. By the next morning, the tiny sprig was a sapling a pace tall and as thick as Hoten’s thumb. Zannian was fascinated. He waved aside Hoten’s sincere thanks for Nacris’s hand, then called for more shoots to be cut from the orchard and transplanted to the bridge site.
“Why plant more?” asked Hoten. “We have the whole crop abandoned by the mud-toes.”
“I don’t want them for food. I have another use for them.” Zannian explained, and Hoten’s eyes widened in surprise.
The green dragon flew northwest. Land flowed rapidly beneath him and his implacable bronze pursuer. The northern plain, the steep mountain range of Dar, the delta of the great Plains River, and at last, the great sea passed beneath them. As the first stars appeared in the darkening sky, the dragons left dry land behind and continued their flight over the open ocean.
Once over the water, Sthenn descended until he was skimming above the tossing waves. Duranix dropped to within five leagues, determined to keep his canny foe in sight.
Sthenn bore left during the night, heading due west. Duranix easily followed his enemy’s progress in the dark, as the wash from Sthenn’s wings left ridges of white foam on the surface of the calm sea. At dawn, Sthenn overtook a pod of whales, black-skinned animals each three paces long. Snaking his head down into the waves, the giant dragon snatched out two whales in quick succession, gulping them down whole. The rest of the panicked pod sounded, but Sthenn tracked them through the murky green water and was directly over them when they surfaced again. He grabbed a third whale in his jaws and tossed it over his shoulder.
Duranix saw the whale tumbling through the air, and he caught it in his claws. It infuriated him to accept food from his enemy, but he was practical about it in the end. His belly was achingly empty. He devoured the small whale in two tremendous snaps of his jaws.
The green sea turned blue when the morning sun broke through the haze on the horizon. A low coastline appeared ahead, and Sthenn turned toward it.
Duranix readied himself to pounce. He hoped to catch Sthenn when the green dragon landed to drink or rest, but his old tormentor flashed over the narrow beach without slowing. Duranix saw a blur of green foliage, the cone of a smoldering volcano, and they were over the trackless sea once more.
More islands appeared on each side, but Sthenn paid them no heed. Gradually he gained height again, leveling off a thousand paces above the water. His wings worked unflaggingly. He did not seem tired at all.
Frustrated, Duranix tried to close on his adversary. To his delight, the gap between them shrank from four leagues to barely one. At that range, he loosed a bolt of lightning. With uncanny prescience, Sthenn slipped out of the way, and the bolt sizzled harmlessly past. The green dragon promptly rose into a tall bank of clouds, vanishing in the white mist.
Duranix slowed. Clouds were a perfect place for an ambush. He peered through the billowing mass, trying to catch a glimpse of his quarry. He saw nothing.
After circling a bit, he made up his mind and plunged into the cloudbank. Immediately blue static collected on his wingtips, horns, and tail. He welcomed the growing crackle of power. Bolts arced from cloud to cloud and from cloud to sea, growing larger with each sweep of his wings. He steered a serpentine path through the mist, sowing lightning and rain in his wake.
On his third swing through the white cloud, Duranix detected movement above and let a mighty bolt of fire erupt from his throat. It struck with a thunderous explosion, and Sthenn came hurtling into view, his decrepit hide trailing smoke.
Got him! Duranix exulted. He dropped free of the cloud and followed the falling green dragon.
Two hundred paces above the wind-tossed waves, Sthenn righted himself. There was a black singe mark down the center of his back. Duranix folded his wings and plummeted at his ancient enemy, claws extended. Yawing from side to side, Sthenn seemed stunned, barely able to stay in the air. He sank to within forty paces of the water. Thunder rolled overhead, and heavy rain lashed at both dragons. Duranix flexed his claws wide, eager to do as much damage as possible.
His talons met only air. At the last moment, Sthenn adroitly maneuvered out of the way. Duranix plunged by and, unable to stop, hit the sea, sending up a huge column of water.
Sthenn climbed leisurely into the clouds, laughing. “Enjoy your bath, little friend!” he called.
Furious, Duranix fought his way back to the stormy surface, spewing torrents of saltwater from his mouth and nostrils. A wave struck him in the face, and he submerged again.
Sthenn swung around in a tight curve and came winging back. Just as the bronze dragon’s head broke the surface a second time, the green dragon’s heavy tail struck him smartly on the back of the skull, plunging him once again facedown into the ocean.
The green dragon flapped for altitude and turned for another pass. “Come, come!” he chided. “We can’t be done yet. Get up, little friend!”
Kicking his legs, Duranix propelled half his body length out of the water. He intended to throw himself on his enemy and drag him down, even if it meant they both sank beneath the waves. However, Sthenn saw the danger and drew back, fanning his wings hard to reverse course. For once his elderly reflexes were just a bit slow, and he couldn’t evade Duranix’s outstretched claws.
As the dragons met, a tremendous bolt of lightning flashed from the clouds to their metallic hides. Duranix was thrown backward into the sea, momentarily dazzled by the terrific flare and concussion. Waves broke over him, and he choked on seawater.
When he finally raised his long neck above the waves, Sthenn was nowhere in sight. Duranix ducked underwater. Even with momentary flickers of lightning brightening the depths, he could see no sign of his quarry.
Without the metallic dragons aloft to stir up the atmosphere, the storm quickly blew itself out. Shafts of sunlight fell on the heaving sea. Sthenn was still nowhere to be seen.
Where had the evil beast gone? Duranix refused to believe the green dragon had succumbed to the lightning strike. The only evidence he would accept for Sthenn’s demise was the monster’s lifeless carcass.
As he bobbed in the calming waves, he felt an odd tickling sensation on his tail. Before he could react, he was jerked under the surface. Saltwater went into his eyes, blinding him. He lashed out with talons and twisted his tail free of the unseen grasp, surfacing in time to see Sthenn burst from the ocean not far away.
“The game isn’t over yet!” the green called mockingly. “The whole world lies ahead of us, dear Duranix. Rise and follow!”
His desiccated laughter carried far over the open sea. “Right now, my little Zan is butchering your humans and laying waste to your valley. Will you allow such deeds to go unavenged?”
In answer, the bronze dragon flung himself into the air. Sthenn put his tail to the morning sun and flew away.
Water streaming from his wings and back, Duranix followed.
Ten days had passed since the battle of the bridge. Wary of the raiders’ mobility, each evening Amero sent scouts to the far corners of the valley to keep an eye on what the enemy was doing. Beramun went on one such patrol to the northern end of the valley, returning two days later.
Jenla, Huru, and the rest hailed her. “Welcome back,” Amero said, rising to his feet. “How is the north?”
“Still as a winter glade,” she reported. “I found no sign the raiders are trying to get around that way.”
He handed her a bowl filled from the bubbling stew pot bedded in the embers at the edge of the fire.
As she wolfed down the first hot food she’d had in days, Beramun asked, “What’s happening here? What’s Zannian been up to?”
“He’s been quiet since his men took our gardens, but he’s up to something,” Amero said. He gestured to where the fallen bridge had stood. “They’ve raised a hedge on the river-bank, so we can’t see what they’re doing.”
“They’re using the trees Tiphan cured with his spirit power,” Jenla explained. “They grow so fast that in a few days the hedge will be a forest!”
Beramun drained the last morsels of stew and Amero refilled her bowl. “It’s only a question of where and when they’ll attack,” the Arkuden said. “The hedge may be a trick, to make us watch them at one place while the real attack falls somewhere else.”
“Send someone over to have a look,” Beramun suggested.
The others fell silent and Amero said, “Paharo tried, last night. The raiders caught him… and killed him before our eyes.”
Shocked, Beramun swallowed hard. She had liked the brave young hunter. She couldn’t believe Paharo was gone.
As they stared into the flames, loss evident on every face, she walked around the fire to kneel beside Huru. The foundry master was weeping soundlessly, tears streaming down his dark, lined cheeks.
She rested her hand on his. “Your son was a good man.”
Huru closed his eyes, grateful for her words. She looked across the leaping flames to Amero. “You still need to know what’s going on over there. I’m a strong swimmer. I’ll go.”
Amero shook his head. “You just got back. Rest. Someone else can do it. I may go myself.”
“Don’t be stupid! You’re needed here.”
Amero’s voice grew loud. “I won’t let you throw your life away!”
“You let Paharo.”
Wood crackled in the fire, sounding unusually loud in the stillness following her words.
Beramun tied her hair back with a thong and asked for a hank of rope. Tepa went off into the darkness and returned with a coil of braided vines, recovered from the ruined bridge. Beramun tied it firmly under her arms. Carrying the rest of the rope over her shoulder, she strode away from the camp. Amero, Huru, and several others trailed behind.
The sound of the river’s rushing water covered the noise of their footfalls on the gravelly shore, but with the raiders only thirty or forty paces away on the opposite bank, the little group did no talking.
Beramun knelt and, by gestures, indicated what she intended to do. Amero clasped her hands in his, pleading with his eyes. She pulled free.
The villagers held one end of the rope as Beramun slipped into the water. The current pulled the line taut as the people on shore played it out. She swam a third of the way across, then dove.
Amero, hands clenched tightly into fists, watched Beramun surface in shallow water by the west bank. She waved once, then skulked down the beach, the rope still securely tied around her waist.
Suddenly, two horsemen rode into sight behind Beramun. Amero and the others dropped on their bellies.
Beramun was brought up short when they stopped paying out the rope. Looking back, she saw the riders. She crept back into shallow water and submerged. The mounted men passed without noticing her.
When they were gone, she crawled on her belly through the grass to higher ground. From this vantage point she could see behind the dense wall of fruit tree saplings. She stayed only a moment, then returned to the river.
Before she could slip away, however, a pair of shaggy gray yevi appeared, their eyes reflecting Lutar’s red light. One sprang into the water and seized the floating rope in his jaws. The other flung itself on Beramun. It hit her squarely between the shoulders, and she disappeared with a loud splash.
“Pull!” Amero hissed.
The villagers hauled frantically on the rope, hand over hand. There was a tremendous drag on the line, and even with eight pulling, they could scarcely get the rope in. Halfway across the river, the calm water erupted. In the poor light it was impossible to tell who was in trouble, Beramun or the yevi.
Since the noise was sure to rouse the raiders, Amero abandoned all pretense of stealth and shouted for help. More villagers came running down the hill and took hold of the rope. With the extra help, they dragged it in.
Knife drawn, Amero waded out to assist Beramun. A limp and lifeless body surfaced a few paces away. Those on shore desperately demanded to know whether it was Beramun.
Amero’s questing hand found sodden gray fur. The floating corpse was a drowned yevi.
He turned and thrashed toward shore, shouting, “It’s not her! Pull! Pull!”
The villagers obeyed with a will. The second yevi, thoroughly entangled in the vine rope and likewise drowned, glided to the bank at their feet. Of Beramun, there was no sign.
Several dozen mounted raiders, fully armed, galloped down the opposite shore and hurled short spears. The missiles hissed into the shallows and thumped into the sand. Dropping the line, Amero and villagers had to retreat.
Back at camp, everyone was dumbfounded to find Beramun drying herself by the fire. They rushed forward, clapping her on the back and laughing with relief.
“What happened?” Amero asked. “How did you escape?”
She wrung more water from her long black hair. “Simple,” she said. “I figured yevi were like wolves — they can swim, but only on the surface. So I dove, untied myself, and snared them in the rope. As long as your people kept the rope taut, the beasts couldn’t untangle themselves.” She shrugged. “Once free, I swam upstream to get away and came ashore.”
The villagers laughed and cheered. Giddy with relief, Amero took her in his arms and embraced her like a comrade.
“You’re graying my hairs, you know,” he said.
“Oh? And who grayed them before me?” Her gentle gibe inspired more laughter from the delighted villagers.
Jenla brought Beramun a mug of hot broth. As she sipped it, she reported what she’d seen on the other side of the river.
“They’re building rafts,” Beramun said. “Big ones. I saw slave gangs lashing whole trees together behind the hedge.”
“I knew it!” Amero smote his palm with his fist.
“Can we stop them?” asked Huru.
“I don’t know,” Amero replied. “We must meet them at the water’s edge, wherever they land. If they get their horses ashore, we’re in big trouble.”
He increased the number of sentinels patrolling the eastern shore and ordered bonfires lighted at half-league intervals all the way down to the lake.
Beramun’s news sent a chill through Yala-tene. The quiet interlude had lulled many into thinking the raiders might give up and go away. The rafts made it clear the fight was far from over.
To renew his people’s confidence, Amero designed new defenses for the eastern shore of the lake. A fence of sharpened stakes was erected, and broken mussel shells were poured on the banks to cut horses’ hooves. Villagers stripped the valley and eastern passes of every thorn bush and movable boulder. These were piled up behind the stakes to further impede the enemy.
From the old bridge tower to the open lake, the shoreline was two leagues long. Amero knew they didn’t have enough stones and stakes to fill the whole distance, so he left gaps in places suitable for the villagers to defend — hills, gullies, and other natural strong points — mainly near the old bridge. Using shovels made from Duranix’s cast-off bronze scales, they deepened the gullies and piled the dirt on the hills to make them steeper.
Montu the cooper came down from the village once the last gap in the wall had been closed. Because Montu was a skilled woodworker, Amero asked him to estimate how long it would take Zannian to produce enough rafts to ferry his warband across the river.
“At twenty men or ten horses per raft, it would take fifty rafts to carry a thousand warriors,” Montu said. “Working night and day, they might make ten rafts a day.”
It had been six days since Beramun’s daring swim across the river. Six days — perhaps sixty rafts.
Everyone expected the raiders to come that night or by dawn the next day. All were surprised when the raiders began dragging their rafts to the river in the middle of the afternoon, the same day Montu made his estimate.
Horns bleated and bronze scales chimed in the villagers’ camp. Lookouts high atop the eastern cliffs raised the alarm for those inside the wall. People ran to their assigned places, took up whatever weapons they had, and waited.
The village militia formed into two bands, one to defend the crossing by the old bridge and another to hold the bank halfway up the river to the lake. Amero gave command of the bridge group to Huru. He led the latter himself, two hundred eighty strong, to a point directly west of the village.
The raiders launched their rafts from the former bridge landing. Warriors on foot pelted the opposite shore with a thick rain of darts, driving Huru’s defenders back. The first rafts carried no horses, only armed men and frightened slaves with long poles for pushing the rafts. The defenders could do nothing but watch as ten timber platforms packed with garishly painted raiders left the western shore.
Amero led his group away from the imminent fight. It pained him to do so, but he knew Zannian had enough men, and probably enough rafts, to make other crossings. His band took up a position hidden in a deep ditch a league from Hum’s men, and there they waited. Lookouts on higher ground stood ready to signal Amero when the raiders made their move.
In unison, the raiders raised their spears and chanted, “Zannian! Zannian!”
Huru’s people awaited them in silence. Raiders armed with throwing sticks lofted darts over the heads of their comrades. The darts, each two spans long and tipped with flint, thudded into the sand in front of Huru’s position. The missiles climbed up the hill as the rafts drew closer.
“Stand ready,” Huru said quietly. Each villager laid his spear in the gap between his own shield and his neighbor’s.
The nearest raft was only a few steps from shore. On the first raft stood Hoten. The balding raider wore his elaborate collar of bear and panther teeth. Despite winning his bet with Zannian, he’d volunteered to lead the attack. He was past the prime of a plainsman’s life and knew this would likely be his last fight, one way or another.
His raft scraped sand. Drawing a bronze elven blade from the scabbard at his side, Hoten raised it high.
“Forward!” he bellowed.
“Let’s go!” shouted foundry master Huru, and the wall of shields, bristling with spears and studded with thrown darts, moved down the hill.
Darts hummed over Hoten’s head toward the villagers. Now and then one found its mark, and a defender went down. The man or woman behind the stricken fighter stepped forward to fill the gap. Hoten admired their tenacity. The villagers had shown more courage and ingenuity than any foe the raiders had battled on their long march across the plains.
He swung his metal blade down, splintering a villager’s wooden shield. A black flint spearhead whisked by his ear. Wrenching his sword free, Hoten lopped off the spearhead, then thrust his blade at the man facing him. Silvanesti bronze met flesh. Bleeding copiously, the man couldn’t even fall, so tightly were his neighbors pressed against him.
Huru’s band had the better of the hundred or so raiders struggling ashore. His rear ranks were actually suffering more from darts than the front ranks were from close combat.
The villagers pressed on until their feet were in the river. Raiders swarmed around them, stabbing at the villagers’ faces or legs. More rafts were coming ashore above and below the defenders, and Huru saw they might be surrounded if they remained too deeply engaged. He called for his people to withdraw slowly up the hill and to reform their line from five ranks deep to four, thus lengthening their line.
As he turned to face the enemy again, a bronze blade pierced his shield and drove into his chest. His knees sagged. Huru looked into the face of his killer, then collapsed in a heap, the life leaving his eyes.
Hoten put his foot on the dead man’s shield and yanked his blade out.
Their leader gone, the villagers began to lose heart. The wall of overlapping shields was broken, and raiders pushed in between the confused ranks. Dart throwers had to halt their firing as their own warriors were now mixed too closely with the enemy.
Upriver, Amero saw that Huru’s band was slowly breaking apart. He wanted to race to the rescue, but he knew this was what Zannian expected. He and his people stayed put, their anguished eyes fastened on the nearby battle.
It took several blasts of the lookouts’ horns to penetrate their concentration and warn Amero of a new threat. Through the orchard came several very large rafts, pushed over the tilled earth by a swarm of slaves. Once shoved onto the lake, men and horses filed onto these oversized rafts. They rode easily in the calm water.
Amero felt his heart sink. He’d been outflanked. There was nothing to stop the raiders from landing on the east shore. He’d gambled Zannian wouldn’t strike so far south, and he’d lost the gamble.
“Stand up!” he cried. Those around him looked puzzled, their attention still fixed on the fight at the bridge crossing. “Stand up! Sling your shields and couch your spears! We’ve got to stop them!”
Amero led them up the hill to the stone flats above the lake. He let the fleetest young people sprint ahead, with orders to torch the hoist to Duranix’s cave and the other wooden structures outside the wall. By the time his band had re-formed on the shore, smoke was already rising from the hoist. At least the raiders wouldn’t be able to use the dragon’s cave to get above Yala-tene.
From midlake, Zannian saw the villagers break and run. He rejoiced at first, thinking they were quitting the fight. When he saw them take up a new position to oppose his landing, his delight faded. He was certain his two hundred mounted warriors would trample the foolish villagers into the mud, but he’d hoped for a rout, not a hard, bitter fight.
“No mercy,” he reminded his men. “We must hit them fast and hard and not let them escape to that pile of mud and stone they call a village.”
The wind shifted, blowing smoke from the burning huts over the lake. It obscured the beach as well, but Zannian kept the rafts going straight ahead. When they finally pad-died clear of the smoke, he saw the villagers had adopted a new formation. Unlike the solid wall of shields they’d used earlier, they were now disposed in a hollow circle, two ranks deep. A smaller band of fighters, shieldless, stood in the center of the circle.
Zannian frowned. What were the mud-toes up to now?
As planned, the trailing rafts had pushed off to each side, so that all would land at the same time. Zannian expected a fight at the water’s edge, but the villagers were drawn up on the highest point of the rocky ledge overlooking the lake. This was a grave mistake. His men would be able to disembark, mount, and then attack.
The rafts bumped ashore. Without waiting to lead his horse onto dry land, Zannian swung onto the animal’s back and raised his sword.
“For Almurk, and victory!” he cried, and dug in his heels. The gray stallion sprang into the shallow water and splashed ashore.
Amero watched the raiders. “Are you ready?” he asked his people. They answered with silent nods, eyes on the approaching enemy. “Then let’em have the stones.”
The villagers in the center of the armed circle, all strong young men, picked up stones and hurled them at the gathering raiders. The rocks had been chiseled with sharp edges and the muscular youths delivered them with great force. Several raiders went down with bleeding heads.
As calmly as he could, Amero said, “Shields overhead.”
As he expected, the infuriated Zannian called forth a shower of darts in retaliation. With their shields over their heads, the villagers absorbed the heavy hail of darts with no ill effects.
The last raiders ashore mounted their horses. “Everyone ready?” asked Amero. Again, the silent nods. He gave the signal, waving his arms.
The front and rear of the circle opened, and villagers came running down from the cliffs, rolling flaming logs ahead of them. Thirty paces from the enemy, the log rollers let go. The nine large timbers, taken from the burning buildings outside the wall, smashed into the riders coming up the hill, scattering them.
Zannian had to do some fancy riding to keep his horse from being bowled over by a blazing tree trunk. Once the fiery logs had passed, he rode among his confused men, hitting them with the flat of his sword, kicking them, swearing at them. By the time he settled them again, Amero’s band had withdrawn higher up the slope.
“They want to play tricks, do they?” Zannian fumed. “I’ll teach them some tricks!”
He divided his men into two groups. One, he sent down low along the lakeshore toward the village. The other, which he led, walked their horses slowly up the hill to where Amero’s people waited.
“Darts,” Zannian commanded. The raiders loaded their throwing sticks. “Give them three rounds of darts, then we charge!”
Arms whipped forward, lofting a storm of lethal missiles at the villagers. They held their shields up as before, but they had been weakened by the earlier barrage, and this time many of the flint-headed darts got through. Villagers toppled. The injured and the dead were pulled out of line, and the ring tightened. A second and third volley of darts swept over the circle of spears, then the deadly bombardment ceased.
The raiders launched themselves in a final furious attack. Zannian drove straight for the center of the circle. His horse was speared, and fell. He threw himself off and fought on foot.
The horsemen rode over the resolute villagers, breaking their line in three places. A group of young villagers who had been held in reserve now pushed forward to drive the invaders out of the circle.
Zannian laid about with his long Silvanesti blade. Bronze cut through wooden shields, spearshafts, and flesh with equal ease. In moments the young warlord had hacked his way to the center of the villagers’ formation.
Amero, using a small buckler faced with dragon scales, squared off against the raider chief. Zannian was half a head taller, much younger, and more skilled at hand-to-hand combat. Amero quickly found himself in trouble. His sword was knocked from his grasp, and only the bronze buckler kept him from being hacked to bits.
Time seemed to stand still. Raiders and villagers locked in close, bloody combat fought and died in cruel balance, neither side gaining the upper hand. Riderless horses cantered back and forth, crazed by the cacophony of battle and their own wounds. Injured fighters cried out for water, for mercy, for their chief, for their Arkuden.
Into this maelstrom galloped the second batch of raiders, sent down low along the beach. They tackled the stubborn villagers from behind and broke them. Men and women threw down their shields and spears and ran for their lives. Most never made it. Faced at last with a type of fighting they knew well, the raiders rode them down before they reached the wall.
Zannian presented the point of his sword to Amero’s throat. “Yield!” he cried. “Yield, and I will spare you!”
“Do your worst!” Amero spat, and batted the sword away with his scale-covered shield.
Furious, Zannian made a savage overhand slash. Amero stepped into the swing, allowing the blade to pass behind, and rammed his bronze buckler into his foe’s belly. The raider chief doubled over. With all his strength, Amero brought the shield up, connecting solidly with Zannian’s jaw. The young chiefs arms flew wide, his legs flew up, and down he went on his back. Amero, elated by the success of his desperate gambit, didn’t hesitate. He turned and ran.
The walls of Yala-tene were lined with people shouting and waving. They flung stones, pots, and firewood at the approaching raiders. Others dropped knotted ropes to the ground, so their fleeing friends could climb to safety. Wild with apparent victory, the raiders rode right up to the foot of the wall and grappled with those trying to escape. They were soon overwhelmed by a lethal barrage of debris thrown down on them, and the survivors quickly fled out of range.
Amero was the last to reach the wall. Those above, thinking no one else was left alive below, had withdrawn their ropes and ladders. Amero warded off raiders’ darts with his bronze buckler as he screamed for a rope.
At last a line dropped down the wall. Amero flung his shield aside and grabbed the dangling end. He was hauled up briskly, but when he was still a pace from the top, a dart buried itself in the back of his right thigh.
With a strangled groan, Amero let go the rope and slid down the face of the rock wall, landing in a heap at the bottom. Raucous cheers went up from the raiders, and four men rode forward to claim their prize. They were promptly felled by a torrent of stones from the wall.
A brief scuffle broke out atop the wall. Lyopi tied a rope securely around her waist and, with shouts and blows, bullied her faint-hearted comrades into helping her. She was lowered to the unmoving Arkuden.
The raiders responded with a hail of darts. The stone heads shattered against the wall, showering Lyopi with sharp fragments. In spite of the bombardment, she reached the ground unscathed. Hurriedly she loosed the rope, and snaked it around both of them.
“Up!” she screamed. “Bring us up!”
The sound of her voice caused Amero’s eyes to open. He squinted, trying to focus on his rescuer.
“Beramun?” he muttered.
“No, you ox-brained fool! It’s Lyopi! Shut up and hang on!”
She wrapped her arms tightly around him as they were dragged up through a continuous pelting of missiles. Lyopi turned Amero to the wall, using her own body to protect him from further hits.
Once they reached the top, she untied them both, shouting, “Now get back, all of you! Anybody else who falls outside stays there!”
Amazed by her daring deed, the villagers obeyed with alacrity, stampeding down the ramps into the streets below. Lyopi and those who could still fight crouched on the walls, watching the raiders. After much frustrated galloping back and forth, the attackers retreated to the beach, out of range of anything that could be thrown at them.
Lyopi turned her attention to Amero. Rolling him onto his stomach, she ordered three men to hold him down. The dart was deeply embedded in his thigh, a span above the back of his knee. She took a firm grip on the dart’s blood-slick shaft and pulled. Amero groaned and twisted in agony, but the men kept him down.
The dart came free. Amero gave a cry and passed out. Lyopi threw the missile away and rocked back on her heels, pushing at her sweat-soaked hair with a bloody hand.
“See if Raho the healer is inside the wall,” she said, her voice shaking. “Tell him the Arkuden is gravely injured and needs his help.”
“There are many wounded — ” began one of the men.
Lyopi’s tenuous calm snapped. “I don’t care!” she yelled, brown eyes blazing. “Find him!”
Raho had escaped to Yala-tene with the remnants of Huru’s band. Overwhelmed at the river crossing, they had retreated to the western baffle, where they’d been hauled inside with ropes just as Amero’s band had been.
Beramun was alive, as were Tepa the beekeeper, his son, Udi, and Montu the cooper. The cautious cattleman, Nubis, lay dead on the riverbank, and Jenla, whose stern presence and valiant heart had steadied the villagers time and again, could not be found inside the walls of Yala-tene. Knowing the sort of mercy she could expect from the raiders, her friends mourned the old planter as dead.
The sun was setting as Zannian’s men found their leader just waking from unconsciousness. They boosted him onto his horse. His hair was slick with sweat and the blood of his foes. One hazel eye was ringed with a prodigious black bruise. Despite his ignominious overthrow, he received fierce adulation as he rode back to his men.
He was now master of the valley. Two hundred villagers lay dead or wounded on the field. All that remained of Zannian’s enemies were the unknown number now trapped inside the stone walls of Yala-tene.
Three times the raiders tried to storm the walls of Yala-tene. Each attempt ended in bloody failure.
First, they tried to scale the walls with their bare hands. Next, they tried throwing deer-antler grappling hooks over the walls in a vain attempt to pull down the thick masonry. Their third attempt was the most dangerous: swarming over the relatively low western baffle, a few daring raiders managed to get on top of the wall before being knocked down by villagers. Nacris offered to send the Jade Men against the walls, but Zannian decided they’d wasted enough lives for the time being and refused to allow it.
The raiders withdrew to the south end of the old bridge. There, they built a large camp and set up a towline across the river to ferry rafts of men, horses, and supplies back and forth more easily. As high summer arrived, a lull fell over the valley, though it was a tense, menacing calm.
Through it all, Amero remained in Lyopi’s house, recovering from his wound. Elders came daily to consult with him. As he had long suspected, the raiders, accustomed to making lightning-fast strikes against inferior foes, had no idea what to do when faced with thick walls and staunch defenders. The fight for Yala-tene had cost them many men and horses, and events seemed to be at an impasse. He couldn’t understand why they didn’t leave to seek easier prey.
Some elders came to believe they could strike a deal