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Authors: Peter Morwood

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The Dragon Lord (28 page)

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
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Firedrake! Dragon! Ymareth…

Or—not Ymareth at all, for it was so
big
!

His fear was spawned by the thing’s size and by the steepness and the speed of its approach, for with wings half-closed like those—Gods! too like those—of a falcon stooping upon fieldmice, the dragon reached them in the space of a single racing heartbeat. Too fast for evasion; too fast even for prayer.

It slashed past, right to left, twenty feet above the ground—and because they were both mounted, that was a shocking less-than-twelve above their heads—in a great rush of hot wind, moving far faster than any crea-ture, even one born in legend, had any right to move. The thump of displaced air tore at their clothing, whipped up spirals of snow that melted even as they left the ground, and went whirling off in the dragon’s wake as it climbed away, returned to its patrol height like the swinging of a pendulum by the awesome dive-created speed which had flicked it past them like a beast seen in a dream—or a nightmare… Huge dark wings, horned and crested wedge of head, armored serpentine body and a long, grinning, fang-crowded mouth whose trailing scarf of smoke brought with it the bitter reek of burning.

And the ponies which they rode went mad. Kicking and squealing, bucking and plunging, the animals tried to throw their riders, to throw their saddlebags, to flee in abject terror somewhere, anywhere, as far away from this airborne horror as their legs could carry them. The beasts’ eyes were rolling crazily—all whites, as white as the foam which creamed on bits and bridles. And Gemmel, who had patently lost interest in staying mounted? He too had gone a little mad—Dewan could think of no other reason why he might be laughing.

Growing with glee, the old man tumbled—very neatly, granted—to the ground, landing on his feet, and with a quick, casual gesture of the Dragonwand froze both of the fear-crazed ponies in their tracks. Only their eyes
could
move now; the rest, even to ears and tails, were struck still as equestrian statues in cold bronze. Dewan looked at the Dragonwand, then at the wizard, and thought
how very appropriate
to himself. He was too tactful—and wise—to voice the thought aloud.

But the dragon seemed to hear him; a quarter-mile away and three thousand feet up, the great wings beat once, twice, three times, accelerating its climb until it was rising almost vertically like a pheasant rocketing from cover; then no longer like a pheasant but as negligently acrobatic as a rook, it yawed, half-looped, rolled—then
twisted
snakewise in the air as no bird ever hatched from egg could do—and was coming back in the same instant.

The approach was slower now, a wide-winged glide rather than the previous attack dive, but no less ominous for all that. Dewan could see plainly that the smoke wind-dragged from its mouth was thicker now, denser, as if the fires of the creature’s belly were fully alive. As if to prove the fact, the dragon’s head vectored a few degrees off-line with a deliberation that reminded him nastily of a battleram’s weapon-turret, and then—with a whistling roar which reminded him of nothing in or above or under the whole wide world—its mouth opened to unleash a gout of yellow-white flame, glaring and brilliant against the dullness of the day.

Dewan flinched at its brightness, and at the heat which slapped at him as if a furnace door had been flung open; but at the same time drew a breath of awe and wonder. If he was to die, then surely there were more squalid ways than this brief, bright glory. Another instant, and he was wondering at his own morbid turn of mind. The hundred-yard-long plume of fury faded and choked in a swirl of dark smoke and once more the dragon was upon them.

This time it moved slowly, so slowly that it barely maintained a flying speed. The great membranous wings flared and shifted to control the air which flowed above and below them, then scooped down at last in a great braking arc as Ymareth—if this
was
Ymareth, and Dewan was still far from convinced—rounded out its final descent and settled onto the ground with all the daintiness of a hawk returning to a familiar wrist, a delicate grace odd and eerie in something so huge. Dewan was reminded more of a cat in wet grass than a hawk. Except that this “cat” was one hundred and twenty-odd feet long, radiated a warmth that he could feel from where he sat—and right welcome it was, too!—and where the plate armor of its belly touched on patches of snow, those patches melted amid clouds of steam and fast-forming pools of water.

The dragon’s head swung leisurely from side to side, considering them both: old man and young, mounted and afoot, shocked-silent and still chuckling. Its eyes… such eyes: pools of yellow phosphorescence which drew his gaze and held it…

NO!

That
would
have held it, had he not torn away with an effort like that of lifting some great weight. His face darkened, flushed with blood that was not summoned by either of the contrasting stimuli of dragon-heat or winter-cold; it had been pumped there by a heart which the strain of looking away had provoked into a spasm of furious beats, a muffled drumroll which filled his ears and made his senses spin. It felt briefly as if his whole chest was about to split wide open to give the frantic organ room; then the hammering died away, and the world stopped swaying, and Dewan drew a normal breath again.

By that time the dragon had transferred its attention to Gemmel. The wizard stopped laughing at once and instead raised the Dragonwand before him as if to fend off the advancing head. Or to deflect the spell that burned in those great, glowing eyes. They regarded him, Dewan thought, with more than a touch of scorn—with what on a more human visage might well have been contempt. Then it spoke.

And Dewan understood what it was saying.

For all his years of service in the Imperial military, Dewan ar Korentin remained at heart what he had been born: a Vreijek. Not a Drusalan. It meant that he had been dismissed—more than once in his own hearing whether by accident or not—as a “mere provincial.” It meant that he had never reached a higher rank than
eldheisart-of-cavalry
, and never would. It meant, too, that he was—though usually veneered by Imperial stiffness or Alban courtesies, both so studied that they cried out their falseness to all—one of a vehement, sensitive, imaginative race some said, inclined like peasants to superstition and who found the forbidden art of sorcery most attractive. It was much like what those same “some” said about Alban
eijin;
the stories were only partly true—or conversely, only partly false.

But most importantly, it meant that where a Drusalan or a Tergovan or a Vlechan—any of those who arrogantly styled themselves the Imperial races—might have retreated from the impossibility of comprehending dragon-speech into the ultimate, irrevocable refuge of madness, Dewan himself—after an instant’s total nerve-shock, like that of a man jumping into a pool supposed warm but in fact icy—accepted what his brain told him as he accepted all else in this life. As no more than another facet of reality.

“I give thee greeting, Maker-that-was.”

The words were within Dewan’s head and understood there, nowhere else; because the voice itself, borne on a soft, hot wind, sounded no more like words than the hissing rumble of some huge fire. Above that nimble he heard the
click, click
as the dragon’s eyelids shut and opened in a leisurely, insolent blink. “And this? In thy hands is it then a whip, a crop, a means to master such as I? I defy thee to dare use it so.”

Gemmel looked from the dragon to the Dragonwand and back again; then lowered the spellstaff with a small, jerky, embarrassed movement. “I would not… I would not use it like that. You should know.”

To Dewan’s ears at least, he sounded somewhat ashamed. Just as he had done after he had assumed that Aldric had beaten the Drusalan woman Kathur so viciously when all sense, all logic—even a moment’s pause for thought before he spoke—would have spared him that error. Not so much ashamed of being wrong, as of being obviously so before witnesses. What, wondered Dewan ar Korentin, could have the old man so preoccupied that he made such mistakes? The dragon? Maybe; because there was a tension between the two that Dewan sensed should not have been there.

“Why should I know, Maker? Upon thy word? Not so. Only the Masterword of Governance holds such weight with me. That—or the given Word of a man of honor. I am Ymareth. Dragonkind. Thou knowest well that which I am. In very truth, none should know it better.”

Dewan watched and listened to the exchange sitting stock-still in the saddle of his stock-still horse, aware that he looked painfully obvious while he remained where he was and equally aware that directly he made the slightest move to dismount or in any other fashion become less obvious, he would only make himself still more so. He considered this; felt stupid; and stayed just where he was.

“Or perhaps,” the dragon continued more softly, “I should know indeed, and should not have tried thee so, with denial and with doubt. We are of a kind, thou and I. There should be trust between us.” Ymareth’s great wedge head swung lower. “Why, therefore, is Aldric Talvalin held a prisoner by those who are his enemies? Know this, Maker: he is a man of honor indeed, for though I might have aided his escape out of this captivity he, having promised that he would not, did not. Think thou on that.”

“Prisoner! Where?” For all his wish to avoid attracting attention, Dewan blurted out the question without thinking—and found himself staring down the dragon’s throat an instant later.

“Aboard a vessel of this Empire’s warfleet,” Ymareth replied. “There at least I found him.”

“Then I was right! Gemmel, I was right! It was that battleram after all—it must have been—”

“Dewan!” The wizard’s voice was sharp with reproof. “Dewan, control yourself! How many battlerams are there in the fleet—in each fleet, for the love of Heaven—and how many possible destinations might each vessel have?”

Ar Korentin matched stares with the older man for a long five seconds; then looked away, subsided back into his saddle and closed his mouth.

Ymareth the dragon had watched this brief byplay with what might well have been dry amusement. “Maker,” it rumbled softly. “Maker, if ye be yet so uncertain of this warship’s abiding-place, why therefore do ye ride inland and from the sea where such vessels pass?” There was a knowledgeable mockery in the words. “Know this—the Eye of the Dragon sees much that is hidden, and mine own eyes can watch from such heights that the sight of men cannot know my presence. Even,” the dragon neatly pre-empted Dewan’s unspoken thought, if they should have the aid of far-seeing lenses.”

That suggested the sort of altitude which ar Korentin, still a Vreijek soldier at heart, preferred not to dwell on; he and his upbringing still had too much superstition about them for him to hear such things with anything like true peace of mind.

“And this I saw,” Ymareth continued. “
Kailin
Talvalin was brought to a strong place that was filled with many soldiers. Time passed, and I saw speech among men who by their garb were of rank and power. There was a killing, to no purpose. Aldric Talvalin rides now with the soldiers of the Empire, clad in red even as they.”

“To the Red Tower,” breathed Dewan.

“To thy destination. Yea or nay?” Either Ymareth knew without being told, or was guessing—or was giving a command veiled as a suggestion.

“Aye, Ymareth dragon, Maker to made. But we know already of this matter concerning the Red Tower.” Gemmel’s voice was just the merest trace pompous. “And we travel there now.”

“On these?” The dragon-voice inside Dewan’s head was wholly sarcastic, no longer veiled by irony or allusion. “Then of a surety, thy need for haste must be small indeed.”

“They were all that we could acquire at short notice,” snapped the wizard impatiently, and it seemed to Dewan that he was speaking with the ease of long familiarity. Nothing else could explain such a casual approach to a creature which could roast him, or flatten him, or snap him in half as a man bites a biscuit. No matter, any of that—the implications behind it all were enough to lift the short hairs on the nape of ar Korentin’s neck.

“But now there is a swifter way, if ye dare it.” Ymareth did not elaborate further and had no need to do so. Verbally, at least. The dragon’s wings spread out to either side of the bridle-path, enormous fingered sails more vast than those of a fully-rigged Imperial capital ship. Their silent invitation was plain, and chilling. Flight.

“What about…” Dewan’s voice faltered. Sitting on one of them, the problem of the ponies was plain enough. Until he looked at Ymareth and at Ymareth’s fanged, smoked-fuming mouth; and knew exactly
what about
the ponies. He was no Alban horselord, with a perhaps excessive love of that particular animal, but even so the prospect of, of feeding them to a dragon was enough to make his war-hardened stomach turn over.

“Take off the harness and all the other gear,” Gemmel said dispassionately. “All of this must be done. Whether you like it or not.”

“And would you be as quick with your orders if I was Aldric?” returned Dewan, his temper flaring up for an instant. It was an uncalled-for remark, known and regretted the instant that the words were spoken—directly it was too late to recall them.

“You’re like him enough, Dewan ar Korentin. More than enough. You know how to hurt with words. Now—do it, and let’s get this thing over.”

Ymareth watched and waited with a dreadful patience, saying nothing, aware perhaps of how these men felt about the beasts they had ridden, aware that there was no place for words here and now. There was nothing to be gained by speech on either side; indeed, if the situation was looked at with the sort of honesty that was little short of brutal, this was a kindness. To abandon the ponies in this wilderness of scrub and snow and desolation would be to condemn them to a lingering death by freezing and starvation. Better the… what had Dewan’s own thought been?... brief, bright glory of a dragon’s fire.

So at least the Vreijek persuaded himself, as he loosened the cinch on the last saddle and lifted it away. As he lowered it gratefully to the ground a little way off— with all the gear strapped around it, that saddle was heavy—Gemmel’s hand, feeling just as heavy, came down on his shoulder.

BOOK: The Dragon Lord
12.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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