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Deliciously dark fantasy…Deathwings, Dragon Wine Part Three"Shatterwing has all the fantasy ingredients I love: tormented heroes, a truly twisted villain - and a brand new take on dragons!" Glenda Larke, (award winning author of The Stormlord Trilogy)"Dark and compelling, with strong characters and a sense of grim inevitability that pulls you along with the story." Craig Cormick, (award-winning author of the Shadow Master Series.)Life on the ravaged world of Margra is more difficult than ever… Salinda and Garan blasted the evil Gercomo into the sky. Except … he didn’t die, he transformed into a dragon. Final moonfall looms ever closer and the world is on the brink of destruction.Gercomo’s vile influence spreads among his dragon herd and he is reaching for power in both the human and dragon worlds.Salinda has the means to stop him and save the world.And Gercomo wants her dead.
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Dragon Wine: Part Three
Donna Maree Hanson
First by Donna Maree Hanson 2017
Copyright © Donna Maree Hanson 2017
The moral right of the author has been asserted
All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organizations) in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the author.
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry
ISBN 978-0-6480415-1-1 (ebook)
ISBN 978-0-6480415-2-8 (Print on Demand)
Cover design by www.crocodesigns.com
Edited by Brianne Collins
To report a typographical error, please email email@example.com
Also by Donna Maree Hanson
Argenterra, The Silverlands Book One
Oathbound, The Silverlands Book Two
Ungiven Land, The Silverlands Book Three
Dragon Wine Series (Dark Fantasy)
Shatterwing, Dragon Wine Part One
Skywatcher, Dragon Wine Part Two
Deathwings, Dragon Wine Part Three
Bloodstorm, Dragon Wine Part Four
Love and Space Pirates
Rayessa and the Space Pirates
Rae and Essa’s Space Adventures
Opi Battles the Space Pirates
For my friends who make living so worthwhile
A Woman’s Bane
A Leader, New
A Dragon’s Lair
The Hard Road
Into the Deep, Dark Places
A Source of Power
To Be a Dragon
In the Arms of Intrigue
Two Minds that Never Meet
Into the Cadre
Navigating the Pecking Order
A Slave Trap
A Hint of Passing
The Reach of One’s Wings
A Division of Paths and Loyalties
A Deal Undone
Preview Bloodstorm Dragon Wine: Part Four
Dust particles shimmer in the light of Margra’s sun, enveloping the world below in a lavender halo. A lump of space rock turns end over end as it plummets, a tail of vicious fire in its wake. Belle moon’s surface erupts as debris is thrown high and another crater is born. The planet revolves on its axis again. Oblivious to its doom.
Like blood, a rich drop of wine is licked from the fingertip
He was falling.
Air rushed past. Breath stolen. Sharp rocks below. Fear spearing into his lungs, his heart.
A blur of the world around him.
Gercomo opened his mouth to scream. No air. No sound, his mind white with panic.
His arms and legs flailed. He tried to fly.
It was like swimming against the tide, limbs useless, clumsy. A great, burning surge of blood trammeled every muscle, undoing his humanness, remaking him, remaking his mind. Dulling it, smashing it, obliterating it. He sucked in a lungful of air snatched from the wind rushing past.
A guttural cry vibrated against his hardened skin. His own fear haloed him. He struggled to maintain height, wrenching his shoulders, clenching his jaws in the effort to crawl through the air, yet he continued to drop.
Throwing his senses out, the world around him spun and slowed and came into conical focus. Valleys and rifts and eroded peaks loomed large beneath him, all jagged, with the capacity to rend flesh.
He flapped. Wings moved, halting his plummet.
With a desperate heave, he threw more of his strength into his wings until his muscles burned, the sensation as if the flesh was being ripped from his bones. It wasn’t working. He was falling, still. But slower, now.
With a last ditch effort, he fought to recall the dance of dragons, remembering how they skimmed thermals and glided above the prison vineyard. Effortlessly they used the membranes on their wings to trap the air and slide. That was what Gercomo was doing wrong. He was fighting against the air instead of working with it. He ceased his struggling and stretched out his arms, no, his wings, and air billowed underneath them. The headlong rush to the ground slowed as the wind caught and gently lifted him. A relieved laugh turned to a screech that was alien in his mouth as he soared higher.
He was no longer falling, but he was too tired to stay aloft for long. Already the muscles between his shoulder blades ached.
Beyond the treacherous foothills of the Duggan Ranges, the desert plain stretched out in a muted pinks, mauves and browns. He tilted his body in that direction, the hues of the landscape strange and his vision distorted while he tried to process a greater range of colors and a spectrum of light he’d not experienced before, a fierce violet glow and other alien ripples of energy that radiated and bent as he turned his head from side to side. He wasn’t seeing with his own eyes. It wasn’t the same. These were his eyes now. He had to adapt.
The flat stretches of wasteland gave him an uninterrupted view of his surroundings. Yet he could not tell if objects were near or far. At times he thought he could, but his brain was having trouble interpreting the new information.
Drifting lower, the wind grew precarious and, like a cough, the air pushed out from under his wings. In a panic, he tried to maintain his height, to stop himself from falling, and failed. Instead, the clawed foot he extended to the earth clasped emptiness and he rolled and tumbled. Over and over he went, his bones bending and his tendons twisting. Fear and agony intermingled and robbed him of even a scream. When he finally came to a halt, he lay there stunned, pain shafting through every part of him, while he waited to breathe again.
Gercomo uncurled his claw and then dragged a torn wing from underneath his ungainly, scaled body. Every movement radiated hurt and increased his confusion. He no longer had hands that could touch. All he could do was lick his skin. It was then he noticed his size.
He was puny. Even he could tell that he was small compared to the immense dragons. He was hardly larger than a man. What horrible twist of fate was this? To be cursed to exist as a beast, but not a real one, just a semblance of one. Looking down at his body, he knew it was terribly wrong. He was nothing like the huge winged beasts that overflew the vineyard. He was pitiful. What if another dragon found him? They would know he was different, alien. Instinctively he understood the danger. With one wing dragging in the dirt, he scrabbled across the stony ground, scooping loose earth with his claws as he waddled, driven by the need to hide before Margra’s sun set, bleeding the sky of light.
The desert was barren and there was no sign of human habitation. Turning to glance behind, he saw that nothing followed on land or sky. The changes in his body had slowed. He found his sense of smell enhanced. As the light faded, the tortuous jigsaw of his vision settled and honed to a rare acuteness. He could see the warmth of the day’s sun radiating off the sand. Above, the dark purple of the sky was marred only by Shatterwing glittering pinkly above the horizon. Ripples of red and violet caressed the sky far into the distance. The colors confused him. Why do I see in this strange spectrum?
During the night, Gercomo found a patch of ground, layered with rough, loose sand. A nudge of his snout revealed it was littered with large, round stones, as though a river had once flowed along the plain. Within the soft folds of earth, he found he could wriggle down and cover himself with the sand. Delving deep enough to keep himself safe, he finally allowed himself to rest. After a few hours, pale pink sunlight swept over the horizon. Then as the sun climbed higher, the sand began to warm his skin. The pain eased as if the dirt provided healing. And as he lay there his mind began to relax and to warp. The human concerns began to wane, but a few knots of anger did not disappear entirely. He held on to the important things and would not let them fade—anger, envy and lust. They were what defined him, and they melded well with the animal desires surfacing within him. He was hungry, and he was lonely. He had never needed another person before, but now there was something burning in his blood, something driving like stakes through his brain. He needed kin.
In the late afternoon, Gercomo was rested, but a cavernous hunger had grown inside him. He needed to eat. Needed to move. Simple as that. Thoughts of food, of starvation, began to dominate his mind. What did dragons eat? Was he a dragon or dragon enough to eat raw burden beast? He lifted his head and sniffed. There wasn’t much of anything except dust on the breeze. He would need to search out prey.
The sand dropped silkily from his scaled hide as he clawed his way out of his resting place. Tentatively, he stretched a wing and tested it. It no longer sang with pain yet it was still tender in places, particularly the elbow joint. Fortunately it functioned. In the growing shadows, he stepped confidently, his strange vision still pink and mauve with flashes of vermilion. He remembered there were other colors in the spectrum of light and that the world wasn’t nearly as contoured as it seemed now. The small stones around him were so clear and precise, and the distant peaks loomed so large and felt so near he imagined he could breathe onto their slopes. Even these human thoughts of what he’d lost slid to the back of his mind as the need for food took over.
The sun’s rays began to cool as night shrouded him. A scent drifted on the light breeze. He turned his head and concentrated. In the distance, he heard something, a clink, clink, as if someone was throwing stones against a rock. Perhaps it was an animal, something he could eat. He inhaled, hoping what he smelled was food.
While the aroma called to his olfactory senses, Gercomo zeroed in on the sound, learning with each step how to control his various body parts. The more he walked the more natural his gait became. He was almost elegant as he slowly stepped toward his prey. Ahead he saw that there was a tumble of boulders, spread in a circle like thrown dice. Farther on he could see the mark of flame burning across his vision. Beyond that was a settlement or a dwelling of some kind. But there amid the standing boulders was a boy, tossing stone after stone. Stealthily, Gercomo angled around to get a better view and to see if any adults were about, to see if there were any dragon lances or harpoons. The boy was aiming for a target, a crudely drawn circle on one of the boulders, the outline faint in the dim light emanating from the small fire. Tick, tick.
Gercomo sniffed and realized the boy was the food he’d smelt. His stomach churned and saliva filled his mouth, dripped off his tongue. He wanted to surge forward and swallow the boy whole. But he held that impulse in check when he detected a new scent and then heard the sound of a woman’s voice. The urgent call was distant but growing closer. The boy paused as if hearing the voice but then shrugged once and kept aiming at the target. So far he had not noticed Gercomo standing behind the surrounding boulders, not twenty paces away. The boy looked about ten years old, maybe younger. Gercomo blinked and saw that the child had a faint violet glow about him as well as the tantalizing scent of food. Another cry from the woman and the boy laughed and scooped in the dirt at his feet to pick up more stones.
As Gercomo crept forward to within striking distance, the boy stiffened and turned around. With a faint squeak of surprise, the open-mouthed boy stood stock-still. Hot piss wet his bare feet and stained the ground. Gercomo snatched at the boy, grabbing him around his small waist and clasping him tight in his grip. Looking down at the scaly appendage that held him, the child screamed and struggled. Gercomo liked the sound; it made him drool.
The woman’s voice was suddenly closer—after a pause, there was a sharp intake of breath from just outside the ring of boulders. A frantic wail cleaved the night.
Swinging his head round, Gercomo saw her jerk as she entered the circle of stones, saw her recoil at what he was holding in his claws and stop dead, her eyes like large dark holes. When he had her full attention, he bit off the boy’s head and upper torso and swallowed. Next he ate the remainder, enjoying the crunch of bones in his jaws, the sharp gnash of his fangs and serrated back teeth as he chomped and chomped and then swallowed. His laugh echoed around him, sounding like a roar.
With a guttural scream, the woman pulled her hair and fell to her knees, lost in a moment of grief. She should have run. It would have made better sport. Gercomo threw his gaze toward the settlement, but no one stirred. She was alone and unprotected. The boy’s life blood filled his stomach with warmth, spreading out and reaching his extremities with a tingling sensation that enlivened him. Eating humans was good.
Like a dart he lunged at the woman and pinned her against the target her son had painted. She fainted so he let her go. After falling to the ground, she came to, shook her head and began to crawl away. He let her go at first, seeing that she found hope in that pointless exercise. Then, reaching out, he pierced her dress with his index claw and drew her slowly toward him as the cloth fell from her shoulders. With the other claw, he flipped her over and drew a line down her front. The sharp tip cut the skin. A fine red gash opened up. The scent of blood teased his hunger and made his pulse throb. A howl like the lonely wind tearing across the plains rose from her mouth. How he wanted to taste her and yet play with her and draw the moment out. This hesitation was both invigorating and excruciating, priming his taste buds until he drooled hot saliva across her face and shoulders.
The woman struggled and tried to break free. She turned on her stomach and scrabbled in the dirt on all fours. At his screech, his victim shivered and shrieked. He liked her fear, reveled in it. He flipped her over and her screams became music and then she stopped, her eyes wide and staring, though the life had not quite left her body.
When she quieted, he played with her some more, exciting that melody once again from her throat. A bite of her arm was a tasty morsel, raising the tune to a new pitch. As he lapped the blood from her wounds with care, savoring each drop, her voice became low and husky. He began again, this time at the legs. Her scream flowed over him, filling him with joy as he licked at the arterial blood gushing into his mouth. As he gulped down a thigh, her voice grew whisper-thin. Another bite and there was a visceral grunt and then a low moan as her last breath eased out of her throat. Gercomo didn’t know if she could see his grin, see how happy she had made him. He had found a new source of power—human flesh.
Tumbled rock, blood-smeared fragments of masonry and dust spread around Danton. The main building of the observatory rose above him, magnificent and untouched. “We have to do something about the dead,” Danton said as he balanced on a flat slab of broken stone in the remains of the observatory’s courtyard. “And then there’s the wall to repair.”
Not only was there a breach in the wall where the Inspector’s siege engine had torn through, there was the debris from Danton’s carefully laid explosives, which had blown up the entrance to the courtyard. Such devastation had been necessary to save the observatory from its invaders. With his empty eye socket covered by a patch, the rebel leader turned in a full circle, nodding slowly. This was where the Inspector had indiscriminately sacrificed so many lives to reach his prize.
Danton’s young rebel companion, Brill, climbed up behind him, anchoring his feet on two large pieces of rubble. Now that Danton knew Brill better he understood why Salinda had helped this young lad, with his vision of hope for the future of humankind.
“There are so many of them,” Brill said as his gaze raked the scene.
Danton looked back down at the debris-strewn courtyard, stained with blood and rent flesh. Many of the fallen were on the pyre ready to be burned, but still too many remained in the rubble. He tried to bring a smile to his lips, but found that he couldn’t muster one. He was tired. Deciding to help the observatory in its fight against the Inspector had ramifications. He found he could not walk away, even though he wanted to do so. Who would have thought his attempt to rescue Salinda would lead him to this place? “Yes, and they are ripening.” He brushed the end of his nose with a knuckle and shook his head.
Brill’s head angled in the direction of the observatory’s elders and tenders, who were crawling over rocks, peering into crannies to locate the dead with their mouths and noses muffled by cloth. Brill’s mouth turned down at the corners and dual tear trails wormed a path down his dirt-stained cheeks. “That’s not the only problem. The escaping rebels will take away tales about the technology this place possesses.” Brill wiped his nose with his shirtsleeve and sniffed loudly.
Danton thought it was more than sorrow that made his young friend’s eyes water. The dust and the stench were sufficient irritants to make a herd of burden beasts weep. “You think the Infra-pact rebels will come back?” he asked.
Brill’s brows drew together and he shook his head. “No, I don’t think so as they have the dragon wine. But it would make interesting information for their superiors.”
“Damn!” Danton’s expletive made a few elders look up from their task, dark shadows under their eyes. Acknowledging them with a nod, Danton scratched his beard and then ran his hands through his hair. “I didn’t think of that. Who knows what damage such a report could do? It could threaten the future of this place. Wing dust!”
Different options ran through Danton’s mind. There was no help for it. He could not hunt down every last Infra-pact rebel and silence them. He and Brill were the only fighting men here, and he couldn’t imagine that the observatory would condone wholesale slaughter in any case. Thoughts of escaping rebels clouded his future plans. “Our goal is slipping through our fingers.”
“Yes, the wine; meeting up with the rest of the men. I must be dust mad.” Danton wiped his forehead with a cloth from his pocket and tucked it back into his trousers. “But right now we need help to clear this.”
“Agreed.” Brill turned away, nodded to one of the elders and jumped across the gap between two chunks of wall. Calling over his shoulder he said, “I’ll speak with Elder Wylie. He’s escorting the evacuees back from the caves. I’ll ask if he can bring them here as a priority so we can speed up recovery of the dead. And I’ll suggest he start on works for repairing the wall.”
Danton nodded as he watched Brill’s figure recede. “Check with Salinda first. With the Master Elder dead, the elders have turned to her for leadership. Good idea about the wall, though. I may have brought it down, but that doesn’t mean I have to put it back up.”
Brill paused and looked back over his shoulder. “Doesn’t Sal want to leave straight away?”
Danton felt a weight pressing down on his chest and swallowed. Thinking about Salinda was hard. He wanted to stay close to her, but she was with Nils now and that made his feelings redundant, except to him. And there was duty, which was everything to her. It was his duty to recover that wine stash, that much was clear. “Yes...and so do we.”
The subterranean city of Barrahiem seemed emptier than usual as Nils strode through its desolate, dust-filled streets. White homes stood sad and empty, their walls punctured with dark round holes, like the eyes of vermin. He was the last of his kin. He had been in a prison of sleep for over a thousand years. Now he had to face the future without the succor of his family, without hope.
If not for the lure of dragons, and his desire for knowledge of this new species that had appeared on Margra, he would never have been inclined to explore the world above, the world of the Sundwellers. He would not have rescued Salinda from that witch’s pyre, brought her to this secret and sacred place and taken her for a mate. Now he missed her.
A sudden, intense cramp made him falter, made him lean against the balustrade for support. Thus enfeebled, he found he was seized with a coughing fit, until his throat burned. Struggling for breath, his legs buckled, too weak to hold him up. When it was over, the pain subsided to a dull ache, but one that weighted his footsteps and took the spring out of his step. With Salinda still at the observatory, the bond between them was stretched so taut that it caused him physical and mental pain. Thankfully Salinda did not experience it thus. To her their bond was nothing tangible at all, but an ephemeral promise.
Nils understood that his mate’s duty lay elsewhere. The battle at the observatory and Master Elder Jalen’s death had left the observatory in a delicate state. Salinda could not turn her back on them. Yet, the bond they had formed in the deep lake stretched out through the Ways to where Salinda was, and it hurt.
Burying himself in research appeared to be the single means to salve his pain. With his dying breath, Jalen had spoken of Trell of Barr, Nils’s grandsire. The Master Elder had mentioned that he had seen the name in a book. That had intrigued Nils.
In his workroom he found the index markers for his grandsire’s writings. A quick scan of the dates made Nils frown. The dates were within the year he had been interred in the sarcophagus and made to sleep away a thousand years or more. He read the final entry.
My heart is heavy this day. My favorite grandchild has been placed in the sarcophagus—a prisoner of sleep. It pains me to know that we will never talk again. It pains me to know that the world he will awaken to will be less than it is now. But in my heart I hope that there will be a world for him to enter again.
The child of my heart has always shared my passions. I remember the light in Nils’s eye when he peered through the scopes at Trithorn Peak. I remember the catch of his breath when I told him of the bands of power holding Ruel together. I remember how he touched my hand with his forehead in thanks at the gift of knowledge and experience I had given him. Now I see his face stilled in sleep, as cold as death, caught at the cusp of adulthood.
Barrahiem holds nothing for me now. My kin are mine no more. I turn my back on them, on their ignorance and their fear. They will not heed my warnings, nor will they make any preparations for the inevitable end. I go out into the world above to seek other learned men, Sundwellers who will work with heart and mind to save what they can of Margra. For the failing Ruel will be a global catastrophe that will leave this world shattered. We cannot avert this doom, but we can make something from the ashes.
Nils searched the records again, puzzled. That could not be Trell’s last entry. Did his grandsire truly leave his kin, to dwell above after Nils was interred? That would mean that the observatory possibly held the last writings of his grandsire. No, that could not be allowed. All the knowledge must be kept together in the archives. Then he recollected that the old observatory had been leveled, and the present one raised from its remains. He shuddered at the thought of the loss of Trell’s thoughts and deeds from the archives. It was akin to having his grandsire’s existence expunged from the world.
He left his workroom to return home. When he reached his abode, he realized there was no reason to put off his departure. All he needed was his shroud and supplies and he would see Salinda again and perhaps look about for Trell’s writings in the ruins of the old observatory.
As Laidan leaned against the balustrade looking out over the disheveled courtyard, she considered the bodies piled on the pyre and experienced little emotion. Intellectually, she knew she should feel something more. She should be concerned about her lack of feeling, her arid and desolate emotional landscape. But too much had happened.
Her mentor, Thurdon, had been poisoned and he’d thrust the cadre into her unprepared mind before he died, then she had almost been raped and killed, more than once. Then she’d been brought here, chased down by an evil man and his army. Those people on the pyre were dead because of her. She shook her head. No. No. Not me. It wasn’t me. It’s not my fault.
It was too much. She shut it all out. She shut it down. The cadre too. She didn’t want to have it or feel it. Now there was an empty space surrounding her that blocked her from empathizing, from feeling sorrow, from feeling anything.
The world was too awful. Its evil had slapped her in the face and there was nowhere to hide. What was the point anyway, of obeying the rules, doing what you were told, if you only ended up dead? You might as well enjoy yourself while you could. That was her new approach to life.
Salinda had her studying mind-numbingly boring texts. They served Laidan well, though, because the more she read, the more distant that seat of unsettling power and thought, the cadre, became. Thurdon’s voice had been so loud, so overpowering, that she had been grateful when Salinda had been able to quiet it and give her some peace.
At least she had Brill. He made her light up, made her feel like she was beautiful and important. If she was patient Brill would be finished with the bodies and then he would come to her, like he had promised when they rendezvoused in the closet. She would make him come to her. She would make him promise. Brill always kept his promises.
Garan thought that a late lunch of cacti porridge, soft bread and some mulled dragon wine would wash the taste of death from his mouth. He was wrong. Everything he ate and everything he touched tasted of rotting corpse. When he closed his eyes, images of the faces, the bodies, the blood, the severed limbs were always there. He could not shift them from his mind. They appeared in the dark shadowed corners and dwelled in the depths of his dreams. They would plague his mind forever.
He would hazard a shooting star that he was not the only one who had not slept or who was similarly discomfited by their duty. Unease and despair were in the air around him, like a sob held in check. The observatory was grieving. They had mourned the Master Elder but now they mourned Vanden’s dead, those who had been sacrificed by the Inspector against the walls of Trithorn Peak.
Even if the observatory’s inhabitants remembered the faces of their dead kin, few were recognizable, not from what he’d seen. Faces smashed, skulls caved in, bodies flat and crushed, gizzards everywhere. Blood like paint staining everything, providing a feast for flies. The observatory’s inhabitants mourned every single death as if it was their own flesh and blood. Such horror was new to them, new to Garan.
As he chewed and swallowed his meal without tasting it, he became lost in his nightmarish thoughts until he was startled by Salinda sitting down next to him. He gaped at her. She, too, looked like she had had a difficult day. Lines at the corners of her mouth cut worry into her face. She’d been helping the elders restore some order after the attack, working long hours. The refectory doors swung open and Danton and Brill walked in. Garan thought Laidan might have been with them but she was nowhere to be seen.
Salinda looked at Danton, and Garan followed the path of her gaze. He had never seen the one-eyed rebel look so grim. His smile was forced and his expression haunted as he joined them at the table. Garan’s mood plummeted. Danton, who had helped him face the worst moment in his life, the death of a friend by his own power, was now succumbing to the misery surrounding them. Something had to give.
Salinda’s hand started to move across the table, then paused before she withdrew it again. Instead, she wished him a pleasant evening. The look they shared with each other spoke volumes. Garan thought the rebel might cry.
Brill appeared in better spirits. Pointedly ignoring Garan, he began chatting to Salinda. Brill had believed Laidan’s story about Garan trying to ravish her. Garan bore it best he could. He was to blame. Not Laidan. She did not know any better. It was right that Brill stood by her, supported her through her trials. Garan sniffed once. He would like Laidan to turn to him but he knew that was out of the question. Not with the lithe and polite Brill dazzling her with his gallantry and smile. Garan was an ignorant oaf in comparison.
“How are you feeling now?” Brill asked Salinda. “Less stressed?”
Salinda smiled lightly. “I am feeling more in control, thank you, Brill. And you?”
As his plate was empty, Garan was about to stand up to fetch more food, but he hesitated. Salinda’s question had brought a blush to Brill’s face. Danton avoided Garan’s gaze by twirling an empty cup around in his hand, apparently absorbed in this action. What was going on now? Surely Brill had not been dallying with Laidan? Why, Brill must be exhausted from all the heavy work during the day. Garan glanced at Brill’s hands, which were loosely clasped in front of him. The younger man had not bothered to get a meal yet. Brill’s fingers were cut and grazed and most of the fingernails were broken. He had not been shirking.
Danton stood up. “Come on, Garan. Let’s get some food. There is more work to do before this day is done. Let Brill talk to Salinda for a bit.”
Salinda rubbed her hand over her face as if that would wipe away her fatigue, frustration and numerous other ills. Just then, the door flew open. “My lady,” said the familiar croaky voice of Elder Wylie as he ran toward her breathlessly. “Forgive me...disturbing your meal. You must come...come to the gallery and see...” Behind him strode Elder Titina, her longer legs easily keeping pace with her fellow elder. She looked thinner than the last time he had seen her. Garan recollected that she had been in the caves supervising the partial evacuation and then had fallen ill. Titina’s brows furrowed to form a “V” between her eyebrows and fatigue had increased the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. With a brief nod to him, she kept her gaze on Elder Wylie and Salinda.
Salinda stood up straight away, shifting her robe out of her way to follow. Garan hastened after them. The anxiety in the elder’s voice was acute. Elder Titina followed close behind, her steps unhurried but efficient. Once out the doors, Garan heard people whispering in the corridors. It was like the rush of wind in an empty cave, echoing and amplifying. Something had excited the inhabitants of the observatory. A glimpse over his shoulder showed Garan that the rest of the party had followed them.
Salinda took the steps two at a time. Elder Wylie trailed her as best he could. Once out on the gallery, the afternoon sun near blinded them. The old man led them round to the Klester Valley side. As Garan came up behind Salinda and Elder Wylie, he didn’t understand what he was seeing. Then the sound filtered through and that drew his gaze. Beyond the pile of corpses stacked for the funeral pyre was a line of women with stooped shoulders accompanied by ragged, barefoot children. Garan could hear them wailing.
Salinda stood stock-still. “Oh no!”
Salinda faced the three travel-stained women who led the mob from Vanden and touched her swollen abdomen reflexively as if to remind herself of the life growing within. Fighting her anxiety, she welcomed them. This was a new complication—refugees. The ramifications for the observatory and her plans sent her mind spinning. Behind them the wailing increased as the people from the observatory mingled with the ragtag newcomers and found others to share their grief. More refugees and their children continued to struggle over the debris of the gates as they talked. Garnering scraped knees and red-raw hands, they lurched forward to gather behind the leaders. With each breath Salinda took, the crowd swelled.
Discerning voices above the general hubbub, she heard questions fly about—Have you seen my son? Where is my husband? Noddy didn’t come home, is he here? Can you help me? Then the voices of the observatory’s inhabitants mingled, and the noise became a cacophony.
Salinda tried to shut it out and focus on the three women in front of her. She could not help but see the devastation in their eyes. It was their husbands and sons piled up ready for burning. It was their lives that had been shattered and destroyed beyond recognition. Her gaze surveyed the ruins of the wall and the partially demolished lower floors of the front section of the observatory. Collateral damage. The dead were piled where all could see. The wall could be rebuilt but the dead could not be replaced.
The refugees’ pain and desperation were evident in their clenched jaws and frightened eyes. They reminded her of the downtrodden prisoners in the vineyard. A sudden flashback to the misery she’d witnessed during her time in captivity had her panting, and she rode it until her mind calmed again. It had been but a second. Suffering and death—it was everywhere. It was unstoppable. It was following her around—the terrible deeds of the Inspector. Salinda fought the wave of despair that threatened to crash down on her and let out a long, slow breath. Then, gathering a cloak of calm around her, she looked at the women in turn. “How may we serve you?” she asked the lead woman, who was maybe thirty-five or forty years old, plump with a long grayish-colored skirt, dirty, brown-colored blouse and a threadbare shawl pulled tight around her shoulders.
The woman’s hair hung down from a tangled bun. Salinda could see her scalp in places; raw, blood-stained flesh peeked out through the strands. Around the woman’s neck were bruises, where it appeared someone had tried to strangle her. A small hand grasped the woman’s skirt and a young child stared up at Salinda, her large dark eyes liquid pools of pain. All trace of innocence was gone from the child’s face. Salinda was moved beyond words. The sight before her reminded her there was more to this fight than dragon wine, power and Shatterwing. What had this woman done to bring this fate upon herself? Nothing. The child was even more innocent. Both had been born into this world, and that was all. It had to end.
The woman stood straighter, squared her shoulders and raised her chin. She swallowed painfully before speaking. With a twitch of her skirt and a tug at her blouse, she said, “My name is Mandin. We have come here because we have nowhere else to go.” The woman’s voice was gravelly, perhaps raw from screaming. “The town has been burned and our homes are lost. Do not, we beg you, turn us away.”
Salinda’s throat was dry. Her gaze roamed the faces around her, once again taking in their sorrow. How could she turn her back on them? What would Mez have done? The cadre hummed in her head, warning her to keep focus. But faced with what was in front of her she lost the struggle between the call of duty and compassion. People were what mattered. Right now she could do something real. Perhaps she could help these people without hindering her cause.
Before she could speak she was interrupted. “I assure you we have no intention of sending you away,” Elder Titina said, stepping forward. Elder Wylie nodded, unshed tears glistening in his eyes.
“We want to help you if we can,” Salinda added. “You can see that there has been a battle here. Many of our kin and yours lie among the dead. We say to you that this is not our doing. What we did, we did in defense.”
The woman’s face was stricken. She gestured to Vanden’s women and children. “The issue of blame can be decided later. Right now, we require aid. For a long time there has been an association between the people of Vanden and the observatory. We call upon that relationship in our hour of need.”
Elder Titina put out a hand to the woman. “The observatory will honor that bond.” Mandin looked at the hand, reached out to brush her fingers against the elder’s. Her expression was weary, almost beyond hope. Titina lowered her arm, the fingers trembling.
“Thank you.” The woman nodded, relief relaxing her features. Her gaze searched behind Salinda and then met Salinda’s again. “My son lives here. Do not keep me from him. I have lost so much already.”
Salinda’s skin grew cold. Surely if her son were in the crowd he would have come forward. Perhaps he was elsewhere working, or still evacuating the caves. Looking about them, the women behind her added their voices to Mandin’s and began calling their sons’ names.
“Tell me the name of your son and I will call him to tend you.”
The woman’s eyes tracked the inhabitants milling around. Then her gaze swept over Garan, Danton and the others who had followed Salinda. “Turnet. My son is Turnet.”
Salinda heard Garan’s intake of breath, and the woman didn’t miss it. “What is it?” she asked, looking sharply at Garan. “Where is he?”
Elder Wylie stepped forward, his shoulders slumped, his gray hair lank on his shoulders. “Turnet was a good Skywatcher. But he was taken from us not long ago. I am so sorry.” Salinda heard a sob and realized it came from the old elder. His shoulders shook as he tried to suppress it. Casting a quick glance behind her, she saw that Garan’s expression was frozen in horror.
The woman retained her composure, though she held her jaw tight. “Husband and son both lost.” She shook her head in a dazed sort of way, as if nothing would or could faze her. “What of the other sons and daughters? Can the survivors of Vanden see them? Can they claim them? Now that our husbands are dead we need our sons and daughters to help us survive.”
“Of course.” She motioned Elder Titina and Elder Wylie forward. “These elders will assist you and your people.”
Salinda turned away briefly, taking in the pile of corpses. This close the smell was terrible. Why, the stench must travel for miles. A thought like a thundercloud grew in her mind. She wondered at it.
“We have to deal with the dead,” Salinda hissed to Garan and the others. Danton nodded. Perhaps he understood the danger as she did.
Elder Titina had gathered the three women leaders to her. “We should be able to accommodate you all for a short time in the lower hall. It has been cleared of debris. Come this way.”
Salinda focused again on the women. Mandin’s posture sagged noticeably now, perhaps because she had no further need to be strong. “Thank you,” she whispered, before turning to clasp each of her two companions on the shoulder in turn. Salinda found that she admired the woman’s courage and her ability to lead others when her hope was gone. Salinda wondered if she could ever muster the same strength.
Before Mandin became engulfed in the crowd Salinda asked, “What can you tell us of the rebels?” The woman turned back and their gazes locked. After a moment Mandin’s face changed. It became a hard and angry mask.
“They’re gone...but they...they, um...left their mark on all of us.”
Salinda swallowed a hard lump. “I see. We shall talk more when you are rested.”
As she turned away, a sense of dread and danger filled Salinda. The dark cloud that had built up in her mind coalesced. “Danger!” she cried.
“What?” blurted Elder Titina, her face a mask of puzzlement.
“The dead.” Salinda covered her mouth. The power grew in her mind. Then she pointed. “The smell of the dead! It draws them.”
Danton leaped into action and he and Elder Titina began chivvying the refugees into the lower hall. “Hurry!”
“What is it, Salinda?” Garan asked.
“Run and take cover.” Salinda took a handful of robe and ran. “All of you. Dragons! Dragons come to feed. The scent of the dead has reached them and they are hungry.”
Screams erupted as the word spread. Salinda sped back into the observatory the way she had come, Garan and Elder Wylie hot on her heels.
“Elder Wylie,” Salinda said as she ran. “Did you find oil? Are we ready to light the funeral pyre?”
Then the scream of a dragon echoed through the observatory, and was almost immediately joined by three more. “Not good enough! They must burn.”
With his longer stride, Garan was ahead of them and ran to a window overlooking the plains. “Wing dust! They are huge.”
Salinda made it to the observatory proper and strode to where she could look out onto the courtyard below. A dragon had alighted on the funeral pyre and was clawing at the dead, trying to dislodge some. She stepped back, her hand to her middle protectively. Suddenly the dragon snatched at the top body, gulping it down. Then it took another in its jaws and took wing. Human screams filled the air as this fresh terror ripped the scab off people’s grief. Salinda turned to the plains side, her mind awhirl. There was only one thing she could think of to do. Arms outstretched, robe billowing in the breeze, she called for Plu. Her faithful friend, who was always closer than expected, who always seemed to come when she called. What a lucky day it was when she had found him as a hatchling.
Turning back to the courtyard, she saw Garan gaping at her. Brill grinned lopsidedly and then said, “She’s called her dragon.”
Garan eyes grew round with surprise. “She has a dragon?” Then his face transformed with a stupid grin. “Of course she does.”
Salinda turned back to look at the dragons feeding. There were four of them. She could feel their minds. Their thoughts and emotions crawled into her head whether she wanted them or not. How or why she had this gift she didn’t have to time to consider. She was dispassionate about the dead being eaten. It was the danger to the living she worried about. Second to that came the feelings of the living and their religious beliefs.
“Elder Wylie,” she called. “Get ready to light the pyre. We won’t have time for a dedication. We need to burn the dead now.”
The gallery rocked, nearly tumbling them all to the ground. A dragon’s tail had caught the roof as it swooped in. That made five.
“Garan, run and tell everyone to stay hidden and quiet.”
Garan took off like an arrow from a bow. Salinda’s mind was full of the dragons’ presence. So much so that she couldn’t discern whether Plu was close by, whether he was responding to her call. She had summoned him, but would he—could he—come to her aid? Dragons tended to be territorial as far as she had observed. Would these others prevent him?
“What can I do?” Brill asked.
“See if you can get to Danton and let him know we will fire the dead. Plu will provide the flame.”
“Are you sure? There are a lot of dragons out there.”
Salinda chewed her bottom lip. She watched the dragons eating, saw several of them fly away with a body in their jaws or claws. “They eat and then they leave to take food back to the hatchery. If people keep out of sight they should be safe.”
“Let us hope that they do not bring more of their herd with them.” Brill’s comment was so aligned with her thoughts that she gaped at him.
“Yes. Just so. That’s why we need to burn the dead so there is nothing to draw them here. We do not wish to be overrun by a whole herd.”
Brill grimaced. “They have no harpoons or weapons to fight dragons here so let’s hope we can burn the dead in time.”
Salinda unclenched a hand that had been gripping her robe. “For now, we are lucky there are enough dead to fill their bellies. From what I understand dragons do not pass this way very often. It was the stench of the dead that drew them. When that is gone, the danger should pass.” Salinda cast about. Where was Elder Wylie? Why was there a delay? The old elder had complained of no oil to sustain the pyre and she had tasked him to overcome that problem. Closing her eyes, she prayed that he had or this dragon problem would escalate.
Brill nodded. “I know. We worked as fast as we could. I’ll go now so Danton can prepare the refugees and the observatory’s inhabitants for the funeral pyre.”
Just as the young rebel ran off, a familiar mind distinguished itself from among the dark mass of need that filled her head. Burn the dead, Plu, she called to him in dragon tongue. She caught a glimpse of him as he flew past. The other dragons were too intent on their food to pay him any mind or to fight for territory.
Yet to avoid any misunderstandings, Salinda knew she had to give the dragons an alternative food source, for the moment at least. A strong link formed between her and Plu. She rocked back on her heels at the force of it. It was so much more powerful than it had ever been before. The memory of the Inspector transforming into a dragon came to mind, the mauve flame of dragon essence consuming him. He’d fed her that stuff. A perverted version, certainly, but it was still dragon essence. Had that changed her somehow, made her more open to the dragons’ minds? If it had, there was no time to think about it now. She sent Plu mind pictures of the dead littering the streets of Vanden. Bliem, ger bach hun. Valley, man place by the river. Then she added an expression of affection and gratitude, Neun. Neun,my friend. I will see you again.
Plu spewed flame at the pyre. The low whoomph as the flames caught was soon superseded by the outraged shrieks of the dragons that had come to feed who were now driven away. Flames leaped up and became self-sustaining. Salinda realized that Elder Wylie must have overcome the shortage of oil to fuel the pyre after all. She knew his resourcefulness would kick in.
Plu took wing, screeching long and varying his pitch, communicating Salinda’s information to the other dragons, she supposed. Then, one by one, the other dragons began taking wing and diving after him and sent rock and damaged walls crashing into the forecourt. Other dragons flew overhead, bypassing the observatory as they followed Plu’s lead. It had worked. By the source, it had worked!
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