The Hero And The Crown Part Two Chapter 12
TEKA BROUGHT HER THE MESSAGE from Tor three days later. He had tried to see her several times, but she had refused to talk to him, and Teka could not sway her; and from the glitter in her eye Teka did not dare suggest to Tor that he simply announce himself. His note read: “We ride out tomorrow at dawn. Will you see us off?”
She wanted to burn the note, or rip it to bits, or eat it, or burst into tears. She spent the night sitting in her window alcove, wrapped in a fur rug; she dozed occasionally, but mostly she watched the stars moving across the sky. She did not want to stand in the cold grey dawn and watch the army ride away, but she would do it, for she knew it had hurt her father to deny her what she asked – because she was too young; too inexperienced; because he could not afford even the smallest uncertainty in his company’s faith when they went to face Nyrlol, and because her presence would cause that uncertainty. Because she was the daughter of a woman who came from the North, they could at least part with love. It was like Tor to make the gesture; her father, for all his kindness, was too proud – or too much a king; and she was too proud, or too bitter, or too young.
And so she stood heavy-eyed in the castle courtyard as the cavalry officers and courtiers mounted their horses and awaited the king and the first sola. The army waited in the wide clearing hewn out of the forest beyond the gates of the City; Aerin imagined that she could hear the stamp of hoofs, the jingle of bits, see the long shadows of the trees lying across the horses’ flanks and the men’s faces.
Hornmar emerged round the looming bulk of the castle, leading Kethtaz, who tiptoed delicately, ears hard forward and tail high. Hornmar saw her and wordlessly brought Kethtaz to her, and gave his bridle into her hand. The first sola’s equerry waited impassively, holding Dgeth. Hornmar turned away to mount his own horse, for he was riding with the army; but meanwhile he was giving the king’s daughter the honor of holding the king’s stirrup. This was not a small thing: holding the king’s stirrup conferred luck upon the holder, and often in times past the queen had demanded the honor herself. But often too the king ordered one who was considered lucky – a victorious general, or a first son, or even a first sola – to hold his stirrup for him, especially when the king rode to war, or to a tricky diplomatic campaign that might suddenly turn to war.
No one said anything, but Aerin could feel a mental chill pass across the courtyard as some of the mounted men wondered if the witchwoman’s daughter began their mission with a bad omen, and she wondered if Hornmar had done her a favor. If the army rode out expecting the worst, they were likely to find it.
Aerin held Kethtaz’s reins grimly, but Kethtaz did not like grimness, and prodded her with his nose till she smiled involuntarily and petted him. She looked up when she heard the king’s footsteps, and when she met her father’s eyes she was glad she had yielded to Tor’s request. Arlbeth kissed her forehead, and cupped her chin in his hands, and looked at her for a long moment; then he turned to Kethtaz, and Aerin grasped the stirrup and turned it for Arlbeth’s foot.
At that moment there was a small commotion at the courtyard gate, and a man on a tired horse stepped onto the glassy stone. The horse stopped, swaying on wide-spaced legs, for it was too weary to walk trustingly on the smooth surface; and the man dismounted and dropped the reins, and ran to where the king stood. Arlbeth turned, his hand still on Aerin’s shoulder, as the man came up to them.
“Majesty,” he said.
Arlbeth inclined his head as if he were in his great hall and this man only the first of a long morning’s supplicants. “Majesty,” the man said again, as if he could not remember his message, or dared not give it. The man’s gaze flicked to Aerin’s face as she stood, her hand still holding the stirrup for mounting, and she was startled to see the gleam of hope in the man’s eyes as he looked at her.
“The Black Dragon has come,” he said at last. “Maur, who has not been seen for generations, the last of the great dragons, great as a mountain. Maur has awakened.”
Sweat ran down the man’s face, and his horse gave a gasping shuddering breath that meant its wind was broken, so hard had it been ridden. “I beg you for … help. My village even now may be no more. Other villages will soon follow.” The man’s voice rose in panic. “In a year – in a season Damar may all be black with the dragon’s breath.”
“This is mischief from across the Border,” Tor said, and Arlbeth nodded. There was silence for a long, sad, grim moment, and when Arlbeth spoke again, his voice was heavy. “As Tor says, the Black Dragon’s awakening is mischief sent us, and sent us crucially at just this moment when we dare not heed it.” The messenger’s shoulders slumped, and he put his hands over his face.
Arlbeth went on, so quietly that none but Aerin and Tor and the man might hear. “We go now to meet a trouble that may be even deadlier than dragons, for it is human and Damarian and spurred by mischief. Damar may yet face the dragon; a Damar broken to bits would be nothing, even though the dragon lay dead.” He turned to Kethtaz again, set his foot in the stirrup, and mounted. Aerin stepped back as Kethtaz pranced, for he cared nothing for dragons and much for bearing the king at the head of a procession.
“We shall return as soon as we may, and go to meet your Black Dragon. Rest, and take a fresh horse, and go back to your village. All those who wish it may come to our City and await us in its shelter.” He raised his arm, and his company rustled like leaves, waiting the order to march; and one of the sofor led the messenger’s wind-broken horse to one side, and the king’s procession passed the courtyard gate, and went down the king’s way and beyond the City walls to where the army awaited them.
Aerin had meant to climb to the top of the castle and watch the glitter of their going till it disappeared into the trees beyond the City; but instead she waited, standing beside the messenger, whose hands were still over his face. When the last sound of the king’s company’s going faded he dropped his hands, as if till then he had been hoping for some reprieve; and he sighed. “Almost I missed them entirely,” he murmured, staring into the empty air. “And it was to no purpose. Better I had missed them, and not used my poor Lmoth so ill,” and his eyes turned to the horse he had ridden.
“Lmoth will be cared for well in our stables,” said Aerin, “and I will take you now to find food and a bed for yourself.”
The man’s eyes turned slowly toward her, and again she saw the dim flicker of hope. “I must return as soon as I may, at least with the message of the king’s charity for those of my folk left homeless or fearful.”
Aerin said, “Food first. It’s a long weary way you have come.” . He nodded, but his eyes did not leave her face.
Aerin said softly: “I will come with you when you ride home; but you know that already, don’t you?”
The hopeful gleam was now reflected in a smile, but a smile so faint that she would not have seen it at all if she had not, in her turn, hoped for it.
“Thank you, Aerin-sol, Dragon-Killer,” he said.
They rode out together that afternoon. Talat was fresh, and inclined to bounce; he did not heed the dragon spears attached to his saddle because he believed he knew everything he needed to know about dragons. It was a silent journey. They went as quickly as they dared push the horses – a little less quickly than the messenger liked, but Aerin knew she and Talat had a dragon before them, and Talat was old; and if he did not wish to remember it, then it was all the more important that Aerin remember it for him.
Their course was almost due north, but the mountains were steepest in that direction, so they went out of their way to take the easier path, and moved the swifter for it. At dawn on the third day a black cloud hung before them, near the horizon that the mountains made, although the sky overhead was clear; and by afternoon they were breathing air that had an acrid edge to it. The messenger’s head had sunk between his shoulders, and he did not raise his eyes from the path after they first saw the black cloud.
Talat picked his way carefully in the other horse’s wake. He was better-mannered now than he had been when he was young and the king’s war-horse; then the idea of following any other horse would have made him fret and sulk. Aerin left it to him, for she looked only at the cloud. When the messenger turned off to the left, while the cloud still hung before them, she said, “Wait.”
The man paused and looked back. His expression was dazed, as if hearing the word “Wait” had called him back a long distance.
“The dragon lies ahead; it is his signature we see in the sky. I go that way.”
The man opened his mouth, and the dazed expression cleared a little; but he closed his mouth again without saying anything.
“Go to your people and give them the king’s message,” Aerin said gently. “I will come to you later, as I can – or not.”
The man nodded, but still he sat, turned in his saddle to look at the king’s daughter, till Aerin edged Talat past him and down the path the man had left, straight toward the cloud.
She made camp that night by a stream black with ash; to boil water for malak she had first to strain it, and strain it again, through a corner of her blanket, for this was not a contingency she had planned for. “Although I suppose I should have,” she said to Talat, hanging the soggy bedding over a frame of branches by the fire in the hope that it might dry before she had to wrap herself in it. She’d had to strain water for Talat too, for he’d refused to drink the ashy stuff in the running stream, snorting and pawing at it, and tossing an offended head with flattened ears.
The campfire was less comfort than it should have been; the light glared, and hurt the eyes, and it seemed to smoke more than a small campfire should, and the smoke hung low to the ground and would not drift away, but clung to the throat and lungs. Aerin rolled herself in the still damp blanket and tried to sleep; but her dreams woke her, for she heard the dragon breathing, and it seemed to her that the earth beneath her thudded with the dragon’s heartbeat. Talat was restless too, and turned his head often to stare into the darkness, and shivered his skin as if he felt ash flakes brushing him.
Dawn came, and Aerin lay wide awake, watching the light broaden, and still she felt the earth tremble with the dragon’s pulse; and the light did not grow as bright as it should, but remained grey as twilight. She rolled her blanket, and left it and her cooking gear in the lee of a rock; and she rubbed Talat all over with kenet, and herself as well, and donned her greasy leather suit; and then she rubbed herself and her horse with kenet all over again, and even Talat was subdued by the grey light and the trembling ground and did not protest this deviation from the proper schedule. Aerin rubbed her spears with kenet, and checked that the rough suede grips were looped firmly in place; and she checked the clasp of her swordbelt and the lie of the short knife she carried in her right boot. Lastly she pulled on her gauntlets; the fingers felt as stiff as daggers.
Maur was waiting for them. They had spent the night separated from the dragon by no more than a knob of rock a little taller than Talat; and it was in the direction the dragon lay that Talat had so often looked during the dark hours. Or perhaps Maur had approached them from where it had lain yesterday and it was the weight of its footsteps Aerin had felt as its heartbeat as she lay awake by the smoky camp fire.
Perhaps the dragon was not so large as a mountain; but the heavy black cloud that clung around it made it larger than a mountain, and when it first caught sight of them it lifted its wings, briefly, and the sun disappeared, and a wind like a storm wind howled around them. Then it bowed its long neck to the ground, its nose pointed toward them, and its half-lidded red eyes stared straight at them.
Talat stopped as they rounded the protective stone shoulder, and threw up his head. Aerin was ready to dismount hastily if Maur was too much even for Talat’s courage, for he had not had the warning she had had, and at least till the night before he must have believed that they went to fight a dragon like other dragons. But he stood, feet planted, and stared back at the dragon, and Maur’s red eyes opened a little wider, and it began to grin a bit, and smoke seeped out between its teeth, which were as long as Talat’s legs. The smoke crawled along the ground toward them, and curled around Talat’s white ankles, and Talat stamped and shivered but did not move, and the dragon grinned a little more.
They were in a small cup of valley; or what remained of the valley with the dragon in it was small. There had been trees in the valley, and on the steep slopes around them, but there were no trees now. It was hard to see anything. The smoke was rising around them, and the valley was blackened; when a low rocky hillock moved toward them, Aerin realized suddenly that it was some of the dragon’s tail. Dragons sometimes stunned their prey with their tails when they did not care to expend the energy that breathing fire required, or didn’t feel the prey was worth it.
She loosened a dragon spear in its place, and drove Talat forward with her legs. He was only a little slow to respond. She lifted the spear and hurled it with all her strength at the dragon’s nearer eye.
Maur raised its head with a snap, and the spear bounced harmlessly off the horny ridge beneath its eye; and Talat lurched out of the way of the striking tail. The dragon’s head snaked around as Talat evaded the tail, and Talat dodged again, and fire sang past Aerin’s ear, fire like nothing either Talat or Aerin had ever seen before, any more than this dragon was like any other dragon they had seen. The fire was nearly white, like lightning, and it smelted hard and metallic; it smelled like the desert at noon, it smelled like a forest fire; and the blast of air that sheathed it was hotter than any Damarian forge.
Talat’s eye showed white as he glared back over his shoulder at the dragon; Maur was sitting half crouched now, but it was grinning again, and it made no further move toward them.
Aerin was shivering in the saddle, the long convulsive shudders of panic. She loosened the second spear, and reluctantly she turned Talat to face the dragon once more; she wanted desperately to run away and hide, and had her throat not been dry with terror she would have sobbed. Her shoulder creaked as she lifted the spear. She urged Talat forward, and he moved stiff-legged, tail lashing anxiously; she put him into a trot as if they were going to pass the dragon by on their left side; all the time she was horribly aware of Maur’s slitted eyes watching them. She coughed on the rising smoke, and almost lost her grip on the spear; and as they were almost past the dragon’s farther shoulder she kneed Talat abruptly around, swerving in under the dragon’s breast as it crouched, and flung the spear at the soft spot under the jaw.
Maur swung away from them faster than anything so large should have been able to move; the wind of its movement knocked Talat off his stride, and he stumbled. Maur threw up its head with a roar that sounded like mountains falling, and yellow-white fire spouted into the sky. Aerin clung weakly to Talat’s mane as he swerved away from the dragon’s raking foreclaw, and saw that her spear had found its mark; it dangled under the dragon’s chin, looking as frail as a blade of grass, and Aerin knew it was no good. Had her throw been true, Maur would have fallen at once in its death agonies, not lashed its head down toward them again and spat another long white-hot gout of fire at them.
Talat swerved again, and the fire only nicked them in passing. Maur shook its head violently and Aerin’s spear came free and whipped away like a leaf on a gale; the dragon’s eyes were wide open now, and they heard the hiss of its breath, and it sent more fire at them, and Talat spun desperately aside once again. There was sweat on his neck, and sweat ringing his dark eyes; and Aerin could do nothing but cling dumbly to the saddle; her brain refused to function. Her spears were gone, and there was nothing useful to be done with her sword. Talat leaped aside once more, nearly unseating her; she cowered miserably and wondered why Talat did not turn tail and run, but continued to face the monster, waiting for her to do … something.
Another blast of fire, and this time, as Talat reared back on his hocks and spun frantically to the right, the weak hind leg gave way. He screamed, with fear or shame, as the leg buckled and he fell; and Aerin fell with him, for her reflexes were too numb to pitch her free. And so she was a little above him as they fell together, and the dragonfire caught her, briefly, and she fell through it.
One arm was flung up, or left behind, as she fell, and the fire burned the kenet-rich leather to ash instantly, and scorched the arm within; and the helmet on her head blackened and fell away, and most of her hair vanished, and her kenet-smeared face was on fire. She opened her mouth to scream, and she was almost past the band of fire then, or she would have died at once; but still a little of the outermost edge of the dragonfire, no hotter, perhaps, than the fire used to temper the king’s swords, slid between her lips and down her throat and into her lungs, and then she had nothing left to scream with.
Then she was below the fire lash, and lying on the ground, and one foot was caught under Talat’s body, and Talat lay still. The pain of her scorched throat and lungs was so great she almost forgot the pain of her arm and her head; but she found, somewhere, enough consciousness left to be surprised, when she saw a great shadow shifting toward them and looming over them, that she could still see, and out of both her eyes. I’m still alive, she thought, and blinked; her unburnt cheek was pressed against the ground, which felt as cold as ice. That’s the dragon leaning over us, she thought; it will kill us for sure this time. There was a red haze hanging before her eyes, or maybe her eyes were only sore from the smoke and ash; but she could not see clearly. She must have imagined that she saw the dragon’s jaws opening, for had she seen it, there would have been no time left. As it was she had time to think, calmly and clearly, I’ve killed Talat because he wouldn’t turn and run; he’s a war-horse. Well, perhaps I can run forward, not back too, now that it’s too late.
She hadn’t had time to figure out how seriously hurt she was, so she picked herself up and flung herself at the dragon’s nose as it bowed its head to nuzzle them, or swallow them, or whatever it had planned; and she found out too late that the ankle that had been caught under Talat was broken, and her left arm so withered by the fire that it could not obey her; but somehow still she had grabbed Maur’s nostrils, and as it yanked its head up she held on grimly with one hand and one foot, and perhaps with her teeth. This is for Talat, she thought, but dimly now. There’s still a knife in my boot, but I have only one hand; I can’t hold on and pull it out both.
But Maur reared up as it raised its head, and the weight of the air held her flat upon its nose for a moment, and almost she laughed, and worked her good hand down to her boot top and pulled the knife free. The dragon finished rearing, and clawed at its nose with one front leg; but its eyes were set too low and far back on its head to see her where she lay, and its skin was too thick for it to feel her location accurately, and the swipe missed. She thought, A few steps, only a few, it doesn’t matter that my ankle’s broken; and she half stood up and ran the length of the dragon’s head, flung herself down flat again, and plunged her knife into Maur’s right eye.
The force of the blow had all her weight behind it, for all that she had little strength left, and her weight carried the knife deep into the dragon’s eye, and on into its brain, and as her gauntleted fingers were clutched convulsively around the knife’s hilt, her arm followed, its passage shoulder deep. The dragon’s fiery blood fountained out and covered her, and she fainted.