The Hero And The Crown Part Two Chapter 13
WHEN SHE CAME to herself she was screaming, or she would have been screaming had her ravaged throat been capable of it. It hurt to breathe. She lay on the ground, a little distance from where the dragon lay crumpled up against the mountainside, its head and tail outflung and motionless. She thought, I must have killed it after all; but the thought did not please her particularly. She hurt too much. Water was her next thought. There was a stream … . The thought of water made her wounds burn the more fiercely, and she fainted again.
Somehow during that long afternoon she crawled to the stream; it was not until twilight that she finally put out her hand – her right hand, caked with dragon gore – and felt water running over it. She had been afraid that she had, in her desperate need, imagined the sound and smell of running water, and her periods of unconsciousness were full of dreams that told her she was crawling in the wrong direction. Two or three tears crept down her blackened face, and she pulled herself up on her right elbow again, and dragged herself forward, and fell full length into the water. It was shallow where she lay, and she feebly propped herself against a moderate-sized boulder where the water could run freely over her left arm and the left side of her face and yet let her breathe.
She spent at least that night in the cool stream, moving only to drink, and then turning her face up again against the rock in that she might go on breathing; although she wondered, occasionally, as she wandered in and out of consciousness, why she cared. Dawn came; or perhaps it was the second dawn since she had pulled herself into the water; or the twelfth. She watched the sun rise and it occurred to her that she seemed to be spending more time conscious, and she was sorry for this. It would have been simpler if sometime during the night when she had wandered off, leaving her crippled body in the cold running water, she had not returned. But instead she found herself blinking at the light of morning, and then staring at a vaguely familiar pale hulk at the shore of the stream. Talat.
“Talat,” she croaked, and discovered that her voice was not entirely gone after all. Talat raised his drooping head and looked at her; he had not recognized the thing in the stream as his beloved Aerin, and he whinnied eagerly but uncertainly.
“If you’re still around,” Aerin whispered, “then perhaps I’d better stay too,” and she hunched herself painfully into a sitting position.
Talat backed a step or two away from the thing in the stream as it rose up at him, but it croaked “Talat” at him again and he paused. The voice did not sound the way Aerin’s voice should sound, but he was quite sure it had something to do with his Aerin, and so he waited. Aerin found out that sitting up was as far as she could go in that direction, so she lay down again, rolled over on her belly, and hitched her way slowly up onto the shore of the stream, Talat lowered his head anxiously and blew, and the touch of his breath on her face made her grunt with pain. She worked her right hand out of its sodden gauntlet, and raised her good hand to her horse, and he lipped her fingers and then gave a great sigh – of relief, she thought; but she turned her face away from his warm breath, “A lot you know,” she whispered, but for the first time since they had fallen together before the dragon it occurred to her that she might not die.
Her burns and her broken ankle throbbed more harshly once she was out of the water, and she thought, I could spend the rest of my life lying in streams. A very small thought added, That may be no very long time anyway. Then she thought: I have to find a way at least to stand up and get Talat’s saddle off before it galls him. Well, I still have one arm and one leg.
It was very awkward, and Talat was unhappy at the way she pulled herself up his left foreleg till she could grab the girth and pitch her shoulders across the saddle and prop herself up that way; but he stood as still as the dead dragon, and only the stiffness of his neck and back told her he was worried. “I’m worried too, my friend,” she murmured. She managed to unbuckle the girth and let the saddle slide to the ground; there was a pink, almost raw spot behind his elbow where the sweaty girth had rubbed him for too long. There were also two long angry red weals, one across his croup and one other down his flank. Dragonfire.
She slithered back to the ground again, landing on the saddle. She found herself staring at the buckles that had held the saddlebags. Food. Where did I leave my gear? It was near the stream here somewhere. Behind a rock. She looked around, but her sight was blurry, and she could not tell which smaller humps were rocks and which might be saddlebags. Her mouth and throat throbbed. I probably can’t eat anything but mush, she thought, and grimaced, but wrinkling her face for the grimace was so painful that she could think of nothing for a few minutes.
It was Talat who found her saddlebags. He ambled away from her, snuffling along the ground by the edge of the stream; and he paused by one particular group of small dim hummocks and bumped them with his nose; and Aerin knew by the noise that they were not rocks. He moved away from them again, and one hoof in passing glanced off them, and again the noise was a faint rustle instead of the tunk of hoof against stone.
It was another long afternoon before she dragged herself within reach of her saddlebags, for she had often to climb back into the water and soothe her burns and her throbbing ankle. She lay with one hand on their smooth leather, and then thought: A fire. If I could boil something to a pulp till I could swallow it …. She fumbled one of the flaps open; there was still bread, and she put it in her hand and held her hand in the water till she felt it begin to disintegrate, and then lapped it up slowly.
She did build a fire; she found a way to wedge her tinder between stones so that she could strike it with her good hand; and fortunately there was plenty of fuel by the shores of the stream. Trees still grew here, for they were a little protected from the dragon’s valley by the long stone shoulder that had hidden Maur from Aerin’s campsite. She found the remains of her campfire, and it looked old and weathered; and she thought to notice that the stream was running clear again, and she wondered again how long she had lain in the stream. She found a flat rock for a lid, and began the long process of boiling dried meat in her tin till it was soft enough for her to eat. She didn’t dare make the fire very large, for she could not go far to fetch wood for it; nor could she bear the heat of it.
She slept, or fainted again, often, drifting back and forth across the boundary of selfhood; it was no longer only oblivion that those periods of blank ness brought her, but the beginning of healing. She pried the boot off her right foot, gingerly felt the ankle, wrapped it in strips made from spare clothing, tying knots with one hand and her teeth; and hoped she was doing something useful. The wrappings reminded her, if they did no other good, to keep the foot quiet, and the ache of it ebbed away to a dull mutter.
She had looked only once at her left arm, and had felt so sick at the sight that she did not look again. But not looking reminded her the same way as bandaging her foot reminded her; and the pain of the burns had subsided but little, and she had often to crawl back to the stream and soak herself in it. And how long before I get sick from the cold? she thought, shivering; for now that her body was trying to fight back it recognized that lying in cold water for long periods of time is not generally a good thing to do, and the unhurt bits of it shivered. She sneezed, and sneezed again. Great, she thought dully, and her eyes fell again on the saddlebags. It was hard to think because of the pain.
Kenet, she thought. Kenet. It can’t hurt to try.
Hope rose up and blocked her aching throat. She crept to the saddlebags and unrolled the long wallet that held the kenet; and twitched her left arm forward and let it lie in the thick yellow ointment. She closed her eyes, trying not to hope so desperately; she feared the pain might drive her mad soon, and she could not spare the strength to withstand too great a disappointment. But as she grappled with herself the pain in her arm dwindled and ebbed and finally died away to a vague queasy discomfort. I’m imagining this, she thought, holding perfectly still so as not to disrupt the beautiful unexpected dream of peace. She opened her eyes. Her arm was still black and horrible-looking. She lay down, very, very slowly, til her left cheek was cradled as well in the dragonfire ointment; and slowly her face, too, hurt less and less till it did not hurt at all. She fell into sleep, real sleep, the first real sleep she had had since the evening she had read Tor’s note.
She dreamed that she woke up, lying with her left arm curled around her head, and her left cheek pressed to the ground. She rose up on both elbows and noticed without finding it remarkable that both arms were whole and strong. She sat up, hands falling easily and languorously into her lap. She rubbed her palms together and thought uncomfortably that she had had a most unpleasant dream about a very large dragon …. As she bent her head forward her hair fell forward too, and she noticed two things: first, that her hair was short, barely chin length. This disturbed her, for she knew that she would never cut her hair; Teka was adamant about this, and Aerin was secretly a little proud of the fact that her hair was even longer than Galanna’s, falling unbound almost to her ankles, the weight of it stretching the curls into long ripples. It was also nearly straight now; and when she was younger and her hair shorter, it had been mercilessly curly. But, worst of all, it was the wrong color. It was still red, but it was the darker color of flaring embers, not the paler shade of the leaping flames. Panic seized her; she was not herself; she had died; or, worse, she, Aerin still existed, but the dream of the dragon had not been a dream at all, but real, and the real Aerin still lay somewhere with a burned face and a blackened arm and a broken ankle, and this healthy painless body she presently inhabited belonged to someone else; she would not be permitted to stay.
“I will help you if I can,” said a voice; but she was dreaming, and could not be sure if the words were spoken aloud. She looked up from where she sat huddled on the ground; a tall blond man stood near her. He knelt beside her; his eyes were blue, and kind, and anxious. “Aerin-sol,” he said. “Remember me; you have need of me, and I will help you if I can.” A flicker came and went in the blue eyes. “And you shall again aid Damar, for I will tell you how.”
“No,” she said, for she remembered Maur, and knew Maur was real, whether or not she was dreaming now; “no, I cannot. I cannot. Let me stay here,” she begged. “Don’t send me back.”
A line formed between the blue eyes; he reached one hand toward her, but hesitated and did not touch her. “I cannot help it. I can barely keep you here for the space of a dream; you are being pulled back even now.”
It was true. The smell of kenet was in her nostrils again, and the sound of running water in her ears. “But how will I find you?” she asked desperately; and then she was awake. Slowly she opened her eyes; but she lay where she was for a long time.
Eventually she began walking again, leaning heavily on a thick branch she had found and laboriously trimmed to the proper length. She had to walk very slowly, not only for the sake of her ankle, but that her left arm not be shaken too gravely; and she still had trouble breathing. Even when she breathed in tiny shallow gasps it hurt, and when she forgot and sucked in too much air she coughed; and when she coughed, she coughed blood. But her face and arm were healing.
She had also discovered that the hair on the left side of her head was gone, burnt by the same blast of dragonfire that had scarred her cheek. So she took her hunting knife, the same ill-used blade that had been forced to chop her a cane, and sawed off the rest of her hair till none of it was longer than hand’s width. Her neck felt rubbery with the sudden weightlessness, and the wind seemed to whistle in her ears and down her collar more than it used to. She might have wept a little for her hair, but she felt too old and grim and worn.
She avoided wondering what her face looked like under her chopped-off hair. She thought fixedly of other things when she rubbed kenet into her cheek, and when she dressed and rebound her arm. She did not think at all about being willing to face other people again, except to cringe mentally away from the idea. She was not vain as Galanna was vain, but she who had always disliked being noticed was automatically conspicuous as the only pale-skinned redhead in a country of cinnamon-skinned brunettes; she could not bear that her wounds now should make her grotesque as well. It took strength to deal with people, strength to acknowledge herself as first sol, strength to be the public figure she could not help being; and she had no strength to spare. She tried to tell herself that her hurts were honorably won; even that she should be proud of them, that she had successfully done something heroic; but it did no good. Her instinct was to hide.
She had briefly thought with terror that the villagers had sent the messenger to the king that morning so long ago might send another messenger to find out what had become of either sol or dragon; but then she realized that they would do no such thing. If the sol had killed the dragon (unlikely), she would doubtless come and tell them about it. If she didn’t, the dragon could be presumed to have killed her, and they would stay as far away as possible.
At last she grew restless. “Perhaps we should go home,” she said to Talat. She wondered how it had gone with Arlbeth and Tor and the army; it could all be over now, or Damar could be at war, or – almost anything. She didn’t know how long she’d been in the dragon’s valley, and she began to want urgently to know what was happening outside. But she did not yet have the courage to venture out of Maur’s black grave-out where she would have to face people again.
Meanwhile she walked a little farther and a little farther each day: and one day she finally left the steam bank, and hobbled around the high rock that separated the stream from the black valley where Maur lay. As the sound of the stream receded she kept her eyes on her feet; one booted and one wrapped in heavy tattered and grimy rags; and one of them stepping farther than the other. She watched their uneven progress till she passed the rock wall by, and a little gust of burnt-smelling breeze pressed her cheek, and the sound of her footsteps became the slide-crunch, slide-crunch of walking on ash and cinders. She looked up.
Carrion beasts had not gotten far with the dead dragon. Its eyes were gone, but the heavy hide of the creature was too much for ordinary teeth and claws. Maur looked smaller to her, though; withered and shrunken, the thick skin more crumpled. Slowly she limped nearer, and the small breeze whipped around and stroked her other cheek. There was no smell of rotting flesh in the small valley, although the sun beat down overhead and made her cheek, despite the kenet on it, throb with the heat. The valley reeked, but of smoke and ash; small black flakes still hung in the air, and when the breeze struck her full in the face the cinders caught in her throat and she coughed. She coughed, and bent over her walking stick, and gasped, and coughed again; and then Talat, who had not wanted to follow her into the dragon’s valley but didn’t want to let her out of his sight either, blew down the back of her bare neck and touched his nose to her shoulder. She turned toward him and threw her right arm over his withers and pressed the side of her face into his neck, breathing through the fine hairs of his mane till the coughing eased and she could stand by herself again.
The dragon’s snaky neck lay stretched out along the ground, the long black snout looking like a ridge of black rock. Ash lay more heavily around the dragon than in the rest of the small valley, in spite of the breeze; but around the dragon the breeze lifted a cloud that eddied and lifted and swelled and diminished so that it was hard to tell – as it had been when she and Talat had first ridden to confront the monster – where Maur ended and the earth began. As she watched, another small brisk vagrant breeze swept down the body of the dragon, scouring its length from shoulder hump to the heavy tail; a great black wave of ash reared up in the breeze’s wake and crested, and misted out to drift over the rest of the valley. Aerin hid her face in Talat’s mane again.
When she looked up she stared at Maur, waiting to think something, feel something at the sight of the thing that she had killed, that had so nearly killed her; but her mind was blank, and she had no hatred or bitterness nor any sense of victory left in her heart; it had all been burned away by the pain. Maur was only a great ugly black lump. As she stared, another small breeze kicked up a windspout, a small ashy cyclone, just beyond the end of the dragon’s nose. Something glittered there on the ground. Something red.
She blinked. The wind-spout died away, and the ash fell into new ribs and whorls; but Aerin thought she could still see a small hummock in the ash, a small hummock that dimly gleamed red. She limped toward it, and Talat, his ears half back to show his disapproval, followed.
She stood on one foot and dug with her stick; and she struck the small red thing, which with the impulsion of the blow sprang free of the black cinders, made a small fiery arc through the air, and fell to the earth again, and the ash spun upward in the air draught it made and fell in ripples around it, like a stone thrown into a pond.
Aerin had some trouble kneeling down, but Talat, who had adjusted to his lady’s new slow ways, came and stood beside her and let her clutch her way one-handed down a foreleg. She picked the red thing up; it was hard and glittering and a deep translucent red, like a jewel. “Well,” she whispered. I can’t take the head away as a trophy this time; so I will take this. Whatever it is.”
She tucked it into the front of her tunic, where her bound arm made a cradle for it, and pulled herself back up Talat’s foreleg again. He had gotten so good at being an invalid’s assistant that she could lean her stick against him and he would not move till she took it back in her hand, that she need not have to pick it up from the ground.
A few days after she found the red dragon stone she looked around for something high enough to let her climb up onto Talat’s back, and low enough that she could climb up onto it in the first place. This took some doing. She finally persuaded him – he was willing to be persuaded once he could figure out what strange thing she next wanted of him – to stand in the stream while she edged out, balanced precariously on her buttocks and one hand, down a long heavy overhanging branch from a tree growing near the shallow bank; and lowered herself as slowly as possible onto his bare back. He gave a little whicker of pleasure to have her there again, and took steps as smooth as silk when he carried her; and she sat up a little straighter than she could stand on her own feet, and felt a tiny bit more like a king’s daughter than she had for a long time. She rode him up and down the bank of the stream that day, just for the pleasure of a motion that didn’t hurt her right ankle; and the next day she saddled him and tried it again, and the day after that she saddled him and tied the remains of her belongings clumsily behind the saddle, and they left the stream and Maur’s valley forever. The red stone knocked gently against her ribs as her body swung back and forth in rhythm to Talat’s long gentle stride.