A Drac Virtue
The survivors of Sandridge were a motley lot: a handful of sailors, a washer woman, a fisherman and his fishwife and two of their children, one of them screaming and being pressed to the fishwife's breast, refusing to suck. There was a forlorn and quite rotund tradesman sitting atop a fire-scarred chest of valuables that he refused to move from, with a couple attendants standing nearby in case he needed anything, one of them absently fanning his sweating brow.
All of them were staring intently at Iorneste, Mourne, and the comatose dragonrider and her dragon.
One of their midst, a dusky-skinned man of medium height and built like a ship came swaggering towards them in the rolling gait of one who spends most of his life at sea, bare feet slapping on the planks of wood that comprised the wharf--all that remained of Sandridge. "Oy!" he called, his voice strong and used to calling over the sound of storms and waves.
Smoke billowed up into the skies atop the hill, and it filled the air with an acrid haze. The waterfront provided some respite, with seaborne winds thinning the haze somewhat, but not eliminating it.
Mourne's eyes reddened and watered in irritation, but Iorneste did not seem bothered by it at all. Iorneste remained in a crouch in the sand beside the fallen dragonrider, staring past the survivors to the tumultuous sea beyond, in a mute state which Mourne struggled to decipher.
Mourne muttered, "Wait here. Watch her," as he rose to his feet to meet the sailor who was approaching them before the fellow could ask questions that Iorneste was not mentally-prepared to answer.
His last word echoed in Iorneste's mind. Her. He hadn't been prepared for it to be a her.
From his youngest days, the females of Kaer Drac had always been bigger, had always been stronger, had always been so much beyond his station--and always would be. Servitude was the destiny of male Drac, and the thought of even attacking a female of his own species was so foreign and ingrained to his thinking that he struggled to encompass the idea of what he had just done. Humans were not Drac. He knew this, but he could not loosen the knot in his throat, the sense of foreboding horror that filled his chest, as if he had committed a horrible crime, a crime for which he would pay terribly.
Mourne left the troubled Drac alone with his thoughts and moved forward onto the wharf, inclining his head to the dark-skinned man that approached. "Oy yourself," he replied, extending his hand to the other man.
The man stopped, staring at him with beetled brow through squinted onyx eyes for a long, tense moment.
He then broke into a sudden grin, white teeth bared against his black skin like the teeth of some kind of jungle predator, and laughed, slapping his palm firmly against Mourne's and squeezing so hard, and pumping the hand so vigorously that Mourne heard his knuckles crack. "Well!" the sailor said, still laughing, "I never saw that coming!"
Mourne struggled to smile, withdrawing his hand quickly, pride preventing him from rubbing feeling back into his numb fingers in front of the man who had nearly broken his hand. "We weren't trying to make any kind of scene," Mourne said quietly.
The dark-skinned man tossed back his head, laughing even harder at this, drawing quick, furtive looks from the other survivors. He struggled to contain himself for a moment, but catching a look at Mourne's stony, bearded face, he broke into even deeper laughter, doubling over and resting his hands upon his knees. "Then...you...failed!" he chortled, still gasping for breath.
Mourne found the laughter disarming, but he couldn't bring himself to join in. There was nothing funny to him about what had just happened. The whole situation was out of control. Any map he'd had towards the future had been burned along with Sandridge, leaving him in uncharted waters.
Here there be dragons, thought Mourne sardonically.
Mourne coughed in the acrid air. "I suppose we did, at that."
Waving off his laughter, but not his smile, Oren gushed, "I've never seen anything like it! One minute we're all prepared to fry like eggs, the next thing we know blondie over there is facing down a dragon, and tossing the rider like a stone from the saddle!" He shook his head in disbelief, looking past Mourne to the two figures on the beach behind him, as if to reassure himself they were still there. His eyes then drifted over to the dragon, which had now laid itself prone on the beach, head resting upon its foreclaws, eyes turned towards Iorneste. "The name is Oren, by the way. Oren Castlewaith, but everyone just calls me Oren."
"Mourne," answered Mourne. "My companion is--"
"Yorn of Summersgard. I heard. We all heard. Don't think any of us will ever forget that name."
It hit Mourne right in the stomach. Great Winged Death, it's starting already. A selfish part of him wished right then that they had been too late to save anyone--it would have made things so much less complicated. But then again, he chastised himself. We wouldn't have any answers, either.
"What happened here?" asked Mourne. "What brought this dragon rider here, and why did she burn Sandridge?"
Oren's eyes glinted, and his mouth took on a hard cast. "She was after the Captain. He'd gone ahead to town to secure lodgings and do some business. Once she roasted him and the town along with him, she came back, started ordering us around, said she wanted something in the ship. Started asking which ship belonged to the Captain, and that if we cooperated, she'd let us live."
"Doesn't sound like you cooperated."
"I pretended to be just some dumb sailor whose crew left without him. But I figured if she wanted his ship, she wouldn't burn any of them, and that was my only way off of this rock."
"You were first mate?"
"Was. But I guess I'm Captain now. Hadn't expected to get promoted this way. Expected the usual, you know. A mutiny, or a bar fight, a knife in the gut from a wench. Something like that. Hell of a way to die, burning alive like that. Give me drowning any day. That was my plan, once that beast over there decided to start drenching everything in fire again. I was going to jump in the ocean."
"That your ship?" asked Mourne, indicating the caravel at the end of the wharf. It seemed the most likely candidate among the sad remainder of whatever fleet of merchant ships that had once moored itself at the Sandridge docks.
"That's her. The Maiden's Fancy."
"What did she want with the Captain?"
"Ahh," Oren nodded. "Well there's a story. If Cap hadn't confided in me before we docked, I'd have nothing to tell. But the Ganji used to say that sometimes a man can tell when his death was coming. Maybe Sorens knew it, too."
"Sorens? Captain Sorens?"
"Was. Now he's charcoal."
"Funny. His first name wouldn't have been Lamarke, would it?"
Oren's smile fell. "How did you know?"
Mourne sighed. "Lucky guess. Thanks, I think I know the story now."
Oren's right eyebrow shot skyward. "You knew him?"
Mourne turned halfway, preparing to rejoin Iorneste. "Knew of him. He was once general of the armies of Greatre Esturia."
Oren nodded in agreement. "Yeah, a deserter. Left his whole life behind, and took to the seas. Said it was over a woman."
Mourne felt a half-remembered pain, before immediately brushing it aside, burying it deep. "Isn't it always?"
The woman on the beach lay like one sleeping. Iorneste had turned his attention from the sea to look down at her, slumbering at his feet, a very nasty bruise already forming on the left side of her face where he'd struck her. It reminded him of his own wound, and he reached up to his right cheek, feeling the matted, throbbing mass of congealing blood and ravaged flesh where she'd sliced him with the wicked spurs of her boots.
It's different with humans, he told himself. The males are the ones who are bigger and stronger, the females weaker.
It was hard to reassure himself of this fact considering the strength of this particular woman, however. His nose felt tender and swollen, and there were a persistent throbbing in his skull that caused him to wince whenever he turned his head. For all her presumed weakness, she had delivered her share of pain to him. In repose, her features were calm, smooth, aesthetically pleasing even. While awake, however, her mouth had been a firm line, eyes fierce, and she was every bit what he would imagine the matriarchs of his kind would be if they took human guise. She certainly possessed the spirit of a matriarch.
The tattoo of a dragon upon her neck struck him as very appropriate, along with her flaming red hair, reminiscent of the flames in which the Drac were raised. Her green armor like hard dragon scales, and at closer inspection he began to realize that some of it was, in fact, not fashioned to look like it, but was actually made from dragon scales.
This realization sobered him and began putting his thoughts in the proper perspective.
Before any sort of grudging respect or admiration could set in, he reminded himself of what she had done. There was no word for her crime, no punishment that could ever suit the enormity of what she had done. Distantly, he felt the screaming of the trees, growing weaker and weaker as the fire continued to spread, and his dragon's ire began to return, clearing his head.
He took her sword from her, having too much respect for her ability to use it. Finding his pack nearby in the sand where Mourne had dropped it, he tossed the sword next to it, continuing his vigil. He did not trust her at all, and certainly was not going to make the mistake of giving her the first attack again.
So intent was Iorneste's expression upon the fallen dragonrider that Mourne approached slowly so as not to startle him, swinging wide so that Iorneste could see him approach in his peripheral vision.
He need not have bothered. "What did you find out?" asked Iorneste as Mourne opened his mouth to speak.
"She was dealing with a deserter, and apparently wanted something from one of those ships. Another question we'll be answering shortly. We don't know where she's from yet, but the saddle looks to be Esturian. There's a few hallmarks of their craftsmen upon it."
Not seeing the saddle on the drake, Iorneste turned and saw the saddle crumpled in the sand behind him. He wasn't even sure how it had ended up there. He was no expert in Esturian craftsmanship, so he took Mourne at his word.
"So why did she burn the Wyldlands?"
"I don't think her goal was to burn the Wyldlands, necessarily. I think it was an overreaction, or perhaps to set an example. We'll have to ask her when she wakes up."
"We could just kill her."
Mourne looked up in shock at Iorneste's cold words. "Surely you don't mean that."
"Why not? She has desecrated the ancient trees, has turned dracfaer on the Wyldlands, violating all of the ancient pacts."
"I doubt very much," Mourne said somberly, "That she even knows about the ancient pacts."
"She wears dragon skin. She rides a drake. Like a horse."
"Yes, she does," admitted Mourne. "I had not thought it possible."
"Nor I," seethed Iorneste. "Because no dragon would ever allow it. Not even a drake would allow that. Ever."
"And yet here she is. It is a question that deserves an answer. One we'll never have if you kill her now. To be honest," Mourne said, resting one hand upon Iorneste's shoulder, "I hadn't expected you to be so casual about killing."
Iorneste snapped his head towards Mourne, blue eyes flashing for a moment the dragon's natural red. "Why not? She is just a--" he began to protest, and then he snapped his mouth closed suddenly, eyes immediately apologetic.
It was Mourne's turn to grow angry. "Just a what, Iorn? Why don't you finish your thought?" He ground his teeth together, struggling to maintain his composure, seeking refuge in his father's mental exercises, struggling to separate emotion from reason.
"I am sorry, friend Mourne," Iorneste said, casting his head down in shame. "I did not mean....that is to say..."
"You are different. You are kiin."
"I am also human. As human as she is."
"She deserves it," Iorneste persisted doggedly, but still would not meet Mourne's eyes when he said it.
Mourne nodded, "If anyone does, she does. But she is now helpless. Let us not trade one sacrilege for another."
Iorneste's curiosity overcame his shame, and he looked to Mourne intently, head cocked to one side. "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that killing an unarmed opponent, who lies helpless before you, this is not an honorable thing." He searched Iorneste's face, but was not satisfied with what he saw there, before he found an analog that the dragon could understand. "Among humans, such an act would cause you to lose face."
"Ahh," said Iorneste. "Then she is very lucky to be alive."
Mourne looked down to the woman on the ground, hard eyes boring through her with a fierceness that was a mirror of Iorneste's prior fury. "Let us not be so sure of that, yet. She has a great deal to answer for. But that is not our first problem. We have many problems now."
Mourne's eyes met Iorneste's, and the hardness disappeared, replaced with terrible sadness. "Such as the drake."
"We must release him."
"Must we?" asked Mourne.
"Iorn..." Mourne's voice trailed off, and he searched for answers in the sea, his turn to be unwilling to meet his dragon ward's gaze, struggling with the words he would say next. "I told you before we left that this could be a problem. You are a dragonslayer now."
"Dragonslayers don't care about the lives of dragons. Even if they did, they certainly don't release them, not with an audience. We are not alone here."
Iorneste's breath drew inward in horror as the situation became clear to him, but Mourne drove the point home all the same:
"Dragonslayers kill dragons."
"I cannot!" protested Iorneste. "He would not even fight me! He is helpless, disarmed, completely harmless! It would be an act of such supreme cowardice."
"Keep your voice down," Mourne admonished him, acutely aware of the audience he had mentioned, but pointing at the woman beginning to stir fitfully on the ground. "So at last you understand what I meant about killing the helpless. But the irony is bitter today, Iorneste.
"Because today the dragon must die, and the human must live."
Iornese felt hollow, felt the touch of the drake upon his mind, felt its warmth and adoration, its complete trust. A wordless grief began to fill him, the sense of the inevitable, and the desperate desire for escape.
Unless he wanted to end his First Exile in failure and become a relarche, there was no escape.
For the first time, he wondered if he should have posed as a scribe instead.
Oren was all too happy to welcome them aboard his ship. "Don't even dare trying to pay me," he admonished them before they had a chance to offer, "I'd be insulted. You saved my life, and the lives of my crew. Well...most of 'em. You're more than welcome aboard."
At this, every one of the survivors began shouting, demanding that he take them aboard the ship as well. Oren shouted back, and his crew drew weapons, causing most of them to shrink back. All except the merchant who finally stood up from his perch on his chest of valuables to contemptuously offer a handful of gold to the Captain, who was not too proud to accept it, and welcome him on board. "Right this way," he offered, smiling and flashing his teeth. The merchant's two attendants picked up the chest, carrying it on board.
Mourne took a step closer to the captain, dropping his voice so that the rest could not hear him. "They have nothing. You all survived together, you should let them aboard."
Oren raised an eyebrow and turned to face Mourne. His jovial manner suddenly became brusque. "If they join, we all die. We don't have food to feed them. We were coming here to provision, and that's blown out of the water now. All the food we was gonna buy? Burned, along with everything else on this godsforsaken rock. We'll be eating fish until we reach harbor at this rate, and we aren't a fisher boat."
Inclining his head in the direction of the fisherman and his wife, Mourne said, "What about them? There are fishing boats here, and I'm sure they'd be willing to fish in exchange for passage to safe harbor."
Oren scratched his chin, nails rasping against the stubble. "Maybe...maybe so. I guess I could let them come." He gave Mourne a stubborn expression, crossing his arms over his chest. "But that's it!"
Mourne jingled his pack, and the sound of clinking coins came from within. "What if I paid for their passage?"
Iorneste, who had been quiet ever since leaving the beach and boarding the ship, suddenly spoke up. "Pay?"
"Not now, Iorn."
"How much are we talking here?" asked Oren, trying hard not to look interested, and certainly not acting at all insulted by the offer of money as he'd originally claimed he would be.
Iorneste walked away from the negotiations, leaning his arms on the gunwale and looking out to sea, shifting from one leg to the other. The realization that Mourne had treasure in his pack had garnered his attention at first, but he quickly realized that there was a very good reason why the human in this relationship had set out from Kaer Drac with gold in his pack, while the dragon had none in his.
That left the woman, the dragonrider, tied to the mast and glaring daggers at his back. She had given them nothing but her name, and her rank, "Knight-Marshal Selka Euphrane of the Greatre Esturian Dragon Corps." She'd then shared a few other words that Iorneste could only assume were obscenities because of the way she uttered them, even if he didn't quite understand what they meant.
On the beach behind them, the once great drake laid still and unmoving. Iorneste kept his back to him as well. He had walked over to the beast as Selka awakened and, before her widening eyes, had walked around to the far side of the dragon. He gently removed the harness, and the bit, and other riding trappings that girded him. With a blank expression he had thrust his great sword into the beast's hide, laying one hand upon its scaled body as the beast shuddered and then finally lay still.
Selka had cried out at the thrust, had strained and thrashed against the bonds that held her, but could do nothing, only try to communicate her bitter rage through her flinty grey eyes.
Iorneste had met her gaze, his face no longer expressionless, but darkening. The longer he stared at her, the more he hated her. This was all your fault, he said, and had to remember not to put the words in her mind. It felt good to channel his anger in her direction, as he no longer had to think about the drake, and what the poor dragon had gone through, had been forced to do, and what he had been forced to do to it.
When he walked back away from the dragon, with its blood dripping from his blade, there was a cheer from the survivors that were nesting on the quay, and he had given them a brief, wintry smile, swinging the sword in a powerful arc that sprayed the dragon's blood across Selka's face, and into her eyes. "Bastard!" she cried out, and he could see her eyes beginning to quaver, filling with water, the tendons pulsing in her neck while the muscles in her jaw flexed, biting down the tears.
He sheathed the blade slowly in front of her, before turning away from the mast and brooding into the harbor. The last remaining dragon on the beach of Sandridge did not trust himself any further to look at her and maintain his calm. When he heard Mourne mention money it had been a welcome distraction from his dark thoughts, but even the promise of gold could not seem to hold his attention.
Everything had gone horribly wrong. Most of the sailors on deck gave him a wide berth, sensing his mood, though a handful gave him a clap on the shoulder by way of thanks (which he ignored) before moving about their duties preparing the ship to cast off and head for the nearest safe port.
Mourne managed to negotiate all of the survivors onto the ship, and although it was crowded, Oren assured them they could reach the port of Lacrasse within a week if the winds held. The real problem was that their provisions would only last for another two days with the passengers on board unless they were able to start catching their supper. Luckily, the fisherman and his wife were more than willing to contribute to this cause, requisitioning one of the fishing boats, stocking it full of what fishing equipment they could scavenge, and mooring it to the caravel for the trip out to sea.
The black-bearded kiin paused, staring at Iorneste's back as well, but unlike Selka's stare, his was one of pity and remorse. He moved over to the gunwale beside Iorneste, resting his arms upon them in a matching fashion, staring out to sea in silence along with his dragonish ward.
There were no words to speak, but the patience of dragons could not be overcome. Mourne spoke first. "Iorne--I'm sorry," he said, not meeting the young dragon's eyes. "It was a hard thing you had to do."
"You could have no idea," Iorneste whispered, emotion thickening his words.
Feeling every unnatural year of his age, Mourne sighed heavily. "I-I should have done it."
"But you," said Iorneste, "Are not a dragonslayer. I am."
"We both know--"
"That this is exactly what I am."
Mourne could think of nothing else to say, and walked away with his own morose thoughts. He may very well have ruined the dragon forever this day, but could think of no other way they could have explained to the survivors a dragonslayer leaving the dragon to live; the very dragon that had burned their lives to the ground.
Perhaps he learned from this, Mourne thought, trying to find something positive in the day's events. Perhaps this was worth something. He then went to the cabin that had been provided for them, only having to duck slightly to go belowdecks. Sleep could be a kind friend to the troubled mind, if only you could find it. Mourne aimed to try.
Iorneste, and Selka, said nothing. The rest of the crew and the passengers went on about their business about the ship, and when they finally cast off and began their voyage out to sea, the dragon and the dragonrider remained in exactly the same position, nursing their own dark thoughts.
Later that night, after most of the crew and passengers had gone to sleep; while the ship drifted across a moonlit sea, Iorneste remained upon the deck, rigid and unmoving with the legendary patience of dragons. He felt the faintest brush of a mind against his own, and knew that it came from above.
He cast a surreptitious glance upward, catching the silhouette of a winged form against the backdrop of the moon before a passing patch of clouds obscured it from sight. He felt a familiar warmth and a caress against the edge of his aura.
You disobeyed me, he chastised the drake. I showed you where to go. You will be protected there.
The winged creature in the air above let out a loud trumpet, the unmistakeable call of a dragon. Behind him, he heard the dragonrider stir in her sleep. In his mind he felt a trill of the drake's freedom tickle his thoughts, and the thought he sent back in return was the emotional equivalent of the smile that was now on his face. He didn't even mind the pain it brought to his cheek, or how it had reopened the wound.
A dragon's anatomy was no mystery to him, and when he had pierced the drake on the beach and told it to lay still, he had only pierced the surface layer of flesh beneath one of the dragon's scales. The wound itself had been hidden from the view of the survivors, the dragon rider, and even of Mourne, and when he had shown the blade dripping with dragon's blood to them all, they believed what they wanted to see: The dragonslayer, killing the great beast who had destroyed their home, their friends, their family. To them, he was a hero.
When he had touched the creature's mind he had shown it the way to the outskirts of Kaer Drac, and had left a foreign memory of his own in its mind, so that when his people found the drake and searched its thoughts, they would know who sent it to their homeland, and why.
Yet despite his orders it had come back, and circled in the sky above, saying its farewell, and the warm feeling of gratitude it expressed to him buoyed his spirits, driving away the pain in his wounded face. They both exchanged their good-byes via the private communication afforded to all dragonkin, before the drake at last circled back, back towards the Wyldlands, headed to safety and Kaer Drac.
He felt a measure of guilt deceiving Mourne as well, and it even felt a bit disobedient, but Mourne had never actually ordered him to kill the drake. Iorneste had ceased objecting when it had threatened to reach the point of a direct order. If Mourne never actually ordered him to kill the drake, then he wasn't actually disobeying, and was still within the terms of the binding.
After all, guile was still very much a Drac virtue.
by Secret Weapon Angel-soma