A Ghost in the Wood
Riding a horse had never been Mourne's favorite activity. Too much bouncing and chafing, too much time spent attending to the animal. But there was nothing for it. If you want to cross open ground quickly, there is nothing faster than a horse.
Unless you can fly. Mourne had never enjoyed heights very much, and Iorneste was bound to the ground, so that was never an option.
So here he was, riding a horse in the rain. The rain had an additional component of misery, and his coat kept his body dry, but it just didn't drape over the saddle in the same way that a cloak would have. Not all improvements are better ones, and the practicality of a cloak was something he really missed. They were out of fashion and thus no one would wear one.
He mused on fashion for a bit, this new fascination of the elite. Fashions, when he was first visiting the Many Kingdoms, had been an ad hoc affair. You saw Lord Mallory's armor, you asked about his blacksmith and a similar style of armor would get made for yourself. Sensible, logical, organic. He liked that.
Fashion now seemed dominated by whim, and he felt old and surly and yearned for the old days. That he appeared as no more than a man in his thirties was his own great lie, and he felt the strain of keeping even this small secret, as it was so at odds with the way he felt on the inside.
As the rain thoroughly soaked his lower body, the wet chafing in his groin provided all the evidence that he needed that the old days were better, in many ways.
His mare, who he had named Flash at the outset of the journey when his optimism was high, seemed to take the rain with equanamity, the steady clop clop of her hooves on the muddy path between the copse of woods setting time to the monotony and the misery he now felt.
Clop. Rain. Adjust crotch and groan.
Clop. Rain. Sigh.
Clop. Rain. Wince.
Clop. Rain. Who is that?
He pulled himself out of his haze, an indistinct shape appearing in the middle of the road ahead. Fool, do you want to walk into an ambush? He made a closer study of the woods about him, but saw nothing obvious except for the person in the road ahead.
As Flash clopped closer and closer, he placed his hand on his sword hilt.
Then the realization hit him, as the figure turned to meet him, pulling back her hood. His heart began to pound.
"I am fancied meeting you here, Sheldrache," he said. He slid down from the horse, relishing the opportunity to be free of the punishing saddle, but wincing at the tenderness between his legs.
She curtsied. "Dear Mourne, it has been too long." She was dressed appropriately for the inclement weather, although the water began to soak her face and hair in seconds.
"About one-hundred and thirty years, but who is counting?"
She laughed, a deep but feminine sound. It made him think of caramel for some reason. His toes curled at the sound, and not in a bad way. A shiver passed over him, and his senses drank her in.
"Stop it, Sheldrache. Let me feel how I want to feel."
"Dearest Mourne, the Binding does not apply to me anymore."
"Then stop it out of respect for me."
"So boring, as always. So how have you been keeping yourself these many years?"
Being human, he could only detect it through years of training his intuition, but he felt the assault on his emotional senses lessen.
"I think you know, Shel."
"You thought when Raeme died, that we would be together?"
"I don't know what I thought. It was a long time ago. I just didn't expect you to leave."
"I spent forty-six years as a human," she said, walking closer to him on the path, violet eyes as enthralling to him as ever. "Two decades longer than required, because I was content to see it through to its logical conclusion, to demonstrate patience and the ability to delay my own passage into adulthood in pursuit of a larger goal."
"And what was that larger goal, Sheldrache? To get a man to fall in love with you? To open a bakery and live a simple life in a small town?"
"Is that not the human dream? I wanted to live the human dream. I thought this was the best way to learn about them. I wanted to experience a human life, to the end. A simple life, with a husband and a child. You know the story, Mourne, you were there."
"How could I forget? I am the one who dug you out of the earth when you faked your death, escorted you back to Kaer Drac, spoke on your behalf before the Eregaunteam Dracona, and watched you take dragon form for the first time in forty-six years."
"Humans can be forgetful, it is a treasure to know you share my memories, Mourne."
"Then I watched you fly away, and I never saw you again. Until today."
She smiled at him, and his heart ached for her. "You could not understand, Mourne. I am sorry. To return to Kaer Drac is to have other concerns, and being human is not nearly so compelling after spending forty-six years without wings, without magic other than what your overseer allows you, watching the desperate lives of fragile people that flare out and die at a whim..."
He sighed. "I mourn that you have lost so much of your compassion for them."
"The people that I knew are long gone, Mourne. That past is over and buried, and lives on only in two memories now: Mine and yours. You will always be special to me, I know you want to hear this. I want you to also know that this is the truth, I am not saying this just because I know you want to hear it. But you must also know what it feels like: I was free, at last able to be who I was born to be. I gained a great deal of face from my execution of the First Exile. Soon I had other duties. I do not expect you to understand."
"Fine," he said, anger setting his jaw to trembling. "Let's talk about what it feels like. When I set out with you, I was scarcely more than a boy. I was nervous, shy, awkward. You made me your kiin that day. I knew that my father was also kiin, and I knew that I wanted to be kiin, and to be close to you, and it was also my first assignment as mentor. For both of us, it was a thing that we shared. Both of us were out in the world to prove ourselves. But to be kiin..."
She reached up, touching his cheek and her hands were so soft and warm, her closeness so overwhelming, and her scent was the same as it was when she had been back then. She had ripened this form into that of a mature yet still youthful woman, and the Murian tattoos and exotic Murian cast to the eyes was a touch that he found very appealing.
But he was an old man, and old men are cantankerous, and he reached into the bowels of that favored emotion and built up a wall against her, so he could think clearly. He allowed her to touch him, because to tell her to stop touching him was a thing unthinkable, but he had been holding onto these thoughts for years, and it was time to let her hear them. "...To be kiin is to be forever linked to the Drac who is your sai. I think about you every day. I cannot help it. I dream of you at night."
"Shhhh," she said, and leaned forward, placing her lips on his cheek as light as silk, her breath hot, too hot, on his face. "My poor Mourne, suffering all these long years."
He knew she was using her animus again, but soon he did not care. He could feel the tingling going up and down his back and the enveloping sense of being enfolded in massive arms—no—wings. It coursed over his raw emotions, his feelings of hurt and of feeling alone and apart, and it was like ice and fire seared them and he cried out, feeling her diffusing it away. Part of him wanted to hold onto the pain, because it was his, because it defined him now, but there was no resistance to her, and it was very difficult to complain about something that felt good, that felt right.
She drew back and looked at him, and he found himself smiling at her. He thought it was strange that he should smile, and he knew she had taken something from him. She had taken his pain away. It did not hurt. It really should, he knew it should still hurt, but it didn't.
"Now, is that not better? I always found mating," she said, "To be so primitive by comparison, so much bother! I must confess I always felt the urge to giggle with Raeme. It just never seemed normal."
He felt like he had just taken a plunge in a cold lake. "Yes. As I am learning more and more lately, some things are just beyond dragons."
"My point, silly, is that with the animus there is no confusion. There is no blame, no second-guessing, there is only what is. We share with each other. We can reach the same heights, communicate all of the same desires, without all of the superfluous mammalian grunting and hip-thrusting. There comes a certain point, my dear, at which someone is only pretending to have fun. I found myself in that position more than once. I am more than happy to soothe you again, however, because I enjoy it as well. I come to know you better."
"You act as though I should not be surprised that more than a century has passed since we said anything to each other."
"Should you not? Mourne, dear heart, you are kiin, but you are still young. We are creatures of eternity, you and I. I would not have presumed to burden you with myself, nor myself with you, and wear out each other's welcome."
"Humans don't really wear out welcomes."
"Humans are social creatures. Drac enjoy our time together, and then we enjoy going off to consider those things that we've discovered, and discover things of our own. To each we grant solitude. Except the males who have proven to be of so little use that we keep them constantly engaged in errands of little value. Speaking of which, where is my little brother?"
"He cannot ride a horse, as you must know, as he weighs more than one."
"Then why is he not walking beside you?"
"Because he, my fair eregaunte, would rather test his limits. So he is out in the woods right now."
He recognized her slow blink as a sign of puzzlement. "You let him remarkably far off of the leash. How things have changed."
"We have a certain degree of understanding."
"And we did not?"
"With you I was overcompensating. I had only my father's instruction to guide me as a mentor, and needed to assert my authority immediately. I was afraid of messing up and letting you too far out of my sight. I was also responsible for you, too. If you had failed, I would have felt responsible. I was also overcompensating because, as you very well know, I was in love with you. I knew it, and was trying to not let it cloud my judgement."
"It was a very special time, wasn't it, Mourne?"
He looked away from her, staring back into time. The words felt as though they were pulled out of him. "It was, and I will always remember it as such."
She smiled at him, and he could feel or perhaps she was letting him feel, that it was a genuine one. "You have made my hearts glad, Mourne. And you have done so well for yourself! Highly respected, Rrachma chose you to be Iorneste's mentor, and even my mother shared feelings of respect for you when I last talked to her."
"How long ago was that, out of curiosity?"
"Perhaps sixty years ago?"
"Strange no one ever told me this until now."
"If you but remember that you are immortal, you will begin to realize how silly it is to care about things like that."
"I guess I'm still too human. We aren't used to passing away centuries out of contact with those we care about. We're funny like that."
"Mmm," she murmured, and Mourne could literally feel her disinterest. "So if I cannot meet with him, tell me about him."
"I see you were too busy to visit your younger brother during his seventy-five years of life, either."
"What do you want to know? He's a male, and beneath you. I'm surprised you care at all."
She frowned. "Why would I not be interested in one of my own brood performing the First Exile?"
"Perhaps because you have respect for the principle of the First Exile and, as once was done for you, you prefer to leave him alone so that you do not interfere with it?"
"You are not satisfying me here, Mourne," she said, hard edge creeping into her voice.
"Well, my dear," he said, with the sweetest smile he could muster, "As you are so fond of telling me, time is mostly irrelevant. You can meet him when he completes the First Exile in twenty-five years time. I'm sure a creature of eternity like yourself would have no trouble waiting that long."
He felt the warm thrum of her ire pulsing from her. He forestalled her before she could open her mouth. "You've gotten very sloppy with your animus. I can't even imagine the devastation you have caused on your journey here, how much you've trampled other people's lives in subservience to your emotions."
Her eyes were narrow violet sparks. "You are on dangerous ground, Mourne."
"Less so than you, Shel. You know the penalty for interfering with the First Exile."
"The female relarche are the most sad, don't you think, Shel?"
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Let's not find out. Just don't push me. I have a job to do, and I still take it seriously."
She folded her arms, and her pout was so childish he had to resist the urge to snort. "Then at least tell me about the box, because that does indeed concern me."
"Do not play coy, Mourne. Yes, a box, a golden box, covered in Drac runes. That box."
"I seem to recall..."
"You seem to recall it being taken off of the Maiden's Fancy in your presence, after which you were taken aboard an Esturian naval vessel: The Cutlass, and escorted to Ramilka where Iorneste charmed the Questioner and was allowed, along with you, to roam free."
He coughed. "Something like that."
"As was the dragonrider. The one who burned the Wyldlands. Does she have the box?"
Mourne shuddered at her tone, and the violent feelings he could feel throbbing at the edges of his blunted human emotional perception. "It was all an accident," he said.
She rolled her shoulders. "What happens to her will be no accident, I assure you."
And here it was. He was a kiin fifty years her junior, and she was an eregaunte in her prime. "She is under Iorneste's protection," he said, and tried as hard as he could not to look smug about it.
But how he felt about it was an open book to her, and she snarled as much at the emotion as his words. "He is an exile!"
"And as such, afforded certain privileges, is he not? Now that you know she is under his protection, you tell me former student: what are you permitted to do?"
"Why would he put her under his protection?"
"It galls you, doesn't it? If you'd never stopped me to reminisce about old times and fish for information, you'd be free to do whatever you liked to Selka. But if you go after her now, it won't be in ignorance. You'd be knowingly interfering with a First Exile."
"Do not patronize me, Mourne," she huffed. "Tell me: Where is the box?"
Mourne shrugged. "Gone."
She stepped closer to him, touching him, and he felt the coy flutter of her eyes eroding his defenses. "Where?" she whispered.
"Probably Earlemont," he said. "Selka was the one delivering it."
He was not sure what happened next, one moment he was next to her, the next he was whirled through the air and felt the impact of a tree hard at his back, and the slam of its hard trunk at the back of his head. He slumped to the ground, the world misting and reeling on broken axes.
"W-what happened to you?" he asked her, fighting to resolve her blurry image.
"Oh dearest Mourne," she said, or perhaps he imagined it. "I grew up."
"Oh," he thought he might have said. "Because that seemed like a temper tantrum."
The world went black.
Stalking game, Iorneste was learning, was something different on the ground versus having the advantage of the air. In the air you survey from a high distance, and then dive, swooping in for the kill before the target is even aware of you. Quick, efficient, and if well-executed, the target is dead in your talons before you have even ascended.
Hunting on the ground, he discovered, made you something of an equal. He had to consider the air currents, a lesson made clear the first few times his prey raised its nose and fled. He had become so accustomed to the blunt senses of humans, that he had forgotten how much the rest of the world relied upon them and could no longer assume that his senses were abnormal in the natural world. His boots squelched in the wet and loamy mud, but he smiled as he felt no hint of discomfort, his feet remaining dry. Mourne had allowed him to use some surreptitious rune magic to upgrade his equipment in preparation for the journey, and his boots were now among his favorite enchanted items.
The Ghostwood was barely a forest, but for several leagues of Esturian countryside was a thorn in the side of travelers. The great road turned sour and ill-maintained, wending its way between the boles of scabrous trees covered in white mosses and sprouting hedges of mushrooms. The mosses were to be expected, as Esturia was known for being a wet country, even in the midst of summer most days sported short, hot rains that swelled the banks of the great Vend river, which also passed through the Ghostwood, and the lesser Anadane to the east, which marked the border between Greatre and Lessre Esturia.
From maps he had read and memorized, he knew that to the north was Earlemont, and to the northeast was The Mir, an uncharted morass of swampy wilderness. Before reaching the Mir, they would reach Mir's Edge, the last bastion of civility before the savage Mir, also home to the Dragon Corps.
It will be many days before we arrive, he mused. Will she still feel the same about me when we get there?
The bow was in his hands, and the arrow was nocked. Compared to other weapons, learning how to use a bow had taken no time at all. There were no stances to consider, no special defenses. Just nock your arrow, pull, sight along the shaft, and release.
To hit what you were aiming at involved calculating angles and trajectories, factoring in the pull of the earth over long distances. The humans seemed to understand it a bit more intuitively than that, but to him it seemed a very mathematical exercise.
There was a doe in his sights, and he was eager at the thought of his first kill, when his ears picked up a foreign sound in this wilderness: People. The sounds of screaming. He followed the direction of the sound, looking up the leaf-covered hillside to his right, hearing the echoes cascading on the other side.
Mud and the leaves at his feet went flying, and he was gone, taking the hillside in great double-bounds. He found his feet sliding in the thick muck and mud beneath the deceptive blanket of leaves, but his enchanted boots gave him an edge in this that his formerly mundane boots would not have.
The boots were enchanted specifically to divert a great deal of his mass from the single point of his feet and to distribute it outwards. So long as he was on his feet, the excessive weight of his form was not a factor. It would not make it any easier for him to be picked up or to ride a horse, but it at least ensured he was not making the journey through the mucky forest buried up to his thighs in sodden ground. There were other ancillary advantages to his boots, but he could not think of a realistic scenario in which these aspects of the enchantment would ever come into play.
For now it was enough, boots and natural athletic ability were more than enough to propel him to the top of the ridgeline, and he stretched his senses into the forest beyond, catching the first hints of blood wafting on the breeze, his ears flicking as the sounds of sobbing and shrieking rose in volume.
He leapt out into the air, feeling his feet barely making contact with the earth on landing, and smiled. He had barely felt the impact, and was able to continue moving at once, rather than pausing to crouch or recover from a heavy landing. Rune magic was a kind of Drac magic bounded mostly by one's own knowledge, rather than one's age. It was unique among the disciplines of the High Art for this reason, and for this reason he had also been an avid student of Drac rune lore.
Mourne probably had no idea how much skill he really possessed at Drac rune lore, and it had been the sole amendment to the Binding that Mourne would even consider, but in many ways it was enough. He was certain Mourne would appreciate his forethought the next time they rode on a small boat together and the crew was not forced to bail water to keep them afloat.
His senses told him he was getting closer, the short harsh cry and the words that resolved out of it, "Shut up!" causing him to drop to the ground as if shot. He realized the arrow had been broken beneath him by the fall and groused about it, but found a fresh replacement in his quiver. He moved up into a crouch, easing his way closer, and peering through the brush into a small clearing near a creek.
A man's body lay facedown and bleeding on the ground, in front of a thatched hut built between two sturdy gnarlroot trees. His blood flowed from beneath him into the creek nearby. Behind him were a woman on her knees, crying and wailing and a small child burying its face in her skirts. Standing behind the woman were two men, one slightly closer than the other, scarred with blue paint smeared across half of his face. He was holding a blood-smeared sword, other hand knotted tight in the back of the woman's shift, twisting it and drawing it tight to her body.
The man behind was smaller, with small features and more delicate hands. He carried several knives of varying sizes.
Iorneste could smell those two, the dead man, the woman and the child, but there was another scent out there. It would not do to expose himself until he could account for the other person.
But when the scarred man with the blue face used his handhold on her clothes to throw the woman to the ground, and sent the little girl clinging to her mother flying into the creek, he figured he needed to do something.
It need not be any different from hunting game. He was downwind of them, and if they had been natural-born hunters with senses to match, he would never have gotten this shot.
The bow had been a gift from Selka, but it was not completed until after she left Ramilka. After he had tried the bowyer's largest specimen and strung and drawn it with ease, he had done a few tests and they had finally settled on the hardest wood to work with: vellarien wood. A normal man could not have strung it, much less drawn it. It was good he already had a prototype, though still unfinished, as it would not have been ready before he had to leave otherwise. As it stood, he had waited there in the bowyer's shop in the early morning, watching as he laced the grip and sanded off the rough edges as best as he was able. Finally he had oiled the wood and handed it over with a smile. Only one kind of string would have held. This was, the bowyer told him with a proud smile, dragongut.
It bemused him that the very weapon he now held in his hand was strung by a piece of dragon, to a piece of wood that he had watched burn at the hands of dragonfire.
None of that was important now, and he shook away the distracting thoughts as the woman was dragged up higher on the beach and thrown onto her back. The child was struggling, but was making her way out of the water on hands and knees to her mother's side.
The blue-faced man drew his leg back to strike, and somehow Iorneste realized he had released the arrow. He watched it fly, and with the powerful bow behind it, it splintered the front of his skull, lodging deep with only the fletching exposed.
The blue-faced man hit the ground, gurgled and twitched his legs, and then was still. The man with the knives looked around wildly, launching two blades in the direction of the encroaching woods, and even blind as they were, one of them whipped and caught in his hair as it passed.
The second arrow was nocked and raised by the time the knife-wielder had a second set of knives in hand. He was moving towards cover, watching the woods for motion. Iorneste decided not to let him reach cover and released the next arrow, watching it blast through the undergrowth before him and puncture the man in the chest, driving deep into the cavity of his body before reaching his heart.
The man's movement towards cover abruptly became a stumble and a fall, and then he also was silent. The clearing was left only with the sounds of mourning. The woman watched the two men die with no real comprehension, gathering the child close to her and clutching her, the two of them comforting the other.
He remained still, straining his senses and trying to get a sense for the location of the other person. The scent grew stronger and he continued to look around, lost. Then it occurred to him. Foolish dragon.
He looked up in time to meet the attack from above, but the mereling was quick. The mereling was all fur and teeth, wrapped in grey and black, close-fitting garb. The creature dropped down from the branches above, two wicked knives in his hands.
Iorneste did a quick pull and release of the arrow, but it went wide and he soon dropped the weapon and rolled aside as the mereling landed in a crouch where he had been. His next action was to draw Yrmbane. As it settled into both of his hands he struggled to maintain a steady calm at the excitement of engaging a real combatant in a battle to the death. He was now well-trained and equipped, this was what he had been working for, and in a strange way he was glad his arrow had missed.
"I like your ssssssword," said the mereling.
"I like your knives," he said. "Can I keep them when you die?"
The mereling's only response was to hiss and move to advance. The claymore's swift stroke in front of the mereling's face gave him pause, and he skipped back out of reach, tumbling from his hands to his back feet with ease.
"That's a nice maneuver," said Iorneste. "Why are you killing people?"
"Issssss not to kill but to take," said the mereling.
Iorneste rested the blade against his shoulder, jerking his left thumb behind him, beyond which lay the wailing woman and her two dead assailants.
"They were idiotssss!" the mereling hissed. "I thought they were professssssionallsss, but no! Hitting over the head and rooting through the undergarrrmentssssss issss not a sssskill! Thosssse two," he spat and pointed past Iorneste with the blade. "Almosssst got me killed. Wasssss here to divide loot and deparrrt. Wrrretched vermin, they were, am not ssssorry they are dead! Now," the mereling inched closer, still in fighting stance, pawed foot resting lightly upon the ground. "Are you assssaassssiin?"
Iorneste suppressed a smile as the long tail of the mereling flickered. "No," he said. "I am not an assassin. I was trying to stop any more bloodshed."
"For why doessss you caarre?" asked the mereling, sniffing the air around him, ears prickling. "It growssss haaard to concentrate with all that yowling," he said, wincing at a particularly loud shriek of bereavement from the other side of the creek.
"I..." he thought about it. Because rescuing people who needed help was the heroic thing to do? Was that why he had done it? Because no one would miss these two and he was dying to shoot someone with his new bow? Because he cared about the woman and the child?
He cared about certain humans that he came to know, but did he care about humanity? He remembered citing the deaths of the people at Sandridge and holding them against Selka, but he had never been so angry at that as he had been at the defiling of the Wylands, of her riding a dragon. Even now he knew she found it harder to forgive herself for that, than he had ever held it against her. Had he truly been human, in his eyes, might she be the monster?
He considered his affinity for the drakes, it was as though each of them felt like a sibling, felt like a part of him, they were open and rudimentary about their feelings, and the anima bond between them was a constant reminder of kinship. Humans did not have that, but they felt kinship, yet were also much touched by violence, their songs and histories were full of it, and the slaughter of man against man was both lauded and lamented.
It all seemed very conditional and arbitrary to him.
The mereling had turned its head sideways, as if trying to read him in a different direction would provide more enlightenment. "The sssswordsssman ssaysss?"
"I am making it my business to care. Their actions were rude, sloppy, and as you said, very unprofessional."
The mereling sniffed. "Who you work for?"
"At the moment I am independent."
"Ahhh," the mereling smiled, revealing his carnivorous teeth. "I am alssso independent. Do we ssstill have quarrel?"
"Did you not also help to abduct those people and kill that man?"
"No! I wanted no paaart of thesse two! I told them I would follow in the treesss, and keep watch. I wassss waiting for them to return to the sssafehoussse, but then they got disssstracted by thisss pisssssy foressst family!" He growled and yowled beneath his breath, tail swishing.
"Very well. We have no quarrel." Iorneste sheathed his sword, and folded his arms. "My name is Iorn, of the Drac Orden. Do you have a name?"
The mereling frowned. "I am Gharel."
"It would seem your employers are dead, and you are out of a job."
"It would ssseem."
"Would you like a new one?"
The mereling sheathed his knives and moved closer, his nose sniffing madly. "Are you offerrring?"
"That depends. What are your skills?"
"Gharel is fassstest. Gharel is bessst at hide, at climb, at sssteal by night, at hide by day."
"Hide by day? Do you just find a hole, or stay inside...?"
Gharel hissed. "No! Gharel issss mereling, yessss? Merelingsss is ssslaves, merelingsss isss ssservantsss, merelingsss is beggarsss. Merelingsss isss invisssible already. They not ssssee us."
Iorneste scratched his head. "That honestly makes no sense to me. You are different creatures from humans, yes, but you possess several advantages that they do not. They should recognize that."
"Yesss, because they fear usss. They think usss simple, becaussse their tongue doesss not come easssy to our lipsss."
"That is easily remedied," Iorneste said, mirtongue coming a bit unpracticed to his lips.
Gharel purred. "You speak my tongue? You have a strange accent."
"Just give me some time, I have never had the benefit of a native speaker by which to hear the proper inflections."
"You speak like a man of letters, not a swordsman."
"I am just an atypical man. You would do well to make no assumptions about me simply because I look human. And I do not look down on you for being a mereling."
"It is just as well. I do not look down on you for being a dragon."
"How did you—"
"Your scent. Unfamiliar unless you have recognized it before."
"Where did you—"
"In the Mir. Many dragons there, to the west. I did not know they could take human form. Interesting."
"That is not common knowledge, and I would thank you to keep it between us."
"Then let us discuss terms."
"Careful, mereling, one does not lightly or knowingly think to discuss terms with a dragon, much less to blackmail one, and come out ahead in the bargain."
"There must always be a bargain."
"No. I will give you an offer that is equitable and fair, and you will either take it or you will not."
"If I do not?"
"Trust me to make an equitable offer first."
"What are you offering?"
"A monthly retainer to the sum of one-thousand drema, in return for your exclusive loyalty. You will not take other jobs without talking to me first, and if you get an offer to double-cross me you will come to me so that I can double the offer."
"I can have loyalty, to a point. It is a steady income you can offer me, perhaps. But I can make more than one-thousand drema in a good month."
"And what about in a bad month? In addition to this, I will contract you for additional favors, making use of your particular talents. There may be dangerous work involved."
Gharel shrugged. "We can negotiate each contract beyond this retainer?"
Iorneste had held out for the real clincher in the deal, the thing that would engage the mereling's greed. He seemed like a desperate sort, whose loyalties would be difficult to ascertain. But dragons also understand greed, and to Iorneste this sort of motivation was no mystery to him. There was one thing that could keep a greedy person loyal: the promise of greater treasure.
"Finally," he said, resorting back to the standard Low Empyrian tongue. "For each month of faithful service you give to me, I will improve your station. Better weapons," he said, reaching up to touch the hilt of his own weapon. "Better everything. You will be rich in enchanted treasures by year's end, Gharel. But only if I am alive to pay you. I will not ever forgive you betraying me, but I will reward your loyalty. Can you give me that?"
"The Mir hassss itsss own honor, Iorn," said Gharel. "But I have one lasssst quesssstion."
"I decide that I do not like ourrr arrrrangement. I can go, yesss?"
"Not without telling me first, you cannot. I do not want any surprises when I am counting on you."
"I will accccept your bargain. Do you have one thoussssand dremassss now?"
"I have no money right now, but that will change."
"Hmmmmm. Have you been employer beforrrre? You arrre failing at it."
"I will owe you two-thousand dremas by month's end, and will pay you in full. But as a sign of good faith, whatever was on your former companions' bodies is now yours, as well as whatever was in their safehouse, I suppose."
The mereling nodded and scampered off across the creek, bounding on all fours. Iorneste followed him, and while Gharel efficiently fleeced the bodies of the two bandits, it was left to him to comfort the woman and child. He was certain he did a terrible job of it, and in the end had caused much protesting from Gharel when he ordered him to give the widow the money pouch acquired from the two dead men.
They left the family to mourn, the widow thanking them for saving her and then telling them both to go away. Iorneste felt it was a bit rude of her, but then again he had not rushed over right away to comfort her, either.
"Ssssso where do we go?"
"To Mir's Edge."
The mereling hissed laughter. "The dragon goessss to the heart of the dragonssss? Perhapssss to the graveyard of the Mir, and takessss me with him?"
"You fear I will not live long enough to pay you? Or is it that you fear dying?"
"Death isssss not my conccern. The Mir isss place of death, but hassss ssspat me out. Gharel hassss no family, no home, hassss nothing to losssse. So Gharel will make hissss mark, will sssshow that he hassss lived when hissss time comesss."
He clapped the mereling on the shoulder, causing the slight creature to stumble and hiss. "Then it seems we understand one another, Gharel! Come with me to the road, there is someone you need to meet."
Mourne realized he was not dead as his eyes opened, and as the pain rushed in, immediately wished that he were. He groaned, rolling over to his side, feeling sick. He was well and truly soaked, from soul to skin, and groveling in the mud had not helped, either.
"Mourne?" the voice asked again. The name eluded him for a moment. "It is me," said the voice, and he risked opening his eyes again, and the pain from the light in his eyes speared the pain into the back of his skull.
Then it all returned to him. This was no time to spend recuperating. "Iorn," he said. "I give you permission to heal me."
Iorn blinked in the rain, but reached out his hand and Mourne felt warmth moving over him, until he reached the back of his head, and that was where Iorn's hand ended up resting. It was not an instant affair, since instant healing was the province of the gods, and they did not seem to be granting prayers anymore.
But it was still a damned sight quicker than doing it the natural way. After a few minutes, the pain was gone but some of the fuzzy feeling remained. Once his head felt clear enough to speak, he said, "Iorneste. There is something you should know: You are not the only dragon in Greatre Esturia."
"Ahh, sssso thissss one knowssss you arrre dragon assss well?"
Mourne sat upright, head clamoring to lay back down, but he ignored it. "Who in the hell is that?" he shouted, looking around trying to find the source of the voice.
The source appeared to be little more than a bundle of rags and fur, squat and pressed against the trunk of one of the moss-covered trees, rain dripping from the end of his hood, but the finer details lost within. "A mereling? What are you doing with a mereling?"
"His name is Gharel," said Iorneste. "I have hired him."
Mourne let Iorneste lay him back down to complete the healing magic, but his eyes narrowed. "What did you hire him for?"
"Eyes and ears. A contingency plan."
"Mmm. Why did you tell him who you are?"
"His keen nose smelled me out! He has scented dragons before, in the Mir."
"I think I understand why we are bringing him. Greetings Gharel, my name is Mourne."
"It issss pleasssure."
"Now that we are introduced," Iorneste said. "Who is this other dragon loose in Greatre Esturia?"
"Your elder sister, and my First Exile: Sheldrache."
Iorneste brightened. "I have heard of her, though I have never met her. What is she like?"
"She's a mean-spirited, vindictive little princess," Mourne spat. Iorneste's eyebrows raised almost off of his forehead, and Mourne realized that such words would have been the end of him in Kaer Drac. "But she is also a Drac of great passion and intellect, and you should watch her, Iorn. She plays the Game as well as anyone. A rising star among the Obsidian brood. I was her mentor for the First Exile, and she was the first Exile of the Obsidian brood. I thought I knew her, once."
"I am interested to meet her, then."
"She also wants to kill Selka."
"Now I really want to meet her."
"There is nothing you can do to her, nor she to you. She is your elder, and to attack her would be suicide for you. For her, she'd be interfering with a First Exile. Neither of you has anything to gain from a confrontation."
"This is true, but I once wanted to kill Selka, too. Perhaps she can be made to see reason."
"I am not convinced that you are seeing reason with regards to Selka. Regardless, I told her that Selka is under your protection, and that was when she threw me into the tree."
"Why does she care so much about Selka?"
"I think that's just a grudge. She cares more about the box."
"Ahh," Iorneste said.
"Box?" asked Gharel.
"Not now, my little thief," chided Iorneste.
His groan was from the heart. "You hired a thief? How did you get in so much trouble in such a short time out of my supervision?"
Iorneste smiled. "I could ask you the same."
"Ow. Touché. Do you see my horse?"
"Down the road about half a league, munching grass. I am not sure if it should eat the mushrooms, though."
"Help me to my feet."
Once Iorneste all but yanked him to his feet he trudged in sodden fashion down the road. The other two followed. "Once again, you take the news about the box with no real concern. Except now it is another dragon looking for it, and I believe she will know how to open it."
Iorneste shrugged. "Likely. But I was more concerned with that box being in the hands of humans than I was with it being in the hands of any particular dragon."
"So you are not concerned what she might do with it?"
"The humans will not be able to open it, Mourne."
"You keep asserting that, but what if Sheldrache opens it?"
"It is in human hands now."
"She may steal it."
"Aha," Iorneste said, and looked down to the tiny mereling. "Not if we steal it first."
The Dragon Slayer
by the Sanguine Ninja, InksplatterSenpai