15 - WARDWICK
Stories and songs all have a final word, but in real life not even death is a true end; just look at the lasting impression my father made.
They tell me I didn't speak, for several days, but I don't remember it. The healer my uncle brought in said it was exhaustion - Oreg and I had run almost fifteen miles before Oreg had been able to jump us to Hurog - and blood loss from the basilisk wound in my back.
The Blue Guard, my uncle told me later, chased the few remaining Vorsag who hadn't left on their own. My uncle's firm hands on the reins saw to it that the harvest was taken in, though the crops were indeed poor.
That winter was hard on the people of Hurog. It wasn't the food: My uncle had grain shipped in from Iftahar. But the Vorsag had fired as many of the people's cottages as they could find, and the shelters we'd managed to erect before winter weren't enough to keep the fury of the north wind at bay.
My uncle had tried to move me to Iftahar with my mother, Ciarra, and Tosten, but I would not go. I could not leave Hurog. Only the keep was gone: the people were still at risk.
My uncle understood. One night, after working all day harvesting wheat, I told the whole story of what Oreg was and why I'd done what I had to all of them: Duraugh, Tosten, Ciarra, Beckram, Axiel, and Stala. Axiel and his dwarven comrades left soon after that, having cleared a way to their underground river. Axiel promised to be back in the spring. Ciarra avoided me when she could, which bothered Tosten so much that I began avoiding both of them until my uncle left for Iftahar and took them with him before the first storm of winter.
I often took Pansy or Feather (returned to us from Oranstone several weeks after Hurog fell, along with the other horses we'd left behind) and ran the mountain trails at a pace that would have left Penrod shaking his head. When the snows made running impossible, I fought with Stala and whatever brave soul in the ranks of the Blue Guard would come against me. That wasn't enough, so I began excavating Hurog where the dwarves had left off, sorting the good stone from the broken. At first I did it alone, but one morning I came out to find Stala had organized a work party to help. We had the inner curtain walls rebuilt by the time the snow melted.
By spring, the people of Hurog treated me as if I were the Hurogmeten, though they all knew the title belonged to my uncle. Soon after the first robins returned from the south, my brother came back to Hurog.
I knew he was coming, not because of any messenger, but because the grasses of Hurog whispered that someone of Hurog blood had come back. Since I'd killed Oreg, I'd become even more attuned to the magic flows around Hurog. Once I'd needed them to complete me, but now I completed them.
I rode Feather out to greet him.
"You've lost weight," he said.
"You look better," I replied because it was true. The air of aloneness he'd carried like a cloak was gone.
"Mother's dead," he said. "Her maid found her wandering outside one night in a storm. She took fever and wasted away."
I nodded, but she'd died a long time ago.
"I came also to tell you that Beckram and Ciarra are engaged," he said warily.
Feather, impatient standing for no reason she could see, pawed the ground but quieted when I shifted my weight. Beckram and Ciarra? She was seventeen; mother had been younger than that when my father married her. But Beckram and Ciarra?
"Tell him I expect him to keep her out of sewers," I said after a moment.
Tosten looked away. "I tried to get Ciarra to come and tell you herself. She told me to send you her love."
I nodded my head.
"She can talk now, did you know?"
I did. "Duraugh wrote to me."
"She's afraid if she comes back to Hurog, she'll lose her voice again. But she wants you to come to their wedding this summer."
"All right," I said.
"Our uncle intends you to have Hurog. Beckram doesn't want it. Duraugh has sent a formal petition to the king."
"The king has other things to worry about," I said. Once it was clear that Kariarn was dead, Haverness's hundred had little trouble sending the Vorsag on their way. But the hundred hadn't returned to Estian when they were called upon to do so. They had retreated to their estates and were presumed to be building up armies. Jakoven might have declared it treason, except that the rest of the Five Kingdoms thought that Haverness's hundred were heroes. And heroes were difficult to prosecute.
"Don't you care?" Tosten sounded worried.
I shrugged and looked at the worn platinum ring on my finger. "Have you come to stay?"
"If you'll have me."
Feather sidestepped as I leaned toward him. "You are my brother. You are always welcome here."
To rebuild Hurog's inner buildings, I had first to clear away the rubble so I could build some sort of support over the roof of the dragon bone cave, which had collapsed in the center, killing Kariarn and his wizards and burying them under a mound of stones. My work party had been reduced by the people needed to plant the fields, leaving only Stala's Blue Guard and Tosten when we uncovered the bodies of Bastilla, Kariarn, and the rest of his wizards. Oreg had been right; they were very near to the dragon bones.
I had them buried in the mass grave we'd dug for the other bodies we'd found in the rubble. If the Vorsag wanted proof of Kariarn's death, they would have to take my word, because the bodies were identifiable only by their clothing. I carried Bastilla's body myself.
Either by Oreg's magic or some odd chance, the dragon bones were still intact. Axiel arrived soon enough to help Tosten and me excavate them all and cart them to the field with the salt creep. The three of us ground the bones into meal and then tilled it into the ground as Duraugh had done with seashells the year before. Axiel looked relieved when the last of the white powder was covered with dirt. When the field was planted, seedlings sprang up from the once-poisoned soil.
I woke early one morning in high summer knowing something had changed. I dressed hurriedly in hunting clothes and saddled Pansy myself to get on the mountain trail sooner. Sensing my urgency, Pansy ran as if the demons of Menogue were nipping his heels, slowing only when the trail became so steep that I dismounted and walked beside him. When he stopped abruptly, eyes rolling and nostrils tasting the air with sudden urgency, I stopped beside him.
"What's up?" I asked. It took a lot to frighten an animal that had been in battle as often as Pansy.
The stallion snorted at the sound of my voice and turned to rub his sweaty head against me, knocking me sideways a step. Whatever had bothered him was gone now.
I could smell something, too. It reminded me of the blacksmith's forge: heat and metal. That's why I wasn't as surprised as I might have been when we topped the final rise and got a clear view of the bronze doors.
Axiel, when I asked, had examined them and told me he didn't think they actually opened at all. He was as confounded about their purpose as I was. Oreg hadn't been around to ask.
The doors were open now, though it hadn't happened easily. The metal was blackened on the underside, as if by a terrible fire. The left-hand door lay yards away, while the right-hand door was misshapen and bent. When I touched the door nearest me, it was still warm. When I tugged on it, I couldn't budge it an inch.
I dropped Pansy's reins and cautiously approached the hole in the mountain that the doors had covered. I don't know what I expected, but an empty hole was anticlimactic. It was just a rectangular hole, barely deeper than I was tall. If I'd put a hay wagon in it, there wouldn't be room for the team to pull it. The only odd thing about it was the exactness of the flat walls and clean corners, given that it was all just packed earth. Behind me, Pansy whickered a greeting. I turned, thinking Tosten had followed me, because Pansy didn't welcome strangers. But Oreg was hardly a stranger. "Hello, Ward," he said with a self-conscious dip of his shoulders.
I swallowed. "I hope this doesn't mean I'll have to kill you again," I said.
He focused on the battered wreck of Hurog and patted Pansy absently on the forehead. "I knew you were going to be difficult about this."
He glanced at my face and then quickly back to Hurog. "You've done a lot of work. What did you do with the dragon bones?"
"Sowed them into the field that used to have a bad case of salt creep," I said.
He smiled. "So I don't have to eat them?"
"I thought that was a bad thing," I said. There was something else someone had said about eating dragon bones, but I couldn't remember what it was.
Oreg bent down and grabbed a rock. He took two steps and threw it. We both watched it bounce down the mountain until it rolled out of sight in a patch of bramble. "Not if you're a dragon," he said. When he saw my face, he said, almost frantically, "I didn't know I wouldn't die. You have to believe me. I wouldn't have hurt you like that for nothing. I would have told you. Dragons don't age, but you can kill them, and I was only a quarter-blood. I thought his spell had required my death to bind my soul to stone."
My tongue was slow. I couldn't ask any of the things I wanted to. What I managed was, "The emperors of old, it is said, were served by a dragon." Kariarn had told me that.
"My father," agreed Oreg. "Dragons can take on human shape. My grandmother was young and foolish and fell in love with a human. My father belonged to neither world and chose to serve the emperors as a mage." He spoke too rapidly, anxious to please.
"What was in the hole?" I asked.
"Me," he said. "I was. I didn't know that he'd saved my body there."
I sat down and buried my chin in my hands, hoping, I suppose, to come up with a single thing to say, to feel.
"You've lost weight," he said after a while, and I remembered that Tosten had said the same.
"Yes. Well, I thought I'd killed you." I discovered that I didn't mind him feeling guilty. It assuaged the deep pit of rage I felt. A pit that trembled beneath another, larger emotion.
"Tell me what I can do," he said, sounding close to tears himself. He closed the distance between us and fell to his knees.
"What took you so long?" I asked, not looking at him.
"I was dead," he said. "Or near enough to make no difference. I don't know how long it's been, a year? Two? Not much longer, or you would have changed more. It took that long for me to awaken. My body had been lying there for...well since before the last emperor died, tens of centuries. Magic is powerful but not always instantaneous."
"If your father forced you to wear that body, which I killed, how is it that you look as you do now?" I asked.
He gave a half laugh. "Because the body he made took its semblance from me. Dragons can shift their shape. How do you think my father was conceived?"
I'd been angry at him for a lot longer than the past few minutes. For the first time in a nearly a year, I felt the rage slide away, out of reach.
"It's been a little less than a year," I said, answering his earlier question.
He must have read something in my voice, because he took up a more casual pose, relaxing on the mountainside. "I am surprised, really. I'd have thought it would take much longer."
"You're not a slave to this anymore, are you?" I asked, flashing the worn silver-colored ring.
He shook his head. "No."
There were things I wanted to say, but I was too much my father's son to be comfortable with most of them. So I asked for more information, just to hear his voice and know I hadn't made this all up.
"Are you the last of them, now?" I asked.
"There are other dragons, Ward, though they've always been rare. Now that the poison is gone from the magic, I expect some of them will return."
"You can do something for me," I said abruptly. "I've always wondered what a dragon looks like."
He grinned at me, suddenly, looking even more like Tosten than usual. Bouncing to his feet, he took several steps back and changed, the lines of his human form seeming to flow naturally into something much larger.
We'd both forgotten about Pansy, who stiffened and pulled until his reins just barely stayed where I'd dropped them. By the time I'd calmed him down, there was a dragon in Hurog once more.
He was easily twice as large as the stone dragon, and much more fantastical. His narrow muzzle was deep midnight blue as were his feet and sharp talons. Above the muzzle and its businesslike teeth, the scales lightened to violet, a lighter shade than his Hurog blue eyes, altered only in shape, which glittered against the darkness of his face. His wings, half folded, were edged in gold and black; the scaled skin connecting the fragile wing bones was lavender.
Like Pansy, I was frozen, but by his beauty, not by fear.
"I've never seen so many shades of purple," I said, and, gods deliver me, he preened, flexing the spikes that ran along his spine and spreading his wings to full extension.
The sudden movement was almost too much for Pansy, and he whistled a shrill challenge as he rose on his hind legs. Instantly, the dragon closed his wings and folded gently back into the Oreg I'd known.
"Sorry," he said. "I forgot I'd scare the horse."
Worriedly, Pansy huffed and snorted, making certain that the horse eater had gone and wouldn't bother his people.
"Siphern's oath, Oreg," I breathed, "that was the most glorious sight I've ever seen."
He hugged himself nervously. "Does that mean I can stay here?"
Bone deep, a feeling of great contentment fell over me, washing away the conflicting rage and joy I'd been torn between.
"You're my brother," I said, as I had to Tosten. "You'll always have a home here."
As we walked down the mountain trails, I asked, "Oreg, how is it that your human form looks so much like Tosten and most of the rest of the Hurogs I know?"
He grinned and peered up at me from under his eyelashes. "Ward, I thought you knew. Hurog means dragon."