…I awoke, groggily, tangled in tree limbs and choke vines. Thanks to the heavy armor scales along my limbs, the vines could not cut into my tail and legs, but one had attached itself painfully to the healing claw marks left behind by Tebarion’s harsh good-bye. I snapped at the vine and cut it loose, then slowly unfurled my bruised wings.|
I withdrew them quickly, bellowing in pain at a searing fire in my left wing. Great Dragon Stars, not the membrane! I turned my head to look. The wing membrane hung in ragged tatters, and one of the wing bones looked odd. I growled at it. Dislocated. My right wing opened stiffly, but it was whole, and when I spread my tail membranes I found them to be untouched. Just my left wing was injured seriously, then.
I checked my weapons. The bow was broken and a few of the arrows snapped, but most of the shafts were intact, and my sakitha, though detached from the shoulder harness, lay unbroken in a pricker bush. A choke vine had entangled my badge of rank—I took a moment to free it—and another had strung my armored tail high into the trees. I jerked a while to try to free it, but that movement only served to send lances of pain through my torn wing. I stopped, chest heaving, and unwillingly whined at the pain.
“Asha, asha drakiu,” an unfamiliar voice, female, murmured near my ear. I whipped my head around to see who it was, for the language was alien to me.
Two odd-looking bipeds stood there on a boulder, dressed in the skins of tree-skaters and sky-chu, both long-haired and holding what looked to be miniature scythes. The one with longer hair also held a tiny bow and a quiver of minuscule arrows. I bared my teeth at them. The one with longer hair—I guessed it to be a female, as it was shaped similarly to female shredi—jumped back, but the other—probably male—held his scythe out in a menacing manner. I flattened my crest against my neck and opened my mouth to reveal the long, double rows of serrated teeth, but the male appeared unafraid. He stepped in front of the female as if to protect her.
“Still, sister-wing,” a voice spoke in Shaharadi. A gryphae stepped out of the bushes and ducked his head low in a respectful bow. His silver-black feather pattern and curved horns marked his rank of herdsman, but why was a gryphae so far away from the gryphae lands?
The gryphae said something hurried to the two bipeds, who lowered their weapons and eyed me warily—or, in the female’s case, pityingly. Both irritated me.
“Brother-wing,” I said to the gryphae, “what are these creatures that look at me so?”
The gryphae turned back to me. “They are humans.”
I stared at him. “What?”
“Why don’t we get you free first?”
“Tell them to put their weapons away first. I might not get hurt if they use them, but they could be a nuisance.”
The gryphae spoke to the bipeds again, and they reluctantly harnessed the scythes to their backs. “Sister-wing, what needs to be healed?”
“My left wing is torn,” I replied, wincing as a spasm shook my wing muscle. “You’ll need to cut my tail down first. Can the…humans…climb?”
The gryphae translated my question, and the female biped nodded. Walking to where the choke vine had pulled my tail up to a tree limb, she unsheathed a short blade from her belt and, blade between her teeth, began to climb the tree. When she neared where my tail spade was wound tightly by the vine, she began sawing at the vine with the serrated knife. Soon, the knife cut through and grated against armor scales. The female gave a look of surprise and what sounded like apologies to me, but I ignored her and shook my tail to loosen it from the dead vine.
“How are we going to carry my wing, brother-wing?” I asked the gryphae.
“Relax. I know magic. I can hold it together until we get to the human village.” The gryphae closed his amber eyes, concentrating for a moment, and an odd force, not unlike Tebarion’s telekinetic touch, wrapped gently around my injured wing. It held together long enough for me to stand and gather my unbroken weapons—the bow was scrap wood now—and then the gryphae directed the two bipeds to gently hold my wing up. When I was on all fours, they stood about shoulder high to me—about five or six dragonhands. We began walking toward the human village.
As we walked, the gryphae and I talked. “I am called Kylsen,” he explained. “These two humans are Aihdyn and Kyleriae.”
“I’ve heard of you,” Kylsen commented, thumping my underbelly armor plates in a gryphae-Shaharadi show of friendship. “The warrior Bluepyre, who fought in the great Nio-Ar-chu wars, under the rule of Dragonqueen Jelindisae Whiteleaf. I’ve heard that recently, her son Forgath Whitescry was crowned Dragonking.”
I nodded. “Forgath is young, but he’ll make an honorable king.”
“In the wars,” Kylsen continued, “you saved the life of a young dragon-mage. I believe that is how you received that long scar along the joint of your armor plates.”
Habitually, I glanced down at where my underbelly armor scales connected to the rest of my skin, where a long, white scar ran parallel to the joining. “Igo-chu,” I explained. “The worst chu that fought in the war.”
Kylsen nodded. “I’d heard that you and the dragon-mage had formed a bond, but not long after, I ended up here. Away from Shaharadi civilization.”
I thought of Tebarion’s disappointment and frustration that I had accepted the duty to scout in the Farlands. “We parted on ill terms,” I whispered. “I was sent out on a scout mission, and he was bound by duty and honor to remain behind in the syrath.” I glanced down at Kylsen. “How did you end up out here?”
“My mate, Carossa, and I were sent to see to a sickness in a far-flung shaonessi tribe. After we’d seen to the sick, we started to head back. A band of rogue shredi, on their sky-chu mounts, chased us into the deep woods. We were grounded when my mate lost a few primaries trying to duck the shredi, and she can’t get those to heal back quickly. We have to wait until they grow back on their own.” He sighed. “At least that gave us time to learn the ways of these humans, including their tongue. Now, Bluepyre, how did you get here? Surely not shredi?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what it was. One moment I was soaring above those high mountains, the next I was being struck by something invisible. It ripped through my wing—you can see the damage—and sent me plummeting. I blacked out when I hit the trees.”
“You are in good that other harm did not get you,” the female human spoke suddenly, in halting Shaharadi. I glanced back in surprise, blinking, then turned to Kylsen.
He shrugged. “I’ve been trying to teach Kyleriae how to speak gryphae and Shaharadi. She is more adept at Shaharadi, but maybe that is because it is closer to their own language. She understands more than she can speak.”
“Does she speak elmedyn?”
I switched to that language. “Are the two of them…?”
Kylsen laughed, a catlike purring sound. “No. Kyleriae is older than Aihdyn. Her sister, though, is Aihdyn’s…they call it ‘girlfriend.’ Not mated yet, but considering it.”
I glanced back at the two humans, who were engaged in a conversation of their own. “What do they say?”
“They are only talking about how big you are, compared to Carossa and myself. There is something about legend, but I can’t make it out completely. It seems they’ve heard stories about Shaharadi, or as they call you, ‘dragons.’ Nothing threatening.”
“But ‘dragon’ is only a term we use for nobility.”
“They use it to mean your species.”
“And why are those two out here alone, when the male is bound to another?”
“They were hunting. I was coming along to help find what we in the village need. Besides the humans, there are Carossa and myself and our cubs, and a shaonessi who is only visiting on his scout run. Carossa and I are expecting again, so she needs a special kind of meat, and Beren needs a tree slither or two to keep his coat healthy. In all actuality, Aihdyn is a shepherd, like myself. He isn’t too experienced about hunting, but he wasn’t about to let Kyleriae out alone.”
Kyleriae let out an exclamation then, pointing to an upright stone marked with a painted red V. “Is village,” she explained to me in Shaharadi. “Where we live.”
“And now,” Kylsen commented, still in elmedyn, “you’ll get to meet the rest of the humans.”
The minute we entered the village, my legs were swamped with tiny humans. The children bounced along in front of my forelegs, rubbing the claws, and a few even tried to catch a hold of the twin “thumbs” on each hind foot. One child had snagged the edge of my tail spade and was now sitting on it. I carefully dumped her into a hay wagon and continued to follow Kylsen.
When we reached the center of the village, where stood a circular fountain topped with a basalt carving of what appeared to be a primitive Shaharadi, three robed and white-bearded men exited a large skin tent. The oldest of the three bowed low to me, speaking in the humans’ tongue. I turned to Kylsen. “Translation please?”
“Elder Akh’aban welcomes you, and hopes that your stay at their village may be comfortable and enjoyable as you recuperate.”
“Tell him ‘thank you.’”
Kylsen translated, a word not unlike the Shaharadi pronunciation.
A woman suddenly emerged from the tent, arguing with a stout woman in black robes. By the taller woman’s looks, she was Kyleriae’s sister. With a slim body wrapped in incredibly-patterned sky-chu furs and cloth, the human female was…interesting. I was the wrong species and the wrong gender to be taking any further interest other than looks regarding the female. Her long brown hair, banded with white, was intricately braided, strung through with glass beads that glittered white and yellow in the evening sunlight. The stocky woman next to her had ice-white hair, braided similarly and beaded with crystals of red and black. The short female carried a twisted walnut staff, one end carved to resemble a Shaharadi head, a red crystal in its open mouth. Both women gaped when they saw me.
Kylsen stepped forward and began speaking in the human tongue. I sat patiently, waiting while the gryphae gestured to me several times, imitated my wing once, and made noises of worry and concern. As the three old men and the stocky woman huddled in conversation, I hissed at Kylsen’s back; he turned to me and gave an apologetic grin. “Just trying to get some sympathy out of them.”
“Sympathize less. I’m a warrior, not an invalid.”
After a few moments, the three old men and the stocky woman turned back to us. The oldest man said something, which Kylsen translated to mean, “We have a place where you can stay, a large pavilion of whale skins. Cinder and Kyleriae will attend you when necessary, and Mellabie will be ready to fetch you whatever you need.”
“Who’re Cinder and Mellabie?” I asked Kylsen in elmedyn.
“Cinder is Kyleriae’s younger sister. The one bound to Aihdyn. Mellabie is Aihdyn’s younger sister, a child of ten years. You’ll like Mellabie.”
At that moment, the small girl I’d dumped in the hay wagon ran up, pieces of straw sticking out of her curly red hair. She was laughing as she patted my tail spade again. “Fun,” she said in accented Shaharadi. “Fun ride.”
I glanced at Kylsen. “Let me guess. She is Mellabie.”
Kylsen nodded. “You dumped her in a hay wagon?”
“She was riding my tail spade. That’s not very comfortable for me.” I lowered my head to look him in the eye. “At least I found a soft place to dump her.” I looked around. “And you’ll have to teach me their language. I don’t know how many besides Kyleriae and Mellabie can speak Shaharadi or gryphae, and I know none of them speak elmedyn.”
Kylsen nodded. “Very well, Sigourney.”