by Helen Sanders
In this excerpt, Belador and Sauvir, the two main characters, have been actively trying to find lost magic that will help them ensnare the story’s bad guy, Agadittur. After many trials, they have just arrived at the safe haven of Belador’s family home. Belador’s mother has shown them an odd object which has mystified her. Instead of explaining the object to his mother, Belador feigns ignorance and this is where the excerpt begins.
Belador dragged her up the stairs, saying good night with such quickness to his mother that Etaine regarded them with some sadness in her eyes. “We have a great deal of work to see to in the morning. Rest well.” Belador pulled Sauvir up the stairs with the concentration of a questing hound and too tired to resist, she let her curiosity have its way with her.
He tugged her into his bedroom, shut the door, and strode with the wrapped helm to his parchment-strewn desk. He fumbled the stones from his pocket and lit a candle. He turned to her as the lantern spluttered to life. “Do you know what this is? Do you know what my mother has found?”
“No. But you do. Why didn’t you tell her what you knew?” She sat down on the bed. The meal she had eaten did not feel leaden inside of her. She felt just a little of her former strength return, and she could not have been more astounded. But Belador’s scent reeked from excitement.
He unwrapped the helm. “You’ve not told my mother that you are a changeling, and the way to use this object’s magic is through a changeling’s skill.” He looked up at her. “I was holding your secret for the moment.”
“Tun,” she whispered. “What can it do? How did you learn of it?”
He finished unwrapping it and his eyes shone into hers. “The scrolls. When you left to find Tallisker, I had nothing at my disposal to be of service, except my skills as a parlancer. For two days as I recovered, I ciphered the old parchments, and I found more of the carver Nick’s observations.” He held the helm up for her to see. “This helmet will reveal memories locked in stones. A changeling can both decipher a stone with a memory locked inside, as well as place a memory inside a prepared stone. But…what I read was very general. The boy Nick saw it only done the once. A young man, a horse changeling, took the stone in hand while he wore this helm, and on the cusp of his changing, as that power began to overwhelm him, he placed a memory in the stone. The man there, Mir Orian, told him that the helm could also enable a changeling to see the memory in the stone, and he did it himself. I watched, Ursala, as Orian changed from man to wolf-being, then back again, and he related what he had seen embedded in the stone.”
Sauvir held her arms tight and stared off into the dark room. “But that seems too fantastic, too…”
He held her hand. He could see her start to sink back into that same disbelief that caused her own invisibility. “The same power resides in you to change. To fly. To shift your skin.” There was such fervor in his voice that she could not bear his nearness.
She dropped her eyes from his. “Here. There might be an answer here then, somewhere, in these stones.” She picked up the smoothest one and eyed it. “What do I do? Do you remember?”
Belador’s gaze was somber. “You need to sleep. Are you sure you wish this, now?”
“We are running out of time. Who knows what Agadittur has found, or what path he is racing down even now? I only know we have to find Finauld before he does. Even if this is a ridiculous fantasy.”
He thought for a moment, and then brought back all three stones and laid them on the bed. Carefully he placed the helm upon her brow. He opened her palm and curled her fingers around a dark agate. It was arrow-shaped and filled her palm with a heavy coolness. He described to her as best he could what would happen as she brought the change on.
It was quiet and cold in his bedroom. Sauvir sat on the edge of his pallet and tried to calm her racing heart. She closed her eyes and willed the creature to devour her, and it did. As she felt the surge begin, she clutched the stone more tightly and for a moment it was as if the bloom of her heart’s blood was taken somewhere else, to some different picture frame outside of time. Her skin stopped the horrendous wave of savagery, her guts stilled their ballooning, and the eye of her mind expanded with light. A child stood in front of her, smiling, holding out a flower, a blazing orange flower with yellow pistils. Behind the child was a woman, brown-skinned and smiling as if she hid a secret, with clear blue eyes and hands thick with calluses. The picture dissolved, her mind retracted and her skin flowed back to her woman’s shape.
Her heart resumed beating and sweat poured from her skin. She gasped for air like a fish and Belador’s hands were taking the helmet from her head. His palms chafed hers and his body warmed her for she had gone ice-cold. “Ursala. Are you all right?”
“Yes. Yes. I saw…a child, flaxen hair, laughing, I felt…the father. I was the father. The woman was the mother of my child.” She looked up at him. “Belador. What in Tun’s name have we found?”
His eyes shone at hers. “Ursala! My mother has dozens of these polished stones….dozens! There’s got to be help inside one or two, somewhere…” He fumbled for the other two stones lost in the folds of his quilts.
“Hand me that one, the crystal one there….the last one was smooth. Let’s try one with a different shape. This crystal is rough and faceted. I wonder if that means anything….” she reached for it and Belador saw her hand shaking.
“Let’s wait until morning. You’re exhausted.”
She pushed him aside and placed the stone in her lap while she adjusted the helmet. “No. One more.” Her jaw jutted as she placed it on her head. “We can at least get through two or three of them tonight.”
“Wait…do this for me. If something happens, squeeze my hand, and I’ll take the stone from you.”
She paused as she picked up the oddly shaped crystal rock. She nodded. He squeezed her hand once, then mustering her courage and her strength, she let the beast flood her with the change.
It was faster this time. She was quickly aware of a bright blue sky and a light wind on her face. She was high, high over a dark emerald forest and there were hundreds of flying creatures in the air, surrounding her. She was her beast self here in this memory and there was a roar, a thunderous, rolling mass of voices lifting in jubilation all around her and then a dark shape flying at her, from the mass of drifting sinuous bodies. In her disorientation she held her position in the sky and tried to make sense of what was hurtling towards her…the thing…for it was a thing…opened its mouth and a steaming mass in a thick column was aimed right at her…then stinging, stinging everywhere, all over her body, pelting tiny stones…and the creature came into view, a dragon the color of shining steel, jaws wide open, flew straight at her and just missed ripping her throat as she dove out of the way in time.
The mass of swirling dragons all around them, forming a semi-circle in the air beyond them, raised their voices again in a sonorous howl that made every sharp fin on her spine go erect in bloodlust. He had attacked her! She rolled in the sky and whipped her tail…her skin dripped water….water! Had the other dragon pelted her with ice? But the other dragon, bigger, rippling with muscle, was turning so fast and coming around…the sunlight shone on his steely skin and she marveled at his speed, and raised herself as fast as she could and then dropped down on him from above with her spurs and talons clawed and reveled in his screams of fury. The crowd roared again and Sauvir beat the air back and hard to get away from her larger, much stronger foe. It was then that she realized she was wearing a narrow leather harness around her upper torso…her talons felt along its edges and she looked down at herself. A stone, but no, this was too fine to be termed a stone. This was a real jewel, shaped and faceted. Its color was like crimson wine seen through cut glass and she wondered at the skill of the gem-shapers who had made such a thing. She did not have time to wonder long. The other dragon was inhaling, and inhaling with such considered force that Sauvir froze in terror. This would be no smattered warning of ice pellets…she began to beat backwards rapidly but the other dragon’s head whipped forward and he sent a blasting column of frozen air at her that hit her squarely on the head and shoulder-wing. She faltered in mid-air…her muscles wouldn’t respond from the freezing cold…she began to lose altitude and the crowd hissed in apprehension. The steel-ice dragon’s snout curled upwards in a vicious grin and he bore down on her with his talons stretched for the jewel on her breast. She faltered and fell out of the sky from terror. The ice had made her wings seize up, but in that moment as she dropped, the other dragon lost his target and his talons closed on empty air. Sauvir regained her wits and sped behind the stronger male. The crimson of the jewel…she had fire, fire as her weapon. She turned to face the monster as he inhaled yet again, and this time he sent an enormous rock of ice at her that would crush her spine. She inhaled rapidly and sent a gout of oily yellow flame that engulfed the ice-rock and its creator besides. The stream of fire unlocked a great well of fury inside of Sauvir and she chased her own burst in her lust to savage the other dragon. The crowd of dragons screamed in approval and Sauvir screamed as well and attacked the male dragon with everything she had…rear claws and spurs, and front talons. She whipped her tail hard across his snout; she beat back hard against the air and razored his belly with her hind-talons, but he dodged and flicked and his eyes assessed her craftily; he lunged straight for the jewel at her breast.
The jewel! The crowd roared and the sky thundered with the sound. Then the other dragon did a strange thing…he pushed off of her and closed his eyes. He began to shimmer. The dark steel of his scales grew a strange fur of crystalline white. His snout hung with drips of moisture that froze to icy spears, as if he had a beard of winter frost. The very air around them began to freeze. Sauvir’s guts began to shake from the cold and she backpedaled in the sky but her muscles were sluggish. Her wings began to grow heavy, and the crowd’s thundering became more rhythmic, deeper, like a chant. She looked up and through the odd mist of deadening cold she saw the eye of the sun, immutable, blinding. She forced her breath down, she took the kernel of fire that sparked in the cave of her gut and warmed the freezing air with her life. She curled into herself to build the fire in her lungs and when she raised her head she blasted the ice dragon with a wall of flame that made huge sheets of steam rise from his body and sent him tumbling backwards. He screamed as he fell through his own smoking cloud and now the crowd drew closer, and their dark bodies, so far away, grew more distinct. Their throttled roars pulsed in unison. She did not understand the language, but the intent was clear: fly the route into the forest below. The line of shapes that led down into the dark woods underneath them howled in a chaotic peal of approval as she leapt up in the sky and spread her wings and hovered under the eye of the sun. Then she dove, and flew closer to the route lined with her kin and followed the way made for her. Halfway down out of the sky as she beat her way towards the treetops below the crowd grew hushed and another dark shape crested above the trees and made for her singular form.
Sauvir saw the column and flew like an eagle for her next adversary. She knew this was a vision, but it came complete with the knife blade of clarity – the game must be played – the jewel must be delivered to the old man of the woods. She was her own true self here, this was no other entity’s place but her own, and she could not have explained that anymore than she could explain how she knew the rules of the game or her urgent goal.
The second dragon was oil-green, alien eyed, fat black fins on her back that shone like obsidian and lay all in a phalanx down her long lazy spine. This dragon made for Sauvir slowly but with the surety of weather’s working. Sauvir faltered and pushed air back to hold her position. What potent magic slept in this beast? For this dragon was rich with power and the scent of her craftiness threaded its way through the air.
She knew soon enough. The dark she-dragon suddenly darted for Sauvir but flew below her and Sauvir rolled to avoid a strike that never came. It came from below – the fins of the other dragon shot out thin green tendrils that plucked and found Sauvir’s hind-claws. They were sticky and web-like, and at first seemed a nuisance until Sauvir looked up and saw the she-dragon had come around with sizzling speed. Like a dread green missile she bore down on Sauvir. Sauvir torqued to put her foreclaws front but could not use her hindquarters for balancing and her wings floundered from her legs’ dead weight.
The dragon was on top of her in a silent blaze of ripping talons. Sauvir twisted and beat the air to get away but the she-sragon was far more patient with Sauvir’s frenzied twisting. Sauvir had no time to draw breath to light her internal torch – she parried the other dragon’s talons and twisted and lunged, but despite her efforts, first one, then another of her harness straps was severed. The crowd roared in surprise, and unable to help herself the she-dragon responded. She roared in triumph and in that moment, Sauvir was able to nick the other dragon’s unprotected throat with a sharp incisor dripping venom. The she-dragon shrieked and kicked off of Sauvir with her hind-talons clamping to find flesh. The monster’s claws managed to gouge right below Sauvir’s armpit but the other dragon’s eyes were glazing. Sauvir beat her wings away from the beast as the other dragon’s jaws bubbled with red froth. The jewel swayed against her chest now, loosened by her assailant’s slicing talons, but it was still hers. The other dragon began a horrible kind of weaving and she clawed at herself as she lost altitude. Sauvir winged away, away and down and soon the other beast’s mewls were left far behind.
The writhing mass of dragons that formed the aisle down into the dark forest moved closer and Sauvir saw here an iron-blue eye, gleaming with golden intelligence. There, a dusky black hide, smooth but with some darker design patterned under the black – a silvery belly flashed, the tip of a tail whipped in bloodlust. The spurs on one male were so long and fat that Sauvir knew the creature’s age was ancient.
And they drew closer, ice-eyed, ivory-fanged, vapor rising in lazy wisps from snouts, blood red tongues panting from the heart-racing scent of the chase.
Sauvir felt along her ribcage and brought up a talon covered with blood, but she felt no pain. She dove down into the dark needled crown of the trees and right before she left the avenue of her brethren and went through the canopy another opponent rose from the silent trees.
The crowd went quiet. Sauvir hovered and she watched as dragons to her left and right averted their eyes, or twisted their tails protectively to bellies. Some sighed piteously. A pall was cast over the eye of the sun.
Her blood congealed in her veins as the dragon rose from above the canopy like a statue rising from dark mist. He was huge, his scales the color of aged copper, his head and neck the shade of fire-blackened iron. Smoke in huge coils steamed out of nostrils like cauldrons, and the backs of Sauvir’s knees and her armpits dripped an uncontrollable rank odor of fear. The dark-headed monster turned his thick neck and took her scent, closing his eyes as he did so in a luxury of arrogance. He smiled as if someone had brought him a feast. He beat his wings in place, up and down, up and down – wings the color of tannin and rust, leathery, creased like malevolent sails. Sauvir could even see battle scars in the lighter healed edges along the thick pinions. She drew breath for flame. She kindled her torch deep within and her jaws leaked with the bitterness of her venom, but her gut told her she would be no match for the leviathan’s maelstrom and she quailed.
The sky had darkened, and with its gloom came a cold wind so liquid she could almost drink the air. The avenue of dragons had widened out. She could no longer feel their protection or their heat, and she realized they had moved off because of the scent of their own fear. The tumble of her blood thundered through the chambers of her heart. She groped for tools -talons, fire, poison, skin, spurs – and found them all wanting and a fountain of panic rose in her like a geyser.
The other dragon was breathing in slow deep inhalations, as if asleep, or dreaming her death. The wind rose under her in a rush, a sharp push of air. At first it simply blew hard and she steadied herself. Then the wind began to howl and rip, like no wind she had ever come across except in a canyon once, when she had fled her home as a youth. The wind had caught her in a canal of the canyon and Sauvir had been buffeted side to side, unable to escape the air stream. This was like that now, and there were three stinging currents, each powerful, each designed to tear her apart. The wind rose in power. Now the ache in her ribcage began to throb and her shoulder grew heavy; the stress on her limbs as she fought to hold her position until she knew she would be blown apart. Her mind was all she had left – she could no more muster fire right now in this invisible chaos of rushing air than she could see, or hear. But she thought of Belador, she sought the color of his eyes, where a home had been promised, and she remembered the fervency of his last words to her: “you are not alone.”
Truth collided with desperation and there was now no time for the luxury of disbelief. She clenched her jaws tighter as she fought to hold her wings erect and summoned the other invisible power around her. She had no staff here, high above, but she had her will, she had what Storm had shown her, and she called the beasts of the air with every tiny particle that made up her life. She roared for aid from within the dark hollows of her bones, and she shook from the effort. Most of all she wanted to live, she wanted to see the sun again and feel Belador’s dear cheek against her own. She howled her message, hoping for nothing and ready to face her end again – at least it would be in the air, and not in the bowels of a stone prison.
Her skull began to ring with white light. Her wings shuddered and her muscles had gone numb. The end was close now, but she struggled anyway, having run so long in that direction that her body knew no other path. A howl rose from somewhere below her, and she wondered what other wind-daemon the monster had summoned to finish her off, when the thundering around her began to recede. The howling below rose in a shuddering cry that was like a soul’s joyous release. She opened her tearing eyes and saw – were her eyes so famished for strength that they lied? Rising under the monster was a mass of bodies, with feathers the color of cedar bark, gray rock, yellow ivory. Then she discerned eyes…golden avian eyes…clear and unblinking. The monster began to howl in a fit of fury and the wind that tore at her lowered. Eagles, ospreys, gyrefalcons, hawks, raptors of all shapes and sizes, from the bright-eyed merlyn to the sleek tercel were rising from the forest by the dozens – no, Sauvir saw – the hundreds. A wave of bloodthirsty birds set upon the dragon-lord. She saw black blood shining on a warbird’s beak; she saw a burst of downy feathers as a mate’s breast was ripped – she saw the dragon lord begin to fight now in earnest and around her swelled a roar she felt in her tendons, her liver, the deep bowl of her womb.
She shook out her wings and the joy of her rescue assuaged some of her exhaustion. She thanked her companions for her life and she winged down and down for the dark and cool trees. As she cut through the air she watched for another attack, another enemy, but down here below the smoky line of trees all was quiet. She found the cut through the high canopy boughs that led low and lower, until at last as she darted through the gloaming of the forest she came upon a stone temple in a clearing, surrounded by old maple, cedar, and towering oak. She landed on the steps’ mossy carpet and in that cessation of motion, as she tucked her wings, her muscles set up a tremor that she could not control. Her left wing drooped from her wound. She sat down hard on her tail and shivered for many minutes, alone and cold on the stone steps. It was hard to lift her head. She leaned against a cracked column and closed her eyes. She touched a talon to the jewel at her breast to feel its hardness, and heard a sound like a snake coiling in dry sand. She cracked a lid. At the base of the pedestal in the temple’s center, unwound a sleeping stone dragon whose hard flesh turned living under her gaze. She would have marveled, but exhaustion had robbed her of that.
Instead she plucked the stone from her breast and held it out to the unraveling beast. He turned a wry eye on her. His snout hung with whiskers the color of sea-moss, and the corner of his eyes were wrinkled from the humor of living.
His snout curled as his tongue rasped out some low speech. Sauvir strained to understand but could not. He slithered closer, a questioning angle to his hoary head. He motioned with one claw to the jewel and made an eating motion. Swallow it? She thought not. She closed her eyes again and leaned into the column. Her back muscles throbbed.
She felt a gentle scratching on her thigh. The old dragon again. He had taken the jewel and was again motioning for her to swallow it. His talon crossed with hers in companionship. His scent was subtle with old wisdom and she sighed. She plucked the jewel and swallowed it down.
“My daughter brought me my jewel back but doesn’t remember to eat her prize!” His speech came clear and Sauvir cracked her eyes. He was laughing in the dusk of the cool forest. “And now, firechaser, your question?”
“Why do you call me that?”
“It is the old warriors who call you that. Firechasers. Sun dragons so filled with ardor that they look lost in their fire column from a distance because they fly as fast as their own erupting flame.” He cocked his old head at her. “Ask the question that lies hidden in your heart.”
She had flown hard and met foes of her own kind, and had done battle with them. She closed her eyes. “I would ask…how to secure the monster Finauld. I don’t know what time or place I am in. I don’t know if Finauld exists here or will exist or did. But we must secure him before another does.”
The older dragon crawled towards her, and sheltered her with his wing. She crept under it as a dragonling might. “No. Finauld dreams, safe in his heaven. It’s the other you seek. Acknowledge your own power over him, for he has a weakness, and it is you.” The older dragon smiled. “Face him, and it will be enough.”
She shuddered and tried to turn away but the old dragon’s eyes were truth and she could not escape them. “You have faced your own. You’ve felt your power. Go and secure your peace.” She was tired, and she leaned against the old man.
When she roused, Belador’s eyes were razing her with their intensity. His palms pressed into her temples and she realized the helm was gone. “Ursala? Ursala?”
“It’s all right. I found it.” She meant to touch his face, but she didn’t remember the feel of his cheek under her fingertips. “My merlyn.” She was aware of falling onto something soft, and she knew no more.