Dragon Champion

Page 11


Auron’s sprint gave out as he neared the trees. He saw a deep shadow beneath a pile of boulders. Perhaps a cave entrance? Underground he would have the advantage against the elves, especially if the cave were tight.
His lungs felt like they were filled with dragon fire. He shot under the overhanging rock, but found only cold stone where the slab met the mountainside. It could still be called a cave, but only a tiny one added as an afterthought in the forming of the world.
It was cramped, but he was just able to turn himself in the space between the overhang and the rock below. He caught his breath and watched the advance of torchlight; the elves had started fires to aid their hunt for him and their horses. The confusing fog from the elf magic cleared. Auron shrank back into the crevice, pressing himself as flat as possible, his scaleless skin coal black. He’d sell his life dear. Most important, Wistala would get away. Mother’s clutch would not all die. Wistala would win through; she had more skill and sense than he ever credited her with on the egg shelf. He could do nothing for his mother and Jizara against the dwarves, but he’d help Wistala make it out of reach of these hunting elves yet.
He might as well have left a lighted trail for the elves; they gathered around the overhang, whispering to each other. One, greatly daring, got on his hands and knees to look beneath the stone, torch held in front of him. Auron rushed forward, and the elf dropped the torch, sending it spinning as he passed it, biting at the probing face.
The elves made a clucking noise together. Auron pressed himself to the back of the cave, trembling. No spearpoints probed for him, as he expected. Instead they threw more crystals into the crevice-cave, crystals that shattered and released the nose-searing gas. Auron knew this time to clamp his nostrils and mouth shut, and he shot out from the overhang. He’d break through the ring of elves or die fighting.
He came out of the cave, not noticing the tree roots that magically appeared at the end of the overhang. He became tangled up in them. The more he tried to get through, the less he could thrash. His limbs were encumbered by vine growths; then he was stuck. Netted!
A two-pointed spear stabbed at his neck, striking at either side. He thrashed his head back and forth, and another pinioned him just behind his crest. The elves chirped at each other in their quick tongue, and the magic mist poured out from the cave, clinging to the ground like slow-flowing water. It washed over him, and he held his breath for as long as he could, wiggling his hindquarters. He finally took the searing draft into his lungs. As consciousness faded, he begged of his mother’s guiding spirit forgiveness for not looking after Wistala better.
He, the Champion of the Clutch, died without killing a single enemy in battle! What would Father say?
He woke to pain. He grew aware of specifics as he opened and tried to see through gummy eyes: nausea and a dirty feeling around his hindquarters. His limbs burned cold.
It was a misty dawn. Not quite fog, not quite drizzle, the weather washed out the color from the landscape, and everything hovered gray and indistinct between earth and sky. How was it that he still lived?
He looked down his nose. Three leather bands, reinforced by rivets and rods of metal, clamped his mouth shut. The one nearest his nostrils had a brass emblem on it. He shifted his eyes left and right. Stout wooden objects like the dwarves’ ladders were all around him: one underneath and two joined just above his spinal crest. He searched his mind for the word . . . like cave . . . cage. He was caged.
The elves must have felt the cage was not enough, because his limbs were pressed tight against his side and his claws were wrapped in linked chain and leather. He moved his head as much as he could, and caught sight of another leather band across his back. He was in some kind of harness. It barely allowed him to breathe; real movement was impossible.
Outside the cage he saw half-circles of wood to either side. It took him a moment to realize he was under a wagon. Though he couldn’t see much, he could smell perfectly, and he learned all he needed to know that way. Horses all around, dwarves and elves intermixed, and a musky smell of wet fur, perhaps wolves or dogs. He smelled fire and something else, a scent that set him all atremble: meat cooking. He knew for certain what that was; Father had brought home charred dinners many times. His appetite was the only thing free, and it plagued him.
His hearing also worked.
“About time for the swag to be divided, heh?” a guttural, and therefore Dwarvish, voice said from behind a veil of linked rings. Do dwarves never show their faces? The hominids spoke Parl, a simple language of trade and diplomacy that even Father understood.
“There’ll be food tonight,” an elf said, making Auron’s heart skip a beat. Was he being saved for something else? “Join us, ally. The menace of the Iwensi pass has been driven away. Our flocks and forests are safe again. Your brothers to the south will rejoice when they hear the news.”
“Who gives a flock what you celebrate? And as for those toll-takers on the falls, they can count their coin and rot. The Burning Wheel have bigger slugs to fry. Though I wish we’d seen a better haul here. Dragon hoard, indeed!”
“This is not the fault of my people,” a different elf said, higher pitched than the first. A female? Her face lay shadowed within the cowl of a great cloak. “With live young dragons commanding the price they do, had we come away with more than one—”
“It’s been bad luck all around. Even this one—it’s more of an overgrown lizard than a dragon. Are you sure of it?”
“It’s a young dragon, less than a year out of the egg,” the elf said.
“What’s wrong with him? Do they all turn the color of dead twigs when restrained?”
“I’ve heard of scaleless dragons, but I’ve seen few enough, praise Helo, to know for sure. No doubt he still has some growing to do,” the female elf said.
“Save it for haggling on the quay, Hazeleye. You and Oakroot’s bunch are welcome to him. He’s not worth more’n four hundred to the Burning Wheel.”
“Four hundred gold pieces for a live—?”
“Four hundred silver, elf.”
“Is this a joke?” the male elf broke in.
“Do you see me smiling?”
“I don’t see anything but a beery beard with a lot of soup rotting in it.”
“Enough, enough, good people,” interjected the female Auron had heard called Hazeleye. “Let’s leave this to the professional bargainers. We’ll just trust each to get the best deal to be shared among us poor soldiers.”
“The dwarves killed a hatchling by her mother,” yet another elf argued, and Auron had to shut his eyes. The last sight he’d had of Jizara, clinging to Mother’s leg, still lived and moved in his brain. He shed tears that joined the mist wetting the meadow grass. “I saw the body as we hauled up the hoard. By rights they should pay us for that.”
The dwarf sprang to his feet with a clatter of metal plates. “Insults! From the experts at killing dragons who let the bronze get away, no less.”
“The bargainers, the bargainers, let them work it out. They meet anon,” Hazeleye’s delicate voice said, quieting the grumblings of elf and dwarf alike.
Auron did not know what the overland wagon journey was like for the elves, but for a hatchling caged and bound, it was torment. After parting with the dwarves, with more hard words from each side about being robbed by the other, the elves put him in the back of the wagon he had been under. They faced him to the rear. He could see just another wagon, pulled by some kind of wide-set cattle that smelled delicious, plodding along in the wake of his conveyance. His only relief from the torture of cut-off circulation was to turn on his side or back and allow the blood to travel at a different angle.
Auron had plenty of time to examine the emblem on the band around his jaw. His egg horn raised the band of leather enough that the little bronze circle faced him like an opponent across his pebbled length of snout.
It was a little figure of a man, arms and legs outstretched so they touched a perfect circle around the figure. The emblem showed little workmanship; there were no marks of tooling, so Auron assumed it must have been poured or stamped from a mold. The little faceless figure stood always in his vision as though waving madly, taunting him. Even sleep brought no escape. He danced through Auron’s unhappy dreams, freed from the golden circle to stamp and gesticulate and throw sparkling orbs at fleeing hatchlings.
As if the traveling was not harsh enough, each morning and night they fed him by shoving a length of stiffened leather into one of his nostrils. It had been sewn and hardened into a tube thanks to some manner of glazing. The agonizing process was concluded by the elves pouring a mixture of fresh blood and water down the hose, and he had no choice but to hold his breath and gulp. He sometimes choked. Once he lost consciousness, and woke to two strong elves holding him up by his tail and bouncing him up and down as the liquid drained from between his clamped teeth.
“Do you have to do it all at once, Jayflight?” the one called Hazeleye said one evening. She knelt beside the cage and watched Auron wheeze and thrash. “Give him a chance to breathe, would you?” She looked at him with a tear in her one clear eye; a patch stood at the midpoint of a great scar running down her face on the other side of her broken nose.