Dragon Champion

Page 22


He felt a bite on his far rear leg. The second dog danced away as Auron spun to face it. He dashed toward it, and it turned tail and ran, giving the other canine the opportunity to leap on him from behind.
As the men ran nearer, Auron fled, but each time he turned, one dog drew his attention as the other bit at his backside. The dogs did not fight like wolves; neither did anything more than bite him hard and then flee from his riposte—the best he managed was to get a mouthful of tail in his counterbites. He was hurt and growing tired from charge after desperate charge at the dogs.
Another horn call shook Auron from the cycle of bites, turns, and flights. One man moved to throw one of his spear, but another put a hand on his arm. Perhaps they feared killing one of the dogs. Auron couldn’t flee cross-country, so he fled upward, climbing a pine and pulling up his tail just as the smaller dog jumped at it.
Heart pounding, he cursed himself as he clung to the branches. He was treed. The dogs began barking, standing on their hind legs with front paws on the trunk of the tree, slobbering mouths wide.
“Get away, if you know what’s good for you,” Auron growled down to them in wolf speech. He rattled his griff against his crest in warning.
“Caught! Treed! Caught! Treed!” the larger barked back.
The men approached and spread themselves around the tree in a triangle, puffing from their long run. The one who tried to throw his spear earlier released it this time, but Auron shifted his body, and the weapon only took a piece out of the pine.
The man downslope laughed and taunted his frustrated fellow hunter. There was no telling what the men might do, given time. Blood trickled from his haunches and dripped onto the tree branches and baying dogs below. Auron calculated distances, shifting his head side to side as he triangulated. He sprang from the tree onto the laughing mountain man. The human was not so quick to move as he was to laugh—Auron landed full atop him before he could bring up his spear. The pair rolled down the hill.
They fetched up against a rock, Auron’s supple frame bruised, but the man’s broken. The mountain man cursed and waved his arms, but his oddly twisted torso would not move below his rib cage. The man still drew a knife from his belt, but Auron had seen that trick long ago with Father. He knocked the weapon away with his tail and tore at the man’s face. With the hunter unable to recognize anything but his own pain, Auron jumped atop the rock that had stopped their roll.
The stricken man’s movements brought the other two running. Both threw spears, but Auron slipped behind the rock and watched with only his eyes and crest showing as the missiles bounced off the shielding rock.
The hated dogs ran as close together as if they were harnessed, bloody mouths gaping and eyes alight with the hunt. Auron tensed, raised his neck, and threw his head forward, hurling fire at the oncoming dogs. They turned into tumbling balls of flame, still going downhill. The men following behind threw themselves on their faces. The liquid fire fell well short of them, but it had its desired effect: by the time they raised their heads, Auron was gone.
Without the dogs following, Auron’s escape went better. By the time the men caught sight of Auron again, he was nearing the floor of the valley. He ran into the woods and went to a fallen tree. He panted from his run as he cleaned the wounds in his haunches.
His tongue probed the wounds. I’m becoming a well-scarred drake.
The men, bent on avenging their companion, came into the woods, following his blood trail. He heard their voices and footsteps. Auron shifted himself around on the fallen tree so he faced the approaching men. His skin tingled as it shifted color again.
He watched them, hugging the tree trunk close. One of the men deliberately broke a branch and stuck it into the ground after etching something into a patch of dirt he exposed by kicking away the carpet of pine needles. He hung his fur hat from it. Some kind of pre-battle ritual? His companion stood ready and wary with spear raised over his shoulder.
Unlike the dogs, the men ventured onto the log until one caught sight of his half-closed eye. Auron scrambled through their legs, knocking both from the tree trunk. They fell on opposite sides of the log. He jumped onto the hatless man, gripping by the throat as his saa dug in to flesh. Auron was heavier and stronger now. He tore the man open. He hooked his back claws onto the screaming man’s hip bones, toes well inside the soft stomach, and with a kicking motion separated legs from torso. Both halves twitched as he scuttled off, dragging a loop of innard wrapped around his ankle as he turned toward the last man.
The other hunter jumped back on the log—spear ready to throw. He saw his eviscerated friend and let out a choking cry. Auron gathered for a leap. The hunter threw his spear. Auron ducked, and it clattered off the one armored piece of his body: his crest. The man turned and fled. The spear’s impact hurt Auron’s ears and jaw, but he jumped after the man nonetheless. He bounded to the tree trunk and leaped in pursuit of his erstwhile hunter, but the man’s fear gave him a rabbit’s speed. Auron failed to bring him down in the first dash, and the man soon outdistanced him.
He paused at the corpse and ate. He was hungry enough to finish the entire corpse, but stopped after consuming the thick leg muscles and a few choice vitals. As he nosed under the rib cage, seeking the heart, he remembered his mother’s words: Gluttony makes fat dragons, who can’t fly at their need. He left without eating another bite.
Auron wished he knew more of men. He looked at the branch stuck in the dirt, the hat, and the sign beneath, but could make nothing of the arrangement. Was this a man version of a mind-picture? It wasn’t a picture of a dragon. Nor was it an image of a face, as he had seen on Father’s coins, or even that wizard’s cursed circle. He somehow felt it was a threat, so he knocked over the stick and rubbed out the mark.
He cocked his ear in the air and decided they were coming from the ridge he had descended. Of course, his flame had left smoke—burning dogs, perhaps—for the horsemen to use as a mark when answering the horn calls. What the mountain men could read, others could. They would also follow the blood trail or, worse, use more dogs.
Auron trotted away from the slaughter at the fallen log. He had eaten too much after all, and he felt bloated. The fight—and the need to refill his fire bladder—had given him an irresistible appetite. He cut through the woods in the direction of the flat-topped mountain at the best pace he could manage. A stream wound its way through the bottom of a deep, stone-studded ravine. The rill was more waterfall than waterflow as it jumped from stone to stone. Auron drank and washed out his wounds again. He rubbed his crest against a rock, testing the armored ridge. He felt sure it was cracked, though his sii detected nothing when he probed.
He found the remains of some bird’s meal: a fish, crawling with flies and ants. He wiped his feet and rolled about in the area as best he could, imitating Blackhard, and then ascended along the edge of the stream. When his feet no longer smelled like fish, he trotted through the water. Foggy and sleepy, he resisted the impulse to crawl beneath a log and nap. He missed his friend Blackhard’s tongue-hanging smile of infectious energy. Auron felt sure that if the Dawn Roarers were along, joking and laughing, he’d be up the hill in a song.
Tired of climbing, tired of running, tired of being hunted, Auron wondered if he dared take to a tree for a nap. Probably not. Some combination of hominid woodcraft and dog nose would find him out; fifty horsemen instead of three men would then surround him. He drove himself on as the shadows lengthened, his wounds making every step a stab.
The poplars and birches growing in this soggy part of the woods, sheltered by a spur of the mountain, thinned and gave way to spruce and hemlock as he went up another slope. Through them he caught sight of the cliff side of the flat-topped mountain: scored as if some titanic dragon had flown up and down the granite face dragging its claws into the rock like a man’s plow making furrows in a field.
“Can you climb that?” he asked himself in a quiet mutter.
Must you climb it is the question, and the answer is yes—part of him that spoke with his father’s voice answered. The cliff looked too formidable for even the mountain men to manage, and from the top he could pick a route through the mountains east. The sun was falling, which was good. If he could ascend it in the dark, he would vanish from the pursuit as if lifted up by his still-dormant wings.
It couldn’t hurt to take a good look at it while the light lasted. He licked his scab-stiff, bitten flanks again as he examined the mountain. The fluting looked deeper on the side nearest him, though that would give him a farther distance to climb. But the channels would offer him more places for his sii and saa. Nevertheless, it would be like climbing the side of his parents’ cave a hundred times over. He closed one eye and kept watch with the other.
Blackhard was a long way off, howling. Considerate of him to go off so as not to disturb a good sleep.
Auron awoke with a start.
It wasn’t Blackhard’s voice; it was some strange wolf’s, and at great distance. It was too faint for him even to make out much of the call, which sounded like news of the Thing being relayed to wolves who couldn’t attend. He looked at the moon and startled: he had fallen asleep, and night had come upon the land.