Dragon Champion

Page 7


Chapter 5
The glare from the snow hurt their eyes, the wind chilled them, and the light and horizons of the Upper World made them feel and the light and horizons of the Upper World made them feel even more helpless and alone. Not even birds flew this high. A few stringy, wind-tortured pines clung to their tiny accumulations of soil among the rock several dragon-lengths below among splashes of lichen.
They might never have made it out of the cave if it hadn’t been for Auron. After a lightless, bone-tiring climb, they came to a dirty widening filled with dried odds and ends of dead things. The tunnel narrowed again before being blocked by ice and snow. Wistala began to cry and beg him to return to the egg cave; she had to know if Mother and Jizara were still there. Auron could smell the air through fissures in the ice and hear the wind moving just beyond. He lashed at the ice overhang with his tail, his fear and anger and loneliness driving each blow until bloody tailprints covered the frozen bar. Auron turned and tried to bite it, but succeeded only in tearing a layer of skin off his gumline. The bile building inside him came out in an acrid shower; it ate at the ice and made the tunnel smell like bat urine. At last he coiled and threw his body against the ice, bursting into the outer world—
And over a precipice. Auron clawed at the rocks wet with snowmelt and began to fall, when Wistala clamped her teeth on his tail. She braced all four of her legs until he found his grip. He pressed against her, squinting out the glare and resting on a shelf a fraction of the size of their familiar roost below.
When his hearts slowed again, Auron looked at his sister with new interest. She had never struck him as quick enough to act in a crisis, at least physically.
“Does your tail hurt?” Wistala said, sniffing at the blood leaking from deep tooth punctures.
“Not as much as the rest of me would have, had I fallen.”
“It’s too big.”
“What’s too big?” Auron said, bringing his tail before his eyes. Had she bitten it clean through so the tip would fall off?
“This,” she sniffed. “The Upper World. I feel like we’re nowhere.”
Distances so vast that there were no words for them marched off to the murky line where horizon met sky on the flat ground to the west. A mind-picture was one thing—but the dragon wings of clouds high, high above and the little splashes of green and brown below with the sun marking all with either her revealing light or bluish shadow made him feel like a pebble within the cavern. The sun would cast her shadow, the trees would fight to reach her, and the clouds would move above whether he and Wistala drew breath or died under a dwarf ax. How could such little things as a pair of hatchlings matter, when measured against infinity?
He pressed against his sister. She was the most important thing in his world now. The rest of the Upper World was too much to take in right now, but he could build a new world around her. Mother wanted it that way.
Auron looked at his sister, her scales shining green in the sun. She kept her head low, eyes rolling this way and that in the sunlight, the black slits in their rippled golden irises clamped almost shut against the glare.
It reminded him of a memory of Father’s. “Do you have mind-pictures?” He had never used the word before to her; he had hardly used it with his mother.
But she nodded. “Impressions of Mother’s. Or perhaps Father’s. Or other dragons from the old song? I don’t know. I feel as though I’ve been up here before, looking far down.”
“Me, too.”
“But that doesn’t mean I like it any better. Should we wait for a while and go back to the cave?”
Auron felt like biting her, but he resisted and changed the impulse to an embrace. He hooked his neck around hers. “We could do that. Suppose the dwarves are waiting for us? Or worse, climbing the chimney even now? Father said never to fight a dwarf without room to maneuver. They are strong, the strongest of the assassins. I don’t know if I can climb more. I’m already hungry. Hungriest I’ve ever been.”
“Then we should climb down the mountain while we have strength. Mother shared stories about hunting with Jizara and me. Fur and feather, she said it’s never too early to start. Tired hunters catch less or nothing—then starve.”
They craned their necks down over the precipice, sniffing and looking.
“I think I see a way,” Wistala said. “You found the way up the chimney—I’ll pick the path for a while. Follow my grips.”
Auron used his crest to push her aside. “No, if one of us falls, let it be me. I’m lighter—I’ll land softer. Besides, I have the longer neck and tail, so I can try more grips.”
He marked a gentle slope leading to a meadowed valley and made for it. They did not reach the valley by the time the sun disappeared behind the mountains, but they did find a larger shelf to rest on, with a jumble of flattened rocks that cut the wind. They were near the tree line. Auron hated trees at first sight. They reminded him of spears. So different from the comforting glow and the moist smell of soft cave moss.
“The runoff is freezing again. We should stop,” Wistala said, panting.
“I’d like to see those squatty dwarves climb down that,” Auron said, making a mental picture of the overhang below the precipice he had almost gone over. Wistala nodded. The thought of a few dwarves plummeting down the rocks warmed them.
Auron spread his aching limbs on the shelf. His body trembled with exhaustion. Wistala lay down beside him, hugging her scaleless belly to him.
He finally gave voice to his great hurt. “Is Mother—?”
“Don’t speak of her, or I’ll cry and cry, and I’m feeling bad enough as it is. Why did the assassins have to come to our cave?”
“The world grows harder for dragons every day,” Auron said, quoting something he overread Father thinking to Mother.
“I don’t think we’re strong enough yet, Auron,” Wistala said in her smallest voice. “Not to be out here alone.”
“We’re not alone. We have each other. We have Father.”
“Father? Scale and tail, what does he know about watching over hatchlings?”
Auron’s eyelids narrowed. Father was great beyond his sister’s singsong little imagination.
Auron stifled the impulse to lower the battle fans from his crest. “You shouldn’t—Oh, I don’t want to quarrel.”
“We must tell him about the dwarves,” Wistala said. “He’ll get angry and roast ’em. But where is he?”
“I can’t say. I think the gap he used was to the west; he would always go out early, so the sun would be shining on the land outside the cave but not in it.”
“Then we’ve climbed down in the wrong direction. We’ve come a little north, haven’t we?”
Auron’s sense of direction was sharper than his sister’s. “No, we’ve gone almost straight east. The stars will show us. We’ll see them all in this cold air. We’re finally going to see stars, Wistala.”
“I’d rather never see stars and sleep tonight between Jizara and M—”
“I know.” Auron said, gently clasping her snout shut with lip-covered teeth.
The stars were cold and remote, and the moon hung in the sky like the shining edge on a dwarf-ax. Auron had no heart for them, after using them as Father had taught him to find north. All he had to do was follow the nose of the Bowing Dragon. He paid homage to Susiron, the center star, the one thing in all of the Creation that never changed.
Once you’ve fixed on your star, you’ll know where you are for the rest of your life, he remembered Father saying in one of his oracular moods. But had he been talking of Susiron? There was still so much Father hadn’t taught him. Like what to say to a scared hatchling to comfort her, when his own gut was a cold shell of fear.
Or how to find and kill dwarves!
Something hot started in his chest, just where his long muscles could squeeze it.
They woke with sinews knotted: limbs, necks, and tails equally wound up. A light dusting of snow had come just before dawn.
Auron startled. “What?”
Wistala touched the tip of her nose to his in relief. “You’re all white. I thought you had bled to death. I’ve never seen you anything but gray, or green when you sit on Mother.”
“I didn’t know I was doing it.”
Wistala looked back up at the shelf they had descended from yesterday. “Did Mother put a dream in your head?” Wistala asked.
“Then she’s dead.”
“We don’t know that. Maybe she needs us nearby to tell us dreams.” Auron still felt tired, doubly so with this cold ache slowing his movements. Without Mother feeding him stories as he slept, he passed the night lightly, waking at creaks from the crooked pines.
“Look, Auron,” Wistala whispered. “In the rocks. Hungry?”
Nimble animals moved along the edges of the heights above the tree line, pawing away snow and pulling up fodder from tiny reservoirs of soil between the rocks. They had horns and odd, tufted little tails that flicked this way and that in a lively fashion. Auron sniffed the air: the animals were upwind. The scent made his mouth water.