Dragon Champion

Page 8


“Hoof-feet. I think those are goats. After them, Wistala!”
Auron slithered between the rocks, moving to the food as fast as he could. A long-horned goat blatted an alarm, and their white fur flashed as they bounced from stone to stone, heading for the trees. Auron reached the ground where they had been feeding, but not even echoes of their flight reached him.
Wistala joined him at the tree line, her scales bristling. “Scents and vents! You’re hopeless.”
The goat smell all around only made Auron all the hungrier. He lashed his tail petulantly. “What should I have done? We need food.”
“Young drakes! Twice the muscle and half the sense of drakka. We were downwind. They would have fed their way right to us, perhaps. You’re not fit to hunt anything but slugs.”
“Am too.”
“Then where’s your kill?”
“I didn’t know they could run so fast,” Auron said after a moment’s thought.
“Thank the Spirits for rats and bats that die and fall to the cavern floor, then.”
“If I could fly, I’d find us food. Dead beasts, beached whales, carcasses bears have buried till they’re tender. I’d drive wolves away from their kills. Or best of all, a battlefield feast. That’s what Father ate before he flew off with Mother.”
“I can hardly stop my mouth watering,” Wistala said, clamping her nostrils shut. “If cold and covered with flies is your taste, so be it. I’m going to find us something fresh and warm. Rest somewhere out of the wind, and wait here.”
She moved off down the slope, and Auron curled up among the roots of a pine, where he watched his scales change color as the sun climbed up the sky and moved the shadows on his back.
Wistala returned, dismayed. “I almost got some big-footed eary hopper. Only a couple mouthfuls if I had, but anything sounds good now.”
“Almost” won’t fill our bellies, Auron was about to say, but thought better of it. His sister looked to be close to tears as it was. “A mountain hare?” he asked.
“Perhaps. It jumped at the last moment and ran like an arrow. An arrow that zigzags. It turned quick as thinking. We need to eat. What are we going to do?”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll get one another time. Let’s try to find the western entrance. We’ll be able to smell where he goes, if nothing else.”
“There was a herd of deer in a gully, but they have ears like dragons. I think they even smelled me downwind. Every time I crept up, they began to move away. I’m sure they can outrun me. I found a perch, but they never fed near enough to it, and now it’s getting dark.”
“Show me this gully,” Auron said.
They moved into thicker stands of timber, interspersed with marsh meadow. Snow still hid in shaded areas under timber, but yellow and blue wildflowers sprouted bright in the sunny spots.
The gully coursed down the mountainside, deepening as it descended. Half-exposed mossy rocks stood out from its sides, like the bumps in Father’s pebbled underbelly.
“Softly now, Auron,” Wistala said with her mind. He followed as she crept from rock to rock on the side of the gully.
“There.” It took Auron a moment to know what she was talking about. A wide-antlered deer stood atop the gully, staring straight at them. Auron twitched, but Wistala put her tail across his neck.
“They can run longer and faster than us. One leap—that’s all you get with deer,” Wistala echoed Mother’s words to him. Her mind felt so like Mother’s; it made his hearts hurt.
She continued. “If I come any closer, he walks away, always watching me. I don’t dare walk directly at him, but even at an angle he moves all of them downhill. We can’t see the herd now, because they’re around the bend he’s standing on.”
“Wistala, can you find your way lower down the gully? Back out and go around. In a big loop?”
“I suppose.”
“You’re good at finding a perch. Get to one over the gully, and I’ll bring them to you.”
“You mean like . . . like,” she thought, forming a mental picture of a shepherd moving his flock when the word escaped her.
“Like I’m herding them. Exactly.”
She looked around. “Give me until when the sun rests on that dead tree branch. Drive them then. Can you hold down your hunger until then?”
“I’ll do my best.”
She brushed him with her nose. “It’ll have to do. Remember, don’t go right to him or he’ll run. Angles, angles.”
“Get going—I’m trembling already.”
He stayed in her mind until she was out of range, getting the feeling for how she moved among the trees, taking advantage of every deadfall and stump. Why hadn’t Mother taught him to move like that?
He waited, watching the sun. The stag had plans of his own, and vanished below the ridgeline. Auron tried to get the sun’s angle right and crept down the gully, turning color at every pause. He crept under a boulder’s shadow, turning half-white to match the snow beneath, and caught sight of the stag. It had crossed over to the other rim of the gully, in the direction Wistala had gone. He glimpsed the herd now and again. The deer seemed to vanish against the trees when not moving.
He hoped they wouldn’t wander down the gully of their own accord before Wistala was ready. But the herd left the shelter and came to a meadow where rich new grass already stood thick on the ground. Auron peeped an eye up over the edge of the gully and watched. The canny stag, after a long look at the meadow, moved to put himself downwind of his females and offspring again.
Auron got a flash of a mental picture. Faint, it faded in an instant, but he had the impression of Wistala being above the gully.
He ventured out into the meadow, not moving toward the herd but creeping along the tree line, feet plunging into the frigid water of a mountain marsh. Deer heads came up, ears twitching, and as one the herd returned to the gully. Auron angled back for the place he had last seen the stag. He heard the deer moving down the gully. If he could just keep—
The stag exploded from almost beneath his feet, bounding down the slope as if he were made of lighting. The other deer leaped away, fawns already able to keep up with their mothers even in flight, white tails flashing in a confusing mix of directions. Auron had no choice but to run in pursuit.
He scuttled forward in a dragon dash. In open ground, he might have had the stag, but the trees made his sprint a clumsy one. He ran along as best he could after the first burst, but the sounds of the deer faded into the woods. Wistala would be heartbroken, they would go hungry for another day—and it was his fault.
“Auuuuu-ron!” he heard a high, trilling call of his young sister. “Blood and mud, I’ve killed!”
New vigor in his limbs at the thought of blood-warm food, Auron located on the sound. Wistala was already dragging the carcass up a grandfather of pines, the still-twitching body of a yearling buck fully her own size in her jaws. Auron looked at the kicked-up ground where she had pounced from the hundred-limbed tree.
“What are you carrying it up there for?”
“You want to fight wolves for your dinner?”
Auron’s stood up tall on his legs, his lips pulling back to reveal the full length of his hatchling teeth. “I’d like to see them try, hungry as I am.”
“Then get up here and join me.”
He coiled and sprang up to her place on the bloody trunk in a single leap. She hung the kill in the crotch of a tree. Together, they ate.
Chapter 6
I feel like we’re going back up the mountain,” Wistala said the next day.
The mountains marched north to the horizon, but to the south the ground was lower, a gap in the mountains’ teethlike wall. They had been traveling since dawn, watching out for each other by taking turns. While Wistala rested, Auron would move through the pine woods until he was about to lose sight of her. Then he would jump up a tree and keep watch while she caught up and then went ahead until she could hardly make him out.
“We need to cross over to the west. This is the easiest way.”
Wistala snorted. “Easiest? I’d hate to try the hardest. I don’t want to leave the trees, Auron. We’ll still need to hunt.”
Auron aligned her head with his, pointing to a bare ridge with their noses. “When we get to that spot, we’ll be able to see west.”
“You know this how?”
“Mind-pictures from Father.”
“Father hardly gave us any. Oh, I wish we had our wings.”
“Wishing won’t get us up the hill.”
“I never said any such thing—Wait, Auron, there’s something ahead.”
Auron heard it, too. They hugged tree trunks, pressing their bodies flat to the scabby-barked boles. Auron put himself toward the sound of pine needles being crunched underfoot, with Wistala on the other side of the trunk. He turned a deep brown and kept one eye open. His sister touched his tail with the tip of hers.
A flat-faced mountain of muscle and fur appeared, moving on all fours. It picked up a hint of their scent and stopped, turning its colossal head to and fro with its short snout in the air.