My mother used to say, if she ever saw me looking down or whenever she became disheartened at life, that I would be famous one day.
“You’ll go far,” she would say, “You’re clever and handsome and kind.” I believed her. We were just tenant farmers, and the thought of being rich and famous beguiled. And I was young.
Instead, I was sold into slavery for my father’s debts. He was a gambler, you see. Debt-indenture they call it. But it was slavery. Of course, they will tell you that slavery is illegal in our empire, but then so is red crystal and dakh, and everybody uses dakh, though maybe not that many use red crystal. That’s for the truly desperate. You don’t live long with that.
I ended up working for one of the Houses down near the harbour. You could see right across the caldera to the Dark Isle. On a good day, the view from my room across the water to the far wall of the crater was magnificent. At sunset the cliffs were deep steely grey against the scarlet and crocus wash of the western sky. One learns to get pleasure from such things when there is little else.
The period from late afternoon through early evening is a quiet time at these places. It was my favourite time of the day, in truth. The midmeal rush is over. The visitors who need the anonymity of darkness haven’t started to arrive yet. I could think about the past. Sometimes, though, it hurt too much to do that. On that particular day, I was bored. I went down into the mauve dusk, the sky thick with swallows readying for their autumn migration to the north, the air rich with the familiar smells of the city: meat cooking, shit, spices, bodies, the sea, dakh, coffee, late summer dust and dryness.
He was swaying underneath one of the new oil lights in its brass holder, the moths a dusty cloud above his head. His bravo was standing near him, bored but with the alert watchfulness of a guard.
I don’t know what drew me to him. He brought the glory and dread of my dreams to mind even then, dreams which had tormented and elated me in equal measure since I was a child. He was tall and lean, though his shoulders and back were broad. His hair was raven-dark, apart from some distinguished silver at the temples. His skin was pale and barely lined. His eyes were black, dark as a night when the two moons are in mourning. That was why I didn’t at first see the truth about him.
He was very drunk and on something else as well, dakh probably, judging by the faint stink which clung to him.
Our eyes met. Some realisation must have permeated the drug and the alcohol, for his eyes cleared, and his hand reached out and grabbed mine.
“Wha’? Your… Who are you?”
He lifted my chin with a strong finger which trembled only a little and stared at my eyes. Some have said they are beautiful, a soft light blue-green, contrasting with my bronze skin. But their inverted-triangle pupils show that I am not like others. I expected him to make the sign against evil.
His breath was sour with wine but I let him go on touching me. He might end up a client. Sometimes they tipped me. Then I could buy my own drugs, which helped me forget what I was, where I was, and why. I didn’t always dream. At those times, may the Goddess forgive me, I confess I needed the numbness and forgetfulness that dakh brings.
“Which House do you serve?” he asked, his eyes on mine.
I shrugged, then pointed across the square at the crimson door with the elegant, perfectly polished brass lamps gracing each side.
“Come,” he said, patently used to commanding, marching off in its direction, still holding tightly to my shoulder.
He was so firm and resolute that for a moment I forgot that he had had far too much to drink, that he was stoned on dakh, that he wasn’t my friend. He led me across to the door, which was standing open, and its two bravos in a scarlet, gold, and black costume, supposedly from some far-off exotic region. The owner believed they gave his House a cachet and mystique. All the same, they could fight, and sometimes they had to.
My lord went over to the desk.
Jathor sized him up and began to lead us to the more expensive rooms. “This way.”
“No,” said my lord, shaking his head. “I wish to buy this man’s debt. How much?” His voice was slurred with drink and dakh.
Jathor’s eyes flicked towards me as he opened the ledger and named the amount, his eyebrows rising a little. He was fond of me and I of him. He was my only real friend. He used to comfort me whenever one of the more brutal patrons beat me up or insulted and abused me. I did the same for him.
“Show me the ledger,” said my lord.
Without a word, Jathor flipped the book around and pushed it over the counter. My lord flicked through the figures and then snapped the book shut.
“You do know that the rate of interest you are charging is far higher than the law allows?”
It always was. Who was in a position to complain? Jathor looked at him steadily, then raised his exquisite eyebrows again. He shrugged. He too was debt-bonded. My lord stared back at him, his face hard, and contempt—or perhaps horror—in his eyes, then without a word, opened the bulging purse attached to the belt at his waist. I expected coins, but he wrote the House a draft drawn on his banker, sealing it with his nobleman’s signet ring. I could see Jathor’s internal debate about whether to accept the draft and his reluctant acceptance that my lord was clearly too eccentric not to be very rich. We had some such clients.
“I should let the owner know,” said Jathor.
“Why?” asked my lord.
“He… owns… the debt.”
“It is cleared now,” said my lord drily.
Technically, my lord had paid off my debt, not bought me. But he left with the ledger page and its signed and stamped receipt tucked into his bag.
I asked my new master if I could fetch my possessions from my room. He opened his hand in assent. As I went up the grand stairway, I could feel his eyes on me. I kissed Jathor farewell in the lobby, not caring that my new master saw us, and went with my lord and his bravo into the night. I confess I found it hard to see my way; my tears blinded me. How stupid we are, we humans. I had dreamt so often of leaving the House, and now that it was actually happening I was filled with regret and fear.
“My name is Byon ys Jorac,” my lord said while we settled into our room in the inn—he obviously did not maintain a house in the capital. “How are you called?” He asked politely, as if we were in a drawing room, sipping hot chocolate out of tiny elegant cups and nibbling small triangular ajwain-flavoured cheese biscuits in a well-bred way, presented by well-bred, haughty servants, and I wasn’t his bought whore.
“The name I was given was Thador, my lord,” I replied, thinking of my mother and sisters as I said it. “Thad” or “Thads” they’d called me. But all that was gone. I did not give my patronymic. I was a slave, after all.
“This is Vesbor ys Steppan, Thador,” he said, indicating his bravo, who nodded laconically.
I expected my service to begin immediately, but we were shown into a room with three beds. My lord gave me a bed of my own. A real bed, with a mattress of tightly packed straw, under a second layer of soft down. The sheets were thick soft linen, and clean too. Even Vesbor had a proper bed, not just a straw pallet next to the door. It cast a new light on my lord and on Vesbor’s loyalty. Perhaps, I thought hopefully, he will be kind.
During the night, despite Vesbor’s stertorous snores, I dreamed again, and woke panting with terror and ecstasy, the rapturous joy of flight still with me. My journeys to the otherworld always seemed truer than what happened when I was awake.
It took us a day to reach my new home. Lord Byon, after a laconic debate with Vesbor, sent him off to buy a horse for me to ride. He returned with a tough-looking but sweet-tempered gelding. Neither asked if I could ride, but I’d been a farm boy once. As we rode up into the mountainous escarpment edge of Elfhame, we left the capital—and civilisation—further and further behind, and all around us rose majestic mountains of purple and indigo and grey, crowned with forests of falc, pine, zhuca and oak. On the north-facing slopes, which caught the sun, the little ledges of grass were dotted with the tiny pink stars of autumn-flowering gladores. Even though the scenery was magnificent, I knew I would miss the view across the caldera, the liveliness of the city, Jathor, even my job. At least there I met people. And our master did not permit them to damage us. Much. We were after all his property.
I noticed that Lord Byon and Vesbor rode with their swords close to hand, alert for danger. It was obvious that my lord had a headache from the way his forehead creased and the occasional straying of one hand to his brow. I knew exactly what he was feeling, from my own experiences. Yet he had taken nothing to alleviate it, which emphasised just how dangerous these wild lands were. This was brigand territory, and from time to time, marauding bands would come out of the borderlands between Elfhame and Cappor to attack. I’d heard the stories; now the threat was real.
They didn’t give me a sword. I was just a pretty thing whose only worth was to entertain. They no doubt assumed I would not know how to use one anyway. I did not bother disabusing them.
My lord’s home was a keep made of grey stone, parts of it cut into the mountain, designed with defence in mind, with a wide terrace in front and a steep fall on three sides to sharp rocks far below. There was a small village with possibly a couple of hundred inhabitants nestling in the stronghold’s protective shadow. But I noticed with concern that many of the houses were tumble-down and deserted. We were let in through a sturdy gate made of thick oak beams bound together with iron bars and flanges, into a courtyard big enough to provide temporary shelter to fifty families.
A yawning ostler came to take our horses. The welcome from the servants appeared slapdash and disrespectful. This was not how I would have run my household. Then, without a word from either, Lord Byon and Vesbor left me to my own devices, disappearing in opposite directions. Despair in my heart, I stood alone for a while on the cobbles. At last I took my bundle and started exploring. The castle was mostly empty, and it was in ill repair. Even the rooms which were used were dusty and filthy. I had no idea why Lord Byon had bought me, but obviously I was to be of service of some kind—the usual, I assumed, so I set off to find where he was.
It was easy. I followed the smell of the dakh, acrid and rich and intoxicating. It made my mouth water. I found an empty room near to his which still had most of the panes of glass in its windows. It was on the north wall of the keep and would be warm with sunlight on those icy winter days when the sun shone but the wind came straight off the great southern ice fields.
I went in search of wood for the fireplace. It was still just early autumn, but the nights were already cold, up there in the mountains. I found a woodpile in one corner of the courtyard and an axe nearby. I might be a fancy-boy now, but I had been brought up on a farm. I took the chopped and split wood up to my room, my back and shoulders aching with the unaccustomed exercise. I found an old linen press with some worn blankets in it and made myself a nest in the corner of my room with some straw I begged from the ostler. In one of the west-facing wings I finally located the kitchen, presided over by an elderly cook, who sniffed disdainfully when I explained who I was but gave me some bread and stew. On the road, we’d eaten just some dry bread and apricots. I was starving.
Why had he bought me? I wondered, watching my lord in a stupor on his sofa, his eyes half closed with the ecstasy of the drug, apparently unaware that I was present. The room was filthy and uncared for. Resigned, I began to tidy and clean it. The ashes in the fireplace were weeks old. I swept them up and took them to the kitchen yard to put in the pile used to make soap and fertiliser for the kitchen gardens.
That night, I stood at the head of the bed, ready. When he came in, he looked careworn and sad, a stoop in his shoulders that I’d not noticed before. He sat down on the end of the bed and sighed as he began to pull off his boots.
I came forward. “Permit me, sir,” I said, kneeling at his feet to take them off for him.
“What are you doing here?” he asked sharply.
I think part of his anger came from his surprise. I had been standing so quietly in the shadows that he had had no inkling I was there. His mind was fuddled from drink and dakh.
“I’m to serve you, sir,” I said, my heart beating faster, looking up at him. Both of us knew I was talking about more than removing tight-fitting boots.
“Go away!” he said roughly. Without a word, I rose, bowed and left the room. I could feel the blood in my cheeks, anger and hurt in my heart.
Since it seemed I could not be useful any other way, I became Lord Byon’s personal servant; more: his major-domo. I organised his meals, and coaxed him to eat. It was I who ensured that my lord changed his undershorts and his socks and that his clothes were cleaned. I kept the fire going, chopping the wood for it. I cleaned and swept the rooms, ordered new glass panels for the windows, made sure there was soap and that the linen was clean. I persuaded him to bathe more often than he had obviously become accustomed to. There is an honour in all work, I told myself.
Sometimes he was in such a stupor I had to bathe him myself. Then I could see from his eyes that he desired me, but he never touched me in that way. I was surprised. Dakh usually enhances desire and reduces self-restraint. I wondered also that he let me touch him, after his emphatic rejection on that first night.
He seemed to want me with him often, calling for me if he couldn’t see me, but then when I was with him he would seldom speak more than a few words, occasionally even forgetting I was in the room. When he forgot me, his face became sad and withdrawn, his thoughts far away. Then he would take a draw on the pipe, his eyes would narrow to slits, and his face would relax into indifference. Now and then I would sing softly to him, songs my mother had taught me. The castle cat befriended me and often slept with me, but although the trio of terriers accepted me, they remained loyal to their master—their noses sharp and inquisitive, their gait sprightly when he appeared.
My dreams came every night now. I would be in the air above the keep, and I would see the brigands in the hills, renegade Elvish raiders, outlaws from their own people (who are mostly noble and wise), forced out of their society because of their crimes, desperate to survive in the wildlands. Then my wings, bronze scales gleaming with the sunlight, would give one mighty beat, and I would dive upon them with a roar of rage, angry that anyone should endanger my people. Always I awoke, panting, in my own pile of straw, no more one of those mighty and noble beasts than a mouse, but longing for the feel of air under my wings.
One night I dreamt that the castle was under attack. There weren’t enough defenders to withstand them. I knew in my dream that the keep had to be held. Without it, the pass through to Elfhame would be lost. Without it, the people who depended on my lord for protection would be even more exposed to these bandits. I knew all this with the clarity one sometimes gets in the dreamworld, the otherworld. In my dream, I was again a mighty dragon, no fancy-boy useful only for pleasure, but a warrior, brave and fearsome. For the first time I could feel someone with me. I turned my head—which in the way of dreams, even though it by itself was the size of a whole horse, seemed perfectly normal—and saw next to me in the crystal night sky of the otherworld a magnificent dragon, even bigger than I was, his blue black-streaked scales shimmering in the Elvish beauty of the starlight, his eyes obsidian. He was beautiful, brave, strong, splendid.
I could feel him in my mind. Together, beloved.
With a trumpet-call of rage, he swept down upon the bandits coming along the path from the mountains. I followed him, rejoicing in our power, mad with bloodlust, my claws and jaw aching to crush bodies and rend flesh.
Then I awoke. I could hear shouts and screams. I knew we were in truth under attack. I ran through to my lord’s bedroom, dragging on my clothes as I went.
“My lord, my lord, we are being attacked!” I shook him awake. His eyes were bleary and unfocused. He had had three pipes and a skin of wine the night before. He looked at me, uncaring, and drifted back to sleep. In despair and rage, I threw the jug of water from the dresser in his face, seized his broadsword from his scabbard next to the bed, and ran to the courtyard.
The bandits had smashed some of the timbers in the main gate with a battering ram. This wasn’t just a quick raid, an in and out to steal cattle or chickens. They meant to take control of the fortress. Vesbor and the pitiful handful of remaining retainers were fighting hard to keep them contained. Half of the bandits were still outside the gate, but it was clear that it would not be long before the hole was enlarged and the rest poured through.
I did the best I could. I fought. Hack, parry, thrust, cut, retreat, ever retreat. I killed some of the rebel elves but nowhere near enough. There were just too many of them.
We were losing.
We needed a dragon. I remembered all at once my dream, the shining blue splendour.
I closed my eyes. I tried to summon him, sending my urgent thoughts. Who knew where he lived, this great and brave creature, this thing of magic and power? But maybe he would hear my prayer and come and help us.
Of course, nothing happened. Dragons are just tales told by old nurses to dazzle children into quietness, I thought bitterly. My dreams were just the wishes of a worthless nobody. There was no magnificent blue-black leviathan who loved me and would take me with him to his lair, where we might be dragonlords together, defending the weak and the downtrodden from every kind of wolf. I was a mere human. A slave. A fancy-boy. A nobody.
You slimegriming worthless dog dropping, my lord Byon, I thought, furious that I was going to die pointlessly, wastefully, that he had allowed the defences of the castle to decay, that he had driven the villagers and the retainers to leave, that he hadn’t even tried to make a truce with the brigands. If he had been stronger, they would have bowed to his authority. There would have been peace all through this part of the borderlands.
I danced that deadly dance, so terrible, so oddly beautiful, my lord’s blade flashing in and out. There was a pleasure in it, a kind of lust. And to do it elegantly and efficiently… My father had taught me well. Vesbor gave me a quick grim smile of acknowledgement, for the first time accepting me as an equal, the two of us side by side, ready to die.
It was your responsibility, my useless lord, I shouted at him in my mind, my anger giving me strength to keep fighting. Yet I felt weariness growing in me, slowing me and making the wounds I had already taken ache.
When I felt the sword slide into me, it didn’t even hurt, not then. It was a kind of relief. I could give up now. I would go to the Havens, where I would see my father and tell him I loved him, which I had been too contemptuous and angry to do when it might have made a difference. I sank to the ground, blackness swirling round me. I thought I heard the bellow of a mighty beast as he gave tongue to his anger, and the terrible crack and swish of his wings and his tail as he attacked. I thought I could feel his mind near mine, his fury and the piercing grief of his call to me. Then the void took me, and I knew no more.
I was dreaming again. I was flying far out to sea, towards the west, where lie the Havens. I was alone. Far away I could feel a distant pain, but here I was happy and warm and loved. I was going home to the Great Spirit Mother who loves all Her creatures.
“Thador.” A voice spoke to me. I ignored it. I had no need of voices any longer. Soon I would be received into the Light. Already I could feel the gentle folds of the Goddess around me.
“Thador!” It was my lord. He was speaking to me, mind to mind. I turned my head, and there next to me was the indigo-blue dragon that had fought off the outlaws in my dreams, beautiful and magnificent, a great warrior, glittering and resplendent in his natural armour. I was so far into the otherworld that I was not surprised that the glimmering blue warrior-dragon of my dreams and my drug-sozzled master were the same.
“Go away.” It was what he had said to me. He had rejected me. I did not need him.
“No!” He spoke gruffly, firmly. And he seized me in his great claws and dragged me down from that far place, and as he did, I felt the pain slice into me. I screamed and struggled.
“Let me go back” I cried, angry at him. “It hurts.”
Ignoring my pleas, he brought me lower and lower. We were as big as a quarter of the keep, yet somehow we fitted in through the window, in the way of dreams, and I found myself in my master’s bed.
My lord was bending over me.
“Drink this, Thador,” he said, holding me up. His face was clear—no trace of the drug or of brandy, and there was a terrible strength and fierceness and fear in his eyes. The drink stung and numbed my mouth, but it made me feel better.
“You saved the keep,” I mumbled.
“You saved it,” he replied.
I took his hand in mine and drifted back to sleep. I did not dream at all.
A few days later, I was well enough to get out of bed and sit before the fire. The evenings were drawing in, and frost silvered the grass and the cobbles in the keep every night now. My lord was staring into the flames, his hand absently caressing the cat and the dreaming terriers. I noticed that the wood stack next to the fire was new, that the windowpanes were clear, that sweet-smelling rushes had been spread across the floor.
“Thador, I must tell you something.” His words crashed into the silence like glass breaking.
“What?” I asked, troubled.
He hesitated, then took a deep breath and fixed his gaze upon me. “You are a dragon,” he said.
He looked away, then turned to face me once more, the lines on his face deeper than I remembered. “I should have told you long ago. I’m sorry.”
A log subsided with a sigh and showered the floor with sparks. One landed on my foot, but I was too shocked to move. I felt the sharp pain as it burnt my skin. There was a tense silence; then he continued.
“I left it until it was too late for you to protect yourself—and you were almost killed because of that.” He shrugged, looked away, unable to meet my eyes. “We are changelings, you and I, shape-shifters, at once dragons and men. That’s what our eyes signify. I should have taught you how to change. It would have …”
I couldn’t speak I was so stunned. I just stared back at him, my mouth agape. I felt faint and dizzy.
He turned back to look at me. I could see the resolve it took. The narrow inverted triangle slits in his pupils were obvious now that I knew they were there. I could just make them out in the dark jewels of his eyes. It explained so much.
“I didn’t know,” I said. “I was the only one I had ever seen with eyes like that.”
“Our blood runs in many people. If it’s in both your mother and your father, it can come out in you. We were created by the Guardians eons ago, by magic, at the same time They made elves and wizards.”
He paused again. I waited in silence, my heart beating fast.
“You saved me, you know. When you called me, mind to mind to the battle, when you were so angry with me, you woke me from my stupor. You showed me my duty.”
He began to speak again, haltingly, pain and grief roughening his voice. He moved his hand from my hair and stood abruptly.
“My brother, Gilthion, was captured in a raid.”
He stopped, summoning the courage to continue. I could tell from the way he said his brother’s name how much he had loved him.
“They tortured and killed him. I found him—too late.” He stopped again.
“You don’t need to tell me, my lord.”
“Yes. I must. You of all people have the right to know. After he died, well, drink and dakh took away the pain. I forgot my duty to my people. Me, a dragon and a lord of Cappor! How could I have done that? The Goddess would have justly punished me for my selfishness and thoughtlessness.”
His anger at himself made mine seem like the harmless hissing of a kitten.
“The brigands and the outlaw Elves grew bolder. Of course. At the end, they had all left—the villagers, the servants. Only Vesbor and a few others stayed.”
Again he stopped. He sighed.
“When I saw you that night, I knew. Even though you evidently didn’t. I couldn’t allow you to go on living as you were.” He was silent for a while. “You were so beautiful in the dusk, your eyes like pieces of a summer evening sky. So I freed you. I don’t know which was the stronger impulse—to save another of my race or to bring such beauty home with me.” He sighed. “Wise fool. I did not want to give up my addictions. Coming back here brought back memories. I could not bring myself to tell you the truth about… either of us. About what I felt. I was afraid you would despise me for my folly. I was afraid once you knew what you were, you would leave.”
“But… I’m debt-bonded. I couldn’t have gone even had I wanted to.”
He stared at me. “No, you were free, from that first day. I destroyed the page from the ledger. Free to go… then… and now.”
I thought about this for a while. I would not have left him anyway. Did he know that?
He went on, his pale skin colouring. “I was too afraid to… You were so beautiful, and I was so worn and old. I wanted it to be your choice. I wasn’t going to force myself on you. That would have been disgusting. Wrong.”
“Old?” I hadn’t thought of him as old. I stared into his strong, lovely face, at the silver at his forehead and the lines incised into his skin. I smiled, all at once shyer than I had ever been with any customer. Then I took his hand in mine and leaned forward into his embrace.
His hands were gentle for a warrior, their touch sensitive and caring. His kiss was warm and tender. His loving bashful but intense.
After, he asked quietly, “Will you stay, love?”
“Oh, yes,” I breathed. “Yes.”
With a single flap of their colossal wings, the two dragons, one indigo and black with obsidian eyes, the other bronze with pale lapis lazuli, lift off the broad terrace. They experience once again the exquisite unity between body and mind that flying brings them. It is dawn, and thin high clouds streak the madder and crimson of the sky above the deep metal grey of the mountains.
They exult in flight. The forceful sweep of their gigantic wings. The feeling of the air parting and flowing over their heads and bodies. Every part moving in a graceful, superb harmony. Aerial dancers and athletes, mind and body in accord.
They can feel the rest of their people, their pack, far off in the elf territories, their minds a distant soft mesh of thoughts and feelings, neither intrusive nor distracting but comforting and right.
Proud defenders of the weak and downtrodden.