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THE LAST DRAGONLORD
The dragon gleamed in the light of the setting sun, his scales glittering as he soared toward the castle that crowned the mountaintop. His gaze shifted to a wide, flat area ending in a cliff, wreathed in shadows cast by the dying light. A slight tilt of the powerful wings and the red dragon turned, silent, beautiful, deadly, intent on his goal.
He landed, claws scraping against stone, the sound harsh in the crystalline air. A red mist surrounded him and the great dragon became a wraith; the mist contracted, then disappeared, leaving behind the figure of a tall man.
Linden brushed a strand of hair from his eyes, his blood singing from his long flight and the magic of Changing. He crossed the shadow-dappled landing area. As he reached the first step of the long stairway that led to the castle of Dragonskeep, a voice, old but still clear and strong, rang out.
Linden paused and looked up. On the stairs high above him stood an elderly kir, his silvered fur catching the last of the sunlight, no expression on his short-muzzled face.
Sirl, personal servant to the Lady who ruled Dragonskeep and the Dragonlords, regarded him in return. "The Lady has need of you," the kir said.
Why? Linden wondered as he raised a hand in acknowledgment and bounded up the stairs, his long legs taking the steps three at a time. It had been long since he'd had such a summons.
When Linden reached the step where Sirl waited, the kir bowed to him. "If you will follow me, Dragonlord," he said. Then he turned and led the wondering Linden to the Keep.
No words were exchanged as they walked through thewhite marble halls of Dragonskeep. Globes of coldfire, set to hovering in the air by various Dragonlords, lit the way. At last they came to the tower rooms set aside for the ruler of the Keep. Sirl opened the door and bowed Linden inside. Linden entered the chamber; Sirl followed close behind, shutting the door once more.
Globes of white coldfire lit this room as well, setting aflame the gold threads running through the tapestries that covered the five walls. Dragons soaring against blue skies, sunsets, a river of stars, or among mountain crags covered four of them. The fifth, incongruously, was of a hunting scene: a stag, a pack of baying hounds, three huntsmen, all forever frozen as they raced through the forest. A reminder, perhaps, of the Lady's life before she Changed? Linden doubted he would ever know. They were the only decoration in the room, which was sparsely furnished. What few items of furniture there were looked lost in the emptiness.
The Lady sat in a high-backed wooden chair. Her long fingers cradled a cup of tea as though seeking its warmth. She looked unreal in the cold light. Even the pale albino's eyes that watched him seemed colorless. She beckoned.
As he crossed the room, he studied her. She had been very young, he knew--only fifteen--when she'd Changed for the first time. Their kind aged slowly; how many centuries had the Lady seen to give her face that delicate tracery of wrinkles? After more than six centuries, he himself still looked only twenty-eight.
Without thinking, Linden touched the wine-colored birthmark that spread across his right temple and eyelid. It was his Marking, as the Lady's icy paleness was hers. He'd hated it until he'd discovered what it meant: that he was one of the great weredragons, the lords and servants of humankind. A Dragonlord.
Linden knelt before the Lady. Setting his hands on his thighs, he bowed till his forehead almost touched the floor--the salute of a Yerrin clansman to his lord. "Lady?" he said.
The Lady studied him for a long moment. Then she said, "Yes, I was right. You will be the third."
Linden frowned slightly as he accepted a cup of tea from Sirl. And what does she mean by--
Memory returned and with it came understanding. Lleld, smallest of the Dragonlords, had been late to breakfast that morning, bubbling over with news and speculation--more of the latter than the former. Linden thanked the gods he hadn't taken her up on the wager she'd demanded when he'd laughed at her notions. Sometimes Lleld's wild predictions had a way of becoming real, and he'd no wish to lose that particular cloak brooch.
The Lady's long, pale fingers tapped against the cup. "You have never sat in judgment, have you, Linden? Then perhaps it is time, little one--" She stopped at his chuckle. "Impudent scamp, you know very well what I mean!" she scolded with an affectionate smile.
Linden hid a grin as he drank. Over six and a half feet tall in his stocking feet, he towered over everyone else at Dragonskeep. The Lady herself barely came up to his chest. But with only a little more than six centuries behind him he was the youngest Dragonlord, the "little one."
And, to his great grief, likely the last.
"You've heard by now that a messenger from Cassori arrived early this morning, yes?" she said.
Linden nodded. "Lleld said something about it at breakfast; she'd heard it from the servants. Is it about the regency? I'd thought that was already settled some time ago and the queen's drowning proven to be an accident. Wasn't there an investigation?"
"There was; it found no cause for suspicion. And now that the period of mourning is over, we had all thought Duke Beren was to be confirmed as regent. But then came this challenge, the messenger said. The Cassorin council is divided; they cannot settle the matter and many of the barons are becoming restless. Luckily the messenger came before the Saethe and I left to confer with the truedragons."
Of course; on the morrow, the Lady and the Dragonlords' own council--the Saethe--were to consult with the truedragons on a matter of grave and growing concern to theDragonlords. For there had been no new Dragonlords, not even a hint of one, since his own First Change. It explained the Lady's haste, then, in choosing judges--if Lleld had guessed right once again.
Aloud he said, "Most of the Cassorin royal family are dead now, aren't they?" Bad luck attended this reign, it seemed; he'd seen its like before.
"Yes; all save for a little boy, Prince Rann, and two uncles: the challenger, Peridaen, a prince of the blood, and Duke Beren, who has a strong lateral claim to the throne."
Linden considered as he sipped his tea. Another of Lleld's guesses confirmed. He went on, "So the Cassorin messenger came to ask for Dragonlord judgment." At the Lady's nod, he smiled. "That was Lleld's guess. She also predicted Kief and Tarlna would be sent as arbitrators, since they're Cassorin and have done this before."
"Lleld," the Lady said, sounding exasperated, "is entirely too clever by half. Someday she'll guess wrong. But not this time. Kief and Tarlna are indeed going to Cassori. And so, I have decided, are you, as the third judge required." The Lady set her empty cup on the low table to one side of her chair. Sirl appeared and took it.
Linden carefully schooled his expression to stay blank. A mission with Tarlna, who chided him at every chance for his lack--by her prim standards--of dignity as befitted a Dragonlord? Oh, joy. He wondered what he'd done to deserve this.
Yet to sit in judgment was his duty as a Dragonlord. But why him, Yerrin by birth, and the youngest, least experienced Dragonlord to boot? True, he spoke Cassorin--a talent for languages seemed to go with being a Dragonlord. But there were others far more experienced in such things. Surely one of them was to be preferred.
He held his tongue.
"The three of you will leave in the morning. Since there is no time to be lost, you will all Change and fly to Cassori. The court has not left the city for the summer yet; the claimants shall await you in the great palace in Casna." The Ladysmiled. "I know you'd rather ride Shan, but I fear Cassori cannot afford the time it would take." She beckoned Linden to rise.
He offered her his arm as she rose from her chair, and escorted her from the room.
They paused in the doorway of the hall, watching the dancing that began every night after the evening meal. The Lady leaned easily on his arm, nodding her head slightly in time to the music.
Linden said, "Lady, if I may ask ... Why did you choose me? Kief and Tarlna, yes, they are Cassorin. I'm not. So?" He waited as she considered her answer.
Finally she said, "For the sake of a feeling that I have, little one." Her soultwin Kelder emerged from the dancers and came toward them. She held out her hand to him.
As Kelder led her into the dance, the Lady looked back. "But whether this matter needs you," she said, "or you need this matter, I don't know."
On his way to his chambers Linden met Lleld coming the other way down the hall.
"Hello, little one," Lleld said with a grin as he stopped to talk to her.
"You love being able to say that to me, don't you?" Linden replied, unable to keep an answering smile from his face as he towered over her. Lleld's Marking was her height; the little Dragonlord was no taller than a child of perhaps ten years. "You weren't at the dancing tonight," he said.
"Ah, no--I had something else to do," she said. "So tell me--was I right?"
He nodded. "About everything."
She heaved a sigh of regret. "Blast, but I wish you'd taken that wager."
"I've learned," he said dryly.
"You're to be the third judge, aren't you?" She cocked her head at him.
Laughing, he said, "Right again, you redheaded imp. I just hope it won't take too long."
"Or be too boring; regency debates usually are, you know," Lleld said helpfully, "as well as taking years to settle, sometimes. A pity this isn't one of your friend Otter's tales, isn't it? It would be much more interesting then."
One of Otter's--That would be all he'd need on top of Tarlna's company. Linden asked in some exasperation, "And what did I do that you should wish that on me, Lady Mayhem?"
Lleld just grinned. "Ah, well; I'd best be off. It's getting late." And with that she sauntered off down the hall.
Linden continued on to his rooms, shaking his head. The things Lleld thought up ... And she had looked entirely too innocent as she'd walked away.
When he entered his chambers, he found Varn, his servant, almost finished packing for him. Sirl must have sent word on.
Varn looked up. "The boys are already asleep. They stayed up as long as they could to say good-bye, but ..." He smiled and shook his head.
"Tell them I'm sorry," Linden said. And he was; he was fond of his servant's twin sons.
The golden-furred kir straightened up from closing the last buckle on a leather pack. "They'll miss their pillow fights," Varn said with a grin. "Though I should warn you that they've bribed Lleld to join them for the next great battle. Something about honey cakes, I think it was."
Linden shook his head, laughing. "Have they now, the little hellions? And that explains where Lleld was. Thanks for the warning. Ah, well; I shouldn't be gone long."
"You hope," Varn said as he eased Linden's small harp into its traveling case.
Linden sat on the wide stone rail of the balcony. Behind him was the open door to his rooms, some ten of his long strides across the balcony floor. He looked out into the night, savoring the coolness, the spicy scent of the night-blooming callitha rising from the gardens below.
Varn had gone home to wife and sons long ago. Now there was only one thing left to arrange before sleeping; Lleld's earlier comment had given him an idea. Closing his eyes, Linden made ready to "cast his call on the wind" as the Dragonlords said.
He let his thoughts drift, seeking a particular mind. There came a faint stirring, an impression of the sea, the whisper of wind in canvas, a ship gently rocking. To his surprise he had to strain to keep the link; Otter was much farther away than Linden had thought he'd be.
Then the link wavered on the edge of dissolving; the distance was just too great. Linden was about to abandon the attempt when he felt a sudden surge of power.
What on--? Then he realized: his quarry was on board a ship. That burst of magical power must mean some merlings, the half-fish, half-human people of the seas, were nearby. They often followed ships for days at a time. Somehow their magic must be augmenting his own.
He was not slow to take advantage of this bit of luck. Otter? he said.
A wordless rush of delight, then, Linden? Linden, is that really you?
Linden smiled. It is indeed, old friend. I'm leaving Dragonskeep in the morning. Quickly he told the bard all he knew. I'm flying there in dragon form. I thought we might journey together afterward I could come back for Shan and meet you wherever you are--or rather, are going to.
Otter said, You're not taking Shan? Have you told him yet that you're leaving him behind? I wish I could see it when you do.
Linden grimaced at the thought of how his Llysanyin stallion would take the news. I thought I'd wait until the morning. He'll probably bite me. Where are you bound for?
Otter replied, Believe it or not, we're on our way to the great city of Casna, as well.
There was a sly feel to Otter's mindvoice that Linden knew well. Someone was in for a teasing. Wondering who was the intended victim, he said, What are you doing at sea?
For the past few months I've been visiting a kinsman who lives now in Thalnia. You might remember him--Redhawk, a wool trader. His son Raven's best friend is a trader-captain, one of the Erdon merchant family of Thalnia. I asked to go with her; I've an itch to travel again. She agreed to let me sail with her.
Redhawk? Raven? Linden thought a moment. Ah! I remember them now, especially the little boy; red hair and a passion for horses.
Otter's chuckle tickled in his mind.
Little? The lad's now nearly as tall as you are! And still horse-mad, much to his father's despair. A pity he's not along; the two of you would get on well together.
Linden nodded, forgetting as he always did that Otter couldn't see it; it felt as though the bard stood next to him. And why are you going to Casna?
It happened to be the first northern port the Sea Mist is bound for. I'd planned to journey to Dragonskeep to drag you out of there and go traveling with me. Poor Maurynna; when she heard that, she was wild to come with me. Tried to talk her uncle, the head of their family, into letting her take a trading trip overland, but he was having none of that.
Linden wondered who Maurynna was, then decided she must be the captain. And from the feel of Otter's mindvoice, he now knew who the intended victim was to be. Otter--what bit of mischief are you planning?
Never you mind, boyo. Then, wistfully, Gods, but it's been a long time.
Linden sighed. He'd forgotten how long the years were to truehumans. It was part of the magic of Dragonlords; to be caught out of time until the dragon half of their souls woke, years passing with the swiftness of days--both blessing and curse.
He rubbed his temples; even with the aid of the merlings' magic, his head was beginning to ache. He said, Kief and Tarlna are coming, as well. A brief wave of sadness washed over him. He hoped Otter didn't feel it.
Tarlna, eh? Aren't you the lucky one, Otter said. But Maurynnawill be delighted--three Dragonlords in Casna!
Linden raised an eyebrow at that. Oh? was all he said, but he put a world of meaning into it. When will you make port?
I'd guess in a few tendays or so, but I'm not certain. Perhaps sooner; we're making good time or so I'm told. We left Assantik two days ago, looking for something Maurynna calls the Great Current. Ah, Linden--may I ask you a favor?
Here, then, was his answer. Of course. What?
Would you mind if I introduced her to you? She'd be thrilled.
Oh, gods. Another one looking for a Dragonlord as a lover's trophy, no doubt. He hoped she wasn't the sort to gush. Still, she was a friend of Otter's; he couldn't refuse. No--I don't mind.
I should warn you right now that you're one of her heroes. She's always loved any story about Dragonlords--and about Bram and Rani and the Kelnethi War. This will be a dream come true for her. You're not only a Dragonlord, boyo--you're Bram's kinsman who fought alongside him and Rani.
Linden cringed. This was going to be worse than usual.
Kief and Tarlna. A moment's hesitation, then Otter said, I'm sorry, Linden; it will be hard for you, won't it?
Linden bowed his head. Somehow, at Dragonskeep, although there were soultwinned couples all around him, he could ignore it. Whenever it became too much, he had friends he could escape to in the outlying villages or he could go riding in the mountains. But in Casna, the only people he would know would be Kief and Tarlna. And theirs was one of the closest bonds in the Keep. Being with them would be like having salt water constantly poured into a wound. Perhaps there would be someone in Casna to help him forget for a little while.
He should have known the bard would catch that quick betrayal of loneliness before--and not have forgotten. He made light of it. Ah, well; at least I'm not the one tied to Tarlna.
To lighten the mood again, he told Otter what Lleld had said earlier.
The bard laughed. She said that, did she? Imp. You've enough to worry about with Tarlna; you don't need a wicked mage.
The mage, Linden said, might even be preferable.
The power that had been aiding his effort wavered; the group of merlings must be splitting up. Otter, I can't hold this link much longer.
I understand. Shall I look for you at the palace when we make port? I'm known there; I played many times for Queen Desia.
Yes, Linden replied. Good-bye. He let the contact fade, groaning a little at the ache that had settled behind his eyes. The scent of callitha blossoms returned, spicy and soothing. Afterward he sat watching the night sky for a long time.
Nethuryn never knew who slipped the note under his door. Perhaps it was Joreda, who sometimes saw the truth in her fortune-telling sticks. But anonymous as it was, it had the ring of truth.
The cold-eyed one sends his wolf for you.
Nethuryn's hands shook as if with a palsy as he read it over and over. "Gods help me," the old mage pleaded in a whisper. He looked wildly about his comfortable lodgings.
He knew who hunted him. And what they wanted. He even knew who the "wolf" would be.
"Mmmrow!" A black-and-white cat twined about his ankles, demanding attention. Annoyed when the customary pat didn't follow, the cat batted at the hem of the old man's robes.
The tug brought Nethuryn back to himself. "Oh, Merro-lad, I'm sorry. We've been happy here for so long, but now ..." He swayed and caught himself on the back of a chair. "Now we have to run."
But was there anywhere he could hide and not be found? Pelnar wasn't big enough to hide him, not from--
Despairing, he sank to the floor. Perhaps he should just give up; he was old, useless, his magics nearly gone ...
Merro jumped into his arms and purred in delight. Whatwill happen to Merro if you die? Nethuryn demanded of himself as the black-and-white head butted his shoulder.
The old mage took a deep breath. "We shan't make it easy for him, eh, boy? No, he'll have to hunt for us, he will. Hunt us and ... and it."
Setting the cat down, Nethuryn clambered stiffly to his feet and set to work.
Copyright © 1998 by Joanne Bertin