Steam rose as the flame-colored gem that allowed her to take on physical form sank. Ripples reproached Tambre from three different locations on the surface. Oh firmament above, had it skipped?
Some steadfast and stalwart Interraphym she was. No wonder her sovereign had not yet assigned her a ward. She fled when startled.
The only thing that could make this more embarrassing would be having to manifest underwater. She looked past the shimmering silver mist of her involuntary dispersal to where Ovryn stood, half-concealed in the shrubbery along the island’s shoreline. His shoulders shook with silent laughter while the echoes of his triumphant, inarticulate cry raced across the water.
“Beloved?” he finally managed. “Tambre, are you all right?”
Was she all right?
Was she all right?
He was lucky he was immortal.
She wrapped her essence around him and leaned in. Come on, honey. Pick up the stone. I dare you.
Ovryn stepped into the gentle current, retrieved her touchstone, and with his burden extended in a way that suggested she was getting better at projecting, returned to the rocky shore. He held the glowing firedrop out between his thumb and index finger, and she reached for it, materializing one hand that cupped the rounded bottom of the stone and another that gripped the sword hilt that flowed upward as soon as her essence touched the physical anchor.
The rutilated quartz hilt felt cool beneath her fingers, even as its needle-thin gold inclusions blazed and flames licked the edge of the forming blade. As she continued to manifest, she focused on sheathing the sword so she would not have to meet Ovryn’s eyes. She had trusted foolishly, and she was not sure with whom she was madder.
He sleeked the silver-tipped feathers that bristled at the apex of one of her folded wings. “Beloved, are you—?”
“You should flee now.” She loved him with the ferocity only an Interraphym was truly capable of, but right now, she hated him just as intensely.
Her fingernails dug into her palms. “Now.”
He nodded and took flight, skimming over the water toward the western shore. Good choice. Her mate had more experience in the human lands than she did. He just might be able to avoid her until she calmed down.
A slow count of five was all the head start her fury would allow, and she touched down on the shore right behind him. Ovryn had retained his neutral form—visually similar to a human—but had modified his wings to resemble a cloak. Tambre compressed her being into that shape as well, rather than a grizzly or a snow lion—something with good speed and nice, sharp claws.
Time settled over her, thick and viscous, and in the moment she took to adjust to being fully mired in time and trapped in one shape, Ovryn ran. His usual good sense must have fled in the other direction, because he grinned and called over his shoulder, “Catch me if you can!”
Brilliant. Her mate was simply brilliant. And it was too late to choose the snow lion form. She settled for a human growl and sprinted after him.
Faint strains of late summer’s lullaby crooned to her as she passed. Slow down. Rest. All is coming to fruition…
Yes, it surely was. Fruition and harvest. Too bad her mate had not sown more carefully.
She lost a pace on him as she veered around the tiny sparks of life flaring from a field mouse nest. He gained another pace when he fluttered his wings to avoid trampling an oak sapling that would shelter a human couple’s picnic in four generations. However, when he glanced over his shoulder and flashed her an expression of unbridled delight, she put her head down and found a new level of speed.
She kept her sword sheathed—she didn’t want to hurt him; not really—but as she tackled and pinned him to the ground, she figured any bruises he took were only justice. Break a promise to her, would he? Insufferable male.
He twisted beneath her until they lay chest to chest and she could see the mirth still dancing in his eyes. “Oh, beloved, you should have seen the look on your face.” He paused to giggle—giggle—like a human child. “You haven’t looked like that in—”
“In twenty generations? Since the last time you startled me, and I promised to never forgive you if you did it again?”
His smile fell a little.
She gaped. He hadn’t remembered. The Creator did not make mistakes, but why, oh why, had He made females’ memories so much better than males’?
“I’m sorry,” he said, meeting her eyes briefly. “I simply—” He snorted and made suspiciously laughter-like noises again. “Could not help it...”
Could not help it.
She considered demonstrating that she could not help a fist to his gut, but he knew as well as she did when an act of the will was involved. If his prank had been inevitable, she would have foreseen him jumping out at her like sunrise on the day after the feast of Ceadamhain. If she could not help retaliating, he would be poised to block the punch she wanted to throw.
Sometimes she wondered if free will might not be too great a responsibility.
Still, she couldn’t let him completely avoid consequences. Tambre leaned close to her mate’s pointed ear. “You, my love, had better watch your back.”
She slid her hands down Ovryn’s shoulders and across his sword-wielder’s chest. Lightning fast, she struck, digging her fingers into his sides. She tickled until his eyes streamed tears and he managed to throw her off and gain his feet. She lunged again for his ribs, but he caught her hands and drew her close.
Resisting enough to let him know she was not completely mollified, she danced around the tender plants unfurling their roots where Ovryn’s tears had fallen. The Interraphym’s tearbushes would be fully-grown shrubs by nightfall, silver with cascades of blue flowers and a fragrance so sweet humans called them heaven’s incense.
The thicket she had produced more than four hundred years ago was also the site where Ovryn had sworn never to startle her on purpose again. She still tended those bushes, drawn by their beauty and fragrance, even though they reminded her she had once shed tears.
Ovryn, on the other hand, did not seem embarrassed by his involuntary physical display. Of course, he was Bonded. Resembling a human did not bother him. He was still smiling and trying to kiss her.
“Affection is for beings who like each other,” she told him archly.
“You don’t like me?”
“I love you.” She batted her eyelashes at him.
He laughed, and the sound almost made her forget her anger. Almost.
She renewed her attack.
He blocked her casually and frowned, his focus elsewhere. “Why are they being so foolish? I thought last night was warning enough.”
He retracted his physical form into his touchstone, and Tambre, unBonded and unable to manipulate time to the same extent, dropped her corporeality entirely, letting Ovryn tuck her touchstone with his into the timepocket he formed.
He shifted to where duty called him, and she followed, unsurprised to find herself in a hallway of the human castle. She and Ovryn remained outside of time, undetectable to the two humans sneaking through the passage, but she manifested form enough to nod to the Interraphym Guardian there before them.
Standing, arms crossed, in front of the door the humans approached, Ashentar paid her no more attention than Ovryn had since he noticed his charge was in danger. The two Guardians focused entirely on the young couple, projecting a warning that filled the hall.
The human female, Ovryn’s charge, hesitated, her steps slowing and her hand reaching for the arm of the male who would be her mate. Tambre sought the human term.
But he wasn’t yet.
“Rhalyn, maybe—” The sudden tromp of nearby footfalls sent the couple scurrying, wide-eyed, through the door. Ovryn and Ashentar followed them, but Tambre’s curiosity led her down the hall to the source of the too-loud footsteps.
A human in much plainer clothing peeked around the corner and watched the door close. “No, no, no. Back to the gardens, you young idiots.”
At a gentle push from his Guardian, the human took a step toward the door, but then he stopped and shook his head. “Not my place.”
His Guardian stood at his shoulder and whispered, “They are making a bad decision.”
The human seemed almost to hear, despite no evidence of being Marked. “It’s their decision to make,” he said.
He slipped behind a tapestry, and Tambre heard a soft grating of stone against stone. She hoped he never learned that time was now hurtling toward a moment when Kahja, Ovryn’s charge, would not be getting a say in the decision.
Tambre shifted into the darkened room Ovryn, Ashentar, and the two humans had entered. Kahja and Rhalyn leaned against the back of the door, shoulders brushing, sheepish grins a hand’s breadth apart. Rhalyn bent forward to kiss his mate-to-be, and she turned her body to his, running her fingers along his jaw line before breaking the kiss.
“Mmhmm.” She crossed the room and sat on one of the couches grouped around the hearth. “I was thinking it might be best if we just talk tonight. I finished reading The Ballad of Lucinda and Demitre this morning. Why didn’t you tell me it was so good?”
The male laughed and replied something Tambre missed as she followed Ovryn’s and Ashentar’s glares across the room.
Another creature had joined them.
Matte black-green with eight-inch translucent black talons on its forelegs and larger claws on its hind legs, the dragon had eyes and teeth that evoked the idea of a feline predator, but the scales and sinuous body….
She knew if the dragon stepped firmly into time and corporeal existence, the humans would see her as mirror-bright, copper-plated—almost bronze—with dark hypnotic eyes. She glanced back at the couple. At least the male would.
He joined his beloved on the couch, close enough that Kahja’s pleasant features tightened into unusual seriousness.
“Rhalyn, we went too far last night.” Kahja stared down at her hands. “We shouldn’t put ourselves into such temptation again.”
Rhalyn brushed his thumb across Kahja’s lower lip. “Then you shouldn’t tease me with kisses that leave me wanting more.”
Tambre bristled, but Ovryn’s charge only hunched her shoulders further.
Rhalyn brought Kahja’s hand to his lips. “I’m sorry. That was supposed to be a compliment.” The apologetic kiss he breathed against her palm turned into a series of nibbling kisses that trailed up her arm. “I love you, Kahja.”
Kahja closed her eyes. “I love you, too. And you’re not playing fair.”
Rhalyn smiled and moved closer.
The dragon’s presence strengthened, her jaws parting in reptilian satisfaction.
Ovryn loosened his sword in its scabbard, and Ashentar’s lips moved in a soundless, desperate invocation—or perhaps argument—but neither advanced.
Why? Why was the Most High staying their hands?
The dragon’s mouth opened wider, and her tongue flicked out as if savoring some scent.
Tambre glanced back at the couple.
Ovryn’s charge was laughing and half-heartedly beating her delicate artist’s fists against the shoulder of the man she loved, the man she trusted, as he carried her toward his bed. She still hadn’t considered the possibility that he wouldn’t be able to stop, as he assured her they would.
Interraphym’s tearbushes would be impossible to explain inside the human castle. Tambre closed her eyes and reached for the anger she’d felt toward her mate, but it was gone. There were worse betrayals of trust than the one you love forgetting a promise not to startle you again.
Tambre felt a summons and surrendered to the pull, allowing her touchstone to be recalled to its source, her being to be brought before the point that contained infinity and the moment that confined eternity. She opened her eyes and met the compassionate gaze of T’leyasune.
He dipped his head, and his soft white muzzle brushed across her cheeks. “My little one.” He leaned his forehead against hers, his silver antlers towering above them like a fortress.
“Why, my lord?” More tears slid warmly down her cheeks.
Ovryn would be miserable. He would blame himself for not interfering to a greater extent earlier. Or at least trying to.
Kahja, too, would blame herself. Tambre had watched her mate’s charge with him often enough to predict when the human would be foolish.
T’leyasune dropped his chin over her shoulder and drew her close. “Trust. The victory is won.”
She nodded against the great stag’s fur.
“Tambre, will you accept a Bond? Are you prepared to offer Guardianship to a charge?”
Delight washed through her. At last! “A new child? Is it theirs? Is that why—?” She straightened and gestured south, down the cataract that fell from the promontory on which they stood, along the winding course of the river, toward the human capital.
T’leyasune frowned at her, and when she met his gaze, he allowed her to fall out of time entirely, into the tapestry held within his eyes.
They hovered together above the shimmering landscape until her eyes adjusted and could pick out the moment of time in which the humans were ensconced and the dragon and Interraphym embedded.
“Evil has no reason, even when good comes of it.” For such a mild-looking being, the stag could sound surprisingly fierce himself.
By running her eyes quickly over the threads of time below them, Tambre could…watch…the Tapestry occur. A second dragon skimmed through time and joined the first. Others pressed close to observe but did not interfere. There was a moment in which Ovryn and Ashentar held the dragons back with their swords, and the human male was free to choose.
He chose. A lesser, untimely good over the goods of love and obedience to Love.
Tambre followed the threads that spread from that moment and winced over the crooked, tangled paths that nevertheless managed to fit into the overwhelmingly beautiful Tapestry.
Her charge would have green eyes, and he would know tears.
“I am humbled, my lord.”
“And you accept this commission?”
They were back on the rock, the blood from the wounds T’leyasune took in the Great Battle dripping onto the stone and sliding into the river.
“I do.” Mine, to cherish and protect. She held out her hand.
T’leyasune laid a tine of one antler against her palm and drew it back, leaving a scroll that dissolved into her being. It tingled through her like a smile that required her entire self. She was Guardian.
“You and Ovryn may fully manifest to her after she runs. Go as wolves. You can influence the pack near her grandparents’ cabin to accept her. She will need their help.”
“And, Tambre, forgiveness is required of you. It was as unkind of you to threaten to never forgive Ovryn as it was of him to forget his promise.”
“I know, my Lord.” She hadn’t meant it to sound sulky. She gathered her will. “It is done.”
Her shoulders drooped when she realized her emotions would take a while to catch up.
T’leyasune laughed. “I did not mean that you should leave off justice.” He laughed again. “But do not be too hard on him. Love mercy. Besides, you enjoyed playing as much as he did.”
Tambre glared at her lord with pursed lips but felt them curl up despite herself. Until she remembered where Ovryn was, and what was happening there. She sighed. “Does she forgive him?”
“Kahja and Rhalyn?”
He answered with words rather than another glimpse of the Tapestry. “The victory is won.”
The claw marks on his side glistened, and a drop of blood fell, sliding down the rock and washing away with the water to renew the land in which humans still invited dragons into their midst.
Northern Tirazahl, 16th day of Hunger Moon, Year of Fulfillment (Y.F.) 463
Kahja took one look at the ruins of her neighbors’ homestead and dropped belly-first into the snow. The body, clearly visible against the backdrop of burned buildings, the amount of blood, and the massive tracks told her everything she needed to know.
She glanced up. A lattice of winter-bare birch branches gleamed whitely against the dark smoke and paler clouds.
Exposed. Entirely too exposed.
Slowly, soundlessly, she slid her quiver and bow under the undyed wool of her cloak. A wet bowstring would not matter against a dragon, but anything that made her movement more obvious might.
To the left, a dense copse of mature pines taunted her. Sprint or slink? She pulled her hood up and crawled toward concealment, ears straining for the shifting branches that would announce she’d been spotted. Twenty paces. Ten.
The crash of the loft into the burning foundation of her neighbors’ home startled her up into a desperate run. Three paces. Two.
She hooked her arm around the last birch tree, peeling papery bark from the trunk with her sleeve as she turned to face the sky above the clearing.
She backed into the sheltering woods.
Kahja lived near enough to the Dragonborder to know that dragons used fire as their first weapon and time as their second. The body was bait.
At least one of her neighbors still lived, and the dragon waited for him.
Which of the only three people to show her and her son kindness in the last five-and-a-half years lay dead upon the churned-up snow? Who had survived and was now fighting the temptation to emerge from hiding and reclaim the body?
If she looped around the clearing, she could reach a sheltered vantage point closer to the remains. Her earlier glimpse of blood and broken flesh slapped her resolve and slowed her steps, but she squared her shoulders and crept on.
She did a lot of things she did not want to do.
The woods nearest the body offered a slight rise, and Kahja crawled to the top to peer down at the destruction. Smoke rose in fitful spurts as flames licked along the wood of what remained of the Eastbrooks’ home. Swaths of bare, blackened ground wound between the smoldering ruins of the silo, smokehouse, and shearing shed. Near the body, four impressions, sunk deeply in the mud, evinced where the dragon had launched itself into the sky.
Five-and-half-years ago, it had been barns, and a bunkhouse, and her grandparents’ manor….
Her fist struck the snow, shattering the crust of ice formed by the clash of early spring days and frigid late winter nights. She took a deep breath.
She still couldn’t tell who the victim had been.
Movement across the clearing caught her eye. Someone approached the tree line, dragging…something…behind him or her with a rope.
The figure had dark hair—like all people of Tirazahl except Kahja and her sister. He or she was tall…. But only one of her neighbors was lanky. Leland.
He stopped to tend to the object, and Kahja relaxed. That’s it. Just stay in the woods. I’ll come to you. She eyed the expanse of forest between them. Manageable. Wouldn’t take more than a few moments.
The teenager stepped into the open.
No, no, no. Go back. Go back.
The forest canopy shifted behind her. Branches snapped, and snow plopped to the forest floor. A shadow skimmed across the ground under the dark, glimmering shape that sliced through the lingering smoke. Kahja followed the dragon’s progress into the sky as its outstretched wings banked steeply, allowing it to ride the wind currents in an upward spiral.
More than a league behind her, Jeyti waited at home, all alone.
A stone’s throw in front of her, Leland bent over some wooden contraption, his back to the creature.
Sunlight, filtered through the overcast sky, reduced the copper-scaled beast to blurred motion and a vague iridescent threat against the clouds. At the height of its ascension, it hovered. The dragon’s powerful wings beat once. Twice. Then, wings tucked and neck extended, it dove.
Kahja stood. A second target. If she could distract the dragon long enough for the two of them to dart back into the woods….
Most High, if I don’t make it....
Tossing aside her bow, she jumped off the hillock, bending her knees as she landed. The impact drove a thousand icy needles into her feet. “Leland!” Shockingly cold air shredded down her throat as she sprinted toward him. “Leland, run!”
The stupid boy ignored her, loading a spear into what looked like a homemade, one-person-operable ballista. How in the world…?
She risked a glance upward. The stupid dragon ignored her, too. Eyes focused on Leland, it spread its talons, closing in on its prey.
Leland released the locking shaft, and the spear shot upward. Kahja leapt. An outraged roar vibrated across her skin as she knocked Leland to the ground. The dragon struck the earth where Leland had stood, sending snow and clods of cold, heavy mud to pelt Kahja’s back. A chorus of snaps and crackles shattered the air behind her, and she turned to watch the dragon tumble end-over-end into the distance.
They had to get out of there.
“Come on. Let’s go!” She nudged Leland’s shoulder, and when he made no effort to rise, she checked him for injuries. “Get up, Leland.”
His eyes moved slowly to her face and gained focus. “It’s dead, Kahja.”
“Are you sure?” Her back itched with the approach of the beast.
“Aye. The spear pierced its scales.” His head dropped back into the snow, and his tear-reddened eyes returned to the sky. “Dead.”
Kahja settled into the snow beside him and placed a hand on his shoulder. She no longer needed to ask about his parents.
One body for bait. The other, eaten. Poor Leland.
He sat up abruptly. “Where is Jeyti?”
“Safe,” she assured him, though it took every ounce of her willpower not to rush home to check on him.
Leland looked over her shoulder. “Safer than we were, for sure.”
She turned. The dragon’s skid marks started not three strides away. Leland offered her a hand-up, but she waved him off. Like a general with an army at his back, the teenager picked up a second spear and followed the path the dragon had scythed into the forest.
Two seconds slower….
She needed to get home to Jeyti. She needed…but her legs refused to obey.
Do not put the Most High, thy god, to the test.
She knew better.
Shrugging off her cloak, she leaned her too-warm face close to the snow. The Most High would have taken care of Jeyti if she died. The Most High protected the innocent.
Her weakened, overheated state registered, and she slammed her mental defenses into place, but it was too late. The emberling, the unquenchable presence in her blood, pounced. She tried to smother it with scripture, but insatiable, implacable, it demanded fuel, striving to wrest control of her mind.
What could she give it? A small memory. A safe one. The emberling was not picky. No one could maintain perfect vigilance forever, and the parasite surely expected that one day it would overwhelm her barriers completely and have access to everything.
But today would not be that day.
She fed it one more moment of her past, stomped firmly on its attempts to follow that thread back to the tangle behind her shields, and rose to follow Leland. She had to make sure he knew better than to let an emberling infect him.