Tropican Chronicles, #7, Verde: Temoc Goes Home, part 3

IV. Resolution

Catalina, Temoc and the three other first shift warriors awoke as the late morning’s muggy heat crept into the empty stone barn. Ranchers and horses had long gone to pasture, and the second shift’s guards dozed, saving their strength for the afternoon’s dueling. Temoc found that his pony’s gear was gone. The beast had already been sent home, and Temoc breathed a silent prayer after him for safe arrival. Cold yam patties had been saved for the late risers, and Temoc ate them in slow distaste. They weren’t nearly as good as when they were hot.
Catalina seemed to be in a hurry; she would have to catch up to the ranchers and their herd.
“Sell Lily yet?” Temoc ventured.
Catalina shook her head. “Still waiting, but won’t for much longer. Where you gonna go now?”
“Somewhere with you, I hope.” He turned to look at her. “Like it here?”
Catalina chuckled. “It’s nice on the farm. Peaceful.”
Temoc watched her walk out into the fields as he finished his last cold patty. He had meant how did she like Verde’s territory, not the farm itself. If she wanted to settle as a rancher, would he be able to live that life? He wasn’t sure. Animals tied a person down, and he usually became restless after a year or two in the same place. The swing in her step made her movements pleasant to watch. His eyes followed her as she grew smaller and smaller across the field. How different she was from the soft Maiara. Willful, fiery and hardened to life as he was. If he tried to stay with her, would he be able to keep her content? Suddenly he found that thinking of her as a potential lover was a little frightening; her anger could be intense, and she had put him on the ground more than once in the course of many evenings’ duels.

Catalina could see the horses a long ways off in their field, and one of the younger dogs came out to greet her when she got near enough. She patted his red-roan head, thankful for the ability to walk through the field alone to catch up to the rest, content animals munching grass. Though she was watchful, it was a relaxed kind of watching. She didn’t have to hold on to the lead of a beast, or keep her eyes straining on the nearest bush or treetop. It was a thoughtful kind of guarding, listening for signals from the dogs while she gazed at the pale colt that had been born in the wee hours before dawn. He followed his mother on long, wobbly legs, tried to frolic but wasn’t steady enough yet. Catalina smiled, remembering Temoc’s sarcastic remark about starting a horse ranch, when she had agreed to take the mares to safety. Now, he seemed to be urging her to stay. Herding was a familiar way of life to her, and she hoped he hadn’t meant for her to go back to his family’s house.
The day passed, and they sheltered from an afternoon rain shower in a knot of trees. After the thunder subsided and the rain slacked off, dogs roused to nose around the area. A deer jumped from the underbrush, but when the dogs didn’t pursue, listening to the commands of their masters, the graceful animal stood in the field, staring back at them.
“Feel like eating venison tonight?” asked Anita, sitting near Catalina.
Catalina looked at her. “You don’t have anything to shoot it with,” she observed.
The rancher looked dumbfounded. “Says the woman with a quiver full of arrows.”
“These are dragon arrows. They’re not for food.”
“Why not?” Anita wanted to know.
“Because I shoot monsters made of poison with them,” Catalina said. The deer flicked it’s tail, and the dogs wandered nosily closer. It bounded away, fluffy white tail raised behind it.
Anita was still staring. “You don’t wash them?”
“Of course we wash them. We have to touch them again.” Catalina thought a moment. Once an arrow had hit a devourer, it was never used for food again. The poison washed away in water. But even still, she’d heard of people getting sick from garden produce that’d been pawed by the beasts in pursuit of gardeners. No one wanted to risk it. “Anyway,” she added darkly, “these arrows are too heavy to fly fast and far, after something running away. Devourers always come towards you.”
Anita grunted. “Guess it doesn’t matter anyway. Missed our chance.”

By the time the herd, with it’s dogs and people, returned to the long barn atop the rise, most of the guards’ dueling was done, and most of the meal’s wood had been gathered. Temoc was sore and tired from the vigor with which he’d fought, and he resigned himself to tending dinner’s fire and watching as Catalina convinced the other guards of first shift into dueling with her, and beat them.
Temoc caught her scent when she sat down in the circle near him. It wasn’t the smell of a body that’d been trapped in thick, hot leather all day, the kind of sweat that everyone felt the need to wash away immediately. It was the clean, healthy sweat of a long day in the open sunshine, and he found it hard to ignore the primal draw she exerted on his senses.

The first night’s shift changed into their armor as the second shift bedded down early, a bamboo curtain between the men’s and women’s quarters in the loft of the long barn. As Catalina came up the ladder, Temoc pulled her around a pile of hay into a corner. She gasped, startled, then softened into his strong arms. She wanted to give in to him, return his warmth. She leaned into his kiss, but when he let her go, she held his head away, looking longingly into his brown eyes.
“I’m sorry, but you still can’t have me yet,” she whispered.
Temoc grunted in frustration. “Why not, this time?”
“Wrong time of the month. It’s too soon for a baby.” Catalina leaned close again as he sighed, disappointed. “It’ll be good for us to wait, anyway,” she added. “I don’t want you fucking me and thinking of her.”
“Jealousy spreading, is it?” Temoc asked darkly.
Catalina laughed a little. “Just common sense, I’d think. I want you to be ready for me, when you actually get me.”
She softened in his arms and he nuzzled her neck, breathing in her scent, soon to be spoiled again in armor. “When?”
“When I say so,” Catalina whispered, tenderly teasing. This time, she let herself linger in his grip until he let her go.

In the first night’s shift Temoc was a third watcher, with Catalina and a wide framed warrior, Mateo. He tended their fire, currently only a little pile of coals in a deepening, dark-moon’s night. Clouds were rolling in, and they only had the faint starlight half the time. Dogs wandered between the little camps at opposite corners of the barn, sleeping in turns. Catalina’s night vision was good, but tonight the darkness was thick. So she listened. The night was full of noisy insects and frogs. Eventually, nature called, and she nudged Temoc gently before walking into the darkness down the long wall of the barn to void her bladder. Somewhere around a corner, she heard a dog give a plaintive, fearful whine. The hairs on the back of her neck rose. She stood up, redressing hurriedly as her heart began to pound. Something was out there. She drew her bow, pointing an arrow into the darkness, her breath held. Then she saw it, the cold white glint of an eye, staring down her aim in the darkness. A deer’s shone bluish, the leopard’s a fiery-orange, and dogs’ were often green. There was only one creature who’s eyes’ light was completely colorless, even in warm firelight.
Catalina froze in fear a moment. This devourer’s icy stare had that same glint of malevolent intelligence that they’d seen among the throng at the Headwaters. It snarled, and she let her arrow fly with a short yell. She barely had time to draw a second arrow and shoot another that rushed her.
Temoc leapt to his feet and ran into the darkness, the third guard following with lantern. In the dimly bouncing light, he could see another, huge slinker circling around behind Catalina, closing in for the kill. From behind it was all long, boney spines and scraggly wings, a black mass glimmering sharply in the dark.
Hey!” Temoc yelled. The great beast turned on him, drool dripping from the rows of bared teeth in it’s long snout as it snarled. He saw the shadow of Catalina diving away safely, and loosed his arrow into the snapping maw. The arrow buried itself in the devourer’s throat, and it gurgled a guttural note of painful surprise. His shot was not as sure as it had been. He too dived away as it pawed at itself and thrashed, letting out weak flames and puffing blackening steam as it died slowly.
When all was quiet, Catalina sat up and looked around. She was at the base of the hillet. She’d rolled from the danger of the dying ones, but also away from her comrades. Their little lantern was still; it had been set on the ground. She could hear footsteps coming her direction, but her ears strained beyond, into the clouded night. As she picked herself up, she heard the soft slither-and-click of long spines as a devourer leapt. She drew her sword and wheeled around moments before the straggler barreled into her. It hit at full force, pinning her to the ground with savage claws. She felt the sharp, stinging burn of it’s armor-penetrating grip. Smelled the foulness of it’s hot breath. It’s long jaws snapped and tore at the thick scaled armor across her belly. Her scream rang out as she jabbed in the dark. When her sword found the monster’s head, it’s grip flexed tighter, then loosened. Then it lost control, falling to flail on the ground beside her just as the others came rushing to the scene.
Catalina rolled and struggled away as Mateo pulled her. She stumbled to her feet, wiping the devourer’s blood from her face and spitting. Others were arriving from around the corner, and one carried a lantern down. Their eyes widened to see her stand. Anyone else pinned by a devourer even half that size would’ve been fatally wounded.
“Are you hurt?” Temoc’s soft question was urgent. She nodded, and there was fumbling among them for the drawing herbs’ paste. Catalina smeared it onto several places with shaking hands as the others stared into the darkness, though they could hardly hear anything above their own panting breaths.
Temoc and Mateo helped Catalina back up the tiny hill. “I don’t think it’s very bad,” she said, though her voice was shaking. They tended her in the light of lantern and fire. Her Blackleather armor was badly scratched and torn, but had held it’s own remarkably well. She had only two shallow claw-punctures on either side and a raking bite. It was agreed she would be alright. Temoc moved her bedroll from the loft into an empty stall, and his beside so that he could watch over her.

Though Catalina slept soundly enough, come morning she awoke miserable; the poison’s haze and dizziness strong. Temoc rubbed sleep from his eyes and dressed the creeping wounds on the sides of her torso, studying with concern. “I’m no healer, but these don’t seem as bad as you look,” he said, putting his cheek to hers to check for fever.
Catalina grunted weakly. “I feel terrible anyway,” she managed. “I didn’t swallow any of it’s blood. Maybe bigger and healthier means stronger poison?”
Felipe shook his head. “Everyone who guards here says they’re bigger, but you’re the first one who’s been hurt that ever said their poison was stronger.”
“Should we send for a healer?” one of the second-shift warrioresses asked. These first-shifters were awake much earlier than usual, and would probably go back to sleep if Catalina’s wounds allowed.
Catalina and Temoc looked at one another, then Catalina spoke. “Depends. You have any red juice?” They found her some, and when she sipped, she could feel the red elder’s strength shore her up.
“Do you think maybe it’s because you haven’t been touched by their poison since you got your blackleather?” Temoc ventured.
Catalina looked to her armor, it’s coat badly in need of repair, though most of the slashes weren’t clear through. “Maybe,” she conceded. Bodies did get used to poison. When she focused on Temoc through her toxic haze, her gaze was fearful. “It was thinking, Temoc. The leader. It had that same look we saw before, at the Headwaters.”
Temoc stared at his feet, her ominous tone sinking his heart. Bloodthirsty firebreathers were bad, but their downfall was they were maddened to stupidity. If they were beginning to be able to think, it could get worse. Much worse. They’d grow up, into a cloud of black wings. That could think. They looked at each other, fear reflecting in their eyes, then fell silent for a long time. Eventually, Catalina began to nod off.
The stablehands were bringing out a few horses now, with some discussion as to which. Not all the horses would get near even a dead devourer. The one who’d just foaled was not ready to do any work, so they took the Overland mare, Greta, instead. Temoc followed them out into the early morning. The world was wet. Mist rose from the distant green jungle like smoke, and hung across the pasturelands of the ranch. Around the corner lay a mass of shining blackness: The bodies of the four devourers they’d slain in the night. Temoc caught his breath as he stared at them. They had to be twice as big as what he was used to seeing come at that time of night. It took horses to drag them away, not just some strong people. Their spines and horns were longer, a wicked curve evident in their horns even though they were young. They weren’t the half-starved beasts that plagued the coast towns; their skins were sleeker, their bones stronger and their muscles well developed. In last night’s dark they had looked just like any other set of snapping jaws, and he had faced them accordingly. That had surely been a blessing, for now that he actually saw how much bigger and healthier they were, a growing fear crept down his spine.
Temoc settled back down beside Catalina to try to get a little more sleep as the day’s activity started. Breakfast was short, then horses left for pasture, guards went out to gather wood and haul water.

Catalina woke slow, staring blankly for a long time. “Did you mean it?” She said finally. “For us to stay on the ranch together?”
“I don’t know if I’d make much of a rancher, but we could find someplace, I’m sure.” Temoc saw her blank look become a warning stare, and added with haste, “I wouldn’t try to live in my mother’s house with you.”
“Whatever we do, we can’t get soft,” Catalina said with conviction, and a touch of fear. Being pinned at the mercy of a devourer had shaken her badly. She still couldn’t believe she hadn’t died last night. “Or they’ll eat us for sure when they do come, Blackleather or no.” She stared at him again, stared past him eerily. “Sure would have been nice to have a dragon nearby to warn us.” Temoc nodded in the long silence. After a great while, Catalina spoke again, still staring far past Temoc. “How does Comet do it? Shoot three arrows so fast. If I could have done that, I would have had them all down before the third got behind me. Then the straggler wouldn’t have pinned me.” She set her jaw. “Guess it’s no use wishing, though, what someone man-and-a-half can do.”
Temoc peered at her, worried. She was still staring past him, beginning to ramble now. He felt her forehead again, still no fever. Imagery from their Overland journey flitted through his mind. Yes, Comet had a heart and a half and it gave him an advantage, but what Catalina wished for was a technique, not a gift of chance.
“Maybe we can learn,” Temoc mused. Her focus shifted onto him, questioning. “I’ve spent nearly the hole journey with Comet at my back, and I’ve seen him do it plenty of times,” Temoc told her.
Catalina wrinkled her brow. “I’ve fought with him lots, but in the dark. And he usually saves the third one for the blade.”
“Bet he doesn’t do that when he’s out alone,” Temoc said darkly. “Still, if I’m going to try to figure it out, I’ll need a lighter bow than my own. . .”
Catalina sighed, and shifted her focus past Temoc again. “Fine, take mine. . . but be gentle with her?” Temoc turned around to find her distant gaze had been on her archer’s gear all along. He made his way to it, strung her bow and drew it in experiment, arrow-less. He shook his head, amazed at Catalina’s strength. “Not much easier than mine,” he noted solemnly.

Temoc was on the far side of the barn, deep in concentration. Trying to hold two extra dragon arrows in the last fingers of his shooting hand as he drew his first one. After he dropped the third a couple times, he decided to start with only one extra arrow, swinging it into position to draw the string back just as the first arrow hit the target. He didn’t see the rider on the road. He was barely aware of the activity in the barn as the pony was unsaddled, and a guard led him away toward the herd on her way to fetch water.
The midday sun was hot and the land still steamy from an overnight rain. Temoc’s arm was sore already. He laid the bow down a moment to stretch and shake his limbs. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone step through the barn’s doorway to lean against it’s frame.
“You left without saying goodbye, old friend,” a familiar voice scolded. Temoc turned to look at Gerson, surprised and uncertain. “I couldn’t let you do that.” The short, stout man’s tone was ominous, but he brandished a flask, and grinned.
Temoc wasn’t interested in drink. Most of him wanted to say- go away, I need to practice. But he knew he shouldn’t. He picked up Catalina’s bow and loosened it’s string with care, then started up the hillet toward Gerson.
Temoc was too quiet, his expression too serious. Gerson braced himself for anything, unsure if he were about to receive an embrace or another solid fist.
Neither happened; instead, Temoc walked past him to hang up the gear, and Gerson tentatively stepped into the barn again. “Your lady friend looks like hell,” he ventured.
“There was an attack last night,” Temoc stated coldly. “We think she’ll be alright.”
“I’m glad you’re still here. And alive,” Gerson added. “I felt a great need to thank you, and damned if you didn’t make me catch you first.”
Temoc turned to look at him, raised an eyebrow. “Thank me?”
Gerson chuckled. “Yeah. It would’ve been awfully hard to give her back.”
Temoc crossed his arms, an eyebrow raised. “You would have given her back?”
“You sound surprised, cousin. But you never let me finish my sentence, back at the house. We’ve never let a woman drive us apart before. Not even her,” Gerson winked, grinning.
Temoc’s cold surprise softened into a smile, remembering. “I suppose not.” Several of their adolescent years were spent in pursuit of Maiara; often in friendly competition, but sometimes there were fistfights. “Almost, though, a few times.”
“Except eventually I realized it was all for naught, on my part,” Gerson said, offering the flask again. This time Temoc’s hesitant hand reached for it. “Of the two of us, you were really the only one she was interested in.”
Temoc snorted. “Of the two of us.” They went a ways farther into the cool of the long stone barn. Temoc stopped a moment to check on Catalina, peacefully asleep and cool. Then they settled down in the neighboring empty stall to share the flask.
“Why did you give her up? For that one?” Gerson nodded in Catalina’s direction.
“I wouldn’t give Maiara up for any other woman, you know that. But maybe it was easier because of Catalina. If I really were dead, I’d hope Maiara was with my most trusted friend.” Temoc sighed. “So, I’ve got to let it be,” his tone ended in sorrow.
“She would have taken you back, we both know it. All that sneaking around you two did.”
Temoc guffawed. “You knew? And let it happen?”
“How could I not? I know all your tricks and hiding places. Hell, they’re mine, too. And, she was your wife first. . .”
Temoc whistled, shaking his head. “The whole of Tropica is changed into some kind of road to Hell. But then again, I guess I’d forgotten that some things will never change.” He took a sip, alcohol’s taste strange on his lips after so long.
Gerson shook his head. “So you’re lucky to be alive, everything you’ve been through.” A hint of wistfulness was in his tone.
Temoc took a breath. “Many times over.”
“Guess I haven’t had half the adventures you have, by now.”
“Only because you never followed me over the Mountain,” Temoc said, taunting.
Gerson got a faraway look. “And to think, after all this time, after all those young fights and years I’d given up, now. . . she’s mine. Strange world, this is,” he mused.
Temoc gave him a dark glance. “You can stop rubbing it in, now,” he warned. Then his mood lightened, and he grinned. “Ah, just because we wanted her, didn’t stop us from looking at the other beauties,”
Gerson leaned back. The bathing place at the riverside shone emerald green and golden sunshine, in memory’s glow. “Took us all day to get there early enough, and hide for long enough, that the girls didn’t suspect we were there. And then we were stuck out for the night.”
“Oh, we got scolded hard. But our parents worried more when we wouldn’t leave the house, after Crocodile Mario,” Temoc pointed out.
“Crocodile Mario. . .” Gerson mused. Everyone called him that, and he didn’t speak. They didn’t know if he could, but they constantly passed the aging, scaly-skinned beggar on the street. One day they took pity on him. Let him hide in their stable, out of the heat. Of course, they were doing all the barn-work then to keep him hidden, even saddling and bringing out the old mare when another wanted to use her, and this naturally drew suspicion. Plus, the missing leftovers. “That must have been the worst trouble we ever got into at home, bringing a leper into the house.”
Temoc laughed. “The worst trouble we’d ever gotten into at home. But there was that time at the logging camp. . .”
Gerson chuckled, finishing for him. “. . . When we didn’t tie the knots right, and the monkeys came in and let the mules loose.”
Temoc shuddered. “I thought they were going to flog us, or throw us to the crocodiles.”
Gerson took a long drought, his voice relaxing expansively as he got lost in the story. “Instead, we had to tear our way through the thick after them, all the sounds in the night, and the jaguar that came to stare at our fire. . .”
“I was starting to think just taking the flogging would have been better,” Temoc remembered. “And then, the second night out, the monkeys stole all our food!”
“Good thing we found the mules that day,” Gerson grinned.
Temoc snorted. “We never would’ve found them or even made it, if Hernando and Neli hadn’t gone with us. Neli, now, she was a real tracker. . . and then after that, I decided I’d better learn how to track.”
“And I learned how to tie a better knot,” Gerson grinned.
Temoc shook his head with a sigh. “Always the practical thinker.” He was feeling giddy by now; it was a good thing Gerson was drinking more of the brew. “Monkeys. . .” Temoc said after a great while, a sadness in his voice. “They’re all gone now, from the mainland. And the deer, the tapirs, the big cats. . . everything’s been eaten from the land except the birds and the snakes, now. . .”
Gerson stared blankly at the half-open stable door. “So many times I’ve wished I’d gone with you, traveled across the land and seas. . . but I feared I wouldn’t make an adventurer, really. . . I know I wouldn’t be a warrior. I’d be dead by now for sure.”
“Not everyone’s a warrior. Not everyone who came Overland was, either. People protect each other. That’s why we’re the only warm animal left out there,” Temoc’s voice was filled with sadness, but then his mood lifted a little. “What other creature can put aside territorial differences and work together, or remembers friends, loves and vows after years of distance?” He put a hand on Gerson’s shoulder, shook it firmly. “We may have dreamed of adventures together our whole life, but I’m glad you stayed home. . . and, we still have the memories, yes?”
Gerson grinned, his voice misty now. “Yeah. . . Remember our grandest plan of all? Riding to the Anaconda as stowaways.”
Temoc snorted. “Woulda been our biggest adventure ever. If Ma hadn’t fed us so many beans the night before.”
Gerson laughed. “Yeah. Crates of rice aren’t supposed to smell like fart.”
Temoc elbowed him gleefully. “We barely made it out of the harbor before they threw us overboard!”
Both were laughing now, and when they caught their breath, Gerson said, “Good thing we could both swim.” He took the final swig, and Temoc turned the flask up, letting a few remaining drops hit the dusty earth for the hovering fruit flies to settle on.
“Ever been to the Anaconda yet?” Gerson asked after a while.
Temoc shook his head. “Answer’s the same as the last time you asked me. Been stuck East awhile. But as rough as they say the journey is, I think it’d been too much adventure for both of us at the time, if we’d succeeded.”
They listened to the sounds outside, the whizz and thuck of arrows into targets, the sound of jumping grasshoppers’ wings across the field. “Sometimes I wonder if she knew,” Gerson said after a long while. “And that’s why she cooked us something so. . . stinky.”
Temoc crossed his arms and shook his head stubbornly. “No way anyone knew but us.” He turned an intimidating, half-mocking glare to Gerson. “Unless you told somebody?”
Gerson shook his head emphatically. “I never told anyone. Well. . . except Haizea.” He gave a guilty look as Temoc’s jaw fell open.
“You told her!? Oh come on! I know you liked her, but dammit man! You knew she had the gossipy mouth!” Temoc swatted Gerson several times, half in jest. Gerson leaned away, arms over his head.
Are you done?” The scold was a woman’s.
They turned with a start to see a warrioress standing at the stable door.
Gerson gave a sheepish grin. The dark woman towered over them. “We are, actually.” He turned the open flask upside down.
Yesseca looked at him as if he were a bug. “I don’t know who you are, but you’ve ruined a perfectly good guard.” She stepped into the stable, and both scrambled to their feet, their legs numb from long sitting. Others were gathering by now.
“You know what the stablemaster does to people caught drinking on the job?” Anita said ominously.
Catalina lurched around the corner and through the women gathered in the doorway. “Let it be,” she said, fixing her bleary gaze on the two men. “Old friends need to catch up. They aren’t horsemen, so the stablemaster needn’t know.”
The warrioress who’d caught them turned on Catalina, her tone fierce. “You’re already out. First shift’s going to be short one if he’s not suitable by then. We can’t have that.”
Catalina shrugged. “I’ll watch with him.”
“You look like you can barely stand,” Yesseca crossed her arms, “let alone shoot straight and fight. The two of you put together wouldn’t make one warrior.”
“It has been years since I’ve drank,” Temoc confessed, “but I don’t usually have lasting effects. I should be fine by tonight.” He held his hands up. “And I give my word I won’t touch a horse.”
By now, the herd was home, and one of the speckled dogs came running into the barn, weaving his way among the people, sniffing in greeting and curiosity.
Anita looked at Catalina, leaning against a stable door. “You say you grew up on a ranch. Did your father let his hands drink?”
Catalina grunted. “Not while they were working. But right now, Temoc isn’t. And you haven’t seen the troubled way these two were in. If a bottle mends a torn friendship, that is well worth the risk, isn’t it?” She gazed at Temoc and Gerson.
“Depends on what the stablemaster’s going to do to me,” Temoc intoned. Gerson swatted him across the shoulder, and he flinched.
“You get thrown out with no pay, and maybe a whipping,” Anita volunteered.
The sternness in the warrioress began to soften. “This is not a habit of frequency, then?” Catalina and Temoc both shook their heads.
“Out there, anything that slows you down is death. I haven’t touched it in at least two years.” Temoc said.
She sighed, still staring at Temoc and Gerson. “I suppose the stablemaster needn’t know. This time. Better do away with that flask and get yourselves together. Fast. And hope it’s not from the Coyol palm. If you’re slurring tomorrow, no one’s going to take pity on you a second time.” The two bowed in gracious relief as the gathering dispersed. Gerson hid the empty flask deep in his saddlebags, and the two laid low until mealtime, trying to avoid the chance of anyone smelling the drink, if it was still on their breath. Catalina stalked back to her bedroll, and Temoc stayed with her awhile.
“What’s wrong with wine from a Coyol palm?” Catalina wanted to know.
“Reactive with sunlight,” Temoc said. “You can get drunk again the next day.”
Catalina shook her head in silent amazement.
Gerson settled in beside them a moment later, bowing to Catalina with emphatic thanks.
Catalina snorted. “Should be Temoc groveling. He’s the one who’d get thrown out. You’re not working here.” She looked awhile at Gerson. “You’re quite the bad influence, aren’t you?”
Gerson chuckled. “Either I am, or he is.”
“I’d have finished schooling if it weren’t for you,” Temoc nudged.
“Yeah, but you actually learned stuff while you were there. If you hadn’t, we couldn’t have gotten into half the trouble we did,” Gerson grinned.
“Hey, gave me a chance to practice what I’d learned.”
Catalina sighed. “I see. . .”

Yesseca studied Catalina, barely picking at her dinner. “You’re not going to be doing any guarding tonight,” she observed. Catalina returned her gaze, but said nothing. “Since it’s your insistence Temoc watch with you in the first place, I think it’s only fair he should go back to second shift.” She turned her attention to Temoc. “Who do you lose to, from the other shift?” His mouth full, Temoc nodded toward a burly warrior, a new arrival. The dark red man crossed his arms with a smile.

Temoc took over redressing Catalina’s wounds from another warrior, a little flickering lantern beside her for light as the lowering sun left the corner of the barn dim. The rest of second shift was already bedding down, but Temoc insisted on tending her first.
“Do you really want to stay and ranch?” Temoc wanted to know. “We could go anywhere, from here. Do anything.”
“Don’t like farm life?” Catalina grunted.
Temoc shrugged, wrapping her torso. “Farm life ties you down, and I’ll want to wander again. I always do. It was Maiara who bound me to this place, kept me coming home, and now. . .”
“Why stay?” Catalina finished for him.
Temoc sighed. “Because it’s a safer place, I suppose.”
“Except, not really.” Catalina’s tone darkened. “I should be in a red cave, not out in the day’s heat and sleeping with the beasts, where bugs bite and devourers can scent me again.” Catalina winced as Temoc gave her bandages a final tightening. “Stupid mistake. If I hadn’t been wearing Blackleather, I’d be dead. Eaten alive.”
Temoc hung his head. “If I’d been a better shot. . .”
“I still would have had to roll away from them. Wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
“Guess it could’ve happened to anyone,” Temoc concluded.
“Except it wouldn’t have happened in Crocodile, or Song. Or anywhere people expect devourers, all the time. I’ve only been here a little more than a week, and I’ve already gotten soft.”
Temoc paused to look into her eyes, his tone emphatic. “You didn’t see those monsters the next morning. It took horses to drag them off. You killed two of them. You’re not that soft.”
Catalina stared at him through her hazy misery. “If we stayed, I’d get so out of practice, maybe even Blackleather wouldn’t save me. And if we stay, isn’t it kind of a waste?”
Temoc wrinkled his brow. “How do you mean?”
“We’re two of the best warriors in the Overland, and we’re going to hide here? A suit of Blackleather needs worn where the fighting’s being done.”
Temoc sighed. He did say ‘we could go anywhere.’ Back into the fray so soon hadn’t exactly been his thought. But they wouldn’t be wanting for shelter or water. “I suppose there’s always a place to sleep and guaranteed food in the guardhouses. Funny how it’s either struggle to make a living, or struggle to live.”
Catalina smiled. “Right. So, I have to sell Lily, and then we can go.”
“Tomorrow? You shouldn’t go yet.”
“Wounded walked Overland, they had to. Worse than I am now. Be nice to know if I can do it,” Catalina said with determination.
“You won’t travel during your moontime, but you want to leave now, when it could actually do you harm?” Temoc gave her a dubious glance.
“I need to be in a red cave, Temoc,” Catalina insisted.
Temoc set his jaw, silent awhile. There would be no stopping her. “Let’s leave with Gerson. You can ride our pony, if you have to. And he’ll know the tide; when ships are leaving.” Temoc headed up to the loft, doubtful he’d fall asleep early for the shift-switch after staying up late, still dubious about Catalina’s decision. Yes, wounded traveled Overland, he thought, but it didn’t do us any good.

“She wants to do what?” Gerson had caught a glimpse of the oozing, creeping, blackened sores on Catalina’s side. “Why would anyone want to move like that?”
Temoc shrugged. “She has her reasons.”
Gerson shook his head. Temoc had found someone as hard headed as himself. There was no way he’d be able to hang on for that ride. Already, Catalina was in the corner negotiating their mare’s sale with Felipe. “She gets the selling done soon enough, you might be able to catch the afternoon tide and not stay at an inn,” Gerson mused. “But why go on the water with wounds like that?”
“Never seen it before, have you,” Temoc observed. “The poison creeps. . . but her wounds aren’t deep. And on the water, we know we’re safe. Here, they could come tomorrow, or not until the next foaling season. And when they do,” he gave a sweeping gesture. “No water to hide behind. At least there’s red caves, where the devourers come all the time.”
Gerson put his hands firmly on Temoc’s shoulders. “Always the adventurer. I still kind of wish I was going with you, even though I’d probably get eaten. I hope the two of you can keep keeping each other safe.” Temoc pulled him close to embrace him.
“How did it go?” Temoc asked when Catalina approached. “I didn’t want to be too hard with him. Didn’t get as much as for Greta.” She shook her head. “And the pay for guarding is terrible. We’d have barely enough for fare out of here, if I hadn’t been ranching with them too.”
Felipe put a hand on her shoulder as he passed. “Hard enough to keep eight guards in food, let alone pay them for sleeping in our loft.”
Catalina grunted. “They come for a rest, not to make money. Some rest this was,” she gestured to her bandaged sides. “Let’s go.”
It was late morning when they started off, Temoc and Gerson trotting beside their pony with Catalina riding. The two friends talking, laughing as they made their way through the green lands of Verde. Temoc felt good again, felt right. The sun shone hot and strong as they traveled along the roads to the sea, traveled out to sea like the wide, slow emerald waters of the river Verde. This was the last time Temoc and Catalina would be wearing their plain, un-dyed cloth under the open sky, and the little breeze felt good, close to their skin. They passed through a hedge thick with vines in exuberant bloom, bees and birds flitting here and there among the flowers. On the pony’s back, Catalina had to duck around hanging thorn brambles above. Sticks crackled under their feet, and a single buzzing, twittering hummingbird swooped down from somewhere up in the flowers to hover in front of them a moment, it’s jewel-feathered body glistening in the muted sun, tiny eyes watching them intently. Then it buzzed away again before they could stop to return it’s studying gaze. Temoc smiled. A hummingbird was a warrior’s soul, a brave protector. Gerson’s place was home, it always was and always would be. And Temoc and Catalina, they were finding their way back to where they belonged.

END.

(copyright Melanie Degen)

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Tropican Chronicles, #7, Verde: Temoc Goes Home, part 2

III. An Uneasy Alliance

Temoc waited to emerge from the stable until after Maiara had gone, hurrying away toward the delta after her new husband. Temoc had barely set foot within the house before Mother approached, her look of meddling concern all too familiar.
“Where did your friend go? Was she still upset? I hope there’s some way we can make amends.”
Temoc set his jaw and let out a breath. “Catalina went to the ranch. Of course she’s upset, but she didn’t say why exact–”
“Maiara’s jealous,” his older sister spoke up.
“Do you think she’ll come back? Should you go after her?” his mother continued.
“She won’t come back,” Temoc snapped. “She’ll sell Lily, and then neither of us will have a horse.”
“What kind of a friend would ride off on your only horse alone, then sell her?” his mother’s tone was accusatory.
“Lily’s not our horse, she’s the Overland’s, and selling her was the agreement when we got here,” Temoc said defensively.
As soon as he could, Temoc excused himself from the house to wander the streets. He carried his sword and bow out of habit, and smelled the storm on the air.

Lily seemed eager to move after being slinged in the hold of a ship, then stabled in the tiny barn. Catalina stopped at a stream’s crossing among the garden farms on the outskirts of town, smelling the rain on the salt-air, watching the haze thicken into a layer of thin clouds. She scritched under the slender mare’s mane. “Think you can outrun this storm, little girl?” she wondered aloud. She’d find out, soon enough. Not long after the garden farms thinned into pasture farms, Catalina quickened the beast’s pace. As the land rose in a nearly imperceptible slope, she could catch glimpses of long ships at sea, skidding before the incoming storm with square sails full, dark clouds and lightning rimming the horizon. They were almost there, but it looked like they’d get wet.

Temoc had wandered through town, feeling dejected. He had stood in front of old familiar pubs and unknown ones. At times like these, most men would drown their sorrows, and he considered it. Catalina was gone, and Maiara was with child by his best friend. His heart was torn between the wife he still loved and the warrioress he admired. It wouldn’t take much drink; he hadn’t had any since Tropica became blighted. But he had no money. Only one remaining opal; and that was far too precious to waste on a little chicha.
Temoc’s path wound down to the harbor, and the inns at it’s edge. He climbed to one’s balcony to watch the ships under the bruised sky. Maiara was jealous of Catalina. If she really did still want him, what would he do? He looked down into a wide, dusty yard where traveling warriors dueled, the ringing of their steel and fighting cries and grunts catching his ears. Everything about home was turned upside down. The place and people he’d longed for so long, strange. But the practicing of deadly skill, the sound of cold metal meeting cold metal was familiar, and somehow comforting.
As winds began to bluster, Temoc left the balcony to sit among those waiting for a turn in the arena. Warriors on the benches were grumbling, “. . .raining and it’s not barely even midday yet.”
A man sat down next to him, limping from having just been beaten into the dust. “You going to fight without armor?” he asked.
Temoc grunted. “Don’t have it with me. Everyone’s careful, right?”
The slim warrior at his other side shrugged. “Guess so. We’re not hungry devourers.”
By the time Temoc stepped onto the dueling ground, the front edge of the storm had blown over them. The rains fell straight down now and the arena’s dust was a layer of silty mud. Combatants slipped around in the downpour. He hoped fighting without armor would make him a little lighter on his feet, a little faster. But he was out of practice, and healed wounds still ached when he moved the right way. It didn’t take his opponent long to knock him off his feet.
Wet and caked with sandy mud, a determination rose within Temoc. He sat back among the waiters. He beat his second opponent, as the high sun broke through the clouds. He didn’t keep his place in the ring for long though- a short, wide warrioress stepped in to face him, and was soon pushing him steadily backwards across the sloppy ground. He was already worn from winning his last fight, and the relentless warrioress drove him out of the ring, until he landed back on a bench.
“Come back when you’ve had a rest! You fight like a little girl!” she called out, and there was laughter.
Temoc scowled, and stalked away. There was a narrow shooting range between the stables and inn, and it was largely unoccupied. Even this, he was out of practice, and already sore from the duels. His bow felt too strong for him. After a little while, he left that in frustration as well.
Later in the afternoon, he was down by the crab trapping docks, washing the dirt from his clothes and watching the fish-netters scoop their nets, and the drivers circle back upstream with their long sticks, over and over again. Maiara was somewhere among them. And she still loved him. If he took her back, would he ever be able to love the child she carried as his own? Would he and his cousin ever be best friends again?

Temoc was one of the first to come home for the evening, and Ma put him to work in the kitchen, cutting potatoes. The friendly kitchen banter nearly had him feeling at home again. All through dinner, he stole glances to gaze at Maiara, remembering the good times. The love they used to have. Imagery floated through his mind, warming his heart. He remembered how sometimes she used to make tea for everyone in the morning, and they would sit and drink it on the porch, the sun glinting in her deep brown eyes and sparking across the wiry frizz at the edges of her black hair, lighting it up like little flames. The way she would throw her head back when she laughed as they talked, teacups in hands.
He remembered her soft embrace in the night; the sweetness of her voice as she sang their babies to sleep. How she played with the house’s children, and taught them silly tricks and counting games with beans.
Afterward, Temoc saw to the family’s pony, lingering in the stable’s cool peace awhile. He discovered he missed Catalina’s presence. She seemed a steady calm in his sea of turmoil and uncertainty. He knew he couldn’t hide with the horse forever. If he were seriously considering staying, if Maiara still loved him as he still loved her, he was going to have to become comfortable among his own again. He rose, stepping into the cooling evening air, a stiffness creeping into his muscles. He was going to be sore tomorrow, from the dueling he’d done.
Maiara was sitting on the porch in a rickety, corn husk-wickered chair. Her eyes closed, a hand on the nearly imperceptible swell of her belly. Temoc watched the house’s activity swirl around her a little while, and when Gerson did not appear, he made his way to sit on a bench next to her.
“You really do still love me, don’t you,” Temoc observed. Maiara gave him a defensive, shameful glance, but said nothing. “What did you do to make Catalina mad?”
She stared at him with clouded eyes. “She didn’t tell you?”
Temoc shook his head. “What did you do?”
Maiara looked down, choking back tears with a long breath. “I. . . looked through her pack.”
Temoc clenched his jaw. “What did you expect to find? A love letter?” he said angrily. “We fought teeth and fire the whole way Over, up the thick and down the desert. I almost died, and she sat with me day and night. I did not bring her here so she could be disrespected by my family!”
Maiara hung her head, crying quietly in shame. “Stop. I know I was dumb. They’ve all had a turn at me already.”
Temoc crossed his arms. She had always been tender hearted, but right now she was softer than usual, thrown into such a situation atop pregnancy’s mood swings. The anger began to drain from Temoc. “I also didn’t think my wife would be carrying my best friend’s baby,” he said darkly.
Maiara gave him a sullen glance. “Well, what did you think?”
Temoc breathed a sigh, relaxing a tiny bit. “I know, I know. And if I really were dead, I would’ve wanted you to move on,” he paused, speaking as much to convince himself, as anything. “I would have been glad he was someone I trusted, and not a stranger who might mistreat you.”
Maiara closed her eyes, silent a while, hugging herself. “Did you mean it, when you said you’ve never had anyone else?”
Temoc tensed, suddenly feeling cornered. If he lied to her, he wouldn’t be worth taking back. “Once, in the heat of a moment. . .”
“Was it with her?” Maiara wanted to know. He didn’t answer, and she looked up at him, her eyes no less piercing than if they were clear. “Was it with her?
Temoc stared at the ground, nodded. Maiara squeezed her lips tight. “I knew it! Why did you bring her here? To torture us all?”
Temoc didn’t answer right away, breathing measured breaths. “I brought Catalina here because she has my back, and I have hers. You don’t ever travel alone, anymore. I’m coming home, and she is selling two horses. Also, she insisted,” he added.
Maiara crossed her arms. So, she’s the one doing the torturing, she thought.
“If it weren’t for her, I would have done far worse to Gerson when we met in the water,” Temoc assured her.
“Temoc’s voice of reason, huh? That’s scary,” she quipped.

Though they had parted with tension, Maiara fell asleep hopeful, smiling as she recanted their conversation. He argued like he still loved her.

Maiara found Temoc in the stables after breakfast, and gingerly slipped into his hesitant arms. “Would you take me back?”
Temoc could still see the beautiful brown of her eyes, under the cloud of surface scars, his heart pounding in his throat. “I would.”
Their embrace tightened, each clutching an anchor long thought lost. He could feel her heart pounding too, in hope and fear. “And what about this child? Would you take it as your own?” She felt the tightness slacken in his warm hug, and her heart sank.
Temoc took a breath, his tone melancholy. “I don’t know if I could,” he admitted. She began to weep softly, and he held her back to see her, caress her cheek. “I’m sorry. . .”
Maiara smiled through her tears, laughing as she cried. “No, I understand,” she assured him. “It’s just that I. . .” She put a hand to her belly, “I cry easy lately.”
Temoc nodded grimly, but kissed a tear from her other cheek. They both stiffened when they heard Gerson calling for her. “I had better go,” Temoc said, head to the ground and without any further goodbye. His movements were stiff as he put on his sword and bow. He was very nearly limping as he went out the door.
He swung around the far corner and hid in the neighbor’s banana grove a moment. Usually he could walk right up the street and away without being noticed, but Gerson knew that trick, and today he couldn’t move so comfortably. He would have to wait until they left. Maiara snuck out the back door, which was very near the outhouse. He could hear them speak:
“Ready to go?” Gerson wanted to know.
“Yeah, yeah. Ready as I’ll ever be,” she answered. Their voices soon faded, into tones rather than words; his held concern. Temoc felt his heart burn once more, and tried to fight it. He wanted to duel again- it had helped with the anger. But yesterday was the hardest he’d fought in a long time, and he was too sore today. He didn’t feel like staying home and hearing whatever it was Ma and Sis would decide he needed to hear this particular morning. He waited until most of the groups had gone before ambling away down the street.
Temoc didn’t like it, sneaking around behind everyone’s backs. He felt as if he were cheating with his own wife, adding a touch of shame and guilt to the already complex mixture of love, anger and fear churning within him. He walked among houses and crowded little markets, until he felt like sitting down for awhile, making his way toward the shore side of Verde, for no other reason than his family worked and played mostly on the riverside.
It was just after midday, and he lingered beside a food stand where a scraggly, middle aged man was cooking spicy-bread snacks in a tiny stone oven that looked as if it’d been carved in that very spot from a rock that stuck up from the deep, silt-rubble soil. He wished he had a coin, salivating. It was stuffy with humidity again today, and he watched the sky over the sea go steadily greyer with a thickening haze. Clouds were beginning to pile and build. Soon, he ought to start looking for someplace with a roof to loiter. Little, thin wisps broke from the distant thunderheads, scudding fast toward Verde. He watched them, puzzled by their whirling movement. This storm could be a violent one. Haggling nearby broke into a loud argument, drawing his attention back to the market. A cloud passed over them, only for a moment. And then another. Temoc looked up again, staring with watering eyes. One tiny cloud was bright with sunshine; another behind it darker than the distant, gathering storm. Soon, he began to see shifting movement in the blue of the sky around them. They weren’t clouds at all, they were dragons. There was a catch in Temoc’s breath. He was in no mood, but he’d have to be the one to meet them; Catalina was too far away. He rose and approached the seller of the spice-breads.
“Have you heard any stories of the colorful dragons?” he asked.
“Plenty,” the man said. “Not sure how much is true though. Heard they were the reason an Overland made it through the pass. . .”
Temoc nodded, and held out a hand. He could tell a long string of gossipy stories was about to follow. “That’s true. And I’ve just seen a few of them flying.” The man’s eyes widened in a half-fearful awe, and Temoc spoke reassuringly. “They don’t want to eat people, they want to say hello. Anyone you see, you can tell them to head for the shore if they would like.”
The man nodded vigorously, stringy grey hair glinting. Temoc left him speechless, heading with purpose now, towards the beach. He would only have to stop and speak with a few people along the way, for the word to spread well.
It got more interesting the closer to the front edge of town he got; by now everyone could see them, and some were on the verge of panic. In places, he had to linger, speaking the same reassuring words over and over to an agitated crowd.
When he walked through the harbor’s docks, the ships’ horns were blowing as eight great beasts and a few smaller ones skimmed the sea along an empty shore. He still had a lot of walking to do; that empty place apart from town was where they’d settle. Already, people were lined up along the beach, watching them forage a spot of sea where the underwater life grew too thick for ships to travel easily. People gawped as Temoc headed out into the weather, but none followed. Four dragons settled on the beach, and the breeze was tickling noses with the certainty of the building storm’s impending rain.

It was widows on the shore; two pairs and their young still eagerly foraged as Temoc made his way across a wide, stone- and shell-studded beach. He would have been faster if he weren’t sore, and by the time he neared them, there was electric in the air. The great white Motherdragon had come ashore, the pearly shine of her scales muted by the encroaching gloom, making the red stains left behind by wounds even more obvious. Soon her compact, muscular black mate followed to settle at her side. A very young dragling was shuffled from her wing to his, and she rose, coming to meet him with strides nearly two horses long. Temoc continued toward her, though he couldn’t ignore a growing nervousness. Sarentiron. The Dragon Queen. He had met her in Flora, but only in passing. Though dragons had worked with people to bring water to a cave, he didn’t know her. Not like he knew Gilarel and the others who’d come over the Mountain with him.
She stopped one stride short of Temoc, and he waited while she lay down. When he approached, she stretched her graceful neck to nuzzle him in greeting, then turned her head slightly aside, scrutinizing him a moment with one brown, deep eye. He shuddered, felt as though she was looking through him. And then she moved again, releasing him, her nose politely close to the ground.
“You are troubled. . .” The dragon’s voice resonated in the sand beneath Temoc’s feet, and she opened a rusty brown wing, inviting him in with a subtle movement of her massive head. He looked to her again, this time her eye was half closed and defocused, her attitude passive. Relieved, he stepped into the offered shelter, a deep, red-tinged brown light filtering through. He looked up to the slanting wing above, turned around a few times. He’d never been under a wing alone, and the room seemed huge compared to the constantly crowded quarters under the wings of the Overland’s Guard.
Sarentiron poked her nose under, breathing a sulfury-hot breath toward him, and gave a long, low rumble. It’s tone calmed him, like a good friend inviting him to sit, and stay awhile. Temoc settled against her ribcage as cool, stormy breezes wafted through her living shelter. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply of the fresh air. Time lost it’s meaning as he rested, wrapped in bliss. He held no thoughts. No memories of pasts or worries of futures raced through his mind as they had been for days. There was only the Mother’s Love, surrounding him and coursing through him. He leaned against Sarentiron, strong and huge and breathing slow, wrapped in her living shelter like a deep cave; the Dragon-mother as one with the Earth-mother.
Temoc barely noticed as the storm blew by with it’s first fury and the great wing tightened around him to block out driving rains. When the tempest subsided, the dragon lifted her wing to nose in his direction, and he very nearly felt like himself again.
“Are you ready?” the dragon asked, her voice deep and maternal, like the Earth’s voice might be.
He nodded and rose, remembering with the movement, how very sore he was. His hand found her hard-ridged face. The storm within himself had also subsided. “Thank you,” he said, and walked from her wing.
People were gathering again on the shore at the edge of the harbor’s docks. They’d been driven in by the storm, but as Temoc walked toward them, the crowd was steadily growing. The rain had only given the word more time to spread.
A rainbow hovered over the green jungle somewhere behind town, and Sarentiron watched carefully as her ally met the strangers. Back on the empty beach, the grey and red dragling emerged from her father’s wing to chew and play with a tree branch that one of the widows had brought her. Temoc spoke to the crowd at length, and eventually turned to head back to the Motherdragon, only a small percentage of the great gathering following.
It had taken a good deal of convincing to get this many, even though Temoc had had help from a few travelers from the troubled side of the Gulf, either already acquainted with or yearning to meet these dragons. Sarentiron endured the formalities of a first time meeting; the timid snuffs and nose carefully on the sand, tentative hands on her smooth scales. Only a very few wore leather armor, and she could tell by the crowd’s smell that many of these people lived and worked with animals.
“This is a safe land,” the dragon began. “You have less need of our protection, and eventually, we will wish to seek sanctuary in these lusher jungles.”
“The land away from the shore is big and empty; why bother to tell us?” asked a man.
“Is it because you would rather eat our animals?” a woman said warily.
Sarentiron smiled subtly. “We would never refuse the gift of meat unsuitable for your use; sick or injured or poison-killed, but we will not take. The land is mostly wild, and the sea also, and plentiful. We could hide on this side of the long river and you would never know. . . except. . .” The dragon closed already defocused eyes, and swiveled her ears. “Do kir-thihahk ever come into your territories?” She spit the word with disdain; it was a vicious word and they knew what it meant; at least, the warriors did.
“They sometimes do,” said a short man in armor. “Traveling warriors always find guarding work in the countryside’s barns.”
Sarentiron gave a growling grunt. “If the young can cross the river, so can a mature Fahah.” The crowd murmured and chattered with fear at her ominous warning. “It may be unlikely. Especially if the Legion is strong enough to fight. But when we become weakened enough to hide in the jungles here, we will be taking our chances, just as you.” The dragon touched her nose into the sand in a nod. “Thank you. It is good to know how safe a place is, before we must flee from battles.”
A lightly-armored traveler spoke. “All the stories I’ve heard, you are strong in battle; much stronger than the cloud of black wings.”
“The black wings far outnumber our own, and your observance is short. Our memory is long.” Sarentiron passed an intense, brown eye over them. “Our chances may be better than before. We already have the help of some of the peoples, but this is not tested. Tropica is smaller than it used to be. There’s not as far to fly if we must flee, and the land doesn’t extend past the Fahahng’s reach of flight. But it is also safer. The Northern side of this Gulf has never been protected by such a long, lake-fed river. The land has folded up on itself during the Change, layers of rock shifting in the squeeze. The mountains’ continuous caves have been fragmented, leaving more safe, isolated caverns. We are fighting an ancient battle on newly changed, ancient ground, and we hope to make as many new allies as possible.”
“If the Anaconda River protects us, why should we have an obligation to you?” a tall woman of the town wanted to know.
Sarentiron gave a rough grunt. “You needn’t. Nor us to you, unless the people of these safe havens would learn to fight across the sea. But we still wish to speak in friendliness. There should be no cause for our kinds to fear one another.” The dragon paused to eye them a moment, then her tone became chillingly ominous. “Not in the face of a true evil.”

The meeting ended on a mostly-amicable note, though still with undertones of uncertainty and tension. Temoc and a few others backed people far enough away that the dragon could rise. He could hear them whispering, still. “What did she mean, ‘in the face of a true evil?'” and, “can we trust the dragons’ word even when they are hungry?”
This meeting hadn’t gone as smoothly as those under Comet’s direction, or when many Overland members had been present. Temoc wished Catalina were there to help him, and hoped he’d done an adequate job on his own. His only consolation was that the dragon had, as nearly as he could tell, seemed satisfied. Perhaps an alliance wasn’t as important, on this safer shore.
It was getting on in the day, and Temoc would have to hurry home if he wanted any dinner. He made better time through the streets now; sore muscles beginning to resolve into simple stiffness.
At home, Temoc was met in the street by his daughter, begging for the story before he’d even come inside. There were many questions, and many eager listeners. Everyone wanted to know about the dragons’ meeting, everyone had gossipy speculation and grandiose ideas; but none of his family had made it to the shore to actually see them up close. Temoc barely had time to eat until the questions died down. Eventually some retired to the porch, and others got lost in conversations of their own. Temoc exchanged furtive, longing glances with Maiara when they thought Gerson’s attention was elsewhere. Eventually, she went to sit in the rocking chair on the porch in the cooling evening. Out the window, Temoc heard Gerson remind her to cover her bare shoulders from mosquitoes. It wasn’t the first time he’d ever done it, but now his tenderness somehow enraged Temoc.
Weary from the constant storm of emotions, Temoc went to bed early, with an unsettled feeling. He didn’t like it. Years and distances had never staled either Maiara’s love or Gerson’s friendship before. . . and now it was all wrong. He lay awake under the thin cloth netting of his bed. He’d decided it was better to sleep without armor, because after a while, the fear of being eaten alive became more bearable than the torture of love and loss. Most nights, it didn’t help much, and he lay awake worrying about both. But tonight, he remembered the unconditional, thoughtless Love he’d felt under Sarentiron’s wing, and fell into a deep sleep.

Temoc awoke from a dream just as dawn greyed the sky, and lay staring at the ceiling. He couldn’t remember much, only the warmth of Catalina’s strong, steady presence at his side. But she wasn’t here. She was back at the ranch, selling Lily. And after that? How long would she wait in Verde, for him to come looking for her? If he ever wanted to see her again, he oughtn’t linger any longer. Wherever he belonged, it wasn’t with Maiara anymore. He needed to go find Catalina, before it was too late.
Temoc drifted near sleep, remembering how Catalina had watched over him after the battle of the Headwaters. Had he died up there on the mountainside, would his spirit have made the long, hard journey home, like a soul returning to Mictlan? If he had come home a ghost, he would have been happy that Maiara had chosen Gerson. He woke fully when the house began to stir, rising earlier than he had on other days. His muscles were still stiff, but loosening well by the time the family gathered for breakfast. It was difficult not to return Maiara’s looks over the fried yam patties and cold fish. He helped carry dishes in for washing-up as most made ready to depart for the day. “I’m leaving, Ma,” he said in a low tone.
She turned from the washbasins to look at him, a thick eyebrow raised.
“I have to go find Catalina.”
“You going to come back?” she wanted to know.
Temoc shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not like it used to be, here.”
Mother nodded solemnly, but spoke with authority. “You better at least come to visit us sometimes.”
Temoc nodded, embraced her and turned to leave the kitchen.
“How you getting out to the ranch?” His uncle wanted to know. “Your lady friend took your horse.”
Temoc shrugged. “Slowly, I suppose. Which is why I better start now.”
His uncle snorted, shifting the baby already on his knee for the day. “Nonsense. Take our pony. He knows his way home, and if you send him out tomorrow morning, he’ll be back in time for his dinner.”
“Are you sure?” Temoc said with doubt. He would never dream of sending an animal out on it’s own, not anymore. His uncle nodded reassuringly, and Temoc smiled in thanks.
Still, he hurried away. He had a few goodbyes to say before everyone left. He hugged his daughter tight, saying, “I’m off to have more adventures. One day, I’ll come back to tell you about them.”
“But you just got back, daddy,” she protested. “I haven’t had a chance to stop missing you yet.”
He hugged her tighter, but said, “I’m glad you haven’t forgotten about me, but you have a new father now.”
She huffed. “Uncle Gerson will always be just Uncle Gerson. You’re my dad.” Temoc chuckled, kissed the top of her head.
He found Maiara sitting in the corner of their guava grove, looking sick.
She jumped a little, looked up to squint at the invader of her privacy. “Temoc?” The blurry man nodded. “Can it possibly wait?” she pleaded.
He came a little closer, speaking tenderly. “I’m afraid not. I’m leaving.” Her clouded eyes grew wet with threatened tears. He put his hands on her shoulders, gazing back intently. “I will never stop loving you, Maiara. But the truth is, you aren’t mine anymore. Each of us have new lives now.”
Maiara closed her eyes against tears, but they slid down her cheeks anyway. She knew it was true, that it had to be this way. Her baby needed a father that would love it like his own, and if her old love wasn’t sure he could do that, the real father would have to do. “I am still going to miss you, every day of my life,” she quavered.
Temoc ran his hand across her kinky black hair, kissed her tenderly on the side of her forehead. “Goodbye, Maiara.”
He saddled up the pony as groups left the house, trotting up the street of crowded dwellings, away from the river, the shore, the center of town as the sun grew strong and hot. Temoc moved the short chestnut beast steadily over the green countryside, feeling the weight lift from his heart a little as he distanced himself from his home place.

Catalina rested in the shade, sitting against one of the trees that grew around the herd’s waterhole; a spring that bubbled into a scooped out pool and trickled away into the meadow. A spattering of marsh-plants grew in it’s wake until it soaked again into the deep, gravelly ground. Horses were gathered around the spring, each waiting their turn to drink. Most had young foals on the ground now, who frolicked and kicked. The spring’s grove lay at the base of a hillet, barely more than a mound of soft earth. Catalina gazed at the family of five speckled dogs that lay atop, relaxed yet watchful from their higher ground.
She had lived in peace for these few days, despite warnings that devourers and other, normal jungle predators could come, at any time. That was why the dogs watched. And why a couple horses at a time were kept saddled and bridled as long as they were in pasture. Catalina wondered how her friend back in town was getting along, and waved gnats from her face. Another resting nearby slapped at horseflies. It had gotten hot quick today.
“How long have you been here?” Catalina wanted to know. Anita had said she was new, but she seemed to know what was what.
“Only a couple weeks,” the ranch hand replied. “I grew up in the countryside though. Got tired of living in town.”
Catalina chuckled. “Guess I’m comfortable in either place, once I got used to living near people. It’s been years since I’ve been back out in the open country.”
“Some people are lucky that way. Others don’t ever change,” Anita mused. “Take Felipe and Afranio for example, ranch hand and stablemaster. They’re brothers.” Catalina looked her way, cocked her head, and Anita continued. “You’d think the older one would be the stablemaster, but Afranio’s the younger. Felipe prefers horses to paperwork, says he’s better with beasts and his little brother’s the organized one.” Anita chuckled a little to herself, still waving away hungry insects.
They jumped to attention when the dogs started barking, all of them suddenly on their feet and looking to the sky. The herd gathered into a defensive bunch at the warning. Catalina and the elder ranch hand ran stumbling up the mound to see. Felipe squinted and blinked, trying to make out what he was looking at. It was as if a piece of the sky had torn up a bit of sundrenched, green jungle in a hurricane battle, though there were no storms or even clouds.
Dragons,” Catalina hissed. A blue and green were barreling this way, in a spar or perhaps a quarrel. They looked the size of yearlings, and they’d get here quick if they didn’t stop themselves.
“Get Greta and Lily!” she called to the woman still in the grove.
“Of course you want them, they’re not the horses on duty!” she protested as Catalina skidded to a stop in the soft, silty earth.
“Two fighting yearlings headed this way,” Catalina said urgently. “We’ve got to get clear, and Greta and Lily won’t get us carried away in the stampede.”
“Yearling what?” Anita prodded, looking panicky.
“Dragons,” Catalina told her ominously. A rope had been looped around Greta’s halter, and a bridle hastily put on Lily. Catalina and Felipe moved the gathered herd into the open, routing them away from the path of the oncoming low-fliers as the snarling furies passed close overhead. They heard the whoosh of the wings’ wind in the grove’s trees even above the thundering hooves. The two riders were able to draw up the herd by the time they reached the far end of the pasture. Catalina’s heart pounded, adrenaline whistling in her ears. Lily still shaking and jumping beneath her. She looked back as the herd milled at the hedge’s edge, catching her breath. The great, colorful intruders were already gone. A distant crashing told her they had landed in the jungle, and were continuing their match on the ground.
“I thought you said the colorful ones were friendly!?” Felipe exclaimed. “What the Hell was that?”
Catalina shook her head. “Never seen them fight each other like that, but the young ones aren’t very careful. You have to stay clear of their path.”
“Like a giant dogfight, in the sky.” The ranch hand concluded, his tone dark.
Catalina grunted, circling the herd to keep them together.
Once the horses calmed, they moved back into the open. Anita walked to meet them, coming out of hiding from a low spot in the meadow, her shorts and vest dampened. They decided to put Greta and Lily on duty for awhile. Catalina listened and watched, waiting to see the offending youngsters rise into the sky again. When they finally did, it was a relaxed, lazy circle. The dogs still barked, but with the two experienced mares, the hands kept the herd steady until the beasts were high in the sky and leaving, and the horses relaxed.

It was just after midday, and they were in the tree-studded meadow closer to the barn. The dogs barked again, this time looking toward the road and wagging their tails in anticipation. A single rider was jogging steadily in. The figure disappeared in a hedge awhile, and when it came into view again, was walking the little horse cool.
While the regular ranchers speculated as to who it might be, Catalina fought the hope that it could be Temoc. She lost the battle when they said they didn’t recognize the horse, and started down the herd’s stoney path to meet the traveler.
Temoc smiled when he saw her. “I’m glad you’re still here.”
Catalina smiled back, nodding. “Everything alright?”
Temoc took a breath. “Everything is as it should be. That isn’t my place, anymore. I hope, my place is with you.”
Catalina said nothing, but waved him to follow, and they walked up the path together. They soon went their separate ways; Temoc to the barn to find his rank among the guards, and Catalina back into the pasture.

“Our last mare’s looking ready,” Felipe commented, watching the animal pace restlessly. Anita agreed, and they steered the direction of grazing toward a wide, meandering stream to gather the herbs warriors used on the wounds left by devourers. The smell of birth nearly always drew them in, and fresh supplies would be welcome.
Back at the camp, Temoc drew a tiny tuber from his pocket to add to the pastes being mashed up. One didn’t thicken it much, but even a little would help. It was a nice evening, and the corn-masa cakes were cooking outside in the rough abode oven affixed to the long stone wall of the barn. A bean sauce simmered, thickening as the sun lowered on the horizon.
“Did you see the fight in the air?” Anita asked the newly arrived traveler.
Temoc nodded. “Saw them leave the shore. Did they make it here?”
Several pointing hands traced the arc of the flight, over and away into the jungle. “Flew over us low and spooked everyone,” Catalina said.
Temoc sighed. “And I’m not there to help Mother apologize.”
“Was there a meeting?” Catalina wanted to know.
Temoc nodded. Catalina was about to ask how it went, when the dogs gave a fearful barking, coming in close to the people with their hackles raised. Everyone looked on the ground, into the shadowiest spots and bushes. And then a massive shadow passed over them. She glided down easily from her circling and landed lightly in an empty pasture, a shining white star come to rest on the earth. Azure wings changed to a rusty-earth color as she folded them, and looked in the direction of their camp. Behind her a tattered, blueish dragon landed, it’s attention fixed on the forest in the distance.
“Looks like Mother is here,” Catalina observed. She and Temoc stood, coming to the edge of the circle for the dragon to see them.
The horsemen and guards behind them were speechless. They heard a few gasps, a few nervous fidgets. One murmured, “Good thing the horses are all stabled.”
When the people didn’t come to Sarentiron, she started towards them, moving slowly. Catalina and Temoc stood their ground, while others nervously attempted to calm the frightened dogs. “Is she going to crush us too?” someone asked as the huge, shining beast approached.
“No. She’s good,” Catalina said.
The dragon crouched at the bottom of the stoney hillock that the barn sat upon, cautiously hopeful. She seemed at least as big as the hill itself, even when trying to make herself look small. The activity of the human encampment was stilled, and the two familiars waved her forward. Sarentiron crept up the rise slowly, still crouching. People’s canine companions cowered and growled from behind their masters. She stopped every so often to let them calm a little, and was slinking on her belly by the time she was close enough to stretch her hard-tipped nose out and touch the hands of the Overland’s two warriors.
“Your kids scared us,” Catalina told her.
Sarentiron touched her nose to the short-grazed grass in a soft snort. “Were you harmed?”
Catalina shook her head. “But we had to run.” The great dragon gave a soft, hissing sigh, steamy breath spreading from her nostrils. “It will not happen again. We will go, if need be.”
“Why did it happen in the first place?” One of the armorless people wanted to know.
“Our young ones must have forgotten that safer lands are not empty enough for their thoughtless freedoms.” The great beast lifted her head above them, stretched her nose’s attention beyond the steam of burning food as the evening breeze shifted scents around. “You have a mare that is nearing her time.” She passed a glance over them that felt heavy as stone itself. “We could stay this night, offer our protection in compensation for our yearlings’ carelessness.”
The two hands murmured together in a knot, and Catalina stepped back towards them. “Wouldn’t be a bad idea, considering,” she whispered.
“If kir-thihahk are near, they will come,” Sarentiron warned.
The decision made, Felipe turned to the dragon to speak. “No. We have skilled warriors, and you are making the horses afraid. She doesn’t need to worry about a dragon hanging around while she’s foaling.”
Sarentiron touched her snout to the ground in acquiescence and gave a gentle snort, ears swiveling. She glanced behind her to either side before turning in a swift, smooth motion and leaping from her crouch into the sky. Hiding dogs whimpered and yelped as her wings’ wind swirled around them, and a few frightened whinnies came from within the long barn.
Some of the corn masas were burnt to dog food, but others were edible enough. The sauce was a little smokier too than they liked it. Catalina and Temoc sat back in the circle as dinner was passed around. “Guess this is the price of visits from dragons,” Catalina sniffed the beans. “Burnt food.”
“And she didn’t even do it,” Temoc grinned. Then his expression became serious. “Would you have me at your back in the nights?” he asked her.
“Gladly,” Catalina said.
“Really?” A tall warrior raised an eyebrow. “You’re on first shift, and at least half of us beat him this afternoon. Hard.”
Temoc shrugged. “That’s five times better than I did a couple days ago.”
“You’re shooting’s still a bit weak, too,” the darkest warrioress pointed out.
Catalina gave him a sideways look. The watcher at the warrior’s back had to be a sure shot.
“Women’s bows are usually lighter than men’s. . . want to switch?” Temoc asked hopefully.
“I don’t know. . . She’s my bow, she’s gotten awful used to me,” Catalina said with doubt.
“Do you have any idea how big they get, way out here where there’s plenty of food?” Yesseca waved her deep bronze arm toward the distant jungle.
Temoc and Catalina looked at each other. That had never occurred to them. “Then, I’ll have to keep training hard,” Temoc’s manner was determined.

The overnight’s shifts were extra watchful, growing quieter as the night wore on. Two pair sat at opposite corners of the barn, each with a tiny fire and a lantern. One of the pair looked down the shorter wall, the other down the longer wall so that each side of the barn was guarded. From within, they could hear the restless movements and soft sounds of the laboring mare. The dogs were asleep at their feet when the distant jungle erupted in the angry howls and hoots of a group of monkeys, rudely awakened.
A warrior nudged the nearest sleeping dog with his foot. “Listen,” he commanded. The blue-grey, speckled dog jumped to attention, held his ears toward the distant sound. He remained laying down, alert but unconcerned. By the time he nodded off again, a young bitch had awakened, and was greeting each of the shift’s company with licks to fingers. When a few more woke up, the dogs trotted off into the dark field, barking in the night at nothing in particular. The guards remained relaxed, watching. It was a normal night, for if devourers came near the pack became wary and hid in the barn.

 

copyright Melanie Degen


Tropican Chronicles, #7, Verde: Temoc Goes Home, part 1

Verde: Temoc Goes Home, pr. 43, Gemini

I. Safety

Catalina woke to wash at breakfast. The intense cramps of her moontime were lessening, and soon her flow would be, too. It was breakfast time, and she felt like eating a few cold cactus lobes and avocado before retreating to the darkest wall of Song’s red cave. She dozed again, trying to make up for a night spent half-awake in pain. When she roused, she saw that Temoc had come in from the riverbank, and was washing away the sweat and river muck of a morning’s work. Soon, he came to sit beside her with a hopeful expression.
“You can start gathering things, if you want,” Catalina said, a distant lamp leaving a bright streak across her sandy-light hair. “I’ll be ready to leave by the afternoon tide. And by tomorrow I could be rowing, if they’ll have me.”
Temoc smiled, hope enlivening his being. Finally, he was going home. He left to pack his things and inquire about any pay they may be due. He knew he hadn’t earned much, if anything. He could do only light work, and had slept his entire stay in Song’s red cave, still healing from his many wounds and the hard journey Overland. But the big, greying master of the storehouses handed over a fair wage for Catalina’s work and fierce fighting in Guardhouse West. It had rained overnight, and the pebbly sand’s blush of green spring growth had grown taller already. More shrubs and trees were bursting into flower and leaf. Temoc went down to the trade-shore, hitching rides on little boats that ferried goods to ships being loaded for departure, looking for room on a larger one before they were all filled.
Between trips, he met Wayland on the shore, asking about a ship headed to the Anaconda River. “You’re not going to find a ride straight there,” Temoc told him. “Ships will stop in Verde first.”
“Isn’t that where you’re going?” Wayland asked, staring blankly into the sky.
Temoc nodded, but didn’t bother to snap Wayland from his reverie, relieved that the scrawny woodcutter had become distracted. He stalked away, hopping into another little boat as it’s crew braced against the lapping of the gulf’s little waves to steady the vessel.

The Overland’s mares arrived from the field just after midday. They stopped in the red cave, where the sweat was washed from them. The space was becoming crowded with prospective new dragonstitchers and curious onlookers gathering at the well lit altar which Comet had chosen to teach beside.
“We should keep Greta’s armor here, in the Overland’s cache,” Temoc said, idly watching Comet. He still seemed a stranger in some ways, even though Temoc had journeyed with him for months. He sat in comfortable nonchalance, looking as if he’d just woken up. Wrapped loosely in the garment usually tied at his waist, his fresh full moon’s cuts were mostly obscured. The light of the several lamps gleamed in the curls of his fair hair, and he still held breakfast’s empty bowl in his hand.
Bridgit scratched under Greta’s thick mane, and the dark mare’s ears relaxed in enjoyment. “I’m going to miss her. I hope it’s really safe enough, where she’s going.”
Temoc nodded in agreement. The petite warrioress’s red hair had grown out a bit during the journey; beginning to form tight, unruly curls. He looked down, his gaze meeting the spirited flash in her eyes. “It’s been nice knowing you,” he said.
Bridgit laughed. “Don’t say it like we’ll never meet again,” she told the stocky warrior.
Temoc shrugged. “Maybe I’ll stay home, this time.”
“And maybe you won’t,” Bridgit put a hand on her hip. She’d seen him come over and back across the Mountain more than once, before things had gotten dangerous.
The horses’ field guards accompanied them to the shore, helping Catalina and Temoc load them onto little barges with crates of processed coconut oil. Wayland was among those snugging the mares into slings below decks, and he smiled broadly when he saw Temoc and Catalina.
“Looks like we’re taking the same ship! Brothers of the Oververland, still traveling together,” the scrawny warrior exclaimed with glee, strings of dark hair flapping with his movement.
Temoc stared dumbly, and Catalina shot him an evil glare.
“-And sisters!” he added hastily.
Catalina crossed her arms. His tendency to thoughtless stupidity made him a liability, not an asset. When she spoke, her tone was acid. “You are not my brother, and you never will earn the right to say that.”
Wayland shook his head. “Tsk… you never know,” he said with hope.
As the ship left harbor, Catalina watched the low, stone-jagged hills go by, their scrubby forest mostly brown and dormant, with blushes of green on the weather ward curves of rain catching ridges. Birds circled and cried over the receding glacier etched landscape, and a pod of sleek, grey dolphins burst from the surface of the water, leaping alongside their many-oared ship.

At first, Catalina spent most of her time keeping the horses company, but by the journey’s second day she was beginning to take shifts, rowing alongside Wayland. The first time Temoc relieved her of his unpleasant company, he was deep in the stomach-turning details of a story about foot rot and trench mouth. But Temoc wasn’t strong enough to row for long, and Wayland soon came back. It wasn’t long before he started telling yet another crude adventure. This one was about the time he’d snuck away with a girl and had her while two other guys were busy fighting over her. A certain percentage of men would have found entertainment in tales of women with no honor, but Catalina wondered why he would bother trying to impress her with such stories. Finally she paused in her rowing to glare at him. “Stop spending your breath and put your strength into the oar,” she growled. He was silent for a time, but it didn’t last.
The winds were so little that sometimes the sail was nearly slack, but the long ship sped through an incredibly calm sea under human power. The Western Gulf’s water was shallow, nearly iridescent blue-green and teeming with life. Almost all the content of their meals came from the surrounding waters, and for the first half of the journey they skirted a low lying island, it’s barely visible banks choked with a tangle of mangroves.
On the evening of the fourth day of travel, Catalina stood with Temoc on the ship’s deck as they waited to come into harbor. This countryside was far greener than the base of the Grey Mountains, and flat, save for gentle undulations. People had carved pastures and fields from an evergreen jungle, and the land was patchworked with the normal rotations of human cultivation; alternating gardens, pastureland and the brushy regrowth of resting soil. The river’s wide, slow moving delta was dotted with the green of reeds clinging to shifting little sandbars. It looked shallow and stoneless; not like any of the rivers Catalina had ever seen. The town of Verde lay on the shore at the river’s edge, sprawling between rank riverside jungle and the pastureland along the coast. It’s buildings and houses appeared to be made of stone, and many had thatched roofs. The place looked like her own town used to look. These people hadn’t had to abandon their winding, above ground town or the roomy pastures and ranches surrounding it. Long stone barns atop the rocky hillocks still had little dots of horses or cattle moving into them at day’s end.
There was a distant sorrow in Catalina’s husky voice. “It looks like home,” she said, remembering the way Crocodile used to be.
Temoc chuckled, but his tone held a similar wistfulness. “It is home. Hasn’t changed much.”

Catalina and Temoc walked the dark mares along the shore by the docks, allowing them to stretch their legs after four days standing, slinged in the hold. Both warriors found their gazes fixed upon the bushes around them, though every evidence assured them it was a safe land. Catalina made it a point to enjoy the purple-clouded, fiery sunset as it faded over the town of Verde, the smoke from it’s many chimneys tinted violet in the fading brilliance. “There’s no way we’re going to find a ranch now,” she noted.
“The harbor has plenty of inns,” Temoc said, his tone matter-of-fact.
Catalina turned to him. “Maybe so, but I don’t have plenty of money. Hardly any left. What about you?”
Temoc shook his head. “I didn’t earn much. I could buy us a meal though, I’m sure.”
“I’d rather have a roof over our heads,” Catalina said darkly, looking over her shoulder to Lily. “And over theirs.”
Temoc shrugged. “They’re used to being outside, and so are we. Why worry about it now, when we’re safe?”
Catalina shot him a glare. “In towns, people can steal horses.”

There was a rustling of the bushes and both jumped, hands on their swords half-drawn. Their looks of relief was noticeable when a man appeared from the little dune-path, arms stretched in a gesture of defenselessness. “No need to be so jumpy, looks pretty safe here.” It was Wayland.
Temoc and Catalina glanced at each other, their relief fading.
“Couldn’t help but overhear your converversation,” Wayland grinned. “It just so happens that I have lots of money left, and will gladly help two fellows in need. If the inn isn’t too expensive,” he added.
Temoc shook his head. “We don’t want to be in your debt.”
“No no no I insist. No need to repay me,” Wayland was adamant.
Catalina spoke softly near Temoc’s ear. “I’m not sure we have much of a choice.” She turned to Wayland, speaking carefully. “Alright. You help us put the horses up for the night, but we’re paying for our own room. I’m not sleeping with you.”
Wayland grinned. “Awe, come on! We shared quarters between dragons for months.”
Catalina crossed her arms. “We’re not between dragons now, or crammed onto a longship. We’re sleeping separately.”
Wayland concealed his disappointment. It wasn’t like he’d have a chance with her anyway, with Temoc in the room too.

The three ambled through emptying streets, the horses’ hooves clacking against the cobbles. Only a few people coming and going from the harbor moved on the streets, and soon Lily and Greta were safely stabled while Temoc and Catalina ate a modest meal in the commons room of a stone-and-adobe inn. Wayland was enjoying a drink at the bar a ways away. He’d had to pick the cheapest inn they could find. The stable was cramped, there was a large water-stain on the ceiling of their room, and the fish tasted very fishy. Shady-looking customers lurked in the corners and whispered, watching them.
Catalina leaned close to Temoc, keeping her voice low. “I don’t like the looks of this place.”
Temoc followed her furtive glances, the hungry glints in the strangers’ eyes. Surely, this was no place for a lady. But this woman had fought far worse foes than shady men. He gave a conceding nod, then said, “Can any of them really hurt you, though?”
Catalina shrugged. “Maybe, without my sword.” She was beginning to regret leaving it in their room. Fighting dragons was not the same as fighting people, and duels between warriors were always respectful, carefully executed.
Temoc grunted. “If you need me, I’ll hear.”
Catalina nodded, making an effort to breathe easier. Just then a hand smeared something cold and vaguely slimy across her shoulders. She stiffened in surprised shock. Wayland didn’t have time to finish his snigger- Catalina shoved her chair backwards, pushing him down and spilling the remainder of his drink, bristling as she whirled around.
Wayland sat on the floor, the chair over his lap. “So touchy,” Wayland protested, pushing the chair away and dusting himself off.
“Don’t push your luck,” Catalina growled, righting the chair and turning her back on him again to sit down. Wayland pulled up a chair and joined them at the table with a smile, unphased by her hostility. Catalina looked at Temoc, rolling her eyes. Temoc smiled. Untrustworthy men wouldn’t give her any trouble.
As soon as they finished eating, they split up to ask about horse ranches, reasoning that Wayland would only be able to follow one of them.

“. . .Going to stay a little while, then?” asked the weathered, vested man with whom Temoc conversed.
“We have two mares who need a home,” Temoc replied.
The other man studied him thoughtfully. Of all the warriors that came to Verde’s shores, this one’s coat had the most patches and stains he’d ever seen. Word was the Overland had gone through hell to get here, and that would be the only reason he could think of that a warrior would have a horse. And, this one looked familiar. “Wait. . . are you Temoc?” he guessed. At an affirming nod, the man gave him a hearty welcome home, slapping him on the back with an embrace.
When Temoc reunited with Catalina, they had lost Wayland. “There’s a ranch half a day’s travel out,” Temoc said.
“The good news is, we, or I, will have a place to stay while we’re here,” Catalina said. “Guards passing through are paid to live with and watch over animals through the night.”
Despite paying a little more for a larger room, it still had only one shabby bed, and come nightfall they looked at one another awkwardly. “I’ll sleep on the floor,” Temoc volunteered.
Catalina shook her head. “Healing bodies get the most comfortable spot. I’ve been sleeping on stone floors for a long time. I can do it here, too.”
Temoc cocked his head amiably. “I’m not sure the bed would actually be more comfortable, but at least I don’t have to share it with Wayland.”

The following morning, they watched with amusement as a discussion between Wayland and several sailors became animated, when he declared his intention to travel to the Anaconda River.
One sailor snorted. “Getting hard to find ships going that way.”
“You’ll be lucky if you don’t have to wait out the wet-season here,” said another.
“Really? It’s not that rainainy yet,” Wayland protested.
“Let me put it this way,” said the first seafarer. “You’d be better off stuck here than adrift at sea, if a storm comes up and blows the ship off course.”
“You don’t follow the charts exactly, and Yacumama will swallow you up,” the third man added, with a dramatic sweep of his hands.
Wayland tried not to snort, but his disbelief was noticed in any case.
“My brother saw her,” said the second sailor emphatically. “They were almost there, and she opened her mouth under the water.” He made a dramatic gesture, opening both arms before him. “Almost capsized the ship, and sucked up nearly everyone who fell into the sea.”

“Yacumama?” Catalina wanted to know, as she and Temoc led the two mares out of town, toward one of the distant long-barns that stood atop the low hillocks.
“A sea monster,” Temoc said, “Like a great river serpent, only bigger. She sucks anything up that comes near enough.”
“There’s lots of things living in the seaweed jungles, but is there really a sea monster?” Catalina said with doubt.
Temoc shrugged. “I’ve never been to the Anaconda before, but I know the sea is treacherous, very shallow with underwater ridges, eddies, and tangles of seaweeds. I suppose there could be something really big living there.”
“Or, it could just be a dangerous ocean,” Catalina added.
“Used to think that. And then I started having to fight poisonous dragons every night. Who knows what else is living here we don’t know about?” Temoc pointed out.
A gentle breeze blew in from the Gulf, warm and salty. The houses were thinning out, town giving way to homesteads and garden-farms, the crops well sprouted and healthy looking. The smell of the sandy earth rose to meet them, of moist fertility baking in the hot sun of late morning. This coast had been getting rain for a good while longer than the desert town at the base of the Narrow Mountain from which they’d come.

It was mid afternoon when a knock came on the door of the stablemaster’s luxurious little cottage. Afranio rose from his desk to answer the call.
“Two warriors have arrived, sir,” the messenger reported.
“And?” The stablemaster sounded annoyed. Warriors came and went all the time, and usually only bothered to contact him for pay, as they went.
“They have two horses to sell,” the messenger said.
Afranio’s annoyance gave way to curiosity. “Warriors with horses? Tell them I’ll be along.” Afranio waved the messenger away, and returned to his desk.

“We’re selling Greta right away, but we should keep Lily a little longer,” Catalina told Temoc. “She’ll come in season again soon, or not. If it turns out she’s in foal, we can sell her for more.”
“Will it be worth it to keep her for that many extra days?” Temoc wondered.
“Sure would be nice to ride back into town tomorrow, when we go find your family,” Catalina pointed out.
“You coming with me?” Temoc wanted to know. “Not sure one little mare should carry two riders.”
Catalina shrugged. “Can’t be more weight than she carried over the Mountain. Or we could take turns.”
The stablemaster soon arrived, looking over the two dark mares with a critical eye while Catalina explained the virtues of dragon-tamed horses and the reason for sale.
“You took brood mares Overland?” he wrinkled his brow at the two warriors.
“Wasn’t our idea,” Temoc said, arms crossed.
“They don’t look any the worse for wear,” Afranio mused. The big one had a rough scar on her rump, half-hidden under sleek hair. He’d seen uglier, though, and her gait was still smooth.
Temoc stood by as Catalina and the stablemaster haggled. Catalina drove a hard bargain, but eventually Afranio gave in, paying a high price for the big mare. He wanted to take the little one as well, before she knew how much Lily was worth, but Catalina insisted he wait.
When the stablemaster had gone, they joined the circle of warriors to make nine, gathered in a ring outside the barn to duel. Steel clashed and rang while the evening’s meal was cooked on a stove built into the outer wall of the stone barn. Catalina was among the best, and Temoc’s fighting was weak. There were only two nightlong shifts, here. She got first, and he got second. Soon the herd came home, their two human attendants and a small pack of multicolored guard dogs in tow. Six mares and five foals traveling at a relaxed trot, one tawny stallion who circled his two new mares with interest.
Temoc and Catalina sat among those gathered at a rough adobe oven attached to the long outside wall of the barn, and a big boned, scar-faced warrior slapped his thighs with finality. “Guess I can get going, now some new blood has showed up,” he announced.
“We’re leaving again tomorrow, and I’d rather get stronger at duels before I take a shift at all,” Temoc said.
“Hmph. Guess I’ll stay, then,” the scarred one said.
“You want to get paid and fed, you have to actually do some guarding,” a tall woman told Temoc.
“Relax,” a lean man smiled, with chipped teeth. “They almost never show up, and I don’t think anyone’s actually had to fight, just before dawn.”
“What about in the day?” Catalina wanted to know.
The elder stablehand shook his head. “Never seen devourers come while it’s light.”
Catalina nodded. “I can help with the horses during the days too; I grew up on a cattle ranch.”

The stalls were roomy enough that mares and young foals stabled together, with one side of the barn mostly empty. Soft, content horsey sounds punctuated the muted air within. Just after dinner, half the guards were climbing into the loft to take sleep. Catalina breathed in the earthy, rich smell of horses, hay, musty cold stone. Her heart stirred. The place where she grew up was one like this. A big, stone shelter where contented animals stayed nights and weathered out the monsoons; cattle and a few horses coexisting with their human tenders and guarding dogs. The place of her past was long gone now, it’s occupants eaten and structures standing abandoned, as the jungle’s green vines covered them from sight and memory. Catalina followed Temoc up the steep, ladder-like stair to set up her bedroll before taking her shift. They passed piles of hay and bales of other foodstuff on their way to the guards’ makeshift sleeping quarters at the center of the long, open space.
“So, going home tomorrow,” she said. Temoc nodded. “Where is home, from here?”
“On the river’s side of town,” Temoc told her. “But Maiara teaches children during the day. I’ll find her with them.”
Home, Catalina thought. For a moment, she wished it were that simple for her, that it was a place she could travel to. Where she could again mount up and ride with the wind, out to find the cattle in their pasture as she did when she was a girl. But that home was only a memory for her. Even the place where she’d been living in a town of caves was a world away, now. Across the Narrow Mountain.

 

II. Turmoil

Catalina and Temoc started for town as soon as they could, saddling Lily and loading her with their packs and bundled armors. They took turns riding and trotting beside her most of the time, but both were riding when they came to the edge of the bustling town, making their way among oxcarts, burros loaded with sticks, people in crowded open markets and horses carrying riders or pulling carriages.
Once in the heart of the tiny city, they both walked. Catalina longed to wander through the crowded markets, full of colorful cloths, good smells and cackling chickens in crates, but she held to the course as Temoc made his way towards the river. She could tell he was nervous, but couldn’t help enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of Verde. People here wore no armor, and less clothing altogether than she was used to. Some had loose, flowing cloth to cover their skin, but a good number of them wore only skirts or loincloths, sometimes open-fronted vests. Catalina couldn’t help stare at some of the finer specimens, their red-tan skin shining in the bright day’s sun. She breathed deeply of a spicy scent that wafted from yet another alley market. “Ahh, normal life,” she said, opening her arms expansively.
“It’s strange,” Temoc’s tone was far away. “Like I’ve woken up from a two-year nightmare. . . Everything here looks the same.”
At the mouth of the next alley market sat a couple of beggars, their limbs disfigured and swollen with a parasitic disease. Catalina’s heart fell at the sight. “One thing about normal life I don’t miss; the diseases. Must really be a safe place if the cripples haven’t been eaten yet,” she said darkly.
“Still enough animals left to carry the parasites,” Temoc noted. “I might have to make myself some food arrows and go hunting.”

Temoc found the little schoolhouse easily, stone and adobe like so many other buildings. It was the same one where he learned, along with cousins, friends, and his love who now taught the next generation. A number of children were outside in the dusty yard, scampering about on a mid-day break. The teacher wasn’t with them. She must still be inside. Temoc leaned against the cold stone wall outside the door, his heart pounding, his breath held. He let it out, and swung around to step into the doorway. There was a young, brownish man, with short, closely curly hair. Temoc stared in dismay, his mouth open but lost for words.
“Can I help you?” the man asked, eyeing the gaping stranger.
Temoc shut his mouth, his heart pounding no less hard, mind racing with a thousand what ifs. “Where’s Maiara?” he managed.
The young teacher smiled. “She has endured one too many a bout with trachoma. She’s taken on another job to keep from the children’s eye infections, and losing more of her vision. She’s been working the nets and traps down at the river.”
Temoc breathed with relief, the fearful uncertainty lifting from him. He thanked the man and made haste, veering slightly for the briny side of the town’s shore-edge. Catalina followed silently behind, leading the horse.
By the time Temoc looked out on the wide flats of soft silt to the waders with nets in the tidal shallows, he was jittery with uncertainty. Wondering how well she could see, and if she would recognize him at all.
Several long docks spanned the clam-mucking flats, ending at the river’s shallow water. Only a few little boats were moored there; mostly it was lined with crab traps and places to hang nets. Temoc took the first one, walking down it with a nervous eye glancing to each woman at the traps, looking for Maiara. When he did not find her there, he sat down to step into the water, trudging at thigh-height out toward a group of people in wide straw hats who were dragging a net through the shallow water. None of these were she, and he finally thought of asking. A woman pointed upriver, and he pulled himself through the water with determination, toward the next group of netters.
These were gathering their flopping, silvery catches into the sacks that trailed in the water behind them, while their fish-drivers circled back upstream, long poles over their shoulders.
When he saw her along the middle of the net, he knew for sure. The way she moved. Her slight, frail shoulders and round bottom. The way the sun got tangled in the wiry curves of dark hair bound behind her. “Maiara!” he called, trudging hard through the gradually deepening water.

The voice that called her name was undeniably familiar, and Maiara’s heart jumped, pounding. She let go the net and turned around, squinting at the blurry man rushing toward her in water’s slow motion with a fluttering in her chest. “Cuauhtemoc, is that you?” she breathed, moving to meet him. They came splashing together into a tight embrace.
Maiara finally let him go, holding him by the shoulders at arm’s length as Catalina caught up. She gazed at him with clouded eyes, her lashes curled under. “It’s a miracle. . .” she breathed, her voice trembling.
Temoc lifted his blocky hand, gently caressing the rich bronze skin of her cheek. “Your beautiful eyes. . .” Their deep, soft brown was obscured with cloudy scarring. He sounded as if he were about to weep.
One of the fish-drivers had broken away from the group, and was headed their way. Maiara took Temoc’s hand in hers, lowering it from her face as the fish-driver approached, stocky and solidly built like Temoc, but a little shorter.
Temoc opened his arms in warm welcome. “Gerson! Once again, you have taken good care of her in my absence!”
Fish driver and netter-woman exchanged nervous glances, and Maiara blushed, looking down. She placed a hand on her belly, her tone growing morose. “Yes, very good care of me.”
Temoc’s heart sank, his voice became hollow. “You’re with his child.”
Maiara stared into Temoc’s eyes, tears forming in hers. When she spoke, her voice quavered. “I never expected you to come back from the dead, Temoc. Or back over the Mountain if you weren’t.”
Temoc’s face slowly reddened. He turned to the fish-driver beside her, who was still catching his breath.
There was a sloshing in the waist-high water, and Catalina gripped his shoulder from behind. “Don’t be stupid, Temoc.” Her husky voice an urgent whisper.
Gerson shook his head, holding his hands out in front of him. “I’m sorry, cousin. I never meant to steal your wife. . .”
Temoc’s tone was thick with anger. “But you did. And you can’t give her back now.” He shot a glare toward Maiara’s belly, then stared at Gerson a moment more, his breaths short. He landed a solid punch into Gerson’s jaw, and stormed away toward the shore, Catalina following.
Gerson stumbled backward, and Maiara caught him from falling. They watched Temoc go. Maiara sighed with relief. Gerson held his aching jaw, spit a drop of blood into the water. “That went well enough,” he stated.

Temoc was still flushed with anger when he unhitched Lily from the landward end of the dock and mounted up. He turned the little mare without so much as a glance to Catalina, and she grasped the reigns. “Where we going now?”
Home,” Temoc growled. Catalina hoped that wasn’t a bad idea, but there was no getting back to the ranch this late in the day, and they couldn’t afford to stay at another inn. She trotted after him with tired determination.
The house of Temoc’s family was one of the little stone-and-rough-adobe abodes that stood crowded together on a narrow, sandy street, it’s tiny yard overhung with trees and crowded with fruit-bearing bushes and young vegetable plants. Vines wound up the side of the porch and walls, grasping at bamboo gutters that brought water into a large catch basin nestled against the house. A knot of banana plants, heavy with bunches, grew outside the tiny stable, and under them a compost heap was sprouting with discarded seeds. Hens scratched at it among vigorously growing squash seedlings, and a brown dog ran from the porch to bark as they stepped from the rutted street. People appeared from within to stare wide eyed at the surprise return, and Temoc was embraced with loud exclamation by his mother, a thick-bodied woman with grey streaking the long black hair tied up behind her. The anguish within Temoc faded a little at the warm welcome home, and he was made to tell his story over and over again, first to his mother and uncle, then to each group returning at day’s end as children and dogs ran underfoot. His own daughter, a girl of seven or so, sat on the ground before him, listening with full attention each time.
Even when Gerson and Maiara came home, and anger started to rise again in Temoc, his mother insisted he tell his story to them as well, as Catalina sat silently in a chair at the corner of a rickety wooden table, smelling the cooking of fish and maize and spicy sauce.
Dinner’s mood was celebratory as the family sat crowded around the table, with children eating on benches nearby. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was disturbed by the sullen looks and awkward silences between Temoc and his former wife.
Temoc’s mother once again tried to break the tension, indicating Catalina and speaking brightly. “So, this fine young woman you’ve brought home with you. Is she your intended?”
Temoc gave a vexed grunt, exchanged glances with Catalina.
“I’m his comrade,” she managed, but it sounded weak.
His mother smiled politely. “You must be very brave, tagging along home without knowing what he might find.”
The awkward silences continued, and Temoc rose as soon as he had finished, his muscles stiff from the long day’s travel. “Think I’ll go check on the horse,” he mumbled. He had no will to be among them right now, and no wont to find out who’s room he would be obliged to stay in. His own family possessed a pony, and he fed and watered the two beasts in the deepening evening, even though it had already been done. He swatted mosquitoes from their rumps, and his own legs, feeling vulnerable without his coat and leggings as the dark settled in around him.
Catalina came to find him, and it wasn’t long before she was swatting the hungry insects from her own arms. She remembered the disfigured beggars of the marketplaces with a shudder, and began putting on her armor.
Temoc gave her a quizzical look. “I doubt we’ll have to fight, in the middle of town.” He looked down the street, crowded with row-houses to it’s distant end, and shuddered at the thought of the carnage of a devourer’s invasion.
“Maybe not, but I’m getting eaten by bugs,” Catalina said. It seemed a strange thing to worry about again, after so long sleeping sealed up in caves and battling far more frightening creatures in the night. “I’ve been offered a room with some girls,” she told him as he too got into his armor. “They’re still trying to figure out where to put you.”
“I’ll stay here, save them the trouble. Tell them thanks, though.”
They turned when someone stepped into the stable doorway. “My long lost son has returned from the dead. There’s no way I’m leaving him to sleep in the barn.” Temoc’s mother put her hands on her hips.

Temoc spent the night in his old room, crowded with several teenage cousins, staring at the thin cloth netting that hung down over his bed, his mind racing. Safe from mosquitoes here, he had taken his coat off again.
Part of him was afraid; no-one kept watches, no-one even had armor except for Catalina and he. He reassured himself by the fact they were in the middle of town, and devourers went for animals first. If for some reason they didn’t stop at the farms and ranches, he would hear the distant screaming out the glassless window, maybe see the glow of flaming houses.
Temoc shuddered at the thought, and put on his armor again. Perhaps it would settle his mind enough to allow slumber, hot though it was. But still, sleep would not come. His closest companion had taken his wife. For months he’d been preparing himself for the possibility she wouldn’t be his. But, his own best friend had been the one who’d taken her. Anger and a sense of betrayal coursed through him, only strengthening as the night wore on. Still awake, staring at the thin cloth netting that hung around him, hot and uncomfortable, laying in bed with his crocodile armor, his heart in anguish.

There was a sullen, awkward undercurrent between the new arrival and his old wife and friend at the boisterous breakfast table, but everyone parted ways rapidly after that, leaving the older and younger generations to the house. It wasn’t long before even the children dispersed into the street in groups with neighbors. Temoc’s uncle bounced a baby on his knee as Ma did the washing up, and when the matriarch was finished, she approached the newcomers.
“Since everyone else has somewhere to be, do you mind getting the supplies for your own welcome home feast?” She didn’t wait for Temoc to reply before continuing. “Your horse will have to help you haul, cause even the pony has his work today, and there’s not enough feed in the barn for two mouths.” Mother placed a soft-leather coin purse in Temoc’s hand, and proceeded to recite the needed supplies.

Temoc’s mood was sullen, brooding as they perused this marketplace and the next. Catalina led Lily, a tightly-bound bale of hayfood and a large ham among the things on the mare’s back. The horses’ feed was cheap; the ham had cost nearly half of what Ma had given them. The sandy haired warrioress tried not to let Temoc’s anguish get to her, instead enjoying the sights, smells and feels of a busy city, the way it should be. She selected the best mangoes, ran her hands over the softest, most colorful fabrics while Temoc haggled over the season’s first dragonfruit. They could get many things easily, but went to market after market looking for slippery ginger. When they found it, they couldn’t get very much for the money that was left. Temoc held the little tubers in his hand, wrinkly from the season before.
“Think both the healing sisters grow here?” Catalina wondered.
“Probably,” Temoc said. “They’re weeds. Think we’ll need to find them?”
They exchanged an ominous glance, and Temoc tucked one of the little tubers into his own pocket for safekeeping.
When they got home Ma and her sister sorted through everything, admiring the quality of this, praising the quantity for price of that. Ma’s shoulders slumped in disappointment at the tiny bit of slippery ginger which they’d procured.
“This is all? There should be twice as much. Maybe more,” she bounced her hand up and down as if feeling their weight.
“That’s all we could get for what was left. And we had to visit lots of markets to find it,” Temoc said.
“You mean to tell me the price has more than doubled for something that grows everywhere?” His mother’s tone was incredulous. First it was meat they could barely afford, as it was increasingly sent away across the Gulf, and now this. . .
“It’s medicine, now,” Temoc said grimly.

Maiara was one of the first to come home this day, having had to excuse herself from the selling of their catch on account of feeling sick. Ma offered her a banana after she re emerged from the privy, and Temoc made sure he was somewhere else.
After awhile, Maiara went to sit on the porch in a sort of numbed daze. Her clouded vision settled on the reddish blurs that were hens, busily scratching the compost heap.
“I still have feelings for you, you know.” Temoc’s voice made her jump, then he stepped around the corner of the house to lean against the porch-rail near her, staring blankly toward a spot on the house’s stone. She opened her mouth to speak, but her heart fluttered nervously in her throat, and no words came.
“I have had no one else since you, even before–” he continued.
“Temoc, don’t.” She cut him off, choking with tears. “Just, stop.” She cast her blurry vision toward him, but couldn’t tell if he was looking back at her. A small movement told her that he was fidgeting.
After a long while, she was able to speak to him. “My heart broke for you once. When I heard what was happening in the heart of the Gulf. I feared you were dead, I hoped you were safe somewhere across the Mountain. I waited awhile, even though I knew there was no hope of your return. And now,” her voice quavered. “Now, my heart breaks again. Because I see you, and I know I never stopped loving you. . . and I’m torn. . . If I could take things back. . . if I could have you back. . . I would.”
Temoc’s clenched hand whitened as she cried. “Too late for that, now.” His voice was choked with emotion. He pushed away from the side rail and disappeared into the stable, leaving her to weep quietly where she was.

Catalina sat on her makeshift bed beside a window, looking out over the rambling town of Verde, it’s houses half-buried in the green of climbing vines and treetops. From here she could see the next house’s second story, people moving within. Smoke rose from stoves all around, carrying the wafting scents of the evening’s cooking. Fish, manioc, maize, clams. If she craned her neck and gazed very hard down the street, she could just glimpse the busy section of river markets where people sold their day’s catches and gatherings. It was clearing out now, even the latest heading home. She was vaguely aware of the furtive giggling of the girls as they entered their quarters.
The three young women gave her nervous glances, afraid she’d see them looking. A real live dragon-warrior, in their room. Just sitting. Wearing the shining black skin of the very monsters she fought, sitting on a bed of board and blanket they’d managed to scrape together.
“She’s so quiet,” whispered the frizzly haired girl in awe.
“Why’s she wearing her armor? You think she’s afraid?” asked the youngest.
“Does she know something we don’t?” the elder wondered with worry.
“I don’t know, maybe we should… ask her?” said the frizzly haired one. They erupted in soft giggling, each pushing the other toward her, each refusing the challenge.
Catalina remained unmoving, staring out the window. Eventually, curiosity got the better of them, and the eldest approached her. “Hello. . .”
Catalina looked, greeted her with a smile and a nod, her manner relaxed and friendly. Two girls hid behind the first, and giggled nervously again. None of them spoke right away. “Is something wrong?” she ventured.
They shook their heads vigorously, and the frizzly haired girl spoke. “Why are you staring out the window? Are you afraid something will come for us?” she managed.
Catalina chuckled, and looked again, wistfully. “I’m just. . . remembering what it was like to live in my own town, before. . .” her voice trailed off with a hint of sorrow. “It’s lovely here. So green.”
The girls giggled again. “That’s why they call it Verde,” the youngest said.
Catalina laughed. “I expect so. I hope it’s always this green and peaceful.”
More awkward glances among the girls, uncertain what to say next, then the smell of food found it’s way into their room from the kitchen below. “Hey, that smells like meat cooking,” said the eldest as they sniffed the air.
“Yeah,” the frizzle haired one agreed. Just then, a woman’s voice called, and two of them hastily excused themselves to help in the kitchen. Only the eldest was left, still uneasy with awe, but a bit more collected than they had been all together.
Catalina’s eyes fell on a colorful swatch of cloth hanging on the wall, an unfinished patchwork full of swirling patterns and bright dyes. “That’s lovely.”
“It’s going to be my skirt,” the girl said, blushing. “When it’s finished, I’ll be able to go courting.”
Catalina nodded. “Reminds me of one that I made, years ago. Fancier, though.”
“You know how to sew?” Genoveva asked.
Catalina laughed. “Of course. I’m pretty good at it, too.”
Genoveva looked at her feet. “I’m not very fast, or I’d have been finished by now,” she said sadly.
Catalina rose to examine the garment, bright and flaring, with a frilly layer or two begun. “It’s for dancing in, isn’t it?”
Genoveva nodded. “Supposed to have more frills. Um, I should probably go help cook now.”
Catalina nodded, and the girl hurried away. She soon followed. If they made half the things she’d helped buy that day, there was going to be quite a feast.

The evening’s celebration was extravagant and the food delicious, yet there still remained an undercurrent of tension, which was even worse at breakfast. As they were readying to leave for the day, Gerson approached his long lost friend with hopes of opening communication. “Cousin, it makes me happy that you are alive.” Temoc stayed silent, brooding. “Temoc, listen,” Gerson ventured again, “Maiara and I, we’ve–” But Temoc turned and stalked off before he could finish. “. . .talked about this.” He said to the empty air, his shoulders falling.
Catalina found Temoc sulking in the barn. He was grooming Lily, humming softly to the mare in an attempt to calm himself. He glanced her way when she sat down, and kept brushing the horse though the dark coat already shone.
“I’m sorry you had to see this,” he said after a long while. “I shouldn’t have let you come with me.”
Catalina shifted on the tiny bench. “It’s alright. I knew to expect the unexpected.”
Temoc gave a growling grunt. “Yeah, but why does she have to be expecting,” he fumed, anger reddening his neck again.
“Isn’t that the natural course of things, usually?”
Temoc only growled again in reply.

Maiara hung about the back yard, waiting for a turn in the outhouse. The lush, green space was so small, it was impossible not to hear the voices on the other side of the tiny stable’s glassless window. She gravitated toward it, leaning against it’s cool stone wall. She had known Temoc for many years. Knew the tone in his voice. They argued like they were in love.
“I’ve seen you at your best many times, Temoc,” Catalina was saying. “I think that means I’m obligated to know you through your worst. Otherwise, what kind of friend would I be to you?”
Maiara couldn’t see Temoc bow his head in silence. Couldn’t see his beaten expression or the tears threatening to escape the corners of his eyes. The outhouse door opened and she marched toward it, an unpleasant stirring in her breast.
Catalina stepped forward, gingerly put a hand on Temoc’s tense shoulder. He made no move, either to shrug away or look at her. She took a breath, and left him to himself in the tiny stable once more.

It wasn’t long before Catalina was eagerly accosted by Genoveva, the girl still a bit nervous as she asked the warrioress for help with her colorful and elaborate skirt. Once upstairs and working, the young woman began to relax a bit. They talked and giggled as they sorted through scraps of pretty cloth to add to the garment.
“All these are so beautiful, each one unique,” Catalina breathed, touching them gently.
“They’re just scraps,” Genoveva said. “They don’t cost much, cause they’re not big enough to use really. But they all add up to make something that money can’t buy.”
“A rite of passage,” Catalina mused.

Temoc left the house, along with most of it’s other occupants. He walked the streets of Verde, watching the people move without fear, visiting old familiar haunts and listening to snatches of conversation. Trying to distract himself from the pain within.
Back with the family that eve the tension was no less, but the silence between the old lovers was broken by Maiara. She looked across the table to the blurry forms of Temoc -she could have been completely blind and still known where he sat- and Catalina- the only fuzzy picture with light hair. “You say you’re comrades, friends,” she began with hesitation.
“We fought side by side to protect the people and animals over the Mountain,” Catalina volunteered, “Both in the day and in the long night’s shifts.”
“What do you mean, ‘side by side?’ Paired with each other?” Maiara prodded.
Catalina shrugged. “Not usually, but we were both near the front of the caravan, and both on second shift. Towards the end we were walking together to blaze the trail.”
“So you’ve spent a lot of time with him,” she cast her blurry glance in Temoc’s direction, then back to Catalina. “You two must know each other very well.” Though she tried to sound conversational, her tone was tinted with suspicion.
“Maiara, enough,” Temoc silenced her, speaking so suddenly she nearly jumped. He took a breath. He hadn’t meant to speak harshly. He continued, his voice quieter. “She’s done you no wrong, leave her be.” They fell back into silence. As the noise of other conversations picked up around the table, Maiara couldn’t help but feel something more had gone on between them. Otherwise, why would Temoc be defending her so fiercely now?
Catalina helped with the washing up after dinner, laughing with the girls she shared a room with. Temoc laid low, staying somewhere out of sight, out of the way of his raucous family. He still didn’t show up even after the dishes were done and people were settling in for the night, and they grew worried when they found his pack was gone. Ma feared that he had left the city, with no intention to return.
“Has anyone checked the stable yet?” Catalina wanted to know. Heads shook, and she breathed a little easier. That was probably where he was. “Then, I know there to start looking,” she said.
“If he isn’t there, I’ll help,” Gerson volunteered.
Catalina gave him a sidelong look. “No offense, but you’re probably the last person he wants out looking for him.”
Gerson shrugged with a grunt. “Too bad. I’ll know where he’s hiding, if he’s still in Verde.”
Catalina nodded and marched out the door, hoping he was among the horses, where she usually found him. It was dark inside, and she waited for her eyes to adjust. She could hear two horses, see their movements dimly. Temoc’s bow still hung on the wall beside her own, and as she grew used to the dimness, she scanned the tiny barn. His pack lay beside the pile of coarse hay, half buried. He was here. Somewhere. Catalina edged between their little, dark mare and the family’s chestnut pony, and a movement behind Lily’s far side turned her head. Temoc sat in a tiny space between mare and wall, his eyes glinted as he looked up at her.
“We’ve been wondering where you were,” Catalina told him, her black armor glinting in the deep dusk. “Your mother feared you’d gone.”
Temoc snorted. “Almost did. So what, if I had? I’m obviously not needed here.”
Catalina glared at him, a hand on her hip. “Of course you’re needed here. This is your family. They love you and they’re worried about you.” She edged behind the mare and sat down next to him, careful to keep her feet from under Lily’s hooves.
They sat together in silence for a time. Catalina became aware of Temoc’s steady eyes on her, and she turned to meet his gaze. He snatched her up in his arms, pressing her close, his hot breath at her neck. She gasped in surprise, struggled and pushed herself from his grip. Though she felt an undeniable spark within her, she couldn’t show it. Not now. “What are you thinking?” She scolded in a hissing whisper. Temoc returned to his former position, hugging his knees, staring straight ahead at the ground under Lily. Catalina took a breath, speaking kindly. “Look, it’s not that I don’t want you. But you have to get your heart straight, first. You’re not thinking right now, and you need to give yourself time.” She put a hand on his shoulder and peered, to see him take a slow breath and nod in acquiescence. After a time, she spoke again. “I’m going back, now that I’ve found you. Will you still be here tomorrow?”
She waited. It was too dark now to see him nod. Eventually, he spoke one word, a subdued, somewhat strangled, “Yes.”

Temoc breakfasted in haste this morn, rather than waiting around for awkward situations to rise. He left for the tending of the horses as soon as he could. After shoveling manure, he set about feeding and grooming. Catalina joined him, watching Lily with a careful eye.
Every time she glanced out the window, it seemed that Maiara happened to be in the yard, though she appeared to be paying them no attention. Just when Catalina began to wonder if she weren’t listening in on them, she was gone. Many of the house’s residents had left for their various tasks and pastimes, and Genoveva eagerly begged Catalina to help with her skirt again. Catalina obliged, happy to look at and feel the swatches of beautifully patterned cloth, and they made their way to up to the room.
Maiara heard the door open. She stiffened in fear, the contents of Catalina’s pack strewn all around her.
Catalina clenched her fists, her anger rising fast. She grabbed Maiara’s arm and pulled her to stand, the woman’s clouded eyes wide. “Find what you were looking for?” Catalina hissed.
Maiara’s fear deepened when she felt the strength of Catalina’s grip. Panicky, her eyes shifted around as if looking for an escape. She shook her head, unable to speak.
Catalina sat Maiara roughly on an empty bed, and Genoveva watched her as the warrioress checked and replaced her things. Nothing was missing. She threw the pack over her shoulder and hauled the petrified Maiara downstairs, the girl following in mortified curiosity.
Temoc’s older sister was still there; a stout woman just like their mother, though far less grey. Catalina thrust the trembling Maiara at her, letting her go with a rough shove. “Caught her going through my things. I wouldn’t have taken her for a thief, and nothing’s missing.”
Sis looked to Genoveva for confirmation, who nodded vigorously. The sharp-eyed woman put one hand on her hip, and stared at Maiara for a time. “I do believe the green eyed monster’s got you. Jealousy can make a person do so many stupid things, but do control yourself,” she scolded. She looked to Catalina, her tone apologetic. “If there’s anything we, or she, can do to make amends. . .”
Catalina grunted, still half-angry. “Doesn’t matter, I should be leaving anyway.” She gave a small bow to the older woman, thanking her for the family’s hospitality, and strode out the door.
The air was thick, muggy already. She moved with purpose, swiftly putting the saddle and bridle on Lily that they had borrowed from the ranch.
Temoc could tell she was upset. “What’s wrong?” he wanted to know.
Catalina stopped to look him in the eye. “Your wife,” she growled, “is just as jealous as you are. Either have each other back, or let each other go and move on.” She cinched Lily’s saddle-strap tight and the horse snorted in protest. “In the meantime, I’ll be back at the ranch. For awhile. If Lily comes in heat again, I don’t want that trouble in town.”
She was mounted and gone before Temoc could muster his thoughts to reply, trotting down the sandy street. He stared after her, watching Lily’s hooves kick up little puffs of dust. Children and dogs ran behind them for a little ways, and a cart crossed the street, obscuring them for a moment. Upset was mingled with hope as Temoc wondered what Maiara had done. She was jealous for him. Soon, only Catalina’s pale hair distinguished her from others in the distance, riding tall on the leggy steed. She wouldn’t be back, and he was certain she would sell the mare this time.

(copyright Melanie Degen)


Tropican Chronicles, # 6, Song: A Rest for the Weary, part 3

                     V. Departures

Around midday, Temoc joined a group bringing water to the grazing party, and found Catalina in the first field, guarding Lily. “I want to leave on the afternoon tide,” he told her, handing her a full canteen.
Catalina took a long drink, gave him a stare. “How long does it take for you to get home?”
“Usually about four days,” he said.
Catalina shook her head, then turned away to her watch. “Sorry, but we’re not leaving yet.”
“And why is that?” Temoc crossed his arms.
“Because, my vicious tide will come in soon, and for months I’ve been traveling, walking, fighting. I’m not rowing through it. I’m going to curl up in the darkest corner of the red cave and sleep all day, until I don’t hurt anymore,” she said with finality. “And then we can leave.”
Temoc nodded slowly, disappointment in his tone. “I see.”
Catalina turned around, looking him in the eye. “I know you really want to go home. Please don’t leave without me?”
The stocky warrior took a breath, resigned disappointment in his tone. “I’ve been waiting for years. What’s a few more nights?”
Catalina put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you.” She unhooked her empty canteen and gave it to him as the others in his party made ready to head back.

It was nearing sunset, and the smoke of cooking fires filtered from the vent-cracks of the jagged, low ridge of stone that was the town of Song. A watchful scout accompanied Zoe on her way to the place where Ina stayed. The petite warrioress knocked on the slate door with the butt of her sword, and when the man let her in, her scout waited politely inside the door.
“Wasn’t expecting company for dinner,” the woman glanced over her shoulder, busy at the stove.
Zoe shook her head. “Don’t worry, I’m not staying. I just have to talk to Ina. Is she here?”
“In the back,” the woman indicated a twisted, water-carved corridor.
The passage’s floor gradually rose onto solid stone and odd, knobby protrusions clung and bulged from the ceiling. If Zoe were taller, she would have had to duck. The hall was dark, lit only by light that filtered from the main room. Two holes along the corridor were hung with mat-like curtains of coconut fiber. “Ina?” Zoe called.
“In here,” came an answer from the side curtain. Zoe ducked in. The room was just as narrow as the corridor, it’s walls twisted and dimly glittering in the light of a little lamp. A couple beds were crowded against one wall, and Ina sat on one of them, nibbling at pieces of coconut-meat.
“You ok?” Zoe wanted to know.
“Hungry. So, sickish. Helps if I go somewhere I don’t smell the cooking.” Ina smiled, a little helplessly. “It’s not as easy as it was out in the open, fresh air.” She patted the bed next to her, and Zoe sat down.
“What are we going to do with Bonehead?” Zoe wondered, her eyes wandering to the far end of the room, where piled rubbles blocked up the passage. Fiona had departed on the morning tide for seafaring ventures, leaving the burro in Zoe and Ina’s charge. “Neither of us can row our way to Reed City, at least not much, and now we have to pay his way too. And, how are we going to take care of him once we get there? I’m a very good diver, but I don’t think I can gather enough of anything from the bottom of the ocean to feed him, and you. Unless there’s a pearl in every oyster.” She looked plaintively at Ina. “I’ve never had to provide for a wife before, let alone a pregnant one. Can we sell him, do you think?”
Ina giggled. “Wife? I’m sorry, but I don’t think of you in that way. ”
“It’s what we call anyone in Rivertown who has someone earning for them,” Zoe shrugged.
“Oh,” Ina said. “Bonehead will be fine, Zoe. He can pay for himself, once we get there.”
“How is Bonehead going to pay for himself?” Zoe gave her a sidelong look.
“In Reed City, we can rent him. I’ve done it before, and it works out well,” Ina said.
Zoe nodded slowly. “Alright. If you think it’ll be worth it to keep him.” She made her way carefully out the twisted corridor and left the little house, the scout following.

Zoe ate her breakfast in the red cave, to say goodbye before everyone scattered for the day’s work.
“I’m going to miss you, short one,” Marcus said. She gave him an evil stare, and he raised a hand. “I never said it was a bad thing. You knock my legs out from under me and beat me almost every time we spar,” he grinned.
Zoe smiled, still with a spark in her eye. “Yeah, I miss doing that.”
“Maybe I’ll be strong enough to really fight, the next time we meet. But until then, I won’t miss you doing it,” Marcus said.

Comet had just finished armoring Greta when Ina entered the red cave with purpose. She exchanged quiet words with him, then he handed the mare’s lead to Marcus. “Take Greta. I’ll be along,” he said, following Ina to an emptier corner of the cave to sit with her.
Outside, the trees were blossoming, growing greener and leafier. Desert seedlings were sprouting from the other night’s rain; a blush of green spreading across the ground. It was time for the grazing party to move into the next field, where the stink of dragonpiles was only slightly less strong than the day before. They could see them at the edges of the upstream hedge near the crushed spots where the dragons had lain, huge mounds covered with mostly stoney dirt.
“Wow,” Zoe remarked, holding her nose. “Glad I only have to do this in the morning.”
“Let’s move over a field again,” Sirio suggested.
“Great idea,” Bridgit brightened. Beside her, Burkhart whistled, and the group came back together to move.
Wayland made sure to find himself walking next to Zoe, smiling subtly. “How about a kiss goodbye?” he said hopefully.
“Haha, no,” Zoe looked sideways at him.
“But we might never see each otherer again,” he pleaded.
“That would be relieving,” Zoe said, careful to keep her gaze straight forward. She wouldn’t have to put up with him much longer.

When the rest of the grazing party returned in late afternoon, a group of workers were constructing a new door in the commons, layering wood, leather and slate together.
“Working on a barn?” Burkhart guessed.
“Yes, but it’s only big enough for goats,” Orival said. “I hear all the horses are leaving anyway, but we should be able to look after Leif and Twig. Maybe if they work out well, we could get a small milking herd,” he added hopefully.
“The mares are definitely leaving,” Catalina confirmed, “for safer lands with Temoc and I.”
“You keep saying that,” Temoc spoke from his guarding-place nearby, “but I never agreed to it.”
“They can’t stay here,” she insisted. “One’s in foal, and the other probably is too.”
“You going to start a horse ranch, then?” Temoc said, with a touch of sarcasm.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Catalina retorted, “but they’re worth more that way, and they won’t be going over the mountain next year with foals, even if we do.”

In the sleeping corner of the red cave, Arlataan was packing his belongings, sorting anything he didn’t want into a heap on the floor beside him.
Samara came to sit by him, watching. “You look like you’re going somewhere,” she observed.
Arlataan spoke without turning from his task. “I’m leaving this madness,” he said with determination. “Devouring shadows in the night, animals defecating in the one place people can go to rest and heal. . . No more of this.”
“The horses will leave soon,” Samara assured him.
“I’m leaving sooner.” Arlataan paused to look at his discarded pile, consisting mainly of the coat of light crocodileskin that he’d worn to cross the pass. “Going somewhere this won’t be needed. Hopefully somewhere people have the sense to keep animals where animals belong, and healing people in a cleaner place.” Arlataan buckled on his pack.
Samara helped him deposit a number of healer’s supplies with the red cave’s stores. “Nice that you have someplace to run away to. The rest of Tropica’s going to miss a healer as good as you.”
Arlataan glared at her, but his expression softened before he spoke. “Not as much as it would have a little while ago. You’ve learned well.”
She grasped his hand, and they embraced. “I hope I see you again, someday,” Samara said.
“Make sure the coat finds a place in a guardhouse?” he asked. Samara nodded, and the master healer hefted his pack, walking out into the blinding rays of the lowering sun.
Arlataan nodded as he passed Comet on the narrow dune-path, the sword in his hand resting over his shoulder as he lead Rodriguez home after a run on the shore. Horse and warrior both kept an eye and an ear on the thick, scrubby vegetation all around them, and the master healer noted the fresh bodies of several little slinkers discarded in the bushes as he continued on his way.
Once Comet had gotten the horse settled in, he made his way to the cave house of the blacksmith. The sunset colored the air a fiery hue, the town was filled with the wafting scents of dinners cooking, and the young scout who accompanied him eyed the lengthening shadows with wary nervousness.
“Don’t think it’s too late to be out and about, do you? There’s only two of us, the evening’s devourers are big, and it’ll be their time for sure by the time we come back. Dark,” Euclides spoke quietly.
Comet half-smiled, his tone unconcerned. “It’ll be their time, but it won’t be dark.”
The youth gave a conceding shrug. “Granted, the moon’s going to be huge tonight, but that doesn’t stop ’em.”
“It’s alright. I will,” Comet reassured the nervous scout. “I can take you back to Guardhouse East, if you don’t want to stay in the red cave.”
“But then you’ll be missing duty in the red cave?”
Comet chuckled. “I can make it that far on my own.”
His scout became silent again, watching behind them. The fair warrior radiated the confidence of either ignorance, or insanity. He had to be mad, since no one who’d taken the Pass could possibly be ignorant of the severity with which the devourers overcrowded the night.
Euclides stood just inside the slate-shingled, wooden door of Zanza’s home-cave, smelling the divine odor of spicy cooking as Comet showed her a long, thin bit of shining metal.
The blacksmith struck it against the edge of her table, listening to the sound ring. “It’ll probably take a while before steel of this quality comes through here,” she told him. “How patient are you?”
“The tools you make won’t be for me, but for those I teach,” Comet told her.
Zanza disappeared into a gnarled corridor, and they could hear her rummage. She returned with a scrap of thin bark, a feather and ink, and proceeded to draw a copy of the long needle, scribbling notes beside it in the form of symbols, rather than written words. She weighted the sketch’s edges carefully so it wouldn’t curl, returned the item to it’s owner, and then they were on their way again.
Euclides scurried hastily back to the Guardhouse East, the kilted warrior trotting with watchful confidence behind him. Comet made a soft hissing sound, and they stopped. They could barely see the black shadows that flowed down the cave-stones. The young scout ducked nervously behind him as the devourers weaved their way through gnarled trees and thick bushes in flower.
“How many?” Euclides whispered, quavering.
Comet stood with bow ready, watching as the long, spine-backed prowlers hit the ground, little puffs of dust rising in the first shafts of moonlight. “Three, I think.” They crept into open view, and two of Comet’s arrows found two glinting eyes. He rushed the third, nearly horse-sized devourer, the flash of his sword swinging around lashing claws and snapping teeth. A straggler circled toward him as the third devourer fell to his blade. Euclides drew his bow, breathing to steady himself as he shot. Comet leapt aside from the thrashing of the two dying beasts, and the pair of warriors eyed the bushes in case there were more.
“I’ve never killed one that big before,” Euclides confessed as they pulled arrows. He’d been steady enough to shoot, but now his hands shook. “Maybe I should have stayed tonight in the red cave.”
“We’re closer to the guardhouse, now,” Comet noted, poking an arrow over and over into sand to clean it. The boy safely with the watchers in front of guardhouse east, Comet ran back into the night, so swiftly he was soon out of sight even under the rising moon’s brilliance. Euclides gawked. He hadn’t gone hurrying back to the red cave at all, but off down the riverside road.

When Comet woke for the middle night’s shift, Catalina was among those that joined him, tending the wounded while she waited for her painful moontime to begin. By morning she was curled up in the darkest corner of the cave. When Herika approached her with a gourd-bowl of sorghum gruel she was doubled over, making soft grunts of pain.
The young woman sat at her head in concern. “Are you alright?”
“No. But I will be after a while,” Catalina said.
Herika frowned. Even though cramping hurt sometimes, she still got hungry. “Saved you some breakfast, you want it?”
“No.”
“Not even a little bit?” Herika urged.
Catalina looked at the light-skinned westerner, with a sighing grunt. “Look, I know you mean well. But all I need right now is to be left alone.”
Herika’s face fell, and she sat back in the breakfast circle with the bowl. “I was only trying to help.”
“She’s been traveling through her moontime’s pain for months. Let her sleep.” Comet rose and left the eaters, armoring Greta for the day.
“Where’s Diogo?” Marcus wondered. No one had paid any mind to his absence from the meal until now. Eventually, Marcus spotted him still in his sleeping-spot, and shook his head.
A warrior healing rose to wake him, and Temoc grasped Dreik’s forearm. “Be gentle with him.”

The shadows around Diogo darkened. Someone was standing over him. He grunted, but remained motionless.
“Going to wake up, today?” the shadow spoke with a man’s voice.
“Why?” Diogo croaked. He hadn’t slept, and every inch of him ached, inside and out.
“How about, breakfast?” There was an edge to the warrior’s voice.
“Not hungry.”
“Then you tell me. What’s worth waking up for?”
In the blackness of Diogo’s mood, nothing was. He grunted again.
The shadow above him shifted. “What, are you on the rag, too?”
Part of Diogo wanted to snap at him. If I make myself bleed, would you leave me alone too? But he didn’t have the energy. The irony would be lost on them, anyway. It took all Diogo’s might just to move his heavy, aching body into a semi-sitting position and glare at Dreik. His mission accomplished, the warrior walked away. Diogo didn’t have the will to lay back down, and remained motionless where he was.

Catalina got up in the afternoon to wash and nibble at the cold gruel they’d left for her in a nearby alcove. As she settled back into her bedroll, she noticed Temoc in for a rest, and their eyes met momentarily. He came to sit down next to her.
“I should be fit to travel by this time tomorrow,” she said, her voice quiet.
“Even to row?” Temoc asked hopefully.
“Doesn’t matter, you can’t row with me anyway. Someone who can going with us?”
“Sometimes there’s an odd one out on the ship for a new passenger to match,” Temoc told her. “We could wait until you would row. After all, we are paying for two big cargoes.”
Catalina managed to chuckle. “You don’t have to worry about that. Greta’s worth her weight in gold. Lily’s not quite as heavy, but she’s a very good horse, too.”
Temoc stared contemplatively. “I’m afraid we’re obliged to keep that money to buy the Overland two replacements, not use it for ourselves.”
“Thought the traders buy us what we need, when we need it.”
“The funding doesn’t always come in so well or easily,” Temoc confessed.
Catalina grunted. “We won’t use it for ourselves, then. But the mares can still pay us back for their trip across the gulf.”
“Fair enough,” Temoc conceded. “I’ll ask you tomorrow afternoon, if you still want to leave tomorrow afternoon.”
Catalina nodded, and lay down. Temoc put his hand over her scarred belly until he felt her tension melt, then he got up, ready to move to another task. He scanned the red cave, looking for others like him, rested and ready to go out again. Diogo sat nearby, tossing a pebble against the wall and letting it bounce back to him.
“Tide’s starting to go out. Want to see what washed in?” Temoc ventured.
Diogo looked up at him. “Why would you want to go pick up rotten seaweed with me? That’s just dragonfood, anyway,” he said sourly.
“Got to get out and do something,” Temoc shrugged. “You have to move, if you expect to get strong again.”
Diogo glared, but said nothing, and Temoc left with a group of others. It was too soon before another came to sit beside him, this time a healing warrioress.
“Old wounds bothering you today?” Her tone held friendly concern.
“Everything’s bothering me today,” Diogo growled. It could have been hours since the last annoyingly helpful person attempted to strike up a conversation, but it was still too soon.
She smiled, cradling an injured arm in her good one. “Change of scenery might help. It’s not too late to go out and get into something.”
Diogo sat up with a glare. “You’re right, that’s exactly what I need. A change of scenery.” He dragged his heavy, aching body towards his pack, and began to throw stuff in haphazardly.
“Wait, are you leaving?”
“What’s it look like?” Diogo snapped.
She frowned, hurt. “Where are you going?”
Diogo managed half a shrug. “Somewhere else.”
The healing warrioress gave him a dark look. “People are going to care about you, wherever you go.”
Diogo grunted. “Not so much, in a bigger city.” He felt even heavier under his pack, mostly full with his armor, yet ignored the woman’s offer to help pull him to his feet. The stout warrior pushed past her and lurched toward the door without so much as a nod to those familiar whom he passed, ignoring the cries behind him, urging him not to go alone.

When the horses came home from the fields, Comet took Rodriguez on a long run along the shore and riverside, washing in the red cave afterward. The stallion looked tired, but his rider still moved with a great wealth of energy.
Comet sat down near Halix, the horse following amiably. “I would like to request a long night of undisturbed sleep, this night.”
Halix looked at the unusually animated Comet in surprise. “Really? You’ve only got one night left of your healer’s shift.”
He nodded apologetically. “It seems I have misjudged slightly, when I began the shift.”
Halix studied him. “Why?”
“Tonight is a night for visions.”
“Hmm. . .” Halix mused. Comet had already proven himself an effective knower of visions. “How about this. Why don’t you take a whole week of rest.”
Comet chuckled, looked at his bare feet. “I would be honored to have two or even three nights’ long sleep. It would greatly expand the potential for dreaming, but why offer me a week?”
“That’s what the other healers get between shifts, and you’re never resting. When you’re not working in the red cave, then you’re fighting in a guardhouse. Plus, you work at the village’s tasks nearly as hard as if you lived here. Harder than some that do,” he added. “You’re more than earning your worth.”
Comet nodded deeply, and smiled. “I expect I won’t stay in Song much longer, but thank you.”
Halix shrugged. “Rest until you leave, then. Only, see if you can’t find me another helper for tonight?”
Comet nodded again and rose. He tossed the horse’s armor loosely over him, and they headed for guardhouse east. He was back in the red cave for dinner, and he had brought Samara with him.
“Is there anything else you need during this night of visions?” Halix wanted to know.
Comet shook his head. “Just let me sleep, until I wake on my own.”
“Night of visions?” Catalina asked as she joined the meal circle, still moving slowly from her moontime’s pain. “There a dragon out there to protect you?” Comet shook his head, and Catalina grunted. “You need an honor guard, then.”
“I need only solitude,” Comet said with soft determination.
“So, leave them halfway out.” Catalina’s tone was firm. “If I had to guess, I’d say you’ll be headed into the Isles. It’s a far way out, and the fighting’s harder here than it was on the East.”
Comet gave her a sharp stare. “I have twenty four arrows to shoot, and they won’t all come for me.”
“I’m not strong yet, but I’d go,” Temoc spoke, surprising them both.
“Me too,” Samara said.
Comet let out a long breath, shaking his head. Catalina rose, returning with her hunting-horn and holding it out for him. “For you to call for help,” she said.
He took the horn with a nod, and turned to Temoc and Samara. “I cannot have you out in the night for me to worry about as well,” he insisted. “One of you is still weak, the other barely trained to fight.”
Samara set down her bowl. “Then we’ll find some more. Enough skilled people you won’t have to worry about rescuing us while we’re waiting, hopefully, not to have to rescue you.”
“That is not necessary,” Comet said firmly, his voice carefully quiet. “I’ll be fine, She will look after me.”
“Not sure Goddesses can fight off slinkers. . .” Samara’s tone was dubious. “Marcus?” She turned to the slender Easterner.
Marcus shrugged. “He wants to go fight slinkers on his own, let him. I think you might be making him mad.”
The young healer put a hand on her hip.
“Right. Soon as I’m done eating, I’ll go find Bridgit and Burkhart,” Marcus conceded.
Samara turned to glare at Comet.
Comet lowered his head and closed his eyes, tracing the path to the place he had found. There was a canal along the way, where he might leave them in relative safety. He let out a long breath. “The moon’s pull is strong, this night,” he admitted, raising his head to give each a penetrating stare, lamplight sparking among his curls. “But I go alone.” He rose and retreated to the dark corner where he slept.

Shortly after they finished their meal, Temoc and Samara ducked out of the red cave and headed for guardhouse west. The moon hadn’t risen on Song yet, but the sea beyond sparkled with silver.
“You want to do what?” Bridgit exclaimed.
“What did he have to say about that?” Burkhart wanted to know.
“He didn’t want to worry about us being out there too,” Samara said. “But if he doesn’t know, he can’t worry,” she reasoned.
“Not right,” Burkhart said. “Someone wants to be alone that badly, let them.”
“He probably knows we’ve left. He hasn’t yet,” Temoc warned.
Samara shrugged. “He was in the back, and it’s busy in there. We’ll make sure to follow far enough behind he won’t even know, and we’ll stop before we get to the river’s edge,” she insisted. “We think he’ll go into the Isles. He took Catalina’s horn, we just have to be near enough we can hear it sound.”
Bridgit gave a conceding sigh. “It’s hard to follow tracks at night. I suppose I could try, though. Anyone else a decent tracker?”
Temoc nodded, and Bridgit swatted Burkhart’s chest with the back of her hand. “You in, or do I need to find someone else?”
Burkhart gave her a stare. If she went, he would have to go. “I’m in, but I still don’t like it.”
They stepped outside, leaning against the stones. Watching for distant movement across the sand in the night. Once the moonlight shone onto the river, they edged along the wall of underground dwellings. Gradually nearing the red cave. A tiny pebble hit the sand, barely audible to the sharpest ear. Burkhart gave a short hiss, and they stopped at his alarm, circling up. Four big slinkers hit the ground from above, one by one. They crept to surround the group, teeth gleaming as they snarled eagerly. Bridgit shot two in the time it took Samara and Burkhart to down one each. The four warriors leaned against the stone wall, hearts pounding. Deliberately slowing their breath so they could listen for more.
While they took turns cleaning the arrows, Samara’s eye jumped at movement. A rapidly moving runner under the trees.
“Won’t have to worry about staying far enough behind,” Burkhart observed in a rough whisper. The four trotted after, following a slight impression of bare footprints along the red cave’s canal. The tracks were clear where he crossed in the soft silt of the waterless, low-tide ditch.
After that they had trouble. Single footprints were indistinguishable on the well-beaten paths. Bridgit guessed he’d gone down the riverside road. They spread out to walk, a tracker and guard on either side, looking for the place where he veered toward the water. Squinting in the moondapple tree shadows, they found nothing promising. Birds shifted in the branches above at their disturbing presence, making them look up. They backtracked a bit and went down the clam digger’s path. A canal crossed it, the deep, soft muck studded with the footprints of foragers. Temoc shook his head. “No bare feet that I can tell, and only the evening’s returning tracks.”
“Maybe he didn’t use the path,” Bridgit mused, looking into the shadowy, thickening brush on either side.
“The whole canal’s practically sinksilt,” Samara whispered. “This and the road’s bridge are the only good crossings.” Her eyes followed the path of a little shadow darting through the trees. A bat. “Think he went even farther upstream?”
Temoc set his jaw, shook his head slowly. “That’s probably too far, even for him. Definitely too far for us.”
Bridgit sighed. “Guess we lost him. Now what? Wait here and listen really hard for the blow of a horn?”
They watched the shifting patterns under the trees. Air movement made it hard to tell if living shadows hid among the moon’s shadows. “How about go home, and make like we were never out?” Burkhart suggested.
“What about Comet?” Samara’s tone was worried.
“Think we’re even close enough to hear the horn sound?” Temoc whispered, with a sinking heart. This had been a bad idea. “Maybe we should go, before something hungry finds us.”
Burkhart shushed them. They listened intently to the night, four backs together in a small circle. Leaves rustled softly in the breeze. Tree shadows shifted all around them. Dusky clouds skidded across the sky, momentarily obscuring the moon.
“We’re as crazy as he is,” Bridgit whispered. “And we need to go home.”
Burkhart grunted in agreement. The four edged away from the canal’s hedge and back to the main path. Once they reached open ground, they trotted home with haste.

Temoc and Samara stepped into the safety of the red cave with sighs of relief. Both were tired. They’d usually be falling asleep by now, though the adrenaline of simply being out in the night was sure to keep them up a little while longer. With the minimal lamps of night the cave was dim compared to the bright moonlight. Once their eyes adjusted, they saw Comet in the pool of light cast by the little flame beside the big water-holding gourds, gently washing his arms.
“So much for not looking suspicious,” Temoc said.
“Thought you and Bridgit were good trackers, but he snuck right by us,” Samara noted.
Temoc grunted. “He didn’t want to be found.”
Soon, Comet was making his way to them. He looked considerably more tired than he had on the moons of their journey over the Pass, but was untouched by the claws of slinkers. Samara and Temoc exchanged nervous glances as he sat slowly in front of them, an intensity streaming from him.
“And how far did you get?” Comet’s tone was carefully neutral.
“The canal where the clam-diggers cross,” Samara said. “But we were just guessing at that point,” she was quick to add.
“In truth, we lost the trail just after the red cave’s irrigation ditch,” Temoc said.
Comet gave a slow nod, and took a long breath. “Was anyone hurt?” Temoc shook his head. “Good.” Comet passed them a piercing stare, the intensity of his dark eyes momentarily frightening them. Though his voice remained quiet, he spoke with sternness. “For months, the entire Overland has berated me, misunderstood and called me crazy. And now, a group of you have tried to follow. You are perhaps more foolish than myself, as I find a safe place, while you wait in the night, vulnerable and unknowing. This should not happen again.”
His words echoed in their heads and weighted their hearts. Samara stared at her feet. “You didn’t seem to mind guards nearby while going over the Mountain.”
Comet’s manner softened. “It wasn’t possible to go any farther than the dragon’s other wing. Too close, yes. But still a kind of solitude, when there’s a whole fat dragon between you and everyone else. Being back on the water should mean real seclusion.” His black-dark eyes pierced them once more, then he rose with tired care. They could tell he was sore, and weaker. As he stalked away, Samara and Temoc let out breaths they hardly knew they’d been holding.

Comet had chosen a particularly dark, isolated corner of the cave for the night, and was barely visible as a shadow when he swung on his indigo cloth and lay down wrapped in his little blanket just as dark. The sting of fresh cuts wasn’t so noticeable when he wasn’t moving, and to lay down and be still was delicious. He let the annoyance slide away, let his body meld with the sacred stone of the earth’s cave-womb. He had come a long way, and now he could truly rest. He had come a long way back from the edge of the Islets tonight, he had come a long way over the mountain, and he was a long way from home. The direction of all his dreaming had been to reach the mountain’s other side. Now that Tropica and the dragons were fully acquainted, Comet could release the focus he’d held for months. He breathed deep and his mind drifted, feeling his body sinking into the stones of the grey mountains’ desert side. Comet came fully to rest in the Earth’s dark, surrounding motherspace; falling fast into a sleep that promised to be deep, falling in a free state. Still vaguely conscious, he could already feel himself entering an openness; a flow of body and mind that spread away from him, ready to receive any vision or ecstasy that may choose to float his way.

Catalina had been drifting between sleep and the haze of pain all day. As her flow increased the cramping began to diminish, and by tomorrow she would feel like herself again. She was immensely thankful to be in a dark, peaceful cave, with no obligation to fight or even move. Her spent wash flowed into a pit of silt and soaked away, vague in the light of the little lamp that sat beside the water-gourds. The white-stained cavern was quiet, most bedding down to sleep but for a few healers, their helpers, and a couple strong guards at the heavy door. She breathed deeply, letting her troubles wash away with her blood.
There was movement behind her. Someone approached, shifting their feet as if impatient in line. “The Invincible Catalina.” Aleandra sneered. “I’d like to see you beat me now.”
Catalina stiffened, then groaned. She knew when she’d met Aleandra, that if she lost, she’d never live it down. She’d hoped winning would gain her respect, and had tried to be friendly. But it seemed Aleandra was the type of person to strike when her opponent was defenseless. “No, you wouldn’t. In here, there’s no rule against spilling blood,” Catalina growled, squeezing out her sponge for the final time, her knuckles white with the grip.
Aleandra gasped, mocking fear. “You wouldn’t.”
Catalina felt the anger rise from somewhere below to steam off her shoulders and tingle out the top of her head. She stood, turning slowly to face Aleandra. “You don’t know me.” Catalina’s voice trembled in submerged rage. She gave a rude gesture and stalked away, while Aleandra crossed her arms and smiled.
Catalina paced and fumed a minute near her bedroll before she sat down. She was so preoccupied with pain and anger that she hardly noticed Temoc sit by her.
“What happened?” he ventured, his tone unsure.
The sandy-haired warrioress growled. “If I weren’t leaving tomorrow, there’d be trouble. No one kicks me when I’m down. No one.”
Temoc leaned forward, his tone pensive. “It seems unwise to confront anyone in sanctuary. Are you certain she meant you harm?”
Catalina shot him a dark look. “She made it pretty plain, and she’s lucky I wasn’t holding something sharp.”
It took Catalina a long time to settle down, listening to the rhythmic breathing of those sleeping around her. She watched the movements of the cave’s first shift around the few tiny pools of light cast by little lamps, waiting for anger to subside and sleep to overtake pain. Across the cavern, the heavy door stayed cracked a tiny bit, and the moonlight shone intermittent reflections onto the pool through the little gap. Outside, more and more little, low clouds scudded across the sky, giving hope of rain to it’s watchers.

END.

copyright 2016 Melanie Degen


Tropican Chronicles, # 6, Song: A Rest for the Weary, part 2

III. The Generosity of Dragons

The pace of the town was different, with the harvest fully in. The morning was relaxed, with dew long burnt off before people started to bring the last seedheads into the sun to continue drying. Some stayed to watch over the sorghum but most left for tasks abroad, checking to see how other grains were ripening, foraging on the shore or fishing in the sea and Islets.
Fiona accompanied a group to the harbor’s edge and climbed into a little oar boat with another fisher. They rowed out with the tide, dropping anchor at the seaward edge of the Emerald River’s Islets. Here, with the tide starting to ebb, they caught a few freshwater fish among the brine lovers. Fiona looked across the glittering, blue grey expanse of the gulf, stretched out her legs and sighed a long, satisfied breath. “It’s good to be on the water again,” she said. “No hot armor, no worries, just the gentle rocking of waves and the smell of salt-air.” The nearest Islet was a long, low ridge of stone, blackened by hoary underwater growth and tufted with green shrubs at it’s above-water summit. Birds circled and cried over it, as if arguing with each other, and Fiona couldn’t help but laugh at their antics. She pulled a struggling fish from the water, speaking to it in a pleased tone as she worked the hook out and tossed it in the bottom of the boat.
Her companion looked at her, annoyed. “Usually, people fish quietly.”
“Oh, right,” Fiona said apologetically. For a while she was silent, breathing deeply of the ocean breeze and looking around with a smile. Another tugging on her line brought up a medium sized catch, and she gave a questioning look. “What do you think? Keep, or throw back?” She wanted to know.
The sea-tan westerner pressed his lips thin in thought. “Usually let it grow a little, but will dragons eat it in the meantime?”
Fiona shrugged. “Only if they come for a visit, I guess, since it’s in Song’s waters. But, will a shark eat it in the meantime?”
“Will dragons come for a visit, now that you’re here?”
Fiona looked at the flopping fish thoughtfully. “They haven’t yet, but they might. I don’t know how long they’ll wait.” She decided to keep the fish, and re-cast her line. “It seems there’s only a few dragons that meet with whole towns. One just had a baby, and Gilarel’s been with us on the ground for months. She’s tired, I’m sure.”
The fisherman sat in amazement as Fiona talked and talked, seeming to barely stop and take a breath, and caught another fish, while he’d gotten far less than he was accustomed to. “Why does the loud one get all the fish?” he wondered aloud, as soon as he had the chance.
Fiona shrugged, smiling brightly. “I guess I just have the fish-luck, today. I’ll try and be quieter, though,” she looked at her feet. Though she succeeded in speaking less, she still caught more fish than he. “Maybe it’s the current?” she said after a while. “Let’s switch places, and see.”
They passed each other in the tiny boat, stepping awkwardly around each other, octopi in cages, fishes, and bits of seaweed. When the vessel’s rocking had subsided, they cast their lines. Fiona ducked and the man uttered a profanity as their two hooks tangled together and swung between them over the boat. “I caught you!” Fiona exclaimed. They laughed as she turned to untangle the lines.
“How about we not cast at the same time?” the fisherman suggested.
“Good plan,” Fiona grinned. “And I’ll try not to talk too much?” She failed, resuming her chatter after a while, and still caught most of the fish, her host shaking his head in hopeless wonderment.

Neal worked intently on the map’s copy, concentrating on the known gulfs and peninsulas of Tropica’s Northern half. A group of foragers returned from the riverside road and stuffed the green, weedy shoots of a plant into a cauldron of water warming in the sun, bruising and squashing the leaves to make more fit. The colors of the map’s outlines gradually spread, changing with climate; grey for the high Grey Mountains, green for jungles and forests, tan for the long desert coasts of the narrow, jutting peninsula. Red for it’s extremely volcanic, vaguely arrowhead-shaped tip.
Davies looked over Neal’s shoulder from time to time to see how the work was coming. “Been a long time since I’ve seen a colored map of the Northern peninsula. They call it the Dragon’s Tail, but the end’s as hot as a dragon’s mouth,” he mused. “Fireland.”
“They call it the dragon’s tail for it’s shape, not it’s temperature,” Neal said dryly. He studied map and copy in silence for a while, then looked hopefully at Davies. “Find me Comet?”
“Think I saw him over by the cauldron,” Davies said amiably. Soon a shadow hovered across Neal’s work, and Comet sat by the cartographer.
“Can you remember from your copy experience well enough to describe the places no one’s ever seen?” Neal wanted to know.
“It will be vague by now, but I don’t have to,” Comet said. “Dragons are circling in the sky, and they can tell you themselves, or possibly show you.”
Neal looked up at him. “I can’t look into a dragon’s memory.”
Comet half-smiled. “You don’t need any skill for a dragon to give you it’s memory. You just have to let them do it.”
Neal packed up his supplies with reluctance. Even his freshly painted map had dried fast in the arid midday. Soon, there were cries of ‘Dragons!’ from those shoreward, and a group gathered on the beach to watch the massive, colorful creatures glimmer in flight. Their wingtips left ripples on the waves as they skimmed the sea with mouths open. A pair flew together with blue and purple shimmers, another iridescent blue flew with a dazzling white, and a smaller, green and whitish blur. Others moved separately, and even those without shimmers were difficult to focus on against the sun and sea’s brightness. Eight adult dragons and a young one flew over the Islets to land across the river, moving upstream along the bank’s jungle to root and munch the green-branched and leafy forest around the fallow fields of the old town’s ruins. Several dove deep into the sea for a swim, then rose to float lazily in the waves, nibbling the clinging seaweeds from one another. Their bellies full, the shimmering purple-and-blue pair settled on the shore and curled into great, earthy boulders to sleep while two others watched the land. When they became still, their iridescences cleared enough to reveal base colored scales of brown and green.
“They are Gilarel and Borlanh. Our circle of safety,” Catalina told Sirio.
“We might have to wait till they wake at sunset,” Emma speculated.
“They aren’t all sleeping,” Sirio noted, a pale half-moon rising over his shoulder.
“The watchers are widows. You’re better off talking to one of a pair,” Emma told him.
“Why is that?” another asked.
“They’re called tesah, Lost,” Catalina said. “Once you see the look in their eyes, you don’t even want to ask them their names.”
The shoreward gathering dwindled until only a small group kept their eyes on the dragons. Some of those returning from dragonwatching were foragers on their way home, laden with goods. When the group from the coconut grove cracked open some of their gatherings, Ina joined those coming for the coconuts’ water.
Emelita leaned in close to her. “You do know that if you drink the water, you have to help make the oil?”
Ina nodded, then looked across the circle to see Wayland, pouring a coconut’s water from a punctured hole into his mouth. She leaned back to Emelita. “Do you know he’s not to be trusted?”
Emelita snorted. He kept a different shift than she, in the guardhouse east. “In what way, exactly?”
“With poison and food,” Ina said. She worked her way from the gathering’s edge toward the coconut grove party just as Wayland was offering the coconut-half to another. “Don’t take it,” she warned, and the recipient hesitated. The surprised Wayland gave an exaggerated shrug.
She passed a glance over his fellows, her focus settling on him. “Have you gathered the Plant today?”
Wayland sighed, rolled his eyes. “We were after coconuts.”
Ina glared. He hadn’t actually answered her. “Go wash your fingers,” she ordered.
Wayland dropped the coconut, grumbling as he walked away, and Ina dumped some water over the hard fruit.
“Spoken like a mother already,” Leila noted with a smile.
Ina shot her a look. “He’s what happens when you don’t respect the power of Dragonswort. The blank stares, the stutter. He got lucky, that’s all that happened to him. And I doubt he’s learned his lesson.”
“What makes you think that?” another asked.
“He still wants to touch stupid things, and always forgets to wash his hands,” Ina said flatly.

It was well into the afternoon when Gilarel awoke. The brown dragon’s purple iridescence sprang to life as she rose, flapping her bold crimson wings with a sound like distant wind and quivering her muscular, fat tail in a stretch. One widow’s gaze followed the heavy motherdragon as she sauntered nonchalantly toward the town and sat on a haunch in the dunes, one leg half-extended and her tail curled over it. Gilarel’s ears twitched this way and that, following the distant movements of people at their tasks as she waited hopefully, watching a group assemble just on the outside of a semi-shaded commons. When people headed her way, she took a few long steps to the dunes’ edge to meet them. Emma and Catalina helped Comet stop the group as she lay down, awkward with a maturing unborn. When she swung her head in a beckoning motion, they resumed their approach.
The dragon passed a brilliant green eye over them. The new people of the West were uncertain, hesitant. Many were dressed for battle, as on the East, with lizardskin armor and long-shafted arrows. She lowered her head slowly and touched her snout to the ground, her eyes half shut.
Emma stepped forward first, then a few others who’d gone over the Mountain. With her nose on the sand, the dragon’s eyes were level with theirs, though not quite able to focus straight at them. Each embraced her snout as she touched it’s hard end to their chests, leaning their foreheads into her ridgy face.
“This is Gilarel. One of our overnight circle of safety going over the Mountain. She has sheltered us from the cold, slinker-filled nights and licked many wounds,” Emma said.
Still with eyes defocused, Gilarel snuffed at the nearest Westerners, and felt a few hands touch her face gingerly. She raised her head to look to the cave-riddled rock that they had made into their home. “You have already realized the value of water mouthed caves.” The dragon spoke gently, the immensity of her voice settling all around them. “So we cannot offer to build you one as we did for the East. We can dig your canal deeper, if you desire.” She tilted her head to pass her fascinating eye across the assembled group.
“Why should we trust the generosity of dragons?” one among the crowd asked.
“We seek your alliance, but it seems we do not have as much to offer you, as we did the East.” The end of her tail flopped, and those closest to it backed away in uncertainty. It used to have fins, but they had been cut away.
“Why do you seek our alliance?” a thin, old woman with silver-grey hair asked. “You are huge, and we are small.”
“People are as fierce as we. We know this for certain after what happened on the mountain’s shoulder. You fight just as hard to defend your home-places, though usually you are fighting one another. This we have seen time and time again. But here, there is a battle that is truly worth fighting. The more small ones you can kill, the less big ones we will have to.” The brown motherdragon lowered her nose to the ground, gave a steamy snort that scattered sand. “And when we do fight a Fahah, more of us survive if your nimble hands help sew us up again.” The dragon’s emerald eye was again level with theirs, though she was careful not to capture anyone with her gaze.
The group erupted in cacophonous talking, and when they had settled enough, Emma spoke again. “It does mean you have to shelter in a safe-cave under the battle until it’s over. It also means a chance to get Blackleather,” she added.
The sounds of the crowd were doubtful, and Gilarel spoke again. “We will fight, with or without your help. But our Memory is filled with as many lost battles as victories, and we often had to flee to lands more distant, safer, to recover our numbers. It is our hope that with the help of people, we will not lose more than are born.”
“And if you lose less than are born, will you become as much a scourge on the land as they? Will you become so many that you eat down the forests?” a very old, gnarled man wanted to know.
Gilarel’s long exhalation flowed over his head, and she shifted a massive haunch. “It is not natural for us to birth every year, yet we must, if we are to maintain a fighting Legion. Each of us will die, but we will have died fighting for Life. If there weren’t Fahahng to kill us, there would be less of us, not more.”
Emma pulled a long, thin bit of steel from a pouch on the side of her quiver. “This is a needle for stitching dragons. I’ve done it once, and Comet can teach this skill,” she glanced over heads in his direction, and he nodded. “It would be good if more than two of us knew. Even if no-one acts on it right away.”
The silver haired elder Dida looked to the motherdragon. “You say you don’t have as much to offer as to those on the East. What incentive do we have to help you?”
Gilarel grunted into the sand. “If we are beaten, we will retreat. Then, the Fahahng will go where they wish.” She flopped the finless end of her tail again. “We can only offer our flesh, that you will have arrows strong enough to kill bigger Fahah.”
The glimmering white male approached from the shore. He sat primly at a comfortable distance on the dunes’ edge, curling his tail around his feet with a flourish that showed it’s fins intact. Gilarel lifted her head far above the people to look in his direction, her shadow falling across the gathering.
Emma tilted her head thoughtfully. “Where is the closest place with skilled tanners?”
“Abrevar Atepec. Takes less than a day to get to the watering hill,” the blondish mistress of trade answered. “Why?”
“Orion is offering his fin, but it’ll have to be worked quickly.”
“You’re leaving so soon?” Marcus said with surprise.
Emma smiled. “Afraid I am. Going to come with me?”
“No, thanks. I’ll stay right here, where I don’t have to get on a boat,” Marcus crossed his arms, long black hair shifting on his shoulders.
“Guess I’ll just have to miss you, then.” Emma gave him a devilish look. “Chicken.”
The slender warrior puffed out his chest, feigning offense. “Just you wait until I’m strong again, and I’ll show you who’s chicken. If you come back to Song,” he added, with a grin.
Gilarel nosed down among the people again. Emma laid a hand on her hard snout, then moved off toward Orion with most of the group following. The dazzling white Motek put a handlike paw on the ground and bent his head to greet her and snuff at others. Comet stood with Emma beside the end of the dragon’s tail.
“This first cutting is yours to make,” Comet told her with solemnity.
“Oh, come on,” Emma protested. “I’ve only done it once. Refresh my memory?” Both knelt in study, tracing veins in the fin to determine the correct place to make cuts. After a while, Emma addressed those gathered. “Too close in, the dragon bleeds a little more and you have to trim the thicker margins anyway. Too far out, and you’d lose a surprising number of potential arrows.”
Comet looked up to meet the gaze of Orion, his head tilted downward, watching. “The dragon must not move or make a sound while the cutting is being done.” He spoke more to the gathering than the dragon, but Orion lowered his head in a slow dragon’s nod all the same.

Neal watched from under Gilarel’s head as Emma stood on the end of Orion’s tail, her sword sending the occasional blinding flash his way in the slanting sunshine.
“Gilarel?” he began. The dragon grunted. “I’ve been trying to copy Comet’s map, and I need help with the places that people have never seen, on the Southern half of the continent.”
“Help?” The question settled over him as she lowered her nose nearly to rest on his shoulder.
“I need to know what color to make the different places, what kind of land is there.” Neal unrolled the two maps, Gilarel’s hot breath streaming down in front of him.
“Where shall I begin?” the dragon asked.
“The coastline,” Neal said.
A soft snort rustled the maps, and he grabbed at them. “There is a crack in the bottom of the land,” Gilarel began. “The cliffs are very high at this inlet, and the rivers drain over them. To it’s East, the cliffs are grey, to the West, blackish. Atop the dark cliffs is a high forest, and as the fjords subside, the Black Mountains rise, dark-stoned and thickly jungled on both sides. They are beaten by spinning storms more than any other place. Sitting on the grey cliffs across the great inlet is an open highland, with grass and trees.” The dragon paused as Neal scribbled. “The kind of place you expect to see massive herds of hoofed animals. But if there were, they have already been eaten. The grasses are empty. On the West the open land is bordered by the southern end of the Grey Mountains, sparsely forested on the interior slopes and very dry along the coast of the West Gulf.”
“Yes, we’ve sailed by and seen the greycoast desert,” Neal said. He looked up at movement on the dunes. Orion’s cutting was finished and his blue-iridescent mate taking the place. “I imagine the White Mountains are so called because they are high and snowy. . .” he prompted.
“Some of the lands sank, and some rose in the Push. The White Mountains are very high, their slopes still encrusted with aeons of freeze. Even the two smoking mountains among them have only their tips bare; with great canyons and some tunnels where their flows etched into the ices. Some of these ices are beginning to heal,” she said.
Neal puckered his mouth. “That’s odd. As I figure it, those mountains are right on the equator.”
Gilarel snorted again, and he pointed to the White Mountains’ western slopes. “What does it mean, ‘icy wastes?’ How far do they go?”
“Even the head of the river is frozen in places. Rubble was shaken from the high mountains, and on that exposure it hasn’t melted. Much of it is great boulders of ice, though it seems to be resolving into smaller bits as glaciers re-form.”
Neal frowned, and looked up to see a warrior of Song excising fin from the tail of the motherdragon called Dusk. “It must be very high there, if that’s the case. Are the hills of the savannah cold as well?”
Gilarel gave a soft growl, surprising Neal. “The Wastes are no higher than the shoulder of the mountain which you walked. They are part of the Deathless One’s home. Probably kept cold and lifeless by it’s own design.” There was a strange quality in the dragon’s voice that raised the hairs on the back of the cartographer’s neck. He wondered if it was possible she was afraid.
The oldest of the elders cleared his throat, and Gilarel’s ear turned in his direction. “What is the Deathless One, and how can it keep a tropical place that cold?” Manoel asked.
“It is probably using magic to cool it’s surroundings, like it uses shadow to obscure it’s true form. It has lost it’s death. It is a creature even more ancient than us, and it is the maker of the Fahahng. The Deathless One is who we fight, when we defend the Life on this land.”
“Lost it’s death?” Deraldo wrinkled his brow.
Gilarel turned her focus to the greying, deep red-tan elder. The beauty of her green eye was stunning, he yet felt a cold terror slowly creeping into him. “It is not alive or dead, and cannot leave this existence in the forever-sleep of Death. If it sees life, if it knows of life, it kills. It made the Fhahang to be it’s destroyers, and the World is very lucky that the fault of their madness prevents them from crossing water, else the Deathless One could seek to make barren the entire round Mother Earth.” Gilarel released the aging man from her gaze, and Deraldo shuddered, still feeling the chill of terror running through him.
“Lord in Heaven help us all, there really is a Devil,” he muttered, clutching a metal cross around his neck.
“What can you do against an immortal enemy?” Dida asked, feeling the fear creep into her as well.
Gilarel closed her eyes, her voice heavy. “Our lives are short, but our Memory is long. As long as we remember, we will live to keep fighting.” She nuzzed the slight elder in reassurance. “While the White Mountains are filled with Fahahng, the Deathless One is unapproachable. We learned this once, the hard way, and were crushed and cursed. We survived the ages and freed ourselves by facing it, when this land was still thawing and the Fahahng were unawakened.”
“Why didn’t you imprison it or bury it under it’s own mountain when you had the chance?” Neal wondered. The nervousness had settled deep into him as well.
“Because at that time, were were only One Queen, and her mate,” Gilarel said. “And it’s magic is very hard to pierce, even for us. It was a great enough victory, making it free us of it’s curseworm.” The dragon smiled, a vengeful joy filling her. “And in time we discovered that the Old Mother had freed herself of the curse, as well. We have only grown stronger,” her tone ended in a forceful growl that sent chills through her listeners.
“So, you were here before this land was frozen?” Dida asked after a long pause, her silver hair flashing gold in the evening sunshine. Gilarel touched her nose to the ground in a nod. “But that was so long ago. . .”
The dragon’s steamy breath stirred the pebbly sand. “We survived under the curse for longer than even we can count, what was left of us scattered across the Mother. This place was made surely barren by the time it froze over and was forgotten. We have watched the animals and weather change and change again. We have seen the coming of humans. We have befriended you and hidden from you, as your civilizations rose and fell, with either co operation or cruelty.” The dragon raised her head to watch the last of the harvest being put into it’s cave.
“How many times has our civilization rose and fell?” The elder Paola wondered. “I’ve always been curious.”
Gilarel chuckled, a slow, rumbling sound. “That is a question for an Akorok. Our seers can access the dim regions of our Memory better than I.”

IV. Celebrations

It was just after breakfast, and Emma was searching the town of Song for a willing traveling companion. Finding a knot of Overlanders in the communal grounds, she recited her plight once again. “I’ve found a ship, but if I’m going to row my way there I need a traveling partner. The captain says an extra oar on only one side won’t do him any good.”
“We’ve worked hard for a week straight, and you wannana leave just at the fun part?” Wayland gave her a sidelong look.
Emma glared at him. “Wasn’t asking you.”
“I’ll go,” Moric straightened from leaning against the nearest tree. “I’ve been hearing about this water-hill, and it sounds fascinating.”
Emma smiled with delight. “Good! Get your stuff together, cause the ship’s leaving real soon.” The stoneworker grunted, limping away to the house-cave in which he stayed to gather his things, while a few others helped Emma bring the dragons’ tailfins to the shore.

Fiona set down the bundle of soft, raw skin on the shore with others like it, in palest grey and vague greenish. Emma was reaching over the side of the little boat as loaders handed them in, and Fiona wondered if she might find anyone to go fishing with again. It looked as if only a few of the regular fishermen were taking to the water this day, and she should probably take a turn in the fields with the Overland’s animals anyway. On the way back she passed Moric, traveling pack slung over his shoulder. She stopped, and one armored westerner lingered as well.
“You leaving with Emma?” she asked. Moric nodded, and Fiona shook her head with a sigh. “That’s too bad. I would have liked more time to say goodbye to you.” She looked up to the burly stoneworker, a sparkle in her eye. “And more time to get to know you. Even though we’ve been over the Mountain together, seems like we were too busy just trying to survive.”
Moric put a solid hand on her shoulder, and smiled. “Then, I hope we meet again.” Fiona had barely time to return the smile before he continued toward the shore, hurrying as fast as his faulty leg would go.

When the sun rose high enough to shine into the potful of herbs that had been gathered and mashed the day before, it’s lid was removed and it was stirred up again. Curious, Comet peered in. The liquid was beginning to ferment, little bubbles rising to the surface as it was stirred. It was a rich yellow against the pale wooden spoon. The smell wasn’t unpleasant, but not reminiscent of food, either. A fire was being set beside it, and Willies began to strain the yellow liquid through a cloth into another pot.
“It looks like liquid sunshine,” Comet’s tone was of admiration.
“It is liquid sunshine,” Willies smiled, scraping gloppy plant matter around atop the straining-cloth to help the water drain.
“Is it medicine, or a festive drink?” Comet asked.
Willies smiled broadly. “It’s both, actually. The Sun Opener soaks up the sun’s essence, then when you drink the liquid sunshine, the sun opens for you.”
“A visionary herb,” Comet surmised.
Willies nodded. “We use it to connect with and remember the ancestral chain of harvests and harvest festivals past.” The weatherbeaten man scraped the slimy-looking leaf matter across the cloth for some time, then he said, “Anyone is welcome to participate. It’s not intense, but has a pleasant, relaxing effect.”
“Now is not the time or place for me to undergo experimentation with an unfamiliar altering substance,” Comet said, “although I would like to observe, if there’s a place in the ceremony for that.”
Willies shrugged. “Don’t see why not. We’re in the center of the gathering anyway, just sit down beside us.”
Once the slightly fermented tea had all been strained, they started the fire under it, and simmered it down slowly. Lots of yellow liquid turned to a little, of a rich yellowish-brown, and by mid-afternoon it was ready and cooling.
The masked dancers had come again and gone, a bull with a plow and his attendants, weaving their way through the crowd and then melting into the large gathering under the date palms. Celebrants and guards rotated every so often, as people retreated to the cool of the caves and reemerged.
Four of the five Elders gathered in the center of the guarded, open space, bearing an intricately embroidered cloth draped like a standard. Others assisted in standing it upright in the shallow, rocky ground as Willies and another carried the pot, sitting it under the tapestry. Soon, a small gourd dipper and little, round-bottom gourd cups began to appear beside it, and there was a subtle change in the mood and arrangement of the gathering.
Faron searched the group, speaking to any Overlanders he could find, then headed to the red cave. Samara was within, leaning against the cool wall beside an altar.
“Thought I’d find you in here,” he said.
“It’s really hot out there. I don’t know how the guards can stand it, in all that leather,” she remarked.
“Heard you’ve been thinking about staying here,” Faron ventured. Samara nodded. “Something going on outside you should be aware of. An important piece of cultural experience.”
“The Visioning starting?” Temoc asked. Faron nodded, and Temoc rose stiffly, a few others following him.
“You coming?” Faron asked Jhordana on his way by her.
Jhordana shook her head. “Afraid I have to sit this one out,” she said, with a tinge of sadness.
“Why?” Samara wanted to know.
“Women on their moontime do not partake of the Sun’s drink,” she said.
“Is it dangerous to?” Samara wondered.
Jhordana shook her head. “The Sun Opener is not dangerous, but the moontime is it’s own sacred time for fasting.”
Samara looked puzzled. “I’ve seen you eat.”
The curly-haired Westerner chuckled. “I don’t mean fasting from food.”

When they arrived at the center of the guarded common ground, the eldest of the elders was filling the little brown cups with the concentrated tea, which were passing hand to hand until everyone who sat in a semicircle before the tapestry-standard had some.
“Where’s Raoni?” Temoc whispered. It was customary for all the elders to participate, and he was missing.
Deraldo tilted his head to a guard in the shade with light armor. “He’s good with a bow,” the elder said, the metal cross around his neck glinting in the sun.
Samara sniffed the little shot of brown liquid cautiously. It’s smell was inoffensive, though judging by the grimaces some made after they’d downed it, it tasted bad. She took a tiny sip. Bitter, and vaguely disgusting. She drank the rest quick, and it made her a little queasy. Other than that, nothing happened. She leaned to Faron and whispered, “What should I be feeling?”
“Give it time,” Faron replied. There were other quiet conversations among the group, and eventually Samara began to feel pleasantly relaxed. She picked up a strain of conversation from nearly across the little gathering of visioners.
“. . .tasted like you’d left water in a flower vase for too long then cooked it, but I’m starting to feel good now,” Zoe was saying.
Paola chuckled. “Long ago, we used to drink the tea straight from under the sun, but experiments made before the Fall found cooking it down to be a much better way to get the same effect, with less disgusting drink.”
Far off, an arrow whizzed through the air, followed by the helpless shriek of a hatchling.
Elsewhere in the circle, she heard Davies say he felt like laying down, and then he did. Neal followed, and their shifting on the sand seemed at once louder and more distant. Samara looked up to birds flitting and calling in the branches, and realized that the entire world had become bathed in a creamy yellow-gold. She could feel a buzzing hum inside her relaxed body, and her vision was rapidly changing now. The sunlight itself was thicker, visible as it’s own entity. Everything it touched took on it’s yellow cast, while things in the shade seemed to be extra bluish. After looking around at the world for a while, she gave in to the euphoric buzzing of her body, urging her to lay down. She placed her hands behind her head on the pebbly sand so she could stare at the intricately lined picture, as so many others were doing. Once her focus settled on the tapestry, it seemed to fill her vision- the periphery melted to dark indistinctness, and the white background cloth yellowed in her vision. The embroidered pattern seemed to dance after she’d stared long enough, lines and curves within lines and curves. Her ears still caught distant sounds -or perhaps close ones that sounded distant.

Comet sat among the visioners, watching them. He had smelled the tea, watched it’s preparation, and seen the plant from which it was made. He had even taken a little taste. All that he felt was a loosening of his muscles, which could happen more easily from being among those under full dose than from his one, tiny sip. Most of the participants were laying down. All were quiet -even Wayland- and many focused on the intricately designed tapestry which hung above them. A tapestry who’s pattern had come from another, stronger visionary brew, from a wetter part of the world than the plant with which they now visioned. The pattern’s style was familiar to Comet, and eventually he focused on it fully. Had he seen this design before? He let himself fall into the intricacies of the embroidered picture, let it fill his vision completely. It’s pattern began to dance and move under his gaze. Visionary knowledge came flooding back to him, and he remembered.
The pattern was the song, and the song was the pattern, and as he saw, he began to hear. The tune filled him, and flowed out through him. He began to hum. Softly at first, perhaps cautiously, then louder, as the vibration of his voice melded with the pattern, and the pattern became one with him. He looked away from the picture, and he could still see the song which he hummed. It lay across the people and spread onto the land, far beyond the little semicircle of visioners- some of which were smiling now as they stared raptly at the tapestry. One of the Elders had tears in her eyes. As the song flowed through him, he recognized it as a gift for both the people and land. He turned from the tapestry, sending the song-pattern in his voice and vision outward, in the direction of the grain fields. He closed his eyes, and his awareness began to float over the croplands, sending the song’s pattern over cultivated gardens, fallow fields and just-harvested stubbles, where a few dedicated individuals and watchful dogs guarded the Overland’s munching animals. Time ceased to matter, as he hummed the pattern into perfection across the lands of Song.
Eventually, he returned to hover over the gathering, humming the pattern into the people that his body sat among, growing closer and closer to the earth, until he was again able to open his real eyes, still with the pattern in his sight, still humming the pattern into the people around him. The vision subsiding, he turned again to focus on the tapestry, his humming growing softer as the tide of remembrance faded and his ordinary awareness took hold once again.
Comet closed his eyes and bent forward, leaning his face close to the dirt. He let swirling patterns behind his eyes fade, the warmth of Tropica’s thin, stoney soil radiating into him. He began to hear the shifting movement of those around him. The visioners were stirring, rising. He sat up and looked to the sun. It had been a couple hours since the little cups were passed around. The standard-tapestry was taken down and carried inside, and as Manoel hobbled by, he paused to put a gnarled hand on Comet’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” the eldest Elder nearly whispered, then continued slowly on his way.
Open fires were already being started in the commons, and soon the animals were led in from the fields. Dogs ran to join a game, chasing a smooth wooden ball being kicked around on the wet, low-tide shore by energetic youths, some of them old enough to be wearing crocodile skin armor. The other animals settled in the shade of the commons, and a group removed the armor from the two horses who wore it. The pair of goats lay down to chew their cuds at the base of a bigger tree, while the burro and two of the Overland’s dark horses stood in the drifting smoke of the cookfires to deter flies, oblivious to the combined heat of the flames and lowering sun.
People were already enjoying snacks of cold nopales with avocado, as sorghum and freshly caught fish filled the air with the fragrance of their cooking. The group of dragons once again descended from the sky to swim and forage the sea. They settled on the shore, comfortably far from the waning activity of the harbor. Some curled up to rest, slowly breathing boulders gleaming like the Gulf behind them, and others remained alert. The youths quit their game to join a group walking out to greet the huge beasts, but the clanging of pots soon brought them all back; a signal that dinner was ready.
Though the cooking was communal, the food was again split and taken into the safety of home-caves to be eaten as the setting sun colored the sky and sea in brilliant, pinkish hues.

Dida ate in the red cave, and after the meal she settled slowly on the floor against the wall where Comet sat alone, holding his empty bowl in his hands. The Overlanders were all looking healthier and gaining in strength, but this one was recovering particularly well. Though lean, he was limber and strong, his amber-tan skin and long, golden hair shone with health. “Mind if I join you?” she asked.
Comet shook his head, the lamp’s fire caught in his wild curls. The slight woman still moved easily for her age. “I hope that I didn’t provide any undue distraction this afternoon,” he said, remembering the tears at the edges of her eyes.
Dida smiled, the distant flame’s light streaking across her shining, silver hair. “My grandfather used to sing the Icaros in ceremony. I haven’t heard that pattern sung, or any other, since before we came to Tropica.” Her voice was wistful with memory. She wiped the corners of her eyes, then looked at the fair stranger. “I have to wonder, though. . . How has the man who didn’t want to try something as mild as sinichuichi just sung a yage pattern with sincere skill?”
Comet chuckled. “Once the door has been opened, it can be opened again, yage or no yage.”
Dida took a long breath, her studying gaze still fixed upon Comet. He wasn’t the palest of the Overland, but he was the fairest. He dressed like Western men used to, wearing little more than a loincloth. The indigo tied at his hips might have been some kind of clothing, but it more resembled a wad of rags, some of them stained dark with blood. “I would think I’d remember you, if you’d ever come and gone over the Pass before. The only place wet enough for the vine of visions on the West is the Anaconda River, and you can’t cross the Mountain without stopping at Song on the way through. Does the vine grow on the East?”
Comet shrugged. “It grows in the high forest, which we passed through, but I haven’t had a chance to explore the wild jungles of the East’s river-valleys.”
“You can’t have learned while you were fighting devourers across the Mountain. . .”
Comet shook his head. “I’m not from Tropica’s East Gulf. I’m a traveler from far away, and I have been to the sacred vine’s native jungles, learned it’s use under the maestros there. The pattern you visioned under is a song to balance people with the forest they live in.” He made a sweeping gesture with an arm. “This isn’t the same kind of jungle, but the balancing of people and their lands is universally valuable. Perhaps moreso, where crops are intensively grown.”
Dida sighed, looked at her hands. “I know it. Across the river, our fields were growing fine- we’d built up the soil through years of work, always making sure to put back what we took away, and more. But these lands are fresh, their soil thin. We’re starting over. The old fields yielded a great bounty, surplus for trade even, and now we get barely enough to see our own village through the hungry time.” She studied Comet again. “You say you come from far away. . . do people often have two hearts there, or are you a unique mutant?”
Comet laughed heartily. “I’m a hybrid, a semi-mythical being, if you will. I am a mutant, as you put it, but all my mother’s children are. I cannot say I am completely unique, but my family is different, in both form and behavior, from our source-species.”
The slight elder nodded thoughtfully, her tone hesitant. “You really aren’t like us. . . You look the same, but you feel different,” she mused.
Comet gazed into the cavern. Drums and other instruments were emerging from under various altars and corners. Soon, it would become too loud to have quiet conversation.
“I found the ceremonies of the yage’s people accidentally,” he said, “and grew curious enough to learn under them.”
“Accidentally?” Dida cocked her head.
“Those wet, high, and most isolated jungles were the only place left on the Mother that we knew Dragonswort to grow, until this land began to flourish. I don’t think even the jungle’s own people knew of it, it was so rare. One little patch, growing in one of those very hard-to-reach places that are only visited for sacred purposes, if at all. The kind of place they say a shaman must fly to, to reach.”
“And did a dragon fly you there?” Dida asked as the drums began to beat.
Comet half smiled, shook his head. “Possible to climb there. Just, not easy or safe.”

The town of Song gathered early in the commons to celebrate and cook together again this afternoon, and dragons were already snoozing at the delta’s edge. People didn’t pay them much mind this day, and as soon as the last stragglers filtered in from abroad on land and sea, a different set of colorfully costumed masks appeared. Rather than devil- or animal-ish countenances, these personas were human in form. It was their clothing that gave them away as elementals or nature deities. The theme was familiar: Comet had seen, heard and read such stories in other journeys, half a world away. The grain god was old, his mask craggy and wrinkled. The actor walked stooped, bearing a head of ripe sorghum. The reapers came- unmasked villagers- and cut him down. From the folds of his costume they pulled vibrant red cloths, dancing round and round the dead god as they consumed his blood-body, hiding the bright cloths within their own clothes. Then they pulled the ripened sorghum from his hand, and dismantled the costume- the god’s mask and colorful clothing came off, revealing an ordinary villager beneath, who got up to join the dance of the others, parading around with bits of the god until the Mother River showed up.
The woman-mask was young, her clothes blue and flowing, stuffed to mimic pregnancy. She held her arms up, open wide, and began to dance and sway, gently at first. The villagers gathered all the bits of the dead grain god, clutching them tightly, and scattered away into the audience as the gentle movements of the river goddess became ever more vigorous. She began to stomp about and squat, and the cloth stuffed into the dress fell to the ground, streamers of red, orange and blue. She stood tall again and people rushed in to grab them, running in circles around her. She began to whirl, and as she turned their circles expanded, the water and birth colors flying out behind the runners. The life giving floods grew until they reached the edge of the watching circle, then began to slow and recede, until the participants walked close around the Mother River again, laying the colors in a heap before her. She sat and bent her head to the pile of cloth, the river’s water receded. A new mask came forward and sat in the pile of streamers- a youthful male, his colors green with newly sprouting grains embroidered all over his clothes. The goddess cradled him tenderly; the grain god sprouted anew from the soil that the Mother River’s floods had made fertile once again.
The high, joyful energy with which the play had been performed and watched lingered only for a little while as fires were started and the meal was communally cooked. The shift in mood could indicate another event, yet as the village grew more solemn, with no sign of reason for this change, Comet began to suspect that something was amiss. A party that lasted for days should not end like this.
Samara sat beside him, watching the people around her. “I guess, the party’s over,” she observed. “People are even saying goodbye to each other like they’re leaving. No more communal dinners, I suppose.”
“Many-day festivals don’t usually end with a touch of sadness, I’ve found,” Comet said.
Samara tilted her head in thought. “You’re right. I wonder what they’re up to next?”
“I suspect that something is missing,” Comet mused.
“Maybe we ought to ask?” Samara said. She scanned the crowd, until her eyes settled on Raoni. She rose, and Comet followed. The youngest Elder tended a fire over which many crabs were cooking. Samara sat next to the blaze, her mood pensive. “The town seems to be acting sad, the whole town, and this seems a little odd, to us,” she said finally.
Raoni’s pale eyes were striking against his dark hair and red-tan skin. “It is the end of the celebrations,” he said, with a heavy note.
“Every party has to come to an end, and it’s always better to party than work,” Samara paused thoughtfully.
Raoni chuckled. “Naturally, but we cannot complete our celebrations the way that we used to.”
“So, something is missing,” Samara said.
“It will sound bad, to the ears of an unfamiliar Easterner,” he glanced toward the Mountain, a fattening moon peeking over it’s shoulder.
The healer kept her gaze steady on the young Elder. “Tell us anyway,” she ventured.
“It is an ancestral belief, that cropland needs to be fertilized with human blood,” Raoni said. “We take from the land, we eat the grain, and we must give back to it from ourselves for the balance to be complete. In ancient times, enemies were sacrificed for this purpose, but we have found a way around the violence.”
Samara glanced at Comet, then spoke to Raoni. “And sacrificing yourselves to slinkers won’t do,” she concluded.
Raoni shook his head sorrowfully. “These new croplands have never gotten our return. We take, but we cannot give back. The celebration and plays are symbolic gratitude, and we build the soil with everyday compost and work, but still we are missing an essential part of our relationship with the land, and so the balance remains amiss between us, and our fields.”
Samara frowned, deep in thought. She was silent for a long time. “What way around violence have you found?”
Raoni laughed. “Not all of us are Aztec in ancestry. There are jungle-peoples and, as you may be able to notice in me, strains of Northern overseas cultures and the traditions that followed them. It’s the beginning of the summer planting season, and. . . frolicking in the fields was encouraged. The fertility of the people was, and became, the fertility of the land.”
Samara wrinkled her brow. “What does frolicking have to do with sacrificed blood?”
Raoni grinned. “It does once a month, right?” he winked at her.
Samara was taken aback for a moment, then tried not to giggle. “That’s an ingenious solution,” she managed.
Suddenly she noticed that Comet was staring far away, and instinctively her gaze followed his. He hadn’t sighted danger. She could barely see over the dunes’ scrub, the wingtips of a dragon flapping in a leap above the shore. “Maybe, it can happen again. . .” she said after a long time.
Raoni set down the stick he was poking the fire with to look at her.
“Dragons want to help you. To give you back your freedom, I think. It’s worth asking them.” Samara looked to Comet questioningly, but he continued to stare into the distance.
“How can dragons help us ceremonially fuck each other?” Raoni said skeptically.
“Circle of safety,” said the woman who tended the cooking crabs.
Samara nodded, then shrugged. “Can’t be very private, though. You’d still need guards to kill the slinkers that come in.”
“Then why do you call it a circle of safety?” Raoni wanted to know.
“Slinkers won’t jump dragons, they’re too big. But they’ll circle and growl and prowl. Probably eventually start burning. Then, your land’s on fire. For this same reason, the dragons won’t burn the slinkers who circle them. So, you need some people to kill them without fire,” Samara explained.
Raoni stared at her awhile, wordless. Then he stood, raised his hands high, and clapped. Slowly, rhythmically. People looked up, and soon they began to stand as well. The gesture was picked up, and when Raoni began to walk, anyone clapping and many standing followed him.
Samara and Comet looked to each other in puzzlement, and curiosity. They also joined the group. Guards broke off their watch to follow Raoni’s gathering towards the shore, despite the nearness of dinner and sunset.
Gilarel flicked an ear. Something was happening in the settlement, and it was coming this way. She rose with urgency, stretched as she left the beach and crossed the dunes on long strides, covering the distance in a fraction of the time it would have taken the clapping party.
The motherdragon crouched before them on the narrow path through the dunes, brown and earthy and enormous. Raoni stood before her and stared, a man older than his years. “You want to help us?”
The dragon lowered her nose close to the ground, gave a gentle snort. Hot breath spread towards Raoni’s feet along the still-warm sand.
“Will you give us your circle of safety?” the youngest elder wanted to know.
Gilarel looked at him, with the full focus of her mesmerizing, emerald eye. A barrage of questions flowed into Raoni’s mind- when, where, for how long, and why? -and then the dragon’s gaze released him.
“Tomorrow afternoon, in the harvested sorghum fields, for the last ceremony of our festival,” he found himself replying.
“Why is it necessary?” the dragon asked, in words.
“Because the devourers will smell it, and come,” Raoni said darkly.
Gilarel passed a glance across Samara and Comet. Both nodded in approval, and the dragon dipped her snout in the sand. “We will stay by the river. When you pass, we will follow.” She stood, towering above them, and turned back the way she’d come. Those at the front of the procession ducked as her tail swung over their heads, and then she was gone, loping through the dunes with soft, heavy footfalls.
“Afternoon, really?” a woman said, farther back in the group.
“Don’t want to do it at night anymore, would you?” Raoni asked.
There was grudging consent among the listeners, and the party headed home with determined speed. Raoni made his way to the center of the communal grounds, stood tall and clapped in the air again a few times. People were eating, still outside. Waiting for the outcome of the meeting. They gathered close, warriors moving in to ring the tighter circle.
“We have been given back the opportunity to enrich our lands,” Raoni told them. “But it must be done in the day, and unfortunately, not as privately. I have asked the dragons to lend us their circle of safety for the afternoon.”
Deraldo stood, anger burning in his eyes. “Are you mad? You’ve indebted us to them for no more than a pagan rite!”
“One we’ve all been missing,” Raoni retorted. He swept a gesture behind him, toward Samara and Comet. “Even these two who know nothing about our customs can tell that Song is unhappy.”
A woman stood, gesturing emphatically with spoon in hand. “If we keep on without giving ourselves back to the fields, our crops will dwindle and blight, until the soil won’t be able to feed us at all!” Cries of agreement and howls of opposition erupted from all sides.
Paola came to stand next to Raoni in the center, turning around to look at everyone. “Think about it. Talk about it. But if someone decides to volunteer. . . We ask the dragons what the price is, before we accept.”

The red cave was almost centered in the cavern-town of Song, and Comet could nearly feel the rocks buzzing with talk that night. Hope had been reawakened, but the parameters were very different, and the people were still wary of what the dragons would want in return.
In the morning, people gathered in the red cave to discuss the practicalities, the lack of privacy due to the need for guards. Opinions were asked of the Overlanders- what was it like to live between the dragons, to sleep and make love under their wings?
Nearly always the answer amounted to: The dragons don’t care what you do, as long as you’re not hurting each other. It’s being too near other people that’s tricky.
Overlanders were also asked, what will the dragons want in return?
Everyone said, keep killing slinkers. Those who had been under the battle at Crocodile added- and to help put the Legion back together after they fight a Horde.
The red cave was crowded, noisy with possibility and speculation. How many guards should there be, and who? Someone pointed out that warriors guarded animals in the fields every day already. They may not be near, but they could easily place themselves downwind of the dragons at the appropriate time.
“Best send a few extra warriors along with the animals today, then,” Catalina cautioned.
“We’re missing an essential element,” Leila pointed out. “None of the reddest women have . . . volunteered themselves.”
There was an awkward silence, then Jhordana spoke. “Send extra guards with the horses anyway. No one needs to make that choice while the red cave is this full.”
The meeting broke, and the mare Greta was fitted with her rump-and-belly-protecting armor as most filtered out of the red cave. For the first time since Lily had been in heat, Comet accompanied the horses to spend the day in the fields with them. It was a relaxing morning, moving at grazing pace and spotting hatchlings by their rustling of sorghum stalks. The sky was hazy, the air oppressive with a change in the weather. Around midday, fluffy clouds studded the usually-clear sky.
People and animals took a long rest at a canal’s watering hole, in the shade of it’s thick hedge. The air smelled of hot, baked riverbank, but the warm breeze brought the scent of moisture. While they speculated on the possibility of rain and ceremonial parties, they noted movement along the road; somewhat unusual this far on the outskirts, and the small group of people carried a red streamer for a flag. They were soon followed by the soft thuds of heavy footsteps. Following dragons. The white Orion and his blue-iridescent mate. Their mostly green dragling followed her with the gangly gate of rapid growth, as tall as his mother’s shoulders now. One widow walked ahead, one behind the family. Once the long tail of the last Motek had gone past, the group led animals after them. The pair settled carefully in the sorghum field, crushing down green leaved stalks in a far corner. A couple widows and the dragling munched their way into the hedges on either side, then bedded down in silence. Two people entered the shelter of Orion’s mottled, stone-grey wing, and the accompanying guards joined the grazing party.
“We should split up,” Sirio said. “They come from upriver as often as downwind.”
“Greta needs to be upwind,” Bridgit patted the armored rump of the mare she guarded. “Then maybe she won’t be the first one they go for, for once.” The two mares and pair of goats crossed the hedge into the next field, past the circled dragons and right under the nose of a teal widow, while the stallion, gelding and speckled burro stayed downwind, lingering at the far end of the field that the dragons lay in.
Comet took Rodriguez from Marcus’s charge, looped the stallion’s lead into a bitless bridle and leapt on. At first, he simply watched from the stallion’s back as the horse continued to graze. He sat with bow across his lap, three arrows ready in his hand and enjoying the higher view. The jagged, ridgy stone that made the cultivations’ boundary was just as full of holes as the one Song had claimed. These cavelets wouldn’t be empty, either. Comet wondered if larger slinkers would bother to wake and brave the day’s brightness.
The dragling became restless, his green form suddenly visible with his movement. He half flapped his yellow-brown, mottled wings and pawed at the tattered tail of a widow as it flopped. She uttered a sharp growl, and the young one leapt back with a crash of sticks. Rodriguez lifted his head with a start at the sound, then flicked his ear, unconcerned. Soon, the dragling was on his way down the hedge to the forest’s stoney edge, munching branches and rooting along the way. It wasn’t long before he was poking his nose into the cracks and holes of the rock, hunting.
Those around Comet couldn’t discern what signal he’d given, but Rodriguez stopped grazing and raised his head to look around. The stallion snorted hard and began to walk, circling the group of animals and guards. Comet hadn’t touched the bridle rope, yet it was his influence under which the horse moved. Comet still sat with bow half ready, watchful of both the covering sorghum and the occasional bare, stoney islet-stone that crested the deep bed of pebbly soil. They went slowly at first, then increased in speed, working the horse through his gaits.
Neal watched them circle, and circle again, shaking his head. “There he goes again.”
“Again?” Marcus looked askance at Neal. “He never did anything like this during the journey.”
“Only because the horse was packed the entire way. There’s no telling how far he’ll circle out, and no one can keep up with that,” Neal said.
Jedir smiled. “That sounds like a challenge.”
“Just you try,” Neal said sourly.
Occasionally, Comet and Rodriguez paused at a fallen hatchling and Comet half-dismounted, clinging to the side of his steed to pull the arrows. They ducked into a canal hedge to clean them and returned quickly, moving as one being.
“Mind if I borrow your horse, then?” Jedir ventured.
“He’s not the fast type,” Neal said, but handed the lead over anyway.
“Average Joe’s just an average joe, you know,” Fiona grinned. “But he’ll be faster than Bonehead.”
Jedir looked down his nose at Fiona’s speckled burro, who was munching contentedly. “I’m faster than Bonehead,” he stated, looping the bay gelding’s lead into a bridle-halter. Neal gave him a leg up, and he urged the horse to trot in circles around the group. The stallion was already warm, and they had a bit of catching up to do. The gelding didn’t steer so easily without a bit, and occasionally tried to turn back to the grazing spot. After Jedir had successfully turned him a few times, he gave in and let himself be urged to follow the stallion. Comet slowed his pace and circled closer upon being joined by another rider, and the slower animal’s ears pricked forward in interest.
Slinkers gave the resting, massive dragons a circle or two, then turned their attention toward the warm horses. Though a skilled rider, Jedir was unaccustomed to shooting from horseback, and stopped the gelding to take aim. The horse trembled, but stood his ground even if the drooling, ever-hungry shadows were rushing straight for him.
The dragons remained encircled in the field after their tenants had gone, laying their heads down in restfulness. After a while, another red-flagged little group ventured into the field. A couple took shelter under Orion’s pale wing as the relaxed dragon opened it again, raising his head to watch, while their accompanying guards temporarily joined the animals. Late in the cloudy afternoon, the dragons’ circle was empty and the grazing party headed home. Dragons remained still until all were out of sight, though the departing party heard the whoosh of wings behind as they flew low to the river.

The last communally cooked meal was prepared quietly, yet the town was humming with a sense of completion. Most of the Overlanders gathered into a group around a fire pit. “Davies and I are thinking about leaving on the morning’s tide,” Neal announced, “but we need someone else to look after Average Joe, since we’ll probably be sea-bound most of the time. Song usually keeps the Overland’s supplies and works it’s animals, but I don’t think this is a fit place for horses to live, anymore.”
“I hope to take the mares to safer lands,” Catalina said, “but I can’t take him, too.”
Bridgit looked at Burkhart hopefully. “If Catalina takes Greta, we could have Joe,” she ventured.
“What we going to do with him?” Burkhart wanted to know.
Bridgit shrugged. “Take him with us.”
“Know where you’re going?” Neal asked.
“Not exactly, but we’re not planning on being seafarers,” Bridgit said.
Dragons skimmed the sea and foraged as dinner cooked, then circled into the sky, disappearing into the sunset-blushed cloud cover. Once safely inside their home-caves, the villagers erupted in noisy celebration; dancing, singing, and drumming far into the night.

copyright Melanie Degen


Tropican Chronicles, # 6, Song: A Rest for the Weary, part 1

  Song: A Rest for the Weary, p.r. 43, Taurus

                                      I. A New Home

Ina woke to the smell of warm food. The rest of the Overland was still fast asleep- even Faron. She would have liked to keep sleeping, but the aroma of corn masa-cakes propelled her into a queasy waking. She sat up, and called to those in the kitchen area. Most of the red cave’s lit lamps had been moved there while they were cooking, and it’s bustling residents varied in shades of reddish, from nearly pale to nearly black.
“Do you have something I can eat right away? Please?” Ina asked the dark-hued woman who approached.
“Cold chopped nopales, if you can’t wait for the arepas,” Moema studied the dark haired easterner. She was plumper than her gaunt comrades, yet she seemed unusually desperate.
“I don’t think I can wait,” Ina gave a sullen look. “Can you possibly bring me some?”
Moema rose, wondering at Ina’s early waking when the rest of the company was, understandably, still asleep. The wavy-haired westerner settled back in front of Ina, watching her cautiously taste the sample. She ate slowly, not like a starving person. “You alright?” the dark woman asked.
Ina nodded. “Think it’s going to sit right. Sure tastes a lot better with avocado and oil in it.” She noted the quizzical expression on the westerner’s face. “Pregnant,” she confessed.
Moema nodded, understanding dawning on her. “How far along?”
“Almost three months,” Ina told her.
“So, basically the whole journey?” Moema guessed.
Ina sighed, stared into her gourd bowl. “Yeah. They’ve kept me well fed, but it’s been hard.”
Moema shook her head, the wiry waves of her hair shifting behind her shoulders. “I can’t even imagine.” She rose to fetch Ina one of the first arepas coming off the griddle.

The rest of the Overland’s people slowly awakened, jostled by the day’s activity. Their animals had already been led out to pasture, and now the residents of Song were busy shuffling sacred symbols and alters within and into the Red cave.
Marcus sat up, stretching stiffly and yawning. “What’s all this ruckus?”
Emma brought him some of the breakfast saved out for them. “Maybe they need to make room somewhere for horses and extra people.”
“Preparations for the harvest of ripe winter grains,” Faron told them. “Sorghum’s the first, and they’ll start any time now. The work and celebrations last for weeks.”

Soon after they’d eaten, the red cave’s healer looked them over. Samara and Arlataan watched with relief as the shorn-haired westerner took over their task. He tended the small, redheaded warrioress first, pasting and re bandaging Bridgit’s creeping second-day clawing. Wayland and Davies were healing well; the poison gone from the skinniest and fattest warriors’ recent marks. As he moved on to older, better healed wounds, Arlataan leaned to speak in Samara’s ear.
“He’s going to have questions. You should go sit with them.”
Samara turned her head a little, her straight brown hair shining in the lamp’s light. “Me? You’re our master healer.”
“You’ve been tending these most recent more than I,” Arlataan said.
Samara glanced around at her company. “Where’s Comet? He’s the one with the answers to the questions Halix will have.”
Arlataan craned his neck toward the back of the cave. “Sleeping.”
Samara gave an exasperated sigh. “Still? About time someone ought to wake him up, don’t you think?”
Arlataan gave her a sidelong look of doubt. “I seem to remember hearing something about not waking sleeping dragons. Think it applies to him?”
Samara’s shoulders fell.
“It’s your turn,” Arlataan intoned.
The young woman pressed her lips together and took a breath, rising to take a seat near Halix as he examined two who were nearly mended. Moric’s scratch was ordinary, and the burly stoneworker was healing with no trouble, but Halix looked to Samara and raised an eyebrow when Temoc showed his shin. Tendrils that should have been spidery-thin and better healed than the actual claw-mark were wider, and still scabbed.
“It was when we’d just found the river again,” Samara explained. “We only had the Tall Sister, and she couldn’t get it all out on her own.”
“You cut the poison out?” Halix guessed.
Samara smiled nervously, shaking her head. “Not me, but yes. As soon as we found the Small Sister.” Her expression sobered. “We lost one, in the desert without the herbs.”
“You lost only one in the desert. . . where did you lose the others?” Halix asked.
Temoc’s movements were stiff as he took off his undyed cotton shirt to reveal a number of scars on his arms and torso. Some of the wounds had been deep, and the darkened marks were still new and fragile-looking. “A Horde came. That night, all the slinkers it chased from the coast found us, high up on the mountain’s shoulder.”
Halix held a coconut-shell lamp before the stocky westerner, studying intently. “These haven’t crept as far as others I’ve seen,”
“If you make slinkers wait long enough, they clean their claws in the dirt for you,” Temoc said, working his shirt back on.
“How many of you were this badly wounded?” Song’s healer wondered.
“Most of us got less, but I’m not the worst.”
“Seawater will strengthen scars and heal skin faster,” Halix suggested.
Samara leaned forward in her seat. “A bath sounds wonderful,” she breathed. Soon, groups were walking down the path to the shore, guarded by Song’s warriors of the same gender. The morning sun was at their backs and the tide was beginning to go out, leaving a damp length of fine, grey sand before the sea.
Some waded in slow, but Zoe rushed the waves, running until she had to swim. She found a spot between the breakers and slowly stretched her arms open, floating in the salty, swirling waters. All the sweat and grime of months of travel dissolved into the waves around her. The tension of nights full of fighting melted into a blissful lightness. The sea held her up; as long as she treaded water with a chest full of air. It had always been easier for her to sink, than other women. Her neck and shoulders were still weak from deep wounds, but the salty water was limbering them up. She took deep breaths, and dove. Feeling the cold pressure of the water all around her was comforting. It’s silky smooth flow across her skin familiar. This was where she belonged, under the sea. She touched the beach’s shallow bottom in no time, then allowed the breath of air she’d taken to raise her slowly to the surface again, with hardly any effort on her part.
Shortly after, the entire Overland went down to the freshwater to clean their armors and spare change of clothes at the mouth of a large irrigation canal. The bank where they hung their garments was hidden from sight of the fields by a thick, but sparsely-leaved hedge. Though Song’s guards stood watch, the washers were assured a slinker was highly unlikely to make it past those in the fields. Later, women then men went in small groups to change into hopefully-dry spares and wash the ones they wore.

Even the thick cloth of Comet’s robe had dried quickly in the arid heat, and though most armors were still damp, his smaller kilt was also ready for wear. While the other five in the group changed to wash what they’d been wearing, Comet tied his cloth at his hips and buckled his kilt to stand watch with Song’s three guards.
The shortest warrior crossed his arms, grinning. “We don’t need help. If a devourer comes this way, it’ll go for the gardeners out there before it ever gets here.”
Comet gave a deep nod, spoke briefly with his companions, then wandered alone into the field of maturing millet.
The shortest guard climbed the bank and stood at the edge of the brambly hedge, watching in puzzlement as the tall stranger trotted away, his golden curls sparking in the sunshine. He carried the gear of a warrior, yet wore far less armor than the rest of the Overland. Despite his mostly exposed skin, the only scars on him were thin and symmetrical. “Where does he think he’s going, all alone?” Orival wondered, half-sliding back down the bank of coarse sand.
“Oh, him? He’s exploring,” Davies’s tone was casual as he hung his thin shirt and pants on the green branches of a sapling to dry.
Sirio spoke without taking his eye from the wind’s direction, a freshly mended patch on the side of his coat. “I’d think you’d have had enough exploring for a while,” the tall guard commented.
Davies chuckled. “The rest of us sure have. Even me.”
“If it’s a new place, he has to run it’s borders,” Moric said.
The guard with a yellow-dark tint in his complexion turned his attention to them. “Are all you Easterners stupid enough to walk off alone?” Jedir wanted to know.
Burkhart chuckled heartily. “Hell no, but he’s. . . different. And not an Easterner, either.”
“A field full of workers and guards is hardly alone, compared to where we’ve been,” Neal pointed out.
“I suppose,” Orival conceded. “How’s he not as scarred up as the rest of you, if he’s really a warrior?”
“Or dead, walking alone with barely anything on?” Sirio added.
“He’s a very good fighter, and he’s had his share of hits, but the marks always fade,” Arlataan said.
Orival gave another look of puzzlement.
“Like I said, he’s different,” Burkhart repeated. “His disposition’s more like a good horse; I’ve never seen him get angry, and he has mastered himself. Even when he’s afraid, he keeps steady enough to do what he needs to do.”
“They say he has two hearts,” Davies added. Burkhart nodded. Birdsong filled a momentary silence.
“Bullshit,” said the tall Sirio, still watching the scrubby bush.
“He’ll let you listen,” Burkhart insisted.
“He won’t admit it, but it gives him more stamina and speed,” Moric said. “He moves the sword like lighting, can carry more and walk longer.”
“And I’ve never seen anyone eat so little through the desert,” Neal added. “He and Davies here kept Ina fed, and without his water, she would have lost her baby.”
Jedir glanced at Davies, raised an eyebrow. “You gave someone else your food?”
Davies grinned. “I’m skinny, for me.” Still thick in body, most of his muscles were visible beneath an even layer of padding.
“Should we wait for your. . . different friend to come back?” Orival looked up to Burkhart.
The tall, burnt-headed warrior shrugged. “Don’t need to. He knows where the town is.”
“No telling how far he’ll go or when he’ll be back, either,” Neal added.

It was mid afternoon when the group returned to the cave-town, it’s residents busily cleaning out a large storage cavern at the outskirts. Wooden crates and hempen sacks lay piled at it’s mouth, little birds fluttering cautiously around them to pick at bits of stale grain and insects. Sweepers whisked the debris of previous harvests out the light slate-shingle and wooden door, laughter echoing within. Some stepped outside for fresh air, coughing from the dust they kicked up. Others tended a fire over which perched a big cauldron, full of boiling water and storage sacks being sterilized for the year’s fresh harvest.
The newly clean Overlanders rested under the sheltering shade of trees in front of the cave-houses, watching the briny water get shallower in the canal that fed the red cave’s pool.
People who led animals to graze were some of the first that returned to the cave dwellings from afield, and the beasts soon joined their familiar people in the tree branches’ lengthening, feathery shadows.
“Is there a cave that can be converted into a barn?” Arlataan asked the newly arrived group.
“Some undeveloped caverns on the far outskirts,” a woman who’d led a beast waved her hand in the direction of the lowering sun, looking along the jagged mound of stone. “But I’m not sure how big they are.”
“That won’t do,” Burkhart shook his head. “Have to have the animals in close, so you can keep them guarded. Slinkers will catch the scent and go straight for them.”
“Now is not the time to be worrying about making new caves,” said a warrior. “The harvest starts tomorrow, and everyone will be working or guarding in the sorghum fields.”
“If your sorghum harvest is anything like our cane harvest, you’ll need the room that they’re taking up in the red cave,” Bridgit pointed out.
“All of you are taking up extra room in there, not just your animals. It’s full,” A stout woman with shining-black hair looked over the recent arrivals. “Some of you might find living quarters with families, as we’ve always done, and anyone fit enough to fight is welcome in the guardhouses,” Kachiri said.
“Good idea,” Faron agreed. “People will be easier to find places for than horses.”
Arlataan shook his head. “It would be a better idea to find places for the animals. You can’t expect injuries to heal well if you’re keeping wounded people in a barn, and that’s all your red cave is until you move them.”
“It’ll have to do for the time being,” Kachiri told him grimly.
Arlataan didn’t reply, crossing his arms in silent, stubborn anger.

The evening’s meal was as small and plain as the last, but the town’s mood was one of relaxation and anticipation. All was in readiness to begin the gathering of sorghum, and many turned in early. Overlanders and their beasts were crowded into the red cave for one more night, and most had finished their meals.
“Where’s Comet?” Ina wanted to know. “It’s sunset, and he’s still out? Has anyone seen him lately?” Others in the safe cavern shook their heads. Murmurs of uncertain concern ran through the group of expeditioners. No one had heard from him since he trotted away from the washpool.
A shadow crossed the crack of open door and Comet entered, walking with relaxed ease. He joined them after stashing his gear and kilt to eat his cooling dinner.
“Where have you been all day?” Bridgit scolded.

Comet’s manner was unconcerned, his mood still colored by a lingering bliss. He eyed her through a stray curl, and half smiled. “Somewhere safe.”
Catalina put a hand on her hip. “You missed the meeting.”
Comet brushed the golden lock back. “Was I needed?”
The slender warrioress closed her mouth in a thoughtful pause. “I guess not,” she conceded. “Unless you mind being given a healer’s shift and sleeping in the upwind guardhouse the rest of the time.” Comet shrugged in amiable consent.
“We did learn the gulf’s north coast is almost completely safe, though,” Fiona told him.
Comet closed his eyes, and in his mind’s eye he saw a lake a ways to the north that fed a big river, and maybe a little river too. “It’s water protected. Even a Horde would be unlikely to go there.”
“I guess where we’re going really is safe, Temoc,” Catalina said with hope.
Comet roused from his light trance to focus on her with his black-dark eyes. “If you’re bound for safe lands, would you consider taking the mares?”
Catalina nodded without hesitation, but Temoc shot her a doubtful stare. “We’ll think about it,” he said.

Comet saw to Bridgit’s still-slowly creeping claw mark, shaking his head as he tried to get thin drawing-poultice to stick where it was needed. “Miss the sticky stuff, don’t you?” she observed. He nodded. “Me too. I could be in a guardhouse if we had it.”
“And so could I,” Burkhart said, with a hint of frustration. “But no one’s going to want a one-eyed man to watch their back.”
“Can’t see slinkers half the time anyway, and your ear still works,” Bridgit pointed out.
Burkhart grunted. “I know it.”
Samara came to sit with them, watching Comet as he worked. “I hope you thought of looking for dragonswort while you were out all day?”
Comet nodded, intent on his task. “It was easy to find the two sisters; a little harder to locate the Mother of Ten Thousand Young.” When he was finished, he unhooked and opened a soft-leather medicine bundle he kept at his hip.
When Samara had stashed two leaves of the Dragons’ plant with her own stock of supplies, she sat back down beside him. “Why do you call it the mother of ten-thousand young?”
“The plant requires very specific conditions to flower. Few of them ever grow in the proper place, but when they do, their seeds are tiny like dust. So many thousand and so small; carried by the wind, on the feet of animals, or by the dragons themselves.”

                                  II. Harvest

Just after the morning’s leisurely, small breakfast, a man entered the red cave bearing a crate full of little flasks. “Elder juice, fresh from Verde,” he declared. Sirio opened one immediately, passing among fellow healing warriors. Members of the Overland eagerly joined the circle for their sip, but it’s fermented quality made some pucker their mouths in surprise.
“Not alcoholic, but it’s bubbly,” Davies remarked.
“Vinegar, maybe?” Bridgit guessed. It had a bite, almost a sourness, that the fresh didn’t have.
Marcus shuddered as he passed it on, smacking his lips. “How can something that’s been soured taste even more like blood?”
“Nah, it tastes better this way,” Fiona opined.
After, the red cave became roomy again as most Overlanders moved their belongings into the places where they would stay; some with families, some in the two guardhouses.

It was well after the morning’s dew had burned off when the town of Song moved into the Sorghum fields, traveling the road at the riverside until the Isles in the water grew short. Across the gardens and fields, another, larger set of stoney ridges jutted out of the deep bed of pebble and silt soil that the glaciers had dropped in the lowlands. The jagged rocks seemed to hold back the half-evergreen jungle, defining the border of the cultivated lands. Harvesters started in the farthest field, cutting ripe seed heads and stacking them in piles. The Overland’s beasts of burden avidly munched the tall sorghum stalks’ green leaves while waiting to be loaded with bundles of grain. The gathered harvest was laid at the shady commons in front of the town caverns for drying, and a group stayed behind to guard it from inquisitive birds and turn it until everyone came in from the fields. They moved the cut sorghum sprays into a storage cave for the night’s safe keeping and began to cook in the open firepits. Tired though the town was, it’s little meal was taken in celebration, the communal grounds ringed by guards. There was quiet music, which died down at the beginning of sunset, when a troupe of dancers appeared wearing horned masks and brightly colored cloth.
The early arrival of the evening’s man-tall slinkers cut the play short as dancers and spectators fled for their caves, shutting slate shingled doors tight. The warriors nearest the devourers’ approach fought, and a group gathered to guard the red cave’s heavier door, still opened enough to receive any casualties. At the end, six skinny black devourers were down, and it was possible a few more had fled. Warriors pulled flint tipped arrows, cleaning them in the canal ditch’s wet, silty sand. Others who hadn’t been in the fight spread out to gather edible looking scraps of food scattered over the area.
Catalina and Emma looked on doubtfully as the slightly trampled food was eaten without so much as a grimace.
“It’s going to be a long night; these leftovers will help tide us over,” Jhordana explained, flopping her crocodileskin hood off of her curly, brownish hair.
“It’s always a long night,” Jedir pointed out. The sallow, lanky man finished someone’s masa-bread crust, and grinned. “No point going hungry when there’s food just lying around.”
“Guess we better get home too, then.” Jhordana turned to the Eastern warrioresses, jerking her head in a beckoning motion. They followed her as the last guards split ways, heading towards the lowering end of the ridge that held Song. “The fighting’s harder in the downwind guardhouse,” the slim westerner said after a time.
“Figured that’s why they put us there,” Catalina said.
Guardhouse west’s slate door was nearly as heavy as the red cave’s, requiring rollers on the bottom, though it opened much more swiftly. The new arrivals hadn’t even had a chance to hang up their gear before a wavy-haired woman in heavy crocodile armor approached with purpose, looking them up and down. Emma was taller, with paler skin, black hair and lighter armor. Catalina looked stronger, her sandy hair glinted in the lamplight and her coat was thick and hard. “So, we have the women in Black,” Aleandra crossed her arms, eyeing their shining blackleather with envy.
“You’ll have Bridgit and Burkhart eventually,” Catalina’s tone was carefully neutral as she unstrung her bow and hung it on the wall.
Aleandra gave a dismissive shrug, her tone haughty. “An ordinary warrioress and a one eyed man. What would I care about them?”
Emma and Catalina exchanged uncertain glances, and Sirio approached. “What shift were you two on over the Mountain?” he ventured.
“I was first and she was second,” Emma was quick to reply, relieved for the interruption.
Sirio raised an eyebrow. “The lighter armor fought the bigger ones?”
“It just happened that way. Both are tough enough.” Catalina still kept the challenging warrioress at the edge of her vision.
Sirio turned to Emma. “I’ll watch your back tonight, then. Still healing,” he indicated a patch on the side of his coat. “So I can’t fight in front just now.” Emma hung up her gear and followed the tall warrior.

Aleandra gave a wicked smile, her sparking eye fixed on Catalina. “Let’s see how you fight, under that fancy armor.” Her voice held a tint of cruel joy. Others in the cave backed away, anticipating the duel. Aleandra was relentlessly determined to be the top warrioress in Song, and she was sure to establish dominance over the new arrival.
Catalina was not in the mood. After months of fighting and a long day in the fields, she had been hoping at least for a restful evening before taking a shift in the downwind guardhouse. She sighed and shook her head, setting her jaw in determination. Looked like she would have to put a crazy bitch on the ground first.
Aleandra drew her sword with a smooth, eager sound and charged, still smiling. Catalina found the Westerner a formidable opponent; she was heavier and possibly stronger, yet her movements were swift as she pushed Catalina fiercely from one side of the arena-space to the other, the clash of steel ringing in the vaulted cavern. Catalina wasn’t about to surrender. Someone like this would never let her forget it. She mustered her strength, dodging Aleandra’s pushes and driving the challenger back with her sword. Aleandra gradually lost ground to the onslaught and rough yells of the Easterner in Blackleather, until she landed on her tail with Catalina’s sword poised at her throat.
Aleandra look surprised. “You beat me,” she huffed. “I can’t believe you beat me.”
Catalina lowered her sword, looked down at the challenging warrioress and offered her hand. “You have to get good, when you’re the only meat on an empty mountainside,” she said darkly.
Aleandra picked herself up, looking across her nose at Catalina with flashing eyes. “I’ll beat you, next time,” she hissed.

The next day started early as people moved yesterday’s harvest back out into the sun to finish drying. After a light breakfast, they moved into the fields again to continue cutting. The daylong task was hard on the weary Overlanders, who worked with one another so they could rest more often. Even Comet followed their slower pace. Temoc watched his charge, Greta, munch with determined zeal at the sorghum’s toughish leaves. The stout mare had come over the mountains carrying a foal, and her ribs were showing the most out of all the animals.
By afternoon, some of the first day’s harvest was dry enough to store or use, and soon a group was pounding away at a batch of soaked grain, separating edible kernel from hard outer shell in large stone mortars.
Ina straightened, putting her hands against the sore small of her back. “This is harder than I remember it being,” she said.
“Carrying a baby will do that,” said her partner at the mortar, a strong-looking woman in a light leather vest. “You get sore, just take more rests. I can crush for a while.”
“I think I’m getting hungry again, too,” Ina lamented.
Leila laughed. “I should have some pupusas leftover from last night, if you want. But, they’re a little spicy.”
Ina nodded graciously. “I’d love to try some, thank you.” She kept pounding grain from hulls as the wiry woman trotted away toward her cave.
Leila returned with hesitation, waiting until one of the guards had shot down a couple prowling hatchlings. “Only one left. I guess my kids got into them.” She held out the single, flattish morsel apologetically.
“Lucky there’s any left, then,” said a neighbor-pounder.
Ina took slow bites of the stuffed maize snack. When she got to the filling, her eyes widened in surprise, and soon she was panting.
“Too hot?” Leila guessed.
“I forgot,” Ina said when she’d recovered somewhat. “The West’s version of ‘a little spicy’ is a lot different than the East’s.” Leila chuckled. Gingerly, Ina took another bite, watching Leila grind hull from grain with the huge pestle and mortar. Beyond the heat, there was another, distantly familiar flavor; a subtle spice that blended into the masa bread from the scant bean filling. She set the morsel down to winnow chaff from grain, catching her breath from the heat. She wondered what the other flavor was, and why it tugged on her senses so.
“What did you put in these, besides chili?” Ina asked as she took another turn at the mortar and pestle.
“Some rosemary, and slippery ginger,” Leila replied.
Ina stopped grinding and took her last bite, tasting it thoughtfully. “Does that happen to be a really slimy, thumb-sized tuber?” she guessed. Leila nodded, and Ina smiled with glee. “It is here! They’ll be so happy to know!”
“What is here?” Leila asked.
“The sticky stuff. Any chance we can get out of this job early?” Ina asked hopefully.
The wiry westerner wrinkled her brow. “Doubtful.”

Workers came home from the fields earlier, and disappeared into the caves’ cool awhile before they helped put up yesterday’s dried harvest. The masked dancers emerged to move under the filmy shade of the trees. This time, the pantomime of plowing started sooner. The only music was a few eerily soft reed pipes that left ears open to listen for creeping in the shadows. Some swayed a subtle dance to the half-silent music as they carried the harvest into the cave. The last of the sorghum grinding was finished as others fed young fires in open pits, watching the wordless play. Bright streamers fluttered behind the bull horned masks, increasing their speed as the dance finished. Then they took off their masks and flashing streamers and sat down, melting into the crowd of mostly crocodile-dressed villagers.
In the momentary silence, Ina stood and stretched. Many members of the Overland who’d been abroad were gathered around one firepit, their horses and burro standing in the shade behind them. Ina approached, speaking with excitement. “I’ve just tasted a flavor that I haven’t had since the beginning of the dry season. I hardly noticed it, and hardly noticed when I stopped tasting it, until I tasted it again this afternoon.”
She was met with several looks of puzzlement as Leila caught up with her. “I found the Sticky!” she clarified. They met her announcement with enthusiasm equal to her own, and when they had quieted enough, Leila spoke up.
“What are you talking about?” the lean woman wanted to know.
“That little spice root you call slippery ginger,” Ina replied. “In the East, it’s being used in the poultice which sucks out the Fahah‘s poison. Nobody cooks with it anymore.” The botanist paused to give her company a plaintive look. “Anyone have something to eat?”
Samara handed her a bit of fresh coconut meat, then turned to look at Ina’s tall, wiry companion. “Where would we go to get some of the Sticky?” the yellow-tan easterner asked.
“Storehouse keeper,” Leila said simply.

Rosiano was not hard to point out, once Leila caught sight of him in the gathering. He was large-waisted, his short hair greying on the sides. Samara and a few other Overlanders approached his campfire to inquire about the tuber, and the storehouse keeper shook his head. “We don’t have much. Get it in trade, mostly.”
“I think everyone will thank you, if you gave some of it to the healers,” Samara said.
He smiled at her with both his chins, then leaned forward thoughtfully. “I’ll give you a few thumbs and see what happens. It’s always on ships from the North Coast.”
The Overland’s smallest warrioress gave a dark chuckle, catching Rosiano’s eye. “Not for long. Once the healers start using it, it’ll be in short supply.”
“A shortage of slippery ginger?” Leila scoffed.
“Sounds ridiculous, I know,” Zoe said, “but it’s true.”
“Guess the mistress of trade had better tell the North Coast towns to plant extra,” the storehouse keeper turned to speak loudly across his cooking fire, where a blondish, greying woman nodded back to him.

Shortly after the larger meal of fresh sorghum was cooked, the gathering dispersed to their dwellings, eating in the safety of their caves. The occupants of Guardhouse East sat in a meeting-circle, rather than duel before they ate.
“We need to put these new warriors in their right shifts,” Moema said. “Davies has far outskilled the rest of us on third, and so has Wayland, despite his. . . peculiarities.” She glanced to the slight warrior with the stutter.
“We’re keeping the shifts we’re used to,” Fiona said.
“Why has someone who can barely fight been keeping the second shift?” Orival asked her.
“We all kept shifts,” The redhead told him. “Whether we fought or not.”
A woman with strikingly sharp features spoke. “The warrior of your second shift has already beaten the best of us in duels.” Emelita looked at Comet, then to Davies and Wayland. “Each of you ought to move earlier a shift.”
Moema nodded in agreement. “And Fiona should be on third, with the other learners.”
“With respect, second shift is always in need of extra blades,” Comet protested.
Emelita looked at him, her face half in shadow from the lamplight. “Nobody likes to change shifts, especially from the middle one.”
“We can’t always get what we want,” Willies looked at the lean stranger in indigo. “You’re the strongest warrior in guardhouse east, you get to fight the big ones.” The mature, weatherbeaten man’s words held a finality, and Comet nodded in acquiescence.

Late in the first shift, Emelita was badly hurt, and a group helped her to the red cave, where Samara tended and stitched her. She had protected Comet’s back, so he remained with her for the night. He slept at her side, and watched over her in the morning as she began to fever. He was hesitant to head out for the day’s harvesting, but all strong hands were needed in the fields.

It was approaching the heat of the day, and the Overland’s smallest mare had been growing increasingly restless. She danced and turned about as they tried to load another bundle of sorghum-heads onto her back. Zoe’s weak shoulders prevented her from holding Lily steady, and another had to help. The little mare flung her tail to the side and gave a shrill whinny. Across the field, the dark stallion raised his head high and called an eager answer.
Zoe rolled her eyes, holding Lily’s head in her hands. “Oh, not again. I knew something was going on with you.” She looked to the harvesters around her. “Any of you horse-breeders?” They shook their heads, and Zoe sighed. “She was less than willing, last time. I better go find Catalina.”
Soon, Zoe and Marcus, relieved of leading the mare and stallion, were headed back to the town to watch over the drying sorghum while Catalina and Comet managed the increasingly restless beasts. They kept both horses working through the day, keeping the two at opposite ends of the field and making sure never to lead them back to the village together.
When everyone left the fields, the two were at the far ends of the line from each other. Once the horses were unloaded, they were led toward the delta’s edge and let go, a ring of warriors around them to keep slinkers out and the horses in as Lily avoided and fought Rodriguez.

“There is no way that can be allowed to go on inside the Red Cave,” Kachiri looked up from organizing and checking grain for dryness. “They’ll trample and wreck the entire place.”
“Well, can they live in your housecave for a few days?” a man said, with a tinge of sarcasm.
The stout woman rolled her eyes, then sighed. “One horse, I could live with, actually. But they’ll wreck wherever we put them. . . and hurt themselves, if the space is too small.”
“Shouldn’t put anything that smells that good in someone’s house. . . again, we need to find a barn cave,” Arlataan repeated.
“One horse. . . Maybe we could separate them overnight,” Aleandra suggested.
“What if we put one in a guardhouse? Warriors are already waiting for devourers there, so they’d be protected,” Kachiri suggested hopefully.
“Great idea,” Arlataan beamed. “How about fitting a few of the beasts in each one?”
Willies gave them a thoughtful look. “Guardhouse east isn’t as busy, or as full. We could take two horses, as long as it wasn’t those exact two.”
“Both mares should stay in the red cave,” Faron said, “but the other five animals won’t smell quite so good as they.”

After the meal was cooked out in open pits, people retired to their caves at sunset, a tiny sliver of moon hanging in the pink blush of the Western sky. Samara watched over the fevering Emelita until first sleep, when Halix came to sit at the wounded one’s side.
Samara sighed, her tone worried. “She’s been looking like she might convulse. I hope I’ve done her right. It’s a deep enough gash that a master healer should have been the one to stitch her.”
“I’ve been tending her through the day, and I can tell that you’ve done everything right,” The shorn-haired westerner assured her. “You already have the skill of a master healer, you just need more confidence in yourself.”
Samara watched Emelita tremor and moan in a fever-dream. “I hope for her sake that you’re right.”
“The battle is hers to fight,” Halix said, putting a hand on Samara’s shoulder. “You sleep, for now. One’s night shift comes all too soon, when you’re up worrying instead of resting.”
Samara took a breath and nodded, her straight, brown hair shining in the dim lamplight.

Lily was only slightly less combative to Rodriguez’s advances than she had been on the canyon’s edge, and though other experienced horse people stepped up to take turns at their leads over the next few days, the pair left all parties involved thoroughly tired by the time they were separated for the night. Everyone was greatly relieved when stallion’s interest in mare waned; the two had slowed the entire harvesting process a little with their disruptive antics, and attracted extra hatchling slinkers as well.

“Whew! I’m glad that three and a half days is over,” Fiona breathed. She looked across guardhouse east’s dim, white-stained cavern to the burro she’d led over the mountain. The speckled beast turned his flat, mostly white head to look at her, one furry, huge ear focused forward. “Even Bonehead looks relieved,” she grinned.
“I think the horse’s master ought to be allowed to sleep all he wants, tonight,” Davies said. Comet nodded amiably from his seat on the floor, and an agreeing murmur ran through the guardhouse’s personnel.
Willies raised a thickly calloused hand. “If one gets to sleep, then both do,” he jerked his head towards Jedir, the element-pitted skin of his face plainly visible as he turned half-away from the single lamp’s light.
Jedir smiled broadly, and stretched out a leg.

The workers came home earlier each day as more and more of the harvest lay piled and drying in front of the caves of Song, and less stood in the fields. Neal and Davies worked side by side, bundling dry sorghums and taking them into the store-cavern. This time, it so happened that they stepped into an empty cave. They locked eyes, and Neal stole a passionate kiss.
“Let’s get outta here,” Davies whispered. “Go somewhere we can earn our room and board together instead of separately.”
Neal put a hand over Davies’s heart. “It’s not all bad. I’m only earning a place to stay working in the fields, but guarding gets you a place in the guardhouse. You’ll earn pay in the fields, if my guess is right.”
The door creaked open. They quit their hushed conversation and shuffled past the pair of glaring young women. Back in the day’s bright heat, they blinked, eyes adjusting.

“Where would you go from here?” Davies asked as Neal handed him dry seedheads for bundling.
Neal watched his companion deftly tie a bunch together. “I could find work in Reed City. But it might take me onto a ship’s crew.” Davies frowned, testing his knot for security. “You could come with me, if you can row a long day,” Neal told him. “On the West, it’s possible to get from here to there very cheaply on a boat with empty seats, if you’re a steady oarsman. Pay in sweat, and you don’t have to pay in coin and precious stones.”
Davies brightened. “I think I’m going to like the West as much as I liked the East.” He was thoughtfully silent awhile, receiving sorghums into his new pile. “Think Comet will let us copy his map?”
Neal chuckled. “It’s only a conversation piece. It’s not accurate, and the parts we’ve never seen are irrelevant until someone actually goes there and maps it.”
“So? Maybe we’ll want to go somewhere far one day, and we’ll already have a great idea of what’s to come. Even a sketch is better than nothing,” Davies insisted.
Neal shrugged. “Alright, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”

The heat of the day was beginning to wane, and the lowering sun’s reflections did a dazzling dance on the sea below. Standing out from the shine were black spots, where jaggy Islets poked above the lowest tide as the Emerald River’s broken and spreading delta crept into a shallow sea. Comet walked with long, easy strides from the main river road. Catalina wasn’t far behind him, her hard Blackleather gleaming in the golden sunshine. They rested a moment, watching the village’s motions as the undried sorghum was piled loosely into the storecavern for the night. This was the day’s last task, and already some were leaving to cook within the safety and cool of their home caves.
“I suppose it’s time to get people’s attention,” Comet said, rising.
Heads turned as Catalina gave a fierce yell, rushing the kilted warrior. Comet drew his blade in surprise, blocking her just in time. He deflected her blow and pushed her away. She scuffled backwards, kicking up dust, then charged him again. Comet successfully held his own against the Overland’s fiercest warrioress for a little while before she put him flat on his back in the grey sand. Her sword still pointed at his heart, she looked around. Their duel had successfully caught the attention of most of Song, though many were frowning in disapproval.
“Listen up!” she called, her husky voice echoing vaguely off the low, jagged cave-town’s ridge. “This one has something that everyone needs to learn, especially the warriors and healers.” Catalina sheathed her blade and pulled Comet up, gaze still fixed on the surprised gathering.
Comet dusted himself off. “That wasn’t what I had in mind, exactly,” he told her as the group re-gathered into a circle, and someone headed off to the red cave to fetch healers and wounded warriors not present.
“Well, it worked, didn’t it?” Catalina said. Comet half smiled and gave an amiable shrug.
“That was uncalled for,” the elder Paola scolded, glaring at them. “There is to be no open fighting on our communal grounds. Such roughness belongs in the guardhouses, and should stay there.”
“Sorry.” Catalina looked at the dirt, but as she turned to sit among her comrades, smiled broadly.

Comet paced and stretched, calming his body again as a few rejoined the gathering. He sat near the center of the ring of people, before the cluster of healers and wounded. In the relative silence, he took a long breath. His mood was solemn as he reached into a little pouch on his kilt, made of leather and turtleshell. He looked to Halix and Kachiri first, a small, roundish, pale-green leaf laying across his palm. “Do you know this plant?”
“Bitterpoison.” Kachiri said. “Deadly, but tastes so bad nothing swallows it anyway.”
Comet smiled, his wild curls shining like gold in the lowering sun. “Nothing except Dragons.” His dark eyes passed a piercingly intense glance over all. “They call it Entomtos.” As he said the word, the listeners felt a deep, dead calm pass over their heads. “The green Sleep like Death. One leaf will put a full-sized Motek out for long enough to stitch a deep wound shut, and with creatures our size. . .” Comet drew a skinning knife from his belt and sliced at the stem-end, placing the leaf and tiny cut piece on a stray scrap of sorghum leaf that lay on the ground. “It only takes a Pinch.” He washed the knife and his fingers with a few drops from his canteen, and offered the dry sorghum scrap tray to Halix. He and Kachiri leaned in close to see the bit that he’d cut. As it was passed around, there was much squinting, shaking of heads and murmuring of doubt.
“A leaf is rolled up and put under the tongue when a warrior is direly wounded,” Samara said, loud enough for all to hear. She let Comet’s weighty gaze lock her eyes. “A bite that tiny is swallowed, if the fallen one feels his life slipping away,” Samara continued. “The plant stops you, for a few minutes. And sometimes, a few minutes is hope for life, or certain death. Each warrior and healer carries two leaves in a hard turtle pouch, just in case. Dragonswort leaves the body fast, and washes easily with water. But you must never mix the Sleep, with the Sticky,” her words ended in a note as heavily solemn as Comet’s mood.
There was silence, and Comet lowered his gaze, releasing the young healer. The leaf was making it’s way back to him, and when he received it, he held it in his lap, taking slow breaths. “Samara, will you keep count for me?”
Samara had suspected he would ask that question, yet even still, her heart jumped into her throat. She nodded.
“You’re as crazy as a monkey fucking a knot-hole!” The exclamation was Bridgit’s. “You said you were only going to do that once!”
Comet chuckled. “I was only going to do what I did in Flora once. When I first arrived, I didn’t know how to use the Plant fresh, and I had no one else familiar to keep count for me.” He nodded deeply. “Now, I know, and I’m not the only one with that knowledge. The Overland has used it in battle, with life-saving success.” A murmuring restlessness ran through the crowd. Comet’s heart sank. He wasn’t going to gain anyone’s trust here, if they already knew he was different and his own companions berated him so.
There was a movement beside him, and a voice. “I’ll do it.”
Comet half smiled, relieved. He laid the sorghum leaf on the ground and graciously moved over to let Diogo sit before it. “You should still keep the count,” he said to Samara.
Diogo took a few deep breaths, interlocked his fingers and cracked his knuckles in a stretch in front of him. He lifted the sorghum scrap, picked up the minute slice of Dragonswort with the tip of his tongue and swallowed. Comet scooted forward to catch his limp body, and Samara tapped two fingertips in the sand, staring in concentration at the warrior.
“Listen to his heart, and feel for his breath,” Comet urged Song’s healers. Halix and Kachiri laid their ears to the scar-laced warrior’s chest briefly. Both a gave plaintive look as the assistants and apprentices each took their turns. “He is nearly stopped, but not quite,” Comet’s voice was soft.
The one who’s ear was currently laid against Diogo’s chest nodded. Kachiri listened again, listened for longer, while another held a polished, dark stone against his mouth, watching for the moisture of exhalation.
They took longer turns, noting his slowed rhythms. Eventually, his body began to speed up and Samara gave a nod. Comet backed them away with a hand as Diogo rapidly revived. He gasped a few big breaths, opened his eyes and sat up from his slump in Comet’s arms. The stocky warrior turned to give a puzzled look, and Comet chuckled. “Next time, remember to lay down first.”
Diogo grunted, took a bow and rose, walking back to his place in the group of Overlanders as if nothing at all had happened.
“That’s it?” Kachiri watched him go. “He’s just ate bitterpoison, and he’s perfectly fine?”
“Respect her power, and she won’t hurt you.” Comet placed another little leaf on the scrap of sorghum with careful reverence, pushing it toward Samara. She took both and tucked them in her own little, hard pouch.
“I’ve found a place where they grow. Tomorrow I will show you, if you don’t already know,” Comet said. He rose, nodding to those he passed, and strode toward the red cave.

It was midday and only a few remained abroad, in the last corner of the last field. Everyone was tired, eager for the work to be done. Davies trudged toward Song’s caverns with an early group, hot and tired from working and guarding for a week. He stopped in the red cave to cool off before taking his turn with the drying harvest.
Glad to be washed and out of his armor for a minute, Davies watched Comet converse with Kachiri. They parted ways with purposeful movements, and Davies rose to catch him.
“Can we copy your map?” the thick warrior asked hopefully.
Comet smiled broadly. He fetched it from his pack, laying the somewhat flattened roll of parchment in Davies’s hands before returning to his outbound direction. Others were coming home now, people and animals laden with the last of the harvest.
Davies showed Neal the map with an eager grin, and the cartographer let his horse go with another. They moved under a shade tree that sheltered a little date palm as Neal unrolled it. Aside from a notation of the volcano symbol, there was no key or any kind of gridding. Words indicated the type of ecosystem in various areas, and many towns were labeled, but that was it. Neal frowned. “There isn’t even an indication of North,” he lamented.
“North is up. We know that,” Davies said.
Neal sighed and rose. A party of warriors and healers was gathering in preparation to find patches of Dragonswort, and he found Comet among them.
“What kind of distortion did you use on this map?” Neal asked, the document half-unrolled in his hands.
Comet looked up into the tree’s little-leafed branches in thought. “That brought on by the ardors of a two-week long flight. Also, there’s always a certain amount of distortion associated with memory, though in the map’s case it’s likely in the memory’s transfer through myself. The Dragons’ Mind does not forget.”
Neal shook his head hopelessly. “That is not what I meant. You have to distort the picture somehow when you put a piece of the round earth on a flat surface.”
Comet shrugged. “I have copied a number of maps, but I’m not a maker.”
Neal sighed. “At least, tell me what this bar-and-ex is supposed to be?”
“The abode of the Deathless One.” Comet’s tone was weighty. He looked at his sketchy drawing, and closed his eyes momentarily. “. . . and I think the tip of Africa was about here?” He indicated the narrowest point of the long Northern peninsula.
“I suppose that helps a little,” Neal conceded eventually. “And the vague outlines out to sea?”
“Sunken lands,” Comet said.
“Weedy seas,” Neal agreed. Then his eyes found a little dot, with a name. “A sunken city? Is it something the dragons saw?”
Comet shook his head. “They remember where it was, and the land’s still shaped similarly enough. But the city’s been dead since long before it froze over or sank.”
Neal nodded. It was only a point of historic reference to dragons, and he needn’t include it. After a wash and a rest, Neal sat at the base of a tree among sorghum sorters with map, blank parchment, and a sharpened bit of charcoal. His ink and paints lay in their case nearby, yet he found himself simply staring at Comet’s penciled map, unable to begin his own sketch.
Davies sat beside him after a while. “It’s really splendid, compared to the scratch-marks I used to see among drifters. I’ll do it, if you want,” he offered. “But I can’t read, so you’ll have to write in the words.”
“I’m not interested in making a sketch into a scratch mark,” Neal said flatly.
“I’m actually good at drawing,” Davies’ tone was hurt.
Neal sighed, and glanced at him apologetically. “I’ll figure out how to make it into a real map, yet,” he said with determination.
It was getting on in the afternoon by the time the cartographer had sketched out the necessary grids, distortions and shape. He laid it on the ground and leaned back to admire it, finally satisfied after many frustrations. His copy looked like a proper map now, and he could begin putting paint to skin. Neal looked at the lowering sun as the villagers packed up their half-dried harvest for the night. The hardest part was done, but he would have to continue the work tomorrow. He had hope that it’s painting would be easier.

copyright Melanie Degen


Tropican Chronicles #5, Blazing the Trail, part 8

VIII. The Opal River

After several days in one place there wasn’t much forage left. People and animals had devoured all worthy cactus lobes, so they sorted the remnants of dates that Comet had shaken from the trees. Dried fruits were separated from their grubs, both were cleaned and salvageable bits of date were put in the pot with their grubs to make a sort of meaty porridge.
Comet sat down in front of Ina with his portion, offering it to her. “The best food there is.” He looked into the bowl and half-smiled. “As far as energy value, at least.”
“I don’t want it,” Ina said dejectedly. She had only picked at her own. “It’s not sitting well.”
“Nothing sits well with despair,” Comet said, “but you should try to keep up your strength. We’ll be moving again today.”
“Moving on to what?” Tears slid from under Ina’s closed eyelids. “My friends keep dying, and I can’t even help hold them down. I can’t fight alongside the ones who’re left, either. I’m totally useless.”
Comet breathed a long breath, and scooted closer to put an arm around her shoulders in comfort. “Someone growing a new life shouldn’t have to witness so much death. This is a sacred task, you’ve taken on.” She leaned into his warmth for a time, and when her tears slowed he spoke again. “Perhaps you should ride today. If it agrees with you, we could use an archer with a higher view.”
Ina wiped away her tears and sat up, gazing again into her date-stew. She nodded, but her tone was sullen. “Hope I’ll be steady enough to shoot.”

Their path followed the growing stream in a loose fashion, wandering farther and nearer around enormous rubble-piles. Boulders had been deposited along it’s banks by glaciers, sometimes in great quantity. In other places, they had to pick their way through narrow gaps in the foothills where the water rushed, wild and white. Ina rode Lily most of the day, sometimes sidesaddle as she shifted about to keep comfortable. While she wasn’t always steady enough to shoot, she could watch the hunting dragons, and alert those on the ground to signs of danger. Though the waterway was still small, it supported a thickening forest, and the company was able to catch fish from it that eve.
“The Opal is a bountiful river,” Faron said, cleaning the fish with a gleam of happiness in his eye. They were small, but so was the river, yet. Both would get bigger soon enough.
Ina was surprised when her second dinner was supplied by Wayland, and she looked at him quizzically. “Don’t really like fish,” he volunteered.
“How can you not like fish?” Zoe asked. “It’s the best and most bountiful thing there is. Well, anymore.”
“Exactly, the most bountiful. I’ll be eating fish for the rest of my life, I don’t need one now,” Wayland told her.
“But it tastes so good after so long in the desert,” Zoe patted her belly with a smile.
“Finally got your fish,” Ina remarked.
Zoe nodded, becoming serious. “I know Pearl was going to stay with you. . . I wish things could’ve turned out differently.”
Ina hung her head. “It can’t be helped. If she were on the earlier shift, you would be the one gone.”
“I know,” Zoe sighed. “And that’s why I’ve decided to stay with you, if you want.” Ina looked the tiny warrioress in the eye. “I don’t have any experience though. With having a baby, I mean,” Zoe’s gaze held an uncertainty.
“I don’t think you have to,” Ina managed a smile. “And with you at my side, I know I won’t get eaten.”
“Where you gonna go?” Zoe wanted to know.
“If there’s any place still left, safe and thriving, it’s Reed City. Built up out of a salt-marsh. And there’ll be plenty of fish,” she added. Zoe chuckled, but Ina remained serious. “Just don’t go dying before we get there, ok?”
“Don’t worry,” Zoe’s tone was fierce. “That little Horde couldn’t kill me, and we’re on the waterside, now.”

Arlataan changed the dressing on Temoc’s three day old scratch, studying the creeping wound with a look of concern. Though much of the poison had gone, the tips of the creeping tendrils were still darkened with active venom. “The Tall Sister alone isn’t enough. There’s not much left in you, but it’ll travel all the same.”
Temoc grunted. “If we find the Small Sister, re-open it and try again.”
“Even after what happened with Pearl?” Arlataan asked dubiously.
Temoc nodded once, a certainty in his tone. “Still better than leaving it in.”

The path stayed closer to the river as the water and land began to tame, winding through a forest with more and leafier trees. While still too rough to ride, the water’s constant presence beside them gave a bit of safety, and their pace was fast. A fresh set of widows patrolled the rapidly leveling ground, the teal following, and the yellow-dappled green at the downwind angle. She was difficult to see, in the greening, sun-dappled forest, and her form was slimmer without the weight of a dragling. In the afternoon, the company stopped to water the animals, who were starting to look sleek again now that they had ample water and food. Cries of excitement came from the party at the water’s edge, and they returned with both kinds of drawing herb.
“The Small Sister is here!” Fiona beamed. “Not much and it’s straggly, but we can make real paste again.” With only little bits of the mostly-dormant creeping plant, there wasn’t enough paste for everyone once mixed properly, and so it was distributed among the healers first, then a few others- making sure each shift had some for the night.
As soon as Gilarel and Borlanh arrived at their camp, Comet, Arlataan and Samara gathered around Temoc.
“It’s a shallow scratch, and hardly any poison left. You could wait, and you should wait, until we reach civilization,” Arlataan insisted.
“I’ll make it, but it’ll be that much farther and deeper,” Temoc told them. “I’d rather take my chances here and now.”
Arlataan shook his head, his voice firm. “I cannot willfully cause you harm.”
“Somebody else try then.” Temoc looked to Samara and Comet with determination.
The two exchanged glances, then Samara spoke. “I have a feeling Comet’s going to be better with a knife than I.”
“Are you certain you don’t want to wait?” Comet asked the Western warrior. Temoc shook his head vigorously. “Better do it before we lose the last of the light, then,” Comet conceded. He cleansed a plain-handled, curved blade in the newly-blazing campfire, and they settled at Gilarel’s head. The motherdragon breathed a low flame into her mouth, lighting the thickening twilight while Comet studied the blackened ends of the venom’s paths along Temoc’s shin. “Since the poison is congealed, it might be best to cut it out. It will leave a bigger wound, but poison that’s gone won’t be able to creep. You will have to be still, though.” Temoc nodded, looking nervous and uncertain. “Let the dragon’s eye capture you,” Comet suggested. “Without poppy, it may be the best thing to take your mind off the task at hand.”
Gilarel swung her head around, shifting the light she provided. Temoc stared into her green eye, the reflection of her own fire dancing through the edge of an intricately deep, complex iris. Comet studied the spidery tendrils on Temoc’s shin, turning the flashing blade about in his hand to get the best angle and grip. The dragon’s light faded, and she breathed a long inhalation. Temoc was aware of the return of her breath’s light, and he felt the pain fully, yet he could not look away, held still by her entrancing gaze. Before he knew it, the process was done, and the dragon released him.
Samara lingered, helping Comet clean up after Temoc had hobbled away to sit at the campfire. “Why didn’t you want to use the plant you use for yourself, if it makes skin numb?” she nearly whispered.
“It can get into the blood from open wounds. I don’t think it would be safe, in this situation.” Comet looked over to the Westerner, sitting awkwardly by the fire. “Especially with the use of drawing herb.”
The evening’s meal was a hefty catfish, stewed with the young shoots of newly sprouting plants. Temoc was in good spirits, though he didn’t eat much, his appetite dulled from fresh pain.
“We’ve made such excellent time today, we could think about building rafts now,” Faron announced. Even he was hopeful, though the shadow of sorrow still hung over them all.
“Going downhill is definitely easier,” Moric declared. Though the long healing from battle had kept them slow for many weeks, they needn’t worry about mountain sickness, and the lower they went, the easier it was to move. With the river beside them and drawing herb available once more, the mostly-healed warriors were confident to defend their own again.
Comet ducked under Gilarel’s wing, past a few settling down for first sleep. He sat against her belly, and a goat walked up to him. Absently, he scritched the whether behind his ear.
“Getting a bit crowded in here, isn’t it?” Bridgit commented. The bulk of the dragling growing within Gilarel made the space under her wing smaller, and most didn’t lay against her belly, as it’s movements tended to waken them. Comet placed his hands upon stretched belly-scales in concentration.

In the deep of the middle-night’s shift, Comet watched the waning half-moon rise past the shoulder of the Narrow Mountain, it’s mellow light spilling across the rippling water through a crack in the forest created by the little, shallow river. The night was quiet, save for the rhythmic calling of a few nocturnal birds. In the stillness, Gilarel lowered her great, shimmering head, snuffing at the ground among the warriors who sat between her forepaws. Comet reached out to touch the underside of her chin, and the dragon’s rumbling grunt flowed over their heads.
“Your little one is still tail-first,” Comet said. Gilarel gave a quiet snort in reply.
“Is that dangerous?” Bridgit wanted to know, the dragon’s nose close against her shoulder.
“Without the cushion-waters, wings can get tangled and twisted on the way out,” Comet told her.
Gilarel’s breath rustled Bridgit’s hair in a silent puff as she pushed her chin closer to Comet. “Attend me?”
Comet leaned into the hot, smooth scales of Gilarel’s chest. “I hope that I’ll be within flying distance, when your time comes.” Bridgit leaned aside as the dragon touched her snout to the ground in acknowledgment.
How on earth does one attend a dragon?” Ina’s question came from around the curve of Gilarel’s shoulder.
“Carefully,” Comet said. There was some chuckling, and the dragon gave a short, breathy grunt, already focused again on the forest night.
After a long while, Ina spoke in a near-whisper. “Why you, if dragons have their own healers?”
“Under the curse, the Dragons’ knowledge and skill was entrusted to people; the One Queen’s life was in her Dragonlady’s hands.” Comet was silent a moment. “I cannot claim to be a Dragonlady, since I returned their Art to them,” he grinned, then became serious again. “I can only say that I am the Queen’s nimble fingers, should dire need arise.”

In the morning the dragons munched nearby forest while the people ate fish bone broth for breakfast. Gilarel had selected a large branch, and lay beside the camp to work at it. People became aware of her attention fixed on them, rather than the quiet morning forest. She laid the straightest, thickest log of her branch in a pile of similarly chewed pieces, and gazed upon the company.
“Each of you has come to a familiarity with our kind,” she said. “And once you reach the sea, you will go your separate ways.” The dragon touched her nose to the ground politely. “If any of you see dragons when we come to eat from the sea, meet us at the shore. We wish to make allies of the Western people as well.”
“You haven’t done that yet?” Samara asked.
Gilarel snorted gently. “We will not approach humanity, unless someone familiar is among them.”
“You want us all to do what Comet did, when he first came to Flora,” Bridgit surmised. Gilarel touched her nose to the ground again. Several among the company looked to Comet.
“If the people agree to meet, it’s not a challenging task, unless the settlement is highly populated,” Comet told them. “Mostly, you have to remind people how very large a dragon is, and keep them from getting underfoot. But, you will also have to teach them how to use the Dragons’ Plant.”
After the meal, the company worked on rafts- some cut small trees while others bound what the dragons had already prepared for them with strong ropes. Temoc was nearly moving as slow as the freshly wounded Moric, and they sat at the camp’s edge with bows across their laps, watching the shifting green forest for signs of prowling hatchlings.
“And here we are,” Moric said. “Can’t build rafts with open wounds, so we watch.”
Temoc shrugged. “They’ll go straight for us. We may as well be the ones with the bows in our hands.”

By mid-day the three rough crafts were finished, and they pushed out onto the water. Along with the people and packs, the first raft carried two horses, the others carried a horse, a burro and a goat each. The river still had it’s wild patches, and from time to time they banked, hitching animals up to drag pack-laden, rough rafts across stoney ground until the river calmed again. The forest became greener, and they began to see alligators lurking in the shallows and sunning on the banks.
Gilarel payed careful attention to Temoc’s re-opened scratch, as it had gotten wet on the river. After he was re-bandaged, Comet left the camp’s safety to stalk along the riverside in silence, his harpoon arrow laid across his bow. Zoe trailed behind with a stealthy step and an eye on the forest. Though she knew it was coming eventually, she still jumped and wheeled around when the water behind her exploded, a thrashing alligator on the end of the harpoon-line. She helped drag it ashore, where Comet straddled it, gripping the jaws to wrap the rope securely around it’s closed snout. They pulled it back the short distance to the dragon-circle, killing and cleaning it under the safety of the dragons’ watch. Scraps were licked up by Gilarel, and soon the medium-sized reptile was turning on a spit. The campfire saw many dampened boots and high spirits around it that eve, as the barefoot company licked their fingers clean and laughed about close calls with rapids. Comet’s manner was becoming alertly contemplative. He was quiet around the campfire, and in the middle-shift, he watched the shrinking moon’s fat crescent rise with an intent focus.

Temoc’s reopened wound made him limp about the morning’s camp, as he started the fire. Arlataan watched him closely for signs of fever, but he didn’t appear to be worsening as Pearl had. Diogo still lay under his blanket, watching the bustling morning activities, watching the dragons rise to forage in the nearby forest. His sleep had been awful, and he felt as if he weighed more than the dragon beside him.
“Out of bed with you!” Faron demanded, shaking the blanket over him. Diogo gave him a dark stare, and held fast to the warmth of his cover. “Lazy,” the guide scolded.
“It’s not his fault,” Arlataan called. “It’s part of the withdrawals.”
Faron glared at Diogo again. He turned away, but not before throwing the cover off him. Diogo grumbled and gathered up his blanket, wrapping it over his shoulders to sit at the morning’s fireside, quiet and scowling.
The travel was easier today, with fewer rapids to avoid as the landscape evened out and the river-valley broadened. A slight wind gusted down the mountainside from time to time.
“Rain somewhere,” Comet noted, lifting his face into the warm breeze. He sat against Rodriguez, laying calmly on the rough raft next to the speckled burro, who’s ears shifted about constantly. Though Bonehead appeared nervous, he made no move on the low-floating raft.
“Think it’ll rain here?” Fiona wondered, her hand on the shoulder of her speckled charge. Comet shrugged. The sky was yet as cloudless as it had been for days.
Trees waded into the river’s edge, thick and tangled along the bank, their stilt-roots full of new soil built from the high-water debris of wet seasons. Sandbars and shoals were home to alligators sunning, and little birds perched at their open mouths, picking bits from between their teeth. Fish leapt after insects, sometimes only to be snatched from the air by one of many hunting birds. Herons and Ibis waded in the weedy shallows, and turtles slipped from the bank into the water as the rafts floated by.

It was mid afternoon, and the sun shone mercilessly in their eyes through the river’s slice of sky. Faron shifted on the uncomfortable raft. Six people and two horses made the first raft cramped, and he struggled to find a place to put his foot. The banks had been crowded with gators and birds a moment before; now they were silent and empty. Faron could still hear birds in the treetops, singing and calling, but something was wrong. “Temoc?” There was a nervousness in the guide’s voice. “Have you seen any alligators lately?”
Temoc realized that he hadn’t, and they locked eyes for a moment in panic. Just then, the teal widow came crashing through the edgewater’s vegetation and splashed into the silty riverside, sending sticks and branches flying. “Get off the water,” the dragon growled with urgency, tearing another rooty obstacle from the hole she had punched in the jungle’s edge.
“Flood!” Temoc yelled back to the rafts behind them. All oar-sticks plunged furiously into the river, and the animals grew tensely alert as the company scrambled for the shore. As they drew near, the dragon backed out of the entrance. The roar of rising waters was hushed this far from the hills, but it was becoming audible as the first raft reached the bank. The two horses struggled up and people hurried them forward to drag the raft away. The river began to rise as the second raft docked and hooked up. Stallion and burro pulled, chasing a receding shoreline as murky water swirled around their feet. The last raft bore Greta, a burro and a goat, and seven people. They had made it into the path torn by the dragon, but only just, and the raft was threatening to capsize against the first trees in the rushing water’s rise, rapid now. Marcus braced his oar-stick against a tree trunk and pushed away from it with all his strength. Animals began to struggle as water flowed over the surface of the raft’s logs. Samara held her panicking goat steady well enough as Diogo found a crook in the tree’s roots to wedge his stick into. Greta leaned hard against the tilt of the pushing waters, but she was beginning to slip. Bridgit and Burkhart wrapped her lead behind her folded knees and grasped the rising edge of the raft to counter-pull, roiling waters sliding down the logs. Greta was puffing and shaking hard, but she remained motionless, leaning into her people’s pull as they spoke to her in reassurance. Emma’s oar-stick was locked into a root-crevice, pushing against the lifting action of the water. Wayland pulled on the strong burro, who scrambled slightly as the runnels over the wedged raft tried to wash him down. Diogo’s strength was faltering, and Samara gave a yell. “Wayland, help him!” Wayland clung to the ropes that bound the raft and scrambled over, grasping Diogo’s oar stick to help lever it against the flood. The burro started to slide, and Wayland looked back in dismay. There was nothing he could do. The Governor tried to inch back up the raft on his knees, but this only allowed the water to push him off faster. Marcus made a grab at the animal’s halter as he slid by, but the whole raft shifted for the worse when the warrior took one hand from the pressure on his oar-stick.
As the Governor reached the edge of the raft, he struggled against the base of a tree in an attempt to climb back aboard, jolting and tilting it farther into the water. Emma’s oar-stick slipped from it’s place and several packs floated away. As Emma found her underwater counterbalance again, she knocked the burro away. The Governor struggled in the flood a moment before he became entangled in the free-standing roots, and succumbed to the current. With the animal’s weight gone, they were able to lift the raft against the trees and level it greatly, taking on much less water. But they couldn’t fight the current that kept them wedged. They would have to wait out the flood where they were, holding themselves steady against a river angry with the rains of a storm far up the mountainside.
When the flood’s strength subsided, the third raft moved ashore, it’s exhausted occupants laying on the forest floor in relief. It was late enough now they made camp and began to forage. Soaked packs were dismantled, their contents spread to dry, and wet people gathered glumly where the fire would soon be.
“My burro!” Wayland mourned. “I can’t believe you threw my burro oververboard!”
“He wasn’t your burro. He was Ina’s,” Emma said sorely, hanging her head. “And he would’ve taken all of us with him if I hadn’t. We’re lucky a burro and some packs were all we lost.”
The green, yellow dappled widow approached, treading softly for her great size. She laid the mangled body of the burro at the edge of the camp and walked to the river, taking flight for the eve. Emma knelt, a hand on the Governor’s sopping shoulder, cold and stiff. She fought back tears, clearing her eyes as she turned to join the watch circle until dragons returned.
Davies broke the sorrowful silence with the inevitable question of hungry people. “So. . . can we eat him?” There were groans, and a few murmurs of agreement.
“No,” Emma said from beside the body. “Shouldn’t eat anything from flood waters.”
When the dragons arrived, Gilarel eagerly disposed of most of the burro, stashing the rear half at her far side. Upon licking her chops, she looked to the company and gave them a low, contented rumble of gratitude.
Marcus still stared at the place where the burro had lain. “Nothing wasted, I suppose.”
“At least somebody could use that meat,” Davies said, a hint of longing in his tone. The meal passed quietly, the mood a mixture of mourning and relief.

Samara returned from the latrine back by the dragons’ tails in the twilight, and sat down with a heavy sigh. “It figures,” she said glumly. “The day I lose my pack is the day I get my period.”
“Still got a few bandages,” Emma suggested.
“Ew. Anyway, can’t spare them. We’ve lost half the healer’s supplies, too,” Samara said.
“They’re clean and sterile, and we’re on the water now,” Emma pointed out.
“Doesn’t mean no-one will get hurt. And, ew.” Samara insisted.
Comet separated an end of a long indigo cloth on the belt of his robe, hanging on a stick-frame by the fire with other clothes. “How much do you need?” Samara gazed blankly at him. “Hasn’t been used for poison-wounds,” he ventured.
“You’d cut bits off your robe cause I lost my rags?” Samara wrinkled her brow.
Comet half-smiled. “Sacred rags, for sacred blood.”
Samara conceded, and accepted a few strips of the dark cloth with relief.

Faron stirred a pan of roasting green shoots and wild tubers, passing a stern stare over the gathering. “We’re about three days away from the coast. Tomorrow, we should come into the Emerald river. Don’t anybody else die on me, understand?” There were solemn nods of agreement among them.
Diogo watched the dragon lick fresh wounds on Wayland and Davies with a sour look. “Should have been me lost in the flood, not my pack,” he muttered.
“Don’t let your troubles make you talk like that,” Fiona scolded.
“I’m just glad we’re on rafts now, or we’d have to carry the heavy stoneworking tools the Governor packed all this way,” Catalina pointed out.
The company floated along at a fast pace until nearly midday, when the ground became broken by ridges of stone rising in their path. The long, narrow formations ran parallel with the stream, made eddies and caught sandbars. A few broke the surface of the little river; a fine place for alligators to sun or herons to perch, and a perfect place to get a raft hung up. The company banked to go around the shallow, treacherous water, and without the Governor to help Greta, the burro Bonehead took his place. Rodriguez pulled his raft alone, and Comet walked beside the straining horse in alert silence, an arrow resting across his bow.
They slid rafts back onto a somewhat calmed river with relief, yet Comet’s manner was unchanged, silently watching. Whatever he was looking for it couldn’t be slinkers, on the river. He took thorough note of the stones below the water in their path, yet his eyes were often fixed upward.
“Expecting dragons?” Moric speculated.
Comet smiled broadly, and returned his attention to the river. It was almost deep here, and a small school of fish darted across shaggy green stones in swift water.
Towards the end of the day, some of the company cast fishing lines from their rafts, and the water’s edge where they docked was home to many edible plants; tubers, flowers and greens. Together with the fishes, a couple eels and a water-snake, there was more than enough to go around, and most of the company relaxed around the dying fire.
“Is it me, or is Comet acting awfully odd lately?” Samara wondered.
“It’s Comet. He’s always acting odd,” Neal quipped.
Fiona rolled her eyes. “No, she’s right. I’ve been on a raft with him all day. He’s been too quiet.”
Ina looked askance at Fiona. “Too quiet? Beats being on a raft with two pairs of bickering lovers and a grumpy old man,” she stated.
“A pregnant lady’s not much fun, either,” Faron said darkly.
“We are not lovers,” Catalina said defensively, shooting a sideways look at Temoc.
Zoe gave a conceding shrug. “It’s like Comet’s waiting for something, though. Makes me nervous,” she said.
“Can’t say I’m not waiting for something,” Neal’s tone darkened. “You can never guess what’s around the corner, or coming up from behind. And now, we have to worry about floods. It’s too late in the season to be traveling on a river.”
Fiona shook her head. “He’s not worried, though. We think he’s watching for dragons.”

 

IX. A Song on the Wind

The river was swift, and the company made good time. They banked in mid-morning to let the animals walk and forage in an increasingly leafier forest. Horses found grassy patches near the water’s edge, and their guardians watched for alligators carefully. Upon their return to the rafts, the following widow came close. Comet approached the teal dragon, still leading Rodriguez. The Motek crouched, and pressed her nose into Comet’s chest. His free hand rested a moment on her face, then she turned to melt into the forest again. The show of affection wasn’t customary among widows, nor while watching in the wild. He gave no explanation to the puzzled company, only smiling in silence as he boarded his raft in a serious, yet joyful mood.
It was late afternoon and the water was widening, deeper with a bed of fine silts, about to join the bigger river. Comet’s eyes closed, and a smile broadened his face as he broke his long silence. “I hear a Song blowing in on the wind.” His tone was wistful, and he looked behind them, towards the Narrow Mountain. He stood carefully on the raft to put on his indigo robe, binding it up tight with a small length of rope. Not long after, a call of ‘Dragons!’ came from the foremost raft.
They squinted ahead into the lowering sun to see a shining diamond descend over the river. Another dragon remained in the air, circling in wait.
“You mean you heard them coming?” Zoe wanted to know.
Comet shook his head and smiled. “Orion is here to fetch me. I’ll probably be back by tomorrow’s sunrise.” The white male landed in the water, sending a cresting spray before him as he came to a stop ahead of them in the deepening river.
“Fetch you?” Arlataan queried.
Orion waded to meet the rafts, and Comet stepped carefully nearer the edge as the first one passed the dragon. “To attend the Queen,” he said. Orion momentarily bumped his solid shoulder against a corner of the second raft, and Comet leapt onto the gleaming, wet dragon. Orion lifted his arm so that Comet could clamber up his elbow and shoulder, straddling him as the raft floated on. As soon as Comet was settled over Orion’s withers with a firm grip, the dragon leapt into the air, the last raft just barely clear of the turbulence his powerful wings created. Orion circled into the sky to join the waiting widow, and they flew in the direction Comet had been gazing. The company was left lax-jawed and wondering, as they floated along in search of a nice campsite.

Comet squinted into winds that made his eyes water, watching the land race by beneath the beating wings of the dragon, headed back to the Mountain at a chillingly high speed. Orion loosely followed the path of the Emerald river, soaring over it’s green, jungled valley until the next major tributary, when he veered along it’s course and followed it up the back of the Mountain. The north side was greener, even on the arid lee of the mountain range, and very steep. The altitude was climbing again, and though the dragon flew nearer to the ground as he went, Comet could feel the tax on his system. Orion rounded a knobby ridge, bringing him into a deep, dark fold of the mountain where clouds gathered and hung. Orion and his single Guard were headed straight for a vine-encrusted cliff over which water poured in trickles and streams. The white dragon dipped through the crack in the canopy at it’s base, and Comet slid from his shoulder to sit in the crook of his elbow. Orion followed the wet rock face till he came to a cave-entrance. There was a pool carved before it, hammer- and chisel- stones still lying about. The dragon set Comet down at the pool’s edge, crouching over him protectively. Comet took time to listen, to become warm again and recover from the flight. He continued to breathe as if he were airborne- he’d come a long way back up the mountain in a very short time.
As soon as the fast flight’s chill had left him, he placed himself back on Orion’s arm, and the dragon bore him across the pool. The fetch leapt into flight, their task completed. Comet waited at the edge of the cave, deep and dark. He listened with an inner ear to a harmonious process, but his real ear heard nothing beyond the breaths and rustlings of the half-sleeping dragons in the first room, who took no outward notice of him.
Comet found a half-lit nook just far enough inside the cave to be safe. He unbound himself, and leaned against the cold stone wall. Even with his robe on and the shawl-blanket over his shoulders, a chill lingered within him. A chiselstone roughly the size of his head lay in the dust against the wall, and he reached out to roll it closer to him. He ran his fingers along the marks over it’s surface. The angled edge was somewhat dulled by the dragons’ scraping actions as they’d scooped the stone, bit by bit, from the mouth of the cave to provide a pool wide and deep enough to be a protective shield. Some of the chips in the stone were very recent, still paler than the rest of the mottled granite. This safe-cave was freshly built, specifically for the occasion. Comet lay against the wall and closed his eyes, listening to the Song of her birth. In the lowlands, the sun would be setting. Here, it’s rays couldn’t reach, and the cloudy, high-jungle air was growing rather dim.
In what must have been late twilight, Comet heard dragons approaching from the depths of the cave. He heard them stop in the entrance to the forecavern, and the mother’s breathing change. When she moved again, the first room’s family rose with her. Every dragon in the caves, nine in two families and two widows, filed out the entrance, spreading into the forest to surround Sarentiron as she labored in the open. Comet watched them melt into the jungle from the cave’s mouth. One of the tesah took to the air, and he heard the screech and crunch of slinkers being found in the distance as the pearly-white Motherdragon dug a scrape in a loamy pile at the cliff’s base. Her movements were careful and ponderous as she shifted, rose and circled to lay down, paced and grunted in the restlessness of birth. Her black mate sat on his haunches nearby, watching the dim, misty jungle. Comet wondered why she had left the safety of the water-mouthed cave, and then he knew. Information flowed into his mind from the dragons- she was making a new Motherplace, where their Plant would bloom and seed. A mother’s waters, spilled in a nook so dark that the sun’s rays never touched, but sometimes the light of the high moon shone down.
Sarentiron stayed in the scrape against the cliff until her first waters broke- Comet heard it’s soft flow onto stoney ground, then he heard the grunts and shifting of dragons as Soot nudged at his mate, urging her to rise. She waddled back into the cave and down the corridor, and as they passed, her black mate turned a gleaming eye in Comet’s direction. Soot gave a little, long-breathed flame so that Comet could see the cave’s dimly glittering interior, and he rose to follow the pair into the twisting corridor as the other dragons filed back inside. The ground was treacherous for small feet to walk, and in the darkness, Comet quickly fell behind. He felt the warm grip of another dragon scoop him awkwardly into the crook of it’s elbow, to bare him deep into the mountainside after them.
The corridor took several hard turns, and he could hear Sarentiron’s grunts, whimpers and restless movements as they approached. The dragon who bore him was young- Sarentiron’s maiden. When the young dragon reached the mouth of the birthing cavern, she set Comet down and gave a long breath of fire-light. The underground room was enormous, it’s floor littered with a deep layer of silt and smooth gravels. Sarentiron lay in a huge scrape in it’s center. Comet made his way to a wall and sat, stashing his pack and gear to ready himself, listening in the darkness as her plaintive sounds changed to the primal, roaring grunts of pushing. The mother uttered a great sigh as the dragling emerged, and the younger dragon gave a stream of light again. Comet watched as Soot scooped a slimy, squirming dragling from the scrape and it’s pool of birth-waters with a strong forearm. Sarentiron lay motionless except for her breath, as her mate licked and nudged the new one toward her side. Comet rose and approached in the dim fire-light. He stood at Sarentiron’s head, feeling the rhythm of her hot breath against his robe as her body gradually came back together. The maiden’s light-breath ended, and after a sufficient time, Comet placed a hand on the mother’s hard-ridged face.
Gradually, Sarentiron came back to awareness. She breathed deeply, answering the small sounds of her strong young one with a breathy grunt. She gave Comet the slightest nudge, and he stepped back as she raised her head to greet her new one with licks and guttural sounds. When she shifted to rise, the maiden again provided a steady, low light so that Comet was able to see. He followed them a short distance to a dry place on the cave’s floor, unsteady mother nudging and coaxing the wobbly new dragling along. The little one called, and stretched her neck to pick at Sarentiron’s jaws. Mother brought food from her tenderization chamber, and dragling ate eagerly from her mouth. Sarentiron turned around, snuffing and licking the ground in momentary darkness, then they settled comfortably, dragling under mother’s wing and mate laying against her opposite side. Sarentiron’s nose disappeared under her wing as she nudged the little one to lie close against her belly, then she stretched where she lay and yawned. Soon, the family became still.
Comet felt his way toward them in the blackness, and the younger dragon gave him another breath of light. Sarentiron greeted him with a nuzzle and a rumble, then he stepped under her wing, laying a hand on the sleeping dragling’s grey-and-red, silky-smooth skin. Her breathing was clear and strong. He remained under mother’s wing for a time, watching their rhythms until satisfied they were safe. He could feel the joy humming through the mother’s body; a wave that was always strong, but this time seemed to be greater in intensity.
In the maiden’s light, Comet made his way to his pack at the edge of the cavern and settled down to sleep, wrapped up tight against the cave’s chill. The humming intensity of the dragons’ joy seemed to follow him, radiating into the stones, so that he still felt it even at the room’s edge. The Motherdragon’s first Tropican born was a female. This was auspicious to them, a symbol of continuance. The lineage followed the youngest daughter, and if Sarentiron should fall, this dragling would become the new Queen.
Eventually, Comet became aware that the humming he felt in the stone wasn’t just a feeling. It was becoming a sound. A soft sound at first, taken up by those in the birth room from other, more distant voices- the entire Legion’s answering joy. Comet held his breath in wonderment as Dragonsong rose in a wave all around him. He could feel it in the stones, though it didn’t shake the mountain. Each dragon joined with it’s own note in a long, drawn out breath that undulated gently in pitch- each voice unique, their combined tones creating otherworldly harmonies. The entire Mountain was becoming saturated with the crescendo of sound. When the Dragons sang- they all sang.
The intensity of it’s beauty brought a tear to Comet’s eye as he lay nestled in a couch of soundsoaked stone, wide awake. As the song subsided, it faded into the ground from which it seemed to have come. Comet rose, feeling along the wall. Sarentiron’s maiden approached to scoop him up, bearing him to the cave’s mouth. After the blinding blackness of the deep earth, the dark-moon forest was adazzle with starlight and luminous mist. Two widows lay at the entrance where the maiden dropped him, and they watched as he edged around the pool and into the jungle. One rose, lazily following him. He returned to the deep chamber with a little time left to sleep, and bedded down beside his pack again.

Comet woke with a knowing urgency. His fetch was here to take him back. Already wrapped for warmth, all he need do was bind it to stay. The maiden gave a breath of light, and Soot raised his inky head, a dark patch on a darker background. Comet went to the black Firedragon, who pressed his hard snout to Comet’s front and gave a gruff rumble. Then Comet headed towards the maiden, stopping when her light ran out. The young dragon scooped him up again- she was getting better at it- and then he was meeting Orion at the entrance-pool. The glimmering-white Moon crouched in the watery entrance, and Comet climbed his shoulder from the inner shore. He hooked a knee around a stormcloud-grey dorsal knob and clung to the side of the dragon’s withers as the Motek ducked from the cave. Clear of the entrance, Comet righted himself and gripped. Then Orion was off again- flying through the end of a frigid high-desert night. Comet looked behind them. Across a pale-gold wing he could see the blushing sky over the shoulder of the Mountain. They were racing the dawn, back towards the Western waters.
Comet’s lips were blue with cold when Orion landed at the mouth of the Opal river. The Motek shook his shoulder, and Comet slid into the crook of his arm. Orion walked him through the grey morning forest and deposited him at Gilarel’s hot chest among the watchers of the third shift. The camp was beginning to stir as others wakened. Orion touched noses with the brown motherdragon and took flight again, crashing through the rampant growth at the water’s edge to join the circling, waiting widow who guarded him.
Samara stepped over the dragon’s forearm to sit cross-legged before Comet. “You look terrible,” she noted.
Comet was nestled as close against Gilarel as he could get, shivering, blue and breathing long, slow breaths. “Hard flight,” he said after a great while. “I’ll be alright in a little while.” Samara sat with him anyway, as the Overland company rose and rolled up their bedding.
As Comet became warm, he began to drift off. Gilarel shook a shoulder to waken him, and he stretched, rising slowly to join the breakfasting company so that the dragon could browse the nearby trees. The conversation around the fire was hushed, full of wonderment.
“Did you hear, last night?” Ina wanted to know.
“I think such a thing would be impossible to sleep through,” Emma said.
“Under the wing, I could feel the sound in her body, it went right through me,” Davies remarked.
“I’ve never heard anything like it,” Fiona said with quiet awe. “It wasn’t just our dragons, either. It filled the whole sky, it must have touched the stars.”
Zoe turned to Comet. “What did it sound like up on the Mountain?”
Comet half smiled. “I was in the cave with them,” he said softly.
The company grew quiet, except for the sounds of eating. “I can’t even imagine,” Catalina said in contemplation. “Even our tiny drumbeats make the stones come alive. . .”
“Do they sing every time Sarentiron has a baby?” Samara wondered.
Comet shook his head. “It’s very rare. In all my short life, I have never heard Dragonsong, and it may be a vary long time, before they find occasion to do it again.”
Neal smiled. “We’re so lucky to be out here and hear them, then.”
“Almost makes everything else worthwhile,” Diogo said. Even he looked happy.

The company set out on the Opal and soon joined the Emerald. Tavel on the big river was fast. It’s middle current was so swift they had to be careful to stay along the bank, lest they lose control of their awkward vessels. At midday, they rested ashore to consult maps, forage and let animals eat. The river was clear and dark, tinted by fallen vegetation. There wasn’t enough life in the water to support alligators, and they navigated the water’s edge with confidence.
“We’re going to be among the Islets in no time,” Faron said.
“That sounds kind of dangerous,” Fiona remarked.
“It can be, but it’s not nearly as bad if we can keep to the slower current. We don’t want to hit the first Islets at full speed, but once we’re in the water slows. We should be fine, if we keep our eyes sharp,” Faron told her.

Comet was wakened from a shallow slumber by the sound of Moric’s voice, and sat up from Rodriguez’s shoulder to see a changing landscape. Long, narrow ridges of stone that had been left behind by the glaciers were rising from the green jungle. Some were tall enough to crest the trees. Comet took an oar-stick and watched underwater. The ridgy protrusions were in the river as well, and soon they began to see grey stones above the surface of the water. Only a few at first, small and bare, save for perched, still waterbirds. Ahead, they could see the river widen and become dotted with green, where the narrow spines of stone were big enough to support vegetation. The far bank of the river was beginning to show signs of cultivation. There were fields of sorghum canes with irrigation canals dug into them. The tall plants were heavy and ripened, ready for harvest. The land was empty but for a few people heading home under the late afternoon sun.
“Dammit, the city’s moved!” Faron muttered. The bank they followed was fallow, weedy with a couple years’ regrown jungle, and the cultivation was on the far side. Ripe winter grains and legumes became obscured as they passed through the network of narrow islets, tall with trees, within which was a full diversity of life. The stunted canopy of the tiny islands rang with the howls and hoots of primates. Otters played in the water, and occasionally the rafts passed a swimming monkey, making it’s way from one stone to another. The water was full of fish and weeds, and crocodiles occupied the banks and shallows. The company kept sharp eyes ahead and below, steering around the unpredictable riverbed’s rough protrusions. The company crossed when the Islets had slowed the river’s flow enough, cautiously threading their way through the surreal blend of water and land.
“Wow,” Fiona mused. “There’s no way ships would be able to get through this, but what a perfectly safe place to be.”
“Safe for them,” Comet nodded toward a monkey hanging from a branch over the water, studying the newcomers with bright, mischievous eyes. “But not for us to make camp in.”
Zoe laughed, following Comet’s gaze. “These tiny forests are full of thieves.”

Temoc and Faron threaded the line of rafts carefully through the ridgy delta. The sun cast dazzling golden sparkles on the water in front of them as it approached the horizon, making their task more difficult. Ina was feeling the effects of hunger, shaky and half-sick. Dinner would be among other people tonight, and she sucked on an intact date she’d managed to find and save, trying to make the sweet, lumpy morsel last as long as possible.
A long, slim shape glided between two islets a ways ahead of them. In the sun’s glare, it was only a dark, swift silhouette. Catalina tensed, and elbowed Temoc, but it was out of sight by the time he looked up.
They fought a hearty current, crossing the center of the delta. The tide was low, making the river swifter and shallower yet. All hands were needed to paddle and pole the rafts safely across, and when they squinted ahead again on the far side of the current, a small fishing canoe idled across their path, it’s two silhouette-people sitting in motionless awe.
Temoc waved to them, and the fore oarsman returned the gesture. Then the boat turned, gliding slow enough through the water the rafts wouldn’t lose sight of them. The company was able to go faster, following a craft that knew the way.
The little canoe hung close to the shore as the three rafts banked, it’s two barefoot fishermen still staring in silence. They were not dressed for land travel, wearing only vests of soft, brown cloth and tattered shorts. Their boat was full with fish and a crocodile, and when the three rafts were safely on land, they pushed their vessel back into the water. The company could hear them speak as they sped away. “See? Told you I saw something,” and “I still don’t believe it,” was all they could make out before the voices faded.
Clear of the Islets that choked up the river, the company could see a harbor against the peach-and-pink sunset; single-sailed longboats sitting on a sea lit up like liquid fire. As stiff-legged horses and burros stood, people filtered from a warren of caves in the nearest ridgy outcrop of grey stone, following a canal out to the delta’s shore.
Neal and Faron locked arms and danced in a circle, whooping and hollering, chanting “We made it!”
Wayland fell to his knees and stared blankly at the approaching village, looking as if he’d been lost in the jungle for years.
“Where’s our Guard?” Fiona wondered. There was no sign of dragons- the bordering forest was still.
“Haven’t seen them in a while, have we?” Burkhart noted.
“Probably enjoying the sea and filling their bellies,” Comet said, with a long breath of relief. “Their duty is done.”
The approaching townspeople included those wearing clothing common to the West Gulf’s denizens- light vests, shorts or loincloths, the occasional long, loose-flowing robe, and sun-shielding straw hats. There were also a number of armored guards, dressed in the leather of water-lizards from head to toe. Everyone looked a little thin and hungry, near the end of the long dry season.
The greeting party approached in silence, surrounding the Overland with an air of disbelief and wonderment. Eighteen people led four horses, three in armor, a burro and two goats. All were thin; gaunt and weathered from the long journey. Some of the warriors had extensive patches on their thick lizard skin coats, suggesting scarring just as extensive beneath. One warrior had a bad burn across the side of his face. One wore only a kilt, and three had shining black armor, much thicker than a crocodile’s skin.
A woman in a wide-brimmed hat stepped from the crowd, embracing Faron with warm familiarity. “How many did you start with?” she asked.
“Twenty four. And we began our voyage at the normal timing, as well,” The guide obliged, anticipating her next question.
Jhordana shook her head in wonderment, patting Faron on the back. “Best get you inside, then we’ll talk.” The people picked up packs and gear, helping the company toward the jagged silhouette of their underground dwellings. The canal that ran beside the path was wet and sandy, it’s briny water having mostly drained back to the delta as the tide went out. They followed it through an extensive, young date orchard, still shaded by bigger trees. The understory was patchy green with legumes and other ground covers, interspersed by open spaces and fire-pits. The canal ended at the base of a heavy slate door, hinged in thick iron with rollers below it. Water from the canal filled a substantial depression to make a wide pool, protecting the cave. The half-open door was pushed wide enough that the horses could enter, and soon the Overland company found themselves settling into a lamp-lit space, full of sacred symbols. Women and healing warriors stared at them, and they were given meals in gourd-bowls; small portions of sweet potato and manioc gruel. They ate in silent, grateful bliss, savoring the heavenly, familiar taste. The animals made the space crowded, and quarters grew even tighter as others filtered in to see them.
Marcus gazed at the half-open doorway and the dimming light that still filtered in; the dusky-purple reflections of sky on the pool’s surface, broken by black tree branches. The dwellings looked like the mountain-river town they’d started from in the East. “Wow. Necessity really does shape culture,” he remarked.
“Red caves just like back home,” Emma noted.
“And tough armor,” Marcus said.
The cave’s structure made soft echoes of Faron’s voice as he gave Jhordana and a knot of others an account of their travels. Bridgit’s appetite was small with a fresh wound, and she yielded her portion to Ina. The cave’s healer looked over those with newly healing scratches, starting with the small, red-haired warrioress, smearing thin drawing paste across the claw-mark she’d gotten the night before.
Catalina sat near them, and produced a little, empty flask. “Happen to have red elder bushes growing on this side of the Mountain?”
The ruddy healer nodded, lamplight shining on his dark face. “The plants are not in fruit now, and what we have comes from the North Coast,” Halex told her.
Catalina gave a disappointed grunt. “They’re always fruiting on the East. It really helps with the fevers, but it makes everyone stronger.”
Halex nodded, then turned his attention back to Bridgit’s creeping cut. “I’ll see if I can find any to spare, for the weakest of you.”
“I hope you can find enough we can all have a sip,” Catalina said. “We’re all tired, we need to rest our bows and regain our strength.”

A group of cloth-wearing, mature people entered the cave. There were three men and two women, bearing themselves with importance. The crowd made room for the elders to approach the company. The oldest one bowed. He was a white haired, wizened little man, wearing tattered shorts and a flowing, open-fronted shirt. In his gnarled hands, he offered a smoking-pipe to pass. “We never thought we’d see anyone come down the river again,” Manoel said as Faron took the ceremonial implement.
The middle-aged man’s eyes lit with wonderment. “It’s a miracle, your arrival, heralded by the singing of angels.” Nods and sounds of agreement were heard among the others gathered in the low-ceilinged cave. Comet laughed softly, and the Elder who had spoken glared at him.
“No offense was intended,” he lowered his gaze. “It wasn’t for us, that the Song was sung.”
“How can you be so certain of the Lord’s intentions?” Deraldo’s tone was edgy.
“I can only guess at the path that my own Deity guides me down. It’s not my place to assume yours,” Comet looked up. “But last night, it was Dragonsong we heard, sung for the Motherdragon’s first born in Tropica.” He had them firmly locked in the intensity of his gaze by now. “Hearing the Dragons sing is something you’ll only do once in your life.”
There was a silence, filled with whispering and the rustling of clothing. “These dragons then truly are guardian angels, if they’re able to destroy the Devil’s devourers, and sing with such beauty that even the stars come closer to listen,” Manoel finally said.
Comet gave them a nod, a frightening flash in his dark eyes. “You are more right than you know, to call the Fahahng the Devil’s devourers, and the Dragons of the Legion are stronger even than the Devil itself.”
The younger councilwoman spoke, still gazing in disbelief at the eighteen leather-armored voyagers, weathered and scarred. “How did you do it? Cross the Pass, I mean?” Paolla wanted to know.
Temoc smiled, a warmth in his voice. “Dragons.”
“And the best warriors I have ever known,” Faron added with a nod.
Several of the elders exchanged dubious glances, and the cave’s vault filled with the soft echoes of murmuring voices from all around.
Comet found the eyes of the council again. “May I inquire as to your impression of the Legion thus far?” he ventured.
The five elders spoke among themselves a moment, then Paolla said, “They came from the West, a sunset long before the sun was ready. A dazzlingly strange mirage.” She waved a stout arm in an expansive gesture, white hairs standing out from her straight, black mane like silver threads in the dim light. “Birds cackled and called their alarms, very noisy. They never got quiet, like for the Black Wings. A big flock flew over the water from the Islets, mirroring the flight above. We waited, seeing nothing more until they dropped a Horde just across the river. We have seen the colorful cloud vanquish the storm of black wings twice now, and eventually we started seeing them feeding in the wild rivers and sea, but they have never approached our landward territories or seafaring ships.”
“They won’t,” Emma told her, “unless there are familiar people to introduce them.”
The older woman leaned forward, her white hair tied in a knot behind her head. “And, you are?” Dida asked.
Temoc nodded. “Two widow dragons walked with us every day, and at night we made our camp between a mated pair.”
“To what purpose did they aid you?” the slight woman wanted to know.
“That we work to ally the West with them, as the East has done,” Emma replied. There was a long silence, and a few of the company began to fidget.
“To ally with dragons, does not seem prudent,” the oldest Elder said finally.
“That’s what we thought at first,” Catalina told him. “But they helped us to build water-caves like this one, and they’ve beat down Hordes, given us a chance to thrive again.”
“Without them, the journey across the Narrow Mountain would have been impossible to make,” Temoc added with dead certainty.
The youngest man, barely old enough to be an Elder, stared at the battered group of explorers. “And what do they want in return?” Raoni asked cautiously.
The Overland looked at each other. “During the last Horde that they fought over the East, a small group of us weathered the firestorm in a safe-cave beneath it, so we could come out afterward and help stitch up injured dragons,” Emma ventured.
Deraldo rubbed his greying little beard thoughtfully. “Were any of you injured under the Horde?”
Catalina shook her head. “It was close a few times, and one of the Fahah was killed with an arrow. We’re wearing it’s skin, now.” She thumped the chest of her shining, heavy armor, and a murmur ran through the crowd. When it died down, she drew a pale-feathered arrow from her quiver, and handed it to the nearest warrior. “Strong enough to kill a big one; fireproof fletching.” She watched the woman stroke the arrow’s stiff fins in examination. “The Dragons give it freely, because we help them kill. Even if the arrow’s wood burns up, dragonskin survives the flames.” Soon, the arrow was passing through the crowd, and the elders grew silent as the murmurs of curious people filled the echoing cavern.
Comet dug in his pack, producing a creased and flattened roll of parchment. “When the Dragons returned to this land, they flew around and through it, and they allowed me to study the memory of their flight.” He unrolled his map, and the five elders bent over it in the dim light. A coconut-shell lamp was moved closer as they squinted at the sketchily penciled, complete map. Most of the names of towns were written on the East, and though there were markers for the West, no names yet.
“What do you call this place, where you live?” Comet wanted to know, his finger passing over the dot on the map at the mouth of the Emerald River. The younger woman opened her mouth as if to speak, but the older silenced her. The elders whispered together again, and the murmuring spread, until it surrounded the company.
Finally, Manoel raised his knobby hand, silencing the cave. “You say the song of dragons is only heard once in a lifetime?” the aged man asked, as the echoes of whispers died in the ceiling above. Comet nodded once. “We’re the only town to have known of it. Ships halfway out had no knowledge of the event.” The Elder’s voice became solemn, formal. “On the eve of the grain-harvest and the re-opening of the Pass, this unique event has changed the way our ears will know music, changed the way our hearts reach out to each of our Gods. We are not who we were. We are Song, now.”
The murmuring returned, stronger than before and growing into a joyful noise of agreement. After the meeting, the red cave became slightly less crowded as many went on their ways. Some of the smaller animals were led to others’ homes among the caves, but the horses remained, huddled in a corner from which ornaments had been removed. The Overland unstrung their bows and hung their armor on the wall as the cave became noisy with the rhythm and melody of music. The exhausted company fell into a deep and comfortable sleep to the strong pulsing of drumbeats. Faron smiled as he drifted off, turning to his nearest neighbor. “It’s good to be home again,” he breathed. Temoc nodded in time to the beat, smiling.

copyright 2016 Melanie Degen