He smelled blood, too, and the sulfur-stink of blasting powder. Through the Hell-Queen’s spells he saw Jenny in the darkness, broken and bleeding in a hollow of the stones. Morkeleb the Dragon was somewhere near—he knew this as one knows things in dreams—but the black dragon had been trapped like her when the gnomes had blasted the mine tunnel.
She is dying, said the Demon Queen. The gnomes shot her with arrow poison. This, too, was the work of Adromelech and his minions. None knows she is there but the demons … and now you.
John’s mind cleared, and he heard again the shouting of the crowd. He was bound to the stake—he’d been dimly aware of the six guards doing it, though it had felt like someone else’s body through the cloudy horrors of his visions. The cords cut into his arms and ankles and throat, and the air was ice-water cold on his flesh and the raw skin of his scalp. Ector of Sindestray was reading the charges, savoring each with the morbid relish of a doomsayer who has been proven right. “He has trafficked with demons …”
Even had he been inclined to, John couldn’t very well argue with him.
It was to defeat this other lot of demons, see …
Who would believe that, except Gareth stupefied in his crimson chamber? And maybe the Master of Halnath, wherever he was. But the Master of Halnath, the scholar-lord Polycarp who was Gareth’s cousin, had voted also for John’s death, knowing the things that had been done in the past by those who dealt with demons.
It was to save Jen, and me son; to keep them from being possessed by demons who would use their wizardly powers …
But those who called upon demons to aid them frequently did so out of the best of motives.
Such as now.
It was Amayon, bright-clothed in garnet velvet and sparkling with jewels and malice, who handed Ector the torch which he drove into the kindling.
At this distance John couldn’t see clearly, and the crowd beyond that flame-like crimson form was only a blur. But he heard their voices, wild over the cracking of the fire. Furious voices, relishing as Ector did the vindication of themselves. They’d been told that the plague was his doing, or the doing of the demons he’d worked for, and they were doubly angry, for there had been a time when he’d been popular in Bel. Dragonsbane—the only man living who had slain a dragon. He had fought the demon-possessed dragons that flew down at the command of the demon mage Caradoc; he had defeated them.
“… pawn of the Hellspawn,” Ector was shouting above the rushing crackle of oil-soaked tinder. “Author of the plague that has swept this land …”
The smoke billowed thick and greasy. The heat was suffocating, and in the smoke she took shape. Beautiful and hideous, wrought of fume and fire, she held out her hands to him, waiting for him to call her name.
I won’t. He closed his eyes—not that that did a lot of good; he knew she was still there—and turned his face aside. Airless, all-encompassing heat and pain. I won’t. I will die, and Jen and the boys and all the Realm die with me …
He thought, Do they see her? and someone else took up the shriek. More howls—terror, panic. Wind bent the flame around him, whirled the smoke, and he opened his eyes and saw a dragon, huge, fifty feet or more and with a wingspan twice that, silver-streaked and tabbied with black and opal-green blazing eyes. It was almost on top of him already, and he could do no more than stare up at it in shock as the silver claws lashed down, caught him up, stake, ropes, and all, scattering burning hunks of wood and hay over the heads of the trampling crowd. The beating shadow of wings, the flash of the winter sunlight as they rose above the city’s walls and the bitter, freezing cold after the fire’s heat. With his hands still tied, John felt a stab of pure dread that the dragon would drop him—Fat lot of difference that would make, given the day I’ve had so far—and turning his head he saw the city fall away, mossy ice-slicked roofs and bare trees; city fields and the silver loop of the River Clae, shining in the Magloshaldon woods. Brown fields, then brown steppe, then gray sheets of cloud that enveloped them like damp muslin and cold that shredded his bones.
The dragon carried him tucked up under its breast, and without the heat of its flesh John thought he probably would have slipped away into death from the cold, Which I wouldn’t have bet two coppers on last night …
Weightless exhaustion. Consciousness that came and went, slipping away to drop him suddenly back to an awareness of hanging suspended in damp gray clouds, over a barely glimpsed landscape of formlessness below. He was only marginally conscious when the dragon descended to a gray-yellow desolation of sand and scattered boulders, of flint hills without vegetation and of twisting scoops of pebble-filled stone that had been watercourses long ago. These he saw only dimly, for the gray light was fading, and his eyesight wasn’t good enough to discern details. On a wide plateau in the desolation stumps of pillars marked where a city had stood. Crumbled foundations and lines of broken walls surrounded a stone platform two hundred feet by nearly five, a square rock island in the sand—even he couldn’t miss it.
The dragon balanced in the air like a kite and, reaching down, laid John on the ground before the remains of the platform’s wide stair. Evening turned the vast sky yellow, lilac-stained and fading. John felt the stone under him chill as snow through the torn rags of his shift, and knew the night would be brutal. He couldn’t imagine where he was, or how far they had come:
Please don’t make me walk home.
Still hovering weightless above him, the dragon extended its swan-like neck and with a bill like Death’s scythe bit through the ropes that bound him, the chains that fastened his wrists. Then it ascended with no more flurry than a cloud of smoke, wheeled on its silken wings, and flew away toward the west.
Aching with cold, with bruises, with hunger and exhaustion, John raised himself to one elbow and shouted, “CORVIN!” His voice echoed hoarse in the emptiness, not loud enough to startle rabbits, had there been any. The ancient authorities—Dotys, and Gantering Pellus, and others who’d written of dragons—said that to name a dragon’s true name would call it, though these true names were in fact airs of music …
Save a dragon, slave a dragon, went the ancient granny-rhyme: to rescue it from death put it in bondage to its rescuer.
John had never quite known whether this applied to ordinary people—he’d only ever seen wizards do it—and he prayed his guess about the dragon’s name was correct. “Corvin NinetyfiveFifty, by your name I charge you, come back!”
He saw the flash of distant silver in the last western sunlight, and the glittering shape of the dragon returning. But before it reached him he fainted from exhaustion and cold.
IN THE DARK beneath the earth, Jenny Waynest dreamed of the Dragonstar.
John had told her about it, on and off, for three years, and in her dream they lay together on the platform he’d built above the moss-fouled leads of the Alyn Hold tower, on one of those hot summer Winterlands nights when the whole world breathed magic and the stars leaned down close over the desolation of moor and stones. “A thousand years ago was the last time it showed up, when Ennyta the Great was the King of Ernine,” John was saying to her. The starlight flashed in the round lenses of his spectacles, and his voice was deep and velvety with odd undertones of huskiness to it, like rocks in a plowed field. Jenny would know it in her dreams, she thought, until she died. In this dream he had half a dozen of his crumbling old volumes scattered about him: he’d spent a lifetime ferreting them from the ruins of old fortresses and towns. The lantern he’d brought up to read them by had gone out.
“Accordin’ to Dotys, anyway—if that thing I have really is a fragment of his Second History—it reads like Dotys, no error, the fussy old prig. He claims he was writin’ from the Golden Chronicle of the Kings of Ernine, but—”
And Jenny asked, “What does he say about it?” because even in her dream John was apparently ready to explain at vast and meticulous length why he thought the author of the forty or so sheets of mildew-stained vellum he’d bought from a peddler were in fact Dotys’s Second History and not one of the other ancient authors’ and she wanted to hear about the star.
“Well, anyway, it’s a double-headed comet,” John said, called back from historical exegesis that could easily have taken the remainder of the night. “The first comet showed up in spring, and the second, in the same place in the sky, in fall. The dragon’s head an’ his tail, they said.”
On the southern horizon a pale streak showed where the sun was dozing, and all around them the cornfields of Alyn Village resounded with the twitter and warble of sleepless summer birds. In her dream, Jenny still had magic. She could feel the radiance of it, glowing golden in her bones.
“Accordin’ to my calculations …” He rolled over and grubbed among his books for a much-scratched wax tablet. Only Jenny’s mageborn eyes could have made out the scribbles on it, in the starlight. “… the first head should show itself, the year after next, right there in the Sign of the Dragon …” He put his head close to hers so that she could site along his pointing finger at the cluster of stars hanging low above the toothed black notches of the Wolf Hills. They had been together a dozen years on this particular night, but she still loved the smell of his flesh, and was deliciously conscious of the warmth of his shoulder against hers.
Oh, my love, how could I have turned away from you?
Shadow folded around her, like cradling hands. Morkeleb the Dragon had said to her once, Endure, and she now tried to say to him, I will, my friend. The dream faded away. She became aware that she was underground, in darkness, in the gnomes’ Deep at Ylferdun. That she was dying. Around her the darkness of the Deep was very cold. She was conscious—from what felt like a great distance away—of lying on stone. Gritty dust clogged her throat and her nose, and a small star of cold pain radiated from her left shoulder, pain that no longer seemed to be part of her body. She had been shot with a poisoned arrow, she remembered. Morkeleb had come to save her, whipping down through the passageways of the mines that lay below and to the north of Ylferdun Deep. But it had been a trap, and the gnomes had set off an explosion, caving in the tunnel around him with the blasting powder.
She felt his mind reach out to hers.
Endure till I come. He had said that to her before, when they had parted after the loss of her magic, in those terrible days when she could meet John’s silences and anger with nothing more than silence of her own.
No, she thought now. Morkeleb would try to use magic, the strange powers of a Dragonshadow, to save her and himself. Magic is the heart and the flesh of dragons, and she knew there were demons in the Deep, waiting for him to do just that. In the summer just past she had seen how the demons could use the magic of a wizard as a bridge into that wizard’s mind and flesh, thrusting aside all protective spells as they had never done before. Thus the demon Amayon had entered her. Back when I HAD power, she reflected, without even bitterness, now. The demon lord Folcalor had come close to conquering the Realm of Bel through the wizards he had seized. Had he not, for reasons of his own, chosen to imprison the souls of the mages thus possessed rather than simply drive them out to dissolve, Jenny knew she would never have regained her body and her life.
Better that she herself should die, she thought, than that demons seize Morkeleb’s mind and power to use as their own.
Nightmares pulled her back into darkness. The memory of what Amayon had done with her magic tormented her, acts of cruelty and wantonness. The memory of being trapped in her green crystal prison, feeling the hot brilliant rush of demon magic, pain, and shame. The memory of what the world had looked like when Amayon had been within her mind.
In nightmare she heard, too, Amayon’s screams when John had turned him over to the Demon Queen behind the mirror, to be tormented forever. Felt anew the blasting shock of utter grief, when in killing the wizard Caradoc—in driving Folcalor from his body—her own magic had been seared away to ashes.
Desolation and cold washed over her, the recollection of having nothing left of the power that had been hers.
She wondered, as she sank into deeper darkness, whether death would liberate her from those nightmares. Or was that what death consisted of: helplessly reliving horror, over and over again?
“Jenny my child,” a soft old creaky voice whispered in her ear, “thou art what thou art.” Someone was with her in the darkness, someone whose strength touched that cold, disembodied pain and slowly melted it into nothingness. Someone whose strength kept her from sinking beneath those black waters.
“Past and present and yet to come, this thou art. All of it, fire and water, earth and air. All of magic ariseth from understanding this.”
The voice was familiar, and Jenny thought, Ah.
Her past was clear to her, as clear as the old scars on her back. Caerdinn, the bitter old wander-mage who had taught her spells, had often struck her in his anger, but it was he who had made her a wizard. He who had taught her the uses of power.
She had been a witch-child, knowing from earliest awareness that magic was in her. She could look at a lamp and call flame to its wick, or find her mother’s thimble when the cat had knocked it under the wood-box. She could see in the dark, while others groped and blundered in that gloomy little house in the lower village, beneath the walls of red-bearded Lord Aver’s Hold. Lord Aver had had a prisoner at the Hold when Jenny was small, a black-haired Ice-witch he’d captured in a raid on an Icerider camp one year when those nomads had come raiding down from the North. This Ice-witch was a shaman among those northern nomads, she had told the child Jenny, and had been cast out from her people. She could not go back.
Kahiera Nightraven had been Jenny’s first teacher.
Past and present and yet to come, this thou art …