Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 02
A few yards in front of Meb, the green headland dropped away to the sea far below the fractured basalt of the cliff. The wind carried the shriek and mew of the gray-backed gulls swooping out from their cliff-nests. That should have been a warning to her.
But Meb was too busy. Dreaming, and lost in her dream.
When the boats came in on the morrow’s tide, she’d be working too hard to dream. Along with every other woman in the fishing hamlet, she’d be gilling and gutting fish, as fast as her hands could work. A person had to concentrate when they had a razor-sharp knife in their hand. She still had the scar from learning that lesson. Today . . . well, today the East wind had kept everyone home, with not as much as a coble out on the bay. A cold mist clung to the water out there, as it did when the wind was in this quarter, hiding reefs and landmarks, muffling the warning sounds of surf.
She sighed. There had to be more to life than fish-guts. She turned the focus of her attention inward again, not sure what had disturbed her. In her mind, she rode a dragon across the sky of Tasmarin. His scales gleamed obsidian . . .
Being precise by nature she tried to get the details of the dragon right, but it evaded her. Of course, there was no such thing as a black dragon, but the basic shape was the same for all dragons. Their overlord, the dragon Lord Zuamar, flew seldom, but if only he would appear and take a turn over the bay, and land on the fang-rocks across the inlet.
She looked out across the sea, her gaze drifting unseeing across the black ship clawing its way inwards across the bay. Another, and then another, followed it, sliding out of the cloaking sea-mist, long oars raking herringbone patterns on the still water. Meb was not truly aware of their presence. They were not what she was looking for.
And then, to her delight, she saw the dragon spin down from heaven in a tasseled and spiky spiral of shimmer of sable, flaring its wings to land on the rocks across the water from the ships.
Suddenly her mind registered the shrieking gulls . . . and the ships. Her first thought was that the fleet must be in early — the gulls were flying off to feast on the scraps. And here she was idling on the cliff-top! She stood up hastily, wiping her hands on her patched skirts.
But . . . but they hadn’t gone to sea today!
A second, incredulous look told her that this was something far worse than being late for the gutting. The gulls might be fooled into believing that all ships were fishing-boats, but Meb wasn’t. She knew a galley from a fat-bottomed fishing smack, no matter what her adopted family said about her.
A bare second’s hesitation and she lifted her skirts and began to sprint back, frantically screaming “raiders!”
The broken basalt of the cliff curved high above the bay. From time to time pieces fell off, down into the hungry waves that ate at its foot. Running along its edge Meb was gasping for breath already. If she’d stopped to think for a moment, she’d have realized that she couldn’t both run and yell, but she wasn’t thinking, right then. Still doing her best to sprint, she cut as close to the curve of the rotting cliff-top as she dared. She had to get to the village before them.
Too late, Meb realized that she’d dared too much.
A curl of white-hot steam drifted away from Fionn’s mouth. His talons dug into the sea-etched basalt. He twitched, sending a shimmering shiver through his ebony scales. He’d always been a bit wary about the vast surge of salt water. It was even more relentless than dragons.
You had to see the funny side of it, he thought, grinning wryly to himself. He was aware that the force lines of everything from water to earth had been badly twisted and torn here by some adept’s bungling magics. That was not surprising. Magic workers usually used magic, without understand how — or what — they were doing, simply following a rote. He was used to having to adjust objects and tweak forces after their bungling. But it was the first time he’d actually been a part of the crude tangle. Well, the balances out here near the edge of the world were unstable anyway. There was a seasonal flux, something you got so close to the edge of existence, where matter had been twisted and abused. Still: Yenfar was one of the largest and most stable of the islands. He had not expected it here.
Fionn blinked his huge scarlet eyes, adjusting his vision to the entire spectrum of energies, not just the visible spectra, but all of them. Now he saw the world as a swirling soup of complex patterns, not merely as reflections of light. And the weave here was indeed twisted, dented and torn. Water, sky and earth energies swirled well away from the true shape of their physical being. Chaos and misery! He sighed. A planomancer’s work was never done. He’d rather be sitting in the shade, drinking cool wine, with a platter of crispy fried whitebait and baby squid on the side — which was exactly what he had been doing before the summonsing — than wrestling with this mess. He chuckled. Ah well. It had got him out of paying for the earlier bottles of wine and platters of food rather neatly. Saved him a bit of trouble.
It was odd, though. The summonsing had felt like human magic. But there were no human magicians in Tasmarin.
Dragonkind had hunted down and killed all of them.
Falling takes a long, long time, thought Meb. It was either that, or time itself that stretched. The first idea was somehow easier to deal with. Like the scream that came from her mouth, falling to her death seemed to be happening to someone else. Even if she survived the fall, the sea would kill her. The villagers knew perfectly well that it killed men, let alone women. Women didn’t even go out on the fishing boats, never mind into the sea. The blue water was full of sharks, rays, whales and merrows. She’d never actually seen one of the merpeople. She had, somehow, a time for regret and to try and imagine what a half-fish half-man really looked like before she hit the water.
It was a lot harder than she’d thought it would be.
* * *
Fionn shifted his weight uneasily. There it was again. Just as he’d worked out what would need re-alignment, something plucked and twisted at the water energy lines, changing them. The cliff on the far side of the bay was re-aligning itself, cascading in a shower of rocks and turf into the foam-edged blue. That could not account for this tweak, however. It was more like a great, clumsy hand pulling fatelines, with no care for what it did to water or earth or even fire. He frowned.
Fionn paid more attention to humankind — the lice, as the others put it — than most Dragons in Tasmarin did. They were an unusual interest for a Dragon. But then, he was an unusual Dragon. Unique on this plane, possibly the last of his kind on any plane, anywhere.
That didn’t mean that he interfered with human affairs, any more than other Dragons who merely taxed them.
It would have been a great deal too much like hard work, for a start.
He paid no attention to the raider-galleys whose keels were crunching onto the shingle. Instead, he reached a long-taloned forepaw into his front-pouch and hauled out a wad of folded parchment. He looked around and grimaced. These rocks were not a good spot. Nowhere flat to lay out the diagrams. In truth he didn’t really need them, but he loved the detail and intricacy of them. They helped him decide. He spread his wings, unfolding the joints, extending them. It was a lousy place to launch from, but it was either fly from here or swim. The water looked cold, and might get at the charts. There was much labor in the drawing of them, and didn’t feel like doing it again. The way things were finally falling apart on this plane of existence, he didn’t think that he’d have enough time to, before the end.
He’d done enough work to get it into this dire state.
He launched. A trailing tip of his vast wings just touched the water. It was, indeed, cold.
Meb found that the water was not only hard, but also icy. The sudden shock of the cold broke the odd unreality of her falling trance. She was going to die! DIE!
Eyes wide open, all she could see was trailing bubbles and blue. She thrashed wildly, panic overwhelming thought.
Her head broke through into the air. She gasped for breath, frantically flailing at the water to stay afloat.
A wave hit her in the face, tumbling her.
And then strong, web-fingered hands seized her, dragging her under.
She fought them with all her remaining strength as they hauled her down into the watery darkness.
She was so busy struggling that she took a while to realize that she could breathe. And hear.
“Will you stop all this thrashing about, woman!” said someone irritably. “’tis hard enough swimming with you, without that.”
Part of Meb was unwilling to let go of her panic. This was the sea. You died in the sea. Another part of her, the odd rational bit that poked fun at the rest of her, that also dreamed dreams that rose along way above fish-guts, said: Don’t be afraid. Be terrified. And breathe deeply.
As usual, the ordinary village Meb listened to the inner voice, after a while. She was stiff with fear, but at least she could breathe . . . And cough. It was amazing that there still was any sea left out there. She seemed to have swallowed most of it. And now she was dead.
The rational part of her mind said: so why are you still breathing?
“Sit here. There’s a bit of a shelf,” said the voice. “I’ll need to make a light so that we can inspect the damage.”
The “shelf” was narrow and rough with barnacles. The current plucked at her as she sat on it. But at least she was half above water, on something solid. She tried to dig her fingers into the very rock. The place reeked of drying sea-life: seaweed, dead crabs and a hint of fish.
Then she saw a greenish-white spark glowing in the darkness. It grew into a globe of light of the same color, held in a webbed hand. The hand had rather more fingers than was normal. It was also blue and scaly, like the rest of the merrow it was attached to. He smiled at her. His smile revealed white teeth. They weren’t square and blunt like human teeth. No, his teeth were pointed and sharp. He held the light up, looking her over thoughtfully.
“Well, you don’t appear to be bleeding too much,” he said, sounding a little regretful. “Any other injuries besides those that I can see?”
She stared at him. At his tasseled fins and the toothy smile.
“Shark got your tongue, maybe?” he said, sardonically. “I asked you a question, human wench. Are you all right?”
“I’ll take that as a yes, shall I?” said the merrow.
“What are you doing to me?” asked Meb, weakly. She started to shiver.
“Ah. Now that’d be a question,” said the merrow, with yet another nasty toothy grin. “Saving you from drowning would be my guess. What do you think?”
“I mean, why did you bring me here? Where is this?” she tried to keep the thin edge of hysteria out of her voice. As with stopping shivering, she failed.
The merrow seemed amused. “Well, it was a question of staying where you were, or going elsewhere. You don’t seem to be much of a swimmer, wench. You’d need to be doing much better than the floundering and flapping you were busy with, to not be dashed into the cliff. And there were a powerful number of large rocks falling down, too.”
His insouciant humor helped to quell her panic, anyway. “We fisher-people don’t swim,” she said defensively. “If we fall overboard, we would rather drown quickly. Anyway, women never go into the sea.” Which was only partially true. The sea had spat her out originally, if Mamma Hallgerd was to be believed.
He seemed to find this hilarious. “I can tow you back out there and you can get on with drowning, if you like. Or maybe I can take you down, down, to merrow lands, to dance among the fish, or even to be sucked away into one of the great cracks in the ocean floor? There are maelstroms down there that not even I can cope with, places where the very water streams away into the nothingness. I’d hate to stop you doing what you think you were supposed to do.”
“No! No, thank you very much,” she said hastily. “I really don’t want to drown. It’s just . . . Where am I? I have to warn the village. There are raiders coming!”
He shook his head. “To think of not even knowing where you are. Why ’tis obvious. You’re under the cliff. There are some caves here. It’s to be hoped we can get out again after all the rock you brought down with you. It was a careless thing to do.”
Caves? Trapped? With this creature . . . with teeth like that? “Why did you bring me here?” she asked, suspiciously. “Why didn’t you take me away from the cliff if you wanted to save me?”
The merrow snorted. “It’s grateful that you are! Were you wanting to go to those boats in the bay instead?”
The rational part of mind had to admit that he was right. But it didn’t stop her being cold, and very scared. Obviously she looked it, because the merrow relented a little. “There is a current under here. It has to go somewhere. The cliffs are riddled with these tunnels. I could have you out to those boats in the bay in no time, I daresay.”
Taking her courage in both hand she looked at the creature in the way Hallgerd said made her look like a shameless hussy . . . but it did seem to get her what she wanted sometimes. “Will you rather take me to the beach?” she begged. “Please? Please, please? I must warn my people.”
He seemed to find her look-of-helpless-appeal amusing. “They don’t look much like you,” he said, showing no sign of agreeing to help.
It was true enough. The fisher-people who had taken her in were straight-haired and blond. Her hair was dark and naturally curly. But . . . they were all she’d known. All she could remember. And even if they laughed at her, and teased her because she was different, they were her people. “Please?”
He scratched his chin with a webbed hand. “Ach. I suppose I could. For a price.”
Meb gasped. He . . . She got ready to fend him off. The boys in the village had taught her that much. Even if she didn’t look attractive, and she knew they didn’t think so, the boys were keen. It wasn’t her face they were interested in.
He laughed loudly enough to make the tunnel echo at her reaction. “You’ve a high opinion of yourself, wench. I’ll admit you’re bluer than you were when I brought you in, and it is somewhat of an improvement, but you’re not a pretty sight. Not to me anyway.”
Innate honesty forced her to say “But I have nothing else. Please.”
“Well, then you’ve got nothing,” he said with a nasty grin. “I’ll be going then.”
“But . . . you can’t just leave me here!” she protested.
“And why not?” he asked, pausing. “You’re alive, thanks to me. And not a strand of hair’s profit I’ll have out of that.”
Hair. She remembered now. Drowned bodies washed up . . . without a hair on their heads. It was said that the mermen treasured human hair, used it to string sea jewels on. But it was supposed to be the worst of bad luck to let them have it. You were sure to drown.
The inner voice said and if you don’t give it to him, you’re sure to drown.
“I’ll give you my hair,” she said. There was a lot of it anyway. When it was loose she could nearly sit on it.
He scratched his chin. “It’s not very straight.”
She suddenly recognized the look in his eye. He’d said that it wasn’t lust. Then it must be desire . . . to bargain. To think of this creature being just like the pack-pedlars! “That just means that it’s longer,” she said stretching out a piece.
“True,” he said nodding. “We have a deal then.” By the speed that he agreed she knew that she’d offered too much, too soon. He abruptly produced a bronze knife. She started back and nearly fell off the rock-shelf. He laughed. “You want me to pull your hair out instead? Now, if you be wanting me to take you to the beach without the raiders seeing you, you’ll have to raise the price. Say the dress too.” With a sinuous flick he pushed himself up out of the water, onto the shelf, and found a place to balance his light on the rock wall. “Hold still, will you, unless you’d be wanting to be parting with more skin than hair.”
She did her best not to shiver. But it felt pretty close to having her hair pulled out anyway. He tucked the bundle of wet plaits into a pouch at his waist and put the knife away. “Now do we have a deal on the dress?”
“I suppose so,” she said, crossly. “But not my drawers. Or my breast-band.” Everyone in the village had seen her in that little anyway.
He flapped his fish-tail. “I’ve not much use for drawers,” he said conversationally. “Off with it, then.”
Meb bit her lip. What if he’d lied? You heard stories about merwomen . . . sailors tales. A merrow would not be that different.
After a moment’s panic, the voice inside her now coarsely shaven head said, he’s bigger than you and he has a knife. Why should he bother to trick you into taking it off?
So she did.
He took it, rolled it up and tucked into another pouch. “I’ve not much use for it,” he said cheerfully, “But I thought it’d be fitting punishment for thinking such things of me.” And he disappeared into the water, with hardly a splash.
For a moment Meb stared at the water in horror. And then she started to swear. The lying, cheating bastard. At least he’d left her his light.
Then the merrow’s head popped back out of the water, just has she was getting to her third breath and her foster-brothers more choice vocabulary. The merrow looked impressed. “You’ve got a fine tongue on you, for a girl!” he said, clapping. “Now, it’s as I thought,” He reached for his light. “The way is still clear. Come.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her into the current.
There was a reason that the villagers and their boats kept away from the cliff that sheltered the bay from the South wind: The current. The waves broke over the sandbar at the bay-mouth, and the water had to go out somewhere. The current sucked boats that came too close onto the rocks. Plainly it ran through these caves. But the merrow obviously was more than a match for the current. He pulled her along through it almost effortlessly.
“Last bit.” He said. “You’ll have to hold your breath again.”
They went down. When she thought her lungs would burst, Meb saw the blessed gleam of sunlight through the water. And then they popped out into the open air again. They were in the middle of the still patch of weedy water where the cliff, the shingle and the sea intersected. The place was called the ‘the perilous pool’ and it wasn’t even any good for throwing a line into. Village children were forbidden to play here. Meb knew why, now. The current still sucked at her feet.
The merrow was, however, as good as his word. He pushed her across to a slab of rock on the edge of the pool. “Up and off with you,” he said cheerfully, swatting her across the behind.
She gasped — but grabbed at the leathery kelp fronds and hauled herself upwards, scraping her bare knees on the pink edged key-hole limpets. She was out! She scrambled higher up onto the rock, and then onto the crunching pebbles and broken shell of the beach. It was only then that she looked back, feeling she ought to wave, acknowledge he had been fair at least. And he had saved her.
The merrow had vanished back into the depths as if it had never been there.
Meb ran. Well, she did her best to run. The fear and cold water had sapped her strength. She could see smoke ahead. The common-sense part of her mind said that she was running the wrong way. That didn’t stop her though, even if the shingle-beach was long, and very awkward to try and run on.
The village was tucked in behind an overgrown dune that gave it some shelter from the East wind. The seaward slope was a mass of fish-drying racks, hung with salt-crusted, yellowed, flayed cod. Meb panted her way up it. Nearing the top of the dune the sensible part of her mind finally got the upper hand: running down into a fight, it said to her, a woman in her in underthings, unarmed, is not the cleverest thing she’d ever done, and she’d done a lot of stupid things before. So she grabbed a fish-rack pole. It wasn’t much to soothe the inner voice, but it was something.
Meb crested the dune — and realized that she was too late. Far too late.
All the little reed-thatched crofts were burning. So were the boats, hauled up onto the little second curve of shingle on the edge of the estuary. And the raiders, in their black cloaks and steel mail shirts were the only people she could see, stalking among the burning crofts.
It hadn’t been a big village. A hundred or so people — when the boats were in. It hadn’t taken at least twice that number of armed men long to over-run it. Looking down, Meb saw that some of them hadn’t managed to flee, either. That was old Hallgerd’s body sprawled down there, in front of Meb’s croft. She couldn’t mistake that dress.
Meb sat down, dropping her pole. And then lay down and sobbed. The old woman had been a terrible scold, but she was also the nearest thing to a mother that Meb had ever had. Meb had expected a real telling off for slipping away to the cliff-top to idle this afternoon. She’d been faintly dreading it.
Now she would have welcomed it.
The raiders weren’t searching for people to seaward. A few quested like dogs through the gorse slopes behind the village. The rest seemed to be kicking about the village. Looking up at the skyline, looking inland.
Looking at the watching dragon.
So this is why the winged creature had come here. To oversee his pack of sea-wolves. To destroy her home, her life.
Sitting there among the fish-racks, looking down at the destruction of her life, Meb did the unthinkable. Dragonkind ruled here in Tasmarin, with an absolute power. Always had, and always would. Under them other creatures lived and died at their will. Someone had once said that humans were nothing more than kine to the Dragon Lords. Before this happened that had seemed like the natural order of things. Not something to be thought about, let alone defied. Now she raised her small fist and shook it at the sunset silhouetted dragon. A cold flame of bitter rage burned in her heart.
“We are more than just your cattle,” she said grimly, in voice far older than her seventeen years. “I’m going to destroy you.”
It was a ridiculous, futile gesture, and she knew it.