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City of dragons, p.6
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       City of Dragons, p.6

         Part #3 of Rain Wild Chronicles series by Robin Hobb
 

  She heard Tats coming before he caught up to her: the wet grass slapping against his legs and his hard breathing as he ran up behind her. She did not turn to him until he breathlessly called to her, “Going hunting? Want some help?”

  “Why not? I could use someone to carry my kill back to the dragons. ” She didn’t mention what they both knew: that Carson didn’t like any of them hunting alone. He claimed to have seen signs of big predators, ones that might be large enough to attack a human. “Large game usually attracts large predators,” he had said. “When you hunt, take a partner. ” It was not so much that Carson had authority over them as that he had experience.

  Tats grinned at her, his teeth white in his finely scaled face. “Oh. So you don’t think I’m capable of bringing down meat that you’d have to help me drag back?”

  She grinned back. “You’re a good enough hunter, Tats. But we both know I’m better. ”

  “You were born to it. Your father taught you from the time you could teeter along a tree branch. I think I’m pretty good, for someone who came to it later. ” He fell into step beside her. It was a bit awkward on the narrow trail. He bumped elbows with her as they walked, but he neither moved ahead of her nor fell back. As they entered the eaves of the forest, the meadow grasses grew shallower and then gave way to a layer of leaf mold and low-growing bushes. The trees cut the wind, for which Thymara was grateful. She bobbed her head in acceptance of Tats’s compliment.

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  “You’re a lot better than when we left Trehaug. And I think you may adapt to this ground hunting faster than I will. This place is so different from home. ”

  “Home,” he said, and she could not tell if the word was bitter or sweet to him. “I think this is home now,” he added, startling her.

  She gave him a sideways glance as they continued to push forward through the brush. “Home? Forever?”

  He thrust out his arm toward her and pushed up his sleeve, baring his scaled flesh. “I can’t imagine going back to Trehaug. Not like this. You?”

  She didn’t need to flex her wings nor look at the thick black claws she’d had since birth. “If acceptance means home, then Trehaug was never home for me. ”

  She pushed regrets and thoughts of Trehaug aside. It was time to hunt. Sintara was hungry. Today Thymara wanted to find a game trail, a fresh one they hadn’t hunted before. Until they struck one, it would be hard going. They were both breathing hard, but Tats was less winded than he would have been when they first left Trehaug. Life on the Tarman expedition had muscled and hardened all of them, she thought approvingly. And all of the keepers had grown, the boys achieving growth spurts that were almost alarming. Tats was taller now and his shoulders broader. His dragon was changing him, too. He alone of the keepers had been fully human in appearance when they had left Trehaug. He was offspring of the freed slave population that had immigrated to Trehaug during the war with Chalced, and his slavery as an infant had been clearly marked on his face with his former owner’s tattoo. A spiderweb had been flung across his left cheek, while a small running horse had been inked beside his nose. Those had changed as his dragon had begun to scale him. The tattoos were stylized designs now, scales rather than ink under skin. His dark hair and dark eyes remained the same as they had always been, but she suspected that some of his height was due to his transformation to Elderling rather than being natural growth. His fingernails gleamed as green as Fente, his ill-tempered little queen dragon. When the light struck his skin, it woke green highlights on his scaling. He was leaf shadow and pine needle, the greens of her forest . . . She reined in her thoughts.

  “So. You think you’ll live out your life here?” It was a strange concept to her. She’d been at a bit of a loss since they’d achieved their goal of finding the city. When they all left Trehaug, they had signed contracts, acknowledging that their goal was to settle the dragons upriver. Finding the legendary city of Kelsingra had scarcely been mentioned. She’d taken the job to escape her old life. She’d thought no further in her plans than that. Now she ventured to picture herself living here forever. Never facing again the people who had made her an outcast.

  The other half of that image was never going home again. She hadn’t liked her mother; and it had been mutual. But she had been very close to her father. Would she never see him again? Would he never know she’d achieved her goal? No, that was a ridiculous thought. Captain Leftrin was going to make a supply run back to Cassarick. Once he arrived there, the news of their find would swarm out like gnats to every ear in the Rain Wilds. Her father would soon hear of it. Would he come here to see for himself? Would she, perhaps, go home to visit him? A night ago, at the meeting, Leftrin had asked if anyone wanted to go back to the city. A silence had fallen after his query. The keepers had looked at one another. Leave their dragons? Go back to Trehaug, to return to their lives as pariahs there? No. For the others, the answer had been easy.

  It had been less easy for her. There were times when she wanted to leave her dragon. Sintara was not the most endearing creature in the world. She ordered Thymara about, exposed her to danger for her own amusement, and once had nearly drowned her in the river in her haste to get a fish. Sintara had never apologized for that. The dragon was as sarcastic and cynical as she was magnificent. But even if Thymara was considering abandoning her dragon, she did not want to get back on the Tarman and go downriver. She was still sick of being on the barge and of the endless journeying in close quarters. Going back to Trehaug with Leftrin would mean leaving all her friends and never knowing what they discovered in the Elderling city. So for now she’d stay here, to be with her friends and continue her tasks as a hunter for the dragons until Leftrin returned with fresh supplies. And after that? “Do you plan to live here forever?” she asked Tats again when she realized he hadn’t answered her first question.

  He replied quietly, in keeping with their soft tread through the forest. “Where else could we go?” He made a small gesture at her and then at his own face. “Our dragons have marked us as theirs. And while Fente is making more progress toward flying than Sintara is, I don’t think either queen will be self-sufficient soon. Even if they could hunt to feed themselves, they’d still want us here with them, for grooming and companionship. We’re Elderlings now, Thymara. Elderlings have always lived alongside dragons. And this is where the dragons are staying. So, yes, I suppose I’m here for the rest of my life. Or for as long as Fente is. ”

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  He lifted a hand and pointed silently in what he thought was a better direction. She decided to agree with him and took the lead. He spoke from behind her as they slipped single-file through the forest. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? Are you truly considering going back to Trehaug? Do you think that’s even possible for ones like us? I know that Sintara doesn’t always treat you well. But where else can you live now? You have wings now, Thymara. I can’t see you climbing and running through the treetops like you used to. Anywhere you go, people are going to stare at you. Or worse. ”

  Thymara folded her wings more tightly to her body. Then she frowned. She hadn’t been aware she was going to do that. The foreign appendages were becoming more and more a part of her. They still made her back ache and annoyed her daily when she tried to make her worn clothing fit around them. But she moved them now without focusing on the task.

  “They’re beautiful,” Tats said as if he could hear her thoughts. “They’re worth anything you have to endure for them. ”

  “They’re useless,” Thymara retorted, trying not to let his compliment please her. “I’ll never fly. They’re like a mockery. ”

  “No. You’ll never fly, but I still think they’re beautiful. ”

  Now his agreement that she could never fly stung more sharply than his compliment could soothe. “Rapskal thinks I’ll fly,” she retorted.

  Tats sighed. “Rapskal thinks that he and Heeby will visit the moon someda
y. Thymara, I think your wings would have to grow much bigger before you could fly. So big that perhaps you’d be bent over by the weight of them when you walked. Rapskal doesn’t stop to think how things really work. He is full of his wishes and dreams, now more than ever. And we both know he wants you and will say anything to you that will win your favor. ”

  She glanced back at him, a sour smile twisting her lips. “Unlike you,” she observed.

  He grinned at her, his dark eyes alight with challenge. “You know I want you. I’m honest about that. I’m always honest with you, Thymara. I think you should appreciate the truth from a man who respects your intelligence rather than preferring a crazy man full of wild compliments. ”

  “I value your honesty,” she said and then bit her tongue before she could remind him that he hadn’t always been so honest with her. He hadn’t told her that he was mating with Jerd. But neither had Rapskal admitted it to her. Of course, in Rapskal’s case, he hadn’t really concealed it from her. He simply hadn’t thought it all that important.

  After all, most of the male keepers seemed to have enjoyed Jerd’s favors. And probably continued to, for all Thymara knew. The question came back to her. Why was it so important to her? Tats wasn’t with Jerd anymore. He didn’t seem to attach any real importance to what he had done. So why did it matter so much to her?

  Thymara slowed her pace. They were approaching an opening in the forest, and where the trees thinned there was more light ahead. She made a motion to Tats to be quiet and slow his pace, took the best of her unsatisfactory arrows, and set it to the bow. Time to move her eyes more than her body. She set her shoulder to a tree to steady her stance and began a slow survey of the forest meadow before them.

  She could focus her eyes but not her unruly thoughts. Jerd had been very quick to cast off the rules of their Rain Wild upbringing. Girls such as she and Jerd and Sylve were not allowed to take husbands. All knew that Rain Wild children who were scaled or clawed at birth would likely not grow to adulthood. They were not worth the resources it would take to raise them, for even if they lived, they seldom bore viable children. Those who tried usually died in labor, leaving the monsters that survived the births to be exposed. Husbands were forbidden to those strongly touched by the Rain Wilds, as deeply forbidden as mating outside the marriage bed was forbidden to all Rain Wilders. But Jerd had chosen to ignore both those rules. Jerd was lovely, with her fair hair and piercing eyes and lithe body. She had chosen which keepers she wished to bed, and then picked them off one at a time like a cat at a mouse nest and with as little compunction about the outcome of her appetite. Even when some of the youths came to blows over her, she seemed to accept it as her due. Thymara had been torn between envy for the freedom Jerd had claimed and fury at the swath of emotional discord she cut through the company.

  Eventually, she’d paid the price, one that Thymara did not like to remember. When Jerd’s unlikely pregnancy ended in a premature birth, Thymara had been one of the women to attend her. She had seen the tiny body of the fish-girl before they delivered the corpse to Veras, Jerd’s dragon. It was strange to think that Thymara had taken a lesson from that, but Jerd had seemed unaffected by it. Thymara had refrained from sharing her body with any of the keepers, while Jerd continued to take her pleasure wherever she pleased. It made no sense. Some days she resented Jerd’s stupidity that could bring trouble for all of them; but more often she envied how the other girl had seized her freedom and her choices and seemed not to care what anyone else thought of her.

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  Freedom and choices. She could seize the one and make the other. “I’m staying,” she said quietly. “Not for my dragon. Not even for my friends. I’m staying here for me. To make a place where I do belong. ”

  Tats looked over at her. “Not for me?” he asked without guile.

  She shook her head. “Honesty,” she reminded him quietly.

  He glanced away from her. “Well, at least you didn’t say you were staying for Rapskal. ” Then, quite suddenly, Tats made a sound, a hoarse intake of breath. A moment later Thymara whispered on a sigh, “I see him. ”

  The animal that was moving cautiously from the perimeter of the forest and into the open meadow was magnificent. Thymara was slowly becoming accustomed to the great size that the hoofed creatures of this dry forest could attain. Even so, this was the largest she had seen yet. She could have slung a sleeping net between the reaches of his two flat-pronged antlers. They were not the tree-branch-like horns she had seen on the other deer of this area. These reminded her of hands with widespread fingers. The creature that bore them was worthy of such a massive crown. His shoulders were immense, and a large hummock of meaty flesh rode them. He paced like a rich man strolling through a market, setting one careful foot down at a time. His large, dark eyes swept the clearing once, and then he dismissed his caution. Thymara was not surprised. What sort of predator could menace a beast of that size? She drew the bowstring taut and held her breath, but her hope was small. At best, she could probably deliver a flesh wound through that thick hide. If she injured him sufficiently or made him bleed enough, she and Tats could track him to his death place. But this would not be a clean kill for any of them.

  She gritted her teeth. This could very well take all day, but the amount of meat would be well worth it. One more pace and she would have a clear shot at him.

  A scarlet lightning bolt fell from the sky. The impact of the red dragon hitting the immense deer shook the earth. Thymara’s startled response was to release her arrow: it shot off in wobbly flight and struck nothing. In the same instant, there was a loud snap as the deer’s spine broke. It bellowed in agony, a sound cut short as the dragon’s jaws closed on the deer’s throat. Heeby jerked her prey off the ground and half sheared the deer’s head from his neck. Then she dropped it before lunging in to rip an immense mouthful of skin and gut from the deer’s soft belly. She threw her head back and gulped the meat down. Dangling tendrils of gut stretched between her jaws and her prey.

  “Sweet Sa have mercy!” Tats sighed. At his words, the dragon turned sharply toward them. Her eyes glittered with anger and spun scarlet. Blood dripped from her bared teeth.

  “Your kill,” Tats assured her. “We’re leaving now. ” He seized Thymara by the upper arm and pulled her back into the shelter of the forest.

  She still gripped her bow. “My arrow! That was the best one I had. Did you see where it went?”

  “No. ” There was a world of denial in Tats’s single word. He hadn’t seen it fly and he wasn’t interested in finding it. He pulled her deeper into the forest and then started to circle the meadow. “Damn her!” he said quietly. “That was a lot of meat. ”

  “Can’t blame her,” Thymara pointed out. “She’s just doing what a dragon does. ”

  “I know. She’s just doing what a dragon does, and how I wish Fente would do it also. ” He shook his head guiltily at his own words, as if shamed to find fault with his dragon. “But until she and Sintara get off the ground, we’re stuck with providing meat for them. So we’d best get hunting again. Ah. Here we are. ”

  He’d struck the game trail that had brought the big buck to the forest meadow. Reflexively, Thymara cast her gaze upward. But the trees here were not the immense giants that she was accustomed to. At home, she would have scaled a tree and then moved silently from limb to reaching limb, traveling unseen from tree to tree as she stalked the game trail. She would have hunted her prey from above. But half these trees were bare of leaves in the winter, offering no cover. Nor did the branches reach and intermingle with their neighbors as they did in her Rain Wild home. “We’ll have to hunt on foot, and quietly,” Tats answered her thoughts. “But first, we’ll have to get away from Heeby’s kill site. Even I can smell death. ”

  “Not to mention hear her,” Thymara answered. The dragon fed noisily, crunching bones and making sounds of pleasure with each tearing bite. As they both paused, she gave a sud
den snarl, like a cat playing with dead prey; a large cracking sound followed it.

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  “Probably the antlers,” Tats said.

  Thymara nodded. “I’ve never seen a deer that big. I’ve never seen any animal that big, except dragons. ”

  “Dragons aren’t animals,” he corrected her. He was leading and she was following. They trod lightly and spoke softly.

  She chuckled quietly. “Then what are they?”

  “Dragons. The same way that we aren’t animals. They think, they talk. If that’s what makes us not animals, then dragons are not animals, either. ”

  She was quiet for a time, mulling it over. She wasn’t sure she agreed. “Sounds like you’ve given this some thought. ”

  “I have. ” He ducked low to go under an overhanging branch, and she copied him. “Ever since Fente and I bonded. By the third night, I was wondering, what was she? She wasn’t my pet, and she wasn’t like a wild monkey or a bird. Not like the tame monkeys that a few of the pickers used to go after high fruit. And I wasn’t her pet or her servant, even if I was doing a lot of things for her. Finding her food, picking vermin away from her eyes, cleaning her wings. ”

  “Are you sure you’re not her servant?” Thymara asked with a sour smile. “Or her slave?”

  He winced at the word and she reminded herself whom she was talking to. He’d been born a slave. His mother had been enslaved as punishment for her crimes, so when he was born, he was born a slave. He might have no memory of that servitude, for he had been a very small child when they escaped it. But he’d grown up with the marks on his face and the knowledge that many people thought differently of him as a result.

  They had come to a low stone wall, grown over with vines. Beyond it, several small huts had collapsed on their own foundations. Trees grew in and around them. Thymara eyed them thoughtfully, but Tats pressed on. Ruins in the forest were too common even to comment on. If Sintara were not so hungry, Thymara would have poked around in the shells looking for anything useful. A few of the keepers had found tool parts, hammer heads, axe bits, and even a knife blade in the debris of some of the collapsed huts. Some of the tools had been of Elderling make, still holding an edge after all the years. One collapsed table had held cups and the remains of broken plates. Whatever had ended Kelsingra had ended it swiftly. The inhabitants had not carried their tools and other possessions away. Who knew what she might find buried in the rubble? But her dragon’s hunger pressed on her mind like a knife at her back. She’d have to come back later when she had more time. If Sintara ever let her have time to herself.

 
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