Dragon Haven

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  The humans were agitated. Sintara sensed their darting, stinging thoughts, as annoying as a swarm of biting insects. The dragon wondered how humans had ever managed to survive when they could not keep their thoughts to themselves. The irony was that despite spraying out every fancy that passed through their small minds, they didn’t have the strength of intellect to sense what their fellows were thinking. They tottered through their brief lives, misunderstanding one another and almost every other creature in the world. It had shocked her the first time she realized that the only way they could communicate with one another was to make noises with their mouths and then to guess what the other human meant by the noises it made in response. “Talking” they called it.

  For a moment, she stopped blocking the barrage of squeaking and tried to determine what had agitated the dragon keepers today. As usual, there was no coherence to their concerns. Several were worried about the copper dragon who had fallen ill. It was not as if they could do much about it; she wondered why they were flapping about it instead of tending to their duties for the other dragons. She was hungry, and no one had brought her anything today, not even a fish.

  She strolled listlessly down the riverbank. There was little to see here, only a strip of gravel and mud, reeds and a few scrawny saplings. Thin sunlight touched her back but gave small warmth. No game of any size lived here. There might be fish in the river, but the effort of catching one was scarcely worth the small pleasure of eating it. Now, if someone else brought it to her…

  She thought about summoning Thymara and insisting the girl go hunting for her. From what she had overheard from the keepers, they’d remain on this forsaken strip of beach until the copper dragon either recovered or died. She considered that for a moment. If the copper died, that would make a substantial meal for whichever dragon got there first. And that, she decided bitterly, would be Mercor. The gold dragon was keeping watch. She sensed that he suspected some danger to the copper, but he was guarding his thoughts now, not letting dragons or keepers know what he was thinking. That alone made her feel wary.

  She would have asked him outright what danger he feared if she hadn’t been so angry at him. With no provocation at all, he had given her true name to the keepers. Not just to Thymara and Alise, her own keepers. That would have been bad enough. But no, he had trumpeted her true name out as if it were his to share. That he and most of the other dragons had chosen to share their true names with their keepers meant nothing to her; if they wanted to be foolishly trusting, it was up to them. She didn’t interfere between him and his keeper. Why had he felt so free about unbalancing her relationship with Thymara? Now that the girl knew her true name, Sintara could only hope that she had no idea of how to use it. No dragon could lie to someone who demanded the truth with her true name or used it properly when asking a question. Refuse to answer, of course, but not lie. Nor could a dragon break an agreement if she entered into it under her true name. It was an unconscionable amount of power that he had given to a human with the life span of a fish.

  She found an open place on the beach and lowered her body onto the sun-warmed river stones, closed her eyes, and sighed. Should she sleep? No. Resting on the chilly ground did not appeal to her.

  Reluctantly, she opened her mind again, to try to get some idea of what the humans had planned. Someone else was whining about blood on his hands. The elder of her keepers was in an emotional storm as to whether she should return home to live in boredom with her husband or mate with the captain of the ship. Sintara made a grumble of disgust. There was not even a decision to ponder there. Alise was agonizing over trivialities. It didn’t matter what she did, any more than it mattered where a fly landed. Humans lived and died in a ridiculously short amount of time. Perhaps that was why they made so much noise when they were alive. Perhaps it was the only way they could convince one another of their significance.

  Dragons made sounds, it was true, but they did not depend on those sounds to convey their thoughts. Sound and utterances were useful when one had to blast through the clutter of human thought and attract the attention of another dragon. Sound was useful to make humans in general focus on what a dragon was trying to convey to it. She would not have minded human sounds so much if they did not persist in spouting out their thoughts at the same time they tried to convey them with their squeaking. The dual annoyance sometimes made her wish she could just eat them and be done with them.

  She released her frustration as a low rumble. The humans were useless annoyances, and yet fate had forced the dragons to rely on them. When the dragons had hatched from their cases, emerging from their metamorphosis from sea serpent to dragon, they had wakened to a world that did not match their memories of it. Not decades but centuries had passed since dragons had last walked this world. Instead of emerging able to fly, they had come out as badly formed parodies of what a dragon was supposed to be, trapped on a swampy riverbank beside an impenetrable forested wet land. The humans had grudgingly aided them, bringing them carcasses to feed on and tolerating their presence as they waited for them to die off or muster the strength to leave. For years, they had starved and suffered, fed barely enough to keep them alive, trapped between the forest and the river. Page 2


  And then Mercor conceived of a plan. The golden dragon concocted the tale of a half-remembered city of an ancient race, and the vast treasures that surely resided there still, waiting to be rediscovered. It did not particularly bother any of the dragons that only the memory of Kelsingra, an Elderling city built to a scale that welcomed dragons, was a true memory. If a treasure of glittering riches was the false bait it took to encourage the humans to help them, so be it.

  And so the trap was set, the rumor spread, and when sufficient time had passed, the humans had offered to assist the dragons as they sought to rediscover the Elderling city of Kelsingra. An expedition was mounted, with a barge and boats, hunters to kill for the dragons, and keepers to see to the needs of the dragons as they escorted them upriver and back to a city they recalled clearly only when they dreamed. The grubby little merchants who held power in the city did not give them their best, of course. Only two real hunters were hired to provide for over a dozen dragons. The “keepers” the Traders had selected for them were mostly adolescent humans, the misfits of their population, those they preferred would not survive and breed. The youngsters were marked with scales and growths, changes the other Rain Wilders wished not to see. The best that could be said of them was that they were mostly tractable and diligent in caring for the dragons. But they had no memories from their forebears, and skittered through their lives with only the minimal knowledge of the world that they could gather in their own brief existence. It was hard to converse with one, even when she had no intent of seeking intelligent dialogue. As simple a command as “go bring me meat” was usually met with whining about how difficult it was to find game and queries such as, “Did not you eat but a few hours ago?” as if such words would somehow change her mind about her needs.

  Sintara alone of the dragons had had the foresight to claim two keepers as her servants instead of one. The older human, Alise, was of little use as a hunter, but she was a willing if not adept groomer and had a correct and respectful attitude. Her younger keeper, Thymara, was the best of the hunters among the keepers, but suffered from an unruly and impertinent nature. Still, having two keepers assured her that one was almost always available for her needs, at least for as long as their brief lives lasted. She hoped that would be long enough.

  For most of a moon cycle, the dragons had trudged up the river, staying to the shallows near the densely grown riverbank. The banks of the river were too thickly forested, too twined with vines and creepers, too t
angled with reaching roots to provide walking space for the dragons. Their hunters ranged ahead of them, their keepers followed in their small boats, and last of all came the liveship Tarman, a long, low river barge that smelled much of dragon and magic. Mercor was intrigued with the so-called liveship. Most of the dragons, including Sintara, found the ship unsettling and almost offensive. The hull of the ship had been carved from “wizardwood,” which was not wood at all but the remains of a dead sea serpent’s cocoon. The timber that such “wood” yielded was very hard and impervious to rain and weather. The humans valued it highly. But to dragons, it smelled of dragon flesh and memories. When a sea serpent wove its case to protect it while it changed into a dragon, it contributed saliva and memories to the special clay and sand it regurgitated. Such wood was, in its own way, sentient. The painted eyes of the ship were far too knowing for Sintara’s liking, and Tarman moved upriver against the current far more easily than any ordinary ship should. She avoided the barge and spoke little to his captain. The man had never seemed to wish to interact with the dragons much. For a moment, that thought lodged in Sintara’s mind. Was there a reason he avoided them? He did not seem cowed by dragons, as some humans did.

  Or repulsed. Sintara thought of Sedric and snorted disdainfully. The fussy Bingtown man trailed after her keeper Alise, carrying her pens and paper, sketching dragons and writing down snippets of information as Alise passed it on to him. He was so dull of brain that he could not even understand the dragons when they spoke to him. He heard her speech as “animal sounds” and had rudely compared it to the mooing of a cow! No. Captain Leftrin was nothing like Sedric. He was not deaf to the dragons, and obviously he did not consider them unworthy of his attention. So why did he avoid them? Was he hiding something?

  Well, he was a fool if he thought he could conceal anything from a dragon. She dismissed her brief concern. Dragons could sort through a human’s mind as easily as a crow could peck apart a pile of dung. If Leftrin or any other human had a secret, they were welcome to keep it. Human lives were so short that knowing a human was scarcely worth the effort. At one time, Elderlings had been worthy companions for dragons. They had lived much longer than humans and been clever enough to compose songs and poetry that honored dragons. In their wisdom, they had made their public buildings and even some of their more palatial homes hospitable to dragon guests. Her ancestral memories informed her of fatted cattle, of warm shelters that welcomed dragons during the wintry season, of scented oil baths that soothed itching scales and other thoughtful amenities the Elderlings had contrived for them. It was a shame they were gone from the world. A shame.

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  She tried to imagine Thymara as an Elderling, but it was impossible. Her young keeper lacked the proper attitude toward dragons. She was disrespectful, sullen, and far too fascinated with her own firefly existence. She had spirit but employed it poorly. Her older keeper, Alise, was even more unsuitable. Even now, she could sense the woman’s underlying uncertainty and misery. An Elderling female had to share something of a dragon queen’s decisiveness and fire. Did either of her tenders have the potential for them? she wondered. What would it take to put spurs to them, to test their mettle? Was it worth the effort of challenging them to see what they were made of?

  Something was poking her. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes and lifted her head. She rolled to her feet, shook herself, and then lay down again. As she began to lower her head, movement in the tall rushes caught her eyes. Game? She fixed her gaze. No. Nothing more than two of the keepers leaving the beach and heading into the forest. She recognized them. One was a female, Jerd, keeper to Veras. The green dragon’s keeper was tall for a human female, with a brush of blond hair cresting her head. Thymara didn’t like her. Sintara knew that without precisely knowing why. With her was Greft. She blew out softly through her nostrils. She had little use for Kalo’s keeper. Greft might tend the huge blue-black dragon and keep him gleaming, but not even Kalo trusted him. All of the dragons had misgivings about him. Thymara regarded him with both interest and fear. He fascinated her, and Thymara resented that fascination.

  Sintara snuffed the wind, caught the scents of the retreating keepers, and half closed her eyes. She knew where they were bound.

  An intriguing thought came to her. She suddenly glimpsed a way to measure her keeper, but would it be worth the effort? Perhaps. Perhaps not. She stretched out on the warmed rocks again, vainly wishing they were sun-scorched banks of sand. She waited.

  Day the 5th of the Prayer Moon

  Year the 6th of the Independent Alliance of Traders

  From Erek, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown

  To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug

  Enclosed, a missive from Trader Polon Meldar to Sedric Meldar, to ascertain that all is well and ask his date of return.


  There seems to be some concern over the well-being of some Bingtown residents who were scheduled to visit Cassarick, but now seem to have moved beyond it. Two anxious parents have separately visited me today, promising a bonus if news returns swiftly. I know you are not on the best of terms with the Keeper of the Birds in Cassarick, but perhaps this once, you might use that connection to see if there are any tidings of either Sedric Meldar or Alise Kincarron Finbok. The Finbok woman comes from a wealthy family. Good tidings of reassurance might be amply rewarded.




  The sucking gray mud pulled at her boots and slowed her down. Alise watched Leftrin walking away from her toward the huddled dragon keepers as she struggled to break free of the earth’s grip and go after him. “Metaphor for my life,” she muttered savagely and resolutely stepped up her pace. A moment later, it occurred to her that just a few weeks ago, she would have regarded crossing the riverbank as not only a bit adventurous but as a taxing walk. Today, it was only a muddy patch to get across, and one that was not particularly difficult. “I’m changing,” she said to herself, and was jolted when she sensed Skymaw’s assent.

  Do you listen in on all my thoughts? She queried the dragon and received no acknowledgment at all. She wondered uneasily if the dragon was aware of her attraction to Leftrin and of the details of her unhappy marriage. Almost immediately, she resolved to protect her privacy by not thinking of such things. And then recognized the futility of that. No wonder dragons think so poorly of us, if they are privy to every one of our thoughts.

  I assure you, most of what you think about we find so uninteresting that we don’t even bother having opinions about it. Skymaw’s response floated into her mind. Bitterly, the dragon added, My true name is Sintara. You may as well have it;all the others know it now that Mercor has flung it to the wind.

  It was exciting to communicate, mind to mind, with such a fabulous creature. Alise ventured a compliment. I am overjoyed to finally hear your true name. Sintara. Its glory is fitting to your beauty.

  A stony silence met her thought. Sintara did not ignore her;she offered her only emptiness. Alise attempted to smooth things over with a question. What happened to the brown dragon? Is he ill?

  The copper dragon hatched from her case as she is, and she has survived too long, Sintara replied callously.


  Stop thinking at me!

  Alise stopped herself before she could think an apology. She judged it would only annoy the dragon more. And she had nearly caught up to Leftrin. The crowd of keepers that had clustered around the brown dragon was dispersing. The big gold dragon and his small pink-scaled keeper were the lone guardians by the time she arrived at Leftrin’s side. As she approached, the gold dragon lifted his head and fixed his gleaming black eyes on her. She felt the “push” of his regard. Leftrin abruptly turned to her.

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  “Mercor wants us to leave the brown alone,” he told her.

  “But, but, the poor thing may need our help. Has anyone found out what i
s wrong with him? Or her, perhaps?” She wondered if Sintara had been mistaken or was mocking her.

  The gold dragon spoke directly to her then, the first time he had done so. His deep bell-like voice resonated in her lungs as his thoughts filled her head. “Relpda has parasites eating her from the inside, and a predator has attacked her. I stand watch over her, to be sure that all remember that dragons are dragons’ business. ”

  “A predator?” Alise was horrified.

  “Go away,” Mercor told her, ungently. “It is not your concern. ”

  “Walk with me,” Leftrin suggested strongly. The captain started to take her arm, and then abruptly withdrew his hand. Her heart sank. Sedric’s words had worked their mischief. Doubtless Sedric had thought it his duty to remind Captain Leftrin that Alise was a married woman. Well, his rebuke had done its damage. Nothing would ever be easy and relaxed between them again. Both of them would always be thinking of propriety. If her husband, Hest, himself had suddenly appeared and stood between them, she could not have felt his presence more strongly.

  Nor hated him more.

  That shocked her. She hated her husband?

  She had known that he hurt her feelings, that he neglected her and humiliated her, that she disliked his manner with her. But she hated him? She’d never allowed herself to think of him in such a way, she realized.

  Hest was handsome and educated, charming and well mannered. To others. She was allowed to spend his wealth as she pleased, as long as she did not bother him. Her parents thought she had married well, and most of the women of her acquaintance envied her.

  And she hated him. That was that. She had walked some way in silence at Leftrin’s side before he cleared his throat, breaking in on her thoughts. “I’m sorry,” she apologized reflexively. “I was preoccupied. ”

  “I don’t think there’s much we can do to change things,” he said sadly, and she nodded, attaching his words to her inner turmoil before he changed their significance by adding, “I don’t think anyone can help the brown dragon. She will live or she’ll die. And we’ll be stuck here until she decides she’s doing one or the other. ”

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