Paell hesitated. When he finally started, the story came out in quick bursts. He stared at the ground, or into the distance, but only now and then cast a quick glance at Mara.
"I was in a convoy on the South Road. In a small travelling carriage. The dragon plucked it up, ripped the cab from the frame. Didn't see it coming. I thought of jumping too late, would have broken every bone. So I held on.
"Until the dragon landed, and started shredding the cab. Then I screamed. I think it confused the dragon. I tried to run away in the dark, but the dragon followed me with its head, and we were in its cave, I saw no way out. It sniffed me, and prodded me with its nose." He gave a dry chuckle. "That's a bit like having an ox decide it wants to stand where you just are." The little spark of humour disappeared from his eyes, and his voice became almost too quiet to make out above the rush of water. "They taste things like snakes, you know? Only they need to open their maws, so you can see all those teeth, and the reflection of fire on the other end of that long neck..."
"But it did not kill you." Either he was a very good actor, or he needed a bit of grounding in the present at that point.
"No. I don't know why.
"I tried to kill it, though. See, that dragon collects shiny stuff. There are all kinds of things mixed in with the rubble. Glass shards, gold coins. Blades. So when I first saw it sleeping or dozing, all stretched out, I sneaked up to it, and tried to cut it." Paell tilted his head to the left and back, and drew his finger over the side of his neck, just below the jaw. "No scales there, so I thought I might... Well, it didn't work. The hide was too tough. What happened was that the dragon made this deep sort of purring noise. Made my bones shake. Next thing it does is follow me around and show throat and, and whining to have it scratched." He shook his head, as if he could not believe it himself.
The words sounded more like a tall tale to Mara than anything, but he had to be a very good liar to appear so shaken. Rather than ask suspicious questions about how long it had taken and how he'd survived, she tried to move on for now. "And you tried to run away?"
"Yes, I found a way out of the cave that did not require wings, and when the dragon actually slept, I tried. I followed the river for half a day or so, but the dragon found me, and carried me back." He flexed his right hand in an exaggerated grasping motion. Mara was not sure he was aware of it.
"It grabbed you without killing you?"
Paell shrugged. "Or I wouldn't be here. I had some scratches, but considering claws as long as my arm, he was quite gentle."
In reaction to her astonished tone, Paell flinched, turning the motion into another shrug. "Well, I've never seen it lay eggs."
Mara cursed herself inwardly for not keeping quiet, and bringing obvious mistrust into the conversation. "Come to think of it, 'he' is probably right. As far as I know it's the males that hoard." Keep going, smooth this over... "Do you have any idea why it would pick up a carriage?"
"Brass decorations." The answer came immediately, and matter-of-factly. "We might have covered them if there had been word of a dragon in the area, but it was a surprise all around."
Mara tried to call up a mental image of Fern's map. She had not paid much attention to the scale, so while she knew that they were east of the South Road, which ran all through the continent, she could not say for certain how far away they were from it. One thing was certain, though: a dragon had an easier time crossing the mountain ranges in between than people and animals on foot had.
"Why are you looking for a dragon?"
Paell's question made Mara jump in her skin. What if he really was with the dragon, and on its side? She had to decide fast what to tell him.
Between bringing a defensive spell near the front of her mind and watching both her guide and her step, Mara followed him slowly. He looked back frequently, too, and matched her pace. Mara was glad he did not seem impatient, but could not pin down what impression he gave instead. Hopeful? Afraid she might disappear? Either way, when they rounded the bottom of the scree slope, perpendicular rather than parallel to the ward lines, the feeling of being watched nagged a little. Since the man walked through them without issue, and she could not see a sign of magic on him, it would be reasonable to conclude only the outer perimeter registered anything, and she could cross them safely. She could have a closer look to confirm, but that would involve at least a light trance, leaving her vulnerable. In the end she took a slight detour, no matter how silly evading something invisible would make her look.
The stranger noticed, but did not comment, maybe because she studiously avoided his eyes.
Beyond the scree slope there was what charitably might have been called a path: a slight rut in the debris of pine needles. As they followed it, the ground evened out, and the vegetation grew a little more varied; leaves were involved . Subtle water sounds added variety to the background noise.
The stream trickled through a nest of fallen twigs onto the slip-off slope of a bend of the river. The latter was too wide to just step over, but Mara thought she might know a few people who could jump it with a running start. The air felt a little cooler here, which was a relief, but gnats seemed to enjoy the place.
They crossed the stream and followed the river near the slightly elevated shelf that would be the river bank in less dry months. A bush at the right hand, with its boughs cut or broken at the side they passed, tipped Mara off that for all the twisting this was a path deliberately cleared. Their destination was stretch of riverbank that consisted of a solid slab of rock, only harbouring moss and a few weeds in the cracks. The other side looked similar, forcing the water into a narrow channel. The sides of the valley likewise were sheer rock, and close, shading their spot. They would have to talk a bit louder over the sound of the rushing water, but would not have to swat so many gnats.
While her guide slipped off straw sandals and let his feet dangle over the water, Mara kept her boots on and sat one knee propped up.
"Why here?" she asked.
"I was going to pass through here." He pointed downriver, where the path continued. "For foraging. It's cool here." The man trailed off, staring at her, head canted.
Not used to conversations any more? She tried a reassuring smile. "My name's Mara."
"Ah." He smiled back and shifted position, pulling one leg under himself and turning so he could face her more fully. "I'm Paell kan Akaeff."
Curiosity overriding the question if she should give her full name in turn, Mara forged on, "And you live near a dragon because it does not let you leave. Can you tell me more about that?" It sounded unbelievable, considering tales of dragons who had developed a taste for hunting and eating people, rather than only livestock.
"Very near. You could say 'live with', I guess." His smile turned rather sheepish just then. "I work for it, you could say."
"Doing what? And getting paid how?" Maybe he was lying. Or insane. The thought that dragons, or this dragon, might be a lot smarter than an animal should be was not a comfortable one. Mara's sudden idea that the hunters might know, but have kept it from her was worse.
"I don't think it quite understands payment. It shares its kills, sometimes. When it remembers. Or maybe when it's not very hungry. It doesn't seem to mind when I occasionally pick up something valuable it stole and take it to my corner, though there's no-one to trade with." He sighed. "These days I'd be more interested in peas than shiny things."
Mara's hand went to the pocked hanging from her belt at the back. She retrieved some way-bread, filling stuff which had peas and nuts mixed in the dough. She broke it in half and held one part up. "I'm trading for information." Paell was leaning forward; she had his full attention. "How can you work for an animal?"
"Well, for room? The den is nicely warm in winter. More or less my joke, really. The dragon likes getting scratched behind the jaw, though. And then there's the mites. Don't ask about the mites, but I keep them down."
Mara handed him the bread in part to stop his babbling. He tore off a big chunk with his teeth and chewed with relish.
"You're lucky that one doesn't like people like you like bread."
Paell gave the actual point a perfunctory nod, and, after swallowing, answered the teasing. "Haven't had bread in three years. I'm no farmer, you know?"
Mara had guessed. His looks and name meant it was highly unlikely he was local, and the fact he had addressed her in Karengal, which originated in the north, rather than the local Harrash, all but sealed it.
Chewing again, more slowly this time, he nodded.
"Do dragons sleep long?"
Another nod. "Usually. Days left, I think."
Mara looked at the band of sky right overhead, and the sunlight on the cliff opposite, and hoped she wasn't misjudging her time. But this had to be a strange story, and she would have to figure out if it was true. "So, how about you tell me how you ended up as a dragon's back-scratcher?"
The stream that had carved out this valley had shrivelled to a rivulet, a narrow band of sparks floating over near-black gravel where it still flowed, damp earth and debris a short distance downhill. Its bed was wider, here lumpy stones that retained the occasional edge—not proper smooth river pebbles at all—there caked mud ripping apart. The water could barely cool Mara's skin, but at least it was not hard to cross.
Trying to strike a balance between elevation and distance she would have to traverse, and praying that there would not be too many obstacles in the way, Mara went uphill and downstream, taking the slope at an angle rather than straight-on. It meant that she sometimes had to duck under one of the feeding lines of the ward, or otherwise evade them, but she thought that all things considered, it went quite well.
Too well, she realised a short time later. What she had thought would be a small rocky outcrop she could circle on it's downslope side had grown into another cliff face, towering to her left and forcing her to turn downhill again. The ground grew more uneven, made so by previously fallen rocks. Mara hesitated at the edge of a clearing. Ahead lay a stretch of scree slope on which footing would be even more treacherous. It might not take that much time to circle it closer to the stream at the bottom of the valley, but even if so, there was no guarantee the way ahead wouldn't keep getting worse. Turning back and looking for a path along the top of the cliff would not guarantee success, either. The feed lines she could see, a handful of which disappeared in the mountain, indicated that her goal was now more to her left than ahead, but that did not suggest she was on the wrong path. The cliff seemed cut-off a little ahead; was it just curving a bit, or ending, or could that be the valley shoulder?
Her eyes scanned the ground downslope, while her mind tried to come up with a good reason not to turn back and have wasted an hour or so. As her gaze swept back towards the edge of the rock wall, it snagged on a bit of movement.
Bear? They walked upright, no? No, that's braided hair. And clothes. What's a person doing here? A man, she guessed, and walking downstream and downhill, and right into— Mara stifled a warning cry, which came too late, anyway. The stranger walked straight through one of the ward lines, then heard her aborted call and turned. Looked around, and spotted her where she stood rooted to the spot. When he took a tentative step towards her, again crossing the ward line, Mara flinched, and watched it for a reaction.
The magic warning system, however, gave no ripple she could detect. Was she too far away? Or was it so badly made the feed lines did not sense anything?
"Are you... hello?"
The man's voice snapped her out of confused speculation. He had moved, not in her direction, but starting to round the field of scree that had given her pause. Telling herself to pay attention, she tried to take stock. His clothes were in worse shape than those of the hunting party she travelled with, but his beard was more or less cropped, not like she pictured a lunatic hermit. She could see no weapons, so he could not be carrying something bigger than a knife. Her disbelief about meeting someone here seeped in her voice when she called back, "Hello?" At least she kept the manic laugh out of it. With vague ideas of loud sounds causing things to fall in the mountains, she went downhill again.
When they were close enough that they did not have to shout, merely talk loudly, Mara took a nervous step back. The stranger stopped, not wanting to scare her off. She asked, "What are you doing here?"
"I live here." He indicated the general area with a rather vague wave, while watching Mara intently. "What about you?"
"Right now I'm looking for whoever it is that wove the ward around this area." Could it be that rather ragged human? Another northerner, though shorter than many, and young. He had a beard, which tended to throw Mara off when guessing age, but at least there seemed to be no grey in it, or his hair. It seemed unlikely that a human, particularly a human who might have been about her age, should be able to create a ward of this size, and anyway, the lines should be connected to him if they were his.
"I don't know what you mean."
"More generally, I'm looking for a dragon." Probably not the wisest choice, but Mara felt as bewildered as the man looked.
His shoulders fell and his back straightened as he relaxed from what Mara belatedly recognised as a slight, wary crouch.
"There is one?" she guessed.
"And you're living here."
After waiting for him to expound, Mara eventually asked, "Why? And how?"
He smiled. Maybe he was insane, after all. "I guess you could say it insists."
"An animal. Insists."
She got a shrug and a smile as an answer, the general impression being rather apologetic. "It found me again the few times I tried to run."
"What about right now?"
"It's asleep. And I'm not running."
Mara rubbed her lips. This seemed like a chance, but for what? And was it true?
He took the initiative. "I was on the way to the river. We could sit down and talk."
A mistrusting look she cursed herself for not hiding did not seem to faze him.
"I am not planning to be disrespectful. It might be imprudent." He touched the centre of his forehead with two fingers.
The spark in his eyes drew a dry chuckle from Mara as she echoed the movement, touching her guild tattoo. Considering that the direction he had indicated when he'd mentioned the river would lead them further away from the centre of the ward, she gave in to her curiosity. The other way would have felt more like a possible trap. "Lead on."
Mara's hands worked on their own, fixing the water flask to her belt so it would not bounce uncomfortably, while she watched the odd pair until they slipped out of sight past the crest of the hill. Fern had the stature and long legs typical of the humans up North. Her hair was salted with so much grey it was lighter than her skin. Luen was short and scrawny even for a goblin, and had to scramble to keep up with her, but he was as used to doing that as everybody else was to seeing it.
It was strange to think that the adolescent goblin was a veteran already, but he had earned a set of griffin claws as a trophy-share in his second hunt, the previous one for the whole party apart from Mara.
But if the plan works, I might top that on my first hunt. Inevitably, that thought drew Mara's mind towards imagining how things could go wrong, from someone or something else waking the dragon to her failing in myriad ways. Well, three or four ways. The most productive thing she could do was concentrate on her surroundings. Another look to get her bearings; her aim might be in the next valley over, which joined with the one she was barely in around a rocky outcrop. Lucky if it wasn't any farther.
She backed away a few paces from the smaller cliff they had used as lookout point before turning to walk along the valley, watching for a way down to its bottom. Grey stone plunging down to her left was replaced first in patches, then in total by the copper-straw of old pine needles, as the hillside grew less steep. No paths here. She took the chance when she did not have to expect causing an avalanche of rotting plant material that would take her right along to the bottom more quickly than was advisable.
Walking sideways and occasionally using roots as handholds worked well enough. Only once a grating scream made Mara flinch and slide a pace or two downhill. Belatedly she identified the call of a watcher-bird, telling everyone in hearing distance that it disapproved of her presence.
Apart from that bird and chirping insects, the airy wood was very quiet. The day was turning towards noon, and the air was still and heavy. The spots of sunlight filtering through the treetops made the ground or bark glow where they fell, bright enough to sting Mara's eyes. Or maybe that was mostly the sweat; walking downhill was hard work on soft ground, when you had to carefully watch your balance.
She went even more slowly when she approached the ward, to avoid stumbling into it—it did not have the good grace of meeting the ground where the latter was flat.
The outer shell was composed of circles of radial lines of roughly equal size. One whose centre was at ground level was tall enough that its upper rim would be just out of the reach of Mara's hands if she stretched. In the one next to it she could see the feed line that connected it with the weaver of the ward. The whole structure reminded her of some flower seed heads she had seen, when they were ready for the wind to take the seeds away. The ward lines went right through the ground and the trees, so not any touch would set them off. Presumably small animals would not register, either, but too much disturbance would ripple through and cause alarm. That was how all wards worked, surely.
A closer look at the area where two of the circles met showed Mara that the ward was not well-made: while there was not much more than a handspan of space between the lines of one circle at its edge, they only overlapped and crossed a little with those of its neighbour, rather than being firmly connected to them. Having found her opening made a smile tug on her lips. It turned into a smirk as the memory of the woman had taught her how to weave wards flashed through her mind. That principled lady certainly would be opposed to using the knowledge she had shared to circumvent any kind of protection, no matter their creator.
Paying careful attention for the reactions she got, Mara reached out with her own magic. There were no safeguards against the ligatures she set, thought the pressures of those had to be carefully balanced. They let her shorten and thicken enough strands to open a gap big enough for her, without the shock of it carrying inwards.
Mara ducked through the hole she had made in the fence, and just as carefully let the lines return to their original shape. Still no sign of anything untoward happening. She shook the tension out of her shoulders. Looking back where she came from, the slope she had climbed down seemed tall as a temple tower.
Looking forward... for the first time since Luen alerted the camp of having smelled magic she felt optimistic. The feeding lines linking the source of the ward with its perimeter were not all straight. She could see several flowing together. Otherwise very soon it would have been tricky, if not impossible, to move in here without touching them.
Besides, setting her own pace, without having to worry about the words and looks some of the others had for her pace, was a refreshing experience. She allowed herself a short break before going on.
"You're mad, Fern. I'm no scout who can sneak around alone and hope to find something other than a fall." After a few months with the hunting party, Mara was a lot more comfortable on her feet than she used to be, but the occasional cliff or ravine always made her worry about breaking bones. The odd jibe from the Northerners in the group, who insisted on calling these mountains "hills", did not change that.
Fern shrugged, spreading her hands in a what-would-you gesture. "If there are magic tripwires"—Mara noted the rising tone on the hunt-leader's calm voice, and nodded. She had not made that up.—"you are the only one who can see them, so you are the only one with a chance of not getting spotted. Finding someone else would be possible, but take too long. Unless..."
She turned to Luen, who pulled a pointed ear and went, "Um."
Mara shot him a glare. If the goblin hadn't caught a whiff of magic in the air... he would have blundered into the wards, alarming their weaver, and they might all be dead by now. And even if he alone would have been caught, Mara didn't have a reason to wish an end as a snack on him, so she rolled her eyes at herself and scrounged up a smile. "From what I hear, smell doesn't let you locate something terribly precisely."
"Not so's I'd want to bet our lives on it," Luen said.
"Do I know that feeling." She took a few careful steps towards the edge of the cliff that had been the best vantage point they could find in a hurry, shaded her eyes and again took measure of the ward. She could not see all of it, as the faint white lines faded against the bright sky even at a shorter distance than her magic sight would reach under better conditions, but enough to make out its curvature. Big enough to put a small town or big village inside. And the terrain? Hard to say when most of what Mara could see when not focusing on her magic sight were the blue-green needles of pines, with the occasional dark grey rock face at a visible bend. At least their canopy seemed quite even, hinting at relatively gentle slopes. The carpet of fallen needles also tended to keep undergrowth down. Should be manageable. Mara's eyes strayed to the sky again. The outer shell of ward-lines made it hard to make out its inner structure, but there were lines running towards its centre. Better than a compass. And she knew nothing else was a realistic option, Fern's suggestion merely a polite fiction. "All right, I signed up for this operation, so I'll do my job. What's the plan for everybody else?"
Fern glanced skywards. "They should be warned and at least on the way back to our last camp. If by now nobody else blundered into that barrier, it shouldn't happen."
Mara shuddered and hugged herself, rubbing her arms more to show she wanted to pretend the problem was the wind—which really was not chill any more at all—than believing she could fool the others.
Luen looked rather exasperated, but Fern did her the favour. She just asked, "Do you need anything from camp? I can’t tell how big an area you’re looking at."
"Just give me your canteen. I’ve got some food, and I should make it back to camp by nightfall."