He hadn’t accounted for Vex, though. She didn’t seem to care one whit about the ancient treaty, and she roamed on and off the road at will. She ranged far enough ahead to verify the scent before falling back to scout their rear, but he lived in constant worry that the threatening clouds would finally burst and drown any scents the dragonet could follow. Once they reached the southern border of the Sward, they’d face a dilemma trying to figure out where they’d gone from there. Even if it stayed dry, enough of the scent might not remain for the slith to follow.
It was his primary concern, after his fear that Vex would anger something that lived in the forest and it would forget all about whatever treaties and safe places and murder them in their sleep. Not for the first time he wished the dragonet could talk. She understood the common tongue well enough, of that he’d been sure since before they’d come down out of the hills together. She was far smarter than even the smartest dog, and the Barrakai hill folk were known as much for their dogs as for their sheep.
On the last night within the Sward, they were woken out of a sound sleep by a blood-curdling shriek mere yard from the edge of their camp. Looking around, Bastion was relieved to find Vex right there in camp with them. For a moment he’d thought the damned lizard had doomed them all.
Then Vex took off into the woods in pursuit of whatever had let loose that horrifying scream, leaving the humans to stare after her in utter astonishment. Mina, who’d up until now been the most sympathetic to the beast, let out a groan. “She’s going to get us all killed.”
Part of him wanted to say he’d been thinking the same thing, but another part wanted him to say that he had the utmost confidence in the dragonet. She knew what she was doing. Or so he hoped. He was going to look like a complete jackass if she ran off and got killed by something in there.
Sure, slith were tough. Pound for pound a lot tougher than a human. Only the Barrakai’s ability to adapt had given them any chance at all to keep up with the slith. It had been a long battle waged between the hill people, their dogs, and the small, wingless dragonets. Relatively speaking, that was, as a fully adult slith might weigh as much as an adult human male and stand shoulder on its rear legs.
Not that anyone had ever seen a slith stand on its hind legs, it didn’t mean they couldn’t. If they wanted to. They were damn agile enough, chasing sheep all over the damn level hills while fighting off crazed Barrakai, so Bastion wasn’t going to say it was impossible. Spending time with Vex had just convinced him of something he’d figured out as a boy. The slith ate the impossible for breakfast.
He heard Mina giggle in her bedroll. “Oh, sure, you’re laughing now.”
“Now I know why no one else owns a slith.”
“You’re kidding, right? No one owns a slith,” he shot back, grinning ruefully. “Vex goes where she wants to. It just so happens that she wants to go where I’m going.” And as he said it he found himself hoping it wasn’t quite that simple. He’d hate to lose her companionship this late in the game.
How long had it been now? Almost fifteen years, he realized, since they’d left the Barrakai hills together. It was a frightening experience, being rejected by their mutual clans, being forced to descend into the lowlands to make their way. But at least they’d had one another, even though half the time he’d wanted to strangle her. Young slith were very curious creatures, and curiosity leads to trouble as often as not.
He had no idea how long the dragonets lived. No one had ever bothered to study them to find out. His people had one answer to the question? How long do slith live? Until a Barrakai catches up to them.
Not in the least bit helpful, he chastised himself, shivering involuntarily at the thought of losing his friend and partner. Had she done this on purpose, heading off into dangerous territory to make him worry about her?
He wouldn’t have put it past her.
He heard several shrieks and an unmistakably draconic roar and then nothing. Every breath stretched into hours, it seemed, as his senses attempted to plumb the depths of the forest night. Even the shadows had shadows, and they ran on swift feet.
Bastion wasn’t a particularly superstitious man. He’d never bought much of the shamanic ‘magic’ he’d seen as a boy. Too much of it would have been easy to fake, and he’d learned how to do a few things with powders just from watching the old goat work. If he’d had a scrap of mage gift, Bastion had seen no sign of it, and even less any sign of a god’s favor.
Was there a god of charlatans? He thought it unlikely, but he found the notion of gods in general to be more than unlikely on its own. Bastion didn’t fool himself. Humans were very much like other animals, no reason to believe that they were anything special. A little smarter, maybe, but not enough smarter to make a difference. The slith alone proved that humans weren’t all there was in the brains department.
The very idea of gods just got under his skin. Oh, he supposed there might be some deities out there of some kind or another, but why would they give a damn about humans? What would they get from worship? If they’re that powerful, it seems little more than blatant flattery to gain favor, and what kind of idiot found that enticing?
Nothing he would consider a god.
He found himself on the brink of praying, to whom, he knew not. None of the Three gods of the Empire appealed to him. Even his people’s original gods had been wiped out by the militancy of the Empire’s missionary work.
Outside the broken empire one might find people worshipping other gods, but in the lands that were once its own, such heresies were rarely tolerated.
He nearly leaped out of his own skin when the sleek black shape emerged from the shadows and gave him an affectionate head butt to let him know she was back. He wanted to yell at her but of course he didn’t. If he were to be completely fair, Vex knew what she was doing by now. If she wandered off into the Sward at night it was because she had every reason to believe she’d be safe. And not only safe, he judged, by the way she curled up to snooze, but easily able to feed herself. Even without Barrakai sheep to steal.
He glanced over and saw that Mina was awake, and watching him silently over the campfire. He met her gaze for a long moment, watching the flame transform her face into a thousand different masks before he refocused his attention.
“How did you end up with her, anyway?” she asked, in low tones so as not to wake the others. Watch systems weren’t very useful if you didn’t allow the people not on watch to get any sleep. As it turned out the Du Chalagne brothers slept like two tow-headed bears tucking in for the winter. The weird thing was that he’d seen them sleep like that while still in the saddle.
Hardy campaigners, it turned out, despite their silly sewing needle swords. He supposed it explained why she’d invited them in the first place. Had to be some reason. Then again, she was wise enough to see Bastion and, by extension, Vex, as potential members of her little team. Once they broke out the other side of the Sward, they’d be in Miosh. There, the slavers would be the law abiding citizens and they would be the raiding party.
All thanks to treaties signed by the ten kingdoms of the Broken Empire, promising not to interfere in another’s internal business. All that meant is that so-called ‘rogue elements’ could cross over the border at will, taking slaves and whatever else they could find, with the southern kingdoms denying any knowledge or involvement. Despite the fact that the raiders used state-of-the-art gear and weapons.
Sure. An elite fighting force sent into the north to take slaves was made up of outlaws and bandits. Who happened to have really good equipment and mounts.
The rulers of the northern kingdoms knew this but had no way to prove it. Whether they operated in secret under the auspices of their respecting southern kingdom governments, or the pawns of moneyed interests who knew a good thing when they saw it.
Slavery was lucrative, big business. And the people who ran it made a lot of money.
“It’s not that interesting a story.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Why? It’s really not. She stalked me for two weeks and then, when she had the chance to kill me, she didn’t. She knocked me down and sat there, staring at me. If I tried to reach for a weapon, she shrieked and snapped at my hand until I stopped. To be honest, she tamed me. I knew what it meant, of course. When I finally realized what was going on. I knew we were both exiles, that neither of our kin would take us back.”
At her puzzled look, he shrugged. “It’s happened before. Not often. Maybe once every few generations. Something weird happens. The Barrakai and a slith forge a bond. And I don’t think it’s breakable short of death.”