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Alta

Alta

Joust #2

Mercedes Lackey - Author

ePub eBook | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9781101118375 | 448 pages | 01 Mar 2005 | DAW | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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In the second novel in national best-selling legend Mercedes Lackey's richly-conceived new Joust series, the dragonrider Vetch escapes to Alta, the subjugated land of his birth. There, he hopes to teach his people to raise and train dragons-and build an army that will liberate his homeland.

CHAPTER ONE

OVERHEAD, the stars that filled the night sky, the ornaments upon the robe of the Goddess of the Night, seemed close enough to touch. The kamiseen wind whined in the tops of the trees of the oasis beside him; even at night, it never completely ceased. It smelled of baked stone, with a hint of desiccated plants.

He had come to learn that the desert was not all one sort of landscape; he had escaped over stony hills into the pure sand of the desert dune country; now he was in yet another sort of desert, a place of marginal life. The sand beneath Vetch was not as comfortable to sit in as one might suppose; since this wasn't dune country, the ground was hard beneath a surface mix of dust, sand, and pebbles. He was glad of his bedroll now since it provided a layer of softness between himself and the ground. Strange. When he had been Khefti-the-Fat's serf, he wouldn't have noticed how hard it was; in so short a time he had gotten used to certain comforts.

Yes, it was the time of the kamiseen, and the ever-present wind whined over the desert, carrying with it a film of dust and sucking away moisture. But this was an oasis, with carefully tended date palms, and Vetch's camp was downwind of the palm grove. The Bedu camped within the oasis, permitting Vetch the downwind side for his own camp, so the kamiseen would not trouble him much tonight.

Vetch's scarlet dragon Avatre slumbered at his back, her body warm inside the pit he had dug in the sand and lined with stones heated in his fire. Fuel was as precious out here as water, but tonight no one begrudged the effort of collecting it for him. Firstly, this clan of Veiled Ones boasted many camels and could afford the dried dung for the fire. And secondly, Avatre had earned the right to her fuel and more.

She had eaten well today, taking down four of the desert gazelles. The first time had been this afternoon, twice in rapid succession, enough to feed her well at midday. The second time had been with the help of Vetch's sling, and enabled the two of them to provide an evening meal not only for Avatre herself but for Vetch and the clan of Veiled Ones who were hosting him on this last evening in the desert. There was a faint scent of roasting meat on the kamiseen tonight, the last remains of the evening feast.

He was within striking distance of the goal he had sought for so long. Soon he would cross the border that divided Tian lands from Altan. Soon he would be among his own people, and although he probably looked outwardly calm, inside he was afire with excitement—and at the same time, afraid. This moment was one he had dreamed about for so long, but dreams were one thing—reality another.

Once, he had dreamed of having a dragon, too. Now he had one, and Avatre was so much more than he had been able to imagine. She gave him freedom—and tied him to her with bonds of responsibility and love. He had never envisaged how much she would mean to him. It was a glorious burden he would never have given up for the world, but it meant that he was no longer beholden only to himself. In fact, when given a choice between his own welfare and hers—and there had been many such choices on this journey—he would always choose hers. He could not help himself. She was his beloved, after all.

Now, faced with the prospect of crossing into the land he had once thought of as his goal, he knew that no matter what his dreams had been, they could not possibly replicate what he would encounter.

Those dreams might be better than what he actually found, or they might be worse. But they would probably be different, and that alone was a reason for fear.

But this was as far as the talismans that the Veiled Ones had provided as a series of guides would take him. Tomorrow, one of them would personally take him to within sight of the Altan border, the lands where the desert ended and the swampy delta began, and leave him there.

Tonight, unlike previous evenings, he was not alone at his fire. He shared it with one of the Mouths of the Bedu nomads, an enigmatic and apparently sexless creature covered from head to toe in one of their characteristic, belted blue robes and over-vest, dyed with indigo. As all of the others, the Mouth was veiled by a drape of cloth that showed only the eyes. Both sexes wore the veils; a practical consideration when one lived in a land where the wind never stopped, and neither did the dust. He had never heard of any of the Bedu going without their veils, but then, he had never heard of the Bedu going outside the desert. That the costume made the Veiled Ones even more enigmatic to outsiders was, he was sure at this point, a source of endless amusement to them.

He still could not tell whether these Mouths were male or female. Perhaps they were neither; it was altogether possible that they were a kind of eunuch. He didn't find that idea as discomfiting as he might have once; if the Mouths were a sort of eunuch, it was not something that had happened against their will. And certainly there were priests of certain obscure gods even among his own people who volunteered for such a sacrifice. Some believed that those who had done so obtained the special favor of their god; others that to remove sex from one's life opened one to visions, or granted great magical power. For some, such a sacrifice was worth the gain.

This particular Mouth was regarding Vetch from the other side of a smaller fire than the one that had heated Avatre's rocks, watching with a direct and clear-eyed gaze over the veil. The Mouth had asked Vetch to tell his tale in full, and now had been simply regarding him quietly for some time now, but Vetch hadn't made any effort to ask why. The Mouth would tell him—or not—in good time. Vetch still wasn't entirely certain what role the Mouths played in the lives of the Veiled Ones; they didn't seem to be priests, quite. They weren't exactly magicians, either, although they did work magic, the magic that created the talismans that guided him from clan to clan, for instance. They certainly were the only ones who spoke to outsiders, but they weren't precisely interpreters, nor were they ambassadors. All bargaining with outsiders was conducted by them, yet they were not traders. And they weren't leaders of their people either.

In fact, if he could have guessed anything at this point, it would have been that they were, literally, the voices of their clans, that somehow they knew what everyone in the clan thought, or wanted, with regard to an outsider, and they were the tool through which these wants, thoughts, and needs were expressed.

But they certainly had their own personalities, for every single one he had encountered so far was as different from the last as any two individuals could be. Some had barely spoken at all and held themselves coldly aloof from him; others had been positively garrulous, interested to hear whatever of his own story he cared to impart, and forthcoming with news of the world outside the desert, if not of details of their own lives and customs. Some had been terrified of Avatre, others treated her like a kind of giant falcon—with the respect that talons and teeth deserved, but no fear at all.

This one was somewhere in between, but operating on the "helpful" side of the accounting. The Mouth had been wary of Avatre and inclined to keep Vetch and his charge far away from the Bedu camp, but otherwise friendly enough. The Mouth had asked careful questions about Vetch's life as a serf as well as his treatment by the Tian Jousters—Ari in particular—and about the journey that had brought them here. Perhaps Avatre's gift of meat had paved the way for that. And this Mouth sat at Vetch's fire now as if wishing to be there, and not as if mounting guard over the "outsider."

"You call yourself Kiron, son of Kiron," the Mouth said abruptly, although the voice did not break the silence so much as insinuate itself into the silence and part it. "So you have asked us to address you. And yet, you do not think of yourself as that person."

How does the Mouth know that? It was something that Vetch himself had not realized until the moment it was pointed out.

Vetch considered that statement in silence without retorting immediately, giving himself time to analyze the thought. He had, over the course of these travels, also learned to keep his mouth shut and think about what a Mouth said before he responded to it, having shoved his foot rather neatly into his own mouth a time or two in the early part of his journey. "I have been Vetch, the serf, far longer than I have been Kiron, the keeper of Avatre and dragon rider," he said at last.

"And yet, if you enter into your native land thinking of yourself as Vetch, your own people will treat you thuswise," said the Mouth, with a touch of warning in the tone. "Vetch the serf is a person of no worth and no account, deserving of no consideration or special treatment."

He felt a kind of stillness settle into his gut. This was important. He wasn't certain why it was important, but it felt important. Once again, Vetch considered the words. Carefully. What was the Mouth trying to say to him? "And?" he ventured.

"And, perhaps, they will try to take the dragon from you."

"She won't go," Vetch replied, with some heat, and yet sure of himself. She wouldn't, of course, and this was absolutely the one thing he had no fear of. Unlike the dragons that were captured as fledglings and tamed, he had raised Avatre from the egg. She was as bonded to him as any creature could be—as no other dragon, save one, had ever been bonded to another human.

That one, and that other human, were perhaps the most important part of his past that there was. Kashet, and his former Master, the Jouster Ari. They flew in the service of the Great King of Tia. Both of them were his enemies in name, now, and yet were his friends in fact. It was Ari who had engineered his escape when Avatre had made her First Flight with him clinging to her back, all hope of concealing her existence anymore gone off on the kamiseen winds.

Ari and Kashet lay behind him somewhere, in the lands claimed by the High King of Tia. He could not think of them without gratitude, and yet it was a gratitude tinged with pain. If he could have, he would have never left them. And yet—

And yet they were Tians, and he was Altan, and if they ever met again, they would probably have to fight each other, and possibly to the death.

Still, Kashet would permit no other to ride him but Ari—and Avatre would be the same with Vetch. He had absolutely no doubt of that, for Avatre had actually tried to face down Kashet—who was many times her size—when she thought the great blue was threatening Vetch.

"Nevertheless," persisted the Mouth, "they will try. They may starve her until she eats tala-treated meat, and is drugged into submission. Unless you make yourself into Kiron, son of Kiron, Altan Jouster. Unless you come to believe that you are that person. Then, no one will presume to doubt that you are entitled to ride her."

Vetch closed his eyes for a moment. A Mouth never, ever said something as an idle observation. And along with all of the passage-rights that Ari had purchased for him with his Gold of Honor, had come another—the right to be instructed in whatever any Mouth thought might be useful. Some of the Mouths had honored this more in the breach than the observance, but this one seemed to be offering sound advice. "Can you teach me to believe?" he asked finally, opening his eyes.

The Mouth regarded him with solemn dark eyes above the veil. "Perhaps. I can, at least, give you a guide to teach yourself. First—among our people we have a saying. `Assume the attitude of prayer, and in time, the attitude will become the prayer.' I put this to you. Already you are aware of how you hold yourself, for this tells your dragon much, and instructs her on what she should be thinking about what is around her."

Vetch nodded; that was plain enough. Dragons were supremely sensitive to the language of body and posture.

"So—mind, now, Kiron, son of Kiron. Put yourself in the attitude of a freeborn man, or even one of wealth or noble birth. Recall how the masters of your master held themselves, and hold yourself in like manner. Behave in all ways as the Jouster-in-training of Tia would, and within Alta you will be taken as one who has authority by right. Behave in all ways in that manner, and as this becomes second nature, your spirit will come to believe what your body tells it." A pause, as those dark, enigmatic eyes gazed at him. "To begin with, you might raise your head that you may look down your nose at those who are inferior to you. Such a posture conveys a great deal."

He blinked at that, and self-consciously straightened. No more hunched shoulders; no more deference. He must look people in the eye as if they were at least his equals, and possibly his inferiors. And, yes—down his nose.

"Good," said the Mouth approvingly. "Another thing. The Jousters of Alta, like those of Tia, are permitted to take what they need within reason. If you offer to pay for anything, once you cross that border, there will be suspicion. If your dragon hungers then, find a great estate, land, and take what she needs. Do not permit anyone to question you. Say you are a Jouster in training if need be, but no more."

"But—am I properly garbed for such a thing?" he asked doubtfully. Doubt; it still ate at him, made him think, Sooner or later, they're going to find out I'm an imposter, a thief. Sooner or later— After all, he had no armor, no helm, nothing but a selection of common kilts. He did not look the part—

Although he could not see anything but the eyes, there was a softening there that suggested the Mouth was smiling. "The chances are, the larger the estate, the less likely there will be anyone of rank about who might even consider questioning you or your rights. Go in, demand food and water, and even clothing if you will, and leave. Jousters of Alta are ranked as lesser nobles; there are fewer of them, and they are valued higher." The Mouth's eyes closed for a moment, as if listening to a voice only the Mouth could hear. "I believe," the Mouth added, "Although I do not know, that this is the only way, save through the priesthood, that a man of the common folk may become ennobled."

Vetch nodded; this was more good advice, and not something he would have thought of.

"If I were in your position—" A pause. "This is speculation. But if I were in your position, I would feign to be offended if anyone were to question my rights."

Vetch sighed. That was going to be hard; what were the odds he'd be able to continue this charade for very long? He wasn't ready for this. He had been so long the lowest of the low—

Yet, for Avatre's sake, he would try.

No, he would not try. He would succeed. He must succeed; he had nowhere else to go right now. She was barely half grown, and they could not continue to live in the wilderness. She was doing all right, but she wasn't prospering, and the bigger she got, the more food she would need. To raise her properly, he either needed to turn her loose among others of her kind, or take her to a Jouster's Compound. There was no other choice.

"Do not hunt unless there are no large estates, for this will be a waste of your effort, and you should be making for Alta City, not wandering about," the Mouth concluded. "Though I think you will find estates in plenty. And remember to act as an Altan of rank! The dragon conveys the rank—you have the dragon, therefore, you have the rank, by the very laws of the land."

I have the rank. The dragon confers the rank. And I must do this for her. "Have you any other advice?" he asked quietly.

The Mouth's eyes closed for a moment, as if considering. "Ah. In one thing the ruling of Alta differs from Tia. The Great Kings and Great Queens rule jointly, and there are always four of them, two sets of Sacred Twins. So refer to the Great Ones, not the Great King. In all other ways, rulership is similar. And until you come to Alta City and reveal yourself for what you are, the tongues of Alta and Tia are similar enough that you should have no difficulty in passing yourself as some Jouster in training from a distant province. And now, it is time for sleep. Since I must come with you on the morrow, the journey to where I must leave you will be long in time if not in distance. To save time you might need to spend in hunting, I will have a child bring a beast for your dragon's meal."

As abruptly as the conversation started, the Mouth rose and left.

And there seemed no reason to do anything other than follow the Mouth's advice, and sleep.

The last leg of this part of his journey began before dawn. Avatre woke and nudged him; he, after all, was supposed to get her breakfast! He sat up and blinked sleepily at a bit of movement, lighter shadow against dark, at the edge of the oasis.

The predawn light slowly turned the world from shades of darkness to a world painted in tones of blue-gray. And the Mouth had told him the truth last night; there was already a small boy with a goat waiting for him to awaken.

The Mouth had not told him to pay for the goat, and yet—yet it seemed churlish in the extreme not to do so. These people fought the desert, and fought it with all their strength and cunning, to wrest a living from it. It was not fair to take and give nothing in return. He rummaged through the coins that Ari had left with him and which he had not yet used, and offered what he considered to be a fair price for the beast. It must have been, for without a word, the child pushed the halter rope at him, took the coins, and ran off. He hadn't been required to pay for Avatre's food the times when their hunting had been without success—that was one of the rights that Ari had bargained for—but somehow it just seemed polite to do so now, especially when he was passing out of their guidance. Being fed on the way because he had failed at hunting was somehow different from this, though he could not put his finger on how.

Avatre was not used to having her breakfast delivered alive if she was not hunting it, but she was obviously not averse to the notion. The goat, however, was petrified; feeling rather sorry for it, Vetch dragged it by the halter rope with all four hooves making furrows in the ground until Avatre got tired of waiting, levered herself up out of her pit, stalked over to them both and dispatched the beast with a single, impatient blow of her foreclaw before it had a chance to bleat in terror.

He left her alone with it, and made his own preparations for leaving; there was bread from last night, and onions and a little meat. He did not have a great deal to pack either. By the time she was finished—leaving nothing but the halter rope this morning!—so was he.

And so, apparently, was the Mouth. Vetch looked up to see the Mouth waiting in the shelter of the date palms, the halter of a camel in one hand. Once Vetch was aware of the preparations, the Mouth made the camel kneel, and mounted, curling one leg over the front of the saddle and locking a foot behind the other knee, then giving the beast the command to rise. With a groan of complaint, the camel climbed back up to his feet and the Mouth started off, tapping the camel's shoulder with a crop to make it trot.

The kamiseen whined, filling the silence that the Mouth left behind; carried on it were the smokes of cooking fires, and the breath of the deeper desert where even the Bedu did not venture. Vetch took his time in harnessing Avatre; it wasn't as if they would have any trouble finding their guide once they were in the air! In fact, they would probably spend a lot of time circling overhead as the camel crossed the desert beneath them at what would seem to be the pace of a tortoise compared to that of the dragon.

And that was, in fact, exactly what happened. Although the rider was out of sight by the time Avatre pushed off the ground with Vetch on her back, it was not long before Vetch spotted their guide, and it took relatively little effort to catch up.

Avatre was a fine flyer now, and Vetch was used to the bounding wingbeats that left the stomach somewhere behind. In fact, unless he actually thought about it, he never even noticed it; he was so in tune with her, it sometimes felt to him as if they were part of a single, united creature, conqueror of the air.

At first, Avatre had to do a great deal of actual flying, doubling back and forth across their guide's path in that peculiar combination of flying and gliding that the dragons used when there were no thermals to ride. And the air of early dawn was cold enough to numb the feet and hands and nose; Avatre didn't like it much, and to tell the truth, neither did Vetch. He shivered in the chill, and was just grateful that the kamiseen gave Avatre something to ride. If this had been still air, she'd have had to work a lot harder. It was the gods' own gift that she had made her First Flight at the beginning of the kamiseen, for the wind had aided them all across the desert. Had it not been the season of the wind, he had the feeling that they would be making old bones together in the sand, even now.

But as the sun rose and the sand began to heat up, he stopped shivering and Avatre was able to switch from tacking back and forth on the wind to flying as hawks and falcons of the desert did, spiraling passively up one thermal, then gliding down until she found another to repeat the process, following roughly the same course as their guide. For his part, as far as Vetch could tell from above, the Mouth was singularly unperturbed about whether or not they were keeping up, but kept the camel at a steady, ground-eating lope. Fast enough to make good time and the sort of pace a camel could keep up indefinitely.

Vetch was keeping an eye on the horizon as well as on their guide, and when, shortly after midday, a thin line of green appeared along it, he was not at all surprised that their guide chose the shelter of a thicket of acacia trees to stop at, and dismounted. The Mouth didn't wave to Vetch from below, but then again, he didn't need to, for the message of the green horizon was clear enough. The Mouth had brought them to within sight of land claimed only by Alta; peaceful land, where he could not run into either fighting, or Tian Jousters. It was time for him to leave the desert and his guide.

Avatre drifted down to the waiting Bedu, and backwinged to a graceful landing—she'd gotten a great deal better at them than she used to be! And the Mouth nodded toward the horizon as soon as she had folded her wings.

"Half a day, and you will be where you wished to be—across the border, in Alta. I hope that this proves to be truly what you desired," the Mouth said.

Half a day— That seemed about right. In the clear air of the desert, things were a lot farther away than they seemed to be to one who had been born in the land reclaimed from the swamp. He shaded his eyes with one hand and peered out into the western distance, the faint haze that marked the beginning of land where things could grow. He licked dry lips. "It has to be what I truly desire, doesn't it?" he replied, as straightforward as the Bedu had been. "There's no place else for me to go."

"You undertake a different sort of trial, when you cross that border, young Kiron," the Mouth persisted. "And perhaps things will not always be to your liking. We of the desert know little of the dwellers in the marshy delta of the Great Mother River, for they have little to do with us, and we have nothing at all to do with those of the Seven-Ringed City itself. I cannot tell you what to expect other than the advice I have already given you. It may be that you go only from one hazard to another."

"But I will be free," he said softly, with one hand on Avatre's neck. "And so will she. Perhaps we need remain only long enough for her to grow to her full strength and size, and if things are not as I had hoped—well, it will be easier for us to escape again, should it come to that."

The Mouth's head bowed slightly. "This is so." The other stared with Vetch to that distant haze of green. "Then, I can only say, your gods go with you."

Kiron touched his brow, his lips, and his heart in thanks and farewell. He gave Avatre the signal and, with a tremendous shove of her legs, she launched for the sky.

When he looked back over his shoulder, he saw that the Mouth had already turned the camel and was heading back in the direction of the clan's encampment. Which was just as well, since he had no intention of following the advice about not hunting to the letter. While he and Avatre were still in the desert, they still had hunting-rights, and he was not going to assume that once they crossed into that belt of green, they would immediately find a place where he could obtain the tremendous amount of meat that she needed to sustain her.

So long as he kept that green in sight, they had a goal. They had already come so far north before turning back toward Altan lands that any interception by Tian Jousters on patrol was next to impossible. So while they would probably camp tonight inside that belt of green, before they reached it, he would be certain that Avatre had eaten her fill.

When they found an exceptionally strong thermal, he sent her up as high as she could go, remembering how the first time he had been carried a-dragonback he had sworn he would never, ever set foot off the ground again. It had been an utterly terrifying experience for one who had never been any farther from the ground than the flat roof of his father's farmhouse. To have that experience while lying face-down over Ari's saddle, when he had never seen either a Jouster or a dragon up close before, had only made it worse.

And to tell the truth, the first few flights with Avatre had been almost as frightening. But he had known very well that he should not and could not walk across the desert, so he had gritted his teeth and tried to guide her, and somehow, they had learned to fly together.

Only on the latter half of the journey had they actually learned to hunt together, however. Their first few efforts, singly and together, had been less than stellar, and for a while, he had relied on the Bedu more than he had liked.

Now, though—he was actually rather proud of their ability to feed themselves. They had even worked out more than one technique, and Avatre had learned how to dive, rake with her claws, strike, and hover on commands that could be either physical or verbal. She had even learned to tow or carry something on the other end of a rope; a hard lesson to master, when her natural instinct was to either fight it or give in and flop down at the end of the tether.

This sort of desert—on the very edge of the fertile lands—had a lot more in the way of game than it might appear. There were wild camels, asses, and goats, animals that had escaped from the Bedu; there were also herds of gazelle (Avatre's favorite) and smaller game.

And lions. And Kiron (he must learn to think of himself as Kiron!) had learned that he could often rely on the lions to show him where the other game was.

So when, as they circled up the thermal, he saw a pride of lions trotting purposefully toward the north, far below them, he raised his eyes and looked for the cloud of dust that might be telling them where the game was.

Avatre had learned the same signs, and her eyes were keener than his. Before he had seen the telltale plume of slightly thicker dust carried on the kamiseen wind, she had made her turn out of the thermal and was gliding down in a new direction, north and a bit west, bringing them closer to the green horizon.

It took two more thermals, and they had left the lions far behind, when the herd of wild asses came into view, grazing slowly on the scrubby vegetation that hardly anything else could stomach. They must never have been hunted by a dragon, for they did not even seem to notice them in the sky above. Too bad for them, then.

He got out his sling, and readied a stone. One thing that had certainly made hunting easier was that the farther he and Avatre got from Tia and the wild dragons that lived and bred in the mountain valleys beyond the river, the easier it was to find unwary game. Yesterday had been unusual in that they had found two herds in the same day, but when the grazers weren't spooked by the dragon above them, it was almost too easy to take at least one of them down, now that his skill with the sling had improved.

He picked his target carefully; wild asses were smart and tenacious and the last thing he wanted was to take a jenny with a foal at her side. The herd generally fought harder for one of those.

He gave Avatre the signal, and she began a long, slow glide at very near landing speed that would take them directly over the herd. His chosen target actually looked up, ears swiveling toward them curiously as they neared, making a perfect target.

He let fly.

The stone struck the young jack directly in the middle of the forehead; stunned, it stumbled and went down.

The rest of the herd shied away from the jack for a moment for they did not yet realize what had happened. But the moment that they worked out that this was an attack and not an accident, they could turn at bay, ready to fight for the downed member of the herd. Kiron's stomach tightened and his pulse began to race; Avatre pumped her wings, then, fighting for height, as he stowed his sling in his belt and changed his grip to hang onto the saddle with both hands. For now, it was her turn.

Abruptly, she did a wingover, folded her wings, and plunged toward the ass herd.

Now they were spooked, if only by the sight of something so large coming straight down on them. Snorting and tossing their heads, they galloped away from the fallen one for that crucial moment as he struggled to regain his feet and rejoin them. If he somehow managed to get back to the herd, they would have lost their chance.

But he didn't, and as Kiron held tight to the saddle, Avatre made her strike.

The hawks of the desert took rabbits in this way, plunging down on them to strike and bind with their talons, though the actual kill was usually made with a bite to the spine behind the head. Avatre struck in much the same way, though she had four sets of talons, not two. She hit the staggering ass with a force both beautiful and terrible; Kiron was thrown forward in the saddle over her neck by the impact, and only the Jousting straps holding him there kept him on her back as she grasped the jack's hindquarters and chest.

The jack was far from finished, however. Braying frantically with pain, he bucked and kicked, trying to shake her off. They were nearly a match in body size, and the jack actually might outweigh her—in the wild, dragons hunted in pairs at least, in order to be sure of finishing off quarry that was struck.

But if Avatre did not have a dragon hunting partner, she had Kiron.

She clamped her wings tightly to her sides, and threw herself over sideways, and the jack went over with her. This gave Kiron the chance to kick free of the restraining straps and roll clear of the tangle of dragon and ass. As he came up, he had one of his knives in his hand, and he waited only a moment before dashing in, avoiding the thrashing hooves that lashed so near to his head that he felt one of them graze his shoulder, to slash the ass's throat.

"Avatre!" he shouted. "Loose!'

And there was the true measure of her trust for him, for she did just that; she loosened her grip and allowed the ass to break free, leaping back out of reach of its potentially lethal kick. No wild-caught dragon would ever have trusted her rider enough to let go of game she had caught on command.

But the wounded beast staggered away only a few paces before going to its knees, blood spurting from the gash in its throat, pouring down its leg, and staining the ground crimson.

A moment more, and it was down again for the last time, kicking out the last of its life as the herd, scenting the blood, turned and fled. And again Avatre showed the depth of her trust, waiting until he gave the signal before pouncing on the quivering carcass. The blood scent filled the kamiseen wind; it would carry for miles. Avatre would need to eat quickly, before the lions and jackals arrived. She might be able to take one or two lionesses or jackals, but not a whole pride or pack.

Then she hunched over the body, fanning her wings out to either side in an echo of the way a hawk mantled over her prey, as she tore loose great mouthfuls of flesh and gulped them down. The metallic tang of hot blood joined that of dust and baked earth as she feasted.

This was why he and Avatre were able to take down game like wild ox and ass; beasts that could break a dragon's leg or wing with a well-placed kick. Now that their hunting skill had matured to this point, she was eating nearly as much as she would have gotten in the Jousters' compound. Anything bigger than that ass, though, would have needed a different sort of attack. Kiron felt they'd mastered it, but it had been something he'd been loath to use too often—he thought that if they found the right victim, he could drop a rope over its head and neck and Avatre could pull it tight until the wild ox choked. He'd even taught her how to pull something up off the ground with that rope attached to the back of his saddle, and he wasn't sure even Kashet had been taught that particular trick.

She gorged herself; he let her feast to repletion. When she finally turned and walked away from the stripped carcass, there was not much left but the head and some bones. This was the way that dragons ate in the wild, and had she been in a compound, she might have eaten even more than this.

In a compound, she would have followed her feast with a nap; sometimes he had allowed her such a rest on this journey, but he could not today. The sun was past zenith and there were lions coming. It was time to be on their way.

He approached her, and patted her neck in the signal to kneel. She turned her long neck to look at him mournfully.

"I know, my love," he said apologetically. "But we need to be gone."

She sighed, a long-suffering sigh; but she knelt and let him take his place in her saddle again.

Heavy with her meal, however, she did not so much launch herself into the air as lumber skyward, and she made slow going until she found a thermal strong enough to allow her to soar upward with less effort.

He had not eaten; he was used to that, though his stomach growled sadly and hurt a little. Water from his waterskin would have to do for now.

From slow spiral up, to long glide down, to slow spiral up again, Avatre lazed her way over the desert, with that green belt growing ever nearer and clearer as the afternoon progressed. Kiron was keeping her working her way in at an angle, for he had decided, now that she'd had a proper meal, that it might not be a bad notion to look for signs of one of those great estates that the Mouth had urged him to seek. The worst that would happen would be that they would have to retreat, or even flee. But the best that would happen would be that they would be able to successfully claim the rights of an Altan Jouster and dragon.

Finally, he spotted what he was looking for in late afternoon, just as Avatre began to be a bit less lethargic and show more energy.

He spotted it when Avatre was at the top of one of her thermals: a walled compound far too large to be that of a mere farmer. It was certainly the size of a village, though it was shaped nothing at all like a village; no streets, nothing that looked like individual houses. So it must be the great house and grounds of one of those great estates that the Mouth had described.

He pointed Avatre's head toward it with a tug on her guide rein. Obedient as ever, she broke out of the thermal and began her long glide in the direction of the estate.

Kiron gulped back fear, and straightened his back.

Now, he thought. Now. Or it will be never.

And he sent Avatre in.

"Lackey's back to doing what she does best...effective and compulsive reading." -Locus

"Fast-moving action and intriguing characters." -The Book Net


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