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Chapter 4

Eight days later, Evann was well into the downs. The hills and ridges that formed them were mostly formed of chalk and limestone, so he saw traces of white or light-colored rock frequently as he traveled along. Which made him wonder about how that first day there had been flint rock. He wished he’d thought to ask Cordhe about that before they had separated.

The scout had left him the morning after their third day of travel. “You know enough now, boy,” he’d said, “if you’ll just stop and think about things before you do them. Meanwhile, the Captain is waiting on me. Probably tapping his foot by now, if I know him. So, one more time—you keep going south through the downs until you come out of them, keep going south into the foothills of the Grimshank Mountains until you find the river, and follow it to the southeast until the big bridge, then follow that road to the south until it runs into Morshton. Got it?”

Evann had nodded with some nervousness. Cordhe had clapped him on the shoulder, said, “You’ll do fine, boy,” and headed down their back-trail at a trot.

And he had done fine so far, he thought to himself. He hadn’t gotten lost, he hadn’t hurt himself or broken or lost anything, he managed to find enough to eat every day—although he had to admit he was getting tired of the taste of rabbit. His boots were taking a beating, though, partly because he’d really pushed the pace the first few days after Cordhe had left him. Despite everything the scout had said to him, he’d still been more than a bit apprehensive that his Da or someone else would come after him and drag him home, and after what he’d been going through, he wasn’t going to let that happen.

Now, although he did occasionally look back to the north and northwest, he was pretty certain that the villagers weren’t coming after him. But given some of the other things Cordhe had told him, he thought that checking behind him might not be a bad idea just because, as his mother used to say.

Despite all the stories, and despite what Cordhe had said, he had seen nothing unusual, weird, or untoward during his march through the downs. He wasn’t sure if he was more relieved or disappointed. It would have been kind of . . . interesting was the best word, he guessed.

Evann followed the vale he was in around a curve, and suddenly there opened up before him a view of hills—steeper and rockier than the downs he had been walking through, and with a lot more trees on the slopes. That appealed to him. He missed the trees that had been around Chesserlin and its fields.

It took the rest of the day to clear out of the downs and move into the foothills, but by the time dusk was moving in and it was time to find a campsite, he was among the trees, and that felt good. That felt almost like home, in a way.

He stopped in one little lea to dig up a couple of roots of a type that Cordhe had shown him. He’d roast those in his fire tonight, which he would start with sparks from his flint and his spade, and that and the leftover rabbit from this morning would set him up fine for dinner. And indeed, with that in his belly and a level spot under a spreading oak tree, he slept well. Or, at least he did so after he swept the acorns off the spot. An acorn made a good substitute for a pebble under a blanket, he discovered.

And so the days progressed. The bread he’d brought was long gone, of course. There was still a bit of cheese left in the sack, but that was hard and dry and wouldn’t last much longer anyway. It was late summer, so there were blackberry bush thickets periodically, along with the occasional fruit tree—usually apple—along the way. And every once in a while he’d still find roots, for which the spade had proven useful for digging up. The ground here was tougher than that of the downs, so he was very glad he had the spade. Even the knife that Cordhe had left him might have broken if he’d used it for digging here.

All things considered, Evann was doing well, and he didn’t miss the village or his family . . . at least, not much.

It was mid-afternoon of the third day that Evann had begun to look around more. It occurred to him that the ground around him, or even more especially, the ground ahead of him, looked to him like it ought to have dragons in it. He didn’t know why. He just thought it looked kind of dragony. So he would look for dragon sign like the old stories said existed, although the stories weren’t very clear on exactly what dragon sign looked like. And he would daydream about what encountering a dragon would be like. He even started looking for caves, to see if any of them were dragon lairs. And although he found nothing that looked like dragons or evidence of their presence, his spirits still lifted nonetheless.

In this manner, Evann walked his way into and mostly through the foothills, and found himself moving into the outranges of the Grimshanks. He hadn’t come to the river yet, and he was beginning to wonder if he’d somehow taken a wrong turn. He kept going south, nonetheless.

His search for caves had continued as he got into steeper and rougher ground, and he started finding some. This made for slow going as he checked them out. It also made for disappointment, for no dragons were evident. He crawled out of the most recent opening he had explored, knocked the dust and bat guano off his clothes, and walked out into the lea in front of the cave to lean against an outcropping of stone. He propped the spade next to where he stood.

* * *

Rufous came back.

That was not his real name. It was simply the simplest and most common of his use names. Like all dragons, his real name—his inner name—was reserved for his parents, his eventual mate, and his absolute closest friends. He actually thought of himself as Rufous.

He had been communing with flame for some time, but he could tell that the event he was waiting for was drawing near, so he returned to where he had left his body and settled in. He flexed the first toe of his right foot, watching the great black claw ease forward through the dirt and leaves and other bits of plant matter that were piled before his feet. It moved past the century plant he had come to study, then pulled back.

Each claw was moved—right foot first, then left foot—leaving a set of parallel grooves in the earth around the plant. It looked for all the world as if a giant animal had drawn its claws through the dirt.

Which, of course, was the case . . . if you considered dragons animals.

Being a dragon, Rufous did not consider himself an animal. And like most dragons, if someone had suggested in his hearing that dragons were animals, he would have been irked at best and angry at worst. And angry dragons are not to be contemplated.

It was mostly the humans that talked of dragons as if they were animals. Rufous wasn’t fond of humans . . . not that he knew many . . . or any, really. What he did know of them, from the old stories and from accounts from his father and a few friends, was not impressing or impressive. And that gave rise to a problem.

Rufous had been faced with a decision for years. Most dragons had to deal with it around their one hundredth birthday. As a black dragon, he had taken somewhat longer to mature than most dragons, because his full adult stage was somewhat larger than most other dragons. So he hadn’t reached adult status and size until he was close to his one hundred and fiftieth birthday. He was now three hundred and eighty-nine years old, so that had been some little time ago. Since then, he had been wrestling with the question of whether or not he would be a dragon that breathed fire and flame.

Not every dragon flamed. The sea-dragons, for example, as a tribe, root and branch, did not flame. All land and air-based dragons had an affinity for fire and flame, however, and most did flame. But there was a cost to that ability, a cost that involved humans. And Rufous was not certain he wanted to pay that cost, which would indebt him to humans.

Humans were odd. Of all the Speaking Races, humans were the weakest, and other than goblins—nyblung or gobelin—were the most likely to fall into the dark. Because of their very weakness, their power for either good or bad was normally small. But the humans bred so often, and so many, that the workings of chance seemed to favor them. Every few years, it seemed, a human would rise up with enough power to affect how humans behaved and related to the other races. If they were for the good, elves, dwarves, and sometimes dragons would be lifted up with them. If they were for the dark, then all would be driven to face the dark. And the costs of those times were often high . . . even by the standards of dragons.

Those humans who rose up were often wizards, and of the other races, the powers of human wizards resonated most with dragons. But even good wizards conflicted with dragons.

So it was that Rufous tended to avoid humans, actually. He’d managed to avoid them totally for the last couple of seasons, situated where he was. It was therefore quite a surprise to him when he sensed a human behind him. He swiveled one ear so that it picked up sound from that direction.

* * *

“Well,” Evann said. “That was a waste of time. Eight caves I’ve looked in so far, and not a dragon in one of them. Not even a dinky one. At this rate I’m never going to find a dragon.”

* * *

Rufous wasn’t certain about this situation. It could be risky. But there was only one of the humans, from what he could tell. And there was the feeling of Fire about this one. That intrigued him. He took the chance. “Maybe you’re looking in the wrong place,” he replied.

* * *

“No, I’m not,” Evann retorted. “I’m cert . . .”

Between one syllable and the next it dawned on Evann that when he’d come out of the cave he hadn’t seen anyone at all, much less close enough to talk to. And although Evann was quite capable of talking to himself—indeed, had been known to carry on extended conversations with himself—this voice wasn’t his. At least he didn’t think it was. It was much deeper, with a sound like water gurgling over rocks.

Evann shot upright. “Who’s there?”

He turned and came face to face—or rather, nose to muzzle—with a dragon. “Me,” the dragon replied with another deep rumble.

Evann stepped back and tripped. His butt hit the ground with a hard thump. Eyes wide, he noted that the dragon’s head was longer than he was tall.

The dragon cocked his head to one side—somehow Evann knew it was a he—and burbled a little. He then cocked his head to the other side, so that his other eye could get a clear look at the boy.

“A human, I believe.” The dragon’s tone was dry. “And a young one, unless I miss my guess.”

“Ye . . . yes,” Evann replied. “I’m a boy.” He was still stunned at finding himself so close to a dragon.

* * *

“Well, get up, young human,” Rufous said. “You look even sillier than humans usually do, lying there in the wildflowers.” He swiveled his head back around to the direction he had been facing as the boy scrambled to his feet. “Oh, fewmets,” he said in a deep resigned tone. “The charred flower has gone and bloomed while you distracted me. Sear and blast it. Now I’ll have to find another one and start over.”

“What flower?” The boy walked around the rest of what he had thought was an outcropping.

“This one.” Rufous gently nudged with his nose a small silver blossom that sprouted from between his great paws. “It’s a century plant. It only blooms once every hundred years. I’ve been curious about how they blossom, and I wanted to observe it happening. The plant is rare, as it happens, and I had to search for some time to find this one. Ah, well, if I can’t find another, I’ll come back to this one in a few years.”

* * *

“I’m sorry,” Evann muttered, scuffing the toe of his boot in the grass. He was really depressed now. He’d thought he was doing so well, but once again he had managed to wreck something for someone, and this time it was the one being in the world he most wanted to talk to.

“That’s all right,” the dragon sighed. He pulled his head up. “You might want to stand back, now.”

Evann jumped back as the dragon rose. Grass and vines ripped from where they had grown up between the dragon’s scales; dirt and dried leaves fell from his sides and stomach.

“Ah, that feels good.” The dragon took a step or two, then stretched like a cat. Evann gulped at the sight of the great claws that came out of the feet. Much longer than any sword or scythe blade he had ever seen, black and gleaming they were. There was no doubt in his mind that they were very sharp; sharp enough to skewer most anything the dragon chose to apply them to . . . including a wayward boy, if it entered his mind.

Evann looked down into the space the dragon had been lying in. It looked as if it had been dug out of the earth to the height of his ankle, at least. “How long were you waiting?” he asked.

“Two seasons, I think.” The dragon cocked his head for a moment, then nodded. “Near enough.”

“You waited here for half a year?” Evann’s voice had raised—a lot. “Just . . . waiting for the flower to bloom?”

“Of course. Once I found it, I stayed by it to protect it until it bloomed. And I had other things to think about, so it was no great bother.”

The next moment the dragon shook, much like a cat that’d just been dunked in water. Evann was pelted by clods, slugs, worms and other such detritus that had clung to the belly and sides of the dragon during his wait.

“Pfffth,” Evann spat dirt out of his mouth, and looked up to see the dragon walking off. “Wait!”

“Hmm?” The dragon looked around.

Evann grabbed his spade and pack from where they had fallen, and ran over to look up at the dragon. “I’ve been looking for a dragon for days now.”

“A dragon? Who?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then I can’t help you find him.” And the dragon turned away.

“Wait!” Evann was both frustrated and desperate, and was almost shouting now.

The dragon turned back again with what sounded for all the world like a great sigh. “Yes?”

“I was looking for you.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t even know you, and I’m sure you don’t know me.”

“Errrr . . . I mean I was looking for any dragon I could find, and I found you.” Evann almost wanted to scream by this point.

“Ah. And?”


“You must have had some reason for seeking out a dragon.”

“Well, um . . .” Suddenly Evann’s questions seemed silly even to him.

The dragon turned away and began walking again.

“Please . . .” The dragon stopped. “I . . . I just want to know.”

“Ah. You’re curious, are you?” The dragon eyed Evann closely.

“Yes.” Evann forced himself to stand straight and still.

* * *

Rufous stared at the boy for a long moment. A human—a young human—a boy—who had the feel of Fire about him—who wanted to know. And was willing to face down a dragon to gain that opportunity. How odd.

The tool the boy held in his hand caught Rufous’ eye. There was Fire in that tool. There was Fire layered into the metal. He could feel it. It almost called him. And that made his decision for him. Whatever the boy was, whatever the tool was, his own curiosity was now awakened. So let them match curiosity to curiosity, barely born to mature, small to large, soft to hard and sharp. Let them see what they could see.

At last, Rufous nodded. “Very well, come along.”

He resumed walking, and the boy ran to catch up.

* * *

Evann was very excited. He couldn’t believe his luck.

“Since you’re curious, and you were looking for a dragon, then I assume you are curious about dragons in particular.” The dragon’s voice was dry, but still burbled a little at the bottom of it.

“Yes, sir.” Evann’s voice was wavering. He was a bit nervous.

“Very well, then. What would you like to know?”

“Well . . . everything!” That last word just rushed out of Evann’s mouth.

The dragon uttered a sound much like what a big rock sounds like as it rolls downhill into other rocks. After a moment, Evann realized he was chuckling. “You are curious, indeed. But even someone who is curious should learn to order his thoughts. You can learn so much more if you organize your questions, you know.”

Evann thought really hard. “All right, then: where do dragons come from?”

“See? Now that was an excellent first question. I don’t know.”

The boy stood stopped short and gaped at the dragon’s head that curled ’round on that long neck to look at him. “You don’t know? Why not? You’re a dragon. I thought you would know everything there is to know about dragons!”

The rock caroming into other rocks sound was heard again. “You’re a human, boy. Do you know everything there is to know about humans? Do you know where humans come from?”

That stymied Evann for a moment. “Well . . . no.”

“So now you’ve learned two things you didn’t know.”


“I don’t know the answer to that question, and I don’t know everything about dragons, just like you don’t know everything about humans. You’ll have to adjust your expectations a bit, of course—I’m sure you’re somewhat disappointed—but it’s always best to be reasonable about these things, I’ve learned.”

The dragon faced forward and started walking again. Evann hurried to catch up to his . . . her . . . its front end.

“Can you fly?”

There was a rustle as the wings folded back against the dragon’s sides and back partially opened. “These wouldn’t be much use if I couldn’t, now would they?”

“Can all dragons fly?”

“Ah, very good, boy; progressing from the specific to the general. You’re thinking, now. Yes, all dragons can fly, except for one branch of us that lives in the sea. They’ve actually learned to swim instead, which, if I understand it, is like flying in the water.”

Evann’s mind wrestled with the idea of swimming dragons for a moment, then returned to his list of questions. “Why aren’t you flying now?”

Another dragon chuckle sounded. “Well, boy, there are two answers to that one. First, I’d like a little more room available for a running take-off than I had back in that little meadow. And second, I’m talking with you at the moment. It would be a bit rude to just fly off and leave you, wouldn’t it?”

Evann wasn’t clear on what ‘take-off’ meant, but he decided to ask that question later. And he did allow that the second answer was indeed true. He decided that this dragon was very polite indeed, which challenged him to be equally polite.

It occurred to Evann that he hadn’t introduced himself.

“Ah . . . my name is Evann. What’s yours?”

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