The Price of Gold
Even here, up in the clear mountain air, Vedris found it hard to shake the uneasy feeling in the pit of her chest. It had been there since they had arrived in the little town, hoping to shake the road dust off their clothes for a night. The clustered houses were now far below, and long out of sight, but she still saw it in her mind's eye, noticing details just as they had done those few nights back. First, the houses, damaged by intent in some instances, sadly neglected in others, some startlingly, incongruously new. Then, the clothes, bright colors worn out, threadbare here, patched there, torn and overused. Finally, the fear in the eyes of women and men, and the hunger in children’s. Though the villagers had quietly moved about their chores, once they had gotten up close, they had seen that too.
Where elsewhere Vedris and the others might have taken the hospitality of the inn, or lacking this, begged bread and board of an accommodating (or enterprising) resident, here they, the guests, had turned host. Though their packs were not overfull, they had shared out what bread, nuts, fruits they carried, and wiry Ean had, with his usual grin, disappeared into the spare forest of these foothills to return in some time hauling a young deer after him. This prize the mayor, a younger woman whose hair had adopted a startling shade of white and grey over a tired face, had ordered to be roasted in the ruins of the green: ruins, for the houses at its edges had suffered some catastrophe greater than anywhere else, the façades blown in to the back walls beneath collapsing roofs. Necessarily, the atmosphere had been less than joyous as the meat turned on the spit, but the gathering, Vedris felt, had given some sense of comfort in being together as a group. She herself took to showing some of the children small pieces of magic, spinning their wooden tops from afar, causing one girl’s wooden horse to amble slowly about. This seemed to please them, while Anise’s blunt wit fostered at least some conversation among the adults.
The food quickly disappeared, and though far from enough, earned returns of thanks from the townsfolk. But when Ean, after consultation with his companions, had offered to the mayor a small purse of coins for his town’s advantage, the woman had blanched white as her hair, and would not accept. ‘It is no use,’ she muttered, as the eyes of many gathered behind her to see them off turned inexplicably towards the mountains looming large in the near distance. Ean, unused to poor reception of his generosity, had pressed her again, and had at last demanded from her an explanation, for this, for the town’s ruin, for the hunger of the children. Then the mayor too turned her despairing eyes to the grey mountain slope beyond the town. ‘The dragon,’ she had whispered. They had no more words from her.
And so three more days had brought them around the side of the central peak, and ever upwards over the unforgiving ground. It was not every day, Anise had pointed out with some eagerness, that an actual dragon took up residence near people, at least not in these civilized parts, but the damage done the town seemed proof enough that scaly business was afoot: and she began to practice more exuberantly than usual with her axe in the evenings. Vedris dwelled more on the plight of the town, and hoped that they would be able to do them a good turn. Ean remained smiling and silent, but he, too, sharpened his blades.
Now, finally, they stood looking up at a strange castle that emerged from the mountain above them, apparently carved and piled up out of the same stone that towered all around. It was certainly large enough to fit a dragon, Vedris thought, although the outside looked to be a mass of towers and corridors scaled to a much smaller resident. Perhaps the dragon kept servants. Anise voiced a similar opinion, and they proceeded cautiously upwards towards the gloomy architectural tumble.
‘The problem is the stories,’ Ean murmured as they climbed.
‘Hush!’ Now was not the moment to indulge his propensity for philosophizing. Vedris glanced up to see if there were signs of movement from the castle, but all was still.
Ean pursued, ‘Since few agree on the best way to kill a dragon. Some insist on their soft underbellies, others their eyes, others the gullet—in that awkward pause right before they breathe fire, or spit poison, or whatever they do, which is another problem in itself.’
‘So? Just climb.’ Anise was leading the way, with a rope around her waist down to the other two below.
‘It just makes it difficult to plan, that’s all. Not knowing what to expect.’
The castle opened onto a broad ledge some fifteen feet deep, at the back of which two heavy doors, bound in iron, rose imposingly in the wall. Still no sound came from within; if the dragon kept servants, they weren’t guards, at least. Anise shrugged, turning to Vedris. ‘Orders?’
‘Try the door?’ she suggested. Straightforward enough, if it worked.
Inexplicably, it did: no locks or bolts (to the disappointment of Anise, who preferred a challenge), and the great doors offered no resistance as they swung silently outward. A worried look creased Ean’s brow, and Vedris knew his thoughts. Dragons were, as a rule, nothing if not paranoid, and such an open invitation must only point to something more sinister. But the hall beyond was dark and uninhabited, though the shaft of light from the open door illuminated a few rich tapestries, in good repair, that brightened the walls and spoke of recent habitation. Vedris pulled out a small glow-stone, and by its faint light, the trio stepped inside. A broad staircase swept up at the back and seemed to confirm that the dragon must reside further within and so, ignoring the smaller side doors which led off to the sides, they began to pad softly up this, Ean slipping two knives soundlessly from their sheaths beside Vedris as they went.
Countless steps: Vedris felt her breath begin to labor as they ascended ever on, though muscular Anise moved easily as always. It was also, unfortunately, quite long enough a walk for a feeling of dread to settle itself painfully into her gut. Ean’s talk of stories had held weight: but it was not the deaths of dragons, but their terrible powers which came most to mind. Could they even be harmed by the magic she wielded? A glance over told her that Anise was dreaming more likely of the treasure that always featured as well. Why had they not seen anyone yet?
Strangely, the staircase narrowed as they went, and the ceiling lowered until they walked in only a grand corridor such as might be found in any nobleman’s manor. Vedris exchanged a look with Ean, who had also come to a halt. ‘This can’t be—’ she whispered, but Anise interrupted them from above at the edge of the glow-stone’s light.
‘Yes, it’s the right place.’ She was grinning broadly now, and pointing.
Dragging herself up the steps again, Vedris felt a surge of relief to discover that in fact they ended after only another thirty feet or so. What Anise had seen was the faint outline of a door at the top, rimmed about by some flickering light within. But still—‘It’s hardly big enough.’
‘Not our job to worry about a dragon’s architecture,’ Anise returned lightly. ‘Just so the rewards are the proper size.’ And she finished the steps and pulled on the handle of the door.
Even from the short corridor that followed, the view was astounding. Gold, of course, but in such quantities as were difficult to really take in, spilling from chests now mostly buried, dotted with the colored light of gems from across the entire rainbow. As the hallway opened into a majestic cavern, the treasure spread out into a field of breathtaking opulence: a miniature terrain of mountains and ravines lit by the inconstant suns of torches on the far-off walls, undulating hills of wealth, forests of wrought treasures, weapons, cloths, jewelery, spread out into a crescent around the open space before the entrance. They wandered into this clearing entranced, wondering at the hoard’s enormity: testament to a greed far beyond the normal scale of human affairs. How many towns, Vedris wondered bitterly, had been ruined for this pile? But it was very beautiful. To her left, Anise bent to examine a golden, bejeweled vase lying on one of the heaps, hand moving to grasp the ornamented handles that curved out from opposite sides of the lip to sink into the body.
‘Don’t touch!’ commanded a man’s voice from behind them, making everyone jump and breaking the meditative spell of the hoard. As one, they whirled around to face the speaker.
Over the corridor was a sort of dais, a jagged rock some twelve feet high stretching across the back of the chamber to the walls, through which the entryway had evidently been carved. At the edge stood a glistening throne of black obsidian, the back a pair of wings that arched together behind and above the occupant’s head. This was a man, leaning forward slightly, tense, in the throne’s stone embrace, his brow furrowed with concern as his startlingly green gaze remained fixed on Anise. He looked young, in his prime, with well-cut features unmasked still by any beard. His hair, untidily cut where it hung around his face, was black, set off by a simple golden crown across his brow. His clothing was rather more flamboyant: a selection of ornate (and unnecessarily pointed) pieces of armor—bracers, breastplate, greaves—in black and red, draped elegantly over by a flowing robe of the same colors worked with an embroidered motif of dragons in stylized flight. His face and hands alone stood out light against the dark cloth and revealed the body within; when he saw he had their attention, his expression relaxed. ‘That’s better,’ he added, settling back to lounge comfortably in his seat.
Vedris pressed her lips together in distaste for the casual insolence of his authority. ‘This treasure,’ she snapped, stepping forward a pace, ‘was paid for with the blood of innocents, taken from the hands of children.’
After a brief pause the man nodded slowly. ‘Yes.’ He nodded more definitely, and sounded as though he was agreeing on the weather. ‘Yes, it was,’ at which Vedris could only stare open-mouthed in horror. To her right, Ean gave a low hiss of breath, and Anise actually spat on the ground, though this apparently went unnoticed above. ‘Why?’ He leaned forward, eagerly. ‘Have you come to fight me for it? That hasn’t happened in a very long time.’
‘We will stop the tyranny of—’ Anise began, raising her axe, but she stopped abruptly with the same realization that had just come to Vedris. ‘Fight... you?’
The man raised his eyebrows. ‘It’s mine.’ He spread his hands, indicating both the hoarded gold and the empty space on the rest of the dais. ‘Who else would you fight?’
Silence reigned momentarily. Then, ‘There is no dragon,’ Vedris murmured, still half in disbelief. Just a man. A crazy man, an evil man perhaps, but no dragon.
The man in question stiffened abruptly in his seat. ‘I am a dragon.’
Ean shot her an incredulous, and even amused, glance. Anise snorted outright. ‘Hardly.’
‘That’s not very fair!’ The man’s face assumed an aggrieved expression. ‘After all, you don’t even know me.’ He pushed himself upright then, and the wings of the throne behind him were moving, except that they were his wings, expanding in leathery blackness to either side, and as his mouth opened there was the flickering of greenish flame.
The darkness began to fall away to shreds around him, taking with it the colors of a dream—had it been a dream? A twisty battle of scales and claws, flight and fire, but that hadn’t been all of it—to be replaced by the colors of the real world. But these were too bright, and he closed his eyes again to welcome back the darkness, but now it was warmed with sunlight through his eyelids and disturbed once more moments later by hands patting his cheeks, stinging, the same hands which had jostled him to wakefulness in the first place. He growled his displeasure, but it might have come out as a groan.
It was a huntsman who was bent over the semi-conscious young man, this naked, dirt-smudged unknown figure whom he and his friend had found curled on the ground in the middle of the woods. At the sound, he rocked back on his heels to give him some air: not dead, probably not even dying, at least. He reached for his water-skin, slinging the strap off his shoulder and pulling out the cork. ‘Wonder who the devil he is,’ his friend, standing off to one side, remarked as the huntsman tilted the skin to the man’s lips.
The latter tried then, it seemed, to make some answer to the query, but he was already drinking and choked on the word and the water, coughing; the huntsman hastily removed the flask. ‘What was that?’ he prompted when the fit had subsided.
But the reply was mumbled, no words that he could catch though he leaned in close: save, perhaps, what might have been a name or part of one. ‘You’re Tam, then, is that right?’ he asked gently on this guess. Strangely, this garnered no response; he looked at his companion, who shrugged; then once again lifted the water-skin.
Tamberion-Istarlin. That was what he had said, actually, since that was his name, though it seemed that the daft human who’d asked couldn’t make sense of the draconic syllables. There was water running again down his throat, which felt good, but it was peculiar, because he didn’t think that anyone had ever given him water in such a way before: they couldn’t. Perhaps he had better open his eyes again to see what was going on, after all.
A man’s face, sun-browned and topped with a mop of hair running to grey, was hovering over his own with a look of, he thought, concern. That too was odd, since no one had either given him such a look (though he had seen it directed towards others in his presence) nor stared at him from such a vantage point. Something, he realized, was wrong, just as the man spoke again. ‘You all right, lad?’ Lad?
The huntsman recoiled just in time to avoid getting his nose cracked by Tam’s forehead as the other surged up, rolling to the side as if to get on all fours. His friend’s hand went to the dirk at his waist even as he found himself clutching at his own. But Tam froze suddenly, staring down at the ground, and a moment later the huntsman relaxed again; Tam drew a deep breath, and gave way to another fit of coughing.
What had startled him so to stillness was the sight of hands, soft human hands, before him instead of scaled claws. In a panic, Tam tried to draw fire, but the effort brought nothing but a wracking cough without hint of flame. As he shuddered, he felt other hands take his shoulders to steady him. In outrage at the indignity of it all, he did the only thing left to him: he roared with all his dragon’s fury—if not quite so loud or as long as had been usual. The hands retreated, then. When the force of his cry had left him, he slumped back onto his side with his head on his arm.
How this had happened, he didn’t know, couldn’t remember. There had been a fight, he now felt sure, a fight with a dragon he hadn’t known: but perhaps he had started it? It had been an old dragon, much older than Tam, and fierce; but it had said strange words to him as they fought, something about... disobedience? Why couldn’t he recall?
As he gazed vacantly at the dried leaves in front of his face, the huntsman held a low conversation with his friend over their course of action. That the man, Tam, was mad was as plain as day, though what had cause this trauma, or how long it would last, was impossible to judge. They would have to bring him back to a town, of course, where someone could see to him. Still, he was hardly presentable as was, even if the nearest place lay some few days away. Unless he could tell them where he’d come from—
As if moved by sudden decision, Tam abruptly rocked back up onto his hands and knees, looking as if he meant to stand. The huntsman moved swiftly to his side, though he did not touch him this time. ‘Careful now,’ he advised, speaking low as one might to an injured animal. ‘Do you think you can walk?’
Tam did not look at him, but focused intently on the terrain before him. A new determination had taken hold of him in place of his confusion: he could sort out the holes in the puzzle later, but he was hardly a dragon if such a pitiful thing as the loss of two legs would stop him. ‘Let’s find out,’ he muttered, half to himself. He pushed himself upright and moved forward. And stumbled, off-balance in this awkward body, and would have fallen had not the huntsman caught his arm and hauled him up. ‘No.’ But he would learn, would even have tried again now if not for the restraint still on his arm. The second man appeared beside him then, extending a folded piece of brown cloth to him; though the huntsman gave it an approving nod, Tam stared at it blankly, wondering what he was meant to do with it. When no one moved, the man holding the fabric sighed irritably and, roughly unfurling it, draped the cloth over Tam’s shoulders. ‘Wrap yourself in that,’ he suggested brusquely; Tam was prevented from protest by the realization that he was cold, as a breeze played across his bare skin.
‘Can I see a mirror?’ he asked instead.
The huntsman shrugged. ‘When we get you back to town—’
‘Now,’ and a glare.
In the end, they managed between them to find him a pond and get him to its edge by bearing most of his weight themselves, though Tam privately thought that he was getting better at bipedal walking by the end of the trip. The surface was marred by the skittering steps of insects, but it was something; letting the blanket fall aside, he knelt down to peer curiously at himself. Not much to look at. Just like other men, as far as he could tell, though at least his hair was properly black, as his scales had been. His eyes were more disturbing, having retained more or less their normal acidic green, but their shape was wrong now; he shivered and looked away.
‘Finished, are you?’ the huntsman asked; he had retrieved the blanket and was now holding it open for him to take. Tam nodded, but eyed the cloth with distaste. It really was quite ugly, and not at all shiny as he would have wished.
If this was how things were to be, he would have to get himself some better clothes.
At least he wasn’t bad-looking, Elis thought, glancing sidelong at this client who pulled her along at a quick clip, arm hooked through hers as they steered towards a narrow alley off the street. Handsome even, which couldn’t be said for most who came to her. He had inspected her without a word, only a small smile that sat well on his fine-featured face. ‘Three silver deniers,’ she’d told him finally, to get him moving; then she’d been flustered by his quick, decisive step, but he hadn’t been rough with her, either. Normally she would have led him to her room, but he seemed insistent on his own course, and it would be faster this way, for sure.
Some ways along between the close-set buildings, he stopped and turned to face her, still smiling, an eager look in his eyes. Elis paused to catch her breath for a moment, then put her hand on his chest: gently, but enough to separate them a bit; behind her back, the other hand was ready to grab for the small dagger she kept in her belt, just in case, though she had never before needed it. ‘Three deniers,’ she repeated, in her prettiest voice, but firmly. He blinked at her, not moving. Then he grabbed her wrist.
‘No, Tam!’ Another man, older, appeared to the side at high speed, though he’d made no noise coming into the alley. A thick wooden rod was in his hand, she saw as he raised it and brought it cracking down across her erstwhile client’s side; he released her with a grunt. A second blow took him to the shoulder and head, sending him to the ground. She shrieked. She was sure he must be dead, and stared at the newcomer with frightened eyes, too shocked to think to run, or even to remember her knife, which would hardly have done her any good: but he seemed to be placing himself protectively between herself and the other—
—and somehow, impossibly, Tam was not sprawled fallen in blood, but had rolled when he had hit the ground and was coming again to his feet. He crouched low, snarling what might have been words, but she didn’t know them, facing the other man—her defender?—with sparks of blue energy crackling at his fingertips. ‘Don’t even try,’ her protector growled, throwing his rod aside and lunging at Tam with impressive speed. Tam tried to dodge his rush, but his aggressor grabbed him by the collar and with a few deft moves quickly had his arms pinned and his neck locked in a stranglehold. Bent thus awkwardly over, Tam still struggled, feet scuffling in the dirt for better leverage, but his captor stood firmly as a rock. After a few moments, under pressure perhaps from lack of air, Tam’s straining subsided, if his whole body remained tense.
‘Can I let you go?’ the man asked sternly. Elis actually thought she heard Tam hiss in reply. So he adjusted his hold slightly to put a twist on Tam’s shoulder, making him yelp. ‘Can I?’ he repeated, more sharply. Another brief pause, filled only with their labored breathing, then Tam nodded as best he could in his position. Satisfied, the man dropped him roughly to the ground, before he straightened up to face Elis, still watching them stunned.
‘Forgive my rude interruption,’ he said, somewhat stiffly but, Elis felt, sincerely. He looked to be around his fiftieth year, with weather-worn features and plain clothes that had seen some hard use. But what caught the eye was the reddened skin, ridged with scarring, that marred the left side of his face and his skull, where it seemed his white hair no longer grew. It lent him something of a frightening mien, but his frank demeanor offset this to a degree—it was in fact his handsome acquaintance (now picking himself sullenly up) that was, she now realized, the more disturbing of the two. ‘You don’t want him’, the man went on. ‘He doesn’t pay.’
Elis had, instinctively, just come to guess this when Tam had seized her earlier, but it was a blunt blow to have this actually confirmed and said plainly aloud. Her eyes hardened as she looked over Burnt-Face’s shoulder to Tam, who was looking evasive as he brushed himself off; he didn’t actually seem much worse the wear for the rough treatment he had received. A burst of anger flared up within her. ‘You should hang for that!’ she cried out, and spat at him.
In a flash, Tam hissed again and lunged at her; she jumped back as fear overtook anger once more. But Burnt-Face was ready and drove his fist into Tam’s stomach when he went past; Tam doubled over with the air driven from him and Burnt-Face swept his feet from under him, before hauling him gasping up into the neck lock again. Once this was secure, he looked up again at Elis. ‘He can hang, by law,’ he said softly. ‘Would you like to see it done?’
Elis stared at the man he held trapped, now struggling ineffectually to pull the arm loose from his throat. He should, sure—and she nearly said it, but that sort of thing could make it difficult to get custom again. And no, she realized with a shudder, she didn’t want even to think of him again, or spend another moment near. Something in him horrified her now, more than what he had tried to do, though whether it was his magic or the vaguely inhuman quality of his movements. Without a word, she slowly shook her head.
Burnt-Face nodded solemnly. ‘Then good night to you, mistress, and better luck.’
Elis turned and disappeared from the alley as fast as she could.
The huntsman watched her go, and tightened his grip slightly on Tam, to some muted noise of choking. That girl—couldn’t have been more than eighteen—had been lucky, but her escape couldn’t help the women whom he hadn’t been around to help. He knew of two, though there could have been more. Tam had never physically injured them, but the payments the huntsman had been able to give the prostitutes afterwards when he’d been able to find them didn’t mean that Tam had not raped them, and this weighed heavily on his mind. At the same time, he was glad she hadn’t tried to make the incident a matter of law; it had only been right to offer her the chance, but he did not relish the confrontation that would follow if the ruling was actually tried: Tam was dangerous, and he had not yet seen him with his life actually endangered.
He waited some interval after the girl had left before releasing Tam, who made a good display of coughing and rubbing his throat. The huntsman watched him with distaste until, realizing he was garnering no sympathy, Tam stood and gave him a sulky look instead. ‘You always ruin everything, Corus.’
Corus seized a fistful of Tam’s black hair and pulled him so they were face-to-face, ignoring the other’s wincing expression of pain. ‘You are an idiot, Tam.’
Though he wished he could tell himself that it wasn’t so, most of the time he did in fact regret that he had ever taken Tam from those woods two years ago. A poor madman he had seemed then, and while he was certainly still mad, Corus had long since lost any pity that he had once felt. Well, perhaps not quite all, for what else could it be that kept him from killing Tam once he had discovered what a monster he was? Not that he didn’t have his doubts on even that choice from time to time. Meanwhile, he simply did his utmost to keep Tam’s worst excesses under control, a task that had increased significantly in difficulty since Tam had abruptly shown himself gifted with magecraft some months into their acquaintance. Thus far, he had managed through a combination of twisted argumentation—if Tam could be persuaded that on calculated balance, the risk of inconvenience to himself outweighed potential gain, he could be tamed—and sheer physical force. It was, for some reason, rather hard to actually injure Tam, but he respected strength and so apparently Corus’ arm enough to do mostly as he said. Not that Corus was unaware how much power Tam had at his call: it had taken several weeks to fully recover from the time when Tam had conjured fire on him, and the memory of that moment was not one he generally preferred to revisit. But before he had succumbed then to the pain he had managed to beat Tam into unconsciousness and prevented him from doing further damage to the unfortunate inn; he identified this afterwards as the main reason that he had any control over Tam at all. Still, he always made sure to act quickly when a situation arose, for he worried that if Tam had occasion to recall the harm he could do Corus, all would be lost.
It had been a long two years.
Even in Corus’ tight grip, Tam was starting at him without apparent sign of remorse. Corus sighed in disgust and pushed him away. ‘Let’s go.’
Tam walked beside him as they left the alleyway, still looking petulant. ‘You could have paid her, if you care so much.’
‘I am not buying whores for you,’ Corus returned flatly. ‘Pay them yourself.’
Tam seemed to ponder this for a moment, finding the thought unpleasant. Then he asked suddenly, ‘Were you watching me?’ with such a tone of indignation and surprise that Corus nearly laughed even though it was the last thing he felt like doing.
‘As if I would let you out of my sight.’ Truth to tell, he had been distracted trying to get them a late dinner or he would have interfered much earlier: he had only just caught a glimpse of Tam turning into the alley with a girl in tow when he had looked away from the street vendor. But he did try. Every so often, Tam apparently re-discovered that Corus’ main purpose in life was, in fact, to prevent him from doing most of what he considered fun; yet admitting to it hardly damaged their relationship. Corus suspected that Tam tolerated his company largely due to Corus’ steadfast refusal to accept Tam’s claim that he was actually a dragon, and the corresponding desire to show off to him. Why the idiot had latched on to the need to convince him especially, of all people, the gods alone knew, but he would welcome anything to make his task—driven by a self-inflicted sense of responsibility—any easier, be it however so strange.
If pressed, he would for his part admit that Tam had, as a companion, some few pleasant qualities. He rarely complained except when his immediate material desires were being withheld, and was generally willing to do whatever menial tasks were needed for their existence. He was good in a fight, such as occurred perforce now and then on the roads. Best, he was a first-rate storyteller, always inventive and lively in his narratives, which Corus assumed came naturally to someone with an irrepressible tendency to live in a world of fantasy. Tam had, for instance, spent several days trying to convince Corus that the octopus and eels they had seen at a market in the south were actually baby sea monsters. Such tales kept them entertained of an evening, though sooner or later Tam would always return, with a sideways glance to read Corus’ reaction, to his own draconic nature: the primary focus of his particular insanity.
He couldn’t remember any particulars about his life in dragon form, when Corus had idly inquired, nor how he had been made human, though he insisted that another dragon was in some way responsible. He would speak evocatively about the feeling of flight and the roaring rush of fire through the throat, and declare that he would manage to regain all this someday. Corus let him believe what he liked on that score: the (re)appearance of his magical gifts had certainly pleased him, but there was no reason to believe it could go beyond basic magecraft, which was common enough. More worrisome was his outlook on the rest of the world, which could (Corus would concede) be termed somewhat draconic. Tam simply had no ability to distinguish right from wrong. Given that he was also avaricious, ambitious, proud, selfish, and relentlessly energetic, this trait was essentially the root cause of all Corus’ troubles.
A very long two years indeed.
When they finally found an inn, Corus was kind enough to challenge Tam to a drinking contest, something he often did after he had annoyed Tam, presumably to make up to him. Tam had discovered that he very much enjoyed most alcohols; he had never had any before the change, probably because of all the lovely things alcohol did: he supposed it would take terrible amounts to affect a dragon that way since they were so much bigger than people, and so there hadn’t really been much point in drinking any. But getting drunk was probably his favorite part of having a new body, and so he played the game to his own rule: the faster he was able to forget about anyone else playing it and get happily drunk ahead of them, the better he judged his results. But of course, by that point, he had usually forgotten that there was a game at all, crawled up onto the table, and curled up, apparently asleep. But he was not asleep at all, merely floating blissfully in a waking dream world of memories, sometimes of flying, sometimes of fighting, sometimes imagining that he was coiled upon a great pile of gold.
For Corus, it was a convenient way to get Tam to stay quiet for a while and out of trouble, simply for the cost of the drinks.
The next morning found Tam up just after dawn as usual, apparently no worse for his pleasant evening. As was his habit, he sat himself cross-legged on the floor beside the bed he had shared with the still-sleeping Corus, pulling after him from under the covers a sturdy leather bag that he slept curled around every night. Carefully, reverently, he undid the clasp, then the drawstring, and reached inside to pull out a cloth bundle. With deft fingers, working almost with tenderness, he undid the knots at the top and smoothed the cloth open. Inside was a small collection of items that caught the morning light and reflected it in Tam’s loving eyes. A bracelet of silver set with blue stones cut into many-faceted beauty. A necklace of interlocking gold links like a metallic stream of water. Several rings of different metals and designs, some with settings, others without. Three mismatched earrings, one with a large pearl of lustrous hue. Two keys, one of pale silver with a worked handle, one of a strange metal for which even Tam had been unable to find a name. He picked each item up in turn, held it before his eyes, cleaned it gently with his sleeve; then he arranged them in careful order upon the cloth, the better to admire them.
Next he removed from the bag a small wooden chest bound in silver and iron. Setting this on the floor before him, he picked up the silver key from his collection and worked the lock. The lid lifted to reveal a pile of silver coins of many sizes and even shapes, each as clean as the day it was minted thanks to Tam’s constant solicitous attention. Slowly, he counted each of them, murmuring the numbers to himself in a sort of sing-song. This box, with its lid still open, was then placed beside the laden cloth, and a second one, of cherry-wood and brass with a garnet inlay on the lid, followed it. Having used the mysterious key that accompanied it, Tam smiled at the contents, a small heap of gold coins, more than a prosperous merchant might see in half a year. These he caressed as he counted, like the old friends they were. Then he put the whole in line with the other casket and sat back to marvel at the lot.
His hoard. It wasn’t much, not yet, but he knew it would grow into the heart of something much grander. He had acquired it with great care, some lucky finds on the street (mostly the earrings and a few of the small coins), some the spoils of fights, some snatched when both Corus and their previous owner hadn’t been paying close enough attention, some actually earned on the odd occasion when the huntsman had found them a bit of work here or there. They were his children. But they were nowhere near enough.
Tam stayed in worshipful contemplation of his riches until Corus finally rose, yawning; then he hunched protectively over the jewels to prevent them from being accidentally scattered by his companion’s feet as Corus moved sleepily around the room, although the other man was well aware of Tam’s habits and kept to the other side of the bed. ‘All well in place?’ he asked drily as he set about dressing.
Tam began, reluctantly, to pack away his hoard, but nodded in reply. He did not worry that Corus had any personal interest in his prizes, and indeed often liked to show them off to him, but he remembered the horrid talk from the previous night about spending some of it and felt it prudent to hide it away this morning to prevent such a distasteful subject from rising again. ‘What are we doing today?’ he asked, for good measure. He didn’t much care, but Corus often seemed to, so it was a useful distraction.
Corus gave him a hard look. Unfortunately, he did have some business to attend to with an old acquaintance—it was the sole reason he had led them here, in fact—and he very much misliked the idea of bringing Tam along, as it would hardly make anything go smoothly. ‘Can I trust you on your own?’ he asked at length.
‘Of course!’ Tam replied with reserved dignity.
Corus doubted this. But he came over to crouch beside Tam as the latter did up the drawstring of his sack with exaggerated delicacy, and waited until Tam looked him in the eye. ‘You know what I expect, Tam. No trouble. No fighting. No stealing, no taking, no magic, no girls.’ He ran through the list in his brain to figure out what permutation he’d missed, but it was hard to address all of Tam’s unpredictable whims. Instead, to buffer his defense, he added, ‘I would expect that a dragon can show self-restraint for a day?’
Tam stiffened. ‘Obviously.’
Not exactly the right word, Tam. ‘You swear to it? As a dragon?’
This made Tam cock his head to the side and blink at him with interest. ‘So you think I’m a dragon?’
‘Not the point. Do you swear?’ he repeated. The terms of the oath meant little to him, but whatever Tam considered important... It was not the first time he had used this tactic.
‘I swear.’ Having secured this assent, Corus prepared with some trepidation to leave, hoping that Tam might decide to just stay holed up with his treasures all day.
The allure of a new town, however, quickly drew Tam outside. He loved the sights, sounds, smells of different places, loved strolling among the crowds of humans and feeling superior to them all. He swiped a skewer of grilled, spicy meat because he’d knocked it accidentally to the ground when the vendor wasn’t looking, so it obviously wasn’t good to sell anymore and wasn’t really stealing after all. It was delicious, too, and the warm grease from the soft meat ran pleasantly down his chin. He twirled the stick idly in his fingers after he’d finished, then quietly incinerated it.
A curious sight caught his eye as he meandered down one street: a man, dressed in finer robes than anyone else he’d passed today, moving from the door of one shop to the next, with a large ledger under one arm and a small iron box under the other. Tam stopped walking and watched as a shopkeeper came to the door and spoke with her visitor for a few moments, looking annoyed. The man set down his box—it turned out to be linked to his belt by a long, thick chain—and set his foot on top of it, so that he could leaf through his ledger with both hands. He showed a page to the woman, who threw up her hands and withdrew into her shop for a while. When she re-emerged, she carried a small leather pouch, which she handed to the man. He took it, swapped the ledger for the box, produced a key, opened it: a dexterous feat that impressed Tam, but what impressed him more was the glint of coin, silver and gold, that shone from within. From the woman’s purse he tipped another three small pieces into the collection and handed back the empty pouch with a satisfied nod. Having re-locked the box, he turned to continue on his way, and caught sight of Tam, who had wandered over without even realizing he was doing so. ‘Move along,’ the man directed gruffly.
Tam bristled at the rudeness, but was mindful of his solemn oath to Corus; instead he resolved to ask the huntsman that evening what strange power it was that let a man be given money on demand, in exchange for nothing. Tam wanted to do that.
‘A tax-collector,’ Corus answered when the question was put to him over dinner. ‘Working for the king, most likely.’
Tam turned this over in his mind. So the money had not been for the man who worked to gather it? ‘Why doesn’t he just keep it himself?’
‘Because that is his job,’ was the unhelpful reply. ‘And most people are good people who do what they are supposed to, not just as they like.’ He gave Tam a steady, pointed gaze. Tam responded with one equally readable. I am a dragon. What I like is what I should do. Corus sighed. ‘Thank you for today, Tam.’ Not that praising him ever seemed to do much good.
In fact, Tam’s mind had already wandered back to the tax-collector, and he came around to the obvious point soon enough. ‘Could I collect taxes, then?’ he asked hopefully.
Corus snorted. ‘Absolutely not.’
‘I think I could, actually,’ Tam muttered, not exactly under his breath, then louder, ‘Why?’
‘You’re...’ Corus paused, looking to find the best words to explain. ‘It’s the king who taxes his subjects, not people one another. And he doesn’t want the money for himself; he uses it to govern the kingdom.’
Another person who gave away the treasures they’d taken? Humans were almost too incredible to believe. Tam had to pursue this strange notion further.’ Why does he need the money, then, if he won’t use it for himself?’
‘Well, so he can pay his men, protect people—’
‘I would protect people if they gave me money. Well, I wouldn’t hurt them if they gave me money,’ he amended modestly.
Corus gave him a funny look. ‘There’s a word for that, but it’s not taxes,’ he said somewhat cryptically.
‘And,’ Tam went on, ‘I would be much more careful with my money than this king, who gives it all away again: it would be very safe with me.’
‘I can believe that.’ But Corus still, to Tam’s frustration, did not look convinced.
‘Are you saying,’ he began slowly after collecting his thoughts, ‘that I can’t tax people because I am a dragon, not a king?’
Now Corus grinned. ‘You know, close enough.’ He was certainly not about to explain all the intricacy of government, tradition, rights, precedents, law, and the myriad other things which Tam would never be able to grasp.
But for his part, Tam was by no means satisfied with this casual dismissal of the problem. As far as he could tell, the only difference between himself and a king was that he wasn’t so lazy as to make someone else go around to gather the gold for him. He was, he was certain, as able to do all the things Corus has listed as was any king, and most kings were not nearly so good at using magic the way he could do. He could rule people, that much was clear, and many dragons did just that, in the stories. So what did a king have that a dragon lacked?
He pondered this as he went to bed, and an idea came to him in the early hours of the morning. Making sure that Corus was still sleeping soundly, he slipped out of the bed, and taking his sack with him, crept out the door.
‘One more day!’
When Corus suggested after breakfast that they move on, Tam, quite unusually, put up a mighty protest. Nor would he say, when pressed, why he was so adamant in his desire to remain. Corus wondered if Tam hadn’t gotten into some unknown mischief yesterday, after all. Right now, he sat on the bed with his knees drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped tightly around them: as immoveable as a rock or so he hoped; but he watched Corus carefully to make sure he wasn’t going to try anything unacceptable. He practically trembled with tense, coiled energy, and was actually ready to fight Corus if the other tried to make him leave.
Perhaps Corus realized this, or just got tired of arguing; eventually, at any rate, he threw up his hands in exasperation. ‘Fine, I don’t care. Though what you’re so desperate for here is beyond me.’ They weren’t in any particular hurry, he supposed, though his own business had been concluded and he generally preferred to keep Tam on the move. Especially if Tam showed an interest in staying put. But what could he do?
Tam was absurdly delighted at the pronouncement, even going so far as to spontaneously promise good behavior for the day. This happy mood drove itself along for the entire morning. He inquired after Corus’ affairs and listened to the answer with much greater attentiveness than usual, so that Corus found he did not mind explaining it to him; and he astonished the huntsman by sharing with him a small portion of his lunch, something Corus wasn’t sure had ever happened before. Part of him wanted to worry at all this, for Tam could hardly mean any good with such maneuvers, but it was such a pleasant change that he found it hard to genuinely care.
They took a stroll in the afternoon and watched a puppet play at a street corner; Tam stared entranced as a rainbow-hued dragon of papier-mâché stormed a castle with fire of colored ribbons, scattering its painted bricks onto the heads of the delighted children with whom Tam had gone to sit. The monster carted off a lady in its jaws, only to meet death at the hands of the valiant knight who’d come ambling after them. Tam applauded madly with the rest of them, but Corus noticed he seemed more pensive afterward, moderating the morning’s manic cheerfulness.
The evening come, Tam lay sprawled on his back on their bed, having eaten up their private supper at far greater speed than Corus. His eyes were shining as they gazed up at the raftered ceiling. After some time, he asked, ‘Corus, do dragons really kidnap princesses?’
Corus tensed as he instinctively wondered what Tam was plotting—oh gods, if he ever got the idea to ransom someone—but then he realized that the tone had not been Tam’s calculating one. He shrugged. ‘So the stories go.’
They wouldn’t be very good dragons to get themselves killed afterwards, Tam felt. In fact, one wasn’t a real dragon if one couldn’t do as one liked: and be stopped by a mere king! ‘Maybe they could share the princess,’ he muttered to himself, but aloud. That would do until the dragon became more powerful than the king; after all, waiting for things was so very difficult.
Corus looked at him closely. Where had that come from? ‘You’re an odd one, Tam.’ Why was there all this talk of sharing, today? He wondered what it meant.
And so, even though Corus had said that being a dragon wasn’t the same as being a king, and that Tam could not do the things that a king could, he was a bit wrong. The puppet play had, to his pleasure, confirmed something he had already been wondering, and planning for. While he waited to be a better dragon—and these were the moments that his new body was really very irritating—he would make himself a king so that he could do things the way Corus wanted him to. Later... who knew? With this to look forwards to, Tam curled up to sleep.
Corus felt a sinking feeling of dread when he awoke the next day to find that, instead of sitting and counting as usual, Tam was not in the room at all. Cursing himself for having become lax in his guard, allowing himself the habit of sleeping in after Tam, he scrambled from the bed, praying that the idiot had only gotten hungry and wandered off in search of food, or something equally harmless. In his heart, he doubted that that was possible, especially not after yesterday’s scene. He took barely the time to throw on his clothes before he was off down the stairs into the public room of the inn, empty save for one of the girls, attending to the fire.
He was going to ask her, barely pausing, whether she had seen Tam, when the man himself appeared at the door opposite, pulling him up short. Tam had apparently been running, but he too froze as he caught sight of Corus, then sidled in, looking pleased with himself. Unfortunately, it was not difficult to see why: somehow, incredibly, a plain crown of gold, topped with shallow, undulating points, was sitting incongruously on his brow. The sense of dread settled further into Corus’ chest. ‘Tam,’ he managed to say, ‘where did you get that?’
As if he had released some sort of trigger, Tam now bounded into motion, practically flying across the room to him. ‘It’s mine,’ he said proudly, turning his head so that the crown caught the sunlight from the open door and shimmered like fire: a well-wrought piece of work, certainly. ‘Do you like it?’
Corus grabbed Tam by the front of his long coat to hold him still, and drew him in close. He was well aware that the innkeep’s girl was not-so-subtly watching them now; he kept his voice low. ‘What are you up to?’
Tam spoke as though he was explaining things to a child, slowly and patiently. ‘Well, I have a crown now,’ he said, ‘so that means I can collect taxes.’
In disbelief, Corus released his hold, and Tam went back to his prancing. ‘That...’ Tam’s warped logic had scarcely reached to such heights before; he felt helpless. ‘That’s insane.’ His head hurt. ‘You’re insane.’
‘I think it makes perfect—’ Tam began defensively, then he let out a yell of anger as Corus reached out and snatched the crown from his head.
Before he could do worse, though, Corus slammed the back of his fist across Tam’s cheek, startling him into silence. ‘It’s right here,’ he reminded him gruffly, turning the heavy crown over in his hands, abstractly admiring the texture of the beaten gold. Then he returned to his first, the most important question. ‘Where did you get this?’
Tam’s eyes didn’t leave the crown, but the query for some reason seemed to please him. ‘I had it made. That’s all of my gold, with iron inside.’ In truth, it had pained him at the time to give all his dear coins up to be melted, but the final result had so thrilled him that the loss was barely remembered now. He would just have to get some more of them.
‘You paid to have it made?’ Corus pursued sharply.
Tam mulled this over momentarily, deepening Corus’ suspicions. Then his face lit up with a grin. ‘Yes, I did,’ he said with confidence.
Corus studied him carefully. Lying had, for whatever reason, never been one of Tam’s many vices, but it was always possible that he could progress from bad to worse. But a strong part of him desperately wanted to believe that Tam might, at long last, have begun to learn the lessons Corus had so despairingly tried to teach him. The temptation to have this one fantasy of his own proved enough that he found himself placing the crown back in Tam’s eager hands. ‘I hope you did, Tam,’ he told him gravely. ‘That would be very good of you.’ Whether or not Tam was even listening was debatable, since he seemed preoccupied with settling the crown back on his head. ‘But I am afraid you still cannot tax anyone.’
Tam’s face fell, then he looked at Corus with distrust. ‘Why not?’
‘Because, I hate to tell you, a crown doesn’t make you a king,’ Corus explained, shrugging. ‘You don’t actually rule anything, Tam. It’s that sort of legitimate power that would let you tax people, not any jewelry.’ Especially not a crown you just gave to yourself, idiot.
‘But I do have power.’ Tam spoke so casually, puzzled, that Corus realized what was coming next only just before it happened, unable to react in time as Tam waved a hand with a muttered word. A bolt of crackling grey force buried itself in the wall to his right, shattering a shelf and sending its clay pots and their contents smashing to the ground. The inn’s girl screamed, and Corus could only stare at Tam in acute horror and mortification. Tam calmly lowered his hand and tilted his head at Corus. ‘Isn’t that legitimate?’
Corus made them leave town that morning, having shooed Tam upstairs after his display and sent the trembling girl to find her father, Tam wasn’t sure why. He remained enamored of his crown, however: although it had not impressed Corus as he had expected, he was still an instinctive believer in the efficacy of such a pretty object to satisfy all his hopes. In fact, he was tempted to try taxing someone anyhow, just in case Corus was wrong.
He was also glad he had discovered a way to buy things that would surely satisfy his companion: he had paid the metalsmith with his life, which was undoubtedly something the man had valued very much. It was therefore quite adequate return for making so small a thing as his crown—though some part of his brain still stopped him form actually explaining this excellent logic to the huntsman. He wasn’t sure Corus could understand it, for he was often conflicted in the very rules he tried to impose upon Tam.
This muddle about taxing was only part of it. It was all right to fight and kill some people, apparently, for they had dealt with bandits on the roads, and Tam remembered having been hired with Corus to actually hunt down and finish some sort of outlaw; that had not been a problem, but other times Corus became angry when Tam tried the same on his own. Once, they had seen a troop of armed men on horses attack a village, burning, killing, and looting; all of it looked quite enjoyable to Tam, and he had wanted to join in. But Corus had said that those men were at war, that the town belonged to their enemy and they could do these things: but not Tam, since he was not at war. Tam had said he would declare war, then, but Corus had said he couldn’t—which sounded an awful like the issue of taxes again. He had seen one of those men grab a woman then, and have her; and Tam saw no money pass hands. He didn’t see why that was any different than the whores in town, who were even willing to have sex on purpose, but Corus had always stopped him there too, even though he had not stopped the soldier in the village. Tam was beginning to suspect that these odd rules were just pretend, ways of convincing yourself that it was right that you not do everything that the powerful men could and did do daily, and also justifying the things that would happen anyhow because not everyone could be so easily stopped. Tam was surprised that Corus minded these rules, since Tam was certain he could have broken so many of them, and many people even claimed to have the very best reasons to do so (here Tam thought again of the dead outlaw). Well, Tam was powerful, and also had excellent reasons for everything he did: some day, he would make up his own rules that weren’t lies.
For now, he wore his crown proudly as they left the town behind them, and in his heart he knew he was a king, just as he was a dragon.
‘Duck!’ Tam shouted. Corus obeyed instinctively, and a sheet of purple-red fire shot through the space where his torso had been, crashing into the three armed men who had burst out of the heavy underbrush to the side. They died screaming. Corus was frozen for a moment at the sight, but Tam had already turned to deliver lightning against more soldiers nearer to him, and he recovered himself quickly. He raised his bow and sent an arrow into the chest of a fresh assailant, regretting even then that it was necessary.
Tam was roaring the words of magic with a voice that should have gone hoarse long ago; now he spun on his heel with his hands extended before him, and pale yellow flames flared out in an arc, spreading to catch the trees around them alight. Another shriek could be heard behind the wall of flames. Then Tam laid a hand of his arm and they were off again, sprinting through the woods with a series of leaps, dodges, and scrambles over the rough terrain. He was slower than Tam, who although panting as much as he, was with his usual overflowing energy outdistancing him with every step, and in fact kept stopping to urge Corus on. The huntsman realized abstractly that he was getting older, though Tam didn’t seem to have changed in the time they had been together. More immediately, he noticed that Tam was laughing, and anger rose within him. It’s not a game, he thought in quiet fury, and it is all your fault. Cursing Tam silently, he ran on, and on; then there were more footsteps drawing up behind them, and he drew from his quiver once more.
He fought efficiently, aiming with care and letting enemies draw near enough that he could not miss. Tam was less meticulous, conjuring up sprays of burning poisons, bursts of fire, shards of metal and ice, and throwing them everywhere: only just avoiding Corus alone (in good part helped by the huntsman’s reflexes). He was in his element, though, still laughing between wild surges of power; Corus had never seen him work on such a scale before, and this too worried him. Men died around them, men of a small army they had not known was there until Tam had committed his monumental blunder. And now Tam was killing them in such numbers that it defied reason. The forest burned now, too; he could smell the smoke. Then they were off running again, running to gods knew where, running endlessly.
Then, without warning, Tam suddenly stumbled, falling to his knees in the dirt. He was laboring to breathe, Corus could see even as he moved to catch up, summoning a turn of speed he would not have thought possible of himself. Without pause, he bent over Tam and forced him to stand; automatically, they placed their backs together defensively, that they might protect and watch all sides at once, as they had done many times before. But this time Tam was leaning much of his weight on Corus, who could feel the heaving of his lungs even over the movement of his own chest. ‘What’s wrong?’ he whispered over his shoulder, keeping his ears alert to the faintest sound of movement around them, but the woods were for a moment quiet.
‘Don’t know,’ Tam replied likewise. ‘Tired.’
He could talk, Corus thought wearily, but he felt now a trembling from Tam, his whole body shaking like an aspen leaf. At the same time, footfalls reached them anew. Corus swore, and shot the first man who appeared through the trees. How many had caught up to them this time? He heard Tam begin a conjuration behind him, growing louder as it ended, but not the roar of magical energy which should have followed, and felt Tam’s weight on him grow. He shot another man, then risked a quick glance behind: a stream of bluish smoke was rising into the air, yet nothing had burned. Some twenty feet off, a soldier had ducked but now, looking surprised, and triumphant, he was coming back to his feet. Then Corus’ arrow took him in the throat.
He had had to turn and step to make the shot, and Tam, without the support of his back, had slumped down to his knees. To judge by the look of numb shock on his face, it was something more than physical exhaustion which had staggered him. Corus had made the same calculation and realized their very great problem. ‘Up!’ he snarled. That seemed to have been an end to their hunters in the immediate area—they must be fanning out as the fire spread—but they could hardly have much time. ‘We have to hide.’ And Tam struggled up, and they jogged on.
The best they could find was a large tree that had, in falling, given a roof to a natural hollow in the ground; Corus made Tam squeeze through this then followed him in, where he was pleased to discover that the rotting wood had been made hollow through decay, giving them both room to sit up. In the dim daylight filtering in from the gap through which they had crawled, he saw that Tam had leaned back against the soft wood and was watching him. Never before had he seen him wear that expression: he realized that it was fear, and that Tam had never before felt it. ‘What happened?’ Corus asked in a low voice, though he already knew.
Tam was still shivering. ‘It’s gone.’ He was breathing heavily, throat now heralding the hoarseness that had to come. ‘I didn’t know... that I...’
Could run out of magic. Out of power. Corus hadn’t either; Tam’s capacity for destruction had previously seemed limitless, unable to be challenged. That there was a boundary, a point of exhaustion—temporary though he was sure it was—meant a new world. If it had brought Tam to fear, it lifted that same shadow from over him. He had not realized how sweet, after three heavy years, it could feel.
And at no better time, too. For just before this catastrophic race had begun, he had seen his own control over Tam finally slip away. They had seen a caravan on the road, that had been the start of it. Tam had noticed the stacked chests within their wagons; Corus, the guards around them. ‘Tam, you cannot do that,’ Corus had told him fiercely as he had so often before, when Tam had voiced his plans.
Then Tam had turned to him with wide eyes, looking almost as if he surprised himself. ‘But I can,’ he had said simply: and then it was too late.
Corus had not helped him—not that there had been time, for all the guards had been dead within moments—but had run with Tam when the other troops had come, to save his own life. Only now was there time to really understand what had happened there, how Tam had suddenly grown too... wild? perhaps, for the rules he had always been given. And from there to this: the last time he would be able to control this madman, the last time he could be unafraid of Tam...
‘Why did you do that?’ he asked softly, catching Tam’s eye.
Already, the initial look of sheer terror had faded from his face, though Tam still looked lost, uncertain of himself. ‘Do what?’ he returned vaguely.
Any of it. But he already had his answer, he knew, for Tam had told him, before this had all started: because he could, because he could now take whatever his heart desired, and his heart desired a great many things. Or, as Tam would say, because he was a dragon.
Did it matter if that was true?
In Corus’ silence, Tam seemed to have forgotten that a question had ever been asked. He now tugged his sack from his shoulder and worked the clasp and cord with nervous fingers. Corus frowned as he watched Tam draw out a large, cloth-wrapped object and set it down between them: the only piece from the whole disaster that Tam had had time to properly purloin, and now he wanted the comfort of the gold. The huntsman’s mind still spun around his last question. Did it matter whether Tam was mad, and merely thought himself a dragon? Or if he was, impossibly, actually a dragon? Did he not have the answer to that already as well?
Tam unwound the cloth, and a stocky vase of gold, studded with gems on its body and swooping handles, glinted dully in the dimness. Corus thought how ugly it was: without real artistry, without soul, and covered now in blood. Yet Tam’s face relaxed at the sight of it, driving away some of the weariness as he took several deep breaths. His fingers moved out to touch the hard surface, softly tracing over the raised forms of the jewels, following its curve.
And Corus realized that Tam had been right all along. Whether or not he had ever been a dragon in shape he could not say, but did not care: Tam was a dragon now, since nothing about him was human.
When Tam finally dropped to sleep, cradling the vase in his arms, Corus went noiselessly from their sanctuary, and off in search of the soldiers. This was the only chance he would have.
‘Tam!’ Corus’ voice, calling, woke him from his sleep. He groaned; every muscle within him ached, and he still felt that awful, hollow feeling within, where his power should have been. ‘Come out!’ Corus encouraged.
‘Is it safe?’ He asked this mostly to give him time to pack away his things safely again; Corus would not make so much noise if it wasn’t.
And indeed, the huntsman said ‘Yes,’ after only a moment. Satisfied, Tam finished sorting his affairs and began to squirm his way out.
Then there was blinding pain, and he cried out, and was vaguely aware that a long, thin blade has sunk into him, driving deep below the collarbone, scraping along the bone as with a horrible wrenching twist it was pulled out again. Hands grabbed at him, hauling him from the hole and multiplying his agony, but he was limp with the pain and the hollowness, and could not resist them. Where was Corus? Why had he said it was safe? As they were tying his hands firmly behind his back, he caught a glimpse from his kneeling vantage of his companion, standing between two soldiers to the right, hands also bound, not looking at Tam. That was confusing: how had that come to be? He had to save them both, then, at least to understand what was happening: and he fought to pull up some hidden reserve of might, find the words, work the magic without his arms—but there was nothing there, and then they were forcing some kind of metal plate between his teeth, chaining it there, silencing him save for his snarls.
Corus kept his eyes averted for much of the process for no reason he could justify to himself, except perhaps not to witness Tam’s humiliation, for he was satisfied still that this had been the only thing to do—though some of the sounds Tam made were deeply unsettling. Only when one of the soldiers moved to life away Tam’s pack did he stir. ‘That’s not a good idea, you’ll never get him to come along—’
But Tam had already seen what was happening, lashed out with an awkward kick at the man who held him before sinking his teeth into the hand that had grabbed his sack. Blood had soaked the front of Tam’s shirt, plastering the dark cloth wetly to his skin, but he fought them until a cruel boot to the site of his original wound sent him sprawling to his side, gasping. The sack was slung onto the back of a soldier and two more picked up Tam, making him walk. Briefly, his eyes made contact with Corus’ own, and they contained a promise that made him shudder involuntarily. The gold was gone. There was no forgiveness.
Still, he had had no choice. He wished only it had not taken him so long to see it was so. Of course, he was not guiltless himself now, having taken his part in the fighting: nor did he mean to use his betrayal of Tam to gain some advantage or reprieve in what might follow. Yet he could not feel regret. He had tried for so long to contain Tam; if this was the price of success, then it felt light indeed.
In the small wooden fortress that the soldiers used, he and Tam were placed in the second floor of the square tower, a single bare room of rough planking; in accidental irony they were bound back-to-back as they had once stood together. Corus was fed a bowl of broth, Tam nothing. He seemed even weaker than before, probably from the blood he had lost, and slumped wordlessly in his bonds. It had gone to night outside; they sat in the dark silence as if under a heavy weight. Corus’ mind wandered aimlessly then settled on the pointless subject of the future. What might face him, he had no means of knowing, his crime itself being unclear. Tam would die, somehow, that much seemed certain; and he realized that he had never seriously thought of Tam as a creature capable of really dying before today, no, before this moment even, never seen him vulnerable enough to die. Could he now? It was going to happen.
When the silence ultimately became unbearable, he turned his head and spoke towards Tam’s ear. ‘Do you know why I did it?’ he asked, even though Tam could not have articulated a reply. That Tam had understood the fact of betrayal had been clear, but it seemed somehow important that he realize that he himself had brought it about. ‘Because I’ve understood you. And I admit defeat. I can’t ever change you, for which I’m sorry.’ He heard only Tam’s rough breath in reply. ‘And you can’t change yourself, can you, Tam? You would never even want to.’ He realized then that Tam’s breathing was becoming slower, fuller. ‘Tam?’
Deeper, slower. Tam was growling slightly, barely a noise, with every outward breath. The sound hissed around the metal gag, and caused an unpleasant tingling across the nape of Corus’ neck. ‘Tam?’ he tried again, louder.
Then Tam roared, and it was mixed with a scream of pain. Corus grunted as their skulls collided; Tam had thrown his head back sharply, moments before the sound of shattering metal cracked through the chamber. And the room was suddenly lit eerily by an unnatural flickering light that grew brighter as green flames lit the walls and began to spread.
Tam roared again, a clearer sound now, and Corus guessed that the metal plate and chain had met its end through whatever Tam had somehow managed to do. He needed to free himself from Tam, and now. But though he began to struggle against the ropes, they held firm. Then Tam was pushing to his feet, still somewhat unsteadily, but forcing Corus up as well. The huntsman found himself being dragged towards the burning wall. ‘Tam, what—’
Corus screamed as Tam thrust their jointly-bound wrists against the wood alight with the green fire and it licked about his hands. Tam’s magic had burnt him before, but this was worse, pain cutting past skin, past muscle, past bone, straight into the core of a person and scouring with the coldest heat. That the rope was gone he didn’t notice, only that Tam now pushed him away from the wall; he fell, hit the floor, curled protectively around his ruined hands.
There were heavy footsteps outside and soldiers burst in, swords drawn. Corus knew that his time had come, but Tam turned his head to them and opened his jaws, baring his teeth in a snarl. And fire tumbled relentlessly out, engulfing the men, turned them to dust. Flames spread now down the stairway, and more yelling came from outside. Tam faced Corus as he stood up slowly, so slowly, contemplating him with those green eyes that matched his terrible fire.
When at last Tam spoke his voice was shockingly normal, unchanged despite the monstrous new might that he’d displayed, this power that had burst up in him from somewhere deep within. He even cocked his head at Corus just the way he always had. ‘What did you understand about me?’ he asked.
‘That you had to be stopped. Because you won’t stop yourself.’
‘Why?’ It was incredible, the same old question asked in this nightmarish room. Corus heard the floor creak beneath them.
He stared at Tam for a long moment, levelly. ‘Because you’re a dragon.’ The world can’t pay your price—isn’t that why all the dragon-slaying stories exist? You’ve heard them, Tam. Tam even looked pleased, a small smile appearing on his face. His eyes flicked around the burning walls, and back to Corus. ‘You do know you’ve failed?’ he asked conversationally.
Corus could only nod.
‘And that,’ Tam went on, ‘is because you’ve forgotten what being a dragon really means.’ Kings had crowns. Dragons had—
He opened his mouth again and drew in air.
When the floor collapsed, the remains of Corus’ body were buried in the wreckage of the room below, but as Tam dropped to a soft landing he was happy to catch sight of his sack, sheltered beneath a table and as yet untouched by his fire. He grabbed it out, hefting its familiar, precious weight. Shadows were swarming around his body, coalescing behind him into solid form. He stretched the wings once, twice, then burst upwards through the ruined tower. Panicked men in the yard gaped up at him as he soared, frozen in the act of passing buckets uselessly from a well. He rained flames down upon them, on the buckets, the well, the entire fortress.
Whatever void his magic had left had been refilled, was bursting, with all that he was meant to be; there was nothing he could not do now. He decided, as he wheeled off into the night, to begin thinking up some rules.
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