Chapter no 74: Waystone

The Name of the Wind

DESPITE OUR GENERAL WEARINESS, Denna and I made good time and came to the top of the northern hill just as the sun was setting behind the mountains. Though trees ringed the hill on all sides, its peak was bald as a priest’s head. The unrestricted view in all directions was breathtaking. My only regret is that the clouds had blown in while we walked, leaving the sky flat and grey as slate.

To the south I could see a handful of small farms. A few streams and narrow roads cut meandering paths through the trees. The western mountains were like a distant wall. To the south and east I could see smoke rising into the sky and the low, brown buildings of Trebon.

Turning north I saw that what the swineherd had said was true. There were no signs of human habitation in that direction. No roads or farms or chimney smoke, just increasingly rough ground, exposed rock, and trees clinging to the bluffs.

The only thing on the top of the hill was a handful of greystones. Three of the massive stones were stacked together to form a huge arch, like a massive doorway. The other two lay on their sides, as if lounging in the thick grass. I found their presence comforting, like the unexpected company of old friends.

Denna sat on one of the fallen greystones as I stood looking out over the countryside. I felt a slight prickle of rain against my face and muttered a curse, flipping the hood of my cloak up.

“It won’t last long,” Denna said. “It’s done this the last couple nights.

Clouds up, soaks for about half an hour, then blows over.” “Good,” I said. “I hate sleeping in the rain.”

I set my travelsack on the leeward side of one of the greystones and the two of us began to set up camp. We each went about our business as if we’d done this a hundred times before. Denna cleared a space for a fire and gathered stones. I brought back an armload of wood and got the fire going quickly. On my next trip I gathered some sage and dug up a few wild onions I’d noticed on the way up the hill.

The rain came down hard, then tapered off as I started to make supper. I used my small cookpot to make a stew with the leftover pork from lunch,

some carrots and potatoes, and the onions I’d found. I seasoned it with salt, pepper, and sage, then warmed a loaf of flatbread near the fire and broke open the wax on the cheese. Last of all, I tucked two apples in among the hot rocks of the fire. They’d be baked in time for dessert.

By the time dinner was ready, Denna had amassed a small mountain of firewood. I spread out my blanket for her to sit on, and she made appreciative noises over the food as we set about eating.

“A girl could get used to this sort of treatment,” Denna said after we’d finished. She leaned contentedly back against one of the greystones. “If you had your lute here, you could sing me to sleep and everything would be perfect.”

“I met a tinker on the road this morning, and he tried to sell me a bottle of fruit wine,” I said. “I wish I’d taken him up on his offer.”

“I love fruit wine,” she said. “Was it strawberry?” “I think it was,” I admitted.

“Well that’s what you get for not listening to a tinker on the road,” she chided, her eyes drowsy. “Clever boy like you has heard enough stories to know better….” She sat up suddenly, pointing over my shoulder. “Look!”

I turned. “What am I looking for?” I asked. The sky was still thick with clouds, so the surrounding countryside was just a sea of black.

“Just keep looking. Maybe it will…. There!”

I saw it. A flicker of blue light off in the distance. I got to my feet and put the fire behind me so it wouldn’t dull my vision. Denna came to stand beside me and we waited breathlessly for a moment. Another swell of blue light, stronger.

“What do you think that is?” I asked.

“I’m pretty sure all the iron mines are off to the west,” Denna mused. “It can’t be that.”

There was another flare. It did seem to be coming from the bluffs, which meant that if it was a flame, it was a big one. At least several times larger than our own fire.

“You said your patron had a way of signaling you,” I said slowly. “I don’t mean to pry, but it’s not…”

“No. It’s nothing to do with blue fire,” she said with a low chuckle at my discomfiture. “That would be altogether too sinister, even for him.”

We watched for a while longer, but it didn’t happen again. I took a branch about as big around as my thumb, broke it in half, then used a rock to pound both halves into the earth like tent stakes. Denna raised a questioning eyebrow.

“It points toward where we saw the light,” I said. “I can’t see any landmarks in this dark, but in the morning this will show us what direction it was in.”

We reclaimed our previous seats and I threw more wood on the fire, sending sparks twinkling up into the air. “One of us should probably stay up with the fire,” I said. “In case anyone shows up.”

“I don’t tend to sleep through the night anyway,” Denna said. “So that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“You have trouble sleeping?”

“I have dreams,” she said in a tone of voice that made it clear that was all she had to say on the subject.

I picked at some brownbur that clung to the edge of my cloak, pulling it out and tossing it into the fire. “I think I’ve got an idea about what happened at the Mauthen farm.”

She perked up. “Do tell.”

“The question is: Why would the Chandrian attack at that specific place and time?”

“The wedding, obviously.”

“But why this particular wedding? Why this night?”

“Why don’t you just tell me?” Denna said, rubbing her forehead. “Don’t try to tease me into some sort of sudden burst of understanding like you’re my schoolmaster.”

I felt myself flush hot with embarrassment again. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Normally I’d love nothing more than some witty back and forth with you, but I’ve had a long day and my head aches. Just skip to the end….”

“It’s whatever Mauthen found while he was digging up the old hill fort, looking for stones,” I said. “He dug something out of the ruins and gossiped about it for months. The Chandrian heard and showed up to steal it.” I finished with a bit of a flourish.

Denna frowned. “Doesn’t hold together. If all they wanted was the item, they could have waited until after the wedding and just killed the newlyweds. Much easier.”

That took some of the wind out of my sails. “You’re right.”

“It would make more sense if what they really wanted was to get rid of all knowledge of the thing. Like Old King Celon when he thought his regent was going to expose him for treason. Killed the fellow’s whole family and burned down their estate to make sure no word got out or evidence was left for anyone to find.”

Denna gestured off to the south. “Since everyone who knew the secret would be at the wedding, the Chandrian can come in, kill everyone who knows anything, and either destroy or steal whatever it is.” She made a motion with the flat of her hand. “Clean sweep.”

I sat stunned. Not so much by what Denna had said, which was, of course, better than my own guess. I was remembering what had happened to my own

troupe. Someone’s parents have been singing entirely the wrong sort of songs. But they hadn’t just killed my parents. They killed everyone who had been close enough to hear even a part of the song.

Denna rolled herself into my blanket and curled up with her back to the fire. “I will allow you to ponder my vast cleverness while I sleep. Wake me when you need anything else figured out.”

I stayed awake mostly through an effort of will. I’d had a long, grueling day, riding sixty miles and walking a half dozen more. But Denna was hurt and needed her sleep more. Besides, I wanted to keep an eye out for any more signs of the blue light to the north.

There weren’t any. I fed the fire and wondered vaguely if Wil and Sim were worried about my sudden disappearance back at the University. What of Arwyl and Elxa Dal and Kilvin? Would they wonder what happened to me? I should have left a note….

I had no way to track the time, as the clouds still hid the stars. But I had fed the fire at least six or seven times when I saw Denna stiffen and come suddenly awake. She didn’t bolt upright, but her breathing stopped and I saw her dark eyes dart about wildly, as if she didn’t know where she was.

“Sorry,” I said, mostly to give her something familiar to focus on. “Did I wake you?”

She relaxed and sat up. “No, I…no. Not at all. I’m done sleeping for a bit. You want a turn?” She rubbed at her eyes and peered at me over the fire. “Silly question. You look like hell.” She began to unwrap the blanket from around herself. “Here…”

I waved it off. “Keep it. My cloak is good enough for me.” I put my hood up and lay down on the grass.

“What a gentleman,” she teased gently, wrapping it across her shoulders.

I pillowed my head with my arm, and while I was trying to think of a clever response, I fell asleep.

I woke from a dim dream of moving through a crowded street to the sight of Denna’s face above me, rosy and sharply shadowed by the firelight. All in all, a very pleasant way to wake up.

I was about to say something to that effect when she put her finger over my lips, distracting me in about eighteen different ways.

“Quiet,” she said softly. “Listen.” I sat up.

“Do you hear it?” she asked after a moment. I cocked my head. “Just the wind…”

She shook her head and cut me off with a gesture. “There!”

I did hear it. At first I thought it was some disturbed rocks sliding down

the hill, but no, this didn’t fade into the distance like that would. It sounded more like something being dragged up the side of the hill.

I got to my feet and looked around. While I’d slept the clouds had blown away, and now the moon lit the surrounding countryside in pale silver light. Our wide firepit was brim full of shimmering coals.

Just then, not far down the hillside, I heard…to say I heard a branch breaking would mislead you. When a person moving through the woods breaks a branch, it makes a short, sharp snap. This is because any branch a man breaks accidentally is small and breaks quickly.

What I heard was no twig snapping. It was a long cracking sound. The sound a leg-thick branch makes when it’s torn from a tree: kreek-kerrrka-krraakkk.

Then, as I turned to look at Denna, I heard the other noise. How can I describe it?

When I was young my mother took me to see a menagerie in Senarin. It was the only time I had ever seen a lion, and the only time I had heard one roar. The other children in the crowd were frightened, but I laughed, delighted. The sound was so deep and low that I could feel it rumble in my chest. I loved the feeling and remember it to this day.

The sound I heard on the hill near Trebon was not a lion’s roar, but I felt it in my chest the same way. It was a grunt, deeper than a lion’s roar. Closer to the sound of thunder in the distance.

Another branch broke, almost on the crest of the hill. I looked in that direction and saw a huge shape dimly lined by the firelight. I felt the ground shudder slightly under my feet. Denna turned to look at me, her eyes wide with panic.

I grabbed hold of her arm and ran toward the opposite side of the hill. Denna kept up with me at first, then planted her feet when she saw where I was headed. “Don’t be stupid,” she hissed. “We’ll break our necks if we run down that in the dark.” She cast around wildly, then looked up at the nearby greystones. “Get me up there and I’ll haul you up after.”

I laced my fingers together to make a step. She put her foot into it, and I heaved so hard I almost threw her into the air where she could catch the edge of the stone. I waited a brief moment until she swung her leg up, then I slung my travelsack over my shoulder, and scrambled up the side of the massive stone.

Rather I should say I scrambled at the side of the massive stone. It was worn smooth by ages of weather and didn’t have any handholds to speak of. I slid to the ground, my hands scrabbling ineffectually.

I bolted to the other side of the arch, hopped up onto one of the lower stones, and made another leap.

I hit the rock hard, all along the front of my body, knocking the wind out

of me and banging my knee. My hands gripped at the top of the arch, but I couldn’t find any purchase—

Denna caught me. If this were some heroic ballad, I would tell you how she clasped my hand firmly and pulled me to safety. But the truth is she got hold of my shirt with one hand while the other made a tight fist in my hair. She hauled hard and kept me from falling long enough for me to catch a grip and scramble to the top of the stone with her.

As we lay there, panting, we peered over the edge of the stone. Down on the hilltop, the dim shape was beginning to move into the circle of our firelight. Half hidden in the shadows, it looked larger than any animal I had ever seen, big as a loaded wagon. It was black, with a massive body like a bull’s. It came closer, moving in an odd shuffle, not like a bull or a horse. The wind fanned the fire, causing it to flare up, and I saw it carried its thick body close to the ground, legs out to the side, like a lizard.

When it came farther into the light the comparison was impossible to avoid. It was a huge lizard. Not long like a snake, it was squat like a cinder brick, its thick neck blending into a head shaped like a massive flat wedge.

It covered half the distance from the crest of the hill to our fire in a single, spastic burst of speed. It grunted again, deep like rumbling thunder, and I felt it in my chest. As it came closer it moved past the other greystone that lay in the grass, and I realized my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. It was bigger than the greystone. Six feet high at the shoulder, fifteen feet long. Big as a horsecart. Massive as a dozen bulls tied together.

It moved its thick head back and forth working its wide mouth open and closed, tasting the air.

Then there was a burst of blue flame. The sudden light of it was blinding, and I heard Denna cry out beside me. I ducked my head and felt a wash of heat roll over us.

Rubbing at my eyes, I looked down again and saw the thing move closer to the fire. It was black, scaled, massive. It grunted again like thunder, then bobbed its head and breathed another great gout of billowing blue fire.

It was a dragon.

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