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Chapter no 80: Touching Iron

The Name of the Wind

LAY AWAKE, feeling Denna’s gentle breath against my arm. I couldn’t have slept even if I’d wanted to. The closeness of her filled me with a crackling energy, a low warmth, a gentle thrumming hum. I lay awake savoring it, every moment precious as a jewel.

Then I heard the distant crack of a breaking branch. Then another. Earlier I wanted nothing more than the draccus to hurry to our fire. Now, I would have traded my right hand to have it go on its merry way for another five minutes.

Still, it came. I began gently untangling myself from Denna. She barely stirred in her sleep. “Denna?” I shook her gently, then harder. Nothing. I wasn’t surprised. There are few things deeper than a sweet-eater’s sleep.

I covered her in the blanket, then set my travelsack on one side, the oilskin bag on the other, like bookends. If she rolled in her sleep, she would butt into those before getting close to the edge of the greystone.

I moved to the other side of the stone and looked out to the north. The clouds were still thick overhead, so I couldn’t see anything outside the circle of firelight.

Feeling carefully with my fingers, I located the piece of twine I had laid across the top of the greystone. The other end was tied to the rope handle of the wooden bucket below, midway between the fire and the greystones. My main fear was that the draccus might accidentally crush the bucket before it smelled it. I planned to haul the bucket to safety if that happened, then cast it out again. Denna had laughed at my plan, referring to it as chicken-fishing.

The draccus came to the top of the hill, moving noisily through the brush. It stopped just inside the circle of firelight. Its dark eyes shone red, and there was red on its scales. It made a deep huffing sound and began to circle the fire, slowly rocking its head back and forth. It blew a wide plume of fire in what I was coming to recognize as either some sort of greeting or a challenge. It darted toward our fire. Despite the fact that I’d watched it at some length, I was still surprised by how quickly the huge animal could move. It

pulled up short of the fire, huffed again, then advanced on the bucket.

Despite the fact that the bucket was sturdy wood and built to hold at least

two gallons, it looked tiny as a teacup next to the draccus’ massive head. It sniffed again, then butted the bucket with its nose, tipping it over.

The bucket rolled in a half-circle, but I’d packed the sticky resin in tightly. The draccus took another step, huffed again, and took the whole thing into its mouth.

I was so relieved that I almost forgot to let go of the twine. It was jerked out of my hands as the draccus chewed the bucket a little, crushing it in its massive jaws. Then it worked its head up and down, forcing the sticky mass down its gullet.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief and sat down to watch as the draccus circled the fire. It gushed out a billow of blue flame, then another, then turned and rolled in the fire, wriggling and crushing it into the dirt.

Once the fire was flattened, the draccus began to follow the same pattern as before. It sought out the scattered pieces of the fire, rolled in them until they were extinguished, then ate the wood. I could almost imagine each new stick and stump it swallowed forcing the denner resin deeper into its gizzard, mixing it around, breaking it up, forcing it to dissolve.

A quarter-hour passed as I watched it complete its circuit of the fire. I’d hoped it would have showed the effects of the resin by now. By my best guess, it had eaten six times a lethal dose. It should rush quickly past the initial stages of euphoria and mania. Then would follow delirium, paralysis, coma, and death. By all my calculations it should be over within an hour, hopefully sooner.

I felt a pang of regret as I watched it go about the business of crushing out the scattered fires. It was a magnificent animal. I hated to kill it even more than I hated to waste upwards of sixty talents worth of ophalum. But there was no denying what would happen if events were left to run their course. I didn’t want the deaths of innocents on my conscience.

Soon it stopped eating. It merely rolled on the scattered branches, extinguishing them. It was moving more vigorously now, a sign that the denner was beginning to take effect. It started to grunt, low and deep. Grunt. Grunt. A wash of blue fire. Roll. Grunt. Roll.

Finally there was nothing left but the bed of glimmering coals. As before, the draccus positioned itself on top of them and laid down, extinguishing all the light on the top of the hill.

It lay there quietly for a moment. Then grunted again. Grunt. Grunt. Wash of fire. It wriggled its belly farther into the coals, almost like it was fidgeting. If this was the onset of mania, it was coming too slowly for my liking. I’d hoped that it would be well on its way to delirium by now. Had I underestimated the dosage?

As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, I realized there was another source of light. At first I thought the clouds had blown over, and the moon

was peering in from the horizon. But when I turned away from the draccus to look behind me, I saw the truth.

Off to the southwest, barely two miles away, Trebon was full of firelight. Not just dim candlelight from windows, there were tall flames leaping everywhere. For a moment I thought the city was ablaze.

Then I realized what was happening: the harvest festival. There was a tall bonfire in the middle of town, and smaller ones outside the houses where people would be giving cider to the weary workers. They would drink and throw their shamble-men into the fires. Dummies made of wheat sheaves, of barley shocks, of straw, of chaff. Dummies built to flare up bright and sudden, a ritual to celebrate the end of the year, something that was supposed to keep demons away.

Behind me I heard the draccus grunt. I looked down at it. Just as I had been, it was facing away from Trebon, toward the dark cliffs to the north.

I am not a religious person, but I will admit that I prayed then. I prayed earnestly to Tehlu and all his angels, asking for the draccus to die, just slide quietly asleep and pass on without turning around to see the city’s fires.

I waited for several long minutes. At first I thought the draccus was asleep, but as my eyes sharpened I could see its head weaving steadily back and forth, back and forth. As my eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, the fires of Trebon seemed to grow brighter. It had been half an hour since it had eaten the resin. Why wasn’t it dead yet?

I wanted to throw down the rest of the resin, but I didn’t dare. If the draccus turned toward me, it would be facing south, toward the town. Even if I threw the sack of resin directly in front of it, it might turn around to resettle itself on the fire. Perhaps if—

The draccus roared then, deep and powerful as before. I had no doubt they heard it in Trebon. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that they had heard it in Imre. I glanced at Denna. She shifted in her sleep but didn’t wake.

The draccus bounded off the bed of coals, looking for all the world like a frisking puppy. The coals still glimmered in places, giving me enough light to see the great beast roll around, flip. Bite at the air. Turn…

“No,” I said. “No no no.”

It looked out toward Trebon. I could see the leaping flames of the town’s fires reflected in its huge eyes. It breathed another gout of blue fire in a high arc. The same gesture it had made before: a greeting or a challenge.

Then it was running, tearing down the hillside with demented abandon. I heard it crashing and snapping through the trees. Another roar.

I thumbed on my sympathy lamp and went to Denna, shaking her roughly. “Denna. Denna! You have to get up!”

She barely stirred.

I lifted her eyelid and checked her pupils. They showed none of their

earlier sluggishness and shrank quickly in response to the light. That meant the denner resin had finally worked its way out of her system. This was simple exhaustion, nothing else. Just to be sure I lifted both lids and brought the light back around again.

Yes. Her pupils were fine. She was fine. As if to confirm my opinion, Denna scowled fiercely and squirmed away from the light, muttering something indistinct and decidedly unladylike. I couldn’t make out all of it, but the words “whoremonger” and “soddoff” were used more than once.

I scooped her up, blankets and all, and carefully made my way down to the ground. I bundled her up again between the arch of the greystones. She seemed to rouse herself slightly as I jostled her around. “Denna?”

“Moteth?” she muttered around a mouthful of sleep, her eyes barely moving under her lids.

“Denna! The draccus is going down to Trebon! I have to…”

I stopped. Partly because it was obvious she had dropped back into unconsciousness, but also because I wasn’t entirely sure what it was I had to do.

I had to do something. Normally the draccus would avoid a town, but drug-crazed and manic, I had no idea what its reaction to the harvest fires would be. If it rampaged through the town it would be my fault. I had to do something.

I dashed to the top of the greystone, grabbed both bags, and came back down. I upended the travelsack, emptying everything onto the ground. I grabbed the crossbow bolts, wrapped them in my torn shirt, and stuffed them into my travelsack. I threw in the hard iron scale too, then stuffed the bottle of brand into the oilskin sack for padding and put that in my travelsack as well.

My mouth was dry, so I took a quick swallow of water from the waterskin, recapped it, and left it for Denna. She would be terribly thirsty when she woke up.

I slung the travelsack over my shoulder and cinched it tight across my back. Then I thumbed on my sympathy lamp, picked up the hatchet, and began to run.

I had a dragon to kill.

I ran madly through the woods, the light from my sympathy lamp bobbing wildly, revealing obstacles ahead of me bare moments before I was on top of them. Small wonder that I fell, tumbling down the hill, ass over teakettle. When I got up I easily found my lamp, but I abandoned the hatchet, knowing deep in my heart that it wouldn’t be of any use against the draccus.

I fell twice more before I made it to the road, then I tucked my head like a sprinter and ran toward the distant light of the city. I knew the draccus could

move faster than me, but I hoped it would be slowed by the trees, or disoriented. If I made it to the town first I could warn them, get them ready…. But as the road emerged from the trees, I could see the fires were brighter, wilder. Houses were burning. I could hear the draccus’ near-constant

bellowing punctuated by shouting and high-pitched screams.

I slowed to a trot as I came into town, catching my breath. Then I scampered up the side of a house to one of the few two-story rooftops so I could see what was really happening.

In the town square the bonfire had been scattered everywhere. Several nearby houses and shops were staved in like rotten barrels, most of them burning fitfully. Fire flickered on the wooden shingles of a handful of roofs. If not for the evening’s earlier rain, the town would already be ablaze instead of just a few scattered buildings. Still, it was just a matter of time.

I couldn’t see the draccus, but I could hear the great crunching it made as it rolled in the wreckage of a burning house. I saw a gush of blue flame rise high above the rooftops and heard it roar again. The sound made me sweat. Who knew what was going through its drug-addled mind right now?

There were people everywhere. Some were simply standing, confused, others panicked and ran to the church, hoping to find shelter in the tall stone building or the huge iron wheel that hung there, promising them safety from demons. But the church doors were locked, and they were forced to find shelter elsewhere. Some people watched, horrified and weeping, from their windows, but a surprising number kept their heads and were forming a bucket line from the town’s cistern atop the city hall to a nearby burning building.

And just like that I knew what I had to do. It was like I had suddenly stepped onto a stage. Fear and hesitation left me. All that remained was for me to play my part.

I jumped to a nearby roof, then made my way across several others until I came to a house near the town square where a scattered piece of bonfire had set the roof burning. I pried up a thick shingle burning along one edge and took off running for the roof of the town hall.

I was only two roofs away when I slipped. Too late I realized I’d jumped to the inn’s roof—no wood shingles here, but clay tiles slippery with rain. I held tight to the burning shingle as I fell, unwilling to let it go to brace my fall. I slid nearly to the edge of the roof before I came to a stop, heart pounding.

Breathless, I kicked off my boots as I lay there. Then with the familiar feel of rooftop under my calloused feet I ran, jumped, ran, slid, and jumped again. Finally I swung myself one-handed by an eave-pipe onto the flat stone roof of the town hall.

Still clutching the burning shingle, I made my way up the ladder to the top of the cistern, whispering a breathless thanks to whoever had left it open

to the sky.

As I’d sprinted across the rooftops, the flame on the shingle had gone out, leaving a thin line of red ember along the edge. I puffed it carefully back to life and soon it was blazing merrily again. I broke it down the middle and dropped half to the flat roof below.

Turning to survey the town. I made note of the biggest fires. There were six especially bad ones, blazing up into the dark sky. Elxa Dal had always said that all fires are one fire, and all fires are the sympathist’s to command. Very well then, all fires were one fire. This fire. This piece of burning shingle. I murmured a binding and focused my Alar. I used my thumbnail to scratch a hasty ule rune onto the wood, then doch, then pesin. In the brief moment it took to do that the entire shingle was smoldering and smoking, hot in my hand.

I hooked my foot around the ladder rung and leaned deep into the cistern, quenching the shingle in the water. For a brief moment I felt the cool water surround my hand, then it quickly warmed. Even though the shingle was under water, I could see the faint line of red ember still smoldering along its edge.

I pulled out my pocketknife with my other hand and drove it through the shingle into the wooden wall of the cistern, pinning my makeshift piece of sygaldry under the water. I have no doubt it was the quickest, most slapdash heat-eater ever created.

Pulling myself back onto the ladder, I looked around to a town blessedly dark. The flames had dimmed, and in most places had subsided to sullen coals. I hadn’t doused the fires, merely slowed them down enough to give the townsfolk and their buckets a fighting chance.

But my job was only half done. I dropped to the roof and picked up the other half of the still-burning shingle I’d dropped. Then I slid down a drainpipe and legged it away through the dark streets, across the town square to the front of the Tehlin church.

I stopped under the huge oak that stood before the front door, still holding its full array of autumn leaves. Kneeling, I opened my travelsack and brought out the oilskin bag with all the remaining resin. I poured the bottle of brand onto it and set it afire with the burning shingle. It flared up quickly, billowing acrid, sweet-smelling smoke.

Then I put the blunt end of the shingle between my teeth, jumped to catch a low branch, and began to climb the tree. It was easier than making my way up the side of a building, and took me high enough to where I could jump to the wide stone window ledge on the church’s second floor. I broke off a twig from the oak tree and stuffed it into my pocket.

I edged along the window ledge to where the huge iron wheel hung, bolted to the stone of the wall. Climbing that was quicker than a ladder,

though the iron spokes were startlingly cold against my still-wet hands.

I made my way to the top of the wheel, and from there pulled myself onto the flat peak of the highest roof in town. The fires were still dark for the most part, and most of the shouting had died down to sobs and a low murmur of urgent, hurried talk. I took the piece of shingle out of my mouth and blew on it until it was flaming again. Then I concentrated, muttered another binding, and held the oak twig above the flame. I looked out over the town and saw the glimmering coals dim even further.

A moment passed.

The oak tree below burst into sudden, brilliant flame. It flared brighter than a thousand torches as all its leaves caught fire at the same time.

In the sudden light I saw the draccus raise its head two streets away. It bellowed and blew a cloud of blue flame even as it started to run toward the fire. It turned a corner too quickly and caromed wildly into the wall of a shop, smashing through with little resistance.

It slowed as it approached the tree, blowing flame again and again. The leaves flared and faded quickly, leaving nothing but a thousand embers, making the tree look like an immense extinguished candelabrum.

In the dim red light, the draccus was hardly more than a shadow. But I could still see the beast’s attention wander, now that the bright flames were gone. The massive wedge of a head swayed back and forth, back and forth. I cursed under my breath. It wasn’t close enough….

Then the draccus huffed loud enough for me to hear from where I stood a hundred feet above. The head snapped around as it smelled the sweet smoke of the burning resin. It snuffed, grunted, and took another step toward the smoking bag of resin. It didn’t show nearly the restraint it had earlier, and practically pounced on it, snapping up the smoldering sack in its great wide mouth.

I took a deep breath and shook my head, trying to clear away some of the sluggishness I felt. I had performed two rather substantial pieces of sympathy in quick succession and was feeling rather thickheaded because of it.

But as they say, third time pays for all. I broke my mind into two pieces, then, with some difficulty, into a third. Nothing less than a triple binding would do for this.

As the draccus worked its jaw, trying to swallow the sticky mass of resin, I fumbled in my travelsack for the heavy black scale, then brought the loden-stone out from my cloak. I spoke my bindings clearly and focused my Alar. I brought the scale and stone up in front of me until I could feel them tugging at each other.

I concentrated, focused.

I let go of the loden-stone. It shot toward the iron scale. Below my feet was an explosion of stone as the great iron wheel tore free from the church

wall.

A ton of wrought iron fell. If anyone had been watching, they would have noticed that the wheel fell faster than gravity could account for. They would have noticed that it fell at an angle, almost as if it were drawn to the draccus. Almost as if Tehlu himself steered it toward the beast with a vengeful hand.

But there was no one there to see the truth of things. And there was no God guiding it. Only me.

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