The dragon had finished his transformation. He reached up and touched the dragon pin on his shirt, and it comforted him, reminding that, no matter what strange feelings this new body gave him, he was TorVanith of the frost-sea. He let go of it reluctantly and sighed, then took a look at what he could see of himself. He noticed that his clothes choice had automatically reverted to what he knew humans wore in his own land - brown leather boots and pants just a little lighter in color than his scales would be, a gray shirt in serviceable linen. He made a tall, lanky human, paler skinned than he would have thought. He had no idea what fashion the people of this world would wear, but with the fortune that usually befell him, it would be wildly different. "Probably shall stick out like gold among silver," he croaked out to see what his voice was like. He frowned, and decided to use it as little as possible. His English would not be as hopelessly archaic as some of his fellow dragons would have been, but it wouldnt be common, either.
He stood. His legs and feet were sore, unused to their new form. He leaned against the tree, trying to figure out the best way to breathe, through nose or mouth. He hated his weakness - his father would not be daunted by such a little thing as a change in form. His father was powerful and fearsome, and his only son and heir wanted to prove himself with a desperation that was strong for a male of the dragon kind.
He looked around at the trees, and noticed that his eyes were not as sharp as they once were, that the air did not tell tales to him as it once would have. He called on the little bit of magic that was inside of him, careful, knowing he had to conserve it, and drew a square in the air in front of him. He dotted the center, and whispered his name, TorVanith, then an arrow to stand for where he was facing. He focused, like calling to like, magic calling to magic. To his left another dot appeared, shimmering white, and a smaller, fainter dot next to it. The brighter dot was his destination.
He paused to pick a stick off the ground, and took a moment to peel off some of the fungus and bark. It was mostly dry, only rotten on one end, and had been laying long enough that it was no longer green. It would conduct his magic enough, he thought, reassured that no matter how dead to magic this world was, he would always have the lightening in his bones. Nothing could take that away. He began to walk to the left, using the stick to probe the weeds. He saw things he could not put a name to, but knew what they were made of. He saw a few glass jars with labels so faded that he wouldnt have been able to read them even if he knew the language. There was a red thing of metal on one side of the path, that did not sing when he reached with his mind to touch it. Something else did, though, and he dug until he found a small disc of copper. He touched it with his mind and it sang to him, dully, of time and dirt and corrosion. He didnt have any pockets, so he let it slide down the side of his boot. Most dragons loved gold, loved the songs that it could sing when they touched it with their minds. Some dragons even loved silver, but he had a special place in his heart for copper, no matter how impure. He had some pieces at home, pure beaten copper vessels and trinkets that when left out in the warmth of the sun would chant to him of quiet, gentle things.
He closed his eyes briefly, and decided he was about as ready as he would ever be, and continued on to meet the white dot that meant another magic user was in the area.
He strode along, spreading his senses out as far as they would go, trying to pick up any clues or hints about his prey. He did not think he was expected, but he did not want to walk into a trap. Bird calls were rare, the silence broken by an occasional, unidentified roar. He stepped over a low gray railing, and felt the crunch of stone beneath his boots. A road wended its way before him, horseless wagons and carriages sped along at impossible speeds. They stank and roared, causing Tor'Van'ith to frown. These people had centuries of technology, and yet their modes of transport were still rather primitive and annoying to the senses. He mentally shrugged, and ran across the road, then climbed the smooth stone barrier. He crouched there, waiting for a clear spot in the traffic. He had to admit that they were a vast improvement on the cart and horse, which was mostly what the humans used where he came from. He took a breath and jumped down, running across the remainder of the road, and into the woods on the other side.
Finally he came to a small clearing. He hid behind the weeds, and examined the area. There was a rutted cart path on which a four wheeled enclosed vehicle sat. The cottage it was parked in front of was painted a now peeling light green. Weeds had been allowed to grow up around it, and the windows were shattered, the white wooden frames broken in places. He thought that the roof had caved in at the back, but he wasnt sure. He looked at it for a long time, trying to decide the best thing to do. His map said that a strong magical force was in that house - but if there was, wouldnt the place at least look habitable? He could not imagine a human tolerating a leaky roof or the wind whistling through at night.
He stood and pushed aside the weeds, walking around to the back of the house. The porch had fallen in, and with it a small portion of the roof. The back door was blocked by the rotten, fallen wood. He went back around, walking with silence and care, until he reached the front again. He opened the door, wincing as it creaked. He looked inside, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He could hear voices now, and knew that they were coming from below, in the cellar. The old wood boards of the floor would creak, he thought, so he carefully lowered himself down, distributing his weight. The boards would still creak, but as long as it didnt sound like footsteps, as long as he could make it seem like random house shifting, hed probably be all right. He crossed the room like a serpent, feeling the filth and mold ingraining itself on his flesh. He was grateful that aside from the dirt and some leaves and twigs, the room was empty, and he wouldnt have to navigate around furniture. He was well aware of the trail he was leaving and it bothered him, but he didnt know a better way.
He crept into the cooking area, its cupboard doors hanging open, the wood stinking with rot. The water damage was bad, and it had warped the door leading to the cellar stairs so that it was impossible to close. He stood and, placing his foot on the nail heads along the edges of the treads, and placing his life in the strength of the hand rail, he carefully made his way down. He put as much weight as he dared on the cold metal rail, and hoping that he wouldnt make much noise. He regretted carrying the staff, as he would have liked both his hands free, but he would not let it go.
The cellar was divided into two rooms. The floor was dirt, and broken or forgotten furniture was pushed against the wall. The door to the next room hung open, and he crouched in the shadows, depending on the dark to hide him. The light in the basement was even more fitful than above, provided by narrow windows close to the ceiling. He crawled through the door. A tall wood cabinet hid him from view, and he was able to observe the situation.
His adversary was there, and he was not alone. One of the Terfa, or tree people, his skin wrinkled and covered with bark, stood beside him, their attention on the naked human female bound to the table in front of them. He winced in pity, for he could feel her fear radiating out like a cold north wind. Three lanterns brightened the room slightly, allowing him to see the contents of the rough work table to their left. A jar of magic sat on the table, glowing a weak green. Some objects glittered in the dull glow, a knife, some pliers, a chipped cup, some stones.
The steady worry that TorVanith had been feeling since before he left home faded. Sabin did not have the stone.
"Youve been with me all this last year." She said. "You know all my secrets." Her voice was made strong by bitterness, and he knew this last year had not been pleasant.
The adversary said something in crude, cruel voice, and she twisted against the ropes. "I dont know. Please, Sabin, I swear I dont know."
Tor'Van'ith stood, and came around the chest. The Terfa laughed and touched the skin of her thigh. Something about the action combined with the womans barely contained fear angered him. The anger puzzled him, for it was not a thing of dragons. "I could conduct a banishing," he said, "But I think I shall just kill thee." She turned at the sound of his voice, and the Terfa reached to take a long knife off the table.
He gathered lightening out of his bones and thrust his hands out, pointing the staff at the Terfa. He felt his power surge down the staff, and arch toward its target. The smell of burning wood and flesh filled the air as the lightening engulfed the creature. Tor'Van'ith dropped the stick, now a little more than charcoal, and turned to face Sabin.
"Who in the second hells do you think you are?" Sabin yelled. He picked up a stone from the table and threw it at him. It hit TorVaniths shoulder hard, and it burned. Another followed it, but he jumped forward, slamming Sabin to the ground. Sabin hissed a few words, then punched the dragon under the chin. Sabin pushed him off, and Tor'Van'ith crouched there on the ground, pain and something else fragmenting his mind, replacing thought with odd shapes and colors. He shook free, forced himself to see through the haze. Sabin stood over the woman, and he knew that no matter what the price he could not let harm come to her. He struggled to his feet, and gathered the last of his magic, the last of what resources lay ready in his bones, and cast burning lightening at the figure by the table. Sabin threw his arm up, trying to protect himself, but the fire enveloped him. TorVanith saw that the low ceiling had also caught fire, and flames were running along the old beams. He moved to check on Sabin, but the ever growing crackle of fire changed his mind. He ran to the table where the young woman lay, blinking blindly from the lightening flash.
Tor'Van'ith undid the ropes. A tattered blanket had been thrown over some of the furniture, and he grabbed it and shook the filth off of it. He wrapped her in it, murmured something soothing. She clung to him as he took her in his arms, she seemed so delicate and light. Now that he no longer needed silence, he made better time through the basement and up the steps, but the fire had already begun to smolder through the main rooms floor. The cooking room, on the opposite side and still damp from past rains was the safer area, but its exit was blocked by rubbish. He set her down, and took her hands and placed them on the counter. She balanced herself while he looked around for something to break out the remaining glass from the kitchen window frame. He ripped off his shirt and wrapping the cloth around his hand, slammed his fist against the frame. The rotten wood gave away and he was able to push the it out. He kept the dragon pin in his hand, afraid to let go of it, and picked her up again. He lowered her out the window, trying not to place her directly on the broken glass. He wiggled his way out feet first, and was relieved when he felt his boot soles touch the ground. He picked her up again, this time because it was easier than trying to lead her through the rubbish. He did not want her to step on something hidden in the weeds. He only stopped when he was out of sight of the house, where he placed her against a tree. He heard sirens, voices, and knew that her own kind were near, and would help. Still, he was reluctant to leave her side. Something in her stirred all of his instincts, human and dragon, and he wanted to watch over and protect her. He smoothed her hair away from her face, then took the pin and used it to fasten the blanket more securely. She grabbed his hand, and he thought about taking her away with him. She spoke, and he waited, his mind tired and having trouble with understanding the words. He was not quite as talented as his father at looking in other minds, and his personal resources were stripped bare. The fight with Sabin had hurt him deeply, and he needed rest to regain his strength. "I am fine." he answered her, "I must leave you here. I think that you should be safe." He stood, and walked away. He tripped over something unseen in the path, and caught himself on a tree. He was shutting down inside, and it frightened him, because if he didnt hold on, didnt get back to the spot he entered this world in, he didnt know what would happen. He thought that he would probably die.
She said something else, but he could not understand it. "Your people come." he said, comfortingly to her, over his shoulder. Indeed they did, he could hear them coming closer. "Stay where I have placed you."
He walked a long time, going on memory as his map was gone for good. He thought if he made it back to the entry spot, someone might be able to sense him there, and come get him.
He did not even make it back to the highway.
Chapter One, a few years later.
Its coming, Libby thought, not with a shudder, but with a little regret. Summer had fled before she had time to contemplate what she wanted to do with it, and now fall was turning the trees.
Winter, she thought, and worried over her mental checklist. When she had first moved into her grandparents cabin a few winters ago, she hadnt been fully prepared for the weather. It was much harsher than she remembered it being during her youth. She had run out of heating oil, and had to wait two days for the truck to make it up to her home. Never again, she promised herself, making sure the tanks were full enough that shed make it through the winter, changing the filters and checking to make sure that the furnace was all right. It took her awhile, slowly unscrewing the cap from the oil filter to change the gaskets. Then she had to put it all back together, while simultaneously trying to determine if there was a leak, if shed crossed the threads or not made everything tight enough. Too tight, and youll crack that cheap cast iron casting, she could hear grandpa say. She always tried to do things herself, at least inside things. Sometimes she hired people to clear the brambles from the woods, to cut back the tall goldenrod and the tree saplings that sprung up like weeds. While they were there, she kept to the inside, and she kept her German Shepherd, Dashiel, with her. She could not trust anyone, the secret that she protected in the basement of her house would not allow her to. She knew the men who did her yard work laughed at her skittishness, but she reminded herself, even when the tall younger brother of the foreman trimmed some roses and left them on the porch rail for her, that Sabin could get to anyone. It played hell with her social life.
This morning, she had curled up in bed and written in long hand, finishing up a chapter of her book. Afterwards shed typed it in, she was working under deadline and needed to keep up. The sun had broken through this afternoon, and now she was out with her wheel barrow. She was gathering wood and sticks - whatever she could handle by herself or with a hatchet, since she didnt trust chainsaws, either. She liked to keep some wood piled up so that if the power went out, shed be able to cook, maybe heat the house up a little during the day. She never bothered keeping the wood inside the house, because the occasional need was rare, and because she only burned during the daylight hours, since she didnt like to leave the damper open on her chimney after dark. You never knew what could crawl down inside, and she was happier to do with out than risk it.
"Dashiel!" She called. The dog paused, wagged his tail and looked at her as if he could understand. "Dont go to far from me, ok?" His tail wagged a little faster, and he took off. She loved her dog - he had large, intelligent brown eyes, and the way he acted seemed to almost indicate an understanding of her words - sometimes it even looked like he answered her. He was definitely her best friend.
It was a beautiful day. Fall days, Libby thought, were the prettiest. (If it were spring, Libby would think the same thing.) Today, the leaves were just starting to turn, and the few grasshoppers she encountered had already traded in their bright coats for olive drab. Caterpillars were hiding themselves under pieces of bark and in the crevices of the stone wall her grandfather had built to mark the orchards boundaries. She looked at the chest high wall, thinking that there was something about walking in the woods and finding a wall, lichen covered and crooked in places, that felt mysterious. She carefully picked up a fox colored caterpillar, holding the coiled creature until it relaxed and began crawling again. Its fur was incredibly long, and she rubbed the rust fluff against her cheek. before carefully putting it back down. The gate was an old gate, all twisted wire and rusted cast iron, mounted between two posts. Its latch was a loop of rusting wire, and she carefully lifted it over the post to let herself in.
The orchard was a shambles. The men were only hired to clear away mess, not take care of fruit trees, and she felt slightly ashamed of her neglect. The trees had grown too tall, the apple trees in particular were covered with suckers, and the fruit that did manage to grow was small. She picked up some branches and placed them in the barrow. Fruit wood was supposed to smell the sweetest when burning, she thought, but wasnt sure that she had ever really noticed a difference. She looked at the twisted trees, and the apples, small green and tart, that covered the ground around them. She used to love apples, and in the past she would have picked the good ones up and stuffed her pockets full. Shed peel them a stew them, then make applesauce. She sighed, because even memories of her grandmamma peeling apples, of the sweet smell of sugar and cinnamon did not help overcome her revulsion. She continued on, touching a tree here and there as she walked though. The trees were innocent, she thought. She should not neglect them just because of their fruit.
Near the back of the orchard, the wall had fallen in. She paused to try and fix it, stacking the rocks haphazardly back on top of each other. The end result wasnt very good, but hopefully would do. She looked up at the two pear trees that stood next to the gap, their branches intertwined. The pears were large, sweet looking despite her neglect. She smiled and reached her hand to pick one...and imagined, without meaning to, another hand, long fingered and strong, reaching up and caressing the fruit, but not taking it...she took her hand back, collected some twigs, and rolled the wheelbarrow home. Fruit could be poisoned just as easily as people, and with even worse results. She imagined a bite of pear lodging itself in her throat, knowing she would not preserve as well as Snow White. Sabin would do it, she thought. Hed do it with great glee, happy to punish her.
She shuddered as she left. A shrink would have said something like "You cant let an abusive relationship make you paranoid. Hes been gone how long? Elizabeth, its time to go on with your life."
But the psychiatrist didnt know what it was like, living with a monster. Not just a man who was so terrible that he was monster like, but an honest to God not quite human monster. Plus, Sabin was capable of anything. She had to remember that before she unlocked her door, before she started her car, before she put food in her grocery cart. Was someone hiding outside? Had someone tampered with the car? Was the container still perfectly sealed?
She dug up her gladioula bulbs and hung them in the cellar. She stacked the wood against the back of the garage, well away from the house (no need to give things a home to hide in, right next to the door) and looked in her cupboards to determine what shed stock up on tomorrow. Lots of soup, shampoos and paper towels and cleaning supplies...and TV dinners, of course. Libby wasnt much on cooking. Oh sure, once in awhile shed get a taste for something, but not often enough to really make the effort. She didnt eat much, and hated to waste. In preparation for a bounty of TV dinners, she cleaned out her freezer and plugged it in. She refused to allow herself to use it during the summer, lest she become too much of a hermit. Getting out, she reminded herself, was fun.
"So baby," She said to Dashiel. "What should I get you for the winter?" He put his head against her shoulder, and she petted him, amazed at the softness of his hair, enjoying the feel of his skull under her hands. She knelt and scratched him behind the ears, because he loved it, and whispered endearments. When the floor got too hard and cold for her knees she stood up. After tomorrows paycheck disappearance run, shed be prepared for the coming snows. She savored the thought of having everything completely locked up for days on end, only going out when she needed something at the store or thought she ought to pick up her mail, the snow deep around her house. Shed spend the days wrapped up in blankets and writing and reading, the silence broken only by the furnace coming on or the refrigerator. She worked best in winter, she thought, because winter had an introspective feel to it, a feel of quiet and snowboundedness that she loved. To tell the truth, it wasnt much different from summer. She would go out less, and she didnt have to guilt herself into yard work, but that was about it. Still she could not wait for it to be truly cold, for the snow to settle itself into thick piles.
She put the heavy wooden bar in the brackets on either side of the door, and closed the thick iron shutters. She barred them as well, then checked to see if the little sliding window on each pair of shutters was completely closed, and hooked. She undid one hook, slid the window cover back, and peeked through the five by three inch hole. Everything quiet, she thought, sliding it back shut and securing it. She shut the window and turned the latch, and then, so she wouldnt have to see the depressing gray of the shutters, she pulled down the blind and drew the lace curtains.
"I wrote almost two thousand words today." She said to Dashiel, even though he was in the other room, lapping up some water. She always spoke in his direction, feeling it was a little saner than talking to herself directly. "I think Ill cook a TV dinner and watch whatevers on the telly tonight."
by Cindy Lynn Speer
Would you like to go home?