Finally the Sudlanders broke the Caledon battle line by dint of their superior numbers. Roaring their triumph, they thrust towards Prince Caluin's dragon banner, their bloodstained swords rising and falling in a terrible rhythm.
The young princeís captains, seeing disaster, urged Caluin to flee the field. But Caluin, the last of King's Dughal's sons, refused. Instead he raised his war-club, fashioned from the right foreclaw of the dragon his father had slain, and brought it down again, pointing toward the enemy.
The bravest Caledon warriors guarded Caluin's flanks as he hacked and slashed about him, dealing out death to his foes. No Sudlander soldier could stand against him in single combat, for Caluin wore armor made from that same dragon's skin, armor that was proof against any weapon forged by Man. Caluin sang the battle-song of his ancestors, calling their ghosts to his side to lend him their strength and guide him to victory. Chaos erupted throughout the Sudlander ranks and just for a single moment, the outcome of the battle lay undecided.
But then the Sudlander King, Malagar, ordered his mounted knights to charge. The Caledon army sagged and collapsed and was trampled beneath iron hooves. Caluinís banner was chopped down and its bearer cruelly butchered. Try as they might, his captains could not reach Caluin in time to prevent him from being overwhelmed by Sudlander soldiers, who lifted him bodily and carried him toward the nearby cliff top. They hurled him over the edge, into the crashing waves below. The weight of his armor was considerable. Like his father Dughal before him, Caluin drowned, helpless and alone.
Despite the loss of their prince, the remaining Caledon warriors fought on... save for the handful of cowards who threw down their weapons and fled, terrified by the wrath of the Sudlander King and the promise of an awful death.
Kintyre was one of these.
In the tower overlooking Castle Brynaghar's courtyard, Sir Ranulf cut the green apple in two with his dagger and began eating the first half, while enjoying the sounds of wailing agony from below.
The whip slashed across the thief's naked back, each stroke leaving a wet scarlet line and eliciting a cry of pain. The audienceriff-raff from the Caledon villages, who mixed uneasily with Ranulf's soldierswatched in silence. Not a few hostile glances were directed toward Ranulf's tower window. The Caledon were a defeated people, yet still seething with emotion. Their hatred amused him.
Thirty-eight. Thirty-nine. The final stroke fell. The victim sagged, unconscious, from the wooden frame. The sergeant-at-arms cut him down and left the body lying there in the dirt. Ranulf spat the apple out and threw the rest onto the floor. It was sour. Hardly worth forty lashes. One of his wolfhounds uncurled from its place by the fire and sniffed at the discarded fruit, then gobbled it up.
Two men stood waiting for him by the map table. The older of the pair, Greydal, possessed the cunning of a fox and a burning hatred of the Caledon. The younger, Vasher, was like one of Ranulf's wolfhounds, trained to kill on command. Whenever he needed dirty work done, Ranulf sent for these men.
"So much for this morning's entertainment," Ranulf said. "I doubt whether the Caledon scum will have learned anything, but one can but try. And now, gentlemen, to business. What progress has our beloved lord and master made?"
Greydal tapped at a spot on the map. "Lord Peyter is here. He has ten spearmen, six bowmen and a tracker with him. I've made enquiries. The tracker's a Caledon, and he's good. They say if anyone can find a dragon, it's this man."
Ranulf digested this information. "All the more reason for us to move swiftly." He looked at Vasher. "It must be made to look as if Lord Peyter and his men were ambushed and killed by Caledon rebels. You understand?"
"That shouldn't be a problem, m'lord," Vasher said. "We have Caledon war-bows, and a plentiful supply of arrows. Truth to tell, I'm relieved you don't want the bodies buried. It would have taken us days to dig a grave big enough for Lord Peyter."
Ranulf smiled. It was a well-known fact that Lord Peyter liked his food. "What about this tracker?" he said, still tasting the sour apple, and wishing he had some wine. "He could be useful to us."
"I'll make sure he's not killed, m'lord," Vasher said.
"Make sure you do. Naturally, if he refuses to co-operate, he'll join Lord Peyter and the others. But I'll give him a chance to serve me first."
"What about afterward?" Greydal said. "None of our men will talkthey know what will happen if they dobut the tracker could be a loose tongue."
Ranulf chuckled softly. "I don't think we need worry too much about that. Once we find the dragon, the tracker will have an accident. Won't he, Vasher?"
Vasher grinned. "As m'lord commands."
Ranulf shared their good humor. When the King arrived next week, Ranulf would convey the sad news of Lord Peyter's death at the hands of Caledon rebels. He'd also present the King with a gift that would open his eyes to Ranulf's true value. With luck, Ranulf would soon be bidding goodbye to this drafty old pile of bricks forever. And, at some time in the not-so-distant future, perhaps he'd become Lord Ranulf, the King's right-hand man.
"Be off with you, Vasher," he said. "Greydal and I will join you the day after tomorrow." Ranulf couldn't stop himself from adding, "And good hunting."
Kintyre waited impatiently while Lord Peyter peered up the tree-covered slope, toward the shrouded mountains. The sergeant, Hartog, stood nearby, his expression giving nothing away. Finally Peyter shook his head. "I see nothing," he said. "You must be imagining things, Caledon."
"There's nothing there, I tell you." Peyter gave Hartog a baleful look, then turned away and headed back to the warmth of the breakfast fire. Hartog shrugged, but Kintyre knew he'd seen something moving up there. He glared at Peyter's retreating back. Curse the man, if he intended to question everything Kintyre said, why had the Sudlander lord hired him in the first place?
"He might not look much now, but in his day he was a man to be feared," Hartog said. Kintyre looked at him, surprised that Hartog would speak so openly about Lord Peyter. "Age has slowed him, but he's still a fine swordsman, and completely fearless."
"Why are you telling me this?" Kintyre asked.
"You wear your distaste like a mask. That's your privilege, but I warn you against saying something out of turn. Even if Lord Peyter didn't take offense, others within earshot might."
"I'll bear that in mind."
"Good. I hate the sight of bloodeven Caledon blood." Hartog smiled to take any insult or threat out of his words. Despite himself, Kintyre found himself liking the man. Hartog was a Sudlander, one of the invaders who now occupied these lands that had once belonged to Kintyre's people, but there was no hatred in himunlike other Sudlanders Kintyre had met.
"How long before we see any dragons?" Hartog said.
Kintyre shrugged. "I'd hoped today, but we've not advanced as far as I'd expected. Tomorrow, if we're lucky." He glanced toward Peyter. "Your master doesn't appear to be in any particular hurry."
"He isn't. Our King isn't due to arrive until next week."
"Your King?" Hartog couldn't have shocked Kintyre more if he'd struck him. Well he remembered the Sudlander king, Malagar, who'd ordered the slaughter of Prince Caluin's army the previous summer. Kintyre, barely sixteen then, had run for his life, to his everlasting shame and regret. His father appeared often in his dreams but would never look at Kintyre or speak to him, no matter how much Kintyre wept and pleaded. The ghost always turned from him and walked into the dream-mist, never looking back.
"Indeed," Hartog said. "Malagar honors us by visiting the Outer Provinces."
"Do you intend to present him with a dragon?"
Hartog chuckled softly. "Not a live dragon, no, though I'm sure the spectacle would amuse him. There are no such creatures where we come from. No, Lord Peyter intends to present the King with a gift of armor fashioned from dragon hide and scales. Such armor said to be proof against lance, arrow and sword."
"It is," Kintyre said.
Hartog looked at him curiously. "You seem very sure about that."
Kintyre hesitated. "I've heard the same stories," he said.
He'd only been a boy then, ten or eleven. If the Druids had known he was watching one of their secret torchlight ceremonies, they would've scoured the flesh from his back.
A hundred Caledon warriors gathered around the ancient circle of stones. Their broadswords gleamed blood-red as they held them aloft in salute. Out of the circle of stones stepped a figure unlike any Kintyre had ever seen before. He wore armor of shimmering red and crimson. A helmet covered his entire face, but for twin eye-holes. Despite the mask, Kintyre recognized Dughal, High King of the Caledon tribes, Lord of the Dragon and Master of Battle.
The warriors' ranks opened to reveal the Druids. The sight of their blue-painted flesh sent shudders down Kintyre's spine, but still he remained. The Druids halted, and their leader gestured. Two archers took up positions facing Dughal. Kintyre gasped in surprise, for the heavy Caledon war-bow launched a barbed arrow capable of penetrating the heaviest leather or mail armor at a range of three hundred paces. The archers pulled back their strings and let fly at Dughal. Kintyre covered his eyes with his handsbut left enough of a gap to peer through. The impact drove Dughal backward, but he did not fall. Incredibly, he was still alive. The Druid picked up the two arrows that had rebounded from Dughal's shimmering armor, and held them up to show the assembly. The warriors beat their broadswords against their chests and the Druids came forward to kiss Dughal's hands, acknowledging him as their High King.
"It is the dragon's skin," a voice said. Kintyre nearly jumped out of his clothes, such was his fright. The boy's earth-colored robes and his blue-painted face told Kintyre he was training in the ways of the Druids. Yet his expression bore no trace of anger or resentment that Kintyre was spying upon the secret ceremony.
"The dragon's skin turns aside arrow and spear," the boy said. "Neither Nordlander ax nor Sudlander sword can break the scales. He who wears the dragon's armor is immune to all weapons."
"You mean he cannot die?" Kintyre said.
The boy had slowly shaken his head. "The wearer can still die, as all men can die," he'd said. "Only not so easily."
Hartog said, "Aye, such a rare gift will please our King."
Kintyre couldn't help but agree, although finding a dragon and taking its skin were two different things, as Lord Peyter would soon discover. He studied the bushes and trees again, willing his eyes to see past leaves and shadows.
"You think there's someone up there, don't you?" Hartog said.
"It could be a lone hunter. Or a shepherd looking for strays, maybe."
Hartog sighed. "Go ahead and take a look, if you must."
As Kintyre made to slip away, Hartog touched his arm. "Listen, Caledon. Lord Peyter would be unhappy if anything happened to you. I dare say he'd blame me. So I'd be obliged if you'd take care, for both our sakes, hmm?"
Kintyre grinned. "I'll try to."
Vasher crept forward and took his place among the half-company of soldiers waiting in ambush. He greatly relished the thought of killing Lord Peyter, who was one of the old nobility, filthy rich and stuffed with self-importance. Well, today there would be a redistribution of wealth. He remembered what Greydal had said. The corpses could be looted, but only for silver coin. Rings, charms and other personal belongings were to be left with the dead. It would not do to have them recognized later....
"The tracker's coming this way," someone said.
Vasher studied the lone figure as he left Lord Peyter's camp and climbed the slope toward the very place where they were hiding. The soldier beside him carried one of the Caledon war-bows and had an arrow notched, though he hadn't drawn the string. "Sir Ranulf wants him alive," Vasher said. "Make sure everybody knows."
The soldier passed this on to the others. The tracker continued to draw near. There was nothing to alert him to the fact thirty armed men were waiting here to murder Lord Peyter.
Yet something must have alerted him, because one moment he was there, and the next, he was gone. Vasher cursed softly. If the damned tracker warned Lord Peyter, things could get rough. Sir Ranulf expected cleverness and minimal losses. He'd be displeased if Vasher lost too many men in a pitched battle, and Sir Ranulf's displeasure was something to be avoided at all costs.
Half a dozen men crawled past him, spreading out to look for the tracker. Some had knives; others carried lengths of gnarled wood. Vasher stood up, taking cover behind a tree. He risked a quick glance around the bole, and found himself looking into the coldest pair of green eyes he'd ever seen. The tracker pressed himself against the tree so his body became part of nature, invisible except at close quarters. His skinning knife touched Vasher's throat.
"Peace, my friend," Vasher said. "We're not after you." Doubt showed in the tracker's eyes. Vasher knew he had to fan it carefully, as if he were starting a fire with damp twigs and leaves. "The fact is, we Sudlanders have had a falling out among ourselves. We're here to see Lord Peyter doesn't make it home again." He chanced a smile. "It's nothing to do with you. So why don't you take yourself away from here and let us get on with it, eh?"
The tracker spun, his knife tracing a red line across the throat of the soldier who'd risen out of the grass behind him. Vasher snarled and drew his shortsword. He thrust at the tracker, who danced back out of harm's way and then ducked as a second soldier swung a club. His knife flashed again, wounding the soldier. Vasher wanted to shout at them, to tell them to stay under cover, but the tracker was retreating, crossing knives with another man who dropped to his knees, clutching his stomach and groaning. Another step, and Lord Peyter's men would see them! Damn the tracker's eyes!
Something whirled through the air, struck the tracker's forehead and rebounded. The tracker stood still for a moment, staring at Vasher. Then his knife slipped unnoticed from his fingers and he toppled sideways like a chopped tree.
The soldier who'd launched the missile stepped forward, his leather sling dangling. He grinned at Vasher, who felt a measure of confidence returning. All was not lost. Far from it.
"Pull the bodies into the bushes, and hide yourselves," he said. "Now, let's see if those lads from Brynaghar are as stupid as I think they are."
Lord Peyter gained his saddle with the help of four of his men, and looked around for Hartog. His sergeant stood off to one side, staring up the slope as if expecting to see a horde of dragons come tumbling down from the mountain-top. Where was the Caledon tracker? Peyter couldn't see him. The Caledon were useful servants, but like any conquered people they could not be entirely trusted.
Peyter guided his horse over to where his Hartog stood. He was about to give Hartog a piece of his mind when Hartog spoke first, his voice low and insistent.
"Something odd is going on, m'lord. The tracker went on ahead. Now he's vanished."
"Perhaps the thought of finding a dragon frightened him," Peyter said. "Perhaps he's run away?"
Hartog frowned. "I have no reason to think he might desert us, m'lord."
Peyter didn't like having his judgment questioned. Hartog had fought alongside him through several campaigns but he was still only a sergeant, and should remember his place. "I had my doubts about him from the very start," Peyter said. "It was you, as I recall, who suggested we should engage the services of a local. Well, see what it's got us. Where is he, Hartog? Tell me that. Where is he?"
"We're within sight of the mountains," Peyter went on, deliberately cutting off Hartog's reply. "We know there are dragons up there. I should think we're quite capable of finding and killing one of the creatures without your tracker's help."
Hartog shook his head. Peyter had to exercise all his self-control to stop himself from berating the man for insubordination. Had he been a servant instead of a soldier, Peyter would have whipped him.
"I really think we should wait for him, m'lord."
"What if I say we do not wait for him, Sergeant? Hmm?"
Hartog flinched as if Peyter had struck him. At last, he'd remembered who and what he was.
"I sought only to offer advice, Lord Peyter," he said.
"I don't need your advice," Peyter told him bluntly. "Your job is to get the men moving and keep them moving. The Caledon was deliberately slowing us down. We'll get along a lot better without him, mark my words."
Hartog nodded, and shouted orders. The sentries were recalled and the expedition took on some semblance of order. Two lines of spearmen led the way. The bowmen marched behind them. A rather glum-looking Hartog brought up the rear. Peyter at once regretted his angry outburst. Hartog was a good man who didn't deserve such abuse. Peyter would apologize later, when they stopped for lunch. Why, his stomach was already growling with hunger.
And then, suddenly, it wasn't.
Peyter stared in horrified fascination at the black-feathered shaft that protruded from his belly. His hunger vanished, as did all feeling in his legs. He opened his mouth to ask Hartog to explain the arrow, but Hartog was moving away from him, shouting at the men to form a fighting line. Who was there to fight? Peyter was displeased with Hartog's performance, very displeased indeed. Hartog should be over here helping him, making his legs work again, making the pain go away.
Such were Lord Peyter's final thoughts, before his eyes closed and he toppled from his saddle, dead.
Kintyre didn't know why he was still alive, but he suspected he'd be dead soon enough. It was only a question of when.
After they'd butchered Lord Peyter's men, the ambushers had moved further up the mountainside and made camp. The one Kintyre should have killed when he'd had the chance had ordered the guards to give him water and bread. The guards checked Kintyre's bonds from time to time, but otherwise left him alone.
They were obviously waiting for something to happen. Kintyre found out what on the second day after the ambush, when a score of riders arrived. They were led by a Sudlander knight with a scarred face and hot eyes that remained fixed on Kintyre as he reined up and dismounted. The knight removed his gloves and tucked them into his broad leather belt. Then he sank down onto one knee and leaned close, his horse stench filling Kintyre's nostrils.
"I see someone's given you a third eye," he said, staring at Kintyre's forehead. Kintyre presumed there was a lump there. It explained the dull throbbing.
The knight chuckled at his own joke. "Typical Caledon, no sense of humor," he said. "Do you know who I am, boy?"
Kintyre had already guessed. "Sir Ranulf of Brynaghar."
"Very good. So you can think. If you're in any doubt, it was my hand that arranged for Lord Peyter to die. I can easily arrange the same for you." He paused as if waiting for a response, then shrugged when Kintyre failed to react. "You're probably wondering why you aren't dead already. The reason's simple. I want a dragon's skin, for exactly the same reason Lord Peyter did. When our King arrives next week, I intend to present him with a gift to mark the occasion." He reached out and grabbed hold of Kintyre's hair, twisting it until Kintyre's eyes watered. "The only question is, my fine Caledon warrior, will you lead us to where the dragons dwell, or do we part company now? As you can see, my man Greydal would take great pleasure in carving you up. He doesn't like your kind very much."
"Just say the word, Sir Ranulf, and this dog will trouble you no more," the soldier named as Greydal said.
Kintyre thought these Sudlanders talked too much. Yes, they were going to kill him, but not yet, not if he agreed to help them. No doubt they would guard against his escaping, but a slim chance was better than nothing, and his only other choice lay in Greydal's eyes.
"I will take you to where the dragons dwell," he said.
Ranulf let go of Kintyre's hair and stood up. "Excellent. Vasher, release our friend. You've been taking good care of him, I hope?"
"Yes, m'lord," the younger man said quickly. He knelt down beside Kintyre and pushed him over onto his side so he could saw at Kintyre's bonds with his dagger. As soon as the ropes parted, blood flowed painfully into Kintyre's ice-cold hands. He ground his teeth, refusing to utter a sound. Vasher cut the ropes around his ankles next.
"We'll rest for a while," the knight said. "Then we'll start up the mountain. Caledonyou have experience with these creatures. How many men will we need to slay a dragon?"
Kintyre thought about it for a moment. "Only one, if he's good enough."
Ranulf smiled. "Come, now. They're supposed to be savage, ferocious beasts. We've heard tales of grown men being carried off by dragons to feed their young."
Kintyre rubbed his wrists. "There's only one way to kill a dragon. It doesn't rely upon weight of numbers."
"Tell me, how?"
"An arrow, fired into its open mouth, so the point goes up through the brain. Every other part of the dragon is protected by overlapping scales. Even the sharpest spear couldn't hope to find a weak spot."
"What about its eyes?" Greydal said.
"Protected by bone ridges and covered by transparent lids."
"And its arsehole?"
"Covered by the tail," Kintyre told him, wondering if Greydal was seriously considering the possibility of sticking his sword up a dragon's backside. Kintyre would certainly like to see him try. "One swipe of its tail can cut a man in two."
Greydal shook his head. "No such creature exists. You're making this up."
"You'll see for yourself soon enough," Kintyre said.
"All you have to do is find us a dragon, Caledon," Ranulf said. "We'll decide how best to kill it." He gave Kintyre a final appraising look, then headed for the camp fire. Vasher and Greydal followed him. The soldiers sitting around the fire got up as Ranulf approached. Most of them suddenly found other things to do. Ranulf sat down and someone offered him a cup of wine.
Kintyre windmilled his arms, stretching his muscles. His guards watched him with some amusement, leaning on their long spears or cradling their crossbows in their arms. The crossbow was a Sudlander weapon, unknown here before the invaders came. Accurate to a range of one hundred paces, it could be loaded and shot by the weakest soldier in the Sudlander army. By contrast, the Caledon war-bow could kill from three hundred paces, but it needed a lifetime of practice to produce a proficient archer. The Sudlanders had quickly closed with Caluin's army and used their crossbows from short range, with deadly effect. The memory made Kintyre shudder.
He looked up the mountainside, to where the rock met the clouds, and wondered what awaited him up there. Possibly his own grave.
Keeping low, and making no noise whatsoever, Ranulf crawled forward until he reached the edge of the ridge. Looking down, he saw the beast, coiled on a large rock below, its wings folded over its body, apparently asleep.
Gods, what a monster! Easily the length of two grown men, it had a set of jaws that could swallow him whole. Scales of shimmering purple covered its entire body. Even in the failing light, their glitter hurt his eyes. Ranulf imagined how they might look rearranged into a suit of armor fit for a King.
"Does it know we're here?" Greydal asked. He lay to Ranulf's left, his features half-hidden by the lengthening shadows.
"It's asleep," the tracker, to Ranulf's right, replied.
"You're sure about that?" This was Vasher, lying on the tracker's other side. He sounded as nervous as Ranulf felt. All four men were whispering, for obvious reasons.
"If it was awake, we'd be fighting for our lives," the tracker told him. "But it's the wrong kind of dragon."
"What do you mean, the wrong kind?" Greydal said.
"The males are crimson and gold. Young females are usually purple and black. This one's nearly all purple, which means she's a breeding female." He looked up, searching the sky above. "What puzzles me is why every male dragon in the area isn't vying for her attention."
"Maybe they already did," Vasher said. "Maybe that's why she's asleep?" He grinned as if he'd suggested something lewd. Ranulf drew him a dark look.
"Male, female, what's the difference?" Greydal said. "Can we use that dragon's scales to make armor, or not?"
The tracker hesitated. Ranulf held his temper in check, waiting for the answer.
"Armor is usually made from male dragons, that's all," the tracker said. He was hiding something, and Ranulf guessed what it was. The Druids still held their secret ceremonies in the forests and hills, far from Sudlander eyes. Lord Peyter had allowed these pagan rites to continue, thinking this would keep the Caledon tribes peaceful. Ranulf knew otherwise. The Druids preached rebellion, encouraging the scum to rise against their masters. The tracker knew this. He also had knowledge of Druidic rituals, which included their fascination with armor made from the male dragon's skin. No matter. Ranulf intended to crush the Druids and put an end to their power. The Caledon would learn to worship the Sudlander gods. Or else.
"The men are moving into position," Greydal said.
"At last!" Ranulf was impatient to have it over with. He'd split his force into two groups, with equal numbers of spearmen and bowmen, to approach the dragon from two sides. The spearmen would pin the dragon down and prevent it from escaping, while the bowmen would let fly with their shafts, seeking vulnerable spots in its natural armor. It was the best strategy, given the circumstances.
The tracker said, "You're making a mistake. None will survive the dragon's fury. It will rend them with claw, fang and tail."
Vasher raised an eyebrow, querying whether Ranulf wanted him to kill the tracker. They'd found a dragon; they had no further use for him. Yet Ranulf experienced a momentary disquiet. The tracker had again given him cause for doubt. "Why do you tell me this?" he said. "What is it to you if Sudlanders are killed?"
The tracker shrugged. "No man deserves to die such a death."
Ranulf very nearly smiled. He was beginning to think this Caledon was a simpleton. Any of the soldiers down there would gut the tracker just for the pleasure of seeing him squirm.
"So you still think the only way to kill a dragon is with a single arrow to the brain, do you?"
"Could you make such a shot?"
The tracker frowned, thinking it over, and Ranulf held his breath. He wanted that dragon's skin. If he could obtain it without sacrificing a considerable number of men, who would be needed in the very near future when he launched his campaign against the Druids, then so much the better.
"Aye," the tracker said. "I could do it."
"If I give you one of your own Caledon war-bows, will you slay the dragon?"
"Why should I?" The tracker stared at him. "You intend to kill me. That's been plain from the moment we met."
Ranulf made a dismissive gesture. "All right, I admit it, I did plan to kill you. But now I've learned something about you. You could have let my men die, but you warned me instead. You've a sense of honor about you, Caledon. I believe that, were you to give me your word, you'd keep it."
"If I permit you to live, I require your silence. I require you never to speak of Lord Peyter's death, and what you have seen and heard over the past three days."
"And in return?"
"Slay that dragon, and you go free. You have my word. I don't often give it, but when I do, I keep it."
The tracker took a deep breath, then let it out in a long, slow sigh. Ranulf stared into the man's eyes and saw iron determination there. Had he unwittingly invoked some ancient test of manhood? Was this how Caledon chieftains and warriors proved their worth, by going forth alone to slay a dragon?
"Halt the attack," he said to Greydal. Greydal stared at him in disbelief for long moments, then waved frantically, conveying the order to the two groups converging upon the dragon. The soldiers paused, uncertain. Greydal waved again, confirming Ranulf's command. The two groups began to retreat, maintaining their silence, not wanting to disturb the sleeping dragon.
"Vasher, fetch the man a war-bow," Ranulf said. "And a single arrow."
Kintyre couldn't swallow, his mouth was so dry. His hands refused to stop shaking. He sensed Ranulf and the others watching from the safety of the ridge above. If not for the fact his father's ghost might also be watching, he would have cast the bow aside and fled for his life down the mountain.
As he approached the dragon, moving ever closer, Kintyre became aware that one of its eyes was open. Hot breath smoked from its nostrils, and its forked tail twitched. How long had it been aware of him? It was deliberately allowing him to come nearer, the easier to kill him.
He stopped and half-turned, presenting his left side to the dragon. With utmost care, he notched the arrow Vasher had given him, a long, straight shaft with black raven feathers. The barbed arrowhead reflected the last of the fading light. Sunset was only minutes away. The hills and plains below already lay in shadow; only the high mountains were still bathed in the dying sun's red glow.
The dragon emitted a rumbling, hissing sound that shook Kintyre to the bone. He drew back the string, bringing the muscles of his shoulders and arms into play, until his right hand touched his cheek. He stood poised with the bow fully drawn, remembering everything his father had ever taught himhis father, who'd died defending Caluin's banner. Kintyre gripped the bow more tightly, the memory of his cowardice that day making him more determined than ever.
All too clearly he remembered his father whispering advice into his ear while Kintyre, thirteen years old, prepared to shoot his first deer. He'd missed, startling the deer, which bounded into the trees. His father hadn't shown disappointment. Instead they'd climbed higher into the hills until they found another deer. His father told him how he must compensate for the fact the arrow lay along his cheek, not directly beneath his eye. He'd shifted his aim slightly to the right and his shaft took the second deer through the neck, killing it instantly.
Kintyre blinked rapidly to clear hot tears from his eyes, and saw the dragon move. It crouched low, its weight now upon its powerful rear legs, making ready to pounce. The great wings unfolded. Its forked tongue flickered as if in anticipation of a fine meal.
The dragon came at him with claws outstretched. He shifted his aim slightly to the right and released the bowstring, letting fly with his only arrow. The dragon's mouth opened to devour him and his shaft disappeared between fangs as large as swords. He threw his bow aside and hurled himself the other way, gasping as the dragon's bulk swept past him like a collapsing mountain, the impact shaking the ground and sending rock splinters and dust high into the air.
When everything settled, Kintyre pushed himself up and sat staring at the great corpse, experiencing bewilderment and elation in equal measure. The beast lay partly on its side, its wings crumpled and misshapen, one claw up in the air as if reaching for invisible prey. Its tail twitched once, then became still. Kintyre's bruises and sprains paled into insignificance beside the fact he'd slain a dragon. A female dragon, to be sure, but this one had been no smaller than any male dragon Kintyre had ever seen, and the females were said to be twice as cunning.
Ranulf's soldiers climbed into view and stared in disbelief at the corpse of the creature they were to have battled. Their expressions conveyed their relief. Every man there knew how close he'd come to a terrible death. Kintyre stood and dusted himself down. When they looked at him, he sensed their new-found respect for the Caledon who'd slain a dragon with a single arrow.
"Nothing to it," he told them, and some smiled, while others nodded acknowledgement of his deed.
Ranulf, Greydal and Vasher came down from the ridge and joined him. Greydal stepped forward and nervously nudged the dragon's head with the toe of his boot.
"I'll keep my word, Caledon," Ranulf said. "You go free. But I'll hold you to yours, now and always."
Kintyre nodded. He turned away from the dragon and, without a backward glance at Ranulf and his men, went down the mountain.
Vasher took a crossbow from one of the soldiers, lifted it to his shoulder and took aim at the departing tracker, but Ranulf whispered, "No. The Caledon lives."
Greydal stepped close and said, "M'lord, what makes you so sure he can be trusted? One careless word and we could all end up on a rusty spike. The light's failing. Let Vasher take his shot."
Ranulf watched the retreating Caledon, noting the squareness of his shoulders. He walked with an absolute assuredness and belief that Ranulf would uphold his half of their agreement. A brave man. A man who'd stood alone against a dragon. Even the cynical Ranulf recognized courage when he saw it.
"He can be trusted," he said. Vasher lowered the crossbow and gave it back to its owner. Ranulf put the Caledon from his mind and turned to study the dragon. A magnificent beast, to be sure. "I want this thing skinned before morning. We'll leave the carcass for the birds. All I need is the skin."
Greydal sighed. "Aye, m'lord."
His better judgment told Kintyre he should stay away from the Sudlander fortress, but he had pelts to sell and the market was in Brynaghar this month, so he went there.
The castle and the adjoining village were different from what he remembered. The place looked as though a giant had taken a broom to it. New flags and banners fluttered from the turrets. Carnival tents had been set up by the drawbridge. Jugglers and mummers on a makeshift stage attracted a small but appreciative audience.
There were soldiers everywhere. Kintyre saw Vasher, standing idly by the open drawbridge. Ignoring him, Kintyre made his way to the market square. He found a fur trader who acknowledged the quality of his pelts and gave him a good price. Sudlander women had taken to wearing furs as the colder Caledon winter threatened to bite, and pelts were in high demand.
Vasher fell in beside him as Kintyre strolled through the market, inspecting the wares on display, everything from carved bones to homespun cloth. "I thought you'd have more sense than to show your face here, Caledon."
"Why do you say that? You and I have never met."
Vasher gripped his arm. "Here, now. What do you take me for, a fool?"
"I'm here to trade furs," Kintyre said, "and for no other reason. I'll say it againyou and I have never met. Nor have I ever met Sir Ranulf. By acting otherwise, you only draw attention to yourself. What happened, never happened."
For a moment Vasher stared at him. Then he smiled slyly and let go of Kintyre's arm.
"You're a clever one, aren't you? All right, go about your business. But I'll be keeping an eye on you while you're here. Everywhere you go, I'll be watching."
The sound of laughter from somewhere above caused Kintyre to look up at the castle battlements. Sir Ranulf and Greydal stood among several cloaked lords and knights. One of the men, tall and bearded, appeared particularly imposing. Kintyre sucked in a deep breath. He recognized that faceit had burned itself into his memory. Malagar, the Sudlander King. His hands ached for a war-bow so that he could exact vengeance for his father, for Caluin, for all those who'd perished.
"You're privileged, Caledon," Vasher said. "Yonder is our King, who honors Castle Brynaghar with his presence. Unless I'm mistaken, Sir Ranulf is about to present him with a most marvelous gift."
It took a moment for Kintyre to realize what he meant.
"He's giving your King the dragonskin armor here?" he asked.
"Indeed he is."
"But he can't" Kintyre stopped himself in time.
"He can, and he will." Vasher chuckled. "Sir Ranulf owes you much, though you can never claim it so. The King will favor him for his gift. And will listen when Sir Ranulf tells him that Lord Peyter was slain by Caledon rebels."
"Rebels didn't kill him, you did."
Vasher shrugged. "The King doesn't know that. And never will, since you are sworn to silence. Ironic, isn't it? Sir Ranulf will bury your precious Druids, with the King's blessing, and all because you killed the dragon for him."
Kintyre saw how Ranulf had played him for a fool, using him, twisting his deed so it became a weapon against the Caledon tribes. And Vasher was correct, there was absolutely nothing Kintyre could do about it. His word bound him.
"I've sold my furs," he said. "There's no reason for me to stay here."
Vasher gave him a suspicious look. Kintyre suspected he was wondering whether Sir Ranulf's amnesty extended indefinitely or was intended only as a temporary measure, but the Sudlander kept his sword in its scabbard, and didn't order him arrested.
Kintyre left Brynaghar and set off along the north road at a brisk pace. When he'd gone a fair distance, he looked back toward the castle. Dazzling sunlight reflected off the purple armor and helmet that had been fashioned from the dragon's skin, and a rousing cheer went up from the Sudlander nobles. The symbol of the Caledon people had become a Sudlander trophy. Ranulf was likely laughing up his sleeve at Kintyre's stupidity.
Not for long. Kintyre looked up at the blue, cloudless sky. He experienced a sense of dread as dark specks suddenly became visible above the mountains. They appeared to circle for a momentand then they rushed down toward Brynaghar, their glittering crimson and gold scales marking them as young males, crazed with mating-lust and excited beyond reason by the bright purple armor the King of the Sudlanders wore, which their inhuman eyes had perceived even at that great distance. What was it the boy Druid had said? The wearer can still die, as all men can die. Only not so easily.
Kintyre bade a silent farewell to Sir Ranulf, for anyone close to King Malagar this day was a dead man. When the screams and shouts reached him, he stopped looking back. There was little point, really.
The place where Lord Peyter and his men had been slaughtered wasn't too far off his homeward path. Kintyre willingly made the detour to ensure the grave-cairn he'd built for Hartog was still in good repair, for not all Sudlanders carried hate in their hearts, and Hartog had almost been a friend.