“This is yours now, Beledine. You wear it.”
Beledine squinted at what Kibar was offering her. She recognized the talisman Skyrel had worn around his neck. It had usually been hidden beneath his furs, and she hadn't ever thought much of it. Most humans liked to embellish their appearance with baubles and things of this nature—they were commonplace.
“It belongs to the Araxi chieftain,” Kibar continued, lowering it over her head. “It bears Skyrel's mark.”
The simple clay ornament hung from a thin cord of tanned animal hide and rested over her heart. Sinuous lines had been carved into its round face. The design wasn't one Beledine recognized. Perhaps it was a symbol in some foreign language?
Reaching up, she placed trembling fingers upon the talisman. Skyrel was gone and she was the leader now. Was she ready? Could she handle this? Was this what she even wanted?
She was drawn toward the comforting presence of Ghokarian, who stood by the entrance to the small cave. She longed to go to him, to bury her face in his scales and sob. He would enfold her with his wings, shielding her from the hurts and terrors of the world, as he'd done when she was little.
But those suns were gone. She couldn't go running to Ghokarian for comfort. She wasn't a child anymore—she was a chieftain. Leader of twenty-odd human beings from varying walks of life, all of whom were now depending on her for their survival.
Her shoulders sagged just thinking about it.
“We need to say to everyone this happened,” Mota murmured.
“Yes. They need to know about Skyrel. And about Beledine.” Kibar inclined his head to her. “Our new chieftain.”
She swallowed and nodded. Nothing had changed. She was still Beledine, and the tribe was still the tribe. She loved them—of course she did. Skyrel had seen it. He wouldn't have entrusted leadership to her otherwise. His faith in her solidified her faith in herself, and she lifted her chin with purpose.
“We'll tend to our injured and begin cleaning the camp. We'll treat our dead with honor.”
<How do humans treat their dead?> she added as a silent aside to Ghokarian.
<Sometimes the same way dragons do, burning the bodies. Some tribes elect to bury their dead. Others still build tombs and monuments. It's different for every culture.>
Beledine nodded. Kibar and Mota were leaving, going to face the tribe. There was no use delaying the inevitable. She followed behind them, heading to face her people.
The Araxi had gathered by the mountain entrance, awaiting news of their chieftain. Some of them looked in bad shape—Saanug was covered in blood and Badger's right arm was hanging limply from its socket, dislocated. Beledine's stomach churned. She looked over her shoulder at Embre and jerked her head toward the injured. He peeled away from the procession, going to tend to those who needed help.
“Well?” Yalon stood at the head of the crowd, pacing impatiently.
“Skyrel Araxi is dead,” Kibar announced in a solemn voice as he reemerged into fresh air. Many in the crowd gasped or cried out. Some sank to their knees. Some lifted their hands to the sky. Young Falme pressed himself against his father's legs and wailed. The elder Falme picked him up to soothe his cries. Beledine thought again of her youth, when Ghokarian had been able to protect her like that, and her lip trembled.
Sensing her inner thoughts, Ghokarian plodded up and planted himself beside her. They didn't touch, for both of them were aware that it was important to broadcast an image of power now; but just the simple fact of having him beside her eased some of Beledine's suffering.
“Then we must promote a new chieftain,” said Yalon. It was obvious that Skyrel's death had rattled him, but now that the news had sunk in and he'd had a moment to think things through, a tinge of excitement colored in his tone. “Someone who can lead us and protect us. Personally I think—”
<Stop him before he goes too far,> Ghokarian cautioned.
<I would rather Kibar or Mota interject,> she admitted.
<They are waiting for you to do it. You're chieftain. You must act like it.>
<I don't want to abuse my power right away,> she thought dryly.
<This is not an abuse of power. Humans are pack animals, and they need structure. If there is no clear leader, the majority of the herd are ill at ease.>
Beledine stifled a sigh, hating that he was so right. She stepped forward and spoke over Yalon's pompous diatribe detailing why he would be a good candidate for chieftain.
“Skyrel already named a successor.” Yalon paused mid-sentence. He narrowed his beady black eyes and his lips curled back in a snarl.
“If you say what I think you're about to say,” he began in a warning tone, but Beledine raised a hand for silence. She wouldn't have allowed him to speak to her like when when she'd been a regular member of the tribe, and she certainly wouldn't allow it now.
“As his dying act, Skyrel Araxi named me to succeed him as chieftain,” she declared, plucking up his talisman from where it lay heavy on her chest and displaying it for the crowd.
Her stomach unclenched marginally when she saw the reactions of the tribe. Subconsciously she'd been wondering if they would accept her, but gazing around at the tear- and blood-streaked faces, she saw smiles of relief among her friends. There were even a few she didn't know quite as well, like Roty and Malik, who radiated approval. She saw hesitance, perhaps even fear, lurking in a few eyes—but she knew she could handle that. She could prove herself to them, win them over in time.
In fact, the only one who seemed to disapprove was the one she'd expected.
“Surely this is someone's idea of a very poor joke,” said Yalon. His voice was dangerously soft, and he'd pulled his pinched face into a fake smile.
“No one's laughing, Yalon,” she retorted, crossing her arms and fixing him with an unflinching glare. “I have three humans and one dragon to bear witness. This was Skyrel's wish. He believed I would do my utmost to protect the tribe and help it grow, and I intend to do just that.”
“Setting aside the numerous reasons why you are unfit to lead this tribe,” Yalon began, taking a threatening step toward her, “you fail to realize that you can't be a chieftain.”
“Why you say that?” This came from Mota, who also shifted closer to Beledine in a show of solidarity.
“Because she's a woman!”
Yalon's shout rang in the stillness of the valley. Beledine's breath hitched in her throat, but she kept her expression impassive. Was Yalon telling the truth? Were human women not allowed to be leaders? She knew they were often traded like commodities between tribes, and that they didn't share the hunting responsibilities of the men, but surely Skyrel wouldn't have promoted her if it were against societal rules?
Ghokarian cleared his throat. It came out sounding like a warning growl, and a few of the nearby men drew back. “Correct me if I'm wrong, but you are a nomadic tribe?”
“Of course we are,” Yalon snapped, as if he thought the dragon a simpleton for asking. “Do you think we were roaming around the infernal wastes by choice all this time?”
“Then you are not beholden, by feudal law or written mandate, to any of the newly-formed nation-states of the western world,” said Ghokarian, ignoring Yalon's rude tone.
“We are beholden only to ourselves,” said Kibar. “And the rules our chieftain sets.”
“Seeing as Skyrel was the one to appoint a woman as his successor, it would appear that he had no rule against a women becoming chieftain,” Ghokarian reasoned, rotating his wing joints in a shrug.
Yalon spluttered and spat, making a gesture as if he wanted to take Beledine and Ghokarian by their necks and rattle some sense into them.
“Yalon claims there are other problems,” said Beledine. She wasn't rising to Yalon's bait. If there were genuine issues regarding her ascension to leadership, she wanted to address them sooner rather than later.
“Of course there are! You've been with us three moons—the issue of seniority stands there. Forget the fact that you don't know the ins and outs of this tribe, you barely know how to be a human. You didn't know any of our customs when you first joined. You didn't—”
“But I learned.” She cut across him, her voice hard and resolute. “I changed my ways for you. I adapted to fit in. I learned your culture not out of necessity, but out of respect.”
Seeing that his arguments against her were falling flat, Yalon turned and addressed the crowd. “Is no one else concerned? Are you going to let this heathen child strut in and take control? Do you actually trust her, this monster in shoddy human skin, this wanton brat who has deceived us and led us into danger time and again?”
“Yalon, enough,” said Kibar.
“No, don't silence him. If people are concerned, I want to know.” She turned to face the tribe. “If anyone has any fears about my becoming chieftain, I am listening. I would never use my power for ill, as I'm sure Yalon suspects.”
Yalon had the nerve to stalk up to her. Beledine stood her ground even when he stuck his wizened face right into hers. She was more than a match for him, and he knew that as well as she did.
“You may have them fooled, but I see through your little charade,” he hissed, jabbing a finger into her chest, next to Skyrel's talisman. “You're up to something. It's not enough to be a mage, not enough to be a rheenar, no. You want more. You covet power. You've coveted power over us since the moment you arrived.”
“That isn't true, and you know it.”
“Then something inside you is broken. No one gets to be the way you are unless something is seriously, irreversibly, wrong.”
“I am not broken,” she said loudly. “I know who I am and what I want. And right now I want you to back up and show your chieftain the respect she's due.”
Yalon retreated, breathing heavily. The crowd parted around him as he backed away. “If it is the will of the tribe to allow this . . . this creature to lead you further into darkness, then so be it. But I'll have no part of it. I won't submit to an arrogant rheenar who knows nothing of our ways. I'm leaving. Anyone who doesn't wish to suffer under her rule is welcome to join me.”
It was clear he'd been expecting everyone to flock to him, but no one moved. This seemed to shock him, and he stared around at his kinsmen, his face going puce with barely contained rage.
“So be it,” he seethed. “When she destroys this tribe, remember that you were complicit in your own demise.”
He turned on his heel and ghosted into the trees, leaving his portentous words to hang in the air.
It was unfortunate to lose another tribesman—especially one who'd been a gifted wielder—but Beledine found that as soon as he was out of sight, a weight seemed to lift from her. Things would be hard enough, and she didn't need Yalon around to make matters worse. Good riddance. Let him find his own way in the wastes. Better yet, let him come sniveling back when he realized he couldn't survive alone.
<Perhaps you should speak to his leaving,> Ghokarian suggested.
<What, tell them all I thought he was a troglodyte and I'm glad to be shot of him?>
<Ah, no. Keep that one to yourself.> Beledine sensed a current of amusement wafting from her dragon. <But your people have been through an ordeal, and now they've seen someone leave because of you. Reassure them. Let them know their presence and loyalty matters.>
She took a breath, trying to find the right words for the situation. “I am sorry to see Yalon go.” She heard a few stifled chuckles. Everyone knew she wasn't fond of him. Most of them hadn't been fond of him, either. Thank the Fates Yalon had made himself so unlikable. “We had our differences, but our differences can make us strong. Different viewpoints and ideas can push us forward; only if we allow them to divide us will they make us weak. I want to encourage our differences, but I do not want us divided. If anyone else has a problem with Skyrel appointing me, speak now.”
Silence met her words.
“Very well. Past this sun, I expect my promotion to go uncontested. I expect we will all move forward together to rebuild, starting now. Embre, gather the wounded and bring them inside to tend to them. Brittelle, take the children inside and make sure they're cared for. They can help mix healing poultices. Falme, take a group of earth wielders to start clearing out the debris from our living area. And Kibar.” She turned to face the older man. “Take whoever you value most and find a burial spot for Skyrel. We will return him to the earth and build a monument to remember him.”
Kibar's eyes became bright for a moment. He nodded and motioned to Roty and Caris. The three men trudged off to do their duty.
Beledine gave a small start and turned to find Malik beside her. He was a well-muscled earth wielder, with brown skin but unique fair hair. She stared stupidly at him for a moment, unused to being addressed in such a way.
“Uh, yes? What is it, Malik?”
“I thought you'd want to know. The men and I have detained a prisoner.”
“One of our attackers?”
“Truthfully, I'm not sure.”
“Not sure?” Mota repeated, raising a skeptical brow. “How you don't know? He's an outsider, yes? Then that means he attack us!”
“He claims he saved us, in fact,” Malik retorted. Mota scowled in disbelief, but Beledine felt knots hardening in her belly. She glanced at Ghokarian and could tell he was thinking along the same lines: Malik's prisoner was their mysterious mountain savior. Everything had happened so fast, she hadn't had time to think about the suspicious nature in which the enemy dragon had died.
“Lead the way,” she said.
Malik trotted off toward the pine copse, swerving around the activity of the other tribesmen. Beledine followed, Ghokarian right on her heels.
<Be on guard,> he cautioned. She didn't need his warning. Anything that could kill a dragon could kill all the other inhabitants of the valley without batting an eye. She wished she wasn't so achy, so upset, so spent from the battle.
They entered the trees and Malik brought them to one of the yurts. He gestured inside the stone dwelling, but Beledine paused. It was human-sized, and Ghokarian couldn't fit.
<I'll be right here,> he promised, hunkering down beside the wall, kneading the soft earth with his deadly claws.
She flashed him a smile, squared her shoulders, and marched inside.