Though the sky was overcast, it took Beledine's eyes a moment to adjust in the darkness of the yurt. She blinked, peering around blindly.
“I told them I wanted to speak to the chieftain,” came a deep voice from the shadows.
“I am the chieftain,” she shot back, tilting her head toward the direction of the speaker.
There was a pause. The bustle of the tribe was muted by the trees outside. In the silence, shivers crawled across her skin like ghostly spiders. Irritated by her own jumpiness, Beledine raised a hand and wielded a small flame into life.
A human sat against the stone wall, a male who didn't look much older than she herself. The overall impression of him was darkness: he had brown skin and raven hair that framed his lean face in windswept waves. Thin black furs were wrapped closely around his body. His cunning eyes were deep indigo pools that sparkled in her firelight. They narrowed as they examined her, lingering on her hips and her chest, finally coming to rest on her face.
“I wasn't expecting this,” he admitted.
“What? A woman?”
“Certainly not a woman, no. Nor was I expecting a fellow mage—though from the way you wielded on the mountain, I should have guessed.”
Beledine furrowed her brow. “Fellow? You mean you're—”
“A mage, yes.” The stranger offered her a friendly smile. His lips were full and his teeth were straight and white. Good health was often an indicator of a powerful wielder, one who understood lifemagic and could take proper care of oneself. But if he were truly a mage, why was he not branded?
“You're wondering why I bear no scars,” he surmised.
“I'm wondering many things.”
“I escaped my settlement before my tribe could mark me. I was just shy of six cycles when I left them.”
Something unpleasant stirred in Beledine's gut. She had been about six when Ghokarian had found her. There had been an accident, and she'd been the sole survivor. The rest of her old tribe had perished. She had been lost, alone, unable to fend for herself.
“That's quite young to be on your own,” she said, shuddering as a blurry, unwanted memory of agony gripped her momentarily before slipping away. “I doubt I'd have survived.”
He shrugged his broad shoulders. Beledine noted he'd been bound with a length of fiber-woven rope a pathetic—a poor defense against his hidden strength. “I'm a man of unusual talents.”
“Clearly, for you murdered a dragon.”
Something dangerous kindled in the man's eyes. “Surely murder is too harsh a term. After all, I saved you and your entire tribe.”
“Which is the only reason you aren't dead yet.” With a flick of her wrist, she sent her wielded flame over to the firepit, where it latched onto a smattering of dried pine branches. Then she lowered herself to sit before the man. “Though my bondmate and I owe you a debt of gratitude, we are concerned with your behavior.”
“And my skill, undoubtedly.”
“That which is strong enough to kill a dragon is a concern to all the kin,” she said, refusing to give him the compliment he was fishing for. “Why did you do it?”
“I've been tracking that dragon for many moons,” he said, stretching out his long legs. Even his foot coverings were black, fashioned out of some leathery animal hide. “He liked the taste of blood. He was a rogue, and a vicious one at that.”
“I am aware,” Beledine said dryly.
The man chuckled. “In killing him, I did everyone a favor. I made him my target after I witnessed him and his band of raider humans destroy an entire city. I followed their trail of destruction, tracking them across the western plains.”
“Always. I've been alone since I was six.”
“Weren't you concerned? Following a bloodthirsty dragon and a tribe of hunters, trekking across unknown territory by yourself?”
“I don't fear wandering in the wilderness, for I have all the tools I need to survive. I don't fear mortal men, for I am stronger than anyone who dares challenge me. And as for dragons . . .” Here the main trailed off and gave her an appraising look.
“A dragon is a deadly foe, even for a mage,” said Beledine.
“Perhaps for mages who aren't used to fighting them.”
It took a moment for those words to sink into her brain. Outside she heard a guttural growl, Ghokarian's physical response to the alarm and revulsion welling up within her.
“Are you implying you've killed dragons before?” she whispered.
“Only ones that deserve it,” was the callous reply. “I've moved from city to city, and I've seen how the rising nation-states function. They are all centered around three or four strong rheenarae and their bondmates, who act as the pillars of their organization. The two species work together, each to better the other.”
“Surely these are not the dragons you believe worthy of death,” she said in a hollow voice, unable to believe he could speak about his atrocities in such a blithe manner.
“The dragons who deserve death are the ones who are drawn to those thriving metropolises to destroy them.”
Beledine opened her mouth, then closed it slowly. Dragons deliberately destroying human cities? Cities where their kin lived, no less?
<It doesn't seem right,> she thought to Ghokarian.
<It isn't. He's lying. Or not telling us something.>
“I see you doubt me,” said the man. “Ask me anything. I have nothing to hide. The Eminarchs themselves have vetted my actions and found no fault.”
A frission of shock ran between Beledine and Ghokarian. The Eminarchs were a circle of the ten oldest living dragons. They presided over all the flights, intervening with conflicts when necessary and doling out wisdom to those who sought it. The fact that this mortal's actions had been drastic enough to garner the attention of the Eminarchs was truly something—but more shocking was the fact that they had chosen not to take action against him.
“I've killed four dragons to date. Your rogue was my fifth,” the man continued, oblivious to Beledine's horror. “They and their rheenarae all tried to infiltrate mortal settlements and take what wasn't theirs. I stopped them. The dragons of the south, being conflicted about my actions—just as you and your bondmate are—brought my case to the Eminarchs.”
“And they deemed you not a threat to the kin?”
“They deemed my actions just. The beasts I killed were bonded, outside draconic laws and protection. They were all violent rogues, so no one mourned their loss. And in a world where it increasingly seems that humans and dragons must work together, they did not want to put a man of my renown to death.”
“You're renowned, are you?” asked Beledine, folding her arms. “As a dragonslayer?”
He smiled then, and it was like the unveiling of a secret, a flower that had bloomed just for Beledine's eyes that was never to be shared with anyone else. “Among other things.”
<What do you think?> she asked Ghokarian, scrutinizing the enigmatic mortal.
<About putting him to death for his actions? The Eminarchs passed judgement, and I would not go against their decree.>
<Even though you're no longer bound to their laws?>
<Just because I am not bound to my sovereign kin, that does not mean I can ignore justice. Draconic law is based on pure reason.>
<And as such, morality is given no account,> she retorted. <Do you think it's right that he should go free when he's murdered five of your brethren? What gives him the right to choose who deserves death?>
<He has no right—but neither do we,> Ghokarian reminded her.
“I've seen that look before, chieftain,” the man murmured. “You and your pet want to kill me, don't you?”
“Ghokarian is not a pet.” She bit off each word. This arrogant flesh-rat knew nothing of the majestic creatures he so thoughtlessly destroyed. “And we will not dole out justice as frivolously as you do. We will not go against the edict of the Eminarchs. It is not our place to decide who lives and who dies.”
“Hm.” The man's smile softened. Where before Beledine had seen a dangerous fire flaring in his eyes, now she saw a smoldering campfire, a glowing warmth that reached out and embraced her. “Then you are wiser than the other rheenarae. They think their status allows them to do as they please.”
“It has nothing to do with one being a rheenar. Perhaps you've simply had the misfortune to always be in the company of bad people,” Beledine retorted nastily. “I hear that type likes to stick together.”
<Don't antagonize him,> Ghokarian cautioned.
<I will not tiptoe around this arrogant killer. If he wishes to fight, we will give him a fight—and we will win.>
<But you are responsible for your tribe now. Your own arrogance may decide their fate.>
Beledine clenched her fists so hard, her fingernails bit into her palms. She knew Ghokarian spoke the truth, but for the first time in her life, she was angry at him for doing so. Or maybe she was just angry that he was so right. She'd hold her tongue, but she would not apologize to or back down from this person. The fact that the Eminarchs had absolved the man of his crimes didn't mean she had to like him.
“What are you thinking?” His voice was low and husky, a threat and a promise wrapped in mystery. Another shiver crawled beneath her skin, burrowing deep. “Would you condemn me without even knowing my story?”
“No,” she snapped. “On behalf of the Araxi Tribe, I thank you for your earlier assistance.”
“We had it under control,” she assured him, though she was acutely aware that had he not intervened, she and Ghokarian would have been in trouble. Regardless, they'd at least weakened the rogue dragon and distracted it so he could make his kill. “You have our gratitude, and you may leave our valley uncontested.”
Suddenly the earth beside the prisoner roiled, and a thin, piercing arm of stone shot up from the ground. It sliced through his bindings neatly before retracting into the soil as if it had never been. He unfolded from his dark corner, rising with a fluid grace.
Beledine fully embraced her source, and she knew Ghokarian was readying a deadly spell of his own. She gathered her feet beneath her and stood to face the mage. She wasn't tall to begin with, but he was massive, towering head and shoulders above her. He was the first of her kind she'd ever met, and as he approached, she understood why people were frightened when they saw the scars on her cheeks.
“What if I don't want to leave?” he asked, stopping before her. Another rumble from Ghokarian gave the man pause. His eyes flicked toward the yurt entrance. “I simply meant, what if I wanted to stay?”
“Stay?” she repeated. She didn't like the idea of him being near them, not knowing what he was capable of. “I suppose the valley is big enough. If you travel to the north end of the lake—”
“You misunderstand. I would stay with you.”
Though the man was speaking perfect Surdri, he was making no sense to Beledine. She gaped at him for a moment, struggling to make sense of the situation.
“With . . . ?”
“I'm tired of nomadic life, and I was impressed by your fire wielding,” he went on, light and carefree. “I noticed you've taken tribesmen from multiple different cultures. I wouldn't think you'd be the type to turn away someone like me.”
“I—I wouldn't,” she stammered. “But—”
“Then it's settled. I'll join your tribe.”
“You just said you wouldn't turn me away.”
“Not because of any kind of magic you wield,” she replied, feeling flustered. “Not for what you are.”
“Only for who you are.” Ghokarian had finally spoken. He lowered his head and peered into the yurt, his purple eyes flashing as he pinned the human with his uncanny gaze. “We aren't comfortable with your history.”
“Then help me change,” the man challenged. “Show me the error of my ways. Show me not all rheenarae are bad. Show me what a woman chieftain can do. Show me a dragon can be good. I assume a dragon can be good, based on your character alone,” he finished, addressing Beledine.
<Do you think it's a trick?> Beledine thought. She had been thrown off-kilter by the events of the day—moreso by this this ludicrous human—and felt as if her ability to make rational decisions had been shattered.
<I'm not sure why he would bother with a trick,> Ghokarian replied. <Why wait to attack when he knows we're weakened after a battle?>
<We could use another mage,> Beledine admitted, thinking of the losses they'd sustained that day. Skyrel's death had left a painful void, even though he hadn't been the strongest wielder among them, and Yalon's departure would hurt more than she cared to admit. If she ever had to face another foe like the rogue dragon, she might not be able to protect the tribe.
<Your concerns are valid,> thought Ghokarian, <but we must ask ourselves if it's worth the risk of bringing him in among us?>
<I would say no,> she began, <but it's not just my decision anymore.>
<Perhaps you should do as Skyrel did when you joined. Perhaps you should take a vote.>
The entire thought exchange had taken only the span of a few heartbeats, but Beledine could sense the newcomer sizing her up. As a mage, he could wield lifemagic—perhaps he was even trying to read her thoughts.
“We will let the tribe decide,” she said at last.
He arched a brow and gave her a bemused look. “A chieftain who lets her people make decisions for her. You get more interesting each passing moment.”
“If you don't like the way I lead my tribe, you're free to leave.” Little though she wanted to turn her back on him, she swept out of the yurt into the stormy brightness. Ghokarian hunched there, a faint snarl rippling the corners of his scaly lips.
<We'll see how this goes,> she thought, and the dragon nodded.
She glanced over her shoulder. The man had followed her into the light. He stood uncomfortably close behind her, but she refused to move on his behalf.
“Follow me . . .” She faltered, realizing she hadn't gotten the stranger's name.
“Helkryvt,” he supplied.