Chapter III

The Araxi Tribe was unlike any of the draconic flights Beledine had ever encountered. Of course, sovereign dragons were all basically the same: stoic, monotonous, rigid, brilliant but dull. Without emotions, one couldn't have a personality. These humans were as different as could be, and each one was vibrant in his or her own unique way.

But it turned out Beledine had joined at a bad time, for the tribesmen were on their last limbs. Their numbers had been cut in half after they'd been driven out of their home. They'd lost their best hunters and most of their women. She couldn't imagine why anyone would want to harm the people who'd opened their hearts and let her into their midst so willingly. Seeing them miserable made her miserable in turn, so she devoted herself to being helpful and fitting in.

Unfortunately, sometimes it seemed like those were two mutually exclusive things.

“Leave it be,” Yalon snapped one evening when she tried to help him start a fire. “Spark-headed troglodyte doesn't know her place,” she heard him add in a not-quite-whisper as she moved away to let him work alone.

She knew Yalon was insulting her, but she didn't know enough about human culture to be properly offended by his name-calling. She suspected his desire to make the fire alone stemmed from feelings of inadequacy and a need to prove his superiority to everyone around him. While she didn't think this was healthy behavior, she empathized with him nonetheless—so when he was focused on rubbing two sticks together, she surreptitiously wielded to help him along.

Flames burst to life on his little pile of kindling and he flashed her a smug little smile. “You see?”

“Very good,” she replied in an encouraging tone.

For some reason this made Yalon angry all over again, and he stalked off to fetch the tribe's meager supper from the women who were preparing it.

“What did I do wrong?” Beledine asked, turning to Mota. The water wielder was sitting on a nearby boulder, scraping the flesh out of a mountain crab he'd caught in the river.

“Ignore him,” Mota told her, waving a dismissive hand.

“If it was something I said, I want to know. I want to learn and be better.”

Mota chuckled and shook his head. “You worry too much. Don't bother worry over Yalon. He always like that.”

Beledine sighed. If only people would say what they felt and mean what they said. She was quickly learning that humans weren't forthcoming about their emotions. It was a far cry from living with Ghokarian and knowing his every thought and feeling almost as soon as he had it.

Also, humans had lots of unspoken rules of society. Beledine embraced many of the changes, but some she didn't understand. Kamber, one of the older tribeswomen, told her it was unseemly for a female to have a single-strap toga. Not wishing to offend anyone, Beledine fashioned a new fur cover-up for herself so she could adhere to the dress code. The additional material often made her warmer than she liked when she was running and hiking, but she figured it was a small price to pay if it made her new family more comfortable.

Though the rules sometimes frustrated her, there was much to enjoy as well. She'd made fast friends with Mota, and she was very fond of Falme and his son, whose name—inexplicably—was also Falme. The older Falme was ill with a respiratory disease which left him short of breath and gave him coughing fits, but he always had a smile for Beledine. She offered to give him healings on many occasions, but he waved her offers away with assurances that he would be fine.

The tribe on a whole was wonderful. Kibar was supportive of her efforts. She couldn't imagine anyone kinder than Blure. Yalon continued to be unpleasant, but the more time she spent with the humans, the more she found that fitting in with them was easy. At night the men built fires and the women made their meals. Everyone traded stories of better times. All they wanted was to be safe and happy.

Just like me, Beledine thought, as a swelling sense of kinship toward them grew within her.

The tribe moved steadily west along the river, sticking close to the glacial runoff that rushed through cracks and crevices. It was difficult terrain, and sometimes Beledine took them out of their way along paths that would be easier for the elderly and the infirm. She loped along at the front of the pack with Skyrel, but always kept an eye on the stragglers at the end of the line, and never set a pace they couldn't follow.

It took them half a moon, but finally they descended to the flatlands. The Araxi people rejoiced upon reaching level ground. Mota let out a whoop and sank to his knees, kissing the coarse, yellow-brown grass that grew in dry patches as far as the eye could see.

“You have been true to your word, Beledine,” said Skyrel. He glanced around at his people. “We owe you our lives, I think.”

Beledine smiled. “You'd have been fine without me.”

“I'm not so sure,” the chieftain admitted in an undertone. He drew away from the main group, and she followed a bit uncertainly. “We might have made it out of the mountains—Mota and I would have been able to attend to our water needs, and Kibar would have hunted enough food to keep us fed—but having you here has changed the tribe. Their spirits are lifted. We needed that after what happened to us.”

Beledine remained silent, examining Skyrel. He was particularly hard to read, for he guarded his emotions and hid them away like buried treasures. His deep blue eyes took on an odd shine as he gazed across the barren, windswept plains.

“The nomads weren't lying when they said the west is unforgiving,” he murmured. “Not a shred of greenery. We'll be hard pressed in these lands, but we had no other place to go. When we lost our home . . .” He trailed off and pursed his lips together in a thin line of worry.

“We can find a new home,” Beledine blurted out before she could stop herself. “A better home. Somewhere with fresh water and fertile soil, somewhere that's protected from storms, somewhere we can build a settlement.”

Skyrel's dark brows drew together in a scowl. “Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. A settlement is a huge commitment. We don't have the numbers or the wielders needed to settle—we'll have to stay on the move to sustain ourselves. Besides, a place such as you describe won't exist this far north. Or if it does, it will already be inhabited.”

“We can make one,” said Beledine.

“It's not that simple.”

“Isn't it?” She made a sweeping gesture toward her fellow tribesmen. “We have wielders of every element here. Kibar is a strong earth wielder, he can even grow food.”

Kibar, who never strayed too far from Skyrel, perked up at the sound of his name. He shuffled closer to them, listening in on the conversation.

“Kibar isn't strong enough to grow food consistently for twenty-odd companions,” Skyrel pointed out.

“I can help,” she promised.

“Are you an earth wielder now, Beledine?” asked Kibar.

“No, but I am a mage. I know how to nurture plants. If the earth-wielders can purify the soil, then our gatherers can find grains and seeds to cultivate. Mota can ensure they're well watered. And once they grow, I'll ensure they flourish.”

Kibar scratched his chin in thought. Mota, who had snuck up behind them to eavesdrop, looked at Skyrel with wide and hopeful eyes. But the Araxi chieftain was not so easily won over.

“It's too much work for my people,” he said. “And there are too many risks. It could go terribly wrong.”

“It might go terribly right,” Beledine argued. “And it's just as much work to keep driving the tribe across difficult terrain in search of hunting grounds and fresh water.”

“Well, you've hit the problem square on its head,” Skyrel returned sharply. “Food and water. Prey is bound to be scarce here, and water goes without saying. Mota and I can't generate enough for all of us.”

“But if we—”

“Enough, Beledine. It is not for you to decide.”

Beledine shut her mouth and bowed her head. She recognized the voice Skyrel used when he was exercising his power as uncontested leader, and feared she might have overstepped her place again.

“If you find me a magical secluded valley with a freshwater lake and a pack of mammoths to hunt, I will be thrilled to put in the effort to settle us there,” he continued. “But there is no such place. The Araxi Tribe no longer has a home; we must be nomads until we reach fairer climes in the south.”

Beledine didn't have the heart to keep arguing. She glanced at Kibar and Mota, hoping one of them might speak in support of settling—but neither one did. Kibar shrugged and followed after Skyrel as he walked away. Mota lingered for a moment.

“Don't feel too bad,” he said, clapping a bracing hand on Beledine's shoulder. “Sky not angry with you, he just worried about the tribe.”

“I am, too,” Beledine mumbled, frowning at her feet. The humans fashioned footwear out of tanned animal hides to protect their soles, and she had happily adopted this custom. It made walking and running in the mountains much easier. “I want what's best for everyone.”

“We've rested long enough!” Skyrel's booming voice echoed across the flatlands before Mota could respond. A collective groan rose from the tribe as the weary travelers prepared to continue their journey.

“Come on, Bel.” Mota tugged on her arm to get her moving. “Long way to walk before the sun set!”

Beledine made no move. “What did you call me?”

“Bel,” he repeated. “Short for Beledine, yes?”

She nodded slowly. “Yes.”

Many of the tribesmen were called by short-names, though these were primarily used among people who were close to each other. She hadn't been with the Araxi Tribe long, and though she was friendly with many, this was the first time she had been referred to with a term of endearment.

She followed Mota, smiling to herself. Falme and Saanug trudged up to fall into step beside her, with Falme's son darting around them. The five stuck close together in companionable silence as the tribe struck out into lands unknown. Beledine didn't bring up her idea again, but she mulled it over in the privacy of her own head.

<Are you troubled?>

She stifled a small chuckle. Her head was never truly private, nor would she want it to be.

<The tribe is in desperate need of a place to rebuild,> she thought to Ghokarian, who was the ever-brimming well from which she drew her strength. <I want to do something to help them, I'm just not sure the chieftain will accept my assistance. Although . . .> She cut herself off, for she had been struck by a stray thought. He, however, clearly saw her intent.

<You wish for me to leave the mountains, fly west, and seek a place where your new family might safely dwell?>

<I won't ask that of you, and I don't want to burden you with that responsibility. This is my tribe, and it will be my job to help them however I can.>

<Your will is admirable,> thought Ghokarian. <But what kind of dragon would I be if I didn't help my bondmate?>

<The kind who lets his bondmate fight her own battles,> she replied wryly.

Through their mental connection, she sensed a wave of amusement wafting from Ghokarian. <I'll stay out of it if that's what you wish. But let me at least point you in the right direction.>

A sudden yearning to veer to the right swept through Beledine, an urge so strong that she actually strayed aside and bumped into Mota. “Oh! Sorry.”

“Watch where you step,” he said, grinning as he shoved her away. Far from being offended, Beledine grinned back at him. She'd observed that feigned violence between humans was—against all reason—a sign of affection.

“I just think it would be better to go that way,” she said, pointing westwards.

“Why? Sky want to go south.”

“Uh . . . I've actually traveled here in the past, long ago,” she lied. “There's better hunting to the west, if memory serves.”

“Don't tell me. Tell Sky.” Mota pointed to the chieftain, who trotted along at the head of the line. Beledine quickened her pace to catch up with him.

“Chieftain?” She addressed him with the proper deference and bobbed a polite bow. Skyrel glanced coldly upon her. “I don't mean any offense, but I know a bit about these lands. If you veer west, you'll have an easier journey.” She paused before adding, “North and west, specifically.”

“You lived in the mountains, now you've also lived on the plains?” he asked.

“I haven't lived here . . . but like I said, I know about them.” That wasn't necessarily a lie; after all, anything Ghokarian knew was something she knew by proxy. “Just a suggestion.”

She fell back to rejoin Mota. It was important to Skyrel that he assert his leadership, so it was important to Beledine that she should allow him to make the decision on his own. She watched as he leaned close to Kibar to confer with the grizzled old hunter in whispers. They drew apart, and Beledine felt disappointment surge through her.

But then Skyrel turned and angled his path to head due west, toward the blazing sunset. And she smiled again.

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