“Bel, why you didn't say you have a dragon?!”
Beledine stifled a sigh. Mota was the only one who seemed immune to Ghokarian's grandeur. The water wielder trotted by her side at the head of the line of Araxi, hissing nonstop in her ear. To her right, Ghokarian cocked his head to eye Mota appraisingly.
<He's my friend,> Beledine thought by way of explanation. <He's a good person.>
<I know,> Ghokarian replied.
The tribe followed Beledine and Ghokarian out of the valley. The Lothoko made no move to follow or stop them—the sight of the dragon had scared them senseless. Indeed, by the time the Araxi were halfway across the basin and approaching the western peaks, Tikar and his men had vanished back into the misty north.
Now that the threat of the cannibals was gone—and the shock from Ghokarian's appearance had worn off somewhat—Beledine's tribesmen were coming back to themselves. And not all of them were happy.
“Beledine.” She winced at the sharpness in Skyrel's tone and glanced over her shoulder. The chieftain's brown face was hardened into a scowl.
“We will talk, I promise,” she whispered. “But let's get the tribe safely out of the valley first.”
Skyrel looked like he wanted to protest. His mouth twisted in the precursor of an argument, but in the end he nodded and followed silently.
“We already safe,” said Mota. “We have you.”
In spite of herself, Beledine had to smile.
“Not entirely safe,” Ghokarian rumbled. It was the first time he'd spoken, and the nearby men drew back from his resonant tenor. Perhaps they were surprised he could speak their language. “Some humans are trailing you.”
Beledine, following the sense of direction stemming from the connection to her bondmate, looked into the hills. There, skittering along the southern ridge, she spotted three small figures. They darted from rock to rock, clearly trying to hide and clearly trying to follow.
<Three isn't an issue,> she thought.
<Three is all we can see,> Ghokarian retorted. <We're more than a match for them, but as you saw earlier, it's not always about our power. What would happen if an enemy were to catch one of your friends and hold them hostage? Hurt them? Kill them before you had time to react?>
<I would never let that happen,> Beledine thought emphatically, but even as she sent the words out she realized exactly that had happened earlier.
<For the past ten cycles you've lived a sheltered life far from violence. You know wielding is more to do with cleverness than raw strength.>
<Am I not clever?>
<You are, very. Which is why if you want to live in the world of men, you must learn to fight like men. You must learn battle techniques. You must learn ways to defend . . . and to kill.>
The truth rang sharp in her mind. She'd been so consumed by her anger toward the Lothoko that she hadn't even noticed when they'd moved to capture Blure and young Falme. And then she'd been so rattled by the threat that she hadn't been able to come up with any appropriate counter-spells that could save her tribemates.
She took a moment to examine her tribe. Kibar trudged along, squinting against the sun-high brightness. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking. Falme walked not too far behind, carrying his son. He offered Beledine a grateful smile when she met his gaze. But Yalon skulked at the outskirts of the group, and when Beledine caught sight of him her stomach sank. If looks could kill, she'd have dropped dead.
Only when they reached the peak of the western ridge did Beledine call a halt to their trek. The Araxi gathered on the tableland in a loose circle around Ghokarian. Behind them, the lake sparkled invitingly. In front of them, the yellow-gray plains stretched on and on, fading away into the hazy horizon.
“So,” said Skyrel, stepping forward to address her. “You are bonded.”
“Obviously,” she muttered, indicating her eyes.
“You will address your superiors with respect,” said Yalon. His tone was acerbic, but Beledine noted with a twinge of satisfaction that he kept a good distance from Ghokarian. “Our chieftain's point is that you lied to us and betrayed us.”
“How do you figure that?”
“You covered him up,” he spat, indicating the dragon.
“You never asked about my bondmate. It was unimportant.”
“Unimportant?” Yalon shrieked. “You deliberately kept away the greatest tool a tribe can use. We could have flown out of the mountains instead of walking. We could have killed our enemies and taken the valley for ourselves! We could have—”
“Ghokarian is not a tool,” said Beledine. “Nor is he a pet or a prisoner. He didn't come on my journey for exactly that reason. Besides, I wanted to be accepted not for him, but for me.” She faltered and turned to her chieftain. “I love this tribe, Skyrel. But if being part of your family will now require Ghokarian to be put to use as a common slave, then we have reached a parting of our ways.”
“Insubordination,” Yalon blustered.
Skyrel looked from Beledine to Ghokarian and back. He was visibly waging some sort of inner battle.
“You've served us well, Beledine,” he said at length. “But you've also kept secrets from us. And your choices earlier were questionable at best. I'm inclined to agree with Yalon—why didn't you kill the cannibals? Why make us leave the only habitable land we've found? You know we are in a weakened state.”
“I didn't kill them because it is their land. I would never have ousted the Araxi Tribe from your old home; nor then would I oust the Lothoko.”
“They're our enemies,” cried Yalon. “Cannibals! Murderers! They don't deserve that valley.”
“Such were the thoughts of the tribe who evicted you from your valley, I'm sure,” Beledine retorted.
“She's got a point,” Kibar muttered to Skyrel.
“Be that as it may,” said Skyrel, “her loyalty is not to the Lothoko. It is to the Araxi. If you love this tribe as much as you claim, why did you make us leave when you could have easily made the cannibals leave instead?”
“Because I told her to,” said Ghokarian. All eyes flicked to him.
“I see.” Skyrel crossed his arms over his chest. “And is Beledine a pet to you, in the way she has asserted you are most definitely not? Does she do whatever you command without thought to anyone else?”
“There is another valley. A larger one with a better ecosystem,” the dragon explained. “There are trees and game in the surrounding mountains. It hasn't been picked dry by humans like this area has.”
“We can reach it before the moon is full if we set a good pace,” Beledine added.
She'd thought Skyrel would be pleased to hear this; instead he frowned. “This was not a decision for you to make. We don't know how long the old, the young, or the sick can survive out there in the wild.” He gestured first to Blure, then to young Falme, then to the elder Falme, who was wheezing wetly from the climb out of the valley.
Beledine was again chastened, and now felt the sharp sting of guilt. What had she done? Why had she chosen the welfare of the Lothoko over that of her family? Why hadn't she at least asked for other opinions before taking action?
<You chose wisely,> Ghokarian assured her. <I told you there was something better out there and you trusted me. If you trust me still, then tell them so.>
<They're angry with me. Can't you tell them instead? They'll listen to you.>
<A good dragon lets his bondmate fight her own battles,> Ghokarian reminded her glibly. <They listen to you, too. And anger, disagreements, compromises, learning to trust blindly when you cannot see into someone else's mind—these are all part of being human.>
Yes, this was what Beledine had wanted: a true human experience. She cleared her throat and drew herself up to her full height. The top of her head barely reached Skyrel's chin, yet she saw him recoil from her.
“I do not know your tribe as well as you do, chieftain,” she agreed. “But from all I've seen, they are fighters. They have strength enough to make it to the next valley. Ghokarian and I will personally ensure they reach it safely. If the old are too weak to walk, we will carry them. If the young are too hungry to move, we will fly out and find food. If the sick are in danger, we will save them. It's simple.”
“These things have never been simple for us,” Skyrel growled. “Survival is a terrible struggle. Perhaps you are mistaken how easy it is, for you've always had a dragon to swoop in and save you.”
That comment dug between her ribs, but Beledine resisted the urge to snap back. He was, after all, her chieftain.
“Maybe so, but he is now here for you.”
“I thought he wasn't willing to be a slave. I thought he didn't want to carry us, or feed us, or heal us.”
“And that was true,” said Ghokarian. “All I knew of humans was negative. All the bonded dragons I observed did those things for their pack of humans, and I never understood why. I thought them no better than slaves.” He stared around at the tribesmen, and his scaled face softened as his gaze fell upon each of Beledine's friends in turn.
“I have misjudged my kin. When I was sovereign, I couldn't comprehend why any dragon would fall prey to the emotions of a mortal bondmate—then I met Beledine and my entire worldview changed. When I was bonded, I couldn't comprehend why I would ever want to interact with any other human besides the one I loved. But I think I understand now.”
He took a step toward Mota. Most of the tribe cringed away, but the northerner stood fast and true before the dragon's approach.
“You, Mota—I have come to know you through Beledine,” Ghokarian said in perfect Taoli, which was Mota's native tongue. “You are quick to smile. You are quick to anger, but you are also quick to forgive. There is no cruelty in you. You are simple and kind.”
Mota raised a brow and gaped up at Ghokarian. Ghokarian didn't wait for a response before turning to Falme.
“You, Falme, you are silent but good,” he declared in Sirnese. “You care about family. You love your son and your brother and your tribe, and that includes Beledine. She was an outsider, just like you once were, and you accepted her with open arms.”
Falme blinked up at Ghokarian slowly, his liquid brown eyes overbright. Ghokarian switched back to Surdri as he continued to speak.
“You, Blure—Beledine can't imagine anyone kinder than you. And you, Kibar—you are wise and faithful. And you, Skyrel . . .”
Skyrel tensed as Ghokarian lowered his head to look him in the eye. Dragon and chieftain regarded each other for a long moment.
“You are everything Beledine aspires to be as a leader.”
Heat rose in Beledine's cheeks and she suddenly felt self-conscious. Skyrel was silent for some time, watching and thinking.
“It seems you know all about us,” he began. “But we know nothing of you. I've heard tales of vicious bonded dragons who have decimated tribes much bigger and stronger than ours.”
“You know Beledine,” Ghokarian replied. “And everything I am, I am because of her. If you trust her, then you trust me. A dragon is only as good—or vicious—as his bondmate. I think you can tell from her earlier actions that she is not the latter.”
His purple eyes flicked toward Beledine and he shot her the shadow of a wink.
“It would be my honor to help you cross the plains to find a better land,” he announced, addressing the whole tribe.
“If you'll still have us,” Beledine added contritely.
Skyrel looked around at his oldest members, the people he knew and trusted best. Mota still seemed in a state of shock from Ghokarian's assessment, but he nodded without hesitation. Kibar dipped his head in agreement. Falme and Saanug nodded as one, and even little Falme offered his input, flashing an innocent gap-toothed grin. Blure smiled, wordlessly conveying his willingness to cross into the unknown.
Only Yalon was opposed.
“No,” he said flatly.
“And why not?” asked Skyrel.
“I don't trust her. By his own admission that means I don't trust the dragon. She's a proven liar and her choices have led us into danger time and again. I think we're better off without her.”
“Better off without her in the valley of cannibals, or in the desert flatlands?” Kibar asked.
Yalon growled and fidgeted and fussed, but he could see he was outnumbered.
“Fine,” he said, tossing his hands up. “On your own heads be it.”
“The ayes have it again,” said Skyrel. He folded his arms and fixed Beledine with piercing look. “Very well, rheenar. Lead the way.”