Beledine took care of the Araxi as they re-entered the unforgiving plains. She set a brisk pace, but not a hard one. This ensured that Blure and little Falme, who was the youngest child in the tribe, could keep up.
There was a tangible difference in how she was treated. People like Kamber—who she hadn't been close to, but had at least been friendly with—avoided her and Ghokarian. She could almost smell the fear in some.
<You can't please everyone,> Ghokarian reminded her. <Not even if you save them. Sometimes that makes them all the more miserable.>
Ghokarian wasn't familiar with the lands on this side of the rocky hills, and since he was bonded he could no longer access the racial memories stored in the dragons' hive mind. However, during one of his longer-ranging flights he made telepathic contact with a bonded dragon who knew the area well. She directed him to spots where one could access water. These were often no more than dried up ponds or patches of mud, but Skyrel and Mota managed to dredge up enough water to hydrate the tribe.
The further north they went, the less warmth the sun seemed to hold. The nights grew long and as the moon waxed overhead, tempers grew short.
<Do you think they'll make it?> Beledine thought worriedly, looking back at her tribe. There wasn't much to hunt, and even less to gather. Their time consisted almost exclusively of traveling.
<If they can't, I will fly them one by one. I could make it to the taller mountains of the north in less than a sun.>
<Let's hope it doesn't come to that . . . for everyone's sake.>
Ghokarian was taking pains to fit in. Many had never seen a dragon before, but the more open-minded ones grew to like him quickly. It helped that he flew out to hunt scorpids and steppe-grouse, and that he was the one directing them to water.
He also became the tribe's greatest protector. At night when the occasional drachvold passed overhead searching for a meal, Ghokarian's presence deterred them from daring to come close. Though the Araxi were frightened by the winged monsters, the drachvolds actually gave Beledine comfort. Their presence meant the mountains were near.
One morning the promised range became visible through the haze, its peaks marching along the horizon far ahead of them. This lifted people's spirits. Ghokarian flew out to scout the land, figuring they might reach their destination in three or four more suns. He returned with troubling news.
“Another tribe approaches from the south,” be informed Beledine and Skyrel, touching down on the ground and sending up little puffs of dust from the dry earth. “Smaller in number and further away, but moving fast and heading straight for the mountains.”
“Let's be sure to reach the mountains first then,” said Skyrel. “Kibar, go to the back of the line. We'll do what we can to pick up the pace.”
The earth wielder nodded and fell back to assist the stragglers.
“You also have followers,” Ghokarian went on.
“The Lothoko?” Skyrel tightened his grip on his spear. Beledine bit her lip. In their haste to move, they hadn't taken any pains to cover their tracks through the flatlands. She'd figured the cannibals wouldn't be foolish enough to follow, but perhaps she'd made a mistake.
“Not the full force, but a few of them,” the dragon informed him. “Perhaps the same ones we saw in the valley. They're following your trail. They're about half a sun behind you, but gaining ground.”
“I doubt we can move faster than this,” Skyrel muttered. “If they catch us, we fight.”
“And lastly, there is one lone man is coming from the west,” said Ghokarian, finishing his report.
“Just one? No tribe?”
Ghokarian rotated his wing joints in a shrug. “None that I could see. He's the furthest away, almost certainly not a threat . . . but suspicious nonetheless.”
“I've never known a lone human who wasn't dangerous,” Skyrel said darkly. “Let's keep a watch on all three fronts.”
“Surely the tribe is the only threat,” said Beledine. “The people trailing us won't be an issue for me, and I doubt the loner is worth worrying about. After all, I was alone when I first met you.”
“And you are quite dangerous,” Skyrel retorted. “A mage and a bonded rheenar.”
“Fair enough,” she admitted. “I don't want to overtax Ghokarian though.”
<I'm fine,> he thought, sending her a warm wave of calming reassurance through their bond. <I don't want them to think they can take advantage of you. I know you didn't want this life, looking after little flesh-rats and catering to their every whim.>
<There are worse lives to lead,> he replied, pulling his scaly lips into a smile as he fell into step beside her. <And these people are good. I am happy to help those who deserve it.>
That night Falme created a sunken earthen pit in which Beledine wielded a fire. The women prepared a large scorpid Ghokarian brought them, parting its segmented body into smaller pieces and roasting those in their shells. The pit was meant to hide the tribe's presence, since light would be visible for leagues around on the wide open plains, but in their exhaustion they were careless with their smoke. Thus, the Lothoko stragglers found them.
Ghokarian raised his head, his ears pricking up and his nostrils flaring. Beledine's human senses were less acute, but she sensed his unease at once.
“Trouble?” she whispered.
“Humans approaching from the east,” he growled.
Skyrel and Kibar alerted the tribe, and soon the Araxi were assembled in their old defensive formation. This time, however, they rallied around Beledine and Ghokarian as their central point. Beledine cautioned herself not to get over-confident. She had learned her lesson from the incident with the Lothoko—letting her guard down, even for an instant, might be deadly for one of her people. No matter her own power, she was still only human, and fully capable of human error.
She watched as three men came to the edge of Falme's sunken pit. One of them she recognized as Embre, the air wielder who'd served as the Lothoko's advance scout. His confident manner marked him as the leader of the small troupe. The others looked decidedly less sure of themselves. The second man was a little hunchbacked water wielder who was nervously dry-washing his hands. The third looked to be an earth wielder, though he had a pale complexion and was emaciated.
“Hail, chieftain of the Araxi,” said Embre. He bravely descended into the pit. At once, spears were lowered and pointed at him. “I mean you no harm, and I bring no one except my two companions.”
“Why are you here?” asked Skyrel. “We left you to your valley.”
“It wasn't my valley,” Embre explained. He had an odd accent and his Surdri words rang with a musical tone. “The Lothoko attacked my tribe some cycles ago, wiping us out. I was the strongest among them, so they kept me alive and took me prisoner to wield for them. The same goes for Badger here.” He gestured up at the stringy earth wielder.
“Hallo.” Badger raised a hand and gave them a small salute.
“In the confusion you and your dragon caused, we managed to escape from Tikar.” Embre nodded to Ghokarian. “For that, we owe you a debt of gratitude.”
“And is that why you've followed all this way, skulking behind us?” said Skyrel. “To express thanks?”
He was being quite harsh, Beledine thought, considering how polite Embre was. Now that she'd seen the men, she'd decided they weren't a threat. They were ragged and travel-worn. Despite his supposed power, Badger didn't even look healthy enough to wield.
“No, not just for that reason,” Embre admitted. “We aren't fools. The Lothoko were our captors, but they kept us alive. We can't survive on our own in the steppes. We come to humbly offer our services, to ask if we might join the Araxi Tribe.”
Beledine suddenly found herself grinning. She was surprised to see that Skyrel didn't share her enthusiasm.
“It's hard enough for us to find food and water for the mouths we have now,” said the chieftain. “We can't afford to take on three more.”
“But they can help us,” Beledine interjected.
Skyrel glared at her, but didn't scold her for her outburst. He had given up trying to force her to adhere to the chain of command after Ghokarian had joined the tribe. “How can they help, weak as they are?”
“I'm a water wielder,” the hunchbacked one offered. “That's helpful, isn't it?”
“Perhaps,” Skyrel temporized. “What's your story, cripple? Are you Lothoko by blood?”
“Er . . . well, yes—but I never liked them. Don't like what they did or what they ate. Had no power to change it, and . . . they hadn't much use for me as I wasn't too strong.”
“So you're asking us to accept you, knowing you can't actually help us at all,” Skyrel shot back.
“They can help,” Beledine insisted.
“How? What can they possibly do?” This came from Yalon. He'd been quiet of late, choosing to stay out of her way, but it seemed he couldn't resist a good argument when he spotted one. “You're a fool, and once again you're making choices not for the betterment of our tribe, but for the sake of three scrap-grabbing nomads. We don't know them. We don't owe them anything. They'd be better use as fresh meat.”
“Yalon,” Skyrel barked. “We aren't so desperate as to resort to that.”
“I don't see why not. The Lothoko would have done it to us, and I'm tired of scorpid meat,” Yalon griped.
Beledine decided to ignore the irascible air wielder. There was no reasoning with him—he was simply against anything that she suggested. Instead she appealed to Skyrel. “How can you turn them away? Isn't this what you wanted, to rebuild the Araxi Tribe, to become strong once more?”
“I want to become strong,” he told her. “I can't do that by taking in strays and weaklings.”
“To be fair,” Embre put in, “in better conditions we have much to offer. Even Adsy the cripple. He has a particular affinity with fish. If there's a fish to be caught, he'll find it and catch it. He doesn't even need to wield, he can do it bare-handed.”
“Helpful only when one has a source of water,” said Skyrel.
“Which we will soon have,” Beledine reminded him. “These men aren't strong now, but neither are we. We're all weary and hungry. But they are three more sets of hands to help us when we reach our new valley. An air wielder can ward off mountain weather and drachvolds. An earth wielder can build shelter and grow food. And a water wielder, no matter how weak, is always helpful.”
“Thank you,” said Adsy, planting his fists on his hips and nodding.
“I promise you won't regret it,” Embre added. “And if you do, we will leave—no questions asked.”
“I can't believe we're even entertaining this prospect,” said Yalon. “Where's the old Araxi leader, the one who bowed to no man, the one who never backed down from a fight?”
Skyrel pursed his lips. “The old Araxi leader insisted on standing and fighting in our old home. And that was a mistake.”
Yalon let out a furious grunt. “That's different.”
“I'm not so sure.” Skyrel met Beledine's hopeful gaze. “Perhaps there are other ways to accomplish things than by fighting.”
“Yes!” Beledine clapped her hands together, pride swelling in her chest for her chieftain.
Yalon spat on the ground. “You've all gone mad. One day her whimsies will get you killed.” Disgusted with the proceedings, he turned and stumped back to the fire.
“Forgive our friend,” Skyrel told Embre. “He doesn't take kindly to change.”
“Then he's out of luck, for the world is changing.” Embre took a few more tentative steps toward the tribe, and when no one moved to attack he relaxed visibly. “Tales of the great cities of the south have made it even to the ears of savages like the Lothoko. Many advancements in wielding have been made there, or so they say. People are gathering together in larger numbers. I think it's the way of the future.”
“Well, it would appear the Araxi Tribe has three more members,” Skyrel said gruffly. “The future is now.”
“Come,” said Beledine, gesturing to Badger and Adsy. They slunk into the pit like two wary woulgers entering a manticore den, ready to flee at the barest hint of trouble. Badger was only a little taller than her, and he looked much worse close up. His hair was thin and patchy, his cheeks sunken and sallow. “Join us for supper. There's enough scorpid meat for everyone. And if not, you can have Yalon's share since he's so tired of it.”
Kibar chuckled. Skyrel rolled his eyes and shook his head. He left to return to the fire, but some of the other tribesmen, Mota and Blure included, crowded around the newcomers to introduce themselves.
“We thank you,” Embre said over and over, greeting each Araxi member with a genuine smile. “And we thank you in particular,” he added, leaning close to Beledine and whispering in her ear.
“For what?” she asked.
“For fighting for us. I know we're not much to look at, and I know any normal tribe would have turned us away . . . or worse.”
“But we figured they might take outsiders, cause they've got you and you're as different from them as can be,” Adsy interjected, squeezing between Badger and Embre to talk to her. “That's a big dragon. I've not ever seen one this big. Last one who came through the Lothoko valley was just passing through for water and I thought he was big, but this one is big. Can I touch?”
“Ah—it's not up to me,” said Beledine, raising a brow at Adsy's strange manner.
“Shame,” said Adsy. “You still got some of that scorpid around? I'm starved, haven't eaten a proper meal since Kraken-only-knows . . .” His words were drowned in the hum and chatter of the tribe as he scurried off after Skyrel.
“He's . . . excitable,” said Embre, watching the smaller man go. “We weren't ever formally introduced. Embre Osli, at your service.”
“Beledine Arowey,” she replied. “But it's not me you should be pledging to. I'm not chieftain.”
“Perhaps not,” said Embre. “But you are the one who saved our lives.”