Tahrinh and Chesska looked at the clutch of young hatchlings. It was a good clutch. There were thirty eight in all-thirty nine including Serko-and a motley of colours. Tahrinh counted three black, seven red, four blue, twelve green, two gold, one silver and nine brown. She felt a tug on her arm and looked round at Chesska. It pointed to Serko, then to her and raised its eyebrows quizzically. Tahrinh grinned and nodded.
"Yup, Serko's mine, I'm his." She paused and then added, "Hey, you wanna try and bond with one?"
Chesska frowned, then tilted its head sideways. Tahrinh thought for a few minutes as to how to put it into sign language. Finally she pointed to the clutch, then to Chesska and raised her eyebrows. Chesska hesitated, then finally nodded. It didn't look very sure of itself-but if Acheron's stories were true, Outsiders didn't have dragons; they didn't believe in them. But that hardly mattered now. Chesska was in Tahrinh's world, on her island and Tahrinh supposed that her physical laws applied. Did that mean Chesska would live for as long as the SKAN members?
if she bonds she will
Tahrinh looked up at Sani from where the queen watched over her hatchlings.
how do you know
because i know how these things work and it was only bonding with dragons that gave the skan their lifespan in the first place
well the first ones after that the genes were passed down to their offspring but if chesska bonds with a dragon then she'll have the same lifespan you will
can you talk its language
unfortunately not but any dragon she bonds with will be able to
i thought you didn't want outsiders bonding
i didn't until i saw this one i think she's had a bad start in life she's about the same age as you
so would you let it bond
yes and incidentally you can stop referring to chesska as it she's female
how do you know that
like i said i know how these things work and trust me chesska is a female
Tahrinh grabbed Chesska's hand. It-no, she-followed her reluctantly over to the clutch and looked at the hatchlings. A couple came over and sniffed at them curiously-but there was no bonding until the silver hatchling caught sight of Chesska and froze. Tahrinh grinned and looked to her left.
Chesska was standing bolt upright, too excited to say or do anything except stare at the silver.
She knows, Tahrinh realised. She may not have dragons in her world but she knows what's going on alright!
The silver took off and made a beeline straight for Chesska, pushing the other hatchlings out of its way in a desperate attempt to reach her. Tahrinh was impressed, despite herself. You had to have something special about you to bond with a silver. They were incredibly rare. In all of Wiztliow there were only about seven known silvers, including this one.
when do we eat Serko demanded, forcing Tahrinh's attention away from the scene.
soon i promise
why don't you leave them they seem quite happy
oh i couldn't do that i want to find out more about chesska here try this
Tahrinh pulled down a leaf from a nearby tree and handed it to Serko. It vanished it an instant.
that was nice is there any more
help yourself it's just up in that tree
Tahrinh heard the grunts of Serko's exertions as he managed to fly into the treetop, where he perched there happily stripping the branches. He sighed contentedly and Tahrinh turned her attention back to Chesska and the silver. Chesska had recovered from her initial feelings and now stood in front of Tahrinh with the silver curled around her leg looking up at her adoringly. She indicated the hatchling and said, "Nrizali."
"Nrizali," repeated Tahrinh and gestured towards the silver and then "Serko," and indicated her own dragon.
Tahrinh grinned and nodded. Chesska grinned back. Sani was right. They were both about the same age. Boredom and loneliness were now a thing of the past for both of them, Tahrinh decided. Finally-there was someone of her own age she could talk to whenever she wanted. She wondered if Chesska felt the same way, wondered how to put it into sign language and gave up. Meantime, Nrizali flew up to join Serko in the tree and started helping him to strip it bare. Tahrinh and Chesska were left staring at each other awkwardly. Finally Tahrinh shrugged.
"So whatcha wanna do now?"
"Uh, can you swim?"
it's no good you'll have to use sign language if you want to get anywhere Sani transmitted from her place on the sand.
Tahrinh grabbed Chesska and the two of them went over to a nearby lake. Tahrinh let go of Chesska's hand and jumped in. She surfaced in the middle, treading water feverishly, then indicated Chesska, then the lake and raised her eyebrows. Chesska shook her head. Tahrinh grinned and swam back over. She held out a hand. Chesska took it apprehensively and ventured into the water. Tahrinh then let go and proceeded to give her a demonstration on how to swim. Chesska frowned, then tried it. Nrizali, who had followed them down from the path with Serko, hovered about two feet above the surface of the water and then nose dived in. Chesska laughed excitedly and followed the lead. Tahrinh grinned and called to Serko, who was sunning himself on the shore.
"Hey, come on, Serko! It's fun!"
Serko got to his feet with a 'if I must I must' expression and waddled into the water where he was thoroughly soaked by Nrizali. Chesska watched them, then turned to Tahrinh with a thoughtful look in her eye. Tahrinh, who had played with several young SKAN during several hatchings, swam away from Chesska, who started trying to splash her. The two of them laughed together, playing in the water.
Neither of them noticed Acheron and Hrovl land on the far side of the island.
Kaiya landed on Ezir and looked around. There was nobody in sight.
"Hey!" she yelled. "Where is everyone?"
Saelohka took a cautious step out of the cave towards her.
Kaiya stared at her friend. Saelohka looked back at her warily.
"Saelohka, what's going on?" she asked.
Saelohka's mate, Tzersin, stepped out of the cave and joined Saelohka in a semiprotective fashion.
"Nothing that you Outsiders need to worry about, just we SKAN."
Kaiya gasped out loud.
"What are you talking about? I'm not an Outsider." She approached Saelohka, who moved back, matching her step for step. "Look, I swear that I am not with Outside and I got nothing to do with any Outsiders. I'm as much a SKAN as you are!"
"That's not what Acheron said," Tzersin answered. "She told us that you risked yourself and your dragon just to rescue an-" He spat the word, "Outsider."
"You haven't even seen it-" Kaiya began.
"Lucky for it," Tzersin snapped. "And you as well. Trust me, bitch, the only thing keeping you from sudden death is lack of evidence. I don't need to see it to know what it wants."
Kaiya opened her mouth to retort sharply, then stopped, settled back on her heels, folded her arms and smiled.
"Alright. What does it want?"
Tzersin, who was by no means stupid, had the uneasy feeling that a trap had just been laid for him. His initial combativeness started to ebb.
"Well, what they all want, of course."
"Which is what?" Kaiya pressed, still smiling.
"They want us dead! All of us. You know that, Kaiya!"
"From the looks of it when I picked it up, I'd say somebody wanted it dead! I'm not sure how old it is-but I know it's a young Outsider and no threat to us."
Tzersin looked to Saelohka for support, only to find she'd moved over towards Kaiya.
"You said you had evidence," she said. "Where?"
Tzersin snorted contemptuously.
"Never mind now. You all seem to be in league with them. You can go to hell; I'm not sharing any evidence with you."
Saelohka gave him a smile not entirely unlike Acheron's.
"Then I suggest you get the hell off my island and don't expect to come back, either. I'll be waiting."
Tzersin turned away.
"It ain't worth wasting my time with you," he muttered. "I'll see you around...Outsiders," he snarled, before walking away to preserve what dignity he had left.
"He's usually like this. He's okay with SKAN-but he hates Outsiders with a vengeance. I heard from Acheron that his parents were killed by Them."
The look on Kaiya's face told Saelohka more or less exactly what she thought of anything Acheron said. Saelohka grinned sheepishly.
"I know, I know, you can't trust the Dark One. She said that herself. But the problem is, you don't know when she's lying and when she's telling the truth." Saelohka's tone suddenly turned conspiratory and she leaned closer. "Hey, is it true you risked yourself to save the Outsider, though?"
Kaiya shrugged, thought about it, decided what the hell, and nodded.
"Yeah. Well, you know what Acheron's feeling towards Outsiders is."
"Yeah, expendable and not one of us."
"Right. This Outsider was a young one. I don't know how old it is, or its gender. But judging from the behaviour, I'd say it was about the same age as Tahrinh." Kaiya grinned suddenly. "Who seems to be absolutely crazy about Chesska! She bonded with the first of Sani's clutch and last I heard she was taking Chesska there to see if it could bond as well."
"Chesska? What's that?"
"I think it's its name. I found it on Ozeo, where it had been receiving some of Acheron's, uh, 'hospitality'."
"Was Acheron about to hunt it?"
Kaiya shook her head.
"No. Not yet. It'd been in a fight with someone and was trying to recover its strength. It also seemed afraid to come near me, as if I was the one who'd fought it."
"Acheron?" Saelohka wondered aloud.
"No. Acheron's slightly sadistic-but you know she couldn't just hurt a young one unless it attacked her."
"Maybe it did. You know how carried away Acheron can get once she gets started."
"Yeah, that's true-hey, where is Acheron anyway?"
"I think she went over to Daoret," she said. "I'm not sure-but she said something along those lines."
"Acheron went to Daoret. We think she did, anyway. She seemed quite agitated when she got back from Ozeo and said that she'd seen you almost kill yourself to get the Outsider off the isolation rock. Then she said she ought to get back to your island to get Tahrinh and the clutch to safety before you and the Outsider could get back."
Kaiya was no longer listening. She sprinted back over to Aryan.
"C'mon, we gotta go! Acheron and Hrovl have gone to Daoret-and I don't like to think what she'll do once she finds out I escaped her trap with Chesska."
oh alright hop on
"We'll stop once we've sorted this out, I swear."
okay you know i think i preferred it when we didn't have the skan meetings
Aryan, who was now very tired, took off and winged his way slowly back towards Daoret.
Tahrinh and Chesska lay side by side on the beach, soaking up the sun. There had been some exchange of languages-they'd exchanged the words for 'dragon', 'water', 'tree' and 'sand'. Neither of them were feeling ambitious enough to try and teach each other verbs.
Hardly conversation material, though, Tahrinh thought. Beside her, Chesska stirred in her sleep.
Hmm. I wonder what the word for 'danger' is. In Tahrinh's personal opinion, the word for 'danger' in an unknown world would be high on Chesska's list of desired language exchange. After all, it was more important than 'fun', or 'excitement'.
She turned to check on Serko, and found herself face to face with Acheron.
"You've been busy, haven't you?" said Acheron calmly.
"Chesska's bonded," Tahrinh said quickly. "We both have. So don't try anything."
"Bonded?" Acheron raised one dark eyebrow. "I'm impressed. I didn't know Outsiders could bond."
"Well, this one can. She has a silver, for your information."
Acheron smiled thinly.
"So what? Silver, brown, green, it makes no difference to me. I'm not interested in Chesska. I want Kaiya."
"You leave her alone!" she said fiercely.
Acheron looked amused.
"Who? Chesska or Kaiya?"
"Both of them! Kaiya's coming back here soon and you don't want to be here when she arrives!"
"I don't want to be here, period," said Acheron coldly. "It's not exactly my idea of heaven, you know."
"Yes, well, we don't all like to live on the edge of nothing in a pool of lava."
"Your loss." Acheron looked over to where Chesska and Nrizali lay together in the sun. "So, she bonded, did she? You surprise me."
"'S not that hard," Tahrinh muttered. "Bet even Chesska could surprise you."
"She has, several times. But we digress. You say you bonded? I don't see your hatchling."
"Serko's over there," Tahrinh said, indicating the brown curled up asleep. "And don't you try and split us up!" she added, with her best effort at vehemence.
"I'm not that stupid. I don't doubt how he'd react to my trying a stunt like that! But all I want is Kaiya. Not you. Not Chesska. Just Kaiya."
"If you want me," Kaiya said from her position in the trees, "then why don't you come and get me?"
Acheron whirled. Tahrinh leapt back, grabbed Chesska and they fled to the safety of the lake, closely followed by their dragons.
"Come out," she said coolly, "where I can see you."
Kaiya didn't move.
"You can see me perfectly well from where you are, Acheron."
"Please yourself. I'm not going to attack. I want to know what you and Aryan were doing on Ozeo."
"That has nothing to do with you."
"Oh yes it does," said Acheron sharply. "It's got a hell of a lot to do with me. Ozeo is my turf, and you had no right to be there!"
"You tried to kill me, remember?"
"Yeah, I did. And I honestly thought I'd succeeded." Acheron shook her head wryly. "You know, Kaiya, we could've worked well together in another life."
"I'm not that interested in sadism, pardon me," Kaiya said flatly.
"Neither am I," said Acheron unexpectedly. "I'm not a sadist. I don't even have sadistic tendencies, contrary to everyone's popular belief. And I don't like being talked about in that form."
"What about all the Outsiders? You hunted them, didn't you?"
Acheron shrugged again.
"They're only Outsiders. And, also contrary to popular belief, they never suffered once I caught up with them."
"A quick death, right?" Kaiya said, in a voice dripping with sarcasm.
"You got it. I had to have some fun out of them. But once I got there..." Acheron somehow imitated the exact sound of a snapping neck.
"What about Chesska?"
Acheron narrowed her eyes.
"You lost me, Kaiya. What about Chesska?"
"It's a young outsider! You can't hunt it!"
"She found her way in, Kaiya-and she's female, by the way-and we can't have her going back to show others how to get in. By herself, Chesska is no threat. But with others..."
Acheron let the sentence trail off.
"What if we could persuade Chesska not to go back?"
"Chesska doesn't have to be persuaded." Tahrinh climbed down from the rock she'd moved to when the absence of fireballs and screams had aroused her curiosity. "She bonded, remember?"
Both adults froze.
"She bonded?" Kaiya whispered.
"With a silver. So she can't go back, even if she wanted to. And Acheron, wouldn't it be a good idea to have one of Them on our side? I mean, we don't know much about Them-"
"I know enough," said Acheron darkly.
"But not as much as Chesska does. And if we let her stay, she might be able to teach us Outside language, so we could understand what They were saying, if They ever did find a way in."
Acheron paused. Clearly the idea had never occurred to her.
"Could be worth a try," she conceded grudgingly. "But-and I want you to be absolutely clear on this point, both of you-but she's your responsibility. And keep her away from my territory!"
"Hmph," said Tahrinh. "Don't think she'd want to go back to Ozeo anyway!"
"Just one thing," said Kaiya, as Tahrinh turned to run back to Chesska and tell her the news.
"Can we give her another name? 'Chesska' grates on my tongue. What about something easier, like Alirtha?"
"Hmm." Tahrinh turned to Acheron. "Any ideas?"
But Acheron had gone. She and Hrovl had already left for Ozeo, unwilling to watch any more. The scene brought back memories she'd sooner have forgotten. Outsiders. The hunt. Deaths. Too many deaths. Mashingal. Lixin. Karintha. Ckiwah. And her close friend and lover, Rylaio.