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The Elvenbane

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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What Dyran had done was so calculatedly cruel, it was beyond horrible; destroying the man by giving his only child to an unfeeling monster, then ordering him to exhaust himself to rectify what could well have been his enemy’s fault. It was typical of the way Dyran operated. If he didn’t have a way to control the lives of those around him, he would make a way.

Dyran went to great lengths to gain information on his rivals, his peers, and his underlings. More than once, when in elven form on missions of her own, Alara had discovered herself being questioned by those who later proved to be his agents. Persistent and patient, he was not content unless he had hold over anyone he came into contact with.

And there was something Serina had only guessed at, when she had seen him in defeat: he was absolutely ruthless when thwarted. Obsessive, even. And his obsession with defeat could well have begun with the incident with Lady Alinor. While Alara could not be certain, she suspected it might have been the first time in a very long time that he had met with real opposition. And at his age – that could do some odd things to the elven mind.

Serina had been lucky he had been in a good mood when he came home, and assuredly she knew it. If he’d been defeated, or even blocked in Council, he’d have blasted her on the spot. If he’d even come home annoyed, he’d have held her paralyzed until his guards found her, then he’d have made her execution as long and painful as possible, and probably part of a public entertainment.

Instead, he was quite pleased with himself, and chose to amuse himself before sending anyone after her. And her own little spies told her that her rival had given away the secret of her pregnancy and that the guards would be coming at dawn.

Alara would have been willing to lay a bet that Dyran had guards watching the edge of the desert, to make sure Serina died out here. He couldn’t let her live – but she surprised him again, and if he was still in a good mood, he’d be willing to let her die a ‘natural’ death.

A moan caught Alara’s attention, and she realized that during her preoccupation with her own thoughts, Serina had slipped from sleep into hallucination, and the strain of her journey had finally brought on labor. She lay helplessly on her side, twitching, and moaning, as the muscles of her stomach tightened.

There was no way she was going to survive childbirth.

Chapter 4 (#ulink_a76e132a-d246-5d1e-948a-ea0946eb6191)

Once again, Alara was tempted to simply fly off. There was no reason to become involved with this human. There was every reason not to become involved. She was going to die; there was no way that she would survive the ordeal she had just been through and childbirth as well. And Alara was appalled by her attitude towards her fellows.

The logical thing to do would be to abandon her to her fate. And yet –

Telling herself that she was a fool, Alara insinuated herself into the woman’s mind, to weave a fantasy composed of hallucination, old memories, and wish-fulfillment …

Serina tried to relax into the soft cushions holding her up, bit her lip until it bled as the pain came and went, and smiled at Lord Dyran, who patted her hand fondly. ‘That’s a good child,’ he said, with a warmth she had only seen him display with a favorite hound or horse about to give birth. She smiled thinly, attempting to give him the impression that this was nothing worse than a minor indisposition. Dyran hated a fuss, and hated even more being subjected to hysterics. ‘It will all be over shortly, and I will be truly thankful to have you back at my side.’

Her ex-rival Leyda, relegated to scrubbing the floors of the birthing room until they gleamed, scowled, but dared say nothing. When Dyran had tracked her through the desert, he had stayed his hand long enough to hear her side. Although he had not punished Leyda physically, what he had done was far worse. He had given the former concubine to Serina as a personal drudge.

What happened to that baby? she wondered for a moment. But it didn’t really matter. Dyran had probably rid her of it, then erased the memory from her mind. He could do things like that, if he chose.

‘You and that fine young stud will present me with a sturdy lad, I’ve no doubt of it,’ the Lord continued, as another pain came and went, and sweat poured down her forehead. She smiled through clenched teeth and nodded. ‘Just what I’ve been needing for my son’s own personal guard. If you do well, perhaps I shall ask you to present me with another, hmm?’

‘Aye – my Lord –’ she managed to gasp, although at the moment she would far rather he asked her to scrub floors as Leyda did! It was a pity he didn’t see fit to erase this from her mind.

‘That’s a good girl.’ He patted her hand once again, and left the white-tiled birthing room. He also hated a mess. For the moment, the only thing untidy about Serina was the sweat beading on her forehead; the rest of her was swathed in concealing masses of silk. But as soon as he passed the threshold, that all changed, as the nurses and midwives descended on her.

She hadn’t minded at all when Lord Dyran had requested – not ordered, but requested, her to breed him a special guardsman. He’d wanted something very particular, a child of the finest lines to be trained to guard his own son; a very personal guard, schooled to the task from the moment he could toddle and assigned to the boy as quickly as possible. He hadn’t dared entrust this task to anyone else, he’d told her – no one else had served him so faithfully; no one else would take enough care. He told her she would want for nothing, and he would reward her beyond her wildest dreams.

She would never tell him, but the young guardsman he had assigned to her for the breeding, he of the thoughtful eyes and rippling muscles, had been beyond her wildest dreams. He did everything she told him to; it had been altogether intoxicating to be the one in the position of power for a change. And equally intoxicating to be the one to whom pleasure was given, rather than the one who gave it.

Perhaps she would ask for him to be assigned to her permanently as part of her reward …

The pain came again, and she cried out with hurt and anger. What was wrong with the midwives? Why didn’t they do something? Didn’t they realize how important she was?

She tried to say something, to give them the tongue-lashing they deserved for their carelessness, but she couldn’t manage a single word. Only gasps of agony as the pains came closer and closer together, until she was reduced to moaning mindlessly, like an animal.

Alara decided that she didn’t care if Serina was a heartless beast. She didn’t care what Serina had done in the past. She was a female, about to give birth, and in that she appealed to the dragon’s deepest instincts. Alara had to help her.

The decision was hardly even a conscious one; Alara couldn’t help herself. There were precautions she could take against discovery, in the unlikely event that the woman came out of her delirium. It was foolish, it was sentimental, and it certainly violated the letter, if not the spirit, of the law against being discovered. But at this point, after spending so much time living in Serina’s thoughts, she felt she had to intervene, if only as recompense for the stolen memories.

One last look into the human’s mind before she brought her barriers up and gave her what she needed: the form of one of the midwives of the estate.

Quickly, she reached for the free power of the pool, and a ripple went through her as she shifted most of her mass into the Out. She shifted carefully, so as not to disturb the equilibrium of the child within her, and just to be on the safe side, as she shifted her own form into human, she shifted the child’s as well. It was a time-consuming operation: the sun was nearing the western horizon, and the woman was close to actual birth, growing weaker with every breath, when she finished.

As she knelt beside the laboring woman’s body, lifting her easily into a more comfortable position, she saw Serina’s eyes fix on her for a moment with sense in them. Sense enough to recognize what and who she was masquerading as, at any rate.

The woman opened her mouth, but no words emerged. Alara trickled a handful of water into her mouth. Then, under the pretext of supporting her head, Alara gently exerted a little pressure on certain nerves of the spine, at the point where the neck joined the shoulders.

Serina swallowed; her eyes went wide with surprise for a moment as the pain ceased. Then she closed her eyes against the light of the westering sun, and slipped further into delirium.

It was an easy birth only in the sense of being quick. Alara was appalled by the amount of damage and knew, as Serina began to bleed profusely, that there was nothing she could do about it. Within moments the child lay on a scrap of cloth torn from Serina’s skirt, cradled in a hollow scooped in the sand. A little girl – and as ugly as only a human child could be.

And as the child slipped from her, the mother heaved a great sigh, and then breathed no more.

Alara stared at the wet, red, wrinkled mite, revolted, and wondering why on earth she had bothered to save the child.

Fire and Rain! The creature wasn’t even finished yet! She should just leave it here to die with its mother; it would be better that way. She didn’t even know exactly what to do with it – she’d probably kill it by accident. What an awful little beast –

Then the little creature opened its tiny mouth – and a thin, unhappy wail rose above the desert silence.

That wail cut straight to Alara’s maternal heart, as sure as elf-shot, and as deadly … and she knew she couldn’t leave it here. Not after all this. It was only a baby. She ought to be able to figure out how to care for it. It couldn’t be that different from other cubs and kits.

She immersed the baby in the pool just long enough to clean her, and wrapped her in the remains of Serina’s dress. She didn’t look any better clean – but she stopped crying. Though Alara felt unformed waves of hunger coming from the child, she simply stared into the dragon’s eyes with odd intelligence, as if she was able to focus on things even at this early age.

It’s my imagination.

Fire and Rain, what am I going to do with the child?

Take it home, I suppose.

She reached again for the energy flowing from the pool, and let it ripple through her as she shifted back into her native form. The child lay in the sand, bathed in the golden rays of the sunset, and made no sound at all. Alara was beginning to be a bit unnerved by this silence, as well as by the way the infant seemed to be able to track on her.

The shaman stretched out her wings to their fullest extent, catching the last of the heat of the sun, her shadow falling long and black over the sand and the child. She’d better go now, while she could catch thermals, she decided. Keman had a whole little zoo. Maybe he could put this thing to nurse with one of his pets.

She hooked her foreclaws into the fabric cradling the baby, taking extra care not to scratch it, and launched herself into the cobalt sky with powerful beats of her wings and legs.

You know, she thought to herself, as she took her bearings from the sun and the evening star, and headed back to her Lair, there really ought to be something in the Prophecy about this. Hmm. Maybe I’ll put it there myself.

Now wouldn’t that sound impressive in the mouth of the old, blind holy woman! ‘Child of dragons, the Elvenbane …’

She chased the setting sun across the desert and into the high plains. Beneath her, herds of antelope and grass-deer moved out of the shelter of scrub where they had spent the day, heading for water and open grazing. When the shadow of her wings passed over them, they invariably took fright and ran for cover.

Not tonight, you juicy little creatures. I’m not out hunting right now.

Besides, that would be poaching. One of the other Lairs managed this part of the country; Leanalani’s Lair, if she recalled correctly. It wasn’t polite to swoop down on another Lair’s territory and hunt without permission.

The herds kicked up a lot of dust as they ran. It had been a very dry summer here so far. The clouds of dust glowed in the last rays of the sun, red and gold-red; shadows stretched out in purple fingers from everything, across the gilt-edged grass and scrubland. Before her, the sun died in a blood-red and gold sky; behind her the sky had deepened to indigo. Overhead, a thin crescent moon peered wanly down at her.

From below came the hot breath of the plains; redolent with the aromas of dust and sun-baked vegetation, with a hint of deer-musk and now and then a breath of hidden water.

As she continued to press westward, the setting sun seemed torn in half along its lower edge, a jagged line of black cutting across it before it reached the horizon.

Those were the mountains. Not long now …

Beyond the desert which the elvenkind would not cross, beyond the territories managed only for game, lay the Lairs themselves, nestled into valleys in the mountains. Home had never looked so inviting; and not even the halfblood child swinging from her claw had much importance.

In fact, Alara longed for her own place, her own cave, so much that she completely forgot she had never completed her meditations.

Alara circled over the Lair for a moment, waiting for the sentry on duty to acknowledge her before setting down. Old habits died hard; perhaps it was no longer necessary for dragons to worry about who and what came winging in over their Lairs, but sentries were still assigned, and no dragon would ever land without being acknowledged by the sentry. Weary as she was, Alara was not weary enough to violate that protocol.

:Who flies?: came the ritual question.

:Alamarana,: she replied, just as formally. :Have I landing right?:

:Landing and Kin-right, by Fire and Rain. Welcome home, Elder Sister!:

She didn’t recognize the ‘tone’ of the voice; probably because she was so tired. Must be one of the youngsters, she thought. She hovered for a moment over the cluster of ‘buildings’ set into the sides of the valley, orienting herself. Below her the buildings, of every possible form and style, were hardly more than darker shapes against the pale, weathered rock. There were no lights, which would have sorely puzzled any elf or human who approached, even more than the wildly disparate buildings themselves.

Alara finally realized why she couldn’t see; she’d been so tired she hadn’t bothered to shift her eyes from day-sight to night-sight. Cursing herself for stupidity, she made the tiny adjustment, and suddenly the valley took on a crystalline clarity.
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