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The Elvenbane

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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The concubines were not permitted to enter the nursery, so Serina had never seen the boy. The child’s nurses were all human, but so carefully bespelled that they could not even think without asking permission of the Lord. Guards just as carefully bespelled stood sentry at every possible entrance. Only when the boy was able to protect himself – which would be at age thirteen or thereabouts, if his powers were as strong as his father’s – would the protection end. Meanwhile, his every moment would be overseen, and every need or want would be attended to. He would not be spoiled; spoiled children rarely survived the cutthroat competition of elven politics. But he would be carefully educated, carefully nurtured, carefully prepared –

And he would live in luxury that made Serina’s pale by comparison.

Not that it mattered to Serina; the mother was hardly a rival for Dyran’s fickle affections, nor, in an odd way, was the son. Dyran cared nothing for his son, except as a possession, the all-important heir, and that was where his interest in him ended. There had been a brief flurry of activity when the child was brought to the manor and installed in the nursery; after that, everything went back to normal. And that was all Serina knew or cared. Thanks to the drugs in every human concubine’s food, she would never be pregnant, except at the Lord’s orders, and then only by another human.

Still, keeping Dyran’s attention could be terribly wearing …

She found herself eyeing one of the Lord’s elite guards; a handsome brunette youngster, firmly muscled, with a strong chin and earnest dark eyes, and young enough that he might not be so hardened a beast as some of the gladiators. In general, the guards were more personable than the duelists, though they were just as well rewarded, and just as proud of their status. There were weeks, months, when Dyran was away, that time sat heavy on her hands, and the nights, especially, seemed to take forever to pass. No elven lord took his concubines with him when he traveled; that would be insulting the hospitality of his host. No matter how indispensable Serina thought she had made herself, in the end, it seemed, she could be done without …

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to find herself a handsome young stud and have herself assigned to him, to gracefully slip into retirement … Perhaps if she pleased Dyran enough, when he tired of her, he would permit her to have a mate of her own choosing. A youngster like that, perhaps, fresh enough to be pliant to her wishes –

Demons! What was she thinking? Fool! That was a certain way to be supplanted!

She strengthened her resolve never to even think of being replaced. It would be better to die than become a breeder.

And as she schooled her expression into that sensuous smile Dyran liked, she swore that she would keep Dyran’s interest, no matter what it took.

A stumble over something hidden in the sand brought her to her hands and knees, and brought an end to her drift into memory. Memory that was kinder than reality …

She tried, and failed, to get to her feet, as the sun punished her unprotected back.

It would be easy to give up; to lie in the sand and wait for death. She wondered why she had ever thought death preferable to disgrace and displacement. Death was no easy slide into sleep – it was the parched pain of a dry throat and mouth, a need for water driving out all thoughts, the agony of burned and blistered skin.

I will not die. I will not! I am Serina Daeth, and I will live and have revenge!

So she began to crawl, with the same mindless determination with which she had continued to walk. Somewhere out here, there must be shelter, water. She would find both. Someone must live out here. She would buy their aid, with whatever it took.

But it was so hot …

Chapter 2 (#ulink_8ee93e4d-7a07-5f16-b408-0d4d569dd5c5)

Nothing veiled the brilliance of the sky, a clear and flawless turquoise bowl inverted over the undulating dunes of the desert, and the sun blazed in the east in solitary glory. Alamarana closed her inner eyelids against the white glare of sun-on-sand below her, spread her wings until her muscles strained, and spiraled in an ever-lower circle in the thermal she had chosen. Her destination, the ruin of a long-abandoned dragon-lair complex, was hardly more than a flaw in the silver-gilt sand beneath her scarlet-and-gold wings, but the pool beside it was visible at any height, reflecting the sky above like an unwinking cerulean eye.

She corrected her course with tiny changes in the web of her wings as she drifted a little away from her goal. Months ago she would have folded her wings tight to her body and plummeted down on the ruins from above, ending her dive in a glorious, sand-scattering backwash of braking wing-beats. Not today. Not while she still carried the little one; no recklessness when she would be risking two, not one, with her aerobatics.

She tilted her wings, spilled air, dropped a little, spilled air again. The spring-fed pool beckoned with a promise of serenity; she was tired, wing and shoulder muscles aching with the strain of so much flying, and glad this stop marked the end of her journey. Already she had spent her appointed times on Father Dragon’s mountaintop, in the surf beneath the cliffs that stood sentry on the Northern Sea, and deep within the redolent tree-trunk ‘halls’ of the endless cedars of Taheavala Forest. Thus she had joined with air, water, and earth – and this final station on her pilgrimage represented a melding with the element of fire. Not for all dragons, this pilgrimage of the elements, but for a shaman it was the nearest to mandatory the dragons ever came.

She furled her wing-sails a little, angling her flight into a tighter curve, and drifted downward until she was a body-length from the ground, and close to stalling speed. She spread her huge wings to their fullest and cupped the air beneath them, hovering for a moment before dropping as lightly as any bird to the sand.

The heat felt wonderful after the chill of the upper air. For a moment she kept her wings spread, and soaked up the blessed sun-rays with her eyes half-closed and all four of her taloned claws digging happily into the burning sands. She wriggled her toes in luxury, reveling in the heat, and in the strength the sun’s rays gave back to her. Within her, the little one stirred restlessly, bumping against her ribs. Her time would be soon, now, though unless she suffered some kind of strain, not until Alara willed it so. That was one control, at least, that a female shaman had over her biological destiny.

She basked with no thought of time, until the sun rose to its zenith and the sand beneath her cooled in the shadow of her body. Finally she sighed, and opened her eyes.

I am wasting time. The sooner I finish, the sooner I can be home. She turned her head slowly, looking for a good place to settle for her final meditation.

The ruin had been so long abandoned that there was little left of it. Its most notable feature was a single long, low wall, rising from drifts of shining sand like the spine of a snake, the sinuous curves typical of draconic workmanship. Beyond it, something square rose barely above the surface, the hints of a foundation, architecture copied from elves or humans. A heap of pink shapes marked the toppled, sand-worn stones of what had been a tower. A few plants and scrawny grasses, a half dozen trees, were the only growing things; all were within half a dragon-length of the pool.

Beside the wall was the stone-rimmed pool itself, of course. Spring-fed, and colder than her kind preferred, it was so pure as to be dangerous to drink in any quantity, at least for the dragons, who thrived on the alkaline salt-pools that poisoned other creatures.

This was not a site of disaster, nor even of ill-chance. There was no hint of violence here, only the work of time and the hand of nature.

Stupid to settle here in the first place, so near the elven lands …

Irilianale’s Lair, it had been called. ‘As impulsive as Iri’ was the saying, and ‘More persuasive than Irilianale,’ by which the entire story could be implied. Iri had taken a liking to the spot, a desert oasis perfect for the heat-basking the dragons, with their high metabolism, craved. Though the pool could not be drunk from regularly with any safety, there were plenty of deposits of metal salts nearby. And then Iri had discovered the real treasure of the site …

And somehow managed to convince a score of otherwise sane dragons to follow his lead.

But nearness to elven lands, and lack of game forced the dragons to abandon it before very long. Every virtue but one that the site possessed was duplicated elsewhere in places of greater safety. The only attraction that was not duplicated lay at the roots of the pool itself, for the rift in the earth that let the spring rise to the surface marked a ‘spring’ of another kind. The energies of magic leaked through here, mingling with the waters and keeping them pure, here where six ley-lines met in a perfectly symmetrical star. This magic that kept the water of the pool free of the alkaline salts that saturated most of the water in the Mehav Desert was something that kept the dragons returning even after the settlement had been abandoned. It was a source of pure magical power unmatched anywhere in this world, and dragons returned here; despite that the place had been abandoned long before Alara was born. Lack of game could have been compensated for, as had been done elsewhere by careful management. It was really the encroachment of elves and their human slaves that caused them to leave the place to the desert hawks, ruby-lizards, and their ilk.

And that was the concern of greatest moment to Alara. If she didn’t want to be detected, there was only one form she could take. She was going to be here a while, and she wanted to be comfortable. After a moment of inspecting the ruins, Alara found the perfect place to take up her station; a hollow in the shelter of the wall that could have been created to cradle her body, swollen with pregnancy. It lay full in the sun and she curled herself into it, tucking tail and wingtips in neatly.

No use in making her shift any harder than it had to be, she thought with wry good humor. Father Dragon didn’t call her ‘lazy’ for nothing – though she preferred to think of herself as ‘efficient.’

The sand was soft and yielding, and silken against the scales of her sides. She contemplated the pool for a moment, letting its deep, silent water give her the pattern for her meditations. Gradually she let her mind sink into it, down through the blue-tinged waters, into the indigo depths, to the sand-strewn bottom, where the cold water welled up from a hidden crack beneath the sands. There was the magic, welling up as serenely as the water, from the joining of the six shining ley-lines. She saw them with her overeyes, glowing moon-on-dragon-scale silver, that peculiar sheen of pure metal with the overlay of draconic iridescence, a furtive rainbow that was all colors and none at all. And where the lines met, a silent fountain of power sang upward, rising toward the sunbeams lancing down to meet it.

If only the elves knew … Alara chuckled to herself. The elvenkind were so jealous of power, hoarders of any and all sources, and as greedy of its possession as a child with a sweet. But the elvenkind could not see the ley-lines, and could not avail themselves of the strength inherent in them. Only the dragons could – and the humans …

Alara was not certain why the dragons were able to tap the alien energies of this world. Perhaps, though they were not native to this place, it was because their power came from shifting themselves to live in harmony with whatever world they found themselves on. The elves, equally foreign here, could not sense nor use these energies – so Father Dragon said – not only because they were no more native to this world than the dragons, but because they made no attempt to fit themselves to it. Instead, they chose ever to fit the world to themselves.

As for the poor humans – those that were left with the ability to see the power had little notion of how to use it, and if ever their masters learned they did have that gift, they speedily met their end in the arena or at the hands of an overseer. The elves did not tolerate such talents among their servants.

And yet the gifts persisted, as if the land itself needed them.

An interesting thought. Not now, though … Alara tucked that notion away for later contemplation, and proceeded with her own magic-weavings, tapping into the upwelling magic of the pool to lend her the strength and power for such a complicated shifting. She was here for a purpose, and idle thoughts of elves and humans could wait until that purpose was accomplished.

She drew yet more of the power away from the spring, spinning it into a gossamer thread that sparkled to her innersight and caressed her with a rich and heady taste like the sparkling vintages she had enjoyed in her elven form. She took the power to herself and spun it through her body until she shimmered like a mirage from nose to tail-tip. Tension built in her, as she drank in more and more of the power, drank it in and held it until she could hold it no more, until she strained with it as a water-skin filled nigh to bursting.

Now – she thought, and felt the ripple of change start at her tail and course through her in a wave, leaving in its wake –

Stone.

Not just any stone. Fire-born stone, the frozen wrath of volcanoes, the glassy blood from the heart of the world. The closest any living thing could come to fire itself.

In the blink of an eye, she shifted. No longer was there a dragon curled shining in the sun. In her place, the hollow of sand cupped a dull obsidian boulder, vaguely draconic in shape, smooth and sandworn as the stones of the wall behind her, taking in the blistering heat of the sun’s rays and absorbing them into its dusty black surface.

Now she could relax and let her mind drift where it would. Four times she had shifted: into an ice-eagle, a species near as large as the dragons themselves and so at home with the currents of the upper airs that they ate and slept on the wing; into a careless delphin, as at one with the waters as the ice-eagle was in the air; into a mighty cedar, with roots deep in the soil – and now, most difficult of all because it was not living, the fire-stone. Not all female dragons need take this pilgrimage of powers when a birth was imminent; only the shamans, like Alara, to fix a oneness with this world into their offspring, in hopes that one or more would in turn take up shamanistic duties to serve dragonkind.

Indeed, she found herself hyperaware of the earth about her, of the molten core beneath her. Here and there, close to the ruins and near to the surface, she sensed deposits of metallic salts. She made careful note of those; they might be needed, one day, when deposits near Leveanliren’s Lair were worked out. It would have been better if the deposits near home had been purer ores, and better still if they had been salts as these were; dragons needed substantial quantities of metal in their diets – the closer to pure, the better – for the growth of claws, horns, and scales.

Shed skin carried the old scales with it – she supposed one could eat one’s old skin, but that seemed so barbaric, somehow.

This ruin was perilously close to one of the elven trade routes, but it should be possible to mine the deposits with scouts in the air.

Alara’s thoughts darkened as she scanned the trade route for elven minds, or the blankness that meant collared slaves and bondsmen. So far the Kin had been both lucky and careful. Elvenkind did not know that they truly existed. And the Elders were right and Father Dragon was wrong, she thought. They must never learn that dragons existed. One at a time, even with magic to aid them, the elves were no match for one of the Kin … but if elves came upon the Kin in force …

If she had not been stone, the spines on her neck would have risen. She remembered all too clearly her encounters with elves, moments when they had caught her on the ground, in draconic shape. Only shifting quickly into elven form, and presenting the effect as an illusion, had saved her.

Sightings in the air presented no problem; in fact, that was something of a game with the younger dragons – they would find a remote spot with only a single elven observer, and shift briefly into dragon-shape, then land when they knew they had been spotted. Once on the ground, they would shift again; into some animal, or into elven form. When the observer came looking for the dragon, the ‘elf’ he encountered would deny having seen any such thing.

Only once had a dragon made the mistake of shifting into human form for an encounter.

Alara felt herself starting to shift back, her anger overcoming her control of her form.

Shoronuralasea would never walk without a limp after that encounter, but there was one less elf in the world.

A few such inescapable confrontations had taught dragons that the elves, for all their power, were vulnerable in curious ways. The alkali of the water the dragons preferred was secreted into poison sacs in their claws – and the merest scratch from a dragon’s talon, even unvenomed, was enough to send an elf into a shock-reaction.

And if she had to, she thought grimly, yet with an odd satisfaction, let one of them get within touching distance or between her wings, and there would be nothing left to question.

That led to thoughts of impatience. She welcomed and wanted this child, but there were so many things she dared not do – size-shifting was not encouraged during most of pregnancy, and for good reaosn. To shift size meant that one would have to shift a great deal of mass into the Out, and such a shift could have dire consequences to a developing child. Alara missed the freedom to take whatever shape she pleased. But most of all, Alara missed the Thunder Dances, when all the dragons called in a lightning storm and flew among the clouds at the height of it.

Dragons sometimes died in a Thunder Dance, dashed to the ground by a sudden, unexpected downdraft. Or met with disaster as wingbones broke or membranes tore, leaving them to flail helplessly, falling to their deaths. Occasionally one of their fellow dancers would notice the plight, or hear the mental screams for help, and wing in to the doomed one’s side in time to save him, but that didn’t happen too often.

But the risk was part of the attraction after all.

Alara thought back to her last Thunder Dance with a longing so intense she would have shivered in any other form, and a deep and abiding hunger. And she had been the FireRunner, the position of most honor and most danger –

Rising and falling, the plaything of the winds, steering through them by yielding to them –
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