Chapter Six

27 Raintide, YD 78

"He's back!"

Warren looked up as a scarlet and gold dragon slammed to earth just within the limits of the Dragon Keep compound. The Guardian on its back hardly paused long enough to recover from what had to have been a rough jolt before he slid off and hit the ground running, heading right for Warren. He skittered to a halt before the exhausted lad.

"Hi! I'm Skip, you're Warren, pleased to meet you, you can call me Uncle!"

Warren pushed past him, cradling his dragon as tenderly as possible. Their blood mingled freely in his arms. "Get out of my way."

Skip just stood there for a moment, seemingly astonished by Warren's audacity. He recovered quickly, though, and hurried to catch up to the young man as he forced himself to place one foot in front of the other, despite his aching ribs and burning side.

"I say, you're quite the rude one, you are! Everyone's talking about you, you know. They say the dragonlord was furious that you made off with one of his most promising hatchlings!"

"I didn't 'make off' with anything," Warren growled. "Now buzz off!"

They had reached the Dragon Keep, and Warren turned toward the building where he knew the healer who had seen him stayed. He reached the door and extended a trembling fist to knock. Luckily, the very same healer answered his knock.

"I'm sorry," Warren muttered as he sank to his knees, relief draining the last of his strength.

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28 Raintide, YD 78

"You really do have to stop this, you know."

"Stop what?" Warren asked blearily as he fought his way to the world of the living. He was pretty sure whoever was speaking was talking to him.

"If you keep coming back to us all busted up, we'll just have to stop letting you leave."

Consciousness hit fast and hard, and Warren would have attempted to leap right of his bed, but a pair of strong hands held him firmly in place. "Where's Nightshade?!"

"What?" The stranger's open, expressive features twisted with confusion.

"My…the…"

"Ah. So you've named him at last. Never fear, lad, he is well. The wound was not serious, though the poison did give us quite the scare for a short while."

His frantic concern for his dragon laid to rest, Warren realized abruptly that he didn't know the man who sat on the edge of his bed. "Who are you?" he demanded warily.

"Me? My name is Kladin. And right now, I am the dragonlord."

Warren went very, very still.

you're wanted by fourteen different lords and the dragonlord himself…

Kladin must have picked up on something in the young man's expression, for he laughed, a deep, rich sound that filled the whole room with warmth. "Don't worry, I'm not going to arrest you or anything."

not after you anymore…

This second thought was even more alarming than the first. Warren rolled away, his entire being simmering with barely-concealed rage.

Kladin frowned, reading Warren's moods like an open book. "This sort of thing is very hard on everybody, Warren, and I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it must be for you. You're so young, so independent, so…sheltered…"

"Sheltered?" Warren snapped, incredulous. "Not a chance! You don't have a clue what I've been through, how much I've suffered…!"

"I do not, and I daresay not many men do. But anyone can stand adversity. It is in all other things that we have you beat. You have never before had to cope with such matters as love, friendship, or power. All of these, I assure you, are very tricky matters that require a great deal of strength, physically, emotionally, and, above all, morally."

"Are you saying I'm a selfish, unethical brat?" Warren rolled back over to face the dragonlord, scowling fiercely.

"Not quite. I'm saying your past as a notorious sneak-thief gives us little evidence to the contrary."

"Oh yeah? Well I didn't ask to be a Guardian! I'd rather go back to being a notorious sneak-thief!"

"Warren, it must be especially difficult for you to understand this. You have always made up the rules you lived by, but, sometimes, things happen that are, quite simply, beyond our ability to control. You can't just slip away into the dark of the night and wake up to find things back the way they were."

"That's not my fault!" Warren masked a grimace as the throbbing in his torso intensified.

"Of course not. It's nobody's fault. It just…happened."

"That's not true! It's all Nightshade's fault! If he hadn't been stolen, that wagon wouldn't have been moving so fast and we wouldn't have tumbled down to the mercy of the Mist and he wouldn't have had to hatch to save me!"

"That is ridiculous. Nightshade did not hatch to save you. He hatched because he selected you as the one person in all the world with whom he would like to spend the rest of his life. The presence of the Mist had nothing to do with that. Had you leapt to the other side of the road, Nightshade would have hatched right out of the wagon once he sensed your presence."

"That's stupid! He could've picked somebody else!"

"No. He could not have."

The finality in Kladin's voice drove Warren to try a different tact. "He doesn't need me! He's a dragon. He can fight the Mist all on his own!"

"And that, my boy, is the true crux of the matter, isn't it? You've found someone who's better than you, and you can't stand it. You're right, he doesn't need you. But you need him. You couldn't even defend yourself from a gang of bandits. Whatever will you do when faced with a horde of Others? You're frightened almost to death. You don't know what you're getting yourself into. And the thought of relying upon someone—or something—outside of yourself to save your worthless hide is tearing you up inside, isn't it?" Kladin's eyes sparkled with malicious pleasure as he noticed Warren's intense discomfort.

Warren started to snap back some clever retort, but then a bolt of searing agony shot through his chest, and he jerked, a movement that only worsened the pain. Suddenly, the healer burst into the room and swooped down upon Kladin like a bird of prey. Or a dragon.

"You! Look what you've done, gotten the lad all riled up! I'll not stand this under my roof, not even from an ugly old lout like you, mister! Get out! Go on, now, leave!"

Kladin rose, ducking his head in a surprisingly submissive gesture, and sidled out of the room.

"Poor lad," the healer muttered as she perched lightly on the edge of the bed and pulled back the covers to examine Warren's heavily-bandaged middle, "having to listen to the inane ramblings of that flighty, egotistical man…" The genuine affection in her tone belied the harshness of her words. She sat back, shaking her head. "All I can do is give you something to kill the pain and make sure you have time to rest. Everything else depends on you, boy." She produced a small wooden cup of some noxious potion and helped him to drink it.

"I want…to see…" Warren gritted his teeth against yet another stab of pain, licking the last few drops from the corner of his mouth.

"Your dragon? Sure." The healer rose gracefully and crossed over to a door set in the wall of the room. She threw it open, revealing an adjoining room, and disappeared from sight. She returned a moment later, the now-familiar beast clutched tightly in her slightly pudgy arms. In just under three days, the hatchling had more than tripled in size and was now about as big as a good-sized housecat.

You hurt.

Not more than you, Nightshade.

You name me. What name you?

Warren would've laughed, had he not been so sure the action would cause him almost unbearable pain. There was so much Nightshade seemed to pick up on intuitively, yet the hatchling had yet to learn his name. I'm Warren.

I hurt Warren?

No! You saved me! I…I hurt you, little one. I allowed them to hurt you. I wasn't strong enough to protect you once, but I swear, I swear on anything and everything I've ever held dear, it will not happen again. The pain potion was beginning to kick in, and it hit fast. Warren could feel sleep coming right on the heels of the numbing effect. "I swear," he muttered aloud before falling into the increasingly familiar realm of the unconscious.