AN: New readers beware! This is a standalone story, but I wrote it as part of my Alder universe. Don't worry, you don't need to know anything to read this properly. But if you like this, please go read my other Alder shorts. The main novel is still under construction.
The Finest Line
The Finest Line
The whole village of Rommen, except the young men, turned up to see the arrival of their mercenary. The headman led the mob, a bag of chips in one hand, the staff of his office in the other. He set his mouth grimly as the figure drew closer, wondering if he could be trusted, wondering if there really was more to this story, as he had suspected.
Mothers suckling crying babes vied with the elderly for a glimpse of their hero. Only the young men were elsewhere, hiding in shame that the village had to bring in a wandering scoundrel to do the job the Gods had supposedly given them the strength to do. They would just as well wish he'd kill the beast, take the money, leave them in peace to nurse their pride, and hope he didn't seduce any of their women.
He wasn't so big, the women thought. Not tall, sort of squat, definitely muscular. He had a longsword strapped to his waist, like a nobleman, a halberd in one hand, his other on the strap of the pack slung across his back, next to a battered shield. Definitely a wanderer, they thought, and not one that did well. More than likely their money would be wasted.
At last, the stranger they had hired came to a stop before the headman, his tired, unshaven face looking him right in the eyes. He was bold for someone so homeless.
"Where?" he asked simply.
"There's a small canyon with dried-up riverbed to the southeast. It's got a lair there, a cave. Tell me, man, can you really kill it?"
The man offered what was probably supposed to be a confident smile. And it was, sort of. That is, it wasn't forced, so there was no lack of confidence, but some sadness in his eyes made the headman doubtful. With a snort, he hefted the bag of coins in his hand.
"If you come back alive, we've elected to give you one hundred chips. That's with its head, wanderer."
The man nodded once. "I understand. But I won't be needing it."
The headman narrowed his eyes at him: no one worked for free, not a man born without the grace of the moons. He would probably ask for more later. But that was for when – if – the mercenary returned, so he would deal with it then. For now, let the man do battle with their demon.
Some of the women threw flowers at the mercenary as he stalked past, but he didn't look at any of them. His eyes were off in the distance, maybe even the past.
"She's beautiful, isn't she?"
A single tear rolled down his grimy face, but it was easily mistaken for sweat. He continued on in spite of the memory.
The canyon was where the headman had said it would be, silent but for the sound of the wind whistling through the crevices. The mercenary calmly dropped his pack and thrust his spear into the ground, deciding against it in such close quarters. He pulled out rope, fastened it to a sturdy boulder, and shimmied down the baked red stone walls into the riverbed below. The rock was the color of her hair.
The stream wasn't completely dry. He heard a gurgling in the distance, no doubt the spring that fed the river, but had since been diverted elsewhere. It was an ideal place for the thing he hunted; shelter and water, and of course the villagers supplied it with food—unwillingly.
He followed the sound of the spring with careful, silent steps. His boots were lined with fur, both to protect him from the cold and casual detection. He didn't know why he bothered now – his prey was more than up to the challenge of noticing him.
He heard the crackle of a fire, the snapping of bones. So it cooked its meat now. How quaint.
The woman looked up as he entered the cave mouth, serpentine eyes unchanging and unsurprised. She was naked but for her long red-brown hair draped elegantly down her back, her skin pale like a sunless winter morning.
"That's cold of you, to come here, and only because I took some pigs," she said nonchalantly, turning back to her meal, just taken from the fire.
"Thought you ate it raw," the man said, casually drawing his sword, his words lined with frozen fury.
She paused, stopped, then tossed the chunk of meat onto the fire with a disgusted snarl. "Damn you. I was looking to enjoy it, too." She stood, turning to face him with a weariness in her eyes akin to his. "I suppose I know what you're here for, but I want to see if you can tell it to my face."
She regarded him calmly, waiting for his reply. He winced, following the lines of her neck. It was stronger than it looked – all of her was. She was stringy for a human, but stronger than most in her current form. Her sickly appearance was misleading on purpose. Look weak, draw you in, capture you, that was their way. If you were lucky, they killed you. If you weren't, you became like the mercenary.
"I'm going to kill you," he said at long last through gritted teeth. Hate her, hate her, hate her.
She threw back her head and laughed, her beautiful hair swaying with the movement. It was pure grace. Her kind were graceful, of nothing else.
"I think every man tells his woman that at some point. Why don't I believe it of you?"
"I have nothing to do with you," he hissed, tightening his grip on his blade.
At that, her eyes hardened, and fury burned bright and hot inside them. "You are a fool, Feratou, a hurtful fool, bitter because of your own misfortune."
"We share that misfortune, but I expect no more feeling from you to cause you bitterness!" he snarled. He took a threatening step forward. His opponent was unfazed, still furious.
"You think me devoid of feeling?"
"I know you to be so. Why else did you sell her to your kin?"
An ear-shattering screech shook the stone walls of the cave and made the flames of her fire shimmer as if afraid. The woman's eyes flashed green. She would change soon.
"I did not sell her! I gave her to be reared by my kin, as is my mother's Right! You hate me for it as if she'd died, but she lives still, in a place where none like you will kill her. She will grow up beautiful and strong, and no one will kill her with any blade. You hate me for this!"
"I hate you because you betrayed me!" he screamed in reply, willing himself to chop her down where she stood, yet he could not.
At last her eyes softened, but not with any kindness. They smoldered with sorrow and unlikely wishes.
"You humans," she chuckled, favoring him with her unnerving gaze. "So quick to change. Look at you – once you boasted to all your friends of my beauty and cried to the stars your love for me."
"But now you face me with a blade in your hand, ready to draw my blood for peasant coin. You humans keep the finest line between love and hate, forgetting one for the other at a moment's notice. Well," she snarled, her expression growing dark again, "Let me tell you something, Feratou, my love, I am wyvern. I have walked this land for three of your generations, and I remember every tree I saw, every animal I've eaten. I remember every mate I took for the betterment of my species, and I remember the very first time I wanted a man on my own. Many things I remember, Feratou, of the gifts you brought me and all that I felt. My race remembers very well, but we do not change. We never, ever...forget."
They stood facing each other for some time, hearing nothing of the world around them. The man was filled with confused hate, his shape-shifting wife filled only with sorrow.
"You have chased me long enough. Leave me to my mourning, Feratou, and go find another who may safely bear your love," she pleaded.
"Never," he said shakily. "You gave them my daughter."
A moment more of silence reigned. Then: "Very well," she sighed, hanging her head so that a curtain of red-brown hair obscured her face. "Let us finish it."
Locks of hair fell away, and the pale human skin she wore split apart like a demonic chrysalis, revealing a large winged lizard that instantly zipped past the mercenary. He brought up his sword in time to score her side, however, and she screeched in pain and she tried to claw up the canyon wall.
"Get back here, demon!" he cried, whirling around to face her anew.
I so wanted you to live. The beast twisted her head around and spat acid on the man, launching herself from the rock face to sweep at him with her formidable claws. He fell down onto one knee and stabbed upward, this time scoring her belly. She really wasn't as frightening as others of her kind.
She screeched again, but this time with a note of mortality, and she tumbled into the opposing wall of the canyon in a scaly jumble. She groaned and wheezed, tired from always running away from him, knowing, even when he did not, how killing her wouldn't make him feel any better. The humans didn't understand revenge like the wyvern did. And now he would have to live with her death on his conscience.
He limped up, wincing from the acid she'd spat at him. Her serpentine eyes, starting to cloud up, peered up at him. There was no hate in them, nor fear. Only sorrow.
It's better this way, really, she thought, his raised blade reflected in her great dark eyes. I would never have forgotten how you grew to hate me. It would never have stopped hurting.
The blade fell, and the mercenary ended his wife's life forever. "Damn," he muttered, dashing a hand across his eyes.
The headman was alerted to the surprisingly quick return of the mercenary by the shouts of his people. He stood from his place by the hearth and grabbed the money pouch, hobbling out of the house and into the street. He watched, mouth agape, as the wanderer limped through the village, dragging with him the severed head of the beast that had been preying on the herds.
"Sweet Nephar above," he breathed as the warrior came to a stop before the headman. "You did it – and so quickly too! Was it old?"
The man only smiled his mysterious smile from before, which answered nothing. He dropped the head there, adjusted the pack on his shoulders, and then passed the headman by on his way. Bemused, the man turned to look after him.
"Don't you want the reward?" he asked, incredulous.
The mercenary waved a hand in acknowledgment. "Keep it, you have little enough."
No one in the village stopped him, but as soon as his retreating back was no longer seen, the villagers crowded around the headman and the grisly prize the mercenary had left them.
"So fierce – look at those teeth!"
"That man's no mere mortal!"
And from that day on, every traveler that came through Rommen was told of the victorious and very fictional account of the mercenary's deathly fight with the ferocious evil demon wyvern.
AN: I realize at this point it's been forever since I last posted anything. The only excuse I can give you is this: college is hard. So, please be apppeased with this short.
Yes. It was a satirical parody on dragonslayer stories. I tried to set it up so that readers thought women had been kidnapped by the wyvern. (of course, none were. This is a nice wyvern.) So...yeah. Hope you noticed that.
I have to admit, one of my favorite groups on Alder is the wyvern. They're so delightfully pragmatic about their race. I like the vuren in particular, and wished I could write more about them. (Vuren are the outcast wyvern, because they have committed some crime against the race that wasn't horrendous enough to warrant them killed. They are charge with breeding with the other races to bring new stock into the species. They give one kid to their clan, then they can live the rest of their lives without bother.) The one in this story was called Leness.