Chapter Five

Altu paced back and forth across the straw-covered floor of the hut, clutching a tiny roll of paper with a broken wax seal in one hand.

"No," he said firmly, "You can't. It's too dangerous for both of us."

"Oh, and I suppose leaving me here on my own is clearly the safer option," I replied, scowling, "Well, I suppose it is – for you."

Two days had passed in peace and quiet, only broken by Chena's boundless energy, all the more vibrant since she'd caught Altu trying to teach me the basics of her language. She'd jumped at the opportunity to help out, by which she meant correcting Altu's pronunciation, and trying to teach me words Altu would only describe as 'vulgar'. The trouble had begun on the third day, when a falcon had arrived with the letter.

"You don't understand. My family are...difficult to deal with. You don't want to meet them, I promise," Altu insisted, "I don't want to go back - I don't even know why they're calling me back, I thought they'd just order me to another far-flung corner of the world - but I have no choice. Anyway, Chena will be here to help you."

"H–how long will it take?" I asked, anger giving way to the fear that had been lurking at the back of my mind since he'd told me.

"I...don't know," he admitted, "It could be a few days, but it could also be weeks, even longer perhaps. But I mean it when I say it's better this way."

"Well fine then, if you think it's better to...to abandon me here for some unspecified period of time," I said, and sat down onto the straw with a thud, "Great. Thanks a lot."

"It's not like that," he protested, "I know this isn't ideal, but it's all I can offer. Trust me. I'll come back for you as soon as I can. I'm sorry, I really am."

"I don't care," I snapped, "Just...go off and do your preparations then get out of here."

Altu's face drew sharply into a glare, and I braced myself for whatever biting comment or admonishment he was preparing, but in the end he only sighed.

"You'll need things to wear while you're here. You can't borrow mine, and they're a little small on you anyway. I'll see if Chena can find you some clothes, and a more authentic veil," he said quietly. I didn't reply, and he left the hut without another word, the door slamming shut behind him.

Time passed as I sat slumped and listless on the floor of the hut, until I heard a tapping on the door. When I opened it, I came face-to-face with a pile of clothes, and buried somewhere behind it, I could see the top of Chena's head bobbing about. She stumbled in and put it carefully down on the nearest pallet – Altu's.

"Er, thanks," I said, and she shrugged and smiled.

She said something, and it took me a few seconds to realise that she'd asked if I was leaving.

"Oh, no. Altu is," I corrected, and she frowned.

"No, you're leaving," she said, more firmly this time. I shook my head, and her frown grew deeper before she only said: "I'll talk to him."

She left without another word and I was alone to stew in my fear, regret and frustration. I sulked in the corner of the hut on the hard floor rather than my itchy pallet, and the clothes Chena had brought were left untouched on the other side of the room.

It felt as though hours had passed as I sat there staring at the wooden boards and picking at bits of straw, shredding them longways in thin yellow strips, but Altu came back eventually. I stared down at the floor, gritting my teeth as I felt my cheeks flushing.

"Pack your things," he said, "You're coming with me after all."

"Huh?" I said, looking up at last, "Why the sudden change of heart?"

"Chena spoke with me," he said, "It seems that it's not safe for you here after all."

"Why?" I asked, "Er, not that I'm complaining."

"It's a political matter involving my people. It seems that her mother...neglected to mention it when I arrived," he said, "In any case, I no longer trust this place to keep you safe. You won't understand the details, and you're getting what you wanted, yes?"

It was high afternoon when we left, though the sun was obscured behind a wall of clouds. I could see through the opened shutter in the east wall of that hut that a small crowd had gathered at the edge of the village to bid us farewell, Chena at the forefront. I leant very deliberately forwards on the windowsill, pointedly ignoring the sound of fabric over flesh and the creaking of floorboards as Altu shed his clothes.

If he was cold as we walked through the village Altu didn't mention it, and soon enough we were sheltered from the wind by the ring of onlookers. There was no sign of Chena's mother in the crowd, but when I glanced over at her home I saw her watching in silence, frowning.

Altu was unmoved as the villagers stared openly, only bidding a quick farewell to Chena before taking his dragon form again. I tied our things into his back, but before I could climb up myself, Chena caught me by the arm and hugged me.

"Goodbye!" she said, and behind my veil I smiled in reply. She called out something to Altu that I couldn't catch, then released me. I clambered over Altu's scaled shoulders, grabbed a spike and pulled myself into place. When I was safely tied on, he took one last look around the crowd before they stepped back and he spread his wings and rose into the air.

As we flew, it wasn't long before the cold wind was biting into the tips of my ears and nose. The clouds overhead were thick and tinged with yellow. We followed the path of the river upstream as it wound between hills that grew from shallow dips and rises into narrow, rocky spires as the river clove a narrow gorge between the peaks. The yellowed grasses thinned out into scrubland stripped of green by the cold and wind, and eventually turned to sparse patches of conifers scattered across the ground as it rose up and split into tall, rocky shelves.

A tall, flat-topped mountain rose on the horizon, dwarfing the surrounding landscape. As we came closer, I saw the mouth of a large cave yawning wide from a wide plateau, and above it smaller caves scattered across the sheer face of the rock. Altu dipped down towards them, and I realised as we drew nearer that the smaller entrances were fronted by little balconies wrapped in withered vines.

He landed gently below the wide lip of the larger cave, and allowed me to climb off and unfasten our things. I crept over to the edge of the jutting rock and looked down at the ground far below. My head spun, and I scurried backwards. As I pulled away, Altu gestured towards the cave, and I hurried inside. He followed me without losing his dragon form, then held out a large, scaled limb to block my path. I paused, and Altu drew a deep breath and then roared so loudly that I thought my eardrums would burst.

"Was that really necessary?" I asked, as he shed his dragon form.

"Yes," he said quietly, "And I told you not to speak here."

As he dressed himself, I stared at the tense line of his shoulders and the back of his neck. He really didn't want to be here, I realised. The clothes he chose were not the sturdy, thick winter furs and leathers, but the decidedly inconspicuous bright silks I remembered seeing back in the caves. He didn't stop at the silks, though. When he had slipped on a thin, dark blue robe and fastened it, he dug around in the bottom of the case until he'd fished out a sparkling handful of gold chains decorated with gaudy little stones, beads and shapes carved from bone. He looked down at them and paused, and then he turned to me and held them out.

"I was never very good at putting these on," he admitted quietly, and I reached out and took one. It was short, decorated with little charms and beads. Altu held out his arms, and I fastened a bracelet onto each wrist, and then a second one to his right, until there was only a necklace left. It was rather large, and long bars of gold fanned out from the centre section of the chain. At the end of each bar was a large hole set with ornate glass beads in blue and red.

Altu turned and bowed his head, and I slipped one end of the necklace past his shoulder and across his chest. I brought the ends together and fastened them, then as I smoothed the chain flat, my hands brushed gently against his skin. I pulled back, drew a rather shaky breath and tapped him softly on the shoulder.

"All done."

"Thank you," he said, and then he sighed and gestured for me to follow him deeper into the tunnel. As we walked, the walls shifted from rough-hewn stone to a smooth passage, the ceiling decorated with ornately carved arches. Eventually, we passed beneath a final arch into a tall, wide hall with a marble floor. Lanterns and long white banners embroidered with green vines hung from wooden beams across the cavern ceiling. I followed Altu through the threshold and into the hall, but he came to an abrupt halt after a few steps.

In the centre of the room stood a woman. She wasn't tall, but her back was arrow-straight, her stance wide and her chin raised sharply. From the corner of my eye I saw Altu shrink back, his shoulders tense as he stared at the white stone beneath his feet.

She did not look at him, though. Instead, she looked at me and her head tilted thoughtfully as she examined me. Her face was impassive, but my palms were beginning to feel damp beneath her gaze. Then she turned to Altu, and I waited for her to open her mouth and begin to speak, but instead something else happened.

When it first hit me, I couldn't understand a thing. It was like the air pressure in the hall had risen, and I felt my ears pop. Then came a sharp pain in my head, and a strange voice that seemed to be echoing inside my skull and ears. I clutched at my head, but it was no use.

"Mother."

Altu, I realised through a haze of pain, and this time I could understand. I stopped fighting then, and simply listened.

"–wears the mark of a mute, and yet from his head I feel a cacophony of foreign thoughts, and strange, alien scents and substances cling to his skin. My son, what have you done?" the woman said, as the pain faded and I understood not only the words spoken, but the emotions attached to them. I could feel her disappointment, and an unease that ran deeper, beneath even the familial affection that lingered on the edge of her thoughts.

"I..." Altu hesitated, and I began to feel faintly guilty, like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation.

"I won't ask how he ended up in your company; I don't think I want to know, but I would ask of you why you brought him here," his mother said, and my breath caught in my throat. What would he say? That I was childish and stubborn and insisted on it? The rational part of me knew he'd had more substantial reasons for changing his mind, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to understand how he'd felt about it as well.

"I had planned on leaving him behind, but a friend there told me that the other dragon clans have been passing through the area frequently, for reasons she did not know." Altu told her, "I felt that leaving him there would have been a greater risk."

"Because you helped him," his mother said, an accusatory note beneath her words, "And you were concerned about the repercussions on yourself."

"I cannot say it didn't cross my mind, but my concern was primarily for his own safety," he said, and to my surprise there was no annoyance, only pride and anxiety, "He does not deserve to die by their fire."

"His people are dangerous," his mother replied, and I could feel her unease in fragments of memories and imagined horrors alike, "He may be one boy, harmless on his own, but collectively they represent a threat and that is why they are forbidden here. You were born during the war and you do not fully understand the circumstances under which it began."

There was an awkward silence, and Altu fidgeted like a scolded child, twisting the fabric of his robe in one hand and clutching the back of his neck with the other.

"Will you report me to the other clans?" he asked her finally.

"...No," she told him wearily after a long pause, "It would cause unnecessary complications, and though you may sometimes believe otherwise my son, I would prefer you alive to dead. However, I cannot allow you to remain here with him."

"That I understand," Altu replied, "But why did you call me here in the first place?"

"I have important matters to discuss with you concerning our clan, and your future," his mother said, and for the first time I could feel her holding things back, "Send the boy away. We will speak on the matter in private."

"Does it matter?" Altu asked irritably, "He knows nothing of our politics, and in any case few humans can interpret the lower dialect without instruction."

I paused in my accidental eavesdropping. Now that was interesting and useful as well, though now I felt even guiltier. Something brushed against my shoulder and I looked up sharply. I'd been so distracted that I hadn't even noticed that they'd stopped talking. Altu was standing in front of me, and I felt another little swell of guilt.

"My mother," he began wearily, "Has decided for reasons unknown to me that you should wait outside while the rest of our conversation takes place. I'm sorry, and I know it's cold but you'll have to put up with it for a little while."

"Sure," I said with a shrug, "It's none of my business anyway. Unless you're, I don't know, plotting to kill me or something. Er, not that I'd know what you were talking about anyway."

I grimaced, but if Altu saw through my hasty lie he said nothing, instead leading me out through tall, ornate iron double-doors set into the wall to my right. Outside was a wide, flat clearing surrounded on all sides by steep walls of rock pitted with little doors and tunnel mouths. It was carpeted with moss in bright yellows, greens and olive tones, and from the wide cracks in the stone and scattered patches of dry earth sprang trees with stunted, twisting branches that were bare of leaves in the cold air. In the centre, water trickled from the top of a fountain and down over smooth, piled stones into a rough-hewn basin below. Chunks of ice floated in the green-tinged water and the rim of the basin was laced with a fine layer of frost.

"I'll come and find you when I'm finished," Altu said, "And though the temptation might be strong, please try not to wander off. The tunnels under this mountain go a long way, and not everything dwelling in them is friendly."

With that, he disappeared back inside, the doors slamming shut and leaving me alone in the courtyard. I prodded the fountain, feeling the icy cold water numb my fingers until it began to sting, and then wandered around it in a lazy circle.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a familiar flash of green, and sure enough, when I looked out across the courtyard there was a tiny dragon curled around a jutting root. It froze stock still but for the thin, wet green membranes of its eyelids as they slid down across the surface of its eyes. I stepped slowly forwards and it watched me, but didn't move until I was only a few feet away. Its tail unwound from the root and flicked like a cat's, and its spine and limbs were tense as it balanced precariously on the root. The wings on its back quivered and then spread open, and when the creature opened its mouth I heard a soft hiss. It turned and scurried between the trees towards an opening in the rock face, and without thinking I followed it in.

The dragon didn't look back, it only kept up a steady pace ahead of me, as though it were leading me instead of fleeing. The walls of the passage were rough-hewn stone, but splashed across the surface were painted depictions of strange landscapes and dragons, birds, lizard people, even a few humans. It was old and faded in places, but bright in others where someone had painstakingly restored them with fresh paint.

The passage grew darker and darker until all I could see was the faint outline of the dragon as it scurried along. Then as I followed the curve of the passage I saw a light ahead, and as I drew closer I realised that the tunnel fed into another cavern.

At first I thought it was full of water; the way a single, narrow shaft of light played off the walls as though they were damp. As I reached the door, I realised that instead the walls and ceiling of the cavern were lined with thousands of lilac crystals, glistening in the meagre light. I couldn't see where the little dragon had scurried off to, but I wandered in and something caught my eye at one end of the room. It was a great arch, built from the same crystals that grew from the walls, its edges every bit as sharp with raw, geometric spikes. There was something about it that drew me nearer, like a tugging in my ribcage, and the air beneath the arch seemed to tremble as I stepped closer.

Suddenly, I heard a soft snort from behind me and turned. Curled up at the other end of the cavern was another dragon, white scaled like Altu and with the same antlers and feathered wings, but a good third larger. I stepped back and my boot scuffed the ground, and suddenly the dragon's yellow eyes opened, pupils dilating sharply when they caught sight of me. The dragon slowly uncurled and stood up, eyes never leaving me, until finally the creature leant forwards until we were almost nose-to-nose. Then the dragon drew back, opened wide a set of jaws large enough to break me in half and roared.

ooo

This one has been sitting at half-finished for a while, but I had trouble making the finishing touches to it. I'm not entirely sure I'm happy with it either, but here it is. I struggle somewhat with the scenery because every time I start writing it, I just want to grab a pencil and draw it instead. I might do a few sketches of some of the locations in this and post them to my Tumblr at some point (linked from my profile).

Thank you for the watches and favourites! Feel free to leave a review, whether positive or negative. I do this out of love for my worlds and characters, and self-fulfillment, but I'll never say no to a little feedback.