A/N: Finally! There really is no excuse for the insane delay of this, but I hope I didn't lose too many of you. The next update should be out MUCH quicker.
Now, onto the chapter!
"So you take aim and…" Emelin let her dagger fly. It cut through the air with the faintest whistle and landed with a satisfying thunk in the trunk of her sapling target. A perfect hit.
She tossed her hair and shot a grin at Alastair over her shoulder. His already huge dragon eyes were widened to their fullest extent. He gave a rumbling growl of appreciation and stepped up behind her to take a closer look, cloaking her in his shadow.
'I see. So it is not only your aim but your grip that is also important.' He reached out a claw, his long front leg easily spanning the distance between them and the tree, and scratched at the bark where the dagger was firmly embedded. The grooves he made were twice as deep as that of the tiny blade.
Emelin nodded. "Your stance also helps, but those who are very skilled can throw accurately regardless of their target's position or movement."
Her laugh was sheepish. "I can only hit still targets. I'm not very good," she admitted.
'You have not missed once this entire time. To me your skill is very impressive.'
Warmth suffused her cheeks. Emelin busied herself with retrieving her dagger, avoiding eye contact so as not to give away how happy his words made her. Compliments from a dragon, she was finding, were twice as flattering as those from a human. Emelin attributed it to the incongruency of hearing such nice words coming from such a fearsome body. When that huge mouth opened up, filled with all it's deadly sharp teeth and a jaw pressure that could snap you in half with just one bite, only to flatter you sweetly instead… well, she defied any maiden not to swoon just a bit from that.
It took several tugs to free her weapon from the small tree. Sap oozed down the handle and Emelin wiped it off on the leaves.
"My cousin is much better than I am," she admitted, sheathing the blade and tucking it away into her boot. "He's even bested Warrick a few times, and Warrick's the best in the village."
'Is he the one who taught you?' Alastair asked.
"Who, Phillip?" Emelin snorted. "No. What little I know my father taught me. And since his death, I've trained on my own. I can only practice what I've already learned though, so it's hard to improve at all. Phillip only tolerates what skill I have because he knows I might need it to defend myself, since I'm 'so pigheaded,' rejecting his protection." The last part came out much more bitter than she had expected it to, and she coughed and looked away, embarrassed.
'I brought up an upsetting topic. I apologize,' said Alastair.
Emelin shook her head, reassuring him and dispelling her heavy feelings in the same movement. "It's fine. I don't know why I let it bother me. It doesn't, most days. And Phillip's more understanding than most guardians, so I can't complain." She forced a smile, eager to be off this subject. "Anyway, that's all I know about knife throwing. Did you have any other questions?"
It was foolish of her to even ask. Of course he had more questions. The dragon was a veritable fount of curiosity. She had been explaining things to him and showing him stuff for the past three days now. When he had said he wanted to know everything, he hadn't been joking. And all the things he wanted to know had to do with humans: their lifestyle, beliefs, relationships. He wanted to know how they thought, how they did things—like fighting, but not just that. Alastair wanted to know the games they played, the stories they told, even how their children were raised. All of it fascinated him.
'And you must explain this enjoyment of ale to me,' he finished, his tone absolutely serious. 'I admit to having sampled a drum or two in the past, and I cannot fathom how humans stand it.'
The mental image of Alastair trying to sneakily poke his snout into an ale drum turned Emelin's forced smile into a genuine one. Leading the way back to their camp, she defended her countryman's drink the best she could, the conversation eventually segueing into talk about food, which in turn became a rundown of how kitchens worked, and then somehow jumped into a debate about the practicality of chainmail. One thing Emelin noticed when describing things to the dragon was that even when Alastair was clearly dumbfounded by a certain custom or device, he was never scoffing or rude about it. The most he might say was a subdued, 'Interesting,' before changing the topic to something else. He was, as always, the epitome of respectful, and she wondered for the hundredth time if that was the true nature of dragons, or just Alastair.
'So you feed and house them, and in exchange these hounds hunt for you whenever you tell them to?' he summarized, reaching out to claw aside a particularly thick shrub so Emelin could step through.
"More or less. Though it's not quite the equal partnership you're thinking of." She drew to a stop. They had reached the stream, but somewhere along the way they must have angled north, for they were too far up the bank. The water was deeper here, and faster, spanning a wider distance across each bank. A proper river.
"We need to go south—" Emelin started to say, but Alastair was already moving past her, not the way she was pointing but straight into the river. She stopped and waited.
His sudden dips were nothing new. In fact, she had seen him do it at least once every day. To her it was very much like a dragon's version of morning and evening ablutions. Only… well, her ablutions were nothing like this.
Water hissed as it flowed over his overheated body. Steam wafted up in thick wisps, as dense as fire smoke. Emelin could feel the heat of it from shore and took a few steps back, just to be safe. The water bubbled ominously for a few seconds, on the verge of breaking into a full boil, and then, as abruptly as always it just… stopped. Whatever Alastair let go of inside of him to produce such heat he pulled back with one deep, indrawn breath. The bubbling ceased, the hotter waters washing downstream where it would mix with the fresh until it was lukewarm and harmless.
"Better now?" she asked.
'Much,' came his satisfied reply. He looked over at her. 'Now, which way did you say we needed to go?'
She led the way and the Alastair followed dutifully, both keeping to the water's edge. It was slippery here, and the small stones liked to shift the moment Emelin put her full weight upon them, tripping her up even more. For Alastair, with four legs to balance on and enough mass to pin even the most slippery rock, the trek was no trouble. But Emelin kept stumbling and eventually was forced to give up and move higher up the bank, where the ground was more solid but muddier. Her boots fast became dirt-caked.
She grimaced. It was going to take hours to clean them off properly.
'If you'd like…' said Alastair, and he stop and extended one giant, clawed foot out towards her.
Emelin looked at it blankly. "What's this?"
'An offer, brave one.'
'A ride, of course. I noticed you are having difficulties.'
"A ride," she repeated. "You mean… on you?" Sleeping next to him at night was one thing; she could justify it. After all, He was warm and provided her better protection the most loyal and ferocious wolfhound. But to accept a ride from a dragon, even if it was Alastair…
'If you would rather not, that is fine,' he assured her, though he sounded just the faintest bit disappointed. It immediately made Emelin feel bad for doubting him. Trust. She had to remember to trust. He hadn't let her down yet, and if she was being honest with herself, the idea of being carried by a dragon sounded… not unappealing. On the contrary, a tiny thrill of excitement shot through her at the prospect.
"No, I would like a ride," she said.
Carefully, she stepped onto his clawed hand, crouching low so she didn't lose her balance as he lifted her. He held her up to his shoulder and she climbed onto his back—being careful not to step on his wings—and settled herself in the shallow dip between his shoulder blades. As always he felt incredibly warm, like sun-baked rocks. His skin here was softer, less scaly and more leathery like his wings, and it shifted beneath her in a smooth, rhythmic motion as he walked.
He didn't ask her any more questions, and the quiet between them was peaceful as Emelin relaxed. After a while, she grew comfortable enough to stretch out on her back. There was more than enough room and his wings protected her from tumbling off should she move too close to the edge.
I'm on a dragon right now, she marveled. Me, Emelin Cole, on a dragon. Father would have been beside himself to see…
But on the heels of that immediately came another, more disheartening thought. That Phillip would be beside himself too, though in an entirely different way…
Guilt pinched her, but she shook it off. It was just too bad if he didn't like it. It wasn't like he would find out about it anyway. She had snuck over yesterday to check in on him, and found his fever broken and him already up and about. Today he would be back out there training with Warrick. He wouldn't have time to catch her doing anything, and what her cousin didn't know wouldn't hurt him. She had enough troubles as it was without stressing over irrelevant issues.
Her conscience was almost, almost convinced.
She spent the rest of the trip on Alastair's back, basking in the sun and dozing. The river slowly shrunk until it was once again a mere stream. Trees thickened and crowded closer to the shore. Some were tall enough to arch above even Alastair, and their branches cast winking shadows over Emelin's closed eyelids.
She knew she should be coming up with plans, but it was hard when the day was so nice and the company even more so. She couldn't remember the last time she had been this content for so many consecutive days. Even when her father had still been alive, there had always been tension there, between him and her mother, and after that between her mother and her. Lately, she had even begun to feel it between her and Phillip, which was troubling. So being able to spend her time like this with someone who didn't argue with her, or judge her, and who seemed to genuinely enjoy her company… she wanted to soak it all in while she could.
Because as quiet as things were right now, it was an illusion that couldn't last. Though no more fires had been set, the perpetrator was still out there, and could strike again at any time. Then there was the king's royal knights, who would be preparing to leave if they were not already on their way. How in the world Emelin was supposed to stop them, she didn't know. And Alastair was no help. He refused to take the threat the knights posed seriously, no matter how many times she stressed the danger. And then of course there was—
Alastair abruptly dove into a crouch, right there in the middle of the stream. The action was smooth and sent water surging, first forward then back. Some of it got up his snout and he snorted. The spray came out hot and sizzled where it hit the rocks and trees.
"What is it?" Emelin whispered.
'Someone is in our camp. I can hear them searching around.'
"Could it be some sort of animal?"
'No, it's human. The sound of your kinds' walk is very distinctive.'
Emelin rolled onto her stomach and peeped over his shoulder, but the camp was still several yards ahead and the stream was a twisted thing. All that could be seen were trees. She couldn't hear anything.
No one should know where they were. She hadn't even told Phillip about her change in location. He still believed she was spending her nights alone in the cave at the apple grove.
"Can you smell them at all?" she asked quietly. "Enough to maybe recognize them?"
There was a long pause.
'I can't,' he said, and that deep voice in her head sounded almost embarrassed. 'I'm sorry. In truth, dragons have a very poor sense of smell.'
"Really?" That surprised her. With a nose his size, she'd just assumed he'd have an edge there. And not that she'd ever say it to his face, but technically, he was an animal, and didn't animals have better sense of smell than humans? "I wonder why that is."
'We think it has something to do with our ability to breath fire, as those of us without the gift pick up scents much better.' Alastair rose, sloshing water. It poured off his hide and left his scales shining. 'But now is not the time to discuss theories. We need to leave. Whoever is in our camp can find us too easily here.'
"No, wait!" said Emelin, "I need to see who it is."
People rarely came out this way. The game was too scarce in the area for hunters to bother with and thieves wouldn't waste time poking through a camp as bare as theirs. That made whoever it was suspicious, and anyone suspicious needed to be investigated. What if it was the fire starter come to look for her directly? This could be her best chance at confronting them.
Not waiting for help down, Emelin tossed a leg over Alastair's wing and slid down his side, kicking off from his elbow to land with a stagger in the shallower waters next to him. Not exactly graceful, but not bad for her first dismount off a dragon.
"You go," she told him. "I will check things out."
But he stayed standing there, gaze trained on the area ahead. 'I am loathe to give away my presence unnecessarily. However, the intentions of whoever has come are unknown. What if they mean you harm?' He looked down at her. 'Perhaps I should stay.'
His words made her still. As flattered as she was that he cared enough about her to worry for her safety, his concern put her on edge, and something hot ignited inside her heart. It was a familiar feeling, this angry burning, though it was the first time she had felt it with Alastair. If she had to put a name to it, she would call it despair.
How many arguments with Phillip had begun this exact same way, with him insisting to fight in her stead? Was it to be the same with Alastair too? Was it simply her destiny to be coddled by every male that came into her life, until she finally gave up and went to rot by the hearth? She had thought—hoped—that her dragon would be different.
Choosing her words carefully, she said in the calmest voice she could, "I appreciate your concern. However, if they're from the village, than seeing you will only cause both of us more problems, especially if we're seen together. My reputation is bad enough without people knowing I visit you willingly. And you—the less you're seen, the better." She shook her head. "No, it's best that I confront them alone. Odds are, it's no one I can't handle. You should go."
There was silence. Alastair remained standing there and Emelin could almost see the debate going on inside his mind. She prepared herself for his resistance, and the argument that was sure to follow. If he really pushed it, she hadn't a hope, because at the end of the day there was just no way to make a dragon do anything that it didn't want to do. But that didn't mean she wouldn't try her best to convince him—to make him see.
Striking on an idea, she met his gaze and held it. In his eyes, she looked strong and determined, and she did her best to match that shining image, so that he would see her, really see her, for the capable woman she wanted so much to be, if only she was given half a chance.
He didn't look away. It was like staring down a, well, a dragon.
And then in her mind she heard him: 'I understand.'
The flame inside her flared, sun-bright, and for a moment she felt emotionally blinded. Then it dimmed, condensing down until it hardened into a small, warm ember of emotion deep inside her heart, no longer despair but something else that was nearly as painful. Did he understand? Really? She looked harder into his eyes, trying to see past her reflection into what he might be feeling.
He looked solemnly back at her, and she thought he just might understand, in truth, and about more than just what she had been trying to tell him.
He dipped his head in clear sign of acquiescence and Emelin was overcome with… something. Gratitude. Happiness. Relief. She flung herself against his snout and wrapped her arms around as much of him as she could, pressing a kissing to the hot scales there.
"Thank you," she whispered.
He nudged her with the end of his nose, giving a rumbling sigh she felt all the way to her toes. 'Think nothing of it,' he told her. 'But… if you should have need of me…'
She stepped back and smiled at him. "I'll call."
She waited until he had retreated before sloshing her way forward through the water. When she reached the last bend that would take her into camp, she carefully picked her way out of the stream and up into the tree line, using the fatter bushes as cover. She debated taking out her dagger, but decided to wait until she saw who it was. Unarmed meant less threatening, and she didn't want to risk drawing her weapon and spooking whomever it was into an instant attack if they saw her.
She crept up behind the rotten branches of a dead spruce tree and peeked around. Her uninvited guest had his back to her, but the shiny mail and short dark hair immediately gave him away.
Emelin experienced a moment of terror as she thought of how close Alastair had come to running into the royal knight. Thank god he had listened to her!
Sir Robert's hands rested on his hips and his head was lowered. Lost in thought, perhaps?
But then he cocked his head slightly to the right, and then to the left, and Emelin realized he wasn't lost about anything.
He was inspecting the ground.
The exact bit of ground where Alastair liked to sleep.
She tried to reassure herself that he couldn't possibly tell such a thing; it was just a coincidence. Alastair's tail acted like a natural broom, sweeping away in his wake any tracks or claw marks that he made, and Emelin had made sure to pluck all the branches he had bent and broken from the trees before leaving that morning. The only thing remaining was the charred remains of her fire, some extra wood, and the leftovers from last night's meal. Nothing that said a dragon had stayed there.
And yet, there could be no denying that the knight was studying the ground. If it had been anyone else—Garrick or even Warrick, for instance—she wouldn't have worried so much. Garrick was easily led astray and Warrick, despite his ruthlessness, did not have much actual experience with dragons from what she'd heard. Sent fresh from his knighting to the village, he may possess the skills but he hardly knew how to apply them.
Sir Robert on the other hand… he was a royal knight who hunted dragons for a living. And who had successfully been tracking one for months—if not Alastair than another that had passed by this way. She couldn't afford to underestimate him.
First thing first. She needed to get his attention off that bit of ground.
Emelin debated her options, but decided the simplest thing to do was to just reveal herself. He wasn't after her. At least, not yet. And if she was good at anything, it was being a distracting nuisance. Phillip always said so.
She stepped out from behind the tree, purposely crunching down on a few fallen twigs to make sure Sir Robert heard.
He whirled around, hand going to the hilt of his sword in one well-trained movement. They locked eyes and Emelin forced a smile, as if finding him searching through her camp was a pleasant surprise.
When he saw it was her, he let go of his weapon immediately and bowed. "Apologies, my lady. You startled me."
His polite manner made her just as uncomfortable as it had before. She plucked at her wet skirts in a semblance of a return curtsy and replied, "I could say the same."
He straightened, and she saw the dart of his eyes as he took in her state. Besides her soaked clothes, her boots were muddy and her hair hung loose. Since her only company these past few days had been that of a dragon, she hadn't felt the need to braid it back, and it tumbled in a messy wave of gold over her shoulders and down her back. She was, if anything, even more of a mess than the first time they had met.
Thankfully, he ignored it just as politely as he had the first time.
He gestured to the area at large. "Is this your camp then?"
To deny it when the truth was so obvious would only worsen any suspicions he already had of her. If she said no, whether or not he suspected a dragon of also hanging around, she would look guilty.
So instead she admitted, as innocently as she could, "It is."
"I thought as much," he said. He looked around, taking it all in again. "Though forgive me, but I can't resist asking why. Living exposed in such dangerous woods… I hate to think of a maiden such as yourself having to resort to such desperate measures. Even with things beings as they currently are in the village, surely you would be safer staying at home? Can your cousin not be called upon to help you? I was under the impression that you were on good terms with him."
Emelin didn't want Sir Robert to think badly of Phillip. But she also didn't want the knight equating her actions to those of her innocent relative. If things ended badly, she need to be sure nobody could draw any connections to her cousin or the rest of her family.
"It's a bit… complicated," she told him. "We are not that close, though neither is our relationship poor. My staying out here has nothing to do with him."
Sir Robert regarded her steadily. Emelin bit her lip to keep from making more excuses and giving away too much. Or just as bad, appearing as if she had something to fear giving away.
At length, he said, "I suppose that must be true. Considering your cousin allows you to live on your own, if there was such a problem between the two of you, I would think you would be able to take refuge there easily enough."
The questions in that were inherent, but Emelin pretended not to pick up on any of them. So he had heard about her abnormal living arrangements, had he? It appeared the villagers were telling him more than just about the fires. It was only to be expected, given their distrust of her. Her real concern lied in how much doubt they'd managed to plant in the mind of the royal knight.
But if he was turning against her, she could find no sign of it, neither in his posture nor in his expression. He faced her fully, body relaxed, wearing that oddly wide smile of his. He looked curious, of course. And there was still that same friendly concern there, in the pinch of his brow. But that was all. Hardly signs of dark intentions.
When her only response to his not-questions was a vague smile, he continued easily, "But then as you said, your cousin is not the issue. I can only assume that means you seek escape from your fellow villagers. Are you not safe from them at either home? Must you hide out here? I knew you were having problems, but if it's to such an extent…"
"I'm not out here because I fear them," she said. "But remaining in a place where they can come and collect me as they wish is foolish. Besides, I have another good reason for coming out here."
"You do?" The knight's curiosity was almost palpable now. When she nodded and crooked a finger at him, he actually leaned forward to hear.
Emelin made a show of looking around her, as if she were afraid of being overheard. Sir Robert too quickly scanned the area before directing his full attention back on her.
Lowering her voice, she whispered, "I'm looking for the one who set the fires."
The knight straightened with a jerk. He frowned, his entire brow scrunching in confusion. "Do you mean to say you are looking for the dragon as well?"
She shook her head. "No. That's the thing." Again she cast a cautious look around. Lowering her voice even more, she said, "I'm not convinced that the one who burned the crops is a dragon."
"You're not?" Saying he was stunned was probably overstating it. But she had definitely taken him aback.
"Couldn't a person have done it just as easily?" she asked. "And there any number of people who would like to see me gone. I know you said you followed a dragon here, but since arriving, have you so much as glimpsed sight of one?"
"I… No, I can't say that I have yet…" Sir Robert admitted slowly.
Emelin nodded, pretending to feel sure and knowing. It was risk, telling him her theory. But letting him into her confidences at least this much was safe enough, and it couldn't hurt having two people on the lookout for the fire starter. Confiding to him could also help her gain more of his trust. If he believed she trusted him, he might very well give her the same courtesy. Best of all, she hoped, it would get him off his search of Alastair.
But then he sighed and shook his head, and she knew that at least one of those things was not to be.
"An interesting take," he said. "But alas, I have to disagree. I've seen enough destroyed fields over the years to know the difference between those burned by man-made fire and those burned by a dragon's flame."
"There's a difference?" said Emelin in surprise. She'd never heard of such a thing. "How can you tell?"
"The precision. The burn line of the crops is too perfect. Did you notice?"
Emelin had, though she hadn't known it was proof of anything. Merely that it was odd.
She nodded reluctantly.
"Only a dragon can direct fire with such skill," said Sir Robert. "If burning things was an art, dragons would be the masters of it."
But if a dragon was responsible for the field, then…
"Furthermore!" continued Sir Robert loudly, as enthusiastic about his explanation as she'd been with her theory, "while I may not have caught sight of the dragon yet, signs of its presence are everywhere."
Wary, Emelin asked. "There are?"
He nodded and his gaze fell. Emelin suffered a moment of panic where she was sure he was going to point out evidence of Alastair's sleeping spot, proving her guilty on the spot. But almost immediately he looked back up again, smile returning in full bloom, and with a wave of his hand he led her away, down to the stream. She followed quickly. Anything to be away from the camp.
He knelt and gestured for her to do the same. He pulled off a glove. "Your hand, my lady," he said.
With a questioning glance, she gave it to him. His hand was hot and heavily calloused as it closed around her wrist. With a deft pull, he stuck her fingertips into the water.
"What are you—!"
"This water runs directly from the mountains," said Sir Robert, "and yet the temperature is abnormal, is it not?"
"A-a little," stuttered Emelin. It was more than a little. Thanks to Alastair's impromptu bath, the normally icy stream was as warm as a puddle after a summer shower. She felt thrown. He had disproved her theory in one deft shot and now this?
Sir Robert let go of her hand. She withdrew it from the stream immediately. She felt burned even though logically she knew the water hadn't been that hot.
It seemed she had underestimated the royal knight after all.
"Dragon's naturally produce an excess of heat," he explained to her, unaware of her upset. "For the most part, it's an asset to them. It protects them from the elements, enhances their defensive abilities, and makes them living—not to mention devastating—weapons. But that heat can also build up to dangerous levels if they don't expel it regularly, and doing that in a way that doesn't draw attention isn't as easy as you would think. So water sources like this one are popular with dragons, because it's a place where they can safely release that heat without revealing their location or causing any fires. There is only one giveaway."
The warmer water.
He met her gaze. His grin had turned fierce and there was a wild light in his eyes that scared her. He smacked the rippling surface of the stream with his palm. Emelin flinched at the splash it made.
"A dragon is using this river," he said to her. "Often and very close to here. You're lucky you haven't run into it."
"Yes," mumbled Emelin. "Lucky."
He stood slipped his glove back on, then held out his hand for her. She took it in a daze and he pulled her up.
He didn't let go.
"Now," he said. "How about that drink?"