A low moan escaped from the new drake as Mudge helped Benit drag him down the aisle to the last cell. Part of Mudge pitied the man. He was most likely guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having the wrong reaction to being sliced open with an iron blade.
Still, a feral gleam lurked behind the exhaustion in the creature’s pale green eyes as they followed Mudge, serving as a reminder that this was not just a man; it was a dragon. And letting an angry dragon run loose in Shrike’s Hollow would be beyond foolish. The guards were right to bring him in.
The dragon made no sound as they tied him, spread-eagled, to the inside of the bars, but he twitched when his skin contacted the iron, and all his muscles went hard. He had the lean, ropy muscles of a fighter. And he was big. Bigger than the other dragons. Certainly bigger than Mudge.
Mudge was abruptly grateful for the strong ropes that now secured the dragon—by ankles, wrists, and elbows—to the iron bars, because it seemed extremely unlikely that this creature would hold politely still while a dungeon keeper worked him over.
But first things first. With the dragon secured, Mudge took Benit into the workroom and checked the guard’s injuries before sending him off with a list of needed supplies for the quartermaster and a message for the cook.
As soon as Benit was gone, Mudge dumped Pip into his rat basket by the fire, drew water from the small well in the corner of the workroom and, fighting back the urge to vomit, scrubbed away every last trace of that filthy murderer’s blood. If only scrubbing could wash away the memory of the horrible triumphant cackling while the man tried to snuff Mudge’s life out, the sudden gush of blood, and the sickening pop of the finger joint giving way.
Mudge shuddered. One thing was certain: if any of the fleas that had been gnawing on that piece of human sewage turned up anywhere on Mudge’s body, the new night overseer was going to have a lot more to worry about than the tincture of blister nettle that may or may not have already found its way into the odious man’s wash water. New guards always seemed to think the rules didn’t apply to them. And new overseers were even worse.
When even the taste of blood was thoroughly washed away, Mudge put a small copper pot filled with water on the fire to heat, then took a basin of cold water out to the aisle between the cells and scrubbed away the smears and spatters of blood the encounter had left on the dungeon floor. The drake’s prolonged retching fit had resulted in only a few pitiful stains of bile mixed with blood. How long had it been since he’d eaten?
Mudge sluiced the whole mess down the small, grated drain in the middle of the floor and went back to fish the copper pot out of the fire, collect some rags and tools, and see about Rolf.
Rolf watched warily over his shoulder as Mudge set the pot on the stone floor, unrolled the leather toolkit, carefully laid out knives, needles, and other necessaries on one of the rags, and dipped another rag in the water. Rolf seemed younger than Stig, though Mudge wasn’t sure exactly why; according to Grandfather, all adult dragons looked between about twenty and forty years old, and Mudge’s experience was certainly bearing that out.
Perhaps it was because Stig had said he knew Rolf’s father. Or maybe it was something in the way they moved. Stig’s movements were always efficient and somewhat languid, as if he’d seen everything there was to see and didn’t get too excited about much of anything. Even tied up, Rolf moved as if he were brimming with energy held carefully under control, but always on the verge of breaking free. Of course, that might be because he’d just been captured and thrown in a dungeon. Still, he seemed younger.
When Mudge reached between the bars to dab at the blood that had run down Rolf’s back from the long laceration just below his shoulder blade, the drake flinched, but he stood rigid and silent while Mudge finished wiping away the blood and examined the wound itself. It was still bleeding, though not much, and seemed relatively shallow; if properly cleaned and stitched, it should heal well enough. Assuming the dragon lived that long—which was unlikely.
Mudge went back to the workroom for a collar and a pouch of herbs to put in the water. Then he took up a curved bone pick and began teasing bits of debris out of the injury.
Rolf drew a sharp breath, perhaps in pain, then let it out slowly and said, “What are you doing?”
“Cleaning your wound,” Mudge answered quietly.
The drake thought that over, then cautiously asked, “Why?”
“Because if I stitch it up with all that dirt and grass in there, it’s going to fester.” Mudge sighed. “And because it will keep Benit from sticking his cudgel in it again. If he does that after I feed you, it’ll make a mess.”
The thick cords of muscle on Rolf’s back shifted under Mudge’s fingers as he twisted against the ropes, trying to see his keeper’s face. “You’re serious.”
Mudge dug a small pebble out of the seeping gash. “About what?”
The muscles relaxed slightly and then began to spasm rhythmically as Rolf turned again to face forward. It took Mudge a moment to realize Rolf was laughing.
The dragon’s shoulders shook harder. “No.” His voice had an edge of hysteria to it. “Not funny. It’s just been a very long day and . . .” He gulped air and leaned his head back against the bars, trying to stop the manic reaction. “And . . .” He gasped through clenched teeth as his body stilled. He drew one more deep breath, and when he spoke this time, his voice had control in it again. “And with all those little blades and skewers, and me trussed up like this, I thought you had something different in mind.”
Mudge worked in silence for a while, then said quietly, “Not today, Rolf. And not by my hand. But that will come. The Thane is away just now, and the Thanesson won’t interfere with his father’s prisoners. But when the Thane comes back, he’ll want to know what brings three dragons to town in the same week. The Thane is a fair man, for the most part, but a hard one, and he knows better than to turn things like you loose once you’ve been in here. And his questioner is quite good at extracting information.”
Rolf grunted as Mudge scraped out a bloody clump of dried mud and dung that looked as if it had come off the bottom of someone’s boot.
Mudge ignored him and went on. “You have maybe two weeks until the Thane gets back. Maybe another week after that, depending on how well you fare under interrogation and whether you or your friend breaks first. And then you’ll talk. And then they’ll kill you.”
“Then why are you fixing me?” Rolf asked, his voice now a low rumble.
Mudge snorted a bitter laugh and picked several blades of grass from the wound. “Practice. I like you, Rolf. You’ve got pluck. But don’t get your hopes up. You’re going to die. They put people in here to die. That’s what this place is for.”
“Stig seems healthy enough,” Rolf pointed out. “And unless I’m mistaken, he’s been here a good while; he has hair.”
“And trousers,” muttered the other dragon from the cell across the aisle.
Mudge laughed. “Yes, well, Stig is a special case. He was my first dragon, back when I was still an apprentice—how long has it been, Stig? Four years? Five?
“I bought Stig off the Thane with some money my mother left me. I pay half my salary to board him here. When the company is no longer worth more to me than the coin, I’ll stop paying, and they’ll kill him too; it wouldn’t do to have a vengeful dragon roaming the countryside. But I can’t afford two such pets.”
Rolf snorted. “Five years in an iron dungeon? I think I’d rather die.”
“You will.” Mudge scraped the pick along the bottom of the laceration, gathering small bits of grit.
Rolf squirmed. There was a flap of tissue at one edge of the wound that would need to be trimmed so it didn’t putrefy.
Mudge reached for the smallest of the knives. The blade was iron; nothing else held a proper edge. “This is going to hurt. Try to hold still.”
The dragon’s strong back muscles braced for the pain, but when the iron blade touched the exposed muscle tissue, Rolf convulsed anyway, straining against the ropes. Mudge worked quickly, but Rolf kept flinching, making it difficult to aim properly, and by the time the excision was complete, the dragon was retching again, and his skin was slick with sweat.
After a few panting moments, Rolf muttered, “Not today, Mudge?” A bitter chuckle. “I hope you’ll at least have the decency to wait until I’m dead before you skin me.”
Something in the tone of it made Mudge glance up. Rolf’s grim gaze was fixed over his shoulder on something in the workroom. Turning, Mudge realized that from this cell Rolf had a clear view of the dissection on the table.
“Someone you know?” Mudge asked.
Rolf said nothing.
But the dead one had been brought in with the live one across the way—the one Rolf had gone to for help during his fight with Benit. Those two clearly knew each other, so the dead one was probably Rolf’s friend too. Mudge worked for a few more minutes in increasingly heavy silence, then murmured, “He was already dead when they brought him in. There was nothing I could do for him. I’m sorry.”
Rolf twisted slightly, apparently trying to get a better view of Mudge’s face.
Mudge ducked down to get another wet rag and waited until Rolf turned away again before straightening and squeezing a trickle of water into the wound. “Sometimes I take the dead ones apart so I can figure out how to put the living ones back together. I’ve not had many dragons to work with.”
The truth was, the dragon on the table was the first one Mudge had ever dissected. But Rolf didn’t need to know that.
Mudge drenched the wound thoroughly with the herbed water and then prodded it with a finger, feeling for any remaining debris, before smearing on a thin layer of the liniment that helped stave off fever. “Hold still while I stitch this up.
“Stig? Earn your keep. Some music to pass the time. Or a story. We have dragons in the dungeon tonight; you never tell me any dragon stories.”
“A dragon story.” Stig was quiet for a moment.
When he spoke again, his voice held a soft, dreamlike quality that seemed somehow to penetrate even the stone of the dungeon. “’Twas in the long-ago times, before the fall of the faekind and the Breaking of the World.”
Mudge sorted through the bone needles for one with the right curve to it. Was this how a dragon sounded when he used compulsion on a person—assuming there wasn’t any iron around to stop his magic from working?
Stig’s hypnotic voice went on. “The dark alfkin—the dwarrows—held peace in their mountain strongholds, and the bright alfkin lived quietly in their woodlands. The yotun dreamed in their rocky coves by the western sea, and the deadlands in the north and the firelands of the south were still.
“The kingdoms of men filled the plains, and the Free People, the Ratatosk, poled their barge-towns up and down the waters of the great river Drasil like squirrels dashing up and down the trunk of a tree. And beyond the Edge of the World, in the mountains north of the river, south of the ice, east of the sea, and west of the grasslands, dwelt the Vanir—the dragonfolk—and all save the faekind feared them, for the working of iron was not yet known.”
The quiet in the dungeon had taken on a vibrating, breathless quality, and Rolf’s muscles relaxed a bit under the spell, allowing Mudge to feel the faint trembling that betrayed the dragon’s deep exhaustion.
“In the Westlands, out on the plains, old King Arech sat upon the throne, with his elder son Hartwen at his right hand and his younger son Lebewen at his left. Four daughters he had married to the princes of the kingdoms, but a fifth, the youngest and most beautiful, remained a maid. Suitors came from near and far to vie for the hand of Emelyn, but she would have none of them. At last, King Arech grew weary of love-struck princes wandering through his lands and decreed that Emelyn must choose a husband before the new moon, or she’d have a husband chosen for her.”
Mudge frowned. “This doesn’t sound like a dragon story.”
Stig chuckled. “You must be patient, young Mudge.”
Mudge heaved a long-suffering sigh, and Stig continued. “It was at about this time that a dragon came into the Westlands—a fearsome black beast with eyes the color of emeralds, and teeth as sharp as swords, and wings like the breath of nightmares.”
“What color are you, Stig?” Mudge interrupted again. “When you’re a real dragon, I mean.”
Stig was silent a moment before answering. “I am always a real dragon, Mudge. And it hardly matters what I look like when I ascend, as that magic is lost to me here, where I will die, as you say, when you tire of my songs and stories.”
Mudge didn’t quite know what to say.
Stig didn’t wait for a reply. “The prince of the Fengard Dunes went out to slay the beast, swearing an oath that when he returned he would lay its head at Emelyn’s feet and thereby win her love. But the prince of the Fengard Dunes did not return. The prince of Kraggen Keep was known through all the kingdoms of men for his prodigious strength and his unquestionable bravery, and it was he who next rode out to challenge the black dragon. But the prince of Kraggen Keep did not return.
“Whispers began to circulate through the kingdom that this dragon was no ordinary young wilding seeking a territory of his own, but one of the Nine Dragonlords of the Vanir, come to waste the Westlands and carry its treasure off to his mountain lair. The king sent twelve of his best knights out to rid the kingdom of this plague beast. But the knights did not return.”
Mudge threaded the needle with plied horsehair—the dragon wouldn’t live long, so there was no use wasting good spider silk on him—and pushed the edges of the gash together.
Stig’s voice grew softer, more intense. “On the night before the new moon, the king and his court heard a roaring voice calling from the courtyard like the sound of the churning ocean, ‘Ho, King Arech! Show your face, you miserable wretch. You hide behind your stone walls and think they will keep you safe while you send your puny princes and knights out to fight your battles for you. If you would slay Grafoldaur the Drake you must face me yourself, king to king!’ For the rumors were true; this was no ordinary dragon. Nor was he of the Nine. This was the Drake himself, king of all the dragonfolk, mightiest of his kind.
“King Arech knew he would die if he faced this dragon in battle, but what else was he to do? He must stand, and fight, and die like the king he was. Solemnly, he placed his crown upon the head of Hartwen, his heir, took up his spear and a shield he had of dwarrow make, and called for his squire to bring his armor.”
“That doesn’t sound very smart,” said Mudge.
“He was a human.” Stig paused and cleared his throat before he went on. “The black dragon crouched in the courtyard with the light from the last sliver of the waning moon glinting off his scales and gleaming from his emerald eyes. A deep chuckle rumbled in his throat, and his claws struck sparks from the paving stones. Dread settled in the king’s royal heart.”
The bone needle stuck in Rolf’s skin, and the young drake hissed as Mudge forced it through.
Stig sighed. “I’m trying to tell a story, Mudge. Be gentle with the boy.”
“Sorry. Please do go on.”
Stig grunted and went on. “As the king stood in the courtyard waiting for death, another figure strode from the castle keep, small and slim and beautiful. The princess walked right up to the king of the dragons and looked him in the eye. ‘I am Emelyn, youngest daughter of Arech, King of the Westlands. Are you truly Grafoldaur the Drake,’ she demanded, ‘Lord of the Vanir and High King Among the Mountains?’
“The dragon had been ready for a battle and was rather taken aback by this development. He leaned down to examine this woman who was so bold as to speak to a dragon. ‘Oh yes, little princess, I most assuredly am.’
“‘Ah, great king,’ said Emelyn, ‘then I must conclude that you have come, like the other kings and princes, to seek my hand in marriage. Your prowess in battle and your daring speech to my father have impressed me; for doubtless you have heard the tales of my father’s skill as a warrior and know that should you face him, you must surely die. Therefore, I am prepared to consider your suit, and I offer terms upon which I shall be induced to accept you as my husband.’
“No woman had ever spoken to the Drake in this manner before. In those days, dragons mostly acquired their women by abducting them, or demanding them as sacrifice; they didn’t bother speaking with them much beforehand. For a moment, he considered eating her before he killed her father, but her daring speech had surprised and amused him, and he was curious as to what terms she might offer for marriage to a dragon, so he decided to play along. ‘I am prepared to hear your terms, little princess,’ he announced, just to find out what she’d say.
“Emelyn did not hesitate, even for a moment. ‘My terms are these,’ she declared. ‘First, you must never use your dragon charm on me; I will come to you willingly or not at all. Second, you must marry me before the court as befits a royal princess, and I must be your queen. You shall have no other women while I am your wife. Third, our sons will be heirs to your kingdom, but our daughters must be returned to the Westlands where I was born. These are my terms. Should you accept, my father shall call for a feast in honor of our betrothal. Should you decline, he shall chop off your head, for I have offered no terms to another king or prince, and he will not suffer refusal to go unanswered.’
“If Grafoldaur the Drake had never been accosted by a princess before, he had certainly never been threatened by one. Yet he found himself drawn to this small woman, whose hair gleamed black in the light of the dying moon, and whose eyes sparked with defiance. ‘Very well, little princess.’ He chuckled into the night. ‘I accept your terms and shall return at noon tomorrow to claim my bride before your court.’ And with that, he launched himself on ebon wings into the night sky, and the roars of his laughter rolled across the plains for leagues around.
“The next day, the dragon returned, and such a wedding you never did see. Grafoldaur honored the terms he’d agreed to and found that a willing wife was much more entertaining than charmed chattel. Emelyn bore no daughters, but she bore two sons, both with their father’s strength of body and their mother’s strength of will. They grew to take honored places among the Nine Dragonlords of the Vanir. And Emelyn was happy all her days with the husband she chose for herself.”
Mudge mulled this over for a minute. “Did you know them, Stig?”
Stig sighed. “Did I know whom?”
“Grafoldaur and Emelyn and their sons. I thought dragons lived forever.”
“It only seems that way some days.” Stig’s chuckle held an edge of bitterness. “A dragon does not age once he reaches maturity. And a woman who creates a true marriage with a dragon—not merely a superficial agreement born of mutual affection, mind you, but a catalytic relationship that awakens the deep magic in both of them and binds the two as one—that woman will draw life from her husband, as he draws strength from his wife, and she will not age either. So dragons and their wives can live a very long time. But not even the eldest of us goes back that far, and I am not the eldest. There are many things to die from that have nothing to do with age—illness, accident, farmers with iron pitchforks, the odd knight on a quest, battling with a rival over territory or mates.” He sighed. “The boredom of a young dungeon keeper.”
Clearly, Stig was working himself into one of his moods. But he so rarely talked about dragons that Mudge couldn’t help pushing just a little more. “Do you have a wife, Stig?”
Stig’s silence dragged on for so long that Mudge almost thought he wasn’t going to answer.
But then he said softly, “I did have. Now . . . I don’t know. She might be dead. I cannot feel the bond anymore, but I don’t know if that is because of the iron, or because . . .” He sighed again. “We parted badly. I wish . . .” He stopped talking.
“Stig?” Mudge tested.
“I’d rather not talk about it.” Stig retreated to the back of his cell, obviously wanting to be left alone.
Mudge tugged the last knot secure on the suture and severed the thread. “What about you, Rolf? Do you have a wife?”
“I don’t want to talk about it either,” said Rolf grimly. “Do you have a wife, Mudge?”
Mudge scoffed. “Who’d marry me? What about you, other dragon? You have a wife?”
After a moment of silence, the dragon across the aisle said, “Why does he get a name, and I don’t?”
Mudge snorted a laugh. “He fought. I thought he deserved a name, even if it wasn’t his own. But you can tell me your name if you want to.”
“Give my name to an enemy?” He sounded appalled at the thought.
“Have it your way, Other Dragon.” Mudge began cleaning minor scrapes and lacerations and poking at clusters of spreading bruises. Rolf had been thoroughly trounced by the guards who took him, but most of it would heal well enough on its own. If he lived long enough. A prod at the spot where Benit had kicked him in the ribs made Rolf wince and grunt.
The Other Dragon said, “I don’t see any point in getting married. I can have any woman I want as a mate, for as long as I want her, and when I get tired of her, I can move on. Or I can have more than one mate at a time if I want. If I married a woman, I’d be stuck with just her until she died. Even if I didn’t bond with her, I could still be tied to one woman for decades of my life, watching her get old and shriveled. What if I met someone else I liked better, and the first one wouldn’t agree to divorce? And if I did bond with her, she’d be able to sense where I was and what mood I was in—all the time. And I wouldn’t be able to compel her anymore. And she would literally suck my life right out of me. Why would anyone in his right mind do that to himself on purpose?”
“Enough!” Stig’s voice held a tone of command that not even Mudge wanted to argue with.
Silence thickened the air in the dungeon until Rolf asked, “Are you finished?”
Mudge frowned. “I think you may have a broken rib. It would be best if I checked your lungs, especially with all that retching you’ve been doing. But I’d have to go in there to do it properly, and . . . well . . . that seems unwise.”
“I’m tied up.”
“I’m sure that’s what Benit thought, too, right before you knocked him down and smashed his nose.”
Rolf chuckled softly. “I’ll tell you what, Mudge. If you promise not to stick iron in me when you come in, I promise not to eat you.”
Mudge thought about this. In the end, the enticement of actually listening to the inner workings of a living dragon’s lungs won out. There would probably never be another opportunity. Stig would certainly never stand for such a thing. Locking a creature in a cage was not the same thing as domesticating it. Mudge collected a few things from the workroom and stopped by the dissection table to double check the correct size and positioning of the lungs—which was pointless since in this form dragons were virtually indistinguishable from humans, even on the inside. Cautiously, Mudge twisted the key in the lock and swung open the section of bars that formed the door to Rolf’s cell.
For some reason, Rolf looked bigger without the bars between them, or Benit holding on to him. But if this thing was going to happen, it wouldn’t do to show fear. Mudge set the supplies on the cell’s stone ledge and moved to stand in front of Rolf. Several small scrapes had left trickles of blood down the drake’s broad chest, and Mudge began by cleaning those up—at least that procedure could be done at arm’s length. Rolf watched without comment. Then Mudge prodded the dragon’s ribs again. It had been hard to tell from the back how far around the bruising went. Rolf flinched.
Mudge nodded. “That one. Cracked at the very least.”
More prodding. Rolf gritted his teeth.
After a moment, Mudge added, “Don’t think it’s broken through, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.”
Mudge showed Rolf the listening horn, set the wide end against the dragon’s chest, stepped closer, and leaned down to listen at the narrow end. The heat of Rolf’s skin warmed Mudge’s cheek. The drake smelled of blood, and herbs, and drying sweat . . . and something richer and more wild. But the breath sounds Mudge heard were normal, as was the insistent beating of the dragon’s heart.
The action felt, abruptly, far too intimate, as if these were sounds only the dragon’s lover should hear. Mudge’s heart pounded faster. This was much too close to get to a dragon. Best get this over with quickly. Shifting the horn down and to the side, Mudge bent to listen closer to the site of the injury. That was even worse. But the breath sounds were normal.
Mudge straightened, swallowed hard, and turned back to the stone ledge to avoid looking Rolf in the eye. “Does it hurt when you breathe?”
Rolf didn’t answer, and at last, Mudge turned to look at him.
Rolf frowned. “You say I am to be questioned and expect me to tell you what hurts?”
“Right. Sorry. Well, I think you’re going to be all right.” Mudge looked down. “At least . . . until you’re not.”
“You’re finished, then?” Rolf asked.
“Only one more thing.” Mudge held up the iron collar. “Everybody gets one. It’s the rules.”
“Of course it is.” Rolf’s deep voice held bitter resignation.
“It would be easier to put it on from this side, but I can go back out and place it from the back if you think you’ll feel obligated to smash my face in with your forehead or something.”
Rolf thought this over. “If I hold still, will you untie me?”
“Yes,” said Mudge. “But not until I’m back outside.”
“Done,” said Rolf.
Mudge stepped close again, heart thumping with fear and that unsettling sense of intimacy, and closed the dwarrow-worked collar around the dragon’s neck, settling it against his collar bones like a torc. “It won’t come off until I take it off. That’s what the runes are for.”
“And by then, I will be dead,” Rolf said solemnly.
“Probably,” said Mudge.
Rolf’s lips drew back in a slow grin, showing double canine teeth on both sides. “You are an odd little man, Mudge.”
Mudge swallowed hard and backed up. “That’s a very popular opinion.”