Aljex Seedsdigger

Aljex Seedsdigger, formerly Korantherexanthlen

Korantherexanthlen nearly spilled his cup of honey-mint tea in his hurry to put it down safely. “The Jades are being attacked?” he repeated, shocked. Cannolly, his human maid and close friend, nodded.

“Lucerox. Your eyes in the North just sent word.” And although Cannolly seemed done, she hesitated, as if there were more.

“What is it?” Korantherexanthlen demanded.

“It’s—Meiakdkalenelkzkai and Derisaklakenaliclan. They both had their first clutches recently. The wyrmlings aren’t hatched yet, so they have to fight.” Cannolly’s normally cheerful face was set with worry lines. Koranth cursed.

“Stay hidden until my return. Tell my sister that mine is hers if I don’t return.” Before the girl could protest, Koranth was out of the room and polymorphing back into his natural form. Seconds later, he was in the air.

Although it was rare that silvers and jades shared territories, there was a place which suited them both. Koranth had grown up there, his mother raising her wyrmlings in the highest peaks of the forested mountains near the sea. His mother’s territory had neighbored by both jade and silver territories, and fortunately their neighbors had been friendly, even if the jades were rather loners. About a decade after he and his sister had hatched, the jades had clutched and Meiakdkalenelkzkai had been laid. They’d been partners in mischief for a long while, until it’d been time to strike out on their own. Koranth had flown inland, while Meiakdkalenelkzkai had stayed near the shore. He hadn’t heard from her since she’d written to tell him she’d found a mate.

But then, since Lucerox, it’d been harder to keep in touch with anyone. If his sister hadn’t held a neighboring territory, he’d probably have lost contact with her, too. Their parents were beyond contacting, having been killed by greedy treasure hunters long ago. He sighed, sadness in his heart weighing down his wingstrokes.

Even flying at top speed with the wind to his back, it was nearly an hour before he arrived. He didn’t have to get close to see the destruction. The once verdant forest smoked in great, ashy chunks. The sea rocks below were coated with char and pitted with acid-melted holes. A lump of frustrated certainty grew in his throat. Somehow, he doubted he’d find survivors. There weren’t even any lingering combantants waiting to ambush him.

Nevertheless, he conducted a thorough sweep of the area. He encountered several bodies, both red and jade. None would ever rise again, short of resurrection. With forboding, he slipped into the one lair he knew how to find: Mei’s. With memories nearly 150 years old, he found the entrance and navigated the tunnels.

Nothing remained. The treasure room was empty, vaguely surprising considering the amount it had held and the time that the enemy had had, but not all that surprising after all. The eggs weren’t here, either. He’d hoped Mei had hidden them, but no such luck. There was… nothing.

Three hours later found a lone man standing beside two large mounds. Of Mei, her mate, and the eggs he’d found nothing. Tears rolled down his cheeks, his human-shaped hands placing the final small stone atop the head-pile. It was a long time before the final tear fell.

A gentle cruch in the sandy soil told him of a presence nearby. He didn’t bother to look up. The hesitance of the footsteps told him enough.

“My lord?” a wavering but masculine voice whispered.

“What?” he snarled, in no mood for interruption.

“My lord, the- the great one that fought my lady went inland.” The human boy froze as Koranth’s red-rimmed eyes suddenly focused on him with full attention.

“Did you see it?”

“N-n-no, My Lord, we hid in the village. We couldn’t… we would’ve all been killed-“ the boy babbled, frightened into trying to justify his fear.

“You would have been an idiot to fight,” Koranth interrupted, feeling pity through his anger. “But did you see which way their murderer fled?”

“Yes,” the boy swallowed. “He followed the Raithentor road. He flew, but he followed it. His men talked about it as they passed through our village to follow. They were quick.” Koranth stared at the boy. The Raithentor road. It couldn’t be! He rose.

“You did well,” he said, then ran up the stones of the mound, launching himself into the sky at the top, his arms stretching into wings and his body lengthening. Lucerox was headed home—to his home.

In his mind, he had known it would be too late before he arrived. In his mind, he wasn’t surprised to find nothing of his home but ashes and a single charred corpse. But his heart wasn’t ready for the shock of seeing what remained of Connolly—poor, cheerful, beautiful, kind Connolly. He did not stop to bury her yet. There was still one thing Lucerox could still take from him.

The cold wind whipped against his wings; the icy clouds carressed his face. He banked around the mountaintop, rolling himself to the other side wherein his sister’s lair lay. A piece of him begged that the quiet skies were an ambush. Never had his sister not greeted him before now. If Lucerox remained nearby, there was a chance for revenge. If the demon-dragon was not waiting to kill him, too—there were no witnesses here on this peak to learn of Lucerox’s whereabouts.

Koranth waited, banking and diving in a motion no attacker could have resisted. Nothing. He went inside.

By the time he found her, he knew his hope for revenge was gone. No, Lucerox had come and gone long ago. She was in her favorite human form, spine broken. She hadn’t known Lucerox had been coming. The broken spear, still faintly scented of magic, beside her limp form told him that though she’d been caught by surprise, she hadn’t gone quietly. Why hadn’t she polymorphed back, though?

He picked up her body gently. The thong around her neck slid, and the silver claw she always wore fell out of her shirt. He paused, staring at it, as memory surged into him.

*****

A tall silver dragon flapped her wings against the air, landing in the middle of the entrance cave. Her forelegs were filled with one of the wildebeasts which she kept to feed her wyrmlings. As she landed, the pair scrambled over to her. They were her first clutch, and with silver dragons, that usually meant a very small clutch. There were only two in this set.

“Mama, what happened to your claw?” Jeikhrenortrethnia asked, looking at the large dragon’s foreleg, where the tip of one claw ended abruptly.

“Well, it seems I broke it,” Mother answered kindly. “But look—here it is.” She held out the clawtip to her youngling. The silver sythe shone in the light of the cave, sharp and menacing. Jeikhrenortrethnia cooed over it.

“It’s so pretty!” She reached out to touch it. “Can I have it?”

Mother laughed. “Well! Already starting a collection of your own! But we should start you with something better than this. Come on.” She led the wyrmlings down into the cave.

“Do I get something, too, Mama?” Koranth begged, jumping at her heels.

“Of course, darling. I couldn’t very well start a collection for your sister and not one for you!” She shoved aside the heavy door to her treasure room, dismantling the pair of traps which lay just within. Inside, her collection shone and glittered, each piece arrayed to its most perfect display. She walked up to the large pile of silver coins from which they drew their human-form funds. She took a clawfull and dropped them in a bucket, then sat on her haunches. “Is there anything in that pile which you’d like, Koranth?” she asked, pointed to a pile of simple silver and gold items. The little wyrmling frolicked through the stands.

“Oooh, pretty pretty pretty!” He poked his head here and there and over and under. Mother chuckled. Finally, he settled on a slender silver necklace, trimmed with gold leaves and set with a single perfect ruby in the shape of a rosebud. Although not quite simple, it was elegant and an obviously fine piece of craftsmanship. “Can I have this one, Mama?”

“That’s a lovely choice, Koranth.” She reached over and removed it from the stand, then draped the elegantly worked chain over his small head and neck. He chirped with delight.

“Mama, what about mine?” Jeikhren begged. Mother laughed.

“Soon, my little one. Come.” And so the pair of wyrmlings followed their mother into their father’s cave, where the great silver dragon sprawled snoring across the floor. Mother nudged his head gently with her own.

“Snnnnnxxxxx- kuh? What? Oh, good morning, Adiranth.” He shook his head, rather like a large dog, yawned, stretched, and stood up. “And what might I do for my lovely mate? Should I eat these annoying little mischief-makers who harry her so?” He took a playful nip at Koranth, who yipped delightedly as he jumped out of the way. Jeikhren took that distraction to pounce on her father’s tail. “Oh no! Hurry, Adiranth, she’s got me!” Father lifted his tail into the air, Jeikhren dangling from it by her foreclaws and chirping madly with laughter. Mother plucked her from father’s tail.

“Now, now, Jeikhren, how can we start your collection if you eat your father?” she chided gently. “After all, he’ll be doing most of the work.”

“What’s this? Are my wyrmlings getting pretties already?” Father looked down fondly at the pair, now sitting tamely by his feet. “Well. No wonder Koranth sparkles today. And what have we for my little Jeikhren?” Mother leaned over and whispered something in his ear. “Oh, nice! Well. We’d better get started, then.” Jeikhren could hardly contain herself, she was bouncing so much. Father summoned energy into himself and shrunk to human size. “Come along to the forge, then,” his mellow human voice said, leading the way.

Father melted the silver from the bucket into a sheet in his forge, then drew part of it into a wire. While he prepared the silver, Mother carefully filed the broken edge of the claw into a smooth, flat surface. With quick, careful, sure strokes, Father set the claw into the silver sheet and cut it evenly, then used the silver wire to create a hook and a simple snowflake pattern along the edge. Koranth grew quickly bored in the process and wandered off to explore other things. Jeikhren, however, watched raptly. It was well past midnight when Father finished to his satisfaction.

Koranth looked up from where he was snuggled against his mother as Jeikhren and Father came in. Jeikhren skipped over to him, something shiny flopping about her neck.

“Look, Koranth! Isn’t it pretty?” She practically shoved the silver claw into his face. The silver-on-silver made a striking contrast, the claw only slightly darker than the metal. Caps on both the broken end and the sharp end were decorated with small snowflakes, and if the silver cap at the bottom greatly dulled the point, well, it was still very pretty. Had it not been the fact that Koranth’s necklace was obviously worth more, he might have been jealous. As it was, he simply admired his sister’s pretty.

Although Koranth soon laid his necklace in his own treasure cave, displayed to best advantage and on a fine stand, his sister never stopped wearing hers. When she became too large to wear it around her neck in her natural form, she took to wearing it around her forearm. And while he began collecting fine jewelry of excellent craftsmanship, she started collecting good, strong weapons of both magical and non-magical quality. To be sure, some were purely decorative, but most were fully functional.

****

 

Koranth gently removed the claw from around her neck. A dragon’s first collection piece earned a special place in her heart. His first was gone with the rest. That didn’t matter. He’d rather have his sister back than his collection. Tears filled his eyes as he collapsed back to the floor, cradling her body in his arms.

He buried her side-by-side with Connolly. Jeikhren had kept no human visitors in her mountain home, for her cave was far too cold. Koranth draped Mother’s claw around his human-form neck, under his shirt, and said his final good-byes.

Koranth sought the cover of his favorite overhang to think. The first thing on his mind was revenge. He would find Lucerox and destroy him for what he’d done! But unfortunately, reason was just too strong in him. If Meiakdkalenelkzkai and her neighbors together had been unable to defeat him, the Koranth alone had no chance. Nor was it likely that Lucerox would let him be. The silver dragon considered his options.

Lucerox would certainly return this way and search for the one he’d missed. If he’d known about Jeikhren, he would know about Koranth as well. Staying and fight was tempting. Tempting to simply accept death in return for the hopes of damaging Lucerox even a little…

A sound alerted him to another presence. Cautiously, he peered out. A soldier wove through the rubble of his home, treading softly in a pathetic attempt at stealth. A scout, searching for signs of his return. If he did not leave soon, the area would swarm with them, and they would surely find him. Koranth growled. Fortunately, he had not yet returned to his normal form, so all but the tracks of his landing were human. Since he had landed on solid rock, there was nothing to tell him from a common curious human. He slipped away from the scene, fury and frustration building in his heart.

Over the course of the following years, Koranth wandered from nearby town to nearby town, dodging all signs of pursuit. In most areas, he was not a stranger, but a welcome friend come calling. His fear of bringing danger to his mortal friends made him wary about staying long, and so he moved whenever a search swept the area. Not until decades later did it seem that Lucerox gave up and the searches died entirely. Freed from the fear of pursuit, with most of his mortal friends now dead from age, Koranth fell into a deep depression. Finally, by the bedside of his last living human contact, his heart failed entirely. When the doctors pronounced the elderly man dead, Koranth started walking.

He walked for weeks, months, years. There didn’t seem a reason to him to stop walking. What had he left? He ate about once every three days, never much, just that rabbit that was too stupid to run away or a few berries that he found himself crashing through. By the time he found he couldn’t go on any longer, the land around him was green and gold, slightly hilly but farther from any mountains than he’d ever been before. The hot humidity of late summer barely lessened with the setting of the sun. He stopped, staring into a deep stream. Across from him was a herd of fluffy white sheep.

He didn’t remember lying down. He didn’t remember falling asleep. And he really didn’t remember moving from soft grass into a softer bed. But when he woke up, it was in a small but warm bed, stuffed with hay and woven with wool. The sound of women’s voices penetrated the thin walls into his hearing. He sat up.

A washbasin filled with cool, clean water sat on a dresser, with a washrag draped across the side. A pitcher likewise filled with water was on the stand beside the table. There was no other furniture, but then, there wasn’t room for much more. Koranth cleaned himself up a little, as it seemed expected of him. He wasn’t entirely sure he was still among the living yet. A piece of him vaguely hoped not. He told that piece to shut up.

He opened the door. And nearly shut it again. It was quickly evident to him that this room was possibly the only privacy in the entire house. Four young human women stood and sat around the common area. Two stood and spun, one sat in a chair carding wool, and one stirred something on a small cook-stove. They all turned to stare at him, suddenly going silent. Then the oldest spoke up.

“Is you a-feelin’ any better? Ya weren’t much lookin’ like much when pa a’brought you in.” Her dark brown hair and bright green eyes gave him the impression of a forest nymph, despite the pigtails and simple dress.

“Thank you for giving me a place to rest,” he began, but was abruptly cut off as the girl simply forced him into one of the chairs around the table and interrupted him.

“Well, you’re welcome. Now gitcha some food in ya before you disappear. Ah bin makin’ some hot summer-cabbage soup, an’ it’s jes’ bout ready.” She plopped a bowl on the table in front of him and stuck a spoon in his hand. Amused for the first time in a long while, he ate, very carefully suppressing his expression of disgust at the taste. “Now, mah name’s Ira Mae Coucher, and this here’s me sisters Illa Lu, Dahnya, and Sarrie Beth. No, don’t stop eatin’, you kin tell us yours when you’re done. Pa oughta be home purty soon anywho, so you kin tell us all that then an’ only say it once. An’ what’re you lookin’ at, Illa Lu? Your spinnin’ tain’t gonna do itself!” And Ira Mae left his side to go scold her sister.

Sure enough, before he was finished with his soup (the second bowl, anyway, since he’d barely finished the first before the girl had added more of the terrible stuff), the door opened. A broad man walked in, wide and sturdy as a tree stump, though without an inch of fat on his frame. Except for the fact that he stood nearly 6 feet tall, he could almost have been a dwarf. By the lines on his face, he was a serious man; by the barely graying fringe in his carefully trimmed beard and hair, he was not terribly old. Koranth would wager the man was just over 30. As this was obviously the master of the house, Koranth stood. The two men regarded each other for a moment before the host nodded.

“Welcome to mah home. This here’s the town of Seloch. Ah’m called Durain.” He stopped and waited.

“I- I’m called Aljex,” Koranth replied, using the name he’d taken once long ago when posing as a wealthy merchant. “I… thank you for taking me in for the night. I came a long way.” Although he’d played at being human before, and often, he couldn’t really get his heart into it. The other man looked deep into his eyes. It occurred to Koranth that this man saw more than most people would think.

“It ain’t offen that new people come ‘round here, an’ less offen that Ah find ‘em in mah fields lookin’ like they seen th’ end of all. Ah won’ ask ya no questions iffins you don’t wanta answer ‘em, but it’s gettin’ near harvest time, an’ we could always use an extra hand or so. ‘Course you’ll hafta stay with the rest of the family in the long house.” And then it seemed Durain’s speech was done, for he sat down. Ira Mae plopped a bowl of the cabbage soup in front of him, then the girls also sat to eat. Aljex watched the family in silence from his chair. The father spoke no more through the meal, while the girls chatted without pausing for breath. All five ignored him, or rather, left him to his thoughts.

Should he stay here? If he remembered correctly, he was fairly sure this must be Achalan. The family was friendly enough, and he doubted they’d turn him over to the nearest Khatari officer—especially if he didn’t give them reason to. If he wished revenge, the first step was to stay alive. And there was no doubt in his mind that Lucerox would never find him here. Never. By the First Shells, Aljex wouldn’t ever look for a dragon in a farmer’s field!

He wanted to live. He didn’t want to be found until he was doing the finding. And there would never be a less likely place to look than this one.

“I’d like to stay, for now,” he said when the girls paused in their chatter for breath. “I don’t know much about farming, but I’d be willing to learn, if you’d be willing to teach me. If that’s too much trouble, however, then I’ll be off as soon as I can.” Aljex met Durain’s eyes squarely. The other man looked into him, thought about whatever it was he saw, then nodded.

“Not too much trouble, boy. Ira Mae kin show ya whatcha need to know, an’ there really ain’t much to it. Sarrie Beth’ll take ya to the family house after dinner, an’ we’ll all be down fer supper.” And so it happened.

The family house was not entirely what Aljex would have expected. It was close to Durain’s house, within 30 yards, and could have housed fifty or so people. Fortunately, it currently only held thirty three.

“This is the family house,” Sarrie Beth told him with a sweep of her arm as they stood in the doorway. “It’s got three halls an’ ten rooms: the men’s hall, the women’s hall, the kiddie hall, an’ ten rooms fer the married folk. Only five of ‘em’s a-taken, what as Pa only has three brothers, but theys been full before. This here’s the main room, and behind it’s the supper hall. You’ll be staying in the men’s hall, o’course. Jakell! Git over here!” She hailed a boy who couldn’t have been more than fourteen. He hopped up and joined them.

“Yes, Sarrie Beth?” he asked succinctly.

“This here’s Aljex. He’s a-gonna harvest-help this year. Ah’m puttin’ ya in charge of ‘im and makin’ sure he knows where to go an’ when. You kin show ‘im one of yer crafts ‘til then, iffins ya want.” She looked up at Aljex appraisingly. “Maybe ya could show ‘im loom-makin’ or some such.” She turned to Aljex. “You’ll hafta learn somethin’ to do besides farmin’, iffins yer gonna stay. Ah’m afeared a family small as ours always needs another hand or two. An’ it’ll give ya somethin’ to do ‘til harvest, anywho, since that’s not for near another month. But Jakell here’ll take care of ya an’ find somethin’ that ain’t too awful fer ya to do. He’s the best of the cousins.” She nodded decisively, and Jakell grinned a little with pride. The girl walked out, leaving Aljex in the younger boy’s care.

Jakell showed him to the men’s hall, which was quite simply a long hall with a lot of beds and a rough shelf beside each. The beds were sacks of stuffed straw, and occupied by boys from age ten to a geezer of age sixty (Uncle Daggit, who’d never married). Most of the inhabitants were under eighteen. Aljex considered adjusting his human form to blend, but it was too late to change now. Well, he only looked in his mid twenties.

From Jakell he learned that only the first son’s family inhabited the private house. The first son inherited the lands, while his brothers and their families helped work the fields or took other professions. Women lived with their husband’s families when they married, and stayed in the women’s hall until then. Since marrying age for girls tended to be very young, the women’s hall was considerably smaller than the men’s. Durain’s family was on the small side, since he’d had more sisters than brothers, and only two nephews were married. In larger families, such boys often went to jobs in the cities or towns, and failing that hired on as farmhands to smaller families. Six of the men in the men’s hall were hirelings from other farms. Four of them were courting the girls in the women’s hall. Should they marry, they would either gain one of the private rooms or move away. Everybody’s biggest worry was about who Ira Mae would marry. When her father died, her husband would inherit the farm, and since she would probably move in with him, her husband’s family would gain the land. They could either sell it, gift it to Ira Mae’s remaining family, or gift it to their own family. If it was a third or fourth son or so, he might move in and take over, and probably allow the current inhabitants to stay.

By the time Jakell had finished gossiping/explaining the local politics, it was dinner time, and Aljex’s head was spinning. The boy led him to the supper hall, which apparently didn’t count as a hall despite its name. In Aljex’s opinion, any place large enough to hold twenty-five people eating at once deserved to count as a hall. This life will take some getting used to, the silver dragon sighed internally.

*****

Ira Mae was showing the stranger Aljex how to tend a sheep with an injured hock two weeks later. He was quick to catch on to anything she taught him and rarely forgot it. She looked through her long eyelashes at him, observing him from the corner of her eye. His pale blonde hair was tied back in tail to keep it from his grey eyes. His shoulders were more slender than those of the average farmboy, but the strength in them was undeniable. Despite that, his long fingers were incredibly gentle as they wrapped the sheep’s leg. It bleated pathetically at him, and he paused long enough to rub its forehead.

“’Ey there, lil’un, Ah’m almost done,” he told the creature. He’d very quickly lost his city accent and learned to talk properly—the whole family had remarked upon it, but he’d made clear it was his intention not to disturb their harmony with his unusual presence. And considering how little he spoke, and how willing he was to do anything they put him to, he had achieved almost instant invisibility—among the elders and the boys, anyway.

The children and unmarried women were another story. He had yet to talk about where he’d come from, and nothing but his city accent and the grief too visible in his eyes hinted at his origins. The littles were more curious than kittens and determined to learn more. The unmarried girls, one and all, were dying to simply drown in those beautiful, sad eyes. Ira Mae had decided to hunt him.

“Now Aljex, you make sure ya check that hock ‘least-ways every other day. See there?” She pointed at the wrapped leg where the hair of the sheep’s leg peeked out from the bandage, ‘accidentally’ letting her arm brush against his. “Iffins that becomes poofy or red or real tender-like, then there’s trouble an’ we’ll a hafta git Auntie Jarielle to look at it. In fact, iffins ya see any of the sheep not lookin’ too good, or any of the people for that matter, you git yourself right over to Aunt Jarielle an’ she’ll fix ‘em right up. We ain’t got no clerics too nearby, but she got herself some learnin’ from one way back when she was mah age.” Aljex nodded attentively, politely, but said nothing.

“Baa-aaa-aaa.” The sheep stared at them, eager to get back to his grazing. Ira Mae scratched its head.

“That’s right, lil’un, we’s all done now. Aljex kin take ya back to yer friends now,” she told it. It bleated again. Aljex herded it gently back to the others, where it promptly dug its nose into the grass. The newest shepherd took a seat on a nearby rock, straight and tall like a soldier on guard duty. Ira Mae shook her head at his enthusiasm, then strolled over and sat down beside him. “Ya know, after harvest you’ll be lookin’ after these sheep all by yer lonesome. It kin git purty boring without some’un to talk to.” He nodded. “Ah know you’ve seen somethin’ purty awful, but keepin’ it in won’t make yer heart heal any faster,” she hinted. Now came the hard part—he wouldn’t talk if pushed. So she crossed her legs into a comfortable position and changed the subject. “You’ll need ta keep an eye on the three by the stream—we’re not sure iffins they took or not, an’ if they didn’t, Pa’ll have ‘em put to the ram again.” She leaned down and plucked a small clover that was encroaching on the rock, twining it around her fingers. One of the lambs started hopping off towards a stand of bushes. She waited to see if Aljex had seen it. He had. Within a few seconds he was gently ushering it back to its mama.

When Aljex said nothing for the rest of the afternoon, Ira Mae figured he was mulling her suggestion over. She didn’t expect to hear anything like an answer within a week. She was mighty surprised, then, when a little climbed into his lap after supper and got an answer out of him.

“Aljex, what for you never tol’ no ‘un where you comes from?” Idalee Lu asked. At six years old and with hair quickly trading the birthing blonde for dark brown, she was so cute she had every adult male wrapped around her little finger. She’d been especially taken with Aljex, and had nightly claimed his lap during the family gatherings. He looked at the little girl seriously.

“Ah ain’t toldja nuthin’ ‘cause it ain’t a happy story, Ms. Idalee. Would ya really want ta hear a sad story? Especially one that would give ya nightmares?” He looked at her with all the seriousness of someone talking to another adult. Sensing she was closer than ever before to finding out “the secret,” as the littles called it, she only nodded, wide-eyed. Around them, the room had gone strangely quiet, and it seemed to Aljex that if the family stretched their ears any further, they’d look like elves.

“Well, Ah suppose it ain’t that long of a story, neither, so twouldn’t keep ya up past yer sleep time. Ya see, not too long ago, Ah used to have a lot of purty things. Things like pearls and rubies and gold, and even a whole hunk of indigo dye and saffron spice. Ah used to also have me a family, which Ah miss more’en the purty stuff. But then, one day Ah heared that mah friends down the road were a’getting attacked by bandits. So Ah git mah horse and ride like the wind, only to find Ah’m too late—there ain’t nothin’ of mah friends left, nor e’en their house nor their stuff. Them bandits done took it all. Then some’un who’d been nearby but was too small ta help told me which way the bandits had gone, and Ah was plum scared—they were headin’ towards mah home. Ah had to stop mah mournin’ close, couldn’t even finish cryin’ proper, in mah hurry to git back home. But them bandits had a head start of several hours, an’ by the time Ah got back, there weren’t nothin’ left of mah home nor family either.” He paused, looking straight ahead over Idalee’s head, his eyes on something not in the room. Expressions of sympathetic horror covered every face in the room. No one made a sound as they waited for him to continue. “It was…” Aljex swallowed. “It was the hardest thing Ah ever done, to bury mah own sister. She an’ Ah used ter be real close.” He blinked, and came back to himself. “Well, as you kin guess I was purty put out. Without nothin’ to live for, I jes started walkin’. Ended up here. You ‘n yer folks been awful good to a stranger, Miss Idalee, an’ Ah’m thankful fer it. Gives me somethin’ to keep mah mind off the past.” He wiped a little tear from her cheek and gave her a small hug. She sniffed, then threw her arms around him in a big bear hug.

“Ah’m sorry, Aljex. Ah hope them bandits rot in Hell,” the little six-year-old said. Aljex blanched in surprise at her expression. By the look on her parents’ faces, they hadn’t known she knew that phrase either.

“Idalee! Watch your tongue!” her mother scolded. “Jes’ ‘cause it’s the right thought don’t give you an excuse to curse!”

“But Ma-”

“Don’t you ‘But Ma’ me, young lady! An’ where’d ya hear that, anywho?”

“Yes Ma. Ah’m sorry, Ma. It was what Coz Hinnard said when he was talkin’ ‘bout that merchant who done fleeced him.” By now, Idalee had edged her way off Aljex’s lap to stand in the proper ‘scolded’ position: head down, toes pointed inward, in front of her mother. Aljex used the distraction to make an early exit, nearly unnoticed except by the children.

“Hinnard, what are you doin’, cursin’ round ma littles?” he heard as he closed the door softly behind him. He gave a deep sigh of relief, then walked out into the night, feet crunching softly on fallen leaves. No one would chase him right now.

*****

With Aljex’s story out, unusual and tragic though it was, he became virtually unnoticeable in the area. Without any rumors to chase him, it was simply “that poor Aljex” who lived with the Coucher family, just another farmhand with no where else to go. The children were no longer fascinated, and most of the girls lost their attraction to him. Ira Mae, however, was as determined as ever to catch him. There were those who noticed, and approved, for a man without a family was good news for them. In fact, they set about helping her in every way they could.

“Aljex, Ah think Ira Mae might need some help with her loom. Ah saw her strings a-snappin’ the other day. Downright ruined a good piece of cloth.” Jakell tossed his sweat-soaked shirt on his bed, grabbing his wash-sponge. They’d both just returned from a day of harvesting. Aljex flexed his shoulders, trying to loosen a knot in his back. Even dragons, apparently, were sore after twelve hours plucking ears of corn and helping the neighbor apply scythes to wheat. “It’d done be a good bit of practice for ya, to see iffins you could fix it.”

“Ah’ll give it a look,” Aljex replied, gathering his own washing gear. There would be a few minutes after supper to check it out. Not much time, but a little. He wondered how Ira Mae found the time to weave during harvest. She’d spent the whole day out in the fields as well.

The answer came fairly quickly. Within a few seconds of twiddling on the loom, he could see that her strings were too tightly wound, with the settings jammed. Even the most inexperienced weaver could have figured that out. She sat beside him, blinking sweetly at him with false innocence. She could have probably fixed the problem herself. In fact—He wiggled a screwdriver in the jammed setting. A shaving of wood fell out. No, not a shaving, a very small wedge, just the sort that might be left over from wittling with a large tool. Aljex sighed and held up the shaving.

“Watch the boys, Ira Mae. Ah be thinkin’ they be causin’ trouble again.” She only smiled at him.

“Of course, Aljex. Ah shoulda thought of that. Thank ya for takin’ a look at it fer me.” She stood up as he did. “Ah know you’ve had a hard day’s work. How is it a’goin, anywho?” She walked beside him to the door.

“Fair.” He looked down into her emerald eyes. Come to think of it, she did have a lovely face. She smiled at him, the light of the lantern sparkling in that pair of emeralds. Connolly had had green eyes. He nodded once at Ira Mae and stepped out into the night. She followed.

“Why do ya always get so sad-eyed whenever Ah see ya, Aljex?” He looked down at her in surprise. She knew his past, or an edited version, anyway. What was she really saying? Her lips pursed in a stubborn line; her knuckles rested on her hips. “Ah know ya miss yer family, an’ it’s downright horrible what happened to ‘em. But Aljex, ya done gone locked yerself outta this world ta join ‘em. Yer still alive, Aljex! No one what loves ya would want ya to be so sad! Not iffins they really loved ya, anywho. Ah know ya want to respect them, but yer not doin’ them nothin’ by losin’ yerself like ya are.” She shook her head, letting her fists fall off her hips. One graceful hand reached up to touch his cheek. “Maybe yer not ready for life yet. Ah kin understand that. But yer not dead yet, neither, and ya need to let yerself have some joys in the world.” She sighed, taking her hand away and turning slightly away. “It’s been five weeks, an’ Ah haven’t ever once ya smile. Ah worry ‘bout ya, Aljex.”

He reached up and touched the spot where her fingers had rested. Her eyes were bent to the ground, away from him. Was she right? What would Jeikhren say if she were here now? “Ah’ll think about that, Ira Mae.” He tread away, unconsiously stepping so lightly that she was surprised to find him gone when she looked back up.

What would Jeikhren say? Connolly—he knew what she would do; she would scold him for being as silly as a human. His sister would probably whack him across the back of the head with one of her favorite spears and tell him to get on with his life. And Mother—he could not imagine mother wanting him to waste his life crying for the lost. Father would simply call him foolish, then sit with him until he figured it out himself. Aljex plopped down on a tree stump, resting his chin on a palm.

What did he want? He wanted Jeikhren back. He wanted to reverse time until his mother and father still held their cave just across the mountains. He wanted—he wanted to live. He didn’t want to be alone anymore. He wanted a collection of beautiful things. He wanted to spend more time with the Couchers. He wanted to fly into the sunset without worry of Lucerox. He wanted to kill Lucerox. He wanted Lucerox to have never been born. He wanted to play hide-and-seek again with Meiakdkalenelkzkai in the halls of her mother’s lair. He wanted to watch Connolly’s wedding. He wanted a mate of his own, and wyrmlings. He wanted a pet sheep. He liked sheep. Korantherexanthlen the silver dragon wanted a cute, fluffy, stupid, stinky pet sheep. A whole herd of them, in fact! He wanted to lay out along the rocks in his full form, with the sun gleaming on his crest as he watched over a flock of fat white grass-eating clouds. In his mind, a tiny silver form bounced over his imaginary tail to leap into the center of the herd and send them fleeing in every direction. Another, larger, feminine silver form lay down beside him to watch the dream-wyrmling attempt to reassemble the panicked herd. And one sheep, one of those so ingeniously stupid sheep, managed to make it up onto his dream-side, bleating pitifully as it tried to figure how to get off the silver mountain as he and his dream family laughed.

For the first time in a long time, Aljex smiled.

*****

Aljex felt Durain’s eyes on him as he passed a bushel of corn from the wagon to the boy beside him. They’d reached the end of harvest. This would be the last wagonload of corn to head into the kitchens this year. The men around him were singing the harvest song, praising a bountiful year and a bountiful celebration to come. They liked to sing as they worked. The women added a cheerful soprano to the song, adding counterpoints of praise to Pelor and their menfolk. This was an old song, and they’d had years of practice. It was the most beautiful song Aljex had ever heard, despite the coarse voices of the singers as they strained to work and sing at the same time. Their voices rose and fell in the late afternoon sunshine, the crisp cinnamon air giving them strength and heart.

The song ended just as the last bushel left the hands of men and entered the kitchens of the women. Aljex brushed a bright gold leaf off his shirt, where it had attached itself at some point that afternoon. The evening sun glimmered off his hair and short, new beard. He heard the crunch-crunch-crunch of someone approaching through drying grass. A hand touched his shoulder, and he turned. It was Durain.

“You’ve worked hard this harvest. Iffins ya wish, yer welcome to spend the winter here with us.” The dark green eyes held a speculative glimmer. Aljex wondered again just how much the man knew. He just nodded. Durain returned the nod, then smiled his serious half-smile. “Ah’m glad you’ve found a little time fer joy in yer life again. Maybe Ah’ll teach ya some songs this winter.”

“Ah’d like that,” Aljex replied. And he knew, beyond doubt, that Durain was going to offer him more than just music lessons. The other man looked up at the sky.

“Would ya walk with me a ways?” Durain asked. Aljex nodded, and the pair started down the road away from other workers, who’d all gone suspiciously quiet in the last few minutes. Not until they were out of sight did Durain continue. “Ya know, Aljex, Ah’ve always wanted the farm to stay in the family. But mah wife died after Sarrie Beth was born. As Ah guess ya know by now, that means the farm is a-goin’ to whomever mah Ira Mae marries. Fer most folk, that would mean we’d lose our place, or keep as hired help only.” Aljex nodded again as Durain went silent for a moment. The dragon had never heard the man say so much at once before. “Now, Aljex, ya look about the right age for mah Ira Mae, an’ most folk won’t question their eyes. Iffins ya were to marry Ira Mae, bein’ as ya don’t have a family of yer own, it’d be like Ah’d had a son in the first place. So iffins ya were to offer me a fair bride-price, Ah wouldn’t say no.” The two stopped and regarded one another for a moment. Aljex hadn’t missed Durain’s wording. Even so, he felt obliged to mention the fact.

“Well, Sir, Ah guess you’ve guessed by now that Ah ain’t exactly what Ah seem,” he warned. It was Durain’s turn to nod. “Well then, Ah’ll think on it.” And that was that.

*****

“Ira Mae,” Aljex called, leaning into the kitchen window that night. She looked up from where she was washing her dishes, then set the dish down and wiped her hands.

“Jes’ a minute, Aljex, lemmee git Sarrie Beth on these dishes an’ Ah’ll be right out.” She turned away from the window went to fetch said sister. Minutes later she appeared by the door. Her hands were still wrinkled from washing, and her chest-length dark hair was escaping from its imprisoning net. Nonetheless, her eyes glowed with a surprised pleasure at being called away from chores by the man she wanted. Aljex thought she looked beautiful. She brushed a few strays out of her eyes. “Now what was it ya wanted ta talk about?”

“Ira Mae, yer Pa’s done talked to me about you. Do you like me?” He tried to see her heart through her eyes. Beautiful she was, yes, but also young. A spark of pleasure danced through those emeralds.

“Not every boy has the thought ta ask his girl that. Thank ya, Aljex, and yes, now more’n ever Ah like ya,” she purred, delighted. He took a step closer, bringing himself within arm’s reach.

“Ira Mae, Ah been thinkin’ on offerin’ a bride price for ya. Would ya object iffins Ah did?” He gently touched the side of her arm with his fingertips. She looked at him, flabbergasted. It occurred to him that she had never expected someone to ask her if they could marry her. She reined her wits back in.

“Why Aljex, nuthin’ would make me more delighted! Iffins that is what ya decide ta do, well, Ah’d be round the happiest girl in Seloh!” she squeaked, throwing her arms around him. They stood that way a moment before she broke away, embarrassed. She stepped shyly back. “Iffins, of course, that is what ya want ta do.” Blushing, she scurried back into the house, pausing at the door to smile back at him. He waited until she disappeared inside to wander back to the family house.

Iffins he did, indeed. It wouldn’t be easy to get married. In the very simplest of terms, he’d need a bride price, and money was difficult to make around here. A decent bride price, he’d been told, was anything from one to four silver. Four good sheep, one ox, one horse, two decent pigs, or seven bushels of most crops would also do. Of course, since the family not only had invited him to pay the price but also rather needed him to, a fair price would be towards the lower end of the spectrum. As it was—he had only thing of his own.

Aljex pulled out his sister’s treasure from beneath his shirt. There was little doubt in Aljex’s mind that Durain understood what he wasn’t. Perhaps the farmer did not know he was a dragon, but Durain did know he wasn’t human. Certainly he could be trusted not to reveal Aljex’s secret. But was it worth paying his last memory for a temporary sanctuary? He couldn’t stay here forever. For Ira Mae’s lifetime, possibly, but not forever. And he doubted he’d even have that long.

For that matter, could he lie to a woman for her entire life? He liked her, for she was kind, practical, and pretty, but how would she take to being married to a dragon? Should he even tell her? Although, if one of the children inherited his draconic spirit, she would know. The draconic inheritance was rare, but it was also a possibility. He would need to shield the child from detection, possibly even the mother as well.

Aljex cradled the claw in his hands, running a fidgeting thumb up and down its silver length. The memory of the day his father had made it stirred in his mind. Even without the claw, he would never forget that. For that matter, he would never forget his sister’s death. The claw was just a reminder of something eternally in his mind. But it wouldn’t be too much work, either, to simply earn a little money to pay the bride price. He could leave for a winter and come back, working in one of the towns he had used this persona in. There were some that would still remember him.

No. A bride price was a statement of what a woman was worth to her husband. If he was willing to sacrifice something dear, he was promising a lifetime of love. A wife was a man’s greatest treasure, a wife and her children. A man who didn’t pay a bride price for his wife was practically calling her worthless. And Ira Mae was worth a lot. He would go to the city, yes, but the money he would earn would cover something else important.

Aljex said his good-byes two days later, packing up crates to help take them to market. “Ah’ll be back come planting,” he promised the young woman standing anxiously by the wagon. “But there are some thangs Ah need ta take care of back where Ah come from.” She only nodded, watching him with wide, slightly worried eyes. In her heart, she feared he would never return. It hurt too much to ask if he really meant his words. Instead, she only watched him settle the last of the corn bushels, tying it firmly in place. He turned to take his place—

“Wait! Aljex!” she called. He paused, and she rushed to him, planting a small kiss on his cheek. “Ah’ll be waitin’,” she whispered in his ear, then gave him a hug and whirled around, dashing back into the house.

*****

Just before early planting, before they’d even started tilling the earth, their visitor returned. Rather than announcing his presence to the entire family, he approached Durain during one of the farmer’s evening walks. Without speaking, the dragon fell into step beside the man.

“Did ya settle what ya needed ta settle?” Durain asked after a few minutes. Aljex nodded, bag still slung over his shoulder.

“But Ah can’t say there won’t ever be trouble here because of mah past. Ah’ve got at least one fellow what doesn’t want me alive. Ah’m purty sure he don’t know Ah’m here, but it’s possible he could find me.”

“It’s a rare man what doesn’t have someone that doesn’t like him,” Durain commented, considering.

“An’ Ah don’t plan on lettin’ them who done murdered mah family git away with it. When the time comes, Ah’m a-goin’ after ‘im. It could cause trouble there, too.” A longer silence followed.

“Aljex, let me tell you sumthin,” Durain finally said. “These folk ‘round ya, ya never see them a-fightin’. We didn’t fight much when the empire came, an’ we don’ fight much might amongst ourselves. Some people think we just can’t fight.” He paused in his talking to move a fallen tree limb off the path.

“When Ah was a boy,” he continued after a moment, “Me ‘n the boys used ta wrestle all the time. We dreamt of goin’ over the sea and fightin’ monsters, dreamt of savin’ purty maidens, dreamt of things like heroes dream. Those dreams never left me, an’ they never left mah brothers nor mah friends, neither. It’s jes’ that we done got families, an’ there ain’t nuthin’ more important than a family ‘round here.” He was quiet again, but not yet done. Aljex waited. “We country boys got dreams, Aljex, an’ we got dignity, too. But we don’ think too much on politics nor wars about politics. Wars mean our boys dyin’ and our friends comin’ home crippled. There ain’t nuthin’ glorious ‘bout a war fought over who takes the taxes. In the end, the money goes ta someone, an’ that’s that. But there are some things worth fightin’ for.” Another pause. Durain took a breath, pausing in his steps to stare across the stream that wound beside them.

“Family is one o’ them things. We country boys ain’t scared of fightin’. Ah’d be the first to take mah grand-daddy’s sword from the attic, iffins it came ta that. Sword’s kinda rusty, but all the same, it—and Ah—kin still cut.”

Aljex weighed the man’s words. War? He hadn’t really thought of that. To him, it was still a case of vengeance against a monster. Would it go that far? He bit his lip. Well, that was a worry he would deal with when—if – it came. He could only prepare himself now.

“In that case, Durain, Ah’d like ta offer ya a bride-price for yer daughter Ira Mae.” He drew the claw out from under his shirt and offered it to the farmer. The farmer eyed it for moment, then with the “Ah,” of a man having a revelation, took it.

“Ah’d wondered,” he said, examining the silver claw briefly. “Ah find yer offer good,” he stated, placing the object carefully in a pocket. “Ah believe Ira Mae will be quite pleased.”

*****

Half a year later, Aljex stood beside a flock of fluffy white sheep. One, Madda, stood beside him as he watched over them. These were wool sheep, never to be eaten, and were as spoiled as pets. Madda baa’d and butted his hand. He reached down to scratch her head.

“Ah hadn’t expected ta need the other one so soon,” he told her. His wife would have been surprised to know how much he talked to his charges. “But Ira Mae’s gone and got herself with a dragon-child already. Guess Ah’d better git that ring back outta hidin’.” He glanced down at the copper ring around his own thumb, where these folk wore special rings. His was just braided copper, matching Ira Mae’s wedding band in look only. Back in the main house, his house now, another, smaller band of copper lay in the bottom of his tool chest. Durain alone knew where to find it, in case something happened before the baby was born. “Ah wonder iffins Ira Mae knows she’s pregnant yet?”

“Baa-aa.”

“Well!” He acted affronted, pulling his hand away. “For a comment like that, maybe Ah should throw ya in with the mutton herd.” The sheep munched some grass. Aljex chuckled. “Ya know, Madda, Ah used to have a lot of purty things. Ah had a lotta pearls and jewels, a gorgeous ruby necklace, gold and silver and emeralds. An’ Ah had me a collection of dyes, too. There was saffron, vermillion, even some indigo. Ah was really quite rich.” Madda didn’t seem too impressed. Aljex sighed dramatically. “Well, Ah got somethin’ better than any of that now,” he told her. “Ah gots meself a few fields of corn, an’ a flock of eatin’ sheep and a flock of wool sheep. Best of all, Ah done got me a purty wife and a baby. What do ya think on that?” The sheep looked up at him, ask if to ask why he wasn’t scratching her head anymore.

“Baa-aa,” she demanded.

“Ah knew that’d impress ya,” he answered, scratching her head. “Ah’ve done gone from being a collector of purty things to being a collector of living things.” He let his gaze sweep up from the sheep to scan the rolling green hills of his new home, fields of ripening corn fed by clear streams. He could hear his new family calling to each other as they tended the fields in the distance. Aljex smiled. “An’ Ah think them livin’ things is the purtier of the two.”

“Baa-aa.”

 

 

Aljex’s Song (composed the winter after Lori Aine’s birth)

 

Well, Ah used to have a lotta purty things,

diamonds and rubies and pearls.

Lost ‘em all but found me a purtier thing –

Ah gots me married to a purty girl!

 

I used to have me lotsa purty things

‘til them bandits done come round

Stole all mah gold and jewels and things

and left mah family dead on the ground.

There was ashes and there was blood,

searched around but the only thing left

not a friend, not a sword, not a rose but

a lil’ piece of silver ‘round mah sister’s neck.

 

Well, Ah used to have a lotta purty things,

diamonds and rubies and pearls.

Lost ‘em all but found me a purtier thing –

Ah gots me married to a purty girl!

 

Well, Ah put that silver ‘round mah neck

and promised them bandits Ah’d never forget

but by an’ large Ah was a purty bad wreck

figgered Ah’d jes’ go ahead and die when Ah set (sat)

An’ so Ah wandered on for days and days

an’ found meself in this fair countryside.

Got a job from a farmer who showed me his ways

an’ wit him an’ his daughter I did abide

 

Well, Ah used to have a lotta purty things,

diamonds and rubies and pearls.

Lost ‘em all but found me a purtier thing –

Ah gots me married to a purty girl!

 

That farmer’s daughter was called Ira Mae

An’ she was better’n all the jewels Ah’d ever had

An’ when Ah cried for hours, she’d say,

“No’un what loves ya would want ya this sad.”

And somewhere between the corn and the sheep

In the depths of a man who’d lost everythin’,

Miss Ira Mae woke the joy that’d been asleep

An’ gave that man a reason to live again

 

Well, Ah used to have a lotta purty things,

diamonds and rubies and pearls.

Lost ‘em all but found me a purtier thing –

Ah gots me married to a purty girl!

 

Her pa did know what was in mah heart

An’ so he took me aside and said to me,

“Boy, Ah ain’t got no sons an’ it tears me apart,

‘cause Ah wanted mah farm to stay in the family.

But iffins ya want to marry mah Ira Mae,

it’d be much the same, all said and done,

An’ Ah think she’d really like ya to stay,

so for a fair bride-price, Ah’d like ya as mah son.”

 

Well, Ah used to have a lotta purty things,

diamonds and rubies and pearls.

Lost ‘em all but found me a purtier thing –

Ah gots me married to a purty girl!

 

Well, Ah really wanted to marry that girl,

but for a bride-price Ah had nothin left,

not a diamond or ruby or pearl,

nothin’ but the silver ‘round mah neck.

So Ah thought real hard about it,

about mah ma and mah pa and family

an’ mah life an’ waht they’d want me to do with it

but that silver was a sign of memory.

 

Well, Ah used to have a lotta purty things,

diamonds and rubies and pearls.

Lost ‘em all but found me a purtier thing –

Ah gots me married to a purty girl!

 

Well it was memory or love, true and pure

then Ah realized Ah would never forget

And so Ah sold mah past for mah future

and have never felt a moment’s regret

An’ now Ah have two sons and two daughters

An’ a silver’s jes’ a silver, an’ nothin’ more meant

An’ Ah’ll always remember, like Ah oughter,

that memories can never be spent

Well, Ah used to have a lotta purty things,

diamonds and rubies and pearls.

Lost ‘em all but found me a purtier thing –

Ah gots me married to a purty girl!

 

—-

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