The Schemes of Dragons
by Dave Smeds
To have a weapon that can kill the great dragon is not enough to win the war. Without the right candidate to wield that weapon, all is lost.
The dragon’s wings have spread at last, giving him dominion of the skies as well as the seas. His armies have grown. His cadre of sorcerers is unmatched. It seems that nothing can stop the creature from founding his empire.
Thanks to Alemar and Elenya, the defenders now have a weapon that can overcome the dragon. But the weapon was meant to be wielded by the mage who created it, and he has been dead for many centuries. The only way to use it now is to find an adept who can summon the sort of magic that enlivens it.
From their refuge in the great forest of their homeland, the twins prepare to strike hard at the invaders sent by the dragon. But their continuing resistance has made them targets of the dragon’s best hunter. Can they survive long enough for the candidate — if one is found, if one can be convinced to help the cause — to join forces with them?
Book 2 of the War of the Dragons series
About the Author: A Nebula Award finalist, Dave is the author of novels, short fiction, comic book scripts, and screenplays. His writing spans several sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy including sword-and-sorcery, hard sf, contemporary fantasy, martial arts, and horror. He is best known for his epic fantasy trilogy, The War of the Dragons.
The strangers had been tracking him for two days. Toren’s legs throbbed from knee to toe. He had run as only a modhiv could run, for two days, foregoing food and sleep. The breeze struck his sweat-drenched clothing and sent chills down the sides of his torso.
He had run enough. It was no longer a case of personal danger. Before him was the stream that marked the borders of his tribe’s land. Duty demanded that he protect his people.
He knelt on the muddy bank, pulled three small blocks of pigment from his pouch, wet his brush, and began his deathmask, using the stream’s surface as a mirror. He took his time, painting the area under his eyebrows just so, mixing the colors to the exact hue he wanted, recreating the design that his grandfather’s grandfather had worn to his grave. Once it had dried, he cast the blocks to the current.
So be it. If the strangers followed him now, someone would die.
He rubbed his feet, ankles, and calves with an ointment and waded into the stream, his passage making almost no sound. He travelled downstream at the same rate as the current, disturbing the silt as little as possible. Within minutes, a school of chikchik gathered around his feet, flashing their razor teeth inches from his skin. They smelled the ointment and swam on to find other, perhaps larger, prey.
Toren did not seize the first of the many branches that overhung the water, nor even the tenth. When he saw the one he wanted, he used it to lift himself from the stream, crawled hand over hand toward the trunk, and waited until his feet had dripped dry. He jumped directly from the trunk onto a jumble of rocks and restored his moccasins. By the time he had to step once more on soft ground, he was many yards from the bank.
That would not stop the strangers from finding the trail, not if they had failed to be thrown off by the other, more sophisticated tactics he had used during the past two days. It would, however, give the impression that he was still trying to hide it.
He hurried into Fhali land. After an hour he passed a hoary old tree where he had cached food ten days earlier, on his way to scout the territory of the Amane. The cache was still there, in a cleft long ago created by lightning. He scooped up the satchel and ran on. Presently, however, he began a wide circle that brought him within sight of the tree again, near the path down which he had originally come.
He hid deep within the brush beside the trail, tortured by the thought of the food he had retrieved. He dared not chew; the action of his jaws would dull his hearing. His ancestors encouraged him to have discipline, and he put hunger and the cold weather to the back of his mind. He focused his bloodshot eyes at the trail. Not once had he actually seen — or directly heard — whoever or whatever followed him, but he could sense the danger dogging his heels. There were at least two, possibly three, pursuers.
He took his blowgun from its sheath, selected a dart, and examined the brown smudge at the tip. Satisfied that none of the poison had rubbed off, he slipped it into the barrel.
Toren had never killed a man before. He asked his ancestors to help keep his aim steady and his breath strong.
Finally, Toren heard soft footfalls along the trail. While he remained hidden, a lone man loped past, his eyes on Toren’s spoor, and stopped beside the old tree, examining the crevice from which Toren had taken his cache. Toren waited in vain for the appearance of the man’s companions. The stranger was another Vanihr, probably a modhiv, tall and lithe like Toren himself, with long blond hair and smooth, golden skin. What tribe Toren could not tell. His bow was strangely shaped. His hair was tied high—behind the head, rather than behind the neck, and bound with a clasp of an unfamiliar metal. He wore a knife far longer than any Toren had ever personally seen, as long as the swords of the men of the Flat. Curiously, his bow was unstrung and tied behind his back. He carried a small net in his hand.
Toren was reassured to see a flesh and blood enemy—a weary-looking one at that. It seemed to him that only a spirit should have been able track him so far, yet this was obviously a living being, alone and vulnerable.
Toren inserted the end of his blowgun through an opening in the foliage. The distance was not ideal, but he had the element of surprise and his lungs were rested. He puffed. Unfortunately, the stranger chose that moment to step away from the tree, turning not to continue along the trail, but to look back in the direction from which he had approached. The dart struck him in the upper arm, rather than the back.
The stranger cried out, flung aside his strange net, and clutched at the dart. Toren faded further into the brush, taking refuge behind a tree, out of arrow danger. He would stay out of sight until the poison took effect.
A spider web seemed to dance in front of his face. Suddenly the world went dark.
Toren felt cold ground beneath his legs, rough bark at his back, and ropes binding his limbs. His skull ached miserably. It was an effort just to open his eyes.
He looked up into the face of an animal.
In another moment, he realized it was a man, but one with hair all over his jaws and chin. Black hair. His skin was nothing like the golden brown of the Vanihr; rather it was pinkish, almost white in places protected from the sun. Even the memories of his ancestors contained no image of such a man. It was several moments before Toren was convinced that he viewed a human.
To the left stood the strange Vanihr he had fought, eating burrost from Toren’s cache. One of his arms was in a sling. Beside him was a woman. She at least had no hair on her face, but her complexion was just as pale as the first man’s, and her hair a deep brown unknown among Toren’s people except in legends. Like the others she wore a loose shirt and full-length trousers tied at the waist and ankles. She carried another of the unusual bows. All three strangers had the haggard look of people who have led a long chase.
“Not feeling well?” the Vanihr asked, between bites. Toren could barely understand his dialect.
“Good. That was a nasty pin you stuck me with,” he said, gesturing at the sling and the poultice of mud and grass over his wound. “I almost didn’t find where you kept the antidote in time.”
Toren tried to lift a hand to feel his swollen head, but not only were his arms tied to his sides, but his whole upper body was tied to the tree.
“What do you want with me?”
“We need you to kill a dragon.”