Chapter Fourteen

The birds greet the dawn with their gentle chorus as the sky warms to the east. And with it, Anther wakes too. Or, at least he thinks he does, because for so long he had followed the quiet, unsung song of the world around him, so often waking before the sun could leave the embrace of the horizon so that he could meet it upon the mountain peaks, so surely he is awake, or waking. Only… he can feel a touch against the curve of his muzzle. One that no longer exists outside the realm of dreams. Deep in the contentment of his sleep-haze, Anther can feel the touch as sure as the ground that lays beneath him; just as he can hear the wordless voice that whispers the wind’s melody as sweet as the magic around him, weaving itself into a new day as the flowers open to greet the sun and the birds take flight on the southern breeze. Anther knows the feelings of those hands. He can’t mistake the touch of those fingers for anything else; having held them in such deep regard for so long that their weight against his scales soothes him of the pain that has been building-knotting-twisting inside his chest over the course of the past few days, ever since he lost the right to covet the comfort given to him by these very hands. Anther wants to open his eyes. He wants to see if this really is a dream or not, but his eyelids are as heavy as the stars that fall from the sky; his body held in the suspense of the fading nightscape, and his body won’t listen to him when he tells it to move, finding that he can’t; unable to fight against the weight that keeps his eyes closed, something desperate and pleading warming the back of his throat— “Sssh, Obí,” his voice whispers, so sweet and delicate; reminiscent of years past when his family’s terror-filled screams would haunt his dreams like ghosts of the dead; the sharpness of a sword cutting through the darkness like an executioner’s axe; the deathly rattle of chains that would disturb his sleep and chase him from any peace he’d be able to find that wasn’t settle in the touch of Thæon’s hands. Hands that trail up beneath Anther’s eyes, quick to catch a tear shed in frustration when he can’t open them, can’t see, can’t speak beyond a whimper in question to whether or not this is real­, and by the stars, he begs for this to be real“It’s okay. You’re safe now. It’s nothing but a bad dream.” No. This is a good dream. And yet while peaceful, it is torturous in nature. Dream or not, Anther has never felt so exposed to the emotions building inside him. All the aching and longing he had endured for the past seasons on loneliness—the bitterness of his heart’s rejection when Anther had shared the words that shattered everything; the double-edged relief at seeing his family like the touch of buttercups and plumerias and angelica blooms; this gentle touch that Anther thought would be forever barred from him—everything rising up and spilling out in a way that leaves him with regret coiling around his heart where breathlessness and empty lungs had been before. It all comes rushing out in a pitiful noise when he feels the touch being withdrawn from cursed scales. “No, please. Stay with me,” Anther begs, desperate to hold onto his touch just a moment longer, even if only this were his imaginings. Dream or not, he is not ready to lose this touch for a second time, his heart beating painfully in his chest and he can’t seem to take a full breath; the pain of his heart breaking forged into iron chains that wrap, serpentine and vice-like around his lungs, suffocating him from the inside as the fire in his heart flutters. “Stay,” he whimpers, and feels no shame for the tears he cries. Slowly, surely, Thæon’s hands return to cradle the shape of his muzzle, curling over his nose, tracing along the ridges of his face. There’s a touch of warmth pressed between his eyes; ghosting laughter caressing his scales like apple blossoms, and when he speaks, his voice is quiet that Anther strains to hear it over the fluttering wings of his own heart; “sssh Obí. Everything is okay now. I’m here.” “Stay,” Anther continues to plead, and will, for as long as he must to keep Thæon close. His eyes too heavy to open, his body refusing to move, but he won’t give up without a fight, and it’s with closed eyes and a mind fading into darkness that he is finally able to leans up and into the comforting touch of a palm cradling his cheek. He finds himself holding his breath when Thæon’s hand twitches against him, as if about to pull back, but at the sound of Anther’s whimper rising, the weight settles once more. Strengthens. Idly, Anther wonders if the boy can feel his heart beating wild in his chest, wondering if the way he runs his hands in circles is in effort to calm the racing in his dragon’s chest not simply to quieten the crooning whimpers that break on teeth and pour from his throat, crimson, like malicious tears. There is peace when a kiss and a promise is pressed to his brow. But the world can be cruel—Anther no stranger to the tricks gods play on mortals when he is no longer human—waking then, to find that it was nothing but a dream. His eyes opened to the sun fully risen and the sounds of the camp waking around him; Thæon nowhere to be seen, having taken the task of hunting food to bolster supplies for the morning meal. A glance to familiar faces shows that Morak has joined him. And so it goes, that Anther will dream of dawn in a wonder of apple blossom and glittering fire-eyes, cradling hands on his maw and a whisper of words meant for him and only for him. And then, he will wake to a world of grey skies and cold winds; his scales itching with a touch that never was and a chasm aching between himself and his Fireheart with the barest trace of sweetness against his scales and a question playing upon his mind like teasing laughter: was it truly a dream? The days stretched on as the party made their way north-west, with Anther guiding them towards the old, abandoned fortresses built along the spine of Tvawklaad’s western ridge. They used to be manned by Ered Naur’s soldiers back when the world was untamed and the kingdom spanned the vast reaches of Brærn; many outposts built up and built around until they became villages, towns and cities themselves, although there are a few in the mountains and those harder-to-reach along the slopes of Tvawklaad’s ridges that had been abandoned to time and the thievery of those that took profit from the misery of others. Even after all this time, with shattered memories and warped nightmares, Anther had remembered the path he’d taken to hunt; rather than heading south and deeper into the valley he’d later called home, instead pushing north before memories distorted and there had been old stone beneath his feet—beneath his claws—the heavy rattle of chains grating against blistered, burning skin and the pain of his screams; the sight of blood dribbling atop the mortar, drawing patterns as the pool grew beneath him as he was ripped open from the inside and fashioned into something monstrous. Anther didn’t tell the others just how much he remembered, or how the entrapping stone still dogged his dreams; choosing only to share the memory of heavy stone and mortar beneath his hands; the archway that they had dragged him through and the cold of the chill of snow on bare skin even in the morn of Young Summer when the snow had melted in the Thaw. He told them of the chains, and the nails that they had hammered down into rock, instead of earth. It was Morak who made the leap between flagstone paving and the old strongholds that lined the spine of mountains running along Ered Naur’s south-west coast; lookouts and fortresses built to act as the first line of defence against sea raiders, as well as fortified locations for soldiers to man while operating in the local area. Since peace had been made between the isles of L’laegyn and Ered Naur the cost for housing soldiers in the outposts outweighed their need, and so now only monthly patrols were made from the nearest villages and cities, meaning there were dozens of strongholds that would serve as the perfect hideout for a gang of bandits operating as poachers and fences. It was the group’s first real lead and an excited yet nervous energy joined them on their journey. Each night, Morak and Gryka would shadow-travel together, moving through the Shadow Realm to cover distance quicker in hopes to narrow down certain fortresses from the vast number that littered the wild slopes and valleys. All the while, he fed his magic into the air in imitation of a Threadweaver, trying to detect pockets of sudden magic, explaining that, “any mage, or mages, with the combined capability to cast a curse as intricate and as powerful as the one that has bound you for the past years wouldn’t be able to do so without calling upon their nature’s magic. We all have our source; all of them woven with the Realms and the magic of the gods, and if the mages are still here, they will be drawing energy and using that, we’ll be able to find them.” Apparently Morak had learnt the trick while travelling through the clanlands, having been constantly in contact with another’s magic that had been spread across the five territories like a magic net, and while Morak would never be able to cast his magic so far, nor directly affect the fabric of magic like a Threadweaver, he said that there could be more to learn by studying other’s magic than simply studying his own. Anther didn’t quite understand, but the conversation was a welcome distraction to pass the time.It was interesting to observe his new friends and the dynamics between them and the uses their magic brought to their group. Morak certainly pulled his weight with shadow-travelling and casting his net, but Gryka was as much a team player; scouting ahead in the day, slipping between the trees and the shadows like to scout the path and to hunt small game that would fill the other’s stomachs come sundown. Ríenn had her own hand in gathering food and scouting; using her Silver Tongue magic to talk to the birds and the gliders to learn of the forest and those that walked among the underbrush that might give tell to Anther’s cursers, while Torra would sing songs to keep the group’s spirits up and the ache of tiredness forgotten. Eidan wasn’t able to use their lightning magic properly without hurting themselves—their own skills anchored in fighting and defending with little more to do to help the group each night they settled for camp or wandered the wilderlands in the day; but each night they would accompany Torra’s songs with music from their tanglowin; a stringed instrument that they alternated between plucking and stumming; Perrin, Dornan and Stellan all humming along and helping when needed. It came as a surprise to learn that Perrin was Magikless, being a knight-in-training and in a position that would see him most often at a disadvantage against other magic-users, even if the intricacies in his scent that fluctuated like Thæon’s apple-soft-summer-warm and sometimes old and worn, like geodes buried in the earth. And of course, Thæon, who kept to himself and kept to his silence, sitting cross-legged in Bröder’s saddle for most of the journey; only deigning to unfold them when Torra joined him to give her own mount a break; her saddle laden with supplies as an excuse to join Thæon in his even if, more often than not, Anther’s own saddle sat empty when he wasn’t warming up to Ríenn or carrying Morak while the Shadowcast slept to regain strength after a long night of shadow-travelling. Eidan would climb up and settle in sometimes, under the guise of giving their mount a break, but more often than not they’d pull Torra in beside them; Anther’s saddle big enough for the pair of them; encouraging the knights and His Highness to do the same, enough that Anther wondered if Morak had not spoken to them where he was out of earshot, hunting or something, telling them how innately aware Anther is of their feelings and that he doesn’t deserve their fear. It’s flattering, and Anther appreciates the effort on his behalf. But the one person that he wishes wouldn’t hold him at arm’s length is Thæon. He keeps his distance and he keeps his silence for the journey as the company pushes ever onward; Morak slowly crossing off known fortresses off of their map—annotated by Stellan and Dornan helpfully—with his solo night flights; always turned away and no acknowledgement, even when Anther would deliberately “accidentally” bump him with his tail or step a little too close or brush past him in any way to turn his eyes for a moment. Rather than allowing himself to be overtaken by growing trepidation towards what might await him in the crumbling stronghold of mountain stone; rather than allowing himself to think about the pain that blossomed inside his heart with every cold shoulder, every turn of the head, every second of silence, Anther chose to throw himself into enjoying the time with his new friends instead. It didn’t take long to feel into an ease of pattern with them, and soon the days were passed in enjoyment. Anther felt a fast-growing fondness for all of them, overjoyed that he is accepted despite his claws and scales and the slight fear that had followed them from the village for a night or two. The cold-winter-coast fear in their scents soon fades to nothing and it isn’t long until Anther returns to his usual giddy playfulness that sees him and Bröder roughhousing when they stop for food, or near a stream, or to make camp for the night. He is no longer ashamed of his strength when it is Dornan and Perrin who climb into his saddle to join him for a hunt where he is quick to slaughter two boars, (one for his friends, one for himself); and now there is enjoyment found in the way they climb up to hold onto his harness as he races through the trees, darting quick and sharp and laughing as they scream and yelp adrenaline-sharp-excitement as the world falls away around them and he carries them just up above the canopy to skim the tree line. Still, there is the discordant guilt plucked from this heart strings when Thæon averts his eyes on the few times when Anther forgets himself and throws the boy a lopsided smile or snaps his teeth in that playful way he would incite a wrestle, a race; an invite to plunge into the lake side by side. The two of them still haven’t spoken with one another—as if it could be called “speaking”—since that night in his home valley, and while Anther understands that Thæon deserved time to understand and accept the truth, he can feel his own patience beginning to thin. He had hoped that all Thæon would need was time: time to come to term with the fact that his friend was in fact a cursed human, and that when the awkwardness had eased between them, then Thæon might accept Anther’s invitation to rekindle their friendship even if it might never return to what it once was with broken trust between them. And although it wouldn’t be what it was before, with touches given freely, secrets spilled in the dead of night, and Anther’s lips always a breath away from Thæon’s heart; he hopes that it would be a friendship nonetheless, and they would wrestle and spar like they used to. They’d hunt side by side, with a challenge burning the soles of their feet, and when Anther rose into the sky it would be Thæon settled behind his horns and their triumphant roars would fill the skies. Thæon just needed time. Anther just needed patience. But dragons can only be expected to wait so long, and it isn’t until three more days have passed, when the company have travelled far enough to have reached the low hills at the peak of Tvawklaad’s western ridge where the mountains stretch tall; white-capped and a collective of Yrnœu’s mountains— too many fortresses crossed off the list and a growing worry rising from all of them—when it is that Anther can hold onto his patience no longer; the fuse of his anger sparking with fierce determination. They had stopped to water the mounts in a feeder river that had crossed their path, Stellan taking the executive decision to call for a longer break, meaning that their saddles had been removed—Anther’s harness included—while everyone arranged themselves in a loose circle upon some tumbled rocks and fallen trees, eating the food that had be scavenged thanks to Ríenn’s forest friends and Torra singing an abundance of life into a nearby fruit tree: nearly exhausting herself but granting the company a helping of berries and fruits enough to fill them. There were plenty spare for Bröder to snuffle a few from their hands too. Instead of joining his friends and their concerned conversation as to how far their journey was taking them; weeks from his old village and much further than one would think thieves and greedy filth would drag someone for the sake of experimenting with their magic. Maybe it did make sense, but Morak and Dornan were worried that the mages were no longer operating out of the same abandoned fortress in which they had cursed Anther in and that wasn’t something he wanted to allow himself to worry about right now; turning away from their discussion and losing himself in the wonder of the foreign forest around him. It might be cowardice to avoid the truth, but Anther doesn’t care as he drags scents from the damp earth on either side of the feeder, pushing at the fallen pines with his nose, dragging claws through the fallen leaves to chase ribboning scents that wove through the trees, towards the creek and beyond it. Magic thrums through the pads of his feet, through his body, through the wind that dances around him with her voiceless whisper, listening to the trees that talk and the leaves that dance as he noses through a mound of deadfall to scare up the gliders; chasing when they scamper up the tree trunks and far from the reach of a nudging nose, but then he’s moving past, pawing at the entrance of a burrow that has been long-since abandoned and then beyond that still, to the soft earth near the river, where the grass has been ripped from its roots, some cut off in mouthing bites of blunt teeth and sharp hooves and the scent of something lily-white and sweet. Like the flowers that grow in Ma’s garden. Deer. A doe and her young. The wild in Anther’s body hums in victory, and he lets out a purr of excitement, throwing a grin to his friends, body shifting as the earth echoes his song in anticipation, resonant with the thrum of racing hooves on the other side of the trees, and Anther can feel a growl rising within him, wings ruffling and a snap of his teeth that had so often been an invitation to a challenge for Thæon and himself: to see who would be the first to be victorious in their hunt. But Thæon turns his head away. And Anther’s hunger becomes like ash in his mouth. His teeth snap shut again, loudly, as he turns forcefully towards the Fireheart where he sits between friends; everyone turning to him with wide eyes and the bitter sharp of fear as Anther embraced the intimidation of his cursed nature, head sinking lower to the floor as he would do when stalking prey; now, stalking the group with a growl in his throat and something wild in his voice the spooks the horses as they tug uncertain on their reigns—prey and fearful despite Ríenn’s endless reassurance that now stutters in her throat: the scent of fear on the wind marred by uncertainty and edge with questions that rise on berry-sweet lips, but Anther’s eyes are narrowed on Thæon and Thæon alone; another challenge bared in the snap of his teeth. A demand of attention and answer to the uncertainty that has plagued them both since leaving the oak-shaded field. Thæon turns his head away again. And the time for waiting has passed. Anther doesn’t know what emotions come over him, only that they burn as hot as the fire in his chest; claws cracking like lightning strikes with every step as he all but charges forward. The ground shakes beneath his rage, as if even the earth and its endless magic quivered beneath the might of this accursed beast, blood-red scales and dragon-fire burning in his eyes as he bears down upon where Thæon had sat; on his feet, the only one to be where everyone else reels back, thought Anther ignores their scattered shouts of surprise and alarm, so used to the shape of his body now that he doesn’t hesitate to snatch Thæon up in his mouth—lips covering his teeth, because while he is angry and hurt, he doesn’t want to hurt Thæon in turn—ignoring the way the bastard curses and swears and pummels his fists against Anther’s maw with a voice pitched in panic as if expecting blood— “Don’t wait for us, we’ll catch up,” Anther says to Ríenn where she’s sprawled in the mud, eyes wide in terror and something painful; wasting no more time with explanations when she’s not the one he wants to speak to; rising on his hind legs, his wings beating with the same strength of anger the ignites fire in the base of his throat; a growl tearing the quiet to drown out Thæon’s unrelenting curses as he kicks away from the ground and up into the overcast sky. The fists turn into clawing fingers, but they are human and they are weak; they do not hurt Anther as he carries them both higher into the skies, following the silver reflection of the creek as it flows downstream from feeder into stream into river. Thæon’s curses dissolve into bitten words, but Anther ignores them as much as he ignores the hands on his nose; the fingers curling around the lip of his nose, trying not to think about how they feel against his scales; a far cry from the soft affection his recent dreams have given him, or the way Thæon speaks his name like a curse now, when before there had been pride to colour his words. Anther rids himself of his thoughts and rides the wind current further downstream, ignoring her fond laughter too. The dragon carries Thæon until the river is deep, flowing wide and slow; the surface rippling with fish that jump at the pond skaters and the flies that hover near to the wild reeds and shallow waters. It reminds Anther of the lake he has left behind, and the memories of summer days he had spent with Thæon on the shore and on the cliff, learning to fly, learning to strengthen his wings until he was confident they could hold him above the water. But rather than find calm in the memor