Stephen Deas: The King of the Crags

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Stephen Deas The King of the Crags
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    The King of the Crags
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    Фэнтези / на английском языке
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    Английский
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Stephen Deas


The King of the Crags

Prologue

The Dead

The Worldspine surrounded them. Mountains like immense teeth, jagged and huge and white, reared up all around their little valley. Monsters overshadowing the dense dark greens and blacks of the pine forest surrounding a lake of glacier water, the brightest purest blue that Kemir had ever seen.

Very slowly, they were dying. Nadira couldn't see it yet and Kemir didn't have the heart to tell her, but it was true. He'd kept them alive for five days now, since Snow had vanished beneath the frozen waters of the lake, but it couldn't last. The weather had been kind to them, but wind and rain were always fickle in the Worldspine. One day he'd run out of arrows, or his bowstring would break. Or one of them would get hurt or fall ill. He wasn't catching enough food, and they didn't have the clothes or the shelter to stay properly warm. A hundred things could go wrong, and sooner or later one of them would.

They had to move. He tried to break it to Nadira, to make her understand that Snow wasn't coming back, that their only chance was to leave and head for lower ground. A boat, he thought. Or at least a raft. Water always found the quickest way down the mountains.

She screamed in his face. Shrieked at him that Snow was coming back. He backed away. One more day, he promised himself. One more day and then he'd leave, with or without her. He could force her to come, he knew that, but he'd let her choose. She could stay and die if she wanted. That's what Sollos would have done.

As that last day began to fade he made his weary way back to the lake, carrying with him what little food he'd been able to hunt and gather. The forests here were harsh and hostile and yielded little. He was hungry. They were both hungry. They'd eat and they'd still be hungry.

He reached what passed for their camp at the edge of the lake and the hairs on the back of his neck bristled. He couldn't see Nadira. The forest was silent except for the wind and the ever-present creaking and groaning of the glacier. He stared out across the lake. And suddenly he felt the fire and iron of the dragon's presence, a moment before the water began to churn. Little One Kemir, I am hungry.

Kemir froze, rooted to the spot. The dragon was rising out of the lake as white as the glacier ice, clouds of steam billowing around her.

And she was hungry. Five days lying at the bottom of a frozen lake would do that, I suppose.

She was probably going to eat him then. Somehow, he couldn't bring himself to be properly terrified. In some ways it would be a relief.

'Right. So you're not dead,' he growled. It was just as well, he decided, that Nadira wasn't anywhere nearby. As last words went, those definitely weren't the best.

That's when her absence hit him right in the chest. Nadira. Where was she?

No.

'Alchemist's poisons didn't kill you then. Freezing water did the trick, eh?' Why wasn't she there?

Yes. And no, I do not intend to eat you. I am… grateful…to you for showing me this place.

If dragons had expressions, Kemir hadn't learned to read them yet. The dragon's name was Snow, and as far as Kemir could tell, she always looked like she was about to eat him. Come on, woman, where are you? You should be here. Your dragon's back.

'Hurrah for me, then.' He sat down. 'So you're hungry. So go eat something.' He couldn't keep it in any more. 'You didn't eat Nadira, did you?' He felt almost stupid asking. Of course she hadn't.

There was a long silence. She was not your mate.

'No! She's not my mate! She's my…' Yes, now that was a good question. She was his what, exactly? His friend? Don't be ridiculous. His companion? He grimaced. That made him sound like an old widow.

Your nest-sister.

Which made him laugh. Since he couldn't think of anything better, he nodded. 'Yes. My nest-sister. So, did you eat her?'

Yes.

Kemir didn't move. Snow was joking. She had to be. Even though dragons had no sense of humour, even though Snow had never said anything funny about anything, this had to be a joke.

I was hungry. He could feel something in her, though. The same feeling as had been inside her when her Scales had disappeared. Shame, perhaps.

No, she wasn't joking.

The rage started in his face. At the end of his nose. A heat that washed slowly into his cheeks. 'And that's what you do when you're hungry.' Down his neck, growing hotter and stronger. He picked up a stone from the lakeside, jumped to his feet and threw it at the dragon in the water. It bounced off her scales.

Yes. And I am hungry still, Kemir.

Across his shoulders. 'Whoever happens to be there. Whoever is closest. You couldn't wait. You couldn't hold it in. You couldn't go hungry. You just…' Through his arms. He hurled another stone at her and then threw up his hands in exasperation. 'Bang. Gone. Whatever happens to be there. She was your…' She was what? What could you be to a dragon?

Food is food, Kemir.

There weren't any stones big enough to answer that. Or rather there were, but Kemir couldn't lift them. 'What?' Oh yes, that really told her.

She was not your mate, Kemir.

The heat reached his hands, oozing down his fingers like lava until it reached the very tips. Then it all came rushing back. From everywhere. From his fingers, from his toes, from his arms and legs and chest and exploded all together in his head. He roared with rage and loss and sheer disbelief and hurled himself into the water, clutching his hatchet. 'Why did you do that?' He stopped, He had to stop. He was already floundering in freezing water up to his waist. Snow was too deep to reach. He threw the axe at her as hard as he could and watched as it it too bounced off her scales and vanished into the water. He screamed at her again. 'Why? Why did you do that?'

His words echoed off the mountainsides. Snow didn't move. Kemir pounded the water with his fists.

'Come here! Come here where I can reach you!'

If it is any help to you, she did not particularly mind.

'What? She didn't…? She didn't what?' He clutched at his head and surged back to the shore, slipping, falling, lurching out of the water. There had to be something, somewhere. Anything. A weapon. Something to batter a dragon. He'd rip her apart with his bare hands if he had to.

She did not particularly mind.

He picked up another stone. Snow was coming towards him, very slowly, one careful step at a time. He threw the stone, then another and another, as fast as he could until Snow reached the shore. Then he let out a mad shriek and ran at her, hacking at her legs and claws with his knife. But no matter how hard he stabbed, her scales turned his blade. He beat on her with his fists and howled. 'Why? Why did you do that?'

Because she was hungry. That was all. She didn't even have to say it. And now she was just letting him vent his anger.

Kemir backed away.

'Eat me!' he roared, and threw down the knife. He stood in front of her head. 'Come on then! Eat me!' No.

'Why not? She was all I had left. My last. Come on, dragon, eat me too!' He picked up another stone and then put it down again and reached for an arrow. 'Curse you, dragon. She didn't particularly mind being eaten?' He pulled back the bowstring. Maybe if I aim for the eye…

No, Kemir, she did not.

He looked down the length of the arrow to aim and met Snow, eyeball to eyeball at the other end of it. What am I doing? I was wondering that myself.

He took a deep breath. 'You tell me, dragon, how do you know that she didn't particularly mind? Did you ask before you ate her?'

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