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Western shore of France -- 1437
The face of the limestone wall was not sheer. Juts of jaggedrock poked out like gooseflesh on a cold man’s arm, whichmade for good handholds. Feet bare, for better hold, Rhianabalanced on a helmet-sized shelf of rock. Her back and shoulderspinned to the wall, with outstretched arms, she claspedthe uneven surface.
Her heartbeat thudded. A whisper of early-morning breezecurled into the strands of red hair come unbound from theleather strips she used to wrestle her waist-length curls fromher eyes. Her skull vibrated with the constant pulse of excitement.This was the sort of endurance test she craved.
One misbalanced step would see her plunging to the rockyseashore below. Rhiana did not remark even a flutter of fear inher breast. No mincing, faint-hearted female be she. Tears andfright were her sister Odette’s mien.
’Twas the wee hours of the morning, just past lauds. A fewwhite-bellied seabirds coasted over the somnambulant wavesbelow. A silver sky, this day. The moon had fallen behind thedistant line of centuries-old oak and elm that topped the cliffwith a thick emerald cap. Only the tides below that hugged theshore with intermittent shushes marked the time.
This was the hour it slept, the moments between the moon’sdescent and dawn’s rise. Rhiana’s trainer had taught her to observeand understand the beast, though she had only once beforehad the opportunity, and that had been brief.
Opportunity had again come, but not without risk.
The creature inhabited the caves wending beneath themountain that shielded the village of St. Rénan on the northside from the brisk seastorms that frequently arose in the wintermonths. Caves labryinthed for leagues throughout themountain, poking out dozens of exit holes along the craggylimestone wall facing the sea.
The wall of stone to which Rhiana clung.
Swinging her right shoulder, she shuffled her feet on thesmall jut, rotated her hips, and swung her body around. A deftmove, which placed her nose to the wall of rock. The stonesmelled like the sea, salted by centuries of wind and wave.Dashing out her tongue, it tasted dry and salty, much like lastevening’s fish stew cooked by Odette. Her sister should keepto the medical arts she so liked to dabble in, and leave the cookingfor . . . well, certainly not Rhiana. ’Twas their mother, Lydia,who created marvels from flour and sugar.
She moved onward. And down.
A wide ledge served as opening to one of the caves, and itstretched out below her like a minstrel’s stage. Yet it was a dangerousleap. The castle’s finest acrobats might form a tower offour men to broach the distance. A precarious descent.
"I can do this," she muttered to the stone wall. Wasn’t as ifshe’d never before made this climb. "Slowly but surely."
With fingers curved to strong hooks to cling for hold, Rhiana managed another cautious move. She slid her right leg outand tapped a small jut with her toes, testing its stability. Bitsof rock crumbled away. Quickly, she retracted and bent her leftleg. The toes of her right foot found a more secure spot. Therhythm of her heartbeat remained steady -- focused. Sheworked herself lower.
’Twould be better to fashion a rope ladder and secure ithigh. Would that she had so clever an idea before making thisperilous descent. But she would certainly remember it for futurevisits. Sure as the snow always fell in winter, there wouldbe future visits.
Pray she survived this day to see that future.
The scrape of her scaled armor against the stone cautionedRhiana to go slowly. Mustn’t make overmuch noise. The creature’shearing was excellent. As was hers. The only thingknown to muffle its senses -- and hers -- was fire and smoke.
It wasn’t so much that she heard the sound of the beast’sheartbeats in her ears and processed it as noise, rather, thepulse beats of life echoed in her blood as if an ancient stirringof instinct. All her life, Rhiana had noticed before all others,when a dragon had nested in the caves of St. Rénan. Even asa child of five she had alerted her stepfather to a dragon flyingthe distant skies.
Only now was she capable of doing something about thateerie cognizance.
Now she determined the distance for a jump was right. Fingersdry and dusted with limestone powder, she secured agood fingerhold on two craggy dents of rock, and dangled herlegs over the cave opening. The muscles in her arms stretchedto a luxurious ache. Biceps strained, but did not threaten mutiny.
This task was to her mettle. Such inner power, it feltgood. Strength -- it was her boon.
"Admit it!" Memories gushed back from childhood. She’dheld her best friend, Rudolph against the wall, her woodenpractice sword to his gut. "Say it!"
"Not that, Rudolph."
"Oh. Must I?"
On the verge of tears, Rudolph’s lips trembled, but he managedto say, "Girls are better than boys."
Letting go, Rhiana landed her feet and immediately rolledto her side and shoulders, making a complete tumbling circleacross the smooth, stone landing. To roll lessened the impactand spread it throughout her body, minimizing the hazard ofbroken bones. Her trainer had taught her the acrobatic move.She was indebted to Amandine Fleche for the summer he’dspent helping her to master the skills required to perform suchtasks. For she constantly sought danger and answered its call.
As well, the call to seek fire ever tempted.
Scrambling to the edge of the cave opening, Rhiana pressedher back to the magnesium-flecked wall that arced andcurved about the half moon of blackness. The entrance tohell, the villagers named any and all of the cave openings dottingthe seashore.
The scriff of her armor against stone was muted thanks tothe leather tunic upon which the scales had been lashed. PaulTassot had designed the armored tunic, fashioned from the iridescentindigo and violet scales removed from Rhiana’s first --and only -- kill. The scales were impervious to blade, bolt andflame, though she rarely worried for flame.
Many leagues of tunnels and snaking passages wendedthrough the darkness, eventually forming the narrow tunnelsthat led to the penetralia deep beneath the heart of St. Rénan.Never before had more than a single beast nested within thecaves at a time.
Here, standing at the mouth to the cave, the vibrations pulsingin Rhiana’s blood amplified. Mayhap she had gauged theheartbeat incorrectly? Could there be . . . more than one?
"Pray to St. Agatha’s veil there be but the one," she murmured.
This day she would not enter the darkness. She had butcome to mark out her suspicions and verify what the entire fortressedvillage of St. Rénan feared. A dragon had once againcome to nest in the caves that opened onto the sea.
And while past years had proven little interest to the dragons -- none had attacked the village for over a decade -- thistime it was different.
Yesterday evening, Jean Claude Coopier, the village ferrier,had been snatched from his very boots by a vicious dragon. Indeed,Rhiana had noted the empty boots, still standing uprightas if a man wore them, as she passed through the field of vividpinks to the north of St. Rénan on her trek to the caves. JeanClaude had been the third villager taken in five days.
Taken wasn’t exactly the word for…murder. A second manhad been found -- well, parts of him had been discovered at theedge of the forest. A third had been plucked up and droppedinto the sea, never to be rescued.
A carnivorous hell had settled into the caves.
Dragons had ever troubled St. Rénan -- the hoard drew them.Or it once had. For two years the caves had stood empty. Notsince the summer of Rhiana’s training had she seen a dragon.The people had become complacent. The festive hoard-raidshad flourished. Even youngsters banned from the raids hadbegun to trek to the massive caves to sneak about, and the ver few returned with a glittering gold coin as proof of their daring.Of course, the youngsters were aware only of the hoardthat lured the dragons.
Two days ago, St. Rénan had battened down. Rhiana felt thechanged attitude as a tangible shiver in her bones. The peoplefeared. A fear which grew stronger every day, for this time, itwas different. Never had the dragon so boldly hunted people.Once, a man need fear danger only should he stumble into thecaves and upon a sleeping dragon. History told the creature hadto be aggravated to attack. It must sense danger to itself or itsoffspring. And very little posed danger to a dragon.
One dragon was easily endured, for the beast rarely remainedlong. Being social animals, the voracious rampants requiredthe company of their kind while they were young andwily. Only the elder, maxima dragons chose to inhabit a hoardand nest for decades, never leaving, content to exist alone intorpor.
Never, in Rhiana’s two decades, could she recall a dragonpurposefully swooping down from the sky to snatch up a helplessand flailing body.
No man in St. Rénan dared step forth to challenge the beast.Such boldness was the slayer’s vocation.
Yet there did happen to be a slayer in residence.
For many years Rhiana had felt a stirring in her blood. Mayhap,since the very day she entered this world near the warmlicking flames of the massive hearth fire in the castle kitchens.The hearth was so huge a grown man could step inside it withoutbending his head and shoulders. The warmth of the constantblazing flame ever entranced her. Visits to her mother,Lydia, who worked in the castle kitchen, were long and frequentlysilent, for Rhiana would sit before the flames and becometransfixed.
When she was three and her mother would leave her to herstepfather’s care in the armory, Rhiana would sit before the glowingbrazier. Once, she had grabbed for the entrancing flames.Paul, who had just turned to speak to her, let out a shriek andlunged to jerk her hand from the flame. The hem of her sleevehad frayed and burned, yet her flesh had not. Paul had never toldLydia, for he had been remiss in watching Rhiana.
One would think Rhiana had learned a lesson then. But no,it happened on a few more occasions; each time Paul wouldremand her and shake his head. He’d lost his fright over herstrange compulsion to flame, but never his astonishment.
Fire chaser, her stepfather had taken to calling her, whenno one else was around, for most would use it as an oathagainst an arrogant slayer. Ever enchanted by fire, and notafraid of harm.
As for a fire-breathing dragon? This day, Rhiana would standtall before danger and show it her teeth.
Stepping out to the center of the landing, she marked hersteps. Ten paces. Which made the landing about twenty pacessquared. It likely served as a main entrance. There were dozensof openings in the rock wall that hugged the sea and stretchedfor leagues beyond Rhiana’s sight, though this was the only oneshe’d ever explored.
The cry of a seabird soaring overhead distracted her momentarily.And in that moment the shadows within the cave grewdarker. The entrance to hell had never before felt so ominous.
Gifted with Lucifer’s flame . . . Or so legend told.
Sage scented the air. Sweet and heady, a familiar scent, butnever before in so voluminous a concentration. Ancient scholarssaid that sage could expand one’s lifetime to the point ofimmortality.
Rhiana didn’t believe it. No one lived forever.
The fine hairs at her wrists sprang upright. Sensing the ominouspresence before seeing it, she lowered her gaze to searchthe black void. Crouching, she centered her balance. All powermanifested in her belly, her female center. From there she drewup her strength.
Tilting her head, she listened. The basso heartbeats pulsedout a tormenting tattoo.
The distinct scent of the beast curled through Rhiana’s nostrils.It tasted bitter and warning at the back of her throat, andspoke on slithering hisses. I am here. You cannot stop me. Attackscent, that. Once before she had scented it, sharp like thesea, innate and feral. And once before she had vanquished thethreat.
Spreading her legs and squaring her hips beneath her shouldersfor a firm stance, Rhiana reached behind her back and unlatchedthe crossbow from the leather baldric slung fromshoulder to hip. Specially designed by Paul, and forged completelyof steel, the crossbow bore not a sliver of wood that mighteasily be burned to ash. The string? Fashioned from finelybraided dragon’s gut, as well, impervious to flame. A cumbersomewindlass was not required to draw taunt the string on thisprecious bit of weapon. Flexible at rest, the dragon-gut was easilypulled to notch, yet shrank tightly for a forceful release.
She notched an iron bolt into place. But she would not fireunless the beast proved a threat. It could be wandering in asleepy daze, have mistakenly scampered out to the cave opening.Despite their deadly nature, Rhiana revered the dragons.Elegant, wondrous creatures of flight and flame, she felt an affinitytoward the scaled beasts.
"Not of hell," she murmured in awe.
’Tis a wicked enchantment, surely, that birthed them. An enchantmentthat, much against her intuitive calling, lured herto arms.
The click of curved ebony talons, stealthy, marking its paceupon the stone cave floor, told Rhiana this one did not approachin a somnambulant daze.
She slid her free hand over the dagger secured at her hip.The handle was fashioned from an ebony dragon talon.
Emerging into the pale grayness of the pre-dawn, one scaledpaw studded with deadly talons rattled out a warning staccato.Indigo scales glinted even in the feeble light. All about, a heavysilence thickened the air. Not so much as a lap of seawateragainst the stones on the shore below could be heard.
And then, from out of the dark void, the beast’s head sweptforward. The size of two field oxen and rimmed in hard indigoscales and juts of deadly spines was the skull. The horns stabbingout from the temples were small, no longer than Rhiana’sforearm, but weapons she respected. Tusks at the corner of the
mouth were but short picks spiking to the sides. ’Twas a rampant,young and wild, many decades of growth still requiredto reach the elder maxima’s size and docility.
But no less dangerous to a man’s mortality.
Thrusting back her shoulders and lifting her chin, Rhianadeclared, "I am come! Let us begin this dance of will andstrength."
The beast tilted its head, for a moment seeming to wonderat her words.
Rhiana did know they could speak the mortal tongue nomore than she could read their beastly thoughts. Yet, Amandinehad told her the maxima had such ability.
Focusing on the pattern of ridged scales between the eyes,shaped like an inverted cross, she readied her aim.
A hiss of sage-tainted smoke billowed from the nostrils ina creepy fog. So sweet, their breath. Intoxicating, should onelose focus and succumb. Smoke dulled her senses, but sheknew it had the same effect on her opponent.
The beast drew up tall, its head rising as it stretched up itslong neck.Rhiana anticipated its next move.
Defiant in her stance, she merely smiled as the creature’shead lunged and the jaws opened wide. Deadly maws targetedher feeble size. A filigree of amber flame danced upon the air.One moment it formed a wisp of steam at the corners of thedragon’s tusk-pointed jaw, the next, it formed a rippling cacophonyof heat and fire and evil that encompassed Rhiana’sbody.
Heat, smothering, yet intoxicatingly dreamy, wavered imagesof the world before her. Amber wall of stone on fire. Distortedcrystal sky. A frenzied blotch of scale and fang behindthe wall of flame.
Standing amidst the fire Rhiana could not breathe. Her lungsexpanded, then sealed up. Her chest felt bloated, stopped up.Her senses began to shut down. But she did not fear.
Fire. ’Twas her vitae.
As the last tendril of flame extinguished, Rhiana confidentlyraised her crossbow and sighted in her mark. The dragon, its head still lowered as if to attack, held its wide gold eyes at alevel to her shoulders. Inverted cross in sight above the top ofher bolt -- perfect.
She released the trigger. The heavy steel bolt hissed throughthe sky and landed the target. There, in the center of the beast’sskull, right between the eyes -- the kill spot, a direct entranceto the brain through a fine seam in the skull. Cursed by Heavenfor its fall from grace.
Impact forced the creature up onto its powerful hind legs.The belly of soft, semipermeable violet scales glittered as thefirst beams of sunlight broke the horizon. Great pelliclewings scooped the air, the force of wind pushing Rhianaback a few steps. She marked her position. Fire did no harm,but a slap from a wildly flailing wing could push her over theedge.
And then, it tumbled. Over the side of the cliff it soared withlittle grace. Once an elegant beast of flight, now it crashed upon the stones and boulders below with a bone- and scale-crunching sound that sifted up dust and caused the seabirds to cryout the death of its winged compatriot.
A quick death, that.
Rhiana, still standing her ground, waited for the calamityto settle. Breaths huffing, a smile formed.
Swiping a palm across her face she nodded, and thenpropped the crossbow against her shoulder. "’Tis not a goodday to be a dragon."
The beast had landed the shore; its upper half, including theneck and skull, had plunged into the sea. No bones or scalesto claim this day; the tide would carry away the carcass beforenightfall.
From within the blackness of the cave opening anotherheartbeat yet pulsed, but she did not sense the second had beenwakened by the attack.
A second? Truly, there was another.
Was it the mate? The fallen dragon was female, evident inits bright coloring. It was the male that protected the eggs, andwhich was in need of dull gray scales. Never had Rhiana seena dragon egg. Or a male, for that matter.
Topside, after a perilous climb up the cliff face, Rhianarushed across the open meadow to the forest and retrieved thethick wool cloak she’d secreted behind the twisted trunk of aburned-out oak stump. Swinging the cloak around her shoulders,she then followed the purlieu of the forest a league backto the battlement walls.
The sun dashed a gold line across the horizon and even froma distance Rhiana heard a rooster crow the morn. Beads of dewdanced at grass-tip blades like faery finery. The morningsmelled fresh and salted with the slightest tang of sage.
As she walked, she pulled the leather tie from her bound hairand shook it over her shoulder. True, dragon’s flame did littleharm to her flesh and hair. But she hadn’t yet discovered a fabricthat could withstand the heat, be it dragon flame or a simplehearth fire. The thin cambric tunic she wore beneath thescaled leather armor had burned away during her flaming,proving the wool cloak a necessity.
This armor was remarkable. Fashioned by her stepfatherPaul, the leather cuirass was more a tunic that covered chest,back and the tops of her shoulders and arms. Secured at thebacks of her arms and down her torso with leather straps, thethin strips were stitched through with fine mail wire to allowmalleable strength that couldn’t be burned away. As for the mailchausses, Rhiana had made them herself, utilizing double ringsinstead of the usual single ring method. Rarely did she wearbut hose beneath them -- heavier chamois braies were unnecessary -- for the thick mail protected verily, even one’s modesty.
Rhiana felt she might wear merely the armor, baring moreflesh than any maiden should, for it would save on damagedclothing. But she must be cautious. Should she be spied in suchattire, surely there would be a price to pay.
All in St. Rénan knew of her industry. They had seen hertromping about in the armor and wielding her dagger. "She’san odd one," they’d mutter to themselves. "Always has been."Why, some had mistaken her for a boy when younger, for herantics and attraction to all things muddy or slimy, and her frequentplay with makeshift weapons.
Yet, all in St. Rénan believed the real slayer who had beenvisiting the village two years earlier had taken down thedragon. A dragon Rhiana had slain. At the time, she hadn’t feltthe need to correct perceptions, for she’d been so excited, theelation of the kill had far outweighed any glory the villagersmight have bestowed. Instead, she’d gladly stood back whileAmandine had collected his dragon’s purse from the hoardcouncil as payment for his kill.
Praise and acknowledgment mattered very little to Rhiana,only that her loved ones were kept safe. For without family,what had one left?
The village walls were sixty feet high and fashioned frommassive bricks shaped from the same ocher limestone thatfrilled the seashore. Four towers set at each direction of thecompass punctuated the battlement walls, with wide parapetwalks stretching between them all. The walls completely closedin the village, for it was small, yet growing, though none hadchosen to build outside the walls for the dangers were real.
Avoiding the drawbridge that crossed to St. Rénan’s barbicanand main entrance gates, Rhiana skipped along the curtainwall to the north entrance, close to where the artillerystored dusty trebuchets and long-forgotten cannonballs. It wasrarely used, for siege and battle were nonexistent.
A narrow plank, no wider than two fists, stretched acrossthe dry, yet deep, moat, attracting only the most deft and balanced.
Steadying herself with but one outstretched arm, Rhianadanced across the wobbly plank. The scaled armor clickedsoftly and her mail chausses chinged. The sound of mail in motionmade her smile. It signified all things chivalrous and adventurousto her. Halfway across she lunged into a bounce. Theplank wobbled, digging up plumes of dry earth at either end.Lifting one foot out before her, Rhiana performed anotherbounce, landed her foot and skipped quickly to ground andthe thick iron door.
She glanced back at the expanse of moat she’d crossed. A satisfiednod followed. Every opportunity to danger must be met.
Rudolph manned the barbican in the early morn, but hiswatch didn’t start until prime, so Rhiana had coerced him toguard this door. Rudolph was a lifelong friend and fellow cohortin today’s mission, for ’twas his brother Jean Claude whohad been snatched from his very boots.
A double rap to the thick iron door with the heel of hercrossbow, was followed by Rudolph’s husky, "Who goes there?"
The lanky young man always tried to lower his voice andspeak slowly, as Rhiana had suggested would make him soundmore imposing.
"Fire chaser," Rhiana replied, the previously decided password.It was a nickname only Rudolph and Paul used, yet Rudolphwas not privy to her most exotic secrets, as was herstepfather.
A blinking eyeball peered through the squint hole. The dooropened and an arm lashed out to grip her by the wrist and tugher inside the battlement walls. Slammed against the closingdoor, Rhiana smirked at Rudolph’s theatrics.
With a scatter of blonde hair poking out from beneath histight leather skullcap, he glared his best glare at her, then,with a sniff and a nod, stepped back, assuming modest nonchalance."My lady."
"Rudolph." She chuckled and tugged unconsciously at thewool cloak. He did not know what she wore -- or did notwear -- beneath. "Do you not recognize my voice, that youmust every time treat me as a possible intruder?"
"It is my task, my lady, to protect the village from impostorsand brigands."
When they were children he’d once accused her of pressinghim to always play the knight when he much preferred to bea minstrel or village fool. Mayhap their play battles had someinfluence in his chosen profession of guard, or so Rhiana likedto believe.
"You serve Lord Guiscard well with your astute attention todetail."
Pleased with the compliment, Rudolph bowed in affirmation.Then with a nervous tug of his cap, which never did coverhis overlarge ears, he grew more serious. "Any dragons?" hewondered.
"One less, thanks be to my trusty crossbow."
"My lady, you are a gem!" Eyes stretching up the battlementwall to her side, Rudolph said with less enthusiasm, "If onlyyou had been near when Jean Claude was taken."
"Rudolph." She clamped a palm upon his shoulder. Wheatdust smoked out from his brown tunic; he spent his nights romancingthe miller’s daughter in the shadows of the flour mill."Your brother was a benevolent man, ever eager to set asidewhat he was doing to aid, be it building or chopping or evensinging during the village’s frequents fêtes. There is no doubt,in my heart, Jean Claude sings with the angels this day."
"You are ever kind. I just . . . keep wondering how awful itmust feel to be snatched up in a dragon’s maw."
A thought Rhiana had had many a time. It was what hadkept her alert and deft in the face of danger.
Rudolph stomped a boot upon the packed dirt ground. "Forgiveme, I am well and fine. No tears, no tears."
Sniffing, he resumed a defensive stance, arms crossed overhis chest, and a guardlike frown upon his face. A familiar pose,for Rhiana had often pushed him to tears with her teasing. Because,most certainly, girls were better than boys.
"Thank you, Rudolph. I continue to rely upon your discretion."
"But wait!" He blocked her leave with a dancing step to theright. "You said one less. What does that mean? One less? Lessthan more?" His voice warbled. "Be there more . . . dragons?"
"Shh, Rudolph, you’ll wake curious ears." They both lookeddown the aisle of houses that snaked along the battlementwalls. But a strip of sunlight glowed upon the slate rooftops."I am not positive, but I think there is another."
"Another," he panted out. Straining to keep his voice to awhisper, he muttered, "Go back! Kill it, fire chaser! Do not letthis day pass without banishing hell’s evil. It will continue tostalk our village!"
"Rudolph." Rhiana sighed.
Should she have remained? Walked deep into the darknessof the cave and explored, seeking the other dragon?
No, the other had slept surely. Else, would it not have flownout to avenge its mate’s death? She had sensed no immediatedanger. And what if it had been male, protecting a newling?She did not kill indiscriminately.
"I am on it, you can trust me."
"Girls are better than boys," he tried with a teasing lilt tothe statement.
She winked and gave him a quick hug, then strode past himand into the narrow back alleys twisting about behind St. Rénan’sstrip of artillery and armory shops. The buildings wereconstructed of timber posts and beams, but overlaid by slateor fieldstone. A decades-old edict declared all buildings mustbe of stone and all roofs of slate or tile. Best defense for a villageoft ravaged by flame.
A cock again crowed the morning and dogs yipped in response.The delicious smell of baking bread unearthed a ridiculoushunger in Rhiana’s belly. Dragon slaying was hard workand required a hearty meal. She must to home to catch the lastbits of Odette’s breakfast.
A twig rolled off an overhead rooftop and tapped her on theshoulder. Must be from a bird. But yet -- she paused andsearched the sky. One must never become complacent. Somany noises in this village forged of stone and earth and as littlewood as possible. She spied a dash of gray skirts.
Rhiana skipped around and hid behind a tightly woven wattlearbor. Her mother made her way to the castle kitchen. Lydiawalked a swift pace, and kept looking over her shoulder. As ifshe thought she was being followed. Strange.
Rhiana scanned the area. No one else out so early. Hmm . . .
Her mother had been different the past fortnight. AvoidingRhiana more than usual. She was most brisk with their conversations.’Twas almost as if Rhiana had done something toaffront Lydia. But she did not know how to ask if there was aproblem.
Lydia’s dour gray skirts swept out of view and behind a wallof hornbeam.
Rhiana sighed. "Something is amiss with her."
As she walked onward, the clangs of the armourer’s hammersang out like a childhood lullaby. Truly, such racket waslullaby matter to her. Since she was very young, Rhiana hadspent her days toddling about Paul Tassot’s legs, asking himquestions about every step in the process of creating armor,playing with the old yellow mongrel that slept beneath thestone cooling tank, thriving in the atmosphere of the shop.
The song of the hammer beat out a rhythm in her blood. Hardmetals being coaxed into smooth, elegant curves, and bladesthat could kill with but a slice? How exciting! The red-hotflames and the glow of heated iron? Mesmerizing. Whereverthere was fire, Rhiana felt soothing comfort. And the exquisitereassurance of gold, on the rare occasions Paul worked the supplemetal to a fine sheet to leaf armor, ever beckoned.
Rhiana slipped into the shop and padded across the sweptstone floor. The armory was circular, the south half sportingthe brazier and works in progress. The north half was set upwith a massive oak table for detail and leatherwork.
Bent over the flame, Paul concentrated on a curve of metalheated to vibrant amber. Paul Tassot was Rhiana’s mother’s husband.He was not her father, but had married Lydia when Rhianawas three.
Rhiana did not know her real father. For all purposes, a manhad been in her life from the time of her birth until she wastwo. One Jean Cesar Ulrich Villon III; he was not her fathereither, though he had been married to her mother. Villon hadabandoned her and her mother without reason or word. Lydiahad cried for a se’ennight following. Even so small, Rhiana hadwondered would her mother’s tears flood their home andsweep them both out to the sea, never again to be found, andso far away from flame and the family she loved.
As she grew older, many questions busied Rhiana’sthoughts. But when asked, Lydia Tassot would not speak ofRhiana’s origins. Rhiana suspected her mother must have beenviolated, or, in her more lusty imagination, she wondered hadher mother an affair with a powerful lord or a fancy travelingcourtier.
Either way, Rhiana had taken to Paul Tassot, who had beena mainstay in her life for twenty years. Just riding the end ofhis fifth decade, he possessed kind blue eyes that never lookedupon Rhiana with the exasperated frustration Lydia’s eyes oftenheld. And he was supportive of her quest. When Lydia scoffedat Rhiana taking off with a slayer to hone her skills, upon herreturn, Paul would question her every lesson with great fascination.What is he teaching you? Do you feel confident? Howcan I help? And under his breath -- touch any flame this day?
Paul looked up from his task. "Ah!"
After an incident with sickness last summer all of Paul’s hairhad fallen out. Now, recovered and healthy thanks to Odette’sinfamous comfrey poultice, he continued to shave off the newgrowth. Rhiana liked his shiny bald pate. It was soft and round,like his giving heart. The man embodied integrity in his simplemanner and devotion to his family.
He flashed her a brilliant smile, and with a shrug, workedhis shoulders against the rounding hours leaning over theanvil forged into his muscles. A nod of his head summonedRhiana to his side.
The glowing curve of iron he held with tongs could not beleft unattended, so he divided his attention between it and her.A forceful pound of the hammer clanged the molten metal andsparks danced out like fire sprites.
"Come from the caves?"
Rhiana nodded as she reached behind her waist to itch atthe leather points securing her tunic to the mail chausses.
"Was it as you suspected?" he asked.
"Yes, and no. There may be more than one of them," Rhianaexplained. "I didn’t have a chance to focus and count, butcertainly there could be another."
"Yes, I sensed another heartbeat after -- Oh, Paul! I took outa female rampant."
"You did?" He winked and smiled broadly. So much pridein that look. Another pound. Sparks glittered in the air betweenthem. "So the armor is good?"
Rhiana dropped the wool cloak to a puddle around her feet.The entire armored tunic glittered with the mystique of thebeasts. Fashioned from dragon scales, the iridescent diskschanged from indigo to violet beneath the sun. Paul hadsmoothed the sharp edges and pierced holes in each scale withsuch care. After much trial and error, he’d discovered the onlytool capable of piercing the scale was an actual dragon’s talonor tooth. He’d designed a small inner tooth, which the beastused for ripping its prey apart, as a punch.
Rhiana felt no embarrassment standing before Paul in theflesh-baring costume. But the backs of her arms and a narrowslit down each side of her torso showed. Paul had workedwith her to fit the scales to her body to provide maximummovement along with minimal weight and excess attire. It washe who had suggested she wear a thin tunic beneath, for hermodesty, but they both knew Rhiana would be sewing many atunic should her slaying skills ever be called upon.
"Change in the closet," he said, turning the curve of molteniron, held with a pincers, to begin working the oppositeside. The dry metallic scent of heated iron was most pleasantto Rhiana’s senses. "The gown you keep stashed in there waits.Did no one see you reenter the village?"
"Rudolph is most discreet," Rhiana called as she slipped intothe tool closet and closed the creaky wood door.
"Only because you have cowed him over the years," Paulsaid. With a laugh, he again hammered at the supple metal.
They both felt it important to keep Rhiana’s slaying discreet.Certainly the threat to the village must be dispatched.But so many had difficulty accepting a female as a powerful andstrong force.
It dumbfounded Rhiana. Why should she not be allowed toperform the same tasks as men?
Inside the closet, her eyes strayed across the items on themany supply shelves. Splaying her fingers across a tray of wirerings she’d fashioned a few days earlier made her smile. Craftingmail, she enjoyed. Almost as much as slaying.
Copyright © 2006 Michele Hauf