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The Vindrasi believe that every person has his own wyrd, as does every god. The wyrds of men and gods are intertwined, often to the detriment of man, for the gods are all-seeing, whereas man is blind. But sometimes the gods discover that foresight is a curse, not a blessing. For though a god may believe he is sure of the future of creation, no god can ever be truly confident that what he sees will come to pass, for no god can dictate the actions of men.
For men are free to choose. And thus men may unwittingly unravel the plans of the gods. . . .
Skylan Ivorson, Chief of Chiefs of the Vindrasi nation, sat in the sand and watched half-naked men with hammers crawl over the side of his ship. He was reminded of flies swarming over a carcass.
The damage the Venjekar had suffered when the ship ran aground on a sandbar was greater than Acronis, the Legate of Oran, had first thought. After capturing the ship, the Legate had ordered his men to make some cursory repairs to the hull and then sail with the tide. The Venjekar had taken on so much water so rapidly that Tribune Zahakis, chosen by the Legate to captain the ship, had barely made it back to shore.
Skylan had felt a grim sort of satisfaction in the failure. It was as if the Venjekar knew she had been taken captive and had chosen to sink to the bottom of the sea rather than submit to her captors. Skylan prayed to Torval that the foul Southlanders would not be able to repair the Venjekar. Let them take away his sword, haul him off in chains; he would find some comfort in the fact that his ship had steadfastly defied her foes.
The Venjekar had not been given the choice. The Legate carried carpenters on board his ship, a war galley which the soldiers called a â€œtriremeâ€ because it had three banks of oars. Acronis sent the carpenters to make repairs. Zahakis ordered the Torgun prisoners to be removed from the ship. They now sat in the sand, their hands and feet shackled, bound to each other by chains, and watched over the soldiers of the Legate in their glistening segmented armor and leather skirts.
The Torgun warriors, bereft of their armor, were now only seven in number. Almost thirty had set sail on the Venjekar when Skylan had begun this god-cursed voyage. Some had died fighting the giants on the Dragon Isles. Some had been wounded in the battle against the Southlanders. They had survived their wounds only to die later with the others, victims of a strange sickness, the likes of which the Torgun had never known before.
The sickness came on suddenly, beginning with fever and chills, stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea, and ending in death for many. Others, like Aylaen and Treia, Erdmun and the youngster, Farinn, had caught the sickness, but recovered. Skylan had not been affected by it at all, possibly because he had remained isolated from the others, a prisoner in the hold. The sickness had not struck Wulfe either, possibly because the boy had run away. Terrified of the strange soldiers, Wulfe had stayed away from the camp for days. He was gone so long Skylan had thought the boy had run off for good this time. But then Wulfe had returned, showing up unexpectedly, saying he was hungry.
Skylan had feared the soldiers of Oran would try to shackle Wulfe. The boy had a marked aversion to iron, swearing he could not touch it or it would hurt him. Wulfe could not even bear to smell it.
The Southlanders did not shackle Wulfe. They had no manacles that would fit over the boyâ€™s scrawny wrists, and no one considered the eleven-year-old boy a danger. They didnâ€™t particularly care if he ran away again, and so the soldiers left him alone. If Raegar had been on shore, he could have told them that Wulfe was extremely dangerous. He would have urged the soldiers to bind him hand and foot and lock him in the hold. Raegar was not there, however. Skylan had not seen his traitor cousin for days. Wulfe crouched by Skylanâ€™s side, keeping his distance, for fear he might accidentally touch one of the iron shackles.
The prisoners were not chained up to keep them from running away, but rather to discourage the â€œsavagesâ€ from attacking their guards. The Torgun warriors had already tried twice to fight their captors, not with any hope of escape, for they had no weapons, but simply with the intent of killing as many as they could before they themselves were killed.
The Torgun blamed Skylan for everythingâ€”the storm that had blown them off course, the disastrous encounter with giants, their enslavement. They even blamed him for the sickness. The Torgun could not blame Skylan more than he blamed himself. Nor could they hate Skylan more than he hated himself.
Skylan had often dreamt that his soul went to Torvalâ€™s Hall of Heroes. As he stood among the valiant warriors who had died with swords in their hands, his hands and feet were bound by chains. Torval and the other heroic warriors had roared with laughter, driving him from the Hall. He would constantly awake from that terrible dream in a cold sweat.
Skylan now watched the carpenters. He had to admit, grudgingly, that they knew their business. He turned to Wulfe, who was digging holes in the sand.
â€œI asked you a question. Where has Raeger been keeping himself?â€ Skylan said. â€œI would think he would be hanging around like he did at first, gloating and jeering at us.â€
Wulfe shrugged. â€œHe is probably somewhere rutting with Treia.â€
Skylan stared at the boy, incredulous. â€œTreia? And Raegar? Treia may be a venemous snake, but she is Vindrasi. She is loyal to her people and to her gods. Raegar betrayed her as he betrayed the rest of us. She would scratch out his eyes if he came near her.â€
â€œI saw them,â€ said Wulfe. â€œIn the temple. Rutting.â€
â€œWhat do you mean, you saw them in the temple? What temple? Where?â€ Skylan demanded.
â€œThe temple here,â€ said Wulfe. â€œThe temple with the big statue of a dragon inside it.â€
Skylan frowned. â€œThis isnâ€™t another of your stories, is it? Like claiming you can talk to satyrs and dryads.â€
â€œI do talk to satyrs and dryads,â€ said Wulfe. â€œAnd I did see Raegar and Treia.â€
Skylan was dubious. He believed the boy lied, but his lies had the value of being entertaining. â€œTell me what they said. And keep your voice down.â€
An armed guard, looking hot and bored, paced about the sandy shoreline.
Wulfe leaned a little nearer, keeping a wary eye on the iron clamped around Skylanâ€™s wrists and ankles, as though he expected it to leap up and bite him.
â€œYou remember when the dragon goddess came to you?â€ Wulfe asked. â€œRight before you fought the giants?â€
Skylan remembered that encounter only too well. He gave a brief nod; his lips tightened. â€œI remember. Go on.â€
Wulfe continued. â€œThe dragon goddess scared me and I ran away. I found Garn, but he was holding a sword and there were more men with him holding swords, and that scared me more than the dragon, and I ran away from them, too. Thatâ€™s when I saw Treia. She was tearing her hair and wringing her hands and talking crazy to herself, all about how Raegar was dead and no man would ever love her.â€
Skylan nodded. Wulfeâ€™s story fit with what Garn had told him, about how the distraught Treia, grieving over the supposedly drowned Raegar, had gone off by herself. No one knew where. The Torgun had been going to search for her, but then the giants had attacked them and they were fighting for their lives.
â€œI didnâ€™t know where you were or how to get back to camp,â€ Wulfe said. â€œI thought Treia would know the way so I followed her. But she didnâ€™t go back to camp. She went into the temple with the dragon. And there was Raegar, alive, lying on the floor. His clothes were all wet.â€
â€œOf course they were,â€ said Skylan. â€œHe didnâ€™t fall off the ship. He jumped overboard and swam ashore.â€
â€œMaybe.â€ Wulfe shrugged. â€œRaegar told Treia a god had punished him. Treia was so glad to see him she began to rut with him then and there. Afterward she asked why he was being punished. He said it was because he was keeping your secret. And then he told her your secret, about how you and Draya murdered someone named Horg. Did you murder someone named Horg?â€
Skylan sighed and was silent for long moments, gazing out over the clear, waveless sea. At length, he shook his head.
â€œBut someone named Horg was murdered?â€ Wulfe asked.
â€œYes,â€ said Skylan.
â€œBut you didnâ€™t murder him?â€
â€œNo. I fought cleanly. As Torval is my witness!â€ Skylan said vehemently. â€œI did what I believed to be right. Why is it,â€ he asked in frustration, â€œthat every time I think I am doing right, it turns out to be wrong?â€
â€œMaybe you should do something wrong and then it will turn out right,â€ Wulfe suggested.
Skylan smiled bleakly. â€œMaybe I should. Garn knew. Garn always knew what was right. He tried to tell me and I wouldnâ€™t listen. And now Garn is dead and I am a slave and my people are slaves.â€
â€œAll because of Treia.â€ Wulfe growled, sounding so much like a dog that the soldier whistled and looked around in search of an animal.
â€œI canâ€™t blame her,â€ said Skylan. â€œShe trusted Raegar. We all did.â€
Wulfe snorted. â€œShe likes rutting with him.â€
â€œHow do you know Raegar was lying? Maybe it was a miracle. Maybe Vindrash did save him.â€
Wulfe snorted. â€œVindrash wears boots then. The floor was dusty and I saw the footprints. I saw Raegarâ€™s footprints. His feet were bare and wet. I saw two pairs of prints of men who had been wearing boots and they were dry. They stood and talked to Raegar. The dry boots left and Raegar stayed.â€
Skylan frowned. â€œIf thatâ€™s true, Raegar knew Treia would go to the temple. She is our Bone Priestess. She would go there first to pray. Raegar was waiting for her!â€
â€œI tried to warn you about her,â€ said Wulfe. He gave Skylanâ€™s arm a sympathetic pat, though he was still careful to keep his distance from the iron manacles. â€œI hate her. And I hate Raegar. He hit me!â€
â€œWhy? What did you do?â€
Wulfe muttered something.
â€œWhat?â€ Skylan nudged him. â€œSpeak up.â€
â€œHe caught me spying on them,â€ said Wulfe sullenly. â€œAnd he hit me. Someday Iâ€™ll kill him.â€
â€œGet in line,â€ said Skylan.
He was silent, then he asked the question heâ€™d been afraid to ask. â€œHow is Aylean? I heard she had the sickness, but that she survived. I also heard that she tried to fight the soldiers. They didnâ€™t hurt her, did they?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. Sheâ€™s in the Big Ship out there.â€
Wulfe pointed to the trireme, which floated at anchor some distance away, near the sandbar on which the Venjekar had disastrously run aground. Compared to the sleek, graceful, dragon-prowed Venjekar, the trireme with its large hull and oars and beaked snout looked like some sort of gigantic seagoing turtle.
â€œDonâ€™t worry,â€ said Wulfe. â€œThey wonâ€™t hurt Aylean or Treia. Raegar told the soldiers both women were Bone Priestesses and his god wanted them safe.â€
â€œI wonder why his god wants Bone Priestesses,â€ Skylan muttered. He shifted in the sand, trying to find a more comfortable position, causing the chains to clank. The guard cast him a sharp glance.
â€œYou twoâ€”shut up! No talking!â€ the soldier shouted.
Skylan glared at him and started to say something else. The soldier walked toward them. Wulfe jumped to his feet and scrambled off.
The soldier paid no attention to the boy. He kicked Skylan in the ribs. â€œWhat were you two talking about?â€
â€œGo diddle yourself,â€ said Skylan.
The soldier started to kick Skylan again. Skylan had been spoiling for a fight and this seemed as good a time as any. He jumped to his feet and swung the chain that hung from the shackles at the soldierâ€™s head. The heavy leg irons hampered Skylanâ€™s movement; his swing was slow and clumsy. The soldier ducked, then drew his sword and struck Skylan on the side of his head with the flat of his blade.
Skylan fell sprawling in the sand. He could taste blood in his mouth. His ears rang.
â€œBetter hope you didnâ€™t kill him,â€ said another soldier. â€œThe Legate will be furious if you did. He expects this one to fight in the Para Dix.â€
â€œBah! I didnâ€™t hurt him. These savages are like mules. You have to hit them to get their attention.â€
The soldier started to kick Skylan again. Skylan twisted around, grabbed hold of the manâ€™s foot, and yanked him off balance. The soldier landed on his butt in the sand.
His comrades chortled and jeered. The soldier, his face red with fury and embarassment, scrambled to his feet. He would have probably killed Skylan if the Tribune had not come up at that moment.
â€œHarm him, Manetas, and the Legate will have his price out of your pay,â€ said the Tribune. â€œYou men, chain him more securely.â€
The Tribuneâ€™s name was Zahakis. Skylan had taken particular notice of him. The man was tall for a Southlander; his body was all muscle. His nose was misshapen. He was dark-skinned, darker than most of the swarthy Southlanders. An old scar sliced across his face from cheek to chin. He was, perhaps, in his early thirties. He was a man of few words, quick decision.
The main reason Skylan found Zahakis interesting was that there was no love lost between the Tribune and Raegar. Skylan had observed the animosity between the two the first time he saw them together.
Raegar had given the soldiers orders regarding the Venjekar. The soldiers had listened to Raegar, their faces expressionless. After Raegar had gone, the men had looked to Zahakis.
â€œCarry on with what you were doing,â€ was his order.
The soldiers, grinning, had obeyed Zahakis.
Skylan was not certain what use he would make of this animosity between them, other than he was glad to find someone elseâ€”even an enemyâ€”who despised Raegar as much as he did.
Zahakis was watching in silence as the soldiers wrenched Skylanâ€™s arms behind his back and bound him by the wrists, then thrust a wooden pole through the bend in his elbows, between his arms and his back, forcing his arms into an awkward and painful position.
This done, Zahakis said, â€œWe have new orders. Some of you, come with me.â€
The soldiers walked off after their commander.
Skylan sat hunched over, spitting blood and sand. He glanced at the other Torgun. The grim and dour Sigurd, friend of his fatherâ€™s and now nominal Chief of the Torgun. Bjorn, prone to gossip and laughter, his best friend next to Garn. Erdmun, Bjornâ€™s younger brother, gloomy, never happier than when he was expecting trouble. Grimuir, friend and ally of Sigurdâ€™s, he had never liked Skylan. Farinn, the youngest, quiet and withdrawn, mostly kept to himself. Aki the Dark; he had only recently come to the Torgun from another clan and Skylan did not know much about him. The warriors looked at Skylan, and then they looked away.
Skylan sighed. He didnâ€™t know what heâ€™d hoped for. Not love or friendship. But maybe admiration? Nothing. They despised him. They didnâ€™t care if he lived or died. Perhaps they were wishing him dead. All he had to show for his trouble was a bloody gash on his head, throbbing pain in his ribs, and despair in his heart.
Skylan shifted his gaze to the charred and blackened spot on the sand that had been Garnâ€™s funeral pyre. Tears filled Skylanâ€™s eyes. He was ashamed of them and, fearing his men would see him weep, he lowered his head, letting his long, blond, lank hair fall forward to hide his face.
The tears mingled with the blood that dribbled into his blond stubbly beard. Skylan tasted salt and iron in his mouth. He would have prayed to Torval, but Skylan feared that Torval, like the Torgun, would look at him and then look away.
Excerpted from Secret of the Dragon by .
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2010 by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.
Published in March 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.