The White Dragon: In Fire Forged, Part One (Chronicles of Sirkara Series #2)by Laura Resnick
By the author of In Legend Born
It is a time of vast changes in the island nation of Sileria. Oppressed for centuries by one conqueror after another, this land of fierce pride and ancient rivalries awaited the prophesied Firebringer, who would free them. Josarian, a mountain peasant, survived his leap into the volcano to become the Firebringer. He/b>/i>
By the author of In Legend Born
It is a time of vast changes in the island nation of Sileria. Oppressed for centuries by one conqueror after another, this land of fierce pride and ancient rivalries awaited the prophesied Firebringer, who would free them. Josarian, a mountain peasant, survived his leap into the volcano to become the Firebringer. He united the impoverished shallaheen, the magical fire-wielding Guardians, and the vastly powerful mages known as Waterlords in an unprecedented alliance that defeated the foreign Valdani who had ruled Sileria for too long. But now Josarian is dead, betrayed by the alliance and slain by the ice-dragon of Kiloran, the most powerful Waterlord in Sileria. Tansen, Josarian’s second-in-command, has taken up the banner of independence, and leads the shallaheen and the Guardians against the Waterlords so that Sileria can be free of a tyranny far worse than Valdani rule. As the volcano goddess Dar rumbles her displeasure in earthquakes and lava flows, the forces of fate, prophecy, and magic combine to create new heroesfrom the desolate mountains, from the water-starved cities, from the sea, and even from beneath the earth. Ancient forces join with unlikely allies to fulfill the prophecies that inspire revolt and excite religious fervor. But in Sileria, betrayal has long been a way of life, and it wears many faces as the ambitions of the high and the low ensnare the fates of people across the land, wreaking havoc among the faithful.
With consummate narrative skill, Laura Resnick brings to life the excitement and adventure of this magical land in its epic struggle to find its true leaders, heal ancient wounds, and chart a path out of chaos to a new day of peace.
Read an Excerpt
When the last dragonfish is dead, then will I set my foot upon land.
Motto of the Lascari Clan
The deck of the fishing boat rolled beneath Zarien's feet, rocking and soothing him as it had every day of his life, since the moment he'd been hauled out of the sea where he had been born. For as long as Sileria's sea-born folk had existed, their women had given birth to their generations in sacred coves, then midwives blessed the infants with ritual immersions before passing them to waiting paternal arms aboard nearby boats. It had now been some fourteen years since the midwife had held Zarien underwater to introduce his spirit to the spirit of the dragonfish, whom his people feared, fought, and must someday vanquish.
And for fourteen years Zarien had lived by the creed which bound his clan, the Lascariand many other sea-born clansto life upon the waves: He had not set foot upon land, not once in his life.
True, many sea-born folk did walk among the landfolk of Sileria. They traded on shore and supplied the floating markets upon which sea-bound clans like the Lascari relied for those things which the sea did not provide. They met with smugglers, rebels, and outlaws on land. They personally delivered cargoes, carried from the nations surrounding the Middle Sea, to wealthy merchants, aristocrats, and waterlords. Some had even marched inland to meet the Firebringer himself, Josarian, to pledge the many clans of Sileria's sea-born folk to his cause.
But the Lascari did not walk the dryland, nor would they until the last dragonfish in the Middle Sea was finally dead. Since before memory began, since before there had been waterlords in Sileria or the Palace of Heaven in Kinto, since before the empire of the Moorlanders had risen from the mists or disappeared centuries later into ashes, since before the Valdani had built the great city of Valda and struck out to conquer so much of the world, including Sileria…Since before all this, the sea-bound Lascari had thrived without going ashore; indeed, to do so ensured banishment from the clan, without exception. Theirs was a proud and ancient tradition, one to which they clung fiercely. Zarien had been taught not to rudely ridicule clans who mingled with the untattooed landfolk or who profaned their sea-born heritage by treading on solid ground while yet a dragonfish lived, but he was proud to be coming to manhood in a clan which did not do such unworthy things.
During the Festival of the New Year this year, he had finally received the tattoos of adulthood, as had all other sea-born children born fourteen years earlier, in the Year of Dark Skies. The intricate indigo markings he now bore on his hands, face, and forearms forever marked him as sea-born, as Lascari, and as a man. But only now might he become a man in truth; if he presented his mother with the heart of his very first dragonfish kill, then he would earn the right to say to her, as generations of sea-born males before him had said to their mothers, "Today I am a man."
They called it Bharata Ma-al in sea-born dialect: the Time of Slaughter. Now, as spring ripened into its full promise in Sileria, the dragonfish swam close to shore to lay their eggs in warm coastal waters. Now they were vulnerable. Now the sea-born showed them no mercy.
The rest of the year, these ferocious creatures might strike the sea-born folk anytime, anywhere in the Middle Sea. Many a boat had never returned from the open sea, many a man had died in those voracious jaws. No onenot marauding Moorlanders, not Kintish pirates, not the Valdani themselves with their sleek warshipshad ever killed as many sea-born folk as the dragonfish had. Zarien's people had faced and fought this enemy since they first took to the sea, and until they had spilled the dark purple blood of the very last one left alive, there could be no peace. Only then would their destiny be complete. Only then might the children of their children's children set their feet upon land.
Zarien shrugged and lifted his face to the wind, indifferent to the knowledge that he would never walk the dryland. Why would anyone want to? The sea was the only life for real men, the dragonfish the only enemy worth facing. Let the shallaheen, Sileria's mountain peasants, slaughter each other in their endless bloodfeuds. Let the assassins of the Honored Society kill and be killed in bloodvows which were sworn to serve the power struggles of their masters, the waterlords. Let the vast armies of the world's rising and falling empires grapple for supremacy on the mainland all around the Middle Sea. What concern was any of this to the Lascari and their kind, whose enemy had been chosen for them by their gods at the dawn of time?
The sturdy two-masted boat upon which Zarien's family lived drew near the ancient killing grounds of the Lascari, the stretch of coastal waters which they had claimed as their own centuries ago. Zarien's heart began thudding with mingled pride, fear, and excitement. Tonight, for the first time, he would join the men of his clan in the bloody ritual through which they honored their gods and proved their manhood by voluntarily facing the dragonfish. It was during the Time of Slaughter that, for once, the sea-born folk rather than the dragonfish staged the ambush, chose the time and place of the confrontation, and challenged the enemy rather than simply awaiting their unpredictable attacks.
By the time the bharata was over, the shores of Sileria would be stained with blood and the sea would be dark with it. Not all of it would be purple either; Bharata Ma-al claimed many sea-born lives, too, every year.
The season of slaughter was a short one, lasting only while the first new moon glowed alone, before the second one appeared to join it in the night sky, during the fourth month of the year. It was a sacred span of three days and nights, an opportunity which came only once a year. If Zarien did not slay a dragonfish during the bharata, the traditional time for a first kill, then he would have to rely on chance until next year, on the mingled hope and fear that a dragonfish would attack him somewhere in the open sea. And until he finally killed one, he would be excluded from the rights and privileges granted only to those who had done so. He would also, he reflected sourly, be obliged to meekly listen to the other men's endless boasts wherever boats met and mingled at sea or in Sileria's harbors.
"Stop scowling," his mother advised him, brushing past him as she busily prepared the deck to receive the first dragonfish corpse of the bharata.
"I wasn't scowling," he corrected. "I was thinking."
"You were thinking?" Her dark brows rose. "Ah, for that alone, we should hold a special festival."
He scowled at her but didn't retort. A sea-born man who was not respectful to womenespecially to his motherwould be dragonfish bait before long.
He didn't help her with her work, nor did she ask him to. Work was strictly divided among the sea-born, and each person stayed out of the other's way when it came to chores and duties; boats were small and unsteady, after all, and the sea-born couldn't afford to trip over and bump into each other all the time like clumsy landfolk. So Zarien stayed out of his mother's way and attended to his own workwhich currently meant trimming the foresail as the boat drew near the killing waters.
Some of the boats of the Lascari clan were already there, and others were arriving even as Zarien's family brailed their sails up to the yard and prepared to drop anchor, positioning their boat for the setting of the nets. The women of each family had folded the huge nets aboard their own boats with care so that they would feed out smoothly and quickly when they were being set.
Only let this slaughter make me a man, he prayed to the spirits which ruled the sea. Without his manhood, he would not be allowed to carry the stahra he knew his parents had already acquired for him and tried to hide belowdecks without his knowledge. Among the sea-born, the stahra was a deadly weapon with which a sea-born man protected himself and his family from enemies, pirates, landfolk, and dragonfish. To ignorant eyes, though, it simply looked like an oar, something which even the Valdani didn't object to Silerians possessing.
Of course, the need to conceal weaponry from the Valdani was changing with the coming of Josarian the Firebringer. A simple shallah turned rebel leader, Josarian had proven himself to be the long-prophesied chosen one of Dar, the destroyer goddess who dwelled in the volcano of Mount Darshon. With few exceptions, all of Sileria's disparate population worshipped Dar. The Honored Society, of course, was one of the exceptions. They had turned their backs on Dar a thousand years ago, during the time of Marjan, the very first waterlord, who had founded the Society. But even the Societylike the sea-born folkwas not openly disrespectful of Dar. After all, Zarien knew, to worship a land goddess like some mountain peasant was one thing, but to openly insult Her and risk Her vengeance was quite another.
Sileria and all her peoples had toiled under the rule of various foreign nations for a thousand years, since the days of the Conquest when the Moorlanders had sailed out of their misty western homeland in search of slaves and gold. After them came the Kints, founders of the ancient union of exotic kingdoms east of the Middle Sea; they had ruled here for six hundred years. Two centuries ago, they had lost Sileria to the Valdani, builders of the most powerful empire the Middle Sea had ever known.
Through it all, prophecy, prayer, song, and story had spoken of a great warrior who would drive out the conquering powers which enslaved Sileria so that it could be, once again, a free and proud nation. He would prove himself by leaping into the volcano atop Mount Darshon and surviving. For centuries, of course, the mad zanareen kept flinging themselves into the Fires of Dar in an attempt to achieve that ecstatic union with the goddessand failing. Then Josarian had come along.
Everyone knew the story. Hundreds of witnesses, including many skeptics, had been there to see the event. The rebel leader, the shallah who sacked Valdani supply posts and killed their uniformed Outlookers, had flung himself into the heart of the volcano and survived. Spewing fire and ecstasy, Dar had safely returned him to the volcano rim after having Her fill of him. And so Josarian's legend, born on the twin-moon night he had killed his first Valdani Outlooker, had ripened into fulfillment.
Some of the other famous rebel leaders had been with him at Darshon, too, it was said. Tansen, Josarian's bloodbrother, was also a shallah, but he was rumored to be different from the other mountain peasants. He bore a strange foreign symbol on his chest, branded into his flesh by the gods of Kinto, which made him invincible. He carried two magically engraved Kintish swords which he used with the skill of a sorcerer; they could leap out of their sheathes and slaughter men by themselves. It was said that he had actually gone to Darshon to stop Josarian from jumping, afraid his bloodbrother would die in the Fires of Dar, but had arrived too late. And it was Mirabar, the stories said, who had led Josarian to Darshon. She was the flame-eyed, fire-haired Guardian whose visions had foretold Josarian and Tansen's joint destiny to lead Sileria to freedom.
The shallaheen, Zarien knew, feared beings like Mirabarsome silly mountain superstition about such people being demons. Yes, shallaheen were ignorant; but Zarien's father said that one must nonetheless honor the way they had flocked to Josarian's banner even before the events at Darshon. One must respect the many lives they had sacrificed to free Sileria from the Valdani.
The sea-born folk had joined Josarian's cause after his transformation at Darshon, and now many of them were also dying. The Valdani were losing the war, and Josarian's destiny would soon be fulfilled. But the Valdani had not abandoned Sileria entirely. That day was yet to come.
When we take Shaljir, Zarien thought, then the war will end, then the Valdani will finally surrender and leave forever.
All of Sileria waited for Josarian to commence the attack on Shaljir. For the sea-born folk, it would be the deadliest and most important battle of the entire rebellion; Shaljir, the ancient capital city, was the largest and most active port in Sileria. Zarien knew his father thought that Josarian should have laid siege to the walled city before now, that he was waiting too long. The delay was due to dissension among different factions of the fragile rebel alliance. The landfolk liked nothing better than quarreling among themselves, and even war against the Valdani had not changed that. Josarian the Firebringer had become enemies with Kiloran, the most powerful waterlord in Sileria, and their feud weakened them both when it came to fighting the Valdani. And so the expected attack on Shaljir had yet to be launched.
Zarien, however, was glad for the delay. If he killed a dragonfish now, then he could join in the final great sea battle of the rebellion and fight alongside his father and elder brother for the port of Shaljir. Although they sailed primarily off the Adalian coast, the Lascari had no intention of being left out of the siege of Shaljir. Only Bharata Ma-al had prevented the entire clan from sailing towards Shaljir before now; no one ever skipped the bharata. But when the new crescent of Ejara, the second moon, appeared in the night sky and the slaughter ended, then the Lascari would sail east, via the sacred rainbow-chalk cliffs of Liron, and then turn north towards Shaljir.
Oh, let me kill a dragonfish, that I may share the honor of driving the Valdani from the waters of Shaljir, Zarien prayed fervently to the eight gods who ruled the wind and to the nine goddesses who ruled the sea.
After he placed the bloody purple heart of a dragonfish at his mother's feet, he would also be eligible to acquire a boat which he would someday offer as a wedding gift to the woman of his choice. Like his elder brother, Orman, he would continue living on his mother's boat until he finally married, and he would use the years between now and his marriage to make his own boat one that any woman would be proud to accept.
Still praying for success during the bharata, Zarien watched the other arriving boats of his clan drop anchor and await his grandfather's signal to begin setting the nets. When he'd exhausted his promises to the gods about all he would do for them in exchange for the heart of a dragonfish, he thought again about the extraordinary events sweeping across Sileria now that the age of the Firebringer was at hand. Freedom from the Valdani. Freedom from crippling tribute and taxes, from sudden seizures and searches, from arrest, execution, and death by slow torture for violating the smallest of their endless laws. Freedom from the threat of transportation to the mines of Alizar, somewhere in the mountains of Sileria; no one sea-born had ever returned alive from Alizar. Zarien grinned, recalling the day they'd received word that Josarian had attacked and seized the mines. His father had opened a smuggled cargo of Kintish spirits and urged his family to drink freely.
Zarien knew the number of his clan's square-sailed boats as well as he knew the number of his own fingers, so he knew when they had all arrived and were in position. The sun blazed gloriously down upon the yellow sails and the azure waters as his grandfather blew into the ritual dragonfish horn, giving the first signal of the slaughter.
"Zarien!" his father, Sorin, called from the bow. "Prepare to drop the nets!"
Zarien glowed with pride. The order meant that he would be the one to lead his own family in the setting of the nets. It was a great honor, one his father had hinted he would bestow upon him even though it was only his first bharata. Orman had led the setting of the nets before, so he wouldn't challenge Zarien's right to do so todaythough Zarien knew he wouldn't get to do it two years in a row. His brother wasn't that generous.
Now his younger brother, Morven, weighed anchor, allowing the boat to creep forward again with their mother at the helm as Sorin and Orman unfurled the foresail. Zarien lifted the first iron weight, his muscles straining as he prepared to heave it over the side. Orman, Morven, and their father took their places near him on the starboard side. The boat bobbed gently in the coastal current, and Zarien only noticed his slight adjustments to its motion because of the awkward weight he held in his arms.
Taut silence replaced the typically gregarious boat-to-boat greetings of the sea-born people. Even the wind died down, awaiting the moment. Only the ever-present dull roar of the sea remained, the never-ending song of Sirkara. Then Zarien heard his grandmother's piercing wail, invoking the women of the clan to commence the chant of Bharata Ma-al. Zarien heaved the iron weight overboard, then heard his mother's voice strike the first note of the ritual chant at the very moment the weight struck the water.
Now there was no time to think, no time to worry about disgracing himself or his family if he failed to live up to his father's expectations. He fell into the rhythm of the chant, ordering his father and brothers to guide the massive net overboard as he hoisted the next weight into his arms. This second weight was at the end of the first net, and it must be dropped into the water exactly as the first chant ended, carrying with it the women's entreaty to the nine goddesses that the net be filled with a good catch.
One by one, they dropped the nets into the water, working in tandem with the rest of the clan to form a vast maze in the sea. The nets hung from huge cords which were floated by corks, stretched taut through the water and weighted at the bottom by the precisely spaced iron weights. The open ends of the maze all faced the open sea, from which the dragonfish would come. Any dragonfish which entered the nets would get caught in the maze and eventually swim into one of the dead ends, or death chambers, to which the underwater corridors led.
Stringing the bharata maze across the killing grounds was a long, hard task. The Lascari men worked efficiently under the fierce Silerian sky, sweat pouring down their beardless faces and naked backs as they dropped weights and lowered nets in time to the rhythmic chanting which filled the salty air. The singing women guided the boats skillfully, weaving a pattern on the sea's surface which defined the shape of the maze in its depths.
The ritual chant entered Zarien's blood, became part of his heartbeat, matched its pace to his breath. He no longer had to concentrate to ensure that he set the nets in time to the singing which blessed them. He moved and the movement was right, he breathed and the breath was song and prayer, he sweat and the sweat became the sea.
This was what it was to be sea-born, to marry these glimmering azure waters at the moment of your birth, to carry the sea's mystery within your veins for the rest of your life. To work in pure harmony with the rest of your kind, afloat on a bit of bobbing wood amidst the endless wave and roar of the Middle Sea. To know your course based on the slightest touch of the wind against your skin, to smell the silent approach of land even in a fog, to shift your weight with currents and waves even in your sleep…There was simply no other life worth living.
Arms trembling with exhaustion, Zarien helped his father lower the final iron weight into the water. The women's chanting ceased at the exact moment the weight slipped below the shimmering surface. Zarien's ears rang in the sudden silence. The weight sank to the bottom, carrying their hopes and prayers with it.
"Aiola!" Zarien cried, and everyone on the boat followed his lead, shouting the guttural cheer in sea-born dialect that marked the end of setting the nets. Aiola, aiola, aiola! May they die!
Above their own shouts and the gleeful cries from the other boats, they heard the clan leader blow the dragonfish horn again. This was their signal to salute the eight winds, turning on deck to honor each god as the horn wailed eight times in succession.
Each of the eight gods was consort to one of the nine goddesses of the sea. The ninth goddess, howeverSharifarhad no consort. According to legend, she had been betrayed by the god who had originally been her consort, the ninth wind, and had cast him off. In his bitterness, he became the whirlwindwhom the sea-born folk loved no better than they loved the dragonfish. Ever since then, Sharifar had sought a new consort, but she had yet to find a man who satisfied her. If she ever chose one (which Zarien thought seemed unlikely after all this time), he would become the king of all the sea-born folktheir first acknowledged leader since before the Moorlanders had conquered Sileria a thousand years ago.
Concluding his salute to the eighth wind, Zarien looked over his shoulder to meet his father's gaze. Sorin's dark face was creased with smiles now. His green eyesa souvenir of the Moorlanders' long-ago Conquest not only of Sileria, but of many of its womenglowed with pride as he clapped Zarien on the back.
"The nets are set well, son," he said, his grin broadening in response to Zarien's. "Perhaps I shouldn't have waited, perhaps I should have gone ahead and got you a stahra."
Zarien smiled to himself, having already spotted the stahra in the exact same hiding place Sorin had used for Orman's coming-of-age gift two years ago. Neither Sorin's habits nor his teasing were original, but they were as much a rite of passage aboard this boat as was the bharata itself.
"You didn't get me a stahra?" Zarien feigned outrage. "Don't you have faith in me?"
His father shrugged. "Well, the dragonfish are not even here yet. We shall see, we shall see…" His eyes met those of his wife, Palomar, sharing the joke.
"Yes," Zarien said, letting them enjoy what they fondly imagined was their secret. "You shall see. And then you'll be sorry you didn't get me a stahra before we left port."
Now the Lascari floated their boats away from the bharata maze they had constructed with such care. When the first dragonfish was sighted tonight, the men would row into the maze in small oarboats, armed for the slaughter. Until nightfall, though, clan members rowed from boat to boat, visiting relatives and enjoying conversation. New wounds and scars were exclaimed over, new babies admired, new wives inspected. Cousins and in-laws shared gossip about friends and enemies in other sea-born clans. Everyone talked about the Firebringer and his bloodfeud with Kiloran the waterlord. Would it destroy the rebellion, or would Kiloran and Josarian concentrate on driving out the remaining Valdani in Sileria before one of them finally eliminated the other? Which of those two giants was most likely to survive their enmity? True, Josarian had entered the Fires of Darshon and survived. But Kiloran…even the sea-born folk, who had little to do with the Honored Society, whispered his name with awe, almost afraid to say it aloud. He was the most powerful waterlord in Sileria, perhaps even the most powerful who had ever lived.
"If anyone can defeat the Firebringer," said Linyan, Zarien's grandfather, "surely it would be Kiloran."
"Then we must remember Josarian in our prayers," said one of Zarien's uncles. The others resoundingly agreed with this, since the sea-born had sworn loyalty to Josarian, not to Kiloran.
"Two days ago," said Sorin, "we met with three boats of the Kurvari clan. They say that Kiloran has seized control of Cavasar." The Valdani had fiercely held onto Sileria's westernmost port city, even though its citizens had been among the first whom Josarian had inspired to riot and rebel.
"So the Valdani have finally surrendered Cavasar?" one of Sorin's brothers asked.
"But to Kiloran," Sorin pointed out, "not to Josarian."
"To Sileria," his brother corrected. "All that really matters is that now Cavasar is free."
"Ah, but is it?" Linyan asked.
"Of course!" Zarien ventured, emboldened by his new tattoos to participate in the conversation as a man. "If the Valdani have abandoned Cavasar as they abandoned Liron and Adalian, then the city is free."
"Or have the Cavasari merely traded one master for another?" Sorin suggested. He and Linyan exchanged troubled looks.
Another of Zarien's uncles shrugged. "At least now they have a Silerian master."
"And the landfolk," Zarien said, "will always be mastered by someone." Not like the sea-born, who were meant to be free, beholden to no one except their own clans.
"But the rule of a waterlord is harsh," Linyan said heavily. "You'll understand this soon enough, Zarien. Such men bring terrible suffering to the lives that they touch."
Zarien's father agreed with this. Then, after a moment of contemplative silence, the men all began discussing other matters.
As the sun set, painting a fantastic canvas of amber and amethyst across the endless sky, the Lascari sang songs and told stories. But when the lone new moon, Abayara, rose in the night sky, they fell silent. Soon the dragonfish would come, and nothing must warn them of the trap which awaited them. The Lascari lit no lanterns aboard their vessels tonight, and they ate cold meals this evening rather than risk lighting their braziers to cook. In silence and darkness, they awaited the enemy.
Zarien was sitting between his father and brother in their long, low, wooden oarboat when the signal came. One of his cousins, keeping watch over the dark sea under a crescent-moon sky, had spotted the telltale horn of a dragonfish breaking the surface. His warning signal was soft, careful not to alarm the enemy swimming towards the maze. Sorin nodded to Zarien who, pleasantly aware of his younger brother's envious gaze, pushed the oarboat away from his mother's vessel and dipped his oars into the water to glide closer to the maze.
Sorin silently directed Zarien with his right hand. In his left he held an oil-soaked torch which he would light when the attack began, and it was too late for the enemy to escape to the open sea. Their harpoons and tackle, along with Orman's and Sorin's stahra, were ready, neatly ordered at their feet or fastened to the sides of the boat. Now Zarien heard more signals from the lookouts as the number of sightings increased.
"It will be a great slaughter this year," Sorin murmured, his low voice rich with anticipation.
Please let me kill one, Zarien prayed to the wind and the sea. What could be worse than failing to make his first kill during a bharata which would long be remembered as a particularly good one?
As the sightings continued, he heard his brother say softly behind him, "So many this year, papa!"
Yes, Zarien decided firmly, he would rather die than endure the shame of failing to make his first kill now. Only some bumbling drylander would fail to take a dragonfish when so many were entering the maze!
The boat heaved beneath him suddenly. A geyser of water drenched him as he caught his balance. "There's one underneath us!" Zarien released one oar and reached for a harpoon.
Sorin laughed with exultation. "Let it go, Zarien. There will be enough in the maze for us."
Heart pounding, Zarien watched the sleek, deadly creature disappear back into the dark water. It was huge! Bigger than the oarboat. What a fine first kill it would make! But he supposed his father was right. They'd waste time chasing it down, and probably wind up losing it in the dark, anyhow, unless it turned and attacked. Better to keep rowing towards the maze.
More than twenty oarboats took their places around the bobbing corks which defined the vast and elaborate maze the Lascari had laid out under the brilliant sun. Now the men watched the water's opaque surface as they awaited the moment which would commence the slaughter. Zarien was so excited he could scarcely breathe. He stared unblinking at the water until his eyes burned.
Then it came! The sudden, thrashing rise to the surface of the first dragonfish to reach a death chamber and realize it was trapped.
"Aiola!" Zarien shouted. May they die!
The exultant cry was repeated by all the Lascari as torches now flamed into life in every boat on the water.
More trapped dragonfish began rising to the surface, their massive curling horns reflecting the torchlight as they surged out of the water. Boats rocked wildly as the enormous bodies fell back down, noisily hitting the sea's surface and sending up showers of cool, salty water to drench the Lascari.
"Bharata Ma-al!" cried Linyan, setting his clan free of all restraint. And the slaughter began!
Zarien moved quickly, but not quickly enough. His brother's blood was high, and his generosity in letting Zarien lead the setting of the nets without argument did not extend to letting Zarien make the family's first kill of the bharata. Orman whooped wildly beside Zarien as his harpoon sailed through the night and sank into the silver-gray and shiny-green scales of the nearest dragonfish. A terrible roar rose up from the water and echoed through the night. The dragonfish's agonized thrashing brought it crashing against the oarboat. Zarien braced himself as the boat rocked wildly and nearly flung him into his father's flaming torch. A dark stain spread through the water, absorbing the glow of the torches. It was the glorious cloud of the dragonfish's dark purple blood.
"That one was mine!" Zarien said fiercely.
"You can have the next one!" Orman shot back.
"You do that again, and I'll"
"Easy, son," Sorin interrupted, "you'll get your chance. Let's finish this one!"
"Aiola!" Orman howled. He raised his stahra and then brought its sharp edge down on the dragonfish's writhing back, again and again, until the spine was finally broken. The creature's sticky purple blood covered Orman, Zarien, and Sorin by the time the great body lay still in the water.
Another silvery horn broke through the water's surface as yet another dragonfish tried to escape the deadly maze. It flailed its powerful spiked tail in a desperate attempt to clear a space for itself, hitting Orman's fresh kill hard enough to send geysers of bloody water high into the air. Its wild thrashing started pushing the just-slaughtered corpse away from the oarboat. Orman leaned perilously far over the side, reaching for the stahra, which stuck out of the dead monster's back, in an effort to retrieve his kill.
This one, Zarien thought as the living one hurled itself frantically towards the surface again. This one will be mine! He fixed his aim on the massive heaving body which twisted and flailed in fear and anger.
"Damn it!" Orman leaned out a little farther, ignoring his father's warning not to, trying to haul in his kill. The thrashing of the second dragonfish was driving the corpse beneath the surface. "It's sinking! Zarien"
"Let go of me!"
Poised to make his first kill, Zarien tried to shake off his brother's grasping hand. He scarcely heard Linyan's nearby shout or his father's cry of alarm. It was only when the impact of their colliding boats nearly knocked him into the water that he realized the danger. He braced himself against the sudden pitch of the boat. His balance would have heldhad not Orman's nagging grasp turned into a reflexive yank which tumbled him headlong into the sea.
Cool water engulfed him. Fear filled him, drowned all thoughts but one: Get out!
His legs were propelling him back towards the surface almost before he realized what had happened. He crashed into the underbelly of a writhing dragonfish, a beast so huge it blotted out the flickering torches he had briefly glimpsed through the blood-clouded water.
No, no, no!
Another dragonfish rose beneath him. Its mouth brushed his legs.
No! Not my legs!
Horrible memories of legless men hauled out of the sea clouded his mind with panic. He'd rather drown than bleed to death on deck in terrible agony.
He would drown if he didn't get to the surface. He'd had no time to fill his lungs with air before
A flailing spiked tail broadsided him, snapping his head around, tearing open his flesh and nearly knocking him unconscious. Only the trained instincts of the sea-born kept him from involuntarily inhalingand drowning.
Get out, get out, get out!
He boldly pushed between two enormous, heaving bodies which struggled in the maze. He prayed they were too panicked to notice a puny thing like him right now. He prayed that the scent of his blood, now clouding around him, would be concealed by the scent of their own.
Through the wine-dark water, he saw lights flickering above him again. Hope blossomed in him. If he could break the surface. If his family could pull him out before
A huge body sank down upon him from overhead, pushing him back down.
He kicked wildly. Swam out from under it. Got tangled in the net of the maze.
The heavy weight of another dragonfish careened into him, trapping him against the net. The tough fiber of the net cut into his skin as he was pushed harder and harder against it.
His lungs burned like the Fires of Dar. He was dizzy, growing weak. The weight of the dragonfish would crush him in another moment, leaving his mangled carcass dangling from the net.
Sanity came to him a moment before death did. What a fool he was! Instead of pushing uselessly against the net, he now reached through it, then let his right arm grasp the small knife sheathed at his waist. All sea-born folk carried one to cut tangled lines, nets, and seaweed.
Fighting the fatal instinct to inhale, Zarien cut through the net's tough fibers and freed himself, slipping out of the deadly maze. He had sunk far below the surface, but hope renewed his strength as he rose through the blood-darkened water.
It was the blood, of course, that prevented him from seeing the dragonfish until it was upon him.
As its great jaws closed around his torso and its gleaming ivory teeth sank into his flesh, Zarien screamed. Water filled his mouth, his throat, his lungs, but the agony of the dragonfish's attack was the only sensation he knew as it dragged him down to the age-old destiny of the sea-born folk.
Copyright © 2003 by Laura Resnick
Meet the Author
Laura Resnick was born in Chicago, Illinois. A childhood of being thrown by horses, bitten by dogs, and terrorized by the Resnicks' notorious exploding water well helped prepare her adequately for her future in the publishing industry.
Resnick went on to study French, Italian, and linguistics at Georgetown, graduating cum laude. Shortly thereafter, she tramped around most of the Old World, looking at lots of cool paintings, working in France, and winding up on a kibbutz in Israel for a while. She studied acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in London, and spent a volatile but happy year teaching English at the University of Palermo in Italy.
By the time she was thirty, Resnick had sold a dozen romance novels, all but one of them written under the pseudonym Laura Leone, and Romantic Times magazine named her the best new writer in her genre. She then went on an overland journey across Africa. Everything you could ever want to know about that 8-month journey is recounted in the award-winning nonfiction book, A Blonde In Africa.
While she was in Africa, Resnick won the John W. Campbell Award as Best New Science Fiction/Fantasy Writer in recognition of the short stories she had been writing. Having thus warmed up her muscles, she wrote her first fantasy novel, In Legend Born a project which made crossing Africa overland seem easy by comparison.
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