The tree seemed a boon, a temporary escape. Naltu climbed the frozen spire with bare hands, numb from cold. Ice fell, flashing in the bright moonlight, and he grunted. His foot opened on the ice and marked the tree with a streak of blood. He moved onto the lowest limb, a bowing branch the size of his forearm, then shifted until he could reach a higher limb. He watched the lizard squat, then grasped the limb and began to pull himself further up. His breathing slowed for a moment.
The blue thing jumped from the ground to the tree, searching for purchase on shattering ice. Saurian claws scrabbled as the tree bent and swayed. The thing leaped again, snapping and sinking two inches of ivory fang into Naltu's fur breeches. He felt no pain, though his muscle failed to respond as he struggled to climb. The tree creaked, old and dead, bowing under the weight of a fresh frost.
The lizard was longer than a man, narrow along the sides, with a tall spine. The carapace was topped with crescent-shaped ridges of bone, interlocking armor plates. The creature was rare, with unique blood that was said to be made by men in the old days. The stories told of the lizards born fully-formed in the earth deep under the frost. The stories knew little about the heights the lizards could reach. Naltu cursed himself. Children foraged for tiny brown lizards in the summer, and those little things could elude a man.
Naltu swore at the beast hanging from his leg. His hands ached. He swung back along the limb searching for perch with his good leg. Something cracked behind him, ice shifted, and he pulled against the frozen wood. The lizard was heavy and the tree's limb began to fail. Naltu closed his eyes and concentrated on the wound in his leg. He sucked in a breath as the branch snapped. He fell to the ground, feet first, and crumpled. The lizard's jaw remained locked against his leg. Naltu felt something in his back wrench free. His thigh and shin were splayed at an unusual angle, and the joint was ruined.
His clothes were thick, with layers of padded leather covering his flesh. Wolf pelts, silver under the night sky, were wrapped tightly and buckled together with chains and straps. The leather had been softened for comfort and silence in travel. He was well protected in the fall, though not against fang or claw. He wondered at the mistake, for stealth had not aided him. The lizard was accustomed to the large prey of the south: fox, wolf, bear, and man.
One hand slipped to a strap at his belt, searching for a knife. The leather was torn and the blade was gone. Naltu forced air into his lungs and twisted his body until he lay on his side. The lizard's mouth tightened and bone ached. He screamed and tightened his thigh. His face ran with tears. Naltu raised his head and met the lizard's eyes. He stared into the white orbs and found only strands of deep cerulean strewn about an iris with no pupil. There was no emotion in the monster, none of the languid fear of the doe, nor the hate of the wolf.
His leg succumbed to the cold and the blood loss, and the muscles in his thigh convulsed. He searched for pain, putting each wound aside in his mind, and focused until he felt only the lizard's teeth grate against bone. The pants ripped, tears from the lizards teeth widening until he could see his flesh. Naltu gasped as he saw the white of his knee-bones through the rend in the fur trousers. The lizard tasted blood but was not hungry. He felt a flicker of thought through his wound, and knew the creature was bored.
"If you let go, I'll give you a better hunt," Naltu promised with a whisper.
The lizard's clawed feet dug into the hard tundra. The soft skin on Naltu's fingertips broke as he scrambled against the ground. Panic had seized most of his mind. A voice spoke inside, from a point deep behind his throat, and he knew he would lose his leg if he continued to struggle. He wondered if the sacrifice would be worth survival. The creature was primal and would not relent against the parts of him that carried life. Naltu struggled for air, wondering why the pain did not last, and stared back at the beast tearing away his leg as a prize. Only the breeches and bits of tendon held him tethered whole.
Naltu reached his hand toward the creature's face. A faint glimmer of green flickered around his bleeding fingers, then faded. The dull pain from his leg fully reached his mind through the fog of alcohol. Deep within, the voice scolded him. The creature walked backwards, dragging Naltu.
He had been hunting. He was vulnerable under the moon coming full. He was a fool to drink so much cider. He was alone and bored. He had lost the trail of the lizard, and night had come, and the thing should have been asleep. The blue lizard pulled. Naltu glared hatefully, reaching his hand again. Anger gave him focus, and the green glow returned. The flesh on the creature's face began to split in a neat line. He felt the skin in his mind, thick plates of dead bone glued together by frozen cartilage. Though not a drop entered, he tasted the lizard's blood in his mouth, not the savory iron of the warm beasts, but something sweet and toxic.
Naltu struggled to find the creature's pulse. He felt nothing. The glow faded. The creature's jaws crushed until bone snapped. He looked over his shoulder, and saw the wake across the thin layer of red-streaked snow left as the lizard dragged him. He pressed again, forcing his mind and his energy through his fingers, and the flicker vanished. Naltu panicked and pulled the axe from inside his thick coat. The blade was stone, dull, only useful for skinning, but he swung.
The blow hit home, burying the stone edge in the center of the lizard's long snout, splitting the nostrils to match the forked tongue inside the mouth. The lizard's jaw snapped open and the axe pulled free. The beast rolled to the side, releasing his leg, and twisted to angle for a solid bite across Naltu's waist. Black spit and crimson blood foamed along the scaled jaw.
He swung again, wildly. The flat of the stone axe met the underside of the creature's neck. The thing flailed, squirming away, scrambling to a nearby stone. The lizard climbed, watching Naltu, waiting for the wound it had inflicted to work.
Naltu closed his eyes. He felt the poison in his stomach, the joy he had taken in the time the moon rose, and shifted it, sweetening the alcohol into sugar. As his blood cleared free of the apple-liquor, his focus returned, joined by a raging pain in his skull. His spine hurt, but the night's cold brought blessed numbness to his leg.
He wondered if the beast was close enough, and reached towards the thing with two green-lit fingers. The lizard snapped to snatch the fingers as a treat, then became motionless. Smoke and green moonlight poured from Naltu's broken fingers into the lizard's mouth, down the thing's throat, and seized the thin fibers within. He felt the energy surge through the lizard's nerves, and Naltu pulled.
The creature remained still. Naltu breathed again, and screamed in pain. Naltu pulled the last spark of warmth from the creature. The lizard twitched, falling into unconsciousness and beyond. He stared at the wound in his leg, focusing through broken ribs, and grunted as he sat. His fingers were cracked, the flesh was pressed between lizard's gums. Naltu's whole hand reached around, pressing against the broken snout, grunting as nerves told his mind to stop, to shut down, to give up.
Naltu refused. His fingers came free. He slipped his ruined hand under his jacket, feeling the warm blood oozing against his breast. Inhaling again, Naltu grit his teeth and felt the bones in his face shift with the pressure. He reached inside, letting his consciousness rest against the torn muscles in his back. He let his mind sink lower, past his groin and into his leg, until he could see the ruined muscle, tendon, skin and bone in his mind's eye.
Piece by piece, he tasted and touched the texture in his mind, shaping minute details. As his focus grew, the pain in his hand diminished, hidden by the fugue brought about by his art. His body glowed a dim green. He solved the puzzle that allowed the healing power to shift the tissue in his leg into the proper shape. Veins became whole, muscles knit, bone flowed to the proper shape, cartilage grew, and he commanded skin to cover the wound. The healing would not be complete, but his stomach roared, and frost crept through the tears in his furs. Dizziness punched through the fugue, replaced by black, and Naltu rested.
Time passed until he woke again, but he did not bleed to death, and the thick leather and pelt of wolf that he wore, as it always had, kept him warm enough. Naltu opened his eyes, meeting the gaze of the dead lizard, and grinned. The ancient thing, worth a man's weight in flesh and hate, seemed to be sleeping. He pulled his fingers from his jacket and yelped as the scabs broke away from his skin. The broken bones flowed like water, freezing into the correct shape. Naltu wiggled his fingers, satisfied with the work. He pulled the sleeve back, examining his forearm, finding the skin tight against gaunt muscle, and dizziness threatened again.
Too much exertion, he knew. He had left a nugget of food, half-eaten, in his tent, but he was lost. The thing had found the tent while he slept. He ran, groggy, but the lizard had been faster. It had tricked him. He had been hunting the beast, but he had never told the lizard that.
Naltu would have a story. He found his feet and examined the corpse. The lizard was whole, excepting the broken snout. He wanted to wait, to eat before healing the creature's wound, but he knew that the art wouldn't work if he waited too long. He touched his finger to the thing's snout and the gash closed, not perfectly, but enough. He swung around, searching for bearing. He found the soft bruise on the lizard's throat and cut to make a killing wound. One fang was wet with his blood, and he broke the tooth from the lizard's maw, pocketing it.
He searched in the darkness and was grateful that the thin winter canopy of the trees had fallen under the weight of the snow so that the moon would illuminate the forest. The brambles and brush did not live this far south. The tent was easy to find. He had blackened it with soot, but the lizard's rampage left tatters of white hide on the ground, glowing in the moonlight.
The tent was three hundred steps away, and he would fight to take each one. He lacked the strength to heal all his injuries. Naltu glanced back at the dead lizard and then stumbled. The sticks that supported the hide were smashed. The lizard had torn cleanly through the entrance. Naltu was satisfied he could repair the damage with an iron needle from the north and a bit of leather cord. He found the lump of fat inside and rubbed the wax off before devouring the food, chewing and swallowing the frosted, flavorless meat. He crawled inside the drooping tent and found his gloves and boots.
The wind was calm and the covering would suit him. He found the clay flask and took a long swallow of cider. The bright moonlight shone through the tears. The fluid warmed his belly, and he closed his eyes, forcing the light out of his eyes. He slept. The sun rose, waking him to fullness. Naltu crawled out of the tent to survey the night's damage. He tugged at the magic again until his frostbitten toes and leg roared with pain and life.
The blue lizard was as he left it. He repaired the tent in moments and then rolled the fabric and sticks into a tiny bundle, which he strapped against his back, alongside a pack he retrieved, hanging high from a nearby tree.
He wondered how the lizard had hunted him, and remembered the wax remnants of the half-eaten fat. His pelts were rubbed in a fermented essence that masked scent. The warmth of his body against that meat must have drawn the lizard. That was stupid and lazy, to eat where he would sleep. No warrior, no hunter would let such a thing happen. But he was not a warrior, not a hunter, not anything. Naltu collected the rest of his things, finding his knife and axe waiting nearby on the stiff soil.
He glanced up at the old trees. The roots were thick, the smallest wider than his leg. The roots hovered above the soil before diving, and the oldest trees were lifted high enough that he could have made shelter inside. The roots dug into the earth with strength, seeking the warmth and wetness deep underground. Naltu shook his head again. He found the flask and threw it against a tree, watching it shatter, spilling the cider. Wasteful, he knew, and he would regret the action in a moment, regret the loss of warmth come the next night, but the cider had almost killed him.
Naltu wrapped cord around the lizard's neck, tying a harness. The knots were quick, his fingers becoming more nimble as he worked. The cord was long enough, and so he tied another harness around his chest. His breath steamed in the dry air, and Naltu's stomach grumbled.
He pulled a piece of linen from a pocket in his jacket and consulted the map. The fabric was brown and smeared with fast dye made with purple berries and salt. The shapes were such that no northman could follow, but he knew the way. The journey to Tlictal would take three days alone by foot, and longer dragging the beast. He did not have enough food, not with the exertion. Mellosin had told him to kill the lizard without the help of the Gods, and Naltu checked the beast's snout in the light again, that he could tell the lie.
The forest was moving around him, insects coming to life under the warmth of the sunlight. Naltu gathered the tiny diamond-shape beetles with iridescent shells. Many were fat with the fresh bark they digested to make their spawn, and the Radatil told stories of men who lived too long in the forests on beetles, and woke one morning with skin the color of the green men that roamed the mountains.
He frowned as he crunched them between his teeth. The taste was savory and sweet, and he could have been fond, but the oils in the meat made him nauseous. The exertion and his stomach demanded the meal, though, so he fed on the foolish insects that did not flee. He struggled to pull the lizard over the thick tree roots, devouring the busy insects as he trudged through the forest. When his belly was full, he mended his broken ribs.
The sun set as Naltu vomited sharp grit, the last remnants of his scavenged lunch, onto the ground. He removed a small lump of fat from the pack and devoured it, wax and all. He hung the pack from a high limb, relieved himself, and then erected the tent. He crawled inside and hoped the lizard would stay frozen enough in the wind to keep carrion-eaters away.
Naltu woke and found the small black pellets of a furry animal nearby. He left the lizard and followed the tiny tracks to a small hole in the ground. He glanced inside and found a small ice fox half-asleep, glaring at him, defending a swollen vixen. His legs trembled, weak and thin. They were sacred animals, but Naltu grasped and killed them both, skinned them quickly with his axe, and devoured the raw flesh. He broke the bones, honoring the kill, and sucked the marrow. He cleaned the viscera and boiled that into a stew and choked as he swallowed. The pelts could not be traded, and so he burned them with the pellets for warmth, but the odor fouled his nostrils, and the frost he melted for water tasted ill.
The mournful man lifted his jacket and made a cut across the side of his chest. He mended the weaving veins, but left the flesh broken, and laid the harness across the wound as he dragged the lizard for another day. His body was nourished and healing, refusing the penitence, and so on the third day, he cut himself again. His pack empty of food, he looked to the lizard hungrily, and fed himself again on the diamond-shaped beetles and centipedes that became more numerous as he moved north. He squatted, and was pleased that the bleeding had stopped.
He left the forest. The ground, unprotected by high boughs, became covered with snow. The lizard was heavy as he stumbled through the treacherous whiteness. His legs plowed through the snow and ached. His body, fed enough, refused to let his blood succumb to the numbing cold. Large dogs approached in the distance, pulling wooden sleds and men. Naltu bared his teeth in welcome as they approached, first carefully, then with hails and greetings that recognized him and his kill.
The men were dressed as he, but they carried long swords across their backs, and shorter ones at their sides. Long bows made of reeds pressed with resin were strung and strapped to the dogs alongside quivers of arrows tipped with the opaque white stones found near the mountains.
A scarred man offered to help Naltu with the burden, but he refused. Surrounded by curious dogs, he approached the stick huts on the horizon. The snow softened, making progress more difficult. The lizard caught on small drifts and hidden plants, snagging Naltu and stealing his balance. He handled the last hours until night with as much grace as his beaten body allowed, until at last, he reached the outskirts of the village.
Women were there with brooms made from wild straw, sweeping the snow away from his path. Like him, all the villagers were wrapped in heavy wolf pelts with low hoods to protect against the cold. One man approached from the village among all the others and saluted with a hand in the air.
"Naltu. We thought you had failed. You are six days late."
"Six days? This noble thing has lived for a hundred winters, and gives his life so you can feast tomorrow, brother."
"Ah. Half-brother. The gods have gifted us this dragon. We shall gift them in return. The folk shall have eternal prosperity."
A young girl rushed to Naltu's side and stared at his face. He glanced at her with a polite smile. She was young, almost a woman. Naltu raised a tired arm and waved her on. She ran ahead, and he followed his half-brother to the center of the village.
"Kertu. You do not honor me for my hunt?"
The other man turned. "Your hunt? You are Shaman, half-brother. Do the Gods not grant you all your victories?"
Naltu stared down. "Of course, brother. You are wiser than I, chieftain. I am as an animal, doing as the Gods bid, without knowing."
"You are too much an animal. The Gods grant you this victory out of pity, perhaps."
Naltu glanced up, eyes too exhausted to show the anger inside. "Yes, brother."
"Half-brother, you seem thin from the hunt. We shall feast tomorrow, and you shall lie with the women and remember what it is to be man."
Naltu's head bobbed, struggling with the weight of the lizard, but keeping pace with the casual gait of Kertu, until the pair reached a pole erected between all the huts, and the villagers surrounded them.
Kertu's square eyes rose to the sky. He was as tall as Naltu, with thicker skin and heavier bones. His eyes were brown, like his half-brothers, though where Naltu's head was plucked bald, Kertu's locks fell into long braids. They had been born at the same time, to different women. Their father had visited many places, but spent little time in each.
"My brother Naltu, my blood, my father's blood, this blood has brought us victory. This blood has bought us an offering worthy of eternal reward. Who here denies this?"
Naltu swept his eyes across the crowd, two hundred men and women, with a tired gaze.
"Who here denies this?" Kertu repeated.
The lizard's eyes were open and glowed in the dim firelight, as if the thing was still alive.
The crowd was silent until an old man sighed, stepped forward. "I deny it."
Naltu nodded and tugged at a knot. The harness around his chest released and Naltu unraveled layers of rope, coiling them and dropping the bundle behind his feet.
The man stepped forward and spoke again. "I deny this. I deny that this is a dragon. I deny that this is a worthy sacrifice for the Gods."
The man's face was wrinkled and his back was stooped. His furs were torn, and thick leather stitches wove through the outer surface. His teeth were broken. He could not hunt for himself, Naltu was sure, and no one would gather new pelts for him, and so he would keep his furs until he froze in them. Kertu grinned.
Naltu dropped his gaze to the ground. "Then you challenge me in sacred combat? Let the Gods declare the liar as the earth warms from his blood."
The man swallowed slowly, pulling a knife made from old bone from his jacket. "I do challenge you. I call you a liar. May you cut me and the Gods prove me wrong, else I will bury my blade in your heart."
Naltu sighed and slipped the iron knife from his belt. The old man came close with his bone knife high, and Naltu's blade flashed and a drop of blood fell to the soil. The man staggered back, his fingers reaching to his cheek, and screamed to the sky.
"The Gods have shown! I have been cut, and this sacrifice is accepted!"
Kertu nodded, satisfied by the protocol. "This sacrifice is accepted. Half-brother, sleep under the eye of the village tonight. Let the girls bring you food, and let the women bring you warmth."
Naltu relaxed and sheathed his knife, glad for the old man. Even exhausted so, he could have bested any of Kertu's men, and others might have tried to make a name. He knew he was within rights to kill the old man, and Kertu could have demanded it. The sacrifice would have been diminished if not challenged, and few would challenge the brother of the chieftain. Kertu could have insisted on the death of an old man who could not hunt or fight. Kertu's acceptance at so low a price would be a boon.[ Up | Next => ]