Posted on June 22, 2010


This story is Part 6 in the Fire and Water series. It follows Leaving Home. To read from the beginning, please visit the Index Page.

* * *

He was free. The flight from his prison was a blur, too much of a shock still for him to embrace that freedom fully. He only knew that he must get as far away from his captors and their fetters as distance and speed would allow.

He stopped at the foot of the mountains to plot his course upward. He knew his pack horse could not survive such a climb; he must set him free. He unloaded the supplies off the animal and, whispering a word of protection in his ear, sent him home.

He sensed two humans following, no more than a day behind him. They had not yet picked up his trail, but they would eventually. No matter. None of the seafarers he encountered in Lualor were equal to these mountains. By the time any of them struggled up these rocks, he would be long gone.

He imagined his pursuers’ bewilderment on meeting the horse. Perhaps they would think their quarry had come to harm and give up the chase, relieved to not have to face the mountains. He busied himself with the supplies, consolidating foodstuffs and discarding everything he had brought for the horse’s care. When he was done, one large pack remained which he could carry on his own back, heavy but not unmanageable. He waved his hand over the rest and it took on the appearance of a boulder, ancient and weathered as though it had fallen to the spot long ago.

Finished with his task, he stretched. Three thousand years had passed since the last time he had assumed human form, and the sore muscles and stiff joints were a nuisance. Human shape served to let him pass without undue notice amongst the villagers, and later as he made his way through the fields and pastures of the farmer folk. But there were better ways to travel the mountains. He reminded himself that he was free now, no longer separated from his own nature. He could take on whatever shape suited his purposes best.

Another wave of his hand, and the pack became another boulder. He scanned the crags looming above him to see what creatures dwelled here, which form was most at home in this terrain. He sensed quick, furtive rodents, and birds of prey and foxes which fed on the rodents. Nimble goats and shy deer camouflaged themselves amid the rocks and fed on tough clumps of grass that clung to the inhospitable mountainsides.

Then there were the cats. Sleek, powerful, golden or spotted, stealthy and quick as death, he felt them watching him high above in the crags, testing his smell in the air. His whole being tensed, for he sensed they were more than simple beasts, just as he was more than the human form he inhabited.

He recognized them, and they recognized him. The cats were shapeshifters, too, though their true form was feline.

Perhaps they were among the numerous branches of his far-removed descendants. There were rumors during his imprisonment of creatures bearing remnants of his abilities, creatures bearing the consequences of his ancient transgression. He had in fact met a woman in Lualor who carried a hint of his gift, but she did not recognize him, not like the cats did. He wondered how many creatures there were in the world with his magic in their blood.

His thoughts were interrupted by a ripple of movement across the tilled fields of the valley. His pursuers were gaining on him much faster than he had anticipated. They were two young men who obviously knew something of tracking, or hunting. They were not close enough to spot him, and had not yet passed his horse, but they had found his trail and were following his every footfall. It was time to move or risk being caught soon.

He silently acknowledged the cats again. Perhaps another day he would take their form and visit them, but now he needed distance as well as power. He shed his human form, his own essence shimmering on the air like heat for a moment. He held the image of a large brown hawk in his mind, and felt his being resolve into the hawk-shape. He leaped into the sky and the wind bore him up toward the first peak.

But something made him circle back to get a closer look at the two who followed him. He flew so high above them that he would only appear as a tiny spot in the sky should they happen to look up, but his eyes were sharp enough to see them clearly. One was dark, the other fair, and both were strong and powerfully built. He knew, from the shape of their bodies and their intent regard for the mountains ahead of them, that they were both competent climbers. Their youth gave them seemingly boundless energy. They would continue until night fell and they could no longer see their way in the dark, not because they grew weary.

He had underestimated them. Clearly they were chosen for this journey because they were perfectly equipped to complete it.

Something about the dark-haired one drew his attention. A glimmer of power bathed him, emanating from a fire centered in his heart, a fire of which the young man himself was not aware. This fire was protected by something, a talisman he wore.

The young man paused just then and looked up at the sky, and the hawk caught sight of the talisman. A black dragon scale hung about his neck, glinting purple and green in the early sunlight.

He knew where that scale had come from. That the young man had it could only mean one thing: the old dragon Griel was dead.

Zaghran the shapeshifter, wearing the form of a hawk, screeched a note of grief to the empty sky and flew east over the mountains, away from the two men pursuing him.