Posted on June 29, 2010


This story is Part 7 of the Fire and Water series. It follows Flight. To read from the beginning, please visit the Index Page.

* * *

Coanh and Findol stood at the foot of the mountain, ready to climb. Coanh had spotted a natural line up the mountainside they could follow, but Findol lingered, staring at a flat boulder.

“What is it?” Coanh said. “You arguing with this rock?”

“You don’t see that? There’s something false about it. There’s… magic on it.”

Coanh reached out and touched the boulder. It felt like any other rock, hard and cold. Findol touched it, too, when no harm came to Coanh. He drew a sharp breath and took his hand away.

“Zaghran,” he said. “It’s the supplies he bought in Lualor. He put an illusion on them to hide them.” He wiped his fingers on his coat as though the magic had left a residue.

“Then we’re on his trail,” Coanh said. “This is the way he came. But how are you able to see through magic? Have you become a sorcerer in the last three moons?”

“I’m no sorcerer,” Findol laughed. “But all the same, we should move on.”

Coanh led the way up the slope. He could feel Findol thinking behind him.

“He wouldn’t leave his supplies behind unless he changed shape and needs them no longer.”

“If that’s true, he could be anything now,” Coanh said.

“And anywhere,” Findol added. “We may not be as close on his trail as we think.”

They continued in silence, focusing on the terrain ahead of them.

They made good time, thanks to Coanh’s knack for picking out paths. The sun was low over the sea in the west when they stopped again. They were already halfway up the mountain.

They made camp in a flat depression between three large boulders. The mountain stretched above them, its peak shrouded in clouds.

“We’d have an easier journey if we were shapeshifters, too,” Coanh observed. Findol grinned as he built a small fire.

“I imagine Zaghran will still have to rest from time to time, whatever form he takes. We can’t be more than a day behind him. We’ll find him.”

They sat against the rocks, and Coanh brought a small wheel of hard cheese from his pack. He broke off a piece and handed it to Findol.

“Is that what I’ve smelled for an hour?” Findol said.

“Are you saying my mother’s fine cheese reeks? She’s been perfecting her methods for years, and her cheese is well sought after. It’s a delicacy.” Findol chuckled and lifted the cheese to his nose.

“No, this is a fine, earthy perfume. It makes my mouth water. I’m privileged to have it.” He took a bite, and a frown darkened his face.

“What? It can’t have gone off. But since it’s cheese, how would you know if it was bad, really?” Findol hushed him with a wave of his hand.

Something moved in the crags above them, betrayed by a soft clatter of pebbles. They stood up, the food forgotten. Findol’s hand went to Griel’s scale under his shirt. He drew the knife from his belt.

“Wolves? The shapeshifter?” Coanh whispered. Findol shook his head.

“I knew I smelled something.”

Coanh scanned the three boulders; they formed a bowl. The wind would not reach them here as the night got colder, but any beast could jump down on them effortlessly. They were easy prey.

They saw the fire reflected green in a pair of eyes above them. A low, throaty growl vibrated the rocks. A large cat leaped, hissing, its tawny red body suspended over them for a moment. Then it was on Findol, pinning him flat to the ground under its weight. Findol’s knife skittered away, and Coanh dove for it. He rolled to his feet yelling, knife raised and ready to slash the beast, but their struggle was too fierce to give him a clear strike.

The sky above them went dark momentarily, and a great roar rang against the mountainside. Coanh saw coppery talons descend and lift the cat bodily off Findol. The cat screeched in outrage. Findol, unharmed, stood up. Aurmid perched on one of the boulders, the writhing cat dangling in one of her claws.

The cat’s screech became a scream. They watched the cat transform into a human female, clothed in golden animal skins. Long red hair tossed about her like flame as she struggled. She spat at Aurmid, all feline fury.

“Well-met, Findol Grey,” Aurmid growled. “Shall I end this creature who tried to kill you?”

The girl snarled at Aurmid and ceased struggling. She turned wrathful green eyes on Findol, who stared at her, speechless. Coanh elbowed him.

“Say something,” he said. Findol looked up at Aurmid and blinked.

“No, don’t kill her. Put her down… gently, Aurmid.”

“I will release you,” the dragon told her, “but if you attempt anything foolish, I will determine your fate myself.”

Aurmid dropped her. She landed delicately on her feet, her whole body tensed. She stared at Findol.

“So… why did you attack us?” he said.

“You’re hunting the Great Father,” she said. Her voice was low-toned, dusky. “You mean to do him harm. I will prevent that if I can.”

“The Great Father?” Findol echoed. Aurmid snorted.

“You don’t even know who your prey is?” the girl said, scowling.

“Do you have a name, miss?” Coanh said.

“I am Varala, daughter of Huren, who keeps the stories for our kind. She is also a great hunter.” She glanced up at Aurmid: challenge.

“I’m Coanh,” he said cheerfully. “You’ve met Findol and Aurmid.”

“What will you do with me now?” she said to Findol. “You may kill me honorably, since I failed to kill you.”

A steely look entered Findol’s eyes that Coanh had never seen before.

“If I wished to kill you, you would already be dead. No, you will accompany us, I think. Your family will not harm us while you are with us. And it seems there are things we should discuss, you and I.”

Aurmid grumbled, sending puffs of smoke into the twilight, and curled up on top of her boulder.

“Right,” Coanh said. He picked up the wheel of cheese and offered it to Varala. “Hungry?”