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Dragon Hoard

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It was coming on to midday by the time I urged Pansy down the mountainside. Oreg was a warm weight against my back, his arms wrapped lightly around my waist. I kept my eyes fixed between Pansy's ears, resisting the urge that made me want to keep glancing back, to check that it was Oreg there, Oreg whose breath flickered occasionally against the back of my neck. Oreg who had died in my arms a year, my blade in his neck.

Oreg suddenly leaned to one side; I felt him twisting against my back and I automatically adjusted my weight to compensate. Pansy snorted in protest yanking at his bit; I felt him tense between my legs, thinking about some more violent objection, and I gathered him up firmly and urged him forward. He thought about it for a moment and then gave in, stepping forward compliantly again.

"Sorry," Oreg murmured in my ear, and I heard the amusement in his voice. "I forgot about your demon horse."

"He's still watching for dragons," I replied, keeping my eyes on the goat track we were on. Oreg laughed silently, a warm huff of breath against my neck and I found myself grinning helplessly where he couldn't see it, keeping facing forward. I didn't know what to do with this feeling that kept buoying me up, that made the sun seem brighter.

The site of Hurog's ruins as we rounded an outcropping, a great explosion of blackstone against the pale green of the mountainside, did something towards dampening it.

I felt Oreg tense against my back, his arms tightening about my waist. "Hurog," he breathed. "I didn't..."

I forced myself to eye the ruins with a critical eye, seeing the places where order had been brought out of chaos, where I had worked with the people of Hurog, my people, to shift shattered blackstone and retrieve what furnishings they could. "You should have seen it before we got the inner wall back up," I said shortly, and urged Pansy - who had taken advantage of our distraction to stop and munch on a low hanging branch, on down the path.

I was gnawingly aware that, given a free choice, I would much prefer to turn and flee back up the mountain, taking Oreg with me. There would be conversations waiting for us in Hurog. Long, complicated conversations.

Oreg took a deep breath. "Well, this will be interesting," he said with a game attempt at cheerfulness. " He was silent for a moment. "Is Ciara well?"

"She's at my uncle's," I said shortly.

"Oh." He fell silent. And then, tentatively, "visiting...?"

"Married. To Beckram," I added.

"Beckram," Oreg repeated blankly.

I smiled humourlessly. "Yes, well. Seeing me murder her friend helped to sour on Hurog."

I regretted it as soon as a felt him flinch. I wanted to say something, to apologise and soften to the blow, but my tongue-tied itself into knots in my mouth and we finished our ride in silence. Me beating myself up with recriminations, Oreg... I don't know what Oreg was thinking.

****

Today's work crew paused as we and looked up as we rode through the gate; I grimaced under the attention but I only had myself to blame for disappearing this morning without a word to anyone.

"Finally decided to rejoin us Ward?" My aunt Stala had no patience for skivers, even ones who were her Lord in all but the Five Kingdom's Law. Maybe especially them.

I let Oreg slither down from Pansy's back as she approached and then joined him, taking a firm grip on my horse's reins. "I had something I needed to do,"

"Oh?" she glanced at Oreg, started to look away in dismissal, and then hesitated. Oreg smiled at her guilessly.

There was an almighty crash, blackstone falling on blackstone, and someone started swearing. They were quickly drowned out by my brother's shout.

"Shavig's teeth!" Tosten stared at us, his face white. "Oreg?"

"Hello, Tosten," Oreg smiled. "You look you've seen a ghost." There was along, frozen pause, in which I closed my eyes and devoutly wished to slap him."

"You were dead!" my brother - accused, was the only word for it.

"I got better," Oreg said brightly. I winced; whispers were already starting up among the men of the work crew, and I caught a few men making hex signs. The story of the battle of Hurog was well known in Hurog now, including Oreg's part in it. There had been no reason to keep him Hurog's dirty secret anymore - and I had wanted him remembered.

"Oreg was enchanted," I said loudly. "The body we saw was just an illusion. When I killed it I broke the enchantment and the real Oreg woke up." I shut my mouth with a click and looked at my aunt. Who eyed me for a long moment, and the snorted.

"Alright, you heard the Hurogmoten! Back to work."

Faced with my uninviting face, and my aunt at their back, the gawkers were soon directed back to work. There were many sidelong glances at Oreg but I thought they might fade in time. My people had got used to impossible things.

At last only Tosten was left standing, staring at us.

"I know your body wasn't an illusion," he said to Oreg, flatly.

Oreg shrugged his shoulders. "But Ward did break an enchantment," he pointed out. "And I did wake up." He drifted after the workers, picking his way through the sea of rubble."

Tosten drew close to me. "Did you know -" he said abruptly.

"I didn't," I said. "I didn't." I looked after Oreg, so very real, so very alive. Shook my head. "I didn't know this was possible," I said softly. And there was the joy back again, beating in time with my heart.

Tosten shook his head. "I just hope this is a good thing," he muttered. "I don't know any song with anything good to say about people coming back form the dead in end."

I refused to listen to him, keeping my eyes fixed on Oreg who had picked up a piece of blackstone and was turning it over in his hand. All those people had been human after all; Oreg was a dragon.

Oreg let the stone fall and wrapped his arms around himself; he stared down at the rubble at his feet and something in his face made a shiver crawl down my spine.

"Damn," Tosten muttered at my side, reluctant sympathy in his voice "It's strange enough for me seeing Hurog like this. He's lived here since it was built, hasn't he?"

No, I thought. Hurog hadn't just been a place that Oreg had lived. I remembered the way that the stones of the keep had flexed and moved in response to Oreg's every thought, the way he had been able to tell me, instantly, what was happening anywhere that belonged to the keep. Nausea hit me suddenly, as I realised something I hadn't managed to connect before. When I killed Oreg, I killed Hurog.

Oreg was standing in his own open grave.

"Ward?" Toseten asked, startled, as I suddenly strode away from him. Stones crunched and shifted under my feet as I made my way to Oreg's side.

Oreg," I called. He didn't seem to hear me. "Oreg!" I grabbed his arm. Oreg blinked slowly, and smiled up at me dreamily. "Hullo Ward."

I stared down at him, my stomach slowly twisting itself into knots. I had seen that look in Oreg's eyes before, as I had seen it in Ciara's, and Tosten's. I didn't know why it shocked me to see it there, now.

No. I did know why. I thought of the dragon high on the mountain side, morning sun sparking jewels of half-furled wings, Oreg smiling and bouncing light on his feet. The steady thrum of joy. Anything had seemed possible, then. Everything healed.

"This is where the great hall stood," Oreg added, his eyes focusing – but not on anything that I could see. "The curse was there." He pointed.

I glanced around. It had taken the dwarfs and I several weeks to map out the keep's former dimensions, work that had involved digging through the rubble in a number of places in order to check the foundations. It didn't occur to me to doubt Oreg, though.

Oreg's shoulder was very tense under my hand. I was suddenly, vividly, reminded of the time I had been forced to watch Oreg beaten to a heap at this very spot by his own ghosts, while I grinned and played the fool. The shining, joyful dragon seemed a lifetime away; this was the reality.

This time, though, I could do something. I tugged at his shoulder, pulling him forward into a walk. He stumbled on the first step, then caught himself, glancing over with eyes confused – but seeing me.

I breathed.

"Are you hungry?" I asked, keeping my voice deliberately light. "Ranka will have a pot of stew on for the workers by this time."

"Food," he said slowly. He shivered, shook himself, and offered me a weak version of his usual smile. "That does sound good. I haven't eaten for a year, after all."

I smiled down at him, relieved, and kept my hand on his shoulder as we walked across the construction ground to the place where the enterprising Ranka had got Hurog's excavated oven set up again.

I felt him flinch numerous times even on this short walk, his eyes flickering over his surroundings constantly, and every time a pit in my own stomach grew. Thousands of years. He had been a slave to my ancestors in this place for thousands of years. He must have a memory for every corner of this place; thousands of memories. And very few of them good.

Would he ever want to stay here, in a place like that?

No. As soon as the thought appeared I rejected it violently. The thought of Oreg leaving twisted something up inside me, made something dark pound behind my eyes. The half-formed snatch of regret that made me want to tear the powerless platinum ring from my finger and hurl it off the mountainside. I forced myself to loosen my grip on his shoulder when he peered up at me curiously, and offered him an apologetic smile.

I never stopped hating myself for being my Father's son. But, I told myself, Oreg had asked me if he could stay, hadn't he? Up on the mountain. He had chosen to stay.

"Sorry," Oreg said suddenly. He glanced up at me. "It's just so strange." He glanced around, looking lost. "Everything's changed."

I took a deep breath, feeling suddenly euphoric as an idea for something I could do hit me.

"Yes," I said. "But the fields are green." Oreg smiled.

I saw him settled with a bowl of stew under Ranka's watchful gaze – ghost come to life or not, anyone hungry fell under her care – and slipped away with some murmured excuse.

In my room I pulled a box of paper out from under my bed, spread them across the floor, and studied them once again. They were plans for the rebuilding of Hurog. Only rough sketches in my own hand, my thoughts jotted down on paper. I would have to hand them over the dwarfs for proper architectural plans to be drawn up, my fooling turned in to reality, but drawing them helped me to settle my whirling thoughts in the middle of the night - and studying their untidy lines now did the same. This one Hurog rebuilt half the size, keeping the enormous main hall; this one the garrisons expanded to house an army. This one a flight of fantasy to rival the High King's Palace. This one Hurog rebuilt, exactly the way it had been before.

I looked at them again, thinking of the long evenings spent calculating the budget we had, trying to estimate what our future harvests would be, trying to find the most prudent way.

I knew which plan I was going to use.

*************

Agreeing sleeping arrangements that night was awkward. My current 'home' was only a rough wooden shelter, thrown up hastily against the new inner wall. The same as most of Hurog's people were living in. It had been tiny to begin with, and when Tosten had come back I had thrown up an inner dividing wall and added a second bed to give him some space of his own.

All other available space was similarly packed out. Besides, I admitted sheepishly to myself, I wouldn't be comfortable with Oreg under anyone's eye but my own.

The question of who was going to get the bed was a subject for argument. I was determined that Oreg was not going to sleep on the floor; he was just as determined that I wasn't, either.

After the argument had gone round and round in circles a few times I finally asked, exasperated, "Why don't we share the bed then?"

Oreg flinched back from me. His shoulders hunched, curving in, and he stared down at the floor. I stared at him, feeling sick.

After that Oreg won the argument and bedded himself down on the floor with as many blankets as I could push on him. I lay awake for a long time staring up at the ceiling, despite the relative comfort of the bed, listening as his breaths evened out into sleep.

I don't know how long I lay there, but I was still awake when I heard him begin to whimper painfully in his sleep.

"Oreg," I whispered harshly, slipping from the bed to my knees beside him. "Oreg!" My hand hovered above his shoulder; I didn't want to know what his nightmares would make of my touch.

His whimpers gradually turned in to short, high-pitched keens. I hovered over him, frustration tightening my throat; his cries cut at me but I felt paralysed. Terrified of doing anything in case I made things worse for him.

I hate to think how long I might have hovered uselessly, a worse fool than the one I'd played. But the I smelled it. Hot, Heavy. Familiar - but not anything I'd ever expected to smell in my own bedroom.

I cursed, summoning mage-light and ignoring the splitting headache it gave me; Oreg lay on his side, blankets soaked with blood, black in my harsh mage light. His shirt had been torn to thin strips and I swallowed, feeling sick. His back looked shredded.

I stopped thinking. "Oreg!" I shouted and grabbed his shoulder, shaking him.

Oreg screamed, lunging up out of his bed. I caught a glimpse of his eyes, wide and panicked and blind, before a wall of force hit me in the chest and flung me across the room, pinning me to the floor. It pressed down across my chest and I choked, wheezing to catch a breath; hearing my ribs creak through the haze of pain.

"Oreg-" I tried to croak, but I had no breath to spare. Desperate, I reached for my magic and shoved-

tangled with something that, even through the pain, made warmth rush through my body; felt it startle: Ward?

The pressure vanished. I lay collapsed on the floor gasping for breath, staring dazedly at the low ceiling.

Oreg. Oreg felt like Hurog. Or maybe Hurog felt like Oreg.

"Ward?" Oreg's voice was very small.

I tried to draw in a breath to answer and started coughing violently, tearing at my injured throat.

A hand touched my throat and I felt Oreg's magic move through me again. Heat pooled somewhere lower than my belly, and I flushed. The pain in my chest eased, my cough fading, and I looked up into Oreg's frantic face.

"Ward, I'm sorry," Oreg said frantically.

I found his hand and squuezed it. "Don't worry," I croaked. I struggled up into sitting position, Oreg hovering anxiously. "Your back?"

"It's not too bad."

I frowned. "Don't lie," I mumbled.

Oreg hung his head. "I can heal it."

"Can I help?"

He smiled slightly. "Did you find a teacher in healing magic while I was dead?"

I frowned at him. "Isn't there some way you could borrow my magic to help?"

Oreg's eyes widened. "Yes, but -" he hesitated, then visibly swallowed his words. He twined his fingers through mine. "Just imagine a steady stream, from you to me," he whispered.

I kept my eyes steadily on him as he worked. The night felt very close about us, and quiet, and I hoped.

He woke me twice more, that night.

************

When we rose the next morning Oreg was determined to act as if nothing had happened, and expertly slithered out of all my attempts to get him to talk about it. Then one of my farmers turned up to talk about what they feared were signs of blight in the fields, and he disappeared as soon as my back was turned.

When I got back from the fields (it wasn't blight, a committe of farmers had eventually agreed, but I didn't grudge them their paranoia) Oreg was making himself popular by entertaining the children with illusions. Animals like giant cats prowled across purple fields pursuing horned horses, while in the 'sky,' level with the children's faces, dragon's wheeled and plunged.

He further ingratiated himself by offering his services as a healer, healing a cut in Pelnith's arm which had kept re-opening, and soothing away the aches and pains caused by hauling huge lumps of rock and by evening, although still held at a respetcful distance, people were already beginning to talk with proprietal pride about the 'Hurog Wizard.'

Oreg was stumbling with tiredness by the time we retired to bed that night, and I dared to hope his sleep would be dreamless.

It wasn't. Nor was it the next night, or the next. I learnt I could wake him safely by allowing his magic to touch mine before shaking him, but that didn't let him sleep underdisturned. Deep purple bruises grew under his eyes, and he took to dozing in the middle of the day.

I tried staying awake through the night to keep a watch on him, and to wake him before the nightmares could get their claws into him. But he figured out what I was up to after the very first night and after that refused to sleep himself until he'd seen that I'd fallen asleep. His intent, narrowed eyes followed me into my dreams, until his screams began and I'd wake up, bitterly furious and frustrated with myself. He was far better at defying sleep than I was.

I tried tangling my magic with his at night before we both slept, hoping that the touch might help ease him past the nightmares. Our magic touching made me twist uncomfortably in my bed, my face flushed, and made me dream – things – which I tried my best to forget when I woke up. And that was always to Oreg's screams – my magic settled back beneath my skin as soon as a fell asleep.

I think Oreg knew from the beginning that would happen. He didn't seem surprised, at least, when I failed. I shouted at him in the morning, and immediately felt wretched. I couldn't even create a place where Oreg could feel safe enough to sleep.

He took to disappearing everyday in the afternoon. People on the work crew made some resentful grumbles about the wizard skiving off work, but I glowered them into silence. The bad mood helped me hide my own anxiety, and the relief that seized me every time the shadows grew longer and Oreg wandered back returning the glares he received with a mild curiosity that only made the hackles of my work crew rise further.

And I tried to tell myself that I wouldn't resent (fear) having him out from under my eye if only I could be sure that he was managing to sleep while he was gone.

He wasn't.

*************

There wasn't any particular reason for today to be the day I finally broke and followed him. It was as if things had just finally reached a breaking point.

I left Pansy in his stable and reached out with that part of my magic still most familiar to me. Oreg, I thought, and followed my sense of him up through the moutain paths until we were far out of sight of Hurog.

When I rounded the final outcropping I understood why.

I hadn't seen Oreg in his dragon's body since that first day, almost three weeks ago now, when he had awakened, and then it had been only for the briefest of instances. Now, as I approached slowly, it was obvious he had been in that shape for sometime. He was stretched out across the sun warmed rock, his wings half unfurled and lax against the ground, and his muzzle pointed towards the horizon. His eyes were half-closed and un-focused and it was only when I was almost close enough to reach out and touch his side, to see if it was as soft as it looked, that he stirred and raised his head and looked at me, dawning puzzlement and alarm in his eyes.

"Ward? What are you doing here?" I was wondering how it was I was able to read the thoughts on a dragon's face so easily, and decided that it must simply because I was so familiar with Oreg's expressions.

"I was looking for you," I said, coming to halt and looking up to meet his eyes. That was a strange experience - I wasn't used to looking up at anyone, expecially Oreg.

Oreg drew his head in, curving his neck; it looked pissy. "I'm sorry for disturbing you."

I ingnored him, stepping close so I could rest my hand against his hide. I felt him start against my hand, and he stared down at me, bemused.

I smiled; it might have been a little foolish. Despite their brightness his scales were soft. "Why were you looking for me?" Oreg asked.

I half ignored the question, concentrating on stroking the shoulder under my hand. There was that start of surprise again, but Oreg didn't move away. "This is where you come, everyday?" I asked.

Oreg gave a long sigh that ruffled the hair on my head. "Yes. I thought I might be able to sleep like this." He stretched his wings in demonstration; purple lights flashed and danced. He furled them again and rested his head on what out-stretched foreleg. His eyes were distant. "If I could have taken this form then..." he smiled briefly. I discovered that a dragon's smile involved a lot of teeth.

I didn't quite come up to his shoulder. "Are you? Able to sleep?"

Oreg was silent for a moment. "No," he said. "The dreams come anyway. I forget I'm no longer a slave when I dream."

He was staring at the horizon again, the sun painting purple shadows along his spine; I stared at him helplessly. He seemed distant, as distant as any painted dragon from a book, as unreal. And as little mine.

"Oreg. Do you want to leave?" Immediatly I wanted to bite my tongue.

Oreg turned away from the horizon and stared at me; his wings raised of his back, his ears flat back against his skull. "Do you want me to go?"

I knew the answer I should make. The answer a hero should give. But my tongue was frozen, and I could only stare at him helplessly.

Oreg seemed to uncurl a little; his wings relaxed. I found my tongue. "I don't want you to go," I said hoarsley. "But I don't want you killing yourself trying to stay here - Oreg, you haven't slept since you woke up!"

"I am trying!" Oreg said. "But the dreams come and I see them my Father - Seleg - I can't remeber all their names, their faces blur but I can remember their touch. The stones remember-"

I felt him shaking under my hand. "Oreg-"

"All of this -" he spread his wings, curved them; for a moment I was surrounded in purple and blue, "is mine He glowered at me fiercely, his eyes flashing. "They will not force me away from you!"

I was grinning a little, helplessly. "No," I agreed, lifting my hand up to him, and he bent his head so I could smooth my hand along his cheek. For a heartbeat all was still, and it was I thought I could feel him relax against my palm.

"Oreg..." I paused, hesitant to make the suggestion after the way he had flinched away from me the first time, but he was looking at me expectantly. "I used to hold Ciarra when she couldn't sleep because of nightmares."

"You would?" All the spines on Oreg's head flicked up again, startled.

I shrugged awkwardly. "You're a little big for me to hold

He peered down at me curiously, his eyes wide. "You wouldn't be afraid?"

I looked up at him, concious again of the degree to which he towered over me, the sharpness of his teeth and claws. I thought of the claw marks scored into the stones of old Hurog.

"No," I said.

He shifted hesitatantly so that I could scramble up his leg and lean against his side; he seemed surprised when I took him up on it.

I leant up against the warm, surprisingly soft curve of Oreg's neck, cradled by the curve of his body, and reached up to offer a scratch behind one long pointed ear.

I felt Oreg heave out a huge sigh, my whole body lifted with it, and slowly Hurog blue eyes drifted close. The afternoon slipped away in peace as I dozed and my dragon finally slept.