“I was just trying to ask a few questions,” Slaine said levelly, in what he hoped was perfectly serviceable Plains language. A bit rusty after years of disuse, probably, but certainly not bad enough to warrant the hard knock to the head he received. While Slaine laid on the ground, unable to right himself because his hands had been tied behind his back, the Wyvern Chief slowly placed a sandalled foot on his head so that Slaine’s face was pressed to the dirt. To think that the hunter would get himself caught so quickly, Slaine thought ruefully.
Replying in his own broken Plains, the squint-eyed Chief said, “No need for me to listen to dead man.”
Slaine tried to spit out the dry mountain soil that had gotten into his mouth. He succeeded, only for twice the amount of soil to find its way back in when he opened his mouth to talk. The Wyvern Riders laughed as they watched him retch, their chief leisurely grinding his foot into Slaine’s cheek as he struggled. Eventually, Slaine gave it up as a bad job and laid still again as he said, “Now, technically I’m not quite dead and as an envoy of Vers I really am supposed to deliver my message. And, it would be beneficial for the Wyvern Riders to hear me out. The Empire doesn’t take kindly to those who harm her people-”
The Chief stepped back and yelled out something in his own language. Suddenly, his wyvern entered Slaine’s field of vision. Heedless of the fact that he was bound, Slaine gave a cry of fear and made a mad scramble backwards from the beast’s head, eyes fixed on its bared dagger-sharp teeth. The creature growled, its ruff of brown feathers flared out. The Chief laughed. “Keep your message. Vers-man speaks of Empire’s ‘kindness’. You are forgetting. You are in Dragon mountains now. No protection from stone-wings.”
Slaine said nothing, mesmerised as he was by the wyvern’s slightly open jaws and the way it kept its slit-pupiled eyes on him, mindless of anything but the fact that at any moment that red mouth could open and pour flame on him, melting his flesh and searing his lungs-
The growling stopped when the Chief placed a hand on his wyvern’s flank. The man was now looking at Slaine with more amusement than anger. His gaze roamed over Slaine’s sweat-soaked shirt, tangled hair and quickly bruising cheek. The chief smiled a snake’s smile, with predator’s eyes. “You will be slave. Watching your fear, funny.”
“I warn you, my disappearance will not go unmarked by the Empire,” Slaine told him. Painfully, he gathered his legs under himself so that he was kneeling – not the most dignified of positions, but a step above how he had been curled up in the dirt only moments before.
The Chief shrugged. “You are careless and you crash. Eaten by dragons. No mystery disappearance.”
Slaine’s confusion only lasted for a moment, until he caught sight of several of the Chief’s men pushing his airskiff towards the cliff. One of them gestured roughly. A wyvern went up to the small vessel, sniffing at its sail and scratched wooden hull cautiously. Slaine waited until the creature was close to the engine. Then he activated its Aldnoah.
At once, the skiff sprang to life. Lights flared along its sides and the thing whirred. The wyvern gave a squawk, beating its wings in surprise. The men scattered.
The skiff’s rudder was damaged and the sail torn, but Slaine wasn’t there to steer it anyway. He watched as it shot itself off the cliff then rose in fitfully, zipping into the morning mist. The Wyvern Riders stared after it dumbly.
With some luck, hopefully someone would find it and realise that Slaine was still alive.
Unless he wasn’t, and the thing went crashing down to the ground as its Aldnoah shut off.
In which case Slaine’s only consolation would be the flabbergasted look on the Chief’s face. Even that was gone quickly enough, replaced by a livid expression as the man rounded on him, his staff raised and his wyvern poised to pounce the moment he gave the signal.
Which is why he hadn’t seen the bright orange dragon swooping out of the mist from behind him. By the time his men and wyverns had let out warning cries the attacker had bowled the Chief over with the strong downdraft. With a graceful flap of its feathered wings it landed lightly in front of Slaine. Extending its long neck, it gave a screech, then gazed down at Slaine’s captors imperiously with its turquoise eyes. The wyvern’s tail curved around Slaine – not constricting, but enough to keep him in place.
A rider slipped down from the orange wyvern’s saddle. He was holding the Chief’s staff in a gloved hand. Slaine quickly glanced at the man, who was clutching his hand in pain. To be able to grab something like that mid-flight signifies masterful agility and precision.
If it hadn’t been for that feat, Slaine would not have thought much of the newcomer; he was slender, short… petite, in fact. Combined with his youth, it made it even more surreal to see him raise the staff above his head and for the enemy wyverns – after all, he’d just attacked their master – to bend their own serpentine necks as if bowing. The tribe muttered, but to Slaine’s surprise none of them berated their steeds. The men just looked at the boy. Even their Chief was waiting.
The boy spoke, in the language of the Wyvern Riders. Slaine caught the word ‘Versian’, the name almost unrecognisable after being subjected to the guttural, growling accent of the Riders. The Chief replied in the same language. The man sounded angry. But Slaine couldn’t guess the boy’s mood from his tone, which seemed flat and dull by comparison. Then, Slaine heard the boy say something that sounded like:
“Princess Asseylum! You knew her!” Slaine cried. Both the boy and the chief turned to him.
The boy tilted his head. In perfect, if somewhat terse, Plains the boy said, “I do know Seylum. She visited us. She did not say that there would be another envoy.”
The Chief shouted something. The orange wyvern roared briefly, then closed its jaws with a snap. Silence fell once again. The boy never looked away from Slaine, his red eyes locked with Slaine’s own. Belatedly, Slaine realised that he was supposed to reply. “The Princess visited you?”
“Yes, Seylum stayed with the Shinawara tribe.” At Slaine’s confused look, the boy elaborated with, “My own tribe. You have been caught by the Novosibirsk tribe.” The boy indicated the wyverns that men gathered behind the chief.
“They… certainly don’t seem keen to show me hospitality,” Slaine said with a nervous chuckle. His humour didn’t appear well-received, if the boy’s stony expression was any indication.
The boy turned back to his fellows and conversed with the Chief again. Slaine watched him carefully. Suddenly, the boy frowned. In a fiercer voice than Slaine had come to associate with him, he shouted something while shaking his head sharply. This incensed the ‘Novosibirsk’ tribe – the Chief gave a shout of his own, and his wyvern lunged.
Before Slaine could ask what the boy intended to do, the wyvern rider had let out a wild shriek. Slaine looked at him, his first thought that the boy had been injured somehow. Then he heard the answering cries – calls that echoed the boy’s own, but far louder and harsher than any human sound. More wyverns, green and dark grey, dropped from the mist to land between Slaine and the Novosibirsk. A particularly large beast, its feathers the colour of a stormcloud, stood right in front of the Chief.
“Are they going to fight?” Slaine hissed to the boy. The boy turned to him. Instead of answering, he snaked one surprisingly muscular arm around Slaine’s waist and swung them both onto the orange wyvern. By the time he’d recovered from the sudden change in position Slaine saw that the Novosibirsk Chief had also mounted his own steed – Slaine assumed that the ‘friendly’ wyvern riders were part of the Shinawara. Slaine squirmed, desperately trying to get back to the ground. The boy’s grip tightened. “Wait, are you planning to fight?”
The woman atop the storm-coloured wyvern glanced at Slaine and the boy over her shoulder. Without warning, she yelled. No, roared – roared like a dragon, a sound that spoke of strength and challenge more clearly than any word in any language Slaine knew. Her wyvern also joined in so that their voices blended into one thundering cry that seemed to shake the heavens themselves.
Then the Shinawara Riders followed, both human and wyvern howling to brew up a storm of sound. If Slaine hadn’t been confused and terrified, he would have told the boy to refrain from bellowing right into his ear.
With his ears still ringing, Slaine didn’t register the wyvern beneath him shifting until the first wingbeat. Then it was too late – it’d leapt into the sky, with Slaine on its back, held captive by some madman. Twisting so that he could look the Rider in the eye, Slaine shouted, “What are you doing? They’ll be roasting our tails any moment!”
“They won’t attack. Stop moving. Your weight is already affecting Sleipnir’s rhythm,” the boy replied. He had his arms on either side of Slaine’s body, reaching around him so that he could place his hands on a raised strap attached to the wyvern’s harness. Unfortunately, this meant that he was awkwardly peeking over Slaine’s shoulder, his nose pressed against Slaine’s back so that he could feel the boy’s warmth breath through his shirt.
The wyvern growled – the sound rumbled up through its chest and into Slaine’s legs where he’d clamped them tight around the beast’s body. The boy poked him in the back. Slaine’s heart jumped to his throat; Slaine himself had both hands gripping the saddle and didn’t dare let go to retaliate. Partially through anger and mostly through fear, Slaine snapped, “What?”
“You’re hurting Sleipnir. Relax.”
“I don’t think I can do that!” It was an honest, if rather undignified, response. To Slaine’s indignation the boy actually moved one of his hands down to give Slaine’s thigh a reassuring pat. His voice rising to an embarrassing squeak, Slaine demanded, “Use both hands to steer! What if we get thrown off?”
Slaine watched with horror as the boy moved both hands off the saddle. “Sleipnir won’t throw us off. As long as we don’t disrupt her wingbeat she can easily keep all of us aloft. Relax and don’t grip so tightly.”
Slaine gripped tighter, closed his eyes and tried to pretend that he was somewhere far from wyverns and their insane riders – somewhere that was preferably on solid rock. At the foot of the mountains. Indoors.
He failed quite miserably. But he made a valiant effort.
Inaho stared at the Versian, unsure of how to proceed. The tribe had investigated the Imperial skycraft on his insistence – Inaho had been surprised to see it flying by without its pilot, but recovered quickly enough to assume that its owner had run afoul of something or other. That ‘something’ had been the Novosibirsk tribe… that wasn’t too surprising; the dragon tamers had a good reason to be hostile to people of the Empire. But killing a Versian would only make trouble.
That meant that Inaho had to keep this Versian alive. It was quickly becoming a more daunting task than he’d anticipated.
Crouching beside the prone man, Inaho poked him gently in the hip. The man groaned. He’d thrown himself off Sleipnir the moment she’d stopped moving and lain on the ground ever since, having declared that he was never leaving the safety of land again. Inaho poked him again. There wasn’t any response. Inaho said, “You were safe in the air, too. Sleipnir wouldn’t have let you fall.”
The man responded with something unintelligible. It may have been in Versian. It may have just been because he was curled up with his face buried in his hands. Inaho kept patting his hip, just above where his thighs joined his body,scratching occasionally. It didn’t have the same calming effect that it did with dragons. The man made an irritable shaking motion, mumbling something again.
“I can’t understand what you’re saying,” Inaho told him.
The man finally raised his head so that Inaho caught a glimpse of his eyes – they were bright blue, like the sky. They were also narrowed in fear or anger. The man hissed, “Get. That beast . Away.”
“Sleipnir?” The dragon was curious about their new visitor; she’d been hoping that the man would play with her like Seylum had. Now she sunbathed on the rock next to the Versian, waiting for the games and petting to start. It wasn’t likely that her hopes would be realised. Inaho whistled and gestured for her to join the other dragons – Sleipnir slowly walked away, head drooping in disappointment and dragging her feathery tail as she went.
Slowly, the man sat up. Inaho saw how he was breathing heavily. His eyes were wide. As someone who took care of the easily-scared hatchlings, Inaho recognised the way the Versian looked around wildly, his body tense. Like a hunted animal.
“I know you don’t trust me. But you are safe here. My name is Inaho; I was a friend of your Princess,” Inaho said, holding out his hand.
The man narrowed his eyes. Hesitantly, he took Inaho’s hand. “Slaine Troyard. Thanks. For saving me from… the other tribe.”
His name is less strange than Seylum’s , Inaho noted. The man was dressed differently to Seylum as well; he wore a loose white shirt – now streaked with dirt – with a frilly protrusion below his neck like chest feathers, and dark pants that hugged his legs closely. It seemed much more practical than the Princess’ ornate dress. It also looked a lot colder. Once the adrenaline wore off, the man – no, Slaine – was going to feel uncomfortable. Gesturing towards the rest of the eyrie, Inaho said, “It’s dangerous to stay out here. I can take you to my home; you can rest there. Or I could give you something to eat.”
A loud rumble from Slaine’s stomach answered him. Slaine blushed, stammering an apology – first in Versian, then in Plains.
“[No worries],” Inaho replied. Slaine looked surprised that he knew Versian, but didn’t comment on it. Silently, the man fell into step behind him as they walked towards Inaho’s home. Inaho led the man towards an opening in the sunset-orange rock that made up the mountains of his homeland. Sleipnir could enter the eyrie by air. It was more difficult to get to the village on foot; they were well hidden. As they stepped into the cool shadows of the tunnel, Inaho said, “Stay close. There are guards.”
Slaine looked around. “You live in caves?”
“You’ll see soon,” Inaho replied. He reached the end of the tunnel and waited. The sound of the door grinding open filled the tunnel, echoing off the narrow walls. Slaine paused when he first heard the sound but hurried forward when a sliver of sunlight shone through the widening gap. Inaho held out a hand to stop him from walking too far ahead. “The door opens inwards. Wait.”
Slaine tensed when he felt Inaho’s hand against his chest. Inaho could feel the man’s heartbeat, through where his palm met Slaine’s shirt. A quick rhythm. Inaho turned to Slaine to see if he was scared.
The door opened further and Slaine’s face was bathed in sunlight.
His hair gleamed silver-gold and he raised a hand to shield his eyes – and how blue they looked, as vivid as the open sky. As the he got used to the light, his hand dropped away. Slaine’s eyes widened, his expression one of surprise. No, not surprise – one of wonder.
“This is where I live,” Inaho told him, leading him out into the warmth of the summer sun and to his home.
Slaine couldn’t stop himself from gasping. The tunnel led out into a terraced valley. Huge columns of red stone rose from the valley floor. The walls of the valley were dotted with cave openings. Connecting these were wooden bridges – things that swayed as people walked across them, decorated with colourful feathers that danced in the wind. These strings of rainbow plumage also adorned the huts that were dotted throughout the valley; splashes of colour against the background of ochre and blue sky. And there were wyverns .
They basked in the sun, they flew through the air, they sat next to cooking fires and waited for people to throw them scraps. They came in emerald green, in sapphire blue, in the colours of sunset and honey and speckled salt-and-pepper. The valley was filled with the sounds of the beasts. It was a clamour of whistles and chirps and howls, the click of claws on stone and the flap of feathered wings.
Slaine didn’t move until Inaho gave him a gentle push. “We have to get out so they can close the door.”
“Right, right.” Slaine followed him down a short flight of stairs carved into the stone. The moment they reached the bottom, a shadow passed over them. With a thud, Inaho’s orange wyvern landed beside them. Slaine jumped.
“Don’t be afraid of Sleipnir. She wants to be friends,” Inaho said.
“Well maybe I don’t want to be friends!” Slaine snapped, his heart still hammering frantically.
The wyvern let out a series of growls and whines. Bluntly, Inaho told him, “Your opinion will not matter in this.”
“What do you mean-” Slaine couldn’t finish his question. The wyvern pounced. Slaine was trapped between its claws. He closed his eyes.
For good reason, it turned out. Something warm, squishy and very, very damp was pressed against the entirety of his face. It wrapped around his chin and dragged across his cheeks, over his eyes and up into his hair. Just when Slaine thought it was over, the process was repeated. Struggling in the beast’s limbs was useless. It had laid its body over Slaine’s own so that he couldn’t even shift his legs to kick it away.
There was a thump. The wyvern squawked. It moved away from Slaine, who cautiously opened his eyes and got up from the ground, wiping his hand over his face. It came away covered with wyvern saliva.
Inaho handed him a cloth. “She’s only doing this because your reactions are entertaining.”
“You made it do that! It’s your wyvern!” Slaine snatched the cloth out of his hand and tried to clean himself.
“I can’t make Sleipnir do anything.”
“Then you’re a terrible wyvern rider.” Slaine wrinkled his nose. He smelt like charcoal and burnt meat. Surprisingly, it didn’t ruin his appetite: his stomach rumbled again.
“I have some food at my home. It is not far from here.” Inaho gestured at a cave on the eastern wall. He turned and started walking towards it without waiting to see if Slaine would follow. Since he didn’t have much of a choice, Slaine headed after him – but not before shooting the orange wyvern a glare. It simply squawked at him.
Huffing, Slaine began the climb.
Inaho pushed back the canvas that blocked the cave entrance and gestured for Slaine to enter. It was unexpectedly homely: its sandstone floor was covered with woven carpets, with neat shelves carved into the curved walls. Slaine couldn’t see much else once Inaho let the canvas drop, plunging them all into darkness, save for some spots of light from slanted holes dotted around the roof.
The scrabbling sound of claws and the brief glimpse of feathers as the canvas was pushed aside was all the warning Slaine got before he realised that the wyvern was in the cave as well. He shouted, backing away from the beast until he was backed against solid stone. There was a sudden, terrifyingly familiar intake of breath-
Light and heat flared. Slaine curled up tighter, smaller, his eyes shut tight. All he could see was fire. Smoke. Embers. Sparks that rained down onto his skin as he screamed and cried until he was hoarse, until the wreckage was wrenched away from where it had trapped him and he saw…
Slaine felt someone gently pry his arm away. A hand cupped his cheek. He opened his eyes to see Inaho kneeling in front of him. Wordlessly, the man brushed Slaine’s tears away with his thumb.
Slaine jerked away from his hand, wiping his face with the filthy sleeve of his shirt. Dusting himself off, Slaine growled, “I thought you said there’d be food.”
“Wait a moment.” Inaho began to take off the leather armour that the wyvern riders seemed to favour, hanging them up onto hooks set into the wall. First he stripped off the pieces that protected his elbows and knees, then the pauldrons, then the vest…
Slaine quickly turned to face the wall. Had the princess been subjected to something so indecent? “Isn’t… isn’t there some kind of room you can change in?”
“Change? You mean my outfit?” Inaho asked. “I’m not changing. The armour isn’t needed here. And it’s too hot to wear it anyway.”
Now that he’d pointing it out, Slaine began to notice how warm it was. It wasn’t just from the hearth, either - a steady current of warm air blew from the back of the cave, as if some huge animal lay just out of sight around the bend. All he could see was the play of golden lights against the back wall.
“Don’t go near there,” Inaho called out.
Slaine risked looking at him. That was a mistake. He caught sight of the boy’s bare back, the shape of his muscles thrown into contrast by the firelight; more tanned skin than Slaine had ever expected to see; a glimpse of slender legs and bare feet. Inaho’s only concession to modesty was a piece of cloth worn around his hips and a belt decorated with bits of metal and orange wyvern feathers. Slaine turned back to the wall and tried to forget what he saw. To think that Princess Asseylum had seen… this ! Had she lived here? And watched every day as this Inaho character pranced around practically naked?
“Here. Take as much as you want.” A bowl of bacon was placed beside him. Slaine mumbled his thanks and took a piece.
He nibbled it. The spices that had been used during the smoking process added to the rich, savoury taste of the meat itself to blend into a flavourful, melt-in-the-mouth experience. Momentarily forgetting his manners, Slaine wolfed down the first piece as he grabbed a second one.
“You should eat slower. That’s dangerous,” Inaho said.
Slaine looked up, his third piece of bacon hanging from his mouth. He nodded sheepishly. After chewing and swallowing properly, Slaine said, “This is delicious! It’s nothing like anything I’ve eaten before!”
“Seylum said the same thing. I gave her a lot to take home.”
“I see.” Slaine watched Inaho. He couldn’t read his expression - there was nothing to read on that blank face, even though he could see the boy clearly where he sat by the fire, carefully toasting bread. The chain around his neck gleamed in the firelight; when he leaned over, there was a flash of blue as the jewelled pendant moved. “Your necklace…”
Inaho gestured to it. “This? Seylum gave it to me. She said it was a Dragon Tribe necklace.”
“A dragon rider’s necklace?” Had the Princess really gotten that impression?
“It’s not,” Inaho said.
“I should think not,” Slaine answered. “How long have you had it?”
“Since the end of spring,” Inaho answered. He handed Slaine a piece of bread.
Slaine gladly took it; the smell of it toasting had been a delicious torment. It took all of his discipline to wait so that he didn’t burn his mouth. To distract himself, he said, “Did she give it to you before she left?”
“Yes.” Inaho fidgeted with the pendant. “I had been under the impression that it was Aldnoah at first.”
“The Princess wouldn’t have given such a treasure away so lightly!” Slaine laughed. In the corner, the wyvern let out a musical, warbling growl. Slaine stopped laughing.
Inaho seemed amused by his reaction, which made Slaine feel unreasonably angry - the way those eyes, red in the firelight, softened as the corners of his mouth tilted up by the smallest of fractions. But that moment was soon gone and Inaho’s expression was neutral as he said, “I would not have accepted it if it was Aldnoah. The stone of the Versians is evil.”
“Evil? Aldnoah is the only thing that can control dragons!”
Inaho sat there in silence for a while, as if pondering Slaine’s words. Then, he lifted a hand and hummed. There was the long, slithering sound as his wyvern made its leisurely way towards him, until it could sleepily nuzzle its snout against his palm. Clucking his tongue, Inaho burned a piece of bread charcoal-black and tossed it into the wyvern’s maw, his fingers just shy of its wicked teeth. Satisfied, the wyvern lowered its head to the floor and went to sleep.
Inaho gently stroked the wyvern’s feathers. Staring into the fire as if in recollection, he said, “Control is the way of the frightened. Here, we choose to trust.”
Slaine finished his bread - the last bite was dry and stuck in his throat, but his cup was empty and the jug of water too near the wyvern for his liking. He swallowed it with difficulty. “Trust… can be dangerous too. ‘ Those once burned are wary of fire ’. You have your way, and I have mine.”
After that, they said nothing. Inaho rose and packed up, after which he filled a bowl with warm water and gave Slaine a towel to clean himself with. Slaine insisted on having Inaho turn away before he undressed; Inaho simply shrugged and woke his wyvern up, told Slaine to leave his dirty clothes in a corner and left the cave. When he returned, Slaine was wrapped up in one of the blanket’s he’d given him, fast asleep.
Inaho fetched another blanket - they had spares, Yuki wouldn’t need them - and pulled it over him. After all, Slaine might have caught a cold, sleeping so far from the fire.