The ice shattered in splinters, the darkness beneath lining each edge.
The boy lifted his hatchet to break more of the iced-over layer, squeezing his eyes shut before landing the blow.
For this swing would not be forgiven. Even were he intending the water for himself, he could not claim it on his own authority. But to give it to a stranger . . .
Elluin stepped back just before the ice cracked into true shards. The boy sucked in a breath.
“What have they done?”
The forest loomed now from below, the short branches pointing up at the girl from their ancient trunks. She could see shadows in full rather than the usual sun-skewed diagonals.
The hawk she could feel only in part. The leaping of his heartbeat, the angles he’d mastered to catch gliding wind. But to probe further was not her people’s way.
As Roe beat his wings, the girl’s field of vision increased. As the hawk caught a glimpse of silver near the caves, the girl tensed.
She’d learned the Sight from the oldest of those who trained the fox trainers. Everyone in the village called him only Teacher—he had lived past his own life. He was now but a link between the people of today and the blurred past.
Roe was flying in search of the pack of the dead wolf nearby. The girl had managed to tie one of the feathers from her arrows to his left talons and, in the handlers’ language, asked his Sight of him, only for a time.
The girl’s breathing had begun to burn, each inhale a gift and a pang. The wind song of the trees became the thready rhythm of her teacher’s tale, that of Fawei’s vixen.
Elluin trusted one paw by one to the strength of the ice, just as she trusted the water beneath to save her girl. Alone somewhere in a forest not their own.
The boy’s lips parted in bafflement. He took off his mitten and touched the tips of his fingers to the waters below. Slowly brought it to his lips.
Elluin’s ear twitched. The fox turned to the tangle of tree and brush behind them, where any sound could belong to wingbeat, foxtail, or the footfall of man. She started as the light caught something flying at the boy’s hand, his bare flesh in this freeze.
He threw both hands in the air, and the throwing knife bounced off the ice. But the shift of the boy’s weight to heels opened him to the next attack. He could only cover his head as the second arced downward.
The figure that crept out from beneath the pine was slight, all lank. Her eyes held the depth of shadow Elluin had glimpsed beneath the ice.
My mother was one with the fox she handled, and it was she who discovered the language in other creatures, Teacher had said. But the fact that an animal could understand did not always make it friend.
Her path had crossed with that of a great bear, frenzied with the fear of threat to her cub. For mothers can find danger in anyone who approaches her child. Fawei had wielded her fox to strike one great blow across the mother’s chest but would not orphan the cubs. Instead she left the path, climbing into the rocky hills and away from the den.
Fawei’s staff was in fact her vixen, the mother of the foxes that now bear gray streaks down their muzzles.
It was growing dark, and the warrior knew she needed shelter. “Let us find a night home.”
Fawei lowered the staff to the ground, calling her vixen to take up her original form. As fox became fox once more, she found a new scent in the air. An old smolder unlit since the summer.
The boy cried out to see the small blade clinging to his side as a living thing. He had never seen combat or felt the bite of a true wound before, had trained only with bow, rifle, and knife. A marksman, he’d thought himself, when his only mark had been a target of wood.
The stranger before him had the short-cropped hair and lean build of his people, but he didn’t think he had ever seen her before. He would remember if he had.
She extended her arms in front of her, together at the wrists. Raised her eyebrows.
Slowly, he mirrored her. Did she not know the Cialwan tongue?
She knelt before him and bound his hands, deft with the thick ropes. The boy heard footsteps and hissing behind him, Elluin. A human cry. Paws leaving and returning to the ice.
The stranger placed one hand on his shoulder to steady him and mouthed the word sorry.
“Wha—” he began to ask.
In that instant before she drew out the dagger, he could feel the sorrow in her face more than his own panic.
Fawei’s vixen heard a new tone in the air as well, harsh and mounting. She looked down the ridge to the widest cave she had yet seen. The ground in front of the opening looked storm swept, great arcs in the dirt like the surface of a frozen lake after the humans’ skating.
More than sight or hearing, the vixen felt the enormity of whatever dwelt there.
Fawei began lowering herself down the incline.
The weave of her tunic, the plaiting of her hair went dark, a silhouette against the blaze that now filled the cave ahead.
A shining curve, a wing on each side: the vixen could not name what she was seeing. It hopped out of the cave’s mouth, stumbled in the way of younglings.
“A fire that large?” Fawei whispered. “Something else is still in there.”
The boy looked over at Elluin, weighed down with chains and straining her jaws against the muzzle. Four men had emerged from the trees behind the girl who had struck him.
They walked in a solemn line, the tallest of the men pushing the boy along with a hand at the back of his neck.
“The one you met”—here the man gestured toward the knife thrower—“is my daughter, who guards against those who would steal of the spring.”
The boy made to look at her but was shoved forward.
“The village hasn’t taken to her, nor she to it. The girl’s mute.”
“And skilled,” the boy managed in his quiet way. The blade had not penetrated far beneath his winter garment, but each step still throbbed.
The man gestured toward the boy’s one ungloved hand. “You tasted it?”
“Yes. It wasn’t spring water.”
“The Taber tribe—what do you know of them?”
“Our warriors razed their village more than a year ago. For the northern hunting grounds.”
“No, for revenge.”
They had come into a clearing. Smaller houses formed a circle around one main stone structure, a platform.
“The Tabers burned the dam on the far end of the spring.” Even in this news, the boy could hear a hint of admiration in the man’s voice. “The dam kept the water from becoming brackish with the water from the gulf.”
Grim faces emerged from the surrounding houses.
“Mixed our waters with all the deaths of the sea.”
Even as branch and trunk blurred as Roe flew past, the sounds remained distinct to him. The footfall of a pack, growl upon growl.
Yet he could not outpace them, the girl had instructed. Though any forest creature would see them and call him prey, the wolves were not chasing.
The hawk was leading them.
“To our friend,” the girl had said. He had returned to her after spotting the group feasting on a downed buck. She paused, closed her eyes. “It comes every year because of my people. It nests here.”
Roe dove, calling on the wind to drown out the beating of his heart.
The boy froze, sidestepped the man’s grab for his arm. “Why does no one know the water has been contaminated?”
The man barked something like a laugh. “What are the Cialwan without the spring? A housewife at the market with no coin. A king with no treasury.”
The boy shivered as they led him onto the platform. Cialwan markings formed a border around the perimeter—the histories. At the far side, there was a pedestal where an earthen jar stood.
The knife thrower planted herself in front of him, blocking his view.
“The day before the Tabers’ attack,” the tall man continued, “we had drawn from the spring one dose. To save my father’s life.”
At this, all others gathered there lowered their eyes.
“It was too late.” The hulk of a man strode past his daughter, stopping short of the pedestal. He was grinning when he turned to look at the boy again.
“Now one drought remains. Prove yourself worthy, and it will be yours.”
The girl took a knife in each hand, her breathing now fast and tight.
“Fall, and know that you weren’t her only victim.”
“Dragons,” Fawei whispered. “The one inside—it must be the mother.”
They watched the adolescent from a distance, the mourning song louder now from just outside the cave. The young dragon ignored them, hopping left and right, fluttering its still-thin wings.
“It’s springtime. Maybe she’s nesting in there.” Fawei sidestepped the youngling and made for the cave, the vixen on her heels.
A wall of rocks rose above them, and a wall of scales stood in front of it.
“There must have been a cave-in,” Fawei whispered. Shining purple at its black edges, the huge dragon writhed, railing against the stones. Screaming fire.
Scorch marks laced the cave and the fallen rocks before it. The vixen’s eyes landed on a small hole between the stones and cave wall.
Fawei’s voice came quiet, soothing. Like the mother she would someday be.
“Egg?” she asked of the dragon in the language of the handlers.
One of the warriors dragged Elluin forward. “Why were you traveling with a Changeling?”
But the boy could not answer. His hands shook as he took the fox’s lead.
The knife thrower gestured toward him with one knife. She nodded when he began to undo the harness.
“I—I can’t wield her. I’m not her handler.”
The girl caught Elluin’s eye, still extending the knife. The boy shut his eyes against the flash of the fox’s change. The heft of the sword he suddenly held brought a gasp.
The warriors too flinched, murmured that the whispers were true.
The boy had not even the time to flex his wrist, to test its weight before the knife thrower was upon him. She leapt, daggers pointed down.
He held out the blade to form a diagonal guard, holding every muscle tense, but she had already relaxed her arms, her deft feet. Her knives clanged lightly against his before she pivoted to strike his exposed sword arm.
Yet his sword was light as he tossed it to his left hand. The hilt grew to curve around it, giving him the grip he didn’t have.
The blows came almost simultaneously from each side. He could not grant her this advantage, he knew—he could not match her furious pace.
The boy began to step backward, farther and farther. The blade grew ever so slightly to accommodate so that she had to lean forward, had to balance on her toes to strike. He made as if to hit low, drawing her right hand to follow in a block. He then caught her left with his injured right in a flash, making contact only long enough wrench her wrist. The blade clattered to the stone floor.
She swung her remaining blade with all the power of those lithe arms and shoulders.
He held up his sword horizontally, holding the blade in his right hand. He knew he would find the edge as blunt as a staff, the Changeling magic as swift as thought.
The knife thrower’s blow came with her full weight behind it, but it was now he who was fleet, he who loosened his muscles. He did not hold fast as she had expected. Instead, the boy jumped back and to the side, throwing down his blade almost as soon as her sword met it with a terrible clang. Her momentum now faced no resistance, and she stumbled. Mystified, she let her gaze follow his forfeit, his enchanted blade, for the space of an instant. He used the pause—the breath—to crouch low and sweep her legs from beneath her. Even as she fell, the boy could sense her rolling the motion into a clean turn, already rising.
But he was scrambling for the knife she had dropped moments before, the one he knew for himself could fly as fast as his own hawk. The boy breathed the bird’s name as some kind of luck charm as he flicked his wrist. A marksman.
The man standing in front of the jar was watching the fallen sword flashing back into fox as the knife sailed toward his throat. He died with his eyes still wide.
The world froze around the boy, everyone stunned, hapless as he and Elluin ran for the jar. It was a head start. But he couldn’t stop himself from glancing back at the knife thrower. He would never meet her like again, he knew.
Her hand that still held a dagger twitched. Perhaps he only told himself this to fend off the already-rising guilt of the kill, but he didn’t think she wore now the sorrow he had seen. She paused to let him gain distance before lifting her arm in a throw meant only for those watching.
A dragon looked out at the call of a hawk. Saw the white feather of the handlers tied to him.
This was a call she could not refuse, not since the girl Fawei and her Changeling had long ago come to the aid of her clan.
In the jaws of a fox, the dragon thought with a wince. Through the maze of stones and back, the vixen had clutched the egg that held her ancestor.
The nearby air turned blustery as the dragon flapped her wings—dragon to follow after hawk.