Bron was where she left him, but one of their blankets was not. “Here,” Netta said, dropping the boots where the blanket should have been. “What happened?”
Bron held one boot up to his foot, then hurriedly peeled off the remnants of his shoes. “Did you trade for these?”
“The boy who owned them had another pair,” she lied. Maybe he had; she hadn’t checked under his mother’s body. Probably she should have; she’d made the long trek out and back after spotting the two huddled bodies... but pulling the little boots off cold feet had taken longer than she’d thought it would, and she’d been shivering too hard to search for more. “Bron, where’s our blanket?”
He first pointed to the one underneath him, then, when that feigned ignorance didn’t work, to a fire apart from the rest of the refugees, closer to them than any other cluster of people had been for two weeks. A hulking shape sat next to the fire, blotting out most of its light. “He had meat,” Bron added, holding out a little sack. “I was hungry.”
Meat for a blanket was no proper trade. Netta turned away from the fire, waiting for her eyes to adjust. She could make out a few of the other groups—and yes, they were watching her. Waiting for just such a sign of weakness as this. She turned a little further and sure enough, there was Sieg, wrapped up in his heavy city official’s coat, watching to make sure she didn’t venture any closer to “decent people” than this uneasy distance. He’d failed to keep that sort of order in Alcaris, but the refugees were scared and scattered enough that one self-appointed shepherd could exercise a lot of clout. Netta sighed, then made a show of loosening Leir’s knife in its sheath at her belt. “Stay here, stay safe. I’ll be back in a moment.” Bron, fitting his feet into new boots, only nodded.
The man looked up just as she recognized the lump on his back: a huge maul, meant less for pounding iron than cracking bones. A smaller, smith-sized hammer hung at his belt, snagging on the blanket—their blanket. Netta swallowed. “Evening,” she said, stopping on the far side of his fire.
“Evening to you,” he responded. His head was shaved, or had been at some point; now it was mostly gray and black bristle, broken by old white scars. He didn’t look like a smith, for all that his strength appeared to be mostly in those shoulders. But he had a fire all his own, even if it was only a pale smudge of flame, and that was something smiths usually did.
Netta crossed her arms. “My cousin tells me you traded for our blanket.” He nodded, fine lines appearing at the corners of his eyes. “Well, he doesn’t really have the best grasp of trade in this situation—” her gesture caught the two of them and Bron, all the watching refugees, maybe even all the way back to the pillar of smoke that had been Alcaris, “— and it looks like neither do you. Not for a fair trade, anyway.”
The lines creased further. He was going to laugh at her, tell her little girl, you are twelve years old and I am twice your size, do you think I’m going to bother with your notions of fairness? Sieg hadn’t bothered with her, after all, saying that they should have known better than to trust Leir. He hadn’t cared two pins for Leir or Netta, not till one of them was dead. And where Sieg led, whether a different choice of route or an opinion as to who deserved shelter, the other refugees followed.
“How so?” the smith asked.
“Meat’s good, but it goes fast. Blanket, though, that’ll keep you warm till you reach Ceste.” If he was going to Ceste. She really hoped he wasn’t. “So that blanket’s worth a lot more than a sack of dried jerky.”
The stranger gazed at her a long moment, but he didn’t laugh outright at her. “Well,” he said at last, “only so much I can offer. Got a good knife, but it seems you have one too.” He reached into the shaggy vastness of his cloak and took out a bag—smaller, but bulging. “This cover the rest?”
He tossed the bag to her, and she caught it without thinking. Within were apples—little ones, hard and dry, but an impossibly sweet scent still clung to them, bringing back memories of her mother’s bakery. “Somewhat,” Netta mumbled, then cleared her throat. “Still not going to last to Ceste.”
“Then I’ll have to owe you,” he said. But it was enough, for now. The other refugees would have seen the trade, and that might be enough to keep them from thinking her weak.
Netta closed the bag, then hesitated. “You know,” she said slowly, trying to remember how Leir had said all this, back when she and Bron still had a wheelbarrow and four blankets, “seems you’re new here. Happen you might need someone to show you the ropes, teach you what’s what.” She swung the bag over her shoulder, trying for the same unapproachable confidence that Leir had shown, the attitude that said never mind Duke Tasso’s soldiers, never mind the firedrakes and the sorcery that fuels them, never mind that your home is ash; trust in me. If it had worked on her, it might work on someone else, and maybe twelve-year-olds weren’t the only ones who deserved to get swindled, regardless of what Sieg said....
But the stranger only shook his head. “I appreciate the offer,” he said, “but I’ll navigate this on my own.”
Netta nodded again, unsure whether she was disappointed or relieved that she hadn’t succeeded in pulling off Leir’s scam. She returned to Bron’s side, her breath clouding in the air.
“Did you get our blanket back?” Bron asked sleepily.
“No.” She crawled under the remaining blanket with him and handed him an apple. “Here. We’ll split it.”
He took a tentative bite, then another. “Netta?”
“Aunt Salda will take us in, right?”
She’s your aunt, she wanted to say. “Of course she will. She’s family.”
“No buts. If she’s there—” and that was the only worry she’d allow herself, “— then she’ll take us in.” She rolled over and curled up tight, clutching Leir’s knife.
The clot of refugees had started out as one group, tight as a sorcerer’s knot. But as time passed, the refugees had spread out and splintered, the older and sicker lagging behind—and Bron and Netta well behind that, shunned and pushed to the back by those who listened to Sieg. They might even have lagged this far if it hadn’t been for Sieg’s pious outrage driving the others ahead; Bron was small, even for an eight-year-old, and his short legs wearied quickly.
When they first left Alcaris, Bron had been full of his stories about his Aunt Salda’s shop and how she had two cats and a hearth with bright red tiles on it, but now Netta couldn’t even get that out of him. Some part of her was jealously glad—she no longer had a home to tell stories of, so let him shut up about the two cats—but it did worry her.
The smith moved just as slow as they did, for two reasons. One was the limp that worsened as day wore on into evening; the other was that he seemed not to be in much of a hurry at all. He picked up things as he walked, adding them to a heap in his hands, as if he were a needlewoman knitting.
Three nights after the smith joined up, he chose a spot close to theirs when they lay their blanket down for the night. Netta cast a glance back at him, one hand on Leir’s knife, but he ignored them, and after a while she was glad for the fire he started.
“I want bread,” Bron said.
“We don’t have any.” Even her clothes had stopped smelling like bread. It was difficult to believe she’d ever been sick of the smell.
Bron’s lower lip stuck out, but he’d learned not to argue with her, and tears didn’t bring bread. That had been a favorite saying of her mother: tears don’t bring bread, wailing won’t get you a coin, and not all the laments will make Duke Tasso stop sending his soldiers. She’d started leaving off the end of the saying over the last few months, after the duke’s sorcerer Vigil loosed the firedrakes and they started burning their way up the river.
Netta turned to see the smith sitting with his back to the fire. The last light of day showed something in his cupped hands. “I said I would owe you. It’s not bread, but it’s payment of a sort.”
He raised one hand, fingers in a set of little wire loops, and a cat the size of one of the withered apples sat up on his palm. As Netta stared, he twitched his fingers, and the cat stood up, stretched, and leapt to the ground, guided by the wires. The smith made the cat walk up to the edge of the blanket and sit back, then smiled encouragingly at them both, waiting for their response.
Bron scrambled away and hid behind Netta, and the smith’s smile faded. “Here,” Netta said. “You’re doing it wrong.”
She glared up at the mountain of a man, bearskin shaggy around his shoulders. “You’re terrifying him. Let me.”
“It’s more complicated than it looks,” he said, but let her take the cat from his hand. “Are you sure—”
“Shut up. You’re not helping.” She slid her fingers into the complicated loops. It was difficult, but there was a sense to it, and after a few false starts she brought the cat walking up to Bron’s knee. “Hello,” she said in a squeaky cat-voice. “I was passing by, and I couldn’t help hearing you mention two cats in Ceste.”
Bron looked at her, then nodded.
“Are they pretty cats?” She angled her hand down, and the puppet bent as if to pounce. “The prettiest cats ever?”
Bron nodded again, this time watching the puppet instead of her. The smith, though, was watching her, and though his brows knit together he was smiling.
“Well, I think I’ll have to judge that for myself. They can’t possibly be as pretty as me.” She made the cat sit back and preen, not nearly as smoothly as the smith had, then made it stand up on its hind legs. “Right? Right?” It bumped its head against his knee, like a kitten demanding attention.
Bron gave a little whisper of a laugh, reaching out to touch the cat’s head. She danced it away, then made it bat at Bron’s finger, and a slow grin began to spread over her own face.
A man cleared his throat, and Netta jerked back, thumping the cat over the uneven ground. Sieg stood over them, too close not to have seen them, but he still looked past her as if she weren’t there. The smith glanced up. “Yes?”
“A moment of your time?” Sieg gestured toward where a few refugees had started a fire. The smith stood, but took only a couple of steps before stopping, arms crossed.
Netta put her head down, her breath coming in short huffs. It didn’t matter. They had the apples, they had this puppet, and anything Sieg could tell the smith would just warn him away, and that suited her just fine. “Two pretty cats,” she croaked, and cleared her throat, making the cat prance again. “Two pretty cats in Ceste.”
Sieg was never one for keeping his opinions quiet, and they hadn’t moved far enough away for her to ignore him. “. . . thought you could use a warning,” Sieg said. “The girl’s a bad one. Killed a man, not four nights past.”
He cheated us, she thought. He took all we had, and you did nothing.
“That’s why they’re here, at the fringes. No one else’ll have them. The boy might be all right—I’ve had some small acquaintance with his family, they’re kind souls—but her—” The smith murmured something, and Sieg stopped. “Well,” he said after a moment. “You’re risking a knife in the throat some morning, that’s all I’ll say.”
Night. It hadn’t been morning, it’d been night—Leir had thought he could come back and take what little was left. And when it was over, all she’d had to do was cry sorry, say she hadn’t meant to, say it was an accident. But if she had, then she and Bron would still be marks—easy prey for others like Leir.
But she had meant to. That was why she’d known to reach for his right side, where the fine knife had hung when he’d swindled them. That was why she’d leaned all her weight on the blade, even after the first cut had stopped him. And that was why she’d waited by the body till dawn, whispering to Bron that they were safe, they’d be all right. And in full view of Sieg and the other refugees as they woke and crawled from their tents, she’d deliberately bent down to first yank Leir’s knife out of his chest, then pull the boots off his feet.
Bron nudged her hand, and Netta jumped. “Make it go,” he whispered. She stared blankly at him a moment, then raised the kitten puppet again and walked it over to his knee.
Behind her, Sieg huffed a few times, then walked off, and after a moment the smith settled down where he was. “You’re getting the hang of that,” he said.
Netta shrugged. “It’s easy.” It wasn’t, really, but she wouldn’t say so. “Thank you.”
Sieg had moved his followers on by morning, leaving the stragglers to their own devices. They slogged through two days of rain that turned into thin snow by the end of second day, and the morning’s drizzle left a thin crust of ice over everything. Netta and Bron pushed on even as the sun sank below the horizon. “Traben’s Crossing is just ahead,” Netta told Bron when he started to protest. “They’ve got a wide-market there, with a roof and everything.”
“I remember,” he mumbled, shivering.
“Good. Then you can walk just a little further.”
The smith lagged even farther behind, either because the ice didn’t agree with his limp or because he’d spotted something new to make trinkets out of. Netta cast a glance back as the last light faded, but she didn’t stop.
Without moonlight their pace slowed further, and Traben’s Crossing was pitch-dark, the bridge and the houses and the wide-market all just shadowy lumps with their own crusts of ice. Someone shouted as they reached the market square, and Netta peered ahead. The stragglers had camped in front of the wide-market instead of going inside, and a few were thumping at the walls. Netta stopped, blinking, before realizing what was wrong: the doors were closed.
“Netta?” Bron asked, his voice high and quavering.
“Come on.” She grabbed his hand.
They ran the last few steps, and even though she’d seen the others already try it, she put her hands to the heavy latch and pulled, its cold biting into her fingers. The doors creaked and thudded, but remained shut.
“They have to let us in,” she said numbly. “They have to.” Wide-markets had to be open to everyone. Even the most filthy traveler could enter and curl up in a corner. Open to everyone, save sorcerers, and... murderers.
No, she thought, yanking on the door again. Bron was freezing, and he’d die, they’d die without shelter, she’d say sorry, she’d say everything Sieg wanted if that was what it took—
But that wouldn’t help. The people of Traben’s Crossing wouldn’t have locked their wide-market against one little girl, and one little girl’s apologies wouldn’t make a difference. She put her hand against the bronze bands holding the doors together—then realized that she could see those bands clearly, could see the shadows of the imperfections in the bronze.
She turned to see red-gold light blossoming across the ice, coming up along the river. “Drake!” she screamed, and ran, dragging Bron behind her.
The first firedrake swooped down over their heads with a creak like a giant’s bellows and landed on the roof of the wide-market, the fire within turning its body into a lattice of black and red. It gave a short bark of a roar and fire shot from its jaws, setting the roofs of Traben’s Crossing alight. The stragglers ran for the bridge, but a second drake reached it first, crushing a man in its lacquered-bone teeth before giving that same coughing roar and wreathing the bridge in flame.
Netta stumbled, nearly falling onto Bron. Behind her, the wide-market echoed with screams. “To the river!” she shouted into Bron’s ear. “Not the bridge—the river.”
It might have worked, though how long they would last in the freezing water was another question. But Netta had forgotten the ice, the thin layer of it that refused her boots. The two of them went sprawling across the crackled crust, up against the scrub trees that lined the river.
She pushed up to her hands and knees as a third drake, this one smaller than the others, landed in front of her. It eyes gleamed, red glass in a mask of bone and black wood, and furnace-stink swept over them. The drake turned its head to regard her with its other eye, lipless jaws parting in a grin.
“I’m sorry, Bron,” she whispered, and clasped his hand.
Light bloomed before her—then receded as a huge shadow interposed itself between them. She looked up to see the smith, one hand out as if to shield himself from the fire that should have consumed him, the massive hammer held in the other. “No,” the smith said. “You might have killed the rest, but you can’t have these two.”
The firedrake gave a short cry, and the other two fell silent, turning to face them. It bowed its head, its long neck snaking around to peer at them. Its jaws parted, but instead of loosing another gout of flame, it rumbled a string of noises that made the ice shudder.
“For much the same reason as you’d kill them,” the smith answered.
The drake hissed, the noise accompanied by gouts of steam from the joints where its wings folded. The smith started to walk to one side, his eyes never leaving the drake, and it followed, turning so that the long leather sweep of its wing grazed the ice in front of Netta. Another hissed and rumbled somewhere in the burning town, as if joining the conversation.
“Go back to Tasso, then.” The smith shifted his grip on the hammer, holding it in both hands as if about to drive a spike into the earth. The drake shrieked and snapped at him. Netta let go of Bron’s hand. Talking won’t stop them. We have to fight back, scare them off, even if it’s no good. She pulled Leir’s knife free and leapt onto the drake’s wing. Gut and hide parted under her dragging weight.
The drake didn’t even seem to notice—but the smith did, shouting, and that caught the drake’s attention. Its tail whipped around, clipping her on the top of the head, and Netta fell.
She woke wrapped in warmth, and her first muddled thought was A drake, a drake swallowed me. As sense returned—and with it a lingering ache, as if she’d bumped her head on the underside of a table—that thought changed to Where’s Bron?
A whimper at her side answered that, but it wasn’t till she turned to see him curled up next to her that her panic faded. Cold moonlight turned the fluff of his hair silver where it poked up over the edge of the blanket—a heavy blanket, enough to keep him warm and alive.
Something crackled beside her, and she turned to see the smith drop a handful of dry grass onto a pile of wood. He spoke a syllable curiously like the ones the drakes had coughed, and the sticks blossomed into flame.
Netta drew a shaky breath. Everyone in Alcaris had heard the stories of where the firedrakes came from; how the sorcerer known only as Vigil had built them, breathed a mockery of life into them, and given them to Duke Tasso to use as he willed. And then the sorcerer had disappeared—devoured by his own craft, so Sieg had claimed, the fate of all sorcerers—and the drakes had only gone madder since their master’s death.
She hadn’t imagined that strange, one-sided conversation. And surely only one man would speak so to firedrakes.
As if hearing her thoughts, the smith turned and reached for her. Netta drew back, remembering Leir, remembering that man among the refugees who’d said good girl, good boy, if you need money in Ceste, come see me.
The smith sat back on his heels. “You’re in no danger from me,” he said. “Not of that sort, not ever. Give me your hands.”
For a long moment Netta was still, then one by one worked her hands out from under the heavy bearskin cloak and held them out. He took them in each of his, then turned them over, his brow furrowing. “No acid burns,” he murmured. “There should have been, from such a wound. How did you manage to land a hit on them without nicking a hose?”
Netta stared at him. “I cut the wing,” she said finally. “It was sewn together.”
He nodded slowly. “Gut and suture,” he murmured. “Design flaw, in the early variations... of course, for those first ones I was thinking more how to get them airborne....” He reached for her again, and this time she didn’t flinch, even when he took a folded cloth from her head. “Just a concussion,” he added, and wadded up the cloth; red smoke rose up from it, and her temple throbbed in remembered pain.
Sorcerer, she thought. Vigil. But she did not say it. Beside her, Bron snuggled closer. “Traben’s Crossing?” she asked.
“Half a mile south,” Vigil said, turning back to the fire and tossing the cloth in. The flames flashed white, then were ordinary again. “The crossing itself is destroyed, though. Like all the rest,” he added, gazing into the fire.
He was silent a long moment, and Netta silently named the towns she knew had fallen to the firedrakes: Alcaris, Ompete, Bilisford....
Vigil shook himself after a moment, turning away. “You were going to Ceste, weren’t you?” he said over his shoulder.
“Bron’s family there.” He was her cousin, but this was the side of his family that didn’t have anything to do with her. Good, kind folk, Sieg had said. She hoped he was right, even as it galled her to hope for anything that had come out of Sieg’s mouth.
“There’s a ford another two miles upstream. It’ll mean a trek back to the road, but it’ll get you to Ceste.” He picked up a stick and poked at the fire. “I’ll see you safe there.”
Why do you care? she nearly asked, but heard his response to the drake: for much the same reason as you’d kill them. Even sorcerers had their whims. “Thanks,” she said, and pushed the cloak back to him.
The ford was navigable, but only just. On the far side, Vigil said a few more words under his breath, and their clothes steamed as they made their way over the scrubland. Bron clung to her side even more than before, and though he didn’t ask about the drakes—perhaps assuming, as she did, that with Vigil with them there was less danger. He did keep asking about Aunt Salda. The locked doors at Traben’s Crossing had scared him more than the drakes, she slowly realized. The little puppet-cat sometimes helped, at night by the fire, but only if she kept from mentioning the “other two cats” in Ceste.
Vigil watched her manipulate the puppet, offering advice on technique after Bron slept. He even began to assemble something new, but that stopped after they found the burned husk of a farmhouse. Netta dug what food she could out of what remained of the cellar, but when she climbed back up Vigil was still in the ashes, staring at the slivers of white that were all that was left. Netta gazed at him a long moment, then took his hand and led him out. The half-finished, nameless puppet remained in the rubble.
The walls of Ceste were in sight by the time they reached the road again, and from the look of the road the first of the Alcaris refugees had been through here already. She hoped they had; some of them, anyway. There hadn’t been enough dead at Traben’s Crossing to account for all of them, just the last stragglers and outcasts.
That night she waited for Bron to fall asleep, then got to her feet and stood between Vigil and the fire. “Teach me,” she said.
Vigil sat with his elbows propped on his knees and would have been gazing into the fire as he had for the last two nights if she hadn’t been standing there. He raised his head, the fire painting his many scars gold. “Teach you?”
“The fire. The hammer. The—” she wiggled her fingers as if moving a puppet, “— making of those.” He didn’t respond. “The firedrakes.”
Vigil let out a laugh that was more like the drakes’ coughs than any human noise. “You’ve seen what they do; you think I want to teach that?”
“Yes,” she said simply, and his eyes narrowed. “You’re a maker. You wanted to know how I’d injured it, and you told me that wing was a design flaw. You care about your work. So you must want to share it.”
Again, he shook his head, this time smiling. “You are quick. And you’d be good at it, if your facility with puppets is any indication. But the answer’s still no.”
“Why not?” The girl’s a bad one, Sieg said in her memory. The boy’s all right, but her....
“Because I made them,” he said slowly. “And that means I made all this.” He gestured back the way they’d come. “And—and I cared how I made them. The best puppets I’d ever breathed a spark into, a challenge beyond what any maker had ever created.”
Her mother would have said one should always take pride in one’s work. Netta, though, kept silent.
He shook his head. “I didn’t want to destroy what I’d made, and I thought—I thought that cutting their strings, making them free to understand what Tasso wanted them for, would amend it.”
“You set them free.”
“And they decided they liked this better. Liked it.” His leg twitched, as if in memory of pain. “I won’t. I’m sorry.”
She should be glad, she thought as she lay back down beside Bron. If killing Leir made her an outcast, then sorcery would be even worse. But Bron’s aunt would take them in, and in Ceste, no one knew who Leir had been, and no one would know that she’d asked a sorcerer to teach her.
Still, she lay awake a long time, watching the fire.
Refugee shacks and lean-tos clogged the gates of Ceste, some from Alcaris, some from towns further downriver. It was there that Vigil stopped. “Go on to your family, then. They’ll have missed you.”
Not my family, Netta wanted to say, but instead she glanced at the shacks and the tradesmen who’d ventured outside to sell to the refugees. “What about you?”
He gestured to the shacks. “I’ll find a place and rest up before I move on.”
Bron pulled on her hand. “Come on,” he whispered.
The people of Ceste had heard about Duke Tasso’s progress up the river, even if it hadn’t reached them yet. Half the men who passed wore patched-together armor and carried weapons from swords to pikes to sticks with knives tied to the end. But the arches of the city were unmarred by smoke, and dozens of signs in brightly painted wood proclaimed shop after shop: weaver, tinsmith, potter. Netta lingered a moment in front of a baker’s sign, but Bron pulled her on.
He came to a stop outside a little brown house with a spindle painted on the door. A tabby cat stretched out in the window, ostentatiously incurious. “Here?” Netta asked.
Bron nodded, but didn’t move. Netta sighed and dragged the door open. “Hello?”
Bobbins of brightly colored thread nestled together on warm wood shelves, filling the little room with color. Another cat, this one patched in gray and white, jumped off a shelf, gave them a look, and yawned.
“Not a good day for business, love.” A tall, rounded woman with frizzy brown hair stepped out from the back, brushing something from her hands, then stopped. “Bron?”
“Aunt Salda!” Bron flung himself against the woman as she knelt.
“Oh, Bron, we thought you were lost, we thought—” She hugged him closer, tears spilling over her pink cheeks. “You look half-starved! I heard how bad it was on the road, and I thought—we never dreamed—”
Bron said something incomprehensible and burst into tears himself. Netta smiled, but the smile froze as another person emerged from the back: Sieg, his heavy wool coat replaced by a fur-collared jacket, the expression on his face the same as when he’d seen her standing over Leir’s body.
Salda wiped her cheeks. “I’ve been trying for weeks to get any reliable word from Alcaris. We didn’t even hear that there were survivors until the city official turned up.” Here she nodded to Sieg, who returned it with a gracious smile. “I swear, Bron, if I’d known how bad it was for you—” She stopped, looking up to see Netta standing at the door. The tears slowed, and she rose to her feet, one hand protectively holding Bron next to her. “Are you—”
“That’s the one,” Sieg murmured. “The one I warned you about.” He gave a theatrical sigh. “I suppose you could try to reform her, with my help.”
Netta tugged her cloak over Leir’s knife, only drawing attention by her attempt to hide it. Bron was still smiling happily at her, but Aunt Salda wore an expression somewhere between forced friendliness and horror. Murderer, Netta thought, and felt again the cold bands on the door at Traben’s Crossing, the door that was shut and locked against the likes of her.
She opened her mouth, but any sound she could have made was drowned by the clanging of a bell in the street, loud as any forge. Salda looked up, her face paling. “It can’t be—”
“They burned Traben’s Crossing the night after I left,” Sieg said. “They could easily have made it here.” In the street, the patch-armored men were now running.
Netta cast a quick glance out the window, then back at Salda and Bron. She unslung her bag and fished the puppet-cat out of it. “Bron,” she said. “Stay here. Stay safe.”
He nodded proudly, holding out his hand to clasp hers. She closed his hand over the puppet instead, then slid out of Sieg’s belated grasp and ran.
The gates hadn’t yet been closed, though the militia were doing their best, splintering boards and knocking down shacks as they pulled the gates shut. But the fight and fire seemed to be all outside the walls, carts and unfortunates on the road cowering or already aflame. Netta scrambled past the men struggling with the gates, slashing at the arm of one who tried to hold her back. She tumbled outside and darted behind a fallen wagon for cover.
There were only two this time—but it had only taken five to destroy Alcaris. One crouched in front of the gates, while a second landed on the walls, hissing and smoldering. What few soldiers remained outside the walls retreated back through the gate, leaving the larger drake to menace those who hadn’t made it inside in time. It wasn’t the same one Netta had wounded; its wings were held together with iron staples, and the eyes in its head were stone rather than red glass. As she watched, it coughed a gout of flame at the walls, using the same word that Vigil had spoken to spark their campfire. Soldiers screamed, but instead of pressing the advantage, the drake sat back, churning the ground with its claws.
“I said leave them!” Vigil advanced from behind the smoldering remnants of a cart, between her and the drake. The drake snorted derision and swayed its head back and forth. “They’ve done nothing to you!”
The drake spat a smaller flame at another shack, then peered back at Vigil. He had unslung the huge hammer from his back, but he carried it as if forgotten, its head dragging in the mud. “Why are you doing this?” he asked, his voice barely audible. “Why do you care where I go?”
Netta rose and edged out from behind the wagon. “Because you’re their family,” she called.
The drake’s head snapped round, and Vigil stumbled as he turned to look at her. For a moment iron and flesh shared the same expression. “Netta, no,” Vigil said.
“You are,” she insisted, taking another step closer. “You’re the closest thing they have. And family takes you back. Family cares for you, no matter what.”
The drake was silent. Clouds of oily vapor rose from its joints, joining the smoke that wreathed them.
Netta shifted her grip on her knife. “But they don’t always have to. Not if you’re a murderer. And you are!” she shouted, at the drake, at Vigil, at herself.
The drake snarled, furious as a thwarted child. It drew back, jaws open, and fire blossomed in its mouth and spiraled toward her, too fast to evade. Netta stood up straight before it, taking one last gasp of furnace-hot air before it struck her.
The fire collapsed in mid-air, drawn back into itself like a rose withering. Vigil closed his hand around the remnants of the fire, drawn to him as easily as he’d sparked their campfire. “You are quick,” he said, raising the hammer. “Damn me for being so slow to see.”
He charged, striking not at the narrow line of the drake’s body but at the iron joints, drawing a startled shriek that the other drake echoed. Netta followed him, slashing at the wing as it tried to claw at them both. Her actions did nothing but distract it, but that was enough for Vigil to raise the hammer for a mighty blow.
Steam billowed around them, hot enough to scald, and Netta cried out just as Vigil struck. He spun, catching Netta against himself to shield her from the blast, and the drake gave a last squealing cry.
Iron and stone and stranger things rained down around them, and Netta risked a glance to see Vigil’s tear-streaked face next to hers. She staggered forward, dragging him with her, out of the collapsing drake, until the heap of leather and iron lay behind them. On the wall, the second drake rose keening and circled its fallen sibling before flying off.
She took another step, peering back, and Vigil collapsed, first to his knees, then full-length on the burned ground.
The surviving refugees helped her carry Vigil to one of the remaining shacks and then left the two of them with the other injured. There were more important things for them to bother with, like how a firedrake could possibly have been defeated.
Netta took a rag from her pocket and pressed it to the angry red weal where Vigil’s sorcery hadn’t shielded him—not a sorcerer’s clout, but a cold cloth nonetheless. Her own scalds were thinner, hurting no more than a day’s blisters. After a long while, long enough that the sun began to warm the far side of the shack, his brows drew together, and he opened his eyes. “Alive?”
Netta nodded. “You are. The drake—” She pointed to the cluster of soldiers, so many of them she could no longer make out the crumpled mass they examined. One of them raised a broken iron joint, pointing excitedly to something she couldn’t see.
He closed his eyes for a long moment. “An end to all makings, in time.” He sat up, cast a glance at the soldiers, then shook his head and took the cloth. “I’m going south,” he said, pressing the cloth to his head and wincing. “To Duke Tasso, I think, if I make it there. I think.... I think the drakes will try to find me. And when they do, I’ll have to do that again—” He stopped, then ran his hands over his head. Singed hair crinkled and crinkled away, leaving his scars a harsher white against the burns.
Netta got to her feet and held out both hands to him. The little lines at the corners of his eyes reappeared, and he let her pull him to his feet. “Maybe they’ll learn not to come back to you,” she said.
“Maybe,” he said. He gazed at the cloth a moment, then folded it and tucked it into his pack. “You’re welcome to go south with me. That is, if you—if your family won’t mind.”
Netta glanced back at Ceste, with its bakeries and shops and two pretty cats. Stay here, stay safe. “Bron’s with his family,” she said. “I don’t have any family.”
Vigil was silent a moment. “That’s not true,” he said slowly, as if amazed by it. She met his eyes, and he nodded. “Come on. You should learn calling and closing fire first, if you’re going to work with it. That should keep you busy till we get to the next town.”
“Maybe,” Netta said. An end to all makings, she thought, but everything that ended had to have a beginning somewhere. Even family. “Maybe I’ll learn it sooner. Mother always said I was a quick study.”