“Witch.” “Paladin.” The two women stared at one another for a while, before the knight finally cracked, ...
Tamsin took a deep breath, letting the pounding rhythm of the cheering crowd sink into her, stoking her energy higher. The Arena was packed today, which would mean a good cut for her if she could pull off this win. A win she needed, if only for the purse. She’d been in Duemr too long already. The if was a big one, though—just like her opponent.
She flexed her fists, rolled her neck, and ran through her warm-up again. The reigning champion of the Duemr Arena, Cullomoch was a Suthron Barbarian. A decidedly large barbarian, at that. He’d trounced his opponents this year, mage and warrior alike, with a shocking combination of speed and strength. Tamsin had done well enough for herself, evidenced by the fact that she’d managed to secure a match with the champion himself, but nobody really believed that a girl from the Kaeglin Mountains would last beyond the first hit from Cullomoch.
“You’re up, Dragonkin. Luck to you.”
Tamsin nodded slightly at the arena runner, but took her time. One last check over her armor, hands brushing over the lightweight dragonscale, fingers tugging at the buckles. Satisfied, she hefted her sword, rechecking the blade for nicks, then swung it in a lazy circle that tested her shoulders’ limber and the lay of her armor. The two-handed weapon was an odd choice for a woman, and a small woman at that, but the dragonbone was light and impossibly sharp, better than most metal. The combination had served her well.
With a last slow breath, Tamsin pulled her helmet on, dropped the visor, and marched past the waiting runner. The Arena’s crowd jumped to their feet when she appeared, and Tamsin raised her sword in salute. She loved this part. The energy, the anticipation that burned through her. The ancients back home wouldn’t approve, but they weren’t here, and she wasn’t there. Lucky me. The noise around her grew, and Tamsin smiled as Cullomoch entered from the opposite side of the ring.
The Arena’s horn rumbled long and loud, silencing the audience. Tamsin dropped into a relaxed fighting stance, hands comfortable on her sword hilt, and watched Cullomoch. The helmetless barbarian grinned, cutting at the air in front of him with his huge axe. He seemed at ease, unconcerned, but she knew it was a front. The lie was part of what made Cullomoch so good. He came across as cocky, when he was anything but.
Tamsin wasn’t about to make the mistake so many others had of underestimating him.
She rolled her shoulders, and flexed her grip, but stood otherwise motionless while the barbarian sized her up. She’d had plenty of practice, after all, hunting in the Kaeglin Mountains. The crowd began to murmur softly, as neither of them made a move. They didn’t understand the battle of will between them. But Tamsin found her patience rewarded when Cullomoch’s grin slipped just a little, and his eyes narrowed.
His attack followed quickly. If she hadn’t been waiting for it, hadn’t seen the minute shift in weight that preceded it, the overhand blow would have devastated her. As it was, Tamsin barely had time to roll to the side, bringing her sword up in a sweeping arc as she recovered her feet. Cullomoch’s axe was there to block, though. His trademark speed kept her moving, and the crowd cheered as she danced around the ring, barely keeping ahead of him. Until her foot slipped in the shifting sand, and his axe blade clipped her torso.
The crowd gasped as Tamsin spun, knocked back by the force. She winced, scrabbling to her feet, doubly grateful for the dragonscale armor. The boiled leather most Arena fighters favored would’ve parted easily under the axe, but the dragonscale didn’t even dent. She’d have a nasty bruise later though, that was certain.
Cullomoch grinned as she righted herself, but he didn’t press his advantage.
Under her helmet, Tamsin returned the grin, knowing no one could see, and lunged forward. Caught by surprise, Cullomoch rocked back on his heels, and her strike slipped under his usually careful guard. He roared in pain as the dragonbone sword bit through his leather arm guard, and into the tendons of his forearm.
The crowd jumped to their feet, cheering.
Tamsin ducked a wild blow and dodged out of reach. The trick to dealing with the Suthron, her uncle had told her, is to make them angry. Get them worked up until the blood rage takes over, and they can’t think for it. Just watch out for the backhand.
The advice was good. With the red already showing in Cullomoch’s eyes, Tamsin focused on quick strikes. Attacks that annoyed and did minimal damage, glancing blows and quick side-steps that kept her moving in and out of his reach. And with each jab and cut, each drop of blood, the red in Cullomoch’s eyes grew stronger, until the blood rage took over.
The control which had made Cullomoch the Duemr Champion shattered with one wordless scream.
The crowd let out a collective gasp as the barbarian charged. Tamsin rolled sideways and struck, hamstringing her opponent. The Suthron giant bellowed. Anxious to press her advantage, Tamsin lunged forward.
And forgot about the backhand.
Cullomoch’s axe arced backwards into her with enough force to rip the dragonskin helmet from her head and send her sprawling into the sand. Tamsin coughed, sucking air into lungs that screamed in pain, and forced herself to her knees just as another strike descended. She threw herself to the side and stumbled to her feet, realizing too late that her sword had landed in the opposite direction from where she’d rolled. Weaponless, she brought both arms up to block an empty backhand fist aimed at her head, and fell back from the force. Cullomoch howled as the dragonscale bit into his skin, retaliating with a booted foot to her gut.
Tamsin collapsed, struggling to breathe. The barbarian continued after her, stomping at the sand so hard the ground shook, his axe forgotten in the haze of the blood rage. Tamsin was a bug to be crushed, nothing more, and the crowd was eating it up.
Lungs burning, Tamsin rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding the Suthron’s feet. She knew she needed to get up, to move, but she couldn’t catch her breath, and while the blood rage made Cullomoch clumsy and stupid, he was still fast.
Almost too fast.
Tamsin didn’t manage to completely avoid the raging barbarian’s last stomp. His foot crashed down on her gauntleted arm, and she cried out as the dragonscale pinched against the weight.
Worse, she knew she wouldn’t be able to avoid the next blow. Cullomoch knew it, too. She watched as through the blood rage, he remembered his axe still in his hand, lifting it for the deathblow. Tamsin tugged at her arm, still pinned beneath the Suthron’s boot, but it only made him smile as he put more weight on it. She whimpered, glancing to where her sword lay, too far away to help, as Cullomoch’s axe reached a pinacle high above his head.
Tamsin’s eyes fluttered closed as time slowed. The Arena named her Dragonkin, in reference to her home. A joke borne of myth, but they didn’t understand. More fool they. Dragonkin. The name was more right than they could possibly have known. Tamsin slowed her breathing, and reached for the magic in her blood.
The dragonbone sword sang in reply, and she opened her eyes.
Cullomoch stood frozen, staring at the sword that had suddenly appeared in her hand, blocking his blow. His shock made it easy to push away, throwing him off balance. Tamsin pushed to her feet, ignoring the pain she felt, knowing this was the only advantage she’d have. The Suthron regained his balance and charged, but despite his speed, the blood rage made his movements easy to read.
Tamsin slipped inside his charge, dropping low and sending the big man tumbling over her. He hit the ground hard, awkwardly, and when the dust cleared Tamsin stood with her sword to his throat. Even through the blood rage, he knew he’d lost. Around them, the crowd stood silent, unsure what they’d just seen, as their champion Cullomoch slowly released his axe, bearing his neck in surrender.
The great horn of the Duemr Arena shattered the silence. The match was over.
The crowd went berserk.
Tamsin dropped to her knees and closed her eyes again. If the sword hadn’t come…
Her eyes opened again as the arena guards pulled her up. One handed her the helmet she’d lost, while the Duemr Lord himself proclaimed her the new champion. Cullomoch, the last of the blood rage seeping from his eyes, saluted her with a wry grin, which made the crowd cheer louder. Tamsin waved to the crowd and accepted the congratulations, all while trying to stay on her feet. With the match over, all she wanted was to see a healer, collect her winnings, and sleep.
One look at the Duemr Lord though, and she knew that would have to wait.
While he sang her praises to the crowd, his eyes were fuming. His guard flanked her as he left the stadium floor, ensuring she’d follow, until they all reached his office.
“You’re a mage.”
Tamsin sighed, and then winced as her ribs pulled. “Mages fight in the Arena all the time. I fought one just last week, remember?”
“But you didn’t register as one!”
She rolled her eyes. “All the Kaeglin have magic. I thought everyone knew that! You even named me Dragonkin, for the Gods’ sake!”
The Lord blanched. “Those are just stories. The Kaeglin Tribes are a myth! We gave you the name as a joke. You can’t seriously mean…”
Tamsin took a slow breath and tried not to roll her eyes. “Look, there’s nothing in the rules about having to declare as a mage, or about not using magic.”
“But you can’t just—”
Her glare cut him off. “Are you really trying to get out of paying me? Mages use staves with blades. I didn’t even throw a fireball. All I did was call my damn sword. So don’t make me go full dragon on your cheap ass. Just pay me, before I start telling everyone how the Duemr uses cheap technicalities to keep from paying winners he doesn’t like.”
The Duemr Lord narrowed his eyes, but she’d clearly rattled him. Not that she could actually shapeshift. But he’d obviously only heard stories, and she needed her winnings for more than just the healer.
Besides, she’d earned it.
He tossed a bag of coin across his desk, and she picked it up. “Thank you.”
She made it out through the door and around the corner before sagging against the wall. Goddess of Dragons, she hurt! But standing there wasn’t going to make it better, so Tamsin tied the coin pouch to her belt, shoved the helmet back on her head, and followed the signs back to the fighters’ section and—hopefully—a healer.
As luck would have it, Cullomoch was just stepping out of the healer’s quarters when she arrived. He grunted, and held the door for her.
“Good fight today, Dragonkin. I’d have you at my back any day.”
High praise, from a Suthron.
She pulled her helmet back off and nodded. “Thanks. And it’s Tamsin.”
He raised an eyebrow, surprised. They’d called her Dragonkin because she hadn’t shared her name. But the Kaeglin didn’t, among strangers. Even this far west, the myths said as much. But she and Cullomoch had shed blood together, which meant they were no longer strangers. “Tamsin, then. Get those ribs looked at. Your armor may be tough, but I’ll eat mine if I didn’t break at least one of your ribs. And possibly that arm.”
Tamsin laughed, and winced. “Probably more than one. The dragonscale is almost impossible to cut, but that doesn’t stop it from hurting when I get hit. Avashna fi’lal, Cullomoch.”
“Safe travels to you, as well.”
She stepped through the door as he walked away. Inside the healer’s quarters was warm and inviting, but a quick glance around revealed no one. There were, however, several closed doors, and as Cullomoch had just come out, the healer had to be here somewhere. Sighing, Tamsin set her helmet down on a side table, and reaching next for the straps that held the dragonbone sword on her back. She sucked in a breath as her ribs pulled, but managed to get the harness released. Her right arm was all but useless, the hand incapable of gripping anything.
Tamsin fumbled ineffectively with the buckles on her chest plate. Taking this armor off is going to be impossible.
“Need some help with that?”
Tamsin whipped around. The quick movement made her dizzy, and she barely caught herself on the small table where she’d set her sword and helmet. And then she nearly stumbled again at the sight of the voice’s owner.
The dark-haired woman—young woman, and not who Tamsin expected in an Arena healer, she’d found them to usually be cranky older men—pursed full lips, her eyebrows folding down in concern. “You’re the one who beat Cullomoch. From what I saw of that match, you probably shouldn’t even be standing.”
Believe me, I feel like I shouldn’t be standing. Tamsin stared, her armor forgotten as the healer brushed her hands away and undid the buckles herself. It wasn’t until the woman drew her hand back with a hiss, blood beading up from a cut on one finger, that Tamsin recalled herself. “Gods, sorry. You have to be careful with the dragonscale.” She held up her own gauntleted hands.
The healer smiled, and it took Tamsin’s breath away. “It’s ok. Healer, remember?” Silver light wound around her finger, and the cut was gone. “But I wondered if that’s what your armor was. You don’t see it much, especially out here. The first time Cullomoch’s axe hit you, I thought you were done. But you stood up, and there wasn’t a scratch.”
Tamsin swallowed as the healer returned to tugging at her armor, her throat suddenly gone dry. “Thanks.”
The healer set the pauldrons aside, followed by her gauntlets and bracers, then gently pulled off the chest and back plates. Despite the care, Tamsin still winced. Without the armor holding her up, her ribs hurt even more.
“This really is amazing. It’s so lightweight. Where did you get it?”
“It was a…a gift.” Explaining the truth about the dragonscale armor wasn’t something she had the energy for. Not that the healer was likely to understand. Just like the Duemr hadn’t understood when they named her Dragonkin. She shook her head at the pointlessness of even wanting to explain and winced as her ribs and head protested.
The healer, whose name she still hadn’t managed to ask, set her armor down and narrowed her eyes. “Your armor may be intact, but you’re not, are you? Can you make it to the other table?” She indicated the low, empty table in the middle of the room.
Tamsin pushed away from the corner she’d leaned on, but found herself right back where she started, with her face twisted in pain. Everything hurt without the extra support, and the high of the fight gone, and she must’ve hit her head, too, because the room was spinning.
Soft hands touched her, gently grasping her arm and wrapping around her shoulder. “Gods, you can’t even stand up. Come on, gently now.”
Moving hurt. Tamsin raked her good hand through her short, light hair, stopping to hold her head. Cullomoch must’ve done more damage than I thought. I feel so dizzy. Of course, it was hard to say if that was all Cullomoch’s fault. Not when she could feel every inch of the taller healer’s soft curves, and her sweet but almost spicy scent was enough that even through the pain, her mind was entertaining entirely different scenarios. Scenarios that involved beds, not tables.
Stop it. You’re here to get healed so you can get out of here, and back to the hunt.
“Here. Sit down.” Tamsin sat, but the healer didn’t let her go. In fact, her hands stayed on Tamsin’s shirt. “I need to take this off.”
That’s really not helping. Dragon shit. “Um…”
The healer didn’t blink, just pulled at the ragged material. “I need to see what I’m working with.”
The shirt came off before Tamsin could say Dragonkin.
Tamsin looked down, and wished she hadn’t. The bruising was already turning black, and covered half her torso. But when she felt the healer’s fingertips tracing unbruised skin, she realized that wasn’t what had startled the woman.
It was her tattoo.
Tamsin inhaled sharply, and the healer’s eyes snapped to her own. Startling storm grey eyes, that Tamsin hadn’t noticed.
“What are you?”
The question came out in a hushed whisper that sent shivers over Tamsin’s skin. She swallowed, afraid to answer, even as the fingertips continued to glide over the golden dragonhead on her shoulder, the design coming alive under her touch. Goddess of Dragons. Reaching up, she stilled the hand, wincing as the simple movement pulled her ribs.
“Oh! Gods, I’m so sorry. You must be in so much pain.”
Tamsin released her hand with a grimace, grateful to have avoided the question temporarily, but also oddly disappointed and more than a little concerned at the way her tattoo reacted to the healer’s touch. “Yeah. What’s, ah…what’s your name?”
A surge of warmth enveloped her, flowing from Isra’s fingertips with a silver glow. Tamsin gasped as the pain in her torso slowly subsided, replaced by a lethargic comfort. She winced as the numbness of her arm retreated into pain, but soon that, too, was infused with the warmth of Isra’s healing magic.
“Anything else that needs attention?”
Tamsin made a small noise indicating the negative, not even caring that her head had somehow ended up resting in the crook of Isra’s neck and shoulder. The healer laughed softly, but made no move to shift her from what was a very comfortable position. And warm. Isra’s skin was soft, a honey-tone that was smoother and paler than the brown of Tamsin’s.
“You need sleep while the healing sets…and I just realized I don’t know your name, either. We didn’t really get to introductions, did we?”
Tamsin stiffened, and pulled away, but Isra’s sharp grey eyes locked on her gold ones. “I—”
The door slammed open, interrupting whatever Tamsin had been about to say. Duemr guardsmen poured in with weapons at the ready. And on their heels, the Duemr Lord. “That’s the one. The short one, with the cropped hair.” He pointed to Tamsin. “She’s the Dragonkin.”
Tamsin jumped to her feet, pushing Isra behind her. “What is this?”
The Duemr Lord sneered. “Take her. And try not to damage her too much. The Saih won’t pay if she’s not intact.”
Tamsin blanched. The Saih… She glanced at the stack of armor by the door, and her sword. She could call them, but… The guard fanned out around her, one of them pulling Isra away.
Rancid dragon shit.
Her tattoo rippled as the dragon woke, the magic singing through her blood. Her skin toughened, calling on the memory of scales, as the dragonbone sword once again appeared in her hand.
Tamsin growled, and the Duemr guard collectively stepped back.
“Dammit, she’s just one girl! Take her!”
It happened fast. The guardsmen rushed, hoping to surprise her, but her dragon saw it all. The two at her back went down with one swing, the dragonbone sword cutting through their armor like butter. She booted a charging guard, blocked another’s overhead blow, and side-kicked a third. Tamsin’s feet danced in a whirlwind as she spun the great sword in a tight circle, cutting down three more. A lunge, a sweep, a block and cut. The Duemr Lord stared in horror as she dismantled his guard, slicing through them until the only one left was the man holding Isra in a trembling grip.
Tamsin glared at him, her breathing slow and steady, sword pointed at the man’s head. “Let. Her. Go.”
The guard complied.
Eyes burning, Tamsin turned to the Duemr Lord. “The Saih. How much do they know?”
“I don’t… They said…”
“What. Do. They. Know?”
The Lord jumped as she roared, his hands flying up in a trembling defense. “Nothing! Just that I had a Dragonkin. They didn’t even believe me!”
Tamsin grabbed his neck in one taloned hand. “Where?”
“I… Lake Vresh… Half a day’s ride south!”
Tamsin threw him back, through the door and into the hall. He stumbled backwards, landing on his ass. Slowly, she pointed her sword at him. “You had better be telling the truth. By all rights, I should kill you.” She bent low, lifting him to his feet with a hand that was still more dragon than woman. “Run, before I change my mind.”
The Duemr Lord scrabbled to his feet and ran. Tamsin turned back to the lone remaining guard, who stood frozen and glancing at the door. Her dragon growled.
“I would suggest finding someone else to follow—and somewhere else to be. Quickly.”
The guard darted for the door. The Duemr wouldn’t care about what their Lord had done, so long as the games continued. It was just the way of things. But maybe this guard would find someplace better. Someone better to serve.
I can hope.
Tamsin watched him go and took a slow breath. Her dragon breathed with her, an echoing breath that became a sigh as it melted back into her. In moments, her brown skin was skin once more, and her white-gold tattoo was just a tattoo.
Tamsin winced, as if struck. Slowly, she turned to face Isra, whose stormy eyes stared widely back.
“Kaeglin Dragonkin. Dragon-souled. The armor, the sword, the tattoo…” Isra shook her head slowly. “I should have known. But, how…?”
Tamsin took a slow breath, then pulled on her shirt. Every instinct in her was screaming to run. She should have killed everyone who’d seen. But even her dragon knew she’d never bring herself to hurt the healer. “I should go. The Saih will be looking for me, even if they didn’t believe the Duemr Lord.”
“What will you do? Will you go back to the Kaeglin Mountains?”
Tamsin froze. “I…no. I can’t go back.” She turned away, heading for her armor.
“Wait! Please, I…”
Tamsin stopped and looked back, wanting one more sight of the beautiful healer. But Isra, clearly reading her intention, rushed forward to stop her. “Let me come with you.”
Tamsin shook her head. “You don’t—”
“I know what you are.” Isra grabbed her hand, the one not still holding the dragonbone sword. The one that instinctively grabbed back, until their fingers intertwined. “Not just the legends, the stories. I know what you really are, Dragon-souled. Your people are supposed to be gone, vanished.”
She shook her head sadly. “Not gone. But they are dying, just like the dragons whose souls we carry. I was one of many, sent to find a way to save them. But if the Saih catch me, they’ll slaughter us all, and steal our dragon-souls for their magics. I can’t risk it.”
Isra didn’t let go. “I can help. Let me. Please.”
“We all have secrets, Dragon-souled.” Her eyes flashed from storm grey to quicksilver, and back, in a blink.
What was that? Tamsin stared, confused. Was this fate? Were the Gods actually listening? There was something in the back of her mind about silver-eyed healers, something she should remember, and didn’t. I should have paid more attention when the Ancients were teaching. Tamsin closed her eyes and breathed. Was it possible that Isra could help? More importantly, did she even care? Opening her golden eyes slowly, she found a determined storm-grey gaze staring unwaveringly back at her. “Tamsin. My name is Tamsin.”
Isra’s wide smile lit her face, and ignited a fire in Tamsin’s body. A fire that grew as the healer spoke back her name in a low, slow tone, like she was tasting it. “Tamsin.”
Goddess of Dragons, I know I’m a fool, but… She squeezed the healer’s hand, and headed for her armor. “Get what you need. Hurry. We need to already be gone.”
Isra was back before Tamsin was finished with the last buckle. Hand in hand, and with little more than the clothes on their backs, Isra’s herbs, and Tamsin’s dragonscale armor, they left the Duemr Arena together. The Saih would be looking for her. But together…
Together, we might just have a chance.