Novice Dragoneer – E.E. Knight

The slight girl swinging an empty bucket hiked down the seaside ruts in the early morning, only her shadow, the sun, and the breeze keeping her company. The shadow, because of the angle of the sun and the fact that she held the bucket in both hands, looked bent and afraid as it followed her along what passed for a road. But the seven-year-old girl’s face showed no signs of fear, just a lipless determination to make it to the well. Ileth was her name. She liked watching animals eat, the smell of pine trees, and climbing just about anything for the exertion of it and a chance to be alone with the view. She had a view now. Out on the bay the fishing boats were already at work. You could see them gently rocking on the white-flecked sea, some near, some indistinct on the horizon, casting nets and pulling up traps. The cold air pouring down the mountains chilled her just as it no doubt did the men on the boats, but there was sun for a change this morning, and sunshine always cheered her. She would have been smiling, except for the awkwardness of carrying the bucket. Who wouldn’t rather be out in the sun and fresh air, even with a cold wind off the glacierchoked mountains? Anything to get away from the Lodge, with its stuffy cabbage smells and last night’s stale tobacco. She clomped up to the well in her scuffed, too-large shoes, not looking forward to the trip back up to the Lodge with the bucket full and at least three more trips ahead of her. The Lodge did have its own water pump, but it was out of order. Again. She should hurry.

She’d already been warned about being poky this morning. They only warned you once. A shadow flashed across the road, quick and vast, startling her. She looked up and froze in her clompy shoes, gaping. A dragon! And so close! It bore a rider, and the town watch-bell wasn’t ringing, so that meant a Vale Dragoneer. Silver scales gleamed in the sun against the banner-blue sky. The dragon had some difficulty as it descended in its turn and set down fast and hard enough to raise dust, skidding and counterbalancing with its long tail whipping like a fleeing cat taking a corner. Its claws scored the earth into plowshare furrows. Bigger than a horse but smaller than a whale and mostly made of wings, it had a powerful neck supporting an armored wedge of a head and a long tapering tail, both fantastically flexible, that balanced the front and back ends of the muscular torso. She’d known they were big, and seen them twice before far off, riding the air like eagles, but even her seven-year-old imagination couldn’t have given the dragon’s tendons and muscles their power and weight, its eye the intelligent cast as it glanced up and down the road, or its wings their washing-line rustle as it settled and folded them.

She decided the dragon was long enough to wrap itself around almost any house of her little town and touch its own tail on the doorstep, shading the roof with its wings. The dragoneer jumped off the saddle, all boots and sheep hide and gauntlets and scarf. The rider took off a wind-cutter helmet and the girl with the bucket saw fine, sharp features and hair wound up and pinned tight. A woman! She’d always imagined the dragoneers as men. Lone riders, in her vast experience of being seven and allowed trips into town for errands, were always men. The Republic’s couriers bringing the mail were always men. Hunters, men. Traveling tinkers and pack merchants, men. Drovers, men. Stern, black-clad commissioners, men.

The dragon approached the well. It coughed. “Water,” it said thickly, in the girl’s own Montangyan tongue. Most people in the Vales spoke Montangyan, and everyone could understand it. Salt dusted its skin; it must have been flying close to the water for some time. The speech startled Ileth. A part of her knew dragons could talk, even learn human tongues, but it still seemed like an entertainer’s trick. The rider threw down and drew up the well bucket on its good rope and well-oiled spool. The people of the Freesand on the North Coast were nautical and knew good rope from bad. They’d never let a public well line fray.

The dragon drank. The girl watched it lap up the water like a dog, its tongue a blur, then the neck muscles ripple in fast succession as they sent the water down the muscular neck. The girl swallowed experimentally, feeling her own throat work. Farther down the road, townsfolk emerged from behind their colorful doors—the people of the Freesand made up for their drab little salt-bleached houses with elaborately painted doors—suddenly having business on their doorsteps, but really to look at the dragon. They kept their distance. The beasts were unpredictable and didn’t like crowds, and everyone had heard the story about the time the tanner’s son had both his legs broken when he was caught by the tail of a dragon when it startled and turned. But the girl with the bucket liked animals, the bigger the better. Especially tall, proud horses that swished their tails. She walked up to the well with the fearlessness of seven. The dragon had infinitely more tail than a horse and its tip swished impatiently as it drank.

Ileth tried counting the scales but it was an impossible task, especially on a moving tail. The dragon cocked one eye in her direction and finished the bucket, smacking its toothy mouth in satisfaction. Its rider—no, his, only the green dragons were female, all the others were male—his rider inspected his left wing. “The stitching popped,” the dragoneer said. “No wonder we nearly plunked.” She spoke well, what the stricter of the two teachers who sometimes came to the Lodge would call best correct. The dragoneer went to her saddle, opened a leather case, and produced some white line the girl with the bucket couldn’t identify. It looked a bit like cording, only thinner. Mechanically, as if there weren’t a dragon just on the other side of it, the little girl drew up water and filled her bucket, watching the dragon while she worked. The dragon sniffed the air about her.

The girl watched his nostrils take in air, like a landed fish gulping. A forked tongue flicked out and back, so quickly she wasn’t sure it had even happened. “Agrath, don’t do the thing with your teeth,” the dragoneer said, extracting some bits of frayed line from the creature’s wing. “She’s just a child.” The seven-year-old forgot her bucket and ventured out into the open before the dragon. “The th-thing with y-y-your teeth?” the girl said. She didn’t like to talk because of her stutter, but how often could you ask a dragon a question, anyway? The dragon stared straight at her, extending his neck a little so he slowly, serpentlike, came closer to her face. He had numberless tiny facets of polished silver metal scale in fascinating array all over his face, going down to the leathery spiked fans behind his jaw. You could get lost tracing the intricate patterns. With a suddenness of a curtain snapping in the wind, the dragon pulled back his lips and revealed a mouthful of gleaming teeth.

To the girl there seemed to be hundreds of them lined up in his mouth like fish packed in oil. All long as boat-nails and sharp as daggers. She squeaked in shock and jumped back. But it was so funny! “Again!” she squealed. “If I do it again you have to clean them,” the dragon said. The girl nodded in agreement. They looked clean anyway. Down the slope, anxiety worked on some of the watching faces, but the girl had eyes only for the great silver creature. “If you want to be helpful, come over here,” the dragoneer said. The girl wanted to be helpful.

Very much. Forgetting her bucket and her warning about being poky, she ventured over, sliding under the wing, noticing that it was thin enough so you could make out the shape of the sun on the other side, until she stood next to the dragoneer. The dragon had a tear taller than the girl in one of the wide, sail-like expanses of wing-skin. The dragon had helpfully angled its wing so she could work. “Wh-What are you d-doing?” the girl asked, though it was obvious that the dragoneer was setting about to sew the rend back up. “Fixing some shoddy stitching,” the dragoneer said. “What’s your name, girl?” “I-Ileth,” the girl said. She worked the dragon’s leathery wing with needle and thread. “Ileth. Fine name.

She was a queen in a far-off land, did you know that? Well, Ileth, my dragon, Agrath—” “Your dragon, Agrath,” the dragon said, shaking his head at the sky. “How come you’re never ‘my human, Annis,’ hmmmm?” “The noble Agrath—” “That’s better,” purred the dragon. “—has an injury that opened up again. Those grooms, what are they about? Here, Ileth, let me show you.” She stitched back and forth quickly. “I do it two directions, like bootlaces, crossed over. Stronger that way.” Ileth was fascinated by the translucent skin of the wing, more so than learning that she shared a name with a long-ago queen. The dragon’s skin was here, and she could touch it. You could just see blue veins running all through it.

She tested it, seeing if she could feel a lump where the vein ran. She couldn’t. “D-Does it hurt him?” Ileth asked. Meaning the stitching, not her touch. “No, not at all.” “Tosh,” the dragon said. “I just endure, or we’ll never get anywhere.” The dragoneer worked at a speed Ileth wouldn’t have thought possible with such a large needle. “This is why we also have women dragoneers. It’s not just about holding a crossbow steady.

We women are careful. We are quick. And . we . are . thorough. Done.” A neat line of stitching ran up the dragon’s wing. Just like bootlaces. “You’re .

not any-anyone’s m-m-mummy?” Ileth asked. The dragoneer lifted a corner of her mouth. “Not as such. You see, Ileth, I couldn’t be a mummy.” “I’m s-sorry,” Ileth said. She wasn’t entirely sure how it all worked, but she knew some women didn’t get to have babies and you felt sorry for them. Others, like her mother, died in the process and the babies ended up in places like the Lodge. “It wasn’t for me, you see?” she said, sitting on her haunches close to the girl, putting the big needle away in a special slot on the leather shoulder pad of her upper arm. Ileth could have spent a whole afternoon just studying the stitching and design of the armor. “I believe in the old wisdom.

I think we each have an animating spirit putting life and purpose in us. Some people are earth,” she said, picking up a handful of dirt piled up against the wall of the well. She made a fist around it and let it trickle into the fresh Freesand breeze. “They are strong, and once they find something they love, they protect it like a wall and shelter it like a brick house. They make excellent mothers. Others have a fire in them. A fire to light the way for others, show them the right. Fire to scare the wolves away or warm a room. They make wonderful mothers too. There are those infused by water, who bring peace and refreshment with their touch; they are a river that carries good things to people and sustain us and smooth our journey.

Maybe they’re the best mothers of all.” The dragon inspected his wing repair as she spoke. The dragoneer concentrated on Ileth. “But I’ve always been of the air, my little queen. I need light. I need to wander, always headed for a new horizon. Most can’t bear my storms, when they come. I’m only really at home when I’m up there.” “No doubt you’re at ease in the air,” Agrath said, itching behind his ear with a rear claw. “I’m doing all the work.

” She splashed a handful of water from Ileth’s bucket at him. “Irreverent cur! I’m just reciting your kind’s old legends. Anyway, the clouds . they aren’t such a good place for a mother.” She brushed hair out of Ileth’s eyes. “What do you suppose you are, Ileth? What is lighting up those bright eyes?” “I-I . d-don’t kn-know.” “Do you have a stutter, dear?” Ileth nodded gravely. Now the pitying look would come. The suggestions.

The odd trick that cured their cousin when he was nine. Don’t worry, dear, you’ll find a place. The dragoneer smiled. “Well, that’s interesting. I’ll bet that means you have all the spirits in you, just like a dragon. They’re always fighting to get out and show the world who they are.” No one had ever spoken about her stutter like that. Her eyes went wet. Ileth’s lip trembled. She fell toward the dragoneer, hugged her.

She smelled like old leather and lamp oil, and a hint of the sea. She’d probably bathed in salt water recently. “Aren’t you sweet,” the dragoneer said, patting her head. “Can I go with you?” “No, moppet. I am on a commission. But how’s this,” she said, taking her by the hand and leading her to the dragon. “Annis, I’m not a barnyard pony,” the dragon said. But he didn’t move to avoid the girl. “You love it, you old incendiary.” She looked down at Ileth.

“If you can climb onto the saddle, you can sit on him.” Could she! Ileth jumped and scrambled up like a cat chased into a tree, using straps, buckles, and cases as purchase. She arranged herself in the saddle. She’d been on a saddled horse and knew her way about, even if they had to hitch up the stirrups. There were reins threaded through the dragon’s pitcherlike ears, which were made of the same sort of skin as the wings, it seemed. But she didn’t pick them up. She didn’t want to pull incorrectly and hurt the dragon. She was higher than any horse could get her. “Like the view?” the dragoneer said. “I do too.

” “Would you like to go higher?” the dragon asked. For someone who didn’t like being a pony, he had a kind voice. “Yes, p-please please please!” The dragon rose up on his hind legs. Ileth’s stomach lurched and she held on to the saddle with white fingers. But she closed her eyes for only an instant. The dragon gently flapped his wings. Ileth had no words for how she felt; she just hung on and looked all around until the dragon settled on all fours again. “Awww,” she said. “How old are you?” the dragoneer asked. “Seven.

” “Well, you’re halfway there. Can you read and write?” She nodded. Well, she could write her name and add the date if someone told her what the date was. “Math? How are you at figuring?” “Add and subtract,” Ileth said. “Ten percent of a hundred is ten,” she added, although she still had no idea what percent meant, other than something grown-ups complained about when talking taxes and excises, whatever those were. “Excellent. Keep at it. When you turn your apprentice age, in seven or eight more years, you come see me. The Serpentine, on the Skylake. Ask for me.

My name is Annis.” Apprentice age was something for boys, but she made an effort to burn it into her mind like engraving on silver. The dragoneer asked her to climb down herself. For some reason, she made her climb down on the opposite side, but Ileth didn’t ask questions, she just did as told. A weapon hung there. It was a device that she knew was a crossbow. The boys often spoke of them, but she’d never seen one like this. It had extra levers and bracing. She knew, in a vague sort of way, that they were too expensive for any of the hunters or fishermen in the town to have. She scooted under the dragon’s neck as Annis took her place atop Agrath.

“Must be off. It was lovely meeting you, Ileth. I hope we meet again. Remember, apprentice age! Watch your eyes, dear, his wings throw up a lot of dirt. Whenever you’re ready, old scout.” The dragon rattled out his wings and flapped. How the pebbles did fly! Ileth crouched out of the way but risked a gritty eye to watch him take off. The dragon gathered himself and jumped like a cat. Unlike a cat, he stayed in the air. He went off over the angled, snow-shedding rooftops, wings cracking like whips, heading for the Cloven Cliff.

She’d seen birds above sailing with wings unmoving on the air currents. The eagles were circling there now, as a matter of fact, with the sun warming the air. Sure enough, the dragon, aided by the air at the cliff, rose in a series of corkscrew turns. The eagles scattered. The dragon and rider flew off into the clouds over the snowy mountains to the west. Ileth ran over to the pieces of broken wing thread the dragoneer had yanked out of the beast’s wing. She carefully wound two of the longest ones she could find around her elbow, then pulled her sleeve down so they were hidden. She could braid them together and make a bracelet. She wondered how tall she would be in seven more years, and if she could get her foot into a stirrup the way Annis had. She’d beg for an extra glass of milk tonight.

Seven years. An unimaginable distance in time. But maybe she could find out where the Serpentine on the Skylake was. The Captain had many maps in that chest with the thin drawers. If she was careful and quiet, she could look at them with no one knowing. Ileth picked up the bucket. The walk back up to the Captain’s Lodge didn’t seem such a distance, now. And carrying water would make her stronger, strong enough to cling to a dragon in the wind. Her imagination caught fire at the thought. She’d get a hiding for being poky, sure as sunset, but meeting Agrath and Annis was worth a hiding.

Ten hidings, even.

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