The copter set down in the front yard of the dragon nursery under a burning sun. The whirling blades raised such a dust storm, Jakkin had to squint to see through the windows, and still the world outside seemed filled with sand and grit. "Home . . ."
Akki sent Jakkin the single word as they landed, her mind decorating the sending with a picture of the nursery: gray stone surrounded by red sky, which lay beyond the sand and grit. She pushed a strand of dark hair back from her forehead and pressed her face against the window. "Home,"
Jakkin answered, his sending the blue of the five rivers twisting through tan sands. A cooler reaction, almost as if he were afraid. Only he wasn’t afraid, just being cautious. It was an old habit, but a good one.
As Golden’s slim hands danced across the console of lights, the blades slowed, then stilled. "Good landing," Golden said. Then he turned and grinned at them. "Even if you two don’t know the difference."
Soon the dust settled. A minute more and Jakkin could see through the grit that the landscape was neither as red and gray—or as tan and blue—as their sendings.
Akki laughed—a soft, delightful sound—and Jakkin was reminded of other times she ’d sounded like that. Not many recently; hardly any when they were on the run in the mountains, and none at all in the caves of the trogs. But he remembered them all.
Overhead, Heart’s Blood’s five—Sssargon, Sssasha, Trisss, Trisssha, and Trissskkette—wheeled away, disappearing behind a cluster of trees. In his mind, Jakkin heard them bidding a good-bye, their sendings as bright and fluffy as clouds. "Sssargon goesss. Sssargon fliesss high,"
sent the largest, and only male. As ever, his sendings were full of himself. And full of what he was doing now. Dragon time was always now. They could remember a trainer, their hatchlings, their nest. They could be taught enough movements to fight warily in a pit. They could recall where a particularly fine patch of wort existed. But otherwise they lived in the now. Still, they’d been able to hold on to enough to bring Golden to the rescue, to guide him to where Jakkin and Akki had been on the run from the trogs who slaughtered dragons in their caves. "Thanks, my friends."
Jakkin’s sending to the dragons was open-ended, brightly colored. Those dragons were the one constant in Jakkin’s life besides Akki. He hoped they weren’t going far. They linked his past and present, sky and earth, nursery and the wilds. "Good flying, my friends."
They were behind the trees, so he couldn’t see them any-more. Couldn’t hear them, either. But just in case, he called out again with his mind, "Fair wind."
A sunny image flittered back to him, actually more like a brain tickle. So at least one of them heard. Probably Sssasha, always the sunny one.
"Here we are," Golden said, flicking the last switches on the console. Turning his head, he nodded at Jakkin and Akki, his river-colored eyes glinting at them. "Home. The nursery. Back where your life begins."
It was unclear if he was making a joke or a simple statement. Jakkin had never been able to read Golden easily, and unlike the dragons’ minds, Golden’s was closed. Of course Jakkin knew that humans had closed minds, but it was something he would have to get used to, now that they were back. Back home.
Unbuckling his seat belt, Golden stood and stretched. Walking to the copter door, he pushed it open, then flicked a switch that unfolded a set of stairs. Descending the steps backward, he signaled Jakkin and Akki to follow the same way.
As Jakkin climbed down from the copter, he looked over his shoulder. The shock of it all—gates, wood-and stone walls, dusty yard, and the blue water in the weir— seemed overwhelmingly like a dream. So self-contained, so comfortable, so . . . familiar.
He and Akki had been living for a year as outlaws, exiles. Running, hiding, afraid all the time. Well, maybe not all
of the time, but a lot of the time. Living in caves, without real beds. Worrying about where their next meal would come from. How often he ’d dreamed about coming home to the nursery, but he ’d never really believed it could ever happen. Too many people with too many grievances were still looking for them. Like the Austar wardens who wanted to put them in jail; the rebels who wanted to kill them outright.
Yet according to Golden, all that was no longer true. At least the rebels were satisfied, the wardens, too. Jakkin set his lips together. Not that he mistrusted Golden, but it seemed too good to be . . .
Now, of course, they had another problem—the trogs in the caves probably wanted Jakkin and Akki dead, because they didn’t want the secret of their caves to come out. And they probably wanted their two dragons back as well. I regret none of that,
Jakkin thought. None.
And none of the past year, either. Oh, it had been a hard year. But, though hard, life in the mountains had given both Jakkin and Akki a taste for freedom. He mulled that over. A taste for freedom.
He hadn’t realized he’d sent it till Akki answered him. "And a hunger for home."
Jakkin nodded. Many times he’d been sure they would die up in the mountains, with only Heart’s Blood’s hatchlings to mourn them. "And Sssargon to comment on it all."
This time there was a bubbling laugh in Akki’s sending. But home?
He’d never really believed they could return.
Reaching solid ground, Jakkin turned, then stared at the dragon nursery. Without realizing what he was doing, he rubbed the thin bracelet of scar tissue on his wrist. The whole of that year in the mountains, he’d tried to keep his deepest longings for the nursery shielded so that Akki couldn’t read his heartache and add it to her own. Now that they were actually back, he felt he should be elated. What he actually felt was . . . "Scared?"
Akki’s sending was tentative, wavery, like the water at the bottom of the falls. "Stay out of my mind!"
he answered, with black and gold arrow points. Sharper than he meant. To soften it, he turned back and reached a hand up to help her down, for she was facing forward as she came down the steps, carefully cradling the young dragon hatchling. Its back and belly were still patch worked with the last of its gray eggskin, and it looped its tail securely around her wrist.
"Thanks," she whispered to Jakkin, and smiled—a tremulous, tentative smile. It said even more than her sending. "Scared."
This time the sending was not Akki’s. Anxiously, Jakkin looked around. Finally he spotted the sender—Auricle, the pale red adult dragon they’d brought out of the caves before she could be sacrificed by the trogs. She was crouched on the far side of the nursery yard, tail twitching. Not one of Heart’s Blood’s brood, she was possibly a cousin, for her color and sendings were reminiscent of the red dragon’s. He and Akki had gotten her out of the caves just in time. Into the air. Showed her that she could fly, that she could be free.
Auricle’s neck arched downward and her neck scales fluttered, which meant that any moment she might bolt. It’s astonishing that she’s landed here and not actually flown off with the others,
Jakkin thought. In her
mind, men were not safe. Not even her rescuers. Not Akki. Not me. "Here...