The Best of Lies

The Serial version of The Best of Lies has been removed and replaced with this continuous version. It will be the policy of Backlist to provide virtual chapters in longer stories for the sake of navigation. Click a link to go to a virtual chapter. Click your back arrow to return to this introduction.

chap 1     chap 2     chap 3     chap 4     chap 5     chap 6     chap 7     chap 8     chap 9     chap 10     chap 11     chap 12     chap 13     chap 14     chap 15

Most of my writing life has been spent telling tales of the World of the Menhir. Valley of the Menhir and Scourge of Heaven, together, tell the tale of Tidac and Cinnabar, fifth generation scions of the Gods out of Poinaith. Tidac once met a dragon face to face and escaped to tell the tale. That dragon returns here, generations later, to motivate the actions of some very ungodly men.

The Best of Lies

chap 1They call the mountain Tremare. It rises abruptly out of the sea on north and east and shelves away more gently on the southwest in a series of natural terraces. The lowest terrace is also the flattest; a dam across the intermittent stream winding down from Tremare gives the natives enough water to irrigate their rice. On the upper terraces they build their huts and grow their millet.

Tremare smokes from time to time. Its east slope is sheer basalt, bare of vegetation, runneled with lava caves and tortured into strange shapes. Volcanic ash settling on the terraced fields gives them a fertility that makes life easy under the soft trade winds.

High up on the sheer eastern flank of Tremare is a Dragoncave. When steam and smoke erupt from the east face, the villagers look up and tremble and say, “It is the dragon.” When smoke and steam come out of the top of Tremare, they tremble and say, “It is the fire in the heart of the mountain.” And when there is fog on the terraces and the clouds come to sit on the top of the mountain, and the earth trembles and the sound of steam can be heard muted in the mist, they tremble and do not know which anger to fear.

In Renth, far to the north, they have neither dragons nor volcanoes and laugh at the men of Tremare – all but one youth who believed in both and came seeking the Dragoncave. That was nearly a decade ago. I was that youth.

*****

We thought at first that it was a galley and all of the men went scrambling for their weapons. There was a mist in the air that hid the horizon and made near things seem far, and far near. I remained on the first terrace while Jaefi’s cousin Lleachim went up to our hut to dig out the sword I had brought with me from Renth. Even before he returned, I knew that our worry was unfounded. The vessel was long and slim with a tattered square sail, but it was no ship. Only the mists had made it seem so. Then the boat’s lone passenger saw me silhouetted against the mists and waved a greeting. I went down to the beach to meet him.

He stood on one foot and then the other dragging off his boots, then leaped out into the breakers as the boat ground ashore and together we dragged it up on to the beach. He was tall and well muscled, with fiery red hair and beard. His pale skin said that he was Bihagian, and his stance said that he was a warrior. We touched wrists and he said, “Erin s’Gnissen.”

“Selenchuk,” I replied and he looked more closely at me. For a moment, I was tempted to let him think that I was a native, but that would only cause embarrassment later on so I added, “Before I came here, I was called Tael s’Cwin.”

“Ah!”  His face broke out in a grin. “Well met. It is you I’ve come to find.”

chap 2 Lleachim came thundering up with my sword slung over his shoulder, too late to be of any use had I needed him, and without wit enough to gracefully fade away. So I carried the scabbard in my left hand, smelling of grease, with some of the stranger’s gear across my back. He carried his sword, lance and a haversack painted with runes. A half dozen of the island boys followed us, chattering among themselves and bringing up the rest of his belongings.

Jaefi met us at the door of our hut, all shy unease in the presence of a stranger. We had shared six years together and still her face was unlined, her belly flat. She had not yet borne me a child. She was short and slim and dark; beside Erin she seemed more than ever a child. He bowed to her and palmed his forehead, then took away the sting of excessive formality by smiling. She dipped her head, looked up from beneath her brows and the corners of her lips twitched. She was caught in his spell.

By nightfall, the whole island was caught in his spell.

He had come to slay the dragon. So he said, and they believed him. I must not begrudge that faith; they believed me also, eight years ago.

“I am Erin s’Gnissen,” he said . . .

“My father was Gnissen Redbeard and my mother was that Margris who lay with Tidac Wulflord before he strode the forests of Loric . . .

“I carry a sword called Horror, that Antra, son of Atchir, carried in the first battle of the Maratrien Plains . . .

“I took it from the Besh of Besh Lyheals, who had guarded it for a thousand years . . .

“I carry a lance forged in Tiresk when the Comanyi still ruled our world . . .

“This haversack painted with runes? Ah, that is a story . . .”

chap 3 There was little work done on the island those first three days, for every boy and man was caught up in the spell of Erin’s golden tongue. And the women were caught in the spell of an open, handsome face that seemed to say, “I know things your men have never dreamed of; that you would die to learn.”

Even my Jaefi was struck. Erin stayed in our hut and she attended him with more zeal than courtesy demanded. I would wake to find her tossing restlessly beside me in the darkness.

Erin held court in the cleared space before our hut, questioning the others about the dragon. For a menace that had been with them so long, their tales were few, and Erin spent more time talking than listening. On the second night, while the guesting fire burned high and our neighbors ringed the circle, Erin said, “In Hytia, far north of Lankarea, it is a custom for the master of a house to provide a companion for his guest’s nights – his eldest daughter if he has one, or his wife if he has not.”

I answered him sharply, “This is not Hytia.”

He glanced aside at Jaefi who was serving rice around the fire and said, “Sadly, no.” Jaefi blushed. Then he grinned and someone laughed, and he was forgiven his indiscretion. Such was his spell.

And such was his spell that even I began to feel again those same urges that had originally brought me here.

*****

The air was crisp among the peaks, that fourth morning after Erin came, with tendrils of fog or cloud obscuring the trail before and behind. Harvin led the way, with two of his cousins close on his heels. Throughout the climb they shared their squirming burden, first one and then the other carrying the goat across his shoulders.

We topped out on the lesser peak and Harvin tied the animal to a ring set in the rock, then freed it of its gag. It immediately began bleating, and Harvin beat a retreat. Erin stood uncertainly for a moment until I dragged him back. “Don’t expect some ritual,” I whispered. “As long as we tie an animal up here every few days, the drake doesn’t come down to the village. There’s nothing religious about it; it’s all very practical.”

We took shelter in a nest of boulders. The goat was making a horrible racket, but that wouldn’t last long. Erin fingered his haversack nervously. Erin s’Gnissen, smooth-tongued teller of tales, was about to meet a beast out of legend and I wondered if his courage would match his imagination.

I had met the beast before.

chap 4 “How long have the islanders been bringing sacrifices up here?”

“More like bribes than sacrifices. They started soon after the drake arrived.”

“When was that?”

I had to calculate, for time means little on Tremare. “Twenty-nine years,” I told him. “Some say that the drake escaped from Whitethorn in the final battle between the Septs.”

There was triumph in Erin’s voice when he said, “That is what I also heard.”

“Do you know this drake? Do you know its Name?”

“Maybe. We’ll see.”

The dragon came out of the east face of Tremare. Erin stiffened beside me and I felt his fingers dig into my shoulder. I did not blame him. It leaped silently from the lip of its lair and spread broad leather wings, fell seaward, swooping to gain speed; then circled upward, banked back toward the island and caught a rising current of air where the tradewinds hurled themselves against the mountain, and rose as silently as a leaf. First it was a black silhouette in the distance, then indistinct in the shadow of the mountain; then it burst into full sunlight and a thousand iridescent sparkles glittered green off its scales. Long neck, heavy body, longer tail snapping side to side like a serpent’s, with a broad head, mouth like a cave and teeth like lances. Twice it flexed its wings and the air was rent with distant, muffled thunder. Then it descended, still silently, toward a goat suddenly grown voiceless. The animal drew back hard against its restraints as the great drake glided in, mouth wide. Then it shot by trailing a whirlwind and the goat was gone between eyeblinks. Nothing remained but a broken rope, some floating tufts of coarse wool and the drake gliding, still silently, back toward his cave.

I had not thought that Erin’s white skin could grow more pale, but it had. I disengaged his fingers from my shoulder and massaged an old scar.

“Sweet Hea!” he said, but beyond that, even his golden tongue was struck dumb.

Halfway back down the mountainside, Erin said, “You came here to slay the dragon. That was the tale they told me in Renth.”

“No, Erin,” I said. “I came here for the same reason you came. To steal his hoard. I had no more intention of killing it than you have, unless as a means to another end.”

chap 5  He looked at me in seeming dismay and said, “You doubt me?”

“You wouldn’t know the truth if it bit you on the leg.”

He held a pained expression for a moment, then shrugged it aside. “You aren’t one of these simple-minded natives, so I don’t need to fool you.”

“You didn’t,” I said, “and this sudden change of face doesn’t fool me either.  Just remember, these ‘simple-minded natives’ are my people now, and I’ll do what I can to protect them. From you, if necessary.”

He said, “I am no threat.”

I didn’t reply, and after a while he said, “You came for the treasure, so what changed your mind about taking it?”

“The dragon changed my mind,” I answered bitterly. “I climbed high up the mountain in the darkness and when the villagers set out their sacrifice, I slipped into his lair.”

“But it was only out of its lair five minutes,” Erin interrupted.

“That,” I told him grimly, “is because dragons have good memories. He used to land and toy with his bribes before eating them.”

After we had walked on in silence for several minutes, Erin prompted, “Well?”

“The dragon’s lair was littered, all right, but not with what you would expect. There were ship’s masts, broken, empty casks, odd boulders that this island never produced, and mounds of seaweed. It was an incredible mess. Who knows why dragons choose what they do, but I did find one chest filled with jewels. I put it on my shoulder and started back down the mountain, but the dragon caught me just outside his cave.”

“And?”

I shrugged. “I escaped, but I had to leave the treasure behind.”

We walked a hundred yards, then Erin snapped, “Is that all?”

“The dragon pursued me down the mountainside. I had to hide in the rocks, crawling through where he couldn’t go. I used lava caves, but most of them were dead ends and I almost got trapped in them. We played cat-and-mouse through the rocks from sunup until dark, and then I escaped into the forest. The villagers found me there two days later, wandering in a fever from my wounds.”

I turned to Erin then and said, “If you want to make a tale out of that, go ahead. Say it happened to you, if you want. For my part, I’d as soon forget it.”

chap 6 When I returned to my hut I found Jaefi sitting cross-legged with my scabbard across her knees, using a reed and wool to clean out the grease that had clogged it these last eight years. My sword, newly polished with its silver veinings shining dull in the half-light that leaked through the loose woven walls lay on a low table at her elbow. I stopped in the doorway; then my anger got the better of me and I shouted, “What are you doing?” Jaefi dropped the scabbard. There was fear on her face, fear I had not seen there through all the years we had shared, but I was too angry to stop now. “Who told you to do that? Who gave you permission?”

“I thought you would want it,” she said in a whisper; and then with more heat, “I did not expect to be abused for anticipating your needs!”

“What I need is to be free of that madman! What I don’t need is for everyone to expect me to follow him up that mountain like a trained hound. I showed him what the drake looks like and where his cave is. That is all I intend to do.”

“But it is our dragon. It is our flocks that can’t prosper because we send so many animals up there to feed him.”

“So? Erin could not care less. He is after his hoard, that’s all. Just like I was, when I came here.”

“Don’t say that!”

The tears in her eyes melted all my anger. I took her in my arms and said, “Yes. I am a man of Tremare – now. But I was not when I came, and you know it. You watched me change.”

She bit her lip and butted her head against my chest. “They all expect you and Erin to kill the dragon. Yerta told me so, and Harvin is talking about it all the time.”

“He can’t be killed,” I said.  “When Erin says he will kill it, it is only another one of his lies.”

*****

I found Erin entertaining the island children, and settled down in the shadows. In only a few days, he had thrown everything out of balance. Now all our evenings centered on him. No one wanted to hear Oristimba tell about the time he was nearly killed by a wild boar, or hear Harvin tell about the forty pound stingray he once caught. Not while Erin could tell them of Ryn s’Brayl’s foray against Massal last winter in the Great Swamp east of Renth. I did not blame the children – or even the adults – but I was less enthused.

Erin spoke well. He wove a tale like a silken robe. He told of long marches, charges into the clinging mist, and the clangor and excitement of battle. But he did not tell of the smell of sweat and urine, of the indignity of a corpse three days rotting in the swamp, or of the look of unutterable loss on the face of a warrior staring at the stump where his hand used to be. And without that, a tale made of pure fact is no better than a lie.

chap 7 But when Erin started telling the children about Tidac’s encounter with the dragon of Whitethorn and his escape, and then passed around the lance he had brought for his own dragonslaying, it was more than I could take. I walked out into the firelight and took the lance from Lleachim. Erin looked startled and a little embarrassed. I don’t think he had known that I was there. “A nice lance,” I said, “but I don’t think it ever saw a Comanyi. It looks like the kind they sell in the bazaars in Renth. It cost about forty regals, I would say. Right?”

He bristled and started to rise, saying, “Are you calling me a liar?”

I tossed him the lance and ignored him. The children were hostile as they watched me strip off my tunic. Then they became deathly still.

“Erin talks of dragons,” I said. “I fought one. This is what I got for my efforts.”

There had been a time when I wore my tunic to hide the shame of that wound, and later I just did not want to talk about it. These children had never seen the dragonburn that had turned my skin from elbow to shoulder into a mass of pockmarked craters and spread red veined fingers of scars across my chest. I turned slowly and let them see the gouged and twisted mass of scar tissue that extended from my neck down almost to my waist. Then I picked up my tunic and slipped into it again.

I faced Erin and found him wide-eyed and silent. “They are children, Erin! Beware of what you tell them, or they will sneak off to fight your dragon, and feed him instead.”

“I was only telling tales.”

Only?”

I left them then. Perhaps it did some good, but I doubt it.

*****

Making love to Jaefi could not still the aching in my chest that night, and after she was asleep I stole out into the night. Sun’shome was hanging low in the east, a sullen blue sphere, like a flawed bit of lapis lazuli. The sky was cloudless. The constellation Ice Dragon rode mockingly high and the dark bulk of Tremare cut off the northern stars. The mountain had been quiet these last few months, but tonight smoke traced a jagged finger across the sky.

Erin’s tales of dragons and valor left me cold, but he brought with him memories of Renth. Eight years I had been on Tremare, raising rice and pigs and loving my Jaefi; resting from the strife and strivings that had sent me here to steal a dragonhoard.

Now that old wanderlust was coming back and it tore me in two to know that I must either deny it or lose my Jaefi, my friends, and the life I had made for myself on Tremare.

chap 8 Erin found me in my taro patch, down on my knees under the coarse, broad leaves pulling weeds. He squatted in the row in front of me and looked at me with a bewilderment that irritated me. I stood up and the south wind curled about me. I walked to the edge of the field and recovered my tunic.

“Those are warrior’s scars,” Erin said. “Why do you try so hard to hide them?”

“Don’t farce me!”

“I’m not.”

I had to look at him again. From moment to moment, I never knew how to take Erin, but I still think he was not lying then. I said, “You envy me these scars! You are a fool.”

“I envy you much,” he replied, and turned away.

There was a cascade nearby, tumbling down the side of Tremare through damp and mossy woods. I plunged in, fully clothed, and emerged moments later sputtering and gasping from the icy water. Erin remained on the edge of the bank and we sat together on a rocky outcropping overlooking the ocean.

“You are not going to help me steal the dragonhoard, are you?” Erin asked.

“No.”

“Not even for half of it?”

I looked at him. “You aren’t just guessing. Who told you that?”

“One of the villagers.”

“Only Jaefi knew.”

He shrugged and I felt betrayed. “You bragged in Renth,” Erin said, “that you would return with the dragonhoard or die in the trying.”

“That was years ago, Erin. I was young and foolish – and I almost did die.”

“All right. You tried, and with those scars, I can see why you would not try again. But why do you stay here? You can’t be satisfied with only this. Jaefi is beautiful, certainly, but Renth is full of beautiful women. Why?”

“I don’t owe you an explanation for anything.”

“You call me a liar. Very well, then, show me the truth!”

Erin, how smooth was your tongue and how subtle your traps. How could I refuse that challenge?

My father was a pack peddler, and all but a stranger to me when my mother died and he took me out of my childhood home. For a decade, I walked the roads with him. He was a cold and hungry man, always grasping for one more copper, begrudging the road for the years it had stolen from him, and for the wife who had died hardly knowing her wandering husband. A hungry man in a hungry time.

I was man-tall but untried when I first heard of the dragonhoard of Tremare. I was a foolish youth when I first went up that mountain. The dragon baptized me there and I came down with a sure knowledge of how close death lies to life, and how precious are the hours we live.

chap 9 It was weeks before I could rise from my pallet, and months before my strength returned. Jaefi was there, much younger then, barely yet a woman; it was not for her that I stayed on Tremare. My love for her came later. It was for the peace I saw on the old men’s faces, and for the faces of young men who were content to run the grassy meadows and hunt the mossy dells, content to work by their fathers raising taro and millet and rice in the fertile soil, beneath gentle winds. And content to marry the island girls and raise up new generations of peaceful children. In the young men’s faces I saw none of the all-consuming hunger that haunted the ragged streets of Renth.

I had come for gold, to buy peace; I lost the gold, found the peace, and found that the former would never have bought the latter.

I told Erin some of this, though not all, and he listened, for even on a coarse tongue the truth has its own power.

*****

I walked the high meadows that afternoon, alone with my memories and fighting against that wanderlust, that terrible hunger to see, and have, and to hoard experience against life’s evening.

When I returned, the mountain Tremare still held the last of the sun’s light though the terraces below were in shadow. A few of my neighbors were kindling guesting fires before their huts. Krytes were fluttering here and there, catching up the first insects of the evening. Somewhere a cow bawled and from across the meadow I heard children laughing.

I called out Jaefi’s name as I entered our darkened hut and heard her gasp. There was a rustling in the darkness. Reflexes from the hard life I had lived in Renth took over and I moved violently to one side, out of the light of the doorway. I caught up a handful of kindling and tossed it into the embers of the hearth, then rolled on past it to where I kept my sword and snatched it up.

The fire flared up and I wished for darkness.

Jaefi lay sprawled half in shadow, naked, and Erin crouched there torn between snatching up his sword or his leggings. I lunged forward and he jerked back, overbalanced and fell. My sword point was at his throat.

Jaefi lay paralyzed by terror. I looked down at her and asked, “Was it rape?” Jaefi shook her head and bit her lip.

I looked down at Erin and laced my fingers tighter around the sword hilt. The blood sang in my ears. He would have spoken, but the sword gave his throat no room to move. “Your life,” I said, “is mine.”

chap 10 “She invited,” he managed, and his eyes rolled. “I did not force her.”

“Jaefi,” I snapped. “Go to Harvin’s guesting fire and bring your father.”

She reached for her shift and I said, “No! Go naked!” She went.

I looked back at Erin. He was reaching for his sword, but his fingers were far short of it. He said, “You can’t just kill me.”

“I can,” I said, “and I may.”

Wegestin entered the hut with Jaefi in tow and took in the scene at a glance. He hurled his daughter away from him as if she were befouled and said, “Selenchuk, what is your judgment?” The others had crowded in behind him, making Avert and spitting at Erin and Jaefi.

I looked down at Jaefi. She was too frightened even to cry, and some of my anger melted. “On my wife,” I said, “I will withhold judgement until we see if this riminjidore’s seed has taken root.”

Erin shouted, “You breech-born whoreson! How can you condemn her for taking her pleasure? Don’t tell me you never picked wild fruit!”

“Hold!” I had to shout to keep the others from killing him then and there. Wegestin drew back as if from a serpent and I said to him, “Remember, the morals of Renth are not like ours.”

“Kill him,” Wegestin said. “He is not fit to live.”

“It is my decision,” I reminded him. “This person has lied to you all from the first. He only used the truth to make his lies more palatable. He had no intention of killing the dragon, only stealing its hoard.”

Erin’s eyes shuttled about the room, but the others’ faces were stone. They had accepted him openly and believed him readily; this was the other side of their belief.

“This is my judgment,” I said. “Tomorrow, he will go up the mountain and kill the dragon. If he returns without doing this deed he has sung so loudly, I give him to you.”

“You are too lenient,” Wegestin said.

I touched my scarred shoulder and said, “I don’t think so.”

*****   

After the others had left, taking Erin with them, I sat in the darkness, saying nothing, thinking nothing. After a while, Jaefi came to sit beside me and I asked, “Why?”

“I did not intend it,” she said softly. “He was here watching me prepare supper and talking. I did not like having him here – you know how Yerta talks – but he was our guest and I expected you back any time. Then he said that you had been talking about your childhood, and he said things that he could have only known if you had. It scared me. I have been so frightened this last year that you would take another because I could give you no child.”

“I said that I would stay with you.”

chap 11 “It has been so long.”

“I would have stayed a lifetime,” I said, and my voice was cold.

She was silent in the darkness for a moment. Then she said, “He said that you told him that you came for the hoard, years ago. I knew that was true. He said . . .; he said that you were tired of Tremare, tired of me, and that you were going to leave with him after you two had stolen the dragongold.”

My hands were like claws, grasping my knees to keep some control on my anger. It was all that I could do to keep from snatching up my sword and going after Erin.

“I never said that! How could you have believed him?”

Very softly she said, “He has a way of making people believe him. I think it is because he feels no shame when he lies. How can I judge the motives of a man who lies without shame?

“I believed him because he spoke to my secret fears. I cried like a child. I could not believe that you would leave me, but I could not believe that you would stay, either. I have seen your eyes when you talk of Renth.

“I cried, and he took me in his arms to comfort me. Then he kissed me . . .”

There was a long silence between us.

Finally Jaefi said miserably, “He was so much like you were. So bold and wild and so full of far places that he set my body on fire.”

I should have taken her into my arms then, for I had dreamed of leaving her and she had sensed it despite my silence. She would not have turned to Erin if I had not paved the way by shutting her out of my troubled thoughts.

But I did not take her in my arms. I was too full of anger and righteousness.

*****

Erin carried his sword and lance and rune-painted haversack, and I my sword. Wegestin saw us off while the morning mist was still on the fields, assuring me that the whole mountain was encircled by boys and young men to give warning if Erin should pull back short of his task. “There is no reason for you to accompany him,” Wegestin said, but I only shook my head and followed Erin up the path.

chap 12 We walked in silence for a mile. I could see by the set of Erin’s shoulders that he was over his fear. There was anger in the quickness of his step. He would be calculating now, conniving, and seeking a way out of this impasse. So I said to him, “No lie will get you out of this situation.”

He loosened his sword in its scabbard and said, “If I really thought there was no way out, I would take you with me.”

“You would try.”

Erin looked out across the mountainside, seeing none of the beauty of the scrub-choked flanks, or of the forest below. I could not read his expression until he turned to me and said, “I thought more of you. How can a son of Renth ever count sex a crime?”

His anger may have been genuine, but with Erin I had learned to doubt everything. “Sex was never the crime,” I said. “Jaefi could have lain with you at any time, if only she had told me first.”

He stared at me as if I were some loathsome insect. “Man,” he said, “if you think you can own a woman, you are a fool.”

“Not asked me, breecher! Told me. How else is a man to know if the child she bears is his own? Her crime was not that she lay with you, but that she lied by her silence.”

“And you have never taken another woman?” His sarcasm was heavy.

“Since our marriage – never.”

He spat on the ground and said, “That’s the trouble with people who tell the truth too much. They get so self-righteous that there’s no living with them.”

As we went on up the mountain, I thought of Renth. I remembered how she spread out on both sides of River Renal from the crowded waterfront to the first fingers of the great inland swamp. I remembered how herdsmen drove in their herds of tichan every evening to keep them from the night predators. All of the sidewalk vendors would close up shop and congregate on the rooftops until the sound of passing-bells carried by the herdsmen proclaimed the streets safe again. Then the chamarana would come out with their crusted baskets to clean the streets and haul the manure to fertilize their rich gardens.

There are temples in Renth where Encaritremanta is still worshipped instead of the bloodless Septs, and where the ritual dancers proclaim to the world that the Fern of the Deep Forest is still fertile and ripe. There is Bread Street where the bakers from the whole city congregate and the smells are sweet beyond description.

In the morning, the sun falls slantwise on the whitewashed houses, catching the sleepy merchants in their rooftop boudoirs. The boys from the waterfront crowd onto the high roofed warehouses to look across the city at first light when the women take their baths. And some of them look back, insolent and insulated by their station, posturing and laughing and waving.

The memories filled me with melancholy.

chap 13 By mid-afternoon we had reached our resting place where the brush and stunted trees gave way to open rock. Beyond, cover was sparse. Erin lowered his lance and settled his rune-painted sack carefully to one side. “You came up here because you intend to have half the hoard, didn’t you?” Beneath a patina of malicious humor, his deeper thoughts were unreadable. “You are ready to run back to Renth and leave all this behind.”

I did not reply.

Tremare was smoking again, and occasionally steam belched out of the Dragoncave. It was time for his weekly meal and he was growing restless. The sky overhead was a flawless blue, shading away to misty white on the surrounding horizon. The island was an emerald jewel below.
Erin said, “I know rich men in Renth who would give a King’s ransom for this view, or for a week of peace like I found here.”

“Peace?”

His face flushed. “I had no idea of the problems I was creating with Jaefi. You should know that; you lived in Renth.”

“Taking her behind my back was only a small part of the deceptions you’ve visited on these people.”

“You wrong me.”

I had called him liar before; there was nothing else to say in reply.

“She is a lovely girl,” he said. “I can understand your anger with me; it may even be justified. But you must not blame her.”

The cloying, false sincerity in his voice made me want to strike out and flatten those lips. “If she is so precious,” I snapped, “then why did you despoil her?”

He stared out to sea, avoiding my eyes and said, “I wish that I had not, but as I sat there watching her prepare a meal I saw the love in her eyes, and her stance, and in the way she glanced at the doorway waiting for your return. You spoke of hungers when you told me why you came here. Well, you are not the only man who has ever longed for a home.”

“So you lied and said I was leaving her, to get under her loinwrap!”

“I said you were leaving. Was it a lie?”

*****

By Sun’shome’s pale light we ghosted across the barren fields of rock to a place near the Dragoncave. Erin opened his haversack and withdrew a tabard with a runeboard embroidered across the front. There were runes painted in each space, forming a full mandala. “What is it?” I asked.

Erin’s expression was unreadable. “The – person – who told me of this drake had reason to suspect that it was the same one that riddled Tidac when he first entered Whitethorn. If it is, then this is the pattern of its life.”

“That would give you power over him!”

If my patron was right.”

“And if he was not?”

“Then you can carry to Jaefi my regrets for the pain I’ve caused her.”

chap 14 Erin had put a light cloak over the runeboard-tabard and was laying back in the low morning sun whetting his lance nervously with a small stone. Smoke had belched out of the Dragoncave three or four times since sunrise, rising in gray-yellow clouds and drifting over our hiding place with a stench of brimstone and carrion.

When the cattle were tethered on the island’s lesser peak far below, Erin would go down to wait in ambush within the Dragoncave. It had seemed poetic justice yesterday; now it seemed a petty revenge. It would have been far cleaner and more manly to have killed him myself. And Erin made matters worse by facing his fate calmly. Liar he might be, but he did not lack courage.
Almost I said, “You need not go.” Almost I retracted my judgment and took him back down to set him free. But it came to me that he might take my Jaefi with him when he went, and my hatred returned.

So like me, she had said. I could not see it. Then.

Then the ground began to shake beneath our feet.

I glanced sharply southward and saw that the cattle were tethered. I could not hear them bawl, but the drake’s ears are better than mine.

A dozen feet beneath us the great gray-green snout appeared. I grabbed Erin’s arm to draw him down, but he would not move. His eyes were stark wide and his mouth moved soundlessly. I jerked at his belt to draw him back into cover.

His whisper reached me. “Magnificent! Tael, you must look.”

No one had called me that since Renth. I eased to my feet as the drake leaped away from the lip of his cave in a seaward dive. Broad, strangely jointed leather wings spread like sails and still I did not see how they could support so massive a creature.

It was as if a forest had leaped up to take flight.

Erin’s face was set with a look of wonder. I knew that look. I wore it the day my boat grounded on the beach when first I came to Tremare. I wore it again when my Jaefi first came to my bed. The drake had never kindled it in me, and suddenly I knew that this was Erin’s beast, not mine.

The drake turned in its flight and Erin leaped to his feet, hefting his lance and throwing off the light cloak that had covered the runeboard on his chest. His blue eyes sparkled and his beard curled in tight red whorls about his mouth. His fiery hair was free and whipping in the seawind. So bold and wild and so full of far places – no wonder Jaefi had lain with him.

He ran forward, leaping from rock to rock, dropping down toward the dragonlair. And I followed him! I swear by sweet Hea that I did not intend it, but my feet moved in spite of my intentions.

He entered the lair and I plunged in after him. He was plowing furiously through the debris that littered the cave, searching for something. He looked up and excitement made his voice rise as he shouted, “Hurry. Find the chest of jewels.”

Then he found it, scarred by the dragon’s claws and scorched along one side where the dragon’s breath had caught it in the same moment he crisped my back and arm. Pain flared in my scars at the sight of that charred wood.

There was a ripping sound as mighty wings rent the air, and I knew that the wily old dragon had not been fooled by the generosity of our offerings. I froze for one terrible instant with my hand on my sword but too frightened to draw it out. Then Erin tossed me his lance and I caught it automatically.

“Protect yourself,” he sneered, “if you think steel will do it!”

There was no fear in him. I had been lied to again.

chap 15 I turned, raising the lance, and the old dragon came down out of the sky, spreading a shadow across the face of the mountain. Erin squeezed past me and faced the beast. Its taloned feet gripped the rocky ledge, scattering boulders, and it opened its mouth to burn us.

Telure asur, Drakon!” Erin’s voice echoed in the confines of the cave mouth and the dragon held pose, then slowly lowered his head to stare bemused at the mandala painted on Erin’s tabard.

In that moment, the dragon was his. And I knew that he had never doubted that the beast would be his.

My demand that he face it, my shepherding him up the mountain, even my final sacrifice, accompanying him to what I supposed would be his death – all useless gestures!

Erin stepped forward and caught the massive ridge of skin that protruded over the beast’s eye and hauled himself up on his cheek, scrambled across his broad, quiescent snout to take his place with his legs astraddle of the dragon’s neck. His face was flushed with triumph.

Mei iinit h’shassin,” Erin cried and the dragon snaked out a massive claw. I dodged aside, but it only took up the chest that Erin had dragged out.

Then Erin looked down from his perch with true puzzlement on his face and said, “Why did you follow me down here?”

I shrugged. “Maybe because, if only for a moment, Jaefi loved you.”

He shook his head slowly. “No,” he said finally, “not even for a moment. If she had, then I would order my pet to burn you where you stand, and never leave this place. But even while she lay in my embrace, the name she called out was yours.”

There was a long silence between us, punctuated only by the bellows panting of Erin’s dragon. At last he said, “If you still want to return to Renth, come aboard. There is treasure enough for us both.”

His face was an enigma. I slowly shook my head, and he nodded. Without another word to me, he whispered to his dragon and it leaped outward, spread its wings and glided away. Five times the mighty wings beat, and then they banked away northward. Toward Renth.

The last thing I heard was the distant echo of Erin’s laughter.

*****

He has been gone nigh ten years now, that warrior with his golden tongue. I think of him often when I am sitting by a fire in the evening, watching the krytes flying low and snatching dragonflies out of the air while Sun’shome makes its way across the sky. I think of the treasure and all that it might have bought in Renth.

Then my wife comes, my good Jaefi with her laughing brown eyes, with our red haired daughter by her side. We settle down together to watch the early night, and later make love, and then sleep. And in the spaces between our loving and our sleeping, I thank Erin for the treasure he took and the one he gave – for that final lie about Jaefi that I believed and, believing, made true.

Sometimes the villagers still ask me to tell the story of how Erin and I rid the island of its dragon. I tell it well, full of danger and reckless striving. But when I come to the end and they ask me what happened when we came at last to the dragon’s lair, I say that Erin went down, overthrew the dragon and was lost.

The best of lies always tell the truth.    finis

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