THE DRAGON’S PATH
The apostate pressed himself into the shadows of the rock and prayed to nothing in particular that the things riding mules in the pass below him would not look up. His hands ached, the muscles of his legs and back shuddered with exhaustion. The thin cloth of his ceremonial robes fluttered against him in the cold, dust-scented wind. He took the risk of looking down toward the trail.
The five mules had stopped, but the priests hadn’t dismounted. Their robes were heavier, warmer. The ancient swords strapped across their backs caught the morning light and glittered a venomous green. Dragon-forged, those blades. They meant death to anyone whose skin they broke. In time, the poison would kill even the men who wielded them. All the more reason, the apostate thought, that his former brothers would kill him quickly and go home. No one wanted to carry those blades for long; they came out only in dire emergency or deadly anger.
Well. At least it was flattering to be taken seriously.
The priest leading the hunting party rose up in his saddle, squinting into the light. The apostate recognized the voice.
“Come out, my son,” the high priest shouted. “There is no escape.”
The apostate’s belly sank. He shifted his weight, preparing to walk down. He stopped himself.
Probably, he told himself. There is probably no escape. But perhaps there is.
On the trail, the dark-robed figures shifted, turned, consulted among themselves. He couldn’t hear their words. He waited, his body growing stiffer and colder. Like a corpse that hadn’t had the grace to die. Half a day seemed to pass while the hunters below him conferred, though the sun barely changed its angle in the bare blue sky. And then, between one breath and the next, the mules moved forward again.
He didn’t dare move for fear of setting a pebble rolling down the steep cliffs. He tried not to grin. Slowly, the things that had once been men rode their mules down the trail to the end of the valley, and then followed the wide bend to the south. When the last of them slipped out of sight, he stood, hands on his hips, and marveled. He still lived. They had not known where to find him after all.
Despite everything he’d been taught, everything he had until recently believed, the gifts of the spider goddess did not show the truth. It gave her servants something, yes, but not truth. More and more, it seemed his whole life had sprung from a webwork of plausible lies. He should have felt lost. Devastated. Instead, it was like he’d walked from a tomb into the free air. He found himself grinning.
The climb up the remaining western slope bruised him. His sandals slipped. He struggled for finger- and toeholds. But as the sun reached its height, he reached the ridge. To the west, mountain followed mountain, and great billowing clouds towered above them, thunderstorms a soft veil of grey. But in the farthest passes, he saw the land level. Flatten. Distance made the plains grey-blue, and the wind on the mountain’s peak cut at his skin like claws. Lightning flashed on the horizon. As if in answer, a hawk shrieked.
It would take weeks alone and on foot. He had no food, and worse, no water. He’d slept the last five nights in caves
and under bushes. His former brothers and friends — the men he had known and loved his whole life — were combing the trails and villages, intent on his death. Mountain lions and dire wolves hunted in the heights.
He ran a hand through his thick, wiry hair, sighed, and began the downward climb. He would probably die before he reached the Keshet and a city large enough to lose himself in.
But only probably.
In the last light of the falling sun, he found a stony overhang near a thin, muddy stream. He sacrificed a length of the strap from his right sandal to fashion a crude fire bow, and as the cruel chill came down from the sky, he squatted next to the high ring of stones that hid his small fire. The dry scrub burned hot and with little smoke, but quickly. He fell into a rhythm of feeding small twig after small twig into the flame, never letting it grow large enough to illuminate his shelter to those hunting and never letting it die. The warmth didn’t seem to reach past his elbows.
Far off, something shrieked. He tried to ignore it. His body ached with exhaustion and spent effort, but his mind, freed now from the constant distraction of his journey, gained a dangerous speed. In the darkness, his memory sharpened. The sense of freedom and possibility gave way to loss, loneliness, and dislocation. Those, he believed, were more likely to kill him than a hunting cat.
He had been born in hills much like these. Passed his youth playing games of sword and whip using branches and woven bark. Had he ever felt the ambition to join the ranks of the monks in their great hidden temple? He must have, though from the biting cold of his poor stone shelter, it was hard to imagine it. He could remember looking up with awe at the high wall of stone. At the rock-carved sentries from all the thirteen races of humanity worn by wind and rain until all of them — Cinnae and Tralgu, Southling and Firstblood, Timzinae and Yemmu and Drowned — wore the same blank faces and clubbed fists. Indistinguishable. Only the wide wings and dagger teeth of the dragon arching above them all were still clear. And worked into the huge iron gate, black letters spelled out words in a language no one in the village knew.
When he became a novice, he learned what it said. BOUND IS NOT BROKEN. He had believed once that he knew what it meant.
The breeze shifted, raising the embers like fireflies. A bit of ash stung his eye, and he rubbed at it with the back of his hand. His blood shifted, currents in his body responding to something that was not him. The goddess, he’d thought. He had gone to the great gate with the other boys of his village. He had offered himself up — life and body — and in return . . .
In return the mysteries had been revealed. First, it had only been knowledge: letters enough to read the holy books, numbers enough to keep the temple’s records. He had read the stories of the Dragon Empire and its fall. Of the spider goddess coming to bring justice to the world.
Deception, they said, had no power over her.
He’d tested it, of course. He believed them, and still he had tested. He would lie to the priests, just to see whether it could be done. He’d chosen things that only he could know: his father’s clan name, his sister’s favorite meals, his own dreams. The priests had whipped him when he spoke false, they had spared him when he was truthful, and they were never, never wrong. His certainty had grown. His faith. When the high priest had chosen him to rise to novice, he’d been certain that great things awaited him, because the priests had told him that they did.
After the nightmare of his initiation was over, he’d felt the power of the spider goddess in his own blood. The first time he’d felt someone lie, it had been like discovering a new sense. The first time he had spoken with the voice of the goddess, he’d felt his words commanding belief as if they had been made from fire.
And now he had fallen from grace, and none of it might be true. There might be no such place as the Keshet. He believed there was, so much so that he had risked his life on flight to it. But he had never been there. The marks on the maps could be lies. For that matter, there might have been no dragons, no empire, no great war. He had never seen the ocean; there might be no such thing. He knew only what he himself had seen and heard and felt.
He knew nothing.
On violent impulse, he sank his teeth into the flesh of his palm. His blood welled up, and he cupped it. In the faint firelight, it looked nearly black. Black, with small, darker knots. One of the knots unfurled tiny legs. The spider crawled mindlessly around the cup of his hand. Another one joined it. He watched them: the agents of the goddess in whom he no longer believed. Carefully, slowly, he tipped his hand over the small flame. One of the spiders fell into it, hair-thin legs shriveling instantly.
“Well,” he said. “You can die. I know that.”
The mountains seemed to go on forever, each crest a new threat, each valley thick with danger. He skirted the small villages, venturing close only to steal a drink from the stone cisterns. He ate lizards and the tiny flesh-colored nuts of scrub pine. He avoided the places where wide, clawed paws marked paths in the dirt. One night, he found a circle of standing pillars with a small chamber beneath them that seemed to offer shelter and a place to recover his strength, but his sleep there had been troubled by dreams so violent and alien that he pushed on instead.
He lost weight, the woven leather of his belt hanging low around his waist. His sandals’ soles thinned, and his fire bow wore out quickly. Time lost its meaning. Day followed day followed day. Every morning he thought, This will probably be the last day of my life. Only probably.
The probably was always enough. And then, late one morning, he pulled himself to the top of a boulder-strewnhill, and there wasn’t another to follow it. The wide western plains spread out before him, a river shining in its cloak of green grass and trees. The view was deceptive. He guessed it would still be two days on foot before he reached it. Still, he sat on a wide, rough stone, looked out over the world, and let himself weep until almost midday.
As he came nearer to the river, he felt a new anxiety start to gnaw at his belly. On the day, weeks ago, when he had slipped over the temple’s wall and fled, the idea of disappearing into a city had been a distant concern. Now he saw the smoke of a hundred cookfires rising from the trees. The marks of wild animals were scarce. Twice, he saw men riding huge horses in the distance. The dusty rags of his robe, the ruins of his sandals, and the reek of his own unwashed skin reminded him that this was as difficult and as dangerous as anything he’d done to now. How would the men and women of the Keshet greet a wild man from the mountains? Would they cut him down out of hand?
He circled the city by the river, astounded at the sheer size of the place. He had never seen anything so large. The long wooden buildings with their thatched roofs could have held a thousand people. The roads were paved in stone. He kept to the underbrush like a thief, watching.
It was the sight of a Yemmu woman that gave him courage. That and his hunger. At the fringe of the city, where the last of the houses sat between road and river, she labored in her garden. She was half again as tall as he was, and broad as a bull across the shoulders. Her tusks rose from her jaw until she seemed in danger of piercing her own cheeks if she laughed. Her breasts hung high above a peasant girdle not so different from the ones his own mother and sister had worn, only with three times the cloth and leather.
She was the first person he had ever seen who wasn’t a Firstblood. The first real evidence that the thirteen races of humanity truly existed. Hiding behind the bushes, peeking at her as she leaned in the soft earth and plucked weeds between gigantic fingers, he felt something like wonder.
He stepped forward before he could talk himself back into cowardice. Her wide head rose sharply, her nostrils flaring. He raised a hand, almost in apology.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I’m . . . I’m in trouble. And I was hoping you might help me.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed to slits. She lowered her stance like a hunting cat preparing for battle. It occurred to him that it might have been wiser to discover if she spoke his language before he’d approached her.
“I’ve come from the mountains,” he said, hearing the desperation in his own voice. And hearing something else besides. The inaudible thrumming of his blood. The gift of the spider goddess commanding the woman to believe him.
“We don’t trade with Firstbloods,” the Yemmu woman growled. “Not from those twice-shat mountains anyway. Get away from here, and take your men with you.”
“I don’t have any men,” he said. The things in his blood roused themselves, excited to be used. The woman shifted her head as his stolen magic convinced her. “I’m alone. And unarmed. I’ve been walking for . . . weeks. I can work if you’d like. For a little food and a warm place to sleep. Just for the night.”
“Alone and unarmed. Through the mountains?”
She snorted, and he had the sense he was being evaluated. Judged.
“You’re an idiot,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I am. Friendly, though. Harmless.”
It was a very long moment before she laughed.
She set him to hauling river water to her cistern while she finished her gardening. The bucket was fashioned for Yemmu hands, and he could only fill it half full before it became too heavy to lift. But he struggled manfully from the little house to the rough wooden platform and then back again. He was careful not to scrape himself, or at least not so badly as to draw blood. His welcome was uncertain enough without the spiders to explain.
At sunset, she made a place for him at her table. The fire in the pit seemed extravagant, and he had to remind himself that the things that had been his brothers weren’t here, scanning for signs of him. She scooped a bowl of stew from the pot above the fire. It had the rich, deep, complex flavor of a constant pot; the stewpot never leaving the fire, and new hanks of meat and vegetables thrown in as they came to hand. Some of the bits of dark flesh swimming in the greasy broth might have been cooking since before he’d left the temple. It was the best meal he’d ever had.
“My man’s at the caravanserai,” she said. “One of the princes s’posed to be coming in, and they’ll be hungry. Took all the pigs with. Sell ’em all if we’re lucky. Get enough silver to see us through storm season.”
He listened to her voice and also the stirring in his blood. The last part had been a lie. She didn’t believe that the silver would last. He wondered if it worried her, and if there was some way he could see she had what she needed. He would try, at least. Before he left.
“What about you, you poor shit?” she asked, her voice soft and warm. “Whose sheep did you fuck that you’re begging work from me?”
The apostate chuckled. The warm food in his belly, the fire at his side, and the knowledge that a pallet of straw and a thin wool blanket were waiting for him outside conspired to relax his shoulders and his belly. The Yemmu woman’s huge gold flecked eyes stayed on him. He shrugged.
“I discovered that believing something doesn’t make it true,” he said carefully. “There were things I’d accepted, that I believed to my bones, and I was . . . wrong.”
“Misled?” she asked.
“Misled,” he agreed, and then paused. “Or perhaps not. Not intentionally. No matter how wrong you are, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
The Yemmu woman whistled — an impressive feat, considering her tusks — and flapped her hands in mock admiration.
“High philosophy from the water grunt,” she said. “Next you’ll be preaching and asking tithes.”
“Not me,” he said, laughing with her.
She took a long slurp from her own bowl. The fire crackled. Something — rats, perhaps, or insects — rattled in the thatch overhead.
“Fell out with a woman, did you?” she asked.
“A goddess,” he said.
“Yeah. Always seems like that, dunit?” she said, staring into the fire. “Some new love comes on like there’s somethingdifferent about ’em. Like God himself talks whenever their lips flap. And then . . .”
She snorted again, part amusement, part bitterness.
“And what all went wrong with your goddess?” she asked.
The apostate lifted a scrap of something that might have been a potato to his mouth, chewed the soft flesh, the gritty skin. He struggled to put words to thoughts that had never been spoken aloud. His voice trembled.
“She is going to eat the world.”