when you'd get here." Euan knocked Berdhan off-balance with a slap on the
shoulder. The smith was used to bending metal to his will. Now and then, he forgot
his own strength.
Berdhan managed a smile in return. "You were expecting me?"
"Waiting for you, more like. I saw Gyldan heading your way. Told the rest
you might be a while." Euan shook his head. "She's like a chicken with
no head, that one. Always flapping her arms and racing around without the first
Berdhan chuckled. "I'll tell her you were thinking of her."
Euan spluttered, cheeks gone fiery red, then stabbed a thick finger toward
Berdhan's waist. "Lost your courage?"
Berdhan's hand dropped unerringly to his side, to the place where a sword hilt
might be. It was a practiced gesture, and it felt wrong to find nothing there.
"That sword hasn't seen the light of day in a while. I thought I'd let her
rest before I dragged her out."
Euan drew back his hand. "You sparing her feelings or mine?" Amusement
sparked in his eyes.
"She's still wrapped. She isn't even clean. I'd never bring her out to
embarrass her like that."
Euan cocked one bushy eyebrow upward. "It'd be a good time for me to inspect
her, then. You wouldn't be able to get away with any tricks."
This was Euan's way of shifting attention from himself, and Berdhan knew it,
but he played along. "If we need her, then I promise I'll bring her to you
first, hey? But if you find a flaw, go easy on me." He patted the burly smith
on the arm. "I only just woke up."
Euan mumbled something noncommittal, and Berdhan laughed. It was the first
time in a long time he'd let himself give in to the urge. No, the first time in
too long that he'd even wanted to laugh. Maybe Gyldan had been right about leaving
"I heard about you and the drink last night. You'll want Heida to give
you something to clear your head. And you're going to need your sword if what
Tomas saw is right."
"Tomas. He's the one who made all that noise?"
Euan nodded solemnly. "He's been making more since then. Go on. Just go
on and see."
Berdhan shook his head and plunged deeper into the back room of the inn, following
the sound of voices to the group gathered around the hearth.
"You missed the story," Tomas called when he arrived. He stood on
a bench in the center of the room, eyes and grin bright as he waved from the crowd.
All eyes that had been on him before now turned toward Berdhan, and relief washed
across many a face. "I could tell it again, I suppose."
"And how many times would that be?" Numbers rang out around him as
Berdhan settled onto a bench. He was thumped good-naturedly on the shoulder and
jostled by those glad to see him.
Heida appeared from somewhere and set a plate of sausages and fresh bread on
the table in front of him with a wink. A mug followed, and she murmured, "Drink
it all. You're welcome." Louder, she added, "Too early for you to have
eaten, and you're going to need your strength. Clean that plate." She was
off before he could thank her, even if the words could have carried over the rumble
"Berdhan, do you want to hear it? Do you want to know what I saw?"
Tomas crouched on the table above him. "You'll want to know what you're up
against this time. You won't believe it!"
right. Tell me while I'm eating. Those of you who're tired of it, plug your ears."
A chorus of good-natured groans went up from the men around the room, but no
one voiced a real complaint.
Tomas sat up straighter and theatrically cleared his throat. "I had the
flock out early this morning, letting them have a feed before the dew had gone
dry. It was just the usual business, counting heads and that sort of thing. Everything
as you'd expect it, until the sun came up.
"Then there he came, dropping down out of nowhere. The biggest blessed
dragon I've ever seen." Tomas glanced at Berdhan, eyebrows almost invisible
beneath the fringe of his hair. "Not that I've seen more than that one last
fall, mind you. But I've seen paintings and heard more stories than that. And
I swear to you, Berdhan, none of them were half as big as this one."
Another rumble went up from the men around the room. "What color was he?"
Berdhan paused with a bite of sausage on his fork. "What'd he do when he
"Bright and shiny silver, brighter than the polish on Euan's swords. And
I don't think he saw me. He didn't bother with me anyway. Just swept down over
the field. I guess he was looking for something to eat. He went right over my
head, Berdhan. The wind from his wings knocked me flat. Down he came, right on
top of a couple of ewes, then he's off again with a sheep in each foot, headed
toward the mountains, easy as you please."
Berdhan set the fork down carefully on the edge of his plate. "You're
sure he went toward the mountains?" The sausage he'd eaten already cooled
into a knot in his stomach; his appetite disappeared.
Tomas nodded, locks of pale hair shagging over his eyes. "As sure as I
am that I'm sitting here. Off toward the mountains where that other dragon was."
The dragon that killed Deorward. Berdhan's hands fisted.
"And you're sure you saw a dragon and not something else? Not the shadow
of a bird running off with your imagination? Not a daydream that seemed too real?"
Tomas reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cloth while he shook
his head. "If that was a daydream, I hope I never have another. That sort
of daydream leaves things behind."
He thrust his hand at Berdhan with the cloth draped over his fingers. What
lay in the center of the bundle could be mistaken for nothing else.
Firelight flickered in the reflection on the curve of an ebon dragon's claw.
Berdhan's stomach lurched, and he swallowed hard to keep breakfast down. "Who
"Made it?" Tomas frowned and glanced at the other listeners. "No
one made it. I told you. A dragon came."
"And left a claw where you could pick it up?" Berdhan leaned away
from the thing in the cloth. "A silver dragon, you said. Why is this black?"
Tomas drew his hand back and refolded the cloth. "I don't know the way
their colors work. I only know what I saw." He glanced around the room and
raised his voice. "I didn't make it up. I wouldn't do that." His gaze
met Berdhan's again, darkened by resignation. "You don't believe me."
"Toss it in the fire."
There was stunned silence on all sides. Berdhan shoved to his feet. He snatched
the cloth-covered bundle out of Tomas' hand and crossed the room to pitch it into
the fire before anyone else could move.
"Hey! My mother gave me that!"
"It's just cloth, boy. It can be replaced." Berdhan watched while
the fire peeled fabric away from the claw inside. Burn, he willed it.
Catch fire. Prove yourself a fake. If it would burn, it might be wood.
It might be one of many things.
a dragon's claw, the legends said, could withstand any fire. It could crack stone
and never break, spill the blood of a thousand men and never dull.
Someone jostled him, and Berdhan looked over his shoulder to find himself surrounded
by a ring of curious men. Tomas fidgeted beside him, waiting.
"It's real," Berdhan announced when the last ashes of the cloth drifted
"I told you," Tomas murmured, "but you didn't believe me."
"I didn't want to believe you, boy." He turned from the
fire and faced the circle of nervous men. "Get your swords, your axes, and
anything you need. Kiss your mothers and your wives. We're going to fight a dragon."