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Dragon's Ring: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Monday, August 10, 2009 08:00 EDT



    Meb lay on top of the dune, shivering again. Night had fallen, and in the moonlight the raiders could be seen moving down to their war-craft. It was going to be interesting to see how they got over the bar at the mouth of the bay, thought Meb, vengefully. Unfortunately it looked as if they were just readying their vessels, waiting for the tide. The raider ships probably didn’t have the draft of the fishing-boats, anyway. They’d skim over the bar.

    Soon they were out on the bay, waiting for the tide, safe from any revenge attacks, with the village’s boats lying burned on the shingle. Occasional sparks blew from the sullen embers of the crofts of the village. Otherwise there was darkness and desolation in what had been her home. Steeling herself, Meb edged her way down the bank. She had to make sure poor Hallgerd was dead, as little as she wanted to go down there.

    She established that fact quickly enough. Her stepmother was dead and stiff already, her old dress dark-stained with blood even in the moonlight. Gently closing Hallgerd’s eyes, Meb pulled Hallgerd’s dress down again.

    Meb’s tears were swallowed down into an acid hatred that burned in her belly. No one would have dared to raid on Lord Zuamar’s territory without his permission . . . or without a larger dragon dealing with the local dragon overlord. No one! And Zuamar was one of the greatest of dragons. Yenfar’s people were proud of their dread lord, be he ever so greedy with his taxes. He was bigger and more dangerous than the dragons of other islands.

    She ground her teeth. Somehow, Zuamar would pay for this. He was supposed to defend them! She knew in her heart of hearts that this was as futile as hating the sea. But that didn’t stop her hatred. It ran right then, as deep as the heavens were wide.

    After what seemed like an eternity, Meb got up off her knees from next to Hallgerd. When she stood up, she was a much older woman than the girl who had knelt down there in village street. Standing up, Meb was stiff, sore, hungry and cold, miserable to the core . . . and she had absolutely no idea what to do next. She tried to put it all aside, to be logical, to think. It didn’t work very well. Her teeth were chattering with cold . . . so finding some warmth — even if it was just from the embers of her home, she thought bitterly, was probably the most important. Her other dress was burned. As was the blanket she would have slept under. She really needed some clothes. And then some food and shelter, but clothes came first. Then she’d have to bury Hallgerd. Alone, if no one else came back to help.

    She tried again to think about clothes, warmth, without letting the horror of it all overwhelm her. It was a pity that she’d washed her other dress the day before. Otherwise it might still have been drying on the flag bushes behind the houses. Maybe there might be other clothes there? Would the raiders have bothered with fisher-folk’s washing?

    She made her way back towards them. The straggly bushes everyone used to hang out their washing on grew along the bottom edge of the dune she’d just come down.

    Near them, she tripped over another lump that shouldn’t have been there. In the moonlight she saw that it was Leofric’s son, Alemric. He was also dead. She swallowed and backed away. He’d been the leader among those who had felt that she had an ugly face but an interesting body. She’d really hated the boy. Been scared of him. But she hadn’t wanted him dead. She left as hastily as she could.

    The flag bushes did yield one thing. A boy’s tunic. Old and threadbare, but at least somewhat warmer than her salty skin. She struggled into it. It was fairly tight—it must have belonged to one of the village’s younger boys. But it helped with the night-wind. The only other clothes she’d seen were on dead people, and full of their blood. She didn’t think she could cope with that. Not yet anyway.

    She made her way back towards the burned croft, sidestepping Alemric’s body. Instead she kicked his trousers. Meb carefully avoided even thinking about why he wasn’t wearing them. Instead, she gritted her teeth and pulled them on. Boy’s clothes on a girl might be indecent. But it wasn’t half as indecent as her underthings. At least they kept the cold wind off her skin.

    She found a place next to the remains of the croft that was out of the wind. Near — but not too near the body of Hallgerd. Somehow she fell asleep. She didn’t mean to. But the gamut of emotion and stress, to say nothing of running and nearly drowning, took her to a deep and dreamless place. It was sometime before dawn when she woke again, cold to the bones.

    And hungry. Starving.

    It seemed really heartless, but she had to get some food. She could root around in the ashes, perhaps, but what would be left after the fire? Well. There was always fish. Salt fish was too salty to eat for pleasure. It was salted hard, so that when the wagoners came at the beginning of autumn, it could be packed like boards into their wagons, for transportation and sale inland. It would keep through the winter, and — if you had a day to soak it — and changed the water a few times, it could be made into something edible. If she chose one of the newer-caught fish that hadn’t gone hard yet, she could eat it. All the kids in the village did it from time to time, despite scoldings and beatings. The newest fish were closest to the top of the slope, and Meb made her way up there again.

    The cod was like soft wood in texture, heavily laden with fishiness and salt. She had no knife to cut it with, which would have made things easier. However, it was still food. It did nothing much for the ache in her heart, but helped the ache in her belly.

    After eating she needed water, badly.

    She made her way back down to the village water-supply. The estuary water was salt to brackish, but someone had built a small dam on a spring up the hill. A pipe ran from there to splash into a big clay bowl outside Wulfstan’s croft, before it trickled away down to the estuary. The village headman had had the best place for his croft. Close to his boat, and close to the fresh water. His wife and daughters had very little distance to carry their water-crocks.

    When she got there she found that someone had broken the bowl. And no water was coming out of the pipe. Meb, having eaten too much salt with her fish, was thirsty, really desperately thirsty. There was no help for it but to follow the pipe. It was made out of rolled bark and cord, and was forever rotting and breaking . . . or being stood on by something obstinate enough to break the arch of sticks that guarded it. Sighing, Meb set out to walk along it. If she could fix it, that would at least be something positive. But the rolls of spare bark would have burned with Wulfstan’s croft. Weary, and thirsty, Meb started walking, following the arch of sticks up the hill. She knew that she would be able to hear the water gurgling in the bark pipe when it was intact. That sound would tell her when she’d passed the break, if the water from it didn’t wet her feet. She looked forward to finding it . . . she could at least drink then.

    The sky was paling as she walked. It was a full mile and half to the dam.

    Her walk took her all the way to the dam wall, or what was left of it. The stream trickled through the broken earth and off down its original course. It would enter the little estuary too high up to be of any use to the village. Up where it was too shallow and too muddy to bring boats in.

    It wasn’t as if there was just a hole in the dam wall. There was just no more wall. It had been knocked to smithereens. And in the dawn light Meb could see dragon prints in the mud.

    Meb was too thirsty not to drink the spring-water. But she was choked with anger and tears too. The dragon had left nothing undone when it came to destroying the village. And she couldn’t see why. They paid their taxes, like everyone else. They were left with precious little copper, and the dragon got the gold. That was the way it was, and had always been.

    Once she’d drunk, Meb wondered what to do. She’d imagined being able to make some kind of temporary repair. Now, with the sun beginning to burn down already, she knew that that was impossible. The dam had raised the level of the stream enough for it flow twenty yards or so down an earth ditch to the pipe. Without the dam, the water was confined to this gully. She had brought nothing with her to carry water in. By the time she’d walked back down to the village, she’d be thirsty again. And she was really too tired and miserable to think clearly or properly. For a while, as the sun rose higher, she just sat. Sat and stared at the water that had been the lifeblood of the fishing village. Eventually, she stood up. She walked uphill to the spring itself and drank. She might as well drink enough before starting to walk back down again.

    As she reached the top of the little ridge that had separated her village from the stream’s natural flow, she saw them. There were people moving around in the village! Up on the dune among the fish-racks too. For a moment she thought that it was the raiders back again . . . but it could also be the other villagers. She’d only seen two dead bodies. Surely some of the others must have got away? There were no ships — except the burned ones, pulled up on the shore.

    She walked back trying to do two things at once . . . see who it was, and keep a low profile, in case she needed to get away.

    By the time she was halfway back she was very sure that it was just the villagers who had survived the raid. Some were digging through the ruins of their houses. Others were gathering fish off the racks. Piling them up on what looked like some sailcloth. That was odd.

    She walked a little faster.

    She arrived hot and out of breath, and inevitably, thirsty. The first person she saw was Wulfstan. The headman was staring moodily at the charred ribs of his boat. He’d loved that boat more than his wife, which, if you’d met Alfrida, was quite understandable. “What’s happening?” she asked.

    Wulfstan looked at her with some puzzlement. “Who are you, boy? Get to work. We want the fish ready for loading by the time Serbon gets back here with a wagon. Not that it’ll be worth as much as if it were properly dry, but we can’t just leave it here.”

    She blinked. Realized it was the boys clothes and haircut. “It’s me. Meb,” she explained. That she wasn’t his favorite person, was something that was belatedly coming back to Meb. Hallgerd had apparently insisted on keeping her, the foundling baby that she’d picked up on the beach, after the great storm. Wulfstan had always said, on every occasion that he had fought with her stepmother — and there were many — that ill-fortune would come of cheating the sea of its prey.

    He looked at her incredulously, and then rounded savagely on her. “So. You’ve done it finally. Brought your evil luck down on all of us. And on poor Hallgerd too. And all the while you’ve been off behaving like a hoyden somewhere, to come back in some lad’s clothes. What kind of decent woman dresses like a boy? So you cut your hair off. Who did you think you’d fool?”

    She’d certainly fooled him, initially. “But I . . .”

    “Be quiet,” he thundered, building himself up into a weak man’s rage. “If I want you to speak I’ll ask you to. There’d be no place in my village for you, if there still was a village! Get out of my sight, you little trollop.” He advanced, swaying on his feet, swinging a piece of burned timber he’d snatched up. “Go and don’t come back.”

    “But where . . . ?”

    “Run before I beat you. Go back to the sea that should have kept you.” Plainly he’d — somehow — been drinking. And equally plainly he was taking out his fury about his lost boat on her. She was a lot softer target than yesterday’s raiders had been. Huh. He should have fought them, not her. He was getting very close. Meb’s nerve broke, and she turned and ran. Not too far, but far enough for Wulfstan to give up the chase.

    She sat there, in among the gorse, thirsty again, hurt and angry. And half fearful that it might be true. Had the raiders come to destroy the village because the sea had been cheated nearly seventeen years back? And then the logical part of her mind turned to the dragon. Watching over the destruction of the village and its vessels. Destroying their dam. Hating it was a relief. It meant that she didn’t have to carry the blame. She’d just stay here for a bit until Wulfstan calmed down, or, more likely, until the drink made him fall over and vomit.

    Even if she wasn’t to blame, it didn’t stop her feeling vastly sorry for herself. She’d tried to help them! Tried her best. She sniffled. She was tired enough to cry herself to sleep in a patch of sun between the low prickly bushes.

    She didn’t realize just how tired she’d been, obviously, because when she woke again, hungry and thirsty, the sun had already slipped so low that she was in deep shade from the ridge. She got up hastily. Now they’d call her lazy for not helping. She ran hurriedly back to the village.

    Only — when she got there, there was no one in it.

    She walked between the burned-out shells of houses, calling warily. Had the raiders returned again and she’d slept through the attack?

    Then she saw a face peeking around the shell of his cottage. Not a particularly welcome face under normal circumstances, but right now, any familiar face was a relief. “Roff. Where is everyone?” she asked the net-maker.

    The net-man looked suspiciously at her. “Who are you, boy, and what do you want?” His hands were black and he had a wooden spade with him.

    “I just want to find everyone. Mikka and Hrolf. Where has everyone gone?” she asked humbly.

    “Tarport, boy. This place is history. It’s finished. Lord Zuamar himself let them wipe us out. Our boats are ash. Our water, he destroyed himself. Some of the women saw him do it. Our homes are burned. Nothing left for us here. Now get away with you, snooping around our sorrow.”

    Gone! Gone to Tarport, the big harbor some miles up the coast . . . Well, it made a kind of sense. With their boats burned, there was no way the village could feed itself. In Tarport there was always a call for crewmen, at worst. And after the attack, she wouldn’t mind being inside a bigger settlement herself.

    “Well, what are you waiting for?” demanded Roff. “Get along with you, boy. Your friends have gone. Go.”

    He plainly didn’t recognize her. Good. He’d repeatedly tried to lure her into that smelly croft of his. He presumably had something hidden there he wanted to dig up. Village rumor had always made him out to be rich, but mean.

    Meb simply turned away and began walking, almost blindly. It was a good nineteen miles to Tarport. She’d never get there before sundown. And she was both hungry and thirsty.

    She walked along the rutted track the carters used to fetch the salted fish, wishing that she’d first gone to wherever they’d buried Hallgerd. The fishwife had been as shrewish as could be, and a hard task-master. But she’d taken Meb in, given her a home and food, and in her way, loved her.

    The ruts were deep enough to follow even in the growing gloom of twilight. And walking was at least doing something. Behind her was the ruined remains of her home. Her whole life. It seemed that she’d lost what family she had. At least Hallgerd’s two sons might be in Tarport. Might be. Roff had not said anything about them. She crossed a stream just before total darkness fell, and was able to slake her thirst. By then she wished that she’d kept the half-dried fish.

    At length, walking on, following the ruts in the light of the risen moon she spotted lamp-light through a chink in a shutter. It was a snug little farmhouse. Meb wondered if she dared to go and beg for shelter. But they’d probably set their dogs on her at this time of night. There was a hay rick, however. That had to be better — and warmer — than out here. Tired, hungry, scared, and very much alone Meb burrowed into it. It was prickly, ticklish — and out of the night-breeze. At least it wasn’t raining. It was coming on for the time of year when the cold autumn rains could endure for a week at a time. By then she would need to have a roof over her head at night.

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