Kyrtarr had pulled the ceiling open to reveal a long, hollow log that matched the wood the rest of the room was made of, and the hot water trickled out of it and onto the group that had gathered in the waiting tub. Xaxac delighted in the muffins he had finally been allowed to eat, far more sweet than he was used to, to the point that he thought they may not be muffins at all, but some sort of cake. He ate each one quickly and followed it up with a gulp of wine as the water slowly covered his outstretched legs.
Agalon looked as if he may fall asleep and seemed to have no interest at all in his meal.
“Are you tired, master?” Xac asked and scooted closer to cuddle up to him.
“Do me a favor darlin and wash your mouth out with somethin’ stronger than wine. Lee, hand me my flask.”
Lee obeyed him, dug the flask out of Agalon’s discarded traveling bag and handed it to him, and he passed it straight to Xaxac, who swished the whiskey around in his mouth, though he wasn’t sure why Agalon wanted him to do that. Agalon took it from him and handed it back to Lee.
“I am tired,” he said, “I’ll be happy to get back on the road tomorrow.”
“I won!” Xac proclaimed as he climbed into his lap, “And Wyatt won too! We’re the best fighters!”
“I don’t know about all that,” Wyatt said, “You thought on your feet but… don’t get a big head. You ain’t… exactly good, Xac. You didn’t get a single hit in the first round. Your form’s real sloppy. You don’t know what you’re doin.”
“But I won!” Xac argued.
“Yeah but…” Wyatt sighed and considered his words carefully, “You got a natural advantage. It ain’t gonna carry you. You need to train.”
“I don’t reckon I’m gonna fight no more, am I?” Xac asked Agalon, “I just did that so Billy could get better? I’m a substitution, right? On account of I hurt him?”
“I don’t know, darlin,” Agalon wrapped an arm around him, “I’m tired. I’ll think on it. I’ll be glad to get on the road tomorrow.”
“Are we goin to Sakala’s?” Xac asked, “You said if I won we’d get more yarn!”
“Did I?” Agalon asked, sighed, and continued, “That sounds like somethin I’d say. Yeah, we’ll stop in but please, darlin, don’t take all day. I’m wore out. I’ll… Lee can take you in the mornin while we’re loadin up the fighters.”
“Thank you, master!” Xac wrapped both arms around his neck and planted a big kiss on his cheek. “I wanna make solstice presents for everybody! Knittin takes a long time so you gotta start before the mask festival.”
“The mask festival,” Agalon sighed again, as if every sentence knocked the wind out of him, “Right. I gotta plan that… I’m so tired… Wonder if Lorry’s comin in for it? Probably not…” The water was up to their shoulders now and had stopped flowing, and Xaxac remembered how the heat of it had made him sleepy.
He was a little more relaxed now; Alex and Wyatt had burned off some of the energy his victory had given him, and he laid his head on Agalon’s chest to listen to the beat of his heart.
The water smelled so good and the heat wasn’t as unbearable now that it was cooler outside.
Quizlivan led the hunting party to the marker he had staked and tugged it out of the snow, then laid flat on his belly to peer through the oculars. The large, lumbering herd had not moved on, as he had suspected. There was so little green left anywhere that they would stay by that grove of trees until they had completely stripped it. Then they would be forced to move on.
The herd had a specific pecking order; they kept the young and the queen on the inside, and around them huddled the elderly or weak that needed protecting, then came the outermost ring of the strongest members who were normally observant and alert, constantly on the lookout for predators.
But the group looked different today.
The middle ring was missing.
Quizlivan suspected that they hadn’t been able to travel, had not survived the trip to find food. He understood instantly, because it had happened to his own tribe.
But that provided a problem.
Normally in a hunt the plan was to pick one of the older animals and find a way to isolate it from the herd. They were the easiests to pick off, the easiest to frighten and trap. The dragons were huge, lumbering things, easily as tall as three humans and as broad as four, with claws, teeth, and a swishing, striking tail.
They had never even tried to take on a healthy young dragon. He wasn’t even sure they would be able to isolate it. Would the tribe be willing to let one like that go?
It didn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things. Morgani did not have an infinite supply of food; he had shared all he had with them already. No food would grow in the snow and darkness. These dragons were the only other living things they had seen. It had to work. They would be successful or they would die.
“Bad news,” He told the group, “the herd’s been thinned. I don’t see anybody we can pick off.”
“Give it to me,” Ahnah demanded so he did. She held the contraption to her eyes and frowned.
“Alright,” She said, scanning the area, “He’s right. We gotta ambush… It’s the same plan. Same plan, younger dragon. We can do this.”
“Who’s where?” Kifat asked.
“Who volunteers?” Ahnah asked.
They all turned as one, to find the sound of the quiet growl of a voice.
Two glowing eyes stared back at them, easily five feet in the air. Then two more blinked into existence, then more, and more, and more, until it became obvious that they were surrounded.
Quizlivan rolled onto his back, ready to jump and run if it became necessary, ready to fight for his life if he could not run.
Two of the creatures stepped closer and closer, dark blobs against the night, and the snow eventually formed shapes. Four long, thin legs held up equally thin torsos covered in fur that had seen better days, and Quizlivan’s first thought was that they should not look like this. Their fur should have been thick and shiny; their bodies should have been dense and muscular; they should have stood taller and more securely, but they shook and held both their tails and their heads down.
The dire wolves followed their parents, and Quizlivan was sure there were more of them than there were people in his hunting party.
Xaxac awoke before the sun had risen and looked carefully around the room.
He really liked the hotel.
He wasn’t sure he had ever seen a wolf. And he was positive he would never go hunting. He didn’t eat meat. He had also never seen a dragon, but he had heard of them.
He kept having bad dreams.
He softly slid out of Agalon’s grip and walked to the window. The street outside was still lit up, even as early as it was, and he suspected the festivities ran twenty-four hours a day. The nighttime crowd was so different from the daytime crowd, so Xaxac stood and stared down at the people Agalon had once called the ‘dregs of society’. None of them were allowed in the fancy hotel; they wouldn’t make it past the gate. And he couldn’t make out much about them, as far away as they were, looking at them from so high above them.
He deliberately chose not to think about the man he had killed.
Instead, he wondered what it was like to be poor and elven. The two concepts did not match, in his head. He was unable to reconcile them. They seemed to be polar opposites. It did not seem as if a person could be both poor and elven, but there they were, walking the streets, listening to barkers at booths and eating fried dough before the sun rose.
Giving away gold coins.
He turned to look at Agalon, sleeping peacefully in the bed, then softly walked to the door to the sitting room.
He tried the handle.
Agalon never locked him up anymore. He trusted him now.
“Xac?” Lee asked, and he had obviously not been expecting him. He was sitting at the sitting area with Bobby before a roaring fire and wasn’t wearing his coat or shoes. They were drinking something out of teacups and eating breakfast pastries, and Xac wondered how early it was.
“I… had a bad dream,” Xac whispered.
“Well go back to bed,” Lee said, “You still got a hour and a half to sleep.”
“Oh,” Xac frowned, “Um… ok…”
“Bet he did have a bad dream,” Bobby said as Xac pulled the door closed behind him, “that boy can’t be right after what he done yesterday.”
“That boy ain’t been right,” Lee said.
Xac stared out the window as he climbed back into bed, then turned and snuggled up to Agalon, burying his face in his chest.