All the warning Kerik received before he was dropped was a grunt and slight squeeze. The dragon that had carried him swept open great wings and slowed. Veering left the dragon let of Kerik with a slight toss. He landed hard, his body stiff and cold from the height and the length of the flight. Staggering, he nearly fell but caught himself on the face of the cliff before him. His broken ribs, jarred by the landing, made him hold his side and gasp. Looking back he watched the Wing who grabbed him off them mountain face. He was a purple and green dragon, a young male, likely too young for Kerik to have ever met, but every bit as large as Dart.
Lowering his gaze he tried to place where he was but the mountains here were unrecognizable. He had to be well outside his normal range, maybe into the territory of the scout who had come to his aid. To further his sense of disorientation he realized the place he had been dropped off at was not an eerie but a tower. Unlike eeries that were carved from natural caves, towers were constructed, at least in part, of cut and quarried stone.
The front wall of this one was built of massive grey blocks. The monolithic stones that were used here were larger than any that men might have move. Each one was surely carried up and set in place by dragon hands. The doorway to the lair was a great arch, bound in place by a single massive stone with a carved seal. The design was one Kerik had never seen before. For a moment he felt a hint of panic at being on his own up here, there was no way down for a man alone. What if they felt it was his own fault Dart and he had crashed, what if he was to be punished, what if they were about to exile him up here for some reason?
Drawing a deep breathe he swallowed the fear and reassured himself that if he was in trouble they would have just left him on the forest floor. His entire body ached from the dragon’s grip and the long ride, but the ribs had to hurt the worse. Holding his side he entered the door. He felt for the light plate just inside the door and found it exactly where it should be.
The cool smooth copper plaque was slow to respond, showing its age, but the light slowly came on as his hand warmed the metal. His own body heat and energy was absorbed into the etched copper. Strips in the ceiling began to glow. First just the spell lines were visible but slowly the light spread until the entire ceiling became a single light source.
Towers tended to be small, crude, and reachable only by flight. They had been built out of need, often in times of war, to provide safe haven for those on dangerous routes. They were positioned over important passes, rivers, or trails. Over time many had been converted into dwellings for the old, places to retire to, when the Nest had become over crowded. Now, in the days with so few dragons that everyone not only had a lair the Nest but most of it was empty and closed off, the towers had become all but deserted, sealed up, and forgotten. Even the nicer ones were a far fry from the communal eeries Kerik normally stayed in. This one was no different.
The space was larger than Kerik expected but still smaller than he might of anticipated to be chosen for two dragons to use. If two or more Wings were to nest here they would have to be very friendly and lay very close together. Despite the size the place seemed to be well built and carefully thought out.
The deep sandy bed for the Wings was immediately to the left with three great curled steps down into it. The higher smooth stone floor for the Arms circled around the behind the dragon bed. To the right was a kitchen area complete with cooking stove, sink and a number of cabinets. A table that would fit up to six, with benches down each side, dominated the open space between the Wings and the back wall. It seemed a large table for so small a den.
Bunk beds stood in the far back corner. A number of trunks lined the wall, one of them was sure to have bedding as well as other supplies for both short visits as well as long tern stops. Most important to Kerik however, was directly across from the entry. There was a doorway that Kerik had no doubt led to a bathing room. Nothing promised rest and recovery like a hot pool inside safe stone walls. Kerik limped for it at once.
Every ancient place in these mountains that was made for a Wing and an Arm would have a hot bath. The Masters of old had made these place drew the waters to bubble up from far below into pools for scouts to soak in. Every den, every eerie, every tower would have such a pool. The magic remained despite a nearly non existent wizard presence. The art was slowly being lost but for now the water was hot and very welcomed. It would heal in ways nothing else might.
Opening the door Kerik was hit with the rich smell of the minerals of the pool. It had clearly been sealed up a very long time. The bathing pool itself was about ten feet across made with four rounded seats carved in its sides. It had been unused long enough mineral deposits had build up in ripples out from the edge of the pool into the walkways around it. There was no evidence anyone had been here in a thousand years. It made him very uneasy but the thought of a hot soak pushed the concern aside.
He peeled off his Belts and Leathers.
The uniform of an Arm fit to form out of necessity. Any friction in flight would mean burns on the skin. The two sets of Belts with their 52 buckles were even more important. They fit to hold joints from being pulled out or muscles from ripping. The strain from flight would tear a normal man apart, make him black out or even kill him by the sheer speed and height. Being bonded altered the body, made it stronger, but even Full Savonts had to wear belts at top flight speeds. After years of wearing leathers an Arm could forget what it felt like to not wear them always. A good set was so comfortable you would choose them for daily wear. Most Arms rarely wore anything else, even at home. However, a new pair was all about soaking in an hot water, blisters, chaffing, and a great deal of soreness.
Kerik’s leathers were so ‘broken in’ the leather had actually worn through in places and was about to in others. He had not had time get new ones or if he had, to break them in, let alone get them comfortable. Several of the main buckles had been fixed with ones traded off of the Civilian population. They didn’t even match right, but his leathers stayed on.
Such condition would be shameful to be seen in the Nest. His Leathers should have long ago been discarded for glove making but might not even be worth that at this point. He hoped that maybe in one of the trunks along the wall there might be a spare set of browns but he doubted it. There should be a kilt and blouse though. That would be enough for tonight.
Carefully he sank into the hot water and welcomed the heat into his deeply bruised, broken, and strained body. The crash had left him far more injured than he had let on to Dart, but now he was free to wince and study the damage. He had not realized just how extensively he had been injured. The broken ribs he had known about but he was bruised, had gashes on his left side, and a wicked looking lump on his left arm. Being clutched to a dragon’s chest with no way to shelter from the cold had left him chilled and stiff. Even at the best of times such a ride was unpleasant. He had to wonder how much of the pain he was in was from the flight verses the crash. Dart had taken serious damage to his wings in order to save Kerik from being ripped from his saddle or worse, crushed by Dart himself.
Kerik sank in deeper and closed his eyes. He tried to relax and let the water work its magic.
With the heat soaking in Kerik was just drifting to sleep when Dart was let to half-fall half-drop to the tower “Top”. The dragon groaned in pain as he landed. He gave a reassuring rumble to Kerik. Dart limped inside and moaned with relief. He sank into the sand of the bed and let out a great shudder huff of breath.
Kerik pulled himself out of the pool. If Dart was here the other scout was sure to be along shortly. He wanted to at least see if there was something to wear before he had to deal with another person. He also wanted to see Darts injuries and dare to learn how bad they were.
Kerik pulled open the door of the lone side-cabinet that stood along the wall. The expected towels were there as well as an un-dyed linen blouse and soft woolen kilt of scout brown. Grateful to whomever had left the spares, he dressed. He was half afraid to see Dart’s condition. They had been on the ground for almost two weeks and for broken wings that might have been too long. The bones of the wing was difficult to heal and the skin even more so. Once damaged they rarely mended without debilitating scars.
The Wing who had carried Dart was just crawling inside as Kerik left the bathing room. The old dragon looked utterly exhausted. He was a deep burnt rusty red color with ear flares that looked to be hinted with gold and black. Long healed scars marred the old Wings face, flares, and the one shoulder that Kerik could see. Whoever he was he had clearly been in the war with the Worms. Pushing inside he edged past Dart to the back and curled up to rest.
The scout who had ran the mountain with Kerik strode in tossing his pack aside. He was a tall man who walked with a sense of mission. Kerik noticed at once that he had streaks of blue and green dye in his hair. The natural red was darker than most and the dye would have had to be very high quality to take at all. It was nearly faded but he clearly had someone who cared about him a great deal. To get those colors for his hair had to have been for something special. Kerik touched his own hair, it had been so long since he had been able to put dye in any evidence ever had was long gone. Such vanities tended to be limited to those of rank who stayed at the Nest.
The scout didn’t even seem to notice Kerik but moved to take Dart’s wing immediately. Pulling it out gently he began to inspect it. Dart gasped, but allowed the stranger to touch the mangled flesh of his wing. In the light of the lair Kerik realized how filthy and torn Dart’s wings were. He winced and felt a little ill. The idea he had neglected Dart was horrific and likely would make the other scout dislike him for it.
“There’s a medical trunk, get the splints.” The scout pointed to a trunk at the end of the beds, without looking back at Kerik. Kerik was quick to fetch the healing supplies. The luck to have gotten someone with healing abilities was something he could not have hoped for. Everything might just be ok. Someone must have called for this scout just for that reason. Maybe that was why it had taken so long for them to be found. Maybe this stranger had come from the far south. Maybe he had flown for a week to get this far north. Maybe he had been in the middle of a long far route and had been called back and sent to save Dart’s wings.
Kerik handed over the splint bundle. The splints, like much of what the scouts used was magic. Once there had been enough wizards in the Nest to supply all the Vayden with all sorts of magical items but now, with only a handful for the entire population, only scouts or those in battle had access. The splints had to be breathed on, then smoothed and warmed in the hands just right. When it became pliable it was pressed onto the skin over the breaks. The magic activated once it was put into place. Instantly it would meld to the skin and lock itself to the bone with such strength it could re-snap bones and pull them straight. In this case it did. Dart whistled in pain as his ear flares went grey.
Kerik put up his hand to Dart to offer support and what reassurance he could. Dart bowed his head and rested his brow against Kerik’s chest, breathing heavily. Kerik wrapped his arms around his Wing’s face, gently smoothing the soft skin just under his eyes. The healer didn’t seem to notice. He kept his focus on Dart. Setting one bond after another, he used every splint before his hands took to the hide of the wings themselves.
In one place he took a knife and with a sure swift move sliced away a tangle of hide and scab, but he had a bandage in place and melded in so the wound would heal without leaving a tight scar that would hinder flight in the years to come. Kerik couldn’t watch after that. Dart had hidden how very badly he had been injured. Kerik had to choke down tears for the misery his soul-mate had to have been enduring. There was no greater fear for a dragon than to lose his wings. The fear had to have been making Dart sick to his stomach.
It was beyond imagination that he and Dart were worthy of a healer who had clearly been sent knowing Dart was injured. The man’s hands were obviously skilled with wing injuries and the tools used to mend such. He was not an outright healer but he was close no doubt. Certainly he held enough power to activate the magics of the splits properly and possibly more. Kerik had to wonder if the scout had been active in the war. Surely only a veteran would move so swift and skilled.
“That’s all I can do for you,” the scout told Dart, “but at least you’ll be sure to fly again.” Kerik felt a sudden rush thinking he recognized the voice; that he knew the scout who had come. The name seemed just out of his grasp, like a friend you had not seen since childhood.
Dart bobbed his head in thanks. The scout folded his hands in modest appreciation of the thanks given and stepped back with a bow. Kerik tried not to stare. He was certain he knew the scouts voice, yet he had no idea how. There was simply no way he could know someone so impressive and not recognize him for who he was at once.
“You should sleep,” the scout told the two Wings. He touched the nose of the old one who wafted warm hot air at the scout in a show of affection. Kerik was under the impression that the old dragon was not the scouts Wing but one sent to lift Dart off the forest floor. The clear affection between the two implied they were indeed bonded. The scout did not look old enough to be bonded to the battle scarred Wing but if they were then it would explain the skill with injured wings.
Dart sighed heavily and nestled into the sand. He let out a shuddering breathe of relief. Having been seen to, his wings mended by skilled hands, he let go of a fear he had been holding in. Kerik wanted to talk to Dart but dared not. If Darts head felt well enough to talk he would. Kerik just leaned on him instead.
“Sleep,” Kerik whispered. “It will be alright now.”
The scout who had most certainly just saved Dart’s wings said nothing as he headed for the bathing room. He was already undoing his Belt’s release buckles. He tossed the harness of thick leather straps to the floor near the bed just before he passed through the door. He vanished into the bathroom. Kerik let out a breath of relief. He was about to ask Dart how he knew the man but Dart was already asleep.
Trying to figure it out, Kerik set to pulling the saddle and packs off of Dart, careful not to bump any injuries. He expected they would stay several days and there was no point to leave it on. Besides, his saddle was almost in as bad of shape as his Leathers. That could be dangerous. A broken strap could really cause trouble if it happened at the wrong moment. Kerik drug the heavy gear aside wondering if it was worth cleaning. With a sign he decided not and set to digging for anything worth keeping in his pack. Finding nothing he turned his attention to food.
In the kitchen station was the standard pantry with dried good, sealed for long term storage. Nothing fancy but after a week of nothing at all anything was welcome. He put water on to boil for soup as well as tea. The other scout emerged from the bathing room in nothing but a towel. Kerik had thought he was in bad shape until then. He actually wined in sympathy.
Kerik could see extensive bruises from a battering the man had been through. None that he could see was new, so not his fault. Every mark was deep, yellowed, and specked with scab. The scouts left side was a mess of contact rash, mostly scabs, but with an evil looking red and purple bruise flared out from under it. Kerik wasn’t sure what could make a mark like that but it had to hurt. The man’s right ankle though looked like it was sprained and that seemed newer. The suspicion he had been in the war was pretty confirmed by the scars that were long healed but pretty impressive. They were everywhere.
The scout tossed his old Leathers to the bed. They were at least three sets of Browns, with the dye and wear showing their different ages. His leathers weren’t as bad as Kerik’s but they were far from in good shape. This man was no stranger to the routes.
Kerik wanted to talk to him but wasn’t sure what to say. Instead he turned his focus back to watching the water. He tried not to think too much about anything beyond the task at hand. He had been without any contact in more months than he could exactly recall. Even then it had been short at best and he had not had a real affair in years. It was hard to not be effected by the idea that some was behind him. Dragon were very social creatures and if they were too long away from others they would suffer, even be driven insane, that effect echoed down the bond. Kerik tried not to think about how long he had been alone. It made him very nervous.
He tried to think of the symptoms and Neglect but nearly choked on the thought. Fear about it made him almost drop the packet of soup he held. Dart rumbled in his sleep, feeling the emotional shift in his bonded. Kerik choked it down and tried to let his Wing sleep.
Being a sufferer of Neglect would come with as much social backlash as if Dart’s wings had been torn from him. If an Arm didn’t get enough physical contact with his own species he would have the madness set in. It was one of very few negative side effect of being bonded with a dragon. While most of the results of the bond were in the Arm’s favor this one was not. Neglect was known to get so bad that it drove both Arm and Wing insane. The Arm would become so desperate to be with another it led to often brutal cases of violent and desperate rape that always ended in death one way or another.
Dart grumbled at him in warning, waking from the echoes of Kerik’s sudden emotional shift. Kerik only felt worse about things knowing he had woken Dart. He had real reason to worry though and both he and Dart had to admit it. “I know, I know,” Kerik whispered and half swore under his breath.
He tasted the soup and drew a slow breath trying to think normal conversation might ease the shock and the symptoms. He turned around and nearly jumped. The other scout had slipped up utterly silent on the stone floor with his boots off. He wore loose house-pants and a soft blouse. The sleeves were rolled and the front undone. His hair was out of the braid, wet and very long over the front of one shoulder, as long as a Sats. Kerik took a startled step back into the edge of the stove.
“Sorry,” the scout apologized. “I didn’t mean to sneak up like that.”
“I haven’t had to deal with people in awhile I was not expecting you to even be on this side of the lair,” Kerik half choked and felt himself turn red at the admittance of the fact he had been alone so long. However, the scout was looking at the soup and spared Kerik the humiliation of being seen so easily rattled.
Leaning over to breathe in the aroma the scout caught his hair from falling forward.
The scout was taller than Kerik had realized; taller than Kerik by several inches and he was stunning. Kerik felt his heart rate pick up at the thought and that in turn terrified him. Something was definitely wrong. He took a step back and looked to Dart with a sense of panic. Dart met his eyes and sent a wave of strength and love.
“I hope you don’t mind if I do some paper work while that finishes,” the scout said tossing his hair back over his shoulder in an utterly unconscious move. “I won’t be much good for conversation with all of it yelling at me any way.”
“Why would I mind?” Kerik asked trying to shake off the discomfort. The other man just looked at him a moment then went to go pick up his pack and pull out folders of paper work.
Kerik turned back to the food and tried to calm his nerves. Dart started working on mild trances to help steady Kerik’s heart rate. The fact he had his heart rate up and was so flustered by the presence of a person was a terrifying warning of the onset of Neglect. Maybe if was just the edges of it. Maybe getting home and being with someone would help. Maybe with Dart’s help it wouldn’t set in.
He wished Dart’s head wound would heal so he could talk to his Wing. Not being able to speak back and forth as easily as thinking left him feeling oddly isolated and desperately alone, that could not be helping with his reactions to the other scout either. This was bad, very bad.
He took his time to find a set of bowls, to pour tea, to dig out a jar of old honey and bring the meal to the table where the man was working away on the reports he had pulled out. He looked up, smiled faintly in thanks for the meal, finished what he was doing, and quickly put it all away.
Kerik was so hungry for a bit he forgot everything else but the food, the rather hot food. He burned the roof of his mouth twice but didn’t slow down.
“You want to play Pegs?” the scout asked.
Kerik looked up and smiled. “Sure.” The idea sounded great. He hadn’t played for years. He was very likely to be rather terrible at it but every scout knew how to play. The other man dug in his pack and pulled out a small peg board, with the dice and pegs hidden in the bottom.
“I’m not sure I can recall how to play,” Kerik admitted trying to cover how uneasy he was.
“You will. It’s why we are supposed to play so much as cadets, so even at the worst of times and whatever rank or state of mind we can do something together. Sometimes it’s too much work to talk. Not to mention it’s hard to make up things to talk about if you’re a Scout stuck with an Ambassador.”
Kerik gave a wary smile of agreement. The board was set up and they began to play. It was a game of stratagy where you tried to block the other and reach the far side at the same time. It was a simple game with the dice to say how many moves you got and the effects you could call on. It was based on a battle in air, or so the story went. It was very clear early on the other man was far better than Kerik had ever been, but it was fun none the less.
“Here,” the scout tossed over a soft leather pouch when the game had ended with Kerik’s pieces utterly wiped out. It almost seemed a sympathy gift. Kerik took the pouch almost afraid to think it might be what he thought, but once he pulled it open and the soft aroma rose up, he smiled. It had been so long since he’d had scout weed he almost forgot what it smelled like.
It was frowned on by the higher ranks for the fact it was so favored by scouts, but it helped to relax the body, calm the mind and slow the heart, at the same time making the senses alert. It allowed men weary and tense from battle to be able to sleep and men on night watch able to stay awake, alert, and aware at a level they never could alone. Kerik pulled out a soft leaf and a pinch of grind to roll in it. He went to pass it back but saw the man had another and was already rolling his own.
“That’s for you,” the scout said. He tucked his own worn pouch in his pack and drew on his roll. He was apparently enough of a wizard the end lit and began to burn. He drew the smoke in and held it a moment before he swallowed it. He held his over his burning roll for Kerik to use to light his off of.
“How did you get two?”
“Personally, I didn’t,” he said and let his breath out with just a hint of the smoke escaping him. “Slang had it sent to you on his own personal orders.”
“Slang?” He asked shocked. The Wing of the Lord Marshall himself? “Why?”
The scout smiled and shrugged a little. “I guess he figured you earned it. After all, you are the longest running scout without rest and one of the best alive. You were scheduled for three moons of rest before this and longer now to account for Dart’s healing.”
“Three? But, who will cover my flights?”
“A few Ambassadors lost a bet to Rah Teven and for the price they are stuck doing a moon of flights. Just as well, they were all getting a bit soft in the middle.”
“Rah Teven isn’t supposed to gambling,” Kerik said shocked.
“Our Keeper does a great deal he is not supposed to do,” the scout’s disapproval of the behavior of the Keeper was clear in his tone. He scowled deeply as he thought of the Keeper but shook it off.
Kerik found himself noticing small details about the scout across the table from him and a growing tension in his body. Distracted he inhaled too sharply making himself cough and choke on the smoke. He wiped the tears from his eyes and caught his breath. Dart lifted his head with his ear flares lifted in alert awareness. Dart had to feel Kerik’s physical tension on some level and for him to make a rookie mistake with his smoke was a warning, if nothing else was. Kerik was afraid to even consider what his body was starting to whisper for him to do. If Dart’s head had not hurt so much he would have had something to say.
“You must be tired,” the scout said as if he didn’t notice Kerik’s episode of coughing. “Why don’t you go on ahead to bed. Get some sleep. If we leave early enough we can reach the Nest just after dark.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep,” Kerik lamented honestly with a sad weary tone. He sounded so pathetic to his own ears it made him cringe. He drew another lung-full held it, and leaned his head on his hand. He tried to let the smoke settle in and calm his nerves, to unwind the building whispers of Neglect.
Kerik nodded. “Maybe that would help,” Kerik didn’t think staying up or being anywhere near this stranger was a good idea at this point but sleep was not likely to happen and lying in bed restlessly was just a bad idea all around. At least the game would offer a distraction. He watched the scout reset the game almost blindly as he forced himself to settle his nerves and run through mind games to shake his growing discomfort. He had not worked on the exercises since he was a teenager as an exercise to build up his telepathy with Dart. It helped a little, even if it did give him a headache.
Kerik did a bit better the second game. He was sweating be time it was over and eager to get away from the man. Any moment the other scout had to notice and if that happened Kerik and Dart’s lives would come crashing down. If he was found to be so weak as to have Neglect it was all over. Being eaten by orcs would be a better fate. Kerik had no idea what he was going to do. The obsessive insanity and sexual perversion that came with Neglect was said to be incurable and Arms who fell into it were often killed as soon as it was suspected.
Kerik excused himself with a plea of being too tired to think. He dressed in his leathers as quickly as he could to hide the demands of his body and crawled into bed with his back to the room. He did drop off rather quickly but was plagued with erotic dreams that bordered on the frightening violent side. He woke only to Dart’s rumble with no idea how long he had been out.
He slid from the bed feeling more worn out than he had the day before. He had almost forgotten his fear of having Neglect until he saw the man asleep at the table. His head rested on a folded arm. Kerik went to Dart and leaned against his beloved partner.
“How did you sleep?” Dart asked.
“Not so pleasant dreams. How is your head?”
“Sore yet, but healing. How do you feel?”
“Strung out and worn out.” Kerik glanced back to the other man not sure how to tell Dart how he was struggling with dangerous thoughts.
“Let him sleep, he only laid his head down a few marks ago. He’s been doing papers all night.”
“Just as well, I need to cook some food and another bath would be nice, he can stay asleep for all I care.”
“How do you feel other than that?” Dart asked concerned.
Kerik shrugged. His body ached and a lot of it was tension. “I’ll be glad when we’re home. I seriously need some attention.”
Dart touched his Arm gently with the back of his great fingers and sighed with happiness at him. He was so proud of the choice he had made, everything about Kerik was right; as it should be. He was worried for him, for the length of time they had been away, but if anyone could handle it Kerik was the one. He was strong, he was wise, he was perfect.
“I love you too, Dart, but I need a hot soak before I endure more cold air.” Kerik felt better for the dragon’s touch and the love conveyed with it. Dart blew warm musky air on Kerik in an act of intimate devotion. Kerik felt much of the tension fade away. Maybe all of the stress from last night was just that, and he had somehow escaped Neglect. Feeling better he went to go bath.