Jesop half dreaded getting back but he knew that speed would help Dart more than anything. The dragon needed to get into the hot pools for the warmth but also the healing minerals. Another few more days and Dart would have been forever bound to the ground with pain in his wings. They would never have borne his weight again.
He had gotten all the reports read and letters written so the work he was supposed to be doing was done, and had also he had saved Kerik and Dart. At least, he had saved them from the woods. If Kerik manifested signs of Neglect to any other, they might kill Dart before Jesop had a chance to see if it could be healed. He still wasn’t positive if Kerik had it but if anyone would, it would be that scout. Last night he had shown a few signs, but it might have just been stress from the long time out, the injury to Dart, his own injuries or the trauma of having been lost in the forest for so long. It was hard to say.
Jesop watched Kerik saddle Dart with care. It was always impressive how gentle a dragon could be with his Arm but it was also, at times, amazing how gentle an Arm could be with his Wing.
Every time Jesop had meant to pull Kerik home there had been someone injured and Kerik had taken up the slack. One route after another, for years. Normally, that wasn’t such an issue as other scouts would cross paths and share eerries but they had so few numbers that it was becoming less and less possible. Jesop tried to lay out timelines and routes to allow it, but if one Wing was a day late or a day early they missed each other.
Jesop suspected that Slang would have someone lined up to help Kerik the moment they returned. A Wisdom with skill could heal Neglect before it became a dangerous issue if it was caught in time. Kerik deserved a good massage even if he didn’t have Neglect. That was another reason to hurry back. He needed Kerik in the right hands before the effects set in or scarred his psyche.
It had just been a matter of time before they got hurt. Kerik and Dart should have been back at the Nest long before this run and if they were lost for it, Jesop would never forgive himself. Almost worse was the fact he had confirmed Red Men were in the North Reach. That was far more troubling than the fate of one Scout Pair. Merta had whispered of such an evil returning but now there was no doubt.
“Are we ready then?” Jesop asked Dart. The dragon bobbed his head in affirmation. Jesop nodded to him. “You are a hell of a Wing, Dart,” he said soft enough only the dragon heard him. “Why don’t you mount up and we’ll catch you on a fly by.” He left the two inside for Cursk who waited outside. “You sure you can do this? Dart is no hatchling.”
Cursk rumbled in a good natured manner but clearly meaning to sound injured. Jesop chuckled as he caught the saddle rope and stepped up to the stirrups and into the place. He patted Cursk on the neck. “If you get tired, land. I mean it old buzzard. I can not afford to have you get hurt.” Cursk gave a grunt of serious agreement before he launched off the top. The wind caught his wings, filled them, and lifted them up. In a great graceful arch the old dragon circled up and around letting Dart get into place. Cursk angled down into a near dive to gain speed. Dart leapt from the top in perfect timing for Cursk to grab the younger dragon around the sides with all four hands. They cleared the mountain, caught the draft and began to slow climb.
Once Cursk was high enough they cut south. His wings labored to keep them high enough. This was not an easy way to travel and was done rarely. Poor Kerik had to have Cursk’s chest nearly pinning him to the saddle, while Dart had to keep his wings tight and in place or risk sending them both crashing down. It took a lot of effort and a great deal of trust for this to happen. Then again, Cursk was Dart’s grandfather. He had volunteered to Slang for this. Without him Jesop would have been unable to do anything but wait for the dot on his map, that was Kerik, to simply blink out.
As they flew south towards the Nest he went through everything he had ever read about the ancient enemy in the Red Men and none of it was good. They had not been reported in several thousand years. Many had thought them wiped out. It seemed just one more unfair burden to lay on him. It was as if every ancient enemy was crawling up from the bowls of the earth in reaction to his birth. He tried not to be bitter and held onto the tiny hope that when he got home the Nest would have named a king and he would not have to try and rule through a dysfunctional council.
The home mountain, called Eysah from the outside but was known as the Nest from the inside, came into view and the weary Cursk grunted. He just couldn’t make it up and over the great Rim with Dart as a burden. He shifted to spiral down toward a clearing on the long north-slope where the young would often practice hunting. He almost dropped Dart as it was, but circled around and landed softly. He was just too tired to try the climb and the long glide into the ancient caldera.
Kerik slid out of his own saddle where he had been tucked between the dragons for the ride. Jesop knew it must have made his ribs burn from being pinned for so long, but if he did have Neglect making him ride so close to another person would be a bad idea. Putting him safely between dragons on the other hand would smother him in their strength and musk, helping to prepare him for being back in the Nest.
Jesop didn’t think Kerik knew who he was yet, all for the better in his mind. There was no side ways looks or fumbled attempts to know how to treat him and he could just be himself a little. He stretched out his own sore muscles and watched Kerik do the same.
“You know I was trying to think of the last time I was home,” Kerik said looking at nothing but the trees that were all around them. “I can’t.”
“Six years,” Jesop said. “I looked it up.” He tried to explain. “You’ve been out a long time. Most of it alone.” He tested, he needed to know if the man had it or not. Catch it now and fix it fast. Last night it had almost seemed like he did, but then he was so calm after that first startled reaction that Jesop wasn’t sure. Was Kerik’s pride and strength that great? Likely. Jesop knew his own would be.
“I have been busy I guess. I didn’t realize it was that long. I suppose my place is full of dust,” Kerik tried to seem at ease but Jesop could sense a tension in him, but that was not necessarily from Neglect. Most who suffered it were simply unable to hide it.
“I suppose it won’t matter,” Jesop said with a little smile. “That long and as many kills and successes as you have had you are sure to have a new lair when you get home and a pile of Chits.”
Kerik laughed and leaned back against Dart. “I doubt I’ll be home long enough to enjoy it, I am sure once Dart can fly we’ll be out again.”
“I doubt it,” Jesop said seriously.
“Why?” Kerik asked suddenly worried.
“The hatchlings are few, gray, and not choosing. There are rather unhappy rumors about why. Dart is one of the best fliers in the air right now who also has a fit Arm. I doubt you’ll leave Nest again until he has sired several nestings. If we lose a little border ground it won’t matter if we have no Wings to maintain them any way.”
“You look fit.”
Jesop almost laughed.
“And he’s rather a grand looking dragon,” Kerik said of Cursk who was rather old, scarred, and Wild looking.
“Cursk is not mine.”
“Cursk, as in the Sar Remar Cursk? General Cursk?”
Jesop smiled that at least Kerik knew who Cursk was and that little reaction would do good for Cursk’s ego. The old dragon needed that. Jesop leaned back on him in the same easy stance that Kerik had with Dart.
That alone made Kerik a little worried. To think that Cursk, the great wizard Cursk was right there and this man had been honored with a flight and was now carrying Dart was unthinkable. Was this utterly flawless scout sent out to test him with a Wing who would not hesitate to kill Dart if Kerik proved to have Neglect? The idea was terrifying.
“But…,” he started and faltered. Rarely if ever did a dragon allow themselves to be touched. Even Wings rarely tolerated it and to give an Arm use of a saddle was even more rare. Whoever this man was he was special for such a great Wing to behave so warmly toward him. Kerik tried to remember if Remar had any sons.
“Cursk gets bored like anyone would who is stuck to the Nest all the time. I needed someone who knew the area and he volunteered.”
“I thought he’d be bigger,” Kerik admitted trying to put the fear aside.
Cursk puffed up and rumbled with a dragon’s laugh.
“Size is not always the best thing in a battle. Skill with your Arm, strength in motion is worth far more. When Dart is up to it he might get a few lessons from an old war hero.” Jesop looked up at the dragon who actually flushed a little at his ear-flares with the praise and the affection that Jesop never failed to hold for a dragon. He loved them all for whatever reason, but a few were even more special to him and this was one of them. He had enough empathy that on contact he could share such things and let it whisper to them when he touched any dragon. He suspected that was why he was Lord Marshal. They loved to be loved.
“We’ll we’re honored.” Kerik stood, folded his hands with his three right fingers straight up against his fist to say he saw the dragon as an honored elder. Cursk rumbled and Dart flushed at the flares and sank his head in embarrassed pleasure at such an honor to be touched by Cursk.
Oh this was going well for the old dragon’s sake, now if only Jesop could find out about Kerik’s state of being.
“Scout Marrlanda has a rather fine Wing. She is a bit younger than we are but she’s an adult and has her own strong record going. The older bullies have taken a liking to her. She is unhappy about it and avoids flying much but you might go ahead and introduce yourself. Her class mates are all out and she can’t have many visitors that she might like.”
“Marrlanda huh? I don’t think I have heard her name before.”
“She’s young but her Wing would make a good mother, strong, and skilled.” Jesop folded his arms across his chest. “The dragoness has even mentioned the desire for it but she is picky and demands not only flight skill but looks as well and Dart is a rather fine dragon.”
“I like to think so.” Kerik smiled. “But,” he added with real concern, “he took a blow to the head and I am not sure he can shield me enough for a Fall.”
“How bad is it?”
“Just tender. As long as I touch him he can talk to me but it hurts like hell if I talk back.”
Jesop left Cursk and went to Dart, he stepped upon his arm and ran his hand under the ear flares and into the fold of soft skin between neck and skull. He gently felt his way over the thick skin. Dart winced when he touched the right spot.
“Its swollen, but it should go down. If he can talk now he hasn’t lost it, its just sore. If you get the right tea for him it should be fine in a few days at most.”
“You know a lot about injuries,” Kerik said. “I took all the classes and have been applying them a bit but I feel rather inept with it.”
“I spent most of my childhood in the Nursery lairs and watched the mothers teach their daughters. I sort of was taught along the way.” Jesop left it at that, to say more would be to make it clear who he was. “Skip school and get a better education.” He smiled. “How often dose that happen?”
“Depends on what sort of education your after,” Kerik smiled back. Jesop left himself within reach and just set to rubbing at Darts scales and hitting the spots that felt wonderfully good to any dragon. Dart groaned and laid his head on the ground as Kerik laughed at whatever he said. “What are you doing? He rather likes it apparently.”
“There is a blood vessel right here.” He caught Kerik’s hand and slid it under the skull to the most vulnerable place and showed him. “Feel the vessel right there along the inside edge of his skull?”
“That’s a blood vessel?” Kerik asked almost afraid for the vulnerability.
“It’s not as weak a place as you think. I have seen Worm claws actually get in there and miss the vessel and do little more then really cause pain and make telepathy hard. “But if you run you fingers over it, make a sort of fluttering pressure it simulates a Fall Force and causes the body to flush with altered blood flow. It is great for easing pain and helping a dragon with a head ache.”
Kerik tried it a little and Jesop let him learn the skill if nothing else.
“Why don’t they teach that?”
“Young dragons get rowdy with it. And you can kill a dragon that way, and a young one easily. The older the harder the walls of the vessel are but if you pinch it you cut off blood flow to the brain and it’s just better to tell the young to keep your fingers down in the deep folds of the skin and leave it alone.”
Jesop was about to decide the man had no Neglect and count themselves lucky but Kerik tried to say something and faltered, he stopped and cleared his throat and pulled his hand away, gripping them behind his back He half muttered something at Dart, who was likely to have heard it but Jesop missed it.
“You alright?” Jesop asked reaching out with his hand to touch the Kerik’s arm. Empathy he never used on people, he never tested emotions and he never forced others to feel what he wanted them to. It was solely for dragons. The emotions of men were too easily his own and he blocked them so well few knew he was an empath at all.
Kerik closed his eyes and actually shivered a little. He bowed his head. Jesop nearly swore.
“I’m fine,” Kerik said softly. “Just worn out.”
Jesop lowered his hand. There was no doubt now. It had to be dealt with and quickly.
“You’ve been out a long time.” Jesop said with sympathetic and apologetic honesty. “It is not fair to ask that of you then not support the effects of it. If you need a Wisdom I can get you one. No questions asked, no reports.”
Kerik looked up with a pained expression in his eyes. He glanced at Dart for a moment as Dart spoke to him.
“I can deal with it, it’s…” his voice broke off and he looked back to Dart. He nodded. He almost spoke but struggled with it. The nest did not accept such weakness. Men were killed while dragons tended to have their wings shredded or to be stoned. If they lived they did so with misery and isolation.
The harshness like the trouble itself was a side effect of the dragon’s mentality. Rank was often displayed in mating, or earned from it, sexual confusion was not tolerated. Kerik wasn’t sure what a Wisdom could do to help him but maybe this other scout knew something he didn’t. Dart seemed to think so.
“Let’s go ahead and get up in the air before it gets dark.” Jesop said offering him escape. They got back into their places and Cursk launched up in a massive leap and took to the air before he came around and snatched the other off the ground. Pounding the air with his wings he gained the height, up and over the rim of the great volcano and into view of the Nest.