Few people were allowed into the lower chambers of the nursery. It was there that a dragoness could rest in safety and shelter while she carried her eggs. She would remain in the nursery to care for the hatchlings until they shed their creamy blonde egg-skins that protected them as their scales formed underneath. In that fragile stage a dragoness was always very nervous and tense. Only the Arms and a few Wisdoms were ever allowed in, but Jesop had spent more of his childhood here than any other place. Several of the dragoness had adopted him as sort of a wingless son and protected him as no one else had. That protection had failed at times but at least, in his heart, he had a hint of what a mothers love was like.
The dragonesses lifted their heads to look at him as he walked past but none of them objected to him being there. He went down the long hall of the side lairs. They were rather like little open faced chambers along the walls, offering three walls and the sense of privacy if wanted, but was open enough for them to all see each other if they desired company.
Beyond was a chamber where they could gather. At the far end was a great long low space where the hatchling could run but nothing bigger. It was a safe playground for them that led between the nursery and the hatching lair. Normally there would be chirps, grunts and squeaks of the young at play but now it was silent.
Jesop had other worries on his mind. He was here for a reason. He found her as he expected, in the very back, in the smallest lair she could squeeze into. Her face and her chest had cuts, her shoulders had even more damage but it was hard to see in her tight backed up space. Her Arm was with her, stroking her face and washing her cuts with a cloth and salve.
The dragoness opened her eyes and startled. She lifted her head. Her Arm spun around. She was a very pretty young woman, young being a word that made Jesop feel rather old for a moment. The woman grabbed her fist before her chest in respect and bowed even as she stepped to try and hide the dragoness and her wounds. He had looked up their names before he had come down and as much about them as he possible. He smiled a little.
“Little Sister,” he said folding his hand over his fist to bow back, a little to show her that he was not here on duty or formally, but as a friend. He looked up to the young dragoness, far too young to be bred. All adult males would know that. At best she might have one healthy egg, a lot of hurt and a lot of trauma. He would have a Wisdom come and see if it could all be avoided.
“How are you?” He asked the dragoness reaching up a hand as one might reach out a nose to touch in social peace. She stretched out and had to touch him or be seen as very rude and challenging his rank. With the touch he shared his concern, his fatherly protectiveness and hurt at not knowing what was going on; at being cut out. As he hoped she latched on to the fatherly warmth and sank her head to let him run his hand along her cuts.
They were fight scratches, not done intentionally but no less real. It showed she had not been willing. He looked to the young woman who was trying not to cry. He let his worry show as much in his face as he could.
“I can’t help if no one tells me what is being done,” he whispered.
The girl looked to her dragoness and sniffed, wiped her eyes a little and shook her head. “She doesn’t want me to say anything.”
“I know,” he said, “but if someone doesn’t tell me what is going on so I can stop this, it will happen to others. It won’t stop, it will get worse. Your friends and your sisters will all be at risk.” He almost reached out and touched her with empathy, the thought was there but his hand never moved. “Please,” he whispered. “Don’t make me watch this helplessly.”
She drew a breath and turned away trying not to cry. He stepped over and turned her back with his hand on her shoulders.
“Please, Ranna,” he whispered.
At the sound of her name she turned to him and fell against him sobbing. He put his arms around her. Contact with others was always uncomfortable but not so much he couldn’t fake it with a weeping girl. He imagined being a dragon folding his arms and wings about her to shelter and protect her in his massive strength.
She wrapped an arm around his neck and covered her face with her other hand. He smoothed her hair and held her just enough to be supportive. The poor girl was clearly traumatized herself and needed to know someone could and would protect her. Who ever had done this was going to be reminded that Jesop was battle hardened. Jesop would tear them from the sky.
“Let me fix this,” he whispered to her. He felt her hand slip into the belt on his left side and tuck something there. He’d seen the move enough. It was used to pass a note or a stone to set up a meeting for later. She turned away and fell against her dragoness and hugged her neck.
“I don’t know anything. Please Lord Marshall, don’t ask me.”
He stood a moment then walked out with a troubled sad look. She curled up next to her Wing and stayed there, not looking at him. He left the nursery and made sure he was alone in the hallway before he slipped a finger in his belt to tuck out the little stone.
The pebble was a small round smooth rock that was used for sling shot work. He considered it and turned his path hoping he was right about the meaning and took the long walk down to the forest that lined the lake shores at the bottom of the Nest.
The path left the cliffs to wind its way thought the boulders and lose stones at the cliffs base. The path branched off to different areas with the widest path went down to the lake where the young dragons worked to learn to fly and to fly together with their chosen. Jesop took a narrower path out to the practice field where weapon training was held.
It was late enough the daily lessons were well under way. The morning’s warm up drills would be done and the field would be open to any who wished to practice.
Few would actually walk out here instead they would be dropped off by their Wings. Jesop rather liked the feel of the forest and the air that smelled of the pine needles under his feet. The close trees ended in a swath of sunshine and sweep of grass.
In the open field a long table with a roof was ever at the ready. Various weapons that were commonly used by the Arms were set out. Jesop chose a bow. He was always rather good at that. He was one of the few who used it by choice and often in battle not just when things were desperate. He loaded it and decided even if she didn’t show up he was going to get in a small practice session. He took a quiver and walked to the line.
Here the forest had been cleared but the trees along the way had grown so large they had reached over to form a canopy. All shots were made threw the dappled shifting light as a result. After learning to stay alive in battle the soft lattice of shadows and breath of air was rather calming. He drew the arrow and aimed at a target about mid way, a hard shot for not having practiced or drawn a bow in over a year, but one he expected to make.
He breathed out slowly and let go. The arrow shot away and skimmed the target. He calmly took another and slowing his breath he made his mark and shot. He caught the edge of the target that time but it deflected off. His left arm was aching and stiff, resistant to the demands he made of it. Gently he warmed it up. He tried not to think about all the times that scar had put his aim off. If he did he would only start to seethe at Teven.
Once he had hit the target a few times he chose a target further back. He should not let himself get so stiff. He made a promise to get out and practice more often. One never knew when a bow would be the difference between life or death. Certainly if the Red Men were back, he was destined to see a lot more battles in his life.
“Can you make the shots distracted?” He was asked with the bow drawn and his aim at the end target. He felt a body step up behind him and a hand touched his side and run slowly downward to his hip. Fingers traced up the side of the belt forward; he let it go.
The shot wasn’t perfect but still on the center black. He turned to see who was his trouble and found Ranna. She stepped back and blushed a little.
“It usually really makes a man lose his shot when you do that,” she admitted.
He smiled, “I am sure it does.”
“No one ever says you are any good at archery,” she said a bit amazed at his shot, looking over his shoulder to the target.
“People say, or don’t say, what they wish others to think. If I was worried what is said of me then I would be more busy defending myself than doing my job.” He folded his hands over the tip of the bow and set the other on his toe. “How is Sunset?”
“Upset and hurt. Terrified is more the word.” She scowled. “It’s not just the males who are doing this. It’s Banta. She has made it clear she will ground any dragoness who speaks up, but I’m not a dragoness and I saw it even if They blocked me out.”
“Banta?” he asked.
“She is angry I guess. I don’t know what her reasons are exactly but the dragonesses are terrified of her. They are silent on her orders. She says this is not a matter for anything but dragons and if the females are not fit enough to out fly or to escape then they deserve their ends. She is harsh and cold about it. Sun is not old enough to begin to hope to out-fly males that way and to be ambushed….” She was angry and her tone and words showed it. Her fury radiated off of her enough Jesop could feel it through his shields. Good, so was he.
“Who?” He asked.
“One of the big Sats, he’s big and blue with a flash of orange on his flares. He had another big old male with him. He as a dark russet with gold face marks.”
“Turner and Ballas,” he said almost ready to snarl. “I know who they are.”
“One came from the side and she jerred away but was grabbed from above as she dove from the other. They Pinned her.” She did snarl. Rage flashed in her eyes and Jesop decided her liked this young woman.
“And Banta allowed it?”
She nodded. “She knows. It’s been those two all along I think, and it’s because they are too fat to win a real Fall. None of the other Arms will say, but I think they got the same treatment. I had snuck out,” she admitted, “and was out of the Nest when it happened, somewhere I clearly was not supposed to be. None of the others saw what happened to their Wings. I did.
“There is a lot of blood and hurt among the women. Like my sister Kally, she was supposed to meet Rah Teven and was so excited about it and now she can’t even look at a man. She won’t say anything but something happened to her.”
“Alright. Turner and Ballas.” He picked the bow up. “Thank you for telling me,” he said. “I will take care of it.”
She nodded. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to deal with Banta first,” he said coldly.
“Just…I am worried for the reaction and for Sun for this. If Banta learns I told you…””
“I’ll deal this with better than that. She’ll be alright,” he assured her. “I will have a Wisdom talk to your sister… to all your sisters. This will not go unpunished.”
Ranna snapped to attention put her fist to her raised fingers to show she honored him as a warrior and as a king. He bowed to her as if she was a daughter. The bow of such honor was rare for him to get, in fact it was only from the lowest ranks he got such a thing and sadly they had never even seen him in battle. He had work to do and his first stop would be to see Slang. Banta had to be dealt with and soon. There was no way he was going to get Farra to take on her own mother but someone had to tear her down.
Jesop related well to those who had secrets that they had to hide for the sake of the reaction of others, as he had one of his own. Being unable to “Talk” to Slang as all others could “talk” to their Wings was the biggest one, but not the only secret he carried.
Over the years they had learned to communicate well with Jesop talking and a great deal could be said with a grunt or a grumble. Even those closest to them had no idea. Jesop was rather certain the reason he wasn’t king was for that one little flaw in the bond but on the other hand he and Slang could fly together like no one else in the full nest.
He had time to think about things before he reached his den and was able to present the girl’s reaction both in the nursery and out of it. He needed to plan before Slang rushed off to attack the Turner and Ballas, who were likely hoping he would. If they ambushed him they might be able to kill Slang and so Jesop, leaving the rank of Lord Marshal open. Jesop could only imagine what would follow if that happened.
Getting to the den Jesop told Slang the story as he made himself tea and joined Slang in the lair. He had just mentioned his concerns about the potential for the others to attack Slang when Teven and his twin arrived from other ends of the Nest.
Jesop left Slang to join the twins in the kitchen where Teven was busy making fresh tea.
“What’s on your mind?” Tarra asked.
“Dose Farra think she can take out Banta?” Jesop asked reaching for a cup of tea for himself but Teven caught one off the counter and held it over. Jesop took it as the woman spoke with her Wing.
“Not likely and not in a fair open fight. She would be hard pressed Jesop, Banta is her mother. Why what’s this about?”
Jesop leaned against the plain pine table that stood against the wall of the narrow kitchen and looked at Teven’s boots as he thought a moment. “Banta has told the females who have been pinned to keep quiet about it. They are scared of her. She seems to be doing this out of some sort of personal rage. She has to go, Tarra.”
Tarra grunted. “Farra says she is very bitter at Slang.”
“Slang why?” He looked up at the woman who stood next to her brother her shoulder almost touching his.
“Because he flew circles around her and then left her so enraged and wild that she was ready for a Fall. Then he left. She was humiliated and frustrated. Farra half thinks that Banta thinks Slang is flawed for his lack of Falls and to be honest Jesop, so do a few of the other females. It’s really insulting if he’s not and it’s better to hate him as a flawed bird than to have your heart stabbed.”
“Maybe he likes eagles better. God knows Jesop prefers those outside his own kind. Maybe they share that,” Teven said with a shrug. Tarra gave her brother a dirty look but let it be. For Teven that was a mild insult.
Slang objected with a grumble from the other room. Jesop didn’t need to have the images to know how Slang felt about it why he did or did not Fall..
“It would be no more appropriate for Slang to go catching barely flighted Wings as for me to bed a twelve year old. He has already told you that if Farra wants to challenge him to a dance he’d happily take her on. And the others are either like Banta, too old to Fall well or are too fat and lazy to force the sort of dance to produce a nesting he can be proud of. If they want to impress him they need to get in shape and impress him.”
“I am sure Farra will. But it dose not mean she can deal with Banta and as you say, it is an issue. She is a bit worried about a Fall with Slang now that you mention it. Banta might take that as a personal insult and go after her, or the eggs. Banta might be just jealous enough to take it out on Farra.”
“Tohke says that it might be better if he was to Fall with Farra. Slang should find a female who could take on Banta and have that the whole point. Banta might well be so enraged as to attack at once. In defending herself and Slang’s attention, any female who could Fall with him then stand up to Banta would take the rank of Mother, no question. The nest could use a strong mother.”
“That was the thought,” Jesop said. “But I was rather certain Farra was the next mother in line.”
Teven made a slight face and his eyes tightened a bit as he argued with Tohke, and lost as normal when the two of them argued.
“If the rank was to pass over death yes, because Tarra has the links and already does for men here what the Mother is supposed to do for dragons. Tarra would be next Mother but to win it in a fight Farra is not the best choice and right now fighters might be a better idea any way. We need power and we need some strong hatchlings. To boost Slang’s place in the Nest he has got to choose his Falls carefully and powerfully.”
“And?” Tarra asked. “Who dose he have in mind?”
“Scout Wing Eclipse,” Teven sighed heavily and not happy about it.
“Eclipse?” Tarra objected. “Teven. A scout?”
“Tohke’s pick not mine.”
“No,” Jesop said thinking about it. “No, he’s right Eclipse is good. She isn’t exactly the most stunning looking dragoness but she is good. She flew left wing for me for a bit. She’s very skilled in the air. In fact I was going to call her in to be a new commander when the next troop took to air. I have her covering a rather large area. Can Tohke talk to her? I didn’t even think about using a scout. But by all rights she should be a Sat. I just need her in the field too much to promote her.”
“So promote her and seal it with a Fall,” Tarra said. “If she is as good as to have Tohke recommend her she won’t go soft for it. She might just snarl enough to get others to work a bit harder for things.”
Jesop let his mind shift though maps, lines, and scout runs. “Are you ready to go out? Could you cover her route?” He asked Tarra.
“I haven’t seen Dall, but for a few days in almost a year,” She objected. “Come on, Jes.” She appealed.
“What if I have you two team up and fly together? I’ll post you in his home territory and make him a commander so you can have a tower together? I can shift a few others to cover the rest.”
She considered it a moment and shrugged. “I’ll go out then. But I want to see this.”
He nodded. “I’ll need to rework maps and routes,” he half muttered to himself. He considered it all for a bit then looked back to them. Both of them waited. Teven was actually making more tea.
“Turner and Ballus,” Jesop said, moving on to the next issue. “They are ambushing and pinning the Wings and from what I can tell they hit the Arms at the same time. I have already had Wisdoms go look at the girls to find out and heal them if they have been, but they have to be stopped and I don’t want to ground them openly for it. It would humiliate the Wings who were pinned.”
“They both hate you,” Teven offered sweetly.
Jesop looked at Teven with a hundred remarks to that but didn’t say any of them.
“Personal insult.” Tarra offered. “What if one of the scouts was to let it be known he knew about one of them and was just a little rude. Turner for one would get pushy and if the other pushed back…” she shrugged.
“I will be thinking about it and I am sure I will have Slang test out a few people but I want to be sure that you know who is behind it and that they are targeted. I want this Witnessed, so when you Witness the act you have knowledge about it and Tohke can back up Slang if need be.”
“It is Witnessed,” Teven said. The magic of the Nest held the whole conversation in its memory and the power of the Keeper was spun out into a history unblemished by words but recorded in exactness to be looked at by King, Keeper or Lord Marshal via the Keepers Stones.
“Is that it then?” Tarra asked. “I have an appointment to get my hair done before Dall gets home and I would hate to miss it.”
“Go,” Jesop gestured and she smiled, drained her tea and all but ran out. Jesop took a chair at the table. His thoughts were on plotting maps and shifting flights around and trying to get a fight started. Teven set down a new cup of tea at one point and Jesop took it without seeming to notice. He sank back in the seat and let his mind work.
“You should get your hair done,” Teven said.
Jesop looked over blinking as if just woke up. “What?”
“Your hair. You should get it done. The ends are rather frayed. You fly enough to tatter it all up,” he said disgusted catching the end of Jesop’s braid and looking at its split ends. “You should keep up a better appearance than that.”
“Why?” he asked. He rarely ever had his hair done. The whole process of oiling, cleaned, dying, cutting and being preened by hands that did nothing else, took far too much time out of his day and seemed of little value to him.
“Because you should have more respect for yourself than that. How do you think others will look at you if you don’t even care enough to keep you hair in good condition,” Teven dropped the braid and turned to clean up the cups in the sink.
Jesop had not even realized there was anything wrong with his hair. Sure the last dye job was nearly worn out but he had very nice hair he thought. He caught the end of the braid and looked at it. Teven was right. It was frayed a bit.
He’d have Trayvore do it. The boy was Teven’s son and looked so like him it was uncanny at times. Tray, like Teven other sons were as much at home in Jesop’s lair as in their father’s. Tray had been the only one to do Jesop’s hair for the last few years. That way Jesop could work on papers while he was enduring the process.
The three Rah boys had all been chosen and were in school and rather busy with training now. They had lives of their own. Asking Trayvore to come up to fix his hair would be a good excuse to see him. He let the braid go and thought back to the dragons and how to pick a fight.
Teven set to inspecting the kitchen. Jesop ignored him. Eventually Teven set the little blue bottle on the table and did so with a slightly heavy hand. Jesop broke out of his thoughts and looked from the bottle up to the man in black who looked at him with an accusing expression.
“What is this?”
Jesop had a number of remarks for that stupid question. He turned to spit back at Teven. For that moment bitter rage snarled in the back of his mind but he let it go.
Jesop didn’t say anything at all. Teven shouted the question at him and slammed it on the table hard enough the bottle of thick glass cracked and Jesop flinched as he always did. His eyes got wet at once from the attack. When Teven got angry at him like that it hurt, it made his eyes and head burn. He blinked it away and swallowed the very real pain.
Teven threw the bottle across the room. It hit the wall on the garbage shoot hard enough it vanished. It would join all the kitchen and would washed down to the compost silos to be tended by the Wisdoms deep in the nest caves where no others could go. Jesop wondered if they would find the little bottle.
Jesop had a headache now that would demand pain killers later. Teven had no idea how much an effect his mood had on the Lord Marshal. Teven didn’t even need to hit him any more to be felt, Jesop was far too sensitive with his power of empathy to need that. He shifted and tightened his shields. It wouldn’t matter, the headache was there and would linger for days most likely.
The Keeper left furious and slammed the door. Jesop let out his breath, laid his head on the table until he couldn’t take it any more. He went to the living room and opened the drawer of the lamp-table and took out a small leather pouch. Without pulling the bottle free he shook several pills into his hand. He put the cork back, closed the strings and hid the pouch away. He dumped the gray pills into his mouth and slammed the last of his tea to swallow them. He sank back into his chair and welcomed the effects. It started in his shoulders, creeping outward, numbing and relaxing.
He could feel tears escape the corners of his eyes but he made no move to wipe them off. His splitting headache sank to a dull ache and his body ceased to hurt at all. Slang grumbled unhappily. The pills numbed the pain but it also numbed the bond between them.
“It’s alright. I only took four,” he said to the one reason he took only four. To a normal man two would kill. Years and several over doses had built up his immunity and now four just helped him to sleep. “I wish Teven didn’t hate me so much,” he muttered as he started to sink away into sleep. It was a thought he had often enough. Now and then Teven was just Teven and not attacking him and it was rather nice at those times. Those moments never lasted. Teven was utterly against Jesop taking pills but was often the source of why Jesop did. Why couldn’t he just be a friend?