Paradigm - June 1997
Old Flame - michael
(page 13/20)

Old Flame

If I keep a green bough in my heart,
my singing bird will come.
- Chinese proverb

The golden priestess with her procession of nervous acolytes and raucously jubilant villagers are far gone down the mountainside. Even Sleek's night eyes can no longer pick out their pin-prick torches, although the smell of incense and wood smoke lingers on in the air and if she concentrates very, very hard, she can just pick up the faint sound of bells and kettledrums in the distance. She sighs and with a shrug tries to find a more comfortable or less uncomfortable spot on the hard stone. At least it's quieter now, the crackling of the poorly built summoning fire and faint forest sounds are the only things that break the silence. She turns closer to the fire, it's warmth is welcome against the chill night, although the smoke stings her eyes and nose and makes her sneeze.

As the hours pass, the fire dies down and in malicious counterpoint a cutting wind is born, howling down from the peaks. Swearing softly to herself, Sleek slides off the stone and tries to find shelter in it's leeward side, but the old sacrifice table gives little in the way of shelter and the chain is too short to allow her much movement. She hurts like hell too.

Once out of the full fury of the wind, she huddles close to herself and fluffs up her short white fur - trying without much success to ignore both the cold and her hurts. It's better than nothing though and she finds some comfort in the invention of cruel and unusual punishments for those who have left her here to die.

The sudden bawling of the unhappy calf makes her jump and she grins humourlessly as she remembers the other half of the villagers sacrifice. A small calf too, they're much too tight fisted to waste good meat, even for this.

Standing hurts, every muscle complains and her shoulders and wrists ache from the weight of the chain. She can't see the calf, it's overcast tonight and the new moon is too dim to see by. The fire's completely dead. Ignoring the wind, she stretches and learns all about pain. At least, she thinks, the priestess had prevented it becoming more than just a ritual beating, rape thankfully she'd been spared. Somehow though, she doesn't think that 'her holiness' had cared much for her, only for the ceremony and her place in it. Virgin sacrifice indeed - how many female slaves stay virgin long, er ? even teachers and even if they're of a completely different species. She sits again and lets her fingers glide across the smooth silver circlet at her neck. A permanent feature that, all slaves wear them, it's cold now of course but it could be so very, very, hot if you disobeyed. You don't disobey, not after that, not if your a slave. She shakes her head, trying and failing to clear it these cheerful thoughts and settles back against the carved stonework, all senses alert, to wait.

It's about midnight when he arrives, walking in silence and the only warning of his presence is the sudden cessation of the calf's crying. It's a second or two before she realises,

'Karne, Karne is that you ? damn it where are you ? Karne !' It's extremely cold and dark and staggering to her feet takes enormous effort. His soft voice, when it comes, is behind her.
'Here, little kitten.' She spins round and losing her balance, is caught in powerful arms. Sobbing with relief she holds him, his warmth is a beacon against the cold, 'You all right kitten ? Are you hurt ?' It's a while before she can answer and then it's with a glare,
'Where the hell were you, you great black lizard ? I just about froze out here !'
'I'm sorry kitten, I'm sorry - I - please, are you all right ?' the concern in his voice mollifies her a little.
'Nothing that won't heal but where were you ? I thought you weren't coming !'
'Glamours in the stone, kitten, a binding even I can't break, I can't come here 'till the new day, not after a sacrifice. It's a Law. I'm sorry.' At his obvious pain, she relents and lies her face against his neck, warm and safe.
'It's okay, Karne. I'm very glad your here, I was terrified that some over muscled, armoured freak with a heroics on his mind would get here first !'
'Hmm, well, there were a couple.'
'A couple ? A couple of what ?'
'Armoured freaks, skulking in the forest, I don't think it was heroics on their mind though. Problem solved now.'
'You killed them !'
'Not if they can crawl to safety somewhere before the wolves get them, no. Raise your arms, kitten.' Confused, she splutters something which he ignores and he lifts her arms before his face. A claw tip in the keyhole and some fiddling causes the heavy manacles to fall away. Next he places a single finger at her neck, a muttered word and the slave ring melts like ice, quicksilver droplets running though her fur. He brushes them pattering to the ground. Her stammered thanks are answered with a smile and a bundle pulled from his back. This yields clothes; hose, shirt and a heavy cloak, all of which she hurriedly and gratefully slips into. The fit is poor but the quality superb and noticing this she asks,
'Karne, where did you get these ?'
'There was quite a band of outlaws living in the forest at one point, they preyed on the trading caravans - or used to. It was surprising the amount of stuff they'd collected over the years. It's all piled up in my cave, part of my hoard,' he grins, 'knew it would come in useful someday. Can you stand now ?'
'Yes - ouch ! just, you know Karne - er - thanks, yes ?'
'Welcome, kitten, more than - hungry ?' he nods at where the silent calf lay, 'I am. Won't take long to build up that fire again. Come on.'

The first food in four days tastes very good indeed, a little too good perhaps and Sleek finds herself leaning sleepily against Karne's flank as he picks at a partly cooked haunch of beef. His wings make a good wind break and his velvet skin is pleasantly warm.
'What you going to do now ?' his voice rouses her from a doze.
'Pardon, what ?' she pushes herself upright and tries to wake up a bit. Golden eyes regard her and she sees he's thrown away the remains of his dinner, a long serpentine tongue licks at greasy fingers.
'What now ?' He repeats, "where'll you go, what'll you do ? You can stay in my lair as long as you like of course but then what ?'
'I'm not sure, I'm still getting used to being safe. And free.' She glances up at him, 'I can't go back to Greengable. They'd kill me !'
'Not if you want their village in one piece they won't.' His voice, harsh, shake her somewhat.
'Karne, you promised me - no retribution !'
'Promises become somewhat academic if the recipient becomes dead - you're not going back.' His voice is sharp, worried. Sleek shakes her head and runs fingers though the soft, spotted fur of her mane. Her answer is subdued,
'No, I won't. I'm not that stupid.' She sighs, 'In fact I don't think I'm going to stay around here any longer. I'm not a slave anymore, thanks to you and I used to have a family back up north - once.' She pulls herself unsteadily to her feet and looks hopefully down at him, 'I don't suppose you can lend - well - give me some things, equipment, more clothes - money perhaps, I'm sorry to ask but... '
'Only ask, little one, only ask. But, you could stay here you know, my lair's not that uncomfortable,' His voice is hopeful, 'I like having someone around - to talk to.'
'I wish - you've been very kind to me but... My family, I must find them, really I must. Although - you could come with me if you like,' Her turn to be hopeful now, she liked the drake and could use his companionship on what would be a long and difficult journey. His answer is unexpected,
'A family ? A mate, young ?'
'What ? No, no mate Karne, parents, sisters, a brother but no mate, never had the time !' Her laugh has a core of bitterness but still he smiles. Then nodding slightly he rises too. Standing erect on two feet he tops her by half a head at the most, she'd quite tall, although his flight muscles mean his shoulders are far wider. Not for the first time she wonders how the villagers call him monster.

A gentle touch on her arm,
'Looks like rain. I know a cave nearby, it's somewhere you can rest and you need it, I think.' A smile, 'Tomorrow we'll see about the stuff you'll need. The cave's not far, lean on me.' She does so, putting her arm about his neck for support and slowly they make their way together. As they pass the fire, he stoops and picks up a flame. It dances happily in his cupped hand as they walk, lighting the path ahead. It's not 'till they reach the shelter of the trees that he speaks again,
'Sleek, you really intend to find your family ?' he sounds thoughtful.
'Yes, of course, It's a very long way I know but, well - I've always wanted to travel and you don't get to see much culture from the wrong side of a slave wagon.'
'I can imagine, I'm wondering if I feel the same, I've been holding this territory for years and playing the fell beast for a bunch of villagers I detest is rapidly losing all attractions.' He hesitates, this time to smile at her - sharp, white teeth - 'All in all, I think, if I'm still welcome I'd rather like to tag along.' Her look of surprise rapidly turns to delight,
'More that welcome my Lord, more than welcome !'