Wyrmholes

Wyrmholes
by
Amelia Grimstad

Precipice

   The firedrop from the pommel of Tambre’s sword flew a good
stride and a half and hissed into the Melimilak River.

     Lovely.
     Steam rose as the flame-colored gem that allowed her to take
on physical form sank. Ripples reproached Tambre from three different locations
on the surface. Oh firmament above, had it skipped?
Some steadfast and stalwart Interraphym she was. No wonder
her sovereign had not yet assigned her a ward. She fled when startled.
     The only thing that could make this more embarrassing would
be having to manifest underwater. She looked past the shimmering silver mist of
her involuntary dispersal to where Ovryn stood, half-concealed in the shrubbery
along the island’s shoreline. His shoulders shook with silent laughter while
the echoes of his triumphant, inarticulate cry raced across the water.
     “Beloved?” he finally managed. “Tambre, are you all right?”
     Was she all right?
     Was she all right?
     He was lucky he was immortal.
     She wrapped her essence around him and leaned in. Come on, honey. Pick up the stone. I dare
you.
     He swallowed.
     Ovryn stepped into the gentle current, retrieved her
touchstone, and with his burden extended in a way that suggested she was getting
better at projecting, returned to the rocky shore.  He held the glowing firedrop out between his
thumb and index finger, and she reached for
it, materializing one hand that cupped the rounded bottom of the stone and
another that gripped the sword hilt that flowed upward as soon as her essence
touched the physical anchor.
     The rutilated quartz hilt felt cool beneath her fingers, even
as its needle-thin gold inclusions blazed and flames licked the edge of the
forming blade. As she continued to manifest, she focused on sheathing the sword
so she would not have to meet Ovryn’s eyes. She had trusted foolishly, and she
was not sure with whom she was madder.
     He sleeked the silver-tipped feathers that bristled at the
apex of one of her folded wings. “Beloved, are you—?”
     “You should flee now.” She loved him with the ferocity only
an Interraphym was truly capable of, but right now, she hated him just as
intensely.
     “Tambre, I—”
     Her fingernails dug into her palms. “Now.”
     He nodded and took flight, skimming over the water toward
the western shore. Good choice. Her mate had more experience in the human lands
than she did. He just might be able to avoid her until she calmed down.
     A slow count of five was all the head start her fury would
allow, and she touched down on the shore right behind him. Ovryn had retained
his neutral form—visually similar to a human—but had modified his wings to
resemble a cloak. Tambre compressed her being into that shape as well, rather
than a grizzly or a snow lion—something with good speed and nice, sharp claws.
     Time settled over her, thick and viscous, and in the moment
she took to adjust to being fully mired in time and trapped in one shape, Ovryn
ran. His usual good sense must have fled in the other direction, because he
grinned and called over his shoulder, “Catch me if you can!”
     Brilliant. Her mate was simply brilliant. And it was too
late to choose the snow lion form. She settled for a human growl and sprinted
after him.
     Faint strains of late summer’s lullaby crooned to her as she
passed. Slow down. Rest. All is coming to
fruition…
     Yes, it surely was. Fruition and harvest. Too bad her mate
had not sown more carefully.
     She lost a pace on him as she veered around the tiny sparks
of life flaring from a field mouse nest. He gained another pace when he
fluttered his wings to avoid trampling an oak sapling that would shelter a
human couple’s picnic in four generations. However, when he glanced over his
shoulder and flashed her an expression of unbridled delight, she put her head
down and found a new level of speed.
     She kept her sword sheathed—she didn’t want to hurt him; not really—but as she tackled and pinned him to
the ground, she figured any bruises he took were only justice. Break a promise
to her, would he? Insufferable male.
     He twisted beneath her until they lay chest to chest and she
could see the mirth still dancing in his eyes. “Oh, beloved, you should have
seen the look on your face.” He paused to giggle—giggle—like a human child. “You haven’t looked like that in—”
     “In twenty generations? Since the last time you startled me,
and I promised to never forgive you if you did it again?”
     His smile fell a little.
     She gaped. He hadn’t remembered. The Creator did not make
mistakes, but why, oh why, had He made females’ memories so much better than
males’?
     “I’m sorry,” he said, meeting her eyes briefly. “I simply—”
He snorted and made suspiciously laughter-like noises again. “Could not help
it…”
     Could not help it.
     Right.
     She considered demonstrating that she could not help a fist
to his gut, but he knew as well as she did when an act of the will was
involved. If his prank had been inevitable, she would have foreseen him jumping
out at her like sunrise on the day after the feast of Ceadamhain. If she could
not help retaliating, he would be poised to block the punch she wanted to
throw.
     Sometimes she wondered if free will might not be too great a
responsibility.
     Still, she couldn’t let him completely avoid consequences.
Tambre leaned close to her mate’s pointed ear. “You, my love, had better watch your
back.”
     She slid her hands down Ovryn’s shoulders and across his
sword-wielder’s chest. Lightning fast, she struck, digging her fingers into his
sides. She tickled until his eyes streamed tears and he managed to throw her
off and gain his feet. She lunged again for his ribs, but he caught her hands
and drew her close.
     Resisting enough to let him know she was not completely
mollified, she danced around the tender plants unfurling their roots where
Ovryn’s tears had fallen. The Interraphym’s tearbushes would be fully-grown
shrubs by nightfall, silver with cascades of blue flowers and a fragrance so
sweet humans called them heaven’s incense.
     The thicket she had produced more than four hundred years
ago was also the site where Ovryn had sworn never to startle her on purpose
again. She still tended those bushes, drawn by their beauty and fragrance, even
though they reminded her she had once shed tears.
     Ovryn, on the other hand, did not seem embarrassed by his involuntary
physical display. Of course, he was Bonded. Resembling a human did not bother him. He was still smiling and trying to
kiss her.
     “Affection is for beings who like each other,” she told him
archly.
     “You don’t like me?”
     “I love you.” She
batted her eyelashes at him.
     He laughed, and the sound almost made her forget her anger.
Almost.
     She renewed her attack.
     He blocked her casually and frowned, his focus elsewhere.
“Why are they being so foolish? I thought last night was warning enough.”
     He retracted his physical form into his touchstone, and
Tambre, unBonded and unable to manipulate time to the same extent, dropped her
corporeality entirely, letting Ovryn tuck her touchstone with his into the
timepocket he formed.
     He shifted to where duty called him, and she followed,
unsurprised to find herself in a hallway of the human castle. She and Ovryn
remained outside of time, undetectable to the two humans sneaking through the
passage, but she manifested form enough to nod to the Interraphym Guardian
there before them.
     Standing, arms crossed, in front of the door the humans
approached, Ashentar paid her no more attention than Ovryn had since he noticed
his charge was in danger. The two Guardians focused entirely on the young
couple, projecting a warning that filled the hall.
     The human female, Ovryn’s charge, hesitated, her steps
slowing and her hand reaching for the arm of the male who would be her mate.
Tambre sought the human term.
     Spouse. Husband.
     But he wasn’t yet.
     “Rhalyn, maybe—” The sudden tromp of nearby footfalls sent
the couple scurrying, wide-eyed, through the door. Ovryn and Ashentar followed
them, but Tambre’s curiosity led her down the hall to the source of the
too-loud footsteps.
     A human in much plainer clothing peeked around the corner
and watched the door close. “No, no, no. Back to the gardens, you young
idiots.”
     At a gentle push from his Guardian, the human took a step
toward the door, but then he stopped and shook his head. “Not my place.”
     His Guardian stood at his shoulder and whispered, “They are
making a bad decision.”
     The human seemed almost to hear, despite no evidence of
being Marked. “It’s their decision to make,” he said.
     He slipped behind a tapestry, and Tambre heard a soft
grating of stone against stone. She hoped he never learned that time was now
hurtling toward a moment when Kahja, Ovryn’s charge, would not be getting a say
in the decision.
     Tambre shifted into the darkened room Ovryn, Ashentar, and
the two humans had entered. Kahja and Rhalyn leaned against the back of the
door, shoulders brushing, sheepish grins a hand’s breadth apart. Rhalyn bent
forward to kiss his mate-to-be, and she turned her body to his, running her
fingers along his jaw line before breaking the kiss.
     “Mmhmm.” She crossed the room and sat on one of the couches
grouped around the hearth. “I was thinking it might be best if we just talk
tonight. I finished reading The Ballad of
Lucinda and Demitre
this morning. Why didn’t you tell me it was so good?”
     The male laughed and replied something Tambre missed as she
followed Ovryn’s and Ashentar’s glares across the room.
     Another creature had joined them.
     Matte black-green with eight-inch translucent black talons
on its forelegs and larger claws on its hind legs, the dragon had eyes and
teeth that evoked the idea of a feline predator, but the scales and sinuous
body….
     Tambre shuddered.
     She knew if the dragon stepped firmly into time and
corporeal existence, the humans would see her as mirror-bright,
copper-plated—almost bronze—with dark hypnotic eyes. She glanced back at the
couple. At least the male would.
     He joined his beloved on the couch, close enough that
Kahja’s pleasant features tightened into unusual seriousness.
     “Rhalyn, we went too far last night.” Kahja stared down at
her hands. “We shouldn’t put ourselves into such temptation again.”
     Rhalyn brushed his thumb across Kahja’s lower lip. “Then you
shouldn’t tease me with kisses that leave me wanting more.”
     Tambre bristled, but Ovryn’s charge only hunched her
shoulders further.
     Rhalyn brought Kahja’s hand to his lips. “I’m sorry. That
was supposed to be a compliment.” The apologetic kiss he breathed against her
palm turned into a series of nibbling kisses that trailed up her arm. “I love
you, Kahja.”
     Kahja closed her eyes. “I love you, too. And you’re not
playing fair.”
     Rhalyn smiled and moved closer.
     The dragon’s presence strengthened, her jaws parting in
reptilian satisfaction.
     Ovryn loosened his sword in its scabbard, and Ashentar’s
lips moved in a soundless, desperate invocation—or perhaps argument—but neither
advanced.
     Why? Why was the Most High staying their hands?
     The dragon’s mouth opened wider, and her tongue flicked out
as if savoring some scent.
     Tambre glanced back at the couple.
     Ovryn’s charge was laughing and half-heartedly beating her
delicate artist’s fists against the shoulder of the man she loved, the man she trusted, as he carried her toward his
bed. She still hadn’t considered the possibility that he wouldn’t be able to
stop, as he assured her they would.
     Interraphym’s tearbushes would be impossible to explain
inside the human castle. Tambre closed her eyes and reached for the anger she’d
felt toward her mate, but it was gone. There were worse betrayals of trust than
the one you love forgetting a promise not to startle you again.
     Tambre felt a summons and surrendered to the pull, allowing
her touchstone to be recalled to its source, her being to be brought before the
point that contained infinity and the moment that confined eternity. She opened
her eyes and met the compassionate gaze of T’leyasune.
     He dipped his head, and his soft white muzzle brushed across
her cheeks. “My little one.” He leaned his forehead against hers, his silver
antlers towering above them like a fortress.
     “Why, my lord?” More tears slid warmly down her cheeks.
     Ovryn would be miserable. He would blame himself for not
interfering to a greater extent earlier. Or at least trying to.
     Kahja, too, would blame herself. Tambre had watched her
mate’s charge with him often enough to predict when the human would be foolish.
     T’leyasune dropped his chin over her shoulder and drew her
close. “Trust. The victory is won.”
     “But—”
     “Trust.”
     She nodded against the great stag’s fur.
     “Tambre, will you accept a Bond? Are you prepared to offer
Guardianship to a charge?”
     Delight washed through her. At last! “A new child? Is it theirs? Is that why—?” She
straightened and gestured south, down the cataract that fell from the
promontory on which they stood, along the winding course of the river, toward
the human capital.
     T’leyasune frowned at her, and when she met his gaze, he
allowed her to fall out of time entirely, into the tapestry held within his
eyes.
     They hovered together above the shimmering landscape until
her eyes adjusted and could pick out the moment of time in which the humans
were ensconced and the dragon and Interraphym embedded.
     “Evil has no reason, even when good comes of it.” For such a
mild-looking being, the stag could sound surprisingly fierce himself.
     By running her eyes quickly over the threads of time below
them, Tambre could…watch…the Tapestry occur. A second dragon skimmed through
time and joined the first. Others pressed close to observe but did not
interfere. There was a moment in which Ovryn and Ashentar held the dragons back
with their swords, and the human male was free to choose.
     He chose. A lesser, untimely good over the goods of love and
obedience to Love.
     Tambre followed the threads that spread from that moment and
winced over the crooked, tangled paths that nevertheless managed to fit into
the overwhelmingly beautiful Tapestry.
     Her charge would have green eyes, and he would know tears.
     “I am humbled, my lord.”
     “And you accept this commission?”
     They were back on the rock, the blood from the wounds T’leyasune
took in the Great Battle dripping onto the stone and sliding into the river.
     “I do.” Mine, to
cherish and protect.
She held out her hand.
     T’leyasune laid a tine of one antler against her palm and
drew it back, leaving a scroll that dissolved into her being. It tingled
through her like a smile that required her entire self. She was Guardian.
     “You and Ovryn may fully manifest to her after she runs. Go
as wolves. You can influence the pack near her grandparents’ cabin to accept
her. She will need their help.”
     Tambre nodded.
     “And, Tambre, forgiveness is required of you. It was as
unkind of you to threaten to never forgive Ovryn as it was of him to forget his
promise.”
     “I know, my Lord.” She hadn’t meant it to sound sulky. She
gathered her will. “It is done.”
     Her shoulders drooped when she realized her emotions would
take a while to catch up.
     T’leyasune laughed. “I did not mean that you should leave
off justice.” He laughed again. “But do not be too hard on him. Love mercy. Besides, you enjoyed playing as much
as he did.”
     Tambre glared at her lord with pursed lips but felt them
curl up despite herself. Until she remembered where Ovryn was, and what was
happening there. She sighed. “Does she forgive him?”
     “Kahja and Rhalyn?”
     He answered with words rather than another glimpse of the
Tapestry. “The victory is won.”
     The claw marks on his side glistened, and a drop of blood
fell, sliding down the rock and washing away with the water to renew the land
in which humans still invited dragons into their midst.
Chapter One
Northern Tirazahl, 16th
day of Hunger Moon, Year of Fulfillment (Y.F.) 463
     Kahja took one look at the ruins of her neighbors’ homestead
and dropped belly-first into the snow.        The body, clearly visible against the
backdrop of burned buildings, the amount of blood, and the massive tracks told
her everything she needed to know.
     She glanced up. A lattice of winter-bare birch branches
gleamed whitely against the dark smoke and paler clouds.
     Exposed. Entirely too exposed.
     Slowly, soundlessly, she slid her quiver and bow under the
undyed wool of her cloak. A wet bowstring would not matter against a dragon,
but anything that made her movement more obvious might.
     To the left, a dense copse of mature pines taunted her.
Sprint or slink? She pulled her hood up and crawled toward concealment, ears
straining for the shifting branches that would announce she’d been spotted.
Twenty paces. Ten.
     The crash of the loft into the burning foundation of her
neighbors’ home startled her up into a desperate run. Three paces. Two.
     She hooked her arm around the last birch tree, peeling
papery bark from the trunk with her sleeve as she turned to face the sky above
the clearing.
     Empty.
     She backed into the sheltering woods.
     Kahja lived near enough to the Dragonborder to know that
dragons used fire as their first weapon and time as their second. The body was
bait.
     At least one of her neighbors still lived, and the dragon
waited for him.
     Which of the only three people to show her and her son
kindness in the last five-and-a-half years lay dead upon the churned-up snow?
Who had survived and was now fighting the temptation to emerge from hiding and
reclaim the body?
     If she looped around the clearing, she could reach a
sheltered vantage point closer to the remains. Her earlier glimpse of blood and
broken flesh slapped her resolve and slowed her steps, but she squared her
shoulders and crept on.
     She did a lot of things she did not want to do.
     The woods nearest the body offered a slight rise, and Kahja
crawled to the top to peer down at the destruction. Smoke rose in fitful spurts
as flames licked along the wood of what remained of the Eastbrooks’ home.
Swaths of bare, blackened ground wound between the smoldering ruins of the
silo, smokehouse, and shearing shed. Near the body, four impressions, sunk
deeply in the mud, evinced where the dragon had launched itself into the sky.
     Five-and-half-years ago, it had been barns, and a bunkhouse,
and her grandparents’ manor….
Her fist struck the snow, shattering the crust of ice formed
by the clash of early spring days and frigid late winter nights. She took a
deep breath.
     She still couldn’t tell who the victim had been.
    Movement across the clearing caught her eye. Someone
approached the tree line, dragging…something…behind him or her with a rope.
     The figure had dark hair—like all people of Tirazahl except
Kahja and her sister. He or she was tall…. But only one of her neighbors was
lanky. Leland.
     He stopped to tend to the object, and Kahja relaxed. That’s it. Just stay in the woods. I’ll come
to you.
She eyed the expanse of forest between them. Manageable. Wouldn’t
take more than a few moments.
     The teenager stepped into the open.
     No, no, no. Go back.
Go back.
     The forest canopy shifted behind her. Branches snapped, and
snow plopped to the forest floor. A shadow skimmed across the ground under the
dark, glimmering shape that sliced through the lingering smoke. Kahja followed
the dragon’s progress into the sky as its outstretched wings banked steeply,
allowing it to ride the wind currents in an upward spiral.
     More than a league behind her, Jeyti waited at home, all
alone.
     A stone’s throw in front of her, Leland bent over some
wooden contraption, his back to the creature.
     Sunlight, filtered through the overcast sky, reduced the
copper-scaled beast to blurred motion and a vague iridescent threat against the
clouds. At the height of its ascension, it hovered. The dragon’s powerful wings
beat once. Twice. Then, wings tucked and neck extended, it dove.
Kahja stood. A second target. If she could distract the
dragon long enough for the two of them to dart back into the woods….
     Most High, if I don’t
make it….
     Tossing aside her bow, she jumped off the hillock, bending
her knees as she landed. The impact drove a thousand icy needles into her feet.
“Leland!” Shockingly cold air shredded down her throat as she sprinted toward
him. “Leland, run!”
     The stupid boy ignored her, loading a spear into what looked
like a homemade, one-person-operable ballista. How in the world…?
     She risked a glance upward. The stupid dragon ignored her,
too. Eyes focused on Leland, it spread its talons, closing in on its prey.
     Leland released the locking shaft, and the spear shot
upward. Kahja leapt. An outraged roar vibrated across her skin as she knocked
Leland to the ground. The dragon struck the earth where Leland had stood,
sending snow and clods of cold, heavy mud to pelt Kahja’s back. A chorus of
snaps and crackles shattered the air behind her, and she turned to watch the
dragon tumble end-over-end into the distance.
     They had to get out of there.
     “Come on. Let’s go!” She nudged Leland’s shoulder, and when
he made no effort to rise, she checked him for injuries. “Get up, Leland.”
     His eyes moved slowly to her face and gained focus. “It’s
dead, Kahja.”
     “Are you sure?” Her back itched with the approach of the
beast.
     “Aye. The spear pierced its scales.” His head dropped back
into the snow, and his tear-reddened eyes returned to the sky. “Dead.”
     Kahja settled into the snow beside him and placed a hand on
his shoulder. She no longer needed to ask about his parents.
     Dead.
     One body for bait. The other, eaten. Poor Leland.
     He sat up abruptly. “Where is Jeyti?”
     “Safe,” she assured him, though it took every ounce of her
willpower not to rush home to check on him.
     Leland looked over her shoulder. “Safer than we were, for
sure.”
     She turned. The dragon’s skid marks started not three
strides away. Leland offered her a hand-up, but she waved him off. Like a
general with an army at his back, the teenager picked up a second spear and
followed the path the dragon had scythed into the forest.
     Two seconds slower….
     She needed to get home to Jeyti. She needed…but her legs
refused to obey.
     Do not put the Most
High, thy god, to the test.
     She knew better.
     Shrugging off her cloak, she leaned her too-warm face close
to the snow. The Most High would have taken care of Jeyti if she died. The Most
High protected the innocent.
     Her weakened, overheated state registered, and she slammed
her mental defenses into place, but it was too late. The emberling, the
unquenchable presence in her blood, pounced. She tried to smother it with
scripture, but insatiable, implacable, it demanded fuel, striving to wrest
control of her mind.
What could she give it? A small memory. A safe one. The
emberling was not picky. No one could maintain perfect vigilance forever, and
the parasite surely expected that one day it would overwhelm her barriers
completely and have access to everything.
     But today would not be that day.      

     She fed it one more moment of her past, stomped firmly
on its attempts to follow that thread back to the tangle behind her shields,
and rose to follow Leland. She had to make sure he knew better than to let an
emberling infect him.