by Kate O'Connor
“This is stupid,” Surge grumbled as he struggled into his trousers. The argument was all too familiar to his companion. Shilla n’Torran, Guardian of the West, held out his traveling cloak in silence. He took it and swung it around his broad shoulders with a flourish. “How do I look?” He shook out his pale hair and flipped back the cloak. Dust from the road rose around him.
Shilla examined him slowly. He wouldn’t ask again and he wouldn’t like anything she said if she didn’t take her time with the answer. Surge stood a full three hands taller than her in bare feet. His fair hair was thick and fell nearly to his waist. Her lips quirked in a bare smile. In this form, her dragon looked perfectly human unless you looked him right in the eye.
“You look barefoot,” she replied, amused at the instant look of indignation that robbed his perfect face of some of its power. He held the expression for a moment before grinning and reaching over to ruffle her dark hair. They had long since gotten past the point where they needed to reassure one another with compliments.
“Boots. Damn.” He looked around as if expecting them to appear by the roadside. “Where are my boots, Shilla?”
“Under your saddle.” Shilla took a breath and held it for the count of five, trying to settle the twisting sensation in her gut. She had put off talking to him about the next bit. He would hate it, but it was quite necessary. “And you’ll need to call me Dorin when we get to town.”
His head came up and his nostrils flared. For a moment, she saw the dragon glaring through his human façade. Still bootless, he stalked back across the dirt road until he stood in front of her. “I won’t. I gave you your name when you gave me this form. The person you were before that is dead. I won’t call you by some dead woman’s name.”
“That’s ridiculous and you know it. I’m the same no matter what you call me.”
“If it’s all the same then it shouldn’t matter to you what name I use,” he shot back with a dismissive flick of his hand.
“That’s not what I meant!” She clenched her jaw until her teeth ached. “It will matter to my family. They don’t know me as anything else.”
“Then they don’t need to know you at all.” His usually light voice trailed off into a threatening growl.
“They are my family, Surge. It doesn’t work that way.” She grabbed him by the chin, forcing his head down so he couldn’t avoid looking into her eyes. “I need to do this and I need to do this my way. If you can’t call me by the name they gave me, then call me nothing at all until this is done.”
Fire burned behind his blue eyes. For the first time in their long partnership, she thought he might refuse her. She held his gaze and waited. After several long seconds, his shoulders slumped.
“Fine,” he muttered, raising little puffs of dust in his wake as he stomped back to his boots. “But I still think it’s stupid.”
Shaking her head, Shilla followed him back to the rather impressive pile made by his saddle and armor. She stripped off her own battle gear, the knot in her stomach easing a little with his compliance.
“A dress!” Surge’s burst of silvery laughter when he saw what she pulled out of her bag was unexpected and a little unnecessary. “You! The one who wouldn’t wear a dress for the King himself! Are you sure you even know how to put one on?”
“Enough! I was a proper girl once. You should remember that since you’re the one who changed it all.” Shilla pretended to ignore the impudent tongue he poked out in response and tugged the soft blue fabric over her head. The fine weave caught on her calloused fingers as she struggled a moment with the unfamiliar fastenings. When she looked up, his eyes were dark with anger again.
“What now?” she asked, genuinely confused this time. His moods were always mercurial, but this trip was proving a bit extreme on that front.
“Two sleeves.” He pointed accusingly at her covered right shoulder. “Why don’t you just leave me behind as well? Then you wouldn’t have anything to be ashamed of.”
“I am not ashamed!” Shilla snarled, furious that he would believe that of her. Their job was respected to the point of reverence. Their partnership had made them heroes. His support and loyalty had made her into the person she was. “I just want to spend a little time as part of my family again. I don’t want to complicate it with who we are. Some things are just too big for the people who saw me born to ever understand.”
“So you won’t try to explain and you’re not likely to regain your ability to lie while I’m still alive. Are you just going to order them not to ask about what you do? They are not your troops.”
“I know!” She shook her head, trying to dispel the tightness creeping up her throat. “They won’t ask. Not unless things have changed miraculously in the last dozen years.” Shilla put a strong hand on his arm. “I’ve told you I need to do this my way. Now I need you to tell me if you are with me or not.”
“I am always with you.” Surge’s answer was immediate. He waited a beat to make sure she had heard before adding, “Even when you are being silly.”
* * *
The village appeared even smaller than she remembered it. The mud and thatch of Baron’s Rest looked dingy and unkempt after so long amidst the blue ice and windswept stone of Torria. Surge chuckled derisively under his breath. Shilla didn’t have to turn to see the disdainful look on his pretty face. She walked resolutely down the once familiar track, trying to suppress the hot dart of anger that shot through her in response to his continued attitude.
With Surge drifting behind her radiating amused disapproval and disbelief, Shilla couldn’t help but imagine what the village must look like through his eyes. The houses and shops seemed less charmingly rustic than she remembered. If it weren’t for the curve in the road, they could have seen the far end of town from where they’d entered it.
“Dorin!” The sudden shout had Shilla reaching for a weapon that wasn’t there. A low growl from the direction of her left shoulder told her that Surge had been startled as well. “Dorin Morrow! Is that you?” A lanky brown figure strode down the road to stop in front of her. She studied the weathered face for a long moment. The man seemed vaguely familiar.
“Natan?” she asked hesitantly. If it was, twelve years hadn’t exactly been kind to him. He was two years her senior and had been considered the most handsome man in town before she left. Now his face was thinner and lined. The corners of his eyes crinkled and the first sprinkling of gray dusted his brown hair. He looked like an old farmer. He looked like his father.
His hazel eyes still lit up when he grinned at her. “Sure enough!” The grin faded as he looked her over. “You’re too thin by half, girl, and where’d you get that mark on your face? Isn’t your man taking care of you?” He shot an accusatory look at Surge, who had drifted up to Shilla’s side when Natan approached.
Shilla sighed. For the most part she managed to ignore the scar, which cut across the left side of her face from temple to upper lip. It had healed as well as could be expected, though her cheek would never be smooth. She had plenty of other scars, but this still stung her vanity a bit.
“She looks after herself, farm boy.” Surge’s soft voice was sweetly poisonous.
“It’s not a problem, Natan,” Shilla cut in, bumping Surge firmly with her shoulder to quiet him. “An accident a long time ago. My own fault.” It wasn’t precisely untrue. If she hadn’t accidentally dodged the wrong way, she wouldn’t have gotten a knife across the face.
Natan’s expression wasn’t difficult to read. In this place there weren’t many ways for good girls to have “accidents.” Either a woman was doing something her man should be taking care of, or her man didn’t have enough sense to control his temper. The tight expression on Natan’s open face said he was leaning towards the second option.
Shilla tilted her head to the side and smiled up through her eyelashes at him. It was a gesture she hadn’t used in years. “How is your family these days?”
His grin was back. “The kids are well. Next one’s due in two months…” He trailed off and Shilla realized her shock must have shown on her face. At thirty-two he would have married. She knew that. It was just proving harder than she expected to reconcile old dreams with real life.
“That’s right. You wouldn’t have heard.” He shifted uncomfortably from one scuffed work boot to the other. “Laeni and I got married a few years after you left. Got three kids and another coming. You’ve got two nieces and a nephew. Well, more’n that with your brothers’ broods, though some of those would have been here before you went.”
“Oh.” She couldn’t manage a more proper response. The man who had never looked her way through her adolescent adoration had three-almost-four children with her baby sister, and she hadn’t even known. “Congratulations,” she tried again, inwardly cringing at the wooden sound of her voice. “Sorry. It’s hard to imagine Laeni as a mother. She was still in pigtails when I left.” True enough, and the words relaxed the tension in his face. It just wasn’t the whole story.
“Come on then.” Natan put an arm through hers and pulled her towards an oft-repaired farm wagon hitched to a tall gray mule. “Why don’t you two come out to the farm for supper? I’m sure Laeni would love a chance to catch up after so long. I’ll send a message around to your folks. We’ll make a party of it.”
“All right. That sounds fine.” Before she had a chance to hop up into the wagon, Natan had his hands around her waist and had lifted her onto the front bench with another disapproving look at Surge. Surge arched an eyebrow and jumped cat-like into the wagon bed. The quirk of his lips caught her attention. Apparently he’d decided to be amused at her expense.
Conversation lulled as Natan clucked at the mule and the wagon rattled off down the road. Shilla watched the once-familiar scenery creep by and wondered if Surge hadn’t had the right of it. Coming home might just have been a truly stupid idea.
* * *
More wagons were pulling up to the house before she’d been able to do more than greet her youngest sister. Sisters and sisters-in-law hugged and kissed and fussed over her. She was too thin, wasn’t her hair just bold and lovely cut so short, thank goodness she hadn’t gotten into the habit of painting her face like city women sometimes did. Shilla closed her eyes for a moment and let it wash over her. It felt wholesome and warm. Simple.
She felt like she should know the children who seemed to be everywhere: one boy had her father’s chin, another her brother Jennan’s eyes. A small niece with her dark hair in pigtails, darting hummingbird-like around the edges of the group, was the spitting image of Laeni at that age. They looked like family. Shilla felt part of the weight she had been carrying for years slip from her heart. She might never be able to have children of her own, but this gaggle was part of her regardless. Maybe one day one of them would want a different life. Unlike how it had been with her, they would have someone waiting for them if they needed to escape.
She felt breath on her hair and leaned back against Surge’s broad chest. “Hmm,” his voice was a quiet purr. “I think I see now.” He hugged her hard and released her just as abruptly, heading towards the corner of the yard where the men of the family were gathering.
When Laeni ushered the women inside to the kitchen, Shilla followed. It felt strange to be surrounded by such soft, domestic women. Her troops were nothing like this lot.
The women moved purposefully, picking up obviously familiar tasks while they chatted about various friends and neighbors. Shilla drifted to an unoccupied corner by the fire, aware of the looks being stolen whenever the moment allowed. Most were curious, and a few judgmental, now that the initial greeting had passed.
“So.” Hally, Jennan’s wife, raised her voice as if addressing someone much farther away than Shilla. “Your husband is certainly handsome, Dorin. What does he do?”
“He’s not my husband,” Shilla answered calmly. They could all see that there was no ring on her finger. The question was proof that Hally’s attitude towards her hadn’t improved over the years. She didn’t bother to add that Surge wasn’t her lover either. They would never believe it. “He’s a soldier in the King’s army.” There were appreciative gasps from Laeni and a few of the younger women.
“Not too highly ranked, is he?” Hally’s cool voice cut through the excited chatter.
Shilla let out an unladylike snort of amusement. “Whatever led you to that conclusion, Hally?” Surge’s rank was only slightly lower than her own and that largely based on a technicality of race.
Hally’s back stiffened. “He has no manners. He hasn’t spoken to anyone but you since you arrived.”
“Manners aren’t in high demand for a soldier. Besides,” she caught Hally’s eyes and stared pointedly at her sister-in-law before continuing, “he’s not in the habit of speaking just to hear the sound of his own voice.” Hally’s landed-fish gape was worth Laeni’s shocked look. Had it been on her own behalf, Shilla might have let it pass, but no one got to speak badly of Surge in her presence.
She glanced through the door into the living area. Surge stood with his back to the group of men, watching the children play with an intensity that was obviously bothering a few of their parents.
“What’s wrong with him?” Hally snapped, following her gaze.
“He’s never been around children before.”
Hally huffed her disbelief, but caught Shilla’s look and snapped her mouth shut. Shilla hoped he wouldn’t want to keep any of them. Like most of his kind, he could be obsessive about anything he felt had some kind of value, and his definition of “valuable” wasn’t always easy to keep track of.
As if he had felt her eyes on him, Surge looked around. For a short moment, he studied her face as intently as he had watched the children. Whatever he saw there brought a regretful softness to his eyes. He held her gaze and brought two slender fingers up to tap his right shoulder. She smiled in spite of herself. It was their private reminder that they were in this together.
The arrival of her father and mother brought the kitchen drama to an abrupt halt. Shilla rode the current of people out into the main room, watching from a safe distance as the usual greetings were made. The only pieces of the pattern that had changed with the years were the people who took part. Some people had graduated to fill vacated roles while others were just learning when to take their turns. She couldn’t remember where she was supposed to be in all of this anymore. It hurt more than she felt it should, considering she had been the one to leave.
A stiff silence let her know she had missed her cue. She shuffled forward, feeling like an awkward teenager again, and found herself standing in front of her father. Rajik Morrow was still an imposing man. They had never been easy with each other. For the first time, Shilla wondered if that wasn’t due more to similarities than irreconcilable differences.
There was no embrace, no tears, not even so much as a smile. He offered his hand and she took it. His eyes narrowed as he felt the roughness of her palms and his grip tightened to within a hairsbreadth of impolite.
“City life not as easy as you thought before you left, huh, girl?”
Shilla looked into his hard eyes for too long. She was shocked to hear a tremor in her voice as she said, “I never thought it would be easy, just different.” And it certainly had been that.
“I don’t see what you could possibly have needed with ‘different.’ World comes out just about the same wherever you are.”
Shilla sighed. Twelve years and still the same argument. “Mine hasn’t been the same at all.” For three heartbeats she desperately hoped he might ask. He had traveled when he was young. He had left home and settled somewhere else. A large part of her wanted to be able to tell him about everything she had done. Then, she saw his shoulders rise and fall in a dismissive shrug, and she knew it was a vain hope.
“You work a bit, meet a man, keep his house, have his children.” His eyes fixed sternly on Surge. “Don’t matter much what the background looks like. Though you could have at least kept your wits about you enough to have him marry you. It’s just not proper, Dorin.” When she said nothing, he continued right on. “If it’s work you came back for, you can have your old place at the Inn. He’ll have nothing from me unless he’s family. Now sit yourself down, girl. Laeni’s got supper on the table.” He turned and strode to his seat at the head of the table.
Shilla stood rooted to the spot. The ache in her chest was making her eyes sting. Surge’s eyes flashed like lightning from across the room. She cut him off with a gesture. It was an old hurt and not one he could fight. All of these years gone, never having asked for a thing, and it had never occurred to her father that she might make a success of herself. All he cared to see was a wayward girl who needed work.
Surge’s bright hair caught the light as he disappeared out the front door. No one else saw him go. Shilla was glad he had chosen to take his temper somewhere safer.
Laeni appeared by her side, unobtrusively linking an arm with hers. “Ignore him,” she whispered, giving Shilla’s arm a comforting squeeze. “He’s always going to be angry that you didn’t want the life he picked. Not to mention that you managed to make it all the way to the city without him knowing.”
They walked to the table together and Laeni settled Shilla onto the seat between herself and her eldest daughter. The girl looked at her shyly and then turned to the cousin sitting on her other side. Shilla was once again glad she had chosen not to come in uniform. She was having enough trouble mingling with her family as it was.
Dinner was a rowdy affair. Everywhere Shilla looked there were people chatting, children squabbling, and food being passed. The noise bounced brightly around. The happy sound was far removed from mealtimes in the halls of Torren Keep. Her soldiers always had a sharp, ready edge to everything they did.
Shilla felt completely adrift. With her father’s obvious disapproval, no one was in any hurry to speak to her. All she felt was relief when it was finally over.
* * *
Surge reappeared as the last of the family was piling into their wagons to leave. Her pack dangled from one hand and his tunic was on inside-out. She smiled. He must have flown back to where they had left their things. He tossed her things to her from across the room, ignoring Laeni’s shocked look and another disapproving one from Natan.
“Bedtime!” he said brightly. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll sleep outside.”
Shilla caught his eye and gave him a hard look. She hoped he would heed the unspoken warning and stay away from the livestock. The toothy, draconic grin he gave her in return was less than reassuring, though she had to admit that his behavior so far had been exemplary given the circumstances. He left without a backward glance.
“Will he be all right?” Laeni asked hesitantly, taking half a step towards the door.
“He’ll be fine. He prefers to be outdoors.” Natan looked confused and Shilla found herself thinking uncharitably that he had seemed much smarter when they were younger. He was a nice man and a hard worker from what she could see. She tried to explain further. “His life hasn’t given him many soft beds. He doesn’t sleep well with too many human comforts.”
Laeni covered the awkward silence by taking Shilla’s pack from her and bustling purposefully up the stairs. “Why don’t I show you to the guest room?” Shilla followed behind, struggling with her amazement at how close-minded Natan seemed now. She had remembered him as the most understanding and caring man in the village.
The room was warm and cozy. A patchwork quilt Shilla thought had come from the room she and Laeni used to share was folded neatly at the foot of the sturdy bed. With a utilitarian familiarity that reminded Shilla strongly of their mother, Laeni upended Shilla’s pack onto the bed and began shaking out the clothes.
The violet dress, twin to the blue one Shilla wore, was snapped sharply and hung over the trunk at the foot of the bed. Undergarments were refolded neatly and returned to the bag in a pair of orderly stacks. Shilla sank into the chair and watched as Laeni’s careful hands hesitated on the thick black garments at the bottom of the pile. She held up the shirt. It was one-sleeved, to better show the scar left when Surge had bitten her – the mark that proved she was dragon-chosen.
“What’s this?” Laeni asked slowly, running her fingers over the embroidery. “Not the latest city fashion, surely?”
“It’s a dragon rider’s uniform,” Shilla answered quietly.
“A dragon rider’s? Really?” Laeni held up the shirt again, a look of awe on her face. “You should have told us your man was a dragon rider! Even Papa would have been pleased. It explains why he hasn’t married you, of course!”
Shilla supposed it would explain. The magic that they gained by being bound to a dragon rendered the rider unable to bear or father children. Dragon riders almost never married for just that reason. She had held out for two years before the war had come, and she had sacrificed her chance at children for her survival and Surge’s. The magic was almost worth it.
With a half-smile for Laeni’s enthusiasm, Shilla shook her head at her youngest sister. “No Laeni, he’s not the rider. He’s the dragon. I’ve been his rider for a decade now.”
Laeni’s mouth dropped open as the information sank in by degrees. “Dorin, that’s just…” Laeni trailed off. Then her face brightened. “Like Shilla n’Torren! Have you met her? They say she’s the Crown Prince’s mistress. And a hero, of course! I heard the best song about her the other evening at the Inn.”
Shilla laughed aloud. Trust Laeni to put who she went to bed with before a war won, a title, and the guardianship of a quarter of the kingdom. “You must know riders get new names when the dragon chooses them.” It was common enough knowledge and Laeni’s fascinated nod confirmed it. “I haven’t been Dorin in ten years.”
“What are you called then?” Laeni pressed, perching on the edge of the bed and looking at her curiously.
“Surge named me Shilla after he tasted my blood. n’Torren came from the King when he gave me Torria and the West after the war.” It felt strange to say it in the warm, plain little room, as though it were something that had happened to someone else. The relief that flooded her let her know that Surge had been right in the end. They were who they had become, and hiding it didn’t change a thing.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Laeni’s voice was breathless and her eyes were enormous.
“I wanted to come home. I needed to be here as a daughter and a sister. I’ve been a hero too often.” She looked into her sister’s eyes and saw the look she had been worried about since she had decided to return. “You see? It will never be the same again.”
“I suppose not.” Laeni got to her feet self-consciously and walked slowly to the door. The easy manner with which she had handled Shilla’s visit was gone. “I don’t know what to say.” Laeni lingered in the doorway, obviously searching for something to bridge the unexpected chasm between them.
“Good night, Laeni. Thank you for everything.” Shilla got up out of the chair. “I’ll be leaving before first light.”
“Do you want me to tell the family?” Laeni asked finally. Shilla knew she didn’t mean telling them about her imminent departure.
“It doesn’t matter. I doubt I’ll be back.” Torria was a long way away, and the years she had been gone an even farther distance.
To Shilla’s surprise, Laeni crossed the room again and hugged her. “You are still my sister,” she whispered, squeezing Shilla tightly. When Laeni let go, there were tears in her eyes. “Goodbye, Dorin.” She was out the door before Shilla could find a reply.
* * *
Shilla rose before dawn and dressed in her uniform. She ran considering fingers over the dark ridges of the scar on her bare arm. With a last look around the lightless room, she shouldered her pack and slipped soundlessly down the stairs and outside.
Surge was waiting out by the orchard in his dragon shape. His opalescent body glowed in the predawn gloom. He blew a fire-scented breath that ruffled her hair and warmed her fingers.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” Shilla confided as she buried her face in his true-gold mane. “I suppose I thought that all the time away might give us something to say to each other.”
“They don’t know you any more than you know them,” Surge rumbled. “Thinking time will fix what went wrong with you and your family is a child’s daydream.”
“They are my family. They’re supposed to be able to understand.”
“You are loved by more than just me. Isn’t that enough? They will never know what it is to fly or to fight for their lives. There aren’t words to explain it. You will never know how it is to stay in one place and watch things grow under your hand. You chose what you wanted. So did they. Let it go, Shilla.”
“Not even going to say you told me so?” Shilla ruffled his mane and tugged a small, pointed ear in gratitude.
“Not while you’re here to say it for me.” Surge stretched to his full height and sank back down as she hauled his saddle over to him. The soft leather and cold metal buckles were more familiar than the laces of her own boots. In almost no time, she had the saddle and her pack secured on his back.
“Get on. It’s time to go.”
Shilla mounted with the ease of long practice and in one powerful move, Surge was airborne. A brief glance back towards the house caught Laeni’s pregnant figure silhouetted in an upper window, and then they were high in the air. The cold wind cut through her clothing, tangling her hair and stinging her eyes. Shilla smiled. The wild air around her felt like home.