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by Elizabeth Lynn
Description: Born to the shape-shifting dragon king of Ippa, twin brothers Karadur and Tenjiro share an ancestry but not a bloodline. Only Karadur carries dragon blood, destined to one day become a dragon and rule the kingdom. In an act of jealous betrayal, Tenjiro steals the talisman that would allow Karadur to take his true dragon form and flees to a distant, icy realm. Now, years later, Tenjiro has reappeared as the evil sorcerer Ankoku. His frozen stronghold threatens to destroy Dragon Keep, and Karadur must lead his shape-shifting warriors in a journey to defeat his brother and reclaim his destiny. With DRAGON'S WINTER, World Fantasy Award-winning author Elizabeth A. Lynn returns with the kind of richly-drawn characters and intricate worlds her fans--both old and new--will love. "DRAGON'S WINTER is the sort of fantasy we don't see enough of: lyrical and literate, and a treat from the first page to the last." --George R.R. Martin
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1998
eBookwise Release Date: March 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [447 KB]
Reading time: 284-398 min.
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The woman in the bed was very weak. Sweat streamed from her: it was August, and the morning air was still and hot in the close stone chamber. The huge mound of her belly barely moved. She had been in labor for two days, long for one so small and delicate as she. The room smelled of sweat, blood, and herb-smoke.
"My sweet lady Hana, you must keep pushing," said Lirith Cordis, chief among the castle women. She wiped the narrow soaked face with a cool cloth. Lirith knew as much about birthing babies as anyone in the domain: she had borne three of her own, now grown, and had been present at the birth of Kojiro Atani, lord of the castle. She kept all anxiety from her voice, but it could be seen, briefly, on her face. Hana Atani, eyes closed, did not see it, but she did not need to. It filled the room, like the smoke. The birth was early by nearly a month, and the babies-- two of them, merciful Mother!--were big, and Hana was fine-boned, with little hips, and young... She was only seventeen.
But she was a warrior''s wife, and a warrior''s daughter. Gasping for air, she gathered her exhausted spirit and pushed as she had been bidden. A blinding pain knotted her insides. She thrust her head back like a wounded horse and screamed. The sentries sweating on the battlements heard it through the tall, narrow windows; the young ones winced, and those whose wives or lovers had borne children counted the hours in their minds, and shook their heads. A few glanced furtively at Lorimir Ness. The young Averran warrior stood apart from them, face turned south into the sunlight, elbows leaning on the stone.
"Lirith," Hana whispered. "It hurts."
"I know, my heart," Lirith said. "That is the way of it. Be brave. The pain will end."
But it did not, though at times it eased slightly. The women did their best to make the struggling mother comfortable, with hot cloths, and sweets to give her strength. Hana Diamori Atani thrashed weakly, and whispered a name. Lirith said harshly to young Bryony, who had come with clean water from the kitchen, "You did not hear that." Hana Atani moaned in her bed, and thrice more called the name of a man who was not her husband.
The end, when it finally came, came quickly. Within the soaked, twisted bedclothes, Hana cried out hoarsely. Her fists clenched on the sheets. Blood gushed from between her legs, and with the blood came a red-skinned, slimy child, its huge head covered with light golden hair. Aum, the under-steward, wiped the infant lightly with a cloth, while Lirith cut the cord with a steady hand. "Why is she bleeding so?" said Bryony nervously.
"She is torn, inside. Be quiet, and press here," said Lirith. "How is the babe?"
Aum said, "A boy. Strong. Well-formed. Eyes like blue gems." The baby wailed vigorously. "Strong lungs."
"The Mother be praised. Hana, little one, sweetheart. Hana! Julia, pass the herb-stick under her nose. There is a baby yet to come."
Aum said suddenly, "Oh, merciful Sedi."
Lirith let her gaze turn from Hana. "What is it?" There was near-panic in Aum''s usually level voice. Aum never panicked.
For answer, Aum captured the boy-child''s flailing angry fist and held it for Lirith to see. It was a surprisingly big fist. At the very tips of the fingers were small, sharp, curving claws.
"A dragon-child," said Lirith. She gazed into the baby''s gleaming azure eyes, unable to keep pride from her voice. "The dragon-blood runs true. Ah, the darling. Thou art thy father''s son, right enough. They will slough off. We will have to bind them, so that he does not prick himself, or Tessa." Tessa was the wet-nurse from Chingura, who waited in the kitchen. "Here, Nella. Bathe him and put him in his cradle."
"Lirith, the lady Hana is not breathing!" Bryony cried.
"Prop her up," ordered Lirith. "Hold the smoke close. Wash her with cold water, cold as it can be."
But there was no cold water in the stifling August dawn. As the red sun drove upwards from out the eastern sea, Hana Diamori Atani died. Lirith pulled the second boy-child from her belly. His hair, like his brother''s, was gilt, but his fingers were soft-tipped, clawless. Lirith dangled him head downward, and slapped his backside to make him breathe. He gasped, but did not cry.
A hot wind sighed through the close stone chamber, and the harsh hard clamor of dagger hilts pounding shields came from the battlements. A rushing, thunderous murmur shook the Keep. "At last! The dragon-lord is home," Aum said. She straightened the frail body. It looked very small in death. "Bryony, go, quickly, and bring clean linen. Hurry! He will come at any moment. We cannot let him see her like this."
Bryony hurried. Wearily, for she had had little sleep over two days and nights, Lirith laid the second infant into Julia''s outstretched arms. "Bathe him, and cover him well. He looks to be more delicate than the other." Blood slimed his slender frame, and welled from shallow wounds on his right cheekbone and hip. "Poor little one. It was cramped in thy mother''s womb, and thy older brother was impatient to be free. They will heal, I promise thee." The silent child stared at her, not moving under her bloodstained hands.
Booted footsteps pounded along the stone hallway. The door opened; the women fell quickly back. Kojiro Atani halted in the doorway. He was a young man, lithe and strong, with hair the color of yellow flame, and he moved like flame, graceful, silent, inexorable.
"Well?" he said.
Lirith said, "My lord, you have two beautiful sons."
She lifted the eldest boy from the nest of linens. Kojiro Atani cupped his huge warm hands. Lirith laid the infant into them.
"A dragon-child," the man whispered. He bent his head. "Be welcome, little golden one. Thy name is Karadur." The name meant Fire-bringer. His fair face glowed with prideful wonder. "He looks well."
"He is well, my lord." Lirith lifted the second boy from Julia''s arms. "And this is his womb-brother."
Kojiro Atani gazed at the second boy. "He is so small..." A jagged line of blood marred the silent child''s fair face. "He is torn. Who has bloodied him?"
"His older brother was in a hurry," Aum said softly.
"Ah." The big man nuzzled Karadur''s rose petal-soft cheek. "Little eager one. That is no way to treat thy brother!" The dragon-child gazed blankly upward, and waved one aimless fist. "Lirith, he stares right at me! Can he see me?"
"Not really. He is too young, my lord," Lirith said.
With great tenderness, Kojiro Atani laid his eldest son into Aum the steward''s arms. Then he cupped a light hand beneath his second son''s fuzzy head. "Little one, thy name is Tenjiro." It meant Heaven''s hope. He frowned. "He is very still, this one. Is he healthy?"
Lirith felt for the boy''s heartbeat, and was reassured by the strong, clear pulse. "He is well, my lord."
"Be certain that he stays so," Kojiro Atani said softly. "For if aught should happen to him, or to the elder--others also have sons." For an instant, white-gold dragonfire scorched the sultry air, and the promise of immeasurable savagery shimmered in the dragon-lord''s eyes. The girl Julia and Aum Nialsdatter, the under-steward, both flinched. But Lirith Cordis had served the Crimson Dragon, Atalaya Atani, this man''s mother, and she knew that the quality the dragon-kin most prized, after loyalty, was courage. She faced him squarely.
"No harm will befall your children, my lord."
Lirith moved, so that he could see the bed, and the woman on it. They had cleared the bloodstained linens, wrapped her in rose silk, and combed her fine dark hair over her pillow until it shone like spun glass. Her delicate, ivory-colored face was smooth as moonlight. Around her slim neck they had fastened the amber and topaz necklace which had belonged to Atalaya Atani.
He moved to the side of the bed. Lifting his dead wife''s hand, he held it in his own. "She was so young," he said. "So far from home."
Lirith said, "My lord, we did all we could to save her."
"I know..." He turned. "The house will keep vigil for her tonight. Aum, you were her friend. Will you see to it? Tomorrow we will make a place for her to lie."
Aum said, "You will not send her home?"
"No. Averra is too far. I will let her family know, of course. But her spirit should rest near her children, to protect them."
The women looked at one another. "But where--" There were no burial mounds or cairns hear the dark walls of Atani Castle. The dragon-kin did not lie in earth.
Kojiro Atani frowned, impatient. "What difference can it make! She is dead." He laid the limp hand down. "Let it be a place where her sons may honor her," he said in a gentler tone. He left them then. Aum laid Karadur Atani into his cradle.
"Lirith, I must leave you," she said softly. "I have been absent so long, Azil will be hunting for me ..." Azil was her own little son, three years old. "I will tell Tessa to make ready. Is there aught you need?"
Lirith shook her head. Aum and Julia left the sad, hot chamber. Lirith sat on a corner of the bed. She was a big-boned, heavy woman, and her legs ached. She hummed. The infant Tenjiro lay motionless in her arms.
"Lirith," a man''s voice said softly. Startled, Lirith''s arms tightened defensively. Lorimir Ness stood in the doorway. "May I see her?"
Lirith rose. "You shouldn''t be here."
"I know." The man''s square-bearded face was rigid with grief. He crossed to the bed. Briefly he lifted Hana Diamori Atani''s small cooling hand to his lips. "When will they bury her?"
"Do you know where they will put her? It should be somewhere green. She loved gardens." His voice broke, and then steadied. Tears gleamed in his beard. He glanced at the silent baby in Lirith''s arms. "Is that the dragon-child?"
"No. This is his younger brother, Tenjiro. Lorimir, go now, before you are seen."
"I go," the warrior said, and left.
A slow breeze, blowing through the tall window, nudged the curtain aside. Sunlight trickled across Tenjiro Atani''s bloodied cheek. He stirred, whimpering, and his paper-thin eyelids tightened. "Poor motherless one. All will be well," Lirith crooned, rocking him. "Bird sleeps, insect creeps, Sunshine goes a-walking, Starlight find, quiet mind, Hear the night a-talking..." The boy in her arms lay very still, eyes clenched against the searching light.