Drakon hung his head. His tears fell, drop after drop, burning his hands. Father drew up the reins, stopped both his and Drakon's snorting horse. Ghost-like and sudden, the yaeger appeared from the scrub beside them. Mutterings passed between him and Father. Cwen, the Mother, the mountain scratched on uncounted imperial maps, stood monstrous in the night over all their lives, black under the circling stars. Then Father dug in his heels: with a lurch started them away again. Ever farther from Bory.
Greatbow in hand, the yaeger trotted beside them all night long. They descended from the sky and stars toward the forest darkness below. They reached the forest in the grey hush before dawn. Father and the yaeger muttered between them. The cowardly flight from the mountain, and from battle, stopped inside the forest edge.
Hooves thud'thudded behind them. Drakon's heart sprang for joy. He had hoped against his fears Bory had found his feet, eluded the night over-run with enemies — that Bory might follow. Then the riderless grey came, clop’clopping through the mist. He swung in front at a canter, noisily greeted and nuzzled his horsey occupied friends.
"Back, you," said Father. His mount under him ignored both his knees.
Drakon had no tears left. His eyes burned. He raised his hands — he whipped the reins at Bory's useless nag. The grey flicked up his head, bolted, and not two paces off reared up as suddenly, with a scream, when he saw the bears. Spun full around, the grey kicked out his hind legs, galloped past Drakon, vanished through the mist.
Father muttered, "Counted ten. They move around in the trees. Can't be sure. Not our bears, son."
"Grandmother called the bears to guard our camp." The yaeger had shouldered his greatbow. He went to the nearest. Waiting, the bear stood himself on two legs, as big as Marron. He was showing all his bright teeth. The yaeger bowed before him. The bear settled on his four paws and shouldered away through the misty trees.
"And ours still run," muttered Father.
"Do you not see the girl?" The yaeger extended his arm, pointed toward the right. "She is very like a girl."
"She is strange magic, yaeger."
Urska. A fire burned behind Drakon's eyes. His heart was a stone. He kicked the horse under him – compelled the screaming animal among the bears. Every bear a giant of this Vagari forest. Every bear rearing up, challenging the single-minded boy. Every bear backing from him. Distantly, Drakon heard Father crying his name.
Not yet dawn. Urska was still the girl: her skin glowed. He glimpsed her between the trees. She was arguing with a guard bear that gaped all its teeth at her, yet stayed on all fours. Urska had hands, and advantage: she pinched the guard bear’s ear with one hand – she thumped its snout with her other. Bawling, the bear shook itself free, spun and loped away.
The horse had had enough: knickering, trembling, stepping about but refusing to leave one tree just slightly bigger than most. Drakon quit his back, crossed the soft ground in three broad strides. Marron and the cub were with her. Urska was laughing.
“She know Urska now!”
“BORY IS DEAD!” Drakon gripped her shoulders. Her skin warm, it reminded him of Steiffa: a wrestling match one lazy afternoon by the river below the school, earlier that summer – before ancient magic and Urska and war.
“What you saaay? You hurt. Off. OFF.” Urska grimaced, wriggled her shoulders, until he let her go. She laughed, whacked his chest. “See. Urska know girl trick.”
“Here is how it happened. Urska. They certainly found Bory. My brother’s soldiers. He was taken. He never saw a healer. They questioned him – beat him – or worse. But Bory wouldn’t tell my brother anything. NEVER. So he killed Bory – “
Urska stared at the ground. “I change. I go.”
"Bory would be with us now if only you had stopped being so stubborn — if only you gave Bory one small, magical bite! URSKA."
Morning sunlight slivered among the treetops. She fled into the mist. Marron and the cub bounded after her.
“URSKA!” Drakon shook his fists.
“Son. Son.” Father had found him: he took him under his great arm. “I cannot promise Borysko will return to us – “
"Berengar's to blame. For All that's happened. I’m to murder my brother to bring the end to this."
“Is not Berengar alone. Been bad'influenced by his friend. Calm, son. Be calm. I have hatched a plan. Borysko may bring us a happy ending yet.”
Drakon pushed away the man. “Plan! Another? More plottings. Father! I’m an inch from murder and calling it right – “
A woman’s voice then: thin, rasping. “You shake the birds from their sleep.”
Six yaegers in buckskins flanked the small stooping figure in her cowled grey robe. She was one of the fabled Grandmothers, Drakon was certain. The young yaeger who had safeguarded them from the mountain, and his three, bowed as she neared. Father bowed, too. Drakon struggled to steady his breathing, and followed the example.
Father straightened, tall, smiling. “You look well, Oma.”
Wisps of her snow-bright hair showed around her cowled face and she appeared all of one thousand years old, but her eyes burned a clear sky blue. The grandmother shot Father a most unpleasant glance. She lifted Drakon’s chin, clasped his chin in her firm cool grip. She stared him in his eyes, certainly appraising him. “You are your mother’s son.”
She released him. She turned about in three steady steps. “Your She has taken our bears with her.”
Urska. Drakon trembled. “Father – Urska’s gone for Bory! What have I done?”
The cub loped into view between the trees. Only the cub. The guard bears had gone.
Encircled by yaegers, the Grandmother continued through the trees, step after step. “Come. We called Old Snapbeak. He will see you.”
Father set his hand too hard on Drakon’s shoulder. “The dragon.”