First master yourself - Editor
by Kristen Davis
The roar of the cheering crowd pounded in Ash’s ears. He tightened his grip on his spear. The first wyvern, the aquamarine male, lay twitching as he gasped his last breaths. Ash’s attention was on the jade-green female circling him. She bled from several minor spear-pricks. Her glittery cold eyes followed his every move.
The wyvern feinted to the right then darted for Ash’s heel with her long, snake-like neck. Her beak clacked in frustration when he dodged the crippling strike. Ash swung the knotted end of his rope, teasing her like a kitten, tempting her to pounce and expose herself. She scorned the distraction. He moved closer, one step at a time, knowing she was trying the same game on him. Lightning-quick, she bounded forward with a great roar, throwing wide her slashed wings in an attempt to startle him into fright. Ash stood his ground. A practiced hook of his wrist sent the rope’s noose end sailing over her head. She balked and twisted as it tightened around her throat. Ash snapped the rope taut and walked deliberately forward into the center of her vision. The crowd’s gasp was audible. The slightest hint of fear would trigger her predatory instincts, and he would die instantly between her teeth. But Ash had never feared a wyvern.He jerked again and watched her keen eyes narrow as she connected the irritation to his presence. Spreading her wings, she tested the air but did not jump. Perhaps she could sense it must fail. Ash sighed. She had proven intelligent and spirited. If only the delicate jade membranes of her wings had not already been slashed. He hated this part of his job. Out of nowhere, her snout shot at him and gashed his bare shoulder. He cursed his brief lapse of focus and brandished his spear in her face. She screeched. Ash pressed forward, threatening her with its point. She batted it away with long, curved talons, but he whipped it around and jabbed her elbow. Her scream told him he was nearing his goal. He backed off a few paces. Too enraged for caution, the wyvern launched herself towards her tormentor. Ash raced forward and planted his spear in the ground so that her scaly breast was transfixed upon it. His aim was perfect; it slid squarely into her heart as she sank to the sands. He watched the light in her eyes flicker out. The crowd stood in thunderous ovation.
Sweaty, tired, and bleeding, Ash walked off the field in hollow triumph only to be stopped by two men with maces looped through their belts.
“What is it, gentlemen?”
“You’re under arrest for evasion of debt.”
Ash stiffened. “There’s been some mistake. I don’t owe anyone.”
“This your seal?” The man unrolled a handwritten contract. His partner grabbed Ash’s arm and held up his fingers.
“Matches this signet you’re wearing right enough.”
It did seem to match his signet, and below the impressed wax, Ash recognized his own stark signature. “That’s not possible. I don’t understand; I haven’t--hey, Dan, give me a hand here.”
The gatekeeper shook his head. “Sorry, Ash. Sure looks like your seal to me.”
The men forced his hands behind his back and clasped shackles around his wrists. “Come on. Anything you have to say, you’ll have to say to your accuser.”
The men led him a winding course past the slave market, through littered alleys and narrow streets that stank with refuse. At last they reached a massive brick building fenced with spiked iron. A door opened onto a stairway descending into a dank cellar.
“What is this? Where are you taking me?” Something had been wrong from the beginning. Battle-weariness was no excuse for letting himself be led into a trap. What would Sarai think if she saw him now? He realized they would have to pause to get him through the door. The moment he felt the man on his right release his grip and move forward, Ash slammed into the man on his left and dashed across the courtyard. His bound hands slowed him and confused his balance. As he reached the still-open gate, the men caught him and threw him down on the flagstones. Ash heard the thwack of his head hitting the ground and knew no more.
When he came to, he couldn’t tell if he’d opened his eyes or not. Everything was dark. His wrists were chained to the wall on either side. He pushed himself to his feet and winced as the circulation returned to his hands. The pain in his shoulder where the wyvern had sliced it open almost made him sick.
Ash wished he’d never left the clean, hot desert for the city. It had seemed like the only thing to do, the fastest way to make a name for himself and earn the money he needed so that he could pay Sarai’s bride-price and bring her into his own tent at last. His master had gently chided his impatience, but had not forbidden him to break off his training and go.
“A man who would master wyverns must first master himself,” the old man had told him. “If you pursue that in the city, it will not be wasted time. But I think you will find that piercing a wyvern’s heart in the arena will pierce your heart as well.”
His words had proven true, Ash reflected, though he suspected he was as far from self-mastery as ever. He heard footsteps on stairs. The approaching light of a torch revealed hundreds of wine casks racked against the walls around him. A pair of black leather boots, their toes and heels capped with steel, came into view.
Ash raised his head to meet his captor’s gaze. “What do you want with me? You know as well as I there is no debt.”
“No debt of yours personally, perhaps. But you certainly owe me on your family’s behalf. I’m Hydor Bena. Maybe now you understand?”
Ash spat. “Bena. I know who you are. You may own everything in the city, but you don’t own the desert tribes. We owe you nothing.”
“The desert tribes?” Bena burst into laughter. “Poor boy, don’t you remember your own people?”
“The tribes are my people.”
“You really don’t remember?”
Ash struggled to mask a sudden loss of his bearings. “I remember the wyverns. I remember being tossed in the air and falling again and again until my body was so glutted with pain that nothing else existed for me. I remember their cold eyes and their sharp teeth and thinking they were beautiful. I remember the man who lifted me from the rocks and told me I was born to be a wyvern master. That’s the day my life began.”
Bena shook his head pityingly. “Ever heard of the Zanottes?”
“Who hasn’t? The last noblemen of the city, the only ones who dared stand against you? Until you wiped them out, of course.”
“All but one, it seems.”
“Who do you mean?”
“Look at your ring.”
“Every ignorant camel driver still knows the Zanotte seal. That’s not it.”
“That’s their bastard arms. You don’t think I’d have let a legitimate heir slip my net? I took care of them with my own hands. I trusted you to an underling. He kidnapped you and threw you in that wyverns’ nest. That’s what happens when you rely on help. Funny world, though. Turns out it’s my good luck you survived. The Zanotte will was written up tight to keep me out of the money, even though I should have been next in line. In the event of the whole family dying, the fortune reverts to the king after twenty years. And then you show up, just in time.”
“So what do you think you’ll get out of it? If I’m the last Zanotte, whatever there is belongs to me.”
“Ah. That’s where it gets interesting. You see, according to the law, all possessions of a slave become the property of his master. And anyone who defaults on his debts becomes a slave to pay them back.”
“There’s no debt!”
“The law won’t see it that way. No one’s going to look too closely at Bena’s papers. You said yourself I own this city. You’re mine, boy. I must say I appreciate getting the best wyvern fighter the city’s seen in years in addition to the Zanotte fortune.”
“You can’t slash my wings and keep me on the ground. You can’t imagine I’ll go along quietly?”
“My, my. You look rather slashed to me even now.” Bena prodded the raw flesh of his shoulder. Ash wanted to snarl in Bena’s face like a wyvern, but he held himself perfectly still, refusing to acknowledge the agony.
He spoke with a growl. “If any pain or any fate in this world could frighten me, I’d have been dead a thousand times over. There’s no fooling a wyvern about fear.”
“Your physical bravery I believe, although it might be entertaining to put it to the test. But what if isn’t for yourself? What if, for instance, Sarai were the one here screaming?”
“You’ll never lay hands on her.” How had Bena known?
“You might be surprised how far my influence reaches. Perhaps you don’t really want to find out.” Bena stood back and appraised him for a long moment. “I’ll leave you with those pleasant thoughts to ponder.” He walked away, taking the light with him.
As soon as he was alone, Ash let out the cry he’d been holding back. “Damn you, Bena! Damn you!” He jerked at his chains but knew even as he did that rage and panic would get him nowhere. He needed to stay calm. What if Bena had men after Sarai already? What if they murdered her father and raped her laughing sisters? What if--no. This is fear, and fear means death. Fighting for control, he took a deep breath, then another. He thought back to the beginning, to the dusk when his master had laid his fingers on the throat of a broken, battered boy to check for a pulse. Ash’s eyes had fluttered open.
“You didn’t fear them, son?” The voice had been steady and warm.
Images of the wyverns had rushed back upon him: rainbow colors, flashing wings. Their playfulness as they slung their new toy through the air.
“No,” Ash had croaked.
“Come with me.” And the old man had gathered him into his arms.
Ash searched within for the strength his master had seen in him from that first day. It must not abandon him now. A faint noise snapped him back to reality. He pressed his ear to the stones. Dimly he heard a wyvern’s screech. Bena must be trafficking them to the arena and holding them here on arrival. Ash wondered how far off this one was and how it was restrained. If there were the slightest chance...
He began to keen in high-pitched, piteous moans like a wounded animal. If he could hear the wyvern, its sharper ears could hear him. As time wore on, he let his misery and pain flow into his cries until he was so absorbed in this release that he did not notice the frantic scrabbling at the other end of the cellar. A crash of stone and wine casks made him hush. A tingle of anticipation ran down his spine. A ray of light entered the cellar and, behind it, the long, tapered snout of a ruby-red wyvern.
Carefully Ash tested his bonds. He groped along one chain, stretching uncomfortably, until he found where the other end was attached. The wyvern was nosing through the casks, knocking them around and overturning whole racks in search of prey, but without the fear-smell as guide, it would not recognize him as something to be eaten. Wine from burst vessels ran over the ground and gleamed in the half-light. Ash turned his attention back to the chain. It was looped around the post of a wine-rack and padlocked upon itself. His slim-bladed knife was hidden inside his belt, if it had not been taken by Bena’s henchmen, but he couldn’t reach it. He looked closer at the wine-rack’s construction. The chain was fastened underneath the top shelf, which rested on two slim strips running from front to back, as if it had been added as an afterthought. If he could shove it off and break that strip...
Ash grabbed his chains and, ignoring the pain in his shoulder, launched himself in a violent overhead kick. His foot brushed against the shelf, but it did not budge. Adjusting his aim, he kicked even higher. The boards collapsed on edge, sending barrels tumbling. The wyvern pivoted towards the sound. It watched with ear-crests fanned wide. Ash froze. He couldn’t handle its curiosity captive and vulnerable. It appeared to be young, no more than adolescent. A female.
A man’s voice shouted from the direction of the stairs. “What’s going on down there?”
Ash heard the door open. The wyvern heard it too. Ash used the moment of distraction to smash the strip of wood with a powerful punch that left his knuckles bloody and stinging. He flung the loop of chain over the top of the post and reached for his knife. It was still there. Small blessings, he thought with a grin. Just then a man came tramping down the stairs. He stopped in his tracks when he saw the red wyvern.
He didn’t have time to say more. The wyvern pounced upon him so quickly Ash hardly saw her move. Ash worked his knife-tip furiously into the fetter-lock on his left wrist and sighed in relief as it clicked open. Letting his own instincts rule, he ran towards the wyvern, who had ripped the man’s throat out, and leapt upon her back. She’d given him a perfect opening. He smacked her neck with the chain still attached to his right, not too hard, below her ear-crests where an older wyvern would bite to chastise the unruly young. She whistled in apologetic surprise. He jumped down and shoved her roughly away from her kill, praying she was still enough of a baby not to challenge him. He swallowed hard against the distastefulness of what he must do next. In a flight of wyverns, the leader ate first. He took his knife, slit open the man’s belly and plunged his arms in up to his elbows, struggling not to throw up. Let her smell the blood on him. It would be enough. He waited as long as he judged the red wyvern could control her hunger and fed her with his own hands, first the man’s liver, then strips of his flesh. Let her learn that all food came from him now. He heard scurrying footsteps outside and abandoned thoughts of leaving the way he’d entered. It wasn’t right to let more people die whose only crime was working for Bena. He whistled to the untamed wyvern and clacked in the back of his throat, imitating the sound for “Follow!” Whether from curiosity or relief at finding an authority again, she obeyed. Ash led her back through the hole she had opened in the wall. On the other side was a bare chamber, its floor covered with a thin layer of straw. There was room for only a single wyvern. Ash scowled. Wyverns hated being alone. He crossed to the door, which was fastened on the outside. Sliding his knife between door and jamb, he popped the iron latch up and grabbed the edge of the door to keep it from swinging open. No one was in the passage. Ash slipped out with the wyvern close behind him. A breath of fresher air drew him to the left.
Another door blocked the end of the corridor. He edged it open and crept around the corner first. He gasped at what lay ahead. A huge green garden, lush with flowers and fruit, richened with the music of running water and the incense of fragrant blossoms, was sheltered under the expanse of a glass roof.
Bena stood beside a fountain in the middle of the garden. “Well. Aren’t you the resourceful one?”
Ash grinned fiercely. “You picked the wrong Zanotte to mess with!” He relished the sound of his new-found name. His hand went to the door to release sudden death upon his foe. “Tell me, Bena, are you afraid of wyverns?”
The widening of Bena’s eyes and his quick glance at the door gave Ash his answer. They both knew Bena would have no time to reach cover before the wyvern would have him. But something kept Ash from jerking the door open.
He who would master wyverns must first master himself. That meant this cold rage inside him must not be allowed its head. He had to consider what was right, whether Bena chose to do so or not. He closed his eyes briefly. The wyvern had already caught the smell of fear and was clawing at the wooden door.
“Run, Bena.” Ash spoke softly, but Bena’s startled face assured him he had heard. “Run!”
As soon as he heard Bena’s door-slammed exit, Ash let the wyvern through. She streaked past to where Bena had stood, then tracked him across the garden until she realized he was gone and lost interest in the scent. She circled back to Ash and purred inquisitively as if to say, “What now?”
“Now, my beauty, we leave this place behind!” He perched between her wings and spurred her with a kick into flight. They soared up, up until with a tinkling crash and a shower of breaking crystal, they were through the roof and into the clear blue sky beyond.