“Well, it’s not my fault you didn’t wear your coat!” he replied. “I was able to don this entire suit of armor and put the new blade on my war lance in the time it took you to tie your hair back into your tiara.”
“You could have waited a few more minutes!” she said, turning her head from him and crossing her arms.
“You know Berephor wouldn’t have sent that messenger if it weren’t an urgent matter! He relies on us to defend the northern outposts from the Ogrillon raiders that show up every autumn.”
Alshoa rolled his eyes and turned his attention to the land below. He couldn’t stand it when she pouted like this. The rolling hills and lush green grasses of northern Antesia spread out beneath him. He could see a shepherd grazing his flock on a hillside, tiny dots barely visible to his human eyes. He was certain that his mount, the black dragon Ashyxlipharus, could see the sheep much more clearly.
As if in response to his thoughts, the dragon dove sharply and flexed her front claws. The spines on the back of her neck raised dangerously and she opened her mouth as if ready to feed.
“Ash, no!” yelled Alshoa as he kicked the dragon in the side. Reflexively he tightened his grip on Shanna as their speed increased.
“Losing control of your dragon?” she asked in a mocking tone. “Perhaps if you didn’t treat your women so poorly we might do as you ask every once in a while.”
Alshoa glanced at her with irritation as he reined in the feisty dragon. Shanna’s bare skin was red from the cold air rushing over it.
Well, it’s her own damn fault, he thought.
The dragon responded to his directions, the ground still a safe distance beneath them. Ash’s deadly spines slowly began to lay back down against her neck as she settled into a level glide. The dragon rolled her head and snorted loudly to indicate her displeasure at the interrupted meal. Whatever it was she had spotted was still well outside Alshoa’s ability to spot it.
“We aren’t out here hunting, we have important business to see to,” said Alshoa commandingly. He had trained many young dragons in the past few years and the blacks were always the hardest to control. They were known for their ferocity in combat and their keen tracking abilities. They balanced these traits with a relatively low intelligence and obstinate nature, however, both of which made them difficult to train as mounts.
As Alshoa shuffled through different obedience exercises that could help him with Ash, Shanna’s sharp voice broke through the wind. “Gee, we couldn’t have stopped at that town to get me a coat.”
Alshoa looked behind them to see a small village receding below into the distance. “Why don’t you just cast a warmth spell on yourself and get over it?!” he replied.
“Oh, so now you’re suddenly interested in my magic! Why, after eight years, are you finding it so useful just now?” asked Shanna.
“I’ve never ignored your magic, Shanna, it’s saved our hides too many times for me not to respect it.”
Alshoa was tired of this argument. Over the years she had tried to teach him to use magic, but even the most basic spells eluded his mind. He had been trained to confront the physical world with the steel in his hand, not to conjure up visions of a power he couldn’t grasp. He had tried to learn, but in the end he could not. After he told her he would try no longer, she accused him of not loving her. No matter how he tried to explain it, she wouldn’t accept that he simply could not grasp the complexities of her art. The matter had flared up from time to time over the past few years, but as time passed it became more of a way for Shanna to hurt him than a real thorn in their relationship.
“Don’t you care that I’m cold?” she said plaintively. She now seemed hurt that her husband would care so little for her.
“I’d certainly that you weren’t cold. If anything it would stop you from complaining this whole trip!” He was trying not to let his anger at her irresponsibility get to him, but he couldn’t help venting a little, especially after her sudden mood swing. He could never understand how she could be so angry one moment and so needy of his love the next. Wasn’t he allowed to be angry?
“Fine then,” she said, obviously injured. “You can just go home yourself after this mission is complete. I’m going to stay at the outpost for a while.”
“Whatever you need, Shanna,” he replied. He knew there was no fighting her when she got in this kind of mood. Anything he said would be used against him; she had a knack for twisting words so they seemed like the most callous of comments. He would just let her work it out herself.
They were coming upon the outpost where they would make contact with Berephor, their long-time friend. Alshoa could make out the smoking remains of orcish siege engines scattered around the valley, but no invading army was in sight. The walls of the fort seemed to have taken some minor damage but were not breached. He pulled Ash into a circling descent and landed in the stable yard below, surrounded by a dozen awed guardsmen and stable workers.
“Good day,” he said. “Ash here can see to her own accommodations, but will you please find her a pair of sheep to munch on while she waits?”
“Yes sir!” snapped a guardsman, recognizing Alshoa as one of the Dragonspear Defenders by the insignia on his armor.
Alshoa turned to help Shanna down, but she had already slid off the dragon’s back and was walking toward the main hall where they would most likely find Berephor. He stopped to make sure Ash was comfortable and then followed her into the building.
“—and then he said he only wanted me to shut up, and—” The rest dissolved into a series of uncontrolled sobs . She was sitting n the floor, her arms wrapped around one of Berephor’s buckskin-clad knees, her head resting on it.
Berephor looked up at Alshoa as he stroked the crying woman’s hair.
“There there, Shanna,” he consoled. “Why don’t you let me have a talk with him?”
“Just make sure he knows I don’t want to go home with him. I’ll
be staying here for a while.” Shanna looked up at the older man through
her tears. She followed his gaze to Alshoa, her tear-streaked face hardening,
her eyes turning icy cold. She rose swiftly to herr feet. “I think I shall
go to help the wounded.
Alshoa nodded. “I think that’s a good idea. I saw several being brought into the common building just as I entered.” He walked toward the table where Berephor was sitting, brushing by Shanna as she stalked from the room. She carefully avoided looking at him and threw her shoulder aside in order not to touch him as they passed. As he set down his helmet, he looked at the old man quizzically.
“What can I do, old friend? I just want her to start being more responsible.”
Berephor looked at Alshoa thoughtfully. “Do you remember what I said to you when the two of you joined the Defenders?”
“Yes, you told me to take different assignments, that we would tire of each other and our relationship would suffer. But we had just gotten married ?”
“Yes, yes, a time of impeccable rationality,” Berephor interrupted with a wry smile. “Sometimes being apart from the person you love is sweeter than being with them. Feeling the emptiness that it leaves in your heart can helps you appreciate the completeness that the other brings.”
“I’m starting to see the wisdom in those words,” Alshoa said bitterly.
“Not in that way, Alshoa. You have to understand that she still loves you, but being with you all the time makes her feel like she is losing herself.” Berephor paused and caught Alshoa’s eyes. “Young couples must often learn how to be apart. Being together is the easy part.”
“Says you,” Alshoa replied. “I guess having her stay here for a while isn’t such a bad idea, then?”
“No, it isn’t. I can use her help anyway, I don’t think the Ogrillons are done with us yet. They have enlisted the aid of the Orcs this time. I think they are under some pressure to take this fort.”
“Ogres?” Alshoa asked.
“Yes, most likely. My scouts haven’t reported back yet, but the Ogres always step up their raids on the Ogrillon settlements this time of year to build their stores for winter.”
“Would you like me to stay, I mean Ash and I could ?”
Berephor laughed. “My boy, we can handle the Orcs without you. You have more important things to turn your attention to.”
“No ‘buts’, I want you to stay the evening and talk with Shanna. Tomorrow morning you will ride back to your home. I’ll send a message back with you, it will arrive much more quickly by dragon.” Berephor suddenly smiled and pushed his chair back. “Wait here, I have something for you.”
Alshoa sat in the chair wondering what he would say to Shanna. Berephor may have given him good advice, but Shanna wasn’t going to like it just the same. Even though she had insisted on staying back, he knew the moment that he suggested that it might be a good idea she would turn it back on him.
“Don’t you want to be with me?” he could hear her asking. As he was muttering to himself about the impossibility of understanding women, Berephor returned holding a magnificent garment in his hands.
“This robe was created from the skin of a Griffon and the feathers of a River Couatl.”
Alshoa stared in amazement at the beautiful robe. Blue-green feathers that seemed to glow in the sunglight coming through the window covered it entirely. They seemed to shimmer as Berephor held the robe out to Alshoa.
“I think it will be a suitable peace offering to give her when
you apologize,” the older man stated.
Alshoa ran his hands ran over the soft feathers and then the material inside. Despite being made from the tough hide of a Griffon, the robe felt as light as silk in his hands. As he brushed the material with the back of his hand, he felt the robe give off heat in response to his movements. Yes, Shanna would definitely love this. Then Berephor’s comment registered. “Apologize for what?”
“I know you thought she was being irresponsible,” said Berephor, “but you also don’t give her much of a chance to be a woman, you know. She wants to be beautiful for you!”
“You’re right, I suppose,” conceded Alshoa. “She really wasn’t much of an adventurer before she met me. Sometimes I wonder if her heart is even in it.”
“She is a good woman, Alshoa, she has been an invaluable member of the Defenders since the two of you joined. Women often start to have other urges as they grow older, however.”
Alshoa sighed.. “Don’t say it, my friend.”
“Have you ever thought about children, Alshoa?”
Alshoa nearly dropped the beautiful robe. “Ack! I told you not to say it man! I’ve feared that day for some time now. I’m not ready to be a father, there is so much more work to be done.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Alshoa! The Defender’s Code does it preclude its dragon riders from having children.” A sly smile crept onto Berephor’s face. “Think about it! A little crying boy to take care of, to put to sleep, to teach the virtues that his mother and father hold so dear!”
Alshoa frowned.. “You may be on to something! She has been alluding to an emptiness in her life for the past few weeks, but I just chalked it up to her usual moodiness…” He trailed off. Folding and refolding the robe in his hands, he walked toward the door.
“Do try to be sincere, Alshoa!” Berephor cried after him.
Alshoa found Shanna in the makeshift hospital where the men who had been wounded in the previous day’s battle were being treated. She was moving from bed to bed helping where she could, bringing the men water and healing herbs and even casting minor spells to help the most grievously wounded ignore their pain.
He stood there watching for several minutes until one of the other nurses came up to him and asked if he needed help.
“No, I’m waiting on someone,” he replied. When he looked back to where she had been, she was gone. He frowned, and decided to speak with her in the evening. There was no need to take her away from the work she was doing. As he turned to leave he was startled. Shanna was standing right behind him with a nasty look on her face.
“What are you doing here,” she said venomously.
“I thought we should talk. Here, I’ve brought you this.” He unfolded the robe and held it out for her to see.
“Oh my!” She gasped. Alshoa watched her eyes grow wide with shock and knew with certainty that it was the most beautiful garment she had ever seen. “Where did you get it?”
“That’s not important. What is important is that I wanted to tell you I’m sorry.”
There, he had said it.
She looked up from the robe as if it no longer existed, her eyes watery with tears. She stared into her husband’s face as if it were the first time she had seen it. “I’m sorry too…” she said as she started to cry.
He moved close to her, and she fell into his arms and wept. He held her for a long time, stroking her soft hair and whispering words of love into her ear.
After some time she finally settled down enough to speak to him. As she wiped the tears away and folded the robe carefully, setting it on a nearby bench, she beckoned him to sit down. He sat, taking her hand and stroking the soft skin before clenching it tightly between his hands, warming it.
Shanna smiled sweetly at her husband. She was nervous and her hesitancy must have shown because Alshoa’s face began to wrinkle with concern.
“What is it, Shanna my love?” he asked.
Her wrinkled forehead betrayed her emotions, and she finally decided there was no turning back. Placing her hand on her stomach gently, she looked him in the eye.
“There’s something I’ve got to tell you.”