Bloodsalt. There used to be a city here. Skjorl had never seen it in its glory and never would because that had been gone for more than a year. Burned. Flattened. Crushed. The alchemists said it had been the first city to fall when the dragons had broken loose, the first place they’d gone after shattering the tower at Outwatch. The first and now the furthest from the few companies of the Adamantine Men who still survived. Skjorl watched the sun set behind it. There was nothing left, nothing but ash and sand and salt and ruin. The dragons had damned the river. Changed its course. Whatever they hadn’t burned, whoever had stayed hidden, they’d been left to parch in the relentless sun. The more foolish probably tried to drink from the lake; they would have been the ones to die first, for the waters of Bloodsalt had earned their name. As for the rest, the last survivors? Skjorl had walked past their bones, scattered along the Sapphire valley.
Now he lay on the top of a low hill, squeezed between two rocks and half hidden beneath a thorn bush, old and dead and dried. The river had found its way through the dragon dam in time, but not until everyone here was long dead. Nonetheless he kept absolutely still. There was one other thing at Bloodsalt. There were dragons.
His fingers tightened around the haft of his axe, closer to him and cared for with more tenderness than any lover. He squinted. Two adults. The same two adults he’d seen every day for more than a week now as he and what was left of his company of men eased their way along the Sapphire River valley towards the lake and the ruins of the old city. Two adults and perhaps a score of hatchlings. More dragons than any of them had ever seen in the year since the Adamantine Palace had burned.
The Adamantine Men had done their duty when the dragons first awoke. To eyrie after eyrie, the word had come before the dragons did. Quietly and without fuss, the alchemists had slipped poison into the potions they fed to the dragons, adults and hatchlings alike. Quietly and without fuss, the dragons had burned from the inside and died. And while they were burning, the Adamantine Men had taken their hammers and their axes. They’d marched into the hatcheries and the egg rooms, and they’d done what needed to be done. In some places, there had been fighting between the Adamantine Men and soldiers loyal to the eyrie masters or the dragon-king or queen who owned him. Always and without exception, they were fights that the Adamantine Men won. Across the realms, eggs had been smashed, dragons poisoned.
Except here. Here and Outwatch. Had Bloodsalt had any warning? They’d had seconds at Outwatch. Seconds and that had still very nearly been enough.
“Any kills boss?” whispered a voice in the thorns beside him. “I don’t see any kills.”
“No.” Skjorl shook his head. There was nothing to eat near Bloodsalt for anything larger than a sand-lizard, much less a dragon. The adults probably flew out up into the Oordish Moors to feed, hundreds of miles away, but they always came back. The hatchlings? He didn’t know if they’d go so far. He was hoping not, otherwise they were all wasting their time.
“Bollocks.” The thorns rustled angrily. Skjorl stayed silent. No kills. No kills meant nothing to poison. Until there was something to poison, they’d stay where they were, hiding in the dust and the salt, drinking brackish water, eating their own boots and being bitten to death by sand flies. He could live with that if it meant taking down a dragon. Skjorl had his own cask of dragon-poison, more than enough for a full-grown adult. He had his axe, too, in case they got as far as the eggs. Yes, he could wait right enough.
They’d had a hatchling in a cave at Outwatch. A rogue the Mad Queen had made. The old greybeard who ran the eyrie had let slip what it was and that had been good enough for Skjorl, good enough to kit up in dragonscale armour, dismantle a scorpion and carry it down to the hatchling caves. The dragon had strained at its chains and spat fire at them but the chains had held. They’d carried the scorpion in pieces to the far end of its cave, to the hole in the cliff-face where the sunlight and the open air poured in. They’d carefully built it back together while the hatchling watched them like a hawk. Somehow the first shot had missed. Then he’d looked outside and he’d seen the white horror gliding through the sky towards them. Riderless. Coming home. The greybeard had taken the scorpion for himself. Skjorl hadn’t waited. He’d run, shoving his men out in front of him, last one out, slamming the door as he went. Didn’t pause to see what became of the eyrie master. Death walked beside every Adamantine Man. When it came, it came quickly and you went one of two ways, crispy or crunchy. They’d run and run, all through the tunnels under Outwatch as the citadel came smashing down. They’d taken their hammers and their axes. Eggs smashed. Hatchlings murdered, the little ones butchered, the bigger ones fed poison. He’d taken servants and slaves and Scales and battered them and strapped skins of poison to them, then thrown them to the howling monsters to be devoured. They’d have been dead anyway if he hadn’t. And amid the screaming and the blood and the fire that came after, an unexpected smile had stretched across his face. The dragons had awoken. The end of the world had begun. It was what he’d been made for.
The same smile was still there. Crispy. The eyrie master had gone the crispy way. For ordinary men there was a third way, the starving to death under the ground way. That was something that would never happen to him, but he didn’t mind a bit of waiting, not if there was a reason for it. He’d have gone face to face with the dragons of Outwatch if there’d been a purpose to it, but there hadn’t. So he’d waited them out, and they’d left. Left him and his company, what remained of them, stranded in the middle of the desert, a hundred miles from anywhere, surrounded by ash and ruin.
It had been a lot like this.
The sun slipped below the horizon and darkness wrapped the salt plains. Skjorl eased himself out from under his thorn bush and crept back down the hill and into the chaos of rock-heaps where the other Adamantine Men were waiting, still and quiet. There were seven of them left, a poor shadow of the fifty-odd that had left the Purple Spur three months ago. There was Jex, who’d been with him in Outwatch and ever since. Vish, too. Jasaan he’d picked up on his way south, in what was left of Sand after the dragons had finished with it. Kasern, Relk and Marran, they’d come later when he’d trekked his way from Sand all through the dead Blackwind Dales as far as the Silver River and finally found what passed for the remains of civilisation, hiding out in the caves and chasms that reached from one side of the Spur to the other. Jex and Vish, they were his squad. They’d spent the best part of a year together, struggling every day not to be dead. The rest, they were all Adamantine Men and three months creeping up the length of the Sapphire River had told him everything he needed to know. They were alive while everyone else wasn’t. They were survivors. The best.
“Stay alive?” Vish tossed over a skin half full of water from the river. It tasted warm and foul. Everything out here was too hot. He drank, though. The taste was something he’d come to know. The bitterness and nausea and blood-iron tang of the powders the alchemists had given them. Mix with water and drink at least once a day so the dragons don’t find you. Skjorl had no idea what that meant or how it worked, but it was true that dragons usually had a way of knowing where you were, no matter how well you hid. They’d found that out the hard way crossing the Blackwind Dales.
He tossed the skin to Jex. It was also true that on their trip up the Sapphire River, the dragons had seemed not to notice them. Maybe they’d been lucky, although seven left from more than half a hundred was an odd kind of luck. But he took his potion, however bad it tasted, and he’d keep taking it. Given how many of them were left, there wasn’t much chance they’d be running out any time soon.
“Waiting, is it?”
Skjorl nodded. Waiting. Three months it had taken them to get this far. They could do waiting. And then they’d be done and then maybe they’d spend three months getting back home again, and if that’s how it was, that’s how it was.
Jex tipped the skin and poured water into his mouth. He tossed it back towards Vish but Kasern snatched it out of the air. He picked up another one and held them out in one hand, dangling half-empty next to each other. “What’s that then?”
Relk shook his head and turned away. Jex and Vish were laughing.
“Tits,” Marran spat. “That’s what that is. I could murder for a good pair of tits.”
“That’s not just any tits.” Jex rubbed his crotch and nudged Skjorl. “That woman from Scarsdale, she had tits like that, eh? Old and saggy and wrinkled and yet oddly firm.” He chuckled to himself.
“More like two giant balls in a giant ball-sac, they were.” Vish wrinkled his nose.
“Didn’t see you minding at the time.”
“Didn’t see anyone minding at the time,” grunted Skjorl. Four months they’d been when they’d reached Scarsdale. Four months from Outwatch. Past Sand, black and smashed to bits. Past Evenspire, which just wasn’t there any more except the Palace of Paths, so big and so massive that even dragons couldn’t knock it flat. Four months and mostly all they’d seen were blackened corpses. Everything in the Blackwind Dales was dead even before the dragons. And then they’d got to Scarsdale. Twelve people they’d found there, hiding in the copper mines, creeping out at night for water from the Dragon River, eating fish and fresh-water crabs and whatever roots and leaves would grow by the river.
“Shit-eaters, all of you,” grumbled Jasaan. “And what about the other one? You remember her?”
Shit. This again. Skjorl tensed.
“Sweet Vishmir but she was ripe. If she was here now . . .” Vish leered.
“If she was here now you’d tie her up and show her your adamantine cock.” Jex licked his lips.
“Not before I showed her mine. Except I wouldn’t be needing any rope. She’d be begging for it.”
Skjorl punched Jex in the arm. “Old soldiers first, boy.” He scowled. “Marran, put them away. We’ve none of us had a woman for months. My balls are full to bursting.”
“Any more of this and I’m going to start wanting to fuck the sand flies!”
“Lai’s dick!” Jasaan waved his arms. His voice rode over the others. “You . . .” He had words to say. Anyone could see that, but they were old words and had been said before and no one else gave a shit about Scarsdale and all the things that had happened there, no one except Jasaan. “You’re . . .” But by then, Skjorl had slipped like an eel round behind him and clamped a hand firmly over his mouth.
“Shhh,” he whispered in Jasaan’s ear. “These lovely potions don’t make a dragon deaf, so keep your voice down. You got something to say to me, you say it. But quiet like.”
Jasaan glared at him. He shook his head.
“No, I thought not.”
The soldiers fell quiet, sitting still and alert as the sun sank and the sky darkened. They’d become night people in the last year and a half. The dragons flew in daylight and slept – or whatever it was they did – at night, and so the Adamantine Men learned to be otherwise. At night they moved. Never too far though, never so far that they couldn’t be sure of shelter come the dawn. Sometimes that meant they travelled for hours, found nothing and went back to where they’d been the night before. On the worst part of their trip up the Sapphire River they’d spent six nights in the same cave. And that had been trouble too. The longer you stayed in a place, the more signs you left. Dragons were good at spotting signs.
Back then they’d numbered more than twenty-five. Now they were seven. Seven was a lot easier to hide. The way back would be quicker than the way here. A month, Skjorl thought. Not three. He crossed his fingers and hugged his axe and thought a little prayer to the Great Flame.
“Fucking dragons,” spat Marran.
Skjorl closed his eyes. “Easy lads,” he murmured. “They’ll go hunting sometime. We just wait here until they do.” He stretched. “Then we slip in, slow and easy and do what Adamantine Men were born to do. We kill dragons.” He grinned and let out a little growl. “A month from now we’ll be back in the Sapphire Valley and Jex can stop making love-eyes at the sand flies.”
“Yeah.” Vish laughed. “He can make them at the snappers instead.”
“Snapper wants a piece of me, it’ll be a sharp one.” Relk gripped his spear.
“Yeah, but Jex’s got a spear that’s every bit as hard, just not quite as sharp.” A low rumble of laughter rippled among the men. Skjorl looked about. Jasaan was gone, moved off a little while back after Skjorl had told him to shut up. It was dark now, desert dark with clear air and a bright moon and a thousand stars. Still, he wasn’t about to get up and look. Man wanted to be on his own, that was his privilege, especially at night when there weren’t dragons overhead. He grinned to himself. Jasaan was probably thinking about sand flies too. Or of the woman from Scarsdale. Not the old one, but the young one. The one with the soft skin and the hair like fur. How grateful she’d been for an Adamantine Man.
Sometimes men did terrible things, Skjorl had come to realise. When they knew there was no one to hold them to account, yes, sometimes men did terrible things. And sometimes they enjoyed them, more than was right. And that was just the way of the world.
He sniffed, looked up, heard the slightest noise and was on his feet in a moment, sword half-drawn. But it was only Jasaan. He cocked his head.
“Feeling better? No harm meant. I know how it is.”
Jasaan shrugged. There was hate in those eyes. Skjorl didn’t even need to see it any more, he’d seen it so much. But Jasaan was a weak one. Too bothered with staying alive.
Jasaan looked away and spat. He tipped his head back towards the quiet rustling waters of the Sapphire river. “Went for a little walk. Know what I found? I found a tunnel half-filled with water. Want to know where it goes?” He pointed straight towards the distant remains of Bloodsalt, and to the dragons that stood between them. “That’s where. Right into the city.”