Authors: Jane Yolen
"I will fill my bag myself," he murmured, stroking the leather bag with two fingers.
When he entered the barn, the rush of cool air revived him. He wandered around the stalls, pausing for a minute at the empty one that had housed Blood Brother. He wondered whom they would pair with Flag now and if the dragon suffered from the loss of his companion. From the sounds of dedicated chewing coming from Flag's stall, it was hard to believe he had even noticed Brother was gone.
I should have checked the work list,
Jakkin thought, seeing neither Slakk nor Errikkin. Then, hearing a complaining voice from farther down the hall, he followed it to the stalls where Blood Spoor and Blood Bather, a pair of red-gold four-year-olds, were housed.
Slakk's voice came from Bather's stall. Jakkin climbed up carefully, winced, and
looked over. Both Slakk and Errikkin were on their knees, trimming the dragon's nails.
"These nails are butter soft," Slakk was saying. "Look, the hasp leaves grooves. I don't want to be blamed for ruining him."
"No one will blame you, Slakk," said Errikkin. "And I'll back you up."
"What's the use of trimming them anyway?" Slakk continued. "This one isn't going to be any good in the pit with those nails. Or for catching a female either. Why do you suppose Sarkkhan keeps him?"
"I think he should go to the stews," Slakk finished.
"You think they
should go to the stews," Jakkin said from his perch. "Maybe it's a re-trait and not a
Maybe the soft nails won't be passed on. Trust Master Sarkkhan to know."
"Jakkin!" both boys cried. Errikkin stood up immediately and smiled, but Slakk was suddenly very busy with the hasp again.
"Don't worry, Slakk," Jakkin added. "I don't blame you for anything. I can fill my bag myself."
Slakk looked up, but his small-eyed face was wiped free of expression. He put his hand over his bag, completely covering it. "What should you blame me for?" he asked.
Errikkin stepped between them, reached up, and touched Jakkin's hand. "We've missed you," he said. "Slakk especially. He's had to do twice as much work as before. Or so he says."
Gingerly Jakkin climbed down from the fence and walked to the stall door. Errikkin lifted the latch and came out, shutting the door behind him. Slakk remained inside, ostensibly trimming the rest of the dragon's nails.
"I seem to have missed a lot," Jakkin said slowly.
Errikkin, sensing an opportunity to please, filled him in. His tendency was to elaborate on the accident and the killing of Blood Brother. Not wanting to make Errikkin suspicious, Jakkin did not hurry him through the story. So he heard twice about the shots that had destroyed the beast and how Likkarn had sworn that, in his haste and fear, he had mistakenly pushed the regulator past Stun to Kill.
"Even though you have to push extra hard to change the setting," Errikkin added. Then he acted out Sarkkhan's reaction when he found the old trainer smoking blisterweed in the bondhouse.
"Sarkkhan said, 'You've always hated that dragon, Likkarn.' " Errikkin tried to lower his voice as deep as the nursery owner's. " 'You bet your bag on him and lost and you hated him for it.' 'No, Master Sarkkhan, I
that worm. Raised him from a hatchling myself, I did,' Likkarn said as the smoke trickled out of his mouth." Errikkin put his hand over his bag in imitation.
"And what did Master Sarkkhan say to that?" Jakkin asked.
Errikkin was interrupted by Slakk, who came out of the stall now that the story was past his part in it. "He said, 'How many chances can I give you, Likkarn? We've known each other a long time. We were boys together. But how long can I trust a weeder?' "
"And then Likkarn saidâ" Errikkin tried to add.
"No, then Likkarn began to go into fury and jumped off his bunk screaming,
'There's no difference between us but half a bag!'
And he ripped off his bag, which really
half-full, and threw it into Sarkkhan's face. And then he followed the bag and leapt at Master Sarkkhan and started hitting him." Slakk finished the story so quickly he was out of breath.
Jakkin shook his head. "Crazy. Weeders are crazy. Even in blister fury Likkarn's no match for Master Sarkkhan. Sarkkhan must have killed him."
"No, that's the funny part," said Errikkin. "He only held the old man's arms until the fury wore itself out. Then he pushed Likkarn back on the bed and with tears in his eyes said, 'I'm sorry, Likkarn. Sorry for all we've meant to one another. Sorry for all the years we shared. But for the sake of the others, for the sake of Blood Brother, I'm going to have to break you. It's back to stallboy.' And he emptied Likkarn's bag into his hand, pocketed all the gold but the grave coin, and put the empty bag gently on the bed beside him."
Slakk nodded. "That's true. And we know because Akki was there and the doctor. And the doctor told Kkarina, and she toldâ"
"Akki?" Jakkin looked puzzled. "What was she doing in the men's quarters? In Likkarn's room?"
Slakk smiled slyly. "She gets around. Around a lot. She was with the doctor and Sarkkhan when they went looking for Likkarn. Someone said he had been injured and they had already dealt with you."
"And I overheard some of it when I went to visit you in the hospice," Errikkin said.
"I don't remember you there."
Errikkin laughed and put his arm over Jakkin's shoulder. Jakkin winced at the weight and Errikkin pulled away. "You were out of it. For days and days. They finally made us get back to work and leave you alone."
"Not alone," suggested Slakk slyly. "I understand Akki stayed there all night."
"Yes, all night," Jakkin said fiercely, but he added, "I was out of it, as you said. And besides, she was just being a nurse."
The boys looked down at the ground as if a gulf had suddenly opened between them. Then Jakkin asked brightly, "Well, what else happened?"
"That's it," Slakk replied, turning and going back into the stall. "Are you going to help us finish?"
Errikkin pushed Jakkin away. "You look too white and shaky. Go on and rest. Slakk and I will finish up without you. After all, it isn't as if we had been expecting you to work today."
Suddenly Jakkin's head began to hurt again. He moved his shoulders up and down to test them. Pain shot tendrils along his spine. "Maybe I
go and lie down. Just today." He turned to go. Then, with as much offhandedness as he could muster, he asked, "How did the hatching go?"
Errikkin held up his hand in the wide-fingered greeting that meant everything was fine.
Slakk's voice floated back over the fence in a whine. "Come on, lizard lump, give me a hand."
Errikkin shrugged and gave a slight smile.
"It went fine. Supposed to have been the best hatching in years. See you at dinner."
Jakkin nodded and left. He didn't dare ask any more. That would seem suspicious. He would, indeed, have to fill his bag himself.
AKING HIS WAY
back to the bondhouse, Jakkin was suddenly aware of being hungry. He certainly couldn't fall asleep with his stomach making enough noise to wake the entire nursery. Perhaps Kkarina would let him have something to take back to his bed. She was a funny one, old Kkarina, sometimes easygoing and other times dangerous as a hen dragon after hatching. He would have to go about it carefully. He stroked his bag with one finger as he thought about the best way to approach her.
The door to the kitchen was open, sending out moist, fragrant smells. Jakkin had never been inside. It was a place of familiar mysteries. He stuck his head in tentatively, then let out an involuntary sigh.
Kkarina, standing over a great black pot, looked up. She smiled. "Come on in, come in. I can tell a hungry boy a mile away. Sit down and be my taster. From what I hear, that's about all the work you'll be managing for a few days."
Jakkin grinned wryly. So much for his careful approach. He sat down on a stool by the stove and waited.
Kkarina was a short, dark woman, with shoulders as broad as a man's and a waist that spoke of years of tasting in the kitchen. She wore only a thin, short-sleeved jumper under a leather apron, and there were large gray stains under each arm. When she served the food, her neck and arms were always covered with a shapeless jacket. Jakkin was fascinated by her bare arms. They were vast but not fleshy. She radiated a kind of amused power. Jakkin wasn't actually afraid of her, but he would never want to get her angry. He opened his mouth and tried not to wince as she popped a spoon of pulpy mash into his mouth.
"What do you think?"
"Hot!" he managed at last. He felt the
heat burning all the way down his throat and settling somewhere in his chest.
"Of course it's hot, you baghead. It's right from the pot. But is it good?" She asked the question as if she knew the answer already, as if she dared him to make any judgment other than a positive one.
"It's good," he said, pushing his bag aside and rubbing his chest. "It's very good."
"Of course it is," she nodded. "But it needs a bit more skkargon." She reached up over her head to a shelf of crocks. There were no labels on any of them, but she did not waste time sorting. She knew exactly where the spice was.
Skkargon. Jakkin shuddered. That would make the mash even hotter. Skkargon was compounded of burnwort and something else. He opened his mouth and breathed in and out deeply. The aftertaste of the mash was wonderfully full on his tongue.
"Is that dinner?" he asked, suddenly hopeful.
"This? Of course not. I'll let it cool and put it down in the cellar in a big crock. In a couple of weeks it'll set and we can spread it
on hot buns or slabs of bread." She spoke even as she threw two handfuls of skkargon into the mash and stirred. Without looking up at him, she added, "But if you are recovered enough to eat something solid, you'll find extra slabs of meat in the box." Her head jerked toward a series of metal lockers standing against the wall.
As he walked over to them, Jakkin heard a soft humming. He knew that in the main city of Rokk, where the original masters had lived, there was electrical power in every building. But around the countryside there were only a few small generators. The starships still landed in Rokk and rumor was that, from time to time, they brought a few extra generators to the planet. Jakkin had never seen one. He wouldn't even know what one looked like. He put his hand onto the first lockers and could feel a buzzing under his fingers. He looked up at Kkarina, ready to ask her about it, but she was tasting the mash, her eyes closed, lips moving in and out as if answering her own questions.
He opened the first locker. It was cold inside and little puffs of mist as fine as dragon's breath formed around the door. On the shelves, jars stood in silent rows. The jars were filled with red and orange liquids of varying viscosities. The next locker was equally cold. It contained loaves of bread. Jakkin found the meat in the third cold locker. He took out a bright pink slab and carried it over to the stove.
Kkarina, her eyes open now, put the spoon back into the mash and laughed at him. As she stirred, she said, "Sit down and eat. A long hunger makes a short appetite."
Jakkin sat, wrapping his legs around the stool legs, and chewed contentedly. As he thought about the cold lockers, he was distracted by the strong juices in the meat. Soon all he concentrated on was the flow of the juice into his mouth, the passage of meat down his throat. He didn't say a word until he had finished the slab, and then all he could manage was a quiet "Thank you."
Kkarina hummed an old melody as she worked. Jakkin recognized it as the song "The Little Dragon of Akkhan." He did not know all the words. He was just wondering if he
dared ask for another piece of meat when Kkarina turned to him.
"Take another slab with you, and then off to bed. You look ready to fall, boy."
Jakkin was about to thank her again when he noticed something peculiar. Without meaning to, he framed a statement that was part question. "But you wear no bag."
"But a bonder..." He hesitated, and kept staring at her bagless neck. It was spattered with reddish gold freckles, like her arms.
"What makes you think I'm a bonder?" She tasted another spoonful, nodding her head.
"But staying here at the nursery. And cooking. And not living in the masters' quarters, with a single room. I just thought..." His voice trailed
"You just thought what every bond boy thinks. That a master need not workâexcept if he wants to play at being a nursery owner or a senator, eh? That any woman lucky enough to have gold to fill her bag would lead a useless, silly life?"
Jakkin tried to shrug, but the movement
hurt his back. And he wouldn't admit to Kkarina that he had never really thought much about being a master except for filling his bag and freeing himself from bond.
"Listen, boy, I had years enough of mindlessness in the baggeries. Where boys like you tried to become men in one slippery, sweaty night. When you're pretty, no one expects much more than open legs and a closed mind."
In the baggeries?" Jakkin tried to imagine it, that large, shapeless body decked out in the filmy fripperies of a bag girl. Still, when Kkarina spoke, her voice was low and full of music.
"I'll tell you something, boy. Feeding this big family of bonders is a tough job, and I love it. Feeding them well, feeding them with the finest meals this side of Rokk. I
it." She smiled again and pointed to the wall. "Look at that."
His eyes followed. Above the stove there was a framed miniature, a bit sooty around the edges, with a dark jagged stain, like lightning, jetting from the right side to the left. Jakkin stood up and walked over, leaning
across the corner of the warm stove to see. There was a girl in the picture, beautiful and unsmiling, with eyebrows as graceful and arched as dragon wings. He thought that if she were only smiling, she would have broken the heart of anyone who looked at her. As it was, the picture only called forth a kind of slow compassion.