Rebecca Mix is a fantasy writer, book lover, and hoarder of houseplants. She lives in Michigan with her boyfriend and two cats that she suspects are possessed by friendly but troublesome demons. You can find more of her work at rebeccamix.com, or send her neat puns at @rebeccarmix on twitter.
THE FARMER’S BOY
Scortha kept telling him, “Keep steady, watch your back, and mind the teeth.”
Elias stood up to his ankles in the mud. Old bruises mixed with new ones on his face, wrapping his jaw in yellow. His lower lip was cracked down the middle.
“Do you have the Siren dust?” Scortha asked him again.
“Of course.” He could feel the thin bag even now, tucked away against his hip. There was a barely a pinch, but even a single bit ingested would be enough to knock out even a grown man. A bag could handle something much bigger.
“Cover your ears,” Scortha warned.
The shriek of the wyvern whistle made him jump, as if the sound was scraping thin nails along the bones of his jaw.
He felt the forest pause, as if it, too, were scared and being tested for the first time. His heart beat faster. The hope that he tried so hard to keep tampered down rushed through him. It’d been three years since he begged Scortha to take him on as an apprentice. Three years he’d been searching.
The trees shivered. The birds stopped singing.
“Here we go,” Scortha murmured, her excitement rising with his fear. The left half of her face was pulled into a permanent grimace by a scar that wrapped over her cheek and down her neck. “A gift, from my first wyvern,” she always told him. It was why she made him wear the helmet.
The armor on his body made him sink. He only wore half of it, a necessary burden, forgoing metal bracers for leather ones. But the chest plate and the helmet stayed. They were a dull bronze, dirty and bent from years of use. His chest plate bore one long scratch on the left breast, curving all the way down and disappearing off of the lip.
Branches cracked as something large broke them. Above them, a flock of birds leapt for the sky, screaming out the same fear that was coiled in Elias’ stomach.
“Here it comes,” Scortha warned. There was a fire in her eyes as she bounced on her toes. He knew she wanted to help. But this was his test, not hers. Scortha had caught dozens of wyverns before.
This would be Elias’ first.
“One more,” he could barely choke the words out. “Do it now.” Before he decided that the answers he wanted weren’t worth it.
Scortha kept her eyes on the trees. “Remember, Elias, they come in fast and spitting mean, You stay in control, you hear me?”
“Mind the teeth,” she told him again, smiling. It made her scar dance.
Both of them knew the advice was useless. Scortha brought the whistle to her lips one final time, and noise shrieked through the world.
The wyvern burst through the trees before Elias remembered to be scared.
It was bigger than he’d expected, a bull from the looks of the brown spines that nestled around its face and swept down its back. It shot from the trees and landed above them, sinking its claws into the trunk of a pine that groaned under the weight.
It looked like him, but he couldn’t be sure. Not yet. He’d have to get closer.
The wyvern hissed, bearing rows of teeth, some of them cracked and yellow and some of them shiny and new, just poking through the gums. Scars covered its body in thick, ropy lines.
They could have left it alone, Scortha had told him, had it not started terrorizing towns. They could have ignored it until it ate a farmer’s dog, and then attacked a child. It was either the Wings intervened, or the panicked humans of the village did. Villagers were a lot less humane.
Elias knew better than anyone that sometimes the most aggressive wyverns had good in them.
He took a step forward, his foot shifting in the leaves. Trying to remind himself that this wyvern was different. He couldn’t get too comfortable—not yet.
“There, there,” Elias murmured, as if the wyvern could understand him, or cared. “I don’t want to hurt you, bud. I’m your friend. I’m on your side.”
It was the right color, the right size. But he needed it up close to be sure.
The wyvern flared its wings and leapt. It landed on a branch above their heads. It was four times the length of Elias, every ounce of its body made up of coiled, powerful muscles. The wyvern’s eyes were two different colors, one the color of an overcast sky, the other a milky white.
Disappointment burned in Elias’ throat.
The eyes were wrong. This wasn’t the wyvern he was looking for, and he’d just pissed it off. The dragonbone spear he carried felt more like a toothpick.
The wyvern snarled and flared its wings.
“Come on boy,” Scortha hissed.
Panic bubbled through him. He’d never told her—had never been able to admit why a farmer’s boy had jumped at the chance to wrangle wyverns the day Scortha found him in the ashes.
“Elias,” Scortha snapped. “Before you get us both killed.”
Elias brought the whistle to his lips. ISomeone in the Wings figured it out ages ago—perfected the high-pitched wail that made them furious enough to come out of hiding, and panicked enough to attack. Held up against his lips, Elias thought it felt less like a whistle and more like a knife. The whistle’s sharp shriek was cut off by the wyvern’s roar.
It lunged for him.
The wyvern snapped through the air, wings spread, another snarl building in its throat. Elias jerked sideways, jabbing at its maw with his spear and directing it away. The wyvern skittered harmlessly to the side and leapt for him again. They danced across the forest floor, back and forth, the wyvern attacking, Elias evading. When it struck out at him he stepped to the side, letting the beast crash around him, tiring itself out. It lunged like a snake, eyes rolling, a hiss building in its throat.
Confidence began to thrum through Elias. He could do this. Then when he found the right wyvern, he’d be ready. The sounds of the world fell away, and spear burned hot against his sweat slicked palms.
The wyvern hesitated. It cocked its head to the side, watching him with one bright eye, and then flattened itself to the ground. Deep in the heart of its throat he could see flames building, flickering from yellow to blue, rolling into a fireball. Elias’ mind stuttered to a halt.
The world crashed back in. Elias heard the crackle and pop of flames, heard Scortha screaming something, bellowing for him to get away.
The wyvern hissed. It spat flame onto Elias, and all of his training fell apart.
Panic made him sloppy. He was a child again. Instead of standing his ground Elias took a stumbling step backwards as he burned. He jabbed his spear blindly at the wyvern, and the end glanced harmlessly off of its scales. The fire was everywhere, licking over his leather bracers, eating up his clothes. It singed his hair and burned his skin. The smoke crawled down his throat.
Elias took a step backwards, and tripped over a root. He sprawled on his back in the mud and watched as the wyvern leapt on top of him. He writhed on the earth, trapped and burning.
The wyvern lowered its snout so that it could meet his eyes and bellowed. Its breath was rank and wet against his skin. The roar seemed to shake in his bones, making his ear drums pop. Elias’ eyes stung.
His right arm screamed in pain, pinned beneath his back under the weight of the wyvern. If he could just move, if he could get to his pocket--
Something on his right side cracked. Pain exploded through him and light danced in front of his eyes.
He’d been here before. The flames, trapped beneath a wyvern, but it felt like he’d left that boy behind and stepped outside of his skin. Images flashed through his mind. His mother’s blood, the invaders sneering. A war wyvern trained to kill, crouched over a young boy.
Reality shattered his memories. Elias gasped, coughing against the smoke.
“Please,” Elias tried to say, but there was no breath left in his lungs. The fire was eating his air. The wyvern bared its teeth again, opening its maw over his face. A bit of saliva dripped onto Elias’ cheek. “I’m on your side.”
His lungs burned. Scortha would not intervene. It was the rule.
Elias pursed his lips, and spit in the wyvern’s eye.
The wyvern reared back a little and Elias twisted desperately, freeing his arm, reaching for his pocket, snatching up the thin drawstring bag. As the wyvern came down for the killing bite, Elias shoved his hand into the mouth of the wyvern. He roared as teeth punched through his arm.
The wyvern gagged. The Siren burst open, racing through its blood, slowing it down. Its eyes rolled back. It shivered, and then sighed. Those sad eyes focused on Elias before they closed, and the wyvern rolled off of him, onto its side. It hit the forest floor with a thud.
Elias gasped. He rolled onto his side and flung himself into the mud, a sob leaving his throat as he covered himself in wet earth, smothering the flames. He could feel the patches of his skin already blistering. He sat up, retching as if he could clear the smoke from his lungs. Tears streamed freely down his face. Only a few feet away he could feel the presence of the wyvern. Reality clicked back in, and Elias vomited.
Anger flashed through him. It was the wrong one—again. Three years he’d been searching. How hard could it be to find a wyvern?
He stared at the wyvern. It looked so similar—but the eyes were wrong. It was not the wyvern from before, form three years ago, the day before Scortha had found him hiding beneath the burnt timbers of the family barn.
Elias remembered the sound of his father’s roar, begging him to run as he tried to fight off one of the invading wyverns with a hay fork. The metal prongs snapped against its side as if they were made of kindling.
He’d turned his head so he didn’t have to watch his father die. The invaders had looted their home while Elias hid beneath the hay, sweating and afraid. A child, Scortha had called him the day she found him. The poor thing.
He’d almost made it out. They were almost done when the bar door swung open, and the men stepped inside. He still remembered the smell of their sweat, sharp and dirty in the air. They wore leather and metal, their faces blackened with smoke. One of the men saw him instantly.
“There’s a boy,” said the tall one, pointing at Elias. “Get rid of him.”
There’d been a crack of a whip, and a snarl that sank inside his stomach. The wyvern’s open maw hovered over Elias.
It wore a metal collar that cut into its scales, making the neck bulge around it. That wyvern had two green eyes, a bull made of brown spines and sharp teeth. When the invaders pulled him from the hay and set him in front of the wyvern, Elias had started crying.
The wyvern had looked at him. It crawled forward and opened its maw over his head. He’d watched the fire crackle in its throat, rolling and brilliant.
“Please,” Elias whispered. He covered his face with his hands.
Then the wyvern turned, and lit the invaders on fire. It groaned low in its throat, lowering its head down to Elias as he trembled in the hay. He unhooked the chain around its neck with shaking fingers, the metal hot and rough against his palms. The chains clattered to the ground and the wyvern leapt to the sky, leaving Elias behind.
Scortha found him the next day, a boy all alone, tucked among the burned memories of a living nightmare. When Elias learned that she was one of the Wings, the wyvern hunters that his parents whispered about with a sneer on their lips, he’d leapt at the chance to join her. If only to find that wyvern again. Maybe if he found it again he could understand why it had saved him.
This was the wrong wyvern. But it looked like him—had the fire, the same sadness in the eyes. Maybe it was a cousin.
Maybe it could lead him to it.
A lazy clap trickled through the air. Elias looked up, tears streaming down his face, to see Scortha nearly smiling at him.
“Not bad,” she said, leaning against her spear. Her Wings badge gleamed at her throat, a small pendant made of brass, carved into the shape of a wyvern curled up asleep.
The trees rustled. A man with a similar badge emerged, looking from Scortha to Elias to the wyvern. He raised an eyebrow. “Took you long enough,” he grunted. The man was bald, the back of his head covered in bubbly scars from a fire gone wrong.
The others would be coming soon. Elias knew all of the Wings would have been watching. No one missed an opportunity to test a new apprentice.
“He needs a healer,” Scortha said, her hard mask faltering a bit.
“He’s not finished yet.”
“Elias,” Scortha said, jerking her chin at the wyvern. “Sometime today, before it wakes up.”
“I can do it, I’ve got it,” Elias rasped, climbing to his feet. His entire body shook. He caught the length of rope Scortha threw at him and made sure to secure the wyvern’s maw before anything else. Three more Wings melted from the trees, each bearing rope, tying up the wyvern with practiced precision. They did it so quickly that they almost looked bored.
Elias braced himself, trying to block out the ache in his body. He’d been lucky Scortha had forced him to wear the chest plate, the helmet, and the bracers. He watched the Wings as more assembled, eight men and women, all of them staring at the wyvern with blank faces.
One of them asked, “Is it safe to take it to Barrow’s farm?”
“What choice do we have?” asked another.
Scortha ignored them all, and passed Elias a length of rope. As the one that took down the wyvern, Elias would help to haul it. His mentor looked to one of the other Wings, her dark eyebrow arcing up her forehead. “You seem to be forgetting why we called it in the first place.”
The man with the bubbly scars jerked to look at her, a bit of a challenge in his eyes. “This is an exception,” he pointed out. “Something we never planned on trying to protect.”
They were both right.
Their job was not to kill the wyverns. They were too dangerous for someone driven only by bloodlust to pursue. To risk their limbs and even their lives, it took something as wild and foolish as love.
But none of those wyverns had been able to spit flame. Elias looked at the wyvern he’d taken down, and imagined a bit dizzily how quickly the wheat fields that surrounded Barrow’s old farm would burn if the wyvern got loose.
“It’s a different breed,” Bubble-head said, his eyes flickering with doubt. He jerked his chin towards Elias. “Look what it did to the kid.”
As if in assent, a low groan trickled out of the wyvern. They all flinched.
Elias kept staring at the wyvern. It moaned again and twisted a little, but it was a halfheartedly movement, like a shrug it’d already given up on.
The Wings were looking at the bull wyvern the same way his father had looked at their dog right before he’d had to put it down.
“We’re not equipped to resettle fire breathers,” one of the other Wings pointed out, his sharp, pale face taunt with worry.
“What do we do with it?” Bubble-head asked.
Scortha stepped forward, the mud sucking at her boots. “It’s Elias’ catch,” she said, her voice pitched in a way that was daring anyone to challenge her. “He gets to decide.”
All of their attention swung to him.
Elias swallowed. The pain made him dizzy, and for a moment he struggled to find the words. He remembered the fury in the wyvern’s eyes right before it had spit fire on him.
A part of him was angry with it, for not being the right wyvern. For getting his hopes up, only to leave him disappointed, burnt, and injured.
But hadn’t he called it? Hadn’t the Wings been the ones to enrage it, even if they were also the ones to save it?
He stepped towards the now unconscious wyvern, watching as its sides rose and fell, plunged into slumber thanks to the dust. Elias wrapped his arms around himself, and when he spoke, he did not look at the Wings. “I used to think the Wings were fools—men and women, that spent their time trying to rescue a bunch of aggressive, overgrown lizards.”
A few chuckles rippled through the assembled Wings.
Elias raised his eyes to look at them. “I never thought I would be one of you, and I never wanted to, either. Not until my village burned, and Scortha took me in.”
He saw Scortha straighten a little. The flicker of a muscle in her jaw was the only hint of emotion he’d get from her.
Elias scratched at his temple. “I’m no warrior,” he admitted. “I don’t fit in. I’m not a great fighter, and I don’t know anything about magic. But I do know animals.”
He couldn’t tell them the truth that was trapped in his throat. That he had no plans on sticking around. That once he found that wyvern, he would be gone.
Elias crouched in front of the wyvern he’d brought down. This close, it looked nothing like the one that had saved him. Its leathered hide had less scars, and its face was longer and sharper. But he remembered the look in its eyes. The same as before.
The words rolled out of him. “I helped my father heal sick animals before. Coaxed stray dogs and feral scats from skittish anger to a place of love,” he said, still looking at the wyvern. He touched it slowly. Its scales were warm under his fingers. “Once, my mother had found a wolf that had broken its leg, and instead of shooting it we bound its leg and fed it scraps. The wolf protected our farm for years.”
The Wings said nothing. They murmured among themselves, all of them frowning, except Scortha. She watched him with her eyes blazing. A bit of sweat crawled down his spine.
“We called the wyvern to save it from the villagers.” Elias said. He watched their curiosity pique. The adrenaline from fighting the wyvern was starting to shiver out of his body, but now something new was in its place, making him sweat. “It deserves a chance, just like the others. Let Barrow try to work with it. See if it can’t be retrained to stay away from humans.”
Elias held his breath. He moved to stand in front of the wyvern, every part of his aching, burned body now determined to protect it. He told himself that he was only saving this wyvern because it might lead him to the one he was hunting. But even that felt a little bit like a lie.
“Oh, fine,” Bubble-head grunted, as if he were agreeing to babysitting. “But you have to help Barrow handle it.”
“I will,” Elias breathed. “Thank you. I will.”
He would learn how to handle the fire-breathers—and then when he found the invader’s wyvern, he would be ready.
Bubble-head waved him off. He and the other Wings jumped immediately into action, securing the wyvern, preparing it for transport, mumbling to each other about flames and sharp teeth. Elias didn’t watch them.
He felt a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m proud of you,” Scortha told him, and he knew that she meant it.
Scortha turned her back to him. He watched the way the sun gleamed on the dark braids she so carefully wove to hide the scars that covered the back of her neck.. She wrapped a coil of rope around the length of her narrow wrist and stepped forward to assist the others.
“You know,” she said, not looking at him. “I’m hoping once you find that lizard you’re obsessed with, you’ll stick around.”
Elias stilled. A strange warmth bloomed inside him. “What are you talking about?”
Scortha’s eyes flicked to him. “Do you think I was born yesterday?” She wrapped the length of rope around her wrist. “I’m the one that found you—remember?” She scratched her jaw. “At first I couldn’t figure it out. Why you always got so hopeful when I called a wyvern, only to look disappointed after. Then I realized you were looking for something. Or someone.”
He started to shake his head. He wanted to tell her he couldn’t stay, that he wasn’t made for this life. That he would never be strong enough, fast enough. That this could only ever be temporary, lasting long enough for him to find the invader’s wyvern. He needed to understand why it had saved him, but let his parents die.
Guilt burned in Elias’ throat. Could he leave her, once he found his answers?
Scortha fixated her attention on something in the distance. “I want you to know that when you find him, when you get your answers, you can stay. You’re still welcome to stick with me.”
“Save it,” she grunted. “We all get into this for different reasons, Elias.” She stalked away from him, her back stiff and straight.
The other Wings were already ahead of them, carrying the wyvern through the brush. Bubble-head looked back at him. “Hurry up boy,” he snapped. “I want to be home by nightfall.”
“Home,” Elias echoed, the word a little numb on his lips, his eyes still trained on Scortha. “Right.”
He would find the invader’s wyvern.
Then he would decide on what home meant.