11. Closed Coffin

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That night they camped beneath a low-hanging shelf of rock. The air had a chilly bite, but when Moribus began to build a small pyre, the knight stormed over and kicked it apart. "What in Orduvan's ever-loving name do you think you're doing?"

"Building a fire."

"The hells you are." He snatched up the flint stones and chucked them down the mountainside. "Or maybe you want to end up like those stupid chorls back at the Marduke camp?"

Moribus bristled. "We're under cover here. You can't see a fire from the outside. I scouted it out."

"Oh, I'm sure you couldn't see it, boy. Then again, I doubt you could spot your own hoodan on a sunny day. But you haven't got eyes like a dragon, have you? Ever hear of a thing called smoke? It's that black, smelly stuff what comes from fire. And see all those twinkling stars up there in the sky? It so happens the dragon can see them too. On a clear night like tonight, it's bound to notice that some of them aren't twinkling so bright as they ought to. Being the curious sort of beast that it is, it will want to know why and will follow the scent straight to us. When it does, you had better be on good terms with your maker. And don't think I'll be lugging your jolly boy corpse back to Alvaron like I did with my last squire. The crows and the buzzards are welcome to what's left of you."

Moribus's blood turned to ice at the mention of his predecessor. What had really happened to Pagun? The knight's cold-blooded actions back on the hillside proved he was no stranger to killing. "I should forage up some food," he said, suddenly desperate to get away.

"You do that," Lord Manerion called after him. "While you're at it, try to forage up some common sense."

When Moribus returned to camp a couple hours later, he found the knight sitting on a shelf of rock slicing off pieces from a cheese wedge he had come by somewhere. Their provisions had run out days ago. "What took you so fornicating long?" he said. "You decide to bake up a pie out there?"

"Not much grows on these hills." Moribus held out a small pouch. "All I could find were some elderberries and pine nuts."

The knight shooed them away. "I don't see why you went to the trouble. The Mardukes have been most generous with their hospitality." He gestured to an unfamiliar pack. "There's some cured beef in there. This is the last of the cheese, I'm afraid. I have to give it to the goat-loving bastards, they sure know how to make a fine cheese." He scraped the blade between his teeth, licking off the vestiges with his tongue.

Refusing the knight's offer of plundered bounty, Moribus seated himself lower down the shelf. A battered moon was just cresting the opposite hill. He sucked on a bitter elderberry, distilling his suspicions into words.

"Those bodies back there on the hillside..." he began. "Do dragons usually kill their prey like that?"

"Feeling a bit unmanned at the sight of death, are you?" The knight grinned, his white teeth showing in the moonlight. "Don't worry, boy. You'll get used to it."

"It's not that." Moribus shook his head. "I was just surprised there weren't any scorch marks."

"Dragons seldom resort to flaming except when it comes to cooking their food. Besides, what would be the point? Why waste fire when the stupid bastards are sitting out in the open just asking to be slaughtered?"

"Why didn't it cook them and eat them then?"

"Even a dragon can't eat a dozen men at one go. It would have picked the largest and juiciest and made quick work of the others. Dragons are right civilized eaters. They kill their prey quickly and only cook what they intend to eat."

"Do dragons ever rip their prey into small pieces?"

Lord Manerion chuckled. "Whatever gave you such a crazy notion, boy?"

"Your squire's body was burned and torn apart."

The knight's laughter died on his lips. He cut off another slice of cheese, slowly pressing the blade through the wedge, but his eyes never left his squire. "Ah, so he was."

* * * * *

Sleep would not cometo Moribus that night. Feigning slumber, he kept his slitted eyes trained onthe knight. Every time the hulking form shifted in his bedroll, his armtwitched for his sword, which he kept within reach. As the hours stretched by,he was visited by a montage of waking horrors: a pilgrim woman with a mewlinginfant, the jaundiced stares of blood-sated wolves, crows bickering overeyeballs, a bag of charred body parts, and a great armored raptor that hisimagination conjured out of a single footprint. But most disturbing of all wasthe image of the knight's impassive face as he stood over the dead Marduke andcalmly rinsed the blood from his blade. At times it blurred into the image ofhis father, fixing him with those cold and remorseless eyes as if to say, Yousee what happens to boys who play with dragons.

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