As far as Galvarys was concerned, not killing the girl for throwing a goblet at him was the greatest compliment the dragon could pay her. He already liked the girl a little. Her behavior reminded him of a female dragon he once knew. He liked female dragons. They were courageous, bold, looked beautiful, smelled delightful, and felt even better. This girl, well, she was courageous at least. The fact she dared to throw a goblet at him was so impressive that Galvarys didn’t even find it insulting. Not very insulting, anyway. Standing up to his charge was even more impressive.
If she truly wished to help him become a legend, he was happy to toss a bit of treasure her way. It seemed like suitable reward for ensuring his memory would echo through the ages. The dragon padded through his collection chamber towards the hallway at the back. The doorway there was not as large as the entry arch. Galvarys had to squeeze his wings tighter against himself than he did in his youth.
“This way, Girl.”
“I have a name, you know.”
The dragon chuckled in his throat. “As do I.”
The girl put a hand upon his tail in the hallway. Galvarys could easily wrench his tail from her grasp, but chose not to when she spoke up. “Do you wish to know my name? I should love to know a dragon’s name. If you’d prefer me to call you by some title I will, but I’d rather know your name.”
“We do not give our names to humans lightly.” Galvarys unsheathed a few claws, tapping them on the stone floor. “Our names are important to us. There was a time, when I warred with men, that I simply called myself The Wrathful as I struck them down. Later, after the truce, I took to calling myself The Azure Wrath. Sounded more memorable. Do the villagers call me that?”
The girl traced a few fingers along the curved length of one of his tail spines. “Actually I think they just call you ‘The Dragon’.”
“What?” Galvarys jerked his head up in surprised irritation, only to bang it against the ceiling. “OW!” Galvarys pulled his head back down and pressed a paw to his suddenly throbbing skull. He heard the girl cough and stutter behind him. It sounded as though she’d jammed her whole fist into her mouth to keep from laughing. The dragon shook off the pain and the ringing in his ears. “That is not befitting of a legend. Have they not picked up upon my frightening moniker?”
“Not that I heard. You can tell them to start using it during your next visit.” The girl’s fingers wandered the scales of his tail a moment, then she patted it. “Are you going to call me Girl all the time?”
“I shall call you whatever I like, even wen--” Then the dragon snapped his jaws shut. Given that she was standing just behind him and he’d paused in a narrow hallway, it wasn’t a good time for him to test her resolve. Or her foot. “Very well, Girl. What is your name?”
“What is yours?”
“This isn’t a riddle.” The dragon grumbled, rubbing his head with his paw again.
“Is your head alright?” Was that genuine concern he heard, or was it just well-feigned? “I’ve some salve in my pack if you’re bleeding.”
“Dragons do not bleed that easily.” Galvarys snorted, then checked his paw pad for blood anyway. Finding none, he set his paw back down. “I’m fine. This way.”
Galvarys took a step forward, and the girl grabbed one of his tail spines. Her voice held a little more fire this time. “I’d like to know your name, first.”
“Fine.” The dragon flared his spines, smirking. “You may call me Magnificent.”
“I’ll call you Magnificent if you wish but I’d rather use your name.” The girl released the dragon’s spine. She squeezed up alongside his tail base and set her hand upon his hind leg. “If it makes it easier for you, consider it reward for my courage. I’ve spent my life calling people Lord this, and Master that. It’d make me happy just to be allowed to use your name. I promise to never speak it aloud inside your villages.”
“My villages?” The dragon grinned to himself.
“They are yours, aren’t they?” The girl gave the broad scales on the outside of his hind leg a tentative rub. “You protect them, they give you tribute. They’re practically sheltered under your wing. I’d say that makes them yours.”
Galvarys snorted. The girl might just be trying to flatter him, but he agreed. “Let me get out of this hallway, so I can turn and look at you.”
The dragon padded forward into the room serving as his sleeping chamber. Once clear of the hallway, he turned around to face the girl. He flared his black-marked wings, hiding everything behind indigo walls so that she could only focus upon him. He settled himself upon his haunches, staring down at the girl. The light here was dim yet her gray eyes stood out like faint stars. Red hair hung about her face in frozen waves.
“You want to know my name?”
“Yes.” The girl smiled up at him, then gave him a respectful bow of her head. “If you are so willing.”
“When I have given my name to humans in the past, it was usually so they knew so who was about to slay them.” He’d met few humans he felt deserved to know his name beyond their dying moments. Those who sought to end him with pain and steel in his belly, to put his head on a pike in the name of some God or king. They should know the name of the dragon who ended their miserable lives. This girl was different, and Galvarys decided she should be one of the rare exceptions. “Knowing my name is a fitting reward for your courage.”
“I think it is, if my words mean anything to you.” The girl fidgeted with her dress, but stared right back into the dragon’s eyes.
“Put your hand upon my chest.” The girl hesitated but soon splayed her fingers across his chest plates. Her touch felt warm, and soft. “Do you feel my heart beating?”
The girl did not pull her hand or her eyes away. She nodded.
“You feel the heartbeat of Galvarys the Wrathful.” The dragon growled low in his throat for emphasis. “I am eldest of Ayvyrial, herself youngest-hatched of Ayvyaranys. I was sired by Galvatak, The Burning Shadow, sired in turn by Garkoryl, who is it told was sired by Ravarynak himself, Singer Of The Stars and Guider Of Flame for our long-lost regal clan. I am the last blood of the royal clan, the last flame to protect our home, and my wrath is immeasurable and endless. I am Galvarys.”
The girl’s eyes grew ever wider as Galvarys spoke. She seemed fittingly impressed with his lineage despite having no way to know who those dragons were. Though he’d delivered variations of that speech to dying dragonslayers, he found this courageous girl a more fitting audience.
“Thank you for telling me, Galvarys.” She smiled at him. “My name is Elyra. My mother’s name was Ahlya. I never really knew my father aside from an early memory or two, and my ancestry is spread amongst the old tribes who once freely wandered this land. If you ask the average person back in the city, they’d tell you our people were little more than muddle-blooded nomads. But I like who I am, even if I’m a mutt.”
The dragon smiled back at her, slowly pulling his wings in. “Mutt?”
“Mutt. It means of mixed breeding.” Elyra worked her hands through her hair, sighing. “Usually it’s used for stray dogs without an ounce of identifiable bloodline.”
“Ah.” The dragon rose back to his paws, grinning. “Perhaps we share this. In truth, my father spun many tales whenever he visited us in my youth.” He watched Elyra for a moment then turned away. “Most of them were lies. I suspect he made those names and titles up as a way to get under my mother’s tail. Nonetheless, I am glad to let them spill off my tongue to deserving ears.”
“And I’m glad to have heard them.” The girl sounded genuine. Galvarys appreciated that. “Does it really matter if he made them up? You’re certainly the most regal beast I’ve ever seen, regardless of whose blood flows in your veins.”
“Thank you.” Galvarys smiled. His heart swelled and his ego returned in a prideful flood. He arched his neck, flared his wings and raised his spines to their full extent. The dragon enjoyed showing himself off for a captive audience. “I am magnificent, aren’t I.”
“Less so when you’re the one saying it, but yes.” Elyra laughed. Galvarys saw himself reflected in her gray eyes. “You are.”
The dragon puffed out his chest, spined tail flicking. This was new. He could get used to showing off for someone appreciative. It was going to be nice to have a servant girl around. Even though she brushed off his Majestic Dragon Show to look around the room he’d led her into.
“Is this where you sleep?”
He turned away from the hallway, gazing around the room. While not as large as the grand chamber in which he kept a good portion of his treasure collection, it was still one of the larger rooms in the fortress. Gentle blue light saturated the air, pouring from hidden alcoves within the stone walls.
The dragon’s bed was an immense pile of softness and warmth. The pile was made up of all manner of blankets, cushions and pillows, bolts of silk and cloth, clothes, cloaks, and various types of tanned animal furs and hides. The dragon’s bedding once took up a single corner of the room but over the years had spread and spilled across the floor until it took up most of the chamber. Much as the dragon himself had grown until his sleeping chamber was not near as spacious as it once was.
“This?” The dragon waved his paw at the pile. “You’re asking if this is where I sleep?” He shook his head, snorting. “No. This is just where I collect my soft things. Of course this is where I sleep. What did you expect, a giant bed?”
The girl crouched down to pick up a circular, golden-toned pillow. Bright yellow tassels hung from it like streamers of limp sunlight. “I thought you’d sleep on a big pile of gold and treasure, actually.” She hugged the pillow to herself.
“Why would I sleep on gold and treasure?” The dragon shook his head, growling. Humans and their rumors. “Do you have any idea how uncomfortable that would be?”
“Thought it might feel nice against all those scales.” The girl hugged the pillow a little more, then scrunched her face, and set it down. “Smells a bit off.”
The dragon stretched his wing forward, scratching near his ear with a wingtip talon. “You thought wrong. And my pillows do not smell foul.”
“I didn’t say foul,” the girl said, laughing. “It just smells like it’s sat in a cave for too many years without a wash.” She crossed the room, grinning. “Oh! There’s more treasure.”
Galvarys watched the girl wade through some blankets and furs to reach a few poorly constructed wooden chests along one of the walls. “Of course there is. The villages have been gifting me tribute for quite a few years now, and before that I used to steal treasure. Sometimes I still do.”
“Why?” Elyra glanced up at him as she crouched before one of the chests. “Can I open this?”
“Go ahead,” the dragon said. He twisted his head to give his wingtip a few licks, then folded his wing back against his body. “I stole it because it’s fun, because humans don’t deserve it, and because wealth brings status. And treasure is often shiny.”
“Shiny?” Elyra quirked a brow, grinning.
“I like things that shine and sparkle.” The dragon snorted, unsheathing his claws. He ran them against an old elk hide, drawing little lines through the fur. “What of it?”
“Nothing,” Elyra shrugged. “Humans like that, too. You should see some of the elaborate jewelry the nobles buy their wives.” She opened the chest, tilted her head back and forth as she peered inside. “Nothing shiny in here, though.”
“What’s in that one?” Galvarys padded across the ocean of softness enveloping the floor to peer into the chest. Inside were a series of antique wooden plates, each inlaid with designs of darker wood. Each was also carved with a unique series of runes. “Ah, yes. I got those a few years ago from the Village of Rings. They’re ancient relics. They’re quite valuable.”
Elyra gave him a strange gesture, lifting only one eyebrow. “Are they?”
Galvarys found himself trying to copy the gesture. He lifted a single eye ridge, but in the process also perked his ear and flared a few of his spines. “Yes. They had no gold at the time and asked if I’d accept other items of value.”
“And they gave you a trunk of dinnerware.” Elyra grinned, closed the trunk and rose back to her feet.
The dragon snorted. “When you put it that way, it sounds as though it’s worthless. But you see, Elyra, things that are of historical worth can also be quite valuable.”
Elyra smiled even wider at the dragon. She must have appreciated his explanation. “That’s true, Galvarys.”
The woman shook her head for some reason as she paced about the room. She stared at the walls, strode from corner to corner, and looked up at the ceiling. Finally she seemed to hone in on something, walking to one of the walls where light shone from a hidden alcove.
“Where does this light come from?” She peered into the alcove, squinting against the blue light.
“Ah, let me show you.” The dragon padded over to join her. He nudged her aside then pushed his foreleg into the alcove. “There’s a hole here, deeper than it looks. And this is inside.”
The dragon pulled out a lump of misshapen crystalline stone a bit like a glassy, deformed egg. He held it out to the woman in his paw. Faint blue light shone from the thing. “You see? It’s like a fallen star.”
“That’s beautiful!” Elyra reached out for it then glanced up at the dragon to make sure she had his permission. He nodded, and she took it in both hands, murmuring to herself. “S’cold. Thought it would be warm. It seems as though it glows even more brightly when it’s placed in that hole.”
“It does.” The dragon flicked his wing towards another hole across the room. “They are in several rooms of the fortress.”
“There must be some mirrors or something in there to concentrate the light. It’s ingenious, really. Is it magic?” Elyra tilted her head back to peer up at the dragon.
Galvarys snorted, and plucked the stone from her grasp. “I doubt it. It’s just an old stone that glows. There were a few here when I moved in, so I knew what to do with them when I found others later on.” He placed the stone back inside the deep alcove. “At night if I want it to be darker I just put something over the holes.”
“All I ever had was a dingy lamp,” Elyra said. She grinned at the dragon a moment. “I doubt even the nobles have a light source that impressive.”
With the dragon’s permission, Elyra started to explore the portion of the dragon’s collection located in his sleeping chambers. There were more crates and boxes with various treasures, a few piles of old pouches of cloth and leather, stacks of books, a chest filled with more books and old scrolls, a rolled up tapestry, and other assorted trinkets and treasures. Elyra crouched down, thumbing through a stack of old, leather bound books. Then she stood back up, spotted something sticking out of the end of the rolled up tapestry.
“Is that a sword?” The woman peered down at the hilt. “I saw you had some in the other room, too.”
“Yes. I keep that one in there because…”
By then Elyra was already drawing the sword from the tapestry. It caught for a moment and she yanked it free with both hands. When it came loose the weight surprised her. Elyra lost her balance and swung the blade wildly through the air, narrowly missing the end of Galvarys’ indigo nose. The dragon yelped and scrambled back, then hissed and snapped his jaws.
“Careful with that!”
“Sorry!” The color drained from Elyra’s face till she looked like a spirit draped in fire. “Sorry! Sorry! I’m sorry!”
“Yes, I heard you the first time.” The dragon snarled. “Put that back.”
“Of course.” The woman knelt before the rolled up tapestry. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“No.” Galvarys snorted, crossing his eyes to try and see the end of his nose. When Elyra wasn’t looking, he pressed his paw there and glanced at his pads to make sure no crimson marked the mottled gray surface. “You did not. As I was saying, I keep it in there because it is sharp.”
“Never held a real sword before.” Elyra hefted the thing while resting on her knees. “It’s heavy. Really heavy.” She worked her hands across the hilt. The old leather that wrapped it was cracked and dry. Galvarys stared down at the blade, growling under his breath. Old, rust-colored stains still marked it. Elyra noticed them. “Is that…what I think it is?”
“It is blood.” The dragon glanced away, his growl rising. Memories of agony and terror flickered behind his eyes. “Put it back.”
“Is it…” Elyra carefully worked the tip of the sword into the center of the rolled up tapestry. “Is it your blood?”
Galvarys’ spines pinned back against his head. The dragon’s stomach wrenched, and his voice tightened. “I said put it back, Girl.”
“Right away.” With a grunt of effort, she shoved the sword back where she’d gotten it. Then she stood up and dusted her hands off, trying to offer the dragon a smile. “Would you be willing to show me the rest of your home now?”
Galvarys shook himself, his scales clicking together. He rumbled in his chest, closed his eyes for a moment. “I did promise you a tour, did I not? Just do not go putting your hands on things that do not belong to you without my permission. Some things are best left forgotten.”
“Of course.” Elyra bowed her head. “I’m sorry.”
“So you said.” The dragon lifted a paw, rubbing his head just between his ridged, black horns.
Though Galvarys had not opened his eyes, he heard the shuffling through the blankets and furs. Her scent grew as she neared him. Then he felt her hand against the scales of his neck. Her touch was warm, and soft. She ran her hand back and forth against his scales, stroking him. She seemed as unsure about comforting the dragon as he was about accepting that comfort.
“I meant I’m sorry for bringing up…” She gave his neck another slow stroke. “Whatever I brought up. I just thought it was some old sword. I know you don’t like prattling, so I’ll shut up.” Silent, the girl rubbed his neck.
“Your touch is nice,” the dragon said, murmuring. He took a few deep breaths, each one untwisting another pained knot from his belly. “It was just an old scar, anyway. Your apology is accepted.” Galvarys cleared his throat with a growl, opened his eyes in time to see the girl closing her mouth. Whatever she was about to say, she must have thought better. “Come along. I’ll show you the rest of this place.”
An old scar. Elyra watched the dragon as he padded across the room filled with more bedding than she’d ever seen in her life. He seemed eager to leave this room and that sword behind. The dragon bore many scars across his indigo and black hide yet Elyra doubted this one was visible.
Elyra grit her teeth. Some great unseen wound lay beneath all that natural armor. The pain shone through in the wounded growl she heard earlier. It flickered in his eyes, a silver ocean of old pains and memories wrapped around that blood-stained sword. Elyra wondered if the dragon hid the blade not because it was sharp, but because he could not bear to look upon it any more than he could bear to part with it. There was something buried in that dragon’s heart, something coiled and cold that she doubted he would ever share.
“Are you coming, Girl?” The dragon called back from the far doorway, his tail spines clacked against the stone when he flicked his tail.
“Yes, Galvarys,” Elyra said. She pinched the bridge of her nose, and shoved her thoughts back into the darkened corner of her mind they came from. It was not her place to pry.
Elyra forced herself to focus on her surroundings. There were more bedclothes in this room than she imagined there to be in the entirety of the Hall of Nobility. The animal furs were of exquisite quality. Many of the more colorful, softer blankets were the sort of things covering the beds the nobles used to toss her into. The sun-pillow she’d hugged felt like luxury itself. Perhaps if the dragon allowed her, she’d give it a quick wash and use it for her own pillow.
As she crossed the room, she glanced at the chest filled with wooden plates. Ancient? She’d seen more valuable wooden plates with better craftsmanship for sale on a street corner. She wondered how much of the dragon’s hoard came from tributes, and what came from things he’d stolen before the truce with the villages.
Elyra was tempted to tell Galvarys that half his tributes were worthless. She might have if she hadn’t feared he’d burn down a whole village in his wrath. Perhaps it would be safer for all involved if she just worked to ensure that the dragon received only valuable tributes from now on. The way Elyra saw it, Atrius, Pigeon Man and all their lackeys should pony up the coin if they wanted the dragon to protect their roads.
“We should get you some shelves,” Elyra said as she walked up behind the dragon. She brushed her fingers over the scales of his tail again, hoping to take his mind off whatever painful memories she’d brought up.
“I have shelves,” he said, snorting.
“Better shelves. We could put them all along your walls. Help you organize your hoard.”
Galvarys froze, then slowly lifted his head. He twisted his neck to peer back at her over his right wing. “It is not a hoard. It is a collection. I am not a hoarder.”
Elyra patted the base of his tail, smiling. “Collection, then. Wouldn’t it be better if you could gaze upon more of it at once, or find a particular item without having to randomly dig through piles of gold and treasure?”
“That would be…nice.” The dragon licked his nose, and then padded forward again. “I shall put you in charge of that.”
“I’d be happy to help organize your…” Elyra picked her word carefully. “Collection.”
Galvarys led her through a room the dragon barely fit in. He grunted as he squeezed through it, wings tight to his body. Then he went down a short hallway around a bend. Elyra found it curious that so many hallways were large enough to fit the dragon, even if he had to squeeze himself in. Before she could bring it up, Elyra heard the sound of burbling water up ahead.
The dragon emerged into another large room near the back of the fortress. Sunlight spilled through high, broken windows. The air was tinted with the smell of mineral-rich water. A fountain stood at the head of the room. Water burbled over a series of curved, white stone ledges. To Elyra the heavily scalloped ledges looked like a stack of alabaster scales, each larger than the one above it. At the bottom of the ledges there was a deep, sunken basin where the water collected.
The water drained out at one end and ran through channels in the floor. Both the basin and the channels were tiled in the same snow-colored stone as the fountain. At the far end of the room was a smaller basin where the water swirled above the piping that drained it out of the building. A few large archways in the walls led to other corridors, while another led outside. A bit of warm, fresh air blew in through the open doorway.
“There’s a little stream out back,” the dragon said, sweeping a wing towards the back wall. “There’s a ruined wooden building built atop it. Probably had latrines there. Feel free to use it for the same purpose. Just don’t go all over the floor in there.”
Elyra laughed and shook her head. Her red hair swished back and forth. “Why on earth would I…” She caught her hair, and stuck some of it behind her ears. “Never mind. Where do you go when you have the need?”
The dragon stared at her a moment, then grunted. “Outside, towards the end of the stream. It drains off the edge of the cliff, flushes everything out.” He flicked his muzzle towards the white-ledged fountain. “I drink from there, where the water burbles up fresh. I bathe down there.” Galvarys indicated the deep, sunken pool beneath the fountain. “The water flow keeps everything clean.”
Elyra nodded, following along with the dragon’s indications. “So this fountain must have been built atop a spring.”
The dragon padded over to the fountain. “That is my assumption. Unless you believe in magic water.”
He lowered his head. Elyra watched him drink. He flicked and curled his tongue against the water but also pushed his muzzle against it, half-slurping it down. The dragon had large jaws, but he also had more mobile lips across his teeth than she expected. The agility of his tongue surprised her. It must have helped him speak the human tongue.
Elyra hopped across the narrow section of the water channels. The white stone was similar to the white marble back in the Hall. It probably once looked quite beautiful though now much of it was covered in moss and slime. “I’d like to clean this place up.” She glanced up at him a moment. “If you don’t mind, Galvarys?”
The dragon lifted his head, snorting. Water droplets blew from his nostrils in a fan-shaped mist. “Be my guest.”
“Thank you.” She walked up to the opposite side of the fountain from the dragon. “I should rather bathe in a clean tub than one covered in muck and slime.”
“There’s no muck and slime.” The dragon glared at her. Then he glanced at the edges of the tub, his pebbly scales crinkling across his snout. “There may be a little muck and slime.”
Grinning, Elyra reached out to let the water flowing over one of the white scalloped ledges pour across her fingers. It felt cool. “This will be pleasant for bathing in the summer, but in the winter it’s going to feel very cold.” Elyra mulled it over a moment. “Do you think you’d allow me to demand a tub and stove from your villages?”
“If you must.”
The dragon went back to drinking, and Elyra decided to do the same. She cupped her hands beneath the flowing water, and brought it to her mouth. The first sip earned a happy sigh. It tasted fresher and sweeter than the fetid water back home, with the faint taste of minerals. She cupped a few more handfuls of the stuff, gulping them all down till her thirst was quenched.
“Ready to move on?” The dragon peered at her from across the fountain. Beads of water clung to his pebbly blue scales and dripped off his chin. The dragon turned and flicked his tail. His spines caught the surface of the bathing pool, spraying cool water across Elyra. “Come along.”
“Hey!” She yelped and jumped back, glaring at the dragon. When he laughed, she balled up her hands into fists. “You’re lucky I don’t throw water all over your face.”
“I think you’ve thrown enough at my face for one day. This way.”
Elyra wiped her face off with her sleeves, hiding her grin. It was nice to know the dragon had a playful side. She hopped over the channel and followed the dragon into a corridor he scarcely fit through. The dragon grunted as he wriggled and squeezed through.
“I hope you’re not planning to ask me to shove your scaly ass when you get stuck.”
“I won’t get stuck,” the dragon muttered. Beyond the corridor was a wide stone stairwell, and the dragon began to ascend it a few steps at a time. “Place used to be larger.”
“You used to be smaller, you mean,” Elyra chuckled. As she followed the dragon up the stairs, she looked at the stone beneath her feet. Gouges and scratches marked each step where the dragon’s claws had marred the stone time and time again. “I’m surprised there are this many rooms and halls you can fit in.”
“They had to make it large enough for lines of armored men carrying spears and things, didn’t they.” Galvarys waited for her in the wide hall atop the stairs. “Only a few more rooms to show you.”
“I rather doubt they had many lines of armored, spear carrying men ascending the stairwells, Galvarys.” Elyra stretched her arms out at the top stair. “I can’t even touch the walls without moving to one side.” She peered down at the top step. Some of the gouges in the stone looked ancient. “Are you certain you’re the first dragon to use this place?”
“No,” Galvarys said, shaking his head. “It is an old fortress. I cannot say for certain that another of my kind did not once call it home.”
“These halls are so big!” She grinned at the dragon a moment. “Maybe dragons built it!”
“If dragons built it, there would not be rooms I cannot fit in or hallways I cannot squeeze through.” Galvarys coiled his tail about his hind leg. “Yet there are.”
“Then perhaps they had a dragon friend who lived here with them.” Elyra peered around, nudged her boot against the stone floor.
Galvarys growled. The sound set Elyra on edge as though she was overstepping a boundary she didn’t know existed. “You want to know what I think?”
Elyra fidgeted with the scuffed hem of her golden dress. “Not if it makes you angry.”
The dragon glared at her over his back. He rustled his wings and uncurled his tail. “I suspect the size of this place was to accommodate the slave laborers who built it. Can you guess who they were?”
“Oh…” Elyra glanced down at her sandals.
“Do you think humans brought all this stone out here atop this mesa?” The dragon waved his paw around at the walls, bathed in the same pale blue light that was shed in the rooms below. “If dragons lived here in the past, they did not live here freely.”
Elyra took a breath and held it, unable to find her tongue. She could tell the dragon she knew what it was like to be forced to work against her will, but would that really comfort him? Did he even want comfort?
In the end, Galvarys broke the silence himself. “Relax, Girl. I am not angry with you. It is only a theory for which I have no proof. It matters not, as a dragon controls this fortress now.”
“Perhaps it was some other large, clawed creature,” Elyra said, trying to offer him an alternative he might find more comfort in.
“You mean like a gryphon?” Galvarys flicked his tail, smirking. “I admit to being amused by the idea of some thieving cat-bird put in chains.”
“I was thinking more of a friend than a slave, but something like that, yes.”
“Gryphons do seem to make occasional alliances with humans,” said the dragon, padding down the hall. His claw tips clicked against the stone floor. “If only because you do not hunt them down with the same sort of mercilessness you hunt dragons.”
“I don’t hunt anyone down,” Elyra said. Her gray eyes shone with a hint of blue fire in the crystalline light. “I am not the sins of all of humanity any more than you are every wicked deed a dragon has ever committed.”
“No,” Galvarys said, his voice lowered a little. “I suppose you are not.”
Elyra stared at him a moment, then decided to shift the subject. “So, what rooms are you going to show me up here?”
“My trophy collection.” The dragon flashed his fangs, grinning. “Along with what I believe you would call my pantry.”
“Where am I to sleep?” Elyra tilted her head. “Do you have a servant’s quarters?”
The dragon shook his wedge-shaped head. “Not as such. I expected you would slumber in my sleeping chamber. However, you are welcome to sleep in any room you wish. Be aware the rooms in which I cannot fit are likely filled with cobwebs and rotted corpses.”
Elyra’s eyes widened. Was Galvarys serious? The dragon walked off without offering any more clues to that particular puzzle. He stopped and gestured with a paw into another room.
“This is my pantry.” Galvarys stuck his head through the arched doorway, his voice a little muffled. “It is a tighter fit for me these days so I do not use it often.”
Elyra only wondered what sort of food a dragon might store until the sickly-sweet scent of rot and spoiling meat washed across her. She covered her nose with a hand, slipping up alongside the dragon to peer into the room. It was smaller than his sleeping chamber, with a deer carcass sprawled and bloated in the center of the room. Around the walls, various barrels and kegs were stacked up.
“Most of those were tributes, the rest are stolen.” The dragon flicked the tip of his muzzle to each one. “I’ve got rum, wine, I think that’s ale.”
“You’ve a rotten carcass in there is what you’ve got.” Elyra withdrew from the doorway.
“It’s not rotten.” The dragon snorted, lifting his spines. “It is aging.” Then he sniffed at the pantry, scrunching his muzzle. “Perhaps it’s a little rotten.”
“More than a little, Galvarys.” Elyra backed away, her eyes watering. “When the cooks in the Hall age meat, they cut away the rot.”
“That’s what I was going to do,” Galvarys muttered, pulling back as well. “They cooked me aged meat tribute once. I thought perhaps you could do the same.”
“That thing is bloated,” Elyra scurried away, trying to escape the smell. She hadn’t noticed it at first but now that she knew it was there it seemed to follow her down the hall like some vomit-inducing spirit. “I don’t think that’s how you age meat.” She wiped her nose with her sleeve. “Nor do I know how to cook that kind of food.”
“But you’re human. Don’t you all cook your food?”
Elyra gave a sigh, rubbing her forehead. “I can cook simple things, but that’s all. Why don’t you just show me your last room?”
“Yes, very well.” The dragon padded down the hallway, his indigo tail undulating behind him like a black-mottled snake. He soon gestured to another arched entryway. “This is my trophy room.”
Elyra joined the dragon to look into the next room. When she was sure it lacked any foul aromas, she slipped inside. Fiery, golden light cast by the setting sun poured in through a window with a few panes of glass still clinging to it. Unlike every other room in this place, this one had order. There were no jumbled piles or scattered items. Instead, the room was lined with shelves and alcoves cut into the stone decorated with Galvarys’ trophies. Elyra expected to find nothing but skulls and bloodied armor. While there were battle trophies, many of the items were far more personal.
One shelf contained ancient books bound in brittle, dyed leather and far too big for human hands. Further around were bits of what looked like thick eggshell. There was a deer skull with broken antlers, studiously cleaned of any flesh. Along another shelf were neatly arranged piles of scales from other dragons. Some scales were colorful, others darker. Elyra wondered if they were from vanquished enemies or forgotten lovers. A pair of large, golden circlets sat near a dark leather pouch that bulged with hidden contents.
Broken armor lined the ground on one side of the room. A crumpled helmet, a battered and gashed cuirass, a ruined shield. Some pieces of armor had weapons with them, a broken spear, a longbow with no string, a heavy axe. Many of the weapons were stained with old blood. Reminders of all the men who failed to slay Galvarys The Wrathful. After Galvarys’ speech about dragonslayers, Elyra found little room in her heart to pity these men. Elyra felt sorry for their families, but these men brought their fate upon themselves.
Elyra heard claws click and scales rustle against stone as the dragon left the room. Elyra remained behind, wondering how each trophy weighed upon Galvarys’ heart. Elyra reached trembling fingers towards the books. Fearing the pages may fall to pieces in her hands, she pulled back. Elyra gazed at bits of eggshell. They looked as dried and brittle as the books. Hints of blue-gray coloration and black spots lingered. Elyra bit her lip, and turned away.
This room was too personal. She’d only just met the dragon. It did not feel right to dig through his past. She certainly wouldn’t just march into the room of some woman she just met and start reading her diary, and she would not pry into this dragon’s life either. Not unless he was there at the time and willing to share it with her.
Elyra left the room. The hallway was empty. Elyra set her jaw, deciding to give the dragon a moment to himself. She took a few minutes to wander the upper hall. Elyra found a few doorways too small for the dragon to fit through. Elyra peered through two of them, and found even more darkness and cobwebs than she expected. One day soon she’d take a lamp and go exploring this place.
When some time had passed, Elyra made her way downstairs. She followed the burbling sound of the fountain until she emerged in the bathing chamber. Elyra got a drink to ease the sudden dryness of her mouth, then crept through the hall to the dragon’s sleeping chamber.
Elyra’s breath caught when she saw Galvarys through the doorway. He looked weary, weighed down with old sorrow. His wings sagged at his sides, their black-rippled edges brushing the furs and blankets. His head hung, his spines were flat and frilled blue ears drooped. He was staring at the sword wrapped in the tapestry.
Elyra shivered, her regretful heart pumped only ice. What wound had she opened when she drew that sword? She wished she’d never touched it. Elyra watched the dragon in silence. Galvarys scarcely moved aside from his breathing. His silver eyes shone wet and blue in the crystalline light.
Elyra wanted to comfort him. She knew what it was like to wish for someone to offer the light of comfort in a moment of darkness. Then again, Elyra feared the dragon may find her comfort meaningless. Buried beneath all that armor and ego was a heart bound to an anchor. The weight may be heavier than any mere servant girl could lift. Elyra wished to try just the same.
Elyra took one step towards him before dragon glanced over. “Out of the way, Elyra.”
Elyra’s shoulders sagged as she stepped aside.
The dragon lowered his head to grasp the rolled up tapestry in his teeth. Golden rope kept it bound as he picked it up. He brought it to the doorway, then set it back down. Galvarys turned the tapestry to get it through the door. He nudged it into the hallway with his snout, then glanced up at Elyra. “You have questions?”
Elyra chewed on her lip. A dozen different questions rolled across her tongue and caught upon her teeth. She shook her head. “None that I feel comfortable asking.”
“That makes two of us.” The dragon nudged the tapestry towards her. “Make yourself useful, will you? Draw that sword again. Carefully this time.”
Elyra was uncertain, but she knelt at the end of the tapestry, and pulled the blade free. It was heavy, balanced for a man with arms strengthened by a lifetime of training. She hefted it, holding it upright in front of her face. Stains the color of old rust marked the steel. The crossguard was a dark gray material Elyra didn’t recognize.
“It is horn,” the dragon said, padding past the girl. He made his way towards the bathing chamber, calling back. “Follow me. Bring the sword.”
“Horn?” Elyra followed after the dragon, carrying the sword despite the grand protest waged by arms already tired from hauling around crates and packs. She cringed when her mind caught up with her words. She knew just what manner of beast the horn came from.
“Beneath the leather, the inlay is bone.” Galvarys’ voice grew quieter as he outpaced the woman.
Elyra pushed aside some of the frayed leather binding around the hilt. Pale, polished bone inlay formed an emblem of a dragon’s skull. Elyra made a face. No wonder Galvarys hated this sword. She opened her mouth, but her words died on her lips, and she followed the dragon in silence.
The dragon passed through an archway in the bathing chamber that led outside. The sinking sun cast earth and dragon alike in brilliant fire. The little stream behind the fortress looked like molten gold, and Galvarys gleamed as though coated with the stuff. Galvarys looked as regal as she could ever imagine a creature looking. The dragon arched his neck and lifted his head, his spiraling horns silhouetted against the light. Galvarys flared his wings to shield his eyes from the sun as he strode through the back courtyard.
Elyra followed the dragon along the stream. The water tumbled over rocks and weeds. The silver scales of tiny fish shimmered in the sunlight as they darted away from Elyra’s shadow. When Galvarys reached the mesa’s edge, he settled down upon his haunches, curling his tail. As Elyra came up alongside him, she saw his tail tip hanging off the edge, spines suspended in the air. His front paws were curled over the edge of the cliff, his black claws unsheathed and scratching at the stone.
“For far too many years…” the dragon said, staring into the canyon. His voice hung in the air like thick, gray fog. “I have kept that damnable thing lying around to remind myself…” The dragon closed his eyes. He growled in that strange, wounded way. The sound trembled with fear, and grief. “Never mind. I am tired of being reminded. Toss it over the edge.”
“Wh-what?” Elyra stepped away from the dragon, lifting the old sword. Her eyes roamed its surface, staring at the dry, brown stains. “Is it…yours?”
“Not on that one.” Galvarys turned his eyes away before Elyra could search them. He stared at the fiery, sunset-painted canyon. “I am not the first to be hunted by the slayers of dragons.” Galvarys’ voice softened as he waved his paw at the canyon. “Go on, Girl. Toss it in. Carefully. If it spins and cuts you open I doubt I can hold your guts inside for long.”
Elyra shivered. She took a few steps away from the dragon to make sure she had plenty of room. She lifted the sword, staring at the blood-stained blade. Curiosity seized her with burning fingers, but her question died upon her tongue like all the others. Their trust was yet whisper-thin, and she could not ask the dragon to spill a secret from so deep in his heart.
Elyra took a deep breath, twisted her body, and hurled the sword off the edge of the mesa. It toppled through the air, flashed when it caught the sunlight, and then vanished into the shadows gathered at the bottom of the canyon. Elyra heard the dragon let out a deep breath and whisper in a tongue she did not recognize.
This time Elyra did not hesitate to offer the dragon comfort. She returned to him and put her hand upon Galvarys’ shoulder. The gesture surprised him. The dragon tensed and twisted his neck around to glare at her, spines flared. Elyra did not shrink or pull away. Instead she stroked his shoulder, and smiled at him. Whether her touch and words would have any meaning to the dragon didn’t matter. She wanted to try.
“It’s alright, Galvarys.” Elyra caressed the warm blue scales of his shoulder, still smiling. “Whatever trouble that blade brought is gone now. Whatever fear lingers in your heart will subside. The pain will ease. It will be alright. You will be alright, Galvarys.”
Galvarys stared back at her a moment. His expression softened and his spines settled back against his head. The dragon’s eyes shone so intensely Elyra almost feared they would burn her away. Then his pebbly blue scales crinkled as the dragon began to smile. He nodded his spiral-horned head a single time. “Thank you, Elyra.”
Elyra patted his shoulder. “You’re welcome.” Elyra stroked the dragon’s shoulder in silence until he eased away from her.
Galvarys padded away from the mesa’s edge. “I think I should like to hunt now. I would offer to take you, but I cannot hunt with you hanging from my forelegs.”
“I could ride upon your back, if you wished.” A spring of warm hope blossomed in the woman’s heart.
Galvarys peered back at Elyra over his wings, ears lifted. “You really enjoyed that flight, didn’t you?”
“It was one of the best experiences of my entire life.” Elyra meant that in every way. “I would be honored if you would let me fly with you again. If I could ride upon your back the honor would be doubled.”
“It is not as safe.” The dragon turned back towards her, his tail spines scything through some grass. “If you slipped from my back I am not certain I could catch you.”
“If I slipped from your back and plummeted to my death, I would still die happier than I could have ever imagined as a slave to the nobles.” Elyra strode to the dragon, holding out her hands. “I have pledged myself to you. I have shown you my courage, I have hurled your cursed sword off a cliff and I have kept all my many questions to myself. If you would allow it, Galvarys, I would ever so much love to ride upon your back.”
Elyra stood still as the dragon appraised her. Her heart thundered in her chest so loudly she worried the vibrations may cause the mesa’s edge to crumble. When the dragon replied, her heart leapt almost as high as Galvarys himself could take her.
“Very well, Elyra. I shall allow you to ride upon my back.” Elyra literally bounced in glee, hopping up and down. Her joy infected the dragon and left him grinning as widely as she had yet seen. He held up his paw to hold her at bay. “Just not now. I should like to hunt and be alone for a time.”
“Of course!” Elyra blurted out, starting to bow and curtsy before she caught herself. “Whenever you wish--”
The dragon cut her off, raising his brassy voice. “Tomorrow you shall accompany me to the Village Of Rings.”
“I’d love to! Do we get to terrify any nobles?” Elyra bounced a few more times. The dragon’s startled expression made her laugh. Then she paused. “You’re not going to hurt anyone, are you?”
“Terrify? Yes. Hurt? Not unless I have to.” He waved his wing towards the fortress. “Feel free to bathe, find a place to sleep, make yourself at home. If you are sleeping when I return I shall try not to wake you.”
Elyra walked alongside the dragon for a few paces, excited questions still bubbling from her lips. “What about after we’ve terrified them? Will you make demands? Oh, may I make a demand?”
Galvarys growled his amusement. He opened a wing and gently nudged her back with it. Then the dragon glanced at her with a grin. “Yes. We shall demand a number of hams.”
Before Elyra had a chance to ask why on earth they’d be demanding any hams, the dragon leapt into the air. Winds gusted and swirled beneath his vast wings, her golden dress billowed around her. Elyra twirled in place, reveling in the feel of the wind. Elyra whirled till she was dizzy, laughter spilling from her lips even as she tumbled to the grass. This was even better than she imagined.
So this was what joy felt like.
Elyra jumped back to her feet. She thrust her hands into the air and threw back her head. Elyra roared to the sunset-painted skies and mountains.
Galvarys roared back at her.
Tomorrow she would fly upon a dragon.