Galvarys picked his way down the rocky trail towards the meadow below Tribute Hill. He set his paws with care, mindful of loose rocks. It would not be the first time his paws slipped on the scree and he banged his jaw on the stone. When the dragon reached the bottom of the hill, he glanced at his new servant. She seemed more inclined to descend the larger outcrops with her belly against the rocks than she did to stick to the trail that wound around them.
“It is easier if you follow the trail.” The dragon flicked his tail against the ground, his spines tossed earth into the air.
“I like climbing these little cliffs,” the girl said, hopping down from the last one. She rubbed her hands against her increasingly dirty and torn golden dress. “I’ve never had a chance to climb rocks before. I like the way it leaves me feeling a little bruised.”
“You like to be bruised?” The dragon cocked his head, hissing. They’d sent him a damn masochist.
The girl scrunched her face, red hair fluttering behind her. “No. That came out wrong.”
“Perhaps you should think before you speak.” The dragon padded across the grass to a pile of what must be gifts for him.
The girl muttered something behind him. He glanced back at her and she raised her voice. “It makes me feel alive to be aching and burning from the exertion, from scuffing my knees.”
Galvarys flicked his ears, wondering what she’d muttered first. He tilted his spiral-horned head. “Of course you feel alive. You still draw breath, do you not?”
“Consider yourself lucky you don’t understand.” The woman turned her head, gazing towards the distant mountains. She folded her arms, her golden dress rustling around her in the breeze. “Do you live in the mountains?”
“Yes, I do.” The dragon turned away. She was an odd but intriguing girl, and more courageous than the last waif. He certainly preferred bravery and intriguing strangeness to cowering fear. “We shall be flying there shortly.”
“Wonderful!” Now she sounded cheerful. “May I make a request for the flight?”
“You may not.” Galvarys put an end to that as soon as it began. Servants did not make requests of dragons. But a reward would encourage good behavior. “If you’re good, you may make a request later.”As far as Galvarys was concerned, that was that. If she expected to request things of him, she’d have to prove her value.
“But you are going to take me flying, aren’t you?” The girl walked across the grass until she stood just out of reach of the dragon’s teeth.
“I’m not going to wait for you to walk all the way to my home.” The dragon tossed his horned head with a disdainful snort.
“Then I should like to ask…”
“What are these gifts for me?” Galvarys waved his paw at a collection of wooden boxes stacked atop one another, sealed and lashed together with lengths of braided rope.
“…If I may ride upon your back. I was told in the village the last girl was left dangling from your claws.” The girl leveled her gray gaze at Galvarys’ silver eyes. “I am tired of being treated like luggage.”
“This is not a negotiation.” The dragon reached towards the boxes. He unsheathed a single claw and reached for the rope, intent on slicing through the bindings to see what was inside.
To his surprise, the girl darted forward and positioned herself between the dragon and the crates. She took his paw in her hands, her fingers felt warm against his pads. “If you cut that rope you’ll have trouble carrying your gifts. They’re all lashed together so that you can carry them.”
Galvarys growled under his breath, but when the girl pushed his paw away from the collection of boxes he did not resist. “You’re a clever little thing. And quite brave.”
“You did ask for someone with courage.” The girl stared up at the dragon’s face.
For a moment he searched her eyes, trying to count the myriad emotions swirling behind them. Humans were hard for Galvarys to read. He was far more familiar with the body language of other dragons. A dragon’s emotions shone through in their eyes. Their moods were reflected in the position of their ears and crests. Human expressions were all scrunched skin and flickering glances.
“Yes, I did.” The dragon did not pull his paw away and she did not release it. “Why did you volunteer, Girl?”
“Because I wished to escape…”
“Why did you really volunteer?” The dragon cut her off, hissing through his teeth. Her grip tightened against his paw, but neither pulled away.
“If servitude is to be my life, I would rather serve one wicked beast living a free and adventurous life than a dozen filthy men.” The girl spat her words like bile.
“So you think I’m a wicked beast, and yet you chose to serve me?” The dragon cocked his head.
“Yes, I think you’re a wicked beast. You openly admit to slaying men and extorting treasure from villages to prevent their destruction.” The girl cradled her smaller hand beneath the central pad of the dragon’s paw. “And yes, I chose to serve you just the same. I’d rather serve a dragon than be made a whore for wretched nobles. Besides, they’ve just as much blood on their hands. They hide and speak of it behind closed doors where they think no one can hear. But I hear. And I remember.”
The dragon snorted, flaring his spines. “If they hide from their own deeds, then they are cowards.”
“Yes.” The girl’s voice burned like wood beneath dragon’s flame. “They are. And because they fear what we once were, they put a mark on my face that ensures my life will always be spent in servitude to them. This is my way out of that. For me, this is freedom. I would happily tend your every need, Dragon, in return for a life spent far away from those men. A life spent among the mountains, and in the sky.”
“You are an intriguing girl,” Galvarys said, cocking his head. He flicked his ears back. There was more to this wench than he realized. “I like your courage.”
“Call me a wench one too many times, and you’ll see how courageous I am when I break something over your head.” The girl smirked up at him. “Before you threaten me, know that I would consider death by infuriated dragon preferable to another day in that horrible Hall. I considered myself on borrowed time anyway, because if I had to pleasure one more foul noble I may have bitten it off.”
The dragon gave a boisterous, growling laugh. “As you well should, I think. You’ve a spirit that shines as brightly as your eyes.” The dragon licked his nose, then grinned at her, fangs flashing in the sunlight. “Besides wicked, what do you think of me? Speak your mind. I shall not punish you even if you insult me.”
“You’re smaller than I expected.”
Galvarys’ eyes went wide, his neck curled. “What?”
The girl grinned at him. “I thought you’d be bigger, that’s all. You still look quite regal.”
Galvarys snorted. “What else?”
The girl pulled on his paw a little till he turned it over to expose the mottled gray pads on its underside. “I thought you’d be cold to the touch, not warm, and I didn’t think you’d have soft pads.” She trailed a finger across the dragon’s opposable digit. “Let alone a thumb.”
“I was not asking you to compare my anatomy to your imagination, and we both know it.” The dragon flexed his paw a little. “Speak your mind before I rescind the invitation.”
“You frighten me with how openly you talk of killing people.” The girl swallowed, pursing her lips. “Half of what you say makes you sound like a spoiled brat who thinks only of himself.” She turned her gray eyes up to the dragon’s face as she spoke. “You returned that girl unharmed so I know you’ve a heart in there somewhere. You live the life of complete freedom I’ve always dreamed of and yet I suspect you squander it. I pity you the paranoia that must fill you at night, fearing ambush from all your enemies. You seem to have seen so few of your own kind. I imagine you are quite lonely without other dragons around.”
“Wrong.” The dragon jerked his paw back from her and set it upon the grass. “Dragons don’t get lonely.”
“I suspect dragons are natural liars.” The girl walked to her brown leather pack, set not far from the boxes. A heavy, padded roll was strapped to the top of it. She picked up the pack, and began to work it over her shoulders, glancing at the dragon. “Does that mean everything else I said is accurate?”
“Only the part about how regal I am.” The dragon lifted his head, flaring his spines.
With her pack shouldered, the girl squared her shoulders and turned to face the dragon again. “You called me a clever little thing earlier. Why?”
“I could say it’s because you decided to serve what you see as the lesser of two evils.” The dragon waved his paw in the air, grinning. “Though I am not evil. I simply do what is best for myself, as should any reasonable creature.” Then he flicked his claws at the crates. “But I called you clever because you’ve had those boxes lashed together in such a way as I must use my paws to carry them, and thus must allow you to ride upon my back.”
The girl glanced at the boxes, then back at the dragon. She shrugged. “That would be convenient for me.”
“You would of course, be wrong.”
Galvarys reached out and grasped the boxes with one forepaw. He pulled them up against his chest, cradling them against his plates. The braided ropes that lashed the boxes together would prevent them from breaking loose in flight. By the time the girl realized what the dragon had in mind it was too late. Galvarys sprang forward off his hind paws and snatched her up with his other foreleg. As the dragon ascended the girl gave a startled squeal, clutched against him just like the rest of his gifts.
It took only a few wing beats for the world below to fall away into an ocean of trees. The pine forest stretched in all directions across this land, waves of emerald that rose and fell with the gentle hills. Patches of blue-green spruce amidst the pines looked like old scars upon the earth’s emerald hide. The girl wrapped her arms around his foreleg, trembling against him. She screamed a few frightened obscenities filthy enough to impress the dragon, but to his pleasant surprise she soon calmed.
In fact, before long she went so utterly silent the dragon thought she must have passed out. He lowered his head to peer at her, only to find her wide-eyed and awed, watching the world drift by beneath them. Galvarys saw not a trace of fear on her face. Her grip upon his foreleg slowly relaxed until she just hung in his grasp. Galvarys could not tell if she trusted the dragon not to drop his new servant, or if the fulfillment of some grand dream was enough to overwhelm her better judgment. For a brief moment, a strange sort of guilt tugged at his heartstrings. Just one heartstring, though. This girl really did want him to take her flying.
“What do you think?” The dragon asked her before turning his attention to the horizon.
“I think you’re an arrogant ass who deserves a swift kick in the scaly testicles!” The girl punched his foreleg to make her point, but not so hard as to make the dragon consider dropping her.
Her spirited threat made Galvarys laugh. “You’d never dare! But they’re not scaly, and that’s not what I meant.”
Galvarys pinned his ears back against his head, wondering what statement she was replying to. “What do you think--”
“Beautiful!” The girl cried out, her voice awash in glee and filled with reverence for what she saw slipping by so far beneath her. “It’s beautiful.”
“I know,” the dragon said, grinning. He glanced down at her again. Wind roiled beneath him at the end of each wing beat, buffeting her dress and her crimson hair. “Be a good wench, and I’ll let you enjoy this view more often!”
“Keep calling me that and you’ll find out how daring I can be, Dragon!”
The dragon snorted, flaring his spines. The girl just glared back at him till he lifted his head.
“Yes, yes, Dragon.” The girl called up to him. “Act angry. You wouldn’t ask for courage if you didn’t want a little backtalk.”
“I could drop you, you know.” Galvarys loosened his grip. He felt the girl tense and wrap her arms tightly around his foreleg again.
“If you kill me, the nobles will send you some whimpering whore too terrified to even reply to you!”
“Do not mistake appreciation for weakness,” the dragon said. He licked his nose to better taste and smell the wind. The day was clear, but the air was tinted with distant cold, and northern rain. Autumn would arrive soon. “I like your spirit, but anger me and I’ll hurl you off a cliff.”
“Would it not take greater strength to put up with me?” Then the girl sighed. Galvarys felt her slump against his foreleg. “I don’t want to argue. I’m missing the view!”
“You enjoy it that much hanging from my forelimb?”
“The beauty I see makes up for being carried like luggage.” The girl patted the dragon’s forepaw as it remained curled about her midsection. “You trust me enough to take me into your home. It is only fair I trust you not to drop me.”
That was interesting. Galvarys had spent a lot of time imagining how fun it would be to have a servant. He could make her clean his homes, organize his treasure, oil his scales, sing his praises in verse and song. Hell, he’d even considered taking her to a town to tell everyone what an amazing lover he was. Given that the humans all seemed to believe that was his intention, he may as well build another aspect to his growing legend. Yet in all his daydreaming, not once had he considered the dangers of allowing a human to live in his home. He’d never thought about what they might be able to do to him while he slept.
Dragons were difficult to slay, but even dragons had their vulnerable spots. If she thrust a blade into just the right spot while he slumbered, he would wake only to agony, blood, and the knowledge his life was ending. Galvarys shivered, his scales clicking together. The girl squeaked when his body shook against her, the crates rattled.
“You…You wouldn’t…” The dragon’s voice came out so soft it was whisked away by the rushing wind.
“Do you live in a cave?” The girl called up to him. He glanced down. Her eyes were locked on the earth below. The forest remained but the hills on which it spread were growing taller and rockier.
“Sometimes,” the dragon replied. Even as he spoke his mind wandered dark, frightening clouds. “I have several homes. One is a cave in the mountains, another is an old fortress. That is where we are going now.”
“A fortress?” The girl looked up at him, smiling. “That actually sounds exciting.”
The dragon grunted. He swallowed the fearful lump in his long throat. “You wouldn’t…when I’m asleep, you wouldn’t…”
“What are you talking about?” The girl blinked, furrowed her brow. She looked confused amidst whipping strands of scarlet hair.
“You said I trusted you enough to take you into my home.” Galvarys crooked his long neck, watching her as he flew. “You would not try to harm me in my slumber, would you?”
“No!” The fervor of the girl’s reply surprised the dragon. They were both silent a moment, staring into each other’s eyes. Galvarys searched for some glimpse of truth in her gray gaze, but the way she squinted against the wind kept her eyes unreadable. Yet the honesty he sought shone through in her voice. “No, Dragon. I would never try to harm you in your sleep. Nor would I let anyone else who should find their way to your lair. Anyone who would slay even an enemy in their slumber is a coward. And I am no coward, Dragon. You may trust me in that.”
Galvarys grunted, lifting his head without reply. He knew it might be foolish of him, but he believed the girl. After a few breaths, the dragon tightened his grip against her, cradling her as securely against his chest plates as he could. She would never have to fear falling when he took her to the skies.
The fortress, much like the dragon, was smaller than Elyra expected. From a distance it looked a rectangular collection of gray stone walls and watchtowers. The fortress lacked the Hall Of Nobility’s extravagant golden spires and sprawling size. Instead it featured walkways and towers with crenelated battlements. Elyra imagined herself walking them, watching the dragon strafe armies of so-called heroes with his fire in the distance.
“You breathe fire, don’t you?” Elyra glanced up at the beast as they neared his home.
“I don’t like that phrase, but yes.” The dragon’s muscles roiled as he shifted his wing beats.
Elyra bent her legs at the knees. Her feet tingled. Hanging from his grasp was making her legs go numb. “What don’t you like about it?”
“I cannot breathe fire. I breathe the air, just as you do.” The dragon snorted, flaring the spines that decorated his indigo head. “I can, however, create flames upon exhalation.”
“Close enough.” Elyra shifted again, rolling her ankles. “Will I get to see you do that? Or will I have to wait until someone tries to kill you?”
“I doubt you will be present if someone is trying to kill me.” The dragon snorted. “Later I will show you fire if you wish.”
“I’d like that.” She did not truly wish to see the dragon burn his enemies, but it made for an amusing daydream. She’d rather the dragon incinerate someone than be murdered in his slumber. “Do your enemies ever come out here to call you out to battle?”
“Not here.” The dragon growled and glanced away. “Dragons are safer if they keep the location of their homes a secret.”
Elyra licked her wind-chapped lips. She had relished their flight into the mountains. They’d soared over spires of rock buffeted by cold winds, across gray canyons with sheer stone walls speckled with stunted bushes. She spied ribbons of blue water between boulder-strewn expanses that rose and fell as though the earth itself was breathing. The land held a majestic sort of desolation that was even more beautiful than she’d hoped.
The dragon’s fortress sat upon a vaguely diamond-shaped mesa in the middle of a deep, wide canyon. It looked like an island of stone large enough to fit an entire village. All four sides of the mesa ended abruptly in sheer red and gray cliffs that fell countless feet to the churning, rocky waters below. A narrower section of canyon indicated the mesa might have once been connected by a land bridge.
“That’s where you live?” Elyra called out to the dragon.
“Yes,” the dragon said. He sounded as though Elyra’s excitement confused him. “Do mind the edge. Without wings I don’t think you’d enjoy the dive very much.”
The dragon circled his home. To Elyra, the mesa’s sheer cliffs looked as though God had taken a knife to the earth and cut it away. Dark streaks and layers of moss marked the walls where she could see water dribbling from the stone. A little stream ran across part of the mesa before pouring over the edge, little more than a cloud of spray by the time it hit bottom.
Some canyon walls sloped where ancient landslides had broken down the sheer cliffs. The stone was layered in shades of shades of gray from pale ash to nearly black. Striations of reddish stone and crumbling sections of white, chalklike rock decorated some slopes. Twisted, gnarled trees stuck out at odd angles. Their roots crawled over the rock, clinging to tiny, dirt-filled crevices.
The dragon circled once more, and then made for the front of the fortress. “I’m going to land on my hind paws first so I can set you and your gifts down.”
Elyra tried to work some feeling back into her legs. “Alright!”
The woman braced herself as the dragon swept in over the fortress mesa. The dragon flared his wings to their full extent, cupping the air. Then he back-winged a few times, the movement jostled Elyra and the crates. He touched his hind paws down, and then promptly dropped Elyra onto the grass.
Elyra crumpled as her rubbery legs gave out. The crates clattered to the ground alongside her. The dragon touched down on his forepaws and Elyra found herself staring up at his belly. The blue scales there were paler in color and finer in texture, mottled with hints of black and a few faint gray scars. Some scars were larger than others. Elyra wondered what manner of weapon had caused them, and how close they’d come to taking his life.
The dragon quickly stepped away from her, leaving her staring at the sky. “I don’t like people lingering under my belly.”
“I don’t blame you.” Elyra pushed herself up to her knees. “You’ve a lot of scars.”
“I’ve a few.” The dragon padded along a trail worn in the grass by years of paw-falls. “Bring my gifts.”
Elyra forced her half-numb legs to obey and stood up. She wobbled for a moment, took a few steps on shaky legs. She turned a circle, surveying the ground. The edge of the cliff was not far. Elyra moved close enough to peer over the edge. The view twisted her guts into painful knots. She swallowed, pressing a hand to her belly. Flight hadn’t scared her much as she trusted the dragon not to drop her. Yet one wrong step over this cliff and her little adventure would end in a very long fall with a very quick stop.
“Are you coming, Girl?” The dragon called back to her, his brassy voice echoing across the canyon.
“Yes, just let me catch my breath, please!” Elyra called back. The dragon snorted and lashed his tail against the grass. His spines tossed sod into the air.
Elyra gazed across the mesa. She might need an hour to walk around the entire expanse of it, but she could bathe in its beauty without taking a step. The stony expanse was capped with a layer of bright green grass dotted here and there with speckles of brilliant color. Bees buzzed around a cluster of wildflowers with orange and red blooms like tiny flames. A line of plump, blue flowers shaped like tiny bells hung from a single green stalk that stretched up above the grass. Birds flitted about, chasing myriad insects. A few trees marked the mesa. There was a cluster of pines at one side, a few white-barked aspens at another, and what looked like a lone towering oak towards the back. Soon the oak’s green leaves would turn the color of fire before drying up and fluttering away.
Elyra loved this place already.
The woman returned to the crates and shifted her pack. The straps were chafing her shoulders and she was ready to cast it aside. Elyra wrapped her fingers around the cords that bound the boxes and began to drag them through the grass. They were heavy, but not so much that she couldn’t move them. Her arms ached but she saw no reason to complain. After all, she needed those boxes.
The dragon was right, she was clever. But it wasn’t because she’d tied a bunch of boxes together. It was because she’d stuck a few cheap gifts for the dragon inside boxes filled with her own supplies. Not that she’d brought herself anything special. Mostly foods and some simple medical supplies, and whatever else she couldn’t fit in her pack.
Elyra followed the dragon to the fortress at the center of the mesa. An uneven line of mossy, broken wooden posts pointing at odd angles was all that remained of the wall that once ringed the fortress courtyard. Ruins of a few old wooden outbuildings dotted the land. One was little more than a raised foundation now shrouded by generations of emerald moss and dark lichen. Another building still stood as a framework, and corners of old thatched roof remained intact enough for birds to build nests beneath them. Elyra saw a few flitting in and out. A ring of crumbling bricks marked where a well once stood.
“Is there still water in that well?”
“I’ve no idea.” The dragon glanced back at her.
Elyra blinked at the dragon a moment, lugging the crates behind her. Her shoulders burned. “Do you drink water?”
“Of course.” The dragon growled, lowering his spiny eye ridges. “What do you take me for, some demon spirit subsisting on the fear of children?”
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility,” Elyra muttered.
“Yes, I drink water! I am as much flesh and blood as you.” The dragon lifted a paw, and dragged unsheathed claws down the plates of his chest. “My flesh just happens to be much better protected than yours.”
“Where do you go to drink your water, then?” Elyra ignored the dragon’s boasts. “If it is somewhere you fly to, may I come with you? I’ll need to refill my waterskins now and then. If I may ask, would it also be possible to visit somewhere I can bathe? Dragons may not take baths, but humans certainly do.”
“Do you always prattle on this much?”
“Only when I have things I need to say.” Elyra grinned at the dragon as he walked off again. She lowered her voice. “Or when I feel like getting on the nerves of someone irritating.”
The dragon’s frilled ears flicked. “Irritating, am I?”
Uh oh. Elyra gulped. The dragon’s hearing was better than she realized. She’d better watch her remarks. “No, Sir. Not you, I just meant…in general. The nobles, you see, they’re quite irritating. So I prattled on to them whenever possible.”
“Nice try.” The dragon licked his nose. “And since you brought it up, dragons are very cleanly creatures. Part of the reason I enjoy this home is because it has easy access to water for drinking, and bathing. Only two of my homes do.”
Elyra released the rope attached to the crates to work the aches out of her hands. “How many homes have you got?”
“Four.” The dragon arched his neck, clearly proud of that. “There is this one, my single cavern, my cave network.” Then dragon flattened his ears, glancing away. “And the old village.”
Elyra scrunched her face, hooking some red hair behind an ear. When her hands did not ache so badly, she grasped the ropes and began to drag the crates towards the fortress entrance again. “Do you know what my home has been for most of my life, Dragon? A single cramped room, shared with twelve other women.”
The dragon turned his head towards her again, fangs glistening in the sunlight as he grinned. “Then you’ve moved up in the world. Now you have an entire fortress to yourself, shared only with a legendary dragon.”
Elyra found the dragon’s grin infectious. She’d happily spend her days sleeping on the floor if it meant an entire fortress to herself with only a single creature telling her what to do instead of a dozen. Elyra found she liked the idea of being the minion of a legendary dragon. The sort of beast remembered through the ages in terrifying tales. Maybe she’d even be remembered alongside him. Better to be recalled as the minion of a grand villain than some forgotten whore in a noble’s bed.
“You’re not legendary yet,” Elyra said as she approached the entrance to the fortress. “But perhaps I can help with that.”
Elyra tilted her head back, peering up at the fortress. In some places the outer walls were so shrouded by layers of moss and lichen that it was hard to tell the building was even built of stone. It was as though the earth was slowly reclaiming something long since abandoned by man. In a way, the fact the dragon now lived here only bolstered that idea. Wicked or not, dragons were probably still closer to nature than mankind.
Despite nature’s claim, the fortress remained remarkably intact and sturdy. Its walls towered over the dragon, let alone Elyra. The moss that cloaked its lower levels gave way in the higher, wind-swept reaches. Weathered, gray stone towers jutted from the corners of the place. Wooden bridges that once spanned the towers lingered as wooden remnants. Battlements lined stone walkways along the top of the walls. Some of the crenellated blocks had toppled to the earth. They’d long since been overgrown and marked the ground as little more than bulges beneath the grass and moss. Empty holes like dead eyes marked the walls where windows once lay. A few still had broken panes of old glass or moldering shutters.
An immense, gaping archway rose where massive entry doors once stood. Rusted hinges were still embedded in the stone on either side of the entryway, but there was no sign of the doors. Scalloped edges trimmed the stone archway. Runic marks were carved into the stone all around the entry. Elyra had never seen such symbols before. Probably the lost language of some empire long since conquered.
Elyra followed the indigo and black dragon through the entryway. She paused to put a hand upon the carved stone. It felt cold, and ancient. She could nearly hear the whispers of time-silenced voices echoing forever from within the runes. It was an almost mystical moment as she…
“Are you going to come inside or are you going to fondle that rock all day?”
At least it was until the dragon spoiled it. Elyra shook her head, red tresses swishing around her face. There would be plenty of time to explore this fortress and let her imagination roam after she settled in. Maybe she’d explore the place in the moonlight while the dragon slumbered.
Though the entryway was more than large enough for the dragon to pass through, Elyra wondered how much of the fortress the dragon could access. She doubted the average door and hall were as large as those in the entry. If the dragon got on her nerves she’d just slip off into some lost corridor he could not follow her into.
“I suppose dragons don’t have a need for a door, do they.” Elyra called after the dragon. Her voice bounced off the walls and followed him into the central chamber.
The dragon’s voice rolled over her in reply, magnified as it reverberated. “Not generally. In the winter I hang blankets and things around the entry to keep out the cold.”
Elyra nodded. That made sense. She doubted dragons cared much for privacy. And it wasn’t as though his enemies could reach him all the way out here. Whatever bridge must have once spanned the canyon had long since collapsed into it. That was disquieting. She hoped the whole place wasn’t about to crumple into the waters below.
Elyra tried to keep from thinking about it as she dragged the crates deeper into the entry hall. The wood grated against the uneven stone floor. A few weeds and thistles sprung up through cracks in the stone floor tiles. The air inside was still but pleasant. Perhaps the stone walls kept the air from ever growing too hot or too cold. She sniffed a few times. It did smell a bit of must and…was that dragon? It was an unfamiliar scent, sort of mysterious and reptilian like some dark, primal forest. It was not unpleasant but the place could do with a bit of airing out.
She glanced back the way she’d came, still wondering how stable this mesa was. “Was there…” She bit her lip. “Was there ever a bridge? To the other side of the canyon?”
“Part of one.” The dragon flexed his wings in what Elyra assumed was some kind of amused shrug. “I tore it out and tossed it into the river.”
Elyra laughed. “I’ve only just met you, and that already sounds...” Something clinked against the stone when Elyra kicked it. She glanced down. A single golden coin lay upon the floor. Her breath caught. That coin alone was more money than she’d ever had in her pocket all at once.
“Yes?” The dragon snorted, scratching his neck with a wing tip. “Sounds like…”
“Something you’d say,” Elyra murmured. She released the rope binding the crates, and crouched down to pick up the coin. She rose and walked into a patch of sunlight. The coin was quite scuffed, reducing the face embossed upon it to an unrecognizable blob. The color was clear. “This is gold.”
The dragon stared at her for a moment, spines wavering. “Yes, it is.” Then he thrust his paw in the air. “So is that.” He flared a wing, pointing elsewhere. “And that.” Then he flicked his tail around. “And that. And that. And those. If you like that coin, Girl, you should come and see the rest of it.”
Elyra hurried into the central chamber. The room was immense and made a fitting dragon’s lair. Marble columns carved with elegant, spiraling vines stretched several stories from the floor up to the vaunted arches spanning the ceiling. Even with the columns Elyra was sure the dragon could have stood in the center of the room and spread his wings as far as they’d go without so much as brushing stone. A raised dais at one end of the room likely once held some seat of authority. A bit of diffused, blue-gray light shone into the room from sources Elyra could not see.
Nor did she care to look at anything but the dragon’s treasure. For some reason she’d expected all his tributes to be placed in the form of an immense pile of coins and other treasure upon which the beast slept at night. Instead, he seemed to have scattered it to every corner he could find. A haphazard pile of crates and boxes was stacked against one wall, right next to a row of wooden chests with iron bindings. Coins overflowed one box and were strewn all across the floor. Another box was filled with goblets made of gold and silver, while yet another was stuffed to bursting with clothing made of fine silk. In another section of the room lay an entire pile comprised only of battered shields and scuffed sections of old armor. A long shelf spanning one part of the room was covered with a collection of various glittering jewels. It went on and on, every section of the room held part of the dragon’s hoard.
“My God, Dragon!” Elyra’s eyes bulged in such wonder that they nearly cracked her skull. “I’ve never seen such wealth!”
“I thought you worked for nobles?”
Elyra laughed so hard she doubled over. When she caught her breath, she straightened, rubbing her aching ribs. “You think they’d trust me to even peek through the doorway of their treasure room? I’d have pocketed whatever I could before they’d even blinked.”
“Oh?” The dragon’s silver eyes focused on the coin she still held in her hand. “You’d better not consider…”
Elyra cut him off by tossing the coin to clink against its many brethren on the floor. “Stealing from you wouldn’t do me any good, Dragon. Not like I could go anywhere with it. If I was to steal from the nobles I’d have used it to find myself a better life. But I’ve already done that. I’ll tell you what I’m hoping for, though.”
The dragon pulled his head back, his neck curling into an S. “What is that?”
“That someday you’ll allow me to demand my own treasure.” Elyra tried to hold back her grin at that idea, but found it marching across her lips despite her best efforts.
“You want to demand your own treasure?” The dragon’s silver eyes widened, his spines all lifted halfway from his head, ears swiveling forward. To Elyra, it looked like the sort of expression of wonder he might make when he first set eyes upon a chest piled high with gold.
“Absolutely.” Elyra smirked at the dragon, waving her hand in the air. “Directly from the nobles. They don’t want my people around? They don’t want to give me anything but servitude? Fine. We’ll see how they like it when I show up on a dragon’s back, and demand their gold! And something nice to wear. And someone to write your legend down in verse.”
The dragon licked his nose a moment, cocking his head. “…Verse?”
“Yes, like a song.” Elyra roamed the chamber, then crouched next to a box near the entryway. She coiled her fingers around a golden goblet. Elyra tipped it to her lips, imagining what it would be like to drink from something like this the way Atrius did. “You want to be a legend, isn’t that what you said?”
“More than anything,” the dragon said, curling his tail. “Legends are never forgotten.”
Elyra waggled the goblet at the dragon. “Then you’ve got to help people remember you for more than just stealing treasure. Having bards sing your praises would certainly help.”
The dragon cocked his head, watching her. “Why would you wish to help me achieve this?”
“Because, Dragon.” Elyra stood back up. She felt a strange sort of elation to be here, in this place, talking with a dragon. “If they remember you as a legend, they’ll remember me as well.”
“I do not recall any tales that mention the legend’s wench.” The dragon snorted, tossing his head.
Elyra came to a stop. That word made her set her jaw. Anger heated her face as she shook the goblet at him. “Call me that again, and I’ll throw this at your head.”
The dragon stared at her. Elyra glared right back at him. She hefted the drinking vessel in her hand, watching him. She could see the clockwork grinding behind his silver eyes as he weighed her threat. The dragon flared his wings, his tail spines thumped against a fur lying behind him. He flexed his front paws, black claws unsheathed. He was going to say it. He was going to say it again, wasn’t he. She could see it in his eyes. The dragon didn’t believe her.
The word barely left the dragon’s tongue before Elyra hurled the golden goblet at his head. She put all she had into it, quite intent on denting either the goblet or the dragon’s skull, whichever proved to be softer. The dragon yelped in surprise, silver eyes nearly popping out of their sockets. The beast dropped himself to the floor just in time, and the goblet sailed harmlessly over him to clang off the far wall. Then the dragon very slowly lifted his wedge-shaped head, staring at her. The look of slack-jawed, flat-spined shock on the dragon’s face lingered till the dragon coiled, sprang, and charged her.
Elyra wanted to scream, but all she managed was a squeak. Instincts told her to run, but her heart told her to stand her ground even as it hammered at her sternum. She balled her hands up into fists, squeezed her eyes shut and grit her teeth. If the dragon meant to kill her, she’d not give him the satisfaction of running like frightened prey. Elyra just hoped he’d do it quickly.
When the sound of the dragon’s paws against coins and stone ceased, Elyra felt his hot breath wash across her face. She slowly opened her gray eyes and found the dragon’s nose inches from her own. She forced herself to meet the beast’s gaze. With his spiny frills all flared out around his horned head, the dragon looked even more intimidating than usual. Yet his face was also more expressive than she’d realized. In addition to his frills, spines and ears, all the tiny, pebbly scales across the rest of his face held more expression and mobility than she thought. His nostrils flexed a few times.
“You,” the dragon said, breath billowing over her. It was not the most pleasant breath she’d ever experienced, but she’d been made to kiss nobles who smelled fouler. “Are quite brave.”
“Yes.” Elyra tried to sound as though she were stating a fact, not agreeing with a terrifying dragon. “You asked for courage.”
“So I did.” The dragon remained perfectly still save for the movements of his breathing. “I have never met a human with your kind of courage before. It fascinates me.”
Elyra swallowed, then licked her chapped lips. “My kind?”
“I have met men who claim to be courageous as they seek to slay dragons. To slay me.” The dragon’s spined tail began to twitch behind him, each twitch a little harder than the last. If the dragon’s voice held any more acidic derision, his words would fall hissing to the floor. “They come to find us, to murder us. They cover themselves in plates of metal, they arm themselves with swords and spears. With weapons they seek to bury as deeply in our guts as they can. They seek to bring dragons pain and death, and they call this courage. Yet those who are not ended in battle, when they lie, bleeding, and stripped of their ruined armor, their so-called courage flees them. They run, they crawl. The worst of them ask for mercy.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Elyra blurted out before she could stop herself. “If they ask you for mercy you should show it! You’d want the same if you were helpless!”
“That is the problem, Girl.” The dragon flared his wings to their full extent in a startling instant. “Those who ask for mercy are the same men who would never show it to a dragon. If their courage leaves them and they can crawl from me, so be it. Let them tell the world of my greatness. Let it be known they were too cowardly to let me end them. But those who plead with me for their lives? Those are the men who never spare dragons. If I was the one bleeding, broken, begging for my life… Yes, I would want their mercy. But no dragonslayer would ever grant it.”
He glanced away, growling low in his throat. There was something new to that growl she hadn’t heard before, something pained and wounded. “They never do. They are cowards who may have skill enough to slay a dragon but lack real courage in their hearts.”
Elyra opened her mouth, but could not find the words she sought. She reached towards the dragon’s head with trembling fingers, but when he turned back towards her she yanked her hand back.
“But you, Girl,” the dragon said, a grin spreading across his muzzle. “You have more courage in you than ten armored men. You stand before me with no armor to protect you, no sword with which to defend yourself, and you…” The dragon turned his long neck, glancing at the goblet that had come to rest across the room. “Hurl things at my head for calling you names.” Then he turned his large head back towards her, still grinning. “You do not flee my retaliation. You stand there, bold as the rising sun on a clear day, and you face me down. That, Girl....” The dragon lifted a paw, unsheathed a single claw, and delicately tapped her chest with it. “Is courage.”
Elyra looked down at the dragon’s paw before he withdrew it. She managed to find a smile somewhere inside herself, and put it upon her face. “Next time you use that word you’ll see how courageous I can really be.”
The dragon laughed, shaking his horned head. It was a low, rumbling sound that stuttered from his throat, but it was clearly a laugh. “What will you do the next time I call you that?”
Elyra swallowed. She wasn’t sure if the dragon was testing her, jesting with her, or simply curious. “Call me wench again, and I shall kick you in the balls, Dragon.”
To her surprise, the dragon only laughed harder. He took a few steps away from her as if finally ready to give her some room to breathe again. “A bold threat indeed. I doubt even you would dare to do that to a dragon.”
“You think not?” Elyra tilted her head, grinning at the dragon. “Test me then.”
“Not just yet.” The dragon turned, and began to walk back towards the center of his chamber. Elyra noticed he tucked his tail a little this time. “It would be a shame to have to kill something so courageous.”
Elyra took a few steps after the dragon. When he wasn’t looking, she took a deep breath and held it till her lungs burned. She felt as though she’d cheated death there for a few very exciting moments. She knew she was pressing her luck with the dragon, yet at the same time the dragon seemed to be pushing her to do just that.
“Does that mean you’re starting to like me?” Elyra called out to the dragon.
“I haven’t killed you yet, have I?” The dragon glanced back at her with a grin. “Come along. I’ll give you the tour.”