Elyra nudged a stone with her foot, scowling as it toppled down the steep, rocky hillside she’d just climbed. Stiff winds whipped her scarlet hair behind her head, her golden dress fluttered around her like the snapping banner that towered over the hill. Just how long was this supposed to take? Did the dragon know she was here? She couldn’t even ask the man who’d brought her. He’d fled with his carriage right after he made her unpack her own belongings. He was as cowardly and quick to be rid of her as the nobles themselves.
They’d never even let her say goodbye to everyone. No sooner had she presented her letter to the proper authorities than they were trying to shove her into a carriage. She barely even had time to collect her meager belongings, but she refused to leave without her artwork. When they finally gave her a chance to go and collect her things, the women’s quarters were empty. Elyra suspected they did not want her giving anyone else ideas. They’d probably tell the other women they’d sacrificed Elyra to the dragon for her misbehavior.
Not that Elyra expected to miss many of the other women. Cold as that may seem, she’d never been able to connect with the other servant wenches. They were just too empty for Elyra to call them friends. Jadira was the exception, and Elyra was glad to find her in the hidden corridors. Elyra hugged Jadira with a fierceness that surprised her. She told her to cherish the love she’d found with Dahn, and did her best to explain what was happening. When Jadira looked at her as though she’d sprouted her own dragon’s head, Elyra decided just to thank her for her friendship and say her goodbyes. Afterwards she went straight to the carriage, half-afraid the nobles would change their minds at any moment.
The journey from the capital out into the countryside where the dragon dwelled lasted just over a week. The carriage driver barely spoke save to complain about everything, but Elyra didn’t mind. She was mesmerized by the world beyond the carriage windows. To a woman who’d spent nearly her whole life trapped inside the Hall Of Nobility, every day brought with it new wonders. There were swarms of glittering emerald dragonflies one day, and sticky-toed frogs that clung to the windows of an inn near a lazy brook the next night. Each time they stopped at a different country inn, the beds felt so soft Elyra feared she’d sink right through to the floor. Elyra almost didn’t want to the journey to come to an end. But it did when the carriage came to a stop at the base of a lonesome, stony hill and Elyra was instructed to wait for the dragon at the very top.
So Elyra climbed, and Elyra waited.
Elyra squinted against the wind, half-hoping to make out the dragon in the distance. She rubbed her arms and glanced at the position of the sun, trying to determine just how long she’d waited. She wasn’t used to spending so much time in the sunlight. The warmth was wonderful. She rubbed her arms and hoped the wind would not grow too bitter if she was kept waiting beyond sunset. At least they’d given her other clothing to wear if she grew too cold.
Elyra glanced down the slope of the rocky, moss-draped hill she’d recently ascended. A leather pack with a plush bed roll strapped to it lay in the long, soft grass below. Nearby sat a collection of boxes lashed together with stiff, braided rope. The carriage driver told her she had to wait atop the hill, but if she grew cold she’d climb all the way back down and fetch something warmer.
Elyra paced about the summit. She chose her steps carefully as the ground was littered with loose stones and carpeted in slippery moss. Deep gouges marked the earth in some places. Thick scratch marks marred some of the larger stones. A large gray granite boulder taller than Elyra sat nearby. She paced around it and ran a hand over some of the yellowy lichen that softened its otherwise pitted, coarse surface. Several old scratches marked the boulder. Elyra ran a finger down one of the scratch marks, marveling at it. Some part of her relished the idea of serving a creature whose very claws could cut stone.
Cold hands tied her stomach in knots. She grimaced, kneading the already scuffed fabric of her golden dress. The longer the dragon kept her waiting, the harder the wait became. To keep her mind from wandering darkened roads, she focused herself on her surroundings. The view from the hilltop was stunning. It was everything she’d hoped it would be and it helped to ease her concern. Elyra leaned up against the boulder, gazing at the lands through which she’d traveled to serve the dragon.
Rippling green grass surrounded the rugged hilltop, dotted with patches of bright blue flowers waving in the breeze. Beyond the meadow was an entire ocean of emerald, a world of pine and spruce and earth and fern like nothing Elyra had ever known. It had held her transfixed through the carriage window for the last few days of her journey. The aromas of fresh pine sap, the hint of sweet wildflowers, they all seemed so perfectly clean compared to the wretched chamber she spent her life in till now. Even that was forgotten once she could see the mountains. Elyra caught glimpses of them through the trees as she’d traveled, but now at last the mountains were right there in front of her.
Even at a distance the mountains towered over everything, sun-painted sentinels keeping silent watch over the world itself. Their jagged peaks stretched in an endless wall of immense stony teeth and talons, plated cliffs and spires like towering spines. Elyra smiled to herself. Clearly she had dragons on the brain. The timeless stone glowed gold where the sun kissed it, fading to a faint purple-gray where the shadows roamed. They were even more majestic than she’d imagined, and she could not wait for the dragon to come and take her to them.
Elyra’s smile grew as she pulled away from the boulder, striding towards the dragon’s banner pole. The cold knots in her belly eased a little, replaced with a trembling sort of excitement. She wrapped her hands around the banner pole, and spun around it, laughing. Part of Elyra knew she ought to be frightened, and she banished that part to the darkest recesses her mind had to offer. She was free now, and she would not allow herself to quake in fear of an unknown fate. It was all too easy to give in to fear, and Elyra refused. She had chosen this path, and she was going to relish it. Let others be ruled by their fear.
The carriage driver for her journey was certainly ruled by his fears. He seemed to think offering a few moments of assistance would get him eaten by the dragon. Not that his behavior had surprised her, given what she’d already witnessed. A few days ago they’d traveled past a small village where Elyra caught a glimpse of a creature that looked like a little horned coyote in merchant’s vestments. She’d never met another speaking race so she’d asked the driver to stop. Instead, he put the whip to the horses, ranting about thieves and barbarians as he sped past the village. Coward.
Elyra shook her head, chuckling. If the dragon ever went to demand treasure from that little village she’d have to ask to go with so she could see the people there. Elyra also wanted to return to the last city they stopped at, where all the roads were laid out in circles like a village in some children’s tale. The people there were so friendly. When they learned she’d actually volunteered to serve the dragon, they’d given her a new dress, shoes, sandals, and supplies. The father of the girl that the dragon rejected even came and gave her a hug. Elyra was unused to genuine affection and her first instinct was to wriggle free, but soon Elyra hugged him back.
Elyra wasted no time in ruining the golden dress they’d given her to wear for the dragon. She had not ruined it out of spite, but out of joy. Though there was a trail leading from the meadow to the top of the hill, what fun was that? Elyra wanted to feel alive. She wanted to climb a mountain. So Elyra clambered her way over ledges and little cliffs, across boulders and up rocky slopes until at last she’d conquered the dragon’s hill. By the time she reached the summit her dress was soiled, scuffed and torn, and her body was bruised and aching.
So this was how it felt to be alive and free. Elyra relished it.
Elyra wondered if dragons ever simply savored the feeling of being alive. Of being free. Wicked or not, she could think of no creature better suited to savor its own life than a dragon. Like wild animals they were free of the obligations and burdens of men, like birds they could fly anywhere they chose, and yet they had the thinking mind needed to appreciate their life.
“Yet you probably take it all for granted, don’t you,” Elyra said, staring at the dragon’s banner. It was a handsome banner, the sort of thing she imagined some dangerous mercenary band would fly above their camp. The fact it belonged to a dragon made it even more exotic. “Do you even know how lucky you are?” She scowled at the banner. “I bet you don’t even appreciate your own freedom. I hope you enjoy it, you lucky bastard.”
Elyra wondered how the dragon himself might celebrate his life. Perhaps he’d roast an entire village worth of sheep and have himself a feast. Or maybe he’d just roast the village. No doubt he’d give a victorious roar while he watched the place burn. A roar to celebrate being alive.
Yes, a roar. Elyra liked the sound of that. If she was a dragon, she’d roar her freedom so loudly all the nobles back in the city would hear it. Hell, she didn’t have to be a dragon to try that. Elyra took a deep breath, thrust her fists into the air and threw back her head as she roared. She yelled so loud it hurt her throat and she did not care. Elyra screamed to the sky until she was utterly out of breath. Then while she wheezed and gasped for air, she marveled at the way her own voice echoed down from the hill and across the land. She never knew she could make such a noise. Warm happiness buoyed her heart. Already she was finding such unexpected joys in her newfound--
Something roared back at her.
Though the sound was but a distant echo of the original roar, the reverberating tones and the primal nature of it made her shiver. Every hair stood on end, ice poured from her frozen heart. Her tongue lodged in her throat as the echoes of that wicked roar cascaded across the hill. There was no mistaking the owner of that roar, though she could not yet see him.
Elyra pressed her back up against the pole. Her body trembled. She closed her eyes, the last whispers of the roar still rolling in the distance. Elyra forced herself to take deep breaths. He wanted courage, she would show him courage. Give him a reason to respect her. She could do this. Elyra opened her eyes.
It was time to meet the dragon.
Galvarys spotted the carriage, and joy filled his heart. He knew it bore his new servant. Galvarys felt as though he’d waited ages. The dragon had passed the time in the usual ways, hunting, eating, sleeping, terrifying. The longer it took, the more his curiosity and boredom grew. The deeper the idea of having his own servant took root in his mind, the more the dragon could not wait until she was here.
When the dragon finally saw her carriage he was so excited he was practically dancing in the skies. He flew little loops and pinwheels, dangerous yet exciting maneuvers that fit the dragon’s mood. Galvarys spun in the sky, as excited as a hatchling whose mother just stole him some new toys. The dragon had to restrain himself from landing in front of the carriage as soon as he spotted it. Legends should never seem overeager.
For a time, Galvarys tracked the carriage on its progress towards Tribute Hill. He’d been out flying and looking for something to amuse himself with when he first spotted it. Its pale blue colors and golden accoutrements stood out upon the road, especially compared to the more drab conveyances the locals used.
Galvarys circled above the carriage so high he doubted the humans would spot him even if they looked up. If they did, he’d seem so small they’d probably think him a vulture. On second thought, they’d think him an eagle. Vultures were too ugly a bird to ever be confused with something as regal as a dragon. Humans rarely seemed to look up for long anyway unless they were firing arrows at something in the sky. If that was the case for the carriage passengers, then they were about to have a serious disagreement.
The dragon decided against flying straight to his hill to await his servant delivery. Dragons did not wait for humans, humans waited for dragons. Galvarys would hunt first and let her do the waiting. He’d catch something to eat and take his time savoring his prey.
The dragon soon caught himself a deer, and settled in a clearing in the forest. Pine needles prickled at his paw pads. A few forceful beats of his wings swirled the dead needles around him, exposing bare earth. When the ground was clear, he settled down upon it. The exposed soil brought with it a heady, earthen aroma that mingled with the fresh smells of spruce and pine that clung to the forest. The scent of blood oozing from freshly slaughtered prey added a sweet, coppery tint to the air. The blood-scent always made the dragon’s belly growl and Galvarys fought the urge to gorge himself.
Galvarys used his fire to burn the fur from the deer. Burnt fur gave the air a charred stink. The dragon beat his wings again, chasing the scent away. He tore the hind limbs from the carcass then used more flame to roast the outer flesh. Much as he hated to admit humans were ever right about anything, fire did do something magical to meat. Not that he roasted the entire deer. The dragon ate much of it raw. Despite enjoying the flavor of seared flesh, nothing could quite better the taste of meat so fresh it was still bleeding.
When the dragon was full, he pushed himself back up to all fours. There was little left of the deer carcass beyond bones and the bits Galvarys did not like. The dragon tended to avoid the belly and intestines of his prey, tasted too much like bile and the things they ate. They’d make a better meal for the scavengers and insects. Galvarys sniffed around, following the scent of water to the edge of a small stream that trickled through the pine forests.
It was a pretty little stream, small enough that the dragon could easily straddle it with forepaws on one shoreline and hind paws on the other. Hell, he could stretch his neck across it if he wanted. The cool, shallow water trickled around mossy stones and submerged limbs. A small pool at a bend held enough depth to support a few tiny, silvery-blue fish that darted into a sunken log as the dragon approached.
The dragon peered at his own reflection for a moment. The ridged black horns that crowned his wedge-shaped head held a rare spiral to them that Galvarys found befitting his regal nature and growing legend. The deer blood that caked his pebbly, indigo scales made him look delightfully dangerous. Still, he’d be quite disappointed if his new servant pissed herself. He’d better wash it off. Galvarys lowered his muzzle to the water, lapping at it for long moments. The water was cool as it slid down the dragon’s long throat, tasted fresh and sweet. When his thirst was quenched, he used his paws to scoop water and rinse away the crimson stains of his meal.
Somewhere in the distance, a woman screamed.
Galvarys jerked his head up from the stream, his spines flared in alarm. Droplets of water clung to his pebbly blue scales. He flicked his frilled ears, turned his head towards the sound. The scream sounded as though it came from the direction of Tribute Hill. The dragon lowered his eye ridges. Usually when people screamed, he was the one terrifying them. Was someone attacking his new servant? That was cause for incineration.
Galvarys took a deep breath, tipped back his black-horned head and gave a roar fit to shatter the skies themselves. The roar was all fury and threat, the same primal sound a dragon would make if anyone dared threaten their hatchlings. Or in this case a sound that meant, “hands off my servant”.
The dragon sprang up through the pine canopy. He beat his wings against the air, snapping pine boughs and pricking his sensitive membranes with needles. The little jabs of pain urged him onward. Whoever was endangering his new servant was about to be in a lot more pain than that.
Once the dragon ascended above the treetops, he dipped a wing and spun in the air. Tribute Hill rose in the distance like a scaly wart upon the land, all gray rock and green moss. The dragon pushed himself harder, wings striking at the air with growing fury. His heart hammered at his thick sternum. The pulse of blood echoed through the minor heart near his tail. How dare someone try to harm his servant. Did they not see the banner? Everything here belonged to him. It had better not be one of those thieving cat-birds or he was going to have a new trophy for his collection.
As the dragon hurtled towards the hill, details came into focus for his sharp eyes. A woman in a golden dress stood near his banner, but he saw no sign of anyone causing her trouble. He did not even see the carriage that had brought her. Perhaps the driver tried to put his hands where they did not belong, and Galvarys’ roar had scared him off. Yes, surely that was what happened.
Well, that made two good deeds in his life. That had to be a record for a dragon.
When Galvarys knew the woman was not in immediate danger, he slowed his flight. Once he’d drawn near the hill, he circled it, surveying the area to make sure there was no one lying in wait just beyond the meadow. The area looked clear and safe. The dragon tightened his circles and began to descend. The woman looked taller and fuller of body than the last, with hair the color of fire streaming out behind her head. Oh, he liked that. The woman pressed her back up against his banner pole, turned her head to keep track of the dragon. Yet even as he swept in for a landing she made no attempt to dash behind the nearby boulder.
So far, so good.
Galvarys touched down upon his hind paws. Then he dropped down onto his forepaws, claws slightly unsheathed for purchase as he trotted to a stop across the stony expanse of Tribute Hill. For a moment he simply stared at the girl from a distance, and she stared back. Then she stepped away from the pole and stood up straight, hands balled up into fists at her sides.
Galvarys padded towards the woman, watching her for signs of threat or fear. The woman swallowed hard, but she did not tremble at the dragon’s approach. She showed no sign that she’d been crying, either. That was good. This woman already seemed to handle her fear far better than the last girl.
“They’ve made you my tribute?” Galvarys cocked his head. He’d better make sure she wasn’t just some girl who wandered here and climbed his hill in a drunken stupor.
“I have come here to serve you, yes.” The girl’s voice started soft, but it gained strength and fire with every word as though the simple act of speaking to the dragon like a rational creature was all it took to inspire her courage. “But no one has made me do anything. It was my choice that brought me here to stand before you. I volunteered to work for you, Dragon.”
“Really?” The dragon pulled his head back, neck arching into an S. Suspicion crept into his heart, little icy trickles filtered into his blood. Could she be some assassin or dragon slayer come to murder him in his sleep? “Why?”
The girl swallowed again. She was nervous yet she seemed to be unwilling to let her fear take hold of her heart. Galvarys stared into her unusual gray eyes. They trembled and flitted about, but she did not look away. He saw no deception there, though suspicion often kept dragons alive. “To escape a life I could not bear to live for another day. Whether you believe it or not, serving a dragon will be a great improvement to serving the band of filth I have spent my life tending.”
Galvarys snorted, blowing her red hair back from her face. “Of course I believe it. Who wouldn’t want to serve a dragon?”
The girl’s lips twitched. Was she holding back a smile? “Indeed.”
“Very well,” the dragon said, licking his nose. “Have you under things on beneath your dress?”
The woman’s eyes widened. She sucked in a breath. She bit her lip, then nodded. “Yes.”
“Good.” The dragon cocked his head. “Lift your dress, then.”
“Already?” The girl tensed. Galvarys expected her to take a step back, but she remained where she was. “If I must.”
“What are you babbling about?” The dragon cocked his horned head the other direction. “Are you hiding something under there?”
“Hiding something?” The girl scrunched her face. “Are you accusing me of being a man in a dress? I may not be the most beautiful of maidens…”
The dragon blinked a few times, then hissed through his teeth. “I want to make sure you aren’t hiding a poisoned dagger beneath your clothes before I get any closer, you silly female.”
“Oh…” The girl’s face reddened. She swallowed, rubbing her forehead hard enough to leave little marks. “That’s it?”
“What else would I want?”
“The same thing all the other arrogant men want when they boss me around.” The woman’s face flushed further till it was nearly the color of her hair.
Galvarys growled in his throat. The woman’s eyes dropped. The dragon did not know humans could display that vibrant a shade of red. Still, he knew turning crimson meant embarrassment among humans. He dragged unsheathed claws across the mossy rocks, grumbling.
“Why does everyone think I want to be pleasured by human females lately?” At least she had the boldness to put it to words.
The woman furrowed her brows, lifting her eyes again. “You don’t?”
“No!” Galvarys waved those same unsheathed claws at her. “Now lift your damn dress.”
The woman gave the dragon a funny little grin he couldn’t quite decipher. He’d never seen a human smile that way. Was he amusing her? Perhaps she was relieved she wouldn’t have to polish the dragon’s spear after all. The girl took a step back, made sure she was upon stable ground, and then began to hike up the golden skirt of her dress.
The woman scrunched up the dirtied, scuffed golden fabric, and pulled it up as high as she could. Aside from what was covered by simple, gray undergarments the dragon saw her entire body. Her skin was a uniform pale shade. She looked much less malnourished than the waif they’d sent earlier. Her body looked softer, her curves fully developed. He still wasn’t sure if she ate enough but at least she seemed to be an adult. She turned a circle to show she didn’t have anything strapped to her back. A few old scars marked her here and there, thin white lines against pale skin.
When he was satisfied, the dragon clicked his jaws. “You may lower your dress.”
When the woman dropped her dress back down and turned to face him again, the dragon spent a moment studying her face. The flattened faces of humans all looked about the same to him. The paleness of her skin highlighted the fiery radiance of her red hair. The dragon tried to compare her features to those of other human women he’d seen up close. He thought perhaps her features were softer, her cheeks and chin more rounded. Her nose looked a little smaller, slightly upturned. A scar in a strange, spiral-star pattern marked her right cheek. Her eyes seemed the color of slate at a distance, yet up close the dragon could see tiny silver flecks in them like mica in granite. Galvarys found her hair and eyes fascinating.
Galvarys strode forward and pressed his muzzle to the golden fabric covering her body. The girl gave a little squeal of surprise. She tensed up but did not flee or try to push the dragon away. His indigo nostrils flared as he sought her scent. Much like the first girl they’d sent, she smelt of honeyed perfumes and wildflowers, yet this time there was no underlying scent of sour terror. She had not sobbed and sweated herself into a stench while waiting for the dragon’s arrival. Since she did not pull away, the dragon curled himself around her a little, sniffing her throat, her back, her hair.
Beneath the perfumes that clung to her dress were natural scents that told the dragon more about her. To a dragon, a creature’s scent was like a complex puzzle. Beyond the simple surface of whether a smell was pleasant or not were bits and pieces of a creature’s identity. The dragon could tell humans of different villages apart by subtle variations in their scents. In the same way, the dragon could tell this girl was from somewhere far from here. There was less of the wild land in her smell, less of the earth and forest and no wild game in her diet. She smelt more of stone and old wood, and a soft mustiness that might take time to be properly washed away.
“You smell odd,” the dragon said, pulling his head back. “You’re not one of the village girls.”
“No, I’m not,” the woman said, straightening out her dress when the dragon was done smelling her. “I’m from the capital, quite a ways from here. I’ve spent most of my life being humiliated and belittled by the sort of men who have the most wealth and power yet deserve the least. Most days I was locked in a castle, and when I was allowed into the city streets it was only to fulfill an errand some arrogant fop couldn’t be bothered to do himself. Even then, this mark I bear ensured that…”
“Yes, yes,” the dragon said, waving his paw. “I only wondered where you’re from. I did not need to hear The Story of the Sad Wench.”
The girl straightened and set her jaw. “Please don’t call me that.”
“Why not?” The dragon licked his nose a few times, trying to cleanse her lingering scent.
“I do not like it.” The girl gripped the fabric of her golden dress, kneading it in her hands. “Are you through examining me?”
“For the moment,” the dragon said, mulling over what she’d said. So she did not like to be called a wench. He’d store that little bit of information in the back of his mind for the next time he wished to insult her.
“Then may I examine you?” The girl took a step forward and waited for the dragon’s permission.
“Examine me?” Galvarys pulled his head back, his neck curling into an S.
“Yes, if I may.” The girl took another step towards him, smiling a little. “It should help to put me at ease. You have examined me, and now it only seems fair I should be allowed to do the same. With your permission, of course. After all, I have never seen a dragon before, and I should like to know the creature I am to serve.”
Pride swelled the dragon’s chest and lifted his spines. She must have been in awe of him if she wished to examine him. Surely by examine she meant bask in his regal beauty. Well if she was that impressed, he may as well let her. Lingering suspicion tugged at his heart, but to deny her would show cowardice. The dragon lifted his head and grinned down at her, spreading his limbs for a wider stance.
“Very well, Girl. Since you’re clearly awed by my presence, I shall allow you to examine me.”
The dragon wasn’t as big as Elyra expected.
Not that the dragon was not impressive in his own right. The top of his back was higher than that of a large horse, and his long neck was both sturdy and elegant. Certainly he was the largest living thing she’d ever seen, and he’d have no trouble at all carrying her about like a doll. Yet Elyra expected a house-sized monstrosity capable of swallowing her whole without a second thought. This creature seemed little larger than the graceful carriage that carried her here. Perhaps it was simply impossible for the real thing to live up to the legend.
At least the natural indigo armor that covered the dragon’s body was as impressive as expected. The dragon’s scales varied greatly from the fine, pebbly-textured scales of his face, to the broad resilient scales along his body and the heavy plates protecting his chest. The dragon had scutes across the front of each limb, like the underbelly of a snake. His dark blue color faded slightly towards his belly.
The dragon also bore a great deal of ebony markings. There were black stripes across all his limbs and tail. Inky spots stretched across his wings and rippled in a few places along their edges. More black blotches decorated his body, marked his face. Fine gray lines and splotches also marked many places.
An imposing array of horns, spikes and spines decorated the dragon. Elyra thought his head was shaped roughly like a wedge, taller and broader than that of a common lizard. His skull was crowned with a pair of heavily ridged black horns with a spiral shape. A collection of spines began between the dragons horns, and ran in a line down the back of his neck. Smaller spines fanned out behind the dragon’s frilled ears. When the dragon talked Elyra noticed that his head-spines were all connected by thin blue membranes. They rose, fell, and fanned out as the dragon spoke. The dragon’s tail flicked behind him, and Elyra saw sturdy, curved spines tipped either side of it.
Elyra was struck by just how bright the dragon’s eyes were. She’d never seen eyes like that before in all her life. They were shining and silver, like moonlight poured into spherical form. The silver color was not confined only to the dragon’s irises, the rest of his eyes were a softer, silvery-gray rather than white. The blackness of the dragon’s vertical pupils stood out all the more against such intense metallic colors.
“You have beautiful eyes,” Elyra said. She did not intend it as mere flattery, but simply a truthful compliment.
“Yes, I know,” the dragon said. He flashed her some teeth in what she hoped was a grin. His spiky frills flicked and twitched. “So do you. And you’ve beautiful hair.”
Elyra was not surprised by the dragon’s arrogance, but the compliment nearly knocked her off her feet. In all her life, she could not recall anyone but her mother ever speaking such words. Most men seemed to find her gray eyes dull, drawn instead to more striking colors. And her hair? While she was proud of it, in this day and age hair that was both red and straight marked her as little more than a remnant of a nearly forgotten people.
“You like my hair?” Elyra struggled to collect herself. She brushed her fingers through her own hair, they caught in a wind knot. “My eyes?”
“I do.” The dragon dipped his head. Then he clicked his teeth, swiveling his frilled ears forward. “But I already stated that. Do you have a hearing problem? I can speak louder when I give you orders.”
Elyra chuckled to herself, shaking her head. Red tresses swished back and forth. “No, I heard you the first time. I just…” She wrung her hands, rubbing her thumb against her palm. “I thought you might be teasing me. I don’t usually get that sort of compliment.”
“Why not?” The dragon turned his body a little to let her continue to examine him. “Are you considered unattractive among humans?”
“Yes,” Elyra said without hesitation. Her looks hadn’t ever stopped the nobles from seeking her services or tossing her into their beds. “Sort of. Not exactly. It’s complicated. I’m just not used to compliments.”
“Humans are confusing.” The dragon snorted. “I shall pay compliments where they are earned. Your eyes are quite mysterious. They are like silver moonlight filtered through dark clouds. And your hair is beautiful, like shimmering fire you have somehow tamed.” He stretched a wing forward to scratch at his neck with the black talon tipping it. “If I were a human these are qualities that would make me wish to mount you.”
Elyra stared at the dragon. A grin slowly replaced what began as a befuddled expression. It baffled her how the dragon could say something so unexpected and beautiful in the same breath as something so crass and dirty. “Thank you, then. I think.”
Elyra walked along the dragon’s body, marveling at his wings. Seeing him in flight allowed her to realize the massive extent of his wingspan yet his wings folded so neatly against his body. She reached towards one of his wings, then pulled her hand back before she made contact. The dragon lifted his wing a little. The thickly muscled joint where it connected to his body sprouted just behind his shoulder. The membranes attached along the base of his wing stretched all the way down to his haunches.
Given the way the dragon seemed to enjoy showing himself off, she took her time to indulge her curiosity. Elyra found the dragon fascinating despite his abrasive nature and an ego she was starting to think weighed more than he did. Part of her wanted to reach out and touch the dragon, to feel the texture of his scales, his wings. Was he cool to the touch, or was he warm? Was his scaly body rough, or smooth?
Elyra walked around behind him. Twelve spines tipped the end of the dragon’s tail, with six on either side. The two outside spines on either side were the smallest and they grew larger towards the central spines. Those were as big around as her wrist at their bases. She stared a moment, then glanced up at the dragon. When the dragon saw where her attention was, he lifted his tail a little to raise his spines.
“They’re as deadly as they look.” The dragon shook them in the air. “They’ve no trouble at all punching through armor and bone.”
Elyra brushed a single finger against one of the dragon’s tail spines. It was smooth and hard, and she kept her finger away from its tip. “I can imagine. You dragons are nothing but natural weapons and armor, it seems.”
“I shall take that as a compliment.” The dragon peered back at her over his wings. “I like compliments.”
Elyra walked along the dragon’s tail until it met his body. Curious, she let her gaze drift beneath his tail while he had it lifted. Her eyes widened. If she hadn’t known the dragon was male, she certainly did now. “You have…” She giggled, shaking her head. “I didn’t think you would.”
“What?” The dragon cocked his head. Then he narrowed his eyes, hissing. “You didn’t think I’d have what?”
Elyra gulped, hoping she hadn’t offended the dragon. May as well just blurt it out. “I didn’t think you’d have balls, Dragon.”
“Of course I’ve balls!” The dragon snarled at her, pinning his ears back. “I am male!”
“I know that,” Elyra said, softening her voice. She bowed her head a little, wondering what sort of gesture a dragon might take as respectful apology. “I just thought they’d be inside you. Like a lizard.”
“I am not a lizard,” the dragon said, growling. Elyra almost thought it sounded like there was a hint of sulkiness in his voice. “Touch me.”
“What?” Elyra blinked in surprise, glancing up at the dragon’s face then back at his hind end again.
“Just touch me, Girl.”
“If I must.” Elyra took a breath, held it for a moment. She slipped her hand beneath the dragon’s tail, cupping and feeling him. He was far warmer than she expected.
“Hey!” The dragon’s cry sounded distinctly like a startled yelp. He pulled away from her. “Unhand those!”
“But you said…”
“Not those!” The dragon spun around, his tail spines whistled through the air and narrowly missed his banner pole. “I meant put a hand on my body to feel my warmth, so you’d know I am not a lizard!”
So much heat rushed to Elyra’s face that the rest of her went cold. “Of course!” In her embarrassment, she fell back onto habit. She grasped her skirt, pulled it out into a curtsy and bowed before the dragon. “I’m sorry, Dragon. It’s just that, I thought you wanted me to…”
“Grab my balls?” The dragon raised his eye ridges. Elyra couldn’t tell if that was smugness or confusion in his rumbling voice.
Elyra stared down at the stony ground. It was not touching the dragon’s privates that truly embarrassed her. Rather it was that a lifetime as a noble’s plaything had ingrained such ideas in her mind. The dragon must think her a whore. “Usually, when a man tells me to touch him…” If she blushed any harder, she feared her face might combust.
“So tell him you do not desire to share pleasure.” The dragon shifted himself. He settled back upon his haunches, curling his tail about his paws. “Or bite one of his ears off to teach him to respect you as a female.”
Despite her embarrassment, Elyra found herself smiling at both the idea and the matter-of-fact way the dragon put it. She tried to picture Atrius’ fat face if she bit off one of his ears. How sweet that would be. “If only I could, Dragon.”
The dragon grunted. She knew he didn’t understand, but he’d already cut her off once, so she did not offer any further explanation. At least he wasn’t insulting her. “Why are you bent over like that?” The dragon cocked his head. “Have you a back ache?”
Elyra blinked, realizing the dragon had never seen anyone curtsy before. She straightened up, shifting her dress. “It’s called a curtsy. It’s a sign of respect, or a non-verbal apology.”
“It looks ridiculous. Do not do it again.” The dragon stared down at Elyra. “While your respect is appropriate, dragons appreciate bluntness. If you wish to apologize, simply do so.”
“Very well, Dragon.” Elyra straightened up. She searched the dragon’s face for a moment, trying to determine if he was angry with her. His frilled blue ears and the area around his indigo nostrils had both turned a purplish hue. Elyra wondered if that was a dragon’s blush. She smiled at the thought. “I’m sorry I grabbed your balls.”
The dragon grunted, glancing away. He pinned his indigo ears back. “Accepted. You merely startled me as a human has never done that before.”
“No, I would imagine not.” Elyra said. “Yet you did ask for a woman with courage.”
“I didn’t know humans equated courage with grabbing a dragon by the balls.”
Elyra’s smile grew as she felt her belly tighten with a bout of laughter struggling to burst free. She pressed a hand to her mouth. She did not want the dragon to think she was laughing at him, but the ludicrousness of it was overwhelming her. God, if she could tell the other servant wenches she’d groped a dragon, they’d never believe her. Elyra bit down on a knuckle, glancing at the dragon.
“Quit your giggling and come put your hand upon my chest.” The dragon licked his still-purple nose, curling his neck to peer down at her.
Elyra wrestled with her laughter and forced it to yield before she stepped up to the dragon, careful not to tread upon his tail or paws. She put her hand upon the plates of his chest. They were dark blue, though the color faded where the plates transitioned back into scales across his stomach. His underbelly lacked the black mottling, but she saw a few more gray lines and blotches. The plating felt smooth, strong, and very warm as it rose and fell beneath her hand. The plates that protected the dragon’s heart and lungs were more like large overlapping scales that followed the musculature of his chest than those on the belly of a snake. No plate was exactly the same size or shape as the others, yet they all fit neatly together across his chest.
“You’re right,” Elyra said, running a single finger along a line between two plates. “You’re far warmer than any lizard.” As a girl she’d caught lizards in the alleys to supplement scarce meals. “You actually feel rather pleasant. Not rough or cold or anything.” She looked up at the dragon’s head. “May I feel your face?”
“Very well,” the dragon murmured. “But then we are to return home. You’ve a long day of being my servant ahead of you.”
Elyra chuckled. “What is it you wish me to do?”
“Whatever I damn well desire.” The dragon snapped his jaws for emphasis.
Elyra smirked at him. Sounded like the dragon didn’t have the first clue what he wanted from her. “Of course, my Lord Dragon. Lower your head, if you please.”
“I know that look.” The dragon lowered his head, but the growl and the way he kept his silver eyes locked onto Elyra’s made her breath catch in her throat. “What are you smirking at, Wench?”
There was that word again. Anger and fear waged a brief but violent war in her head. Anger told her to slap the arrogance out of his muzzle, but fear told her she’d lose her arm. Thankfully, common sense stepped in to subdue both emotions. Elyra refused to pull her eyes away from the dragon’s mercurial gaze.
“I meant no offense, Dragon, and I apologize for any I may have caused. If I may ask, please don’t call me that.” Elyra’s voice was firm enough to rise above the dragon’s lingering growl, yet respectful enough to ensure she did not rouse his anger further.
“Then quit smirking, Girl.” The dragon snorted, but his growl eased off, and he tipped his head down. “You may touch my face now.”
Elyra wondered how the dragon would react if she poked him in the eye. She grit her teeth to bury her laughter. Elyra put her hand between the dragon’s indigo nostrils. The warmth was expected but the softness surprised her. Fine, pebbly textured scales covered much of the dragon’s face, but around his nose there was only soft, leathery skin. If the dragon was not such a pompous ass she might enjoy petting his nose. His ears flicked. He lifted his spines and spread the blue membranes between them. Black mottling marked the unveiled frills. Curious, she reached for a frill but the dragon pulled his head back.
“That is enough.” The dragon rose back up to all fours. He gazed around the hill, spined tail lashing. “I feel exposed when I linger upon this hill too long.”
Elyra sighed. He wasn’t the friendliest of beasts, but what had she expected? Some kind-hearted old hermit, some kindred soul? She toyed with a small hole she’d made in her dress when she fell on the rocks. “What do you mean? You don’t like being looked at?”
“I don’t like being shot with arrows or stabbed with swords.” The dragon snorted, turning his head to scan the edge of the vast pine forest nearby.
Elyra furrowed her brow. “I thought you were at peace with the locals?”
“I have a truce with the Five Villages,” the dragon said, glancing alongside his body at the woman standing next to him. “But there are always people looking to kill dragons.”
Elyra’s gaze wandered the dragon’s body. All the gray lines and splotches were not markings. They were scars. For a moment, she actually pitied the creature. “You’ve been hurt a lot, haven’t you.”
“Minor wounds,” the dragon said, tossing his horned head. “No humans have ever had what it takes to end my life.”
The dragon’s arrogance was not enough to drain her pity completely. Elyra watched the dragon scanning the edges of the forest, analyzing the shadows for hidden archers and knights preparing an ambush. His life was not what she imagined. How free could a creature feel with a life spent looking over his shoulder? Elyra knew a little about how that felt as she had spent her life trying to avoid the nobles. They both bore scars that spoke of their failures. Elyra reached out towards the dragon’s shoulder, her fingers trembling in the air.
“I have killed every man who has drawn steel against me, every man who has tried to shoot me from the skies.” The dragon pawed at the earth, snorting.
Elyra pulled her hand back. Perhaps they were not so alike after all. “Is that…a lot of men you’ve killed?”
“I have killed more men than I have ever seen dragons.” The dragon pinned his ears back, staring at the sky. He turned from her and began to make his way down the hill.
Elyra never imagined a creature could seem so terrifying and so lonely in the same breath.