Galvarys fought his smile the whole way to the Village of Rings. He did not like smiling so much. It was very unbecoming for a dragon. He was ferocious, furious, sly, witty, cunning. He was not a happy, joyful idiot. Yet the further they flew, the more joy Elyra exuded. The more exuberant his minion became, the harder it was for the dragon to avoid sharing her happiness. In the end he gave up his struggle and let the foolish grin mar his muzzle. The girl couldn’t see it anyway.
His minion prattled the entire trip. Galvarys did not mind, given that everything she said was about the beauty of flight. Touch the clouds this, reach the mountains that, how wondrous and amazing and so on. To Galvarys it was like seeing flight through new eyes. He had not lied when he told her he never took it for granted. But it had been a long time since he’d first met the sky.
Galvarys’ first flight was one of his favorite memories. Long before his own wings were strong enough to carry him, his mother took him flying. She cradled him against her chest plates, her forelegs wrapped around him. Her heartbeat was love, her warm grasp security. He remembered how as the world fell away, his joy grew and grew. He’d laughed and squealed and waved his little black-striped legs in the air. His mother laughed with him. It was not a memory he thought of often, but he cherished it nonetheless.
Elyra’s joy reminded him of that moment. An innocent and pure revelry in something that seemed so natural and simple to a dragon. He let Elyra babble as his mind wandered to those long-lost days. It had been a long time since he’d thought about the mornings his mother took him flying with the sunrise. Back then the world seemed endless, life seemed infinite, and men who hunted dragons seemed only a frightening tale for disobedient hatchlings. He missed those days.
The dragon’s smile lingered as he glanced back at his passenger. “Thank you!”
“For what?” Elyra called back to him. The look of wide-eyed wonder never left her face.
By the time they approached the Village of Rings, Galvarys was accustomed to the strange feeling of weight and warmth against his back. It was not as natural a feeling as the caress of wind that buoyed his wings, but it was not unpleasant.
Once they soared above the circular roads, Galvarys advised his passenger to cover her ears before he gave a loud, trumpeting roar. There was no threat in this roar, simply a brassy call. It was the same primal greeting he’d offer other dragons. Not that humans would know the difference.
“Look at them scurry!” Galvarys laughed as he watched them scrabble in the circular streets like frantic insects beneath an overturned stone.
Galvarys felt Elyra shift. Her laughter sounded musical. “I’ve never seen people scramble so madly before! Do they always do this when you arrive?”
“Of course!” Galvarys dipped a wing, following the curved line of an outer road. “Some of them run for cover, others for something to appease me with. The guards are going for their weapons in case I make trouble. I imagine their fat little mayor is cursing me for interrupting his brothel visit.”
The dragon circled the town, gazing down upon it. The cobbled streets and muddy alleys were filled with flailing insects desperate to find another leaf to crawl under. The houses were warts upon the land, roofed in hairy thatch and scaly tile. The mayor’s house was the biggest wart of all. Throughout the town, tracts of muddy land surrounded by wooden fences held bleating livestock. The flowers of the garden and the streaming cloth banners affixed to the corners of stalls set up in the market seemed a feeble attempt to add a little color to the gross discoloration the humans had inflicted upon the forest.
“It’s beautiful!” Elyra peered at the village.
“What?” Galvarys would have jerked his head up in shock if he wasn’t in flight.
“The village!” Elyra giggled, one arm draped across the dragon’s neck. “All the little rings. It must look magical lit up at night, like a fairy tale!”
“It was beautiful when it was a forest.” The dragon snapped his jaws. “Now it’s a stain.”
“Now, now.” The wind tried to steal Elyra’s voice. “If people hadn’t built a village in your forest, who would quake at your arrival and fill your many homes with tribute?”
Galvarys pinned his spines back. He growled, scanning the plaza around the mayor’s house. “They still need not build such large settlements.”
“Large?” Elyra sounded confused. “You think…this is large? The city I’ve spent my life in is ten times this size!”
That was a disquieting idea. The dragon knew there were larger cities, but he did not think they were that big. Either way he hoped to never set eyes upon them. He had enough trouble just dealing with the Five Villages and all their travelers.
“I’m going to land in the garden. Hold tight!”
“Why are you landing in the garden?” Elyra pressed herself against his neck, arms encircling it.
“Because it’s soft. And I hate the mayor. Now, hold tight to me!”
When Elyra was prepared, Galvarys dipped his right wing and spiraled towards the ground. Normally Galvarys descended in a sharp, swift spiral in case of hidden archers, but because of Elyra he kept his descent wide and slow. He adjusted his wing angles any time he felt Elyra slide.
Galvarys extended his hind legs as he swept in. He touched down on hind feet first, then dropped his front paws down. Elyra bounced against his back but offered no complaint. He trotted a few paces, tearing up earth and flowers. Once he’d come to a complete stop, he lowered himself onto his belly. Elyra hopped off of him onto the earth of the garden.
“That was amazing!” Unbidden, Elyra threw her arms around his neck, hugging him. The dragon grunted in alarm, then hissed. He did not mind the affection so much as he minded being seen as affectionate. He pulled away from her, growling. “Not in front of the villagers!”
“Oh! Sorry!” Elyra’s face reddened and she turned away from him, surveying the growing crowd. “Is it always like this when you visit?”
Galvarys grunted, sniffing the air. It already stank of too many humans gathered into one place. At least the myriad flowers in the garden and the acrid wood smoke drifting from chimneys helped to quell the odor. A wall of burly men in padded leather armor lined with bronze studs stood between the dragon and the crowd. Each man had a helmet that matched his armor and carried both sword and spear. In the distance, archers took up their usual positions in shadowy nooks and crannies they must have thought hid them. Galvarys wondered why they didn’t just set up a few rotten logs to hide under like the rest of the vermin.
“There’s chaos every time.” The dragon glanced down at Elyra. She seemed enraptured by the crowd. “It’s entertaining, aside from the idiot archers who think I can’t see them skulking about.”
“Ooooh.” Elyra stood on her tip toes to see over the heads of the gathering masses. “So that’s who you’re afraid of.”
“I am not afraid of them!” The dragon lashed his tail against a rosebush. Thorns were no defense against scales, and his spines scythed it down along with all its red blossoms. “I dislike being stuck with arrows. It’s quite painful.” The dragon rumbled, flattened his ears and rubbed at an old scar. “These archers won’t break the truce, but their skulking irritates me.”
Elyra nodded, staring at the crowd. They’d been murmuring since they saw his minion hug him. “Isn’t it wonderful?” She grinned at Galvarys. “They’re all here to see you!”
The dragon arched his neck, chuckling. The girl seemed more impressed by the crowd he drew than he was. “I am magnificent, after all.” He stretched his wing to scratch at his neck. “Though, admittedly, they are likely here to see if I’m rejecting you like the last girl.”
Elyra furrowed her brow and fetched a bit of parchment from the pocket of her black breeches. Galvarys wasn’t sure, but he thought there was something mischievous in her expression. He’d have to study the faces she made.
Elyra waved the parchment after she unfolded it. “Let’s show them otherwise.” She flashed Galvarys a grin. “May I give you a proper introduction? In the Hall, important people always get announced at formal gatherings. I’ve…” She licked her lips, staring down at the paper. “Written you one, actually. If you’d like me to say it.”
The dragon cocked his head. An introduction? He liked the sound of that. “Very well, Minion. Introduce me.”
Elyra stepped towards the crowd, her voice ringing out. “Greetings! Greetings, people of…of…” Elyra turned back towards the dragon. “What’s the name of this village?”
“The Village of Rings.” Elyra gave him a blank look. Galvarys just waved his wing at her, urging her to go on.
Elyra turned back towards the people. She lifted her voice to an impressive yell. “Greetings, people of the Village of Rings!” People glanced around as if they thought she had the wrong village. “I come before you today with tidings from the Lord of these lands. May I present to you, your Lord and Protector, The Azure Wrath!” Elyra swept her hand back towards the dragon in a grand gesture and gave the people a bow.
Galvarys grinned at her. Yes, he liked that. Now they’d remember his name. She was doing well. She was impressing the people, he was sure. She was…flicking her fingers at him.
“Now.” Elyra hissed at him, waving again. “Your pose.”
“What?” The dragon licked his nose. What was she babbling about?
“Your pose,” she said, a little louder. “Do your pose!”
“The one we practiced! Arch your neck!”
Oh. That pose. Galvarys spread his wings out a little, widened his stance. He curled his tail, flexing it to show off the curved spines at the end. Then he lifted his wedge-shaped head, arching his long neck to show off his own magnificence. He turned to stand sideways, displaying his entire body to the gathered masses who were rightfully quite impressed.
Elyra waved her hand at him again. “The Azure Wrath!”
The people alternated between staring at the dragon and looking at one another. Galvarys growled and Elyra lifted her voice in a rising cheer. She clapped her hands, gave another hurrah, and waved her arms at the crowd. Soon a few of them were applauding. Before long, they all cheered him. Galvarys grinned. He lifted his head even higher, his chest plates swelling. Oh, he liked this. He was going to have to get Elyra to introduce him more often.
Elyra straightened and faced the crowd. When they quieted, she glanced at her parchment. “The Azure Wrath is pleased with your gift of a servant.” She grinned at the dragon. “A minion to serve in his name, and bear his colors with pride.”
His colors? Oh! Black breeches, a blue shirt, with silver threading. She did that on purpose. Clever girl. Then Elyra yelped when a gust of wind blew her parchment clear out of her hand. It fluttered away in the breeze. Perhaps not so clever after all. Galvarys half expected her to chase it down before the entire crowd. Instead, she attempted her own recovery.
She cleared her throat. “Good people, before I yield the plaza to the regal dragon himself, he wishes to express his deep gratitude for all the tributes you have given him over the years! And to remind you that The Azure Wrath himself keeps your villages safe from all manner of banditry. Now, your Lord has a demand.”
Elyra gave a deep bow, and then stepped aside. Not a bad recovery, really. The dragon padded onto the time-worn cobblestone of the plaza. Galvarys cleared his throat with a growl, gazing over the crowd. The crowd fell silent, no doubt waiting to see what the majestic dragon would say after being so grandly introduced.
“I should like a ham.” Wait, that didn’t come out right. “I should like many hams. And one for my minion.”
Yes, much better.
The crowd went back to murmuring amongst themselves, and Galvarys gave them a few moments to sort out who would be responsible for providing his many hams. Perhaps he should make that a part of his legend. Galvarys, who enjoyed many hams. He opened a black-edged wing, and folded Elyra within its indigo expanse. She stumbled towards the dragon before she caught her balance.
Galvarys lowered his head, silver eyes reflected in gray. “I have demanded you a ham. Have you any other demands you wish to make?”
Elyra rubbed her hands together, grinning. “I can think of a few. I’d love some new clothes--”
The dragon cut her off. “Very well. I shall allow you to make them yourself. It will help my legend grow if even my minion makes demands.”
Galvarys lifted his head again as a commotion rose in the crowd. A few armored guards escorted a fat little man with a hairy face through the crowd. Galvarys would know that mustache anywhere. It looked as if he’d chopped the fluffy tail off some poor fox and affixed it to his face. As always he was clad in an extravagant vest, this one royal purple and edged with golden ruffles that spilled over strained buttons.
As the mayor emerged from the crowd, Galvarys couldn’t tell if the guards were escorting him, or forcing him to face the dragon. Elyra sucked in a breath when the mayor was in view. Galvarys glanced at her. She looked tense, her jaw set.
“Oh, Magnificent Dragon!” The mayor bowed deeply. One of his vest buttons popped open. He fidgeted with it a moment before he realized the button itself had sprung free of his vest. A shame the man’s mustache and foul scent couldn’t escape him so easily. “We are humbled to be in your--”
“Yes, yes.” The dragon cut the man off, waving his paw. “My minion here already addressed my magnificence.”
“Of…of course.” The mayor stumbled over his words. “I see you have brought your…tribute.” His eyes flicked to Elyra. He fiddled with his vest with shaking fingers. “I hope you’ve found this girl more pleasing than the last?”
“I have.” The dragon’s voice was flat. Galvarys’ fire glands churned at the back of his jaws. Bittersweet fire bile touched his tongue. The dragon stepped towards the mayor, unsheathed black claws and dragged them against the cobblestone. “That is part of the reason I am here. To make sure the last girl is safe. Is she?”
“C-certainly, Grand Dragon.” The mayor bowed again. This time he held his purple vest together with his hands. “Why, her father recently found work, and…”
“So you sent her because she was poor?” Elyra’s voice surprised Galvarys.
The dragon glanced down at her. She looked up with wide eyes and a hand over her mouth. Seemed she’d startled herself with her outburst. Galvarys tilted his head towards the mayor, encouraging her to go on.
Elyra swallowed, then balled her fists, glaring at the mayor. “Did her poverty make her worthless to you?”
The mayor stammered, beady eyes flicking from the dragon to Elyra and back again. Galvarys stretched his wing, and brushed it against Elyra’s back. May as well let his minion speak her mind.
Elyra took a step towards the mayor, looking him over. The more she spoke, the more her words were like poisoned darts. “Did you tell her if she volunteered you’d have her family rewarded?”
“I…well, that is…” The mayor wrung his hands, his face tightening.
Elyra’s voice grew stronger as she squared back her shoulders. “I bet she said no, and you sent her anyway.” Elyra spat at his feet. “You nobles are all the same.”
The mayor stuttered, his face flushing scarlet behind his mustache. “Why…what…how dare some wen--”
“If you value your testicles…” Galvarys cut the mayor off, grinning. “I would not say the word you’re thinking of.”
The dragon glanced at his minion. Elyra’s fists trembled at her sides. Flight had dried her crimson hair and left it sticking out in all directions. She looked like some crazed witch come to town to terrify the civilized. Galvarys was pleased.
“Do you know this man, Elyra?”
“Yes.” Elyra tilted her head back, chin thrust out. “His name’s Varm. He used to be a friend of Atrius, the man who claimed to own me.” Elyra glared at Varm, smirking. “So this is where they shipped you off to.” She waved her hand at the gathered villagers, lifting her voice. “What did this poor town do to have a man like you foisted upon them as their unwanted mayor?”
“Shut your mouth, you branded wench!” Anger boiled behind Varm’s beady eyes. Spittle flecked his mustache as his cheeks grew redder. “Before I have it shut for you!”
Elyra stormed forward. Galvarys barred her with his black-striped front leg. He growled at Varm, his voice all venom and coiled threat. “Speak to her like that again and I will order her to kick you across the plaza.” The dragon bared his fangs, hissing. “Retaliate and I shall kill you.” The crimson hue drained from Varm’s face and the crowd behind him fell silent. “I’d wager that would make me a hero.”
Varm gave a trembling bow, half as deep as before. “Please excuse my tongue, Grand Dragon…”
“Apologize to my minion.” The dragon growled again, his wings half unfurled. He kept his limb in place while anger ruled Elyra.
“My most gracious apologies, Madam.” The mayor remained bowed.
“I accept your apology with the same sincerity you offer it.” Elyra set a hand on the dragon’s leg while she glared at Varm. “It’s alright now. I’m not going to hit him.”
“Good.” Galvarys curled his neck to let his eyes meet hers. She needed to understand something. “If you harmed him now and I had to protect you from his bodyguards, people would die. Now that he knows his life is on the line, he will not insult nor harm you. Everyone lives.”
Elyra’s mouth opened and closed a few times as questions whirled in her gray eyes. She turned away and ran a hand over her face. Her breath shuddered, and Galvarys closed a wing around her.
“Catch your breath, Elyra.” The dragon kept his voice soft as though she were the only one there. “You’ve a mayor to make demands of.”
Galvarys turned his head back to the crowd. “Enough of all that. In a moment, my minion shall make her demands. We shall wait here as they are filled and my many hams are prepared. I should like also like proof that the previous girl is alive, unharmed, and well.”
The mayor sputtered. He summoned a purple-clad aide and whispered into his ear. Galvarys scanned the crowd for a familiar face but telling humans apart was difficult.
When Elyra patted his shoulder, Galvarys glanced down at her. “Are you ready?”
“Yes.” Elyra’s voice was soft. “And thank you.” She swallowed and wiped her eyes. “For ensuring I did not do anything foolish.”
The dragon nodded. “Give them your demands, Minion.”
Elyra smiled and strode towards the crowd. Elyra kept her distance from the cowering mayor, no doubt because she was resisting the urge to inflict some humiliating injury. Wise girl.
Elyra squared her shoulders, lifting her chin and her voice. “I have requests to make of you. Firstly, I should like some clothing. My Lord has deigned to allow me the honor of riding him, thus I require clothing suitable for flight. I should also like blouses, a few skirts and dresses. All in the colors of The Azure Wrath.” Elyra glanced back at the dragon, smiling.
Galvarys shook his head. “You can get yourself something in other colors as well.” Quite gracious of him.
Elyra faced the crowd again. “I also require a stove suitable for heating a large amount of water, as well as a bathing tub. These are not immediate needs, so you have time to construct them. Ensure that The Azure Wrath can carry them.” Elyra grinned over her shoulder at the dragon. “I should also like some sweets and things to share with my Lord. Oh! And some towels and washcloths and things, and some extra soap.”
“Anything else?” The Mayor growled through grit teeth. “Milady?”
“Yes.” Elyra fixed her eyes on the Mayor. “I should like you to pay for it all out of your own pocket. No reason for poor villagers to bear those costs.”
“I agree.” While Galvarys didn’t care got the bill, Elyra’s idea would embarrass the mayor and ensure Galvarys himself looked good in the eyes of the villagers. “The Mayor shall pay.” He licked his nose, his belly growling. “How long until I get my hams?”
A man came forward from the crowd, wrapped in a white apron with a few stains upon it. He gave the dragon an awkward bow. “I’ve sent my assistant to have them cut right away. But…begging your forgiveness…Azure…”
Elyra smiled at him. “Azure Wrath.”
“Y-yes…” The man swallowed, looking up at the dragon. “Begging your forgiveness, Azure Wrath, but they must be cooked first, or they will not taste the way you have come to enjoy. We must bake them and glaze them, others must be smoked…”
“I did not ask for the story of How Ham is Made.” Galvarys snapped his jaws. The man retreated a few steps. “I asked how long until I will be feasting upon it.”
“Hours at least, my scaly Lord.”
“Scaly Lord?” The dragon tossed his spiral-horned head, snorting. “That’s imbecilic. I do not call you my skin-covered subject. And stop bending over all the time. I cannot tell if you’ve spotted a coin upon the ground or you’re about to retch. Azure Wrath will suffice. Or Lord. Or Lord Azure Wrath. Yes, that one.”
“Yes…Lord Azure Wrath.” The man straightened from his bow, and turned back to the crowd. Elyra squeezed the cook’s shoulder and whispered words stolen by the wind. He smiled at her and returned to the crowd.
“Very well.” Galvarys flared his wings and beat the air to push people back with the gusts. “I shall take my many hams with me when I leave. In the meantime, I will help myself to your sheep and goats. Minion.” Elyra turned towards him. “You shall stay here and select your tribute of clothing, and find me proof that the previous girl is well.”
“As you wish, Azure Wrath.” Elyra grinned. Even Galvarys could recognize the mischief gleaming in her eyes. Seemed his minion was having as much fun as he was.
Galvarys launched himself into the air and swept over the crowd. Though baring his belly made him nervous, the screams and awed cries were worth it. Swirling gusts from his beating wings pushed people about, blew hats from heads and knocked unsuspecting idiots off their feet. He spiraled up over the village, took a breath, and roared.
Elyra yelled at the villagers below him. The gathered crowd cheered as if roaring right back to the dragon. Oh, Elyra was good at this.
He should have asked for a minion ages ago.
Elyra wandered the streets of the Village of Rings, surrounded by a happy crowd. The whole place was like some fairy tale village, filled with kindly but cunning merchants in charming little stores. A single street here in this village had more color and character than all the tall, faceless stone buildings around the Hall of Nobility.
Each shop and tavern she passed had a fanciful name. Some of her favorites included The Stumbling Dog, Three Empty Cups, and a store that only sold hats called The Gryphon’s Pride. They had a colorful sign depicting a smiling gryphon with a big feathery hat made of the same crimson feathers that lined his spread wings. Elyra giggled at the idea of a gryphon running a hat store. A store called The Dragon’s Hoard sold all manner of trinkets and odd little treasures. Its sign depicted a tiny green dragon sitting atop an immense mountain of assorted junk. The sign would have been appropriate standing in front of Galvarys’ treasure room.
The whole day went splendidly. Elyra felt like a queen surrounded by an adoring throng. Between taking the poor girl’s place as Galvarys’ maiden, and standing up to Mayor Varm, the whole village seemed to think her a hero, and they all wanted her business.
Elyra scowled. Varm. Yes, she knew that fat bastard. And unlike Galvarys, Varm knew what it meant among the nobles to call a branded woman a wench. It meant slave. It meant whore. It meant a person with no value beyond her duties and whatever sick amusement the nobles took in them. To a branded woman like Elyra, there was no greater insult.
Helping to put him in his place in front of an entire village was more satisfying than Elyra could have imagined. Varm was lucky that was all she did. Elyra was ready to jam her fist into Varm’s nose so hard that his face would never look the same again. Let the villagers see some ‘wench’ from the city disfigure him just as they’d disfigured her.
Good thing Galvarys stopped her before some poorly paid bodyguard stepped in to defend Varm and got himself killed by the dragon. She knew Galvarys had killed men before, but she had not stopped to think about how quickly he might do so again. Still, Elyra did not think him a creature of evil. If anything she saw a strange sort of honor in the way he sought to avoid taking lives. As far as she could tell, he’d only killed in defense or protection.
Elyra had best work on her temper before she gave the dragon a reason to defend her. Admittedly, there was a heady empowerment in having a dragon come to her defense. Hell, aside from her mother, Elyra couldn’t remember anyone ever standing up her for until now.
The very idea of being defended made her smile as she roamed from shop to shop. At every turn, tailors proclaimed they had the best clothes and the finest cloth. Did she prefer something woolen and warm or flowing and silken? Did she want something sheer to entice the dragon? That one made her laugh as she tried to explain that the dragon didn’t want sex.
Elyra paid a visit to every shop she could. She wandered among simple framework stalls with oilcloth tarp roofs. She ventured into a line of wooden shops with charming thatched roofs. She even found herself in the town’s most expensive clothier, located in an elegant stone-brick building with an arched tile roof.
Elyra tried to select something from every vendor. She picked up a blouse here, a skirt there, a bolt of cloth, a dress, some breeches, on and on. She chose things mostly in Galvarys’ colors but also purchased a gray blouse to match her eyes, and a green skirt that reminded her of the pine forests.
In the fancy clothier, the master tailor insisted on a few outfits designed just for her. His assistants measured her in every way and scribbled all the numbers down. Elyra selected colors and fabrics she liked, and the tailor asked for her preferences. Elyra requested something comfortable, something elegant, and something suitable for relaying a dragon’s demands. The tailor promised to have them ready for the next time she and the dragon visited.
Who knew being a dragon’s minion could lead to so many gifts?
Elyra stopped in front of a tavern named The Drunken Dragon. It had a beautiful front awning designed to look like dragon’s wings sweeping out over the front doors, and a wooden dragon head staring down at the street. Elyra’s entourage swept her into the tavern and insisted on buying her a drink. Not that she resisted. She’d never had the pleasure of having a drink in a tavern.
The whole place smelled of beer and pipe smoke that hung like haze in the air. The crowd urged Elyra towards the bar. The long, pale-spruce countertop was stained and scuffed by years of drink and use. A collection of mismatched stools cut from thick pine tree trunks then sanded till smooth lined the counter. Elyra settled on a stool and looked over the expansive selections of barrels, flasks and bottles arranged on shelves behind the bar.
Someone called for the barkeep’s best mead. The barkeep thrust a wooden mug into her hands, filled with sweet-smelling amber liquid. Elyra sipped it, and her eyes rolled back at the taste. Somehow both sweet and tart, like honey coated green-apples. Elyra’s cheeks flushed and her body warmed after just a few wonderful mouthfuls. She’d better go easy on it.
Elyra gazed around the tavern. Surely Galvarys would have loved the dragon-based theme. The booths were carved to look like dragon scales. All the lamps were held aloft by iron dragon claws, and the hearth was carefully assembled from stone bricks to give the impression the fire was burning in some dragon’s maw.
An entire wall was painted with a mural of a big blue dragon passed out drunk amidst an ocean of empty mugs and barrels. Laughing children used the dragon’s tail as a slide. A man had a foot upon the unconscious dragon’s head as if claiming he’d conquered the beast who’d drunk himself into a stupor. Elyra giggled, wondering if Galvarys would be amused or insulted.
People approached to ask questions as she sipped her mead. Was Azure Wrath pleased with their village? Was he still angry about the last girl? Had he slain any bandits lately? What sort of things did he make her do, what was his home like, how did he treat her? Elyra answered them the best she could and chose her words carefully. She didn’t want to give away his secrets.
Elyra spotted a familiar face. It was the man who’d hugged her for taking his daughter’s place. He stood near the back of the crowd in simple brown clothing smeared with dirt. He had a sturdy build and plain features, but the hug he’d given her the other day showed her the warmth in his heart. Elyra beckoned to him, and he made his way through the crowd after momentary hesitation.
“Hello there.” The man’s voice was soft. “Didn’t think you’d be back so soon. I’m glad you look well!”
“You didn’t expect me to?” Elyra laughed and set her mug down.
“I…” The man wrung his blistered, calloused hands. “I didn’t know what to expect. When…when they took my girl…”
Elyra put a hand upon his shoulder, smiling. “Shush. What’s done is done, and your girl is safe, right?”
“Yes, she’s safe.” He returned Elyra’s smile, tension draining from his face. “Thanks to the dragon, much as I hate to admit it.”
“Yes, thanks to the dragon.” Let him think about that a while. “He came here to check on her, you know.”
The man shook his head, chuckling in disbelief. “So I heard. The mayor’s men came looking for us, practically begging us to go tell the dragon we hadn’t been punished.”
“And have you?”
“No. But if not for the dragon’s warning…” He stumbled over his words a moment, knitting his fingers together. “Did he…really…is that why…” He took a breath, and composed himself. “Did he really come here to check on my girl?”
Elyra ran a hand against the scuffed spruce counter as she gathered her thoughts. She wasn’t sure how to answer that. Galvarys might not wish her to share her own opinions, but she wanted to help improve the dragon’s image.
Elyra smiled, bowing her head. “Yes, the dragon came here to make sure your daughter was alright.”
“That’s…” The man’s sigh turned into nervous laugh. “Hard to believe. It’s like some strange dream I fear I’ll wake from any moment, and my daughter will be gone. He…he hasn’t…”
“He has neither harmed me, nor asked me for anything the least bit lewd.” That much was the honest truth. “He’s treated me very well.”
The man grinned, ruffling his hair with his hand. “Half the town seems to think he has you under some kind of spell. The rest think you’re a conduit to gaining his favor.”
“I am neither,” Elyra replied, grinning. “I’m just embracing my new role to improve my life. I hope to better your lives, and the dragon’s life as well.”
The man smiled, and shook his head. He rested his hands on the countertop, scratching at a scuff mark in the wood. “Would it be alright if my daughter met you? She had a gift for you to give the dragon, and…I didn’t have the heart to tell her he won’t want it. Maybe you could let her down easy?”
“Why let her down at all?” Elyra giggled. “My Lord loves tribute gifts. Where is she?”
“Across the street.” He gazed around at the crowd, a scowl creasing his face. “She’s still a bit shy after what happened.”
“Completely understandable.” Elyra thanked the barkeep for the mead, and then rose from the stool. She called for a moment of quiet, and then addressed the crowd. “I’m going to need a moment of privacy, please. Could someone please pack away all the things I’ve bought and take them to the plaza?”
Some of the onlookers went their separate ways, others headed to the plaza with her new belongings. A few more remained behind to watch her from a distance.
While Elyra waited for the crowd to thin out, she grinned at the girl’s father. “I’m Elyra, by the way.”
“I’m Khor.” When the tavern was nearly empty, Khor headed outside, glancing back at Elyra. “Thank you so much for this.”
“No problem at all.”
A small park lay across the street from The Drunken Dragon. Immense, blue-green spruce trees stood sentinel over wooden benches. Planters made from baked clay and lined with blue and red flowers surrounded each tree. The girl sat on a bench in the shade. When she saw Elyra, her eyes lit up. She started to rise, and Elyra gestured for her to stay seated.
“Hello there!” Elyra waved as she walked up.
“Hello.” The girl gave Elyra a shy smile. “You’re…his maiden, right?”
Elyra grinned. “I am. His minion, really.”
“Minion?” The girl giggled. “You mean like a bad guy in some story?”
“Close enough.” Elyra’s smile grew. “He fancies himself a legendary villain, but I think he’s more of a misunderstood hero.” She gestured at the bench. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
“No, of course not.” The girl scooted to the side of the bench.
Elyra settled in next to the girl. Poor thing didn’t look half as old as Elyra. She had pale skin, and sandy-brown hair, and her cheekbones were higher than Elyra’s. Her eyes were the color of honey. She’d be a beautiful woman before long, but she wasn’t there yet. She wore a simple, loose fitting dress the color of the sky, and sandals of braided rope.
Elyra leaned forward, peering at her feet. “You like sandals? So do I! Do you know, they put me in boots to go meet the dragon, and I took them off to put my own sandals back on.”
The girl giggled, covering her mouth. “You did? They gave me shoes, but…I lost them.”
“Oh, that’s alright. If you want more shoes, I can ask the dragon to have new ones bought for you.” The girl giggled again and Elyra smiled at her. “The dragon is sorry he scared you, you know.”
“He is?” That sat the girl back. She leaned against the wooden armrest, her honey-toned eyes wide.
“Why, he’s here today to ensure your safety.” Elyra hardened her voice. “You have been safe, right? No one has bothered you since he brought you back?”
She shook her head, smiling. “No one at all. They even made sure Papa found a job. He’d been looking ever so hard, too.”
“Excellent!” Elyra glanced at the girl’s father for confirmation. He nodded, and Elyra turned her attention back to the girl. “My name is Elyra. Do you have a name?”
The girl beamed. “Of course I have a name. It’s Amell.”
“That’s a lovely name, Amell.”
“Thank you.” Amell fidgeted with her blue dress then twined her hair around a finger. “Does…the dragon have a name?”
“He does, but he only lets special people know it.” Elyra poked the girl’s nose, grinning. “Since he’s sorry he frightened you, he told me I can tell you his name.”
“Really?” Amell perked up.
“Yes, if you promise not to tell anyone else. Dragons take their names very seriously.” As if she was some dragon expert. “Do you promise?”
Amell nodded. Elyra leaned in and whispered into the girl’s ear. Amell blinked and giggled as Elyra pulled back.
“That’s a funny name.”
Elyra waggled a single finger. “Just remember. Don’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t,” Amell said. “I wouldn’t want him to be angry with me.” She stuck her tongue out. “He must like you more than he liked me!”
“He likes you just fine.” Elyra eased an arm over the back of the bench. A cool breeze rustled the spruce boughs over her head, tinting the air with their aromatic scent. “Besides, you didn’t really want to live with a cranky old dragon, did you?”
The girl scrunched her face, and shook her head. “No.” She glanced up at her father, then lowered her voice into a whisper. “Does he make you…do things…for him?”
Elyra shook her head. “Not at all. In fact, after he got done carting me around like a piece of luggage, he’s treated me quite respectfully.”
The girl laughed, tilting her head back to stare up into the trees when birdsong filtered down. “He carried me that way, too.” A few strands of hair swayed in the breeze. “What’s he like?”
Elyra leaned her head against the bench. “You know, I really think he just wants to be remembered.” An image of a rusted, blood stained sword flickered in her mind. “I think he’s lonely, to be honest.”
“Lonely?” The girl leaned forward. “How can he be lonely? He’s a dragon.”
Elyra rolled the hem of her blouse between her fingers. She glanced up at Khor. “Have either of you ever seen another dragon?”
“No.” The girl shook her head.
Her father answered a moment later, the ghost of a scowl tugging at his lips. “Nor have I.”
“Then you know why he might feel lonely.” Elyra closed her eyes for a moment, the dragon’s voice drifting through her head. I have killed more men than I have ever seen dragons. “I’d be lonely in his place.”
“So would I.” Amell stared up through the spruce boughs.
Khor wrung his hands. “I just thought…well, I’m sure there are other dragons, somewhere. Surely he can fly far enough that he sees them now and then.”
“You’re probably right.” Elyra stood up and stretched when she heard distant wing beats. “Just remember, there’s more to him than you know.”
Khor glanced at his daughter. “I’ve already learned that.” He smiled. “Amell, you have something for her?”
“Oh!” Amell jumped up from the bench and scurried around it. She picked something up from where it hung on a bough, and returned to Elyra. “I…I made this for him.”
The girl held out a large tiara woven of rose stems, ribbon, and lace. The roses were a rare blue shade. Their long stems were trimmed of thorns and braided together into a circlet. Blue and black ribbons and silver lace were all woven in amidst the rose stems. Streamers of ribbon hung from it.
“You made that?”
“Yes.” Amell’s hands trembled. “I…I wanted to…to thank him. For…for bringing me home safe.” She gave Elyra a shy smile. “Do you think he’ll like? It’s…it’s silly, isn’t it.” Amell lowered the circlet, and her father squeezed her shoulder. “A dragon wouldn’t want such a thing.”
Elyra held out her hand. “Oh, Amell, he will love it.”
“You really think so?” Amell passed Elyra the tiara, her face brightening.
“I do, so long as you bestow it upon him yourself.” Galvarys wanted proof she was safe, right? Maybe this would make the girl’s day, and make the dragon look good in the process.
Amell’s eyes widened. She stepped back against her father. “I…I don’t know…”
“There is no more meaningful gesture of thanks than one given in person.” Elyra worked the circlet around her hands. “If you’ve the courage, he’d appreciate that more than you know. And your father will be there, of course.”
Khor tensed for a moment, then squeezed his daughter’s shoulder. “I’d not mind a chance to thank him myself. I doubt he hears those words often.” He smiled at his daughter. “What do you think, Dove?”
Amell swallowed and glanced between Elyra and her father. Galvarys wheeled in the sky, and Amell tilted her head back to watch him. “You really think he’s lonely?”
“I do.” Elyra grit her teeth. Better make sure the girl didn’t say the wrong thing. “But he’d feel ever so embarrassed if you said as much. It’s a secret, like his name.”
Amell nodded and took a breath. “I think I’d like to try.”
“Good! He did hope to see you.” Elyra passed the tiara back. “I think if you gave him this yourself, it would warm his old heart.”
“I’ll try.” The girl accepted the tiara, smiling as her father hugged her.
Elyra tracked Galvarys through the sky until he vanished beyond the buildings as he landed. She covered her ears, and gestured for Amell and Khor to do the same. When Galvarys roared, Amell grinned at Elyra.
Amell lowered her hands after the roar faded. “It’s not so bad when you’re not right under him.”
“No it isn’t.” Elyra chuckled. “I hope his hams are ready.”
For some reason, the mention of hams made Amell giggle like crazy.
Elyra asked Amell and Khor to lead her back to the plaza at the center of town. When they reached the plaza, the guards began to clear a path for her through the gathered crowd towards the blue dragon seated at the plaza’s center. Elyra smiled at the guards, thanked them as she passed. They weren’t as intimidating as some of the steel-plated guards back in the Hall of Nobility. Nor were they as impressive as the soldiers who protected the occasional visitors bearing blue and gray banners with a large stone keep on them. But for a merchant city out in the country, these men wore more than enough armor.
Elyra turned to Amell and Khor. “You two wait here and I’ll call for you shortly.”
Elyra strode through the crowd towards the dragon. A group of vendors surrounded him, extolling the virtues of the various hams set upon a large rack. The wind carried the scents of rich ham, sweet glaze, and pungent wood smoke. Elyra’s stomach rumbled. Good thing one of those hams was hers.
“There’s my minion.” Galvarys rumbled when he spotted Elyra. “I trust your demands were met?”
“Indeed, my Lord.” She pointed out the collection of packs and boxes lashed together, waiting at the edge of the crowd. “My clothing is there, when we are ready to leave, along with a box of sweets. The other things will be ready for our next visit.”
“Good.” The dragon cocked his head. “We shall visit again when the next tribute is due.” Then the dragon glanced at the cooks who’d no doubt gathered in hopes of hearing him praise the many hams they’d spent the afternoon preparing. He waved his paw at them. “Pack up those hams. I am ready to put this place behind me.” He ignored the gasps and sagging shoulders the chefs displayed, and turned his attention back to Elyra. “Have you heard about that girl?”
Elyra grinned. “I have, my Lord. She is safe and healthy. In fact, she’s brought you a tribute.”
“Really?” The dragon lifted his head, brassy voice rising in pitch with curiosity.
“A gift of thanks for your kind treatment.” Elyra raised her voice so the crowd could hear. “May she present it to you?”
“Certainly.” Galvarys curled his tail around his paws. “Call her forward.”
“Amell.” Elyra waved her hand as she called out. “Come forth, Amell.”
As Amell came forward, she seemed to consider each step before she took it. Her honey eyes were wide and locked on Galvarys the entire time. Khor walked at her side, a hand on her shoulder. Amell’s knuckles stood out white around the circlet.
The crowd fell silent as Amell neared the dragon. Elyra’s stomach tried to turn itself inside out. When the girl stopped before the dragon, Elyra gave her a sweet smile and gestured at Galvarys.
“My Lord Azure Wrath welcomes you to his majestic presence.”
“Hello again, Girl.” The dragon’s voice was soft and with none of his usual arrogance. “Have you been well?”
“Y-yes.” Amell stammered, but gave the dragon a shy smile. “Everyone’s treated me nicely.”
“Good.” Galvarys glanced at the crowd then turned his piercing silver eyes on Khor. “And you? They have not caused you trouble?”
“No, Dragon.” The man tensed his jaw and amended himself. “Lord Dragon. They made sure I found a job, in fact.” He squeezed his daughter’s shoulder. “I wanted to thank you in person. For bringing her back.” He stared down at his daughter, his voice quavering. “She’s…she’s everything to me, and…I thought…”
“You thought wrong.” The dragon flicked his spined tail.
The man sighed, staring at his dirty boots. “Seems I have.” He lifted his face, forced himself to meet Galvarys’ gaze. “Thank you, Azure Wrath. Thank you.”
“You are welcome.” Galvarys smiled down at the girl. She backed away a few paces at the sight of so many fangs, but held out her circlet for him. The dragon stretched his neck a little, sniffing at it. “What is this?”
“A thank you.” Amell’s words registered as little more than a frightened squeak. “I…I made it. For you.” She looked down at the circlet, then up at the dragon. “It’s…your colors.”
Elyra watched silver gears turn in Galvarys’ eyes. Any moment now he’d blurt out something honest yet heartbreaking. It smells funny. I do not like flowers. Dragons do not wear ribbons. It will not fit. It holds no value. Go toss it in the nearest latrine where it belongs.
“It is beautiful.” There was genuine honesty in the dragon’s voice.
Galvarys’ words brought a smile to Amell’s face that could have warmed even the cruelest noble’s heart. “You really think so?” She beamed, her eyes alight.
The dragon tilted his head, blinking. Galvarys sounded nearly in awe. “No human has ever made me a gift before.”
“What about all your tributes?” The girl tilted her head, happiness shone across her face.
“Those are part of a truce.” Galvarys sniffed at the circlet. “They are not gifts borne of kindness created just for me.”
The girl stepped towards Galvarys. Her smile never left her lips. “You really like it?”
“Absolutely.” The dragon lowered his head towards her. “You may put it around my horn.”
Amell stretched her arms and slipped the circlet around Galvarys’ spiraling black horn. It fell down the length of his horn and hung against the side of his head. “Thank you for bringing me home.”
“You are welcome.” Galvarys lifted his head. “And thank you for the gift. I shall cherish it and put it with my favorite treasures.”
Amell bubbled with laughter as she ran back to her father. She hugged him, burying her face against the brown sleeve of his tunic. The older man put an arm around his daughter, unable to help but share in her happiness.
“We won’t forget this, Lord Azure Wrath.” The man tried to fight his smile, glancing away. “I wish I could offer you more than my gratitude.”
“Remember that when next you hear someone speak ill of me.” Galvarys lifted his spines, staring at Khor.
Elyra held back laughter when the circlet fluttered and flopped against the dragon’s head. Galvarys flared his spines, they caught the circlet and lifted it. When the circlet flopped over his eye and he had to toss his head to move it, she couldn’t fight her laughter any longer. She turned away, covering her mouth.
“Quit your giggling, Minion.” Galvarys snorted. “If you’re through gossiping with the locals, I am ready to return home.”
“Yes, my Lord. Let me get one thing first.”
Elyra dashed over to where the cooks were packing up the last of the hams. She nudged people aside, and cut herself a large hunk of ham. At least she’d have something to eat on the way home.
Until she met the dragon, Elyra never felt as though she had a home.
She had one now.
Elyra smiled as she returned to Galvarys. “Let’s go home, then