Alistair and Lance crept through the forest, both clad in brown pelts. They weren't wearing any armorit would all be ineffectual anyway, so why bother with even the least amount of protection from it? The only true weapon they had with them was a single longswordcarried by Alistairwith a sleek, curved blade.
"Jackpot," the man hissed. He crouched down in the foliage, Clandreadthat was the sword's namegripped in his hand. Lance moved up to him.
"Look, son!" Alistair whispered. "There."
Lance got on his knees beside his father and peered in the direction the old man was indicating. He was pointing in the general direction of Mt. Thester, the site they'd long been aiming at in their excursion, but more specifically he was pointing to a small, treeless crest in the ground about a hundred meters off.
Alistair chuckled quietly. "What do you think of that, there, eh?" he asked his son, patting the boy between the shoulders.
Kneeling in an awkward-looking position on the crest was something deeply green... It took Lance a few seconds to realize what he was looking at. After all, he'd never actually seen a dragon before, not even a picture of one; and his father's descriptions of them had never been overly vivid. Even so, the creature was so silent and still it could have been part of the hilltop itself. Lance wondered if he would have missed seeing it entirely were it not for his father's pointing it out to him.
"That's..." Lance started.
"It sure is," Alistair conceded, nodding. "Let's go." He rose to his feet, wielding Clandread expertly before him. He moved noiselessly through the needle-carpetted forest in the direction of the dragon's still form. Lance got up and walked behind him.
In the few minutes it took them to approach the edge of the clearing within which the hill rose, the dragon didn't move an inch. It was just kneeling, silently, in the grass at the top, staring down at the ground in front of it. Its wings moved only slightly in the light breeze.
"It doesn't suspect a thing," Alistair gritted, grinning savagely at his son. Lance stared back at him blankly.
The dragon was facing away from them so it couldn't see the man as he crept out from the protective shrubbery into the sunlight. Lance moved out behind him.
"Remember," Alistair whispered. "You want to surprise them. Fights with these things as always short. You either get 'em before they know what hit 'em or they eat you for dinner."
Lance nodded. The nearby alp was casting it's shadow away from them so the sun fell full on the placid dark green dragon. It's wings moved momentarily as if they were itchy. Lance looked up at the huge mountain tensely, as if it had two great pairs of eyes that were staring right back at him.
"Now shhhhhh," his father muttered. He moved away from the trees toward his unsuspecting prey, Clandread pointed in front of him. The dragon didn't look away from the ground in front of it. It sighed deeply once, causing Alistair to pause momentarily then continue his silent approach, Lance behind him. The breeze whished around them benignly. It was pleasantly warm and there was the sound of birds in the distance.
Soon they were close enough for them to see what the dragon was so interested in; what was so fascinating to it on the ground in front of it. It looked like a tiny white daisy with a blithe yellow heart and the dragon watched it fastidiously, waiting for it to... do... whatever it was doing.
In moments Alistair was within ten feet of the green creature, who was still dumb to his presence. Pressing his luck he risked moving a few feet closer. Clandread lilted in his hands like a child squirming to get out of some parental clinch. Alistair swiveled at the waist to peer eagerly at his son, who regarded him impassively. He smiled, mouthed the words, "Watch this," and turned back to his green victim.
He didn't scream a battle crythat would have been a waste of an ambuscade. He simply leapt gently into the air and, as he reached the peak of his bound, he swung Clandread around and brought the handle down sharply against the green dragon's temple.
By instinct Lance rushed up to them then, not fully sure what he expected to do. The dragon barked and curled at the torso, bringing its hand to its bruised forehead. His feet braced adroitly on the ground, Alistair swung the sword around and, again, chose to strike with the handle instead of the blade, in the dragon's brawny neck. Lance blinked.
The dragon fell onto its side, still not sure what was happening to it. That was one of the effects of the temple-strike. Alistair leapt over the body but the dragon managed to throw out one of its limbs, hitting him in the air and sending him sprawling. Nevertheless, the man shrieked with laughter.
Suddenly, even before Alistair clumsily hit the ground, Clandread flew out of his hand towards Lance. His eyes widening in shock, the boy reached out and caught the sword rightly in his hand. He held it away from his body, staring at it mutely.
The dark green dragon was still sprawling on the ground dazedly but its mind was beginning to clear by the way it blinked repeatedly and tried to focus on its two assailants.
"Do it, Lance!" his father cackled. "Finish it off!"
The creature's chest was exposed to him, bare like a fresh sheet of writing paper. Lance held Clandread up above his head, pointed downward, and stood over the dragon, his muscles tense to slam the sword down through its chest.
It was then that the dragon's eyes cleared and focussed on Lance's own. It knew it wouldn't be able to defend itself in time; somehow Lance was able to see that. Somehow he could also see that in the few fleeting seconds left of its life it had no arrangements whatsoever.
When the sword suddenly left his hands, Lance knew that he had waited too long. But it hadn't been grabbed by the dragon, it had been taken by his father who, in an easy, practised motion, swept the blade down with amazing speed and energy into the creature's chest. It cried out and contracted on the ground but Alistair's grip stayed firm around the deadly weapon, grinding it deeper and deeper into the thing's bosom. It tried to leap up but only its hands managed to raise themselves. They clasped around its killer's hands fearfully and Lance saw blood start to run down the sparkling blade, but only for a momentwith one final sigh the green hands fell away and the dragon's skin settled around its bones like snow melting over gravel.
"Yo hey!" Alistair yelled in elation. He gave the sword one last shove before yanking it out. He swung it toward the sky and a misty arc of blood spread around the tiny hill. Then he threw it down and it stuck in the ground beside its most recent prey. Fluids glistened on the gratified blade.
The birds had stopped making sound.
Alistair turned toward his petrified son. He forced the smile off his face and addressed Lance grimly.
"You can't hesitate like that, Lance," he said. "That could have cost us the kill."
Lance nodded speechlessly.
A gurgling sound came out of the dragon's mouth. Alistair faced it, the smile returning. "Let's get a souvenir from this baby," he sniggered, yanking Clandread out of its makeshift sheath in the earth. "You always get what you can as soon as it's dead, see?" he told Lance. "You remember I told you about the black one?"
Lance remembered. The black dragon had been his father's first kill, when he was only sixteen. The 'black one' had been known as one of the toughest dragons in the land at the time and his father had taken it down, all by himself. Before taking any relics from it, though, he'd run back to his camp to get some supplies. By the time he came back... The body was gone. Dragged off by animals. No one ever believed him that he'd killed it.
The fearsome blade touched the green thing's oozing wound gingerly, relishing in the anticipation of the next plunge.
"Do you want the heart, or the tongue, or both, Lance?" the man asked.
Lance's eyes were wide like full moons, and he wouldn't have been able to decide. But he was never given the opportunity to. His pupils focussed on something behind and a little above Alistair and he screamed.
No matter how fast Alistair tried to turn around, he wouldn't have been able to raise the sword in time to defend himself. He grunted dully and lifted into the air, the bright emerald hands around his waist trembling with conviction. The sword fell away from him. Then his body went back toward the ground, faster than a flying arrow. There was a sharp crack and the man was silent.
Lance was stumbling backwards down the hill and the huge emerald dragon turned towards him and stalked him menacingly. The boy's eyes were large and white and sweat from his forehead ran into them. He backed all the way down the hill until his shoulders were pressed against a thick tree trunk. The dragon moved up to him gravely and glared into his eyes like certain death itself.
* * * * *
There were only colours at first... bright reds and deep purples and swirly, milky blacks. Eventually most of the colours dissipated and there was only black. Then the black slowly faded away to a burning, crimson red, which fluctuated in rhythm to the throbbing in his ears.
Alistair groaned. He stretched all his limbs languidly and clucked his tongue.
It was then that memory poured into his mind and he sat up, his eyes shooting open.
What he saw was the sky, played out before him like a tapestry. Feeling panic spread through his veins, he quickly glanced down to see if he was falling. But he wasn'tthere was a hard, sturdy surface under his body. It was perched perilously close to the edge of a sheer cliff that dropped away into a maze of trees and grass. A huge, mountain-shaped shadow sprawled out over the scene.
Glancing about himself, Alistair saw that he was in the mouth of a cave high up in the air. The rock surface passed up over his head and down on the other side of him. He was lying on a rotting wooden bunk by one of the cave walls. There was another bunk on the opposite wall. Sitting on it with his hands in his lap, staring at his father, was Lance. He had a purple bruise on his forehead.
"Lance!" Alistair cried, spinning around to stand up. When he did he felt sharp splinters of pain shoot through his body and he had to lie back down. His legs felt broken.
"Try not to move," Lance murmured monotonously. "You're hurt."
Alistair stared silently out the cave mouth into the grand vista before him. "Where are we?" he gasped. "Are we dead?" He looked at his son for a response.
Lance shook his head slowly. "We're on Mt. Thester," he said.
The cave went deeper in behind them and Alistair turned his head to look into it. It went back only about twenty feet before it narrowed and curved out of sight. From deep within there was a flickery orange light, like the kind from campfires.
"What's back there?" the man asked. "How did we get up here?"
Lance turned his head nervously and gazed down the tunnel. "This is where Robencei lives," he said.
"The dragon," the boy said, shivering.
Alistair stared dumbly at his son. "The one we killed?" he hissed.
Lance shook his head. "The other one," he said. "The one who almost killed us. Zayvial's mother."
"Zayvial is the dragon you killed."
Alistair broke out in a sweat. "You mean..." he stuttered. Then he turned to look back out, down the cliff. "We have to go," he quavered. "We have to escape! Now!"
"You can't walk," Lance reminded him. "Besides," he added, following his father's stare down to the wilderness below them. "You aren't going to be walking down that."
Alistair heard a sighing sound from back within the tunnel. He started shivering madly. How far was it from the cave mouth down to the foot of the...? It was... good Lord, almost a kilometer. A kilometer of sheer cliff face. Unconsciously he pushed his body to the far end of the wooden cot, away from the cliff.
"Why are we..." he started to say. He thought for a second then looked his son in the face. "Why didn't she kill us?" he asked. He stared down into the tunnel behind them. "Why didn't she kill us?"
Lance bit his lip. He glanced apprehensively at the tunnel then got unsteadily to his feet and moved across to his father's bunk. Sitting down beside him with his hands still crossed in his lap, he whispered in his father's ear.
"She doesn't know," he said.
"What?" Alistair whispered back.
"She doesn't know you killed her," his son hissed.
Alistair paused. "But she must have seen..." he said. "She must have seen us..."
Lance shook his head. "I guess she didn't," he muttered. "She thinks it was... someone else who did it."
Alistair gaped at him. "Why would she think that?" he asked. "I mean... we were there."
Lance looked at his hands. He cleared his throat. "I managed to convince her," he said. "I had to talk very fast... It was hard. I don't know if she even believed me."
His father looked him in the eye. "So you weaseled out?" he asked quietly. "You lied and connived rather than die an honourable death?"
"Honourable?" the boy echoed, a tight expression creeping discretely over his features. It loosened almost immediately. "I didn't want to die..." he mumbled sheepishly. "I was scared..."
Alistair waved at him dismissively. Lance turned to face out at the sky for a moment then stared down at the foot of his father's bunk.
"Why did she bring us up here?" the man asked. "I'd have just left us at the bottom."
"You were hurt," Lance said. "She brought us up here to get better."
"What do you mean?"
"Look where Zayvial cut you," the boy said.
Alistair wasn't aware the dark green dragon had cut him, but he suspected it had something to do with when shed grabbed his hands over the sword... He glanced at his hands where there were claw marks. The cuts looked like they'd been healed with magic; they had that sort of pale, artificial look that cuts healed by magic have.
They were both quiet for a moment. Alistair glanced between the tunnel and the sky outside. Lance's eyes were still fixed on the foot of his cot.
"Where did she get the beds?" the man asked eventually.
"A town or something," Lance answered. "A ruined town." He rubbed his arms. "Uh..." he said.
"What?" Alistair asked.
"Uh..." his son said again, his eyes still locked on the foot of the bunk.
"What is it?" the man said, then followed Lance's gaze. Lying by the foot of his bunk was Clandread. "She left that with us?" he gasped.
Just then they heard a scraping sound from down the tunnel. They both looked up and saw a shadow cast across the wall. Lance jumped up. The scraping turned into footsteps and soon an emerald dragon appeared to them.
Robencei only stared out at them ruefully. She was larger than Zayvial had been and her face was deeply worn. Lance moved back to his own cot like a schoolboy caught out of his seat. She stayed for a moment, glanced at the sky beyond the cave mouth, then turned and disappeared back down the tunnel.
After she was gone a minute Alistair eagerly reached down and picked up Clandread carefully by the blade. He held the sword in front of him tenderly then slipped his hand around the butt and balanced it in his palm.
"She left this with us?" the man asked again.
Lance nodded from across the room.
Alistair shook his head slowly as a faint smile crept across his lips.
"Father," Lance said uncertainly.
"Yes, son," the man answered.
"I have to talk to you about something." Lance suspected his father wasn't actually listening to him, the way he stared at the sword like it was his baby.
"Yes," Alistair said.
Lance looked at the ground. He breathed slowly. "I don't know if this is a good idea," he said.
"What isn't a good idea?" Alistair asked.
The boy made some ambiguous gesture with his hand. "This whole thing," he muttered. He drew his arms around himself. "This whole dragon thing."
"What are you talking about?" Alistair snapped.
"This whole dragon thing!" Lance cried. He spread his arms dumbly. "Just the whole idea... I can't take it."
Alistair paused and looked up, scowling faintly. "What do you mean?" the man asked grittily.
Lance looked at him fearfully. "You know..." he said. "The whole killing dragons thing."
"That wasnt what I was talking about," the man grated. "I want to know what you mean by I can't take it." His lip twitched. "What cant you take, Lance?"
"Just look at us!" Lance moaned. "We're stranded up here... at the mercy of some dragon who doesn't know you killed her daughter..." He put his hand on his face. "We might have been killed down there just as easily. I can't take it!"
Alistair lowered the sword and glowered into his son's eyes gravely. "Do you have any idea how disappointed that makes me?" he hissed. Lance stared at him. "Here I've taken you all the way out here for... how long has it been? Weeks?" He shook his head. "Here I've been toiling in the wilderness for weeks to teach you how to fend for yourself, and you say you can't take it?"
"Fend for myself?" his son cried. "Where does sneaking up on..." He suddenly glanced down the fire-lit tunnel and continued in a softer voice. "Where does sneaking up on unsuspecting dragons and slaughtering them enter into fending for myself?" he muttered.
Alistair shook his fist, raging quietly. "It's the very heart of it," he hissed. "It's building your courage, your confidence, your all-around survival skills... Unsuspecting or not, Lance, dragons are a menace and they are to be dealt with as I did... As I was hoping you'd do, but clearly you didn't have the grit to."
Lance stared at him quietly.
"Has this entire past week been a waste of time?" Alistair asked contemptuously. "Have you learned nothing at all?" He glanced around the cave mouth and raised his arms. "This is exactly the sort of situation you might find yourself in once you're on your own."
"We wouldn't be here if you'd left Zayvial alone!" Lance hollered, jumping up. He started and glanced back down the tunnel.
"But we are here, boy!" Alistair spat. "What if you were in a situation like this, alone? What would you do then?"
"I wouldn't get into a situation like this."
"You're so sure?" the man grinned. "Here we are."
Lance only glared, gritting his teeth.
"What would you do if you were stuck up here by yourself?" the man repeated.
Lance looked over the edge of the cliff, down. "I don't know," he murmured timidly.
"Well then," Alistair said succinctly, sitting up straight. "You're stuck, aren't you? You haven't learned anything at all."
"What was I supposed to learn?" Lance spat.
His father leered. "How you escape from prisons like this," he said.
"Prisons?" Lance gasped. "Escape? Why do you think we have to escape?"
"Like you said," the man answered, "maybe that big dragon didn't believe you. Maybe she knows we killed her daughter, but she's just waiting for us to slip." He leaned forward. "Maybe she's waiting for you to go on shouting like that and just yell out loud that we did it."
Lance sat down again, not speaking.
"Maybe she knows we did it and she's just waiting to get hungry," Alistair went on.
Lance still said nothing.
"This is perfect, son," his father smiled. "This is the test. This is your test."
"My test," the boy echoed, chewing on the words as he spoke them.
"Imprisoned a mile up on a cliff," Alistair said, indicating the room around them. "How do you get down?"
"There's no way down," his son replied. "The only way down is the way we came up... On their backs."
Alistair paused. "They?" he asked.
"Her," Lance said, nodding toward the tunnel. "Robencei."
The man thought for a moment, then shook his head quietly. "I think not," he said. "What about down that way?" he asked. He pointed to the tunnel. There were still sighing sounds coming from it.
"What about it?" Lance asked.
"Don't you suppose there would be a tunnel leading down to the ground?"
"Why should there be?" the boy grumbled. "They can fly."
"Why shouldn't there be?" Alistair countered. "Look at this place... It slopes down as you go in. What about rainwater? Where would it go if there wasn't a way down through there?"
"I don't know," Lance muttered.
"So? That's our way out... Down there."
Lance stared at the tunnel quietly. "But she wouldn't just let us go..." he said. "She wouldn't even let us in there. That's her home. She wouldn't let us..." Lance trailed off and slowly turned his eyes to his father. They were wide with horror.
Alistair held out the sword to him.
"No!" Lance screamed. "What are you thinking!?"
"I'm thinking," Alistair hissed, "that it's time you become a man, Lance."
"What!?" the boy shrieked. He looked down the fire-lit tunnel then decided not to lower his voice after all. "You mean... Damn you, no!"
"You're only damning yourself!" his father barked. "Do you want to be devoured up here?"
"Then this is the only other way." He held Clandread by the blade, aiming the handle at Lance's throat. "She won't suspect a thing, just like her daughter."
"Father!" the boy cried. "That's awful!"
"Still think so?" he snapped. "Do you want to stay a child all your life? Suck up your gut and go prove yourself!"
Lance's mouth was hanging open in revulsion. Submissively he brought his hand down around the handle, but he didn't close it, as if it were too hot to touch.
"Take it!" his father ordered.
The boy's hand closed around Clandread and Alistair let go. The sword sung toward the ground before Lance lifted it back up.
"This is awful," he mumbled. "She helped us. She healed you!"
"Maybe," Alistair growled. "What will she do when she learns we really did kill her daughter? Think there'll be much helping and healing then?"
"She doesn't know!"
"Maybe, maybe not, boy. She has to find out eventually, you know it. You will have to fight her eventually, you know it." He sat back and folded his arms. "So, will it be now, on your own terms, or will it be later, when she's chasing you down like a chicken, decked out in vengeance? Which would you prefer?"
"I can't do it," Lance mumbled. "I won't."
"Then you are a weakling and a coward," his father gnarled.
Lance looked at the blade for a moment then lowered it down to his father. "If you want this so much, you do it."
Alistair shook his head. "I'm sorry, son," he said. "I have a little problem." He touched his legs. "Besides, this is all for you. Prove it to yourself."
"But...!" Lance couldnt speak. "She was so..." He looked at the sword. "Can't we at least wait to see if she means us any harm, even?"
"Wait?" his father said. "Remember I told you about the black dragon?"
His son was staring at the sword. "But she was so...!" was the sort of thing he was saying. "She was just so!"
"So stupid for helping us," his father finished. "Go, Lance, you shrimp! Do it now."
Lance shook his head.
The boy took one step toward the deep tunnel, holding the sword to his chest like a teddy bear. He moaned.
"Father," he said quietly. "I have to tell you something."
"Go!" the man snapped. Lance started.
"No, please! This isnt like it"
"You," Alistair barked, pointing a finger at Lances face, "are only stalling, boy!"
Lance backed into the fire-lit tunnel. His face darkened as the light from outside ceased falling on it. He faced his father timidly.
Lance disappeared into the tunnel.
Sighing and leaning back, Alistair heard his son's footsteps echo from the tunnel entrance. They were hurried at first but they quickly slowed down... The boy stopped, started walking... stopped again.
There was silence.
Something that sounded like a brief snicker.
Then there was a loud roar. Alistair heard the blade crash against a rock. There were footsteps everywhere. Lance grunted and the blade hit another rock.
Suddenly a fierce growl came out from the tunnel. Alistair sat up tensely. He heard the blade hit one more rock and thenLance screamed. It lasted only a second, and then it was cut off abruptly.
Alistair drew his body up. He saw another shadow in the light coming from the cave. He heard the footsteps coming closer... They sounded too long and drawn-out to be human. The shadow got taller... and taller...
Then the form came into view.
Alistair laughed heartily. "My son!" he roared. "I knew you could do it!"
Lance didn't smile. His eyes were bloodshot and he limped. There was a bad gash in one of his legs. His clothing was sprayed with blood, and Clandread was positively dripping with the vile liquid. He held the sword like it would stab him next.
Alistair opened his arms. "Come here!" he cried. "My son!"
Lance didn't move. He only breathed painfully, rubbing his leg.
"Lance?" Alistair called. "Come here!"
"You should have seen her," the figure mumbled, his voice cracking. "She was so sad..." His voice sounded subtly wetter somehow, and thicker.
"Don't go all sentimental now, son," Alistair said. "You've done it! Wipe that look off your face."
"No," Lance muttered, his eyes starting to brim. "You should have seen..." He looked off into space. "She had Zayvial's body there..." His face quivered. "She was just sitting... Looking at it..."
The man's smile shrank. "Come on, son, stop that! You know what you're doing."
"She had her hand on Zayvial's face..." Lance bit his lip.
"Now you give it up," Alistair hollered. "You should be congratulating yourself, Lance!"
"Congratulate...?" the bloody figure whispered. "For what? I did nothing! She didn't put up a fight at all, she was so sad." He looked at the ceiling, his brow moistening. "She just... let me in and... I just... she didn't put up a fight at all."
Alistair folded his arms. "You stop that, Lance," he ordered.
Lance stared at him tearfully, but there was a sudden intensity to his voice. "How do you feel about this?" he asked, and started listening very carefully.
The man paused uncertainly, then smiled. "Son, I feel very, very proud of you," he said to the ashen face. "You've proven yourself to me, and the world." He drew a deep, contented breath. "I'm extremely happy about this, Lance."
"Well, I'm not, Alistair."
And when Alistair looked again it was not Lance at all, but Robencei, holding the sword to her chest, without a tear in either of her eyes.
"Good God!" he shrieked.
"Your son tried something very stupid, Alistair," she hissed. "Seems it runs." Her rich voice rippled through the hollow chamber like an icy wind.
Alistair tried to jump off the cot and flee but he crumpled under his broken legs and collapsed on the floor. "No, please!" he cried.
"Begging?" the bright green dragon barked. "Pulling at my heartstrings now?"
The man inched away from her. "Please, don't hurt me!" His eyes were fixed on the sword.
"With this?" the dragon scoffed. "I don't need this." With that, Clandread bounced along the cave floor toward the cliff edge. It almost came to a balance on its point at the lip, then it tipped and plummeted away.
"Can we now, mother?" asked a voice from behind Robencei. She moved out of the way and a young, dark green dragon came out of the tunnel.
"You!" Alistair screamed. "I can't... You were...!" He coughed on his own words. "I killed you!" he shrieked.
"Nice try," Zayvial smirked, rearing up to reveal a tiny scar on her chest.
The man goggled, pushing his body ever closer to the edge of the cliff. "But you... How could...?"
Robencei gave a little shrug. "Basic healing spells," she said. "The first thing you learn." She stepped toward the man threateningly. "What have you learned today, Alistair?"
"No, stay away!" he felt the edge of the cliff with his fingers. Had he cared to look, hed have seen the last dragon coming out to stand behind Zayvial. He may have even recognized him. But he didnt look.
Robencei approached the man alarmingly slowly. "Dont suppose youd like to voice any regrets?" she said.
"Stay away," the man quavered.
"Any regrets?" the emerald dragon asked again. "Any at all?"
Breathing hard, Alistair saw the air below him. Then he forced a scowl onto his face. "You killed him," he groaned. "I wish your daughter was dead. I hope you"
"Mother, can we now?" Zayvial asked impatiently.
Robencei turned and smiled at her daughter warmly.
Somewhere below the mountain, on a little grassy hill, a tiny white daisy with a blithe yellow heart bloomed complacently. From up above wafted a hideous, gurgling sound. It died out quickly, though, and the daisy, having noted it, returned to its business.
Copyright by Eric Hopkins. Not to be reprinted for sale of any sort without permission of the author.