Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 30
Stories
Sojourn for Ephah
by Marina Lostetter
Dragonslayer
by Nathaniel Lee
Write What You Want
by Eric James Stone
Constance's Mask
by Nick T. Chan
The Last God-Killer
by Grá Linnaea & Dave Raines
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Shaken to the Bone
by David Lubar
Orson Scott Card - Sneak Preview
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Dragonslayer
    by Nathaniel Lee

Dragonslayer
Artwork by Anna Repp

The door creaked open, spilling smoke and sullen firelight out into the darkness. The slender youth, blondish and pock-marked, slipped inside. After a moment, the flow of conversation resumed, a constant undercurrent of sound. This inn - the Sheps Hedde - was a popular stop along the King's Highway, standing at the conflux of three major roads and supporting side businesses and a half-dozen cottages with the steady flow of custom.

Handel, the barman, tucked a pair of half-pennies into the pouch at his waist and turned to regard the boy as he approached. The young man had the look of a servant of some kind, though he wore no livery or sigil. Clean and healthy, at least, if a bit old for squiring or apprenticeship.

"Yuh?" Handel said by way of greeting.

The boy blinked pale green eyes at him, the color of mown grass. "My master, Sir Timor, requires lodging for the night. He begs a small room and four stalls in the barn." With a clink, the boy set down a golden sovereign on the bar. Handel tried not to choke; the coin was enough to rent every room in the ramshackle two-story building.

"He has a fair . . . a fair few horses, eh?" Handel's voice was unsteady, but his hands made the coin disappear with barely a whisper of motion.

The boy shrugged. "Don't get too excited. You'll probably need the extra coin for the repairs." He headed for the door again. "I'll get him settled, and then I'll come back for his meal. Get some vegetables in it; I'm sick to death of meat."

"Wait!" Handel had accommodated a few Knights and would-be Lords in his day, and this was not going according to the pattern. "He's staying in the barn?"

"It's an oath. Very important." The boy met Handel's gaze with a painstakingly guileless expression. "He doesn't like to be disturbed. There's another full sovereign in the morning if you can find us a spare sheep. A good plump one, for preference." The boy blinked. "Burnt offerings to the Lord, you know."

Handel coughed. "I think something can be arranged," he said in a strangled voice. "Er . . . who should the boy ask for when he comes out?"

"Call me Draco," the youth said and departed back into the night.

"You did that very well," Sir Timor said as Draco led the horse inside. His basso growl of a voice drew answering cries from around the barn. The other animals had all gone half-mad with fright at Sir Timor's presence, but the white warhorse - dubbed Ransom - was by now used to the reptilian musk that filled the air around the dragon, and he submitted to a rubdown and grooming with his usual good manners, knowing there was a hopper of sweet hay for him at the end of it.

"You heard?" Draco asked. "From out here?"

"Predators have keen senses, as a rule," Timor sighed. He lay down in his enclosure, having removed the interior walls of four stalls, and rested his head on his forelimbs. "You play the part nicely. Where did you learn that tone of voice? I could almost hear the sneer in it."

"Oh, you know. Observation. You pick things up." Draco bent to his task, Ransom's glossy hide almost swallowing his voice. "The money does the talking, really."

"Interesting name you chose for yourself."

Timor coughed, sending wisps of straw flying on his sulfurous breath.

"Yes, sir. It seemed appropriate."

"As I have taken your name, so you take on mine?"

"Something like that, sir."

There was a rumbling growl that Draco only belatedly realized was a chuckle.

"You needn't be so timid . . . Draco," said Timor, moving to pluck up his gear and begin his nightly ritual of polishing and cleaning his sword and armor. The implements looked like table utensils in his massive claws. "I'm hardly going to exact bloody revenge on my own squire, am I?"

"Don't know, sir. Never been a squire before."

"Nor have I been a knight. We are learning together, ha?" Timor held up one of his shields and peered down his snout at the mirror finish. He had quite a collection, most of them cracked and warped from heat, and he wore them on a harness across his back, like horse armor. With the care of a jeweler, Timor pinched a handful of straw between his foreclaws - each themselves as long as a dagger - and rubbed at a spot of tarnish.

Draco shuffled his feet. "Sure you don't want me to do that, sir? I'm fairly certain that the squire is supposed to clean the knight's armor."

Timor snorted - more laughter that set the chickens roosting overhead to a shrill frenzy - and moved to examine his sword. "I prefer to do it myself, for now. It is all so unfamiliar to me. But you are a good lad for offering. I knew it when I first met you: you have good blood. I can smell it." The nictitating membranes flicked across Timor's eyes as his slit pupils widened. Draco had learned to be wary of that expression; it was very much like the look in a cat's eyes when it was debating whether to go for the dangling string or the hand holding it.

"I don't know what you mean, sir," Draco said, moving to the other side of Ransom to fuss at the saddle. "My family has been farming that land since my great-grandfather's days. The closest any of us came to noble blood was when my Aunt Magarat was took to be a lady's maid."

"Ha! Good blood isn't a matter of breeding, boy. It's something you have, not something you inherit. Believe me, if there's one thing I know, it's blood." Timor dropped despondently back to the floor, shaking the whole building. "Likely it's all I'll ever know," he muttered. Timor's softest voice could still rattle windows in their panes.

Draco glanced around for structural damage, but the barn seemed steady. "I should head back inside. You'll be okay out here?"

"Take the gold, perhaps? It would be safer inside, yes?" Timor flicked his tail at the two massive leather satchels; remnants of his hoard, like the shields.

Draco raised an eyebrow. "Safer inside a den of thieves with a four-stone teenager than hidden in a barn with a dragon guarding it?" He tugged at one of the straps experimentally. "I don't know that I could even lift it all, honestly."

"Oh, very well." Timor sounded almost petulant. "It grates on me. I can feel it there, and it wakens all the old urges. To gather, to hoard, to clutch and keep, to carry down to the darkest and most secret places . . ." His tail began to lash back and forth as he spoke. Draco hastened to find a way to avert the dragon's growing agitation.

"Like my Da and his bottle," Draco said. "D'you know, he stopped for years when my sister was born. Kept a bottle the whole time, but left the cork in and set it on a high shelf in the pantry. It gathered dust and not one fingerprint, right up until the weeping sickness came and took Angelica, along with half the village. Wasn't too long after that that he passed, too, and . . . well . . ."

"And we embarked on our noble quest, yes. I recall." Timor's head rose to a proud angle on his serpentine neck. "You have wisdom beyond your years, boy. Draco! I shall have to remember that. Yes, the gold is a burden, but it is also a test. A test of my devotion! I'll embrace it, then, in that spirit."

"But not literally."

"Right! Yes, the gold will stay in its bags, safe but emphatically un-coveted. Well-spoken, lad; well-spoken indeed." The dragon curled himself up in his oversized stall and blew a smoke-ring of contentment. "I'm feeling more knightly all the time. Hair shirts and mortification, ha?"

"Yes, sir." Draco wondered briefly what Timor was talking about, but decided it was better to leave his mercurial master while he was on an upswing. "Good night."

"Good evening, Squire Draco. And tomorrow, our journey truly begins!"

The food at the Sheps Hedde was passable, and the bed far softer than the moldy pallets Draco had grown up on. He only realized he'd overslept when he opened his eyes to a piercing sunbeam and a hesitant knocking at the door.

"M'lord . . . Draco?"

Draco cracked open the door of his tiny room - a room all to himself, too! - and grunted sleepily. The tow-headed innkeeper's boy stood nervously outside.

"Sir Timor calls for you, m'lord. He said to rouse you if you were slugabed, and to remind you that Sloth is a deadly sin." The boy cringed, as if expecting a blow. Draco gave him a half-penny and shut the door before the shock wore off. After a quick splash of water from the basin and a brief visit with the thundermug, Draco tugged on his overshirt and belted it in place as he bounded down the stairs, his boots still loose on his feet. He skidded to a halt at the inn's door, propped open now for the morning custom. Men, women, and children bustled about in all directions: travelers, merchants, farmers, and tradesmen, all busy with their own concerns. None of them paid any mind to what Draco thought ought to have been a rather mind-boggling sight.

Timor was outside, in his ersatz knightly regalia. His harness of shields rattled along his flanks; his sword dangled like gimcrack jewelry from the upper half of his left forelimb; the breastplate he'd hammered into a crude helm bobbled ridiculously atop his horns and feathery mane. He was leading Ransom for a morning trot around the yard with his tail tangled in the reins, and he was engaged in a very earnest discussion with a grubby older man who looked to be a farmer. The farmer, like all the other people in the yard, didn't seem to notice that his conversational partner was an enormous fire-breathing lizard, fully thirty feet from nose to tail-tip, but the young sheep the farmer held on a short halter assuredly did; the poor animal was straining backwards with all of its might, held firm by the farmer's practiced hand.

"Ho, Draco!" said Timor, lifting a foreclaw in greeting. "Goodman Brown here has brought us our morning sheep. Don't you think two sovereigns was a bit much to offer?"

Draco stepped forward, giving the farmer a penetrating stare. Goodman Brown returned the look with pursed lips and raised eyebrows, completely unfazed by Draco's disapproval. "I'm sorry, sir," said Draco, unwilling to cause a scene. If Timor lost his temper in the midst of all these innocents . . . "I thought it might increase the urgency our local benefactors felt if the reward was high."

"Well, no harm done, no harm done. I'm happy to support the local agricultural base. Farms are the backbone of our kingdom's wealth, for what good is gold if you cannot eat?" Timor gestured to the oversized saddle bags. "Pay the man, Draco."

Draco sidled around Timor's bulk and loosened the belts holding the bags shut, careful not to reveal the full extent of the wealth inside. He slid his hand under the flap and retrieved two small gold coins, which he offered to Goodman Brown. The farmer's eyebrows had nearly disappeared under his hat, but he took the money without comment. Draco noticed that a large amount of the hustle and bustle had gone quiet as every man and woman in the yard stared at the bags. Draco could almost hear the furious calculations, like the buzzing of a hive of bees. He sighed.

"They can't see a dragon right in front of them, but they can see gold through three layers of leather, wood, and metal," Draco muttered.

"Whassat?" said Goodman Brown. "A dragon?"

"Yes," Timor interrupted, snaking his head between them and shooting Draco a reproachful look. "We are on a quest, you see. We heard there was a marauding dragon nearby?"

Goodman Brown rubbed at the back of his head. "Not around here, no. I heard tell of some sort o' trouble up the river, nigh Brytheton. A fire, or some such. Coulda been a dragon, I s'pose."

"Excellent!" said Timor. "Then we must be off. No time to waste, not while people are in trouble. At the very least, we can help the victims of the tragedy to rebuild."

"Doubt it," said Goodman Brown. "Mostly they's dead."

Timor's tail and feathery ruff drooped, and Draco hastened to gather Ransom's reins before the horse took advantage of his sudden freedom. "Then we will help the widows and orphans," he said firmly. "Sir Timor?"

"What? Oh. Yes." The dragon was still gazing fretfully into the middle distance.

Draco sighed again, then moved to lift the bags of gold one at a time onto the horse's back with many a grunt and gasp. Ransom cast a resentful glare over his shoulder, unhappy at having his pleasant trot interrupted. "Good people!" Draco called, his voice strained from the effort - even that tiny fraction of Timor's old hoard was literally more gold than he could lift at once. "Sir Timor the Great-heart has a quest that takes him far away. He leaves now, but he thanks you for your kindness and hospitality. May you all live long and blessed lives!" He waved and then tugged on Ransom's reins until the horse grudgingly moved forward. "Farewell!" He coughed. "Sir Timor?"

The pageantry had revived the dragon's spirits somewhat. "Yes. We are off to slay the fell beast that plagues your countrymen! Go in peace, all of you!" He waved cheerfully. His wings fluttered and flapped like pennants, but he did not fly; he had not flown, in fact, since that fateful day he had first landed in Timor's village and struck a bargain with a luckless farm boy.

The knight and his squire strode away from the inn and toward Destiny. Several pairs of eyes watched them go. No one seemed to notice the platter-sized markings of dragon claws in the mud of the yard, and they were quickly obliterated by the passage of many feet.

The journey along the river was pleasant, especially compared to their hot and dusty trudge to reach the inn. This road was not so well used, and the water nearby cooled the air, providing a pleasant gurgling accompaniment as they walked. Timor talked constantly, recounting stories of bold knights and chivalry and feats of daring - sometimes with commentary about the inaccurate details they contained regarding the habits of the slain monsters - while Draco walked mostly in silence.

As they passed a small pasture, Timor's tail lashed excitedly, knocking over a portion of the fence. He didn't notice. His body did not fit entirely on the roadway, and every step crushed flowers and grass and, in one case, some poor farmer's crops. He didn't notice that, either.

Draco wondered if it was inherent in the dragon's nature to cause destruction; the beast seemed sincere in his perverse desire to become a knight, and even so he had yet to pass a man-made structure that he had not somehow damaged.

Perhaps there is a sign in that, Draco reflected, and a lesson for us all not to try and change our stripes. He realized abruptly that Timor had turned his head and was staring at Draco expectantly with his luminous eyes.

"I'm sorry, master. What did you ask me?"

Timor snorted, sending out wisps of steam (and incidentally killing a blackberry vine that crept up the fence beside them.) "I asked if you knew the specifics of receiving a knighthood. It's hereditary, is it not?"

"Not sure, sir," said Draco. "I think the king has to give it to you first."

"I had thought . . . ah, never mind. I know so little of knighthood."

Draco mulled that thought for a time. "How did you decide to become a knight, then, sir? If I may ask?"

"There was a man," said Sir Timor, "who came to fight me, once upon a time. I was bored and well-satiated, so I challenged him to a riddle contest instead - we dragons do love riddles, you understand, hiding the name of a thing, hedging it with secrets. It's quite as addictive as hoarding gold. He answered my opener - I like to lob an easy one out first, though I think now that the egg riddle is a bit too popular - and then he asked me a question I could not answer. A question about honor, and the purpose of life, and what it was to be a knight. I thought for a day and a night, straight through, and he stood there in his armor, never moving. At last I had to concede. I had never pondered what I was, nor what I meant in the world that such men opposed me. He told me then about the burden and the duty, the oaths and the striving. It was . . . a revelation. Then, having won the riddle contest, the knight was of course entitled to a boon." Timor fell silent for long enough that Draco dared another question.

"Did he ask for your oath? Is that why you swore to become a knight and a champion of good, for the debt you owed?"

"Hmm? No, no. He only asked for knowledge in return. I made the decision to become a knight after our . . . conversation. He gave me his armor, you know. Said he wouldn't need it any longer." Timor tapped at a shield on his right flank with his tail tip, ringing it like a bell. It was painted matte black, with no emblem. "This is his."

"What did he want to know?"

"He asked what it was to be a dragon," said Timor.

"And what is it," Draco asked carefully, "to be a dragon?"

Timor sighed. "Much, much less than I had ever realized before. I have been alive for a very long time, Draco, and I have done a great many things. I wish that I could be proud of even one of them before I pass from this world entirely."

They walked on in silence.

By the time they arrived in Brytheton, Draco was riding the horse, despite his protests. Draco wasn't an expert on knighthood, but he was fairly certain that squires did not ride warhorses. Timor had pointed out - with unusual tact and decorum - that he could hardly ride the creatures himself, and Draco's feet were blistering after a day trying to keep up with Timor's yards-long strides.

The town was clearly in the utmost distress. Half the buildings had been caved in, as if by a giant fist, and several of those had obviously burned recently, as they were still black and smoldering. The air stank of mingled dung, damp, and rot, and the harsh tinge of smoke overlay it all. The people huddled in the houses that remained, eyeing the newcomers with haunted expressions.

Timor led Ransom the horse and his wide-eyed squire to the central square, a muddy patch with a central well, the whole clearing barely large enough to contain the dragon's bulk. Draco noticed, with some lingering light-headedness, that the dragon had wended his way between several houses without breaking anything.

"Was it a dragon?" Draco asked quietly.

"I've never seen it from this end," Timor muttered as softly as he could muster, "but the signs are all here."

Draco slid from Ransom's back, wincing slightly as his feet hit the ground once more and thanking his lucky stars that Timor's gold had bought him some solid new boots instead of just straw-stuffed wraps. He led the sweating animal to the communal trough and set about working the pump handle to draw up water from the well below.

"Good people of Brytheton!" Timor called, his voice booming like thunder. Draco jumped, but Ransom affected not to notice. "I am Sir Timor the Bold. I have heard of your plight, and I have come to assist you in ridding the land of the devilish beast that plagues your home. Where is your lord or mayor, that I might offer my services to him?"

There was a brief scuffle in one of the larger buildings, and a door opened to disgorge a bedraggled man in a red cloth cap. He stumbled as he emerged, as though shoved from behind. He coughed and strode forward, stopping at what would have been a safe and respectful distance from an armed man; this put him almost directly beneath Timor's snout.

"Yes?" said Timor, lowering his head and cocking one eye at the man. "Are you the mayor here?"

"No, m'Lord." The man doffed his cap, revealing a thinning head of scraggly black hair. "Name's Gumption. Used to work alongside the mayor. Fetch and carry and suchlike, and mindin' his concerns when he was away up t'manor house to talk civic business."

"And where is the mayor?"

Draco hobbled to the edge of the watering trough and perched, taking some of his weight off of his stinging feet. He caught a glimpse of something pale behind the town's tiny church; long, white forms, stacked like cordwood.

Gumption swallowed. "He rode out with his Lordship. Last week, 'twas." The man lifted a hand and pointed to a distant hill, just visible through the trees that surrounded the hamlet. "They never came back, and the next morning, that happened."

Timor twisted his head around like an owl, then whuffed in displeasure. Wisps of steam escaped his nostrils. Draco craned his neck to see.

On the top of the hill was the wreckage of what looked to have been a fine house once, a grand and opulent manor. The local lord had had, it seemed, a wealthy and prosperous patronage. The house was now little more than a smoking crater, tumbledown and burned to ash.

"Me and the Whitfields went out to see a few days later," Gumption went on, twisting his cap in his hands as though wringing the words from its fabric. "We brung back what we could find. Truth be told, I couldn't say with a sureness whether any o' them was the mayor or not."

Timor ducked his head, almost touching the murky ground with his chin. "Do you know where the beast lairs, then?"

"Not direct, m'lord . . ." Gumption hesitated.

"I've seen it!"

Draco dragged his eyes from the bodies behind the church to see a young girl in a dirty smock struggle out of the same building Gumption had come from. She looked to be perhaps seven years old. A clutching hand failed to hold its grip on her collar, and she wriggled free, running forward.

"Lessa," Gumption sighed, rolling his eyes heavenward.

"I did!" Lessa bounded up and stared Timor in the eye. "I was up t'house when the dragon came and took Lady Elsibeth away! It took us all as was in the carriage house, but it dropped me when we got close. I'm good at escaping," she added proudly. "I saw where it landed, and I found my way home again after. I can show you."

Draco perked up, but Timor shook his head, setting his shields rattling. "No. We cannot put any other lives at risk, especially one so young and . . . innocent." Timor's nostrils flared, and Draco recalled the traditional offering of virginal girls to dragons.

"Could you draw us a map?" Draco asked.

"I don't know how," said Lessa, turning her penetrating gaze to him.

"What if I helped and you just told me how far?"

"Dunno. It was a long ways. I can walk it again, easy, though."

"Is there no one else who has seen the lair?" Timor asked, turning back to Gumption, who looked stricken.

"No, m'lord," he whispered, unwilling to lie to a nobleman, or to what he believed to be a nobleman. "We've got guesses, but there's nigh a dozen miles of deep forest to search, and any number of caves once you're in the hills. She's the only one."

"I will search, then, if it takes me weeks or months," said Timor firmly.

"The dragon comes every night," Lessa put in.

"We won't last another week, m'lord, truth be known," said Gumption. "We were all just now discussing where we could flee to, now that the Viscount and all the soldiers is dead."

"The quicker we find the dragon, the sooner we can end it," Draco put in. "If the girl can help us do so more quickly, well, you'd have your heroic deed." He left unspoken Timor's hopes to gain a knighthood from the doing of said deed; no reason anyone else had to know their savior wasn't actually a knight. They didn't seem to notice that he wasn't human, after all.

"Just . . . keep her safe, if you can, m'lord," said Gumption, hanging his head. "Our boy was in the raiding party."

Timor hesitated, caught between pragmatism and romantic notions. Draco surreptitiously kicked his master in the scaly flank; what danger could the girl be in with a dragon of her own to guard her?

"She will be as safe with me as if she were in a fortress," Timor said. He jabbed Draco with his tail tip; it could be surprisingly accurate, when he wanted it to be.

"Huzzah! We're going to slay the dragon!" Lessa grinned, a savage joy in her eyes, matched by her father's despair.

Draco rubbed the bruise on his arm. "Sir Timor is the survivor of over a dozen battles with dragons," he assured Gumption. This news seemed to revive the man's flagging spirits.

"You've killed so many?" he asked, looking up.

Timor coughed, sending forth a sulfurous smoke ring that wreathed Gumption's shining face. "I can assure you with the utmost certainty that the dragon who dwelled in the last lair I visited will never terrorize that area again."

Timor insisted on burying the dead before they left in the morning. With his massive claws and the soft earth near the river, he had deep if somewhat ragged holes dug out in a matter of minutes. There was a lot of blinking and shaking of heads among the townsfolk as their minds tried to process what they thought they were seeing, but no one mentioned anything untoward about the rapidity of the "knight's" excavations, and Draco and Timor stood at the rear of the crowd with bowed heads while the priest intoned a short burial rite.

Lessa was rather discomfitingly anxious to get underway, and so Timor begged off a half-hearted offer of breakfast with the claim of not wishing to abuse the town's largesse, already so visibly strained.

Lessa led the way into the woods, followed by Draco, leading Ransom by the reins, and Timor bringing up the rear, shouldering branches aside and rumbling with displeasure when they caught on his delicate wing membranes. Draco kept between his two companions on the grounds that the town had had no spare farm animals to feed Timor. As hunting deer with a self-grounded dragon seemed as likely as kicking a rock and discovering a freshwater spring, Timor's hunger had therefore gone unassuaged, and Draco didn't like the way Timor's nostrils kept flaring when he glanced in Lessa's direction.

The mild discomfort of walking in the trees seemed to damp down Timor's usual prattle, at least, and they proceeded without any sound other than the crunching of leaves, the puffing of breath, and the snap of branches.

"So how did you come t'have a pet dragon?" Lessa asked, so casually that it took Draco a moment to realize what she had said.

"What?" He coughed. "What dragon? There's no dragon. Who said there was a dragon?"

Lessa glanced behind them, leaning to the side to catch a good view of Timor, who was gnawing at a particularly troublesome branch that had caught in his shield harness. Her hair dangled nearly to the leaf-littered ground. "Timor is a dragon."

Draco flushed, as he usually did when caught in a lie. "Sir Timor is a knight, and I am his squire. We're here to slay the dragon. Perhaps that is what confused you," he said, layering his voice with the strongest hints he could.

"No," Lessa shook her head, "he's a dragon. You're the knight. How come you're hiding? Is it 'cause you don't want anyone to know how you beat the other dragons?"

Timor chuckled as he caught up to the two young humans, his head hovering between their shoulders. "She has keen eyes," he said. "She sees things as they are, much as you do. It's a rare enough talent among humans, who mostly see what they want to see. The only rarer gift is to see things as they should be."

"Isn't that the same thing?" asked Draco, distracted despite himself.

"It depends." Timor's tail rippled in his version of a shrug.

"On what?"

"On who's doing the seeing."

Draco glared down at Lessa. "Aren't you bothered to travel with a dragon? I thought a dragon was terrorizing your village."

"I am a dragon no more," Timor interjected. "Now I am a knight."

Lessa looked up at Timor, who returned her gaze stoically. "He's not a bad dragon. He can be a knight if he wants," she said in a tone that suggested the matter was settled.

Putting images of Timor's past meals out of his mind, Draco managed a smile. "I suppose that makes as much sense as anything. Er, don't talk about this too much; I don't think anyone will be happier knowing Timor is a dragon."

"Nobody ever listens to me anyway," said Lessa happily.

As they walked, the woods seemed to become darker and colder, the scent of rotting leaves growing to an overpowering miasma. The ground sloped uphill, and the trees sprouted thinner and thinner in the increasingly rocky soil. They passed a ravine where a hidden stream, heard but unseen, trickled beneath overhanging growth, and Lessa directed them to follow the water up to its source. They emerged on a shelf of rock, thrusting up and out of the woods. They could see nothing but a sea of green and brown stretching away, with only a distant wisp of smoke marking the hill with the manor house on it.

"Quite a trek," said Draco, puffing.

Timor heaved himself out of the foliage with a grunt and a snapping of twigs. "Dragons keep a large territory, much as human lords do."

"We're almost there," Lessa said. "Quit whining."

She pointed along the slope, where the thin soil gave out and a crevasse opened in the rock, a few bony, stunted trees clinging to the edges of the defile. "It's down there. I fell on the bushes when we were coming in."

There was, indeed, a clutch of prickly growths near the mouth of the crevice, where the land was otherwise bare of anything but dead and dying clumps of weeds. They had waxy leaves and brightly colored berries that looked poisonous. The slope opened up quickly, the walls of the ravine splitting apart as though cleaved by an axe; even Timor could have fit through it without difficulty, so long as he kept his wings furled.

"I always thought it would be more like an eagle's eyrie," said Draco. "To fly out of, you know?"

"There are dragons and then there are dragons, I suppose," said Timor, holding himself tense.

A scream shattered the hush that had fallen over them. Lessa clapped her hands to her ears, and Draco half-expected the leaves of the trees around them to shudder. The scream cut off abruptly.

"That was Lady Elsibeth!"

"Come, Draco! To battle!" Timor reached across and tugged his sword out of its sheath on his arm. It looked like a table knife in his foreclaw. He plunged into the trees with a crackling of dry wood.

"Wouldn't it be faster to fly to that clearing?" Draco called, struggling to pull his sword from Ransom's packs.

"Knights don't have wings," Lessa told him.

"Stay here," Draco ordered, yanking the sword free with a rasp. "Hold Ransom. He's very polite, but don't drop the reins and don't stand too close. Understand?"

Lessa shrugged and nodded.

Draco handed over the reins and rushed after Timor, following the path carved into the undergrowth.

After a chaotic tumble through falling branches and trees still rebounding from the force of the dragon's passage, Draco skidded to a halt in the weak sunlight of late afternoon to see one of the oddest sights yet in a life that had recently begun to include some odd sights indeed.

Timor stood on his hind legs, slightly unsteady and with his wings half-unfurled for balance. He leveled his comically small sword in a fair imitation of a swordsman at ready to begin a fencing match. Sauntering out of the cave mouth, dwarfed by both the dark maw of the earth and by his reptilian opponent, was a slender man with short black hair and pale skin. The newcomer was clean-shaven, clad in a simple black tunic and trousers, his feet bare on the rough stones. At first, Draco thought him to be wearing red gloves, but then the man lifted one finger to his mouth and slowly, almost lasciviously, sucked it clean.

Blood. The man's arms and hands were covered to the elbow in blood.

"So it's you," the man said. "How amusing." He did not sound amused. He seemed blandly unsurprised to see Timor, who tensed and leveled his sword.

"I am Sir Timor the Bold, and I have come to vanquish the vile wyrm that plagues these hills." Timor flourished his blade in a salute, wobbling only slightly as his balance shifted.

The dark man glanced at Draco, who nearly stumbled at the physical impact of his gaze. The man's eyes were lambent gold and slit-pupiled, a tiny echo of Timor's own platter-sized orbs, but they were still somehow as pitch-dark and empty as the cave behind him. "Brought a snack for the ride home, have we? Just as well. I'd offer you some of my own, but I've just used up the last of it."

From the shadows behind him came a soft gurgling sigh. It was not repeated.

The dark man smiled, and Draco felt his legs go numb.

Timor charged, a battle cry on his lips, his ridiculous sword flashing as brightly as his scales. He was a massive being, several tons of angry muscle, heavily armored. He should have crushed the dark man like Draco crushed a beetle, snapped the man up like he had swallowed so many sheep, calves, and goats.

But he didn't.

The dark man lifted his arm and met the downrushing sword almost casually. There was a terrible ringing sound, and Timor was flung back. The dark man tossed aside the sword, which clattered against the wall of the crevice, then took one heavy step forward. His foot crashed down like thunder, kicking up dust and dirt in clouds. Shadows like clawed wings flickered in the air, and wind roared out of the cave, the stinking breath of a dying god. Timor went flying as though he weighed no more than a leaf. On the edge of the effect, Draco was pressed against the scrubby trees as if held by ropes. Timor landed heavily atop the same bushes that had saved Lessa's life. One wing snapped with a hollow crunching sound, and Timor keened in pain.

"You thought you were the only one who had learned?" sneered the dark man, advancing slowly up the rubble and scree in front of his cave. "You thought that you could take from me and lose nothing in return? Idiot." He reached the fallen dragon-knight and looked down. "I gave you rules and laws, bindings and limits, all the trappings that weighed me down. Do you know what I took to replace them?" He lifted his bare foot and slammed it down onto Timor's forearm. Another crack, like the taproot of an ancient tree parting; another inhuman shriek from Timor.

"I took strength."

Slam.

"I took freedom."

Slam.

"I took power." The dark man hauled back and kicked Timor in the chin. The dragon flipped up into the air like a catapult's arm and toppled backwards with a rush. The shockwave of the impact blew Draco's hair out of his face. Timor's eyes fluttered, and he hauled himself partially upright.

"Timor!" Draco called.

The dragon looked up.

"Here!" Draco flung his sword, end over end. Timor plucked it from the air and rooted it in the ground, using it as a cane to stand with.

The dark man spared a sneer for Draco. "Tossing aside your only weapon? How . . . chivalrous." He rushed forward, bare feet pounding the dirt, leaving claw-toed craters behind.

Timor met the charge with a swing of his borrowed sword, striking a glancing blow on the dark man's side. It was enough to alter the man's deadly trajectory. His grasping hands reached Timor's other wing instead of his throat. It tore away like a sail in a hurricane. Timor hissed as his thick blood spattered down.

"Idiots," the dark man said again. He raised his right arm, and behind it another hand lifted, a translucent form, half-present, tipped with razor claws. It plunged down. Draco saw a bare human hand scrape harmlessly across dragonhide. He saw a shadowed claw pass through Timor's flesh and strike something dark and shining within. Timor made no sound, teetering on three limbs, his wings ragged and useless.

An eerie, ululating cry came from beyond the lip of the crevice. Draco and the dark man stared upward in mutual incomprehension.

A white warhorse leapt into view, weighted with heavy saddlebags on either side. Lessa clung to the saddle, the front half of a lance gripped in her arms. The long haft hung out over Ransom's hindquarters, slapping them rhythmically with his stride and likely accounting for his unusual speed. The dark man had only a split second to stare in bafflement before the horse landed on him with all four hooves. They tumbled, man, girl, and horse, in a heap. Draco rushed forward to help, certain that he would find all three necks snapped, but scrambled into a backpedal when the dark man reared up, lifting Ransom overhead with both arms. The horse squealed. The broken lance dangled from the dark man's shoulder. Grunting, he hurled the horse away. Ransom landed on his side, panting, and did not try to rise.

Lessa remained on the ground, unmoving. The dark man turned toward her, his back to Draco. Blood dripped from his fingers, and the shadow of the dragon loomed large around him.

With a raw scream, Draco flung himself onto the dark man's back. He felt a shiver as he did, as though he passed through a cold lake's surface, but the black tunic was warm when he landed. The dark man cried out in surprise. Draco grasped the broken haft of the lance and twisted, eliciting a hiss of pain. Then a pale hand like a vise clamped onto Draco's shoulder and squeezed until the youth released his grip, gasping. Draco's senses blurred as he felt himself tossed through the air. His breath rushed out of him as he hit the rocky wall of the crevice and slid to the earth.

Heavy steps approached him, and he struggled to inhale enough air to keep the black tunnel from closing around the edges of his vision.

The dark man wrenched the lance out of his shoulder. No blood followed it. The tunic itself was whole and unmarred.

Draco's hands scrabbled for purchase and he clawed a slow path sideways, away from his approaching death, crab-walking on the stony soil.

"You want to kill me?" the dark man said. He tossed the broken wood aside. He crouched down, his eyes boiling around the wide pupils, his breath reeking like an open sewage pit. "I am fire and death incarnate. You are a pathetic worm, a crawling toady to that abomination that thinks it's a man." He flicked a negligent hand at Timor's fallen bulk. "He couldn't kill me, and you can't either."

Draco's hand found a dented hilt, buried in fallen rocks and dirt. Timor's sword, notched and bent from the first blow the fallen knight had deflected.

The dark man didn't notice. His eyes were wide, but he was looking past Draco, to someplace far inside himself. "You can't kill a legend. You can't kill fear. You can't kill nightmares and terror and the stories whispered in the darkness around the dying campfire. I am myth, now. I am eternal!"

Draco licked his lips. "There's one thing I can kill," he said.

The burning eyes flickered, focused, and Draco felt the weight of that terrible gaze beginning again.

"I can kill a monster," said Draco, and swung the sword.

Not at the dark man; at the space overhead, where a slender, serpentine neck would end in a goatish head and a frilled mane of feathery scales, where the blood would pulse in veins protected only by the soft skin of a birdlike throat. Draco had rested a hand on that very spot so many times now, walking beside Sir Timor on the long roads they'd trodden together. The sword, blunted by the abuse it had taken, bit home nonetheless, and Draco felt the hot blood rain invisibly down.

The dark man staggered upright. He took one step forward and reached out a pallid hand, then stopped. He stared at his fingers as if he'd never seen them before. "I had it. I held it; it was mine. It is mine. I am fire . . . and darkness . . ." he said.

And then he died.

Draco buried the dark man and built a cross from the broken lance, tied with strips torn from his own tunic. A dead dragon. A knight's grave. Everyone would know what had happened here when they stumbled upon the scene. And they would be wrong, but not entirely. He left the dead from the manor house in the cave; the villagers could come for them, and it was better they should be buried by those who knew and loved them. Besides, Ransom was laid up with a split hoof and couldn't pull much weight, if any. Lessa was breathing, shallow but steady, covered in dark bruises. Draco wasn't much for injuries or medicine, but he had hope that she would recover.

Sir Timor - the dragon, now - was another matter.

Draco perched in front of the dragon's head for a long time, curled up with his hands around his knees. The dragon wasn't Timor anymore; Draco's birth-name had returned to him with the dragon's death. He'd felt it settle upon him; a mantle, or a shroud. It didn't fit quite right anymore. He'd have to decide what to do with it: keep it or hide it or give it away. He knew now how to do all of those things. He wanted to tell the dragon that he'd finally learned some of those lessons, wanted to thank the dragon for everything, however coincidental the events or unwilling his cooperation had been. The words wouldn't come.

Behind him, Lessa coughed. Draco stood quickly, suddenly wanting to ensure this moment remained private. He reached out with the dented sword, dusty and scratched and unstained with any visible blood. Once on the right, then the left, then the right again.

"Sir Timor," said Draco, "who slew the dragon. May your soul find rest."

He plunged the sword into the dirt. Then he went to tend the injured and carry them home again. He left the sword standing in the stony ground.

Eventually, it rusted away.


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