“I heard she’s eaten all her children,” one said, “and that she doesn’t make any distinction between you and one of her kids.”
“First off, it’s definitely a he, and-
“Why does it have to be a he? You’ve never seen her,” one of the few girls at the table said with a knowing smile, to laughter and murmurs alike.
The interrupted boy continued.
“and he, she, whatever, doesn’t even let you see it until you’re right in the middle of it’s jaws” he made an up and down motion with his cupped hands. Most of the tavern laughed. “And then that’s when you realize that the tongue isn’t a tongue… it’s a giant worm, right up in there! That’s what really gets you.”
“Der, both I and your mum know you haven’t stepped fifty paces out of the village, much less made the half day journey! Why don’t we hear from someone who has? Saug, where’s Boll? He should’ve been back from the rite three days ago.”
A dull clank resounded throughout the tavern. The voices stopped and a man walked from the bar to the dull light of the table.
“I bet you all think this is fun, right? Don’t you? A real crucible to make men out of all of you?”
Saug couldn’t tell his age real well, even in the golden orange light of the tavern. He could’ve been twenty-five or fifty-five. He continued:
“You can’t even begin to tell its gender— that’s not what you’re worried about. You’re worried that it’ll take your head off clean some hundred paces away. It’s fast. You’re worried that it’ll cook you down to your britches with one burst of flame from its maw.”
The man walked past the table towards the door. One of the youths motioned to him as he left and spoke.
“His head’s no good… most people come back. Slightly singed, but they come back. Mostly.”
Great, Saug thought. He brushed his hands through his thick black hair and thought of what he knew for sure about the dragon. It wasn’t much, but it beat yesterday’s training session with his counselor.
“Remember, Saug-boy, you’ll want to get one of its skin-plates… this should do the trick.” The smith handed Saug a large wrought-iron spear. Saug could barely hold it up straight. “Um, thank you,” he said, feeling that the smith ignored the difference in strength between himself and Saug. “Did it help you?”
“Well, unfortunately Jus the smithy here got a bit closer than he would’ve liked, so the spear didn’t come in much handy. Had to take out a short sword and swing to high heaven.”
“Were you scared?”
“Of course. You should be scared. That’s how you get out of there alive.”
“Has anyone died?”
“No one that I know of. But there have been dragons to face since time immemorial, so there’s bound to have been a handful from our, uh, humble village.”
Saug paused. He waited for the smith to elaborate on this statement. He didn’t.
“Yup, nice good long spear. Should suit you well.”
I’ll bet, Saug thought.
The dragon bread had failed to provide further comfort for Saug and it lay half-eaten on his plate. Saug picked it apart absently, trying to ease himself. A bunch of village youths crowded around him, with not quite the same intention.
“Tomorrow, Saug! You scared yet?”
Saug smiled. “Frankly, I’m not sure what I should be scared of.”
“I heard that it’s part of the hillside, all made out of rock and wood,” said one.
“My dad said each of its scales is a little beetle that helps it track prey.” Then another.
“She— and I do mean she— can shift her shape to become a stone, or flower, or wagon wheel, and then she strikes when you least expect it!”
“Saug, Boll’s dead.”
The loaf of dragon bread Saug had been picking apart fell to the floor.
“He drowned in the river.”
Saug ran out the door and towards the river.
The river divided one third of the houses found in the village from the rest of the village, not by plan but geographical necessity. Most of the village necessities, however, tended to be on the two-thirds side. When making the daily trip from one side to the other, inevitably accidents happened. Saug, however, felt that this was no accident. Boll lived on the close side of the river and had no reason to make the crossing. A crowd had assembled around what looked to be a crumpled body lying on the bank of the river. Saug heard frenetic murmurs than at once, a sputter- the voices gasped and stopped.
The crumpled figure jerked up and down. His chest rose.
Saug ran over to his side.
Green fluid seeped out from Boll’s nostrils and was splattered all over his face and upper torso. It smelled funny and familiar. Boll was moving, but slightly and strangely controlled. Saug hadn’t seen just-almost-drowned people start to breathe this regularly before. Boll’s hands clasped the drawstrings of his rucksack.
The crowd was cheering lightly and Boll was taking in his apparent first breaths of air since the incident. Saug went over to him and patted him on the shoulder.
“You alright there, Boll-buddy?”
Boll seemed remarkably composed for someone who had almost drowned less than a mile from where he’d been born. “I need to show you something.”
Boll’s hands went loose and unknit the rucksack. He pulled something out and put it in Saug’s hands. “I think I got it,” Boll said.
Saug looked down and saw polished nails of ivory attached to what felt like tree bark. He scratched a bit. Red paint lined the insides of Saug’s fingernails. Correction, Saug thought, tree bark painted red.
“Did you kill it?”
“I think. It scratched at me and I ran off all the way back here. Gave me something, too.” Boll pointed to the green fluid covering his face.
Saug’s finger rubbed across Boll’s cheek.
“Is that what this is?”
Saug brought his finger to his mouth. The dragon sickness tasted like wine. Emerald wine.
Boll grabbed the collar of Saug’s tunic and brought him close.
“It’s dead, Saug. Even if it wasn’t I wouldn’t wish the sickness it gave me on my worst enemy.”
Saug could tell he was acting. Why would Boll go to such lengths?
“Boll, I’m glad to see that neither the dragon nor the local river could put an end to you. I really am. That being said, I think I’ll take my chances. It is tradition, after all.”
“I’m sure it is, Boll-buddy. But I have to get to bed so I can get up bright and early to see it for myself. Good night.”
By that point, Boll’s father had made his way over and attended to his son. The murmurs of the assembled crowd reached a crescendo as they discovered what Boll had brought back.
“He killed it! Boll killed the dragon!”
“I knew it! A red dragon!”
“No, it should be bigger than this! How big was it, Boll?”
As the excitement faded Saug walked back to his home and saw that a note was tacked on the door. It was from the smith.
“Dear candidate Saug,
Tomorrow is the day. Just go on past the lord’s manor and make sure the orchids are on your right. Left on the way home. Remember everything I’ve taught you. Watch out for snakes, too. That’s about it.
Succinct, just as Saug was expecting. For all of his expertise in smithing, Saug felt Jus hadn’t particularly taught him much worthwhile, or elaborated more on the exact do-how of the trial. Perhaps that’s the trial itself, Saug thought.
Saug went to sleep and dreamt of the dragon.
Saug was beginning to get sick of orchids on his right. He couldn’t wait for the return journey when the accursed flowers would be on his left.
The land had drifted from the verdant green and winding rivers of the hills surrounding the village into rolling shapes of grey and tan. One of the younger villagers had said that the dragon regularly set out in the surrounding area to scorch the ground beneath it simply for its own sick amusement.
Saug wasn’t sure if he’d doubt that now.
He had started his journey when dawn had just woken from its sleep and the sun was nearing the top of the world. He should be close.
The trail appeared to slowly descend into a bowl shape, high atop a cliffs edge that jutted out into a small inlet. The coast appeared calm and inviting. Opposite the entrance to the coast was a cave.
That must be it, Saug thought. He walked a few paces farther, making sure to be ready any sign of movement. He readied the blade Jus had given him. The bowl came closer into view- and the dragon’s scales decorated the ground.
Could it be?
Explosion wasn’t one of the dragon’s abilities, at least according to village rumors, but this looked to be the scene presented before Saug. He walked over to the close edge of the bowl and picked up one of the scales.
It looked just like any of those that had being brought home by previous undertakers of the trial. Smooth, triangular, and with a distinct bronze-green hue.
Saug turned his head. He heard splashing.
The dragon was coming out of the water.
Saug’s heart shot out of his chest and he hurried to the nearest form of cover, nearly dropping his blade in the process. A bush sheltered his form as he slowly turned his head to eye the dragon.
The dragon was skinny. Far skinnier than the hulking brute described by tale after tale, not as towering as last season’s candidate made it seem. Its mouth seemed brittle, small, and cast in a strange frown, unlikely to hold either an army of longswords or a live snake instead of a tongue. The tail was not the purging river that could knock over a mountainside with one stray swing, but rather appeared to hang on for dear life. The dragon walked with a distinct limp and with a strange blue-grey aberration where the missing scales would have been found some time ago. It looked like it was going to fall over at any second.
In short, it looked sick.
It started to wheeze- and then to Saug’s surprise, speak.
“I know you’re there, man-being.”
Saug felt like he was listening to the oldest person in the world talking. He didn’t respond, but the oldest person in the world kept talking.
“You’ve come, as they've all come before. For ages. When I was young, you came to test your strength. I let you go, out of pity.”
The dragon slinked over slowly to Saug’s position. Saug figured it was no use hiding, and slowly walked down the bowl, making sure to keep his distance.
Soon he found himself directly facing the dragon. The first thing he noticed were the eyebrows.
The dragon had eyebrows.
Why had no one said anything about this? Saug chuckled. It really was the oldest person in the world. At least, it looked and sounded like him. The dragon continued to speak.
“When I grew old, still your people came. When I grew sick, still they came, and stole my lost skin without even daring to look at me.”
Saug looked into the dragon’s eyes. No one had mentioned anything about this. He had eyes that seemed no different from Jus, or Boll, or father.
“I thought to tell you people to fear me, in hopes that they would be deterred. They were not.”
That explains it, Saug thought. Why the rumors were getting increasingly far-fetched. He decided to speak.
“Why didn’t you just tell us to leave you alone? That you weren’t a monster, that you weren’t a trophy or spoil of war?”
The dragon sighed.
“Your people don’t like to be told otherwise of what they crave- adventure, treasure, glory. It would only compel them further.”
Made sense, Saug thought.
There was silence for a few moments. One of the dragon’s scales fell off, clinking on the ground.
“Well,” Saug said. “What now?”
The dragon grunted and walked towards the cave. Saug followed.
It was dark. A brief burst of flame came out of the dragon’s mouth, lighting up the rest of the cave. Saug laughed. At least that part’s true, he thought.
A small person on all fours paced back and forth at the end of the cave.
It was a dragon cub.
“I’ve been protecting my kin for far too long,” the dragon said. “If this sickness persists I will not be here next season. But she will,” he said as he turned to the dragon cub. Saug turned to look with the dragon. She kept circling back and forth around something. What was it?
The dragon cub slowly sat down behind some kind of weird colored rock. Saug walked into the cave close enough to see. The rock looked like a piece was broken off. The dragon cub started breathing heavily, followed by a low whine. The dragon behind Saug sighed, and the boy looked back. It was only then obvious just how old the dragon’s human eyes were.
Saug walked closer to the two dragon cubs. I know where the piece that broke off is, Saug thought. Dammit, Boll.
“Hey,” Saug said. He wasn’t sure what to say to a grieving dragon cub, or how to make sense of dragon coping mechanisms. The dragon cub looked up at Saug with watery and new eyes. “It’s going to be alright, okay?” He put his hand forward. The cub was reluctant, then she nudged her nose against it. It was a start.
The dragon’s voice came from behind Saug. “Three days ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Saug said.
“He was her brother,” the dragon said.
The dragon was silent and Saug didn’t know what to say. Unless I can think of an absolutely insane rumor, Saug thought, they’ll keep coming back. Unless I fake an even worse “sickness” than what Boll came down with, no one will be convinced. Boll after Boll will come back, looking for a trophy to bring home.
She’ll end up like her brother.
I’ll need to force myself to throw up every day for the next few weeks—no, that won’t work. It’d have to be on the hour. And there has to be live animals in my vomit. Too unbelievable otherwise.
It might be time to keep moving, Saug thought. No one’s been missing for a while. Maybe it’s time someone did- or, y’know, possibly died. It’s a pretty ferocious dragon.
“You fine traveling?” Saug asked the dragon cub. Her eyes were less watery and she seemed to respond to the inflection in Saug’s voice. She got up on all fours. They walked to the mouth of the cave.
“Better on the road than sitting in this cave,” the dragon said, and a brief smile flashed over its face. At least Saug thought it was a smile.
The next morning the dragon cub and Saug walked out of the
cave together. The dragon walked down to the coast and dipped itself in the water.
Saug and the dragon cub walked on away from the water.
The orchids were still on Saug’s right, but truthfully he didn’t mind too much.
©September, 2015 Reid Perkins
Reid Perkins is a new writer from Virginia. His work has not previously been published.