Of Blood and Fire

by

David Alan Jones




"How many times have you made the Loop?" asked Kelysen.

"More'n I could count. Been trading from Cross Over back here to Brandy Pine for close on ten years now."

They sat in the common room of a slant-house inn situated above the Balanth's Blade river. Dusk had passed away into a clear and bitter-cold nightfall that drove the townsfolk to their homes and cast the room in dancing pallid shadows. Shadows the vampire Kelysen used to his advantage.

Brandy Pine, like many villages this far west, was small and peopled with farming families, river fishers, and lone trapmen who harvested the thick surrounding forests for skins. Few people traveled the north roads leading to Cross Over, Bluff, and Fair Bluff during winter, which accounted for the few guests at the town's only inn. Besides Kelysen and the merchant, there was one other couple, a man and his lady wife, seated at a table in the far corner.

She smelled of a spiced perfume rich with lilac; he of a peach powder so popular among lesser lords these days. They chatted in low voices about their only son who had wed the Duke of Vanceth's third niece several nights ago. Kelysen might have taken more interest in them had it not been for the fat merchant he'd found just after dusk, breathing hard from climbing the inn's stairs, with food and ale on his little mind.

Kelysen lifted his wineglass to his mouth, let the noxious pink liquid brush his upper lip, then placed it back on the table. It was an insufferable charade, but kept the innkeeper quiet. Kel waved the young serving girl to their table.

"More ale for my friend," he said when the ashen-skinned girl came near.

"Very good," she said, "and will m'lord be having more wine?"

"No. Only ale and anything my good friend here might wish to eat."

The merchant smiled, revealing a mouthful of yellow and brown teeth.

"Most kind of you sir. It isn't often you meet a person with charity in his heart on this road, 'specially this late in the winter." He turned to the serving girl. "A bowl of that stew I smell cooking and whatever bread you have that's not molded."

The girl nodded and looked to Kel who dropped four gold draggets on the table. Her eyes widened as she reached for the proffered money. Kelysen's hand moved faster. He took her by the wrist and held her fast, staring into her eyes, holding her gaze as surly as he did her body. The girl blanched, but couldn't look away.

"These should keep the ale flowing for the night I think," said Kel, his voice a whisper.

The girl watched Kelysen's pale gray eyes, her tongue working in her mouth though no sound came forth. After a moment he released her and she hurried off to the kitchens, tucking the coins into her apron pocket.

The fat merchant seemed not to notice the exchange. He slurped down the remainder of his ale from a heavy pewter tankard and slammed it down on the table, empty . It was his fifth so far since Kelysen invited him to table.

"You were saying you've made the Loop many times," said Kel, "Aren't you afraid of the dragon?"

"Bah, her ladyship doesn't care a whit about merchants going by. The barons here and up at Cross Over have a long standing pact with her. The red bitch loves horseflesh, you see, for gods know what reason, so every three months each town sends a boy to lead a nice stallion up to her lair. In return for the horse meat she don't bother people on the Loop. 'Course most people go the long way up past Fair Bluff, pact or no pact. It's the feeling you get up there on Mount Bryson, like something's looking down on ya, waiting to make a meal of ya. But I don't mind it; keeps my competition down."

"Then she doesn't hunt the mountain?"

"I've never seen her. A few of the old timers say they seen her once or twice, but them's mostly stories I think. I expect that old red hasn't stirred out of her gods bleeding hole in many a year, 'cept to eat horse meat that is."

"Two horses every three months? Seems a pitiful diet for a dragon," said Kelysen. "Especially one so large as the stories make Stynaserian."

The serving girl arrived with another tankard of ale, a bowl of steaming stew, and plate of fresh bread covered in melted butter, all stacked on a tray. She placed them on the table and hurried away without a word or look for either man.

Once she was gone, the fat merchant took up his wooden spoon and began shoveling stew, thick with animal fat, into his mouth. When he spoke the viscous fluid dribbled down his chin in brown rivulets, dropping onto his gray travel shirt. Kelysen did his level best not to sneer.

"It's said that dragons eat little, 'specially in their old age. Mostly they just sleep away their days, for months at a time, or so I've heard. And the Red Queen on Bryson is old to be sure. Can't say as I know all that much about lifetimes 'o dragons, but she crushed ole King Bryson's castle, and his gods bleeding army, near eight hundred years ago. From what the bards sing she was the biggest red any man had ever seen at the time." The merchant swilled a long draught of ale and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his cloak. "I expect eight hundred and more is old for any living thing."

Kel touched the wine to his pink lips then held his goblet before him so that the fire light passed through, changing it from pink to red. He swirled it and watched the wine ripple. Yes, eight hundred years was indeed old for any living thing.

"And the Red never harms the boys they send to deliver the horses?"

The merchant shrugged, "Not that I've heard tale of. I expect she's smart enough to know that would break the deal, or maybe she has no taste for man flesh."

Kelysen grinned, feigning embarrassment and said, "Sorry for all the questions. It's just that I've never been so close to a dragon. I know all the tales of Stynaserian. I could name each knight that sought to slay her over the last thousand years and how they died."

"They each died the same, lad, badly. And no bother for the questions. Seems every young man I meet on this road asks me about the dragon. I think all young men dream of seeing her in the flesh. But it's a fool's wish. Old men like me have the wisdom to leave her ladyship alone, else we wouldn't have lived to be old men." The fat merchant slapped his belly and chuckled.

Kel smiled and fingered his wineglass. "Are you spending the night at the inn?" he asked.

The merchant dropped his wooden spoon on the table and took up the bowl in one meaty hand. "Aye," he said, then turned the bowl up over his mouth, sucking the last bit of stew from it. When he had finished, he dropped it on the table and belched.

Kelysen placed his wine goblet on the table as well, forcing a deadpan expression. Wasn't he sometimes messy with his own meals? Perhaps he could be extend a bit of professional courtesy to the repugnant merchant, at least for the nonce.

"How many horses did you say you had for the trip round the Loop to Cross Over?" he asked.

"Six. Four for the wagon and two for trade," the merchant picked at a swollen red sore on his fleshy jowl. "Were you interested in buying a mount?"

"Yes. Mine took lame several days ago and I've been stranded in this little river town ever since. I'm afraid I'm getting desperate to leave. I've seen enough slant-houses and waterwheels to last me a good long while." Kelysen grinned and watched the merchant's eyes.

The fat man chuckled, heavy snorts that issued from his ample belly. "I know that feeling. You seem a city-bred lord if I haven't lost my touch for marking young men. I should think these little hamlets a bore to you. But horseflesh isn't cheap this close to the Keltair mountains, what with winter coming on full now."

Kelysen nodded, an expression of regret on his pale face.

"I thought to have an adventure, traveling along Balanth's Blade from Lord Kellan's manor in Elmswood. But it's turned into a near calamity. I was forced to leave my favorite saddle in the woods some leagues away and kill my poor chestnut. Luckily, I was still following the river and it led me here."

"Lucky indeed," said the merchant, "There's many a wild animal in these mountain woods, not to mention wild men. A finely dressed lad such as yourself would be a plum target for the river brigands round this part of the Loop."

"I thank the gods small and great," said Kelysen, raising his glass in toast.

"Indeed," said the merchant who raised his fresh tankard and took a long draught.

"Would you be willing to show me the mounts you have for sale?" asked Kelysen.

"Why certainly. Shall we meet at sunrise, then?"

"I would be most grateful if you would show me now. I have no wish to stay another night in this hovel. I'd prefer the open road."

"It's a might cold and dark for traveling don't you think m'lord?" said the merchant. "And besides, I haggle better by morning light."

Kelysen nodded to the now half-empty tankard, "The ale should keep you warm, to be certain. And the stew."

The fat merchant smiled, but there was no kindness in the expression.

"Charity and bribery walk a close path, my father used to say," he drained the last of the ale and rose. "My horses are next door in that stinking pit they call a stable. Shall we have a look, my lord?"

They descended a rickety stair leading to the banks of the river called Balanth's Blade. The merchant picked his way slowly in the darkness, feeling for every step with the toe of his boot lest he slip upon the thin, white crust of ice coating each plank. Kelysen followed him in silence, sure-footed in the icy darkness.

Further inland from the tavern, whose back end rested upon thick poles set in the river, stood a long, low building made of thin boards which served as the town stables. The silver moon, called Brenner, after the goddess of love and family and healing, shone out of a clear sky, catching the clapboard stables in a cone of milky-white light, revealing to Kelysen its rickety walls and thatched roof.

The merchant was right, Kelysen could smell the musty scent of horse flesh and moldering horse manure from the inn's stair. As they approached the little building it became almost overwhelming. The fat man drew a kerchief from his britches pocket. By the sight of the yellowed material, Kel wondered if it could smell any better than molding horse shit.

The merchant entered a side door on the eastern face of the long building. He led Kelysen amongst the stalls of horses who whickered and tossed their heads when they caught sight of the two men in the darkness.

"No guard?" asked Kelysen.

"Bah, in a little hamlet like this?" asked the fat man. He stopped in front of a stall and gestured towards a young gelding who whickered a greeting to the man. "This is my best. Had 'im since he was a colt. Took a saddle the first day with nary a buck. His sire was owned by Prince Brallenor of Denholm, who only allowed him to stud three times. You are looking at the third of the studs, and the strongest I'd say."

Kelysen regarded the horse for a moment. It was strong as the merchant said, but not worthy of a prince nor even a baron of low birth. It was full grown and not much taller than a pony.

"A fine bit of horseflesh," he said.

The fat man smiled in the dark. Kelysen could feel the heat from his body as the merchant began to warm to his trade. It floated in the steam coming from his mouth and coursed through the pulsating veins in the merchant's meaty neck and face.

"Here is another fine mount. Not so young and strong as the gelding there, but we can't all be royalty." He petted a speckled gray paint on the nose. The mare moved forward, eager to be rubbed.

"What of your drafts?" asked Kelysen.

"The other four?" The merchant turned to face Kel, who was merely a deeper shadow against the back wall.

"Aye, and your wagon. Where is that?"

"Why would you want to know that."

Kelysen stepped forward. His pale gray eyes flashing in the darkness.

"I would know," he said.

"My wagon is hitched in the back. The drafts are those we passed as we came in." The merchant stepped back from Kelysen, as if he could hide behind the mare's head. As an afterthought he added, "I hired a man to sleep in it, under the tarp. Paid him well to guard."

"Did you? That was very smart. There are all kinds of thieves about."

The fat merchant swallowed and said, "If you want to buy one of these horses I'd be glad to make a deal of it for ya, seeing as how you lost your mount and all." His skin was white in the darkness and his hand upon the mare's neck trembled.

Kelysen moved closer, stepping out of the semidarkness into a cone of silver moonlight passing through gaps in the ramshackle roof. The merchant could not look away from those pale gray eyes. They shone in the darkness like twin stars.

"Go, pay your man what you offered, then order him away. Hitch the wagon and make ready to depart."

The fat merchant moved to obey without further comment.

They drove north along a dual-tracked path mostly grown over with black briers and wild grass, the merchant's strong gelding and old paint tied to the back of the wagon. No signs marked the way and they passed no villages, nor homes of any kind. The Loop wended its way ever upward across Mount Bryson through thick forest. Miles passed away with only the sound of the wagon, and the soft clop of hooves. The drafts pulled with their heads down, steam rising from their mouths. The merchant did little in way of guiding them or urging them onward. He sat silent beside Kelysen, reins held firm in his large hands, swaying with the gentle movement of the cart, his eyes never leaving the road.

The silver moon passed overhead, clear and bright and small. As it disappeared behind the canopy of firs and stark gray oaks lining the road, it's larger twin, the red moon, Nyssor, mounted the heavens. Kelysen watched it rise above the canopy, a crimson orb hung low over the world. Upon the center of its face, black and mottled, was the wound of a meteor strike. The scorched crater formed a perfect circle of burned rock that gave it the appearance of a huge red eye passing through the cloudless night.

It was named for the Night Lord, Nyssor, bringer of death, sickness, and rot. Nyssor, Kelysen's only master. The only god he had ever served in nearly nine centuries of life.

Yes my lord, watch me this night. The strength I gain shall be for your glory.

Hunger gnawed at Kelysen's mind. It wasn't the ancient hunger for food in his belly, which he had known as a young man so many years ago, but the relentless tug of a want so immediate that he likened it to the undertow of the ocean. He felt it all the more as Nyssor rose directly overhead. Its red light shone down on the forest, tinting the darkness a pale crimson as if every tree, every leaf, dripped warm, succulent blood. From the corner of his eye Kelysen watched the merchant and willed himself to sit still as stone. It wouldn't do to kill the man, not yet. If the Red Queen sensed anything, Kelysen hoped it would be the fat man, and horseflesh. And besides, Kel needed the hunger tonight. It was sharp as a razor's edge and it made his senses just as sharp. He hadn't taken blood in three nights and the ache was palpable in his breast.

"Tell me when we are closest to Bryson's castle," said Kel.

The fat merchant nodded. "Not long now."

Another mile passed away and Kelysen noticed that the night sounds had ceased. He could sense no animals in this part of the wood where before the forest had been befouled with the stink of deer, wolf, lynx, and rabbit. But here there were no smells; none save that of pine and dead leaves. The night air was quiet and black.

The fat merchant reined to a stop. His horses whickered, stamping their hooves and tossing their heads. Steam rose from their flared nostrils.

"We're 'bout level with the castle ruins now," said the fat man, "If''n' you should travel cross-country through the wood, due west, you'll happen upon it." He didn't look at Kelysen, but watched his horses and minded the reins.

Kel dropped from the wagon and untied the gelding. At first the young horse snorted, his ears flattened back, and made as if to bite, but Kelysen snatched up the halter and looked the animal in the eye. After a moment the gelding settled and followed Kel to the front of the wagon.

"How many miles west?" asked Kel, looking up to the fat merchant.

"Only about one or two I'd say, though I never ventured out there 'afore." He glanced at Kel, then looked away into the forest.

Kelysen placed a gloved hand on the merchant's arm. The fat man stared into Kel's gray eyes, a look of terror passing over his face.

"Please let me go home to my wife."

Kel could see her in his mind. A fat and ugly woman who had filled the man's house with seven children. But though he considered her ugly, the merchant loved her for her kindness and her gentle way.

"Remember nothing," whispered Kelysen, holding the man's stare.

The merchant gave his horses rein and the wagon rolled away, creaking and groaning, the sound almost offensive to the night's silence.

Kelysen placed one cold hand on the gelding's forehead, touching its bestial mind, calming it.

He led the horse into the forest, whispering a silent prayer to his god that the dragon would be sleeping when he arrived. If not, he must convince her that the gelding was her peace offering from one of the neighboring townships though the appointed date was still weeks away. With any luck her hunger would outweigh her curiosity.

Thick undergrowth and layers of dead leaves grabbed at Kel's boots, but could not slow his steady progress. Nyssor's great, red eye hung low over the forest, as if his dark majesty were intrigued with Kel's plans. Its red glow might have done little for a man in the depths of the forest, but it revealed much for Kelysen's preternatural eyes. He followed the star called Juda's Hammer, a blue-white speck in the sky, due west, weaving in and out of gnarled trees. After several minutes Kelysen saw a clearing ahead, bathed in crimson light.

The gelding snorted and reared, kicking out his fore-hooves, his brown eyes rolling.

"Quiet beast," whispered Kel. He raised a gloved hand and the horse stilled, though he remained skittish. Kelysen lashed him to a nearby oak, making certain the knot was tight, then headed for the tree line.

Across the clearing, which was long and wide as a wheat field, he could see the tumbled down remains of an ancient wall, with the rubble of other stone edifices beyond. Portions of the wall remained, several ancient parapets loomed in the moonlight, but most of the wall was in ruin.

No trees grew near the wall. The earth was scorched for many yards in a long, sweeping arc. The ground was bare dirt and ash, with only a few fire-blackened trunks and scorched boulders dotting the expanse.

Kelysen crossed the burnt land faster than the human eye could have seen, his leather boots barely touching ground, and raising small puffs of dust. But there were no human eyes to see; no living thing save the trees and Kel's horse. He wondered if even ghosts remained.

Kelysen stopped and crouched in the shadow of an arched entrance, only half of which remained standing. Beyond this lay stone rubble heaped against a bare face of mountain granite. In the center of the debris Kel saw a huge cave entrance, large enough to admit a pirate's galley, masts and all.

In the bat of a fly's wing he stood leaning against the hard granite just outside the cave. Heat wafted from the opening, bearing with it the smell of sulfur. Underlying the sulfurous smell was another scent, something Kelysen had never experienced. It was a living smell, something akin to that of the great lizards he'd once seen on the Jevian Islands, beasts that tore men apart in packs like wolves. Yet this scent was keener, more compelling than that of the lizards. It seemed to call to Kelysen, to the hunger that swelled in the center of his being.

Inside, the cave was pitch dark. Kel's powerful eyes cut through the inky blackness, revealing a tunnel that didn't narrow as it led away from the entrance. It went on straight for hundreds of yards into the darkness, dropping in a gradual slant. Kelysen followed the cave wall, taking measured steps, his every sense keen for any hint of danger.

As he made his way deeper into the mountain, Kelysen noticed there were no sounds of bats overhead or the skittering noise of insects along the cave floor. The silence was broken only by a deep, sibilant sound echoing through the darkness from far ahead. It rose and fell, rose and fell like the sound of a giant bellows. Kelysen listened for a moment, then followed the sound, his leather boots silent on the cave floor. He rounded a slight bend and saw a flame flicker for several seconds then die. A circular patch of the cave floor, directly below the flame, glowed orange from the heat. This weak light revealed a massive forelimb; a clawed reptilian hand large as a mountain pony and bejeweled with bright crimson scales. He squinted into the darkness and could just discern the double arches of a snout, each nostril large and round as an apple.

Nyssor was with him, the red beast slept. For several moments Kelysen stood still in the blistering hot cave, watching the huge dragon slumber. She was larger than he had imagined; at least sixty feet snout to tip of tail. Membranous wings, colored black and gray, folded down from just above her forelimbs to wrap around her back, which was tipped with large, bony spikes. One long horn, crimson to match her scales, protruded from the dragon's head like the ramming beak of a ship. With each exhalation, a gout of flame flickered from Stynaserian's nostrils, licking the stone beneath her head.

Then, slow as winter coming, Kelysen drew forward, step over step, following the contours of the cave wall as far from the dim, orange light as possible. His eyes traced the curves of her form, noting the way each scale fit into the next, like links in a fine chain. They were the red of fall leaves, shiny as if wet, shaped like thousands of plates stacked one atop the next. They looked thinner than the steel plate men wore to battle, but Kelysen knew they were stronger.

At first he thought his trip might have been wasted. Her armor was perfect, not a scratch, not a blemish shone on her crimson coat. But after a moment he began to notice some irregularities in the scales. Some were smaller than others and not just on her limbs and near her eyes. On her left side, near the jut of her belly, were several scales shaped the same as the rest, but miniature in comparison. Still they left no gap, but Kelysen could see where the red had suffered a wound and the scales had grown back misshapen. He moved closer, feeling the heat off her flank, and searched for more.

One such spot was on the red's long neck. Several crimson scales were missing. Kelysen could see gray flesh framed by older scales, some of which still bore the telltale marks of a claw. She had fought other dragons at some point, probably years before she lay claim to Mount Bryson, and wore the scars of her battles. Kelysen shuddered to think what became of her enemy.

As he gazed at the sleeping dragon, at the soft gray flesh exposed to the cave's air, the hunger came on him, stronger than before. Kelysen felt the ache in his breast that always preceded his feeding. His throat was so very dry. The blood was there before him, more than he could ever stand to take. It called him, white hot, and fresh. It compelled him to drink.

His lips parted, revealing white fangs, long with the hunger. Kel moved forward with a quietness only the dead can attain. The hunger drove his every move, urging him to act quickly, but he resisted. He hadn't come this far to end up burning like a living brazier. Tentative as a deer taking food from a hunter's hand, he laid a hand on her red scales. Heat radiated through his gloves, warming his ice-cold fingers. It was like holding his hands over flame. Kel pressed his lips to the gray flesh, which was soft as a maiden's breast. The bare flesh was so hot he feared at first it might ignite his lips, but the feel of it was too inviting for him to flinch away. He pushed forward, lost to the heat. Blood scent tickled his nose masking all other senses. With a soft pop only he could hear, Kelysen's fangs broke through the tender flesh. And then came the blood.

The fount of fire-hot blood filled Kelysen's mouth like molten honey; filled his mouth, his throat, his mind and soul. He was caught up in it like an insect trapped in scalding hot molasses. It tasted somewhat like human blood, only more metallic, heavy with iron, and saltier. Kel was never sloppy when he drank, but the thick liquid ran down his chin, driven in powerful gushes by a heart many times larger than any man's. He could hear it beating now, not just with his ears, but in his mind. Its sound was like slow, rolling thunder drowning out the sounds of the dragon's breath and her flames licking stone.

At first he feared the dragon might awaken, but then that fear passed away, replaced by the blood and the heat. They filled him like a pitcher, quenching the hunger as it had never been quenched. His heart fluttered in his chest, it too burning like cinders. Even his fingers and toes, ever cold as ice, tingled as the sweet warmth poured through him.

Once, as a child, before that whore who called herself his mother had left him, he'd been playing Sword and King with several other boys behind the brothel. An older boy, Thomar was his name, said he knew of some hot springs up the mountain path. His mother was apt to stay the night in the brothel with little care for her son's whereabouts or safety, so Kelysen agreed to the trip without hesitation.

The water bubbled up, yellow with sulfur, belching heat and that foul smell from several shallow wells. The boys stripped and eased themselves slowly into one of the larger pools. It was almost unbearable at first. Kel had grimaced, biting his lips to avoid yelping in pain. Once in, they lay very still in the bubbling water watching first the silver moon then its red twin mount the starry heavens. Kel found that, so long as he remained perfectly still, the water didn't burn. He floated in it, lost to the sensation of pleasure bordering pain, thinking that if he could, he would stay there for eternity. The night's cold couldn't touch him, and for the first time in his life darkness held no fear. There were no forest sounds; no sound of the other boys chatting. There was only the blessed heat, and the sweet steam filling his lungs like a water skin.

Kelysen, the boy, had awoken from pleasant dreams of warm, embracing darkness, and realized he was weak. The heat made his limbs heavy and his head dim. He pulled himself from the pool, his naked body steaming in the cold night air, and fell gasping in the dirt. He lay there half the night, the other boys long away to their homes in the little valley hamlet. When he opened his eyes to gray morning light, Kelysen found himself naked and dirty. He wanted very much to dip back into the pool, to let the heat wash him clean again, but something told him it would be the end of him -- it would kill him as surely as jumping off a cliff or drinking poison. He left the steaming pools to go stand by the brothel door and await his mother, the exquisite heat nothing but a memory.

The dragon's blood was like that sulfur spring. It enveloped him, washing away the night, the cave, the long lonely years of blood and the stench of death. He drank and drank, more blood than he had ever consumed even on his busiest nights in the back alleys of Selerous and Felgrane.

At last he could take no more. He lifted his head from the bloody flesh and found himself dizzy, a feeling he hadn't experienced in hundreds of years. Kelysen stumbled backward against the granite wall and slid to the floor, steam rising from his skin. He watched it swirl up into the darkness, like wispy clouds on a windy night.

He tried to rise, but his arms were too heavy. Morning had come, he could feel it, though no sunlight penetrated Stynaserian's lair. He must rise, he must run, but he couldn't. Kelysen lay in the darkness, his eyes closed, listening to the Red Queen's steady breathing. The pleasant heat burned in Kel's chest, urging him to sleep, assuring him that all was well. He was safe, enfolded in the warm darkness. No harm would come to him.

Kelysen fought as long as he could, but finally darkness took him.

###

When he awoke nothing had changed. The dragon lay before him, sleeping in the same position. Kel sensed that the day had passed, and night returned, though he wasn't sure how many days might have come and gone.

He rose, silent as shadow, and drew a long, slow breath. A new strength flowed through Kelysen's mind and body. The fire-blood had left its mark. He heard Stynaserian's slow breath as before, but now he could number her teeth by the sound of the air passing through them. He could hear her heart, and the sound of her blood gushing in a steady rhythm through her veins. Kel reached out with his mind and touched the fearful thoughts of the gelding lashed to a tree outside the dragon's lair. He was hungry and thirsty. He wondered when the cold master would return and give him sup.

But Kelysen could reach far beyond the mountain fastness. He bent his mind across the leagues to a small village called Cross Over. The fat merchant whose name he'd never asked was there, drunk again, this time on strong summer wine. He didn't remember why he'd made the Loop during the night, but he must have had a good reason. Perhaps he was chasing after that missing gelding.

Kelysen allowed himself a smile, but didn't laugh audibly, remembering that her ladyship lay next to him. He had no hunger for blood, it seemed the red's fire had quenched that annoyance, but he wanted to test his new strengths one by one. Brandy Pine would be a fine place for some sport and it was near to the Red Queen's lair. The thirst might not be on him now, but when it came Kelysen planned to give it more molten honey.

He started toward the mouth of the cave, picking his way in the near pitch darkness with ease.

The dragon's breathing, which had become just a background noise in the darkness, stopped, then resumed, only the inhalation was much longer than before. Kelysen flattened himself against the wall and stood motionless, his pale eyes looking back at the Red Queen.

Stynaserian raised her head on a long reptilian neck, her eyes glowing golden in the darkness. They were huge, large as Kel's own head, and they focused directly on him.

"Blood thief." Her voice was not so harsh as Kelysen might have expected. It was sonorous, but feminine.

He stood silent.

"I see you well enough, though your skin is much darker than last night," said the dragon. Red and yellow flames issued from her snout as she spoke.

Kelysen stepped away from the wall and faced her. Could she burn him faster than he could run? He didn't want to find out. Perhaps there was another way.

"You saw me?" he asked.

Her laughter shook sand from the cave's roof, though it was only a chuckle.

"Have you a name? Or shall I call you only my blood thief?"

"Kelysen."

The Red Queen hoisted herself up on mighty scaled legs, thick as ancient oaks, and strode forward. Her step was light for such a massive beast. Kel remained still, watching the dragon's eyes for any hint of an attack.

"Kelysen, what a beautiful name for a night creature." She stopped in front of him and lowered herself back down. Kel noted she was easily within striking distance. He didn't know if a dragon bite could kill him, but he was certain being chopped in half would, and one bite from her ladyship would accomplish that feat.

"Then you were awake when I --"

"Fed? Oh yes, I was very much awake. It was -- soothing in a way. Dragons often shed blood during certain, shall we say, social interactions. I was pleased with the amount you took. And quite surprised. Do most of your kind drink so much at once?"

"I wouldn't know." Kelysen felt his heart beating hard in his chest. It was a teasing mortal fear that threatened to overcome him.

"Nonetheless, it was a good amount. Even more than I'd hoped ..."

"What do you mean?"

Stynaserian's thick lips pulled back from her pointed teeth.

"How long do you think it takes for dragons to grow new scales, Kelysen?"

Heat welled in Kelysen's chest, spreading quickly to his head, feet and hands. He could feel the blood sweat on his face. The feeling was hot and pleasant, as if he were still drawing the fire-blood from the exposed gray flesh.

"I don't know," he said.

"It is long, no doubt in that. But wounds heal, even for dragons." She stretched her long neck until red and yellow flames from her snout licked at Kel's tunic. "Let me ask you another question, perhaps easier for you. How long do you think it has been since last I met one of my own kind -- in battle or otherwise?"

Kelysen understood. Perhaps he had known since before he heard the great beast stir in the darkness, but he answered anyway. He was compelled.

"Since before the fall of King Bryson, when you slew his armies and his family and took this mountain as your lair."

"Many, many years ago. Longer than you've lived perhaps?"

Kelysen shook his head, "No, but close."

Stynaserian turned her head, exposing the gash where he had fed on her exposed neck. Dried blood covered the wound, but he could smell the fresh, hot liquid just beneath the surface. His thirst returned then, mild, but insistent.

"It hurt to rip them away," said the Red Queen, "I'm afraid I may have scarred the surrounding scales a bit more than I intended, but it made the wound look convincing, didn't it?" She turned back to face him, her golden eyes finding his pale gray ones.

Kelysen swallowed, staring into those golden orbs, large as a grown man's head. His thoughts raced. He tried to flee, but his body wouldn't obey. All he knew was the hunger and those giant, golden eyes.

"Why --" his tongue stuck in his mouth and no more words came.

"There are so many delightful spells that can be cast with dragon's blood," said the dragon, her long tail swishing behind her like that of a cat. "But one aspect they all share is beguilement."

"What have you done?" he managed to whisper.

"I have chosen you, blood thief."

Kel tried to speak further, but again his words caught in his mouth as if his tongue were shackled.

"Be a good blood thief and bring me that nice, young horse you have tied up outside," said the Red Queen. "If you're good, I'll let you hunt a bit before dawn, then you must return to my little cave. I wouldn't want the sun to find you afield."

Kelysen turned on his heels and started for the cave mouth. Once outside he beheld the red eye of Nyssor cresting the canopy west of the clearing. He tried to escape, to run away as fast as his unnatural strength could carry him, but it was no use. He crossed the burnt clearing with all haste, frightening the gelding when he approached. He calmed the animal, untied it and led it toward Stynaserian's lair.

The gelding tried to bolt when it caught the scent of the dragon, but Kel pulled it down by the halter and cuffed the horse soundly on the side of its head. It fell to the stony ground, still breathing, but unconscious.

He lifted it in both arms, its weight like that of a small child to him, turned and found that the Red Queen was waiting at the cave mouth.

"You are strong from my blood, Kelysen," she said, her voice low.

He placed the gelding before her and backed away as she began to feed.

"Yes my Queen," he said, without intending to say that at all.

The red dragon swallowed an entire haunch of bloody horseflesh and regarded her new minion for a moment.

"Strength has its price, doesn't it blood thief?" she asked.

"Yes, my Queen."

THE END



2005 by David Alan Jones

David Alan Jones is an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force, husband, father of two, journalism student, and fiction writer. Between drafts of his first novel, David writes short stories ranging in genre from mainstream to sci-fi and fantasy. His work has appeared in Aphelion (among other venues), with Doyen and Ogema (Aphelion, March 2005) his most recent publication.

E-mail: David Alan Jones

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