Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Flight of the Dragon

by Tara McFadden


A loose stone slipped from beneath Auray’s moccasin and clattered from the path, striking a sharp outcropping and bouncing off into the air before plunking into the steaming hot pool some three Auray lengths below. For a moment, her heart beating like a desert grouse in fall, Auray thought she was going to follow. Plunk, into the hot spring she would go, to be boiled like morning porridge. No more Auray.

"Careful little one," Haustag said, catching her by her tunic with a powerful hand and pulling her to his side on the narrow cliff path that led from the desert plains above to the floor of the canyon that hid the hot springs. "I wouldn’t dare go back to your mother without you." He grinned at her. "I’d have to run away to the Empire and join a traveling road show as a juggler first."

Auray giggled at the thought of her stepfather dressed in gaudy clothes and bright ribbons juggling apples, his face made up with paints into a big smile like the traveling entertainers. The warrior never wore anything but his hunting leathers and he only wore paint when hunting or raiding. His fierce nose and dark eyes always made Auray think of a hawk. Her stepfather could juggle though. And smile.

"Something comes."

Auray frowned and looked around for the voice. That didn’t sound like Haustag at all. He had a nice voice, not that snaky one. "What comes?"

Her stepfather didn’t seem to hear her. "Careful little mouse. Just this one last steep bit and then we’ll be at the pool." With his right hand against the cliff wall and with his spear held tight in his left hand he nimbly led the way down, like a weasel on a log pile.

Auray wasn’t that brave, nor was she a weasel. Not wanting to find out what being a boiled Auray would feel like, she put both hands on the rock wall and edged her way down, bit by bit, small fingers grasping at rocks and cracks. Her heart was trying to climb out of her throat as she concentrated on placing each foot carefully after the other. At the bottom, Haustag reached out with his graceful hands and lifting her down the final few feet. "Well done, mouse. You’re a brave girl, like your mother."

Auray blushed. She was proud that he had taken her with him, instead of leaving her with her cousins or the old women of the tribe. Praying at the hot spring was a holy thing and magical. Embarrassed at her blush she hastily checked her tunic for tears. It was new and bright like a robin’s breast and it was the only linen shirt she’d ever owned. A gift from her mama. She had to look after it.

"Here now little mouse. I’ll make a fire pit by the edge of the pool here; see what you can find for kindling," Haustag directed, leaning his bow and spear carefully against a large black boulder and removing his pack.

Curious, now that her feet were down on solid ground, Auray looked around. She had never been to the Xetas hot spring before. It was too far out in the desert, too far from their normal hunting grounds and winter territory. Normally, children weren’t allowed at holy places. But she had seen eight summers.

It was definitely different from the deep lush valleys where the tribes made their summer camps. Not scary at all, for a magical place, only scary to get to. The path from the desert into the canyon must have been made by some nimble footed antelope, but Auray was glad she had hands and feet. The way was steep and sheer and had taken them a long time to make there way down. The little canyon itself was actually rather nice. Green things grew down here with steam from the hot spring reaching out like summer clouds to the farthest reaches of the canyon. It smelled of rotten eggs though.

Auray was amazed at the amount of water hidden in the canyon. The interconnecting hot springs filled the bottom of the canyon and lapped at the base of the rock wall where the canyon ended on her left. She could hear the burbling of the water. Old spruce trees heavy with witches beard crowded around the springs like guards their knotted roots reaching into the water and their limbs stretching over the waters. To her right the canyon was a mess of fallen boulders and low shrubs before it twisted out of sight. She saw a raspberry bush. And on the canyon wall over the springs she could see the drawings of prayers. Figures of animals and people and gods played about on the rock wall. And there was lots of deadfall for firewood. She scurried about gathering it up.

"Will the horses be all right?" she asked Haustag as she brought an armful of sticks to where he knelt near the spring, building a fire pit from the rocky shore.

"Aye. They won’t go far; and old Stonecoat knows to wait for me. He’s a smart horse. We’ll have our meal, and we’ll pray to the goddess and offer the duna to the waters for your mother. And after we’ll climb back up and catch up to the rest before nightfall."

Auray was thrilled at the idea of having a baby in the family. "And when we see mama she’ll be heavy with a baby because we offered to the goddess."

Haustag laughed. "Not quite, mouse. We’ll pray to the goddess that she will grant your mother and I a child and then we’ll soak the clay duna in the waters and take it back to your mother. She’ll sleep with it in her bedroll, and then next spring maybe there will be a baby. Perhaps with a white streak in her hair like yours." He reached out and brushed at her hair. "A dragon streak."

Auray straightened her hair and grinned in delight. "It’s because I’m from the Speaker clan. My grandmother’s mothers, mother’s, grandmother used to speak with dragons." she boasted and then got sad. "Until somebody made the dragons go away. I wish there were still dragons."

The warrior laughed again and began to lay out the fire. "No you don’t. Dragons burnt our tents and ate our people and chased all the animals away. A little mouse like you would be a quick snack. It is better that they are gone."

"But they could fly! And blow fire! And they didn’t hurt the Speakers. And they were pretty, grandma says. With bright stripes like rainbows on their scales. Are there really, really no more dragons?"

Haustag pulled his flint from his pack and began to work on the fire. "There are sand dragons. They may be all that is left of the dragons. Giant lizards that live out here in the desert, as big as a buffalo, some. It’s a sand warrior’s duty to hunt them down and kill them." He knelt to blow on a spark and fire began to grow in the tinder. Auray was impressed; she could never get a fire started that fast and sometimes not at all. Her stepfather must be the best fire starter in the tribes.

He added some of her smaller sticks to the flame. "They don’t blow flame though. But some spit venom, and that burns. Sand dragons don’t fly although I’ve seen a couple of bigger ones with bat-like wings. Too small though to do much of anything but kick up dust against you, but dangerous just the same, and they’ve got sharp teeth like a wolf and longer claws that a grizzly. That’s why we try to kill them before they get that big."

Auray felt her eyes grew wide as she rocked back on her heels, impressed anew with her stepfather. She knew Haustag was one of the greatest hunters in the tribe and a leader of the raids, but she hadn’t known he’d killed dragons. "You’re a dragon killer!"

"Dragon Killer!"

Auray squeaked in surprise as the strange voice spoke again, almost an echo in her head.

"Shhhh, mouse!" Haustag said, motioning with a hand for her to be silent. His hand straying to the long knife he wore at his belt as he looked around, the clatter of rock fall filling up the valley and then stopping. He looked like a panther she had seen once, all taunt and quivering before it pounced at a deer.

With both hands clamped tightly over her mouth, Auray sat silently as her stepfather scanned the canyon, eyes searching out its furthest reaches. When nothing further happened, he visibly relaxed and winked at her. "Dragons."

She giggled. "Did you kill lots of them?"

Haustag pointed at the white scars on his cheeks, four diagonal scars on his left and three on his right. "That is what the scars are for. Count them, they mark how many sand dragons a warrior has taken. To be marked so as a sand warrior is the greatest honor a man can have. We hunt them at this time of year, when they are fresh from their sheddings as their hides are still soft. Later in the year, their scales are too hard for our spears to hurt the bigger ones. That’s why we must kill them when they are young. Each year they form a cocoon like a butterfly but it’s more like a chicken’s egg, but dark. And when they emerge from the cocoon they are bigger, their scales harder than the year before and oftimes have the little wings I mentioned. But a sand dragon is a rare thing and the bigger ones rarer still."

Another scuttle of rocks fell and this time Haustag scanned the area behind them where a cluster of boulders blocked their view from the rest of the canyon. Suddenly, the warrior went still as a whitetail deer sensing a hunter. His knuckles were white from grasping his knife hilt. "Speak of the dragons", he whispered.

"Auray, quick now, hide behind that rock." Haustag quietly ordered and slowly moved to his weapons stacked by the boulder, the intense motion of a hunting panther returning to his movements.

Auray felt her heart pounding wildly and she strained her eyes to search the shadows of the canyon and the mists of the hot spring. Then she saw movement, something crawling through the gaps between boulders, something bigger than a buffalo, and it had wings.

"I hunt the dragon killer." It was the dry snaky voice again seeming to echo in her head. More frightened than before, Auray scurried over to the boulder and crouched into a little ball. This time when she held her hands over her mouth little squeaks of fear made their way out. She burrowed back into a deep crack in the rock, big enough for Auray the mouse to hide in.

####

Silverwing was content, well pleased with his life. Through his sacrifice his line would continue and dragons would once again take flight. His scales, once bright and reflective like desert silver were now thick, grayed and scared. Once a swift hunter of the desert, he was now so bloated and stiff that he could move only with great effort. He was dying.

Sadness flowed from his mate her neck entwined with his as the two sand dragons sunned themselves against the rock wall of the hot spring canyon. One waiting for flight and the other waiting for death.

The heat was a soothing balm on his aching body and eased the pain of his contracted wings. Silverwing's body ached from denying the instinct to cocoon, but that time had passed and his body bore the consequences. The throbbing in his teeth and claws was echoed in never ending waves of pain that flowed from nose to tail, and his venom sacks were swollen enough to choke his breathing. Soon his heart would stop the penalty for denying the instinct to cocoon.

For Silverwing, the pain and his own death were all part of their greater victory, for he had protected Redtip during the perilous time of her change. For the first time since the Betrayal, a dragon had morphed through the final stages and would take to the sky.

"I sorrow." Redtip spoke to him, in the language of the dragon, mind to mind.

Silverwing nudged his mate tenderly. "Sorrow not, bright one. I willingly chose this, and would again. I will see you fly and know that you will see our kits grace the sky. "

Sadness and love reverberated between the two of them as they basked in the sun. The heat easing the pain from Silverwing’s body and hardening his mate’s scales and strengthening and drying the membranes of her fragile wings.

Redtip’s great black wings were spread wide, one great wing enveloping her suffering mate, the other extended to catch the rays of the sun. Her red scales etched in gold were brilliant and shone brightly in the sun, her body was lithe and beautiful and her talons glinted like black obsidian. Slowly the heat of the day was hardening her scales and wings, still soft from the cocoon. Soon she would be able to fly. The pair dozed companionably in the midday sun, patiently awaiting that long sought for moment.

As the sun neared its zenith, Silverwing heard the faint sound of human voices echoing down the canyon. Fear pounded through him. The hunters could not come now, when he was at his weakest and Redtip was so close to taking flight.

"Something comes." He mind spoke to his mate. Gently the two uncoiled their great necks and waited. Silverwing's mind roiled, uncertain, should he attack? Why were the man-things here? Uncertain, the two dragons stretched out motionless to wait.

From their position at the narrow end of the canyon Silverwing could not see the approaching humans, but his waning ears could hear them clearly enough. There were just two of them, an older man and a juvenile. Cautiously he extended all of his senses out to them, anxious to know what they were about.

Shocked and with his mind wheeling Silverwing realized he could hear the younger one. Not with his ears but in his mind! The younger creature was a Dragon Speaker! Confused, he exchanged a long look with his mate. Never in their lifetime had either ever discovered a Dragon Speaker! The humans that had long ago partnered with dragons were part of lore and near forgotten.

Greatly bemused the pair of dragons waited, listening to the mind of the younger creature. Fascinated, Silverwing could tell that the juvenile was a female of the man things, and very young. Its thought patterns were chaotic but reassuring. These humans were here by accident, not to track and hunt dragons. Much to Silverwing's surprise there was also much delight in the thought of dragons. Then came the thought that changed it all.

"You’re a dragon killer!"

The glee in the juvenile’s mind at this thought was equal in depth to the fear and rage it created in Silverwing. Outrage took possession of Silverwing so intensely that his great claws scarred the ground beneath him. The older man thing was a hunter! This human had killed young ones, kits and dams and those newly from the cocoon. This creature was a danger to Redtip and all that Silverwing had sacrificed. This man thing must die; it threatened the future of all dragons!

Hatred dulling the pain, Silverwing moved from underneath the sheltering wing of his mate. Redtip nuzzled him as he passed, her entire body a question, waves of love and worry emanating across the mind bond.

Pebbles danced from beneath his feet as he slid from the shelf and between a pair of boulders that hedged the path to the hot springs. Every step, every moment was pain and he was slow, but the man-thing would die.

Silverwing’s mind sent his last promise to his mate. "I hunt the dragon killer…"

Despite the agony, Silverwing made his way doggedly down the canyon towards the hot springs. The man-things might hear him or see him before he attacked, but they would not escape.

####

Haustag watched the massive bull sand dragon creep its way down the boulder cluttered ravine towards him with the slow determination of a predator. It was half again as large a sand dragon as he’d ever seen, his head would barely reach its shoulder and from the tip of its spiked tail to the pale crest of its pointy head it was the length of five men. It might not be able to see them now, as they hid in the rocks, but its nostrils flared as it sought their scent. The dragon was coming for them.

He had been a sand hunter long enough to recognize there was something wrong with this sand dragon. Each step of its four massive legs seemed to have hesitancy to it, as if it was painful within its thick scales. The scales themselves were dark and dull, nearly grey, while normally they would be bright and almost glitter in the sunlight. The great wings were clutched tight against its great sides, and they looked stiff and brittle. Even from this distance he could see the venom sacks below its great jaws were swollen and taunt like the belly of pregnant woman. It was a moon past the time that it should have been cocooning. Perhaps it was dying.

Dying or no, this was a very dangerous creature. The claws that gripped and marked the rocks, as it moved towards him, were sharp and as long as his forearm. The four stained wolf teeth that protruded from its jaws were curved and better than a knife for slashing.

The warrior dared a glance at Auray. The little girl was wedging herself tightly into a crack in the boulder, her eyes wide with fear. It was a good spot to hide and she would be safely out of the way for the battle that would soon be upon them.

Haustag must kill this beast now now. Even if he and Auray could escape up the difficult climb of the canyon before it caught them, he could not allow this creature to live. The bull sand dragon was large enough that it would be a danger to his people, and even if they did escape they dare not let it be free to grow and mate. Or fly.

The tall warrior pulled his quiver from his bundle and slung it over his shoulder before quickly laying out his four best arrows. His sword, he drew and laid his spear within easy reach. First he would see what damage he could do with a bow. With luck he could pierce the soft skin of the under jaw or the soft spot behind its elbow with an arrow.

Haustag murmured a quick prayer to the goddess and his totem animal, the hawk, for he would need the aid of the spirit world if he was to take down this dragon alone. A normal dragon hunt involved a score of warriors with their horses and dogs. The rocky terrain was in her favor though as it limited the creature’s movement.

The large boulders were his greatest tools but he must act quickly before the creature managed to trap him against the hot spring. Slowly, hoping not to catch the creature’s eye, he put an arrow to his bowstring.

Drawing the bow with the ease of long practice, he took a breath and studied his target. The sand dragon, its scaly body scraping along the rocky ground as it moved between two large rocks was less than fifty measures away. As the creature moved over a broken log it exposed its thinly scaled chest and Haustag released the arrow. The shot was true, centre of the creature’s chest where the scales were thin.

Exultation coursed through him as the creature stumbled to a halt from the impact with the arrow wedged in its muscled chest. With a twist of its sinuous head the beast grasped the arrow by its fletching and pulled it easily free. Haustag was already ready with the next arrow and released it as the bull dragon twisted its head and exposed its left eye. He released and the arrow hissed off to its target. The duck-fletched arrow stuck the coarse ridge around the dragons green eye and fell harmlessly to the ground.

Frustrated, taking the two loose arrows with him, Haustag pulled himself on top of a nearby rock. The dragon was on the move again, inexorable but painful in its approach. This was wrong, why was this creature attacking? A desert predator, the sand dragon was reclusive and avoided men by nature and when tracked down tried to flee before attacking. Haustag had only ever been attacked once, and that was by a dam sand dragon protecting her kits.

Arrows weren’t going to work. Throwing down the bow and arrow he jumped down to grab his sword and spear. Auray was still wedged tightly in the crack of the rock, her eyes wide with fright above the hands clasped tightly over her mouth.

"Auray, I’m going to get that dragon moving the other way. When I yell your name, I want you to scamper up the path as quick as you can and get to the horses. If I’m not up by the time the sun reaches midsky, take the horses and go get help. Trust Stonecoat to find the way." Haustag ordered as he belted on his sword and took up his spear.

If he wasn’t up by that time, help would be too late. But it would get Auray far away from this maddened sand dragon. The little girl only watched him, her blue eyes wide and filling with tears.

"Auray, did you hear me? Tell me you understand." She only stared at him blankly, not an eyelid twitched, so taunt was her little body.

"Run when I yell, Auray!", he could spare no more time. With a final look at the terrified girl he turned back to the approaching beast.

The dragon’s head snaked around a large boulder, slow it may be, but it was closing the distance. If he couldn’t kill it outright, perhaps he could wound it enough that it would die on its own or be easily tracked by the hunters who returned with Auray. His life was a fair trade for the death of this creature and the safety of Auray and all his people.

The only chance rested on his skill with his spear. The dragon was going to pass between two great outcroppings of rock if it continued its approach. That then was his opportunity. Crouching low, out of sight of the approaching dragon he ran to the base of the left outcropping. Wasting no time he climbed to the top of the boulder, and on his belly, edged forward.

Haustag could see the massive beast making its way towards him but what clutched his heart was the sight beyond. On a slight rise of the south facing wall of the ravine was the remains of an immense sand dragon cocoon. Newly cracked, the cocoon was nothing but great shards. Somewhere close was a newly hatched dragon, bigger even than this one.

The dragon was upon him. Haustag could hear its tortured breathing. Green saliva, the poison from its swollen venom sacs, drooled from its mouth and stained its neck and shoulders. The wings, ofttimees fierce weapon were black and contracted in on themselves, looking more like brittle claws than wings. Haustag saw the gap between the base of the wings and the scales with relief. If he struck hard enough in that exposed spot, Haustag might be able to paralyze the great beast.

Atop the outcropping he was a dragon’s height above the beast. A drop indeed. The sand dragon neared, its head extended low to the ground as it tried to scent them. Holding his breath, willing the dragon not to sense him, he gathered up his courage. Carefully, moving into a crouch, he raised the spear and waited for the great bull dragon to move beneath him.

The dragon paused, long enough that Haustag was aware of the sun overhead, the beads of sweat pooling and running down his face, and the rough feel of the wooden spear in his hands. Would this be the final moment of peace in his life? So be it, he had lived well and proudly and his people would remember him.

With a strange huff of sound the dragon moved forward and suddenly it was directly below. "Auray!" He screamed, her name a war cry and command as he leaped for the dragon’s back.

Haustag landed hard, but his balance was superb and he struck with his spear as he landed. The spear head skitted off a spinal ridge before driving into the soft flesh at the base of the right wing. The dragon roared in pain, its snake-like head whipping back and it reared up on its hind legs.

Flailing for balance, Haustag grabbed wildly and caught at a wing for balance. The dragon crashed back to the ground, slamming Haustag forward and he found himself braced between the stiff wings. With both hands he grabbed at the spear haft and threw his weight into it, driving the spear head deeper into the tissue beneath the wing.

Again the dragon reared back, with more awareness that Haustag expected, the beast swung its head straight back. The spined crest slammed into Haustag’s arms as he threw them up to protect himself and he was knocked backwards, over and rolling off the dragon’s hip to strike the base of the outcropping with his head and shoulders.

The dragon roared, thrashing its spiked tail wildly. Haustag’s life would have ended there, but the space between the rocks was too narrow for the massive tail to swing freely. Stones flew as the sand dragon smashed his tail against the rocks that defined the narrow passage.

Free of its encumbrance the dragon lumbered forward and into the small space by the hot spring. Fear pulsed in Haustag’s throat as he thought of little Auray facing the beast. With a wordless cry he scrambled to his feet and charged forward, pulling his sword free as he raced to catch up to the dragon.

Before the beast could turn he struck at the weak spot behind the dragon’s wing, where his spear still quivered. Again and again he swung, desperate, howling inarticulately. Blood flew and the wing began to break beneath his onslaught, great slashes appearing in the membrane of the wing.

The sand dragon’s roar was continues as it swung about in the narrow space. A clawed foot struck him and he found himself sprawled in the grass as the beast turned to face him. The dragon made a strange jaw movement and opened its great maw to spew venom. It coughed, but nothing came.

Taking advantage of the dragon’s disorientation, Haustag scrambled backwards through the narrow gap in the rocks. His thigh was a raw wound from where the dragons claw had tore him and he could see the muscle exposed like so much meat as his lifeblood stained his leathers. Desperately Haustag cast about but could see no sign of his sword. His knives and stones were his weapons now.

The great beast paced towards him, its narrow head low to the ground, stained teeth exposed as it growled. It seemed to know that its enemy had no escape. Grabbing at a rock he heaved it at the dragon’s nose but it only bounced off harmlessly.

"Run Auray!" He cried, not knowing if the little girl still hid in the rock, only praying to the goddess that she was well on her way. Madly he threw another rock and then the dragon was upon him.

The beast was upon him, its breath sour and its sharp teeth exposed as it growled. Wounded badly the beast had more than enough life left in it to make an end.

"Stop!" Auray’s shrill cry echoed threw the valley. "Stop dragon!"

Haustag heard her, but the dragon loomed and he braced himself for the eviscerating blow.

Strangely, the dragon stopped and swung its head to look in the direction of Auray’s cry. Frantic for Auray, Haustag scrabbled for another stone, but it bounced harmlessly off the creatures shoulder as the dragon turned away.

Haustag tried to call out a warning, but the pain of his thigh overwhelmed him and only a croak emerged. He lunged forward, desperate to capture the dragons attention, but the pain was a tide of darkness that swelled up and overwhelmed him and he collapsed into unconsciousness.

####

Auray could feel tears coursing down her face and her heart was tight in her chest as she watched the dragon stalk Haustag. Her stepfather’s blood was staining the ground.

"Stop!" Auray cried as the dragon raised itself to strike at Haustag. "Stop dragon!"

The great beast swung its head about and its green eyes met her own. Paralyzed, feeling like nothing more than a mouse trapped under the knowing gaze of a hawk, Auray realized that she was on her hands and knees and had unknowingly crept from her hiding spot. With her heart in her mouth she watched as the great lumbering beast turned around, hampered by its wounds and Haustag's spear.

Trembling, sobbing for air, Auray tried to stumble to her feet but her muscles wouldn’t move and she could only huddle in fear, hands hiding her face. Slowly, inevitably, it limped towards her until its great head was only an arms length away. Greenish saliva was dripping from its jaws and the she could see the stains on its teeth. She was going to die in a snap of its jaws.

"Don’t eat me, Dragon." She sobbed and huddled over her knees, no longer able to look.

She felt the sand dragon’s hot breath on her exposed neck as it made a huffing sound. "Tell me why I should not, man-kit of the dragon killer? Why I should let either you or the man survive to threaten dragon-kind again?"

Shocked, Auray rocked back onto her heels, hands falling to her knees. "You can talk!"

Amusement coursed from the dragon. "Say rather you can listen, man-kit." And Auray realized it was true, she could hear the snaky voice in her head, not with her ears. And with the voice came feelings and emotions. Amusement, pain, anger, determination, everything the dragon felt was there, and below it all, pride and hope. Hope that was so overwhelming that Auray wondered at its source. It was all overwhelming, like a river flood.

"How is this? What? I don’t understand." Auray stuttered.

The dragon lowered and twisted its head so that it could look Auray in the eyes. Its eyes were green, yes, but green upon green. Around the pupil the eyes were the color of spring leaves and new grass and then darkening to the green of a pine forest on the edges. The scales of the head were grey but the edges were dark like coal; it looked old, but even Auray could see that once it must have been very beautiful.

"Why are you here, kit of the dragon killer?" The question came in her head, demanding.

As Auray’s shock began to fade, she became aware of the growing pain of the dragon, in the emotions behind the words. Blood was beginning to drip to the ground from the wound behind its wing, where Haustag’s spear still stuck.

Thoughts in a whirl, Auray answered with words. "We came to pray to the goddess, in the hot spring."

"Say rather you came to pray for the death of the dragons. For the death of our kits." The voice was a rumble in her head and the dragon growled low in its throat. His bulk cast a shadow over Auray where she knelt nearly between his great claws.

"What? No. We didn’t know you were here. We came to ask the goddess for babies for my mother and Haustag. Not to kill dragons.’"

Surprise and another emotion surged through the link. Understanding? And the pain, like a toothache all over and the more piercing pain of his wing.

"There are no more of you man-things above? Waiting for us?"

Auray shook her head so dramatically that her braids swung around to strike her cheeks. "No, no. The horses, but momma and the tribe are on their way to the summer grounds."

The dragon shook himself, like a dog climbing from the river, and the pain he felt made the bile in Auray’s throat rise and she nearly retched.

"Lord Dragon, Sir, will you let us go? Is Haustag all right?"

The dragon made a sound low in his throat, not quite a growl. "You will not feel my teeth, dragon speaker. But you must go from here and tell no one of this. Of the man, I know not, I struck him down." And he stepped back to allow her to pass.

Auray scrambled to her feet and dodged around the dragon and ran to Haustag’s side. The warrior was stretched out face down, one hand grasping a stone and blood staining his leathers and the ground beneath him.

"Haustag?" she asked querulously, one hand darting out to touch his cheek. His face was warm and with relief she could see his body rise and fall with each breath. "Haustag?" Auray asked again, shoving at him. Still the warrior made no move.

With a grunt and much scrabbling she managed to shove him over. He was battered and pale, but it was the wound on his thigh that scared her. It was deep and as long as her arm. Auray was a daughter of the plains though and she had seen wounds before and been trained in their treatment. Hastily she pulled her leather belt free and tied it as best she might above the wound. Her red over shirt came off and she used it to dress the wound as she’d been taught.

Haustag still had not awoken when she finally sat back exhausted. She had slowed the bleeding to a dull seepage and his breathing was regular, but he was pale and not once had he so much as twitched.

Water might help. Auray climbed to her feet and turned to see the dragon stretched out where she had left him. The dragon’s one black wing was collapsed against his back, but the other was held at an awkward angle because of Haustag spear wedged at its base. His great sides heaved in a torturous irregularity. She could hear his breathing and feel how much he hurt.

As she approached him she was aware of how immense he was, easily three bull buffalos in mass and even his twisted wings were taller than Haustag. With his silver crest and tipped tail, he really was the most magnificent creature she’d ever seen.

"Lord Dragon, sir, how can I help you? You hurt so. Shall I help with the spear?"

The dragon with his head resting on the ground half opened his eyes as she neared. "You would aid me, man-kit?"

"Aye sir. I think I could get the spear out."

"It matters not, man-kit. But aye, it would be of aid." And he lifted his tortured wing for her.

At wing point he was taller than Haustag and she had no way to reach the spear without climbing on the sand dragon’s back. "Please sir, I’ll have to climb on your back?"

The dragon only grunted and swished his tail once, twice, before lying still, and she could feel his assent in the emotions that emanated from him.

The dragon’s scales and spine ridges were hard but warm, and her young fingers delighted in their textured feel. No one scale was the same as the other. Carefully she climbed up the dragons back until she was an arms length from the spear. The head of the spear was buried deep in the tissue behind the wing and the wound itself had mostly stopped bleeding. The spear moved though, with each breath of the dragon and it seemed to have been loosened by the great beast’s movements.

Kneeling with one leg on either side of the dragon’s spinal ridge she braced herself, and grabbed the haft of the spear. "Are you ready dragon? This will hurt."

Amusement coursed through to her. "I hurt, yes, but I am ready."

Taking a breath she yanked on the spear with all her might. The dragon roared in pain, his great head reaching for the sky. Desperate for balance she heaved on the spear and tumbled off the dragon as the spear came loose.

With a cry, arms flailing she crashed to the ground the air knocked out of her lungs and the spear clattering to the ground beyond her. For a moment she thought the dragon was going to kill her as the sand dragon reared up. With another growl the dragon eased himself back to the ground. Auray gagged as she felt the agony of the great beast.

The dragon gave a low moan deep in its throat and stretched out its head on the ground again, slowly collapsing both wings against his body. "That eases." The beast took a great breath and settled itself. "Do you have a name, man kit?"

Auray climbed to her feet, uncertain. "I am Auray. Do dragons have names?"

The dragon closed his eyes. "Aye, I am Silverwing." He took a few more great breaths before continuing. "Will the man live?"

Nodding, Auray chewed on a tattered thumbnail. "I think so. He needs help though. I don’t know what to do. You’re not supposed to leave someone who’s sick but he needs one of our healers." She felt tears welling up

Silverwing growled and she could feel his anger and fear. "You will not go. You will wait with me."

"But Haustag needs help! He might die!"

The dragon raised his near eyelid to look at her. "You will wait. You may both go when I am gone. But you will wait, and you may see a thing of wonder." Auray might have argued with his words, but the emotion behind it brooked no argument.

Silverwing closed his eye again and was still but for the slight twitching of his tail. Auray bit at her lip. "Lord Dragon? Silverwing?"

The dragon raised his eyelid again, revealing his great eye and she knew he waited for her question.

"Can you fly?"

Triumph echoed from him. "Soon, Auray, Dragon Speaker, soon dragons will fly."

Auray felt her eyes widen at the thought, but another question burst upon her. "Why do you call me Dragon Speaker?"

"You speak to dragons, do you not?"

She nodded and thought of all the stories she’d been told of Dragon Speakers. Those of her clan, who had once talked with dragons, partnered with them and according to some legends had even flown with dragons. Legends in which her people ruled the Great Plains and beyond. Until the dragon’s had turned against her people.

Awed, she whispered. "Are you a dragon? A real dragon?"

Silverwing snorted so hard that dust blew up in front of him. He was laughing at her! "I have teeth and claws and wings. I am a real dragon. And soon you will see a dragon take flight."

A thousand questions battered at her and she could sense his amusement. "Will you fly?"

"Flight is not my destiny. I am dying. Dying before you invaded our valley." His sides heaved as he gasped for air. "But a dragon will fly; your hunter came too late."

Auray sensed a great feeling of elation fill Silverwing, flooding over the pain and everything else. "Auray, you are a Dragon Speaker, and you are here at a time when the dragons take flight again! Perhaps The One, has willed this, and once again dragons and Dragon Speakers will bond."

Silverwing raised himself onto his haunches, his head stretched to the sky and his great wings spread wide. Waves of joy spread over her. "See Auray; see a wonder that hasn’t been seen for generations!"

####

Haustag struggled to consciousness, the heat of the midday sun upon his face and waves of agony throbbing from his leg. He stared up at the sky for a moment, uncertain at what he was seeing. Despair overwhelmed him. A dragon took to the sky.

Silverwing trumpeted a greeting as Redtip came into sight, her great wings spread wide as she soared. Exaltation overwhelmed him. A dragon took to the sky.

Auray turned and looked in the direction that Silverwing gazed. Wonder overwhelmed her. A dragon took to the sky.

THE END


© 2007 Tara McFadden

Bio: Tara McFadden is a horse-mad bookaholic from Cochrane, Alberta (Canada). This is her second published story. "Flight of the Dragon" has also been entered in the next round of the Writers of the Future contest, so any prayers, voodoo spells, psionic manipulations of probability, etc., that may improve its chances would be appreciated.

E-mail: Tara McFadden

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