Aphelion Issue 283, Volume 27
May 2023
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A Dragon's Tale

by Ty Johnson

There are few of my kind left in this world. Mostly we hide in the mountain ranges that pocket this Earth, though I have heard tale of a distant cousin who hides in the billowing snows of the southern-most regions.

But I am not here to tell of him, nor of the others of my race. I will let them tell their own tales if they choose to so do.

The tale I have to tell is one of my own.

It was when I was young, before the wisdom of age had crept upon me. I was a vain creature then, ferocious at times and ego driven.

There was a knight, Sir Lanahan he was called by his people. He had a commission from his king to hunt down and kill any dragon who would dare to roam their lands.

It was my fortune, for good or ill, to be the one dragon in those lands.

In some ways it was a glorious time for me. I spent my days swooping over villages and frightening the peasantry nearly to death. I fed upon the cattle grazing the lowlands and occasionally would add one of the king's deer to my diet.

It was upon one of these feeding quests that I first met this Sir Lanahan.

He was much like me. Both of us were young and brash. 'Bold' is a word not strong enough.

I was resting on a hillock, counting the number of deer in the forest below by smell. Normally a mortal would have never gotten within a mile of me without my sensing it. Perhaps I was daydreaming or the scent of the deer had me over-enthralled that day. Either way, Lanahan had managed to ride his brawny steed to within a hundred yards of me.

"Dragon!" he yelled in that booming voice of his.

I turned my head, wondering what amusement or annoyance was to further my day, and saw the plated figure on horseback at the bottom of the hill.

"Yes?" I said in my softest, most jaunty voice. I did not want to frighten the man away so soon. It was possible he might provide some form of entertainment.

"I am Sir Lanahan!" he yelled louder, "I am of the Clan McClellan!"

I stared at him for a moment, and when I realized he was expecting a response, I said, "Hello to you, Sir Lanahan of the clan of McClellan. What can I do for you today?"

"Are you the self-same dragon that has terrorized the coast country and the low dens for many a year?" he asked, still yelling.

My first thought was that it actually had not been many years, only seventy or so, but I realized the mortal would not understand that. I thought it best to frame my answer in terms he could appreciate, so I said "If you mean the same dragon who has fed off the occasional stray, sick cow of the McDougal clan for three generations, and the dragon that has kept those low dens empty of the pirates and brigands who once camped there, then yes, I am he."

Lanahan lowered his lance and the visor of his helm. "Then have at thee!" he yelled charging.

As I have said before, neither of us was very bright and Lanahan proved the point when he charged up the hill. Any idiot knows you don't charge up a hill. On flatlands, yes. Downhill, definitely. But not up a hill. Especially when there is a ten-ton, fire-breathing dragon waiting for you at the top of said hill.

I sat there looking bored. By the time Lanahan's horse was halfway to me the poor beast was almost ready to collapse. The plate barding probably had more to do with that than anything.

Still, the knight charged on. By the time he was at the top of the hill his horse had slowed to a mere saunter. At this point Lanahan decided an attack with a lance was pointless and he dropped off the tired animal and drew his sword.

I was amused by all this. It was all I could do not to burst out laughing.

The knight came on, sword swinging. I tested the air and found the deer had fled, no doubt due to the loud clanking figure coming toward me.

He struck me finally, breaking his long sword on the thick scales of my chest.

As he glared down at what was left of the broken blade, I towered over him and said "Surely there are better things you can do with your time?"

This infuriated him. He returned to his horse, hefted the heavy lance and charged on foot.

I yawned.

The long spear too broke and the knight screamed.

I decided enough was enough. I had no intentions of killing this mortal, I was brash but not barbaric, so I stretched out a lengthy claw and lifted the man from the ground.

I planted him on the back of his well-trained horse, and told the knight "Sir, I mean you no harm, but if you continue in this manner I will be forced to deal with you."

The idiot had a second sword on his horse. This he drew and charged yet again.

I did the only thing I could think of that wouldn't injure him too badly and swatted the knight and horse with a wing. Rider and steed went tumbling and I did what I should have done in the first place. I took to the air.

I spent little time in the vicinity, not even snatching a plump doe for dinner, because I did not want the man following me.

It was several years before I saw Sir Lanahan again. It was at one of those nasty spectacles the mortals call "battle".

I never understood what the two armies, one in red and the other in blue, were fighting about. Probably something petty such as land.

The fighting was nearly finished when I made my appearance. The few men left who were still able to run all fled at sight of me.

All but one.

It was Lanahan.

Before I even approached, I could tell the years had taught him something. I am not sure what, perhaps restraint is the proper word.

He was standing knee-deep in bodies and blood. He clutched a broken sword to his chest and a body beneath one arm. When he saw me he dropped the body and clutched the broken blade with both hands.

"You!" he said, a yell and whisper at the same time.

"Yes," I said landing next to the pile of armored dead surrounding him.

"Come to gloat, I suppose," he said lowering his sword. He realized there was nothing he could do to stop me if I so chose to attack.

"No," I said, "I was flying overhead and saw the tumult. I decided to investigate to see what foolishness the mortals are up to now. I saw you and thought I would say hello. I was hoping your manners had improved since last we met."

Lanahan dropped the sword and raised his arms, waving them over the bodies. "This is the foolishness we mortals dare," he said with anger in his voice, "fighting because one man will not show allegiance to another."

I snorted. "Foolish, indeed," I said, "we dragons owe allegiance to none, except perhaps to ourselves, and expect none. We have never accepted worship or loyalties."

"Not all these men are dead," Lanahan said pointing one last time, then dropping his arms. "Those alive would be better off dead. They will receive no help. They will die slowly, painfully."

"That is rather cruel of you," I said.

"I do not mean to be cruel," he said trying to climb out of the heap of bodies, "I merely state fact. There are no clerics or healers here. The few there were are dead, dying or have fled at the sight of you."

I shifted position, moving further from the knight to give him room. He slipped and fell anyway, going up to his elbows in thick blood.

Lanahan grew angrier and pulled himself out of the muck. He stumbled several steps away from the pile only to walk on more dead.

"Well, you've seen us now," he said, angry more with himself and his kind than at me. "You can fly on now, sure in your superiority."

I said nothing for several seconds. I wanted time to think on what he had said and what my response should be.

Finally I said "We can help these men."

"We?" he said with shocked expression.

"Yes, we," I said, "If you can put together some sort of harness, I can carry these men to the attentions they need. In an hour I can cover as much land as your fastest horse could in a day."

"Why should I trust you?"

That almost raised my ire. "What do you have to lose?" I asked. "The men are dying anyway. The worst I could do is put them out of their misery."

He stood there for a moment, gauntlets on armored hips. Then, "Very well."

I carried twenty-four men that day, of which seventeen survived. I took them to the nearest castle, thirty miles away. I believe there is still a local legend told of me in those parts.

Lanahan I left on the field. He did not trust me enough to ride on my back or to be carried in my claws.

More years passed. I can not say how many for a human lifetime is like the brief flickerings of a candle flame to me.

When I next saw Lanahan, it was my good fortune to do so.

I was sleeping on the rocky shores of a northern loch when something nudged me into wakefulness. I opened my eyes to find thick leather straps and heavy chains binding me to the ground. My wings had been entwined the most, keeping me from gaining my balance and breaking free.

My captors were three sailors from a ship I had terrorized a few weeks before. They had followed me and driven a small craft down river into the very waters by which I had rested.

They had been tricky, covering themselves in dirt and musk so I would not smell their human flesh. Even their chains holding me was a small flash of genius. It was nothing I could not escape given some leverage and enough time.

But I did not have time. The leader of the three, a dirty man who had not shaved nor changed clothes in months, stopped by my now exposed stomach. He held a harpoon in his rough hands. These were men used to dealing with large creatures, though normally at sea.

I closed my eyes when the man raised the spear above his head. I hoped the thrust would be quick. I briefly considered trying to roast the men but knew the tight ropes around my neck would keep me from drawing the necessary amount of air needed.

I had almost given up hope when I heard a yell.

The three sailors ignored me and turned to face something new.

It was Lanahan. He was older now, with a graying beard flying beneath his chin. He no longer wore the heavy armor of old but a simple chain shirt and clothing of black.

A long cape flew up behind him as he rode into the midst of the three. He pulled out a long sword and waved it in the air as his horse leaned back on its two hind legs.

It seemed not enough. The sailors were only momentarily shocked before they fell upon the aged knight. Though better trained and armed, Lanahan was little match for the younger men. He managed to knock one's teeth out before they pulled him from his steed and proceeded to pummel him.

It was the distraction I needed. I raised my neck, snapping the chains and stretching the ropes and leather. I was not free, but I could take in more air now.

The first blast went over the men's heads, singeing their caps. I did not want to harm Lanahan.

The second blast sent them reeling and screaming. They were in their rowboat and offshore by the time I had myself free.

Lanahan was conscious but bruised.

"Lucky, old man," I said lifting him to his feet and knocking the dust from his clothing.

"Who's lucky?" he asked with a grin as he recovered and sheathed his weapon.

"You are, of course," I said, "A dragon doesn't need luck."

"Hmmph!" Lanahan blustered. "And here I thought I was saving your skin."

It was my turn to grin. "Oh, no," I said, "dragons don't need saving. Usually we're the ones people are saved from."

"Then maybe I rode all the way down here just to save those three no-good sailors," Lanahan said adding a chuckle.

I too laughed. It was good to share an amusement. Dragons are such solitary creatures.

"I heard their captain talking about you a few days ago in a tavern on the coast," Lanahan told me. "I knew it had to be you they were after. You're the only dragon ever visits these parts."

I nodded. I was the only dragon for three thousand miles. Even then my kind were beginning to die off.

"We're even now," Lanahan said in a more grim tone.

I nodded again. "That does not have to make us enemies," I said.

He climbed into the saddle of his horse and turned away from me. "Until we meet again, dragon," he said with a backward wave.

"Yes, until we meet again."

I spent the next years out of that country. I felt a wanderlust I had not known since my youngest days. I travelled through the continent. There was no real meaning to my adventures then. I was just travelling to be travelling, revisiting old haunts. It must have been a wave of nostalgia striking me, one that eventually brought me back to the nation of islands where I had first met Lanahan.

I had heard he was a great lord now, with lands and castle and title of his own.

From a mile above, while gliding through a silver cloud, I overheard two workers talking in a field. They talked of the ancient and sickly Lord Lanahan who had little time for this world.

I made my decision instantly. I would go to visit the man who had saved me.

When I first dropped from the skies and landed before the castle walls the soldiers readied their bows and lowered their lances. A general call of alarm was put up, almost immediately followed by a call to cease hostilities. He had given the order as I knew he would.

The four armored men who carried him upon a stretcher before me were nervous and shaking in their metal skins. They knew one blow from me could deny life to them all.

Lanahan knew me better. He had them prop him up only yards from me. Then the men backed away hastily, retreating to the little protection of their castle walls.

I could see Lanahan was old, for a mortal. He was thin and the skin barely hung to his bones. His hair was almost gone except for the white bush beneath his chin. With my senses he even smelled old and sickly. He was less than a shadow of his former self. I asked myself if something similar would be my fate in another thousand years or two.

"You have come," he said with a harsh, whispered voice as he raised one of his skeleton hands.

I leaned forward, craning my neck so my muzzle was within his reach. His boney hand caressed the hard knobs that made up my black hide with the tenderness of a mother.

"Yes, I have come," I said.

"I knew you would," he said with a dry cough, "I knew there would be one last time."

I remained quiet. The man was on his deathbed and death was something even dragons respected.

"In all my years there has been no other like you," he went on. "There has never been one with such strength who would show such compassion. You proved that at Hastings. None of those men would have survived if not for you."

I nodded as he ran his hand across my snout.

"Now, as my end draws near, I look back upon my life and I see those I have loved and hated," he said, "and you have been both."

I learned something new then. I learned dragons could cry. My tears stung the ground and steam danced off the puddles to disappear above my head.

"You should be off now," Lanahan said, "I wish to die alone in my fortress. Solitude serves best my passing. Before you leave there is but one thing else I wish to say."

He gripped my chin with force then. I could feel the pressure as I saw the tears stream down the old man's face.

"I wish to call you friend," he said leaning forward to kiss me.

He fainted then, becoming delirious with the sickness and age that had finally come to claim its own.

I leapt to the skies, seeking a release from the pain that was swelling within. No such release was to be found, at least not quickly. But as with mortals, time heals all wounds for a dragon. I eventually went my own way and settled for the highlands, near Inverness.

I later learned that Lanahan lived for a while longer and died peacefully, in his sleep. In a sense I envy mortals. They have rituals for dealing with their grief. Dragons have a thick skin and sometimes a cold rock to rest upon.

Now times are different. I no longer allow my presence to be known by mortals. They now have the ability to destroy me. The fear to do so has always been there.

I do not have a companion. My way is alone.

But occasionally, usually on a dank winter's eve, I will crawl away from my mountain lair and take to the winds. I will fly over one of these modern cities with all its lights and its stench and I will grieve. On those nights I will grieve a piece of me that has been dead eight hundred years.

I miss the part of me that was human.


© 2008 Ty Johnston

Bio: When not working as a newspaper editor, Ty Johnston has been busy writing fiction for nearly twenty years. He admits, however, to only becoming serious about it in the last few years while finishing a fantasy trilogy. His work has appeared recently at Every Day Fiction, Ray Gun Revival and in the Flashing Swords anthology "The Return of the Sword", and is slated to appear in The Ranfurly Review, Big Pulp and in the Carnivah House anthology "The Infinity Swords". For more on Ty Johnston, visit his blog Logical Misanthropy.

E-mail: Ty Johnston

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