"A Fine Day to Watch the Dragons Die"
Dorlé awoke to a rumbling chorus of dragon whimpers.
As he opened his eyes he had to shield them from scabs of mud that were flaking off of the hut wall next to his cot. The ground trembled like a rapped drumhead and sent a quivering rhythm through the thatch and framework of the little shelter. Dorlé pulled his thin blanket over his head and buried his face into the bundled old deerhide that was his pillow, and waited for the shaking and flaking to stop.
Quiet gradually returned to the hut. Dorlé slipped out of his cot and right into his sandals. He looked around as he rose; the other two cots were empty, one neatly covered with a threadbare quilt, the other bereft of bedding. Two cups and plates sat on the only other piece of furniture in the shelter: a high, three-legged table with a round top, like an ogre’s barstool (which, given the wear on top, it might well have been). Near the table was a small fire whose thin smoke wound up to the smokehole in the roof, and through a few other holes near it. This hut would be poor shelter if it rained here.
He pushed through the goatskin door and emerged into the beigeness of another day. The sun was filtered through clouds the color of trail dust and worn saddle leather. A few ribbons of gray delineated cloud banks, but the light that reached the ground muted clarity and washed out dark tones. Sky and earth were the same color, separated by distant humps of hillocks and wisps of crinkled vegetation. Dorlé walked to the small garden plot behind the hut and surveyed it glumly. When they had first arrived, it had contained bouquets of herbs, sinuous medicinals, and even some ebullient flowers for the hornetsprite altars. Bristletack had been coaxed to form around the plot to keep out vermin and a night-singer had been granted a home in the middle of the plot to call out when unfamiliar people came near.
Now it was little more than several disheveled rows of withered shoots and petals. A few things still grew steadfastly; the toughest herbs and tubers stood out amongst the clusters of limp stems and frills. Dorlé walked up and down the rows, toeing a few plants, then he shrugged and knelt down to pull what he hoped was some sort of onion. “So many dying,” he muttered as he dug at the ground, which seemed quite black and dense.
“Not dying,” a dry voice said behind him. He tilted his head backwards until he could see the speaker, who stood with a slight bend on the roof of the world to Dorlé’s overturned eyes. “Not truly dying, pupil. Just. . .” the man sighed, his thick master’s braid, weighed down with silver stars and small wire-bound rubies, swaying next to his downcast face. “Just. . . bereft.”
Dorlé’s face pinched up. “Bereft? What do you mean, master?”
The master smiled for the span of a wingbeat. “I mean that something’s lacking, and until those plants or that earth can figure how to do without it,” he walked over and plucked the slightly wizened bulb from Dorlé’s hand, “we eat . . . dispirited things.” He shucked the skin from the onion with a slice of his silvered thumbnail and one pull, biting into it as he walked away.
Dorlé crossed his arms, frowning. He realized he was hugging himself. He looked around, squinting at all the dullness in the distant hills and the monochromatic sky. He shook his head, pulled another onion from the plot, and jogged awkwardly after his master.
* * * *
The hut sat behind a rise that gave them a little solace from the wind and the morning sun. It also blocked a lot of the noise from the field. Dorlé tossed the ends of onion and the skin aside as he munched, saving a soft, greenish top to chew on as he hiked over the rise. As he got to the top the breeze hit his face: thin, acrid, and moaning. Its stinging warmth made him squint, made his cheeks tighten and a sweat break out on the back of his neck.
And, with his first full breath, came the stench of dying dragons.
There were nine in the field; four in a group near the northern edge, three close to the rise, and two singletons farther east. The quartet had dragged themselves close together after falling; to commiserate, Dorlé assumed. The three has been dropped by the main ritual and had fallen in a rough formation, hitting straight and snapping their necks. They lay twisted and broken, unable to move like the others; one was crumpled into a ball, the second was flopped on its back, and the third was stretched out on its side, it’s left rear leg pointing absurdly upwards.
The singletons lay shriveled and stretched-out at the far edge of the field, having dragged themselves here from father away. It had been a garden plot for the seasonal nomads who claimed the area, but they had fled during the final battle to the north and not returned. All evidence of horticulture was now buried under draconian carcasses, the eroding traces of their sudden landings, and the rough, gray-green grass that had started sprouting in the last few weeks.
Barand was in her usual position, standing at the edge of the field near a large, flat rock. She surveyed the field dramatically, Gabrydotir in her right hand, point down. Dorlé’s master sat at the other end of the slab, sketching awkwardly and sometimes picking up his leather journal to make notes. As he came around the rock he realized that the tremor-inducing noises from the dragons had subsided; for the first time since they had arrived, they were all silent.
“Good morning, champion,” Dorlé said to Barand, with a slight tilt of his head and the turning of both palms towards the ground. “How do you fare on this. . . “ he looked up at the sky, “ . . . day?”
“The same as the last nine times you have asked that question,” she growled, shifting her shoulders under her polished, yet curiously dull, breastplate, which creaked and ground against her gorget. Her dialect was very formal; Master Gunningam had said they taught only the higher dialects in the battle schools. “I am vigilant.”
She shifted her shoulders again as Dorlé came around to his master and knelt next to him. Gunningam smiled at him briefly before handing him a piece of ragged parchment and a stick of sharpened charcoal.
Dorlé looked up towards her and smiled. “Your neckpiece is making a bit of noise; has the dryness gotten to it?”
“No,” she grated, turning a bit away from Dorlé to watch the group of dragons closest to them. A small clump of fur fell from the back of the gorget. “The whulvenhide has become motley.” She cocked her head downwards so that he could see her profile: sharp chin, brawler’s nose, dark brow. “Why do you note that today?”
He pointed at her back with the tip of his charcoal. “You are shifting your shoulders quite a lot, which you haven’t done before.”
Her lips moved; probably swearing to herself again. He had never heard her utter a profanity or an imprecation, but she often said them to herself, he thought.
She turned her head to look at him, her eyes scanning him as she did. Or, he realized, her eye scanning him.
Her right eye was a meticulously-carved chrysoprase cabochon, its verdant sheen flecked with black spots. It had always moved with her other eye and, she had told him on one of their first nights here, it allowed her to see through guises and half-truths. Today, it sat blankly in her eye socket, and he could see her eyelid was rimmed red, and the cheek beneath it glistened. She squinted with it as she spoke to him.
“I see. That is good to know. I will take care to do that less often.” She turned back to the dragons and straightened up. She even shifted her massive sword, it’s pommel nearly even with her shoulder, to make sure that it stood up straighter.
Dorlé pulled his scribner’s cloth from his pouch and slipped it under the parchment. He waited, listening to pebbly groans from the nearest dragon and some creaking from Barand’s armor. He rolled the parchment in it and unrolled it again. It flopped over his thigh.
“Master,” he began, turning to Gunningam, but the older man nodded and cut him off with a wave of his free hand.
“Yes Dorlé, the cloths no longer work. I had hoped that their properties came from the plant fibers that compose them, but,” he sighed, “I was once again mistaken.”
One of the easterly dragons began to burble like an untended furnace. All three of the observers stood up and moved forward a bit; Barand jerked her sword from the ground and it dragged a bit behind her until she choked her grip up to the hilt. She grimaced and held it before her with both hands. A talisman stance, Dorlé recalled.
“That’s Ashfentomyr,” Gunningam said to them. He started walking towards the creature, flipping to something in his journal. The other two followed him; Barand keeping her sword raised awkwardly in front of her. Dorlé watched the huge blade waver in front of her. Was she sweating?
They stopped a dozen strides from the beast. It did not appear to be breathing; it looked completely still, like a broken statue. But from within it they could hear some burbling, thick and grating. Dorlé’s skin tingled; there was a faint vibration in the air. The dragon’s eyes were open, which startled Dorlé; they were glittering opalescent orbs of a dark color he could not name. He frowned; that wasn’t right.
Barand huffed and lowered her sword; it clunked on a small stone. She drew a few breaths before she spoke. “What is it doing? I’ve never heard such a noise from a dragon.”
Gunningam shook his head. “I am not sure that it is doing anything. It does not move, it cannot see out of such eyes. . . .” He closed his journal and stepped a bit closer. One of its wings dipped a bit towards the ground.
“HAI!”Barand shouted, and charged, jerking her sword up over her head. The massive blade warbled in the air as she ran forward, but after several steps it came down in her path and she stumbled to maneuver around it, pulling it from the earth as she continued running at the dragon and swinging it like a broom at the monster, missing its shoulder and causing her to almost collide with the beast. She stopped herself with an ungainly slide and recovered by leaning on her sword.
Gunningam smiled into his hood briefly, then cleared his throat. “A bit of an over-reaction, good champion?”
She scowled back at him. “Curb your cawing, magpie. My duty is to ensure that these creatures pose no more threat. I have been content to watch them die slowly, but when it moved. . . .”
“But it did not move, really,” Dorlé said.
Barand straightened up, trying to watch the dragon and Dorlé at the same time by backing away from both. “What?”
The boy pointed a copper-tipped index finger at the wing. “The dragon did not move; look at the wing.”
Barand sneered as she looked back to the dragon. “It is in a different position than before. I saw it shift. Clearly it. . . .”
Dorlé snorted and walked right up to the dragon. Barand raised a hand but he ignored her and pointed to the base of the wing. “Look,” he said.
There was a great crack at the joint of the wing, like a fissure on an over-baked brick. As the boy pointed, a flitter of dust escaped it. As Dorlé looked at it, he realized that the dragon’s skin was different. It was not just overlaid with the dust of the dry steppes; the wind was slowly blowing the skin itself away.
Gunningam raised a tufted eyebrow. “I see.” He moved forward slowly.
Dorlé put his palm near the fissure. “It’s warm, warmer than the wind.”
Barand gritted her teeth and pulled at her sword. “It may be recovering. Stand back, boy, so that I can ram this blade through its skull.” She grunted as she moved forward, the blade constantly dipping to the ground.
“Step back, Dorlé,” Gunningam said quietly, stopping a few strides from the dragon. Dorlé opened his mouth to protest but saw his master’s face and complied, stepping past the champion as she moved towards its head. The noise inside the creature was fading. Barand stood before the head and, with some effort, raised the sword, blade pointing downwards in her joined hands, at its ridged temple. She muttered the ritual invocation and stabbed downward.
There was a loud ringing noise, and a burst of dust. But even before it dissipated they could see that Barand was hunched over her weapon, desperately trying to push it into the creature’s skull. A small area around the swordspoint showed rough obsidian stone. The sword itself had made a tiny groove on the surface.
Barand growled and pressed against the sword’s pommel. Something inside the dragon sighed and the noises stopped. Dorlé’s skin stopped tingling, and he felt something in his belt pouch shift. He looked inside and then pulled at his master’s sleeve, pointing into the pouch. Gunningam nodded.
Barand was snarling incantations and twisting the sword, all of which had no effect.
“You know, champion,” Gunningam said, “I find it odd that you waited so long before doing that.” He did not move any closer; Barand’s face was reddening and her boots were digging into the ground. “Why have you withheld your fury for so long?”
“Because,” she grunted, “my task was to protect you and the boy as you observed them. The Grands wanted them ‘studied,’ remember?”
“But you have made it obvious that you care nothing for that. You have stood beside us and watched for any movement, any excuse to attack.” He indicated the ineffective sword. “This isn’t the first time that hasn’t worked, is it, champion?” he said gently.
“Quell your chirping song, charm-crow,” she said through clenched teeth, leaning even harder on the sword. It made a harsh scraping noise and began to slide off of the skull. With a frustrated shout Barand pulled it back before she toppled over entirely.
“Gabrydotir,” he continued, “is a sword of legend, wielded by the Frost Chieftains, taken from them in a quest so wondrous they write a new play about it each year for Holdfast.” He gestured more pointedly at the weapon. “And now, it has no sheen, and a chip on the point.”
Barand pulled the sword up, wincing. Even from where he was Dorlé could see a large nick just below the point. Barand stared at it with her mouth open, heedless of the dust still in the air, a dust that the breeze was slowly sloughing off the dragon.
“A sword you have wielded easily for 12 years, that you can now barely lift,” Gunningam said quietly.
“It is but a feather’s weight!” Barand shouted, trying to raise it over her head, and barely doing so.
“It is a feather’s weight . . . when enchanted,” Gunningam replied. “How much does an unenchanted giant’s sword weigh?”
She looked at him like a thwarted hawk. “I do not know. I have never trained with any other blade.”
“Perhaps,” he replied, “you should begin to do so, and with a smaller weapon.”
Barand spat futilely in Gunningam’s direction. She opened her mouth to curse him, but instead turned and walked away from him, from the field of dragons, dragging her useless weapon behind her.
Dorlé exhaled loudly. The wind was picking up, and there was more dust in the air, a thicker dust, coming from all around him. “Master, they. . . .”
Gunningam pulled his hood closed with one hand and moved towards Dorlé. “Don’t call me ‘master,’ Dorlé, not any more.” He came up beside the boy and laid a hand on his shoulder. “All that I know of is contained in this dust.” He guided Dorlé over to the dragon, bent down and laid a hand on its ridged back. “This is where all that I was came from.”
Dorlé nodded. He reached into his pouch and held up his scribner’s cloth, now frayed and falling apart. “As they wither, so does the rest.”
“Aye,” the old man replied. “In their dissolution comes our own.” He stroked the thing’s back, watched its spines disperse into gritty motes. “We had hunted them, for scale and horn and blood, because of the potency they gave potions and rituals.” He squatted down next to the dragon’s head; already the slight breeze was erasing its scales. “Now we know why. They hunted back; out of revenge, or to keep us in check. . . .” He sighed, looking around the field. “The others are already turning to earth; soon they’ll be no more than a memory of moonglow on the grass.” The wind gusted, and both of them put their backs to it and closed their robes. When it susbsided, Gunningam threw his hood back and looked up at the sky.
“My favorite trick,” Gunningam said quietly, “was to make the wind play a tune as I worked. I had no gift for music as a child but, after a few months of chantercraft, I could make a breeze play a symphony.” He looked at his silvered thumb and smiled. “You had best go back to your flute, my boy, or else we shall have no music at all.” He raised his watery eyes to the boy as the wind picked up again. “And if you could teach me to sketch better, I would be grateful.” He turned to the rise and walked away, grabbing his braid and starting to work the baubles out of it as he strode up and over towards the hut.
Dorlé squatted by what had been the dragon’s head, which was now more an oblong lump of stone. He pulled an eyepiece from his pouch and looked at the eye carefully. “I suppose one of us should say ‘sorry,’” Dorlé whispered to the head, as he carefully removed its gem of an eye, and then reached around to grab the other one. He patted the earthen neck, and the dust that was raised was a comforting sight, the dragon rejoining the sky, bit by bit. I would not see you rot like dumb meat, after all.
The sun seemed a bit brighter in the sky. The gray and beige had softened somehow, the warmth of the day a bit more mellow. Maybe he was just getting used to the lack of color. He wasn’t sure, as he closed his pouch and stood up.