Posted by: lordkyler | May 3, 2014

Dragonslayer – Lithra Short Story

The following is an exclusive look at a short story from The Legend of Lithra II: The Knives of Aesur. While unconnected to the main plot, it serves to expand the story universe and provide a good tale in its own right. This story will be released on the official Lithra website a year from now.

I am very pleased with how this turned out. I think it is one of the best things I have ever written, at least so far. Hopefully it is indicative of things to come.

Dragonslayer

Denfold leaned over the carcass, or what was left of it. All that was really left were a few bones and bits of gristle. They wouldn’t have found it at all if not for the blood which stained the snow for several yards around the grisly scene.

“Third one this month, Kal,” Denfold said grimly.

“I know. He’s getting bolder.”

“What are we going to do?”

“This can’t be allowed to continue. If this thing keeps taking the livestock we won’t last long out here. And Eitra forbid it comes after one of us.”

Kal nodded. They knew without speaking what needed to be done. Both Kal and Denfold were tough, hard-bitten men. Who else would sign up to colonize a new town on the northern frontier? The two had been attracted by the prospects of a fresh start and virgin land. But they knew the area was full of dangers. Freezing weather, hostile Karod, and, as they were seeing now, dragons.

Denfold arose from inspecting what was left of the cow and idly kicked its fractured skull. It flew apart into shards.

“Gather the men. We’ve got a dragon to kill.”

•••

The village of Pinebough was a small place, the home to six families who had struck out to make their own fortunes, a process that entailed a great deal of work. They had first enlarged a clearing and erected several modest log homes. Some small gardens had been planted, but it would be some time before enough land was cleared and prepared for farming.

As it was now, the villagers subsisted mainly on the supplies they had brought with them, supplemented by forest herbs, garden vegetables, and the livestock. However, they wouldn’t last forever, and without their animals, the little village nestled between the mountains would be nothing but a lost dream.

Denfold had become the leader of the town. It wasn’t an official post, there had been no ballots cast nor votes taken, but he was in charge, and everyone knew it. The only one who contested his natural authority was his wife, Quilla.

“You can’t take Diene with you!” she insisted. “I couldn’t stand to lose either of you, much less both.”

“I don’t care to discuss this further, love. We need someone with us that has her skills. The two of you are the only healers in the village, and with your legs there’s no way you could make it up the mountain. You barely made it through the pass when we arrived.”

Diene, the daughter in question, sat in quiet distress, hands twisting her braid over and over again. She didn’t know how to feel about this. She had never had a prospect that both allured and frightened her so. On top of that, she had never seen her parents argue in such a fashion, and she didn’t know which to side with. She wished they would just make a decision. Then maybe she’d know how she felt about it.

“She’s got the most level head in the village, Quilla. Who else should I take with me? Menta? The girl barely has the sense not to lace her boots on to the other. Diene will help with the cooking, the cleaning, and Eitra forbid, the healing.”

“I’ll not see her eaten by a dragon.”

“She’ll be nowhere near it,” Denfold insisted. “We’ll leave her back at camp when we find the thing’s lair.”

“She doesn’t even want to go!” Quilla said. “Go ahead, ask her!”

Denfold turned to Diene. “What’s it to be, blossom? If you don’t want to go I won’t force you.”

Diene tried to articulate her feelings but found words inadequate. How could she tell them when she didn’t know herself? Just then she had a thought of her father, lying bleeding to death in the cold, or cut up like the Colder’s cow. That tipped the scales.

“I’m going.” she said, and then clamped her hands over her mouth.

Her father smiled. “Brave girl.”

•••

“But Da!” Tambo insisted. “I’ve never even held a sword before!”

“Son, you cannot let fear rule your life,” said Kal patiently. “Besides, you have a responsibility.”

Tambo swallowed hard. His father would not relent, he could see that. Gor, he wished sometimes he wasn’t son to one of the leaders. Wouldn’t have to be such an example all the time.

Well, he obviously couldn’t persuade his father otherwise, he may as well go. He didn’t really want to disappoint him either. Perhaps he could just help, provide a distraction. That wouldn’t be too bad, would it?

“All right,” he said at last. His father clapped him on the shoulder. “Good lad! Come, I’ve got a special gift for you.”

Kal led the way to the blacksmith’s shop, where his cousin Romm was hard at work preparing for the hunt. He’d been up half the night sharpening blades and forging new ones. As father and son arrived, he grinned, and plunged a spearhead into the quenching bucket. Steam rose and enveloped him. He pulled the blackened steel from the water and held it up for Tambo’s inspection.

“I put extra care into it for you!” he said proudly. “I’ve seen you swing that shepherd’s staff around, and your father and I thought a spear would be the perfect weapon for you!”

Tambo looked wide-eyed at the spearhead. It was a cruel-looking thing, with serrated barbs climbing the long blade like a dragon’s back itself. It frightened him, though he could not say why.

“A beautiful piece of work,” Kal applauded. “Come, boy, put your eyes back in your head. Do you have a shaft handy, Romm? I’d like to see him try it out.”

“I’ve got just the one,” Romm replied, turning to a barrel full of various staves and odd pieces of wood. He began to rummage through them, looking for one he’d set aside earlier.

“Romm, you haven’t turned carpenter on me, have you?” came a voice from the street. All three turned around to see Denfold, with Diene standing self-consciously behind him. She gave a shy wave to Tambo, who blushed in return.

“I’m a man of all trades, Denfold,” said Romm proudly.

“I know it,” said Denfold. “That’s why I hired you. Now I need something from you. My daughter will be accompanying us on the hunt, both as a healer and to make sure we don’t die of our own cooking before we find the beast,” he said cheerfully. “I want her to have a weapon, just in case.”

“All respect sir, but I doubt anything she could handle will make much of a dent in a dragon.”

“You’d be surprised. Tambo, tell him what happened to you at harvest a few years ago.”

“Well- I, uh…” Tambo’s blush deepened and Diene couldn’t suppress a sly grin.

Kal rolled his eyes. “She gave our lad here a lovely black eye. Said something disparaging about Quilla’s famous cider, I believe.”

Rat whiss,” muttered Tambo to himself.

Romm laughed. “Good to see she has some spirit after all! Very well, I’ll fix up a sword for her.”

“Make it quick,” said Denfold. “I want to finish this thing before winter settles in.”

•••

The morning they left was stormy and dark, but the whole village had gathered anyway. Bundled heavily in furs and well armed, nearly two-thirds of the village’s men were assembled, about thirty men in all. It was a risky move, but life on the edge of the frontier required desperate measures.

The mood was somber as fathers bid farewell to wives and children, and sons to mothers and siblings. Among the fur clad hunters was Diene, barely identifiable as female bundled up as she was. She wore a pack filled with herbs and bandages, and the sword Romm had made strapped across her back. She was currently clinging to her mother, trying to gather the strength to separate and do as she must.

Tambo stood separately from everyone else, holding his spear awkwardly, like a broom. He didn’t dare say goodbye for fear of looking foolish, so he stood aloof instead.

At last, there was nothing more to be said and no more daylight left to waste. The hunters left their families and began the long trek into the unforgiving mountains.

•••

They had followed the tracks from the last kill up into the highlands, three days of unrelenting and unfruitful travel. Tracking the beast was fairly easy, following it was not. The dragon, which the trackers had determined was a female, left large tracks that compressed the snow into icy imprints, and broken branches and clawed boulders left little doubt as to what had passed through. Every so often, they would come across large piles of dung. To the disgust of his daughter (and more than a few of the hunters,) Denfold had rummaged through these, finding bits of bone and hair that confirmed that this was indeed the right animal.

What made following the dragon difficult was its wings. Neither dragons nor wyverns were capable of true flight, but their large wings enabled them to vastly extend their leaps and glide for great distances. Often, they would come to the end of a cliff, only to find the tracks end and reappear on the other side of the chasm. The glide across would have taken the dragon only a few minutes, but they were forced to take detours that cost them hours.

Added to all this was the fact that the higher they climbed, the deeper the snow became, and ankle-deep snow for a dragon was nearly waist-high for them. The only advantage that they had was that they had brought food with them, while the dragon frequently stopped to hunt and eat. They found the morbid memorials of these stops every few days.

Eventually it was determined that the dragon was carrying a large carcass with her as well, probably one of the cows. The popular consensus was that she was caring for a brood of dragonlings. This was ill news, for it meant that the mother would be twice as ferocious, and if they failed in their quest, the young ones would be raised on livestock and learn to hunt it. Their task had grown much even more urgent.

•••

Diene was seated on a rock ledge, gnawing on a deer bone. They had found the deer alive but injured, likely a close call with the dragon, and had finished it. It had provided a much-needed hot meal and nourishment.

Diene normally would never have attacked the meat with such passion back at home, especially having just watched the thing killed, but her time in the mountains was changing her. She had shed a good deal of inhibitions and learned to do many things she had never considered herself doing before. She hauled her own gear and carried her own weight, and she had come to take satisfaction in that accomplishment.

Still, sometimes the talk of the men embarrassed her and she had to remind herself that even though she did a man’s share, she was a woman. But she accepted her new role with stoicism, and she sensed that the men respected her even though she was often teased when her father wasn’t around.

Her father came up beside her and offered her a piece of his hardtack, which she accepted gratefully. The trail had gradually led downhill again, and at times, the air was almost warm. The trackers estimated they were still at least three days behind the dragon, but they were slowly gaining. The group had taken a midday break, something they could afford in this easier terrain.

They were treated to a stunning panorama here. The mountains were harsh but beautiful in their own way, and evergreens lent color and life to the pristine landscape. Denfold pointed to some small figures moving amongst the cliffs.

“See there?” he asked. “Drakar on the hunt.” Diene had some difficulty making them out. They were a fair distance away, and their rough gray skin served as excellent camouflage. They were easiest to see when they spread their great dark wings to float ghostlike over the rocks. Their quarry were mountain sheep, a small herd led by a massive ram with heavy-built horns curling around his ears. Diene watched, fascinated, as the Drakar silently positioned themselves uphill from their prey.

On some signal, the Drakar launched themselves from the cliffs and fell like enormous falcons. The sheep had no sign of their doom until it was too late. Two of the Drakar latched on to the ram, and Diene was shocked to realize that the Drakar, rather than using bows or spears, instead finished off the sheep with fangs and claws.

“I thought the Drakar were intelligent!” she said. “How can they kill something with their teeth like that? Like some kind of animal?”

Denfold did not answer immediately. “Drakar are as intelligent as you or I, Diene.”

“But, it’s so… brutal!”

“Is killing any more civilized with weapons? We have made our teeth into metal and put our claws on poles for longer reach, but the victims still die the same.”

Diene’s brow furrowed as she thought this through. “I suppose. It’s just so strange. I thought only wild beasts use their teeth like that, like the dragon.”

“All creatures have fangs when need be,” said Denfold.

They were interrupted when Kal appeared. He was red-faced and his axe was drawn. “We’ve found her lair,” he said breathlessly. “You’d best come take a look.”

•••

The lair was a large cave that looked as if it went back for some distance. Stalactites and stalagmites made the entrance of the cave look like nothing more than a gigantic ravenous mouth, ready to swallow them whole. The hunting party was stationed in a wide circle, weapons drawn and ready for action. But there had been no sign of the mother dragon save for the tracks leading in.

At last, they could wait no longer. Denfold stepped out of the woods into the clearing, followed tentatively by the rest of the group. Diene emerged last. She had been told to stay behind, but she couldn’t bear to wait in the woods all alone with a dragon on the loose. She kept a firm grip on the sword at her waist.

Tambo was similarly nervous. He gripped his spear tightly, and his eyes darted back and forth at every sound from the woods. He kept himself firmly in the middle of the group.

Denfold lit his torch, then held it out for Kal to light his. Together the two men spread the fire around until everyone had light.

“All right,” said Denfold calmly. “We go in quiet. We go in together. Once we’ve found her, we swarm her. She can’t take us all out at once, and together we can exhaust and overwhelm her. Aim for weak spots like the eyes, the throat, and the wings. If the cave is big enough for her to move around in, we ought to be able to surround her. Just watch out for her tail, it’ll knock you over like a doll.”

Everyone nodded their assent, then, following Denfold’s lead, made their way into the cavern, as quietly as a group of armored men could. The darkness grew deeper and damper as they made their way into the bowels of the earth. Although each man breathed as silently as he could, nobody was breathing easily enough to avoid making noise, and the sound echoed and overlapped in the confines of the cave until it began to resemble the whisperings of the damned. The flickering of the torchlights caused shadows to jump and waver, and more than one man started from thinking he was under attack.

They steadily made their way down. The ground gradually changed from dirt and sand to rough stone. Suddenly Denfold stopped, and held up a fist. The men immediately stopped, looking around nervously to see why. They had come to a fork in the cave.

“Silence,” he said, and everyone held their breath. After a moment filled with nothing but the slow drip of condensation, they heard a faint squeal echo from their right.

“Diene, you stay here,” he said. “Tambo, you stay here to watch her.” Tambo nodded his acknowledgement, secretly relieved until he remembered the other passageway. Who knew what might be waiting down that corridor? If the mother came down and they were alone…

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s hide behind that pillar.” Diene did so without question. Together, they watched as the rest of the men headed down the right-hand passage. They rounded a corner and could no longer be seen. Eventually, the torchlight vanished, and at last they could no longer hear them either. They waited breathlessly. The ground where they were kneeling was uncomfortable and wet, but neither dared move.

Diene looked at Tambo and was somewhat surprised to find herself a bit disgusted. His eyes were bugging out of his head, and he was nearly hyperventilating. She understood being nervous – she could hardly stand the knots in her stomach – but this was a bit pathetic. Wasn’t he supposed to be the brave one?

Suddenly a piercing scream punctured the air, magnified by the ghastly echoes, and Diene’s sympathies returned. The two instinctively clung to each other and their weapons as the terrible noise continued. Muffled shouts, sibilant hisses, and above all, those unearthly shrieks.

“We have to go help!” Diene exclaimed, drawing her sword and moving out from behind her hiding place. Tambo stepped out behind her and grabbed her hand.

“No!” he cried. “They told us to stay here!”

“They might be dying!” she said. She struggled with his grip but finally broke free and made her way down the cave. Tambo ran to try and catch her when suddenly they heard something coming. Panting and heavy footprints from something with four legs. Both of them knew they were no match for the dragon on their own. They threw themselves to the side and pressed themselves against the walls.

A small shape scurried its way up the corridor. It was a dragonling, no larger than a sheep. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth as it desperately tried to escape its pursuers. The echoes of the cave had made is sound larger than it was.

“Stop it!” came a shout from down the tunnel. “We can’t let it live!”

Tambo impetuously stepped into the dragonling’s path. He could handle a small dragon, certainly. The dragonling saw its path blocked and hissed. There was a strange and dangerous light in its eyes, the madness of a wild beast cornered. The creature spread its wings and suddenly leapt at Tambo with snapping jaws.

Tambo stumbled backward and tripped, falling into a puddle. The torch he held extinguished, plunging the scene into near darkness. Only a small amount of light remained, surprisingly enough from the dragonling, which was speckled with luminous dots. The dragonling descended, small claws outstretched. Diene drew her sword and stepped forward to come to his aid, when suddenly a light appeared, accompanied a second later by a spear that sailed from the darkness and struck the dragonling, pinning it to the floor. It squirmed for a moment, letting loose that awful scream, then lay still and silent.

Romm, torch in hand, came up to the two. “Are you all right?” he asked. Diene nodded mutely, still clutching her sword.

“I think so,” said Tambo. “It surprised us.” Diene shot him a look.

“Don’t worry about it,” Romm said. “We were a bit surprised ourselves. I think they glow like that so their mother doesn’t step on them by accident. We thought they was a glowing moss or something until they moved.”

“Is anyone hurt?” asked Diene anxiously.

“No, everyone seems mostly alright. I think there are few scrapes and bites, but nothing dangerous. We outnumbered them pretty badly. We’re just lucky the mother wasn’t there.”

They emerged into a larger cave. The air was surprisingly warm, which appeared to be the product of a hot spring that bubbled in the corner. Diene finally sheathed her sword and began fetching herbs from her pack to tend to the wounded. The crumpled forms of several dragonlings lay littered across the cave floor, impaled with various weapons. Diene found herself strangely sorrowful for the poor creatures.

Sympathies among the men who’d been bitten were not so high. “The little blighters were small enough to fly,” one cursed. “Glad to be rid of them. They’ve got a nasty bite, I’ll tell you. I’d hate to see what a big’un could do.”

“Where is the mother?” questioned Kal.

“It must be down the other tunnel,” Denfold said. “Everyone who’s not injured, come with me and we’ll search her out.” Everyone retrieved their weapons and formed up.

“That means you, Tambo,” said Kal. Tambo jerked upright, surprised, and embarrassedly joined the end of the column. Diene distracted herself by treating the wounded, but was surprised when her father returned in less than ten minutes.

“The other tunnel led to another entrance,” he said angrily. “We picked up her tracks. She’s headed back to the village.”

•••

The chase back to the village was a grueling affair, a relentless marathon driven by anxiety. The beast had circled around a bit but soon followed the same path she had taken coming. 

Eventually they came to a small clearing where they had camped a few days earlier. It looked as though a maelstrom had struck. Tree limbs hung broken and bent, and the ground had been clawed into great furrows.

“She knows we’re after her,” said Denfold. “Now she’s after us.” Not one of the men harbored any doubt about the truth of that statement.

The days distilled into agony, bodies wracked with weariness from marches that lasted long into the night, and minds twisted with worry and fear. Sleep was no refuge, filled with visions of fangs and fire and death.

Within a few days even the worst trackers could recognize the landmarks. They were only a few hours away from home, and still they had caught no sight of the dragon, only tracks and dung. The freshness of both told them that they were only hours behind. But a few hours was more than enough time for tragedy to strike.

Denfold led the pack, stomach twisted into knots, though his face would never show it. He could imagine better than most the impending destruction. But for all his worries, some unknown sense made him hesitate. He was missing something. Denfold was more clever than he let on, but he was never one to ignore his gut.

Praying fervently he was making the right decision, he called the chase to a halt.

“Hold, hold,” he said soothingly. His men desperately needed a rest but they’d be loath to take it. The men came obediently to a stop, huddled in a chorus of ragged breaths and expectant stares.

“Something’s wrong,” he said.

“Cursed well it is,” said Pembley, one of the farmers. “If we don’t get there soon, our families is going to be down that thing’s maw!”

“I’m aware of the danger,” said Denfold patiently amid the refrain of agreement, “but I meant that something else is wrong.”

“Aye,” said Kal. “You’d have thought we’d be caught up by now. She’s been pushing relentless.”

“That’s part of it,” Denfold agreed. “And yet we never seem to lose her, either. It’s like she’s leading us on.”

“But for what?” asked Pembley. “We knows where she’s going, and she ain’t like to toy with us.”

“No, not to toy with us. But she left up the riverbed and now she’s led us into the canyon, where the traveling’s rougher. What’s the purpose in that?”

The question, though rhetorical, caused the men to question their surroundings for the first time, and they scanned the sheer cliffs on either side of them.

“Very steep,” said Kal, observing the terrain. Then his heart skipped a beat and his face paled. “Look,” he pointed, “she’s been up the bloody thing!”

A shadow like a cloud passed over the group, and they turned only in time to see the dragon swooping in for the kill.

•••

The villagers found them not long afterward, alerted by the screams and the sounds of battle drifting over the pines. All the men lay dead or dying in the crimson snow, save for Diene, who wept over her fallen father, and Tambo, gripping his bloodstained spear with a look of shock. The dragon, frightening even in death, loomed over the fallen warriors, an embodiment of the specter of death that had struck. It was covered in small and futile cuts from desperate and dying men, and had only been killed when Tambo’s spear had struck through the roof of the mouth and penetrated the brain.

There was weeping. The dead were buried. The people mourned. And then they moved on. It was the way of things. They endured, and eventually, they flourished…

•••

Fifteen Years Later

“The mines shall remain open,” said Tambo authoritatively, overriding the clamor of the gathered crowd. “Our losses were unfortunate, but that is the price of progress. Surely none of you can deny that the silver mines have made us great?”

“And they’ve been a greater scourge than any damn dragon,” shouted someone from the back of the crowd. A ripple of assent passed through the crowd. Tambo’s eyes narrowed, trying to pick out the offender. Failing to do so, he continued.

“I shall end this scourge as well!” he announced. He gestured to the statue of Denfold and Kal that dominated the center of the courtyard. “Denfold and my father founded this colony, and I have made it great. With my own hand, I slew the dragon that threatened our people. With the very spear I hold now!” He raised it overhead as illustration and subtle threat. “In the years since, you have named me your leader, and I have dragged us through famine, poverty and misfortune. I have turned our settlement into a beacon of civilization! And now you would seek to sever us from the very thing that has made us mighty?”

There was silence in the courtyard.

“I didn’t think so,” said Tambo. “The Dragonslayer shall defend his people. Return to your homes. This problem shall be resolved.” Tambo spun on his heel, causing his velvet cloak to swirl dramatically, and walked away. The crowd slowly broke apart into small groups that soon dispersed, muttering darkly to themselves. Only one figure remained hidden in the shadows, watching silently. She had been watching for a long time.

•••

“This is the third collapse this year, Adabelle,” Diene told her assistant grimly, as she saw the line outside the infirmary. “This can’t continue.”

Every time a mineshaft collapsed, Diene’s infirmary was filled to capacity and beyond. During such times she often had to send away those with lesser wounds like cuts and broken bones in order to care for the most seriously injured.

As she entered, Diene was struck as always that most of them were young men, down on their luck or come to find work to help support families far away. And of course they never questioned why the mines were always hiring until they found themselves on the way out, Diene thought to herself as she scanned the aisles. This is why.

A man to her left began to cough, a horrible, rasping sound that went on and on as though his lungs were on a grindstone. Diene rushed to his side.

“Water,” he choked out between gasps. “Water, please.”

Diene passed him the water-skin, waiting patiently as he tried to gulp down the water. Half of it came spewing back out with every fit of coughing, but she’d learned it did no good to get them to drink slowly. They would soon die just the same.

Thirst quenched, the man collapsed back into his bunk, drawing long and shallow breaths. His hands were clammy, and his hair was plastered to his face with sweat. Diene gripped his hands and did her best to look serene. She was only too familiar with the look of desperate longing in the man’s eyes.

“What’s your name, lad?” she asked softly.

“Carradoc, ma’am,” he whispered. “After my grandfather.”

“Ah, your parents must have been proud of you then,” she smiled, though she wept on the inside. Why did this never grow easier?

“I think so,” he said. Another round of coughing interrupted him, followed by another long pull on the water-skin. “They were so mad when I left. But I knew we needed the money or we’d never last the winter…” he trailed off, mouthing wordlessly as his lips traced the jumbled thoughts in his head. “I- I need to apologize. I’ll see them again, won’t I?”

Diene had neither the strength to tell the truth nor the heart to lie to him. “Someday, I believe you will,” she said. The young man seemed to accept this, and slowly leaned back. Within a few minutes, his hand went limp. Diene continued to clutch it anyway. She could not be there for every death, so he would have to bear her grief for all the fallen.

There was a sudden hubbub at the doors, and Diene looked up to find soldiers filing in, bearing Tambo’s crest of a spear-pierced dragon skull. Behind them was Tambo himself, looking around on the hellish atmosphere with an air of curiosity and magnanimity. As if he were gracing them with his presence. Most of the attendants gave a brief bow or curtsey. Diene made no such concession.

“Tambo.” she said, in a voice as cold and hard as the silver her patients had died for.

“Diene,” he said with a tone as soft and golden as butter. “How wonderful to see you helping these poor souls!”

“What is your business here?” she asked, though she knew full well.

“Why, I thought I would come and pay my condolences to these unfortunate souls, perhaps give them some cheer. I should think you’d be glad.”

“Any support is appreciated, though if you really want to help, you could begin by applying salve and bandages to the folk you walked past outside, or better yet shut down those cursed mines.”

“Ah, Diene. Has it not been said that hope is the greatest tonic known to men?” Diene let the statement stand awkwardly as the silence was filled with coughing and groans from the dying. An expression of discomfort flitted across Tambo’s face and he did not meet Diene’s gaze, instead choosing to look at Carradoc’s still form.

“Ah, here’s a quiet fellow that could use some inspiration!” he said too brightly. “What’s ailing this good man?”

“He’s dead.”

For one moment, Tambo’s mask fell away, and Diene could see the same frightened boy she had once known. She stood up, letting Carrodoc’s hand fall, and walked away. The guards parted before her. Tambo stood staring for a moment, then got ahold of himself and turned around.

“Take courage, men! The Dragonslayer has come!”

In the distance, a door slammed shut.

•••

It was the dream again. Hardly a week went by where she didn’t have it.

There was the monster, wings blotting out the skies, eyes smoldering with madness, teeth gleaming like pearls. There were the men, falling one by one like candles snuffed out in the wind. The snow turning red as though the earth itself were bleeding. Screams and roars forming a hurricane that blew all her defenses away, leaving her helpless before the beast, open mouthing revealing a dark eternity in the abyss.

And yet all this was s pleasant dream compared to the nightmare after, and no matter how she struggled, she could not escape it. 

There was her father, an ordinary man granted the strength of the gods for one brief moment. He shone like the sun, his love for her giving him armor and shield and sword. He was fire and flame and light, the dragon death and darkness and shadows. And then the shadows swelled and the heavens went dark and poured down to drown them in darkness…

Diene awoke screaming, but though awake, she could not escape the dream. She fumbled for a lantern in the darkness. Her mother had died some years ago and she had never married, and so she lived alone. On nights like this the light was her only friend.

The lamp flared into life, revealing a plain room with few furnishings other than a desk and some books. Her heart was pounding. Sometimes she woke up before the end, sometimes she did not. It would haunt her thoughts either way.

The darkness had swallowed her father and something died within her. Something else awoke. She looked down and found that all of the shadows and all of the fire had flown to her, and she was no longer Diene. She was a dragon, majestic and fearsome, beautiful and hideous. And then her teeth turned to fangs…

She had relived that day a thousand times. Try as she might, she could never remember what happened between the moment the dragon first swept down and the moment all was over. But she knew what had happened. Her dreams told her what she needed to know.

The only thing she could really recall was her father’s final word. “Love.” She had come to see it as both a description and a command. Love had motivated his sacrifice. It had sparked her bravery, plucking the spear from Tambo’s witless hands to try and defend her father. It had killed the beast and left her broken with his loss. Love was both strength and a curse.

What would he think of this? Diene asked herself. Tambo driving the village to its doom through his greed and cowardice? She knew the answer before she asked the question.

Love drove him to stop a monster, and now I must stop another. My love shall make me courageous and terrible once again.

•••

She did not wait for dawn. No sense in delaying things any longer. She strode through the dark streets, lantern in hand. As she passed, she banged on the doors, rousing the village from sleep.

Many were angry, many were surprised, but they followed her. Despite the large numbers of newcomers when the mines had opened, Diene was a familiar and trusted figure, and many valued her word above Tambo’s. And so they came. Before long, word had spread, and a large crowd was gathered in the early dawn light in front of the great hall.

The hall had been far more humble once, serving as a storage room and temporary stable as often as it did town meetings, but it had since been transformed into a shrine to the man who called himself the Dragon of the North. Tambo. The skull itself hung over the doors, a grisly reminder of Tambo’s power.

A few guards were posted out front, but they wisely refrained from being difficult, outnumbered a hundred to one, as it were.

“Fetch Tambo,” said Diene in a steely tone that brooked no argument.

“Yes ma’am,” saluted the guard, and vanished into the bowels of the hall.

They didn’t have long to wait. Tambo soon appeared, sloppily dressed in his dragon-skull tunic, although he had found time to don his velvet cloak. He had brought his spear with him.

“What’s the meaning of this?” he sputtered, seeing the sea of solemn faces. Truth be told, most of the audience did not know the answer to the question, although they had a suspicion.

“You are hereby relieved as mayor.” said Diene simply. It was not a question or even a demand. Just a statement of fact.

Tambo’s eyes widened. “Don’t make it come to this,” he hissed. “I have led us through danger to prosperity and nary a word did I hear from you.”

“You have brought death and undue suffering,” Diene returned, loud enough for all to hear.

“I have…” Tambo began, but Diene continued with all the unstoppable force of an avalanche.

“Your greed has caused you to push too fast and too deep in the mines, killing dozens. You make untrustworthy allies who rob us blind. You have spent our wealth on your own pride and vanity.”

“I built the statue to our fathers!” he protested. “To your father!”

“And if you think they would have cared more about a statue than the lives of their own people, then you have failed them!” Diene shouted. “You care for nothing and nobody more than yourself! So, I will give you one chance to leave peacefully.”

“Is that a threat?” Tambo said, shaken but angry. She could see a desperate light in his eyes, like an animal caught in a trap. One that might do anything.

“Yes,” she said.

“You dare challenge the Dragonslayer?” he cried, raising his spear. A few of the more impressionable youths in the audience let out a small cheer. Diene, for one fleeting moment, felt a moment of pity for Tambo. So long had he repeated the lie that he had come to believe it. And now she would reveal the truth, and it would destroy him. But she could not shrink from her duty.

“Tambo, you did not slay the dragon.” she said, and a collective gasp of shock came from the crowd. “You stood rooted like a tree. The dragon had injured my father and I took your spear to defend him.”

“Ha!” Tambo laughed. “You, slew the dragon? I suppose next you’ll be telling us you built the town single handed!”

The crowd remained silent.

“Don’t tell me you believe her!” said Tambo, despair tinging his incredulous tone. “She was a girl, for heaven’s sake.”

“And you no more than a frightened boy. Too scared to fight, too great of a coward to admit the truth,” said Diene. “I’ll not stand for your excuses any longer. You are finished. Leave this place.”

Tambo looked at Diene’s stern expression and in that moment knew that she had told the truth. Rage twisted his features, and without warning, he leapt at Diene, spear flying.

She had been expecting it. In one smooth motion, she drew her father’s sword, cut off the head of the spear, and brought the sword to hover an inch from Tambo’s throat.

“Leave,” she said, with both steel and sorrow in her voice.

Snarling, Tambo charged. A second later, he dropped to the ground, decapitated and mercifully concealed by his cloak.

Diene turned to the hushed crowd. “I have again slain a dragon for you,” she said. “And if you will have me, I will make this village what my father intended it to be.”

She laid the sword at the feet of her father’s shrine and walked away.

And so they did, and so it was.

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