They were talking about the dragon.
Uguro flattened himself against the rocky outcropping and bellied closer, using his elbows to scoot along the rough ground. The rocks bit into his bruises, but he pushed back the pain and kept quiet.
“— but there are no dragons in Taldor! There haven’t been for centuries! Why, the Dragon Plague was well over two thousand years ago, and since then our glorious dragonslayers —” The voice was older, male, full of affronted privilege. A noble, Uguro decided, and one unaccustomed to taking bad news.
The other speaker was determined to make him swallow it. This voice was female, younger, and glossed with a foreign accent that did nothing to disguise its sharp exasperation. “Eovras, when did the Dragon Plague end?”
“3672 Absalom Reckoning, my lady.” That was a new speaker. Younger still, and male.
Uguro eased forward, daring to poke his head around the nearest outcropping. Now he could see them. All three wore armor, but they could hardly have looked more different.
The gray-haired noble had been squeezed into a gilded suit of ornate, old-fashioned plate that had obviously been made for someone broader in the shoulder and trimmer at the waist. He faced off against a brown-haired woman in battered but well-maintained plate and a clean-cut younger man who appeared to be an… apprentice knight. Squire?
The woman shook her head. “It appears the good baron’s recollection was off by a bit. Would you consider the events of ‘well over two thousand years ago’ sufficient to deter a dragon from trespassing into the barony within the past few days?”
The young knight—Eovras—bowed his head. “I could not say, my lady.”
“I can.” Uguro’s interjection startled even himself. He flinched, almost losing his grip on the outcropping, as their eyes flew up to him. The apprentice knight and the baron startled visibly. Only the woman seemed unsurprised. Had she known he was there?
Swallowing, Uguro climbed down the steep rock and stood before them. He straightened his tunic uselessly, all too aware that the rough cloth was scorched and full of holes, and that he himself was a barefoot, grubby miner’s cast-off. But he had to tell them.
“It was a dragon. My lords. My lady. It was—it was a dragon.” Suddenly Uguro’s eyes were full of tears, hot and glassy. His chest ached, and it was as hard to breathe as it had been when the dragon had raked the stony earth with fire, sucking all the air from his lungs. It was as if speaking the beast’s name had brought those terrible moments back.
“It was a dragon,” he managed to say again, and then he broke into shuddering sobs. He couldn’t stop them. He was thirteen.
“Show us,” said the woman.
Streaks of fire had plumed across the miner’s camp, driving down with such fury that the hard earth was furrowed at the center of each blast. Gravel-pocked glass cracked under Uguro’s steps as he led the woman and her companions into the ruins. They’d given him boots to protect his bare feet, but he could still feel the echoes of fire through the thin-worn soles.
The ferocious heat had cracked rocks and melted iron tools into rippled puddles, but it had passed so quickly that the camp garden’s turnips, sheathed by damp soil, were perfectly sound under their crisped black tops. The woman, Cirra, pulled one up to examine it, then carefully replanted it. As if someone might someday want to harvest that turnip, and she wouldn’t be responsible for its waste.
Such strange people. Caring for turnips, when…
“They died here.” Uguro pointed, unnecessarily. The dining hall, once the camp’s largest building, was a smoking ruin. Outside its blackened doorframe, the miners’ boots were still lined up in a neat, untouched row. The dragon had made them take off their shoes before it had herded them inside. Its idea of a joke, demanding that the miners show proper respect to a graveyard.
A detritus of personal letters and charred keepsakes fluttered around the boots like fallen leaves. The dragon had taken those, too. Had read the letters aloud, one by one, mocking the misspellings and the triteness of the sentiments before it torched mementoes and owners alike. Uguro had watched from afar, hidden, struck breathless by the creature’s cruelty as much as by its grandeur.
He didn’t tell the strangers this. But he saw the woman stoop to pick up a letter, and saw her mouth harden as she studied it, and he knew that she knew what the dragon had done.
She folded the letter up and tucked it respectfully into an empty boot.
Such strange people.
“What do you think?” Eovras asked the woman.
“I don’t know,” Cirra admitted. “The intensity of the firestrikes, the size of the claw prints… I’m not saying this is Daralathyxl’s work, but —”
Eovras’s eyes widened. “You really think —”
“No, but only because I don’t think the Sixth King of the Mountains would bother with a mining camp in some Taldan backwater.” Cirra caught Uguro looking at them and shrugged apologetically. “No insult meant.”
Uguro couldn’t imagine why he should be insulted. The mining camp was a backwater. And he didn’t understand the attack either. “Why would a dragon come to us?”
“I don’t —” Cirra began, but a cry from the baron’s tents interrupted her answer.
A moment later, it came again, carried by new voices. Then the screams became higher and more frantic, and then they were eclipsed by the sound of Uguro’s nightmares.
First the vast, crackling hiss of the exhalation, then the hollow, unreal roar of the flames igniting with such fury that the air itself seemed to writhe and burn, and then —
— then everything else. The screams of horses and knights afire, the desperate shouts of surviving commanders trying to restore order, the chorus of smaller fires spun off by the initial conflagration.
Leaving the others behind, Cirra ran toward the noise. The baron and the apprentice knight hurried after her, and after a frantic, frozen hesitation, Uguro ran after them too. The only thing he feared more than the dragon was the idea of facing it alone.
Fire, smoke, and confusion had seized the baron’s outriders. The lingering panic of the dragon’s presence poisoned the air. It prickled the small hairs along Uguro’s neck and stung his nose like acrid smoke.
Then he felt a lurching surge of terror and knew even before he looked up that the dragon was wheeling around again.
It was immense. Redder than rubies, redder than blood, and then abruptly black as its wings swallowed the sun. The sight turned Uguro’s bowels to water. He didn’t understand how the knights could spur themselves toward it, but somehow they did.
Cirra had found a horse somewhere. She was waving a sword and shouting something, but Uguro couldn’t make out the words. Then he saw the dragon dive toward her, its jaws unhinged to loose another blast of doom.
Rocks took the flames. Somehow Cirra had dodged behind an outcropping. And now Uguro saw what she’d done, distracting the beast so that the cooks and cobblers and other camp civilians could take cover. They’d been directly in the dragon’s original path and would surely have gone up in flame if she hadn’t drawn it away.
Cirra came out from around the rock, calling another challenge, but this time the dragon didn’t take her bait. The baron had come charging at the beast, his retinue behind him, and the dragon turned to meet them instead.
For a moment, the baron was resplendent in his bravery. Sunlight sparked off his ornate gilt armor. The knights’ thundering charge looked like a storybook illustration, all plumes and banners and white horses.
Then the dragon exhaled.
The baron’s breastplate, glowing with magic, withstood the inferno. Nothing else did. The knights’ armor melted like candlewax. Their horses screamed. Their plumes and banners disappeared into ashes, and chaos swallowed their line. And what fell from the baron’s smoking breastplate, headless and legless, was grisly indeed.
Lazily the dragon snaked through the rubble and plucked the baron’s breastplate from the ground. Snarling its triumph to the smoke-stained sky, it slit the leather straps with a twist, as if it were shucking an oyster. Then it held the broken armor high over its mouth, opened its jaws wide, and swallowed the half-cooked morsel with a loud snap of relish.
Hidden behind a rock, Uguro doubled over, his eyes wide in horror and the heavy wash of dragonfear. He clapped his hands over his mouth, trying not to retch. It was a losing battle.
Then reassurance flowed through him, strong and certain, easing his terror. Cirra’s hand was on his shoulder. She motioned for him to stay down as she crouched beside him, watching the dragon feast on its kills.
“What—why,” Uguro stammered. “Why did this happen?”
Cirra answered in a rough whisper. Her eyes were still tracking the dragon. “I don’t know. That isn’t Daralathyxl. It’s big enough, but… it doesn’t have the scars. That isn’t any great red I know.”
“What will you do now?”
“We will retreat. Our first duty is to lead the survivors to safety. Then we’ll find out who this dragon is, and why it came. When we’re properly prepared, and armed with more than just courage, we’ll act.”
“You will?” The idea of standing against that thing…
“We will.” Cirra glanced at him with a hint of a smile, despite their circumstances. “If you want. If you’re ready. But for now, our duty is to the survivors. So we’ll go. Quietly. Carefully. You know the trails here, don’t you? Help us find our way out.”
“Yes.” Uguro nodded. His throat was still dry, but he was glad to help. It made him feel braver. Brave enough to imagine doing more, someday. “Yes. This way.” He swallowed. “For now.”
Tales of Lost Omens: Dragonfear
Wednesday, July 31, 2019