By Stephen V. Ramey
In a cave high above the kingdoms of man, the last dragon awaits a boy’s awakening. Smells surround her: sulfur, humid tears, gas from a horse flank decomposing in her belly. Breath rumbles down her throat to return as smoke and a rain of fine ash.
Where am I? The voice is weak and so very young.
Her throat clenches. Overlapping scales rasp the sword wedged into the base of her neck. She feels pain.
Why am I here? Why is it dark?
“You are inside my mind,” she says. “Inside me.” She swings her head around. The boy’s hair, once long and golden, is a forest of dark stubble against crisped black flesh. Fluids glisten. Teeth show a defiant smile through shredded lips. Near an outstretched arm, embers peer from the charred-wood crevices of a torch. His jerkin is mostly ash.
That’s not me!
It feels as if the sword has leapt forward and pierced her heart. More smells, burning flesh, fresh dung, a pool of urine. She never liked to kill.
You want to confuse me so I can’t push the sword. You want me to think—
“Go,” she whispers, and some hidden part of her mind closes down. He will be terrified, alone, but she cannot bear more. If she were to squeeze harder, the boy would pop out of her like the bones of a digested meal. But she cannot do that. He would do it easily enough had their roles been reversed, but he is man, and men are not dragons. They do not see past themselves.
She searches the sky beyond the ledge for the twinkling departed souls of her kind, but daylight masks even the brightest dragon flame. Men never see the dragon souls. Their world is the sun and moon and trampled earth, a place to conquer. She closes her eyes. Where will her flame fit into that tapestry?
She crawls to the cave opening. At one edge, water trickles, becoming a gentle spray that evaporates before it hits the ground. When first she inhabited this cave, the stream was more significant, the waterfall real, and she sometimes watched rainbows fringe its sparkling spray. Now, to look down is to see man’s domain, the sprawl of his houses and agriculture.
A bird feeds her young in a nest tucked between rocks. The chicks are so scruffy, their eyes and beaks too large for tiny heads, their cries far louder than seems possible.
The dragon opens her mind the tiniest crack. You’re dead, beast, the boy screams. That was no ordinary sword, but a heart-seeker. Each time you bump it, every time you flex muscles, it will dig deeper until you die.
“It is unfortunate,” she says, “that you will die with me.” One so young should not have to die.
Death is nothing to a brave man.
“Light is nothing to the blind, but it is everything to those who see.”
The boy’s movements cease. He does not speak. Perhaps she has been cruel. Far below, men march through fields of brown and black. Armor glints. Smoke lifts from a hundred smoldering huts. Does their warfare never end? Do they never give up their anger? In her mind, each hut becomes a dragon’s carcass.
Hunger growls through the dragon’s belly and reverberates in her hollow bones. Today, she will feed. With a massive shove from her haunches, she leaps into the sky.
The wound screams through her chest. She plummets dangerously. It is all she can do to catch an updraft. She has tried removing the sword, but her short arms are clumsy and the blade wedged too deep.
Warmth flows from the back of her mind. What are you doing?
“I must hunt.”
Why? You’ll be dead soon and everyone will know that I have slain you.
The dragon focuses on a stone spire to the east. Blue and green banners wave above the highest tower.
That’s where I live. A shudder. Lived. My father was captain of the guard until Lord Samler had him murdered.
The dragon alters course for the castle. The moat is clotted with green-blue scum. The drawbridge hangs crookedly. Between the moat and the pocked wall, boys play with wooden swords while girls watch.
The dragon feels the boy’s longing. If only she had been awake when he came to slay her. Instead, he sneaked in while she slept, rammed the blade into her chest, and she breathed by reflex.
If you have the power to trap me, the boy says, you must have the power to release. I don’t belong to you. My family has been free mercenary for a dozen generations. My name is Alvin Sharpstone.
“Names are man-things,” the dragon says. She spies a dust cloud. A solid stream of horseflesh flows toward a canyon. Along its fringe, men on horseback raise whips. Whistles pierce the air.
Men stampede wild horses when they kill too many of their own at war. Many will die in the crush, but plenty will remain. It is a short-sighted outlook that annoys the dragon. She feels the boy watching through her eyes, breathing in her mind.
The dragon descends toward a gray mare that has fallen. Whinnies echo. The men on horseback do not bother with her.
The dragon lands. With a quick thrust, she severs arteries in the mare’s neck and tears the head apart from the body. She settles back to feed.
Dismay emanates from the boy. You’re a carrion crow.
“I could land in one of your cities,” she says. “I could burn buildings and kill numbers of your people, and feast on the tender meat of your women. Would this quench hunger better than a horse that goes willingly?”
“But what? I have fed and I have ended misery. Not every act need be a conquest.”
The dragon’s slumber is disrupted by a rustling sound. Her eyes open. The boy in her head is already awake.
Somebody’s coming to kill you, and then I’ll be free.
“To do what?” the dragon says. “Do you know what exists after this life? Dragons take flight beyond the world, but where will you go? Your death will be as black and blank as your perception of the night sky.”
Mother told me I would go to Father. He loved me. You wouldn’t know about love.
The dragon remembers her mother stroking her scales, regurgitating meat, teaching her the things she would need to understand. Except man. Man had barely organized his tribes then. Her mother could not have known what waited.
A scuffling echo sounds. The dragon tenses. She stares at an opening where two stones lean together to form a triangle.
The boy laughs coldly. You’re about to die.
“‘s me, Lord Dragon,” a reedy voice calls. “It’s harmless Gred.” The man who comes in is nearly bald. He squints constantly, his mouth a pink line between black whiskers. His clothes are finely tailored, but soiled and torn. “I’ve come to tidy up.” He holds a sack in one hand.
What is this? He’s one of Samler’s men.
The dragon snorts ash. She has no love for this stringy man, but needs him. His greed keeps others from investigating her caves.
Gred extracts kerchiefs from the sack. The dragon flicks a few scales from her side. Their iridescence sends flashes spinning across the ceiling. Gred scurries around, grabbing scales up, shrouding each in a separate cloth. His eyes settle on the sword embedded in the dragon’s chest. “I might be able to help you with that, Lord Dragon.”
No! the boy shouts. He means to steal my claim. A taste worse than soot fills the dragon’s mouth. Does the boy think her stupid? She knows better than to trust a man, especially one that would profit greatly from her death.
“Approach me, and you will die,” she growls into the cavern. The boy relaxes. The dragon is glad that he does not wish to die despite his bluster, but saddened that her wound makes her less able to protect him. The boy is to blame, she reminds herself. The argument is unconvincing. It was her breath, her reaction that led to this.
Gred slings scales over one shoulder and hurries away. He trips at the entrance and sprawls into the outer corridor. Curses echo.
The dragon laughs softly. She feels the boy laughing too. For a moment they are connected, and her loneliness lifts like rainfall evaporating in a shaft of sunlight.
Dragon? The boy’s voice increases in volume. Dragon.
She opens one eye.
“I am weary,” the dragon says. Her chest aches constantly. The sword barely protrudes and sometimes there is blood in her mouth. “It must be the man called Gred.” She closes her eye.
No, the boy says. Gred comes in the morning. It’s night now. Look at the sky.
And she does gaze through the cavern’s maw, not because the boy has asked, but because there are memories there. She recalls a springtime when every dragon within calling joined her in flight. In her mind she soars higher than ever, so high the lack of oxygen brings giddiness, and her fire-breath will not stay ignited beyond her lips. Dragon flame streaks the skies, thousands of fiery emissions, too many to count.
Someone is coming to slay you.
She would rather sleep. Grunting, she settles her chin onto the floor. Moonlight touches the cave opening, but the moon is too high to see and the rest of the sky is a uniform black. She blinks. It must be the boy. She’s seeing through his empty perspective. No wonder men cling to life. But why do they kill each other? It is a riddle beyond her ken.
Footsteps echo. Metal clanks, a sword is unsheathed. A new worry percolates deep within the dragon. Perhaps it is not the boy who cannot see, but her kind that sees what is truly not there. Could she have imagined all those souls?
Rouse yourself, the boy says. They’ll kill us. She forces her eyes to open. She owes something to this boy, however different their perspectives.
A deep breath to get things started. Liquid from the organ beside her liver drips into her air stream. Bone chips and powder from her crop join the mix, and she works the bellows that are her lungs. Flame erupts from mouth and nostrils, a billowing heat that brings a warm orange glow to the cavern. In this moment she imagines her freedom from responsibility, her domination of world and man.
Beyond the archway, shreds of moss flicker. Someone says, “God’s Dung!” A pounding, the clatter of armor shifting.
Why aren’t they running? the boy says.
“Shall I give them another chance?” The dragon is fully awake now, rising to the task at hand. Of course, she will not let these men kill her.
A keg bounces from one of the tilted rocks, hits the floor, and falls upon its side. Black powder leaks.
The dragon breathes in. Liquid drips.
Wait! Her neck swivels without her will, against her will. It will explode if you breathe now.
A chill goes through the dragon. The boy has taken control. Her neck stretches to its limit, her jaws open, her teeth clamp around the keg. Powder leeches into her saliva, a very bitter taste. Her body twists and flings the foreign item through the cave opening. The boy releases her. She breathes a concentrated flame.
Explosion fills the cave. Even through ear flaps clamped tight the noise invades with the force of a storm. Heat buffets her. The sky comes alive with streaking lights. For an instant she sees dragons.
They’re beautiful, the boy says. A sudden fondness dulls the ache in the dragon’s chest. For the first time in a very long time she feels love.
A mustached face appears between the leaning stones. “It’s still alive,” the man says.
“I told you this wouldn’t work.” The face pulls away. Echoing footsteps recede.
The dragon awakes in the boy’s dream. This happens occasionally now that their lives are intertwined. In his dream, he plays at swords with another boy larger than him, but slower in his reflexes. A girl with crinkled brown hair and wide green eyes smiles when she sees him looking. A feeling like dragon flame pushing through his gullet fills him.
“Did you lie with her?” the dragon says. The experience crumbles. She feels a chill. Since she has had to rely on the man called Gred to supply food, her scales have been disappearing at an alarming rate. One flank is gray skin now, the other nearly as barren. What will he do when she has no more scales to pay?
What? the boy says groggily. He is a man now, but she cannot think of him as other than a boy.
“The girl in your dream? Did you lie with her? Did you procreate?”
I don’t wish to speak of it. The boy’s voice is wistful and solemn.
The dragon’s thoughts drift to her first mating, the blue-scaled male’s neck twining hers, his musky scent filling her with lust. Then later, eggs heavy in her belly. She never knew if they were fertile. As they had agreed, flame consumed them before the first sign of life.
So, dragons have kingdoms too? The voice has focused over the years. Now it is an itch she wishes she could summon the strength to scratch. More and more often his voice is all that brings her back from her dreams.
Like men, he says. Kingdoms just like men.
The dragon feels a pinch of irritation. “Not like men,” she says. “Territories. We forage an area large enough to sustain us, and that is all.” It seems to her they have already had this conversation.
When a kingdom gets too many people, it must expand.
“War,” the dragon grates. “We have no use for war.” A lancing pain accompanies this exertion, but she is able to ignore it. Pain has succumbed to a constant drowsiness.
But if dragons live forever—
“When we choose to go, or one of us is taken, we allow a fertile egg to develop. It was your kind that ruined the balance, your kind that kills indiscriminately.” She lets her eyelids droop. “Each day, the longing to leave this body grows stronger.” Some days she is only able to focus on the ebb and flow of blood past her eardrums.
I do not choose to die, the boy says. The dragon winces. Tension blazes between her desire to join the other dragons, and her promise to nurture the boy.
A scraping sound brings him forward. The world comes into focus. It is morning and the sky beyond the cavern is a radiant blue.
“‘s me, Lord Dragon.” The man called Gred enters with a flourish. His whiskers are white now, his clothing new. He tosses a dead chicken. A second chicken follows. The dragon grunts smoke.
You should be rid of him, the boy says. His greed grows by the year.
“We require him,” the dragon says.
The man called Gred bumps the sword hilt. Agony shoots down the dragon’s spine, a pain so intense her senses recoil. Without her willing it, her head swings around. Gred goes flying. He skids into the cavern wall, and staggers to his feet.
“My apologies, Lord Dragon.” His eyes belie that notion.
He’s testing you.
“I know,” the dragon says. It is only a matter of time. She hopes that the man called Gred will not take her head for his trophy room as men are wont to do.
“Go!” The boy yells with her voice. Gred scurries out, forgetting his precious loot.
The dragon’s neck quivers. Her head thumps down, bringing a spray of light to the darkness behind her eyes. Are the night flames real? She longs to know.
The man called Gred returns with another man in a flowing red robe. His beard is immaculately trimmed. Lord Samler, the boy growls. Pretender to the throne.
Gred lifts a metal device that holds a steady flame within it. The brass bulge at its base reminds the dragon of a full belly, something she has not felt for a considerable time.
“You see?” Gred says. “See how its ribs protrude, the scales gape outward?”
“Yes, yes.” Samler surveys the cavern.
Breathe. If ever you could summon extra strength, do it now. He’s come to finish you.
The dragon begins the process, though it is difficult. A breath to get things started. Liquid fuel vaporizes. She works her lungs. She cannot bring herself to exhale. Something about this Lord says that he will not be deterred by a showy flame, and she does not have the strength to do more.
“At last we meet,” Samler says. “For thirty years I have awaited this moment.”
The dragon lets her flaming belch die.
Breathe! The boy tries to initiate the process, but it is too complex. All he manages is a puff of soot.
Samler brushes at his robe. “You have been quite the cottage industry, dragon. I’ve cloaked more men in armor by barter of your scales than you might imagine.”
The dragon’s thoughts drift to twinkling lights. Soon, she thinks. But that is not fair to the boy.
“All good things must end,” Samler says. “There comes a time for greater commerce.” His sword slides from its sheath.
“Witness, Gred.” Samler raises the blade to eye level and sights the dragon’s throat along its edge. “I, Lord Samler, am about to single-handedly slay a dragon.” He leans forward.
The sword pierces the dragon’s hide. The pains of old and new wounds intermingle.
Breathe! the boy pleads. You’re the last. The last. If he kills you … there will never be another dragon.
That jolts her as no pain could. She breathes, feels the tinder inside her go hot.
Yes, the boy says. Kill Samler before he kills you. The words are like cold water. The dragon clenches in mid-breath.
“I will not kill,” she says. “Never again.”
It’s the only way.
“There may be another.” Energy surges into her. She herds the boy’s consciousness inward, traps him deep within her mind.
He struggles. Let me help you. You need me.
“That may be true,” she says, “but you no longer need me.” Like a mother forcing its chick from the nest, she presses insistently against him. He has learned to exert his will without a body. Perhaps he can survive on his own. This is his only chance.
Samler lays his full weight onto the sword. “Spread this tale far and wide,” he yells. “I, Samler the Dragon Slayer, shall be king!”
“I never doubted it,” Gred says.
A last shove, and the sword pierces the dragon’s heart. Another flood of pain. She clenches against it, and draws her focus even tighter. The boy shoots from her like a burst of clean blue flame.
“Gah!” Samler spits.
Dizziness twists the dragon’s senses. She feels her life force ebb. Will the sky be bright, or dark? Her heart flutters.
“Gred,” Samler says. “Take your trinkets and spread word of what you have seen.” There is a subtle difference to the voice that rouses the dragon. She forces an eyelid open.
“Don’t you want me to help with the head?”
“I will claim my own trophy,” Samler says.
Gred slinks away.
The dragon relaxes. It’s the boy. She sees his earnestness in Samler’s sweating face.
“I’m sorry,” the boy says. He reaches for the blade.
“Leave it,” the dragon grunts.
“The world belongs to man. I have been a dreaming dragon, imagining my place in the sky. There are no flames, only death and darkness.”
“You’re wrong,” the boy says. “The flames are there, the dragons are real.” He loops his arms around the dragon’s snout, and lifts, grunting with the effort. She feels heaviness in her chest and belly. Her head settles again.
“I see them,” the boy says. “You’ve taught me.” He leans against her. “When I am king, I’ll decree that all men see your flame. And when they have learned to see the sky fires, I’ll decree that we name them — for it is man’s way of connecting to things, to give them a name.”
The dragon tries to raise her head. It’s useless.
“Someday we will go there,” the boy says. “We will travel beyond the moon, and I will order that we prostrate ourselves and beg forgiveness, not only for what we have done to your kind, but for what greed and lust have done to us.” He wedges his shoulder into her jaw, but her head is too heavy.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I wanted you to see.”
“No matter,” the dragon manages. Her heart thuds and stops beating. She wants to sleep.
“It’s not too late,” the boy says. He rips the robe from Samler’s body, then scabbard and pants and shirt. “I’ll build a bonfire to light your way.” He wedges clothing beside her snout. “There will be no trophies here.” Heat erupts across the dragon’s face. She has not felt so warm in ages.
Smells surround her: Death and life, the acrid scent of charred hide. A memory of screaming birds echoes. The world is flame, alive with fire. She sees through it. Tears glisten in the boy’s sad eyes.
“To my kind,” he says, “I will be known as Samler, Dragon-slayer. To you, dear dragon, I shall ever remain the boy you saved, Alvin Sharpstone.”
Alvin Sharpstone, the dragon thinks. I will remember. She takes wing. Heat buffets her upward, the vacuum sky draws her upward, higher, higher, until she is free.
She looks back to the glowing half-circle that marks the cave mouth that was her home. Heart swelling, the dragon sets course for that vast tapestry of light beyond the moon.
Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania, once the tin plating capitol of the world. His work has appeared in various places, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Liquid Imagination. He edits the annual Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink, and the speculative twitterzine, trapeze. Find him at http://www.stephenvramey.com