Warning: contains a bit of gore.
From the height of my mountain aerie the voices of the men reached my ears from far, far below. They sounded angry and full of righteous malice…but it wasn’t a sound I’d not heard before. As a dragon of the Gemutlich Order, I had been blamed and hunted and followed by these types of voices all my life.
I peered out over the edge of the cliff that was my front stoop, not worried that they would see me, for this cavern was higher in the sky than even The Zugspitze, the frosted tip of which I could see 75 miles to the north. I saw the men with my keen dragon’s eyes, on the mountain pass, as little hairy squat spots crawling like black lice on the pelt of a white dog. They, having been born with mere human eyes, would not be able to see me. Nor was I worried they’d ever reach my cozy nest… without wings, it would be impossible.
Still, I was curious as to why these angry men would strive so ardently to undertake what would surely be a failed mission. They were on foot, having no doubt left their horses on the lower steppe before the narrow path grows treacherous for heavy hooved feet. I tuned my long ears, sharp as my eyes, towards the ravine and was saddened against my will to detect great sorrow in their voices, in particular, the young man who appeared to be their leader.
“…dragon’s gone too far…”
“…slay it once and for all…”
“…dragon steaks for the entire village…”
‘My my,’ I thought. ‘They are angrier than usual. Scared to be sure. And they ken the futility of their mission but are driven on anyways. Why?’
With an hour until dark, and unable to climb ('would they attempt to climb tomorrow?’) further, I watched as the group of nine pitched two tents and assembled a fire.
After dark I flew down to the copse of trees twenty feet from the camp. My deep green scales flecked with earthy brown camouflaged me within the evergreens and shadows. I was careful not to reveal any of my belly, for there the wide scales of my armor were of burnished gold and would catch the firelight like a beacon to my whereabouts.
I held my breath until the howling wind changed direction, lest the men catch a scent of sulfurous air from my lungs.
The leader turned out to be a young man, barely out of his short pants, with long dark hair tied back in a horse’s tail and the faint shadow of a brand-new beard, most likely his first, on his pale clear skin. The high, widow’s peaked forehead gave him away, it was the same as his father’s…this was a son of Emperor Wagner’s. ‘He’s far from his castle home.’ Next to him was a bearded blond man, also in a fine wool cloak lined with thick winter fox, who had to be his chosen man, a squire that becomes a brother through loyalty.
The two scruffy, red-bearded men were at least ten years older and spoke with Irish accents, most likely hired professionals handy with weaponry.
The other five were locals from the small village of Bergamont, I’d seen them hunting in the woods of the ravine that runs between my mountain and The Zugspitz.
The emperor’s son said, “Jan, pass me the map please.” My assumption was correct, only the chosen man would be afforded a ‘please’.
His chosen man, Jan, said, “Here. Look. This is where we are at.” He pointed a finger to the map and tilted it towards the campfire.
One of the red-beards had passed out with a jug in his hands. His brother yanked it out of a greasy grip and said, “No one’s ‘er climbed farther dan dis. It’s too steep. Da face of dis ere mountain, sheer this entire side.” He gestured wildly at the slope with his free hand; brandy sploshed out the mouth of the jug.
A villager grumbled testily, “Eh now Mack, watch that.”
Jan said, “Erik. Even if we find a way up on the other side---”
One of the locals cut in, “thayn’t no ways up t’other side neither. Been there a plenty collectin rock goose eggs.”
Jan ignored him and went on, “even if we could…the dragon would pitch us off the mountain top like a child playing ‘Whack the Mouse.’”
I was offended. Gemutlich meant Pleasant and Cheerful. Perhaps they were confusing me with my nasty tempered cousin, Maud of the Order of The Fleischesser, or Flesh Eater. But that would be silly, her scales were black and edged with thorns, we looked nothing alike. She was my closest relative though we rarely spoke. She’d developed a taste for human meat and in doing so, gave our entire species a bad name.
A villager with grey hair and very few teeth held his hands out for the jug, “Aye. Pass it ere now.”
Jan took the jug from the red head and offered it to Prince Erik first who shook his head with a frown furrowing his pale brow. “But I must rescue Fredrika. If I do…” He trailed off.
The villagers looked uneasily at one another. I grabbed another ounce of patience and held my tongue. ‘Why on earth would I kidnap a princess? Or any human for that matter?’ They were an annoying species that I kept my distance from. It was a constant battle to keep my decent reputation intact.
Four of the villagers got up and staggered to one of the tents. Jan at last broke the awkward silence. “Erik. She’s only your half-sister. Is the risk worth it? I mean, you live comfortably in the castle…”
“And so do you, my friend. Thanks to me.”
“I know I know…”
“I wish to be acknowledged by our entire kingdom…hell, the world, as Prince Erik.” His eyes grew glassy in the firelight, he appeared to be talking to himself. “My own castle. My own lands to rule…no longer a bastard. I want respect.”
The red head punched his brother’s arm hard and roused him sort of awake. He said to the dark-haired young man, “Erik, sir, Bergamont is verra ‘appy to have you back in yer home village---”
“Yes, yes. Good to be back. A fine village it is.” He flipped a hand in a ‘whatever’ gesture that made mockery of his words. He was lying.
I waited for them all to retire then stealthily crept backwards out of the pines. I flew into the inky starless sky. It was overcast, the atmosphere thick with the water-heavy winter air. My powerful wings took me high above the low clouds, where the air was thin, and the stars dazzled my eyes. The frigid air invigorated me as I sailed through heavenly skies to the east.
When I sensed I’d travelled an hour, I dove back through the cloud cover. Even at this distance above Maud’s lair, my sharp nose detected the slobby scents of rotted meat, spoiled cabbage, and the smelly dander left behind from feasting scale mites. Disgusting.
I landed at the entrance but did not wish to go inside.
“Staussey? Eez zat you cousin?” The voice of a vixen in heat.
“Who else would it be?”
Maud lumbered to the entrance and extended her long neck out. It and her sharply chiseled black head were the only graceful things about her. She licked my nose by way of greeting, an intimate gesture I found repellent. My nose waded through the miasma of stench wafting out behind her bulk; I detected no sweet-smelling young human female.
Maud giggled and a faint trail of pale smoke escaped her flared nostrils. “Vell, if I didn’t kidnap her and you certainly didn’t, ve may have a relative lurking about, ney?”
She had a point.
I said, “I’ve got to go. I’ll just make it back by dawn.”
“You’re velcome to stay here.” She winked a luminous green eye at me.
“That’s generous, but no.”
“You mean to help ze humans?”
“I mean to unsully my reputation.”
As I flew over my own mountain, I saw by the pink-grey light of dawn that the men had risen early and departed. Their trail was easy to follow and though I preferred venturing out under the cloak of night, I felt compelled to follow. ‘Where on earth are they going?’
I rounded a bend and there they were, on horseback, now heading east, not south towards the castle. I ducked behind the lean-to they’d stabled the horses in, it was barely large enough to hide behind, I felt as exposed as an interloper hiding behind curtains with his feet sticking out. I chanced a peek.
I ducked back a second later. Erik the Bastard had been looking right at me! ‘Maybe my imagination. Maybe I’ve grown paranoid.’
They continued trudging east. I trailed behind them, though letting them get way far ahead, it was easy to follow their hoofprints. After a couple of hours, my nerves had calmed and I crept closer, I desired to hear them and perhaps figure out where they were going. Aware that my footfalls made ‘carumping’ noises, I walked in the flattened snow of their wake.
“…flew this way this morning…” Erik.
“…We’ll get your dragon…” Jan.
“…I’ll slay thee cunt meeself…” An Irish brother.
“…I’ll take your balls Ryan! The dragon is mine…” Erik.
‘Another dragon! Maud was correct.’
Erik the Wannabe Prince continued, “It was big as a blimey house! And green and gold! Fearsome… and breathing fire!” His voice grew in volume and clear at this last, for he’d turned to face my direction while talking to his men. His voice faded again as he turned and faced away from me. “…Aye she’s alive…heard her screams…”
I was intrigued.
At last, after two more hours, Erik halted the men. “There! Look…”
I peeked through a stunted bushy evergreen and saw Erik pointing to a dark shadow in the white face of the foothills.
‘This mysterious dragon must have serious mental deficiencies, to roost so low,’ I thought. ‘Perhaps it is sick or injured.’ Then I felt sorry for it, even though, apparently it had the same tendencies as Maud as far as humans went.
Some of the men were slapping Erik on his back.
“…great job son…”
“…we’ve got it now…”
“…I can smell her perfume…” That was Erik the Bastard himself, which was odd because although I did indeed detect the faint scent of lemons, lavender…and terror, I’d never known a human being that was able to from this distance.
The men dismounted and ran to the cavern entrance, their swords in hand. As I peeked through the shrubs, I saw five of them still staring into the darkness. After a minute they went in. I followed, just as curious as a cat.
As I peeked around the corner, I saw five men and a woman staring back at me.
The dark-haired woman was lovely by human standards, about her stepbrother’s age, and disheveled and bruised. She had a swatch of cloth, perhaps a man’s handkerchief, in her mouth…
A dragon couldn’t tie a gag. Alarm bells shrilled in my head, and I started to back away.
“There it is! Now!”
A net dropped over me, with stone weights along its edge, from the curve of rock above the cave. The four men not inside the cave cinched the ropes and I stumbled, my feet flayling in the air. Iron cuffs slapped and bruised my ankles and wrists as I coughed and at last blew a flame hot as hell from my jaws.
The ropes burned, reduced to falling cinders like black snow. The men leapt away from the heat. Half the ropes were gone, I raised my neck to burn the rest away…and found I’d been chained to the ground, while blind in my panic. They had cinched the chain with a winch, to a metal stake in the ground, immobilizing my head. My left cheek pressed flat against the packed snow. I could not move.
When I blew flame, it was ineffectual and merely puddled the ice and snow in a trench before my head. I inhaled icy water through my nostrils. I sputtered and coughed and choked.
The excited men leapt around me with swords raised but they did not attack. Erik would have their balls. The Bastard.
Erik approached with his sword raised towards my chest. He was preparing to strike between my heartplates and could detect which ones they were by the heavy beating of my heart.
He sneered with triumph into the upturned side of my face.
Jan had the princess in his arms, she was still gagged, her eyes round and wild. Apparently, he’d been in on it. ‘Of course he was. He’ll rise in stature as well.’ Fredricka was yelling muffled ‘mmmffs’ into her gag frantically and struggling against her bindings. That she was still bound said it all. It had been a set up all right.
I prepared for the blade. I was touched that the Princess was fighting for my life, ineffectually, sure, but she was drawing blood from her bindings, the red dripped from her wrists into the dirty snow. I realized, as she must have, that Erik would not let her live to tell the truth. He would gallantly bring her limp body back as well as the head of the dragon (mine) and become a Prince in his father’s eyes.
As we watched, Erik and Jan turned on the five men left…and slaughtered them easily, running them through with their swords, shock and confusion in their glazing over eyes. The princess, weeping, slumped to the ground.
Inside the cave, the Irish brothers were dead. They were like two garishly painted denizens of hell: foaming yellowy curds coated their red beards, their faces purple with black splotches. The poisoned jug lay on its side in the dirt between them.
Jan man-handled the princess in front of him, bring her back up on her feet.
Erik studied my heartbeat and raised his sword.
Suddenly, Jan and Princess Fredricka stumbled forward.
Jan went to his knees, dazed.
Before he could stand, a blast of flame surrounded his head. He hadn’t the time to even scream. His hair sizzled a second then was gone. As his face charred, his eyes burst, then bubbled like porridge in a pot. He flopped forward into the dirt, his head a charred lump with gristley knobs sizzling where his ears had been.
Erik stepped towards him. He’d been closer to him than any blood relative; he howled in pain and anger…and wonder…as Maud lumbered into the now snow-bare, muddy arena. She pounced onto Jan’s body like a kitten after a yarn ball, then chomped The Bastard’s head right off.
The raised sword arm fell limply to his side, he defiantly stood five full seconds, then his headless body collapsed like the pile of rubbish it was.
Maud turned and delicately clipped the princess’s binds with her front teeth. Princess Fredricka yanked off the gag and said, “he did it!” She kicked Erik’s cooling body. “He took me, the bastard!” Then she ran to help Maud release me. She tripped over a dead villager, staggered, but kept her feet. She’d developed some moxy and turned to spit upon the corpse. Then she found the keys to the shackles in Jan’s waistcoat and unchained me.
Maud had snapped the neck chain with her powerful claws. When I stood, she licked my nose.
I looked her in the eyes. ‘Thank you.’
She winked at me then turned to devour the Wannabe Prince. I found her alluring. The snapping of the bones was a pleasant melody, oddly romantic.
Princess Fredricka’s adrenaline was wearing off, she realized she was turning blue. She stripped Jan’s fine fur-lined cloak off him and wrapped it around herself. It would also serve as evidence to the wild tale she was about to relate to her father.
I persuaded her to climb my back. She hugged my neck and though I still found humans repugnant and annoying, I was happy to restore my good name and see her home safely…