The townsfolk watched as the black wings swung like two scimitars away from the Korinth sea. They held their breath as those wings sliced back towards the jagged peaks of Grymdor's spine. And a few cheered when, with a cobblestone-shaking roar, the beast in the sky let out something that blasted the foothills below: It was dragon's dung, the lifeblood of Queen's Quay.
Most in the failed fishing town raced toward the impact site, each hoping to be the first to pick free the scorched treasures that the dragon hadn't digested, but Khisane merely watched the smoke rise from beneath a gnarled oak.
She knew Conway, slow of mind but fleet of foot, would surely come away with something. She'd taught her older brother to pull the smaller items first and leave before the bigger men arrived. Still, she couldn't help but worry.
In her moment of distraction, Khisane flicked what was between her fingers without uttering the required words.
"You're wasting my bat guano, stupid girl." Dominus raised his rheumatic hand as if to strike Khisane.
"You're not giving me enough." She scowled at the old man then at the singed residue on her fingertips. She could feel the magic coursing through her veins, so why wasn't it taking?
Dominus dished out another tiny ball of bat guano, which Khisane took between her forefinger and thumb.
"How now, brown cow?" She squeezed the rosemary-infused bat droppings. "How now?" She flicked her fingers again, and got a hint of flame then a wisp of smoke before the charred guano fell to the grass.
"Pathetic, you have no future in magic. All the dragon's blood in the world wouldn't change that."
"Then show me how it's done for once." Khisane made a point of staring at Dominus's broken hands. "Are you even giving me the right words?"
"It's how you say them that matters," Dominus said then held out his palm. "That's it for the day. Honestly, you'd make a better living on your back."
Khisane froze. If only she had another dab of guano, she knew she'd be able to incinerate the old man in that moment. But beggars couldn't be choosers, and Dominus was the only teacher in town, or at least the only one who somewhat convincingly claimed to know magic.
The old man's hand was still outstretched.
With a grimace, Khisane dropped a slightly melted silver coin into his hand.
"Remember what I said. When you take to whoring, I'll be your first customer." Dominus's billy goat beard wagged as he spoke.
Khisane threw her hood over her long black hair and pretended not to hear. She strode across the rolling green, not realizing she was grinding her teeth until she tasted blood. When no one was around to see, she spit it out, a fine red mist of despair.
Inside the cottage, she found Conway hiding under their father's patchwork quilt. Well, it was Conway's quilt now. Their father, one of the last true fishermen, had been gone more than 10 years now, swallowed by the Korinth Sea.
Conway had chosen to hide with his quilt on one of the wicker chairs tonight, so Khisane walked in that direction.
"Now, where could he be?" She raised her eyes heavenward.
The mound under the quilt shook but otherwise kept quiet.
"I guess I'll have to eat stew all by myself. That's okay, Conway prefers dragon poop anyway."
"I do not!"
"Who said that?"
And so it went until Conway decided to reveal himself.
After Khisane pretended to be suitably astonished, her older brother showed her his catch: four lopsided silver coins, two melted gold rings, a ring with its sigil still intact, and a gleaming dagger with the same sigil on its pommel.
He'd done well, especially with finding that dagger. After selling everything, they might even be able to add a bit of meat to their stew before the dragon's next offering.
Khisane looked more closely at the knife's sigil, a boar with a pair of curving horns to match its generous tusks, an ugly thing though she didn't recognize the family design.
"Can I keep it?" Conway asked.
"I never get to keep anything."
Khisane knew that wasn't true as she'd let him keep a battered helmet and a drinking horn that had somehow survived the dragon's stomach, but she didn't argue. Instead she took two potatoes and a bundle of leeks from the basket under their rickety table.
"Show me you can use it safely," she said and set the vegetables on the table.
While Conway carefully chopped the potatoes into irregular chunks, Khisane did some quick calculations. How much would the goldsmith pay for the rings? How far could they stretch the coins? She knew it wouldn't be enough if they kept the blade.
So, she decided to sell the jeweled hair comb that had belonged to the mother she'd never known, the comb their father said Khisane should wear on her wedding day. She'd never wore the comb anyway, and she wasn't about to get married in Queen's Quay.
Conway had finished with the potatoes and was moving on to the leeks.
"Okay, you can keep it."
Her brother whooped and waved the dagger while Khisane stood well away.
"But you can only wear it in here and not outside in town. Let me hear you say it."
"I will be safe," Conway said solemnly.
"Good, now go get clean. Remember, you have to leave your new knife in here."
Conway groaned but left the dagger on the table before running towards the sea.
After Khisane finished cutting leeks for the stew, she stood in the doorway and watched Conway in the moonlit sea, that stupid sea that had taken their father then the last of the whitefish that had once sustained the town. Only the stubborn and poor had remained in Queen's Quay.
Some claimed the dragon that had awoken shortly after had cursed the Korinth sea, but Khisane couldn't see the point. If the dragon wanted to destroy Queen's Quay, it could simply burn the place to the ground in a matter of minutes. No, it just lived in the mountains and emptied its bowels on the outskirts of town about once a month.
And now the only ships that came to Queen's Quay were filled with warriors who thought of themselves as noble slayers of dragons, wealthy men whose weapons and gold kept the town going after being recycled through the dragon.
Light! Ten years of eking out a living on dragon droppings. Khisane knew she and Conway had to get out of this wretched town, and she would learn enough magic to do just that.
She only hoped that, after selling the comb, she might be able to spare a coin for another lesson with Dominus.
Khisane was elated. She'd managed to summon a fireball today. It had only been the size of her fist, but it had flown through the air before blackening the gnarled oak under which Dominus always gave his lessons.
The old man hadn't even congratulated her. But that didn't matter. She suspected Dominus didn't have much more to teach her anyway. Once she figured out how he prepared his bat guano, she'd be free of him and his lecherous comments.
Khisane raced across the green and burst into the cottage to share the news with Conway, but he and his quilt were nowhere in sight. She glanced out at the sea then checked the corner where he kept his bedding during the day.
His battered helmet and drinking horn were gone. So was the dagger.
She ran into town and saw the ship, a galleon anchored offshore.
She searched the tavern first, since some of the men liked to lure Conway in there with a drink and laugh at the results.
The barkeep waved her away, but one old drunk fixed her with his bleary gaze.
"You mean Conker?" he asked.
"Don't call him that."
"Well, I only know a Conker on account of him being conked too many times on the head as a babe," the drunk laughed.
"Where is he?"
The man held out his empty glass, and Khisane slammed her last coin down on the bar. When his drink was refilled, the slurred story took shape:
Men from the ship asking Conway about his dagger. Conway refusing to sell it to them but agreeing to go with them up the mountain to see the dragon.
Khisane was weightless, floating above the words. She came crashing down as the drunk took another sip. The man choked on his drink when Khisane pushed his hand and was still sputtering out a curse as she sprinted into the street.
She must've passed by the cottage on her way to Grymdor's spine because she was holding the ax they used to split firewood. She followed the tracks up the mountain and slowed when she saw the churned-up earth.
Khisane found Conway around the next bend.
He was still hiding under his patchwork quilt. Only one arm hung free, one arm reaching for home.
They'd slit his throat.
Khisane clawed at the hard-packed earth until her fingers bled, then she remembered the ax and hacked at the ground until the head flew free from the handle. It was a shallow grave, unworthy of Conway.
By the time she'd finished gathering stones and piling them over her brother, night had fallen.
She saw the twinkle of their fire further up the mountain.
As she crept closer, Khisane saw five men gathered around the fire. She had no bat guano and had left the broken ax further down the hillside, so the smart thing would be to wait for them to fall asleep and hope they didn't post a sentry.
She watched as the men clutched their sides and laughed at something.
She saw the sixth man then. He gave the others a silly grin then went back to hiding under his blanket as he reenacted Conway's last moments.
Khisane's shriek cut through the night as she burst into their camp.
"How now brown cow!" She had nothing between her fingers but blood, so she flicked that. To her surprise, a gout of flame shot forth from her hand, but it hit no one and was quickly lost in the glare of the campfire.
Then, the men were upon her. She kicked until someone grabbed her legs, then clawed until another pinned her arms to the ground. Finally, all she could do was spit at the man who stood above her head.
"Calm yourself, wench."
The warrior raised his boot and let it hang over Khisane's face. When she closed her mouth, he brought his boot back down to the ground.
"Now, why do you stalk us?"
"You killed my brother," she said through clenched teeth.
"Oh, that." The speaker sighed "I tried to reason with him, but he was soft in the head."
She looked up at the speaker. He wore a tunic over his chain mail, and on it was the horned boar, the same sigil she'd seen on Conway's dagger. The man now wore the dagger on his belt.
He followed her gaze to the knife. "You don't take out a knife unless you intend to use it. See, it's still in its scabbard for now."
"You scum, you son of a—"
The man kicked her in the face then continued speaking. "You have to understand this blade is a family heirloom, meant for noble hands. And when your brother held on to it like a child's toy after I'd offered him gold—well, that was too much." He shrugged as if that explained it all.
When Khisane tried to move her mouth, earsplitting pain radiated up from her jaw. The pair of men still held her down, so all she could do was watch as the man with the dagger crouched down beside her.
The firelight played across his high forehead and illuminated his thin parted hair as his eyes roamed over her body.
"Still… I suppose I have taken a life from you, so I should give you one in return." He licked his bulbous lower lip.
"Yes, I, Baron van Del, will make sure you leave here tonight with child."
When his words' intent became clear, Khisane struggled anew.
The Baron raised a gauntleted hand. "Hold still. This is the closest you'll come to nobility."
The magic burned in her blood, but there was no release. Baron van Del's kick must've broken her jaw because the night sky seemed to split down the middle when she opened her mouth to scream.
Someone shouted as the fire went out. When the weight of warriors left her arms and legs. Khisane tried to stand and immediately fell back down.
She felt something on the ground… Conway's dagger. Khisane clutched it to her chest.
Something was standing over her, a blackness deeper than night that blotted out the stars.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw it hovering over her head.
A talon dripping blood.
Khisane fought against the pain in her jaw and parted her lips.
And a drop of dragon's blood—that legendary elixir coveted by all, from the lowliest charlatan to the highest sorcerer—fell on her tongue.
I have been waiting for you, said a sonorous voice.
You have tasted of my blood.
Those were the dragon's words of introduction when Khisane awoke. The dragon's voice had been too much for her mind last night, but now its words were like standing on the edge of rough sea—manageable if you knew how to keep your footing.
Yes, our blood mingles, our destinies are intertwined. You must be the one who woke me.
She had thought dragons lived in caves, but they were on a wide sunny expanse surrounded by pine trees, a hidden plateau along Grymdor's spine.
Do you hear me, child? You will be my emissary. We will usher forth a new age.
The pain in Khisane's jaw was gone. She felt like an empty vessel.
The dragon, not used to being ignored, whipped its tail through the air and split a pine tree. The dragon loomed over her, a massive shadow whose edges were difficult to discern.
Show me I am not mistaken. Show me what you can do.
An image of blood and fire came to her mind. She remembered flicking blood from her fingers last night and finding fire, so she used Conway's dagger to make a small cut in her forefinger. Then, she spoke the words that Dominus had taught her. She produced another fist-sized fireball.
'How now brown cow?' What nonsense is that? You have blood magic. Show me.
Khisane couldn't quite banish the image of a brown cow from her mind, but she went through the motions of summoning a fireball without speaking the words. She focused on her blood and the small bit of dragon's blood that was now part of her.
The blood gave way to a bright blue jet of flame.
If only Conway could see her now… oh, Conway.
"Tell me, how did the Baron and his men taste?" She forced herself to look up at the dragon.
I dined on no flesh that night.
"You let them get away?"
Yes, they did not give battle. Cowards turn my stomach.
"You let the Baron get away."
Silence. They are insects. They live on my refuse. Now, open your mind to me, so we can begin.
The dragon lowered its head to be at eye-level with Khisane. Its yellow eyes with black slitted pupils brooked no argument.
So, Khisane opened her raging mind and let it burn bright.
The dragon recoiled, but not before Khisane plunged Conway's dagger deep into its eye.
There were no more words, only a great shuddering disappointment, a longing for the skies, as the dragon closed its mind to her.
She found Baron van Del in the tavern.
Khisane walked over to the table and handed Conway's dagger to the Baron. He took it as if it was only natural for her to return it.
"I was wondering where you went after we saved you from the dragon," Baron van Del said, loud enough for everyone in the tavern to hear. He leaned across the table and lowered his voice. "Now, do you remember my promise?"
One of the Baron's men cackled.
The man was still laughing when the blue flame leapt down his throat. Chairs overturned as the Baron's men fled the table.
But Baron van Del sat frozen in place, a rictus grin plastered on his face.
A fine mist of Khisane's blood had settled on his lower lip.
Khisane raised her right hand.
As tears streamed from his eyes, Baron van Del raised his right hand as well.
In it was Conway's dagger.
Khisane drew her hand across her throat, and the Baron did the same.
He gurgled and his hand shook, but he finished the cut.
When one of the men screamed, it broke the others' reverie. They all scrambled out the door.
Khisane wiped Conway's dagger on the Baron's tunic, then went behind the bar and dumped out a keg. She intended to make the dragon's blood last and needed something to store her first batch.
No one showed their face as she rolled the empty wooden keg across the cobblestones.
How long until Queen's Quay realized the dragon was gone? How soon until more warriors arrived to discover there was something new waiting for them in the mountains?
Would the warriors still come after the town had rotted away with no more dragon's dung to sustain it? Khisane was willing to bet yes.
On the outskirts of town, Khisane found Dominus napping under his oak tree.
She stood patiently over the old man, waiting for him to wake and see her crimson smile.