DRAGON IN AMBER



DRAGON IN AMBER, by Patrice Sarath

Dragon HFQ

 

I raised my head and looked at the man who entered my iron prison. My captors had put rings through the once-supple leathery skin of my wings and at the base of my spiked tail, and threaded the iron chains through them so that even a small movement rang with the dull clangor of a thousand falling links. I had never grown accustomed to it.

The man stood back against the door, and I could smell the overlay of fear on his skin. I saw no reason to speak. To speak was to plead. If they wanted anything, they could ask it of me. I kept my head up and my eyes on him, letting the nictitating membranes cloud their light so that I saw him through a blurred shroud.

“Greetings Mighty Arauch. I am Weith the humble,” he said at last. They know so little of us, these small creatures, that they think these courtesies were payment enough for a thousand years’ imprisonment. Still, I wondered how this youngling knew even that much. My nostrils drew in his scent until it hit the sensitive organs inside the top of my mouth.

This time my head shot straight up to the ceiling. My eyes went clear. Weith flinched again. The scent of fear sharpened.

I let my head come down until we were eye to eye, my nostrils breathing in his scent. Oh yes, now I knew that stink. I knew it well.

“Welcome, humble Weith,” my voice a low purr. “So lovely to meet the son of my old jailer.” I pushed him backwards with the bony ridge of my forehead until he pressed against the iron door, pushed  by the bony ridge of my forehead. The lump in his throat worked convulsively. I thought with longing of tearing it out of his tender skin, and saliva dripped down my fangs and hissed on the iron floor.

“Coal,” he said in a strangled voice. “Out – outside for you.”

“I have come to prefer my meat raw, thank you.”

His face turned an interesting dragon red and his eyes bulged. He said something else, or tried to, his voice useless with the weight I was bringing to bear on his frail body. With his free hand he fumbled for something in his pocket and held out the golden chunk of amber, with the tiny spider-thin collection of twisted wings and legs inside it. He whispered the words of power, and they had the desired effect.

They expect us to fold up, much like the trapped dracunculi inside the amber. I did not give that satisfaction but my legs wobbled and my wings furled around me. I kept my feet, kept my neck straight and my head high, but it took all of my strength to do so.

The man held out the amber in front of me and looked up at my face. He did not have the look of cruelty I had come to learn – a familiar expression. Instead the creature eyed me intently.

“There’s coal outside for you,” he repeated, “if you help us defeat our enemies.” He took another deep breath. “And if you do, and we succeed, I will release the bound dracunculus and set you free.”

I laughed. “I’ve heard that one before.”

Anger crossed his face and I almost laughed again. They are like dragonlings when they are angry, all small hissing and impotent rage.

“Swear to our bargain, and you will have coal and, when your task is done, your freedom.”

I let the silence fill the space between us, masking reluctance with arrogance. A dragon’s oath was not lightly sworn. Were I to swear, I would be bound by it more effectively than my image in amber, or these iron chains in this iron cell. After all, we dragons once swore it to each other – and you do not cross another dragon. Ahhhh…a loophole perhaps? Sworn to a man, would the oath not be true? The only way to find out was to make the oath. And if I were wrong…

“No,” I said.

“Then…no, you don’t understand.” He looked behind him at the door and gestured at me to lower my head.

We dragons are worse than cats, when it comes to curiosity. I brought my head down and he whispered, talking fast. “You have to. They’ll kill you otherwise. Listen. I told them I had powers to control you, that my father had left his secrets to me –” He went on but I was caught by that. So his father was dead? How long had it been?

“–too expensive to keep a dragon, even as a spectacle, and there have been grumblings about how much you cost to feed. My father would not have wanted you to be disposed of.”

“How did he die? When?” I felt nothing, no rage, no vindication, no cold sense of revenge accomplished.

Weith stopped, again surprised. “He died ten years ago, of a fever. We were in Marroko then, he and my mother and I. He spoke of you always.”

“His greatest triumph.” Bitterness was weakness but for that moment I let it show anyway. He had been a learned man, in their fashion, and he had learned to speak the dragon tongue. I had been desperate for conversation, after a millennium of captivity, and so we had passed the time, jailer and jailed.

Weith hesitated. “Yes,” he said finally. “And his greatest regret. When he lay dying he charged me with a final task, to set you free.”

“That was ten years ago, boy. What took you?”

“Can I explain all that to you after you swear?”

“Will you swear as well?” Men broke oath all the time – it is what separates them from dragons after all – but I had a feeling this man wouldn’t. Not if he was his father’s son…there. I had to stop being sentimental.

“I will.” He took a breath and recited, “I Weith, son of Waim, do solemnly swear that after Arauch the Mighty defeats the army of Rumanyar, and further vows to take no revenge upon his captors or their descendants but quits this land and resettles in the Dragon Wastes, and never comes this way again, I will break the amber bonds that hold him and set him free.”

He finished with an expectant look. I just smiled. All those pretty clauses and I could think of a score of ways to break each one.

The Dragon Oath requires blood and scales and the words in the ancient dragon tongue. I let the man pluck one of my scales and drain a bit of blood from where it pulled away from my skin. The scale was the length of his hand, covering it from wrist to fingertip. I knew my scales had dulled from long captivity, but even I was keenly disappointed to see it, more gray than gold now. I caught Weith’s eye and his expression held something I could not decipher.

“You’ll shine again,” he said. Rage filled me.

“Don’t patronize me,” I snapped. “Just get on with it.”

He did. He handled the ritual competently for a man, and soon the power filled the cell. When it was time, I spoke the words that bound me to perform their task.

 

Tsanga tak arauch tak magra tsu grim

Hoth gruma tsu agrunich charaks ah

Morgrim tsu tarak charak ah mak-al

Grim tsu markam aghira uh tsim

 

By my name Arauch, by my blood

By my scale, by my flame,

By my breath, by my bone,

By my wings, by my fangs,

I am bound by the Dragon Oath

 

When I was finished I knew the oath had taken, as if I were chained from the inside. The iron chamber was filled with steam, and Weith dripped with sweat, his hair soaked and his face red. I lifted my wing as much as the cramped space would allow.

“After you, Master Weith.”

#

 

I felt the air across my scales first, and then the warmth of the sun as we walked out the long tunnel to the out of doors. It was my second hatching, although this time I walked to meet it rather than burst forth from my egg. I let my nictitating membranes fall across my eyes as the sun grew brighter with my every step. My chains dragged behind me. My heart beat fast and a roaring sound filled my earholes. Cheers, foot-stamping, clapping. Usually a crowd of men made a different kind of noise when they saw me.

When we stood in the arched entrance, I looked out at the banquet of lovely creatures below me. I could not help it – saliva dripped from my jaws. Next to me, Weith murmured out of the corner of his mouth, “Now now, great Arauch. Remember your oath.”

“There are so many. Can you not spare but one?” Or twelve? Or twenty?

Several men-at-arms came toward us with their pikes outstretched, but Weith held up a hand and they fell back. I raised my head to its fullest height and the crowd stilled. So I spread my wings as if I were going to take flight over all of them. That was a mistake – I was so weak that I half fell and the crowd roared again. Furious, I caught my balance and braced myself, raising up my forelegs. I beat my wings, pressing against the air. Oh how good it felt. I lost myself in the ecstasy of it, to spread my wings to their full range. I beat and beat against the air and almost took wing. And then I thought: If he tricked me, if he lied, and gave me this only to stuff me back into that cell…I turned to look at Weith. His expression was the same one as before and this time I knew it for what it was. Pity. Rage swamped me and I roared into his face. Then my head spun and the next thing I knew…

#

It was dark. Cold night air rushed over my body, chilling it uncomfortably. Stars shone overhead, a great swath of white crossing the midnight sky. Once we dragons danced up there in the cold night sky… I raised my head and looked around. I was on the terrace where we had met the crowd that day, the darkened archway behind me. Several firepots blazed around me – an effort, I realized, to keep me warm.

“Better?”

I looked at Weith, where he sat off to one side. He covered himself with a blanket but I noticed that he held the chunk of amber in his hands, worrying it a bit. I grunted. He stood, letting the blanket fall away. “I had them bring you something. I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to walk away while you…refresh yourself. Then we can talk about the morrow and what it will bring.”

I let my head rest indifferently until I saw what he meant. They had brought me something indeed.

A cage of five fine woolly sheep, one with two lambs still suckling at their dam’s teats. And next to that small herd of bleating, panicked dinner, a pile of blue-black rock. Coal.

The skin around my fangs wrinkled back as far as it could go. Daintily I reached out and picked up the first chunk of rock with my long tongue, letting it crumble with a sizzling hiss as soon as it made contact with my mouth. I enjoyed the frightened bleating of the sheep while I ate my appetizer, my empty firechamber swelling with heat. I no longer shivered from the cold.

When the pile of stone was gone, I turned toward the sheep, my eyes half-closed in pleasure. Only savages ate their meat raw – I preferred a rustic grill.

#

The Rumanyar army massed on the plain outside the fortress, a shimmering, silvery, spiky crowd of footsoldiers and cavalry, elephants with towers on their backs, and swift desert mercenaries on camelback. Banners fluttered, their colors green and gold and red. Our much smaller army faced them, their banners in a somber black with a red dragon — me — emblazoned on them. Men beat drums and gongs, and the wave of sound rolled up to the top of the ramparts, though otherwise it was peaceful up here.

I kept a vigilant eye on the proceedings through a gap in the stone, reclining with my chin on my foreclaws as I watched the proceedings. Weith and I were the only ones here, under a bright sun and cloudless sky. Behind me ranked the massive arrow launchers loaded with their mighty shafts, unmanned for now. The summer heat warmed my scales and somewhat restored their luster. Movement caught my eye and I looked up with a shock; a vulture circled, and my heart sank to my tail.

Countless millennia ago, we shared the air spirals with our cousins. Then they chose feathers over scales, and ever since, we had been the only predators of the sky; they were banished to a more mundane realm of men and — I shuddered — science. Had so many dragons died out that birds regained ascendance over the realm of air?

Was I the only dragon remaining?

“What?” said Weith.

Curse it. I recovered nimbly. “Men are strange and foolish creatures,” I said.

“How so?” he asked.

I pointed a talon at the approaching enemy. “Your side has fewer men, your enemy the advantage of numbers. Yet they advance, certain of victory. Surely they have to know they are being lured into a trap.”

“Never underestimate the arrogance of men betting on a sure thing,” Weith said.

“It makes little sense to me,” I said.

“Well, yes. You’re the trap.”

I grunted. It mattered nothing to me that he didn’t even bother to consider that the enemy also had a trick behind its teeth. All I had to do was flame an army and fly away. But I was still nagged by the thought that something wasn’t right.

A low, mournful horn lowed across the battlefield. A moment later, and both armies began to move forward, first at a walk, then a run, then a canter, and a gallop. Ah. Time.

Weith stepped back. “Arauch – be careful. They’ll shoot for the soft skin behind your wing.” It was a dragon’s most vulnerable spot, where an artery led to our great many-chambered heart. An arrow there and I would be done for. I smiled at Weith and pounded my wings, so strong now, so full of power and energy. I hovered in the air, finally free of chains except for the small rings at the tip of my wings and the base of my tail.

“Your concern is touching. But dragons have slaughtered armies long before this day.”

And if I had anything to do with it, we would be slaughtering them long after.

I flew in lazy circles over the battlefield just out of arrow reach. Several archers shot futilely at me anyway but I ignored them. I enjoyed my freedom, letting myself dream of flaming both armies but finally turned toward my task. The sooner finished, the sooner free. I swooped down over the advancing army and let the first long gout of flame spew forth. A line of men and horses were immolated in a glorious fireball. Men screamed, and the army broke apart, all discipline lost. Elephants stampeded, and horses threw their riders and bolted off. I circled at my leisure, and then went in for another promising run. Once again I gouted, and once again I turned men to ash.

To my chagrin, on my third attack, I had very little fire left. Foolish me — I had expended all the fuel in my main stomach. I flew higher, circling, waiting for my secondary firechamber to begin production. With me out of the way, the enemy army reformed, and went on the attack.

I sighed, and as soon as I could, I dove back into the fray. This time I was conservative in my flame, picking and choosing among the enemy to wreak the most destruction. To my delight, I spotted the cauldrons of naphtha lugged along in massive wagons, drawn by teams of oxen. I swooped in low, knocked over the cauldrons with my rear toes, spilling a thick river of sludge behind me. I twisted my neck and slung fire at the naphtha, setting it alight in a trail of noxious fumes.

The fire clung to all it touched. Men and other beasts screamed and ran, spreading the fire through the ranks. At the sight of the lovely, lovely flame, I threw back my head and trumpeted into the sky.

It was almost over. The enemy had broken, and were running, a crazed stampede. Behind the black and red banners, the winning army advanced, mopping up the remainder. I circled and circled, rejoicing in the fire. Soon I would be free of my oath. I had fulfilled my promise.

Sharp pain behind my wing. I screamed, and the last of my flame guttered from chamber. I thrashed and coiled in the air, and almost slipped from the sky. In my panic I looked behind me and saw an arrow jutting out from nearly at the base of my wing, so close to its target.

Another bit me and another. I screamed again and flapped awkwardly away, my wing nearly strengthless. Another cloud of arrows, and another, and for a moment my vision darkened. No. I did not come all this way to die.

With the last of my strength I freed myself from the battlefield with laboring wingbeats. I could barely make it over the hills just five leagues away, the trees brushing against my belly, when the last of my strength failed, and I plummeted from the sky.

#

I fell to earth on the edge of a peaceful lake, lined with sedges, the long skidmark of my landing gouged into the soil. My wounds ached with a bone-deep pain. I turned my neck around to better assess the damage. The arrows were huge, even by the standards of men, the shafts a man’s length or more, and most were sunk the full length of their points. They could only have been launched by the arrow launchers at the top of the tower. Fool. Fool! I had known something was amiss. I was the prey! If I hadn’t spent one thousand years in that sodding iron cage… I screamed in fury and thrashed my tail, which made me scream in pain, and then more fury.

I tried to work the nearest arrow out and gave a grunt of pain. The points were barbed. They would have to be bitten out by another dragon, and the flame used to seal the wounds.

A sound caught my attention. Hoofbeats. The horse stopped and reared when he saw me, dumping his rider. The horse galloped off as the man ran toward me, clutching his side. It was Weith.

“By my father, you are still alive,” he panted. He dropped to one knee. “My God, what have they done?”

“You tell me.”

He looked at me then, his eyes wide. “I had nothing to do with this, I swear. I had no idea they planned such treachery.”

“I give you one warning only. Flee now. You are foresworn. I am no longer bound by the Dragon Oath.” Yet… that was not quite true. I could still feel its presence, its constraint. Could the boy be telling the truth?

“Don’t be a fool,” he said, dumping the satchel to the ground. “Look, start a fire on that driftwood, all right?”

I looked at him, startled. For a moment, he sounded exactly like his father. I sulked and then obeyed, with a small spurt of fire. “You don’t have a knife sharp enough to cut through my hide,” I said. He grinned and held up another point, made from the same hard metal as the arrowheads.

“This will do,” he said. He faltered a moment and then said, “This is going to hurt.”

I grunted, tensing myself. “You’re too squeamish, boy. Did your father ever tell you that?”

“Many times,” he said, and began to cut.

It did hurt. When he cut out each arrow he used a brand from the fire and sealed the wounds with a hiss of burning flesh. He was extra careful with the arrow near my wing base, for moving it the slightest bit could nick the artery, and all would be lost. I lay still, holding my breath till pressure built up in my fire chamber, and when he finally loosened it, stanched the wound, and sealed it with fire, I gave a long exhale that steamed a few thousand gallons of water from the lake.

The mist still rose around us when he packed up his things. He stood and looked at me. “Can you fly?”

Not with my old strength, but well enough to reach the Dragon Wastes, with a detour over nearby farmland for a bite. I just nodded.

He looked skeptical. I thought, I am becoming adept at understanding him, for all we had known each other for so short of time. He has a lot of his father in him.

“I think, Master Weith, that it is time for you to hold up your end of the bargain. But again, a warning. I am more apt to seek revenge than show gratitude.”

He hesitated, and then said, “Yes. I ask only that you remember your oath to me.”

With the Dragon Oath pulsing through me with every beat of my heart, I could hardly forget. I ignored the insult. He laid the amber on a rock and pulled a small hammer out of his satchel.

“Wizard!”

A group of men stood down the shore, their weapons at the ready, looking ghostly in the mist. One came forward and shouted. “Hold him there and we’ll finish the job!”

I thought many things at that moment. In the mist they could not see that Weith had tended my wounds. They didn’t understand the significance of the amber. I lay as still as I could, acting faint. Weith paused and looked from me to the men.

“Hold!” he called out to them. He is weak – under my control. When I break the amber it will destroy him. Let me do it.”

He looked at me and took a breath, raising the hammer over his head. I lolled more weakly, presenting my foreleg in such a way as to make a step. At the same time I gathered my wings, tensing for flight.

Weith muttered something and to my great surprise I recognized it.

 

Ach gragatch at takre curaque

At tum skatch gragatch num

Such gragatch nar ag su makh

Jur makh takar mu gragatch!

 

From dragon blood and dragon bone

From dragon heart and dragon tears

Be free of dragon cell and dragon stone

 

With a great blow he smashed the hammer down upon the amber, and it exploded into golden shards. The little dragon captured inside disappeared. I convulsed, my body shuddering, as I was set free, my long captivity over.

I rose above the band of men, and they cried out. Their captain looked straight at Weith, and shouted, “Traitor! You die here!”

A dragon’s work is never done. I grabbed Weith delicately with my teeth and tossed him onto my back. I sent a gout of flame at the soldiers, and we cleared the mist over the lake and glided west, into the setting sun.

#

When we touched down it was night. The earth and rocks still held the day’s warmth, and I basked in the fading comfort of the sun. Weith’s expression was one of awe in the glow of the fire I ignited. I snorted.

“You look entirely fatuous,” I pointed out.

“Not many men get to say they flew on the back of a dragon.” He stretched out, and looked smug. “My father never did.”

“Fascinating. The pettiness come down from your mother?”

“Go bugger yourself,” he snapped back.

A silence fell as we each digested our shock, he over his utterance and me over mine. I rallied.

“So you perch on my back like a flea. Your father was still twice the man you will ever be.”

“So he told me, over and again.” Now that was bitterness. “You have no idea what he was like.”

“I knew him better than you did and for longer, so I could be said to have the greater knowledge.”

Weith voiced a strange sound. Words? Laughter? I could not tell. “He’d like to hear that. He cared more for your good opinion than anyone else’s.”

As he should. “It would not have stopped me from killing him, had I the chance.”

“Are you sure?” His voice was soft. The firelight caught the gleam of his malicious eye. “The longer he associated with you, the more dragonlike he became. And you – are you sure you didn’t become more like us? Soft?”

A slow vibration began in my firechamber, and I reared up my head. Weith shrank below me.

“Try me,” I said. I opened my mouth to gout, to rid myself of this miserable parasite once and for all, when he held out a golden stone. Weith cried out the words of power, and I felt an amber prison fall around me again. I roared into the night sky, and my cry echoed back.

“How many of those things do you have?!”

“As many as I need.” Sweat sprang out on his forehead and darkened his hair. He kept the stone up though his arm trembled. “You will not kill me, Arauch. You want to remember my father kindly, go ahead. But he was a dragon of a man, and he taught me all his tricks.”

I stamped my foot, shaking the earth. Weith staggered but kept his feet. It wouldn’t matter anyway. The amber, with another dracunculus bound in its depths, held me securely once again.

“You asked why it took me ten years to come for you,” he went on. “He trained me for you. He raised me for you, he made me for you. And then, before he died, he said, if there are no other dragons, if they had all died over the past one thousand years, it would be an unkindness to set you free.” He laughed again, a harsh noise. “My father said, ‘There is none so lonely as the last of his kind.’ That’s all you were to him. The last mateless brute in a failed breeding program.”

I was beyond rage, beyond petty anger, beyond pride. If the boy knew how he rocked me, he gave no sign of it. We were silent for a long time.

“Well,” I said at last. “It’s not as if you knew where to look.”

#

 

What Weith had called the Dragon Wastes was once the Valley of Dragons. The valley floor was cracked and sere, bracketed by eroded hills, overgrown with brush and trees. It was a forbidding land, nothing better for my kin. Space to fly, to fight, to ride the air spirals to where the air turned from blue to endless black. We stood on the edge of a cliff and looked out for miles, and saw no signs of life.

“Hang on,” I told Weith, and spread my wings. He gripped with hands and boots, but I didn’t take flight. Instead, I reached out my long neck and trumpeted a call. I could feel the air bellow up from inside me and out in a loud, long volley. The call rolled across the valley and Weith gasped.

The echos had long faded before I took a breath and trumpeted again, but this time my call failed uncertainly. Weith shifted his weight, as if he were about to say something. “Silence!” I snapped.

Twice more he tried to speak, but I held my position, ignoring him. The hot sun climbed in the sky, and air shimmered over the valley floor. Oh the spirals, I thought, dreaming of the sky dance. I shook off my nostalgia. I would wait here until my bones turned to rock if I had to.

“Arauch–” Weith said again. I turned my head with great deliberation. I was about to tell him that if he did not shut up I would eat him raw, when the ground shook hard and I had to half-unfold my wings for balance.

Across the valley, the hills shuddered. Stones rolled from the worn summit, uprooting ancient trees, carving new gashes in the hillside. And then the mountain ridge itself rose into the sky, the jagged outlines turning into one mighty articulated wing, and then another.

She rose slowly out of her long sleep, where soil had settled over her and trees had grown up for hundreds of years, until the outline of her great body had become the worn, eroded skyline of the ridge.

Up she came, her body rising higher and higher until she finally freed herself from the mountain top and still she came, her black and dusty body darkening the sky. With one long slow flap of her wings she soared over the valley and glided to a stop below us. When she landed, the ground shuddered again and the cracked lake floor sank under her impact, raising another cloud of dust. Only then did the sound reach us; it sounded as if it came from deep within the earth.

Her head rose until she was eye level with me and the puny man-creature sitting on my back. Dirt clung to her deep black scales, and her eye was black and immense. I could see my golden self inside it, and quailed, for it looked as if I were trapped in inside it.

She spoke in Dragon, and the speech was old, and held within it the rhythms of the earth.

“You are small.”

“My queen,” I replied, the words scarcely containing my exultation. My queen. My queen!

She looked at Weith, and he covered his eyes, crouching on my back. I despised and pitied him, both for his fear and because he would never know, ever, how magnificent she was. And then she looked at me, a question in her ink-black eyes. A long story, I almost said, but didn’t. Instead, I said, “He is under my protection.”

A red fire came under the purple blackness of her scales, a sign of her growing wrath. Without looking away, I said, “Run. Now.” He fell rather than slid from my back. It was only what I owed, and no more, to his father. Her head darted out but I was expecting that and blocked it with my neck. I could hear Weith pick himself up and run back through the woods but I did not take my eyes from her. Once more I heard the sound of smashing amber and the muttered incantation, and shuddered a second time in release. I spared a thought for the little creature, keeping his last pathetic promise. As I kept mine, to his father, so many years ago. When you send your son to set me free, I will not kill him. This I promise, this I swear.

The queen stared at me and then snapped with her gleaming jaws. I grinned back and answered her challenge with my own. It was good to be home.

The End

_______________________________________

Patrice Sarath is the author of the Gordath Wood series from Ace and The Tales of Port Saint Frey from Angry Robot Books. Book 1, The Sisters Mederos, is forthcoming in April 2018. Patrice lives in Austin, Texas


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