Blood spattered him, warm and thick and red. Full of a life that was no more. Raon glanced up the length of the gore covered sword in front of him, the point had stopped bare inches from his neck. The sellsword grunted and pulled his blade from the body showering them both with a fresh rain of crimson. The corpse fell to the floor, a pitiful thing now, bereft of the power it had held in life.
“It would have killed you, boy. You, and then the rest of your village. Oh, they have their ways to persuade you otherwise – don’t think they haven’t tried on me. But they are all rotten. Black hearted liars the lot of them.”
Hefting the weapon, the sellsword’s iron blade clove through muscle and bone, decapitating the body. He spat in the spreading pool of blood and set about the gristly work of ensuring it could never rise again. Raon’s hand burned where- where it had cut him. His swollen throat throbbed in a struggle to breathe. As his vision blurred he saw the sellsword crouched beside him, silhouetted against the burning buildings, and heard the muffled sound of iron and leather. He was too weak to move as strong hands pulled his head back and pressed a cold thin line against his throat. Then a rough voice whispered in his ear.
“Trust me boy, the only good dragon is a dead one.”
Four weeks earlier
Raon stood in the middle of the road, stomach churning. The smoking ruins of the caravan had shocked him. Burnt and blackened corpses littered the ground, some had fought, others had fled, but in the end they had all suffered the same fate. Dragon. He watched as Corran strode between the smouldering wagons, searching for anything they could save. The burly man protected the village, and in return he took what he wanted.
“Get over here boy and help me lift this.”
Raon ran over to the upturned cart where Corran stood. In the silence he could hear a faint whimpering from underneath it. Together they tipped it back, revealing a girl no older than he, with dark eyes and hair that might have been red if there was no so much soot in it. Miraculously, she did not appear to be hurt, though her clothes were singed and her arm appeared to be broken. Corran ran his hands over her arm, checking for wounds. Then, so quickly Raon could not see how, he wrenched it. The girl screamed as her bones slid back into place. The cry was barely human, and Raon could feel the hairs rising on his neck. In this silence the sound would travel, and who knew where the dragon was? Hurriedly, he helped Corran finish his search. There was little to carry, most of the supplies were burnt, it would be a hungry winter for them all.
As they began to walk back towards the village, Raon could feel the girl watching him. She had not said a word, not made a sound apart from that one cry. He wondered if there was something wrong with her, the shock of a dragon attack was enough to scare anyone. Turning to ask if she was all right, he was just in time to see her fall to the ground. She was shaking uncontrollably, and burning up with fever.
Raon lay on his pallet, thinking. Corran had carried the girl back to the village, and left her in the care of the women. He hoped she would be all right. Her eyes haunted him, black as night and wide with terror. The rhythmic sound of Corran sharpening his sword below, brought his mind back to the dragon. The big man had barely spoken all night, he sat staring into the fire his dark eyes cold and calculating. Raon wondered what he had been thinking, wondered what they would do if the dragon came for them.
A week passed, and then two. Corran kept a close eye on the girl’s recovery. She ate and slept, but the fever had not broken though she seemed well enough after her ordeal. The women cleaner her, and gave her new clothes to replace her own which were stained with soot and burnt beyond repair. Raon wondered what had happened to her. She was lucky to be alive at all, but something inside her seemed broken. She never spoke, but stared fearfully at the passers by.
He did not have much time to think though. Corran sent him far from the village in search of strange black rocks and twisted trees. He was not told what these things were for, but Raon knew. The old tales spoke of dragonsbane, which gave you the power to kill even the mightiest dragon. Corran also began to teach him how to use a sword. The lessons were hard and left his arms aching from the weight of the crudely formed weapons.
“It’s not a pretty thing, war. You don’t need a nice weapon for it either. Those pretty swords you see the nobs using, they won’t last in a fight. The blades snap, then you are as good as dead. No, you want a blade like this, heavy, tough, one you can rely on. Nothing better than iron to finish a dragon.”
Then Raon got sick. A strange red rash covered him, making his skin lumpy and red. He lay on his pallet and listened to Corran preparing his dragonsbane. It seemed to take a lot of work, but Corran would not let him help. Raon had not even seen it. And so he lay there, listening. As the sun set he heard a fain noise behind him, bare feet on a rough plank floor. He turned to see the girl standing there with a hot poultice of strange herbs. She did not speak, but covered his skin with it. At first it burnt horribly and Raon almost screamed with the pain. But as it cooled it seemed to draw the poison and left his arms and legs strangely warm.
Every day for a week she came, never speaking, but always with something that made Raon feel better. His rash faded, leaving his skin dry and scaly. Then she stopped coming. Raon went downstairs, but Corran was working on the dragonsbane and sent him out. He spoke to the townspeople, but they were busy preparing for the dragon. While he had been sick it had attacked again, becoming bolder each time. The inhabitants from the outer farms had moved into the village, those who were not dead. The village was the only place that was untouched. Raol helped them with their work, then went in search of the girl.
He found her outside the village, in a clearing of the forest. Her eyes met his the moment he walked into the clearing. He sat on a rock watched her as she mixed herbs over a fire that was only a little larger than it should have been. He stared into the flames, thinking of the dragon. The flames burnt higher, red and gold. She turned and walked towards him and he saw a long silver knife in her hand. Their eyes met, and he could see the flames reflected on the blade. She knelt beside him and lifted his hand. He froze, but her gaze did not falter. The cut was swift and deep, the blade so sharp he did not feel the pain until she was binding their bleeding hands together. The pain was terrible, as if a brand had been pressed into his palm. She knelt for what seemed like an eternity before cutting the cloth that bound them together. Still without a word, she rose and left the glade striding deeper into the forest. Shaking Raon lifted his hand. The cut had healed, in a fashion. The skin was twisted into a hideous scar which glowed red by the light of the dying coals.
That night, the dragon came.
Corran woke him in the small hours of the morning. Together, they ran outside, into the smoke and flames and crowds of fleeing people. For hours they fought the raging fires, but the village could not be saved. As the townspeople fled, Corran led Raol to the square where the dragonsbane waited. Piles of sticks lay at strange, unnatural angles, interspersed with carved black rocks. Corran let out a roar as the dragon appeared before them. It was a deep red, the light of the burning village reflected in its gleaming scales. It was smaller that Raon had imagined, and the thought came to him that it was female. It landed on the grid of twisted trees, and Raon wondered if this would work, if they were going to die.
Corran threw the pottery jug in his left hand, the burning oil it contained igniting the trap. The dragon screamed, and the scream was one Raon had heard before. Running through the flames he and Corran reached the center where the dragon was. Where she stood. Forced to return to her human form she screamed. Corran grimaced and gestured to Raon’s sword.
“Keep it busy while I circle round.”
Raon glanced at his sword and then at her- at it, and began to walk forward. Somehow, through her torment she heard him coming. He raised his sword, then hesitated. Their eyes met only for a moment, but it was all the dragon needed. Grabbing his arm it squeezed, the pain causing him to drop his weapon. His scar glowed in the firelight as she slowly began to choke him. Red shadows clouded his vision as Corran moved in behind and drove the sword through her heart. Blood spattered him, warm and thick and red. Full of a life that was no more, save what little now flowed in his veins.