The dragon dove out of the sky, claws extended, ready to strike. Its scales flashed so brightly in the morning sun that it hurt my eyes. As it landed, claws still out, jaws agape, I wondered if it might grab me. Pinned by its claws, its fangs would rip me in two with ease. Or perhaps it would roast me alive, the smoke hopefully suffocating me before the flames blistered my skin off. Either way, it would be a serious violation of the rules.
The dragon had size and strength, fangs and claws, fire and flight. I had the rules. That and my brains. It hardly seemed enough.
Fortunately, dragons are not fools (unlike many of the people I work for). True, it wanted to eat me, but one human cannot feed a dragon. One human is an appetizer. Dragons need lots of people, a whole kingdom of people, or in this case, a duchy.
But even a duchy is not enough. If a dragon hunts any area at will, it will deplete the human population in a matter of months. After that, it must move on, often into another dragon’s territory, which means they fight. That causes huge fires and massive destruction. It’s a nightmare, with towns and farmland destroyed: chaos, exodus, and plague — things that neither dragons nor people want.
Hunter and prey both need a more stable solution. That’s where I come in.
The dragon settled down on the hillside slightly above me. It had claimed the higher ground, always a shrewd tactic. It stretched its great wings once, almost like a yawn, then curled its tail around its massive frame and settled its head upon the ground. It peered at me, and I could see my reflection in its eyes.
I smiled, took a breath, and began my spiel.
“An honor to make your acquaintance,” I said, bowing. I always bow at the start. Dragons, like nobles, like it. “As you know,” I said, trying to appear calm, “I am here representing the local Duke to negotiate a four-year contract regarding your food supply.”
I’ve personally never liked the term ‘food supply’, but the other options are even less appetizing: ‘human death toll’ is too prejudicial, ‘deliveries’ too commercial, ‘bounty’ too bucolic, ‘morsels’ too light-hearted, and ‘quota’ too antiseptic.
The dragon said nothing to my opening; it was still eyeing me, making me feel like a leg of juicy spit-roasted lamb. Had I misjudged the situation? Would it just eat me? Yes, there would be repercussions for such an act, but that would be little comfort to me as I was being digested in its stomach. I swallowed hard. The dragon was intimidating me, trying to unnerve me. Best to just continue.
“Like all contracts, the agreement we reach will require both parties to make certain…sacrifices.” I always like to get that word in: sacrifice. It reminds the dragon that lives are at stake. Dragons don’t care about human lives, except in terms of quantity, but there’s no harm in reminding the dragon that our side does not share its point of view.
It spoke then; its voice was distinctive. Most dragons have unpleasant voices: harsh, gravel-filled growls. Maybe it’s all the fire coming out of their throats. This dragon had the voice of a tenor.
“Virgins,” it said. “I want virgins.”
“Virgins? You’re a dragon, not a vampire.” I said. “How could virginity make a difference to you?”
“Sex makes human flesh taste sour,” it said in its beautiful voice. It almost sounded like a castrato. I wondered if that had something to do with its request, but I wasn’t about to ask. Never piss off the dragon is the first unwritten rule of my guild.
Then it dawned on me. It didn’t want virgins. It wanted young people: tender and succulent like veal. But it knew that would look bad, would cause an uproar — hence the virgin request. Because for some insane reason, that was actually more…palatable?
I almost smiled, but I didn’t want to tip my hand.
“You know,” I said in an innocent tone, “there’s a convent nearby — lots of nuns. I’m sure they are all virgins, probably eager to be martyrs. I can arrange for a good number of them to come to you.”
The dragon growled at that, and I allowed myself a smile at the growl. We both knew that most of the nuns were crones — not the tender meat it was hoping for. And so it was struck by its own lance. Or perhaps burned by its own breath? More importantly, it was something I could leverage.
The dragon glowered at me for a bit, then hissed out two words: “No nuns.”
“Well,” I said. “If you insist on excluding nuns, it means the total number of victims will have to go down — fair’s fair,” I said.
I think it almost sighed then.
“How much?” it asked.
And so, we began to haggle over the nun exclusion. The negotiations had begun. An hour later, I had scored my first victory and saved a dozen lives, which not only felt good, but also netted me as many gold coins.
That’s how I make my money. Every life I save garners me a coin. The guild determines each territory’s projected human-dragon consumption cost, and the assigned negotiator tries to beat that estimate.
I know it sounds cold-blooded, but in my line of work you have to be willing to sell lives to save lives. It’s like being a general who needs to take a hill; you know it will cost a certain number of soldiers. You want to make it the smallest number, but it’s still going to cost.
“I have yet to see your credentials,” the dragon said. It was trying to change the subject and get on a new footing — always a good idea when you’ve had a setback.
I bowed again and showed my letters of accreditation. My name, Edwin Skein, was emblazoned upon a long vellum scroll in gold ink. The appendices showed a record I was proud of: negotiated settlements with a dozen dragons. My Curriculum Vitae listed my publications in the Journal of Dragon Dealings. I wondered if this dragon had (perhaps in preparation) read any of my writings. Though the guild frowned upon it, it was well known that dragons read the journal; some were so bold as to subscribe.
The negotiations with this dragon, who was named Blood-Wind, (yes, they always have names like that), were grueling. Throughout, its belly rumbled louder and louder. Near the end, it was like a kettle drum beating a march. That was good; it made Blood-Wind eager to conclude the deal. It made me fairly eager also. We had left the hillside and were working in its lair: a many-chambered cave it called Dire-Skull (and yes, they always name their lairs like that too).
After three weeks of haggling, we were ready to lock it up: one thousand eight hundred souls, many taken from local orphanages, to be delivered monthly over four years. The orphanage was a brilliant stroke on my part: young people no one minded parting with. Their inclusion let me shave almost five hundred lives off the deal. I told myself that many of those orphans would have died anyway. The fate of orphans in our modern age is, at best perilous. At least this way, their deaths would save lives. A rationalization, I suppose, but in my line of work, there’s a lot of that.
As I tallied the final numbers, I realized this negotiation was a great success. Of course, I would get no thanks.
When a general wins a battle, he’s praised. In my case, I’d be called ‘ghoul’, ‘parasite’, ‘leech’, ‘traitor’, not to my face but behind my back. I would be lumped with the dragon as another monster. It doesn’t bother me. Like the dragon, I’ve grown a tough hide. I’m used to the looks of anger and resentment when I ride into a town. I’m used to eating alone and being served at the back of a hall. I knew what the locals thought about my kind.
But I also knew that this deal was saving lives. In terms of the greater good, this was an excellent arrangement. Between the nuns and the orphans, Nurbleville was getting off light, So I was pleased, even proud of this contract. Then disaster showed up.
Disaster was six foot ten, clad in heavy armor, sitting on the biggest horse imaginable. Disaster was named Sir Granger Goodwin of the Strong Arm. He was blond and blue-eyed and handsome, and he was here to slay the dragon. Just one look at him, and I knew that half the duchy would think he could do it, too.
I was sitting outside at a tavern (alone as usual) enjoying a well-earned celebratory ale when the knight rode in. He went straight to the town square, followed by his squire, a skinny kid on a mule. Sir Goodwin stood up in his stirrups. It made him look like a giant. The squire pulled out a bugle and blew it until a crowd had formed.
“People of Nurble,” Sir Goodwin shouted. “I have come to deliver you from evil. I have come to slay the dragon!”
He swung up his lance. I smiled at that; the symbolism was too much.
“My Lance will pierce the dragon’s heart. My aim will be guided by God; all I ask in return are your prayers. Strengthened by your faith, I cannot fail.” He was either a terrific liar, a lunatic, or both.
As the crowd grew thicker, Goodwin’s description of the slaying of Blood-Wind grew more and more ludicrous. I grew more and more nervous. Fortunately, Duke Nurble arrived. I was relieved to see that Nurble also looked nervous. Nurble was a pragmatic politician. He’d gained his title not by war, but by deft scheming: buying land and shaving coins. He was of the breed of nobility who lived by trade, not sword. Nurble’s father had been a pig farmer. The Duke was so modern as to be proud of his father’s lowly past: a sow decorated his coat arms. Goodwin, on the other hand, was clearly from an ancient line of warriors.
Despite their differences, the two nobles, astride their horses, leaned towards each other and began to quietly murmur to one another. After a brief exchange, Sir Goodwin turned back to the crowd.
“People of Nurble, I go now to take council with your Duke. Soon, the dragon shall be destroyed; soon, we shall all be rejoicing! Have faith.” Then the whole lot of them, knight, Duke, squire, and guards, rode off to the castle.
I was on foot, so getting to the Duke’s castle took me much longer. Don’t imagine some grey fortress when I say castle. The Duke had built a chateau. On arrival, I was taken to the Duke’s library: a sad collection of worm-eaten books. It had only three pristine sections: one on pig farming, one on pastry making, and the third (hidden by a false shelf) was made up of cheap erotica mixed with well-thumbed manuals on poisons and soporifics. I’d heard rumors of local maidens disappearing, only to reappear days later with no memory of what had happened to them. The peasants said it was vampires. My contacts in the Undead Umbrage Union had assured me Nurbleville was vampire-free. Here was the actual answer. Despite my regular dealings with the horrors of my trade, I shuddered. To help take my mind off the matter and help pass the time, I took out one of the pig books.
I did not have to wait long. The Duke came in both smiling and sweating. He looked like a combination of the types of books he kept: a pig eating an eclair stuffed with a filling of hidden toxic obscenity.
“Good news!” he said with an enthusiasm that might have been directed at a piglet about to be slaughtered, a cream puff devoured, or a maiden…well, you get the idea.
“What news, my lord?” I said in as neutral a tone as I could muster.
“Sir Goodwin will slay the dragon in the morning.”
I nearly laughed, but instead coughed hard. Never piss off the nobles is the second rule of my guild. I stood up and bowed. I had to be careful here. As with dragons, noblemen must be dealt with gingerly. The two have much in common: power, irritability, not to mention terrible breath. This was certainly the case with Duke Nurble. Especially the breath.
“In that case, my services are no longer required,” I said.
The Duke looked surprised.
“Sir Goodwin thought you might object,” he said.
“Object? What would be the point? I will, however, leave your duchy immediately.”
“But you’ll miss the victory feast,” the Duke said.
“Victory feast?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I am told dragon meat is a fine repast: wonderful in meat pies.”
I wanted to point out that the business at hand was less like baking pastries and more like making sausage, but I doubted he would get my point.
“No one actually knows what dragon tastes like, my lord,” I said. “No one has ever slain a dragon.”
“So, you do doubt Sir Goodwin! He told me you would cast doubt upon his valor.”
“I am sure he is most valorous, but the dragon is large, fierce, and scaled; it breathes fire and flies. I am not sure that valor will win over all that. And after the battle, the dragon’s wrath will be great.”
“You assume Sir Goodwin will fail,” the Duke said.
“A safe assumption,” I said.
“It was Sir Goodwin who defeated that giant to the North,” the Duke said.
This took me aback a bit. I had heard through my friends in the Behemoth Bargainer’s Brotherhood that the Giant of Bungbole had been slain. So it had been Sir Goodwin who’d (literally) killed Robert Red-Nose’s negotiations.
Was it possible? I wondered.
“A giant, while formidable, is no dragon,” I said.
“Sir Goodwin has slain a dragon,” the Duke said triumphantly.
“Well, he claims he has. My guild keeps close ties regarding all draconic matters. The consequences of such a deed would have reverberated throughout the kingdom.”
“It did not happen in the kingdom,” a new voice interjected. Hunched in the doorway, looking more giant than ever, was Sir Goodwin. He strode in, his spurs chinking, and threw a gauntlet down on the table. For a moment, I thought he was challenging me to a duel, but then I looked more closely at the gauntlet. It was greenish and scaled: dragon skin.
To my credit, I did not gasp.
“I was on crusade in the East when I came upon the beast,” Sir Goodwin said. His face lost all expression, his voice distant and hushed as if he were telling a holy parable, though one involving massive bloodshed.
“Go on,” the Duke said. “Tell him!”
The knight nodded; he needed no encouragement.
“To be fair,” Sir Goodwin said, “it was old, old even for a dragon, so perhaps not as formidable as the beast I will slay tomorrow, but it was a dragon. I rode away at first, then spun and charged. Before it could react, I struck. My lance found its heart. No doubt God was with me that day. I skinned it and made these gloves and a gambeson for myself and my steed; they resist all fire. The flames of dragons cannot touch me.”
“Tell him about the blood!” the Duke blurted.
Sir Goodwin smiled. “After I slew the dragon, I cut out its heart and drank its lifeblood. Since then, I have been blessed with remarkable strength of limb.”
The Duke tittered. Nurble was like a love-smitten maiden or a bully’s toady. The Duke pulled out a piece of twisted metal from his purse and threw it down next to the gauntlet. It was, or rather had been, a horseshoe; it was now nearly straight. Sir Goodwin picked it up and twisted it back into a U-shape. It was like watching a child bend a green willow reed. The Duke clapped his hands in delight.
My blood ran cold. It was worse than I had thought. Sir Goodwin wasn’t just some oversized lunatic. He was the authentic item, an actual slayer of dragons, a figure from legend, a hero. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, more dangerous than a hero. They bring ruin and disaster. There are whole guild treatises written about how to deal with heroes, all of them useless. I had been fearful before; now, I was near panic, but I kept my face motionless.
“Remarkable,” I said. “You are to be commended, good sir knight.”
Sir Goodwin beamed. “I go now to pray in the Duke’s chapel. I will keep vigil there and take midnight mass. On the morrow, with my soul refreshed, I will kill the dragon.” He turned and left, spurs still clinking.
When I could no longer hear the jingling of his spurs, I turned to the Duke.
Before I could speak, the Duke cut me off.
“I will not hear any attacks against that man,” he said.
I paused. I couldn’t stop Sir Goodwin by myself. Dragons I could handle, but a hero? I would need help. I would need the Duke.
I smiled and again bowed.
“Well, I had best be on my way then; I need to be far away from here,” I said.
“You still think he will lose!” the Duke exclaimed.
“No, he will win, but it doesn’t matter. It will not be safe here,” I said.
“But once the dragon is dead, all will be safe.”
“Do you recall a certain peasant uprising in Marco?” I asked.
“Yes. Some serfs killed their lord Marco and declared themselves free,” the Duke snorted.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The king called us to action. I sent a hundred men.”
“And the peasants?”
“Hung from trees, drawn and quartered,” the Duke said with a warm smile.
“An example was made.”
“Of course,” the Duke said. “What’s this to do with Goodwin?”
“Not Goodwin, rather your realm and the realms around you. To the South is the Duchy of Rubabar. My guild-sister Olga Oakenboard negotiated a contract between Duke Rubabar and Bone-Melter seven years ago.”
“Bone-Melter?” the Duke asked.
“The dragon that occupies Rubabar’s lands,” I said.
“What is it about these dragons and their names!” the Duke exclaimed.
“I know, I know,” I said.
“Does it actually melt bones?”
“Frequently and with great relish,” I replied.
“Something about the marrow…”
“Egads!” the Duke said. He looked at me with disgust, as if I were the one melting bones.
“Why are you bringing up Rubabar’s dragon?” Nurble asked.
“For the same reason, I bring up your Eastern neighbor Baron Horegirth and his dragon, Skull-Spitter.”
“Skull-Spitter?” the Duke said. “Does it actually spit out…?” the Duke pointed to his own head rather than finish the question.
“With great accuracy,” I replied. “Can you guess what lies to the West?”
“I would hazard another dragon,” he replied smartly.
“Two actually,” I said, “a mated pair: Fire-Fart and its mate, Spiff the Sun Blocker.”
“Well, I know there’s no dragon to the North!” the Duke said as if this proved something.
“It’s too cold; that is why a giant was there,” I said.
“So that’s why the Baron Bungbole never has to hire your lot. Seems unfair.”
“Indeed, he is blessed,” I said, not bothering to point out that the Baron could barely grow enough crops to feed himself or his people, let alone giants.
“Why are you telling me about all these other dragons? They are not my concern. Blood-Wind is the problem.”
“They are not your concern now,” I said. “But what happens when these other dragons learn that Blood-Wind’s been killed? Just like you did with the peasants, they’ll set an example. Can Sir Goodwin slay four dragons? They will fly here and destroy everything,” I said.
The Duke’s lower lip quivered a bit, but he swallowed hard. “Nonsense,” he said, “you talk as if they were men; they are beasts.”
“Beasts who can negotiate a contract, sign one with a tail dipped in ink, tally peasants delivered, read a manifest; beasts with long, long memories.”
“You’re trying to frighten me,” the Duke said.
“You should be frightened,” I said.
“Piffle! They are beasts; nothing will happen.”
I sighed. It was clear the Duke would never come around. The idea of killing the dragon was too appealing. I made a quick calculation. I should be safe if I bought a horse and rode to the North immediately. It would be tight but manageable.
I did not move.
At first, I thought that my pride kept me there, or perhaps fear of the damage to my reputation. What else could it be? Why should I care about the people of Nurble? They didn’t care about me. All I got from them were looks of suspicion, even hate. They called me ‘Dragon-lover’, ‘ghoul’, ‘flesh-trader’.
But that didn’t mean they deserved death. I’ve seen what happens when you rebel against a dragon: burned bodies and wrecked buildings, stones cracked and iron melted, ash stretching for miles, pools of poison and acid where once lay fields and ponds.
I looked at the Duke. He didn’t know; he didn’t understand dragons; he only understood his world, the world of nobles. Perhaps that was the answer…
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s speak of more practical matters. How was Sir Goodwin rewarded for slaying that giant?”
“Betrothed to the Bungbole’s daughter,” the Duke replied.
“Isn’t there a rivalry between you and Bungbole, a dispute over farmland?”
“What of it?” the Duke asked.
“Why would the future son-in-law of your rival aid you?”
“He seeks glory,” the Duke said.
“Indeed, after he slays the dragon, your peasants will cheer him. How do you feel about the next Baron of Bungbole being idolized by your subjects?” I asked.
Finally, the Duke looked afraid.
“You think Sir Goodwin plans to overthrow me?” he asked.
“Sir Goodwin is a genuinely noble soul, but his future father-in-law, the good Baron? You know him well. What kind of man is he?” I knew the answer: a treacherous bastard, just like Nurble.
The Duke sank into his chair. He resembled a deflated pig bladder.
“I am lost,” he said.
“We must stop Goodwin,” I said.
“How?” the Duke asked.
“Poison?” I asked.
The Duke’s eye glanced toward the hidden bookshelf.
“Such an act would be ignoble,” the Duke said softly.
“Agreed,” I said. “And with that dragon blood in him, he might resist the poison. Besides, he is fasting. The only medium would be the holy wine he takes at mass.”
“To poison sacramental wine would be a grave sin,” the Duke said; his tone was more thoughtful than shocked.
“An unthinkable act,” I replied. I looked down at the table, where the glove still rested.
I picked up the glove and waved it triumphantly.
“I have the answer,” I said.
“What? The glove? Can we use it against Goodwin somehow?” the Duke asked. He snatched the glove from me and began examining it.
“You misunderstand. I can show the glove to the dragon. Explain the danger. If the dragon knows beforehand that the knight is fire-proof and preternaturally strong, it can fight him on its own terms. Fly up and drop boulders on him or something. True, Goodwin will die, but at least he’ll die a hero’s death, and my warning will allow me to ask for a further reduction in our offering.”
“And you will reap even more gold,” the Duke said, giving me a speculative look.
“I am willing to refund the addition to you,” I said.
The Duke looked skeptical.
“A dragon negotiator willing to take a cut in commission? It’s unheard of,” the Duke said.
Like everyone, the Duke assumed I was only in it for the money. Never mind the burned bodies and wrecked towers that would come if we didn’t stop the knight. No one ever understands until it’s too late.
“Consider it a further incentive. I prefer to continue dealing with you rather than Baron Bungbole,” I lied. “He’s a Northern bumpkin; you are sophisticated. Besides, after this, I’ll have such a good rapport with Blood-Wind that future dealings will be much easier, far more lucrative. I’m willing to set aside profit today for greater profit tomorrow.” The Duke smiled at the explanation. With an overly formal gesture, as if he were bestowing a medal, he handed the glove back to me.
“Go and keep an eye on the knight,” I said. “Keep him occupied in prayer, and I will go to the dragon.”
Duke Nurble sighed.
“Ah well, I suppose we have no choice. Such a shame,” the Duke said, shaking his head.
“A ruler must make difficult choices,” I said, “You must protect yourself and your kingdom above all else. It’s for the greater good — for your subjects and heirs.”
“Yes. I must think of my heirs,” the Duke answered. Again, his tone was thoughtful, which should have alerted me. Sighing one last time, he heaved himself up and departed.
I waited, collecting my thoughts, formulating how I should approach the dragon. Then I made my way out of the library and towards the courtyard and the gate.
It was evening. The castle walls cast long shadows. In the shadows, I saw movement. Lank, helmeted figures were following me. I picked up my pace; my companions did also. Ahead, two came into view, crossing their halberds to make a barricade. Behind me, I heard movement. I spun and saw one of the Duke’s guards lunging for me, a club in hand. I dodged one blow, but another guard came forward, then another. They raised their clubs. I tried to run, but they had me surrounded. The clubs came down. Darkness engulfed me.
I woke in a dungeon, my head aching. I was in chains, and I could hear the slow drip of water. The Duke stood before me.
“I take it you changed your mind,” I said.
“You were most convincing, especially regarding how my vassals would view Sir Goodwin. That’s really what persuaded me that you were on to something,” he said.
“I am,” I said. “It’s not too late.”
“It was what you said about him being a hero. You see, Sir Goodwin is already a hero in the Count’s land. He has already slain a giant there. So I suggested to Sir Goodwin that he break his engagement to the Count’s daughter and marry my daughter instead: she is prettier and her dowry larger. The good knight agreed. So now I, and not the Count, will have a hero as a son-in-law. A double hero once he kills the dragon.”
“The other dragons will not stand for it,” I warned.
“Tush, I doubt they will care, and if they do, then you can negotiate an agreement. You will stay here a few days so as not to interfere, and then I will release you.”
I thought of arguing, but realized it was pointless. I looked around: the walls were damp, the air cold. I felt a glimmer of hope, not for the Duke or his realm but for myself.
“This is a deep dungeon,” I said.
“Yes, we are far underground. Once, there was a tower above. I had it torn down for my chateau, but I kept the underpinnings. I knew this dungeon would be useful. Make no trouble, or this place will be your tomb.”
Smiling, the Duke departed. I wondered how long he would be smiling. Carefully, I sat down. My head was still reeling from the clubs. I felt nauseous. Was it from my battered skull or my predicament, or both? I couldn’t tell. My mind went round in circles. I had misjudged the Duke. I had underestimated the knight. I was bad at reading people. Perhaps it was due to all my time dealing with dragons. Maybe it was because so many people viewed me as being on par with dragons: another creature feeding off human sacrifice. It had hardened me. I had spent too much time drinking in taverns alone, celebrating my victories alone. Instead of sharing what I had done with others, convincing them that what I did was for the best (despite how ugly and monstrous it seemed), I’d wallowed in self-pity. And now I would pay the price. I would die down here, unless this dungeon really was as deep and damp as I hoped it was.
My guard was named Grugney. He was a dim-witted soul who thought nobles were on par with angels. Grugney told me that Sir Goodwin had triumphed. A great feast was taking place above, and the Duke, with tremendous largess, had sent down a plate of roasted dragon meat. Out of professional courtesy, I did not eat it. Grugney thought me a fool and ate it himself. I am not sure how much time passed, but after what seemed like days, I was awakened by the sound of rumbling. The ground shook. I heard distant screams. I knew that above me, a great fire raged. Fortunately, the air down here was clean. Smoke rises and I was underground.
Eventually, Grugney came to my cell. His face was covered in tear-stained soot.
“Dragons!” he cried. “The sky is full of dragons!”
“Perhaps the Duke should send Sir Goodwin out,” I said.
“Goodwin is dead! They picked him up and dropped him from up high. Everything is on fire. You must come. You must stop them!”
I shook my head.
“There is no stopping them. Do you want to live, Grugney?”
“Yes! Save me!” Grugney cried. Finally, someone had said something sensible.
“Open the door,” I said.
He did so.
“Unchain me,” I said.
He did so.
“Are there stores down here? Water and food?” I asked.
“Then we will wait it out,” I said.
Grugney stared at me in horror, but a look of resignation came to his face. He nodded in agreement and sat down on the floor in a hunch, hiding his face.
Over the next two days, we heard many screams, explosions, and roars. They must have been very loud to reach down here. It was rough on poor Grugney. He cowered in a corner of the cell, crying for much of the time.
I tried to shut the sound out. I spent as much time as I could recalling all the details I knew about the four dragons above. Skull-Spitter would be playfully spitting heads at various targets. Bone-Melter would be eating hot marrow, and Fire-Fart? Well, he had that name for a reason. As to his mate, she would probably be judiciously comparing her current paramour to the other two males. I recalled a report that Silas Strenk had written about Skull-Spitter. It noted Spitter as highly intelligent and judicious, even for a dragon. The report described him as copper in color. As for Bone-Melter, I had heard that he was scarred from fights with other dragons; he had a bad reputation in the guild. There was little information on the mated pair. Hopefully, all four would be gone when we emerged.
Eventually, there was silence.
Was it over?
We crawled up and out.
Ruin greeted us.
Grugney fell to his knees. The look on his face was a microcosm of horror. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and his mouth trembled: all his angels were dead. Then he fainted, which was probably for the best. If he was anything like me, he’d be over the worst of it when he woke. I had been about his age when my village had tried to rebel.
I scouted ahead; it was as I expected. The Duchy of Nurble was no more. The town, the farms, the Duke’s castle were destroyed. Sir Goodwin’s lance was sticking upright atop a pile of rubble like a pole. Stuck upon it, like a flag at half-mast, was Sir Goodwin. I suspect the dragons had dropped him multiple times from the sky. His armor stopped fire; falling was another matter. At the base of the lance was the Duke’s body, burned to a crisp. He looked like a roasted pig.
All around, I heard moans and cries. It was difficult to tell where the sounds came from until one realized they were coming from everywhere. Above, the sun was obscured, the sky full of smoke. I stumbled forward, making my way to a tall, smoke-obscured tower that was somehow still standing. Then the tower moved.
A low, rumbling noise, like a huge Catherine wheel being turned on chains, echoed around me.
Wings emerged from the side of the ‘tower’, and I realized that the dragons had not left. An immense, fanged face, eyes shining with cunning and confidence, emerged from the smoke. To my left, I heard the padding of enormous feet; another head appeared, peering down at me with dispassionate contempt. To my right, two more heads, necks tenderly intertwined, growled both amorously and hungrily.
Like the Duke’s lands, I was surrounded by dragons. The one ahead stared at me for a moment more, then began to open its mouth.
I nearly froze but willed myself to move; I bowed as best I could, flourishing my hands in supplication.
“It is an honor to meet you, oh illustrious Spitter of Skulls,” I said, keeping my voice calm. Inwardly, I prayed that the report I had read on Skull-Spitter’s coloration was accurate.
The dragon ahead, copper in color, paused in mid-breath, then cocked its head to one side.
“Guild?” it growled.
“Yes, I am Edwin of the Negotiators Guild at your service.”
“I would think that a member of the guild would know better than to have allowed this,” the dragon said. It was Skull-Spitter.
“Rest assured, I tried to prevent it. I was locked in the dungeon below this former keep by its owner.” I pointed to the roasted pig. “The Duke would not listen to reason. He was going to have me executed for attempting to warn Blood-Wind.”
“For that, your death will be swift,” Skull-Spitter said.
I wanted to run. I wanted to scream. I even wanted to fight (how, I don’t know), but I knew none of that would save me. I had to think and think quickly.
“Thank you,” I said, bowing again. “I, of course, understand. It is a shame that the guild will not. They will view all of you with great distrust when they hear of this tragic incident. The circumstance will look most suspect. It appears you decided to carve up Blood-Wind’s territory for yourselves.”
“Nonsense,” Skull-Spitter said.
“Of course,” I replied quickly, “but consider how ludicrous it will seem that a knight slew a dragon. No one will believe that a man,” I pointed to Sir Goodwin’s half-mast corpse, “slew the great Blood-Wind.”
This gave Skull-Spitter pause.
“It’s stalling,” the one to my right said. “Kill it and be done with it.”
“As a trusted guild member, I could write a report explaining what happened; it would only be circulated among the upper leadership. This could all be kept quiet — something we all want. No one wants more incidents like this.”
To my left, Fire-Fart spoke. “Aren’t you that Edwin who wrote that piece on Dragon Counting systems in the quarterly?”
“I am, oh great scaled one,” I said.
“I quite liked that,” the dragon said.
“I’ve always thought the draconic use of base eight rather than ten to be superior,” I said.
“Of course. After all…”
“Eight is a power of two,” I interjected hastily.
“Exactly,” Fire-Fart said, nodding. Dragons love maths. They love gold and eating people more, but mathematics is a close third.
“You should do a study on egg combinatorics,” Fire-Fart said speculatively.
“I am planning one, actually,” I lied. “Should I survive.”
Ahead of me, Skull-Spitter’s head lowered and came close to me.
“Now, I remember you. You negotiated a contract for my niece a few years ago. She said you were quite good.”
“Your niece is as nearly discerning as you, oh great spitter of heads.” I bowed my own head as I spoke.
“She is clever,” Skull-Spitter said proudly. Male dragons are often more fond of their nieces and nephews than their own (supposed) offspring. This is due no doubt to the overly amorous nature of female dragons, but I did not say this. Never piss off the dragon.
“Well, what do the rest of you think?” Skull-Spitter asked.
“Remember, my lord, you will need to negotiate this new territory between you, not to mention new contracts with the respective humans in your expanded territories. There will also need to be a master contract with the guild,” I said. With each tedious item I listed, I could see the dragons almost wince. They hate such details.
“Oh, spare him. Fire-Fart will be mopey if he doesn’t get that piece on egg maths,” this came from Spiff, Fire-Fart’s mate.
“Well, I want to melt his bones,” Bone-Melter said, not surprisingly.
“You’ve been melting bones all day,” Skull-Spitter said. “I’m with Sun Blocker. He’ll be useful.”
“I agree,” Fire-Fart said.
“Very well,” Bone-Melter growled. With a great leap, he flew into the sky. The gust nearly knocked me over.
“Remember to cover combinatorics of first-ordered egg pairs,” Fire-Fart said.
“Farewell,” Spiff said, more to Skull-Spitter than to me.
“Well, little human, you’re quite clever for one of your kind,” Spitter said.
I said nothing: compliments from dragons are not always a welcome thing. The dragon continued.
“You have your work cut out for you. Of course, you’ll make quite a killing off this.” A low chuckle came from Skull-Spitter’s mouth. It was the first time I had ever heard a dragon laugh.
“The only ones killing here are you and your kind,” I said hotly. It simply leapt out of me.
Skull-Spitter growled. I had violated the first rule. I had pissed off the dragon. Was I to die after all?
Instead, the dragon raised his head high and roared. I nearly shat myself from the sound. My head, still recovering from those mace blows, was instantly splitting.
“Even you don’t understand,” Spitter said. “You humans need us. You may hate us, but trust me, the world would be a real horror show without us dragons around to keep your kind in check. These warrens of yours would get bigger and bigger. Pretty soon, you’d be living like rats, and you’d ruin the land, breeding like crazy. You think this is bad?” It swept one wing over the surrounding ruin. “This is nothing to what the world would look like if your kind was in charge. No, you’re far too dangerous to go unchecked. Without us, you’d become real monsters.”
Then he laughed again, and with a great leap, he flew straight up and disappeared into the smoke. I knew he would be home soon, curled up and dreaming dragon dreams in his warren, which was undoubtedly called Death-Cap or Fear-Spike or some other ridiculous name.
I sat down on a pile of rocks and began to plan. There was a lot to do: reports to write, proposals to draft. I wanted to get started, but I stopped. I could hear the cries of the survivors. Someone would have to find the able-bodied, organize them, gather food and water, build shelters. The convent had probably been spared. I could get word to the nuns. It was work that would be profitless, maybe even thankless, but it would have to come first. After all, they were my people. Anything else was too monstrous to consider.