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A Warm Tale for a Cold Night
A cold winter wind blew through the narrow lane, cutting through my heavy woolen cloak as though I’d ventured forth in the nude. I pulled the hood closer around my ears and hurried across the frozen muck that made traversing the lane a challenge to even the most skilled warrior’s balance. The painted wooden sign of the Black Destrier Inn swung wildly, making the warhorse appear to leap and kick.
I slipped on the ice and fell heavily against the Inn’s arch topped door. Catching my balance, I opened the door and stepped into the welcome warmth of the Inn’s smoky tavern. I surveyed the familiar room as I stamped my booted feet and shook the melting snow from my cloak. A cheery fire leapt and crackled on the hearth while an aproned serving girl wove among the tables with a tray of mugs and platters of meat balanced precariously above her head.
Men of all ages and descriptions crowded the dark wood bar and sat at scarred wooden tables. I spied one table in the far corner that was occupied by a lone man, a scruffy looking fellow with long dark hair, matted from lack of grooming, and a patch over his left eye. Nodding to myself I pushed through the crowded room, grabbed an empty chair, and joined him.
He straightened and glared at me with his one good eye, but I spoke before he had the chance to object.
“Seating’s tight,” I said. “If you wanted privacy, you should’ve kept to your room.”
He glanced around the room, shrugged, and settled back in his chair. “If you’re looking for company, find someone else to annoy.”
I nodded and signaled the serving girl. A mug of mead and a plate of whatever passed for meat that night was all the companionship I required.
When I was fully warmed by the consumption of mead, beef and tubers, I turned again to the man who shared my table.
“You look like a man with a load of woe gnawing on him.”
Another glare met my gaze.
“So what if I am?”
I shrugged and leaned back in my chair. “You might do well to give your cares voice,” I said, “and I’ve a willing ear.”
He studied me with that single, shrewd eye, before nodding.
“Aye, it might ease the burden to tell the tale.”
I nodded encouragingly. “And you’ve no concern with me hearing it as I’ll be on my way as soon as the current storm blows over.”
He clasped his hands on the dark, scarred table top and fixed his gaze on them. “I’ve a brother,” he said quietly. “An twin identical brother,” he paused and drew a shuddering breath, “and at times … well, at times we share each others’ thoughts. See through the others’ eyes.”
He raised his head and stabbed me with the intensity of his gaze. “This is his tale.”
A mixture of terror and elation spur me down the steep, rocky slope. The harsh, cold wind buffets me, making it had to keep my leather-booted feet beneath me.
I can’t slow down. Can’t fall. If I so much as pause … she might come back, might realize what I’ve done. If she catches me on this unprotected slope, she’ll roast me alive.
The backpack bounces against my shoulders, its warm, reassuring weight throwing off my balance. I’ve done it! I slipped into her lair, stole an egg, and made it back to the cold, fresh air of the mountainside.
I’ve got to keep moving, got to make it to the forest. She won’t be able to find me once I reach the trees’ thick canopy.
I pant, cold air numbing nose and cheeks and making my lungs ache. But the precious egg in my pack, the one I risked everything to steal, is safe and warm, protected by a nest of soft woolen blankets.
The ground beneath my feet levels, turning from rock to coarse, low grass and sedge. Tree line is within sight, its stunted larch and fir trees twisted by the constant fierce, cold wind that whistles past my ears and makes my eyes water.
I’m going to make it. Those scraggly trees aren’t much, but they’re my only hope. The first cover on this wind-swept mountainside. Just a little way beyond the tree line, the proper forest begins. Tall spruce, firs, and aspen with sufficient canopy to shield a fleeing man from even a dragon’s sharp vision.
The worst is behind me. Once I gain the forest, I’ll be safe.
Terror loosens its grip on my heart and exultation bubbles through my core. A near-hysterical giggle forces its way past my chapped lips. Truly, I’ve done it. The jade-green egg with dark blue mottling is mine. A prize beyond measure. And not just because of the gold I will demand. My reputation will be made once I return to the city with a dragon egg in my pack.
I savor the fruits of my stealth. All that remains is to reach the safety of the forest.
A shadow passes overhead, and I stumble, my foot snagging on a tangled mass of sedge. I catch my balance and glance up at the clear blue, cloudless sky. My breath seizes and my heart plummets.
A dragon wheels in the sky.
She has returned. She has recognized her loss and hunted me.
My pulse thunders, beating twice its normal tattoo. Blood sings in my veins, throbs at my temples, tingles in my fingertips. A burst of energy propels me down the slope. I must reach those trees.
With a screech of indignation, the dragon plummets to earth, landing between me and the trees. The backwash from her wings knocks me off my feet. I twist as I fall, keeping the packed egg safe, but sustaining a nasty jolt to my shoulder and wrenching a knee.
I gain my feet and crouch, ready to run, but where?
The dragon, a solid mass of muscle and anger, easily as big as my two-room hut, unfurls her wings and hisses. Her long, snake-like tongue lashes the air between us.
Dragon stink fills my nostrils, a noxious mix of sulfur, rotting meat and blood that solidifies the terror freezing my heart and paralyzing my thoughts. Pain throbs in shoulder and knee, darkening the edges of my vision. Bitter, poisonous bile gags me.
All is lost.
No way forward. Not past a hulking beast whose wings blot out the scraggly trees beyond.
No way back. Not across a barren slope of alpine tundra.
Death stares at me with malignant satisfaction.
The inevitability of my demise calms me, thawing my terror and freeing my mind. I still have a card to play. I still hold the egg.
She can’t crush me for fear of harming the egg. Nor can she use flame against me.
While I hold her egg, we are at an impasse. I stare into her yellow, cat-slit eyes and know that she understands our stalemate as well.
I hunker down to think while the dragon studies me with narrowed eyes. She furls her wings and settles, the barbed tip of her tail tapping restlessly.
The elation of a few moments before has shriveled. I wish wholeheartedly I’d never imagined this foolhardy scheme. Why did I gamble my life on the insane possibility of stealing a dragon’s egg?
For unimaginable wealth and everlasting glory.
To be the first man to climb the dragon’s mountain and return with an unblemished egg.
To be the man who made it possible for the High King to take his place among the gods. To provide the key ingredient to the fabled elixir of immortality: the heart of an unborn dragon.
And all I have to do to make those dreams a reality is steal past a massive, angry dragon and make my way back to the city with my prize.
Before any scrap of a plan can present itself to my fevered mind, the dragon’s tail ceases its tapping and a soft, low coo swirls upon the wind.
I frown. Do dragons coo?
The coo sounds again, soft, melodious, remarkably like the call of a mourning dove. The dragon closes her eyes and lowers her head.
Is this my moment? Can I steal past her while she’s not looking? Could I reach the cover of the trees?
I lean forward, gathering my legs beneath me, ready to spring.
The egg in my pack jumps, pulling against the straps on my shoulders, ruining my balance. I stumble forward a step or two, catch myself and scramble back, away from the dragon’s cruel talons.
Sweat beads my forehead and drips down my nose. The egg jumps again, hard enough to pull me onto my rump.
The dragon waits quietly, eyes closed, cooing, the sound oddly welcoming.
Another jump nearly unseats me.
I wriggle out of the pack, pull it into my lap, and swipe my shirtsleeve across my sweaty brow. Opening the pack, I shove layers of soft wool aside to expose the precious egg. A crack mars its perfection.
My heart sinks. I’ve waited too long. The egg is hatching.
Even if I survive the dragon, there will be no elixir of immortality. Not without the heart of an unborn dragon.
A louder coo burbles from the mother dragon. I glance up. Her eyes remain closed, her wings furled. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was asleep.
On a gut level, I understand: she is focused on the hatching egg.
Now is my moment. I must leave the pack with its now useless egg and run for cover. She won’t follow. She’s not interested in me. All she wants is to see her offspring safely hatched.
I glance back up the mountain. Are the other eggs hatching? Could I leave this one and grab another? If I did, would I be able to get it down the mountain before it hatched?
Slowly, carefully, I slide back from the nested egg.
The dragon ignores me, continuing to coo.
I stand, paralyzed with indecision. Escape past the dragon and return to the city, empty-handed, but alive, or seize this opportunity to return to the lair, grab another egg, and escape down a different path while she is focused on this hatchling’s birth?
The voice of caution, my mother’s voice, screams at me to run for the trees. To save myself. To live to scheme another day.
But another voice, my twin brother’s more daring voice, tells me what I want to hear. When will you ever have such a chance again? You know where the dragon is and she doesn’t care about you. A little peril could earn you riches and eternal glory. Seize the moment, or spend the rest of your life regretting its loss.
I take a few cautious steps upslope, half expecting the dragon to pounce on me. She doesn’t even open an eye. My injured knee aches, but does not give way. I turn and race full tilt back to the dragon’s lair.
A few minutes later I step out of the howling wind, into the shelter of the cave. Leaning against cold rock, I stand on my good leg, resting my aching knee, and wait for my labored breathing to ease, for my eyes to become accustomed to the dark.
The air is fetid with dragon stink, the floor littered with broken bones and bits of moldering pelts, remnants of long-forgotten meals.
I push myself upright and limp into the gloom. At the rear of the cavern, the eggs huddle in a nest of stout limbs lined with the pelts of bears and wolves. Climbing into the nest was easier last time. Now my shoulder throbs with every heartbeat and my leg trembles with the strain of my injured knee. But I make it.
Exhausted, I collapse onto the warm, coarse furs and crawl to the mound of eggs. I only need one. One egg and fame and fortune will be mine.
I reach toward the mound of deeper darkness that is the pile of eggs, and encounter not a smooth, hard shell, but soft, leathery skin.
Disappointment floods my soul and I jerk my hand back. At least one of the eggs has hatched, but perhaps there is still hope. Perhaps a late bloomer languishes beneath its more advanced siblings.
I inch sideways and reach into the pile again.
Immediately glowing eyes pop open and soft, gurgling cries sound. Small bodies scurry in the dark, accompanied by snaps and cracks as shells are trodden upon. I soon find myself surrounded by blinking, luminous eyes.
By their pale light I see that all the eggs have hatched. Nothing remains on the furs but infant dragons and splintered shells.
My whole enterprise has been too late. I never had a chance of getting an unblemished egg back to the city.
My hopes dashed, I crawl back across the pelts. I still have to climb out of the nest and escape this accursed mountain. The task seems insurmountable now that no reward awaits me.
Disappointment makes me stupid. I’ve forgotten I’m in a dragon’s lair. Forgotten that despite their small size, I am surrounded by dragons.
I am reminded forcibly when a hatchling bites into the calf of my injured leg and tears away both fabric and meat. I scream in agony, kick out with my good leg, my leather boot connecting firmly with a small body.
But it is too late. Blood pumps from my wound, exciting the hatchlings, turning their newborn hunger into a feeding frenzy.
I curl into a tight ball, hoping to protect my tender belly from sharp talons and teeth. My last sight before my vision darkens is of the mother dragon’s arrival, bearing her final hatchling to the feast.
Back in the tavern of the Black Destrier Inn, I stared at the one-eyed man, my mouth agape, my breathing shallow and light. My hands itched to grasp my sword, to defend myself against a dragon I’d never seen.
“And he died?” I managed to gasp. “The dragon and her hatchlings devoured him?”
The tale-teller nodded. “I felt the life leach from my brother. Felt his pain and revulsion at the manner of his passing.”
He leaned back in his chair and wiped his face with shaking hands. “He died thinking he should have listened to Mother’s voice.” He swallowed and licked his lips. “He died cursing me.”
After a moment’s reverie, I rose and bowed to my companion.
“You have my sympathy for your loss … and my thanks for a warm tale on a cold night.” I pulled a silver coin from my purse and laid it on the table. “For the drink you’ll be needing to drown those memories.”
I turned and strode into the jaws of the winter storm, thankful to all the gods that I knew nothing of dragons or their eggs.