The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

A Shadow Against the Night

Hail readers,
This is a tale I wrote in late July of 2013. Though it is set in a later time period than my upcoming novel, “Blades of Cairndale,” it does take place on the same continent: the mysterious land of Almuria. I hope you enjoy the story, and know that your feedback is much appreciated.

 

Part I: Arrival

   The evening sun had receded beneath the western lip of the horizon by the time I rounded the last bend of the road leading up to Sitrik’s estate. Elmir’s hoofs clopped a steady beat on the dirt track which soon gave forth to a paved stone walk, like those leading to the old gates of the castles in the north. My saddle creaked beneath me, that unique sound of leather sliding against itself as Elmir’s brawny frame swayed and undulated with each footfall.

   If the walk leading to Sitrik’s gate was one resembling those timeworn castles in the north, then the estate itself was a piece lifted directly from those old days of demon kings and armor-clad knights. I gave a light pull on Elmir’s reins, slowing my mount while I took in the sprawling view towering before me. A heavy iron gate–supported on either side by pillars wrought from stone–barred any forward advance. A rampart built of colossal stone blocks encircled the property, and as Elmir’s slowed gait brought me nearer to the entrance of my old friend’s home, I half expected an archer to appear behind its castellated parapet and demand the nature of my business with the lord of his keep.

   But no such guardsman was forthcoming. Instead, a young man hurried out–from whence I could not tell–and proceeded to pull hardily at a heavy chain affixed to the gate. I heard the rumbling clatter of a wheel mechanism as the iron portal gave forth, parting at its center and swinging inward to admit me. The man who’d opened the gate was dressed as a stable-hand. He must have been in the employment of Sitrik. What marvelous fortune had so laid itself before my friend that he could afford this dwelling and the staff to maintain it?

   “Take yer horse, Mahster?” the stable-hand said, his voice thickly accented with that odd drawl of the westerner. I noticed that, as he spoke, his eyes wandered up toward the darkening sky. Perhaps he anticipated a storm, though I smelled no rain.

   “Very good,” I replied, swinging out of my saddle. “Take good care of him.”

   “Aye, o’ course, Mahster… eh…”

   “Alfgar. Alfgar Blackmane.”

   “Aye, Mahster Blahkmane.” He took up Elmir’s reins and walked my black steed toward the stables, leaving me alone on Sitrik’s winding walk.

   “Bring my bag up to the house, if you will,” I called after his receding form.

   The path of broad paving stones stretched out before me, idly meandering left and right like a lazy serpent wending its way through the lush green grass. It occurred to me then, as I stood just inside the gates, how Sitrik’s abode struck out like a fist of stone, a single pinpoint of civilization beset on all sides by the unpopulated wild. Just as the grass grew up on either side of the stone pathway, so did the wild hound at the rampart, its grasping stems and tangling vines licking at the wall’s lowest row of stones. Truly my friend had erected a worthy fortress out here where few men traveled and fewer dwelt.

   An errant breeze caught at my black cloak and billowed it behind me like a sail buffeted by a stirring of the sea air. As if moved by that sail, I began to make my way up the walk, my supple leather boots sounding on the paving stones with a light thump, followed by the hiss of my cloak’s hem brushing the ground in my wake. With each step, my old cutlass gave a light tug at my belt, swaying in its scabbard on my hip. On my other hip, my father’s revolver rested snug in its leather holster; it was a familiar and not at all unwelcome weight at my waist.

   Trees dotted the yard, accompanied by the occasional flowering plant. Many had the brightly colored, glossy look of exotic flora, perhaps spawned from seeds bought by Sitrik on one of his many excursions.

   Drawing alongside a cluster of fruit-bearing plants, I came upon a woman who seemed wholly engrossed in examining a shiny red berry dangling from a branch of one of the miniature trees. She wore a flowing robe, tied at her waist with a green sash. The gentle wind plucked at her wide sleeves, ruffling them as it ruffled the branches she so studiously surveyed. She drew a delicate hand to her forehead and pushed a strand of her sable hair out of her eyes. I noticed only then that her eyes had a slight angle to their shape, and her ears were pointed at their tops. Her ancestors clearly hailed from the east, but the points of her ears suggested a splash of non-human blood somewhere down the length of the family tree.

   “Good day, ma’am,” I said, tipping the brim of my hat in her direction. “Alfgar Blackmane, friend of Sitrik Thurengir.”

   “Mina,” she answered, her voice barely audible even in the quiet of the yard. “Ahng Mi Na, but your friend calls me Mina. It is good to meet you, Blackmane. Master Sitrik has spoken highly of you at dinner these past few nights. His good cheer has been most welcome.”

   “Oh?” My brow furrowed at that. “Has he been in a bad way as of late?”

   “Well, not so you would know. He’s been well of health but–“

   “Mina,” came a familiar voice from up the way, “are you waylaying my friend? He’s well-traveled enough, I doubt he’s interested in a lecture on the spirituality of every plant in the realm.”

   The woman drew back from me as abruptly as if she’d been yanked backwards by her hair. How strange that she did not perceive Sitrik’s jocular tone.

   From down a slight rise in the path descended my friend, the owner of these sprawling grounds, Sitrik Thurengir. He wore fine clothes woven of soft silks, with an elegant scarlet cloak thrown over his shoulders. When our eyes met, we closed the distance between us and clasped hands with the fervency born of spending far too long a time apart.

   “How long has it been?” exclaimed Sitrik.

   “Nine long years, old friend,” I responded. “And in that time you seem to have made quite the king of yourself.”

   “Ah, think nothing of it,” he laughed. “Only some good fortune in trade with the east. Speaking of which, I trust you’ve met Mina, my lovely little botanist?”

   “She works for you then?”

   “Oh in a way. Mostly wanders the grounds murmuring at the plants and wildlife, singing under her breath and such things,” he answered. “She came to me on my last voyage, asking for passage on my ship, so she could come overseas and study the wildlife here or something of the sort. Only, she had not a coin to her name. She’s working off her debt to me by keeping up with things around the estate.”

   “Ah, I see,” I murmured.

   Sitrik cast a quick glance skyward, though his gaze did not linger. Had I not known better, I’d have thought it a furtive gesture.

   “But enough of all this,” he said in that boisterous tone I’d so missed. “Let’s get you inside and have a drink, shall we?”

   “Right! Let’s see what kinds of ale my rich friend has been saving for me.”

   Sitrik clapped me on the back and gave an uproarious guffaw before leading me up the walk toward his home.

 

Part II: A Night Interrupted

   If Sitrik’s grounds were to my eye impressive, then his manor was the very portrait of opulence. Vaulted ceilings with glimmering chandeliers, walls adorned with rich colored tapestries, and trophies of Sitrik’s many travels placed in nigh every room. The floors were of a smooth stone, shiny in the wavering light of ornate candles and torches set in bejeweled sconces. Only a very few servants scurried to and fro, cleaning the floors and dusting many of the wall-hangings. Sitrik led me to his sitting room, heedless of the servant woman mopping the hall along the way. He brushed past her as though she were one of his numerous marble sculptures.

   A crackling fire greeted us from the study’s deep hearth, casting its comfortable glow over the room’s thick carpets and heavy oaken table. Two high-backed leather chairs sat on either side of the table. First unfastening my sword’s scabbard from my belt, I lay the weapon on the floor, and then seated myself in one of the chairs, laying my hat on the table before me. Sitrik went to a cabinet and busied himself pouring two glasses from a bottle of dark liquid. I could discern little about the bottle except that its side was etched with a serpent clutching the tip of its tail in its teeth. The serpent’s body was colored, yet its eyes were transparent, such that the spirits within the vessel showed through the glass, giving a dark, churning depth to the creature’s stare. I tore my gaze away from the bottle, suppressing a shiver that coursed from my neck down the length of my spine.

   “A man may have servants for everything,” Sitrik mused, plunking a glass down in front of me and seating himself in the chair across the table, “but he should never grow so rich and complacent that he allows his help to handle his alcohol.”

   “Ha, whatever you say, you old badger,” I chided, taking my glass and raising it. “To your health, Sitrik.”

   “And yours.”

   I tipped the cup’s contents into my mouth and felt the velvety liquid course over my tongue. Its consistency was milky, and it at first had no taste, though it burned fiercely as it slid down my throat, and left in its wake the taste of exotic spices. In that taste I could all-but see the thick jungles east of the sea; the quivering blossoms of weird, thick-stemmed plants with their tangling vines and darkly luminous fruit.

   Yet, as I set my glass back down upon the glossy, lacquered oak of Sitrik’s table, there came a strange sound that stirred up the alcohol in my belly and set my heart fluttering. The din–at first seeming only an odd cry of the wind–rose as it stole up from the valley to the north of Sitrik’s estate. In clarity and volume it rose to a feverish swell until I fathomed that it was sweeping over Sitrik’s land, and was in fact no howl of the wind, but the roar of something living, something that let its cry taper into a resounding echo that rolled over the hilltop dwelling and reverberated off the manor walls.

   The roar was peculiar not only in its presence, but in its very essence, for it seemed comprised at once of a rumbling, gravely baritone, and a demonic shriek that curled my hands into fists and made the skin crawl at my nape.

   Turning to Sitrik, I saw my friend’s eyes fixed on a bay window that overlooked his front yard. With a visible effort, he pried his gaze away from the view of his night-shrouded grounds. A smile wormed its way onto his scarred, stony face.

   “Ha, not but the wind’s irksome trickery,” he exclaimed, darting to the cabinet from whence he’d procured our drink. “Oddly clustered gales rip out of that valley and make the oddest sounds as they traverse the hills.”

   “Sitrik,” I insisted, rising to my feet, “that was no gale, if ever I’ve heard one.”

   “It was nothing,” he urged, pouring himself another cup of the dark, foreign drink. “Sit back down, my friend, and I’ll go check on your belongings; make sure my stable-hand has left them in good order.”

   “Very well,” I relented, willing myself into taking my seat again. “Will you be so kind as to bring me my pipe box?”

   “Of course, of course,” Sitrik replied, already making his way out into the hall.

   The boom of the heavy wooden door closing behind him was like the solitary beat of a tribal drum in the murk of some far-off, dusky wild. I was alone then, in Sitrik’s study, just myself, the crackling fire, and the darksome eyes of that serpent etched on the bottle from which we’d been drinking. Those eyes seemed to fix on me with a malevolence which only a being of sentience could muster. I grimaced and–striding across the room–turned the bottle away from me, obscuring the leering snake from my view.

   It was but a flicker of movement that caught my eye, a shimmer through the great window at the room’s far side. Nothing so perceptible as a man’s profile illumined in the moonlight, for the clouds were too thick and densely clustered to allow much light. What I saw, or perhaps only thought I saw, was naught more than a shimmer of black darker than the black of the sky; a mere shadow framed by night. Yet, vague though the vision, it compelled me across the room and to the window, scrutinizing the night sky with such intensity that my nose nearly touched the pane of glass. So closely though I looked, I saw nothing of the flicker that had caught my eye from across the room. Only by way of the fire’s crackling light and the most tenacious strands of moonlight was I able to see a shadow exiting one of the smaller buildings on Sitrik’s grounds. It was a short, slim shadow, and distinctly human in its shape and carriage. One of Sitrik’s servants no doubt, going to check on the animals after that horrific uproar.

   What, I wondered, could have caused such a sound? And why was Sitrik not forthcoming with me in its nature? There was no doubt in my mind that he knew what had generated such an unearthly bellow. For years I’d ridden at Sitrik’s side, taking work where we could–as mercenaries, huntsmen, even shipmates–until Sitrik took up with his merchant ship and my own matters drew me south to settle family affairs. That he would keep something from me, especially something of such precedence, set an ominous tension in my belly.

   I returned to my chair and fiddled idly with the revolver still at my side. The weapon had six chambers and its grips were crafted from ivory. My father had traveled long and far with naught but this very weapon at his side, and had willed it to me upon his death. Its familiar weight stilled the fast beating in my heart. If something of ill-intent was prowling about my friend’s estate, my father’s gun would see its end.

   “Found your pipe box.” Sitrik’s voice startled me from my contemplation. “Your bag has been stowed safely in a guest room on the second floor.”

   “Very good,” I replied. “Thank you, my friend.”

   “Not at all.”

   Sitrik handed me a small, rectangular box of pine wood, unadorned by anything save for a brass clasp along one of its long edges. I set the box on the table and drew open its lid, revealing my pipe, whose long stem was made of polished bone and whose deep bowl was crafted of clay. Next to the pipe were a small brush and cloth for its cleaning, and a cloth pouch of tobacco. I plucked the pipe out of its space in the box and wasted no time in loading the bowl, tapping in the tobacco with a practiced ease.

   “A light,” Sitrik offered, drawing a matchbook from his pocket.

   I struck a match and lit my pipe before passing the book back to Sitrik. He took up his seat again and produced his own pipe, an ornate, long-stemmed clay affair etched with glyphs I did not recognize. No doubt another trophy of his many excursions to the very borders of the world. Mirroring my own gestures, he filled and lit his pipe, and soon the smell of pipe-smoke wafted pleasantly through the air.

   “I still don’t believe it was the wind,” I said after a long silence. “Sitrik, I’d expect better of you than to lie to me. Especially such a poor lie as that. Have you forgotten our old adventuring days already?”

   Sitrik let out a long plume of smoke, joined by a heavy sigh in which his whole body seemed to sag. It was as though that wispy trail of smoke carried with it all of the grandeur he’d accrued over the years and left him now in a deflated slump.

   “You would not believe me if I told you,” he muttered darkly.

   “We’ll soon find out, won’t we?” I persisted.

   Sitrik took a pull from his drink and gave another grumbling sigh.

   “About a month after I returned from my last trip to the east, my home has been beset by… a beast.”

   “Something out of the woods?”

   “If only,” he cursed. “This is something out of no woods I’ve ever wandered. It is serpentine in form, but with great black pinions and talons of steel. Mina calls it a dragon.”

   I suppressed a snort of laughter and Sitrik nodded his head.

   “It sounds foolish, I know,” he agreed. “But what else can I call it? Anyway, it comes out from the clouds almost every night and swipes away one of my animals. I’ve been able to do nothing for it but to stay indoors at night.”

   “So,” I mused, coaxing a lighter tone into my voice, “in your letter to me that told me of this estate, when you mentioned an affair that begged my attention, you took me for a dragon-slayer?”

   “We’ve fought many foul creatures together,” Sitrik answered, his face brightening once more. “I’d hoped I’d have your aid if we could get the beast to linger long enough to be brought down.”

   I gave a faint smile and drew a hand across my brow. How typical of my dear old friend? I should have thought an invitation to visit would come with some strange errand or other. It seemed some things never changed.

   “Shall we go out and hunt for the living myth then?”

   “No,” Sitrik said, “not now, he’s already made a pass and gone. We will wait until later in the night.”

   “As you wish.”

   I could not, and did not, believe for a moment that we’d be hunting a dragon. This was either an elaborate hoax or some mistake on Sitrik’s part. I’d imagine that strong drink would find a way to turn a large bird of prey into a mythical beast. Nonetheless, the thought of taking up sword and gun to find whatever plagued my friend’s home, was a notion that sent a thrill through my tired limbs. It had been too long since our last adventure.

   “In the meantime,” Sitrik proclaimed, “let us relax and enjoy ourselves before we go and tame the wild, eh? How about another drink?”

   “Sure, sure,” I answered, a smile playing across my lips.

 

Part III: Before the Storm

   The thought of whatever beast so plagued Sitrik’s land did not seem to dampen my friend’s mood. I recalled how, in our old adventuring days, he always seemed so calm, possessed of a debonair aura in the face of our every adversity. Once, a caravan with which we’d been traveling, was assailed by bandits hiding amidst the rocks of a narrow pass. While I scrambled to cut our way to safety, my cutlass reddened in the noontime sun, Sitrik carefully observed that the brigands were taking orders from a fair-haired female of their company, who hung back on the high slopes. While the travelers and I skirmished with our aggressors, he’d extricated himself from the fight and gone to this bandit leader, wasting little time in plying her with his charms, along with a generous helping of our ale, and our caravan was shortly on its way, all spilt blood forgotten. That he displayed the same demeanor in dealing with what he called a “dragon,” was thus not so surprising as one might imagine.

   “That pipe of yours,” Sitrik broke the relative silence, “of what sort of bone is its stem made?”

   “Handcrafted by a farmer in Goldfield,” I replied. “A nice, homespun sort of fellow. Swears the bone is from some magical creature or other, a demon or a nymph or some such. I honestly couldn’t tell it from a beef bone; he may very well have put one over on me.”

   “Let us hope so.”

   Sitrik and I turned as one toward the door, where a figure stood just short of the threshold. I could tell from the short, slender stature and the lilt of her voice that it was Mina, Sitrik’s indentured gardener.

   “Ah, my little eastern flower,” Sitrik beamed. “Come in, come in. Have a seat, and do tell us what you’re going on about.”

   The raven-haired Easterner padded lightly into the room, walking barefoot across the stone and carpet. An antique stool sat by the bay window, but Mina took no notice of it, opting instead to sit on the floor near the fire, crossing her legs and eyeing my pipe with a gaze whose nature I could not read.

   “Forgive my interruption,” she said in that same, nigh-inaudible tone. “I only meant that a pipe made of demon bone would be of ill luck to its wielder. And a pipe of nymph bone is… well my people would call it cruel.”

   “Ah yes,” Sitrik boomed, sloshing his drink as he banged his cup down on the table, “your people who thank the animals before you slaughter them, as if the poor beasts can understand a word.”

   “It is for their spirits that we speak,” she corrected, her head bowing slightly and her voice dropping even lower in volume, “and spirits are unhindered by the divisive walls of man’s many tongues.”

   “Oh brighten up, little Mina,” chided Sitrik, puffing gustily on his pipe. “I’m only teasing you. On the topic of animals, Alfgar, I’ve got something you will love to see.”

   In a lightsome bound uncanny for a man of his broad-shouldered build, and perhaps unwise for one who’d by this time polished off half a bottle of strong spirits, Sitrik darted across the room and wrenched open a cabinet with such force that its brass handle pinged off the wall. From the cabinet he withdrew something large enough that it took both of his hands to hold it, before whirling about and hoisting his prize aloft.

   “Ah!” he roared. “Look here, Alfgar. Have you ever seen a wolf skull this large?”

   “Holy Gods above!” I exclaimed, my eyes gone wide at the sight. “Where in all the realm did you buy that? It’s positively gargantuan!”

   Mina averted her eyes, staring with resolve at a pattern on the carpet before her. Sitrik stopped just short of stumbling over her and passed the behemoth skull into my outstretched hands. The teeth had been adhered into their proper places such that the skeleton visage seemed to leer at me, its hollow sockets drawing my gaze into their fathomless depths. I shuddered and turned the face away, revealing a single hole punched neatly near the back of the skull.

   “I didn’t buy it,” Sitrik at last responded. “I was plying my wares in a port town north of the Snowfang mountains. You know the type of folk up there; the etnar…”

   “My ancestors,” I reminded him.

   “And mine too,” he soothed, “only our fathers had the good sense to leave that snow-blasted hell-scape. In any case: those tribal folk were prattling on about some demon-wolf who was slaughtering all of their livestock. He’d even slain a few of their huntsmen, who’d been so bold as to go after the brute. You know how their kind hunts: axes and swords and a whole lot of roaring to their blood-mad gods. In any case, I told myself I’d bring the wolf’s head home with me, so I anchored in an inlet and took some men into the woods.”

   Now, Sitrik was pacing about near the window, his pipe forgotten in one hand, its flame long dead. The bottle, with its steadily dwindling contents, swung loose in his free hand. He took a deep swig from it and gave a satisfied rumble, smacking his lips and teetering just a bit. Steadying himself with a hand on the window sill, he continued his tale.

   “The boys I’d taken with me had dragged along a goat we’d bought from the etnar. I found a clearing with a great tree at its center and tied the goat up there. I scaled a sturdy ash tree and waited, rifle at the ready. Sure enough, the moon comes up and out lopes this great monster of a wolf, sizing up the snack I’d left him. It didn’t take but the blink of an eye for him to devour the poor thing’s throat and set to gorging himself on its intestines. I cocked my rifle and the wolf reared its colossal head; I’d have sworn he was staring at me with hate if I thought for a moment he could conceive of such a thing.”

   He took a final pull from the bottle before depositing it none-too-carefully on the nearby stool.

   “At that moment, one of my boys comes running out of the woods with a torch, whooping and hollering just like I’d told him to do. His fellows joined him on all sides and the big wolf panicked, bounding in circles and howling like I’d stuck him with a long-knife. It was the torches, see, the torches that confounded the fool creature. So I waited ’til he was turned away, so I wouldn’t ruin his face with my shot, and put a slug clean into the back of his head. And–wasn’t it my luck–the round blew out his right eye. The skull was as well-preserved as I could hope for.”

   “You’re lucky you didn’t shoot one of your shipmates,” I observed.

   “Ah, I suppose I am,” he slurred, tottering his way back to his chair. “But there’s always that risk, you know?”

   I fiddled with my now-empty pipe, not quite sure how to respond to that. I was not certain how much of Sitrik’s words were his own, and how many were fetched from the depths of that serpent-etched bottle.

   “Mina!” cried Sitrik so suddenly that I dropped my pipe on the table. “Alfgar has shown us his pipe, I’ve shown my wolf skull, now you show us something!”

   “I do not understand,” she said, her voice quivering slightly.

   “I mean,” Sitrik slowed his words to a crawl, “bring us something of yours that’s got a story tied to it. Alfgar’s pipe is made of some magic bone or other, I’ve got my demon-wolf, what have you got? Go on, go fetch something, girl.”

   Her expression still mystified, Mina drew herself up and scurried from the room. Sitrik sat back in his chair, packing more tobacco into his pipe and lighting up again. I sank into my chair, my own pipe for the moment forgotten.

   Some minutes later, Mina returned at a brisk pace, taking her seat on the floor by the fire. She sheltered something tiny in her folded hands, an object which she lay on the table between my pipe and Sitrik’s wolf skull. It was a seed pod about the size of the nail on my little finger.

   “I brought this from my home,” she said, “when I came to work for Master Sitrik. I dug it from the earth by the wharfs and kept it safe in my pocket until we arrived here.”

   “What is it?” Sitrik queried, leaning closer to the pod.

   “A seed pod,” she answered.

   “Ha, poor Mina,” Sitrik chortled, “the damned thing’s got to be dead now, yes?”

   “No no,” she insisted, her voice excited, her hands fluttering, “this seed is special. In my tongue we have a special word for it. You would call it strong-willed, I think. It is smart, you see. When it is plucked from the dirt, it goes to sleep and does not need to eat or drink for many long years, and it only wakes up when it tastes earth and water again.”

   “What does it do?” Sitrik asked. “I mean,” he added, at a confused look from Mina, “what does it grow into? Are its fruits good for you? Do they make a good wine, or a poison perhaps? Can you weave something from its fibers? Can you smoke its leaves? What is it exactly, Mina?”

   “Only a flower,” she murmured, hiding it away in her hands once more. “All it does is grow.”

   “Well,” Sitrik thoughtfully declared, “then no rush in planting it, dear.”

   “No, no rush,” she muttered, a sullen edge creeping into her tone.

   I didn’t say a word, though I’d quite liked her little tale. I couldn’t help but wish she’d left the seed on the table alongside our prizes of bone. I’d have liked to look on it further. But there would be time for that later, I supposed. As though reading my thoughts, Sitrik climbed to his feet and cleared his throat.

   “Alright, Alfgar, gather up your sword, it’s late enough now that the beast will be soon in making another pass. Let’s go slay us a dragon, shall we?”

   My stare lingered on Sitrik’s swaying gait. I wondered how steady his shots might be in this state, but I knew better than to call him to the attention of such matters. He’d set his mind to a task, and now we’d have done with it. I willed some cheer into my heart; was this not just like the old days? Roaring drunk on strong drink and bringing steel to bare against whatever crossed our path? Yet then, why did my palms sweat and my heart feel like a small creature sent scampering by the looming presence of a night-bird?

 

Part IV: Sky-Bound Fury

   The clouds had yet to disperse; if anything, they’d drown more dense in their obscuring clusters, choking off the last, most resilient rays of moonlight. To that end, Sitrik and I each carried  torches, though I feared they’d frighten away whatever winged devil that Mina termed a “dragon.”

   In my free hand, I held my father’s revolver. Sitrik had a long rifle slung over his back. I did not recognize the make of the weapon. Likely another spoil of his adventures.

   The crisp night wind riffled my cloak and plucked at my hat’s brim. There was a faint smell of rain in the air, though I heard no thunder roaring in the distance. Instead, a faint, almost shimmering mist hung about the ground, shrouding my legs up to their shins in the swirling murk. My revolver’s metal trigger guard felt cold and slick under my fingers, and my torch guttered in the breeze.

   “Sitrik, I can’t see a damned thing out here.” My words, though quiet, sounded like a rifle’s report in the still, waiting calm of night.

   “Keep your voice down,” he hissed, his torch’s flame bobbing like a phantasmal manifestation. “Let’s try over by the stable-yards and livestock pens. The damned thing likes to swoop in and pluck away my lambs and calves.”

   He moved ahead and I followed the dim puddle of light cast by his torch. In the night fog, the luminescence shone around us in an etherial way, as though we were spectres on a nocturnal prowl.

   Sitrik picked his way down the paved path to his stables. The shapes of the servants’ quarters and stable-house loomed up out of the shadows and we skirted around them, keeping low and sheltering our torches with our hands, that we might catch the beast unaware. We moved around the corner of the squat building and came upon the pens where many of Sitrik’s animals slept. A cow inclined its head, then murmured dumbly and plodded away from us. Whatever beast had roared so horribly earlier in the night, it seemed had long since departed. With careful steps muffled by the dew-flecked grass, I came abreast of Sitrik, who’d halted in his advance, and was about to tell him my thoughts on the matter when I beheld what transfixed him.

   Back behind one of the pens, a wall of stone had been erected. It looked to be the first wall of a new building yet to be completed. From around the end of the wall, a long shape lay in the grass, barely visible in the suffocating gloom. It may have been the thickest snake I’d ever seen, but its slight lift and angle suggested that it was but the tail of something far greater.

   “Alfgar,” Sitrik whispered, “draw your sword and get up near it. I’ll circle around with my rifle and try to get a proper line of sight on the damned thing.”

   “Very well.”

   I didn’t much like putting my gun away when some unknown horror awaited just around the bend, but I feared I might shoot my friend by mistake without the aid of a more worthy light source. So I returned my gun to its holster and withdrew my cutlass, clutching the leather-bound hilt in a firm grasp. At Sitrik’s nod, I moved ahead of him, my steps drawn-out, each seeking the quietest bit of earth on which to tread, lest a snapping twig or crackling leaf disturb our quarry.

   I gave the wall, and that which it concealed, a wide berth, moving at a broad angle to come about the structure’s end. As I drew into a better vantage point, my torch fell across the full form hidden behind the wall, and I let out a quiet curse. There, it’s back turned to me, was what could only be described as a dragon. What else might one call a thing of such a long, scale-coated body, its four legs terminating in reptilian feet with glistening talons. Leathery wings draped loosely about the beast, and its spiny tail stirred listlessly.

   Perhaps I made some error in my footing, or perhaps the beast was gifted with the capacity to sense even the unseen. For whatever reason, and with alarming swiftness, the monster whirled with remarkable fluidity, its tale carving a swathe into the stone wall that had been its shelter. My torch shone on its head and forelimbs, and I cursed aloud, dropping my only light source and stumbling back.

   In the instant before the moistened earth stilled the torch flame, I beheld the great worm’s face. Its head was elongated, though its snout was blunt. A grisly mess of viscera dripped from its grinding jaws. Eyes like frozen pits of blood glimmered in the fast-fading light, their ruby hue afire with an emotion wholly human and thus wholly unsettling on so inhuman a face: hatred. Not rage, not the animal fury that spurs dogs to fight or even the semi-intelligent irritability that compels apes to brawl. No, this was cold-burning hatred, clearly understood and even more clearly projected. In the instant it saw me, the dragon hated me, and wanted to take my life.

   At the same moment the torch died out, the creature let loose that bone-chilling roar, the cry that sounded at once with a rumbling growl and a demonic shriek. I saw its shadow bound upward into the air, its wings beating up the wind with loud flaps like the ripple and crack of a ship’s sail. It vanished skyward, a shadow at one with the shadows, but now I could track it by the awful beat of its leathern wings.

   “Move!” boomed Sitrik’s voice in the dark.

   I could see his torch–a pinprick of light in the distance–and charged toward it in a blind panic. If the lurking horror were to land upon me, it could rend my body fully in two before I could so much as draw my cutlass back for a strike. I pelted along the yard, hugging the very wall which the beast had used as cover, rather than darting about in the open where its keen eyes might spy me. It was in that movement along the wall that my footing betrayed me; I stumbled and fell in a sprawl, landing on something hard.

   Drawing myself to my knees, I fumbled in the dark with what had so effectively staggered me. As if the gods themselves sought the very same answer, the clouds drew back and the full moon fell upon me with its silvery glow, and in that light I beheld the carcass of a lamb over which I knelt. Its bones had been picked nearly clean, and the stench of death was heavy upon it. Yet, as I made to cast it away, something peculiar caught my eye. Amidst the fang-mangled bones of its legs were tattered strands of a fibrous, woven sort; rope. Someone had bound the lamb’s limbs, trussed it up like it were headed for the slaughter. My mind whirled back to an image glimpsed from Sitrik’s window, that of a figure moving in the darkness after the beast uttered its first call of the night. Had the figure moved with care because of the unlit land it traversed, or because it was carrying out some furtive errand? Was this lamb a meal offered in generosity, or some sort of sacrifice?

   Again the beast’s thunderous voice rolled over me, drawing my eyes skyward. There, perfectly limned by the silvery orb of night’s watchful eye, the dragon hung in the air, its wings spread to their full span. It wheeled about, its tail at first curving and then straightening as the creature plunged earthward in an unchecked dive.

   I sprang to my feet and–pulling back my arm–heaved my blade at the hurtling shape from above. My sword struck through the air as a javelin flies, glinting with deathly intent. Making no effort to slow its fall, the dragon swatted my cutlass from its path, sending the weapon tumbling harmlessly to the soil below. The cutlass lay between me and the descending monstrosity, but far enough from my reach that it may as well have been in Sitrik’s study. At the last moment, the creature’s wings came out to slow its fall, and it skidded to a halt on the grass, my useless sword resting between its clawed forefeet.

   The dragon’s head, bigger than that of a horse, swayed to and fro. Its breath came in a snarl, so disturbing in its humanity, as those hateful eyes fixed upon my solitary frame. Its mouth opened and again erupted that heart-stopping  howl. But audible over the all-too-human exclamation came a sharper sound and the heavy, dry scent of gunpowder. Galvanized to action, I ripped my revolver from its holster and fired at the dragon’s head. Sitrik’s shot, wherever it struck, sent the creature reeling up on its hind limbs. My bullet punched cleanly into its exposed chest, and the dragon plummeted forward onto its belly, its head resting on my fallen blade.

   “We killed it!” Sitrik roared, swaggering up from where he’d lingered. “Look, Alfgar, it’s dead!”

   I looked and saw a limp, lifeless body, its wings gone slack, its tongue lolled out between its razor-edged teeth. Its lidless eyes continued boring into me, the hatred extinguished and replaced not by the vacuous, glazed stare of death, but frozen in an expression unclear to me. Confusion? Dismay? I could not tell.

   Blood seeped out from under the fallen creature, as well as from the wound Sitrik’s rifle had punched under its left wing. Occasionally, one of its claws twitched in the spasms of death.

   “Looks like it’s laid claim to your sword,” Sitrik chuckled. “Ha, as though it needs one.”

   Indeed, I thought, for each of those great claws that now grasped in jerking motions, digging furrows in the soft soil, was itself a sword bestowed upon the creature the very day it was born. It did not need the sword or the gun, as did Sitrik and I.

   “We’ve slain it!” Sitrik bellowed. “We’ve slain it, Alfgar! We slew a dragon.”

   “So you did.” Mina’s familiar voice came up from the shadows.

   Her slim figure emerged into the broad patch of moonlight. She strode across the grass toward Sitrik and me, looking from us to our foe and back again. She stopped between me and the dragon.

   “Dragons,” she explained, “are native to my homeland. There was once a time, long long ago, when the sky was alive with them. This,” she extended a slender hand toward our downed quarry, “was the only one I’ve seen in all my life.”

   In her other hand, Mina produced a tiny knife, its blade so thin I wondered how it had not already broken in some prior use. Sitrik’s hand traveled to his rifle, but Mina was not looking upon either of us now. She moved to the dragon’s head and–with the fine tip of her knife–carefully eased a scale out of its natural armor. Stooping, she cut a great section from her cloth dress, and laid it over the dragon’s eyes. Her delicate hands moved across the makeshift shroud, smoothing it down, before she turned on her heel and stalked from the clearing, her face turned away, her shoulders shaking.

   Sitrik leaned on the wall and fished in his pocket for his pipe and tobacco. The adrenaline still coursing through me numbed my limbs as I walked to the unmoving titan of scales and leathery flesh. I was thankful for Mina’s improvised veil, for I did not think I could meet its dead eyes as I knelt and retrieved my cutlass, returning it to its sheath. At last, I turned away from the body and looked to Sitrik, breathing smoke from his nostrils, his pipe blazing merrily.

   “Well, old friend,” I said, my voice devoid of the frenzied energy pounding in my blood, “look at what we’ve done.”

 

THE END

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