The news of the stranger’s coming rippled through the village of Ofra like a strong wind tousling the pines. That the stranger rode a horse only lent it intensity.
Stafe heard the news while picking through fruit at a market stall and was intrigued. Horses weren’t native to the region, though they occasionally came to the village through trade, or in Stafe’s case, happenstance. His stallion, Callus, had fed half the village when he died.
It had been almost a year since the last trader had passed through, and Stafe wondered what this one might bring. He began to hope for a small taste of his homeland. He had settled into his life in the village, and was happy there, but the thought of a book from Estria, or a bag of sweetnuts—no matter how stale—sparked a thrill inside him.
Naran met him just outside their hut, his dark brown skin shining with perspiration. Stafe felt a boyish thrill at his husband’s unexpected appearance until he noticed the tight expression on Naran’s face. “The stranger?” Stafe asked, unease settling into the pit of his stomach.
Naran nodded. “They ride a horse.”
“And wear mail.”
He’d picked up that word from Stafe. The Ofrans never worked metal armor and viewed it as a curiosity. The stranger’s mail not only marked them as from the East; it meant that they were either expecting combat, or wore armor habitually. Neither option was comforting.
“Have they come for you?” Naran asked.
“After all this time?” It seemed absurd, but Stafe couldn’t be sure. He’d lost count of the time since he’d stumbled down the mountain, burnt and bloody. His first few months after recovering had been tense, constantly awaiting an expedition from Estria to fetch him back to the land of his birth. When none came, he’d started to relax. He’d grown certain they thought him dead, and with good reason. He had left to kill a dragon. Not many returned from such quests. The attempt had almost killed him.
“They may stay in the village.” Naran placed a calloused hand on Stafe’s cheek. “I think you should hide.”
“Hide?” Stafe said, incredulous. “I’m a knight of Estria.”
“You were. Once. That is precisely why you should stay away.”
“They could be from anywhere back East.”
“Just so,” Naran said. “But why poke the bear to see if it’s sleeping? Let them come, let us learn why.”
Stafe wanted to ask what threat this foreigner could pose to him with the whole village behind him, but his mind supplied the answer. One man in mail, armed with steel, and trained by the weaponmasters of Estria, could shed considerable blood before greater numbers overcame him. The thought sent a chill right through the center of him.
“Stay here when they arrive,” Naran said. “I’ll make sure everyone knows to keep silent about your presence.”
Stafe lowered his head and nodded.
Naran lifted Stafe’s head, his touch, as always, gentle. He pulled Stafe into a tight embrace, kissing him. Stafe inhaled the scent of his husband, the smell of sweat and wood and sap. “I will see you soon,” Naran said.
Stafe watched him go, knowing Naran would speak to every inhabitant of the village, enlisting their support. He loved his husband for that. Stafe, however, needed to make his own preparations. He entered their hut and, after putting away the melon he’d bought that morning, he pulled up the panel in the floor. Inside, carefully wrapped, were the remnants of his own mail. The armor had been shredded in battle with the dragon and was of no use, though that wasn’t what he sought. He likewise ignored the sword of Estrian steel where it lay in its well-worn scabbard. Instead, he pulled out the dagger in its leather sheath and tucked that inside his trousers where it wouldn’t be obvious but would be easy to draw. It was the weapon of cutpurses and murderers, he thought with a touch of shame, but it seemed the suitable choice.
Feeling sufficiently armed, Stafe spent the next few hours trying to act as if it were any other day. Truth was, there wasn’t much for him to do at this time of the season. The hunting of the mountain elk had tapered off as the herds moved south to escape the coming winter, and it was now the fishermen and the boat hunters who fed the village.
In the end, he sat in the hut’s doorway, stewing in his own apprehension, the weight of the dagger the only thing that brought him reassurance.
When the time came, however, and the stranger arrived, Stafe couldn’t stay away.
The village welcomed the stranger with fermented sap and the blessings of the Four Winds, as was the Ofra custom. The Estrian man was fair and stained by the dust and dirt of his travels. Beneath it, Stafe judged him to be at least thirty years of age, which would fit with the trappings of his clothing and armor that marked him as a Knight of Merit and Commander of military forces. The knight accepted the Ofran gifts with respect, though a tightness in his face betrayed his weariness from the long journey. Indeed, the first thing he did was to barter for lodging, trading several bolts of cloth and a steel hunting knife from his second horse for a vacant hut and food for his stay.
Stafe watched it all from inside Mariyah’s hut, hidden by a cloth overhang. Mariyah, his oldest friend in the village, noted his tension and handed him a cup of steaming kala tea.
“When will you go to him?” she asked.
He turned to her in surprise, the realization of what he must do having just occurred to him.
She smiled at his expression. “You are often slow to recognize your own thoughts.” She sipped at her tea. “I’ve learned to see them, clear as silverfish in the sun.”
It was true that she knew him better than anyone else, even Naran. She’d found him on his nightmarish descent down the mountain and had nursed him back to health over those long, painful months.
“I’ll meet him in private,” Stafe said. “As soon as he’s settled in his hut.” His hand traced the outline of the dagger against his scarred stomach.
“I can’t just hide. I’m a knight of Estria.”
“I used to be. And he is, without a doubt. Naran means well, but no one here understands how a mind like that thinks, or what lurks behind his words. I do.”
Mariyah drank more of her tea. “So you do this for us?”
“Yes. And myself.” He shook his head in frustration. “I need to find out why he’s here.”
“And after that?”
“After that, we’ll see.”
By the time the knight had retired, Stafe found his body reluctant to obey. His legs felt leaden as he stood. He flexed his hands as if to revitalize them.
“Just remember,” Mariyah said. “He is the outsider. You no longer are.”
Stafe forced himself out of the hut, trying to keep his breathing regular, his heart slow. He held his hands loose at his sides, calling up the fighting readiness of his youth, the years of training that he now used only for the hunt.
The knight knelt in his borrowed hut, rifling through a saddle bag. He looked up as he noticed Stafe’s shadow, and Stafe recognized the coiled tension there, obvious only to his trained eyes. This knight was accustomed to danger and ready for action in the face of it. He would not be taken easily.
The knight’s eyes moved to Stafe’s face, then widened in surprise. He rose gracefully to his feet. “Why, you’re Estrian,” he said, and despite himself, Stafe felt comforted by the familiar cadences of his homeland.
The knight’s posture straightened. “I am Viktor Sloat, Knight in the Order of the Lightspear, Commander of the Red Brigade, now knight-errant to the King.”
There, facing him, Stafe knew that he couldn’t maintain a subterfuge that he was anything other than himself. There was too much of the knight still left in him. He mirrored Viktor’s stance. “I am Stafe Sorentin, former Knight in the Order of the Reed, former knight-errant to the King, now hunter for the Ofra.”
Viktor’s mouth fell open and his rigid stance momentarily slackened. He stepped forward.
Stafe moved his hand to where he could easily reach the dagger. Viktor was mailed, but Stafe knew places where he could strike to cause injury—the armpit, the groin, and, since Viktor was unhelmed, the neck.
But Viktor’s arms fell on Stafe’s shoulders and he shook his head in wonder. “By the goddess, Stafe Sorentin! Shades, man, we thought you were dead!” Then, remembering himself, he pulled away and resumed his upright stance. “How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know for certain,” Stafe said. “More than a year.”
“You rode forth from Telos on Evenstar Day, almost two years ago.”
“Then I have been here for almost that long,” Stafe said. “I was forty-one days on horseback to reach the mountain, six more to rest and prepare before ascending the mountain to find the dragon.”
Viktor’s face grew tight. “And did you?”
Stafe’s heart beat faster as the memory of that day came back to him. “I did,” he said, his mouth dry.
“Damn it, man, what happened?”
Images from Stafe’s nightmares swam before his eyes. Impenetrable scales. Claws as long and hard as swords, but sharper still. A tail that moved like lightning.
“I failed. I barely escaped the dragon’s nest alive. I fell down the mountain, mere bloody meat with the faint memory of a mind. A woman named Mariyah found me. She cared for me and nursed me back to health. It took months for my skin to knit, for my bones to mend. Even longer for my mind to find respite.”
“Afterward, I stayed here,” Stafe said, feeling a new, acrid bitterness at the admission.
Something similar seemed mirrored in Viktor’s eyes.
He was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “Much has changed since you left Estria. We went to war with Tacea.”
“What?” Stafe remembered visiting Tacea just after becoming a knight, after the king had elevated him and he’d had decent coin for the first time in his life. He had stayed on an estate near vineyards and alternated between drinking his fill of Tacean wine and riding through the hills on his old charger. “Why?”
Viktor shrugged. “The king was unhappy with the way the Prince Regent of Tacea governed. The Prince Regent couldn’t secure his borders, and there was unrest in the countryside, disrupting trade and sparking violence. The army put much of Tacea to the torch. It was a sad business.”
Stafe imagined those same vineyards burnt and shriveled, blackened and choked with ash. He knew what the Estrian army was capable of.
“The king appointed a Chancellor to succeed the Prince Regent, but now we are assailed by refugees all along the western border. I passed through on my way here. It was clogged with poor, filthy wretches. There’s often no choice but to put them to the sword.”
The thought of it nauseated Stafe, and he felt all the careful work he’d done to put that world behind him starting to unravel. He could almost smell the burnt fields and the unwashed and desperate who ran from them.
“The king’s health has declined,” Viktor continued, his voice grave. “We still hold out hope for his recovery, but he suffered a bad infection in his leg. Some say he will never regain its full use, even with the dragon remedy.”
Stafe winced at this, and the implied blame in it. He’d been sent to obtain the dragon’s organs for the king’s cure. Because he hadn’t returned, the king had worsened and now might never be made whole.
As if sensing his thoughts, Viktor added, “I’d reckon that if you returned to Estria, you would not be greeted warmly.”
It was a fair point, and he’d never intended to return, but somehow it still stung. Enough that he felt the desire to protest, to defend himself. But for what?
“I should let you rest,” Stafe said. “You’ve had a long journey.”
“We will talk again,” Viktor said, as Stafe walked out of the hut. His shadow stretched out behind him, longer than he’d remembered.
Naran was waiting for him at Mariyah’s hut, a hurt expression on his face. “We agreed you’d stay hidden.”
“I tried to explain it to him,” Mariyah said as she prepared a pot of tea.
“He needs to explain it,” Naran said.
“Would you let your men cut wood with a snake underfoot? No. You would discover if it was poisonous. Only I can do that.”
“And is he poisonous?” Worry edged Naran’s words.
“He’s Estrian. Of course he’s poisonous. But he’s not here for me. He’s here to kill the dragon.”
Naran shook his head in disgust.
“More folly,” Mariyah said.
“The king yet lives, but his condition’s worsening. They’re still after a cure.”
“At what cost?” Naran asked.
“Not ours, if we’re lucky,” Stafe said. “He’ll try, and he’ll either succeed, and leave, or else Sukkora will get the better of him.”
“You survived her,” Mariyah said.
“Only with your help,” Stafe said. “And if that happens... A poisonous snake is dangerous enough, but an injured one must be dealt with.”
“You would—kill him?” Naran asked, shocked.
Stafe shook his head, suddenly weary. “I’m not saying that. I don’t want to. But if he threatens anyone in this village, I will.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Mariyah said.
Stafe recalled the words of a former commander: “Plant your hopes in the ground, but don’t expect them to take root.” He prayed the ground here among the Ofra was more fertile.
That night the village invited Viktor to a welcome meal, as was also Ofran custom. They assembled around the town’s central fire and roasted fish and seal and steamed vegetables in broad tilika leaves.
Viktor sat near the fire, still armored, though he’d changed his surcoat to one unstained by travel. In the firelight, and without the dust on his face, Stafe realized he was even younger than Stafe had originally thought. Very fair, and very handsome, though Stafe’s tastes did not run quite that pretty.
“You seem almost a native,” Viktor said, after he’d tasted the village’s offerings. “You must truly have love for these people.”
“Yes,” Stafe said. “And one in particular.”
“Ah.” Viktor nodded to himself. “The picture becomes clear. I judge that one of these women is your wife? Perhaps the one, pardon me for forgetting the name, who nursed you back to health?”
Stafe smiled, but it felt thin. He stood behind Naran and placed his hands on his husband’s shoulders. “Not a wife, but yes.”
Viktor cocked his head in surprise, but then returned to the remains of his meal. “Then things are different here.”
“In many ways,” Stafe said.
Naran gently pulled Stafe down to the seat beside him. “Might I have the company of your eyes for a while? They have been on our visitor for most of the evening.”
“Sorry,” Stafe said. “I just—”
“I know.” Naran squeezed Stafe’s hand. “But it is a welcome festival. It is for us to enjoy as well.”
“You’re right.” Stafe threaded his fingers through Naran’s and beckoned for a plate of spikefruit.
Later that night, Mariyah accompanied Stafe and Naran as they walked home. “He is young,” she said. “And strong. Do you think he can kill Sukkora?”
Stafe shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. I haven’t seen him fight. He seems capable, but then I thought I was, too.”
“Though you were not quite so young,” Naran said, the teasing evident in his voice.
“No,” Stafe said. “And maybe that will make the difference.” He was surprised by the bitterness that arose with his remark. The jealousy there.
“And he will move on if he kills Sukkora?”
“The king has urgent need of the dragon’s organs. Viktor will need to butcher it quickly, before its blood cools, and pack the organs in special vessels. The vessels are protected by enchantments, but they will only last so long. If he doesn’t return to Estria in time, it will be for nothing.”
“Good,” Naran said.
What Stafe left unspoken was what had been gnawing at him since he’d met Viktor. The reason the dagger still nestled against his ribs. By remaining in Ofra, Stafe had become a traitor to the Crown. As he’d been on the King’s own errand, it was the gravest of betrayals. Viktor, if he chose to be an upstanding and honorable knight, could right that wrong. Killing Stafe would be the easiest way and in keeping with the urgency of the mission. Stafe’s head could sit beside the dragon’s organs for the journey home and would surely earn Viktor more titles, lands, and the king’s favor.
The Ofrans would come to Stafe’s defense, but there would be casualties. Stafe couldn’t allow that to happen. It might be moot if the dragon had her way, but the uncertainty of it all was maddening.
Back at their hut, Stafe offered Mariyah some pine tea. She shook her head. “I ate and drank plenty at the gathering.” She placed a brown palm on Stafe’s cheek, like she had so often when he was healing. “You may not remember, but you talked much about your homeland when you were feverish. I know this outsider’s arrival can’t be easy for you.”
He reached up and placed his hand on top of hers. “It helps to have you at my side,” he said. He reached for Naran’s hand as well. “Both of you.”
Mariyah nodded. “Try to get some sleep,” she said, then walked off to her own hut.
Stafe washed his face and hands, then disrobed and slipped beneath the furs of their bed. He’d needed time to adjust to the warm furs and cushions of goose down—so unlike the thin linen and hard mattresses of Estria—but now the bed was as welcoming as a nest.
Naran joined him soon after, shivering a little as he settled beneath the furs. “Autumn is coming fast,” he said. “There is already a night chill.”
“I’ll keep you warm,” Stafe said, wrapping his arms around his husband. Naran kissed him, cradling his face.
“I will protect you,” Naran said. “If it comes to that.”
The thought terrified Stafe. Naran was large, and strong from years of woodcutting, but he wasn’t a fighter. He had no instinct to do harm. No, if any violence were to happen, it would be at Stafe’s hands.
Instead of talking, Stafe kissed Naran, and soon they were making love, with the tension, fear, and anxiety of the day helping to fuel a frantic yet tender coupling that left them both sweaty and gasping.
As Naran faded off to sleep, Stafe lay his head on his husband’s warm, damp barrel of a chest and listened to his breathing, hoping it would lull him to sleep.
When sleep did come, it came with the nightmares. They contained no real moments, just impressions, of the dragon and their confrontation. The rasp of its scales against the stony ground, the hot fetid breath as it roared its challenge, and the sense of the pale unmoving shape behind it, somehow more terrifying. Then the feeling of being rent, the pain of being split in two, carved up like...
He awoke, gasping, his skin slick, his heart pounding. He held Naran close, trying to believe that his husband’s presence could protect him from the memories.
The next morning, Viktor came to Stafe in his hut. Naran had already left for the day’s cutting, and Stafe was brewing silver-needle tea. Stafe kept his expression pleasant as Viktor entered. “Would you like some tea? It’s fresh.”
“No,” Viktor said.
“Then I hope you don’t mind if I have some.” He poured the hot tea into an earthenware mug and waited for it to cool. “Sleep well?”
Viktor shrugged. “I’ve learned to rest when and where I can. It was enough.”
Stafe tested the heat of the tea. “What else can I do for you?”
“I’m in need of a guide up the mountain. To the dragon’s nest.”
Stafe swallowed reflexively, the still-hot tea burning the back of his throat. “I made a vow, never again to return to its nest. Not after the last time.”
“Well, we both know how well you honor your vows.”
The words cut as deftly and deeply as any sword Viktor might wield. A stony silence settled into the space between them.
“I will make it simple,” Viktor said at last. “Guide me to the nest, and I’ll return to the king with his treasures and tell him you are dead. You can live out the rest of your days here with these people, in peace.”
“You would lie to your king?”
He shrugged. “Only a half-truth. You have done what you can to kill your former self, to bury that knight-errant in an Ofran grave. I can complete the job. I am loyal to my king, but I am not cruel. You have value as a prisoner, true, but you are more valuable as a guide. The dragon is my priority. Help me, and you can keep this life.”
“And if refuse?” Stafe’s hands pressed hard around the earthenware cup.
“If you refuse, I will be forced to carry out the king’s law and execute you as a traitor, though I would take no pleasure from it.”
“The Ofrans accept me as one of their own,” Stafe said. “They wouldn’t permit you to kill me.”
“Come now,” Viktor said. “You wouldn’t allow that. You love these people, I’ve seen it. Let them shed tears rather than blood.”
Stafe saw it play out in his mind. Viktor in mail, sword in hand, as Naran led a charge against him. He knew the tactics that Viktor would use, one man against a larger group of enemies. He imagined it blow by blow, the way he used to envision battles in his head. It ended with Ofran bodies bleeding on the ground. Even if they eventually overwhelmed him, the cost would be too high.
“When do we embark?” Stafe asked.
Viktor nodded. “Good man. At first light tomorrow. We’ll prepare today. I brought supplies from home, but I’ll need your help in deciding what to carry.”
Stafe chewed on his lip. “I’ll gather some of my own supplies. I’ll meet you around midday to discuss. At your hut?”
“Perfect,” Viktor said.
So Stafe went about making his preparations, packing a bag with tools and furs to guard against the cold winds of the mountain. At midday he met with Viktor to plan their ascent. “The mountain can be extremely steep in places, and there are a few locations difficult to traverse. It would be best to travel as lightly as possible.”
“Do you expect me to go without armor?”
“I’d suggest you carry it,” Stafe said. “It will mean a quicker ascent, and you won’t be as tired when you reach the dragon. You can put it on when we reach the nest.”
“And if it hears us and emerges? The books all say dragons have excellent hearing.”
“They do. And the rattling of mail is hard to disguise. But would you rather she hear you while you’re scaling a rock face? Or when you have solid ground beneath your feet.”
“I’ll make do with a chain shirt,” Viktor said. “I’ll not go completely exposed.”
Stafe nodded. “With weapons, armor, and climbing gear, there will only be room left for the enchanted vessels.”
“You can carry those,” Viktor said, lifting a protected leather case that made a faint tinkling sound.
“Very well,” Stafe said. The padding of the case muffled the noise of the vessels, but Stafe remembered the ringing and clanking of the specially prepared glass containers from when he’d carried them. He’d have to be careful that the dragon didn’t hear them on their climb.
“What happened to your vessels?” Viktor asked.
Stafe shrugged. “Probably in pieces at the top of the mountain. Along with pieces of my armor and the rest of my gear.”
“I don’t think that’s all you left on that mountain,” Viktor said.
Stafe turned away. “I have a few more arrangements to make, and I’d like to say my goodbyes. Just in case.”
“I’ll meet you at the northern trail, an hour after dawn. The lower slopes of the mountain will be warm enough then. The hard going doesn’t start until we get farther up.”
“I’ll expect you there,” Viktor said.
Mariyah greeted Stafe with a warm hug and an offer of tea, which he declined. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Viktor wants me to take him up the mountain.”
“I see.” She settled into a chair. “And what did you say?”
“I said I would.”
“I have no choice, Mariyah. It’s either that or he delivers the king’s justice.”
“He would do that?”
“Apparently,” Stafe said.
“And you can’t beat him.”
“No.” Stafe sank into a chair opposite her. “Maybe one time I might have, but even if that were true, that was a long time ago. He’s younger, he’s stronger, and he’s dangerous.”
“You know the village would defend you,” she said.
“I know. And Naran would be the first into the fray. I can’t allow that to happen.” He shook his head. “I can’t risk it.”
Mariyah searched his face, then nodded. She grabbed a stoppered bottle from a nearby shelf, opened it, took a quick swig, and passed it to Stafe. He smelled the strong odor of fermented sap and took a long pull. The bittersweet liquid coated and warmed his throat and stomach. “Thank you.”
“When are you going to tell him?” Mariyah asked.
“When he’s back from cutting.”
“He won’t like it.”
“I’ll just have to convince him,” Stafe said.
Mariyah reached for the bottle and Stafe passed it back. She took another quick gulp. “I’ve known Naran a long time. He’s a good man, a man of conviction. And he’s strong. A few years before you came to the village, his friend, Kavi, felt wronged by another man. Kavi stayed up all night drinking strongsap and lillywine and got it in his head to settle his grievance violently. Naran, who had been consoling Kavi and listening to his woes, knew better than to let this happen. So he stopped Kavi the only way he could. He wrapped Kavi up in those tree trunk arms of his and pinned him to the ground for hours, until Kavi calmed down and started listening to reason.” Mariyah held out the bottle to Stafe again. “Do you think he wouldn’t do the same to you, the man he loves, if he thought it best?”
Stafe snatched up the bottle and took another long pull. She was right. Even if Naran couldn’t restrain him—and Stafe was fairly sure he could—then he would make things difficult. It might even spur him to some noble but foolhardy act. “So you’re saying I shouldn’t tell him.”
Mariyah shrugged. “I don’t take lying lightly.”
“But you know Naran. I think you’re right that he could get hurt, and I don’t want to see that any more than you.”
“Do you think I should go?” Stafe asked.
Mariyah sighed. “I do not want to see Sukkora killed. She is something rare and wonderful in this world. That your people sent you both to do this is abhorrent. On the other hand, she has survived this long by being savvy, and strong. My concern is for you.”
She leaned forward and placed one hand on Stafe’s leg, the other on his cheek. “I know what you saw in that cave, and I know what it reminded you of. I often think the sins of your past left deeper scars than the dragon did. Your spirit is steeped in guilt. It weighs you down.” She gave him a sad smile. “If this task can shed some of it from you, if it can help free you, then I welcome it. But you must survive and come back to us. Survive both Viktor and the dragon.” She gently slapped his cheek. “I don’t want to have to sew you together again. Your job is to stay alive. Whatever it takes.”
Stafe nodded and prepared himself for what he would need to do.
That night, Stafe acted as he normally would when Naran returned from the day’s cutting. They ate together, they slept together. Stafe was only forced to lie once, when Naran asked about Viktor. “He’s preparing for the journey up the mountain,” Stafe said.
“And he hasn’t accosted you?” Naran asked.
“I talked to him,” Stafe said. “He asked me questions about my time on the mountain.”
Naran shook his head. “I can’t imagine getting the idea of trying to kill a dragon.”
“The stories back home, in Estria, say a dragon’s organs have power. Power that can be used to heal or strengthen. I’ve seen books containing recipes and instructions for wondrous things.”
“But at what cost?” Naran propped himself up on his elbows. “You almost died. This Sloat may die.”
“I’ve told you how strict duty is in Estria. We’re trained to obey. The army and knighthood only intensify that. You don’t just learn to serve the king, you do so eagerly. You learn to enjoy it. So when he asks you to undertake a special quest... it’s hard to say no.”
Then Naran said something that chilled Stafe for the rest of the night. “The way you talk about your homeland, I wonder why the king doesn’t just send one of his armies to kill the dragon.”
“There is a mountain pass east of here that would be hard to navigate with an army. And his soldiers are always occupied,” Stafe said, but he wondered. Would the king’s situation ever be desperate enough for him to try?
Stafe slept curled close against Naran’s warmth, trying, for just a moment, to feel the way he usually did in his husband’s arms.
In the morning, Stafe waited while Naran dressed and left the hut, then quickly rose and dressed for climbing. Before leaving, he left the note he’d carefully written out. At its end he begged for Naran’s forgiveness, and he repeated the words aloud before gathering his gear and leaving.
His Estrian sword, once as familiar to him as one of his own limbs, felt cumbersome as it slapped against his leg. But they were going to face a dragon, and a knife was no protection against a creature like that. A sword was barely better, truth be told. It was a contingency, nothing else. Stafe didn’t intend to take part in any battle if he could help it.
As he knew from Naran, the woodcutters had moved their work to the western slopes of the mountain, where the timber was thicker and dryer. So the first person Stafe saw after leaving his hut was Viktor. He wore a mail shirt, as he’d intended, beneath furs. The rest of his armor must have been stashed in the large pack he carried.
Viktor held out the other pack with the alchemical vessels. “Yours,” he said.
The contents of the pack faintly clinked as Stafe strapped it across his back, evoking memories of his ride from Estria. “Magister Falkan’s work?”
“The same,” Viktor said. “You’d find him little changed, I’d wager. Perhaps the slightest bit more wrinkled and dry. But still as tough as leather.”
“I was a little afraid of him before we’d met,” Stafe said. “I’d heard the stories about his studies and experiments. But his constant fretting soon convinced me that all he cared about were his bottles and jars.”
“I would venture he’s even more of a mother hen now. He fussed over that pack you’re holding for over an hour.”
Stafe shook his head, then flushed with guilt, realizing how he’d been relaxing, almost enjoying the exchange. “We’d best get on,” he said, and pushed ahead.
Hours later, they reached the upper slopes of the mountain. Viktor had moved confidently up the lower slopes and now seemed undaunted by the rockier, steeper ground ahead.
“Don’t the Ofrans fear the dragon?” Viktor asked, reaching for a handhold.
“They are wary, to be sure,” Stafe said. “They don’t hunt or cut wood on this side of the mountain, and no one travels up this far.” Stafe pulled himself up to an outcrop, then clapped the dust and grit from his hands. “It doesn’t bother them much, the dragon. Occasionally, it makes off with a goat or pig, but it usually hunts the seals on the coastline and leaves the village alone.”
“I can’t imagine living so long under the shadow of such a beast,” Viktor said.
Can’t you? Stafe thought.
Viktor wiped dirt from his surcoat. “Is it true that they worship it?”
“Not worship,” Stafe said. “More of a healthy respect. They know it is an ancient and unique creature. They feel blessed to live in the dragon’s shadow.”
“It is unique,” Viktor said, pressing on. “A relic. But even if its kind hadn’t been killed off long ago, Estria wouldn’t permit one inside its bounds.”
“And yet this one is of vital importance to Estria’s king.”
“It could be said that we often kill without thinking through the consequences,” Stafe said.
Viktor didn’t respond.
Soon after, the terrain became more treacherous, and they were forced to resort to ropes. Stafe offered to go first and secure the climbing spikes, but Viktor insisted on taking the lead.
“You know, you’re still remembered back in Estria,” Viktor said. “And not just for the dragon.”
“Oh?” Stafe asked, searching for a place to put his foot.
“Do you remember Kerrick Lorei?”
“The name is familiar,” Stafe said.
“Have you forgotten so much of your old life already? He remembers you. He was at the Battle of Dumant. He talks often about how you led your men to victory over a much larger and better-armed force. Do you remember that at least?”
Stafe’s hand trembled as it reached for the next hold. Of course he remembered Dumant. He had wrested victory from the grasp of certain death, but only through cunning and savagery. It had been his first command, and much rode on the outcome, for Estria and himself. He faced a superior force ensconced within a stronghold, opposed only by his paltry cavalry and weary soldiers, many of whom lacked the necessary experience. War had already shown him the hypocrisy of knightly honor—the carnage a knight was required to inflict on the enemy, or on their own troops, was rarely honorable—so he had told his second to unleash the men and let them run wild through the territory.
The ploy had been successful. The enemy had not been prepared for the brutality of the Estrian troops, and it lured them out from their walls into the villages, where Stafe redirected that same brutality against them. It had been a desperate gamble, but it had won him the city.
Stafe hadn’t been naïve—he was aware of the cost of such savagery—but the savagery was largely removed, presented to him as categories and numbers. History would remember it as that, if at all. Even as Stafe rode into the city at the head of his troops, Dumanti citizens lined the road holding out flower garlands or gifts of bread or alcohol, hoping to endear themselves to the Estrians. Stafe found himself drawn to one woman, an undecipherable expression on her dirty, tear-streaked face. She, too, held out a bundle to him, but inside was a baby, maybe only a few months old, soaked in blood, its head crushed. Killed, most likely, by his men.
To Stafe’s everlasting shame, he had spurred his horse forward, avoiding the woman’s gaze. That night the troops celebrated and feasted, yet despite all he drank, and despite the young man he’d found to share his bed, he couldn’t banish the sight of that baby, on that day or any other since.
“Do you?” Viktor asked. “Remember?”
“Yes,” Stafe said, and no more.
The climbing was slow going with their burdens and Viktor’s mail, and nightfall was fast approaching as they reached the wide ledge that lay below the dragon’s nest, the last resting spot before the ascent to their quarry. “We should stop here to rest,” Stafe said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “Tackle the final leg at first light.”
“I don’t want to wait,” Viktor said.
“But she is most active at night,” Stafe said. “And we’re tired from the climb.”
“No!” Viktor slapped his hand on a boulder. “I won’t stop now. Not to sleep in the cold and wake up cramped and sluggish. And risk you slinking off in the night.” A raised hand waved off Stafe’s oncoming protest. “I feel the fire in my blood now. Yes, the climb took some of our strength, but we are here together. With Estrian steel in our hands.”
Stafe beckoned Viktor to the rim of the ledge. Viktor tensed but complied. There, in a shallow depression in the stone, were piled hundreds of old bones, cracked and yellowed, long stripped clean of any flesh. “Some of remains of Sukkora’s feasting.”
Viktor stepped forward in morbid fascination, peering at the bones. Up close, the damage was more evident—many of them crushed or scorched. Some were animal bones, seals or wild goats maybe, but others were clearly human.
“Is that mail?” Viktor asked.
“It is,” Stafe said. “I make out Celantine work, Amarek, and even Estrian.” He let his words sink in. “We are not the first to come seeking this creature.”
Viktor met Stafe’s eyes. “But we will be the last.”
“Can you be sure?” Stafe waved at the bones. “People have been sent here for generations, judging by the armor, tossing lives away for the dragon’s treasures. We are not heroes. We are, each of us, a toss of the dice, a throw of the dart. They gamble with us like we’re coin.”
Viktor was silent for a long moment, though his eyes stayed locked on Stafe’s. “Does your honor depend so greatly on others?” he said at last. “I’m no fool. I know that to some, my life is currency. I serve my king loyally, and well, and I do this task for him. But I also do it for me. I am no wealthy scion, heir to a noble house. I had to build myself up, like you. I must create myself daily as the man I wish to be, and my honor is the foundation of all of it.”
He grabbed Stafe by the shoulders. “Join me. Reverse the failures of your past. Restore your honor. Help me kill this beast, then let me return to Estria to tell them you’re dead. Live your life here in peace knowing that in the end, you served your king. Knowing you are finally free.”
Stafe thought of Mariyah’s words, the weight. He felt it keenly now. To be able to set it down...
Victor clapped his hands together, eyes gleaming. “Yes! Two knights of Estria, swords joined in the service of our king. I welcome your help, brother.” He clasped Stafe’s hand.
They moved on with renewed vigor, closing on the dragon’s nest, which lay in a cave near the summit. Stafe stopped Viktor when they were near, as the last amber wisps of sunset colored the sky. “It’s just over that rise.”
Viktor shrugged off his pack and began removing the other pieces of his armor. He held out a gauntlet to Stafe. “Help me?”
Stafe helped Viktor strap on his armor, and the smell of cold metal and leather and oil took him back to his days as squire, just one step in the long climb to knighthood. His fingers moved without thought, securing buckles and tightening straps. For just a moment, he felt naked.
“You better stay in the rear,” Viktor said, donning his half-helm. “Only attack if you see an opportunity. I’ll try to keep its attention on me.”
Stafe nodded. An honorable knight to the last. He was getting ready to draw his sword when there was the sound of rocks being crunched and scattered. Then a massive shadow passed over them.
“She’s on the wing!” Stafe hissed. “Fuck the goddess!”
“No,” Viktor said, a bright gleam in his eyes. “This is fortuitous.”
“It must return to its nest, no? We can prepare for that. Turn its lair to our advantage. How long will it be gone?”
Stafe shrugged. “As long as it takes her to hunt. Maybe an hour. Maybe more.”
“Time enough for us to cut some trees, build some defenses. But first, let me see this nest.”
Viktor pressed on to the cave that served as the dragon’s nest and Stafe followed, numbly. It now seemed smaller than he remembered but just as dark. At the entrance, Viktor raised a hand to his nose. The smell brought Stafe back to that first time—the stink of something animal, of long years spent nesting in the cave. For a moment he was back then, clad in mail, sword in hand, filled with a fire that felt the rival of anything the dragon could muster. The sighing of its breath, the scrape of its claws. The large wedged head and those terrible reptilian eyes. Still, he had strode into the cave, shield up, weapon out.
Then the dragon had shifted, and what he’d seen behind her made him falter. A pale shape, ovoid, larger than a man. It was just a moment, fleeting and swift as a starling, then the beast was upon him and he never stood a chance.
“The lantern,” Stafe urged, and Viktor unshuttered it, lighting up the interior of the cave. Stafe’s eyes immediately sought the rear, where he had seen it, but there was nothing there.
Had he imagined it?
As if in answer, a scream came from their left. Viktor swiveled the lantern and Stafe drew his sword, heart hammering, pulse pounding. His body recognized the dragon’s roar before his mind did, only it was weaker, and pitched much higher. The light fell on a shape that didn’t make sense at first. A wedged head, reptilian eyes, and claws, yes, but much smaller. Too small. A juvenile, hatched from the egg Stafe had seen when he’d confronted the dragon.
Viktor’s lips curled back in a smile. “A hatchling,” he said, in awe. “Do you know how rare that is? And how lucky?”
Stafe did know how rare it was. He had read the same books Viktor had, and he knew what Viktor was thinking. This was still a dragon—in possession of the same organs, containing the same essence that alchemy could transmute into a cure for the king—only it was far easier prey. Two Estrian knights against a dragon barely larger than a courser. Could it even breathe fire?
“Stay alert,” Viktor said. “If we’re smart, we can be gone before the mother returns.”
Stafe stepped forward as Viktor assumed a fighting stance, sword arm raised high. Stafe shifted his sword to his left hand. His eyes were fixed on the young dragon backed up against the wall, screaming in defiance, and yet there was fear there, too. A creature of another era, falling victim to a legacy not of its making.
“Get the alchemical vessels ready,” Viktor said. The tone of his voice was confident. He knew he could take this fledgling.
Stafe shrugged the pack free, letting it fall to the ground. The glass within tinkled.
“Quick, now!” Viktor urged.
Stafe threw open the case, revealing the metal and glass objects within. He laid his sword on the ground, hoping he wasn’t making a mistake. Then he grabbed for the vessels, two in each hand, and hurled them at the cave entrance. The glass cracked, the metal rang out.
Viktor’s head snapped around. “Why?” he screamed, even as Stafe threw four more of the vessels at the cave entrance.
Viktor moved toward Stafe, his sword raised to attack. Stafe threw the whole pack now at the entrance, setting off more cracks and tinkles and pings. Stafe had a moment to wonder if it would be enough, and then Viktor was upon him.
Stafe slashed wildly, hoping to keep Viktor back, but Viktor parried and slammed a mailed fist into Stafe’s shoulder, knocking him back.
Stafe tried to push aside the pain but was keenly aware of his lack of armor and Viktor’s superior prowess with the sword.
Viktor’s expression was one of utter hurt and betrayal. “I thought you wanted to restore your honor!”
“Not by killing a helpless creature,” Stafe said through gritted teeth.
“It’s a beast!”
Stafe shook his head. “The true beast sits atop the Estrian throne. The damage he’s done is far greater.”
Viktor shook his head in disbelief. “You’re mad.” His expression turned from shock to disgust to anger, and he came at Stafe, his sword swinging with savage fury. Stafe only just managed to parry the strike, feeling the impact jar him to the bone. The clang of metal on metal rang out inside the cave.
Stafe’s sword arm was already numb, but still Viktor swung at him, his face a mask of ferocity. Stafe did his best to stand his ground, but the onslaught forced him back, and his boot caught a patch of loose rock or earth. He went down, desperately holding up his sword to ward off the killing blow.
Viktor shifted his stance to seize the opportunity. At the same time, Stafe heard a great heaving, as if by great wings, and he did the thing neither of them expected. He scrambled toward the cave entrance.
“Coward!” Viktor screamed.
But his words were soon drowned out by the roar of the mother dragon as she descended. Stafe was only just clearing the entrance as her dark bulk blocked out the stars.
Fear seized every part of him—the memory of the dragon and her savagery sinking its claws into muscle and bone, mind and mettle, spirit and soul. All thoughts of Viktor were lost as Stafe threw himself clear. A moment later, he heard its fiery breath, felt the searing heat scorch over him, and he shut his eyes tight, sliding, slipping, and scraping down the side of the mountain.
He slammed hard against the stone ledge. He crawled to the pile of bones, collapsing there, still and silent, as if he were one of the likewise dead.
Stafe awoke a few hours before dawn, his body protesting in pain from the bruises and cuts that covered it. Beneath him dangled the ropes from their climb. There was no sign of Viktor.
Stafe descended, the sun at its zenith as he reached the lower slopes of the mountain bloodied and bruised, his clothing in tatters. His Estrian sword had been lost in his fall, another fossil in the mountain’s bounty.
He managed to make his way to Mariyah’s hut before passing out again. When he opened his eyes, her face was hovering above his, full of concern. “At least you fared better this time.” She clasped his hand. “Thankfully.”
Stafe clasped her back. “Thank you. Again.”
“I led him to the cave.” Stafe closed his eyes. “Then I left him to the dragon.”
“So he’s dead?”
“If he isn’t here, I think he must be.”
Mariyah nodded. “You did what you had to do.”
“Have you spoken to Naran?”
“He’s very hurt.”
“Yes,” Stafe said. “He would be.”
“You’ll have to convince him,” Mariyah said.
Stafe grasped for her hand again. Tears spilled down his cheeks. “It’s the only thing I’ll do. It’s the only thing that matters now.”
Yet the next morning, he knew his words to be false. It wasn’t the only thing that mattered. As he watched the sun rise, Stafe couldn’t help think of what lay to the east, the scores of knights who might one day take up the challenge to slay the dragon. Every day he would try to convince his husband to forgive him, and every night he would wish death on the man he once served, the Estrian king, each time hoping that the past could truly find rest.