Sir Mered Atherton tries to ignore the girl's screams. The dragon is cunning. It angles its scales just so, and the reflected sunlight dazzles him. A good trick, he thinks, squinting.
The sword is sweaty in his grip. Fighting in armour in this heat is something he would rather have avoided. No choice, though. He glances across at the maiden. She is tied too securely to the tree for any chance of escape. Her blonde hair is plastered to her face and her dress is soiled. If he doesn't defeat the beast, they're both going to be food. He'll be damned if he'll let that happen, but the noise she is making doesn't help matters. Atherton backs towards the mouth of the cave. There is a low, overhanging rock that will make it harder for the dragon to manoeuvre under. And it might offer a little shade.
Its tail, edged with bone plates as sharp as any knife, slices in a wide arc. Atherton ducks and allows himself a grin. Too obvious. The thirty-foot flexible blade is fearsome but not fast, and only dangerous if you don't see it coming. This beast, though it would barely fit in the castle's dining hall, has neither the speed nor strength he has faced in others. If he keeps his head, victory will be his. He springs forward, close, as the tail sweeps past and with a ferocious back swing, he cleaves into the dragon's thigh. Its roars rattle Atherton's teeth.
"It seems both of us can bite," he taunts it. Given the snarling response, it understands him, and he adjusts his assessment of its capabilities accordingly. More artifice will be needed.
Removing his opponent's natural advantage of flight is a tactic he learned years before. Atherton feints to the left, then dashes inside the cave. The dragon, shocked and angered by the wound, ignores the virgin and pursues him. The racket of his plate armour echoes in the tunnel. His most expensive purchase, it looks cumbersome--but only to those who have never worn a set. He can barely feel it.
The stone walls are smoothed by decades of the beast's passage, and it moves with surprising quickness in such a confined space. As the giant head with its razor teeth snakes towards him like leathery lightning, Sir Atherton back-pedals furiously, then slips. An unexpected ledge dropping into black depths almost claims him before he regains his footing and scrambles sideways. There is no way through, and he curses his miscalculation.
If the dragon flames now, he is a dead man. But he knows it will not risk the treasure pile to his back; that is a love they both share. With a sound that prickles his skin, the mouth clatters shut again and again like a steel trap, missing Atherton by inches. He jabs upwards. The angle is too shallow and his sword slides off the adamant scales. It is suddenly apparent that he is trapped with an enraged beast. This isn't going to plan.
The dragon rumbles in its throat, emitting a blast of hot, sulphurous air from the furnace inside its belly. Choking, Atherton slashes the creature across its nose. Its head jerks back, exposing taut flesh between scales. His stab strikes true, though not deep enough. The dragon convulses, its howl deafening, and Atherton reels with senses struck. A blow like a catapult smashes him from the side.
The world starts to slip away. Everything is peaceful, quiet. He drifts until something calls him back.
It bursts inside him, calling forth precious adrenaline. His eyes open. Though his vision is blurred, Atherton can just make out the dragon as it prowls towards the girl. Terror silences her. He tries to rise and cannot. It takes him seconds he does not have to realise that his arm is trapped. The dragon must have known that Atherton wasn't going anywhere. He strains to free his arm again, but the ornate gong that pins it is several times his weight. The pain is excruciating.
In a few moments, the maiden will be dead. How is he going to save her? He gropes at his side, feeling for the familiar shape tucked into his belt.
It could kill the dragon, even at this range. Yet that will use up the last of its power. His backup--gone. No more safeguards for future battles. Atherton's fingers touch the burnished wood as the girl finds her voice once more and screams down the monster's open maw. Yes, the wand is the only thing that can save her now, he knows.
His fingers leave it.
The gold coins that he is partly submerged in are unstable. Kicking his feet as though he is swimming through some strange, heavy water, Atherton drives away the pieces under the gong. He thrashes the last of the treasure aside, aware that the shrieking has ceased. With a hissing noise, the gleaming weight slides down enough for him to free his arm. It hangs at his side, the hand white and numbed. The agony of the battered and dented metal that digs into his flesh must be ignored. He staggers to his feet and creeps towards his sword. The dragon's back is to him as it busies itself with its feast.
He will get one chance at this.
It is not easy to sneak in armour, but Atherton has had much practice. And he has learned that the aroma of virgin's blood has an intoxicating effect on these creatures. Once smelled, it is difficult for them to do else except devour the sweet flesh it has come from. One might as well try to prise a drunkard from his last wine flask.
He remembers the time that he tried to jump on to a dragon's back. Some fanciful tale he'd heard a bard tell; it had nearly cost him his life. This is business. Atherton glances back at the pile of gold and ornaments and gemstones that gleam within the cave. Soon to be his. He aches at the thought of what they will bring him.
Another step closer.
Even with the bright red blood and fresh meat plastered across the scaly face, her scent filling those wide nostrils, the dragon hears. It turns, but too late and in the wrong direction. It sees only the handful of gleaming gold coins that the knight has thrown before Atherton drives his long sword under its upraised wing. Deep into the beast. Deeper, deeper, and into its heart.
This time, Atherton is ready. He yanks the sword free and sprints away, blood geysering out of the wound to spray his back. The maiden's ruined corpse, its bonds severed by the dragon's teeth, has slid down the tree. The intestines have, by chance, arranged themselves in a fan at the base of the gory stump as if they are an offering at a shrine. The whole grisly affair is pulped and swept aside by the convulsions of the dying wyrm.
Some idiots wax poetic about their beauty and hint at mysterious magical abilities, but he has never seen any evidence that such fanciful myths are true. Dragons are neither more nor less than dangerous predators--and they die like any other animal. Sir Atherton watches it until it has lost too much blood to stand. He inches closer; he has been caught by a ruse before. Though judging by the quantity of cruor pooling around them and coating the dusty ground--the furthest droplets already beginning to congeal in the sun--this one is near its end. It has a pair of large incisors, he notes. A good trophy. Another for the collection; another piece of his reputation.
Another gobbet of spittle in King Reynard's face.
Then his stomach writhes as he looks at the remains of the girl. It is almost impossible to tell the difference between her splintered bones and the remnants of the tree. Pale, jagged lengths glisten with wet redness. Her insides are an obscene feast plastered wide for the insects and animals. Atherton clenches his teeth against the bile that burns his throat. It is not the first time. A long look at the cave and its contents stills the serpent that twists in him. She hadn't been a bad travelling companion. Perhaps a little dull; at least she had been quiet. And she had survived two previous. . .encounters.
He catches the dragon's eyes but has to turn away. Atherton forces himself to stare at it, trembling with the effort until it gives a great, rattling groan and breathes no more. Even in death its gaze fixes him.
The wind at last begins to rise, a distant sigh that rustles the trees as if the dead have been roused from fitful slumber.
"Stop, you thieving shit! Come back!"
Atherton snaps his head towards the sound, then fumbles for the crossbow strapped to his horse. Damn. More noise begins to rise from the village as the commotion awakens others. The scattering of small houses on either side of the rutted dirt road disappears into the inky gloom. They are far enough away from the nearest town that the single inn here was full when he arrived. He is just another nameless traveller and will not be remembered by the locals. These kinds of hamlets are the best places to target, he has found.
Across the back of his steed, the bound figure struggles--enough that he nervously eyes the bonds. "Hold still unless you want a smack on the head, girl," he hisses at her. He loads a quarrel, sights down the crossbow and squeezes the trigger.
The bolt thuds into the wooden frame of their rough cottage as her father barrels round the corner, making the man yelp. His contorted face looks like some hideous hobgoblin by the light of the torch he carries. "Stop!" he shouts again.
Atherton loads another bolt. "Back off," he calls, "or the next one goes in you."
The man is the very image of misery. "Please," he begs, "don't take her."
Atherton's mask slips, obscuring his vision. With a curse, he tugs it up into place. "I'll put it right through your damned head, old man. Now stay back." He swings himself up into the saddle and the girl's father surges towards him despite the threat.
Too late. Atherton touches his heels to his horse's flanks and she leaps forward. Ahead, a villager appears brandishing a scythe. Nasty--the bastard is going to take out her legs. He waits as long as he dares, then fires the crossbow. Between the bouncing, the girl's struggles, and the darkness that cloaks the village, it is a wonder he gets anywhere near the man. The bolt nicks his arm, provoking a startled cry, and the knight is away and gone.
"Please stop," groans Atherton.
The girl's wailing increases in its intensity--great racking sobs and an ugly choking sound that spreads around the quiet, leafy clearing. It is beginning to spoil the anticipation of his breakfast. She peeps out at him from tear-filled eyes and manages to gasp, "Why?"
In the bright dawn, her hair is a glorious waterfall of copper that shimmers, rivalling the fire's radiance. Her pale, unblemished skin seems to glow from within, the vitality of her youth apparent.
"It's nothing personal," he says. "Just business." Atherton pokes at the fire with a stick, the renewed flames licking around the chicken he also acquired from the village. The smell is divine; his mouth waters.
"But--but why me?" she gulps.
He sighs. "You're very valuable to me. You are--" He stops.
"I'm not special," she says. "Please take me back."
She is calming down quicker than he expected. Perhaps he will get to enjoy breakfast after all.
"I can't," he replies. "You see, you have a certain. . .condition that I. . ." Atherton feels himself start to blush and turns away, but cannot help glancing sideways at her. His breath catches in his throat at her beauty, and he coughs awkwardly.
"You're a knight," she says. "You fight evil, you--you save people, not kidnap them."
Her eyes are a vivid green, staring at him from her heart-shaped face like emeralds set in ivory.
"I do fight evil," he protests. "Great evil. And I've saved many lives." The others never questioned him so, and he is not used to justifying himself to the likes of them.
"Are you going to--to kill me?" she asks.
"Kill you? Of course not--I need you alive. Killing you is the last thing on my mind." Visions of gold dance before him, familiar and comforting.
"Then let me go," she begs. "Please. I won't tell anyone. I promise."
He shakes his head.
Sorrow etches itself upon the girl, and she wipes her nose on the hem of her sleeve.
"I'm to be a slave, then," she says. Her slender body shivers. "Your slave?"
Atherton feels his face burn, his chest tighten. "What you take me for?" he shouts. "I'm not some filthy slaver. I don't peddle human flesh."
"Yet you kidnap me. What would King Reynard say if he knew? I cannot believe that a good man like him would allow this."
"Reynard is no good man," he snarls. "You demonstrate your naivety."
Atherton stabs a stick into the fire. The chicken is ready, but his mouth is dry and his stomach rebels now at the thought of food.
"I have certain business to conclude, which you will help me with. Then you will be free to leave. No harm will come to you," he tells her. "I give you my word."
He does not meet her gemstone eyes, though to his surprise, he finds himself longing to look into them.
"Here," he says, trying to sound a little kinder. "Have some breakfast."
Atherton hands her a plate of sizzling chicken breast. After a pause, she takes it. Her finger brushes his hand and he almost jerks it back.
"Thank you," she says.
He begins to stand when she asks, "Will you not join me?"
Atherton is too surprised to do anything except sit. "I--I don't know your name," he stammers.
"Calena," she replies.
He eats his meal without tasting it. The gold coins that tumble through his thoughts turn to a shimmering copper.
"We're still heading north," says Calena. "That's three days now."
Atherton doesn't reply this time. He looks at the worn parchment, its tiny, shadowed valleys leaping in the firelight. He is careful not to let her see it. The crudely rendered dragon is almost comical, though the sum posted underneath it next to the word 'dead' is the largest he has yet seen. For the hundredth time, Atherton runs the numbers in his head. Not much further, he thinks. Perhaps one more day.
He catches himself staring at Calena again and looks back down before she notices. She'd smiled for the first time yesterday. It was like a second sunrise. There is now a part of him that does not want to reach the dragon. To keep travelling through this rolling forest, and into the distant blue haze of the mountains, and beyond.
Rumour has it that this is an older beast, but not so old as to be beyond use. This means two things. First, it will be powerful and well versed in battle. He knows it has dispatched previous knights sent to vanquish it. (That said, he always had a low opinion of Sir Gadsley.) And second, it will have amassed substantial riches. It was astounding what could be collected over a couple of centuries.
He peeks over the parchment at Calena. She has drawn a cloak around herself. The nights have become colder during their journey, the skies clear and far. Her eyes gleam as they reflect the flames.
So, the reward plus the dragon's hoard. . .and if he is careful, she will survive. She must survive. Atherton's hand slips to the comforting presence of the deathwand at his side. It almost assures him of victory, but maybe he shouldn't even--no, he will make enough from this expedition to leave at last. Despite the lavish celebrations he indulged in following his early triumphs, he has since exercised enough self-restraint to amass a fortune. He will go somewhere far away and live out the rest of his days in comfort. In freedom.
After, of course, the matter of his final visit to King Reynard. Atherton has imagined this scene many times. What he will say. How he will look and carry himself; the scorn he will display. The king's face when he is forced to--
"Why did you do it?" asks Calena.
Atherton shakes his head. "What?"
"Steal me. This wasn't the first time, was it?" she says. "You seem too comfortable with this."
She shouldn't speak to him like this. He means her no harm, does not know how to make her understand.
"I've heard tell of a dragon in the northern reaches," she continues. "Is that where we're going?"
Atherton regards her, trying to conceal the unease he now feels. Calena is clever; he needs to be careful.
"You mustn't worry," he says. "I can handle it."
"Have you killed a dragon before?" she gasps. "How many?"
"Nine," he tells her. "I've killed nine dragons." Will that make her smile again?
"Nine?" Calena's eyebrows rise. "Surely an exaggeration. Most men would be hard pressed to kill even one."
"Are you accusing me of being a liar now?"
"Not at all," she laughs. "I meant no disrespect. That's just more than I would have thought possible. We're not talking about mere goblins, after all. I'm amazed you've survived this long."
She pauses, staring into the fire. "You must be the best warrior in the land."
"It's true that few have had my success," Atherton concedes.
"You're brave," she says, "and you have experience. It shows. You're not like the other men with their bluster and bravado. Who talk about battle but who have never swung a sword in anger, let alone taken a life." She looks back at him. "No, you're not them."
Though such praise is familiar, her words are more intoxicating than wine, and a warm glow begins to fill him.
"I know why you need me," she continues calmly. "I realised your plan. You use girls like me--virgins--as a distraction. A lure for your ambush. Much easier to kill a dragon when his attention is taken, when he doesn't know that there's a man hiding there with three feet of steel and a crossbow, waiting to kill him. Until it's too late."
Atherton jerks back as if she has slapped him.
"I saw that parchment you keep looking at," Calena whispers. "It's a big reward. I can see how that might tempt even a good man to evil."
"Shut your--" The words escape before he can stop them, and his fists clench against the knife that seems to twist between his ribs. He wants to protest that he is not evil, that he knows it and has chafed under it. How can he make her see?
"I think you're very clever," she says quickly. "Try to slay a dragon in a fair fight, face-to-face? That's beyond foolhardy. But you are as intelligent as you are courageous. Admirable qualities. . .though my present situation does rather spoil their effect."
"What a lovely little speech. And such a sweet couple."
He leaps to his feet at the unexpected voice that calls out of the gloom. The harsh, mocking tone betrays the speaker's malice. The knight's blade is halfway out of its scabbard before an arrow strikes the fire with a shower of embers.
"Draw your sword and you are a dead man," the voice says, hard and quick.
Three men emerge from the dark forest, sallow and unkempt, weapons held before them. The figure skulking at the back sights down a drawn bow. The nearest man--one of the greasiest specimens Atherton had ever seen--stares at Calena and licks his lips.
"A virgin, eh?" the man leers. "We likes the sound of that, don't we lads?" There are murmurs of appreciation behind him. "You can forget all that dragon shit. We'll just take the girl and be on our way. Save you the trouble--not that you got a choice."
Atherton's blood freezes at the thought of their intentions. Not her. Not now.
He needs more time.
"What about my compensation?" asks Atherton. "I went to a lot of trouble to acquire her." He winces inside at the cold words, but keeps his face blank. They must not guess.
"Then we'll give you the greatest gift of all. Your life." The man chuckles low, filthy in his throat. Greasy. "A bold knight such as yourself"--there are sniggers from the others--"should have no trouble in picking up another juicy morsel."
"I know you," says the archer. He has been studying Atherton over his arrow. "You're Sir Mered Atherton. . .Dragonbane, they call you."
Atherton goes very still.
"I always wondered what kind of a man you were," the man goes on. "A heroic warrior, I thought. Some kind of god walking among us. And here you are." He spits as the sniggers grow louder.
"Well, well," says the greasy one. He grins.
Three-on-one is poor odds, and with the archer sighting on him, Atherton knows that there is no way he can win this fight. He feels the old shame grow inside him. And there is something else behind it, now.
"Just making my way in the world," Atherton says. "Same as you. We're all after a bit of gold, some respect from our fellow man, and a warm place for the night. Why don't you take the girl and be on your way, and we'll say no more about this." The rest of his gear is by his horse, but he knows he cannot reach it before he takes an arrow. His inability makes him frantic.
"That's very kind of you, good sir. I think we will."
The pair moves towards Calena, and she squirms backwards across the ground to escape. They fall upon her like feral dogs. Atherton's stomach tightens and he almost takes a step forward, but the bowman is covering them. He is powerless to help her, unless... His fingers twitch towards the deathwand, then stop. Without it the final dragon may best him. His fist clenches white with indecision.
The greasy one hauls Calena to her feet roughly. "Stop struggling if you know what's good for you," he growls. She shrinks back, her jaw rigid and eyes blazing.
"She's manacled," says his accomplice. "Big ones."
"Ah, yes," says Atherton. "I'll just get you the key." He moves slowly towards his pack, both hands held open in front as they watch him. "Nice and easy."
"Which one of you is going to have me first?" asks Calena.
The bandits stare at her.
"I--I know you're all going to have your turn," she says. "Fair is fair. But who will go first?"
The men glance at each other, then back at the girl.
"Traditionally, the captain should be last," she says. "He lets his men take what they need before he does. That's the mark of a real leader."
"I like the sound of that," says the archer. "I'll break her in."
"To piss with you," snarls the greasy one. "She's mine--and if you're lucky, I'll let you have a piece of her after."
"There's no need to fight over me," she insists.
Calena gazes at the archer and he cannot look away. "You look like you're good with your hands," she tells him. "I admire that over coarse brutality. Perhaps you and I would be happy together. . .just the two of us. . ." Her voice is honey poured over velvet.
Atherton watches them as he slowly eases open the wrapping. He sees the archer's face set as the man shifts his aim.
"Step away from her--both of you. This is where we part ways."
The greasy one points with his axe. "Think a little shit like you gonna get a piece like her?"
Almost there, thinks Atherton. No one is looking at him now, and he moves as quietly as he can.
"He's made his choice," Calena says, low and reasonable. "And he's the one in charge now. I'd rather be with a man who can handle himself--and you're at his mercy."
"The hell I am." Greasy raises his axe, twisting his body for a throw.
His head snaps back as the arrow enters through his mouth. Legs buckle and he collapses, heels drumming in the dirt as he tries to scream around the shaft. The other man is frozen in place, sword dangling. The archer reaches for another arrow.
With the crack of shattering bone, a bolt punches through his chest. Blood cascades from the ugly wound as he pitches backwards. Atherton drops his crossbow and sprints to meet the last bandit. The man's face contorts and he raises his sword to meet Atherton's. The knight smashes the blade aside with a stroke that turns into a shoulder charge, sending his opponent flying onto his back. The bandit gasps for air and panics, holding his hands out in the old, beseeching gesture of humankind. "Please--"
The humiliation that he has endured at the hands of men like these throughout his life explodes into the hottest fury that Atherton has ever known. Being helpless has only ever made the disgrace and degradation worse, and to know that Calena might have paid for his impotence this time. . . There is no thought of mercy. Animals like these deserve only murder.
He pins the man to the ground with a single thrust at the top of the collarbone. The bandit's back arches as the blade destroys his throat. Atherton withdraws his sword, then drives it with slow deliberation into his victim's stomach before turning away. He hears the man gurgle out his last moments as he walks back to Calena. Atherton's blood is racing with the after-effects of the battle and this unfamiliar passion. He knows that his trembling is normal and will soon pass, but he doesn't want her to see it. Doesn't want her to see the feelings that have been unfettered within him. He is terrified that they will be written across his face for her to see, that they will repulse her.
Then she smiles at him and the world falls away.
"Nicely done, Sir Mered," she says. "They didn't stand a chance."
He looks at her, then down the key he clutches between white fingers. "When I thought about what they would do to you, I. . . "Atherton stares at the key as if it is the strangest thing he has ever seen. "I've never--"
"Why do you do this?" Calena asks suddenly, leaning forward, hands covering his. "What could have taken you to such a place?"
At her touch, the words burst from his throat before Atherton can stop them, fighting with his ragged breath to be heard. "I will show everyone that he was wrong. King Reynard. He said that I would never amount to anything. That though I wore the trappings of a knight I would always be a 'poor wretch.' That I didn't have the nobility for it--for being a true knight.
"Always the son of--of slaves. . .always a slave. . .no matter what station I reach. And the things he did. . ." His mouth twists and he turns away, but the words still claw their way out. "With the reward they'll give me and the treasure I will take from this dragon, with my reputation sung across the land, Reynard will know that he could never achieve what I have. I will make him admit that I am the better man. They will all see it."
The pain he has carried inside him is a living thing given voice at last. He despises himself for being so weak. What has she done to him?
"My poor Sir Mered," says Calena. "And will this buy you happiness? Will it bring you peace and contentment for the rest of your days?"
He gapes at her.
"What will you do after this is over?" she continues. "Perhaps sit in a castle of your own, with servants to wait on you and a retinue to do your bidding. Wait out the rest of your years in solitude, surrounded by people who take your coin yet feel nothing towards you. Spend each day knowing you proved your king wrong. Will that make you a slave no more?"
"Well I--I can always. . .That is. . ." Atherton stares at the ground as if he can see the pieces of his life buried in the dirt.
"It doesn't have to be that way," Calena tells him. "Better a cosy house and the laughter of a family than a grey, lonely castle, don't you think?"
She holds out the manacles and smiles gently, the promise in her emerald eyes.
No more dishonour, no more shame. Maybe this will silence the wyrm that whispers horrors to him in the quietest hours of the night.
"Mered. . ." she says. The sound of her voice draws him forwards.
The rusting mechanism resists the key at first, and he cannot break her bonds. This close to her, he notices a fragile, gold locket hanging around her pale throat. It is so close to him. The bright metal glitters with fascinating light as it reflects both moon and fire. He marvels at its beauty. A connoisseur of fine goods, Atherton realises that this piece is exceptional, far more valuable than it might appear to the undiscerning eye.
She won't stay with him, he thinks. She knows what he has done, knows who he is. Her words might be but another ruse, and one man's heart is surely easier for her to manipulate than three. The despair swallows him. She will always see the slave--they all do. Unless he can prove himself worthy to her, too. They are almost there. One more battle and it will all be his. She is naive not to understand that happiness can be bought. She has not learned that freedom has a price; that if you pay it, it is yours.
Slowly, Atherton withdraws the key.
"Better get some sleep," he grunts. "We'll leave at first light, and we have a big day ahead of us."
"Mered--" she pleads, but he is already gone.
The firelight blurs before him as he strides towards it. The smell of burnt meat mingles with the coppery tang of the men's blood, the scents sharp in the clear night air. Atherton kicks the blackened chicken carcass out of the fire with a single curse. Then he falls as silent as the dark forest and drags the corpses into its depths.
Atherton pulls the ropes tighter around Calena's wrists, ignoring her grimace of discomfort. Plenty of trees here, he notes. No desolate scrubland, no arid desert or frigid icy wastes, no treacherous mountaintop. The broad cliff cracks the land in two for several miles in either direction, the forest crashing against it like a vast green wave frozen in a heart's beat. He glances at the dragon's cave again, a maw gaping in the rock.
Calena has not spoken since she last called his name. He tells himself that the nausea he feels is normal before a fight, but there is an edge that it has never had before.
He recognises the emptiness within her.
There is no sign of the dragon he has come to slay, though this is not unusual given that the beasts seem to spend much of their lives in slumber. The aroma of Calena's virgin blood will rouse it soon enough from its dreams. The sapling he has chosen lies within the shelter of a group of stout oaks. If something goes wrong, it should buy him enough time to recover and save her.
Atherton's feet are suddenly heavy and unmoving as if held fast--something he hasn't experienced since his first battle. He can almost fool himself; it is just his fear at facing the dragon. He tries not to think about what will happen if he is not fast enough.
This is the last time. I will let her go, and no harm will have come to her. We will be free.
We will be free.
The air, thick and still as he waits, finally moves. Fate is with him. A breeze blows from the forest towards the cliff, carrying Calena's scent with it into the cave. Atherton loosens and tightens his fingers around the crossbow's grip as the moments stretch out. He hears nothing except the rustling of trees. Then, from the shadows of its rocky home, an unmistakable snout appears. Sweat pours down Atherton's face, but his mouth is dry.
From his hiding place, he will have a clear shot as it nears Calena. The tip of the bolt glistens with nightshade toxin (well worth the price, he has found). He will deliver the killing stroke while it lies paralysed. His previous battle might have been easier had he renewed his meagre supply before it, but that is past and gone.
Calena has remained silent. The other girls had been insensible and soiled with fear by this point. She watches, face blank, as the dragon crawls out of its lair and slinks towards her.
It is a magnificent creature, Atherton has to admit. A monstrous furnace of destruction wrapped in adamant scales and fuelled by inexhaustible greed. One of the largest he has ever seen, over ninety feet long from nose to tail with a wingspan that would shade a barn. The scales are worn and polished with the centuries, though it is not so old that they have begun to loosen and fall out. It is still in its prime.
His scalp prickles, adrenaline sharp in his mouth.
The dragon sniffs the air, and with deliberate, graceful movements it approaches Calena. She stays motionless, eyes locked with its huge orbs. She does not flinch. Atherton lifts his crossbow, aiming for the base of the neck. As long as he hits the upper torso, the nightshade will do its work.
He breathes out.
As he squeezes the trigger, the dragon flattens so that the bolt whistles over it. Atherton curses in dismay, hurrying to reset the crossbow. He hopes that Calena's nearness will dull the beast's senses enough to buy him the time he needs. Perhaps it hasn't seen him through the concealment. Perhaps he can still save them both.
The dragon roars. Atherton does not look up. He stamps down on the crossbow stirrup and leans back to draw the string. His fingers slip. Over the sound of a splintering trunk and crashing branches, the dragon's roar seems to split, high and low weaving together.
There are two voices. He looks up.
A small dragon stands amidst the wreckage of Calena's tree, torn ropes at her feet. The crossbow falls to the ground. Sunlight shimmers across her copper-coloured scales like burning oil on water. How beautiful, he thinks. In fact, he has seen just one like it before; it had not died well.
She fixes him with a penetrating gaze, and the pair begins to stalk towards him. Atherton's hand flies to his side. The legends tell of dragons taking human form. Is Fate so preposterous that he has found such a one by chance?
No. He had been set up. The realisation is a hammer's blow.
"It is over, Mered," says Calena. "You will terrorise this land no more."
"Then let me go," he says, "and I promise I'll do no more. I'll walk away, live peacefully. I give you my word."
"I wish that I could believe you." Her voice, recognisable despite its new timbre, is sad. "But change is beyond your reach."
The deathwand is in his grip without conscious thought. His intention flows into it.
"You're a dragon. Evil." The pain of her betrayal is raw and savage. "Me? I risked my life and saved people. I earned those rewards. I did more good than harm when all is said and done. People will see that."
She is young; he must kill the more powerful dragon first.
"Oh, Mered," says Calena. "Not all our kind are evil. Those of us who watch over the innocent rather than prey on them despise these killers as much as any knight. But we are few now, and scattered. We know what it is to share the fear that humans have."
"You take me for a fool. Our maidens are nothing but food for you."
"My father met his death at your hands, and he was the kindest being I have ever known. He was trying to save the girl you had stolen."
"You lie," shouts Atherton, then doubt assails him as he remembers.
"The songs lie," she tells him. "They serve only those who desire to hear them."
"It has been decided." The older dragon's voice is a rich bass that Atherton can feel in his bones. "You tried, Calena--but his kind are monstrous. He made his choice. Now I will finish it."
The huge mouth yawns and a fearsome light appears in its throat. Atherton flings out his hand, his will surging through the wand. The spell bursts forth and strikes the beast before it can immolate him.
"No!" cries Calena.
Her companion shrieks and convulses, thrashing against trees, as the wand starts to drain its life-force. Atherton can feel the device pulse in his hand like a living thing. It feels blood-slick. Such power. . .it is a shame that its magic will be spent once it has served its purpose.
Then Calena gestures, uttering strange words that he does not understand. A scintillating light springs into existence around the fallen dragon and Atherton feels the wand tremble in his hand.
"What have you done?" he yells.
"I won't let you kill him."
"Its magic cannot be denied," he insists. "The sorcerer Malethar made it himself from the soul of the Behemoth. If that monster fell, so must a mere dragon." He spat the last word.
"Even so," Calena tells him, "I can stay its power long enough."
With a roar, she leaps. Wings stretch wide to pull her into the air. Atherton rolls to the side, thrusting the wand's base into the soil so that it can continue to feed. Talons slash where he had stood, then Calena hastily jumps as his drawn sword hisses through the air.
It is easier to let rage devour his torment than to fight it.
"Two dragons in one battle," he shouts at Calena. "King Reynard will bow to me as the bards sing my tales."
He slashes and stabs with calculated vehemence, driving her back. By far the youngest dragon he has faced, Atherton's confidence grows. She cannot hope to best him. The gentleness that he has sensed within her is a fetter; it will be her undoing. Calena continues her retreat, leaping and stumbling to avoid the long sword that he wields with practiced grace.
Behind him, Atherton can hear the screams of the dying dragon grow fainter. A distraction for Calena as it is a victorious melody for him. She cries out as his sword pierces the translucent membrane of a wing. A rain of vivid red drops showers the foliage.
"Mered, please" she says. "Whatever the king did to you, whatever he said, you've proven him wrong. Many times over." She feints and dodges his swing, protecting her damaged wing. "Why be a slave to what that old bastard thinks? Why let him twist your soul for his sport? He has condemned a good man."
"You were going to kill me," spits Atherton. "The two of you planned this. Set me up. You were going to take it all from me." He levels his sword at her.
"No--I wanted to save you. I meant what I said."
"Liar." The word breaks as his throat tightens around it. "I can't trust you. Any of you."
But he remembers the promise in those green eyes. They are bright and beautiful before him, and his heart breaks as he remembers the girl she was. His rage vanishes like smoke on the wind, and for a moment there is a wonderful lightness. Then as that fire sweeps aside, the shame and guilt remain. He sees them--every face, every girl.
There is no pain at first as her talon enters his chest, though he can no longer lift his sword. Then it comes all at once everywhere and he screams and the world is burning and him with it and he cannot breathe for the fire. He clutches her forelimb with both hands, holding her to his chest.
"I am sorry, Mered," she says. "Truly sorry."
Atherton twists in agony, wheezing through blood-frothed lips. Then the razor claw is withdrawn and he falls and his life pours out on to the warm earth.
Calena springs to the wand, shattering it with a lash of her tail. The great dragon rolls onto its side, panting hoarsely.
"I had hoped to spare you that," Atherton hears it say.
"I failed, uncle," she says. "I thought that I--"
"No. From some paths, there is no turning back. You have an understanding of that now."
Atherton forces air through lungs that are filling fast, and then she is by his side. That waterfall of copper hair frames the heart-shaped face. He hopes for a last smile, but her eyes are sad.
"Not. . .alone. . ." he pleads through clenched teeth.
Such terrible guilt. He tries to howl, but can only force a feeble spray of blood from his lips.
The sky above turns black.
Freezing now despite the sun, Atherton shakes helplessly. He wants to fix it all. Somehow, he--
"Sleep now," says Calena. She opens her mouth and breathes gently. A sweet, pale mist flows from within her to cover his face.
And the black sky takes him home.
The tavern crowd falls silent as the minstrel picks up his lute and begins to strum a mournful song.
"I will sing to you," he says, "the Lament of Sir Mered--the story of a knight who fell to his dragons."
In a back corner far from the fire's light, an old man and a young girl listen quietly, their eyes distant and gleaming in the dark.