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A Dragon’s Sacrifice

dragons-020

Largo spread his wings, shivering in the sensuous delight of cold air rippling across the leading edge, tilting lazily to watch the sheen on the outstretched skin, the dazzle of sunlight on the scales of his legs and tail.

The world was clean and simple, and there were no questions he could not answer.  Nothing pleased him more than this, the mastery of the sky, so solitary, the joy of being dragon, under the  young sun.

Not even a dragon can exist on air and sunlight.  There were other satisfactions.  Largo found a thermal that took him spiraling effortlessly upwards, and looked down on his work, of the day.

A burnt swathe cut across pastureland and the edge of the forest, as far as the walls of the city so tiny and white below looped by the river that had shone scarlet beneath his flames.  He had heard the screams.  He had not killed – anything, beyond a few cattle, too clumsy or stupid to run.  That would come later and only if the citizens of this fair city proved impervious to his hint.

Beyond the pasture and the forest stood the mountain, clothed with trees on the lower slopes, bare as the crest before the gaping entrance, to his cavern.  Soon the citizens would come there, with treasure and with sacrifice, hoping to buy the dragon’s friendship.  But a dragon, thought largo, stretching his wings luxuriously, has no friends.

Catching a glimpse of movement among the trees, Largo slid sideways, shedding air from beneath his wings.  The forest rushed up to meet him.  Someone was riding along the upward path.  Largo made out a white horse, a white robed rider, a glint of golden hair.

He stooped like an eagle over the crest of the mountain as the horse emerged from the trees.  The air was filled with the gold – vermillion chaos of his wings.  The horse whined in terror, reared, and spun into frantic flight.  Its rider was thrown into the long grass at the edge of the trees

Largo grasped the top most boulders with his talons, balancing on the half spread wings.  He watched the prone, white clad figure, hoping the creature had not broken its neck.  That would not be amusing at all.  He felt the fire of rage building inside him, until the rider stirred, and looked up.

Largo’s jaws gasped and he let out a spurt of flame, a dragon’s laughter.

“You are not what I was expecting,” he said.

The young man half raised himself, pressing a hand to his mouth to keep back a sob of terror.  He glanced wildly from side to side, but at least he had the sense not to run, unless it was terror that kept him frozen in the grass

“They said a sacrifice would please you.”  His voice was shaking, threatening to fail on every word.  “They said you would not harm the city if I came.”

Largo settled himself more comfortably on the stones, and folded his wings along his back.  He was intrigued.  The men who came to him were generally warriors in splendid armour, or the occasional magician to conjure him with spells.  Neither the armour nor the spells worked.

“A sacrifice is generally a young beautiful maiden,” he said.

“Please…”  The young man swallowed.  “My name is Raynor.  My brother Crustor is the lord of the city.  We have no sisters.”

Largo shifted, and a few pebbles pattered down the bare crest of the hill.  His scales slid over each other with a sound like rustling silk.  Raynor flinched and whimpered.

“So he sent you instead?” the dragon said.  “Why?”

There was no answer.  The only sound was soft surge of wind in the trees, and the plashing of a tiny spring, bubbling up between two stones into a shallow pool.  Raynor looked at it longingly.

“May I – may I have a drink?”

Largo’s voice was a bass rumble deep in his chest.  “There is water.”

“You won’t…”

Largo let out a thin stream of flame that set curls of steam floating over the surface of the pool.  Was the boy witless?

“If I promise will you believe me?  If you want to drink, drink.  What have you got to lose?”

Never taking his eyes off largo, Raynor got up and stumbled the few steps to the side of the pool.  Kneeling, he bathed hands and face, and drank deeply, wiped his face on the sleeve of his robe, and stood facing the dragon.

“I’m ready now.  Only-could it be quick? Please?”

“You have not answered my question.  Why did your brother send you to me?”

Raynor let out a bubble of bitter laughter.  His mouth twisted.  “Because I’m good for nothing else.”

Largo stretched out his neck until his head hung poised inches above Raynor’s.  The boy was white and trembling, his eyes terrified.  But he did not run.  He clung to a kind of hopeless dignity, and stood fast.

“Explain.”  Largo breathed out the single word in a soft snarl.

“I – I’m no warrior.  I have no skills, except, a little, for music.  My brother wished to make a great alliance, by wedding me to the daughter of the lord of the Southland’s, but she wrote to him that she wished for a husband.  Not a sister.  There is no one in the world who cares whether I live or die”

Anger surged through Largo.  He lashed his tail.  His fiery breath scorched the grass.  Raynor cried out and fell to his knees, but even in his rage Largo had taken care not to hurt him.  He was not ready for that

“Use your wits, boy,” he growled.  “Tell me why a dragon demands a beautiful maiden, a princess, for sacrifice.  Do you think virgin flesh tastes sweeter?  Is royalty a good sauce?  Stop snivelling, boy, and speak!”

“I – I don’t know.”

Largo exhaled gently, his breath no hotter than a summer breeze.  “It is because I will have the best.

Raynor stared at him, and at least Largo saw understanding flood into his eyes.  He hid his face, his body shaken by sobbing.  “Then I am not fit, even for this.”

The dragon’s wings snapped open.  Largo mounted into the sky, scooping up Raynor with one taloned foot as he rose.  Ignoring the boy’s shrieks and struggles, he sped down the sky towards the city.

Largo the golden alighted on the top most tower of the citadel.  Far below, tiny figures ran and screamed.  The guards had fled from the battlements.  Released from the dragon’s claws, Raynor rolled out of range and dragged himself to his feet.

“What are you doing?” he asked, panic-striken.  “You will not burn us all?  They will call me a traitor?”

“In my hearing, they will not dare.

“The tower door burst open.  A man stood in the doorway.  He was tall, fair and florid, with the same golden hair as Raynor.  He was not armed, except for sword and shield.

“Defend yourself, worm!” he snarled, and then gasped as he saw Raynor.

A warrior at last.  Largo sighed out a flake of fire.  Warriors bored him.  No doubt this was the redoubtable brother, the lord of the city.

“You!” he spat at Raynor.  Have you brought the dragon down on us?  I might have known!”

Largo let a lazy tongue of flame lick across the flagstones as far as the toes of Lord Crustor’s polished riding boots.  Lord Crustor looked uneasy and took a step back.

“Lord Raynor has vanquished me,” the dragon said, forcing submission into his tones, crouching low on the flagstones.  He hoped he was convincing; dragons have little practice in grovelling.  He heard Raynor gasp, and hid a savage grin.

“I am his prisoner.”

“What!”  Lord Crustor stared at his brother.  “You vanquished a dragon?  How?”

Largo released a low growl.  “Ask not how a dragon can be vanquished.  You who meekly sent a sacrifice.  Instead of meeting me in arms on the battle field.  I am Largo the Golden, mightiest of dragons, and today I bow who never bowed before.”  He looked up at Raynor.  “Command me, Dragon Lord.”

Crustor strode forward and planted himself in front of Raynor.  His face was dusky red, his eyes bulging.  “You bought this on us!”

“No!”  Raynor held out a shaking hand.  “Truly, brother, I -”

“If you command it, get it out of here!”

Largo’s voice vibrated with suggested laughter.  He hoped that Crustor would think the quivering was fear.  “Where would you have me go lord?” he asked Raynor.

“I don’t know! I can’t – down to the meadow then.  Outside the city gates, beside the river.”

Largo stretched out a claw to Raynor’s feet.  “Mount Lord.”

Raynor stared at him, and then at the anger from his brother he set one foot on the dragon’s leg joint clutched at his shoulder to pull himself up.  Straddled across his neck, he bent low and whispered in his ear, “why are you doing this to me?”

The dragon gathered his legs under him and sprang into the air.  A cry was torn from Raynor.  Wings beating strongly, Largo turned his head and laughed into the boys white face as the tower dropped away beneath them.

“I will show your brother that he cannot trifle with Largo the Golden.”

He circled above the city, scarcely aware of Raynor’s lightweight across his neck, until he saw the gates open, and crowds of citizens spill out into the meadow.  Then, gradually, he spiralled to the ground, into a space that cleared itself for him.  Raynor, scrambled from his neck, was embraced formally by his brother, while the people gathered to gawk and wonder, and lines of singing children brought garlands of flowers to place around the dragon’s neck.

Light still lingered in the sky.  The crowds had left the meadow to the twilight and dew and Largo.  He settled uneasily in the lush grass.  He belonged on the heights, with the scent of rock and clean air, not the heavy perfume of the flowers that still garlanded him.

Before it was quite dark a single figure came pacing across the meadow from the city gates.  Raynor.  In place of the white linen he wore a velvet robe stiff with jewels and embroidery; a thin golden circlet confined with gold curls.  He sighed wearily and leant against the dragon’s foreleg.

“Well?” said Largo.

“Not well.”

“Did they not give you what you wanted?”

“Oh yes.  You know very well they did.  They call me Dragon Lord.  “Largo was used to hearing voices filled with terror, or at best defiance.  This exhausted patience was new to him.  “My brother has granted me lands of my own, beyond the river.  He has written again proposing marriage with the lord’s daughter.

“He let out a long sigh.

“Then why…?”

“Because they fear me?  I can see it in their eyes.  If the lady weds me it will be out of fear.”  He stood facing the dragon, and drew down the great head until he could see into his eyes.  “THat isn’t what I wanted.  I wanted respect – love.  But I can never have it.”  He spread his arms.  “Look at me.  I am feared and honoured and loaded with wealth.  Am I a fit sacrifice

Largo thought of fear.  Whether people fled from him or defied him or decked him with flowers, they feared him.  But in one face there was no fear.  In Raynor’s, as he faced him now.

“You have grown, boy,” he said

Raynor sighed wearily once again.  “Your doing, dragon.  Take your reward.”

Largo swung round his great head and gazed at the white walls of the city.  In a flaming pass they could be charred to rubble, the citizen’s dead or scattered.  He could taste their terror.  He looked again at Raynor.

“You would not have me kill them for you.”Largo paused.  He was not used to feeling uncertain.  He had a dragon’s power, and he used it like a dragon.  But now…

He considered his choices.  He could kill and devour Raynor, his rightful sacrifice.  And all scorned would be settled between himand Lord Crustor – until next time.  A grin drifted across Largo’s jaws as he considered the city’s terror and bewilderment when he renewed his threats and his demands.  And yet how could he devour someone who stood and looked at him with that weary resignation?  Largo rustled his wings petulantly.  It would not be amusing at all.  He could, of course, flame the city.  The shrieking, the panic as he hunted down his prey; the very thought was sweet.  But when it was over, he would still have to face Raynor.

Furious, he hissed gants of flame from beneath clenched teeth.  He would go, find another city, somewhere they played by the rules.  Somewhere he could forget the sorrowful eyes fixed on him and the bitter depths of knowledge they held.  He unfurled his wings.

“Largo?” Raynor said uncertainly.

“I will go.  Tell your brother Custor you banished me.  You have nothing to fear from me, not any longer.”

“No!” Raynor’s voice was suddenly sharp with pain.  “Don’t leave me.  Or if you must go take me with you.”

Largo rumbled a question low in his throat.  “Why?”

“They will honour me for a little.”  Raynor said.  “And then they will forget.  I will Raynor again, Dragon lord no longer.  I-I’m aftaid.”

“And you’re not afraid of trusting yourself to a dragon?  Dragons have no friends, little dragon lord, they do not love, and they cannot be trusted.

“Raynor was laughing as he spoke.  “Yes of course I’m afraid.  But not in the same way.  It would be …interesting.  Please.”

Largo smiled.  He stretched out a claw towards Raynor’s feet.  “Mount, then.”

Light flooded into Raynor’s face.  “May I? Truly?”

“If you dare.”

Eagerly now, Raynor set his foot on the leg joint and swung himself up to sit astride the dragon(s neck.  Largo’s wings stretched, their gold all but quenched in the moonlight.  He lifted slowly, leaving the meadow behind, circled the citadel once, and mounted ever higher in a tight spiral.

“Where?” he asked.

“I don’t know.  I don’t care!”

“North, then.”

He turned north.  Moonlight splashed like spring water on his scales.  His wings were shimmering silk.  He slid through theair like a fish through its familiar

But everything had changed.  Although as before he could scarcely feel Raynor’s slight weight, he could not forget that the boy was there.  Dragons, Large reflected, do not love, have no friends and cannot be trusted.  What does a dragon do, when faced with trust and love?

Largo could not answer the question.  But he had the uncomfortable feeling that he was going to find

At that moment he turned back towards the city, and dropped Raynor from his back as he flew over.  He felt he couldn’t leave them untouched and breathed fire onto the outer walls, and watched as they were turned into rubble.

Raynor watched, unable to do anything, he saw Largo fly high and turn towards the hills, never to be seen

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