We’d lashed it down with chains. The links were like thick arms coiled together, pinning the beast down. Despite the rock beneath our boots, we’d managed to hammer huge nails through the ends so that it couldn’t move. Its mouth, for obvious reasons, was tightly secured so that it could barely open it an inch, although it had killed two of our men with one last defiant gout of flame from its nostrils, skin melting off their faces like candle wax. We couldn’t do anything about blocking those, so we ensured that under no circumstances did we walk within their vector, although I reckoned that our leader, Egil, wanted nothing more than to gloat before it.
Several hunting parties had been tracking it for days, all of them under Egil’s command. When the dragon and the remainder of its kind had flown as high in the sky as they could go, all had dropped limply back through the clouds, and if they weren’t corpses then they certainly were when they landed, each impact like the aftershock of an earthquake.
All except this one. It had regained consciousness and then control of its descent, but the effort had been costly. Egil had seen the opportunity and, wherever it had landed, a party had been ready to harass it away with arrows and barbed spears. Eventually, as planned, it had been too exhausted to take flight again, crashing into the mountainside in an explosion of scree before coming to a crumpled halt on a flat outcropping where Egil’s own party had been waiting.
It was a great cause of debate as to why the dragons had done such a bewildering thing. Where had they thought that they could go? Egil, at least, seemed to have it figured out.
“It’s obvious,” he’d insisted in that grating voice of his, his breath blasting me in the face and smelling as though something had died inside his mouth. “They looked up at the sun and grew jealous of its power; so they wanted to usurp it and assert dominion over us all.”
We’d been hastily making our way up the mountain path, a precipitous drop on one side and the wind whistling in our ears. Egil had had to roar above it and the stricken cries of the dragon as it neared the end of its last flight.
“It is arrogance, arrogance that killed their kind. The arrogance to believe they were better than us. And in punishment the Gods burned their wings and made their home their grave.”
Looking at the dragon now, its wings were soot black but not from being charred. They were that colour anyway. I examined them more closely, looking at the bone structure beneath the skin, the horns along the top of each wing. Most of all, I marvelled at the size of them. They must be large enough to cast an entire settlement into shadow. I was still dumbstruck that we’d managed to capture it, despite how weak it’d been.
Everybody in the hunting party believed themselves to be a great warrior, even the runts who had the temerity to declare the fluff on their peach coloured cheeks as beards, but they were all cowed by Egil’s brutish strength and ferocity. It emanated from him like ripples in the air, a dark energy. His eyes, as black as volcanic rock, his huge double-bladed axe, and his tangled brown and yellow locks which seemed to writhe down his back merely affirmed it. He’d been hunting dragons for years, under contract from the mayors of different towns who cited the “issue” the winged beasts caused them: from breakfasting on babies to lunching on livestock, or simply just terrorising their peace-loving folk.
“Dragons see themselves as above us, they see it as a service to cull humanity. So, you know what? We culled back harder, and what they didn’t reckon on was this.”
We’d been in the local town’s tavern prior to the hunt; Egil had drained the rest of his tankard, ale soaking his matted beard before he leant over the table towards me, tapping his head and grinning.
“Nothing is more deadly than the human mind. The dragons believed that they need look no further than their physical attributes: their size, their ability to fly at great speed, to breathe fire and wreak death and destruction. How foolish they were. We are pioneers, Birger. Whatever challenges we face, we rise to them. We forged metal arrowheads to pierce their tough skin, barbed spears to anchor in their flesh. We learned what was required to bring them down out of the sky so that they may face our justice. If only we knew how to douse their flames as well!”
At that Egil had barked with laughter. Men like him relished the thrill of murdering something so large and powerful. It made them feel mighty. Men like him boasted of slaying the biggest dragon anybody had ever seen, a subject often fiercely contested in establishments such as the one we’d been in. But now Egil could boast something else- he’d slew the last one.
But there was a reason why we’d chained it to the ground. It was going to provide a litany of other uses before it met its death, and all for one purpose.
“GOLD!” roared Egil triumphantly, pounding his fist against the dragon’s huge, scaled chest which was rising and falling now with less fury but more a grim acceptance of its fate. “So much gold, Birger, riches beyond any man’s wildest dreams!”
He wasn’t wrong. I put my own hand against the dragon, feeling slightly dizzy at something this big being alive and something which I could lay my palm against. After the dragon was killed, the skin I was touching right now would be used to make handbags and even dresses which the most famous actresses in the travelling theatre productions would vie for. Its flesh would go for ten times the price of the usual meat on offer at town markets. Many young men competing for female attention had also bought into the rumour perpetuated by sly tradesman that dragon horns, when powdered and consumed, offered a significant boost to virility.
“But Egil has no need of that!” he’d bellowed on that same night in the tavern, slapping the barmaid’s arse so hard as she walked past that she toppled over with a squeal.
And this was the last one, so the goods wrought from it would fetch an even higher price. Not only that, Egil could see another way of profiting from that fact. He beat his fist into the dragon’s stomach again and ground his rotten teeth together.
“We shall parade it before we kill it, the crowds will gather to watch us cart this monstrous beast down the streets to see the very last dragon and its conqueror, Egil Dragon Slayer, riding triumphantly upon its back. It will whimper in its chains knowing that it was bested not only by its hubris, but by me.”
And he kicked the dragon, bellowing with delight.
“Oh Birger, we’re going to enjoy the grandest of celebrations tonight!”
We’d set up camp around the dragon. The transport required to bring it back down would have to wait until sunrise to make its way up to us, the mountain passes too treacherous to be braved in the dark.
“Meat and mead!” boomed Egil.
The majority of us had travelled lightly in order to maintain a relentless pursuit of the dragon on tough terrain, but Egil had still insisted on some men being heavily laden with enough supplies for us to be able to feast well after and toast our glory in the shadow of the beast itself.
The skies darkened rapidly but, somehow, I sensed that shadow still lingering over us, heavy with despair. It didn’t seem to permeate the psyche of the men at all, or if it did they were derisory towards it. We were in smaller groups round several fires, but there was strong sense of camaraderie between everyone. Felling the dragon had been a collective effort, and it had bonded them. The mead caused swift inebriation and they tore into cooked chicken and slabs of pork dripping with fat doggedly, conversing raucously.
Night finally asserted its full dominion. By the light of the crackling fire I chewed my food more slowly and kept to myself. I was positioned with the dragon on my left and, occasionally, I was sure I could hear its laboured breathing, restricted by the chains muzzling it. Its presence was a pressure in my mind, and I was caught between fighting the urge to turn around and desperately not wanting to.
It felt as though the celebrations would never end, as if the dragon’s pain would be eternal. I knew that it must be dwelling on what was to come and contemplating its impending humiliation and the extinction of its species.
What did it feel like, I wondered, to know that you were the last of your kind, and that your kind was condemned to die, to become mere memory to those that had ruined you, before eventually you were forgotten even by them, and certainly the world, where night and day would continue their daily transition undisturbed.
Finally, the men all succumbed to the soporific effects of fatigue, mead and meat. I curled up on the edge of the circle around my fire, quivering against the sudden chill in the air, or perhaps for a different reason. The flames had died down and the only noises to be heard were the snores of the men and the dragon wheezing as though out of breath.
When I was sure that everybody was indeed fast asleep, I rose unsteadily to my feet. Egil was closer to the centre fire, his barrel like stomach rising and falling, his axe within arm’s reach.
Finally, I faced the dragon.
It had taken me a long time to ingratiate myself with these barbarians and to convince them that I was one of them. There’d been many times when I’d thought that I’d forgotten who I was, but my sense of morality and duty had prevailed in the end. I came from a smaller, separate country which had to tolerate its uncouth, uncivilised neighbours. Unlike them, we viewed the world as something to cherish, something we must not mine and pillage but with which we must strive for synchronicity.
All life was precious, but the dragon was the most revered of all. We’d always been aware of the tragic misconceptions of their kind, lies sparked by men like Egil to legitimise their slaughter, insolent flames fanned until they became seen as truth and humanity was ablaze with hatred. People forgot that it was the dragon who’d resided in the grasslands before they built their settlements there and that it was they who’d struck them first, not the other way around. They were unaffected by the devastation to dragon families because they didn’t acknowledge that such a concept existed between them. The dragon had no soul; it was an aggressor to be killed without regret or a commodity which just happened to have a beating heart.
When we’d seen its kind, however, we’d seen something we must love, not destroy, and then we’d seen something which had to be rescued, as despairingly it was not native to our land. As a small country we had not the strength nor power to prevent the onslaught, so it was warriors like me who’d been sent to infiltrate the hunting parties and snatch whatever opportunity might present itself to do good by dragons, to guide them to a place where they’d be safe. Our task was fraught with peril and difficultly from the start. Not a single dragon had made it to ours lands, and the majority of our men had been compromised; maimed if they were lucky, killed otherwise.
Whether there were any others left I didn’t know, but they didn’t matter now, because I was the only one in this hunting party, and this here was the last dragon.
I pulled out my short-hafted axe, noting the presence of the sole guard by the dragon’s chained down tail. He was turned away, gazing tiredly down the mountain path. By the flickering firelight I crept closer, checking the turf beneath so that I didn’t crunch down on any stones. I was distinctly aware that the dragon’s eye had opened, its highly attuned hearing sensing me where the guard had not.
When I’d drawn near there was a split second where I thought that he’d surely turn round, my presence realised. But he didn’t, and it was all too easy for me to clasp one hand over his mouth and use the other to draw the blade across his throat. I held his jerking body tightly as I eased it down, waiting until his life had drained away.
I had trained for this, and I knew that my entire life had been destined for this moment. I eased my way back round the dragon, its body rising above me as tall as six men stood atop one another. Then, my heart in my mouth, I edged round until I was in front of it.
Quite literally being in the line of fire was a gesture of trust. I got down on one knee, conveying my respect, my sorrow, and requesting an audience. I wanted to close my eyes and pray that I wasn’t swiftly about to become a pile of ash, but I forced myself to make eye contact. My execution of the guard was not necessarily a guarantee that I was an ally. I just might be another callous human with his own agenda.
At first, I thought I spotted wariness in its eyes. They glowed like lamps in the dark, a single dark slit marking its pupil in each one. Then, with a heart wrenching grief, I realised that I had misread them. What I saw was resignation, even though what I had just done had been entirely unexpected. There was no burgeoning sense of hope; the idea of it had been utterly extinguished.
When several moments passed and I realised with relief that it wasn’t going to kill me, I approached slowly. Another common misconception was that dragons conversed with speech much like we did, and that they just didn’t deign to use it with us because they viewed us as a lesser species. Not so. Dragons communicated via telepathy, far more nuanced than our rudimentary, regimented words. A dragon could transfer exactly what it was thinking and feeling directly to another. There was never a risk of misinterpretation.
I couldn’t converse on that level with it, but by coming into contact we could maintain an understanding. For me, it would be an out of body experience, as though I was communicating with something spiritual, an entity which transcended the prison of flesh. For the dragon, it would be like talking to a small child.
I stopped, an inch from its mottled green and red scales. If it could open its jaws, it’d swallow me with as much ease as Egil could a strip of salted meat. Any sense of fear, however, was utterly superseded by awe.
I placed my hand on its head.
The kaleidoscope of colours I was thrust into almost overwhelmed me. As though in response they became mellower, less lurid. I felt as though I was floating, as though I’d left one dimension behind and had entered another, a space purely reserved for the two of us. Me and her.
Her. I thought I’d recognised the dragon was a female when we’d brought it down, but now I was sure. Suddenly I felt an onrush of self-loathing and guilt as I remembered that, and how I’d had to partake in it to maintain my cover. The colours signified everything they needed to; her pain and her grief, both so potent that she was rendered apathetic under the chains. She was exhausted, an empty shell, and her heart beat with less vigour than it should, as though it was sick, which indeed it was. Sick with loss rather than disease.
Back in my world, I was sure, tears were pouring down my cheeks.
It’s ok, said her voice inside my head.
It was quiet, sombre. I felt my heart wrench again.
It’s not ok. Everything that has happened to you, to your species…it’s a travesty.
There was a pause as she deliberated over what to say next.
Who are you?
My name is Birger. What is yours?
I don’t have a name…not in the sense that you do…but if you must call me something, call me Astrid.
Astrid…I paused, as though mulling it over on my tongue, although I no longer had any sense that I had a tongue, or a body at all.
Birger, what is your purpose?
To rescue you.
For the first time, I felt as though there was a physical entity, but only for a moment. I felt it stir.
To rescue me? Said Astrid, bewildered.
We are not all alike, us humans, I said bitterly. It is true, I roamed with these beasts, but only for so long as it took to make them believe that I was one of them. Now, I can reveal myself again. I come from a place where these sorts of men are seen as abhorrent, where their beliefs are seen as heresy, their understanding of the beauty of our world as woeful. I am that place’s agent, and I have come to set you free.
I felt that stir again, and this time I gauged what it was. Suspicion, then the dismal realisation that it had felt a spark of hope before fighting it back down. For a moment I felt panicked, lost, but then I realised that, if I opened myself up to her enough, I could show her that I wasn’t lying.
I imagined my country as hard as I possibly could, and I felt her receive it all, each image authenticated because it so clearly had the stamp of memory. I was six years old again, running after my father through the grass, the blades so high that they tickled my ears and made me shriek with laughter. Then I visualised the earthen mounds we’d made our homes, and once again I smelt my mother’s stew wafting through the open doorway. I saw my wife, tears rolling down her pale cheeks as she waved me away on my sacred mission, her grey blue eyes swimming like pebbles on a streambed. Behind her our country’s flag rippled in the wind, it made the red dragon emblazoned upon it look as though it was flying.
I stopped, re-entering our world of colour. Everything seemed to beat faster now, because she’d felt everything I’d experienced in those moments, she’d felt that multitude of emotion as though it had been her own. And, instantly, a bond of absolute trust was solidified. And then her voice, grief stricken, came again.
We never knew of your existence…all we’d ever known were the plains, until the humans built their settlements and towns and drove us into these barren peaks.
You would be venerated there, I said, choked despite having no throat. You would be loved.
It is too late, Astrid despaired. My kind is finished. I am the last. We tried to fly through the sky, tried to find a new world, but all we found was a quicker death…for the majority of us anyway. But not for me. I am left to grieve our end.
Why did you do it? I asked, unable to help myself, yearning to know.
Because our Queen insisted. We told her that there must be other places in this world, even though we felt as though we’d travelled far enough to find them. But she demanded it, and she was our Queen, so we followed. “The sky is an illusion,” she said. “For the fiery God in the sky is too great to shine upon just one world. If we go to it now, if we offer ourselves wholly to it, it will surely take us to a new one, and there we shall find peace.”
But what we found was death, Astrid continued, a tremor in her tone. We flew up and up and up, and everything became darker, colder, the air thinner. But we kept going; we kept going because our Queen had ordered it of us and because we believed that it was a test of our will. We’d been through enough struggle, enough strife, but we needed to show our God of fire how much we wanted to leave our world and become part of a new one.
But there was none, I said for her when she fell silent.
No…she said in barely a whisper. There was no new world, and the exertion drove consciousness from all of my kind. In a way I envy them, because they would not have felt any pain when they landed. But also I don’t, because their last thought would have been the realisation that we’d failed.
Why did your Queen demand you do such a thing? I asked, ignoring the crippling sorrow her revelation had wrought upon me.
Because her children were slain, said Astrid simply.
It would be enough to drive any living thing to madness, to question everything about their reality. I thought of my wife again, and our child growing in her belly, and my connection with Astrid was almost broken, my consciousness being pulled back to my body as it felt the urge to physically sob, to despair.
Rescuing me is futile. There is no hope for the dragon, said Astrid.
There is hope! Where there is life, there is hope…And I’m getting you out of here, I insisted fiercely.
I felt her urge to fight back, her flare of anger in red hot pulses. It was her hopelessness insisting that she accept extinction. But then an even greater anger fought back, its ire directed away from me.
You’re wrong, there is no hope. I am the last, and therefore the dragon population cannot continue…but…but maybe I shall not let my kind die meekly, at the hands of these monsters…I should not become their puppet, their plaything to laugh at before they cut me into pieces and put those pieces to dishonourable use.
Then, suddenly, she voiced some concern.
What will happen to you, if you break my chains?
I felt touched beyond words that she should care for my fate; this man who looked the same as so many of her kind’s tormentors. But then again, I’d shown her all that I was. In one conversation, she’d come to know me as well as she’d known all of her brothers and sisters, her deceased family.
I am expendable, it is your fate that matters, I thought, the words coming with difficultly as I thought of my wife. How far along would she be now? Could, perhaps, my child even be born? Was he or she resting in their mother’s arms, gurgling happily and reaching up for the stars?
You were given a higher task, a task beyond yourself and your family. You have found yourself responsible for the survival of an entire species. No matter your love, duty and the greater good are oblivious to it. You must serve, another voice told me.
What about your country? If these people know that I’m there, will they not attack? Asked Astrid.
They know who we are, and they know what we’ve been trying to do, I said. To them we have been a pest, unworthy of attention. That might change. But if it does, and they turn aggressor, then we are ready to defend ourselves.
We certainly were. My country sat within a mountain range which formed a curving natural barrier on all sides, a tight embrace to lock it within its protective arms. Attacking our neighbours had never been an option, and so we had always been a reluctant trade partner, but any attack by them would be costly. We could defend the passes for years if need be, with ten times less men.
Then we would see if they have the stomach for so much blood, I thought savagely.
I felt Astrid shift, whether in approval or disapproval I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t be sure whether she wanted her kind’s near vanquishers to suffer, or whether she’d suffered so much that she was now sick of suffering, no matter upon whom it was inflicted.
Suddenly I forced myself to think of home again, of the way I’d taken here, of the various ways Astrid could fly there, avoiding the largest human settlements. When I was finished, I knew immediately that she’d seen it all and had understood, because I felt her gratitude seep into me and, I realised with a soaring sensation, renewed strength, renewed hope.
So now for the chains…
I maintained my connection with her, but I was visualising the scene where our physical bodies resided. The stakes were driven into the ground deeply through Astrid’s chains; it would take too long to pry them loose and would create too much noise. That left severing the links as my only option, which would of course create even more noise but would be quicker. If I could cut enough of them in time then Astrid would be set free, and whatever happened to me at that point was an irrelevance. I would fight, of course, I would hold on to any chance I could to get home, but I knew the odds. I’d accepted them.
No, she said, and with a jolt I realised that she’d read my mind. I will bend my wing and you shall climb up.
I…I began, before stalling, seeing my wife’s swimming eyes again, hearing the cries of a child that was mine. I caved in.
I pictured the short-hafted axe I still had in my hand, dripping with the guard’s blood. I realised with a rising sense of nausea that it wasn’t going to be sufficient. It would take several blows just to break one chain, and that wasn’t going to be good enough. There was only one weapon which would enable me to do it with one swing, and thereby give myself the best chance of freeing Astrid quickly.
In that moment we both sensed it was time. I felt her hesitate and then the tenderness of her sentiment, the emotions of an entire species behind it, made my heart melt in agony.
I broke the connection, imagining my mind lurching back into…
It worked. I staggered backwards like a drunk, fighting to keep my balance as my brain felt as though it had been rapidly replaced inside my skull. I took several seconds to regain my composure, breathing the air, smoky from the fires, and checking to see that all the men were still asleep.
They were. I looked at Astrid and her eyes were wide, studying me keenly. I nodded.
Egil was slumbering face up, his lips curled in a snarl as he was no doubt enjoying the throes of some sadistic dream. His fingers rested on the handle of his axe. I went over, bent down and, gently, slipped the handle of my short axe under them and carefully extricated his much larger weapon. I expected his eyes to burst open, furious and promising blood. But they remained closed and then I was upright with it in my grasp. I was sorely tempted to bring it back down on his skull, but I couldn’t. That would be a wasted blow. I wasn’t going to get many.
I walked round to Astrid’s back. It made sense to free her that way, because then she would more quickly be able to use her stronger back legs to push off the ground or use them to wriggle out of whatever chains I didn’t get the chance to cut. I put my hand on her scales and felt the warmth of her circulation beneath them. I felt some echo of the world we’d shared, a whisper of her voice inside my head.
I stood above the chain and raised the axe. There was a second where the world seemed to take a deep breath and the fires crackled in anticipation. I thought of my wife and child.
I love you.
I swung the axe down and sheared through the metal with a shrill cry that sent my heart pounding inside my ears. I heard the sounds of alarmed grumbles as several of the men awoke, fighting against the sluggishness of mead induced slumber. I’d already leapt for the next chain and brought the axe crashing down. Behind me I sensed Astrid’s tail rise into the air with a great, sinuous movement.
Third chain. The broken end almost lashed me in the head as it broke away and I moved on to the next one. How many more could I do? How many more did I need to do?
Fourth chain. Astrid’s back legs were free. She bunched them up underneath her body, ready to power up.
Fifth chain. I’d had to be careful not to cut a hole through her leathery wings. I had to duck nimbly as they unfurled like the sails of some huge ship. I heard several cries of surprise as men were forced to dive out of their way. I heard the clatter of them retrieving weapons, heard cries of rage which could only be directed towards me.
Sixth chain. Her front legs would be free soon. Surely, she would be able to wriggle out from her bonds when I cut the next one, surely…
I knew it was him. I felt the stink of his breath burn my eyes before I saw that his face was in mine, his rotten teeth bared. With a roar I saw him draw back my short axe, with me holding his above my head, unable to bring it down in time.
I was on the floor. My hands were on my chest. I pulled my fingers away and saw them covered with blood. The axe head was buried beneath them. When I tried to breathe I found that my throat was already flooded. Egil barely blinked as I choked and a spray hit him in his face. Now I was in another world, and it was shared just between us, and his eyes were telling me that this was the one I was going to die in.
I sensed something finally break free and with a quaking of the earth fly up into the air. Egil’s face slackened. With my eyes swimming I looked up at the dark hulk of Astrid, I felt the beat of her wings buffeting my face, I heard the fires extinguish and all that was left was that mighty presence looming above us all in the darkness. I heard the distant rattle as she pointed her nose down and shook off the final chains from around her mouth. I heard the ecstatic snap of bone as she opened her jaws wide and let out a furious lament for her kind.
And then there was a new fire, and it burned inside her mouth, and I heard the men scream and Egil bellow and felt myself smile before she wreathed us all in fiery vengeance.
About the Author: Ben O’Hara is a Proposal Editor who, when not preoccupied with the world of bid writing, will be lost in the one inside his head, indulging in his next mad idea.