Less preamble today. It’s getting late. Well, for me.
Direct Pixabay search using the word “fantasy” and a random number between 1 and 100 (there are 100 images per page) as provided by Excel to pick something on the first page gave me this image. That image gave the basic inspiration for the following very short story. Stopwatch said 38 minutes and 51 seconds when I decided it was done at 946 words.
Stay safe and be well, everyone.
Three Drops of Blood at the Dragon’s Mouth
Manik leaned forward and yelled in Shindra’s ear. “What is that?”
Her eyes followed his pointing finger, but she already knew what he was referring to. Turning her head in the direction of his voice, she yelled back through the howling wind of their passage. “That’s the signpost you’ve been dreading. From here, you walk.”
The wind snatched his next words away, but having flown with him for days, she didn’t imagine his cursing would be any more creative than the rest of his conversation had been. Instead, she reached out with her mind to join with Harnigorax for a moment and found he’d just been waiting for her to order the descent. He knew as well as the nine other dragons flying behind them that they’d come to the stopping point and banked his left wing to start the spiral downward.
* * *
Even a hundred dragon lengths out, the two-hundred-foot-tall ice sculpture was impressive, more impressive than it had been from the air. Shindra had stood in its shadow exactly once and that was enough. Whatever business these fools had with the wizard, however much they’d paid for the Flight to get them this close, wasn’t worth being any closer to the thing than she was now.
“What does it mean?”
For someone who had never seen it before, and few ventured so far into the southern waste to see it, at first glance it might seem as if a giant and his pet dragon had both been entombed in ice as he stroked its neck. The giant’s face was long, his beard much longer, and it was possible to glance at the carved expression and see only sadness or affection.
At least, it was possible to see that if you weren’t pair-bonded to a dragon yourself. Then you couldn’t help but notice he sat astride the frozen creature, pressing it into the snow-covered hills, pushing its head down so that it had no choice but to accept the affection he was bestowing. The dragon’s eyes were barely open and its tongue lolled not in pleasure but because it gasped for air.
His goggles pulled up and scarves hanging loose now that they didn’t have to fight the wind chill a thousand feet above the snow plain, she could clearly see Manik’s dark eyebrows come down and together, wrinkling his forehead and nose. “How so?”
She was always amazed the petitioners couldn’t see it. “If he can treat a dragon like that in sculpture, how must he regard mere men in life?”
Manik’s indrawn breath was easy to hear, his coming objections both common and ridiculous. The wizard was a man like any other, just with his own sort of power. He would hear reason when backed by appropriate reasoning, whatever that reasoning might be, however forceful it needed to be, and with whatever type of force. She’d heard it every time she’d made the flight and wasn’t interested in hearing it again.
“The citadel is two days’ walk in good weather, three if it’s not so good. Longer if there’s a storm. We’ll return in ten and wait on this spot for five. If you haven’t returned by then, you’re not going to.”
With a grunt, Manik shook his head. “I well remember the terms. We’ll have been waiting for days by the time you get back, I think. Promises made and kept on both sides.”
They all thought that way. Fewer came back than made the journey and those who did were changed in ways they found hard to speak of. Nearly all of them understood the sculpture then, and other things besides. “I hope so.” He turned away but she grabbed his arm and turned him back. “Remember, when you reach the mouth of the dragon, you must bleed.”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
I’m trying to save your lives, idiot. “Make sure you don’t between here and there. Each of you, all of you. Three drops apiece let freely fall to the snow. If you don’t, he will know.” She stared into emerald eyes, willing him to understand the consequences were far more than theoretical, but he turned away again and this time she let him.
He walked to his men, turning the odd number into a full score, each heavy with a pack that would have a fortnight’s food and small shelters to hide them all from the cold during the few brief hours of darkness this time of year. Most had a staff with a spike driven through one end to help them walking, and here and there Shindra could see snowshoes peeking from behind flaps.
They built themselves into a line and began to shuffle up the long slope towards the sculpture. As they reached the top, she felt Harnigorax touch her mind. Dragon eyes were much better than human and he saw clearly when they stopped, reporting the dark drops falling from hands and arms before they moved on.
“Well, that’s something.” She looked over her shoulder at her bond-mate “Perhaps some of them will survive to be picked up after all.”
The big creature chuffed once and lowered himself to his belly in the snow, burrowing a little in clear invitation for her to mount. Other dragons in the Flight did the same. There was no reason to stay and none of them had the desire. Nor would they have the desire to return, but a contract was a contract, and the coin would keep the warren fed until the next one.
She was glad to leave the sculpture behind in all but her mind’s eye. She wished she could leave it behind even there.