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On Dragon's Wings
By Joseph Madden
“What is wrong with you people? I’ve done nothing wrong. Where are you taking me?” MacKenzie Nightshade shouted over the bustle of the crowd and rattling of wagon wheels over the harsh, rocky terrain. She struggled against the rope that bound her to the post behind her, but the action only caused her restraints to dig painfully deeper into her wrists.
Even in the dim light of early evening, she could see their destination. The road –as loose a term if there ever was one for the rocky path they were ascending- wound its way up the side of a craggy mountain to a flat plateau at the top. Several tall posts like the one she was bound to jutted from the ground at odd angles like silent sentinels monitoring their approach.
One wrong turn, she grumbled to herself. One wrong turn and instead of the nice seaside village of Delva Shien, I end up in Looneyville, population of a hundred or so oddnut zealots and me.
The villagers had been on her almost as soon as she set foot in that scruffy little excuse for a town, nothing more than a few ramshackle huts tucked away in the clearing at the base of the mountain. Before she could protest they had her bound to this stupid post in this stupid cart and were leading her up the stupid mountain.
“Look I understand if you don’t like outsiders,” she called to the villager nearest her, a tall, shaggy man with a mottled grey beard halfway down his chest. “All you had to do was say something and I would have kept on going. I was on my way to Delva Shien and just took a wrong turn.”
“It’s nothing personal, Lass. You was just wandering through at the wrong time.” The man said without looking at her. He gestured with his walking stick to the plateau ahead. They were close enough now that MacKenzie could see the cave that loomed beyond the posts, the entrance to which was large enough to swallow a half-dozen carts the size of the one she was strapped into.
The man turned his head just enough to favor her with a lazy eye. “The beast needs to be sated.”
MacKenzie’s eyes grew wide at the man’s admission. It took her several seconds before she could squeak out, “Beast?”
The man did not reply. The cart came to a sudden stop, causing MacKenzie to hit the back of her head against the post. The mouth of the cave loomed even larger. She blinked her eyes. Perhaps they had not adjusted to the coming darkness, but she thought she saw the barest hint of firelight coming from deep within.
Two of the villagers climbed into the cart, untying her from the post. Each man gripped her by an arm, pulling her to the ground, and dragging her nearer the cave while the rest of the mob stayed behind. MacKenzie stumbled as they dragged her faster than she could walk towards two posts set into the ground roughly fifty feet from the entrance. The ground here was strewn with rocks and she found it hard to gain a stable footing. At one point she lost her balance altogether and fell, despite the two men supporting her.
This close to the ground, she could see that it was not rocks she was tripping over. It was skulls. Skulls, and other remains of what had once been people. The ground was littered with them.
The scream that had been forming in her throat never got the chance to voice itself as the two men picked her up and continued dragging her forward. She fought them now, fiercely, but their strength was too great. They positioned her between the two posts, tying her with arms outspread. Once certain that she was secure, the two men set torches into sconces carved on each post, then quickly retreated back into the shadows near the cart. Craning her head back over her shoulder, MacKenzie watched them flee. The horse cart was already turned around and heading back the way they had come.
Lazy Eye approached, favoring her with a feeble shrug as he passed to stand a few feet ahead of her. Not close enough for a good kick in the seat of his pants.
“Dragon! Hear me, Dragon,” Lazy Eye shouted. “We bring you our sacrifice. Take it and leave us in peace!”
He turned, hurrying to catch up to the others. “Like I said, Lass, nothing personal,” he said as he scurried past into the shadows.
A burning rage filled MacKenzie, and she struggled against her bonds as she watched him go. “You bastard! I’ll get you for this! If I get out of here you’ll wish you never saw me!”
Her threats went unanswered. She could just hear the rumble of the horse cart fading into the night. The sounds of the night were her only reply.
Good going, Nightshade. Really great. You can’t even head to the seaside for a simple fishing trip without getting yourself in trouble. One stupid wrong turn. . .
She fought against her bonds, pulling hard to one side, then the other, her struggles only serving to exasperate skin already rubbed raw.
Dragon. Wonderful. One stupid wrong turn and you end up as an evening snack for some overgrown iguana. If Mom saw you now, she’d have a field day telling you just how . . .
The sudden dead quiet brought MacKenzie out of her mental nagging. The sound of the cart had faded. Every nocturnal creature that had been giving voice to the night had suddenly all been struck dumb. The only sound MacKenzie heard was her own labored breathing.
That, and the distant rumbling from within the cave.
Squinting to block out the torchlight, she thought she could see something darker than the night filling the mouth of the cave. A low hiss broke the silence of the night, and two lights, fire red, appeared through the gloom. No. Not lights. Eyes.
Despite the terror rising within her, MacKenzie refused to scream. She knew the villagers would be listening and she would be damned if she were going to give them that satisfaction.
The eyes, vaguely feline, but too large and set too far apart, regarded her. They winked out briefly, and when they reappeared, were closer than before. There was a slight fishy smell on the air, turning her stomach. Another hiss, and then, to MacKenzie’s surprise, a voice rumbled through the darkness.
“Wonderful. Another sacrifice.”
The voice was so deep MacKenzie though it was coming from deep within the cave, but the warm air-- No, not air. Breath.-- that washed over her told her that it came from the beast in front of her. There was something in the voice that she found curious. It sounded like . . . sarcasm.
“Umm, excuse me?” she asked into the darkness, toward the warm, fishy, sarcastic voice.
“When will these dolts figure things out?”
Again, MacKenzie could not be certain if the voice was directing its comments towards her, or were just thoughts being spoken out loud. “Excuse me?” she echoed her earlier question.
The eyes came just a shade closer and in the light of the torches she could make out the features around them--scales, some tiny horns that crested the eyes, what looked like a scar over one eyebrow. A whisper of fish breath passed over her as the dragon spoke again. “So what did you do to earn the honor of being virgin sacrifice of the month?”
A glimmer of hope ran through MacKenzie. “Would it change my situation at all if I said I wasn’t a virgin?”
A snort that she took to be a gruff laugh. “Not particularly. It doesn’t matter to me if you are one or not.”
“Had to try.”
“Understandable. So, what’s your story?”
Does this thing seriously want to play twenty questions before eating me? Well, what the heck? Anything to delay the inevitable. “It’s all a misunderstanding.”
“It usually is. What did you do? Refuse to play kissy face with the magistrate’s son? Call the town preacher a bloated warthog?”
This is getting surreal . “I wandered into town by accident. Took a wrong turn. Was headed for the seashore to do a little fishing.”
“So you’re not even a resident?” There was genuine curiosity in the dragon’s tone.
“Like I said, just took a wrong turn.”
That gruff snort again. “Typical,” the dragon replied. “In all my years I’ve never seen a more obtuse group of hobknobbers as those villagers. Can’t even offer up one of their own.”
Despite her intrigue, all this polite conversation was raising MacKenzie’s anxiety level. “Not to be rude, but if you’re going to eat me, can you just do it and get it over with? Your mother should have taught you not to play with your food.”
The eyes narrowed as the dragon squinted at her. “Not to dash your hopes, my dear, but I have no intention of eating you.”
MacKenzie paused, dumbstruck for a moment. When she finally regained her voice, she said, “You lost me there.”
Now the dragon gave a sincere chuckle. “Even if I liked the taste of man-flesh, which, no offense, I do not, but I get the most God-awful allergic reactions from it. My tongue swells up, and my vision goes blurry for hours. Days, sometimes. Oh, and the itching!”
With a sigh, the dragon settled onto the ground mere feet in front of her. If her hands had been unbound, MacKenzie could have reached out and touched its snout. She should have still been terrified. Though she had never been in close contact with a dragon before—indeed, had never even actually seen one—the tales she had heard were enough to give her pause. Dragons are not to be trusted, she was told. Their entire existence is to deceive and thwart mankind. Put your trust in a dragon and you might as well step willingly into the fires of Hell.
Something in the back of her mind told her those warnings were misguided, at least as far as this dragon was concerned. It was like saying an entire section of the human population was evil simply based on the misdeeds of a few.
“Allow me to tell you a little story, since you are, after all, a captive audience.” He chuckled at his joke, but MacKenzie only rolled her eyes. “Tell me, child, what do you know of my kind?”
MacKenzie shrugged. “Only what’s been told to me, and most of that isn’t very nice.”
“I’m not surprised. Man has always feared my people. Sometimes rightfully so, but more often than not we are judged as a race because of the actions of a few.”
MacKenzie nodded at the irony in his words. My thoughts exactly.
“Do you know why my people live so long? We hibernate. Every twenty years we find a secluded spot to settle in and rest. The typical hibernation period is about five years.” He paused, looking back over his shoulder. “I chose this cave the last time as my home. Back then, the valley was much more secluded. The village did not exist.”
“Five years later I awaken and stumble out of my cave to see the sun for the first time. Lo and behold I come across two children foraging for mushrooms. Without even so much as a second look, they turn and run screaming back down the mountain. The next night, the first virgin sacrifice shows up on my doorstep. And like you, she was not of the village. Some poor child abducted from another town.”
“But you didn’t eat her?” MacKenzie inquired.
“Goodness, no. Took her back to her village, and have done so with each unsuspecting young maiden that those idiots pull off the roads by the point of a pitchfork.”
MacKenzie looked around at the skeletons strewn across the ground. The dragon answered the unvoiced question. “There is an ancient burial ground many miles from here. On those same nights when I return the maidens to their homes, I raid the burial ground and bring back some long departed soul’s remains.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Insurance. If the villagers think I’m dangerous, they leave me alone. Take away that threat and they’ll be all over the place with torches and pitchforks. Kill the monster, they’ll be shouting, even though I mean them no harm. It’s easy to be brave and tough against one who won’t fight back.”
MacKenzie heard the dragon’s words, and despite all she had been told prior, chose to believe them. There was a sincerity in this creature that few of her own race possessed. She knew he was not the deceiver others would have her think. “So you’re going to let me go?”
He nodded. “And I shall deliver you back home, or anywhere else you wish me to deposit you. I only have one request of my own.”
“I need you to scream for me, to keep up the ruse. I roar. You scream. I spit a few fireballs, set a tree or two on fire, and we’re done. The villagers are appeased for another month or so.”
MacKenzie smiled at the logic of it all. This dragon was deceitful, but only to keep his scaly hide in one piece for a little while longer. “I guess I can do that much.”
The dragon smiled-- smiled—then reached forth a claw and with a swipe, cut loose the ropes binding her. Grateful, MacKenzie rubbed at the raw skin of her wrists, and took a trusting step towards him. “By the way, my name’s MacKenzie.”
“And I am Mohng. It is a great pleasure to meet you, MacKenzie. Now. Ready?”
At her nod, Mohng reared back his head and a roar that shook the forest all around them issued from deep within him. As it died out, MacKenzie took a deep breath and screamed for him, the shrillest, most heartfelt scream she had ever screamed. She cut it off abruptly as Mohng roared again and lit up the night with the fire he spewed from deep in his throat. The nearest tree, an already charred oak went up in a great gout of flame. He continued to breathe fire for another minute or so, swaying his head back and forth to make the display even more impressive. When he stopped, all was silent in the forest again, save for the crackling sound of the blazing oak.
“That will satisfy them now, at least for another few weeks.” Mohng said, and MacKenzie found it hard to suppress a chuckle. “Now that you kept up your end of the bargain, I shall honor mine. I will take you anywhere I can fly.”
The shout startled them both. MacKenzie was surprised to see her new friend stumble back a step at the sudden voice that issued from the dark. She whirled in the direction of the shout.
From behind the flaming oak stepped a figure that was all too familiar to her in the last hour. Lazy Eye stepped into the light, a pitchfork held before him in defense. Mohng wasn’t kidding about the pitchfork. What is it about these people?
“I’ve had my suspicions about you for awhile now, dragon. I knew you couldn’t be trusted.” Lazy Eye stabbed the air with his weapon for emphasis. “You’re dead now. When I tell the rest of the village what I overheard, they’ll be back for your hide.”
Beside her, MacKenzie heard Mohng mutter, “Oh, please.”
Lazy Eye continued ranting at the top of his voice, gesturing wildly with the pitchfork. MacKenzie looked up at her new friend. “Sure you can’t make an exception about eating someone just this once?”
Mohng made a face that told her the very thought nauseated him. “No, but I can do this.”
Rearing his head back, the dragon gave one great belch of flame, a fireball that struck the base of the oak like cannon shot. Roots and all, the tree erupted from the ground, flew several feet into the air, before toppling over onto Lazy Eye, who had just enough time for one feeble shout before being crushed beneath its smoldering trunk.
MacKenzie looked up at the dragon, eyes wide. “Impressive.”
“Thank you. It’s all in the way you angle the shot.”
The dragon sighed, looking around wistfully at the scorched earth all around. “I was becoming rather fond of this area, but I have no choice now. I have to move on. Once the villagers find out I took the life of one of their own, no sacrifice will do. They’ll be coming for blood.”
“I’m sorry. I never meant to stir up any trouble like this.” MacKenzie placed a hand on Mohng’s scaly shoulder. “Just wanted to get to the seashore to do some fishing.”
“Fishing, you say?” Mohng sounded contemplative. “I always did enjoy the seashore. Perhaps we could travel together?”
MacKenzie felt suddenly dizzy. Travel with a dragon? Well, at least it will keep me from being abducted by any more nutcase village people. With a smile she replied, “Mohng, I’d be delighted.”
Echoing her smile, Mohng extended a forelimb and helped heft MacKenzie onto his back. Straddling his neck, she gripped his scales as she felt his muscles tense beneath her. The sudden rush of adrenaline coursing through her was intoxicating.
On the wings of a dragon, MacKenzie Nightshade took to the sky.