↖ Stories


Samuel Marshall

Skylark picked his way, deftly and silently, through the crowded market square. Hundreds of people thronged the area; most of the town and nearby villages turned out for the monthly event, their only chance to obtain goods from numerous traveling merchants who made this place a regular stop on their schedule. The normal business of a market day continued alongside, but travelers were more important, especially in the current climate - few dared venture far from home along lawless roads.

The elf was only tangentially aware of the scene. Bustle and noise - vendors hawking their wares, potential purchasers haggling, and the occasional squawk of chickens and other animals that some insisted on using for currency - passed through his mind with little thought. His attention lay deeper, halfway to trance, as he tried to discern more information behind a presentiment of danger. The warning had grown gradually in his mind all day.

Which was why he didn’t notice the growing panic until too late.

Neglected senses suddenly jerked him back into full reality. All around, the sounds of the market vanished amid screams and shouts of alarm. A few late clusters of townspeople ran past and away behind him, their eyes wide with a panic that suffused the air. He was rapidly being left alone, a single figure among a wide scattering of deserted stalls, some toppled over in the haste of escape.

Somebody shouted from well behind him, ‘Elf!’ - a kind warning meant to galvanize him into action, draw him back into the flood of people rushing away from the market square like water draining from a bathtub. But he could already feel the danger, a huge oppressive presence far too close to avoid.

Skylark stood his ground and looked up, just to confirm what he already knew. An enormous dragon hung in the air above and ahead of him, each gigantic wingbeat seeming to brush the rooftops. The creature’s jaws gaped open, trickling thick gray smoke through yellowed teeth, and its catlike eyes glared out from between red scales, fixed directly on the elf.

He watched as the dragon - drawing ever closer - pulled breath into its powerful lungs, the smoke vanishing somewhere and air bulging its underside as it prepared to breathe a blast of deadly flame. There was no time for fear, no time for any physical action, barely time for what he needed to do. Desperately and with all his concentration, the elf flung out his being in what would be his last grounding to this world. He reached out to anchor himself in the earth beneath his feet, in the sudden wind that sprang from dragon’s wings, in the sunlight that played on his arms. Eyes closed in an expression of release, he relaxed and waited to die.

But death did not come.

Instead, the air was almost crushed out of him as the dragon reached down with its right forelimb and grabbed the elf between fearsome claws, plucking him from the ground as easily as picking a flower. The world span confusingly around Skylark as the dragon moved him into position, held close against the enormous underside. He could feel the fierce upward power of each wingbeat now, and heat spread through his slim body from its contact with the dragon’s red-scaled belly.

Still dazed and shocked, he managed to wriggle into a position from which he could see ahead. Almost immediately he wished he hadn’t, though he would have felt the effects regardless of vision. The dragon was closing on a group of twenty or so fleeing townspeople, effortlessly narrowing the gap with each pulse of the powerful wings. Skylark watched in a kind of enthralled horror, as he felt the beast’s fierce exhalation of breath and saw searing flame rush from its jaws to engulf the humans.

They were incinerated, killed instantly, but the elf heard their unuttered cries, the loss of so many lives in the same instant cutting into him with an almost physical pain. Moaning aloud a little - though the sound would quickly have been lost against the wind of dragonflight, even if anyone had been there to hear - he instinctively reached out to the departing spirits, pouring his strength into a blessing for each one of the twenty-three dead. Small comfort it would be, and none to those bereaved, but it was all he could do; his energy drained by the effort, he lapsed into unconsciousness, still held tight against the dragon’s breast as the creature thundered through the air.

Gradually, Skylark’s awareness returned. His head hurt, a dull throbbing ache that came to him before anything else. After that, details started to emerge into his brain. He appeared to be lying curled up on his side, hard floor beneath; stone, not natural earth. The flagstones’ chill, though, did not bite as hard as it should, and the air around also seemed warm.

A memory made the elf shiver regardless. He reached out tentatively with his mind; instantly he felt the dragon, its presence just as towering and awe-inspiring in the mental realms as it had been physically. It did not seem particularly aware at present, though.

Perhaps it slept. Instantly, he forced himself to open his eyes, in case something needed to be done while he had the chance. Light seared into his head with a sharp pain that almost forced him to re-close his eyelids. But he managed to shut away the hurt - that would cost him later - and stagger to his feet, looking around.

He stood on the stone floor of a large building. In the center of the room, amidst a pile of debris, lay the dragon; its eyes were shut and it breathed regularly. The building’s walls were patterned with window-breaks that let in a little light, although much less than came from above; he looked up briefly to see that the roof had been shattered. A few support beams protruded some little way from the stone of the walls, torn short by - presumably - the force of the dragon’s landing as it crashed through the wood.

Well, that explained the wreckage covering the floor. Skylark looked around quickly for exits and saw only two - a small archway leading into a corridor, and a large set of double doors, barred on this side. Suddenly, he realized where he was; this must be the town hall. He hadn’t come inside on either of his two visits to the town, but it was the only building he’d seen that was large enough to house a sixty-foot dragon, and he remembered noticing the tall pair of doors.

Silently, hurriedly he headed for the other exit, the archway - lifting aside the bar on the larger doors might make enough noise to wake the sleeping creature - and was almost there when he heard a booming cough, like some tiny earthquake inside the building. Two scraps of wood fell from the remains of the roof above, hitting the ground with a sharp bouncing clatter.

He looked round.

Behind him the dragon had woken, if it had been asleep at all. It stared at him with those slit-pupilled eyes, piercing and direct. Lazily, the creature opened its jaws a little, just enough to reveal the rows of sharp, yellowed teeth that seemed as long as Skylark’s arm.

It said, in a deep, resonant voice that made the human language sound halfway to whale-speech, ‘Don’t go any further.’

Carefully, the elf stopped moving, turning instead to face the dragon properly. He had no desire to die pointlessly. Presumably the beast had kept him alive for some reason, and would continue to do so for a time at least. If that reason proved unacceptable, then escape, or more likely suicide - he shivered at the thought, but knew it was possible for one such as himself - would still be an option.

‘Come closer.’

The creature was only satisfied when he was right by it, just a few paces away from one of those unnerving eyes. It watched him without blinking.

‘What is your name, small one?’

‘Skylark,’ the elf said. To show he wasn’t entirely cowed, he added, ‘What’s yours?’

There was a rumbling from the great beast, perhaps a dragon’s chuckle at the display. ‘I have only my true name, and that I do not quite trust you with, small-creature-named-after-smaller-creature. Do your kind have true names?’


‘Then what is yours?’

It was said sharply, with a power and a compulsion behind the words, but Skylark’s true name was held at the core of his being, at the source of his existence, protected so tightly that nobody could extract it by force or by magic - at least, not without unraveling his entire self first. Perhaps this dragon underestimated those it saw as ‘small creatures’.

‘I don’t quite trust you with it, large-creature-without-name.’

It chuckled again, but this time with a slight edge. ‘That will not do at all. You can call me... Dragor.’

‘Orcish for Dragon,’ Skylark observed. Actually, it was a straightforward appropriation of the human word, except that Orcish lacked the short-a and n sounds.

‘Indeed,’ Dragor confirmed, sounding a little surprised. ‘You seem unusually knowledgeable.’ His voice hardened. ‘Regardless, I would like you to do something for me. You will have noticed the metal-bound chest by my side. It is not locked; open the lid and remove the torc that you will find there. Then put it on.’

Skylark hadn’t actually seen the chest yet, in his concentration on the dragon, but now that it had been mentioned he spotted it instantly. It was the only whole object in amidst the wooden debris. He followed the dragon’s instructions, pushing up the heavy lid of the box, and lifted out a golden neck-ring that he found there. Quickly, he scanned the rest of the contents in case something there would prove useful later, but he couldn’t linger too long because Dragor was watching closely.

He carefully examined the item in his hand. Strangely, it was in two parts, connected by a hinge at one end with a clip at the other. Each part formed a golden semicircle of metal, like a curved, filled tube about the thickness of his little finger. The material looked like gold but perhaps was not solid, since it felt less heavy than gold should.

It seemed about the right size for an elven neck, but he was wary of putting it on. Stalling for time or information, he pulled forward a handful of hair and held it beside the torc.

‘Are you sure you want me to wear this? I don’t know if it goes with my hair.’ He was lying anyway - the warm gold toned pleasantly against his mid-brown locks, although it didn’t so well match the portions that were stained with dried blood. Presumably the bleeding had the same source as the headache he’d been blocking out.

Dragor growled, probably very quietly by his standards but certainly enough to frighten the elf. ‘You do not seem as stupid as all that. This is not intended for jewelry. Put it on. Now.’

So much for that. Skylark opened the hinge wide and placed the torc around his neck. Careful not to pinch his skin, he closed it to form a complete circle, and deftly flipped shut the clip.

As he’d been half expecting, both the clip and the seam which marked the hinge faded into nothing, leaving an unbroken band that would not easily be removed. He tensed, preparing for a mental assault, but none came. The dragon grunted in satisfaction.

‘Try to walk away from me.’

For a few paces there was no effect. Then, suddenly, the torc stopped moving. It was as if it had hit an invisible stone wall. There was no way it would move past a certain distance, and short of cutting his head off, the same now applied to Skylark. Internally, he winced. Freedom was important to him, and the prospect of being forever leashed to an uncaring dragon did not appeal.

‘I can control the distance to allow you a somewhat wider rein,’ Dragor rumbled. ‘You will be my messenger to the people of the town. You will put my demands to them and give me their response. Is that clear?’

Skylark stood mute for a moment, considering. He knew that it was not right to aid this creature in its evil, that he should not set an example of subservience for others to see. But he also knew that he should not throw away his life with no gain, and to refuse the dragon here would certainly constitute that.

He nodded to Dragor.

As he acquiesced to the creature, he felt a twinge of warning, and suddenly, deep inside, he knew. He knew that his decision had been based mostly on fear. And he knew the danger, how easy it would be to agree to the next thing asked of him and the next and the next until he became a mindless servant that merely aided the beast in its depredations. Though his movements had been curtailed, he understood in elven clarity that his spirit still floated free, like the skylark his namesake. Only he could cage that bird in the fears and selfishness of evil, and he risked doing so.

Carefully, firmly he made a vow. There is a line beyond which I will not go. When that time comes I shall make my stand. And he felt a flood of relief, the reassurance that he would not turn to evil combined with a sudden rush of awareness from the world around him, a reminder that he would not be truly alone unless every last living thing was destroyed, that there was a spark of goodness in everyone and everything. Even the dragon, he considered thoughtfully...

‘Here is the message,’ Dragor’s deep voice boomed. ‘Are you listening?’

Skylark started to assent, but all of a sudden everything was going fuzzy, with the head wound and the loss of energy which he’d spent holding back the pain. He was only just able to shield his face with crossed arms as his legs gave way, his vision dissolved into smudges of black, and he crumpled to the ground.

He was awakened once more, this time by a sudden shock as cold water sloshed over his face. Blinking and spluttering, he winced as pain hit him once more, worse this time; he knew he couldn’t spare the strength to block it. Slowly he became aware of the dragon looming above him, frighteningly close. One forelimb held a bucket, dripping remnants of the water used to douse him; the town hall must have its own well, probably because it was supposed to be a defensible place for many of the town to retreat to in time of need. A neat irony...

The claws on the other forelimb gently clutched a small glass bottle, which looked impossibly fragile in comparison. Carefully, Dragor brought it over towards Skylark.

‘Here,’ he said in a voice that was evidently supposed to be quiet, but which still throbbed reverberating through the elf’s head like a multitude of blacksmiths beating iron. ‘Drink this. I’ve little enough use for it.’

The dragon’s breath washed over him, warm and fetid. Coughing, the elf tried to sit, failed, gave up, and instead reached out to take the bottle. He fumbled with its stopper and eventually managed to pull it loose, though he dropped it in the process. Distantly he wondered at the lack of his usual dexterity, as the cork bounced across the flagstones, but in any case he still held the important part. With infinite care he brought the bottle to his lips and drank - first taking a sip, then swigging the rest down. It tasted awful, but that was probably a good sign.

Indeed, as he drank his head cleared a little and the pain faded to a dull ache. The healing potion was evidently doing its work, although he still felt pretty awful.

‘I should have been more careful putting you down,’ the dragon muttered. ‘Your kind are so fragile. Or perhaps I should have chosen a stronger specimen.’

Skylark attempted to stand, and was pleased to find his muscles up to the task. Though he swayed slightly, he soon regained his balance.

‘You are ready?’ Dragor asked. On seeing the nod, he gave the message which Skylark was to carry to the town. He described, too, the inn which the leaders were using as a base during the occupation of their town hall. Finally, he added, ‘You still do not look well. Perhaps you should also request that a healer tend you.’

The elf nodded, though he had no intention of doing so. After hearing the message he had to give, the town would not appreciate an additional problem. He turned to go.

‘One last thing,’ the dragon said from behind him. A breath hissed slightly in the beast’s throat. ‘Don’t stray from your path. I can tell exactly where you are, from the torc.’

Nodding acknowledgment without looking back, the elf let himself out of the town hall’s side door - mage-locked by the dragon, he could tell, temporarily released to allow him exit - into the empty streets. Faces peeked from behind curtains as he passed, frightened townsfolk wanting to avoid attention but still anxious to keep track of events.

Skylark wondered what they thought of him, after he’d so obviously been passed over for destruction by the dragon, yesterday. Deciding he didn’t want to find out, he quickened his pace.

‘How can you do this?’ the tall woman demanded of him, standing in her place in order to tower above his head. Skylark was in the Broken Shield Inn that now served as the town council’s base. He sat on a bench along one side of a pair of tables pushed together. The council members were on the other side, leaving him strangely alone and somewhat discomfited. Around the rest of the inn’s main room, a few other townspeople crouched nervously over their drinks, eavesdropping on the discussion.

‘If I refuse to act as messenger, the dragon will kill me and find another for the role,’ Skylark said - quietly, in stark contrast to the antagonistic councilor. His headache was worsening again. ‘Eventually he will probably grow tired of messengers and simply destroy the whole town.’

‘Damn elf,’ somebody else said from one side - quietly, but it was clear enough. Nobody chastised the man who’d spoken.

‘Let me check once more I have this clear,’ another councilor said curtly. ‘The dragon wants us to give him three of our people to be eaten, as some sort of good will gesture, by the end of the week. Then he requires a regular supply of cattle from our farms. He will kill without warning anybody who leaves the town borders, beyond the farmland.’

The man’s voice was incredulous, like a merchant who couldn’t believe the price being offered for his stock. Skylark had already taken a dislike to him, an obese middle-aged man wearing a heavy gold chain and silken clothing. The tall woman - none of the councilors had volunteered names - was aggressive, but at least she seemed honest. This man, on the other hand, appeared concerned mostly for himself, though he tried to hide it behind a veneer of decency.

‘That’s right,’ the elf confirmed. ‘And if you do not comply, he will prey at will on the people of the town, or just destroy the place if you continue to defy him.’

‘The townspeople will lynch us if we agree to that,’ the merchant said, shaking his head.

‘Quit whining about your pathetic skin,’ the woman retorted. ‘It seems we have no choice but to agree.’ She looked up and down the row, challenging, but none of the other five councilors disputed her opinion. ‘We’ll organize a lottery to pick the unlucky victims. In the meantime, we could try to think of other options.’

She looked directly at Skylark, pointedly. ‘Perhaps we’ll eventually learn the elf’s true allegiance.’

Can Dragor overhear, he wondered. With the torc, quite possibly. Carefully, he fingered the item, and said guardedly, ‘I can say that the townsfolk have my sympathy.’ He emphasized the word ‘say’ very slightly, hoping to make it and the gesture a hint of his fears about the dragon eavesdropping.

A flicker of understanding crossed her eyes, though none of the other councilors appeared to notice. ‘Take the message of our agreement - under some protest - to the dragon,’ she instructed him.

Skylark got to his feet, swaying very slightly as he did so. He regained his balance almost immediately and made his way to the door. ‘Damn elf,’ somebody said again, louder, as he left the inn.

He walked hurriedly back towards the town hall. Halfway there, he heard the call ‘Damn elf’ once more, but when he looked back the speaker had ducked into a side-alley.

A little further on, the curse was repeated from behind, and this time there was a small group of men. Skylark quickened his pace, though he felt a little dizzy. Glancing behind, he saw that the taunters were matching his walk. Suddenly, without warning, one threw a stone; it missed, but others followed, scooped from the ground and flung towards him. He broke into a run, but almost immediately one of the missiles found its target and thumped into his previous wound.

A wave of darkness swept through his vision and he would have fallen, but for a strong, supporting arm which caught hold around his shoulders. The woman, who’d ran from her house to rescue him, moved herself to shield the elf from his attackers.

‘Leave him alone!’ she called. ‘Can’t you see the dragon wounded him! He’s not doing this by choice!’

The attackers jeered and shouted more insults. She held her position fiercely, glaring at them over her shoulder while her arms supported Skylark’s slumped, half-conscious body. Finally, stared down, the men backed off, leaving the street empty once more apart from the injured elf and his rescuer.

‘I’m a healer,’ she told the elf gently. He could well believe it; her face wore an expression of genuine concern, and she held him carefully but with surprising firmness. ‘You need help. I’ll just take you into my house here and-’

Skylark shook his head, remembering his instructions. ‘I can’t go out of my way - the dragon might know. I have to get back.’

Though he slurred the words, she evidently understood. Her face lined with worry. ‘I’ll have to come with you, then. Will the dragon allow me in?’

Not ‘will the dragon eat me’. In a rush of gratitude he nodded, incapable of further expression as another wave of dizziness hit. With her support, he managed to stagger the last few hundred yards to the town hall’s entrance. The door opened at his touch and they entered without trouble - it closed behind.

The warmer air away from the wind relaxed Skylark a little, but not enough to revive his aching head. A tide of pain and darkness swept over him and he felt himself beginning to lose consciousness once more. This, some distant unaffected part of him thought, is beginning to be a habit.

When he woke again, it was a somewhat more pleasant world that greeted him. He lay stripped to his underclothes on blankets, with his head turned to the side and resting on a cushion. The wound faced upward and, better than the physical comforts, he felt the healer’s influence in his body. Her aura overlapped his a little, gentle hands soothing his hurts and carefully, gradually gifting energy to strengthen and speed his body’s healing process. She worked slowly, unhurried, as she had already been working for some time. It was better that way, less likely to create problems for later, and it felt gorgeous.

Ten minutes later, she had finished. The healer had eased his every ache and pain, ranging across his slender frame to cure scratches and bruises from when the dragon had dropped him and the stones that had been thrown, as well as the more serious head wound. He felt perfect, though he knew that for a few minutes at least it would be unwise to do anything while his body adjusted.

Politely she drew back a little, still kneeling by his side so that he could see her without moving his head. She was a fairly young human, in her late twenties, her face warm and pretty but already lined with cares. Dark hair swept almost to her eyes before it was pulled back, tied behind to keep it out of the way. With a healer’s awareness of her body she kept a good posture, held straight and clear and simple, but it was her eyes that caught his attention. Perhaps it was not really visible, more likely some leftover from her closeness, but for whatever reason, in the hazel-brown depths of her eyes, he could see much; the surface gladness at her work, the innate kindness of a natural healer, the brittle strength that had led her to stand up against his pursuers earlier - and beneath all that, hidden and shielded by it, a deep and continuing pain. This one had not led an easy life...

‘Better?’ she asked.

‘Wonderful,’ Skylark said, sighing in gratitude.

‘Don’t try to move for a moment,’ she cautioned, presumably out of habit; she could not have failed to know that he too had experience of the healing arts.

‘I won’t. Thank you for that, and before. You saved my life.’

She looked a little embarrassed, unused to praise. ‘It might have been kinder to let you die.’

‘Perhaps,’ the elf admitted. ‘For now, though, I’m happier to be alive.’

The healer changed the subject. ‘What’s your name? I probably shouldn’t just call you ‘elf’ all the time.’

‘Everyone else does,’ he said wryly. ‘At best. But I’m Skylark.’


A memory struck him, touched by her previous question. ‘It was you who called a warning, wasn’t it? In the market?’

‘It was.’

‘Thanks,’ he said again, feeling a little repetitive. Well, at least he could do her one kindness, even if it was one owed by the common courtesy of healers, who could cure only the wounds of others. ‘I’m ready now.’

She nodded and he rolled carefully off the blankets, springing lightly to his feet with once-more perfect balance. Glancing about, he found the rest of his clothes - now looking rather tatty, not to mention stained by trickles of blood, but he could wash them later - and dressed himself quickly. It was warm in the building and he was perfectly comfortable being half-naked, but as a human she would probably prefer him fully clothed. That was no particular hardship; the elven-made fabric that fell lightly over his body was thin and comfortable.

He pointed at the blankets and cushion on the hallway’s floor, items which she’d presumably obtained from a storeroom somewhere in this place; Skylark hadn’t precisely had much chance to explore it himself. ‘Your turn.’

Although he was still a little weak, and would be for an hour or so, her own wounds - sensed through the earlier link - were relatively slight and within his capabilities. There was a lot of bruising and a few minor burns, perhaps sustained in fighting the several fires that the dragon had caused throughout the town. They weren’t life-threatening but, if not actively painful - which they might be - they would certainly cause constant soreness.

So he was surprised when she shook her head, looked down and said, ‘Don’t bother yourself.’

‘Don’t bother? But you have a right to expect it,’ Skylark said, incredulously.

‘I waive that right.’ She was a bit indistinct, talking at the floor.

‘I didn’t mean it like that at all. I’ll be very glad to help in gift alone,’ the elf started, and then paused. ‘Oh. I’m sorry. There’s something wrong.’

He mentally berated himself for failing to realize. A human would have spotted that quicker, and without any benefit of the appropriate senses.

Marissa made some strange gesture halfway between a nod and a shake of the head, and said quickly, ‘Well, I’ll be gone now. If you need me again, just call for me.’

She stood up - failing to suppress a slight wince as her bruised body shifted - and stepped quickly towards the door. Just before she reached it, Skylark said - gently, and with all the wisdom he could draw from the connection and kinship he held with the world - ‘Wait.’

She turned her head back to glance behind nervously, an action so different from the strength she’d shown earlier. Carefully, the elf caught her gaze and held it. He said steadily, ‘I will not ask questions or make judgment or take any actions. You have my promise. I will only heal your hurt.’

She made the nod-shake gesture again, glanced down, turned away without a word, and let herself out of the building. Skylark was left alone once more - alone with a dragon, and a strong sense of failure.

‘Well?’ Dragor rumbled, as Skylark entered the dragon’s presence once more.

He’d almost forgotten the meeting only an hour before. Quickly he thought back. ‘They agree, under some protest,’ he quoted.

‘Ah, good.’ The dragon sighed with something like relief. ‘I do so hate flying around destroying things in one pointless demonstration after another. Perhaps when I was younger, but now...’

‘If that was a ‘pointless demonstration’,’ Skylark said slowly, ‘then all those lives were thrown away...’ He thought of the twenty-three he’d seen die; young, old, children, parents, all departed from this world - and for no reason? It was - he shuddered - well, it was wrong.

‘You have to kill a few.’ Dragor’s wings fluttered slightly in a gesture that might be the dragon equivalent of a shrug.

Skylark’s heart sank. He considered the statement, ran it over again in his mind; he could see the meaning, but simply trying to comprehend the mindset behind it filled him with a foul taste, a bleak emptiness. In someone damaged in childhood, mistreated until mistreatment was all they understood, he could understand such an attitude. Perhaps even expect it. But he did not think the dragon fell into that category.

‘Those were real lives that you destroyed,’ the elf managed finally. ‘Whole beings, like yourself.’

Dragor laughed incredulously, a rumbling and shaking that disturbed the damaged building and sent several stones tumbling from above. ‘Nothing like myself. Would you hesitate to kill an insect?’

‘Of course.’

‘Elves!’ The dragon rapped his claws against the ground in exasperation, creating brief echoes from the sharp sound. ‘Let me rephrase. If you had to kill some insects or else go hungry for a few days, would you then hold back?’

‘I guess not,’ Skylark said. ‘But-’

Dragor interrupted. ‘And you would not kill a human or elven child for the same reason. It is the same with me. I would not kill another dragon simply in order to avoid hunger for a time, but I do not hesitate in dealing death to lesser creatures for that purpose.’

The elf hesitated. ‘But all life has value.’

‘And those insects?’ Dragor pressed his point, catlike eyes gleaming at Skylark in anticipation of triumph. ‘Or are you trying to say there’s some clear difference between humans and animals or insects, a strict line beneath which it is acceptable to kill?’

‘No,’ Skylark said miserably. He knew there were ‘animals’ almost as complex, thinking and feeling as humans or elves. It clearly wasn’t a strict delineation. The dragon wanted him to accept that the ‘line’ was set by Skylark himself and therefore the dragon was no worse for placing it in relation to his own species. In truth, he couldn’t with confidence dispute that. He had never thought about this issue before; feeling and intuition came to the elf more naturally than logical consideration.

Suddenly, one of those intuitions came to him. Of course he would lose to the dragon in any such argument - the creature was fearsomely intelligent. But that wasn’t the point, it wasn’t his purpose. Empathy, perception and care were his strengths, and those he should rely on. Towards that end he considered the dragon, sensed as much as possible in all the ways he could, went back over what Dragor had said, and finally felt that - despite the creature’s alien attitude - he had a degree of understanding.

He said, ‘But you don’t really believe this or care about it. You’re just arguing to justify your position; the reasons you give were invented well after the choices you made.’

Dragor chuckled slightly, raising an eye-ridge. ‘Very probably you are right, elf. It matters little.’ He yawned in a ponderous motion, gusting fetid breath towards Skylark. ‘And now I think I shall rest. Be warned, I sleep lightly...’

The dragon proceeded to curl up more closely in his central position on the floor, head resting on tail. Within moments his breathing had slowed to the gentler pace of sleep.

He sleeps a lot, Skylark thought. Maybe dragons do that, or maybe he is just old as he hinted. Looking for a place to retire, without need of hunting food? The elf shrugged mentally; after all, he’d been ‘sleeping’ plenty recently.

Skylark yawned at the thought, finding himself tired despite all the periods of unconsciousness. Healing had taken a lot from his system, even though it had been assisted and given by another. In any case night had almost fallen. He went into the passageway to retrieve the blankets and pillow Marissa had found - dragon-warmed stone forming a preferable sleeping place to the cool slabs of the corridor - and stopped as he returned, watching fading, tinted sunlight glitter from red dragon scales. It was beautiful but still, he wanted to see the actual sunset, watch the colors above the horizon, the shading of the clouds. And he could not, since the only windows were high above, and the dragon did not allow him to leave the building.

With a sigh, he lay down on his bedding. At least, if he stayed awake a little longer, he could watch the stars through the gaping hole that had previously been a roof. That should make him feel better. Before then he would close his eyes for a moment to rest them...

Later, starlight spread its eldritch glow over the smooth, delicate face of the young elf. He was not awake to watch it, but perhaps it relieved his soul even still. Perhaps.

The elf did not wake until some hours after dawn. Then, when awareness returned to him, he uncurled his body and sat up to survey the area once more. Bright sunlight filled the hall, seeming to make even the gray stone floor more cheerful. Crazy shadows patterned its edges, thrown from the jutting remnants of roof beams overhead. The dragon, centrally placed, was in full light; majestic, enormous, and beautiful as ever, even though its body still twisted in the spiral sleeping position.

Skylark stood on tiptoe and lifted his arms high above his head, stretching high towards the sky in the point of his joined palms. For a moment he held the position, exerting himself in order to fully wake his muscles and shake off any dregs of sleep. Then he relaxed, lightly releasing the stretch and standing normally. It felt good, in the sunshine. It almost felt as though he were free.

He fingered the torc that circled his neck, feeling disappointment even before he realized he’d been hoping it had somehow become unclipped. But the gold circlet was smooth all around, completely seamless. Intellectually, he’d known that without checking; the dragon wouldn’t rely on magic items which were unreliable or short-lasting. Still, hope sprang eternal...

Sighing, he went to make himself ready for the day. The torc allowed him to pass anywhere in the building; he could not test the limits further since the exits were wizard-locked. So when he was finished he returned to the dragon’s chamber, feeling clean and fresh. He had even made an attempt to wash his tunic, with mixed success; some of the bloodstains, though not vanished, had at least faded to a slightly less noticeable shade. Carefully he stretched the garment out on a flagstone to dry in the sun.

And then there was a knocking at the door - the small corridor entrance. For a moment, Skylark dithered, but then he decided he should answer it. The dragon would have to open its mage-lock, but that was unlikely to form a problem; after yesterday’s aborted escape attempt, the elf was well aware that Dragor tended to be less asleep than he looked.

Sure enough, he was able to open the door. Before him stood the tall female councilor, the one who had seemed unusually strong and aggressive yesterday. Perhaps it had been his weakened state... but no, she still towered over him forcefully, using her extra height for all it was worth.

‘The council request your presence to discuss details of the arrangement,’ she said formally, adding in a harder-edged tone, ‘Now.’

In that kind of commanding presence it seemed easy simply to obey her order, but he had to strengthen his resolve and step back a few paces. It would be little use to walk two paces outside and then be brought short around his neck. He leant around the archway to the main room, looking towards the dragon.

‘Go if you like,’ Dragor rumbled. ‘I have no use for you today. But do not promise anything in my name. It will not be granted.’

Looking back, Skylark gained brief amusement from the woman’s face; she was clearly daunted by the sheer volume and growling tone of the draconic voice. But her discomfort did not last long, and she grabbed the elf’s bare shoulder commandingly, shoving him away from the building. ‘They’re waiting.’

Wonderful, Skylark thought. I’m already a slave of one powerful creature and now another is ordering me about! There’s no room for another restraint around my neck but perhaps she can find space for some manacles! Even so, he went quickly to the inn, trying to keep a short distance ahead of the woman - she stayed behind him, presumably in case he were to run off - out of reach of the pushes and shoves she directed his way.

Thus escorted, he passed through the front entrance into the Broken Shield once more. It looked much the same as last time, even with no haze of pain to distort his sight. The same councilors sat at the same bench, and again Skylark was directed - none too gently - to take the opposite seat. But - he blinked, and looked more carefully to check - one of the councilors, the fat merchant-type, was shackled to his chair.

The tall woman, seating herself opposite, caught the direction of his gaze. ‘Rumelo here was one of those chosen in the lottery. He decided to try a little subverting of the selection process, but we caught him half-way out of town. Even so, he’s still a councilor. At least, until he’s a bar snack.’ She grinned nastily.

‘The council should be exempt,’ Rumelo muttered. He looked along the table at the other four councilors, raising his hands in appeal. ‘It’s not too late to change things. Theysa’s idea to include us in the draw was badly flawed! We-’

‘Shut it,’ the woman - Theysa - interrupted. ‘We’re here for a purpose, and one you should be interested in.’

He quieted down and she stared at Skylark, stared at him long and hard until he became uncomfortable. The other councilors were looking, too, even Rumelo’s beady eyes gazing dully at the elf from between pouches of sagging fat. Finally, Theysa pointed at Skylark’s neck, at the golden torc that held him to the dragon’s will. Her expression was questioning.

‘I don’t think he can hear from it,’ the elf said carefully, considering. ‘At least, he didn’t seem to know the result of yesterday’s meeting until I told him.’

‘And just what else will you tell him, elf?’ It was one of the four councilors silent up until now, a small man with viciously short dark hair and a gaze that flickered about like a rat’s.

‘Leave it,’ Theysa said tersely. ‘The elf’s been enslaved using that neck-ring, I doubt he and the dragon are bosom friends.’

She turned back to Skylark, businesslike still. ‘In dealing with this dragon, we don’t have many choices. Nobody volunteered to stand and fight the thing, and pretty much our only hope was that Rumelo would give it indigestion. Until we heard from the town herbalist, that is, and he told us of a poison he discovered which is easy to manufacture in large quantities and is deadly at a touch - to lizards, that is. It’s entirely harmless to humans and probably to your kind too. But we’re hoping it might work on the dragon.

‘All we need is your help, to take a barrel of this poison in to the corridor of the town hall - where the dragon cannot see it - and then, when it leaves on a feeding trip, to spread the liquid across the floor. It will dry somewhat, but is apparently potent for some hours after. Then the dragon will land, lie on the floor, and...’ She shrugged. ‘No more dragon. If it works, that is.’

‘I don’t like poison,’ Skylark said slowly, thoughtfully. ‘I don’t like killing.’ It wasn’t in his nature to kill, he didn’t, he couldn’t, he told himself. But he knew that he could. Everyone had the capability, every soul held a darker side, even if it was hidden under layers of fear or desperation or compulsion. Suddenly, he remembered his vow of yesterday. There is a line beyond which I will not go. He’d meant it the other way, that he would not commit atrocities in the dragon’s service. But perhaps the danger was from the other side altogether.

‘Are you saying,’ Theysa hissed, standing over the table and bending close towards his head, ‘that you refuse to take part in this plan? That you will sentence three villagers to death, and the rest of us to a prolonged servitude? For some nicety of your own petty little conscience, elf?’

He shrank back under the almost physical force of her assault, grounding himself as best he could for reassurance. Small birds outside sang trusting calm to his mind, the earth under stone floor filled him with permanence, and the growing breeze that rustled treetops whispered to him alone of life and truth and change. Strengthened, he knew it was not a question of ‘petty conscience’, but of the right to judge - between a dragon’s life or those of three men, between direct evil of action and the delayed evil of inaction. It was not the elven way to make such judgments, he should not be in this position, but he was, and the decision became no easier.

‘I don’t know,’ he said hesitantly, ‘I need to think...’

His voice showed only indecision, none of the fear she might have been expecting, and that only annoyed her more. ‘Think until this evening, elf. Then I will come, with a barrel of the poison. I will come, and you had better have made your choice.’ Her eyes were wide, black coals glittering cold ice that forced her will at him, spat resentment and threat. ‘The correct choice.’

She turned her back on him and he realized it was the end of the meeting. Carefully he stood, wincing a little at an ache from his shoulder, a bruise from the earlier rough treatment. He was still half-naked and outside it was turning cold, but nobody offered a cloak. After an awkward pause, he turned and left the inn.

This area of town twisted with narrow, cobbled streets that only formed tunnels for the wind. Buildings leaned overhead, taller towards the inn as if peering past, jealous of the open common-land at its rear. Skylark glanced that way, his gaze caught for the moment by a few lone trees that dotted the scrub, swaying gently with every change of the breeze. Like me, he thought, tossed every which way by opposing forces... but they were not like him and it was a dangerous analogy to consider. Unlike the oaks he had the choice, the decision was his, even if he seemed small and powerless among the larger - or much larger - creatures. He could not and should not abrogate his responsibility.

Sighing, he turned back and set off towards the town hall. He felt for the wind around him, took it as a cloak and made itself a part of him and he a part of it, so that he would not be chilled by its caress. Then he walked, or drifted, on his way. This time, nobody chased him and nobody attacked him - perhaps the town was back at work, or perhaps the tormentors took pity on his barely-dressed, defenseless appearance - and there was no incident of note until he was nearing his destination once more. He passed the house of the generous, troubled healer, and glanced aside at it.

Her face peered from a window.

Almost as quickly she was gone from view, but he knew it had not been a coincidence, his glance catching her unawares. She had intended for him to notice her, even though she had hidden away immediately after. Which meant that she wanted to attract his attention, while pretending - to herself, who else? - that she had not. Which meant that she needed the help he had offered yesterday.

He stepped to the roadside and knocked cautiously on her door. Would the dragon’s control permit even such a slight detour? Well, there was no other way to find out.

‘Yes?’ Marissa said, opening the door. Her gaze fell upon the elf in a quick, efficient glance, a healer’s professional examination. But for a moment and for no reason she looked away, avoiding Skylark’s eyes. She wore her strength like a tattered gown, he thought, functional but showing through in places.

‘You wanted my help.’ Then, hesitantly, because she was shaking her head and making preparation to deny her need once more, ‘I could see it. If you would send me away, then I will go, but I would be happier to assist you...’ He trailed off awkwardly in response to her silence.

Finally she nodded. ‘Perhaps I would appreciate that. Please, come in.’ Her voice was neutral and controlled, disciplined as ever. ‘But I will hold you to your promise.’

He’d said he would not judge. Assenting with a gesture, he followed into her house, entering the first room on the left which must be where she saw patients. A thick pile of blankets formed the centerpiece; Marissa quickly unbuttoned and stepped free from most of her clothing, and then lay down on the soft support.

Skylark held back a gasp at the sight of her body. She was covered in small burns, in bruises, in scrapes and gashes, and in the scars left by similar injuries over what must have been a long period of time. Some of the wounds were new since yesterday, fierce bruising on her right thigh and also a series of burns along her back, as if someone had - no, he realized with a sick feeling, the exact result after someone had dripped candle-wax in a slow, awful sequence.

She lay left-side downwards, favoring these newer and most painful wounds, and with her face turned away into the blankets. Her voice was muffled. ‘One thing - leave the surface appearance, leave the scars.’

Or he’ll only hurt me more in his anger, the elf finished silently. He knelt down, preparing to begin. It would be more difficult as she wanted, he knew; the body’s healing process was not selective and assisting it in such a way was difficult. Once more he grounded himself, slipping mentally into the web of existence around that he relied on for his strength.

Why does this happen? he asked the earth and rock beneath, the sky above, the scattered confusion of life between. He’d seen it before, in varying people of different races and lives. Sometimes the roles were altered, but even so it remained the same, and Skylark had never yet found understanding. Why does her mate torture her? Why does she accept it? Is this love?

But there was no answer; perhaps even the gods within did not know. Perhaps it was not possible to know, but only to care, to scatter hopeless wishes for change and renewal. It achieved nothing; but maybe, still, it was desperately important.

He shed the first tears before their auras even touched.

‘I’m sorry,’ Skylark apologized, blushing. ‘You asked to be healed, not washed, I know.’

He’d cried slowly, consistently during the whole time of the healing, until his eyes were red and dry. Every contact with Marissa had reminded him of her pain, a constant of her existence even now the physical hurts were gone. How she bore it, the elf didn’t know. And she did so without revealing the strain, keeping it invisible to those who were ignorant. Her tears, Skylark thought, were rendered only through others...

She was dressing, pulling on the long, gray skirt and light-blue blouse that had been discarded half an hour before. Carelessly she shrugged, the casual gesture once more shocking the elf in its stubborn strength. ‘At least you care. Thank you.’

‘How could I not?’

He’d spoken rhetorically, but she took it at face value. ‘You have other things to worry about, I should think.’

‘The dragon,’ Skylark said. His own problems seemed less desperate now, but he was still largely at a loss. ‘I’m supposed to poison it.’

Marissa turned toward him, shocked into motion by the tone of his voice. Her blouse was only partly buttoned, hands stilled in place halfway up. ‘You don’t want to?’

‘Well - no. It would be wrong. I’m not a killer, and, well -’ he shrugged awkwardly - ‘I can’t agree with the dragon’s motives, but I think I understand them now. He has a right to live, like the rest of us.’

She stared, angry and incredulous. ‘But one of those due to die is my husband! You’ve been enslaved by this creature, ordered about and mistreated, and now you’re defending it?’

Skylark just looked at her, his deep hazel eyes sharing a compassion that could not easily fit in words. For a moment the healer’s face echoed only confusion, but suddenly she understood. She gave a strangled sob that became a cough, and turned away to hide her face.

‘Even so,’ Marissa said after a moment, ‘you must kill it.’ Her voice was back under control, though she still gazed only at the floor.


She ignored him. ‘Promise me.’

Skylark sighed. He was still unsure what he should do, but the healer did not deserve anything more to add to her burden of pain. Although surely it would be kinder in the long run, he thought - and stopped himself. It was wrong to second-guess others about such things.

‘I’ll try,’ he said softly, feeling his soul slip deeper into cold, worrying new territory.

A sharp knocking sounded at the door. Skylark looked inquisitively at the dragon but Dragor made no comment, so the elf got to his feet and answered the call. He had spent the afternoon meditating - there was little else available to stave off boredom - but had found no peace, only echoes of his own uncertainty and guilt.

It was Theysa, the tall council leader. Under one arm, she carried a small wooden barrel - presumably the poison that had been mentioned. Her other hand held a vicious-looking dagger, its edge serrated into sharp hooks. On her face was a threat too clear for words.

Meekly, Skylark reached out for the barrel. He set it carefully down in a corner by the door, a corner that would be shadowed even in full daylight - the dragon couldn’t get his head through the archway to see in this corridor, but there was no harm in taking extra precautions. In response to Theysa’s questioning, distrustful gaze, he presented his face - whatever she could read in it, she was welcome to. And she would have to settle for that, though he knew she wasn’t satisfied.

‘We’ve chosen the victims,’ she said to him for the dragon’s benefit. ‘It was supposed to be a lottery, but in actual fact I used a little sleight-of-hand and picked the three lowest bastards in town.’

Skylark blinked in surprise, but he should have guessed - she didn’t seem the type who would leave things to chance. His initial impression of her as honest still held in a sense; there was a certain kind of blunt honesty even to the deception.

‘Does the dragon want to know their names?’

‘I doubt it,’ Skylark said. That was a nice touch, he thought; some people might have assumed that the enormous creature couldn’t hear them out here in the corridor, but Theysa was evidently not one of them.

‘Okay. Tell it we’ll have them ready by the end of the week as ordered. I’ve also talked to some of the larger farmers, but we’re still working on organizing the dragon’s supply of cattle.’

Dragor’s bass rumble suddenly filled the air. ‘No matter. For the moment I will organize it myself.’

The voice, with its amused menace and impressive volume, visibly disconcerted even the aggressive councilor. Skylark reached out a hand to reassure her but she stepped back, haughtily rejecting any contact. With a final warning glare at the elf, she backed through the door. ‘That’s all I have to report. I’ll be in touch when there’s more.’

‘Please do,’ Dragor acknowledged. His voice held a ripple of amusement; presumably he’d judged the woman’s nervous reaction from her tone and was enjoying it.

Theysa strode off, and Skylark pushed the door closed. He felt the brief flicker in the environment that was the dragon’s wizard-lock reactivating, and sighed at the reminder of his captivity. As if the restraining torc wasn’t enough.

Slowly he returned to the main chamber. He might have his freedom again soon, he remembered. But at a cost... He shivered. Captivity now seemed a pleasant and reassuring prospect.

‘What is that one like?’ Dragor asked suddenly. ‘The woman.’

‘Her name’s Theysa.’ Skylark wondered why the dragon wanted to know. ‘She seems mostly as her manner would indicate; strong, decisive, short-tempered, stubborn.’

‘Do you think she’ll try anything against me?’ It was the curious tone of a cliff-face, wondering whether one more small boat would dash itself against the rocks.

‘Probably, yes,’ the elf said, with a fair degree of honesty.

Dragor chuckled. ‘We’ll see. In any case, the evening draws in and it will soon become difficult to see. I am going to obtain a meal.’

Skylark barely repressed a shudder. His heart did not merely flutter, it took to wing and vanished altogether. He could not breathe.

If the dragon was leaving, that meant now was the time...

Dragor misinterpreted the elf’s discomfort. ‘Do not worry. I shall release my hold on the torc for a time; you do not need to come with me. The wards on this building, however, I shall strengthen; nothing will enter or leave.’

He waited a brief second to check the warning had sunk in, then stretched himself out from his resting place. Skylark hurriedly backed off, leaving space for the dragon to extend his wings at full spread. The creature crouched on its haunches... and sprang into the air, wings grabbing fiercely for lift. Each wingbeat blasted air downwards with such power that the elf had to look away. As the rhythmic, unnatural wind hissed fiercely through the building, he buried his face in his arms to shelter from the rising cloud of dust. He only glanced skywards again just in time to see the dragon’s enormous silhouette heave out of view, disappearing from the gap in the roof.

This is it, Skylark thought grimly. Now I have to decide.

In the end he decided to wait. It would surely take the dragon at least twenty minutes to obtain a meal - most of the cattle were pastured some distance away. He could wait for a quarter of that time in case the creature changed its mind and returned early. Then he must act.

The time ticked by slowly, measured by the beating of his heart. Skylark lay on blankets, watching the sky above and trying to keep his pulse steady. He was going to do this, he had promised he would. It was nearly time...

And then he saw the dragon once more, flying directly over the town hall. Returned to check on me! Skylark thought. Dragor was not taking any risks, and perhaps it had sensed that something was amiss. Carefully, the elf composed himself, making sure that he would appear undisturbed - well, no more disturbed than was normal recently - to any mental probe.

Dragor looked down, evidently saw nothing to arouse his suspicion, and banked steeply to one side, angling off toward the north. Then he was gone from sight.

Now, Skylark thought. He won’t check twice. Quickly, suppressing all thought, the elf sprang to his feet and lightly made his way through the archway into the side-corridor. He retrieved the small barrel from its hiding place and took it back into the main chamber, heading for the central area normally occupied by the dragon. The floor was clear of debris here, the dragon having swept aside broken roofing fragments in order to provide a smooth resting place. A smooth final resting place...

He held the thought, shoved it away, concentrated instead on opening the barrel. The task was not difficult; a single cork stoppered a hole bored in the top. Once this was removed, he set about pouring the contents over the stone. The liquid was thicker than water but still poured fairly easily, and Skylark had to concentrate on the challenge of covering the area evenly.

In a few minutes it was done. The room smelt faintly, a scent of tar and fruit and vinegar all combined - although probably the poison contained none of those in reality - and the floor-area glittered darkly in the dim twilight. Some patches were already beginning to fade, drying as Theysa had promised. Gradually the odor, too, grew lighter, borne away by wind that reached down through the shattered roof.

Skylark replaced the stopper in the empty barrel and put it back out of sight by the door, for want of a better location. Then he went back to his position on the blankets, enthralled by his own calmness, awaiting the dragon’s return. He thought about nothing; strong self-discipline was holding him from worry about his actions, and more pleasant thoughts would now be made unclean by association. Emptiness held his attention firmly, imprisoned within himself and shut off from the world as surely as by golden torc and mage-locks.

And then the dragon returned.

A brief gust of wind heralded Dragor’s arrival, followed immediately by a billowing gale that sprang from the creature’s wings as he dropped down inside the building, wings flapping at full stretch to slow his fall. He landed dead-center in the treated area, settling carefully to the ground with a muffled thud.

A curious expression flickered briefly across Dragor’s face - perhaps he was wondering if the ground felt different. But he seemed to accept it as imagination, relaxing and yawning prodigiously. He looked content, doubtless well-fed and ready now to sleep.

Skylark’s control slipped and he felt a twinge of guilt. Perhaps the poison will not work, he thought hopefully. It was only tested on lizards, and this magnificent creature is hardly a lizard.

And then the dragon frowned. Skylark watched, horrified, as Dragor tried to raise himself from the ground... and failed. The great legs did not seem to obey their commands. Enormous wings lifted briefly, then dropped back downwards.

‘Elf,’ Dragor said slowly, the booming syllable echoing through the hall, ‘what have you done?’

Skylark felt himself dragged by the neck, as the gold torc pulled him gradually closer to the fearsome beast. Disdaining the compulsion, he ran forward to the very jaws of the dragon.

‘I poisoned you,’ he said simply.

The saucer-shaped yellow eyes flickered briefly and there was a slight pause. ‘You? The innocent little bird?’

Skylark nodded miserably. Suddenly, abruptly, Dragor laughed, a sound that almost knocked the elf down because of sheer closeness. ‘I like that. There is an irony somewhere...’ His voice was growing visibly weaker, almost by the second.

‘Aren’t you going to kill me?’ Skylark asked. He stood by the dragon’s head, dwarfed by the enormous creature. For the first time in his life, he felt genuinely, worryingly small.

Dragor shook his head, or tried to; the gesture turned into a gentle half-motion, slowed almost to nothing by the paralyzation overtaking him. ‘Unless I truly have judged you wrongly, I think you might welcome it.’

The elf reddened in shame, not answering. Of course he would welcome it; his own anticipated death was the unacknowledged source of his earlier calm. And it seemed in some way an absolution, balancing the scales, if he died with the dragon.

But however much he had failed himself, he should not think of that now, not for a few minutes. There was another here more important, more deserving, his responsibility. And though he could not save the life...

‘If I am not to be killed, then I shall help you as best I can.’

The dragon snorted. ‘I do not need your help, and I do not wish to lighten your conscience.’ His voice, now barely louder than the elf’s, held a brief tremor that belied the words. He had been afraid of nothing, or so he thought, but Skylark did not know of any creature that would by choice die alone.

‘Perhaps you do not need it,’ the elf said gently. ‘But I offer myself anyway.’

Dragor offered no further objection. His head gradually slumped towards the ground, the muscles no longer able to support its weight.

Not long now, Skylark knew. He sat on the warm floor - slightly sticky from the poison beneath his legs - and leant against the dragon’s head, trying to share contact as much as possible. Then he reached out with his mind, finding Dragor’s own spirit nearby, weak and fading and unshielded and helpless. With all his strength he reassured the dragon, enfolding it in gentle warmth and guiding it, slowly and lovingly, along the inevitable road that led to death.

After a time Dragor’s enormous body sighed its last, and his spirit flickered and vanished into some unknown form of freedom. There was only the huge red-scaled shell of a dragon, and an elf beside it clutching tightly.

Later that night two of the councilors went to the town hall, to see if the plan had worked as hoped. Rumelo - no longer shackled, but carefully watched - held an oil lantern high while Theysa gently pushed at the door. It was open, which meant that the dragon’s mage-locks were no more. Cautiously, they entered the corridor and trod slowly towards the archway into the main chamber. Rumelo hung back several yards, so that more than once Theysa had to beckon him closer to benefit from the lantern’s light.

The main chamber bore a silence broken only by the elf’s quiet sobbing. A glance was enough, even in the dim illumination. The dragon was slumped to the ground in an odd position. It was dead, though Theysa had no idea why the elf clung to its neck.

‘Well done,’ she offered.

The elf turned to face her, and she almost stepped back at the empty, hunted look in its - his, she supposed - eyes. His cheeks were sore from tears, and he looked like a man who’d lost a loved one, not a victorious dragon-slayer. Were the tears for the dragon, Theysa wondered? She snorted, dismissing the idea. More likely the loss of his own precious innocence. Elves were notorious for their weakness and self-pity.

Suddenly, with a little moan, this one left his pose and dashed past her towards the exit.

‘Highly strung,’ Theysa commented.

Rumelo spat messily on the floor and shook his head, his several chins shuddering with the motion. He looked askance at Skylark’s departing figure and shrugged. ‘Damn elf.’

In the chill night outside, clouds covered the stars.