The golden eyes pierced his soul, what little there was of it. He could see what the beast was seeing and he wasn’t impressed, either. A puny male thing, as relevant to this scaled monster as a gnat was to him. Fight, flight or freeze? They were all irrelevant. His sword and shield dropped. He knew they were irrelevant, too.
’Nicely done, ‘gnat’, you survived your first test,’ the dragon hissed.
The warrior sat on the ground amongst the skeletons and rusty weapons.
A rat clattered through some bones at the far end of the cavern. The beast focussed and hurled flame through its nostrils, a flame no man had ever used. It consumed the rodent in squeals and sizzling.
‘Fetch that ‘gnat’,’ the monster said.
Involuntarily, the warrior moved. He felt the beast’s heart beat in his chest and its breath fill his lungs. He lurched over the remains of his comrades past, finding the rat via the dragon’s mind. He picked up dinner and began eating.
‘Return and rest,’ it commanded.
The warrior lay down between the monster’s foreclaws right under its fangs. He glanced up into the slitted eyes.
Visions few through his mind: days and nights flickering, the moon waning and waxing. He suddenly realised it was the valley where he was born. The sun was rising in the west and setting in the east.
‘Yes, we are remembering. Now comes your second test.’
The watchtower his great-uncle erected fell into the ground. Ancient trees exploded from nowhere. The old dam emptied of water and the wall vanished into the brook. The village shrank to a hamlet, the hamlet of his great-grandmother’s time.
The Sun froze in the mid-morning sky.
The warrior inhaled and tensed. He awoke to find vermin on his lands, frail and pitiful but spreading like a plague. He stalked to the mouth of the cave and lashed his tail.
‘DIE!’ His trumpeting roar echoed across the valley and the vermin scattered. He sprang from the cave into the morning light. He dove toward the infestation but one of the vermin was not fleeing. Her lips were moving and her fingers were tracing Wards.
He surged forward with a flap of his massive leathery wings. Plasma scorched the air reeking of ozone and sulphur. His aim was true!
His chin wrenched up and his body followed. He ricocheted like a boulder tumbling down a cliff, but upward, into the sky.
The beast’s stare froze him.
‘So, the gnat is spawn of the Wyfian.’ A talon pierced the warrior’s throat.
He choked. ‘Great-grandma – .’
‘– Barosia.’ The talon slid deeper.
The dragon leafed through the pages of his mind, injecting half-forgotten memories with flesh and bone, vivid colours and all the aromas of his childhood. His birth. His conception.
The warrior knew. The dragon knew. Barosia used Secrets to bring his parents together and used Secrets to create his fate. She constructed his destiny to acquire the dragon. She assembled him as her weapon.
A hissing wheeze vibrated from the scaly throat. ‘Little warrior gnat, the Wyfian provided you with a pretty collar and chain for me?’ Talons sliced through the leather bindings of his armour.
‘Please…’ the warrior gasped.
‘Yes, gnat?’ The beast flung the bronze plates across the cave.
‘Please have mercy.’ His words bled out of him.
‘To what end?’ The dragon rested other talons over an eye, his heart, his stomach and his groin. The reptilian face hovered over his.
Voices of his lovers in climax, the cries of his nieces and nephews as he nursed them, images of the animals he nurtured and loved, the colours and fragrances of his abundant garden, and his partner’s loving face while crooning all flooded his mind.
‘Please, great beast, please have mercy!’ He lost control of his bladder and rectum.
‘Very good, little warrior gnat. You passed your second test.’ The creature withdrew its talons and overpowering awareness.
The fire inside him went out.
He felt his own body, tiny, cold and dirty. He curled into a ball and whimpered in the stench on the floor.
‘Sleep, little gnat. Dream not of tomorrow.’ The dragon curled its tail about the warrior and a harmonised rhythm resonated through the cave. The warrior fell asleep…
And into a waking dream. He was dressed in a thin robe of grey and holding a great staff. Beside him stood the ‘dragon’ in a leathery hooded cloak. Her face was human but he knew the slitted eyes, the fangs and the talons. Stunningly beautiful!
She regarded him in turn.
‘Greetings, Lady Dragon.’ He bowed.
‘Your manners have improved.’ A small grin shaped her lips. ‘I am Dissida. You are in my dreaming. Tell me the nature of your staff.’
‘Greetings, Lady Dissida.’ He bowed again. ‘This is the staff of the Wyfian. She created it through the last years of her life and gave her essence into it. The glowing jewel in the staff head is her soul. I have never before held this but I know it intimately.’
‘Now begins your third test, little gnat Terwyn,’ she said.
He straightened at hearing his name.
She walked in an arc, her talons weaving Wards as she went. The staff hummed like a plucked bowstring.
‘Lady Dissida, how do I know of Wards? I am but a warrior and have never studied the Secrets – ’
His great-grandmother sprang from the Wards and grabbed the staff, jabbing at Dissida’s heart. The glowing point barely brushed her bosom. Barosia swung it but Dissida simply leaned out of the way.
‘Your great-grandson has better manners, Lady Wyfian.’ Dissida stepped back from a swing at her knees.
The warrior knew from his training that this battle was hopeless.
‘You are my weapon!’Barosia said to him.
‘You are nothing more than an object.’ Dissida taunted him.
Ere the soldier returns home, to find he’s no longer alone. Strong arms hold him tight, he finds his strength and continues the fight. His husband’s wedding song came unbidden.
‘No!’ Terwyn yelled and Barosia dropped the staff.
NO! Barosia screamed in his mind.
Dissida stood opposite him grinning. ‘Yes.’
The warrior awoke, clutching the dragon’s tail. He shuddered and jerked away.
‘Well done, little gnat. You passed your third test.’ The dragon smiled at him.
‘My great-grandmother formed me from before birth to kill you. Could I have killed you in your dreaming?’
‘You could have tickled me but you have needs other than to do the Wyfian’s bidding.’
‘Was that staff real?’ He again saw himself through the dragon’s eyes but now he seemed more like a pet.
“Real?” She reclined on a heap of bones.
The warrior considered his people and the dragon’s visions.
‘You cannot stop us’, he said as a simple fact.
‘You are the first of your kind to speak with a dragon. You are the first human to survive any of the tests and you may not stop your kind. The fourth test begins,’ she said.
He braced himself.
The dragon curled up and sighed. ‘Your husband is disconsolate. Your garden and animals need tending. The village fears you a martyr.’
‘But…’ he stood.
She turned to him and reached out a claw like a cat stretching in the sun. ‘Your fourth test is not with me, Little Gnat, it is with them.’ She flicked her tail toward the cave entrance. ‘Return whence you complete it. I will be waiting.’
Pick up your staff!
‘Little Gnat should find some clothes before returning.’ The dragon rolled onto her side.
I command you! Pick it up!
A great bolt slid from its catch and an immense door opened inside his mind. He saw himself in the thin grey robe, the great staff glowing far brighter than before.
He picked up a spear.
‘We shall meet in the dreaming,’ she said.
His fingers traced Wards of Protection and Obfuscation. The him in his mind raised the staff. He completed the charms. He threw the spear at the back of her head.
The door in his mind thudded closed.
‘NO!’ he screamed.
She writhed and shuddered as the spear gouged her brain. Gurgling sounds came from her throat.
‘Lady Dissida!’ He ran to her and took her great head in his arms. The glow in her eyes dimmed.
Her immense body stilled and his wracked with sobs.
‘Little Gnat,’ she sighed.
The beast’s last breath left her body and her beautiful eyes grew blank. He closed the lids and lay her head on the bed of bones.
The warrior stood, surrounded by silence and decay. He picked up an old fur cloak and, tears splattering into the dust on the ground, began his uncertain journey home.