One shouted command prevented taunt bows from unleashing a deadly rain on the woman stumbling from the sandy entrance of the mountain where the dragon had fallen. She was chained, naked, and bleeding, and crawled toward her fellow humans as if the great golden beast himself were behind her. The archers waited for the fire and glittering head but there was only silence. Had the Prince’s arrow flown true? Was the dragon dead?
The woman collapsed at the King’s feet and the healer put water to her cracked lips as the archers watched curiously. King Taseth asked who she was to have escaped the dragon. The dragonspawn at his side appeared unconcerned.
“Arostrath often leaves sacrifices alive,” he said. “It means nothing. You must go into the mountain to find the dragon now.”
The King led the wary soldiers into the maze of towering rocks at the mountain’s feet and soon they were lost to sight. The dragonspawn remained, the shackles his hands and his crippled wing preventing escape. The healer spared him no more than a glance before turning his full attention to the injured woman.
He washed the deep scores on her body where talons must have raked into her flesh, and wrapped bandages to stop the bleeding just above her heart. A stray arrow must have struck her. The healer was grateful the aim had been off.
She was such a young woman, he thought, and beautiful. Her braided hair shone like the sun, red and fiery and warm in the desert heat, shading into deep bronze skin that glittered from sweat in places and shimmered from sand in others. Thick gold manacles wrapped tightly around her neck, wrists, and ankles, but there were no locks, no means to remove them. He ignored them and gave her more water. She gasped and opened golden eyes.
“Can you speak?”
She squinted as if trying to remember something. “Yess.”
He wondered if her sibilant voice was a result of being taken by dragongaze and shivered despite the heat.
“Is the dragon dead?”
“Treassure iss unguarded.”
That meant the dragon was either dead or seriously injured. He sighed in relief. He was tired of treating burns day after day, helping paste false flesh onto limbs only to find the same boys hours later with torso blasts too serious to be patched. He was tired of rationing anesthetic so that only those dying could be eased, while the rest suffered and half-wished they were dead.
But King Taseth led on, ignoring his sons, ignoring his soldiers, determined to slay the dragon that had lived peacefully in the realm for centuries. Arostrath the Golden was not a tyrant like other dragons; he took a yearly sacrifice of a single maiden from each village, with timing staggered to assuage his appetite throughout the year, and he never stole more gold than the King could afford to lose. He protected them from crueler dragons, and the King’s decision to kill him was widely unpopular.
The woman slept, weary from the wounds that must pain her, even though she didn’t cry out. He could bandage her and keep her from death, but he couldn’t keep her from pain and he stroked her arm in silent apology. She stirred and her head tilted to one side as air escaped her lips in a hiss. He withdrew his hand with another shudder.