They sent you up here as a sacrifice, boy. Whatever you’re trying to prove, I won’t let you.
Dragons had scorched the hills, then the crops and the village. The elders had held out until the dragons finally poisoned the sacred well of their forefathers. Food was running out. No scrap of land was untouched by the terror-serpents. Rain evaporated before it struck the ground. No one had reason to stay, except they lacked the will to leave, if they hadn’t lacked the strength until today. It was Winnowing Day, and Elder Jareth would choose a hero to climb Ka’saladum to make a last stab against Monthul, Dragon-King.
Elder Jareth held up the straws before the crowd while Kadila balanced against his stick at the back. Despite his slightness and crooked foot, he could see over the heads of the women and children to the furrows on the old man’s face. The wind calmed, and Elder Jareth rubbed the straws between his fingers and let them fall. Everyone waited tensely for him to stand back up, but when he did, he looked straight to the back. “Kadila,” he said.
“He’ll never make it!”
“Don’t take a chance with all our fates, you old fool!”
“We will only anger him by sending someone unworthy of the challenge!”
He’ll never make it!
“Kadila, come forth!” yelled the old man, ignoring the villagers. Kadila hobbled to the front. Twelve years old, and cursed with a crooked foot, he couldn’t make it across the village on a normal day without a beating from Tarn Bellows, the fourteen year-old brute who’d made himself village boss. The town’s men had left the women, children, and elders to themselves. Cowards, they’d found safety elsewhere, and sworn to come back, but two Winnowing Days had passed since then. Kadila went past the shaking heads of the villagers, and Elder Jareth pointed down, at the last straw, which bent sharply back on itself at the end.
“Here,” he said, and shoved a sword belt at Kadila. He strapped it on, balanced on his club foot. The sword-point was barely an inch above the ground. Elder Jareth gave him a waterskin, filled from the river miles away. “Don’t drink that,” he said. “That’s for when you get to the top.” The old man held out a blue stone in a pendant on a thin gold chain, and smiled. “This is our last one.” The last of the twelve that the forefathers had entrusted to the sacred well. “There’s a font at the top,” he said. “If you make it.”
Kadila climbed Ka’saladum for two days until there were no trees left, only scorched rocks. Boulders were plentiful along the path, and he thanked the forefathers. The great dragon soared over the mountain, blew gouts of fire into the air, and vaporized the clouds. Kadila was scared, thirsty, and hungry, but wasn’t going to give up. Monthul would have to stop him from getting to the top. He would die before he went back to being the village cripple of a crippled village.
Kadila crouched behind a large boulder and got ready to run to the next one. When the dragon flew up, he stalled, released a flame, fell, and turned back. Six times the dragon repeated like a child swinging from a branch. Kadila would only have a few seconds. Kadila crouched behind the rock so his whole body was hidden. Monthul swung past and Kadila hesitated. He removed the stone, and put it in his pocket. The dragon came swooping by, and Kadila moved through the hot wind, hobbled to the next boulder across the trail while Monthul flew upward.
The dragon king was having a very good time
The dragon carried on his game as Kadila moved from one boulder to the next, and got closer to the flight path every time. He pulled his cloak around himself, and noticed the outside coated with the mountain’s red iron dust. He could be his own boulder. Monthul swept past. Kadila looked for the next rock, but the only one was far too small to hide him. If he crouched next to it under his cloak, he could wait until Monthul left to scorch the village, and then make the summit as fast as possible.
Kadila hoisted himself up, put his stick under his armpit, and breathed in the hot air. Monthul came down, and Kadila rushed out. His right ankle twisted and he fell to the ground. Flame spilled from Monthul’s nostrils and Kadila crouched and threw his cloak over his back. He kicked to spread his cloak over his stick, but the end still stuck out. He breathed slowly. Slow, hot breaths.
The earth shook, and dragon-breath seeped under his cloak. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice a rock with a sword sticking out of it?”
Kadila bit his lip, and looked down at his left side. His cloak lay right over the sword hilt, with the scabbard poking out. He needed his right hand to stand, so he grabbed the sword with his left, pushed himself up, and threw back his cloak.
“I am not afraid of you!” he shouted.
Monthul laughed, and reared back on his hind legs until he stood taller than the tallest tree Kadila had ever seen. He spread his wings and shook them. His snout stretched into the sky and spewed flames that smelled like rotten eggs. Burnt rotten eggs. The Dragon-King looked down at the boy and smiled. “Why not?”
“I had to be brave even before they sent me up here!” he shouted back. “Even before you took my family from me!”
The dragon lowered his head until one giant snake eye leveled at Kadila’s face, then looked down at his foot. “Of all the people in town, why did they send you?”
“Portents,” he said, shaking his sword. “Step aside dragon and let me up to the summit.”
The dragon laid down like a dog at a hearth. “I know why they sent you up here.”
“To save the village—”
“Half-right.” Monthul laughed a toxic laugh that blew back Kadila’s hair. “You think you’re going to kill me with your little stone and your little knife?”
“Yes,” said Kadila, and he tried to crouch like a swordsman, but fell back into the iron-red dust.
Monthul laughed and shook his head. “No no no,” he snickered. “You are a sacrifice. They thought you’d be easy for me to eat. I’d appreciate the generosity and leave them alone.”
“Shut up!” Kadila’s breath heaved as he pushed himself up. “Stop talking and do battle with me, I’m not afraid of you.”
“I won’t battle you. I’ll do something much worse.” Monthul took two thundering steps on his back legs toward the ridge’s edge.
“Where are you going? Get back here and fight me, you hideous, filthy—”
“Be quiet, boy.” The dragon shook his head. “Whatever you came here to prove, I won’t let you. Goodbye.” Monthul hefted himself into the air and took off, carved figure-eights in the sky, and drew on the air with his flame.
You are a sacrifice. Whatever you came here to prove, I won’t let you.
Kadila sheathed his sword and felt for the crystal in his pocket. All his pockets were empty. He scrabbled over the ground with his hands, crawled on his hands and knees for speed, pawed at the iron-red dust. Everything looked reddish-brown. No gold chain, no glint of blue stone.
He stood and hobbled back to the boulder where he’d last hidden. Monthul circled the mountain, glided, bounded, and blasted the air with flames. Kadila watched long enough to make sure the beast wasn’t paying attention. He reached and looked under the fifth stone, then the sixth, then the seventh. It must have fallen out while he ran between the boulders. He took a deep breath, faced up the trail, and walked, slowly, slower than he needed to, and stopped every few steps to look in a circle around his feet.
Monthul turned in the air, flew through his own fireball, and came straight toward Kadila. Kadila judged his flight path, ducked behind his talons, and fell onto his back. His stick flew to the trail’s edge, just out of reach. While Monthul turned, climbed, and blew out a new fireball, Kadila drew his sword, and lay flat. The beast turned in the air, just as Kadila’s left hand found something hard in the dust. He grabbed the crystal and shoved it in his pocket, closed his eyes, and tried not to breathe.
Monthul landed and folded his wings. Hot wind and wretched breath tickled Kadila’s nose. He thought he would be sick. The heat came closer, until the dragon’s nose whisked Kadila’s hair over his face.
“So sad,” said Monthul. He took a step. Kadila opened his eyes and plunged his sword into the vein behind Monthul’s ankle. Hot black blood burned his face. Monthul roared. Kadila screamed back. He’d wounded Monthul, enough to make him mad, but not enough to kill. He raised the sword to hack at the beast’s legs, but Monthul stepped away, and the sword clinked against stone.
Monthul raised his leg, as if to scratch his ears, and blew fire over his wound. “So, you’re alive?” the dragon asked.
“Yes, and I’m ready to fight!” Kadila said. He bent at the waist, but shook his smoking sword at Monthul.
The dragon shook his head again. “You don’t understand.”
Kadila held out the crystal. “I have this, and I’ll use it to destroy you!”
“You’ve bested me in one way,” he said, flattening his brow. “I’m not going to do what you want, and I’m not going to do what the villagers want.”
I’m not afraid of you!
Kadila stood as tall as he could, balanced on the side of his foot, without his stick, and brandished the sword. With all his strength, he roared at Monthul until his jaw felt like it would detach. “What are you going to do then?”
“I’m going to help you.” The great beast flattened himself, as low as he could get. “Get your stick,” he said. “Get on my back.”
“This is a trick.”
Monthul laughed. “You’re accusing me of tricking you? After what you did?” He flattened his neck against the ground. “Get on. I’ll take you to the summit.”
“No tricks.” Kadila picked up his stick, but kept his sword pointed at the dragon.
“Don’t worry, boy,” said Monthul. “You’ll get credit for whatever we do together. I don’t know what your crystal does, but I’ll make it look like you did something.”
Kadila stepped closer, put his sword away, and stepped up on Monthul’s lowered wing. The wing lifted him until he straddled the beast’s back, and he found a comfortable seat between back-spines. Monthul lifted off with a great jump, and they were airborne. He banked and rose gently to the summit, where he touched down and offered his wing as a ramp for Kadila.
The summit was a tiny peak, and Kadila had to crawl to make it. The solid ground supported him, but he longed to get back on Monthul and rise through the air, where he felt more stable than ever. At the top, higher than everything else, Kadila found a shallow depression in the basalt. He took up the waterskin, and poured in the rest of its contents.
“Now we find out,” he said, and dropped the crystal into the water. The water rippled, and Kadila crawled back down to Monthul’s landing. He rose to his feet, faced the summit, and waited. He looked at Monthul, who smiled back. The ground shook. “Was that you?” he asked Monthul.
Monthul’s eyes opened wide, and Kadila followed his gaze up to the summit, where a shower of ice crystals like a feastday candle shot from the summit. The tremor intensified, and clouds formed around Kadila and the dragon. Monthul blew the clouds away, but they’d spread far beyond the mountain’s boundaries. The skies changed from scorched-red to winter-grey.
Monthul frowned. “Now we’re both dead, Dragon-Tamer. I’m cold-blooded.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Kadila. “You can fly.” Monthul lowered his wing, and Kadila climbed on, raised his stick like a sword, and they lifted off. “To the village!”
The villagers screamed in terror. The dragon had come for them at last, through the sudden blizzard. Monthul touched down on the muddy patch that had been the village green in bygone days, and lowered his wing for Kadila. Kadila hobbled in front of Monthul’s head and raised his sword. “Be gone, foul beast!”
Stunned villagers stopped running. They stared back at the green, at Kadila, at the giant serpent. Monthul reared onto his hind legs and belched fire into the air. He melted the snow before it reached the ground, made the villagers scream anew, and raised his terrible voice. “No, Dragon-Tamer, you’ll have to vanquish me here, in front of your village.”
Kadila drew his sword, and Monthul lowered his steaming snout, level with the boy’s height, lowered his ears, and pawed at the ground. He growled, blowing back Kadila’s hair. Kadila shook his sword and shouted the strongest war-cry he could manage.
“Die! I have vanquished you with the skies, dragon. Stay here and die in the cold. Your fire is run out.”
Monthul growled again, looked around at the villagers, and backed away. He swished his tail like a whip, and collapsed Tarn Bellows’ house. He rose up, spread his wings, and took off. “You may have bested me, Dragon-Tamer, but I will only sleep so long. I will return. As soon as you are no longer this village’s bravest man, I will awaken, and you will all feel my fire.”
Monthul turned to the south and flew over the hills, and snowflakes covered Kadila’s hair. He held the sword in his right hand, and brushed the dried dragon-blood from his shirt, which fell like charcoal onto the ground. Elder Jareth approached, astonished.
“I think I will keep this sword,” said Kadila.