12.) I sent Tomber off immediately with two pack mules loaded with trinkets to prepare the village of Inhut for our arrival. It was fortunate Tomber was gone because the next time I saw Viccare, he was sitting behind Favory on the red stallion, arms wrapped tightly around her middle, the golden bell hanging and tinkling from the saddle horn.
The final reach of the Seventh Principality was a high desert, with low shrubs and grasses that extended for as far as the eye could see. As we left the last copse of timber, I called a halt.
“But we still have half a day’s light,” Marston muttered. For some reason, he rarely rode his own mule these days but preferred to sit next to me on the applecart, so quietly that I sometimes forgot he was there.
“Are you in a hurry?” I asked. “We could all use a rest.”
He gave me a suspicious look. As a man who couldn’t help tell the truth, he seemed to sense when someone wasn’t being completely honest. Than again, I wasn’t being completely dishonest either, so he let it pass.
The next morning, as I climbed up onto the buckboard of the applecart, I heard a scurrying sound in the back. Satisfied that Feed had managed to find a hiding place, I gave the signal to start.
The desert was cold and dry, the winds unhindered. Gusts of sand and twigs blew into our faces. It was a miserable crossing, but eventually a dark green line appeared on the horizon. As we approached, we saw that there was a deep canyon between the desert and a thick forest beyond, crossed by a rickety bridge. I led the way across by example, not taking a breath until I reaching safe ground.
As we entered the Eighth Principality I once again told my arms men to be alert, for this land gathered into its wilds most of the creatures that emerged from the Abyss; mountains nearly as tall as the Shield Mountains, with deep gorges and thick forests.
At the very back of the caravan, Toug’s cook wagon often stopped and foraged for fodder. I’d assigned a squad of arms men to keep watch over him, though Toug always managed to catch up with the rest of us in time to cook meals.
The first I knew anything was wrong was when I heard a rapidly increasing scream behind me, saw one of my arms men sprint past; his scream receded as he kept running.
“Did he say dragon?” Marston asked.
Since dragons had been extinct for several hundred years, that seemed improbable. But that is what I had heard too.
“Probably a wyvern,” I said, though wyverns rarely attacked humans. They were shaped like dragons, but much smaller, with spade tails and without the ability to spew fire.
There had still been dragons around when I first arrived in the Thirteen Principalities, though I never had a chance to see one before they were gone. I had eaten one once, though, at Prince Rorbar the Great’s Fiftieth Jubilee. The legend was that the old man had gone out alone to slay the last dragon of his realm.
I was much younger then.
I actually believed the story.
“Mind if I borrow Spittooth?” I asked, motioning to Marston’s mule, which was tied to the back of the cart.
“Be my guest.”
I rode back as fast as the old mule would take me, which was slow enough to make me wonder if I wouldn’t have gotten there faster running. Then again, I still had my breath when I arrived on the scene.
For a moment I believed that dragons still existed—and then I saw that it was more like a crumpled up picture of a dragon. One of its legs was fractured, the other withered away. Its wings were shredded. It pulled itself along the ground with the ragged broken tips. The wide crest at the top of its head was flopping halfway over, revealing two jaggedly broken horns. It long snout was bare of skin and what few dagger teeth remained were splintered and exposed. Scales hung loose from its skin, exposing festering sores. It was shrieking, but whether from pain or rage, I could not tell. One eye was missing, the other glowed with a sickly aura.
I was amazed that only one of the guttersnipes I’d hired as muscle had run away. But the rest of them were standing well away from the creature, backing up as it flopped its way forward.
The dinner wagon was in its path, and standing in front of the wagon was Toug, cleaver in hand. I knew the man would never budge, no matter the danger.
“Attack, damn you!” I yelled at my men. I grabbed a spear out of the hand of the nearest malinger and ran toward the monster. Out of the entire bunch, only one of the other arms men joined me.
The dragon’s mouth opened wide and I could see fire flickering at the back of its throat.
I skidded to a stop, then threw my spear with all my might. It clattered uselessly against the scales of its chest. The dragon spewed—not fire, but a sickly slobber, dark red in color, which splashed over the arms man who’d followed me.
The man stood there sputtering for a moment, wiping the blood from his eyes. Then he started screaming.
I ran toward him, stopped short. His skin fell away from his face, exposing the white of his cheekbones, his eyes seemed to sink back into his head, his teeth clattered in shock, and then he dropped to the ground unmoving.
But the dragon had apparently spewed the last toxic poison it still possessed. It hopped toward me, its wings bending under each step. A sick and dying dragon was still far stronger than anything we could throw at it.
I saw something from the corner of my eye, something that appeared to be rolling toward the belly of the dragon. Toug’s little legs were a blur, his cleaver held high. The dragon’s broken tail whipped around, slapped the round ball of a man, who appeared to roll away.
Then he was on his feet again, running toward the nearest wing. Toug leaped upon the gnarled limb, his feet seemed to glide over the thin skin like someone skating over ice. The dragon tried to turn its head, but I grabbed another spear from one of my men and tossed it. By pure luck, the spear splatted into remaining sickly eye, and the dragon screeched, raising its head.
Toug reached the monster’s shoulder at the same moment, and his cleaver sliced into the exposed neck of the dragon, cutting away the scales, popping blisters of pus and ichor, and deep red blood sprayed outward.
I shouted a warning, but the men behind me were already running. By the time I turned around again, Toug had scrambled onto the dragon’s crest. Slowly, the monster lowered its head, its wings splaying outward, the poisonous remains of its fire extinguished forever.
Toug stood astride the monster, his face expressionless.
Then he marched down the long snout and hopped to the ground. I raised my arms to clasp him, but he turned away, marching toward the dragon’s belly. I followed, reaching his side just in time to see him make a clean slice down the middle of the sickly yellow skin.
A tangle of limbs and horns and teeth splashed upon the ground.
The thing moved, let out a small squeak. Toug reached down and lifted it.
“Watch out for the blood!” I cried, but the fluid seemed to have little effect. I could now make out a snout, two small wings, and a long tail. As Toug carried the creature back to the dinner wagon, a long tongue slithered out of the creature’s mouth and licked the round man’s face.
That night, I had dragon’s meat for the second time in my life. If I’d had any doubts that it was a real dragon, the taste laid it to rest. I hesitated digging in though, at first.
“This isn’t the…offspring?” I asked Toug as he proudly laid the plate before me.
He looked horrified. “Of course not! Shatterspawn is safe as long as he is with me.”
“How did you know the monster was pregnant?” Marston asked, as the second plate was given to him.
“How could you not?” It wasn’t an answer, but it was probably the only answer we were going to get.
“Is the meat safe?” Favory asked. “The beast looked sick.”
“It was dying. Nothing wrong with the meat, though,” Toug said. He motioned toward me, “Right, Evard?”
Since I was chewing blissfully, that was answer enough.
No one ever complained about the food Toug served, but many a time I’d passed men and women laughing at his shape and demeanor. After that day, I never heard anyone ridicule him again.
He was left alone during the day with Shatterspawn, since no one else wanted to go near the creature. For a few days, our meals were not quite as good as usual, as Toug’s assistants took up the slack. As we reached the end of the Eighth Principality, a small shadow passed over the applecart, and the mules hawed loudly. I looked up, startled, as the dragonet passed overhead.
That night, as we camped, Shatterspawn came back, landing awkwardly next to the dinner wagon. It approached Toug, who gave it a rough scratch along the crest, and then the creature curled up under the wagon and fell asleep.
The young dragon flew away each morning and returned each night as we continued north. Then, as we neared the far border of the Tenth Principality, the Shatterspawn flew away and didn’t return.
Toug didn’t seem concerned; it appeared that he expected it.