by Slawomir Rapala
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
|part 2 of 3|
“I want to see him.”
“You want to use him.”
“I saved his life,” Aezubah scowled. “Now he has a chance to return the favor. I cannot fight the demon, but the demon can’t fight a dragon.”
“You don’t know that. The creatures are worlds apart, they’ve never met. You can’t predict the outcome.”
“The demon is not stronger than the dragon.”
“You don’t know the magic the demon possesses. If he comes from the Underworld, he may be powerful. And you don’t know his name.”
“But you know the name of the dragon?”
“I named him myself.”
“He belongs to you then.”
“He belongs to no one.”
“Maybe,” Aezubah finished the mead and put the cup away. “But he owes me his life. And I will collect that debt now.”
“I cannot speak for the dragon,” the highlander shook his head. “You must go and ask him yourself.”
“Then I will do that,” Aezubah rose from the bench.
“You wish to go now?” the old man looked at him with surprise.
“I have no time to waste.”
“It is madness at night.”
“I have no time to waste,” the General repeated. “The demon is not far behind. And if he’s winged, he may be even closer than I suspect.”
“Even demons can’t fly in this weather,” the highlander said. “Sit down. Have more mead. I will take you to the dragon in a while.”
Aezubah glanced around as if looking for aid in convincing the highlander of the need to hurry, but an empty hut stared back at him. The fire blazed invitingly and the aging General resigned to follow the ataman’s advice. Suna seemed unperturbed by the proximity of a dangerous creature and continued to peacefully sip on the warm drink. Aezubah reached for the ladle to fill his cup again, but the highlander raised his arm to stop him..
“That batch is ruined,” he said as he handed him a jug. “Drink this.”
The General filled the cup and rested beside the ataman.
“The demon is of no worry to you?” he asked after a moment.
“At my age, death has many faces,” the man responded. “None of them frighten me any more. I accept my fate as it comes.”
“A true philosopher,” Aezubah smiled.
“I don’t know the meaning of that word,” Suna said.
“A philosopher is someone wise and peaceful.”
“Then I am a philosopher.”
They sat in silence for some time.
“Many thought you dead after Biyack the Cursed claimed Lyons,” Suna said finally.
“I’m quite alive as you can plainly see,” a bitter smiled surfaced on the General’s lips. “Even his arms are not long enough to reach me. Despite all of his armies and all the dark magic he possesses, he cannot reach me. ”
“He had tried many times to kill you,” Suna nodded.
“Many kings wish me dead.”
“The demon should be of no surprise to you then.”
They sipped on the mead and gazed int o the fire. To an outsider the scene was that of utmost peace: two aging men spending a winter evening before a fire, sipping on strong mead and sharing stories of the past. Who would tell that one was a powerful ataman and the other a General who shook the foundations of the civilized world over and over again?
“Tell me about him,” Aezubah broke the silence this time.
“He’s strong and beautiful,” Suna looked into the fire. “His scales shine like the sun, as if the light of the whole world was hidden in them. But his eyes, they are sad, Aezubah.”
The ataman turned to look into the General’s face, but Aezubah looked away.
“His eyes are sad, he longs for freedom.”
“He cannot have it,” the General’s voice was firm. “You know just as well as I that he cannot leave Dreary Mountains. If he were seen, he’d send fear into the hearts of common people and he would be killed. And your homesteads destroyed as well.”
“Perhaps,” Suna reflected. “But tell me, Aezubah, what good is life if you cannot enjoy it? What good is it if you’re shut away from the world? How good was life in Biyack’s dungeons?”
“It is different,” Aezubah scowled. “As men we are destined to be free. As dragon he must be hidden. It is no longer his world.”
“Then why involve him now?”
“Do you wish me dead, Suna? I cannot fight the demon, I told you.”
“I only wish him happiness,” the highlander finally said. “He is alone in the world, destined to live and to die in a cave, forgotten by men and gods. Such a noble creature. Such power in his scales.”
“After the demon is banished or dead, I will no longer hold him in debt. I will leave him in peace,” the General finished the drink in one long gulp. Then he turned and looked at Suna. “And I suggest you do the same,” he added. “The time of the dragon is gone. You must let him go, too. I should have left him for dead myself when I found him.”
“But you didn’t. You cared for him and you brought him to me.”
“A moment of weakness which I never fully shrugged off.”
“Perhaps you are right,” the aged ataman whispered. “The time of the dragon is gone. But our time is nearing its end as well. I feel the dark mistress closing in with each passing winter. We are no longer young men, Aezubah.”
“You are a true philosopher,” the General smiled again.
They sat for some time longer, enjoying the warmth of the fire and of the mead coursing through their veins. Their aging bones suffered from the cold and they wished to prolong this moment, though they both knew that it must end soon. They would soon rise and enter a world of darkness and frost, of howling winds and treacherous slopes, where the fates of three beings would unfold: that of a man, a demon, and a dragon.
But not yet. Suna reached for the jug and filled the cups for the final time. He quietly hummed a song under his breath. Aezubah smiled and closed his eyes. The fire continued to blaze. It cracked a merry note and filled the room with warmth.
* * *
Suna left Aezubah that morning and turned to retrace his steps back to the cholchoz which they had left in the middle of the night when the wind subsided. Though the day was rising and darkness had lifted, visibility was poor, as the blizzard now raged once more on the icy slopes of the Dreary Mountains. White down filled the air like a swarming mass, unstoppable in its fury, carried forth by the vicious winds howling between the mountain tops.
The General watched the tall frame of his friend quickly disappear behind that white wall of snow and suddenly felt himself alone. He gazed at the dark mouth of a cave in the slope behind him, then looked around and shivered. Jagged mountain tops loomed on all sides and although he could only sometimes glimpse them when the howling ceased and the winds died, Aezubah felt their presence just the same. Their size was overwhelming and the General, a man who stepped on the necks of kings, felt small and insignificant in the presence of these sky-scraping giants.
He put the collar of his cloak up and started through the deep snow towards the cave which Suna pointed to him without word just before turning to head back. The cave was home to the dragon, found by chance and saved in a moment of weakness by Aezubah in the distant land of Nekrya more than fifteen years before, the last remaining member of a pure and powerful race that ages ago ruled the planet.
Named and cared for by Suna, a secretive man, the dragon survived into adulthood without being seen by either the valley-dwellers or the highlanders. The ataman placed him in a large network of underground caves that reached deep into the heart of the mountains and in accordance with Aezubah’s wishes, he then caused the slope to sink and heaps of snow and rock to slide down and block the only entrance.
Having reached adulthood, the dragon was not able to leave his mountain prison. Neither his fiery breath nor his awesome strength could move the heavy boulders. Angry and dismal wailings echoed for years through the desolate landscape, drowned out by the howling of the winds.
With time the dragon had learned to accept his place, but Suna never dared to venture openly into the cave again. He left sheep and cattle carcasses at the entrance at night and found them gone when he came back the following day. Sometimes the highlander would steal into the cave through a passageway he had cleared between the boulders, and he would hide in the shadows of the cavity, just beneath its jagged roof, from where he watched the mythic creature, mesmerized by its strength and beauty.
At such times, Suna was overcome with sadness and pity for the poor beast. He could only imagine how beautiful and noble the dragon would look if he could spread his wings and lift his golden body into the air. The light of his scales could only be then matched by the sun, the source of all life.
Aezubah entered the cave with a slight sigh of relief. Large boulders that blocked the entrance shielded him from the freezing winds that reveled in the valley, continually raising clouds of snow. He pulled the hood from his head and peered into the dark narrow pass leading between the rocks. He moved forward in the growing darkness, worried now that there may be no source of light in the cave, other than the dragon himself.
Just beyond the first corner, however, where the snow did not reach, he spotted several unused torches neatly lined up against a wall. Suna must have used them from time to time, though he admitted that he seldom visited the cavern. Aezubah dug into the pockets of his cloak and found a flint. He struck fire and soon, the oil-soaked cloth which wrapped one end of the torch burnt bright, lighting his way.
He continued forward, squeezing his slim body through the narrow passageway. After several sharp turns, the flame of the torch stopped flickering as the winds did not reach this far into the pass. Their vicious howls were left far behind, distant and weak, like the humming of a small child. Silence and darkness ruled the world of the dragon, though he himself was the child of the sun.
Holding the torch in front, Aezubah stepped out of the pass and entered an open space. Here he stopped and gazed at the large cavern that suddenly opened before him. Though not very wide where he stood, it was tall, its jagged roof hanging perhaps a hundred or so paces above the floor. The walls were uneven and rough, unlike many underground caves which the General had visited before and which had been washed away by water. With each step away from the blocked entrance, the walls grew wider apart until they were swallowed by darkness.
Although the flame of the torch did not reach that far, Aezubah guessed that the cave extended deep into the belly of the mountain. He gazed in humble awe for a moment longer, wondering quietly what forces of nature or what magic chiseled this awesome cavity in solid rock.
Then he gripped the torch tighter and started forward. He walked slowly, careful not to make too much noise though he knew that the dragon must have sensed his presence by now. He was careful where to place his feet because the floor was littered with broken carcasses. Cattle and sheep bones cracked beneath his boots when he stepped on them and each time he stopped because the echo amplified the noise and carried it far into the darkness.
Aezubah had not walked more than fifty paces, but already the roof and the walls of the cave had disappeared. The cavity was enormous and each his step echoed throughout it. He felt as if he walked through a temple, a sacred ground which he defiled now with his heavy riding boots.
The General halted suddenly and peered into the darkness opening up before him. Far, far ahead he thought he spotted a distant and flickering speck of light. Holding his breath, he looked and listened. In the deafening silence, Aezubah heard what sounded like distant, muffled thunder. One, two, three, four, he counted, gripping the hilt of his sword, though he knew it to be useless.
Instinct took over, however, and in a moment of imminent danger, his hand looked to calm his nerves by touching the reassuringly cold and smooth onyx-bound handle of a double-edged sword. The growing thunder, which Aezubah now realized to be the steps of an approaching dragon, raised small clouds of dust off the floor. Soon the whole cavern shook, causing bits of rock and gravel to fall from the roof.
Darkness, too, seemed to lift. The speck of light which the General had noted before, now turned into a moving ball of fire, still small and blurred, but slowly reaching a definite shape. The dragon approached slowly, his golden scales burning all over his body, and his heavy and measured step filled the entire cave with a thunder that echoed off the walls and penetrated into every dark corner and each smallest niche.
His light was so bright that it forced Aezubah to shield his eyes with a raised hand. With great discipline he forced himself to release the hilt of the sword and he looked on, unafraid. The dragon’s heavy step grew in force and then it suddenly stopped. The light of his awesome scales burnt so bright that the General could not look directly at him, much like he could not look straight at the sun.
The dragon lowered his great long neck and gazed at the intruder with an intense pair of red eyes. A cloud of smoke escaped his black nostrils and Aezubah felt the great heat of the dragon’s breath on his face. From between his fingers and through the insane blaze of light, he spotted a pair of crimson eyes studying him. Man and dragon gazed at one another for a moment.
Then the dragon suddenly stretched his neck and lifted his head all the way to the roof of the cave. Great wings spread open and a magnificent stream of golden light filled the entire cavity. The dragon flapped his awesome wings, raising so much dust and gravel off the floor, that for a moment it clouded and eclipsed the burning blaze
A sound unlike any other, a great roar followed by a bird-like croak, escaped the dragon’s hellish throat. The shriek was amplified a hundred-times fold by the great walls of the cave and reached a staggering level, almost forcing the slim General to his knees. But the man held his ground, realizing that the dragon tested his strength. If he was to gain his help in defeating the demon, Aezubah had to prove himself worthy. Dragons were noble creatures, but they were proud as well and would not serve a man they deemed unworthy of their scales.
The dragon let out another great shriek that left the walls of the cave vibrating, but Aezubah did not move. He planted his feet firmly into the ground and gazed at the creature through the fingers of his hand which he spread out in a protective gesture.
The dragon then slowly settled, lowered his great neck to the level of the General’s eyes and again locked his gaze with his. Man and dragon eyed each other for a long time in the growing silence of a cavern chiseled in the depths of the most inaccessible mountains of the world by forces which could not be explained.
Dust and gravel settled on the floor of the cave and Aezubah even thought that the light of the dragon’s scales dimmed somewhat as he was now able to put his hands down and look directly at the creature. Shadows appeared on the rough walls of the cave, great shadows of monstrous proportions.
The dragon’s neck swayed as he peered into the man’s cold and unmoving eyes, perhaps in an attempt to daze him and bring unnatural weariness into his mind. The General remained completely still and with great discipline he forced himself not to blink.
In his mind he quietly asked the creature for help, summoning the memories of his infancy, when he found him helpless in a cage in the great forests of Nekrya, half-starved by his merchant owner. Banished later from that Kingdom, Aezubah took the tiny beast with him and traveled far across the Azmattic Ocean to the state of Lyons, where he handed him over to his highlander friend, who could raise the dragon amidst the towering snow-capped Dreary Mountains without the knowledge of the outside world.
The outside world was not the world of the dragon, Aezubah reasoned now in his mind, feeling the creature’s thoughts penetrating his own. No one knew of the ways of the dragon, but the General was sure that the great beast who presently stood before him could read his mind, and so he reasoned with it in an attempt to gain its aid in defeating the demon.
Aezubah appealed to the dragon’s great sense of pride and urged him to repay the debt he owed him. Life for life, the General thought. The dragon’s would have been much shorter if he had left him there in the cage in Nekrya. He was cared for and fed, and allowed to reach adulthood, though it was not his world and the age of his race was long gone. Now it was time to repay that debt, Aezubah urged him as he gazed into his crimson red eyes.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala