Keep in mind i wrote this in 2009 :-)
"Crimzon and Clover"
By M. R. Mathias
The week-old hatchling nudged its horny head against the cold, lifeless bulk of its mother. Getting no response again, the puny male dragon whined pitifully. Instinctively he reared his weary head back and squeaked out a high-pitched wail. The sound would have brought a living mother dragon raging home from a hundred leagues or more. A living mother dragon would have stopped at nothing to feed her hatchling’s hungry belly. This hatchling wasn’t so lucky. His mother was dead. After a long, sorrowful time of nudging and wailing, the song of misery finally ended. Mercifully, the starving little dragon fell into an exhausted slumber.
Being highly intelligent creatures, dragons are taught by their mothers the skills they'll need to thrive in the ever-dangerous world of men. This particular hatchling's mother was now four days dead. She was once the proud and ferocious high predator, and undisputed queen of the small, but very active, range of mountains sheltering her nest. Sadly her reign had ended.
Years ago she had summoned a mate. His seed readily quickened inside her. She laid her eggs in this remote cavern high up in the rocky passes. Then, as all female dragons do after laying their eggs, she began warning away every living creature that might threaten the welfare of her unhatched young. It wasn’t long until every beast in the area, great and small, understood what valleys, caves and streams to avoid, and what the consequences were for not doing so. She then returned to her nest and spent a full year tenderly and methodically incubating the eggs.
When the day of hatching finally came, she proudly coaxed her two little ones out of their shells. She fed them their first meal of red meat from a valley stag she had slain. The two baby dragons devoured it greedily. She beamed as they began growling and tumbling with each other all around the gravel-strewn cavern floor. They were working their tender muscles and fluttering their wings awkwardly. Every now and then one would pause to shriek at the wonder of life and belch out a puff of smoke. More than once a thin tendril of flame accompanied the swirling gray clouds that left the hatchlings' toothy mouths.
On the second day after the hatching she left them to hunt their next meal. She didn’t know how horrible a mistake she was making. She hadn't considered the small group of men traveling through the neighboring valley a viable threat to her nest. Her valley was much higher in elevation, and no man had ever dared venture into it.
In her campaign to warn off possible threats to her eggs she had attacked and terrorized several nearby human towns. She had scorched a human dwelling or two and plundered their animal herds. She devoured a few humans as well. Humans aren't very high up on a typical dragon's preferred sustenance list, but to keep the rest of them frightened and wary of her nest, more than a half dozen men had ended up in her belly. In her long life she had been lucky in her dealings with the pesky humans, but her luck in that area, as well as the luck of her two rambunctious hatchlings, was about to run out.
The men came a short while after she left to hunt, and they came with murderous intent. The male hatchling woke to see his nest mate being roped by the angry men. He lashed out at them in a feeble attempt to save his sibling. He clawed one man to the ground and lashed another to the floor with his whip-like tail, but he was too small to do any real damage. Ultimately he ended up tangled in a throw net that the clever humans had brought. The humans paused to argue whether the two young dragons would be taken and sold or killed on the spot. If the mother dragon hadn’t returned during the argument, the latter is exactly what would have happened to both hatchlings.
With a single blast of her noxious breath, the mother roared out her anger at the intrusion, scorching several of the men to cinders. Then she unleashed her true fury on them. A purplish-turquoise blast of prismatic dragon magic erupted from her claw and pulverized the bones of two more of the attackers. A blade slid between her scales, but the pain only angered her further. Relentlessly, she went about destroying the men who had violated her nest.
The battle that followed was swift and bloody. Though she managed to slay all of the men and save the life of one of her precious young, she took several wounds that couldn’t be healed with her magic. Some of the wounds were mortal. She lived just over two days, and in that time she used her remaining energy to try and instill everything she could think of into her surviving hatchling's mind. She wanted to increase his severely slim chances for survival any way she could. She named him Crimzathrion. He was only two days old when the men came, so he understood almost none of his dying mother's melodic ravings, but she wisely cast a spell on her words so that they would come to him again and again as he grew. It was all she could do to help him survive in a world full of ignorant men. He would have to find a way to prosper as a hunter while often being hunted himself.
She let Crimzathrion feed on the human bodies she had killed, but only because in her wounded condition she could not hunt for him. She regretted this, because he was so young that he could grow used to the taste of them. She knew a young dragon might mistake the humans for easy prey. Though most of them were generally easy to kill, some were not. Some men were brave and that made them dangerous. Beyond that, some humans were just plain lucky.
The mother dragon died singing the complex, harmonious songs of magic to the hatchling. She sang the contagious songs of battle, and the light and airy songs of flight, and all the songs her own mother had sung to her. Then she cursed the Gods for her hatchling’s misfortune, as well as for her own. She managed to do more than she ever could have hoped possible to increase her hatchling's chances for survival. She died listening to his persistent whine of hunger, knowing that it meant all of the human flesh had been consumed. She couldn’t help but cry a tear of sadness for Crimzathrion as she passed into the Everland.
The tear she cried crystallized as it fell. It thudded loudly on the rocky floor. Held inside its sparkling blue beauty was a wealth of magical power, born from love, pain, hope and misery.
Now Crimzathrion lay against her cold scaly body in a state of partial slumber, exhausted, hungry and afraid. Of all the lessons she'd forced so overwhelmingly upon him, the lesson of death was the one he learned best. He wouldn’t get to grow up feeling the immortality of youth. He understood all too well the nature of death, and the magnitude of his loss. He too cried a tear of sorrow that hardened and clacked away across the cavern floor like a shiny pebble.
It wasn’t long after his mother’s death that her soft voice magically filled his ears. It urged him to go out and hunt for a meal. Feed to grow. Grow to survive. The voice told him. Ravenous with hunger, and with no knowledge of what lay beyond the protective walls of the cavern, he eventually summoned the strength of will to leave his mother's side and do just that.
He screeched out in frustration as he started from the nest to find himself a meal. He was humming the melody to the song of magic as he made his way through the cavern entrance toward the bright and scary light. Crimzathrion didn’t know it, but as he stepped into the first sunlight he'd ever known, he was also leaving behind the horrible run of bad luck that the Gods had thrust upon him, for he wasn’t alone now.
Far across the valley, a lone traveler, strawberry haired and clad in leather hunting attire, had heard the hatchling's long, anguished wails. She was coming as fast as she could to investigate.
Clover Shareon was lucky to say the least. Some said she was the luckiest human alive. She hadn't the slightest idea what luck really was, but luck was with her this day, as it always seemed to be. She was a third-rate swordsman and a second-rate archer, but a first rate hunter. She knew by heart nearly every peak and valley of this treacherous mountain range. She hunted here for the skins and meat she sold to earn her way. Miraculously, she had managed to survive peril after peril over the dozen years she had been coming here.
Once, the sudden and highly improbable fall of some loose rock and built up ice had saved her from being dinner for a pack of hungry snow cats. A deflected fist she'd once thrown at an angry campsite gambler had caused her to stumble just out of the way of a surely lethal bolt loosed by the sore loser's friend. She had been barred from all of the wager houses in the nearby towns because she won too much and far too often. In a battle with road bandits she'd taken a sword clean through the middle of her belly and survived with only the two scars the blade had left on her skin.
Once she'd fallen through a hole in the ice. That was probably the luckiest thing that had ever happened to her. She fell only moments before the sleeping wind gusted and sent a massive ridge of loose ice and snow avalanching down into the valley where she had been traveling. The hole she'd fallen into turned out to be a tunnel-like shaft that led to an underground cavern. The cave had glowing patches of moss on the walls illuminating the area well enough to see. There was a spring-fed stream that pooled up in the middle of the bowl-shaped floor. In the pool, schools of eyeless albino fish swam lazily against the mild current. The pool not only provided her with sustenance on her long wait for spring to come and melt away the snow piled above her, but its warm water kept the cavern relatively cozy.
The wailing she was hearing ended suddenly, bringing Clover back into the moment. She stopped and looked at her surroundings. She had been so eager and curious to find the origin of the long, harrowing calls that she had lost track of where she was. After a brief moment of panic she located a familiar peak in the distance and chided herself for her foolishness.
Clover hoped that it was a wounded snow cat. Rare and beautiful, their thick silvery furred pelts were worth more than she could make in a year guiding traders through the mountains or hunting antelope. Their screeching cries were common enough, but Clover wasn't sure if what she was hearing was a snow cat. The snow cat cries she had heard in the past were lower in pitch and more constant. What she had been hearing for the past two days was urgent and higher in pitch. It sounded more pain-filled. Snow cat or not, she had to lay her own eyes on whatever it was that sounded so pitiful.
She started toward the sound twice and ended up going in the wrong direction, but both times she was forced back onto the right track by natural obstacles that somehow seemed to help her along the way. Now she was frustrated because the horrible sounds had stopped completely and she wasn't sure which way to go to continue her search. True to form, her luck was with her this day. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glinting reflection of scarlet in some trees below her in the valley bottom. She crouched to try to get a better look, trying not to be seen by the unknown creature. She was disappointed when a mid-size hopper shot out of the undergrowth she was focused on. She laughed, knowing that the melting snow this late in the spring sometimes reflected in crazy colors, but her instincts told her that there was something else down there. Some small predator was probably chasing the hopper, or a bigger beast might just be passing through the hopper's territory.
She turned away from the trees below her to look back up the mountain and was stung on the cheek by some tiny insect. As she slapped the pest away she spun herself back toward the valley and nearly cried out in amazement at what she saw. It was a dragon -- a small red one. It wasn’t much bigger than her in body size, though it was longer. It was trying to catch the hopper, clumsily grabbing with its foreclaws while trying in vain to use its small undeveloped wings to lift itself into flight. Clover, feeling sorry for the inexperienced hunter, silently put an arrow to the string of her old bow and watched until she had a clear shot at the hopper. The young dragon didn't even notice the shaft as it struck his prey and pinned it to the ground. He was too busy pouncing to tear a piece of the long-awaited flesh from it. Clover watched in awe and amazement as the little red wyrm ate its meal.
She wondered suddenly where its mother might be. The huge fire wyrm that sometimes ventured out of the peaks to badger the humans was notorious. She nearly dislocated her neck scanning the skies around her, but the wailing call she’d been hearing the last two days sounded out again from below. It told her on some completely feminine level that no dragon was going to answer the call.
The little dragon's mouth was pink and bloody, but it was still hungry. It filled the valley with the sound of pain and sorrow. Clover understood that this young dragon was alone -- either lost or abandoned --left to fend for itself without the benefit of a mother's nurturing guidance. The sound of the dragon's screeching forced a tear from Clover's eye. She knew in her heart that the little beast had no one in the world and that it probably wouldn't survive without help. Clover was careful not to spook the rare, magical young creature as she followed it back up the other side of the valley into a large cavern opening. As she eased into the eerie cave, the stink of death filled her nostrils. It took a while, but she held down her gorge and made her way deeper into the tunnel. Clover's eyes adjusted to the darkness, but they were watering from the fog of rot that hung in the air. When the passage finally opened up into a cavern, she made out a huge mass that nearly filled the place. She had to cover her mouth to keep from screaming in utter terror. Even a weeklong-dead dragon looked horribly scary. Clover found herself trembling as she took in the massive corpse.
Gray, milky eyes the size of wagon wheels, slitted with sword-like pupils, stared out lifelessly. A huge curl of pink tongue split a row of yellowed fangs as big around and as long as Clover's legs. The dead dragon’s nostrils were big enough to crawl into and explore. They were like black holes in front of her. It didn't take long for Clover to spot the cleanly-picked skeletal carcasses of the huge red dragon's killers. They were probably all the little wailing hatchling had eaten before the hopper.
Clover crept back out of the cavern and climbed up on a shelf of rock overlooking the valley below the entrance to the little red's nest. There she set up a well-camouflaged camp. After overcoming her nausea, she ate a thin meal of dried beef and hard bread. Then she started out to hunt some more sustenance for herself and the little dragon.
*** *** ***
Throughout the spring she secretly hunted for her ever hungry, continually growing friend. Each day, she took the time to make the meat harder to find, and if she could, a little larger portion than the day before. By midsummer the dragon was easily twenty paces from nose to tail. And though he still wasn't able to lift his growing body with his wings, he could now unfurl them. The dragon could also follow a lengthy blood trail. He had started using his hot, fiery breath to char his meat before he ate it, too.
Each day Clover placed something of hers close to the dragon's meals. Her hope was that the dragon would become familiar with her scent. Several times she had wanted to approach the creature, but her fear had gotten the better of her. Each day after the dragon would feed, it would sniff around her offering, then return to the now grotesquely pungent nest cave.
One day toward summer's end, Clover came upon a doe elk that had stepped between two fallen logs and broken its foreleg. Clover decided that the dragon was ready to take its first prey for itself. She used a ragged coil of rope to lasso the wounded elk, and with much effort, she pulled the baying and bucking creature over the ridge down into the valley. She felt sad for the elk, knowing that she was leading it to a certain death. It was a wounded and defenseless creature and that weighed upon her. She steeled herself, though. She knew the elk was sure to die in its crippled condition, and she knew that the dragon had to learn to hunt and kill on its own. Nature was like that, she reasoned. She told herself that she was just helping the inevitable along. She ended up getting the elk well within scent range of the cave opening and then cut the old rope loose. If it could have, the elk would have bolted away in a heartbeat, but its leg was now mangled and useless from fighting Clover's makeshift leash.
Clover said a prayer to the Green Mother for the elk, asking for a quick death for it, as well as for its life to be taken for the good of another. Then she found a good vantage point to watch it all happen and got comfortable.
The young dragon found the elk’s scent within minutes, which wasn’t easy over the smell of his mother’s rotting carcass. He cautiously approached the big elk, moving slowly and sinuously toward the terrified creature. The elk smelled the dragon now and its eyes were rolling and white, full of instinctive panic, yet it stood there like a statue, quivering as the dragon closed in. Then, like a flash, the dragon leapt from the undergrowth and split the elk's neck with a swat of its razor-sharp foreclaw. The wyrm reared back his head and roared out deeply as the smell of fresh blood filled his nostrils and the rush of the kill began to course through his veins.
Crimzathrion took his time consuming the elk, and more than once he stopped to glance up directly at Clover, but never for long. The fresh meat kept calling him back. Well into evening, the dragon finally finished devouring its first real prey. When he was done, he shook his shiny, red-scaled body, stretched his long, bony spine from neck to tail, then spread his leathery wings wide. After a short, prideful roar, he took a number of long, leaping strides across the clearing and stopped. Several times he did this, each time using his wings a little more effectively. Finally, as the sun was beginning to set, the dragon reared back his head and roared again, this time sending a blast of smoke and flame into the air. Crimzathrion took off running. After only four long strides, he leapt into the air and with a sharp thump of his wings took his first flight.
Watching this, Clover began to wonder if the dragon needed her anymore. Now that the dragon was able to fly it would be able to swoop down on its prey like a hawk. The chore of hunting its own food would be easy. She had been yearning to approach the creature and maybe even touch its slick, shiny scales. She had heard that some dragons could even speak, but figured since this dragon hadn't had a mother to teach it that it probably couldn’t. She cursed herself a fool for not approaching it early on while it was still small and timid. Now the dragon was big enough that it could easily kill her if it decided to.
Regretfully, she decided she would make her way back to her camp and pack up so that she could move on in the morning. Her friends and family down in town would be missing her, and all of the fools at the Golden Gargoyle Inn would want to drink themselves stupid and listen to her tales. They'd drink toast after toast to her unbelievable luck, and buy her rounds until the barkeep threw them out.
She was lost in thought, staring aimlessly down into the now moonlit valley, when a loud Thrump…Thrump…Thrump from not so far behind and above her split the night. The sound sent her heart hammering through her chest. She spun around, reaching instinctively for her sword. It wasn’t there. She remembered that she hadn't been carrying it lately. The realization came far too late, for there before her was the dragon, raising his sizable, horned head slowly up to his full erect height. A long period of dead silence followed. Clover was awed and terrified, but no more than the dragon was. Both were tentative, each taking in the other, until Clover remembered to breathe. As she did, the dragon also sucked in a deep noisy breath of air. Clover held her breath again, half anticipating a blast of flame to shoot forth from the dragon's maw and fry her in her boots, but it never came.
The dragon was trying desperately to find the spell his mother had cleverly instilled in his mind that would allow him to speak in the human tongue. He had sensed Clover's presence often. After months of filling his belly on her kills he knew that the human had been aiding him. For this he was grateful. He wanted very badly to express his gratitude.
Clover eventually read the curious look in the dragon's eyes and relaxed slightly. She tried to breathe normally but it was useless. Her body was trembling with exhilaration and she was more than just a little bit scared.
"Thank you Green Mother," Clover mouthed to the heavens, but her voice had been loud enough for the dragon's keen ears to hear.
The words brought the spell that the dragon had been searching for instantly to mind and without thinking he spoke.
"Iss couldss eatss youss," The dragon hissed awkwardly. "Butss yourss kindss tastess bitterss to myss tounge." The dragon then reared his head back and belched out a roiling puff of gray smoke and made a growling, hacking sound that Clover hoped was some form of laughter.
"Would you bite the hand that feeds you?" Clover asked nervously.
Again the dragon growled and hacked and blew forth smoke. Clover was relieved. This time the corners of the dragon’s toothy mouth curled upward and Clover was sure that the expression was one of mirth, not malice.
"I amss owings you humanss." The dragon hissed, his countenance becoming more serious. The hiss in his voice lessened with each word he spoke. "You helpsed me to survives. A gifts I haves for yous but the gifts must waits."
Clover stood there in awe as the dragon lowered his long neck and body close to the ground then opened one of his folded wings slightly to give Clover access to his back.
The dragon twisted his long sinuous neck to look back at Clover. "Itss times for uss to flyss my friends"
Clover's expression was leery. "You said us?" She asked stupidly. She really did want to fly on the dragon's back. She had daydreamed of it often while hunting up her scaly friend's meals, but she hadn't forgotten that the dragon had only just flown for the first time, not to mention that it was still fairly small for its kind.
Clover's expression must have revealed her hesitance for the dragon reared back its head again and roared out his growling, hacking laugh, sending a huge cloud swirling up into the moonlit night. After it recovered from the humor it turned back to look at Clover.
"It isss ssafe my friends ills letss no harms comes to youss." The dragon chuckled again at the fidgety look on his human friend's face.
Reluctantly Clover climbed up onto the dragon and found that she fit comfortably and snugly between two of the bony spinal plates that protruded down the center of the his back. Once she was situated, Clover took a long, deep breath. "My name is Clover. What should I call you?"
" Clo-va," the dragon carefully sounded her name.
"Yes Clover, What should I call you?"
The dragon thought about this momentarily. "My true name is Crimzathrion. I think it isss to complex for your tonguess to ssspeaks. What woulds you like to calls me?"
Clover patted the dragon's scaly back and smiled as it came to her. "Crimzon is the color of your scales. It’s close to Crimz-arthia-rone."
Crimzon chuckled again. "Crimzzzon." The dragon sounded, a hint of satisfaction in his slithery voice. "Yesss… Crimzon iss the color of blood."
Crimzon shifted and raised his body, forcing Clover to grab hold of the bony spinal plate in front of her. She found that the plate's rough grooved ripples made a perfect hand-hold and she gripped them just in time. Crimzon was already lunging forward with tremendous force. One … two … three … leaping strides that jarred Clover's teeth together, then there was only weightlessness as smooth as silk. There was a slight lurching sensation for Clover each time Crimzon's huge wings thumped the air but she didn’t even notice. She was too busy holding on for dear life as they nearly clipped the tops of the trees the dragon was struggling to rise above.
The cool night air rushed over them as they circled slowly upward on Crimzon's strong, steady wing thrusts. In the dragon's head his mother's soft voice whispered both instruction and encouragement, and the feeling of Clover on his back gave him the confidence and reassurance he needed to avoid falter.
They climbed so high into the sky that Clover thought she just might be able to touch the stars twinkling above them. Her blood was electric with sensation. Her skin was chilled by the rushing air and her stomach was tingling as if full of wiggling snakes. She drew in a deep breath trying to calm herself but it was no use. Just as soon as she exhaled Crimzon rolled to the right and then dove sharply, leaving the wiggling snakes from Clover's belly lumped in the back of her throat. Her mind was spinning like a whirlpool.
Far below, the majesty of the moonlit valleys and the hue of colors reflecting from the rocky snow-capped ridges unfolded before them. Clover marveled at the dozens of rivers and streams that glittered like strands and pools of molten gold. The force of the air pressed hard against her as Crimzon dove. She began to feel dizzy and distant, but before she slipped into unconsciousness, the dragon leveled out and sped them across the treetops at such speed that all Clover could see below was a shadowy blur. Soon their momentum died away and Crimzon began to circle and rise again, but now at a more relaxed pace. Clover was glad. She felt rubbery and nauseated. Sick or not she had to admit that it was the most exhilarating experience she had ever had.
Before long, Clover spotted her camp. She then felt Crimzon slowing to prepare for landing. As Crimzon glided softly down into the clearing below, Clover saw something out of the corner of her tear-blurred eyes that alarmed her. She was sure it was a trick of the light or caused by the misting in her vision. No way could he have seen a party of men just on the other side of the valley's ridge. At least she hoped not. The sudden loss of inertia and the hard, rough thumping of Crimzon's hind claws slapping and stepping across the valley floor jarred her entire body, pulling her from the troubled thought. She was drenched with an instant feeling of relief that made her forget completely what he might have seen. When they finally came to a halt, she wobbled clumsily from Crimzon's back. On legs as sturdy as water she crumpled to the ground. Then she howled out in laughter at the wonder she'd just experienced.
Crimzon hacked and growled, and blew smoke from his snout as well. Later, after they had finally settled down from the thrill of the flight, Crimzon ventured down into the putrid lair. The smell of his mother's rotting body was far too strong for Clover to handle, so she was forced to wait outside and wonder curiously what the gift was that the young dragon planned to give her. She didn't feel that the dragon owed her anything; the flight alone had been payment enough.
The dragon returned shortly, carrying something gingerly in his foreclaw. It appeared to be a large, fist-sized jewel. Crimzon explained that it was a dragon's tear -- his mother's tear -- and he presented it to Clover with much emotion.
For a moment, when it was first in her hands, Clover didn't understand. But then it hit her like a bolt of lightning. The powerful magic held inside the tear exploded inside of her, filling her with rush after surging rush of energy and heat. It took her breath and filled her head with colorful collages of incomprehensible visions, each having a distinct meaning, one blurring into another. Due to the intensity of the tear's magic, Clover nearly let it fall from her hands, but somehow she managed to hold on. And when the electric sizzling in her blood finally settled, she was something and someone else altogether. Not physically -- no, she was still Clover on the outside -- but inside her head spell after spell swirled and danced, as did eons of knowledge and understanding, not only of the race of Dracus, but of all the races of the world. She was just about to say the ancient words of acceptance, words that she had never read or heard anywhere before in her life, when a thick flight of arrows came raining down on them from above.
The shouts and excited calls of human warriors filled the air, and more arrows came raining down. Whether it was her luck or the protective magic of the tear, Clover was miraculously missed. It might have been that she wasn’t the target that the men were aiming for.
Crimzon howled in pain. He was hit nearly a dozen times, but only one or two of the steel-tipped wooden shafts managed to penetrate his thick, scaly hide. He wasted no time taking back to the air where he could quickly fly beyond the archers' range. Still he was pelted and pierced several more times before he got that far.
Clover charged relentlessly toward the cover of the cavern. The air inside the shaft hit her like a blanket of rot. She felt she should do something, but wasn't sure what or how. It was a chore just to draw a breath. By the time an idea came to her, she was pinned in the cavern by a pair of archers, who were loosing arrow after arrow into the entrance. At a glance she counted at least half a dozen chainmail-clad swordsmen coming swiftly behind them.
"We don't want you, fool", an angry voice called out. "All we want is the old dragon's hoard."
Hoard, Clover thought. There was no hoard here. This was Crimzon's mother's nest, not her lair. Her hoard could be anywhere. She shook her head in confusion. Until she had held the tear she had known nothing of such things. "There's no hoard here, man!" She yelled back at them. "This was a nest!" She was answered with a pair of arrows that came so close to her head that she heard them whoosh by her ears.
"Come on, wench," growled a raspy voice as hard as granite. "Come out of there so we can handle our business."
"Yeah," another voice added, "Or you'll become our business! Ain't that right, Captain?"
*** *** ***
Outside, Crimzon was circling above the attackers, taking in the scene below him. Twenty men he counted, plus some who had already gone inside his mother's resting place. They were trying to do harm to his human friend and he didn’t know what he should do. He knew he was wounded, but he didn’t care about that. He wanted to help Clover, but was too afraid. He rose even higher then cleared the ridge and swooped down into the valley adjacent to the one where the men were. There he found a small cavern opening. He landed near its mouth and squeezed and wiggled his way inside, snapping off several of the arrows sticking out of him as he went.
*** *** ***
Clover was feeling as unlucky as could be. In the dark cavern where Crimzon's mother lay rotting, she hid on an elevated shelf that she found. From there she was trying to assess the situation. Her eyes adjusted to the blackness quickly and she could make out at least ten heavily armored swordsmen. Every one of them was coughing and gagging. A couple of archers and what Clover figured to be a mage were moving into the cavern as well. Any sound or motion she made would give her position away. The mage chanted something that Clover inexplicably knew to be a light spell, then suddenly a glowing sphere of pastel color appeared, hovering above the man's upturned palm. The inside of the cavern was thrust into its eerie blue glow.
Clover shrank back into the shadows as two of the swordsmen began to vomit from the sight of the huge decomposing dragon. The mage then began to chant another spell that somehow cleared the putrid stench form the place and replaced it with clean, fresh air.
Clover felt the dragon's tear pulsing in her hand, but she wasn't sure how to unleash its power. The spells were in her head, but not the knowledge of how to cast them, or the ill effects of their castings. She wondered what happened to Crimzon. Did the young dragon get scared and run away, or was he wounded and dying. The thought that he was outside fighting for his life irked her. Clover decided that If he had flown away scared, she couldn't blame him. After all, Crimzon wasn't even a yearling, and after watching humans such as these kill his mother, it was understandable for him to be afraid. Still, Clover hoped that Crimzon was alright, and she wished her scaly friend was there to help her fight off these greedy treasure seekers.
"Come on now, wench," the hard-voiced leader of the group yelled out into the open air of the place. His voice reverberated heavily off the stone. "We won't harm you if you just come out."
Captain Harner was the self-proclaimed leader of this fairly well-organized band of glory seekers. He was an efficient predator in his own right. Whether it was other men, mountain creatures, or seemingly-evil dragons, that he faced, he showed no fear and maintained order among his men. Most importantly was the fact that he always got them paid for their work. He had no qualms poaching exotic game, or selling little girls to the bathhouses. He picked his conquests clean, squeezing every last copper from them. He just wanted Clover to show herself so one of his archers could pierce her heart. He had high hopes of finding coins and jewels in the dragon’s horde, but he could already tell this wasn’t a lair.
He accepted the fact that this wasn't where the dragon kept its treasure, but he still had to pay his men. Picking a single wench clean didn't seem like much, but it beat a total loss. He had seen some dragon piles in a valley a few ridges back. He was hoping that it meant the lair was close by. The foolish woman hiding in here might know where it is. If not, her supplies might provide enough loot to fund a few more days up here in the mountains to search it out.
"Come on out, woman!" The Captain ordered again. "Stop wasting my time!"
It was the mage who found Clover first. He cast a spell that sensed the presence of magic other than his own. When he sensed the dragon's tear in Clover's hand, he began to panic, for it radiated more power than he could imagine. This caused him to hold his tongue and stare openly at Clover instead of calling out an alarm.
Clover knew she'd been seen. It was just a matter of time now before the mage blasted her with lightning, put her to sleep, or cast some other type of spell to incapacitate her. Either way, she was spotted, so she decided to gamble.
"Don't kill me, and I'll show you to the lair," Clover yelled as she stood up and showed herself. "I know where it is," she added convincingly, "I swear it!"
"Don't shoot!" Captain Harner yelled instantly. "Hold your arrows!"
The Captain ordered his archers to keep their shafts trained on Clover while his swordsmen made a half circle around the elevated shelf his victim was on. "You lie, you die, fool!" The Captain said through gritted teeth as he approached. He hadn't noticed the look of apprehension on his mage's face. If he had sensed the amount of awe and fear the mage was feeling he might have kept a little distance. As it was, he approached the chin-high scallop in the cavern wall swiftly and authoritatively.
"Tell me," said the Captain, whose voice was now hard but reasonable, almost reassuring. "Where is this lair?"
"I'll not say," Clover returned sharply, "but I'll show you for an equal share."
"An equal share she wants!" The Captain mocked, bringing a few grunts of laughter from his men. Then he threw a dagger so quickly that Clover only felt it as its keen edge nicked open her ear lobe. "You'll show me, or you'll die a slow, miserable death, wench! These men won’t be kind to your body, I assure you," the Captain growled. "Get the chains!" He ordered, then he pointed up at Clover. "Come down from there now, or my archers will take out your legs."
Clover tried to relax. She hoped that Crimzon had gotten far away from here. She was sure that the young dragon would be hunted down and killed for his hide as soon as this crazy mercenary learned that she had no idea where the lair was. Clover tucked the dragon's tear discreetly into her belt pouch while turning to climb down from the shelf. Luckily no one noticed this. The warriors wasted no time crowding her in and grabbing her wrists as she stepped down. She was overcome by a wave of defeat. A sharp punch in her gut sent her air, and most of what little hope of survival she had been holding back, whooshing out of her. She fell, crumpled between the two huge men who effortlessly held her from completely collapsing. Out of a breathless mouth she silently called for Crimzon to come save her. It seemed to her that the incredible run of good fortune she had been on had finally petered out.
*** *** ***
Crimzon was only moments away from his friend when her weak voice spoke magically into his mind. Little did Clover know, but all spring Crimzon had been going out another tunnel that led from the cavern out into the adjacent valley. He had been hunting and killing his own prey and exercising his wings for flight. He had even scared a herd of fleet deer over the ridge when game had run scarce for Clover. Clover had often wondered how the dragon had grown so large so quickly on such a meager diet. If she had known about the other tunnel she would have had her answer. Crimzon had made it into a game. He had watched Clover hunt and place her kills for him many times. He often wondered why a human would do such a thing for his kind. Crimzon eventually concluded that not all humans could be like the ones who had killed his mother. And after months of Clover's persistent, though unnecessary aid, Crimzon had come to like his human benefactor. He wanted nothing more now than to help her. After he squirmed his long, scaly body through the last tight corner of the other cavern way, he drew in a long deep breath. It wasn’t only air he was pulling into his vast lungs, but courage as well. He would be there for Clover; he only hoped he could get there in time.
*** *** ***
"Lift her up," Captain Harner barked. "Raise up her head!"
A heavy fist grabbed a handful of her strawberry hair and pointed Clover's face directly at the rugged Captain. Their eyes locked, and Clover's hope for bluffing dissipated like a puff of pipe smoke in a gale. The Captain's eyes were nearly empty. Only a glint of hatred and a sparkle of greed shone in those icy orbs. Clover was about to die and she knew it. The feeling was confirmed when the Captain's sword point deftly found her throat.
"I'll ask you only once," the Captain hissed with narrow, angry brows. "Tell me the location of the dragon's lair or swallow my steel!"
Clover gulped. She felt a trickle of blood drip down her neck. It was a warm sensation that chilled her with terror. Her eyes darted from angry face to leering, angry face. In those gazes she found nothing but an eagerness to see her blood. She was about to blurt out a lie when two things stopped her. One was the Captain's blade point pushing firmly into her neck; the other was a shift in the shadows beyond the Captain.
"She doesn't know, Captain," a voice spat excitedly. "Kill her! Or better yet, let me have her!"
"Aye, Captain, those boots we found in her camp would look good on my wife," said another.
Like a snake sliding through tall grass a thin, raspy voice cut through the grunts of approval for Clover's execution. "There's a way to find out for sure," said the mage.
"I see you still have your wits about you, magic man," the Captain said coolly. "Tell us if she knows or if she'll die here by my blade."
The mage began chanting rhythmically, waving his arms around. This went on for a few minutes. Then he paused as still as stone, made a choking grunt and fell over. Everyone present, even the Captain and Clover, stared at the mage's lifeless body as if they expected him to jump back up any minute. The mage’s sphere of glowing blue light began to slowly fizzle out, causing a sense of panic to sweep over the hardened men. Clover felt the grips on her wrists tighten considerably.
"What is it, Captain?" A shaky voice called out.
"Yeah, what killed the spell caster?" Asked another.
"Shhh!" The captain hissed. "Find a torch before we run completely out of light."
The Captain turned and pointed toward something with his sword, allowing Clover to breathe again. Clover squeezed her eyes shut and fearfully began a silent prayer to the Green Mother. It was a typical stroke of luck that her eyes closed when they did, for a brilliant white-hot shower of blazing dragon's breath came down over the unsuspecting Captain, cooking his vitals to char in less than a heartbeat. The intense heat of it and the brightness told Clover to keep her eyes closed. She could smell her own hair burning and wasn't sure if she would be burned as well, but a reassuring voice in her head told her not to worry, to stay still and be ready to escape the cavern.
Crimzon had come back to help her after all. When the bright heat finally disappeared, Clover felt one hand let go of her. She spun, twisted, and brought her knee up into her other captor's groin. Then she swung an overhand right into the warrior's helmet. She felt her hand bones shatter from the impact, but she also felt the man's gripping hand fall away.
The eyes of most of the mercenaries were flash blinded by the dragon's breath. To them the cavern was nothing but bright, splotchy blackness. Since Clover had kept her eyes closed, her sight was not as bad. With a little concentration she was able to make out her surroundings in the dark.
As Crimzon's bone-chilling battle roar echoed through the cavern, Clover looked around and saw the way she had to go to get out and bolted up the shaft she had come down. An instant later, shouts, screams, and more blinding blasts of fire filled the chamber behind her.
All of the young dragon's pent-up rage and his hatred for the men who had killed his family came out as he unleashed his fury upon the men. With the mage dead, he didn't have to fear a magical attack, so he let his battle lust take over his senses. With his breath he blasted man after man and with the crushing force of his long tail whipped another against the wall. With a swipe of his claw he raked a trio of deep furrows across a man, then snapped his toothy maw shut on another. A sword bit into his scales and opened his flesh, but he gouged the swordsman with one of the spikes on his head and mashed his bones against the cavern wall.
Clover chanced to look back to see how Crimzon was faring. By the sounds of it all, the men didn’t have a chance. By the look of it, Crimzon had already wounded or killed most of them. A few men were fleeing up the tunnel toward Clover. She took this as a sign to move faster, and move she did. It was only about three hundred more paces through open tunnel to get out of the cavern into the valley, but to Clover's frustration, the way was blocked by two more men, men who hadn't yet seen the dragon and were watching Clover approach through confused and excited eyes.
The men before her had heard the dragon as well as the clash of steel on scale and stone. Instinctively they wanted to run, but to disobey the captain was death, so they held their ground. When they saw that Clover wasn't one of them, they quickly moved to block her way.
Clover reached for her sword but found only the lump of the dragon's tear in her belt pouch. She didn't know why, but she fumbled for it as she charged on. When her fingers finally wrapped around it, the rush of power that filled her nearly dropped her in her tracks. Of its own accord her broken hand shot forth and a jagged string-thin bolt of sizzling yellow shot from her fingertip into the chest of one of the men blocking her way. The man convulsed and fell trembling to the side and before this even registered in Clover's mind, the other man was in even worse condition. She didn't even have to slow her pace. She hurdled their bodies in stride and kept running toward the moonlight. When she burst out into the valley bottom she found another group of men, mostly archers, waiting there. They were as startled as she was. She would have been riddled with arrows had her luck not held true . One of the archers had snuck along a few skins of brandy and the men were half drunk and un-alert when Clover charged through their camp.
When their comrades came out of the cavern they went scrambling clumsily for their bows. Several of the men emerging from the cave were torn and bleeding. One was smoldering and missing an arm. Red embers flared on the end of his stumped elbow as he stumbled headlong from the cavern and sprawled onto the ground.
"The Captain's dead!" A terrified voice called out.
"The dragon's coming behind us!" Another yelled. "Archers, be ready!"
Had it been the Captain's voice, they would all have continued scrambling for their bows. Instead they stood there slack-jawed and shocked as Crimzon came loping out of the cavern. A screeching blast of fire finished off the armless man as well as the man trying to help him. From another direction, a crackling strand of yellow erupted from Clover's finger tip and electrified another man where he stood.
A few of the mercenaries managed to get to their weapons and fire arrows back at Crimzon and Clover. But after Crimzon snatched up a man with his toothy maw and violently shook him in half, the others turned and fled, leaving everything behind save for themselves.
Only a single man of the Captain's party remained. He was still down in the cavern. He had hidden in the rocks when the dragon had come. He found the tiny crystal-blue dragon's tear that Crimzon had cried so many months ago. Mistaking it for a jewel, he had pocketed it. The rush of power he felt was nowhere near as powerful or intense as Clover's had been, but the man felt it just the same and knew his destiny lay elsewhere. He stole the coin purses off several of his fallen comrades and then quietly slinked away into the tunnel from where Crimzon had emerged to surprise them.
In the valley, after all the surviving men had fled, Crimzon lifted his head proudly and let out a roar of dominance that curdled even Clover's blood. When he was done, the dragon bowed before Clover and lowered his wing to allow her to mount his back.
"Comes Clovers, let's hunts them down!" Crimzon hissed vengefully.
"Do you think it's necessary?" Clover asked, feeling the throb of pain in her hand starting to lessen.
"They will tellss taless and brings back otherss if we do not!" Crimzon rationalized.
"Yes," Clover reluctantly agreed, "but this place can't be your … our home forever. There's a whole world beyond these mountains."
"Yessss, Clover," Crimzon growled. "but climb upon me ands we wills chase them as they go. Theys deserves no easy escapess."
Clover climbed on and had just gotten situated when Crimzon jumped into the air in a single leaping stride. On powerful surging wing strokes the young red dragon, and a very lucky woman, chased away the bad men. After that was done they decided to explore beyond the mountains.
Crimzon and Clover would have many more adventures. Some you might hear about in a tavern or in a bard’s tale like this one. After all, the world is but a playground for a girl with a dragon.