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Excerpt: Blood of an Exile by Brian Naslund

Bershad was supposed to die…

When he was caught trying to assassinate a fellow noble, Flawless Bershad was given a death sentence. Fight monsters so that he would die serving the kingdom. But Bershad can’t die.

He’s never lost a fight, the most successful dragon slayer in history but marked as a doomed man, Bershad stands apart from the world. But that is about to change.

The man who sentenced Bershad to his fate has just given him an out. Kill a king and walk free forever. But Bershad could care less about the fates of kings and kingdoms, until, that is, he discovers he is the only person able to save an innocent child and, possibly, the life of every creature in Terra.

 by Brian Naslund is available on August 6. 

1

JOLAN
Almira, Otter Rock Village

On the day of the dragon slaying, Jolan woke an hour before dawn to prepare the supplies. Two spools of catgut stitches, all three healing mosses, one jug of boiled water, two skins of purified potato liquor, six tree-bark bandages, scissors, opium, all the knives, and, in case it was finally Bershad’s day to die, a white seashell to leave in his mouth, so that his soul would find the sea.

Jolan worked methodically, taking each item from the shelves and placing it in the correct pouch of the leather traveling pack they used to transport supplies. There were two floor-to-ceiling shelves in the workshop, each one taking up an entire wall. One shelf held dozens of glass bottles filled with different salves, reagents, fermented animal organs, and moss poultices. Jolan and his master—Morgan Mollevan—had painstakingly gathered them from the countryside or grown them in the humid greenhouse out back. The second shelf was also full of glass jars, but each vessel contained the same thing: a toxic red-shelled snail. They were becoming overpopulated along the nearby riverbanks, and Morgan had been contracted by the local small lord—Crellin Nimbu—to find an antidote to the snail’s poison. He and Jolan had been studying the snails for years, but the path to an antivenom had proved elusive.

Once the sun rose, the workshop would fill with a multicolored glow as daylight refracted through the bottles of their failed experiments.

Jolan used a stepladder to reach the Gods Moss, which Morgan kept in a small, locked wooden box on the top shelf so it was out of sight. The locals were too afraid of Morgan to rob the apothecary, but wandering thieves weren’t uncommon, and the Gods Moss was the most valuable ingredient in the apothecary.

Jolan saved the bone saw for last, since it required the most careful attention. He laid the long blade across the big wooden table in the center of the room, tested each tooth, and sharpened those that needed it. The last dragonslayer to come through Otter Rock had every muscle in his leg torn to ribbons by the great lizard he’d tried to kill. As Morgan was sawing the man’s leg off, the only thing louder than the dragonslayer’s screams were his master’s curses that the blade was too dull. Jolan wouldn’t let that happen again.

He was finishing the last tooth on the bone saw, internally congratulating himself on his foresight, when Morgan came down from his bedchamber above the apothecary. He wore a simple gray robe. A pair of sealskin gloves were carefully tucked into his belt. The gloves were designed for the radical repair of arteries and organs deep inside a dying man’s body. Morgan only took them out of the apothecary when there was going to be a dragon slaying.

Battlefield surgeons used them as well, but there hadn’t been a battle in Almira for thirty years. Not since the Balarian Invasion.

“Coffee?” Morgan asked, frowning. He had jet-black, unkempt hair that shot out from his head in every direction. Jolan often wondered how a man could spend five hours straight measuring herb packets by candlelight, but forget that his hair required combing in the morning.

Jolan looked to the idle stove across the room, as if a pair of sad eyes could materialize a pot of freshly brewed coffee. His first responsibility, from his first day as an apprentice, was to have coffee ready when his master awoke. He had lingered too long on the saw.

“I’m . . . the bone saw needed sharpening, and—”

“Forget it, there’s no time. Bershad will want to make his pass within the hour. Get the kit.” Morgan disappeared out the front door, leaving it open behind him.

Jolan packed the bone saw in a side holster of the pack, slung the thick leather straps around both shoulders, and followed. A dozen yards down the road, he matched pace with Morgan, leaning forward to account for the added weight.

“Why is a dragon best slain in the early morning?” Morgan asked. He was fond of quizzes when he was annoyed.

“It’ll be sluggish then, before it’s had a chance to sun itself.”

“And why does it need to sun itself?”

“They’re reptiles. The largest known classification. Like all reptiles, their blood requires outside warmth to supply their energy. He won’t reach full strength until nine, even ten in the morning. Before that, most dragons are either unable or unwilling to fly.”

“Are there any exceptions to this rule?”

“Just one,” Jolan said. “Ghost Moths are able to warm their own blood. But the source of the heat is unknown.”

Morgan nodded once, the only sign of approval he ever gave.

“And why do I require coffee in the morning?”

Jolan paused before answering, realizing where this line of questioning was headed.

“Coffee beans stimulate the human mind, allowing clearer thought at a faster pace. They also stimulate the colon, creating the urge to—”

“Wardens and brutish men with swords can afford to live out their lives half drunk,” Morgan interrupted. “They can always just bash a man’s skull in if they don’t have any better ideas. Our only weapons are our minds.” He looked down at Jolan. “We are defenseless without them. Never forget that.”

“Yes, Master Mollevan.”

They walked in silence down the forest path that snaked toward town, but Jolan could tell Morgan wasn’t finished talking. He had a way of tightening his hands into fists and releasing them again when he had more to say but didn’t particularly want to say it.

“It was good that you sharpened the bone saw,” he said at last. That was the closest Master Morgan ever came to apologizing for something. “We might need it today, even if it is the Flawless Bershad waiting for us.”

“Is he really as good as they say?” Jolan asked.

“In my experience, legends never live up to their reputations.” Morgan paused. “But Silas Bershad has killed more dragons than anyone else in Terra. The stories can’t be entirely comprised of vapor.”

Morgan’s tone was academic and dry, but Jolan got the sense he was excited to see the Flawless Bershad in action. Jolan certainly was.

The apothecary was two leagues outside of Otter Rock. The people of Otter Rock did not trust the alchemists, with their glass bottles and carefully measured ingredients. They preferred to sacrifice goats to nameless mud gods by the light of the moon and hope for the best. But when their wounds grew painful enough, they all came trekking up the forest path for treatment.

Jolan was always amazed by how effectively a nasty rash or toothache could strip a man of conviction.

There was already a crowd when they reached the center of the village. It looked like every peasant, farmer, and craftsman had taken the morning off from his or her work to see the Flawless Bershad try to kill the dragon. At least thirty people milled around the square—their breath puffing in the cold of early morning as they made small talk with one another. The Flawless Bershad wasn’t there.

“It seems we are not the only late arrivals,” Morgan said. “He’s probably drunk, same as every dragonslayer before a pass. Go check.”

Jolan nodded and headed toward the inn.

He crossed a shallow river on his way, careful not to step on any of the mud statues the villagers had molded along the bank. Almirans were notorious in the realm of Terra for their habit of crafting these totems on the ground. Jolan stepped around one that was about a stride tall and shaped like a man, but covered in green fish scales. There was a crow’s beak pressed into the face and black feathers radiating out from the head. Another totem was cloaked in willow bark and animal bones—it had river pebbles for eyes and an otter tail attached to its back.

Most Almirans kept a small pouch on their hip to collect items they felt had magical properties—sticks, leaves, animal parts, rocks. That way, they’d be ready to make a totem at a moment’s notice if they wanted to conjure healthy crops from a freshly planted field, grant themselves safe passage while fording a dangerous river, or protect a newborn child from wet lungs.

On the eve of a battle, every soldier’s yurt was guarded by a battle totem holding a scrap of steel.

Morgan had dispelled Jolan’s belief in the totems’ power a week after his apprenticeship began. Once he saw how Morgan conjured healing properties from roots, herbs, and mosses with carefully mixed concoctions and alchemical reactions, it seemed silly to rely on a statue to do the work for you.

Still, Jolan sometimes made totems when Morgan wasn’t watching, just for luck. There was no recipe for that.

The riverbank of Otter Rock had been lined with an unusually high number of totems for months. Farther upriver, the villages were plagued by a strange disease that brought skin boils, seizures, and violent nightmares. The pestilence was traveling downriver—every few months they heard of another village becoming afflicted. The citizens of Otter Rock were convinced that forest demons were responsible, so they built more totems every day, hoping the gods would stop the malign spirits at the waterline.

Jolan knew better. The plague was caused by the inexplicable abundance of toxic red-shelled snails farther upriver. That’s why Morgan had been hired to find the antivenom. But it was hard to convince a man who fell to shaking fits twice a day and dreamed of monsters every night that he was being poisoned by distant river snails, not possessed by a demon.

Better to suffer them their mud totems and try to work faster on the antidote. They were running out of time—by Jolan’s calculations, the sickness would reach Otter Rock before the end of summer.

Jolan entered the inn’s hall and found it empty except for a man behind the bar, struggling to lift a cask of wine. He was a sour and skinny man who had spent his entire life in Otter Rock. Three weeks ago, Jolan had prepared a special kind of soap for him to remove the worst case of pubic lice the young alchemist had ever seen.

Demon-induced rashes and seizures weren’t the only afflictions of backwater Almirans.

“Is the dragonslayer in here?” Jolan asked. The bartender jerked his head to the left as a response, but did not turn around or cease his struggle with the cask. Jolan looked toward the back of the room. There was a man there, passed out cold with his head and hands flat on the table.

“Him?” Jolan asked.

“Him,” the bartender responded. “Was at it most of the night. Passed out an hour ago.”

Jolan moved toward the man. He could tell that he was tall, even slumped over the table like he was, but he looked more like a beggar than a legendary dragonslayer. His face was obscured by a mess of long dark hair, full of tangles and silver rings tied into greasy braids. He wore a black woolen tunic and breeches, both covered in stitched repairs and patches. Jolan reached out to shake the man awake, but the dragonslayer spoke before Jolan’s hand reached his shoulder.

“What time is it?” he asked, not moving anything except his lips.“Half an hour past dawn,” said Jolan, bending down to try and get a look at his face. He didn’t quite believe that this was the Flawless Bershad—the most famous dragonslayer in the realm of Terra. Slowly, the man bent an arm and pushed himself up from the table. His green eyes were bloodshot and glassy. His face was covered with small indentations where the rings in his hair had pressed against his skin as he slept. In no way did his dark, rough features bring to mind the handsome, perfect dragonslayer of the poems and songs and stories. He looked like he was somewhere between thirty and forty, but it was hard to tell exactly where. The world had gone hard on this man.

Still, the blue tattoos on his cheeks were unmistakable.

Every dragonslayer was given the same tattoo when their sentence was passed so that all men would know them on sight: a rectangular blue bar running down the length of each cheek. In Almira, any dragonslayer who abandoned his duty, spent the night in a real bed, or was caught within a day’s ride of the capital—Floodhaven—was put to death. Other countries in Terra had slightly different customs, but dragonslayers were always outcasts—forbidden from enjoying the full comforts of civilization until their task was complete.

“Are you the Flawless Bershad?” Jolan asked.

“I am the Late and Hungover Bershad,” he growled. “Where is Rowan?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“Generally, it’s him that wakes me up. Not strange children.” Bershad pushed himself to his feet. He burped, tottered, and for a moment looked like he would collapse back into his chair, but instead headed for the door.

People began to cheer as soon as Bershad was out of the inn. He surveyed them placidly for a moment, then caught sight of a man standing next to a gray, leafless tree. He was tightening two long spears to the side of a donkey.

“Rowan!” Bershad barked, starting toward him. “Were you planning on waking me, or did you intend to kill the fucking lizard yourself?”

Rowan was unfazed. He finished his work on the spears and rubbed the donkey gently on the muzzle. He was a hard-looking man, with graying hair and a rough beard. Jolan noticed that even though he was short, his arms were long and sinewy. He had thick wrists, huge hands, and his knuckles were covered in dark hair. Men built like that made for good farmers or good fighters, depending.

Since he was preparing the Flawless Bershad’s equipment, Jolan realized this must be his forsaken shield. Each dragonslayer was granted one—a man of low birth to assist in the hunting and killing of dragons. If a dragonslayer was killed by a dragon, his forsaken shield was executed afterward. So most of the time they were unlucky men or criminals who had been coerced into the duty one way or another. Jolan wondered how Rowan had been stuck with the job.

“Figured you’d want as much rest as possible after a night of such aggressive revelry,” Rowan said, turning to face Bershad. “If you’re ready, everything is set.” He motioned to the hills in the east, where the dragon had made its lair the past three weeks.

Bershad sniffed, spat, and headed down the eastern path. Rowan followed with the donkey. Master Morgan was close behind, so Jolan hustled after them. The villagers did nothing for a moment, but Jolan soon heard them following in a noisy pack. They didn’t want to miss the excitement.

And, of course, if Bershad did manage to slay the dragon, they wanted their share of the carcass.

As they moved down the path, Jolan noticed a long dagger strapped to the small of Bershad’s back. It was strange-looking—the blade was thickest at the tip and it curved inward, the opposite of most weapons. The handle looked like a gnarled root cluster, and the grip was made from a complicated braid of sharkskin leather that somehow created a place for fingers overtop the irregular shape of the handle.

“That’s a dragontooth dagger, isn’t it?” Jolan asked Morgan.

“Yes.”

“Do you think he made it himself?” Jolan continued. “I read they’re near impossible to properly forge. Something with the calcium going soft unless you heat it just right. Plus—”

“I think you should focus on the living dragon down the road, not the teeth of dead ones,” Morgan answered.

Jolan didn’t respond. Morgan was clearly done with the conversation.

“What’s your name, alchemist?” Bershad asked after they had been walking for a while.

“Morgan Mollevan. Of Pargos.”

“You’re a long way from home,” Bershad said.

“All of us are a long way from home, my lord.” Morgan didn’t need to use Bershad’s old title, shouldn’t have, even—it had been stripped from Bershad the day he became a dragonslayer. But Morgan often did things that were not necessary and that Jolan did not understand.

“Let me ask you something, Morgan Mollevan of Pargos,” Bershad said. “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen a wounded man do?”

“Strangest?” Morgan repeated, running a hand through his wild hair as he considered the question. “I once amputated a leper’s legs to save his life. An hour after I was done, he was running around on his hands as if he’d been born that way. Never seen someone adapt to two lost limbs that quickly. Probably had something to do with the nerves in his legs already being—”

“No,” Bershad interrupted. “I mean, have you ever seen something you can’t explain? Someone who survived a wound when they shouldn’t have?”

“My work is a game of odds,” Morgan said. “People beat them occasionally, but no, I wouldn’t say I’ve witnessed any miracles. Everything has an explanation, in my experience.”

“I see.”

“Why do you ask?”

Bershad spat into a cluster of ferns to the right of the forest path.

“What can you tell me about the dragon?” Bershad asked. His steps were changing—becoming more fluid and energetic. His eyes were no longer bloodshot, but alert and clear. It was hard to believe this same man had been passed out with his face on the table fifteen minutes earlier.

A night of drinking did not flee so quickly from most men.

“It’s a Needle-Throated Verdun. Male. Young, but fully matured physically. Migrated down almost a moon’s turn ago to warm himself on the rock slabs in these foothills. We usually get one or two stopping off in spring before finishing the journey east for the Great Migration. Vicious monsters.”

“He’s just trying to survive, same as us. Keep his belly full and his body warm. To him, we’re the vicious monsters showing up with spears and pitchforks.”

Morgan glanced at Bershad and raised his eyebrow. “I would not have figured you for a philosopher.”

“I’m full of surprises.” Bershad scratched at his messy beard. “The Verdun’ll be gone in another month.”

“That’s true,” Morgan said. “But he’s cutting further into the herds of our shepherds each day. And it’s only a matter of time before he gets curious about the village. Otter Rock suffers enough as it is without an encroaching lizard, and with a dragonslayer such as yourself so close by—”

“I’m not blaming you for putting out the writ,” Bershad interrupted. “And I’m not trying to avoid the thing. Just saying he’ll be moving on soon. You don’t need to issue another writ if it kills me. What else do you know about the dragon?”

“A beet farmer who saw him up close says he only has one eye. The other is sealed up by scar tissue.”

“Someone else took a pass already?”

“Took it and missed, I’d say. But he’ll be blind on that side.”

“He’ll also have an idea about what I’m up to,” Bershad said.

“Needle-Throated Verduns are not known for their intelligence. Perhaps he has forgotten the previous incident.”

Bershad grunted and seemed to mull that idea over, but said nothing.

They walked for the better part of an hour. It was a clumsy procession—Bershad, Rowan, donkey, Master Morgan, Jolan, and a noisy crowd of farmers and peasants. Hardly a discreet hunting force.

Jolan could hear some of Otter Rock’s citizens complaining about the pace, and others complaining about the danger of getting so close to the dragon. But none of them turned away.

When they cleared the forest, Bershad stopped. Surveyed the long field of dead wheat that ended at the rock slabs of the Green Tooth foothills. There were oak and pine trees on either side of the field with trunks covered in moss. Thick shrubs blanketed the ground.

“This it?” Bershad asked.

“He’s made his lair just beyond this field,” Master Morgan said. “There’s a tunnel dug out between the place those two rock slabs come to a point. He sleeps there, and roams along this line during the day. There used to be a hundred sheep grazing this field.”

“Fucking death trap,” Rowan said, mostly to himself.

“Yeah,” Bershad agreed. “Let’s get ready.”

Rowan unbuckled an oak trunk from the donkey’s flank and thumped it to the ground. He opened it and began removing pieces of armor, then passing them to Bershad, who cinched all the belts and straps himself. Jolan noticed the precision with which they performed the task—no words or wasted action—and figured they had done it hundreds of times. Bershad donned a hauberk made of black chain mail, a light lamellar breastplate the color of forest moss, matching greaves, gauntlets, bracers with thin bands of steel sewn into their sides, and a small steel gorget around his throat.

In the poems and stories, a warden donning his armor was a ritual full of honor, pride, and yellow light glinting off polished steel. The wardens were the protectors of Almira—well-trained and tasked by a lord or even a king to protect the realm with sword and horse. Commoners looked up to wardens as heroes and beacons of valor, and the nobility of Almira relied on their personal armies of wardens to control their domains.

But the Flawless Bershad was no warden, and he was no lord. Not anymore. He armed himself with the weary precision of an old farmer milking a cow.

Rowan moved behind Bershad and pulled a few final straps tight.

“What good is such light armor against a dragon?” Jolan whispered to Morgan, eyeing the thin breastplate and chain mail.

“Not much,” he admitted. “But neither is a full set of steel plate when it comes to a dragon’s claws or teeth. And it’s far heavier.”

Jolan nodded along, but if he had to fight a dragon, he’d want steel-plate armor.

The last piece was the mask. In battle, Almiran warriors always wore wood-and-leather masks that were cut into the shape of a god. Dragonslayers surrendered all lands and possessions when they were banished, but Bershad had been allowed to keep his mask. It was carved into the coal-black likeness of a snarling jaguar with crimson blood dripping from its mouth.

Most wardens preferred an animal’s face, especially in a battle when it was hard to separate enemies from allies. But Jolan had seen all kinds—wild visages made from twisted bones and gnarled wood. The gods of Almira had no names, and they followed no rules.

The mask was attached to a black half-helm that protected his skull. Bershad pulled it over his face and adjusted everything. The two eye slits were large like a cat’s, and Bershad’s pale green eyes glowed within the darkness. Looking at the mask gave Jolan an uneasy feeling in his stomach. The same feeling he got when he was walking back to the apothecary late at night, heard a strange noise in the forest, and had to convince himself it was a prowling fox, not an imaginary forest demon.

Rowan pulled the two ash spears free from their place on the other side of the donkey and handed them to Bershad. He tested the weight of both and seemed satisfied. Then Rowan produced an ivory war horn from a saddlebag. It was the size of a boy’s chest and had a hemp cord looped around two hooks. He checked the mouthpiece once for cracks in the wax lip and then tossed it to Bershad, who slung it over one shoulder.

Jolan had seen three dragon slayings in his life—none of them successful. Each man had approached the task a little differently, but all of them had used a horn. The report of an ivory horn created a low vibration in the inner ear of almost all dragon species, which flushed them out of their lairs. It also pissed them off. Jolan had been ten when he saw his first slaying attempt. The dragonslayer had been exiled because he was caught raiding a village that belonged to a small lord who was favored by the king. That was always a fast way to earn a pair of blue bars. He had dressed in full plate armor, mounted his donkey, and trotted around blowing a war horn as if it would call his old comrades into battle behind him.

But he had waited too late in the day. The dragon snatched the lord off his donkey, flew a thousand paces straight up into the air, and then dropped him on some rocks, splattering the dragonslayer open like a seagull cracking an oyster.

“Why don’t they just sneak into the dragon’s lair at night?” Jolan had asked Morgan while they carried the dragonslayer’s smashed body back to the apothecary to weigh the organs, which Morgan did obsessively. His liver notebook alone was nearly two hundred pages long.

“Many have tried,” Morgan had said. “But dragons are cunning with their lairs. Lots of dead-end passages and switchbacks. It takes half the night just to find out where the beast is sleeping, and by then they usually aren’t sleeping anymore—they’re very sensitive to uninvited guests. Sneaking into a dragon’s lair at night is about as suicidal as trying to sneak into its belly. At least outside you can die with the sun on your face.”

Bershad took a few steps into the field, eyes focused on the ground. He stabbed the dirt with the tip of his boot a few times, kicking up clumps of soft black earth.

“Need the rock?” Rowan asked.

“Definitely.”

Rowan nodded, and went back into the saddlebag. He pulled out a white rock that wasn’t much larger than a fist. Despite the size, the sinews of Rowan’s forearm strained as he picked it up. There was a cylindrical depression bored through the middle of the odd stone. Rowan passed it to Bershad, who held it with a similar kind of effort.

“Try not to get killed,” Rowan said lightly. Bershad grunted and turned to Morgan.

“Do not chop off pieces of my body trying to save my life. If it’s that bad, give me some opium and let me die smiling. Preferably with some tits in my face.”

Bershad pulled a blue-and-yellow seashell from behind his breastplate, rubbed it once, then tucked it back against his heart. Then he was off, taking long confident strides toward the dragon’s lair.

Bershad moved fast for a man who was wearing a full set of armor, carrying two spears in one hand and a heavy rock in the other, and who had spent the night drunk. When he was thirty or forty paces from the lair, he stopped. Slammed his spears into the ground. Then he wandered around a bit, eyes fixed on the earth at his feet. After almost two minutes of searching, he dropped the strange rock in what seemed like a very specific place. Adjusted it once with his boot.

He went back and pulled one of the spears out of the ground, lifted the mask off his face, and put the horn around to his lips.

Bershad only blew once, but he made it last. A long call that was soft at first and grew louder. He held the note for what seemed like several minutes, until a shrill cry echoed from beneath the mountains. Bershad stopped the call, threw the horn far to the side, lowered his mask, and raised his spear. The dragon was awake.

A geyser of pebbles sprayed into the clear morning sky. The villagers gasped behind Jolan. Some of the rocks landed five paces from Bershad’s feet, but he didn’t even flinch. Just stood there like an armored scarecrow erected by a farmer. For a moment there was nothing, and then another, larger blast of rocky shrapnel burst into the air.

Before the pebbles landed, the dragon shot out—green hide darting toward the field, his tail kicking up more stones.

Even with his wings folded back, the dragon was the size of a large wagon. He coiled up behind a boulder at the edge of the field and eyed Bershad. Despite the distance, Jolan could make out the single, glowing orange orb of the dragon’s remaining eye. He had red spikes jutting from his throat that twitched and vibrated with aggression.

Bershad wedged the butt of his spear into the rock and angled the point toward the sky.

Jolan had heard the same stories about the Flawless Bershad as everyone else: that when he fought, it was he who moved like a demon, and the lizard who slouched along like a man. That he killed dragons with a single, flawless spear throw. That he pissed on their carcasses and laughed at them when it was done.

The reality was different.

Jolan blinked, and the dragon was in the air, somehow summoning the energy for a pounce despite the early hour. Bershad crouched, hands clamped around the spear. The dragon rushed toward him— claws outstretched and gaping mouth filled with razor-sharp black teeth.

Bershad dove away at the last second as the dragon’s snout slammed into the earth, throwing up a shower of dirt and wheat. The spear was nowhere in sight, but the dragon began twitching and thrashing. His tail beat against the ground in a random, angry rhythm.

Bershad was slow getting up, but once he was on his feet he moved fast—sprinting back across the field, arms pumping hard. He ripped the mask off as he ran.

Jolan expected to see terror on his face, something like the expression men got before Master Morgan amputated a limb. Instead, Bershad’s face was painted with a wild kind of joy. Jolan had never seen it before.

It didn’t last very long.

The dragon spun in a circle, his tail curling into a whip that lashed Bershad in the back of his left leg and sent him spinning through the air like a tossed coin. He landed fifteen paces away, bounced, then didn’t move. The dragon didn’t go after Bershad, just stood there licking at the dirt and sniffing.

Jolan squinted at the dragon. He could just barely make out the white rock, still with the butt of the spear wedged in it, lodged almost entirely inside the dragon’s remaining eye.

“That’s . . .” Jolan whispered. “Not possible.”

“Lots of things seem impossible until someone does it in front of you,” Morgan said.

Thick orange liquid poured down the side of the dragon’s face and neck. The beast took a few steps back toward his lair, looking feeble, almost pathetic. He slipped a few times and then crashed to the ground. Didn’t move. For a few eerie seconds, the field was quiet and still. Then birds began chirping their merry songs from the dense trees to the north.

“Jolan!” Morgan barked. “With me.”

Jolan awoke from his daze and followed his master across the field. Morgan wasn’t running—he’d want to keep his pulse steady for any surgery—but Jolan sprinted the last stretch and spread out the knives over a clear spot of grass so they’d be ready. Bershad was unconscious, but Jolan could see his chest rising and falling beneath his breastplate.

Still alive.

“It’s his upper left leg and ribs,” Jolan said as Morgan crouched beside him. Morgan snatched up a scalpel and made four fast cuts across the straps of Bershad’s armor. He pulled the lamellar ribguard away, then rolled up the chain mail that was underneath.

“What do you see?” he asked Jolan.

Jolan examined the wound—his leg and ribs were swelling, and there were a few cuts along his stomach where the lamellar had pushed the chain mail into his skin, but they weren’t very deep. There was a circular wound on his thigh where a barb from the dragon’s tail had punched through the hauberk, but the barb was thin and it had missed the arteries and the bone.

“He’ll live. A few cracked ribs maybe, but otherwise his chest is fine. That cut on his leg is deep, but he should make out with nothing except a bad limp.”

Morgan nodded once. “Disinfection, stitches, bandages. I’m going to have a look at this dragon before the peasants destroy it.”

Jolan prepared a poultice for the wound on Bershad’s leg. He mixed several different herbs into the bottom of a glass flask, including one pinch of Gods Moss, which Morgan had personally harvested from an old dragon warren in the Daintree jungle. It was extremely valuable because of its healing properties and Morgan would have whipped Jolan bloody if he saw him use it, since there were three cheaper disinfectants in the pack that would do the same job. But Jolan figured the most famous dragonslayer in the world deserved the best ingredients. He added a bit of distilled water to the flask and stirred until the mixture turned into a paste. Then he picked up a skin of potato liquor and poured it into Bershad’s wound.

The dragonslayer winced, but didn’t wake up.

Jolan set the skin aside and dabbed the paste into the wound. He turned away to prepare a catgut stitch but his needle froze when he returned to the wound. It was already knitting itself back together, as if there was a second, invisible apprentice sitting across from Jolan and binding the flesh.

“Not possible,” he muttered for the second time in ten minutes.

He’d seen Morgan use Gods Moss seven times before, but it had never done that.

“Careful, boy,” Bershad said. He’d woken up. His eyes seemed more alive. Burning, almost. “Witnessing some things can be bad for your health.” Bershad scooped the paste out of his open wound and flicked it away. Then he reached past Jolan, grabbed a bark-skin bandage, and wrapped it over his thigh.

Jolan was about to ask Bershad for an explanation, but a jerk of movement caught his attention. It was the dragon’s left claw twitching. Morgan had been examining the folded flaps of skin that formed the Needle-Throated Verdun’s wings when it happened. He cursed when the dragon started moving, then stumbled backward a few steps, looking surprised and furious at the same time, as if his favorite horse had bucked for no good reason.

The dragon decapitated Morgan with a single swipe of his claw.

There was a jet of blood and then just a twitching body. No head. The dragon lifted himself onto his back legs and released a terrible cry. Jolan heard much smaller, softer screams behind him. The last and bravest villagers were fleeing from the field. Frozen, Jolan couldn’t think of anything to do besides move himself between Bershad and the dragon.

He fumbled around in his pockets for a seashell to put in his own mouth, but couldn’t find the one he’d set aside that morning.

The dragon dropped its front claws back to the ground with a thundering pound. It took a few slow, unsure steps toward Jolan. Orange blood was still flowing out around the spear jammed in its ruined eye. The dragon sniffed the air once. Twice. Nostrils wet and dilated.

Jolan was an educated person. He did not believe in gods or demons, nor did he believe there was anything special about the enormous lizards that plagued the realm of Terra. They were just beasts. Wild and dangerous and more powerful than other creatures, but beasts all the same. Still, it seemed to him that in that strange moment, the dragon was trying to say something—to share some secret.

A spear hissed past Jolan’s left ear and hit the dragon with so much speed that a jet of blood and bone spewed out the back side of its head. The dragon’s neck kicked up from the strength of the impact, then the beast crumpled and died at Jolan’s feet. He turned around to see Bershad was standing, but swaying a little. “Not possible,” Jolan muttered. No man should have the strength to pierce a dragon’s skull like that.

“Remember what I said about witnessing shit, boy,” Bershad growled.

Then he vomited and collapsed.

 

 

Copyright © 2019 by Brian Naslund

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