City of Dragons
She rode the air currents easily, her legs sleeked tight against her body, her wings spread wide. On the undulating desert sands below, her rippling shadow showed her as a serpentine creature with batlike wings and a long, finned tail. Tintaglia thrummed deep in her throat, a purr of pleasure in the day. They had hunted at dawn and hunted well. They had made their separate kills, as they always did, and spent the morning in feasting and then sleep. Now, smeared still with the blood and offal of the hunt, the two dragons had another goal in mind.
Ahead and slightly below her, Icefyre was a gleaming black shape. His long body flexed as he shifted his weight to catch and ride the wind. His torso was thicker and heavier than hers, his body longer. Her featherlike scaling glittered a scintillating blue, but he was an even black all over. His long encasement in ice had taken a toll on his body, one that was taking years to heal. His larger wings still had rents in the heavy webbing between the finger ribs. The smaller injuries to his body were long gone, but the tears in his wings would knit more slowly, and the welted scars of their healing would always be visible.
As if he sensed her lack of attention to him, Icefyre banked abruptly and began his circling descent. She knew their destination. Not too far away a rocky ridge erupted above the sand. Stunted trees and gray-green brush populated its jagged edges and rough gullies. Just before the brushy ridge was a hidden oasis, in a wide, sandy basin, surrounded by a scatter of trees. The water rose from the depths of the earth to form a wide, still pool. Even in winter, the depression cupped the day’s warmth. They would spend their early afternoon soaking in the sun- warmed waters of the oasis to cleanse the blood from their hides and then rolling luxuriantly in the rough sand to polish their scales. They knew the spot well. They varied their hunting grounds over a wide range, but every ten days or so, Icefyre led them back here. He claimed it was a place he remembered from his distant youth.
Once, there had been a colony of Elderlings here that had tended the visiting dragons. Of their white stone buildings and carefully nurtured vineyards, nothing remained. The encroaching desert had devoured their settlement, but the oasis remained. Tintaglia would have preferred to fly much farther south, to the red sand deserts where winter never came, but Icefyre had refused. She, suspecting that he lacked the stamina for such a flight, had thought more than once of leaving him and going alone. But the terrible isolation of her long imprisonment in her cocoon had left its mark on her. Dragon companionship, even crotchety, critical companionship, was preferable to isolation.
Icefyre flew low now, nearly skimming the baked sand. His wings moved in sporadic, powerful beats that drove his glide and stirred the sand. Tintaglia followed, emulating him as she honed her own flying skills. There was much she did not care for in her mate, but he was truly a lord of the air.
They followed the contours of the land. She knew his plan. Their glide would carry them up to the lip of the basin, and then down in a wild slide that paralleled the slope of the dunes. It would end with both of them splashing, wings still spread, into the still, sun-warmed waters.
They were halfway down the slope when the sand around the upper edges of the basin erupted. Canvas coverings were flung aside and archers rose in ranks. A phalanx of arrows flew toward them. As the first wave of missiles rattled bruisingly off her wings and flanks, a second arced toward them. They were too close to the ground to batter their way to altitude again. Icefyre skimmed and then slewed around as he hit the shallow waters of the pool. Tintaglia was too close behind him to stop or change her path. She crashed into him and as their wings and legs tangled in the warm shallow water, spearmen rose from their camouflaged nests and came at them like an army of attacking ants. Behind them more ranks of men rose and surged forward with weighted nets of stout rope and chain.
Heedless of how he might injure her, Icefyre fought free of Tintaglia. He splashed from the shallow pool and charged into the men, trampling her into the water as he went. Some of the pike men ran; he crushed others under his powerful hind feet, then spun, and with a lash of his long tail knocked down a score of others. Dazed, mired in the water, she saw him work his throat and then open wide his mouth. Behind his rows of gleaming white pointed teeth, she glimpsed the scarlet and orange of Icefyre’s poison sacs. He spun toward his attackers, and his hissing roar carried with it a scarlet mist of venom. As the cloud enveloped the men before him, their screams rose to the blue cup of sky.
The acid ate them. Armor of leather or metal slowed but did not stop it. The droplets fell from the air to the earth, incidentally passing through human bodies on the way. Skin, flesh, bone, and gut were holed by the passing venom. It hissed as it struck the sand. Some men died quickly, but most did not.
Tintaglia had stared too long. A net thudded over her. At every junction of knot, the ropes had been weighted with dangling lumps of lead. Chains, some fine, some heavy, and some fitted with barbed hooks, were woven throughout the net. It trapped and tangled her wings, and when she clawed at it with her front legs, it wrapped them as well. She roared her fury and felt her own poison sacs swell as spearmen waded out into the shallow waters of the pond. She caught a glimpse of archers beginning a stumbling charge down the sandy slopes, arrows nocked to their bows. She jerked as a spear found a vulnerable spot between the scales behind her front leg, in the tender place between leg and chest. It did not penetrate deeply, but Tintaglia had never been stabbed with anything before. She turned, roaring out her pain and anger, and her venom misted out with her cry. The spearmen fell back in horror. As the venom settled on the net, the lines and chains weakened and then gave way to her struggles. Tangles of it still wrapped her, but she could move. Fury enveloped her. Humans dared to attack dragons?
Tintaglia waded out of the water and into the midst of them, slashing with her claws and lashing with her tail, and every scream of rage she emitted carried a wave of acid toxin with it. Soon the shrill shrieks of dying humans filled the air. She did not need to spare a glance for Icefyre: she could hear the carnage he was wreaking.
Arrows rattled off her body and thudded painfully against her entangled wings. She flapped them, tumbling a dozen men with them as she flung the last bits of netting free. But her opened wings had bared her vulnerability. She felt the hot bite of an arrow beneath her left wing. She clapped her wings closed, realizing too late that the humans had been trying to provoke her into opening them to expose the more tender flesh beneath. But closing her wing only pushed the arrow shaft in deeper. Tintaglia roared her pain and spun again, lashing with her tail. She caught a brief glimpse of Icefyre, a human clutched in his jaws and raised aloft. The dying man’s shriek rose above the other battle sounds as the dragon severed his body into two pieces. Cries of horror from more distant ranks of humans were sweet to hear, and she suddenly understood what her mate was doing.
His thought reached her.
As afternoon was venturing toward evening, the two dragons flew a final circle around the basin of land. A straggle of warriors fled like disoriented ants toward the scrub-covered ridge.